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Critique of The Portas Review

December 13, 2011

‘I want to put the heart back into the centre of our High Streets, re-imagined as destinations for socialising, culture, health, wellbeing, creativity and learning. Places that will develop and sustain new and existing markets and businesses. The new High Streets won’t just be about selling goods. The mix will include shops but could also include housing, offices, sport, schools or other social, commercial and cultural enterprises and meeting places. They should become places where we go to engage with other people in our communities, where shopping is just one small part of a rich mix of activities.’ Mary Portas, The Portas Review:

‘There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.’ Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 1: The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof

I don’t pretend to understand Marx’s analysis of “commodity fetishism”. My reading of Marx is a work in progress. Yet what I do understand is that it is impossible to conduct any kind of social relationship under capitalism without it being at some point mediated by the commodity. An example: the other day a friend was asking me if I would like to do something. I said maybe, but what? And then we ran through the list of things to do in Coventry: cinema, drinking, bowling, eating out, more drinking; well that about sums it up. But even in London (if not more so) there would be a lot more to do, but it would all involve spending money. But it’s not just a point about spending money, it’s the impossibility of imagining how to socialise without the help of commodities. Eventually my friend and I came up with playing the option of playing board games, which kind of involves just sitting around and chatting, but of course the board game is still a commodity. Sometimes capitalism is just suffocating.

And so to Mary Portas’ recommendations to the government on how to ‘save the high-street’. I’m not going to engage with her 28 recommendations in any detail at all, because the whole thing is nonsense from the beginning. Or what I mean to say is that it is impossible to achieve what she aims to achieve within the economic frame of her argument: capitalism. What Portas wants is for the high-street to be ‘not just about selling goods’. But what she doesn’t seem to grasp is that it is either/or. If the high-street is going to be a privately owned space for the production of surplus value, then there will never be a community there.

Her practical plan to create this community includes creating a variety of outlets on this high-street: creches, cafes, gyms, whatever. This diversity of products is supposed to encourage the consumer to stay on the high-street longer. There is this thing about trying to get the consumer to hang around for hours, like whole families do in those horrible sub-urban shopping centres that JG Ballard so brilliantly pushes to the limits of social sanity. These “non-places” become destinations in themselves on sleepy Sunday afternoons: ‘What shall we do today kids? Shopping!’ The idea is that if you are strolling about looking at commodity after commodity, you will eventually have to buy something. And if you are there for long enough, you will want to eat, drink, park, etc. Everything is private property, therefore chargeable.

So with Portas’ high-street dystopia, she wants to basically turn the high-street into a self-contained Ballardian nightmare. Go there in the morning and hang out there all day, every second money pouring out of your pocket and into the greedy hands of the petit-bourgeois. Oh, that’s the other point: Portas wants diversity in retailers, not just big chain stores. The rent must be cheap enough to encourage entrepreneurs. Problem solved, the community will appear in no time. Sound familiar? (A hint: The Big Society…that smug cunt who is running the country…that bunch of toffs who decide what we should and shouldn’t be doing with our lives)

Of course it won’t just appear. A community needs a commons. “Community” is a worn out concept, with barely any meaning whatsoever in today’s usage. We all lament the loss of community, and in the current era of neo-conservativism, community is a moral issue; ‘the health of the nation’ and all that bollocks. The Tories’ separation of morality and economics means they can aggressively push economic growth as a main principle, while at the same time having a go at the country for not being a community. The Tories can endlessly fall back on attacking the family: ‘not enough traditional family values’, ‘not enough discipline’, ‘not enough saving for a rainy day’, ‘not enough community spirit’. (Let’s not mention the devastating steps that Thatcher took to destroy communities in order to foster economic growth: classic primitive accumulation, the neighbourhood, high-street, communications and transportation infrastructures, the welfare state, social housing, the NHS – all colonised by capital. Fucking Tories, I can’t articulate in words how much I hate you all!

Portas: In order to recreate the community you want, you need to create a space in the city centre, town centre, village centre, that is not privately owned. There must be a space free from commercial interests. It needs to be a place where people go just to be, talk, argue even, commit to community projects, play music, read books. Sounds a bit like a park. That’s fine, but the point is that what Portas wants cannot come from private property, because within this condition social relations will always be mediated by the commodity, and therefore not based on any kind of solidarity.

Capitalism has utterly individualised us. We get home from work and are happy to sit at home, on our own, or with our partners, or families, and not really socialise at all. We are happy to go to the pub, and we can genuinely socialise in these places because there is a left over commonality within them, yet we are still hemorrhaging money as we do it (and destroying our bodies, and also self-medicating against the possibility of political action). We feel like the only way to see people is through an event or place provided for us by capital, for a price. We arrange a time, consume the social service provided for us, and then we go home, as alienated from each as before.

Why do we need to live in these fortresses away from each other? I’m not saying I could necessarily handle a commune, but living the other side of the city makes it very hard just to hang out with my friends without spending money on something, even if it is just petrol or bus fare.

What’s the moral of this rant? Capitalism destroys communities. The high-street is a ghost town because it only pretends to be a centre for the city. It also cannot compete with the self-contained shopping villages in the middle of nowhere.

Why don’t you just give us back our commons? Let us make the centre into a place we can share, with libraries, subsidised leisure centres, parks, children’s play areas, skate parks, sheltered and comfortable meeting places, places to play and listen to music, read books, grow vegetables, keep chickens, I don’t know, whatever as long as it isn’t commodified. As long as it has nothing to do with surplus value, I think this would really help to bring back the community to our cities.

We don’t need to spend money. The economy might need us to, and a capitalist economy certainly does, but that isn’t necessarily our problem. Capital is fucked, let’s deal with that as a long-term project. The first step is to take back our public spaces and have conversations again, help each other out, support each other. No matter how much we earn, capital wants a significant portion of this money to go back into the system. So why bother? If we can create our own ways of enjoying ourselves outside work, that are not mediated by commodities, they will be cheaper, if not free, and also direct.

The potential bonus of this socio-economic gamble is that if we could really reclaim the streets and the city centres, if capitalism does fall apart around us (which it would if we stopped spending so much money on commodities; the economy would stagnate and we would all lose our jobs) then we could just carry on together, on a new model we have already started to make a social reality. This could be an example of something like anarcho-syndicalism; each city a community of working and mutually supportive individuals who decide what to do with the city’s production and resources.

Fuck capital, let’s march into our city centres and make them into what we need, not places for other people to tell us what we need and make us pay for it.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 14, 2011 10:21 am

    I love the tone of this article and I completely agree that leaving the house without spending money has become a rarity. I think it also has to do with friends that have much more currency than I do and cannot imagine how to hang-out without spending all their hard earned cash, it’s like they feel that they must redeposit it back into the system to then work and earn it back again. Friends sometimes think that doing things that are free as less interesting than things that cost money, but I think that they should also consider keeping their cash out of the system as those without cash keep their skills out of the system. Perhaps one may not have a lot of hard currency, but that doesn’t mean they are broke in the alternative economy; quite the contrary, with a bit of organisation you can perhaps have more purchasing power in the alternative than you would with cash, and that’s the whole point, except that the alternative economy is more inclusive/permeable as it allows capitol to enter it whereas the cash economy won’t let me go to a cafe and wash a few dishes and in exchange for a coffee. I would have to pay for that.
    i would prefer to donate my skills, without getting money, to a worthy cause. I think the only way to do this is to set up an alternative to the High Street mentality that is not inclusive to those who earn and spend in the alternative economy.

  2. December 22, 2011 5:05 am

    My thoughts exactly upon seeing that Portas bullshit.

    The description of your situation is alarmingly similar to me and my friend’s though, even in proximity (Leamington Spa here rather than Cov). We both just graduated Warwick uni; no jobs, can’t afford to pursue MAs, so most days for the past 6 months, when we’re not applying for the few existant vacancies, we just wander into that one long strip-mall that constitutes Leam town centre, racking our brains for things to do without spending the money we don’t really have. In the end we just go to the cheapest cafe we can find, or play chess at a pub, frustrated that we’re basically being coerced into either getting drunk or hyped up on caffeine (and often both…).

    If you ever get the chance you should check out the Regent Court place off the parade, a kind of ‘up-scale’ appendix added to Leam’s high street, complete with a Starbucks and a ludicrously mediocre commercial art gallery. It’s hilarious because for some time now half the shops there have been unrented, and so there’s this paradoxical spectacle of seeing the windows of all these empty shops filled, edge-to-edge, with large adverts depicting people window shopping…

  3. February 4, 2012 9:14 pm

    you need to get a job n play footie,my man.As an old pub patron so sagely said to me on my 1st or 2nd time in a bar “Just shutup and drink ya piss”l

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