Monopoly, and the death of yeast

9 Oct

My recent post on home insurance auto-renewal drew a few emails. Here’s one of them:

Car insurance is another scam. Mine goes up and if I don’t complain – or don’t realise – I pay over the top, despite not having made any claims… EVER!

I forgot to make clear in my post that I too have never claimed. I replied:

A lot of people don’t notice. And many of those who do figure that life is too short. (This is where those long wait times on the phone come in handy, taken together with the fact you usually can’t cancel online.) Deciding to let it pass is quite rational when (a) many of us are more pressed for time than for money and (b) the insurers aren’t risking a bad reputation for the simple reason their competitors are doing the same thing.

Actually, (b) assumes they even have competitors. A direct consequence of capitalism’s need to drive down costs is a drift towards monopoly. (Hence the ousting of high street independents by chains operating at higher volume/lower margins.) Outside of the high street (and the dismal concentration of pubs into fewer and fewer hands for precisely the same reason) the drift is part hidden by complex and convoluted ownership patterns. My point being that even a switch of insurance providers may be illusory.

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As a youth I had a go at wine making. Spirit distillation in the home was illegal and there were dire warnings of death, blindness and borstal to those juvenile delinquents who attempted it. So I drilled a hole in the cap of a camp kettle. I filled with an even more execrable than usual batch of parsnip and rhubarb ‘sauternes’. I slid one end of a syphon tube through the drilled cap, ‘sealed’ it with tape and lay the rest of the tube in coils under a running cold tap, dropping the other end into a jar.

I lit the gas hob. I felt like John Lee Pettimore. At least, I would have if that song had been around in ’68.

The tricky bit, as I recall, is that the vaporising point of ethyl alcohol is a fraction of a percentage point lower than that of blindness-inducing methyl alcohol – and both are a few points below that of water. The exquisite calibrations these non negotiable truths called for were achieved by my judicious twirling of hob knob whenever the sauternes seemed to be nearing boiling point.

I collected a capful or two of neat spirit, downed it in triumph and, as you see, am here to tell the tale. I never repeated the process though. Too much faff for one thing. Nor was I entirely heedless of the dangers, and the Heath Robinson crudity of my kit. In any case, more exotic outlawed substances – and the life styles that went with – were beginning to call.

But here’s the thing. The raison d’etre of distillation is that alcohol yields from fermentation are limited. How so? By the fact that when yeast ‘eats’ sugar it produces two things: alcohols, and CO2. Exploding bottles in the cellar aside, the latter can be disregarded but at a certain point – varying with yeast strain but typically 12-16% – the yeast is killed by the former. I thought of this as suicide, though a skilled lawyer might make a case for parenticide.

What’s that to do with monopoly? Glad you asked. What informs capital’s ferocious drive to cut costs is competition. Yet that need to cut costs in turn drives the need for economies of scale. Which in turn drives that inexorable tendency to monopoly.

Is that such a bad thing? Maybe not when a pint at Wetherspoons – and let’s be honest, many of their pubs are cool places to hang out – costs thirty to forty percent less than the same pint at that shabby independent, just round the corner and about to go under. Maybe not when an Amazon buy packs a similar discount.

Remember though that (a) jobs are vanishing, (b) what jobs remain are increasingly casualised, (c) savings to the consumer are offset by wages negotiated/benefits calculated in light of cost of living indices which assume ‘rational’ consumer behaviour.

Not to forget (d). With competition eliminated (and entry thresholds now a formidably high deterrent to new challengers) so is the downward pressure on prices.

Remember too that this concentration of capital is not confined to hospitality and retail. The same processes drive banking, insurance, agrobusiness, armaments, pharmaceuticals and, well, you get the idea.

And, for reasons clear to those who follow my posts, these concentrations of capital, besides leading to levels of inequality as dysfunctional as they are obscene, is pushing us relentlessly towards one form or other of extinction. My money’s on nuclear war but I could be wrong; maybe it’s the exhaustion of earth’s capacity to sustain our follies that’ll do for us – and take countless innocent species with us.

Either way, I can’t help thinking about that lowly batch of yeast, killed by its own product.

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2 Replies to “Monopoly, and the death of yeast

  1. As the bloke said (and this will undoubtedly be a poor paraphrase ) the process of capitalism includes the seeds of its own destruction .

    • As it happens Bryan I’ve not half an hour ago finished reading this in Canadian Dimension. It’s a response to the British Marxist geographer, David Harvey. Specifically, it’s a rebuttal – correct IMO – of Harvey’s thesis that “capitalism is too big to fail”.

      But that’s by the by. What’s relevant here is a lucid and simple setting out of capitalism’s many internal contradictions.

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