EC1 – A Primer

It seems so disjointed. A collection of buildings sharing space but little else; and not even sharing that space in a neighbourly way.

The only underlying principle is profit. These buildings share built characteristics. They are all the products of the alchemy of human labour, labour power (as a commodity), machines, and raw materials.

The electric lights, curtain glass, stone walls, steel shutters, plastic computer monitors all started as raw materials. As metal ores deep in the earth, sand, oil, plants. There’s probably animal bone in all this somewhere too.

These have become objects. But they were created by active-subject workers. So what exactly is going on here?

These are all social creations. They are all shapes of human labour. But they seem to lack a sociability that we can relate to. They seem distant from us, alien.

The production is a social process. The interaction of humans with the natural world. A world of stone and ores and sand and plants and animals.

These products are created. But any product is only really a product when it is consumed. How then are these products consumed? How are these offices and buildings and streets consumed? They are surrounded by laws, laws dictated by the property owners. Everything here is predicated on the power of private property.

These objects are powerful and some dominate the landscape. However, it is not the object which is the source of wealth; it is the subjective activity, the labour that creates the object which is the source of wealth.

Marx begins Grundrisse by stating:

The object before us, to begin with, material production’

A few pages later,

‘Whenever we speak of production, then, what is meant is always production at a definite stage of social development – production by social individuals’.

To read Marx is to immediately be tumbled into a world which makes sense of the world we live in but in an obtuse, tangential, diversional way.

But surely that’s the only way to make sense of the world? Reading Grundrisse is akin to having a lively conversation with a friend over a bottle or two of good wine. The conversation moves all over the place; one minute on the cliff top, next bouncing across the waves in the sea. Now still, now a stormy fury. Scattered images are tossed and thrown into the air, a brief sentence of an event, a reference to the Reformation, an anecdote picked up from Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution.

However, Marx is not writing dialogue. His style is a process of trying to comprehend and explain the social reality of capitalist society.

The ideas hop and jump around between Hegel, Ricardo, Adam Smith, Proudhon, production and distribution in general, ‘natural conditions such as harbours’, soil fertility, slaves, serfs, wage labourers, communal property, production, distribution, exchange, consumption, railways, housing, hunger, gratification. All this in the first dozen pages or so. Marx brings it all together and it all makes complete sense.

Perhaps one of my favourite ideas (so far) in this intense overview of human history and material production:

‘Production thus not only creates an object for the subject, but also a subject for the object’.

This has been following me around all week. On the commute to work, in the office, in the supermarket, while seemingly idling with nothing much else to do.

An elderly Black man comes out of one of the buildings leaning on his walking stick. He holds his hand out to check for rain.

‘It’s still raining’, I say, from the cover of a doorway. ‘It keeps feeling like it might stop but it doesn’t’, and then I add, giving a general thumbs down, ‘nothing in England works for us’.

‘They want to you feel like that’, he says, smiling, ‘and then you get depressed and don’t want to do nothing’. He has a lovely Caribbean accent. His speech is poetic and full of rhythms.

He taps the side of his head with his finger.

‘It’s all conditioning, to make you think a certain way’.

Out of the street, from seemingly nothing, philosophy.

We talk some more and then he walks slowly up the street leaning on his stick. He is visibly poor. And yet he has immense dignity. We wish each other a good day.

I walk around Cloth Street (and alley), Middle Street, Newbury Street, Bartholomew Close, Albion Way, Little Britain, Cloth Fair. It all feels like a muddle.

There is some good architecture – but it’s all from a much earlier age. Anything new here is bland and pointless. What on earth was going on with the planning process? 200 Aldersgate is horrible. The overwhelming sensation is of something made of discarded washing up liquid bottles. It doesn’t fit in but neither does it have the chutzpah to stand out. It is like the person who appears at a house party and makes half an entrance and then falls into the garden pond and goes home covered in weed.

Not only are there no big ideas here, there are no ideas at all. How is it possible to produce buildings with a complete absence of imagination? Perhaps AutoCad came up with the designs one morning when everyone was concentrating on relieving their hangovers. This is what it feels like.

What’s the plan here? Is it just going to be serviced apartments and a few (pretty good it has to be said) pubs. Or – dare we ask – is there ever going to be an attempt to build community​? Or something even better; something beyond the glossy brochures and sound-bites. I wonder what that might be? Something with magic and imagination? Oh, if only.

At the moment it feels sad because it is sad. There aren’t enough people in the streets and those that are look like zombies that slave away uncritically for the mystical force of Capital. They are always checking work emails, they alway work late and arrive early. They are tedious beyond compare.

I don’t like the lack of attention here because it will make it far too easy for it all to be bulldozed and create the conditions for yet more deathly anti-architecture to be constructed.

But to fight for these few streets feels like having to start a war against the whole grot of early 21st century capitalism. Perhaps that’s what needs to happen. Yes, that is what needs to happen. Is it one big crisis or multiple crises? It’s both.

It’s raining and I would like to visit the Church of St Bartholomew the Great. There is a service. I don’t mind a church service. But I don’t like this one. It’s a dedication to James I on the event of him surviving the Guy Fawkes plot. The sermon is all about tolerance and settling differences without hate. This I agree with. But not as a defence of James I. It is absurd.

At the end, another priests suggests the Grace of God. Which is then followed by three verses of ‘God Save the King’.

This is too much. I leave and only come back when it’s all finished. I guess these people are Anglicans. I make a note to myself to finish reading Macaulay’s The History of England from the Accession of James the Second. The first two volumes, which I have read, are brilliant. It’s not just the detail, it’s Macaulay’s conviction in every word he writes. I almost became a Whig.

When I got home I took volumes three to six from the shelf and left them on the kitchen table. I promise that as soon as I get the time, they will be read.

And so the research into EC1 begins. Karl Marx and Grundrisse and Lord Macaulay and The History of England.

I cannot imagine better starting points.

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