When I worked in Africa, I would return for holidays and wander around supermarkets marvelling at the variety. I delighted in curry sauce, Marmite and Birds custard. It felt a bit like that in Waitrose. Like my first time in California; shiny happy people and the shelves fully stacked. Posh clientele crammed inside like an opening of la Boheme.
The car park was worse than a game of Tetris and taxis awaited the immaculate elderly. Even the trolleys glided silently, devoid of rattles and outside they were not chained up like dogs; Waitrose customers wouldn’t be seen dead stealing trolleys. Branded clothing only and away with cheap TVs and washing machines; triple the size of the wine section. Vegetables from all over the planet all in their prime. Slimmer isles but packed with “fifty kinds of toothpaste and forty types of soap”. The massive pressure of the middle class has erupted to claim its birthright. We have disposable income and we shall shop. It’s all we do. The only respite from the relentless press of people was the cleaning products isle. Waitrose customers have staff and they shop at Lidl.
“The system” is now tuned to ensure maximum efficiency and our lives are mere links in the supply chain. We are no longer citizens, we are customers. We are told that we even “consume” music and television. It’s said that no middle class American home is complete without an unused aqualung at the back of the wardrobe and this lunacy has spread to England where thousands of people own their own skis! Skis! In England!
In 1768 British philosopher Jeremy Bentham declared the work of government to be supplying “The greatest good for the greatest number”. Global Capitalism has replaced the word “good” with “goods” and taken up the challenge with a vengeance.
The middle class used to seek exclusivity but, in a world geared toward maximizing sales, what does that even mean anymore? The BMW 3 now outsells the Ford Mondeo. I suggest the current meaning of exclusivity is whatever the advertisers want it to mean. Perhaps this week it is Hendricks Scottish Gin, next week, who knows? And we fall for it. We drink Gin from Scotland and Scotch from England. We wouldn’t drink the water in Mexico yet we import the beer.
Indoctrinated from birth, we stoke the system. Our minds are like vacuum cleaners sucking up advertising wherever it is found. The TV, the radio, magazines, The Internet. Modern man needs stimulation and advertising give it to us. Sit on the London Underground and notice how your attention is drawn to the ads. This is why our leaders consider literacy so important We are readaholics but this junk bypasses the intellect and is dumped unprocessed into our sub-conscious. Snoop Dog is advertising financial services for God’s sake!
A middle class is now forming in the developing world and they too want to shop. They demand meat but the world can’t produce enough so scientists are seeking to farm insects for human consumption. The grave yards are so full that Floridians can now choose between cremation and “liquefaction”. There are now over 7 billion of us on planet Earth and in England we’re crammed in like battery hens. Office buildings get bigger but our houses and workspace gets smaller. The Economist advocates that we “Build on the green belt or introduce space rationing“.
Are we insane? Does it even matter?
Driven by tactical marketing decisions our leaders have no vision. They stand on the bridge bickering over which button to press but they don’t know where we’re going. Meanwhile Western voters are getting restless.
Up to now, humanity have been the glue that holds global capitalism together. While on a tour of his factory, Henry Ford II asked the leader of the automobile workers union: “Walter, how are you going to get those robots to pay your union dues?” to which the union leader replied: “Henry, how are you going to get them to buy your cars?”.
The Industrial Revolution was a wonderful thing of course. It released the resources of the world to be exploited for the good of humanity. Though workers were displaced in manufacturing, jobs were created in the knowledge economy. But the second and the third wave of revolution are not yet fully played out and computers have started displacing even the most knowledgeable workers.
This time, the revolution might be different. In the U.S. real wages have hardly budged over the past four decades and the limp economic recovery is not creating jobs. The single minded pursuit of goods for the greatest number is becoming a problem for the planet just when humanity are becoming less useful to Global Capitalism.
Perhaps, it’s time to scrap Mr. Betham’s vision and develop a new one.