Saturday, May 03, 2008

Destroy the Brain Instantly, Utterly

"This is like the March on Rome in 1922," one shadow minister said as Johnson inched towards victory. Johnson will not march into London's City Hall surrounded by blackshirts in the manner of Benito Mussolini's supporters when they staged their coup d'état in 1920s Italy. But the lighthearted reference to 1922 gave a taste of the high Tory spirits.

Almost too enraged to write about the prospect of someone whose main qualifications for public office are an extremely expensive education and the boorish charmlessness that comes with it becoming London's representative to the world. The only consolation is that, unlike in Rome, people aren't going to be shouting 'Duce, Duce' outside City Hall just yet (although the BNP seat implies that isn't impossible in the future). In the Greenwich pub where yesterday we watched the results come in there was whooping when the toff won - and that in one of the few areas where the left made a reasonable showing. Johnson is the perfect politician for the smug, vacuous side of London, with its entire tube carriages reading the same mind-rotting thing, its obsession with fame, its belief that nothing, ever, is serious.

The first time I ever voted was in 2000, for Ken Livingstone. It was odd, given that everyone in my family had done so for generations, not to be voting Labour. Maybe one of the few advantages of being under 30, with all the shallowness and evil that seems to necessitate is not having that corrosive Party sentimentality. Although the meltdown of the last couple of days (hello Southampton) has made it blindingly obvious how much it's needed, the possibility of the Labour left bailing out and helping create an alternative to two neoliberal parties, one grimly managerial, the other full of public school overconfidence, is looking as minimal as ever. There have only been two high profile secessions, both personality-based - Livingstone himself, who might well have won yesterday had he stayed an independent rather than hitching himself to a sinking ship; and Galloway's expulsion, the two political outgrowths of which (one limiting itself to Livingstone cheerleading) got depressing results yesterday. Both were Party men through and through, and both very adept at tubthumping rhetoric which translates to fuck all on the ground. Labour has never been (give or take moments in the 40s, and the early 80s, to spectacular and appalling results respectively) a socialist Party, but to for people to cling to it even now, as if there's the slightest hope of making it even a timidly reformist party, is increasingly pathetic.

Like the far more catastrophic Italian elections, surely this is an indictment of a 'Left' that makes postures which we can all feel marvellous about without ever doing the slightest reformist thing to improve the lot of its natural constituency - social housing, redistribution of wealth, public investment without PFI strings attached, unsexy stuff like that. It's nice to know that Livingstone supports the Bolivarian revolution and opposes the Iraq war, given that he can do nothing about either. The pitifully small remit of the GLA and the Mayoralty basically involves power over three things. Policing, on which full support was given to shoot-to-kill; Transport, where some decent policies (congestion charge, free bus travel for under 16s, the eventual renationalisation of Metronet) coincided with privatising the East London line, reneging on the exact policy he was elected on in 2000. And then there's Planning, where mass class cleansing has been helped along by Richard Rogers and Ricky Burdett's Urban Task Force and its increasingly ineffectual obsession with Europeanising the city via pointless piazzas and seemingly endless sub-Parker Morris 'luxury' flats - oh, and some easily circumvented guff about 'affordable' housing. Even City Hall is only rented from a private developer.

Irrespective of his hilarious Blimpishness, what we'll probably get with Johnson (enough of the infantile 'Ken' and 'Boris', please) is a further 'Europeanising' of London, to the happy position of Paris. London, which is a capital that, for all its grotesque inequalities and infrastructural rot is one of the few places where (almost) nobody gives a fuck what you look like or where you're from, and where enclaves of the people the tourist doesn't want to see live uncomfortably close to the centres of power and capital, will devolve more and more into 2 or 3 zones housing the rich, with the rest of us shunted out to the banlieue. The Barratt Homes floodplain of the Thames Gateway, when they've pushed us all out there, will be the incongrous setting for the riots of the future, at a safe distance from the places really worth torching.


Anonymous cossimo said...

In most southern european cities (Barcelona, Lisbon, Naples) there are a lot of "enclaves of the people the tourist doesn't want to see live uncomfortably close to the centres of power and capital."
If you are right, we are not facing the Europeanising of London but the "Paris-anising" of the whole continent.
And if I had to choose, I´d prefer to wander around Praza da Quintana in Santiago rather than socialize in a pub in Greenwich.
I don´t know but it seems to me that even the most ferocious London-haters worship its alleged exceptionalism.

7:24 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Perhaps you're right with respect to the cities you name - I've visited none of them, and so perhaps Parisianising is the better term - but I've seen very un-London levels of racial and class segregation in Berlin, Amsterdam, Stockholm and Brussels as well. Sure, it's mythologised and overstated, but I've never come across another capital with so many different people crammed into the same place. Partly this is a source of immense irritation, eg over the fact that black-on-black and poor-on-poor crime happens literally next door to the fabulously rich - but it would be foolish to pretend that this phenomenon doesn't exist.

7:57 pm  
Anonymous cossimo said...

But if "black-on-black and poor-on-poor crime happens literally next door to the fabulously rich", isn´t that a more irritating way of racial and class segregation?
On the other hand, people you talk about, are they really so different? You yourself have criticized "all over the place" sportwear.
I think the problem is not the uselfulness of piazzas but why they don´t get used.

9:26 pm  
Anonymous cossimo said...

I meant "why people don´t use them".

9:56 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

OK, so obviously I don't want to suggest that piazzas are a bad idea because they're not 'useful', that would be silly. Rather, the problem with them (as Mr Holland so eloquently summarises) is that they're not based on how urban interaction and sociality actually works in a messy, non-public spirited city like London. To me, anyway, the Livingstone via Rogers-Burdett urban policy seems based on Bilbao effect/Creative Industries ideology, which is usually an (intended or otherwise) alibi for class cleansing, and a bourgeois fantasy of what public space ought to be like. Mind you, if it were accompanied by a real extension of the macropolitical public sphere then I wouldn't find it nearly so irksome. Maybe the problem with the policy is that it's social democratic planning in a neoliberal economy, without even the social housing to give that a real concrete basis. It's a sop, a facade.

I find sportswear highly drab and depressing, yes - but I really don't think that the fact that the most multiracial, multicultural city in history manages to get along without any pogroms or (until now perhaps) serious Fascists is negated by the crapness and uniformity of men's clothing.

The potential advantage - and here you are free to accuse me of Spartish romanticism - of London's urban messiness is that, unlike in Paris, where a riot can be nicely compartmentalised and 'Karcherised', when revolt kicks off in London it will be right in the heart of capital and power, and they won't be able to send a load of police out to the outskirts and hang around the Beauborg pretending it isn't happening.

I don't want to be defending London, as I'm sure you can guess, but a city in which poverty is visible strikes me as slightly (faint praise alert) less sick than one where it's spirited out of sight. This is what is happening, though, and the election of this cunt is only likely to accelerate that.

12:46 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"someone whose main qualifications for public office are an extremely expensive education and the boorish charmlessness that comes with it"

Check Dods, the parlimentary companion, to compare the proportion of privately educated people in the shadow Cabinet with that in the Government. Set aside the "boorish charmlessness" of BJ and the talent of many and you're stlll left with office gained mainly through a sense of entitlement, however expensively bought.

Good point about "pointless piazzas". I'm fascinated by the provincial equivalent of London's decline into the sink of imaginary continentialism, fortunately experienced more often in local development planning debates than in real spaces.

The preambles to these imaginary spaces outside London are often accompanied by frenzied pleas for continental-style outdoor eating facilities to sate the tide of regional aspiration. Such remedial developments would be hilariously gauche if they weren't so wasteful.

9:47 am  
Anonymous cossimo said...

Well, I live in a city where the City Hall is surrounded by a derelicted neighbourhood where prostitutes, drug addicts, homeless people, immigrants, gypsies and elderly people try to survive in extremely miserable conditions. You´ll probably never see that level of poverty in London. As far as I´ve noticed, there is no any revolution going on over here.
In fact, armonic coexistence between power and marginalization is typical for underdeveloped societies.
Southern Europe cities are nowadays facing not just a Parisianising process but a Londonising one. I mean, city centres are being gradually "karcherised" in order to achieve "the bourgeois fantasy of what public space ought to be like" but at the same time, they´re being transformed in "messy, non-public spirited" prisons. Here, the only one spaces which remain public are... beaches. In the past, piazzas and streets were the usual space for sociality. Now, they have been replaced by malls, gyms, pubs and social clubs.
You are right: social democratic planning in a neoliberal economy is just a facade. And, of course, you know London much better than me. But don´t you think your city must, first of all, be de-Londonised?

12:23 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Maybe so, but what exactly would that mean? London's much-vaunted bustle and (ick) 'vibrancy' are ideological in their own way, sure. But an alternative to either a continental fantasy or the fetishising of poverty (what 'vibrant' usually boils down to) would be...what? Ideally there would be a major, thoroughgoing transformation of the environment by and for it's working class population, which would efface both 'London' squalor and 'continental' piazza and pine Ikea Modernism. That would obviously involve an extension of real public space. That's no more about to happen than your (or our) City Hall is about to be stormed by an angry mob. (although one should never dismiss the possibility of such things...)

12:45 pm  
Anonymous cossimo said...

So, we have to choose between continental urban alienation and "Isolationist" urban alienation.

2:08 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Which is obviously no choice at all. What I'm arguing is that the 'continental' planning that has been fought for by the GLA under Livingstone (and which I expect Johnson to continue, more or less) is no more inherently socialistic or even any more genuinely public than the privatopia it accompanies. We should be rejecting both, and coming up with something new. Just because I don't think it's about to happen doesn't mean I don't think it should.

Anyway, I'm going to be doing my bit to help this along outside City Hall at 6pm on Tuesday, by throwing rotten veg at the BNP's new assembly member. Anyone else?

2:19 pm  
Blogger emmy hennings said...

Oh dear. I'm very sorry that the execrable Lynton Crosby was partly behind Boris Johnson's success. If only someone had drowned him in a shallow pond (or better still, dumped him at sea in a leaking boat somewhere north of the Gulf of Carpenteria, so that he could have experienced first-hand the misery of trying to cross an open ocean in a sinking vessel) shortly after the 2001 Australian federal election, none of this might have happened. Then again, perhaps it would have. Blaming someone is cold comfort, really, when the rottenness is systemic.

12:22 am  
Anonymous BGE said...

Hey, don't blame me, I voted for Ken, the corrupt homophobe...

Seriously, though, there has been some comment floating around the press about how one of Boris's assets is the way he turns a certain sort of leftist literally crazy. Rather like this post. When 'normal' people read all those hysterical Guardian editorials about how Boris was a fascist racist baby-killer, it tended to make them more rather than less likely to vote for him.

That said, one of the bigger issues driving turnout (apart from Ken's little problems with corrupt cronies and City Hall guests who think Jews are 'pigs and monkeys') was the congestion charge, a nice Urbanist issue. All those 'toffs' (cough) people in K&C who turned up to the public consultation for expansion, voted a resounding 'No' and were then astonished to hear the mayor declare that he would ignore the consultation and go ahead anyway... think any of them decided to vote this time round?

5:19 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Where to start...

When 'normal' people read all those hysterical Guardian editorials about how Boris was a fascist racist baby-killer, it tended to make them more rather than less likely to vote for him.

I don't think that's quite the case, to be honest: it seems to have panned out that the inner city (when it voted) gave a clear victory to Livingstone, and the suburbs (who did vote, en masse) gave a clear victory to Johnson, with 'normal' voters being distributed between both, as y'know, their class may have come before their 'normality'.

You're right that Johnson irritates the bloody hell out of the likes of me, but that in itself, or the block voters of K&C (who I will persist in describing as toffs, parasites, or emissaries of evil, although naturally that doesn't exclude them from being 'people', alas) was not ever going to be enough to swing it. The K&C question abt consultation is a massive red herring, anyway - they and their military vehicles are a minority within London, and made things miserable for everyone else.

And why exactly was it hysterical to describe someone who refers to 'picaninnies' as a racist? And who, unlike Livingstone, opposes gay marriage, as being rather more deserving of the epithet 'homophobe'?

6:44 pm  
Anonymous BGE said...

Well, looking at the campaign in Crewe, it's interesting to see the way Labour is becoming the bigot's party. You're comfortable with that? ... and really, what is a toff? Will anyone outside student politics even recognise the stereotype of a man in tailcoat and topper? That's an image as out of date as the chinaman with big teeth and straw hat.

Picaninnies... oh dear, not that old one. Google is your friend. You could even start on for a bunch of labour activists pouring scorn on that as a smear.

Boris voted against gay (actually, any unmarried) adoption. Ken, in the meantime, invited to City Hall a man who says that homosexuals should be stoned to death, and used taxpayers' money to smear Peter Tatchell after he pointed out the way Iran treats gays (construction machinery is involved). Your choice.

11:53 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Well, your choice too, as you voted for him. But if you've read the original post and still think I'm comfortable about anything to do with the Labour Party as it is now, then you're not the closest of readers. And seeing as various kinds of blimpish fulminating have been in cold hard print under Johnson's name for years now, I really don't give a fuck whether 'Labour activists' think he's being smeared or not. A toff, by the way, wouldn't refer to Lord Snooty necessarily, any more than I refer to Hovis adverts when using the phrase 'working class' - but to the expensively educated folk who seem to be doing so very well out of the political system, high finance, etc etc...sorry to be so retro here.

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