Just spent three days in Estonia, in the company of one of East Europe's new entrepreneurs. Aside from the fact that he talked incessantly - and I mean ceaselessly - and only had two topics of conversation - business, and himself - it was all a little depressing. Shocking to see how huge the gap had grown between the mega-rich and everyone else. And how unreservedly they had embraced consumerism. The relentless march of McDonalds and Coca-Cola, top brand cosmetics and Versace T-shirts.
I spent a month in Leningrad back when it was still Leningrad, nearly 25 years ago. I was learning Russian, and it was a fascinating time. I had mixed feelings about communism. I could see the problems, and like everyone I was relieved when its demise meant I didn't have to assume that every siren that went off was the four minute warning. But I also feel that its failure was a defeat for all of us. The Soviet Union, back then, at least offered an alternative to the rampant consumerism that has now spread across most of the globe. The Russians I met had real character and soul, and I can't help wondering how much of that was due to their not spending most of their existence planning their next trip to Bluewater Mall or when they'd purchase their new Wii.
And much as I concede that communism had some very undesirable outcomes, I still feel that democratic capitalism that now predominates across the Western world is fraught with problems. Two stand out for me. The first is that party politics means that no government can afford to make unpopular but necessary decisions, and short terms of office mean none can take a truly long term view. Unfortunately, we need governments which can do both. Our inexorable appetite for more of everything - food, luxury, lots and lots of things - has brought us to the brink of environmental catastrophe, and only some very unpalatable decisions will bring us back from it. Assuming it's not too late.
Secondly, the rise of the multinationals and immensely wealthy corporations means they can employ legions to bully, cajole, and derail any governments that dares to go against their interests. Oil companies, sugar manufacturers, tobacco peddlers - you name it, these companies are very adept at getting their own way, and rarely is their own way aimed at the greater good of individuals or mankind. Just their shareholders.
I can't help thinking of my new testament lessons at school. Jesus overturning the tables of the money-lenders in the temple. His warning that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. A wise bloke, the messiah. But who's listening now? We've got our new religion, and its name is shopping.