Jack Munroe - wikimedia
Jack Monroe, the frugal food blogger and Guardian columnist, who is fast becoming the face of austerity Britain, recently defended her decision to sign a deal to produce a series of advertisements for Sainsbury’s by proclaiming that she isn’t a sell out.
I really like Jack. I think she’s pretty cool. Her work is admirable, her situation has been one of genuine hardship, and her ludicrously cheap bean and carrot burgers are delicious.
And I wouldn’t accuse her of selling out for a moment. Her decision to give up as much of her money from the Sainsbury’s deal as she has (she’s only keeping the equivalent of the living wage for the duration of her deal, which is six weeks, donating the remainder to Oxfam and to her local food bank) when she’s so recently been in such trying financial straits with a young son is beyond admirable.
The problem I have with her deal is the cover it provides for the likes of Sainsbury’s.
Let’s not mince our words here: Britain is in the midst of a social crisis. The Trussell Trust, the UKs biggest food bank network, says that it handed out food parcels to more than 350,000 people between April and September this year; Shelter estimates that more than 200,000 homes in the UK are presently at risk of repossession; now so-called baby banks, emergency programmes to provide new parents with essentials that they can’t afford, are spreading across the country. This is Victorian.
In these circumstances, as wages are kept low, the benefits system gets meaner and meaner, unemployment remains high, and many of those lucky enough to get a job find themselves stuck in precarious zero-hour contracts, Jack’s blog is a huge help. It helps teach people who are living absolutely on the edge, without a penny to spare between pay cheques, feed themselves and their family better and more nutritiously.
Indeed, food banks and other charities working to mitigate the social ills rampant in austerity Britain are doing sterling work. They’re great examples of people coming together and organising themselves in order to help one another in the face of immense hardship.
The problems arise when these people attempting to mitigate our problems start involving themselves with the causes of our problems.
Now, I’m not going to attempt to pin the housing crisis or changes to the benefits system on a supermarket. But Sainsbury’s is absolutely implicated in the system of neoliberal economics which is the root cause of all of our misery.
The present economic settlement has the vast majority employed in casualised labour which doesn’t pay enough to keep anyone afloat, hence the large benefits bill which is mostly spent on making up the shortfall to ensure that the workforces of supermarkets, restaurants and online retailers are physically capable of turning up for their shifts.
Supermarkets are prime offenders in this system. They employ nearly 1 million workers in the UK, only one in seven of whom, the Fair Pay Network found in 2012, are paid the living wage or higher.
What Jack’s ad campaign does is allow Sainsbury’s, thirty per cent of whose Unite-affiliated workers were found to have relied on loans to make ends meet in the first six months of 2013, to insinuate themselves into our attempts to mitigate the social destruction that their business model is wreaking upon our communities. It lets them say “Look at what we’re doing to make things more bearable in these tough times. We’re working so hard to help you help yourselves.”
It allows them to insinuate themselves into a narrative of self-help and moralism about poverty, that if we can’t afford to eat then we just need to learn to be more frugal, which makes them look like they’re part of the solution and that they’re on our side.
Justin King, CEO of Sainsbury’s, took home £4.27 million pounds last year. He’s neither part of the solution nor on our side.
A real solution to the root of the problem, rather than an attempt to mitigate its effects, is an economic system that sees as many people who can work as possible earning enough money, in jobs which neither demean them nor make them miserable, to allow themselves and their families to live in comfort and with dignity, and for those who are unable to work, or for whom there isn’t any work available, to also be able to live in comfort and dignity and not be made to feel somehow personally responsible for their plight and inferior because of it.
Until we bring such a situation about, Jack’s recipes will improve the lives of those afflicted by poverty, I’m sure. But I fear that her deal, in helping Sainsbury’s paint itself as benign and equally caught up in all of this as we are, has worked against us ever organising ourselves in numbers big enough to bring about a meaningful change in the state of things.
I presume from her article that Jack has chiefly undertaken to produce these ads in order to teach her recipes to more and more people, which is an admirable goal in itself. But the question that needs to be asked is: at what price?
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