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.

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