Opposing Neo-Liberalism

The problematisation of the neo-liberal settlement has begun to slide us towards a paradigmatic shift in politics. This shift has been slow, and is still ongoing. Indeed, it is resisted by many, not least by European-driven austerity abroad and the Coalition’s squeeze on spending at home. Neo-liberalism, although arguably in decline, remains a beacon of light for British politics as much as it does in some quarters of Europe. [1] This is both surprising and concerning. It is surprising because it is the biggest crisis in confidence of the capitalist system for at least 80 years. It is concerning because it entrenches further economic inequalities and social injustices. Furthermore, the proponents of neo-liberalism have been able to reduce questions of (sustainable) economic prosperity and social justice to a simple cuts agenda. British politics is still guided by a specific ontological foundation of individualism and unfettered materialism. Both principles have pushed moral concerns and ethical dilemmas into the private sphere. It has hollowed-out the principles that underpin politics – debate, discussion and conflict – and replaced it with a logic of depoliticisation.

More urgently than ever before, we need an alternative to this agenda. The neo-liberal settlement emerged out of a number of dilemmas in public policy during the 1970s, ostensibly precipitated by the 1974 oil crisis. It took five years to turn academic theories (that existed as early as the 1940s) into policy ideas, and a further four years (at least) to cement neo-liberalism into a policy agenda under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership. [2]  1997 was a watershed moment because it recast the neo-liberal project and challenged many aspects of it. However, it was not able to challenge the fundamentals of the economic model based on individualism and insatiable consumerism. The centre-left was not anywhere near confident enough to challenge this agenda following the collapse of the left throughout the globe during the early 1990s. Furthermore, neo-liberalism was not problematised by a series of exogenous (and inevitable) dilemmas as it is today. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown therefore accommodated aspects of their communitarian governing project with neo-liberal concessions. [3] Having said that, New Labour did challenge the social settlement. It introduced a minimum wage, ensured nursery education for all three and four year olds, implemented a tax credits regime, invested in the NHS at record levels, brought peace to Northern Ireland and recognised civil partnerships. It corrected the excesses of neo-liberalism after-the-fact. It was patently not enough, but members and supporters of the Labour Party should be proud of what it got right in government.

The contemporary challenge for Labour is to offer an alternative that reaches beyond merely amelioration or accommodation with a discredited economic and societal model. Debates that had been buried under neo-liberal rhetoric have resurfaced, which means that the centre-left is able to expose some of its myths. The Policy Review under Labour’s Jon Cruddas has begun – although tentatively – to explore options that go beyond limiting the negative side-effects of neo-liberal capitalism. Ed Miliband himself has repeatedly called for a comprehensive re-think away from ‘irresponsible capitalism’ towards a more ethical capitalist system. Miliband has called himself a ‘responsible capitalist’. In his interview in Shifting Grounds he argues that ‘the way economies succeed is not by a few people at the top, but by supporting the many’ and that ‘unless you have the infrastructure that supports the many, government willing to reform the banking system to support the many, the skills system to support the many, the industrial policy, you’re never going to succeed’. A recent speech by Miliband highlighted that responsible capitalism has an agenda where companies pursue profit in tandem with an equal society, where power is in the hands of the many, and where citizens recognise responsibilities to each other. At a recent One Nation conference in London, Steward Wood, an advisor to Ed Miliband, built on this by calling for: ‘a different kind of economy, a determination to tackle inequality, an emphasis on responsibility (of the people at the top and the bottom), protecting the elements of our common life, and challenging the ethics of neo-liberalism’. [4]

Commentators, of the left and right, within Labour and beyond, have questioned much of the Policy Review to date. The Policy Review has come under hefty criticism for being slow, bulky and far from radical. This is, perhaps, because the review confronts the two most dominant traditions within the Labour Party – New (or Purple) Labour and Old (or Red) Labour. The two perspectives have dominated Party debates. Blue Labour, the new player of the game, does not have quite such prestige. And yet, this tradition opposes both the statism of the Old and the neo-liberalism of the New. Of course, the skirmishes between the three traditions are a sideshow, leaving the Policy Review to get on with its work rather calmly. Clearly, the problem is not that Labour is empty of ideas. Rather, the problem is that Labour has been too cautious to articulate its alternative vision for politics, society and economics – in part, no doubt, given the divisions within the Party about its future. However, it is time that Labour spells out its vision in unambiguous terms.  Taking the three headings of the Policy Review, Labour must go into a new direction and call for:

  • An ethical politics. Labour must reject the simplistic rational-choice individualism that has been a crucial foundation for neo-liberalism. The greed-based model has destroyed faith in politics. Power must be radically decentralised to local councils and regional assemblies. The liberal commitment to depoliticisation must come to an end immediately.
  • A fairer society. Passions over welfare reform run high, but Labour must be bold and challenge the divisive language espoused by many on the right. Labour must reduce inequalities by tackling our inefficient tax system and ensure that living standards lie at the heart of a Labour programme for reform.
  • Sustainable economic growth. The challenge for a sustainable recovery dominates public discourse.  Labour must re-balance the economy in a radical way – something that New Labour never dared to do. The real test, however, is the extent to which this is sustainable. Not simply in material terms, but environmental ones, too.

Some of these are in strong opposition to the Red Labour (statism versus localism) and Purple Labour visions (Keynesian versus Polanyian economics). [5] Crucially, many of the aims chime together. Challenging unfairness and inequality are things that have united all three shades of contemporary Labour traditions, which is why it must be at the heart of Labour’s governing vision in 2015. The Party leadership has failed to be bold in its critique of the status quo. This is somewhat perplexing, given the resounding support Miliband has received in the past for taking on vested interests. 2015 could be a watershed moment, if Labour wants it to be.

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[1] C. Crouch (2010) The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism, Cambridge: Polity Press.

[2] Thatcher was guided, for instance, by Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, originally published in 1944. The book itself led to numerous libertarian critiques of the welfare consensus.

[3] M. Bevir (2010) Democratic Governance, Princeton: PUP, p.130.

[4] For a summary of Wood’s speech, click here.

[5] See, for example, A. Finlayson (2013) ‘From Blue to Green and Everything in Between: Ideational change and left political economy after New Labour’, British Journal of Politics and IR 15:1, pp.70-88.

Tesco, you handsome devil, I have had enough of you

For some time I have been interested in consumption, and particularly the food industry. Following books such as Tescopoly and watching films such as Food, Inc., I have entrenched my view that there is something deeply wrong with our present over-consumption, and more importantly our relationship with supermarkets. This is a topic that has seen increasing prevalence in the media too, from the BBC’s Today Programme to the Guardian in recent times.

Boycotts, door-to-door campaigning, local community groups, co-operatives, spreading the word, keeping online momentum: they are almost all entirely different things, but also amount to a growing resistance against supermarkets. One example is the Tescopoly Alliance. This organisation describes itself as a campaign group that seeks to ‘challenge the negative impacts of Tesco’s behaviour along its supply chains both in the UK and internationally, on small businesses, on communities and the environment’. This online presence is impeccable, and just by scanning the website you can see the plethora of issues that trouble consumers throughout the UK. However, that is not all. Community groups and activism exists across the country. To name a few of them:

  • Campaign Against Another Supermarket in Hadleigh (CAASH) demonstrated that over 150 jobs would go if a new supermarket was built. 56 per cent of the town opposed a new supermarket.
  • Residents Against Thundering Rattling Unbearable Noise (RATRUN) exists to expose the true cost to Harlow’s residents of the Tesco HGV network.
  • People In North Berwick Against Tesco (PINBAT) co-ordinated a raft of objections to East Lothian Council to prevent a new Tesco store.

A Colchester campaign called TESCNO called for the planned city-centre Tesco to be abandoned in 2006 – successfully.

Other campaigns include Hereford Against Supermarkets Squashing our Local Economy (HASSLE), Community Has Rights In School Sites (CHRISS) and Unthank Road. [1] These are but small examples from the backlash against supermarkets. Tesco has been targeted particularly because of the damage it causes through it’s aggressive buying and selling – it has not outstripped the other retailers for no reason.

A national alliance and local activist groups can only logically culminate in a boycott. I have not bought a single item from a Tesco store since 2009. There are eight substantial reasons (in no particular order):

  1. Supermarkets are depressing. Well-being should not be overlooked any longer, and nor should food be a suicidal mission. Local, independent shops have managed to provide a sense of trust with their customers, and developed vibrant networks. The same cannot be said of supermarkets. According to a survey done by The Grocer, 56 per cent of Tesco customers were ‘bored’ by the shop, 53 per cent were ‘stressed’, 52 per cent ‘frustrated’ and 51 per cent ‘overwhelmed’. Over half of Tesco shoppers were unhappy in one of four unpleasant ways. [2]
  2. Loss of diversity. Chain stores, and particularly supermarkets, are killing of independent high streets. Recently, the BBC Today Programme has investigated the vibrancy of local markets, and how supermarkets are the largest contributor to their slow extinction. [3] This must change – we ought to encourage local businesses of all types. I want an end to clone towns.
  3. A chilling monopoly. Tesco and Asda/Wal-Mart combined control 48 per cent of the British grocery market. The Competition Commission has called this a ‘complex monopoly situation’. [4] This is unacceptable. Do I need to mention the fact that Tesco also provides a service from cradle-to-grave, at the expense of local retailers?
  4. Identity theft. In my previous article in which I have reviewed Andrew Simms’ Tescopoly, there is a section on privacy. In effect, Tesco is creating a commercial panopticon, accumulating more data than the East German Stasi.
  5. Supermarkets do not support the local economy. Profits made from a store go to head office, and do not trickle back into the community. A supermarket may create local jobs, but only at a cost of closing down independent businesses (which will also off-set any new jobs created). For example, CAASH (see above) calculated 150 jobs would be lost by a new store.
  6. The high cost to our low prices. We may be able to pick up a bunch of bananas for £1.19, but the the profits do not end up at the producer: just over 12 pence would go to the producing country. [5] Tesco and others abuse food suppliers on a global scale, and our relationship to cheap food must change. We are deferring the costs through time (the future) and space (to the developing world).
  7. Over-consumption. Supermarkets encourage you to spend more money than you necessarily need. Of course they do, they want to profit. The problem is that this causes a tendency for over-consumption, including obesity. However, there is also an environmental impact. If the world consumed as much as Britain does today, then we would need 3.1 times as many Earths. [6]
  8. The environmental impact. We are losing 13 million hectares of natural forest each year due to consumption; and Canadian stocks of cod have been depleted by 99 per cent over the last four decades. [7]  If we bought more local and organic food and shopped by bus, bike and on foot, we could save over £4 billion worth of environmental damages to the British economy. [8]

This may not be an exhaustive list. If anything, it is very short and obviously people can try to take issue with some (all) of them. But I have had enough of Tesco, of clone towns, and of supermarkets. Evidently I can’t live without them – supermarkets have made that impossible – on a realistic level. However, where I can, I will shop local.

[1] Andrew Simms, Tescopoly, pp.258-62.

[2] Ibid., p.20.

[3] BBC Today Programme, 29 August 2011: ‘Bristol road’s ‘bright retail future’’ and ‘Britain’s favourite High Street?’.

[4] See the report by the Competition Commission here.

[5] Simms, Tescopoly, p.218.

[6] Ibid., p.233.

[7] Peter Dauvergne, The Shadows of Consumption, p.19.

[8] Jules Petty and Tim Land, ‘Farm costs and food miles: an assessment of the full cost of the UK weekly food basket’, Food Policy 30:1 (2005).

Review: Tescopoly, Andrew Simms

It’s one of those books you see on the shelf that makes you roll your eyes. Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised. Dotted with statistics and a truly engaging writing style, Simms offers a provocative account of the British retail industry and how it is eating away at our independence. Tescopoly makes a number of arguments: firstly, how high streets are becoming ‘clone towns’; secondly, how supermarkets are unnecessarily invading your privacy; thirdly, the colonial-style global operations; fourthly, the detrimental impact on the environment; and fifthly, how to restore some order. I am only going to cover three of these here: communities, privacy and globalisation.

Communities

Libertarians and liberals rightly fear a state monopoly over services, and especially a cradle-to-grave-type government. This Orwellian picture has shifted, however, towards a new founder for dominance – namely, the supermarket. Tesco won’t just sort all your grocery needs out, but it will also provide: an in-store pharmacy, opticians, alcohol, junk food, healthy food, drugs, house decorations, lighting, music, DVDs, electrical appliances, clothes, plates, cutlery, crockery, washing machines, microwaves, garden furniture, loans, mortgages, credit card and other financial services, mobiles, holidays, insurance, photography centre, broadband, paperwork for a divorce or to make a will. Should we have a problem with this? Yes, if you believe in diversity of produce and freedom of choice. And especially if Tesco takes up to 50 pence out of every pound spent in local economies. The problem with providing all the services above is that it puts local, independent shops and retailers out of business. Local businesses are often governed by an 80/20 rule, in which 80 per cent of profit comes from 20 per cent of goods (p.26). This allows independent shops to stock niche and specialist goods, catering for a wide range of customers in a given community. If, however, a general retailer like Tesco takes away 80 per cent of profits by providing the 20 per cent of high-turnover goods, then independent businesses go bust. Allowing one super store to cater for all your needs might be convenient at first, but if you want variety then that convenience will be out of favour, especially due to supermarket power in terms of below-cost selling and price-flexing (pp.305-6). British towns are turning into ‘clone towns’ with identical high streets across the country.

Privacy

Another point raised in this book is something that could easily be mistaken for identity theft. Tesco boasts that it could produce the following consumer profile:

Mrs Smith is a young adult. She is a Premium shopper. She uses Watford Hypermarket for major monthly shops and Covent Garden Metro for daily requirements. She often shops late in the evening and buys upmarket products. She is particularly loyal to her cat food brand and fine fabric washing powder. She buys Hello magazine and sometimes country life. (p.98)

Tesco will also know her address, phone number and probably her email address. Imagine if Mrs Smith also held a Tesco bank account and her mobile was on a Tesco contract? Tesco holds a record of every single movement and conversation you ever make. All this from a little Clubcard! Neo-liberals will say it’s all for marketing purposes – yet I wonder whether or not Tesco knows a little bit too much about Mrs Smith. And a further note: there are 25 million registered Clubcards, which means that Tesco holds more files on its customers than the notorious East German Stasi ever held on its 16 million citizens (p.96).

Global Operations

A third point from Simms is the global reach of retail. Even the bastion of right-of-centre thinking, the Sunday Telegraph, has said that Tesco’s global operations is a form of ‘neo-colonialism’. To see why, take a look at the reception that Tesco inspectors got from a farm in remote Africa, witnessed by an investigative journalist:

The visit was the visit of a king. They [the community] slaughtered animals. They roasted a lamb. The schoolkids rehearsed welcome songs for three days and gave Tesco presents. Tesco gave nothing back. The adage ‘To those that have shall be given’ came to me. Why would poor Zimbabwean children give present to Tesco when they didn’t even have a school on the farm? (p.206)

The farmers assumed Tesco was a country and its staff were royalty. The low prices in our supermarkets have high costs elsewhere. Simms notes that we are indirectly financing a new form of slavery: a plantation worker in the Dominican Republic gets paid £2.48 for the day (the day being a start at 5am and bed the next morning at 2am); a girl in Bangladesh gets £9 per month to make those £3 jeans in a Tesco store. In a final example: for every £1 worth of fruit (a banana in this case), the producing country gets 12 pence (p.218). Free marketeers will tell me that this is competition in action. Really? Tesco will:

  • Request a financial contribution to place its products on promotional offers, to cover product wastage, to refurbish a store or to open a new store, to the costs of bar-code changes, or to help a specific promotion that Tesco could not afford.
  • Seek improvement in terms (of Tesco) as a condition to display their products, increase the product range or threaten to de-list the supplier.

That’s all well and good, and suppliers should just tell Tesco to stick their business. But seeming as 78 per cent of our goods come from supermarkets, suppliers do not have that choice but must sell to Tesco and others. This is not a ‘free’ market.

There are a few shortcomings to this book: i) no internal investigations of how Tesco works and hires its staff, ii) Simms seems fine to just use someone else’s work to offer solutions on how to tackle the problems, and iii) there is also too much focus on one supermarket. Nonetheless, this book is an essential guide for anyone wanting a broad picture regarding British retail. Read this book!

Review: Affluenza, Oliver James

This book review is part of Lippy’s re-launch in September. For more details, click here and here.

I opened the first few pages of this book with a sense of promise that this would be an interesting read, particularly given the title’s mix of ‘affluence’ and ‘influenza’. I read the prologue and was satisfied that James would make a good author with intelligent points. For example, he characteristically dropped ‘mental illness’ and replaced it with ‘emotional distress’ – rejecting the idea that our personalities are physical diseases that could be treated with a pill or two (p.xx).

From the outset, the author argues that we have become obsessed by consumption, and that our mental well-being is in the process of severe damage due to our superficial interests in money, success, and status. Individuals do not judge people based on integrity or personal values (if people should judge at all), but rather focus on their monetary gains and material goods. How often do people ask: ‘So what do you do?’ and you reply with your job title and industry that you work in? Have we sacrificed our senses to industrial pursuits, medicated through buying ‘things’ and supplemented by a long-term sense of anxiety, hyperactivity and/or depression (p.15)? This message is a powerful one. Unfortunately for Oliver James, he failed to articulate this at all. Whilst he does indeed set out to demonstrate that this is what is wrong with Western civilisation, which he calls ‘Selfish Capitalism’, his message is poorly phrased and long-winded. 510 pages could easily have been condensed into a 300 page work that would have probably made the point more succinctly. For starters, James runs out of steam by page 209, in which he spends the sixth chapter re-hashing and re-formulating the previous five chapters. Moreover, there are large tracts of autobiography that simply needn’t be there: for example, he uses six pages to recall a dream and go into family history to make a mediocre point about how property is seen as an extension of one’s identity (pp.214-20). His writing style isn’t the best in the world with random capitalisations for words he deems are really important. His gimmicky ‘vaccines’ to solve all our problems also seem a little out-dated.

All of this is a shame, because his central idea is well thought-through, and one can easily identify with his points about the so-called Affluenza Virus and how this pervades the English-speaking world. People work themselves to death in order to consume insatiable desires that lie far beyond one’s means – mortgages spring to mind immediately. At times, however, even this message was lost through James’ own moralising mission. It is fine to make the generalisation that people who hate their job and work only for material goods and to pay off a mortgage are probably suffering (for a start, they aren’t enjoying their job). However, James judges far more than the stressed workaholic. He attacks ambition and argues that success is a hollow, temporary boost to our self-esteem (p.38). Perhaps, but does this mean that we can’t strive to make our dreams come true? He goes on to attack people who care about their appearance, who work really hard for its own sake and scorns those that are ‘oblivious’ to ‘basic needs’ of emotional intimacy (p.88-95). I find this hugely frustrating. Who is to say that someone who passes by emotional intimacy due to the interest in their work that they are emotionally illiterate and fail at the ‘basic’ things in life? Are people not allowed to work hard if this is what they enjoy? Luckily James redeems himself somewhat later in the book when he argues that intrinsic motivation for a challenge is a good value. This in itself suggests a poorly structured book, something which happens all over the place (for instance, he later re-hashes his criticism of appearance so that we must seek to be ‘beautiful’ and not ‘attractive’).

Later chapters focused on education and parenting. I gleaned from them that children must have their emotional needs met early on in life which would otherwise leave the grown-up adult wanting and frustrated all their life, always feeling guilt or shame for whatever reason their needs were not met as a child. This is partly where I find Oliver James most interesting. He seems far more passionate and can come across a great deal more wholesome on the issues of parenting than any other subject. It is also the parts that which I thought make interesting reading (interesting in the sense that it actually seemed worthwhile). There is also a lot of sense from his ideas on education, in which the system ought to focus a great deal more on the well-being of pupils and students alike and far less on passing exams and creating a workforce.

Having said all of that, James’ book so far presents a mixed message: a clear premise to uncover the horrors of neo-liberal capitalism that have their roots in Thatcherism and Reaganomics. That was the good part. The bad part was how poorly he wrote it and how unstructured his book became. His solutions hardly deserve comment, all of which seem out of the world. He wants to ban attractive models from advertising and have a single ‘government estate agency’ to set all prices for property. I don’t think so.

No doubt on reading this you will be no better off in thinking ‘should I read this book, then, or not bother?’. Well, if you like the idea and can see past the writing style, then go for it. In the end, James does make some valid points. And it adds to a growing weight of criticism on neo-liberal consumer society. It is hugely disappointing that they are veiled in a questionable methodology and poor execution by the author.