Reinventing capitalism at street level

Nations like this, that used to suppress money, now bow at its altar. But as tens of millions of Indians and Chinese and Russians enter the age of malls and MasterCard, they may be stunned to hear from rich lands that greed is out. It’s hollow, this capitalism.
On the streets of Mumbai, still in the early stages of capitalist development, one sees not the emptiness of money but rather its vitality: a power to breathe dignity into the poor, to foster social change, to spur a culture of self-improvement, even to rinse away unearned privilege. And one sees, as well, when capitalism begins to sour: when it becomes bigger, boxier, an abstract video game for managers.

Far from the bustle of Mumbai, in small towns and villages, people wait and wait, thumbing newspapers, gossiping, with history on pause. But in this town, there is money to make; people move constantly, selling tomatoes and shooting films and ferrying pipes with fundamentalist fervour. They do not ask if you’re Hindu or Muslim or Christian. If you want to buy, buy. If not, bye-bye.

Markets bring change. Traditional societies like this one saw time cyclically; life’s goal was to replicate lives lived before. Markets usher in linear accumulation, enabling people to build on the past and venture in new directions.

Markets, of course, are not perfect. They are bringing an intellectual narrowness to India, leaving few ideas of the good life besides self-development. With their dogma that anyone can rise, they can blind the fortunate to the plight of the suffering.

But their real dysfunction begins not when there is too much market, but when business grows detached from that original street hustle.

Take over

In India, street capitalism is slowly surrendering to skyscraper capitalism: tea stalls ceding to espresso-bar chains, corner stores to supermarkets.

At India’s corner stores, the service is impeccable. They deliver. They take back spoiled fruit, even after a bite. Now the free market has brought big-box stores to India, air-conditioned and clean. But the staff doesn’t care if you buy. They don’t remember faces. They are all training and no instinct.

The USB port on my BlackBerry once broke. My mobile provider took weeks to inspect the phone, then told me I had ‘manhandled’ it and quoted an extravagant repair charge. Then a friend told me of a man with a small shop who could sort me out. He was, unlike my provider, vulnerable to the market: he collected the phone, fixed it for a few dollars and delivered it back to me.

Likewise, Mumbai street food is consistently delicious because market forces give vendors no second chances.

Markets bring scale; scale brings remoteness; remoteness rids markets of the nimbleness and human sensitivity that are best in them. Now that this is plain to many, what shape might capitalism take, here or in the West?

An answer offered by these streets may be to return capitalism to its origins. In a new age of slow food and local energy grids and community gardens, perhaps we might reinvent a community capitalism: a capitalism with all the advantages of the lean, leveraged, synergised, just-in-time world that markets have made, but a capitalism whose soul remains somehow in the sweaty, throbbing, life-giving bazaar.

International Herald Tribune

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