The Progressive Office Tower

I was thinking of a reference for Guy Debord in Paris in, I think 1957. It runs along the lines of ‘he tried to organise a walk, it rained, no-one turned up, he left, and didn’t try to do this again for perhaps a decade’.

Where had I read this? I was thinking of it as I stood in the corridor of the train as it arrived at Stratford International Station. Two men were standing in front of me, one carrying a rucksack which stated ‘ASLEF – founded 1880’.

That’s the beginnings of mass production. 1880 is one of those years. There are huge, rapid, and accelerating advances in technologies. Everything from books to cigarettes start to become mass produced. An acceleration of capital formation and technical change. The foundation of the train drivers union in Britain coincides with the emergence of mass production. These things are related, but it’s not always clear how.

I listened carefully to what they were saying. Rosters, starting times, union business.

Walking through the shopping centre looking at the reflections of the ceiling lights on the highly polished floor. It was wet and dirty. A delivery cyclist sitting on the floor, leaning on the polished wall, staring at a smart phone. Head half covered with a scarf and balaclava, a large green-ish bag next to him with ‘Deliveroo’ written on it. A capitalist concern. Of great capital investment and hoped for supra profits. No better starting place to understand the role of the worker in the creation of surplus value. How else does this company become so rich?

In the lift inside an office. There is a hum of noise and sense of movement. A reading mode where each word, sentence and page is studied and enjoyed. Three books at once. David Harvey’s The Companion Guide to Marx’s Grundrisse, Raymond Postgate The Builders’ History and Ludovico Silva’s book, Marx’s Literary Style. Reading them together, inter-mixed is delightful.

The Postgate book is an original from 1923 and has a lovely Arts and Crafts design. He is such a rich and warm writer. One can imagine sitting in the pub and listening to him as he drinks ale and smokes a pipe and makes jokes and sharp and clever observations of the stupidity of the politicians of the day.

Harvey’s companion to Grundrisse is exactly what is needed. The Grundrisse is a dense and at times impossible book. The reader struggles through it, bashing their head against pages of obscurity with occasional flashes of great illumination. Hegel, Ricardo, Kant and others, all bought together in a long, complex, convoluted sentences.

Silva also references the Grundrisse, and Capital too. He describes how Marx outlines in great detail the workings of a clock and other mechanical devices.

All this thinking is going on inside this lift which all too quickly takes the desk top proletariat to work each day.

There are two taps in the kitchen and only one works. It takes an age while it splutters and spits a few drops of cold water into a glass. It pours more effectively with hot water. The tea bag sits in the cup and the colour changes and darkens. I scoop the tea bag out with the edge of a knife and put it in the bin marked ‘food waste’.

No one really does this properly. I suspect it all gets chucked in the same bit of land fill. What else is in there? Half eaten human legs, a dead dog, the head of a cat, a computer hard drive, presents unopened, partially consumed meals, plastic packaging, soiled clothing, commodities never consumed, distributed across thousands of miles of sea and discarded without being unpacked, a headless victim, a half written manifesto, would be works of art, a duvet full of fleas, a packet full of empty dreams, hopes never realised, a pen now lost forever, a broken heart; wrapped in brown paper, it still beats, but in irregular patterns.

The mirror in the lift is a wise man and a fool. It sees all. But do I really look so old?

The landscape is wet and artificial. It’s a PR dream creation, the generation of a million words that say nothing. I’m writing short stories. In one of them a character works for a company called The Really Real Estate Management Company. He is crushed by words that echo from the walls of glass buildings: urb-a-n-issssst-ic.

Tower cranes and workers sitting on the benches wearing hard hats, white overalls, yellow high viz jackets. They look tired and grey. No one ever smiles or laughs. There are women construction workers sitting there too. The chains and shackles cannot be seen directly but the weight and pressure can be discerned.

The seminar on ‘The Future of the Office’ starts at 18.30 with drinks and snacks. It’s relaxed and friendly, like being at a gentle party. I drink a bottle of cold beer and then a glass of red wine. The man I’m talking to makes a comment about not mixing grapes and hops. ‘That’s never bothered me’, I reply. He laughs. We have a good conversation.

The speakers get five minutes each and Powerpoint presentations show a constantly changing imagery of offices. Here’s London, now Melbourne, the headquarters of Google, a roof garden.

‘It is the quality of the interior of the office’.

An image of an office with light and large green plants. I notice to the side of where I’m sitting there are rows of desks in a room without any windows. The woman in front of me is wearing black leather trousers and black boots with a pointed heel. The men are wearing what’s described as ‘business casual’, chinos, open next shirts, pointed shoes or subdued trainers. This is the global uniform of the technocrats. The architects, software developers, project managers.

What I find so intriguing about this is how this uniform of the workplace is worn around the world. I don’t know how to write about race inside these types of workplaces. I need to find some one who does so I can learn. But what intrigues me is how mixed the audience is.

The speaker is talking about space and light and green plants and roof gardens and the integration of heritage. The next speaker says much the same, and the speaker after that. Ok, that’s clear, these are the current keywords. Making the office more like a leisure space, creating amenity and variety, the production of a healthy life-style, ‘back to nature’. The progressive office tower.

This layer of London workers – professionals, technocrats, administrators – are intimately locked into a particular layer of global production. They are visibly and physically connected to their equivalent social phenomena in Mumbai, Shanghai, Berlin, Moscow and New York. The sense of this integration is both fragmented and powerful. It’s all around, but not very well understood. Here it becomes explicit.

‘The mobile office’


‘cafes, gyms, safe, colourful’….

The words run together. What are they all trying to say?

‘…foster a community, a place to reflect, aspirational, inspirational, excellent showers, historical heritage’.

‘….receptions are like first impressions’.

‘…collaborative spaces…’

There are many different layers here. It cannot simply all be rejected. Within capitalist relations of production we want to have pleasant, safe and comfortable workplaces. Should we ever manage to stop the expansion of capital and overthrow capitalism, then questions of place and space and art, architecture and design will search for new answers.

A socialist society has the potential to unlock immense creative power, to expand theory and practice and to change what it means to be human and how human labour can be used. Creative spaces with air and light – and indeed cafes, gyms, concert halls, libraries, good interior design will be part of that.

‘….the yoga room should have a programme…’

But towards the end of the presentations it all started to look the same. The roof gardens, the canteens, the pixelated public space. When in fact it’s pseudo public space. And the service areas are hidden; the basements were the security guards and delivery drivers work. The windowless rooms where the cleaners try to tidy themselves up after their shifts. All that is missing. There was something fundamentally empty.

Much as roof gardens are great assets for buildings, there is something still unsatisfactory about all these buildings and designs. They cannot but be representations of intense divisions of labour and hierarchies and coercive working conditions.

It ended, a round of applause. I enjoyed the whole event a great deal.

The woman sitting next to me asked me what I thought.

‘They were all interesting’

‘No they weren’t’, she said.

I couldn’t work out her accent or demeanour. But in a way this opened up the conversation because I was curious about where she was from and liked her direct and friendly means of talking.

I rambled a little about offices as representations of capital and that Marx is a great starting point for explaining all of this. Capital, labour, exploitation. I was throwing things out to see if she might bite. It was only a sentence or two.

‘I’m a sort of Trotskyist’, I said, and immediately wondered why this had come out.

She rolled her eyes, ‘heaven help us’, might have been her thought.

‘I’m ashamed to say that I’m Russian’, she said. ‘And Putin and everything and this war….’ She looked away. She was blushing and looked upset.

‘Well it’s not you that’s the problem here’, it felt so sad that here we were in this basement office of a global architects office and this foul breath of war had blown across.

I felt an incredible affinity with her that I couldn’t possibly explain.

‘There is a great tradition of design and left wing movements’, I said, pouring red wine into a strangely stubby glass.

‘Arts and crafts, Bauhaus…’

‘We had this in Russia’, she said, ‘from just after the Revolution until about 1927. And then Stalin….’

‘I am a Soviet person’, she added. And this, with that date 1927 conjured up a revolutionary version of the soviet.

The conversation meandered back to offices. She explained the topography of Moscow and a little of what that city is like.

I have never met a Russian person to talk to like this; politically, personally, sympathetically. It had quite some impact.

‘Don’t be embarrassed about being Russian’, I said, ‘I have a Ukrainian background’. And it’s not something I talk about much and nor do I want. I don’t care for Ukrainian nationalism anymore than Russian nationalism or any other sort of nationalism. Once the flames and bombs of war start it’s a disaster for most people.

My grandfather was shot in the street by the Nazis – an event I’m not sure if my dad (who would have been 16 years old at the time) witnessed. My grandmother and two aunts, for the ‘crime’ of being Ukrainian were incarcerated in the Gulag for 16 years. My dad fought on the side of the Germans, either as a conscript or volunteer, I never discovered.

It is all filth and the current war in Ukraine is continuing this filth. And until Ukrainian and Russian workers can work out a way of uniting it will continue. And the implications of all this filth will be felt for decades.

I felt a great affinity with this Russian women. According to certain histories and particular history books we should be enemies; but I felt an intense closeness to her.

We shook hands and parted.

I thought about the conversation on the walk to Farringdon Station and the train up to Kings Cross.

I’ve been wondering about the war in Ukraine and how to explain to myself what I should do if I was caught up in such a thing. I’m not convinced by political positions based on which imperialism might be fighting which sub-imperialism or might be a proxy for a third-party imperialism.

But war within capitalism cannot be avoided and I’m not a pacifist. The ruling class will never gently give up their power. Some of them would rather blow the whole world to pieces with nuclear bombs than admit defeated. We would have to use violence to stop them doing that. And during any revolution the ruling class will use barbaric violence and we will need to defend ourselves and neutralise their viscousness.

But what about this current war?

It might seem far off, but calling for unity between Ukrainian and Russian workers, and unity between workers in Britain with workers in France and so on, is a socialist response. Calling for an escalation of war is a militarist and right wing response.

If someone said, ‘you’re going to get your head blown off in this war, no matter what you do’, I would rather have it blown off in a street in Moscow while handing out leaflets calling for workers to unite, than in a trench holding a rifle supplied by an arm-chair war monger who has a bunker to retreat too and a nice dinner every evening with a glass or two of fine claret.

Who knows how this war will end but at some point it will end. And if it doesn’t lead the the mutual destruction of all sides then at some point ruling classes will start talking to each other again. And then the infrastructure will get rebuild and capital and goods and raw materials will start to flow around the world again. The trenches will get filled in and the buildings patched up. Fixing the people will be much harder.

But no war ends with a cease fire. The guns are silenced but the bullets and bombs in people’s heads last a very long time. And after all wars many of the soldiers are left asking, ‘what was the point of that?’ ‘We are just as poor but now I’m poor without my leg’.
‘The oligarchs still rule us and now the Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs are all the best of friends again’.

And even if one ex-soldier says, ‘that bloke who was handing out leaflets saying that Ukrainian and Russian Workers should unite’ – you know, he had the right idea’.

And then my head will not have been blown off in vain.

The workers of the world really should get together more often. We have a lot to learn from each other, much to share, stories that will make each other laugh.

And in a strange way, global production is bringing us together, and these giant office blocks all over London are not only nodes of capital and places of production; but places which provide the potential space in which to organise.

This idea was not covered by any of the speakers.

Nonetheless, it was an immensely enjoyable evening. If even two workers, one Russian and one with a Ukrainian background, could agree that they won’t shoot each other, then the potential for organisation has begun. And more importantly: unity.

%d bloggers like this: