Empty Grocery stores in Seoul

It does not take much digging to see a tremendous tragedy unfolding in Korean society today, and yet it is a topic that is studiously avoided not only at coffee with friends at Starbucks, but also in the newspapers, or the TV news broadcasts that serve to distract people from reality.

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In every neighborhood of Seoul, family-run grocery stores are shutting down. I have seen it around me and it troubles me deeply. I watched in our previous neighborhood a group of brave and creative people try to start a bakery. They did not last long, and later the family-owned bakeries disappeared soon after.

These stores are the last holdout of ordinary people who run their own company and make decisions for themselves about what they will buy and how they will organize the space around them. They are being driven out of business. In a sense, it is the end of democracy:  now no one in the local community has any say over how things are run.

I do not know the details of why these stores are closing down right now so quickly. I  welcome your input.

Perhaps they are being squeezed by the distribution system. Or perhaps they cannot compete with the convenience stores that have access to massive capital and can afford to go for months, or years, running a deficit in order to drive competitors out of business. That is the Amazon model, but it is also the Google model. It goes far back in history and sadly few around these days know much about how that game was played before, or how it was fought.

The result will be quite predictable: more and more people working at convenience stores or driving taxis, or working in some other job that does not allow them to make any decisions as to how the business is run but forces them to just follow rules dictated from above. The resulting poverty not only in terms of the income available to ordinary people, but also the loss of diversity in neighborhood cultures is quite clear. The cities are becoming deserts.

It is interesting to compare with the interiors of banks which are quite attractive, clean and spacious. Often there are many empty luxurious seats in the bank waiting rooms. There may be await at the bank for those of us with checking accounts trying to send money abroad, but next door there are sweet young women in the commercial section who sit alone all day long waiting for the business person, or the VIP, who comes once in a blue moon. But we should not make fun of these banks. They do at least offer some employment.

I would only warn those of the upper middle class who assumed that these massive economic rifts created by the financialization of our economy, do not assume that your career will not follow the same course. A competitive market economy driven by profit knows no limits. There will never be a day when those planning for stock market profits will sit down and reflect on how they have gone too far: complete  social collapse will come much sooner.

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