Capitalism of Place

One of the interesting themes in Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America is the role of capitalism in creating community spaces.

Arnade spends most of his time in the book in three places: McDonald’s, drug dens, and churches. Two of these–McD’s and the drug Ds–are capitalist enterprises: they exist to sell you things, legal or not. Churches are not explicitly capitalist, but can be understood using the same model. They are interested in attracting enough members to cover their operating costs, so a church that does a better job of “selling” religion or provides a more enjoyable religious experience will probably attract more parishioners and will do better financially. (A church that can attract no members is, ultimately, dead.)

The lack of good common spaces that do not require spending money is one of the minor annoyances of my life. I like being outdoors, but it rains out there. National parks are lovely, but not near the house. It’s especially difficult to find locations that are attractive to multiple generations, or both children and childless adults (if I want to socialize with friends who do not have kids of their own).

As Arnade notes, for poor neighborhoods, McDonald’s fills that niche. It has a playground and happy meals for kids; it has booths and hamburgers for adults. It is warm and dry in the winter, cool in the summer, and even has a bathroom. The price of admission is low–a cup of coffee.

In Arnade’s telling, the organizations that ought to be providing community spaces, like the local government, really don’t. From a libertarian perspective, if attracting more people to these places doesn’t directly benefit the people running them, then they won’t put effort into making these spaces comfortable and attractive. Since McDonald’s (or the other locations Arnade visits) do make money off customers, even homeless ones who just order a cup of coffee, McD’s has an incentive to make its environs comfortable and welcoming to as many people as possible.

We can find other examples of capitalist enterprises providing communal spaces, like salons, barber shops, shopping malls, bars, and sports bars.

Of course, this inevitably runs up against class issues. McD makes plenty of money selling food to the poor, and Whole Foods makes plenty selling food to the rich, but it is difficult to sell to both markets. Back in our review of Auerswald’s The Code Economy, we discussed his observation that capitalistic markets tends to bifurcate into supplying low and high class versions of products, with a dearth in between. Auerswald discusses the evolution of watch making, from expensive luxuries to common watches to the clock included on your phone. He writes that both the clock-in-your phone and the luxury Rolex markets are doing fine, while sales of mid-price watches have withered.

Community seems to have undergone a similar process. McDonald’s is doing fine, financially, and I’m sure ski clubs in Alta are doing fine, too. It’s in between that we find people who are watching their money and can’t afford to spend $80-$120 a day on trips to the museum/zoo/movies, etc, but don’t want to hang out at McDonald’s, either. In general I think of “let’s avoid the poors” social signaling as a scam–products/services that signal your social class will happily increase in cost until they’ve sucked up all of your money–but sometimes avoiding other people legitimate. Personally, I would go to McDonald’s more often if my children weren’t prone to getting horribly ill when we visit–social class may be socially constructed, but diarrhea is real. Avoiding criminals, drug addicts, diseases, and folks who haven’t bathed recently is perfectly reasonable.

There aren’t a lot of spaces that do this for the middle class. Chick-fil-A comes close, but their playgrounds are designed for kids under 5. The best place I can think of for middle class families to hang out and socialize (which is also a good place for the poor and upper class) is church. And indeed, Arnade meets lots of people at churches across the country. Churches (or other religions’ houses of worship) are generally warm (or cool), hold community events, mark lifecycle events, and generally even have dedicated areas for children. The only difficulty is that churches are structured around belief in a particular religion, which is awkward for the nation’s increasing numbers of atheists, and occasionally use their parishioners’ beliefs in the morality of the church for self-gratification/manipulation. (EG, every cult ever.)

Arnade also visits one other variety of social club in the book, the “Snowshoe Club” IIRC, dedicated not to snowshoeing, but to French Canadians in the US. Like many social clubs, the Snowshoes get together for dinner and social events, costs five dollars to join, and officially you don’t have to be French Canadian to be a member. These sorts of social clubs used to be much more common in the US (See: Bowling Alone), but have been on the wane for decades.

How do you feel about community in your own town? Are there good places to meet people and socialize, or do you feel a dearth? Does capitalism do a good job of filling this role, or would some other structure or institution perform better? Is the bifurcation I have described a real thing, or just an illusion of some sort? In short, what do you think?

16 thoughts on “Capitalism of Place

  1. A church that can attract no members is, ultimately, dead.

    While true, I think it bears emphasis that the ordinary way for a church to “attract” members is to receive them automatically through the reproduction of current members. A church that cannot attract members from outside the community is not dead.

    This is related to the issues of suicide memes / horizontal vs vertical transmission of memes. A church that cannot retain members’ children is dead in an important sense, even if the membership rolls are growing.

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  2. >McD makes plenty of money selling food to the poor, and Whole Foods makes plenty selling food to the rich, but it is difficult to sell to both markets.
    It’s interesting that you bring up Whole Foods, since they have successfully expanded into downscale markets. It turns out people will pay a lot for an aspirational message of “you’re not like those other people around you, you’re better”. Whether they can have staying power in higher classes is a relevant question, since normally the next step is to flee to higher ground.

    I like McDonald’s a lot. Charles Murray uses the chain restaurants like Applebee’s as the real marker of non-bubbledom, because they were sneered at as Babbittian middle class food stands. For the upper middle class, the aversion to the middle class is often more visceral and important than the aversion to the common prole.

    The middle class foodery of yesteryear was the “nice restaurant”. Mr. Babbitt is a member of his local Boosters. The problem with this, and all other middle class institutions, is that the middle class almost never wants to signal its own middleness. As Fussell describes, the middle is anxious and resentful vis a vis its own middleness. It aspires to the upper middle. Learning that their thing is looked down upon is painful. The “high class” product produced is often a middle class signal, because the middle drives out the uppers, then eventually abandons the product. I think, under capitalism, this must be the case, because there is no way to make something so expensive that the middle class cannot purchase it or a reasonable facsimile. Thus, the middle will have a rough time having durable institutions.

    One would have to instill a pride in being middle class, which I think used to exist. Or one can make it so that the middle cannot counterfeit upper middle signals, preventing the drift cycle. That would be an Ancien Regime solution. Only a few things in America are not open to all comers, like social clubs and prestigious degrees, and these things have maintained high class status. Low ranked colleges are basically in the same business as Whole Foods and luxury clothing stores – selling status anxiety medication.

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  3. I’m interested in the idea that the middle class would be the upper class if they had more money. It is an explicit assumption of a lot of American sociology (e.g. measuring “socioeconomic status” by wealth or income), and it seems obviously false. “Socioeconomic status” is a pretty transparent portmanteau, and yet somehow it’s ended up being synonymous with “social class”, largely independent of “economic status”, but usually defined as if it meant “economic status”.

    In my naive understanding of the history of the term “middle class”, it referred to people who were not of noble blood (and therefore not “upper class”), but were also so rich that they couldn’t be treated as peasants (and therefore not “lower class”). “Middle” was more of an admission that they couldn’t be called upper or lower than an identification of the merchants as occupying a position between upper and lower. Rather, they are just as much below the upper class as peasants are — on the caste dimension — and often even farther above the peasantry than the nobles are, on the wealth dimension.

    In the historical systems I’m aware of, having more money will not get you into the upper class, even if you have truly ridiculous amounts of it. There’s a process, and you have to follow it. (The Irish system described in Legal Systems Very Different From Ours comes close, in that there is a process that allows a rich man to be a formally recognized member of the upper class by pure expenditure of money — a zero-generation process — but that process does not allow him to pass his noble status on to his children; there is a process that provides true nobility, but it takes two generations to complete. Imperial China also comes close — in the main, noble status in the European sense didn’t exist — but membership in the upper class required so much education that it was more plausible for a nouveau-riche man to have his son educated than to pick up the education himself.)

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  4. Back in the 70’s I read a study that found that money and education predicted social status with income positive and education negative (but the more educated typically made enough more to have higher status). Recently, however, I read about a guy with a manufacturing plant telling how the high school grads on the floor made more than the college grads in the office, but the young women preferred the college guys. Quite the reversal!

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  5. This is pretty weird for me as someone from Spain/Europe. Here we have many public venueses (nice parks, infrastructure around rivers, beaches, town councils and schools where you can play instruments/dance) all open for free or for very little where you can get to socialize (people go to McDonald’s too but is usually teenagers or families). I think it comes down to population density and public infrastructure, we may live in highly densed places but ultimately places to hang around are pretty much everywhere and usually free.

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  6. I don’t quite see this bifurcation here in Vienna, Austria. Most restaurants seem to cater to the middle range. And my impression is that people here do not want to overly classy places because that would imply you have to dress up and behave formally and do not want overly prole places either because that would encourage behavior that disturbs others, they seem to sort of want the places optimized for people wearing “smart casual” and behaving in informal but civilized ways.

    As for socializing with people, which people, friends or strangers? Restaurants are nice but friends one can entertain at home as well, such spaces are not really necessary. As for socializing with strangers that does not happen here. People here are WAY less friendly than Americans. Neighbors don’t know each other, don’t chat, maybe mumble a greeting but that’s all. Nor do coworkers. The weirdest part is when people take their kids to the playground, they know kids need to socialize so they urge them to play together with the other kids there, but the parents themselves will not socialize.

    I think this might boil down to architecture. The great Christopher Alexander emphasized that architects should provide spaces that are intermediate between public and private. This happens in rural places rather automatically. I am out in my garden, someone walks down the street, we greet each other, chat. This is because there is a fence between us. I am in a semi-public space, people can see and talk but not walk across the fence. This creates a sense of safety for both. Not that anyone rationally thinks that without that fence we would attack each other but I suppose something in the subconscious does think so, the fence makes the situation less threatening for the subconscious.

    While in the city one is either inside ones apartment, invisible and untalkable with, or outside, completely exposed in public. That just makes people nervous I think, something in their subconscious says lets not talk because there is no fence between us and who knows what might happen. I mean I am a big man, it is not as much as someone would punch me but more like someone would think I would punch them and call the police or whatever. But it is not conscious.

    Probably it is not just the fence. I mean it is two meters tall but even if we had only those knee high American style fences that would still symbolically denote the garden as my space and thus only semi-public, with a similar reassuring effect for both. I think when people only symbolically claim place, like going to a metal club wearing a metal band t-shirt and thus have this kind of “it is our space and I am one of us” feeling that works too.

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    • This is an interesting thought about semi-open spaces. For example, my front yard is completely open, facing the street. This is an uncomfortable place to be. My back yard has a high fence, so I can’t see out of it (without climbing.) This is comfortable, but I can’t very well talk to anyone from back here. A medium-sized fence would provide a little protection but still let me see out (and would be better for the plants).

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  7. I think where the society is still more or less homogeneous there is common nice spaces

    When there are sharp tribal divisions and oppressive bureaucratic institutions – there is animosity and fragmentation

    Paris vs Seville
    Carmel by the Sea vs DC
    Spain vs US

    In us problem is exacerbated because most everyone uses car. And there is not enough interest in making walkable spaces nearby when you supposed to drive

    So in turn instead of public squares, parks and playyards US has lots of asphalt.

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  8. Starbucks is famous as a private nice space for the middle class. Maybe not for people with kids — I don’t think they have playgrounds. But for kids who can sit there anesthetized on a device, OK. Free wifi.

    This is part of why the 2018 brouhaha where Starbucks opened their bathrooms to everyone (after they threw out some bums who cried “racism”) was damaging to Starbucks’ brand. Bums take up space, but they also make the whole family-friendliness of the place decline.

    Most cities have local coffeehouses that compete with Starbucks, which tend to be good places to meet if you can stand the sight of tattoos and pierced noses. I know a guy who basically made a local coffeehouse like that his office. Go in at 10:00, buy a cup then just sit there all day programming. Sandwich at lunchtime.
    Once you get to know the barristas it’s a comfy environment.

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