Grenfell: An atrocity, not a tragedy

I have never been so angry with our political system.

Growing up in Liverpool, I was nine years old when Hillsborough happened. In those days, football fans were treated as less than human. Scousers were demonised by the right-wing media, notably a certain newspaper I won’t dignify with its name, as prototypical workshy scroungers and thieves, principally because their city had consistently opposed the Thatcherite vision for society which the plutocratic owners of the right-wing media supported. At Hillsborough, these twin discourses of exclusion met, 96 football supporters were killed, their names were traduced, their families traumatised, and a twenty-year-plus fight for justice began.

For those who take the piss out of discourse analysis, let me tell you this – discourse matters. How people are constructed matters. It’s not just about words, representation is about denigration and dehumanisation. Discourse makes atrocities possible. The victims of imperial atrocities around the globe at the hands of Western colonisers, the victims of the Nazis – Jews, the disabled, homosexuals, gypsies – they were dehumanised through representation. They were discursively constructed as ‘Other’. And they were killed, dispossessed, disenfranchised because how how they were seen, and because people believed that they were not themselves people.

When we woke up on Wednesday morning to see the pictures of Grenfell Tower, we began simply seeing and thinking of tragedy. That this could happen today in the twenty-first century. Hoping that most would have escaped.

We didn’t know then that there were no sprinklers. We didn’t know about the flammable cladding that was added to improve the view from the luxury apartments nearby. We didn’t know about the lack of alarms.

We might have guessed though. For all those self-servingly asking us not to ‘politicise’ the ¬†deaths in Grenfell Tower, it was a ‘tragedy’. We should mourn. We shouldn’t seek to ascribe blame or rush to judgement, even when the facts are staring us in the face.

Grenfell was no tragedy. It was an atrocity. An act of violence in a class war that is every bit as real as your conscience occasionally tells you it is.

Modern London is an obscenity. It is the summit of inequality, A billionaires’ playground, where the world’s super-rich can enjoy a lifestyle of hedonism unrivalled in human history.

And yet the working people who live there cannot afford simply to do just that – live. Estates demolished by compulsory purchase to make way for ‘regeneration’, which is a euphemsim – it really means social cleansing. Families displaced.

And for those that inconveniently remain, for those that linger on, as at Grenfell, they are obscured from view as best as the governing elites can manage.

In this case, that meant flammable cladding on the cheap, to improve the view for the wealthier residents. And so, first obscured, then they died in full view.

The lie that governments can do nothing, that things are just the way they are, and the best that can be done is management, is just that – a lie. The ‘powerless state’ is, as Linda Weiss told us, ‘a myth’.

If the state exists for any reason, it should be to guarantee the security of its people. In the twenty-first century that includes the broadest definition of human security – the right to live, to a home, and to a home fit for human habitation. Something some of our politicians have denied our people, even as they profit from renting property to them.

If the state exists instead for the defence of private capital, for the interests of the super-rich few in opposition to the struggling many, then the state can have no legitimacy.

This is why Theresa May wouldn’t meet with the residents. Grenfell Tower was no tragedy. It was an atrocity of our political system, a consequence of our society’s political choice to regard some of its citizens as expendable.

Yet the outpouring of humanity from the residents of that community in West London proves the opposite. Human beings are not expendable. Humanity persists, even amidst the obscenity of modern London, there is the beauty of the human spirit.

It is still possible to rebuild a society and a form of politics anchored in the spirit of those who fought to help the residents of Grenfell Tower. That is what we should take forward.

But we should also be clear as the anger grows in the community on this point: Grenfell was an atrocity. Not a tragedy.