Paris has a terrible system for buying metro tickets. I’m ahead of myself having managed to catch the early morning train from Orleans to Paris Austerlitz. But here my plan to make further progress is tripped up by a queue of people waiting to use the single machine at the metro station. It takes me 30 minutes to buy a ticket which costs 1 euro and 90 cents. I arrive at Paris Montparnasse station just as the train to Chartres is leaving.
I make a guess at what’s happened. It’s a process that’s being going on at a global scale for the past 40 years or more.
The managers were getting nervous about the workers. All that stuff in ’68 and then in Britain with the miners in 1972 and 1974 and the Pentonville Five and the popular government in Chile and a thousand other moves forward by the working class.
Then the great reaction with the horseriders of Pinochet, Thatcher, Reagan and the shock troops of tyrants and dictators. Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia, they all contributed mercenaries to these battles. Slowly the smoke of battle cleared. The metal armour replaced with new suits and perfect white smiles. The age of neo-liberalism and the management consultant was born.
Perhaps a few years ago the Paris metro had kiosks where it was possible to buy a ticket. An opportunity to practice French for the travellers, a small introduction to the intricate and curious life of this great city. But everything must be run for profit. The cost of everything must be calculated. What are those workers mumbling in the corners of the canteens and what do they talk about down there on the metro platforms? Their conversations stop as soon as the managers turn up.
Accounting, budgets, balance sheets, management incompetence, power, fear, neurosis. Some chief executives attend a conference. The PowerPoint presentations are impressive. There is a machine in the lobby of the conference centre. Here it is possible to buy a ticket without a person. Look how easy it is! This will eliminate the queues. (No one mentions the queue for the machine).
Management consultants are invited to address the board. They are very expensive. No one dares question how much. It is a closely guarded secret. Even to ask risks the threat of career destruction.
And as they are so expensive no-one dares question their actual hours of work.
This contrasts sharply with the supervision of the receptionists, the ticket collecters, the cleaners, the track maintenance workers. The exact time they start and finish work is watched closely and constantly checked.
The management consultants use words and terms such as going forward, reaching out, the new normal, low lying fruit, thought-leader. It is not always clear what they mean.
Here they are sitting at the table, a hum of arrogance and importance all around them. They are going to redesign the metro system, London Underground, the local hospital, how social care will be delivered.
They never use public transport but they are full of buzz-word compliant thoughts and theories. They never use the metro or the underground, they never use trains, they never catch a rural bus. They live in the country in detached houses with two SUVs. You must understand that they need an SUV.
They make it clear that by spending £100 m on their services the public transport system can make efficiency savings of £80m (or euros) over the next ten years. 12,000 members of staff can be made redundant, cleaning and maintenance out-sourced. The workers can be replaced by machines, the worker’s unions weakened, management control increased. The system will become even more efficient with all these efficiency savings.
The railway station can be turned into a shopping mall. Each square foot of space now has a money value. Far too high to have an information centre. Look at how much revenue will be lost. Monitors will replace friendly faces who can explain what to do when a connection is missed or to help people with their luggage.
No one mentions that people add to place. That people make places interesting and different and give them local character. Machines homogenise place so that it becomes everywhere and nowhere. No one has considered what happens when the monitors don’t work or the machines break and there’s a back log of maintenance work.
Perhaps the model in Paris is different but this has certainly happened in London. I have experienced it on contract work. I’ve sat in meetings with KPMG and Deloitte and all the rest of them. Some may be surprised that underneath the language of community, sustainability and opportunity how much cynicism there is. Do you know that if you sit quietly in those meetings you will hear them laughing at how the whole world seems to be duped by all of this?
The queue is impatient and fed up. Person after person stands at the machine fiddling around with a couple of coins. People are incredulous that they are having to wait so long. The two members of staff stand around soaking up the increasing discontent. ‘It’s not our fault’, they say, to people who are explaining that they will be late for work, will miss connecting trains, have their hospital appointment cancelled.
On the surface who’s to blame? This is another industry conjured into existence by the neo-liberals.
Refugees? There are no discernible refugees in the queue. No one has arrived in a small boat carrying a child who is clutching a cold sea soaked teddy bear. Perhaps it’s the poor? After all, they cause a lot of problems. No, the poor people are also waiting in line, clutching their few coins. Perhaps it’s the extraordinary force of woke? People demanding rights for this and that, people who want to be treated fairly and without prejudice, bigotry and discrimination. No, from where I’m standing it’s impossible to determine gender, sexual orientation, political ideas and religious beliefs.
It’s my turn. I put a 20 euro note into the machine. It takes a couple of minutes. About the same amount of time as talking to a person. The trip across Paris takes about 25 minutes. I miss my train.
Somewhere at the top of a large steel, glass and concrete box someone is droning on in front of a PowerPoint presentation about the latest efficiency savings that will transform the health service.
It’s a powerful machine that neo-liberalism has created. It hides its real intentions well. Behind the glass-box-office, a war machine. Behind the suits and smiles are the practices of greed and ruin. Behind the vacuous nonsense in the glossy brochures, policies of spite and hate.
I take my ticket and put it through the barrier gate. It’s a large metal contrivance. Good for keeping people in, good for keeping people out, good for squeezing out a couple of euros. It can all be measured, each 20 cent piece, each 10p coin. What cannot seem to be measured is how much neo-liberalism costs us.
Unmeasurable, the quality of life, the transcendental character of experience, the power and beauty of nature.