The Little Shop that Shouldn’t

Every day I walk past a little shop: The Village something or other. Some whimsical misnomer that transports one’s mind to the pastoral wholesomeness of a little hamlet set into greening mountainside, far from the bustling grey of London, far from the anonymous rush and the industrial, faceless cement and plastic flimsiness of relentless commercialism, to a quaint place of smiles and bowed roofs where cows chew the cud and the smell of slow baking bread fills the valley with its hearthside scent.  

Through the windows of the shop I see great loaves and cakes and biscuits and exotic chorizo, crumbly cheese and jam jars of chutney spread out on a bare, gnarled tabletop. The table legs are painted pastel and the tops are barren and raw and unvarnished, as if the table was rescued from the kitchen of a farmer’s homestead somewhere in rural Cyprus. The floor is bare wood and were it not for the warmth dribbling up from the underfloor heating, one would feel as though they had stepped in the romantic idea of some well kept peasant’s hovel. Brown twine hangs by the window frames and tied into are cloves of garlic interspersed by little packages of delectable niceties. Their sugar coatings glisten innocently. 

The bread, rotund and fat and welcoming, looks freshly baked but there is no oven in the small room. The crusts are cracked and tanned as if they had been sprayed by an artist and they are just the right amount of imperfect, just the right amount of misshaped. Sourdough, pumpernickel, ciabatta, focaccia; loaves with seeds in them, loaves dotted with raisins, square loaves and spherical loaves; all picketed by their own twee little signs denoting the prices: £4, £5, £6 and so on. Pleasantries and trite nothings are scrawled crudely and in charming handwriting about the walls of the shop and words jump from the curated mess: “Artisanal”, “Freshly baked”, “Organic”. In the fridge humming and casting a lazy glow by the wall, cans and pop-cap bottles with unrecognisable, calligraphic labels and beautiful pictures of lemons and hops and barley, and rose-cheeked children smiling, that look to have been masterfully designed in a loft in Paris, shiver with seeping droplets of condensation.

And each day, alone in his empty little shop, the proprietor, a young man in the mire of his thirties stands clicking dolefully on a Mac upon the table top, one foot crossed over the other. He glances outside past the milk cart he has sawn in half and placed pristinely by the doorway next to two empty milk pails and sees me stroll past. I imagine him to have started his stupid little shop on the capital of a trust fund. I imagine him to have thought himself mightily clever for noticing a gap in the market for unpackaged bread that warrants being sold for quadruple what it is worth, since it is wrapped in brown grease proof paper and tied with twine. I imagine him to delude himself that he is a self-sufficient entrepreneur and happily contributing to Britain’s economic growth.

I see him, and I look into his eyes and a small, guilty, fantastical part of me wishes that one day I could walk by his shop and see its doors shut, the lights off, and just beyond the glint of the window panes, the silhouette of his feet dangling loosely, rotating, ever so gradually, North East to South East and back again. He having despaired at the ruination of his silly, silly business.

For he is a symptom of the attritional gentrification that pours like a plague over London. He moves in flogging bread that, unless its flour is harvested from the fields of Elysium, is possible only of being marginally better than whatever is on the shelves of Sainsburys. He marks up his wares so they are unaffordable to all but the slickest of City bankers. And with him come those inordinately, undeservedly wealthy bankers. And with the suits comes higher rent, higher house prices and more expensive pints. And slowly, slowly, unnoticeably withdraw the poor citizens from this little area of London further afield, kowtowed and beaten by the subterfuge of gentrification that does not push them, but gnaws its way into their being and forces them to march. With this man’s faux-wholesome bollocks – a little play at purity and rugged pastoralness in a place devoid of it – come wankers who slurp it up because “you can taste the quality, Grace” and “well, actually, Oliver won’t eat Hovis; he’s very discerning!”

That is just the way of it. Slowly the culture of London that comes only from the poor is bought by the rich for pennies on the pound and turned into a gross parody of itself; it is purchased like intellectual property and framed on the white walls of large living rooms in the penthouse suites of glass towers. And the painters are left to scrounge on the dole, the inventors and creators scrabble for the crumbs. There is no stopping the advance of Artisanal bread.

Well, today I walked by the shop. The lights were off, the doors were shut, and in the window a sign said “Shop to Let”.

It seems the invisible hand of the free market has some welly in it yet.

That is, until the next foppish young scout comes along, and just behind him waiting, his clientele. 

The Corporation Makes Babes of Us All

A corporation is a business entity with a separate legal personality – it is a person in the eyes of the law. Fundamentally it is a mechanism through which to do business more efficiently and on a bigger scale. A corporation is effectively an individual; it can enter into contracts, sue and be sued, and cause massive ecological disasters, mistreat workers to the point that they commit suicide, or cook their books so that thousands lose their jobs… and get away with it – you know, just like me and you.

 

The East India Company, established in 1600, made famous by that film about a roller coaster with that dude who chased Johnny Depp and everyone was wearing wigs, is probably the earliest and most famous example of a vast, transnational corporation. The difference between corporations like the East India Company, and corporations since the late 18th century, is that originally they were established by Royal Charter or legislation. They were intrinsically linked to the Government and established namely to bring revenue home to the Crown.

 

Since the late 18th century, though, corporations have effectively created themselves. They simply register. They are completely private entities with no links to Government (wink wink). They are born to make profit for private individuals – pure business machines; giant neon glowing instruments in the Capitalist experiment.

 

As the 18th century turned into the 1900s and planes and methods of transport more effective than griffins and centaurs – or whatever olden-day people drove – got invented, as infrastructure developed so it became easier to cart things up and down the country, as telephones and TVs got invented, as the borders of nation states got more porous, as capitalism took hold and foreigners went from scary aliens to potential bottom lines, as email got invented and the stock market matured – as all that happened throughout the 20th century – so too did the corporation grow from an embryonic sprog into an incorrigible robber baron and now, as hair sprouted on its nuts, into a finely tuned, streamlined, toned bro with an MsC in Business.

 

Now the logos and motifs of corporations are as ubiquitous in our society as pictures of Kim Jon Un defeating Cthulhu in North Korea. We couldn’t imagine our lives without corporations – they are a part of our culture. They have reputations; notwithstanding their legal personalities, they have personalities. Corporations are important characters in the pointless, endless soaps of our lives.

 

We could not live without corporations now. Not in the way we are accustomed to – able to order a TV wider than a Chevrolet and thinner than a baby’s finger for a pittance at 2AM and have it delivered the next day to our door, and fitted for us, because we “realllyyyyyy neededddddd one dudeeeee”. This kind of indulgence is only made possible by huge, strident corporations with more money than Essex has STIs, more influence than Michael Buble in a room full of horny mums called Debbie, and more all-access passes to the VIP parts of the world than Chris Hemsworth has all-access passes to your vagina.

 

This evolution of corporations into entities with power equal, or superior, to that of Governments, comprised of more employees than some countries have soldiers in their armies, means that corporations themselves have had to change internally. Keeping control of that many resources and that many people and ensuring that each part of the business syncs up across oceans and over borders means that corporations have had to develop a method of ensuring uniformity – that all their disparate parts are working towards the same goal.

 

But the leaders of the corporation can’t keep its members in line with party policy like Stalin would have, they can’t lock them in gulags or purge them because, you know, employment law and human rights and democracy. Also let’s chill because after all it’s only a business trying to make money, and the people working for it probably all have degrees and egos and think they’re pretty important and impressive and useful and that their opinions on the War in Iraq after two glasses of middle-of-the-range white wine are well insightful.

 

So rose corporate culture – a culture within a culture. It is usually prescribed from on high, by some modern Moses in a bland head office in Atlanta, in the form of synergic, enterprising, dynamic diktats. They’ll implore the employees to live things like: ‘Working Together’, ‘Giving our Best to Clients’, ‘Being Socially Responsible’, ‘Remaining Collegiate’, ‘Working Fun’, ‘Working Smart’, ‘Taking-Over-the-World-with-a-Smile’, ‘Trying-To-Fit-as-Many-Ethnics-into-the-Promotional-Material-as-Possible’. Every single corporation has basically the same slogans, just worded differently – because seriously, to make them vague enough as to be digestible in a sentence and be aptly noncommittal, but specific enough to actually nearly mean anything whatsoever, there really isn’t much elasticity in what is considered good.

 

Corporate culture has reduced every self-important John packed sweatily into the 8:40 to St Pancras, every severe Jane forming part of the mass of rats teeming up train station steps, every worried Jeff marching hurriedly around with a Pret sandwich to an important meeting with Amy from accounts, to nothing more than a fatuous, gurgling child being managed by the paternal hand of their omniscient corporation. With so many cells making up the body of the corporation, something is needed to make sure they’re flowing through its veins in the right direction and getting that sweet, sweet paper to where it needs to be.

 

In order that the corporation’s nucleus can be sure each one of its floating, bobbing atoms is definitely moving in tandem with its objectives and living its culture, training days are laid down to show how to live the company’s values, appraisals are vacantly filled in while scarfing down a depressing Sainsbury’s meal deal and away days are attended with super-fantastical-fun-mega-awesome-wicked-you-guys-I-totally-don’t-feel-suicidal activities to act out the corporation’s values and culture.

 

Corporate culture imposed from on high by maniacally grinning HR grunts, splashed over otherwise desolate off-white walls in garish, headache-inducing primary coloured-posters, and written out in faux-approachable, condescending lingo that some marketing dick thought would be soft and cuddly enough as to prevent revolt makes children of men, reduces women to babies and turns back the clock on enlightenment, the grand philosophising discoveries of the ancients, the revolutions that forged democracy, that insatiable, insuppressible, uncontainable, ebullient, infinite roaring wolf of the human spirit that lifted us from caves to the highest mountains, from mud huts to towering, shimmering, celestial golden towers. Corporate culture, corporate values, the corporate ethos for its workers makes babes of us all.

 

A corporation exists to make money. That is all it exists to do. Certainly it provides a good or a service to the people of the planet but, honestly, by the time a business has reached size enough to be a publicly traded corporation, any thought of bettering mankind through the provision of whatever it sells is lost. By that point, all that matters is share prices and the bottom line. If you even for a second flicker on the idea that the PR fuckhead delivering some regurgitated shit on your TV about [insert corporation here] “going in a new direction: one that will provide a better, faster, more efficient [insert product here] for the consumer, while making the world a better place” is talking anything other than complete spunk then you, sir, are clinically a moron.

 

So then, the idea that the anonymous, vapid vapours of late zombie-capitalism in their brutalist head office in Atlanta think that handing down their corporate culture blather and their list of seven values for a brighter work space is anything other than absurdly abhorrent, is incomprehensible. The idea that a neurotically optimistic grin-in-a-suit with oddly sexy silver-fox hair thinks that his employees – who, lets not forget, are otherwise intelligent, accomplished people – will be seduced by this asinine, saccharine nothing; that they will live those values, ‘be a team player’, love the corporation like the teat of their own mother, is repugnant. Yet that is what these wobbly motifs seem to expect.

 

Not only is the corporate propaganda infantilising because of the way it is written: smiley emojis after every word in that email from Janet in HR, stupid multi-coloured fonts, at least ten words misspelt, and the world’s supply of exclamation marks because your invite to the Rennaysance Evening is so exciting!!!!! – but so too is it infantilising because it is deliberately obfuscating bluster and fluff. Instead of a pay rise or actual walls instead of tacky cardboard and fabric dividers, or a computer system that works, or interest in your opinions, or control over the days that you – a grown-ass man – can take as holiday, or freedom when you’re off sick instead of Brian from the Gestapo questioning you in the quiet room, or autonomy and creative flexibility over your work – instead of that – you get platitudes and placating drivel. Like your mum when you really wanted a matchbox car in Asda and instead of buying it she’d just smile so wide her cheeks detached and floated away and effected effete jubilant optimism in the hope that fake joyousness would anaesthetise you from your actual woes and prove contagious so you shut up and took the superficial satisfaction rather than the thing you actually wanted.

 

This is not to mention the fact that the corporation’s smiley, chummy, lovely, care bear, fluorescent, marshmallow-infused vomit is entirely insincere. Its culture and having it rammed down our throats that the corporation is one big family is insincere. The last I heard, nanna can’t make you redundant. So rather than trying to deny that you are only a part of the great big cuddle family until you’re no longer of any use and that the CEO is still beholden to profit and loss accounts and the money men telling him they need to cut costs, let’s just accept it as one of the vagaries of business and instead of trying to muffle it and swaddle the coarseness of business so it is smoothed and the evils of capitalism muted, lets have a corporate culture that engages in actual investment rather than superficial, shallow show tunes that try to convince you you’re in the gang and we’ve all got each other’s backs, yo.

 

Really the problem with corporate culture is the lack of control. When vast, globe-straddling institutions run the world, there is no choice but to work for them. And when we do, we become powerless, patronised, condescended-to little kittens batting a ball of wool about and thinking we’re hunting mice when really we’re being placated and pacified and blinded to the sanitised reality of our lives: that we are no longer providers, no longer virile, vicious hunters, but children paid a cheque by an invisible hand to tap keyboards in some vain, divided aspect of ‘labour’ so that money gets made for far off shareholders. And so that we feel like anything we do matters, like upwards of 8 hours a day, 5 days a week are not a waste, like we can be gratified in the corporation, we are sold platitudes and sweet-nothings in place of any democratic say, in place of any autonomy, in place of any bargaining power or anything that may imbue us once more with the mature power of sentience which is rightly ours.

 

We all want control. We need not be control freaks, but we all want to be masters of our destiny, the arbiters of our fates. That’s why Gwinn who hogs the photocopier gets in 20 minutes early every day and martyrs himself every evening doing busy work so he doesn’t go home when you go home, and tuts air between clenched teeth if Patricia is five minutes over her allotted lunch break One. More. God. Damn. Time. Gwinn doesn’t matter really. He doesn’t matter to his line manager, he doesn’t matter to the CEO. He is entirely expendable and nothing he does is consequential in the slightest. But Gwinn still forwards every email inviting the office to the picnic in the park, he still goes to every drinks mixer and tries really hard to blag about ‘the game last night’ with Anthony – who’s apparently friends with a guy who plays golf with the CEO – he still talks about the direction of the corporation and watches the share price every day as if his stupid, pathetic opinion means anything. And he does this because he is trying to effect the hollow symptoms of control. He is trying to fool himself into the conviction that he has any ounce of control over his life, over his work, over anything – that he chose to dedicate his life to the corporation. That it is not all some puppet show and all he is necessary for is to clock in and punch his keys every day and shut up and eat his cheese sandwich because to admit that to himself would only open up the void – the abyss within which lurk gutting truths and fish with bulbous eyes that whisper “you are meaningless, you control nothing, you are an expendable accessory, you have nothing that 20 other people don’t have, the corporation has you by the neck tie” endlessly into the infinite ether.

 

The thing is, HR busybodies so happy it’s like they double fisted 12 xanax and 15 valium and washed it down with a red bull-heroin milkshake before railing lines are a necessary evil. So too is the propaganda. At least, when an organisation is of that size and comprised of so many disparate constituent parts, it is hard to think of another way to filter down the company’s end game to all the little hamsters so they know vaguely the direction their work is meant to be going in and why they’re even doing what they do.

 

So then, it is a result of the globalisation of capitalism – the rippling, veiny, steroid-gains of enterprises of all structures so that they come to mimic the corporation in feeling, of the vigorous pace of business and the massive scale of production, of the huge wealth of wealth of modern society, that reduces all those workers who fever away for the machine into tiny little molecules and each of us truly not people, but workers and consumers. And workers and consumers need to be controlled so that their efforts are expended productively for the generation of profit.

 

It is an inevitable side effect of the top down governance of corporations, and indeed of our world – this detached, distant, globalised world – that real interaction gets replaced with instant messaging and emojis, real informed democracy gets replaced with endless, inconsequential petitions and a vote for a far-off identikit politician who’s either a bit more or less left or right than the other one, and real contribution to industry, real enterprise within an organisation, real job satisfaction, real training and real investment gets replaced with serious sounding appeals to your entrepreneurialism ejaculated onto a blue steel poster, and with empty HR conduits of “just a little something from Ted, the CEO, guyssss!”, and with unilaterally imposed contracts – “Yeah it’s two days less holiday, but look! Cycle to work scheme!”

 

Everything in the world is connected. Every idea is connected to every other idea and everything affects everything else. Corporate culture, therefore, and everything it depends on and replaces and all its attendances are but one microcosmic example battleground upon which we can argue the kind of capitalism we want. Just like the debate over taxing mega-wealthy individuals and mega, super-rich businesses. It may seemingly stifle explosive growth, since the ‘job providers’ are being impinged and the businesses might all run away from the horrible HMRC (although certain studies have cast doubt on this prediction), or we may have a capitalism in which growth is more moderate, but more sustainable, and it does what it is supposed to do – benefits the infrastructure of the country in which it takes place.

 

Likewise, one may say that a corporation simply needs to do a job, to provide a good or a service and to make money, to keep the economy moving, to keep development and never ending financial progress on track and therefore it should not concern itself with creating a habitable environment for its employees – this will serve only to be fruitless since workers all have homes anyway, and will only limit the entity’s potential. Or, one may say that investing in brighter office spaces, providing pay rises at least in line with inflation, and bonus schemes for good performance at every level, delegating autonomy and control over holiday allowance to the individual concerned, trusting that sick days are sick days because this is work and we are adults, not children at school, making sure that reviews are localised to within teams, and the same with social events – since there is no point trying to get 1,000 people from different offices to have a good time together – providing facilities and amenities so that adults feel valued and like they matter – one may say that all this – although it may divert monies away from risky investments and expansionary targets and board members’ pockets, is a worthy trade off for a workforce that is satisfied that they are actual adult humans, and therefore a society that is satisfied, and therefore a world more at peace with itself.

 

This is the part a corporation can play in the world. That all the corporations and partnerships and alternative business structures can. Because the question has to be asked – what is a corporation’s duty? Surely, when like behemoth, mythical beasts that squat strident casting their shadows over seas with one giant, all-encompassing webbed foot in Asia and the other in America, chewing nonchalantly on hay stalks and burping, sending great green gas clouds into the air, corporations owe some kind of duty beyond that of a mere private enterprise entirely separate from Government that functions within society instead of defining it.

 

It’s not bullshit to try and get more stuff either. The Hawthorne Studies showed that greater localisation of decision making, greater autonomy given to workers, greater involvement can trump even money as an incentive to work harder.

 

Or, you know, we could continue being nothing but frantic little suits scuttling to the train station sweaty and broken because we might be five minutes late otherwise and that would reflect badly in our mid-year review. We could continue to give the majority of our lives over to something that gives nothing in the form of self-actualisation back. We could continue using the concomitant of millions of years of evolution that have brought us to our feet only to be kicked to our knees and infantilised and made babes by corporations. The choice is up to all of us.