The gaudy sameness of Clone Town
The free marketeers used to tell us that communism was the enemy of choice, but take a look at what
''Unjust, unstable, unsustainable": every accusation seems to bounce off the skin of the new global order. But a novel one is about to attack from the inside: it's boring. The consumer excitement that greeted the initial wave of new retailers such as Gap and Starbucks has been replaced by a listless malaise that looks very much like boredom. Why?
They seemed exotic at first and promised variety, but instead they delivered a lasting latte-chino blandness. And by virtue of their size and power they push anyone with other ideas to the margin of the market. It is as though we had invited a foreign relative to stay because he seemed new and interesting, but now he's taking over the house and we can't get rid of him. And British companies are part of the problem: Tesco, which already has nearly 2,000 shops in the UK, now wants to open 82 more.
This identikit commercial culture isn't just killing diversity in the high street. It undermines democracy and attacks our sense of place, belonging and well-being. It hands power to a corporate elite and ultimately pulls apart the rich weave of systems upon which our livelihoods and economy have depended.
"The diversity of the phenomena of nature is so great," wrote the 17th-century German astronomer, mathematician and astrologer Johannes Kepler, "and the treasures hidden in the heavens so rich, precisely in order that the human mind shall never be lacking in fresh nourishment." The modern slide into sameness, greased by the logistical demands of globalisation, is removing nourishment for the human mind as surely as the burger and chicken chains took it out of our food.
For centuries, scientists and philosophers have understood the value of diversity. A diverse habitat produces equilibrium and allows species to be resilient to change. In the words of the biologist and author Barbara Kingsolver: "At the root of everything, Darwin said, is that wonder of wonders, genetic diversity. You're unlike your sister, a litter of pups is its own small Rainbow Coalition, and every grain of wheat in a field holds inside its germ a slightly separate destiny . . . Genetic diversity, in domestic populations as well as wild ones, is nature's sole insurance policy."
There is a strong parallel between this genetic diversity and retail diversity on our high streets. Where loss of genetic diversity threatens the survival of species and leaves ecosystems vulnerable to collapse, clone shops and towns imperil local livelihoods, communities and culture by eroding choice and decreasing the resilience of high streets to economic downturns.
Take Wal-Mart. About 40 years ago it was a small-town American general store; now it has 100 million customers per week and another branch opening somewhere in the world every three days. Having taken over Asda in 1999, it is firmly rooted in the UK - as well as in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Puerto Rico, China, Indonesia and Germany. Its combination of out-of-town sites and stack-'em-high, sell-'em-cheap retailing is the equivalent of carpet-bombing for local economies. According to a US study, "In the ten years after Wal-Mart moved into Iowa, the state lost over 555 grocery stores, 298 hardware stores, 293 building suppliers, 161 variety stores, 158 women's clothing stores, 153 shoe stores, 116 drug stores and 111 children's clothing stores. In total some 7,326 businesses went to the wall."
In Britain, the Tesco expansion is having a similar effect, killing off small general stores at the rate of one per day and specialist shops such as butchers, bakers and fishmongers at 50 per week.
And diversity is suffering in other ways. The supermarkets are targeting the newsagent sector through their new, small branches, but whereas independent local newsagents typically carry a wide range of magazine titles, the multiples concentrate on the top 100 titles with the biggest turnover, to maximise profit. The same is true for the sale of CDs and DVDs. So not only do they reduce the range of shops, they reduce the choice of goods, too.
The effect extends to our buildings. The architecture journalist Jonathan Glancey recently complained that "Tesco branches are breeding like shrink-wrapped rabbits. Where once we had a church in every village, town and city, now we have Tesco with its Extras, Metros and Expresses." English Heritage is dismayed by the impact on our high streets as the supermarkets impose standard layouts whatever the context.
Anyone born before the 1980s grew up conscious of the miseries of communist eastern Europe, with its dreary, centrally planned economies. Now we are waking up in a world that may be gaudy and raucous but is no less dreary and characterless, and which is centrally planned by corporations.
In 2001 the Booksellers Association reported that while the big chains had grown during the previous five years, more than one in ten of Britain's independent bookshops had folded. Its US counterpart grew so alarmed at the trend that in 1998 it filed a lawsuit against Barnes & Noble and Borders, one member stating: "This fight is about preserving what America is able to read. A network of healthy independent bookstores spurs publishers to produce a diversity of literature and to take risks with authors who are of less commercial but greater critical appeal."
About 80 per cent of the global music market is owned by four companies: Universal, EMI, Warner Music and Sony BMG. Last year EMI was reported to have dropped a fifth of its recording artists; Warner is preparing to dump half its list. EMI explained: "We believe that by concentrating our efforts on a tightened roster of artists we will increase our revenue-generating potential while reducing our costs." They make more money selling ten million copies of one album than a million copies each of ten albums, so they prefer a few "sure thing" pop acts.
Something similar is happening in news. The concentration of ownership, though often spoken of, remains breathtaking. Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation publishes 175 newspapers in six countries, and owns roughly 800 companies around the world, including terrestrial and digital TV channels, news networks, newspapers, magazines, major book publishers such as HarperCollins, film companies, sports teams and record companies. In Silvio Berlusconi's Italy you could spend a Saturday shopping at your local supermarket, relaxing at home, reading a newspaper and flicking through the TV channels to watch AC Milan play football, and all these goods and services could have been provided by one company, owned by the prime minister.
This trend's effect on choice is as depressing as it is predictable. Mark Cooper, research director of the Consumer Federation of America, lamented recently: "News departments get reduced, and culturally diverse and public-interest programming comes under pressure. Less popular programming disappears and journalists are evaluated by the corporate-profit-centre logic of these huge organisations." The distinguishing characteristic of globalised media is that they are a pipeline through which such programmes as Pop Idol, Big Brother and The Weakest Link get pumped into front rooms the world over, regardless of cultural impact or appropriateness.
Language itself is suffering, and with it the cultures and ways of understanding that language embodies. Almost one half of the world's 6,000 languages may die out in the next hundred years, according to Unesco, and of the 3,000 languages expected to survive for a century, nearly half will probably not last much longer.
Diversity is under attack even when we look in the mirror. One of the most popular plastic surgery procedures in Japan is for women to have their eyes "widened" to look more western. In parts of south-east Asia, skin-whitening creams are among the most popular beauty products. In the Philippines, television advertisements promote nose pegs that can be inserted in one's nostrils to give a more European-shaped nose.
And it is not as though the global corpocrats who drive these changes are immune from them, for they, too, are trapped in horribly cloned lifestyles. They meet in identical glass-walled rooms in corporate headquarters and travel in first and business class on international flights. They read the same newspapers, watch the same global television channels and stay in identical hotel suites. For global enterprise to be managed, management has to live globalisation, creating for the managerial technocrat a cloned virtual reality, detached from rooted, diverse local existence.
There are hints of a backlash. The city of Homer in Alaska banned what it calls "big-box" stores. In France and Poland, local authorities can now veto certain supermarkets and shopping centres, in the French case to protect "the social and economic cohesion and the fabric of society". Malaysia placed a five-year ban on the construction of hypermarkets in the Klang Valley, which covers Kuala Lumpur. In Cuernavaca, 50 miles south of Mexico City, residents fought plans by the US retail giant Costco to build a new store on a historically significant site. In Britain, too, the supermarkets face increasing opposition from local campaigns and farmers' groups.
In case you feel powerless against this "flat wilderness of standardisation", as Chesterton called it, there is something you can do right now. Go to the New Economics Foundation website (www.neweconomics.org), download its Clone Town survey and find out how close your town centre is to losing its identity.
Andrew Simms is policy director of nef (the New Economics Foundation)