James Kirkpatrick’s review of Atlas Shrugged’s long-in-coming film incarnation highlighted something that is often underlined by some libertarian economic commentators: the need to have a productive economy—an economy based on savings and production, rather than on indebtedness and consumption.
This was recently, if perhaps obliquely, highlighted by an unlikely source, the BBC, which on 15 February ran an article by Stephen Evans that attempted to answer Why the German and UK economies differ sharply?
The article began:
Compare and contrast, as they used to say in the exams.
The German economy grew by 3.6% last year and is expected to grow by more than 2% this year.
According to the latest figures, the British economy actually shrank in the last three months of 2010, although it is expected to grow by 2% in 2011.
In the UK, unemployment is rising. In Germany, it is falling. The British unemployment rate is higher than Germany's, and so too is the rate of inflation.
In Britain, trade is in deficit. In Germany, it is in sizzling surplus.
Drilling for growth
Trade is the key to the German recovery.
The country makes things that others want to buy - particularly in growing economies, and particularly in China.
The German economy currently meshes nicely with China's needs, such as machinery to industrialise. It is also good at providing China's wants, including BMWs for the new rich.
As Germany's Economy Minister, Rainer Brüderle, told the BBC: "We give the equipment to the world, to the virgin markets that need it and want it".
German industrialists make much of the strength of their manufacturing.
Dieter Burmester created and owns Burmester Audio Systems which makes very high-end amplifiers and speakers - the price tags say hundreds of thousands of pounds, euros or dollars, for the top of his range.
"I don't understand politicians who don't know the value of production", he says.
You can see German technology all over the world, very often from small companies.
The disaster in Chile with the mining workers? The drilling machinery was from Germany. Drilling a tunnel in Switzerland? The machinery comes from here.
"Many years ago, when some countries saw their future in service industries like I believe the British did, I wondered about it.
"The strongest economy you will have is when you have to deal with something concrete, and it's not just a number written on paper," said Mr Burmester.
He is a classic German engineer and entrepreneur.
His company is a typical example of the "mittelstand", that swathe of medium-sized, often family-owned firms which produce things, often of high quality, with much investment in research and design.
His product is handmade in Germany. The words are written on the back of every item in English, but there is much research and development behind it.
He is an unflashy engineer. Solid, but with carefully planned change, might be his motto.
"Solid" is the word that keeps recurring with the German economy.
For consumers, it translates as "save then spend".
Note the reference to the importance placed by the Germans on quality and design in manufacturing, and on manufacturing in Germany. Note also the implicit lesson in the different experiences resulting from the respective economic models: an economy based on transporting and selling low-quality, rapidly-obsolescing goods, hurriedly slapped together in Third World sweatshops by prognathous platyrrhines of photon-like brain mass, and bought with borrowed fake money at high interest, may initially lead to an influx of quick cash and a temporary illusion of wealth, but it eventually flounders, catastrophically, and takes longer to recover at a much greater cost.
A time there was when British manufacturing was the best in the world. Tools made in the Victorian era, which are now well over a hundred years old, still work. Moreover, they are also objects of beauty. When is the last time you purchased a consumer product that you could trust to last more than a century? Or fifty years? Or ten? Or five? Or even one?
In America, cars manufactured in the 1950s still run today and in Cuba are still in everyday use. This applies even to humble models. And the even older Underwood typewriters from before the First World War, if cared for properly, still type like they did when originally bought.
It is a very different story today.
Time and again Western citizens purchasing consumer goods with recognised brand names find themselves victims of vulgar deception and theft: outrageous prices are asked for items that break, and are designed to break or otherwise become useless, within a pre-set number of use-hours, forcing otherwise needless re-purchasing or upgrades.
Worse still, there is next to zero artistry in many of the product categories; artistry has been concentrated on narrowly defined areas and subordinated to financial imperatives—if money cannot be made without artistry, then there is artistry (but only the justifiable minimum); whereas if it can be made without, then there is nothing.
It becomes ever more difficult to go into a department or chain store and not see them as mountains of junk—cheap, ugly, flimsy, and grossly overpriced plastic that serves only to mobilise money and pollute the environment, visually and materially.
What is most galling, perhaps, (and this is hinted at in Kirkpatrick’s film review), is that the aforementioned junk actively funds all the individuals and the causes we despise, for many of the modern captains of industry are actively involved in destructive forms of philanthropy, redistributing their often ill-gained wealth among those least deserving and/or least in need of it, and where it will cause the most long-term harm.
The obvious and most immediate response as a consumer is either to go on strike, refusing to consume and relying on second-hand goods and antiques. Many of us have put this into practice to varying degrees. But consumption is very difficult to avoid entirely unless one is prepared to be Pentti Linkola (and even he uses paper).
Another response is my preferred one, and one I have written about before: creating our own alternatives, founded on principles of quality and beauty—the only principles consistent with our outlook.
Germany, even though debt-ridden too and therefore not perfect, provides a contemporary example that proves that such a paradigm is both possible and successful in 2011. They even have China—known users of production as a weapon—buying from Germany, not selling to it, as the former does with the rest of the world. Companies like Staedtler, not atypical in Germany, are hundreds of years old and have zero debts.
In other words, the pursuit of quality and beauty, built on a foundation of savings and investment, is not a Quixotic enterprise, motivated by a reactionary desire to turn back the clock to a time—and circumstances—that will never return: it is an alternative way of doing things in the modern age.
And one that carries with it a positive message and positive associations, to which I believe many consumers, fed-up of the corporate rip-offs, are receptive to. Most people are not philosophers, and neither are they particularly interested in, nor do they have the time or energy to think deeply about, political, social, or economic matters—many, in fact, define themselves and give meaning to their lives, almost without thinking, through what they consume, through the objects they surround themselves with or wear or aspire to own. As Jean Baudrillard pointed out in his early writings, without subsequent contradiction by evolutionary psychologists like Geoffrey Miller, objects are signifiers, advertisers—of status, of intellect, of personal qualities.
Therefore, the bottom line here is that being an activist for change can easily take the form of small and medium enterprise—the form of making things, and making them properly. Marx was not entirely wrong when he spoke about the importance of material conditions in the processes of social change.
Also, people who respond to quality and beauty likely do so for the same reasons that they respond to ideologies linked to hierarchy and individuality. Democracy and quantity, egalitarianism and cheapness (the lowest common denominator), are different expressions of the same base principle; therefore, elitism and craftmanship, aristocracy and quality (also character, individuality), are in an analogous relationship.
This may seem distastefully materialistic for some, but to use a Yockeyism, we must use the weapons that are appropriate for our epoch.
In the age of materialism, the culture war is waged materially.
And is not the flooding of our lives with generic junk an act of aggression?—an industrialised offensive against tradition, individuality, and the pursuit of excellence that seeks to drown our culture under an mass of universal objects?
I don’t know about you, but I am tired of low quality, and would like to see the rip-off merchants in the bankruptcy courts.