Duncan C/Flickr
Duncan C/Flickr

3 Reasons the Campaign to #SaveFabric is Political

Last week Fabric nightclub began its attempts to fundraise for a legal appeal against Islington Council’s decision to revoke its licence. This follows a torrent of articles laying blame for the club’s closure on underexamined ideas of local council cuts, gentrification, and a lack of ‘politicised’ club nights. In such a context, it seems prescient to analyse the wider issues surrounding Fabric’s closure, and consider how a more radical mode of political engagement can help those of us who care about club spaces do more than just react to their successive closures.

1. Non-state actors are increasingly being told to foot the bill for the police’s ineffective and prejudicial drug enforcement policy.

The slow acceptance of privatised and ‘civilianised’ policing, and its costs, has had a punishing effect on clubs and large public events. Since 2002’s Police Reform Act huge numbers of “core police roles have been civilianised” alongside a general extension of responsibility for pre-punitive action; with bosses, charities, landlords, protest groups and festivals assisting and sometimes paying for policing through a mixture of consent and coercion. This process rapidly accelerated under Theresa May’s tenure as home secretary from 2010, which saw an 18% national budget cut to policing, 17,000 officers laid off, and at least 9,000 unpaid police support volunteers brought in to help cover perceived gaps.

This has led to many venues and festivals being told to pay huge amounts of money in order to see events go ahead, knowing full well that the police’s blinkered idea of ‘more dogs, more undercover cops, more stop and search, zero tolerance’ does nothing to stop drug use and makes the environment particularly dangerous for the growing numbers of young people taking ecstasy for the first time. Meanwhile, drugs and alcohol charities across the UK have been cut drastically under David Cameron and May’s watch, with up to 50% of the funding for substance misuse services slashed In London over the last five years.

When even super-clubs such as Fabric, which co-founder Cameron Leslie states has the “highest annual security bill and the highest ratio of security guards to patrons of any venue in the UK” are targeted by this mixture of desire for extensive drugs policing and reduced police capacity, it becomes clear that a consensual approach to the state on this issue is untenable. Instead of tacitly calling for increased police funding or taking pics with the cops, campaigns should be questioning the whole logic of drug policing in the UK.

2. A more politicised reading of club culture’s history shows the state will always be antagonistic to its operation.

The origin of modern dance music amongst people of colour and LGBTQ people in Chicago, New York, and Detroit is well documented, but often sidelined or deployed as historicised knowledge without critical engagement with mainstream contemporary clubbing’s racialised and heteronormative tendencies. Successive legislation from the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to the much hated anti-grime Form 696 and continued attacks on Notting Hill carnival have eroded social spaces for people of colour, particularly those from working class areas. This is coupled with the staggering litany of iconic gay and LGBT clubs forced to close across London in recent years. Campaigns to ‘Save London’s Nightlife’ that fail to understand these dynamics of race, class and sexuality will not only erase the history and diversity of the city’s club culture, but by attempting to fit into a depoliticized narrative of ‘economic impact’ and ‘high culture’, tacitly (or actively) redirect the state’s focus onto already marginalised communities.

Similarly, discussion of rave and free party culture has too often missed the ways in which it was seen as a challenge to the state. The working class northern warehouse parties of the early 1990s saw some of the heaviest policing since the miner’s strike: 836 people were arrested on 22 July 1990 “at a single party in Gildersome near Leeds” in what writer Drew Hemment describes as “one of the biggest peace-time arrests in Europe this century.” Many of those involved had links to anti-roads protests, Reclaim the Streets, eco-anarchism and early anti-globalisation networks; connections that have been steadily erased in favour of a smiley faced ‘Loved Up’ version of rave that can sell £20 tickets to Madchester and acid house nostalgia parties.

Although free party culture is still alive in the UK, it does seem to have largely given up attempts to have an overt, antagonistic dialogue with mainstream for-profit clubs, a current that was omnipresent through the 90s. As such, a mainstream and universalising narrative of clubbing has presented itself – and its ‘pragmatic’, consensual approach to the police and state – as normative, leaving little space for voices that push back from more radical or marginalised positions.

This is a no-win game for the self-proclaimed ‘responsible’ clubs left exposed by a decline in politicised nightlife, who become the next affront to the state’s control of social space. Right back to the Bow Street Runners – who from 1754 used a premises nearby Fabric to shut down ‘dances’ and monitor ‘radicals’ – police in the UK have had a combatively class-driven and racialised approach to social spaces, dancing and intoxication: clubs only delay these attacks when they shed the very things that make them special.

3. Pop-up monoculture and the redistribution of cultural capital.

The current ‘economic impact’ of real estate and global finance in cities like London will always trump that of clubs, even those once at the geographic margins of early gentrification. Many find themselves at the tail end of what scholars like Lees, Slater and Wyly call a ‘second wave’ of gentrification – often led by “arts communities” which anchor in already-displaced urban locales – and faced with a ‘third wave’ linked to “large scale capital” and state-supported ‘regeneration’ of whole neighbourhoods. As such, appeals to recognise the ‘economic impact’ of clubs have little weight amongst the forces of state and capital, which have benefitted from arts communities’ often uncritical role in the displacement of local people, along with the ‘cultural capital’ they then bring.

As Matteo Pasquinelli argues: “the ambivalence of contemporary art and culture toward these forms of speculation is never discussed properly because of silent opportunism – but also because of a lack of new political grammar” to assess and critique the collusion of art and gentrification. The sad, inevitable outcome of such processes is a move towards temporary ‘pop-up’ venues and events, which fit neatly into the cracks left by so-called ‘super-gentrification’ and give an endlessly ‘new’ (but always similar) shot of cultural capital to the cold, dead streets of the wealthy.

In a city like Edinburgh, this happens on a vast scale during the August festival, as a notoriously cantankerous council suddenly open up every space in the city to ‘culture’: old, well-loved venues like The Forest Café’s previous space in Bristo Square and the former Big Red Door were emptied and left essentially unused for years to smooth this process, while the Bongo Club (kicked out from its former site by the large-landowning powers at Edinburgh University) has a tenancy which forces it to abandon its premises every single August for the ‘underbelly’ events company to hold a Fringe programme.

Instead of being locked in these loops towards a narrowingly temporalised culture, we can aim to turn the contradictions of such logic against itself. As David Harvey argues in his essay The Art of Rent, ‘monopoly rent’ has two facets: one, “Social actors control some special quality resource, commodity or location” which allows some unique activity that people want to pay for (like buying fine wine from a vineyard, or dancing at FWD>> at Plastic People); two, the direct trade of locations and land that due to their geographic speciality are a monopoly themselves.

Cities like London and Edinburgh aim to capitalise on both sides of ‘monopoly rent’ – the uniqueness of a distinct cultural activity, and the direct value of the location in which that activity happens – and expose themselves to what Harvey illustrates as the contradiction therein. As he states: “If capital is not to totally destroy the uniqueness that is the basis for the appropriation of monopoly rents […] then it must support a form of differentiation and allow of divergent and to some degree uncontrollable local cultural developments that can be antagonistic to its own smooth functioning.”

Within that contradiction lies a space to create radical cultural networks that resist co-option and commodification. By defending unique and transgressive club cultures and showing solidarity with other displaced urban communities, clubs can contribute to the re-distribution of a city’s collective, symbolic and cultural capital – which will always be contested, but never fully contained.

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Published 23rd September 2016

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