Friday, June 16, 2017

Grenfell Tower Fire: A Market Driven Disaster

This was totally unavoidable
By Richard Mellor
Afcme Local 444, retired

I’m sitting here in a coffee house not far from the tragedy that occurred when a fire engulfed the Grenfell Tower block of flats housing working class and poor people in west London.

As is always the case, the experts are all trying to figure out what went wrong. There’s nothing like a few deaths and public exposure to send the CEO’s and other figures in the corporate world and their agents in the body politic scurrying for cover.

This public housing was called council housing when I lived here but referred to as social housing today.  Some $13 million was spent refurbishing Grenfell Tower and just as they do in the US, the private contractors and firms fall over each other to get their snouts in to the public trough.  Public spending for hospitals, transportation, education, is condemned, propping up the private sector and profits is OK though.

There is much speculation that the cladding used in the refurbishing was the cause of the fire spreading so rapidly. The panels used to cover the building were not fire retardant and are also banned in the US. But this disaster, like Katrina, the West Texas explosion, the poison water in Flint Michigan and other US cities that working class people are forced to drink, is not and accident, it is a market driven catastrophe. For one week or more, thousands of West Virginia residents went without water as chemicals from the private West Virginia Water Company were leaked in to the Elk River.  The culprits will pay a fine for this but we will not stop system -induced crises without changing the system that causes them.

While Trump rails against Muslims and Theresa May warns of immigrants, events like these will hopefully drift away, absent from mass consciousness other than the minds of the victims and their relatives. It shows how similar our lives are no matter where we live. As Marx argued, workers have no country. The rich will always betray the poor the Irish rebel leader Henry Joy McCracken once said.

The refurbishing of Grenfell Towers was an attempt to make what the authorities and the investors consider an eyesore in to something that won’t put off the tourists and people they want to move in to the community as part of the gentrification of the area. It is not unlike the situation that I saw in New Orleans when I went there after Katrina hit. Katrina was a good opportunity to rid the city of public housing and its inhabitants that had resisted gentrification there. . “The council want to develop this area full of social housing, and in order to enable that they have prettified a building that they felt was ugly...” says the local Labor MP for the area Emma Dent Coad who won the seat from the conservatives in the recent election. Her campaign was based on fighting gentrification and the need for more social housing.

Social housing is not good for property speculation.  Capitalism does not consider housing human shelter, but a commodity to be traded, to be bought and sold, like pork bellies. Human beings are just commodities after all. “People in Grenfell Tower have been complaining that the aesthetic refit hadn’t helped them at all. It was more about making it look better for the people who want to regenerate the estate,”, Ms Coad told the Guardian UK. These deaths are murders.

There are 17 known deaths so far but there are still many people missing. The papers said this morning that it could be possible that they may not be able to identify everyone and a fire dept. spokesperson said that he hoped the death toll wouldn’t rise above 100.   What many residents fear now is that they will be re-housed out of the area.  Land and housing speculators, paraphrasing Barack Obama’s old chum Rahm Emmanuel, don’t want a good disaster to go to waste. One must take advantage of every opportunity, disaster or not.

What was a lucrative project, the refurbishing of an eyesore to those investors developing the area and their political allies, was spread out among a number of different private companies. They are all keeping quiet at the moment as a criminal enquiry has been launched.

One risk consultant spoke of the dangers when so many separate “links in the chain of contractors” exist with the potential for safety problems. Apparently local authorities once had their own architecture departments but that has changed and it is all done externally now with competing parties. The “partial privatization” of the inspection process sometimes “leads to a race to the bottom” says the risk consultant.  As with the competition between workers for who can work the fastest and cheapest to help their bosses in competition with their rivals, it is a “race to the bottom” for us and a “race to the top” for the boss and the investors and speculators in land and housing.

Fining corporate entities for such tragedies does not solve the problem. It is unlikely individuals will be sent to jail for a catastrophe like this as it is the corporation that is the guilty party. Ms Coad’s electoral victory and the Labor Party’s gains in the recent election and call for more social housing is a positive step forward but in the last analysis, only when the housing of people is a collective project based on social need and not profit, will market driven disasters like these become a thing of the past.

1 comment:

Mia Ousley said...

Thank you, Richard, for speaking truth to power . . . and so eloquently. My only regret is the cost in human lives that made it necessary for you to do so.