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Production Values

A sideways glance at capitalism through some of its products.  This month: bottled water
It may come as a surprise to younger readers to learn that water hasn't always come from the supermarket in plastic bottles. There was apparently a time when you could drink it pretty much for free, straight out of the tap. Just as if it fell out of the sky!

But that was in the bad old days. Before consumers wised up and demanded that all those empty spaces waiting on supermarket shelves were filled with rows of different brands of bottled water. Petitions, campaigns and protests demanding new beverage “experiences” finally forced manufacturers and retailers in the 1980s to relent and meet consumer demands for water filtered through Corsican volcanic rock, carved from ancient arctic glaciers or condensed from mountain clouds in Fiji. (These high-end products are of course in the minority. Most products, despite the iceberg or mountain stream on the label come via a tap in an industrial estate, across from an abattoir, just off the M6).

To think that there was a time when we used to think there was just water! H2O our science teachers used to call it, which does scant justice to the range of minerals, fizz and flavourings that can now be pumped into this “pure” product. None of which appears to make much real difference, it has to be said. According to the Observer, one blind tasting panel praised a particular water's 'fresh, sweet, lemony aroma' only to inform them it came from a tap in a Birmingham public toilet. Taking the piss surely.

Under capitalism there is nothing new under the sun. Not even rain. The market wasn't of course responding to a real demand so much as completely creating that demand. Perrier and Evian are hardly even an example of capitalism's supposed dynamic inventiveness, more a case of “old wine in new bottles”.

Humans need water. But capitalism doesn't need humans – unless they can be employed or sold to. So because they are too poor, 3,000 children die each day from diseases caught through drinking tainted supplies. Their mistake? – to be born not as capitalists, nor even as consumers under the market system. In some regions wars are fought over which capitalist controls the water. Every time a borehole is dug a common resource is sucked up, enclosed and sold back to us. Does capitalism think we will swallow anything? Clear as.

Next month: We look at “the best a man can get”. A cure for cancer?! Of course not, we're just looking at the razor blade.

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