The Union Station Closure: A Microcosm of Late Capitalism

Lucas Weals-

Death is a meme. On Facebook we mourned Prince and David Bowie, though their heydays long preceded us. We tweeted our tears and outrage for Harambe, Cincinatti’s late Great Ape, almost anonymous before his senseless death. Now we lament the passing of the Union Station, and all the old questions begin to emerge—what happened? What could we have done? Who killed the Union Station?

Already the Davidson community has responded to last week’s news of the impending closure with overwhelming support for the doomed convenience store. But something is different about this online wake. There’s a genuine sadness haunting the subject, a sincerity far deeper than the usual death-meme. Davidson students sense something vital and urgent in this latest campus catastrophe, whether we know it or not. The reason lurks in every jargon-heavy evasion, in every cockamamie replacement strategy, in the deepening attacks on college workers: the decision to close the Station is a perfect microcosm of late capitalism in America.

Since this is an economic analysis, let’s start with the most basic point—“Finances,” writes Maya Tetali, “are the true reason behind the closing.” Richard Terry, Director of Auxiliary Services, explains to Tetali that the Station’s “net revenue cannot justify it staying open.” This was the point most bitingly parodied in the article’s Facebook comments. EJ Kelly ’20 writes, in true Yowl fashion, “‘Popsicles and Sabra hummuses were just too expensive,’ says school who’s shipping their statue of a crouching metal man back to Spain to be refurbished.”

It’s a parody of scale that’s all too familiar in our capitalist dystopia—America has enough houses for everyone to live in, but one of the worst rates of homelessness in the developed world. Humanity produces enough food to easily feed the whole world, but millions die of starvation and malnutrition anyway.

You can hear the response already: the legion of self-styled realists, waiting smugly with bated breath to remind you that it’s all so much more complicated than that. Well of course it is. No one believes otherwise—it’s not as if our staggering offshore investments are simply transferrable to Dining Services. No one expects the massive dividends we continue to reap from petroleum profits and private prisons to buy us a half of a 7-Eleven that’s not even open that late.

No one really expects anything—and no one, in truth, is all that surprised that our multinational apparatus of capital accumulation can’t manage to give us a Top Ramen shelf and some Peet’s Coffee. But this is the whole point. It’s only meant to feel too complicated: the reality is just absurd. The school’s money, like our economy writ large, doesn’t even survive on labor’s surplus value anymore—it’s been on the life-support of existing capital since the mid-1970’s, circulating without creating value, shuffling equivalents and derivatives that only move the contradictions they can’t possibly solve. Finance killed the Union Station. But it had accomplices.

Where are they hiding? Look no further than that bizarre and winking statement from the Center for Career Development, who claim not to be interested in annexing the Station because their internal renovations have “maximized usage of [their] current space and resources, to great effect.” (Congrats?) “However,” they add, “this does not rule out any possible need for expansion after we analyze the productivity and effectiveness of our space at the end of this academic year.”

That quote could stand on its own as a satire of bureaucratic obscurantism, but students grasped the (sub)text pretty quickly—get ready for even more space to sign up for Handshake, juice your résumé, or whatever else goes on in the CCD. In late capitalism, the most marketable product is no longer food or coffee, the stuff of old wars and factory production. It’s you. Promoting Innovation and Marketing Synergy, One Satisfied Customer at a Time. Networking killed the Union Station, too.

But what, you might ask, will happen to the body—the real body, the body of the laborer, which Marx knew was the only real source of value in a market economy—after the Station finally dies? “For nonstudent employees,” Tetali reports, “Terry assures that they will not completely lose their jobs . . .” (emphasis added). Marxists call this condition precariousness: when, in the words of Pierre Bourdieu, “the existence of a large reserve army” of part-time workers “helps to give all those in work the sense that they are in no way irreplaceable.” It’s happening everywhere. Offering none of the benefits of full, pensioned, insured employment, part-time is the new normal.

Of course Davidson’s food staff was already precarious, as are all workers in America today. The unions are beaten, the wages are stagnant, the laws that once protected them have been cut to the bone by ghoulish neoliberalism and Reaganite austerity. Don’t worry, they won’t completely lose their jobs. Throw a few more bodies into the new global precariat, a class that, in the immortal words of Loïc Wacquant, “can only make itself to immediately unmake itself.” The gig economy killed the Union Station.

These aren’t the only culprits, but I’m running out of room, so I’ll leave it at this: next semester, as you negotiate the new “ideal” of Davidson dining (“groups of vending machines in various locations around campus”­—neat!); as you pity those first years who just lost one of three places they can use a daytime meal swipe; as you drive along the highway searching in vain for a decent place to eat after midnight; remember it’s not just here. And if you’re alarmed by the way things are going, and sick of the way things have been, grab a copy of Das Kapital and a cup of coffee (though it’ll have to be from Summit by then). Karl Marx knows who killed the Union Station. He’s waiting to clue you in.

Lucas Weals ’19 is an English major from Bethesda, Maryland.  Contact him at luweals@davidson.edu.