After Grenfell Tower

From People And Nature a guest post by Cliff Slaughter

The number of dead from the Grenfell Tower fire is still unknown. Since the fire, millions of people living in high-rise flats do not know if and when they can be safe.

What is to be done? What can come from the anger of millions of people, especially the victims, and the bitter protests about the fact that it is only ordinary working people who were hit?

One answer came from Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Catholic Archbishop of Westminster:
The thing about anger and its energy is it has to get directed in the right way. It has to get shaped so it becomes a positive source. And I think that what I find most troubling is those who wish to use that anger to deepen divisions in society.

This gentleman of the cloth is telling the surviving victims, and the rest of us, to direct our anger and energy away from the disaster and its causes, towards what he calls “positive” ends, and above all not to “deepen divisions in society”.

I conclude the exact opposite. The Grenfell disaster and all its implications arose from the “divisions in society”, in essence from the class division between capital on the one hand and the working class, the exploited, poor majority, on the other. This class division is already deep, profound, basic to our existence under the rule of capital.

It needs not to be accepted, softened, ignored, put aside, as the noble Archbishop suggests, but understood and recognised as something which must be put an end to. The preparation of that “putting an end to” is where our anger and energy must be directed.

As one man, Ishmael, put it, speaking to a Sky news reporter at the scene: “Those people lived there and died because they were poor!” He showed how warnings and fears voiced by the Grenfell residents were repeatedly ignored and rejected be the agencies of the state, and how those agencies failed to respond to the needs of those who were made homeless and had lost their loved ones.

Thus the victims of the disaster were not served by the “public” services, agencies of government and the state machine and its organs like the local council.

The whole incident shows clearly that the working people have no voice, no influence, but only the deception of what we are told are “representative” institutions, the “national interest” and the rest.

Actually, as is now made crystal clear, these are nothing but agencies for keeping the working class in its place.

And so we are talking about the Grenfell disaster as an enormous class issue, raising the big questions: Who has the power? Who has a voice? Why were working people put in death-traps?

The responsibility lies with decisions made by the agents (mouthpieces, personifications) of capital and its state machine. Individual resignations, confessions of neglect and guilt, and apologies like those of prime minister Theresa May, or this or that Council official, do no more than hide the essence of the question.

Theresa May graciously allocated £5 million to the Grenfell relief funds. A few days later she bought from the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland the 12 votes she needs to ensure a Parliamentary majority. The price: £1.8 billion! And so we know the ruling class’s estimation of the value of hundreds of working-class families.

The price of staying in power in Parliament with the support of the deeply reactionary Democratic (sic) Unionist Party is 360 times the value of the victims of Grenfell Tower.

People were housed in these hell-holes by decisions of the state, of government. It was parliament – at that time dominated by the “business-friendly” Labour Party) which approved the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), handing to business the opportunity to profit from constructing Z-class housing like tower blocks for working-class families. The companies and contractors of course acted according to their true nature – to maximise profit, cutting costs even on fire prevention.  

East London residents in solidarity with Grenfell Tower. From the Grenfell Action Group blog.

And so building, maintenance and “refurbishing” were done without installing elementary means of fire prevention (sprinklers, detectors, fireproof materials, in some cases even fire-extinguishers) or escape methods. The councils supplied fire services with equipment and hoses reaching to only 11 storeys for 25-storey blocks. These companies were the immediate beneficiaries and the immediate responsible parties of the whole course of events.

But consider the basic responsibility, that of the whole economic, social and political system.

London is the very core of Britain’s capitalist power, centred on the City, leading centre of banking and finance-capital, the dominating force in capital. It has many, many thousands of men and women employed in its satellite offices and organisations in London to sustain it. Many of them are paid high salaries and are housed in expensive apartments and houses.

But as well as these, London has millions of workers in essential services (transport, hospitals, welfare, catering, education, sales, fire services, etc.) and businesses. Where to put these workers, essential to life in London? More than 50% of land property in London is owned by big investors based in other countries (US, United Arab Emirates, China, Russia, etc). Ordinary workers cannot afford to live outside London and commute for hours to reach their places of employment. In the name of solving the “housing crisis” they are dumped in high-rise flats. There they live not only in inadequate housing but in danger, in what are now revealed as monuments of incarceration.

The cynicism of all this is not down to the callousness of individual decision-makers, but to the very nature of a system subject in every way to the rule of capital and its imperatives, its subjection of humanity to exploitation in the interests of capital accumulation.

Only a few years ago, the whole workforce of a clothing factory in Bangladesh were trapped by locked exit doors, and hundreds died. The goods produced there were sold in British stores. In Melbourne, Australia, in the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere, workers and their families are living in high-rise flats subject to exactly the same dangers as was Grenfell Tower. In China hundreds of workers have committed suicides in factories like Foxconn, which makes the computer components we use every day. And so on and so on.

These are not “third world” problems, nor problems of “advanced”, “developing”, “underdeveloped” or “backward” countries, only the problems flowing from the global rule of capital in its relentless insistence on squeezing the last bit of profit and the last drop of humanity’s blood. That is what was laid bare at Grenfell Tower in June 2017.

But it had its earliest precedent far away and long ago, in the year 1911. It echoes eerily:

On the afternoon of March 5, 1911, a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company that began in a rag bin swept through the eighth, ninth and tenth floors, too high for fire ladders to reach. The fire chief of New York said that the ladders could reach only to the seventh floor. But half of New York’s 500,000 workers spent all day, perhaps twelve hours, above the seventh floor. The laws said factory doors had to open outward. But at the Triangle Company the doors opened in. The law said the doors could not be locked during working hours, but at the Triangle Company doors were usually locked so the company could keep track of the employees. And so, trapped, the young women were burned to death at their work-tables, or jammed against the locked exit door, or leaped to their deaths down the elevator shafts. The New York World reported:

… screaming men and women and boys and girls crowded out on the many window ledges and threw themselves into the streets far below. They jumped with their clothing ablaze. The hair of some of the girls streamed up aflame as they leaped. Thud after thud sounded on the pavements. It is a ghastly fact that both the Greene Street and Washington Place sides of the building there grew mounds of the dead and dying… From opposite windows spectators saw again and again pitiable companionships formed in the instant of death – girls who placed their arms around each other as they leaped. When it was over, 146 Triangle workers, mostly women, were burned or crushed to death. There was a memorial parade down Broadway, and 100,000 marched.’ (From Howard Zinn’s classic A People’s History of the United States, pp 326-327.)

The ruthless and murderous exploitation by the American “robber barons” a century ago is equalled by big business and the capitalist state at Grenfell Tower.

The state services responsible for the public’s safety have ignored the working class’s safety, and ignored the repeatedly expressed concerns of working people about safety. They are not in fact offices for “public” safety, as Kensington shows. And all the time we must listen to the prime minister and other politicians and the press and other media telling us about the “national interest”. There is no “national” interest. The words are a trap for the unwary.

The role of the media has been to conceal the class nature of the disaster and its cause and consequences. The victims interviewed immediately after the fire felt bitterly that class nature and spoke with crystal clarity. They angrily insisted that this would not have happened in nearby, well-off areas (Kensington, Chelsea) but only to the poorer people.

But within days the media’s tone changed completely, with the emphasis only on individual grief and suffering, help from other people, charity, apologies from officials – all important but clouding over the essence of the matter, the class essence.

Sixty “luxury” flats are to be placed at the disposal of displaced Grenfell families. And what next? Who will evacuate and re-house the potential tens or even hundreds of thousands of people who now live in fear of meeting the same fate as did the residents of Grenfell Tower? Who will expropriate the properties that will have to be used?

These problems and their solution are a massive class issue. They will not be resolved in the interests of the working class by the state and the capitalist class, the enemy class. On the contrary, the task in front of the working class is to prepare urgently to gain our political independence, to develop, through all the ways possible of confronting and challenging the class enemy for responsibility for the life-threatening condition in which millions of us have been placed, the practical class-consciousness necessary to break the murderous rule of capital.

The working class has the numbers and the strength to do this. The great depth and seriousness of the questions raised by the Grenfell disaster can stir the will, the anger, the confidence, the empathy and solidarity necessary for men’s and women’s class-consciousness in ideas and in practical action.

(The deadly issues raised by globalised capital in its structural crisis have, more and more, their heaviest impact on women and families, and that this makes women more and more the vast untapped resource for the working-class movement, as I have tried to show in my recent book Women and the Social Revolution. Grenfell Tower is no less an example of what I mean than the indiscriminate bombing of civilians and shattering and displacement of millions of families in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.)

As things stand now, public safety and welfare are in the hands of a class and its state machine who have by any human standard lost the right to rule. How can working people get hold of the means to ensure public safety and welfare, control their own lives? As Grenfell Tower has revealed, this is an imperative need. More people than Ishmael have concluded that there is no solution other than revolution. (Note that the young Karl Marx wrote, 172 years ago: “The immediate spur to revolution is imperative need”). 12 July 2017.

■ Cliff Slaughter, brought up in a Communist Party family in Yorkshire, worked as a coalminer as an alternative to military National Service, before graduating from Cambridge University. He co-authored the classic Coal is Our Life with Norman Dennis and Fernando Henriques, since when has written a number of books on the working-class movement, socialism and Marxist theory, including Marxism, Ideology and Literature. More recently, he wrote Not Without a Storm: towards a communist manifesto for the age of globalisation, ... Bonfire of the Certainties: the second human revolution, and Women and the Social Revolution, and edited Against Capital: experiences of class struggle and rethinking revolutionary agency. Now retired, he for many years taught social anthropology and sociology at the Universities of Leeds and Bradford.

■ About the photo. On 27 June residents of council tower blocks and estates across East and South London dropped 22 banners – one for each of the 22 residential floors in the 24 storey Grenfell Tower, destroyed by fire on 14 June – in a show of mass solidarity with victims, survivors and the local community. The action, named “East 4 West – Grenfell Solidarity”, was mainly organised by black and brown communities, with people of all faiths living in social housing in Tower Hamlets, Newham, Hackney, Southwark and others boroughs. From the Grenfell Action Group blog.

Also about Grenfell Tower

Collective rage, collective care, by David Berrie (19 June)

A feeling of persecution that runs deep, by Al Mikey (19 June) 

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