Alex King

Wildfires and Tower Block Blazes Aren’t Freak Accidents – These Are the Fires of Austerity

The day after wildfires tore along Athens’ east coast, I was stuck in a traffic jam. We were sitting in the seaside town of Mati, the epicentre of the inferno, where at least 91 people are known to have died. Some trees were still smouldering. Many of the houses were blackened shells, others looked like they had been hit by cruise missiles.

Many stuck in the jam were ordinary people; Greeks who had loaded up their cars with supplies and driven out to help. They were motivated not only by a heartfelt empathy for those chased from their homes by fire but, most tragically, by a lack of faith in a hollowed-out, austerity-ravaged state to meet victims’ basic needs in the disaster’s aftermath.

As grief has turned to anger, the parallels with last summer’s Grenfell Tower fire which claimed 71 lives are becoming increasingly apparent. The more we learn, the more we realise these are not freak accidents: the unacceptable death tolls in both the Athens seaside town and the Kensington tower block are a direct result of neoliberal government policies; a withered state that abandoned its people and left them to burn. These are the fires of austerity. And, as always, the charred remains are those of people like us.

Just as London fire brigade’s ‘stay put’ policy was criticised in the wake of Grenfell, Greek emergency services’ failure to order the evacuation of the Mati area has been blamed for contributing to such high loss of life. But, as in London, criticism of the emergency services – who were operating in impossible conditions – is part of a strategy to shift blame away from the chiselling away of the public sector and its subsequent inability to ensure citizens’ safety, along with a failure to provide adequate housing.

Greek Federation of Firefighters chief Dimitris Stathopoulos pointed out that budget cuts since the onset of the Greek debt crisis have put at least 30% of fire engines out of action. Cuts in the UK, too, hampered the response to Grenfell. Between 2011 and 2017 the UK lost a quarter of its specialist fire-safety staff who inspect buildings. Former London mayor Boris Johnson ordered the most severe cuts in the London fire brigade’s history, forcing it to close 10 stations, remove 27 fire engines and cut more than 500 jobs – all to ‘save’ £10m.

Seeing ordinary people’s powerful response to both Grenfell and Mati is at once inspiring and deeply depressing; despite the huge outpouring of effort, it exposes their limited abilities to respond to crises. In Mati, one typical group of responders filled their car with water bottles and drove house-to-house, asking remaining inhabitants if they needed the supplies piled on their back seat. This is what Europe’s social safety net looks like in the age of neoliberalism.

The state is supposed to work in ways individuals can’t; bringing expertise to bear in creating policies that minimise risk and improve safety, while investing proactively in prevention and marshalling the resources necessary for when unforeseen events occur.

But despite the pitiful state responses, neither Mati or Grenfell were unforeseen. The Grenfell residents’ association wrote an ominous post in 2016 titled “Playing with fire” highlighting the risk of “a serious fire in the tower block” with a catastrophic loss of life. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea failed to pay for improvements, despite possessing a £300m contingency fund. Likewise, Mati was all-too predictable. Climate change has brought us to a place where it’s no longer a question of whether or not this summer will bring forest fires. It has become a question of ‘when and how destructive?’

Yet rather than challenge the powerful decision-makers, sections of the media set out to de-legitimise the victims. In the UK, it took an ugly, racist tone. Grenfell residents were council tenants, old people, low-paid workers and refugees: these poor and brown people, many living below the poverty line in one of the richest areas on the planet, were somehow the demanding and ungrateful ones.

Many of the low-quality homes in towns like Mati break planning laws and elevate the risk of fire. But blaming residents abdicates successive governments’ responsibility for presiding over an economic model reliant on unplanned real estate development and an elite that has enriched itself through widespread abuse of safety and planning regulations. Likewise in the UK, especially in London, we’ve seen development solely in the interests of the rich and selling-off social housing stock or letting it degrade unacceptably.

While it has taken different forms in each country, decades of failed free market housing policy and light-touch, pro-business, minimal regulation has produced millions of units of anti-social housing which degrades the environment and suffocates communities. Since 2010, the same free-market politics and austerity programmes emanating from London and Athens have, in the most extreme cases, endangered lives.

But if we want to challenge austerity, it’s clear we have a bloody fight on our hands: from the all-out establishment assault on Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party to the betrayal of the Greek people who occupied Syntagma Square and resoundingly rejected the Troika’s demands at the Oxi referendum in 2015. For many in Greece, hope died with Syriza’s failure to fulfil its policy programme and its acceptance of austerity and privatisation. In the UK, however, more and more people are now daring to dream of victory again. Yet even if we successfully defeat austerity in one country, we can be sure the bloodthirsty wolves of global capitalism – the banks, the pro-market think-tanks and the ‘institutions’ – will continue to circle.

We live in a world facing the growing threat of climate change-induced disaster, from floods to fires. We will lose this wider battle if we don’t engage with a much greater struggle to reform and rebuild a Europe united around humanitarian, environmental and democratic values – rather than the needs of German carmakers or the European Central Bank. We must articulate a positive vision that makes sense, provides real answers and draws broad support, in both pro-Brexit post-industrial towns and faded Greek seaside resorts.

After all, Greece and the UK are arguably the two central pillars of modern European identity: the birthplaces of democracy and industrial capitalism respectively. Between these geographic, historical and ideological tent-poles we capture all of what Europe is – and what it could be. We can revitalise a transnational politics of resistance, solidarity and real alternatives to austerity and climate collapse. Together we can build the Europe we need, one that respects human beings and offers us a future. The alternative is grim: holding plastic bottles out of the car window, driving past houses full of charred bodies.

Published 1st August 2018

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