It was possibly Patrick Keiller who first raised the question, ‘the problem of London’. As there are no money-making opportunities in answering this question it has been neglected. But it is surely one of the key questions, not an incidental one?
London is a large city. The building and maintenance of London requires immense quantities of labour, raw materials and machines. As we live in a capitalist society, the labour, raw materials and machines require capital to get them going as it were. This is so that profit can be generated. That strange surplus which is the result of labour-power and the labour process organised within capitalist relations of production.
These simple but essential factors are rarely if ever mentioned in the vast literature about the planning, direction and expansion of the city. This is one reason (there are others) why the problem of London is never solved.
It is striking how much empty and underused property there is in London. Here is a city that continues to grow, to expand without a real coherent plan and fails to provide genuine satisfaction to its residents and visitors.
Many who would like to live there and would make a contribution to the creative life of the city can no longer afford to do so. Empty property is everywhere, buy to leave investors and secret companies headquartered in tiny islands for tax evasion purposes.
Other parts of the city are just a backdrop for the vanities of the global rich. They bring nothing to the city but corruption, greed, self-satisfaction and the oppression of money-power.
There are at least three types of emptiness in London now. The emptiness of planned investment in which a great deal is built but there is no intention that any one will ever live in the buildings. It is estimated that around 40 percent of the buildings in the Nine Elms ‘development’ alone are empty. On the current trajectories of class power, they always will be empty, until in 50 years time (the usual term of building for such places) the whole lost is demolished and something even more ghastly will be erected.
The second emptiness is the dislocation caused by the ever changing needs of capital and its never ending dynamic to accumulate even further. Fixed capital is like mountains. They look solid but geologists now find it useful to think of even the largest mountains as having the characteristics of liquids, albeit liquids which move at slow speeds.
Fixed capital also has the properties of liquid. As capital moves, so populations (local and wider) are moved; services which have grown up to support capital at an earlier stage now find they are trying to serve a reduced working population. The capital moves, those services collapse. Fleet Street is a good example. A ten minute walk will reveal empty former printing presses, empty offices and empty shops.
The third kind of emptiness if that of the hole in the human psyche, or be less precise, the soul. Capital creates a general alienation but we all experience that individually. Alienation is such a weird force and power – and so little talked about. We all struggle to define exactly what it is, even though we constantly sense it in our inner life and daily world.
Capital has no answers to any of this other than to expand even further thus increasing the tensions and contradictions. These tensions and contradictions then burst out and explode in unexpected and destructive ways. One phase of capitalism is wiped out – sometimes physically in wars and economic depression – and from the partial ruins the whole sorry circus starts again. This is the backdrop to the problem of London.
One sop thrown out by the developers and the new aristocracy of money-power is community consultation. Let’s talk to the locals. But this will never do. Most people have little if any training or education in planning, architecture, design, transport systems, infrastructure construction. Asking people ‘what they want’ in such circumstances is simply to ask them to regurgitate the years of ideological head-fixing they have experienced.
It’s not so easy to just consult with people; many people will tell you what they think you want to hear, have never studied art and aesthetics and architecture, are heavily influenced by powerful capitalist interests.
Before any consultation can take place, people need to be liberated from the oppressive ideology of capitalism; they need to be able to speak their inner thoughts without feeling they might be silly or inappropriate; they need to be encouraged to describe their dreams.
At the very least, any ‘consultation’ should be preceded by a lengthy period of discussion with lectures, films, exhibitions based on the ideas of Pugin, Ruskin, Morris, Arts & Crafts, Bauhaus, Christopher Alexander, Percival and Paul Goodman, Camillo Sitte, Jane Jacobs, Catherine Bauer and many others. Drawing classes and singing together would help to generate ideas and sort out things out a little.
Furthermore, everyone involved in community consultations should be offered access to psychiatrists, psychoanalysts and therapists to help them articulate what their personal problems actually are. Gestalt therapies, Jungian and Freudian analysis (and other techniques) would help to tease out the inner lives are of those involved in ‘consultations’.
‘Development’ is dressed up in a language of community, opportunity and sustainability but an alternative glossy brochure which describes exploitation, oppression, capital accumulation, profit, greed, inequality, income differentials, the relationship between capital accumulation and war should also be produced. In the interests of balance.
There also needs to be an equality of vote and voice. There can be no meaningful consultations when local people have a shoe-string budget social media presence and the developers have vast PR and marketing departments with huge resources and access to the radio, television and print media.
These are all things that technically are possible within capitalism. The fact is that socially they won’t work because of the dominance of private property, class interest and class relations of power and oppression. This might lead people to conclude that before any community consultation is carried out there needs to be a socialist revolution. This would indeed open up the debate in many unexpected and interesting ways.
In the drab and dreary world before the socialist revolution (look around, it’s the one we live in now, the world which doesn’t seem to bring satisfaction, happiness and contentment to anyone) we can offer a dream or two. And consider how the problem of London might be solved.
The current dominant principle is that of making money. There is an additional frustration experienced because this is hidden by a whole load of gumpf about other things which are nothing but vague abstractions.
This whole language induces a certain mental queasiness in anyone who can hear their own head speak through the white-noise of so-called capitalist culture. It’s not just the mantra of opportunity, jobs, sustainability which is vacuous nonsense, it’s all the ‘passion’ and ‘life-style’ and ‘human capital’ that the developers talk about. The contradiction is revealed in hypocrisy. They themselves don’t believe it and when they’re drunk and it’s late at night they too shed tears for the life they might have had.
One aim of this socialist revolution which is vaguely in the back of some people’s minds should be to eliminate the money-principle and private property. This would generate a great deal of fear in the psyche of certain people but it would stimulate an enormous amount of opportunity – practical opportunity – for large numbers of people.
In these vague dreams we have in the days of dirty neo-liberal capitalism we consider a great deal. A world without hunger, war, homelessness. A world with clean water, medicines on demand for everyone, saving the world from climate catastrophe; that sort of stuff. But there are also considerations to be put forward in the here and now.
The problem of London is that increasing swathes of the city are being destroyed to be replaced by walls of glass and leisure -hotel – retail – office – luxury flat developments. We need to address this question, even if we don’t yet have the forces to provide the answer.
This alleyway would be a good starting point.
Alleys can be interesting and unusual spaces. This could be a play alley. These buildings could be used to house families with young children. A gate at each end would provide the most perfect play space. The adjacent Middle Street, Newbury Street, Cloth Street and Kinghorn Street could be bought into this orbit. A whole network of alleys and streets for children to play in.
Everyone having their own bedroom (or shared if they wish) which has quietness, is free from damp, allows in light but can be easily darkened. Why on earth are people in bedrooms where they are kept awake for hours by external noise, bugs, vermin, black mould?
A key issue is that everyone should have this. Not just the rich. The resolution of this particular problem may mean a number of other contradictions and tensions need to be first resolved. Enormous social upheavels will probably be necessary. But if the reward is a clean, safe, quiet place to sleep each night it’s almost certainly worth it.
Debating spaces, printing presses for local newspapers and zines and posters and leaflets for meetings and events. All offices have industrial strength printers and photocopiers. It would be easy to distribute such machines across local areas for everyone to have access.
The elimination of the oppression of motorism (with the exception of electric delivery vehicles and mobility vehicles) would reduce pollution, improve the cleanliness of air, return streets to the people who live and work in them. Cars are absurd vehicles. They require masses of resources to produce, huge amount of space for roads and for most of the time are parked (often on the pavement) where they just clutter up urban space.
Street corner libraries and galleries. Music rooms and recording studios with instruments to borrow as and when. Good bakers. Whatever happened to bread? Bread too has been polarised in the chocking world of neo-liberalism. Yes, it’s possible to buy a loaf for 50p. It is unlikely to have any nutritional value and it’s only purpose is to fill the belly. As sawdust or cardboard might. Or there is the artisanal loaf which costs five pound. Even other capitalist countries – France is a good example – manage to produce bread as a commodity at a reasonable price. There is something uniquely ghastly about the British version of neo-liberalism and this is expressed everywhere. Even in a sandwich.
Trees, orchards, flowers, flower beds. Ada and Alfred Salter worked with the idea of turning the slums of Bermondsey into a garden city. It was possibly one of the most inspired ideas in London planning in the past 100 years.
People were amazed as they came into the city along the railway viaducts to see even the poorest streets with trees and flower pots and window boxes and hanging baskets. When local kids at times smashed this up, people worked with those kids to explain what it was all about and encourage them to tend the plants. The vandalism was greatly reduced.
Young people in Britain are increasingly living in poverty. But this is a different poverty to that of the 1920s. Now everyone is constantly bombarded with an ideological vision of how wonderful capitalism is and how much they should have. And are forced to consider that their live isn’t like that and yet no-one helps them explain as to why. It is not just a poverty of lack of food or lack of mattress or lack of sanitary products, make up, soap, deodorant. Those are poverties enough, but there is a lack of a realisation of emotional needs. And the poverty of the soul can be darkly explosive indeed.
Perhaps shops were people can freely help themselves to the essentials. Food, soap, clothing; that sort of stuff. £250 bn has just been spent on a football tournament so it’s not as if there is money lacking in the world.
I like the idea of access to drawing classes, music lessons, art studios. The provision of workshops with welding equipment, industrial tools and 3-D printing facilities. The means of production for domestic and personal luxury; sewing machines, tailoring workshops, jewellery making equipment.
Local power generation and local area networks linked to grid electrical power and general utility computing.
Theatre space for local productions, dance space, rave space.
Squares and gardens seem to work well. Camillo Sitte thought the town square was the ideal urban aesthetic. They certainly add something. Blocks of flats, houses, new configurations; a bedroom in a block with communal living spaces and dining areas. That might work. In fact such building-types already exist within capitalism; they are called hotels and they can be of fantastic quality. Spaces for tents and caravans would increase the range of living quarters types.
There also needs to be space which is not easily categorised. What is it? It’s not ‘waste land’ nor ‘derelict land’. It might be a space which teenagers appropriate, a place to grow up beyond the view of adults. Where children can go when the absurdity of adult life becomes too much for them.
Support for independent purpose and mutuality; solo pursuits and cooperation. A place that supports the dialectics of life.
And of all of this before we even consider Christopher Alexander and ‘the quality without a name’. That is, the creation of urban topographies which support the parts of life we all like best. The stuff that is free like friendship, sex, aesthetics, conversation. We could add food. And then we are aligned with Fourier. Rather nicely.
Where were we again? Oh yes, the problem of London. Would the above be affordable? The question becomes irrelevant if money is eliminated and property socialised.
And the problem of London would itself become a different question. It might even be discovered that the question has then, in fact, been answered.