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The New-Style Mall and Liberal Populism

The Hammond Square Mall in Hammond, Louisiana, was a staple of my childhood.  My family didn’t go there all that often, but when my parents felt we needed to shop for things besides food, that’s where we usually went (there weren’t many options at the time in my hometown of Amite, Louisiana).  I was always excited to go there because I didn’t often get the chance to be in a large interior space; the relative complexity of it, with its escalators and DayGlo carpets, dazzled my childish, rural imagination.

By my teens, I hated going to the mall.  Shopping in general turned me off and, at any rate, Hammond Square was in a state of decline.  Back in the 70s, the mall had begun killing downtown,* but by that point the suburban-sprawl shopping experience was killing the classic mall.  People around here were more likely to drive for miles in their SUVs, going from one free-standing store to the next, in order to satisfy their manufactured desire to consume.  Eventually they demolished most of Hammond Square and built a new mall in its place.

In my view the new mall is more pernicious than the old.  It could only have been dreamed up by a cruel and ironic mind.  It is a Disney-like simulation of a downtown, a maze of little avenues complete with quaint street signs and imitation early-20th-century lamps.  The streets are lined with chain stores whose edifices are made to suggest an earlier, simpler time.

But this is not the 1920s and the new mall is not downtown.

If I had to choose between these two evils, I would rather go to a classic mall.  It is more honest.  With the vulgar trappings of 70s and 80s consumerism, it openly admits the destructive side of the dialectic of capitalism, which devours even its earlier forms (the classic mall mercilessly undermines the small business world of downtown).  The new style mall hides the violence, by adopting the guise of an earlier phase of capitalism, along with a nod to the style of community life that accompanied it.

I also prefer the old-style mall because it is transitional in that it preserves at least some element of sociality and a vestige of the commons.  For example, as depressing as it is to think of kids hanging out in a mall, at least it provided a public space for them to gather and socialize, considering that such spaces are sorely lacking in our society (a garish, commercialized space is better than nothing, I suppose).  Kids could even sit around and talk without buying anything, if they did not want to or lacked funds.  The new-style mall has eliminated such spaces entirely.  It is composed of disconnected stores with no centralized areas.  Hanging around in the fake avenues and parking lots of this monstrosity is considered loitering.

This is testament to the progressive elimination of the commons.  Everything is owned by someone and we are not to forget it.  In today’s world, if you are not in a private residence, or in an automobile on your way to a private residence or someplace to spend money, you are engaging in suspicious behavior and are perhaps breaking the law.  (Earlier this year I was told by a local cop, after being frisked in a public park, that my nighttime strolls down the streets of this city “look suspicious” and would likely prompt other police officers to stop me for questioning.)  The point was driven home to me further, recently, when I heard an announcement on the radio warning parents not to let their kids loiter outside the mall because it is “dangerous.”  Who knew?

But I digress.  My nostalgia for the malls of yesteryear is not really a wish for their return.  True, I have some nice mall-related childhood memories, but my ruminations on this topic result from a disgust for the status quo and the desire for a future that is different.  I don’t want a return to an earlier phase of capitalism any more than I want a return to feudalism and manorialism.

Yet it is precisely the mystique of such earlier phases — typified by the new-style mall that mimics the old downtown — that is at the heart of the ideological fantasies of both the left- and right-wing versions of today’s liberal populism.  Both dream of a return of the repressed (or more literally, the return of the surpassed).  Left-wing populism maintains that we can go back to the “capitalism with a human face” that reigned in the core states of the capitalist world system from the end of World Wart II to the 1970s; this is the dream of Keynesianism 2.0, of a new New Deal.  Right-wing populism dreams of a return to a laissez-faire capitalist economy dominated by small businesses.

The fact is, though, that neither of these can be conjured up again.  They have been superseded because of real contradictions and developments in the economic order.  The economist Minqi Li has suggested that the conditions necessary for the class compromise embodied by the classic welfare state no longer exist.  For example, the old class compromise only included workers in the wealthy core states; a contemporary compromise would need to include the workers of developing and transitional countries like India and China.  This is not possible within the existing framework of capitalism as it would undermine the system itself.  And as far as the right-wing populist dream is concerned, I can’t even imagine how small government and free competition would allow mom-and-pop businesses to take the reins back from transnational corporations.

Both of these dreams are petty-bourgeois in nature, and I speak as a refugee from the dying petty-bourgeois class.  We need a new dream that is based on our objective circumstances, the needs of the majority of the world’s population, and a commitment to preserving the biosphere.  Such a dream, of course, cannot be purchased at a mall, nor from your local mom-and-pop retailer!  It must emerge from the struggle for an entirely new order.


*  Lest any locals read this and object, downtown Hammond has been greatly revitalized in recent years due to efforts by the city.  Nevertheless, the decline of downtowns across the country remains a continuing fact of U.S. American life.

Gregory W. Esteven is an activist from southeast Louisiana and a proponent of revolutionary socialism.

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