A Christian Brothers’ primary school in Mullingar in the late 1960s. A young boy has been forced to sit under the teacher’s desk for failing a spelling test. Every time he makes a mistake he receives a further kick from the teacher. Was this abuse? Not in the view of the CEO of Ryanair, Michael O’Leary, who was that little boy. In an interview with Siobhán Creaton, he claimed:
“I was only seven years old but I don’t think of myself as an abused or battered soul and I certainly got my spelling right the next day.” (Creaton 2007)
He helpfully added that if he had children and a teacher asked him if he could slap one of them, he would say, “Go right ahead.” Nothing like a good kicking to make sure you get your ABC right and as every Ryanair passenger comes to realise, sparing the rod can spoil the bottom line. The states of fear that provided the formative milieu for the young O’Leary have been profitably transferred to the airline which has developed a specialism in corporate punishment.
What you have you can no longer hold. The first intimation that fear is the order of the day is the policing of the weighing scales. The suitcase is lifted with a faint crackle of anxiety onto the belt and the digits illuminate the verdict. The shame of being outed for being overweight and ordered to leave the queue, like some errant Oliver being refused another bowl. Here is your moment in the stocks, the disinterred contents of your suitcase subject to the mocking gaze of onlookers who quietly savour the schadenfreude of the moment, that vaguely condescending triumph of the rule obeyers, craftily weighing bags on bathroom scales to enjoy the warm compliance of the Ryanair forcing house.
The queues. This is another sign that you are entering into a world where new rules apply. The queuing starts long before the gate opens. Initially, there is the animated conversation as the passengers join the queue for the unallocated seats but quickly the initial excitement of departure gives way to the silent, sullen hostility of the long wait. Penned in like unhappy cattle destined for foreign meat markets, the passengers have that fretful anxiety of deportees alert to any rumour of delay or departure. Here is where the black and white realities of coercion begin to leak from the past into the present. The photographs of those people in a line in Warsaw, Leningrad, Vilnius, Prague, queuing for a living. Waiting hour after hour for the goods that might or might not make it to the counter and past the reproachful glare of the Konsum hireling. State communism and advanced capitalism converge in this lining up of subjects. The same sense of frustrated expectation, the fretfulness of losing one’s place, the inner stiffening as the officials in uniform pass by checking entitlement, examing the size of bags, according the random grace of privilege (it’s a bit over but it’s OK). A queue becomes not just a means of saving money – there is no need to allocate seats – it becomes a way to order lives.
Giorgio Agamben has captured a sense of this experience in the notion of “apparatus”. For Agamben, the apparatus is anything which has the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model or control the gestures, conduct, opinions or discourse of living beings. Thus, the apparatus is to be understood not only in the Foucauldian sense of prisons, confession boxes, factories, hospitals but also the pen, writing, literature, philosophy, agriculture, the cigarette, computers, mobile phones and indeed language itself (Agamben 2009). He sees a fundamental dichotomy between living beings and the apparatuses to which they are subject, a division between the ontology of creatures and what he calls the oikonomia or organised system of the apparatuses which determine and govern their lives. Agamben argues that traditionally each apparatus brought with it its own form of subjectivity. An apparatus only became effective when one willingly complied with its demands and took on the role of the model prisoner or the good student; otherwise the only way the apparatus could be enforced was through pure violence. In our present era, however, Agamben argues that what we are increasingly experiencing through various kinds of political and technological apparatuses is a form of desubjectivisation. In other words, rather than the apparatus giving rise to a new form of subjectivity, it leads to the loss of subjectivity or the reduction of the subjective to larval or spectral forms. Hence, the increasing difficulty of thinking of contemporary politics in terms of traditional subjectivities and identities such as the working class, bourgeoisie and so on or the eclipse of major policy differences between parties of the left and right so that politics becomes reduced to a mere matter of technical governance. The much vaunted era of the individual becomes the age of the vanishing subject. The apparatus of the queue becomes both the instrument and the showcase for this diminished sense of self.
There are of course not one but two queues. The early rhetoric of emancipation (low cost travel for all) gives way to more brutal distinctions. Priority Q and Other Q. The delicate euphemisms of other airlines, Coach or Economy, hint at a certain exercise in differentiation, a desire to flag difference without dismissal. “Other”, however, in a satirical bow to the postmodern, as in so much in late capitalism, brings to mind an undifferentiated mass not worthy of distinction. The adjective is not even granted the escort of a determiner, a “the” that might hint at specification. No, only the Other, an empty receptacle for the those who are not considered a Priority. It is these numberless Others who must compensate for an absence of privilege with an excess of patience. As George Orwell repeatedly noted the one thing the poor need and the rich lack is time. As they stand and wait in the Other Q, passengers are reminded that it is the indistinct, like taxpayers subsidising bankers, who are constantly prey to the cost of Distinction.
When boarding begins, just as it seemed as if the plane had been grounded in an eternity of cussedness, the scene makes for poor viewing. More shambolic senior infants’ race at a school fair than thoroughbreds bursting from the gates at Fairyhouse, the passengers hurry in a nervous, windblown dash to the waiting craft, a primal fear of being left behind giving way to an aggressive wish to be ahead, a civilised veneer of docility fading to a red in tooth and claw quickstep. This is reality TV for those grounded in reality. The Apprentice Travellers learn that it is all about the survival of the fastest. In the bargain basement Darwinism of Low Cost, there is no room for the encumbered or the halt of limb, as the meek are jostled off the steps to the plane by the neo-liberal übermensch. The Weakest Link is to be despised not pitied in this new moral order that plays itself out on the middle passage between the departure gate and the aircraft door. Zarathustra is on this stretch of tarmac, proclaiming for our post-democratic age the inalienable rights of the strong and the uncaring.
In order to ensure an on time departure, please vacate the aisle and take up the seat nearest to you. The endless harrying in broken English over the intercom – the crew like fretful collies bringing their flock to higher ground. The suitcase will not, of course, fit into the overhead locker and the overfull bag will not go under the seat. As the tone on the intercom becomes harsher, the image darkens and you begin to imagine bullwhips, arc lights and the frenzied barking of Alsatians. The thin ridge of apprehension over your shoulders tightens and sweat pools in your armpits as you struggle with the untameable bulk of your belongings and the bustling impatience of your fellow passengers. Time is money. Or more correctly, less time for you means more money for Ryanair. As the flight attendants and the pilots deal with the bullying compression of time under the starting pistol of the “quick turnaround”, the baton of anxiety is passed to the passengers fumbling with coats and bags in the elbow-strewn gulch of the aisle. In the new regimen of time, a dogged rudeness is the sign of an evolved species.
Something’s the matter. Knees pressed hard against the unlovely fast food plastic. Elbows hustled off the narrow armrests by an indifferent neighbour. The unlovely cartoon of a battery hen farm in flight. Discussing the changing relationship to space during the period of the Reformation Iain McGilchrist notes that, “Where the Roman church encouraged and incorporated movement, walking and processing, the new Church’s chairs are everywhere the most visible feature of the Reformed interior, enforcing stasis and system” (McGilchrist 2009). The focus shifts from the altar to the pulpit, whose panoptic gaze takes in the heads and souls of the faithful, ranged below in rigid, geometric order. McGilchrist intimates that “this is something we can all recall from personal experience: in a congregation seated neatly in rows, one feels like an obedient subject, one of the masses, whereas standing in a crowd, as one would have done in a pre-Reformation church, one is part of a living thing, that is that community of living human beings, there and then.” Filleting space for profit, shaving off those inches of leg room, makes for ever more obedient subjects, trapped in the rabbit hutches of incapacity.
In one of the more tasteless metaphors that crop up in Michael O’Leary’s account of his education in Trinity College Dublin, he talks of how he and his fellow business students “just wanted to go out and ‘rape the world”’ (Creaton 2007). His time at Trinity “was about meeting girls and drinking alcohol”. In the world of tabloid travel, booze and birds are locked in the unfond embrace of the stag flight. The inflight magazine offers passengers an opportunity to buy the Ryanair calendar, featuring Ryanair flight attendants in bikinis. In the cynical wedding of prurience and philanthropy, young women (not men, of course) take their clothes off. But it’s OK. It’s for a good cause. The fratprat sexism has the silky alibi of charity. Philanthropy becomes the new form of indulgences, no sin that is too great (no tax dodge too artful, no wage too low, no working hours too inhuman) that cannot be absolved by the Peter’s Pence of the charity ball or generous donation. For every successful tycoon busy relocating a tax base or stripping workers of pension entitlements, there are the persistent, healing rumours of quiet, unstated acts of personal generosity as if at the heart of the advanced capitalism lay the reassuring horizon of a feudal regime of seigneurial largesse where absolutism (don’t talk to me about unions) walks hand in hand with absolution.
Free trade, of course, is one of the forces that is routinely identified as bringing down the feudal order. Free trade. Free competition. Freedom becomes increasingly just another word for nothing much left to lose. As the pilots sip the water they have bought themselves and the flight attendants hurry along the aisles in the uniforms they have paid for out of their own pockets, barking curt, dismissive orders at the bewildered and the non-compliant, the Free World begins to feel remarkably like the world on the other side of the Wall.
WARNING 1 CABIN BAG ONLY 55 X 40 X 20 CM (MAX 10 KG) HANDBAG, BRIEFCASE, LAPTOP, SHOP PURCHASES, CAMERAS ETC. MUST BE CARRIED WITHIN YOUR 1 CABIN BAG. Extra/oversized cabin baggage will be refused at the boarding gate, or where available, placed in the hold of the aircraft for a fee of £/€50. If you are unsure, check at the Bag Drop desk before going through security. N.B. There is no baggage allowance (cabin or checked) associated with the purchase of an extra seat.
This is a world of border signage. Of block capitals and underlining and dark emphasis. The Free World is fenced in with prohibitions and refusals. In the negative poetics of the neo-liberal, modal verbs of obligation (“must”) and adverbs of restriction (“strictly”) police the channels of communication and exclamation marks are inserted for the hard of reading:
IMPORTANT REMINDERS! Please read
• Each passenger must present their valid photo ID (as specified as accepted in our General Conditions). Driving licences are not accepted.
• Passengers with prebooked special assistance must present this boarding pass at the airport special assistance desk and again to assistance staff at the arrival airport.
• Bag Drop desks close strictly 40 minutes before the scheduled flight departure time.
The hyperbole of coercion has a viral quality and soon spreads to other “carriers” (“to tamper with the smoke alarm is a criminal offence and may result in prosecution”). Alexis de Tocqueville contemplating the future of democracy in America suspected a new kind of servitude was on the cards in the land of the free. Society would develop a novel form of enslavement which
covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate … it does not tyrannise but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which government is the shepherd (de Tocqueville 2003).
Whereas earlier dystopian visions such as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four had seen totalitarian governments as the wicked shepherd leading the flock to certain destruction, now it is banks, insurance companies, pension funds and low-cost airlines, the raucous cheerleaders of deregulation, that routinely enervate, extinguish and stupefy their customers with a “network of small complicated rules”.
Stupefaction comes early. Booking a ticket on the website is like dealing with a snickering ticket tout ever alert to the foibles of the gullible or the inattentive. The future passenger is forever on guard against a kind of digital cute-hoorism so that she does not end up with a Samsonite suitcase she never wanted, travel insurance she never asked for and a car she never intended hiring. Concealed in the thicket of drop down menus are the pass keys out of the labyrinth of algorithmic disorientation and the pop-up messages are video game villians which must be swatted down if the future passenger is to arrive safely at the destination of payment, where more inexplicable charges await the unwary. Being charged for the privilege of printing your own boarding pass is perhaps one of the most inexplicable. This version of paying others for work you do is at the heart of the present moment of market capitalism, where low cost increasingly means to the producer, at least, no cost.
Intending passengers are obliged to print out their boarding passes in advance. This implies that passengers have access to the equipment (computer and printer) and internet connection which allow them to enter the necessary details and print out the pass. Both the equipment and the connection are a cost to the passenger or to the entity that has made these available to the passenger. There is the further opportunity cost of the time spent accessing the site, filling in the details and printing out the pass. During this time, of course, the passenger could have been doing something else. In short, what were formerly production costs for the airline ‑ paying someone to prepare and print out your boarding pass and thereby creating a job ‑ now become consumption costs for the passenger.
In the upside down world of transferred or devolved costs, the labour is done by the passenger, not by the airline operator, so that the surplus value accrues not to the passenger but to the airline. In the snap, crackle and pop of the ads on board for lotto tickets, train tickets, car hire, you know that there is no hope that you too could be a Ryanair Millionaire. You are too busy making Ryanair millionaires and know at some unspoken level, that taking the flight is in every sense being taken for a ride.
Milton Friedman once observed that the beauty of the free market was that affections did not count. You did not have to like somebody to buy or sell something to or from them. Emotions did not enter the equation. Or maybe they do. In the adept way that modern capital has espoused the lifestyle totems of the counter-culture, the CEO of Ryanair wears the open shirt and juggles with locker-room expletives (Buzz, another low-cost airline, failed because “It got saddled by KLM with the shittiest set of aircraft in the fleet, flying to shitty airports” (Creaton 2007), playing the part of the thorough Bad Boy who boldly takes on public authorities and vested interests. The rough and ready machismo of the corporate cowboy means that the rhetoric of the hard-done-by David can always be pressed into the service of the financial Goliath. In this Nietzschean revaluation of all values, the strong appear weak while the weak appear not so much strong as inept. The CEO of the most profitable airline in Europe knows that the media-friendly rough talk of his anti-regulatory soundbites will not remind most of his listeners of why deregulation has led to the one of the worst economic crises of modern times and impoverished millions but will comfort them in their understandable suspicion of all forms of established authority. As the tone rises so do the share values.
The bugle sounds as the plane bumps along the tarmac announcing another on-time Ryanair arrival. The children applaud and the adults smile uncertainly, unsure if the joke is on them. This brief parenthesis of communal hilarity is out of spirit with the presiding genius of the individual. The Lingus in Aer Lingus, an anglicised version of loingeas, is the word for a fleet, a collective entity. Ryanair is named, of course, after an individual, Tony Ryan. If Aer Lingus was the flagship project of a young nation finding its footing in the chorus line of national aviation companies, Ryanair is the highly profitable instrument of the Ryan family and associated shareholders. In this shift from the collective to the individual, it is the lone traveller, the unattached, unencumbered foot soldier of liquid modernity who comes closest to Ryanair’s Platonic Idea of the Perfect Passenger. Minimum baggage. Minimum fuss. Minimum space. Maximum gain.
As you arrive at the departure gate in Terminal One in Dublin Airport and set off on the interminable trek to passport control and the luggage carousel, you wonder again at those queues. Why are we waiting in those queues? Because there is no alternative. Why the abject docility? Because there is no alternative. If the strained harp rather than the windswept shamrock has come to dominate European airspace, it may be because Michael O’Leary learnt much under that table in Mullingar about what the world would look like if the main purpose of post-democratic governance was to give populations a good kicking. The states of fear that were once seen as the monopoly of strap-wielding Christian Brothers have not so much disappeared as being displaced. The disciplinary apparatus of low-cost air travel is a routine example of how stridently free markets make for remarkably unfree subjects. Taking to the skies with Ryanair is to be reminded not so much of what we have left behind but of how much baggage we still carry with us.
Agamben, Giorgio (2009) What is an Apparatus and other essays, tr D. Kishik, Palo Alto CA: Stanford University Press.
Creaton, Siobhán (2007) Ryanair: The Full Story of the Controversial Low-Cost Airline, third edition, London: Aurum.
McGilchrist, Iain (2009) The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.