On Monday, the third iteration of the trial of Alfie Meadows and Zak King begins at Woolwich Crown Court. It is now over two years since the student demonstration in Parliament Square, in which Meadows was near-fatally injured. It is possible, over the extended period of time in which this laughterless farce has played out, to become inured to its central scandal: after the police beat a demonstrator so badly he requires three hours of brain surgery, they decide to arrest him for ‘violent disorder'; having subjected him to the unrefined punishment of the baton strike, they decide to subject him to the refined and bureaucratic punishment of the courtroom. I reproduce the image above – which often heads articles, posters and campaign leaflets – because it is a reminder that every manicured expression of outrage that comes from the prosecution is intended to occlude this violence. It is a reminder that there are real people, and real bodies, at the centre of this struggle. It ought to shock, scandalise and anger us.

I hope this coming trial sees the end of this bad joke. Courts are impossible to predict, but from the sparse evidence presented in the last trial, I hope for acquittal for both defendants. Some of the police testimony was collated live by Rory MacKinnon here during the last trial. It is what you might expect: where the commander cannot deny police violence, he will ‘avoid putting words in the officer’s mouth’ – that is, avoid giving any explanation at all. Commander Johnson – who oversaw policing at the G20 protests, where Ian Tomlinson died, as well as the kettling on Westminster Bridge and the horse charges on on a street packed with students during the Parliament Square demonstration – finds it hard to think of any error in policing, even when pressed. It is hard to ever bring these people to account, well-versed as they are in avoiding even direct questions. The distributed model of police organisation means it’s difficult to find anyone who can’t pass the buck in a different direction, while the private intention of officers actually engaged in violence is beyond speculation. On the other hand, the private intention of defendants is fair game: a covered face is taken as an infallible sign of malicious intent, rather than a sensible precaution where intelligence gathering on protesters is de rigueur. If such physical signs are so easily legible, then we might infer some coherent story from the baton strikes, or the scars they leave. No: instead we’re assured that behind the body armour, the police are scared, traumatised, rational, judicious, calm, responsible, terrified – usually all at once, and in one person at that. Not to labour the point, but police violence (by the logic of their excuse) can either be a rationally-executed crowd control measure, or the instinctive response of an affrighted officer to a baying mob. It cannot be both at once.

I’d argue that there is a coherent logic to police responses to protest – one of excess, containment and excision – though the mechanisms of this violence change according to political fashion. It is sometimes hard to communicate the obvious contours of this logic to liberals who have little contact with the police, and the subsequent chilling effect on protest or direct action. The recent, damning preliminary answers of the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to assemble and protest in the UK are helpful here (I also wrote a little on the usefulness of these answers):

Nevertheless, I believe that this practice [kettling] is detrimental to the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly due to its indiscriminate and disproportionate nature. I heard, for instance, appalling stories of peaceful protestors, as well as innocent by-standers – such as tourists – held for long hours with no access to water or sanitary facilities. It also undeniably has a powerful chilling effect on the exercise of freedom of peaceful assembly, and I was informed of many people who refrained from exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly for fear of being kettled. Finally, it appears that kettling is used for intelligence gathering purposes, by compelling those kettled to disclose their name and address as they leave the kettle, increasing the chilling effect it has on potential protesters.

There’s a justified sense that the arrests for ‘violent disorder’ during this period of protest were partly intended to intimidate: a substantial proportion of those charged who pled ‘not guilty’ were acquitted, but the sense that those arrested were often arbitrarily charged meant that for many demonstrators the risks of protest began to outweigh its usefulness. This calculation is one we are intended to make. Of course, the charge itself is so elastic – so vague in its definitions of what counts as an offence – as to make its indiscriminate use an easy option. Alongside the much-vaunted automation of surveillance and identification, the repressive mood that followed the August riots of 2011, and the apparent impunity of police officers even when they lie on the stand, make it hard to gainsay that calculation.

It is not just the charge itself, nor the outrageous prospect of being jailed for having the temerity to come in the way of a police baton, but the suspension of life between charge and verdict which is punitive. Many of the anti-cuts protesters who have faced trial have done so with extraordinary gaps between charge and trial process. In this time, the very possibility of a future, a life, the ability to travel, or to study is suspended. Horizons get destroyed. Foucault, when writing about the modern prison, said that ‘the soul is the prison of the body’ – he meant that the modern prison system no longer employs torture to render the bodies of its prisoners docile, instead preferring more ‘refined’ forms of affective and psychological discipline. Perhaps this distinction is tenuous – physical violence, and physical enclosure, isolation, are all parts of the modern prison too – but the psychic effects of the dilation of the judicial process are obvious to anyone who has undergone them: the sense of hopelessness, helplessness, lack of escape. That it manifests in a nightmarish bureaucracy and a language of brutal passivity often makes it even less bearable.

Defend The Right To Protest, the campaign that has done much to keep the Meadows case visible, has also done excellent work in highlighting the resonances between these cases and those of the Rigg family, the Duggan family, and the countless others brutalised or killed by the police. Many features recur in slightly different ways – delays, stonewalling, evasion of responsibility, the insistence on the guilt of those victimised – but so does the determination to see justice done. This is a word that does not get used much in leftist campaigning or discussion, and doubts about courts claiming they will not only deliver ‘justice’ but show that it has been done are justified. In fact, that claim sounds hollow to anyone who has sat in them for any amount of time. We know that their ‘justice’ might depend on the prejudice of the jurors, aptly stoked by the prosecution, the quality of the lawyer one can afford, or whether the judge had a dodgy sandwich for lunch. That is to say, we know their claims to justice are contingent, human and personal. The encouragement, then, is that it is possible – needed, necessary – to support each other through these processes without any illusions about the court, knowing that we need to press hard against them to deliver even a modicum of justice, and, also, simply to survive the process well enough to emerge from the other side. There is another kind of justice – that we will make for ourselves.

The court should acquit Alfie Meadows and Zak King. The photo at the top of this piece ought to be enough to tell you who really should be facing punishment here. The mere fact it comes to trial is an obscenity. There is a solidarity demonstration this Monday outside the court. Come and offer your support.

Protest at Alfie & Zak’s Retrial
Monday, 11th Feb, 9 a.m.
Woolwich Crown Court

Facebook event: http://www.facebook.com/events/316628031789778/

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Nightmare Politics: October 20th and after

October 20th will see hundreds of thousands of people marching in the TUC’s ‘A Future That Works’ demonstration, billed widely as an anti-austerity march. Somewhere near its head, or at least waiting on a stage in Hyde Park, will be Ed Miliband. This would be a farce, if it weren’t so eminently predictable: enough of a nod to the unions to give the perennially Pollyanna-ish Labour left some notion that the party might (this time, honest) be swinging their way, while retaining a policy trajectory entirely consonant with the austerity imperative. Plus ça change, and all that.

Do such events matter? This march is the belated sister to the TUC’s first demonstration against austerity, on March 26th of last year. That march was notable for the cheering sight of a couple of thousand Black Bloc demonstrators smashing in some quite deserving windows, and UK Uncut’s enjoyable, well-chosen occupation of chi-chi grocers Fortnum & Mason’s. No one – least of all any participant – believes that either of those activities are likely to achieve mass political change, but you might find quite a few who believe they make it rather harder to fold the anti-austerity demonstrations into the narrative of polite (but resigned) disagreement. Many would likely suggest that the immediate sense of solidarity in action is some degree more inspiring than the long trudge to boredom in Hyde Park, which achieved less than an atom’s change of direction in economic policy.

In fact, the concerted campaign of police and judicial pursuit in the wake of March 26th make even such minimal forms of direct action seem ever less likely; the TUC itself will make every effort to damp enthusiasm for any kind of unsanctioned deviation from the Great Trudge. In that respect, it is heartening to see call-outs for both Education and Radical Workers’ feeder blocs, and Solidarity Federation & Boycott Workfare’s invitation to continue the struggle against workfare on the day. But certainly, one-off days out ought not to be our measuring rod for the likelihood of political change, or even the strength of anti-austerity sentiment; worse, if they are our major vehicle for political struggle we have already lost. If they loom so large in our minds as to obscure other forms or strategies for struggle, they can begin to hobble us when we are already enfeebled.


Marches are supposed to be shows of strength. Indeed, they often are most effective when they signal the possibility of anger spilling over into generalised excess or violence, unpalatable though that might seem. Certainly, sheer numbers seem no reliable measure of efficacy: the march against the Iraq war being the oft-cited example in this case. They can certainly build some much-needed sense of solidarity for those opposed to austerity, but even those who find themselves buoyed by listening to the usual parade of damp dignitaries are likely to admit that it won’t, in itself, do much good. Of course, the TUC speaks about marches like this as a kind of three-dimensional lobbying, or a moral pressure on politicians to serve the ‘real’ interests of their electors. This reduction of political activity to a system of lobbying via moral shame is more widespread – many also talk about strike action or more targeted protest action in the same way. But it’s a rare case where mere moral embarrassment can avert economic policy or force a capitalist employer to behave better – were it otherwise, we’d already be living post-capitalism.

It might be sufficient, then, to say that marches are fine (and the angrier, the better), but diluting them of any political potency by putting the smiling mug of Ed Miliband at the front, and seeing them in isolation as the only action available to us is dangerous, and, worse, ineffectual.



It’s rarely advisable to see the tenor of party conferences as cast-iron guarantees for the coming year in politics; they play invariably to the party’s base, or to jaded political editors. Still, the jettisoning of the already flimsy guise of compassionate conservatism and gurning about ‘one nation’ politics suggest that the major political parties are not just tacking to the right, but likely to become even less distinguishable in the coming year. In a sense, Labour’s commitment to austerity (‘deeper and tougher than Thatcher’) ought not surprise us, partly because of the shrinking discretion given by international economic organisations and civil service infrastructure to individual chancellors, and partly because of the long hold of the post-Thatcher consensus among those in power. But it also ought not surprise us if we take a longer view of the current crisis as the consequence of a series of cyclical crises deferred for the last forty or so years – we’ll return to this.

It’s worth noting some of the trends in formal politics over the last few decades, as they suggest something about the way in which people conceive of how to act in political grievance. The membership of mass political parties is in irreversible decline. This haemorrhage is usually attributed to the fragmentation of the working class after Thatcher, and the rise of an aggressive, acquisitive individualism. Doubtless that may be so. But it’s worth thinking about what membership signifies, too: it doesn’t seem to be a natural consequence of expressing political grievance any longer, but rather a category reserved for people who think of themselves as political operatives, a signpost for which faction of administrators you’re part of, whose ranks you want to climb. This is unsurprising – it’s a consequence (not a cause) of the shift in formal politics towards professionalisation. The picture ought to be sobering:

That to one side, formal politics is right-shifting, and this is where the real nightmare lies. The Tory conference revealed the growing influence of the hard-right, free market, anti-working class ‘Free Enterprise Group’, whose manifesto is the kind of stuff that keeps one awake at 3am. These people have been biding their time in the policy wilderness for the past few years, but recognise the current crisis as an opportunity to assert the ruthless logic of capitalism in its current global context. The reason they are seductive is partly their appeal to self-interest on the part of those who might get ahead in their framework, but also because they express some uncomfortable truths about the likelihood of wage repression and further gutting of social security to remain in competition with emerging global economic powers. It is hard to find flaws with this merciless logic if one is committed to capitalism as a way of organising production – and the poverty of this imaginative horizon is why Mark Fisher coined the phrase ‘capitalist realism’, here in full swing. We might also put it thus: an attempt to make a nicer capitalism will always, in the long run, lose to this kind of full reassertion of the internal logic of capitalism itself.


Some of the serious responses to the TUC’s callout for their demonstration have been to quarrel with its implicit politics: either the assumptions about the dignity of work, the desired return to some previous golden age, or the problems of a promised future itself. Certainly, if our best political project is a return to some pre-crisis state (pre-2008? pre-1973? pre-1968?), a promise of being only somewhat less miserable for a short time, or a desire to ameliorate the very worst effects of a disappearing welfare state, then to scream ‘No Future!’ is very much justified. Nonetheless, the future has a habit of arriving anyway, and to refuse the future they lay out should not be a way of excusing oneself from the difficult political work of establishing a different one. It is not a call to a political nihilism.

Still, this is not an endorsement of the TUC’s position, nor the position that permeates the soft left, that the crisis can be ascribed to the ‘greed’ of a small number of bankers, or a split between a ‘parastic’ financial services sector and the ‘real economy’ of working people, who (presumably) produce things. In fact, the service sector (including financial services) is central to the UK’s economy, though of course the notion of ‘services’ is itself a broad and imprecise one (is a short-order cook doing the same kind of work as a broker?) There is an important short-term argument to be had about taxation, but it is myopic to think that alterations in the tax regime will stem the crisis as it trundles on.

The longer-term picture here is of a state that supported its social democratic interval with huge innovations in industry, a post-war glut of global credit, and the opening up of now saturated global markets. Changes to economic activity (automation, global outsourcing, diminution of markets in new consumer goods) mean this is harder to sustain, though this trend has been made less visible by the unexpected movements of capital and its ‘financialisation’ over the past forty years. However, it is also important to state that when we talk about ‘crisis’, we shouldn’t just mean the various cyclical crises, or even a crisis in real wages masked by credit, but a permanent crisis gradually sharpening over time, centred on the defining features of capitalism itself: the dependency of the vast majority of the world on the sale of their labour-power for the means to subsist, the necessary precarity of that relation, and the paradox that even among an unprecedented ability to produce, people still starve and die. Are we encountering the limits of this mode? It would be foolish to adopt an easy catastrophism and claim so: the movement of capital is often unexpected, and there may be a series of financial and productive innovations just over the horizon. Nonetheless, it seems incontrovertible that we are currently seeing a serious return of immiseration. This is not a crisis that goes away by sighing wistfully and thinking of better days.


To adequately tackle the current situation, we ought to be doing some serious thinking about the way in which the economy works. The withering away of serious critical reflection on the form of the current crisis means we are often presented with a limp kind of ameliorative social democracy as the only ‘real’ alternative to the current state of things – that is, an alternative that differs in no substantial way from capitalist consensus, save for a series of assertions about socialised public goods and the need for a safety net. That is: a nicer capitalism.

How have we got here? How have we got to a point that the limits of our political imagination are so constrained? It might be one thing if this alternative seemed remotely sustainable in a global context, but it doesn’t – and premising it on the possibilities of outsourcing production to a more grotesquely exploited working class elsewhere is an obscenity. This poverty of options is compounded by an ever-shrinking range of political expression and thought in media, where expressing a mild form of socialism, once unremarkable, now brands one as a leftwing firebrand. Serious analysis of where we are, and where we might go, is essential to the political work we have in front of us.

Yet political activity is not a question of having the better analysis, or capturing the right portion of the media – it requires action outside the confines of the debate chamber or the broadsheet pages. An analysis without action is the worst kind of political quietism; a hankering after righteousness without the willingness to achieve change. And it seems, at the moment, that analysis need not be solely abstract and economic, but a serious attempt to address the questions of organisation and tactics in concert with that.

We are faced with a political imperative that seeks to destabilise what little remains to us: workfare represents the first assault not solely on the unemployed, but on all who work as a whole, erasing employment guarantees, driving down wages, upping working hours. Adrian Beecroft’s insidious recommendations on the removal of workers’ rights will work their way into policy – the niche suggestion of giving up rights in return for a minuscule share in company profits is merely its nicest face. Meanwhile, housing is in crisis, debt weighs on all of us, utility and service bills are rising steeply – to promise merely more of the same is not enough. Some future, that.

Immiseration is the order of the day – in sweetened or unsweetened form. Marx once suggested that the generalised trend to immiseration would tend inevitably to revolution. Perhaps that’s so, but the notion of enduring immiseration of the worst kind for some distant resolution is also insufficient. I will be out on October 20th, of course, but it is nowhere near enough – where next?

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Novara: ‘The Riots’, one year on.

I joined Aaron Peters and Nina Power yesterday on Novara on Resonance FM to discuss the anniversary of last year’s riots. You can listen to it below – I think it’s also worth listening to the show we did with Dan Hancox during the events of last August (here), which has stood up quite well, especially given the patchiness of the sources and rumours that were flying around at the time.

I promised I’d put up the section of Badiou I was quoting, which was one of the essays in the recent ‘The Rebirth of History‘:

In these processes, where the state puts on its most hideous expression, a no less detestable consensus is forged over a particularly reactive conception that can be summarized thus: the destruction or theft of a few goods in the frenzy of a riot is infinitely more culpable than the police assassination of a young man – the assassination that caused the riot. The government and press hastily assess the damage. And here is the vicious idea spread by all this: the death of the young man – a ‘black hooligan’ no doubt, or an Arab ‘known to the police’ – is nothing compared with all these additional costs. Let us grieve not for the death but the insurance companies. (…)

Here, by contrast, it will be asserted that the life of a young man is priceless – all the more so in that he is one of the countless people abandoned by our society. To believe that the intolerable crime is to burn a few cars and rob some shops, whereas to kill a young man is trivial, is typically in keeping with what Marx regarded as the principal alienation of capitalism: the primacy of things over existence, of commodities over life and machines over workers, which he encapsulated in the formula: ‘Le mort saisit le vif’. Of this lethal dimension of capitalism the Camerons and Sarkozys are the zealous cops.

– The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings (London: Verso, 2012) p.20

Reasserting the primary importance of that police assassination, and the political (rather than apolitical or ‘consumerist’) content of last year’s riots is absolutely necessary when there is a concerted effort on the part of the police and the right-wing media to occlude the murder that sparked them off. Yesterday’s show is hopefully a small contribution to that effort.

I’d like to also point out that the medium of radio is perfect for allowing these kinds of discussions, at least when it’s removed from the contentless, soundbite-ridden ‘adversarial’ model of BBC factual or news programmes. Thank fuck for Resonance FM, really. Novara is one of the few media spaces that allows serious, thoughtful and critical discussion of current political issues, and I hope the discussions yet to come in this series will help broaden a political conversation currently dominated by Guardian cliché, vacuous opinion-mongering and a political spectrum so narrow as to be practically suffocating.

Novara goes out live on Resonance every Tuesday at 2pm, and is repeated on Sunday at 10pm. You can tune in on 104.4 FM, or stream from the website: http://resonancefm.com/

Novara archive on soundcloud: http://soundcloud.com/resonance-fm/sets/novara-1/

Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/NovaraMedia (Hashtag: #Novara)

Tumblr: http://novaragroup.tumblr.com/

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… Eurydike cursed you Eurydike cursed you assassin of your own child she said and she undid her eyes to the dark

‘Be careful, sir, you are speaking of the woman I love!’ – so, apparently, ran the response of a classics professor to a colleague impugning Antigone’s political clear-mindedness and tragic dignity. Apocryphal or not, it neatly encapsulates how deeply Sophocles’ play has penetrated western culture: it is hard not to be dazzled by Antigone. Her conviction sears the page.

If you don’t know the story of the play, it runs like this: Antigone’s brother, Polyneikes, is dead, having led an assault on the city of Thebes. Kreon, her uncle, King of Thebes, decrees that his body will not be buried, but left to rot in the open air, outside the walls of the city. Antigone defies him, citing the unwritten law, or divine law, against the precepts of the city, and is caught covering her brother’s body. She remains defiant, and Kreon, ignoring omens and dissent (not least from his son, Haimon, betrothed to Antigone) has her walled up in a tomb in the desert; finally, panicking, he attempts to undo his deed, but finds her already dead, and his son and wife both commit suicide, leaving Kreon alone.

That is, at least, one way to put the story. There are others: Antigone and her sister are the only surviving children of Oedipus and Jocasta, and the curse on their house hovers inexorably over the play. When does the play really begin? Even before Oedipus, with Laius’ rape of Chrysippus. The looming shapes of necessity and destiny can be glimpsed through the lattice of the story. The play moves, depending on how you read it: is it a story about incommensurability between the ethics of kinship and the political demands of the state? About Antigone as parrhesiast, singular and maybe even terrifying, inhuman, in her complete identification with truth? About Kreon, a weak and precarious ruler, sliding unawares into tyranny? It is not a play of easy moral certainties. Where does it end? Does Antigone’s piety – a harsh piety – serve to finally expiate the curse, and what does that expiation mean when all she’s left is wreckage?

Anne Carson and Bianca Stone’s collaborative version of AntigoneAntigonick – is far from a conventional rendering of Sophocles’ play. Carson plucks the flesh off the play, leaving polished bone, her hand-lettered version full of gaps and unsettling critical juxtapositions. Stone’s gnomic illustrations are leaved throughout on tracing paper: Carson’s words bleed through them, half-obscured. Stone’s illustrations are not direct commentaries on the play, but work as tangents to the text – a looming line of breeze-block headed figures a little chorus-like, two figures turning away from each other but hand-in-hand floating above Antigone and Ismene’s opening argument, a wild horse unsettling the civil dinner table – visual figurations of the disturbing power of a two and half thousand year old tragedy.

Antigone has a powerful political history. Hegel’s approbation of its sublimity is based partly on its figuring of political-ethical conflict; Judith Butler’s rereading of the play through Lacan and Hegel focuses on the displacing power of Antigone’s claim. But its history of performance is no less political: while its ancient audience were inclined to quote Kreon’s words on good government (e.g., Demosthenes), modern workings of the play centre implacably on Antigone herself: Theodorakis’ ballet was banned in Greece under the junta, Brecht saw in Antigone a longed-for and powerful political conviction that could rouse action, Jean Anouilh’s version, staged in occupied France, managed to rouse applause from ‘pragmatist’ collaborators and idealist sympathisers of the resistance alike. Implacability is a good word for Antigone; one might wonder if it is an untarnished virtue.

Both Nicholas Mirzoeff and Brian Patrick Eha at TNI have produced politically astute reviews of Carson’s book. Eha’s sensitivity to the ‘uncanny force’ of Carson’s language is especially on the mark: her version removes much of the decorum surrounding the violence and grief of the play. Carson’s latest work has given much attention to formal experiment, and much like Nox, the book as object matters, as does her interweaving of critical awareness about the play into its dialogue: this is an Antigone who remembers how Brecht made her perform. Her writing here is closer to the burnt-out sentences and bleak ironies of her earlier work than her more stageable translations of Euripides. It is a play about extremes and an extremist, but one aware of her extremity. Eha sees in Carson’s heroine a woman immersed in grief, fixated by death, her brother’s corpse burnt into her retinas. This is a just reading of Antigone, but I want to explore the two most politically pungent moments of Carson’s book, which have something to do with truth-telling and its foundations, and something to do with time and timing.


Audiences love Antigone. This has certainly been true since the Romantics, as she embodies many of the qualities one might look for in a zealous, stridently individual political heroine: the blurb for Heaney’s translation, in an unironically excavated cliché, bills the play as one in which ‘language speaks truth to power’. But what truth? Antigone’s defiance and rebellion are seductive, especially for an age in which the politically conscious frequently see themselves as solitary, enlightened individuals confronting despotic governments. Antigone both acts and refuses to disclaim her act when confronted, but her reasons for doing so are twofold, and unsettling. Here is Antigone responding to Kreon’s accusation that she has broken the law:





This is often taken to be Antigone’s assertion of the primacy of ties of kinship over the laws of the city, and a claim that the immutable laws of the dead precede any statute forbidding the correct funeral rites. This is certainly one of the truths that Antigone is telling. One of the ways she provokes outrage is not simply by saying this, but being a woman while she does so: Kreon calls her a bringer of anarchy because she upsets all order, political and natural, upending statute and male superiority. But there is another truth Antigone is telling, one repeated by Haimon later as he argues with his father. It comes so quickly you might miss it if you weren’t paying attention, as a response to Kreon’s accusation that she is the only person in Thebes who sees the situation thus:







This argument of Antigone’s – that Kreon has become wilfully deaf to the people he governs – would likely have had more purchase on the play’s original Athenian audience than her fanatical contempt for social norms: the fear of tyranny would have been looming strongly over all of Kreon’s decisions. This is why some scholars have suggested that Kreon fits far more easily into the traditional Aristotelian definition of a tragic hero than Antigone, his essentially noble and virtuous intentions for government undone by an unyielding flaw. Antigone is anomalous, hard to square into any particular theory of tragedy.

Antigone’s aberrance is part of what Carson is bringing out in Kreon’s speech above, and he has a point: Antigone’s insistence on her own need to act, her own ability to unerringly judge injustice by some transcendent criterion, removes her entirely from series of social and political relationships that constitute human being. She discards her relationship with her sister, scarcely speaks to her fiancé (who nonetheless kills himself), even cares little for her own life. In her argument with Kreon, two responses jostle uncomfortably side-by-side, one political, the other anti-political. To claim government is sliding into tyranny is to make a political argument; to claim that there is some extra-political value that can overturn the law at any time is to threaten the city itself. This is why Antigone disturbs audiences.

‘Autobeguiled’: Kreon’s word hangs in the air. Antigone’s claim is unsettling because she is utterly convinced of its rightness; nothing could deter her from it. It carries with it the possibility that she is fatally deluded. That possibility remains latent in the play: the gods do not stay her hand as she hangs herself in the tomb to which she’s condemned; were she simply discharging duties to the dead, divine intervention might be expected to seal the validity of her claim. But Zeus is nowhere to be found (but then, gods are fickle.) Where does Antigone’s conviction come from? And is it really truth she’s speaking?

This hesitancy about Antigone could account for her absence from contemporary discussion of parrhesia, the ethic of truth-telling. Foucault prefers to cite Plato, but one can make a strong case for Antigone’s public speech as bearing many of the hallmarks of parrhesia. So why the hesitancy? There’s something excessive about Antigone (she buries her brother not once, but twice), something uncalmed; there is also something obscure about her. What is obscure is this: what does Antigone believe? What is the truth on which she ferociously sets her sights?

Before her final exit, Antigone makes a speech that has disturbed many eminent editors to the point that they insisted on excising it from the text; it threw the whole integrity of the drama into an unwelcome light. It is about truth and motive. Here is Carson’s rendering:


This version strips Antigone to the bone; with nothing but the tomb in front of her, we start to glimpse the chaos underlying the conviction. The chorus responds: ‘Your soul is blowing / apart.’ The bridal chamber and the tomb are the same place. But more important, perhaps, is Antigone’s ‘weird argument’ – it is nothing to do with governance and tyranny, nor even to do with the proper service due the dead. Antigone would not have done this for a husband or a child, but only a brother, who is irreplaceable. The queasy air of incest hovers over the speech – she is the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, after all – and for all her solitary misery, it’s hard not to see some implacable curse working itself through her here. But there’s something more scandalous about Antigone’s motive here: it’s not that all the dead demand honouring, or even that all one’s kin exercise a special claim, but that this specific individual demands more than can possibly be given under Kreon’s ordinance.

Antigone’s motives are not pure, not noble, they have a tang of corruption about them. But if parrhesia demands an interior ascesis – that is, if truth-telling demands a clear and exacting relationship to one’s interior – then Antigone’s speech here qualifies in an unsettling way. It suggests that Antigone’s truth is not just about political righteousness, nor the laws of the dead, but has its roots in something unequal, excessive, maybe even squalid. Where is truth in this? Is Antigone wrong? She is right that Kreon has become tyrannous; she is right that the dead demand decency, but are her motives pure? Do her motives matter?

It is impossible for Kreon to meet Antigone’s demand; in its fury and excess, it is a demand for the revaluation of all the civic virtues with which Kreon took the stage. It demands more than the restitution of proper government. This is why Gillian Rose choose Phocion’s wife rather than Antigone to talk about the same story (the return of a loved one’s remains to the city for a just burial): hers is an act of ‘finite political justice’, during a temporary tyrannous aberration in government; Antigone’s is not politically recuperable, blasts away all politics before it.


‘Truth is often, in some degree, economic.’ Carson wrote this line when talking about Phaidra, in the concluding essay to her translations of Euripides. There are economic questions in play in Antigone too: as the ‘last one left in a line of kings’, Antigone is an epikleros, and her betrothal to Haimon is as much about politics, wealth and sovereignty as anything else. This diminished status of women in Greek culture is one of the reasons Kreon is outraged at her insurrection against the order of things. There is also a tension at play throughout between what can be substituted and what can’t: Haimon is told by his father that there are plenty of other women who can be substituted for his betrothed; Antigone’s insistence that nothing can substitute for her brother cuts through her motivation.

There is another economy at work in the play, one Carson brings to the fore by adding to the play ‘Nick’, a mute character who remains on stage at all times, measuring things – the economy of time. The end of Antigone is all about time – the nick of time – and how it escapes Kreon. He is continually too late to turn back the chain of events he has set into motion. When he cries out for his death, the chorus replies: ‘That’s the future this is the present / You deal with the present … You don’t get to run this.’ Kreon is a ruler come up against something immutable.

One of the unsettling pleasures of tragedy is to see the ineluctable consequences of action work themselves out on stage. Real life is rarely so neat. Antigone contains a famous crux about theatrical timing, about when Eurydike exits the stage to her suicide. Eurydike is not a character you notice much: she spends most of the play inside the house, exiting only to hear news of her son’s suicide, and then wanders back inside to kill herself, cursing her husband. I say ‘wander’, because it is not clear in the original quite when she exits the stage. There is theatrical potential here: she can drag herself, heavy with fate, back into the oikos, while conversation continues around her silent form. Carson transforms her short, unexceptional ten lines into a jagged meditation on the whole play – it is an exceptional piece of writing, one of the moments in the text that Carson’s critical and poetic faculties are seamlessly blended:




Carson’s version here is far from the speech in the original, retaining only Eurydike’s relationship to the messenger, and foregrounding the figure of the messenger as the bearer of off-stage (literally ‘obscene’) horror to those we see. There is much to unpack: the reference to Woolf and marginal women, or the grammatical pun on Kreon’s moods tensifying the play – Kreon has been throwing around verbs which come back to haunt him in different moods. The reference to autoimmunity and the obscure shadows of private and familial relations picks up both the inscrutable, riven motivations of Antigone herself and Kreon’s accusation, her willing severance of social obligations. Her horror of what she’s about to hear is all too obvious – so much that she scrabbles for the unreliability of the messenger rather than face the truth.

But time and law dance around each other in Eurydike’s speech. Eurydike, for all her marginality, is the only figure who understands what Antigone is, and her relationship to law and the city: she is its product and its negation. As such, the only thing the polis could do would be to expel her. She is irrecuperable. What is the nick of time? The nick of time is something that does not exist for Eurydike, nor anyone else in the play. The nick of time is that swerve which averts disaster for all on stage, something done at just the last moment which resets all the assumptions and trajectories of the play. The nick of time is the essence of comedy; in tragedy it does not exist.

The moment where the course of tragedy can be averted is far in the past: it was already gone when Teiresias reveals to Kreon that he has gone fatally wrong. Perhaps it was even gone long before the action of the play. The chorus says: ‘nothing vast can enter the lives of mortals without ruin.’ Tragic time is all about that vastness working itself in front of us. Can tragedy teach us lessons? Maybe. Tragic time is not like ordinary time: it is distant, far-off (even for its original audience), obeys its own rules; it was performed at festivals, where things are not as they normally are. Only when the normal laws of the city are abrogated can something like Antigone be countenanced.

The political anxiety latent in Sophocles’ play, and which the Carson/Stone version makes relentlessly clear, is to do with something vast and unalterable working us to our own destruction, with the scarcely-glimpsable recesses of human motivation brought out into the light. It is a superb version, certainly, and I have scarcely touched on its wit and force here. The questions it leaves us make Brecht’s admiration for Antigone’s conviction (‘…the light step / of one whose mind is fully made up.’) less easy to echo; it unsettles, and gives no easy answers. We are not in tragic time, the real world works less obviously, and there are no gods left to intervene: but the private motives looming outside apparent clarity of conviction cannot fail to haunt us. Its last lines are merciless:


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By numbers here from shame and censure free,
All crimes are safe, but hated poverty.
– Samuel Johnson, ‘London’

London is a dirty city.

It is dirty in the plain sense: a day spent in its streets, and you acquire the film of grease and universal muck stubbornly ineradicable from even the most advanced of cities. It is dirty in the noirish sense too, remarkably at ease with corruption, full of hood-lidded surprise that anyone would be so gauche as to think back-room deals and palm-greasing even worth commenting on. There are different kinds of dirt: the respectable black patina of centuries of industrialisation in the folded robes of saints on ancient churches, coating the walls and domes of London’s universities; the dirty windows and unemptied bins of the poorer districts. And, of course, the worst dirt floats and festers at the very top.

This theme – the ecology of dirt and hypocrisy, London as Babylon – has sustained many writers. The whited sepulchres of the rich, the stock virtuous poor with dirty faces, the traffic in dirty money and deeply-felt taboos about filth and propriety animate endless novels. We no longer need to pick over entrails in the street in fastidious pattens; we are no longer in much danger of an unexpected chamberpot-shower on the pavement. The Great Stink that so offended the delicate noses of parliamentarians was finally trapped in Bazalgette’s great Victorian sewers. And this is progress: for a city so perennially close to sinking in its own shit, London is miraculously clean. The cholera-ridden slums of Dickens are no more; our more modern slums are far less visible, partly outsourced to the rest of the world, the rest deftly tucked away in the less visible pockets of the endless, reaching city.

But it’s hard to shake off the feeling that London totters just on the verge of being overcome by its own dirt and disorder. It’s a continual verbal tic of those preoccupied with the maintenance of social order that dirt, disease and disorder are essentially synonyms: hence social unrest is a disease of the body politic, hence the endless clichés about demonstrators needing a wash, hence the habit of talking about last summer’s riots as a great outpouring of moral and physical dirt. At times this language is thinly-veiled racism, at others seething class hatred, but universally preoccupied with scrubbing away our problems. It’s hard not to hear an echo of the confused imperatives of the great Victorian philanthropists, who suggested all kinds of connections between moral and financial poverty, between physical and moral dirt, and for whom a regular good wash was the certain and brisk solution to feculent poverty.

With all its talk of sterile zones, quasi-militaristic securitisation and physical displacement, it’s not a surprise to see that LOCOG is in on the act, with these adverts springing up all over the tube:

To dodge the standard ripostes: it’s not as if anyone would object to treading in fewer turds on the way home from work, nor a spruced-up park, nor some public windows less encrusted with grime. It is how this exhortation is delivered, how it is supposed to be achieved, and for whom – all these are not just objectionable, but symptomatic. Having lost the stiff-necked patriotism of 19th-century public reformers, the language of public duty and civic responsibility disappears in favour of faux-chummy, colloquial drivel-copy about London being a bit like your flat, and the Olympics being a bit like your Mum coming round. This is infantilising nonsense, of course, but that’s something we’re used to from the Mayor’s office – but who is this ‘cleanup’ for? God forbid one might wish the city to be a bit better for those who have to use it, permanently, rather than to show off as a polished bauble for the various VIPs zooming around it in their special reserved lanes, then to be allowed to sink back into its casual grime.

And who is to do this work? Like much Olympic labour, it relies on the work of volunteers. The tone of Cameron’s vision for Britain – the Big Society – is here in all its squalid, hectoring, sub-paternalistic bathos. The message: after the drag and drudge of work, commute, and a snatched meal, find a few hours to plaster on a smile and do yet more work, picking shit out of the grass. And more: do it in some ersatz ‘community’ emptied of all tangible substance, presided over by five rings and skyscrapers with crystalline, sparkling-clean glass.

This must gall old high Tory moralists: no longer able to command obedience in the name of Empire or nation, they’re reduced to nagging in a tedious jolly-hockysticks buzz from the margins, invoking some international ‘Mum’ looking over your shoulder. Permanently. Kitsch nationalism is the order of the day: everything plastered with a Union Jack, a crown and bunting, but never in a simple, tidy homage to the plainly Imperial. Instead, all of this is mediated through an ironic, slightly-distant relationship to better days. Empire is still too toxic to rehabilitate, so instead a sickly-sweet glaze of red, white and blue coats everything: nostalgia for ‘values’, for a kind of better order, where everyone knew their place, talked to their neighbours, and respectable women scrubbed their doorsteps once a week.

Nostalgia in grim combination with international branding imperatives: the Proctor & Gamble ‘Capital Cleanup’ not only recalls the army of broom-wielding white people who emerged after the August riots to clean the nightmare remnant of Empire from the streets, but places its brand sponsors into a neat medal ribbon on the side of all its advertising. Brand ambassador Keeley Hawes grins manically from the website, perfectly coiffed, sharply-but-primly dressed, pulling on her marigolds to scrub, scrub, scrub away the capital’s filth. Olympic nostalgia: when women not only did all the cleaning, but enjoyed it.

We know now (we always knew) the ‘Olympic legacy’ long-touted as justification for colossal expenditure was just a guileful sales pitch. Militant cleaning is one of its less immediately objectionable faces, but a smaller part of the wave of ‘regeneration’ and social cleansing sweeping the poorer areas of London. The Heygate, Carpenters’ Estate, ‘decanting’ of communities to make way for more lucrative executive developments – this is all part of a ‘cleaning up’ with more lasting effects, taking a long broom to the unsightly or inconvenient, and pushing them further and further out of a city in which they have an increasingly precarious foothold.

Who is the city for? Struggles over housing, decent transport, clean air, the freedom to gather in public – these all float around this question. Answering it sometimes means counterposing the ‘real’ London to its unreal counterpart, rising in glass and steel in its swish-but-empty financial districts. Behind the bumptious Mayor and the ridiculous Mittal folly, the gentrifying tide of renewal in the city is determined to answer the question in one way: the city – its pleasant parts, at least – are for the wealthy alone, with those unable to hitch themselves to the property balloon banished further and further to the margins.

The scrubbed-clean city, decked with Olympic or Royal bunting, the grasping for bucolic history while ignoring the detritus of the city, sweeping it out of the way – the whitewashing of London – is a manoeuvre to establish some other city in its stead, of pleasant harmony and functioning, of little discontent and no dissension. Kitsch Britain, a bad collage of our most inglorious, vaguely bathetic moments, is well into its birth.


God made the country, man made the town.’
Cowper, The Task

In a famous essay, now historically bleak, Michel de Certeau writes of the experience of seeing Manhattan from the 107th floor of the World Trade Center:

‘To be lifted to the summit of the World Trade Center is to be carried away by the city’s hold. One’s body is no longer criss-crossed by the streets that bind and re-bind it following some law of their own; it is not possessed – either as user or used – by the sounds of all its many contrasts or by the frantic New York traffic … His altitude transforms him into voyeur. It places him at a distance. It changes an enchanting world into a text. It allows him to read it; to become a solar Eye, a god’s regard.’

Well over a century beforehand, the Victorian journalist Henry Mayhew looked out from the gallery of St Paul’s and saw the span of London stretching before him, with buses ‘no bigger than tin toys’ and ‘dense streams of busy little men’ hurrying this way and that. This ‘god’s regard’ is a viewpoint familiar to any reader of writing about cities: the elevated perspective that eliminates the single human to see the vast system of the city as a greater living being, tiny individuals pumping through its arteries, unaware of the greater whole. The fantasy of the perfect city often adopts such an elevated view, from spatially-impossible medieval illustrations of the New Jerusalem, to the cosmically ordered and distressingly inhuman utopian cities of Campanella and Andreae. The viewpoint of gods encourages a certain carelessness about the common and private sufferings of the individual; swarming throngs quickly become ant-like, inconsequential. Elevation breeds contempt: John Carey was right to detect in Eliot’s modernism a disdain for the common man, a kind of pitying revulsion for the downward-gazing crowds thronging over London Bridge. But the tension between the misery of a fallen city and the refinements of urban civilisation wasn’t first revealed in The Waste Land; it’s a common enough trope to be almost unremarkable. Cities have always been mercantile, too, great centres of trade, but after the financial revolution post-1688, money, credit, and its various institutional forms, from stock exchange to debtors’ prison, becomes an ever more noticeable part of writing about London.

Mayhew would be astonished climbing St Paul’s today. Not simply because of the sprawling megalopolis touching the span of the horizon, but because of the vast skyscrapers dwarfing it. What might the inhabitants of those eyries think of the world below them, how might they see those in its streets? The vantage-point of of the utopian, the social planner – the elevated position adopted by anyone who wants to grasp the totality of a city – always suffers this tension: in order to see general principles otherwise obscured by the dense undergrowth of particular sufferings, singular stories, human beings become virtually indistinguishable ants. Only from so high a position, as de Certeau points out, can we begin to read a city. But what is tragic, disquieting to de Certeau, is that the high places of the world engender a false freedom from the streets below; to theorise only from the tops of towers is to tilt inevitably toward megalomania, to flatten out the millions of ants below, always for the benefit of the city. But we always have to descend.

For Mayhew, truly understanding the city – the many Londons that rubbed shoulders, but never quite looked each other in the face – involved descending from the cathedral dome and beginning to speak to people in the streets. The extraordinary series of interviews with the impoverished and the ‘Street-Folk’ of London in the middle of the 19th century (which would later make up the substance of his London Labour and the London Poor) attest to a method flexible enough to account for both the vastness of the city as a social system and the multiple voices and individual miseries suffered by the poor. Nestled in the second volume of LLLP is the conclusion that Mayhew drew from his wide-ranging interviews:

Our poverty increases while our wealth increases, and our paupers grow nearly four times as quick as our people, while the profits on trade nearly double themselves in little more than a quarter of a century.
LLLP, II, p.318

This conclusion – as adroit a reproof to disciples of the trickle-down effect now as it was to Victorian philanthropists then – was not a consequence of any dogmatic political conviction on Mayhew’s part. In the course of his research, he became increasingly outspoken about the worst instances of exploitation (especially where employers lied brazenly about the wages they were paying their workers) but was always reluctant to declare himself for any social panacea. His refusal to mince words led to rifts with editors, but the work was widely and hungrily read. What was Mayhew’s particular success? Despite his admirers’ (true) claims that LLLP is one of the richest documents of Victorian urban life and poverty, the period was not lacking in concerned reports (‘blue book’ and otherwise) on the miserable state of the very bottom rungs of society; Engels’ 1844 Condition of the Working Class in England remains one the most famous accounts.

Yet Mayhew’s method was not that of dry political economy – though he certainly takes potshots at Malthusian orthodoxy throughout his work – but a heterodox anthropological inquisitiveness, oscillating between vignettes of ‘Street-Folk’ in their own voices and precipitous quantitative tables of the amount of money flowing through London, demonstrating how little of it ever reached the hands of the poor. To open LLLP is to find, on virtually every page, startling and disquieting stories of poverty in the midst of the wealth, in hundreds of different voices. E.P. Thompson points out that Mayhew’s calculations were always a little rough around the edges, and his detractors would point out that he often had a team of runners working for him – but LLLP remains a benchmark in the discovery of another London, real, human, but concealed, right on the doorsteps of money-men and gentry.[1]

It is hard not to see LLLP through the light of the great Victorian novels, and this is certainly partly to do with the influence Mayhew’s accounts of poverty had on contemporary fiction – though he was critical of Dickensian sentimentality. Thackeray pinpoints Mayhew’s particular genius when he cedes that ‘readers of romances’ had never encountered anything so wonderful or so awful:

‘…the griefs, struggles, strange adventures depicted exceed anything that any of us could imagine. Yes; and these wonders and terror have been lying by your door and mine ever since we had a door of our own. We had to go but a hundred yards off and see for ourselves, but we never did.’
W.M Thackeray ‘Waiting at the Station’  (1850)

This system of not seeing – or of failing to realise what seems elementary – that the poor can, in fact, speak and understand, would seem like a grave ethical and political failure of Mayhew’s contemporaries, were we not still so practiced in it ourselves. The complex of taboos around money – which Ruskin called the ‘forbidden deity’ of his contemporary social order – had its role to play here. ‘Genteel mystifications’ prevent open discussion of the permanent anxiety about debt that suffused the Dickensian world; sentimentalising the poor was only one consequence of this, the curious tug-of-war between open pursuit of financial gain, and the virtue of such a belief, and a residual Christian belief that poverty (of a sort, anyway) had some kind of moral status. On the back of such conflicts, empires are built. Marx caught some of this distorting power of money and its piling up of ‘contradictory attributes’ in ‘The Power of Money’:

‘Money, then, appears as this distorting power both against the individual and against the bonds of society, etc., which claim to be entities in themselves. It transforms fidelity into infidelity, love into hate, hate into love, virtue into vice, vice into virtue, servant into master, master into servant, idiocy into intelligence, and intelligence into idiocy.’

Where Mayhew is known at all, he is often sketched as a quaint emissary among the poor, later settling back into comfortable habits of reaction in other work – and there is doubtless some truth to this. Mayhew was certainly no historic communist idol, but over the course of his work, he became ever more caustic about what he saw as deliberate exploitation in sweated labour, and the way in which ‘free’ trade rested on the permanent immiseration of part of the populace. He was certainly inclined to look at philanthropic benevolence with a jaundiced eye: having called a public meeting of female slop workers in December 1849, he was somewhat surprised to find Lord Ashley and Sidney Herbert take the stage without warning and announce a beneficent solution to the assembled poor women. Claiming there were 500,000 surplus women in England and Wales, they had purported to discover that there were – by the grace of God, no doubt – 500,000 too few women in the colonies; thus their woes were to be remedied by philanthropic funding for emigration. Victoria and Albert headed the subscription list for shipments; the distressing condition of the poor had found its perverse solution in exportation.

No doubt experiences like this are what led Mayhew later to turn his guns on philanthropy itself. Far from assenting to the implicit suggestion by many of his contemporaries that poverty implied a preceding moral failure – that the filth and hard practice of the poor were pre-existing flaws of character, inclinations to lassitude, addiction, that kept them in poverty – he accurately diagnosed the nasty character of the nominally benevolent:

‘[T]his overweening disposition to play the part of pedagogues … to the poor, proceeds rather from a love of power than from a sincere regard for the people. (…) But such as seek merely to lord it over those whom distress has placed in their power, and strive to bring about the villeinage of benevolence, making the people the philanthropic, instead of the feudal, serfs of our nobles, should be denounced as the archenemies of the country.’ — LLLP, II, p.298

In an era of austerity, when praise for ‘great Victorian philanthropists’ is never far from the lips of the government, it is crucial to remember Mayhew. Not solely for his cynicism about grand philanthropic gestures from on high, but for his willingness to speak with, and record the voices of, people given no voice – the multitude of ants in the street. A kitsch history of the 19th century would tell us that the forward march of progress met slums and moral degradation, and inculcated industriousness and virtue by means of better plumbing, but the early-morning susurration of the poor as they scraped a living did not disappear with the advent of sanitation. Guides to the ‘Cries of London’ – the distinctive morning shouts of sellers of scraps and their sartorial habits – are centuries older than Mayhew’s child crying ‘water-cresses!’ into the dawn, but in Mayhew they are, distinctively, given the dignity of speech and real personhood. Kitsch Victoriana would make these trudging dawn-tide street-sellers little better than set dressing for the bustle of the city’s proper business; but even in its fullest form, the various happy sale-songs from a number in Oliver!, despite the cheery broadened vowels and dancing, none of the street-sellers have actually managed to scrape together even a penny.

Three street-sellers and their cries, from a British Museum copy of ‘The Cries of London’

London today does not look like it did then – the cholera district of Jacob’s Island is now swish loft apartments, and no-one cries their wares in the street any more – but for all the plate glass, its poor are as various and numerous as ever. More than half of the children in Tower Hamlets live in poverty. Parental income remains the greatest determinant of future ability to survive. Austerity under a Tory government has seen a return of the rhetoric of moral failure to account for poverty. These political facts should be remarkable, outrageous; but they are so commonplace as to be unremarkable. The geography of London changes, shifts, stratifies. Last year’s riots were partly so startling because of the bewildered commentators asking where ‘they’ had come from: ‘but a hundred yards from your doorstep’, Thackeray might say. If we still fail to see the poor, it is perhaps because London is even better at stratification than it used to be: the erosion of public space and the right to use it, precarious and variable short-term employment as de rigueur, the pricing-out of all but the wealthy from the city – these are all simple facts. Even the public systems we use in common enable classes not to overlap: the makeup of a tube carriage at 6 a.m. differs profoundly from that at 8:30. Most obviously, cleaners, baristas, low-grade service staff are rarely travelling at the same time as their employers or patrons; the unemployed can scarcely afford to travel, and certainly not at peak hours.

If Henry Mayhew were here today, who would he be speaking to, where would he be wandering? Today’s metropolis might require sharper eyes even than his; even in his work there is a sense of London so multiple and complex that it is on the verge of falling into incomprehensibility. But he might well start on those redeye morning tube carriages, almost a universe away from the gallery of St Paul’s, or the top of the Gherkin.


What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

One of the interwoven threads that make up Italo Calvino’s extraordinary novel Invisible Cities is called ‘Continuous Cities’, and it is one of the more nightmarish of categories, five brief fables about the persistence of cities – in their repeated generations of inhabitants, layers of new city on old city, in their economy of recycled mounds of rubbish and filth, and, lastly, of geographic continuity. The last portrait is of a city, Penthesilea, without any defined edge or centre, full of ‘vague spaces’, a kind of permanent suburbia. The chapter ends:

‘You have given up trying to understand whether, hidden in some sac or wrinkle of these dilapidated surroundings there exists a Penthesilea the visitor can recognize and remember, or whether Penthesilea is only the outskirts itself. The question that now begins to gnaw at your mind is more anguished: outside Penthesilea does an outside exist? Or, no matter how far you go from the city, will you only pass from one limbo to another, never managing to leave it?’

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (London: Vintage, 1997) pp. 157-158

This might be taken as an indictment of the many endless cities of the US, or Cameron’s vision for new ‘garden towns’, but its terror of endless uniformity, the non-specific city, poses the question: what does a city do when it loses its purpose? Or when its sprawl is so vast and endless it is impossible to say where it begins or ends? If London faces either of these problems, it is the latter that is the most obvious – it is far from the horrifying flat city of Calvino’s bad dream, but travelling out into the further satellites of the megalopolis, one begins to touch on its substance. All of Calvino’s meditations were meditations on one city, Venice, also on cities in the abstract, and as representations of death, infinity and the novel.

We have more concrete questions to ask of London, about its purpose and its function. London is not without its centres, the vast retail crossroad of Oxford Circus, or the seat of government, or the brash financial centres of the City and Canary Wharf; or the dozens of smaller centres, sometimes self-proclaimed in regentrifying ‘villages’ assimilated into London’s outward expansion, sometimes sad and redundant, sometimes simply personal, centres of memory, the streets where we grew up. London proclaims itself central, too: the capital, the economic engine of England and indeed the UK, but also as an imaginary horizon, promising freedom, excitement and success as a lure from smaller towns. However unjustified, London sucks people to it, Charybdis-like, from its feeder regions, more often than not spits out its less fortunate as broken flotsam and jetsam, too. Cities are also the prime terrain of revolutionary political movements – London’s history is distinguished here – if more so, now, only because more and more people live in them. David Harvey, most prominently, is asking these questions of the city at the moment – Who owns it? Who has the ‘right’ to it? Why are our most potent fluxes of political consciousness located in them? What about our cities are we not yet seeing? – but he is far from the only person divining a crucial political thread in urbanisation. Mike Davis’ trilogy about L.A., and his astonishing Planet of Slums, serve as reminders that first-world cities are far from the urban phenomena rapidly growing elsewhere in the world; Owen Hatherley remains by far the most penetrating commentator on the collapsing city-projects here on our doorstep.

An air of apocalypse hangs over Calvino’s novel, particularly as it gathers to its conclusion; and the apocalyptic city has always roiled underneath images of London. Even when Mayhew tries to take a prospect of the city, there is some sense of foreboding about the belching metropolis, lifted only briefly in night’s quiescence:

‘Yet all think of it as a vast bricken multitude, a strange incongruous chaos of wealth and want – of ambition and despair – of the brightest charity and the darkest crime, where there are more houses and more houseless, where there is more feasting and more starvation, than on any other spot on earth – and all grouped round the one giant centre, the huge black dome, with its ball of gold looming through the smoke (apt emblem of the source of its riches!) and marking out the capital, no matter from what quarter the traveller may come.’

Mayhew was writing when London still smoked with industry; the cranes that once attended the docks now build banking offices and luxury developments in the docklands, and industrial London is no more. On the skeleton of the industrial city, a different city is put together from scraps of the old, but this means strange disjunctions between the ideal and the real. Under each tube station sits a great pump, in continual furious motion, at the very limits of its capacity, keeping the rising water table from oozing between the toes of commuters. Far from being a consequence of further development, the ebbing away of industry has meant the workshops and factories that kept London’s waters artificially low until mid-century now means they are trickling slowly upward. It is some small consolation that we might one day see The Shard eaten by the mud.

‘Apocalypse’ suggests conflagration, overturning, but it also means ‘revelation’. China Miéville’s recent essay, London’s Overthrow, can be taken as apocalyptic in both these senses: its grainy digital photos of urban inbetweens and waste spaces, its interviews with people whose discontent never make it into regeneration PR splashes, its shadowy texture of other Londons under the shadow of the financial citadels – all these make up a spectacular counter-Olympic apocalypse narrative, unanswerable in its collage of a city torqued between vast wealth and poverty.

Miéville’s writing recalls the work of Laura Oldfield Ford, or of John Constable’s poetic uncovering of the Crossbones Graveyard in Southwark; ‘ghostwalks’ as Miéville calls them. These dérives can read like bad flânerie if they give in to slack nostalgia or the sickly bucolic; these examples don’t, because of the tang of apocalypse scented through the route. Some cataclysm always seems close, not quite here, or perhaps having already happened; it’s hard not to feel we’re surveying some kind of wreckage.

The theme of the city is not new to Miéville: New Crobuzon, Besźel, or the London of Kraken, his fiction often works its way around a grim city of multiple strata inaccessible or even unnoticeable from elsewhere: The City & The City is, among its many virtues, a study in the practice of ‘unseeing’ that has become the sine qua non of living in London; a practice that would be familiar to Henry Mayhew. But, as in ‘London’s Overthrow’, Miéville’s interest often lies at the liminal, the thresholds between two cities, or two seemingly incommensurable ways of being. I do not think it is pushing it to suggest that Miéville’s political awareness is present in his attention to the way in which contraries or opposites produce monsters or disjunctions, that between-spaces hold potentials for other visions, other perspectives, new configurations.

His title is taken from an etching by Jonathan Martin, a classically apocalyptic vision of the city in flames. Martin’s art, made in Bethlem asylum is full of the distortions now paradigmatic in a study of London; his self portrait is an impossible reflection, like a double-take in a circus mirror. Another London visionary, artist and madman, Austin Osman Spare, painted similarly distorted portraits over a century later. He would call them ‘sidereal’, evoking astrological time, or a time adjunct to normal time, from which light reaches us distorted, both truer and less real than clock time.

Jonathan Martin, Lambton Worm & Self Portrait

Austin Osman Spare, ‘Dragon’

Sidereal London; synoptic London. Gated communities, while homelessness rises precipitously; Olympic kitsch and multiplying retail castles, built on former housing and sustained by the evisceration of the vestiges of workers’ rights. These things are not two different cities, but exist side-by-side, one parasitising and digesting the other. The Mittal helter-skelter rising absurdly on the Stratford skyline, as social housing is demolished and never replaced. Filth and manic cleanliness side-by-side. All of this lacquered in red, white and blue; all of it built on a techne of not blindness, simply, but willful unseeing:

‘For some time past our main streets are haunted by swarms of beggars, who try to awaken the pity of the passers-by in a most shameless and annoying manner, by exposing their tattered clothing, sickly aspect, and disgusting wounds and deformities. I should think that when one not only pays the poor-rate, but also contributes largely to the charitable institutions, one had done enough to earn a right to be spared such disagreeable and impertinent molestations. And why else do we pay such high rates for the maintenance of the municipal police, if they do not even protect us so far as to make it possible to go to or out of town in peace? I hope the publication of these lines in your widely- circulated paper may induce the authorities to remove this nuisance; and I remain,

– Your obedient servant,
“A Lady.”’
(A correspondent to the Manchester Guardian, quoted in Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England)

Time to look again.

[1] – Mayhew’s book still lacks a full critical edition, which would be a gargantuan task. However, OUP have published an excellent selection, superbly edited and introduced by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. See Henry Mayhew (ed. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst) London Labour and the London Poor (Oxford University Press, 2010). E.P Thompson published a wide-ranging selection of Mayhew’s letters to The Morning Chronicle, with an excellent introductory essay as The Unknown Mayhew (London: Penguin, 1984); Thompson’s article ‘The Political Education of Henry Mayhew’ can be found in Victorian Studies, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Sep., 1967), pp. 41-62

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Criminalising the Homeless

Many of us have long argued that housing is likely to be at the centre of the crisis in the next few years. This is an understatement: the crisis in housing is already here, and has been burgeoning over the last decade. SQUASH have today released their report into the true costs of enacting Clause 136 of LASPO, designed to criminalise squatting in ‘residential’ properties: depending on the population of squatters, these costs can mount to between £316 to £790 million over five years. (Guardian story.) This from a clause tacked on (in evident haste) to a bill nominally designed to save money by cutting legal aid.

Some quick thoughts:

Populist Policy Making

If there’s anything that’s clear from reading the government’s hurried consultation and assessment, it’s this: this clause is a consequence of a compulsion to satisfy an anti-squatting campaign, largely carried out by the Daily Mail and Evening Standard, and based on any number of outright lies about how property law and adverse possession work. The consultation bears all the hallmarks of back-of-the-envelope calculations designed to rubberstamp the preferred governmental policy. So much for ‘evidence-led’ policy, then. You don’t have to be an anarchist to find this sort of craven, scantily costed and ill thought-through policy a prime example of degenerate government. In fact, even if you adopt the perspective of pro-austerity politicians, such disproportionate spending to combat what Stuart Hodkinson (one of the academic endorsees of the report) calls an ‘innocuous problem’ is wildly off-message.


Properly reading the government’s consultation papers, something odd comes to light: it’s not just squatters and homelessness charities who have opposed criminalisation, but also bodies of legal professionals and even the Metropolitan Police. An odd coalition, to be sure, but this is because of two things: however many scare stories are run by the tabloids, the law already criminalises the displacement of homeowners or intending occupiers from their homes (Section 7, Criminal Law Act 1977) and in such a case, police can act immediately. In fact, these cases almost never happen – in large part because eviction would be so rapid, and at the hands of the police. Virtually all the cases reported in the tabloids are, on closer inspection, cases of empty buy-to-rent properties and angry landlords. So the criminal law to ‘protect homeowners’, the favourite mantra of Grant Shapps and Crispin Blunt, is already in place, and this change in law does nothing to alter that – what it does do is open up to criminal prosecution the large number of homeless people seeking shelter in empty buildings, as a respite from rough sleeping.

How do you deal with a problem like homelessness?

SQUASH argues very clearly that squatting is a consequence of homelessness and housing crisis. As such, simply criminalising squatting doesn’t make it go away – certainly not unless you deal with its underlying causes. What are the possible outcomes of a criminal squatting law? Well, SQUASH rightly demonstrates that squatters are not a static population, nor do they disappear if you criminalise them. This means that, first, the housing need that drives people to squat in the first place doesn’t disappear, and second, people who were squatting as a solution to impossible house prices or to avoid sleeping rough have to either enter into the welfare system (and claim housing benefit) or sleep rough and thus expand demand for homelessness services (both voluntary and statutory). As SQUASH point out, there’s simply no accounting for these costs in the government’s report.

In a time when homelessness has risen by 14% in one year (figures which don’t account for the huge numbers of ‘hidden’ homeless, including squatters), criminalisation, and therefore mass entry into welfare, rehabilitation or incarceration is a dangerous policy. It means – especially with the Chancellor’s cuts to Local Housing Allowance – that there will be a greater increase in rough sleeping. It means that people seeking shelter from sleeping on the streets in adverse conditions will end up trying to endure them instead. In turn, this doesn’t just mean demand on homelessness services rise, but that the number of homeless who die as a result of homelessness (fearing criminalisation and unable to access services) will spike, too.

Crispin Blunt, the minister who has championed Clause 136 through its barely-scrutinised passage through the House, said on Channel 4 news recently that he had ‘no sympathy’ for those about to be displaced from squatting. Hardly a surprise, but the very real consequences of this clause – unimaginable to the cocooned MPs and Lords passing it, because of an inability to appreciate the real circumstances of homelessness – ought to be viewed directly as blood on his hands.

Sound dangerous to you? Good, go visit the SQUASH website, and stop Clause 136 passing.

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Whose Network?

The below is a slightly expanded write-up of the notes I made before speaking on a panel at the launch of Paul Mason’s new book, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, last Thursday at the Southbank Centre. The panel, composed of myself, Mark Fisher, Dan Hancox, and chaired by Ellie-Mae O’Hagan, was an opportunity to delve into some of the issues surrounding ‘horizontal networks’ and protest emerging from Paul’s book. What follows is no attempt at a comprehensive review, but one perspective in what felt like a discussion that could have profitably gone on for much longer.

In his book, and in a number of articles surrounding it, Paul has asserted that a ‘network can usually beat a hierarchy’, and this optimism is in some sense the fundamental claim of his book. I don’t share that optimism, or at least I see reasons to be cautious about thinking about victory as already-achieved – by any estimation, and in any sphere, 2012 is the year of retrenchment. That is as true for the countries of the Arab Spring as it is for anti-austerity activists in Europe, where initial success meets political inertia and neutralisation.

There’s one point in Mason’s book that hasn’t been much remarked by its reviewers, perhaps because they don’t know whether or not they agree, and it’s about Marx’s success: Mason asserts that the reason Marx’s analysis and political prescription surpassed his contemporaries to the point of eclipse is that he refused to retreat into dream utopianism or Golden Age thinking, but confronted the current material (and technical) reality of working conditions and worked from that basis. The retreat from this kind of thinking into fantasy characterises the political response across Westminster: a return to either the anti-theoretical ‘moral’ capitalism of Burke, restrained by submission to the institutions of tradition, or to a Golden Age of industrial struggle with a unified and militant proletariat that never really existed. The best one can say about these fantasies is that they are ludicrous: for all that one may look back longingly, history flows only in one direction.

So, horizontality. I think, in Paul’s book, we find the occasional slippage between two forms of ‘horizontality': in one form as an organising technique, with or without the ‘jazz hands’ that characterise many activist movements, and in another as a property of technological modes of information distribution and replication. The one doubtless informs the popularity of the other, but it’s worth looking closely at those social media tools used by activists and thinking a little about how they work. Much of the commentary on the potentials of these tools treats them as they were simply some great liberal utopia of ideas, a free-flow of information exchange and commentary untrammeled by the costs of replication; a more nuanced and critical analysis might look at how these services are profitable for their owners, in other words, how such freedom to exchange data is made profitable. The internet, after all, is not a space outside of capital: instead, for any service that you use for free, you, and the advertising you click on, information you share, your range of tastes and digital desires, are yourself the product. (What this means isn’t simple to determine, but it’s worth following the analysis surrounding the forthcoming Facebook IPO in these matters.)

So, retrenchment, too: unemployment likely to hit three million, double-dip recession, Eurozone crisis, real-terms wage stagnation and decrease for the past decade now suddenly stinging, incarceration, fear and isolation; the social crisis we’re likely to see as a consequence of austerity has barely begun to be revealed yet. The Guardian reminds us that we’ve yet to see 94% of departmental cuts, and 88% of cuts to welfare. In this context, the sociological type Mason outlines – the networked individual, and, especially, the ‘Graduate without a future’ – matters. Critique of the ‘Graduate without a future’ (GWF) has often focused around whether it’s supposed to be a substitute for class analysis, and any competent reading of Mason’s book will suggest how stupid a critique this is: it’s certainly not a replacement for class. In fact, this sociological figure cuts across classes, and it’s far more cogent to look at class as a faultline that develops in the GWF: for instance, while debt is a unifying factor for all graduates, relationship to debt differs depending on institution and background. The figures may be the same, but the privilege accorded to Oxbridge or Russell Group graduates differs; just as the relationship to taking on debt in the first place is striated by class. So, the GWF is a synthetic figure, unified in some senses, but grouping under its heading profoundly disparate types. But the question it poses is this – and it is the implicit reason Paul draws so heavily on 1848 in his book – in the absence of the ‘graduate job’ (a promise that was always iffy, now completely hollow) and the trade-off of debt for social status and the ability to climb the ladder, in the context of recession and stagnation, does this ‘type’ head toward a more profound questioning of class structure and work? Or does it break off into reactionary formation, start to ask, instead, questions about who ‘deserves’ prosperity, head towards economic nationalism, in other words, all the temptations of a reactionary populism?

There’s been much lamentation of the supposedly non-ideological, post-political, perhaps even cynical character of much of the so-called ‘student movement’ and wider anti-austerity movement, either as simply struggling for a return to social democracy, or as embodying a profound disillusionment with political institutions. What much of this – especially the usual tedium about protesters as ‘Thatcher’s children’ – often means is that this is a politics that is not recognised as such. One thing that social media often makes clear is the chumminess that extends between journalists and politicians of nominally opposing sides; there’s no doubt that there is a crisis of deference, too, that the ‘proper’ political behaviours, the due obedience to appropriate channels, has substantially evaporated. Instead of trying to roll this back, perhaps we should ask instead what it would mean to actually go and meet this political culture where it is actually being formed, instead of trying to jam it back into the old models that have failed its actors time and again. You cannot go back: we spend much time worrying about ‘the movement’, but the reality is that it will not look like it did in the past. All our models of collective action have depended on organising notions of continuity, of commitment and unity, but these are no longer the watchwords of political struggle: one of the strengths of Paul’s book is its concentration on what kinds of new subjects might be emergent under new technological regimes, and, especially, the growing importance of peripheral actors, those whose ideology (if it exists at all) is certainly heterodox, who feel free to move between engagement and disengagement. In simply lamenting this, rather than thinking about the opportunities it provides, we hobble ourselves. This isn’t a kind of techno-utopianism: Hayek, after all, thought he knew all about the atomised-but-networked individual. The political fact of the network is, in itself, neutral: instead, let’s ask questions about what the networked and increasingly autonomous individual does in reaching for collectivity and community, what opportunities for intervention this provides us – in other words, look clearly and unflinchingly at the new terrain, rather than trying to roll back the clock.

If I don’t share the unfettered optimism of Paul’s credo, it’s because the severity of the crisis is about to intensify. In 2007, the historian David Kynaston published Austerity Britain, a history of the post-war years of scarcity; in commenting on the current crisis, he points out that the common bonds that held us together through the difficulty of those years have irretrievably dissolved. The danger lies in an attempt to survive by nationalism, by trying to recover the kitsch communality of a past that was miserable and oppressive for most people. There is a further danger in talking about technology and politics, that thinking the free flow of data and communication has overwhelming political power. Venting anger online, clicking ‘like’ on a Facebook page or retweeting some well-expressed ire can act as much as a safety-valve as it can a catalyst, with people blowing off steam for some back-slapping catharsis: worse still is the encouragement that underlies it to believe that society is constituted as a debate chamber, where simply having the best, and best-expressed, most-viewed or liked arguments, somehow can create political change. It can’t, and won’t, but the petitionary mode – the belief that adding one’s name to something, or asking for someone to change something on your behalf – is a continual peril of digital self-production.

The crisis is worsening: its next engine and substrate is unquestionably housing, in which private sector landlords are increasing stock (by 42% in the last 5 years) at the same time as a lack of lending, and the lowest output in housing since 1923. Depressed stock and wage stagnation means unaffordable rent, repossessions, anti-squatter legislation and an incipient housing crisis, but how we organise around that is hard to answer. In the meantime, public sector unions have rolled over in the pensions dispute, the CWU smilingly accept the roll-in of workfare, and Serwotka and McCluskey idly rattle sabres with no likelihood of delivery. The network has proven itself good at responding to legislative events – it can call a good protest, make defeat look noble and spectacular – but going beyond the reactive nature of these things, and using the emergent properties of the network to set an agenda of resistance not dependent on the slow drip of legislation or the inertia of the trade unions is the more daunting task that confronts us. If we accept that there is a crisis in deference and cynicism about the useless traditional forms, then we should also have the courage to break free of the dogmatic images of resistance, as well as questioning the ‘codes of conduct’ that defang economic and political resistance: this means looking at things that are banned because they work, including wildcat strikes, secondary picketing, co-ordinated disputes, but also political resistance outside the traditional industrial form, such as autoreduction and sudden irruptive interventions in political discourse. This means intervening in the mainstream, certainly, and refusing a kind of puritanism that we can ill afford; it also means coming to the struggle where it’s actually taking place.

History doesn’t flow backwards, but we can learn its lessons: in a recent interview, the billionaire George Soros sounded curiously like Paul Mason, when he stated that the collapse of ‘market rationalism’ was as serious a crisis as he had ever confronted: ‘in the crisis period, the impossible becomes possible’ – and that is an opportunity we should seize.

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