Category Archives: Struggle & Movement

Marshall Berman on the Intellectual

I separated out this little section from Berman’s All That is Solid Melts Into Air because in a way it is a little more personal, cuts a little more closely to the bone. I completed my PhD only a couple of weeks ago from an institution that is, for the most part, churning out highly educated kids of privileged background to fill positions in investment banks and other major corporations. There is still some wonderful research emerging from the place, and I still enjoyed teaching students where they engaged in learning. Yet in my quest for a position as an intellectual and a teacher that I hope will contribute to changing the world for the better, and yet will allow me to afford more than a tiny cold room in someone else’s flat while also helping to support my mum living in a stone-age society, so much of being an academic troubles me so deeply. Berman spoke in some really interesting ways to this conflict I see in my work and my politics. In discussing Marx he highlights this:

To bring out one of the paradoxes of their historical role: even though they tend to pride themselves on their emancipated and thoroughly secular minds, they turn out to be just about the only moderns who really believe that they are called to their vocations and that their work is holy. It is obvious to any reader of Marx that in his commitment to his work he shares this faith. And yet he is suggesting here that in some sense it is a bad faith, a self-deception.

The basic fact of life for these intellectuals, as Marx sees them, is that they are “paid wage-laborers” of the bourgeoisie, members of “the modern working class, the proletariat.” (116)

It can’t be denied I worry that my best efforts and greatest labours of love will be not just in vain, but also coopted and utilised. This points to the ways we need to seriously think about how we do our work and what work it is we do:

Bourgeois society, through its insatiable drive for destruction and development, and its need to satisfy the insatiable needs it creates, inevitably produced radical ideas and movements aimed to destroy it. But its very capacity for development enables it to negate its own inner negations: to nourish itself and thrive on opposition, to become stronger amid pressure and crisis than it could ever be in peace, to transform enmity into intimacy and attackers into inadvertent allies (119).

Not that Berman really has any answers, but I suppose this will do for a start:

As for the orthodox modernists who avoid Marxists thought for fear that it might strip them of their haloes, they need to learn that it could give them back something better in exchange: a heightened capacity to imagine and express the endlessly rich, complex and ironic relationships between them and the “modern bourgeois society” that they try to deny or defy (122).

The rest of my thoughts on Berman can be found here. I apologise for the overabundance of the word ‘love’, but I can’t be bothered to go change it.

Marshall Berman: All That is Solid Melts Into Air

126985Marshall Berman ([1982] 1999)

I loved this book, loved Marshall Berman and his provocations on how capitalism and literature and our strivings in the world are intertwined, loved how a new dialectic is brought into Marxist thought and this is tied into our dreams for the future and our visions for a full life, loved that its is grounded in the pain, and yet excitement and vision too, of capitalist destruction. Entirely dialectical, restless, searching, wary of solutions and ‘end stages’ and static utopias. It is also entirely based on the voices of white men, frustrating, especially in the chapter on under-development. At the same time it manages to capture, I think, what is both great and what is terrifying about capitalism and its visions, and since these emerge from white men I forgive it this focus. I’m glad it’s done. I don’t think it needs to be done again.

It’s based around this wonderful quote from Marx:

To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction. It is to be overpowered by the immense bureaucratic organizations that have the power to control and often to destroy all communities, value, lives; and yet to be undeterred in our determination to face those forces, to fight to change their world and make it our own. It is to be both revolutionary and conservative: alive to new possibilities (13) for experience and adventure, frightened by the nihilistic depths to which so many modern adventures lead, longing to create and to hold on to something even as everything melts (13-14).

What I love about Marx, this book, and this aspect of Modernism itself I suppose, is the understanding that the drive to profit through exploitation must be fought, yet that everything is flux and process and overwhelming odds and even so we must ‘be undeterred in our determination to face those forces, to fight to change the world and make it our own’. I agree in the feeling that this is something that has slipped away from many Marxists and many post-Modernists alike. Berman continues:

Meanwhile, social scientists, embarrassed by critical attacks on their techno-pastoral models, have fled from the task of building a model that might be truer to modern life. Instead, they have split modernity into a series of separate components – industrialization, state-building, urbanization, development of markets, elite formation – and resisted any attempt to integrate them into a whole. This has freed them from extravagant generalizations and vague totalities—but also from thought that might engage their own lives and works and their place in history (33-34)

He critiques the over-totalisation of Foucault as well, its all-encompassing microcosms of power without discussion of struggle against them, and this is where my own frustrations lie. I am all about how we fight I realise:

Foucault’s totalities swallow up every facet of modern life. He develops these themes with obsessive relentlessness and, indeed, with sadistic flourishes, clamping his ideas down on his readers like iron bars, twisting each dialectic into our flesh like the turn of the screw (34).

Berman has also convinced me to re-read Goethe. I was at most 17 when I last/first read it, and only remember it wasn’t the camp devil-meets-man-who-sells-his-soul I was expecting, so I am curious to see what I think now. Especially after Berman’s uncovering of so much of the soul of capitalist dreams here, their beauty along with their deadliness. This is such an amazing attempt to really grapple with the fascinations and promises of capitalism, so much a part of its longevity, surely one of its great supports alongside the misery and destitution and destruction it creates.

Faust begins in an epoch whose thought and sensibility are modern in a way that twentieth-century readers can recognize at once, but whose material and social conditions are still medieval; the work ends in the midst of the spiritual and material upheavals of an industrial revolution. It starts in an intellectual’s lonely room, in an abstracted and isolated realm of thought; it ends in the midst of a far-reaching realm of production and exchange, ruled by giant corporate bodies and complex organizations, which Faust’s thought is helping to create, and which are enabling him to create more (39).

This is an interesting insight as well, about how this process took place:

One of the most original and fruitful ideas in Goethe’s Faust is the idea of an affinity between the cultural ideal of self-development and the real social movement toward economic development (40).

There is a freedom for self-development promised by all of these vast and tumultuous changes capitalism was bringing to the landscape. I am sad that the only voice of women in here is via Goethe in the form of Faust’s love Gretchen, but Berman does draw out the tragedy of her situation and that of all women in the period bound up in strong webs of social rules and limits. She is a fairly flat and pathetic construction (I shake my fist at the sky), but embodies this process of modern times that is still happening today. I left home too, didn’t I:

Gretchen’s successors will get the point: where she stayed and died, they will leave and live. In the two centuries between Gretchen’s time and ours, thousands of “little worlds” will be emptied out, transformed into hollow shells, while their young people head for great cities, for open frontiers, for new nations, in search of freedom to think and love and grow…Unwilling or unable to develop along with its children, the closed town will become a ghost town. Its victims’ ghosts will be left with the last laugh (59).

Modernity contains this promise of self-fulfillment, that we can be

…like Faust himself, tätig-frei, free to act, freely active. They have come together to form a new kind of community: a community that thrives not on the repression of free individuality in order to maintain a closed social system, but on free constructive action in common to protect the collective resources that enable every individual to become tätig-frei (66).

Of course, this comes with huge cost. People stand in the way of progress, refuse to sell their land or give up their traditions. Two older people are murdered to pave the way for Faust’s plans, revealing that

It appears that the very process of development, even as it transforms a wasteland into a thriving physical and social space, recreates the wasteland inside the developer himself. This is how the tragedy of development works (68).

An interesting window opened up into why people do bad things, and how that stays within them. It is a personal choice, but also something larger:

But there is another motive for the murder that springs not merely from Faust’s personality, but from a collective, impersonal drive that seems to be endemic to modernization: the drive to create a homogenous environment, a totally modernized space, in which the look and feel of the old world have disappeared without a trace (68).

I love, too, the understanding that it is not just greed or self-interest driving Faust, but vision. This seems to me one of the most important insights Berman gives us, allowing us to understand not just the tragedy of capitalism, but also the tragedy of those initially socialist societies we have known in our times:

If we want to locate Faustian visions and designs in the aged Goethe’s time, the place to look is not in the economic and social realities of that age but in its radical and Utopian dreams; and, moreover, not in the capitalism of that age, but in its socialism (72).

He uses Saint-Simon as an example, with his ‘long-range development projects on an enormous scale’, and states:

It is only in the twentieth century that Faustian development has come into its own. In the capitalist world it has emerged most vividly in the proliferation of “public authorities” and superagencies designed to organize immense construction projects, especially in transportation and energy… (74)

The section ends with this, a sentence that challenges us to think about where we stand ourselves:

Faust’s unfinished construction site is the vibrant but shaky ground on which we must all stake out and build up our lives (86).

Then he turns to Marx in a most innovative and provocative way that I loved as much as his analysis of Goethe. A few choice quotes that turn around traditional understandings of Marxist thought:

We will soon see how the real force and originality of Marx’s “historical materialism” is the light it sheds on modern spiritual life (88).

Marx can shine new light…he can clarify the relationship between modernist culture and the bourgeois economy and society–the world of “modernization”–from which it has sprung (90).

Although Marx identifies himself as a materialist, he is not primarily interested in the things that the bourgeoisie creates. What matters to him is the processes, the powers, the expressions of human life and energy: men working, moving, cultivating, communicating, organizing and reworking nature and themselves–the new and endlessly renewed modes of activity that the bourgeoisie brings into being (93).

I think this is precisely the power of Marx’s thought. And I love where this insight takes us:

Alas to the bourgeois’ embarrassment, they cannot afford to look down the roads they have opened up: the great wide vistas may turn into abysses. They can go on playing their revolutionary role only by denying its full extent and depth. But radical thinkers and workers are free to see where the roads lead, and to take them. If the good life is a life of action, why should the range of human activities be limited to those that are profitable? And why should modern men, who have seen what men’s activity can bring about, passively accept the structure of their society as it is given? Since organized and concerted action can change the world in so many ways, why not organize and work together and fight to change it still more? (94).

Going back to the main quote about melting into air, I think this understanding of what we fight is pivotal, because change is intrinsic to capitalism which benefits from it, but as part of our own interior selves it must also be part of what we build to replace it:

Our lives are controlled by a ruling class with vested interests not merely in change but in crisis and chaos. “Uninterrupted disturbance, everlasting uncertainty and agitation,” instead of subverting the society, actually serve to strengthen it. Catastrophes are transformed into lucrative opportunities for redevelopment and renewal; disintegration works as a mobilizing and hence an integrating force (95).

If we look behind the sober scenes that the members of our bourgeoisie create, and see the way they really work and act, we see that these solid citizens would tear down the world if it paid (100).

Thus where Marx sees a stable communist, collective sharing society that needs to be formed, Berman argues that these dynamic forces within us will still work to destabilize any future solidity, and any attempts to hold and control this change will only serve to damage and ossify what we have won.

But the problem is that, given the nihilistic thrust of modern personal and social development, it is not at all clear what political bonds modern men can create. Thus the trouble in Marx’s thought turns out to be a trouble that runs through the whole structure of modern life itself (128).

Another key understanding is the way that capitalism changes and survives through incorporation and subsummation:

When Marx says that other values are “resolved into” exchange value, his point is that bourgeois society does not efface old structures of value but subsumes them. Old modes of honor and dignity do not die; instead, they get incorporated into the market, take on price tags, gain a new life as commodities. Thus, any imaginable mode of human conduct becomes morally permissible the moment it becomes economically possible, becomes “valuable”; anything goes if it pays. This is what modern nihilism is all about (111).

This is just a lovely quote that summarises modern society:

How Marx ‘develops the themes by which modernism will come to define itself: the glory of modern energy and dynamism, the ravages of modern disintegration and nihilism, the strange intimacy between them: the sense of being caught in a vortex where all facts and values are whirled, exploded, decomposed, recombined: a basic uncertainty about what is basic, what is valuable, even what is real; a flaring up of the most radical hopes in the midst of their radical negations (121).

Berman returns to literature specific to Paris as he examines Haussman and Baudelaire, the tensions between celebrating everyday life of the people, making the city better, redeveloping some things out of existence while creating the possibility for growth and positive change. This is from the poet Theodore de Banville’s tribute at Baudelaire’s grave:

He accepted modern man in his entirety, with his weakness, his aspirations and his despair. He had thus been able to give beauty to sights that did not possess beauty in themselves, not by making them romantically picturesque, but by bringing to light the portion of the human soul hidden in them; he had thus revealed the sad and often tragic heart of the modern city. That was why he haunted, and would always haunt, the minds of modern men, and move them when other artists left them cold (132).

On Haussman’s work in Paris:

…it opened up the whole of the city, for the first time in its history, to all its inhabitants. Now, at last, it was possible to move not only within neighborhoods, but through them. Now, after centuries of life as a cluster of isolated cells, Paris was becoming a unified physical and human space (151).

And it is here in Paris we meet the ‘modern man’ (and man it is), see the obsession with crowds, traffic, movement, change:

The archetypal modern man, as we see him here, is a pedestrian thrown into the maelstrom of modern city traffic, a man alone contending against an agglomeration of mass and energy that is heavy, fast and lethal. The burgeoning street and boulevard traffic knows no spatial or temporal bounds, spills over into every urban space, imposes its tempo on everybody’s time, transforms the whole modern environment into a “moving chaos.” The chaos here lies not in the movers themselves…but in their interaction, in the totality of their movements in a common space. This makes the boulevard a perfect symbol of capitalism’s inner contradictions: rationality in each capitalistic unit, leading to anarchic irrationality in the social system that brings all these units together (157).

This was so reminiscent of the film Cairo Drive it was a little spooky. This life and art to be found in traffic is such an interesting thing:

…poets will become more deeply and authentically poetic by becoming more like ordinary men. If he throws himself into the moving chaos of everyday life in the modern world — a life of which the new traffic is a primary symbol — he can appropriate this life for art (160).

And I love this way of thinking about streets, how they have changed, how they are defined by us and define us, how they make new ideas of collectivity possible:

For one luminous moment, the multitude of solitudes that make up the modern city come together in a new kind of encounter, to make a people. “The streets belong to the people”: they seize control of the city’s elemental matter and make it their own. For a little while the chaotic modernism of solitary brusque moves gives way to an ordered modernism of mass movement (164).

I like thinking about the shifts in how encounters take place in the street:

for most of our century, urban spaces have been systematically designed and organized to ensure that collisions and confrontations will not take place here. The distinctive sign of nineteenth-century urbanism was the boulevard, a medium for bringing explosive material and human forces together; the hallmark of twentieth-century urbanism has been the highway, a means for putting them asunder. We see a strange dialectic here, in which one mode of mdoernism both energizes and exhausts itself trying to annihilate another, all in modernism’s name (165).

And I really like what he likes about Baudelaire, though there is more to dislike:

a will to wrestle to the end of his energy with modern life’s complexities and contradictions, to find and create himself in the midst of the anguish and beauty of its moving chaos (170).

It is a desire to live openly with the split and unreconciled character of our lives, and to draw energy from our inner struggles, wherever they may lead us in the end. If we learned through modernism to construct halos around our spaces and ourselves, we can learn from another modernism — one of the oldest but also, we can see now, one of the newest — to lose our halos and find ourselves anew (171).

There’s a whole chapter on St Petersburg, which gave me a long list of Russian authors to read or revisit (you know I loved that), and was interesting but I didn’t feel it compared to the first two chapters. Perhaps because it is looking at those societies who haven’t gone through this upheaval, who are stuck or behind in terms of development. A good thing to do, but he tries to make the same kind of sweeping statements, using Russia to potentially understand the rest of the world which I think is a really bad idea. Really. Bad.I won’t go into vastly different histories of ‘discovery’, colonialism, slavery, genocide, centuries of outside exploitation, the solidifying of structural racism and etc.

That said, I was quite delighted to find a discussion of the impact that Crystal Palace, South London’s own Crystal Palace, had on some key Russian authors (why don’t I remember this from Dostoevsky?) and utopian thought. I’m looking forward to thinking more about that. There was also an amazing word brought from English into Russian:  infiltrazya – Soviet word expressing the fear of the ‘flow of new words and things from other shores’. Awesome.

Anyway, this comes back to its own when it comes back to NY and Marshall Berman’s beloved Bronx, destroyed through these very forces he is working to describe. He wrestles here with what made the destruction of his neighbourhood possible, and I haven’t really read people wrestling with this before though I think it is so vital:

It is easy to dwell endlessly on Moses’ personal power and style. But this emphasis tends to obscure one of the primary sources of his vast authority: his ability to convince a mass public that he was the vehicle of impersonal world-historical forces, the moving spirit of modernity (294).

And this spirit of modernity twisted in odd, and I think fairly terrible ways. Killing one of its sources:

the makers of the post-World War One “modern movement” in architecture and urbanism turned radically against this modern romance: they marched to Le Corbusier’s battle cry, “We must kill the street.” (317)

Le Corbusier is on my list, but I have read Jane Jacobs, I like what Berman finds of import in her writings:

Much of her intellectual authority springs from her perfect grasp of the structures and processes of everyday life. She makes her readers feel that women know what it is like to live in cities, street by street, day by day, far better than the men who plan and build them.

But our critique is much the same:

It seems to me that beneath her modernist text there is an anti-modernist subtext, a sort of undertow of nostalgia for a family and a neighborhood in which the self could be securely embedded, ein’feste Burg, a solid refuge against all the dangerous currents of freedom and ambiguity in which all modern men and women are caught up…

And really the problem?

…no blacks on her block. This is what makes her neighborhood vision seem pastoral: it is the city before the blacks got there. Her world ranges from solid working-class whites at the bottom to professional middle-class whites at the top… (324)

Ironically, one could say the same about Berman really.

Returning to what makes wholesale destruction of neighbourhoods possible, one of the things I loved most — and that must have been so hard to write — is the soul searching he does, wondering if his family would have voluntarily left the Bronx if they had not been evicted. If it had not been destroyed by Moses, would his family have followed the same path of white flight/ advancement with all of their neighbours? Would the Bronx have been destroyed through this flight of resources just as surely as other areas?

For the Bronx of my youth was possessed, inspired, by the great modern dream of mobility. To live well meant to move up socially, and this in turn meant to move out physically; to live one’s life close to home was not to be alive at all. Our parents, who had moved up and out from the Lower East Side, believed this just as devoutly as we did–even though their heart might break when we went. Not even the radicals of my youth disputed this dream…when you see life this way, no neighborhood or environment can be anything more than a stage along life’s way, a launching pad for higher flights and wider orbits than your own (326-327).

Rethinking this, better planning for it or I think better yet changing it, is something radicals certainly need to think through.

I leave you with the last sentence:

I believe that we and those who come after us will go on fighting to make ourselves at home in this world, even as the homes we have made, the modern street, the modern spirit, go on melting into air (348).

[For even more on Berman and the role of the intellectual, you can read here. Also I apologise for not having the willpower to go back over this blog post and removed the overabundance of love that it suffers from perhaps.]


The Broken Heart of Ferguson

I have few words for Ferguson, for yet another Black kid shot and killed and no justice for the killing. I sit and think about what I should say, and there is so much to say, but mostly it just hurts my stomach and my heart, and the screen blurs. Still, I have to say something.

At the centre of this is a young life lost to us. Someone here who lived and breathed and laughed and dreamed, and who is not here any longer. Whose last moments were of pain and fear. Surrounding that terrible new wound of an absence is the pain of families and friends and those who loved him. That pain will stretch forever into the future. We never stop mourning the loss of those we love. Surrounding that, the pain of the wider community, the reawakened trauma of all other families who have survived these same circumstances around the world, and the pain belonging to all of us who grieve. There is also an ever deepening fear among youth that they could be killed at any time, and among parents that they could lose their children whenever they leave their homes. And of course, there is an intense anger. Because no one should suffer this ever. Because things like this should never happen. Because if this does happen, our society needs to take steps to find justice and do whatever it can to ensure it does not happen again. Instead it does worse than nothing — it blames the dead.

Because all of this intense pain and suffering that marks one grouping of reactions to this murder sits encompassed within a larger, and much whiter group of people across the nation that does not value Black life, does not value Black children, does not see these children as its own to love and protect and cherish. Instead it fears them, it desires protection from them, and it refuses to convict those who kill them in the name of that defense. It is a tragic split that is eating away at the U.S., that perhaps has already destroyed it because this goes so far back. My only hope is in the communities coming together to stop this, end this, change this. People bridging old boundaries and fears. A growing dialogue about just how bad things are and how things have to change. That is the only way that hope lies for everyone.

But so many lives have been lost. It has been good, actually, to go through this, to share this, through my social media community. There was this posted, that made me cry:

Mamie Till, summer 1955. Michael Brown Sr, summer 2014. How do you console the inconsolable? Photograph: Chicago Sun-Times via AP (left); Richard Perry / AFP / Getty (right)

I have gone through the violent death of a child with one family I love well, and a piece of my heart was literally burned away by their grief, and the sound of Maria screaming over his grave will echo forever in my ears. I hear it every time a child is killed.

More intellectually, there is James Baldwin to educate about the measure of justice:

Well, if one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected — those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most! — and listens to their testimony. Ask any Mexican, any Puerto Rican, any black man, any poor person — ask the wretched how they fare in the halls of justice, and then you will know, not whether or not the country is just, but whether or not it has any love for justice, or any concept of it. It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.

More from Baldwin on Martin Luther King’s assassination is here from Esquire Magazine, from 1968 and I can’t believe we’re still in the same place. This encapsulates what is happening now:

Q. How can we get the black people to cool it?

James Baldwin: It is not for us to cool it.

Q. But aren’t you the ones who are getting hurt the most?

James Baldwin: No, we are only the ones who are dying fastest.

There’s this from the Howard Zinn page, just a handful of collected stories of the many Black men who have been shot in cold blood, whose murderers were known, and where justice has still been denied:

Screen Shot 2014-11-27 at 13.22.02
The below stories are from the Onion.

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That’s from before the decision, because all of us were afraid this would happen given our country’s track record over several hundred years. This headline could not state better how many of us feel I think:

Nation Doesn’t Know If It Can Take Another Bullshit Speech About Healing

And this breaks my heart all over again, because it is all true:

Tips For Being An Unarmed Black Teen

With riots raging in Ferguson, MO following the shooting death by police of an unarmed African-American youth, the nation has turned its eyes toward social injustice and the continuing crisis of race relations. Here are The Onion’s tips for being an unarmed black teen in America:

  • Shy away from dangerous, heavily policed areas.
  • Avoid swaggering or any other confident behavior that suggests you are not completely subjugated.
  • Be sure not to pick up any object that could be perceived by a police officer as a firearm, such as a cell phone, a food item, or nothing.
  • Explain in clear and logical terms that you do not enjoy being shot, and would prefer that it not happen.
  • Don’t let society stereotype you as a petty criminal. Remember that you can be seen as so much more, from an armed robbery suspect, to a rape suspect, to a murder suspect.
  • Try to see it from a police officer’s point of view: You may be unarmed, but you’re also black.
  • Avoid wearing clothing associated with the gang lifestyle, such as shirts and pants.
  • Revel in the fact that by simply existing, you exert a threatening presence over the nation’s police force.
  • Be as polite and straightforward as possible when police officers are kicking the shit out of you.

I’m noticing more and more that the Onion can no longer practice satire, because our society has reached the point where satire is impossible. These are literally the conversations my friends are being forced to have with their children. It breaks my heart. Just like being here, in London, through all this. Massive protests are happening all over the U.S., including my friends taking the streets back in L.A. I am so proud. What else is there to do when nothing else is creating change? I am also proud of the movement coming out of this, the demands as they are being developed by Ferguson protestors and the invitation to comment and contribute to this struggle that affects all of us, but people of colour as the most vulnerable to institutional violence most. I am proud to follow their lead, wherever they choose to take this fight. Take a look, comment, support. They are:
Demand #1 — Political Accountability for the Death of Michael Brown, Jr.

Demand #2 — Special Prosecutor for All Deadly Force Cases

Demand #3 — Police Held Accountable for Use of Deadly Force

Demand #4 — End Overpolicing and the Criminalization of Poverty

Demand #5 — Representative Police Force and Intentional Officer Training

Demand #6 — End Funding for Discriminatory Police Forces

Demand #7 — Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Structural and Systemic Inequalities in Missouri

Demand #8 — The Right to Protest

Here in London we at least were able to show solidarity and thankfully made the BBC news to do so, to send as much support from one city to another, one people to another. Hopefully put just a little more international pressure on the federal government to step in. Sadly, our nations are too connected in the ways Black men are killed and justice never comes, and changes are desperately needed in both places.

One of the most powerful things I’ve seen has been this collection of artwork emerging over twitter from Shirin Barghi @shebe86, the last words of Black people shot dead in recent years. Their names are so familiar, and they are only some among many: Kendrec McDade, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Kimani Gray, John Crawford, Amadou Diallo, Eric Garner, Kenneth Chamberlain, Trayvon Martin. In the UK it is Mark Duggan, Sean Rigg, Smiley Culture, Stephen Lawrence, again among too too many others. Carole Duggan spoke at the London protest, and it struck me when she said that we will be fighting injustice for the rest of our lives. So be it. This needs to end, and we all need to be part of ending it.Bvhs1O6IcAAMLe0.jpg_large


Lambeth College Open Forum, 19 November 2014

Held on Wednesday and announced in the Brixton Blog, it was what I should have been expecting. I thought it might have been more like a meeting, but was actually a small room with about six professionally done schematics and some artists renderings of what the new buildings as a whole might look like hanging on the wall. There were smiling white men in suits, very nice and friendly and anxious to answer any questions we might have. While I was there they outnumbered the community members present.

Lambeth College is almost entirely gone.

I knew that was what they were planning — in spite of our protest’s earlier  ‘victory’ in saving the site for education rather than development as luxury flats, in spite of assurances that Lambeth College is staying in Brixton. Perhaps being bought by the Department of Education was the worst possible outcome given the Tories’ ideological onslaught against public education. Lambeth College was here reduced to a small yellow rectangle engulfed by Trinity Academy and the South Bank University Technical College (SB UTC), neither of which we need here though our other needs are very great. While many people there had been informed through leaflets distributed among those living immediately next door and were very concerned about the height of the new building and the construction (and rightfully so), my own concern as a slightly more distant neighbor was primarily the new use for the land.

So first the issues with Trinity Academy. There is of course a string of hard and repulsive facts about academies in general: academies are failing their students and providing inadequate education, they have been shown corrupt in their dealings with Ofstead (and buying designer tea sets), aren’t hiring qualified personnel, and are being fought tooth and nail by local parent groups along with students and teachers.  There has been some brilliant research done on who the politicians are who are pushing academies, and their links to the people who are profiting off of them here, and an array of well-researched briefings to be found here, collected by the Anti Academies Alliance. All in all they seem like one giant land and profit grab by people trying to make money off our children, while also taking over public resources.

Trinity Academy though? Even if you’re not involved in this longer and broader political struggle, you’ve probably heard about how few students it has, and how insanely over-subsidised it is. The Independent investigated and found only 17 pupils studying on the premises given them by the Tory government at a cost of £18 million pounds. This when:

Imogen Walker, deputy leader of Lambeth Council, said: “We want every child in Lambeth to have the best education possible and a near-empty free school in an area that already has adequate provision will not help that aim in any way.”

The borough estimates it already has 226 spare places in its schools.

An insult really, to a borough reeling from budget cuts and the ongoing slashing of budgets for all teachers and youth workers across the borough, with shortfalls being made good by the eviction of long-term residents in so-called shortlife housing so their artisanal Clapham homes can be flogged off in a process of social cleansing.

The artist’s drawings of the new site show only Trinity Academy, a new four-story building with the giant logo highly visible along the side of it. I was a little sick. In them all the greenery now in the frontage of the school is also gone, the trees cut down, so the building comes right up to the pavement.

2014.11.22 big picture
But talking later with some friends, we realised that equally terrible is the proposed UTC block and their technical programme for teenagers. They write ‘The UTC will equip students with the necessary technical and employability skills sought after by employers.’ That sounds all right, because in this climate of economic recession everyone is worried about their kids being able to find work. This seems to be what they are counting on. I’m so wary. Especially reading this:

The UTC is government funded and was introduced as part of the Academy Programme. The UTC is free to attend
and is independent from local Authority control.

They are sponsored by a University, but the staff are not required to have the same level of expertise or training, and several UTCs can be run by the same board of directors. Essentially it’s the flawed academy model with lower standards and less public oversight (or any oversight at all).

They are offering highly specialised education that starts at 14, by 16 children are supposed to make ‘an informed decision’ about whether they want to specialise in medical or building engineering. There might be a few children capable of deciding that all they want to be is a radiographer at age 14 when they enroll in this place, but this level of specialisation this early seems set up to entrap students into ‘career’ tracks of their parents’ choosing. Because the focus is employability and skills development, it also means they are not geared toward higher education (though the possibility of this is maintained throughout the document in glowing language), thus entering their ‘chosen field’ at the very lowest level of qualification, leaving top level jobs with advancement possibilities to those who follow the higher track of education.

But the employability stuff is the worst. Because what is it that employers want? Training children to work adult hours — even though the latest research is uncovering how teenagers need more sleep and perform better when school starts later. Have they left their own school days so far behind that they can’t see that this erases childhood and leave students without the downtime they need to process what they are learning? I also wonder when we lost the old 9 to 5, and the desire to work less not more:

The UTC day will follow business hours starting at 0830hrs and finishing at 1730hrs

Getting them used to unpaid overtime and REALLY long work days:

All post 16 students will be required to undertake two extension activities, which will take place on two evenings a week

Getting them used to working for free – and taking advantage of their labour in the same way workfare does:

During the year it is anticipated that all students will undertake a period of several weeks of volunteering work during one of the extracurricular sessions.

It seems so cynical to me to have this kind of institution where a college used to be, taking advantage of local community fears of unemployment and parent’s need for something to do with their kids during working hours now that all children’s services have been destroyed. They’re doing this to channel local youth into technical jobs that will always have ceilings without higher education. Clearly this is targeted at poor kids and Black kids, the ones being failed by our current education system and blamed for it, the future drones of Britain.

You can download a scanned pdf here (apologies for the poor quality of the scan). The information sheet is as below, or for download here:

2014.11.19 Information sheet

They seem to be sticking to their timeline as posted earlier by the Brixton Blog, there will definitely be some community action around the public consultation and the plans:

  • End of Feasibility stage – November 2014
  • Design Development – up to end of January 2015
  • Public consultation – January – March 2015
  • Town planning submission – March 2015
  • Town planning decision – June 2015
  • Start on site (subject to approvals) – July 2015
  • Project completion – targeted for early 2018


Gardening at Leigham Court

Leigham Court is a beautiful ‘modernist gem’ of a sheltered housing estate, sitting high up on a hill in Streatham and designed by celebrated Architect Kate Macintosh. This is from a Housing Activists press release on what is happening there:

Lambeth Council and Lambeth Living are planning to close the Leigham Court Sheltered Housing scheme. Senior residents have been informed that their homes will be demolished and the land sold off to pay for a mixture of extended care and private accommodation.

A recent Guardian article by Oliver Wainwright celebrating the architecture also includes some great quotes from residents and the reasons for the sell-off:

Over the last few months, the residents of 269 Leigham Court Road in Lambeth have come together to campaign against the “disposal” of their community, which the council plans to sell to fund the construction of “extra care” housing elsewhere in the borough.

“They call it ‘extra care’ because it’s more like being in hospital,” says Joyce James, 89. “We live here like a family; we don’t want to be separated from one another. And the buildings are spectacular – it would be like pulling down Buckingham Palace or Westminster Abbey. It’s criminal.”

The drastic cut-backs in the national budget have set Lambeth Council scrambling rather than fighting, or even just effectively holding the dented shield and preserving as much as possible until there is a political change. So they have started selling off homes and public assets to finance services, evicting long term tenants causing incalculable pain, destroying the remaining footholds of current community members in rapidly developing and gentrifying neighbourhoods, and losing land forever to speculation and private interests. The so-called ‘Short-Life’ housing cooperatives that are now decades old, Cressingham Gardens (and more here), the Guinness Trust Estate, and Myatt’s Field regeneration plans are all additional examples of how much social housing is at risk or already lost.

Perhaps this is because Labour’s position no longer seems to be much different on these issues, which is criminal, especially given the vision of both architects and the Labour government that built this housing in the first place. I realise writing this I need to do a lot more exploration of Blair and Brown’s housing legacy, and really read the new housing report being used by Labour to develop new policy.  But on Lambeth’s own website, you can see that after the Leigham Court tenants voted to remain council owned rather than be transferred to social landlords, the council pledged to find funds for the renovation and upkeep of the estate. That was 2007, so what happened?

Now with Leigham Court on the chopping block, they have stopped maintaining the grounds as they should — a tried and true tactic of running down an estate and then using its poor condition to serve as an excuse for getting rid of it. So we did this:


I love the above picture showing how beautiful the garden once was, and should be — and kicking myself for not getting a good picture from this view. It is a little different now, and shameful that our elders should live in housing that is not cared for. The work we did on Saturday was not to take the place of gardeners and caretakers paid wages by the council — as they keep pushing for with their cooperative council ideas that replace jobs with volunteer work when our borough desperately needs good jobs.  It was to do basic maintenance for the interim well-being of Leigham Court’s residents, and show what needs to be done. Cold and wet work, but we went to it with a will. The biggest need was simply rubbish collection:

IMG_9814 IMG_9816 IMG_9817But we raked leaves and planted some bulbs as well:

IMG_9839 IMG_9833There were at least fifteen of us over the course of the morning along with local resident Valentine Walker, who can perfectly break down for you the council’s future plans, their reasoning, and the deadly conflict between community need and profit.

You can get a sense of how lovely an interior communal space exists here from this shot, taken from the main entrance through the doors to the gardeners collecting for the group photo, and into the covered patio running through the gardens:

IMG_9808There may be more gardening to come in Spring, hopefully not, hopefully the council will work to save Leigham Court rather than sell it off, or redevelop it with market rate housing. Walking there from Brixton Hill you get a feeling of just why this property is so valuable, especially given the view over South London from the other side of the road. Beautiful, even on a damp, grey, miserable day:


I’ll be writing more about Leigham Court as I’m fascinated by this period of the mass building of social housing, this incredible commitment to creating a more just and integrated society, this utopian strain within architecture, building around people’s needs. This is, in fact, one of the key estates within this movement, with a fight on to get it listed by Docomomo.

Apart from the Guardian article, the architect has also recently spoken on Resonance FM about the work to save the estate, and Leigham Court features in a documentary called Utopia London (directed by Tom Cordell), which I bought immediately and is sitting on my shelf as yet unwatched — even though a majority of the estates it looks at seem to be in Lambeth. So after getting to that I will be returning to this estate in more architectural and utopian detail.

More articles on Leigham Court can be found on the websites for Save Leigham Court and the Lambeth Housing Activists.


The Urban Revolution

41SAVB1FBWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Lefebvre…a great deal of difficult high-philosophy meandering that you plough through and I confess I put this book down three times before finally finishing it. But finish it I did, and thing with Lefebvre is, the gems of insight you find here and there are worth it. I think. But I can’t always follow how he gets there, and I’ve decided that it isn’t so important.

Neil Smith’s intro does a great job of situating Lefebvre in the intellectual ferment of France post WWI and WWII — along with his history as a resistance fighter. He notes the critiques of one of Lefebvre’s primary arguments — that urbanization has replaced industrialization as the ‘motor of capital accumulation’ (xviii) The connection between these, however, is clearly a key one, and not fully thought out here by Lefebvre — or indeed anywhere. Smith seems to have agreed with me as well regarding the meandering, judging from his final caveats about style and content.

So, to focus on the insights: Society has been completely urbanized, where urban society is that which ‘results from industrialization, which is a process of domination that absorbs agricultural production’ (2). Perhaps this is not entirely global, but close.

He has a lovely thing about streets — that sort of exemplifies him thinking out loud:

Revolutionary events generally take place in the street. Doesn’t this show that disorder of the street engenders anotehr kind of order? The urban space of the street is a place for talk, given over as much to the exchange of words and signs as it is to the exchange of things. A place where speech becomes writing. A place where speech can become ‘savage’ and, by escaping rules and institutions, inscribe itself on walls.
Against the street. A meeting place? Maybe, but such meetings are superficial. In the street, we merely brush shoulders with others, we don’t interact with them. It’s the ‘we’ that’s important. The street prevents the constitution of a group, as subject; it is populated by a congeries of people in search of…of what exactly? (19)

This chapter is a series of ‘for’ and ‘against’. There is another nice phrase on monuments:

Monuments project onto the land a conception of the world, whereas the city projected (and continues to project) social life (globality)…monuments embody a sense of transcendance, a sense of being elsewhere. They have always been u-topic. Throughout their height and depth, along a dimension that was alien to urban trajectories, they proclaimed duty, power, knowledge, joy, hope. (22)

Another insight on the conflicts of the industrial city created by its spatiality:

Several logics meet head-on and sometimes clash: the logic of commodities (stretched so far as to attempt to organize production on the basis of consumption), the logic of the state and the law, the organization of space (town and country planning and urbanism), the logic of the object, of daily life, language, information, communication. Because each logic wants to be restrictive and complete, eliminating anything that is felt to be unsuitable, claiming to govern the remainder of the world, it becomes an empty tautology. In this way, communication only transmits the communicable. But all these logics and all these tautologies confront one another at some point. They share a common space: the logic of surplus value. The city, or what remains of it or what it will become, is better suited than it has ever been before for the accumulation of capital; that is, the accumulation, realization, and distribution of surplus value (35).

Here a definition of the urban that I love — yet that fails completely to describe many an urban area, like L.A. for example

The urban is defined as the place where people walk around, find themselves standing before and inside piles of objects, experience the intertwining of the threads of their activities until they become unrecognizable, entangle situations in such a way that they engender unexpected situations (39).

This is the irrepressible nature of it:

In spite of any efforts at homgenization through technology, in spite of the constitution of arbitrary isotopies, that is, separation and segregation, no urban place is identical to another …. the urban is a highly complex field of tensions, a virtuality, a possible-impossible that attracts the accomplished, an ever-renewed and always demanding presence-absence. Blindness consists in the fact that we cannot see the shape of the urban, the vectors and tensions inherent in this field, its logic and dialectic movement, its immanent demands. We see only things, operations, objects…(40)

In oppostion to a beautiful complexity:

Separation and segregation break this relationship [in which difference thrives]. They constitute a totalitarian order, whose strategic goal is to break down concrete totality, to break the urban. Segregation complicates and destroys complexity (133)

Thus L.A. may be a city, even one striving for complexity, yet it is struggling against great odds to be urban, to contain difference. I think maybe that this explains a few things on the level of feeling really, I am still trying to get my head around it.

There’s this lovely sentence:

Urban reform, which would clear the soil of the servitude that results from private property (and consequently from speculation), already has a revolutionary component…The period of urban revolutions has begun (43).

Perhaps my favourite thing in the whole book is unexpectedly and unaccountably drawn from the philosophy of Heidegger (which I find so compromised) and the poetry of Holderlin (which I find fairly sickly mawkish).

The human being cannot build and dwell, that is to say, possess a dwelling in which he lives, without also possessing something more (or less) than himself: his relation to the possible and the imaginary…The relation resides in the dwelling and in habiting…A home and language are two complementary aspects of the human being’…the ‘human being’ cannot do anything but inhabit as poet. If we do not provide him with (as an offering and a gift) the possibility of inhabiting poetically or of inventing a poetry, he will create it as best he can. (82)

I find this an amazing way to think about the meaning of home, how we try to shape and craft it to suit ourselves no matter our circumstances. I struggle to put all of these things together of course, but relish them individually. And then put them together as I want, which perhaps is no bad thing.

From power over home to power over cities:

The working class never had any space other than that of its expropriation, its deportation: segregation.

…there is a remarkable isotopy in the spaces created by state rationalism: long straight lines, broad avenues, voids, empty perspectives, an occupation of the soil that makes a clean break with its antecedents, without regard for wither the rights and interests of the lower classes or cost (128).

As a novelist I like this idea of

…u-topia, the non-place, the place for that which doesn’t occur, for that which has no place of its own, that is always elsewhere? On a map of Paris (the so-called Turgot map of approximately 1735), u-topia can be neither read nor seen, and yet it is there in all its glory. It is where the gaze that overlooks the large city is situated, a vaguely determined place, but one that is carefully conceived and imagined (imaged), a place of consciousness; that is, a consciousness of totality. In general, this place, imagined and real, is found near the borders of verticality, the dimension of desire, power, and thought. Sometimes it is found deep within the subterranean city imagined by the novelist or poet, the underside of the city given over to conspiracy and crime. U-topia combines near and distant orders (129-30).

I mean, what is he really trying to say there, academically speaking? Hell if I know, but it is awesome and makes me think great things.

You get to chapter 8 and there’s loads of stuff, though when he says he’s provided the conceptual tools for it all you may, like me, wonder when exactly that happened. But 8 is cool. Keep reading until you get there.

There are several urbanisms: the urbanism of humanists, of developers, of the state and its technocrats. the first group proposes abstract utopias; the second sells urbanism–that is, happiness, a lifestyle, a certain social standing. The activity of the last group dissociates, like the activity of the state, into will and representation, institutions and ideologies (151)

The deployment of the world of commodities now affects not only objects but their containers, it is no longer limited to content, to objects in space. More recently, space itself has begun to be bought and sold. Not the earth, the soil, but social space, produced as such, with this purpose, this finality (so to speak). Space is no longer only an indifferent medium, the sum of places where surplus value is created, realized, and distributed. It becomes the product of social labor, the very general object of production, and consequently of the formation of surplus value. This is how production becomes social within the very framework of neocapitalism.

Here’s where he argues that the nature of production has changed:

Capitalism, to ensure its survival, took the initiative in this. The strategy goes far beyond simply selling space, bit by bit. not only does it incorporate space in the production of surplus value, it attempts to completely reorganize production as something subordinate to the centers of imformation and decision making (155)

He argues that urbanism is not objective, but incorporates a class strategy. Today’s urbanism ‘lives off the compromise between neoliberalism (which participates in planning and in activities that are refferred to as ‘voluntary’ or ‘consensual’) and neo-dirigisme (which leaves a field open for ‘free enterprise’)’ (158). He discusses to some extent real estate’s function as a second circuit of capital parallel to that of industrial production, a buffer where capital can go in case of depression. And then, of course, he argues that capital shifts entirely, ‘It can even happen that real-estate speculation becomes the principle source for the formation of capital, that is, the realization of surplus value’ (160). But he doesn’t look in any depth at how this surplus value is actually created in a Marxist understanding — you have to look to Harvey for that. But he sees today’s urbanism as a shutting down of possibilities, a reduction to a society of controlled consumption, a repressive space (164).

Cressingham Gardens

Cressingham Gardens Estate is a lovely place, leafy and green with warm, comfortable beautifully designed housing on a very human scale. A place that fosters community, and indeed, it is part of that post-war building of social housing whose architects believed in just that goal. There is a wonderful summary of how the utopian social vision of Lambeth Council and architects came together to create estates like Cressingham Gardens (built between 1967 and 1978) at the Municipal Dreams blog, so I won’t delve further into that here. I will, though, just share one of the wonderful quotes it has highlighted from Cressingham Garden’s architect Ted Hollamby:

We are not just dealing with housing as such.  We are building a community.  We don’t look at this in terms of so many houses. Rather we think in terms of the functions of a community. We don’t, you see, have club rooms for tenants but centres for a community.  We don’t have old people’s homes set aside on their own. We integrate them into other things we are planning (1).

Hollamby’s team also designed the homes beautifully both inside and out in the ways that they connect to Brockwell Park, making the most of the park’s beauty and open space for every resident of the estate (you can read more here and also at the Single Aspect blog, which has a bit more history of the site itself and design schematics). Community is what he created, and now that Cressingham Gardens is under threat of redevelopment by Lambeth Council, the community is very effectively fighting to keep their homes. We marched on Saturday from the estate to Brixton Town Hall, and you can see from the gathering here just how lovely the estate is (apologies for the phone-photos as well, I grabbed my camera without the memory card I’m afraid!)

2014.10.18 CG7

We marched around the estate, again, it is lovely:

2014.10.18 CG5

And then on to Lambeth Town Hall.

2014.10.18 CG1 2014.10.18 CG2 2014.10.18 CG3 2014.10.18 CG4

Why the march? I give you the words from the petition that you should sign in support of the Cressingham Gardens tenants:

Lambeth Council is considering the partial/full demolition and rebuild of Cressingham Gardens instead of simply repairing it. To fund the demolition and rebuild, they will be building extra new flats and homes on the estate that will be sold to raise cash for the council. This will destroy the existing vibrant community and affect every user of the beautiful Brockwell Park.

The tenants are awesome and organised, you can follow what’s happening at, there’s a short film about the estate and campaign here, and you can also watch and listen to more video documenting their stories and their love of their estate at the older site There’s an older article from last month’s Brixton Bugle here, but yesterday’s protest generated a lovely amount of press. More on the protest can be found again at the Single Aspect Blog, and Brixton Buzz has some more photos from the march when it reached the town hall. But the Guardian also printed an article from tenant Joanne Parkes about why they are fighting for their estate. She writes:

More than two years after Lambeth council told us our estate had been put into a regeneration programme because they couldn’t afford to repair it, we are marching to the town hall to show our opposition on Saturday.

We’re frustrated that no one from their side is listening to us, so we hope the protest will now catch their attention. The message must get through, before the borough’s cabinet committee decides our fate in December.

ITV also covered the protest, you can see that here. Hopefully this protest and its coverage will get the message through to the council. The health and safety issues and the way that the redevelopment at Myatt’s Field is pricing out previous tenants shows the pitfalls of such plans for redevelopment by Lambeth Council, and we need to stop it before the Cressingham Gardens community is similarly smashed and social housing lost to our wider community.

I went from this to the TUC march — the Cressingham Gardens protest was so much better. I think with Unison and UCU calling off strike actions this week and the TUC just being generally useless, this march was a general lesson in how together they have demobilised the labour movement. It’s quite shameful, I know we can do better, we must.

(1) Quoted in ‘Lambeth – Edward Hollamby talks to Peter Rawstorne’, RIBA Journal, July 1965


The Alternative mipim Conference

Cities for People not for Profit…

The speakers were on the whole so impressive, a big thank you to all of them for coming together and sharing what they know about the crisis and what is happening to housing. A full listing of the programme is here.  I made it to two sessions last night — well, maybe I should say one full one. The website had the wrong time on it, so I was very late to ‘Mapping the Crisis’, but I did hear the Q&A for Beth Stratford’s talk, Rita Silva on the situation in Portugal, and Anna Minton on public housing. I’d been looking forward to hearing her speak, because her book has been on my to-read list forever, but I still haven’t gotten to it:

6354582A good summary of the building of public housing and the ideals behind it, and in a metaphor I really liked, she looked at the way that the current government is now taking a wrecking ball to those socialist ideals. My only caveat with her talk was that she gave them the benefit of the doubt that this might be unconsciously done. I don’t know I’d be willing to go that far…

I stayed for most of the second evening session as well, chaired by Michael Edwards who is wonderful. James Meadway of the NEF saying that the housing crisis is being caused by too many low-income jobs being created in London driving housing demand driving prices up seemed a little crazy, maybe I misunderstood. But there was definitely no talk of global capital and investment, why only luxury housing is being built, and etc. His solutions? Rent control, more jobs in the rest of the country, and build more housing. All good, not enough to solve the problem though I feel. Mary Robertson was pretty awesome and brought global capital back into the picture, giving a quite technical run down on financialisation and how it works, and her qualifications of Meadway’s recommendations were both good ones: get rid of the myth of homeownership as the ideal, and the creation of more social housing. Louis Moreno‘s talk I really enjoyed as well, a very different tack on how financialisation is internalised, a discussion of Zola (hurrah!) and his discussions of the Hausmannization of Paris and the desire to have the wealth that others have, thus to do as landlords do. This was the set-up at 67 Guilford St:


But last night I was in this same second room where the lights didn’t work, so sat in darkness, and the room was packed (I couldn’t get into the parallel sessions upstairs at all on the occasions I tried as the room was smaller) — a good thing really — but strangers leaning into me and hitting the back of my head when they went past was quite distracting. So I confess, I didn’t get as much as I wanted from the sessions and left early. This morning it was beautiful though, as you can see. And there was a cat, which made it all better.

wattThis morning’s speakers were also awesome – I’ll just summarise the highlights. Paul Watt on the ways that Camden and Islinglington councils saw the incipient sweat-equity driven gentrification in the 60s and 70s and actually bought up a lot of private housing to stabilise the working class neighbourhood – that story made me happy. This early phase of gentrification was followed by phase two, massive development and regeneration schemes, and now phase three which is state led — them flogging of housing through stock transfers and PFI (Private Finance Initiative – read more here) after having themselves created a rent gap by disinvesting in social housing. Stuart Hodkinson was great too, getting into the nitty gritty of PFI, how councils have been forced (though what he calls the ‘neoliberal straightjacket’) into redevelopment schemes to repair housing that consistently puts them into increased debt even as it privatises social housing, transferring massive amounts of wealth from the public to the private sector. While the councils are undoubtedly between a rock and a hard place, none of them have chosen to get out of the straightjacket, just make themselves more room within it. His work on Myatt’s Field in Lambeth was fairly illuminating, both of the dangers of the redevelopment of council estates causing the loss of public housing, but also the ways that private capital have totally outclassed the council in terms of contract negotiations and profiteering. That needs to stop. And finally Nick Mathiason from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, with some great graphics on the social cleansing taking place in London. You can find their archive on the housing crisis here.

Unfortunately I couldn’t stay for the afternoon sessions or final plenary, nor the actions…life has been busy! So I’m not sure how much this moved practical actions forward, but the talks were certainly illuminating in thinking through how social cleansing and privatisation is happening and being justified, as well as where leverage lies for future struggle. There is another conference coming up around building a campaign against PFI — called the People vs PFI. It looks great, with a fairly brilliant mix of speakers in the room. More information can be found at

William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary 2

detail_256_William_morris150(Part 1 here)

Into the nitty gritty of Morris’s role in Socialist/Anarchist/Marxist Politics! I make that sound exciting, but it’s really not, and this post is way too much of a summary because I am just starting to get my head around these early radical politics. For a while these were contained within many of the same groups, and at least remained talking to each other — I had always thought the definitive split came with the end of the International Workingmen’s Association, aka the First International. Of course, I had forgotten first that people don’t work like that and definitive splits are usually mostly theoretical, but also the later dates of the IWA. It started long after 1848 — in 1864 — and only fell apart in 1876. Morris and Marx (1818-1883) didn’t miss each other by much, and that thought makes me sad. Hyndman met with Marx, however, and attempted to claim his blessing for his leadership of the Democratic Federation (DF) founded in 1881.  Thompson describes a period of widespread agreement on what socialism was, based on Marxist principles. Here is a quote from a letter from Morris: ‘our aim, to be always steadily kept in view, is, to obtain for the whole people, duly organised, the possession and control of all the means of production and exchange, destroying at the same time all national rivalries’ (334). Of course, the principal leaders in London — Joynes, Bax, Aveling ( and Eleanor Marx, not included in this list to which she has more right than her husband I think), Hyndman, Shaw and Morris himself — were all middle class, and so the ‘masses’ who would carry out this appropriation meant different things and carried different levels of intelligence and agency for each. The DF would split in 1886, and it arose from both personal mistrust of Hyndman and his motives, but also around tactics of partial reform as opposed to total. Familiar, all too familiar.

After Marx’s death Engels busied himself with putting his papers in order, an old man himself by then, and Eleanor Marx’s biography shows most sympathetically what personal tragedies he was suffering through this time. But Thompson’s account  draws on many of his letters to better understand the complexities of the discussions and in-fighting, and Engels appears very much a cranky old man on the sidelines sniping at almost everyone. Not that he wasn’t right about their ultimate ineffectiveness.

I like Morris so much in this account though, perhaps to be expected. Possessed of an explosive temper he still worked as peacemaker, attempting to keep people working together towards a common goal despite personal and strategic differences. The DF became the the Social-Democratic Federation (SDF) and declared it’s goals:

‘The Socialization of the Means of Production, Distribution and Exchange to be controlled by a Democratic State in the interests of the entire community, and the complete Emancipation of Labour from the domination of Capitalism and Landlordism, with the establishment of Social and Economic Equality between the Sexes’ (345).

For its programme that of the Labour Emancipation League to draw them in:

  • Equal direct adult suffrage
  • ‘direct legislation by the people’
  • a National Citizen Army in place of the standing army, and the people to decide on peace or war
  • free secular education
  • free administration of justice

They didn’t take on the sixth, so I don’t what that was. Not too shabby, Hyndman was displaced as President, but with all the egos in the room this was not enough to hold things together. The SDF at this time was about 400 strong, almost entirely based in London: Battersea (with John Burns), Clerkenwell, Marylebone, Croydon, tottenahm, Hammersmith. The Labor Emancipation League under Joseph Lane centered in the East End. A group in Birmingham, another in Edinburgh, but slowly it grew until the split in 1885. Thompson describes how this should have been around issues of strategy, but instead was primarily personal, and left Hyndman in a position of strength as head of the SDF which retained most of its membership as Morris left to form the the Socialist League with Edward Aveling, Eleanor Marx, Lessner, Bax, Mahon, Lane, Kitz and others.  The last two represented some of the strong anarchist streak in the League.

They were focused on open air propaganda, speaking on street corners, trying to convert the masses and fighting to protect the right to free speech, which the government had begun to repress. This was interesting:

And this is the reason why the Socialists, if they were to become a force, had no alternative but to defy the police and stay in the streets in the face of intimidation. The resulting struggles, which continued in London and the provinces until the end of the decade, were the most important form of advertisement for Socialism at this stage of the propaganda (393).

Morris continued this work — while still running his business and continuing work on a number of projects and editing the organisation’s newspaper Commonweal. To his old friend Georgie Burne-Jones, worried about his health, he wrote something I love:

You see, my dear, I can’t help it. The ideas which have taken hold of me will not let me rest: nor can I see anything else worth thinking of. How can it be otherwise, when to me society, which to many seems an orderly arrangement for allowing decent people to get through their lives creditably and with some pleasure, seems mere cannibalism, nay worse…is grown so corrupt, so steeped in hypocrisy and lies, that one turns from one stratum of it to another with hopeless loathing. One must turn to hope, and only in one direction do I see it — on the road to Revolution: everything else is gone now…(424)

So the League lumbers on. They write a preposterous letter to Northumberland miners on strike in 1886, telling them the strike will bring misery and be hopeless, they need to fight for revolution instead. Thompson writes ‘soon the League was back to its old exhortations — Utopian in form, but in actual effect and tone defeatist’ (437). More wrangling, discussions, infighting, decisions between parliamentary and revolutionary strategy, splits. A great quote from Engels: ‘No movement absorbs so much fruitless labour as one which has not yet emerged from the status of a sect’ (454, Engels to Sorge, 4 June 1887). True then, and I am so sad to say it feels true now. Morris’s own position, in contrast to that of Shaw and the Fabians, was that the League needed to remain outside of parliament, but supportive and working with those inside — ‘Increasingly between 1887 and 1890 he came to see the role of the League as being educational and propagandist within a larger Socialist movement’ (460). Yet really it was ever more isolated from the ‘masses’.

Then Bloody Sunday. Another Bloody Sunday — the first? There have been so many. 13 November 1887. The police bloodily cleared protests in Trafalgar Square using batons and horses. Morris writes of the need for organisation in the face of this kind of repression:

All that our people could do was to straggle into the Square as helpless units. I confess I was astounded at the rapidity of the thing and the ease with which military organization got its victory. I could see that numbers were of no avail unless led by a band of men acting in consent and each knowing his own part (490).

He also wrote poetry and songs, to inspire and to raise money for the survivors of the dead.


With this started a period of increased rebellion. In News From Nowhere, Morris’s utopian vision of the future, the events in Trafalgar Square actually become a turning point in the march towards Socialism, even though they were crushed.  But 1889 and 1890 saw strikes by the Bryant and May match girls, tram workers, seamen, dockers. The Paris conference founding the Second International took place with Morris in attendence. H.G. Wells was running around London meetings, W.B. Yeats, Malatesta and Kropotkin. Thompson has no kindness at all for the anarchists, blaming Morris’s lack of leadership for allowing them to get the upper hand and destroy the league, ‘make it rotten’. Harsh words that seem highly debatable, but the League certainly fell apart. Morris wrote in his farewell article ‘Where are We Now’ published in Commonweal, 15 November 1990:

Our business, I repeat, is the making of Socialists, i.e. convincing people that Socialism is good for them and is possible. When we have enough people of that way of thinking, they will find out what action is necessary for putting their principles in practice. Until we have that mass of opinion, action for a general change that will benefit the whole people is impossible. Have we that body of opinion or anything like it? Surely not…Though there are a great many who believe it possible to compel their masters…to behave better to them, and though they are prepared to compel them…all but a very small minority are not prepared to do without masters. They do not believe in their capacity to undertake the management of affairs, and to be responsible for their life in this world. When they are so prepared, then Socialism will be realized; but nothing can push it on a day in advance of that time (576).

I love this faith, and believe ultimately this is true. Like Thompson, and later Morris himself I am skeptical that this ‘making of Socialists’ can happen independently of struggle, outside of the worker’s movement (or other movements). But he then believed it was all or nothing, requiring a purity of revolutionary intent that did not work towards small victories like the eight-hour day (!). This argument continues its life in left discussions.

Morris would go on to retire, and in his retirement found the Hammersmith Socialist Society with those of the SDF who had left with him. He also began work on Kelmscott Press in earnest — and I have a special love for any press, but Kelmscott produced such beautiful things. There is very little here about the press itself, so disappointing and again a place where Thompson and I part ways — instead there is much more about Morris’s continuing work on translating Icelandic sagas in his free time (! I am certain that he had more hours in the day than I do).


By 1894 Morris had moved away from the purism of his earlier stand:

Thus Socialists were set (Morris wrote) a twofold task. First, they must provide the theory of the struggle: if they failed in this, they were abandoning their duty of giving direction to the spontaneous movement of the workers. Second, they must participate alongside the workers in all forms of the labour struggle, including parliamentary and municipal elections:

“It is certainly our business, then, to make that struggle as strenuous as possible, while we at the same time hold up before the workers the ideal that lies ahead of the present days of conflict” (613)

He thus came around to the idea of creating a strong party, electing delegates to the House of Commons, but a parliamentary party subordinate to party as a whole. He continued active right up to the end, through illness and tiredness of age, and died in 1886. After coming so far with him you mourn, and I love this obituary by Blatchford in Clarion.

Morris was not only a genius, he was a man. Strike at him where you would, he rang true.

The book doesn’t end there, but with his views on art and work, and his contribution to political though. His legacy. Thompson finds Morris important as a political theorist in two ways: ‘one of the earliest…most original and creative thinkers within the Marxist tradition in England’ and second, as ‘a pioneer of constructive thought as to the organisation of social life within Communist society’ (682). I love that he spent time imagining the future society as a refuge from his present. Yet still Morris writes:

for no man can really think himself out of his own days; his palace of days to come can only be constructed from the aspirations forced upon him by his present surroundings, and from the dreams of the life of the past, which themselves cannot fail to be more or less unsubstantial imaginings (685 – ‘Socialism: It’s Growth and Outcome’).

This, and: ‘The only safe way of reading a utopia is to consider it as the expression of the temperament of its author’ (693 – ‘Looking Backward’).

Also this, on how he disagreed with the Fabians and many another:

Morris, alas, would not have rested content with the “Welfare State”: when the “ideal” was set before him of the “capitalist public service…brought to perfection”. he merely remarked that he “would not walk across the street for the realization of such an “ideal” (727).

But I shall end with some of his quotes on what he loved, his art and his work:

neutrality is impossible in man’s handiwork…a house, a knife, a cup, a steam engine…anything that is made by man and has form, must either be a work of art or destructive to art. (646 – ‘The Socialist Idea in Art’)

His precepts of art, summarised through quotation by Thompson:

  1. Art is Man’s expression of his joy in labour
  2. Nothing should be made by man’s labour which is not worth making, or which must be made by labour degrading to the makers
  3. the only healthy art is ‘an art which is to be made by the people, and for the people, as a happiness to the maker and user’

William Morris writes:

Yet I have looked at this claim by the light of history and my own conscience, and it seems to me so looked at to be a most just claim, and that resistance to it means nothing short of a denial of the hope of civilization.

This then is the claim:

It is right and necessary that all men should have work to do which shall he worth doing, and be of itself pleasant to do; and which should he done under such conditions as would make it neither over-wearisome nor over-anxious.

Turn that claim about as I may, think of it as long as I can, I cannot find that it is an exorbitant claim; yet again I say if Society would or could admit it, the face of the world would be changed

The whole of the text on ‘Art and Socialism’ is here, and reading it over I rather think it deserves its own post. So just one more quote from elsewhere:

The arts are man’s expression of the value of life, and also the production of them makes his life of value (656, letter to May Morris).

There is so much of value here, I have barely scraped the surface. So I will be coming back.

For more on similar things…



William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, Pt. 1

detail_256_William_morris150(1955, 1976, 2011) E.P. Thompson, PM Press

A book this size (810 pages!) is always daunting to start, long to finish, but it feels like you’ve really accomplished something by the end of it. Of course there is no way to condense or summarise the contents. Morris was born in 1834 in Walthamstow, near Epping Forest, went to Cambridge, studied medieval history and wrote poetry. Ruskin was the great influence of that period and throughout Morris’ life, but he’s on my list of things to read so I won’t discuss him too much here. This is also the period he met Dante Gabriel Rossetti, became introduced to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, believed Rosetti when he said to paint was the thing, and so he painted. Romance was also the thing, romance and authenticity, and somehow Morris was given the nickname of Topsy which he never lost amongst his friends from these days. There was revolt of a kind in his life and art, but a revolt of what? Thompson pulls out key phrases:

‘Truth to Nature.’ ‘Stern facts.’ ‘Flight of little souls in bright flames.’ ‘Maisons damnees.’ ‘Mystery–the main thing required for the surprise of the imagination’ (54).

Morris writes:

When an artist has really a very keen sense of beauty, I venture to think that he can not literally represent an event that takes place in modern life. He must add something or other to qualify or soften the ugliness and sordidness of the surroundings of life in our generation (56).

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Black chalk on paper, dated 1865, 31.5 x 34.5cm, Private collection
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Black chalk on paper, dated 1865, 31.5 x 34.5cm, Private collection

He was to meet his wife Jane Burden here in this circle, a model for Dante Rossetti and daughter of a stable worker. She’s someone I want to read more about — as in this tale as it is told, her last name is particularly apt for their relationship. E.P. Thompson isn’t the best on gender issues, and it is certainly clear that they were not very compatible together and in a rational world would have split, but there is little sense of her here apart from a woman firmly committed to her own comfort and distant from any of Morris interests. He seems to have fallen in love with the ideal that he wrote in his romances, the same ideal that Rossetti painted, all surface and yielding and mystery, no living breathing woman (for an interesting view on this from another model, see Will the Real Jane Morris Please Stand Up). They seemed to have come to an open-marriage arrangement over the years, Morris seems to have had a very practical and what I think of as a modern view of it — in a society where there can be no divorce. This is echoed in  views from his fiction, like News From Nowhere, and important in shaping his views on ideal gender roles and relationships under socialism. But it’s hard to tell what the reality was, Jane’s own biographies beckon. What is certain is that Rossetti remained very much in her life long after he and Morris ceased to agree on anything. The William Morris gallery has an exhibit devoted to her image and what they call Rossetti’s obsession with her until January 2015.

But meanwhile Morris was embarking on a revival of the decorative arts — and the relation of arts to society remained central to his thinking throughout his life. In my own ignorance, I associated his wonderful designs with the Victorian era — which of course they are — but were in fact part of a revolt against so much of what characterises the Victorian. I love the distinction between the superficialities of gothic style and feature employed by so many Victorian architects, and Morris own focus on process, the way in which medieval workers created and crafted and the materials and tools that they used. This would become the essence of Morris’ own craft. He consulted archives, interviewed old craftsmen, experimented with his own weaving, synthesised his own natural dyes. I’m much more fascinated by that stuff than Thompson was I’m afraid. I was surprised just how much of the book tries to come to grips with his poetry and prose instead. His poetry isn’t really stuff I like much, the book opens with a discussion of Keats as an influence — whose work I really don’t like either. But it’s a good reminder of how important his poetry continued to be, so much that Thompson writes that the weakness of his middle period ‘reveals much of the change of attitude from revolt to disillusion in his personal outlook during these years. And it marks a stage in the degeneration of the English Romantic movement’ (114). Harsh, but I am inclined to agree.

It was a slow movement to socialism, and he never left behind this love of the medieval past, the goodness of the country and the evil of the big city, the value of work and craftsmanship. Part of the journey was the foundation of ‘Anti-Scrape’, a society to protect and preserve old buildings from demolition or ‘restoration’ into something essentially new. Of course any work to put alternative values or aesthetics above profit or desire to make a show of wealth will bring you ‘directly into conflict with the property sanctions of capitalist society (231).’ I think a lot of things will do this, but the work around the preservation of ancient properties is also very tied up in conservatism, in the maintenance of the past, feudal, inequalities and oppressions that created these buildings. Ruskin, for example, writes

It is…no question of expediency or feeling whether we shall preserve the buildings pf past times or not. We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong, partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us. The dead still have their right to them…What we have ourselves built we are at liberty to throw down, but what other men gave their strength and wealth and life to accomplish, their right over does not pass away with their death… (234 – from the Seven Lamps of Architecture)

But if we do not have the right, than who? How does society grow, improve, change? This seems a bit mad, pushing to an extreme this veneration for what has come before. I much prefer Morris’s approach, and how he believed that ancient architecture:

bears witness to the development of man’s ideas, to the continuity of history, and, so doing, affords never-ceasing instruction, nay education, to the passing generations, not only telling us what were the aspirations of men passed away, but also what he may hope for in the time to come (236).

In the end Morris becomes an important voice for socialism, Thompson writes of it as almost beginning a new life at the age of 50. He leaves the disillusionment and depression behind to enter wholeheartedly into this cause he believes can transform the world. Thompson writes:

The Socialist propaganda brought to such people as these exactly what it had brought to William Morris–hope. Wherever the aspirations for life stirred among the workers–the clear-headed hatred of capitalism, the thirst for knowledge, beauty and fellowship–the Socialist converts might be won (300).

His commitment to it was as total as it had been to relearning ancient weaving techniques, and I am full of admiration at his hating public speaking and yet forcing himself too it, knowing that his fame would bring people and that would be his greatest contribution to the movement. George Bernard Shaw wrote:

He had escaped middle age, passing quite suddenly from a circle of artistic revolutionists, mostly university men gone Agnostic or Bohemian or both, who knew all about him and saw him as much younger and less important than he really was, into a proletarian movement in which, so far as he was known at all, he was venerated as an Elder…Once or twice some tactless ghost from his past wandered into the Socialist world and spoke of him and even to him as Topsy…. (302)

They were quickly sent on their way. These were the days of speeches and more speeches, the tours by key left figures talking up how to change the world in homes and halls and on street corners. They were also days of meeting in pubs and over pubs and next to pubs, the old guard from the Chartists and the 1848 uprisings and workingman’s international still around linking past to present (but cantankerously sometimes), the anarchists infiltrated by agents provocateurs, the Paris Commune, liberals disillusioned with Gladstone, the ‘Land Question’ the question of the 1870s and 1880s (with the rise of Henry George and the Irish Land League),  though nationalism of land was not specifically a socialist demand (way-hey!), as Thompson argues it distracted from robbery of the people through land as opposed to robbery through ownership of the means of production.  But Socialism was on the rise, 1881 saw the rise of the Labour Emancipation League under Joseph Lane. H.M. Hyndman had read Capital by 1880, introduced himself to Marx, and formed the Democratic Federation in 1881 as well. I like that Thompson notes that despite their belief in socialism, many middle class socialists/marxists still feared the proletariat and the ‘mob’ more than loved them — Hyndman believed their revolution was simply inevitable ‘whether we like it or not’ (294). Nor for Hyndman did his views of socialism conflict with belief in Empire, the strength of Anglo-Saxon blood, or the ‘presentation of the Colonies as the special heritage of the English working-class’ (293).

William Morris on the other hand, spoke out against those who have ‘ruined India, starved and gagged Ireland, and tortured Egypt…’ (326). This was just one of the issues that would work to fracture and split the new Socialist movement in a long and complicated and more than frustrating history with which I shall come to grips a little more in part 2. Eleanor Marx’s biography deals with it, as does the history of the Labour Party I’m reading at the moment…hopefully with all of them together and whatever else the future holds I can get a more clear idea of what is important to remember about this period, because I’ve had more than enough fracture and in-fighting in today’s left politics to last me a lifetime… my eyes glazed over at times I confess.

[Part 2 can be found here]


Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.