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By Jason Michael
There are moments in the histories of nations when the veil is torn away, exposing the plans the powerful have in store for the powerless. Grenfell tower is one such moment. Ignoring this would be a greater disaster.
Grenfell tower has shone a cold hard light on many of the darkest realities of life for ordinary working class people in the United Kingdom. Our culture, given that it is built on a social hierarchy of wealth and privilege, has for centuries fetishised “how the other half live.” Our awareness of the wider conditions of working class life have been muted and distorted by Coronation Street and Eastenders, and mocked on the Jeremy Kyle Show and other panis et circenses popular entertainments. What it means to be working class – to live and work and die as part of the precariat – has been nicely tucked up and hidden away from us by a very British media apparatus. Grenfell tower has made it, at least for the moment, impossible to hide what they are doing to us.
So much has been said in the reaction to this monumental catastrophe about the glaring inequalities it has exposed; the inequalities of wealth, power, and income. David Lammy has made the point, which we cannot deny, of the blatant inequality of colour that has been brought into sharper focus. Most of those affected were black and brown. But, and bringing all of this together, we cannot afford to ignore the disturbing inequality of human worth and of dignity. Grenfell tower has laid bare the ugly fact that in Britain some people are worth more than others; those who died were, in the eyes of the state, worth less than others. To our government of millionaires they were worthless.
In the main, and like a growing number of people on these islands, these people were the working poor; cleaners, porters, mechanics, minimum wage workers. They were part of the precariat, that huge chunk of the British workforce reduced to working under precarious conditions – moving from one job to another, often working two and three jobs, just to make ends meet. None of them had the power, the wealth, or the income to choose where they lived – facing eviction and homelessness daily – or the conditions in which they lived. We know they were powerless and ignored in the “regeneration” of their homes. They were subject to the whims of people who couldn’t have cared less if they lived or died. That is the truth of Grenfell tower. It is the truth of tens of millions more.
How often does the 2017 Conservative manifesto mention the word “business?” It mentions business no fewer than 84 times in as many pages. It mentions “jobs” only 14 times and “housing” 29 times. Where are the priorities of the British state? Consider then that in Britain housing itself is a business that profits the very people who made the decision to coat Grenfell tower with cyanide infused flammable plastic and the owners of those other tower blocks recently found to be substandard and dangerous. Weeks before the tragedy the Conservatives were writing a manifesto that continued to support businesses that were knowingly putting people’s lives at risk.
All over the UK agitation over this disaster has reached fever pitch, no less because of the horror of it, but because we all intuit that this is about us too. We, the ordinary working people of this country, are worthless to the government and the big businesses behind it. The working class – the class of mass production – was itself mass produced. We were bred in slums and tenements to man the factories and dark satanic mills of the workshop of the world; all for the purpose of lining the pockets of our masters. We were worth something then; not much but something. Now that Britain is a failing state in terms of industry and employment the vast majority of us have become surplus to requirement. There are too many of us. What do we think the two child policy is about?
Everything that has now leapt into view over Grenfell isn’t simply about housing. Reducing this to shoddy housing and criminal negligence and government indifference would be missing the point. This is about human worth, our value as people; our dignity. This is about everything we have been complaining about for a century at least. Our anger and frustration is about fair pay for decent work, care and pensions, a social safety net, affordable and good housing, about the humiliation of sanctions and foodbanks, and about everything else this brutal regime has done and is doing to facilitate the greed of the few at the expense of the many.
As we speak Theresa May has set the wheels in motion for an inquest into the causes of the fire at Grenfell tower. What many of us don’t realise is that an inquiry is the first coating of a government whitewash, a limited and limiting blame game to keep people quiet. Heads may roll but everything will be carefully kept within the confines of an isolated incident. Nothing about Grenfell was isolated. Rather, it was the inevitable result of a decades-long national policy of neoliberal capitalism worsened by the rigorous application of state austerity on the working class.
We neither need nor want an inquest. What we need and must now demand is a full public inquiry that has the scope and the power to both lay out everything – absolutely everything and everyone – that contributed to these criminal policies and this disaster and to bring people – not business or corporations but people – to justice. Enough people are awake right now for us to realise that the stories of how the other half live are a ruse; a trick, a distraction. All that is important is how our half live and why this has been designed by people with wealth and power to pacify us, impoverish us, enslave us, and kill us. If we miss this we will have missed the entire message and meaning of Grenfell.
Austerity Britain: “You’re treated worse than a farm animal”