The Study of Consumption

There is no moral framework for production within capitalism. Nation states give priority to the production of nuclear missiles, chemical weapons, cluster bombs, police truncheons, tear gas, water cannon; feeding people and providing shelter, health services and education are secondary, or less.

Even outside the arms industries there is plenty of immoral production; oil, built in obsolescence, shoddy goods and much more. The whole system is predicated on exploitation and oppression.

Capitalism is not just based in factories. There is a totality which is expressed in the shape of cities, the types of buildings, the dominance of motorism, inequalities, despotism.

The advocates of capitalism argue that capitalism creates freedom. But over the past 150 years in which capitalism has clearly become the dominant form of production most people for most of that time have lived under conditions of authoritarianism and despotism. People have lacked basic forms of democracy – freedom of speech, the vote, the right to organise and demonstrate. The autonomy of self within an cooperative and collective society has yet to be realised.

I was at a conference in central London inside a lovely Art Deco building. The innards have been greatly altered but there is a sense of a grandeur of an earlier time in the entrance and the stairs.

There is often at least one speaker at such an event who drones. You lose the thread of their talk and find it impossible to pick it up again.

This can be quite productive time in a completely unrelated way. It’s dream time, a time to day dream, to think things through. Here inside this Art Deco building the speaker’s voice sounds far away and the words vague and as if being spoken through thick fog. I no longer have any idea of what they are talking about.

I start to think about what to do after the conference. I have no plan and enjoy a sense of freedom from any sort of obligation. I start to make a mental map of how to walk to the National Gallery. I will write a piece with the title, ‘Walking to See a Painting’. I’m trying to get a sense of my own emotions as to what that painting might be. There is a half-formed idea of Turner or Reynolds or Quentin Massys. I’m not sure if any of their pictures are on display in the National Gallery. Perhaps Bronzino. But perhaps the whole purpose of the visit is of discovery.

It’s a vague map that’s being sketched out in my head and it has a deliberate looseness. It’s geo-sensory and spatial-emotional rather than a graph of GPS references and technical expressions. The initial pulse to start the walk is not from an external technology but from within.

The speaker is like a shadow on the wall. I’m studying the network cables and the electrical supply cables stuck to the carpet with black tape and bunched up under a desk with thick steel legs. What is the relationship between powerful computing, standardised electricity outputs delivered over a national grid and the content of the speaker?

Surely all these inputs of power and computing could produce some more interesting outputs? Is the Powerpoint with bullet points really the best that all this technology and electricity can produce?

But perhaps we must conclude that the bureaucratic administration of capitalism is intrinsically boring and monotonous; in the same way that the manufacturing process of capitalism is intrinsically boring and monotonous, in the way that distribution is boring and monotonous for those involved in it….

I step out in the street. It is cold and the sun has disappeared. London has a feeling which is not of the city; it is elemental. Coldness, streaks of light in the sky rapidly being blotted out by inky blackness. I stand in Kingsway watching the people walking past so quickly. There is an urgency here but it is impossible to understand just by observing the people in the street what the need for all this speed might be.

Into Great Queen Street and then Long Acre, along St Martin’s Lane to Trafalgar Square. There is a Christmas Market, an atmosphere of tourism and aimlessness. But when I get to the National Gallery I realise I don’t want to go and see the paintings at all. I want to walk. I want the experience of consumerism, the city as a department store, the domination of exchange-value, the atmosphere of commodification and monetisation.

And how this is related to, and contrasts with, the sense of freedom in the streets themselves, the circulation of people, the constant movement, the noise, the brightness of the Christmas lights. It is a walk through a collision of several contradictions and many tensions and conflicts.

I explore Westminster Library and then up to Leicester Square. This also seems to have a Christmas Market. I walk up into Shaftesbury Avenue. There are empty shops here too. What is happening within consumer capitalism? Neither the capitalists nor the socialists seem sure. Into Piccadilly Circus. I stand here for some time but there isn’t much to see. Bland street entertainment that some people watch because they’re not quite sure what else to do.

But that’s not true. There is class and race and exploitation and much else in this. The Spectacle is not a cliche, it is not a formula, it is not what anyone person imagines; and it is constantly changing and endlessly producing layer upon layer of contradictions and intense disagreements.

Here it is, the world famous Piccadilly Circus; but the closer you get to these nodes of the global tourist trail the emptier they become and yet, not without echoes and bursts of the very antithesis of capitalism itself. It’s just that no-one is quite sure what that antithesis might be.

I walk along Jermyn Street and then into Waterstones to buy someone a card. It’s only later that a huge memory emerges, from that same place but in a very different time. Place, time, emotion, memory. Time is compressing, bending; events seem like centuries away but simultaneously as if they happened a day or two or so ago.

I wait for people to clear so I can take a photograph in Burlington Arcade. It is advertising Babylon and claiming to be a magical place. A young woman stops a few inches from me and stands next to me and starts taking photographs on her iPhone. She is so close that I say something just to melt that odd sensation of being too close to someone in a busy city space.

‘I’m waiting for a few people clear’, I say, ‘but this is probably the wrong time to take a photograph, it’s too busy’.

She has enormous eyelashes and smiles at me.

‘I work round here’, she says, ‘for a ….company’. I don’t catch what company that might be.

‘I’m taking some photographs to put on social media’.

I ask her when the Christmas lights were put up. She provides a detailed, date by date overview of the whole West End. Sensory geographies are in everyone’s heads.

A man in a top hat and frock coat is holding the door open at Fortnum and Mason. I go in and thank him. I don’t know if the rich have worse manners than the not so rich. There are many gradations. And people move between the layers. Changes in fame and fortunes, employment, unemployment, personal crisis, emotional disasters. There is a general polarisation into the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. And there is a lot in-between.

But I find that when the rich are rude I take it more personally. It feels more physical, more important, a greater social statement. I stand back to let someone come down the stairs inside Fortnum & Mason and they don’t say thank you. I notice this. In the local Morrisons all movements like this are commented on, ‘thank you!’, ‘that’s alright’. Occasionally there is some brain-dead Tory-racist type who doesn’t have manners. But they don’t have much else either.

On the fourth floor there is man in a suit playing a grand piano. This is a restaurant of some sort. There are two other floors. The fifth floor is like a private club. I lose my confidence here. It was as well I wore a suit to the conference as I look nicely smart. The old mac I wear gives the image (at least to me) of the distressed millionaire. This is the persona I adopt. It doesn’t quite work. I feel that strong atmosphere of class. A genuine millionaire would have had no problem in proceeding into this inner sanctum. I go strangely cold. That blows the whole thing. However, I do go up the sixth floor. There is a door which is closed. Opening that would be difficult. A young woman comes out.

‘Have I run out of floors?’ I ask her

‘You have indeed’, she says laughing.

‘What’s in there then?’

‘I can’t tell you’, she says, walking down the stairs. She looks over shoulder, smiling, ‘and you will never know’.

On the third floor two young women in the company uniform talking. This is what they say in public but it is their hidden conversations where the revolutionary potential lies.

There are so many people at work here; and that’s just the labour that’s on show. There will be a great deal that is invisible. Invisible; indispensable. The labour that is on show is a collective of the London working class; young black and white people, newly arrived migrant labour from Bulgaria and India; an earlier phase of migrant labour who have been here for decades, working hard, often for low wages, paying taxes, paying rents and mortgages.

And still they have to listen to a minority who say they don’t want them here. The London working class. Here too in Fortnum & Mason; throughout the West End as shop workers, delivery drivers, maintenance workers, construction workers, transport workers, telecommunications workers, network engineers.


The measure of price is beginning to spoil this particular show. It’s getting stuffy in here, without air, I’m beginning to feel that I’m suffocating. I go back out into Piccadilly. But much was learned; vivid, colourful lessons.

By the traffic lights a large man in a suit and an unbuttoned collar and a half- hung tie is looking into the distance, as if it is a distance he cannot fathom and explaining, ”…follow the process and tick the boxes’. His eyes don’t look like they are in this conversation and what if his soul isn’t too? What if his heart lacks connection with ‘process’ and ‘ticking boxes’. What then? Nothing unless a revolutionary movement can be conjured out of this to change it all, each and every atom.

The glitter is partial; it is an illusion but it is also real. No, it works to create an illusion. Everyone knows it’s not real. But the illusion has greater power than what is real. What is real behind this. Exploitation, exhaustion, sixty hour weeks in the factories of the Pearl River Delta, workers in the West End who go home and dare not put the heating on, who finish one job here and go to work all night in a Travelodge cleaning toilets, who go home and care for a sick family member, who give the kids beans on toast again, who can’t sleep at night for the worry over where they might be able to find a couple of hundred quid.


In Bond Street I’m stopped by a dapper man with a well trimmed hair cut. He is standing outside a shop and offers me a sachet of skin cream.

‘I will need a tub of that stuff to make any difference to my skin’. I make a gesture which suggests a large barrel.

He gently takes my hand.

‘I could scrub this gently and put some cream on here for you’.

‘That would be lovely’, I say, ‘but I haven’t got any money’.

‘You could pay on your card’.

‘I haven’t got any money on my card either’.

He raises an eyebrow.

‘Times are hard’, I say

‘This is true’, he replies, ‘but you have no idea how much money some of the people around here have’. He gazes philosophically up the street. ‘Even when it was hard times before, these people didn’t feel it. They’re the one percent’.

To put it into management speak he has gone miles ‘off message’.

‘Where about’s are you from?’ I ask, just in the interests of researching the character of the London working class.

‘I’ll give you one guess’. he says.

‘Poland’, but I don’t actually think he’s from Poland at all.

‘No, but I’ll be generous and give you another one’.


‘I’ve lived in Italy’, he explains.

He looks at me, I look at him. I want him to tell me so I use the tactic of silence.


‘Having a big heart is much better than having a lot of money’ I suggest. I’m not sure how much I believe this. I should have gone for revolutionary socialism rather than romanticism.

He raises his eyebrow again.

I walk up to Oxford Street and Christopher Place and Wigmore Street and Waitrose to buy a loaf of bread.

‘It’s been a long day’, I explain to the cashier. ‘I expect you’ve had a long day too’.

‘A very long day’, she says, ‘and I am getting old’. And she looks old. She is far too old to be working like this in the late evening. She’s a person under there in her uniform and hat. She looks at me and in her eyes are messages from the world and voices from the world. Each worker has them. We are all carriers of these messages.

‘Have a good evening’, she says, in a voice that means it.

‘You have a good evening too’, I reply.

And if it was in my power – no, if it was in the power of the working class – she would be going home now and she would have somewhere nice to live and some nice clothes to change into a glass or two of her favourite tipple, or tea or whatever, and she could go to sleep tonight without the dread of the alarm clock and without the worry of gas and electricity bills and tomorrow she could sleep in and get up gently and slowly and have the day to do what she wanted to do, and every day after that the same.

In communal luxury, in spirit, in humanity, in the swirling world of friends and conversation and good food; and immersed in the quality without a name.

Surely that is a better way to live?

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