Discover more from Jay Lesoleil
On the Giant-Cube-Based Economy
Do rich people really need all those giant cubes?
Last year I was traveling through Quebec, in the sparsely populated Côte-Nord. For hundreds of kilometres after Quebec City the Saint Lawrence can’t decide if it’s a river or the sea, very gradually widening and becoming saltier and more tidal until suddenly you realize you’re looking at the open ocean. There are a number of really pretty little villages along the coast there, some very old, each with their Catholic church overlooking long, thin seigneurie-style fields leading down to the water. As you progress along the coast the fields peter out and things start looking decidedly subarctic, with trees getting shorter and spindlier, and the land becoming a patchwork of lichen-covered, glacier-scraped rock, countless lakes, and immense bogs full of weird mosses and innumerable carnivorous pitcher plants. By the time you get to the Innu reserve Natashquan, the highway has become a gravel road, which continues on to a few more extremely remote communities before ending altogether. Everything past that is only accessible by sea or air (or, in the winter, snowmobile).
The old coastal villages, many of them settled by Acadian fishers from the Magdalen Islands, can be extremely charming. They’ve got little clapboard houses huddled around storm-tossed bays, boats floating the harbour, a post office and a general store. They look like beautiful places to live, if decidedly isolated.
But something that struck me as we drove back south towards Montreal was that most people in the Côte-Nord don’t live in picturesque sea-side villages. Most people in Quebec, outside of the central districts of three or four cities, live in the same place as millions of other people in North America: nowhere. The towns they live in are dreary grids, impaled by highways, ringed by dismal outgrowths of shopping plazas and business parks, utterly indistinguishable from anywhere else. Tourists flock to the little colonial villages of the Saint-Lawrence and the dense, vivid streets of the Plateau in Montreal for a reason: they’re unambiguously appealing. They’re nice places to be. But for a long time now, we haven’t built pretty little hamlets with white-washed churches, or close-knit, alley-filled neighbourhoods full of red brick walk-ups. We build something else entirely.
A huge part of the working class on this continent, and frankly a good part of the rich too, are effectively trapped in environments which inflict constant psychic damage on them. Everywhere they go, it looks the same. The goods they buy, which are all produced by the same dozen companies, are all sold in buildings that vary only in terms of the colour of their cladding and the logos on their roofs. Even strip malls are starting to seem quaint and authentic in comparison to the new normal, the aptly-named 'power centre': single-level warehouse-like commercial buildings squatting around a gigantic parking lot, maybe with some smaller buildings scattered amongst them to house chain restaurants, generic boxes to be filled in by whatever interchangeable set of themes and palettes capital chooses to arbitrarily wrap itself in.
I know I sound like I just read Fight Club for the first time. I think the stuff I’m describing is so normalized and ultimately seems so impregnable that pointing it out feels sort of gauche, no pun intended. Of course stuff is fake and ugly, and of course it’s all owned and controlled by a handful of people, and of course it all ends up producing a kind of vague uniformity even as it gestures toward variety. What are you gonna do about it? It’s the way the world is. But just bear with me a little longer.
In the 80s the Communist countries were mocked for their attempts to copy Western brands and products. The sight of shabbily dressed comrades lining up to sample the state-owned knockoff of a burger chain seemed hilarious to people. It's like they were play-acting at capitalism. It's fake! There's nothing behind the curtains, people laughed. They’re making it look like novelty, but there’s no novelty really there. It's just a simulation.
Today in North America many of the power centres, their owners perhaps grudgingly becoming conscious of the sheer soul-crushing anguish that they engender, are revamping in a style called 'Main Street'. The buildings, which are arranged in rows along a ‘street’ which is actually an extension of the parking lot, are given facades reminiscent of towns from before towns were abolished and replaced with power centres. They are occupied of course by the same four superstores and dozen chain restaurants owned by the same fifty billionaires. And in these gargantuan warehouses, on the fake Main Street, you can get your 'home-style' sandwich and select from among the 'staff picks' and browse the ‘Trending Summer Finds’ and be served by an employee who is being forced to smile for you. All the colours and frills and product names and elaborate branding are window-dressing to produce the illusion of choice and quality and you know it and they know it. You are presented with a commodified experience of shopping that signals at a bygone era of shopping. It is every bit as much a simulation as the Communist McDonalds was, because you too are play-acting at capitalism, because at this point capitalism is simulating itself.
Not so different from the communists after all. Aside from reinventing itself as a simulation, capitalism has accomplished something else astonishing in huge parts of North America: it has recreated the worst of central planning. Instead of organically developed towns with a hodgepodge of enterprises and buildings owned and operated by different people working at cross purposes, you simplify it by having one massive development planned and owned by one developer. Easy! One size fits all! You replace the main street with the Main Street-style power centre. And you copy-paste this across the continent.
What’s more, this late in the game, the capitalists are getting really close to essentially rationalizing and consolidating production and distribution. Those huge mega-stores that anchor the power centres — Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, Gap — they call those 'category killers' because through their unassailable economy of scale they just annihilate all competition until they dominate a sector of the market completely. Internally the category killers can then simulate variety by having different in-house brands and subsidiaries and offering various options, models and flavours. Instead of thousands of little businesses competing you just have twelve, all in one place, and in that place consumers can get everything they need. It is this place that much of the continent is now centred around. From Quebec to California, vast swathes of the economy are being obliterated, swept away to make room for the new normal.
Engels pointed out a long time ago that in a lot of ways, capitalism already socializes production. It's just the profits that are privatized. What he meant by that was that so much of the infrastructure, environment, training, and resources used by capitalism are paid for publicly: governments build roads and bridges, keep the peace, educate future workers, award contracts and leases to companies and so on. The public also foots the bill in less direct ways. For example, we know that one out of every so many trains will derail. It's a statistical certainty. Cleaning it up when some company’s train full of toxic sludge goes off the rails is very expensive and the government does it, if it gets done at all, not generally the train companies. Certainly the people who get sick and die are members of the public, not members of the board. In effect the public pays for capitalism and then capitalists take the profits.
We pay for it in other ways too. One of the common criticisms of the Soviet Union was that its people lived in identical ugly cubes, in blasted landscapes dominated by the utilitarian considerations of industry. We have ended up in the same boat, but in our case it’s because we seem powerless to prevent capital from building our physical environments up in the ways that benefit them rather than us. Millions of Soviet citizens might have lived in grim Siberian towns centred around a giant foundry or whatever, but millions of us live in grim nowhere-places completely dedicated to the needs of capital, where there is no question of walkability, public spaces, markets, transit, urban density, beautiful architecture, shady trees, parks, or wild spaces. There's only roads connecting the parking lots of power centres. Identical ugly cubes, in blasted landscapes dominated by the utilitarian considerations of industry.
None of this is an organic cultural preference of North Americans, incidentally. The insistence on simulating home-style this and Main Street that shows that people are nostalgic for the concept of a place that isn't a horrifying void. The only thing it really reflects about North American culture is our slavish obedience to the dictates of industry, beaten into us by centuries of living in the heart of the beast. The thing about North Americans is that it barely occurs to us that our interests should be considered in public policy, or that our interests could include nice places places to live and work.
So what we are left with is top-down planning and centralized, rationalized distribution, with much of the economy effectively taking the form of central product depots housed in large utilitarian buildings, operated by a handful of gigantic enterprises which each operate a number of subsidiaries focusing on different product types. In essence we have reproduced some of the worst elements of the Soviet economy, but with the absolutely incalculably enormous disadvantage that this shit isn't even publicly owned. The profits being generated go to a tiny caste of people who use it to consolidate their power and buy themselves spaceships and crime islands. Nor is the ‘central planning’ being done by people who are in any way accountable to the public, even indirectly or imperfectly. It’s done by people who would literally be fired if they tried to account for the interests of the public.
At least in the Soviet Union, with all its various flaws, the stuff being produced in the giant foundry your grim Siberian village was built around was in some sense directly useful to normal working people like you. There was no class of people growing fantastically wealthy from the arrangement. You knew that the reason your town looked the way it looked, more or less, was because an ugly concrete cube housing a thousand people in small apartments was a major step up from unheated wooden hovels with no electricity or running water, which is where your grandparents had grown up. You knew that your society had taken a bunch of illiterate serfs, shell-shocked and one-legged from two fantastically destructive world wars, still living in what was effectively the Middle Ages, and had rocketed them into the modern world. It had even rocketed them into space. What’s our excuse?
I’m so incredibly sick of the interests of a few cadaverous leeches dictating what the world looks like for real people. But it is what it is: what’s done is done. They’ve developed these enormous enterprises, perfected their supply chains and distribution networks, gotten rid of all the competition, and have plopped a clutch of their warehouses around a giant parking lot outside of every town in North America. We basically pay for it all, and these corporations employ millions of working class people and provide the consumer goods we all need. Fine. I’m an adult, I can accept that. But here’s my humble proposal.
If we’re going to have a giant-cube-based economy, where shopping consists of going to three huge warehouses and stocking up, let’s fucking nationalize it at least. Maybe the economies of scale exploited by Walmart should benefit the public directly. Maybe the efficiencies Amazon has perfected should, with working conditions suitably improved, go towards distributing goods to workers effectively while profits are reinvested to meet the needs of the working class. If we’re going to have a No Name brand that produces low-cost generic versions of every single conceivable product maybe it should just belong to everybody. If we’re going to have a Tim Horton’s in every single town in Canada maybe it should be publicly owned. Maybe Canadian Tire should really be Canadian.
And when we’ve taken the consumer goods sector and put it into the hands of real people, so that our material prosperity no longer hinges on a pack of treason-vultures skimming an enormous cut off of everything for themselves, maybe we can start building beautiful things again. Crazy idea, I know, but maybe people deserve to live in nice places, with sidewalks, and trees, and little co-ops operating little bookstores and shit, and actual main streets. Maybe not everything needs to be as ugly and fake and stupid as we can make it. Just spitballing here.
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