There have been a couple of articles in the British press recently, following up on the Competition Commission’s report on the anti-competitive practices of UK supermarkets. The response tells a great deal about how supermarkets have managed to wiggle their way into our lives, and made themselves indispensable.
The howls from the media would be more readily likened to the sound of children parted from some particularly toxic confectionery, were they not dressed up in some fairly high falutin language. Exhibit A: An oped in The Telegraph entitled Why Tesco is a Key Part of Our Freedoms.
The Observer, usually more sober, has also run a piece by its food critic, Jay Rayner, offering his paean to supermarkets saying Be Honest – Supermarkets Have Made Our Lives Better.
It’s certainly better than the Telegraph piece, but better because it acknowledges the disaster that trails in the wake of supermarkets, admits that they screw producers, and admits Felicity Lawrence’s “Not on the Label” is pretty much dead right. Trouble is that the piece then shrugs all these things off at the altar of convenience.
Just to be clear, Jay is saying, ‘yes they screw people in the third world, knacker local business and are joyless to shop in, but at the end of the day we’re all working far too hard and therefore we ought to resign ourselves to this rather than get irritated.’
There’s some dodgy logic here. If we are pressured to use the services of corporations that screw us (and people far poorer than us) over, surely there’s something wrong with the reasons we go to these corporations in the first place?
Surely it’s better to observe, as Felicity Lawrence and many others have, that it’s the way we live, our very notions of convenience, that should be in the dock? If we don’t have enough time to eat properly or connect with our food, that’s not something that can be waved away, no matter how astute a food critic you are. It’s a social problem.
And, talking of social problems, I think it’s pretty rubbish to hide behind a faux feminism to justify supermarkets. Ursula Huw’s (2003) work “The Making of the Cybertariat” puts the boot in to Jay’s assertion that being anti-supermarket is being ‘anti-woman’. Huws points to the increased time that women spend working precisely because of the institutions of convenience, including supermarkets.
The question that Jay doesn’t ask, because it’s too difficult to think about, is this: what would it be like if we had the time to connect with our food, and the money to be able to afford it?
So, yes, we have to demand better. But we shouldn’t demand better of supermarkets. We should demand better of our governments.
It’s pathetic to think that we can expect more responsive change from retail outlets than our elected representatives. And yet it is in the hands of our representatives that things like a minimum wage, limits on working hours, public markets, carbon taxes and support for local businesses can be achieved. Sadly, that’s not the message of this piece. Jay’s jeremiad is, alas, nothing more than a plea for corporate mercy, rather than popular power.