Thursday 22 September 2011

Stansted at night: dispatches from late capitalism

An artist's impression of Stansted Airport
My recent journey back to Germany was unpleasant. It began with a taxi driver who insisted on telling me that the Jews controlled the world's financial system, while the Vatican ruled the spiritual part of the new world order. From there, it was an uncomfortable four-hour coach ride to the airport. National Express has automated announcements now. In the good old days, the driver would tell us once, at the beginning of the journey, where we could find emergency exits and such; but there was a tacit agreement that nobody was listening, and the announcement was therefore not repeated. Now, however, the pleasantly voiced electronic lady will tell us to wear our seatbelts at every stop, over and over again. The machine is pitiless.

And so, at around four a.m., we arrived at last at Stansted Airport. I'd like to claim Stansted by night is pandaemonium, a wretched hive of scum and villainy, but sadly it's a collection of exhausted people just passing through, trying to minimise the unpleasantness of the experience. The villainy is systemic and thus much less colourful. For example, one of the first things you see as you enter the airport is a large illuminated poster advertising courses in Grenoble. Beneath the slogan, 'Stand out from the crowd', there is a large number of people, some of whom are in focus, while the majority are pixelled. Learn this, passerby: unless you acquire the desired human capital by studying for a flexible part-time MBA in 'the Silicon Valley of France', you're not even human.

Stansted Airport is an ugly box in the middle of the beautiful Essex countryside. It's hated by the locals, who campaigned successfully against a proposed second runway. So, why do I fly, from Stansted or anywhere else? I shouldn't, really: compared to taking the train, flying releases far more carbon, is not much quicker and far more unpleasant to boot. But while the EU maintains frankly insane tax legislation, flying is that much cheaper, and that matters to a penniless student. I dislike it and I fly with a guilty conscience. So do most people, but for the time being I have little choice if I want to see my family.

One might think an airport would be somewhat empty in the middle of the night, but since budget airlines fly either very early or very late, it's actually quite crowded. Tired people queue endlessly before Ryanair counters, desperately hoping their luggage will not incur the wrath of the company's regulations. (Ryanair employees are victims in this just like everyone else, and there's little as pitiful as seeing an employee and a passenger haggle over the size of carry-on baggage.) The vanquished customers tend to suffer what they must silently, so there was something deeply refreshing about the person who walked past five or six queues, exclaiming 'Fuck Ryanair. Fuck Ryanair. Fuck Ryanair' all the way.

Long I wondered why Ryanair irked me so. Now I believe it is the company's total refusal to lie to me. Like most things, Marx had something to say on this in the Communist Manifesto:
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his "natural superiors", and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous "cash payment". It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.
Human beings can't live this way: they struggle to reconcile themselves to their own commodification. Making people feel like things is bad for business, and so companies had to reinsert 'feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations'. They had to introduce the notion that Nike (Apple, BMW, ExxonMobil) loves you and wants good things for you. Processed foods must pretend to be made Grandma's way, politicians must see you as someone worth listening to rather than just another vote, and airlines must make a show and dance of caring about you as a human being to conceal the fact that really you're just another piece of cargo, if a particularly capricious one.

Well, Ryanair won't create that illusion for you. At Ryanair your personal worth is quite obviously resolved into exchange value. They'll cheerfully try to cheat you out of as much money as possible, creating blatantly fraudulent surcharges for card payment and luggage, thinking little of inconveniencing you with pop-up windows advertising car rental and hotels. They'll treat you as cattle in the most obvious way. They plaster advertising all over their planes and plague you with sales pitches for soft drinks, scratch cards and overpriced foodstuffs over the loudspeakers so you can't even sleep.

All that is quite horrible, and I cannot find Ryanair's honesty at all refreshing. I like my illusions. I don't need to try very hard to convince myself that Lufthansa cares about me: although obviously untrue, it's preferable to knowing you're just another commodity. Ryanair disrupts the smooth workings of capitalist exchange by being so obviously mercenary; its 'naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation' pushes you right into the reality of the way we live. It's a flying, kerosene-guzzling disturbance in the Force.

Stansted is a place where the dispiriting cheapness of reality and the sparkling dreamworld of advertising coexist in the 24/7 Spar and the billboards. It's noisy and awful, and I admire the people (a great many people, perpetually giving the place the appearance of being in the aftermath of some catastrophe) who manage to sleep on their luggage while waiting. It's not that it's soulless: it's that all signs of human use, of the history of the thousands passing through, is obliterated with industrial cleaner. Its small chapel (in reality, a broom closet with a couple of holy books and a prayer mat) is the only place that provides some quiet, and even there the noise of the airport can be heard through the walls, barely muffled.

Last but not least, it's a violent place. Airport police have now switched from the Heckler & Koch MP5, a submachine gun using pistol rounds, to the G36C (pictured left), a compact version of a popular assault rifle. As the magazines are made of a transparent polymer, you can see the rounds as you walk past - and 2¼ inch length rifle rounds are terrifying. The government tells me they're there to keep me safe and wants me to be grateful that several groups of Middle Eastern people were subjected to 'random' searches as I walked past, but I don't quite believe them. When I was a child, military lorries going past us on the motorway terrified me: I always thought they might kill us. That feeling, however irrational, hasn't quite left me.

Stansted by night, then: a place where the glittering fantasy world of consumer capitalism dissolves into sheer exhaustion, a place people want to leave as quickly as they can. There's quite a lot of shopping at Stansted at five in the morning, fuelled by sheer boredom. No-one wants or needs the things they purchase there. Perhaps we're past that: maybe we've reached the stage where, if we're still lucky enough to have any disposable cash, we buy just because we're supposed to, not because we desire things anymore. Well, at least we're doing our patriotic duty.

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