Confronting Horror

Whenever we see certain horrors on the news, and ask why they occurred, there is always a voice that says: “Don’t politicise this.” The idea that you shouldn’t politicise these events is inherently wrong, because it rests on the idea that they were apolitical in the first place, and had politics forced onto them. In reality these events are political events, because they have political causes, and political solutions. What those solutions are is a question of your personal political allegiance and ideology, but in a democracy it is right we are able to discuss openly what those solutions should be. When people say they don’t think an event should be politicised it’s usually because they fear anyone understanding its causes, and because they don’t want to be seen opposing the solutions.

We don’t know the true scale of the horror of the Grenfell Tower fire; as I write the death toll is, sadly, still rising. What I do know is that this was not a “tragedy”: tragedies are natural disasters, where we become helpless in the face of mother Earth. Grenfell Tower was a man-made disaster, and as such should fall, alongside acts of terrorism and mass murder, under the banner of “atrocity”. Human beings decided to ignore complaints from residents that the tower was unsafe — including threatening a blogger who wrote about how the building was becoming a death trap. Human beings voted against measures to ensure that all housing was fit for human habitation. Human beings opted to scrimp on smoke alarms and adequate stairwells. A human being sat on a report about the fire risk posed to large tower blocks. Another human being cut London’s fire brigade budget, leading to fewer firefighters and fewer resources. Though in all cases I am using the word human being as a purely biological term: those who put profit and politics before the safety of others lack the humanity to count as genuinely human. They are identified with the rest of us due to taxonomy, not worth.

Anyone who thinks the events in London today were not political does so because they believe that poverty (often racialised poverty), inadequate housing, and underfunded public services are just natural phenomena, like winds, rain and gravity. In fact, dilapidated and unsafe housing being forced on the residents of one of the world’s wealthiest cities is not something that occurred naturally, but the result of choices made by people with a stake in the status quo. It is a direct result of a kowtowing to the interests of landlords and developer capital, and a belief that the state is ill served to meet the needs of its citizenry, leading to the farming out of social welfare provision to profit-making corporations. A housing market that sustains itself not by building homes, but investment vehicles for big capital, will always fail to meet the needs of all but a gilded few.

Those who died, were injured, or became homeless, suffered so because they were poor, working-class, black, Asian, refugees, and migrants; they suffered because in our society they were deemed to be worth less than the opulent elites a furlong down the road; they suffered because there is a deep-seated hatred in this country for anybody who dares need help.

This fire reminds me of another one, a long way away, five years ago. The Dhaka fire in a sweatshop in Bangladesh killed 117 people, most of them working for companies we buy our clothes from every day. The fire was also pronounced a ‘tragedy’, but was the result of cost-cutting in the pursuit of ‘efficiencies’, something that the victims had warned about. It was in their memory — as well as that of a grandfather who suffers asbestosis, again as a result of corporate greed — that I attended the TUC’s Workers Memorial Day event in Manchester. The event takes its ethos from a quote from the Irish-American labour organiser Mary “Mother” Jones (who was herself radicalised by The Chicago Fire of 1871) that we should “mourn for the dead, and fight like hell for the living”. So, after we had bowed our heads in silence, a wall of noise broke out, pots were banged, voice were raised, and the fire engines turned on their sirens. It was not enough to remember the dead. We had to fight for better conditions for all. We had to make clear these people had not died because God or fate had called time on their lives, but because those in power had not deemed their bodies deserving of protection. We had to press for political solutions to problems with political causes. To fail to do so would not have been respectful to the departed, it would have condemned more to join them unnecessarily.

Right now we should think of those that lost their lives: they need our candles, our warmth, and our prayers. They also need our anger, because that’s the only way that this will never happen again. Today we must mourn for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.