Sunday, March 30, 2014

Luddites and the McDonaldisation of society

Last night Liberal Democrat blogger Andrew Emmerson tweeted this photograph of Green Party leader Natalie Bennett protesting against self-service checkouts. He called Natalie and her fellow Greens "Luddites" and found himself in a full and frank discussion with the Luddite Bicentenary account.

It can happen. In the past I have made offhand remarks on this blog that have upset the granddaughter of an artist and an entire family because I did not like their ancestor's tomb.

But I was interested in what was missing from the exchanges between Andrew and the Luddites' defender - someone once said that if two people are locked in an insoluble argument there is probably a false premise that they both believe to be true.

The Luddites were close to the caricature of the left that sees them believing that supermarkets exist solely to provide employment to supermarket workers. Andrew, like many economic liberals, gave the impression that the claims of liberalism will be entirely satisfied if supermarket owners seek to maximise their profits.

What was missing was the customer perspective.

In 2009 I blogged about the privatised railways:
it is becoming increasingly difficult to do what generations of passengers have taken for granted: turn up at a railway station a few minutes before the train you want departs and buy a ticket at a reasonable price. Either you order your ticket in advance or you pay through the nose: no wonder they have problems with people not paying.
And I went on to say:
It is one of the ironies that archetypal institutions of the free market system, such as fast food restaurants, require us to behave in a very disciplined manner if they are to operate at all. When Starbucks came to Market Harborough they brought leaflets telling us the language we should use to order our coffee.
I owed this insight to the book The McDonaldization of Society by George Ritzer. Ritzer argues that modern corporations seek four things:
  • efficiency;
  • calculability;
  • predicability;
  • control.
This control if exerted, not only over the staff, but also over customers. As a review of Ritzer's book by Hamid Yeganeh says:
In a McDonaldized society, the non-human technology controls the customers as well. For instance, customers face a variety of structural constraints and they follow the norms when they enter a fast-food restaurant. All of these are ways to control customers at fast-food restaurants to act in a manner in which the business wants them to act. Ritzer elaborates on the effects of non-human technology in universities, hospitals, and supermarkets and illustrates how they are controlling customers’ wants and needs.
Customers can, of course, vote with their feet and seek businesses that do not treat them in this way. I have, for instance, largely opted out of using Market Harborough's Starbucks because it consists of one large, echoing room (no doubt that gives them control) full of pushchairs and children on scooters. A little bit of Seattle, which is what you think you should be getting at those prices, it is not.

But the nature of modern chains, with their huge marketing budgets and fanciful tax avoidance measures, is to make it hard for small businesses to compete with them.

I am not sure I buy all of Ritzer's thesis, but I do think modern liberalism should be concerned with the texture of life as it is lived today and not just with the implementation of a limited number of abstract principles.
Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
Though, in fairness to Andrew, there is a limit to what you can say in 140 characters - particularly if you include a photograph.

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