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Disaster at Arm’s Length

Richard Seymour

The Grenfell Tower fire exposed the class violence embedded in London's rich, gentrifying neighborhoods.

Grenfell Tower on June 14, 2017 in London, England. Natalie Oxford

Interview by
Tom Arabia

On the early morning of June 14, a fire broke out in Grenfell Tower Block, a twenty-four-story high rise of public housing units located in the neighborhood of North Kensington, West London. By June 17, thirty were confirmed dead, with an additional fifty-eight still missing and presumed dead.

Although British prime minister Theresa May called a full public inquiry into the causes of the tragedy, and London mayor Sadiq Khan confirmed a citywide local authority recovery operation, community members led by those close to the Grenfell Tower fire stormed the Kensington and Chelsea Council offices Friday chanting “we want justice,” calling the local council “murderers,” and demanding immediate answers to questions raised by the fire. On Saturday, masses of protesters marched on Whitehall road in Westminster, the center of the UK government, chanting “May must go,” “blood on your hands” and “justice for Grenfell.”

On the day of the fire, Tom Arabia for Jacobin spoke with London-based writer Richard Seymour, author of Corbyn: the Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics and frequent contributor to Jacobin, about the issues surrounding the fire and why the tragedy would prove so politically explosive in today’s context.


TA

In a harrowingly prescient blog post titled “Playing With Fire,” an advocacy organization for safety in the Grenfell tower block wrote: “The Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring to an end the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders . . . It is our conviction that a serious fire in a tower block . . . is the most likely reason those who wield power at the KCTMO will be found out and brought to justice.” Yet many journalists and talking heads are intoning for us not to “politicize” this tragedy, and not to rush to any judgment before “the facts are in.” What are the political dimensions of the Grenfell tower block fire, and some of the facts we ought to know about it?

RS

Well what you need to know is this is not the first time this has happened. In 2009 there was a fire in another tower block in South London called Lakanal. It was caused by many of the same kinds of issues. Essentially, the fire safety provisions were completely inadequate. It was blamed on the local council, in that case, and they were fined over five hundred thousand pounds.

But it’s also related to legislation and it’s related to the fact that the government has had a report into the need for proper fire safety provisions at tower blocks in the United Kingdom. They are completely underserviced, and the government sat on the report.

In addition to that, they’ve been cutting back on public provisions all over in the context of austerity. And particularly in this case, fire service provisions. 21 percent increase in deaths as a result. Three fire stations near Grenfell were closed. We were fortunate that the fire service was able to get there and was able to save some lives. But it does look as though, given the scale of the fire, given that it consumed so much of that tower block so quickly, that the death rate is going to be atrocious.

So there’s laws, there’s health safety legislation. There’s also the question of social cleansing. Now, this is a pattern. I know that you know of this and you have this in the United States: gentrification. This is a pattern, certainly in London, where two things are happening. First of all, landlords are jacking up rents in the center where they feel the market rate is much higher than the current rent rate. That’s because there’s a high demand for accommodation in these areas. They are using higher rent rates to drive out the poor and to redevelop these properties to make them more appealing for richer, more affluent residents.

This is helped along by changes to the benefits system, cuts to housing benefits, which are the only way to pay for rent if you’re poor. Even if you’re employed, if you’re in work, there’s no way you can afford rent unless you can get some housing benefits. And you are allowed to apply for them even if you’re in work. But they’ve been cut significantly and the local council refused to support local residents who’ve been driven out. They said they would re-house them, but outside of the area. For many of the poor that means outside of London. So, the capital is slowly being turned into a kind of playground for the rich.

This is not a completed process by any means because we saw what happened in Kensington at the election. Kensington, the richest constituency in the borough, saw a surprising coup by the local poor and working class who organized and voted to get an anti-gentrification activist [Emma Dent Coad] standing for Labour elected. First time. And it was a shock. It was a part of Labour’s nationwide sweep. And I would generalize out from this. I would say there was a crisis of legitimacy, a crisis certainly for this government but more generally for a system — particularly the political system, the way we’re governed, the structured neoliberal capitalism and the debt-speculation economy that we’re tied into.

The government stood for election saying there was no magic money tree. “We’re gonna have to make cuts.” This patronizing line was rejected by the majority of the electorate. There was a surprise surge for Labour in part as a reaction against austerity which we’ve had for years and years now, and which hasn’t resulted in restored growth or reduction of the deficit as was claimed.

So this has accelerated and exacerbated some of the crises in the system. And what we’re finding is that more and more people are excluded by an economy that’s based in debt and speculation. To be clear about why that’s relevant: in order to be able to support your wages which are going to fall relative to productivity you need to have some assets. Given that the pension system isn’t going to support you properly, given that the welfare system isn’t going to support you properly, given that wages are falling relative to profits and productivity, you have to get a private pension; you have to have some savings and you have to have a house. The value of the house, because of scarcity, and because the government doesn’t build enough housing, is going to rise. It’s going to soar year on year. We’ve got a crazy property market here. So you can continually borrow against it to buy the stuff that you need.

That worked for a period of time. But younger generations have been increasingly frozen out of that because the price of houses are impossible. Also since the credit crunch they’ve been frozen out of the labor market in greater numbers. And the higher-education system which was supposed to be the mechanism of meritocracy — you know, you work hard, you get somewhere — is increasingly difficult to get into. The education maintenance allowance, which was a benefit that allowed working-class kids to get to the higher education system, to qualify for it, was scrapped. Tuition fees were trebled. And a new kind of marketized hierarchy was created in the education system. So that there’s an “ivy league” effectively that have the best resources and the rest are just made to do with whatever.

This is the situation we face. The result of that is increasing inequality in terms of access to the things, property and so on, which you are told enable you to participate in the democracy, a property-owning democracy, we were told we could have. And that is partly why we have, in response to this, even though the majority of people don’t live in tower blocks or anything like that, a generalization of the problem because more and more people recognize the system as being one that creates situations like this. The landlords get away with everything. The rentier class get away with everything, austerity, the way policies get implemented in their interest against ours. That has put an already embattled government on the back foot.

TA

Can you discuss the “council estate” system and the company that manages the building, Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization, a company who claim they are responsible for nearly ten thousand properties, and their relationship with the government?

RS

The KTCMO is an ALMO (Arms-Length Management Organization) which means it is a non-profit company running housing stock at arms length from the local council. ALMOs were a major political issue in the New Labour era, because New Labour decided in 2002 that it wanted to get rid of all local council housing stock and offload all of it onto these semi-privatized companies by 2010. To secure acquiescence, they offered a bribe. There was funding made available to bring all housing up to the Decent Homes Standard, but only if residents voted to accept ALMOs. Often, local campaigns succeeded in rejecting these plans, so many boroughs don’t have them.

This is important to the story, because KCTMO is governed by a body comprising council appointed members, elected tenant representatives, and “independents.” The council, being overwhelmingly Tory, and the borough residents, being overwhelmingly rich, would be driven not by direct profit imperatives but by political and class imperatives.

The general picture is that what used to be council-owned properties, council estates, started to be built up in the UK in the postwar era. It was a legacy of social democracy. Not exclusively but that is basically where it was coming from. Massive house-building programs and importantly postwar labor governments build the poor into the rich areas so that there would be no ghettoization. There’s a legacy of that in Kensington. The poor are marbled into that constituency.

And what has happened in the Thatcher era and increasingly under New Labour was the selloff of council properties, only not to residents. There used to be a right to buy up a council property quite cheap and that would become the basis of your future wealth and assets.

What’s more happening now is that large property firms owned by overseas investors — we may as well say that, by and large this is international conglomerates. These firms are buying up these properties particularly in key areas where they think they can make a profit. And that happens to be in gentrifying parts of London, in parts of London that are attractive to the rich and hipsters. So trendy parts of London such as the East End have seen this more and more.

Sometimes these firms are technically nonprofit, but some of these are for profit, and their response to this is that of course they have to make a profit it out of it. They have sought uniformly to use whatever means they have to drive up rents. They even have kept properties empty rather than rent them at a lower value because if they do that they screw their own market.

This is a system that Labour, thankfully, has decided to turn against. Having been a party that implemented it, now Labour is committed to building social and affordable housing every year, with a goal of a million socially affordable houses. Socially affordable means that it might be council housing owned by the local authority or it might be owned by a housing association or something like that but rented out at a value that ordinary people can afford.

That puts into question an entire growth formula because as I mentioned the British economy is driven by a crazy property market. The property bubble is essential to the whole way of life of the middle class. And the ruling class in Britain. And it’s central to the way in which growth has been engineered and organized in Britain. So if you’re going do that you’re going need another growth formula.

Labour’s proposal is Mariana Mazzucato’s idea of using the state to invest in high technology industries and to drive forward innovation in a way that corporations cannot or will not. And so that’s kind of where we’re at with that. There’s a whole model of the economy that’s come into crisis around housing. Kind of the way the credit crunch came out of housing.

TA

Today you posted online that “It’s no longer so absolutely counterintuitive that an anti-gentrification activist won Kensington for Labour.” Can you talk about the neighborhood of Kensington in which the Grenfell tower block is situated, why that result would have been counterintuitive and what’s changed?

RS

I can tell you. I campaigned in that area for the Left List, one of those catastrophically bad left electoral campaigns of the last decade. But we went around campaigning, we canvassed in the poorer areas. This is toward the tail end of the New Labour era. There was a lot of discontent as you can imagine. It was just around the time of the credit crunch. Those areas are just as poor as the East End.

It’s worse to live there than anywhere else because you’re invisible. Nobody knows you exist. The local authority doesn’t care. In fact, they regard you as a problem to be got rid of, to be managed out. And what we’ve seen with these buildings, the residents call it managed decline. They’ve been under-investing in these buildings, doing cheap makeovers.

One of the aspects of this, as I’m sure you’ve seen, was to apply a new external cladding to the building using aluminum. And the filling that they used was not fire resistant. So residents say when they saw the fire last night, they saw that those bits of cladding caught fire like matches. They went up really quickly. Now we don’t know exactly what role that played in that devastation. But this was part of the way in which there was negligence by design. There’s a whole set of practices which they know will produce effects like this. They hope the poor will just get sick of it and move out.

Instead what’s been provoked is a wave of anger. Years of resistance campaigning have resulted in Labour’s result. It’s a major political crisis for the government. But in terms of that particular area, most people know it as the richest constituency in London and it is.

When they were looking into constituencies that had registered for the election, it was surprising to note that there were two patterns. The poorest areas tended to be the areas with the lowest levels of electoral registration. Even where there had been a surge the poor were still tending not to vote. In a few places like Kensington, experts decided they were looking at “non doms,” — international investors who don’t live in London, don’t have citizenship rights, and therefore don’t vote. Or they do have citizenship rights but they aren’t integrated enough into British politics to care to vote.

That belief is why they were outmaneuvered in an area that was otherwise comprehensively Tory. You have to understand that the council is comprehensively Tory, Thatcherite, completely indifferent. So it was a real shock when the richest area in the country turned out and threw out a completely indifferent Tory MP.

When this was first announced on election night, there were reporters saying that “We’re hearing that Kensington might go Labour.” Most of us were saying “This is bollocks, this is rumor.” But by the next day it was confirmed and it was extraordinary. It shows you what can be done.

TA

Can you speak about the tower block demographics? Is it only poor people?

RS

No, it’s important to recognize that they’ve already been gentrified quite a bit. Grenfell was disproportionately poor and working class. But a lot of properties in these towers have been sold off. Trellick Tower is a Grade-2 listed building in the constituency. It’s famous. And it looks like any working-class tower block. But a lot of the rooms in it, a lot of the properties in it have been sold off for a fortune, like half a million pounds. So it tells you about some of the processes that have been happening, but these processes aren’t complete. They haven’t won yet. There’s still a lot of resistance.

As one of the founding editors of Salvage, you know, committed to pessimism and all that, I’m very glad to find that the structured resistance of ordinary people that goes on under the surface, unnoticed, continues to be important, and to have surprising political effects. For a long time they don’t get noticed because the system is stable, then suddenly they make an impact.

It’s also important to recognize that around the area of Kensington is the Notting Hill Carnival. There’s a lot of organizing and community groups around that. There’s a middle class there that includes a lot of ethnic minorities that are basically liberal. When David Cameron took over the Conservative Party he was deemed a “Notting Hill conservative.” And there was a whole set of them who were basically liberal Tories. And there are groups like that who would’ve voted to stay in the European Union, would be for a middle of the road kind of government. But I suspect that some of those constituents were so outraged by Theresa May and her hard-right nationalist rhetoric that they rallied behind Labour on this occasion.

TA

Do you believe that progress on these issues is possible with the Tories still in power?

RS

I think we will make progress. I think that this is a major crisis for the government. It’s that thing from Psalm 42, deep calls unto deep, meaning there’s one crisis falling on top of another, one misfortune falling on top of another for the government. And it’s kind of delicious to watch and it does mean that there’s a chance, there’s a moment to push forward.

Jeremy Corbyn has said it’s going to be full-time campaigning for the next several months. And I think that’s right. There’s a unique opportunity. The Tory government is on the back foot. There’s a wave of enthusiasm out there. It would be foolish to squander it. There’s a chance that the government can be forced to call another election. The majority of the public, when asked, favor another election. And if another election happens it’s very likely that Labour will win it.

That’s one thing. Supposing all that doesn’t happen, just for a moment. I still think it’s going to be possible to make progress. Why? Because the government has given up their manifesto! Theresa May has said “the age of austerity is over.” So, essentially, they can’t implement their manifesto. It’s dead in the water because they don’t have a clear mandate for it.

Their MPs are up in arms. Theresa May addressed the 1922 committee, which is a backbench committee of Tory MPs, and said “Look I put us into this mess so I’ll get us out of it.” They gave her an easy time but said, “Look we have a really big problem with austerity. It’s terrifying a lot of voters. We have a problem with public-sector pay freezes. I have a lot of public-sector workers in my constituency who are seeing their wages decline. We need to offer people something to aspire to. Aspiration is supposed to be a conservative value.”

And that’s a problem for them because it no longer is. The only Conservative formula for government continues to be hardline neoliberalism. And that means that aspiration and opportunity are terms that belong to the Left because they have to be addressed collectively and politically.

So the government is on the back foot. They’re in crisis. They’re retreating. They’re having to cobble together a government with the Democratic Unionist Party, and are going to find it difficult to pass through any measures through the house. They’re going to have to go into Brexit negotiations. With such a weak government negotiating Brexit I don’t know what they’re going to get out of it.

It seems to me that if we, the Left, get organized, talk to one another, come up with the demands that we want to campaign for, go out in the communities, go out into the workplaces, we can force this government to concede quite a lot. Because Theresa May was arrogant. We thought she was strong. I thought she was a good politician. She’s not. She’s arrogant and now exposed as weak. And we should now spell the blood in the water. We should surge on them like sharks. If we do it won’t take much to bring this government down.

The ruling class, you catch them with their pants down once in awhile, then they pull it together. So there will be a period of time when we can make an advance and then they will come back and find another way to stop us and make their own attacks. But for the time being, we’ve got an opportunity and we can exploit it. The initiative and the momentum is with the Left.

This is the important thing to remember here. Surprising as it is, the Left has come out of a period of historic weakness but it is being reconstituted. As soon as Corbyn was elected it was being reconstituted in and through the Labour Party in the struggle for its leadership. It’s now being reconstituted nationally on that basis. It’s now a culture. It’s an organizational existence in terms of the Labour Party being predominantly a left with membership now. It has to become a union movement. It has to become a movement to unionize precarious workers, to get unions into communities where they haven’t seen a union for decades, and to create cultures of solidarity and cooperation that can resist the tidal wave of neoliberal values on the one hand. And also on the other hand to provide a basis for the kind of resistance that we’ve seen that is already providing some of the means by which we can go forward.