The nasty history of supermarket-bashing
Nobody would label today’s critics of big chainstores as ‘Nazis’. Yet their arguments bear a striking resemblance to those of the Third Reich.
Nothing better symbolises the strange, topsy-turvy state of politics in the twenty-first century than the ongoing hostile campaign against supermarkets and those of us who shop in them.
In recent years in Britain, the big four supermarkets, in particular Tesco, have been condemned for producing ‘clone towns’, reducing consumer choice, selling unethical goods and strangling competition for smaller traders. Amongst some middle-class commentators, and increasingly amongst the political elite, too, supermarkets have come to symbolise everything that is heinous and disgusting about modern-day life. Supported by very sympathetic and powerful media outlets, including the London Evening Standard, the Guardian and Channel 4, the supermarket-bashers may soon win the backing of officialdom in their effort to hold back supermarkets and limit the benefits they bring to millions of people.
The UK Competition Commission has put forward recommendations to discourage supermarket chains from developing local monopolies and forcing smaller stores out of business. An ombudsman will oversee and regulate the relationship between Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons and their suppliers. It is not just the shareholders and top managers of the supermarket giants who should be worried: these latest interventions could have negative ramifications for millions of shoppers, too. The Commission’s ombudsman is expected to have the power to fine companies for introducing sharp price cuts, or for charging new products for shelf-space and ‘pay-to-stay’ fees. Large retailers who do not meet competition standards could have their planning applications refused (1).
The regulatory measures are justified as an attempt to stimulate more competition in areas where particular chains have been dominant. The Competition Commission wants to protect local shops and allow them to exercise greater retail muscle. The problem, however, is that since independent retailers do not have an extensive division of labour, and are weak in their ability to produce economies of scale, the costs of their shelf-stacked commodities will often be higher than in supermarkets. If local shops are guaranteed a monopoly in residential areas, it will mean that a family’s grocery bill will increase – potentially by a lot.
In short, it seems that the Competition Commission wants to beef up the profit margins of small traders by driving down the living standards of ordinary consumers. Today’s champions of small trade, such as Andrew Simms of the new economics foundation and author of Tescopoly, will no doubt argue that such tough measures are necessary to promote ‘community cohesion’ and protect ‘the local environment’ from rampaging supermarkets – yet whatever garbled language they use to cheer the Competition Commission’s restrictions on Tesco and the rest, there is no avoiding the reality that everyday consumers will be forced to pay more so that local retailers can prosper (2).
The mass of consumers has been put in this position before. Many of the Competition Commission’s recommendations on supermarkets bear a striking resemblance to those established in Nazi Germany during the 1930s. Of course, shouting ‘fascists’ is a shrill, cheap shot in contemporary debate, designed falsely to discredit political opponents as being beyond the pale. Comparing people to ‘the Nar-zis’ is also fraught with ahistorical inaccuracies: it is a lazy device in cowardly contemporary debate. Nobody would seriously suggest that today’s critics of supermarkets are anywhere near to being Nazis. And yet… there is a peculiar paradox that while Nazi Germany is held up as a symbol of evil today, many of the core ideas and beliefs associated with Nazism, such as the mystical worship of nature and hostility towards Enlightenment modernity, are increasingly commonplace amongst today’s radical middle classes. And nowhere is that clearer than in their hang-ups about supermarkets.
The historian and authority on the Third Reich, Professor Richard J Evans, traces the initial electoral base of Hitler’s Nazi Party in the Mittelstand – the ‘people who were neither bourgeois nor proletarian’ but who ‘should have a recognised place in society’. As Evans explains: ‘Located between the two great antagonistic classes into which society had become divided, they represented people who stood on their own two feet, independent, hard-working, the healthy core of the German people. It was to people like these – small shopkeepers, skilled artisans running their own workshops, self-sufficient peasant farmers – that the Nazis had initially directed their appeal.’ (3)
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As the Nazi Party attracted considerable numbers of the Mittelstand to its programme, physical attacks, boycotts and discrimination against department and chain stores started to increase. Such street-level chainstore-bashing initiatives ‘were quickly backed by a Law for the Protection of Individual Trade passed on 12 May 1933’, writes Evans. In a similar way to the current recommendations put forward by the Competition Commission, in Nazi Germany ‘chain stores were forbidden to expand or open new branches’. Towards the end of 1933, the Nazi Party introduced further moves along the lines currently outlined by the Competition Commission: ‘Department and chain stores were prohibited from offering a discount of more than three per cent on prices, a measure also extended to consumer co-operatives.’ (4)
As the representatives of the embittered middle classes, the Mittelstand, the Nazis initially made sure that both big business and working-class interests were subordinated in order to boost the living standards and prestige of the small shopkeeper and artisan. Of course, Britain in 2008 is clearly not in the grip of a deep economic and social crisis in the way that German society was in the 1920s and 1930s. And no doubt there are small traders in Britain today who have lost out to the growth of supermarkets, though the evidence indicates that the retail market is big enough to accommodate both large and small retailers. Yet German officialdom’s attack on supermarkets in the 1930s looks eerily like British officialdom’s attack, backed by our own Mittelstand, in 2008.
What seems to aggravate middle-class commentators and campaigners most of all is that supermarkets put so many goods within the price range of millions of people, the mass of the population. For them, it seems an outrage that even ‘the lowest of the low’, the poorest of families, can enjoy roast chicken for a mere £2 or buy a pair of jeans for £3, not to mention the fact that even those on low disposable incomes can afford a flight to Prague these days courtesy of numerous no-frills airlines. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Eton-educated cook and organic farmer-cum-campaigner, alongside numerous broadsheet columnists, argues that the supermarket’s cutting of prices ‘undermines the true value’ and ‘meaning’ of commodities (5). In truth, it seems that cheaply available goods undermine these campaigners’ own sense of moral worth and social status.
Looked at in this way, it seems that attacking supermarkets represents the cutting edge of the middle classes’ familiar aspiration to have a ‘recognisable place in society’, away from hoi polloi and their mass-produced tastes. At the same time, hostility towards new housing developments, lionising nature over modernity – and organic over industrialised farming, animals over human wellbeing – are other mechanisms which middle-class radicals affect to appear more benign and, in Fearnley-Whittingstall’s words, more ‘caring’ – especially against the sensibilities of ‘vulgar modernists’. It is not Nazi-mongering to point out that such ideas were once the solid bedrock upon which the Third Reich was founded, which won admiration from middle-class sections of society both within and without Germany; that is simply the reality (6).
Many aspects of German Nazism can be seen as a form of ‘peasant ideology’. The ‘Blood and Soil’ ideas of Walter Darré, for instance, which were hugely influential on Nazi thinking, considered humans to be best suited to a simple existence living close to the land, and argued that urbanisation and industrialisation were so decadent and corrupt that ‘stultifying cities’ would weaken a nations’ ‘racial stock’. Darré’s ideas also influenced the Nazis’ belief in the virtues ofKultur, which embodied the folk traditions and craft skills ‘over the essentially empty products of Western civilisation’ (7). Does this sound familiar? Is it really so very different from the complaints of countless commentators today, about mass-produced commodities, the destruction of nature by greedy mankind, and the emptiness of Western civilisation?
The ‘peasant ideology’ also fuelled the idea of Lebensraum – a space in which the German people could assume their proper, peasant existence. Such a rural idyll for the Germans could only be achieved, of course, by a drastic and forced reduction in the level of Europe’s population. Today, too, whether it is the Optimum Population Trust (supported by Jonathon Porritt) or mainstream environmentalists who call for social policies that encourage less breeding, especially in Africa, there is a consensus that there are ‘too many people’ in the world and that a massive reduction in human numbers, preferably through family-planning but possibly through a natural disaster, should be welcomed (8). Of course, none of these population campaigners is calling for a genocide; but they do passionately believe that the Earth is overcrowded.
The social forces driving the re-emergence of these destructive ideas are very different from those that existed in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. Disenchantment with modernity and modern life has been an undercurrent in Western societies for 30 or 40 years now. Yet never have such ideas seem so accepted, so mainstream, and so consequential. Where middle-class supporters of small trade and organic farming once had to fight hard for a hearing, trying to make themselves heard over the clash of the ‘great antagonistic’ classes, today the middle classes’ strange ideas often seem to be the only ideas in town. Why?
The collapse of a century-old fight between the capitalist and working classes by the early 1990s pushed self-appointed middle-class radicals into the centre stage. So much so that their preoccupations and petty prejudices have steadily evolved into something approaching a ‘New Establishment’, as Tory journalist and historian Max Hastings describes his chosen employers, the Guardian (9). It seems the middle classes have at last ‘found their place’ in modern society, and they don’t like what they see all around them.
Their old concerns – that the working masses are getting ideas above their station, that modernity is awful – are expressed in slightly different ways today. In the past, that fear and loathing of mass society was expressed against trade union militancy and working-class political organisations. In the 1970s, for instance, even though opinion-makers were not directly affected by union strikes at car manufacturing plants, for them it was still outrageous that ‘mere’ car workers would not accept their place and get on with being exploited. The fact that the working classes could throw their weight around and put the political class under pressure angered them even more. Who did those oiks think they were?
The days of mass industrial unrest are long gone, of course, but that same exasperated question still haunts some commentators when they examine the modern world. Indeed, the development of a truly globalised mass economy has angered many because it has helped reduce commodity prices and raised ordinary people’s living standards in the process. Such an historically unprecedented situation means that many working people enjoy the ‘good life’ in ways that was once only available to the elites and the middle classes.
As a consequence, the old demarcations of social status and privilege are not as rigidly set in stone as they once were. That is why some middle-class radicals are determined to establish new demarcations to separate themselves from the mass of people. Hectoring on lifestyle choices, consumer habits and tastes is an artificial way of visibly underscoring class differences in society. In their screeching rejection of supermarkets and cheap flights abroad, and their lionising of rural idylls, many commentators are creating a new dividing line between the haves and have-nots – that is, those who have taste, and those who do not have taste.
The modernity-bashing radicals are not simply cranks on the fringes of society; they are increasingly respected and listened to by powerful decision-makers across the board. Not only have their nasty-minded complaints about housing prevented us from buying decent homes – now their anti-supermarket campaigns means we will soon be paying more for less groceries, too. Most of us can see that this is plain wrong. But for the opponents of supermarkets, undoubtedly this is the Reich way forward…
Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.
(1) ‘Shops get protection against supermarket giants’, Guardian, 15 February 2008
(2) What’s behind the rise of ‘Tescophobia’?, by Neil Davenport, 17 May 2007
(3) The Third Reich In Power, Richard J. Evans, Penguin, 2005
(4) The Third Reich In Power, Richard J. Evans, Penguin, 2005
(5) Where’s the fair trade in £3 jeans?, Guardian, 31 March 2005
(6) See Hangover Square and The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton for depictions of British middle-class followers of fascism
(7) Political Ideologies, Andrew Heywood, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003
(8) I agree with Ethan: bring on the recession!, by Brendan O’Neill, 4 February 2008
(9) New Statesman, 2 February 2005