The mere idea of a “limited edition” makes the novelty preferableby Sam Leith / June 18, 2015 / Leave a comment
“Only once a year, on his birthday, did Charlie Bucket ever get to taste a bit of chocolate.” There—and note the force and poignancy that the disruption in word order gives Roald Dahl’s immortal sentence—is the very nub of Charlie’s world of longing and want. “On those marvellous birthday mornings, he would place [the chocolate] in a small wooden box that he owns, and treasure it as though it were a bar of solid gold [my italics].”
That last phrase strikes home. Here is a fantastical economics of confectionery. Charlie’s life is defined by poverty. Willy Wonka’s factory stands as the antipole. The opposite of wage-slavery—as experienced in the factory where Charlie’s dad screws the caps on toothpaste tubes—is the ownership of the means of production; the factory where Wonka makes the product that renders toothpaste necessary.
The annual chocolate bar is like a bar of solid gold. The ticket that buys access to the chocolate factory is golden. The secrecy that attends the factory is the legacy of issues with intellectual property (Wonka’s magical recipes had all been ripped off in the past). When he finds a coin on the street—surplus!—Charlie buys one chocolate bar for the never-experienced pleasure of gobbling it up at once, and can’t resist buying another—the one with the golden ticket—to keep; cutting into the remainder of his windfall he will take back to his mother. I’m not being facetious in saying that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is, when you get down to it, basically a fable about scarcity economics.
This isn’t all that perverse or surprising. Humphrey McQueen’s book on Coca-Cola, The Essence of Capitalism, sees fizzy drinks as a particularly pure way of looking at how American capitalism works. From the 11th to the 16th centuries, sugar itself (again, because of scarcity) was almost unimaginably valuable. According to Sidney Mintz’s 1985 Sweetness and Power, 13.5m people were killed or enslaved to produce it.
We now have the opposite problem: it’s superabundant. So to keep the market buoyant, as Marxists would see, you need not to increase supply but to manufacture demand—in the form of needless novelty and bogus scarcity. Does that work?
It works on me. What I am writing here is a hifalutin theoretical justification for my obsession with novelty sweeties. The words “limited edition” on the side of a packet of confectionery…