With yet another international trip imminent, I start to steel myself for the nightmare I know the journey will be. To an abrupt stop-go rhythm you will puff your way along endless corridors, then stand in a zig-zag line for security checks, shifting the weight from hand to hand, or hand to floor. This will be followed by the urgent rush to remove shoes, coat, belt, glasses and watch, unpack one’s laptop and jostle to arrange everything in those grey plastic trays, all the while urged on by impatient security staff who lack only the cattle prods to make the experience pretty much identical to that of a cow in an industrially run farm. Though arguably the farmyard smell (even allowing for the presence of silage) would be more pleasant than that of the olfactory hell that is the duty free shop you are herded through having run the security gauntlet.
The experience is both mind-numbingly boring and stressful, with few peaceful in-between moments for quiet contemplation. If your body is as infirm and unfit as mine, it is subjected to an experience that feels like somebody savagely flicking a switch between two states: Rush, wait, rush, wait, rush wait. Or in my case: pant, gasp, slump; pant, gasp, slump.
Prior to this, of course, you have purchased your own ticket, paid extra for the privilege of checking in your bag, completed the online check in, entered your passport details, printed out your boarding pass, then, at the airport, having waited in line to do so, printed out your baggage label, weighed your bag and heaved it onto the conveyor belt.
In order to maximise their profits by minimising the paid time of their poor harassed staff, the companies involved in running airlines and airports have managed to externalise as much labour as possible onto the customers who, to add insult to injury, are not only milked of this labour but also of even more cash. Encouraged to turn up early, they are left with little else to do but consume, captives in the shopping malls that airports and stations have increasingly become. Having had their liquids confiscated before the security check, they even have to pay for a drink of water. The labour processes involved in this unpaid work are not freely chosen. They are dictated by the corporate logic of maximising the productivity of the paid workers. The Taylorisation of the workplace is externalised to shape the processes of consumption labour.
It has been a gradual development. When I first started writing about ‘consumption work’, back in the 1970s, people thought that the idea of doing your own check-in at the airport was a dystopian fantasy. But, as I predicted, we have been eased collectively along this road (even when we haven’t wanted this) by the lure of cheapness. Practices developed by the low-cost airlines have become mainstream in a competitive race to offer the lowest prices. And, as in other industries, providing bargains for the customer has gone hand in hand with ratcheting down wages and working conditions for the paid workforce. Once self-service has become the established norm, the price of paid-for services rockets. It becomes an unaffordable luxury for all but the super-rich. Business travellers used to be reimbursed to travel business class. But no longer. Increasingly the rules of universities and public bodies like the European Commission stipulate that you must travel by the cheapest means possible. So the terms of your travel are dictated by the same rules as those that guide the choices of fit young back-packers, or retired people who travel twice a year to their second homes, with quite different stress thresholds and requirements for promptness. To bemoan this situation is tantamount to a declaration that you are anti-democratic. Cheap travel, you are told, has opened up new vistas of opportunity for deprived people around the world, giving them access to what was once the privilege of the rich. What right have you to expect to be waited on hand and foot? How elitist can you get?
What I like to imagine is travel under an alternative economic system: one in which the passenger is the commodity. As with any other commodity, it would be in capitalism’s interest that it should be hurried on its way as quickly as possible so that it can reach the market before the competitor’s product. It is in this gap between value creation (when the commodity is produced) and value realisation (when it is paid for by the customer) that capitalism takes its greatest risk (the risk that the product will never be sold at a profit). So the impetus to get this commodity (in this case the traveller) to its destination with minimal delay or damage is paramount. Making the customer the commodity would turn the logic of the present system inside out.
Assuming that the technology stays more or less the same (which, I grant you, is doubtful) in a system like this, the customer would be carefully picked up and placed on a conveyor belt with her baggage safely taken care of. She would be moved along this belt while a series of machines scans her passport and ticket. Waiting workers would remove shoes and accessories and unpack briefcases while she is whizzed through the scanner, and their colleagues further down the belt would then restore them. Food and drink would be brought to the belt (think of the time that would be wasted were she to wander off) and in due course her seat would be automatically shunted onto the waiting plane or train, ready to be removed by the same means at the other end. Her time and labour, far from being something to be co-opted and wasted at will, would now become precious. We wouldn’t want the goods to be damaged, would we?
You could think of this as a mad fantasy. But perhaps it is also a parable that warns fledgling political economists against muddling up production and consumption. ‘Prosumption’ remains a fashionable word in some quarters. But to imagine that it can increase autonomy under a capitalist system is a dangerous delusion.