Saturday, 24 June 2017

The Grenfell Tower Disaster: the Noble Idea and the Non-Society

It should not have happened.

Words repeated thousands of times in the news this week, no less true for every repeat. But to think them, to agree with them, is one thing. To see the remains of Grenfell Tower for yourself is to find that to feel them is quite another.

It is not like seeing it on a TV screen. But then, seeing something that should not be never is.

The effect is sharpened by the local architecture. Kensington is a densely built-up suburb, and from many of its boxed-in streets there is no line of sight to the tower, or what remains of it.

Hence how it punches you in the face, when you glimpse it over the rooftops or framed in the sky at the end of a lane. Even in a warzone the sight would appal. Outside one it is all the worse for its incongruousness, least of all in the wealthiest ward of a modern international city.

It was chilling. The tower has been so utterly blasted by the flames that it is as though it has been not merely gutted but ripped into another dimension, a dark and twisted mirror of our own. A patch in the bottom left stands intact; the unblemished grey walls with windows still in place are a stark contrast, the only part of the structure to have resisted the forces that tore it from this reality. The rest has been left a mass of shades and shapes that do not belong in the world, punctuated only by flashes of fluorescent orange: firefighters who flit in and out behind the windows like solid spectres, combing through the ruin and no doubt witnessing things that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

To think that each little square housed a home. The dreams, the pain and the love that each would have harboured as their occupants negotiated their daily struggles through this troubled country.

The hope, and the despair, snuffed out alike in final moments that no-one was there to witness, and no-one will know while still in this reality.

But the universe knows. Everything that happens, it records, and it remembers.

The tower stands in North Kensington, an ethnically and culturally diverse neighbourhood which we might generalize as a ‘low-income area’. And then, ten minutes’ walk to the south, you have streets like this.

Notting Hill and the Ladbroke estate emerged from the 19th Century redevelopment of this area as one of the wealthiest and most fashionable zones in London. And now, barely in the shadow of Grenfell Tower, it feels so many worlds away from the communities next door. Broad leafy terraces lined end to end with houses, mansions, plastered and pillared and terraced and decked in the kinds of architectural features that would send most people reaching for a dictionary.

We may wonder how many of those fancy houses were among those that opened their doors to the survivors of Grenfell Tower following the disaster – in the same moment as wondering how many are owned by corrupt tycoons and oligarchs far, far away and kept empty on purpose.

The effect is surreal. London has many rich parts and many impoverished parts, but their uneasy coexistence here in Kensington is surely distinct. It is a patchwork of concentrations of affluence and abandonment, which phase in and out of each other in the spaces in between like waves in the fabric of time and space, vying for expression. The Portobello Road market, which reflects that shifting character as it stretches from the Westway into the monied heart of Kensington, is one such kaleidoscope.

RBKC = Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

And now there is rage here, and so there should be. It should not have happened.

But it did, and so it joins a catalogue of atrocities through London’s history for which those kicked to the bottom of the social hierarchy have always paid the harshest price. Northern Kensington has long been a microcosm of this. Before sections of it were redeveloped and gentrified, the area was known for its potting, brick-making and pig farming, a hell of clay mines and slurries and gravel pits which the London historian Andrew Duncan, in his Favourite London Walks, calls ‘one of the most notorious slums in Victorian England. Somehow’, he observes, ‘all this squalor existed until the 1870s side by side with the middle-class suburb on the slopes of the hill above’. It seems the threads of the Kensington puzzle run some way back.

An old pottery kiln, from when ‘potteries and brickfields were established here amid some of the poorest housing conditions in London.’ Opposite it is Avondale Park, ‘then a vast pit of stinking slurry known as the Ocean’.

But the horror at Grenfell Tower has a distinctly modern dimension that none of the history, however important, suffices to explain. It is a dimension best captured by the MP David Lammy in his Channel 4 News interview a few days after the disaster, one of the rawest and most poignantly sincere you might ever see from a standing politician.

‘We need to live in a society where we care for the poorest and the vulnerable’, he says. ‘And that means housing. It means somewhere decent to live. It was a noble idea that we built…and it’s falling apart around our eyes.’

What is important here is that that ‘noble idea’, the welfare state, is not merely an economic safety net but rather an explicitly political concept. It was the outcome of a conscious decision, taken by the Labour Party government amidst the ruins of World War II, for a new kind of British society: a vision that rejected the rich-eat-poor heritage that has blighted London for countless generations. Its pathfinder was a character called William Beveridge, who declared he was going to slay five giants: Want (i.e. poverty), Disease, Ignorance, Squalor, and Idleness. And it would be the state, the government, that took the responsibility of standing in the front line of this battle, laying down the infrastructure of free healthcare, free education, social housing, railways, unemployment support, and everything else necessary to make this possible. Just as importantly was the example it set, the principles it embodied: Lammy’s ‘noble idea’ that society should care about the poor and the vulnerable and leave nobody behind.

In a country like the UK with its incorrigible ways of abuse towards the poor, this was a revolutionary accomplishment. And they knew it: they referred to it as building a ‘New Jerusalem’. And these visionaries would have had something to say about magic money trees too, standing as they were in blitzed-out cities with rationing still in effect and an empire crumbling around them.

Of course the New Jerusalem did not go entirely to plan, to say the least. But it laid a foundation, set a legacy, in values as much as in practice, until another revolution in the 1980s began to tear chunks off this infrastructure and hurl those values back out of reality.

This was the market fundamentalist revolution of Margaret Thatcher, and its goal was to abolish society. Its core principles were the opposite of those that built the welfare state: that people should not care about others, only about themselves.

That alone did not cause the Grenfell Tower disaster. Thatcher and her followers set about breaking up the welfare state because, objectionable as their logic may be, they somehow really believed that was best for the country. But they are no longer the pilots. They have since been replaced in the role by the only possible products of their ideology: people who believe in nothing, and whose every political act is calculated – typically with spectacular ineptitude – to serve their own shallow interests.

It may be no coincidence that many of these individuals, including David Cameron and George Osborne, the architects of the austerity project, are known as the Notting Hill Set and cut their teeth in these very realms of affluence that adjoin Grenfell Tower. It is on their account that the programme to strike down welfare state Britain has been transformed from a political movement into an entire culture: a pervading atmosphere of cruelty and contempt that squats upon all dimensions of British life today, by where the kindest and most courageous people are kicked where they struggle, damned as scroungers and skivers and unpatriotic saboteurs not only by the politicians but by the bulk of the mainstream media, their employers, their services, and the cloud of popular hatred that swells at every sign of difference or suffering.

A culture, in short, where it is normal not to listen, not to bother, and not to care – indeed to scoff in mockery at the very idea you are meant to. Society has been turned into non-society; the welfare state has become a hellfare state.

That is why the government, the council, and everyone else in a position to ensure the fire safety of Grenfell Tower so spectacularly failed in their duty in every possible way. Whether we want to talk about sprinklers or fire extinguishers or emergency exits or fire instructions or cladding is beside the point: it is reasonable to presume that if even a single one of any of the key aspects had been attended to, then the disaster could have been prevented, or at least mitigated so as not to result in the comprehensive catastrophe it became.

Only a perfect fuck-you culture could have caused the Grenfell Tower disaster. And perhaps only by it coming to a disaster like this, in the same period as a bombardment of terror attacks and political turmoil, could the country be shaken awake to just how perfect a fuck-you culture it has been reduced to. There is no doubt now that that awakening has started, at least in some segments of the population. People know it should not have happened, as they should. People are angry, as they should be. People are demanding justice, as they have every right to expect. And they are demanding that an atrocity like this must never happen again.

The only way they can achieve this is by vanquishing that fuck-you culture that now infests so many layers of British life: the government, the councils, the companies, the newspapers, and the very institutions of the welfare state it rots away from within. In its place, they must build a new culture where to not care is wrong and will be held to account.

Can they do it? Can they banish once and for all the very idea of the non-society, and make a renewed attempt to establish obligations of care as the driving force of life in this country? Can they bring back that noblest of ideas, the idea of society itself?

There is an opportunity now. It has come at an abominable cost, one that should not have been necessary and must never be paid again.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

On "British Values", the Conservative Party and Crimes Against Humanity

Justice, forced to take on tree surgery on a zero-hours contract because it has become too expensive to live in London

I shall set out here to make a simple case: that democracy, freedom, tolerance, the rule of law and respect for human rights are not British values. That is, there is nothing about them in any way present in, or exclusive to, Britain’s national essence.

As far as democracy is concerned, let us be clear. What this country did have, emerging from Anglo-Saxon practices then formalized in its beloved Magna Carta of 1215, was one thing: the idea and norm that power had to be accountable. In other words, that the person in charge of the country was obligated in some sense to do right by his or her people, and could be challenged, held to task, or even rightfully kicked out, if he or she failed in this duty. Many societies have had their own variants of this basic political principle, of course.

In Britain this idea was contested right from the beginning by practically every new generation of monarchs. Kings roared one after another that their power was absolute, flipping over the table of documents designed to constrain them, and provoking wars and coups and foreign interventions to drag their noses and signatures back to it. Not even the monstrous civil war of the seventeenth century sufficed to settle this matter, despite reducing much of the British Isles to ruins and mutilated corpses in the attempt. On top of that, the “people” to which the rulers were so obliged only ever referred, until more recent times, to an extreme minority of privileged elites, from the medieval barons to the early-modern parliamentary plutocrats whose conflicts with the crown tended to be more about protecting their own interests than any concern for some general principle of liberty.

To the extent that Britain is free, inclusive and tolerant, it is because such basic humanity had to be pried piece by piece from the tentacles of an establishment that kicked, screamed, hanged, beheaded and fired from all cylinders all the way. Those British who dared to think, fight and suffer in this struggle faced tyranny and bigotry towards women, foreigners, children, poor people, disabled people, people of unsanctioned religious beliefs or sexualities or ways of thinking and goodness knows what else – oppressive hierarchies and us-versus-them tribalisms, that is, that many and perhaps most people in British society would have considered normal. Many still do.

For those so left behind, taking back recognition as human beings has taken literally centuries. Every real victory in the struggle to win that recognition, and the rights that come with it, has had its corresponding price in blood and anguish. Peasants’ revolts, workers’ marches, slave rebellions, dissident literature, conscientious objectors, secret religious meetings, colonial independence struggles, hunger strikes in prison – a great deal of those who won the British their liberty – or won their liberty from the British – did not make it out alive, and the enemy that trampled their carcasses into this country’s cemeteries was entirely native.

Most of their victories, such as of women, are relatively recent in this story and are not yet complete. Many more, as of people of marginalized sexualities or family structures, have barely begun or have yet to come at all. All are under perpetual threat of rollback if not for the constant vigilance of British civil society. That such a civil society has emerged is to Britain’s credit, formidably so, but the reason it has been so needed in the first place is the historical fact that British values, in practice, have most often meant violence, exclusion, and utterly shameless dehumanization.

What we recognize today as Britain’s parliamentary system, in which the country’s politics are argued over by competing factions without resort to violence, began to take shape following the revolution of 1688. Yet another king had been thrown out (for appearing tolerant of Catholics, which to most people meant tyrannical – the way all this was framed is fascinatingly instructive on the almighty mess that Britishness has always been, but it is too involved a chapter to go into here). A new bill of rights officially gave parliament more power than it had ever held before – even insisting these rights were ancient and fundamental, from before the monarchy existed – and effectively bound the monarch’s own power to parliament’s will.

But within that parliament, there had emerged a faction which disliked this intensely. They wanted a supreme king or queen with whom final authority lay, even if they were gradually distancing themselves from the old idea, still popular on the continent, that the monarch was the representative of God and every right or freedom was granted by the monarch as an entirely optional favour, not by any natural entitlement on one's own part. This faction was ridiculed by its opponents, who called them tóraidhe, a term for Irish bandits (notice again the use of foreignness as a scorn factor).

Tóraidhe. Tory. These were the ancestors of today’s Conservative Party.

And they have been through all kinds of transformations since, those Tories. In a diverse and balanced British politics they very much had their place, and it may be fairly argued that valuable intellectual and political contributions to the shaping of this country emerged on account of them. But in our day, through a process begun under Margaret Thatcher and now consummated by its present and recent leadership, the Conservative Party has arisen as the prime inheritors of those coercive, exclusionary, prejudice-driven and physically and structurally violent British values whose proponents have considered the country their own arbitrary property for as long as Britain, indeed England, has existed.

What “British values” means to this Conservative Party has been made plain by its record. It means scapegoating Europeans, Muslims, migrants and people of darker skin pigmentation for problems of the country’s own creation. It means traumatically tearing people from those they love and summarily deporting them on various pretexts of foreignness, even if they have lived in good standing in Britain for decades. It means cutting support for the most vulnerable members of society, whether physically disabled, economically devastated, mentally shattered or sexually violated: mocking and reprimanding them like criminals or wayward infants, burying them in meaningless paperwork, pronouncing them fit to work where they lie comatose, in some cases tormenting them to the point of suicide. It means allowing refugees – refugees! – to be called cockroaches, and treating them like cockroaches. It means abuse and exploitation as core dynamics of the very concept of work. It means free rein for a sadistic and predatory tabloid media that rampages around the country in a storm of slavering prejudices, reshaping the public discourse into a carnival of toxic ignorance and hysteria. And it means the willingness to slaughter millions of foreigners with nuclear weapons, should it at any point deem it necessary, as a reasonable price to “keep the country safe”, while at the same time furnishing violent and oppressive regimes and fuelling conflict and hatred around the world, as in the Saudi destruction of Yemen, under the same pretext.

In other words, for today’s Conservative Party, to be British is to be gloriously cruel and proud of it.

The point here is not that they are merely nasty. It is that their nastiness is a British nastiness. Because none of this is new; Britain has always had people like them. Each of their abuses is but another strand in of a sprawling web of callousness and revelry in others’ pain that clings to every page of the British story, extensions of a structure that produced so many miserable slave ships, poorhouses, smokestacks, mental asylums and scaffolds for dissidents and dreamers. Infused into every brick of this structure are the same British values the Conservative Party has now taken it on itself to stand for: the belief that society, defined as it is by relationships of mutual care and support, should not exist; the attitude that your fellow human beings are beneath you; and that conviction that the more you can get away with wringing their hearts, minds and bodies dry for your own benefit, the better.

It is the fact that millions of British are satisfied with a country like that, and so eagerly prepared to vote for it, that more than anything challenges the notion that liberty, tolerance, respect and free thought are the real British values. There is very much a Britain of compassion, righteous rebellion and support for the vulnerable too, but it is there because exceptional people have fought to the death for it, maligned and threatened and ridiculed all the way. But beneath that vision, or that façade depending on who is talking, sits the same rump of nastiness that has occupied this land for centuries, and replacing it will likely take centuries more.

I am a stranger in this land, and make these observations as an outsider who has experienced the worst of this country but also seen what it is capable of at its best. So it is at the level of a human being, no more and no less, that I make this condemnation of the Conservative Party, whose leaders and adherents have abused their power to inflict misery and hurt upon those who most needed – most *obliged* – their protection, and responded to their cries for help by manufacturing a culture of unrelenting mass hatred and contempt, a tide of bile to drown them in the insistence that they are inferior vermin whose suffering is their own fault.

The history makes clear that this barbarity did not begin with the Conservative Party, and it certainly will not end with it. But the party is terminally corrupted. A true conservative, including many who have stood among the Tories in each generation, even today’s, is one who seeks to preserve the best things from his or her people’s past. Such people have a vital place in any society. But the party now belongs to impostors who would preserve Britain’s worst. The torch they carry is the torch of authoritarianism, forced conformity and submission, slavery, colonialism, heteronormative patriarchy, the terrorization of the different, and a destruction of people’s lives for fun and profit that will not stop till they have ground from our veins the final impulses of love and care, and all submit to joining in their social cannibalism and human sacrifice on the altar of the cult of the nasty world. That is not conservatism. It is an unspeakable thing that has no legitimate place among human beings – not now, not anywhere, not forever.

I will not call for the overthrow of the Conservative Party in the coming election, although that would be a good start. The response to what it has visited upon Britain, and to its choice of British values, must go far deeper if the hope that these can mean good things is to be safeguarded. The party in its present form should be considered a constitutional threat and never be permitted near power again. Their atrocities over the last seven years must be documented, exposed, memorialized and never forgotten. Their true crime has been to normalize these deeds, to blend them into the mundanity of everyday life, and only when the British de-normalize them will they awaken as a nation to the true magnitude of what has been suffered in this country. Thus a special tribunal should be set up to hold the party’s leaders and enforcers to account, with the power to jail them if deemed appropriate, for their abuse of the United Kingdom through violent austerity; the destruction of vital public services and support systems; forced deportations and separation of families; collaboration with the media to create a conducive environment for hate crimes and dehumanization of the vulnerable and unpopular; and support for murderous regimes which all together, as intended consequences of systematic policy, constitute a failure in their responsibility as a government to protect their people and could in sum amount to crimes against humanity.

Part of the importance of this is that other peoples, too, could then learn from yet another case study of how easily the disqualification of segments of the people from consideration as human beings, especially the most unheard, unloved and invisible, leads to depravities of indifference that damn a whole generation. But for the British, it is only through such a reckoning that British values can stand up to the greatest threat that faces them, which, as ever, comes not from foreigners but from the depths of their own national soul. The greatest threat to British values is British values.