The Grenfell Inferno

The meaning of Grenfell was immediately understood. It was a hecatomb to neoliberalism, a public sacrifice to the ideology that denies it has a name.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
22 June 2017

After Grenfell: Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn comforts a local resident. David Mirzoeff/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.Elated by the upset of Theresa May’s authoritarian election plans, I began what I intended to be a quick series of short posts on the Age of Corbyn. The first set out how he has become the most powerful man in the land. The second was to be on the general election’s manifesto moment, that changed the UK’s public conversation so decisively.

Then the inhabitants of the upper floors of Grenfell Tower were incinerated alive. The sight of families waving as the flames from the ‘low cost’ cladding engulfed them put everything on pause. For this was not just an accident, or even an accident ‘waiting to happen’. It was also the murderous consequence of neoliberalism.

There was no need to make the argument. Everyone understood.

But to say so, to rush straight into a condemnation of the political-economy that burns the hopes of so many of the population only more slowly (on the stake of precariousness, debt, insecurity and extreme competition), felt like an abuse of the victims of this enraging tragedy.

Rapidly, it became clear there was no need to make the argument. Everyone understood. Witnesses gave immediate, live testimony to larger causes. Eloquent videos soon made the connection between the way we are governed and the Grenfell inferno. David Lammy the MP for Tottenham wept over the fate of the young artist Khadija Saye, who died alongside her mother on the 22nd floor. He did not draw back from blame. Nor was it just the left that pointed the finger. As locals stormed the Borough’s offices it became clear that Grenfell is a turning point.

Angela McRobbie’s widely read account in oD’s Transformation shared what it is like to live in neoliberal London if you are not rich. She linked the catastrophe, the public management theories of outsourcing and diminished responsibility in local government. Sam Webb gave an architect's view, Adita Chakrabortty a fine economist’s denunciation of austerity as systemic violence. There are many more similar accounts joining the connections from across the political spectrum, as the tabloid press, sensing public rage, stirred up demands for revenge.

Prepared for terrorist attacks caused by others, the government had no plans for a calamity caused by its own. The richest, overwhelmingly Conservative local government in the land, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, went into meltdown. It had outsourced its social housing and welfare (apparently even making a ‘profit’ from so doing) and was incapable of organising any response, despite accumulated reserves nearing £300 million.

It is alleged that 14 members of the Borough’s ruling council have property interests. Their inability to respond and assist the victims was so catastrophic that the London Evening Standard was reduced to congratulating the Council’s deputy leader, Rock Feilding-Mellen for the wise decision to stay away from weekend celebrations at his family’s 5,000 acre estate in Gloucestershire, because pictures of his quaffing champagne would have produced “bad optics”. Thus even this act of public service for the people of ‘Royal’ Kensington and Chelsea was an act of self-interest.

The Prime Minister suffered from her own failure to appear to sympathise with the victims or take control of the situation. Her hapless response was widely held to be a self-administered political auto-da- that doomed her grip on office. In the opening statement to the new parliament she made a far-reaching apology, as you can see, saying it was a “failure of the state, local and national, to help people when they needed it most”. She accepted responsibility for her role in this.

The blackened hulk of Grenfell became an instant symbol of extreme unfairness.

Her words were widely reported as Theresa May's, as if she had conceded that the Grenfell disaster was a failure of the state, local and national, as it clearly was. But – as you can also observe – she said nothing of sort. She merely admitted a failure to help and assist its victims after the event. She did not in any way accept the state’s responsibility for the cataclysm itself.

Unlike great disasters such as train collisions, the meaning of Grenfell condemns a form of government. It is not just about the decision to install inflammable cladding alongside venting that acted as fire bellows. Two even more significant issues were illuminated by the relentless inferno, each of which characterise the neoliberal United Kingdom.

The first is the creation and permission of a sheer inequality which means the maltreatment of the poorer, working communities living side-by-side with and often working for the stratospherically well-off. The blackened hulk of Grenfell became an instant symbol of extreme unfairness.

The second, the hollowing out of government. This is why it is essential to name the process as neoliberal – a form of capitalism that seeks to deny it has a name, claims competition as natural and seeks to subordinate government and its revenues to ‘the market’. One aspect is the war on ‘regulation’ described by Christine Berry. As important is the pressure on the national and local government to sell-off and outsource its services. Eloquent accounts appeared of how architect and building departments had been replaced by experts in contracting. The result is the end of ongoing responsibility. Whatever the regulations might have permitted, no one who was going to live in the buildings with their inhabitants would have clad it in what was in effect firelighter for the sake of a few pounds. Among the many aspects of this: the decimation of legal aid which deprived the residents of the ability to press their claims for proper maintenance so that they were left helpless, blogging with foresight that only a fatal accident would force the authorities to respond to their concerns. 

In the aftermath, Jeremy Corbyn rose to the occasion by being simply and straightforwardly human and accepting our responsibility. The profound consequences of this, set out, for example, by Ann Pettifor, will now find political expression. It should never have needed the bitter ashes of Grenfell Tower to make this happen.

Anthony Barnett's, The Lure of Greatness, England’s Brexit and America’s Trump, can be pre-ordered from Unbound to get your advance copy this month. It will be published and in the shops at the end of August.

This was originally titled The Age of Corbyn 2: Inferno
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