Sitting in the house that Capital built By William Bowles

29 May 2006

They say that travel broadens the mind, unless that is, your intended destination is a shopping mall, then you’ll need your GPS device to figure what country you’re in.

Gerês, northern Portugal (from a great distance)

So I’m sitting outside a bar in a small village in the north of Portugal near to the Spanish border sipping the extremely powerful local ‘hooch’ called bagaço with a cup of espresso as a chaser. The area is famous for the copper stills it makes used it seems, largely for brewing the powerful liquer which tastes a little like slivowitz and although much of it is produced illegally, it’s on sale in every bar and even gets exported to Spain.

The landscape is mountainous but densely covered with trees dotted with small villages and plots of cultivation. The weather is perfect, around 28º. My host, who is a dentist, is working next door, so I have time to kill while he takes care of the local teeth. As I sit sipping in this otherwise sleepy village, the endless output of the global auto industry whizzes by, right in front of me.

The lakeside resort of Gerês

Less that thirty years ago the area was isolated and piss-poor and even today if it wasn’t for the money sent home from the thousands who emigrated in search of a better life, it would no doubt still be a backwater and it shows, for everywhere there are rather grander houses, mostly newly built with Audis and Beamers parked in their yards.

Gerês. A once elegant 19th century hotel, now abandoned and decaying. The guests no doubt bathed in the hot springs nearby, also abandoned just like the hotel.

It’s difficult to comprehend just how much Portugal has changed unless one knew it before the fall of the dictator Salazar and the entry of the country into the EU. In less than a generation it’s moved from the 19th century (or earlier) to the 21st. From a poor, rural subsistance economy with a bloated civil service (around 30% of the ‘working population’) built on the theft of Latin American gold and the slave trade, to being just another component of the so-called global economy.

Right opposite the abandoned hotel, a vast concrete pile rises, totally out of scale with its surroundings. One wonders how much money changed hands to allow this blot on the landscape to take place.

It’s only when you watch TV or visit the ubiquitous mall that one realizes just how total the impact of globalisation has been. The same products, the same shops, the same TV commercials. It makes a complete mockery of the idea of individual ‘free choice’ which for fifty years has been the central theme of Western propaganda in its war with ‘actually existing socialism’.

What an irony therefore, that with the ‘triumph’ of Capital, everything ends up being identical, from the rural backwater of Braga to the malls of Porto. Pizzahut Rules, Okay!

We have been fed the idea that under socialism everything was the same, the same clothes, the same food, the same ‘choices’; uniformity. The State ruled, Okay!

Under global Capital, the appearance is of endless ‘choice’ but the actuality is of a small number of planet-wide franchises all modelled on American fast-food and consumer goods. So whether it’s a mall in Sandton, Johannesburg, in Porto, Berlin, Paris, Moscow or Beijing, you name it, I am presented with the same ‘choices’. The branded clothing stores spread like a virus, Pepe Jeans, Levis, on and on. All the kids dress the same, listen to the same music (invariably in English) and have been fed the same aspirations.

As national, even regional differences vanish under an avalanche of ‘choices’, beneath the plastic gloss there lurks the nasty reality of a million sweatshops from Haiti to Shanghai, shovelling out shit with New York, London, Paris or Rome misleadingly stamped on the label.

So where’s the dif between the state-run stores of the former Soviet Union and the global networks of the Nikes aside from the quality? Bear in mind that the workers of Haiti or Mexico City have neither the means to buy the products they churn out in an endless stream nor the social security of support the workers’ of the former socialist states had. All is illusion, packaging and PR. Free to choose and free to starve.

Don’t get me wrong here, the socialism that Stalin built, as we have witnessed, was deeply flawed but the idea and the aspirations were and remain as valid today as they were in 1917, made all the more vital as capitalism enters what might well be its final, violent spasms of nihilistic destruction. One hopes that we have learned the lessons of the past and that we have the time to put right all the wrongs before it’s too late.

And as the developed West finds itself locked in the deeper and deeper contradictions that surplus capital produces, the freedoms that we fought for and won at such great cost are also stripped away, bit by inexorable bit, until all that remains is the glossy packaging that shrouds an empty, meaningless shell. And it shows as the statistics of mental illness, social fragmentation and the deep dissatisfaction people feel with the lies they’ve been fed, reveals. Dissatisfaction that a million shopping malls will not remove.

Two worlds, one feeding parasitically off the other, with the global propaganda machine grinding out the illusions that all is well—except that is, for a tiny band of fanatics, extremists, terrorists and fundamentalists, call them what you will—who we are told, possess the power to bring it all tumbling down, so fragile and vulnerable is the house that Capital built.

And if you believe this, you’ll believe anything.

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