Back in August, a video of a male jogger pushing a woman in front of a bus went viral. He appears on camera as an aertex-clad fitness warrior, his personhood affronted by the unproductive female figure daring to prevent him from reaching the three mile an hour mark. Despite the mass of concrete pavement, the woman’s bodily interruption is met with a reaction so violent as to almost cause her death.
Aggressive commuters are increasingly something we experience. The Wandsworth branch of the Metropolitan police alone has reported around five more incidents of what they refer to as “pedestrian road rage” since the jogger attack. And a few weeks ago a cyclist peddled into a woman and killed her.
Milder manifestations of these attacks occur regularly, I spoke to Sarah, 24, who told me about a violent incident she endured on the tube, “I was texting my boyfriend so I accidentally brushed into this woman. When I moved to get on the train she stepped in front of me and elbowed me hard in the ribs. She basically winded me. I’d had a shit day so when I sat down I started crying into my hands.”
It’s a behaviour many admit to being guilty of. “I find myself huffing and puffing passive- aggressively at pensioners, I see the people around me as the reason I am late, as though it’s their fault.” explained Jake, 26.
Where does this violent compulsion to churn through space come from? As every aspect of life becomes subject to the logic of capital, people are gaining a psychopathic commitment to efficiency. As the economy transmogrifies from a productive economy – where the main output is materials like steel or coal – in contemporary society the main commodity is intelligence; what Tony Blair hailed as the “knowledge economy”. Here, as Franco Berardi explains in his text The Soul at Work, the emphasis is on emotional capacities:
“What is involved in the cognitive labour process is indeed what belongs more essentially to human beings: productive activity is not undertaken in view of the physical transformation of matter but communication, the creation of mental states, of feelings and imagination.”
Louis Moreno of Goldsmith University’s visual culture department outlines this cultural shift:
“in order to get on in the modern world of work it’s all about how you look and perform and that is bound up in human capital, social connections, charisma, and personal effectiveness. All these things are built into the economy. This could lead to new urban pathologies. It’s to do with body optimisation. This jogger is driven to aggression by the pressure to optimise his stock of human capital.”
The running man typifies this new mode of labour. He appears in the pixelated surveillance footage as a machinic, goal-orientated automaton, rushing home in order to NutriBullet some kale before prepping for tomorrow morning’s conference call. “My impression is that he was fitting in the modern yuppie jog” Moreno comments, “did you watch House of Cards? Robyn Wright’s character is this upper/middle-class technocrat politician. It is all about the 5- 7am run; it’s about being a superhuman.”
The focus with these crimes is upon getting home in the most productive manner possible. This impulse reached a dystopian level back in 2015 when Argos sponsored a project to get slow and fast walking lanes installed in Liverpool, presumably so that those quick on their feet would have more time for consumption.
However, though some incidents of pedestrian rage are indefensible, Moreno makes a distinction between violence and the tension and confrontation which are inevitable consequences of city structures. “In urban areas there are more humans and this puts pressure on floor space and streets. Bodies become pushed into close proximity and this is part of the charm of inner-city life.”
Gliding through streets like a mindless automaton isn’t necessarily bad; it’s part of the social life of an active metropolis. Constantly pressed up against the bodies of others, we become technicians of movement. When I walk down a packed street I can tell three steps away that the guy plugged into his phone is going to hit up against me and then when I swerve around him I’ll collide with the woman on his left whose power walking in heeled court shoes. It’s like being on that CBBC adventure programme, Raven, and getting in between the sliding axes.
As Louis explains, those visiting London undergo a “spatio-cognitive learning exercise”, which teaches them to navigate the city, “if someone is stands and blocks the walking side of the escalator then people will come over and roll their eyes and they’ll realise how to fit into the environment. They think ‘oh yeah we’re in London, everyone’s crazy here’ and suddenly they’ve learnt.”
In fact, this incident occurs so frequently that moaning about tourists and their sluggish inquisitiveness has become part of the collective identity of Londoners. Anyone, from a kitchen porter in West Ham to a Mayfair dwelling socialite, will bemoan people who unknowingly disturb the erratic stream of human traffic. “Not talking on the tube, standing on the right side of the tube elevator, moving down the tube carriage, are instincts which are all part of the shared understanding of what it is to be a Londoner”, says Daniel, 22, “I automatically assume that people stood on the left of the tube are tourists and they don’t understand what’s going on and they are not from here and I get pissed off because I’m like ‘there are so many tourists in my London’. Embarrassing.”
But even when this obsession with efficiency doesn’t culminate in violence, it still saps the fun out of travel. For me, taking transport has become a temporary death that I awake from only once I’ve arrived at my destination. Whilst tourists float along, noticing the little details in their surroundings, I think about nothing but how to avoid the body that’s hurtling towards me. It’s the same for Daniel: “when I’m walking somewhere I have various time markers that I have to hit in order to be on time, I always set off five minutes too late and then I get a thrill making up the time. I don’t feel comfortable unless I’m rushing. Sometimes I time myself.”
Although it may look embarrassing when tourists walk, hands behind their back, jaws slack and open in amazement, perhaps we would do well to learn from them. We need to slow down and stop treating the city like a gym, where the underground is a running machine and humans are punching bags to be slogged out of the way.