Friday 21 October 2016

Invasion of the two-fingers-snatchers

The VW affair is part of a "crisis in capitalism", but we saw the signs with the Chocolate Fingers, writes Declan Lynch

Published 04/10/2015 | 02:30

The VW affair is part of a 'crisis in capitalism', but we saw the signs with the Chocolate Fingers
The VW affair is part of a 'crisis in capitalism', but we saw the signs with the Chocolate Fingers

Everywhere they are talking about "a crisis in capitalism".

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The Volkswagen scandal has been reported both as a terrible shock, and as something which should not surprise us in the least, given our awareness of the galloping degeneracy of the executive class in general.

The recent David McWilliams documentary Ireland's Great Wealth Divide dovetailed with the BBC series The Super Rich And Us, in suggesting that the economies of the western world are in thrall to a most dangerous form of madness, a kind of "hyper-capitalism" which means that essentially too few people have too much money. And that this will not end well.

And there's PostCapitalism, by the excellent Paul Mason of Channel 4 News, which has become the book of this slow-burning disaster movie. "Capitalism is creating bullshit jobs," Mason says, adding: "We have nothing better for people to do, so we are going to create jobs to which you can't apply technology, jobs for minimum wages."

He says a lot of other things too, about the end of "neo-liberalism" (in general we have found that anything starting with "neo" is to be avoided) though his critics have suggested that he is not so strong on suggesting a cure for the neo-malaise.

And of course he didn't get the opportunity to include a section on the significance of the Cadbury's Chocolate Fingers scandal.

Back in April in these pages we identified the darkness in our culture, not through these sweeping post-capitalist visions, but in the simple story of the chocolate fingers.

Since April, they have removed two fingers from the average box of Cadbury's Chocolate Fingers. And they probably thought that they were very smart, to be doing that.

No doubt the fellows at Volkswagen thought they were being very smart too, though we hasten to add that their executive counterparts at Cadbury's were doing nothing illegal in putting out a product that was slightly worse than it had been.

They were just being horribly stupid and unoriginal, with this latest contribution of theirs to a thing called "shrinkflation" - yes there is a word for it.

There is a word too, for the people who dream up these little ideas, but we would prefer to reflect on what a company such as Cadbury's used to be, and on the sort of people who founded it - the Quaker Capitalists they were called, and they had these strange notions which have largely fallen out of favour with the executive elite.

They were not satisfied merely with the manufacture of delicious chocolatey treats, but were forever trying to do good, to improve themselves and their employees, building model villages and the like, displaying at all times this thing which might be called "vision".

And by a strange coincidence, their products somehow made vast amounts of money, and a great empire of confectionery was created, suggesting that there is a connection of some sort between the pursuit of excellence and the achievement of wealth - one of the few known exemplars of this philosophy in modern times is probably James Dyson, who got this idea that if you produced a better "hoover" and a better service in general, the people might like it.

Dyson even makes a virtue of it in his promotional presentations - he stands there telling you something you need to hear, something that is probably even true, and that will obviously make your life a bit better, developing new technologies to this end, while other corporate leaders are out there taking the proverbial two fingers out of the box, making your life just slightly worse, and loving themselves for it.

If the Quakers had vision, the fingers-snatchers have whatever is the opposite of vision.

The people who created Volkswagen back in the time of Hitler had, if anything, too much vision. But whatever it was, it was a finer thing than anything possessed by later generations of executives, who seemed to get their satisfaction out of codding the people, and of course from their extra-terrestrial salaries, paying themselves fortunes out of the proceeds of their trickery.

The system itself may be wrecked - indeed the old Thatcher line that socialists "always end up running out of other people's money" now works perfectly in relation to Wall Street.

This is what tends to happen when any ideology gets out of control - it does not favour the best of men, but those who enforce it most blindly.

And usually at the end of it there is some form of large-scale insanity.

We used to marvel at how the old Soviet Union could send a chimpanzee into space, yet they couldn't arrange to have a few turnips for sale in the shops.

Now we are equally amazed that an institution such as Volkswagen, once the epitome of solid workmanship and straight dealing all round, can be transformed into the perfect model of corporate delinquency.

Driven by the purity of their neo-belief system, they managed to turn the most reassuring brand in history into something that reinforces all our fears about executive cynicism -sending the most powerful warning that anything in this world that is any good, is in constant danger.

Let us just hope we can keep a few turnips in the shops.

Sunday Independent

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