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Issue #1907      March 16, 2020


Class inequality in hoarding

Over the last few weeks, Australian shoppers have suffered a full-blown case of FOMO (Fear of missing out) syndrome over the nation’s toilet paper supply. This has resulted in leaving supermarkets utterly bare of the hygiene product or has forced them to impose purchase limits on the amount shoppers can buy. The “panic buying” stems from the paranoia around the Coronavirus, with families fearing that they will have to isolate themselves, leaving them with limited quantities of goods.

However, the “supply shortage” is nothing but a figment of the public’s imagination. For starters, Australia doesn’t import toilet paper; most of Australia’s supply is manufactured in South Australia. According to the ABC, the perceived shortage, amplified by the hundreds of photos of empty shelves, is just that, a perception, as supermarkets, typically operate with “just in time” inventory meaning they “they don’t like to have big stockpiles of goods like toilet paper hanging around.” Thus, the issue isn’t due to supply but to “panic buying,” which has escalated into several brawls across the country (including an incident involving a knife).

With every significant situation that arises, there is a lesson which we communists can unearth and expose. Here we can talk about class inequality and its effects.

Firstly, let us ask a question: Who are the people who are capable of stockpiling goods? The answer: those with disposable incomes. That is to say, those who belong in the bourgeois classes are capable of spending money on acquiring an excessive amount of a particular good without it affecting their lifestyle. Those who belong to the lower paid sections of the working class can only purchase what they need, which means that many working class households will go without, as products like toilet paper are being hoarded.

In 2011, The Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) outlined this kind of class inequality when discussing food security stating that “economic barriers to food security are common and low-income families often experience challenges in purchasing adequate quantities of food.” While this specific document is about food security, it is not hard to translate these “economic barriers” into the challenges low-income families face in securing other goods during a crisis. Therefore, in reality, the shortages only exist for lower-income households who don’t have the privilege of “stocking up” as most, if not all, of their income, is directed to immediate needs.

The class inequality in hoarding can be seen in the extreme in Venezuela. Francisco Luzon, a businessman, interviewed by Al Jazeera said “Distributors buy large quantities of products here and sell them in Colombia,” adding “People here are taking large quantities of products meant for Venezuelans and selling them in Colombia.” Thus, products which are subsidised by the Venezuelan government, which makes them affordable for Venezuelan's working-class, are being exploited by black-market profiteers who make a fortune in other countries. However, you won’t hear that story often echoed as mainstream media almost unanimously pushes a narrative that squares the blame solely on Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chávez.

And price-gouging, not too dissimilar to that which is happening in Venezuela, is happening here in Australia as well. eBay and Amazon are rampant with third-party sellers overcharging, trying to make a quick buck on the crisis. While the price-gouging seems only to be happening within the third-party market, there are no rules from preventing these transactions. A spokesperson for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission told Gizmodo Australia that, “The ACCC cannot prevent or take action to stop opportunistic excessive pricing like this, as it has no role in setting prices and increasing prices is not in of itself conduct that breaches the competition and consumer laws.”

What this entire shortage highlights, like all crises show, is how disproportionately affected the working-class is in comparison to the bourgeoise. That class antagonisms, a feature of the capitalist system, will always protect the rich, while those in poverty suffer.

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