Sweeping down on the supermarkets

Sweeping down on the supermarkets

As supermarkets continue to hike their prices, it seems a response is being planned – and not before time. But will it work?

A new initiative from a few people in London, including Ian Bone and raw (one of the leading lights of the ex-Wombles and more recently of the London Anarchists network) which has both interesting and controversial elements to it is the Price Reduction campaign, which they intend to discuss in November and possibly launch in the new year.

The idea comes out of their desire to start a concrete, anarchist-led drive to bring prices back down for consumers following months of heavy inflation, particularly for basic foodstuffs which have soared as land is transferred to fuel production and amid speculation on the futures markets.

It’s a timely idea. Companies like Tesco and the other big retail buyers have taken the opportunity of both scare stories and genuinely rising costs for suppliers to impose their market muscle and, cartel-like, push up pretty much everything while talking innocently about their ‘price wars’ giving everyone the best deals that can be had.

Pig farmers have exposed the true nature of such smoke and mirrors however by blowing the whistle on what’s happening to their industry. Far from paying every penny of the price hikes to farmers to offset their increasing costs for animal welfare provision, feed etc, only a tiny fraction of said monies are filtering down. In a telling interview with the BBC, one farmer noted that “either the supermarkets or the processors are taking the profits from this, because we aren’t seeing any”.

Now while my violin is small when playing for the UK farming community, most of whom are thuggishly right-wing Daily Mail disciples who would (and do) pass on their pain to someone else in a heartbeat given half a chance, the fact is that in this case their pain is basically our pain. We are not paying extra to clear their cost base, we are paying extra because the supermarkets – largely cleared just months ago of charges of monopoly practice by the not-at-all-toothless Competition Commission – want to continue beating their profit records.

So anything which turns over this state of affairs and places money back in the pockets of the working class is to be applauded. Which brings me to the plan as laid out by messrs. Bone and raw. They want to start off with what amounts to mass-haggling, targeting supermarkets in areas where they have a reasonable support base – probably London – to bring down a crowd, and with a couple of negotiators get local bosses to agree to big discounts (a variety of methods to up the pressure are being considered, but it wouldn’t do to give the game away too early on).

The thing to watch about such efforts however is possible secondary, unintended impacts. If they're successful there need to be mechanisms in place to make sure it doesn't simply get passed on – for example if you screw a few concessions out of your local Tescos, does that come out of their profits or from hikes elsewhere and cuts to pay for their workers and suppliers? The last thing we want is one section of the working class fighting hard to shift pressure onto another section.

While I’m not arguing against such a campaign per se, I have argued, both in public and in private, that there are easier targets and that IF retail is for definite it would need to be well-planned, with links to both the workforce of the supermarket affected and to shops in neighbouring areas – so whichever way they try to squirm in wringing back profits in their region, the information gets out quickly and a response is forthcoming.

Posted By

Rob Ray
Oct 30 2008 13:13

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Comments

Caiman del Barrio
Oct 30 2008 20:35

Raw in copying Italian Stalinists shock. wink

Nah guess it's worth a go...

Steven.
Oct 31 2008 00:38

I would hope that it would work, but unfortunately I think it's very unlikely - raw's previous efforts at Hackney Tesco on May Day a few years ago was a dismal failure. Italy in the 1970s and the UK today are very different places, although Alan it is inaccurate to describe auto reduction as a Stalinist thing.

The biggest problem with this, ultimately, is that it is within the sphere of consumption. As individualised consumers we are powerless. We cannot eventually take over and run society as consumers. As workers in a capitalist society, our power is as workers. And so the answer to rising prices is to struggle for higher wages.

Mass haggling in supermarkets is in essence no different from the idea of a consumer Co-op, there being bargaining power in the amount of potential purchases. Although of course with this tactic there is the likelihood of police confrontation, which would let some of the protagonists think that they're being revolutionary.

Rob Ray
Oct 31 2008 07:32

Well yes it is within the sphere of consumption, and it's not going to change the world. However it is, like a lot of non-revolutionary activities along these lines, something which has the potential to show people the power of mass organisation in winning concrete gains. I think there can be a tendency to forget that imperfect situations can nevertheless have strong positive benefits.

Devrim
Oct 31 2008 08:47

Rob, don't you think that it is complete voluntarism? These are not struggles that are occurring. It is like try to will them into existence out of thin air.

Devrim

Joseph Kay
Oct 31 2008 09:52
Steven. wrote:
Italy in the 1970s and the UK today are very different places
Devrim wrote:
don't you think that it is complete voluntarism? These are not struggles that are occurring. It is like try to will them into existence out of thin air.

i think this is the crucial point. 1970s Italy was experiencing massive levels of class struggle, polticised strikes, violent repression and the class was sufficiently strong to impose its needs on capital, both at the point of production and in the sphere of circulation. Auto-reduction was a tactic of a powerful, confident class. By contrast, this initiative is planned against a backdrop of weakness, division and defeat. Maybe, knowing Ian Bone's media-conscious stuntism he's hoping this will be widely reported and be emulated elsewhere. This would be exemplary voluntarism; trying to will class struggle into being by the example of some activists/anarchos. However, I doubt they rate the prospects of this happening too highly, and this is just another opportunity to face off with the cops in the name of class politics, whilst remaining utterly divorced from them.

Of course i'd love to be proved wrong, and see this spread, build links with retail workers, and for mass collective auto-reduction to give the class the confidence to assert our needs at (and against) work too. But does anyone seriously think this will or even could happen, or is it just more impotent stuntism from the usual suspects?

john
Oct 31 2008 12:06
steven. wrote:
The biggest problem with this, ultimately, is that it is within the sphere of consumption. As individualised consumers we are powerless. We cannot eventually take over and run society as consumers. As workers in a capitalist society, our power is as workers. And so the answer to rising prices is to struggle for higher wages.

in a sense this is true, but I don't think it's particularly helpful to fetishize work and the wage over all other struggles. the working class do exist outside of the workplace as well.

joseph k wrote:
1970s Italy was experiencing massive levels of class struggle, polticised strikes, violent repression and the class was sufficiently strong to impose its needs on capital, both at the point of production and in the sphere of circulation.

exactly. It's not by definition impossible for class struggle to take the form of auto-reduction.

Joseph Kay
Oct 31 2008 12:31
john wrote:
It's not by definition impossible for class struggle to take the form of auto-reduction.

and

Steven. wrote:
We cannot eventually take over and run society as consumers.

are not mutually exclusive. in the right context we can struggle over prices, but unlke demands as workers they don't have the potential to become struggles against our condition rather than just to improve it.

Rob Ray
Oct 31 2008 12:38

Mass struggles don't come from nowhere Devrim, they're ideas which people work on and then they either find traction in the circumstances or they don't. Whether these come from anarchists, leftists or people with no political background whatsoever is largely irrelevant, it's how they resonate or not which dictates their levels of success.

I'd regard the anarcho-syndicalism, unionism, mass assembly, community organising etc with the same viewpoint - it's basically just people coming up with or promoting ideas, which may or may not be taken up by the wider class, depending on whether people reckon they're achievable and/or desirable. We know that there's very little resonance for most class-struggle activity at the moment, should we stop promoting that on the grounds it amounts to volunteerism?

I'd probably agree with Steven that there's a very limited hope given the current circumstances for an idea like this to go places, but that doesn't mean it's inherently wrong to have a go at kicking it off - it's not like the people involved are taking time that was otherwise going to go into successfully calling a mass workplace assembly. As I said above, if it's well-organised and successful there's absolutely nothing wrong with forcing supermarkets to shed profits on staple items, as it's clearly to the benefit of the working class that they do so.

john
Oct 31 2008 12:46
joseph k wrote:
unlke demands as workers they don't have the potential to become struggles against our condition rather than just to improve it.

but it could be a means to an end; and don't forget supermarkets are workplaces too.

Joseph Kay
Oct 31 2008 13:03
john wrote:
but it could be a means to an end; and don't forget supermarkets are workplaces too.
Joseph K. wrote:
Of course i'd love to be proved wrong, and see this spread, build links with retail workers

i just can't really see how struggles over consumer prices in the sphere of circulation have the potential to become anything more. this doesn't make them bad if they can satisfy immediate needs, it just means there's no way for them to take on a revolutionary character. the only way i can imagine they could is if auto-reduction/looting became so widespread it lowered the rate of profit, forcing an intensification of attacks on workers and maybe provoking struggles there. but that seems a) highly unlikely to say the least and b) a really long way round (and quite anti-worker) way to build working class power. but as i say i doubt the organisers even have this in mind since they have a history of impotent stuntism and pointless set-pieces with the cops in the name of class politics (bash the rich, hackney tesco...), and the problem here is not that it's not revolutionary, but that it's likely to be another such ghetto stunt. we'll see. i hope my skepticism is unfounded.

john
Oct 31 2008 13:08
joseph k wrote:
the only way i can imagine they could is if auto-reduction/looting became so widespread it lowered the rate of profit...

i was thinking more along the lines of the way it can raise class consciousness - along the lines of 'we made this stuff and now it's being sold back to us at a ridiculously high price, BUT WE WON'T TAKE IT ANYMORE!!' - i agree it's more of a stunt at the moment, I just don't think it would always and ahistorically have to be so.

Joseph Kay
Oct 31 2008 13:24

but the consciousness that 'we produce this stuff that is sold back to us at a mark-up' and the potential to go beyond stuntism both seem to rely on a wider level of class struggle that isn't present at the moment. at best it's an ahistorical transposition of a tactic from one time and place to another. but i think that gives it too much credit as on past form a splash of media infamy and a confrontation with the cops is probably more what's motivating the organisers, with some post hoc class struggle rhetoric to make things seem more political.

Rob Ray
Oct 31 2008 13:31
Quote:
i just can't really see how struggles over consumer prices in the sphere of circulation have the potential to become anything more.

It doesn't really have to though, it's just retrieving a tiny extra bit of the cake, and potentially bringing a few (maybe more than a few if it actively worked) people round to the idea that mass action is not all bad. This is what I've been saying about a lot of these different plans - anything which can build class confidence, makes the working class a little bit stronger and more willing to take on its masters, is a positive step. It might not be revolutionary, but it can help build more support for things which actively are. The is what the BNP have been doing for a long time now - mowing an old lady's lawn doesn't help her get out from under the economic cosh of falling pensions, but it does put her in the mood to listen to what you have to say.

Joseph Kay
Oct 31 2008 14:00

Rob, you cut off that quote before "this doesn't make them bad if they can satisfy immediate needs" - which kinda pre-empts what you said.

Steven.
Nov 1 2008 02:24
Quote:
It doesn't really have to though, it's just retrieving a tiny extra bit of the cake, and potentially bringing a few (maybe more than a few if it actively worked) people round to the idea that mass action is not all bad. This is what I've been saying about a lot of these different plans - anything which can build class confidence, makes the working class a little bit stronger and more willing to take on its masters, is a positive step

Rob, firstly here this is not an action which is inherently working class, because it is taking place in the sphere of consumption. If in the unlikely event it had any success it will not necessarily build class confidence, but confidence of consumer action.

If you did think that this was a particularly worthy goal in itself, then why not be supporting the setting up of consumer Co-op's? At least in this country they do have some track record of reducing the cost of goods for consumers, unlike auto reductions stunts by politicos, which have just led to the mass penning in and mocking of some activistoids by the police in Hackney.

john
Nov 1 2008 09:29
Quote:
If you did think that this was a particularly worthy goal in itself, then why not be supporting the setting up of consumer Co-op's?

there's clearly a big difference between auto-reduction and co-ops. One is about actively contributing to the reproduction of the sphere of circulation - and therefore, I agree, clearly non-revolutionary. Auto-reduction, though, can be clearly about working class direct action to reappropriate (some of) the means of production (i.e. food) - this can raise class consciousness, be part of a wider class action, and obviously attacks the sphere of circulation within the capitalist economy - I don't see any reason why it can't, then, be revolutionary (in the right time and done in the right way - i.e. if it's not just a stunt).

Rob Ray
Nov 1 2008 10:14

I didn't say it was inherently anything, I said it could potentially bring people round to the idea of mass action being a potentially successful method of fighting back on things which matter to them and would improve the economic position of working class people if successful. I put the caveats on deliberately, precisely because there's no definites here.

Devrim
Nov 1 2008 22:27
Quote:
Mass struggles don't come from nowhere Devrim, they're ideas which people work on and then they either find traction in the circumstances or they don't. Whether these come from anarchists, leftists or people with no political background whatsoever is largely irrelevant, it's how they resonate or not which dictates their levels of success.

Rob, I don't think that they come from nowhere. I think that they come from the working class, not from anarchist, or leftist groups.

Devrim

Rob Ray
Nov 1 2008 23:26

I don't think the three necessarily amount to different things. As I say, I don't think the source is particularly important, it's whether the idea resonates.

Red Marriott
Nov 2 2008 13:09
Steven wrote:
The biggest problem with this, ultimately, is that it is within the sphere of consumption. As individualised consumers we are powerless. We cannot eventually take over and run society as consumers. As workers in a capitalist society, our power is as workers. And so the answer to rising prices is to struggle for higher wages.

Mass haggling in supermarkets is in essence no different from the idea of a consumer Co-op, there being bargaining power in the amount of potential purchases. Although of course with this tactic there is the likelihood of police confrontation, which would let some of the protagonists think that they're being revolutionary.

Steven; your easy dismissal of struggles outside the workplace as non-working class makes you sound like a by-the-book leftist and relegates non-workers to, at best, supporters/followers of the 'workers vanguard'. Same as the (discredited by events) SWP line on the Poll Tax, horribly leftist logic. It also denies any agency to the majority(?) of working class people who are not in work (kids, old, sick, jailed, unemployed, parents etc) - and to all the working class in their lives outside of their work (implying by its logic - if you can't strike in support of other workers, other kinds of support are either not valid or less so?). So no housing struggles then, no anti-Poll Tax, no unemployed/piqueteros etc; further, auto-reduction makes the passive "individualised consumer" part of an active collectivity, which is presumably the reason for its popularity during periods of high class struggle - so it's not a "powerless" act.

Stuntism is another thing entirely and is not really struggle, it only seeks to incite others by a performance ritual of supposedly exemplary acts - and, as with publicity stunts generally, the publicity beforehand almost guarantees that the act will be no more than a media ritual. My impression of Italy etc is that they have usually done it to really get the goods, not as a mere media stunt - so the media is not pre-notified.

But comparing auto-reduction to food co-ops is a bit like comparing squatting to housing co-ops - there is a significant difference, which is why the state is more tolerant of one than the other. At high points of struggle, struggle takes diverse forms, encompassing the diversity of the various aspects of working class existence, all of which must be challenged as social relations of capitalist domination. There is no elitist/workerist hierarchy - the salaried wage over the social wage etc. - of forms or areas of struggle or of strugglers.

Steven.
Nov 2 2008 15:44
Quote:
I don't think the three necessarily amount to different things. As I say, I don't think the source is particularly important, it's whether the idea resonates.

I'm sorry Rob, but there is a massive difference between the working class, and political micro groups.

And where things do come from is important - when was the last mass struggle which was started from nothing by leftist or anarchist groups?

Quote:
Steven; your easy dismissal of struggles outside the workplace as non-working class makes you sound like a by-the-book leftist and relegates non-workers to, at best, supporters/followers of the 'workers vanguard'. Same as the (discredited by events) SWP line on the Poll Tax, horribly leftist logic. It also denies any agency to the majority(?) of working class people who are not in work (kids, old, sick, jailed, unemployed, parents etc) - and to all the working class in their lives outside of their work (implying by its logic - if you can't strike in support of other workers, other kinds of support are either not valid or less so?). So no housing struggles then, no anti-Poll Tax, no unemployed/piqueteros etc; further, auto-reduction makes the passive "individualised consumer" part of an active collectivity, which is presumably the reason for its popularity during periods of high class struggle - so it's not a "powerless" act.

this is true.

Quote:
Stuntism is another thing entirely and is not really struggle, it only seeks to incite others by a performance ritual of supposedly exemplary acts - and, as with publicity stunts generally, the publicity beforehand almost guarantees that the act will be no more than a media ritual. My impression of Italy etc is that they have usually done it to really get the goods, not as a mere media stunt - so the media is not pre-notified.
But comparing auto-reduction to food co-ops is a bit like comparing squatting to housing co-ops - there is a significant difference, which is why the state is more tolerant of one than the other. At high points of struggle, struggle takes diverse forms, encompassing the diversity of the various aspects of working class existence, all of which must be challenged as social relations of capitalist domination. There is no elitist/workerist hierarchy - the salaried wage over the social wage etc. - of forms or areas of struggle or of strugglers.

This is also true. I suppose I was going to far in my criticism of the act itself, because this act done by a few anarchists would not be a workers struggle, it would be a media stunt.

I think that because of the weakness of workers organisation in the workplace, many anarchists have basically abandoned it, and to focus on other areas - particularly those deemed significant by bourgeois ideology such as consumption.

Today, faced as we are with a rising cost of living, I think that anarchists or communists should look at where struggle exists, and engage there. I see this currently as being predominately in wage struggles, although hopefully more could begin in areas such as rent, mortgage repayments, repossessions, etc.

I do not think that it is a good idea to try to transplant ideas into new settings where they have no basis - this was a flaw with one of the people involved in this two previous major projects: white overalls and social centres.

My point comparing this to consumer Co-op's was poorly made. In fact starting a consumer Co-op would probably be a much more effective way for workers to reduce their shopping bills than this plan.

Rob Ray
Nov 3 2008 00:40
Quote:
I'm sorry Rob, but there is a massive difference between the working class, and political micro groups.

I'm sorry, I think that's mistaking some micro-groups you don't agree with for a wide gamut of activity. If small groups of activists are incapable of having any effect on the wider working class, what's the point of libcom? Is it a hobby, or a way of disseminating ideas?

Quote:
And where things do come from is important - when was the last mass struggle which was started from nothing by leftist or anarchist groups?

But they're not starting a struggle, they're responding to one that's already happening, as I tried to illustrate in the article, by bringing an idea to the table. As I say, I'm not convinced it's work, but I don't think it would have any more or less chance of going somewhere if some randoms came up with it in a pub than if an ex-womble and a class-war ex-vet do.

Rob Ray
Nov 3 2008 00:50
Quote:
Would it? It may have been at one point, but I think nowadays it'd be next to impossible for a co-op to really compete with major supermarkets in price terms.

Depends on the angle. The Ripple food co-op in Ipswich routinely undercuts the supermarkets on a range of stuff, particularly specialist items (vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, some organics - hippy shit) and some of the big bulk raw ingredients (rice, flour, beans, nuts). There's sometimes scope for it, which can force the hand of supermarket who are using loss-leaders on some items and gouging on others.

On the whole though, yeah market muscle does for any small-timers if one of the big supermarkets decides to roll over them. The bulk order power of the big four, as in my pig example, repeats across most of the staple products playing a game of squeezing suppliers at one end, and using cartel and monopoly control to maintain power geographically. One of the few things which has kept them in check thus far is a fear that they'll be broken up under massive public pressure if they overplay their hand, but given the current market situation, there's precious little fear of it at the moment.

Joseph Kay
Nov 3 2008 07:11
Rob Ray wrote:
If small groups of activists are incapable of having any effect on the wider working class, what's the point of libcom? Is it a hobby, or a way of disseminating ideas?

the point is not that politicised minorities can have no effect (they can, primarily through the dissemination of ideas), but that we cannot substitute our activity for the activity of the class. we do not think running libcom is an exemplary act to be emulated, it's a propaganda effort, reporting on class struggles, drawing links between them, being a source of working class history from which to learn etc.

Rob Ray
Nov 3 2008 10:45

Okay, so it's a source of ideas. Which I'd argue is what this - at its best - would amount to. It's proffering the option of direct action as an alternative to sitting back and letting things happen.

Joseph Kay
Nov 3 2008 11:09

but do you think people are going to read about this in the metro, think 'fuck yeah, why didn't i think of that?' and it will spread? i mean none of the libcom collective see running this website as likely to inspire class struggle per se or as a substitute for it; it's a resource for both politicos and workers in struggle (there are a few anecdotes of striking workers finding the site and using it to publicise/discuss their struggle, or printing stuff from the library for distributing on picket lines).

Rob Ray
Nov 3 2008 12:53

I don't know, as I said repeatedly I don't think it's particularly likely, but that's not to say people definitely won't pick up a leaflet, have a chat with some friends about it and end up having a go - it's the difference between wishing someone luck on a low-probability project and saying 'that definitely won't work so why bother'. I don't see the point in being overly negative.

Joseph Kay
Nov 3 2008 13:15

i think the skepticism comes from the fact the usual MO from these guys is create a bit of a media spectacle, face off with the cops, then post to indymedia and give yourself a slap on the back. the class struggle rhetoric seems like post hoc political cover for self-referential ghetto games. now it may be they've also been involved in loads of other stuff i'm unaware of and i'm being completely unfair, but i just don't see this having any relation to or likely impact on actual class struggle. i'll happily eat my words if it takes off (although i still think building power as consumers is fundamentally limited in its scope).

Rob Ray
Nov 3 2008 13:38

I haven't at any point disagreed that building power as consumers is limited in scope (in fact I outright said it was earlier in the thread). What I've been disagreeing on is writing off stuff entirely because you think the people doing it are all about the adrenalin rush/anarcho-kudos. I agree that a lot of the stuff along those lines that they've done has been a bit rubbish, but if they come up with an idea, I'm not going to go all sour-faced on them for the sake of it - I'll go sour-faced on them if it's a shit idea.

Joseph Kay
Nov 3 2008 13:49

yes i know what you are and aren't saying, i just don't think you can separate the idea from the people implementing it so neatly. it's not like i'm generally going around attacking the group or the tactic, but when it comes up i'll voice my skepticism. like i say i think auto-reduction is a tactic of a strong and confident class and thus will find little resonance, but i'd be happy to be proved wrong.

because of this (moreso than the personalities behind it which could be put aside if they were doing something useful) i don't think this is something worth getting involved with or encouraging others to.