Toilet paper

I bumped into a Colombian lady earlier who was shopping at the local Aldi. She had come to the Latin American organisation I go to. I remembered her name because she had been surprisingly modest about her dispute with her landlord. A very stoic older woman. I made small talk and then she went: “You see, you’re young and can afford to walk to three or four supermarkets if you need to.” I looked at her basket. I looked at the empty shelves in the household section. She continued: “I don’t see the use in exaggerating, do you?” 

When I was in university, Weber was big in my course. It was one of those jokes. And Weber wrote powerful arguments on modernization and the “disenchantment of the world”, that I wish (and you too) I wasn’t coming back to so frequently. Before talking to this lady this morning, I found the debate about individualism and capitalism a bit dull. Yes, the free market and its economic ideas are squarely based on individualism but, that late capitalism crossed out community and collectivism is often just easy conversation from champagne socialists. I’m sorry but it is time to stop pointing fingers at economic models and political theory and start asking ourselves when our attitudes became ‘convenient’. The problem is not late capitalism or big cities. 

Hopefully coronavirus will make us pause and think about our dependency on healthy supply chains. There’s no need to feel guilty about not growing your own tomatoes. But maybe, in visualising our reliance on the economic networks and labour of others, in thinking about the journey of items in the nearest supermarket, we can resist panic-buying. (We could also resist the perception of scarcity. Even behavioural researchers are caught up in it.). We won’t run out of toilet paper or beans. But we will make it very difficult for people who don’t have the means or energy to go from store to store. We will make it difficult for people who can only do their shopping once a week. (This is for you, Mustafa: Yesterday, a WWM (Wealthy Waitrose Mum) was leisurely pushing a trolley of twenty toilet rolls. Two Zero.)

We are accustomed to being in control and it’s difficult to resist dramatic responses. There is even an element of enjoyment to them. But what that old woman was telling me was that community is dead – in simple words that the great social theorists would have been envious of. And without much solemnity. She was light and humorous – with common sense.

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