Fire in Babylon
This is a disaster that results from decades of misrule, argues Paul Demarty
The death toll of the Grenfell Tower fire, as I write, has hit 79. For comparison’s sake, that is pretty close to the total number of people to have died in terrorist attacks on British soil since 9/11.
If anything, the public mood is more enraged. On some level, the average Briton understands the terrorist attacker, even if only so far as that he is the enemy, and enemies are wont to kill you. There is anger, and the desire for revenge, but ultimately not surprise. But this is the 21st century, it is Britain, and it is London - it is Kensington! Buildings do not burn down like this. No comparable fire has taken place for a century.
So surprise turns to anger. Who is to blame? The potential culprits line up for consideration: the shoddy lowest-bidder contractors who installed the exterior cladding leading so spectacularly to disaster are an easy scapegoat. The Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), whose job it is to - among other things - make sure public housing in the borough is not committed to a fiery doom, has plainly failed, and has ignored concerns over fire safety for years. The buck stops locally with the council itself, which was an early and especially enthusiastic adopter of the sort of privatisation of housing management the KCTMO exemplifies (so-called arms-length management organisations), and is dominated by Tories who plainly consider their remaining council tenants a blight on an otherwise shapely neighbourhood. (Unlike in days of yore, when London County Council had the power to build houses, Sadiq Khan’s mayoral office - and that of his predecessors - could not have done a whole lot.)
Yet even this, it turns out, is too small a canvas on which to paint the gutted husk of Grenfell Tower. Gavin Barwell (until recently housing minister - a high turnover job, in which nobody seems to achieve anything - but now Theresa May’s chief advisor) ignored repeated warnings about the dangerous state of Britain’s tower blocks. Eric Pickles, whose brief under David Cameron was sticking the knife into municipal government, was confronted with evidence of such failings, and merely passed the buck to councils, presumably knowing full well that the cuts he and his odious confrères had imposed meant that nothing would be done. A wholesome diet of porridge would do this corpulent ogre no end of good - if a cell can be found to fit him.
When a minister gets dragged in, however, so does the stubborn tradition of collective responsibility, and thus ultimately the prime minister. There is never a good time for a disaster of this type, but it could not have come at a worse moment for Theresa May, who has stumbled, bewildered, into the worst graces of the British media, having unforgivably failed to bury Jeremy Corbyn two weeks ago. Like Gordon Brown in 2010, she is unable to do anything right, and so it is unsurprising that initially she kept clear of displaced Grenfell residents, who could not be expected to greet her with any warmth. When that resulted in widespread condemnation of her cowardice, she submitted to a TV interview, which was found - after the fashion of many of her experiences in that capacity - to be wanting in terms of human warmth, and indeed the ability to say more than one thing during the course of a several-minute-long conversation. The mavens of the bourgeois commentariat have commended Khan, by way of contrast, for taking the heckles on the chin.
In the end, there is no shortage of blame to go around, and so it is being spread around quite liberally. In a typically ebullient think-piece for Socialist Worker, Charlie Kimber writes that the fire “sums up everything that is wrong in Britain” (as an aside: everything, comrade Kimber? There is an awful lot of Britain, and an awful lot wrong). “But it has become central and potentially transforming because people are fighting back. Instead of ‘dignified’ silence and acceptance, the residents and their supporters have chosen the dignity of struggle.”1
This is to put too fine a point on it. The rage of those affected, and those who most readily identify with those affected, is genuine and entirely unsurprising. It is also directed, it seems, at almost anyone available with a petty fragment of authority to their name. It is certainly true that the socialist convictions we share with Charlie have much to say about the catalogue of crimes that led to the fire, but not at all obvious that the anger at the base amounts to “struggle” in the more elevated sense that he means it - a rung somewhere on the ladder up to revolutionary insurrection.
We are reminded, oddly, of a much less bloody episode - that of the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009, where more or less everyone in parliament was (quelle surprise!) found to be ripping off the taxpayer for personal advantage, in activities ranging from the petty (being too cheap to buy a Fruit Corner yoghurt) to the fatuously extravagant (mock-Tudor roof-beams and duck-houses for the country pile), to the patently exploitative (financial fiddles to extract rent and other forms of profit from taxpayer-funded residences). People were angry, oh yes, and one could hardly fault them, or indeed resist joining in - such was the morally contemptible graft on display. It is not at all clear that it helped the left. The most widespread ‘radical’ demand at the time was for the queen to dissolve parliament, and the immediate electoral consequence was the far-right breakthrough in the European parliament elections, with the post-fascist British National Party taking two seats and the UK Independence Party pipping Labour to second place.
Today, we are talking charred corpses rather than duck houses. But the spontaneous and righteous anger is just as elemental and inelegantly directed. The establishment is plainly in damage-control mode, but is not doomed to failure in this endeavour. The queen was sent in. May, even, has managed to calm things down by meeting displaced residents at Downing Street, with a bishop sitting in mediation. The £5,500 bribe she has offered has not, truth be told, been met with the scorn it deserves,3 seeing as people no doubt badly need the money. Naturally, we have an interminable public inquiry to look forward to, which will no doubt conclude, after squandering a great deal of treasure, that the building really ought not on the whole to have burnt down, but nobody is to blame for the unfortunate circumstance that it did.
Rather than merely cheerleading popular anger, we would be better served working out exactly how such a calamity came to be possible, and indeed to happen, and how we might contribute to avoiding such events in the future. There is nothing special about Grenfell Tower as a building (nor even, rather ominously, about its recently installed flammable cladding). There is nothing remarkable about its residents, bar their sudden plunge in average life expectancy. This is a mass death foretold - most notoriously by the residents themselves, who had been on at the council over fire safety for years with no luck, but also anyone who looks at the reality of housing in this country.
Bad to worse
How did things get this bad? We must first of all point out that the prevailing direction, if not the explicit purpose, of housing policy in Britain since Margaret Thatcher’s first government is to return things in substance to the status quo ante 1900. Owner-occupiers and landlords are to occupy a distinct stratum of society over and above the rest of us. The remainder of the middle class and the better-off among the workers will be permitted the privilege of paying exorbitant rents for adequate housing; everyone else, barring a tiny and arbitrarily selected coterie of the ‘deserving poor’, will be subjected to the capricious attention of slumlords, living in pestilential and unsafe conditions.
The corollary to this fact is that the three decades following the war, which saw huge expansion in public housing provision, are not the ‘normal’ reality of society, from which Thatcher deviated for reasons of ideological fervour (though fervid she and her colleagues certainly were). The reverse is the case: mass social housing is the aberration, precarious and exploitative living arrangements the norm; British capitalist governments have been busily restoring the ‘natural’ order in the recent historical period.
The ‘aberrant’ period was not without its contradictions, of course, which were ably exploited by rightist demagogues of various types. The post-war housing boom was, in many cities, a matter of rebuilding an urban landscape devastated by aerial bombardment and otherwise pinched and left to rot by the privations of wartime. It was a vast project, and accumulated around it a kind of messianic mien, exemplified by the utopian designs of a generation of architects brought up on the ideals of path-breaking modernists like Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus school.
We are tempted, in the case of such people, to take the old idea that being determines consciousness unusually literally. Here were architects who seemed to believe that a vast set of social problems were amenable to solution by the proper design of the built environment. Many of them were radical in a more traditional sense - left social democratic or ‘official communist’ exiles from German or Austrian fascism. Their designs ran from compact houses to tower blocks, and even the layout of entire suburbs and city centres.
In the conservative imagination, it is the dictatorial conceit of the architects that is squarely to blame for the failure of post-war modernism, but that is hardly true. The law of unintended consequences, which certainly had its revenge on the ideologists of ‘streets in the sky’, need not lead to unpleasant consequences - merely unpredictable emergent behaviour. For the sink estates and crime and all the other blights of the council estate, the monolithic imagination of the architects had to merge with a mindset in municipal government focused primarily on numbers, packing people into flats like cans of dog food. Most such projects were not aesthetically ambitious or whatever, but merely took from the brutalists and so on licence to make unornamented buildings, designing them on the cheap, using low-quality materials, and tossing people in to rot.
A point of crisis came with the Ronan Point disaster, where a system-built tower block in east London partially collapsed after a gas explosion, killing four, in 1968. (Grenfell Tower just about post-dates the building regulations brought in after Ronan Point; otherwise it might well have collapsed. It was certainly not among the more remarkable examples of its genre.) The crisis of the post-war settlement began to deprive the estates of the ongoing material support that any major housing site needs to thrive. Thatcher’s war on municipal government and sell-off of the stock put the cherry on the cake.
Today, the widespread hatred of post-war modernist housing is on the wane; in fact, the great exemplars of brutalism are now highly fashionable. Flats in Ernö Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower, not too far away from the scene of the fire, are highly sought after by the London bourgeoisie; its older sister, Balfron Tower in Blackwall, was recently redeveloped to sell to much the same sort of people. The best examples of the style really are well designed, inside and out (contrary to stereotype, Goldfinger did actually spend time living in Balfron Tower), and have no intrinsic reason to fail - as is maddeningly obvious, now that they are sold on to the well-to-do. Whether a building or neighbourhood is tolerable or not is not in the end a matter of civil engineering - anything can be fixed, after all - but of social relations and political will.
To prevent such disasters in future, much needs to happen. Clearly, existing buildings need to be made safe; but they will only ever be so safe while housing conditions at large are so insecure. All parties promise to build more houses, and all fail, because in the end they rely on the big house-builders to do it, when it seems the latter are better off controlling supply and indulging in cynical land speculation. (Implicitly, by expecting nine-tenths of its promised million new homes to be private, Labour’s recent manifesto is in hock to the same crooks.)
What is needed is a vast expansion in public homebuilding, and the reversal of decades of attacks on the autonomy and power of local government to make such things happen. Broad power to seize unused properties from absentee owners would also relieve matters, as would legal protection for those who decide to take occupancy into their own hands (the recent association of squatting with studenty anarchist types should not blind us to its utility as a political tactic). Public housing should be available to all who need it (that is, everyone); and those who use it should exercise meaningful democratic control over their living conditions.
The ultimate objective, of course, is to remove housing entirely from the purview of the market. Charlie Kimber overstates the case, but only slightly: to trust the fulfilment of the elementary human need for shelter to capitalism is madness. What better proof of that is there than Kensington and Chelsea, where mansions rot - sold and resold without ever being troubled by a tenant - and the poor are crammed resentfully into bedsits; where ex-prime ministers live comfortably a stone’s throw from the blackened remains of Grenfell Tower?
2. I would just love to see this figure rigorously itemised. £268 for your worldly possessions, £800 to bury immolated relatives, £300 for treatment for post-traumatic stress ... Seriously: five and a half grand? What contempt.