13, No. 1, December 2011
The Dinosaurs of Consumption
University of Maryland
This essay is from a talk given as part of the “Crisis and Constradictions of Consumption” conference in Las Vegas in August 2011.
There is, at least from my point of view, no better place to discuss the crisis and contradictions in consumption in the US, especially in its cathedrals of consumption, than in Las Vegas, the city devoted to, and built on, consumption and defined globally by its iconic cathedrals of consumption; the major casino-hotels on the Strip. It is here that we witnessed what was arguably the greatest consumer-driven expansion in the US in the run up to the Great Recession and, as a result of the latter, perhaps the greatest economic setbacks. Unemployment in Las Vegas rose as high as 15% and is still over 12%. New construction is virtually non-existent. The foreclosure rate, while slightly down from 2009, remains the highest, and by a wide margin, of all the metropolitan areas in the US. Gaming revenue dropped by $2 billion at the depth of the recession and is still down about $1.5 billion from the peak. The largest casino hotel conglomerates- MGM and Caesars- continue to report huge losses largely because of debt incurred during the Great Recession. Mirroring the global economic shift to the Far East, Las Vegas is no longer the gambling capital of the world and has been surpassed by both Macau and Singapore.
Globally, Dubai has the dubious honor of rivaling, or maybe even outdoing, Las Vegas in terms of the irrational exuberance associated with the pre-recession consumption and the associated building boom. Although I doubt that Dubai’s Emirati have suffered much, the low-end migrant workers brought in to do manual work, especially in construction, have borne the brunt of the pain. There are many empty lots in the city with construction on hold or never begun in the first place. The Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, has been completed, but is deeply troubled economically. The high-end Armani hotel has opened in it, but it occupies only 11 of the building’s 160 floors; as of this writing most of the enormous building remains empty. In order to attract guests, the Armani hotel is currently offering steep discounts on its rooms. The World, an archipelago of islands that taken together resemble the earth, was completed in early 2008, but as of the moment only one island has a building on it... and that is a builder’s model. No construction is currently underway on any of the other islands. There have even been hints that the islands are eroding with the sand returning to the sea.
Construction of at least one of the three Palm islands has been scaled back, and the pace of building hotels and theme park attractions on the others has slowed to a crawl and is way behind schedule; it is not clear whether many of them will ever be built. While the crisis there might be even greater than one being experienced by Las Vegas, it has been ameliorated by the presence of huge sums of oil money in the region, including investments from oil-rich Abu Dhabi. It is also helped by the huge expansion of Asian economies, especially China, and the influx of tourists from those areas. In fact, gaming companies associated with Las Vegas have been saved by profits from gamblers from Asia flocking to their casinos in Macau and Singapore.
I will focus on the crisis and contradictions associated with the cathedrals of consumption for several reasons. First, of course, it is a favorite topic of mine. Second, the site of this conference- Las Vegas- is the home to some of the largest and most influential cathedrals of consumption (much has been “learned” from them in many other places in the world). Third, the crisis and contradictions in them are quite notable and in some cases very obvious and quite visible, although there are many more difficulties carefully concealed from public view. Finally, the topic, while vast, is still much more manageable than the far broader topic of crises and contradictions in consumption- or even in Las Vegas- more generally.
Of course, the cathedrals of consumption would not be in crisis was it not for the broader problems facing consumption and the economy more generally. Most of the leading cathedrals of consumption on the Vegas Strip were constructed in the boom decades running up to the onset of the Great Recession in 2007 and they were built, and expansions and other cathedrals of consumption planned, in the expectation that the boom would continue. The recession hit the Strip, as well as Las Vegas more generally, like a sledgehammer and both have yet to recover. The gaming conglomerates that dominate the Strip (MGM, Sands), as well as gambling globally, were also hit hard, although they have largely recovered, at least as far a share price is concerned.1
In looking at those cathedrals of consumption and the crises they confront, I am informed theoretically by my usual inspirations- Weber, Marx, and especially Walter Benjamin and his work on the Parisian arcades. Among the similarities between this work and Benjamin’s are the following:
- Benjamin focused on Paris as the center of the world of consumption, while for me it is Las Vegas (and Dubai).
- Benjamin looked back on the 19th-century from the vantage point of the early 20th century, while I am looking at mostly late 20th century developments from the perspective of the early 21st century.
- For Benjamin it was the arcades that were emblematic, the most pretentious examples, of the “temples of commodity capitalism”, while for me it is the casino-hotels that are the far more pretentious and spectacular paradigms of today’s “cathedrals of consumption”.
- The arcades were dominated by “phantasmagoria” and much the same thing can be said of today’s cathedrals of consumption.
- From the vantage point of the early 20th century, Benjamin saw the arcades as monuments, debris, residues or fossils from an earlier era to be reflected on for their insights into both the past and present, while from the perspective of the early 21st century the great casino-hotels constructed in the late 20th century on the Strip are beginning to look similar to the arcades as they existed in Benjamin’s day. While Benjamin saw the arcades as fossils, I prefer to call casino-hotels “dinosaurs”. While they are not yet quite extinct or fossils, an argument can be made that that is the direction in which they are moving.
- Benjamin was interested in analyzing the arcades for what they could tell us about consumption, mass consumption, mass culture and the collective dream, and I analyze the cathedrals for many of the same reasons.
While the recession seems to have abated (although there are signs as I write of a “double-dip”), at least for the moment, there are deeper and longer term crises and contradictions facing the cathedrals of consumption:
- They were erected during a period in which consumption increasingly dominated the American economy and relatively few questions were raised about such a focus on consumption and a corresponding lack of concern with production. However, in light of the recession, the rise of China as a production colossus, and the huge US debt to it and others, real questions have been raised about the long-term viability of a consumption-oriented economy. Can we consume our way to economic success? Could we ever have really done so? We incurred massive and ultimately unsustainable personal and national debt while we continued to fall short of a full-scale consumption society. Where would we have stood in terms of such indebtedness had we achieved the “dream” (nightmare) of a society fully devoted to consumption (and to jobs devoted to serving those who consume)?
- The irrational exuberance of the pre-recession era which, among other things, led to massive overbuilding in many places in the US (for example, American Dream Meadowlands [formerly Xanadu] Mall outside New York City) and the world (most notably Dubai, but also Spain), including Las Vegas in general and the Strip in particular. The housing market in Las Vegas is a disaster; one of the worst in the US. Most new construction is, at the minimum, on hold. Hotel rooms are readily available, often at bargain prices. There are plenty of empty seats at the gaming tables. Las Vegas shows are available at deep discounts. Partly constructed casino hotels, some perhaps never to completed, are to be found on the strip and those that are recently completed have plenty of empty rooms.
- Those un-, and recently, finished casino-hotels are, like Dubai’s Burj Khalifa and the Palm islands and its hotels and attractions, ”dinosaurs of consumption”. The dinosaurs of consumption are huge and expensive to build and operate cathedrals of consumption that were planned and in some cases built in the period of irrational exuberance before the onset of the Great Recession. They are “dinosaurs” because they, like dinosaurs themselves, are ill-suited to the environment in which the find themselves and are facing the possibility of extinction.
Many dinosaurs of consumption found throughout the world today were, in fact, more or less planned to be become extinct; to become dinosaurs. This is true of structures created for one-off events such as World’s Fairs or the Olympics. While a few (for example, the Eiffel Tower; see below) have continued to be cathedrals of consumption (or at least cathedrals to be consumed or key landmarks in larger landscapes of consumption), most have become rusting, un- or under-utilized hulks. One prime example is the much-heralded Beijng National Stadium, the “Bird’s Nest”, built for the 2008 Olympics. While it still attracts tourists, it is seldom used, its paint is peeling and its best hope for the future is that it will serve as the center for a planned shopping and entertainment complex. Similar, if not worse, stories can be told about many other Olympic cities, including Athens the site of the 2004 Olympics where the Faliro complex of venues was supposed to have revitalized the city. However, “the two main stadiums are shuttered, the public spaces around them deserted and covered in graffiti. A nearby vast field that was supposed to be an ecological park is strewn with old furniture and weeds. Trees planted before the Olympics have since died and the watering system dug up by Roma, who use the area as a camp” (Nicole Itano, “As Olympic glow fades, Athens questions $15 billion cost” Christian Science Monitor July 28, 2008).
Among the unfinished dinosaurs of consumption on the Vegas Strip is the bankrupt Fontainebleau Las Vegas. Construction on the nearly $3 billion, 4,000 room hotel was halted in 2009 and has yet to resume. The site was bought by financier Carl Icahn at auction in 2010 for a mere $150 million. Then there is the similarly unfinished $4 billion Echelon; building was suspended there in August 2008. The Harmon at City Center was supposed to have a 28 floor hotel topped by 21 floors of condos; only the exterior of the hotel was built and it may well be demolished because of design flaws. The exterior of the Octavius Tower at Caesar’s Palace is completed, but its inside is bare. St Regis Residences to be built between the Venetian and Palazzo was planned to have nearly 400 luxury condos with some priced as high as a million dollars. Construction on it was halted in 2008 but the steel beams are camouflaged in a wrap designed to make it appear like a finished (a simulated!) building. Another unfinished hulk, not camouflaged, is the planned 19-story Wyndham Desert Blue time share near the Rio casino-hotel. Aliante Station in North Las Vegas is bankrupt and the area around it has not been developed as planned. Other unfinished condos and shopping malls litter the Las Vegas landscape far off the Strip.
The largest landscape of consumption, encompassing a number of cathedrals of consumption, is City Center, the biggest private construction project in the history of the US (estimated at $11 billion dollars). It encompasses one structure that is already a dinosaur (The Harmon), while others could achieve that status since they have been losing money and many condos remain unsold. Also within City Center is Crystals, a “soaring cathedral of ultra-high-end shopping” (Fortini, 2011). On a recent visit to the 3-floor, 23,000 square foot Prada store in Crystals there were 3 employees and no customers. It is described as the “saddest shopping center on the planet”... and the “world’s most splendid ghost mall”. It is, in my terms, and “island of the living dead” where the shoppers are described as being “devoid of spirit”. (Of course, there are many such islands in Las Vegas; in fact, there is little in the way of a “sea of life” between the islands, at least on the Strip.) The restaurant Beso and the nightclub Eve have already gone out of business. In fact, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Crystals as well as City Center itself will become dinosaurs, or in the case of the latter home to at least several dinosaurs. The existence of one or more dinosaurs (such as the Harmon) at City Center makes it likely that others will experience the same fate. However, given the magnitude of the investment, it may be that City Center as a whole is too big to fail. This is especially the case because a series of hulks there like the Fontainebleau and Echelon could be contagious and threaten other casino-hotels there, as well as ultimately at least some of those on the Strip itself.
Of course, real estate failures, some of them quite large, abound throughout the United States and other parts of the world (Spain is quite notable in this regard). However, what stands out about Las Vegas (and Dubai) is the magnitude of the failures traceable to the fact that some of the largest cathedrals of consumption were built there and it is they that have turned into dinosaurs. What I want argue is that the dinosaurs of consumption in Las Vegas (and elsewhere) are highly visible symbols and metaphors for the excesses of consumption, the hyperconsumption, that characterized the developed world, especially the US, in the boom years, even decades, that preceded that Great Recession. They stand as constant reminders of that excess and the hubris associated with it.
This is not to say that consumption, even hyperconsumption, is disappearing anytime soon, although it does seem as if its epicenter is shifting from the US in general, and Las Vegas in particular, to locales such as Dubai, Macau and Singapore where the cathedrals of consumption with roots in Las Vegas are being cloned and likely being exceeded in various ways. This is a reflection of the decline of the US economy relative to economies elsewhere, especially those in Asia. As the latter continue to prosper, they are likely to fall victim to the excesses pioneered in the US and move in the direction of hyperconsumption and the cathedrals (and landscapes) of consumption that are made possible by, and expedite, such excessive consumption. While many will succeed, at least for a time, others will become tomorrow’s dinosaurs of consumption.
Clearly, hyperconsumption is ultimately unsustainable economically, and certainly ecologically and arguably even morally. Even a cursory examination of Las Vegas’ cathedrals, and especially its dinosaurs, of consumption should make that abundantly obvious. They should remind us, and the rest of the world, of the folly of such a form and level of consumption. However, the world has clearly not learned the lessons as reflected in the fact that Las Vegas is being outdone by spectacular developments in Dubai, Macau and Singapore.
However, it is worth noting that structures once considered dinosaurs, most notably the Eiffel Tower left behind by the Paris Exposition of 1889 and the Empire State Building, are now cathedrals of consumption (the new ride atop the Empire State Building) or what Walt Disney called “weinies” designed to attract consumers. It is possible that what today appear to be dinosaurs might become the weinies (e.g. Burj Khalifa) or cathedrals/landscapes of consumption (City Center) of the future. If they do, that will mean that the unsustainable hyperconsumption associated with them will be revived, or even expanded. Those who frequent or profit from the cathedrals of consumption might rejoice, but the unsustainability of the lifestyle associated with them will likely bring society still closer to an environmental, if not economic, catastrophe.
It is worth closing with the point that while this essay has focused on the most spectacular of locales- “landscapes of consumption”- Las Vegas and Dubai, as well as their most spectacular cathedrals/dinosaurs of consumption, the issues and problems discussed are certainly not restricted to them; they are much closer to home for most Americans. For example, we are all familiar with the problem of dead, dying or half-empty malls. This is clearest in the case of strip malls which are either dead or have only a few shops still in business. While some fully-enclosed shopping malls are also shuttered, far more common is the sight of empty, unrented and perhaps un-rentable shops in those malls.
One could even extend this argument to far more prevalent and visible private homes and condominiums that were planned and built during the economic boom, but which are now unsaleable, abandoned or on offer for half, or less, of what their “underwater” owners paid for them. The private home, most notably the McMansion”, became not only a type of consumption, but a cathedral of consumption, for many Americans. Further, the new communities, sometimes gated, in which these homes were built can be seen as landscapes of consumption. (Much the same can be said of large condominium projects that stand partly or even fully empty and where asking prices have also declined dramatically.)
While this problem strikes quite near to home, if not literally in our home, for many of us, Las Vegas and Dubai are notable not only for their dramatic dinosaurs of consumption, but also for homes and communities that are extinct or nearly so. The landscape of Las Vegas is littered with unfinished buildings, homes and communities. Many homes have been foreclosed on, abandoned, or offered for sale at discounts that seemingly no matter how deep the discounts people cannot be induced to buy them.
The story is much the same in Dubai which a British-based real-estate company named the worst real-estate market in the world in 2011. A particularly good example is International City, a country-themed (England, Russia, Greece, etc.) landscape of consumption modeled after a Middle Eastern carpet that was supposed to include themed high-rise housing, malls, businesses and tourist attractions. However much of it was completed just in time for the Great Recession and it failed to attract many condominium buyers. In fact, it has now become a refuge for low-wage, single, male migrant workers from the now-closed labor camps that ringed the city. Many of these workers may share a single, one-bedroom apartment. Their presence has tended to drive out the few families who had moved into the complex of buildings before they began to go downhill. One such resident posted the following comment: "This place is a dump now... it is falling apart. No one is doing anything about it! We are ashamed to live here."
The issue, of course, is whether what is described above is just part of a short-term slowdown or whether it is part of a long-term change involving retrenchment following a period of irrational exuberance in consumption in general and in the cathedrals and landscapes of consumption in particular. More generally, and in Benjamin’s terms, one is led to wonder whether we have witnessed the end for many of the collective dream that untold happiness lies in consumption, especially in the excesses associated with the themselves excessive cathedrals of consumption. If we are, it is possible that the Strip’s cathedrals of consumption will at some point in the future not simply be debris or fossils from an earlier era, they will be little more than what Benjamin called “traces” of that earlier epoch. Furthermore, Benjamin discusses the decline in quality of the traces or detritus left behind as epochs pass from the scene. It seems likely that the detritus left behind by today’s Las Vegas (e.g. an abandoned New York, New York or Excalibur) is likely to pale in comparison to the detritus of past epochs such as the Eiffel Tower. We have become accustomed to seeing traces of America’s industrial era in the rusting hulks that were our textile, steel and automobile factories. It is not outrageous to think that Las Vegas faces a similar future with the unfinished hulks dotting the Strip (and the rest of Las Vegas today) today being the precursors of tomorrow’s abandoned hulks. It may be that Las Vegas and its cathedrals of consumption are too big to fail, but we thought that about Lehman Brothers and many of Detroit’s great factories (e.g. River Rouge). At the minimum, watching and studying our cathedrals of consumption is a useful and abundantly obvious way of getting a handle on the state of consumption, and more generally the economy, today. In the past (and likely in the future), their spectacle drew consumers. However, it is not only the positive aspects of the cathedrals that are easy to see, but so too are the negative aspects. It is clear in Las Vegas today that its cathedrals of consumption are beginning to fray. Further signs of fraying will begin to threaten the spectacle that is at the heart of the city; the more the Strip looks tattered and torn, the fewer the number of, and the less well-heeled, the visitors who will be lured to the city. When that process begins in earnest, it will be difficult if not possible to reverse as Detroit has learned as a result of another era and type of economic decline.
1 MGM and Sands share prices had both dropped below $2 a share at the height of the recession and they are now about $12 and $39 a share, respectively.
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Commodities & Consumption, Vol. 13(1) December 2011.