What Motorcycles can Teach us about Capitalism

I think motorcycle riding is the perfect liberation from capitalism. As surprising as that sounds, I’ll give you three reasons. First because you can only take a small amount of “stuff” with you, even if you are privileged to be on a touring bike with two saddle bags and a top box. Second, because given this first reality, you cannot shop – there is simply no room to put anything. And lastly, being on a bike takes you out of the “I need to shop” mode and puts you in the “I am experiencing, first-hand, the sounds of new cultures, the sights of new cities and smells of new countrysides” mode.

What is perhaps most interesting about being liberated from capitalism is being able to actually observe it. The first stunning thing I observed was how profoundly unhealthy capitalism really is. We travelled through western Britain and central-eastern Wales. The country is for sale. Every other house, flat, office building in every hamlet, town and city has a “for sale”, or “for rent” sign. High streets are half-vacant; Britain is no longer a nation of shop-keepers. Whether the function of bankrupt economies, decline in tourist traffic and/or changing demographics where the youngsters are migrating to larger towns, the shuttering of capitalist enterprise is noteworthy.

The unhealthiness has another aspect – the physical unhealthiness. The grocery stores in Britain are dominated by chocolate, crisps, cookies, cigarettes and (I wish I could complete with another “c”), alcohol. Notwithstanding the outstanding selection of fruits and vegetables in the larger towns, even the large grocery retailers are dominated by the “4 C’s”, and complemented by prepared meals and sandwiches that are rich with butter and mayonnaise. So while Walmart may have announced its commitment to opening stores in “food impoverished” areas in America, there needs to be an equal commitment to providing access to healthier food. Observation one: capitalism is physically and financially unhealthy.

The second observation was how homogeneous the world has become. One benefit of this is that you can get your favourite yoghurt, jeans or ablution products everywhere; you can also get the same books, see the same movies, and get the same TV shows in any city. And there is a mixing up of cultures, reflecting true acceptance. As my travelling companion pointed out, for example, curry is now the official dish of Britain. Observation two: capitalism can be the antidote to prejudice and prejudgement.

The third observation is how friendly people are. Wherever we went, people were individually extremely friendly and helpful. Stopping for gas at a station in between two very small Welsh towns, not clear where we should stop for the evening, we chatted with the man filling up next to us. He suggested that town A was “a bit sketchy”, and town B a much better choice. And in the town of Brecon where we did stop we asked the inn-keeper where a good place for dinner might be – he walked us across the street to the Indian restaurant he recommended. We enjoyed the best Indian meal we have had in years. Observation three: friendliness is the unheralded foundation of capitalism.

To borrow from George Soros’ perspective on capitalism, which he refers to as “reflexivity”, observing capitalism can have a transformative effect on how capitalism can work. And on a small, personal level, this was the case.

At the conclusion of my “liberation from capitalism on a motorcycle trip,” I had one full shopping day in London, England. As I shopped with rigour and determination on Kings Road, leaving no store unexplored, trying on a multitude of shoes in particular, I was easily able to convince myself out of purchasing. Did I really need this? Did I really like it? How often would I wear it? How essential was it to improving my life? These are questions that only vaguely occur to me when fully participating in capitalist consumption, and if they do, I always answer in the affirmative.

This time two things happened. I easily convinced myself not to purchase; there was either insufficient need, or the desire insufficiently compelling. I didn’t purchase anything for myself. What I did purchase were gifts for friends and family. What I most wanted to do was to find the perfect items for people close to me as a small way of saying I was thinking about them, that they are important to me, and here was a way I could share my trip and experiences with them.

So my grand motorcycle tour, in liberating me from capitalist consumption for a brief moment, moved me from the self-interested consuming mindset to what I will characterize as the “I care for others” mindset. And then I thought, perhaps this might be an interesting way to shift the mindset of a capitalism that has created far-reaching, catastrophic and insidious social and financial destruction around the entire world. Take people on a 10-day motorcycle trip. Perhaps this could be the mission of a new organization – Motorcycles for a Better World. BMW, Triumph, Harley-Davidson, Suzuki and Kawasaki could collaborate and create a private sector-NGO entity that would take world leaders, corporate executives and teenagers on bike trips around the world, inspiring them to see and think about capitalism differently.