A Month That Changed the Country? Grenfell Tower Could be a Watershed

Grenfell

It seems fitting that at this time a new series of Twin Peaks is appearing on our screens. David Lynch’s most well known production about a small town in the North of the United States, traumatised by the slow revelation of its dark underbelly. It begins with the murder of a local homecoming queen. An act that on the surface appears totally out of place amid the scenes of bucolic small town life. A darkness that could only have been visited upon the community from outside. Eventually the surface is broken to reveal that what appeared wholesome, functional and everyday was built upon layers of corruption, violence and lies. The darkness which seemed to have come from outside is discovered to be rooted at the very foundations of the town itself. In the last few weeks something similar may be happening in Britain.

 

Two terrorist attacks, one election and one horrific tower block fire have left Theresa May’s beleaguered premiership teetering on the brink. More important than that; more important for the possibility of lasting radical change, is the feeling, palpable in the country, that some hitherto unknown darkness, which the powers that be have spent the best part of two decades telling us was outside, out there” trying to destroy our way of life”, is in fact right here. It runs through everything, from the transformation of London into a vast foreign investment portfolio, to the filthy money and weapons moving back and forward from Western governments to the Middle East, from the cuts to public services and the doctrine of austerity, to the acts of mass murder in Manchester and London and of course this week in one of the richest places on earth, the abandonment of the country’s poor to death by fire in their own homes.

 

It started after the Manchester bombing when the role of the intelligence services and Theresa May’s Home Office in maintaining an extreme anti-Gaddafi faction (The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group) was revealed and that she had allowed the bomber Salman Abedi to travel age 16 to fight in Libya and to return unhindered. Only a few weeks prior she was seen virtually kissing the hands of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud while agreeing a multi-billion pound weapons deal with the Wahhabist state that is currently using those weapons and others supplied by the US to pulverise parts of Yemen back into the Middle Ages, creating the world’s most serious food crisis, which the UN has described as a “man-man humanitarian catastrophe”. Those weapons she told Parliament back in September 2016 were important to “keep people on Britain’s streets safe”.

 

MayThe polls were already closing as we entered June. The Prime Minister’s robotic and evasive non-performances could scarcely be defended by her own party, while Jeremy Corbyn was seen addressing thronging crowds wherever he went and seemed at ease among ordinary people drawn to his program of an end to austerity and renewed investment in public services. An arrogant and skeletal manifesto followed from the Tories which few cabinet ministers had even seen before being asked to defend. May’s bunker mentality extended to her own party. Like the aging Emperor Claudius she relied on a few personal advisors for her connection to the real world. When called out on the blatant u-turn over the so-called dementia tax she steadfastly denied anything had happened. Like her speech in front of Downing St the day after the election, she seemed to occupy a different logical space to the rest of mankind. Strong and stable – the mantra with which she called the election, began to look deluded and mildly deranged.

 

Then on June 2nd, six days before the polls opened, another atrocity. The van and knife attack at London Bridge instead of playing into the government’s rhetoric on security and stability seemed to have the opposite effect. Labour grabbed the initiative, focusing the public debate on cuts to police numbers during Theresa May’s time at the Home Office. And again there were noises on the periphery about the State’s role in doing deals with countries known to finance terror organisations. In the same week Donald Trump heralded the isolation of Qatar by its neighbours for just this reason and then sold $12bn of weapons to them. In an irony that few noticed, the Shard of Glass, a vast middle finger of capitalist domination that looms over the once Dickensian area around London Bridge, is majority owned by the Qatari state and was constructed as part of a large project of “regeneration” which saw many old established businesses forced out by compulsory purchase orders and soaring rents.

 

The election result, despite leaving the Conservatives as the largest party felt like a renewal; a vindication of ideas and a form of politics that many thought had been lost to cynicism, Neoliberal individualism and more recently the fall-out from Brexit. Instead Labour’s leader stands tall at the head of a movement which since the election result has gone beyond 800,000 members. Rather than Brexit, immigration, stability or even security, the public discourse was dominated by the issues of austerity, cuts to public services and a genuine sense, for the first time in decades, of a real choice at the ballot box. The Prime Minister was visibly crestfallen , reduced to repeating the same broken phrases from the campaign, before submitting hers and her government’s futures to the creationists, anti-abortionists and religious zealots of the DUP. Now Grenfell Tower has happened.

 

I switched on the radio as I do every day on my 5am drive to work and for the third time in as many weeks I immediately gauged that sombre professional BBC tone that is their hallmark at times of tragedy. This, at the end of weeks of shocks and reversals seems to bring everything together into one brutally tragic denouement. The poorest people in the richest borough in the country, suffocated and burnt to death in their homes after being threatened with legal action for publically raising fire safety concerns. An unaccountable quango inflicting “beautification” upon their building for the benefit of the surrounding rich; work that seems likely to be the cause of this unprecedented fire. The terrible sight of the tower engulfed in flame and the harrowing stories of those within are mirrored by the unrestrained anger of the survivors and general public. For the first time in my memory such an event was covered immediately from the perspective of politics, class and inequality. Despite that, animosity from the residents towards the media is clear, with even Jon Snow of Channel 4 News getting a hard time on the ground. Again and again the same grievances are heard in interviews; cuts, gentrification, abandonment, inequality and stigmatisation by the media.

 

The image of Theresa May at her private audience with a select few senior fire and police officers may be defining for her. Watching the coverage you become aware that separations so many of us are used to taking for granted are collapsing. The sort of scenes of anguish we’re used to seeing in Alepo or Bangladesh, here in one of the richest places on earth. The sort of testimony of trauma we’re used to hearing translated. Weeping women pace the streets carrying pictures of loved ones missing in the inferno. In the era of Globalisation, argued Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their book Empire, there is no longer any geographical separation between first and third worlds, they exist together side by side. The greatest poverty amid the greatest riches, the greatest suffering amid the greatest prosperity. People made homeless by the fire and their supporters have stormed the offices of Kensington and Chelsea council, demanding help and justice.

 

There is a sense that something has been emerging over the last month, confirmed by the electoral slap delivered to Theresa May’s Conservative and Unionist Party and their arrogance in expecting a fearful, compliant electorate to hand them a landslide. People aren’t buying it anymore and there is a sense that the repeated blows of tragedy during this time of political choice has had the effect of focussing attention on the state of Britain like never before. But more than that, what may be coming to consciousness for the first time in British society is the connection between things; the common substance linking all these events. Let us call the devil by its name: The Market. Not the market as talked about by the classical economists of the 18th and 19th century, not even the free market talked about in relation to exiting the EU. This is the Market not as something that exists, but as an idea, something transcendent and ineffable against which everything else is evaluated. This is the Market as first cause and first principle from which all human conduct should be measured. Indeed from the idea of Market comes a whole anthropology of what the human being is and what a human society should look like. Not the political animal of Aristotle but homo economicus. Not the community of equals striving to build the Just City but a network of freely contracting individuals, rationally calculating according to their own self-interest.

LB attack

It is from commitment to this idea of the Market that successive governments have sold off Britain’s public services, attempting as much as possible to make Britain mimic that idea. It is from the idea of the Market that Britain takes money from corrupt undemocratic regimes like Saudi Arabia and Qatar in exchange for weapons, despite their known involvement in the funding and dissemination of Islamist extremism. It is from the idea of the Market that police numbers are cut making it harder to detect and prevent that same terrorist extremism. It is from the idea of the Market that council housing is sold off or run down to make way for lucrative private developments that (in London in particular) are beyond the reach of those on ordinary wages. And it is from that same idea of the Market that so much of this new private housing stock is sold to foreign investors and left empty while homelessness spirals and the poorest have to live in dangerous, decrepit rented accommodation. Finally it is from the idea of the Market that the welfare state should be transformed (where it is not destroyed) in concert with profit seeking private companies into a apparatus for coercing people into the appropriate market behaviour, which equates to a life of precarious living, “bullshit jobs” (to borrow David Graeber’s phrase) and permanent uncertainty.

 

At every level from major corporations and transnational organisations like the IMF, World Bank and the EU, to national governments and on down to local councils, the same idea, the same first principle of governance is applied and used to guide decisions and orientate human action. This is the almost metaphysical thread that runs through globalisation. It is only in the Neoliberal era, when the State was weaponised against Welfare and the unions and the separation between public and private, State and free enterprise has all but collapsed, that the idea of the Market was able to become the totalising global principle it now is. There is no single name for what I’m describing. Globalisation has been the common term but I prefer to use the expression One-World Governance.

Everywhere it is transforming human life, bringing inequality, breaking up communities and breaking down forms of solidarity that don’t adhere to the idea of the Market. This is the form-of-life, hierarchically ordered that today holds sway across the world. Until recently the violence that this system brings with it has been mostly kept at the periphery. Since the global crash in 2007 that separation too has now collapsed. Whether it is life permanently under the threat of terrorism, or amid the tragedy and ruins of Grenfell Tower, life under One-World Governance is a unfolding catastrophe. Change is undoubtedly in the air and the centre ground has all but vanished. Sides are being taken, battle lines drawn. Even if the tragedies of the last month do lead to lasting change it will take a shift of global proportions to redirect humanity from the course it is currently on.

About Duncan Simpson

a Londoner who writes on philosophy, history, politics and theology. Simpson originally trained in the natural sciences before taking up post-graduate studies in philosophy at Birkbeck College London specialising in modern political thought. He has worked in the biotechnology sector for over nine years. Current focus includes the intersection between the history of religion and contemporary current affairs and the legacy of ancient Roman political and legal thought. He maintains the Askesis blog.
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