The “regeneration” of Manchester’s Northern Quarter – from an industrial and predominantly working class neighbourhood to “creative and social hub” – is suspiciously familiar, following a trend that appears to have consumed London almost entirely. Dragged grudgingly onto a night out in town while home for the Christmas holidays, I found myself swept, towards the end of the night, to the Northern Quarter and to one of its trendier bars. As it turned out, said bar was supposed to be “Tiki” themed: I assume the motley arrangement of fake palm trees, bamboo and Tiki masks (of which, let’s be honest, few of the customers or staff of the establishment will have even begun to contemplate the cultural significance) was intended to give this effect.
As with many bars in the Northern Quarter, this one had attracted a large clientele of young, increasingly wealthy professionals from the nearby financial and corporate offices. Meanwhile, on the walls were scruffily hand-written placards citing, “No Tories. No ties.” accompanied by sketches of suited men, their heads replaced with (to be fair, impressively elaborate) human phalluses. Looking around, I might not have seen any ties, but a tie can be taken off at the end of the day; as for Tories…
As if a bar whose theme denotes an anti-capitalist tropical paradise serving predominantly wealthy, corporate professionals wasn’t already surplus to my daily dose of irony, I was then to have my jaw drop as the barman demanded, with a chummy smile, five pounds for the can of lager I had just ordered. As it turned out, this was actually the cheapest drink available. I glanced, befuddled, once more at the anti-capitalist scrawling on the wall as I handed over the money. Throughout the night, women were harassed by lecherous men, most probably a direct extension of the vile attitude behind a door policy that explicitly and unashamedly turns away any groups with too few attractive women among them – some egalitarian paradise. I promptly decided to call it a night at the point where two open-collar-shirted twenty-somethings, pumped up with a mixture of bravado and coke, squared up for a fight to the dulcet tones of Bob Marley playing in the background.
That one night is just one fractional instance of a nation-wide (and beyond) trend. Now, whatever your thoughts on the capitalist free market, there are some things that should never be for sale: ideologies; principles. Throughout our cities, a romanticised and idealised notion of undeniably socialist utopia has been sold at extortionate prices to people who, in a lot of cases, themselves embody the very antithesis to that notion. There is, of course, something palpably perverse about such a process, and it comes as a kick in the teeth to anybody who truly cares about social justice.
The frustration is yet more acute for the fact that the extortionate aspect of the practice essentially prices out all those who cannot foot the bill. To take another example, the clothes shop, Whistles, was criticised for selling a T-Shirt bearing the epithet, “This is what a feminist looks like”, which was allegedly produced under exploitative and unethical conditions in a factory in Mauritius. While the allegations were sketchily denied, the irony lay not only in the possibility that the T-Shirts were the product of the exploitation of other women. What received less notice was the forty-five pound price tag. Again, an ideology which, by its very definition, requires equality and inclusion, is commoditised and sold, with the implication that all those who cannot or will not pay forty-five pounds for one T-Shirt are excluded from it.
The problem is an insidious one, since the line between celebration and commoditisation is not a clear one. It’s by no means the case that no commercial product or service should invoke ideology – some have managed it in an ethical, non-exclusive way – yet we should think very carefully about those that do. Until consumers become more socially conscious – or perhaps less naïve – I suspect the problem can only get worse.