The Northern Powerhouse as ‘Real Mirage’

The new maps of Britain, and how we should understand them.

Steve Hanson
9 December 2015

The Northern Powerhouse is a kind of prism, being viewed from different sides, through different facets. The light, of course, bends at different angles through a prism, into different colours, a process called 'dispersion'. I want to examine how the Northern Powerhouse, that big, slab-like, declarative name, actually operates as a disperser of different political colours, and structures of feeling, in our present moment.

Because May 7th 2015 entailed nothing short of an overnight mental restructure, forced by the SNP rebellion, which emerged in multiple, often fantastical forms. For instance, the mapping of coal mines from 1925 onto the 2015 election results, showing clear correlations. The coal maps are, of course, redundant, but still meaningful. They are 'sublated', in Hegel’s terms, cancelled, but preserved and transformed. This redrawing of mental maps is good in many ways: to create social change, as David Harvey explains, you need to transform mental conceptions of the world.

The ‘new north-south split’ was perhaps the most popular remapping exercise, particularly across social media, after May 7th. Manchester flared up as a rebellious northern city, ready to ballot its citizens to leave the union and join with its fiercer, more socialist neighbours further north up to the top of the island.

Suddenly, the ‘north of Watford’ cliché was pushed up to divide the island in halfSuddenly, the ‘north of Watford’ cliché was pushed up to divide the island in half, redrawing the M62 as the new Hadrian’s Wall, from the mouth of the Humber to the Mersey Estuary, red above and blue below. The north-south divide is not a new concept. It has just become foregrounded.

A Fata Morgana is a mirage, a physical form seen out at sea, which turns out to be an illusion. Our island is a Fata Morgana. This is not just what Britain is in our globalised present, it is what Britain has always been. Appropriately, ‘Fata Morgana’ refers to very real mirages, seen in the Strait of Messina, thought to be ‘fata’ or ‘fairy’ castles, luring sailors to their deaths. These mirages were named after the Arthurian enchantress, Morgan le Fay. I want to look at Fata Morgana in dialectical terms, as the ‘real mirage’, which is perhaps the ultimate Hegelian ‘contradiction embodied’.

Fredric Jameson’s ‘cognitive map’ also usefully describes my intentions here. Jameson explains his form of mapping as essentially aesthetic. It is not meant to map a full totality literally – although Jameson does mean a map in the orthodox cartographic sense – but it can provide a vantage point. It is a tool to help make connections between what seem like disparate spaces and times, to begin to join up the occulted macrologistics of globalisation.

We can look for examples of this on the ground, in the northwest being declared by a government located in the southeast, as a 'Powerhouse'. For instance ‘containerisation’ is a process of global goods-exchange, which rendered much of the labour in places such as Garston Docks, or the Manchester Ship Canal, redundant. The shipping container enables port traffic to flow faster, via a uniform accelerated Fordism, which has become ‘just-in-time’.

But ‘containerisation’ is a misleading term. It literally means closing-off at the same time as it is used to describe a process that is radically un-enclosed. It is possible to take the term ‘containerised’ and apply it to many representations of contemporary landscapes and visual archives, which are afflicted by a kind of false epistemological contained-ness.

But the distribution warehouse is an opaque box surrounded by fences, not an obvious series of way-marked routes to other places. The shipping container, belying any evidence of its place of departure, and the distribution warehouse, mirror each other in their anonymous Lego-like homogenisation.

Steve Hanson. All rights reserved.

Ruins have become yet another leftwing fetish. The ‘real ruins’, now, are evidence of rough sleeping on the shoreline, or on the edge of the city, traces of the excluded, literally forced to live on the edges of capital. Such people are not ‘unnecessary’, but crucial to capital. Their expenditure is ‘necessary’, as capital needs to both recruit and shed labour ever more quickly, as its processes speed up, in what is called ‘international competition’. Here are the necessary losers, because without losers, there would be no competition.

The 'northern powerless' are as much a part of the Conservative vision of the Northern Powerhouse as the new digital startup. But sleeping ‘en plein air’ in the Northern Powerhouse is also increasingly impossible, particularly in the spectacular city centres that are the showcases of these global playing fields, with police forces targeting the increasing numbers of homeless people as criminals.

But I am also interested in the poverty of the imagination: Nietzsche described the suffocating limit of the English imaginary as epitomised by John Stuart Mill in his writing on English utilitarianism. We target nostalgia quite pointedly here, but all of this does have a historical narrative. There was a move from monopoly localised forms of capital generation in Manchester, to national and international revenues, from shareholders, stock market floatations, mergers and acquisitions, which collaborated to fund a new phase of mass industrialism in the middle of the 19th century.

The pavements buckling in Manchester as part of its massive, current infrastructural rewiring, are part of this lineage. This is what you should see when you hear – and the Corbyn team are saying it too – that 'we' are 'going for growth'.

Downton is a living room British National Festival of the mind.The imagination and sheer necessary invention to engage with all of this is wiped out for the masses by ‘museum television’ such as Downton Abbey, with its portrayal of the ‘natural order’, which undoubtedly operates as part of these circuits of leisure and labour. Downton is a living room British National Festival of the mind. Our wider point is that the history of industrialism and its links to ‘old money’ have become reified, congealed and extinguished in fictions such as Downton. Our concern here is with ‘seeing anew’, and this is why we pick less reified forms of capitalist infrastructural innovation, such as the container and the airport, to explain how we might do this.

At the broadest level, I want to try to suggest ways in which we might make new ‘maps’ of Britain, which may or may not look like maps in the traditional sense, and to exemplify how we might refigure our strategies of landscape exploration, research and visual representation, to do this work.

Paul Mason’s Channel 4 blog presented the most interesting map after the General Election of May 7th, 2015. It split the island into three: Scotland as ‘Southern Scandinavia’; the southeast as the ‘Asset Rich Southlands’, swelling since the 1986 deregulation of financial markets; and, lastly, the ‘Post-Industrial Archipelago’, the Detroitified, abandoned middle, drawn as spiky red islands. Like the ‘new’ north-south split, there is nothing new about this map either. It has just gone public for the first time, as it suddenly matches voting swings more closely than it did before.

What is fascinating about this map is that nation state and sovereignty are of little relevance to it. It also looks like a playful fantasy, yet in some ways, this map is the most real of all. If we look at the BBC map of voting, there is some marked concentration, of red and blue for instance, but there is a lot of ambient colour as well.

The north-south split is not only socio-economic, but significantly ideological and mythical, and the nation state, sovereignty, and the shores of the island, have faded a little in significance. But both maps are also true, they are Fata Morgana, ‘real mirages’. The Game of Thrones aesthetic of Paul Mason’s Channel 4 map is also telling. It depicts The Kingdom of ‘Scandoscotoil’ and the land of ‘The Numberwizards’, separated by the fragmented wastes, where the isolated, feral Wild Ones roam.

Again, this view is simultaneously real and mythical. But the big point to make is that the nation is not ‘the island’. It is those offshore rigs, pipelines, digital signals and data cables. It is airstrips, ports and satellites. ‘Local’ places are refilled everyday with power, petrol, food and resources, from capital, semi-arbitrarily creating ruin or regeneration. Patrick Keiller’s film, Robinson in Ruins, shows how the ‘naturalness’ of the English landscape conceals resources owned by foreign interests. ‘Northern Rail’ is run by Serco and Abellio, and Abellio is owned by the Dutch government. So just exactly how 'north' is the Northern Powerhouse? This is not a call for ‘renationalisation’, along ethnocentric lines, but it is a call for demystification.

Keiller’s ‘Robinson’ character is more than a nod to Defoe’s. It is poetic that this new, M62, north-south divide sits on old slave trade routes, and that Robinson Crusoe began in Hull. It is often forgotten that Crusoe’s fictional father was German, and inward looking, a ‘settler’. But Robinson Crusoe, born there, looked restlessly out to sea, to the ocean routes that led to riches.

Robinson Crusoe is, in so many ways, not an island story. Our non-fiction island is not an island either, though it is ruled as one. This is not to say that we should somehow expunge overseas interests and incomers, and talk of ‘our island’, quite the opposite. ‘Hybridity’ is always thought through cultural practices.

Yet capital’s processes are little described or recognised in such a way. The reality, of course, is that capital’s flows and circuits are utterly and necessarily hybrid and international. ‘One nation’ Toryism and fundamentalist Localism always conceal this, in order to hide capital’s own interests and power. They are always already ideological.

Raphael Samuel wrote about the Lost Gardens of Heligan, explaining how the plants were brought in via sea routes of colonial expansion and how the ‘physick’ gardens were the forerunners of modern pharmaceutical industries. ‘The Oak’ arrived in the same way. I am trying to explain how the myth and the concrete can be reconciled, politically, critically, in representations. It is no wonder Conservative support for nationalism and localism is strong, because, like Downton Abbey, those ‘isms’ absorb large amounts of emotional and intellectual energy, which might be more effectively employed elsewhere.

Rather than provide solutions in this situation of sheer instability, as we move from an effective interregnum into another round of global capitalist surplus-skimming, I simply want to provide some critical advocacy about how to ‘see’ and ‘show’, as we enter this tunnel at the end of the light.


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