Who is big good for?

robmcalpineThe era of ‘big’ has failed us. The answer is not a return to small-minded protectionism but to a more ‘mixed era’ in which we balance the big and the small, the global and the local, says Robin McAlpine

Who is big good for? We’ve been saturation-bombed with messages that tell us that big is good. Big supermarkets give us cheap food, big retailers give us fast service, big banks give us cheap loans, big coffee shop chains give us consistent coffee…

But hold on – is there no down side to all this ‘big is beautiful’ stuff? Don’t big supermarkets close down lots and lots of local small businesses? Hasn’t our food got worse, more processed, less healthy? Haven’t our waistlines got quite a lot bigger along with the supermarkets?

Don’t big retailers control our high streets and exclude small and medium-scale producers from gaining market access? Don’t they outsource jobs to countries where human rights are low and manufacturing is often carried out in awful conditions? Don’t they spend an awful lot of time trying to part us from every penny we have, using advertising to boost our sense of anxiety because they want us to shop above all things?

Don’t big banks encourage reckless borrowing to meet this pointless drive for more stuff? Haven’t they been caught out in some of the most shocking corruption of our era – and because they’re so big, haven’t they got away with it all virtually unpunished? Isn’t it harder and harder to be a small business?

And since all these things are ‘global-big’, don’t they extract an awful lot of wealth out of our domestic economy and export it to equity owners who utterly fail to recycle our own money into our own economy?

‘After three decades of relentless propaganda about the benefits of globalisation, it feels

revolutionary to suggest that localism could be an answer to economic and social problems’

They got bigger and an awful lot of us got poorer. Entire nation states struggle to make ends meet because big businesses really, really don’t like paying tax. The more that they replace productive local businesses and squeeze out and make life increasingly less viable for small- and medium-sized producers, the more they reduce our national productivity and replace it with a precarious, low-wage economy.

We’ve heard the ‘big is good’ story so many times that most people don’t think there’s an alternative any more. But is that really true? Common Weal is a Scottish ‘think and do tank’. We campaign for a more economically and socially equal economy. We’ve produced a number of policy papers explaining why monopoly control of public retail spaces, overseas ownership of the economy, failure to provide market access to domestic producers, public complicity in tax avoidance, failure to make proper investment, excessive influence of corporate lobbying and constant suppression of wages have all been among the major factors in why inequality has risen (and why innovation and productivity are becoming a national embarrassment).

Yes, big has been really good – for the big guys. We’ve been offered an unspoken deal – we’re going to make your employment insecure and low-paid – but in return we’ll invent ‘economy burgers’ and tasteless bread with little flavour and nutritional content but which is cheap and inexplicably seems to last forever. They tell us that if we attempt to create an economy which is more balanced, in which a wider variety of smaller and domestically and locally owned enterprises have a fighting chance of surviving, we’ll need to pay more for our bread (sometimes literally pennies more…).

What they don’t tell us is that such an economy would increase our wages and the tax revenues which fund our public services. After three decades of relentless propaganda about the benefits of globalisation, it feels almost revolutionary to suggest that localism could be an answer to our economic and social problems. But it genuinely could.

A better balance between local and global

No-one is suggesting that we should give up on all the benefits of globalisation – we don’t have to go back to the days when a bag of rice or an avocado were curiosities. And nor do we need to set up localism as some kind of small-minded, isolationist protection racket. We just need a better balance, one in which market access is not controlled by corporations which have little or no interest in the economic wellbeing of their host economies.

We need a much more diverse banking system with local banks which once again see their purpose as to support and work for their customers, not to rip them off. Small banks develop long-term relationships with smaller businesses and those relationships enable borrowing environments geared to help businesses grow rather than extracting maximum profit from them.

We need public decision-making to democratise market access, whether that is structuring public procurement contracts in a way that enables smaller suppliers to compete or whether it is taking planning decisions that promote diversity, not the high-street cartels we currently have. We should be looking at public distribution networks. The supermarkets and high street corporations have almost wholly monopolised distribution in the UK and this shuts out small producers who are left with only the option of selling to the retail cartels or to do their own distribution (which is exhausting and inefficient). National or municipal distribution systems which get a wider range of goods to market should be explored.

A ‘mixed era’ in which ordinary people could once again imagine setting

up a small enterprise which was productive could reverse many of our global failings’

We should be taking action on excessive advertising, both to prevent corporations from promotion an addition to consumption and to help smaller players who cannot afford saturation advertising campaigns to have a voice in the marketplace. We should be investing in shared infrastructure – open-access manufacturing and processing facilities or shared legal and export services to provide for smaller suppliers what the big corporations have monopolised in-house.

And we should explore different ways of doing retail. Why not have open access supermarkets, a sort of permanent, indoors farmers’ markets? Independent producers could sell through these shops directly to customers with only overhead costs being subtracted from the sale value of what is sold. Rather than 90 per cent of the value of a bag of potatoes going to a multinational corporation, 90 per cent of the value could instead go to the producer. The economic stimulus that this would create could be enormous.

Common Weal is doing both policy and some demonstration work on all of these things. But the thing is we’re small. We don’t have a fraction of the lobbying budget of a multinational corporation and it’s hard even to get messages like these through to the public (the media is so financially reliant on advertising revenue from multinational corporations they seem little interested in challenging their interests).

Measured by social, economic and crucial environmental factors, the ‘era of big’ has largely failed us. A ‘mixed era’ in which ordinary people could once again imagine setting up a small enterprise which was productive – and actually succeed – could reverse many of our global failings.

We just need to get across the message that big was good for the big – it wasn’t anything like as good for the rest of us.

Robin McAlpine is director of the Common Weal
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