There was a tug on my left arm. I didn’t see who did it as they had quickly disappeared into the mass of people on the concourse of Liverpool Street Station. But I couldn’t go that way. Not enough time. It was there, an idea and it was fading as I stood on the escalator going underground to the subterranean railway.
I don’t like being time dependent to having to catch certain trains. But Southeastern Railway is run in such a mean spirited way that it saves a lot of money to book on to particular trains even if they don’t run at the times that suit you. It’s anti-social behaviour by the train company. It’s certainly not a public service. It’s all about extracting the maximum amount of money from the traveller; the moving ATM. You are not paying them, they are extracting from you. That’s how capitalism works. It is a vast system of anti-social behaviour.
And it’s all nicely organised in the interests of profits and shareholders and hedge funds and off-shore companies based in tax havens. People are pushed further from the centres of cities, further form the peripheral zones to the centre, further from the suburbs, further from the sprawl along the main roads. They are pushed miles away from their places of work, their friends, familiar places. Meanwhile the centres of cities are hollowed out by glass tower blocks which are full of empty by-to-leave spaces. Dislocation, displacement, disorientation, disillusionment. Housing is expensive, travel is expensive, food is expensive, gas, electricity, broad band connections. Where do the capitalists imagine all this money comes from?
Transport system have been privatised and knocked about and messed about and forced to the dance to the tune of money, indifferent senior civil servants and ignorant politicians. The recent strikes by RMT members have thrown much into sharper relief. Some seemingly small issues such as RMT members working throughout the pandemic. The degradingly poor pay for the cleaners and the fact that they do not get sick pay. In the year 2022?
What can be harder for workers to articulate is what the job is actually like. Cleaning trains at the end of the day. The quality of their uniforms and equipment. How fast they are expected to work. What the daily targets are. How those targets are measured. What it means to try and live on such low wages. What the culture is like in the organisations they work for. How the silent bullying works. What the looks and attitudes of the managers convey on a daily basis. What veiled threats and suggestions are made about unions and union activities. Anyone who has ever worked anywhere will know all that stuff particularly if they have found themselves in dispute with their bosses. Atmosphere is understood by everyone. It is not so easy to describe pettiness and the subtle and not so subtle tactics used to convey anti-union messages.
The recent strikes by RMT workers have also done something else. They have revealed class lines and class interests. Class is always there and the tension and conflict between Capital and Labour. But a great volume of sounds and masses of words and moving images on phones, on computers, screens besides the escalators, in the streets are used to obfuscate. Unformed discontents and dangerous ideas swirl in deep dark pools and undercurrents, beneath the surface, in the unconscious, in the consciousness, under the streets, in the corners of factories and basements of office blocks and service areas of the retail shopping mall experiences. The sparks are too small, the combustible material is sodden with apathy, pessimism, dis-interest, fear, anxiety. But suddenly, like lava emerging from the movement of tectonic plates, a hot power reveals itself which previously had been invisible and felt impossible. We’re not there yet, nowhere near, but some of the negativity has dissolved. The combustible material is drying out. The next sparks might start fires.
The plan I had was abandoned and instead decided to go shopping. This is something I rarely do other than to the supermarket. Of course I buy books and music all the time and there is great pleasure in this. My living space is gradually turning into a fantastic second hand-book shop; a favourite place. Hours can be spend browsing. Discovering a book bought, or found, or donated, twenty years ago and barely opened. Suddenly it proves to be indispensable for a current project. Or the moment when browsing and seemingly casually taking a book off a shelf to discover that it is an object with the power to conjure up great magic. It pulls one in, the words have immense power and illumination, the city of Petrograd appears, a crowd, Lenin and Trotsky in exile, carnage in the trenches, hunger in the bellies of the children, fury in the hearts of the crowds of workers. The unsteady, hesitant confusion of the first hours and days of the 1917 February Revolution.
The workers a the Erikson, one of the foremost mills in the Vyborg district, after a morning meeting came out on the Sampsonievsky Prospect, a whole mass, 2,500 of them, and in a narrow place ran into the Cossacks. Cutting their way with the breasts of their horses, the officers first charged through the crowd. Behind them, filling the whole width of the Prospect, galloped the Cossacks. Decisive moment! But the horsemen, cautiously in a long ribbon, rode through the corridor just made by the officers. ‘Some of them smiled’, Kayurov recalls, ‘and one of them gave the workers a good wink’. This wink was not without meaning. The workers were emboldened with a friendly, not hostile, kind of assurance, and slightly infected the Cossacks with it. The one who winked found imitators. In spite of renewed efforts from the officers, the Cossacks, without openly breaking discipline, failed to force the crowd to disperse….
….standing stock-still in perfect discipline, the Cossacks did not hinder the workers from ‘diving’ under their horses. The revolution does not chose its path: it made its first steps towards victory under the belly of a Cossacks horse. A remarkable incident! And remarkable the eye of its narrator – an eye which took an impression of every bend in the process. No wonder for the eye was a leader; he was at the head of over two thousand men. The eye of a commander watching for enemy whips and bullets looks sharp’.
(The History of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky Vol 1, page 122- 123).
The book as an object has a powerful sensual presence. This is the three volume edition published by Gollanz in 1932. The very year is brought alive by its physical quality.
But it wasn’t books and music that I was looking for on this particular evening. I thought I might just go and look around the shops. I like shops and certain physical things and things with good quality. Everyone is influenced by style and fashion and the history and political economy and politics of those those phenomena are fascinating. Much can be learned about the development of the productive forces and the organisation of capital through their study.
I wandered in and out of shops, mingling with the crowds on the streets, stopping to lean against a wall or stand still in a corner to watch the people and absorb the light and the way the sky changed from light grey to dark grey and how sometimes bright blue could be seen through the clouds. The past two hundred years or so could be traced through the buildings; early nineteenth century terraced yellow brick houses, a sprinkling of mid nineteenth century churches, expressing a mixture of terrifying moralising, strange interpretations of the life of Christ and confused versions of spiritual guidance. Buildings which were once workshops and sweatshops and factories and warehouses. Older shops with their bow windows, alleys and courtyards, neon signs, the backs of theatres. A man sitting on a box smoking a cigarette outside the stage door, his colleague in a small room with the door open reading the evening paper.
But the more I walked around the less I felt like spending anything at all. The fine mist of consumerism was encouraging me to develop a thick water proof of anti-consumerism. The fine mist, the molecular level which works half hidden to make us spend, to consume, failed to work. It was creating an antithesis, a resistance, a tension and conflict. The commodity is multi-faceted, the carrier of a great range of emotions and physical and psychological reactions. It can be difficult to work them all out, to express them, to articulate what they are and they mean.
Consumption and non-consumption, wants and non-wants, desires and anti-desires. These are strange phenomena.
Finally I realised that I wanted some A0 size card to use to make collages. I would buy something. But when I reached the London Graphics Centre it was closed.
A cloud burst and I sheltered in the service area of an office block near New Oxford Street. Big air conditioning units, waste bins with wheels, a security guard sitting in a box, a parcel trolley with a sign ‘Google deliveries here’. The rain became heavier, splashing on the puddles that quickly formed. The swish of car tyres on the wet roads. People walking past holding umbrellas, pieces of cardboard to shield their heads, or just walking in the rain getting wet.
I have a vague idea that while standing in High Holborn, waiting for a traffic light to change, Ernst Rutherford made a discovery about the nature of atoms and their changes. From red to amber to green. I can’t find the reference right now and am puzzled as to which book that might actually be in. Something to do one quite evening.
The cloud had burst and the rain had heavily fallen and now the streets were wet and the sun punched its way through some dark raggedy clouds. A rainbow over Holborn. Everything we need is all around us. We just need to work out how to claim it as ours; the planet, all the machines, the food, the land, the buildings. Everything we need for socialist luxury is already here. But how to walk through the invisible walls to make it collective and shared?
The traffic light changed from red to amber to green. I crossed the road in the centre of this vast city. Splitting the atom, uniting the workers. It’s all possible.