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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Putting local into the left

One of the nicest things about winning the 2007 Weblog Award for Best UK Blog is the way that traffic to this site has more than doubled. A very warm welcome to new readers: I hope you will enjoy this blog and stay with us in the weeks, months and years to come. If you just want anti-war/anti-neo-con articles and posts, you've come to the wrong place; if you want anti-war/anti-neo-con articles mixed up with sport, films, horse-racing, football and the odd You Tube comedy/music video, you're in exactly the right place. Many of the posts you will read are specially written for the blog. But I also post here many of my published articles from the various newspapers and magazines that I write for. Because of time away, a family bereavement (my grandmother died recently at the age of 100) and the 2007 Weblog Awards, I'm behind with the posting of articles of mine which have been published in the last few weeks.
For starters, here's my column from last week's Morning Star, on the welcome backlash against the global chains which have done so much to destroy High Street diversity.

The charge sheet against the Anglo-Saxon neo-liberal model is a long one. It leads to greater inequality and, by encouraging selfishness and materialism, creates social breakdown. Its devastating impact on the environment has also been well documented. And, as the war against Iraq proves, it’s an economic template that leads inevitably to war.
But one of the most overlooked aspects of contemporary turbo-capitalism is the way it makes our everyday lives more boring.
The Anglo-Saxon model, by favouring big business and global finance over small, locally owned enterprises, has, in a comparatively short space of time destroyed high street diversity in Britain.
Just compare the vibrant high streets of the towns and cities of mainland continental Europe with the main streets in any British and American city- and you’ll know what I mean.

I recently spent a week travelling around Belgium, a country where, despite the enormous external pressure from big business and the think tanks that they bankroll for it to be discarded, the mixed economy ‘Rhineland’ model still holds sway. In Belgium, individually and family owned shops, bars and cafes still dominate the high streets. Despite being the base for the EU and NATO, two agents of globalisation, Brussels, the capital of Belgium, is one of the least globalised cities in the whole of Europe, with the lowest per capita number of Macdonalds, and not a single Starbucks or Pret A Manger in sight. How very different to the UK! It‘s always demoralising to arrive back home after spending time abroad and be greeted with the sight of banks, chain stores and fast food outlets which have turned our towns and cities into such soulless, homogenous places.

There are those on the left who will question whether the issue of high street diversity is one they should get involved with. Does it really matter if global chains- and not locally owned businesses- dominate our high streets? The answer, most emphatically, is yes. The importance of locally- owned businesses, rooted in the community- and responsive to that community, cannot be underestimated. The owner of say, a small café in Brussels, of course wants to make a profit, but his ambitions are very different from that of a large multinational corporation. The café owner, can, if he/she wishes, give free drinks to his friends or allow regular customers to keep a slate. The atmosphere in an individually-owned establishment is entirely different - and much more personal than in a global chain.

Just compare the way the nature of the British pub has changed, since large profit-hungry plcs started to dominate the industry. The friendly ‘local’, which attracted- and catered for- people of all ages, and which provided priceless social capital for many communities, have, up and down the country, been replaced by ‘vertical-drinking’ bars, where only young drinkers will feel at home. It’s no coincidence that the huge increase in binge-drinking in Britain has coincided with changes in the ownership of pubs- the big corporate chains who now dominate the market care about only one thing- profit maximisation- and that means out with the elderly drinker slowly sipping his pint of mild in the corner, and in with young drinker, who, market research tells the companies, will spend a lot more money.

In global chains, the spontaneity and personal touch which you can find in individually owned cafes and bars, has been eradicated. And consequently, all our lives are the poorer. Unlike our café owner in Brussels, Starbucks doesn’t just want to make a profit, it wants global domination. It pursues an aggressive expansion strategy, similar to that adopted by other global chains like Macdonalds and Burger King. Starbucks is currently opening seven new stores a day and now has over 13,000 global outlets. But this is still way short of the company’s stated aim of having 40,000 stores. The way aggressive global chains eliminate the local competition can be seen most clearly in London, which now has more Starbucks outlets than Manhattan.

A world in which the main streets of every city were as globalised as London’s would be a sad and colourless place in which to live. So it’s great to report that the fight-back against global chains is gaining momentum.

In Paris, the city’s Socialist deputy mayor Lyne Cohen-Solal has recently launched a £21m plan to save the historic Left Bank’s independent booksellers, arthouse cinemas, art galleries and writers’ cafes by buying up properties to stop them being converted into yet more bland chain stores. "All the cities all over Europe are starting to look the same. London, Berlin, they're going to have the same streets with the same shops," Mme Cohen-Solal said. Last year, over 250 independent cafes and restaurants closed in Paris; the city now has around 30 Starbucks stores, so it is clear that action is urgently required to preserve the character of one of the most unique cities in the world.

In Britain, opposition to high street uniformity is growing too- a leading newspaper recently launched a campaign to save London’s small shops.

Of course, all these initiatives should ideally have been taken years ago, before global chains had made such inroads. But it does seem that more and more people are waking up to the simple truth about modern turbo capitalism- that far from increasing competition- it actually destroys it. Big chains don’t want diversity, but uniformity- a world in which everyone eats the same food, listens to the same music, and wears the same branded clothes.

The world is still a wonderfully diverse place, so let’s keep it that way. Because if the global chains get their way, there will be no point in ever setting foot outside our front doors again.


Martin Meenagh said...

Welcome Back and congratulations again my friend!

Roland Hulme said...

Well, in all honesty I don't believe you deserved to win - there were many finer blogs in the running.

But win you did, fair and square and grudgingly I suppose I ought to congratulate you!

I found your article quite a slog to get through, but it raised an interesting topic.

I'd recommend getting a handle on the typesetting to make your stuff easier to read - try dividing each paragraph up with a clear line break instead of clumping it all together.

You are representing the 'best' of UK blogs now, so maybe some fancy formatting might be appropriate.

Your mate Exile has quite a good looking page (this is probably the first time the words 'good looking' have been used to describe anything with his photo on it) so he might give you some tips.

Keep the British end up.

(Reluctant) congratulations again.


(Please try not mangle my name while you're censoring my comment, like you did the last time.)

Charlie Marks said...

Great article, and good that you've posted it up here. It deserves to be widely read.

Anonymous said...

This is similar to a campaign of the Conservatives I seem to remember a while back...

But anyway, the whole point of the free market is that all transactions are voluntary; unless both parties stand to benefit, it will not take place. So if a Starbucks opens up and people want it, it will survive, if they don't it will soon g out of business. So maybe the fact that it is different in Europe reflects different consumer tastes? Also, it is not the case everywhere; I live in Oxford, and the small independent cafes and shops still out number the chains. Maybe that is also due to local taste; how else could you account for the anomoly? But to be honest, I think what you advocate is highly abti-democratic, because if you ban thriving chains, you are by definition going against what lots of people still want. It is not even the tyranny of the majority, but of the most vocal, who disguise their extremely reactionary views, and desire to impose *their* personal tastes on everyone, in self-righteousness!

Anonymous said...

Congratulations Neil.

You really deserve it but maybe not as much as these worthy candidates who never made the final shortlist.


Charlie Marks said...

Anonymous - you miss the point that there cannot be a free market and competition when there are a few big players. What you get is oligopoly, which is what exists in many markets now. As for voluntary exchange - what happens when the only retailers in your town are Tesco and Asda, the only restauranta are McDonalds and Burger King, and the only coffee shops are Costa and Starbucks? How can the plucky entrepreneur with a wee store/restaurant/cafe compete with these giants?

Anonymous said...

None of those are monopolies, not even Tesco; the competition commission sees to that. But even if it easier for them to expand yet further once they have achieved monpoly status, how did they get to be so dominant? There must be a significant market for them. They are not just imposed against peoples' will.

Ken said...

First things first, not that you are el numero uno, you should have your own article directory, stocked with your articles. People can reprint them for free and claim that your are guest blogging for them. You get the free links which will build your blog even more.

Yeah, Starbucks... Not true in Mexico, as I have just posted. Nobody forces folk to drink and those places, so what is it about British culture that encourages them to do it? Starbucks has a small niche over here...

Anonymous said...

Nobody forces folk to drink and those places, so what is it about British culture that encourages them to do it?

The fact that the coffee in many British cafés is vile?

At least in Starbucks you know what you're getting.