Whole Foods produce section, Reno, Nevada
Venkatesh Rao (as is becoming ever more frequent these days, we Americans get our explanations about ourselves from Indians) describes a longstanding American cultural pattern of concealing out Hamiltonian realities behind more pleasing Jeffersonian facades.
Every time you set foot in a Whole Foods store, you are stepping into one of the most carefully designed consumer experiences on the planet. Produce is stacked into black bins in order to accentuate its colour and freshness. Sale items peek out from custom-made crates, distressed to look as though theyâ€™ve just fallen off a farmerâ€™s truck. Every detail in the store, from the font on a sign to a countertopâ€™s wood finish, is designed to make you feel like youâ€™re in a country market. Most of us take these faux-bucolic flourishes for granted, but shopping wasnâ€™t always this way.
George Gilmanâ€™s early A&P stores are the spiritual ancestors of the Whole Foods experience. If you were a native of small-town America in the 1860s, walking into one of Gilmanâ€™s A&P stores was a serious culture shock. You would have stared agog at gaslit signage, advertising, tea in branded packages, and a cashier’s station shaped like a Chinese pagoda. You would have been forced to wrap your head around the idea of mail-order purchases.
Before Gilman, pre-industrial consumption was largely the unscripted consequence of localised, small-scale patterns of production. With the advent of A&P stores, consumerism began its 150-year journey from real farmersâ€™ markets in small towns to fake farmersâ€™ markets inside metropolitan grocery stores. Through the course of that journey, retailing would discover its natural psychological purpose: transforming the output of industrial-scale production into the human-scale experience we call shopping.
Gilman anticipated, by some 30 years, the fundamental contours of industrial-age selling. Both the high-end faux-naturalism of Whole Foods and the budget industrial starkness of Costco have their origins in the original A&P retail experience. The modern system of retail pioneered by Gilman â€” distant large-scale production facilities coupled with local human-scale consumption environments â€” was the first piece of what Iâ€™ve come to think of as the â€˜American cloudâ€™: the vast industrial back end of our lives that we access via a theatre of manufactured experiences. If distant tea and coffee plantations were the first modern clouds, A&P stores and mail-order catalogues were the first browsers and apps. …
The American cloud is the product of a national makeover that started in 1791 with Alexander Hamiltonâ€™s American School of economics â€” a developmental vision of strong national institutions and protectionist policies designed to shelter a young, industrialising nation from British dominance. Hamiltonâ€™s vision was diametrically opposed to Thomas Jeffersonâ€™s competing vision based on small-town, small-scale agrarian economics. Indeed, the story of America is, in many ways, the story of how Hamiltonâ€™s vision came to prevail over Jeffersonâ€™s.
By the early 19th century, Hamiltonâ€™s ideas had crystallised into two complementary doctrines, both known as the â€˜American systemâ€™. The first was senator Henry Clayâ€™s economic doctrine, based on protectionist tariffs, a national bank, and ongoing internal infrastructure improvements. The second was the technological doctrine of precision manufacturing based on interchangeable parts, which emerged around Springfield and Harpers Ferry national armouries. Together, the two systems would catalyse the emergence of an industrial back end in the countryâ€™s heartland, and the establishment of a consumer middle class on the urbanising coasts. But it would take another century, and the development of the internet, for the American cloud to retreat almost entirely from view.
By the 1880s, the two American systems had given rise to a virtuous cycle of accelerating development, with emerging corporations and developing national infrastructure feeding off each other. The result was the first large-scale industrial base: a world of ambitious infrastructure projects, giant corporations and arcane political structures. Small farms gave way to transcontinental railroads, giant dams, Standard Oil and US Steel. The most consequential political activity retreated into complex new governance institutions that few ordinary citizens understood, such as the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Federal Reserve, and the War Industries Board. Politics began to acquire its surreal modern focus on broadly comprehensible sideshows.
Over the course of two centuries, the Hamiltonian makeover turned the isolationist, small-farmer America of Jeffersonâ€™s dreams into the epicentre of the technology-driven, planet-hacking project that we call globalisation. The visible signs of the makeover â€” I call them Hamiltonian cathedrals â€” are unprepossessing. Viewed from planes or interstate highways, grain silos, power plants, mines, landfills and railroad yards cannot compete visually with big sky and vast prairie. Nevertheless, the Hamiltonian makeover emptied out and transformed the interior of America into a technology-dominated space that still deserves the name heartland. Except that now the heart is an artificial one.
The makeover has been so psychologically disruptive that during the past century, the bulk of Americaâ€™s cultural resources have been devoted to obscuring the realities of the cloud with simpler, more emotionally satisfying illusions. These constitute a theatre of pre-industrial community life primarily inspired, ironically enough, by Jeffersonâ€™s small-town visions. This theatre, which forms the backdrop of consumer lifestyles, can be found today inside every Whole Foods, Starbucks and mall in America. I call it the Jeffersonian bazaar.
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