31 October 2007

Competing definitions of a free market

The Competition Commission has found that supermarkets serve customers well. According to the limited economistic, marketistic mindset from which they see the world this is actually the correct conclusion. It is that mindset, and its political support, that we need to unpick in order to understand how they could have arrived at this frankly shocking conclusion.

The problem we face is that, as a society, we are undergoing a paradigm shift. For those of us living in the sustainable world of the future, diversity means a range of types of shopping, different shops or makers selling subtly different versions of the same product, or whose ownership structure or style suits our value system. To the Competition Commission diversity means four monocultural shopping outlets within which you can buy a range of 100 different fish all of which taste of very little. If you only have one of these you lack competition; if you have two the free market is functioning well for you.

For the proponents of supermarkets they are efficient places because you can buy everything you need as quickly as possible for as little time as possible, allowing you more time to make money to buy more. As a capitalist production-and-consumption unit supermarkets allow you to be as efficient as possible. The fact that they rely on global agribusiness which uses 10 calories of energy to make 1 calorie of food (according to Richard Heinberg) does nothing to undermine their claims to efficiency.

Although such reports can lead to unhealthy gnashing and grinding of teeth the real problem is a political one. We are building the new, sustainable, community-focused world we want to live in. Nowhere is this more evident that in the area of food, where most greenies use an alternative system of wholefood shops or have their own wholefood co-op. The producers and distributors, many organised as co-operatives themselves, provide a parallel food economy based on the values of the future.

The problem is that the political parties who operate at Westminster are united in their support of the old way of economics. An enlightened government might link support to local businesses with their positive outcomes in terms of community and sustainability. A restructuring of the market to support local businesses rather than the global businesses who free-ride on the infrastructure we all pay for, and the commons we should share, is politically possible, but only once the stranglehold of the uniformly pro-market parties is broken.

1 comment:

  1. It reminds me of a record shop that closed in a town I onced lived near by. It was a good, well stcoked, small store that gave the impression everything in it had been selected to provide a great collection of music likely to appeal to the real music fans poorly served by Wollies and W H Smiths.
    When a big chain music shop opened the place was, of course, closed within months. However, the manager told me that sales had only fallen 7% since the chainstore opened. That was anough, though, to make a healhty business unhealthy. Still, 93% of his customer was still there so the vast majority of the local record-buying 'market' still appreciated the shop and wanted to use it.
    I've since lost count of great independent businesses that have gone due to big chains and in nearly every case large numbers of customers were denied their 'consumer choice' by that closure.
    Still, many green people are not against markets and enterprise, as evidenced by the wide variety of green businesses that have sprung up in the last couple of decades. Most would agree the barriers to entry for small, human scale business are are many when so many near monopolies are tollerated and business so oversized they can unfairly influence government and local planning offices.