Invisible Britain: The Art of Catharsis

Paul Sng, Invisible Britain (2018)

1. The Art of Catharsis

Who profits from the housing crisis? The immediate answer is obvious: property developers, housing associations, estate agents, consultants, architects, builders, the people who knock down council housing and replace it with new-build properties, half of which currently stand empty in London.

But there are other people who profit too. First in line, spotting a market in sob-stories for the middle classes, are the journalists, whose thin prose and even thinner research doesn’t stop them from bundling a few articles together and calling it a book. Behind them, ponderous as ever but champing at the bit of the next government grant, are the academics, who have responded to the burgeoning market in well-footnoted (to other academics), badly framed (‘gentrification’) and totally apolitical books about the housing crisis, which they transform into just another object in their musty archive.

But a new profiteer has emerged. As the public’s interest even in the fluff on the bookshelves wanes, enter the artist. In verbatim theatre productions, in performance poetry, in documentary films, in protest songs and in books of glossy photographs, the artist is the new self-appointed spokesperson for the masses, and their great claim to this role is – not the political and representational agency of their work – but something much more important: their sincerity.

The English have a strong claim to being the most artistically illiterate nation in Europe, and generally prefer a nice swing to anything that makes them think. But this week, thinking about the latest piece of artistic ‘activism’ to come off the shelves, full of sincerity and endorsements from every hack, academic and actor in town, I was reminded of what the German critic, Walter Benjamin, said about fascism in his 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction. Fascism, remember, was a kitsch, saccharine aesthetic that sugar-coated the violence it depicted for the masses in images of noble sacrifice; and it has more than a few parallels with the photographs of homeless Britains, protesting Palestinians and starving Yemenis that decorate our Sunday supplements or perch in glossy tomes atop many an Islington coffee table. Trying to understand this aestheticisation of the violence of the political, Benjamin concluded: ‘Mankind’s self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.’

Poverty porn is nothing new, and has been the staple of reality TV for some time, preparing the way for the political assault on the working class it has served. Somewhat belatedly, the liberals who have colonised the arts in this country have now come up with their own use for the working class. Springing from the Methodism that defines the aesthetic and political sensibilities of the so-called Left in this country, this goes something along the lines of: ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ In the political vacuum of liberalism, art is the opium of the middle classes, its aesthetic pleasures the last refuge from their willing embrace of the violence of capitalism.

It’s not by chance that the favoured, most sought after and most highly valued aesthetic response of the middle classes is tears. Tears stop the middle-class film-goer from seeing what’s in front of his face when he leaves the auditorium. Tears, whatever she may think when leafing through a book of moving photographs, are always shed for herself. And the feel of tears running down your cheek, the salty taste of them in your mouth, makes you feel that somehow you are sharing in the suffering you tell as many people as possible is their cause. Identification (preferably with a distant victim) is the cathartic object of the immersive art ‘experience’. ‘Heartbreaking!’ is the ultimate accolade for the liberal work of art. So what role does art play for its liberal audience in search of catharsis?
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Two or Three Things to Remember on this Day of Remembrance

A conflict started by the ruling classes of Europe’s Imperial nations for the right to expand or maintain their empires in the Balkans, the Middle East, India, Africa and Asia, the Great War was overwhelmingly fought by the working classes of those nations, who – even if they saw through the nationalist rhetoric of their country’s propaganda – were trapped between the firing squads of their own army and the trenches in which their fellow working men faced the same. Of the 200,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers court-martialed during the First World War, 20,000 were found guilty of offences carrying the death penalty, 3,000 were sentenced to death, and 346 were shot. Up to 1.25 million were killed in combat or by disease, and a further 1.675 million were wounded. Those who survived the slaughter returned to the poverty and exploitation of the economic system they died to defend.

Although the defeat of the Germany Army brought down the German Imperial Family that had initiated the conflict, the working-class communist revolution of November 1918 was bloodily suppressed by that army and right-wing militia, and a social democratic system of capitalist exploitation by parliamentary republic replaced the old constitutional monarchy. Despite being on the ‘winning’ side, Britain remained a constitutional monarchy under a Head of State and King drawn from the same royal family as the deposed German Kaiser and the executed Russian Tsar, and whose daughter is today the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Head of the Commonwealth.

Hostilities didn’t end on 11 November 1918. British troops from the Western Front were deployed against the Irish Republican Army in the Irish War of Independence from 1919 to 1921. And the Imperial powers of Britain, France and the USA supported the White Russians in the Civil War of 1919-25 that cost the newly founded Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic a further 7-12 million casualties, most of them civilian, on top of the 3.5 million dead and 5 million wounded they had already lost in the Great War; and in the resulting famine of 1921-22 a further 5 million Russians starved to death.

From the British point of view, perhaps the greatest tragedy of the Great War is that at the time of the armistice 6 million British men, almost all of them from the working classes, laid down their arms, their guns, their tanks, their ships and their planes and went back to the factories, farms, mines and shipyards that had produced them, back into serving and waiting on the ruling class, back into rising unemployment, reduced wages, worse working conditions, poor access to healthcare, slum housing and non-existent political representation. And despite the workers’ uprisings of 1919 that were bloodily crushed by the same army that had fought in France, and the brief General Strike of 1926 that was betrayed by the Trades Union Congress and the Labour Party, within 10 years the families of the men who fought in the Great War were facing destitution and malnutrition in the Great Depression that followed the collapse of the stock market, and in 20 years their children were called up to fight another Imperialist war.

A hundred years later, the war that the Saudi-led coalition has waged on Yemen since 2015, that has killed tens of thousands of Yemeni civilians and currently threatens 17 million Yemenis with starvation, cholera and typhoid from a famine the United Nations has declared the worst humanitarian crisis in 100 years, is being supported and armed by the UK, which is now the sixth largest arms dealer in the world, and the second highest arms dealer after the USA to Saudi Arabia, to whom it exports half of all its arms. Since the war in Yemen began, the UK government that today is solemnly remembering the 1 million British and Commonwealth soldiers that died in the Great War has licensed £4.7 billion of arms to the Saudis.

Remembering the 19 million dead and 23 million wounded in the Great War without understanding why they died and at whose command is to continue to swallow the propaganda of Imperialist nations that continue to dispose of the working class bodies of their own nations and those of others to serve the competing financial interests of their ruling classes. Every official act of remembrance is a deliberate act of forgetting what is happening in the present. So lest we forget: there is only one war – the class war, and we’re still losing it.

The morning comes, the night decays, the watchmen leave their stations;
The grace is burst, the spices shed, the linen wrappèd up;
The bones of death, the cov’ring clay, the sinews shrunk and dry’d,
Reviving shake, inspiring move, breathing, awakening,
Spring like redeemèd captives, when their bonds and bars are burst.
Let the slave grinding at the mill run out into the field,
Let him look up into the heavens and laugh in the bright air;
Let the enchainèd soul, shut up in darkness and in sighing,
Whose face has never seen a smile in thirty weary years,
Rise and look out; his chains are loose, his dungeon doors are open;
And let his wife and children return from the oppressor’s scourge.
They look behind at every step, and believe it is a dream,
Singing: ‘The Sun has left his blackness, and has found a fresher morning,
And the fair Moon rejoices in the clear and cloudless night;
For Empire is no more, and now the Lion and Wolf shall cease!’

– William Blake

Simon Elmer

Supply and Demand in Centre Point Residences

Last week I was commissioned by VICE to write about the news that the unsold apartments in Central Point Residences had been taken off the market by the developer until offers met their multi-million-pound sale price. VICE only wanted 800 words; but this is the longer article I got out of it, in which I look at some of the more glaring fallacies in UK housing policy. This is based on three principles that underpin the cross-party consensus on the marketisation of housing provision by local authorities: 1) attracting overseas investment as the primary source of revenue for house building; 2) increasing the supply of residential properties for market sale to reduce house prices; and 3) cross-subsidising affordable housing provision with the sale of residential properties at the highest possible market price. In this article I look at why all three of these principles are fundamentally flawed as a model for the provision of housing Londoners can afford to rent or buy, and are instead designed to produce vast profits for those who invest in and sell the commodities in this property market. In a way, this is my response to Patrik Schumacher’s article ‘Only Capitalism Can Solve the Housing Crisis’, which was published by the Adam Smith Institute in April; but unlike Schumacher, my counter arguments aren’t based on academic theories about how capitalism can and should work, but on the all-too-real evidence of what capitalism has produced – beginning with the causes and effects of London’s housing crisis.

Photograph from Centrepointresidences.co.uk

From one end of London to the other we hear the same demand, from council meeting and corporate board room, from housing association and think tank, from architect and property developer, from Labour cabinet and Tory ministry, from the Greater London Authority and the House of Commons: ‘We must build more homes!’ This cross-party consensus between political rivals, the public and the private spheres, should alert us to the fact that something else is at stake here than the mere housing of London’s citizens, which has always been far down the ladder of political priorities; something which the announcement this week that the multi-million-pound properties in Centre Point Residences have been taken off the market for lack of offers matching their asking price has drawn into focus.

The London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, was elected on a promise to build 50,000 new homes every year he was in office. Unsurprisingly, his electoral opponents promised the same. As do the Conservative Government, the Labour opposition and the Liberal Democrats. The argument for doing so goes something like this. London has a housing crisis. If we build more homes the demand will drop, and with it the prices. This supposed ‘law’ of supply and demand is used to justify everything from the estate regeneration programme that threatens hundreds of London council estates with demolition to the hundreds of empty towers with planning permission in Inner London.

But there is a second part to this argument. Despite being the sixth largest economy in the world, the UK, apparently, is broke. There is no money for council housing as there was, for instance, after the Second World War, when the national debt was 245 per cent of GDP. To build the housing we need, London has to attract investment – from the private sector, from offshore companies, from foreign investors, from overseas buyers. This means that a lot of the housing that gets built will be for market sale, and some of it will be the sort of multi-million-pound apartments in Centre Point Residences; but with this money councils and developers can build ‘genuinely’, ‘truly’ (the adjectives increase with their prices) affordable housing for Londoners both present and future. Let’s test the truth value of this argument, which continues to define London’s housing policies, against the example of Centre Point Residences.

Photograph from the Met Archives

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Questions without Answers: Reginald House and Old Tidemill Garden

Save Reginald Save Tidemill

On 19 October I wrote the following on the Save Reginald Save Tidemill Facebook page. My comment was written in response to a shared statement by Lewisham Labour Councillor Joe Dromey, the Cabinet Member for Finance, Skills and Jobs, that he had originally made on the I Love Deptford page about the regeneration scheme. The son of Harriet Harman MP, the former Acting Leader of the Labour Party, and Jack Dromey MP, the Shadow Labour Minister for Work and Pensions, Joe Dromey is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Policy Research, the think tank that did much to create and form the current programme of estate demolition and redevelopment with the publication in 2015 of ‘City Villages: More homes, better communities’. I asked to join the I Love Deptford page in order to respond directly to Councillor Dromey, but my request to do so was denied; and although Councillor Dromey had responded to earlier comments on the Save Reginald Save Tidemill page, he hasn’t responded to mine. In response, Roy Hobson, a qualified surveyor retired from the Chartered Institution of Civil Engineering Surveyors and supporter of the Save Reginald Save Tidemill campaign, copied my comment onto the I Love Deptford page, with the statement that he ‘totally agrees’ with its estimates. As of writing, Councillor Dromey still hasn’t responded. Here is the original comment by Councillor Dromey:

‘You may have heard that a judicial review had been brought against the proposed development at Tidemill to try and stop the development from going ahead. Earlier this week, the judge rejected the judicial review. The people campaigning against the development have a right of appeal, and I understand they will be doing so. But the development is now more likely to go ahead.

‘The Council is proceeding with the development because there is a desperate need for more social housing in our community. We’ve got 2,000 homeless households in Lewisham and many hundreds in Deptford. We’ve got 10,000 households on the council waiting list.

‘The Tidemill development will bring 104 additional social homes. These will be provided on secure tenancies, at below half the market rate, to households on the council waiting list. Over half (56%) of the homes on the site will be social housing – with the additional social housing representing 51% of the homes. A quarter of the homes (24%) are shared ownership to help people get on the property ladder. 20% are built for sale to fund the rest of the homes. It’s the biggest increase in social housing that we’ve seen in Deptford or in Lewisham in a generation.

‘All the existing residents (13 tenants, 3 leaseholders) will get a new home for life on the site. They won’t have to move off the site even for a day, and they won’t face higher rents. We want them to stay, and we want to provide more social homes for those in desperate need.

‘There will be lots of green space on the new estate, equivalent to over 80% of the size of the current garden. Most of this will be open 24/7 for our community.

‘Some have been campaigning to stop the development and to keep the Tidemill garden. It is understandable that some people will be unhappy with the decision, but there has been an extensive process, and the development has been approved by the Council, the Mayor of London, and now backed by the court. We can’t build the same number of homes and keep the meanwhile use garden. So our priority must be social housing to tackle the Tory housing crisis.

‘As ever, happy to discuss this with any members who have any questions.’

And here is what I wrote in return to Councillor Dromey’s invitation:

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Policy Proposals on Estate Regeneration: ASH Presentation to the Tulse Hill branch of the Labour Party

Last night I gave another presentation of the findings in the ASH report on The Costs of Estate Regeneration. This time it was to the Tulse Hill branch of the Labour Party, one of whose members had invited me to come and talk. He told me that, while the previous Chair had always refused any debate on Lambeth council’s estate regeneration programme, the new Chair was more amenable.

I didn’t know quite what to expect, but as we were waiting for everyone to arrive a woman walked in, sat apart from everyone else in the room, and gave me a look that would have curdled milk. The chair addressed her as ‘Mary’, and suddenly it dawned on me who she was: Mary Atkins, Councillor of the Tulse Hill ward. Under the pretext of carrying out repairs to the estate, it was Councillor Atkins who had initiated the regeneration of Cressingham Gardens that turned into the excuse for its demolition. The last time I’d been in a meeting with her was back in May 2016 at Lambeth Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting to review the Cabinet decision to demolish Cressingham Gardens estate. In an extraordinary statement for which she produced no proof beyond her own accusations, and which the Committee accepted without question, Councillor Atkins declared that there was a ‘climate of fear’ on the estate, that the Save Cressingham Gardens campaign is ‘intimidating’, that tenants on the estate are ‘scared to get involved’, and that they ‘do not want to see such tactics rewarded.’

I wasn’t the only member of the public to challenge this characterisation of the single mothers, elderly couples, families with young children and other residents who have fought so long and with such bravery to save their homes against such underhand tactics. But displaying the lack of interest in residents’ views that has characterised Lambeth council’s consultations, Councillor Atkins then went on to what quickly became apparent was her main point. ‘I want residents’, Atkins said, ‘to adhere to a code of behaviour during consultation.’ This move – first to slander and denigrate residents who form a campaign of resistance, then to ban them from opposing the council’s plans – was taken up on cue by the Chair of the Committee, Councillor Edward Davie, seconded by Councillor Matthew Bennett, then Cabinet Member for Housing and Regeneration, and unanimously carried by the rest of the Committee.

Following this decision, residents of Cressingham Gardens were sent a report from Lambeth council announcing their intention to bypass the existing, democratically elected Tenants and Residents Association and replace it with a Resident Engagement Panel composed exclusively of residents who were willing to engage with the plans to demolish and redevelop their homes. It became clear that the Overview and Scrutiny Committee, which had ostensibly met to review the Cabinet decision to demolish Cressingham Gardens estate, had chosen this opportunity to set in motion Lambeth council’s plans to silence opposition to their estate demolition programme.

That was two-and-a-half years ago, and since then little has changed. The meeting last night began with a number of questions from the floor asking Councillor Atkins to provide the financial figures for the relative costs of demolishing and redeveloping Cressingham Gardens estate versus refurbishing it. She replied with two lies. First, she said that she would give them the figures as far as she could, but that all the available information was already in the public domain on Lambeth council’s website. Then, when further challenged, she responded more confidently that the figures had not been produced yet because nothing had been decided.

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London’s Most Influential: Citigroup and the Subprime Mortgage Crisis

‘What makes a city influential? Some say it’s the economic opportunities or the technological capabilities or the possibilities of connecting with other cities. We say it all comes down to people. The progress-makers. The ones whose boundless drive, passion and brilliance bring a city to life like no other. They’re why we’ve made it our job to be here. Believing in their ideas. Backing their ambitions. Making them real. In London. Around the world.

– Citigroup, The Progress 1000: London’s Most Influential People (2018)

‘The Truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry.’

The Big Short (2015)

Citigroup Inc. is an American multinational investment bank and financial services corporation with its headquarters in New York City. Citigroup owns Citicorp, the holding company for Citibank, as well as several international subsidiaries. Citigroup is ranked 3rd on the list of largest banks in the United States and, alongside JPMorgan ChaseBank of America, and Wells Fargo, is one of the Big Four banks. Citigroup is rated a systemically important financial institution and as such is on the list of systemically important banks that are regarded as too big to fail. It is also one of the nine global investment banks in the Bulge Bracket. Citigroup is ranked 32nd on the Fortune 500 list of the largest United States corporations by total revenue for their respective fiscal years. Citigroup has over 200 million customer accounts and does business in more than 160 countries. It has 209,000 employees, although it had 357,000 employees before the financial crisis of 2007-2008, when it was rescued via a massive stimulus package by the U.S. government.

The Subprime Mortgage Crisis

Heavy exposure to troubled mortgages in the form of collateralised debt obligation (CDOs), compounded by poor risk management, led Citigroup into trouble as the subprime mortgage crisis worsened in 2008. The company had used elaborate mathematical risk models that looked at mortgages in particular geographical areas, but never included the possibility of a national housing downturn, or the prospect that millions of mortgage holders would default on their mortgages. Trading head Thomas Maheras was close friends with senior risk officer David Bushnell, which undermined risk oversight. As Treasury Secretary, Robert Rubin was said to be influential in lifting the Glass–Steagall Act that allowed Travelers and Citicorp to merge in 1998. Then on the board of directors of Citigroup, Rubin and Charles Prince were said to be influential in pushing the company towards mortgage-backed security (MBS) and CDOs in the subprime mortgage market.

Starting in June 2006, Senior Vice President Richard M. Bowen III, the chief underwriter of Citigroup’s Consumer Lending Group, began warning the board of directors about the extreme risks being taken on by the mortgage operation that could potentially result in massive losses. The group bought and sold $90 billion of residential mortgages annually. Bowen’s responsibility was essentially to serve as the quality control supervisor ensuring the unit’s creditworthiness. When Bowen first became a whistleblower in 2006, 60 per cent of the mortgages were defective. The amount of bad mortgages began increasing throughout 2007 and eventually exceeded 80 per cent of the volume. Many of the mortgages were not only defective, but were a result of mortgage fraud. Bowen attempted to rouse the board via weekly reports and other communications. On November 3, 2007, Bowen emailed Citigroup Chairman Robert Rubin and the bank’s chief financial officer, head auditor and the chief risk management officer to again expose the risk and potential losses, claiming that the group’s internal controls had broken down and requesting an outside investigation of his business unit.

The subsequent investigation revealed that at the Consumer Lending Group had suffered a breakdown of internal controls since 2005. Regardless of the findings of the investigation, Bowen’s charges were ignored, despite the fact that withholding such information from shareholders violated the Sarbanes–Oxley Act (SOX), which he had pointed out. Citigroup CEO Charles Prince signed a certification that the bank was in compliance with SOX despite Bowen revealing this wasn’t so. Citigroup eventually stripped Bowen of most of his responsibilities and informing him that his physical presence was no longer required at the bank. The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission asked him to testify about Citigroup’s role in the mortgage crisis, and he did so, appearing as one of the first witnesses before the Commission in April 2010.

As the crisis began to unfold, on 11 April 11, 2007, Citigroup announced that it would eliminate 17,000 jobs, or about 5 percent of its workforce, in a broad restructuring designed to cut costs and bolster its long underperforming stock. Even after securities and brokerage firm Bear Stearns ran into serious trouble in the summer of 2007, Citigroup decided the possibility of trouble with its CDO’s was so tiny (less than 1/100 of 1 per cent) that they excluded them from their risk analysis. With the crisis worsening, on 7 January, 2008, Citigroup announced that it was considering cutting another 5 percent to 10 percent of its 327,000 member-workforce.

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The Architecture of Death

IMG_3354

As some of you will know, on Tuesday, 2 October a man was killed by a window pane falling from the Corniche building, which with Merano Residences (designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners) and the Dumont building (designed by David Walker Architects) is one of three new developments of what the advertising boards call ‘luxury apartments and penthouses’ that make up the newly-named Albert Embankment Plaza. This lies within the Vauxhall, Nine Elms, Battersea Opportunity Area, over which the London Mayor has planning authority.

Like the other two buildings comprising the Albert Embankment Plaza, the Corniche was built by the Berkeley Group, the largest property developer in London, which has 75 per cent of its sites inside the M25, and pre-tax profits for the year ending April 2018 of £934.9 million, up 15 per cent on the previous year. The building was designed by Foster + Partners, the largest architectural practice in the UK, with pre-tax profits last year of £20.8 million, and whose partners took £23.4 million in bonuses, up 43 per cent on the previous year.

ASH went round to have a look at the building later that day, and the fallen pane could clearly be seen missing from the penthouse apartment on the 27th floor. The last five remaining 2-, 3- and 4-bedroom apartments are currently on sale for between £2.7 million and £6.25 million, but the penthouse from which the window pane fell was reported by the architecture and design magazine Dezeen to have been on the market for £22 million (although this information has subsequently been removed).

Apparently this isn’t the first time a window pane has fallen from the building. Last August, during construction of what Foster’s website describes as ‘curved gardens in the sky’, another pane slipped from its frame and nearly hit two carpenters working on the site. Despite this precedence, the hoardings outside the building advertise the Corniche as ‘Life ahead of the curve’, the irony of which disappears with this latest fatality from London’s housing.

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