The End of Capital

What I really wanted to do was to walk along the Kings Road. There are more immediate things that I ought to be doing and streets and buildings with more urgent research needs. But I want the luxury of freedom; to drift and float through the streets, to turn left here and right there with no thought. Rather to follow what feels to be an unconscious bidding, something hidden, working away at my peripheral consciousness and playing with sound and vision with unpredictable impact.

A hectoring didactic voice fills my head with blah blah blah capitalism. The rich! The bourgeoisie! The writing in my head is being mentally typed out as if all I’ve read for twenty years is copies of The Militant and Socialist Worker. It’s exhausting, as if I am only a cipher for certain words and phrases that must be tumbled together into an anti-capitalist phrase book.

Flood Street seems familiar but I’m not sure why. Swan House is a large brick apartment block and I’m thinking that even though it’s eight stories high, it fits in with the general surroundings. An elderly woman uses a key fob to open the electronic gate. She’s looking at my intently.

‘May I ask what you’re doing?’ she says, it’s friendly and not accusing.

I explain about Radical Walks and buildings and quality and how a building worker told me that even the quality of the bricks was better in the 1930s than it is now (purely anecdotal, is there other evidence?).

‘Oh the quality here is very good’, she says, ‘you don’t hear anything from anyone else’.
‘It’s always the people that make a place’, she adds.

We have a lovely long chat and she tells me that she lives in the very flat that Margaret Thatcher once inhabited. She looks at me from under her modern black hat with a neat brim.

I am so flummoxed by the this that I don’t ask the most obvious question. ‘What do you think of her?’ but in the context of the conversation it would have felt rather coarse. Because Thatcher was coarse, as was her influence and legacy. We dance around each other in the rest of the conversation,

‘All these strikes’, she says

‘Well’, I reply, ‘I can understand why people need more money with the cost of living crisis’

She moves her head slightly to one side. To get this conversation going we really need to go to a pub or cafe and have a couple of G&Ts. She’s good fun to talk to and I’m sure we could find a lot of common ground.

The conversation flows this way and that. She tells me anecdotes and throws in vignettes of Chelsea life.

‘Have you ever read A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell?’ I ask her

‘No’, she says with an interested surprise in her voice

‘Are you squeamish?’ I ask

She purses here lips and shakes her head. No, I didn’t think she would be. She looks to be made of stern stuff.

‘Well she a trained as an artist and therefore had a good understanding of anatomy. During the Blitz, one of her jobs was to assemble ‘whole’ corpses from the various bits of arms and legs and so on, for burial’.

In the talking, here in Chelsea where Frances Faviell had worked during the Blitz it all came real. Not the mawkish wearing poppies all the year round or some drunken, ‘Lest we forget’ by people who never knew, but the whole bloody carnage.

Faviell describes how she was going home after a raid in her uniform when she heard people shouting for her to come and help them.

There is a small hole in the ground and in that hole half a life is moaning. She is told that she will be small enough to go into the hole and so she is ordered to strip off her uniform and is then lowered down with a torch while the rescue squad hold on to her feet, ‘still wearing the regulation stockings’ as she puts it.

There is a bloody shape which might be the persons head and something which might be their eye. She is pulled up. Then she is dangled down the hole again to give the person a morphine injection. Then she is pulled up again. She staggers away from the hole and is violently sick. What exactly is being remembered? I never get the sense that the endless poppy wearers are remembering these events at all.

My new friend is looking for common ground. ‘People don’t have the same manners anymore’, ‘There’s too much on the internet and technology’.

I gently disagree, ‘Yes, but there’s some really good stuff on the internet’, ‘and do you remember when we never phoned anyone until after six o’clock because it was so expensive?”

She laughs and nods in agreement.

‘Oh, I couldn’t be without my smart phone’ she says.

‘It was so lovely to talk to you’, and ‘to you’. She said she might come on the Radical Nine Elms Walk.

‘I’ll email you’, she says as we part.

And she gifted me something that no millionaire ever could. For suddenly I was there, in Chelsea, taking it all in instead of trying to work out smart phrases based on shaky socialist realism poses. I started seeing, instead of looking for things that could be put into a neat taxonomy of class tensions.

Now that the elderly woman has tuned me in, I’m enjoying the walk. I like luxury and am suspicious of people who don’t. I worry such people imagine that socialism will be endless meetings and resolutions. Let’s just sort out robots and AI and big data to produce everything and surely we can – er, please – enjoy ourselves?

If socialism should come in my life time my main ambition is to visit all the world’s great art galleries. And be immersed in communal luxury. And here and there on the Kings Road there are examples of what that communal luxury might be. Fine wines, nice clothes, good quality housing, well arranged squares, the occasional welcoming pub. But within capitalism it is only for a few, too erratic, and prone to crises.

I don’t see the beginning of this sequence but I notice a very dapper man reach down to a street beggar and make a generous donation and say a few, what appear to be, kind words. No one knows where other people may have come from. He might have been one of those working class kids who grew up in a slum and become very rich and has never forgotten what poverty and destitution means. He might just be rich and kind. He may be the Good Samaritan in a bespoke suit, and he’ll call God later on his mobile phone.

Two big red double deckers going in different directions momentarily stop. The drivers have a loud conversation in the middle of the road in Arabic.

As for ‘the middle classes’ there’s quite a few people I’ve known on the left over the years who came from very middle class backgrounds (which may be one of the reasons they became revolutionaries).

But if that was a process that they went through then there must be middle class people today who despair of the wailing and empty hypocrisy such a life can bring and be wishing for the fulfilment and camaraderie of people who seriously want to change the world. Nuances can be more interesting and important than bawling one-dimensional slogans through a megaphone.

I’m leaning on a wall taking notes. In the process I become part of the Kings Road. No longer an outsider but a living part of the streetscape. A woman stops and pulls gently on the lead of little dog (I’m not sure what breed), ‘Come on Horace’ she says. Horace looks at my feet and then looks at me. The woman looks at me. I look at Horace. I like that little dog.

I buy three pens in Rymans for £8.75. The lack of a pen has been distracting. How can I keep up with my own self without a pen? But when I walk up to Peter Jones I discover that I could have bought five of exactly the same pens for £8. The constant dissatisfaction of consumerism. The hit is immediate, like poppers, but then you’re left with a weird aftermath. It feels that it’s not just the price that’s the issue here, but a principle. And once principles are introduced into commodity fetishism then it’s a very different class war game.

The staff in Peter Jones are in constant movement. Refolding clothes, rearranging the displays, searching on tablets, checking prices for customers, answering queries, explaining technical details of televisions and radios. I watch the staff for some time. Their work looks to be exhausting.

Silly irritating rich kids in large expensive cars. They roar a few feet along the road. It’s just an exercise in egotism. They are no faster than any other car in travelling through the city. But the noise is in bursts and extremely loud. The chances of the police doing anything about such things are less than zero. There are more cops in court today being tried for offensive messages about disabled people and laughing and encouraging sex crimes.

At the Sloane Square end of the Kings Road is the Holy Trinity church. The cathedral of Arts and Crafts. I like the quality. I’m no longer sure about the aesthetic. It lacks the glory of the medieval and there is something missing which is difficult to explain. It feels flat and empty. But are these terms of critical criticism?

Ruskin in his essay The Nature of Gothic describes how the medieval crafts workers were in a totality of relationship between the quality of the work, the expression of the work (for example, the cathedral) and the dynamic between what they did, who they were, and their belief in God.

I cannot imagine that all cathedral builders believed that they were constructing the gateways to heaven and that there would be a judgement day and so forth. But I would suggest that a significant number did believe that. I can’t imagine that a single worker at the end of the nineteenth century had the same relationship between the expression of their labour power and religious belief. Ruskin raises a serious and intriguing question here.

Which suggests that aesthetics are not just about colour theory, form, space, shape and so on; but that aesthetics also have a relationship with the beliefs and ideas of the creators. But this is immensely complex. The tendency to default to mechanical materialism will never explain it. But unfortunately it clouds the debate.

William Morris raises important questions about labour, labour power, labour process and quality; but it feels odd that he used the hook of the middle ages to hang these ideas on. Morris is still worth reading. Except his novels which I find mind-numbingly boring (with the exception of News From Nowhere). Which is a shame, because his political essays are often fantastic. We digress. The walk along the Kings Road is nearly over. There is one more diversion.

The housing to the north of Sloane Square is, in my opinion, some of the best stuff built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The quality is good, the flats themselves are spacious,and the blocks provide housing for a lot of people within the centre of the city. It feels gently liberated and free. The doorways have character and style. As one approaches, the emotions of home, sanctuary, security are warmed into life. This is as it should be. (Except….it is bourgeois. That in itself is another question which we will need to return to…)

Herbert Morrison’s mud pies (the five story London County Council flats built in the 1930s) were a great improvement on the slums. But it’s when compared to the quality of the housing which the middle classes lived in it’s possible to see the limitations of that particular municipal reformism (although it achieved a great deal).

I think there are some who are afraid of communal luxury. That there might not be enough resources, that somehow working class people aren’t good enough for such things, that it will encourage idleness and selfishness. But I think it’s communal luxury or nothing.

I walk along Cadogan Place and it feels dreamy and both ancient and modern at the same time. The whole past history of London disappears. This is the first day after the revolution. The violent, hateful, angry howling of capitalism has been defeated.

It is as if a huge oppressive weight has been lifted from the world and we cannot comprehend how we allowed it to happen and let it treat us so.

There is no more capitalism.

No more Capital.

Don’t be scared of this. It is the only real liberation.

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