The Popular Capitalist View, No. 16: Where Once Was Capitalism by Carl Peter Klapper

Time was when your family could make something or buy the somethings your neighbors made, hang a sign on the front of your house and enough neighbors and visitors would walk by and step into your mom-and-pop store that you could make a decent living being a “merchant”. You and the other merchants in your town and nearby towns, the ones you could walk to if you didn’t have a horse, would provide enough of a market for can openers or canned goods, that some folks in the area would see an opportunity for a new canned food or can opener. These folks and others could all pitch in their spare cash as a company to buy the metal presses and what not (capital) and pay to employ some of their number or others to use the machinery to make the product which the mom-and-pops would then buy and stock on their shelves. As the mom-and-pop stores sold their product, they would order more to re-stock their shelves and, once this process hit a groove, the company would be paying dividends to the people who pitched in money to buy the company stock. These stockholders would be happy to get a little extra money later which they might otherwise had wasted sooner and, more importantly, to have played a role in starting an enterprise which benefited their communities with productive employment, better products and not a little local pride. Years later, they would be electing the Localsville Canned Beans Queen and holding parades down Main Street celebrating the success story of their local genius.

Time was before planning for the automobile. With the automobile-based development, or sprawl, came the demise of the mom-and-pop stores upon which the entire structure of capitalism was based. Hardly anybody walks from their house to the store anymore and, if you tried to sell anything from your house today, you would be cited for a zoning violation. Your neighbors deserted the local stores when the national stores started opening up branches “convenient” to the highway. Some of the national chains moved into the vacated storefronts, got the town to knock down some other houses with storefronts, and to seize the backyards by eminent domain so they could put up a parking lot to “serve” Main Street. The local manufacturing companies got fewer orders, none from the national retail chains, of course. As those companies failed, the remaining local stores started stocking fewer local items, until you couldn’t tell the difference between the mom-and-pops and the chains. The only real difference was the mom-and-pops were less convenient to the automobile driver. The mom-and-pops become denigrated even as they try to conform to sprawl. People actually talk about a new chain store opening up as if that was something to be proud of. At that point, capitalism is dead in their town. To be certain, there are, here and there, some vestiges of capitalism left, though they may strike us as unremarkable. It was always misleading to characterize capitalism as a road to unfathomable riches. People confuse it with debt and global mercantilism, with the creditor sultans oppressing their people, which is very much in evidence.

The Localsville Canned Beans company was bought up by investors from out-of-town using borrowed money — it was purchased in a leveraged buyout by General Foods — and General Foods now grows and cans the Localsville Canned Beans in South America. The plant is closed and the people in Localsville, those who are left, now work and shop in the Walmart down Highway 666. They had to cancel the parade this year. They didn’t choose a Localsville Canned Beans Queen, either.

Copyright © 2011 by C. P. Klapper

2 thoughts on “The Popular Capitalist View, No. 16: Where Once Was Capitalism by Carl Peter Klapper

  1. The automobile is another example of your theory. Back in the day, they were hand-made boutique items. However, Ford’s assembly line is arguably a watershed development in the furtherance of capitalism, although I would assume you might categorize it as “global mercantilism” as well. To be honest, the walmart near my house has everything I could possibly want, from literally ammunition to Zyrtec. Because of the demographic, they have organic produce and other high end items, for cheaper than you’d pay elsewhere. The management has obviously listened to the constituency and stocked their shelves accordingly–isn’t that what mom and pop stores do?
    Tonic water is a bit expensive at our Walmart, but we get that at the Safeway across the street. I find it hard to believe that if mom and pop stores still existed nearby, that I would buy any of my normal necessities from them–just too expensive, and I’m trying to live on student loans. There are certain things mom and pop stores do better–hardware items and gardening supplies to name the two biggest ones that come to mind–but your corner “general store” is outdated, and frankly, I think that’s for the better.

  2. The mom-and-pop stores would not only stock the items you want, because they actually listened to you as opposed to studying the demographics of your area, they also stocked the things that local artisans made that you may have wanted once you saw it. If the new item caught on, then one of the local factory companies may have decided to re-tool to mass-produce it. That is where the capitalism comes in, the investment in the tools of mass production which are then possibly rewarded by sales through mom-and-pop stores in other towns. None of this happens if the local entrepreneur does not have a place to sell his new product. Without the mom-and-pop or other local shop, there can be no capitalism.
    The problem with the automobile is twofold. First, it was far too bulky to be easily carried in a home shop setting typical of the mom-and-pop, leading eventually to sales on car lots and thus a hazard to pedestrians. Second, its use interferes with walking and makes it unpleasant, thus debilitating the walk-in traffic for the mom-and-pop stores. Together, these increased the cost of getting to stores by replacing no-cost walking with the expense of driving. Thus, though his manufacturing techniques helped to reduce costs for a variety of products, Henry Ford’s product increased the cost of shopping directly and indirectly by ruining mom-and-pop stores. He was, in effect, the capitalist to end all capitalism.
    By the way, I don’t go to Walmart because every time I went they either did not have what I wanted or the help was useless. They also would only staff a few of the checkout lines. Walmart is the worst store I have ever tried.

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