On the Commodification of Travel

“I worry that travel is becoming more a form of consumerism, whether you live in Santa Monica or Shanghai, than a real exercise in curiosity, and that as the world grows more open and available, going to another country will seem more like going to a cool ethnic supermarket or trendy restaurant than a true journey into shock or difference.” – Pico Iyer

When I moved to Malaysia in November 2017, I had that bright-eyed, bushy-tailed feeling of exploring a new country, its many cultures, and experiencing a better quality of life than what I was used to India. Like millions of others on social media, my perspectives on travel and living abroad were shaped by globetrotting millennials on Instagram and blogs that spoke of how traveling can help us grow holistically.

The message on the importance of travel remains true at its core and this one year in Malaysia has indeed changed me radically but the change did not come from the bars and the malls that the city of Kuala Lumpur has to offer. It came instead from intensive reading and reflection in a quiet and isolated corner in the city of Nilai. The result of such reflection has been that now when I look at Instagram posts of gorgeous beaches and cocktails on rooftop restaurants, I realize that travel has been sold to us, just like any other commodity. Millennials, barely even able to afford secure housing, are constantly bombarded with the need to consume more and more products and services, and travelling is no different.

My experiences of Kuala Lumpur, like most tourists, have been mostly of its towering buildings and lively streets of bars, galleries, and hipster cafes. And like most tourists, I did not spend time reflecting on who built this city and how do they experience it until one evening, when I found myself with a small group of conscientious young Malaysians, discussing David Harvey’s Right to the City, at the Malaysia Design Archive (MDA).

Right to the City – David Harvey

Cities are formed when a place offers rich natural resources that contribute to significant amounts of production. And in our economy, the means of production – land, labor, and technology – have historically been concentrated with dominant groups, the colonizers, the imperialists, or the local ruling class. But who built the structures and the spaces that make a city? Where and how do they live in the city?

As material production increases in cities, so does the requirement for labor. The philosophy of capitalist production is profit maximization and keeping costs of production low is one of the two obvious methods of increasing profits, the other being increase in revenue. Controlling wages – by disciplining the existing workforce through automation or sourcing cheaper labor – is an effective way of reducing costs of production. This is how we find migrant workers from poorer communities entering cities to find cheap work that is not taken up by the lower middle class members of a city. Essentially, it’s a competition among the working class in who can work more for less and this competition is happily manipulated by the owners of capital.

Capitalists are as dependent on the working class as the working class is dependent on them. Owners of the means of production allow workers just the amount of wages that are required to scrape a living but no more, ensuring that the workers are trapped in a cycle of poverty that requires them to continue participating in this modern slavery. The workers are allotted small spaces within the city to build or find barely livable living quarters, with little to no access to the comforts that we as the middle and upper-middle class take for granted in the city. So when the MDA provided the opportunity to explore the living conditions of the workers as part of a visual anthropology workshop, I signed up.

As part of this workshop, the participants went on short expeditions to three areas in KL that have the highest density of migrant workers: Chowkit, Masjid Jamek, and Brickfields. Here are some pictures of KL that we will never find in the Lonely Planets of the world.

poverty, kuala lumpur, capitalism, masjid jamek, immigrants, migrant workers, river of life, masjid india A homeless Chinese person who spends five hours everyday reading the news on the streets around Masjid Jamek
poverty, kuala lumpur, capitalism, masjid jamek, immigrants, migrant workers, river of life, masjid india Bangladeshi migrants who clean and maintain the River of Life Project
poverty, kuala lumpur, capitalism, masjid jamek, immigrants, migrant workers, river of life, masjid india A blind man selling merchandise in the Masjid India area
poverty, kuala lumpur, capitalism, masjid jamek, immigrants, migrant workers, river of life, masjid india A tiny shop in the Masjid India area, in which the shopkeeper also cooks his meals
poverty, kuala lumpur, capitalism, masjid jamek, immigrants, migrant workers, river of life, masjid india A blind singer at the railway station in Masjid Jamek
poverty, kuala lumpur, capitalism, masjid jamek, immigrants, migrant workers, river of life, masjid india The Masjid India market area that exists right next to the beautiful and well maintained Masjid Jamek

Next time you step out, whether in the city you live or a city you’re passing through, at least be aware of the working class that surrounds us, especially in the more “developed” parts of our world. Not only has the working class been conditioned to stay out of sight, we have been conditioned to not see them either. The condominiums, the parks, the shopping malls, and the bars are built by them and not by those whose only contribution was the investment of capital, which they have an excess of because of the historical exploitation of the working class.

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