Aesthetic economics

Must a commercial culture be vile?

One thinks of Venice, Florence, Genoa; of Suzhou in late Sung Dynasty China; of many cities that were unquestionably commercial, from what we can reconstruct of them in the (educated) imagination. They were celebrated for their beauty as well as for their wealth. Now, if we could return to them, we would probably complain. No Starbucks; plumbing issues; can’t find a bank machine. All this useless beauty, and the smell is intolerable. Or “natural,” I would reflect, stepping out of an aeroplane that had just landed in tropical Asia.

Being a weird person, and possibly unAmerican, I loved the scent of this accelerated rotting. “I’m home,” I felt, recalling childhood in what Mao used to call the “Third World.” This was when Calcutta was my favourite city and, monster that I am, was thrilled by utterly unWestern juxtapositions of rich and poor. I felt comfortable in the raw, human, “capitalist” environment of the bazaar with its bargaining. For back in the day before micro-regulation, bargaining was normal, everywhere. Today it is concealed.

Death was also normal, regardless of age. There were always people who lived superbly long — into their nineties, for instance — though infant mortality brought the average way down. Today, if we counted those who were aborted, we would see that, statistically, not much has changed, although an appearance of longevity is credited, to modern medicine. (It should go to soap.)

Although it had been decaying, the splendour of Calcutta could still be detected, and seen in postcards from a century before, when it was the second city of the British Empire. Alas, built more of plaster than of brick or stone, it wasn’t going to last. It required what today would be ruinously costly maintenance.

Well, a lot has changed, and the middle of Calcutta is now glass, concrete, steel. At one glimpse it is interchangeable with many thousand other cities, and the streets are clogged with cars instead of carts and tongas. Dominance belongs to new professional classes. The worst, most painful forms of poverty are ending, as millions from the countryside come to find jobs, and live in miniature, electrified apartments. All the old splendour is being restored, with air conditioning; or in most cases, demolished and cleared away. Rah! Rah! for the new Raj of micro-regulated capitalism!

I once watched a man, almost naked in a scant, filthy cotton dhoti, prevent an arch from collapsing in my hotel suite, with a single, bent nail. A hammerhead was apparently his only tool, and the nail came from a tiny, precious, collection. He looked embarrassed when I offered a five rupee tip, as if he were more used to whippings. If I’d bought him a saw, his life would have been destroyed. One thing would lead to another. Instead, I was amazed by his transcendental focus on the problem: how to fix it without using a second nail.

This is, I think, the first thing to know about the economy of the past. Labour was cheap, but materials were expensive. Tyranny was different from what it is today, when it has been transferred more from nature to men. Goods become disposable as income and technology “improve.” The chief environmental problem becomes: Where to put all the garbage?

For note: it was made to be disposed of, and much of it won’t rot on its own.

Whereas, in older times, when there was much less stuff, people were more jealous to keep it. They would live with their modest possessions, and the question of beauty was therefore asked from the first day. Wealth was not expressed in convenience, but in marble.