by Richard King
The British have always been wary of modern architecture, the British upper crust especially so. From the Prince of Wales and his “monstrous carbuncles” to Sir John Betjeman and his iambic fantasies about “heavy bombs” raining down on Slough, a deep suspicion of architectural modernism would appear to be the default position of the bluebloods and their literary hangers-on. The prejudice is perhaps most wittily expressed in Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall, in the figure of architect Otto Silenus. Silenus is talking to a journalist who has come to inspect his “surprising creation of ferro-concrete and aluminium”. “The problem of architecture as I see it,” he says, “is the problem of all art – the elimination of the human element from the consideration of the form.”
Well, it wasn't modernism that did for the “human element” in Grenfell Tower two weeks ago, though it's clear that the attempts to prettify that building for the sake of the surrounding residents – some of the richest people in the world, mark you – had a fundamental part to play. For whatever one thinks of the “brutalist” style of that 24-story tower block, it was built with working people in mind, at the ragged end of Britain's post-war, social-democratic settlement. No, what did for Grenfell's tenants, 80 of whom are now known to have died, was the extent to which, and the manner in which, that settlement was undermined over decades. Their home, or what is left of it, is now a blackened monument to another kind of “decline”: the “managed decline” of poor neighbourhoods as a central plank of the ideology we've come to know as neoliberalism.
“How the fuck does that even happen?” asks one fire-fighter on the way to the emergency, his horror caught in smart-phone footage taken in the small hours of 14 June. There's a technical answer to that question, of course, but there's also a political one; and, infuriatingly for those who would treat politics as something above or beyond lived experience (more on them a little later), the two are related in the most mundane ways possible, in ways that are sure to be labelled “criminal” even if they aren't labelled “manslaughter” or “murder” (more on that word later, too). This was not a “tragic accident”; it was the consequence of years of nihilism and neglect.
Grenfell Tower contained no fire alarms, no sprinklers, no pressurized stairwell, no fire escape, no speaker system to communicate with tenants in case of an emergency. What it did contain were a number of posters hung by the management company telling residents to stay put in the event of a fire, the building having been designed in such a way as to prevent its spread from one apartment to another. But a new facade had recently been fitted, and it spread the fire in a matter of minutes. The cladding – two strips of aluminium with a combustible polyethylene core – was set slightly away from the foam insulation on the tower's exterior. That gap created a chimney effect, with air pulling the fire up vertically, quickly. The fire, which had started from a faulty refrigerator, probably set against an exterior wall, destroyed the building from the outside in.
That there was a more expensive version of the cladding available – one without a flammable core – came as no surprise to the activist tenants who'd been warning for years of a potential disaster should corners continue to be cut. Countless tests elsewhere in the world have demonstrated time and again that this kind of cladding is dangerous, a fact even the company that makes the panels appears to concede in its European brochure, where it is stated that apartments above fire-ladder height should be “conceived” with non-combustible materials. But the regulations in Britain are lax, and if a landlord can save a few quid on a renovation – around £2 per square meter in this instance, apparently – then who is to stop them doing so? Such is life in austerity Britain, where the poor suffer what they must, even as the monarch receives a few extra mill from the state to spruce up her Westminster digs.
Fuck that. And fuck the talking heads who deplore the “politicisation” of Grenfell. British parliamentarians were warned as early as 1999 about the introduction of flammable cladding, and an inquiry into the Lakanal House fire in southeast London in 2009 – a fire in which six people died – made clear the need for an overhaul of fire safety practices. Theresa May's own chief of staff was one of a series of housing ministers who sat on a 2013 report on fire safety regulations. The idea that one should wait until “the dust settles” and the bodies have been identified before making these points is absurd, obscene. Many of the bodies will never be identified. And the dust will never settle. Nor should it.
Of course, the “politics” of this go deeper than the decisions made in the recent past. They have to do with the ideological commitment to “cutting red tape” and “freeing up business” – with the idea that “market principles” will necessarily be more efficient than the state. More deeply, they have to do with the way in which housing is now treated as a tool of speculation, such that what remains of cheap social housing is now regarded as a problem to be managed, and managed-out where possible. It's no secret that Tony Blair's New Labour sought to accelerate the process started by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and “transfer” council housing stock to “arm's-length” management companies, or that these “ALMOs” were often inadequate to the task of managing the properties in their care. (In the case of Grenfell, the relevant ALMO is the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, which manages an incredible 10,000 properties, and frequently ignored the Grenfell Action Group.) The result is that decent social housing, once marbled into wealthy areas as part of the project of social democracy, is increasingly anachronistic. The Grenfell Tower catastrophe has made plain the class violence that underwrote the steady dismantling of the post-war settlement. And you can smell the smoke from everywhere.
There will be an inquiry into Grenfell. But whatever its terms of reference are, it will not penetrate to this deep layer of causality. It will have harsh words for any contractors found to have botched the renovation. It will criticise the government for not acting on advice. It may even result in a jail-term or two. But it will not say that the industry groups who lobby the British parliament for laxer safety regulations are the twenty-first-century equivalents of the nineteenth-century industrialists who resisted the Factory Acts, or that many of the members of that parliament, as landlords themselves, are a part of the problem. It will not talk of the violence of austerity.
Searching for a phrase to describe the plight of the poor in nineteenth-century England, Friedrich Engels wrote of “social murder” and something like that concept is again at large in Britain today. On the memorial wall in Kensington, someone has written “Corporate Murder” (not, you notice, “Corporate Manslaughter”), while John McDonnell, Labour's Shadow Chancellor and Jeremy Corbyn's closest ally, told an audience at Glastonbury: “Those families, those individuals – 79 so far and there will be more – were murdered by political decisions that were taken over recent decades. The decision not to build homes and to view housing as only for financial speculation rather than for meeting a basic human need made by politicians over decades murdered those families.” No doubt the recent election campaign and terrorist attacks in Manchester and London have raised the political temperature; but this is remarkable nonetheless. My sense is that a real debate about what kind of society we want to live in is breaking – has broken – into the mainstream.
McDonnell was criticised, of course, for making such “political” noises. But the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire had already decided that the issue was political. Two days after the catastrophe they forced their way in to the Kensington and Chelsea council offices, demanding answers, demanding assistance, accusing officials and the media of attempting to manage their anger and grief by withholding the true (or likely) figure of the number of people who died in the fire. No doubt some of them were among the marchers in Westminster the following day, where “Justice for Grenfell” was the slogan and the catchcry and the mood, red love-hearts notwithstanding, was one of deep and genuine anger. There is no question of co-option here; the passions aroused by Grenfell are real.
It would be absurd to say that Grenfell changes everything. But it has made visible, in the starkest way possible, the plight of neoliberalism's losers, and the tearing up of a social contract that had at its heart the civilising idea that the world is made up of communities, not atomised, alienated individuals in competition for land and resources. That a good many people are now looking forward, with more optimism than they've had for some time, to a society based along similar lines is no silver lining on this toxic black cloud. But it is one more sign of the decline and fall of a system that places profits above people.
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