Whatever Happened to the Working Class? The British Ideology

‘The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas; that is, the class that is the ruling material force in society is, at the same time, its ruling intellectual force. The class that has the means of material production at its disposal has control, at the same time, over the means of intellectual production; so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of intellectual production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships – the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; therefore of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one – in other words, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess, among other things, consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self evident that they do this across its whole range; therefore, among other things, that they also rule as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and circulation of the ideas of their age. Thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of their time.’

– Karl Marx, The German Ideology (1846)

There was a time, back in the early 1990s, when I could barely write an essay without quoting this passage or something similar as an epigraph to my learned disquisition on this or that question of cultural and political theory. Marx’s teachings on the relation between ideology and class were revolutionary for his time, but 150 years later, coming out of a decade and more of Thatcherism, it seemed the lesson had finally been learned – if not actually turned into practice. But the ideas of the British ruling class have come to fruition over the past quarter of a century, and what was seemingly learned has been unlearned, what was taken as given has been taken back with interest, and what was once regarded as fundamental has been undermined. So today, when its effects have never been more hidden in plain sight, it has once again become necessary to return to the question of class.
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The Costs of Estate Regeneration: A Film for Everyone

The report on which this film is based can be read in the pdf titled The Costs of Estate Regeneration. I first gave this presentation at a conference held by the Socialist Workers Alliance back in June; then again at a meeting of the Revolutionary Communist Group in July at the launch of their pamphlet Whose Land is it Anyway? Housing, Capitalism and the Working Class; then at the inaugural Festival of Maintenance held at University College London in September; then later that month to People Before Profit, at a meeting to organise against the demolition and redevelopment of Reginald House and the Old Tidesmill Garden in Lewisham; then at a public meeting in October of the Focus E15 Campaign in Newham to discuss bringing the half-empty Carpenter’s estate back into use as housing; then that same month at a meeting of the Tulse Hill branch of the Labour Party to discuss the possibilities of refurbishing rather than demolishing the Cressingham Gardens estate; then again in October to a GovDesign meeting on Repair, Renovation and Maintenance; then at the end of the month to the Montreal Square Residents Association in Cambridge, whose homes are threatened with demolition by the Cambridge Housing Society. Next week we are due to discuss the findings of the report with Len Duvall, the Greater London Authority Member for Greenwich and Lewisham; and in the new year I will be presenting it to the Government’s Planning Advisory Service forum on Planning, Housing and Affordable Homes, which will be attended by council leaders from Brent, Havering and Merton in London, Milton Keynes, South Cambridgeshire, Manchester, Salford, Stockport, Southampton, West Dorset and other local authorities. Finally, we’re in the middle of negotiations to meet with Newham council in the New Year to see if the newly-elected Mayor means what she says about the future of the Carpenter’s estate. After that, I’m handing presentation duties over to this film.

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A Home for All? The Art Exhibition as Political Propaganda

Mary Duggan Architects

The ‘6 radical experiments in social housing’, which include the Spa Green estate (1946-49), Keeling House (1954-59), the Alexandra Road estate (1968-78), and the Byker estate (1969-82), currently on show at the exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum will be familiar to anyone with an interest in the history of council housing, and by themselves don’t justify a new exhibition. It’s the new ‘experiment’, Lion Green Road, designed by Mary Duggan Architects and currently being developed by Brick by Brick in Croydon, that’s the real focus of the exhibition, the purpose of which is to give legitimacy to the kind of development being carried out today under the guise of ‘social housing’ by placing it within the history of UK council housing provision. However, as is typical of architectural discourse in this country – and of which the review of the exhibition in Arch Daily is another example – this history will remain a purely formal one, without any of the information by which a visitor to the show (or reader of the article) can make a judgement about whether this scheme is a continuation or betrayal of the preceding architecture. As is repeatedly the case, therefore, it’s up to ASH to provide that information.

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Invisible Britain: The Art of Catharsis

‘I have spoken of the operation of a certain type of fashionable photography that makes misery into a consumer good. When I turn to the New Objectivity as a literary movement, I must go a step further and say that it has made the struggle against poverty into a consumer product. In fact, in many cases its political meaning has been exhausted with the transposition of revolutionary impulses – insofar as these appeared among the bourgeoisie – into objects of distraction and amusement that were integrated, without difficulty, into the entertainment industries of the big cities. The metamorphosis of the political struggle from a drive to make a political commitment into an object of contemplative pleasure, from a means of production into an object of consumption, is the defining characteristic of this literature.’

– Walter Benjamin, The Author as Producer (1934)

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 at Tate Modern 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 luvvie 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 glorified 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 the middle-class book-buyer may think when leafing through its moving photographs, are always shed for herself. And the feel of tears running down their cheeks, the salty taste of them in their mouths, makes them feel that somehow they are sharing in the suffering they tell as many people as possible is their cause. Identification (preferably with a distant and grateful 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 imperialist 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.

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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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