The Pickup: A Critique of Capitalism
Nadine Gordimer’s novel The Pickup tells the story of one couple: Julie, a well-to-do white woman from a wealthy family living in South Africa, and her lover, Abdu, an illegal immigrant from an unnamed Arab country, also living in South Africa and working as a mechanic. When Abdu’s visa is denied and he is forced to leave South Africa, he and Julie return together to his homeland, and she experiences the reversal of her role in society as she becomes the outsider, the alien, the other. Julie’s experiences in this and other foreign lands define the purpose of the work, and explore the theme of displacement and division and the impact of class and economic power on human thought and relationships in the neoliberal era. The Pickup comments on the way that wealth, capital, and the movement of finance affects class systems across the world, and explores the ways that the rise of financial capitalism has changed migration, specifically that of low-wage migrant workers, and the social repercussions that accompany this shift. This idea can be surmised through exploration of one question: why does Julie decide to stay in South Africa at the end of the novel instead of returning to the United States with Abdu?
Gordimer’s critique of the financial capitalist class can first be seen through the positions of Julie and Abdu in their respective communities, and the way that they obtained those positions through their wealth and class status. Julie’s extremely wealthy father, Nigel Ackroyd Summers, is an investment banker who has obtained wealth through his work in the system of capital markets, either by issuing debt, selling equity, or advising companies on investment opportunities. Nigel has profited off a system where he risks very little of his own, as he is dealing in non-physical trades like stocks and derivatives. He doesn’t put forth any capital of his own to supplant the investments he pursues, and he simply serves as a vessel through which larger financial corporations make decisions. As a banker, he is handling wealth, but he is not working in the realm of actual physical labor of any kind; no person needs actually touch the money that he invests, as it is transferred through the stock system digitally with no human interference.
Abdu, on the other hand, works primarily in physical labor. He creates a large amount of physical output through his work as a mechanic, yet has very little money and experiences no financial growth or stability over the course of the book. He lives in fairly poor conditions, but is afraid to seek other opportunities due to his position as an illegal immigrant. Abdu sees the successes of Julie’s father as the ultimate accomplishment, and in his mind it is going to the United States and working in those markets which deal with non-physical wealth that will be the path to his success and eventual escape from poverty. Gordimer’s stance on Abdu’s position is made more relevant by the fact that he studies economics in university, yet he still ends up working difficult days and fearing for his well-being as he struggles through manual labor as a mechanic in the car garage. Abdu could likely be an accomplished banker, just as Nigel is, yet because of his class and position in society, he is robbed of this opportunity. Even with his degree and clear level of intelligence, he is resigned to a lower-skilled job because he is a migrant worker. As the institution of financial capitalism grew more powerful in the twentieth century, stability became an essential element of financial stability, which explains the difficulties faced by migrant workers and immigrants when it came to employment. Nigel’s position as a wealthy white US citizen provided him with a solid platform, the American economy, upon which to build and expand his wealth.
Similarly, dealing in stocks and investments means that he can do his work from anywhere in the world, as he does not need to be present in order to do him job. Abdu, on the other hand, has to do whatever work he can find directly in the place that he is living. As a migrant worker, he does not have the solid financial foundation that he can use to build capital over time. He may have to leave his job at any time in order to migrate to a new city or country, which is exactly what ends up happening to him when his visa is denied. To add to this, as a migrant worker he does not have the opportunity to take advantage of the rise of financial capitalism because of his status as a migrant worker. To become a successful investment banker, he would need a specific education from a certain region in the world, and would have to be able to invest in economies that were likely far from his impoverished home country. He would also need access to certain technologies and institutions that would not be readily available to him in a third-world country. Furthermore, as a migrant worker he is unable to guarantee that he will be able to establish a profession at any job he might go to, and he is therefore seen as an unreliable employee. At any moment, he might be forced to leave the job and seek a new one in a new place, so his options are made even more limited by his stance as a migrant worker and immigrant. Without permanence and a sense of place as home, Abdu cannot establish a space for himself in the world of financial capitalism, a system that is built from the ground up over time. Abdu does not have the opportunity to start small, to work his way into wealth and prosperity. He just needs to survive for the time being, and in order to do that he is forced to take any job made available to him, which is going to end up being a job doing basic, manual labor; something considered by the western world to be low-skilled.
Julie, existing between the positions assumed by her father and Abdu, serves as a bridge between the high-class, wealthy world of privilege maintained by her parents, and the lower-class, poor, migrant world of Abdu. Julie resent the financial elitism expressed by her father and his colleagues, and during her time in South Africa, she seeks to detach herself from this narrative by living a life that she considers to be more basic and middle-class. However, when Abdu comes into her life, many of her hidden privileges are suddenly revealed to her. The apartment that she considered modest is more than Abdu could ever hope for, and her extravagant cars and carefree attitude about money show that she is still benefiting from her father’s wealth. While Julie seeks to move away from this reliance on her father, she still takes advantage of the assets that he provides to her, and nowhere in the text does she imply that she would be ready to give up all of the privileges that a wealthy family provides for her. This idea contrasts Abdu’s position, and relates to the way that financial capital affects place and displacement. Abdu is in South Africa because it was a place where, as a migrant worker and illegal immigrant, he could afford to have a job and a life for himself. In South Africa, he still struggles with poverty and many other challenges because of his position in society. Julie is in South Africa because she thought it would be a good place to seek spiritual clarity and achieve the middle-class, average lifestyle that she desires. South Africa seemed like a place she could go to escape wealth, whereas Abdu goes to South Africa in the hopes of acquiring any wealth at all. The fact that Julie even has the chance to not think about money and to turn away from the system of financial capitalism shows her position in society, and how different it is from that of Abdu. Abdu never has the chance to reject modern capitalism, as without it he would have no way of surviving as a migrant laborer. By positioning Julie and Abdu in this way, Gordimer is critiquing the way that capitalism limits the opportunities of the impoverished and lower-class by trapping people in a system that they will never escape from, and preventing anyone without previous amounts of capital from building any more wealth than they already have. After all, one can only invest money that they don’t need for food, water, housing, transportation, and other essential things, and many people do not possess that luxury.
To have enough surplus capital to begin investing is a privilege of the rich, as shown by the life of Nigel Ackroyd Summers as compared to that of Abdu. However, Julie’s rejection of capitalism and her father’s wealth in favor of Abdu and the struggles of the migrant worker suggest that she is aware of the political repositioning that transformed South Africa after Apartheid. Despite the legal changes that came post-Apartheid which aimed to provide full legal equality for all South Africans regardless of race, social inequalities surrounding income still remained heavily prevalent in the country. Despite Apartheid being over, income inequality was still largely affected by race, and the population of black South Africans continued to suffer due to poverty, unemployment, and unequal income distribution. White South Africans, however, continued to own over 70% of the land, while Apartheid-era spatial segregation left the majority of black citizens in poor, rural areas where the opportunity for employment was significantly lower. Julie’s family likely profited off of this system, and despite the end of Apartheid it seems like they did not experience any sort of fallback nor make reparations for their profiting from the labor of poor migrant workers of color like Abdu. Speaking of, Abdu, despite being allowed to vote and regaining some civil liberties, was still in an unfavorable position in the wake of Apartheid because of his skin color and class position. Julie is aware of this, and recognizes that the new power-balance in South Africa continues to favor upper-class whites such as herself. The country’s economic and financial systems were still controlled by the same elite white members of society that ruled during Apartheid, and the promised equality for black South Africans was more of a facade than an actual attempt at equality in government.
One of the main places in the novel where these conflicting positions are brought directly to light is at Nigel Ackroyd Summers’ Sunday lunch. Julie brings Abdu to lunch so that he can meet her parents, and much of the chapter is spent on the dealings of her father, and his conversations with various other upper-class invitees. In this section of the novel, Gordimer brings to light the fact that global finance is the real governing body in South Africa, and that governments are often forced by the capitalist market to turn against their own people in favor of profit and financial relevance on a global scale. One of the wealthy guests at Nigel’s lunch is a black lawyer-turned-investor, a man who would have been subjugated and treated as less because of his race in under Apartheid rule, and who is now buying back into the system of government that would have purposely left him impoverished and alone. This irony is meant to show the way that the South African government promised that political power would return to the black ruling class, yet the binds of capitalism have captured even those who are supposed to use the law to advocate for the rights of the people.As twentieth-century South Africa changed into a country that relied on a system of finance capitalism, the government began to rely on the financial market to dictate priorities, which can often lead to worse conditions for the well-being of the people.
Socio-economic interests became more important to the state than protecting their citizens from globalization, and this forced many South Africans to compete for jobs and income not only with other citizens of South Africa but with workers across the globe. In order to make the South African economy worth investing in to outsiders, these same impoverished workers, such as Abdu, were forced to offer their services for even less money in order to compete with the global market. While this may have made their country appealing to outside investors in the financial market, it caused great suffering to the people. As the South African government sought to continue their expansion and accumulation of global capital after Apartheid, they were forced to abandon the effort of ensuring quality-of-life for all of their citizens. Rather than focusing more on reducing poverty, rebalancing income inequality, and repairing race-relations within the country, the government instead needed to uphold their financial obligations to the world economy rather than their own. By literally buying into the global financial market, the South African government prioritized capital gains over the prosperity of their citizens. As South Africa’s local governments continued to sell themselves to the larger corporations and systems of capitalism, it was people like Abdu who were put in the worst predicament.
Reduced to a life of manual labor for little to no financial reward by the purposeful underdevelopment of his country, Abdu is a representation of the plight of all migrant workers in South Africa and beyond. This could be considered the catalyst for Julie’s decision to stay in South Africa, even after Abdu leaves. While some of this is likely due to her previous infatuation with the country and the exotic nature it provides, her refusal to give in to the suggestion of the capitalist system, that it would be better to profit from here while being elsewhere, takes a definitive political stance, and shows that perhaps her admiration for South Africa, Abdu, his homeland, and the other people she encounters who share Abdu’s situation, really does come from a place of empathy and understanding. Given her privileged background and easy access to information about global finance through her father, Julie is likely aware of the South African situation. Though Gordimer does not explicitly state any of this in the text, it is implied that Julie’s refusal to leave the country is a veiled plea for people like her, the wealthy, able members of society, not to abandon the good of the people in order to meet the demands of capitalism.