Friday, January 23, 2009

Die, Spectacle-Commodity Economy!


I was rather amused by John Lanchester's piece on the decline of Woolworth's in the new LRB. Like many, during my last holiday back home, I had a trawl through my local Woolie's, just before it's closure. The shelves had almost been entirely picked over already; everything I used to go in there for (shoe polish, mostly) had already been made off with; very little remained of their confectionery save the pick-and-mix (the main bounty of my childhood). What was strangest was the bareness of the shelves: it was one of those chains which seemed to pride itself on being as claustrophobically full of stuff as possible (cf. Primark). It was rather like seeing a half-picked over carcass, an exposed skeleton yielding at times to substantial patches of skin and flesh; many items - primary schoolgirls' dresses, sellotape, paper - had hardly been bought at all, and spilled from cardboard boxes evidently hauled out from the backroom where the staff had kept them for years, assuming they would always have a home there. I'm reminded why I stop shopping there after the age of 10:

"The problem was more that the shops were so chaotic, so prone to not having the stuff you’d expect them to have, to selling out of precisely the things everybody wanted, and above all to having chronically demotivated, deskilled staff. The staff were hard to find in the first place, and if you did find someone, they never knew anything – where it was, what it was, who might want it, where it might be if it wasn’t right on the shelf where it was supposed to be, and why any of this was supposed to be of interest to them.... There’s a lot of this on the high street. Many of Britain’s biggest retail companies treat employees as a commodity. They are paid as little as possible, trained as little as possible, and employed in the lowest possible numbers. It sometimes seems as if managements employ a formula: work out the minimum levels of staffing for the shop to function, then subtract 20 per cent."

It's true: I felt positively evil, when shopping there, for perpetuating the situation in which these kids (and the floor staff almost always were under-18) found themselves. I'm glad to say this wasn't the case in the last retail job I worked in (training was always sufficient, and the managers usually knocking about if you came across something you really didn't understand; management constantly tried to keep staff numbers as strong as they could, more often than not constrained by miserly budgets from head office), but the same sense of hopelessness, of repeatedly having to deal with endless obstacles, is exactly the same. It's perhaps not surprising that so few retail workplaces are unionised: in late capitalism, the consumer interface has become so naturalised as to make the cylical daily grind seem ontological. Perhaps it's a bit much to hope that the current shaking of capital's edifice will precipitate a shift in this - but what the hell else do we hope for?

5 Comments:

Blogger kek-w said...

"It's perhaps not surprising that so few retail workplaces are unionised: in late capitalism, the consumer interface has become so naturalised as to make the cylical daily grind seem ontological."

Bollocks! Theorising is all very well, Dan, but the real world'll knock spots off it every time. Have you ever been involved in a strike, an illegal lock-out, stood on a picket-line - I have. People under 30 don't know what a Union is or what it stands for. I've worked with young guys who've been bullied, overworked, etc and they've been offered the chance to join a Union but turn it down every time...one guy told me he didn't want to join "because it was full of sad old lefties" and other guy said "he didn't think it was for him" lol....you're all the bloody children of Thatcher, you lot...grumble, mutter (cont. page 94).

January 24, 2009 at 1:05 PM  
Blogger kek-w said...

"but the same sense of hopelessness, of repeatedly having to deal with endless obstacles, is exactly the same." - that's you projecting, that is...

January 24, 2009 at 1:06 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Kek: you seem to think I'm bemoaning the uselessness of the unions here; quite the opposite. I'm saying that the business of business has come to seem natural, unchangeable, and hence a lot of younger people perceive that it's useless organising, because no change can be achieved. Where I worked, pretty much all of my peers weren't union members (I don't know about the older staff), for, it would appear, precisely the reasons you state. As far as I'm concerned the unions are absolutely the best way for workers to achieve influence in their workplaces, and the only reason I didn't join the union in my last job was because I knew it was only temporary before I began university.

And what, pray tell, am I projecting, Herr Freud?

January 26, 2009 at 7:55 AM  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

People under 30 don't know what a Union is or what it stands for'

I'm under 30 (marginally), and Dan is far more under 30 than I am, so how we managed to escape being Thatcher's children is a mystery.

I think one problem with the unions (I say this as a member of the NUJ, btw) is that they have no conception whatsoever of propaganda and the media. I love Bob Crow, but you see him on telly and his talk of 'our members' etc immediately alienates the very people who should be supporting the strikes; similarly, when the RMT (who I'm using here because they're the most militant and effective union around) picket, they don't give out leaflets to commuters or in any serious way communicate with them - which, considering they're usually striking about privatisations which hit the commuters as hard as it does them, is incredibly stupid. This terror of propaganda, media and self-publicity as some sort of evil dark art enables the press to paint them as 70s throwbacks with the greatest of ease - so young folk have the response you mention automatically, because nobody's ever told them different. Obviously trying to organise on the ground is one way around this, but unions really need to look at their own, dare I say it - image - first.

(I don't mean this in some modernising, Blairite sense, but solely in terms of presentation - something much more recently successful movements like STW have done much better, so you have the bizarre situation right now where the young are very willing to stick up for the rights of people in Gaza or Iraq but practically never for their own)

January 26, 2009 at 8:20 AM  
Blogger kek-w said...

"I'm saying that the business of business has come to seem natural, unchangeable, and hence a lot of younger people perceive that it's useless organising, because no change can be achieved." - I hear what yr saying, Dan...it's true in some cases, but a lot of time it's because they just don't care. It genuinely doesn't interest them on any level whatsoever, rather than they feel it's pointless - they're weirdly self-absorbed, but not about anything in particular - a sort of spectral selfishness that extends into all sorts of areas of social behaviour, pop.culture, so I'm wondering if it's actually just one symptom of a wider malaise - it seems to go beyond the usual self-preoccupation of yoof...everything's kinda generically 'okay-ish' - there's no real enthusiasm for anything in particular - they buy CDs, watch films, Tv programs that are all, y'know 'okay' - they lend each other CDs, DVDs - "What do you think?" "Yeah, alright." How do you unionise zombies?

Obviously, it's not everyone or I wouldn't even be having this conversation - but it's endemic around where I live and their response to unionisation seems fairly symptomatic of this, I dunno, weird apathy...a failure to engage or something...

Tho interesting point by Owen about folks willing to moan, protest about Gaza, Iraq, etc - is that a more urbanised response? I dunno...again, the guys I see don't care much about that either. There's a weird disconnection from everything, like some new species is emerging (or submerging - a somnabulant hibernation...)

I'm not sure what does interest them. They don't seem to even be that interested in women either. "Oh, her - yeah, she's okay, I guess..." Too demotivated to even be sexist lol...

The issue about unions needing to meet people half way is a relevant one and it's something I was involved in myself for a while - trying to find ways of engaging with college-leavers, new starters, etc until it became very apparent that none of them were even faintly interested. I find it incredibly dispiriting...

Still, there's new ways of connecting with people - as we're doing now - new ways of creating networks, associations, but it does just feel like we're preaching to the converted. It sometimes feels as if we're seeing the human race (Developed World Subchapter) split into two or three distinct meme-tribes based around their ability to 'engage' (with the physical world? Issues beyond their local Self-Space?) or something...

January 27, 2009 at 12:10 PM  

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