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Natalie Solent on things becoming equally bad everywhere

Our own Natalie Solent posted a really good piece at her personal blog last night, about the fact that many, many bad things continue to be done to the world, but that the difference is that they are soon liable to be done with equal relentlessness everywhere, spread around the world evenly, in a way that will make it much harder to notice and complain. Time was when evil was done with maximum ferocity in country A, but hardly done at all in countries B and C, and the evil done by the evil was eventually obvious to all, even to those at first most inclined to support it. Sometimes it was even easier than that:

… To help you along to this conclusion the goddess History primly laid out several countries split into communist and non-communist sections so that you could watch one half sink and one half rise and draw appropriate morals. …

But not any more. Will the day come when that same goddess ordains that we are all to be governed by the same benign, suffocating, righteous, repressive elite, and no comparisons between them ruling and them not ruling will possible, because everywhere will be theirs?

What I fear is that a time will come when there will be no significant examples of difference left in the world. That possibility is still far off but for the first time in history the technology is in place for it to happen. Think about that. …

She mentions that extraordinary moment in history, notable for the fact that hugely important and portentous things were made to not happen:

I am haunted by the tale of the fleets of Zheng He, recounted in Guns, Germs and Steel. China’s vast program of exploration, greater than anything Europe ever had, was turned off click! because of some otherwise obscure quarrel between two factions at court. The reason that there was only one switch was that China was unified.

And the worry is that, unlike the blood-sodden grindings and thrashings of evil in the twentieth century, the clicks we are about to be subjected to will be inaudible.

It is a beautiful and melancholy piece. David Carr rewritten by Jane Austen. It contains at least another half dozen sentences I wanted to copy and paste here, but since it is all there, go there, and read it all.

28 comments to Natalie Solent on things becoming equally bad everywhere

  • I have spent years trying to warn everyone about the perils of the global, unitary, regulatory state that is now in an advanced stage of its stealthy construction.

    Did anyone listen? Did they heck!! David is just an incorrigable pessimist; David is just a miserable old git; David has yet to discover the narcotic joys of baseless, evangelical optimism; it was much worse in the 1970’s; technology will liberate us (chortle!); the people will rise up in protest (yeah, right).

    Well, perhaps they will listen to Natalie and take her seriously and that’s just fine by me.

    Let them hate as long as they listen.

  • ernest young

    Excellent piece of writing. Ms. Solent assumes that the reader of the item is of her ‘generation’, and that they relate to her experience of ‘politico-cultural comparison’.

    Can you understand how much more significant this is to us of a (much), older generation, up to, and including those who were ‘teens’ prior to WWII. Yes, there are plenty of octogenarians who are very ‘compus mentis’, and who have long memories, – it’s what they did ten minutes ago that is a problem!…:-)

    Can anyone remember the holiday trips to places such as Cornwall, Norfolk, Skegness or Blackpool? it used to be a two day trip from London, and was as much a part of the experience as living in a caravan for two weeks, eating pasties, or whatever else we did that was different from our usual everyday life ‘back home’.

    Gradually the differences between these places of childhood memory, became eroded, the insiduous creep of the yellow no-parking zone, the high streets, ripped apart, and replaced by yet another modern version of the town centre, the standardisation of everything, from road signs, streetlamps, ( is there anything more depressing than those sodium lamps on an October evening?), to the very storefronts that replaced the village shops, even the names are the same as everywhere else. Enter a ‘cookie cutter’ town centre, and you could be anywhere in the UK. No regional or cultural differences, no personality, no choice, and as Ms. Solent says, “No comparisions’.

    This is just on a national scale, now it is happening on a continental basis, so much of Europe is just the ‘same old, same old’ stuff you can get back home, and it is getting worse. Of course there are differences, the weather is better there than here, the high-rise in Malaga is slightly less depressing than the one in Manchester or Stepney, but the most noticable difference is in the people, they seem to be growing more alike each year, everyone seems to be getting bloody miserable…it seems to be an axiom, that as a State get larger and more bureacratic, the more miserable the people become, even though they may be superficially better off.

    The problem would appear to be the ogre of ‘standardisation’, whether via the UN, EU or the WTO. Far from that enemy of the Left, ‘globalisation’ being the culprit, it is ‘globall standardisation’, as in, the ‘one-size fits all’ socialist interpretation that is doing the harm to both culture and infrastructure. The EU being the prime example, of course.

    Isn’t it the French, (God bless ‘em), who say ‘Vive le difference”? Please remind me, who won the Cold War?

  • LYNNE

    I have noticed that globalization has made the world as a whole less free. I fail to understand why many people on this blog push it so much. I am as afraid of multinational corporations as I am of the government.

  • Verity

    Natalie’s writing is thoughtful and convincing, but it is written from a euro-ethnic point of view. European countries have a history that is intertwined. Britain is still the most “different” because we were always slightly apart, although modern travel is eroding that – just as, per Ernest Young, it eroded the unique qualities of towns and cities in Britain 50 years ago.

    But, despite what Tony Blair would have you believe, Europe’s not the entire world, and it’s not that powerful. I would venture than other than someone in the import/export business, no one in Caracas gives a monkey’s what’s decided in Brussels. And it won’t affect them. I don’t see the uniqueness of China becoming modified because of anything the tinpot dictators in the EU decide. And they’ll pay some heed to the UN as long as it works for them. When it no longer suits their purpose, China will give the UN two fingers.

    Certainly, European countries have sacrificed not only their identity, but their freedom for … remind me again – what? But I don’t think the greyness is as pervasive as Natalie’s melancholy post suggests.

    As for globalisation, people want the products. Renting a movie at Blockbusters isn’t forced on people in Kuala Lumpur by fiat. People want to spend their money on Coke and KFC. I wonder how many products have failed in the international market – because it’s a free marketplace and people just weren’t motivated to buy them …

    Europe is awful, though. Absolutely grim.

  • Lynne: the only way a multinational corporation can really force you to do anything significent is via a government. It is government which are the problem.

  • Verity

    Perry – Precisely. Given the extraordinary tentacles of the monster, faceless bureaucracies/dictatariats in the EU and the UN, I regard the global marketplace as a pretty benign place. I would, however, abolish the fly in the ointment: The World Trade Organisation is another on my list of destructees.

    Left to itself, the market thrives and I do not understand what on earth Lynne has to fear from Phillips, Carrefours or McDonald’s. No one frogmarches anyone into Gap and forces them to buy neat gear.

  • John

    Maybe that wasn’t Lynne’s whole point, Verity. I think this thread started off as more about the greyness of everything being the same. If your KFC in Kualar Lumpur is not FORCING people through its doors, it is still pretty depressing if economic and fashion trends drive out the native foods and culture, and eating in Kuala Lumpur feels very like eating in Paris or Solihull.

    From a market perspective, it’s quite a “natural” outcome, but maybe that’s why the inhabitants of the high-rise in Malaga referred to by another contributor are miserable despite their putatively better standard of living.

    It may be heresy to some people here, but maybe there is more to life and happiness than the amount of dollars you have…..

    Hard to measure though, and trying to promote happiness without relying entirely on market forces can in the worst case lead to the creeping state that most of us abhore. A tough choice.

  • Verity

    Given that KL has the best food in the world, there is no danger that KFC will ever be more than a quick convenience for people, mainly in their cars. London and Paris have McDonald’s outlets, but they are very low, if I may use the term, on the food chain. They’re quick and handy, that’s all. London and Paris and Singapore are jammed with wonderful places to eat, but sometimes people just want a quick bite with no bother – often while they’re on the way to somewhere else.

    My point was, the more choices people have, the more they take advantages of them to suit their convenience. I do not think there is any danger that the world will become grey through market forces. Greyness and drabness and despair are what the diktatariats force on people.

  • Another argument against the EU! YEah!

  • ernest young

    Think back to those pictures we were so used to seeing in the late 20thC of life in that great socialist experiment – Russia.

    Mile after mile of grey high rise tenements, people queuing for scarce food, even bread, and this, in one of the worlds most prolific grain growing areas. Grey skies and month after month of snow did not do much to pretty-up the place, and this all in photos put out by the government!

    Mind you, those May Day bashes in Red Square were quite a show, as were the mainline railway stations, all that marble and chandeliers, but very few trains!So typical – all show, and no substance… ( Hello Tony!).

    In the end the whole shebang just ground to a halt through sheer boredom and depression, and of course the alcoholism, which reached levels which would give our MBA fits…

    If anything was to be learned from a sociological point-of-view, it is that people like, and need, variety, from a small detail such as a bunch of flowers to the grandest piece of architechture, the details make the difference. You see it shows that people care… no matter how hard they try, or how virtuous their intention, governments just can not do that.

    The overbearing regulation of the minutea of everyday life is what will eventually destroy the EU, especially with such lively people on board, as the Spanish, Italians and some of the new Eastern members. They will not stand for drear for too long!

    The spread of socialism, with it’s one size fits all mentality, is a modern day curse. Given that it’s basic premise is so seductive, does not mean that the basic logic behind it is very badly flawed.

    A pox on Marx and all his acolytes, long may he rot in the socialist version of hell, where everything is gray, and the sun refuses to shine…

  • Ernest, Lynne and John:

    Look, you’ve got the wrong end of the stick here. Natalie can speak for herself but I’m quite confident that her point here was not to rhapsodise about some prelapsarian idyll before the dread multinational corporations took over and spread their tentacle everywhere. It is an article of faith among anti-globalists and anti-modernists everywhere that if it weren’t for these corporations and that pesky free market we would all be enjoying unique organic, artisan-produced goods of high quality instead of the bland grey uniform goods produced by the multinationals. This is an inversion of reality. More choice means cheap and cheerful products are available for everybody and luxury goods are less expensive. In the pre-free market world of rations, subsidies, protectionism and tarrifs. You may have had many different local shops but they were all selling the same old high priced crap.

    Natalie’s principle concern, as I understand it, is increasing regulatory and legislative harmonisation between countries. Instead of offering competing policies with a “market” determining which is optimal, countries are increasingly adopting the same policies, whether directed from the EU, UN or WTO. This makes it more difficult for new ideas to emerge in a way analogous to how they emerge in the free market, such as, for example, Slovakia’s flat tax.

    In short, the problem is not globalisation but transnationalism.

  • Regarding Zheng He and the travels of the Chinese treasure fleets, a must-read is Gavien Menzies amazing book(Link). The end of those expeditions and China’s turn inward doesn’t seem to have been an obscure quarrel. The latter came from the former and the immense expenses related to the building of the fleet – entire forests as far as Vietnam had to be cut to provide the hard wood for those huge ships – the reconstruction and extension of the Great Wall, the building of the Forbidden City and other state projects that consumed vast resources and the lives of thousands.

    After this period, the mandarins intended to stop such statist folly from running the government into the ground again and went to the other, isolationist, extreme.

  • ernest young

    Frank,

    That is exactly what we, (at least I was), saying. It isn’t globalisation (in a free market sense), that is the problem, it is globalised standardisation, (of regulation and legislation), by the big, ‘one state’ mentality, that is the problem.

    You call it ‘transnationalism’, I call it. ‘global standardisation’.

  • Ernest, to be fair, most of what you wrote was reasonable, but I was reacting to this:

    ..to the very storefronts that replaced the village shops, even the names are the same as everywhere else. Enter a ‘cookie cutter’ town centre, and you could be anywhere in the UK. No regional or cultural differences, no personality, no choice

    which seems to imply a similar anti-modernist/anti-globalist line to that of Lynne and John. Those shopfronts are provided by the free market because that’s what the punters want. There is actually more choice in the average town centre – kitted out with chainstores and supermarkets – these days than there was in “the old days”. The difference is that the same “more choice” is available everywhere.

  • ernest young

    Frank,

    Point taken, you are of course quite correct re the matter of larger choice. It was the demise of the local and regional fare that I was bemoaning.

    Quite a fine point to argue in a short item, I just so hate the ‘cookie cutter’ sameness of Town Centres. It is a pity that the multi’s cannot find a way to incorporate regional charm and character into their respective premises…

    Of course the attack on small town centres really started when the small regional producers succumbed in the expansion of the national and multi national corporations, thereby, only being able to produce the ‘national’ product. Still served from the quaint little shops, it really didn’t fill the need, i.e it was probably more expensive than the same thing in the nearest big town, and so custom declined.

    Sad really, but almost inevitable…

  • A_t

    “It is a pity that the multi’s cannot find a way to incorporate regional charm and character into their respective premises…”

    One suspects this is not what the public wants; people like Starbucks will have legions of PR people out there checking out public opinion. Part of the reason they’re so popular is that wherever you are, you know what you’re going to get. Individually owned coffee shops *might* offer you a better cup of coffee & tastier cake, or they might serve dishwater & have a choice of 3 unappetising snacks. I think what it shows the most is that people don’t like taking risks, & also currently seem to prefer commercial interactions somewhat depersonalised.

    I make an effort to support the smaller establishments around me, as I prefer the idea that shops be locally owned. I feel that the dominance of chains makes it harder for small businessmen to enter the market, discouraging a spirit of enterprise & encouraging the jobsworth drone mentality people have been so scathing about in other threads.

    Also, I think that to denounce anyone who says “I don’t like this current effect of the market system” as somehow heretical seems bizarre. It doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t support the system as a whole, just that they wish some of the effects could be more to their taste. It’s as though one was not allowed to point out any flaws in a friend without being declared their enemy.

  • I just so hate the ‘cookie cutter’ sameness of Town Centres.

    That’s certainly your prerogative but the problem is that insufficiently numerous people share your view or at least feel as strongly as you do about it. It may be a regular rhetorical complaint but it’s not backed up by action. Those cookie-cutter town centres you bemoan are there because that’s what most people want. If they didn’t want chainstores and supermarkets those multis wouldn’t make any money.

    Plus: you have to balance out the “negative effects”. For every charming little specialist shop which goes out of business there were countless charmless inefficient, poorly-stocked shops – charging too much for shoddy unvarying produce – deservingly consigned to oblivion.

  • It doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t support the system as a whole, just that they wish some of the effects could be more to their taste.

    The reason this is objectionable has nothing to do with heresy, it is because bemoaning the market providing an outcome different from that which you prefer is implicitly seeking to restrict the market choice of a more numerous other for your own (cost-free) personal enjoyment.

  • Verity

    I have to agree with A_t and Frank – when people go into a McDonald’s, they know exactly what they are going to get, both in the way of food and service. The standardisation, which the customer wants, has smitten the old ‘take it or leave it’ attitude that used to be so prevalent in Britain – perhaps a long-lingering leftover from the war.

    Yes, goods in many shops were shoddy and overpriced, a la the Soviet Union. The hours they were open were horrendously inconvenient, especially for people who worked. A meal could be OK or grim, and the British just accepted it because it was the same everywhere.

    Then in comes the American customer service ethic, standardisation, “Have a nice day!” and the British (and the world) took to it like a duck to water. At last, someone appreciated their business! Once, there was no point in taking defective merchandise back to a shop because they would shake their heads dejectedly and say, “Yes, but, see, it’s been used. Can’t take it back. I could’ov taken it back if you ‘adn’t used it, like.”

    “Yes,” people like my mother would spit out, “but if I hadn’t tried to use it, how would I know it doesn’t work?” More, “Sorry, love. They’ll never take it back at the factory in that condition. Wish I could help you, but my hands are tied.”

    Well, those shops have gone to the dinosaur graveyard, along with their ‘Closed’ notices on their doors.

    Now people demand, quite rightly dependability for their money and the multi-nationals are multi-nationals because they understand this message. People today get better, more reliable products, with guarantees, and have a wider range of choice and they shop and eat at hours that suit their convenience.

    I understand Ernest Young’s lament , but I have a feeling that he would not go back to the inconvenient and sub-standard world that he is lamenting!

  • toolkien

    If anything was to be learned from a sociological point-of-view, it is that people like, and need, variety, from a small detail such as a bunch of flowers to the grandest piece of architechture,

    But people also want, and need, sameness/security. That seems to be the pitched battles between ideologies, what should be cookie cutter and what should be left to chaotic fate. Statist see more of a threat from the corporate expansion, libertarians see the threat from State expansion. To some degree they are both right (IMO) since at the end, homogenization results either way as a select few hold power over output and style, and the individual recedes to near statistical insignificance in supra-large associations, who is unable to effect much change voting with dollars or ballots.

    I have a half-baked opinion (upon which I plan on doing more specific reading) that Big Business is an output of Big Government intervention. Decades of regulation and tax massaging have incubated large corporations where they would not have existed before. I believe that unfettered market forces would not likely result in huge multi-nationals as underlying security, and willingness to invest, would not and could not exist if it weren’t for State intervention. In fact, what I have seen so far, Big Business and Big Government have grown hand in hand over the last 180 years or so. Such symbiosis can be annoying on the small stage (there has always been ‘corruption’) but it is alarming to see the convergence of Big Business and Big Government on a World Stage. Unfortunately no one is willing to allow huge multi-nationals exist and insist that some super-ordinate force exist to contain it.

  • Thon Brocket

    What the lady said.

    Think of it as a loss of biodiversity in the sphere of political ideas. Monoculure takes hold. Evolution slows down and stops. Good memes no longer so easily outcompete bad ones.

    Horrible.

  • ernest young

    I admit it, I am far from perfect in my logic re this matter of throwing all the good stuff out when making a little progress. That I get a tad wistful at times is not surprising.

    Of course you are correct, it’s what folk want, and that is what market forces are all about, but at times I wonder whether the financial pressures put on companies when they wish to rebuild or expand also have an effect in determining just what the end result might be. Could it be that choice is being constrained by a higher authourity?

    Is it really something that the company would like, or are they just ‘going with the flow’ to establish a presence?. Maybe those free market forces aren’t quite so free after all!.

    One of the major distortions in town centre design is the pressure on parking space, and that is a requirement that the smaller business can rarely fill. Then there are the sec. 75(?) requirements, which are a price that a business may have to pay to get any sort of planning consent. All distortions of the free market concept.

    As ever, in any sphere, good sense and balance should be the norm, but rarely are.

    The attitude of the old High Street trader (a la Verity), is so reminiscent of the ‘ jobsworth’ in local government, that must be where all those displaced shopkeepers disappeared to.

  • Verity

    Thorn Brocker – if by ‘the lady’ you mean me, you have misread my post. I’m glad they’re dead and gone. If I want to go to the supermarket at 8:30 to pick something up, I want it to be open and I want the shelves to be stacked and I want the produce to be fresh. Yes, I want, I want, I want – because consumerism is all about me – not the provider.

    This is an American attitude that only washed up on British shores around 15 years ago. And what a difference it has made! It has redefined the roles of customers and merchants, for a start. Today, the customer rules.

    Ernest, you have some interesting thoughts, but I suspect the trade is all the other way. I think the big merchants tell the politicans what they want (in a sense, passing on information about what the customers want).

    Parking, I dunno. Haven’t thought about it, but good point.

  • As I recall the English standard of service back in the early seventies was something like “I can’t sell you a shilling’s worth of chips because I’m saving them for my regular customers.”

    If the choice is that or Mc Donalds some people are going to go with Mc Doos.

    However the big corporations and big government tend to reinforce each others worst instincts. The best remedy I can think of is to keep ‘em both on a starvation diet.

  • GCooper

    Toolkien’s perspective on this strikes me as the most perceptive.

    While the point Verity makes about the very considerable improvement in UK retailing in the past 15 years is unquestionably true, as someone who lives here and travels quite a lot, I have to say that several babies have been thrown out with large amounts of bathwater.

    Uniform mediocrity may be preferable to unpredictable service, but I don’t see why it has to be either/or.

    And, beyond a doubt, Toolkien’s point about the unnatural ease with which big government and big business does business is true. Within the EU, there is no arguing that giant corporations (oddly enough, so often French and German ones) have been able to tilt the playing field the way they’ve wanted.

    The small guy wasn’t always crap and the big guy isn’t always (often?) a libertarian standard-bearer.

  • Frank McGahon correctly summarises my original intention. (Not that I think that anyone really misunderstood me; it was more that the discussion veered off in a slightly different direction.)

    As a matter of fact I too find the “cookie cutter” sameness of town centres aesthetically depressing, even though I am a big fan of people being able to buy cheap stuff. To some extent I just tell myself to lump it. I will often defend the big faceless corporations. They are helping a lot of people out of poverty by selling things people want, and one thing people often want is consistency, as several here have observed.

    However I think that under completely unfettered capitalism, though multinationals would still exist, in general there would be more variety not less. Government regulation is terrific news for big business. It’s no burden for them. They just hire another department-full of lawyers to produce compliance statements. The type of business that is harmed by regulation is young innovator just starting up or the family-run grocery store. For them EU directive number #6400-E/B2 means late nights doing paperwork. No wonder so many just give up. Big business knows this and laughs to see potential competition so neatly disabled; it’s more than worth the lawyers’ fees.

  • verity

    Natalie – I’d like to posit that the cookie-cutter look is a phase we’re going through, but judging from the American experience, it’s not.

    The problem is, Britain has a tendency to copy anything American wholesale, forgetting that it is tiny, tiny, tiny – the size of Wyoming and the whole of Gt Britain would fit into Texas 3 1/2 times. So the giant malls and strips and warehouses that are easily buried in the sheer vastness of the US have become a defining landmark in Britain.

    I don’t know what, if anything, one does about it. But people are now educated enough to demand convenience plus quality plus guarantees plus free parking. They’re not going to give it up. And, as we all said earlier, the range of choice and quality has risen beyond the wildest dreams of British people after WWII or the Russians and E Europeans as little as 15 years ago.

    I guess it just used to be the elite – or at least the upper middle classes – who could afford choice and quality. Now, thank god, almost everyone has the option of spending his/her money and getting value – meaning, whether the item was expensive or cheap, it will work and the store will take it back if it doesn’t.

  • A_t

    Frank, “The reason this is objectionable has nothing to do with heresy, it is because bemoaning the market providing an outcome different from that which you prefer is implicitly seeking to restrict the market choice of a more numerous other for your own (cost-free) personal enjoyment.”

    Not necessarily at all; much of the public appears not to be conscious of how the market works, and might bemoan the demise of their local shops, shop mainly at Sainsbury’s, and not see the (rather obvious admittedly) connection between the two. I’m not advocating any kind of free ride for myself; to think that’s the only way to get things done is understandable after a century of statism, but not true.

    Raising consumer awareness of issues can change buying habits. Whether you like them or not, look at free range eggs, fair trade coffee, organic veg; none of them really offer much more to the consumer than their normal equivalents, yet people will buy them at a premium because this supports a way of doing things that they like. On a more jingoistic tip, the whole ‘buy american’ or ‘buy british’ (or ‘boycott french stuff!” for that matter) thing’s pretty much the same too. None of the examples above could be said to be anyone taking a ‘free ride’ on anyone else’s back.