Tescophobia: a new middle-class malady

The chattering classes’ weird hatred of Tesco reveals the elitism of modern-day consumer activism.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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For a few years now Britain’s chattering classes have been in the grip of a peculiar malady. We might call it Tescophobia. Symptoms include an irrepressible desire to write long, boring tracts about how wicked Tesco is and a weird kind of brain rot that leads you to see perfectly normal behaviour – such as people buying nice food at low prices – as ‘evil’ and ‘thoughtless’. There is no known cure. Though I’m sure a glass of Tesco own brand ‘Scotch’ whisky could help tame this moralistic fever.

At the Easter weekend there was an outburst of a particularly bad strain of Tescophobia in Stokes Croft in Bristol. Following a heavyhanded police raid on a squat, the squatters and various anti-capitalist activists attacked both the cops and a new local Tesco store, against which they had been campaigning for months. They’ve won sympathy from sections of the media, where this ‘anti-Tesco action’ has been talked up as some kind of heroic defence of ‘community independence’ against ‘corporate entities’.

In truth, the ‘Tesco riot’ – as future generations will no doubt recall it (LOL) – exposed the naked elitism of modern-day consumer activism and the gulf, nay the chasm, that now separates middle-class radicals from everyday people.

The most striking thing about contemporary consumer activism is its disregard for the principles of democracy. I’m not into consumer politics; I don’t believe you can change the world by electing to buy Palestinian oranges but never Jewish ones, or by only drinking coffee for which the beans were crushed by the elbows of some far-flung Peruvian tribe who refuse to use pesticides and who get a fairtrade wage ($1.25 a day rather than $1).

However, if I did buy the idea that buying power equals political power, that how you shop tells us heaps about what you believe, then I’d most likely look upon Tesco as a bastion of democracy. The consumers have spoken, millions upon millions of them, and they have said in roaring chorus: ‘I love Tesco.’ They have voted with their wallets – as we are so often encouraged to do these days, by everyone from Greenpeace to anti-Israel agitators – and according to one eye-swivelling statistic £1 out of every £7 spent in Britain is now spent at a Tesco. If, as we are constantly informed by self-defined edgy commentators, consumerism is the new site for political expression and identity formation, then Tesco shoppers should surely be accorded the utmost respect; they are the majority, the most numerous of all of the consumers, and thus should rule the retail roost.

But the opposite is the case. Tesco shoppers are treated by the chattering classes with utter contempt, looked upon as trackie-wearing zombies witlessly buying lamb that has been flown thousands of miles and thus has left a honking carbon skidmark across Gaia’s face or milk squeezed from a cow cruelly strapped to a machine. Tesco is a ‘spiritual wasteland’, says one writer, with its patrons ‘slumping from place to place… listless and depressed’. A Telegraph columnist says people who shop at Tesco are those who go ‘on holiday to Spain to drink lager and eat egg and chips’. Whisper it: oiks, the working classes, probably even the underclasses since Tesco is so bloody cheap, who indulge in consumerism of the wrong, and thus eminently ignorable, kind.

Far from according any respect to the shopping habits of the Tesco masses, the influential Tescophobics do everything they can to curb these allegedly destructive habits. They campaign vociferously against the building of new Tesco stores, these garish temples to cheapness, and complain at length about the ‘Tesco-isation’ of society.

This elite anti-Tesco fury, which erupted into a shriek of violent middle-class rage at the weekend, exposes how inherently anti-democratic consumer activism is. Consumer activism implicitly empowers the comfortably-off middle classes over the less well-off working classes. Where in normal politics, everybody is ostensibly equal – one man has one vote, regardless of how rich or poor he is – in the sphere of radical consumer politics individuals who have superior spending power are inevitably more powerful than individuals with inferior spending power. In a political realm built upon consumerism, where buying organic or patronising your local butcher or only wearing expensive eco-cotton rather than Primark’s rags are all taken as signs of moral purity, how much a person has to spend determines how politically influential he can be.

So the average Tesco shopper, despite being part of the largest consumer tribe of all, can be transformed into an object of derision by the Waitrose-patronisers of the liberal smart set, because his ability to shop ‘imaginatively’, to buy expensive niche and PC products and foodstuffs, is limited in comparison to that of the well-off consumer activist. He is, in the political terms of the radical consumer lobby, inferior, unequal, the nigger of consumerism.

The distinction now made between good consumers and bad consumers – that is, between those with a lot of money and those with less – was summed up by a newspaper columnist who said that admitting to shopping in Tesco is to commit ‘social death’ in the world of London’s ‘middle-class incomers’. For those who do their food-shopping in ‘Portuguese delis and local markets’, there’s nothing more ordure than to visit a Tesco store. ‘We can all see what’s wrong with supermarkets in particular and colossal chain retailers in general’, he said. The most important word in that sentence is ‘we’ – he really means ‘us’, the well-paid media set, against ‘them’, the averagely waged Tesco hordes. Refusing to shop at Tesco is now one of the key ways that the right-thinking middle classes choose to advertise their separation from, and their superiority over, the grubby, vulgar, thoughtless lower orders.

This explains the real attraction of the politics of consumerism to modern-day, so-called radicals: it allows them to circumvent the traditional sphere of politics, where, ridiculously, every Tom, Dick and Harry has as much clout as every Will, Rollo and Cressida, and to enter a world where some people are naturally, by dint of their pay packet, superior to others. It is largely only the cash-rich and the time-rich, the leisured classes, who can make great play of their allergy to supermarkets and their slow and considered patronage of local ironmongers, organic bakers, traditionalist fishmongers, and so on – and through the politics of consumerism they can transform what is ultimately just a posh lifestyle choice into an advertisement of their moral superiority over the cash-strapped, time-pressed little people.

As I say, I don’t believe in consumer politics. But if it goes on like this, and Tescophobia continues to spread amongst the chattering classes, then buying a £2 prawn sandwich from a Tesco Metro might soon become an act of implacable rebellion against today’s radical snobs.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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