A sideways glance at capitalism through some of its products. This month: the razor.
It was a nostalgia web-site which first coined the phrase “jumping the shark”. This referred to the decline in the quality of the 1970s TV show “Happy Days” which ran out of ideas and ended up with a desperate episode where the show’s star water-skied over a shark.
The phrase has now entered general usage to refer to the point at which anything gets taken just too far and becomes absurd. Socialists argue over just when capitalism “jumped the shark”: when its dynamic and revolutionary nature was overtaken by its wastefulness and unhumanitarian priorities. It has been after all a useful society in terms of enabling – at least to some extent – society’s productive powers to increase massively over the last 200 years.
It would be churlish to criticise all product developments inside capitalism. Just most of them. A good example of this is the razor blade, the earliest example of which was a long open sharp metal blade. Unlikely to pass product safety regulations nowadays, it nonetheless – in skilled hands – did the job. The development of the safety razor seems to this writer to be a useful advance. Encasing the blade in plastic to minimise the depth of any inadvertent cut, the safety razor was a big hit when first developed.
The market leader Gillette held the patent for stainless steel blades which did not rust so readily, but had not acted on it. Why not pass this benefit onto the consumer? Because they made more profit from selling lots of the inferior carbon steel blades which blunted easily. Perhaps not the best “a man can get”, then.
Similarly the move by Bic and then all manufacturers into disposable shavers meant lower up-front cost for the consumer but larger long-term revenue. In particular the adoption of the cartridge system (separate blade unit from the handle) meant that the manufacturer “locked in” the customer to their brand which – unsurprisingly – wouldn’t fit any competitors’.
The wholly disposable razor came next, followed by adjustable heads (the razer that is, not the user). One sharp cookie came up with the idea of having two blades side-by-side, on the dubious grounds that this somehow made for a closer shave. It wasn’t long before the main competitor responded with a three-blade system.
Whatever would they think up next? Crack teams of researchers worked night and day in labs to keep ahead of the competition. They finally came up with “Quatro” – yes, you guessed it, four blades. The careful reader will have detected a trend here, and you’d be right: a fifth blade soon followed.
This is a brief history of just one product. Your own local supermarket will betray a thousand similar stories of artificial restrictions, artificial needs and wasted human ingenuity. Without splitting hairs, while you deliberate as to exactly when you think capitalism jumped this particular smooth-skinned shark, the steel mills of China are ratcheting up production again as news comes in (January 2011 ) of the Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn announcing the launch of … yes, you guessed it… a six-blade device. Happy days!