Novocastrian Faust: Our Friends in the North, Modernization and Corruption

“Green are the meadows, fertile and in mirth,/ Both men and herds live on this newest earth,/Settled along the edges of a hill/Raised by the masses’ bold industrious will./A veritable paradise inside,/Then let the dams be licked by the raging tide,/And as it gnaws, to rush in with full force,/Communal will fills gaps and checks its course./This is the highest wisdom that I own,/The best that mankind ever knew;/Freedom and life are earned by those alone/Who conquer them each day anew.” (Goethe, Faust, 11563-76).

“The Faustian model of development gives top priority to gigantic energy and transportation projects on an international scale…Instead of letting entrepreneurs and workers waste themselves in piecemeal and fragmentary and competitive activities it will strive to integrate them all. It will create a historically new synthesis of private & public power symbolised by the union of Mephistopheles, the private freeboater and predator who executes much of the dirty work and Faust, the public planner who conceives and directs the work as a whole.” (Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air, p. 74).

In A Guide the New Ruins of Great Britain Owen Hatherley seems to suggest that Austin Donohue is a less interesting character than T.Dan Smith, “when thinking about Smith and Poulson, it’s impossible to keep from your mind their fictional portrayals on British television. Smith became Austin Donohue, corrupt local Labour in Our Friends in the North, a snake-oil salesman of ‘cities in the sky’…This is the dark heart of postwar urban politics- backhanders, the threat of violence, one-time socialists forgetting they were in politics to help anyone but themselves” (p. 173). Hatherley is certainly correct to suggest that Our Friends in the North is relatively uninterested in the precise form of Smith/Donohue’s urban ambitions; however, then claim Donohue is presented merely as a snake-oil salesman misses the genuinely tragic presentation of the character, which is made apparent by Berman’s analysis of Faust.

Donohue exists, in fact, at a point between Berman’s and Lukács’s, in Goethe and his Age, opposing readings of the character of Faust. Berman writes, “the clearest analogue [to the world Faust creates] seems to be the tremendous surge of industrial expansion that England had been going through since the 1760s. Lukács makes this connection and argues that the last act of Faust is a tragedy of “capitalist development” in its early industrial phase. The trouble with this scenario is that, if we pay attention to the text Faust’s motives and aims are clearly not capitalistic. Goethe’s Mephisto, with his eye for the main chance, his celebration of selfishness and his genial lack of scruple, conforms pretty well to one type of entrepreneur; but Goethe’s Faust is worlds away. Mephisto is constantly pointing out money-making opportunities in Faust’s development schemes but Faust himself couldn’t care less. When he says that he means to “open to the millions living-space/ not danger proof, but free to run their race,” it’s clear that he is not building for his own short-term profit but rather for the long-range future of mankind, for the sake of public freedom  and happiness that will come to fruition only long after he is gone. If we try to cut the Faustian project to fit the capitalist bottom line, we will cut out what is noblest and most original in it and, moreover, what makes it genuinely tragic. Goethe’s point is that the deepest horrors of Faustian development spring from its most honourable aims and its most authentic achievements. If we want to locate Faustian visions and designs in the aged Goethe’s time, the place to look is not in the economic and social realities of that age but in its radical and Utopian dreams; and, moreover, not in the capitalism of that age, but in its socialism” (p. 72). The socialism in which Berman locates Faust is specifically Saint-Simonian utopian socialism.

If we return now to Our Friends in the North, the tragic synthesis of the public planner Donohue (Smith) as Faust and the private freeboater and predator Edwards (Poulson) as Mephisto and its particular socialist context can become clear. As Hatherley writes T. Dan Smith, “claims, rather than being corrupted, he was using Poulson all along” (p 180). Here we have the attempted integration of the private and public in the public interest and the centrality of planning (a Saint-Simonian feature), as Hatherley points out “under Smith, Newcastle was the first English council to have a planning department” (p. 175). In the priority of the public, in the fusion utopian heroism and planning in Smith/Donohue’s intentions we see the Saint-Simonian socialism of the project. However, whilst Lukács misses the specifically socialist character of Faust, the focus in Lukács’s analysis of Faust on the failure of revolutionary politics as constituting the situation for the tragedyis also useful for considering Donohue/Smith. Lukács writes, “Goethe could not seek the path of democratic revolution” and Berman summarises Lukács’s position in relation to the weakness of the political interlude in Act four, “we should not belabour Goethe’s tragedy of modern revolution. Its main function is to give Faust and Mephisto an easy rationale for the political bargain they make.” (Goethe and His Age, p. 191, All that is solid melts into Air, p. 63). I want to suggest the Dononhue/Smith project is constituted similarly, the Saint-Simonian socialist Faust-Mephisto alliance is underpinned by the failure of the (French) democratic revolution and the absence of the proletariat as a revolutionary subject; the Saint-Simonian socialist Donohue (Smith) – Edwards (Poulson) alliance is underpinned by the absence of a revolution and the inertia of Labourism.

Lefebvre, like Berman links, in his case particularly Stalinist, politics of development to the figure of Faust, “In his megalomania Stalin plotted gigantic operations which were intended to alter the face of the planet; under the organization of socialist power, men would change the course of rivers, move mountains, modify climates”, Lefebvre continues, suggesting “unforeseen values are emerging from official institutional, ideologized and ‘consecrated’ Marxism. These values are Promethean and Faustian” (Henri Lefebvre, Introduction to Modernity, p. 31). In Introduction to Modernity, the line of this argument continues, in particular, in Fourth Prelude “On the Theme of the New Life”, suggesting the project of modernization is constituted by the failure of the world revolution, the missing of the possibility of philosophy realizing itself (the parallels but divergences with Adorno’s beginning of Negative Dialectics, “philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realise it was missed” (p. 3)are instructive here), leaving modernization to attempt to complete the transformation of the world that philosophy-Marxism could not bring to fruition. (Introduction to Modernity, p. 65-94).

A similar dialectic of failure and modernisation is apparent in Our Friends in the North, the scene prior to Donohue’s speech is a birthday tea with a tetchy debate over Labour’s or, more precisely, Labourism’s failures or betrayals, which sets the scene for Donohue’s Faustian Saint-Simonian corruption. What is central in the discussion in terms of what is to come is the (accurate) cynical critique of Labour made by Felix Hutchinson, “what’s been stopping them building houses for the last 50 years, they’ve run the North-East since 1919…The Labour Party of which I was a member was the first to condemn the Jarrow marchers as hooligans.” Interestingly prefiguring some of the approaches of the 1980s around Marxism Today, Donohue aims to explode this sclerotic Labourism simultaneously from the left and from the right with Hatherley describing T.Dan Smith as “the missing link between Marxism and Mandelsonism” (A Guide to the New Ruins of Britain, p. 181). The explosion of Labourism from the right is clear in the mobilising of private capital, from the left, Smith’s emergence from the far left, Hatherley again, “Thomas Dan Smith was of what people used to call the hard left…he took control of Newcastle Labour Party along with a group of fellow far-left entryists” (p. 172) and the necessarily limited, both by circumstance and by labourism, of mobilising of the working class or the people, “the man in the street’s enlarging capacity to tell us what he needs.”. In a sense the Newcastle region functions almost as a (Geordie) nation, allowing this equivocation between the working class and the people. What unites the left and right poles is impatience and ambition.

In “The Right to the City”, Lefebvre writes of the necessity of a social force (the working class), “capable of investing itself in urban experience through a long political experience can take charge of a programme concerning urban society” (p. 156). This conception of an emancipatory project is opposed to the technocratic, which accepts the city as a pre-existent technical object. Lefebvre also demands that a political programme be initiated by the working class rather than the political parties which represent or wish to represent the working class. Furthermore, for Lefebvre it is essential that the emancipatory programme remains independent from the political parties that claim to represent the working class and the working class must be able to alter and transform the programme. (p. 155). Lefebvre’s analysis helps elucidate the tragic limits of Dononhue/Smith.

The first limit is defined by labourism, “empirical and flexible about all else [Labour’s] leaders have always made devotion to [the parliamentary] system their fixed point of reference…the leaders of the Labour party have always rejected any kind of political action (such as industrial action for political purposes) which fell, or appeared to fall, outside of the parliamentary system” (Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism, p.13- hence the betrayal of the Jarrow March). Lefebvre’s analysis allows for the place of a party of left, but not as the point where the urban project is initiated. For all the rhetoric of the enlarging capacity of the man in the street, Donohue/Smith lacked the social force to break out of the limitations of labourism, the urban project was, necessarily, imposed from above through parliamentary (local council) means, with corruption marking the point where the transcendence of the sclerosis of those limits was attempted. Here, corruption, ironically, corresponds with the “left” pole, as Miliband argues, “the Labour Left’s own acceptance of the categories of the parliamentary system has been distinguished from that of the leadership by a continuous search for means of escape from its inhibitions and contradictions”, the alliance with Mephisto-Edwards-Poulson thus represents an attempt to escape the limitations of labourism.

The second, related, limit is the technocratic limit, whereby the capitalist city is accepted as a pre-existent technical object to be reformed, albeit radically. Lefebvre’s critique of technocracy here mirrors Moisei Ginzberg’s attack on Le Corbusier, “you want to cure the city because you are essentially trying to keep the same as capitalism made it.” (Quoted in Owen Hatherley, Militant Modernism, p. 67). The two limits- labourism and technocracy- are conjoined in “modernization”; Miliband writes of the Wilson government’s rhetoric of “modernization”, which for all its apparent radicalism, “was not the vision of a socialist society, but of a renovated capitalism, freed from its aristocratic and gentlemanly accretions, dynamic, professional, entrepreneurial, numerate and efficient.” (Parliamentary Socialism, p. 355). Wilson, however, had the opportunity to surpass these limits, he is not tragic, not Faustian, Donohue-Smith did not, he is tragic, is Faustian in his (inevitably) failed effort to break through these limits through sheer force of will and cunning.

In Our Friends in the North, the politics of all the other characters are essentially responses to the failure of this heroic project; it confirms the antipolitical cynicism of Felix Hutchinson, frustration at the limitations which Donohue aimed to surpass leads to the more radical but pathetic urban terrorism of Nicky Hutchinson, attempting to force the situation, it leads to moralising leftist conservatism of Eddie Wells, that against the corruption that resulted from transformative grandeur of Donohue’s politics would prefer to be right, with clean hands rather than take a risk of changing anything. Finally, the failure of the grand project leads to the proto-Blairite biopolitics on the terrain of the estates of Mary Cox, as council leader, managing the social disintegration that Donohue’s project in some ways produced but also could have prevented had it been successful. For all the other characters concerned with politics in Our Friends in the North, the other side of Donohue’s (or, repeated as farce, in Nicky’s urban terrorism) impatience becomes resignation, a narrowing of horizons with politics reduced to managing symptoms.

It is the grandeur ambition contrasted the narrowed horizons of contemporary politics and urbanism that begins to explain the revival of interest in T.Dan Smith, not only in Hatherley and in the “City State- Towards the Brasilia of the North” exhibition which he discusses but also in Alex Niven’s Folk Opposition, in which T. Dan Smith figures as “Oppositional Precedent No. 1: Breaking the Power Structure” (p. 46). Niven emphasises both Smith’s “vigorous modernist developments” (p. 47) and the regionalist and internationalist aspects of Smith’s “utopian project….drawing out the distinctive sense of place in Newcastle…[which] captured the spirit of a city that had long sought to declare its noncomformity with English stereotypes through a commitment to internationalism, bravura modernity and audacity in the arts” (p. 48).

There is now an untimeliness to T.Dan Smith, an untimliness that forms part of a contradictory counter (counter to hippies, to Carnaby Street…)  ‘60s of brutalism, municipal socialism but also of Western Maoism, feminist consciousness-raising and the militant rather than aesthetic aspect of ’68. All the aspects of this counter-‘60s tend to be met with embarrassment but this embarrassment must be addressed dialectically. In Minima Moralia, Adorno writes of how Ibsen is “condemned as old-fashioned and outdated” but that this condemnation is the effect of embarrassment at the inability to bring the emancipatory promise of Ibsen’s critique of the position of women, “this is the way of all outdatedness. It is to be explained not only by mere temporal distance but by the verdict of history. Its expression in things is the shame that overcomes the descendent in face of an earlier possibility that he has neglected to bring to fruition. What was accomplished can be forgotten, and preserved in the present. Only what failed is outdated, the broken promise of a new beginning.” (§57, pp. 92-3). The continued presence, despite demolitions, of the emancipatory promise of the modernist architecture of social democracy- “its expression in things” lies behind the hostility and embarrassment, with which we enjoined to approach these buildings.

The tragedy of modernization (or development) then is not, as Berman argues in his basically Hegelian reading of Faust, the destruction of the old world- Philemon and Baucis’s cottage (pp. 66-7)- indeed, Our Friends in the North has no sense of idealising the old world, to see this in Peter Flannery’s work we have to turn to the (underrated at least by the left, so much of the depth of police corruption is made legible, Inspector George Gently, especially Gently Between the Lines, whose starting point is resistance to slum clearance. Neither is the tragedy of Dononhue, again in Berman’s Hegelian reading that once the developers’ world-historical function is completed he is superfluous, “ironically once this developer has destroyed the pre-modern world he has destroyed his whole reason for being-in-the world” (p. 70). The tragedy of modernization, as made clear in Our Friends in the North, is that modernization cannot realise its own promise. Following Lefebvre and the implication of some of Lukacs’s analysis, in the case of Donohue/Smith the labourist and technocratic limitations of modernization could not be transcended. The tragedy then is that the absence of the possibility of a revolutionary resolution of the problems of the city forces Donohue (Faust) to sell his soul to Edwards (Mephisto). Donohue/Smith is, ultimately, an inverted and almost as tragic Robespierre or Saint-Just, for whom corruption rather than virtue is the means to construct utopia, whereby, “the principle of politics is the will, the more one-sided, i.e. the more perfect, political understanding is, the more completely it puts faith in the omnipotence of the will the blinder it is towards the natural and spiritual limitations of the will the more incapable it becomes of discovering the real source of the evils of society.” (Karl Marx, “Critical Notes on ‘The King of Prussia & Social Reform’”, p. 413).

The excavation of the promise (the Oppositional Precedent), however, is not a hauntology; the oppositional precedent was actually constructed, it is defined by its vigour and the continuing obviousness of its productions, hauntology, by contrast, in its lack of vigour and productivity- its contemplative rather than militant or productivist stance, mirrors the passivity of the Labour Left, albeit in the aesthetic rather than moral realm. T. Dan Smith won, albeit briefly, before his tragic fall.

Smith’s own analysis- “capitalism itself is fundamentally immoral and corrupt, and its major corruptions are all legal” (quoted in A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, p. 181) of his fall further makes clear the gap between the heroic utopian socialism of his vision and the squalor of local councils today. The tragic Smith/Poulson pairing stemmed from an acknowledged contradiction between the public and private interest, it is this contradiction which meant that Smith could be claiming to be putting Poulson to use in the service of the public. For most contemporary local councils there is no contradiction between the public and private interest, the interests of developers are generalised to the extent that everything is corrupted but nothing registers as corrupt.

The closeness between Southwark Council particularly the leader Peter John and the Cabinet Member for Regeneration and Corporate Strategy (!) and Lend Lease as well as the revolving door between senior council officers and developers has been extensively documented by Southwark Notes and The People’s Republic of Southwark (there’s a clear summary on this edition of Novara with Lilli from People’s Republic), a closeness that includes Olympic opening ceremony tickets being bought for John and his wife and John and council officers being flown to the MIPIM property fair in Cannes by Lend Lease. However, unlike in Our Friends in the North the incentives are irrelevant, without them the council would behave in exactly the same way; there is no public interest to sell out.

The transcendence of the law in the planning process does remain in contemporary councils; however, whilst with T.Dan Smith the law was transcended, albeit corruptly, in the interests of the people, in Southwark today it is transcended in the interests of developers. What is perhaps most notable in the planning process in Southwark is how often the council’s own planning rules mandating affordable housing are suspended by the council itself, for example with the Heygate development, in which having any more than 9.4% “affordable” housing (and there are, of course, huge issues about the current definition of “affordable housing” anyway) is held to render the development “unviable”. The closest parallel here is to the police, whereby again the law is suspended in the “public interest” as it held to be unviable in certain emergency situations, and this suspension, retroactively creates a new law. The affinity between the police and planning suspension of the law should not be surprising as both deal in the re-arrangement and moving along of people, the denial of the right to the city in order to create space as ordered space to be exploited by capital.


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