Breaking the chains: Precarity in the Age of Anxiety

An Age of Anxiety is upon us, one where society assaults us from every possible angle with an avalanche of uncertainty, fear and alienation. We live with neither liberty nor security but instead precariousness. Our housing, our income and our play are temporary and contingent, forever at the whim of the landlord, policeman, bureaucrat or market. The only constant is that of insecurity itself. We are gifted the guarantee of perpetual flux, the knowledge that we will forever be flailing from one abyss to another, that true relaxation is a bourgeois luxury beyond our means.

Our very beings come to absorb this anxiety. We internalize society’s cruelty and contradiction and transform them into a problem of brain chemistry, one that is diagnosed and medicated away instead of being obliterated at root. All hope is blotted out. Authentic experience, unmediated conversation, distraction-free affection and truly relaxed association feel like relics of a bygone era, a sepia dream that perhaps never existed.

Instead we have the frenetic social arenas of late capitalism: the commodified hedonism of clubs and festivals, express lunches, binge culture and the escapist, dislocating experience of online video games, all underlined by either our desperate need to numb our anxieties or to create effective, time-efficient units of fun so we are available for work and worry.

Read the rest of this piece at ROAR Magazine.

The Good Activist

Sweeping critiques of contemporary activism can be problematic. Some attempt to generalise a condition across nations, continents, or even the globe for the sake of strengthening an author’s argument, while others are written by people whose actual experience of activism is either minimal or undertaken instrumentally, just so they can write about it.

This said, state of the movement critiques, if tentative and localised, are essential if we are to avoid flailing into the abyss. Social, economic, and ecological crisis loom so vividly that a constant, fluid assessment of the developing effects of late capitalist society, how we can build a movement in spite or because of them, and the strategies, tactics, and rhetoric such a movement should deploy is essential.

The problem is that such conversations are theoretical. And, from my experience of the young, committed, radical left in London, there is little interest in engaging with theory beyond the immediate concerns of resisting an eviction or avoiding a kettle. Talk is cheap is the prevailing view, and theory is to be treated as an embarrassing aside, something to be practised guiltily and in private.

Read the rest of this piece at Left Book Club.

Smile Like You Mean It

Such is the exuberant optimism of the staff at Pret A Manger that you’d assume they were treated well. But Pret A Manger’s employees aren’t overjoyed because of good workplace conditions, generous wages, or regular hours; instead it’s because management have told them to be, and with sickening specificity. As Paul Myerscough explosively outlined in the London Review of Books, Pret A Manger have an internal list of behaviours that they encourage their staff to exhibit through a combination of pre-selection, peer pressure, and public shaming—a culture stoked by management-employed mystery shoppers who have the power to reward or punish the entire staff of a branch if just one individual comes across as downbeat. Employees are told to avoid using “jargon inappropriately,” and to keep things personal by engaging in physical contact where possible and making sure they don’t put out a “just here for the money” vibe; indeed, their behaviour is micromanaged so that it seems like selling sandwiches to tourists and commuters is the sum of their aspirations. Meanwhile, the happiest sandwich shop on the high street engages in low pay and union busting.

This “affective labor psychologically manipulates both sides of the exchange. The underpaid precariat are explicitly directed to struggle not just physically but emotionally, too. Their faux camaraderie flows towards the customer through their smiles and pre-planned offers of free tea and coffee and, while breaking down any possibility for genuine human interaction, contribute heavily to the company’s bottom line. In this way, companies like Pret A Manger—or Apple, to name another, with its “Genius Bar,and its tech-hip attendants who loiter casually, as if midway between flirting and serving you a drinkdon’t merely want efficient service with a smile, but also issue a set of rigid, intimate directives ordering employees not just how to act, but also how to exist.

Read the rest at The Baffler.

Opportunity in Collapse: the horizon of the post-apocalyptic

The American literary critic and Marxist political theorist Frederic Jameson famously remarked that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But what we don’t often consider is how capitalism influences our end-worldview.

The horizon of the post-apocalyptic is usually bleak: isolated individuals trudging through the wilderness, surviving only through violence, cunning and mutual distrust. The human race, without the coercive machinations of the state, descending into a brutal barbarism where every relationship is pragmatic, rationally calculated and based on nothing but self-interest.

Our cultural output throbs with this notion of the “evil anarchic”. Take any post-apocalyptic or future dystopia film of the last few decades and you’ll be sure to find dialogue referencing the degeneration of the human spirit or a scene exemplifying the impossibility of co-operation.

The concentration camp in Children of Men is miserable and threatening. The market in Soylent Green is vicious. The Road, The Book of Eli, the Harlan Ellison novel A Boy and His Dog — all are predicated on the concurrent collapse of civilization and rise of the evil anarchic. On the idea that the state can only be abolished by an apocalyptic act, and that its absence necessarily gives way to nefarious gang rule and brutal violence.

Read more at Roar Magazine.

Capitalist Mythologies

Capitalism is a brutal, paradoxical, crisis prone politico-economic system that has failed to water, feed, house and clothe much of the world’s population. It is a system that causes gross inequality, the break down of community, untold psychological misery and is one that will lead to ecological collapse and the end of civilisation as we know it.

Yet capitalism, rather than an ailing ideology limping from crisis to crisis, has achieved unprecedented global hegemony. It transcends culture, race, religion and politics; offering itself as the unthinking economic backdrop to nearly every society on the planet. Its mythos has become naturalised; a reflexive set of assumptions that lie at the core of political decision making and have begun to dominate our everyday ideology; a virus lodged in our collective psyche.

In this way we are all Capitalist Realists. We cannot conceive of a world beyond or before capitalism. We cannot transcend it in the present. Its assumptions have become the de-facto way; its co-ordinates internalised to the extent that the bounds of capitalism are becoming the bounds of life itself, bracketing the very parameters in which we think and act.

By the majority of westerners this phenomena goes largely unnoticed; problematic in that when capitalist ideology becomes unassailable reality – evident in the oft uttered phrase “it has always been this way” – it also becomes an appeal to realism, one that weighs heavily against the radical, painting any political manoeuvre outside of the status quo as naive and utopian.

Read more at Bricklanedebates.

London’s Poor Fetish

London’s middle class are in crisis; they feel empty and clamour for vitality. Their work is alienating and meaningless, many of them in “bullshit jobs” that are either socially useless, overly bureaucratic or divorced from any traditional notion of labour.

Financial services exist to grow the fortunes of capitalists, advertising to exploit our insecurities and public relations to manage the reputations of companies that do wrong. Society would not collapse without these industries. We could cope without the nexus of lobbyists, corporate lawyers and big firm accountants whose sole purpose is to protect the interests of Capital. How empty if must feel to work a job that could be abolished tomorrow. One that at best makes no tangible difference to society and at worst encourages poverty, hunger and ecological collapse.

At the same time our doctors, teachers, university professors, architects, lawyers, solicitors and probation officers are rendered impotent. Desperate to just do their jobs yet besieged by bureaucracy and box ticking. Their energies are focused not on helping the sick, teaching the young or building hospitals but on creating and maintaining the trail of paper work that is a pre and post requisite of any meaningful action in late capitalist society. Talk to anybody in these professions, from the public or private sector, and the frustration that comes up again and again is that they spend the majority of their time writing reports, filling in forms and navigating bureaucratic labyrinths that serve only to justify themselves.

Read the rest at Roar Magazine.


The Love Activists: An Anti-Capitalist Fairytale

As I type a group of activists are being evicted from 2a Charing Cross Road, a minutes walk from Trafalgar Square. Cavell House, formerly owned by RBS and Natwest, is a six story office block that has been left empty for more than two years and is falling into disrepair. Wires hang loose from the ceilings while lights from out-of-order lifts flicker in the darkness. Exploring its cavernous rooms, square foot after square foot of prime real estate left empty and abandoned, brings into sharp contrast capitalism’s failure to provide homes for people rather than houses for profit.

Which is why the “Love Activists” went into occupation; in an attempt to plaster over the cracks of London’s housing crisis by offering the homeless food and shelter. Their door was open and they provided a safe space for those who needed it. They planned a dinner for the homeless on Christmas day. They were organising skill shares, workshops, seminars and lectures to educate the public as to the cruelty of our current system and the possible alternatives to it.

Yet in many ways the facts of their case act as a poignant anti-capitalist lesson in their own right.

A group of activists offering help to those most in need are kicked out on the morning of Christmas eve. Told their court date is five days later they are surprised to hear, after the door is kicked down, that a high court injunction was taken out the night before. An injunction they were never made aware of; its date, time and place withheld until after the event.

The tale gets all the more twisted when you realise RBS is still 79% state owned, bailed out to the cost of £46 billion pounds. More twisted still when the current owner’s of the building turn out to be Greencap Ltd; an offshore company based in Jersey who claim to have been dissolved and, according to their tax returns, owned just £9 worth of assets before they were. Yet somehow this impoverished non-company still retain the ability to evict occupiers from a property it claims not to own. An eviction given legal authority by an injunction that Greencap neglected to even sign, a technicality that some argue render the injunction powerless.

It is likely the eviction is illegal, but there can be no doubt that it is political. Activists seizing a formerly bailed out bank in the heart of the capital to feed and shelter London’s homeless was a story the elite couldn’t stomach. The inevitable public support for a space run by leftist groups helping those most in need was something that simply couldn’t be allowed to happen.

But perhaps I am being premature. Two activists still sit on the balcony, dangling their legs over the heads of a police cordon, enjoying an occasional kiss for the cameras and a steady stream of food hoisted up by supporters from below.

Hopefully the injunction will be revoked, the latest being that judge is reviewing it within the hour. If not, the legality of the eviction will be challenged in court. But however it pans out, the lesson we must learn is that our economic system and political elite prefer a building to be unoccupied and falling into disrepair rather than be used to shelter those who would otherwise be spending christmas cold and hungry on the streets.

Originally published by Counterfire.

The Housing Crisis & Democratic Deficit


Thousands sleep rough on the streets of London while 80,000 homes lie empty. In our capital a fifth of private tenants are impoverished by inflated rents while home owners profit by £100,000 a year. It is a city whose Mayor cheers on the privitisation of social housing while defining an “affordable rent” as 80% of the market rate, a level that is resolutely unaffordable for the majority of Londoners.

Without fail our politicians have legislated in favour of landlords, property developers and super rich investors, ideologically fetishising profit and privatisation without a care for the havoc it wreaks upon the zero hour contract worker, the debt laden university graduate or the unemployed single mother who has to decide between heating her home or going hungry.

This is because the political class represent the interests of capital. Our housing crisis is a manifestation of a crisis of democracy, one where profit is prioritised over people and our representatives cannot think beyond neo-liberal dogmatism; beyond privitisation, de-regulation and free market fundamentalism.

This explains the political antipathy towards rent controls, a policy that has proven successful for decades across Germany and, where it has been experimented with, in select areas of London.

It also explains the continued existence of the right to buy scheme; a policy that benefits a few select individuals at a huge cost to the taxpayer by forcing local councils to sell off social housing at discounted rates, in some cases by up to £100,000.

This gradual privitisation of the bottom of the rental market means that former social housing tenants, still reliant on housing benefit but forced into private accommodation, act as a funnel through which money pours from the government into the hands of buy-to-let landlords.

This stealth corporate subsidy grew under New Labour too. During their time in office the number of private tenants in London claiming housing benefit went up by 150% (from 100,000 to 250,000) and, as a result, the £24 billion the government spends on housing benefit each year now largely goes into the pockets of private landlords and housing companies.

This neo-liberal profit fetish has altered the way we view housing. No longer is a home somewhere to live, valued because of its use rather than its worth. Instead it has been reduced to a commodity, a mere vehicle by which to generate profit.

Nowhere is this more explicit than in housing developments such as “Rise” in Deptford. Cathedral Group, the company that owns the plot, don’t even keep up the pretense of building homes for people to live in. Instead they pitch these luxury flats as investments; advertising them directly to wealthy foreigners as a way to profit from the inflated London housing market that terrorises the working class and immigrant communities who have long occupied these “up and coming” London boroughs.

That successive governments have presided over a legislative framework that treats housing as an asset for the rich while pricing out the poor shouldn’t surprise us. When a third of our MPs are buy-to-let landlords and prominent cabinet figures such as Phillip Hammond own property development firms, we realise that there is not only an ideological divide between politicians and the public but a conflict of interest too.

Why else would two Tory MPs, one of whom is a landlord himself, fillibuster a piece of legislation designed to stop landlords pursuing “revenge evictions” against tentants that complain about a fault with their property. Why else would we see Richard Benyon MP, whose family property firm managed the New Era estate in Hoxton and planned to increase rents by more than 200%, come into direct conflict with some of the most needy and vulnerable in our society.

Perhaps most symbolic of this divide between them and us is found in the Tory’s support for the bedroom tax and their concurrent aversion to any form of mansion tax. Blinkered by self interest and ideology our ruling elite see no problem in pushing one in seven of those at the bottom of society into rent arrears, further poverty and towards possible eviction while refusing to tax the most valuable 0.5% of homes.

Thankfully, those on the ground have realised we are not all in this together. The E15 Mothers, the Radical Housing Network and the tenants of the New Era Estate are just a few of the many communities organising in opposition to this pernicious neo-liberal housing agenda.

But as activists we must remember that our housing crisis is symptomatic of Capital’s stranglehold over democracy. Westminster no longer serves the interests of people; the ideology of every election strictly bracketed by the demands of Capital. Perpetual crisis of all varieties, housing, food, jobs and health will persist until we enact systemic change; until Capital’s domination over democracy is ended.

Photo by Hoosiersands

Originally published by OpenDemocracy.

Why Last Night Got Violent: The City of London Police

Yesterday evening I was dragged across parliament square by a group of 8 police officers. My face was pressed into the dirt, my arm locked behind my back and the fingers of my left hand prised from the piece of blue tarpaulin I was clinging to.

Others were punched, kicked, and dragged from parliament square by their necks.

All the while police medics did nothing, excusing themselves by saying that the brutality made it unsafe for them to intervene. Legal observers condemned the violence enacted by the hundreds of police sent to deal with a small group of peaceful protesters.

For 3 days a group of ordinary people dissatisfied with our corporate controlled democracy have occupied Parliament Square. We’ve held talks by economists, academics and Green politicians. We’ve ran workshops on future actions and idea sharing. We’ve tried to create an inclusive, safe, non-violent, non-discriminatory space.

We’ve also spent an incredible amount of time passively resisting the police. They have tried (and failed) to evict us with a series of spurious bylaws, none of which stood up to scrutiny. Ever since have been confiscating anything that is deemed a “structure” or “camping equipment”.

The definitions of “structure” and “camping equipment” have been fluid, at the changing whim of the police. On the first night a plastic bag to keep your bum dry was deemed illegal. On the second they tried to seize the tarpaulin we were sat on. But we sang, chanted, passively resisted and the police eventually backed off.

Until last night. For hours we were dragged out and brutalised for the sake of a blue piece of plastic. Punched and intimidated for exercising our right to democratic protest.

The question is, what changed?For the first two days we were dealing with the Met. Last night, the City of London police joined in.

The City of London police are a quasi-private police force, paid for by the banks. They aren’t accountable to the Met but the City of London Corporation, the body that governs the financial district, funded and controlled by the banks and accounting firms of the square mile.

The first paragraph on the City of London Police’s website reads,

“The City of London is the world’s leading international financial and business centre. It is an area where disruption to ‘business as usual’ would have significant impact on the diverse range of business interests located here.”

Nicholas Shaxson, an authority on tax havens and critic of the financial sector, found that their policy page (now deleted but referenced in his blog post here) states that two of their “strategic aims” are to:

“1. Complies with the City of London Corporation financial regulations.
. . .
6. Promotes the strategic objectives of the City of London Corporation.”

What would these “strategic objectives” include? The silencing and intimidating of any movement that threatens their power? The brutalising of individuals who propose an end to corporate power?

The violent, heavy handed police tactics last night were the result of a quasi private police force, in the pay of the banks and big corporations, coming down hard on those who disagree with them.

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