How should socialists criticise supermarkets? The answer seems obvious. We are against the environmental degradation they cause. We oppose the way they impoverish food producers in the Global South and exploit those in the Global North. We are appalled by the unhealthy food they push and the enormous profits they grab.
All this is true, but it is only half a critique. It leaves open a crucial question – what would a socialist system of food distribution look like?
The idyllic image of small-scale production and distribution of food before the supermarkets is a myth. The range of products available in a typical high street in Britain was far smaller before the advent of supermarkets. The food was often of poor quality and those who worked in small shops were usually badly paid and overworked.
We should not idealise a world in which working class women (and occasionally men) traipsed round dozens of stores carrying bags of shopping. But the rise of the supermarkets has, to a large extent, destroyed this world.
Large supermarkets sell about 40,000 product lines. Ingredients that were previously available only in areas where large numbers of immigrants settled are now on sale in most towns and cities.
As we are now seeing, drawing world agriculture into the orbit of multinational capital can send prices rocketing. But the growth of the supermarkets over the past 30 years has coincided with an extraordinary decline in food prices – it is certainly not the case that supermarkets necessarily make food more expensive.
Nor do they, in themselves, cause diseases such as obesity. In Sweden the big supermarkets are even more dominant than in Britain, but Sweden has a lower incidence of childhood obesity.
Yet Belgium, in which supermarkets are far less dominant, has a higher incidence. This alone shows that the relationship between poor health, poverty, government policy and the supermarkets is a complex one.
The growth of supermarkets has had another effect – it has drawn together groups of workers on a massive scale. The “big four” supermarkets employ 600,000 workers. And the creation of a mass workforce on this scale points towards a revolutionary solution.
The seizure of these huge apparatuses of planning, production and distribution would be a crucial stage of any socialist revolution.
With workers in control, we could democratise the world of food. We could collectively decide which practices were environmentally harmful and ensure a decent livelihood for food producers. We could strike a balance between ecological diversity and nutritional needs.
But we would definitely not go back to a system of small-scale food distribution. This is a fundamentally important point. Marxism, from its birth, recognised that capitalism creates the foundations for socialism. As the most dynamic system ever, capitalism creates a world in which scarcity could be abolished.
In pre-capitalist societies crises were accompanied by underproduction. Capitalist crisis is accompanied by overproduction – more wealth is produced than can be absorbed by the market. The consequences – starvation, war, disease – might be the same, but the causes are very different.
People’s needs could, potentially, be met. But this potential is constantly undercut because needs are subordinated to the profit drive.
Fortunately capitalism also creates the second prerequisite for socialism – its “gravediggers”. As Marx wrote:
“With the development of industry the working class not only increases in number – it becomes more concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows.”
This is not just a feature of capitalism’s past, of the industrial revolution, or of newly industrialising countries such as China. Half of Britain’s workers are today employed in workplaces of over 250 people. Giants such as Heathrow airport (workforce 32,000) dwarf many of the factories of the past.
This growth and concentration of the working class opens up new possibilities. When earlier oppressed classes rose up, they could seize the productive forces of society and continue to use them in the old way. Peasants would revolt, kill their landowners, seize the land and divide it up among themselves to farm.
For workers this route is closed off. It is not possible to divide Heathrow airport 32,000 ways or parcel out a supermarket. When workers take control they will be forced to develop collective, democratic solutions to the problems they face. This is the essence of Marxism – it heralds a new world built from below by workers themselves.
So, should we then praise the supermarkets? No. We are unequivocal in our opposition to them. They represent the concentrated power of the capitalist system and, as such, we campaign against them.
In doing so, we might find ourselves on the same side as small capitalists threatened by the march of big capital. But we do not criticise big capital from the standpoint of small capital – we criticise big capital from the standpoint of socialism.