Genealogy, Parasitism and Moral Economy: The Case of UK Supermarket Growth

Jones, P ORCID: 0000-0002-2158-1938 and Mair, M ORCID: 0000-0003-0929-5426
(2017) Genealogy, Parasitism and Moral Economy: The Case of UK Supermarket Growth. In: Neo-liberalism and the Moral Economy of Fraud. Routledge,London.

[img] Text
Jones & Mair - Genealogy, Parasitism and Moral Economy.docx - Accepted Version

Download (55kB)


In this chapter we examine supermarket growth in the UK. This phenomenon provides a particularly useful case, we argue, because developing an understanding of what has given it shape and direction underscores the point made in different ways by all contributors to this volume, namely that economic activities do not stand alone but are, simultaneously and significantly, social, cultural, political, governmental and, crucially, moral in character – something the concept of moral economy is designed to bring to the fore (e.g. Sayer 2000, 2007). If that concept is to have any analytical purchase, however, the practices – of justification, of representation, of judgement, of valuation, of organisation, of distribution and exchange, and so on – of which moral economies are composed have to be linked to a material ground, to the wider forms of social, cultural and political life which they are intertwined with and help sustain (Tully 2008). This cannot be a matter of opposing one set of generalised and totalising claims (on, for example, the moral virtues or vices of competition) with another. Rather, it is a matter of treating those claims as themselves embedded features of complex contemporary social, economic and governmental landscapes. The question we want to pose in what follows is, therefore, where, when and in relation to what do moral economies acquire their concrete form? What, that is, are the practical conditions of their possibility? One of the striking features of the forms of economic practice grouped together under the label of ‘neoliberalism’ is precisely the limited nature of any internal interrogation of the social, political and economic conditions of their own possibility. These forms of practice are presented as outside morality and politics – as amoral and apolitical – and their presentation as such reinforces the idea that they exist in a world in which there are, for instance, clear lines of demarcation between the public and the private (Sayer 2007, Harvey 2007). Economic ‘success’ and ‘failure’ stories in the private sector are framed as just that, i.e. private, and do not implicate either the public or the state. Insofar as malpractice is identified, it is as regrettable slips on the part of those involved rather than structural matters. Such narratives are not merely mythological, they are fraudulent – serving to obscure the nature of the hybrid arrangements that link government to business, and in ways that benefit those advancing them. UK supermarket growth, an emergent moral economic form with a particular spatial distribution which is parasitic on patterns of low paid, insecure work and tithed consumption, is a case-in-point. As we shall show, the parameters and profitability of the contemporary supermarket chain’s fields of activity are the product of direct and ongoing state intervention and public subsidy. The process of recovering what is actually taking place in such hybrid spaces is, however, difficult and requires a shift of analytical focus. If we want to explore the material grounds of contemporary moral economies, we will have to grapple with the fact that their elaboration takes place across many different sites and settings and in many different ways – the practices in question are highly localised/localising, fragmented and heterogeneous, both here-and-now and over time. Capturing this requires a genealogical approach, enabling us to identify the multiple points of origin out of which contemporary moral economic formations have arisen as part of a ‘history of the present’ (Foucault 1977, Tully 2008). We will use the example of supermarkets in order to make this methodological case, focusing specifically on how the growth of supermarket chains has fed into and fed off a remodelling of the built environment, the labour market and the tax and benefit system in the UK to become a constitutive element of a new strain of post-crash (bio)politics organised around harnessing and exploiting poor populations for private gain but at public expense.

Item Type: Book Section
Depositing User: Symplectic Admin
Date Deposited: 08 Jan 2018 15:57
Last Modified: 23 Aug 2022 14:10