While there is much consternation and apparent confusion expressed by opponents of David Cameron’s call for the growth of a ‘big society’, especially given its proclamation at the same time as public finances are coming in for the greatest scrutiny of a generation, together with swinging cuts at all levels of national and local government (there is, to say the least, a great deal of suspicion about Tory motivations in their polemical use of the ‘big society’ slogan), at the grassroots there are nevertheless real signs of initiative in this direction. Or so it would seem!
One initiative that has received a great deal of attention from the media so far, but also from the imagination of the public at large, is the self-styled People’s Supermarket. When I first heard the name it sounded to me like some left-over of 60s and 70s radicalism (I had expected to see copies of Mao’s Little Red Book on sale together with the organic cabbages and beetroot juice), but in truth this venture, while not in the least announcing any basis in distributist thinking as such, is nevertheless perfectly attuned to such economic principles. As the motto of the co-operative announces it is ‘a supermarket for the people by the people’.
The co-operative was set up in May 2010 by Arthur Potts Dawson, Kate Wickes-Bull, David Barrie and a small group of other professionals and interested parties, and is inspired by, and modeled on, the Park Slope Food Coop in Park Slope, Brooklyn. It now has over 500 members, each of whom pay an annual fee of £25 and volunteer to work 4 hours every 4 weeks in the shop, for which they receive a 10% for all purchases from the shop. In essence it’s that simple.
What is incredible about the progress of this venture is not only the slowly growing trust of people in the neighbourhood, but the interest that has been taken in the project at the highest levels of government; indeed David Cameron came in person to visit the supermarket on 11 February this year, and Channel 4, one of the UK’s biggest TV stations, broadcast a four-part documentary on the initiative from 6 to 27 February. More on this in a moment.
Of most interest to distributists, perhaps, is the model that the co-operative has adopted for sourcing its produce. Most people are convinced that because the massive global food chains can often offer food at, or even below in some instances, cost price, that theirs is somehow the most efficient means of food supply. This, however, is far from being the case. Farmers are very often forced into destroying vast quantities of their produce, because it doesn’t fit the narrow, mostly ‘aesthetic’, criteria employed to select food for sale at supermarkets or to restaurants. This can have truly ruinous consequences for producers who are sometimes even forced into bankruptcy on the basis of these almost arbitrary decisions. The People’s Supermarket has made a very important decision in deciding to work directly with local producers and effectively guarantee to buy all their produce and bring it to market. By slashing operating costs, in terms of wages primarily, Potts Dawson hopes to be able to compete with the supermarkets’ economies of scale, and offer at the same time a fair price to producers. As Rosie Millard, a journalist writing in The Telegraph, 29 May 2010, puts it, ‘Potts Dawson hopes that once his baby takes off, the likes of Tesco and Asda will be as a bad dream. We will all put in our community service and revel in 1970s-style food bills, while the big boys founder.’ The emphasis should be on community here, because it is in its power to generate effective local economies that Potts Dawson’s business model might well turn out to be a winner. From the perspective of distributist thinking, enabing local farmers and food producers to sell their whole produce to local shop owners already constitutes a major victory in getting an organically related local economy up and running. For example, the idea of such a voluntarily run and organised local food shop/ supermarket, might well be adapted to communities wishing to set up parallel economies, and could, potentially enable a family or two to return to small-scale farming supplying the needs of not only others directly involved in such a Catholic Village, but others who want local, organic and cheap food.
I should add a note of caution, however. All is not quite as it seems at the People’s Supermarket. It isn’t just the old left vocabulary and hippy mentality surrounding the organic food movement, there is something more contemporary to be concerned about: reality TV. Yes, perhaps the first thing that we need to know about the People’s Supermarket is not what its policy on food production and supply is, but rather that the venture was set up as a reality television documentary series from its very inception. Potts Dawson, a nephew of the Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger, and TV celebrity chef in his own right, developed the idea for the store as a reality TV series, with all that that entails. He bought a dilapidated former shop in London’s central Holborn district, and gave volunteers (for the shop as well as the TV series–the journalist Rosie Millard was one of those volunteers) a seemingly impossibly short amount of time to turn it into a modern, sophisticated organic supermarket. The intensity and drama of their efforts were meant as much for televisual consumption as for the dinner tables of their neighbours in Holborn, and the fact that the project was run on a shoestring, shouldn’t blind us to the fact that Channel 4, which produced the documentary, has considerably more capital behind it.
Now I don’t mean to imply that Potts Dawson is not in earnest in terms of the ideals, or even the ideas, behind his project; and it may well turn out to be a roaring success after all. My concern is that he sees it as one more venture in his entertainment career rather than as something that needs to succeed on its own right. Situated in the centre of London it may succeed, but being a long way from the nearest producers it is never going to instigate the thriving local economy that such an initiative might give promise to if it were situated in a smaller town or village. I fear that it may prove to be a fly-by-night venture that peters out for want of a truly organic and authentic connexion to the community in which it is situated (indeed in the early episodes of the series many locals seemed entirely perplexed by all the goings on, and rather reluctant to part with their cash at what they still considered to be an over-priced shop).
On a more general note I see this as a possible danger with many ‘distributist’-influenced business and co-operative initiatives. Without a real centre in a living community, a centre that must of necessity be based in family, civic life and church, no purely economic solution will prove effective. Whatever ambitions Catholics have of transforming social and economic conditions must start with the need to build authentic Catholic communities centred on a truly lived faith, and on family life and the ‘parish’ church that serves as the hub of that faith. Simple, tried and tested.