It’s Time to Nationalize Supermarkets

Supermarkets under capitalism are exploitative and ecologically damaging, shaping what we produce as well as what we consume. In public hands, following a different logic, they could supply the creative core of a democratically planned socialist economy.

Woolworths supermarket in Chadstone, Australia. (@Alpha / Flickr)

Supermarkets have become an indispensable part of modern life. Most of us shop at them several times a week. Almost everyone buys their fruit, vegetables, meat, and dairy there, as well as cleaning products, toiletries, basic medicine, and whatever household supplies we need.

Supermarkets are the center of our food system. The products they decide to stock and promote impact the health and well-being of the entire population. But their real influence comes from their buying power.

As the largest buyers, the decisions that supermarket chains make flow through our whole economy. From what farmers grow to how shipping companies schedule their fleets, supermarkets set the agenda for the food system. That system is broken. To fix it, we need to take the supermarkets out of private hands.

Food Is a Class Issue

The COVID-19 pandemic has further emphasized that capitalist food systems are irrational and don’t serve human needs. Market-driven, for-profit agriculture makes pandemics all but inevitable. Well before the events of the last year, it was already clear that the capitalist food system is a disaster.

Each year, Australia wastes 7.3 million tons of food, yet the most conservative estimates suggest that over a million Australians experience food insecurity. It’s an absurd situation and a reminder that food is a working-class issue.

Market-driven agriculture is degrading topsoil at an alarming rate and making food less nutritious. The capitalist food system relies on labor from some of the most exploited workers in our society. And then there’s the question of global warming. Not only are the changes in weather patterns going to disrupt what kind of food can be produced where and when, the food system itself is responsible for a third of global carbon emissions.

Food is no ordinary commodity. It’s both indispensable and a precious, scarce resource. Ultimately, we need to bring food production and distribution under public ownership and control to end this irrationality.

Achieving that end-goal won’t be simple. We can’t simply take over a system as complex as our food system in one fell swoop. Socializing supermarkets, by contrast, would be relatively simple. It’s the obvious place to start.

Most of the popular discourse around food places the burden of change on individual consumers. However lovely local farmers’ markets may be, convincing people to frequent them isn’t going to cut it, especially as wages decline and working hours crawl up. For their part, government regulations can end the worst excesses of the market, but the problems with our food system require more than just regulatory nudges.

Solving these problems will require rational economic planning. In fact, supermarkets already plan our food system. But they do it for the sake of profit maximization rather than the public good and long-term sustainability.

Supermarkets use their influence over what we eat to promote high-margin, low-nutrition foods. Their buying power places arduous demands on their supply chains, leading to worker exploitation. Like all other essential services, the supermarket should be in the hands of the people.

Cold War Propaganda

Supporters of capitalism like to claim that the supermarket is a wonderful capitalist invention. In fact, the supermarket has been a central figure in pro-capitalist propaganda since the Cold War. For decades, popular culture has linked socialism of any variety with images of grey, joyless stores and empty shelves.

This image is so persistent that we even saw people sharing pictures of supermarket shelves emptied by pandemic panic-buying as if it was a taste of socialism at work. The idea that these photos came from supermarkets operating under in a capitalist economy doesn’t seem to have crossed their minds.

Such propaganda has fostered a common-sense notion that publicly owned supermarkets must inevitably lead to a lack of choice or to food shortages. However, the experience of capitalist supermarkets themselves disproves the idea that bureaucratic planning and centralized control always gives rise to such problems.

Supermarkets don’t spontaneously adapt to the signals of a vibrant free market: they are highly planned economic structures. Decisions are made months or years in advance to secure reliable supply chains, meet seasonal demand, and keep shelves filled.

Moreover, far from being a diverse industry, supermarkets tend toward consolidation. In Australia, just two supermarket chains account for over 65 percent of market share, in a pattern that is repeated all over the world. The business model of supermarkets relies on scale. They could fairly be described as natural monopolies — or in Australia at least, duopolies.

The modern supermarket is the result of large-scale logistics engineering and industrial food production. Neither of these things are inherently capitalist, although the inequality and exploitation that currently define the food system certainly are.

Supermarkets rely on a complex array of data inputs and predictive algorithms that anticipate supplies and demands. But these mechanisms would work just as well for a team of managers regardless of whether they were employed by the public service or by Coles or Woolworths.

As Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworsk argue in their book The People’s Republic of Walmart:

Economic planning of millions of products and services involving infinitudes of variables in supply chains and lots of non-price information is not just feasible, but works incredibly well.

Supermarkets themselves prove that large-scale economic planning can work. But to make it function properly, we must bring this machine under popular control and direct it toward increasing public welfare instead of maximizing shareholder profit.

Myths of bureaucratic and inefficient public services may be inescapable in popular culture, but Australians clearly haven’t bought the message. Three decades after Paul Keating started a major program of privatization in Australia, it’s still deeply unpopular.

Australians overwhelmingly believe that privatization only benefits the corporate sector. They understand that selling off public industries and services leads to higher prices and worse outcomes. They recognize that essential services should be in public hands. And what service is more essential in a modern economy than a supermarket?

Reimagining the Supermarket

Publicly controlled supermarkets could do more than just solve the problems created by an irrational capitalist food system. They could also become central hubs for universal programs that improve the lives of working-class people.

Food is a human right, not a commodity. A publicly owned supermarket is a necessary step toward decommodifying food and progressively making essential goods free. Why not provide basics packages to every household with the essentials they need?

A fair allocation of toilet paper to every household could have saved quite a lot of pain over the last eighteen months. We could provide free school lunches to ensure that no kid goes hungry, and free meal services to ensure that no adult does either. We could also use nationalized supermarkets to rebuild domestic food production and other manufacturing industries, directing their buying power to support local, unionized industries, as well as prioritizing healthy and local food.

Supermarket workers do an essential job and deserve better than a constant squeeze on their pay, conditions, and working hours. During the pandemic, middle-class professionals stayed safe at home while supermarket workers had to interact with thousands of strangers, some of them hostile. Publicly owned supermarkets could create good, meaningful jobs in every community, affording workers the dignity and pay they deserve.

The capitalist market can’t solve the crisis that is coming for our food system. Urgent problems about how we’re going to feed everyone in a warming world can’t be left in the hands of private interests. We need rational planning to provide high-quality food to workers in Australia and around the world.

The market is failing us. We produce surpluses while workers go hungry. Fixing the injustices of our food system should be a high priority for socialists. A supermarket managed in the interests of workers and the public could improve our lives, strengthen our food security, and revitalize local industries.