If you can’t pay, push

In India, waiting in line is not for the soft-elbowed

thus begins the NYT piece on the practice and meaning of queues, focusing on India, but applicable everywhere. Walking into a train station in Mumbai, I know I have to push my way in, whether I like it or not. Either I use my strength, or I get left out. Buying a movie ticket in a single screen cinema in India and getting into a tro-tro in Accra require the same skills.

The NYT piece is a story of how queues evolved, equating queuing with not just civility, but civilisation…

The story of the scrum, the queue and the market begins, in most versions, in a Hobbesian state of nature in which the scrum controlled all. People got what they got based on their ability to push and pull, maim and slaughter.

It required new ideas — of fairness, equality and the like — to replace scrums with lines

Thankfully, the author doesn’t stop just yet. He goes on to discuss how the next step is to evolve out of queues using a different muscle this time – financial. An excellent conversational analysis in the lines –

But the market also changes a culture. A line conceives of people as citizens, presumed equal, each with an identical 24 hours a day to spread among the lines around them. A market conceives of people as consumers, presumed unequal, with those who can pay in front of the others. It allocates efficiently, but it eliminates a feature of line culture: the idea that, in line at least, we are no better than anybody else.

In a way, the market’s spread is a return to another kind of scrum, one in which financial, and not physical, might means right.

In many ways though, queues have not ended. The setting for the struggle has, along with the rules of the game…


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