Proposal for a Popular Housing Review

This is an extremely speculative attempt to outline, roughly, what a Labour housing review that drew on those strands in Corbynism that are potentially useful, radical and open to popular experience could look like. It is mostly speculative and theoretical (though theory in response to a set of practical experiences that demand a different sort of political practice) but if anyone wanted to commission me to organise such a review….

One of the most promising things about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign was his willingness to listen to the concerns of ordinary people and, to a degree, accept the legitimacy of popular needs and demands against the dominant political consensus. It is, therefore, disappointing to see that the shadow housing minister, John Healey, has launched the “independent” Redfern Review into the decline in home ownership. The Redfern Review will be led by Pete Redfern, the chief executive of Taylor Wimpey. Redfern will be advised by “a team of experts on housing and economics”: Dame Kate Barker, former Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee member, Terrie Alafat CBE, Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing, and former Director of Housing at the Department for Communities and Local Government, Ian Mulheirn, Director of Consulting at Oxford Economics and former Director of the Social Market Foundation and Andy Gray, former Managing Director of Mortgages at Barclays and ex-deputy chair of the Council of Mortgage Lenders. What is notable from this group of experts is that none of them have suffered from the housing crisis, indeed, Redfern as chief executive of one of Britain’s biggest developers has acquired his expertise from profiting from and exacerbating the housing crisis.

In the Redfern Review, as in most policy reviews expertise is imagined as being acquired through holding positions of power. This expertise, moreover, is to be deployed to solve a circumscribed set of problems within a limited, given framework, in the Redfern Review the housing crisis is reduced to one of its aspects, the decline in home ownership. The goals, diagnosis and scope of the review and the meaning of expertise are all entirely given by the dominant political consensus and here the Redfern Review has considerable parallels and overlaps with the Lyons Review, commissioned by Labour before the 2015 election, with a different but essentially interchangeable panel of experts.

There is a different source of expertise, one which is not founded upon knowledge acquired in benefiting from the housing crisis. This expertise, unlike the technocratic expertise of the Redfern Review, is able both to integrate local, often extremely technical details and experiences with a wider, radical sense of how housing should be. This expertise grasps the housing crisis both in its totality and in the extremely differentiated and differentiating ways in which it works itself out in practice. The expertise able to accomplish this, is the expertise of those directly effected by and struggling against the current state of housing in the UK. This is not, however, a question of the experience and opinions of stereotypical young, white, middle-class “do-gooding” activists. Firstly, even members of this group are likely to be struggling with their own housing situations, particularly in London and the South-East. Secondly, to struggle against the housing crisis is not predominantly to struggle against it through the given political methods whether lobbying, protest marches or even more antagonistic means like protest occupations, though these may all prove useful. Struggling against the housing crisis, instead, is to use knowledge, resilience and bravery to, at the very least, limit how far one is exploited by a landlord to what is legal, to, at the most, merely survive. For many surviving the housing crisis requires considerable knowledge both of official laws and policies and of the unofficial, often legally questionable, to say the very least, ways in which both landlords and councils, benefit offices and other parts of the state operate. All of this is authentic expertise and it is expertise that has been acquired through surviving the housing crisis rather than profiting from it. This expertise also involves a different knitting together of theory and practice from those who have the power to influence policy through in conventional ways, whether that is through being able to manipulate state channels or commanding capital (or, most commonly, both). This expertise, however, is largely ignored, to a large extent because the bearers of it are disproportionately women, especially mothers, from BME backgrounds, working class, young, with irregular immigration status and may be from the official perspective inarticulate or may not speak English as a first language. It is further ignored because it often circulates through hidden or unofficial channels though in some cases it is embedded and shareable in housing groups like HASL.

A popular housing review rooted in the expertise that huge numbers of people have had to acquire to survive the crisis or at least partially ameliorate its effects would look very different to the Redfern or Lyons Reviews. It would open up a whole new set of points where the housing crisis takes place and be able to address their intersections. A popular housing review would also be as independent from party politics as the Redfern Review but in a radical rather than technocratic way. Even in terms of addressing the particular focus of the Redfern Review, popular expertise would be telling in its ability to contextualise the question of declining home ownership and the problems resulting from it within a wider housing landscape in which the costs and insecurity of private renting and the lack of availability of and access to council housing mean that buying a house is the only way to escape housing insecurity, exploitation and preposterous costs. This approach situates the problem which the Redfern Review is intended to address in a context which goes beyond the concern with the housing crisis because now “it does not limit itself to the working class but has affected the petty bourgeoisie also” and allows for a long-term perspective which suggests a crisis deeper, longer and wider than its immediate manifestations insofar as they concern a particular social segment.

A popular housing crisis would raise two sets of questions for Corbyn and Labour, most obviously, these would concern the national programme for 2020 and the terms on which government policy is to be opposed, but it would also question what Labour councils do (it is often forgotten, or, deliberately passed over, that Labour are in power in large parts of the country). The questions that might be generated by a popular housing review would include estate demolitions, both the necessity of opposing them whether mandated by central or local government and generating proposals for refurbishing estates without displacing tenants, building more council houses, and separating this demand from the demand to build more houses. A popular housing review would allow demands to be made in themselves, articulating popular needs, rather than seeing these needs only appear when subordinated to the interests of the state and capital such as with the demand to “build more homes” with no attention to tenure or use, which deploys the struggles of those affected by the housing crisis to “liberate” private developers whether through loosening planning laws, including those mandating “affordable” homes or through state subsidies. These are questions for Labour councils as much as for national governments.

A second group of questions would surround private renting, and again a popular housing review would transform the technocratic approach to questions which both integrates demands and needs in a pre-existing framework whilst neglecting the way in which individual policies intersect with the wider situation whether this is other housing policies, other government policies or the wider social reality of oppression. Technocratic policy making addresses an uncritically examined situation, which fails to take account either of the totality of the situation and its differentiation, particularly through class, race and gender. A popular housing review would also reverse the way in which questions are posed. For example, whilst it is, at a stretch, imaginable that the standard policy consultation form could suggest rent controls but only in such a way that the perspective of landlords, especially when expressed through abstractions like the “quality of the housing stock”, is integrated and foregrounded alongside technocratic debates about what form of rent control best reconciles opposing interests. A popular housing review could begin by determining what is an acceptable level of rent and work from there. Questions around secure tenancies, especially an end to retaliatory evictions would also be posed from the perspective of tenants and this may reveal, for example, the risk of retaliatory evictions, which landlords have worked hard to downplay, significantly damages the housing stock by discouraging or even completely preventing tenants from complaining about repairs. More generally, tenants have their own experience (as distinct from landlords and local councils) of the effectiveness of existing provisions, especially through environmental health, in resolving problems over the condition of housing. All existing policies should be tested for usefulness against the expertise and experience of those struggling with housing.

As with council housing, there are also a set of questions and policies being carried out by Labour local councils which must be scrutinised in the light of their effects on those struggling against the housing crisis, perhaps more than anywhere else this evaluation requires sensitivity to the extremely varied effects of the housing crisis and how these effects are differentiated by income but even more significantly race, gender and immigration status. It is also clear that some of the more middle class parts of the housing movement are reluctant to integrate the concerns of those outside the white, middle class, “generation rent” newly affected by the housing crisis into their analysis of and organising around private renting.

The limitations of both technocratic policy making and the concerns of the white, middle-class section of the housing movement, which often takes its campaigning from what is imagined as “politically realistic” include the failure to foreground critique of the Right to Rent policy (which demands landlords check the immigration status of tenants before allowing them to rent a home) and to understand the severity of the effects of this racist policy in its intersection with domestic violence– a survivor fleeing their home may well be unable to take the necessary documentation that they will now need to able to rent a home with them. There are also a set of questions, again surrounding how our demands are instrumentalised by the state and capital, around how demanding improved standards of housing can be twisted into anti-immigrant policies whether through some of the implications of landlord licensing or through local councils using funding for dealing with rogue landlords on immigration raids. In certain ways these policies and their impacts are technical issues but their impact on people’s lives are profound but policy never foregrounds the experiences of those whose ability to survive is compromised by them. A popular housing review, instead of starting with abstractions like the quality of housing stock or the mixture of common sense and individualising caricature, for example in the figure of the “rogue landlord” that calls out for bureaucratic intervention, would begin with the experiences of the most affected by the crisis and their knowledge of what these policies mean.

Rather than stabilising the housing crisis through figures like the “rogue landlord”, which suggest that problems which are in fact systematic can be managed through the correct policy intervention, engaging with the experiences of those most affected by the housing crisis opens up both the totality of the crisis and its extremely differentiated (and differentiating) effects. Instead of blaming the crisis on rogue landlords, the experience of tenants makes clear that all private renting is, by its nature, exploitative. On the systematic level private renting in exploitative but the effects of exploitation are differentiated, for some the exploitation is just about manageable, for others, even with the various ameliorations suggested by parts of the housing movement or the centre left, private renting will never not be incredibly unsuitable and harmful, this is particularly the case for families. There is huge technical expertise, resilience and cunning (all of these acquired from struggle) from people forced to negotiate a landscape of lack of council housing and local council gatekeeping practices which deny them access to housing to which they should be entitled. Again, politically, this barely registers despite the misery it produces but local housing groups like HASL, whose members are affected, have done substantial and important work into the effects of the Localism Act and the powers that it has given councils to use. For Labour there are two sets of questions, the first, longer-term, concern national legislation and the duties national government should impose on councils, the second, which could be addressed easily and would make a huge difference to large numbers of people’s lives concern the behaviour of Labour councils now, and their sometimes complicity in, sometimes actual committing of acts of violence against vulnerable people in need of housing.

A further area of questions around policy’s focus on abstractions or the interests of a few people at the expense of popular needs, which also forces people into the private rented sector, concern squatting. Squatters again because having and sharing this is a necessity in order to have housing have their own considerable expertise and legal and technical knowledge.

There are, therefore, a whole set of vital areas of housing policy which the Redfern Review will ignore. Those outlined above are, necessarily partial as they grounded in my own housing problems, the housing struggles which I have been involved in and conversations with others struggling against the crisis, they are, therefore, London, perhaps even, Southwark and Lambethcentric, and unevenly focused on private renting but a genuinely popular housing review would engage with all of those struggling against the housing crisis, across tenures and across the country. The point of a popular housing review would be to centre policy on the needs, experience and expertise of those struggling with their housing, explore its intersections with other parts of life and other struggles. This sort of review would also expand what is held to constitute housing policy by addressing its intersections with other parts of life and expand what it is necessary to critique or resist. A popular housing review would not only address Labour policy for the 2020 election but also use popular needs and expertise to explore and correct the behaviour of Labour where it is already in power in local government.

Open Letter to Harriet Harman on Syria

I’ve written the following letter to Harriet Harman regarding her decision to vote in support of bombing Syria. If you’re a Labour member in Camberwell and Peckham and agree with this, please sign by putting your name in the comments. Thanks.

Dear Harriet,

As Labour Party members in Camberwell and Peckham we were extremely disappointed to see that you had decided to join the Conservatives in voting in support of air strikes on Syria.

We note that your vote was in defiance of the resolution agreed at Conference, which stipulated four conditions for bombing to be supported, we believe none of these have been met. UN Resolution 2249 does not provide the required “clear and unambiguous” authorisation. Moreover, there have been no serious steps to address the second demand that “a comprehensive European Union-wide plan is in place to provide humanitarian assistance to the increased number of refugees that even more widespread bombing can be expected to lead to.” We also believe that bombing is likely to hinder rather than help any possible diplomatic efforts to bring the conflict to an end.

The resolution also demands that all “bombing is directed exclusively at military targets directly associated with Islamic State”, we believe that this is impossible to achieve. Indeed, in the lead up to the debate over bombing The Observer published testimony from a number of people who had escaped from Raqqa, often leaving family members behind, pleaded that Britain not bomb Raqqa, telling of how allied bombing had made their lives unbearable and that there had been civilian casualties. Alongside the likelihood of civilian casualties we also believe the bombing will do little to undermine ISIS and may actually strengthen their position.

While we appreciate that you have worked hard for the area and done a great deal to further women’s rights as an MP, after your voting in defiance of democratically agreed party positions for measures that are likely to cause civilian causalities and fail to undermine ISIS we would find it extremely difficult to support you if you sought to stand as a Labour candidate again.


Long Live The Corbyn Vortex? Part Two: Two Versions of Labour Values

Part One: The Incorruptible.

1. Mild and Circumspect at Home, Fiercely Colonialist Abroad

“Socialism is what a Labour government does”, Herbert Morrison (attributed).

“Of political parties claiming socialism to be their aim, the Labour Party has always been one of the most dogmatic- not about socialism but about the parliamentary system. Empirical and flexible about all else, its leaders have made devotion to that system their fixed point of reference.” Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism, p. 13.

The question of the meaning and application of “Labour Values” has become crucial at three points in the leadership context. Firstly, in Corbyn’s campaign there has been the promise of a reconnection with Labour Values, embodied, to an extent, in Corbyn’s own past, against the betrayal and corruption of the Blair years. Secondly, there has been the “Labour Purge”, the exclusion of many, particularly on the left, from voting due to the suspicion that they “do not support the aims and values of the Labour Party”. Finally, there has been the demand for a “credible” Labour Party able to win a General Election in order to implement Labour Values, “there is nothing progressive about being powerless.” (Gordon Brown)

In the last case, “Labour Values” function almost entirely as an empty signifier, whilst the phrase “Labour Values” is constantly deployed, the values themselves are almost never defined, they exist merely as that which demands compromise in order to win elections. Two broad conclusions may be drawn from this, firstly that, in the absence of any other definition, “Labour Values” like Morrison’s socialism are nothing more than what a Labour government has done; secondly, following Miliband, on Labour’s dogmatic devotion to parliamentarianism that the primary Labour Value is the desire to exercise power, there is a “moral duty to seek power to relieve suffering.” (Brown, again, with “to relieve suffering”, one of the few times anyone outside of the Corbyn campagin has defined “Labour Values”).

As the Morrison and Miliband quotes suggest this devotion to parliamentary power (what Miliband describes as Labour’s “ministerial obsession”) is nothing new, indeed it is constitutive of the Labour Party itself. Brown’s demand that Labour be a party of power not of protest, mirrors, consciously, one imagines, Keir Hardie’s “Labour must prove to the nation that its members could be statesman as well as agitators” (Parliamentary Socialism, p. 27). In this identification of Labour Values with what a Labour government does, there is an odd identity between the Labour right and the left that is hostile to Labour, with both suggesting that the question of Labour Values is exhausted by the activity of Labour in government and that this activity amounts to vicious colonial and imperialist wars, servility towards the US (“Atlanticism”), a timidity amounting to capitulation to the ruling class and disciplining of working class militancy and organisation justified through the promise of very limited social reforms. For the Labour right this set of “values” are to be opposed; for the anti-Labour left, to be opposed but whilst the evaluation of these values differs, there is broad agreement on what they are and there is a broad assumed continuity between all Labour governments.

Large parts of the Labour Left (and this broad outlook is shared, with slightly different conclusions, by parts of the left outside but not existentially hostile to Labour, notably Ken Loach), by contrast, would argue that Labour values may be defined by the 1945-51 government, but not by the government of 1997-2010, which betrayed these values. In appealing to what one (but not every) Labour government did, the Labour Left retain a broadly ministerialist emphasis, which is intensified by the fixation of 1945, Miliband writes, “the victory of 1945 has had one very bad consequence, in that it has so powerfully reinforced Labour’s ministerialist obsession. There is no inherent virtue in opposition; but it is all too easy to exaggerate the virtues of office, as a thing-in-itself, independently of the real, concrete purposes office is intended to serve. Politics, lots of people need to learn again, are not exclusively electoral” (“The Sickness of Labourism”). It is worth, therefore, examining the record of the 1945 Labour government, what Miliband describes as representing “the climax of labourism” to address how far it works to appeal to this government against Blair. Of the 1945 government Miliband’s assessment feels broadly correct (Parliamentary Socialism, p. 272).

To begin with, Miliband describes Labour’s 1945 manifesto Let Us Face the Future, “a mild and circumspect document” (p. 278) but notes that the government was, especially from 1945 to 48 responsible for “achievements that were real, and of permanent importance…in housing, in education, in welfare, it could well boast to have done more than any government had done before” (and it could added, in retrospect, since) (p. 286). This then is the positive side of the most revered (by almost everyone in Labour) government, on the other, as Miliband argues, Labour’s nationalisation programme did not aim at socialist transformation but merely, timidly, at a more efficient broadly capitalist economy. Moreover, for all the useful reforms, the 1945 government “made it its business to moderate and discipline [organised working class] claims and their expectations” and when this industrial discipline broke down the refusal to support working class demands entailed using troops as “blacklegs who reduced the effectiveness of the strikes” (p. 287). Miliband also argues that after 1948, with much of Let Us Face the Future implemented Labour could have made a radical break towards socialist transformation but failed to do so with Morrison, in particular, arguing for the necessity of “consolidation” and tempering any radical demands because of “public opinion”. Outside the UK (almost entirely ignored by the Labour Left) Labour’s response to anti-colonial challenges was, “a mixture of minimal constitutional reforms on the one hand, on the other, as part of the defence of the “free world” against Communism the waging of a fierce colonial war in Malaya.” (p. 304)

Following Miliband’s analysis it should be quite clear that Labour Values, if they amount to the what Labour has done in government, even when it comes to the government most admired to the left, have very little to offer for those like Corbyn who believe in “justice, freedom, solidarity and equality for all”. Moreover, if they do amount to what Labour has done in government, the values of many of those excluded from voting in the leadership election are not compatible with Labour Values.

When considering the usefulness of Labour Values it is also important to remember that the deployment of Labour Values against their betrayal by the currently existing party need not be benign. This narrative very often operates to defend the privileges of a particular (white, male, heterosexual in regular employment) section of the working class- the BNP campaigned in Barking and Dagenham under the slogan of “The Party that Labour used to be.” Indeed, whilst less disgraceful, parts of Andy Burnham’s Bloke Labour campaign and its embarrassing fixation on his own “authenticity” shares some of these features. Burnham’s campaign has combined the nasty and the inept, particularly aiming to reconnect with “ordinary” voters through a mixture of ordinary blokishness and “listening to their concerns on immigration.” Burnham’s narrative also includes a fixation on the recovery of the lost symbols of patriotic social democracy without a retrieval of their political content, most notably in his demand (borrowed, tellingly, from the 2010 UKIP manifesto) that all trains whether nationalised or not, have the same livery. Burnham’s self-presentation, therefore, includes a moment of utter capitulation, analogous to that demanded from Suzanne Moore, where the most revanchist features of what is imagined to be working class consciousness are appealed to, refusing to believe working class people are able to transcend these (sometimes imaginary) deformations. This is a travesty both present and past of working class struggle.

The question to be posed, therefore, is whether there is any credibility to the claim that Blair (or whoever else, is held to be responsible for the fall) betrayed “Labour Values” and whether this can be useful for the left. This argument is central to Corbyn’s campaign largely due to its astonishing resilience on large parts of the British Left whether inside or outside Labour. On the one hand it could be argued that this appeal to Labour Values is reliant on a mixture of wishful thinking and historical sloppiness, on the other it is true that the grasping of the “spirit” of something can and does exclude, whether in Robespierre’s image of the Roman Republic or Corbyn’s historical Labour Values, any material deformation and, moreover, that these images are powerful and politically useful regardless of their truth.

This argument, however, poses some problems. Firstly, there is a moral-historical one, unambiguous praise of the 1945-51 Labour government is a betrayal of the memory of the dead, in this case, most significantly, the dead and tortured of Malaya’s Anti-British National Liberation War. Secondly, the persistence of this image of 1945 can lead to political errors, most notably, a “ministerialist obsession”, or, as Miliband notes of the Labour Left, a constant acceptance of parliamentarianism coupled with a never very succesful but “continuous search for means of escape from its inhibitions and constrictions.” (Parliamentary Socialism, p. 14). The ministerialist has also led to an acquiescence by the Labour Left in the name of compromise when, “from [Labour’s] inception…the compromise gave very little to the socialists in the way of political influence.” (p. 25) It is only the Labour Left that compromise, and it is only to the Left that demands to compromise are made. In the leadership campaign Blair, Cooper and Kendall have all insisted, “this is not a choice between principle and power”, this argument works precisely because their principles are absolutely unthreatening to capital and the state so no sacrifices need be made in the interests of a narrowly defined “credibility”. The Labour Left, whose principles would challenge the state and capital tends to compromise precisely because it can see no force able to challenge “credibility” so believes itself, virtuously, forced into acquiescence, “party unity” for the sake of very limited social reforms.

Corbyn’s campaign has exercised a retroactive force on Labour history, beginning to reveal the depths of the invariant structures of Labour politics, which have become clear in the deployment of Labour history both in his favour and against him and the recurrence of the arguments of the past. This revelation, however, of these structures is only taking place in the context of the possiblity of the logic of the Corbyn vortex leading to a break with these invariants.

2. Labour Values: The Great Creative Achievement of Working People

The question of the usefulness of “Labour Values” to socialist transformation can be addressed by exploring why Corbyn entails this break, particular a break with the traditional compromises of the Labour Left and how this break discloses another location of Labour Values. In 1961 in The Long Revolution, Raymond Williams described the common understanding of the choice that demands compromise from the Labour Left, “it presents itself as between a qualified acceptance of a subordinate capacity or the renewal of an apparently hopeless challenge. The practical benefits of the former have to be balanced against the profound loss of inspiration in the absence of the latter.” (p. 328). The likliehood of Corbyn’s victory indicates that the logic of this compromise has now broken down. The immediate cause for this breakdown is the unelectability of the candidates opposing him, Burnham, Kendall and (albeit perhaps less so) Cooper are eminently unable to offer the plausible hope of winning elections to exercise power to implement moderate reforms that is required to force the abandonment “the renewal of an apparently hopeless challenge.”

It is telling how many of those who argued on May 8th that Labour needed radical change if it is to win again now put their hopes in Andy Burnham. Burnham with the air of a friend’s new boyfriend, who in the absence of any other discernible positive qualities you imagine must be “nice”, until you realise he’s actually a little unpleasant coupled with slightly less inspiring policies than Ed Miliband is supposed now to offer the hope of winning the almost 100 seats (with boundary changes) Labour will have to win to form a government in 2020. If the question of “electability” is the only considered, Cooper’s mixture of technocracy, petty authoritarianism (demanding, for example, huge increases of funding for Prevent), and policies around childcare may at a stretch, in the event of another economic crisis, offer some hope of scraping together an arrangement with the SNP (Corbyn has been the only candidate paying any attention to the necessity of winning back Scottish seats) in 2020. This very slim hope (and it is questionable whether Cooper offers any more hope of being elected in 2020 than Corbyn), however, has failed to be sufficient for large numbers of people on the soft left in Labour to accept the very profound loss of inspiration voting for Cooper would amount to.

The success of the Corbyn campaign and with it the break down of the logic of compromise has allowed it to become clear where Labour Values are truly to be located, and this becomes clear if Williams’s text, which speaks of a demoralisation of Labour is read through the Corbyn campaign. Williams, in The Long Revolution, modifies an argument from Culture and Society, which he summarises, “the institutions of the labour movement- the trade unions, the co-operatives, the Labour Party were great creative achievement of the working people and also the right basis for the whole organization of any good society of the future.” (p. 328) By The Long Revolution, Williams was substantially more equivocal for two reasons, which remain relevant. Firstly, Williams argued that the defence of sectional interest from the Trade Union movement has limited their ability to develop alternative patterns and left them as “a set of men playing the market in very much the terms of the employers they oppose” (p. 328- my emphasis). The question around sectionalism and the unions now needs to be redefined to emphasise still the desire for a marginally improved wage or conditions within the broad acceptance of the terms of existing society but also the tendency in large parts of the Labour movement to continue to defend the privileges the white, male, paid worker in regular employment. Secondly, Williams emphasis the demoralisation (in both senses of the word) occasioned by the “steady pressure, from the existing organization of society, to convert these institutions to aims and patterns which would not offer this kind of challenge” with the demand that Labour become merely an alternative possible government within the same system as one of the main means by which this conformist pressure is exercised. The affinity between Miliband and Williams here is obvious, both in terms of the conformism produced by Labour’s dogmatic parliamentarianism and in the limitation of the activity of the Trade Unions, for Miliband, the industrial leaders of Labour as much as the political ones were equally “imbued with parliamentarianism” (Parliamentary Socialism, p. 13) to the point that Trade Unions opposed industrial action with any poltical content, whilst in Williams, the Trade Unions become “simply industrial organisations with no other interests, each union keeping to its own sphere.” In both cases the critique focuses on the malign consequences of the domination of the space of politics by the Labour Party and, therefore, by parliamentarianism.

A similar account of the “world of labour” as the creative achievement of the British working class is offered in Miliband’s “The New Revisionism in Britain”, “Not revolution, not a popular levée en masse, but the creation of a dense network of institutions—parties, trade unions, cooperatives, a labour and socialist press, associations and groups of every kind—which constitute a world of labour, and whose purpose is pressure, challenge, struggle and renewal. The creation of this world of labour has not been a smooth process, and its history is as much one of defeats, setbacks and betrayals as of successes; and its shortcomings, from a socialist perspective, are not difficult to see. But the process has gone on year after year and decade after decade; and it will go on so long as capitalism itself endures. Indeed, it will need to go on for a long time after. It can be diverted, divided, even temporarily arrested and crushed. Even so, it begins again, and pushes on, for the simple reason that pressure and challenge are Siamese twins of exploitation and oppression.” The details of this description, especially the inclusion of “associations and groups of every kind”, which includes political parties opposing the Labour Party as well as other agnostic or actively hostile organisations.

Corbyn’s campaign and the forces it has attracted reveals that the alternative then to Morrison and the modern Labour establishment location of socialist or Labour values in the activities of Labour governments and nothing else, is to locate Labour values in the labour movement as the great creative and collective achievement of working people in Britain. At the same time it is necessary to constantly challenge the potential disciplining, demoralisation and limiting of this movement by both established powers and the morally and politically corrosive dominance of certain privileged sectors of the working class. This shift of location also entails a shift in how the values come about, for the Labour establishment Labour Values are given, static and closed, to be imposed on a situation through the exercise of ministerial power; for the Labour movement, Labour Values emerge from the struggle as a process, they are not static, not to be applied to a situation by the narrow exercise of power over others. Labour Values instead occupy a similar place and function to courage, humour, cunning and fortitude Benjamin’s argument that, “the class struggle…is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist. Nevertheless, it is not in the form of the spoils that fall to the victor that the latter make their presence felt in the class struggle. They manifest themselves in this struggle as courage, humour, cunning and fortitude. They have retroactive force and will constantly call into question every victory, past and present, of the rulers.” (Theses on the Philosophy of History IV) There is, however, here a vital question, which can only be mentioned in passing at this point, about the place political struggles less or not rooted immediately in the working class at all but in the activity of, for example, women or Black militants, which certain versions of the world of labour have excluded, and which offer their own capacity for developing alternative patterns, which carries the great advantage of, necessarily, being at much less risk of being entangled in the sullen, backward looking often sexist or racist workerism that has corroded the movement.

The Corbyn campaign, moreover, reveals that, precisely as Miliband’s argument on the inevitability of pressure and challenge under conditions of exploitation of oppression, that the world of labour is not dead, despite predictions, across the political spectrum to the contrary. One retroactive disclosure of Corbyn’s campaign is the importance of campaigns and organisations like Stop the War Coalition and the People’s Assembly which may have seemed unglamorous (not a problem for genuine left organising) or uninspiring (a real problem) in, at the very least, maintaining this world of labour through a particularly bleak time. Here it is worth noting, from two sides, the limitations of Owen Jones’s argument that, “A grassroots movement and political phenomenon has emerged now. It could well be that, without Jeremy’s candidature, it would never have emerged.” These limitations are in the notion of “emerged” and in the notion of the “grassroots movement”. Firstly, to present this movement as emerging now, undermines any links to the world of labour and the struggles that have preceeded it and that now have been drawn into the Corbyn vortex. Secondly, the Corbyn campaign is still not the grassroots movement Jones claims it to be, it is drawn partially from the existing fragmented material of grassroots struggle on the left, and partially from individuals joining without the mediation of existing struggles- here Corbyn the incorruptible as expressing a set of values, a moral framework, above narrowly economistic struggles of the class, enabling an appeal which centres collective values but appeals to individuals in their individuality is essential.

Miliband’s argument also make clear, especially in the inclusion of parts of the world of labour that are hostile to the Labour Party, precisely how the terror against a largely imagined entryism operates. The Labour Party as merely, “an alternative government in the present system” requires its sundering from the incredibly dense and complicated world of labour in the assertion of the absolute primacy of devotion to the parliamentary system. The tension around Labour Values is therefore a choice between the increasingly unqualified subordination to existing power, to seek ministerial power on the terms and limits given by the ruling class, and the linking of the Labour Party to the movement and world which creates its own autonomous and distinctly Labour values.

In the context of the “Labour Purge”, two groups of people excluded are instructive: former members of Militant and those sympathetic to it and student movement activists. Militant were, not only absolutely embedded in the world of labour but also aimed at working within and through the Labour Party and local government, albeit ambiguously. As one of those denied a vote has argued, Kinnock’s betrayal of Militant in Liverpool, probably represents, “the final death of the long-standing Labour tradition of reforms through local government” (Owen Hatherley, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, p. 335). Militant’s willingness to defy the law in the service of this long-standing tradition coupled with the revolutionary justifications for entryism stands at the point where the Labour Left’s acceptance of the categories of parliamentarianism while seeking a way round the implications of that choice is transcended towards the position of the Left outside of Labour, which in the early years of the party was often Communist, for whom “parliamentary politics has always been of secondary importance” (Parliamentary Socialism, p. 15). Militant’s discipline and self-sacrifice in order to build council houses contrasts admirably with Kinnock’s legalistic servility, arguing, Labour “could not seek power to use the law in office, but in opposition show contempt for the law.” (Pugh, Speak for Britain, p. 378)

With Militant and the secondary importance of parliament, it is worth mentioning briefly (more on this in a future post on the prospects for Corbyn) that the ministerialist obsession of Kendall, Cooper and Burnham has led to them offering nothing for the next five years, for their campaigns everything relies on ensuring a Labour government is elected in 2020 even if this includes the demoralising stupidity of refusing to oppose the Welfare Bill. Corbyn by contrast, argues that the next five years could mean something politically, “we need a Labour government in 2020, but we cannot wait until then. Labour has to be a strong and constructive opposition in the next five years. If we can win the argument in the country, then perhaps we can force this government to change course. Our opposition cannot be limited to the parliamentary chambers and TV studios of Westminster. Labour is best when it is a movement, and that movement has swelled to an enthusiastic 600,000 who will decide this leadership election. Once that is over, we face a bigger task: to force this government to abandon its free-market dogma and become the strategic state our society needs. That challenge begins on 12 September.” What form precisely this movement is going to take and what powers in can exert, and, perhaps even more centrally, what is relation will be to existing struggles (there is a moment of quite considerable hubris, retaining the regrettable privileging of the Labour Party, in “that challenge begins on 12 September”, when people have been organising as long as there has been exploitation and oppression).

A further aspect of the rejection of the primacy of parliamentary politics by much of the world of labour is the centrality offered to the cultural world of labour and its educational institutions and attitudes (again a great creative achievement of the working class). Hatherley is also excellent on this, writing of his family, including his Militant activist father, “What made all of us able to rise out of our class was a culture based on the class rising collectively. The culture of the Labour movement – its literature, its debates, its prizing of learning as a means of struggle, its insistence that “knowledge is power” – is what made my parents educate themselves in the first place. Being brought up in that environment, being unafraid of books and intellectual argument, meant that I had the confidence to cope easily with the very different intellectual culture of university, without being intimidated by its privilege.” Hatherley adds, which further emphasises the malign consequences of the sundering of the Labour Party from the world of labour that “as the labour movement, with its own educational institutions, becomes more distant from the Labour party, it can only dangle the hope for individual self-advancement – the chance that you, too, could get on in the rat race.” Corbyn potentially offers the hope of the reconnection that would help with the reinvigoration of the educational institutions of the class- an absolutely vital part of any possible socialist transformation- and policywise help correct the limiting “aspiration” to the chance of getting on in the rat race.

The second vital group excluded from being to vote are student movement activists, and this offers its own lessons about the contradiction between the two versions of “Labour Values”. At first glance Labour’s managing to transform an influx of young, enthusiastic, politically engaged people with useful organising and campaigning skills into a serious problem appears utterly bizarre, but when related to the insistence on the primacy of parliamentarianism the necessity of this panic should become clear. Whilst the student movement activists support and profoundly desire a Labour government, their political activity, if it is worth anything, refuses the absolute primacy of this goal. In “The Sickness of Labourism”, Miliband is particularly (even by his standards) frustrated by how Labour’s commitment to parliamentarianism and treating socialism as “a mean little experiment in bureaucratic piecemeal social engineering”, renders it “hesitant, fumbling, petulant- and boring”. As Miliband argues, this positioning, leads to “a sick party, immured in a frame of mind which excludes the noise and the bustle, the challenge and the promise, the adventure and the dedication which are at the core of socialism. And they wonder why youth finds them trivial bores!” The ability of the Corbyn campaign to engage young people (and not just young people) suggests that it does hold out the hope of noise, bustle, challenge and adventure. The engagement of student activists and other left activists such as Salma Yaqoob who have been hostile to or indifferent to the Labour Party also suggests a reassuring break with one of Labour Leftism’s traditional limits, its being,“more concerned to strengthen its influence within the Labour Party than look for allies outside it.” (Parliamentary Socialism, p. 26)

For the Labour establishment, however, any enthusiasm, any people believing hat the Labour Party are not trivial bores, is a cause for suspicion, because this enthusiasm would suggest the possibility of political action that disrupts their own authority by overflowing the aggressively policed boundaries that identify “Labour Values” with the mixture of dreary tinkering and moral horror of the Labour Party in government. The Labour establishment would rather be “hesitant, fumbling, petulant and boring”, it would rather struggle for members than risk its position being undermined by the possible assertion of the alternative, autonomous Labour Values which could infect the Party and make it marginally less boring.

Long Live The Corbyn Vortex? Part One: The Incorruptible.


The Corbyn vortex is less a question of Corbyn himself, more one of the forces, groups, images and beliefs drawn in and assembled as a result of his campaign. The material drawn into the vortex was inchoate fragmentary, often beleaguered and its unity in the vortex of the campaign quite possibly fleeting. The Corbyn vortex exerts a retroactive force, above all on the struggles of the left since 2003 but also on the history of the left in the UK more generally. The Corbyn vortex also enacts a radical break with the situation as it was, forcing a decision.

To address Corbyn it may be useful to attempt to separate out some of the contradictory material that has been swallowed up in the vortex: Corbyn: The Incorruptible; “Labour Values” as a site of contestation; Corbyn as Our Iglesias or Tsipras; Extra-Parliamentary struggles and the development of effective alternative patterns; The political geography of Corbynism; Prospects for the next five years. Hopefully this provides a means of analysing what has happened and how, what prospects there are from and what are the limitations of the Corbyn Vortex.

This is the first (and most positive) part.

1. The Incorruptible

“It is those who are not lovers of ruling who must rule.” Plato, Republic, 521a

I was wrong, but then so was almost everyone else, in May and early June itappeared that Corbyn’s function in the leadership contest was to have taken part, lost honourably and introduced a few leftish talking points, one or two of which, at best, might have been taken up by the eventual winner Andy Burnham. Corbyn seemed ideally placed for the role of honourable loser in contrast to John McDonnell, whose politics is more grounded in extra-parliamentary struggles, or Diane Abbott, whose more obvious populist qualities may have allowed her to reach out beyond a traditional left audience. Moreover, Corbyn’s obvious reluctance to stand and his unconvincing manner of public speaking, further contributed to this impression.

The paradox, of course, is that for all this and for all the sense that having put forward Corbyn as the candidate was indicative of a historic weakness of the left, it is likely that, unlike Bevan or Benn, Corbyn will become Labour leader, it is also clear that what seemed like weaknesses have been transformed into strengths. Even Corbyn’s unconvincing public speaking- he is no popular tribune- functions both as a mark of modesty and of an index of both seriousness and the difficulty of building socialism under current conditions, we are a long way from Bevan’s oratory, “not a style for serious argument” (Raymond Williams, Politics and Letters, p. 369), and, as Williams notes, sharply, “After all, if it could have been done by talking, Wales would have been a socialist republic by the twenties.”

Corbyn projects (and this corresponds with the truth) utter incorruptibility. Corbyn’s ethical manner and focus on advocating positions as part of a debate, in contrast with McDonnell’s clearer grounding in the materially rooted struggles of the labour movement, intensifies this incorruptibility. This is not to say, however, that Corbyn is indifferent to, or plays no part in these struggles, merely that they are mediated through an ethical understanding rather than one of class antagonism. Corbyn presents a politics in which the public good is sundered entirely from private interests, including, significantly, the private interests of the working class. In Plato it is this indifference to private interest that produces the reluctance to rule in the ideal ruler. It is perhaps useful here to contrast the “public good” of Corbyn, with the idea of “common good” in Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt’s risible right-wing “resistance” group, “Labour for the Common Good”. The public good for Corbyn is a break with the chaos of individual material desires (in Rousseau’s terms, the general will); the common good with Umunna and Hunt, the regulation and agglomeration of corrupted individual desires (the will of all). As Badiou argues, applying Plato’s critique to contemporary politics, “democratic politics [as the regulation of material desires] is unsuited to the service of any idea at all since if the public power is in the service of desires and their satisfaction, which ultimately means in the service of the economy in the broad sense of the term, then it obeys only two criteria: wealth which gives the most stable abstract means for their satisfaction and opinion, which determines the objects of desire and the inner force with which people believe it necessary to appropriate these.” (The Meaning of Sarkozy, p. 90).

A notable feature, therefore, of the panicked opinion-mongers when faced with Corbyn has to be attack his incorruptibility as in his eating of cold beans out the can because he was spending too much time campaigning. This tendency of attacking Corbyn for his incorruptibility is especially clear in a particularly stupid column from Suzanne Moore, in which she argues, “one of the reasons I don’t support Corbyn is an innate distrust of asceticism. I can’t help it”, and continues, “Politically, though, Corybynism now represents a kind of purity. And, on the left, purity always shades into puritanism, an unbecoming exercise in self-flagellation that is curiously indulgent.” Corbyn’s incorruptibility stands as a clear refutation of the power of opinion, of the function of useless columnists like Moore and her claim to speak for the people. For Corbyn, the people are the austere bearers of virtue and, crucially, the basis of kindness; for Moore, the people are an anonymous mass of corrupted preferences, incapable of virtue or kindness, too stupid to speak for themselves and requiring Moore and her ilk to mediate and represent their desires. With Corbyn the people are real, concrete individuals but capable of the universal; with Moore the people are abstract, speechless but incapable of the abstraction that allows universality. In Moore, this contempt for the people is the justification of her slackness towards herself (she is one of these corrupted blockheads herself) and those like her, revanchism towards others (like her image of the people, Moore is incapable of kindness).

In the opposition to corruption, there is a crucial difference between Corbyn’s rhetoric and that of Pablo Iglesias or Podemos. For Podemos, la casta (probably best rendered in English as “the establishment following one of the few opinion-peddlers to support Corbyn), is always alluded to. The risk, however, is that the better the power of la casta is demonstrated, the more hopeless the situation becomes, politics is entirely demoralised, entirely determined by corruption, all are in it for themselves, including Podemos. By contrast, with Corbyn, the establishment is not presented in its own right at all (though Jones’s book is presumably influential for many of Corbyn’s supporters and plays some of this role) instead it appears only negatively as that which is broken with by Corbyn, the incorruptible, the man whose rectitude proves the whole world is not corruptible.

Corbyn’s incorruptibility in its positive articulation, moreover, bears with it a hope (but only a hope, not the genuine development of an alternative pattern of living in common) of a genuinely socialist culture which does not merely aim at imitating the consumption habits of the rich. Again the contrast with Bevan, praised by Moore for “swilling [the verb is, accidentally, telling] his champagne” is instructive. Corbyn’s personal austerity hints at the necessity of values outside of those of the stupid and boring culture of the rich, it also insists on the value of the lives of those unable to afford champagne. Whilst it may, at a stretch, be true that, as Martin Pugh argues, Bevan as “an authentic working-class socialist cum hedonist was perfectly placed to articulate Labour’s case in an era of affluence”, (Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour Party, p. 318). there is something pathetic and servile in the spectacle of Bevan, essentially defeated, taking taxis to Harrods and drinking champagne with the wealthy. Moreover, today, the necessity or otherwise of Labour reckoning with affluence, is rather moot, Corbyn is our first post-affluence politician.

Corbyn’s post-affluent style, however, is drawn entirely from the past, indeed, it is a mark and limit of any politics of virtue, that it cannot generate its own images of the future. With Robespierre it was “ancient Rome [that] was a past charged with the time of the now which is blasted out of the continuum of history”, (Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History, XIV), with Corbyn, or rather for the Corbyn Vortex, the past charged with the time of the now is a certain, always until now defeated, tendency in Labour itself, the tiger’s leap into the past with Corbyn, is to Corbyn himself in the 1980s.

by Feliks Topolski, charcoal, circa 1954

by Feliks Topolski, charcoal, circa 1954


For Part Two “Two Versions of Labour Values.”

A Path Through the Embers: A Militant Caring Infrastructure in South London

This is a version of a talk I gave a couple of months back, I wanted to get it into something much better than this but I thought it would be more useful to get it up now as it deals, albeit quite theoretically, with what kind of political strategies might be useful. The election result makes these considerations more important- Tory housing and benefit policies will clearly accelerate the social cleansing of London and make, for many people, the ability to rely on the welfare state to survive increasingly difficult.

If anyone’s interested there’s going to be a meeting to try to think through long-term strategies quite possibly around care and survival, email gannthomas at yahoo dot co dot uk if you’re interested in more details.

A Path Through the Embers: A Militant Caring Infrastructure against Revanchist South London.

“Don’t start with the good old things but the bad new ones”, Brecht.

The Heygate.

I want to start with what might seem a simplistic question, one that bothered me every time I was on a bus going past the Heygate: Why does big capital need the state to demolish perfectly good homes, and why is the state so happy to comply?

Two, related, lines of argument in Neil Smith suggest a way to think about this. Firstly, Smith argues that in terms of capital’s interests the built environment is two-sided, both “a vehicle for capital accumulation” and a potential “barrier to further accumulation.” The second, crucial, argument in Smith is his famous, “rent gap argument”, that gentrification is the main way to close the rent gap, which is, “the gap between the actual capitalised ground rent (land value) of a plot of land given its present use and the potential ground rent that might be gleaned under a “higher and better use”” (in the case of the Heygate, a higher and better use by, in the unguarded words of Southwark’s regeneration guru, “a better of class of people”).

The Rent Gap theory highlights what was the double vulnerability of the Heygate. Firstly, in terms of the site itself, a higher ground rent could be extracted if not used for council houses. A key element of Smith’s argument is the focus on the rent that could be extracted for the land, irrespective of the buildings on it, opening up the question of whether the buildings (and their tenants) functioned as a barrier to further capital accumulation.

The second vulnerability of the Heygate stems from a peculiarity of land as a commodity that it is “affected by buildings or improvements on surrounding land”. The stigmatised Heygate, slandered as a muggers’ paradise by the press, encouraged by Southwark Council- as if Peter John, a man given Olympic tickets and free travel to and luxury accommodation at property conferences by Lend Lease, the site’s developer had some sort of interest in seeing the estate demolished, also discouraged “the better class of people” from moving to Elephant.

It is, sadly true, that the council rather than a private firm owning the Heygate was was a favouring condition of its demolition. It has been noted in China and Vietnam that if municipal officials are either corrupt or committed to large capital development projects state ownership of land allows more rapid evictions and demolitions. The same is true in South London. The built environment can be barrier to capital due to the desire for existing owners to continue to profit of buildings that required substantial investment to be constructed, especially because demolition and the redevelopment requires a substantial capital outlay that will take years to mature. Southwark Council’s extraordinary generosity to Lend Lease- selling the 22 acre site for £55 million (nearby Tribecca square, a 1.5 acre site, sold for £40 million), Southwark paid £65.5 million to evict residents and clear the site- was what resolved the contradiction between the enormous opportunities for capital that the Heygate site presented and the barriers created by the existing built environment. The Chinese Communist Party in its recent anti-corruption drives has executed municipal leaders for less.

It is not, however, just a question of corruption, it is also necessary to address why capital sees no need for council houses. This is is a central part of reckoning not with the good old things of social democracy, but the bad new things of the neoliberal city. To return to the rent gap argument, today it proves particularly useful in rooting gentrification in capitalism rather than the trite stupidities of blaming consumption preferences- “hipsters” for gentrification. Smith explicitly opposes the rent gap theory to those accounts of gentrification that explain it through considerations of the post-industrial, consumption, not production led city. From the perspective of refusing an explanatory role for consumption preferences this is significant, but, on a deeper level, it is necessary to consider London as a post-industrial city, not as a location for consumption or production, in themselves, but in terms of what kind of proletariat needs to be housed and what kind of power this proletariat has.

It is necessary to consider council housing from two sides. On the one hand, council housing was a victory for an extremely militant and powerful proletariat, and it is vital to emphasis the role of squatting in forcing its construction. On the other hand, council housing was a rational compromise for the ruling class to offer, both to control proletarian demands and, with the state as “the committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie” reducing the price of labour by collectivising some of the costs of reproduction.

In post-industrial Britain neither a powerful organised proletariat on the immediate postwar model nor a capitalist class requiring large amounts of industrial labour exists anymore- the argument for a repeated class compromise, implied even by David Harvey, that cheaper housing costs would make British exports more competitive is sentimental, failing to consider quite how cheaply commodities can be produced overseas. Capital no longer requires council housing, we can no longer force it to give it to us.
The Revanchist City

The Bad New Thing that we face is, essentially, what Smith describes as the revanchist city, if we’re considering how much contemporary London is determined by the existence of- in Patrick Chaimouseau’s words in Texaco, and its worth saying what happens first to the proletariat in the Global South happens, increasingly soon, to the proletariat in the advanced capitalist countries, “a proletariat without factories, workshops, and work, and without bosses, in the muddle of the odd jobs, drowning in survival and leading an existence like a path through the embers”. The revanchist city is characterised by violent Malthusian fantasies about a surplus population. These fantasies represent, in the last instance, naturalisations of, as Marx puts it how, “the working population therefore produces both the accumulation of capital and the means by which it is always increasing. This is a law of population peculiar to the capitalist mode of production; and in fact every particular historical mode of production has its own special laws of population, which are historically valid within that particular sphere.” This needs to be extended to suggest that there are both distinctive laws of population for different forms of modes of production- post-Fordist capitalism and Fordist capitalism have their different laws of population- and, partially determined by this, their own spatial logic.

Smith defines the revanchist city as being in ideology antiurbanist, and “a revanchist antiurbanism represents a reaction against the supposed “theft” of the city, a desperate defense of a challenged set of privileges cloaked in the populist language of civic morality, family values and neighbourhood security.” It is easy, of course, to come across this language in contemporary London.

In Smith’s, early 1990s, analysis, however, the revanchist city is presented as at odds with gentrification, the ideological cruelty of the white middle class, is, to an extent, an effect of being trapped in a city with decaying buildings and infrastructure by stagnant or falling property prices. He does, however, also imply that there may be a possible synthesis between gentrification and revanchist antiurbanism- certain nostalgia for its urbanism, the fact its cruelty was only implicit, “to a kinder gentler urbanism but a sharpened bipolarity of the city in which white middle class assumptions…retrench as a set of narrow social norms against which everyone else is found dangerously wanting…we can expect a deepening vilification of working class, minority, homeless and many immigrant residents of the city, through interlocking scripts of violence, drugs and crime.” A fusion of revanchist antiurbanism and gentrification, only implied by Smith, is a useful characterisation of London today.

Crucial here is how the ideology of the “theft” of the city by the poor can serve as a justification for social cleansing, especially when accompanied with, as with the Heygate as a muggers’ paradise a state-led media panic about criminality. It is, of course, very common to encounter arguments in favour of the demolition of the Heygate or Aylesbury along the lines that the poor have no right to expect to live in central London, that the presence of the poor is a theft from the hard-working white middle class. In the context of the rent gap argument it is perhaps useful to note how the argument that this “theft” of the city is rooted in council housing as a subsidy operates- as normally understood council housing is not a subsidy, rents cover, over time, both construction and upkeep, council rents are only a subsidy if considered in relation to the amount of rent that could be gleaned were the land turned over to housing for the “better class of tenants”. The petty resentments of the revanchist city, the oppressive white middle class normality also see a reworking of who is supposed to be the normal urban dweller, Peter John has declared, for example, that the “real conundrum” with housing in Southwark, a borough where the median household income is less than £20,000, is “is how you help people earning £60- 80,000.”

There are a number of other features of revanchist South London that are important to note briefly. Firstly, it imagines a remarkably timid inhabitant, one who is terrified of their surroundings, as a cheap publicity stunt some members of South London Renters briefly occupied a flat in the Strata in Elephant and Castle, the most notable thing about this was both how much, as we were viewing it- the means by which we got in- emphasised the security features- and how, once we were occupying the flat, terrified they were that a group of protesters had foxed their security.

This terror at surroundings is symptomatic of a placeless city, one dedicated to circulation, of both people and capital, rather than encounter, all that is emphasised is the velocity at which surroundings can be escaped, equally, when we did the same cheap publicity occupation in Stratford, we were told by the letting agent at some length, how easy it was to get to Paris and absolutely nothing about the surrounding area, about which they were embarrassed.

This architecture, striving towards becoming the image of the ever accelerating circulation of capital, unimpeded by people, especially poor people, is the glass and steel tower with a “minimalist” interior- it’s worth being vulgarly materialist about these interior design “choices”, given their pokiness- they are substantially smaller than the despised council houses, and one way of extracting more rent is, of course, forcing a much greater number of minute homes onto a site, despite being in supposedly luxury flats, minimalism really is the only possible choice. The fantasy of this architecture is the completely unlived in tower, as opposed to the home for dwelling- as Walter Benjamin argues, “to dwell is to leave traces”, which, through spiralling property prices in London accumulates value without housing anyone- indeed, once residents took up occupancy in Strata, less than a third of flats were inhabited. Even in the propaganda for these flats, the lack of dwelling is emphasised- in the risible, “American Psycho” Redrow advert the “hero”, does not dwell, he circulates through the city and stares at things, as Adorno argues, “the eye is perfectly attuned to capitalist rationality”, even, or especially, the city and his sleeping girlfriend, once he is redeemed from a life of difficulty, the city never touches him, neither does he touch it. It is a gnostic fantasy, a masculine world without touch, labour, chance or intersubjectivity.

Fulfilling this fantasy, the London of the very near future will also be a city largely without the presence of children as an ever decreasing supply of council houses leaves families with children with options of homes at laughably defined “affordable” rents or the private rented sector or, if they cannot afford these, having to leave London. In terms of real affordability: a £23,000 benefit cap as proposed by the Tories means even at so-called affordable rent, all two-bedroom homes in London become unaffordable for anyone relying on benefits and for those renting privately with one child, rent costs, as my comrade “Trevor Bastard” points out, turn even “a potentially middle class family into a poverty-striken one.”

It is absolutely necessary not to restrict critique of the revanchist city to the critique of grotesque fantasy forms- to limit critique to this, as, for example, a recent piece by Ian Martin, largely did, means, however critical the intent, the work of capital is done for it (the same could be said of critiques of gentrification that focus on the critique of hipsters)- the amnesiac quality of this architecture is endorsed- as Southwark Notes have argued, “regeneration seeks amnesia”. It accepts, on its terms, as Raoul Vaneigem argues, an “ideal urbanism [which] is the projection in space of a conflict-free social hierarchy…the new cities will wipe out the traces of the battles between traditional cities and the people they sought to oppress.”

Refusing this amnesia and projection of an urbanism without contradiction is to refuse hope- and Martin’s tone, half lament, half tedious pseudo Freudian lampoon of the tee hee, all these buildings look a bit phallic sort, also a refusal of hope. It is necessary instead to go beyond the surface into the (often literally) hidden abodes of if not production but the producers and reproducers of urban life.

For Marx, “the intimate connection between the pangs of hunger of the most industrious layers of the working class, and the extravagant consumption, coarse or refined of the rich, for which capitalist accumulation is the basis, reveals itself only when the economic laws are known. It is otherwise with the “housing of the poor””, and this intimate connection, between glass towers that aspire and often achieve emptiness as the ideal form of the accumulation of capital, and the increasingly, peripheral- more than one long bus journey away from precarious, underpaid jobs- overcrowded, often dangerous- through being a part of Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth and South London Renters I have met workers in London living in “homes”, though homes is stretching it, where people sleep 4 or 5 to a room, or are infested with rats and bed bugs or where there is a very real risk of young children being electrocuted by live wires. All these conditions are produced by the gleaming towers. To put it another way, “the family on the other side of town/ would catch hell without a ghetto around”, or, even, given the racialised, almost colonial, logic of the revanchist city, (Fanon), “the European city is a solid city, built with stone and steal [or, today, glass and steal], it is lighted and apshalted…The colonized city is a hungry city, it is hungry for bread, for meat, for shoes, for carbon for light.”

A Militant Caring Infrastructure

Yes, bread and milk are victories
And heat in the room a fight.
Brecht, “Lullabies”

To move on, briefly, to what is to be done. Starting with the bad new things means looking the revanchist city with an ever contracting supply of council housing, a tattered welfare state (or no recourse to public funds for those with irregular immigration status), often empty “luxury” flats in the desirable bits of Southwark, dangerous overcrowded accommodation for the workers whose highly exploited work keeps the city from collapsing in the less desirable parts. Starting with bad new things means rigorously testing any political form for its usefulness under contemporary conditions and its relevance to the experiences of the struggling oppressed classes.

I’m often unconvinced by the sort of talks or books, formally, where after an analysis, usually of how bleak the situation is, the speaker or writer, offers up some platitudinous conclusions with an optimism that belies the bleakness of the preceding analysis. Much more attractive version is Lenin’s The State and Revolution, where he breaks off, then adds a postscript, “I was interrupted by a political crisis – the eve of the October Revolution of 1917…the writing of the second part of the pamphlet…will probably have to be put off for a long time. It is more pleasant and useful to go through the “experience of the revolution” than to write about it.”

I have a more modest version of Lenin, on Saturday, finishing preparing this talk, I needed to break off to prepare desserts for the Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth Free Meals Supper Club. I hope that the supper club will become a crucial part of a militant caring infrastructure in South London. I am proud to be involved in, slightly, in building this on the terrain of the revanchist city in which the means of survival are increasingly privatised and inaccessible for large sections of the community.

There are, of course, other parts of this developing infrastructure: legal advice, especially for tenants with problems with landlords or residents who have, often illegally, been denied access to the support from the council which would prevent them becoming homeless. Both the housing groups with which I’m involved have had people referred to them by an increasingly frayed CAB. Alongside legal advice, a militant caring infrastructure includes support at council offices for people trying to obtain housing in the face of deliberately confusing and often intimidating, even violent, bureaucratic structures and language support for those without English as a first language. Furthermore, particularly given that, increasingly, with the destruction of welfare and public service provision, London’s communities of colour’s main encounter with the state will be with its repressive apparatus (again, this is common in the Global South), campaigns against police violence and harassment become vital parts of support. The centrality of these campaigns and their links to anti-gentrification and housing campaigns becomes yet more vital with the presence of people of colour in London being treated as part of the theft of the city and with these communities facing harassment from police and the UKBA as part of processes of gentrification. It is quite possible that police and immigration raids are already being used against communities of colour, for example in Deptford, to “undermine the economic base of minority stallholders on the market, to make it appear an even more attractive investment to real estate speculators.”

The linking, largely through deepening personal contact, and here, again, eating together becomes important, of people involved in fragmentary struggles within social reproduction is also central not just for support and sharing expertise but also for embedding experience especially when each individual involved in these struggles could be moved on, it could be a squatter facing eviction, a council tenant whose estate is demolished or a private renter forced out by rent increases. For Lefebvre, “long political experience” is a precondition in the revolutionary, working class initiated resolution of urban problems, and building these links through care allow this long experience to become impersonal and, in a sense, safe.

The other side of wresting back, and rehumanising the revanchist city is squatting and protest occupations, such as that at the Aylesbury and the Guinness Trust occupation. These protest occupations help maintain an enclave that is, partially, outside the enemy’s control, they also interrupt, even if sometimes only briefly the accelerating, destructive circulation of capital, securing the built environment as a barrier. The interruption, though is not just an interruption, Benjamin’s suggestion that perhaps revolutions are “an attempt by passengers on the train [of world history] namely the human race to activate the emergency break” has become increasingly fashionable as a critique of accelerationism, but as a note to the “Theses on the Philosophy of History” it should be read in conjunction (and subordinated to) that text, particularly Benjamin’s argument that, “the class struggle…is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist. Nevertheless, it is not in the form of the spoils which fall to the victor that the latter make their presence felt in the class struggle. They manifest themselves in the struggle as courage, humour, cunning and fortitude. They have a retroactive force and will constantly call into question every victory, past and present of the rulers.”

The courage, humour, cunning and fortitude produced by protest occupations or by building a militant caring infrastructure, therefore, have their own potentially hidden effects in challenging the rulers’ victories. Similarly, in the Black Panther- and the Panthers, of course, thought and acted with a heroic and inventive rigour in a situation where both capital and the state refused to allow for the reproduction of life, slogan, “Survival pending Revolution”, revolution is not a predetermined point in history, inevitable provided survival is achieved but an event that can only be produced by the courage, humour, cunning and fortitude produced by the struggle for survival.

Finally, if the other side of the revanchist city from the inaccessibility of the means of survival is the almost empty gleaming tower, this too, can be rehumanised by squatting- estranging it from its capitalist function, functionally transforming it into a dwelling. In Radical Cities, which is, in many ways a rather bad book, Justin McGuirk almost redeems himself by quoting a speech by a Chavez supporting anarchist, Fernando, who describes the Torre David squatters as giving life to the building and, by extension to the city, “we found this dead giant…We have given life back to this skeleton.” Our task, similarly, is to encounter the revanchist city, in its full bleakness, without clinging sentimentally to the good old things and through militant action, including, and, indeed focusing on developing ways to care for each other in such a way that our courage, humour, cunning and fortitude is powerful enough to rehumanise the city and undermine their victories.

New Left Project Review of Justin McGuirk’s Radical Cities

I’ve got a review of Justin McGuirk’s Radical Cities over at New Left Project. I’m pretty happy with it, and people have said nice and interesting things about it.


There’s a lot I had to leave out that I’d like to work up into something much longer and more general on Third World urbanism. I might put up a section on Lefebvre, Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco and how the only serious challenges to disintegration necessitate the transformation by the urban proletariat of the city as made by capital, rather than, in Radical Cities, presuming that any integration is, essentially the proletariat being allowed to enter or relate to the city on capital’s terms. Other things I was sad to leave out included forms of functional transformation in the squatting of Torre David, both the functional transformation of capitalist architecture and the functional transformation of evangelical Protestantism- an imperialist frontier religion retooled as justification for the wretched of Caracas seizing property from capital. Texaco suggests an analogous set of functional transformations through squatting leading to, in the allegorical link between the slum and the novel, Chamoiseau’s own functional transformation of French, also the political implications of this in the implied dialogue with Cesaire (different versions of functional transformations of French with different imagined urbanisms in négritude and créolité).

Also, left out, sadly, the dialectic of stigmatisation and destigmatisation (stigma is always a question of the consciousness of the powerful) in gentrification as a symptom of rent gaps but also a terrain of state policy interventions alongside violent pacification in Rio, Medellín and Peckham, particularly addressing prestige libraries. The opposing presentations of Santo Domingo library in Hylton and McGuirk and how McGuirk’s disinterested distance (as with the bourgeoisie looking up at the library) can never go beyond surface and naturalisations that exclude history.

McGuirk’s extremely limited treatment of modernism. Medical metaphors, how both urban acupuncture and technocratic modernism’s “cutting out the cancer of the slums” aim to cure the city in order to keep it as capital made it (Ginzberg’s letter to Le Corbusier) and have a secret, technocratic affinity that can never challenge social relations. More useful modernisms: the link suggested by Davis’s “Who Will Build the Ark” and prospects egalitarian, eco-friendly city based on public affluence not private consumption between early Soviet modernism (Ginzberg again) and Túpac Amaru. Also contemporary efforts at mass housing projects in Chongqing and Venezuela’s new socialist cities that remain within a broadly top-down, large-scale framework but are emphatically “left”. Different political tactics from a situation where a large proletariat is still needed by large-scale industry (Chongqing) to the tactics and struggles of a surplus population, a “proletariat without factories, workshops, and work, and without bosses, in the muddle of odd jobs, drowning in survival” (Texaco) but also Medellin. The difference between the anti-capitalist enclave (far more respectable in the Marx) and the anti-capitalist island (utopian socialism, Cabet) and the uselessness of the concept of Temporary Autonomous Zones, also the moral squalor sloppiness of quoting paedophile Hakim Bey just like that.

Indigenous experience, the necessity rather than quirky contingency of an indigenous aspect to Túpac Amaru and the rhetoric of the Torre David squatters. McGuirk’s misdiagnosis of the limits of what’s expressed in Tlatelolco and the Plaza de las Culturas, not a limit defined by modernism, but the limit of the ideology of mestizaje that can only integrate indigenous people through the benevolence of the untransformed still essentially colonial state, the explosion of this through indigenous challenges, particularly in Bolivia, a re-orientation of the relation between indigenous and national popular politics in the Aymara tactic of surrounding the cities in conjunction with urban revolts. How McGuirk’s particular focus on the urban tends to repeat the white biases of technocratic mestizaje by ignoring rural struggles and poverty. The limit of considering the urban in the abstract, limiting political solutions to governance by excluding the potentially radical state and failing to think the contradiction between city and country that the proletarianisation of the countryside displaces people and creates slums. Venezuela’s efforts to relieve the problems of the cities by encouraging agriculture and building new towns, the centrality of ensuring that the peasantry have strong citizen entitlements in Chongqing…..

Les non-dupes errent: Half Man Half Biscuit and Lefebvre

In a similar spirit to last year’s Christmas posts, and with a view to writing something more one day on what strikes me as one the most important passages in Lefebvre.

‘Alienation’ – I know it is there whenever I sing a love song or recite a poem, whenever I handle a banknote or enter a shop, whenever I glance at a poster or read a newspaper. At the very moment the human is defined as ‘having possessions’ I know it is there, dispossessing the human. I thus grasp how alienation substitutes a false greatness for the real weakness of man, a false weakness for his true greatness. Bombastic language, abstractions, deductions, every devillish device to vaporize man’s will and man’s thoughts – all vouchsafe me a glimpse of alienation in action.

This is not to say that I am able to separate what is human from the inhuman simply by thinking about it. The task is much more difficult, the division within the self and the waste of self are too deep-seated. If I have learned to think or to love, it is in and through the words, gestures, expressions and songs of thirty centuries of human alienation. How can I come to grips with my self or how can we retrieve our selves once more? If I stay on my guard and strip myself of everything suspect, I am left naked, dry as dust, reduced to ‘existing’ like someone who refuses to be hoodwinked by anything; and what will become of me and my wariness? Nothing. Alienation is an ordeal that era must undergo, there is no means of escaping it. Only later will future human beings, freed from alienation, know and see clearly what was dehumanized and what was worthwhile about the times we live in.

Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life Volume 1, pp. 183-4.