What’s behind the rise of ‘Tescophobia’?

Today's Tesco-bashers are a degenerate alliance of blue-blooded conservatives and cynical left-wingers. Their assaults should be resisted.

Neil Davenport

Topics Books

This review is republished from the May 2007 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

The number of complaints against Tesco seems to grow even faster than the supermarket giant itself. Slamming the opening of new stores, the amount of goods and services they sell and the vast profits the company makes has become a preoccupation of liberal broadsheets, such as the Independent and the Guardian, as well as cranky tabloids like the Daily Mail and the London Evening Standard. There are also numerous websites devoted to ‘exposing’ Tesco’s practices. In February 2007 Channel 4 devoted an hour’s worth of primetime television to a feeble ‘investigation’ of how Tesco operates (1).

In his new book Tescopoly, Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation (a self-proclaimed ‘think-and-do-tank’) attempts to provide a detailed survey of Tesco’s high street omnipresence and why it should be stopped. Although Simms specifically targets Tesco, the supermarket chain is merely a canvas through which he reveals all kinds of vile prejudices against modern-day society and, in particular, the modern-day working class. Tescopoly is another unwelcome addition to the growing pile of shrill, phoney anti-capitalist books that use vaguely left-wing credentials to disguise contempt for the masses.

It should be said that Simms is at least more honest about his political ideas and motivations than, say, George Monbiot. He reveals that his ‘father ran a small business and voted Conservative’ and, sure enough, Tescopoly is a rallying cry for the beleaguered petit bourgeoisie and all its conservative preoccupations (2). Unfortunately for Simms, however, he ends up being hamstrung by his flawed methodological approach. While he attempts a social scientific analysis of Tesco’s apparent destructiveness, via a smattering of facts and figures, on the whole Tescopoly is an entirely subjective complaint against the ‘evils’ of economic growth and social change.

What is perhaps more significant is that the remains of the radical left now take people like Simms at face value (3). Quite why championing small businesses against big business is progressive is never convincingly explained, by either Simms or his left-wing fans. In fact, Simms’ garbled alternative to efficient big business is probably the most reactionary blueprint for a new society this side of an al-Qaeda website. Yet while the rantings of Osama bin Laden et al are generally assumed to be nonsense, the arguments and prejudices put forward in Tescopoly are as mainstream and widespread as Tesco itself.

The purpose of this essay is firstly to dissect Simms’ arguments against supermarkets and his proposed alternatives, and secondly to assess why such conservative prejudices have suddenly found favour with leftist radicals.

Tesco: destroying communities?

One of the most familiar complaints against Tesco is that its unstoppable expansion of stores is destroying the fabric of local communities. What Simms means is that Tesco is forcing the closure of small shops and businesses. These claims are central to Simms’ overall argument and he repeats them ad nauseam. Ideally, Simms would like a monopoly of small traders via some kind of state protection. However, simply to champion the material self-interest of the petit bourgeoisie would probably be seen as a bit, well, unethical. So Simms promotes the economic, social and moral worth of your ‘friendly’ local trader, and he ties himself in knots in the process.

Firstly, he argues that supermarkets are not as economically viable as local businesses. As an example, he says that big supermarkets do not employ as many people as small traders and small businesses do. He also argues that the wealth generated doesn’t ‘irrigate around a community’. He points out that, according to recent figures, Tesco ‘employed 250,000 people while small grocery shops… employed double the number of people’ (4). That may be so, but Simms ignores the jobs created by Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrison’s (supermarkets which he often lumps alongside Tesco in other chapters of the book). Totalled together, the number of jobs created by these supermarkets would be double the small retail sector.

What these figures also reveal, and what Simms ignores, is that the small and large retail sectors can exist side by side. Simms may point out that ‘specialist stores like butchers and bakers shut at the rate of 50 per week’, but he would like the same rate of closure to befall the big four supermarkets. Would the small retail sector be able to absorb the million-plus jobs lost if supermarkets were forced to close down? It’s highly unlikely.

Simms’ claim of a direct ‘cause and effect’ relationship between big supermarkets opening and small shops going to the wall is also unconvincing. Specialist shops have always been prone to economic failure because the market for the goods on offer is often weak. To be frank, budding entrepreneurs don’t always have the best business acumen. Those financial geniuses who insist on opening a shop selling such non-essentials as scuba diving equipment or authentic Victorian fireplaces in a residential area have only themselves to blame when the bailiffs are called in.

Yet Simms is so in awe of small traders that he can’t contemplate that local shops might close down simply because they’re rubbish. Indeed, the ubiquity of Tesco, Starbucks, Subway and McDonald’s on the high street only emerged because Britain’s cafés and small shops have mostly been drab, scruffy and uninviting. Britain might supposedly be a ‘nation of shopkeepers’ but, unlike the Spanish or French, this country hasn’t been particularly good at producing small traders.

Ironically enough, one area in which small traders have been successful recently – specialist food – has largely been thanks to the arrival of supermarkets. Although Simms attempts to prove otherwise, the average grocery bill for UK households has dramatically declined thanks to price-busting supermarkets. This frees up more cash for luxury food items, such as specialist cheeses, and pheasant and duck from specialist butchers. On Essex Road in the Islington district of London, long queues often form outside of the local fishmongers and butchers at the weekend, and both of these small shops are within walking distance of a Tesco store. Likewise, the specialist food market in Borough, south London, is always far busier than any Tesco or Sainsbury’s. Many Britons now tend to divide their shopping between supermarkets for basics and local shops for specific ingredients. The fact that small stores and specialist shops continue to thrive suggests that they can benefit from the arrival of supermarkets.

Although Simms reckons that Tesco ‘stifles’ retail diversity, in reality he would like the state to deny choice to shoppers and force them to shop at small stores and markets. He forgets that housewives once spent many hours each week on such drudgery, often having to go out and buy some essentials on a daily basis. Yet Simms wants us to do that kind of thing because he reckons there would be greater community spirit and social cohesion. This notion is the most ridiculous and facile part of Tescopoly; at times Simms positively fantasises about village life.

Local shops and ‘social glue’

In the chapters ‘Welcome to the Deadzone’ and ‘Parasitic Retail’, Simms argues that local shops are important because, as a meeting place via exchange, they help forge bonds between atomised individuals. He uses a case study, local shop owner Josephine in south London, to illustrate his point. ‘She cared about the people who came in, and what happened in the streets around her. At any time of day, elderly people would come in to swap news and gossip. Because of that, she would know who needed looking out for.’ (5)

So local shops not only sell newspapers, milk and stale bread; apparently they also provide a readymade ‘community’ of caring and sharing folk. Here, Simms is attempting to synthesise therapy culture into his defence of local trade. It would be a novel angle to pursue, if his idyllic scenario were true. But in reality, the proprietors of small shops are often less concerned with looking out for others than with looking down on them.

As independent traders, shopkeepers often see themselves as having more ‘self-reliance’ and ‘respectability’ than people who ‘merely’ work for a big capitalist. As paragons of honest virtue, they tend to become preoccupied with crime, petty anti-social behaviour and the supposed slack morals of others. Far from local shops being facilitators of community cohesion, they have often been sources of tension, especially in hard-up working-class communities. Eighteen months ago, for instance, riots in Lozells, Birmingham, broke out partly because local shopkeepers were hostile to their Jamaican customers. One small shopkeeper said of them: ‘They have a dirty gene. They are the lowest of the low.’ (6) So much for the local shop’s ‘community spirit’.

Simms’ description of Josephine’s customers who were forced to shop at Tesco when her store was closed for a fortnight reveals some of his true thoughts. ‘Instead of the animated quality they had displayed when shopping at Josephine’s, their shoulders were slumped. They seemed downcast and dejected. Instead of living the day, they seemed to be merely surviving it.’ (7) Firstly, considering that Simms suffers from Tescophobia, does it not strike you as odd that he just happened to be in a Tesco store at the same time as all of Josephine’s old customers? The story sounds somewhat contrived. And would Josephine’s former customers really have transformed into lobotomised gibbons just by walking through Tesco’s automatic doors? Well, only if you see Tesco shoppers as the equivalent of the living dead, which Simms clearly does.

On a research trip to the ‘spiritual wasteland’ that is a Tesco store, he sees that the staff ‘slump from place to place’ and the shoppers look gormless and ‘depressed’. Cheers. He talks favourably about friends who have ‘given up’ shopping at supermarkets, as if the rest of us are zombified addicts living in the ‘deadzone’. He also describes Tesco as contributing to a ‘culture of poverty’, which is a mealy-mouthed way of saying that Tesco shoppers are the lowest of the low.

Who’s afraid of… clone towns?

Another familiar argument against supermarkets, and retail chains in general, is that their high street dominance creates what Simms calls ‘clone towns’. In the chapters ‘Identity Theft’ and ‘Any Shop You Like, As Long As It’s Tesco’, Simms argues that standardisation is a modern-day scourge because it creates a stifling homogeneity that tramples on consumer ‘diversity’ and local ‘identity’. For all his abhorrence of consumerism, Simms is oddly preoccupied with it himself. Is a local area’s character solely defined by commodity exchange? In London there might be a Subway, McDonald’s and Tesco in every district, but Archway in north London is still as notably distinct to neighbouring Crouch End as Barnet is to Burnt Oak. Even as an aesthetic argument, such complaints against shop-front homogeneity do not wash. Badly air-conditioned small shops selling rotten fruit and veg, often with boot-trampled newspaper on the floor, are hardly retail eye-candy. In fact, the opening of a new Tesco local store can provide a facelift to rundown areas.

Anyway, what’s so bad about standardisation? There is something comforting about knowing what’s on offer in any branch of Tesco or Starbucks, wherever you are in the country. It saves time having to make calculated choices about where to shop and what to buy. Simms seems to rail against homogeneity because he doesn’t like to be reminded that he’s in close range of modern mass society. For all his ‘anti-capitalist’ posturing, this is also why Simms rejects the modernist alternative to big business, a worker’s democracy, on the grounds that this too would stifle small traders and people’s ‘individuality’. He favourably quotes authors who liken Big Business to Bolshevism, in that both apparently crush the human spirit.

As any student of political ideologies will have been told, middle-class hostility to both capitalism and communism was the hallmark of the far right during the 1930s and 40s. Of course, brandishing the ‘F’ word around is often a sensationalist ploy to silence and shame political opponents, and Simms is of course not a ‘fascist’ by any stretch of the imagination. And yet it is ironic that Simms lambastes ‘former Marxists who today sit comfortably with neo-conservatives in their approval of multinational corporations’ when his own politics would sit quite comfortably with the pro-nature/anti-modernity, and anti-big business, ideology championed during the Third Reich (8).

Redefining ‘right-wing’?

Many of Simms’ ideas on the relationship between man and nature echo those of traditionalist or aristocratic conservatives of the mid-nineteenth century. While he may add a veneer of David Cameron-style Social Conservatism here and there, and a large dose of environmentalism everywhere, he is basically making the case for very old Tory ideas. Throughout Tescopoly, Simms argues things like: ‘It is easier to see a trend by comparison or analogy, and nature has a lot to teach economics.’ (9) He then compares the ‘invasive species’ in the natural world with, you guessed it, Tesco. While it may seem like he is clumsily stretching a metaphor, Simms is actually arguing that society, like nature, should be organic, rather than constructed by rational individuals for their own purposes.

‘Organicism’, a key plank of aristocratic conservatism, presents societies as being shaped by forces that are beyond human control and understanding. The implication is that society’s delicate ‘fabric’ should be preserved and respected by the individuals who live within it. Needless to say, the use of the ‘organic metaphor’ for understanding society has some profoundly conservative implications. It ultimately rejects attempts to improve society through reform or revolution. This is why Simms expresses such antagonism towards both the industrial revolution and the 1917 Bolshevik revolution throughout Tescopoly.

Compared to Monbiot and other supermarket-bashers, Simms is at least consistent about his conservative ideas and outlook. At a time when anti-progress sentiments are becoming mainstream, Simms can be quite candid about championing the ‘organic society’ and the marvels of a peasant economy. Simms and Monbiot may dismiss critics of their Luddite orthodoxies as being ‘right-wing libertarians’ – but in doing so they are only exposing their own philistinism regarding left-wing thought.

The case for progress and development

In the chapters ‘A Global Plan: Why Scale Matters’ and ‘Profiting from Poverty: Shelves Full of Global Plunder’, Simms attacks the rapacious drive of Tesco, and how the international market system pulls every nation into its grasp. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels also observed the creation of a global economy, but they enthusiastically welcomed it.

‘The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood… in place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations’, wrote Marx and Engels (10). And what of the small traders and artisans that Simms believes are the saviours of mankind? ‘The shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are therefore not revolutionary, but conservative. Nay, more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history.’ (11) Do these stinging criticisms of small shopkeepers make the authors of The Communist Manifesto ‘right wing’, too?

For Marx and revolutionaries who came later, the growth of productivity and the forces of production were central to creating a more advanced society. This is because a wider social division of labour allows society to provide the essentials of life with less work. The labour freed up goes to create a larger surplus product. The result is that the human struggle for survival becomes less intense as natural necessity becomes less immediate. This opens up other possibilities for human existence beyond mere survival. As Marx put it: ‘The less time society requires to produce wheat, cattle etc, the more time it wins for other production, material or mental. Just as in the case of an individual, the multiplicity of its development, its enjoyment and its activity depends on economisation of time.’ (12)

If progress can be measured by how quickly and plentifully the means of survival can be reproduced, then the development of the social division of labour under capitalism is historically progressive. For social progressives, the task was always to build on these historic gains and develop the productive forces even further.

Like so many of today’s phoney anti-capitalists, Simms rejects such measurements of progress altogether. Tesco is so offensive to Simms and his ilk because it represents an old-fashioned belief in constant growth and expansion. Above all else, Tescopoly is an argument against economic development altogether. So in the closing chapter, the oxymoronic ‘The Birth of Something Better’, Simms advocates what can only be described as a peasant’s economy. He cites the example of the Village Consumer Societies developed by peasants in rural India. ‘They traded their tea directly with a co-operative of women weavers in Tamil Nadu.… A community-to-community tea trade was born which they called One Sugar Bruv.’ (13) Simms believes that such enterprises prevent wealth ‘leaking out’ from a local community. But these types of schemes don’t generate enough wealth to ‘irrigate a local community’ in any meaningful way.

The problem with organising a self-sufficient community is that without specialisation, the division of labour and economies of scale, output and growth steadily decline rather than expand. What villages in India and elsewhere need is development, not a scheme that is the equivalent of everyone doing each other’s washing. Yet incredibly, Simms would like the UK to follow the Indian example. He talks enthusiastically about co-op schemes operating in Hackney and Stoke Newington in London, but this begs the question: Is human ingenuity only reducible to growing organic salads? According to Simms’ bizarre Happy Planet Index, the answer would be an unashamed ‘yes!’

Taking sides on Tesco

There is one point on which Simms is largely correct. He states that ‘rather than a clash of left and right, political certainties are breaking down into a fight between big and small’ (or the champions of small businesses over big business). As already outlined, larger corporations are historically more progressive because the greater concentration of production raises productivity. Yet the advancement and replacement of this social relationship resides with those people whom Simms is very reluctant to discuss: the working class. In one chapter he does mention migrant workers being paid low wages (though it is really a back-handed argument against immigration) and he cites one or two examples of Tesco-related injuries, but he ignores the routine, day-to-day exploitation of Tesco’s workers.

Indeed, if Tesco needs to be attacked for anything, it is its scant disregard for decent working conditions and wages for its staff. Last year, for instance, Tesco refused sick pay to absent employees, which takes working conditions back to the Victorian age. The corporation also has a track record of firing workers on the flimsiest of excuses with no redundancy pay. Tesco might be big on loyalty cards for its customers, but it doesn’t show much loyalty to its staff.

If Tesco’s employees collectively organised themselves and pursued industrial action for better wages and working conditions, I would support their demands 100 per cent. Such action would likely make Simms uncomfortable, however, as it would raise proper questions about social organisation and how wealth could be more democratically created. His ‘neither big business nor Bolshevism’ third way is simply a backward and cowardly plea for a simpler, more ‘natural’ way of life. Greens very rarely talk about workers’ rights or working conditions because that would mean taking a stand on higher wages – and that is the last thing they want, considering that the oiks would only spend their money on big houses, cars, cheap flights, and so on.

One of the most striking new developments in today’s debates about production, consumption and work is the complicity of former radicals in allowing aristocratic conservatism to flourish once more.

Radical socialists: swapping materialism for moralism

The bizarre alliance between the radical left and aristocratic conservatives, such as Simms and Monbiot, is a consequence of left-wing disillusionment with the British working class, which has been growing for the past 20 or 30 years. In 1987, when the Labour Party lost a third successive General Election to the Conservative Party, radicals started to complain that workers had been ‘bought off’ by a new ‘consumerist’ ethos. This prejudice wasn’t entirely new. The Frankfurt School had long written off a transformative agency because the masses were ‘locked in the iron cage of modernity’. Industrial action was dismissed because the end outcome, higher wages, would only lead to more ‘consumerism’.

For many British activists who cut their political teeth in the late 1960s and 70s, it was very different. Back then a massive upsurge of violent, industrial militancy meant that student radicals were swept along with trade union politics. As such, their hopes were pinned on an alliance between themselves (middle-class radicals) and militant Labourism in the hope of wrestling reforms from the powers-that-be. For the majority of the middle-class electorate, and some sections of the working class, Labourism appeared exhausted by the end of the 1970s. With very little enthusiasm, many opted for Thatcher during the 1980s.

The New Right’s championing of a ‘share-owning democracy’, ‘popular capitalism’ and ‘rugged individualism’ was more ideological than real. After all, as unemployment soared there was very little concrete evidence to suggest the working classes had ‘never had it so good’. At best, the working classes were holding on to the basics of a car and mortgage (and often on credit, too). Nevertheless, desperate to deflect criticisms of their own failed political tradition, the left helped Thatcher popularise the myth that the masses had been bought-off via shares and home ownership. To this day, the British working classes are seen as being somehow tainted for their apparently loud championing of Thatcherism and their ‘crude materialism’. Simms might be a self-proclaimed conservative, but he knows how to win friends on the left: in Tescopoly he joins in the chorus by attacking Thatcher and her supporters.

In truth, it was the left that abandoned a key feature of progressive politics, to advance living standards, and retreated into sermonising on personal morality, community spirit and ethics – ideas that now dominate the political landscape. The problem with emphasising community and ethics is that they transcend sectional interests in favour of a quasi-religious piety that prigs of any stripe can join in with.

And so they did. With the working classes safely evacuated from the political arena, environmentalists, anti-globalisationists and aristocratic conservatives began forming alliances with remnants of the old left. And in keeping with the latter’s descent into high-minded moralism, their joint temper is one of screeching intolerance for anyone who dares to criticise the gospel of environmentalism and anti-consumerism. Simms’ brand of Tescophobia is simply the latest, and by no means the last, scripture of this degenerate alliance. The fact that Simms’ aristocratic conservatism is so explicitly outlined in Tescopoly indicates how far this once discredited strand of right-wing thought has been rehabilitated – and ironically, by the left.

Simms tries to cover some of his traditionalist tracks by weaving together therapeutic fluff, environmentalism and a touch of Cameron-style ‘new’ conservatism. At root, though, Tescopoly is a manifesto for the monopoly of small businesses and against dynamic industrial and social change. Thankfully, the much-reviled masses have more common sense than Simms and his radical fellow travellers. They will continue to vote with their feet and carry on shopping at Tesco for cheapness and convenience. What should not be underestimated, however, is how the drip, drip effect of today’s anti-growth propaganda continues to hammer the case for human progress. The fact that these ideas have ‘come out on top’ is, ultimately, what really matters. They must be challenged.

Neil Davenport is a writer and lecturer based in London.

This review is republished from the May 2007 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

Tescopoly: How One Shop Came Out on Top and Why It Matters by Andrew Simms is published by Constable (buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

(1) See Who’s afraid of… Tesco? by Neil Davenport

(2) Tescopoly by Andrew Simms (2007), Constable, p14

(3) See book review of Andrew Simms’ Ecological Debt:Ruling class denial, Socialist Review, October 2005

(4) Simms, ibid, p162

(5) Simms, ibid, p146

(6) See Breeding Divisions in Lozells, by Neil Davenport

(7) Simms, ibid, p147

(8) See the chapter ‘The Fate of the Middle-Classes’ in The Third Reich in Power by Richard J. Evans (2005), Penguin

(9) Simms, ibid, p29

(10) The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, (1988) Prometheus, p13

(11) Marx, Engels, ibid, p21

(12) Grundrisse by Karl Marx (1973), Harmondsworth, p172

(13) Simms, ibid, p313

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