Saturday, 14 January 2012

Supermarket Sweep

Frozen Planet Shock New Footage from The Poke on Vimeo.

When I read the other day of supermarket uberchain Tescos £5 billion collapse in its share values, I was unable to sleep...for celebrating. After initially pondering exactly just how much cheese and wine "celebrity" chef Anthony Worrall-Thompson had taken from their shelves, I reckoned that those who live by predatory capitalism will die by it too - apparently over Christmas, marketing initiatives by the other big chains, Sainsburys especially, made big inroads to Tescos customer base. And so now the shareholders are worrying about their dividends following the company issuing a profits warning - coincidentally just after their Chief operating officer sold some £200,000 of shares for "necessary family expenditure"; must be quite a family!
Really? What exactly?

Of course, given just how totally unethical Tesco has been in its rampant takeover and destruction of local high streets, reaching a point now where it has a third of the food trade in the UK and a fifth of the clothes trade - nearly one in every four pounds spent by Britons is handed over in one of its outlets - the prospect of one of the other three big chains (Asda-Walmart, Morrisons and Sainsburys) benefiting from its decline is frankly cold comfort. Between them, these four outlets supply nearly 80% of our food - a dangerously high concentration in anyone's book for a whole variety of reasons.

All the supermarkets behave in questionable ways - undercutting small local shops, hammering suppliers to produce goods at ridiculously low cost (which is passed on in the form of higher profits to shareholders, not lower prices for consumers), paying low wages to marginalised workers on insecure contracts and using production and distribution methods for their "Just-In-Time" delivery systems which are environmentally devastating.

With the focus in the last three years on the corruption and crisis in the banking and financial sector, the retail food sector and the supermarkets have quietly continued their aggressive expansion into every nook and cranny of our lives. With even corner shops and petrol stations now sucked up by the four chains, they have moved online as well with home delivery - so that you buy even more of your needs from the one capitalist supplier. Relentlessly pushing the concept of convenience, they provide everything - food is nearly a byline set next to any household good you might want, books, dvds, clothes, medicines and even banking and insurance.

The result is a super-concentrated and inherently precarious system of supply - as the petrol dispute ten years ago showed, when supermarket bosses warned they had only 3 days supply of food in their stores, any significant disruption to their national distribution arrangements could spell real crisis for ordinary people. Imagine a major dislocation of energy supplies, or severe weather, or a financial crash that bankrupted a couple of these chains - the bailout required by Governments would totally eclipse the banking crisis. With hunger a real prospect within a few days, the potential for riot and chaos predicted in the NEF publication "Nine Meals from Anarchy" would be a direct result. We could face a national emergency of unprecedented proportions.

So, ecosocialists and any others concerned about sustainable and just societies need to ensure that the food retailers and supermarkets are as much a focus of campaigns like Occupy as the banks. The damage they have done is arguably more significant than the financial sector's misdeeds and the continuing risk they pose is massive. We need to legislate to create local, community food initiatives and revive small-scale production and supply of food and other goods. It is not just good for the planet - it is safer for society too.


  1. I know a lot of farmer who will be happy. Not sure socialism is the answer, if Tesco et al were owned by the state things wouldn’t be any better (lots of local government pension funds have shares in Tesco). Size does matter monolithic institutions are bad. The Distributionist ideas of Schumacher, Chesterton and Belloc offers society a better way. Once Schumacher’s ideas were held in high regard in the Ecology/ Green Party; sadly it is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the Left, there is no room for a Catholic thinker.

  2. I'd not be so pessimistic! The Green left is not about large state monoliths at all - no one is advocating huge public institutions. Rather the argument is about how to make fair, sustainable use of resources which should be held in common by communities, co-operatives and small scale producers. The "small" and the "slow" remain key tenets, alongside "fair" and "just".

  3. So something like the worker owned businesses of Mondragon in the Basque Region of Spain? Jo Grimond and Robert Oakeshott visited these successful enterprises.
    (Grimond and Oakeshott returned and together set up a group to promote employee owned businesses). The model of shareowner capitalism under which Britain suffers needs radical reform and employee ownership offersa system redistributes wealth, tackles mega pay, improves productivity, ensures business look to the long term as opposed to the short term interests of building shareholder value. That is not in ownership of the 'Left'.

  4. I don't think anyone on the left claims proprietary ownership of particular ideas. However, while the more egalitarian style and operation of employee owned organisations would be welcome, your solution (which would require state intervention to achieve in any meaningful way) tackles only a small part of the problems we face. Such enterprises, functioning in a capitalist economy, would still have the same ultimate profit-seeking maximisation as their motivation - and from that perspective, you would still need the transformation of the economy to tackle issues such as resource allocation by need rather than purchase power, and regulation of how resources which should be held in the common wealth are to be fostered and utilised for the benefit of all.

    Many of today's corporations (and indeed, corporate law itself) began as types of shared/worker enterprises. So while you are right that there are great advantages to more such enterprises now, they are not a panacea. If somehow you did create lots of them, for which you would need a very major state intervention in the ownership of the economy, you would in a way be resetting the clock rather than changing the ultimate outcome as you would still be functioning in a market economy. You would need as well to undertake a wide range of other measures to ensure common/community ownership of resources and control over their use.