Fog in London and IKEA in Amman: How we unlearn to produce things … and urbanity

title pic - fog_ikea

Source: Fog at Heathrow: http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2014/03/13/article-2579935-1C40917600000578-943_964x624.jpg; IKEA on airport road: Author

On my way from Vienna via London to Amman some days ago, a couple of events made me think about how humankind is losing its capacity to produce and maintain things in a meaningful way. – As noted before, I refrain from using the word ‘sustainable’ any longer, for it has been extensively misinterpreted, misused and watered down, particularly by transnational corporations, so that it does not make sense to further use it as a reference to a desired condition.

While everything was fine when boarding the aircraft in Vienna, it soon became clear we are not going to depart on time. We were informed there was fog at Heathrow and because of a malfunctioning runway lighting system, there is only a limited number of aircraft permitted to land and start. And, understandably, priority was given to those already in the air and on their way to London. Having lived both in the US and the UK for quite some time, this reminded me of malfunctioning trains when it is hot in summer or cold in winter. It reminded me of annoying and never ending tube-closures; of a leaking water supply system; rusty, collapsing bridges and crumbling roads; and the ridiculously poor quality of many houses and buildings and all sorts of fittings within them. Commonwealth is not a category anymore and too costly. The state and public sectors should withdraw and leave everything to a ‘makret’ that sucks society dry.

How the heck can there be a malfunctioning lighting system in one of the world´s biggest airports for hours? We ended up spending three hours in the parked aircraft in Vienna and I missed two important meetings in London, because I was booked on a connecting flight to Amman, which was on time.

However, arriving in Amman evoked pleasant feelings of coming back. Even if on the exact day of my arrival the prize of the visa increased by 100%, rising form 20 Jordanian Dinar to 40 (~ 41 €), as the Telegraph reports. Back in 2010, my first stay in Jordan, the visa was 10 JD. It might seem far-fetched, but on top of an already tense economic situation in Jordan, recent unprecedented streams of refugees from Syria may explain this sharp increase. What the Telegraph article also says is that despite the insecure geopolitical situation around Jordan, it is still a worthwhile destination. With interesting places to see, stunning landscapes and extremely friendly people, which I wholeheartedly confirm.

On the way from Queen Alia Airport to the city, a huge structure caught my attention. Featuring a familiar CI, a new IKEA store just opened half way between the airport and the city. The furniture store with Swedish roots, now split into a cascade of firms under the umbrella of INGKA Holding, based in the Netherlands, is certainly a concrete example of an internationalised system of resources, production and distribution. As Starbucks has prominently shown, these complex constructs within big global companies aim at avoiding to pay taxes and shift profit or loss from one branch to the other, to benefit the firms. Interestingly, the case of tax-evading Starbucks is also related to the Netherlands. According to IKEA´s webpage, a range of about 9.500 products, sold in 303 stores across the world, and involving 135.000 employees, summed up to sales of 27.9 billion Euros in 2013. On top of the aforementioned (mis)use of the concept of “sustainability”, which can be found several times on all sorts of IKEA texts, the company even refers to their way of business as “democratic design”. It intrigues me that a company that praises itself for offering the best prices, dares to talk about democracy in the context of their practices. In contrast, Hodson & Sullivan (2008, p 8), building on Marx, claim that “[t]he exploitation of workers arises because capitalists own the means of production (the technology, capital investments, and raw materials) and treat labor as if it were just another inanimate factor of production. For a capitalist, labor is to be hired as cheaply as possible, used up, and discarded.”

ikea on airport road

New IKEA store at airport road Amman; Source: Author

It would be interesting to ask IKEA employees how democratic their workplaces are. Its chain of production and the homogenisation or “IKEAisation” of our houses are certainly not. Walking the steep hills of Amman and looking at the small joineries, representing just one example of small workshops and stores in Amman that create a lively urban fabric, I wonder what the appearance of a giant like IKEA will do to the city and its people. To not romanticise this aspect, it has to be said that the quality produced by local craftmenship is everything but high, which, however supports my overall claim. Nevertheless, as Jane Jacobs (1961) in her seminal work on American Cities so vividly showed, emptied of small shops and stores and consequently people, urbanity in our cities dies. Public spaces are being reduced to transportation corridors, prioritising individual mobility and connecting fenced off homes to guarded office blocks and to fenced off malls, unfortunately a common picture in parts of Amman, but certainly a global phenomenon.

furniture shop at jabal hussein, amman

Furniture shop, Jabal Hussein, Amman; Source: Author

Coming back to the question of labour and humankind’s ability to actually make things. Unseen waves of what is usually referred to as globalisation, politically pushed forward by neoliberal concepts, dramatically increased the distance between the worker and the product she or he produces. With ever more intricate ways to both locally and globally divide labour, reaching new dimensions with Fordian production-lines, comprehensive knowledge about functionality and aesthetics of products vanished. The worker has been detached from her products in order to gain full control of production processes.

The final cut came with the Reagan/Thatcher era, who utterly crashed unions and unfastened restrictions for international capital. While until then, the making of money was at least somehow related to mechanisms of the production of actual goods, from the 1980s, the gates were opened to savvy instruments detached from any sense of productivity. The well known consequence is a rapidly widening gap between the ‘have-a-lots’ and the ‘have-nothings’, and panicking middle classes where they still exist. It has been one of the biggest lies in human history that everyone can ‘make it’ if she or he only works hard enough. One of the latest phenomena in this regard is the drive of young people to create start-ups. Mostly related to the virtual world, the goal is to come up with this great idea, become a multimillionaire, or sell the firm for millions in a short time; everybody wants to be Zuckerburg. My claim is that the global system of making fast, easy money, sold to us as the way things have to be, is destroying our very ability to substantially create a liveable environment. This is not, however, to reduce work to physical work or manual labour. As Richard Sennett (2009), who mainly draws on Arendt´s The Human Condition (1998), states, there is a philosophically grounded notion to the question of how we produce things and how these non-human elements reflect back on our becoming in the world (to pick up on a Heidegger notion). In accordance with Sennett, if I talk about work and products, I mean both the physical and non-physical world. The aspect and importance of maintenance is also addressed by Graham and Thrift (2007, p 19-20), who argue that “[r]epair and maintenance are not incidental activities. In many ways, they are the engine room of modern economies and societies. […] they form a minimal discourse of commands, dates, addresses, manuals, storage and feedback which whispers the world into existence.”

For an urbanist and architect, however, the above processes are also of interest when it comes to the built environment and its social dimensions; hence again, space as both physical and non-physical. Spatially viewed, this process of alienation or disintegration is identically observable in the transformation of our habitats. Also drawing on Marx, Kai Erikson (1986, p 2) claims that “[a]lienation, then, is disconnection, separation – the process by which human beings are cut adrift from their natural moorings in the world as the result of unnatural, alien work arrangements.” My argument is that the problematic of disconnection not only applies to the condition of labour, but also to the spaces we live in. Segregation and urban renewal at the expense of socio-economically poor people, commonly termed gentrification, for instance, are spatial consequences of the same phenomenon. The creation of detached enclaves, on the other hand, is not restricted to poor communities. Fenced off gated communities is the same outcome just on the other side of the spectrum. Urban areas as spaces of heterogeneity, multiplicity, opportunity and innovation are severely in jeopardy because of this fragmentation.

To wrap up, for the same reasons we lose the ability to make and maintain things, we lose the capacity to ‘produce’ and maintain spaces around us that benefit as many people as possible in just and equal ways. Relationality – the set of trajectories that determine spaces, holds them together and thereby creates their ‘identity’ – is ever more interrupted and cut apart, scattering people and forming detached and isolated urban enclaves. A neoliberal attitude, hence, not only detaches us from the goods we produce (if we produce anything meaningful at all), but also prevents progress, generated through relationality in our living-together. That these individualisation-processes are happening is neither new nor a coincident. Having people separated and lulled with cars, TV-sets and refrigerators is a well known post-war phenomenon in the United States, for example. While there are also race-issues connected to this, with black or hispanic ethnicities being left in the urban centres, dispersed populations are easy to control and unlikely to become politically active. Attached processes mean a vanishing of spaces we desperately need to keep up social ties, to express ourselves politically and ultimately the doom of the urban (Lefebvre 1991, 1996, 2003) as such. Hence, while there is a discourse seeing a spread of urban phenomenons all over the place into formally considered rural areas, I tend to see the urban as a desired social condition severely compromised. An SUV-ride from one´s condominium to an office block, the gym, the next mall and back does not create the urban, but destroys it.

Being delayed on an flight for three hours is certainly not a big deal and complaining about first world problems. But what I see as fundamental is the structural shift behind it. While busy with making money in Tokyo, New York, London, or online, we lose essential skills and knowledge at the expense of deteriorating spaces around us.

Closing the circle and returning to Amman, the arrival of IKEA is definitely not the single event that threatens reasonable urban development, but yet another piece in the processes that rather harm then benefit a city. Moreover, qhile shopping at the IKEA will be a nice alternative to already existing malls for some Ammanis, others would be happy to have a functioning table, chair or bed at all.

 

Thanks to Ahmad Humeid from syntaxdesign, who commented on an earlier version of this post and who has pointed me to the actual complexity of Amman´s urban pattern!

 

Bibliography

Arendt, H (1998), The Human Condition, 2nd edn., London: University of Chicago Press

Erikson, K (1986), On Work and Alienation, in: American Sociological Review, 51:1, pp 1-8

Graham, S. and N. Thrift (2007). Out of order – Understanding repair and maintenance. Theory Culture & Society 24(3): 1-+.

Hodson, R, Sullivan, T (2008), The Social Organisation of Work, fourth edn., Belmont, CA: Thomson Wandsworth

Jacobs, J (1961), The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Vintage Book Edn. (1992), New York: Random House

Lefebvre, H (1991), The Production of Space, Translation: Donald Nicholson-Smith, Malden, MA: Blackwell

Lefebvre, H (1996), Writings on Cities, Translation: Eleonore Kofman & Elizabeth Lebas, Malden, MA: Blackwell

Lefebvre, H (2003), The Urban Revolution, Translation: Robert Bononno, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press

Sennett, R (2009), The Craftsman, London: Penguin

 

© All rights reserved by Sigi Atteneder, 2014

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