If you had a group of people and a pile of treasure, and had to improvise a mechanism to distribute it, you might seize upon something like this. ‘We’ll sit in a circle. We will take turns. Each may choose one object from the pile. We’ll go round and round till there is nothing left.’
Then, thinking about it some more, you might add something like this. ‘Who gets to go first? We will seat ourselves and choose someone at random. And then, we’ll go round and round the circle, clockwise, until every last precious item is claimed.’
Real randomness is hard to come by. Cryptographers know this. Sometimes randomness is even sold, it’s so scarce. But good enough randomness is easy enough to generate.
‘Who goes first? I’ll sing a song we all know, and with every beat I’ll point to one of you, until the final word of the song, when the person I’m pointing to will begin.’
In Duck Soup (1933) Chico Marx chants a counting-rhyme apparently of his own devising, ‘Rrringspot, vonza, twoza, zig-zag-zav, popti, vinaga, tin-lie, tav, harem, scarem, merchan, tarem, teir, tore.’
The circle is a kind of curved queue, where once you’ve been served at the front, you automatically rejoin again at the back.
What kind of legitimacy does it confer, being ‘there first’? Is there something in common between pushing to the front, and dispossessing indigenous peoples?
A line of people can serve as an economic mechanism. It can regulate the distribution of resources and/or tasks, and coordinate a milling throng into a system of meaningfully interacting agents. As an economic mechanism, however, queueing is somewhat incomplete: you’d really want know what is permitted at the front before you can assess its dynamics.
Does the same thing happen to each person? For example, does each person draw close enough to the deceased queen that their respects can penetrate her lead-lined coffin? Does Ottessa Moshfegh sign her name in each person’s copy of Lapvona? For example, does a cardamom bun happen to each person?
Or do events at the front vary? When you are ‘processed’ (as queueing theory calls whatever happens at the front of the line), can you alter the conditions for the person behind you? By eating the last cardamom bun, for example?
A queue is, conspicuously, even smugly, a non-crowd. It is a rejection of the potential for collective agency. That is why liberals love it: it is the emergent order which insists on the lonely sovereignty of individuals, strung out like paper dollies.
Queueing can serve as an economic mechanism. What if we were to think of queueing as money? Does it function as a ‘unit of account’? There is no unit, exactly, unless the queue itself be considered a unit. But there is a crude ordinal accounting going on, an ordering from first to last. These values adjust to reflect the evolution of the system. Furthermore, you do have something to lose if you leave the line, so perhaps there is something resembling a ‘store of value,’ the second touchstone of the textbook definition of money. It’s the last criterion — a ‘means of exchange’ — where the comparison really breaks down. Yet exchange sometimes occurs, in the sense that people do sometimes exchange places. And there are excitingly different opinions about the propriety of saving a spot in the queue, or briefly leaving and rejoining.
Ask yourself, just as an experiment in culture and psychology, how you feel about two people behind you in a queue swapping places. Is it any of your business? Does it feel different if they are ahead of you? Does it feel different if one is behind you and one ahead of you? Depending on what the processing rules are, either of the last two might have some bearing on what you encounter when you reach the front.
The value of queue positionality is ordinal. It is tantalisingly ambiguous between the qualitative and the quantitative.
Cory Doctorow writes, “Who gets to do what and when at a themepark may sound like a trivial question, but I think it's a perfect little microcosm for the distributional problems that are at the heart of all political economy.”
Imagine a queue that follows this rule: when you reach the front, you can set any processing condition you would like for the person behind you. That person must fulfil your processing condition or go to the back of the queue. If the entire queue cycles without anyone fulfilling the condition, the condition is nullified.
This structure needs a good name.
Do people queue in the UK more than in other countries?
I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s true. I have been trying to find some kind of league table on the internet, so I can confirm that UK is in the top ten queueiest countries, and be surprised and delighted at the quiet queuers, the countries that queue even more avidly but don’t pretend it is their national pasttime.
How is delay imagined, interpreted, instrumentalized?
Perhaps what is more interesting is precisely how queueing is celebrated, and what is celebrated along with it. It is a mixture of faux self-deprecatory and self-deprecatory. Aren’t we silly, for being so well-behaved? We are pussycats, though ha ha ha, we’ll show our claws if our little rituals are disrupted! Luckily, these little rituals are also resonant with a deep and irresistible moral drive, just as using the correct cutlery keeps the cosmos from crumbling. That is, principled fairness and egalitarianism to the queue, and a sort of elegant commonsense efficiency. Of course this is all bollocks: the formal consistency of first-come-first-served is not worth dignifying as ‘fairness,’ as you would feel keenly if you were bleeding out in an ER waiting room without a system of triage. Queueing is so civilized, and who was it who civilized half the world?
‘The most British thing ever’ says the most British thing ever, The Guardian. The Guardian is perhaps the most Hobbesian of the British papers, in its unwavering insistence that any order, however arbitrary, is preferable to disorder, which can only be understood as a war of all against all.
Royal mourner: of course not in the sense that the mourners are royal. They are common. Ennobled, perhaps, by their grief and gaiety.
Liberals (not in the American sense, although maybe that too) also love more complex emergent order: the price mechanism, supply and demand, the market. You could imagine a different kind queue, with more ambitious equillibria. You exchange information with the person in front and behind, perhaps you gradually adjust your positions until the queue is optimized. But this is anathema. Perhaps because it is too embedded in the interpersonal, the social? It is in the nature of the queue that you cannot shop around for queue buddies.
In Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, money is abolished in favor of a sort of system of coupons that directly links labor and consumption. The idea is to correlate what you contribute to society with what you are allowed to take out from the common wealth, while avoiding all that catastrophic usury and exploitation. It does turn out to be easier said than done, and Bellamy’s system has a somewhat ungainly feel. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, nobody cares if you take out more than you put in. Or more precisely, they do care, they care a lot, but the caring is the only mechanism that regulates what economists might call ‘free riders’ and the tabloid press might call ‘scroungers.’ Shame disincentivises such behaviors, but if you can endure the shame, there is no law against it.
You just go to the common storehouses and take what you need. If a lot of people arrive all at once, do they start a queue? A conversation? Both? Something else?
Why should a book about the end of money be interested in the internal quasi-currencies of game shows? Why should a book about the end of money care about alternative and complementary moneys, about Indigenous moneys, about the accounting practices of Net Zero transitions and the biometric practices of wellbeing interventions, about the speculative currencies of science fiction, and in the avant-garde financial experiments of artists and activists? Doesn’t all this imply more money, not less?
We can draw parallels both with police abolitionism and family abolitionism. Money abolition means unsettling our ideas of what money is in the first place. Money abolition must be understood not as subtracting something from society, but as multiplying and transforming relationships already latent in society. Just as abolishing the police must mean greater safety, not less, and abolishing the family must mean greater care, so abolishing money must mean more of whatever it is money is supposed, by its most fervent proponents, to be doing for us.
Making economic mechanisms work well often is framed as a matter of internalising the externalities. The producers do not naturally bear the cost of the carbon they emit, so a carbon tax must be applied to correct the market failure. But then . . . things get more complicated. These wisps of carbon are only so deadly because they join the vast clouds emitted by Western colonial powers since the nineteenth century. Can the externalities of the past be addressed in this way, by some kind of time travelling tax?
Anyway, the queue: the key is that some people won’t join at all. It looks too long. It elicits valuation. Wow, look at that queue! Let’s not bother. It isn’t worth it.
Queuing theory calls this balking.
When the beloved Queen Elizabeth lay in state, a great queue formed. It was predictable that many people would wish to pay their respects. A queue visible from space! Not really. But visible, through media devotion, across the country.
London excels at processing thousands of people through boutique experiences, in intimate spaces, in batches of five or twenty or a hundred at a time. This is done via online booking. You get a slot. You get a QR code or something.
Of course a deliberate decision was made, instead, to eschew digital queueing. Instead allow people to wait in line for eight hours, twelve hours, twenty-four hours. Participate in the spectacle.
Queues and quasi-queues. Conveyor belts. Queuing at the lights. Traffic jams. Emergency Room, with or without triage. An instruction sent to a CPU. A bucket bridage. A line of succession. Snowpiercer.
A protest march is sort of a queue. But of course you can skip backwards and forwards, so not really.
Disneyland and abbatoirs both have insights in queue-space architecture.
The BBC has become MournHub.
The queue is queuetopia.
The Queen, lying in state. A queue visible across the country. Not joining a queue is part of how a queue operates: a queue invites valuation. This particular queue, there is really no way not to participate. You join, or you wish you could join, or you decide it’s not worth it, or you create hot take memes about the Queue Dystopia.
If it were more convenient, probably fewer people would do it.
One Twitter user (Curious Iguana): I have no interest in seeing the queen! I just want to join the queue!
In terms of big crowd events, it’s not that big. If you did it at Wembley, the stands would look empty. If you did the Euro Cup Final that way, perhaps with spectators filing past a table football table, that would be a very long queue.
Queue abandonment. According to the classic Erlang-A model introduced by Palm (1943), each participant has a maximum time they are willing to wait. If they reach their max, they quit, no matter where they are in the queue.
It is a deliberate simplification for analytic purposes, but can you imagine? How funny, all those internal timers pinging the queuers out at apparent random. My favorite would be the person who got to the very front just as their internal timer elapsed.
‘Can I help you sir?’
‘I’m not waiting any longer!’
That might be Curious Iguana, to be fair.
‘Queue’ sounds a bit like ‘queen.’ In fact, if you just heave the ‘n’ over the ‘e’ so it lands up-side-down, there it is. A queen is just a queue with a queue-jumping letter, or vice-versa.
In German, a queue is a ‘snake.’
‘The British love to queue!’
The British also love to lambast the queue as a symbol of incompetent, lazy and corrupt public services.
So the celebration of queueing might be read as a characteristic centrist response to the right: yes, you are absolutely right about the way the world works, but you haven’t counted on one thing: some of us don’t mind.
Instead of a market with supply and demand for two commodities, imagine two queues.
Each individual is constantly weighing the utility at the end of the queue against the disutility of joining the queue.
A longer queue may imply both a greater reward (what lies at the end must be more desirable) and a greater penalty (the wait is longer).
Queue width. A queue can fatten, and turn effectively into a stack of small lateral queues. Or sometimes the internal organisation of the lateral units may be heterogenous: the five of us are behind the five of you, but when your unit reaches the front, you will use one method to order yourselves, and then we will use another. You will draw straws, we will fight to the death.
Consider that the queue for the toilets may actually be a ‘fat’ queue disguised as a ‘thin’ one. Each person is an assembly of two or three or four or five or more entities, each with its own principle for determining which will go first.
Following the passing of the monarch, as a mark of respect, a number of medical appointments have been postponed.
Do you still keep your place in the queue? Maybe not. It would be complicated to bump everyone along.
Queueing is, supposedly, a very British thing. People in the UK are supposed more likely to form a queue, in situations where other nations would select some other resolution mechanism, such as an undignified scrum. Unless maybe there are just more things worth queueing for in the UK?
I am interested in queueing because I am interested in postcapitalism.
I interested in all the everyday distributive mechanisms we already use that are non-capitalist or not-quite-capitalist.
Everyday, or ‘queue-tidian’ life.
Bread queues: a favorite image of anti-communist propaganda. Winston Churchill claimed in 1946 that ‘Socialism meant queueing,’ after the postwar Labour government rationed bread.
Deliberation is another such mechanism: talking about it. Who should have what? Who should do what?
Largesse is another. The king or queen, the warrior hero, the big man, dispensing treasure. You shall have this ring.
Game shows are another. Game shows distribute resources, resourcefully.
AI is another. Instead of two queues, imagine two neural networks.
Surely the British don’t love prefiguring postcapitalist distributive mechanisms?
A very British thing. Or, occasionally, a very English thing. George Orwell writes about the orderly behavior of the English crowds, and how striking foreign observers might find it, in ‘The English People’ (1944).
But then, Britishness is so very quintessentially English, isn’t it?
King Charles has been queueing for some time.
George Mikes memorably describes the lone Englishman as an orderly queue of one in How to be an Alien (1946).
Can there be a queue to join a queue? Maybe. There certainly can be queues to join a queue: for example, following the principle ‘one from this queue queue, then one from that queue queue.’
Queues with a variety of transformative gates scattered along the way, so that who you are when you complete the queue is not who you were when you joined.
Is it ever?
The historian Joe Moran proposes a more nuanced and mercurial construction of queueing and Britishness. ‘‘The notion of queues as the embodiment of fairness and equality has also existed alongside other discourses which have seen them as tedious, unfair, and inefficient. [...] The celebration of the orderly British queue began not in a more decorous time of courtesy and consideration in public place, but a period of national crisis.’ In the postwar years, as Labour built the welfare state, Tory quips associated long queues with drab egalitarianism, inefficiency and red tape. No one’s time could possibly be more valuable than anyone else’s. Labour were the party of the queue, Churchill once claimed, and the Conservatives, the party of the ladder. This trope would be adapted and reinforced throughout the Cold War era, to assert the inferiority of command economies and communism generally. A partly overlapping discourse associated queues with national decline. Long queues for post offices and banks during the economic turbulence of the 1970s brought back memories of wartime austerity. Satchi and Satchi’s famed ‘Britain isn’t working’ Conservative Party poster made political capital from the image of the dole queue.
A sense of queuemmunity. The legacy of queuelonialism.
Social mobility is often figured, implicitly, as a queue. The myth runs: you are poor now, but if you wait long enough (working hard while you wait) your turn will come.
‘I got mine’: as though yours always existed, was always waiting for you, just as you were waiting for it.
Age is often used as a euphemism for economic class. As though all young people were poor, all elders ‘comfortable’ or ‘well off.’
I am tempted to join the big queue to see the queen.
But I am in France.