It is unlikely that Westfield Shopping Centre was constructed as a living laboratory in which to study commodity fetishism. But as a laboratory for such a study it is a surprisingly good one. Here can be found the products of global production and also working-labour and consuming-labour from around the world. Where does this magnetic force of Westfield come from? Why, from the inner dynamic of capital accumulation. That’s the key to understanding the whole edifice and what goes on inside it.
And yet none of that was ever in the project plans. These forces were never discussed at any of the meetings during the design, planning and construction phases. You don’t need to read the written record, take my word for it. Karl Marx isn’t in the Gantt charts and was never mentioned in any of the PowerPoint Presentations. Nor do the ideas of Marxism feature in the promotional literature or the balance sheets or accountancy forecasts. It is a perfect example of illusions, fact, material reality, ideas, ideologies and counter-forces, class tensions and social contradictions. It is drenched with a fine mist of mystification.
Most of the middle-class-ish people I know dislike it. Most of the working-class-ish people I know like it. This is really neither here nor there. An appearance of normality and conformity is merely that; an appearance.
And because not enough attention is paid to what normality and conformity hide, the world gets into terrible predicaments. Normality and conformity hide – or try to hide – deep lava like currents of the hot liquidity of Capital – a liquid made of strange elements. That liquid runs through and across streets and up and over buildings and into and out of commodities and saturates people and social relations. The appearance of normalcy and conformity hides the tensions that lead to crises, war and revolution. Shredding conceptions of normal and conformity is part of the revolutionary process.
It is in the thousands of shopping centres, markets, department stores and local shops that the circulation of commodities ends. It is here that the multi-dimensional process of consumption-production-consumption-distribution-production-consumption takes place. The consumer buys and through this consumption re-produces themselves as a consumer, as person; (they maintain their own life). Here at the till, at the moment when cash is exchanged or a card is swiped or tapped. That moment is a critical moment in the circulation of commodities, of money of capital. Millions and millions of these moments occur constantly and simultaneously across the built environment of capital. Money flows back to the capitalists; this is the return they seek on their investment.
Retail jobs tend to be badly paid with poor conditions and high turnovers of staff. There are low levels of union organisation and little history of strike action in recent times. By this is meant several decades. And yet retail workers are critical components in the machinery of consumption. Even the automated tills require constant human intervention.
Consider the conditions.
One lunchtime, standing in the queue in M&S. It’s now my turn to be served. The Indian man on the till asks me what the weather’s like outside. I move my head to one side, curious, wondering what this question is.
‘Why do you ask?’
He looks at me intently. He has travelled far to arrive here. His eyes have seen many things. He has absorbed the history of the great culture from whence he came. And suddenly his smile has gone and he looks serious.
‘Because once I’m in here I have no idea what the weather is like all day’.
As for the first time I’m now aware of the glaring neon lights, the air conditioning and pipe work in the ceiling of the building. The hundred yards or so to the outside world. It might as well be a thousands miles.
One morning I’m in the same shop buying this and that for breakfast. A young woman is standing near the automated check outs. She is wearing a headscarf and long black trousers.
‘Please place your items in the bagging area’
‘Have you swiped your Sparks card’.
There is not a break of even a few seconds.
I lean forward so that she can hear my question but the prying antenna of the supervisors and secret shoppers and management spies cannot.
‘Does this not get on your nerves?’ It is asked as neutrally and in as friendly way as possible. She is vulnerable here. I do not want to make her feel in the slightest way uncomfortable. It will be easy for her to ignore this intrusion if she wants to.
‘I hate it’, she says, ‘when I go home it’s all I can hear in my head for hours afterwards’.
Two family members have both recently worked in retail. They explained that they might be expecting to end a shift at 6pm but at a quarter to the hour they would be asked to stay on as the shop was busy. This might mean an extra two or three hours. Not just without over time pay, but without any sort of pay at all.
Where is the research which is studying the impact of endless noise on workers, or in how much extra exploitation the retail companies are making by all those extra hours forced through with coercion and intimidation? It’s the detail which creates the picture. And yet each person in this situation thinks it’s their isolated problem when it is really a collective problem with a collective answer. Part of the revolutionary process is getting this idea of collective solutions across to large numbers of people.
Shopping centres, high streets, department stores, retail parks and supermarkets are large workplaces. Capital needs commodities to constantly and quickly flow. Here lies great profit, and also great vulnerability, and potentially for the workers, great power.
Westfield is a centre of commodity distribution. It is a node of capital accumulation; in a sense it is a capital good in its own right. The land values, mortgages and rents represent further channels through which the hot liquid of capital pour. It generates immense profits but it is all predicated on cheap labour.
And what of this labour? The commodities are products of homogenised labour, the buildings are the creation of homogenised labour, the shop workers and maintenance workers are selling their labour into a pool of homogenised labour.
It would be helpful if this process of homogenisation could be reversed engineered. Then it would be possible to examine each commodity and work out the percentage of labour which came from where and was provided by whom. 20 percent of the labour provided by Chinese workers, or more accurately, 19 percent of the labour for this particular commodity provided by Chinese women workers. Their weekly take home pay is x. They live in dormitories. From time to time they organise and throw up militant leaders who are then sacked, intimidated, imprisoned. This would be a useful coda to the operating manuals of computers, cameras, cars and much else beside.
Perhaps 27 percent of the labour comes from Bangladesh. Provided by workers in factories where they work 80 or 90 hours a week. They are physically prevented from organising trade unions and they are beaten or simply not paid on the whims of the managers.
14 percent of the labour is provided by children. The boys in the Philippines with their emo-like haircuts who toil on the rubbish heaps hunting for rare earth materials in the waste. Their sisters are forced into child-prostitution. All part of the requirements of the circulation of commodities.
9 percent of the labour originates in Germany and Switzerland. Workers in hierarchical institutions and some of whom are relatively well paid. But there is a nagging dissatisfaction which is never properly explained. Long sessions with therapists, the pursuit of certain life-styles, courses on well-being and mindfulness do not properly articulate what this physical and mental sensation is.
There are no measures for alienation. It cannot be weighed or cut into lengths. It has no apparent physical characteristics although it certainly has physical manifestations. Immiseration is a constant process impacting on individuals and sections of the class in different ways. What is the exact weight of oppression? A kilo? A tonne? It has a weight; we all feel it but cannot find the scales which will reveal what it physically is. Exploitation is at the core of the system of capital accumulation. But no worker knows to what extent they are exploited. Is it a few pence or thousands of pounds? For all the millions of hours of work each day in Britain there are few mentions of coercion and how people are effectively forced to work or face poverty, humiliation and drastic life-changes as they lose their housing and families and dignity and self-preservation because they lack ‘money’. And for the vast majority they must constantly work to replace the small amounts of money they have.
Heat map technology exists. It is possible to see the exact temperature of each part of a building. Perhaps a machine should be invented for measuring alienation and oppression and exploitation. Such a machine could hover over shopping centres and retail parks and high streets and tell us exactly what’s going on.
But until such a machine is built we must rely on more sensual methods of research. Looking, listening, walking. Hear the multitude of languages. Observe the different expressions of religion and cultural affinities. Notice the levels of integration between seemingly disparate individuals. Suggest that there is a great shared experience here of every day life. Of austerity, of rising prices, of a Tory government with no experience, no thought, no regard for working class life. Of basic notions of class, of rich and poor and polarisation and unfairness and injustice.
Shop workers are being pulled into every larger centres of retail. Consumers are being accumulated in nodes of consumption.
It is not common to think of consumers as part of the cohort of the grave diggers of capitalism. But here is a further light shone on the situation by the torch of the dialectic; most of those consumers are workers too. And that is yet another shared, and perhaps even deeper, experience.
None of this possible without producers; but none of this possible without distributors. And we shall consider distribution in Part II.