BM Blob on art and gentrification in West London in the late 20th Century.
An Artistic Swamp: Designing The Emperor's New Clothes
In Central London, there was no comparable street anywhere to compare with the low property prices on All Saints Road. Increasingly throughout the 1980s, it became a very desirable residence for chic, artistic business, drawn by cheap rents and the thrill of the place, which did wonders for that precious commodity 'street cred'. With the police occupation, a big push was given to this tendency. The Legal Light Recording Company, a no-nonsense black business opened its doors. Dixon expanded his salvage art mini-empire, acquiring more leased lettings from the Notting Hill Housing Trust, for what seemed at the time, a Warhol-like factory complex. In reality it turned out to be nothing like so grand. But the place was irrevocably changing. A rich and exciting past was coming to an end; its rebellion crushed by art - an old story of modern times.
Backed by the police occupation (completing the pincer movement) a few of the empty properties were developed for working class tenancy by the local Housing Trust who as ever always have an answer as to why there weren't, a lot more. "Straight working class people don't want to live on All Saints, so we're not harming anybody". Whilst this is true, it's not so for the many homeless families and others living in bed and breakfast (the kind of people living around the corner in the Angel Hotel in Tavistock Rd) who would jump at the chance of being housed (however temporarily) on the Saints. But they are not artists are they?
But the bull market in art was coming to an end. Two and a half months later, the world's stock market crashed. It didn't scatter the objet d'art like chaff overnight, but it re-established an old master selectivity where only blue chip taste was safe (i.e. the post- crash world record for 'Van Gogh's Irises) But crucially the index linking of all the top end of the market had come unstuck. It was not that the relationship between art and finance capital was at an end, (Japanese Insurance Companies know better than that) only its 198Os avant-garde phase. Formerly the typical financial entrepreneur, pitifully believing him/herself at the frontiers of creation, would put money in avant-garde stock. With an estimated 5OOO jobs for starters to go in the City, many a gallery will close its doors. In fact this retrenchment, in which Bond St. and Cork St, came to loom over pretenders like Notting Hill, reflects on the financial level proper, the drift back to the City of London away from the proposed new site in Docklands.
Ever capricious art (at least the ever renewed farce of "creative" art) must now seek out newly emerging trends, as yet only dimly visible to identify with. Come post-crash dawn and it was obvious, the link between the chic figure of the artist and the estate agent, walking hand in hand, both complimenting and understanding each other perfectly and both speaking each other's language was broken. The estate agent will survive probably by going down-market, where property values are less affected by the crash. Will the artist metaphorically speaking, follow suit? Maybe we can form an idea from observing some of the main tendencies at work in Notting Hill over the last few years extracting those, which an emerging new economic order may muster to serve capital.
Prior to the stock market collapse, one got the impression that capital's hope was to make All Saints a malled, multi-media, multi-ethnic, art ghetto, somewhat like Covent Garden, but far more avant-garde. A place of daring invention and sanitized ghetto living. The very thought of it leaving one feeling sick, even mugging seeming attractive in comparison.
Art all over Notting Hill has been the precursor and aesthetic counterpoint to gentrification. Negatively good in showing clearly which side art is on, it hasn't been combated clearly and confidently. With art galleries opening everywhere and squeezing the number of stores trading in everyday essentials, there's been a lot of muttering and confused anger. Many is the time they've been threatened with fire bombing (particularly the gallery owned by Richard Branson's sister) but alas, only when the drink was flowing. In this artistic deluge though, there's more than meets the eye. To view it as a neo-return to the early 20th century would be very superficial: a reconstructed Montmartre with a replicant Picasso about to break into a replicant cubism or, say, the popular artistic quarter of turn-of-the-century Munich awaiting an equally replicant Expressionism. This is merely the front.
This entire excrescence is really the art junk-bond market, when anything that said it was art, meant an appreciating asset. A time when the miserable pop art sculptures of Claes Oldenburg, twenty years ago, got turned into an even more miserable yuppie prop. Moreover, and more to the point, this art, these art galleries, looking so traditional with all their seen-it-all-fifty- times-before, avant-garde repeats, are, merely service conduits for a very big, up-to-the-minute, media hype. Studios for immediate ideas marketing by ad men and women. Art galleries as front for advertising agencies in a situation where England (particularly as centered in London) is the temporary capital of world hype. With the telescoping of art and business, all pretence about any gap between art and the commodity has vanished more completely than in the late 1960s. It's now glaringly obvious to a much vaster layer of the population.
Take the seeming repeats of dead end 1960 s artistic happenings, all over Notting Hill, throughout 1986 and since, (e.g. The Mattoids and Big Joe Rush). Basically they're simply dress rehearsals for inventive ads promoting products. Test Dept, with their tin can futuristic music, even bringing in a few Kent miners (forever the populism!) to improvise with them under the M40 Westway, were immediately signed up for a TV Heineken lager ad. The end product was on of the most ingenious promo's ever made. In passing one wonders too, if Test Dept wasn't also a recuperation of those outbursts of a music made by everyone, when an hilarious drunken evening's camaraderie bursts, seemingly from nowhere, into junk tin-panning and everyone starts playing walls, gas fires, chairs and tables.
Take too, the film of Absolute Beginners -was there ever such a build-up? And was there ever such a flop? The greatest movie disappeared overnight without a trace. Absolute Bollocks. But the producer, Julian – "we must create new clichés"- Temple, still holds his court in his local, Notting Hill watering hole, The Duke of Norfolk.
Photo above: The Mondrian visual pun appeared on the cover of Faron Sutaria's estate agency, property magazine, distributed gratis to most flats and houses in the area. It is Notting Hill's most avante-garde property shop. Sutaria is an Anglo-Indian who has risen to prominence during the Thatcher years, his career roughly paralleling the Saatchi Bros who have amassed a 'famous' avante-garde art collection. Where other estate agents may display in their windows their more desirable properties in picture frames concealing a staid interior of oak-desks, inlaid with green beige tops, Sutaria's agency is an art/property experience somewhere between an office and a temple. Giant colour transparencies of properties, illumined like stain glass hang on the back wall while photographs of other properties are framed like the side panels of triptych's. Unlike the typical pinstriped estate agent of a decade ago, Sutaria, immaculately turned-out in various shades of pastel, goes about the business of selling properties as if it were a leisure activity. His self-image is that of a multi-millionaire aesthete entrepreneur, somewhat akin to R. Branson's Virgin Leisure Industries. Simply buying a house to Sutaria is philistine and suburban. As well as an appreciating asset, it is an unfinished symphony in bricks and mortar; a symbiotic meeting of art and property values. And artists, ever more economically minded, respond to this connotation as if they were selling an appreciating asset. ----A friend wittily suggested that one of the newly opened art galleries should hold an exhibition of estate agents boards, comprising perhaps, an early Foxton, a minimalist Ruck and Ruck, a conceptual Sturgis etc......
This blatant market orientation is masked by the appearance of a community of artists, and that's how the erstwhile spirit of community - no matter how bogus - has changed according to circumstances. The Apollo was the communal watering hole of vague libertarianism, which amidst all of its nonsense had something of an anti-competitive, anti-business air to it. Now a similar venue for a more aggressively entrepreneurial time, The Warwick Castle, with more artistic front has come into being. A magazine put together by some of those who work for Rough Trade called The Roughler centres on The Warwick. It is a magazine, which manages to praise Jasper Conran (the ultimate in designer wear at £500 a throw), the cricketer, Bob Willis, and Class War, in almost one and the same breath. Even The London Standard noted favourably its, "Tatleresque spoofs". In comparison with the Notting Hill underground press of yesteryear, it is abysmal. The, more or less, yippee Ink and Frendz underground newspapers whatever their manifold failings, were brilliant in comparison. Yet Class War seem to be unaware just how contradictory their matey relationship with The Roughler is, especially in view of their professed anti-yuppie stance. The Roughler is not anti-yuppie but pro-yuppie or, more properly, pro the changing face of yuppiedom, which will opportunistically respond to whatever social forces are eventually unleashed by the crash. One of The Warwick Castle's pivotal punters is no less than Johnny Rotten, never able to leave his punk posture of wild-eyed artistic 'daring' behind. When posing for today's glossies, his semi-Thatcherite, Restart radicalism (get off your arse and make yourself a job) combined with a very jumbled appreciation of working class extremism may prove a workable blend in a constitutional transition to a post-Thatcherism still stamped with the impress of the old. In parenthesis, Glen Matlock' s status as former Sex Pistol was unable to save him from being threatened with a real Restart interview. One wonders how true this may be of The Warwick Castle clientele -though one would never guess just by looking, because they don't wear their worklessness like a badge, as formerly happened in The Apollo, designer-style being in part a reaction to the stylisation of poverty initiated by punk.1
In a sense, The Warwick Castle takeover sums-up what's happened to a lot of the pubs in the area. Gentrified for a new clientele (which somehow never seems to turn up as much as hoped for), the old clientele just won't take the hint and leave. In many other pubs, locals have been barred by trouble shooting 'guvnors' from Yorkshire or Geordieland, (big breweries also using the north/south hostility, just like the police) One of the last Geordie governors of the Duke of Cornwall, even cracked a whip at closing time. It was no joke. He meant it.
Now that the general climate is beginning to change, the scene seems set for a long drawn out battle. The governors, ideologically locked into the past of an eternal bull market, sky-high property prices and inflated city salaries aren't going to change just like that.
What has taken place recently vis-à-vis artistic gentrification in Notting Hill is merely a microcosm of a much wider shift in society, though its effects have been more intense and concentrated, than elsewhere. As a generic phenomena artists everywhere, are diligently putting to rights, a trail of havoc left by a none-to-precise anti-art scorn, Which 15 years ago, even the most orthodox 'artist' had to make some accommodation with. But behind their newfound reassurance and vicious ways, lies nothing but the most total and utter creative bankruptcy. And any moments of self- doubt are put down) though hesitantly and with a touch of mock seriousness, to the unavoidable sufferings of the artist (viz in this respect the camp parody of 'creative' romantic agony by Gilbert and George.)
During the 1970s it was different. In a belated response to the late 1960s attack on art- an attack that failed to become an onslaught- artists everywhere - altered their image to suit the populist 'art for the people' climate. Because a more coherent critique of art was only grasped by a handful of people at the time, it proved to be an attractive, have one's cake and eat it, alternative. Architects temporarily, forsook their role, to work on building sites. In the space of a decade they had gone from sacking trades people if their work didn't come up to scratch, to seeing what life was like from the other side of the drawing board. The easel was abandoned for collective out of doors painting. Public Pictures group artists in Notting Hill decorated the concrete bays under the M 40 motorway - obviously influenced, (at least in intention more than stylistically) by American WPA projects in the 1930 s plus Siquieros and Rivera - though lacking even the dubious quality of the American/Mexican originals. A graffiti at the time read "Public Picture: the cosmetic of misery". And such bright cosmetics are still used everywhere to paint over the cracks of a dull street.
A climate of right wing populism developing throughout the 1980s changed the real picture completely. Today's born-again artists are the acknowledged legislators of a romantic monetarism of egotistical greed and faith in their creative mission. And architects, grabbing a bigger percentage of dosh than ever, are becoming once more prima-donna personalities, reflecting the shift from public to private investment in construction with many more, much smaller sites and fewer operatives. In spite of the unspeakable horrors of post-war urban renewal, the local authority architect was to some extent faceless. Now they are to be found poking their noses everywhere, imagining they are constructing an architectural jewel, demanding engineering perfection and a high productivity ratio. They have also become generally much more business-like, employing swine's of sub-contractors whom are bad payers etc. But take heart this renewed positivism at all levels of culture, especially so today, only mirrors economic performance. It cannot survive a slump or severe recession without a jolt. Whether it will shatter this time, is up to the strength of a genuine revolutionary critique and practise.
(However even before the world stock market crash, the yuppie epoch was running on to the rocks. It appeared to peak ideologically even before the economic tumbrels. Now as they begin to fade from the scene we can see them for what they are -a particularly obnoxious form of the middle class spoilt brat, corresponding to an era of global financial deregulation when governments' were foolhardy enough to "risk handing over to stock markets the job of steering the world economy" (The Economist 26th Dec 1987 and Jan 8th 1988). Yuppie was never a term of approbation anywhere in the world. Rather it was sneering, contemptuous, derisory and in the U.K. in particular, few would unashamedly call themselves yuppies. The long hours of sterile work, the unremitting pressure, the sting of never getting a society like the U.K. to submit to a winners and loses division, was for some enough to spark trashy fantasies of the moon and sixpence in preference to a docklands suite and end of the year bonus. Before the nosedive in share values, yuppies were leaving the City to pursue the washed-up muse of art, not as a consumer, but as a creator. Having refused the link between art and finance, they are likely to seek a new creed but one, no less securely tied to the circulation of commodities, because either a Gauguin or a market maker is today a false alternative. Having taken a back seat for so long, perhaps the left yuppies of Marxism Today may provide us with potential clues as to this new creed?2
This either/or dilemma - banker or artist) is perhaps too archaic formally implying e.g. an exclusive respect for old conventions like easel painting. This will continue to exist (it is surprising the degree to which old artistic forms, like oil painting, sculpture, lithography and etching, no matter that it was all unbelievably bad, were saved from the trash can in the main by the financial revolution) but only as a subordinate cog in a much bigger machine. For instance the number of galleries catering for this latter day resuscitation of the Fine Arts, was far outweighed by the number of print shops opening in malls etc selling 'Art' postcards, film and pop star posters and framed photographs - thirty years ago, a mere handful (but growing steadily in number} would have 'daringly' argued for photography as 'art'. The dominant tendency will be towards a "mediafication" of life replacing the increasingly wearisome conservative surrealism of music promo videos. In this sense the Labour party's slick, TV dominated 1987 election campaign may prove to be something of a forerunner blending message, advertising agencies, copywriters, designers, film makers and ex T V producers. It need not be mind bendingly boring, nor politically tendentious either, because if it is, it won't have an audience. The invasion of the advertisers world by comic artists or, artist comics, already a fait accompli, could also metamorphose, sponsoring a kind of freak consumer protection or, surreal government warnings. Aimed at a broad viewing public, it will be a product requiring much money, team work and professionalism, worlds apart from the amateurness of Public Pictures in the 1970s who survived on meagre local council grants and the like.
Besides, this form of artistic expression was linked to squatting and the tentatives, no matter how faint, to lay hold of the urban environment, repair and shape it (according to human need) irrespective of legal entitlement. With the disappearance of mass squatting the basis for it has, in this respect gone. What is left is a pale resemblance in the opposite direction. The wretched, folksy, decorating of unadorned 19th century engineering structures -like the railway bridges in Chalk Farm and Camden, has been covered up, the girders picked out in alternate primary colours (no return to uniform return to uniform grey here). On the South East rail network, this painterly hype rather than capital renewal means one thing- getting the region ready for privatisation - and includes, everything from the flash South East designer logo of railway stations, to the ornamental coats of paint on aging diesel engines.
And as for the democratic moulding of townscape implicit in squatting, this has been seized on and trivialized beyond measure by the growth of home ownership and the inalienable right in theory of everyone to buy rather than actually having an inalienable right to shelter.
No post-crash scenario, which does not involve total upheaval will fundamentally alter this retreat into the home and design-conscious interior or alter the central place occupied by TV and the video. It is difficult to imagine there could be an explosion of 'radical theatre' without getting wind of it on TV. In the not-too-distant future, reformist rucs could centre on the question of access to the media and attempts to curtail the monopoly of control exercised by programme directors. The media artist could then be placed in the unenviable position of managing this discontent channelling it, so as not to spill over into a general popular recognition of the creative poverty of life as a whole. After all their monopoly of non-creativity will depend on it when the real creative battle is going to be the subversion of hype and the media. No promo, no 'radical' TV appearance, no gobshite to journalists but how, with the aid of technicians, to destroy media nonsense once and for all!
Also, most importantly a new inflection is needed challenging the boundaries of art and life, differing from the 1980s banking as a money aesthetic. "As capital money is both money and more money" (Paul Mattick) it could lose its enticing glance reflecting visions of 1968 turned inside out, becoming once more a banal instrumentality that puts labour to work, if it is to function as capital. And the rehabilitation of work as a creative experience in banking, (another grim achievement of the 1980's) could undergo change and become 'creative concern' expressed through a sort of voluntary work as living drama.
But enough - this is all speculation and we have no means of knowing and it is too early yet to get any clear indication. Suffice to say, that in Notting Hill, the terrain of community politics now fallen completely into passive consumption, (gigs, cabarets etc) has increasingly been occupied by artists looking for a socially more acceptable future. Going back many moons, community politics used to be pole of attraction and experimental laboratory for sociologists, would be politicians, social workers and the like .Now their mantle seems to have fallen on artists, though without the ideology of grass roots participation which was their originally. The wheel turns full circle, but never quite coming to rest at the same point.
"So ends the Empire of Notting Hill. As it began in blood, so it ended in blood..."
G.K. Chesterton: "The Napoleon of Notting Hill" (1904)
Is Notting Hill finished? Well that seems unlikely though if it were to lose its special avant-garde position that would be no bad thing. Certainly the area is very tense, but what place isn't in the UK? It can no longer claim to be in the vanguard in this respect and, nor can any other area. In North Kensington, as it was in the beginning, so it is at the end, with the rich still living, cheek by jowl, with the poor. The quickening pace of the area's invasion by the rich, since the late 1970s - amounting to an onslaught – has caused the place to lose most of its free and easy character. Driven mad with each turn of the screw, the poor - still by far the vast majority - slide into deranged frenzy. But hopefully gentrification has now stopped in its tracks though unlikely to go into quick reverse. For Sale notices multiply and buyers are cautious not wanting to be caught out paying a hefty mortgage when the value of property is starting to decline. And to think just weeks ago how overpowering was the pressure to escape, even for a few hours respite to adjacent more conducive areas like Shepherds Bush, Cricklewood, Hammersmith, Willesden and Kilburn where gentrification hadn't made the same inroads.
Basically, it was escaping from a once hallowed refuge to another 'village' - London being a series of urban villages - possessing all the inward, localist, outlook of village life, which one hardly sets foot out of. This is not to say anomie; typical of big cities is absent - in fact, very much the reverse. Generally, unlike Liverpool or Newcastle, London doesn't really possess the atmosphere of a city, although the waves made by the financial Big Bang of October 1986 have to some degree devastated this separate village-like identity. It has in other respects involved a significant degree of change: finance capital in the UK far more than industrial capital, has been the guardian of that complex of manners and ritual recognisable as historical tradition. With the invasion of foreign financial houses, particularly American and Japanese, in the wake of Big Bang, this patrimony has now been broken at its core in the City of London. Finance capital in the UK now approximates more to how Marx described it, in his conclusion to Theories of Surplus Value:
"In the capital which produces interest, the automatic fetish is perfected: we have money producing money. Nothing at all is left of the past; the social relation is no longer anything more than the relation of a thing (money or commodity) to itself. ..."
From Notting Hill to Nothing Hill.
It's not that in general Londoners are taking this lying down, or crawling defeated into their beds to die, finally suicided by the bankers. On the contrary, as ex-chief of the Met, Newman, on the day he retired in the summer of 1987, strikingly (for a police mind) put it: "London now is in a state of slow riot." Notting Hill is merely one area covering a vast terrain.
Things are so far gone in London that it appears the place needs riot as a human adjustment. The North, on a practical everyday level has a feeling of community, even if it is only a smile or a friendly acknowledgement. After months spent in London, these simple responses, take on an enormous even exaggerated importance. In London and the dense urban/ hi-tech corridor of the M 4 to Bristol, community in all but the most superficial aspects has disappeared. And the Hungerford massacre stands as a warning to what can happen under these conditions. A simple basic need to reestablish human contact must be one of the gut motivating forces behind the sporadic, flash flood mini-rioting, which began to take place all over the southeast corner of the UK during 1987 and the beginning of 1988. One further point: Many people say rioting doesn't change anything. Like today the past was peppered with them and they were just as inconsequential. Looking at the last hundred years it is hard to believe their incidence was anywhere near what it is now. This contestation, breakdown, even mindlessness, must add up to something. To dismiss it out of hand usually says more about the arrogance and complacency of the person who does. A reporter in The Independent (2nd Sept 1987) after the Carnival said rioting had been, "A relatively common event in the 1920s and 1930s." This is overstated. There weren't that many and those that did occur were among unemployed workers, led by the C.P. stalwart, Wal Hannington. Besides these riots were largely defensive and a response to unprovoked police baton charges, when weary marchers would enter unwelcoming towns. There may have others of a different nature, notably the set-to at Harwood Colliery in north Notts in 1938 when the breakaway Spencer Union was thrown out in favour of the National Union. But unlike today, one really has to look very hard to find even the remotest sign of turmoil in the sunset cities of the North and the sunrise cities of the Midlands or London. What's more, a political/trade union framework, like the afore-mentioned examples, does not circumscribe today's rioting. At the antipodes of politics, these riots are spontaneous, unpredictable, unnerving, constantly catching authority on the hop.
It is the sphere of consumption rather than production that has recently tended to prove so explosive in the UK, though with renewed strikes everywhere in 1988, an explosive overlap becomes a possibility again. However spirited the response is to the failure of leisure, it will get nowhere unless ultimately it involves the productive forces. Otherwise it will simply joy ride off into the gloom. Meantime how to do it justice? Autonomy seems too tendentious a word involving theory, consciousness and knowledge of what was best in the revolutionary movement of the past twenty years. If not totally alien these notions just somehow do not entirely suit the uncontrollable lust-for-life, often enough set free by the contents of the bottle and constantly running up against the thin blue line, between us and the good time. It is not class war as the professors of class war understand the term, but there again, few would deny that it had class implications, or that leisure is becoming increasingly valorised (multiplication of theme parks, gentrification of pubs etc) to serve the interests of the leisure moguls. This sort of leisure management is never relaxing; on the contrary, it is stiflingly at odds with spontaneous enjoyment and the enemy of a genuine surprise. It is for instance impossible to get a drink in Alton Towers in Derbyshire, forerunner of many other theme parks, like the Heights of Abraham, Gulliver's Kingdom and the American Experience north of the Trent. Maybe here we have a hidden acknowledgement that drink is doing more to further real destructive rebellion right now in the UK than a traditional, union-shackled, shop steward movement.
The Times: August 22 '87
More so than in the period '82 to '84, there's been a virtual media blank of all the mini-riots which have taken place over the last 18 months or so. While there has been no major conflagration in the inner-cities since late '85, riots appear to have spread to places unaffected '81 or '85. Most of it seems to have taken place in the so-called well off, money-obsessed conformity of the insulated deep south. Places like Pevesney in East Sussex, Wallingford in Oxfordshire, Newport Pagnell and Milton Keynes, Cheddar in Somerset, Wreckleshem, Wokingham and Marlow just outside London. In short: nowhere places - the above list by no means comprehensive. In Spain, Police Chiefs and Hotel Proprietors complain bitterly about the awsome vandalism of drunken Brits, in this ironically, the country of anarchism's past destructive practise and action. The boisterous camaraderie of generally poor Brits - out for a good time - induces a kind of infectious internationalism as it's passed on to German, Dutch and even Spanish. Though a minority of Spanish workers in creating anti-union inter-enterprize coordination are way ahead of their British counterparts, they don't as yet have the latters furious, destructive quality.
Ever since The Winter of Discontent in 1979 and, until recently, the employed working class in the UK has been more and more squeezed back into union led disputes, despite the atmosphere and reality of inner-city rioting - and its knock on effects - making the action, in and around these disputes, exhilarating and volatile (e.g. the miners and printers at Warrington and Wapping.) Now that we're beginning to see as the general rule, the return of wildcat organization, what was missing in the general potlatch is in the process of being re-defined again. But this general movement is also taking place in a dire, up-and-down, manic depressive atmosphere - an atmosphere which is also getting worse by the day and one it's necessary to go into in the following postscript.
It is worth asking to what degree has rioting been a stand-in for the energy that was formally unleashed in wildcat strikes, serving as a rallying point nationally for pent-up frustration and passion. (A major aspect of the British Disease, Thatcher, until recent events, claimed to have cured.) However, one has to be careful about such comments. They can be a form of leftist rubbishing of destructive impulses. An old point forcibly comes to mind when considering the UK's exemplary vandalism: just what is worth preserving of this old world? Nonetheless, there is a risk of falling into an ideology of riot in the UK, like there is an ideology of assembly in Spain, everyday life in America or theory in France.
1987 saw the re-birth of wildcat activity in the UK (West Yorks buses in early spring, Yorkshire pits, civil servants, postal workers, Ford, Austin Rover and bus crews in London and Scotland) and continuing to grow with amazing rapidity in 1988. But they'll have to cohere into something more than a resuscitated rank 'n' filism. Unfortunately these wildcats are tending to serve as a warning to a lumbering bureaucracy to waste these inspiring initiatives, by calling a secret ballot (required by law), so they can attempt to fuck in action altogether. However, Thatcher's, '"give the union back to the membership" is also double-edged and tending to backfire. It has ironically, tended to take away authority from the union bosses - an authority capital is going to desperately need in the future. Its encouraged workers, in an unexpected way, to handle their own affairs and take matters into their own hands. Finally it's worked-on and stimulated a rare depth of hostility to trade union manipulation that could well break through into something else. But it'll need more than just a spontaneous anti-bureaucratic explosion to get anywhere and for this frustrated rebels could do worse than look at the planning and self-organization of the French railway workers (Nov 1986 to Jan 1987) or, the Italian base committees, or, the Spanish Dockers Coordinadora for inspiration.
An historical note: In the final years of the First International, Bakunin, got some of his confidence to breakaway from what he rightly perceived as the growing authoritarianism, statist goals of Marx and his followers, from English trade unionists (it is not clear what kind of TU's they were - were they for instance, forerunners of shop stewards?) who were mouthing-off against the Great Teacher. Has it stayed like that: unerring quick-fire responses that suddenly falter and get lost, vacillating between a fatalism and a far from compliant insight into what went wrong? Or, considering those subterranean processes which one can hardly fathom, are things now subjectively very different, more rebelliously sure-footed among the UK proletariat as a whole? Whatever there yawning inconsistencies, we hope so.
Since we are dealing with a past that is still very much alive, we may recall that the origins of anarcho-syndicalism, go back to the insurrectionary notion of a "grand national holiday" (i.e. general strike) advanced by Tyneside workers in the early 19th century. However, the day of classic anarcho-syndicalism has passed ultimately fouling up, just like any other trade union form. What is striking here is the colourful turn-of-phrase and the nascent libertarian tendencies emerging once more at the end of a long drawn-out process of trade union implantation, forever side-stepping the most fundamental question. It may just be the ingredient needed to leap the extremes of contestation, in work and leisure and in so doing, recast both in an autonomous mode.
The Shape of Shopping To Come? Photo above: The Time Factory. A new mall and theme park for Los Angeles destined to be the largest in the world. Shopping centres and malls are also foci of trouble. Though the Gateshead Shopping Centre on Tyneside (with facilities e.g. for men to change babies nappies) is a pioneering example of retail modernity their incidence, though generally on a small scale, is greater in the S. East. This is not the place to go into a comprehensive analysis of the tensions they generate or, to compare Britain with America where the malling retail revolution is far more of a total experience in space and time, creating a parallel 'reality'. However, consider the following from the Guardian (16.9. 1987) - which is something of a departure from its usual bland reportage.... "The urban riots of 1981 and 1983) didn't happen in decaying inner-city areas. Over the past decade most new towns have experienced fairly serious outbreaks of rioting (which often never reached the national press) and these usually occurred in or around the new shopping centres. In many places I visited there was an almost palpable hostility between those spending with credit cards and those with UB 40s and nothing to do but watch. In Oxford earlier this year it was reported that the pedestrian shopping precinct has been the scene of often quite violent clashed." (Part-Time Places). Equally however, we could mention the frequent disturbances in N. London's Brent Cross shopping centre where shoplifters have been pulled away from security men and police. This response does seem to be frequent in Britain's malls.
- 1Well over a year before the 1987 general election, Rotten said of Paul Weller and Red Wedge: "Well they can go on tour up north all they like but quite frankly it's not gonna change the kids' point of view. They ain't gonna vote. Period. They just ain't unless it's Newcastle United or Man United they're not gonna vote. They're not, let's face it. The working class are completely, utterly and totally fed up to the fucking eyeballs with the current system and see no hope, and don't want no part of it, which is why they're so bloody violent" (City Limits, 7 12 1986). And as for the rehabilitation of art take the PIL tour of Sept/Oct 1987. "The stage set was a fluorescent, multi-coloured techno-cityscape of tower blocks and bridges. ...The show was modelled on work by the Austrian painter, Friedensreich Hunderstrasse.. "We wanted to create somewhere we could have some intelligent fun..(The Guardian 31101'87) Perhaps this is why JR said elsewhere that he preferred the States because the British resent success -i.e. they dislike the rich like him.
- 2In spring 1986, artists and staff belonging to the avant-garde Air Gallery in collaboration with Islington' s so-called socialist council, set up an open air exhibition of ready-made, junk sculpture on a bit of green space used by the tenants of the council owned, Hartnoll Estate. As they were bringing culture to the plebs, the tenants weren't soft-soaped and asked for their consent. As a result, artists were attacked and on occasion roughed up. These actions brought down upon the tenants the wrath of The Guardian's, hysterical, numbskull art critic, Waldemar Januszcak with the familiar accusations of philistinism. One annoyed Hartnoll Estate resident wrote back to The Guardian's letter page replying to the idiot Januszcak. Though sadly not supporting residents decking artists (it goes without saying that the urge to get your dabs on artists is a creative urge) he clearly pointed out that Marcel Duchamp's ready-mades had made the point much better many moons ago.