Britain’s Indignant Moment? Grenfell, Neoliberalism and the New Common Sense

by Javier Moreno Zacarés

18 June 2017

The anger over the Grenfell Tower fire shows little sign of subsiding, and rightly so. The disaster has been described as Theresa May’s ‘Katrina moment’: a catastrophic event that evidences the incompetence and weakness of an already tottering government. But equally significant is the burst of anti-neoliberal sentiment accompanying the grief and outrage of the victims and those near to them, which seems indicative that a new common sense is flickering in Britain.

The defiant mood which has followed Grenfell reflects the growing realisation that the balance of forces is different to what was previously believed prior to the election. As writer and North Kensington resident Ishmahil Blagrove put it:

“What do I want to happen? I want a revolution in this country! … People need a revolution in this country, nothing short of that. And if this was any other country there’d have damn been a revolution. We’ve seen how the mainstream media have responded and reacted. For two years you’ve hounded and demonised Jeremy Corbyn, and you said this man is unelectable and you created that narrative that people actually believed for a while. But what this election has shown is that people are immune, they are in bullet-proof vests to you and all the billionaire media owners and Rupert Murdoch and all the other motherfuckers.”

Meanwhile the Grenfell disaster has brought into sharp focus how central the issue of housing is to contemporary class struggle. London is now particularly subject to ever-deepening processes of gentrification to attract wealthier residents. At the same time, the city’s property market now has become a global money tree for speculating investors, who ‘buy-to-leave’ homes just to profit from their rising worth.

There are close to 20,000 empty properties in the city, the biggest concentration of which is in Kensington and Chelsea, the borough of Grenfell Tower. The recent refurbishment of the building has attracted considerable outrage because it shows where the council’s priorities were: only last year a cheap and flammable cladding was installed around the building to make it more pleasing to the eye. The list of landlord Conservative MPs who in 2016 voted down Labour’s proposal to introduce regulations to make rented properties ‘fit for human habitation’ has quickly circulated on social media, as has the video of Boris Johnson’s scoff at a question over fire brigade cuts.

Between the election and Grenfell, it feels as though the coordinates of British political culture have been redrawn in the space of a week, and as the disorientated commentariat struggles to keep up, the people are fearlessly moving forward.

We’ve been here before. In May 2011, young people camped in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square to protest austerity measures. Within three days, the square was buzzing with 10,000 people and there were more than a hundred occupations across the country in solidarity. The outburst of the ‘indignados’, as they came to be known in the international media, galvanised a popular impeachment of the established political agenda.

Central to the Spanish anti-austerity movement was an urgent struggle around housing. Stemming from the global financial crisis, by 2013 around 500 families a day were seeing their homes repossessed, vacating around 20% of the housing stock as hundreds of thousands of families were forced onto the street. The anti-eviction movement responded with an escalating wave of resistance and by staging name-and-shame campaigns (escraches) to exposed the politicians who were legislating to put banks before people. The movement was extremely successful in exposing the cruel priorities of the neoliberal consensus, fomenting a collective realisation of a growing counter-consensus against austerity and precariousness, and shattering the traditional two-party system when Podemos was propelled to parliament in December 2015 by the language of the anti-austerity movement and coalitions with grassroots activists.

The residents of North Kensington have been quick to attribute the Grenfell Tower fire to the failings of neoliberalism. In a Channel 4 report one resident said: “It’s a symbol of austerity. It’s simple. It is what it is.” But the consequences of the disaster for the wider political agenda remain to be seen. Corbyn and other shadow cabinet members have already called for the requisition of empty luxury properties, and Clive Lewis recently declared we should “burn neoliberalism, not people.” Meanwhile residents and activists alike have joined in meetings and demonstrations to ensure the catastrophe and its causes remain at the front of our minds.

There is an open question over how this current wave of indignation will crystallise. Right now, the people most affected rightly want answers relating to the number of deaths, the 2016 refurbishment and the multitude of institutional failings that led to so many working class deaths. But people also want lasting change, which will require deeper and more radical solutions if we mean it when we say something like Grenfell must never happen again.

Additional words by Craig Gent.

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