First, a notice that The Hump of the Camel is ten years old today! Our Birthday! Happy Birthday! Quite a good age for a blog, I think. You’d be welcome at my party if we weren’t still locked up for our own good.
To business. Those of us Brits who lived before the Thatcher era remember the shortcomings of nationalised industry: underfunding, jobsworth mentality, lack of choice and innovation, uncompetitive pricing.
All these industries began as entrepreneurial enterprises, but were gradually run down under political and bureaucratic control (pretending to be “public ownership”) either in the name or spirit of post-war socialism. Employees lost interest in their work, and users were disenchanted by the poor products. Perhaps the most obvious UK survivor – or resurrection – of that centralised system is the NHS, now losing the last vestiges of the “independent contractor” ethos of general practice under a tide of oppressive and inefficient standardisation, and patriotic flag-waving. Nobody stands in the street to applaud truly great leaders in their absence – only the Stalins and Maos of the world.
But broadly speaking, under Thatcher here and Reagan in the US (and it became an unstoppable tide elsewhere) privatisation and deregulation became the next big thing, leading to a societal model that has become increasingly globalist in nature. Not that the model is new: we have a prime example in John D. Rockefeller a century ago, whose lust for control pushed the entire world in the direction that would profit him, even extending that “bottom-line” mentality to his philanthropy.
Globalism harnesses (or is harnessed by – it’s not always clear which) the prevailing political power structures, the media, and even the charity sector, so that it can be hard to see the join between corporations, the communications media they own, the NGOs that wave the flag for their products, and the dictatorial governments whose interests are remarkably similar to theirs.
As a student you were a Greenpeace activist, yesterday you were a government minister, today you’re on the board of Facebook or Pfizer, tomorrow you’re running the WHO. Or you may just be so rich that you get invited to all the meetings despite having no official position or relevant qualifications.
Missing from the equation, as has become more and more obvious to ordinary folks, are those ordinary folks themselves, whose opinions are manipulated to vote for the elites, whose labour is used at the cheapest rate to serve the pharaohs, and whose money is harvested through taxes and fees, always apparently for the benefit of what has become a monolithic power-establishment. But their own human value is marginalised. Your small bookshop is locked-down into oblivion, but Amazon grows more bloated still, if not its workers. Your skilled job is abolished, but there’s always a non-unionised warehouse somewhere.
This may be illustrated with two extreme examples. At the mundane level of daily exploitation, take my car insurance, which until yesterday was handled by a firm called Saga, initially set up as a family business to provide services to “those of riper years” (though by the time I obtained insurance from them, they were just the cheapest bidder). Saga was bought by a Private Equity Company in 2004, later merged with the AA (already owned by massive financial corporations – long gone the days when the AA patrol-man saluted members except when a speed-trap was ahead!). It has since played financial shell games in the health-care sector, luxury holiday business, and so on. It’s just a warm fluffy brand in the tangled web of corporate entities whose only definite product is profit.
They contacted me at the end of last year to ask me, as a valued longstanding customer, to phone and discuss my needs prior to policy renewal. I did so, saying that I was quite happy with the policy except for the fact I could get the same one through an online comparison site for 1/3 of the price, which didn’t seem to be valuing my loyalty in any way that matters. The telephone operative told me I’d need to wait until the renewal documents arrived, and query it then, so the call was, as presumably intended, a cosmetic pretence at service.
Sure enough, eventually the request for the inflated premium arrived – only this time, when I went to the online comparison site, it could no longer provide me with a quote from the company at all, let alone the second cheapest offer. Saga had deliberately blocked my individual ability to negotiate in an informed way. They immediately lost my custom, of course, but when multiplied by all the services we use, all the years we use them, and our inherent desire to get on with more important things, the calculus of these big companies (all part of larger, faceless, conglomerates) is based on exploiting loyalty, not generating it. But consider, in addition, that the target clientele of this particular firm is the elderly, and therefore nominally more vulnerable, individual. In globalism, a less discriminating clientele is an opportunity, not a limitation. Incidentally, I fully expect my new insurer to play the same game next year – for all I know the very same private equity firms are standing in the shadows
The acme of this system, as is becoming clear to a greater proportion of people, is the electronic media corporations, whose product is the customer, surreptitiously milked for as much personal information as possible to be sold on to advertisers, police forces, health services and totalitarian governments to use as they wish. In return, the customers are given pretty toys and trivial amusements, and have their opinions moulded by the real customers; said advertisers, governments and so on. Unfortunately, hopeless addiction to the sparkly amusements is part of the business plan, even when people can see the writing on the wall in the cancellation of public figures they liked, and the role of social media in Chinese Communism’s Social Credit system. So we all remain in our chains passively.
The happy capitalist medium between these evils is probably going to vanish in the next few years, but like Christian morality, English common law and freedom of speech it is all the more to be valued because of that. And that is that strange, bourgeois, phenomenon of the business that exists to provide goods or services the operator actually likes, to customers he actually values and who want his product. Here’s an example, with credit due and given.
I’ve used a Focusrite sound module for all my computer sound, and especially multi-track recording, since around 2008. On my birthday (not The Hump‘s birthday) it suddenly died. After a bit of research I found a contact point at the company. Now, Focusrite is a British firm that’s been quite successful in this specialised field. But my unit is 13 years old, and is not only obsolete but works on a computer interface that’s been discontinued as well. So I didn’t hold out much hope for help from that quarter.
Yet the guy I “chatted” with (apart from wishing me “Happy Birthday” when I joked about the bad timing of the failure), although he offered me a discounted trade in deal on a new unit, was just as happy to direct me towards their official repairer – an independent small business, in fact. It was a very productive conversation (including a personal e-mail in case the transcripted conversation didn’t arrive), providing Focusrite with no profit at all, except that I would definitely buy from them next time. Imagine a corporate entity’s likely response in comparison: 20 minutes in the queue for a jaded operator in India; that old model is no longer supported; here are our new models; we’ll offer you a 5% discount; take it or leave it. If we were talking about Twitter, there would be no point of contact at all, even were you suspended for breaking some unspecified community rule.
It reminds me of when I needed a small part for an old Marshall amplifier, back in the 2000s. Then (I don’t know about now) Marshall, though a household name, was still a family firm, and I actually found myself corresponding with Jim Marshall’s son, rather than with some redundant restaurant owner relegated to a call centre. It was refreshingly human. Remember human beings, before they became Zoom images or started peering out through masks to catch rule-breakers?
Just to complete the picture the repair company, a one man operation, I suspect, was not only efficient, but thoughtful. Prateesh phoned me before bench-testing his repair because the unit was asking to be upgraded with new firmware, and he was afraid that might make it incompatible if I was running an old system… which indeed I am, rather than replace my Windows 7 computer, my expensive recording software, and the sound module, for no good reason. He sympathised, saying he runs his own home studio on an old Mac operating system, so we agreed to skip the bench test, as professional experience told him the problem he’d fixed was the only issue. He was right, of course.
I don’t think the problem of this grass-roots capitalism (as old as the skill of knapping flints) morphing into faceless corporatism is merely one of scale. The man who does his job well tends to become successful, and with a bit of luck financially prosperous. But the man who sees a way of exploiting an idea starts off with an acquisitive attitude to money and power, and the product is always secondary. The latter individual will tend to buy out (or if possible eliminate) the former, absorbing their ideas into the growing empire.
Leo Fender’s musical innovations provided what players wanted. When he sold out to CBS, they famously began to provide what would profit them most, eventually almost trashing the brand until staff bought them out and put the product and the customer at the centre again.
Certain money-minded people saw the democratic community nature of computing as a waste of commercial opportunity back in the 1970s. They began to corporatise the field, demolishing the competition and becoming the richest people in the world, with unconstrained and undeserved power, in the process.
It seems to be the way of the world, and pessimists would say that it has reached a stage when the historical controls on rampant individuals – laws, governments and communal values – have become their tools instead. But maybe one can look at it more positively – when faith and morality are suppressed, they still shine out and give us hope when we see them. To meet a saintly individual gives us a sense that such people will outlast the villains come what may, and the same is true, to a degree, when we come across an inquisitive child, a skilled worker – or, in this case, a business committed to doing a good job at a fair price.
Long live commerce. Down with globalism.