Space and place in the cityscape are battlegrounds, and we have to fight to hold them, argues Chris Bambery
For the last five years I have had to commute to work via Liverpool Street tube station twice a week, walking through the City of London to my final destination. I hated it. The reason is that I hate the City. It is a space built in a way that is intimidating and unwelcoming for ordinary people, conveying a real sense of power, financial, corporate power.
It is also structured so there is no place for ordinary people to mix and little space where they might be relied to rally and protest, because so much is private, as the Occupy movement discovered a few years ago in the squares around St Paul’s Cathedral.
Reading John Rees’s fascinating The Leveller Revolution it’s hard to see the city that once existed; the insurrectionary heart of the English Civil War in the 1640s. The ghosts of the artisans and apprentices who stormed the Palace of Westminster are not much in evidence.
Space and place are important. In the 19th century, European cities were rebuilt to convey a sense of the power of the ruling class. In the 1850s and 60s Paris was rebuilt by the architect Haussmann driving boulevards through the Faubourgs where the artisans who’d made the 1830 and 1848 revolutions had lived, drunk and met. It was an act of class revenge, like that the Basilique du Sacré Cœur in Montmartre, built by a revengeful Catholic Church on the site where the revolution which threw up the 1871 Paris Commune began.
If you visit the Palace of Westminster what will strike you are the illustrations along the walls giving a Whig account of British history, combining a liberal account of how parliamentary democracy came to Britain, rather awkwardly dealing with the English Revolution, with adulation of monarchs like King Alfred and Richard the Lionheart. I hate it.
The ruling class is very aware of the importance of space and place, and fights to ensure we live in cities where their power is on display, from the great building of state to the corporate towers, from the statues in our squares and streets to highways like The Mall in London, built to allow state processions. The Church made sure its key places of worship dominated the skyline (now it’s the temples of mammon!).
In contrast ordinary people have sought to find their own space and place where they can gather. It’s often been a slum and highly vulnerable to be suddenly demolished.
Neoliberalism seeks too to move people away from collective gatherings towards regarding themselves as individual consumers in their home or in a shopping mall.
Pubs in the 19th century where people could escape overcrowded homes for a few hours to enjoy games, entertainment or simply conversation. They were often highly decorative. They were also places where radicals and the left could meet.
Today in inner London pubs are disappearing as they are converted into apartments. One more space is going. Back in the 1970s when Britain had a vibrant left there were spaces for radicals: left-wing pubs, cinemas showing radical films, left-wing theatre groups, bookshops and so on. In the course of the last four decades they have largely disappeared and even the number of meeting halls has reduced.
Today I don’t think it’s a surprise that anti-capitalist movements have often begun from the need to reclaim a square or a park, whether it’s in Istanbul, New York, Paris or London. The privatisation of much of our cities means there are no longer the street corners where you could pitch up to try and draw a crowd.
Accompanying this is the constant pressure to identify ourselves with “our” nation or “our” culture.” The War on Terror brought that to a pitch. Faced with Jihadi violence, much of it created by the chaos unleashed by Western military intervention and occupation, it is demanded we champion the superior (?) values of Western civilisation. When faced with the very real crimes of colonialism and slavery a faux apology is trotted out (Tony Blair made that his speciality).
If you are a Muslim the whole thrust of the Prevent strategy is that you must be a “good” Muslim, where good means subservience to the British state.
Space and place are also battlegrounds. If a new radical left emerges we will have to fight to capture them. Holding them is the real trick.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.
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- Civil liberties in Spain? The clampdown against the Catalan independence movement
- What’s changing in Scotland?