We had a misty start here this morning. But above the mist was the pale blue of a fresh sky, and a new weather front. It was wonderfully quiet. Some dew was dropping from a conifer onto the palm tree beneath, tap-tapping on the branch-spines as it did so. The sister conifers’ cones were busy cracking open as the morning sun began peeping through the tall hedge at the eastern end of our land. There wasn’t so much as a whisper of wind. It seemed impossible to imagine that beyond this region, beginning roughly 300 miles to the north, people were yelling across large trading rooms and staring like startled rabbits at the pc screens….watching the financial omnivore that is the planetary banking system first try to eat the rest of us, and then – inevitably – itself.
Yet whether one likes it or not, that world outside this small paradise impinges all the time. Life can be taken up at times by nothing more than the chore of replacing things that break. And today, everything breaks…usually about three days after the warranty runs out. It’s an interesting verb/preposition thing that one, ‘runs out’: it runs out on the customer, like an errant partner. Somehow it makes me think that the warranty is integral to the sales-scam these days: the McGuffin programmed to wake up and quietly scuttle away into the distance before the customer can enforce the guarantee. Thus unable so to do, the customer goes out and does what we all do: buys another one.
Just over half a century ago, the phrase ‘planned obsolescence’ first made an appearance. It was in the 1950s that Clifford Brooks Stevens (usually he dropped the Clifford part) first coined the phrase. Stevens was an American industrial designer of home furnishings, appliances, cars and motorcycles, but early on he recognised that the Western capitalist system was largely based on one model: production volume. There are three ways to increase volume: expand the market, increase rate of consumable purchases, and increase rate of durable replacement.
Planned obsolescence – or built-in obsolescence as he first called it – represents the last of those three, but Stevens (being a designer) meant to say that, as tastes change, a design becomes old-fashioned, and replacement sales can be brought forward by introducing ‘this year’s new model’. As you might imagine, the US automotive business was the first sector to go completely ape for this idea. My early fascination with advertising was built by two things: the first commercials on UK independent television (“the ITV”) and the car ads in American magazines.
‘Get down to your showroom TODAY and view the new 1956 Ford Fairlane’. And boy was it a corker:
Two-tone body, whitewall tyres, column gear-shift, drop-down facility…here was the future, now. All the blokes in these ads had natty, small Sinatra-style hats and sharp Italian suits, their wives flicked-up Barbie hair and dresses that swirled effortlessly. Everyone was smiling. In the mid background was a line-sketch of open-topped families driving along massive freeways. This was America: a tomorrowland where even the ice creams were too big to finish, and everyone felt good all the time.
What Brooks Stevens would never have approved of, however, is the obsolescence applied by today’s manufacturers. This consists of poor build quality ensuring breakage, cheap product formulations ensuring early wear-out, and a new electronic must-have gizzmo edition every three months. Over the last three decades, that has guaranteed every home in the UK in 2012 has to have a very large cupboard somewhere; when you gingerly open the doors, out pours an unfathomable spaghetti of wires, mobile phones, CD Walkmen, and floppy disks that belong to yesterday. But chiefly it ensures that the volumes stay up, the share price stays up, the options are worth more, the shareholder institutions can keep offering pensions that mean something, and the entire bonkers train will keep rattling along on its rackety track leading inevitably to the brick wall of saturation, and zero-sum global mercantilism.
What Asia has largely done in this context is copy the Western capitalist model, minus only the high price-tag. I have a Godson who, when at University, used to go down to his local market in Manchester, buy seven pairs of socks, and chuck them all in the bin the following Sunday. And let’s face it, cheap socks are somehow oddly irresitible, aren’t they? They sit there bound together on a stall and ask only a fiver for sixty pairs, and one thinks, “Why would one not buy them?” And you can never have too many teeshirts. Or solar garden lights, jockey shorts, knock-off watches, and nail clippers.
What the West has done is pat Asia condescendingly on the head (because as you know, yellow people are very small) and say “Good show, keep it up”, on the grounds that anything is better than either the rigid command economies they used to have, or no economy except that of appearing in Oxfam ads. Put simply, the West has failed to adapt.
It is brutally obvious what we Brits need to do: go back at least partly to small-scale workshops turning out genuinely craftsman-made articles. Margins would be high and volumes modest, but profits would be enormous – and the demand for this kind of stuff insatiable. I have, for instance, a chum who manufactures and markets hunting guns. Over 70% of the volume goes to China, India and Russia. Now that is facing reality and doing something about it.
“Aha,” say the Leftie trolls, “typical – a Tory’s idea of niche bollocks when what we need is jobs for the workers”. Well Troll chummy, first of all I’m not a Tory and never will be. Second, every Chinese niche is massive (see earlier). And third, we don’t need “Yer workazz”. What we need is skilled craftsmen in place of all those unemployable dickheads who did Media Studies because Teflon Tone told them it was A Good Thing.
I’m fed up of consuming. It’s time-consuming but never all-consuming. I’d rather pay a premium for something that carries on working until long after I’ve gone. I’m tired of being told by people one third my age that I can get a replacement battery on the internet, and it’ll only cost 40% of the entire unit I bought in the first place. I am well and truly pissed off to buggery with the replacement-driven capitalist model, and I want to get retro in favour of Britain being wealthy again among every class – by being smart: well-educated, entrepreneurial, responsible and mutual.
Globalist free-market economics has nothing to offer the West in the 21st century. If we try to take on the Asians at their own game of exporting low-cost supplier crap, then we will surely die: and frankly, we will deserve to. Let them sell us cheap socks, and we will flog them gold-rimmed teapots, with membership of the Earl Grey Tea Appreciation Society thrown in. That’s the way the world should work for us from now on. Sorry, I meant ‘going forward’.