In her book Eating Right in America: The Cultural Politics of Food and Health (2013), Charlotte Biltekoff characterises the evolution of neoliberalism in a way that is quite insightful for us to understand some of the current state withdrawals and silences where it would have been expected to protect citizens from certain market excesses.
I will quote her at length: “By 1980, the economic theory of neoliberalism, with its faith in free markets, property rights, and individual autonomy, had begun to reshape cultural notions of good citizenship. The good citizen was increasingly imagined as an autonomous informed individual acting responsibly in his or her own self-interest, primarily through the market, as an educated consumer… the ethos of neoliberalism shifted the burden of caring for the well-being of others from the state to the individual and recast health as a personal pursuit, responsibility, and duty.”
With a higher inclination towards taking from citizens than serving them, neoliberalism manifests to have hit heights of vulgarity in countries like Uganda. As is often the case, the worst victims are the poor, and the ignorant/gullible lot that are abandoned to the mercy of the market.
Perhaps the free market economist, Adam Smith, did not know that his ‘invisible hand,’ as an automatic regulator of the market, would get to this. The hand not only controls demand and supply; if one is not keen, it reaches for their pockets in exchange for feathers.
But, since he knew that “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest,” he should have anticipated the horrors of unregulated self-interest.
Sadly, the undeclared principle that informs ‘consumer protection’ is: ‘either get to learn the messy market or suffer the consequences.’ For instance, regarding counterfeits, consumer ignorance is no defence. The fault is on the one that gets duped into buying fakes. It is smart to succeed in making a living out of the ignorant and gullible, at whatever cost.
For most businesspeople, even those whose shop radios play gospel music until they ‘go hoarse,’ this is not a realm for religiosity and ethics. Yet, on the other side, the more effective government gets in collecting taxes, the less concerned they become about fakes and their victims.
In the context of Apartheid’s abandonment of black people’s wellbeing, Steve Biko called his fellow blacks to action by bringing it to their attention that “black man, you are on your own.” One could similarly say, ‘Ugandan consumer, you are on your own’.
With the exception of those who shop uptown that are able to access higher-class originals and fakes, downtown and in many upcountry retail outlets where the majority shops, fakes reign. Where the shop attendant is ‘honest’, they will show you up to three almost similar products saying: “this is number one, two, and three. Your money determines what you take”.
It is not about grades of different goods, but the same good, same brand, faked at different levels of exaction. Uganda is one of those strange marketplaces where the customer has to ask the shopkeeper, “is this the fake or the original?”
One of the skills every Ugandan is expected to master is that of telling a fake from an original. It shouldn’t, therefore, surprise a visitor when they see us inspecting a ‘leather shoe’ at a shop, even trying to scratch it, to clear all doubts about its being leather. For we clearly know that there is leather, and there is Leather.
Taking due diligence, I was asking someone a while ago about what one should look out for when buying speakers.
“My brother, you might always have to first open the speaker to see whether what is inside corresponds to the label on top. And, even then, except if you are sure of who you are buying from, you have no guarantees still.”
He went ahead to explain that many of the speaker boxes and exteriors are made here, low-quality speakers are put inside, and labels are separately ordered from China to be glued on the outside! The practice in the market now is that for everything on high demand, there are others mischievously mimicking it in its shadow – this is not only the case with products, but also human bodies.
Looked at differently, one may argue that this is the only way those at the margins can access what they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford. If one can’t afford a genuine Clarks shoe yet would wish to associate with its airs, then aim for a Clarks or Claks made for your ‘grade.’ Or else, find a genuine one that others have discarded – secondhand.
Nevertheless, such an argument may only apply to those who are aware of the quality differences but whose choice is only limited by financial capacity and willingness to spend a given amount on something.
Besides, some have said that after all the price already tells us if what we are buying is genuine or fake. Not necessarily, though. My interest here is mainly in those whose ‘choices’ are limited by their ability to tell genuine from fake, and those so easy to deceive.
At a fee, everything seems to be available on our market in a complex mix of actuals and air. You can buy a miracle. You can buy a permanent seat in the church. You can buy truth. Grades too!
You can buy support. Some religious leaders are also available for sale. We can buy luck and fame; charms for children’s academic performance, visas, and sorting relationship issues; one herbal concoction that treats 40 ailments; and all else! It’s a free hell of a market.
The author works with the Center for African Studies at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi.