What do we do now we have Golden Peach Preserve, Imperial Pear, Kumquat, Mirabelle Plum…

I work part-time at a large supermarket chain (surprise, surprise, writing doesn’t pay my bills). Everyday I see the variety of choice out there and am bewildered at the complexity we face today. Not only do we have walls of jam to pick from but babies and toddlers are now improving their palate: organic vegetable, spaghetti bolognese, thai green curry, exotic fruit. My question is twofold: what affect does this  amount of choice have on us, the consumer; and now we have cornered the toddler/baby market where are the emerging markets of the future to come from? In effect, what is the state of consumerism today and what will it look like in the future?

American psychologist B.Schwartz explores the effects of choice in his book ‘The Paradox of Choice’, highlighting the paralysing nature of too much choice and denying the official dogma that suggests more choice equates to more freedom. And quite a few scientists agree with him. Further research shows that more choice invariably means people make no choice at all and that oftentimes it can be beneficial to offer up decision-making to others (especially in cases where the other person has more considerably more knowledge than you, i.e. doctors).

At the end of the day more choice lessens the pleasurable experience of each choice you make. Say you go for the Golden Peach Preserve and that’s pretty damn good, what’s to say the Imperial Pear wasn’t better? Of course choose the Imperial Pear next time and  that experience is marred by the memory of just how good the Golden Peach Preserve was. Then comes the problem, which one will you go for now you know both were a mighty fine jam experience? Ultimately whichever choice you make you’ll be unsatisfied and Schwartz suggests this happens even when the decision made actually benefits you. Why do we need the extra stress in our lives? As if modern life wasn’t tough enough already (statistics show that adults are ten times more likely to suffer from clinical depression today than in 1945).

Now let’s turn to the future of consumerism in this country. I fear we are beginning to reach the end of a previously unquenchable line of exploitable markets. We surpassed pre-teens (quite an uproar when I was growing up that was) and are now in the territory of the pre-child. Baby food, educational toys for toddlers, the overwhelming range of nappies, wipes, milk, sterilisers… The list is becoming steadily endless. I think most economists would agree that capitalist economies require burgeoning markets to exploit in order to survive. In this case, where are the next markets to magically appear from? Perhaps we could develop the foetal market, a variety of musical accompaniments to life in the womb perhaps? Sonic resonance massaging, or a brand new range of replacement placental fluid to enhance the developmental experience?

To top this off, now that people will have little to no pension the silver pound will soon start dissipating. Pensioners houses won’t be worth half as much when they get around to retiring and things will probably be twice as expensive. So where are the markets to come from? The answer seems to be from abroad, specifically the developing countries. Here is a positive point for all those of a liberal sensibility. Once we have exhausted all exploitative markets in Western countries global capitalism will be forced to ignite the democratising spark in developing countries. The bottom line is that consumers need to have freedom and expendable incomes to become proper consumers. I have said it before in another context and I say it again: if we want conditions to improve in this country we will need to start campaigning for an improvement in the conditions of the citizens in the developing countries that are exporting cheap goods to us.

If we want to continue in a global capitalist economy (and I’m not saying we should, but it’s what we got) we have deal with the global trade imbalance. Even China has realised it needs to start exploiting internal markets and with this comes the necessary freedoms that must exist in a consumerist world. Consumers must feel like individuals. A burgeoning middle-class in China is already starting to exert a little influence and I suggest this bottom-up pressure will only increase. There’s the democratising spark of capitalism. Osborne’s cringeworthy begging bowl trips to China and India show just how important these markets are to us. Let’s hope the kind of legislative change that occurred in the labour markets in this country will happen in those countries, the minimum wage, decent health and safety. Perhaps then they won’t be able to undercut workers in this country. Workers of the World Unite!

The amount of choice we have in this country is an inevitable symptom of late-stage consumerist capitalism and it probably does us more harm than good. That said, we shouldn’t forget that we are lucky to have the choice. Any choice. Perhaps the silver lining that might emerge is that there will soon be no new markets to exploit and we may be forced to make lives in other countries better. Only because it will be immediately beneficial to us, of course. Looking further into the future, however, perhaps ultimately it would be nice to live in a world where we don’t need ‘stuff’ to give our lives meaning.

The Gravediggers

‘The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers…The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.’ (Marx K. and Engels F., 1848)

This is a minor excerpt from the monumental ‘Communist Manifesto’, a short exposition that had a drastic effect on the political reality of a large portion of the twentieth century. Firstly, I want you to know that I am not a Marxist. I fear I have to point that out because  the stigma that arose from the aborted experiment that was the U.S.S.R had the knock-on effect of rendering Marx entirely unquotable, unless you happened to be ridiculing or refuting. However, I think recently some have to come realise that he wasn’t entirely wrong in his historical conceptualising of the capitalist system.

I use this particular statement because it has always stuck with me, though for this post it might be better to narrow it down to a more succinct description: ‘Industrial Capitalism engineers it’s own gravediggers’. I say this because Marx and Engel’s words take on new meaning in todays rapidly advancing technological world, becoming narrowed in definition to describe the breakdown of a social contract that arose with the advent of consumer culture. It was a contract which stated that whilst consumerism brought with it a plethora of new markets for the economy to exploit; people wanting more things, experiences, etc;  in order to provide such realities more people would have jobs, enabling them to acquire more wealth which they would spend on ever more things. Into this mix, however, we throw technology.

Technology rapidly advances and improves productivity in this ‘brave new world with such things in it’. More things are made by fewer people. Soon, the social contract between consumer and provider becomes a little shakier. In developed countries, suddenly nobody makes things anymore. It isn’t cost effective, and technology enables providers to ship these jobs abroad whilst maintaining the productivity of the workforce and driving down costs, (a wonderful example of this system comes in the fact that scottish salmon is now caught in Scotland,  shipped to China for packaging, before being shipped back again to the consumers of the West).  Of course, a multitude of factors are involved in this scenario, but technology has played a central role in the rapid globalisation of the labour force. As this has occurred, we have become consumers whilst other countries such as Bangladesh, or China, have become providers. Cue global imbalance. To digress slightly, it would seem now that if we want a living wage in this country we are going have to start actively improving the wages of workers in other countries. Stamp out the competition.

Some say that the automation and digitalisation of labour simply provides new and better jobs for the workforce of tomorrow. At the same time, many jobs in the lower end of the market, service and retail providers, for example, are simply not replaceable by machines, and it will always be the case that some jobs will require the human touch. This seems to me a rather short-termist view, considering the rapid advances in technology in the past decade. Vast swathes of ‘big-data’ now mean that computers are able to simulate human intelligence, ‘A.I’, as they call it. Perhaps I saw Terminator too many times, but surely the road seems fairly unpredictable from that point? How long before computers replace doctors and lawyers? Of course, we’ll need programmers to set-up these grand machines, but how long will it be before they will be able to program themselves? It’s all Sci-fi, futuristic stuff, but so was landing on the moon. Unfortunately, in a world governed by a capitalist system that is driven to narrow cost margins, innovation in the labour sector is where the focus lies.

It is important to state, however, that the link between advancing technology and stagnant employment growth is still debatable. That said, I think the most important factor in all this is not the replacement of human beings in the labour market but the slow chipping away at the the value of that labour. Even though employment has been steadily rising in this country, wages have stagnated. In order to find work, people are having to make themselves more and more flexible. Technology’s role here is to make each individual more productive, thereby lowering the value of his work. If we look at a broader view, access to technology then becomes a precursor to success, and this access is becoming increasingly  limited to those that can afford it, vis-a-vis large companies, thereby obstructing the rise of small businesses and forcing more and more people into employment with the aforementioned larger companies, who are now able to streamline their labour force to the point where they require humans only for certain tasks. Thereby, we get a minimum wage, but we work less hours and take home less than we ever have.  It is a simplification of a complex scenario, but the basic point is there.

Back in the Sixties, technology was seen by many as a tool with which we might unleash the utopia of the future. No longer would we be required to do those pesky jobs around the house, cleaning, ironing etc. Instead, an efficient (and probably more proficient) robot would do these things, allowing us time for other things such as leisurely activities. Unfortunately, what wasn’t factored into this picture is the value of workers in the labour market. Instead of enjoying more leisure time, people now simply work the same amount but have to put up with less job security. A dystopian future can be seen in a capitalist system that only strives to streamline and thereby increase its profitability. In the hands of this system, technology becomes a tool with which to further extend the imbalance between the rich and poor in society. I think we can look at it in two very different ways; the P.K Dick way: Technology and global corporations as a threat for the future of mankind as we know it; or the Star Trek way: The abolition of the market economy and the embracing of technology as a tool for the benefit of mankind as a whole. Unfortunately, either way I suggest the immediate future will be turbulent and unpredictable. One ray of light is that something has to change, and necessity is the mother of all invention.

99% of the problem

I would like us all to talk through a problem, one that adversely affects most of us, (say 99% of us), however, before we discuss this ‘problem’ let’s all agree that there is one.

For the first time in the history of Capitalism as a socio-political structure, a majority of people now agree that it just isn’t working. Of course, I don’t presume to have a statistical breakdown of all opinion on the matter, but I think it is safe to say most agree there is a crisis. If there is one good thing that came out of the occupy movements that sprung up immediately following the financial meltdown it has to be the dissemination of the term ‘the 1%’, a term that essentially describes a narrowing of competition within global markets that has left control of much of the world’s wealth in the hands of a fortunate few. The rich get rich, whilst the poor get poorer. It’s an age old story. The Victorian Dickens was obsessed with it, even Shakespeare recognised it within his youthful proto-capitalist structure. We are at the apex of the capitalist mountain, and the triumph of the occupy movement has been to impress upon as many people as possible that capitalism no longer works for the 99% of us that can’t fit on the summit. Unfortunately, the initial spark of adversarial idealism was unable to ignite the touch-paper of revolution for one simple reason: it could offer no viable alternative, and therein lies the crux of the matter.

I was an ardent advocate for the movement during the occupation of St.Paul’s. I lived and worked not far away from the cathedral and often passed the encampment. It was an infectious outbreak that seemed to spread like wildfire, but like most wildfires the weather changed and it eventually fizzled out. Through social media I have since followed the progress of a variety of these movements, from the U.K to Germany, to New York, to Boston, etc, etc, and although I still agree with the broad view I find myself at odds with vast swathes of the message. It seems in order to oppose the current Capitalist system, you must by default be a confirmed and unwavering Socialist. It seems like the cure for massive internal bleeding is a round of leeching.

I opened this post by suggesting we should all talk about a problem, one that adversely affects most of us today. Unfortunately, the problem is not a simple case of the shining light of Socialism vs the all encompassing evils of Capitalism. In fact, the real problem is that we are still all desperate to buy into a false dichotomy that serves only to imprison us within four walls of our own making. This is the ‘problem’ we all need to talk about, and until we do so; thereby shedding some of our ideological baggage (myself included, don’t think I’m not aware of that); we will simply keep circling that drain.