The terrible fire at Grenfell Tower in Notting Dale last week in which scores, possibly hundreds, of people died, has prompted rather peculiar knee jerk reactions from Britain’s right-wing commentators and their followers. The most popular complaint among them is “the left has politicized this tragedy”. This is an interesting accusation, given the fact housing is a political issue, and for the fact the claim reveals a general ignorance of the word ‘politic(s)’. But the accusation is also indicative of a state of mind that blinds a person to empathy, compassion, sympathy and all the things that make us human; the very things that separate us from the machines. We do not ‘process’ feelings; we reflect, we meditate and we think about them; perhaps we act on them individually and collectively. That’s politics. Individual organs within our bodies (it’s not a ‘wonderful’ machine) may process nutrients but as organisms, we are more than the sum total of our physical processes. A point missed by those, like the Ayn Rand cultists, who would convince us that we are nothing more than robots made of flesh.
Catherine Itzin (1980), in her excellent book about British political theatre, Stages In The Revolution, argued “Everything is political; all life is political”. Second wave feminists always said “The personal is political”. We should also remind ourselves that word ‘politics’ is derived from ‘polis’ the Ancient Greek word for city; a place with a high concentration of citizens . In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle used the word politikos to describe the ‘affairs of the citizens’. In this form it can mean anything from an individual’s preferences and judgements, or the discourses that groups of people create or circulate among themselves. Politics is not limited to the practices of professional politicians and their associates in the press.
Merriam Webster offers these definitions of the word ‘politics’.
1a : the art or science of government b : the art or science concerned with guiding or influencing governmental policy c : the art or science concerned with winning and holding control over a government
2: political actions, practices, or policies
3a : political affairs or business; especially : competition between competing interest groups or individuals for power and leadership (as in a government)b : political life especially as a principal activity or profession c : political activities characterized by artful and often dishonest practices
4: the political opinions or sympathies of a person
5a : the total complex of relations between people living in society b : relations or conduct in a particular area of experience especially as seen or dealt with from a political point of view office politics ethnic politics
Like it or not, housing is a political issue and to accuse a group or a person of “politicizing the tragedy” misses this point – especially when the local authority’s response to the Grenfell blaze was so woeful. This was a preventable tragedy and to voice that fact is political and rightly so.
When Jeremy Corbyn told the media that empty homes in the borough should be requisitioned to temporarily house Glenfell survivors, the howls of outrage were as predictable as they were hysterical. These self-appointed moral guardians would tell us they are educated, but their comprehension of written and spoken English was noticeably lacking in their discourses. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a requisition is a:
1 An official order laying claim to the use of property or materials.
‘I had to make various requisitions for staff and accommodation’
- 1.1 A formal written demand that something should be performed or put into operation.
‘requisitions for an Extraordinary General Meeting must state the business to be transacted’
- 1.2 Law A demand to the vendor of a property for the official search relating to the title.
- 1.3 mass noun The appropriation of goods for military or public use.
‘requisition of grain at the point of a gun proved a novel experience for the peasantr
The word that many right-wingers reached for instead of requisition was confiscation: a completely different word, which is defined as:
The action of taking or seizing someone’s property with authority; seizure.
‘a court ordered the confiscation of her property’
There it is. It isn’t that they misheard the word. Oh no. They heard what they wanted to hear: “millionaires’ properties should be confiscated to house displaced [but filthy] working class people from our neighbourhood[that we’d rather not see]”.
According to Helmet Head, the oligarchs who have bought properties in Kensington and Chelsea and left them empty, are entitled to special privileges by dint of their bloated bank accounts and their greed (here, the billionaire is revered as a living god). Property ownership is apparently an inalienable ‘human right’ that trumps the right to life, freedom of expression and so on.
Hysteria and hyperbole. First, legislation would have to be introduced for this to occur and second, homes were requisitioned by the government order during the First and Second World Wars. Requisitioning properties in times of emergency is nothing new and the properties are always returned to their owners. This is an emergency.
The Lyin’ King, in his column for CapX, effectively dodges the question of possible corporate manslaughter or managerial incompetence by adopting a morally high, but ultimately questionable, position of disinterest. He opens in his typically dishonest fashion by linking Grenfell Tower to a hoax call. It’s pretty despicable.
Do you remember the tragic story of Jacintha Saldanha? You don’t? It was huge at the time. Jacintha was a nurse at the hospital where the Duchess of Cambridge gave birth to her first child. She got a hoax call from two Australian radio presenters pretending to be the Queen and the Prince of Wales, and put it through to the relevant ward nurse. When the news broke, Jacintha, who had had a history of depression, committed suicide by hanging, leaving two teenage children.
He then links the genuine concerns of the residents and neighbours and the glacially sluggish response from RB Kensington and Chelsea’s leadership to scapegoating innocent parties. I draw your attention to the final sentence, because it is most revealing.
We are still at that stage in the aftermath of the Grenfell horror. Obviously, we need to find out what went wrong, and assess whether other places are at risk. If there is evidence of criminal negligence, of course that negligence should be punished. But the discussion over the past two days has gone well beyond these things. The country is bellowing for a scapegoat big enough and monstrous enough to bear responsibility for such an outrage. The idea of a tragic accident simply won’t do.
Yes, this is tragic. That’s stating the bleedin’ obvious but an accident? How does Dan, for all his moralizing and expensive education, know this was an “accident”? Moreover, by referring to Grenfell as a “tragic accident”, he is making his own political judgement of the disaster.
But what about the contributing factors? Has Dan not read the Grenfell Action Group blog? Does he think that residents shouldn’t have voiced their concerns at the substandard quality of the £10 million refurbishment, or the mysterious power surges? Does he think that, given their circumstances as renters, they have no right to complain? Those who rent their homes as opposed to those who buy their, are often seen by the property-owning classes, as second class citizens.
Like our pre-modern ancestors, we have an innate sense that, for such a horrifying event to have happened, there must have been great wickedness at work. Like them, we disagree as to who was responsible for the wickedness. Usually, though, just as they did, we blame whomever we already happened not to like. Glancing at this morning’s newspapers, I see that the Guardian blames inequality, the Mail blames eco-regulations, the Express blames EU rules and the Mirror blames the Tories. Simon Jenkins, that champion of harmonious and well-proportioned architecture, blames tower-blocks. Owen Jones, my favourite radical, blames racketeering landlords. For all I know, one or more of these villains may indeed be at fault; but, for now, it is mainly guesswork.
A massive point has been missed.
Here, Hannan tells his readers to give money and to sympathize with the victims, while at the same he presumes to speak for the residents and their suffering. Just wow.
The media always follow the same course on these occasions. Having initially blamed their favourite bêtes noires, they will move on to the victims and survivors, asking them what should be done. Which brings me to a very hard thing that needs saying. The victims deserve our utmost sympathy as well as our practical help. Please do give, if you haven’t already, to one of the appeals. But bereaved relatives have no particular authority when it comes to finding the correct prescriptions. We should not expect policy ideas from people in shock, and demanding them is not just a form of journalistic grandstanding; it is also deeply unfair to the victims it purports to elevate.
Emotions are human, and grief and suffering are expressed in individual ways. Money is not the only answer; it is only a sticking plaster. Long term needs must be considered, namely the residents’ right to live in their neighbourhood in safety.
Hannan et al will always deny the central issue of housing provision and potential avoidability of this disaster is political issue, but this view is as absurd as it is dangerous. It smacks of a wilful disinterest that is wholly based upon class privilege. Their underlying disgust for, not only council tenants, but the working class as a social formation, bobs up from behind the cover of their tiresome and empty platitudes, and is thus visible for all to see. Charity, for them is the answer, not a proposal to deal with the structural inequalities that have blighted this country for generations, but philanthropy and the guiding hand of paternalism is offered to head off any real demands for meaningful social, political, cultural and economic settlement. This is disgust in action.
Disgust figures prominently in the tweets of CapX’s Iain Martin, who subjects last week’s protests outside Kensington Town Hall, to a volley of sneers, paranoia and misinterpretations. In this tweet, he slyly insinuates the residents – who should be meek; content in their social condition – are being led astray by members of the much depleted Socialist Workers’ Party.
But even if left-wing parties are marching in solidarity with the residents and a few SWP placards (which are on every fucking march and demo, by the way. It doesn’t mean that everyone is a fucking member) are seen, does this necessarily prove anything? Is this necessarily the SWP in another bandwagon-jumping exercise? Not really. Any human would have been appalled at what happened to those poor unfortunate people. Would this country’s right-wing have taken up the cause of those who lost their homes at Grenfell Tower by marching in solidarity with them? It’s highly unlikely. Well, no, actually. They only protest when their idea of freedom is challenged or when it’s otherwise not being met on their terms. Even then, such events are poorly-attended.
In this tweet to Owen Jones, Martin insists that the residents, whom he describes as a “mob”, aren’t capable of spontaneous collective agency but are being led astray by the darkest of forces. Yes, it’s the SWP again, cast here as “tin pot revolutionaries”.
Beneath Martin’s sneers burns a fierce class hatred that is bolstered by his sense of class entitlement, which is common to all free market cultists. Indeed, it speaks volumes when I say that I have yet to meet a working class right-wing libertarian. I don’t think they exist. Anarchists, yes. Libertarians, no.
Brendan O’Neill claims to be a man of the left, a Marxist even, but this claim has always been empty. He’s a right-wing libertarian-contrarian, who spends his days shouting about the ‘middle class left’ and views the working class as a homogeneous mass that is ignorant, easily led and certainly not left-wing. In his article for Spiked Online, he demands that Labour, the left or whoever, stop “exploiting the dead of Grenfell Tower”. His article ploughs roughly the same furrow as the Lyin’ King’s effort but is no less wilfully ignorant in its tone and manner. We get to his ideological spin at the bottom of the piece:
‘But the Grenfell disaster is political’, the people exploiting it cry, somewhat defensively. And they’re right. It is. Social housing and gentrification and the eco-approved application of cladding to tower blocks are political issues, or at least public issues, and we should talk about them. But these people aren’t treating Grenfell as political; they’re treating it as party political. They’re using it to demean Toryism as evil, and big up Corbyn as the leader Britain needs right now. He cares, you see, unlike them. He is Good, they are Bad. This isn’t politics – this is a culture war, where the horrors experienced by the working classes of North Kensington are used to underpin the binary moralism of a Corbynista worldview of the right as wicked and the left as decent. They are building their political movement on the corpses of the poor, and no amount of radical-sounding lingo can cover up just how cynical, opportunistic and depraved that is.
O’Neill uses the Grenfell Disaster to attack Corbyn. It’s intellectually dishonest and it’s shabby. His screed reveals his rather slippery view of his politics: the right is “wicked” and the left is “decent” he moans. But this is no more than a warped perception of Corbyn’s very human response to the disaster. I don’t recall Bruvver Bren making any demands on behalf of the residents or, indeed, meeting them face-to-face. Can you? O’Neill takes Murdoch’s shilling, so his job is to produce unimaginative crap like this.
Hypocrisy, thy name is Brendan O’Neill.
For the likes of Toby Young, Dan Hannan, and Iain Martin, the working class should simply put up with their condition because, so the neoliberal argument goes, they made ‘poor life choices’. If they burn to death in a ‘tragic accident’ then one must remain calm and accept the fact that politics is something that is practised by, and reserved for, professionals like Hannan, a man who takes a salary from the European Union, but who has worked to destroy the very institution from which he has benefited enormously.
Since the days of Thatcher, right-leaning middle class types have always believed in the notion that the working class can simply ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ and be like them. The trouble is, the working class cannot be like them because, unlike them, they weren’t born into privilege. They literally cannot afford to be right-wing libertarians or Tories.
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De Certeau, M (1988). The Practice of Everyday Life. London: University of California Press.
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Harvey, D. (2007). “Neoliberalism as creative destruction”. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 610(1), pp 21-44.
Itzin, C. (1980). Stages in the revolution: political theatre in Britain since 1968. London: Eyre Metheun.
Rowe, C. J., & Broadie, S. (2002). Nicomachean ethics. Oxford University Press.