Skip to content

Right to Burn

Free-market economics gives the poor equal rights to substandard housing

At the very end of the film High-Rise, Ben Wheatley’s 2015 adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel from the seventies, we hear a familiar authoritarian voice extolling the virtues of capitalism. Against the backdrop of the high-rise building that is in many ways the protagonist of the film, the camera closes in on a young boy sitting on a jerry-rigged structure made up of discarded tires, a golf bag, a hockey stick, and a profusion of wires that have allowed him to tune in to the wisdom of Margaret Thatcher. “There is only one economic system in the world, and that is capitalism,” Thatcher says, and the only remaining argument is whether this is to be a form of state capitalism, “where there will never be political freedom,” or if capitalism is to be “in the hands of people outside State control.”

The fire last month that killed eighty people in Grenfell Tower, a twenty-four-story high-rise for low-income, mostly minority Londoners, is a stark example of what that Thatcherite vision looks like when carried out to its logical extreme. Built in the seventies in what can now be seen as the last great wave of public housing in Britain, a trend that started under the post-war Labour Government with the New Towns Act of 1946, Grenfell Tower steadily came under assault from the market forces unleashed by Thatcher. Located in London’s wealthiest borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the upkeep of the building was outsourced by the borough council to the ingeniously named Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation, a body that steadfastly ignored, and sometimes used lawyers to threaten, tenants protesting about safety concerns.

The cladding newly installed on the exterior, apparently more for the purpose of making the building appear attractive to private buyers of available units than for reasons of maintenance, was found to be highly flammable and responsible for spreading the fire throughout the building. Other “refurbishment” work left the building with just one staircase and exit, and that too partially blocked. In the aftermath of the fire, when the Conservative party prime minister Theresa May visited the site to talk to members of the emergency services, she avoided meeting residents of the building. The borough council, meanwhile, at first refused to admit residents and media into its “public” meeting. Then, when ordered by a court to allow the media to attend its proceedings, it cancelled a scheduled session.

London saw a relentless stripping away of public housing in favor of private residences for the extremely wealthy.

When Ballard’s novel was published in 1975, Thatcher was merely a rising star in the Conservative Party, still four years away from occupying 10 Downing Street. From there, she would go on to use every lever of the state to promote her vision of state-less capitalism, a ferocious ideology of elite self-interest that would ravage Britain and, promoted across the Atlantic by her American counterpart Ronald Reagan, blight the United States. Given a massive boost by the end of the Cold War, this worldview received regular technocratic updates from the Anglo-American leaders who succeeded Thatcher and Reagan, the old piss always managing to find new bottles—Tony Blair’s New Labour, Bill Clinton’s New Democrats, George Bush’s New American Century and so on, all the way to Barack Obama and David Cameron until we reach what now looks like the terminal point of that blight, the endgame of Theresa May and Donald Trump.

The rhetoric of neoliberalism was that, with a market society taking root in Britain and the United States, the model could be exported to the world at large. Grenfell Tower shows, instead, that it meant turning Britain, the so-called home of free markets and democracy, into a banana republic. The same could be said of the United States, where crises in infrastructure show a similar trajectory, including in the cost-cutting measures that led to the presence of lead and other toxins in the drinking water of Flint, Michigan, in the very town that, as portrayed by Michael Moore in the documentary Roger and Me, was once home of the nation’s largest General Motors plant.

In London, this transformation was achieved, by successive Conservative governments as well as by Blairite New Labour types, through a relentless stripping away of public housing in favor of private residences for the extremely wealthy. Thatcher, in 1979, had introduced “Right to Buy,” allowing tenants in public housing to buy their units at discounts of up to 50 percent. Initially reluctant at the idea of providing a state subsidy to buyers, and nudged into the populist move by other Conservative politicians, Thatcher was nevertheless the one who endowed Right to Buy with an aspirational flavor that everyone could become middle class. The buyers, however, tended to be the most well-off among the tenants, and although the units were initially meant to be lived in, they were eventually often sold at market rates to private landlords, in effect a privatization carried out with the help of public money. It is a process similar to what has happened to Mitchell-Lama housing in New York as buildings have steadily been acquired by private investors, including a building in East Harlem where seven died in a fire in 1987 and that, once purchased by a company backed by a Morgan Stanley investment fund, saw long-time minority residents harassed to make way for new, wealthier tenants. 

The resulting housing crisis in London has been accompanied by an evisceration of services, as in the cuts in fire services and policing pioneered by May as home secretary. And all this has been achieved swiftly, accompanied by a technocratic jargon that appears utterly self-referential. Among these are words like deregulation, outsourcing, and, especially, “austerity,” as if what has been going on is some kind of secular Ramadan, a communal fasting to be followed by an iftar party, rather than a refusal by elites to provide basic services to citizens of the sort depicted, recently, in Ken Loach’s film, I, Daniel Blake.

Ballard’s novel captures all this quite perfectly, including the arc from enlightened self-interest to enlightened dementia as his high-rise, which starts out as a self-contained utopia for the professional classes, descends steadily into a small-scale civil war. It ends, as emphasized by the opening passage of the novel where a character eats “the roast hindquarter of the Alsatian,” in a man-eats-dog free enterprise society. With its forty floors, thousand apartments, supermarket, swimming-pools, bank, and school, Ballard’s high-rise, one guesses, has been at least partially funded by taxpayers’ money. It is built, after all, in a reclaimed area of London’s “abandoned dockland and warehousing along the north bank of the river.” Once completed, however, one of five such towers, it looks out with a glance every bit as predatory as the wealthy in Kensington and Chelsea eyeing the property values near Grenfell Tower, at the “rundown areas around it, decaying nineteenth-century terraced houses and empty factories already zoned for reclamation.”

But if Grenfell is a working-class, minority other to Ballard’s tower, ravaged from the outside by predatory capitalists rather than a gated community devoured from within, it also provokes something that is not to be found in Ballard’s prescient work. The tenants who voiced concerns about safety, including two minority women who went missing in the blaze, exemplify a social vision quite different from Ballard’s crazed professionals turning upon each other. In the continuing protests of survivors and their allies asking to be let into the closed meetings being conducted by the borough council and in the demands made by the Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn that empty residences in the borough, owned by absentee rich landlords, be used to house survivors, we see the inverse of Ballard’s psychotic elites competing to the death. Corbyn’s proposal stirred a Tory writer to ventilate about his “true, disturbing nature,” as if he were beginning a class war. But in Corbyn’s bringing to life a moribund Labour party in the face of a relentless media campaign against him, in the votes his party received in the recent general elections, especially from the disenfranchised young, the working class, and minorities, there is a profound stirring of hope, the beginnings of a refusal of Thatcher’s diseased world of man eats dog in a gutted tower.