Why is capitalism boring?

Fundamentally, trading allows specialisation, and this increases efficiency and diversity. So why is global trade resulting in more homogenisation, not more diversity? The same shops on every high street, the same stuff in all the shops. I remember the first time i went into a Toys R Us – A toy shop not just bigger than any i’d seen before, but vastly bigger than any i’d seen before. I expected a vastly larger choice of toys. And of course I was wrong, not more choice of toys, but larger piles of a smaller choice of toys. Why is the mass market operating to restrict choice?!

I’d appreciate any systems-level or economics-based answers to this. Some possible angles I can think of off the top of my head:

  • Choice isn’t really being restricted: if I want to I don’t have to go to Toys R Us, I can go anywhere I want to buy whatever I want. That’s real choice. [I’d argue that in an important sense there is still and increase in homogenisation not diversivication, and that’s what I’d like explaining]
  • Trade only leads to specialisation of labour, indirectly it leads to standardisation of products (production lines, etc). Although there are an increasing number of economic roles for me to play in modern consumer society, there’s no reason why specialisation should make that society more diverse [in which case, why does consumerism seem to promote homogenisation?]
  • We’re seeing the effects of a false market, one that has been distorted (eg by government-supported monopolies, by trade laws, etc). A real free market would lead to more diversity. [I doubt this is true, not least because ‘free’ markets are impossible, markets are always societal constructions. Additionally I suspect that any market that is free in the sense of universally connected with total capital and labour mobility would be totally unstable and prone to epidemics like any ecosystem without semi-permeable barriers. [Er maybe this is a point to expand on in another post]. Secondly, even if this arguement is true, what is it about the current market system that reduces diversity?]
  • Answers on a postcard email please….

    17 replies on “Why is capitalism boring?”

    The more burning questions, i feel, are: what were you doing in Toys R Us? Do you have children and you never told us? Or now that you are a grown up you want to buy all the toys you were never allowed as a child? Could it be that you a re just a big kid?

    But more seriously…
    The choice between whether to buy or not to buy and the choice bewteen buying different things/from different places, are different and unequal types of choice. It’s like various political parties saying that having the choice of hospital you visit is a good thing, because you can go where the shortest waiting lists are/best surgeons, whatever. But you don’t have the choice not to get treated if you can’t find the “right” hospital. Therefore it’s not true choice.

    To return to toys there would only be true choice if all shops sold all products. Maybe that’s why there is increasing homogenisation. But I suspect that’s not the real reason. There is increasing homogenisation because, like in any biological system, the aim is gaining the maximum return for the least amount of expenditure. This logic would lead you to 1 factory, only making 1 thing very efficiently: hence job specialisation, but no choice for the consumer.

    So really you’re asking who determins production: consumers or producers. It may be that the producers have too much control and no one is truely servicing the market need. Or maybe no one wants loads of different types of toy. Maybe that’s why we have a marketing industry, because people’s demand for choice and ever more product is actaully quite low and must be artifically inflated.

    I think that there are different two questions here. Range of products at a given locality (e.g. in Toys R’ Us) and variation in products availiable across localities.

    I think that in any given place in the UK we probably have more choice of products than any time in the past. Take fruits in supermarkets. After WWII I suspect we had apples and pears and not much else. By the 60s and 70s you could add bananas, pinapples, etc.. Then by the 80s kiwi fruits and grapefruits perhaps. Now we can also choose from starfruit, lantern fruit, lychees, the list goes on. Much of the reason for this is improved transportation. I supect Toys R Us does have more toys than any individual toy shop of the past.

    However, in the past, although there was less choice at a given locality, there was more variation in what was availiable across localities. You had to go to east asia for lychees. The carribean for pineapples. And europe for apples. More close to home each town had its own crafts and products making it unique. I think the reason this has dissapeared with time is again largely down to improved transport. Now anywhere in the rich world has everything in the world, making everywhere in the rich world similar.

    A further factor due to improved transport is that now that anywhere can have everything, products that never would have competed for custom do, and some products fall by the wayside. This means that although at any one locality there are more kinds of product availiable, the number of kinds of products worldwide may have actually decreased.

    I agree but also there are physical localities in relatively wealthy countries that are very choice poor: I’m thinking of housing estates with no food retail of any sort. So money attracts choice, but only a certain amount of choice? Or a certain type of homogenous choice maybe?

    To explain the homogenisation, you could use a local ruleset that goes: the more popular something is, the more popular it becomes.

    No matter whether or not we have acess to a hugely varied market (fruit) or a fairly limited market (newspapers), as soon as one choice-set gets a little market foothold it becomes easier for that choice to get a better foothold and harder for the others (and so on and on…). That foothold could be random or, more realisticly, due to what was initially available – i.e. here, lychees aren’t as popular as grapes, but maybe only because we had grapes first. Now we have both but grapes probably haven’t lost a big market share.

    It implies instability ( and weakness in that diverse species are more to adapt and change.

    On a slightly different tack, would it be accurate to say that the more diverse a local culture is the more choices it has? For example London Rd has quite a wide choice which reflects the diverse people around it (not to over simplfy and for illustrative purposes only): arabic, chinese and hippy people. This is opposed to, say, Broomhill which is a little restricted and reflects quite a homogenous local culture: students, middle class families and that guy with the huge lights on his bike. If you live in an estate (like Sue mentions above) that is full of a similar type of person then where’s the market force to provide a high choice?

    When a supermarket moves into an area the diversity of products starts off qutie high and is reduced over the first few weeks to maximise profit by reflecting the desires of the local people.

    So maybe you’re worried about global homogenisation because you only notice things about your own “locality” – i.e. middle class, northwestern hemisphere (what’s a quarter of a sphere?). I bet lychees are really popular somewhere and that grapes seem like a weird and foreign fruit-for-the-trendy.

    The last point is more of a question: why does trade increase efficiency AND diversity? Surely one would be detremental to the other? Could the answer to your question merely be one of economic cost – in order to minimise cost you want to sell the same thing to as many people. If people are happy to all have the same thing (and why wouldn’t we be?) then the market dictates that the company who can sell the most of the same thing at the cheapest price will be the most successful and thus fall into the positive feedback loop I mentioned at the top of the comment.

    BTW: the new Subway on West Street looks like it will open tomorrow.

    What I don’t understand is that homogeneity in nature is usually a bad thing and reflects a weak ecosystem suseptible to disease, so why does this not happen metaphorically in homogenous markets? Maybe economies are not that much like ecosystems or maybe I’m being too simplistic.

    Wow, this is all very exciting stuff. To expand the fruit-theme, things are very different here (British Columbia) to what I was used to in Sheffield. There’s a lot of local fruit growing around Victoria and relatively little in the way of imported fruit and veg, just a few things from California and Mexico really. The fruit and veg section in the local supermarket, which is not a particularly eco-hippy-hemp-trousers sort of place, is very seasonal and if blueberries aren’t growing around here right now… you probably can’t buy them. I was really surprised by this as Victoria is generally full people with money who you would think would demand their year-round starfruit and kumquats.

    So basically, I think it’s to do with expectations. People in the UK expect exotic fruit and veg 12 months of the year and are prepared to pay for it. Here, people are used to buying things when they’re growing and sticking to potatoes in the winter I guess. It’s not that we couldn’t get lychees in November if we wanted, but people just don’t seem to be that bothered… so the shelf is full of apples.

    However, why it’s like that… I have no idea.


    Point of order: although you may have had a choice of less kinds of fruit and veg in 1950, the number of available different varieties of fruit and veg has been decimated (literally) since then. Due, mostly, to the rise of the supermarkets and their You Shalt Have No Apple But The Braeburn cult (grown in New Zealand, pumped full of water, kept in cold storage for up to two years, etc)

    Sue’s point is the key, i think. Efficiency might imply labour specialisation, but it implies the very opposite of consumer diversity. Variety is sacrificed to the cheap dividend


    ps Although, your distinction between choice and diversity is a crucial one. We do have more choice than ever before (hey, if i don’t like the high street i can use amazon!). But I guess i’m not so concerned about consumer choice, but about variety.

    Surely variety will only exist to support demand though. If there was any chance of making money out of selling small, bland looking ye-olde English Cox’s Pippins instead of big, shiny Braeburns the supermarket would be full of them. Instead, you only find that sort of thing in little shops run by people with beards… who probably actually care about fruit.

    “People” don’t want variety, or what’s good for them… they want things that look safe and clean that they can show to the neighbours without them thinking they’re hippies. Like Braeburns, and Volvos.


    Andrew – I think you’re right. All the apple varieties in the world die out except the Braeburn it will be because it is cheaper for the supermarkets and, at some fundamental level, consumers don’t care enough to stop them doing it.

    All – I think we’re kind of agreeing: homogenisation is efficient (and cheap, and plentiful, and low-maintainence – we go with strength, we’re winners). So, next question, to what extent has what is ‘efficient’ been defined by massive inhuman corporations, and to what extent is it just a reflection of a economies of scale that come with globalisation? Example: if fuel prices properly reflected the full costs of fuel use (ie including pollution externalities) there might be less kiwi braeburns in the UK, and most local variety in generla (globally!)

    To Andrew’s point: I think what people’s idea of what is safe & clean & non-hippy-ish has been massively manipulated through marketing and our disconnectedness with food production, so that we desire the perfect looking braeburn that is cheap to produce and ship, because I suspect (although I have no proof) that variety and local sourcing is expensive. For centuries people must have been perfectly happy to eat mishapen fruit & veg that has to be cleaned, so what has changed? Anwser: Urbanisationa and mechanisation of food production.(BTW Hi Andrew! How are you?)

    And so to follow on to Tom’s point: I don’t think it’s an either or question. I think the two are completely intertwined – rather like the evolution of some sort of obligate symbiotic relationship. Globalised economies of scale have been defined as inhuman corporations as the most efficient and therefore best way of doing things and they appear to have the power to make it so.

    One word: monopoly.

    Then a few more words: marketing, advertising, fashion.

    Is it any more simple than that?

    Hello Sue… things are on the whole, good. We’ll be back in Sheffield for s visit in late September, see you then!

    Now, back to fruit (as an exmple obviously). So we seem to have decided that the forces of marketing, advertising and mass-market consumerism have something to do with the demise of genuinely interesting, and not necessarily exotic, fruit and veg. But of course there is hope… you may not be able to buy a real apple in Safeway any more but there will always be someone who either through some enthusaism for good food, hippy ideals, eco-tendancies or perhaps even just fasion will sell you decent vegetables. The Argyl-jumper wearing beardo in the corner shop with his selection of organic, mishapen, muddy (and probably relatively expensive) potatoes. Hooray for him or her and all the other people that accept the challenge of doing what they think is a good idea and not what their told, or even makes sense… like scrubbing mud off knobbly potatoes.

    I guess this is what variety is really about, do you want to be sold identical sprouts in an air-conditioned warehouse, listening to elevator music and being served by people in uniforms? Obviusly people do, I do sometimes… you don’t have to think about it. Or, do you to go to a shop that’s not open at convenient times, you have to pay in cash, maybe queue up for ages and not be able to buy what you thought you wanted… but but end up with something that you’ll feel good about. Buying stuff shouldn’t just be about the stuff, but how you’re buying it too. Organic fruit from the supermarket just isn’t the same, even if it is the same.

    Andrew, I think you may have cracked it. So to return to toys. Tom if you want a really amazing toy shopping experience you’ll have to search it out and I may be able to help you there. There is a fantastic old fashion-style toy shop on Eccy rd, just down from the Porter Brook. I can’t remember what it’s called but it made me wish i had kids or at least knew some I could buy things for. Happy shopping.

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