Saturday, 28 November 2015

Markets and Variety

One of the great claims of the triumph of capitalism centres around evidence of the variety of commodities which individuals could buy. In less "developed" societies, there was (say) only one variety of breakfast cereal (if they had breakfast cereal); in the supermarkets of the West there were hundreds of varieties of cereal. Consumers could choose in a free market, according to their ability to pay. What actually happened was that consumers would deal with the overwhelming complexity they were faced with by adopting habits and "brand allegiances", where marketing departments of competing brands would do their best to change consumer habits; consumers were made to feel guilty for purchasing the brand they could only afford, instead of the one which they "ought" to have bought. The market developed ways people could assuage their guilt including offering ways in which people could be made to feel richer than they were: the capitalisation of short-term escapism became a long-term nightmare.

These ideas of "variety" and "choice" need re-inspecting - particularly in the light of the translation of these same concepts of choice to the world of education. It does not appear that marketisation in education has increased the variety of educational offerings. Why not? Whilst in education we might hope to see variety in the kinds of things that go on institutions (not just lectures, or tedious modules and learning outcomes, but rich and diverse conversations, many exciting (maybe eccentric) academics, many ways of finding one's voice, new ways of mixing disciplines, new ways of gaining certification, and so on), perhaps we were mistaken in thinking about  the variety of breakfast cereals or Heinz's tin cans in the first place.

For example, every week McDonalds seems to produce a 'new' burger. Except that it isn't a new burger at all. It's pretty much the same burger as all the others. What it does have is a new picture and a new name. The variety is on the surface, not in the substance. In former communist countries, this superficiality of variety is quite apparent. Moscow has a huge department store in Red Square called "Gum". The shops glisten with handbags, cosmetics, coffee and so on - much like any Mall anywhere in the world. And yet, there is a remarkable lack of variety too. It's all the same stuff, repackaged behind different shop windows.

When capitalism measures profit, it analyses sales according to individual varieties. It will then develop those varieties according to their performance. It calls itself "Darwinian", although it's really Spencerian. As a policy, however, it is the antithesis of what happens in the natural world. Gregory Bateson makes the point eloquently...

"It is now empirically clear that Darwinian evolutionary theory contained a very great error in its identification of the unit of survival under natural selection. The unit which was believed to be crucial and around which the theory was set up was either the breeding individual or the family line or the sub-species or some similar homogeneous set of conspecifics. Now I suggest that the last hundred years have demonstrated empirically that if an organism or aggregate of organisms sets to work with a focus on its own survival and thinks that that is the way to select its adaptive moves, its "progress" ends up with a destroyed environment." (Steps to an Ecology of Mind, p457)

So what of variety and selection if the result is destruction? Is that really what nature does? Bateson is right, and that means better definition is required of the concept of variety... 

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