• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author
Article

Hating Tesco: a passion of both the PC and the BNP

It was around eight years ago that I discovered that in nice social circles it is de rigueur to hate Tesco. My wife and I had gone to a dinner party organised by the parent of a boy in our son’s cricket team. Two minutes into the first course, our host informed us that all the ingredients in the food on our plates had been ‘locally sourced’. Before the first course was over, I learned that none of the other dinner-party guests ever ‘go near a supermarket’ and that they had intensely strong views about ‘that Tesco’ in particular.

At this point the discussion would probably have moved on to a different, more interesting topic had I not innocently put on my sociologist hat and asked: ‘Why Tesco?’ The responses ranged from a moral condemnation of corporate evil to the argument that it is actually ‘cool’ to be seen lashing out against Tesco these days. Considering that the person who advised me about the coolness of hating Tesco was a not very hip middle-aged estate agent, I quickly realised that I was really behind the times. Of course, as cultural history shows us, for something to be genuinely ‘cool’ it must be part of an outsider or underdog outlook; when middle-class parents feel they can express themselves in the idiom of coolness, you know that ‘cool’ has lost its meaning.

Over the past decade the moral crusade against Tesco has gone viral. Everyone from food snobs to consumer and environmental activists to fashionable ‘it’ girls to anarchist fantasists and even would-be fascists now expresses hatred for Tesco. The recent riots against the opening of a Tesco store in Stokes Croft in Bristol resonated with this coalition of the morally outraged. Indeed, those who participated in this gesture of aesthetic and moral defiance of the big T know that they can count on the secret admiration of their well-heeled parents. They certainly enjoy the patronage of much of the media and of the world-renowned Bristol-born graffiti artist Banksy, who promptly produced a souvenir poster for the riot. This sweet-looking illustration of a lit bottle with the label ‘Tesco Value Petrol Bomb’ is an aesthetic expression of the idea that lifestyle is about as political as it gets.

The moral crusade against Tesco is not confined to small groups of countercultural entrepreneurs. Anyone keen to show that they genuinely care for their community is obliged to exhibit an aversion towards supermarkets. So the British National Party recently proudly announced that one of its Burnley councillors, Sharon Wilkinson, ‘led the argument to support the wishes of the people of Padiham [to reject the building of a Tesco store in their area]’. At first sight, the fact that the anti-Tesco consensus can win support from both far-right nationalists and trendy countercultural activists seems to make little sense. Yet while these two different groups might have very different opinions on various social and political issues, they express a very similar attitude towards change and uncertainty, and they view the future with fear, almost as an alien territory.

The search for meaning

The ascendancy of consumer consciousness has many causes, but the principal driver is the search for meaning. These days, Western society has lost the ability to use any kind of grammar of morality to outline authoritatively what is right and wrong. Any broader sense of morality has been displaced by a promiscuous tendency to moralise, and to seek to give meaning to, routine parts of our everyday lives. Consequently, people’s fairly humdrum habits – from what we eat and drink to how we feed and raise our children to what we consume – have been turned into targets of moralisation.

So fast food is not only referred to as ‘junk food’ – it is also looked upon as somehow evil. Terms like ‘natural’, ‘organic’, ‘local’ and ‘community’, when used to describe certain high-end consumer products, are used to indicate the buyer’s moral worth and his superior lifestyle choices. Such sentiments express a sense of confusion about how one attaches some meaning to life in our world of flux and change. That is why lifestyle has become such an important terrain for crafting an identity which might distinguish the individual from what many believe to be the homogenising imperative of invisible forces that are driving the world forward.

The quest for meaning takes two forms today. Those who can afford it are drawn towards a lifestyle which emphasises their distinct, individualist attributes. These people are committed to avoiding mass tastes and mass-produced artefacts. Such a consumerist lifestyle is based on a determination to appear different and is devoted to constructing a moral contrast between the ethical behaviour of distinctive consumers and the kitsch taste of the plebeian masses who irresponsibly shop at Tesco.

The second expression of the quest for meaning is the attempt to insulate one’s life from the forces of change. People who experience cultural or economic insecurity often claim that they no longer recognise their communities. Some people blame this loss of a feeling of community on the influx of foreigners; others blame it on the disruptions caused by economic forces. In short, for some the problem is the recently arrived Asian newsagent or the Turkish fish-and-chip shop owners, and for others it is the supermarket.

Of course, concern with community life is an understandable and positive impulse. The problem is not the aspiration to celebrate community life but rather the pathologisation of change as something terrible. Whenever change is recast as a kind of malevolent force, it can end up disorienting people and making them feel lost. At best, this disorientation leads to the kind of pedestrian moralising that characterises contemporary political correctness. At worst, it incites the kind of destructive rage that we saw on the streets of Bristol. And in some cases, the destructive urge that springs from a discomfort with change does not stop with the breaking of store windows.

Lessons of history

In the twentieth century, the rage against supermarkets and big shops was most common among reactionary sections of society. The most successful and effective promoter of the anti-supermarket standpoint was the National Socialist Party in Germany. Its target was not Tesco but the American chainstore Woolworth. A Nazi pamphlet handed out to the people of Hanover in April 1932 warned that a ‘new blow aimed at your ruin is being prepared and carried out’. It claimed that the ‘present system enables the gigantic concern Woolworth (America), supported by finance capital, to build a new vampire business in the centre of the city’.

Nazi-led boycotts of department shops throughout Germany were common. In response to these campaigns, the German government imposed restrictions on the building of new department shops and retail chains. In May 1933, Hitler’s government passed a decree to restrict the services and types of products that department shops could sell. In the same year, ‘the French government prohibited the opening of any more cheap Uniprix stores, for the same reason’ (1).

In the United States, there were frequent populist-led campaigns against the Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward corporations in small towns. These corporations were accused of destroying local businesses and communities. Populist activists, helped by the local media, organised boycotts and demonstrations against what was perceived to be an invasion of big-business interests. The main target of the anti-chainstore movement of the 1920s and 1930s was the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company. Like Tesco today, the A&P Corporation was a massive business. It operated over 15,000 outlets and by 1930 it was the fifth largest corporation in the US. Although the American anti-chainstore movement never became as intensely xenophobic as its continental counterpart, it nonetheless expressed the sense of impotent rage – one which is still expressed today by consumer activists suspicious of change.

However, while the current crusade against Tesco echoes the anti-modernist confusions of interwar reactionary movements, it also has some distinct twenty-first-century traits. The interwar campaigns against modern retail chains were underpinned by the outlook and concerns of small businesses, traders and craftsmen. Such campaigns never enjoyed widespread cultural affirmation or any significant support from working people. Today, by contrast, it is really ‘cool’ to be against supermarkets. Being anti-Tesco is culturally affirmed and even celebrated.

Despite the unprecedented expansion of consumerism, society feels uneasy with it. Most importantly of all, the moralisation of lifestyle has turned banal activities such as eating, shopping and travelling into political issues. If it was merely a question of making a fuss about where you shop, then the anti-Tesco crusade could be dismissed as a symptom of gesture politics. However, when crusaders believe that because they have strongly held views about consumption and change they therefore have a warrant to impose their will on others, then the politics of lifestyle threatens to turn ugly.

The issue should not be whether or not you like Tesco. The issue should be whether we look for meaning in a shopping basket or in our real lives and experiences.

Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum in August 2011. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).)

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