Have you ever seen anyone carrying a single Primark bag? I’m pretty sure I haven’t; they always seem to come in multiples, and while I’ve never actually shopped at Primark I’m pretty sure the bags contain multiples, too: cheap vests, 5 for 10 quid, for instance.

I’m no Marie-Antoinette and though I don’t shop at Primark I understand why people do. They’ve got cheap stuff that sometimes looks ok, and when you can walk out of a shop with several bags heaving with goods you might feel that as long as you can still ‘treat yourself’ life’s not so bad.

In fact, faced with a rack of basic tops at H&M which I’m convinced will ‘go with everything’, I’ve been known to indulge occasionally. Nonetheless, I’m perfectly aware that I’m participating in a grand deception that started a long time before Lehman Brothers collapsed. It started when the haemorraghing of manufacturing jobs during the 1980s was neatly camouflaged by the exponential increase in the availability of cheap, imported goods. Turns out wage stagnation and lost jobs didn’t need to put a dent in the frenzied consumerism that would ensure no one felt deprived, and that the economic model in which consumption was the chief measure of the nation’s health would survive unscathed. ‘Sales executives’ were hired in droves to replace mere ‘shop assistants’, selling back to consumers cheaper versions of the goods they used to make themselves. In stores like America’s Walmart, union activity was busted both to keep wages low and to guarantee a market for the goods the stores were selling. In short, Walmart was the only place its employees could afford to shop.

Meantime, a predominantly right-wing press ensured that anyone who questioned the dubious claim that ‘the markets’ were simultaneously demanding ever lower wages for less skilled workers and infinitely higher salaries for the ‘highly skilled’ executives who directed and presided over these shenanigans was denounced as a moron, a Marxist or both. In the capable hands of a corporatist media, the notion of ‘quality’ was cast simultaneously as a leftist intellectual conceit promulgated by urban elites who use words like ‘promulgate’ and spend weekends at farmers’ markets, and a nostalgic fantasy cooked up by Middle Englanders wallowing in a remembrance of things past.

Indeed, this model was so successful that it was tweaked and copied all over the economy. No house, no downpayment, and no assets? In America, outfits like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could manufacture a mortgage that would put a roof over your head, and help maintain the inflated value of that roof by offering other people just like you the same mortgages. Salary frozen, partner laid off, and the local Sure Start centre shut down? Ditch the picket line, what you need is a holiday: Ryanair will fly you to Majorca for pennies, thanks in part to the low wages of its non-unionised staff, as long as you don’t take any clothes or need a loo during the flight. Anyone who questions the sustainability of this model of tourism is denounced as a snobbish killjoy who’s probably a regular at the aforementioned farmers’ markets.

So this is what 21st Century capitalism calls ‘demand’, and it seems that as long as we could keep on shopping we were happy to go along with it.

Which brings me to horsemeat. To the extent that there might be some ‘criminal conspiracy’ here, as the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has suggested, I’m paraphrasing John Harris in The Guardian by calling it a ‘crime of opportunity.’ I’ve heard some grumbling that it’s consumers’ own fault for buying cheap, prepared food rather than making everything from scratch, an unsurprising perspective that chimes well with the current fad for blaming people for their own misfortune. Nonetheless, while I may have frequented too many farmers’ markets, I don’t believe people eat lousy food on a regular basis (as opposed to indulging in the odd McFlurry) because they want to; they do it because they have to, because they don’t have other options.

Just a few weeks ago, the Telegraph warned of dramatic food inflation with ‘produce such as bread and vegetables [becoming] up to five per cent more expensive because of poor crop yields leading to a shortage of supply’. Why the poor yields? Because of record rainfalls and flooding, of course, but that’s where the Telegraph story ends. What it doesn’t mention are the vast sums of money super-rich business people like the Koch brothers pour into the coffers of the anti-climate change lobby and politicians for hire, in order to shut down debate about poor crop yields that mean poorer people can’t afford decent food, and unwittingly buy horsemeat instead.

Meantime, Harris reports on a Unison study that shows that the number of scheduled food inspections by the Food Standards Agency has declined by more than a quarter over the past couple of years as trading standards and environmental health services see their budgets and workforces slashed. Smells to me like government aiding and abetting the putatively criminal horse-trading of meat suppliers which it now denounces, packaged and sold as an austerity measure.

And so it goes: the virtuous circle wherein we just keep eating what we’re fed because it tastes good. Or that’s what it says on the label, anyway.

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