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The Undignifed Response To The Grenfell Tower Fire From Britain’s Right

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’.

  1. 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. 2:  political actions, practices, or policies

  3. 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. 4:  the political opinions or sympathies of a person

  5. 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:

NOUN

  • An official order laying claim to the use of property or materials.

    ‘I had to make various requisitions for staff and accommodation’
    1. 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’
    2. 1.2 Law A demand to the vendor of a property for the official search relating to the title.
    3. 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:

NOUN

mass noun

  • 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.

Reference/further reading

Bourdieu, P. (2003). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, London: Routledge.

De Certeau, M (1988). The Practice of Everyday Life. London: University of California Press.

Fanon, F. (1986). Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto Press.

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.

 

 

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Let’s Talk About: Economic Growth

Images like this mean nothing to Dan Hannan. who prefers to deal with fictional characters than real people and their complicated lives.

Economic growth or just ‘growth’ is the holy grail of career politicians, neoliberal economists and their hangers on in the media. We’re often told how important it is to have ‘growth’ in our economy and it is only then that everyone will see the benefit. The trouble with this notion is that those who continually spout this rubbish aren’t the ones who need to worry. They’re already comfortable. The ones for whom these pronouncements mean little, if nothing at all, are the poor and the low waged. They continue to see their income squeezed, while the cost of living continues to rise. But the media and the government will have none of it.

A few weeks ago, the BBC’s economic editor, Robert Peston, was crowing over low oil prices. He told the nation’s viewers that “everyone” would now feel “richer” because of the continued fall in petrol prices. This is not only misleading; it’s also dishonest. The only people who can feel “richer”, by definition, are the rich themselves. If you are poor, you cannot be “rich”, it’s an absurdity. Yet this does not stop the likes of Daniel Hannan repeating this meaningless tosh. In Thursday’s blog for CapX, he repeated Peston’s bogus claim that “The rich are getting richer and the poor are… getting richer”. This is a measure of how out-of-touch our media and politicians are in relation to the people they purport to serve. We can also draw the conclusion that the mainstream media, the Westminster politicians and economic cults like the Adam Smith Institute and the Institute for Economic Affairs are in a cosy conspiratorial relationship with one another. The relationship between these institutions and ordinary people themselves is one of power. They consider themselves to be the voices of authority and we must listen and obey… or so they think. So when they tell us that “things are getting better” we are expected to believe them. But I no more believe them than I believe in the existence of God, the tooth fairy or Father Christmas. I see no improvement and neither do millions of other people.

The problem with those who constantly talk about ‘growth’ is that they can only speak the language of statistics and mathematics, and can only view the world through the lens of their social status. They are incapable of relating their nutty ideas about economics to the average person because what they’re saying bears no relation to everyday life. Trickle down, for example, is one economic fallacy that is repeated ad infinitum by economic cultists and held up as a model for ‘growth’ and economic well-being. But not even right-wingers like George HW Bush believed it and derided trickle down as “voodoo economics”. Yet the Hannans and Osbornes of this world cleave so tightly to it like men at sea clinging to any bit of flotsam that comes their way.

A couple of months ago, the Labour leadership claimed that if the Tories were re-elected, they would take public spending back to the levels of the 1930s. This was enough to get all manner of right-wing economic cultists into a lather. Hannan was one of those. In this blog, he does his best to claim how the 1930s was a “time of growth”. It’s a risible misrepresentation of a decade that’s become synonymous with economic hardship.

Well, here’s a fact that may surprise you. The 1930s saw more economic growth than any other decade in British history. It’s true that there were patches of deprivation. As in all times of economic transition, some industries declined while others rose. The poverty of the Jarrow Marchers was genuine: theirs had been a ship-building town, devastated by the collapse of international orders.

Sophistry, damned sophistry. For the millions of working class people who struggled to survive the decade, this is an insult to their memory. My mum’s family was Liverpool working class and I can remember her telling me what life was like in the Thirties: if you were poor or low-waged, you had no access to affordable or decent healthcare, because there was no National Health Service (the Tories will abolish it if they are re-elected). There was very little work on Merseyside in the 1930s, so people lived a hand-to-mouth existence.

Hannan continues his fantasy tour of his romanticized past:

Yet these were golden years for new industries such as electrical appliances and aviation and cars, the years when Morris, Humber and Austin became household names. The 1930s also saw an unprecedented boom in construction, as the comfortable suburbs of Betjeman’s Metroland spread across England. The Battersea Power Station raised its minarets over the capital, a symbol of self-confidence in architecture.

Here, Hannan waxes floridly about a world that only those with the economic means could take part. The appliances and cars that he talks about were beyond the means of my family and many others. No working class people owned cars, let alone possessed household appliances. My grandmother was still using a boiler and a mangle well into the 1970s. As for Metroland, the houses that were built there were for sale. Only those with nice, middle class incomes could afford a mortgage.

Here, Hannan slaps more gloss onto his fantasy.

 Britain responded to the 1929 crash by cutting spending drastically and, in consequence, soon saw a return to growth. The United States, by contrast, expanded government activity unprecedentedly under the New Deal, and so prolonged the recession by seven years. Yes, seven years. Here is the conclusion of a major study published in 2004 by two economists at the UCLA, Harold L Cole and Lee A Ohanian:

Cole and Ohanian are comprehensively defenestrated in this blog. Hannan isn’t interested in reality and like all right-wingers of his ilk, he exists in the hermetically-sealed space of privilege. The material of history is bent and twisted to shrink-fit a weak narrative. Like many of his fellow Tea Partiers, he makes the same feeble argument for cuts.

Contrasting the American and British experiences, we are left with an inescapable conclusion. Cuts work, and trying to spend your way out of recession doesn’t.

Let’s put it this way, if a company doesn’t borrow or spend money to invest when it is doing badly, it will go under. Cuts only work for the already wealthy. They are also a means by which the powerful punish the poor for being poor. Hannan makes clear his hatred of FDR and the New Deal. This is the same position held by the economic cultists at the Ludwig von Mises Institute as well as his fellow Randists.

This is perhaps the greatest fallacy of all:

Still, if only for the record, let me set down the real lesson of the 1930. The best way to recover from a crash, not least for low earners, is to bring spending back under control. Growth follows, jobs are created, and the people taking those jobs thereby gain the most secure route out of poverty.

It’s easy for those who have never personally experienced poverty to claim that “the most secure route out of  poverty” is work. Low-paid and zero hours contract jobs actually lock people into poverty. Hannan is not only a fool, he’s a dangerous fool. Leaving people to fend for themselves without a safety net will lead to greater social problems. Hannan is unmoved by such concerns. Yet he would be the first to complain that shanty towns are an “eyesore”. This is the man who calls himself a “Whig”.

Talking about economic growth when people are struggling to survive is deeply offensive. Talking about GDP is meaningless because not only is it a poor way of measuring economic performance, it means nothing to ordinary people. For all his claims of how cutting public spending will improve economic performance, Hannan has never had to suffer the privations of working in a low-paid job. Like all of his pals in Westminster and beyond, he is a bully, who talks a good talk but when his words are unpacked, they reveal the true horrors of the current political system.

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Metonymy, metaphor and the violent language of politics

I am struck by the number of violent words that are being used by the government and some economists. Words like ‘cut’ and ‘slash’ tend to be used in relation to public spending and conjure up images of evisceration – a bloody mess; a possible shambles. There are other words too, like ‘smash’ and ‘break’ which tend to be used when referring to social housing and benefits. These words don’t appear casually, they are employed to achieve an effect. Make no mistake, this is a linguistic form of violence.

While these words are used in a seemingly metaphorical fashion, the effect of such words can have a devastating effect on the body. The body that I refer to here is that of the public or, as I would refer to it, the body-politic, which can be read as a single mass body. This concept of regarding the public as a physical entity is not new, it has its origins in the respective works of Foucault, Butler et al. The latter proposed that certain words, such as racist or sexist language, can have an effect on the body of the person being addressed. These are violent words that can wound and whose effects can linger long after the event.

But in reality there is more than one single body-politic: the social classes and cultural groups also form bodies-politic. We can see that the effect of cutting, slashing, smashing, blasting and beating is more likely to have an effect on those who have little or no protection from such assaults. These are the people who are the unemployed, the working class, the poor, the disabled, the working poor, social housing tenants…the list goes on.

We also see that some bodies-politic are feared more than others; this is particularly true in the case of the working classes who, in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s were referred to as the ‘masses’. These masses were feared precisely because of their latent power: an unorganized working class is easy to manipulate, while the organized and more educated working classes are harder to control. Hence such masses usually have to be ‘pacified,’ ‘checked’, ‘smashed’, ‘destroyed’ or ‘expunged’. Whenever the state feels that it has been infected by something deadly, a ritual cleansing of the body takes place expelling from it all that is unwanted and absorbing that which it finds useful. This process often takes place on a cultural level: the banning of certain films, works of art or types of music that are either absorbed (recuperated) into, or are otherwise expelled from the system entirely.

Initially when packages of economic measures are being proposed they are referred to as ‘medicine’ (I outlined this in an earlier blog), with the team of ministers and economists acting as ‘physicians’ and ‘surgeons’  who must administer much-needed treatment to the ‘patient’. But suddenly it appears that the ‘patient’ requires radical surgery; some form of  invasive intervention that could possibly seriously disable or kill the patient. But the pain, so they tell us, is necessary.

With words such as ‘cut’ and ‘slash’ are adjectives applied to them that are no less visceral. We are told the ‘cuts’ will be ‘savage’, ‘brutal’ and ‘deep’.  The word ‘deep’ particularly suggests that the ‘patient’ could quite possibly bleed to death. This is the language of a frenzied axe-wielding murderer, not that of the caring physician! This is not surgery, friends. This is butchery!

Perhaps today’s politicians could learn a thing or two from the character Chauncey Gardiner (Chance the gardener) in the film Being There (1979). Gardiner (who is quite literally a simpleton gardener), played by Peter Sellers, is mistaken by the US President for an economic sage, whose comments on tending his garden are interpreted for economic insights. I can see how horticultural language might be easier on the ear, but would the effects on the body-politic really be altered if different kinds of metaphors were used?

Probably not. We love our violence.

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