Working paper
Open access

Economic fetishes of “modern” retail capitalism

ContributorsO'Sullivan, Mary
Number of pages30
PublisherGenève : Geneva school of Social Sciences, Department of History, Economics and Society
  • Working Papers of the Department of History, Economics and Society – Political economy; 2/2019
Publication date2019

In the early 21st century, controversy erupted about retail capitalism's implications for prosperity and equality in a debate about the so-called “Wal-Mart effect” in the United States. Since then, the debate has assumed global proportions as advocates and critics clash over the impact of prominent retailers on the societies in which they operate. Many voices have been raised in criticism of global retail companies but mainstream economists have rallied to the defence of Wal-Mart and other leading retailers in celebrating the economic achievements of “modern” retailing. Notwithstanding these economists' confidence, they are bluffing when it comes to the economics of retailing. They have made a fetish of retail capitalism, casting it in a fantastic form endowed with an autonomous and relentless economic logic, but their ostensible expertise in doing so relies on dubious models and measures of “modern” retailing's economics. To understand what makes retailing tick, we must grapple with how it operates as capitalism by studying how retail capitalists generate profits. Doing so shows how misguided economists are in casting Wal-Mart as a poster child of economic efficiency for a post-industrial age. More important, it allows us to understand Wal-Mart's own economic fetishes in running its business, as well as what is distinctive and banal about the Bentonville giant compared with leading retailers in the past and present. The crucial implication of this analysis is that we must confront the systemic logic of retail capitalism, rather than the particular ways in which it is applied, to limit its pernicious economic and social implications.

  • JEL : N0
Citation (ISO format)
O’SULLIVAN, Mary. Economic fetishes of “modern” retail capitalism. 2019
Main files (1)
Working paper
  • PID : unige:129348

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