All successful conquests go through three stages. First the defeated are dispossessed. Then they adopt the habits and the outlook of the conquerors. Finally, they thank their new masters for their dispossession. Corporate power has entered the third stage of conquest. And everywhere we are told how grateful we should be.
Last week Prince Charles, accompanied by the chief executive of Sainsbury's, Sir Peter Davis, launched a "Rural Action Campaign" to save small businesses in the countryside. He called upon the members of Sir Peter's Business in the Community scheme to help the farmers trying to learn new skills, such as making cheese or running bed and breakfasts. He asked them to support his campaign to save sub-post offices and village stores and to make the village pub the focus of community life.
The prince offered no explanation for the disappearance of pubs, small shops and post offices other than foot and mouth disease and a few meanderings about rural decline. A more detailed analysis may have troubled his audience, for among the members of Business in the Community are the companies most responsible for destroying small business and undermining communities: Tesco, Safeway, Asda, Granada, Barclays, Shell, BP, McDonald's, Diageo and Whitbread.
Asked about his own company's role in the death of rural industry, Sir Peter pointed out that Sainsbury's has generously allowed independent village shops to stock its own products. He forgot to add that the shopkeepers must buy from his stores at the full retail price. This convenient arrangement permits Sainsbury's to seize the remainder of the retail trade without even having to open new shops. Blessed are the cheesemakers, but not in Britain.
The superstores, with the prince's blundering assistance, are now doing to the countryside what they have already begun to do to the cities. Three weeks ago, an article in the Guardian's Society section suggested that Tesco has saved the Seacroft estate in Leeds. The estate's inhabitants were short of both jobs and skills. Tesco arrived, built a huge store, trained local people to work there, and created 490 new jobs. Now it will use this model to rescue another 11 depressed estates.
Training local people is clearly more progressive than drawing pre-skilled labor from elsewhere, but the notion that the superstores create jobs is one of those myths so well-established that it can't be dispelled however many times it's discredited. The superstores' own figures show that every major new store destroys, on average, a net 276 jobs. One of the reasons why estates like Seacroft suffer so badly from unemployment is that for years the supermarkets have been drawing away the more prosperous shoppers (those who own cars), undermining local business.
While small businesses tend to spend their profits locally, Tesco removes them from the community. When Tesco secures a monopoly on trade within a poor estate, it reduces the inhabitants to the very dependency regeneration is supposed to address. The Citizens' Organizing Foundation has shown that superstores in poor areas charge more for the same goods than in rich places, as shoppers without cars have nowhere else to go. A far better regeneration strategy for Seacroft would have been to shut the existing superstores, rather than opening a new one.
But this pax tescona is slowly coming to dominate national life. Just before the G8 summit in Genoa, the marketing consultant Steve Hilton made a film for Channel 4 News showing how companies have begun to fill the gaps left by state provision. Nike has launched a campaign against bullying in schools. Coca-Cola is teaching Africans about the dangers of HIV. A McDonald's manager is organizing community events. Mr Hilton argues that government has neither the resources nor the will to run projects like this, while corporations have the money, the creativity and the organizational skills communities lack.
His argument is seductive until you remember that, like Tesco in Leeds, these companies are partly responsible for causing the problems they claim to be solving. Nike's power ensures that children are bullied at both ends of the production chain: in the factories in which its products are made and in the playgrounds, when their parents can't afford to pay for these passports to social acceptance. Coke may be spreading the news about disease, but it is also spreading disease, bringing tooth decay to parts of the world in which it was almost unknown. McDonald's has undermined communities everywhere, wiping out its smaller rivals and homogenizing high streets.
Last year's winner of Business in the Community's "cause-related marketing award" was the Free Books for Schools scheme run by Walker's crisps with the Sun and the News of the World. The principal outcome of this literacy campaign was to spread illiteracy by increasing sales of the Sun. But these are the least of the problems associated with the corporate capture of the public good.
If the state is failing to supply enough school books, or, in sub-Saharan Africa, Aids education programs, it's because decades of corporate lobbying have ensured that its scope and its spending have been curtailed. As companies appear to fill the gaps they have helped to create, they can present themselves as indispensable vehicles for social provision, enabling them to argue for a further reduction in state services. Gradually, universal public provision gives way not, as Steve Hilton claims, to a new inclusive modernity, but to an old-fashioned philanthropy, in which the survival of the poor depends upon the whims of the rich.
As the Business in the Community website reveals, the primary purpose of these new intrusions upon the public realm is not to make the world a better place, but to raise the profile of the brand. Cause-related marketing is a privatization of our minds, a means of reaching those parts of our consciousness untouched by conventional advertising.
Nike is working in schools not because its directors want to stop bullying, but because it wants children to recognize its brand as an immutable component of society, with which they will grow up and to which they will attach their identity. Asda is taking parties of schoolchildren on "Big Eat trails" around its stores not because, as it claims, it is worried that children aren't eating enough vitamins, but because it wants to implant in them the habit of shopping at Asda. Programs ostensibly designed to encourage self-reliance are instead contrived to foster dependency and control.
The defeated participate in their conquest, and offer up their thanks to those who have dispossessed them. By privatizating our minds, corporate power makes enemies of ourselves.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001