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Letter from an ex-exile

April 16, 2012

So here I am, living in Greenwich 16 years after losing my house in Deptford, and only just getting politically active again after a pretty classic case of ‘burnout’. What’s got me going again is seeing the claws of gentrification reaching my small suburb in this big borough, and so I find myself wondering if I’m just another NIMBY after all, albeit an anarcho-syndicalist one. I’ve always been something of an anarchist. It’s always been obvious to me that most politicians are liars, a lot of well-off people are snobs and a lot of working-class people know how ‘ democracy’ works to help the rich keep us down – even if they don’t see how to do much about it.  

I grew up in Lewisham – my gran’ma ‘occupied’ the housing office until they gave her a house on the Downham estate – and I love Deptford. When I lost my old house there – squatted when I was homeless and it was left empty for years by the ILEA (part of the Greater London Council who used to run schools and colleges for all of London boroughs) I didn’t exactly turn my back on Lewisham.  A lot of my work and study has been there, I briefly re-occupied my old house – it’s still empty – a couple of times, and I’ve been involved in a couple of radical social centres. I’ve also done things that are not seen as politically correct in anarchist circles, like trying to re-start the Albany Theatre’s community management board along with various gentle people and even Trotskyites. When I saw more land being built on for commuter ‘appartments’ I felt like despairing – I was part of an action group to resist the first time a local park was built on, and frankly no-one took much notice. Now school playgrounds are disappearing and the creekside and riverside industrial estates are becoming dormitory towns for office workers too. Part of me’s been tempted to say ‘I told you so’ and retreat into negativity, or just trying to earn a living.

It’s taken me 16 years to stop feeling like some kind of exile and feel that Charlton is my hometown. I don’t think this timescale is a co-incidence. I think it’s about the length of time it takes to settle somewhere, ordinarily. Sometimes this happens quicker – my old house and life in Deptford came with a strong sense of community. My daughter was growing up, my great-grandad lived up the road, I was playing music with local friends, the Poll Tax resistance happened – life was good. Sometimes it happens slower – the system-built Ferrier Estate in Kidbrooke was starting to settle as a community after about 30 years – the length of time it takes to raise a generation – despite its architectural layout problems. Now it’s being demolished… Why? Conventional wisdom would have it that it was a nest of social problems. Nice people like Gary Bushell didn’t want to live there. I used to live next door on an older council estate, and in the early days the Ferrier was a bit rough. It got better, but the council still decided on demolition rather than refurbishment. We now have high density housing – essentially very similar – replacing the big council estates but in a different mould – the ‘high-value’ one. Now it’s entry-phones, shared-ownership and cctv instead of ‘walkways in the sky’. It all boils down to demonising communities in relative poverty for the exaggerated visions of yet more property speculators. Their new appartments look alright, on the inside.

The consequences of gradual mass decanting only show up slowly, and it’s only just started. Higher council debt is the first result. Greenwich are now scrabbling round for more development sites. What is also pretty obvious is that communities are being destroyed again, in very similar ways to the previous bout in the 70s, where Victorian terraced houses and tenement blocks disappeared under the influence of mis-applied sociology, practised by far-away urban planners and dressed up as being for our own good. Will we ever learn how to deal with this? I’m scared – more so this time because there don’t seem to be good prospects for communities to re-form. Nobody normal can afford to pay for this stuff any more, at least not without working crazy hours. Alongside is a thinly disguised policy to stop poor people from having children – paying for childcare is supposed to be normal now. Tenancies are going to be short term. If we don’t behave and pay the rent or mortgage, or both, we’ll be kicked out of these new homes after 5 years. Then what? Our elected representatives are working hand in glove with the developers to hasten this process despite the apparent burst of the property bubble. Either they are too ridiculously stupid to look down the line, are taking covert backhanders, or don’t care- pehaps all three – they are doing a class-cleansing job.

We no longer have as much collective bargaining power as working people – what does it matter how many McWorkers stick up for decent conditions in service industries? A lot of people who used to have contracts are being employed through agencies as temps. The awkward people in public services tend to lose their jobs first, with those left bearing the brunt of carrying out even more cuts. This is a recipe for selfishness. The temptation is to become more cynical and keep toeing the line. It is even more frightening to lose your home than your job, and a mortgage or ‘affordable’ (sic) rent is a hell of a big stick. Meanwhile housing benefits – which we didn’t need much of anyway before the ‘right to buy’ eroded the stock of public housing – are being capped, unemployment and disability benefits are being carved up, and repossessions and homelessness are rising. More young people can’t get their own place to live, you can’t go to university without taking on debt, schools (including academies) are ‘failing’ left, right and centre (except in posher areas) and funnily enough the more you pay for a course the higher the pass rate seems to be.
The odds are blatantly stacked.

We are told we have all been very silly and borrowed too much – the solution to the debt crisis is to tighten our belts and work harder. Tabloid journalists tell us there are too many scroungers and immigrants. Polite liberal journalists say we should tax the bankers and corporate evaders, as if this would really make a difference to rising homelessness and unemployment. The thing is, we HAVE all been very silly and borrowed too much – this is exactly what the government has told us to do – selling us our own council houses with bribes, remarketing our education system with lies, selling us our own health service -putting lives at risk under privatisation and the profit motive. Most of this we haven’t actually voted for, but we’re getting it anyway. We have bought piles of consumer crap, made by those cheap workers somewhere else who don’t have decent standards of living, and advertised on tv to make us feel richer, while we are being walloped into the state where we can’t afford to buy the stuff anymore. What are we gonna do?

We need real industry. We need real education to make it work. We are not going to get it by asking nicely. The people we are up against don’t fight fair. They have a lot of money and land and power – most of it gained dishonestly at our expense – and they want to keep it. We need to stick up for ourselves. We need to get together, look at real problems honestly and find our own practical solutions. One thing we don’t need is to keep trying to work within the political system as it stands – it is rigged – even with good intentions a politician in power for years with no direct link to the voters can’t be held to account for their actions. Politicians get corrupted – offered a cushy cabinet post so they can do more good for the poor people, if only they’ll vote for the leadership line. Then some nice liberal people – let’s call them middle class – think poor people can’t be trusted not to act like stupid thugs if they have the power to run things. We need to prove them wrong.

Another thing we don’t need is to blame our grievances on other people who are worse off. This is the classic tactic of divide and rule. It is how bullies get their own way – they keep on bullying hoping you won’t fight back but pick on some other poor sod instead to make yourself feel better. Racism, sexism and all kinds of prejudice are nasty. When society is full of greed and hate and poverty it is easier to blame a scapegoat than to get off your arse and do some hard thinking, followed by some hard work – and I don’t mean slaving for some profiteering business, I mean organising how community facilities are run to benefit all of us. A lot of us have become consumers of democracy and attitudes as well of as products. What the comfortable middle class people don’t admit is that they have profited from the lack of opportunity for working class people in education. Now they complain about falling standards. When I was growing up, the 11-plus was condemned by Labour politicians who said it was unfair that young children were labeled as failures because of an exam, and then couldn’t go to grammar school and have ‘equal opportunities’ – sounds good, eh? So we had comprehensive schools instead, where what decides who gets a good school place is where you live. Postcode privilege – what a joke! Then we had dumbing down, teaching a narrow curriculum so we can pass exams easier, because these exams are so important to your life. Now our education system is amongst the worst in Europe and we have fewer people doing the top level research and innovation that leads to new inventions and industrial development. What’s more we are into the second generation of mass mis-education. Fortunately this doesn’t actually make us more stupid, but it does make it harder to study. We are being taught what to think rather than how to think. This is an effective method of social control. Meanwhile riots are blamed on bad parenting…  We need to reclaim education. The schools are not serving us. There is good stuff available in books and on youtube. USE IT!

How do we get together to run our own communities better? If you live on an estate or street this is not too hard. You get to know your neighbours – there are a few nutcases, but people know who they are, and you can get regular local meetings organised where everyone can have a equal voice, and make sure no-one dominates decisions unfairly. The next street along may disagree – so what? If people want something they’ll have to get together and sort it out. There are some necessary things like drains, water, gas, electricity and rubbish collection and public transport that need to be co-ordinated, locally and regionally. The people who work in these industries tend to know how to get the work done. This applies to health services and education too. Housing and the environment are bigger problems. We urgently need to recycle more and use less plastic, as resources are getting scarce. There would be enough homes to go around if we built some on genuine brownfield and some greenfield sites and converted buildings currently empty or used by parasite industries like finance. We could decide where by regional accountable delegate groups who made reasonable decisions reporting back to their communities and then getting on with it without property exploiters interfering. The problem will sooner or later be big money. The oil companies control world finances for a reason. There is a lot you can do with recycled cooking oil though – most essential vehicles use diesel. Food distribution would take priority. We can grow more locally too. Power station output would have to go mostly to rail networks and hospitals at first. We’d have to get savvy with small scale renewable green power – sun, wind and tides – for domestic needs. And we can use boats – why not?

I have been reading a lot of discussion on anarchist internet forums – from people who believe in direct democracy with decisions made locally and delegates having to stick to this mandate rather than follow a party line – about class struggle and the role of the middle class. Traditionally class struggle is seen as the rich – exploiters – against everyone else – exploited. I can’t accept this at face value with what’s going on now. There are too many collaborators. They need to decide which side they are on. I think it’s fairly easy to tell. The collaborators are the ones who care more about house prices than about building communities. Their priorities are wrong. They don’t like ‘dirty’ industries like car breakers where working class people are doing skilled work for the common good. They say you’ve no right to complain if you don’t vote. They are scared of the breakdown of civilisation, and haven’t bothered to notice it’s already broken, thanks to them following their leaders. You can get the better of them by creative sabotage, as with all collaborators.


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