Monday, July 04, 2011

Glorious People's Supermarket Increases Efficiency, Comrades!

Middle class lefties should pipe down when it comes to supermarkets.  Decent, affordable food is an old socialist goal to be applauded, not opposed. 
Thus starts this article on the joys of Tesco, and it continues in the same Guardian-baiting vein... Tiffany Rose designer wear... Sabatier carving knives... vegetarian restaurants... Hampstead liberals... chi-chi delicatessens... organic butchers...  And so on and so forth, reminding us all that only the Hoorayest of Henries would harbour suspicions of Tesco's benevolent schemes for the enrichment of humanity.  As I've noted before, arguments that come this heavily-larded with pre-emptive insults are usually attempting to smuggle some form of horseshit or other past the reader.

All of which brings joy to the heart of John Rentoul, who complains that "It's like Margaret Thatcher never existed"; decries the "Anti-capitalist madness of today's Labour Party" and advises that the company should help out with schools, hospitals and criminal justice.

Me, I've never seen the point in getting annoyed over Tesco.  Despite Rentoul's hilarious claim of Labour anti-capitalism, the welfare of Britain's major supermarkets is so vital to all three major parties that their dominance will be a fact of British life for decades, like horizontal rain and complaining. 

And yet, let's note the case for Tesco that has so impressed JR...

Surely few Labour members really want a return to the dominance of the independent retailer on the high street, with supercilious staff, overpriced goods and stores closing at lunchtime, Sundays and a half-day on Tuesdays.  Tesco and competitors create jobs in depressed areas. Usdaw, the Labour-affiliated shopworkers' union, has the biggest private sector union agreement in place with Tesco. Usdaw states that Tesco ‘offers some of the best terms and conditions (including pay) for its staff...  Through rigorous competition, the supermarkets are constantly keeping their prices low and offering cheap deals to their customers...
Which may well all be true, and sounds superficially wonderful.  Having spent much time skint myself, I can confirm that cheap food and clothes are a godsend.  I've always thought that cursing out Tesco or TK Maxx is usually a political error myself - continual, day-in-day-out poverty is the most demoralising, grinding, bloody awful experience, and the ability to buy fairly nutritious food and half-decent clothing is great for your physical and mental well-being.

And yet, you do have to wonder how the areas Tesco are supposedly rescuing came to be so depressed in the first place.  After all, most of the towns around where I grew up once had thriving high streets - Jim the butcher* might have charged a little more for his goods, but that reflected the fact that more people were involved in producing them - making, delivering, retailing and so on, people who got paid at every step.  He didn't make the kind of astronomical profits Tesco does, but he somehow managed to get by.

Then, the eighties, deindustrialisation and large-scale unemployment, and high streets nationwide start to die on their arses until the big supermarkets steam in and began hoovering up custom.  Jim the butcher watches his profits crater and has to take a job working for Tesco in the next town, serving his old customers.  It's a nine-to-five job, so it's less hassle, but he doesn't own a share of the business and makes far less money than he used to; his suppliers now have a choice between supplying Tesco at lower prices or going out of business; and, rather than learning the trade and eventually taking over the family business, Jim's sons have a choice between taking lower-paying jobs at Tesco or moving out of the area.

You get the idea.  Perhaps Tesco delivers greater efficiency, but now the town is dependent on them and their competitors, on one-sided terms that the supermarkets dictate.  In effect, the town is a cash-cow for the supermarkets' shareholders.  Unless I'm much mistaken, the rise and rise of the big-name supermarket coincides with rocketing inequality under the last government, which I'll put down to coincidence if a convincing case is made.

To the Rentouls of the world, this is a triumph of social-whatever-he's-calling-it-today capitalism but to me, a nation that's so thoroughly dependent on the performance of a few galacti-businesses is taking a giant step away from democracy.  For such supposedly glorious free market successes, towns that are so dependent on a few huge businesses for sustenance and employment both - wage to employer back to wage - have a bizarrely... Soviet feel to them, no?  Like, The Glorious People's Supermarket thrives for the greater good of all!  Onward towards a ten percent increase in productivity, comrades!

Well.  This is the point where commenter Luis Enrique usually turns up to tell me with infinite patience that I've got it all wrong, and that actually, workers are infinitely better off now than ever before, and everyone's a winner thanks to pension investment and so on.

I just find it odd that an idea as plain as Tesco's interests are not necessarily our interests is now some lunatic, unacceptable wackery on a level with previous ones about the importance of local industry and small businesses, and that the schemes to which There Is No Alternative always seem to involve people who are usually already wealthy getting much, much wealthier.

*Jim the butcher is a real person I know, and I call him that because his name is Jim and he used to be a butcher.

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