How to smell capitalism

Theme parks are remarkable studies in high capitalism, worth a field visit for every earnest student of business anthropology, mostly for their exquisitely complex form.  We have reached a plateau of mannerism when it comes to the theme park style and look, with each one trying to out-do the other in overstimulating glitz.  What seems dramatically under-designed is the entry ticket booth, and it is here that the theme park really reveals itself to the proletariat as nothing more than a machine designed to extricate a breathtaking amount of your hard-earned money and give it to those who need it the least, the wealthy theme park owners.  I’ve designed a few, renovated some, and observed many, and they all smell the same.  Here is how it works.

The ritual is pretty much the same, wherever you go.  You drive into the theme park, and the parking attendant extracts a token amount – $16 or $18 – from you right away.  While this is a shock – it seems highly unfair and unjust – you pay it because you have no choice.  In actuality, the theme park has now trained you to get in line, approach a booth, and hand over money.  You respond to the training well, and you are admitted to the next ring of theming.

While Henri Lefebvre wrung his hands about the space of production – the factory floor – he had no idea that the space of production would become larger than this, expanding well beyond the boundary lines of the capitalist’s production house into the greater area of the city, and beyond to the countryside, inflating until it reached every single corner of our existence.  Even our vacation time, our escapism, is now conducted within the space of production.  The space of production lies just outside the berm, just at the edge of the theme park that you wish to enter, so that you can escape  your own space of production.  Yet in doing so you just enter another, larger space of production, and you exchange one type of proletarianism for another.  You enter the theme park.

After taking money from your wallet, you now park and walk.  This is an ordeal that is in direct proportion to the size of the theme park.  The larger it is, the longer it takes to park and to walk.  You may be aided by trams, moving walkways, and escalators, but nevertheless the time  range is the same until you get to the next stop in your journey.  It is not the ticket booth yet, but rather a place that is darkly comic, the Search of the Purses and Bags.  This is performed by trained theme park employees with sweetly serious looks on their faces, pawing through your belongings.  You are still smarting from the parking fee, and this is free, so you are grateful and subject yourself to this invasion of privacy in the name of security.  It’s over quickly and you can then proceed to the next stop on the journey, the Ticket Booth.

If a car deserves $16 or $18 of storage, wait until you get to the next step.  When you stand there, you may be shaded and entertained, but you are not especially made to be welcome.  The ticket booth resembles nothing so much as a concrete bunker or guard shack at a military base, decorated gaily to remind you that you are supposed to be here to have fun.

In this line, you meet the people with whom you will be sharing this experience…or perhaps, more likely, you will begin to form hidden resentments.  They take a long time, they have bratty kids, they are different than me, they speak a foreign language.  Your deliberate action to get you to this place is intended as self-reward, a treat for your hard work, a day off; instead you are forced into the reality that you are not alone and that you will have to share this special time with thousands of others.  It’s a bringdown.  Overheard at this stage are remarks like “I hate waiting in line,” “what’s taking so long,” and other negative sentiments.

But again, a careful student of capitalism would understand that this is, in fact, a deliberate treatment of the customer.  It is not by chance that your moral capital is being drained out of you in this stage of your journey; it is not a coincidence that you build up a head of steam during the 20-30 minutes – or longer – while you wait in line.  No, visitors, you are simply being manipulated again, you are in a most hallowed space of production.  For it is here on this concrete walk between brass stanchions that you are being prepared for the moment you approach the hut.

In the special mood, you approach the hut worker, who begins a dialog that often tries to up the ticket.  It is a negotiation, a barter, an old-fashioned haggle in the souk here, and the savvy come armed with coupons, ID, and other tokens of value.  In the end, capitalism operates as it always has, a settled contract between buyer and seller, with a certain surplus value being reserved for the seller (that is the profit).

The buyer of the ticket, meanwhile, has been trained at the parking hut and knows the drill, but if he has not done this recently he might be temporarily drained of his blood to realize that they are taking a sum that is somewhat higher than expected; it dawns upon him that the sum is much, much higher than expected, so this suddenly takes the place of that new computer, an airline ticket, or some other such thing in the future.  Emotion clouds one’s reason, and the plastic gets loaded with debt, and then one is whisked to the next stage of the journey.

Not ten steps from the ticket booth is the ticket turnstile, and most proles are still reeling from the ticket booth experience, so the fingerprint machine seems almost benign.  The ticket, which goes through the machine, ties your fingerprint to the purchase – not for any convenience of yours, but for the convenience of the theme park.  And then you are released into your own private escapist delight.

The emotional push-pull works something like this:

  1. Expecation builds while driving in.
  2. Parking ticket trains you to pay money at ticket booth.  This drops your expectations down.
  3. You pass through the berm into the parking lot/garage,  and you park your car.
  4. During the walk to the next stage, expectation rebuilds.
  5. Comic relief during purse search, which psychologically “disarms” the prole and readies him for the ticket booth experience.
  6. Waiting in line for the ticket booth –  a mean and petty experience, discouraging much cameraderie and building a grim front of patience behind seething impatience.  This helps the prole practice anger management and behavior control, setting him up for the encounter with the ticket seller.  Tension is only broken upon stepping up to the tiny bulletproof window and counter.  (Note:  almost no cash is inside this ticket booth; instead the bunker is needed to protect the worker from the brutal emotional state of the distraught prole).
  7. Then, the climax of the experience, the removal of a shocking amount of money from the wallet.  This is successful only because of the carefully orchestrated experience that leads up to it.

I often fantasize, while standing in line at these ticket booths, that if I were a theme park owner I would push it a bit further, and make the ticket booths out of poured-in-place concrete, slightly cracked and wrecked with rusty rebar showing through, some tar daubed on it and bits of twisted metal lath stuck to the sides, a sort of homage to the mean and dispiriting nature of this part of the transaction, something that truly reflects capitalism at its most intense, a gritty and horrific little scene that shows the have-nots that they truly have not, and are about to have even less.  The workers inside would wear lizard suits, with stacks of gold bars gleaming behind them in the booth.  That would be the ticket booths in my theme park.

But in the theme parks of our land, these are usually mildly themed in a bland, positive sort of way.  I wouldn’t mask the effect at all, I’d really play up the true nature of this little part of the space of production.  I’d make it mean.

In the theme parks of our land, the ticket experience is safely behind you, and you then enter a place of uniformly carved themed plaster dotted with signage, lights, and sounds.  The depressing thing about all of these theme parks is that the stucco is carved, painted, and decorated, but in the end it is still just all stucco.  We seem to be swimming in this stuff, a sort of sandy smear over armatures, a dull and dead facade.  While in these places, I search in vain for a piece of something real, something metal or wooden or stone.  The hardware, like the light fixtures and windows, stand out because they are all like little jewels scattered on the vast beach of stucco.

And then I often start thinking of the beach as it is today, a sandy expanse that has become increasingly littered with human-made trash – drink cups, straws, flip-flop parts, gum wrappers and all the rest of the stuff we have filled up the earth with.  Our theme parks are no different, the stucco a frozen sand in which are stuck the advertising signs of all the trash we wish to buy, just to capture the moment and consume for the sake of consumption.  Beach = theme park:  this equation works on the commercial level (for most developers acknowledge that Central Florida’s theme parks operate like our beaches, as places of great attraction for visitors), but they are unconsciously like our beaches as well, bits of colorful plastic, metal, and paper stuck into silicon granules.  It is within these huge places we traipse, and the exchange value of the morning’s transaction is consummated in fullness of time.

Our wealthiest one percent have a heavy investment in these theme parks, so it pays to get the formula just right.  The new space of production in each of these places follows a fine-tuned formula guaranteed to extract the maximum amount from the prole, and it is such a successful formula that it can be repeated multiple times.  We come back for more, because we love it so  much, and we tell ourselves the exchange is worthwhile.  But is it?