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In sympathy with the anti-globalists

The look in her eyes

Defenders of global capitalism can be just as short-sighted as its critics

Defenders of global capitalism can be just as short-sighted as its critics

Adrian Wooldridge | February/March 2017

This is not a good period for the global elite. Over the past year it has been trounced by angry crowds of voters setting light to its world view. For once, I feel I was ahead of the curve. One shameful day in Chicago some years ago, I realised that there would be a popular explosion against global capitalism. I saw it in a chamber­maid’s eyes.

I was staying in one of those hotel chains with identical branches all over the world designed to reassure the globetrotting businessman that all his needs will be met, no questions asked, wherever he rests his head. I had had a rather self-indulgent night – the steak in Chicago is exceptionally good, and good steak deserves plenty of red wine followed by a few brandy chasers – and I awoke somewhat befuddled. Befuddlement turned to terror when I realised that I had to be on stage in an hour. I dressed hurriedly and looked for my spectacles. They were nowhere to be seen. I started to panic. How could I lecture without them? I had visions of tripping onto the stage, mistaking men for women, women for men and the slide number for the oil price. I had to find my spectacles.

I decided on a methodical approach. I examined each piece of furniture in turn, piling every item on the bed after examining it to prevent duplication. I took all the drawers out of the desk and piled them on the bed. I removed everything from the cupboards, including the iron and ironing board and put them on the bed. I dis­­mantled the sofa and put each cushion on my ever-growing pile. Toilet rolls, litter bins, writing pads, cushions, remote controls, towels, bath mats, city guides, picture books extolling the wonders of the Windy City…I piled them all on top of each other on the bed. I topped what had now become a dramatic-looking pyramid with the lavatory brush and its container.

I hit gold just as my time was running out: there on top of the bathroom cabinet sat my elusive spectacles. I shot out of the bathroom cheering and hollering and performing a dance of joy –and almost knocked over the chambermaid standing in the middle of the bedroom. She was a generously built African-American woman who looked as if she had been cleaning hotel rooms all her life. I stopped my wild dance, looked briefly into her eyes, grunted something meaningless and headed out of the door. The lecture was imminent and I didn’t have time to explain myself.

I walked briskly to the lecture hall, working out what I wanted to say. The subject of my talk was globalisation and I rehearsed all the familiar arguments. Globalisation makes everybody richer and therefore happier. It promotes choice and freedom. Critics complain that it makes the poor poorer. But studies show that multinational companies pay their workers higher wages and provide them with better conditions. Critics complain that globalisation means homogenisation. But in fact it gives everybody more choice: global citizens can spend their leisure time feasting on sushi and guzzling craft beer.

My talk went rather well; my banker hosts agreed with every word and took me out for a pleasant lunch. But as we progressed from salmon to steak to cheesecake and joked about the short-sightedness of the anti-globalists, I couldn’t help thinking about the look in my chambermaid’s eyes.

In her years of making beds, she had seen irrespon­sible capitalism at its worst. She had walked in on the most grotesque couplings. She had tidied up after people who left their towels all over the floor and their clothes strewn everywhere. She had cleaned up vomit and other bodily fluids. All these things might be horrible but at least they had some rational explanation. But why would somebody create a pyramid of furniture on their bed?

I walked back to my hotel feeling rather the worse for wear, the public-speaking adrenalin rush turning to gloom and the steak and cheesecake sitting heavily in my stomach. Should I find the maid and apologise? Or should I just pretend nothing untoward had happened? A combination of cowardice and laziness led me to settle on the latter option.

My room, of course, was perfectly restored to its pre-lapsarian state. There was nothing on the bed but a couple of chocolates, placed delicately on my pillow to remind me how well global capitalism looked after me.

4 Readers' comments

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Abraham Joseph - March 8th 2017

I think the author has very craft fully said what he had to say about Capitalism. He has shown its two distinct faces. The two faces are still unchanged despite the passing of more than a century. Capitalism needs its unsung underbelly to self-maintain, and this underbelly of billions in modern world, 99% in its now famous narrative, or at least 70% if we include the middle class too, who are part and parcel of modern capitalism. PEW research says, in the modern world, besides the clear percentage of the poor, if you add up those at the subsistence level of leading life, the percentage of those who are outside the capitalistic affluence is more than 70%! In Western countries, thought the per capita income of the above 70% might be more than those in 3rd world Nations, the price level of life amenities in the West makes the 70% count most rational and correct. World economy circles around this 30%. Only they have the purchasing power to buy Global industry produces. It is a different market compared to the market and the products for the 70% ! By what logic an enlightened mankind can agree to the above state of affairs? The so called mainstream world contain this 30%, leaving the rest at its peripherals! 70% does not feel any belongingness to the said mainstream! They are a different planet altogether! Would love to share with all who are interested, few philosophic blogs that explain the story more:

MS - March 6th 2017

I'll hope there's a part two of some sort that talks more about counteracting/really realizing globalization's promised benefits in light of the 'unforeseen', but very real and very visible challenges today. Have to also agree with Andrew that this article compelled me to create an account, if only to ask for better journalism and writing standards from an Economist magazine.

andrewrmarshall - March 6th 2017

I couldn't agree more with MLINUS. I have created an account just for the purpose of saying what a self-centred, patronising piece of nonsense this.

MLinus - February 22nd 2017

"The look in her eyes" (Feb/Mar 2017) may be the most ridiculous article I've ever read, and certainly has nothing whatsoever to do with global capitalism. Taking whole drawers out of a dresser and piling them on a hotel room bed, as part of a search for a pair of lost reading glasses? (Excuse me, 'spectacles'). Piling every single movable item including furniture on the bed as part of this same search? Seriously? What lunatic would take the time to do this as part of a search for something lost? I have to assume this column was written either (1) purely to give Mr Wooldridge the opportunity to humble brag about speaking at a globalization event, or (2) because his copy deadline was looming and he had not one single good idea. His chambermaid was not looking at him and the bed pondering the impact of global "capitalism at its worst". She was more likely thinking her customer was having a mental breakdown or might be dangerous. Nor did the room's ordered state on his return have to do with capitalism. This is what chambermaids do, they clean up after people - whether in a global conglomerate or a family owned B&B. Apparently the mannerless Mr Wooldridge believed an apology was in order, but admitted he was too "cowardly and lazy" to find his maid and make one. She was not looking for an apology, sir, the proper way to thank a chambermaid is with a tip - in this case a very large one would have been appropriate, to compensate her for the giant waste of her time you caused her. If this is the level of article quality 1843 has available to publish, then I wish you well in finding paying subscribers. I still receive the magazine for 'free', as part of my Economist subscription. That in itself is worrying.