The Return of The Workers


I noticed in the supermarket a young woman cashier with long black straggly hair. She was wearing a black sweatshirt and it had writing along the lines of ‘Key Worker – feeding the nation’. She was working hard. A check out till is a conveyor belt and there is constant pressure to speed up. But there was something in that term ‘key worker’ which wasn’t there two years ago. A sense of dignity, of importance in the social fabric, of doing something useful, something social, something that helps other people. A recognition of being a worker. Ways of Seeing doesn’t just apply to art; it needs to be applied to production too.

In 2020 the grocery retail market was valued at £200bn. The big four supermarkets – Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons – controlled around two thirds of that. The flows of Capital into and out of those companies – and ownership structures – are complex and will require further work to understand. Some easy to find statistics are useful and illuminating.

Tesco employs around 330,000 people in the UK and Republic of Ireland. Sainsbury’s employs over 145,000, Asda 145,000 and Morrisons around 110,000.

Union organisation and density will also need further work.

All supermarkets are nodes of contact and are private spaces and social, public spaces. They are critical components of the infrastructure of distribution and consumption. Here commodities are converted into cash, cash is turned into capital. Capital that flows, that can be invested, that can compete with other units of capital, can be concentrated.

Supermarkets, department stores, local shops, arcades, shopping centres are fascinating places to visit and observe. Here the sociology of capitalism can be studied, the anthropology of people who are coerced into doing repetitive tasks all day under specific types of discipline and control. The workers movements are dictated by specific processes which must be completed during certain periods of time. There are endless announcements, briefings, updates, power point presentations which are fed to the worker’s brain on a daily basis as never ending corporate messages. Subtle and not so subtle pressures are applied to prevent workers from joining or being active in trade unions, from raising grievances, from creating their own counter cultures of organisation and resistance. Attempts are made by management to discover the hidden transcripts.

Shops, supermarkets, shopping centres, arcades, retail parks. Here too the weird polarisation of capital. There are upmarket shops with security guards. In certain shopping streets the doors are kept locked and only certain people are allowed in. Other shops claim to sell everything for a pound or even less. The dynamic of capital accumulation which creates the concentration and centralisation of shopping leads to ever bigger shopping centres, out of town retail parks. The historical process can be traced in the urban infrastructure. Look closely at local streets and the remnants of local shops (and pubs and dairies and small workshops) can all be seen. Earlier forms are superseded. Previous shopping centres which are no longer able to operate on a certain size of profit are left to rot and decay.

Life and all the things that make up life, that are essential, useful, trivial become commodified. The relations of each person’s life to the world around them becomes financialised and monetised. It becomes increasingly costly to be poor. Raw materials are turned into ever more bizarre and grotesque objects. It is possible to buy a plastic castle for an aquarium. Even your goldfish becomes a consumer. Isn’t it cute? Thousands of miles away young Chinese workers are so tired they can barely breath in and out to keep their bodies half alive. Their life force is sucked from them by powerful forces. Capitalism needs these disconnections. There is not one Spectacle but myriad components, a shattered mirror, each shard creating its own peculiar reflection of one distorted fragment of reality. Inside the supermarkets the global standardisation of things and the homogenisation of labour; this is in conflict – contradiction if you like – and tension with the Spectacle of fragmentation.

At the sea front. Odds and ends of conversation ‘…we’re training in the new computer system’, ‘…I’m still blue from being in the sea’

I talk to a woman on a mobility scooter. It has a rainbow flag flying from it. I don’t know how we got into these conversations. We talk about people having dementia, euthanasia, death and funerals. And then both burst out laughing, ‘nice conversation for a sunny day’. But death isn’t talked about inside the Fragmentation of the Spectacle. It’s just another money making opportunity.

Her grandfather had been a miner, originally from Northumberland. One of the miners who tramped across Britain after the General Strike and came to work in the Kent coalfield. Some walked with their families and all their possessions on a hand cart. Militants and activists changed their names to avoid victimisation. But militant workers often won’t let go. They have a strong sense of justice and fairness and what’s right and wrong. These things are not so easily washed away or bought off with plastic castles for the gold fish. The miners built a militant union here abouts and a strong Communist Party too. She tells me about the miner’s housing – it was, and is good quality building. Mill Hill in Deal, Betteshanger, Snowden, Tilmanstone, Aylsham and Elvington still have a good stock of housing which was built for miners and their families. ‘Never wanted a mortgage’ she says, ‘always lived in a council house. Always been fine with it’.

A large yacht comes into the harbour and we wave and the crew wave back. She tells me how she used to sit on top of the cliffs with her husband and listen to the messages from the coastguard and the ships with a shortwave radio. ‘We’d sit there for hours’, she said. ‘He’s in a home now’, she added.

The sunny day was ending. Disturbing looking clouds appearing in the west. Clouds that may hold snow and cold rain and sleet.

There’s a natural break in the conversation. It’s time to be on our separate ways. I walk back into town noticing how the quality of shop varies, the quality of the building varies, the quality of the goods inside varies.

But this time I’m shopping for Revolution.

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