Spotlight on London’s squatted streets: Villa Road, Brixton

Villa Road, Brixton, was once one of the UK’s most famous squatted streets; many of the houses that remain in the road today are part of housing co-ops which trace their origin to the squats of the 1970s.

Brixton, late 1960s: A century and a half of social change had transformed a prosperous suburb into a mainly working class area. Much of the old Victorian housing had been sub-divided and multiply occupied, and was in a state of disrepair and over crowding.

In response the local Planners came up with a massive crash programme of redevelopment; of which the Brixton Plan was the central plank.

Imaginative depiction of ‘Brixton Towers’ plan for the Villa Road area

The Brixton Plan was also partly a response to the GLC approach, in the late 1960s, to the newly merged/enlarged boroughs, asking them to draw up community plans, to redevelop local areas in line with the GLC’s overall strategy for “taking the metropolis gleaming into the seventies”. Lambeth planners came up with a grandiose vision for Brixton, typical of the macro-planning of the era, which would have seen the area outstrip Croydon as a megalomaniac planners’ high-rise playground. The town centre would have been completely rebuilt, with a huge transport complex uniting the tube and overland railway station, Brixton Road redesigned as a 6-lane highway, (part of Coldharbour Lane was to have been turned into an urban motorway under the Ringway plans…)

Lambeth had already obtained Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) on areas to be redeveloped – all over the Borough large-scale demolitions were scheduled for replacement by estates. The Brixton Plan called for houses in the Angell Town area, now covered by Angell Town Estate, Villa Road and Max Roach Park, to be removed.

All over the Borough CPOs were imposed, and indeed resisted by many local groups that sprang up to try and inject some sense into the plans. Blight and decline tend to become a vicious circle, especially in housing. They pointed out that many of the houses marked for demolition were not run down, and had plenty of life in them, that there’d be no Housing Gain (a bureaucratic term for how many more people would be housed after redevelopment than before), and that complex existing communities would be destroyed. The active opposition to Compulsory Purchase and demolition often came from owner-occupiers, who supposedly had  ‘a greater stake’ in the houses, although in most CPO areas tenants outnumbered them 2 to 1… But most campaigns were aware of the danger of becoming just a middle class pressure group and attempted to involve tenants as well. Planning processes ignored tenants: only the objections of owner-occupiers or those who paid rent less often than once a month were allowed in any Planning Inquiries. But alternative plans were drawn up to include tenants co-operatives/take-over by Housing Associations as well as owner-occupancy instead of destruction. The Council of course, feeling as ever that it knew best, tended to treat residents objections and proposals with contempt or indifference. Its policy was to split tenants from owner-occupiers in these groups, presenting the owners as fighting only for their own interests, and offering tenants a rosy future in the new estates… they also, as you’d expect, tried to keep these groups and others in the dark about planning decisions. Where the Council owned or acquired houses, the inhabitants, many in sub-divided multi-occupancy, were promised rehousing (eventually, for some); but imminent demolition meant Lambeth spent little effort following up needed repairs and maintenance, tenants became frustrated and pushed for immediate rehousing.

Lambeth’s planning dream however, quickly turned into a nightmare, with a tighter economic climate and the end of the speculative building boom of the 60s. Much of the Brixton Plan was being cut back: the government refused to fund the Town Centre Development in 1968, as it would have taken up 10% of the total town centre development fund for the UK! The five huge towers, the six-lane dual carriageway, the vast concrete shopping centre and the urban motorway never materialised, and companies involved ran out of cash and ran to the Council for more (eg Tarmac on the Recreation Centre). The building of new housing slowed down. The Council had aimed at 1000 new homes a year for 1971-8 – this target was never met.

By the early 70s much of Central Brixton was in a depressed state. Many houses were being decanted, but for many reasons, large numbers of the residents found themselves ineligible for rehousing; one reason was the overcrowded state of many of the dwellings, with extended families, sub-letting, live-in landlords, etc: many people were not officially registered as living there, and so council estimates of numbers to be rehoused or the ‘housing gain’ were often wildly inaccurate.

Homelessness was on the rise. Two main results of all this were a rapid increase in the number of squatters in the area, and an upsurge in community, radical and libertarian politics in the Borough. Villa Road became a centre of both.

Squatters were increasingly becoming a thorn in the Council’s side. Dissatisfaction with Lambeth’s planning processes and its inability to cope with housing and homelessness gave focus to a number of dissenting community-based groups. Activists in these groups were instrumental in establishing a strong squatting movement for single people – the main section of Lambeth’s population whose housing needs went unrecognised. Many had previous experience of squatting either in Lambeth or in other London boroughs where councils were starting to clamp down on squatters, reinforcing the pool of experience, skill and political solidarity. The fact that a certain number of people came from outside Lambeth was frequently used in anti-squatting propaganda. In response to Council tirades on squatting, squatters’ propaganda focused on Lambeth’s part in homelessness, what with the CPOs, refusal to renovate empties, insistence on buying houses with vacant possession, its habit of forgetting houses, taking back ones it had licenced out. They pointed out that many of the squatters would have been in Bed & Breakfast or temporary accommodation if they weren’t squatting – many in fact HAD been for months (in some cases years) before losing patience and squatting.

A strong anti-squatter consensus began to emerge in the Council, particularly after the 1974 council elections. The new Chair of the Housing Committee and his Deputy were in the forefront of this opposition to squatters, loudly blaming them for increased homelessness. Councillor Alfred Mulley referred to squatted Rectory Gardens as being “like a filthy dirty back alley in Naples.”

Their proposals for ending the ‘squatting problem’, far from dealing with the root causes of homelessness, merely attempted to erase symptoms and met with little success. In autumn 1974 All Lambeth Squatters formed, a militant body representing many of the borough’s squatters. It mobilised 600 people to a major public meeting at the Town Hall in December 1974 to protest at the Council’s proposals to end ‘unofficial’ squatting in its property.

Most of the impetus for All-Lambeth Squatters came from two main squatting groups – one in and around Villa Road, the other at St Agnes Place in Kennington Park.

In parallel many tenants and other residents were organising in community campaigns around housing, like the St Johns Street Group around St John’s Crescent and Villa Road… Direct action against the Council by groups like this led to tenants being moved out, the resulting empties being either trashed, to make them unusable, squatted, or licensed to shortlife housing groups like Lambeth Self-Help. Tenants’ groups in some cases co-operated with squatters occupying empties in streets being run down or facing decline.

Following the failure of the Council’s 1974 initiative to bring squatting under control, the Council tried again. It published a policy proposing a ‘final solution’ to the twin ‘problems’ of homelessness and squatting. It combined measures aimed at discouraging homeless people from applying to the Council for housing, like tighter definitions of who would be accepted and higher hostel fees, with a rehash of the same old anti-squatting ploys like more gutting of empties. The policy was eventually passed in April 1976 after considerable opposition both within Norwood Labour Party (stronghold of the ‘New Left’) and from homeless people and squatters.

Villa Road, and later St Agnes Place, were to be the main testing grounds for this new policy.

The demolition of squats in Brixton Road, early 1970s.

In Villa Road, just north of Brixton’s town centre, empty houses cleared for the Brixton Towers plan had been gradually squatted between 1973 and 1976. The houses had in many cases been gutted or smashed up by the council as they became empty, or had been squatted, to be rendered totally unliveable in, in an attempt to deter squatters from moving in or staying. This was a policy used across the borough. In some cases this got highly dangerous: squatted houses in Wiltshire Road (which adjoins Villa Road) were smashed with a wrecking ball while an old woman was still living in the neighbouring basement, while squatters were out shopping (puts a new slant on that old chestnut about squatters breaking into your house while you’re down the shops eh, after all this time we find out that it was the COUNCIL!). There was said to be a secret dirty tricks committee in Lambeth Housing Department thinking up demolition plans and ordering them done on the sly.

However sabotage of houses didn’t deter people moving into Villa Road:

“We would go along perhaps late at night and get in the houses and get the electricity sorted out and then help the people to clear out the houses and make them habitable really. When we moved into the houses, they had had council wreckers in them who had broken a lot of the fabric of the houses. They broke the toilets and they poured concrete down them. The broke a lot of the windows, they tore up floorboards and pulled down ceilings. And we all set to fix them, and when I look back on it, the sort of things we did were quite astounding. Because they had poured concrete down the drains, it meant that you had to dig up the connection to the main sewers out in the street. We just used to dig up the whole lot and connect it up to the mains. What do you remember about that house, 39, when you got there?
-How terribly filthy… it was, and…
-No floorboards…
-No, no floorboards.
-There was an old guy who had shell-shock, caught him living there.
-That’s right.
-The basement was full of excrement,
-because he had mental health problems.

-It needed a lot of cleaning up. We went out skipping
– skipping was going round and looking in the skips that were on the streets and… collecting whatever it was you needed. So that was, you know… There were two activities, skipping and wooding. Wooding was going out and reclaiming all the wood from the houses that were being demolished, and, you know, you basically built your environment. In winter, the ice was on the inside of the windows. Heating was like one bar, one of those long fires mainly for bathrooms, I think. We used to cook on that as well, beans on toast – total fire hazard. The wiring was totally bent and, you know, illegal, the gas was. It was, you know… I remember seeing a huge rat coming up from the basement at one time. Yeah, it was pretty rough.”  

As houses were slowly renovated, Villa Road became home to several hundred people, residents who created lots of alternative projects: An informal economy evolved, though partly subsidised by the various DHSS giro payments of residents (some of who used to drive the van the good quarter mile to the dole office or post office to sign on or cash in, by some accounts!) The communal arrangements included a food co-op, (based on vegetables skipped from New Covent Garden market in Nine Elms), a ‘pay what you can’ street café, a medical service run by Patrick and Maureen Day, who were both qualified GPs (‘Check up for

Villa Road graffiti, 1977.

the price of a smoke’, and an adventure playground for kids A women’s group formed c.1975-6; a musical collective was set up around the same time (at least 3 bands formed here too) The street had its own newspaper, the Villain, edited by squatting activist (and now transport guru, cycling advocate, and Labour Party politician) Christian Wollmar…

As with elsewhere in the squatting movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s, there was a mix of people from a variety of backgrounds, though a core of the original group that kicked of the occupation of the street included a number of   white, middle class graduates, some of who had been to Oxford and Cambridge universities.   Politically, there was an early contingent from left groups like the International Marxist Group, though spiced with a typically 70s hotchpotch of new age therapies and, er, cults…

No 31 Villa Road, was, for a while, the base for the more IMG-oriented types.

“There were two influences on us. One was obviously Marx. We were Marxists, we saw ourselves as Marxists. We were in things like Marxist reading groups and we studied Marx. But we were also influenced by people like Laing and Cooper and were into the death of the nuclear family. This rejection of the nuclear family was born of an intellectual analysis which saw the family as an essential unit of a capitalist society. We felt it was necessary – or should be possible – to have supportive, economically viable, emotionally rewarding relationships, familial sexual relationships, with people without creating, or commodifying as we like to call it, commodifying the family unit. We had a lot of theories around the family unit being the building block of capitalism. These beliefs made life complicated at the squatters’ resource centre that Paul helped to run. If people within a sexual relationship had or wanted… to have an intimate physical relationship, whether it was sexual or not, with other people, then that had to be acknowledged and it had to both be acknowledged by both partners, but also allowed to happen. It was agonising, because you were supposed to say it before you do it, not just come back and say, “Oh, by the way, I’ve bonked Bill.” You would…have to explore the feelings you had, the pressures – emotional and sexual – on you and the other person with the group or with the people it directly impacted on before you did the deed. I mean, I don’t know anybody who like thought they want to get married. I certainly didn’t think I wanted to get married and I consider myself proud never to have got married. And it is quite different again now, but, yeah, I mean, nuclear family… a lot of us had come from pretty unpleasant nuclear families. And that does open up ideas for how you might live. It seemed that the nuclear family was really in crisis. And…you know, the idea of a stable couple having children was not really part of most people’s experience in that particular kind of sub society, you know. And it also implied a degree of isolation from others. I mean, there was a great collectivist vibe at that time. How you live together was very much open to question, and I think we…partly just out of necessity, but we tended to live in communes, and that seemed as if that was the way that that could work more generally in society.”

No 12, however, became the base for the ‘Primal screamers’… Jenny James was a follower of both communist sexologist Wilhelm Reich, and Californian psychotherapist Arthur Janov, who had developed a therapy known as primal scream, in the course of which patients relived the trauma of their own birth.
Despite having no formal training, Jenny set up a primal therapy commune in Donegal in Ireland. At the same time, she established a sister commune in a squat at number 12 Villa Road.

‘Villa Trek’ cartoon, spoofing Star Trek

“The idea was that therapy should not be the preserve of the moneyed bourgeoisie, but should be available free of charge to anybody. I was called the black sheep of the… Oh, I’d brought the therapy movement into disrepute. This came from the big, posh therapy centres. What it boiled down to was I wasn’t asking money. Anyone can do therapy if they go through things themselves. They don’t need some posh training. It was just a question of human empathy and, of course, knowing yourself really well, being honest with yourself. And so I just opened the doors. It was primal scream and it did involve…screaming. Letting… Which was… Sorry, I’m not laughing at that. It was very genuinely felt. It was about letting out your inner anguish. Um, it was noisy. SHE SCREAMS That’s what I say to you! Ah…! It is extremely organic and well worked out. Nothing’s false. It is something that comes out. When things do really come out from very far down in the body, they can sound quite animal-like.”

They can be quite scary. What wasn’t nice was that they were all naked while they were doing it. When you’re six, and there’s a big group of people rolling round the floor naked, you’re thinking, “What is going on here?” There was my friend’s mum – she was the one that did it – Babs. You just think, “It’s so strange,” cos you’re playing out in the garden, you pop in for a drink, and someone’s in the kitchen naked.”

From a Villa Road songsheet

“Our one-to-one sessions were extraordinary and incredibly valuable. I wouldn’t ever regret any of that or want it to be any different. Um, but the downside was the group. Living… The thing was, we’re all there, we’re all feeling really vulnerable. We’re all looking for ourselves. We’re all looking for friends and support and home and family and answers. So everybody was vulnerable and everybody was at different stages of this exploration, this journey. And there was no account taken of that in any structured way or in any way really. Throughout the years, what would happen is, now and then, some of the stronger characters would actually cross the metaphorical line. They’d cross the line, come in, get involved. We had a lot of lovely-looking women in our commune. -They’d form relationships. They’d start to look at it.
-So was that what drew them in?
-The women?
-I would say that was probably obviously a first hook, if you like. But then they’d see and it was very interesting what we do. They’d see that and they’d see that it worked. They’d get interested. It was a deeper way of living. I remember that, um, the primal screamers… The story was… I think it was probably true, too. ..that the primal screamers sort of sent vixens out onto the street to seduce the handsome boys who were on the left, and to get them to scream instead of, you know, agitate or something. I don’t think it was that organised. It sounds a bit of a conspiracy theory to me.
– You weren’t lured in by a woman?
– I was lured in by a woman, actually. So, you never know, do you? I don’t think she was acting on orders. I think she just fancied me. It always reminded me of that film, The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, in that one would wake up and discover that somebody else from the street had been captured by the primal scream.”

Other women formed a women’s group: “I think over time we had several different Marxist reading groups going on. The one I remember in Villa Road, the one I remember going to, was an all women’s Marxist reading group. Through that, I think we started to think about redefining our role as women. We were doing consciousness raising. We would go away for weekends and have weekends away and stuff. We did things like…we had a book called Our Bodies, Ourselves, which was fantastic. Women learned about how to have orgasms through Spare Rib and vibrators, which was absolutely fantastic. And, um, I think, yeah, that was brilliant. We read books, sort of Marxist books, I suppose. We did self-examination, which was quite popular in those days.
-What does that mean?
-You know, when you examine… I remember one meeting that we had a speculum, because Maureen’s a doctor. So she could have them, and we examined ourselves and learnt about our bodies. Which bit of your body? You’re getting me so embarrassed! We, you know, we tried to find out where our cervixes were, which was a journey in itself. Do you remember examining your cervix? No, I didn’t do any of that. But, yes, that was going on. Lots of use of mirrors.”  

Some on Villa Road saw their inner world as the route to changing society. Luise Eichenbaum had come to London from New York as a trained psychotherapist, attracted by British feminist writing. From her squat in Villa Road, she set up the Women’s Therapy Centre with Susie Orbach, believing that therapy could be harnessed to left-wing goals. “For me, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy absolutely came right out of my political activity, because, as a feminist, we really understood that in order to change one’s self, you couldn’t just say, “I no longer want to be this person, the person I was raised to be, “the little girl raised to be a certain kind of feminine character, “who defers to people, who is submissive, who feels insecure, who doesn’t feel entitled and so on.” We knew that we no longer wanted to be that person, and so, if one wanted to change deeply, we had to look to the unconscious. I think people came to see that bringing change wasn’t just about changing physical social aspects of society. I think people started to recognise that change actually maybe has a psychological dimension, an internal dimension, as well.” 

To some extent, the Villa Road community attempted to govern itself outside the scope of the law beyond:

“Would you ever have called the police?
-No.
-What did you do instead?
-Well, where there were instances of theft and so on within the street, then those were dealt with at street meetings. One incident I remember, we jailed the guy for a week, I believe. Everyone was losing their stereos and, um… we eventually managed to catch this young, black guy, who was, I think, 15 at the time. And, um, so…he said that he had been thrown out of home, that he had nowhere to go and he was stealing all this stuff so that he could survive. And so in typical Villa Road fashion, we held a street meeting, emergency street meeting, what to do about him. And we decided that we would give him a home, give him somewhere to live and we would give him money. And so he lived with us then.”

As with other squatted streets of the era, the leftist political slant of many occupants led them into taking part in solidarity action with other struggles that were going on. Villa Road residents regularly joined picket lines at strikes like Grunwick, marched in support of striking firefighters…

In response to tenants’ campaigns, the Council pressed ahead with attempts to evict through the courts, all the houses in Villa Road, which it proposed to demolish, to build a park (a part of the Brixton Plan that had survived), and a junior school (which even then looked to be in doubt). Families could apply to the Homeless Persons Unit; single people could whistle. In reply, squatters, tenants and supporters barricaded all the houses in Villa Road and proceeded to occupy the Council’s Housing Advice Centre and then the planning office.

“The barricades came about because… the, um, Lambeth Council wanted to demolish the whole of Villa Road. This had been their long-term plan. They couldn’t do it because we were living in the houses. But they, I think, probably served eviction orders on us and we decided that we were going to stay, and so, we thought, “Well, we’ll barricade ourselves in. “The bailiffs will come, but if they can’t get into the houses, they can’t evict us.” So that was another form of direct action. We would scour Lambeth, looking for wood, sheets of corrugated iron, barbed wire. There were a lot of building sites that went short of things in those days! And the ingenuity of people to get all these materials together was phenomenal. The barricade in front of 7 and 9 Villa Road was very beautiful, because we painted it. It was a carefully tended barricade. “Victory Villa” was the big sort of slogan. “Property is theft.” That was another of the slogans on the barricades. We were all into that. … The first thing I and the two chaps who moved in with me began to do was to sort out the barricades on our house. We had, um… It was like triple barricades of corrugated sheets and joists, and then more corrugated sheets, then joists and props, all put together with six-inch nails. Then on top of the barricade was barbed wire and a gutter, the plan being that we would fill the gutter with petrol and have bits of burning tyre, so we would have a sheet of flame to meet the bailiffs, before they could even get to the house itself. And we also had this huge, great, big wooden ball, like, um, on the ball and chain, but this was made of wood with big six-inch nails stuck in it, on the end of a rope, that you could swing and it would lazily move in front of the house as another disincentive to come anywhere near us.”

In June 1976, 1000 people attended a carnival organised by the squatters in Villa Road. The following day, council workers refused to continue with the wrecking of houses evicted in Villa Road, after squatters approached them and asked them to stop. Links with local workers were helped by squatters’ previous support for a construction workers picket during a strike at the Tarmac site in the town centre, and for an unemployed building workers march. They all walked off the job, and “the house became crowded with squatters who broke out into song and aided by a violinist, started dancing in the streets.” There was a similar incident in a squat in Radnor terrace in Vauxhall, the day before. The local UCATT building workers union branch had passed a resolution blocking the gutting of liveable houses.

In November 1976, the Villa Roaders launched an ‘Agitvan’ to tour the streets of the Borough spreading the word about life in Villa Road… These links between squatters and building workers were built on into 1977: as squatters, tenants, residents in temporary and Bed & Breakfast accommodation co-operated on pickets of the Town Hall over the Council’s housing policy.  When Lambeth Council attempted to push through its demolition policy by destroying the squatted street at St Agnes Place in January 1977, Villa Roaders went off to support the occupants:

“Very early in the morning, we found out that the council were moving in bulldozers, there were large busloads of police turning up at the end of the street, and all the rest of it. We all shot off down there. Quite a lot of the residents had already climbed up onto the roofs, basically saying, “If you’re going to knock the house down, you’ll have to knock us down with them!” Got all the council workers digging up the pipes, down at the front. They filled the drains with cement, and took out water and gas pipes. They really went to town to make sure they were uninhabitable. In this picture, you can see a protester. He’s one of the squatters who tied a rope round his waist… There was a few of them. ..and actually walked across the top of this, what’s left of the main framework of the house. We, together with the lawyers from the Law Centre, managed to get an emergency High Court injunction by midday or one o’clock that day, forcing the council to withdraw their equipment, ‘and to leave us alone.’ St Agnes Place was saved, and the council was publicly and humiliatingly defeated. Lambeth Council had to rethink its approach.”

Later in the year Lambeth Housing Action Group was set up, with Tenants Associations, Squatting groups, union branches sending delegates; they pledged to co-operate with Lambeth Anti-Racist movement as well…

Villa Road was still under threat – in fact the barricades stayed up for another two years…

The following account of the battle to save Villa Road was nicked from Squatting: the Real Story, published in 1979.

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Victory Villa Challenging the planners in South London

(Squatting: the Real Story, Chapter 12) by Nick Anning and Jill Simpson

The Planners’ Plan

The area around Villa Road is still rather quaintly labelled ‘Angell Town’ on the maps; a legacy of a past which includes the old manorial estate of Stockwell and the eccentric landowner John Angell who died in 1784.

To those who live here now, this is part of Brixton in the London Borough of Lambeth with the market and the Victoria Line tube station a few minutes walk away.

Planners’ vision for central Brixton, late 1960s

But the change wrought in just a few years by Lambeth Council’s planners has been far more radical than that gradual transformation. The majority of houses which stood in 1965 have been demolished and Villa Road too, would have disappeared if the planners had had their way. The fact that most of it still stands is the result of a protracted battle between the squatter community and the Council’s bureaucrats and councillors.

The origins of this battle can be found in The Brixton Plan, an intriguing document produced by Lambeth in 1969, and in the events that led up to its publication. Indeed, Villa Road’s very existence as a squatter community arises from the Plan, its initial shortcomings, its lack of flexibility in the face of economic changes and the refusal of leading Lambeth councillors and planners to engage in meaningful consultation. Their intransigence in refusing to admit that the plans might be wrong or open to revision was a further contributing factor.

The Plan had its roots in the optimistic climate of Harold Wilson’s first government in the early sixties. The Greater London Council (GLC) asked the recently enlarged London boroughs to draw up community plans in line with the GLC’s overall strategy for taking the metropolis gleaming into the seventies. Lambeth responded eagerly to this prompting, only too anxious to establish itself as one of the more enterprising inner London boroughs.

The scale and scope of its redevelopment plan was tremendously ambitious. Lambeth was to be transformed into an even more splendid memorial to the planners’ megalomania than neighbouring Croydon with Brixton as its showcase. Brixton town centre was to be completely rebuilt, incorporating a huge transport interchange complex where a six-lane highway, motorway box, main line railway and underground intersected.

Brixton’s social mix was to completely change with middle-class commuters flocking south of the Thames, to bring renewed prosperity and to rejuvenate business and commerce. Ravenseft, the property company which gave nearby Elephant and Castle its unloved redevelopment, expressed interest in the plan for Brixton. Tarmac, the road building firm, was given permission to build an office block on condition it helped to fund a new leisure centre. The Inner London Education Authority talked of new schools and a new site for South West London College. The dream seemed possible.

The plan would involve demolishing the fading bastions of Brixton’s Victorian and Edwardian splendour, epitomised by the very name Villa Road. These houses were to be replaced with modern homes for the working class of Lambeth. Angell Town was zoned for residential use, Brixton Road was to become a six-lane expressway and three proposed new housing developments (Brixton Town Centre, Myatts Fields and Stock-well Park Estate) would completely remove old Angell Town from the map. About 400 houses were to be demolished and their occupants ‘decanted’. Some low rise, high density modern estates were to be constructed but at the core of the plan was the construction of five 52 storey tower blocks. Brixton Towers was the apt name chosen for this development which, at 600 feet high, was to be the highest housing scheme outside Chicago. A large park was planned, in line with the GLC’s recommendations, to serve the 6,000 residents of the new estates. The scheme was a tribute to the planners’ megalomania.

The aim seems to have been to establish pools of high density council housing with limited access, restricting traffic to major perimeter roads where a facade of rehabilitated properties would give a false respectability to a disembowelled interior. Stockwell Park Estate, the first of the three estates to be completed, has already proved the disastrous nature of this type of development. Completed in 1971, it has suffered from dampness, lack of repairs and vandalism. For several years, its purpose-built garages remained unused and, until recently, it had a reputation as a ‘sink estate’ for so-called ‘problem families’.

In the heady climate of the sixties, this type of ‘macroplanning’ was taken as approved by the ballot box and by public enquiries. It was assumed that the professional planners ‘knew best’ and the majority of Lambeth’s 300,000 population were unaware of, let alone consulted about, the far-reaching nature of these plans.

First stirrings

In 1967 Lambeth Council obtained a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) on the Angell Town area, despite a number of objections at the public enquiry. The familiar pattern of blight set in. Residents, promised rehousing in the imminent future, no longer maintained their houses as they were soon to be demolished. Tenants in multi-occupied houses found it increasingly difficult to press the Council for repairs and maintenance, and tried to obtain immediate rehousing. The long years of Labour dominance in Lambeth were interrupted with three years of Tory rule but this was of little consequence to the monolithic plan. It drew support from Conservatives and Labour alike, although a radical caucus in the Labour Party known as the ‘Norwood Group’ began to voice misgivings during Labour’s spell in opposition. By the time Labour regained control in 1971, Angell Town was a depressed and demoralised area, as voting figures for the ward in local elections showed. Though staunchly Labour, turn-out in Angell Ward has been the lowest of all Lambeth’s 20 wards since 1971, averaging only about 25 per cent of the electorate.

The newly returned Labour administration of 1971 contained a sizeable left-wing influence through the Norwood Group and had high hopes of cutting back the massive 14,000 waiting list for council homes. However by now they were prisoners of processes originating with the Plan. Population counts in clearance areas were proving inaccurate, mainly because live-in landlords, multi-occupiers and extended families were reluctant, through fear of public health regulations, to give full details of the number of people in their houses. As ‘decanting’ took place from development areas, more and more people began to find themselves ineligible for rehousing, or were given offers of accommodation unsuitable for their needs. Most houses were boarded up or gutted, adding to blight. Homelessness grew rapidly.

Despite the Labour Group’s optimism, the building programme slowed down. Lambeth’s target of 1,000 new homes per year from 1971-8 was never met. Many people, particularly Labour Party members, began to realise that sweeping clearance programmes destroyed large numbers of houses in good condition as well as unfit ones. With a tighter economic climate and a Conservative Government opposed to municipalisation in office, some of the steam had already gone out of Lambeth’s redevelopment plans by 1971, only two years after the publication of The Brixton Plan.

The neighbourhood council

The Norwood Group of councillors both paralleled and reflected the upsurge of radical, libertarian and revolutionary politics in Brixton during the early seventies. Dissatisfaction with Lambeth’s planning processes and its inability to cope with housing and homelessness gave focus to a number of dissenting community-based groups. Activists in these groups were instrumental in establishing a strong squatting movement for single people in the main section of Lambeth’s population whose housing needs went unrecognised.

The St John’s Street Group was one of several street groups set up in 1972 under the wing of the Neighbourhood Council. Its membership included residents of both Villa Road and St John’s Crescent as the two streets were suffering from blight arising out of the same plans. Most of the immediate area was scheduled to be pulled down to form part of the new Angell Park. Villa Road tenants wanted rehousing while those in neighbouring St John’s Crescent were campaigning about the poor state of repair of their properties. The Street Group began a series of direct actions (eg a rent strike and the dumping of uncollected rubbish at the nearby area housing office) to put pressure on the Council. As a result, many Villa Road tenants were rehoused and their houses boarded up. Most also had their services cut off and drains sealed with concrete to discourage squatting. More sensibly, a few of the houses were allocated on licence to Lambeth Self-Help, a short-life housing group whose office was round the corner in Brixton Road.

Squatters enter the fray

Some of the Neighbourhood Council activists moved into No 20 Villa Road, one of the houses handed over to Lambeth Self-Help, in early 1973. That summer another house in Villa Road was squatted. No 20 became the centre of St John’s Street Group activity, providing an important point of contact with the Neighbourhood Council, Lambeth Self-Help and unofficial squatters. In 1974, other houses on Villa Road were squatted, mainly by groups of homeless single people. Many had previous experience of squatting either in Lambeth or in other London boroughs where councils were starting to clamp down on squatters, reinforcing the pool of experience, skill and political solidarity which was to be the strength of the Villa Road community. The fact that a certain number of people came from outside Lambeth was frequently used in anti-squatting propaganda.

Meanwhile, the Labour Council was moving to the right and a strong anti-squatter consensus had begun to emerge, particularly after the 1974 council elections. The new Chairperson of the Housing Committee and his Deputy were in the forefront of this opposition to squatters. Their proposals for ending the ‘squatting problem’, far from dealing with the root causes of homelessness, merely attempted to erase symptoms and met with little success. In fact, the autumn of 1974 saw the formation of All Lambeth Squatters, a militant body representing most of the borough’s squatters. It mobilised 600 people to a major public meeting at the Town Hall in December 1974 to protest at the Council’s proposals to end ‘unofficial’ squatting in its property.

The rightward-leaning Council took all the teeth out of the Neighbourhood Councils and the one in Angell Ward, torn by internal disputes, ceased to function by the end of 1973. That was not to say that the issue of redevelopment for Angell Town was not still of major interest to the local residents. The Brixton Towers project had been dropped, throwing into question the whole plan. Furthermore, the programme of rehousing and demolition was proceeding slower than expected forcing the Council to consider its short-term plans for the area. It came up with the idea of a ‘temporary open space’ which was to involve the demolition of Villa Road and St John’s Crescent.

According to a Council brochure published in June 1974, this open space was to be the forerunner of a larger Angell Park with play and recreation facilities. Walkways linking the park to smaller areas of open space (‘green fingers’) alongside Brixton Road were to be built and a footbridge over that busy road was to link it with the densely populated Stockwell Park Estate.

The justification for the plan was that the high density of housing proposed for the nearby Myatts Fields South and Brixton Town Centre North estates required open space of the local park variety within a quarter of a mile radius. What was not publicly admitted was that the construction of these estates would involve a much smaller increase in the area’s population than had been originally envisaged. Instead of 3,000, the figure was now admitted to be nearer 800, hardly enough to justify the creation of a park that would involve the demolition of much good housing. In any case, money for the open space, let alone the park, was not to be available until autumn 1976, and in June 1974 housing officials declared that the Council would not require Villa Road houses until summer 1976.

Arguably, this amounted to a legal licence to occupy the houses. Probably the Council would have had little further trouble from the Villa Road squatters had it not been for two factors: the continuous programme of wrecking and vandalising houses in the vicinity and the Council leadership’s adherence to a hardline policy on squatting and homelessness. The combination of these two factors increased militant opposition to the Council’s politicians and bureaucrats which culminated in a full-scale confrontation in the summer of 1976.

A week of action in September 1974 led to more houses being squatted and saw the first meetings of the Villa Road Street Group (not to be confused with the by-then defunct St John’s Street Group). The members of the Group had come together fairly randomly and their demands were naturally different. For instance, there were Lambeth Self-Help members for whom rehousing was top priority; single people who demanded the principle of rehousing but wished to develop creative alternatives; and students and foreigners who were in desperate need of accommodation but whose transient presence or precarious legal status kept them outside the housing struggle which was taking place around them.

By the end of 1974, 15 houses in Villa Road and one in Brixton Road (No 315) had been squatted by Street Group members who now numbered – about a hundred. Like in other squatted streets common interests drew people together and gave the street its own identity. The Street Group became a focus for the organisation of social as well as political activities. For instance, in the summer of 1975, a street carnival attracted over 1,000 people. A cafe, food co-operative, band and news-sheet (Villain) were further activities of the now-thriving street.

But it was a community living under a permanent threat and a stark reminder of that was the eviction of No 315 Brixton Road in April 1975. The house along with two others which were too badly vandalised to have been squatted, were pulled down as part of the Council’s preparation for the footbridge linking the proposed park with the Stockwell Park Estate. The dust had hardly settled after the demolition when the Council announced the cancellation of the footbridge plan. The site was left unused for five years and then grassed over.

Events like this tended to harden the opposition to the Council in the Street Group. Another five houses had been squatted during 1975, including those with serious faults which needed a lot of sustained work like re-roofing, plumbing, rewiring and unblocking drains.

The population of the street was now approaching 200. Three houses in St John’s Crescent which had been emptied in preparation for demolition were taken over with the help of the departing tenants. Several other houses in the Crescent and Brixton Road were wrecked and demolished by the Council, still intent on implementing its temporary open space plan.

Squatters were increasingly becoming a thorn in the Council’s side. Following the failure of the Council’s 1974 initiative to bring squatting under control, the Council tried again. It published a policy proposing a ‘final solution’ to the twin ‘problems’ of homelessness and squatting. It combined measures aimed at discouraging homeless people from applying to the Council for housing – like tighter definitions of who would be accepted and higher hostel fees – with a rehash of the same old anti-squatting ploys – like more gutting. The policy was eventually passed in April 1976 after considerable opposition both within the Labour Party from the Norwood Group and from homeless people and squatters.

In a sense, Villa Road, and later St Agnes Place, were the testing grounds for this new policy. Although the Council had agreed to meet Villa Road Street Group representatives in February, its position was unyielding. Twenty-one of the 32 houses in Villa Road were to be demolished within four months and the street would be closed off for open space. Moreover, the Council told the Street Group that when the houses were evicted, families would be referred to the Council’s homeless families unit but single people would just have to ‘make their own arrangements’. The future of the remaining 11 houses was less certain as they were earmarked for a junior school that, even in 1976, was unlikely ever to be built.

The Trades Council Inquiry

It was clear that the Street Group could not fight the Council without outside support. There was already considerable local dissatisfaction with the Council for its failure to change the plans for the area and the Street Group, in an attempt to harness available support, organised a public meeting in April 1976 to discuss courses of action. At the meeting, which was well-attended, it was decided to initiate a Trades Council Inquiry into local housing and recreational needs. This idea was supported by a wide range of people and groups including the vicar of St John’s Church which overlooks Villa Road and the ward Labour Party. A committee including two Street Group representatives was set up to collect evidence and prepare a report.

The Trades Council Inquiry report was to be presented to a public meeting of 200 people at St. John’s School two months later. Lambeth’s Chief Planning Officer, its Deputy Director of Housing and an alderman came to hear their critics and see the meeting vote overwhelmingly in favour of the report’s recommendations. These were:

  • No more demolitions, wreckings or evictions.
  • Smaller, more easily supervised playspaces should be created from existing empty sites, rather than clinging stubbornly to a plan for one large park.
  • Money saved by stopping evictions, wreckings and demolition should be spent on repairs on nearby estates or rehabilitation of older property.
  • The Council should recognise the strong community in the area and take that as the starting point for allowing active participation by local people in the planning process.

The Council’s representatives made no concession to these views except to suggest rather insultingly that the report might be admissible for discussion as a ‘local petition’. They firmly rejected the meeting’s recommendation that the Trades Council Report should be considered at the next Council meeting.

Whilst the Inquiry had been collecting its evidence, there had been a further series of confrontations between squatters and wreckers. The Trades Council had passed a resolution blacking the wrecking of good houses and the Council was forced to find non-union labour to do its dirty work. The squatters managed to take over one house in Brixton Road before it was wrecked (No 321) but another (No 325) was gutted by workmen under police protection. The culmination of these battles between squatters and wreckers was to be at St. Agnes Place in January 1977, an action which attracted widespread national publicity.

Both these wreckings and the Inquiry attracted local press coverage and support for the squatters widened. Several Norwood councillors, prompted by a letter from the Street Group, began to give active support as well as inside information on the Council’s position. Links with the local labour movement were helped by squatters’ support for a construction workers picket during a strike at the Tarmac site in the town centre and for an unemployed building workers march.

To the barricades

With careful timing, the Council made its initial response to the Inquiry’s report the day after it was released when all the houses occupied by the Street Group (except those on the school site) received county court summonses for possession. The court cases were scheduled for 30 June, a couple of weeks away, and the Street Group’s response was immediate: a defence committee was organised to barricade all threatened houses, coordinate a legal defence, publicise the campaign, set up an early warning system and much more.

benefit poster for Villa Road defence campaign

At the court hearing, the judge criticised the Council for its sloppy preparation and only eight out of fifteen possession orders were granted. Although this was a partial victory, the barricades obviously had to remain. The Street Group embarked on a series of militant actions with support from other Lambeth squatters aimed at forcing the Council to reconsider the Trades Council Inquiry’s findings which it had rejected at a heavily-picketed meeting and at getting the Council to offer rehousing to Villa Road squatters. First, the Lambeth Housing Advice Centre was occupied for an afternoon in July and, a month later, following the breakdown of negotiations, the Planning Advice Centre received the same treatment. This did not prevent the planning and housing committees from formally rejecting the Trades Council Report but both occupations achieved their primary objective in getting Lambeth round the negotiating table. The Street Group’s initial position was for rehousing as a community but as the talks continued, it was decided to agree to consider individual rehousing. Staying in Villa Road on a permanent basis was not an option considered seriously by either side at this stage. After the second occupation and a survey of empty property in the borough by the squatters, the Council representatives said they might be prepared to look for individual properties for rehousing. The Street Group’s minimum demand was rehousing for 120 people knowing full well that any offer of rehousing would breach both the squatting and homelessness policies.

In October, the Council made an offer of 17 houses to the Street Group but the houses were in such a bad condition that the sincerity of its motives could clearly be questioned. The Street Group had no option but to reject them despite the strain that living behind barricades was causing. The defences could never be made impregnable and the difficulties of living permanently under the threat of immediate eviction was too much for many people who left, sometimes to unthreatened houses up the street. They were generally replaced by even more determined opponents of the Council and morale in the street was further boosted by the occupation of the remaining tenanted and licensed houses in the threatened part of the street whose occupants were all rehoused.

After the rejection of the offer, no further word came from the Council though it seemed clear that it was reluctant at this stage to send in the bailiffs. A war of attrition set in, marked by two interesting developments.

First, a sympathetic councillor was selected to stand in the by-election of November 1976 caused by the death of an Angell Ward councillor. The selection was a success for the Street Group’s members in the ward Labour Party whose votes were decisive. It was a rebuff for the Council’s leader whose nominee failed to win selection and helped to chip away the right’s narrow majority within the Labour Group, contributing directly to the leftward movement that eventually put the Norwood Group with a left-wing leader in power at the local elections of May 1978.

Secondly, in October, the Department of the Environment (DOE) held a public inquiry over the Council’s application to close Villa Road. Several local organisations, including the Street Group, presented evidence against closure. An inquiry which should have been over in a day stretched to ten. Each point was strongly contested since the Street Group realised that if the Council was unable to close Villa Road its plan for the park would need drastic modification. The DOE inspector promised to make his report a matter of urgency.

The turning point

As the Council still did not have possession orders on all the houses, it now restarted court proceedings against all the squatted houses (except those on the school site) – this time in the High Court. The Street Group hurriedly drew up a detailed legal defence, arguing a general licence on the grounds that official negotiations with the Council had never been formally terminated. Villa Road’s case was strengthened by statements from two Lambeth councillors. The hearing opened in January 1977, marked by a picket, street theatre and live music outside the High Court.

Judging by its legal representatives’ response at the preliminary hearing, the Council had not anticipated any legal defence and the case was adjourned twice. The Council’s reason for going to the High Court instead of the county court was that a High Court order for possession allows the police to assist directly in carrying out the eviction. A county court order did not give the police power to intervene except to guard against a possible ‘breach of the peace.’ Events at nearby St. Agnes Place in January had set an ugly precedent and showed the Council was now prepared for full scale battles with squatters. Over 250 police had arrived at dawn in St Agnes Place to preside over the demolition with a ball and chain of empty houses although the demolition was stopped within hours by a hastily initiated court injunction by the squatters.

In the event, the St Agnes Place affair put Lambeth Council at a moral disadvantage and had an important effect on events in Villa Road. Labour Group leader David Stimpson had staked his hardline reputation on an outright confrontation but the failure to demolish all the houses and the resulting bad publicity put his political future in doubt. To make matters worse for Stimpson, the DOE inspector’s report on the public inquiry into the closure of Villa Road was published around the same time. It ruled against the Council: Villa Road had to stay open until revised plans for Brixton Town Centre North were devised ‘in consultation with all interested parties’.

The remnants of The Brixton Plan had already started to crumble around the Council when Ravenseft, one of the major backers, had pulled out the previous summer. With the unfavourable report from the DOE inspector and news that the construction of the school planned for the top end of Villa Road was to be deferred indefinitely, the planners had to go back to the drawing board. The Brixton Plan was even more of a pipedream than it had been in 1969.

By the time the High Court hearing resumed in March, the Council had been forced into a position where it had to compromise. The judge encouraged the Council and the Street Group to settle out of court as, in the end, the granting of a possession order was inevitable. After some hard bargaining, the Street Group got a three months stay of execution to 3 June 1977 and costs of £50 awarded against it, a considerable saving on the estimated £7,000 the case had cost Lambeth.

June 3 passed uneventfully as did the first anniversary of the erection of the barricades. Indeed, they were to stay up almost another year until in March 1978 the squatters felt confident enough of the Council’s intentions to take them down. No attempt had ever been made to breach them.

With the DOE inspector’s decision not to close the road and the absence of revised plans for the area, the possibility now emerged that the fate of the two sides of the street could be different. The south side (12 houses) backed onto a triangle, two-thirds of which was already demolished for the open space. On the other hand, the north side (20 houses) backed onto a new council estate and its demolition would add little space to the park area even assuming that permission to close Villa Road were obtained. Therefore, the Street Group decided to accept demolition of the south side provided that everyone was rehoused, and to push for the houses on the north side to be retained and rehabilitated, ideally as a housing co-op for the existing squatters. Negotiations were resumed on this basis and Lambeth kept talking: clearly, it didn’t want a repeat of the St Agnes Place disaster.

A new Council

The first tangible gain for the Street Group came in March 1978, when two short-life houses were offered to people being rehoused from the south side. But the most important event came two months later, when a new left-Labour Council was elected with Ted Knight, a ‘self confessed marxist’ and Matthew Warburton, a first time councillor, as leader and housing chairperson respectively. It was a significant victory in that it represented as radical a shift in policy as a victory by the Tories – in the other direction, of course. Squatters in both Villa Road and St Agnes Place had contributed directly to the leftwards swing and the new leaders had pledged to adopt more sympathetic policies.

Lambeth housing department officials now pressed for the demolition of houses on the south side, to make way for the new Angell Park, and suggested that all Villa Road Street Group members join Lambeth Self-Help Housing. It appeared that a new atmosphere of negotiation was being created but the same housing department officers did the negotiating and the Plan had not been totally abandoned. Eventually the Street Group agreed, very reluctantly, to the south side of Villa Road being vacated, with all occupants being rehoused in property with at least 18 months life. Demolition was to begin on 24 July 1978 and the fourth annual Villa Road carnival was made spectacular by one of the vacated houses on the south side being burnt down as a defiant gesture of protest. All the houses accepted for rehousing were in the borough, though some were in Norwood, several miles away.

The Street Group, left to its own devices, requested details of the Council’s plans for the rehabilitation of Villa Road north side. It’s main aim was to keep the north side houses. Inspired by the growth of housing co-ops in other areas, the Street Group decided to propose a co-op for Villa Road. In January 1979 an ‘outline proposal’ was sent to the housing directorate suggesting four possible types of co-op but with an expressed preference for a management co-op. In this type of co-op, the Council continues to own the property whilst handing over responsibilities for rent collection, maintenance and management to the co-op. Rehabilitation is financed either by local or central government. It was felt that other types of co-op involving the sale of council housing stock were politically unacceptable.

The co-op proposals were presented to the housing committee in April 1979 and formal approval was given for the chairman to continue negotiations with the Street Group for setting up a co-op. The climate had certainly changed and although squatting was still regarded as a ‘problem’, the Council now negotiated rather than evicted, at least with large groups. Lambeth officers were reluctant to embark on this scheme which was entirely new to the borough and instead suggested a joint management/ownership co-op. Houses in Villa Road would form the management wing, and the ownership branch would be in a nearby Housing Action Area. This was to ensure that four or five houses in Villa Road could be used to accommodate large families from Lambeth’s waiting list. It seemed ironic that Lambeth was now short of large houses when the previous administration had operated a policy of systematic demolition of such houses. The planning machine had done a complete U-turn.

The Street Group now had to change its tactics. Instead of militant campaigns with barricades and regular occupations of council offices, it had to get down to the nitty gritty of filling in forms to register as a friendly society and as a co-op, finding a development agent (Solon Housing Association was eventually selected) and working out detailed costings for the rehabilitation. It was no longer a matter

Remaining houses on the north side of Villa Road, early 1980s

of just saving the houses, it was a question of getting the long-term best deal for Street Group members and Lambeth’s homeless.

After Solon had submitted detailed costings in January 1980 (it worked out at about £7,000 per bed space), the housing committee agreed, the following month, to support Villa Road’s application to the Housing Corporation (a quango through which government money is channelled to housing associations and co-ops) for funding to rehabilitate the houses. Lambeth would grant Villa Road a 40 year lease. The recommendations were not passed without dissent. Some of the old anti-squatting brigade were still on the committee, intent on eviction without rehousing for Villa Road squatters. But Street Group members now no longer had to live day to day under threat of eviction – they could dream of still living in Villa Road and collecting their pensions.

Not everything was different. Two houses on the corner of Villa Road, Nos 64 and 66 Wiltshire Road were demolished in April 1980. They had been squatted in October 1976 following an unsuccessful wrecking attempt by the Council. They had provided housing for some 20 people for three and a half years and were now being pulled down to make way for the Angell Park play centre scheduled to start in June 1980. Yet three months later, not a brick had been laid. At least now Lambeth offered all the occupants short-life or permanent rehousing.

The first scheme was rejected by the Housing Corporation but a different plan was submitted in July 1980 involving the conversion of the houses to accommodate 12 or 13 people each, rather more than the number already living there. Conversion costs were appreciably lower (under £4,500 per bed space) and the scheme had, in the words of the manager of the housing advice centre, ‘top priority’ from the Council with support from both council officers and councillors.

Victory Villa?

The change in relationship between Villa Road, a squatted street in Lambeth, and the local council between 1974 and 1980 from a harsh anti-squatting policy to negotiations for a housing co-op could not have been more dramatic. But what else has been achieved by six years of squatting in Villa Road? The squatters arrived late in Angell Town and it would be nice to imagine that had they arrived earlier, they would have posed an even greater challenge to the lunacies of the planners. But, in the event the achievements of the squatters have been significant, both for themselves and for the immediate community:

  • Homes have been provided for the equivalent of 1,000 people for a year in houses which would otherwise have been gutted or demolished.
  • About 25 people have obtained two year licences and 15 have obtained council tenancies from Lambeth.
  • About 160 people are in the process of obtaining permanent housing as a co-op, remaining together as a community. Working with Solon’s architects, they will be able to have a considerable measure of control over the rehabilitation of the houses, retaining many of the collective arrangements and physical adaptations which have developed over the years.
    • Twenty elegant 19th century houses have been saved from demolition and a useful street prevented from being closed.
  • Control of Lambeth Council has significantly shifted partly thanks to the Villa Road squatters.

And, less tangibly, although few people stayed in Villa Road for all the six years of struggle, a cohesive street community was created which many people enjoyed living in. Squatters in Villa Road, like those in other streets in Lambeth which won concessions from the Council (St Agnes Place, Heath Road, Rectory Gardens, and St Alphonsus Road) challenged the complacency and smugness of the bureaucrats and won. That was the real victory in Villa Road.

What happened in Villa Road could have happened just as easily in other blighted streets in Lambeth or elsewhere. The squatters organisation, their use of direct action and their insistence that planning and housing are two sides of the same coin challenged the complacency and smugness of the bureaucrats. Villa Road’s real victory was to prove that plans are not inviolable, and that people can affect and be directly involved in planning processes that determine their living conditions. Considering what Villa Road was up against, that is no small achievement.

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Some of those moved from the demolished ‘south side’ houses in Villa Road were rehoused in council-owned shortlife property – including the flats in mansion blocks on Rushcroft Road, next to the Library in central Brixton. They would face 20 years of mismanagement, bad repair, and uncertainty from Lambeth Council and then and London & Quadrant Housing Association (after the flats were off-loaded onto L&Q)… and then eviction in the early 2000s as the Council decided to flog off their flats off to developers. However, many of the flats cleared of short-lifers were then squatted again – a mass eviction of 75 squatters took place as late as 2013.

The houses on the north side of Villa Road mostly remained, becoming a housing co-op which survives  – although many of the original residents moved out gradually, lots of other ex-squatters, subversives and other ne-er-do-wells have passed through since then…

 

 

 

 

In 2006, the BBC screened one episode of a series called Lefties which interviewed ex-Villa Road residents, you can watch it on youtube:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Erp2utEgZp4

 

Some of the above info was gleaned from the transcripts from this program.

Read a slightly longer account of the growth of squatting in Brixton, with more details on the Brixton Plan,

 

 

Today in London smashing herstory, 1909: Suffragettes love the sound of breaking glass

Emmeline Pankhurst and other women’s suffragists founded the militant Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903; having come to the conclusion that the existing pressure groups campaiging to extend the vote in the UK to women had failed, taking a too cautious approach, and a new militant organisation was needed that would take the extreme measures needed to win women the franchise.

The WSPU went on to break new ground in direct action, with mass campaigns of criminal damage, window smashing and arson; many of its activists were jailed several times, (including Emmeline and her three daughters, Christabel, Adela and Sylvia), and force fed in prison repeatedly when they went on hunger strike. Both their ‘militant’ activity and the more ‘constitutional’ wing of the movement built up considerable pressure for reform up to the outbreak of World War 1; women’s suffrage became the dominant issue in British society, dividing opinion and provoking violent repression, attacks from hostile crowds of men, as well as increasing support.

In 1908, WSPU actions became more militant and more ‘aggressive’. In June that year throwing stones to break windows of government buildings was first adopted. In October, the WSPU issued a general callout for people to join in its attempt to ‘Rush’ the House of Commons, which attracted thousands of participants and led to 37 arrests.

These actions raised the WSPU’s public profile; they snap led to an increase in donations which allowed the organisation to hire more paid staff across the country. 

Calling for public participation in mass actions effectively appealed to women, over the heads of the politicians and the ‘normal’ political process, with the intention of creating a public order crisis which would intimidate the government into giving women the vote. This approach was universally condemned: even pro-Women’s Suffrage newspapers like the Manchester Guardian labelled it counter-productive. It enraged the authorities, who increased penalties for arrested suffragists and slapped them with heavier charges like ‘incitement to riot’.

In 1909, undeterred, the WSPU upped the ante on the previous year’s activities…

In May, WSPU employees and militants mobilised a large crowd – press estimates ranged up to 10,000 – which attempted to storm Sheffield’s Drill Hall where an important meeting was being addressed by H. H. Asquith. A major riot nearly ensued, although the crowd did not get into the meeting. Christabel Pankhurst hailed this event as a triumph, writing that ‘the women who were barred out from the Prime Minister’s meeting called upon the general public … and to this appeal there was a wonderful response’.

Following this, the WSPU organised its ‘Women’s Exhibition’ at the Princess Skating Rink, Knightsbridge, between 13 and 26 May; the next major action was the thirteenth mass ‘deputation’ to parliament, scheduled for 29 June. Emmeline Pankhurst and other leaders of the Women’s Social and Political union had planned to deputation to see the Prime Minster, Asquith, to demand legislation regarding extending the franchise to women. A large public meeting followed by a procession to Parliament accompanied them. But a spot of sabotage was scheduled to follow if the deputation was refused access to the PM (as was expected to happen).

“On 29 June [1909], the usual meeting in the Caxton Hall began with martial music played by the new fife and drum band; the musicians wore purple uniforms, adorned by green sashes and white braid.   Subsequently, a small initial deputation set out, led by Mrs Pankhurst and composed of eight women, two of whom were elderly.”

Along with Emmeline Pankhurst, the delegation included Maud Joachim, Mrs Saul Solomon’, Miss Margesson. Mrs. Haverfield,  Mrs. Menzill, wife of Colonel Menzill, and granddaughter of the late Lord Wllborne; Mrs. Frank Corbett, sister-in-law of the late member of the house, and Miss Neligan, who was 79.

The police conducted the little group to the door of the Commons, where Chief Inspector Scantlebury, the stout, red-faced head of the police attached to Parliament, gave Mrs Pankhurst a large envelope. The envelope contained a letter from Asquith’s private secretary, stating that the Prime Minister would not receive the deputation. Mrs Pankhurst threw the letter to the ground, saying that she would not accept it – she and the ladies accompanying her were subjects of the King and had come in the assertion of a right.’ As the police began to push the women away, Mrs Pankhurst lightly struck Inspector Jarvis in the face three times.   He told her she was striking him for a purpose, and that he would not be perturbed… After Mrs Pankhurst gave Inspector Jarvis two stronger blows and another woman knocked off his hat, arrests were obtained.

A prolonged melee followed in which 3,000 police were engaged, and 108 women and 14 men were arrested… The scrimmage was watched by a number of MPs, some of whom climbed the railings of Palace Yard to obtain a better view.” 

Labour MP Keir Hardie did suggest inside the chamber that the delegation should be allowed in; to little avail.

At the WSPU HQ at Clements Inn, the action had been planned meticulously in advance; down to advice to women taking part that they should expect to be roughed up by the police, and designs for wearing ‘cardboard corsets’ to help protect them from batterings in the melee. Grace Roe, interviewed in the 1960s, remembered that she “rigged up one of these in the bath and fitted it to my shape and put in cotton wool to protect my breasts and then put on my hockey outfit and set off…” Vera Horne rode around the Square on a horse passing messages and instructing groups to advance on the House until the police nicked her.

After mounted police had cleared Parliament Square, phase 2 of the action began. Small groups of six suffragettes emerged from 30 small offices that the WSPU had rented for the day and made dashes on the House of Commons. Grace Roe was one of these groups, and noticed an open gate at Palace Yard – she and others ran through to try to enter the Commons but were aught by police halfway down the yard.

Simultaneously, attacks on government buildings began:

“At nine o’clock, a group of thirteen women, using small stones wrapped in brown paper, began to break windows at the Privy Council, Treasury, and Home Offices. To avoid injuring anyone within, pieces of string had been tied to the stones, which were swung against the windows while held by the string, and then dropped through the holes. The window-breakers were arrested immediately.”

Despite their determination, the deliberate action of criminal damage didn’t come easy to some of the saboteurs; one noted

“To women of culture and refinement and of sheltered upbringing the deliberate act of throwing a stone, even as a protest, in order to break a window, requires an enormous amount of moral courage. After much tension and hesitation, I threw my stone at the window… I was immediately arrested and marched off by two policemen.”

This was the largest disturbance so far in the WSPU’s militant sabotage campaign (the previous record for arrests had been in 1907, when 74 women were nicked). At first, the WSPU disowned the action, but later gave it their approval. (This was a WSPU tactic at the time – to assert that militancy was all carried out by the rank and file of the organisation and the leadership[p had no control at all over it… in reality Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst had a tight grip on what was planned and carried out, in many cases… This was largely a diversion to try to avoid arrests of WSPU leaders for conspiracy or incitement, but also, no doubt, a bit of deniability was involved, in case anyone did anything the leadership felt was going too far, or aroused unpopularity in the wrong quarters?)

The 108 women and 14 men arrested were taken to Cannon Row Police Station. In court next day, the WSPU’s leaders announced their intention of testing in law the right of petition. This kept the issue alive for several months until the courts could decide. As a result, action against those arrested for public order offences was suspended, but the window-breakers were tried on 12 July, and imprisoned when they refused to pay fines.

At this point a new weapon was introduced: the hunger-strike, pioneered by Marion Wallace Dunlop between 2 and 5 July. Since the autumn of 1908, the WSPU had declared that suffragettes would not tolerate ‘second division’ conditions in prison but would demand ‘first division’ treatment, on the grounds that they were political prisoners.The WSPU now announced its intention of enforcing the political prisoner demand before the window-breakers were tried, and when committed to Holloway they refused to put on prison dress and broke their cell windows. Two of the prisoners were also accused of biting and kicking the wardresses. The WSPU leadership hailed this redistance to normal imprisonment as the beginning of a ‘Prison Mutiny’, which they threatened would spread to other prisoners and other gaols. As Christabel Pankhurst said on 19 July, ‘If the suffragists broke down the awe of prison rules and regulations it would work through the prison population like a fever, and that would be a very serious matter indeed.’
Following Marion Dunlop‘s example, all the window-breakers went on hunger-strike and were released over several days at the end of July.

 

Today in London’s festive history, 1999: J18, the Carnival against Capitalism

“Around the world, the movement grows – from the forests of Chiapas to the streets of London, from the grain farmers of India to the landless in Brazil to the unemployed in France. Inspired by the Zapatista struggles in Mexico and the Intercontinental Encuentros, and by the global actions against the G8 (most powerful) nations and the World Trade Organisation in 1998, activists from many countries are planning co-ordinated actions around the world to oppose neoliberal capitalism.

On June the 18th this year the G8 nations will meet in Koln, Germany, to further promote their vision of “free”trade, economic growth and corporate dominance. Meanwhile across Europe, in Canada, Nigeria, Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil, Australia and many more nations, activists will occupy and transform their local financial districts (stock exchanges, banks, corporate HQs) .

Autonomously organised events ranging from educational forums, pickets, protests, discussions, blockades and street parties will disrupt business as usual and show the world that things could be very different, just Imagine…”
(from the original proposal for a global day of action and parties against capitalism, 1999)

On June 18, 1999, thousands of demonstrators converged at Liverpool Street train station, for a spectacular day of action in the City of London in protest and rebellion against capitalism, timed to coincide with other actions and demos all around the world on the day of the G8 summit – the leaders of the world economic powers meeting to set their agenda.

In this post we re-publish some of the events that took place on the day in London, plus some reflections on J18 published afterwards, some of which are more critical of the event and of the movements it arose from…
Much of this material is available elsewhere online, and we have flagged that up where we could.

June the 18th was the product of many streams, coming together, including UK anti-roads campaigns and Reclaim the Streets, movements that has arisen in solidarity with/inspired by the Mexican Zapatista uprising, the European Social Forum and People’s Global Action, and drew on anarchist, environmental, anti-war, animal rights, anti-capitalist and autonomist strands, and many other movements, across the world…

In the UK plans for a spectacular day of action in the City of London had been under discussion since mid-1998, arising from a merging of Reclaim the Streets (RTS) and older anarchos who remembered events like Stop the City were putting their oar in. [we hope to post some of the history of Stop the City sometime soon on this blog]. There was a definite influence from discussions within RTS in 1998, as well as the Bradford Mayday 1998 conference.

Although we concentrate here on London, it very important that J18 was planned as an international series of protests and parties on the same day… Here’s a list of some of the events planned around the world. 

In London, 1000s of people met at Liverpool Street Station, from where participants broke up into four different marches in order to divide and confuse police; organisers distributed masks in four different colours. A spontaneous fifth march emerged, as well as a Critical Mass composed of hundreds of bicyclists. Meanwhile a series of occupations and actions took place at various targets by autonomous groups of activists. The marches converged on the London International Financial Futures Exchange (LIFFE), where they hung banners, set off a fire hydrant to symbolise the liberation of the lost river Walbrook beneath London’s streets, adorned the walls with graffiti, disabled surveillance cameras, and set up sound systems for DJs and punk bands to perform. A raucous afternoon of dancing, exuberance, and street fighting followed, during which participants bricked up the front of the LIFFE building, broke in and trashed its ground floor. Partying continued into the might across the city.

LONDON TIMELINE: June 18th Hour by Hour

From the thread posted up as it happened on the day – slightly edited for readability…

8:00am – 600 Cyclists take to the streets of the City of London
Report with pictures here

Critical Mass blocked Liverpool St with a car, its tyres slashed to prevent movement. They also dropped a banner from London Bridge. 3 people were arrested during the action. 700 people are currently blocking London Bridge. The action is ongoing. Liverpool St McDonalds is currently blocked in a ‘festival type’ action where 200 people are currently ‘dancing and whistling’. A banner has been hung which says ‘McDonalds are guilty of exploiting their workers, destroying the environment and murdering animals’

9:00 am- Campaign Against The Arms Trade occupy Friends Provident office near St Pauls – Banner dropped from building.

9:30am – 30 Protesters occupy another office in the City
“The company does not know that they have been occupied yet – more details when they do”

9:30am – Lloyds Bank in St. Pauls occupied
4 People are locked on inside the bank of British Aerospace. More protesters are picketing outside the building.

9:45am – Office occupied at 9.30am revealed to be huge capitalist auditors and administators KPMG

10:00am – Activists in occupation of Natwest Bank

11:45am – Business comes to a halt as activists occupy Lloyds Bank in protest at support of arms export industry

1:00pm – Liverpool Street: A banner has been unfurled on the roof of the building above Liverpool St. This is a company called Walburg and Reeves. Many people are dancing and there are costumes and huge heads on sticks. The station is crowded. There are police at the perimeters of the protest but people are going in and out. The place is full of protestors, organisers and average people on the street – many wearing green hats. ….city workers are dancing !

1.40pm – Thousands of protestors demonstrate outside McDonalds restaurant. City workers dancing in the street with carnival goers. Liverpool Street and Old Street are blocked by 3,000 partying protestors…more arriving all the time

Masks of four different colours were handed out with text on the inside…

1.00pm – Several thousand people demonstrated outside McDonald’s in the City. Old Street was blocked by police vans, and people ran back towards the station. Inside shops, parties were held. TV crews were present, but the police presence was low-key.

1.50pm – Thousands protest outside Mcdonalds restaurant. City workers dance in the street with carnival goers. Liverpool Street and Old Street are blocked by 3,000 partying protestors…more arriving all the time…

2:00pm – London Wall: A crowd, estimated at about 3,000, in London Wall, in the City, near Circus Place.. At 2.02pm, outside number 3 London Wall, witnesses said they saw protesters climbing on the roof of a police van. The police then drove into the crowd at “high speed”. One person apparently was run over by two sets of wheels. Reportedly, three or four people were injured. An activist said he saw blood spilled. Some panic and difficulty getting an ambulance through to the area because of the crowds. Reportedly growing hosility from the crowd. Riot police always believed present.
A second witness at Walbrook Street reported a line of mounted police who galloped off – presumably towards London Wall. There was growing hostility between city workers and protesters outside Capital (Bank?); “Bank workers seemed to be looking for agro,” said a witness.

Another witness said others in the crowd, by about 2.20pm, were trying to calm the situation.

2.40pm – 2.45pm – Protestors unfurl huge banner at UK carnival…

2.50pm – Person injured by police van, ambulance needed. Police drive at speed into crowd.

3.50pm – LATESTPolice aggression continues even after earlier incident when protestor was injured by police van…3 storey fountain cools hot partygoers…giant heads bring music to the masses…

4.05pmPolice aggression continues even after protestor was injured by police van…3 storey fountain cools hot partygoers…giant heads bring music to the masses… “7 giant heads have been spotted (each atached to a backpack) and each containing a small sound system. The heads represented different nationalities, to draw attention to the fact that June 18th is a global event and that the current economic system affects everyone. The Spanish Head played Spanish music, African music was piped from the African Head etc.”

MONEY RAINS DOWN ON CANNON ST: Mysterious ‘construction’ workers in yellowjackets appeared on the bridge next to Cannon St tube and cast ‘silver’ banknotes down on city workers and protesters alike. ‘They came down in a beautiful shower,’ reports a witness, ‘a soft and shiny rain’.

Carnival goers bricked up the London International Financial Futures and & Options Exchange building to make the point that there is no future in the current financial system. ‘There is no future in Futures.’ The wall was built to a height of 5 feet using breeze blocks and cement brought into the city during the carnival. The building was evacuated.

6:15pm – Southwark Bridge: Police beating indiscriminately after they blocked the bridge. Many of those trapped receiving serious beatings with head injuries etc.
While the news reports have made a point of stressing the peaceful nature of the majority of the participants, it is regrettable that the other focus of the reports has been on the violence and the prevailing traffic conditions as a result of the event, rather than the extra-ordinary global coalition that has united in over 40 countries to protest against globalisation.

6.25pm – At 18:00 hours in a report by a UK radio station the first accurate descriptions of the serious injuries sustained by protestors throughout the afternoon was broadcast. Many of the UK media news reports were surprisingly accurate, reporting on the diverse and peaceful nature of the day. As the Carnival like atmosphere spread throughout the city, demonstrators seeped through the initial police cordon and proceeded to dance through the streets.

7.00pm – North side of Blackfriars Bridge
300 people dancing to the sound system (now out of the city). Very low police presence. Other groups now dispersed across central london.

8:00pm – Around 2,000 people were cleared from Southwark Bridge by police who blocked roads as they moved forward. Whitehall, the Mall and Charing Cross road were blocked by the police

8:00pm – Meanwhile up to 2000 others bring the Strand to a standstill for over an hour, police vans following at a distance. UPDATE – at end of Strand police pushing crowd towards Trafalgar Square.

8:30pm – Leicester Square
Police clearing protestors from Leicester Square

9:00pm – Carnival sound system impounded by police – surrounded by riot vans in Kings Cross… “French girl arrested and taken to Kentish Town police station.”

9:30pm – Trafalgar Square still full of thousands of protestors. Police have cleared the roads surrounding. Mixed reports but seems peaceful.

9:30pm – Trafalgar Square still full of protestors. Mood more relaxed – full party in progress – drummers and dancing in the fountains…

11.45pm – Square still peaceful, party atmosphere 🙂

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Media:

June 18th was not just panning out on the streets – the event saw technological developments in activist media which built on existing methods of countering mainstream media blackouts on or misrepresentation of protests.

1000s of copies of a newspaper, Evading Standards (taking off the rightwing London daily Evening Standard), were distributed.

Pirate TV put on a webcast all day, Click here for the stream.

In London Radio Interferance was broadcasting continuously on 106.8 FM (or somewhere near that frequency)

There was also a live chat feed, being regularly updated from around the world, and a map which you could zoom and click on to see reports of events everywhere.

These latter developments would be refined for later anti-capitalist actions at Seattle and help to create the global Indymedia network… which then on to other alternative news web sites…

LONDON: One Personal Account FROM THE DAY

The June 18th demo against the G8 Summit in the City of London was amazing! It was possibly the best riot in London since the Poll Tax one. The cops totally lost control of the situation and got a good beating, and various business like McDonald’s, car showrooms, banks and the Futures Exchange were trashed. According to the press four cops were hospitalised. The City was also covered in anarchist graffiti. Every time you were with a large mob thinking this is great all these people, you’d turn the corner and there’d be an even larger crowd there creating mayhem!

The day began (for me) at the Smithfield Meat Market at 10.30am. There was a few hundred activists and quite a few cops. The meat market usually operates in the early hours in the morning but there are normally a few people around at this time. Not so on the 18th: all the loading bays were shuttered up and the entrances were heavily locked. So instead there was a march to the British Poultry Association HQ on High Holborn, stopping outside while before going on to the Imperial Cancer Research Fund offices at Lincoln’s Inn Fields via various McDonald’s.

After that the march made its way into the City where it met up with the other activists at Liverpool Station. There must have been tens of thousands of people there totally filling the station concourse and the surrounding streets.

There were drummers in the middle of the station and the acoustics were excellent – you could hear the sound booming out from outside despite the absence of electrical amplification. Other drummers and musicians were outside “entertaining the troops” whilst some people climbed up the walls of the banks and tied banners from them.

The weather was very hot and most of the office workers came out to enjoy the carnival-type atmosphere.

But lurking in the background, down side-streets, were the massed forces of the state: the City of London police (who are just for the square mile that is the financial district), the Metropolitan Police, and also vans from the Kent police. At this point they were taking a low-key approach.

People were drinking and there was allegedly some consumption of recreational drugs. The situation was a powderkeg gently simmering (excuse the mixed metaphor) waiting for a spark to kick things off.

Down the surrounding side roads were lines of riot cops in balaclavas, helmets, black boiler suits and shields blocking the way. After an hour or so people wanted to move off around the City and weren’t too happy at being prevented from doing so. The situation built up with the help of the ever-present “brew crew” (crusties fond of drinking ‘Special Brew’ extra-strong lager) and the cops came under bombardment with bottles and cans and whatever else came to hand.

But the ‘thin blue line’ couldn’t hold out forever and eventually the mob surged through them and surrounded several riot vans. The police shit themselves and beat a hasty retreat into the relative refuge of their vehicles. Some people climbed on top and were dancing and stomping on the roof while other kicked the sides in and tore off bumpers and numberplates. After a short while the police decided they’d had enough and reversed down the road at speed. A few people were knocked down by the fleeing vans and one woman required an ambulance and fire engine after she was trapped beneath a riot van.

After this the cops stopped trying the direct confrontation method and watched from the sidelines as windows were put in and graffiti was liberally daubed over merchant banks and public monuments.

A McDonald’s on the route was totally ransacked by activists who put through every window, smashed up the inside and sprayed graffiti on the inside walls. The cash tills were also removed and broken open on the road outside so people could help themselves to the money.

Just down the road was the LIFFE building (the Futures Exchange) where some sort of trading in stocks and shares goes on. Protesters tried to storm the building and the foyer was totally trashed. Police were trying to intervene but the number of people opposing them forced them to retreat. The security managed to repel a fullscale invasion but all trading was suspended for the day. Someone sprayed “Bankers = Wankers” high on the wall of the building.

Next to this a sound system had been set up and thousands of people were dancing on the road. Some water pipes had been unstoppered and jets of water four storeys high were spraying out. A group of people protesting for the right to be naked in public stripped off in the middle of the crowd. A nearby Mercedes-Benz car showroom was trashed and a car was torched by protestors.

After a few hours of this people moved off to Trafalgar Square to “reclaim” it from Royalists under the slogan “Fuck the Royal Wedding”. The whole square was filled with hippies, punks, crusties, ravers and anarchos, with fire jugglers and drummers providing entertainment. Nelson’s column was daubed with anti-police and anti-royal graffiti. People stayed well into the evening and as far as I know nothing kicked off after that.

There were also smaller actions happening simultaneously across the City such as sit-ins at various banks, protests against Third World Debt and “Critical Mass” cycle ride in the morning to bring traffic in the City to a standstill.

When I went round the day after (Sat 19) smashed windows were boarded up and glaziers were hard at work. Cleaners were already starting to scrub graffiti off the buildings (strange they don’t work so quickly in our parts of town). The City is deserted on Saturday and Sunday anyway so weekend business won’t really be affected.

The Evening Standard (London local daily paper) claimed in its early editions: “A ragbag of causes but no real anarchy”. They’ll have to amend that belief in their Monday issue judging by the headines in the Saturday papers.

In summary: the day exceeded my already high expectations, but in hindsight if more people had been properly “tooled up” there was the potential for much more damage to have been caused. Also, due to the hot weather people weren’t excessively masked up, so it remains to be seen whether the police will pick people out at a later date from security video footage.

If there’s another one of these demos I would urge everyone to come – it’s definitely not an event to miss and you won’t be disappointed.

Across the world:

There lots of reports from J18, in London and all around the world, here

A post-J18 press release:

“RECLAIM THE STREETS

0171 2814621 – 0835 536 537 – rts@gn.apc.org

June 18
Press release – for immediate release – 18 June – 11.45pm

Protesters slam police ‘brutality’ after pitched battles hit City

Forty six protesters were tonight in hospital after police violence led to serious confrontations at a Reclaim the Streets carnival in the City of London.

One woman had her legs and abdomen run over by a police van as it accelerated through the crowd. She was taken, clearly in great pain, to the Royal London Hospital, where staff were still assessing her condition at 9.40pm.

Witnesses said one man became trapped under a riot van when he fell behind it as it reversed. Fire crew had to jack up the vehicle to free him. In total up to fifty people have been reported hurt.

Many witnesses told how, in both cases, police failed to acknowledge warnings from bystanders that people were trapped under their vehicles. “I actually saw the van bump up and down as it ran over the woman. But they didn’t stop, they just kept on accelerating through the crowd, scattering people in all directions,” said one witness. Investment banker Simon McKeown reported later: “In ten minutes, as a result of the police actions the atmosphere went from carnival to very tense.”

Following these incidents, the atmosphere of the carnival deteriorated, and led to confrontational situations in some areas. Reclaim the Streets spokesperson Mark Sully said: “Today thousands of people came to the City of London to party and protest. The carnival celebrations were unfortunately partly overshadowed by police over-reaction, however most participants managed to keep up a positive spirit.”

June 18 is a loose global network of organisations, and protests also took place today in 43 countries around the world. In Tel Aviv, Israel, a street carnival was held, and torches lit for the victims of corporate human and animal rights abuse. In Belarus, picketers handed toilet paper to customers leaving McDonalds. Thirty people were arrested in New York at a carnival in Wall Street.

For more information, contact Reclaim the Streets: 0171 2814621 0835 536 537. Video footage and pictures are available on request.”

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Original J18 proposal and flyers

Texts of the original J18 proposal and the leaflets put out to publicise the event.

“A PROPOSAL FOR:
A day of protest, action, and carnival in financial centres across the globe on 18th June 1999.

….Wherever there is oppression there is resistance…..

A proposal has been made by various groups and movements of activists from England to hold an international day of action aimed at the heart of the global economy: the financial centres, banking districts and multinational corporation power bases. The suggested date is the 18th June 1999. Movements involved include Reclaim the Streets (RTS, a popular movement seeking the liberation of city streets and public spaces using direct action, and now Western European Conveners of Peoples’ Global Action Against ‘Free’ Trade and the World Trade Organisation), and London Greenpeace (a group independent of Greenpeace International, recently involved in a large successful battle with McDonald’s). This proposal is made in the spirit of strengthening our international networks and follows from the success of co-ordinated global action during May 16-20th 1998. These days saw actions, protests and demonstrations on all continents, for example over 30 ‘Reclaim the Streets parties’ in over 20 countries – a combination of illegal carnival, protest and direct action, catalysed by RTS in London. In Brasilia 50,000 unemployed and landless peasants were on the streets, while in Hyderabad, India, 200,000 were protesting. These events coincided with the ‘G8’ meeting in Birmingham, Great Britain, and the third ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation in Geneva, Switzerland. The ‘G8’ consists of the leaders of the eight most industrialised countries and exists solely to promote economic globalisation, ‘free’ trade and corporate dominance.

Next year between the 18th-20th June the G8 will meet in Koln, Germany. The idea is to take action around the globe to coincide with this meeting. This also links with the proposed tour of Indian farmers/activists in Europe to campaign against the World Trade Organisation and multinational corporations. The proposal is to encourage as many movements and groups as possible to organise their own autonomous protests or actions, on the same day (June 18th), in the same geographical locations (financial/corporate/banking/business districts) around the world. Events could take place at relevant sites, e.g. multinational company offices, local banks, stock exchanges. Each event would be organised autonomously and co-ordinated in each city or financial district by a variety of movements and groups. It is hoped that a whole range of different groups will take part, including workers, peasants, indigenous peoples, women, students, the landless, environmentalists, unwaged/unemployed and others….everyone who recognises that the global capitalist system, based on the exploitation of people and the planet for the profit of a few, is at the root of our social and ecological troubles.

The proposal has already been discussed by movements and groups on all continents, for example the Karnataka State Farmers (KRRS, India), the Rainbow Keepers (ecologists from ex-USSR states), Proceso de Comunidades Negras (Colombian Black communities movement), Friends of the Earth, Uruguay (Environmentalists), CTERA (Argentinean teachers Union), Reclaim the Streets (New York, USA; Prague, Czech Republic; Sydney, Australia), COMUTRAS (textile workers union, El Salvador), peasant movements in Mozambique and many more. Plans are already well advanced in London, and Koln, Germany.

Ideas are flowing and enthusiasm is growing. We’d very much like to hear what you think.

There is an email discussion list. To subscribe, send an email to listproc@gn.apc.org with the following request:

subscribe J18DISCUSSION Your e-mail address

then messages sent to J18DISCUSSION@gn.apc.org will automatically go to other interested groups around the world to facilitate wider discussion of this proposal. Or write to ‘June 18th’, PO Box 9656, London, N4 4JY, Great Britain.

OUR RESISTANCE WILL BE AS TRANSNATIONAL AS CAPITAL!

for more information on Peoples’ Global Action visit http://www.agp.org

for more information on Reclaim the Streets visit http://www.gn.apc.org/rts/

for more information on London Greenpeace / McLibel visit

http://www.mcspotlight.org

June 18th web-site: http://www.gn.apc.org/june18

PLEASE PASS THIS PROPOSAL ON TO OTHERS.”

Text of J18 call-out leaflet:

“June 18th 1999 International day of action aimed at the heart of the global economy: The financial & banking districts

“The collapse of the global marketplace would be a traumatic event with unimaginable consequences. Yet I find it easier to IMAGINE than the continuation of the current regime.” George Soros, speculator and high priest of the markets

IMAGINE

Financial districts across the world filled not with profit and plunder but with the sounds and rhythms of party and pleasure.

IMAGINE

A world where people have control of their own lives and communities

IMAGINE

A society based on mutual aid, sharing and the respect of nature.

IMAGINE

Taking your desires for reality

IMAGINE

The resistance will be as transnational as the capital June 18th 1999 On the eve of the 21st century the list of woes facing us seems greater than ever – economic meltdown, the millennium bug, environmental crisis, war, famine, poverty – all unconnected, we are told by the experts – to be solved only by more ‘growth’ and ‘free’ trade. The global market economy however, which had come to be seen as unquestionable dogma, is crumbling. As usual talk of reform is in the air, but a system based on the ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘growth’ can only continue to cause human misery while destroying the ecology of the planet. A new world is possible. A global movement of resistance is rising – people are reclaiming control of their lives. Across the world, social and ecological movements are coming together, talking, taking direct action and enacting radical alternatives to ‘globalisation’. In May 1998 their voices were raised during meetings of the G8 world leaders and the World Trade Organisation, when many local actions and demonstrations took place – autonomously organised, yet globally co-ordinated. These ranged from 50,000 landless peasants on the streets of Brasilia, to 30 simultaneous street parties across the globe, to 200,000 people on the streets of Hyderabad in India. Next year the G8 will meet in Koln, Germany, between June 18th-20th. Groups are already organising for actions to happen simultaneously on Friday June 18th in the financial districts, markets and institutions around the world. ‘The City’ of London is one of the key hubs of the global economy and this will be the main target of UK actions on June 18th. We will only realise our collective visions by taking action together, so June 18th will only work if a whole range of different movements and groups get involved; environmental, workers’ women’s, unwaged/unemployed, students, trade unionists, peace, pensioners, gay, anti-deportation… the longer the list, the more effective the action.

Involve yourself

Dream up amazing action

Organise local planning meetings or come to the monthly London meeting.

Choose your favourite Transnational Company, Bank or Investment Fund, find out as much as possible about them – location of HQ etc and prepare fun and games.

Spread the word – print leaflets – talk to people – network.

Take a day off work or go sick on 18/6/99

WHAT?

demonstrations, protests, actions, pickets, stunts, shut-downs, sabotage, leafleting, blockades, games, hacktivism, parties & more Simultaneously transforming the city of London and other financial centres across the world

WHY?

IN recognition that the global capitalist system is at the root of our social & ecological troubles

WHEN?

18/6/99 – To Coincide with the annual meeting of the G8 leaders

WHO?

A growing alliance of social and environmental movements “We are more possible than they can powerfully IMAGINE.”

Shouted from the top of a crane during an occupation of a building sit, No M11 Link Rd campaign, London, 1994.”

Gold Leaflet text:

“Game Over

Liverpool St. Station >< City of London, Noon

On June 18th the leaders of the eight most powerful nations will meet for the G8 summit in Cologne, Germany. Their agenda will be the intensification of economic growth, “free” trade and more power for corporations as the only way towards a bright future. But these ‘leaders’ are not in control… Our planet is actually run by the financial market – a giant video game in which people buy and sell blips on electronic screens, trading life for money in their search for ever-higher profits. Yet the consequences of this frenzied game are very real: human lives, ecosystems, jobs and even entire economies are at the mercy of this reckless global system.

As the economy becomes increasingly global and interdependent those resisting its devastating social and ecological consequences are joining forces. Around the world, the movement grows – from Mexico’s Zapatistas, to France’s unemployed, to India’s small farmers, to those fighting road building in the UK, to anti-oil activists in Nigeria – people are taking direct action and reclaiming their lives from the insane game of the markets. Resistance will converge on June 18th as hundreds of groups simultaneously occupy and transform banking and financial centres across the globe.

If you act like there is no possibility of change for the better, you guarantee that there will be no change for the better.

The choice is ours.

Carn’ival n. 1. An explosion of freedom involving laughter, mockery, dancing, masquerade and revelry. 2. Occupation of the streets in which the symbols and ideals of authority are subverted. 3. When the marginalised take over the centre and create a world turned upside down. 4. You cannot watch carnival, you take part. 5. An unexpected carnival is revolutionary.

Cap’italism n. 1. A system by which the few profit from the exploitation of the many. 2. A mindset addicted to profit, work and debt which values money more than life. 3. An unsustainable ideology obsessed by growth despite our finite planet. 4. The cause of the global, social and ecological crisis. 5. A social system overthrown at the end of the 20th century…

A massive carnival in the world’s biggest financial centre – the city of London – will be Reclaim The Streets’ part of the day. Let’s replace the roar of profit and plunder with the sounds and rhythms of party, carnival and pleasure!

Friday June 18th – An international day of protest, action and carnival aimed at the heart of the global economy: the banking and financial centres.

Reclaim The Streets

Meet 12 noon, Liverpool Street Station, London EC1

Bring a radio and disguise yourself to blend into the City. Office worker or bike courier costumes work best!

Don’t play their game, call in sick on Friday June the 18th

Do not underestimate the power of global resistance.

By taking direct action, people make connections, they talk and communicate with each other, they break down the isolation and fragmentation of this alienated society. These connections are now spreading across the globe…”

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Reflections on June 18, 1999

A collection of responses by participants, originally published in 1999

Discussion papers on the politics of the global day of action in financial centres on June 18th 1999. [NB, the order these appear here is slightly different to the order they appeared in the published edition]

This project arose during the run-up to June 18th, as a result of the need felt by people with varying degrees of involvement with J18 to stimulate critical debate around the politics behind the international day of action in financial centres. Contributions were invited. The point was made that this was not intended to be a discussion of the minutiae of the organisation of the day or the effectiveness of particular tactics, although the line between these questions and the “politics” of J18 is of course blurred. Originally the idea was to produce the discussion booklet before the event. It soon became apparent that this would not be feasible, nor necessarily desirable. Many potential contributors wanted to see what happened on the day and asked for more time to be able to reflect properly and chew over how such a ‘day of action’ could relate to capitalism and the movement to overthrow it, the significance of the ‘globalisation’-buzzword and other issues raised by the whole process. Deadlines passed and were extended, the e-mail system crashed and some days’ messages were lost forever – we just hope that no contributions were sucked into that particular black hole in cyberspace! An open editorial meeting was announced to decide the editorial policy and to coordinate layout etc. Unfortunately because of space limitations we had to leave out one lengthy contribution (the author made it clear that he did not want his piece “Nine Meditations On a Summer’s Day”, by Over The Water Charlie, to be edited). So apart from that it only remains for us to thank everybody who contributed and say “let the debate continue!”

Editorial Collective, October 1999

This project arose during the run-up to June 18th, as a result of the need felt by people with varying degrees of involvement with J18 to stimulate critical debate around the politics behind the international day of action in financial centres.

June 18th – If I can dance, it’s not my revolution?

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection.

June 18th in the UK indicated once more that we have yet to realise the impasse contained in a politics of carnival expressed in the form of a street party. Indeed, I am going to suggest that the very concept of the street party is, in its current guise, part of the difficulty, a contributory factor to the spectacularisation of resistance which celebrates an idea of ‘party as protest’, thereby repeatedly mobilising the same constituency, without appealing beyond a narrow sub-cultural ghetto. Where, in the past, our critique has successfully illuminated the staid and self-disciplined marches of other social movements, the purpose of which appears to all intents and purposes to be the alienation of those participating, I want to suggest that we are now in a similar position, having imposed our own self discipline in what amounts to a carceral continuum of ‘protest’. ‘Participants’ turn up at the meeting point, await instructions, follow their leader(s), have a party, and express their frustration in the inevitable confrontation with the police. Whether at London Wall or Upper Thames Street, we still led, or were led (most peoples experience), to a space which we accidentally liberated through force of numbers, before being invited to trash something symbolic, and then either defend that space with force from the police, or retreat under the threat of state intervention. During all of this it was possible to ‘party’ if you could get out of the way of charging horses and baton wielding police. Despite having approximately 10,000 people in the City of London, only a handful of occupations took place on the morning of June 18th, and the actions that were taken were generalised in the sense that they were organised in established fashion, CAAT actions involving locking on in banks, Critical Mass, etc. Despite the notable attempts to block London Bridge most peoples involvement was to choose to meet at Liverpool Street and await instructions, rather than to plan their own autonomous actions.

June 18th in London whether we liked it or not was essentially an RTS, and was more revealing for being so. Previously the action of blocking roads was in itself politically significant, in rediscovering their potential as streets, the party became a celebration of a world turned upside down, the liberation of enclosed space. However in bringing the same tactic to the City, our challenge was not in the decision to move from the pavement to the street, but from the street in to the closed citadels of capital, and unfortunately many of us were happier to stay in the street, excluded from the real party, that of the owners of capital, rapidly enclosed, and then beaten down, our frustration taken out in unimaginative graffiti – ‘bankers=wankers’, the breaking of windows, and the entirely bland re-enacting of iconic revolutionary moments of the past. The burning of documents might have had greater resonance, if it wasn’t for its ritualised performance by a handful of militants who entertained the crowd with their daring, but ultimately reaffirmed their own separateness from those spectating. This was the theatre of protest married to the spectacle of the party, the unrefined anomic disorder of the dispossessed, frustrated and angry but ultimately controlled, allied to the hedonism of the party scene which often perceives the political as an ‘off yer face – out of mind’ distraction. This is what I mean by ‘party as protest’, it inverts Emma Goldman’s often quoted affirmation of revolution as a celebration, and replaces it with the conceit that to party is revolutionary. I’m bored in every sense with ‘protest’, the very notion of a fragmentary objection to some ‘thing’, and I celebrated the repeated assertion of ‘resistance’ in June 18 agit-prop, yet everywhere I still hear the same mantra about ‘protest’, as if it were possible to protest against capitalism, to turn out for one day a year and object to the very relationships within which the rest of our everyday lives are embedded. And, here lies some of the difficulty of the street party, difficulties which have long since bedevilled a politics of carnival. Despite the wonderfully erudite reading of carnival that has peppered RTS agit-prop, much of it derived from Bakhtin, a street party is unlikely ever to become the revolutionary moment, because it contains within it all the aspects of carnival which have been, and continue to be recuperated within the spectacular, participants in the street parties we organise have everything to gain by playing it safe. Nowhere was this more evident than in the City. We have seen commentators lamenting the police actions in breaking up a ‘peaceful party’, and the police in the City of London, despite our best imaginings, have given us little indication that we are conceived as a serious threat, ultimately they sat back and let us go where we pleased, not because they couldn’t stop us, but because we create the conditions of our own confinement. When they wanted they were able to split the crowd, drive us away from the LIFFE building and beat those who tried in vain to hold their ground. Tactics which are reminiscent of the Met’s recent handling of RTS events, where they have deployed minimal control during the ‘rolling’ stage of the party, waiting until we’re stopped and then surrounding us. What are often celebrated as temporary autonomous zones, can just as easily be conceived as prisons of our own choosing. The availability of between 5,000 and 10,000 people as a core constituency on any street party in London means that the risk associated with attendance is minimal, minimal risk – maximum attendance, yet there were 7,000 people 3 years ago, and after months of work we can still only attract similar numbers, which is far from a ‘critical mass’. Lots of symbolic actions, little meaningful disruption for the City, and to make it worse we then congratulate ourselves through commodifying our resistance, 2 million quid of damage – good demo!

Despite our good intentions party and carnival are not synonymous in the context of the street party. Party here means the ‘party scene’ and just that, an opportunity to let off steam see your mates, get off your face and go home, bar a few highly distinguished exceptions, the party scene is a semi commercial enterprise run by entrepreneurs marketing a niche in sub-cultural chic – witness the flyers distributed for pay parties and whistles being sold to the crowd outside Liverpool St with little challenge. What I want to know is where are the people that marched with us to Trafalgar Square (accepting the failure of other plans for the day!) on the March for Social Justice, the dockers, the RMT dissidents, disaffected trade unionists, Kurdish workers, pensioners groups, twice the number of people we attracted to the City. People whose tradition and history speak volumes about differing forms of resistance, from whom we might learn differing repertoires of activism and to whom we might teach certain tactical innovations. The Inter Continental Caravan, should have raised many questions for our movement in the UK. Why have we failed to mobilise large swathes of people whose lives are touched everyday by the machinations of the City, whose communities have long traditions of resistance and whom we have worked with in the past. Part of our difficulty is articulating a sustainable form of resistance outside of activist ghettos, finding forms of engagement which enable others to participate and constructing networks which go beyond those already in place. The movement has diversified since the prominent mass actions against road building, and whilst this diversification is healthy in that it opens avenues of access to participation at different levels, with differing emphases, drawing from differing traditions, if we are to have further mass actions aimed at key nodes in the operation of finance capital, part of this process has to be an escape from the well established routine of the street party as it is enacted currently. Let me illustrate the problem through reference to one of the key moments on June 18th in London. I was present outside the LIFFE building when there was an organised attempt to gain access, despite the presence of long term activists, with a significant history of engaging in direct action, many of whom I respect enormously, they were met by other misguided people calling for ‘non-violence’ who, alongside the obligatory security, managed to physically obstruct their attempts to gain entry, these confrontations opened the way for the crude anarchism often displayed in such situations whose advocates merely seek to smash things up and lob bottles from distances which imperil those at the front, thereby bringing in the riot police, it also encouraged the spectacle of protest, many happy to watch things develop despite being implored to occupy the building. There was little resolve in those present for an occupation, and yet with 100 or more people the building could have easily been occupied and perhaps even barricaded, with greater enthusiasm this could have been achieved with little in the way of violence and would have sent a resounding message around the globe. So why didn’t it happen?

Because the crowd gives the illusion of action but is essentially passive, there is a ‘peaceful party’ to be part of which seeks little in the way of serious engagement, we are stuck between the virtual activism of the party and the dedicated efforts of a far smaller number of activists whose vision is of a revolutionary carnival. We have the ambition but the means we have chosen dissipate our energy and allow our recuperation. Let’s not pretend any more that being forced away from the Futures Exchange and smashing the odd Mercedes dealership is some kind of great success, this is merely anomic disorder with little merit or conviction. We might be able to mobilise 10,000 people but how many of them were willing to take instrumental direct action which is aimed at the interference, disruption and symbolic appropriation of key nodes in the operation of informationalised capitalism, we have this capacity, and such as RAND (‘Cyberwar is Coming’, Arquilla and Rondfelt, 1993) have been theorising our capacity to cause such immense disruption for years, yet still we engage in the same theatre of collective action, tacitly affirming the relations of power to which we are finally subjugated.

Suggestions for further mass actions.

If we are to hold further mass actions against finance capital they should be explicitly targeted against key nodal points in the network of institutions, corporations, and exchanges which facilitate the current globalisation of neo-liberal capitalism, not at its totality which despite our understandings of the ‘spectacle’, or the ‘military/industrial/entertainment complex’ remains an abstract proposition for most people. This could involve a call to stop a particular institution working for a day, a wonderfully old fashioned mass picket (call it whatever you want) by the people whose lives are affected in the everyday by its operation. We could explain very clearly how the institution works and why it should be stopped, local groups could research the impact it has in their region and tie it to local pollution, poor working conditions, health and safety etc. Our energies and resources could b e focused on research to uncover every last detail of their operations, it would be easily communicable through our own media and quickly picked up by the external media post June 18. It would be a return to the single issues that politicised so many of us previously, but it would be the single issue of capitalism itself expressed in a less abstract manner. We could target a different institution every six months, explaining and demonstrating the links between them and calling for actions against their offices or buildings globally. We could forget about the secrecy of locations and be overt in our choice of target, those coming to participate would know why they were there and it would be made apparent that the aim was to shut the choice of target down. Tactics could involve occupations (where possible), mass pickets (as carnivalesque as possible), cyber attacks – hacking/fax attacks/e-mail bombs, phone actions, letter writing campaigns, street parties outside Director’s houses and wanted posters of them in their own communities, etc etc. Instead of dissipating our energies rallying against something so big it disappears, we would be uniquely focused on the points at which their system is weakest. Inevitably we would be the subject of massive police attention, but besieging such institutions would allow for a clearer articulation of how capital operates and the means of operation upon which it is dependent. Imagine the police defending a sieged building of a major multi-national or financial exchange when for weeks before local groups had distributed information about how it effects the lives of people in their region, before going to take part in the action. The police role as puppets of private capital would be increasingly revealed to a wider constituency of support who could participate in numerous ways, many people in our area would love to participate but haven’t reached the point where they can take to the streets, there would be nothing to stop them phoning this or that institution/exchange on the day. Unions could be contacted and sympathetic workers engaged with, allowing for further information and possible internal disruption/sabotage. This broadening of our support base would diminish the range of repressive actions the police could take and might if we exhibited the same organisational capacity as we did during June 18th, lead to them advising our targets to cease work/dealing etc for the day. In the event of violence by the police, the representation of a thin blue line sweeping a rabble from the streets could not be sustained as easily, think of previous struggles such as the miners strike, the printers at Wapping or even the poll tax riot. If we can articulate a strong case why a particular corporation/exchange should be stopped and threaten to lay siege to it, they will be forced at some level to articulate a counter position. Once they engage in a debate they effectively legitimate opposition, two positions are known and people are able to side with one or the other, this strengthens us immensely. The City was able to appear as sanctioning June 18th during its ‘peaceful party’ phase, before expressing shock at later events which were represented as random and chaotic violence, they had no need to defend their part in global death and destruction because they were never called to do so. Trashing a Mercedes showroom, whilst it has my sympathy, is not going to make others question the logic of capital, it’s merely a means of relieving frustration. We all know that stopping the City whilst it sounds wonderful is unlikely to happen whilst we fail to engage those outside our number who won’t come for a party. However, stopping London Clearing House or the Metals Exchange or the god forbid the Futures and Options Exchange….

If we could stop them once it could be done again, and if they can be stopped once the utopia of stopping them permanently would appear almost in sight. Imagine 5 years from now when everyone knows how the City operates because they’ve seen it sieged, exchange after exchange, bank after bank, institution after institution. Imagine it permanently cut off from the rest of London its own need for security strangling its operation, whilst its reputation as a key player in the global network of finance is devastated. Imagine the ripples it would send throughout our networks, the same hope many of us have seen in the audacity and tactical brilliance of the Zapatistas. It’s possible but we need to move from a celebration of its possibility to the enactment of its downfall. There is nothing here which is at all innovative, I’m merely suggesting a replication of tactics that have achieved differing degrees of success elsewhere on a smaller scale, think of live animal exports or Hillgrove and EF!’s national campaign against Tarmac. Neither am I calling for the abandonment of RTS events, rather I’m attempting to suggest a way forward from the impasse of challenging finance capital through the ‘party as protest’ route, which despite its ability to mobilise large numbers, does so at the risk of inducing a political vacuum in the heart of our resistance. As one of the people that occupied Freshfields law firm in the City of London on June 18th, I found their own reporting of our action very telling:

“Freshfields has been stormed by the protesters waving banners and playing bongo drums! The dancing is pretty dreadful but it’s made for an exciting morning” (Squall Web Site). The time of us dancing to their tune should be over, I’m not interested in making their work exciting – but stopping it. At the same time as our occupation and again over the weekend, other activists from within the Lancaster J-18 group launched a cyber attack against Freshfields which disabled their e-mail system, whilst others still occupied Acordis Acetate’s plant in Lancaster, leading a critical mass there and storming the building. Acordis pump carcinogens in to the air over Lancaster, and Freshfields are the lawyers that facilitated them doing so. So when we danced in Freshfields it wasn’t because we considered that in itself was enough, but to celebrate the storm that was coming their way. If we are to use the metaphor of carnival to frame our politics, let’s not have another carnival against capitalism, but turn capital in to the carnival, juxtaposing its grotesque greed and excess, its viciousness and inequity to our world of chaotic order and beautiful anarchy.

Much love from Lancaster.

Lancaster J-18 Collective

Mustn’t Grumble?

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection from Paul Petard.

Oh what a lovely day for smashing up the city. June 18th; Well yes I came along too and found myself pleasantly surprised by the outcome. Several thousand carried off a big loud aggressive “carnival against capital” in the city of london. Buildings invaded, roads blocked, stock exchange temporarily besieged, cars munched, big swanky bank plate glass windows crunched, police van looted!… such excitement and entertainment we haven’t seen for a long time. Plenty of running around with cops at various points, quite a few injuries, but no instant mass arrest on the day. What with this being the end of the nineties inside the city’s ring of security this sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen any more under the post riotous consensus end of politics and history and such. It brought back fond memories of stop the city, or the days of the poll tax. And it was all simultaneously coordinated with demos in a whole load of cities around the world. With a score like that at the end of the day it was easy to get quite distracted by the adrenalin rush and the euphoria of the occasion and lose all perspective of what the politics was supposed to be about and what had really been achieved. The riot was a case of “enjoy” (SPGB leaflet) and it made us feel big and powerful for the day. But unfortunately let’s face it, we are not big and powerful, we are still small and weak, and if we are honest about it the “success” of the riot was more of a fluke than anything else. We got away with making the demo/carnival/riot happen because in effect the authorities allowed it to happen that day. Tube managers had already shut down the circle line all of a sudden that morning creating commuter chaos while other parts of the tube were disrupted as well. Also charing cross station had been shut. The police operation was bungled with police commanders losing control, while police on the ground, part of the time, were just standing aside either for fear of obstructing city workers or through laziness. I witnessed several occasions when seriously naughty things were committed in full view of nearby tooled up police who had the strength to intervene but just stood there watching and did nothing. The rest of the time the police whipped up chaos with their usual viciousness, clubbing people, injuring people, running people over etc. If you lived in a part of the world where street fighting was a daily occurrence you’d soon find that the novelty wears off. It becomes a routine, a daily listing of arrests, injuries,… not so thrilling or glamorous, it bogs down your community in a rut, saps its energy and ability to do much else. It has always been a mistake to fetishise street rioting and streetfighting and constantly try to read something social revolutionary into it. A mistake I’ve been guilty of myself over the years.

But nowadays, in this part of the world “riots”, when they still occur, are often either the product of bureaucratic screw ups or sometimes pre-arranged police and journalist set-ups. Increasingly rare events here, street riots, like prison riots, tend to happen because the authorities have wilfully or negligently allowed them to happen. This could be because of simple bureaucratic and managerial inefficiency and wrangles (maybe they’re deliberately dragging their feet because they want to be paid more, or they’re just bored with their jobs, or they’re arguing with each other and their communications have broken down), maybe it’s sinister machiavellian intrigue by the secret police to create more work for unemployed glaziers.

Usually it is the first kind of reason. Smashing windows is smashing windows, piling up rubbish in the street is piling up rubbish in the street, throwing things at police is throwing things at police, a buzz yes, but none of these things automatically imply the refusal of capitalist wage labour and commodities, the creation of common wealth and the building of world human community. The social revolutionary process we desire will sometimes involve a riot or two on its periphery, but a street riot does not a social revolution make. Nor does proletarian bargaining power come primarily from streetfighting. Proletarian bargaining power comes from collective withdrawal of labour, organising solidarity, sharing free goods in the community,…

It is not as if on June 18th some group of workers in the city like secretaries or cleaners were in dispute and called on other workers and unemployed to join in with them in picketing out the city. Nor is it a question of some big industrial struggle or social struggle elsewhere giving rise to a flying picket going to the city to create a diversion and open up some sort of a “second front”. There is certainly an element of proles and lumpenproles who are struggling informally or in diffuse small groups around work/dole/housing/community who express their alienation and frustration by turning up and coalescing at events like June 18th and this is a positive development. At the moment they cross over with these events but they don’t lead them. It is still a professional/semi-professional protest activist sub-culture which leads them. it is the predominantly white, majority middle-class, protest fashion scene putting on the style. Some of them are seriously bourgeois, megarich, or in high powered professional career paths.

So the class composition of an event like June 18th is heavily confused and contradictory, leading to confusion and contradictions in the politics and tactics. It is funny how politicians are expected to declare their personal economic and financial interests but political activists can conceal theirs. Not even Class War would introduce the means test for membership, it might be too embarrassing for them in what it would reveal. R.T.S.; a good way of getting laid, shame about the class composition. Meanwhile the city folk have a clever line of argument they use half seriously half jokingly: Why if it wasn’t for the city hustling and dealing generating money and bringing in revenue from around the world there would be much less money for the nation to spend on social security and welfare handouts. The government wouldn’t be able to pay giros to dole scrounging squatters and anarchists and scruffy anti-roads protesters and the like. Indeed if it wasn’t for the city generating the money to subsidise it there wouldn’t be hordes of drongo greens and anarchists blocking the streets and grumbling about the trees and GM crops. The stereotypical (in their view) grungy doleite anarchist who every few years gathers in the city to breathe bad breath on poor office workers and moan and whinge about world capitalism is in fact protesting against the very thing that pays for them to exist. The protesters are just the dropout sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie while it is they, the ordinary boys and girls turned city whizzkids who are the real rebellious working class, so they love to tease. There is a danger of just turning some of this upside down and taking the reverse line of argument in order to reply to them. Why if it wasn’t for anarchists and half the population cashing their giros or getting their pay out of the bank and spending it as good individual consumers in the off license then there wouldn’t be so much money for big companies. It is the money we spend as consumers, buying products produced by the multinational corporations, that gives rise to their profits and helps make the mean and nasty city institutions rich and powerful so they can rule the world like Dr. Evil. Better then that we spend our money on alternative products in the wholefood shop. Of course both lines of argument are silly, neither explains what is really going on in the capitalist economy or where the wealth really comes from, but there are plenty of people who would take one or other argument quite seriously.

The city of London and other financial districts around the world are just one particular part of a much wider global financial system. The global financial system is itself just one part of capitalism as a whole, it is a reflection of the whole capitalist industrial production process, everywhere built upon wage labour. This includes the local flower shop on the corner as well as the big corporation and the chemical plant. Big global capital is not more nasty than little local capital. Today one is an expression of the other and vice-versa. Big horrible banks in the city are simply an expression of all the big and small businesses that put their money in them. Small capitalists will grow into big capitalists. The financial districts are not the real “centres” of capital. If it means anything at all to talk about “centres” of capital then from our point of view as dispossessed proletarians (“The proletariat is the industrialisation of the third estate, a class now amounting to almost half the population of the world”, Two Hundred Pharoahs… Manifesto, Box 100, 178 Whitechapel Rd, E1 1BJ) the real “centres” of capital are not the financial districts but….

  1. Working in a job in order to live (wage labour)
  2. Housework, washing the dishes, changing baby’s nappies, queuing in the supermarket, running for the bus, when one has no real choice (reproductive labour).

These are the real “centres” of capital for us. These are the two points where we come up against capital as a social relation that exploits us in our own lives. And it is these two points where we as proletarians might have any direct or indirect bargaining power to pull the plug on the system and start collectively transforming things. “Capitalism” is not an external “thing” to protest against. It is an exploitative social relationship which has come only in recent history to dominate virtually everything and in this part of the globe everyone is involved or trapped in it to a greater or lesser extent. None of us, not even nutters like Green Anarchist shouting “direct action” while holding a loaf of bread impaled on a stick, are outside capitalism. The June 18th carnival was certainly not devoid of proletarian subjectivity but this tended to be contained and something you had to feel apologetic about, or again something external to be “linked up” with as a separated thing in a cringy way(“support the such and such workers”). Despite the day’s spontaneous happenings (and many of the crowd also missed the more hardcore stuff as they were in other parts of the city), the event remained in part a somewhat alienated exercise protesting against the evil corporations and the immoral things they do. It wasn’t based primarily on confronting one’s own role within the system and as a result it continued to obscure our potential subjective bargaining power as proletarians against capital, whether revolting at the point of wage labour or reproductive labour. Some individuals managed to successfully sneak off work to get to the demo but to what extent might this have influenced or involved their colleagues? Attacking capitalism means revolting against one’s own life not just going for a day out in the city to have a go at other people about their lives. That is too easy and safe. Not everything bad in the world can be blamed on “yuppies” and anyway there are thousands who work in the city who are neither yuppies nor bosses. Many of those present on the day were conscious of this but at the same time there is still a big lazy minded element who just want to “bash the thing”, whatever the “thing” to blame everything on happens to be that day; the car, the office window, the police officer’s hat, the person wearing a suit.

This is far too often an excuse for a cover-up: a refusal to talk about oneself, one’s history, one’s own daily life, and the power one might have within the class struggle to revolt against that. This cover up and the refusal to talk about themselves and their own interests and desires is a recurrent theme amongst the “protest against the thing” protest activist scene. This sometimes leads to a kamikaze-martyr small group mindless direct actionism as a substitute for a self-critique locating one’s own struggle in the wider society of which one is a part. This in turn can lead to an elitist activist meritocracy, sneering at the majority of working class who “don’t do anything”, i.e. don’t spend all their waking hours engaged in alienated activist “protest against the thing” kind of petty guerrilla actionism.

We are living in a part of the world , particularly britain, where capitalism is very strong and the state very entrenched. The infrastructure and machinery is very much developed and working well. Much of the traditional industrial bargaining power that once existed has been defeated and shifted to other parts of the world since the seventies. Reproductive labour has become a lot more atomised and individualised. So for the time being class struggle here is bound to be sluggish, weak, only partially visible, but it does go on (electricians’ strike, waterloo building wildcat strike, council worker grumbles, still some successful domestic squatting,…). The déclassé protest activist scene appears hot and lively and glamorous in comparison. But this is a bit of a seductive illusion. The problem we face isn’t just the media or consumerism, it is the successful redevelopment of fixed capital. Nowadays the architecture changes shape a lot faster than it used to. town centres, roads, housing estates, prisons, transport systems, leisure complexes, warehouses and industrial areas, all these can be completely redesigned and rebuilt in a matter of months. They keep building and rebuilding everything at a faster rate. Add computer technology and it gets more awesome by the day. As the infrastructure has been redeveloped since the seventies and early eighties on such a vast scale and at such a dizzying speed it has left proletarians feeling trapped and unable to move. In the face of a formidable infrastructure, constantly changing shape, they feel physically powerless.

This feeling of physical powerlessness expresses itself as a conspicuous proletarian silence. A lot of politicos and activists usually mistake this silence as “apathy”, full of notions of their own specialised importance it suits them to do so. But this silence is not apathy at all. They may not speak it out loud but in the back of their minds millions of proletarians are deeply aware and anxious about their own situation. They have also learnt the hard way over two decades not to get dragged into every limited partial struggle, particularly in cases where there is no chance of winning. Their refusal to get dragged into this issue or that issue is often a sign of collective intelligence rather than indifference. Like a submarine gone to ground at the bottom of the sea maintaining radio silence while the battleship capitalist restructuring circles above we face a difficult waiting game, waiting for that window of opportunity to finally move and attack. There is no easy solution to this.

But back to the surface, sunshine and June 18th: One comrade did point out to me that despite its shortcomings it was de facto the most revolutionary demo that had happened in london in many years, in the sense that it was a loud aggressive manifestation of several thousand in the city, simultaneous to demos coordinated by internet worldwide, demanding nothing less than the overthrow of capitalism and the creation of global commonwealth amongst its leading slogans. How many other demos in london have that as slogans! And as we said above proletarian subjectivity was not lacking, nor will it be next time.

paulp. 1999

The Ideology of “Globalisation”

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection.

In order to be able to resist more effectively it would be useful to have as clear a picture as possible of the lines of advance taken by capitalism and conversely its weakpoints. A number of the terms most often used to describe the present situation don’t meet this need and possibly even go so far as to actively obscure the most essential aspects of capitalist society, thereby only making it harder to understand how it lives and dies. ‘Globalisation’ and the perceived dual need to oppose it and provide alternatives is rapidly becoming one of the most dominant themes across a wide range of oppositional groupings and milieus (as well as within other mainstream political groups and parties). Virtually every group involved in left/green or direct-action politics has at the very least stated their opposition to ‘globalisation’ or gone a step further and declared it to be the most serious problem facing us today – “The final act of enclosure” (RTS ‘global street party’ agitprop). Yet despite this wave of ‘enthusiasm’ any analysis of the content of this supposed devastating change seems to have been largely confined to the repetition of a limited range of ideological positions which are at best superficial and at worst reactionary. The mere fact that the terms like ‘Globalisation’ and ‘Neo-Liberalism’ are applied uncritically to describe any and every change taking place within the global economy suggests a lack of thought and analysis.

Over the past twenty years globalisation has moved from being a term utilised by academia1 into everyday usage – it has become common currency amongst politicians, commentators and theorists across the political spectrum. Words are not neutral abstractions, they signify real material content or potentiality. The most fundamentally antagonistic and corrosive concepts (such as ‘freedom’ or ‘community’) are twisted and turned upside down, emptied of their content and put into hard labour by the ruling order to maintain our present misery. Globalisation, on the other hand is universally accepted on the same basis by virtually the whole of the political spectrum. The point in the instance is not whether it is considered to be a positive or negative phenomenon but the acceptance of the world view upon which it is based. Both its advocates and the majority of its critics utilise the dominant ideological categories and assumptions within capitalist society; meaning that they are limited to repeating the banalities of conventional wisdom as propagated in a variety of forms by academics, leaders and self-proclaimed ‘experts’. Amongst western activists at least, works by left/liberal authors such as David Korten (When Corporations rule the World) and Gerry Mander (The Case Against the Global Economy) provide the (mostly unacknowledged) theoretical basis for much of their propaganda and in a less direct way for the forms and focuses of activity and direct -action campaigns. Theoretical understanding and criticism is not ‘just a matter of words’ or in this case producing ideas which aren’t connected to a particular situation or movement; discussion and attempts to mutually understand new lines of attack taken by capitalism are important and useful because global resistance and perhaps solidarity is growing after years of relative stagnation and retreat. Every form of activity has to find its theory and vice versa, theory and practice have to be interdependent; inadequacies in either area lead to weaknesses in the whole project – the gaps through which ideology and recuperation are able to immediately penetrate. Globalisation and Neo-Liberalism are not simply descriptive terms which have objective meanings. Like all ideologies on one level they do refer to actual processes of change, but obscure far more about both the form and content of the capitalist system than they actually reveal. They don’t exist as things in themselves but rather as theories, strategies and tendencies within the overall context of capitalism. To situate both your activities and theories in opposition to them implies that we should be attempting to force those in positions of power to simply adopt different and hopefully nicer ways of exploiting us – for example a global ‘neo-Keynesianism’ or perhaps an end to ‘corporate rule’ and a return to some grossly idealised pre-globalisation democratic nation state. This is unlikely to happen, although even it did ‘victory’ would hardly be the word that would immediately spring to mind. Focusing on opposing the most recent manifestations of capitalism (e.g. restructuring, the global market, free trade organisations, the power wielded by multinational corporations) means that an attack on the real heart of the capitalist system has been either forgotten or ignored. Capitalism is not a place (‘financial centres’) or a thing (‘multinational corporations’), it is a social relationship dependent upon wage-labour and commodity exchange where profit is derived from capital’s theft of unpaid labour. Being “against Globalisation” suggests that we would be better off under some form of national capitalism. Such an outlook is an open invitation to local activists in each country to join ranks with nationalistic and protectionist elements among the middle and (in some cases) ruling classes who are also opposed to ‘free trade’ and the penetration of ‘international capital’. This is evidenced in this country by repeated references in activist publications which by their lack of critical qualification appear to bemoan ‘loss of national sovereignty’ or ‘democracy’ and governments’ inability to restrict foreign investment under the terms of the MAI.

In other countries the process appears to have gone much further; two of the most vigorous opponents of globalisation in France and the US are respectively Le Pen and Pat Buchanan. Le Pen is the leader of the National Front in France and Pat Buchanan is on the right of the Republican Party. It can only be a matter of time before globalisation arouses ‘little Englander’ sentiments amongst right wingers in Britain. This is not to say that all of those who oppose globalisation are right-wing or ultra-nationalists or even in danger of becoming so, the point is that defending the nation state and national or local capital even in terms of the loss of ‘democratic accountability’ or ‘local culture’ is possibly more insidious than outright nationalism, it also allows for points of commonality with those who would normally be beyond the political pale, e.g. the late and mostly unlamented James Goldsmith erstwhile financier, founder of the Referendum Party and “mad, fascist crook” has a piece in the book The Case Against The Global Economy.

By limiting ourselves to being “against Globalisation/Neo-Liberalism” local exploiters be they land owners, factory owners managers of state enterprises or for that matter any ‘local business’ may be considered to be on our side! It can only be a mark of capitalism’s present strength that even to talk about it is seen as outmoded and passé. Globalisation/Neo-Liberalism are no less problematic than capitalism is perceived to be by some. The Zapatistas for example seem to studiously avoid using the word capitalism, preferring ‘Neo-Liberalism’. Whilst some have interpreted this as a tactically astute refusal to be burdened by the past; the end result is merely confusion as to whether the struggle or in Marcos’ words the “Fourth World War” is between the rich and the poor or between globalising Neo-Liberalism and ‘national sovereignty’.

S.

  • 1. Since the beginning of ‘the capitalist crisis of accumulation’ in the late 1960s, a range of terms such as post-modernism, post-industrialism, risk society, post-Fordism and of course globalisation have been introduced ostensibly in an attempt to provide an adequate understanding of contemporary changes in the global economy. (Bonefeld 1997) Whilst some of these have remained largely confined to academia, others such as Globalisation and post-modernism have entered into common usage.
WTO – Why Totemise Oppression?

A contribution to the “reflections on J18” collection.

After identifying capitalism or the “global capitalist system” as “the root of our common social and ecological problems”, many of those who took action on June 18th are now running headlong into the next “big day”, November the 30th -N30 – for action against the WTO (World Trade Organisation) and free trade.

Is this the same enemy? Many would argue that the WTO is just another incarnation of the global capitalist system and therefore a worthy target. But this thinking reproduces some of the flaws of the thinking behind J18, in that it fetishes the institutions which manage global capital (J18 fetishised the abstract side of capital – finance capital – as opposed to the material side – production or industrial capital). The institutions of capital are targetted instead of capitalist social relations, with the added problem that the majority of opposition to the WTO invokes that lofty bourgeois ideal – democracy – in complaining about the lack of democratic accountability in these institutions. The system of wage labour (the basis of capitalist social relations) is not attacked, instead darts are thrown at fetishes. PGA (full name: Peoples’ Global Action Against Free Trade and the World Trade Organisation) calls for the abolition of the WTO because it is inherently “undemocratic” and incapable of reform, implying that what is needed is some type of genuinely democratic institution (presumably like the World Peoples’ Parliament that someone on the J18 discussion list keeps on proposing).

Worse still, opposition to free trade is effectively an appeal to protectionism on the part of (“democratically elected governments” of) nation-states. Undoubtedly the strategy of global capital has been to attempt to guarantee continued accumulation by imposing further attacks on the international proletariat by what has been described as the “race to the bottom” ie competition between sections of the working class in different nation-states (the threat of relocation etc), and the MAI (Multilateral Agreement on Investment) and its WTO-sponsored successor represents an attempt to remove the regulations which stand in the way of this competition (by enabling corporations to sue governments for labour and environmental law etc)

While resistance to these attacks is to be encouraged, it would be foolhardy to see the question as one of defending the nation-state against the power of the transnational corporations – as the Do or Die (No. 8) article “Globalisation: Origins-History-Analysis-Resistance” points out, these are false opposites (capital and state are not in opposition, rather the state is a tool in the hands of capital). Surely the challenge is for the international proletariat to defend its common class interests against both the nation-state and global capital…

To target the WTO rather than, say, the system of wage labour upon which capital depends, is to blur the question, and inevitably leads to the formation of dodgy or even reactionary alliances (many Far Right groups, such as the Front National in France and One Nation in Australia, as well as parts of the Left have opposed globalisation and free trade from a nationalist perspective). Some activists have taken sides in the WTO bananas dispute, defending Caribbean producers against North American interests, often arguing in favour of “local economies threatened by free trade”. So small, “local” capitalists are good, and big, global corporations are bad (especially if they are American)… This naive kind of thinking enables the battle lines to be drawn between nation-states (or even between “North and South”, as if there were no Northern proletariat and no Southern capitalists) rather than between classes (international proletariat vs global capital).

Undoubtedly some people are opposing the WTO on an anti-capitalist basis, but is this the best strategy for consciousness-raising struggle?

Rudolf The Red

Beware of Bad Bed Fellows

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection.

The Dutch antiracist organisation “De Fabel van de illegaal” (The myth of illegality) and other left-wing organisations involved in the international campaigns against free-trade agreements like the MAI, regularly get compliments from the extreme right. Although unwanted, these compliments are not accidental. The critique of free trade has long been a speciality of the extreme right, and has proven to easily turn anti-Semitic. We will all become “slaves” to the “international capitalists living on the Riviera”, the Dutch National-Socialist Party (NSB) ideologist Hylkema said in 1934. Free trade would bring the Dutch factories and farms down. Dutch goods would be pushed off the domestic market by cheap imports, he feared.

The only chance for survival was a fascist economy, he wrote. “We should control our national household in such a way that our people will not perish, when this group of people without a fatherland starts flooding us with imports. We don’t want our factories to close down because Eastern coolies work for a few dimes a day.” Hylkema called for resistance against “the trade and bank world, which still speaks of the principle of the open door. But the farmers feel that if things go on like this, the end is near.”

“But don’t think that the import trade capital and trust capital will save us then. They are extremely mobile. In one aeroplane they can bring billions in paper money across the border in just a few hours. Holland can then be bought by international speculators for a couple of guilders and we will become a poor and dependent people”, the angry fascist wrote. If Hylkema, half a century later, had been able to surf the Internet, he probably would have been pleasantly surprised looking at some of the anti-MAI homepages. Hylkema’s present-day successor Rüter certainly is very enthusiastic about them. Rüter is the main ideologist of the Dutch new-right think tank Voorpost. He advised his readers to check the Internet pages of “MAI niet gezien?!” (MAI, didn’t see it / MAI, don’t want it), the Dutch anti-MAI campaign. The new-right Dutch Student Organisation even linked their homepage to that of the anti-MAI campaign. The Dutch fascists are not the only ones interested. The German Republicans and the French Front National also turned against the MAI. In some countries the New Right even popped up at left-wing campaign meetings. The state against globalisation? For some time now extreme-right intellectuals have been working on renewing fascist thinking. The ideas and concepts of the current campaigns against free trade seem to be of good use. These are not specifically left-wing and even seem to be easily integrated into the traditional extreme-right worldview. For instance, take a look at the very fashionable concept of “globalisation of the economy”, which is very central to the international campaigns against the MAI. This concept implies that capitalism is originally a local system, and has only recently begun to spread its tentacles around the world. But in fact capitalism has from the start been a global system, and has been able to evolve only because of the plunder of the southern parts of the globe.

By pointing to this so-called globalisation as our main problem, the anti-MAI activists prepare our thinking for the corresponding logical consequence – the struggle for “our own” local economy, and as a consequence also for “our own” state and culture. Some movements in the South that also fight against free trade draw exactly that conclusion. Taking their situation into account, it may be understandable, but it is certainly not emancipatory. In the rich countries, promoting a struggle against globalisation could create a fertile ground for the extreme right to grow. Fascists have always valued a self-sufficient economy. “No imports of things that our own people can produce, are happy to produce, are able to produce very well. Because there is no better worker than the Dutch worker”, Hylkema thought already. Sixty years later, new-right Voorpost ideologists write about the “globalisation of American capitalism” and call for “a large-scale people’s capitalism and small-scale worker participation”, because that would offer the best “guarantees for the safeguard of our own industries.” In it’s first pamphlets “MAI niet gezien?!” wrote that the agreement “would put up enormous barriers” for states to “direct their own economies”. But according to new-right ideologist Rüter, “the political elite doesn’t even want to guide or decide any more – they gave up their power, only to serve an economic system that, because of its hegemony, doesn’t need the specification ‘capitalism’ anymore”.

Notice that both the anti-MAI activists and the new-right ideologists think the state and the capitalist economy are separate entities. In reality they are completely interconnected. The modern state and capitalism developed at the same time and pre-suppose each other. They are symbiotic twins. States create the social and physical circumstances for the continually changing capitalism and that is precisely why they are working on agreements like the MAI, together with the companies. The anti-MAI activists with their resistance against the “globalisation of the economy” run the risk of ending up calling for a strong state. Already, some of them are speaking in positive terms of the Malaysian state, which is supposedly curbing the free circulation of capital. But Malaysia is close to being the prime example of a modern fascist state. Productive versus speculative capital? Traditionally, left-wing thinkers have pointed out the dividing line between capital and workers as the main political economic conflict. However, when activists start using concepts like globalisation, they tend to start thinking in terms of a conflict between “local capital” and “international capital”, in terms of good “productive capital” and bad “trading and speculative capital”. But production and trade are inseparable parts of capitalism. And both parts of capital grow by stealing from the labourers (both paid and unpaid) and by plundering nature. Regularly, the international anti-MAI campaigns have used the image of the small local company being destroyed by a large foreign, if possible American, multinational. Many activists call for investment in regional companies or in social projects that would bring jobs and positive prospects. Such investment is also believed to bring more economic stability than the “casino capitalism” that is held responsible for the recent large economic crises.

This way of thinking perfectly resembles traditional extreme-right thought. To Hylkema only one real economic duality existed, the one between the “national, creative and productive capital” and “reprehensible international big capital”. The extreme right never principally opposed capitalism and even denies any difference in interest between the “national capital” and the workers. “The owner, the staff and the workers together share only one central goal – a flourishing company”, Hylkema explained. For him the main thing was to reduce “class hatred” and to strengthen the unity of “the people” as a whole. For that reason it is very convenient for the extreme right to have a common enemy, one that can be held responsible for the economic problems, crises and insecurities that will always accompany capitalism. “International capital” can fulfil that role perfectly. Modern nazi-ideologists also understand this principle very well. “Solidarity within the nation gets replaced by some sort of universal solidarity between the rich, the managers, the industrials: on many an international congress they secretly decide on their strategies”, according to new-right Voorpost.

Capital without a fatherland

Once ideologically separated from the rest of capitalism, the “reprehensible international capital” can easily be associated with “the enemy” – some other state or a certain well-defined group of people. Following this line of thought, a critique of the system as such can gradually turn into the crazy idea that a small group of hostile people completely controls our lives. Such thinking is historically very closely linked to anti-Semitism. In the deeply rooted and mostly European anti-Semitic tradition there’s always this connection made between “the international capital”, America and “the Jews”. This tradition holds that the “international speculative capital” is in the hands of Jews who conspire to rule the world. This “Jewish capital” supposedly operates from New York. For centuries right-extremist and nationalist movements have repeatedly revived this anti-Semitic way of thinking. Usually by saying that “the fatherland” or “Europe” is being threatened by – and this depends on the audience – “international capital”, American multinationals or “the Jews”. It’s all the same to the ideology behind it. Of course, criticising free trade doesn’t have to lead to anti-Semitism, but the two combine surprisingly easily. Hylkema’s fascist party NSB, for instance, was not anti-Semitic in the beginning of the thirties. But, by its constant propaganda against “international capital” it did lay a strong foundation for its later turn to anti-Semitism. In the beginning of the forties it was just a small step for the party to start inserting the word “Jewish” in front of the phrase “international capital” in their propaganda pamphlets. Anti-MAI activists putting “international capital” apart ideologically, are not by definition anti-Semites, but the analysis behind their reasoning surely is potentially anti-Semitic. History shows how easily the one can lead to the other.

The New Right also loves this type of anti-Semitism. In a recent article on globalisation, Rüter for instance wrote that “whoever arranges and controls the loans, also controls the economic cycle and economic development.” It is most certainly no coincidence that he throws in a quote of Amschel Meyer van Rothschild, a Jew who, according to Rüter, once said: “Give me control over the currencies, and I don’t care anymore who makes the laws.”

At the start of the international campaigns, autumn 1997, the anti-MAI activists strongly emphasised that the talks on the agreement were secret, and their attention swiftly turned to the individual decision-makers. “MAI niet gezien?!” wrote about a “multinational coup” and a “silent taking over of power”. Actually, the talks were partly secret, but not as totally as the activists suggested. Forced by an assistant leaking official documents, the talks quickly became more open. Many contemporary “conspiracy fans” were drawn towards the anti-MAI campaign. The campaign office received frequent calls from these nuts, probably alerted by the long article on the MAI published in their favourite magazine Nexus. This article was written by a left-wing organisation that is central to the international anti-MAI campaigns. Until the beginning of the nineties the Australian-based Nexus was openly anti-Semitic, but after that it backed down a bit. However, the stories remained essentially the same. In recent issues, articles on the political power of “Jewish capital” popped up again.

Conspiracy fans also visited anti-MAI meetings. On such a meeting in Geneva in August 1998, titled “Globalisation and Resistance”, one participant wanted to publicly read excerpts from the books written by Jan van Helping, a hideous German anti-Semite. Around about the same time, “conspiracy expert” Kohl’s came into contact with the Dutch campaign. For several weeks he was able to spread his anti-Semitic poison in anarchist circles before being unmasked.

Liberalism replaces capitalism

The central concept of globalisation has recently filled the analytical gap that was left when some 10 years ago the critique of capitalism went out of fashion. In the middle of the nineties left-wing circles first turned to the concept of “neoliberalism”. Especially the popular Zapatista uprising in Mexico stimulated its use. But neoliberalism is not the same as capitalism. It is rather the ideology that gets delivered together with the changes of capitalism that have been imposed from above since the mid-seventies. Among these changes are the flexibilisation of the workforce, the privatisation of government services and the development of new computer and biotechnology industries. Also part of these developments is the trend towards an increased international division of labour. By the end of the nineties this latest trend became central to left-wing analysis, especially when activists started campaigning against the MAI and WTO. This change in analysis and focus of attention undoubtedly is a result of the overall political swing to the right that we have all witnessed this last decade. This raises the question of what might still constitute a left-wing analysis, and what makes a political line right wing. Political discussions are getting scarce, especially in the Netherlands, which poses great problems to campaigns like those against the MAI. Knowledge of the history of left-wing politics is also scarce.

Earlier campaigns and discussions on international solidarity seem to have been almost completely and collectively forgotten. Most left-wing groups joined the anti-MAI campaigns without giving it much thought, upset as they were by apocalyptic stories about a new secret “world constitution”. And they kept on going without a thorough discussion that could have lead them to a radical change in their political direction. This last decade has seen non-governmental organisations (NGOs) taking on a more central role in campaigns, unhindered by the rapidly shrinking left-wing movement. Especially in the realm of international campaigns this can be clearly seen. For the left it is problematic that the NGOs’ criticism usually does not see beyond neo-liberalism and free trade. They do not consider capitalism as such as a problem. That is of course not in their interest. They are too much a part of the system themselves, and have a lot of jobs to lose as well. Too much leftist talk doesn’t pay. NGOs therefore don’t like political discussions. The professional NGO campaigners rather spend most of their time flooding their fellow activists with details on free trade from every corner of the world. The activist who does not have access to Internet or e-mail will easily get the impression that he or she is not able to seriously participate in the campaigns. An extra problem with this NGO-provided information is that it usually has a top-down focus. Information from a grassroots point of view is getting very rare. And because of the information overload, even the most experienced activist in the end starts to overlook the difference between the two.

Nowadays left-wing groups are most often not powerful enough to get an international campaign off the ground without the help of NGOs. The choice of limiting criticism to free trade so as not to endanger the help of the NGOs is apparently easily made. With the result that left-wing groups are spreading an ideology that offers the New Right, rather than the left, bright opportunities for future growth.

Eric Krebbers
Merijn Schoenmaker

De Fabel van de illegaal, July 1999

Keep it up, don’t let violence divide us

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection.

I’ve been trying to write something for the J18 “critique” publication for some time now, but I have been finding it difficult after being swept up in Friday’s events in London, and the subsequent media fall-out. Originally, I wanted to write a piece about the ups and downs of electronic discussion groups, the challenges of global networking, etc., but I find myself unable to. I should have done it before Friday! Now I have seen so much vitriol written about the “violence” at the carnival, that I feel compelled to write a more sympathetic account. However, before I do that I want to consider some lessons that our movement can learn from the organisation and execution of this global protest against capitalism. Given the police and the media response, I think it would be fair to say that we have hit capital, and we have hit it hard. At times like this, I always worry about state reprisals. My thoughts go out to comrades who have been arrested, and to those who have faced house searches or intimidation from the police following the demo. And then there’s those lying in hospital beds, or nursing wounds at home following the bloody police repression on the day.

As the police sift through video evidence and photos, many more may face knocks on the door in the days and nights to come. However, I have faith that our movement will support all of those who face difficulties at this time. The media have made much of the use of the “Internet” in J18, and I believe that we must now expect increased monitoring of our electronic activities (I know that not everybody has computer access), and further repressive legislation against free speech on the internet. Such moves on the part of the state (perhaps in concert with the multinationals that now provide much of the internet’s “structure”) must be resisted at all costs. We do not yet know how sophisticated state monitoring of our electronic networks is, if it exists at all. At this time, the police seem to be playing “catch up”, but we should not assume that they will be so naive in the future. Further attention must be paid to the use of secure web and e-mail servers controlled by ourselves, and to the use of strong encryption software for increased security in individual-individual communications. On the other hand, J18 demonstrated that open and un-moderated discussion lists are an excellent way for us to network across continents. More importantly, they provide a useful interface between activists and non-activists. This sort of contact with others, be they sympathisers or detractors, can only strengthen our movement, and is a useful means of ensuring that our movement does not become “ghettoised” and that we maintain contact with others outside of the activist milieux. Of course, we must remember the class nature of the internet, and help to realise the goal of free internet access for all, perhaps through info-shops or libraries.

I think the other big success of the events was the media work. Although I would normally be one who is suspicious of any contact with mainstream media at all, we have shown that by careful use of press releases, we can partly influence what is written about us. All of the mainstream June 18 news reports that I have seen mentioned that the events were happening in many countries, were timed to coincide with the G8 summit in Koln, and were constituted by an amalgam of many different groups. Most importantly, the London events were billed as an “anti-capitalist” demonstration. They can’t write us off as “anti-car” protestors any longer. Plus, the J18 web site team did an excellent job presenting our own media and our own voices on the day.

The planning and organisation of the days events was incredible. I have never known such networking, and all done autonomously, with groups and individuals in charge of themselves and their own actions. In my opinion, the whole day stands as a tribute to anarchist methods of organisation, and shows how far commitment and careful planning can get you. On the day itself, seeing all those autonomous groups in action was incredible. Within the so-called “riot” lay the seeds of an alternative society, an alternative reality. Our reality.

Before getting into the thorny subject of violence, I want to drop in the following passage lifted from the Australian publication, “Anarchist Age Weekly Review,” No. 355:

“Violence? So Kim Beazley the leader of the opposition was blessed with a pie in the face over the weekend. Listening to the media’s response to this little episode you’d think that protesting about the Group of Seven’s activities promoted violence. The corporate media conveniently forgets that the G8’s success is due to their ability to be able to mobilise the dogs of war. Violence is an integral component of the G8 group of countries. These countries have a political and economic system that promotes inequality. The G8’s power is reliant on their ability to mobilise weapons of mass destruction. Their economic and social infrastructure promotes hunger, poverty and inequality. Violence is the main instrument that cements their hegemony over their empire. A few thousand protestors throwing a few rocks or a single protester pieing a leading politician can by no stretch of the imagination be considered violent behaviour. The real violence occurs as a consequence of the power of the G8. The poverty that is endemic in so many nation states and many of the pointless wars which exist, occur as a consequence of the power of the G8. The concentration of power and wealth that occurs in the world’s G8 economies is real sustained violence. The response to this institutionalised violence is essentially self defence not pre-mediated violence. Every time the media describes the skirmishes that occur between the G8 group of nation states and protestors as violence, it reinforces the idea that the state and the corporate sector have a God given right to use violence to defend their interests. In their eyes anybody who protests against the concentration of power and wealth which exists in the G8 nation states is guilty of violent behaviour, irrespective of how tame or peaceful their demonstrations are.”

We must be very clear that the media concentration on the “violence” on Friday is a deliberate attempt to discredit our movement and to try to divide us along the lines of whether we agree that (always carefully targetted please) “violence” is a legitimate tactic or not. I do not like to see members of our supposedly diverse movement condemn people for smashing windows or fighting with the police. One activist wrote a message to an internet news group saying that he wished that those people who smashed down the entrance to the LIFFE building or those who were throwing bottles at the riot cops had been arrested so that the rest of us could get on with our “peaceful demo”. First they came for the violent activists, and I did not speak out because I am not a violent activist. Then they came for me, and there was noone left to speak out for me. Through the whole planning stage of the June 18 events in London, there was always a concern that the whole thing would turn into a (really massive) riot, or that the cops would simply nick everyone when they turned up. One way or another, this demonstration was always going to have the potential to be a bit “heavy”. Furthermore, many people felt that the purpose of our actions, to disrupt the epi-center of global capitalism, demanded radical action in the extreme. In the circumstances, I believe it is to the credit of both the organisers and some of the street fighters that more people were not hurt or arrested on that day. Although there were some drunken bottle-throwers who chucked stuff anywhere (as others have reported), people have not reported the “positive” aspects of the way that autonomous groups of militants defended the demonstration from police repression on the day. In contrast to what others have said, for me one of the highlights of the day was when the entrance to LIFFE building was trashed. I think that these symbolic “breaches” are important. This was a modern day Storming of the Bastille (well, almost) and there was nothing that the cops could do about it. With their security guards, all their cops and their “ring of steel” they could not prevent the mob, the voices of the victims of capitalism worldwide, from bursting their way into one of their temples. This is the stuff that dreams are made of.

But, yes, people got hurt. The police went absolutely fucking crazy (of course). Amongst their first victims were activists who had been trying to calm the situation down between the blue line and the Carnival. After they had beaten the crowd away from the LIFFE, calm returned for a while, and I believe that it would have been possible to prevent further violence at this point. But it was not to be. Oh, as an aside, when the fighting started with the riot cops outside the LIFFE, I saw a bonehead with a t-shirt with a bulldog, union jack and “England” written on it join the crowd to fight with the police. I appreciate that everything is not always as it seems in a Carnival. Most people don’t like crazed drunks who lob bottles at the police. However, once a largely peaceful crowd is being indiscriminately attacked by riot cops, you are grateful for those people to defend the mass from brutality. I must say that it was at this point that the standard of the street fighting improved dramatically. I saw teams of activists forming lines of their own to repel police charges. When the police tried to use horses against this section of the crowd, the crowd charged back at the horses. This happened a second time and a couple of coppers were pulled off their mounts. The horses were not used against this section of the crowd again. In the main, missiles were transported to the front line before being discharged at the cops. Behind the front lines, the carnival continued! As the cops pushed us up the road, militants smashed bank windows. Although the destruction sometimes seemed arbitrary, e.g. people dismantling traffic lights, in the main it was “targeted” (again, the media used this phrase a lot, which I think is a success on our part as we managed to get this over) at bank windows, McDonalds and posh cars. An awful lot of people sustained injuries on Friday. By no means all of them were behaving “violently”. I saw some really horrific injuries, most of which seemed to be head injuries. I heard that a couple of people (at least) got run over by police vans. I hope everyone is recovering.

Okay, so what lessons should we learn from all of this? Firstly, I think that although we have achieved some successes this time around, we should certainly not rest on our laurels. Although we seem to have caught the cops off guard this time, we should not expect to be so lucky next time. However, we have shown the benefits of anarchist or autonomous methods of organisation in our struggles and we need to continue with these methods. On this occasion, the police chose to behave with extreme aggression towards the crowd. Although this seems to be a “new” tactic, there is no guarantee that they will do the same next time. Although many people clearly trained in methods of self-defence for the event, and there were definitely many tactical successes, we need to learn lessons for the future from this event. In particular, we need to think more carefully about how to defuse violent confrontations. We need effective ways of dealing with possible agent provocateurs who may provoke violence at our events. We need to educate people in our own movements about the time and place for violence. Violence should always be used sparingly, and should be dictated by the nature of the struggle. Violence should primarily be used against capitalist infrastructure and for self defence against riot cops and over-zealous security guards. Once everything has “kicked off”, we need trained and experienced street fighters who can respond tactically to different situations. However, at the end of the day, it’s perhaps a mistake to look for “order” in “chaos”. Seeing all those bleeding heads on Friday, I can’t help but feel that we should have the same protection that the riot cops have – notably crash helmets, shields and padded clothing. I seem to remember that there used to be a tradition amongst Amsterdam squatters and German radicals for wearing motorbike helmets at demos.

I began this piece by saying that I didn’t like the media concentration on violence, and then all I’ve done in this piece is talk about it myself. Violence was only a miniscule portion of the global J18 project and most J18 manifestations passed off peacefully. I am glad about that. Solidarity to all June 18ers,

Amusing Pseudonym

Why theory?

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection.

(Article written before June 18th)

Why bother theorising1? As we rush headlong into another action (the June the 18th international day of action – J18), what’s the need for theory? After all, for many people theory is just a load of “intellectual wank” or pointless “navel-gazing”. (There is a scene in a Woody Allen film – possibly Annie Hall, where the character played by Allen is at a party surrounded by literati types, and he says “Did you hear that the Nazis are going to march in New Jersey”; pretentious party-goer replies “Oh yes I read the most devastating critique in the New York Times Review” “Review? What? We should be going down there with baseball bats or something!”).

However many others are also frustrated by the tendency of the “direct action movement” to lurch from action to action without any discussion on what is being done and why. As an older friend in the Valencian squatters’ movement used to say, a movement which is incapable of creating its own theory will never get anywhere. (Arguably, the Valencian squatters’ movement never got very far). This is the critical thing, it implies revolutionary theory must be created as a result of action, as well as being a precondition for it. “So what is to be done? For a start we can look for opportunities to intervene in radical situations to try and speed up the revolutionary process. To identify the real demand – the demand for real life: the one demand the Spectacle cannot meet…. The only way to develop a revolutionary theory is try and put it into practice” Theory which is divorced from practice degenerates into ideology, dogma: “We must start to build the world we want now – in our relationships, our interactions and interventions and in the way we conduct ourselves in our daily lives. Revolutionary theory is developed on the basis of lived experience. Its goal is the total supercession of the commodity spectacle. A revolutionary movement based on the development of a revolutionary theory is participatory. A movement based on an ideology is about as participatory as a painting-by-numbers kit. Revolutionary ideology is a mausoleum. We need to develop a living revolutionary theory. We start with our dreams and desires and try to put them into practice and to develop our theory, which in turn instructs our practice and we progress.” (From a 56a Infoshop leaflet “Situationist Theory For Beginners”)

So why the rejection of theory? Because all too often it is divorced from reality, is reduced to mechanical ranting or a points-scoring exercise without any suggestion as to how intervene practically: “People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth.” (Comite Enrages – Internationale Situationniste)

The “direct action movement”, something loosely referring to activists campaigning on a whole host of single issues including road protesters and other environmentalists, some peace activists, anti GMO activists, Reclaim The Streets, anti-oil campaigners etc etc, has not created a whole lot of its own theory (perhaps the odd article in a coffee-table book or Do or Die). Some innovation has been shown in the organisation of conferences (such as Earth First! gatherings and the direct action conferences in Brighton, where a mixture of small and large group formats have enabled some interesting discussions), but it’s debatable whether the ‘movement’ has a much better understanding of itself and the problem of revolutionary change as a result. In recent times the slogan has often been heard “No Issue Is Single”, and as the “direct action movement” gropes its way out of the fog of New Age mystification2 (“it’s a battle for hearts and minds in the struggle between good and evil, between us and the forces of darkness”) and Deep Ecology towards developing a critique of capitalism (the J18 action proposal identifies global capitalism as being at the root of our common social and ecological problems), the lack of debate is a serious handicap. A few RTS activists bemoan the lack of critical debate at RTS meetings, which are ostensibly given over to organising actions (and yet insiders will tell you that the real organising happens outside the meetings). And one of the problems at gatherings and conferences is that they can appear unfocused, probably because in a way they are removed from action; the challenge then is to unite theory and action, or better said to create theory from action and for theory to inform action, so that the two react on each other (to develop a praxis). This challenge for the groups involved in J18 will involve creating theories to make sense of their actions and interventions against global capitalism; questions such as what is capitalism? (and what is finance capital, which is described as the heart of the global economy in the J18 leaflets?), what is the relationship between the different movements involved? (eg some of the organising groups around the world are trade unions – so what role do trade unions play within capitalism?; some of the groups campaign for human rights and foreign debt reduction – what is the relationship between reform and revolution?); is the problem of capitalism one of class society? If not, what is it?

Nick X

  • 1. It has been pointed out to me that the use of the word “theory” in this context is maybe not quite accurate, as when we reflect on and discuss our actions we are not developing new theory, but using an existing theoretical framework. Theory is one level further removed, like reflection on reflection.
  • 2. I’m sorry, I’ve been told I’m slipping into caricature here, slap on the wrist!
The Challenge of June 18

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection.

It is only now, after the dust has settled and the smoke cleared away, that I think I am beginning to understand some of the wider implications of June 18. Initial euphoria, which turned to paranoia following the state and media backlash, has given way to a more sober reflection. What was it all about? Why did I get involved? What has it meant for the movement? I feel the need to write from a personal perspective rather than an intellectual analytical one, because there has already been enough rhetoric written about June 18 – some of it, I admit, by me. Now though, it’s time for some honesty.

It’s safe to say – whatever the opinion of the police and right-wing media – that the organisers of the day did not set out to plan and encourage a riot. Perhaps, given the targets selected (the LIFFE building by the Reclaim the Streets’ Carnival Against Capital), and the societal polarisation that they represent, it is not surprising that widespread violence occurred. But that definitively was not the intention, stated or otherwise. A complication here is one’s definition of the word ‘violence’. In the narrowest eco-anarchist tradition, which seems widely accepted within the movement, violence means damage to living things. So while chopping down a tree is violence, burning a digger is not. However, there is a different meaning to the term – and one which is closer to how the word is understood within mainstream society. This ‘violence’ is any action which could endanger the security of human beings, and includes intimidation or threats – broadly speaking, it means the use of force.

By either definition, the Carnival Against Capital in the City of London on June 18 was violent. Objects were thrown at police which were clearly designed to cause injury (and in some cases did – to both sides). Fist-fights with LIFFE traders also more than adequately meet the first definition. Setting cars alight and causing damage to buildings meets the second definition, as does intimidating people stuck in cars or trapped in offices. Of course, the police were more violent than we were – but that’s their job. And two wrongs don’t make a right. So do we seek to justify this violence, or at least to explain why we condone it? Or should we ignore the fact that it occurred and seek instead to emphasise the exciting and diverse global movement which seemed to coalesce on June 18? It is easy to accuse the media of exaggerating the scale of the riot. Too easy in fact. Because it did happen, and the ethical issues it raised do need to be dealt with. I worry that one day people in the mainstream of society are going to wake up to the fact that the direct action movement is not in any way accountable to them. We often behave as if we have a direct line to moral superiority, when in fact we pretty much do exactly as we please. What’s to stop the enemy from occupying our offices, and how would react if they did?

The anarchist purists who dominate the belief systems of the movement have helped us all construct a convenient ideology to get around this unsettling issue. As far as I can make out, we see ourselves as a vanguard, acting on behalf of the biosphere and wider human society including unborn generations) against exploitation and oppression. To quote some old RTS agit-prop: “It’s about reclaiming the streets as public inclusive space from the private exclusive use of the car. But we believe in this as a broader principle, taking back those things that have been enclosed within capitalist circulation and returning them to collective use as a commons.” Stirring stuff – and protecting the commons has been an enduring theme of working class resistance to oppression throughout British history. The most obvious examples are the agrarian risings against the Enclosure Acts, and also the eighteenth century Luddite movement against the destruction of autonomous cottage industry and its replacement by wage slavery in factories. But unlike the Luddites, we are not a popular movement. Nor are we working class people seeking to protect our livelihoods from the encroachments of capitalism. We are a vanguard, acting on behalf of what we assume to be the wider interests of society and the planet, but not subject to any governance by them. This was a concept (minus the planet bit) taken to an extreme by Lenin’s Bolsheviks, who claimed to be acting on behalf of an ignorant peasantry by setting up a dictatorship of the proletariat. This was of course total nonsense. The Bolsheviks represented no-one but themselves, and ended up setting up a system unparalleled anywhere except in the Third Reich for its savagery and genocidal brutality.

Don’t worry – I’m not about to accuse the UK direct action movement of being on this track. But it does illustrate the dangers of acting on behalf of a group of people whilst at the same time not caring about what they think. There are times – such as in the campaign against genetics and in the later stages of the anti-roads movement – when by happy co-incidence we attract genuine popular support. This is bolstered by events which are both radical and genuinely inclusive – such as the rally at Watlington and the crop-trashing that followed it. It is then, and only then, that our battles are won. But the campaign against capitalism is not popular. There is some case for saying that in targeting financial institutions – those who oil the wheels of an increasingly destructive and globalised economy – we are acting on behalf of the billions of people in the Third World who are denied their basic rights. But who asked them? There is perhaps some small mechanism of accountability through the People’s Global Action network – but it’s very tenuous. The basic issue is one of who makes the decisions – and the targets in the City on June 18 were decided in London, not Lusaka. Perhaps it was worth stopping trading in LIFFE even for just one day – after all, it lost them millions. Millions which would otherwise have been poured straight into the system that we all oppose. More importantly still, the self-image of the City as an impregnable bastion was badly shaken. And any wider investigation of the word ‘capitalism’ can only be a good thing. However, all this will be for nothing unless it can engage with the sympathies and the interests of a wider social base in Britain and beyond. We’re drunk with our own power, titillated and ego-tripped by all the notoriety and media attention. Everyone wants a repeat of June 18, where we can cost the capitalists millions and all feel empowered at the same time. But what about everyone else? What about all those who either out of dignity or necessity feel they must work for a living, and that they have some stake in the system that we’re setting out to destroy? For me this is the crux of the issue. Take the perennial media debate. For anarchistic ideological reasons almost everyone involved refused to participate in any attempt to project a positive image of June 18 through the mainstream media. It then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy to grumble when we’re slagged off. (I’m trying not to be naive about the nature of the corporate media here. It’s always going to be difficult to communicate a moral case for bricking in McDonalds’ windows in a 20-second soundbite. I know because I’ve tried.

The reality though is that 99% of people will have heard about the day through the images constructed in the mainstream media – which we apparently should make no effort to influence.) Ultimately this kind of purism is surely counter-productive. Like a cult, it is alienating to all but the strongest of believers, and undermines diversity in its push for total obedience. It condemns us to the margins of political influence when we should be pushing at the mainstream. And when tried in countless collectives, squats and autonomous zones, it doesn’t even work.

Our heroes the Zapatistas are way ahead of us. They have faced up to the responsibilities that their success has forced upon them. They have called meetings and referendums. They have spent days and weeks consulting with the widest possible sections of mainstream Mexican society. There is legitimacy in their claim to be fighting alongside all those who are marginalised by the naked violence of semi-feudal landlordism and free trade. Of this legitimacy, we have none. This, then, is surely the most critical meaning of June 18. And the key message is not to the capitalists, it is to us. It says this: ‘If you have pretensions towards being a truly revolutionary movement, you must work with the people. You must listen, and not assume that you know best. Then, and only then, must you act.’

Anon. from Oxford

Dancing in the Ruins

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection.

There seems to be a lot of informal debate going on about June 18th tactics. I’ve written this in the hope of encouraging people to respect each other’s angles on the day, and keep the debate positive rather than damaging.

What was it all about? Last year, I went to one of the very early J18 meetings. Something that came out very clearly then was the following idea: ”This is not another street party. We will even try and avoid using the words ‘street party’.Rather, we will be taking the fight against destruction and exploitation directly to the place where much of it is controlled. We will be targeting the Square Mile.” Though a Carnival did end up being part of the day, I feel the “targeting the Mile” line was carried right through in all the J18 publicity and planning. I personally was well aware of the kind of things that might – and did – happen, in the way of such buildings as the Futures Exchange & banks being damaged and occupied, and accepted – okay, hoped! – that this would just as much part of the day as dancing, boys in sexy frocks, sound systems, and running into old friends. I knew that I would be at risk perhaps of being arrested, or hurt (anywhere there are police that is a possibility), or – yes, of course – caught up in things that I personally would not wish to support. But I knew that the overall message of the day, resisting global capitalism globally, as a hugely diverse group of people, was absolutely, totally, worth these risks, no matter what happened, and that it was vitally important for me to go and take the action that I personally felt was right.

Media

After many years of campaigning, I have learnt that the mainstream media have, and work to, their own agenda. I do not any longer believe that our agenda influences theirs. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, our agendas coincide a little – an example of this being the anti-capitalist message getting through somewhat – it was clearly a weird enough concept for the papers to include it! I am not unduly affected by the way the mainstream media presented the events of June 18th because I believe we had no control over this. I think we knew beforehand that the sections of the media that wished to, would present it as a violent event; that those who wished to take the oh-so-worn-out “peaceful rally hijacked by drunken anarchists” line would, and that the liberal papers would include some political comment and maybe some half-decent comparisons to the Rebecca riots & other examples of the “tradition of British resistance” – as indeed they did. We should know very well by now the role we are placed in by the media – regardless of what we actually do. If everybody at J18 had done nothing but dance, we still would have been “eco-terrorists obstructing mums & kids needing to get to schools & hospitals” – and hell, I reckon the tabloids would have gone out and staged their own bottle-throwing photo-shoots. (Did you notice how so many of those photos were the same few scenarios just taken from different angles?) Remember the Reclaim The Future march? When the police arranged for the headline on every single news report to be “protester held for attempted murder in violent protest condemned by Dockers” – a complete lie?

As well as putting effort into using our own alternative media, I am still trying to learn what we can do with the mainstream lot. But I will not credit them with telling the truth, and I will not let their predictable lines affect what I do, and I will communicate to as many people as possible the way they work – something a vast number of ordinary people know anyway. And I will certainly not let the media affect my memory of my real experience of the day, or our own legitimate debate, as if they are something we are, or can be, responsible for.

What really happened?

Let’s not lose track of what in fact did occur. Thousands of people had a party. Hundreds of people occupied, prevented work in, or damaged buildings where a lot of outrageous stuff goes on. Hundreds of people resisted/fought tooled-up riot police who wanted us out of the space we chose to occupy. And, as at any crowd event, a small number of people got drunk or tanked up on excitement, and went for seemingly random, meaningless acts of destruction & intimidation.

AND NO-ONE HAD ANY CONTROL OVER ANYBODY ELSE’S CHOICES FOR THE DAY.

Now, frankly, from a personal point of view, I was kind of frustrated at the number of people who moved off with the sound system out of the square mile quite early in the evening due to police presence – although for some it was an attempt to move to a different part of the mile, apparently, this didn’t work and the majority of people shifted to Trafalgar Square. From a personal point of view, I wasn’t into fighting with the police (you don’t always have a choice, but where I was, for a long time there were enough of us to hold the space simply by holding our ground physically) but I do recognise that those who were doing so were making it a lot easier for the rest of us to stay where we were. From a personal point of view, I was pissed off with the nutters who were off their faces and intimidating random members of the public, and I felt strongly enough about this to try a) reasoning with a few (which didn’t work!) and b) physically getting in the way/away. Of course it’s easy to say “that had nothing to do with politics anyway”, but the point has been made to me that it does – the politics of alienation, poverty, discrimination, frustration. From a personal point of view I am totally chuffed by what happened to the Futures Building & other such places – it will be a cheerful memory for a long time. From a personal point of view, I thought the sight of a carnival in the centre of London, with little kids and everything, was very cool. But that’s just me. And not everyone felt the same as me about tactics and what they wanted to do. And I think that’s absolutely fine, because the people resisting the domination of global capital are hugely diverse, rightly so, and will only become more so as more people wake up to what’s going on.

But what will people think? That depends on a lot of different things. For a start, how much information they have. If they believe the media tell the truth, they’ll have a ridiculously inaccurate angle on the day – but as I’ve said, I feel we have little or no control over that. I would imagine a large proportion of the population take what they read in the papers with a lot of pinches of salt, and they’ll get some of the message, possibly, and perhaps think a bit themselves about the day and what it was about. Maybe. Maybe some will try to find out more. And those who get alternative media will have more of the truth & issues, and those who can be independent thinkers or have access to information or who already find out about issues for themselves will know more, etc etc etc. That’s the way everything works. Would the world be in the state it’s in if people normally had access to the truth? But my feeling all the way along was that the main point of June 18 wasn’t about “changing people’s minds”. It was simply about – in solidarity with folks all round the world, some of whom get shot when they try to resist the way we do – targeting the places that are fucking us all over. And shutting them down, just for a day. And we did. Changing hearts and minds? Communicating with as many people as possible? Building creative alternatives? OF COURSE. That is what we do the other 364 days of the year! All in our own ways, once again. And, having gone right back to doing that myself, I’ve been mentioning June 18 a lot, to a quite large variety of people. These are questions about tactics, but I answer these by going straight to the main issues. As in “do you know why people felt strongly enough to take such actions? Because in those buildings, they take decisions, and do deals, that are about destroying the very earth we live on, and murdering those who resist.” And I’m personally finding that people see the point. Some of them even say “I wish I could have gone.” Many say “don’t underestimate how much people are aware of what goes on.” And despite varying views on what they think is appropriate or effective, none of the “ordinary” people I’ve talked to have said much about personally feeling one kind of resistance invalidates another – they have been more into talking about the idea of resisting capitalism, and what it means. If “what will people think” is what you base your actions on, how far back do you go? Do you refuse to break the laws that make peaceful protest illegal, because people won’t take your message seriously if you’re a “criminal”? Do you move away when someone is being beaten up, because the police tell you to, and respectable people obey them? Do you pay taxes, despite knowing they go on bombing whoever Britain’s bombing currently, because “what will people think?” There are too many people out there, with too many different views, based often on too much erroneous information, to measure our actions this way. Our first duty is to ourselves, to do what we feel is right.

And when I remember the views I held a few years back, and wonder what I’ll be thinking in a few years time, I think “thank god no-one tried to cater to what they thought I could handle, what they thought wouldn’t turn me off. That’s not having respect for me, and I would have no respect for them. How would I learn anything without challenges?”

Respect

I guess that’s what I’m asking for us to hang on to. I am concerned that there has already been some “attacking” each other about what happened, from various different angles. How dare we intimidate eachother for being where we’re at? I have my own feelings about the tactics of the day, and I realise many people may disagree with me. That’s okay; a few years ago, I would have disagreed with me. And I think the debate that goes on about tactics, means & ends, etc, is healthy. But at the same time., let’s accept our diversity. Assume that people have carefully considered what they do and how they do it, and are making what they feel are the right choices for themselves at that time. I refuse to narrow my vision of where we are going collectively to exclude anyone who works differently from me. Yes, it would be easier to do that, and I‘ve had to work hard not to make that mistake myself with different methods of campaigning. But frankly, if all of you I have tactics arguments with, aren’t there with me, it’s not my revolution. I’m not going to sign this, for the simple reason that there will be some state follow-up to J18, and a signed paper feels a bit too much like evidence. I’ll be having discussions with lots of people hopefully anyway.

We should know very well by now the role we are placed in by the media – regardless of what we actually do. If everybody at J18 had done nothing but dance, we still would have been “eco-terrorists obstructing mums & kids needing to get to schools & hospitals”.

Don’t mention the (class) war…
(or, “okay, so we’re against capitalism…. but what does that mean?)

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection.

J18, according to the propaganda, was coordinated by a wide range of groups. It is probably fair comment to say that in fact most of the groups involved are part of what is sometimes called the “direct action movement” or the “activist movement” (ie Earth First!, Reclaim The Streets!, genetics groups, animal liberation groups etc). The J18 proposal identified global capitalism, based on the exploitation of people and planet for the profit of a few, as the root of our common social and ecological problems…this could be seen as a consequence of the growing politicisation of the direct action movement over the years. This trend could be noticed in the movement away from single-issue politics (hence the commonly heard slogan “no issue is single”), the much vaunted link-up between “direct action activists” and striking workers (eg Reclaim The Streets! and the Liverpool dockers, and Critical Mass/RTS and the Tubeworkers..)…

On one level this apparent trend of increasing anti-capitalism within the direct action movement is very encouraging. However it often seems that many people within the movement are not too clear about what capitalism is (is it money? Banks? Transnational Corporations?), and so having put a name to the problem, are still not too sure about what it is. And this can lead to confusion when deciding what to do, how to take effective action to move towards that (maybe not so) distant objective of dismantling global capitalism. The purpose of this limited discussion paper is to briefly attempt to clarify a few concepts relating to capitalism, whilst recognising that no-one has all the answers..

Capitalism is often equated with money, so that you often hear people talking about the need to abolish money to achieve a “fair society”. Sometimes LETS schemes are proposed as an alternative. Similarly banks and other financial institutions are often regarded as the essence of capitalism (and this explains why the proponents of the June 18th international day of action are targetting financial centres across the globe). Alternatively the problem is seen as the expansion of the global market and free trade, (with globalisation and neo-liberalism the buzz-words) and accordingly the World Trade Organisation (WTO) (which polices free trade agreements) is seen as enemy number one. This is particularly the opinion of Peoples’ Global Action (PGA), the international network founded as a result of the Encuentros (the international gatherings catalysed by the Zapatistas) – indeed the full name of PGA is People’s Global Action against free trade and the WTO. A related view situates multi-national corporations (or, increasingly, trans-national corporations, TNC’s) at the root of the problem, with corporate dominance blamed for “disempowering local communities” (the local is often emphasised as an alternative to big, centralised, “undemocratic” corporations and institutions). What none of these views seem to bring out or emphasise is the essential relation within capitalism, the relation without which capitalism couldn’t exist. (Instead they focus on physical manifestations). Money, banks, financial institutions, markets, TNC’s, the WTO are all features of the capitalist system, but THE defining capitalist social relation is the relation between capital and labour. For it is wage labour, alienated labour (ie production not for the direct benefit of the producers, but appropriated by capitalists) which is the life-blood of capitalism. Capitalism depends on wage-labour for its existence; if the working population didn’t have to sell themselves for money each day (ie if we could produce for our daily needs) who would want to work for a capitalist or for the state? But we don’t own the means of production, capitalists do… and this is the way the capital-labour relation reproduces itself (by continually forcing people to work for a wage). The capital-labour relation is the relation between classes (this question of class is especially something which tends to dismay many in the direct action movement, perhaps unnecessarily1.

This question is vitally important for anybody seriously considering strategies for attacking capitalism. For if we recognise that it is capitalism, which by appropriating the process of production and by extension taking control of nearly all forms of human activity and subjugating them to its own need for constant expansion and accumulation, which is responsible for the exploitation of people AND the destruction of the environment, then the target of our attack should be the capital-labour relation itself. In this sense we can understand why ultimately the only way to “reverse the forces of environmental destruction” (Earth First!’s avowed aim) is to attack wage labour. Hence the importance of link-ups with groups of workers in struggle, such as the Magnet strikers, the Hillingdon Hospital workers, the Tubeworkers, the electrical engineers on the Jubilee line, etc. Many in the direct action movement are reluctant to get involved in these struggles, seeing a contradiction in being against work and yet fighting to get workers their jobs back. And it is true that these struggles are at present about the conditions of the exploitation of labour, rather than putting in question the exploitation of labour itself.. the challenge is to push beyond these boundaries through the intensification of struggle to the point where wage-labour, hence capital is threatened. One of the prerequisites for this intensification of struggle (and also a result of it) is an increased level of consciousness.. the point was made in the pamphlet on dole autonomy2 that many in the direct action movement depend on dole cheques for their survival, but paradoxically are mostly unwilling to get involved in anti-New Deal struggles, perhaps not seeing it as a sexy enough issue. Yet this “issue” is part of the ongoing offensive of capital against labour (yes, that’s you and me when they hassle us off the dole or onto the New Deal or into some crap job). The New Deal is intended to create a more disciplined workforce and to force workers to accept worse conditions and pay and more profits for capitalists. And as we all know, more capital accumulation means more environmental destruction (so anti-JSA actions are not just another “single issue”). This is not to say that all we should be doing is opposing the JSA, or supporting striking workers (or going on strike ourselves when we are forced to work). It is true that work-place/dole struggles are not the only way of attacking the capital-labour relation; another example is housing struggles. It is interesting that whereas the 80’s class struggle anarcho movement was sometimes criticised for focusing too much on the point of production (“workerism”) to the exclusion of eg gender issues, reproduction, the environment etc, the 90’s activist scene can be criticised for failing to recognise the importance of class. We can only realise our revolutionary potential when we break out of our isolation, and uniting with other workers/shirkers in struggle, overturn both wage slavery and dole slavery. Only by taking control of our human creativity and activity ourselves can we decide what kind of life we want to lead, what conditions do we want to live in, and what relationship with / impact on the environment we will have.

Nick X

  • 1. ), and it is this relation which must be abolished if capitalism is to be dismantled. So we see that by focusing on money, or on the financial institutions, or corporations, or regulatory bodies such as the WTO, we are missing the point if we do not attack the underlying social relation the tendency to understand capitalism not as a social relation but as a thing (eg money, banks etc) can be called reification (literally, turning a phenomenon into a thing), and to become obsessed with the thing rather than the relation can be called fetishisation (as in the fetishes or idols worshipped in religions, whereby an object is seen as possessing supernatural powers, or the force of the universe etc)
  • 2. Aufheben pamphlet “Dole autonomy versus the re-imposition of work”
June ’99 – A Critical Analysis

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection, first printed in Undercurrent.

On June 18th, leading politicians of the eight biggest economies will gather in Cologne (Germany) to talk about the future of the world economy and as almost always, this will be the target of protests. A world-wide alliance is forming which is according to the bulletin of the British activists’ driven by the “recognition that the global capitalist system is at the root of our social and ecological troubles.” But what sounds like a point of departure for a critical analysis is unfortunately all the campaign has to say about its position. Instead of going beyond this kind of commonplace, it simply states that “a global movement of resistance is rising”, and reading the few propaganda leaflets produced so far one soon realises that it is all about quantities. We are thus told that there were lots of people on the streets at last year’s economic summit (“…200,000 people in India…”), lots of agit-prop material has been produced (“20,000 lovely little folding leaflets…”), lots of different groups are involved (incl. trade unions, peace groups, church against poverty, national union of students – to name but a few) and, last but not least, the campaign bursts of fantastic ideas for action: “giving out free food…lots more custard pies…laughing all the way to the bank…sound system in balloon floating above the City!”.

Them and us

“We are more possible than they can powerfully imagine” the campaign trumpets – but this them-versus-us-logic is odd on several counts. Not only has global capitalism – the alleged target – nothing to do with a simple “them”. What is more, the collective “us” that is being invoked is utterly vague – “a growing alliance of social and environmental movements”. The only thing all the different groups have in common is that in one way or the other they are affected by global capitalism – but that, again, is merely a commonplace, insufficient as a basis for collective resistance beyond the symbolism of raving a couple of hours against the gathering of some character masks in Cologne. But far from being a minor mistake of the June 18th campaign, this indifference towards the social content of movements is its very essence. In their own words: “The longer the list, the more effective the action.” Following the requirements of media representation, it seeks to bring together masses. The result is pure mystification. On the one side, we have the apocalyptic scenario – “economic crisis, the millennium bug, environmental crisis, war famine, poverty” – which then is countered by the celebrated diversity of countless movements all around the world. The assumption is that anyone suffering from the present social order is by his very nature for its overthrow. Yet the vast majority of the groups and movements listed is directed against specific consequences and aspects of capitalism. The secondary weaving together of all the single-issue-movements leads not to a rejection of the totality of society – quite the reverse, it is simply an incoherent patch-work of people who, at least for a day, come together and party – or throw some custard pies in somebody’s face.

“Global Capitalism”…

Preoccupied with listing groups and original ideas for actions, the campaign has dispensed with critical analysis. This is an immediate consequence of the aim to be as broad as possible: Any clarification of the political objectives of the June 18th campaign would reveal the lack of a political consent between e.g. the Zapatistas and the NUS, the trade unions and autonomist groups. This kind of short-sighted campaigning is based on the very absence of a clear critique of “global capitalism” in order to suit virtually everybody. What remains of the proclaimed anti-capitalism is but a bunch of slogans. However, while radical critique of capital is obviously out even amongst those who pretend to practically oppose it, various resentments against certain aspects of the present-day situation are rather growing, with “globalisation” being buzz-word number one. The talk of “global capitalism” the campaign displays without any clarification is perfectly well in harmony with the present media hype about globalisation. This consists mainly of bemoaning the fact that, confronted with an apparently unlimited fluidity of global capital, the power of the nation state is vanishing . Virtually everyone has a dislike for “globalisation”: Left-wingers are concerned about the future of democracy – since the politicians who are now allegedly rendered powerless were at least democratically elected whereas citizens have no say in the decisions that the vicious executives of multinational corporations take. Subcommandante Marcos, spokesman of everybody’s darling, the Zapatistas in Mexico, sees the organic cultures of peoples being threatened by the evil forces of globalised finance capital. The French fascists of the Front National reject it as an attack on the sovereignty of the nation state and a threat to national culture. The recent campaign against the MAI (Multilateral Agreement on Investments), in many regards similar to the present June 18th campaign, drew exactly upon this ideology: As the MAI sought to give foreign capital a better position against national legislation, the opposition against it displayed a sometimes extreme nationalism and was practically propaganda for the state. A common response to globalisation is thus the call for a re-regulation of the economy by the state. Neo-liberalism, another buzz-word used basically synonymously, is often countered with the demand for a Keynesian policy, popular especially among traditional lefty social democrats and trade-unionists. Keynes acknowledged that in order to prevent crises, the state has to intervene actively into the market by directly creating jobs (which, according to Keynes, could practically mean to make people dig holes and fill them afterwards) and generally raising demand (to compensate capital’s tendency to over-production). It is not at all surprising that in the present situation lefty intellectuals like Eric Hobsbawm proclaim “the end of neo-liberalism” and beg New Labour to adopt a more Keynesian strategy of taxation and redistribution. In general, there are hopes that the current hegemony of social democratic governments in Europe could clear the way for an alternative to “neo-liberalism”. While the June 18th campaign does not rally for social democracy, the vague opposition to “global capitalism” it spreads is totally compatible with addressing the state as a supposed counter-pole to the market. And in fact, many of the movements the campaign is glad to have on board work along these lines.

“The heart of the economy”

The uncritical concept of capitalism the campaign seems to subscribe to is illustrated by the concentration on the financial sector of capital: the global actions will take place in the financial districts, understood as the “heart of the global economy”. While production appears to be merely a technical process in which useful things are made, money and financial institutions are regarded as the essence of capitalism. Yet although capitalism cannot dispense with a developed banking system, it essentially depends on the production of surplus-value through the exploitation of wage-labour. The vast sums of value circulating in the banking districts represent the successful result of this process – and if they don’t, the next crash is imminent. Therefore it would rather make sense to occupy some factories – if there is such a thing as “the heart of the economy” it lies there and not at Barclay’s Bank. This may sound like an irrelevant footnote. But one has to keep in mind that especially the recent crises in the financial sector many have nurtured resentment against finance capital and prompted calls for a re-regulation of the world economy. The Times stated last summer that “the IMF’s reputation has sunk to its lowest since the body was set up in 1944”, and social reformists come up with proposals about taxation on “unproductive” speculative capital (so the state can redistribute money for the benefit of all and create jobs…). The campaign’s concentration on the financial institutions fails to distinguish itself from these productivist and populist tendencies. This misleading fixation on finance capital seems to be corrected by the second target of the campaign, the multinational corporations. But why privilege multinationals? Are national corporations less capitalist? Are small enterprises any better than “big business”? Significant parts of the campaign seem to stick to these notions: community-based cornershop versus Somerfield’s, small peasants versus agro-capital and so on. “Small is beautiful” was after all a fairly popular slogan among eco-activists. This perspective on capital gets professionalised by groups like Corporate Watch and the many initiatives busily cataloguing the many sins and crimes of individual corporations, which practically means most of the time to launch boycotts and thus spread the idea of “consumer’s power”. Thus, the opposition to Shell is based on their involvement in Nigeria, we are supposed not to eat certain chocolate bars because Nestle does this and that and so on. The critique of the fundamental logic of capital is replaced with a positivistic and moralistic approach. All this neglects the insight that capital in all its forms deserves abolition – and the family owned sweat-shop is by no means any less annoying as a workplace than AT&T.

Confusion and pseudo-practice

All this is not to say that the June 18th campaign would be in favour of sweat shops and state regulation, nationalism or social democracy. It is none of this, but at the same time shows no interest in analysing the dead-ends in which the articulation of social discontent runs today. Instead it employs a naive strategy of immediacy: the imaginative hippy-individual that “takes his desire for reality” is depicted as the ultimate response to global capitalism which essentially is comprised of banks and corporations, run by “them”, the evil inhuman managers and yuppies. Everything is supposed to be so clear-cut and self-evident that any further reflection can be dispensed with – hence the ignorance of the many ideological and practical ways in which opposition gets neutralised (if it is not complicit with capital right from the beginning, as probably most of the groups on the campaign’s list are anyways). The call for mass action amounts to confusion about the social objectives of the alleged “global resistance” and ultimately leads to mere pseudo-practice, i.e. much ado about nothing that gives those involved the illusion to lay the ground “for huge social and political changes”.

Undercurrent

Critiques and Caricatures: A Response to Undercurrent

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection, previously included as part of a debate in Undercurrent.

Critiques of the June 18th action, it’s aims, organisation and general relevance, are important and to be welcomed. Theory, critical or otherwise, is too often rejected in favour of action when we need to combine theory and action, fostering, articulating and inhabiting the tension between them. Lest this response be taken as saying all is fine with the aims and focus of the action let me emphasise it isn’t. There are fault line running through it – many of which the critique from Uniundercurrent identifies. If the critique helps to bring out and transcend the problems and contradictions of the June 18th action then it will have been worthwhile but if it elevates one position while parodying all others then it amounts to little more then theoretical point scoring

The long list campaign against the economic summit The lack of theoretical flesh on the bones of the June 18th action has been pointed out by the Sussex University zine ‘Uniundercurrent’. In an article entitled “The longer the list, the better the action” they argue that, on the strength of the first few propaganda leaflets, the organisers of June 18th are more interested in numbers then analysis; in how many groups they can get involved then in the commonality between them; and that this in turn leads to lowest common denominator theory and a spectacular practice. Such criticisms are well-placed and ultimately helpful, food for thought for those involved, but the article repeatedly falls more into caricature then critique – tending, in turn, to critique it’s own caricature rather then what the leaflets said or what might actually be happening. The quote the article takes for its title – “the longer the list, the better the action,” is part of a sentence from a leaflet encouraging involvement in the June 18th action. True enough, it’ s not true – a list that included the likes of, to use their example, the French Front National, would make for a longer list but a scarily incoherent action. To use this snippet though, as the writer does, to confirm the “campaigns” “essence” as “indifference towards the social content of movements” and to suggest that June 18th is all about masses and quantities is indicative of the writers disingenuous selective reading. The first part of the sentence reads: “We will only realise our collective visions by taking action together” then lists some likely suspect sectors – unwaged, students, workers, etc, before finishing “the longer…”. You could be forgiven for assuming this meant that the listees should share some collective content but, fair enough, the ‘visions’ referred to could do with some focus. With the articles subheading though, “the campaign against the economic summit” we are immediately in the realms of caricature. Nowhere in the leaflets produced or organising meetings held has it been suggested that June 18th is a campaign against the economic summit. The June 18th action can at most be called a co-ordination, not a campaign, and is, at best, precisely the rejection of the totality of the present social order that the article calls for, not an event opposing economic summits. From this unpromising start the article goes on to contend that “the campaign” posits a incoherent, vague, them and us logic; has dispensed with any critique of capital and critical analysis generally; is fixated on financial institutions and multinationals; has a positivistic and moralistic approach; all amounting to confusion and mere pseudo-practise. Such insight after reading a “few propaganda leaflets” is surely commendable but leaves little room to practise what you preach and do more than scratch the surface of a subject. To expect critical analysis from an A5 leaflet is possibly asking too much. While to conclude the rejection of radical critique (read as our radical critique) from such a leaflet is going too far. Tell the many people on the J18 email discussion list an international forum for interested groups and individuals set up at the start – that, “further reflection has been dispensed with.” They have been analysing and reflecting on capital, state, resistance and the like, for some time now. There are also groups around the UK organising meetings to discuss the plan where no doubt, some reflection may slip in occasionally. Then there is the London networks ‘What is Capitalism?’ conference – organised precisely for “further reflection.” The writer of the article may not have known all this but then if “the essence” of “the campaign” has already been revealed there is no need to find out.

In fact the lack of a critical analysis of capitalism in the direct action movement and its almost complete mystification in social life generally, is part of the point of organising the action. If a “recognition that the global capitalist system is at the root of our social and ecological troubles” was “commonplace” we might be in more encouraging times. The commonplace, in this instance, is for most people an obscurity.

Us and them

Juxtapositions for the sake of a propaganda leaflet such as, “We are more possible than they can powerfully imagine” are hardly to be taken as conclusive evidence of something’s “logic” or “essence”. Propaganda at least that which aims to get people active – often involves simplifications of a subject. By definition it aims to persuade or convince people and, yes, those working on J18 would like people to get involved and may initially be less concerned to ask to see the groups theoretical credentials; or to check whether or not they are “complicit with capital.” Furthermore the assumptions made in the text that our/their collective resistance is basically “raving for a few hours” or “throw(ing) some custard pies” might ring hollow for participants in ‘the south’ where doing either is not exactly top of the agenda. Far from positing a crude them and us the claim is that our problems are systemic, inherent within the socio-economic order. Interpretations as to the fundamentals of this order may differ, as may the methods for its disposal, but the need to act collectively is clear. Who knows, action may even affect their/our interpretations. Maybe even, a way into an understanding of capitalism is through the ‘globalisation’ debate that the article sneers at.. To denounce those who haven’t reached your understanding yet is akin to the vegans who attack potential vegetarians for not going far enough thus sending them straight back to the meat counter. That there are, within the June 18th network, conflicting views, simplifications, confusions and hopes of getting a diversity of groups involved, is undeniable. Such are the concerns of practise. The luxury of everyone acceding to your understanding or agreeing with your ideas and practises is often unavailable in small unified groups let alone large diverse movements. This is, of course, where analysis, argument, dialogue and discussion comes in.

The heart of the global capitalist economy

If June 18th is just a few leaflets then a few thousand people occupying the City for a day then it might well be exhilarating reason enough maybe – but it wont add up to abolishing capitalism. That will require a more consistent praxis. Then again, to be so sure of where a “weaving together of all the single issue movements” leads, that it is “simply an incoherent patchwork ”, is to forget that the outcomes that result from a practise are not always the ones intended. That the secondary effects may be wholly unexpected. This of course cuts both ways and is no reason to dispense with analysis or intention but just maybe, looking for the potential and possibilities of a situation is as useful as dismissing it in advance The coinciding of J18 with the G8 summit is not to put pressure on bad corporations via nation-states but to show the collusion between state and capital and the necessity to overthrow both; to contend that exploitation is also a political matter not just an economic one. That this is not bluntly said and arguably it should be – owes more to a desire to open a debate before concluding it, and to the perceived role of a propaganda leaflet, then any rejection of critical analysis. Starting from a recognition of the multiplicity of positions and interests irreducible to a single analysis and tentatively endorsing this divergence, the unity is then aimed at precisely the recognition of exploitation by capital from different but complementary experiences. It doesn’t presuppose that unity but attempts to open a space for critique that is available to all. To claim, as the writer does, that “if there is such a thing as “the heart of the global economy”” it “would rather make sense to occupy some factories” – makes no sense at all. Besides the literalism of its interpretation of a slogan, the autonomist insight that all of social life under capitalism tends to become a factory for the exploitation of surplus value not only wage-labour but the free work of students and housewives etc means that June 18th is an occupation of “some factories”: the social factories of the city streets and squares. And while June 18th may well be “in many regards similar” to the campaign against the MAI (Multilateral Agreement on Investments) – although the similarities are unspecified – there is at least one huge difference. The campaign against the MAI was mainly a lobbyist, letter writing opposition to one re-regulatory element of capital, the June 18th co-ordination is rooted in a direct actionist opposition to capitalism, full stop.

Practising pseudo-confusion

A call for mass action might indeed “amount to confusion”, if that was what was being called for. It isn’t. On the contrary, autonomous actions co-ordinated and focused – are being called for. Hopefully by those who have thought about what they are doing and why. One of the main organising principles of J18 is autonomy for the groups and movements involved. Meaning in practise encouraging self-activity and being less quick to dismiss other approaches. Not to build “a mass” but to make connections, encourage debate, open dialogues. Whether such confusing activity is leading “ultimately (to) mere pseudo-practise” is to be decided by those who know the true practise presumably we await their instructions…

The article ends with a summation of “the campaigns” strategy as naïve, using a slogan from the leaflet as illustration, but while “imagine taking your desires for reality” is on the leaflet it is hardly “depicted as the ultimate response to global capitalism” . The June 18th action may well be naïve but it is not just a “strategy of immediacy” by “hippy-individuals” against the evil “them”. That this is just clear-cut misrepresentation is self-evident. There are other “slogans” on the leaflet, which the writer does not mention, such as “imagine a society based on mutual aid, sharing and respect for nature” and “imagine a world where people have control of their lives and communities”. A less condemnatory reading may have suggested that those involved do feel creating a different world will require thought, collective action and an ongoing process and have presented some constructive ideas to pepper the criticisms. If the June 18th action is not the activity of a “significant movement that at least claims to be revolutionary” it is at least significant for revolutionaries; and if its participants, like the theorists at ‘Uniundercurrent’, are “remote from advancing a coherent line of argumentation” they are, at least, advancing arguments. As an attempt to put capitalism back on the agenda of resistance at a time when its logic is further cloaked in mystification; as a contribution to the rebuilding of international solidarity at a time of rekindled nationalism and as a forwarding of informed imagination at a time when radical visions are seen as withering away, the June 18th action deserves, not caricatures, but the sharpest of critical engagements.

as a contribution to the rebuilding of international solidarity at a time of rekindled nationalism and as a forwarding of informed imagination at a time when radical visions are seen as withering away, the June 18th action deserves, not caricatures, but the sharpest of critical engagements.

Caricatures of Capital

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection, originally printed as part of a debate in Undercurrent.

While claiming that critique of J18 is much needed, the author to the reply dismissed ours as a caricature. We would be the last ones to deny that there has been a lot of caricaturing going on. But the only reason why our text might give that impression, is that its object – the information we have about J18 – is itself caricaturing the world of capital. Our critique of J18 consisted of a number of related points: the fixation on finance capital and evil multinational corporations, the participation in the hype about “globalisation”, accompanied by a problematic localism, to name but the most important ones. The response evades these issues and instead repeatedly claims that the meagre basis on which we wrote our critique led us to distort the issue. However, we criticised precisely that there is nothing further than this “meagre basis” – that is a few leaflets – on which the J18 campaign/co-ordination (whatever difference that makes) is based. It is not our fault that a few small leaflets are so far all the co-ordination has published – it is the very problem. Fair enough, there have been e-mail and other discussion groups, but they are very private discussions. It is the publications made publicly available that represent a certain underlying consensus, and as such are to be taken as expressing the gist of a campaign. Otherwise, what would their purpose be? That to the present day not a single pamphlet bringing together “the multiplicity of positions and interests” has been put out underscores our claim that crucial questions are being neglected in order to keep up a superficial unity of action. Instead of engaging with our critique, the writer explains to us the thorny path of bringing together the various movements around the globe. This obviously requires not asking for “groups’ theoretical credentials”. Yet while it is apparently too arrogant “to check whether or not groups are complicit with capital”, this political indifference does not prevent the writer from claiming that ”June 18th…is rooted in a direct actionist opposition to capitalism.” This contradiction remains a mystery to us, but our main point was something else: that a mobilisation of this type avoids a critical theory of capital and consequently reproduces ideology.

Of course, we are not in any way questioning the necessity of practice and we consider many of the actions planned for the day worthwhile. However, the reply to our previous article, as well as J18 generally, considers theory at most a secondary issue. The main focus is in the ‘action’, and any critical reflection is postponed indefinitely. Even more flagrantly, the author bets on the idea that “the outcomes that result from a practice are not always the ones intended” and that “the secondary effects may be wholly unexpected”… In other words, never mind if we reproduce social-democratic ideology, it might accidentally still end in a social revolution. Not only do we find in the response to our article no refutation of the points we make, but unfortunately they seem more relevant now than before: the latest agit-leaflet is worth quoting at length to illustrate this. It claims: “Our planet is actually run by the financial markets – a giant video game in which people buy and sell blips on electronic screens, trading life for money in their search for higher profits. Yet the consequences of this frenzied game are very real: human lives, ecosystems, jobs and even entire economies [!!sic!!] are at the mercy of this reckless global system”. In reality the world is, of course, not run by the financial markets. Capital is a system of relations of production of which the financial markets are but a (necessary) offspring. To fixate the attack on them is to turn the world upon its head, resulting in such absurdities as complaining about the damages made to “jobs” and even “entire economies” which are apparently just as innocent as “ecosystems and human lives”. Since of course these “entire economies” are capitalist, this J18 statement affirms what it pretends to attack1. This feels like stating the obvious. Although no one can deny the importance of financial markets, this passage simply reasserts a view of capitalism we tried to refute in the last article. Is this the further reflection resulting from the “what is capitalism?” conference?

This misconception of finance capital was one of the points we tried to raise, and not, as the writer claims, that nothing matters except the factories. We mentioned the factories in order to attack J18’s fixation on the financial centres; a fixation that is an obstacle for a critique of production. Of course, capital forms all of social life and not just production in the factories, and reclaiming the streets is one adequate response to this. The J18 co-ordination is undeniably one between many different groups with radically opposing views. This on the one hand shows a serious lack of consensus, and a blurry amalgam of groups that don’t even necessarily have the same basic aims. On the other hand, and paradoxically, it is also the expression of a consensus: anything will do, as long as it fits with the vague anti-globalisation attitude. That, as we noted, this resentment can also be found on the political Right, e.g. the French Front National, does not seem to bother the author – instead, he claims that we suggested that J18 would like to include the Front National in its long list. Obviously, we never did, but the co-ordination is already, even without any Fascists, “scarily incoherent”. Since the author dismissed our article as mere caricature and did not engage with the points we raised, there is nothing new we can say. Except maybe that “Economies versus Financial Markets” – this latest caricature of anti-capitalism – is even worse than the stuff we had referred to in the last undercurrent. It seems our critique was not a caricature, but an understatement.

P.S. We refuse to be compared to vegans (see ‘Hitler was a Vegetarian’, uniundercurrent #6)

(1) For an analysis of how capital presents itself in such a way as to facilitate the emergence of an “anti-capitalism” that is a one-sided attack on the abstract side of capital (e.g. finance capital) while affirming the “concreteness” of labour and production, and how furthermore this “anti-capitalism” relates to anti-Semitism, see Moishe Postone, ‘Anti-Semitism and National Socialism’, in Germans and Jews since the Holocaust: the changing situation in West Germany, ed. Anson Rabinach/Jack Zipes, New York and London 1986. We do not, however, want to suggest that J18 is anti-Semitic.

Undercurrent

Not just capitalism or globalisation

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection.

J18 has managed to attract an amazing network of activists to work together, but I feel that a we need to clarify what we are trying to challenge. It is not enough to simply say we are opposing just capitalism or globalisation, the groups who have been working on J18 in the UK and many elsewhere are opposed to nationalism, war, centralisation, government, bureaucracy, sexism and a lot more. For a large part J18 identify with anarchism or radical ecology. For future proposals we need to debate more on how we strike a good balance between clarifying our radical politics and having a proposal that is simple, straight forward and inspiring for people outside our small political ghetto. We need to work on strengthening our radical diversity without falling into the trap of using vague liberal friendly language. In our efforts to build a huge anti-capitalist network we have attracted a lot of groups and it sounds impressive but unfortunately too many of them are liberal or are open to authoritarian or conservative elements. This is partly because of phrases like ‘ the longer the list, the better the action ! ‘ used in some early leaflets would have turned me of fthe entire event, if I didn’t know the good reputation of the groups putting it forward. I guess you’re never happy with a leaflet or proposal unless you’ve written it yourself.

– Decentralising, strengthen and expand our network/s ? By the time we are ready to start thinking about opposition to the start of next years G8 summit, I don’t know if I will be interested in repeating the strategy of targeting the financial centres. Perhaps to encourage greater local organising we should break from having a lot of the organising happening in London, instead taking actions where we live all on the same day. Thirty actions against different parts of the structure across the country and replicated across the world, linking local concerns to the global system, might have more impact then focussing on the financial centres. Perhaps it is not as empower as having thousands and thousands in the streets in one place, but in terms of building our local networks it may be a better strategy.

– Keeping up the momentum built by j18 ? Focussing all our other actions or energies towards one big day seems to have caused many people to get burnt out. Personally it will be a long time before I can focus on helping organise an international campaign. I think I will tend to focus on smaller actions. J18 I think has neglected local manifestations of capitalism which effect us everyday in favour of the financial targets. While it is true that uniting against the big corporations and the symbols of the capitalist system is a good way to bring people together to show what we are fighting against, it is another to challenge capitalism and the state where we live and work. Easier said than done I know, but by doing isolated actions we loose sight of the bigger picture and often paint ourselves into single issue corners. Brighton has a monthly gathering of anti-authoritarian groups monthly under the name of the ‘ Rebel Alliance. ‘ Another suggestion made was that similar groups organising all over the country would be a good idea. Perhaps working towards a couple of nationally co-ordinated actions, some smaller international actions and a big international action once a year (or more !)

– When should tasks be made accountable to other parts of the network ? When should groups be left to their own and not be accountable to others in their network ? Obviously this is not for me to dictate but it is an issue we should be constantly questioned. In the past I have had experience of groups where raising consensus is a painful process where it has takes so long to make a decision that things take forever to gets done. My experience however with various meetings and responsibilities in J18 groups has been that sometimes there is not enough consultation between different groups. There can be a slight ‘ tyranny of structurelessness ‘, due partly to deadlines and because the demands we make of ourselves are really huge. Sometime information is being held in too few hands because of perceived security (and sometime legitimate ) concerns, but sometimes I have felt it is just an unacknowledged clique or desire for control, intentional or otherwise. When information is held in a few hands it is easier for infiltrators to fuck us up than if no one really had control of it. Having never been involved in something so big its hard to criticise when so many people have been working so hard, but it is worse not to act on it when it does happen. In the run up to a couple of big actions, and to a smaller extent J18, we have dedicated discussion time at meetings to banner slogans, posters other agit-prop etc only for the people who have been producing them not to receive that information, or to ignore it and do their own thing, sometimes with good results and sometimes bad, either way they end up deciding the message, that represents others. On one hand I wonder if I’ve any right to criticise when I am not there to produce the banner, flier, or other propaganda, from the original ideas to the finished article, particularly when there are many people dedicating more of their time to the actions than myself. However when propaganda is widely circulation and designed to represent or inform about the actions of a group, they should reflect the thoughts of the ‘ members ‘ of the group. Sometimes I have felt that individuals doing the work hide behind the words ‘autonomously organised’ when they are just pushing their own angle, intentionally or not in effect creating a hegemony on information and an ideological hierarchy. This always needs to be challenged, by bringing in new people and not overusing perceived security risks to close out people so that cliques are broken before they develop. This is not a not an original idea, unfortunately it is not put into practice enough, due to oversight or because some people have specialised skills which make them a valuable member of certain groups all the time. We need more skills training and outreach.

– Grassroots radical diversity. J18 as I understand it is an attempt to create a network of diverse grassroots radical groups to fight capitalism ( and the rest ), unfortunately we have attracted some liberals. I think we have attracted liberals internationally because we put out the message stressing a coming together of a diversity of struggles without making it clear enough what we mean, ( or perhaps being liberals they are just stupid ! ) These liberals if they continue to become part of a hopefully growing post –j18 network, will actually rob it of its radicalism and diversity; and fall apart because of all the liberal hacks. The point I am trying to make is we need to be a bit clearer to keep J18 and whatever groups we try and build after, radical and diverse. Centralised decision making structures and reform platform acts to oppose diversity. As well as being autonomously organised internationally, groups should be decentralised locally also. It seems that some groups abroad do not organise like this, I said earlier that I haven’t had been enough consultation with people in different groups to have formed a definite answer, although the names of many of the groups and occasional comments of individuals in them give me some idea. Centralisation whether within Non-Government-Organisation (NGO) reform environment groups, in the form of union leaders, liberal or totalitarian states or within a fringe political party etc always enforces uniformity or ‘mono-culture’. What is passed of as diversity by liberals pale in comparison to the radical diversity of grassroots autonomous ‘ communities of resistance. ‘ I am fine with J18 groups like Chikoko ( the grassroots indigenous resistance to Oil in Nigeria Delta ), groups like the Industrial Workers of the World, Earth-first!, Reclaim the streets from what I know of them as they encourage diversity and have a flexible vision of a world in which individuals have as much control of decision that effect them as is possible.

The End

signed: anonymous and paranoid

Our resistance is as transnational as capitalism

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection, made up of extracts from an article originally printed in Do or Die! #8

The following text is made up of extracts of the article “Friday June 18th 1999: Confronting Capital And Smashing The State” Do or Die #8. (c/o 6 Tilbury Place, Brighton, East Sussex, BN2 2GY) The author would like to point out that this represents just one voice, of an RTS’er in London

The June 18th (J18) international day of action in financial and banking districts across the world, was probably the largest and most diverse day of action against global capital in recent history1. Hundreds of actions took place ranging from a “Carnival of the Oppressed” in Nigeria, with 10,000 Ogoni, Ijaw and other tribes closing down Port Harcourt , to a spoof trade fair in Montevideo, Uruguay – from Barcelona where a piece of squatted land was turned into an urban oasis overnight , complete with vegetables, medicinal herbs and a lake to the City of London where a “Carnival against Capitalism” attended by thousands, radically transformed Europe’s largest financial centre, and included attempts to occupy and electronically hack into the Futures Exchange – from an anti nuclear demonstration in Gujerat, Pakistan by trade Unionists , to actions against child labour in Senegal – from Street Parties across the United States to domestic and garment workers demonstrating against the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Dhaka, Bangladesh … all “in recognition that the global capitalist system is based on the exploitation of people and the planet for the profit of a few and is at the very root of our social and ecological troubles.” But where did this extraordinary show of international solidarity spring from ? And how and why are such diverse groups building global networks of struggle to counter the globalisation2 of misery under capitalism ? As the economy has become increasingly transnational, so too has the resistance to its devastating social and ecological consequences. But until recently this world-wide resistance to the effects of globalisation has been little-recognised. June the 18th didn’t come from nowhere. There is a fascinating history and process which led up to the day. This is a story that needs telling. (For the full story see the Do or Die article mentioned above – ed)

The useful contradictions of globalisation International solidarity and global protest is nothing new, from the European revolutions of 1848, the upheavals of 1917-18 following the Russian Revolution or the lighting flashes nearly everywhere in 1968, struggle has been able to communicate globally. But what is perhaps unique to our times is the speed and ease with which we can communicate between struggles and the fact that globalisation has meant that many people living in very different cultures across the world now share a common enemy. An enemy that is increasingly becoming less subtle and more excessive – “capitalism with its gloves off ” – and therefore easier to see, understand and ultimately dismantle.3

Common enemy

The irony is that before the onslaught of globalisation , “the system” was sometimes hard to recognise in its diverse manifestations and policies. Abstract critical theory was confronting an abstract multifaceted system. But the reduction of diversity in the corporate landscape and the concentration of power within international Institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) , the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the financial markets has clarified things and offered a focal point for protest and opposition. It is a lot easier to oppose concentrated uniform power than diverse and flexible forms.4 As power heads further and further in this direction, those opposing it seem to becoming more and more diverse and fluid. Hence much harder to diffuse and undermine. As the elite, their transnational corporations and their puppets the IMF and WTO , impose “free market” policies on every country on the planet, they are unwittingly creating a situation where diverse movements are able to recognise each others struggles as related and are beginning to work together on an unprecedented scale. The global “race to the bottom” in which workers , communities and whole countries are forced to compete by lowering wages, working conditions, environmental protections, and social spending, to facilitate maximum profit for corporations, is stimulating resistance all over the world. People everywhere are realising that this resistance is pointless if they are resisting in isolation. For example – say your community manages, after years of tireless campaigning, to shut down your local toxic waste dump, what does the Transnational Company that owns the dump do ? They simply move it to wherever their costs are less and the resistance weaker – probably somewhere in the Third World or Eastern Europe. Under this system, communities have a stark choice; either compete fiercely with each other or, co-operate in resisting the destruction of your lives, land and livelihoods by rampaging capital.

Diversity v Uniformity

To accelerate profit and create economies of scale global capital imposes monoculture on the world. Making everywhere look and feel like everywhere else. The same restaurants, the same hotels, the same supermarkets filled with the same musak. Sumner Redstone the multibillionaire owner of MTV summed up this denial of diversity when he said: “Just as teenagers are the same all over the world, children are the same all over the world” – on his business trips he obviously forgets to stop of and visit the slums of Delhi or the impoverished rural villages of Africa – In New York, London and Berlin, kids may have succumbed to his spell of sameness, as they sit prisoners of their own homes, their dull eyes glued to the screen. But the majority of the worlds children would rather have clean water than Jamiroquai. Herbert Read in “The Philosophy of Anarchism” wrote, “Progress is measured by the degree of differentiation within a society”. The president of the Nabisco Corporation would obviously disagree, he is “looking forward to the day when Arabs and Americans, Latins and Scandinavians will be munching Ritz crackers as enthusiastically as they already drink Coke or brush their teeth with Colgate.”5 Progress in the present system is measured by economic growth, which inevitably means monoculture. Just because more money is changing hands doesn’t mean that life is getting any better, it is quite the opposite for the majority of the world. But by embracing diversity, social movements are proposing powerful challenges to capitals addiction to uniformity. Capital’s loudest message in the 90’s was that there is no alternative to the status quo, and that humanity had reached its highest level. The end of history had arrived. In the 1920’s and 50’s this same message was proclaimed by the elites – and the decades that followed, the radical upheavals of the 30s and the 60’s – showed them that as soon as the end of history is declared it is time for radical changes.

Space for Utopias

Capital was only able to become truly global after the fall of the Berlin wall and the break up of the Eastern Block. The fall of communism not only opened up the space for capital to be unrestrained, but also gave a new lease of life to radical movements . For more than 70 years, Soviet Socialism was seen as the main model of revolutionary society, and of course it was a total social and ecological disaster; but its shadow lingered over most radical movements. Those who wished to discredit any forms of revolutionary thinking simply pointed to the Soviet model to prove the inevitable failures of any utopian project. Now that the Soviet Union has ceased to exist, it has become a lot easier for those of us working in radical movements to conceive of different societies without having to refer to a failed model. Ideas of utopia can return un-hindered. The space has been cleared and the power of radical imagination is back at the centre of revolutionary struggle. Not only has the imagination been freed, it has also become more diverse and fluid than it was able to be under the shadow of the strict monolithic ideology of soviet socialism. There is no longer any need for universal rules, there is not just one way, one utopia to apply globally, because that is exactly what the “free marketers” are trying to do. The radical social movements that are increasingly coming together don’t want to seize power but to dissolve it. They are not vanguards but catalysts in the revolutionary process. They are dreaming up many autonomous alternative forms of social organisation. They are celebrating variety and rejoicing in autonomy.

The Ecology of Struggle

Murray Bookchin , in Post Scarcity Anarchism, wrote that “in almost every period since the Renaissance the development of revolutionary thought has been heavily influenced by a branch of science”6. He gives the examples of mathematics and mechanics for the Enlightenment and Evolutionary Biology and Anthropology for the 19th Century. Ecology has influenced many movements today and that is perhaps why their model of organisation and co-ordination resembles an ecological model, why it works like an ecosystem. Highly interconnected – it thrives on diversity, works best when imbedded in its own locality and context and develops most creatively at the edges, the overlap points, the in-between spaces. Those spaces where different cultures meet, such as the coming together of the American Earth First! and Logging Unions or London Tube Workers and Reclaim the Streets. The societies that they dream of creating will also be like ecosystems, diversified, balanced and harmonious.

The ecological crisis changes the way many of these movements think and act. KirkPatrick Sale illustrates the scale of the biological meltdown- “More goods and services have been consumed by the generation alive between 1950 and 1990, measured in constant dollars and on a global scale, than by all the generations in all of human history before.”7 The level of ecological destruction is mind blowing and the present generation of activists feel an incredible urgency about the future. The know mere reform is useless, because it is clear that the whole basis of the present system is profoundly anti ecological, and there is no longer any use waiting for the right historical conditions for revolution, time is rapidly running out. Radically creative and subversive change must happen now, because there is no time left for anything else. During the May ’68 insurrection in Paris, a message was scrawled on the walls of the Theatre de L’Odeon “Dare to go where none has gone before you. Dare to think what none has ever thought. “ Despite capital’s rapacious ability to enclose and recuperate everything, the space has now been opened up and we can pay attention to that message.

Transnational Resistance

On New years day 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect, two thousand indigenous peoples from several groups came out from the mountains and forests of the Chiapas, the most Southern state of Mexico. Masked, armed and calling themselves Zapatistas, their battle cry was “Ya Basta” “Enough is Enough”. An extraordinary popular uprising, which was to change the landscape of global resistance forever, had begun. Five towns were occupied and 12 days of fighting followed. This was not an isolated local act of rebellion, through the Zapatistas imaginative use of the internet which could not be censored by the Mexican state, people all over the world soon heard of the uprising. These masked rebels, from poverty stricken communities, were not only demanding that their own land and lives be given back, neither were they just asking for international support and solidarity; but they were talking about neoliberalism, about the “death sentence” that NAFTA and other Free trade agreements would impose on indigenous people. They were demanding the dissolution of power and the development of “civil society” and they were encouraging others all over the world to take on the fight against the enclosure of our lives by capital . Public sympathy in Mexico and abroad was overwhelming, on the day of the cease-fire, celebratory demonstrations took place in numerous countries, and in Mexico City 100,000 marched together , Shouting “First World HaHAHA”. Phenomenal poetic communiqués came out of Chiapas ,and were rapidly circulated around the internet. There was a new sense of possibility, the Zapatistas and their supporters were weaving an electronic fabric of struggle to carry revolution around the world. Now resistance really could be as transnational as capital.8

Peoples’ Global Action

In 1996, the Zapatistas , with trepidation as they thought no-one might come, put out a call for a gathering, called an “encuentro” ( encounter) , of international activists and intellectuals to meet in Chiapas and discuss common tactics, problems and solutions. 6000 people attended, and spent days talking and sharing their stories of struggle against the ” common enemy”: capitalism. This was followed a year later by a gathering in Spain, where the idea of a more concrete global campaign, named Peoples Global Action (PGA), was hatched by a group made up of ten of the largest and most innovative social movements, including the Movimento Sem Terra, the Brazilian Landless Peasants Movement and the Karnataka State Farmers Union , radical Indian Farmers (KRRS) . Four “hallmarks” were proposed by this group (who became the PGA convenors committee, a role which would rotate every year) in an attempt to get people to rally around shared principles. These were:

“A very clear rejection of the institutions that multinationals and speculators have built to take power away from people like the WTO, and other trade liberalisation agreements (like APEC, the EU NAFTA, etc.)”

“A confrontational attitude, since we do not think that lobbying can have a major impact in such a biased and undemocratic organisations in which transnational capital is the only real policy- maker”.

“A call for non-violent civil disobedience and the construction of local alternatives by local people, as answers to the actions of governments and corporations.”

“An organisational philosophy based on decentralisation and autonomy.”

In February 1998, Peoples Global Action was born, for the first time ever the worlds grassroots movements were beginning to talk and share experiences without the mediation of Non Governmental Organisations (NGO’s), and the first gathering of the PGA was held in Geneva – home of the much hated WTO. More than 300 delegates from 71 countries came to Geneva to share their anger over corporate rule. From the Uwa peoples, to Canadian Postal Workers, to Reclaim the Streets, to anti-nuclear campaigners, to French farmers, to Maori and Ogoni activist, to Korean Trade Unionists, to the Indigenous Women’s Network of North America, to Ukrainian environmentalists, all were there to form, “a global instrument for communication and co-ordination for all those fighting against the destruction of humanity and the planet by the global market, while building up local alternatives and people power.”

One of the participants spoke of this inspiring event : “It is difficult to describe the warmth and the depth of the encounters we had here. The global enemy is relatively well known, but the global resistance that it meets rarely passes through the filter of the media. And here we met the people who had shut down whole cities in Canada with general strikes, risked their lives to seize lands in Latin America, destroyed the seat of Cargill in India or Novartis’s transgenic maize in France. The discussions, the concrete planning for action, the stories of struggle, the personalities, the enthusiastic hospitality of the Genevan squatters, the impassioned accents of the women and men facing the police outside the WTO building, all sealed an alliance between us. Scattered around the world again, we will not forget. We remain together. This is our common struggle.”

One of the concrete aims of this gathering was to co-ordinate actions against two events of global importance that were coming up in May of that year, the G8 meeting (an annual event) of the leaders of the eight most industrialised nations , which was to take place in Birmingham and the second ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation which was being held a day later in Geneva. For 4 consecutive days in May 1998, acts of resistance echoed around the planet. In Hyderabad India, 200,000 peasant farmers called for the death of the WTO, in Brasilia landless peasants and unemployed workers joined forces and 50,000 of them took to the streets, over 30 Reclaim the Streets parties took place in many countries, ranging from Finland, to Sydney, San Francisco to Toronto, Lyon to Berlin. In Prague, the biggest single mobilisation, since the Velvet Revolution in ’89, brought thousands into the streets for a mobile street party which ended the with several Mc Donalds being “redesigned” and running battles with the police. Meanwhile in the UK 5,000 people were paralysing central Birmingham as the G8 leaders fled the city to a local manor, to continue their meeting in a more tranquil location . The following day the streets of Geneva exploded. The G8 plus many more world leaders had congregated there for the WTO ministerial, and to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GAAT) the forerunner of the WTO. Over 15,000 people from all over Europe and many from other continents demonstrated against the tyranny of the WTO, banks had their windows smashed, the WTO Director General’s Mercedes was turned over and three days of the heaviest rioting ever seen in Geneva followed. The dust settled, the world leaders stuck in their glass bunker, beside lake Geneva, made a statement saying that they wanted the WTO to become “more transparent”! As if that was going to make the blind bit of difference.

June the 18th: keep on building

It was clear that things were really moving, and we had to keep the momentum going and build on the success of the May actions. But how? Then came an idea, why not go for the jugular this time. Why not aim at the heart of the beast, the pulsating core of the global economy , the financial and banking districts, the engine room of all ecological and social devastation. This time we could make it bigger, better and even more diverse.(…) the desire to do something in this small square mile of land right, on our doorsteps, Europe’s leading Financial centre, and one of capitals oldest and most powerful sites, proved too strong. Having a tendency to believe in the reality of our desires, we couldn’t let this one go.

Then during a hot summers day in June 1998 a conversation occurred between a Reclaim the Streets (RTS) activist and someone from London Greenpeace, (LGP – the anarchist collective not linked to Greenpeace International) who had been involved in the Stop the City demonstrations during the 80’s. It turned out that they had been thinking similar thoughts about having a City event this year, to bring all the single issue campaigns together around the common enemy of capital, and a date had already been set for a public meeting. LGP felt that the time was right to take on such an audacious target. The Stop the City’s in the 80’s had come out of the momentum of the peace movement. In the last few year the ecological direct action movement had been getting stronger, there seemed to be an upsurge in workplace action – the Jubilee line wildcat strikes, and the Tameside care workers being two examples , Street Parties had sprouted up across the country with thousands taking direct action and there was a sense that there was enough momentum to take on such an ambitious and cheeky action. The idea was taken back to RTS’s weekly public meeting and to LGPs . In mid August the first of many public meetings about June the 18th was held in a community centre in central London. As well as RTS and LGP, several groups were present, ranging from Mexico Support Group, London Animal Action, to McLibel, to Class War. A date was decided, June the 18th, which coincided with this year’s G8 summit and was a Friday – therefore a work day in the City.

(….)

Learning Together

There has been a tendency in the UK direct action movement to concentrate on action at the expense of more conscious thinking and ideological clarity. The positive side of this, is that it has enabled wildly imaginative actions and strategies to take place. It has also helped avoid the ideological factionalisation and bickering of much traditional politics. The downside of this however, is that if we want to build “organised popular movements which think things through, which debate, which act, which experiment, which try alternatives, which develop seeds of the future in the present society” then we have to get a lot better at thinking, talking and educating ourselves and others. June the 18th once again acted as a focusing agent, it brought together diverse activist some from different single issue campaigns, and got them to think about one question, the question of capital.

Few activists seriously understand economics and even fewer understand the complexities of the arcane currency, futures and options markets that lie at the heart of the worlds economy. There are very few places which will tell you about such things in clear and simple language. It is in the interest of the elites to make these things inaccessible, “difficult” to understand for the average citizen. In many ways it resembles the hold on power that has gone on for millennia within religious societies. The high priesthood would often hold arcane ceremonies in temples hidden from the populace; and for over a thousand years mass was held in Latin, which excluded the majority of the population from understanding it. Now in their towering glass temples of Mammon, the elite, the bankers, traders and financiers are still waking up at dawn and engaging in secret rituals. Aloof and isolated from the devastating effects of their magic, they sit safely in front of their screens playing with numbers and abstract mathematical equations, knowing that most people will never make a connection between these arcane games and the misery of their everyday life. As “a first step towards unlocking the City’s mystique” and to help educate ourselves on the issues of contemporary capital and financial markets, Corporate Watch and Reclaim the Streets produced a clear and concise 32 page illustrated booklet entitled; Squaring Up to The Square Mile – A rough Guide to the City of London. 4000 copies of this excellent activist tool were distributed to groups preparing for J18, to alternative book shops and conferences. A version was also put up on the Web. Tucked inside the booklet was a full colour map of potential targets in the City ; banks, exchanges, corporate HQ’s, Investment houses etc., to help activist plane their autonomous actions. A wonderful way of showing that theory without action is useless..

(…)

Meanwhile NATO is bombing Serbia back to the stone age, in order that Western Capital can enclose this last enclave of the Eastern Block. We asked ourselves – who is going to rebuild the bridges, oil refineries, roads, schools, hospitals and power stations and who is going to replace the millions of pounds worth of weapons used every day ? Could it possibly be Western oil companies, engineering, construction and arms companies. Many of us felt compelled to do something, to take action, but the timing was dreadful, and we were are all overworked with June 18 preparations, there was no way we could organise anything else. Would the war still be going on, on June 18th? The issues were clearly identical, but how could we successfully integrate it into the action?

(….)

A year on, from that hot summers day conversation, everything is set to go. Hundreds of groups in 43 countries have said they are going to do something on the day and the City of London Police estimate 10,000 people will turn up for the actions in the Square Mile. But despite all the endless meetings, careful preparations and military precision planning we know that only one thing will enable the day to succeed: spontaneity. The active spontaneous actions of the participants. Spontaneity is one more vital tool of resistance to join fluidity and diversity; it is the freedom to play beyond want and external compulsion, its the play of life itself, the very opposite of work, orders and hierarchy.

Revolutionary epochs are periods of convergence, apparently separate processes collect to form a socially explosive crisis -(…). A critical mass is building – every year, every month, every day it gets bigger and stronger – reports of strikes, of direct actions, of protest and occupations from across the world flow along the same lines of communication that carry the trillions of pounds involved in the reckless unsustainable money game of transnational capital. Soon there is going to be an explosion, an explosion which will be so different from any other revolutionary upsurge that those in power won’t even realise it is about to transform their world for ever. There is much work to be done, but the hope and possibility expressed during June the 18th brought us one step close to this wondrous moment.

Judy

  • 1. See the June 18th web site for a complete list of actions
  • 2. Globalisation has become a buzz word and can be a confusing term. I prefer the term Neoliberalism, used in Europe and Latin America, but will use the more common English term. My understanding of Globalisation is best summed up in this section of Reclaim the Streets Agitprop “Capital has always been global. From the slave trade of earlier centuries to the imperial colonisation of lands and cultures across the world, its boundless drive for expansion – for short term financial gain – has recognised no limits. Backed up by state power, capitalist accumulation has created widespread social and ecological devastation where ever it extended. But now, capitalism is attempting a new strategy to reassert and intensify its dominance over us. Its name is economic globalisation, and it consists of the dismantling of national limitations to trade and to the free movement of capital. It enables companies, driven by the demands of the rapacious gambling of money markets, to ransack the entire globe in search for ever higher profits, lowering wages and environmental standards in their wake. Globalisation is arguably the most fundamental redesign of the planet’s political and economic arrangements since the Industrial Revolution.” Global Street Party agitprop – May 16th 1998.
  • 3. Ironically this was one of the central weaknesses of the Soviet-Style state. Uniformity undermines diversity and the capacity to diffuse opposition.
  • 4. The engines of capital, the financial markets, may be “anarchic”, flexible, and fluid – but they are still governed by one unbreakable law – profit.
  • 5. Quoted in Trilaterism, edited by Holly Sklar, 1980 – quoted in The Case Against the Global Economy, and for a turn toward the local. Ed. Mander and Goldsmith , Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1996.
  • 6. Murray Bookchin, Post Scarcity Anarchism- Black Rose Books, Montreal, 1971.
  • 7. Kirkpatrick Sale – rebels Against the Future – Lessons for the computer age. Quartet Books. 1996
  • 8. See the excellent writings of US academic Harry Cleaver about the Zapatistas and computer linked social movements – available on the web at http://www.eco.utexas.edu/faculty/Cleaver/hmchtmlpapers.html
Poor Substitute

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection, originally from an article in Freedom newspaper.

The following extracts are from an article in Freedom Press at the beginning of the summer (written by Nick S)….

The left, though, whatever their rhetoric (and this goes for many anarchists too) conduct their politics entirely at the level of the moral and through entirely symbolic means. They don’t live in the communities they purport to address and they have nothing practical to offer those communities to improve their everyday lives. The left (and again, this has to include much of the anarchist movement) has believed it can win by ideology alone……… On 18th June, in what purports to be an exercise in freeing ourselves from the shackles of capitalism, a good many of us will converge on the City of London, to take part in “an international day of protest, action and carnival aimed at the heart of the global economy, the banking and financial centres”. If proof were needed of our movement’s resort to entirely symbolic activity, none better could be found. Most people who suffer at the hands of capital don’t do so in the heart of the City, they suffer through paying high rents on run down estates while local resources go to service local authority debts to the City, they suffer through hospital waiting list increases as bed capacities and staff numbers are lost due to health authority private finance deals. They suffer through exploitation at work, through higher prices and lower wages, through the increased cost of entertainment – football season ticket costs, club door prices, etc. Their quality of life is diminished through the actions of capital, but a demonstration in the City will do nothing to alleviate the conditions of exploitation. Hence, none of those most in need of liberation from the “roar of profit” (Reclaim the Streets leaflet) will go near such an event, because the “sounds of rhythms of party, carnival and pleasure” are a poor substitute for money in your hand and decent accommodation, and will take us no closer to their realisation………

Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin has suggested that the anarchist movement could learn much from the methods of the Black Panther Party, of which he was a member. Specifically he has referred to the Panther’s attempts to establish a survival economy for poor black communities, with the Panthers organising survival programmes to move towards community self-determination. Panther groups organised breakfast programmes for poor families, set up and ran medical centres in poor neighbourhoods, organised free transport for prison visits and established armed self-defence units to monitor and prevent police brutality. “Panthers established a network of community service projects designed to improve the life chances of African American people……..

As Huey P. Newton, one of the Party’s founders, noted: “In their quest for freedom [people] have to see first some basic accomplishments in order to realise that major successes are possible”……..

The Euro elections should have made it clear to all of us; if we allow our politics to be reduced to the ‘theatre of pseudo resistance’, we will be as irrelevant to most people as New Labour and the Socialist Labour Party are seen to be. If anarchism is committed to bringing about the autonomous organisation of working class communities its time for us to prove it in practice, and prove it where it matters most………

—– Nick S / Freedom Press
June 18th – a personal view

A contribution to the “Reflections on J18” collection.

For me, what happened on June 18th was both inspiring and disappointing. I was inspired by the sheer numbers of people there, as it’s always good to be among huge numbers every once in a while. It was particularly inspiring to see that this time, lots of people weren’t just happy with having a party but wanted to take direct physical action against capitalist institutions. I was disappointed that more people didn’t want to take this action, disappointed that more autonomous actions in the morning didn’t materialise, and above all, disappointed that J18 didn’t broaden out to include a wider diversity of groups and people, and that at the Carnival it was mainly just the usual RTS crowd. (I’m also disappointed that we’re not now living in post revolutionary utopia, but hey ho….)

While I feel that the most crucial discussion for us to be having is where do we go from here, and what worked and what didn’t. However, in my town, the criminal damage and fighting the police has yet again raised massive divisions, to the point where a significant number of activists have said that they’d never go on a demo like J18 again. We may be following the state’s agenda to be even discussing the ‘violence’ issue, but where I live, it essential that we explain our stances and have understanding for others in order that we don’t make ourselves so much smaller than we already are. I’m not going to defend the random meaningless acts of vandalism or untargeted insults physical threats or attacks. What I aim to do is put forward a defence of the economic damage caused by the trashing of LIFFE, of Mercedes Benz, of McDonalds, and any other capitalist institutions. For people who disagree with me, this issue appears to divide into two aspects – was this justifiable and was it effective.

Justifiable

I’m an anarchist, and the way I see it, anarchism is fundamentally opposed to violence. One of the main aims of anarchy in my eyes is to remove violence from all human relationships. However, up to the point where we live in an anarchist society, we remain living in a system which is founded on violence. For two sides to live in peace, both must want peace. If one side insists on using force to make the other obey them, and work for them, then the other, if they want to retain their dignity and not be reduced to slavery, must resist force with adequate means, despite their love of peace.

I don’t think it’s difficult to prove that the state and the capitalist system is founded on violence – requires constant force or threat of force to maintain the existing order. Government needs laws to maintain inequalities and their order, and therefore needs police and armaments to back it up and force people to obey. Otherwise only people who wanted to obey would do so. The state has used violence throughout its history to rob the poor of their land initially, and then to maintain their monopoly on power. They are then the side that does not want peace freedom or equality, that relies on violence to exist – not the anarchists.

So I believe that violence is entirely justifiable in defending yourself from the onslaught of violence coming from the state. But I don’t just mean it is justified against direct sudden physical attack (as in defending yourself from being beaten by police truncheon, which in my mind is quite clearly justified and doesn’t need to be explained), but against a much more insidious attack. Using force against all those institutions which use violence, be it physical or mental to keep people in a state of oppression, is totally justified.

“The slave is always in a state of legitimate defence and consequently his violence against the boss, against the oppressor is always morally justifiable” (Malatesta)

Some people would say that excusing individual acts of violence leads naturally to an excuse of any violence and so excuses the arms trade etc. I do not accept that self-defence by the people against its government, or against a section of the community which maintains its power and privileges by underpinning it with force, has any affinity with the self – defence justification used by states to stockpile weapons. “The violence of the oppressed is defensive, unorganised and individual and usually unarmed. The violence of the state is massive, systematic, aggressive, and frequently involves the use of sophisticated weapons.” There is no moral equivalence between the oppressor and the oppressed.

Some would go further to say not only is violence in self-defence justified, but that it is our duty to protect others in this way. And I don’t extend this to war e.g. in Kosova – when the state usually forces its citizens to war, to fight rival nationalist powers, and where the state controls and organises the means of destruction.

To bring this back to June 18. Here, it is clearly the City that is the oppressor – it’s veneer of respectability is underpinned by the laws and institutions of the state, and so by force. The deals that are done there cause ecological destruction, loss of livelihoods, debt, and death, on a massive scale. Everyone who opposes this in any way is acting not just in self-defence but in defence of oppressed people everywhere. Some people who argue for principled non-violence say that they would not criticise those in the third world for rising up and taking violent action, but that we in this country are not faced with such blatant oppression, we are not fighting for our lives in the same direct sense. We have a choice and we should avoid violence which only will lead to more violence.

Of course those in the Third World are on the sharp end of capitalism, but capitalism has a base in our country, at its heart is the City. I know we’re relatively okay with our dole cheques at the moment, and we can get away with more protests without getting killed, but do we not feel any solidarity with those fighting in say Mexico or Nigeria to join with them and target the root of their ills with a similar sense of urgency and desperation? If people could see in front of them, the results of what goes on in those glossy buildings in the city, the deaths and misery it causes, I think most people would feel they would be justified in doing everything in their power to stop it happening immediately. And there is no being fooled that we live in a nice liberal democracy where we would never be as oppressed as activists in other countries. As soon as we begin really threatening the foundations of capitalism, you can be sure we will be repressed with practically as much force and violence as anywhere else.

On June 18th, people saw the opportunity to take physical and very direct action to try and stop some of the destructive things that happened inside those buildings, and in my mind there is no question that this is entirely justifiable as a defensive act. I also believe that fighting with the police who come in using violence to prevent us from challenging and stopping the destruction of the City, is a defensive act, and is justified. Whether it is particularly effective, or whether the people involved really understood the politics behind their defensive violence is another matter.

Effective

So is it effective to smash up property, or fight the police. Is it an effective strategy, use of energy, efforts, possible prison sentences, sentences, and bearing in mind it may lead to increased surveillance and repression. Also others would say it alienates lots of people from our cause, and even puts off lots of activists. Well, I want real permanent change, and won’t be happy with small reforms. I want a revolution, and I want a non-violent revolution – as I’ve said, I’m not a lover of violence, and I’d struggle to eliminate violence from society. I think that for a revolution to occur and to be permanent, it’d have to be largely (I’ll qualify this later) nonviolent – as its success would depend on most people wanting it, and knowing what it was they wanted to achieve by it.

But to those who extrapolate this argument to say that therefore our actions must convince the majority of people, and that using violence achieves the opposite effect of putting people off, I say that this is not our role. Our ‘network’ is never going to create a mass movement, nor should we try to. I for one am not trying to recruit people to our cause (well, maybe a bit), nor do I think we’re a vanguard bringing lots of people to our side to sweep forward with a revolution. I’m fighting for my own life to improve, for my own right to be able to make decisions which affect my life, and fighting for a situation where everyone can run their own lives. In doing so, I hope that this will positively affect everyone else, but they have to make their own decisions and choices. I view our network as political agitators, stirring things up, forcing things into the open, onto the agenda, forcing people to think, informing people about alternatives, and crucially, inspiring people to believe that we can fight the system. You can smash the property of the rich and get away with it. You can fight back.

As a minority of people, who don’t have the informed support of the masses, due to their forced ignorance of alternatives to the system, we should seek to curb the excesses. We know what’s going on, and we should take action to stop it. We shouldn’t allow our radicalness to be watered down in order to appease public opinion, a public opinion which is largely formed by media and state influences such as education. And in any case, I don’t think people are as put off by this sort of J18 action as the state would have us believe. Many are inspired by what we achieved. What is so ineffective about trying to curb the excesses with counter-violence, and what alternative is there without having the support of the majority.

To return briefly to what I said about a ‘largely’ nonviolent revolution. Despite my desire for peace, I don’t believe that things can truly be changed without using defensive force, as the state is built on a premise of violence to maintain the status quo. They won’t hand their power away without a fight. They’ve been more than ready to kill, hurt, or imprison any resisters in the past, be they peaceful or not, if they threaten their hold on power. Even if the vast majority wanted change, the minority are the ruling class and they control the weapons. The numbers of people killed in insurrections or revolutions can never equal the numbers of people living in permanent slavery or dying in their thousands in the third world due to the sort of thing which goes on in the City. It’s horrific that we may have to use force, but it’s more horrific if we fail because we refuse to do so. I find it odd that we don’t hear many condemnations of the peasants revolt, of the loombreakers, or the Zapatistas, or of the Poll tax riots, all of which encompassed elements of violence. What is so different to J18?

“The state likes to present riots, revolts, and rebellions as isolated incidents and this helps deny their legitimacy, has reduced our recognition of their positive impact and has drawn attention away from the continual and consistent threat of state violence”

I also think it can be said to be effective because of the economic damage we caused to the city, we presented a very real threat to their institutions and profits, we engaged in real agitation, forced capitalism as a ‘bad thing’ onto the agenda, it allowed us to say why LIFFE is not in fact respectable and why it deserves the trashing, and above all, allows us to say who the real perpetrators of violence are in our society. It allowed us to remove the respectable veneer the city basks in. Finally, I hope that even if people disagree with the above, that they would not condemn the informed choices and actions of people on that day. For one, people don’t tend to publicly condemn people for being peaceful. But mainly it is following the state’s agenda – it merely deflects criticism away from the original issue and away from the state as the real evil savages.

This is adapted from an oral introduction at the beginning of a discussion on J18 (which took place in Manchester? -ed)

Give up activism

An important article from Do or Die issue 9 criticising the activist mentality in the direct action movement.

In 1999, in the aftermath of the June 18th global day of action, a pamphlet called Reflections on June 18th was produced by some people in London, as an open-access collection of “contributions on the politics behind the events that occurred in the City of London on June 18, 1999”. Contained in this collection was an article called ‘Give up Activism’ which has generated quite a lot of discussion and debate both in the UK and internationally, being translated into several languages and reproduced in several different publications.[1] Here we republish the article together with a new postscript by the author addressing some comments and criticisms received since the original publication.

Give up Activism

One problem apparent in the June 18th day of action was the adoption of an activist mentality. This problem became particularly obvious with June 18th precisely because the people involved in organising it and the people involved on the day tried to push beyond these limitations. This piece is no criticism of anyone involved – rather an attempt to inspire some thought on the challenges that confront us if we are really serious in our intention of doing away with the capitalist mode of production.

Experts
By ‘an activist mentality’ what I mean is that people think of themselves primarily as activists and as belonging to some wider community of activists. The activist identifies with what they do and thinks of it as their role in life, like a job or career. In the same way some people will identify with their job as a doctor or a teacher, and instead of it being something they just happen to be doing, it becomes an essential part of their self-image.

The activist is a specialist or an expert in social change. To think of yourself as being an activist means to think of yourself as being somehow privileged or more advanced than others in your appreciation of the need for social change, in the knowledge of how to achieve it and as leading or being in the forefront of the practical struggle to create this change.

Activism, like all expert roles, has its basis in the division of labour – it is a specialised separate task. The division of labour is the foundation of class society, the fundamental division being that between mental and manual labour. The division of labour operates, for example, in medicine or education – instead of healing and bringing up kids being common knowledge and tasks that everyone has a hand in, this knowledge becomes the specialised property of doctors and teachers – experts that we must rely on to do these things for us. Experts jealously guard and mystify the skills they have. This keeps people separated and disempowered and reinforces hierarchical class society.

A division of labour implies that one person takes on a role on behalf of many others who relinquish this responsibility. A separation of tasks means that other people will grow your food and make your clothes and supply your electricity while you get on with achieving social change. The activist, being an expert in social change, assumes that other people aren’t doing anything to change their lives and so feels a duty or a responsibility to do it on their behalf. Activists think they are compensating for the lack of activity by others. Defining ourselves as activists means defining our actions as the ones which will bring about social change, thus disregarding the activity of thousands upon thousands of other non-activists. Activism is based on this misconception that it is only activists who do social change – whereas of course class struggle is happening all the time.

Form and Content
The tension between the form of ‘activism’ in which our political activity appears and its increasingly radical content has only been growing over the last few years. The background of a lot of the people involved in June 18th is of being ‘activists’ who ‘campaign’ on an ‘issue’. The political progress that has been made in the activist scene over the last few years has resulted in a situation where many people have moved beyond single issue campaigns against specific companies or developments to a rather ill-defined yet nonetheless promising anti-capitalist perspective. Yet although the content of the campaigning activity has altered, the form of activism has not. So instead of taking on Monsanto and going to their headquarters and occupying it, we have now seen beyond the single facet of capital represented by Monsanto and so develop a ‘campaign’ against capitalism. And where better to go and occupy than what is perceived as being the headquarters of capitalism – the City?

Our methods of operating are still the same as if we were taking on a specific corporation or development, despite the fact that capitalism is not at all the same sort of thing and the ways in which one might bring down a particular company are not at all the same as the ways in which you might bring down capitalism. For example, vigorous campaigning by animal rights activists has succeeded in wrecking both Consort dog breeders and Hillgrove Farm cat breeders. The businesses were ruined and went into receivership. Similarly the campaign waged against arch-vivisectionists Huntingdon Life Sciences succeeded in reducing their share price by 33%, but the company just about managed to survive by running a desperate PR campaign in the City to pick up prices.[2] Activism can very successfully accomplish bringing down a business, yet to bring down capitalism a lot more will be required than to simply extend this sort of activity to every business in every sector. Similarly with the targetting of butcher’s shops by animal rights activists, the net result is probably only to aid the supermarkets in closing down all the small butcher’s shops, thus assisting the process of competition and the ‘natural selection’ of the marketplace. Thus activists often succeed in destroying one small business while strengthening capital overall.

A similar thing applies with anti-roads activism. Wide-scale anti-roads protests have created opportunities for a whole new sector of capitalism – security, surveillance, tunnellers, climbers, experts and consultants. We are now one ‘market risk’ among others to be taken into account when bidding for a roads contract. We may have actually assisted the rule of market forces, by forcing out the companies that are weakest and least able to cope. Protest-bashing consultant Amanda Webster says: “The advent of the protest movement will actually provide market advantages to those contractors who can handle it effectively.”[3] Again activism can bring down a business or stop a road but capitalism carries merrily on, if anything stronger than before.

These things are surely an indication, if one were needed, that tackling capitalism will require not only a quantitative change (more actions, more activists) but a qualitative one (we need to discover some more effective form of operating). It seems we have very little idea of what it might actually require to bring down capitalism. As if all it needed was some sort of critical mass of activists occupying offices to be reached and then we’d have a revolution…

The form of activism has been preserved even while the content of this activity has moved beyond the form that contains it. We still think in terms of being ‘activists’ doing a ‘campaign’ on an ‘issue’, and because we are ‘direct action’ activists we will go and ‘do an action’ against our target. The method of campaigning against specific developments or single companies has been carried over into this new thing of taking on capitalism. We’re attempting to take on capitalism and conceptualising what we’re doing in completely inappropriate terms, utilising a method of operating appropriate to liberal reformism. So we have the bizarre spectacle of ‘doing an action’ against capitalism – an utterly inadequate practice.

Roles
The role of the ‘activist’ is a role we adopt just like that of policeman, parent or priest – a strange psychological form we use to define ourselves and our relation to others. The ‘activist’ is a specialist or an expert in social change – yet the harder we cling to this role and notion of what we are, the more we actually impede the change we desire. A real revolution will involve the breaking out of all preconceived roles and the destruction of all specialism – the reclamation of our lives. The seizing control over our own destinies which is the act of revolution will involve the creation of new selves and new forms of interaction and community. ‘Experts’ in anything can only hinder this.

The Situationist International developed a stringent critique of roles and particularly the role of ‘the militant’. Their criticism was mainly directed against leftist and social-democratic ideologies because that was mainly what they encountered. Although these forms of alienation still exist and are plain to be seen, in our particular milieu it is the liberal activist we encounter more often than the leftist militant. Nevertheless, they share many features in common (which of course is not surprising).

The Situationist Raoul Vaneigem defined roles like this: “Stereotypes are the dominant images of a period… The stereotype is the model of the role; the role is a model form of behaviour. The repetition of an attitude creates a role.” To play a role is to cultivate an appearance to the neglect of everything authentic: “we succumb to the seduction of borrowed attitudes.” As role-players we dwell in inauthenticity – reducing our lives to a string of clichés – “breaking [our] day down into a series of poses chosen more or less unconsciously from the range of dominant stereotypes.”[4] This process has been at work since the early days of the anti-roads movement. At Twyford Down after Yellow Wednesday in December 92, press and media coverage focused on the Dongas Tribe and the dreadlocked countercultural aspect of the protests. Initially this was by no means the predominant element – there was a large group of ramblers at the eviction for example.[5] But people attracted to Twyford by the media coverage thought every single person there had dreadlocks. The media coverage had the effect of making ‘ordinary’ people stay away and more dreadlocked countercultural types turned up – decreasing the diversity of the protests. More recently, a similar thing has happened in the way in which people drawn to protest sites by the coverage of Swampy they had seen on TV began to replicate in their own lives the attitudes presented by the media as characteristic of the role of the ‘eco-warrior’.[6]

“Just as the passivity of the consumer is an active passivity, so the passivity of the spectator lies in his ability to assimilate roles and play them according to official norms. The repetition of images and stereotypes offers a set of models from which everyone is supposed to choose a role.”[7] The role of the militant or activist is just one of these roles, and therein, despite all the revolutionary rhetoric that goes with the role, lies its ultimate conservatism.

The supposedly revolutionary activity of the activist is a dull and sterile routine – a constant repetition of a few actions with no potential for change. Activists would probably resist change if it came because it would disrupt the easy certainties of their role and the nice little niche they’ve carved out for themselves. Like union bosses, activists are eternal representatives and mediators. In the same way as union leaders would be against their workers actually succeeding in their struggle because this would put them out of a job, the role of the activist is threatened by change. Indeed revolution, or even any real moves in that direction, would profoundly upset activists by depriving them of their role. If everyone is becoming revolutionary then you’re not so special anymore, are you?

So why do we behave like activists? Simply because it’s the easy cowards’ option? It is easy to fall into playing the activist role because it fits into this society and doesn’t challenge it – activism is an accepted form of dissent. Even if as activists we are doing things which are not accepted and are illegal, the form of activism itself – the way it is like a job – means that it fits in with our psychology and our upbringing. It has a certain attraction precisely because it is not revolutionary.

We Don’t Need Any More Martyrs
The key to understanding both the role of the militant and the activist is self-sacrifice – the sacrifice of the self to ‘the cause’ which is seen as being separate from the self. This of course has nothing to do with real revolutionary activity which is the seizing of the self. Revolutionary martyrdom goes together with the identification of some cause separate from one’s own life – an action against capitalism which identifies capitalism as ‘out there’ in the City is fundamentally mistaken – the real power of capital is right here in our everyday lives – we re-create its power every day because capital is not a thing but a social relation between people (and hence classes) mediated by things.

Of course I am not suggesting that everyone who was involved in June 18th shares in the adoption of this role and the self-sacrifice that goes with it to an equal extent. As I said above, the problem of activism was made particularly apparent by June 18th precisely because it was an attempt to break from these roles and our normal ways of operating. Much of what is outlined here is a ‘worst case scenario’ of what playing the role of an activist can lead to. The extent to which we can recognise this within our own movement will give us an indication of how much work there is still to be done.

The activist makes politics dull and sterile and drives people away from it, but playing the role also fucks up the activist herself. The role of the activist creates a separation between ends and means: self-sacrifice means creating a division between the revolution as love and joy in the future but duty and routine now. The worldview of activism is dominated by guilt and duty because the activist is not fighting for herself but for a separate cause: “All causes are equally inhuman.”[8]

As an activist you have to deny your own desires because your political activity is defined such that these things do not count as ‘politics’. You put ‘politics’ in a separate box to the rest of your life – it’s like a job… you do ‘politics’ 9-5 and then go home and do something else. Because it is in this separate box, ‘politics’ exists unhampered by any real-world practical considerations of effectiveness. The activist feels obliged to keep plugging away at the same old routine unthinkingly, unable to stop or consider, the main thing being that the activist is kept busy and assuages her guilt by banging her head against a brick wall if necessary.

Part of being revolutionary might be knowing when to stop and wait. It might be important to know how and when to strike for maximum effectiveness and also how and when NOT to strike. Activists have this ‘We must do something NOW!’ attitude that seems fuelled by guilt. This is completely untactical.

The self-sacrifice of the militant or the activist is mirrored in their power over others as an expert – like a religion there is a kind of hierarchy of suffering and self-righteousness. The activist assumes power over others by virtue of her greater degree of suffering (‘non-hierarchical’ activist groups in fact form a ‘dictatorship of the most committed’). The activist uses moral coercion and guilt to wield power over others less experienced in the theology of suffering. Their subordination of themselves goes hand in hand with their subordination of others – all enslaved to ‘the cause’. Self-sacrificing politicos stunt their own lives and their own will to live – this generates a bitterness and an antipathy to life which is then turned outwards to wither everything else. They are “great despisers of life… the partisans of absolute self-sacrifice… their lives twisted by their monsterous asceticism.”[9] We can see this in our own movement, for example on site, in the antagonism between the desire to sit around and have a good time versus the guilt-tripping build/fortify/barricade work ethic and in the sometimes excessive passion with which ‘lunchouts’ are denounced. The self-sacrificing martyr is offended and outraged when she sees others that are not sacrificing themselves. Like when the ‘honest worker’ attacks the scrounger or the layabout with such vitriol, we know it is actually because she hates her job and the martyrdom she has made of her life and therefore hates to see anyone escape this fate, hates to see anyone enjoying themselves while she is suffering – she must drag everyone down into the muck with her – an equality of self-sacrifice.

In the old religious cosmology, the successful martyr went to heaven. In the modern worldview, successful martyrs can look forward to going down in history. The greatest self-sacrifice, the greatest success in creating a role (or even better, in devising a whole new one for people to emulate – e.g. the eco-warrior) wins a reward in history – the bourgeois heaven.

The old left was quite open in its call for heroic sacrifice: “Sacrifice yourselves joyfully, brothers and sisters! For the Cause, for the Established Order, for the Party, for Unity, for Meat and Potatoes!”[10] But these days it is much more veiled: Vaneigem accuses “young leftist radicals” of “enter[ing] the service of a Cause – the ‘best’ of all Causes. The time they have for creative activity they squander on handing out leaflets, putting up posters, demonstrating or heckling local politicians. They become militants, fetishising action because others are doing their thinking for them.”[11]

This resounds with us – particularly the thing about the fetishising of action – in left groups the militants are left free to engage in endless busywork because the group leader or guru has the ‘theory’ down pat, which is just accepted and lapped up – the ‘party line’. With direct action activists it’s slightly different – action is fetishised, but more out of an aversion to any theory whatsoever.

Although it is present, that element of the activist role which relies on self-sacrifice and duty was not so significant in June 18th. What is more of an issue for us is the feeling of separateness from ‘ordinary people’ that activism implies. People identify with some weird sub-culture or clique as being ‘us’ as opposed to the ‘them’ of everyone else in the world.

Isolation
The activist role is a self-imposed isolation from all the people we should be connecting to. Taking on the role of an activist separates you from the rest of the human race as someone special and different. People tend to think of their own first person plural (who are you referring to when you say ‘we’?) as referring to some community of activists, rather than a class. For example, for some time now in the activist milieu it has been popular to argue for ‘no more single issues’ and for the importance of ‘making links’. However, many people’s conception of what this involved was to ‘make links’ with other activists and other campaign groups. June 18th demonstrated this quite well, the whole idea being to get all the representatives of all the various different causes or issues in one place at one time, voluntarily relegating ourselves to the ghetto of good causes.

Similarly, the various networking forums that have recently sprung up around the country – the Rebel Alliance in Brighton, NASA in Nottingham, Riotous Assembly in Manchester, the London Underground etc. have a similar goal – to get all the activist groups in the area talking to each other. I’m not knocking this – it is an essential pre-requisite for any further action, but it should be recognised for the extremely limited form of ‘making links’ that it is. It is also interesting in that what the groups attending these meetings have in common is that they are activist groups – what they are actually concerned with seems to be a secondary consideration.

It is not enough merely to seek to link together all the activists in the world, neither is it enough to seek to transform more people into activists. Contrary to what some people may think, we will not be any closer to a revolution if lots and lots of people become activists. Some people seem to have the strange idea that what is needed is for everyone to be somehow persuaded into becoming activists like us and then we’ll have a revolution. Vaneigem says: “Revolution is made everyday despite, and in opposition to, the specialists of revolution.”[12]

The militant or activist is a specialist in social change or revolution. The specialist recruits others to her own tiny area of specialism in order to increase her own power and thus dispel the realisation of her own powerlessness. “The specialist… enrols himself in order to enrol others.”[13] Like a pyramid selling scheme, the hierarchy is self-replicating – you are recruited and in order not to be at the bottom of the pyramid, you have to recruit more people to be under you, who then do exactly the same. The reproduction of the alienated society of roles is accomplished through specialists.

Jacques Camatte in his essay ‘On Organization’[14] makes the astute point that political groupings often end up as “gangs” defining themselves by exclusion – the group member’s first loyalty becomes to the group rather than to the struggle. His critique applies especially to the myriad of Left sects and groupuscules at which it was directed but it applies also to a lesser extent to the activist mentality.

The political group or party substitutes itself for the proletariat and its own survival and reproduction become paramount – revolutionary activity becomes synonymous with ‘building the party’ and recruiting members. The group takes itself to have a unique grasp on truth and everyone outside the group is treated like an idiot in need of education by this vanguard. Instead of an equal debate between comrades we get instead the separation of theory and propaganda, where the group has its own theory, which is almost kept secret in the belief that the inherently less mentally able punters must be lured in the organisation with some strategy of populism before the politics are sprung on them by surprise. This dishonest method of dealing with those outside of the group is similar to a religious cult – they will never tell you upfront what they are about.

We can see here some similarities with activism, in the way that the activist milieu acts like a leftist sect. Activism as a whole has some of the characteristics of a “gang”. Activist gangs can often end up being cross-class alliances, including all sorts of liberal reformists because they too are ‘activists’. People think of themselves primarily as activists and their primary loyalty becomes to the community of activists and not to the struggle as such. The “gang” is illusory community, distracting us from creating a wider community of resistance. The essence of Camatte’s critique is an attack on the creation of an interior/exterior division between the group and the class. We come to think of ourselves as being activists and therefore as being separate from and having different interests from the mass of working class people.

Our activity should be the immediate expression of a real struggle, not the affirmation of the separateness and distinctness of a particular group. In Marxist groups the possession of ‘theory’ is the all-important thing determining power – it’s different in the activist milieu, but not that different – the possession of the relevant ‘social capital’ – knowledge, experience, contacts, equipment etc. is the primary thing determining power.

Activism reproduces the structure of this society in its operations: “When the rebel begins to believe that he is fighting for a higher good, the authoritarian principle gets a fillip.”[15] This is no trivial matter, but is at the basis of capitalist social relations. Capital is a social relation between people mediated by things – the basic principle of alienation is that we live our lives in the service of some thing that we ourselves have created. If we reproduce this structure in the name of politics that declares itself anti-capitalist, we have lost before we have begun. You cannot fight alienation by alienated means.

A Modest Proposal
This is a modest proposal that we should develop ways of operating that are adequate to our radical ideas. This task will not be easy and the writer of this short piece has no clearer insight into how we should go about this than anyone else. I am not arguing that June 18th should have been abandoned or attacked, indeed it was a valiant attempt to get beyond our limitations and to create something better than what we have at present. However, in its attempts to break with antique and formulaic ways of doing things it has made clear the ties that still bind us to the past. The criticisms of activism that I have expressed above do not all apply to June 18th. However there is a certain paradigm of activism which at its worst includes all that I have outlined above and June 18th shared in this paradigm to a certain extent. To exactly what extent is for you to decide.

Activism is a form partly forced upon us by weakness. Like the joint action taken by Reclaim the Streets and the Liverpool dockers – we find ourselves in times in which radical politics is often the product of mutual weakness and isolation. If this is the case, it may not even be within our power to break out of the role of activists. It may be that in times of a downturn in struggle, those who continue to work for social revolution become marginalised and come to be seen (and to see themselves) as a special separate group of people. It may be that this is only capable of being corrected by a general upsurge in struggle when we won’t be weirdos and freaks any more but will seem simply to be stating what is on everybody’s minds. However, to work to escalate the struggle it will be necessary to break with the role of activists to whatever extent is possible – to constantly try to push at the boundaries of our limitations and constraints.

Historically, those movements that have come the closest to de-stabilising or removing or going beyond capitalism have not at all taken the form of activism. Activism is essentially a political form and a method of operating suited to liberal reformism that is being pushed beyond its own limits and used for revolutionary purposes. The activist role in itself must be problematic for those who desire social revolution..

Notes
1) To my knowledge the article has been translated into French and published in Je sais tout (Association des 26-Cantons, 8, rue Lissignol CH-1201 Genève, Suisse) and in Échanges No. 93 (BP 241, 75866 Paris Cedex 18, France). It has been translated into Spanish and published in Ekintza Zuzena (Ediciones E.Z., Apdo. 235, 48080 Bilbo (Bizkaia), Spanish State). It has been republished in America in Collective Action Notes No. 16-17 (CAN, POB 22962, Baltimore, MD 21203, USA) and in the UK in Organise! No. 54 (AF, c/o 84b Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7QX, UK). It is also available on-line at: http://www.infoshop.org/octo/j18_rts1.html#give_up and http://tierra.ucsd.edu/~acf/online/j18/reflec1.html#GIVE If anyone knows of any other places it has been reproduced or critiqued, I would be grateful to hear of them, via Do or Die.

2) Squaring up to the Square Mile: A Rough Guide to the City of London (J18 Publications (UK), 1999) p.8

3) ‘Direct Action: Six Years Down the Road’ in Do or Die No. 7, p.3

4) Raoul Vaneigem – The Revolution of Everyday Life, (Left Bank Books/Rebel Press, 1994) – first published 1967, pp.131-3

5) ‘The Day they Drove Twyford Down’ in Do or Die No. 1, p.11

6) ‘Personality Politics: The Spectacularisation of Fairmile’ in Do or Die No. 7, p.35

7) Op. Cit. 4, p.128

8) Op. Cit. 4, p.107

9) Op. Cit. 4, p.109

10) Op. Cit. 4, p.108

11) Op. Cit. 4, p.109

12) Op. Cit. 4, p.111

13) Op. Cit. 4, p.143

14) Jacques Camatte – ‘On Organization’ (1969) in This World We Must Leave and Other Essays (New York, Autonomedia, 1995)

15) Op. Cit. 4, p.110

Give up activism – Postscript

Many of the articles printed in the Reflections on June 18th pamphlet repeated almost to the onset of tedium that capitalism is a social relation and isn’t just to do with big banks, corporations or international financial institutions. It’s an important point and worth making, but ‘Give up Activism‘ had other fish to fry.

Therefore the conclusion reached by these other articles was the point of departure for this one – if it is true that capitalism is a social relation based in production and in the relations between classes then what implications does this have for our activity and for our method of attacking it? The basic kernel of the piece and the initial idea that inspired the writing of it is the ‘Form and Content’ section. It had occurred to many people that there was something a little odd about a ‘day of action against capitalism’. The original inspiration behind the article was an attempt to pin down what it was that made the idea appear a little odd, incongruous, contradictory.

It seemed there was a similarity between the way we were carrying on acting like liberal activists campaigning against capitalism as if it was another single issue, another ’cause’, and Vaneigem’s critique of the leftist militant, whose politics consist of a set of duties carried out on behalf of an external ’cause’. It is true that the activist and the militant share this common factor, but it is about all they have in common. I made the mistake of carrying over all the other characteristics attributed by Vaneigem to ‘the militant’ and assigning them also to the activist, when they largely weren’t appropriate. As a result, large sections of ‘Give up Activism’ come across as far too harsh and as an inaccurate representation of the direct action movement. The Situationists’ characteristic bile was perhaps more appropriate when directed at leftist party hacks than as a description of the sort of politics involved around June 18th. The self-sacrifice, the martyrdom and guilt that Vaneigem identified as central to the politics of ‘the militant’ is much less a feature of direct action politics, which to the contrary is more usually criticised for the opposite failing of lifestylism.

As has been very neatly drawn out by an excellent critique in the American publication The Bad Days Will End!,1 the original idea that motivated the writing of the article and this rehashing of Vaneigem, translating the critique of the leftist ‘militant’ into that of the liberal ‘activist’, are incongruously roped together to produce an article which is an unwieldy amalgam of the objective (What social situation are we in? What forms of action are appropriate?) and the subjective (Why do we feel like activists? Why do we have this mentality? Can we change the way we feel about ourselves?). It is not so much that the subjective aspect of activism is emphasised over the objective, but rather more that the very real problems that are identified with acting as activists come to be seen to be mere products of having this ‘activist mentality’. ‘Give up Activism’ can then be read such that it seems to reverse cause and effect and to imply that if we simply ‘give up’ this mental role then the objective conditions will change too:

“[Give up Activism’s] greatest weakness is this one-sided emphasis on the ‘subjective’ side of the social phenomenon of activism. The emphasis points to an obvious conclusion implicit throughout [the] argument: If activism is a mental attitude or ‘role’, it may be changed, as one changes one’s mind, or thrown off, like a mask or a costume… The implication is clear: cease to cling, let go of the role, ‘give up activism’, and a significant impediment to the desired change will be removed.”2

The article was of course never proposing that we could simply think ourselves out of the problem. It was intended merely to suggest that we might be able to remove an impediment and an illusion about our situation as one step towards challenging that situation, and from that point that we might start to discover a more effective and more appropriate way of acting.

It is now clear that the slipshod hitching of Vaneigem to a enquiry into what it was that was incongruous and odd in having a one-day action against capitalism was an error, prompted by an over-hasty appropriation of Situationist ideas, without considering how much of a connection there really was between them and the original idea behind the piece. The theory of roles is perhaps the weakest part of Vaneigem’s ideas and in his ‘Critique of the Situationist International’, Gilles Dauvé even goes so far as to say: “Vaneigem was the weakest side of the SI, the one which reveals all its weaknesses”.3 This is probably a little harsh. But nevertheless, the sort of degeneration that Situationist ideas underwent after the post-1968 disintegration of the SI took the worst elements of Vaneigem’s “radical subjectivity” as their starting point, in the poorest examples effectively degenerating into bourgeois individualism.4 That it is this element of Situationist thought that has proven the most easily recuperable should give us pause for thought before too-readily taking it on board.

Revolution in Your Head
This over-emphasis in ‘Give up Activism’ on the theory of roles and on the subjective side of things has led some people to fail to recognise the original impetus behind the piece. This starting point and presupposition was perhaps not made clear enough, because some people seem to have assumed that the purpose of the article was to make some kind of point concerning individual psychological health. ‘Give up Activism’ was not intended to be an article about or an exercise in radical therapy. The main intention of the article, however inexpertly executed, was always to think about our collective activity – what we are doing and how we might do it better.

However, there was a point to the ‘subjectivism’ of the main part of the article. The reason why ‘Give up Activism’ was so concerned with our ideas and our mental image of ourselves is not because I thought that if we change our ideas then everything will be alright, but because I had nothing to say about our activity. This was very clearly a critique written from the inside and thus also a self-critique and I am still very much involved in ‘activist’ politics. As I made plain, I have not necessarily got any clearer idea than anyone else of how to go about developing new forms of action more appropriate to an ‘anti-capitalist’ perspective. June 18th was a valiant attempt to do just this, and ‘Give up Activism’ was not a criticism of the action on June 18th as such. I certainly couldn’t have come up with anything much better myself.

Although the piece is called ‘Give up Activism’, I did not want to suggest at all that people stop trashing GM crops, smashing up the City and disrupting the gatherings of the rich and powerful, or any of the other myriad acts of resistance that ‘activists’ engage in. It was more the way we do these things and what we think we are doing when we do them that I was seeking to question. Because ‘Give up Activism’ had little or nothing to recommend in terms of objective practical activity, the emphasis on the subjective made it seem like I thought these problems existed only in our heads.

Of course, thinking of ourselves as activists and as belonging to a community of activists is no more than a recognition of the truth, and there is nothing pathological in that. The problem I was trying to make clear was the identification with the activist role – being happy as a radical minority. I intended to question the role, to make people dissatisfied with the role, even while they remained within it. It is only in this way that we stand a chance of escaping it.

Obviously we are constrained within our specific circumstances. During an ebb in the class struggle, revolutionaries are in even more of a minority than they are in any case. We probably don’t have any choice about appearing as a strange subculture. But we do have a choice about our attitude to this situation, and if we come to ditch the mental identification with the role then we may discover that there is actually some room for manoeuvre within our activist role so that we can try and break from activist practice as far as we are able. The point is that challenging the ‘subjective’ element – our activist self-image – will at least be a step towards moving beyond the role in its ‘objective’ element also. As I said in ‘Give up Activism’, only with a general escalation of the class struggle will activists be able to completely ditch their role, but in the meantime: “to work to escalate the struggle it will be necessary to break with the role of activists to whatever extent is possible – to constantly try to push at the boundaries of our limitations and constraints.” Which was precisely the point of the article.

For if we cannot even think beyond the role now, then what hope have we of ever escaping it? We should at the very least be dissatisfied with our position as a radical minority and be trying to generalise the struggle and make the necessary upturn happen. Doing away with the activist mentality is necessary but not sufficient for doing away with the role in practice.

Up the Workers!
Although ‘Give up Activism’ neglected to recommend any actual change in behaviour outside of saying that we needed one, perhaps now it would be appropriate to say something about this. How can we bring ‘politics’ out of its separate box, as an external cause to which we dedicate ourselves?

Many of the criticisms of the direct action movement revolve around similar points. Capitalism is based on work; our struggles against it are not based on our work but quite the opposite, they are something we do outside whatever work we may do. Our struggles are not based on our direct needs (as for example, going on strike for higher wages); they seem disconnected, arbitrary. Our ‘days of action’ and so forth have no connection to any wider on-going struggle in society. We treat capitalism as if it was something external, ignoring our own relation to it. These points are repeated again and again in criticisms of the direct action movement (including ‘Give up Activism’ but also in many other places).

The problem is not necessarily that people don’t understand that capital is a social relation and that it’s to do with production as well as just banks and stock exchanges, here as well as in the Third World or that capital is a relation between classes. The point is that even when all of this is understood our attitude to this is still as outsiders looking in, deciding at what point to attack this system. Our struggle against capitalism is not based on our relation to value-creation, to work. On the whole the people who make up the direct action movement occupy marginal positions within society as the unemployed, as students or working in various temporary and transitory jobs. We do not really inhabit the world of production, but exist largely in the realm of consumption and circulation. What unity the direct action movement possesses does not come from all working in the same occupation or living in the same area. It is a unity based on intellectual commitment to a set of ideas.

To a certain extent ‘Give up Activism’ was being disingenuous (as were many of the other critiques making similar points) in providing all these hints but never spelling out exactly where they led, which left the door open for them to be misunderstood. The author of the critique in The Bad Days Will End! was right to point out what the article was indicating but shied away from actually mentioning: the basic thing that’s wrong with activism is that it isn’t collective mass struggle by the working class at the point of production, which is the way that revolutions are supposed to happen.

The sort of activity that meets the criteria of all the criticisms – that is based on immediate needs, in a mass on-going struggle, in direct connection to our everyday lives and that does not treat capital as something external to us, is this working class struggle. It seems a little unfair to criticise the direct action movement for not being something that it cannot be and has never claimed to be, but nevertheless, if we want to move forward we’ve got to know what we’re lacking.

The reason that this sort of working class struggle is the obvious answer to what we are lacking is that this is THE model of revolution that the last hundred years or so has handed down to us that we have to draw upon. However, the shadow of the failure of the workers’ movement still hangs over us. And if this is not the model of how a revolution might happen, then what is? And no one has any very convincing answers to that question.

A Vociferous Minority
So we are stuck with the question – what do we do as a radical minority that wants to create revolution in non-revolutionary times? The way I see it at the moment, we basically have two options. The first is to recognise that as a small scene of radicals we can have relatively little influence on the overall picture and that if and when an upsurge in the class struggle occurs it probably won’t have much to do with us. Therefore until the mythical day arrives the best thing we can do is to continue to take radical action, to pursue politics that push things in the right direction and to try and drag along as many other people as possible, but basically to resign ourselves to that fact that we are going to continue to be a minority. So until the point when some sort of upturn in the class struggle occurs it’s basically a holding operation. We can try and stop things getting worse, have a finger in the dam, try and strategically target weak points in the system where we think we can hit and have some effect, develop our theory, live our lives in as radical a way as possible, build a sustainable counter culture that can carry on doing these things in the long term… and hopefully when one day, events out of our control lead to a general radicalisation of society and an upturn in the class struggle we will be there ready to play some part and to contribute what things we have learnt and what skills we have developed as a radical subculture.

The flaw in this sort of approach is that it appears almost like another sort of ‘automatic Marxism’ – a term used to poke fun at those Marxists who thought that a revolution would happen when the contradictions between the forces and the relations of production had matured sufficiently, when the objective conditions were right, so that revolution almost seemed to be a process that happened without the need for any human involvement and you could just sit back and wait for it to happen. This sort of idea is a flaw carried over into ultra-left thinking. As is explained in The Bad Days Will End!, many ultra-left groups have recognised that in periods of downturn, they are necessarily going to be minorities and have argued against compensating for this with any kind of party-building or attempts to substitute their group for the struggle of the proletariat as a whole. Some ultra-left groups have taken this line of thinking to its logical conclusion and have ended up turning doing nothing into a political principle. Of course our response would not be to do nothing, but nevertheless, the point remains that if everyone similarly just waited for an upsurge to happen then it certainly never would. Effectively by just waiting for it to happen we are assuming that someone else will do it for us and maintaining a division between us and the ‘ordinary’ workers who will make this happen.

The alternative to this scenario is to stop thinking of the ebb and flow of the class struggle as like some force of nature that just comes and goes without us being able to effect it at all, and to start thinking about how to build class power and how to end the current disorganised and atomised state of workers in this country. The problem is that over the last twenty or so years, the social landscape of the country has changed so fast and so rapidly that it has caught us on the hop. Restructuring and relocation have fractured and divided people. We could try and help re-compose a new unity, instead of just being content with doing our bit and waiting for the upturn, to try and make this upturn happen. We will probably still be acting as activists, but to a lesser extent, and at least we will be making it more possible for us to abolish activism altogether in the future.

One way of doing this is suggested in the critique in The Bad Days Will End!:

“Perhaps, then, the first steps towards a genuine anti-activism would be to turn towards these specific, everyday, ongoing struggles. How are the so-called ‘ordinary’ workers resisting capitalism at this time? What opportunities are already there in their ongoing struggles? What networks are already being built through their own efforts?”5

A current example of exactly this sort of thing is the investigation into call centres initiated by the German group Kolinko, which is mentioned in The Bad Days Will End! and was also contributed to in the recent Undercurrent No. 8.6 The idea of this project is that call centres represent the ‘new sweatshops’ of the information economy and that if a new cycle of workers’ resistance is to emerge anywhere then this might just be the place.

It is perhaps also worth considering that changing circumstances might work to our advantage – the restructuring of the welfare state is forcing more and more activists into work. For example the call centre enquiry project mentioned above could represent a good opportunity for us as call centres are exactly the sort of places where people forced off the dole end up working and exactly the sort of temporary and transient jobs in which those involved in the direct action movement end up working also. This certainly could help make the connection between capitalism and our own immediate needs, and perhaps might allow us to better participate in developing new fronts in the class struggle. Or the increased imposition of work could just end up with us even more fucked over than we are at present, which is obviously what the government are hoping. They are attempting to both have their cake and eat it – trying to turn the clock back and return to days of austerity and privation while gambling that the working class is so atomised and divided by twenty years of attacks that this will not provoke a return of the struggle that originally brought about the introduction of these amelioration measures in the first place. Only time will tell whether they are to be successful in their endeavour or whether we are to be successful in ours.

In conclusion, perhaps the best thing would be to try and adopt both of the above methods. We need to maintain our radicalism and commitment to direct action, not being afraid to take action as a minority. But equally, we can’t just resign ourselves to remaining a small radical subculture and treading water while we wait for everyone else to make the revolutionary wave for us. We should also perhaps look at the potential for making our direct action complement whatever practical contribution to current workers’ struggles we may feel able to make. In both the possible scenarios outlined above we continue to act more or less within the activist role. But hopefully in both of these different scenarios we would be able to reject the mental identification with the role of activism and actively try to go beyond our status as activists to whatever extent is possible.

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PS: A critique of the anti-capitalist movement that J18 helped give birth to, can be read here: You Make Plans, We Make History

Today in London’s sporting history, 1837: protestors invade the Kensington Hippodrome to re-open a blocked footpath

“From the most distant part of the metropolis they can ride in the omnibus, for sixpence, to the Hippodrome…’

“As long as the off-scourings of Kensington and its neighbourhood, backed by the redoubtable vestry of that parish, are allowed to intrude themselves into the grounds, it would seem that a much larger attendance of the police were absolutely indispensable.” (The Times)

The Kensington Hippodrome was a racecourse built in Notting Hill, London, in 1837, by entrepreneur John Whyte, who leased 140 acres (0.57 km2) of land from James Weller Ladbroke, owner of the Ladbroke Estate, who was in the process of developing much of his lands for housing. Whyte then enclosed “the slopes of Notting Hill and the meadows west of Westbourne Grove” with a 7-foot (2.1 m) high wooden fence.

The area bounded by the Portobello and Pottery lanes was laid out with 3 circular tracks; a steeplechase, a flat racecourse, and a pony and trap course; and was also to be used for training, ‘shooting with bow and arrow at the popinjay, cricketing, revels and public amusements.’ The stables and paddocks were situated alongside Pottery Lane.
The Notting Hill grassy knoll (where St John’s church now stands) was railed in as a “natural grandstand”, from which spectators could watch the races. The main public entrance was situated in Portobello Lane, at the point where Kensington Park Road now joins Pembridge Road, and through a gate at the end of Ladbroke Terrace, corresponding with the present gate into Ladbroke Square Garden.

[Interestingly, the southernmost section of the racecourse must have been built on or very close to what had been Kensington Gravel pits (which lay just to the north of modern Holland Park Tube to the west of Ladbroke Grove), where gravel was previously dug for road-laying, and also a sometime meeting place – in 1786/7: London bookbinders met there to plan a strike to try to get their 84-hour working week reduced…]

Whyte’s race course was an ambitious venture, his intention being to build a rival to the well established race courses of Epsom and Ascot. When the Hippodrome opened, Sporting magazine’s correspondent described it as “the most perfect race-course I have ever seen”, ” a racing emporium more extensive and attractive than Ascot or Epsom. . . . An enterprise which must prosper. . . . It is without competitor, and it is open to the fertilization of many sources of profit. . . . A necessary of London life, of the absolute need of which we were not aware until the possession of it taught us its permanent value.” It is stated to be eminently suitable for horse exercise especially ” for females,” for whom ” it is without the danger or exposure of the parks,” whilst the view from the centre is ” as spacious and enchanting as that from Richmond Hill, and where almost the only thing that you cannot see is London.”

The Hippodrome opened ‘under promising auspices’ on June 3 1837. ‘Splendid equipages’ and ‘gay marquees, with all their flaunting accompaniments, covered the hill, filled with all the good things of this life.’ The Sporting Magazine reporter prophetically summed up the first meeting and the area’s future with: “Another year, I cannot doubt, is destined to see it rank among the most favourite and favoured of all the metropolitan rendezvous, both for public and private recreation.” There were no drinking or gambling booths, and the prices charged were ‘strictly moderate’. Among the stewards were such ” dandies ” and leaders of society as Lord Chesterfield and Count D’Orsay.

But other reviews were less favourable; in one the horses were described as ‘animated dogs’ meat.’ The Times described the racetrack as a “disgusting … petty botheration” and cried “shame upon the people of Kensington” for permitting it.

For a (very) short while, the Hippodrome seemed on course to become a popular destination, a cross between Aintree and Glastonbury…

But, just as with Glastonbury back in its heyday, lots of people objected to paying to get in, and found other ways in – over, or through, the fence.

There had been some vocal opposition to the erecting of the racetrack ,some of which at least seems to have been based on the loss of open fields and public rights of way. A public footpath went straight through the land enclosed by Whyte’s fences. The path led from the present junction of St. Mark’s Road and Cambridge Gardens, running south-easterly, crossing the hill by the curve of Stanley Crescent and descended to Uxbridge Road by Ladbroke Place, as the north end of Ladbroke Grove was called then. Described as a ” public road ” in 1820, it led through the farmyard of Notting Hill Farm and communicated with Kensington by Lord Holland’s Lane. This right of way gave people a good legal argument for ignoring the fence, and would lead to the parish officials from Kensington Vestry getting involved…

There was also opposition to the Hippodrome on moral grounds  – racing directly encouraged gambling, and indirectly encouraged drinking, smoking, indecent behaviour and probably also riotousness… The temperance and moral reforming opinion of the day was that opening a racecourse was a green light to sin.

The racetrack bordered on the “Potteries and Piggeries” of Pottery Lane, at that Point then a notorious slum known as “cut-throat lane”, where a spot of mugging wasn’t unknown. Many of its inhabitants were skint and had a loose respect for entry fees. The footpath also allowed people to avoid walking down ‘Cut-Throat Lane’, so blocking it off also annoyed a more respectable demographic…

The opening day, June 3rd, saw a mass crowd invasion through a hole in the fence. Locals cut the hole through the paling, with hatchets and saws, where it blocked the public footpath to Notting Barns farm. Of the 12 to 14,000 in attendance, it was estimated that most hadn’t paid: “some thousands thus obtained gratuitous admission.” These “unappealing visitors”, accustomed to “villainous activities” were at least in part not the class of customers that John Whyte had in mind. The Times correspondent complained of “the dirty and dissolute vagabonds of London, a more filthy and disgusting crew … we have seldom had the misfortune to encounter.”

Whyte had the hole blocked up the hole with clay and turf: but if he thought that would end the matter, he would soon think again. By this point, either the invaders had never quite been as disreputable as the Times made out, or the blocking of the footpath and unwillingness to pay to get into the Hippodrome had spread to higher castes in the parish, as parish officials now got involved.

On June 17th 1837, “local inhabitants and labourers, led by the parish surveyor and accompanied by the police”, asserted their rights to walk the footpath, taking the form of Beating the Bounds – the traditional ceremony of walking parish boundaries and marking them every year, a practical task that had over time assumed a ritual role, and was often used to note down or demolish unsanctioned enclosures, buildings or attempts to move borders and fences.

The officials may have been co-opted by a crowd, or acted out of strict respect for parish rights. In any case, they re-opened the traditional footpath, by reinstating the original entrance hole, and knocking another hole in the fence on the other side of the racetrack to make a northern exit. Once this was achieved, these community activists gathered on Notting Hill to give three loud cheers for the parish of Kensington. It was noted that the crowd was a mix of the ‘righteous’ and the ‘unrighteous’: the footpath protestors “seem as a rule to have been orderly enough, but gipsies, prigs (thieves) and hawkers did not neglect the opportunity of mingling with the nobility and gentry.” As with many gardens and parks, the exclusion of the undeserving poor was a must. For lots of the local poor, the beating of the parish bounds offered a chance to cock a snook at the respectable and enjoy the sport for free…

The involvement of parish officials in maintaining the rights of way and preventing or removing what they could prove were illegal enclosures or encroachments on parish land and parochial rights may seem surprising when harnessed to invasion of the racecourse. However, this is far from a unique event – from the early days of enclosure parish busybodies were in fact heavily involved in ruling some enclosures illegal, even in actively tearing them down. The local disputes over private individuals fencing off land or blocking traditional paths and routes in their own interest led to continual splits in local bodies – not all the worthies were in favour of such landgrabs, either due to actual principled stands, local rivalries, or in some cases pedantic insistence on statute and local bylaw. Check out this enclosure battle from nearby Westminster in 1592.
And similarly, a local vicar was involved in the Richmond Park trespass in 1751.

The Times, already heavily prejudiced against the opening of the racecourse, was further enraged by the involvement of the parish officers in this action:

“The great annoyance experienced by the respectable company at the Hippodrome, from the ingress of blackguards who enter by the ‘right of way’, ought, at once, to convince the Kensington people of the impolicy, as well as the injustice of the steps they have taken in reference to this ground… The very urchins who were made the instruments of this piece of contemptible parochial tyranny, will, in after life, blush for the action. We allude to the little boys who accompanied the beadles and ‘old women’, in beating the boundaries of the parish. The reckless injury occasioned to the property, perhaps, is a minor consideration, when compared with the inconvenience attendant now upon the impossibility of keeping out any ruffian or thief who may claim his ‘right of way’ on the footpath… shame upon the people of Kensington!’”  (The Times, 1837)

The Times also reported somewhat inconsistently on the 4th Hippodrome meeting: “It is true that a large portion of the assemblage consisted of the dirty and dissolute, to whom the disputed path affords a means of ingress; but there was still a sufficient muster of the gay and fashionable to assure the proprietor that a purveyor of manly national sports will find no lack of powerful and flattering support from the largest and richest metropolis in the world… As long as the off-scourings of Kensington and its neighbourhood, backed by the redoubtable vestry of that parish, are allowed to intrude themselves into the grounds, it would seem that a much larger attendance of the police were absolutely indispensable.”

Local feeling was still very much against the racecourse. Petitions to close it were circulated, the Kensington Vestry asked Parliament for the closure of the racecourse, and the question was discussed by the Court of King’s Bench and before Parliament.

In order to pacify both the moral opposition and the local roughs, Mr. Whyte and his business partners promised to reform certain evils on the premises, and to admit the public free on Sundays, and for a charge of twopence on certain holidays. However, the moral reformers saw the latter proposal as a desecration of the Sabbath, when they thought no sport should take place at all. Although there restrictions on gambling and drinking within the Hippodrome, it merely took place instead in nearby “gambling houses, gin-shops, beerhouses, etc.,” which had increased in number, attracting all sorts of undesirables, “the scum and offal of London assembled in the peaceful hamlet of Notting Hill.”
Reminding us of the local middle class petitions against Camberwell Fair and other annual shindigs.

A year later the pathway was fenced off by an iron railing. But before the beginning of the 1839 racing season, Mr. Whyte gave up the contest and abandoned occupation of the eastern half of ‘Hippodrome Park’, which included the disputed pathway. However, the race-course was extended to the north-west, just avoiding the footpath from Wormwood Scrubs, (now St. Quintin Avenue). The Park became a bulb-shaped piece of land which reached as far as Latimer Road, and the race-course formed a loop on the western side of the training ground.

Portobello Lane was now connected by road with a new entrance on the top of the hill. (Part of this road was unearthed when a potato patch was made in Ladbroke Square Garden in 1916.) As part of this new extension, the old public way from Notting Barns to Uxbridge Road seems to have been cut through and done away with without any protest.

Apart from losing income to ‘trespassers’ and now having pissed off the parish sticklers for probity, Whyte had other serious problems, however. The next scheduled race-meeting had to be suddenly relinquished on account of the death of William IV on 20th June 1837. The sale of the royal stud after the king’s death was also a serious blow to horse-racing in general.

The ground was also shifting beneath Whyte’s feet… Heavy clay soil was characteristic of the neighbourhood, which was how the neighbouring Potteries had evolved – high quality clay was dug for brick making at Pottery Lane. This made for poor drainage, which meant the training ground became regularly waterlogged and was unusable for long periods. From 1837 to 1842 just 13 race meetings were held, with many jockeys refusing to take part, saying that the heavy clay ground made riding too dangerous.

A drawing by Kathleen McIlvenna showing the racecourse superimposed upon a modern street plan.

Two stewards of the Hippodrome, Lord Chesterfield and Count D’Orsay, attempted to improve the deteriorating image of the racecourse by changing its name to “Victoria Park, Bayswater”, after the new Queen Victoria. But in order to pay for the extensive alterations the charges for admission had to be doubled. Pedestrians paid two and sixpence instead of one shilling, and a four-wheeled carriage cost ten shillings instead of five.

However, the Hippodrome continued to haemorrhage money, and in 1842 Whyte gave up the struggle, and relinquished his lease back to James Weller Ladbroke. The summit of the hill quickly reverted to open country. Shortly thereafter Ladbroke resumed the development of the Ladbroke Estate, building crescents of houses on Whyte’s circular race track.

 

 

Uncrowned Kings: Slavery, Wealth and Statues in London – Part 2

Slavery, Wealth and Statues in London – Part 2

Following on from our earlier post, on London statues that commemorate slave-trades, slave owners and slavery apologists and other racists…

It’s also instructive to illustrate that slave trading and slave plantation-owning meant big bucks – not all of it was invested in commissioning bronze or stone idols of the wealthy…

In London as in the UK as a whole – there’s just too much to even list when it comes to slavery-related wealth, and how that wealth was then ploughed into buying land, big houses, investing in industries.

Just to concentrate on ONE small area of South-East London – around Deptford, Lee and Blackheath – just as an example. You can broaden this out to any number of areas in the capital, and beyond; slave-sweated millions funded everything from educational institutions to art galleries, from factories to fashion… It’s estimated that the British Industrial Revolution could not have had anything like the scope that it did without the huge amounts of ready cash swilling around derived from slave-trading, supplying the plantations and selling the sugar and other products slaves made cheaply.

Deptford

Deptford Dockyard was an important naval dockyard and base at Deptford on the River Thames, in what is now the London Borough of Lewisham, operated by the Royal Navy from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. It built and maintained warships for 350 years. Over the centuries, as Britain’s Imperial expansion, based heavily on its naval seapower, demanded more and more ships, and the royal dockyards like Deptford, Woolwich, Chatham and Portsmouth were often busy, and grew larger and larger, employing more and more workers.

Deptford became an important seafaring and trading centre. Ships were built, fitted out and stocked with provisions here before being launched on voyages around the world, and were repaired here when they returned. Royal Navy ships sailing from Deptford protected Britain’s growing empire and trade routes. The early English Navy played a huge part in the beginnings of the Atlantic Slave trade.Traders and explorers also sailed from the dockyards. People interested in sea voyaging came to Deptford, hoping for support from the king or financial backing from rich London merchants.

Ships began sailing to Africa from here as early as the 16th century, and possibly before. While rumours of gold were an important initial impetus to enterprise with Africa and slaves became of paramount significance, other items of trade should not be overlooked. Hides, camwood, indigo, cotton, resin, soap and ivory from elephants and hippos also attracted London sea traders and their merchant backers to West Africa.

Many sea captains owned or stayed in houses close to the dockyard. During the seventeenth century many of the wealthy merchants involved in trade with Africa lived houses nearby in Deptford Green, Lee or Blackheath. Hoping to make big profits, they invested money in ships that sailed to Africa to trade for exotic goods and capture African people, who were shipped across the Atlantic to work as slaves on plantations in the British colonies in the Caribbean. The ships returned to Deptford where the sugar, tobacco and other crops produced by these plantations were unpacked and stored before being sold. This became known as the Triangular Trade.

Captain John Hawkins was the first English slave trader – historian Joan Anim-Addo describes him as “the English father of the Atlantic Slave Trade”.
Hawkins and his cousin Francis Drake found fame as prominent ‘privateers’ (licensed pirates) operating against the Spanish Empire’s ships in the Caribbean, and gradually beginning to trade in the area.
“A feature of the shipping engaged in West Indian privateering… [was] the overwhelming predominance of Londoners. There are forty-one ships mentioned herein whose port of origin has been traced; thirty-one were from London.” (Kenneth Andrews) The Royal Dockyard at Deptford played a significant role in London’s privateering ventures.

He was appointed Treasurer of the Royal Navy and lived at the Treasurer’s House at Deptford dockyards. On his first voyage he captured 300 Africans and took them to the Caribbean, selling them to the Spanish settlers there in exchange for animal skins, ginger, sugar and pearls. These were very exotic goods then, and made Hawkins a fortune when he sold them to London merchants. This was the beginning of the triangular trade across the Atlantic.

Hawkins and other pioneering seamen found on the coast of Africa local people skilled in the manufacture of trading commodities such as pepper and cloth, and African traders, manufacturers and skilled artisans in organised communities. This was not widely reported: the distorted representation of African lifestyle and patterns of existence, portraying them as savages with no real culture; this was given prominence in the century to follow, as English slave trading took root. In fact, traders were met by organised groups skilled in defending the waterways, particularly the rivers leading upstream into the heart of Africa. The coastal Africans, they found, had an established maritime culture, with skilled handling of the canoe a speciality. Naval forces consisting of small, specialised African crafts were initially able to repel Europe’s sophisticated maritime war machinery.

Hawkins made four slave trading voyages to Sierra Leone, sailing from Deptford, between 1564 and 1569; Queen Elizabeth I backed him, sending navy ships to protect his slave ships.

John Hawkins Coat of Arms

When John Hawkins was knighted by the Queen he had a crest of arms drawn up that included a picture of an African bound with ropes, acknowledging the money he made from captured Africans.

John Hawkins’ brother-in-law Edward Fenton also traded for slaves in Sierra Leone. He was buried at St Nicholas’ church in Deptford, which is named after the patron saint of sailors. In the church there is also a statue of Hawkins’ brother William, another slave trader.

The Pett family were master shipbuilders in Deptford for several generations and built many of the ships that were involved in the Atlantic trade. The timber for shipbuilding came from their estate near Chiselhurst (now called Petts Wood). 

Deptford was a place of arrivals and departures. Many British people who owned or ran plantations and went to live in the Caribbean set sail from Deptford. Many people of African origin who came to Britain landed at Deptford. Some were sailors and some were brought to work in Britain as slaves or servants.

In 1652, Oliver Cromwell was a regular visitor to Deptford to oversee the building of two ships The James and The Diamond, ships which formed part of a fleet Cromwell sent in 1654 to capture Jamaica from the Spanish, where sugar plantations were established worked by African slaves. After the restoration of the Stuart monarchy, Deptford royalist John Evelyn was appointed to the Kings’ Council for Foreign Plantations in 1671, set up to advise King Charles II on how to govern his new colonies (where slaves worked on the plantations). He was also treasurer of the Royal Hospital for Seamen in Greenwich, which is now the Old Royal Naval College and was not far from Sayes Court. John Evelyn’s wife’s family had been naval administrators for many generations and their home, Sayes Court, was sandwiched between the dockyard and the victualling yards.

Samuel Pepys, born in London in 1633, is famous for his diary, which records the details of his life from 1660 until 1669. In 1673 he was made Secretary to the Admiralty. Naval ships were sent by the Admiralty to protect British colonies, particularly to the West Indies with its profitable sugar plantations.

Samuel Pepys was also a shareholder in the Royal Adventurers into Africa, a company set up by London merchants, which traded with West Africa and transported enslaved Africans in company ships to work on plantations.

The Pepys Estate in Deptford is named after Samuel Pepys. From 1665 to 1673 he was Surveyor-General of the Victualling. Where the Pepys Estate now stands was the site of the Red House stores, where ships were victualled (stocked with food and other provisions). Records show that the Red House warehouses were also used to store tobacco grown and cut by African slaves, which had been shipped to Deptford from plantations in Jamaica.

Captain Bligh, of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, set sail from Deptford on a later voyage in 1791, sailing for the South Seas to collect breadfruit trees from Tahiti. He landed 347 trees at Port Royal, Jamaica, in 1793. Bligh’s plan was to grow breadfruits on the plantations in the Caribbean as cheap food for slaves. The breadfruit grew well and became essential part of the diet of the enslaved Africans, along with yam and plantain. By giving slaves food that was cheap to grow, the plantation owners could make a bigger profit. What the enslaved Africans preferred to eat was not taken into consideration.

Robert Blake, statue, Deptford Town Hall

Deptford Town Hall, built in 1905, houses three statues of slave pioneers (and imperial heroes) Francis Drake, Robert Blake and Horatio Nelson:

  • Sir Francis Drake (c. 1540 – 1596) was a pioneer of the slave trade making at least three royally sponsored trips to West Africa to kidnap Africans and sell them. Elizabeth I awarded Drake a knighthood in 1581 which he received on the Golden Hind in Deptford.
  • Robert Blake (1598 – 1657) was an admiral who served under Oliver Cromwell throughout the English Civil War. He fought the Dutch to secure the trade triangle between the Caribbean, West Africa and England. Cromwell was responsible for trafficking the first waves of

    Francis Drake statue, Deptford Town Hall

    enslaved people to and from the Caribbean; installing the plantation system in Jamaica; and the massacres in Drogheda (1649).

  • Horatio Nelson (1758 – 1805), was a naval flag officer whose leadership is credited with a number of decisive British victories, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815). Nelson spent a large part of his career in the Caribbean and developed an affinity with the slave owners there, using his influence to argue against the abolitionist movement in Britain.

This building is now managed by Goldsmiths University

A debate has been going on there, stimulated by Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Action, a BME-led student protest group launched in 2019. Their protests led to accurate descriptions being published on Goldsmiths website to ‘help reinterpret the building’s history through a contemporary lens”.

Goldsmiths Deptford Town Hall, SE14 6AF


Land and Lordships

The involvement of Deptford ships in slaving led to huge profits for some merchants – some of this money as spent buying up or building posh houses to show off and enjoy these ill-gotten gains.

Lewisham areas such as Lee and Deptford saw massive change as a result of a national thrust towards quick profits. Enriched slaving merchants used their new profits to buy land and titles, symbols of status and power. Areas like Lewisham, Lee and Blackheath were popular neighbourhoods with some of the men who made fortunes selling human flesh.

Take one example: the Manor House at Lee, near Lewisham. In Henry VIl’s reign the manor house of Lee was set in 575 acres of arable land, an area larger than some West Indian islands. Between the mid-16th century  and the early 1700s, the land was bought and sold many times over – often from one slave-trader to another.

A number of the wealthier local residents profited directly from the African Caribbean trade and plantations. John Thomson, son of Maurice Thomson, leased Lee House for three years after his father’s death. Like many whose wealth was founded on slavery, he became a member of ‘the mother of parliaments’, was knighted and was later made Baron Haversham. His wife, Frances Annesley, was a member of an old Lee family. Her father, Arthur Annesley, Earl of Anglesey, successively President of the Council of State and Treasurer of the Navy, amd Lord Privy Seal, had a hand in the many decisions affecting the governing of newly founded slave-based colonies in the West Indies, including petitions from Maurice Thomson and other merchants.

Another Lee resident, William Coleman, was a factor or agent based in London. Coleman’s wife was related to one of the Deputy Governors of the Caribbean island of St Christopher. He made a pile from trade with the West Indies, specifically arranging credit to individual planters, then importing their goods and exporting them supplies – for a fat commission. Coleman took up residence at the Manor House in Lee around 1750. Already 66 when he bought the property, Coleman made a number of further property purchases which extended the family estate locally. In February 1748 part of Lee Farm had been added. In April 1766 more land was acquired.

As a young man in the 1720s, Coleman had been the London agent for the West Indian proprietor and planter John Pinney and his heirs. Pinney was a plantation owner on the island of Nevis. (Pinney himself may have been associated with Lee).

John Pinney, a ‘respected and responsible’ planter with political clout in Nevis, treated his slaves in the manner of the times. Profit from sugar was all-consuming. Pinney is reputed to have made his (black) sugar boiler test the sugar before by making him dip thumb and forefinger into the scalding syrup to see whether the sugar that stuck had boiled to the right consistency.

Thomas Lucas was nephew and partner to William Coleman. Their firm, Coleman & Lucas, did lots of business with John Pinney in Nevis until 1773. (Some property purchased by Coleman at Lee was possibly an investment on behalf of Lucas). When Coleman died, some 88 years old in 1771, his chief heir was Thomas Lucas whose inheritance included not only the manor house at Lee but also property in the West Indies. Lucas’ influence with Nevis Governor Woodley ensured John Pinney’s son, John Pinney the younger,  was appointed to a seat on the council of Nevis.

Economic power in the West Indies meant wealth, which meant political power in the islands, and guaranteed political power in Westminster. The ‘West India Lobby’ evolved a connected, influential network which worked for their own interests above all. Thomas Lucas was elected an MP for Cornwall in 1780, became treasurer of Guy’s Hospital in 1764, and its president in 1775. When he lost his Parliamentary seat four years later, one of the new MPs for his area was Francis Baring, (who also succeeded him in his residence at Lee).

Lucas established a family tomb at St Margaret’s, Lee. His first wife was buried there in 1756 and his second wife in 1776. On his own death in 1784 most of his property passed to his third wife, Eliza, who subsequently married John Angerstein of Greenwich (see below), taking her inherited property into her marriage with him.

Francis Baring was apprenticed to the leading Manchester and West Indies merchant Samuel Touchet. Baring’s rise to power an influence was meteoric: he allegedly made his first money out of dealing in slaves while still a very young man of 16 (though where did he get the money to buy them?). He became a household name in banking and finance. He joined the Baring family business (oh, THAT’s where he got his money aged 16!); they traded in linen and wool. Francis developed this into a merchant banking house. (Capitalism being the bastard child of textiles and banking since its very birth). Baring was made a baronet in 1793: three years later he purchased the manor house and estate in Lee. He enlarged the estate and built the present day Lee Manor House. By 1815 Baring’s had become the largest and richest merchant banking house in the country.
Baring operated at the highest level of finance and politics for the time: director of the East India Company, adviser to government, financier in the French Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars… slave trading was only a part of his top-flight manipulation in the formative years of UK capitalism….
Barings Bank of course hit the international spotlight in 1995 when a single broker, Nicholas Leeson, caused its bankruptcy. Baring even got his own street named after him in Lewisham – Baring Road, Lee, which runs from the South Circular up to Grove Park.

The Slavers of Blackheath

In the 18th century, around 20 merchants lived in houses around the edge of Blackheath: a fair number of them were deeply involved in the slave trade and slave plantations.

William Innes lived in Grotes Place. He was a leading West India merchant and supporter of the slave trade. Thomas King, of Dartmouth Grove, was a partner in the firm of slave agents Camden, Calvert & King. At one time the company is thought to have owned one in every five slave ships that sailed from London to Africa. Francis Abbatt was a shipping merchant and made much of his wealth shipping slaves. He is now most remembered for founding the Royal Blackheath Golf Club, thought to be the oldest golf club in Great Britain.

Local historians think the golf course became an ideal place for merchants involved in the slave trade to share ideas and make trading agreements.

Members of the golf club included:
Thomas King, (see above)

Francis Baring, of Lee, above.

Ambrose Crowley, an iron merchant who manufactured iron manacles, shackles and collars used on slave ships. These were used to stop enslaved Africans from fighting back, and to stop them committing suicide by throwing themselves overboard, which some Africans chose to do to escape a life of slavery.

In 1744, Alderman Samuel Fludyer purchased the prestigious Dacre House in Blackheath, adding a cherry orchard to the estate. Samuel and Thomas Fludyer were partners in a well-known firm of warehousemen and merchants, who traded widely, supplying the West Indies plantations with goods.

In 1747 the wealthy alderman is reputed to have spent the considerable sum of £1,500 on his campaign to be elected for Parliament. Fludyer was an associate of William Beckford, Alderman, MP, and massive slave plantation owner – the ‘uncrowned King of Jamaica’. Samuel was elected MP for Chippenham in 1754.

The most famous of the Blackheath slave-owning businessmen was John Julius Angerstein, founder of Lloyds of London, set up to insure slave ships and co-owned plantations in Grenada.. A cautious businessman, Angerstein made much of his wealth through East Indian trade, but he inherited extensive West Indian business interests, through his wife’s earlier marriage to Thomas Lucas (see above). He owned a third share in a slave estate in Grenada, one of the islands that fell under English control at the end of the Anglo-French Seven Years War (1756-63).

Angerstein built Woodlands House, Mycenae Road, Blackheath between 1772 and 1774; in the latter year he drew up the policies on which Lloyds’ insurance business is still based. Angerstein’s painting collection later became the foundation for the National Gallery.

He was also a Churchwarden at St Alfege’s church in Greenwich. Inside the church, near the west door there is a memorial stone to him. Angerstein Wharf, Horn Road, in Charlton, also is also named for him.

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The above reflects a small part of the wealth slave-trading brought to one part of London. Pan that out across the capital, across the country. Whatever change the Black Lives Matter movement can bring to bear on the present and the future, understanding how kidnapping, exploitation and genocide of Africans profited the ruling elites in the UK, and fed into the culture, is crucial. It’s not erasing history to draw attention to statues, memorials and street names that honour these wealthy men, or to point out where their wealth came from, and what that money created and contributed to.

Some great investigative work has been and is being done in many areas… check out Inside Croydon with some research into slave-ownership, in another South London manor, Croydon…

More info on who owned slaves – not just who traded them and profited from this hour-industry – can be found at Legacies of British Slave-ownership 

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Set against the luxurious homes and self-congratulatory memorials of the golfing slave-trading elite, there is of course the mirror image of their lives – the lives of the Black Africans they shipped in, shipped out, bought and sold; ownership of and attendance from personal Black slaves and later Black servants was prestigious in itself, like a kind of exotic badge of your status. British plantation-owners, merchants and naval officers often brought their slaves with them when they returned to from their plantations.

But Black people and their descendants made independent lives as well, although expansive monuments to their passing through are fewer…

Deptford was the first place any slaves brought to England in the early days of the trade may have disembarked. African Olaudah Equiano – who fought to become a freed man and was one of the key figures in the slave abolitionist movement – was initially trafficked to Deptford, as related in his autobiographical Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano’:

“we… arrived at Deptford the 10th of December, where we cast anchor just as it was high water. The ship was up about half an hour, when my master ordered the barge to be manned; and all in an instant, without having before given me the least reason to suspect anything of the matter, he forced me into the barge; saying, I was going to leave him, but he would take care I should not… he swore I should not move out of his sight; and if I did he would cut my throat, at the same time taking his hanger. I began, however, to collect myself and, plucking up courage, I told him I was free, and he could not by law serve me so… just as we had got a little below Gravesend, we came alongside of a ship which was going away the next tide for the West Indies; her name was the Charming Sally, Captain James Doran; and my master went on board and agreed with him for me; and in a little time I was sent for into the cabin. When I came there Captain Doran asked me if I knew him; I answered that I did not; Then, said he, ‘you are now my slave’.”

In 1772: “a Captain at Deptford beat his Negro boy in so cruel a manner that he died”.

The earliest known record of a black person living in Deptford is a record in the parish register of the burial in 1593 of ‘Cornelius a Blackamoor’ on 2nd March at St Margaret’s church in Lee. Black people were often referred to as “Negroes” and “blackamoors” at this time. There is no information in the record about Cornelius’s age, his job or his family.

There are no records to show how many black people lived in London in Cornelius’s lifetime: enough, though, to provoke decrees from Queen Elizabeth I that there were too many and they should be expelled. The total number of people living in London then is also unknown. Many historians agree that during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the number of black people living in London increased. Historian Steve Martin estimates that by the end of the eighteenth century London was home to 10,000 to 15,000 people of African origin, among a total of 800,000 residents. Enough lived around central London to form networks and communities: a number gathered, for instance, to hold a party celebrate Lord Mansfield’s court ruling in 1772 that transporting slaves onto British shores was demonstrably illegal.

From the evidence provided by parish registers we know that many black people lived in and around Deptford in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These records, now held in local archives, show that increasing numbers of black people were baptised or buried at St Nicholas’ church and St Paul’s church in Deptford; St Margaret’s Church in Lee and St Alfege’s Church in Greenwich. Deptford and Greenwich were home to a lot of people who worked at the dockyards or on board ships. It is likely that many were of African origin. Archaeological excavations at the burial ground at the old Greenwich naval hospital (now the Royal Naval College) showed that two sailors buried there were African. Parish registers show that black mariners were buried at St Paul’s church in Deptford. Other archive records show that a black seaman who lived in Deptford led a mutiny on the ship, the Zant in 1721, because “we had too many Officers, and that the work was too hard.”

Samuel Pepys, the famous London diarist, wrote in his diary in April 1669: “for a cookmaid, we have… used a blackmoore of Mr. Batelier’s, Doll, who dresses our meat mighty well.” We do not know any more of Doll’s story, but perhaps when she came to London she arrived at Deptford.

Not all black people who came to London were slaves. Many were free people and some decided to settle in or near Deptford, where the ships they arrived in had landed. Most people of African origin who lived in London had jobs and lived as ordinary members of the working class. Only a few, like Olaudah Equiano, were members of the middle and upper classes. Many black people in London, like many white people, lived in poverty, and there are very few detailed records of their lives. There are very few details of the lives of poor people living in London at this time as most could not write, and so were unable to write diaries, letters or books about their lives.

Belinda Charlton was baptised at St Margaret’s church, Lee on 13th June 1725. Her baptism record shows that she was born in 1705, and she was described as a ‘black maid lodging at Blackheath’. She was not described as ‘servant of’ or ‘belonging to’ someone, which might have been written in the record if she was a slave. In the eighteenth century it was thought that people who were baptised could not be made slaves, and baptism became a sign of being free. So Belinda Charlton may have been a free woman, perhaps working in one of the large houses owned by wealthy merchants in Lee and Blackheath. From the record in the parish register we do not know Belinda’s age, place of origin or when she died.

It is likely that some of the black people living in south London in the eighteenth century had been soldiers. Thousands of Black people who had fought on the side of the British in the American War of Independence in 1776 came to Britain. Slaves who had fought in the war were promised their freedom and a pension. The British government never gave them their pensions, so many were forced to become beggars. 

As opposition to the slave trade began to grow in the eighteenth century, black people living or working in south London added their voices to the call for abolition. One group who we know about were the Sons of Africa, who included Olaudah Equiano.

And in the centuries since, Lewisham, Deptford, New Cross and other parts of South East London have become home to large Black communities – many descended from the slaves shipped to the Caribbean by Angerstein, Hawkins and their ilk… The presence of so many Africans has always enraged racists, especially those who love to celebrate the Empire, Britain’s glorious naval past, etc – all built on selling human beings for profit. But attempts to drive Back people out from this area have met with fierce resistance – witness the Battle of Lewisham and the Black People’s Day of Action,

It’s racism that tries to erase history – not toppling statues. 

Down Off Your Pedestals: Slavery, Wealth and Statues in London – Part 1

Down Off Your Pedestals

Slavery, Wealth and Statues in London – Part 1

Suddenly statues, the people they represent and the symbolic struggles they either depict or conceal are big news…

The dumping of a statue of slave-trading worthy Edward Colston into the dock in Bristol by Black Lives matter protestors has brought the issue of how historical figures are represented in public, what interests these monuments serve, and opened up discussions about whether these statues should be left where they are, removed to museums, or toppled.

Outrage has erupted at the protestors ‘erasing history’ – outrage usually expressed by people who either wilfully or ignorantly would rather obscure Britain’s central role in the horrific genocidal slave trade; for whom profits made from mass kidnapping and naked exploitation are fine (especially if some of it was later spent on charitable works), but people angrily demanding that Black people in the present not be murdered by police are transgressing the ‘ways things are done’.

Go through the ‘proper channels’, demonstrators are told (although campaigners have been trying to get Colston’s bronze moved through lobbying and debate for years, always blocked by powerful and wealthy interests).

Well, Colston is in the proper channel now…

The authorities plan to chase people they’ve identified as being involved in the toppling; it’s great to cheer as movements topple things, but lets not forget to support those who the state targets

Local authorities, museums and institutions are hurrying to show their anti-racist credentials by removing some of these statues. Removing SYMBOLS of racism, slavery and oppression can, however, be an effective way of diverting a movement of rage and fire for justice, into a concentration on symbols, rather than reality. A smokescreen for a lack on concrete change behind the symbols. Changing the present and the future is the whole point of raising the past, exposing the history that the schoolbooks distort and the bronze and marble seeks to obscure: to paraphrase one campaigner “Destroying Racist Statues… we should be focussed on removing Racist Statutes…” (Stafford Scott)

The direct action of the Bristol protestors has pushed the question of racist monuments forward, though. Far from erasing history, it is engaging people with history and the continuing legacy of racism and Empire; on an exciting scale.

Given how much of the UK’s wealth and power derived from the slave trade, the money it generated and the seapower it helped build (leading to Empire) – there’s a lot of symbolism about. A lot of places, streets, named for slave-owners; a lot of buildings and institutions paid for by slave deaths. Many schools, galleries, museums enabled by charitable funds – funds from selling human beings. Lots of nice stonework and statuary representing the egos of these dealers in flesh.

Streets, squares, mansions, stations, all named by and for the particularly successful vampires of humanity.

Streets can be renamed; statues can be pulled down. It would be useful to have a proper conversation about commemoration in public art – who gets put up (overwhelmingly rich, powerful, white, male) – and who doesn’t.

Structural racism, continuing power in the world based on a history of colonial conquest and plunder of which slavery was not only integral but one of the founding principles – these will take longer to dismantle, and symbolic actions will no longer be enough. Nor will lip service from the institutions of power and control, from the corporations that continue to plunder the world, and from the lying cheating ruling castes that inherit the wealth created by slavery and maintain exploitation of human life for their profits (if organised more cunningly).

A world view that looks on British history with a rosy glow and dreams of empire, that tries to ignore the shiteness of its own life by identifying with the murder of ‘foreigners’, with a false sense of superiority of whiteness, will not be sustainable.

Tipping a piece of outdated bronze into a dock helps to bring these debates into focus; apart from being a brilliant grassroots response! – to the defence of Colston’s statue by racists, tory councillors, the Merchant Venturers (chaired by a CEO of a construction firm deeply implicated in blacklisting union activists). We don’t have to wait for ‘democratic’ bodies to fail to act – we can act ourselves, today.

In London too, there are lots of statues of questionable heritage; by definition most public statuary commemorates the powerful, the wealthy, the elites, the (almost all male) owners and landlords, CEOs and conquerors, politicians and warmongers.

Even if you JUST concentrate on those statues that depict slave-owners or slave-traders, there’s a few targets in the capital. (Though this station is in rapid flux; some of these may be gone or scheduled to be removed, by the time you read this!)

“A significant proportion of the individuals commemorated by public statues in London during the long eighteenth century had important links with the slave-trade or plantation slavery and that these links need to be unearthed, contextualised and made explicit.

In London this is as true as anywhere. Londons massive part in the slave trade has often been underplayed in history.

Although Bristol and Liverpool’s connections to slavery are more well-known, London did play a huge role in the development of the slave trade, and City merchants profited hugely from trafficking in slaves and the plantations they worked.

From the earliest days city merchants invested heavily in the slave trade and in West Indies plantations, many making huge fortunes… A large proportion of London’s Lord Mayors, aldermen and sheriffs in the 17th and 18th centuries were involved, many being shareholders in the Royal African Company, which ran ships to Africa and slaves from there to the Caribbean.

City financiers also underwrote and financed much of the trade in other ports. By 1750 London merchants were handling about 75 percent of sugar imported into Europe, and much of the profits were ploughed back into plantations and slave trading. Many of today’s banks amassed huge wealth this way, including Barclays and Barings, but most of all the Bank of England. A huge and powerful West India lobby grew up in the City, forming political blocs in City government and parliament, which could pass measures favouring plantation owners economically and resisted abolition or reform of the plantation system and slave trade for decades. Profits from slavery and the sugar trade also played a substantial part in funding investment into Britain’s burgeoning industrial Revolution.
It was also the West India lobby whose pressure led to the building of East London’s West India Dock, secure, with its own police force, largely as a measure against the systematic mass theft by dockworkers and other Eastenders of sugar and other goods from ships moored in the open Thames. (A spin-off of this was the creation of the Thames River Police, who not only foreshadowed the Met, but were also involved in control and repression of the dockworkers who unloaded goods, attacking their attempts to organise for better conditions.)

“The actual buying and selling of slaves was only one of many ways to make money out of slavery. Fortunes were also reaped through shipping. Great sums grew from commission agencies supplying the growing population in the West Indies with a range of commodities from manacles to foodstuffs. Plantation owners bought their labour cheap and sold their sugar as, competitively as the market allowed. Despite fluctuations, profits were enormous. London merchants were foremost among those to profit from slavery. They were the upwardly mobile’ of the era and their lavish carriages, social gatherings, fashionable clothes and the constant attendance of their black slaves marked them out as newly rich. With titles added where possible, they became members of the landed gentry. Many bought safe seats in Parliament.”

Just some statues worth attention:

The statue of Robert Milligan – owner of 526 slaves on two Jamaica plantations – has already been removed from London’s docklands by agreement between the Canal and River Trust and Tower hamlets Council, after long local campaigning the Colston furore has already caused Milligan’s downfall.

But there’s many more. Here’s just a few statues, and other monuments:

Sir Robert Clayton (1629–1707), Merchant and banker; London Alderman and Sheriff; Knighted 1771, Lord Mayor for London (1679–80), President St. Thomas’s Hospital; depicted in the gold chain of a Chief Magistrate and dressed in magnificent robes.
This marble statue originally stood at the main gate of Old St Thomas’s; Hospital in Southwark; it’s now in a small garden south of the north wing of St Thomas’s later Lambeth Palace Rd site.
Clayton was one of London’s powerful early merchant bankers and an early governor of the Bank of England: this statue was apparently commissioned by the Governors of St Thomas’s Hospital after he gave £600 for the hospital’s rebuilding. At Christ’s Hospital a tablet still proclaims his virtues as Hospital President and Vice President of the ‘New Work House’, ‘citizen and Lord Mayor of London’, ‘a bountiful benefactor’, ‘just magistrate’ and  a ‘brave defender of the Liberty and Religion’.

Clayton had longstanding connections with slavery. In 1659 he married Martha Trott, heiress of the London merchant Perient Trott, who traded in tobacco and who was a Director of the Somers Island Company, a chartered company formed for the colonisation of Bermuda. By 1667 Clayton too was listed as a director of this company. Within five years, Clayton had also obtained a place on the Court of Assistants (the management board) of the Royal African Company, which he held till 1681. During the 1680s he became well established as a factor in Bermuda at a time when the smuggling of slaves into the colony was rife. His influence in Bermuda was reportedly greater than that of the island’s Governor and in 1689 he was made a Commissioner of Customs.

Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1707) Physician, collector and writer; Member of the Royal College of Physicians, President of the Royal Society.
The original was moved from Chelsea Physic Garden (where there is now a replica) to the British Museum in 1985. Another replica stands in the centre of Sloane Square.
Author of The Natural History of Jamaica, Sloane is now best known as the founder of the British Museum and a President of the Royal Society. Yet his rise in London society was made possible by an astute marriage, in 1695, to a West Indian heiress. The daughter of the London Alderman John Langley, Elizabeth was a wealthy widow in her own right, having been previously married to the Jamaican sugar-plantation owner Fulk Rose. ‘The marriage was an advantageous one for Sloane, since his wife inherited not only her father’s estate but also one third of the income from her former husband’s properties in Jamaica.’ Sloane owned slaves and that financial dependence on slave-labour helped to underwrite his career as a ‘disinterested’ naturalist and medical man.

“Sloane spent 15 months in Jamaica in the late 1680s, a Jamaica increasingly devoted to slavery. During Sloane’s stay in Jamaica, the island had 40,000 slaves. Sloane’s views on race were often contradictory. He stood out among natural historians of his day in that he was willing to learn from people of colour, at least a little bit. He sometimes allowed that they could be worthwhile healers, though often dismissed them as ignorant and ineffectual. But he showed little evidence of a conscience plagued by the cruelties of slavery. He accommodated intimate access to female slaves by their white male masters. Always solicitous of his white patients, even when they were self-destructive, he generally accused slaves of faking their symptoms to avoid work. He despised “cunning” slave women who tried to abort their pregnancies and save their unborn children lives of bondage. He lived comfortably in a world where European planters ate prime cuts of beef and pork while their slaves subsisted on rotten meat and worms. Some slaves became so desperate and stressed that they resorted to eating soil.

From that time forward, the slave-farmed plantation system would line Sloane’s pockets. Given how much slave-plantation infrastructure enabled his collecting — and that of the people whose collections he later acquired — it’s undeniable that his natural history expertise and his collections owed their very existence to the slave trade.”

Sloane bequeathed his collection to the nation in his will and it became the founding collection of the British Museum – itself a repository for looted wealth grabbed from many nations and colonies around the world, often by military men in the course of their imperial adventures. A number of campaigns have been launched for the Museum to return these stolen artefacts to their original cultural homes…

Sir John Cass (1660–1718). Member of Carpenters Company and Skinners Company; MP for the City and Alderman of Portsoken Ward, 1710; Sheriff of London 1711; knighted 1712, MP for City of London  1899 replica of 1751 statue by Louis François Roubiliac (1702–1762). Façade of old Cass Foundation building, London Metropolitan University (ex Guildhall Univ.), Jewry St., EC3.
John Cass was also a Tory City Alderman, Sheriff of (then Member of Parliament for) the City of London. He was heavily involved in the slave-trade, being a member of the Royal African Company’s Court of Assistants from 1705 to 1708. The Company records show him (then ‘Colonel John Cass of Hackney’) to have been on their ‘committee of correspondence’ which directly dealt with slave-agents in the African forts and in the Caribbean. We know too that Cass retained shares in the Royal African Company until his death. Cass, like Clayton, also seems to have been linked by family and friends to colonial plantation interests, in his case to Virginia. Cass is still remembered as the founder of an educational charity.
Cass is also remembered  in the name of Cassland Road in Hackney (the Cass family owned land round here), Also see Sir John Cass Hall, student halls in Well Street… He’s remembered in Cass Business School – Bunhill Row, EC1: funded by the Sir John Cass Foundation – though London Metropolitan University has been announced that the Cass name will be removed from its Art, Architecture and Design faculty, formerly the Sir John Cass School of Art (a result of the Colston toppling).

Thomas Guy (1645–1774) Member of the Stationers Company; Philanthropist  in livery robe. Brass statue 1731–4 by Thomas Scheemakers (1691–1781).
There are two memorials to Guy at Guy’s Hospital
In the centre of the main entrance forecourt, Guy’s Hospital, St Thomas Street, SE1.
and In the chapel, Guy’s; Hospital, St Thomas Street, SE1.
Guy, the founder of Guy’s Hospital, was never a member of the Royal African Company – but he owned over £45,000 worth of South Sea Company shares – an exceptionally large stake in a company whose main purpose was to sell slaves to the Spanish Colonies. (He cleverly sold the shares at inflated prices shortly before the Companys bubble famously burst (link). It was from this that Guy ‘made his vast fortune’.

The earlier is a bronze statue sculpted by Thomas Scheermakers and erected in 1734. A relief at its base shows Guy offering a helping hand to a semi-naked white man, seated, who represents London’s sick poor. This motif is repeated in the later John Bacon memorial of 1774, in the chapel at Guy’s. There the pose of the sick man is revised in a way which interestingly anticipates a non-racialized variant of the ‘standing soldier and the kneeling slave’ image used in abolitionist propaganda.

William Beckford (1709–70). MP for Shaftesbury 1747–54 and for City of London 1754–1770 1755 Sheriff of London 1761 MP for City of London Lord Mayor of London 1762, 1769 and 1770. Monument by J. F. Moore, commissioned after Beckford’s; death. Stands in the Guildhall, the City of London’s ‘town hall’, Basinghall St, London , EC2V 7HH

Beckford, twice Lord Mayor, was the free-spending son of a wealthy sugar planter and owed much of his position to his ownership of some 3,000 Africans enslaved on his numerous Jamaican plantations. This celebratory monument to him was put up in London’s Guildhall soon after his death in 1770, where he was extolled for his vigorous defence of the ‘City’s traditional liberties – it shows Beckford flanked by the allegorical figures of Britannia and Commerce and evokes the virile energy of a man who, as it happens, was notorious for his rakish lifestyle. The irony implicit in portraying a slaveholder as an upholder of civic liberty seems to have escaped the notice of his Guildhall associates, though his slave-holding was criticised in other quarters.
Beckford was known as the uncrowned king of Jamaica; the most powerful figure in a ‘West India Lobby’ that grew strong enough to guarantee it could win votes in parliament to pass laws that favoured the slave trade and plantation interests, and block attempts to legislate against aspect of the trade. He was also instrumental, in his role as a City magistrate, in the setting up of labouring gangs on the London docks that acted as scab labour, especially during the 1768 river strike. Power over the London dock workers and power in the West Indies were two halves of the same coin.

Statues of slave pioneers (and imperial heroes) Francis Drake, Robert Blake and Horatio Nelson.

  • Sir Francis Drake (c. 1540 – 1596) was a pioneer of the slave trade making at least three royally sponsored trips to West Africa to kidnap Africans and sell them. Elizabeth I awarded Drake a knighthood in 1581 which he received on the Golden Hind in Deptford.
  • Robert Blake (1598 – 1657) was an admiral who served under Oliver Cromwell throughout the English Civil War. He fought the Dutch to secure the trade triangle between the Caribbean, West Africa and England. Cromwell was responsible for trafficking the first waves of enslaved people to and from the Caribbean; installing the plantation system in Jamaica; and the massacres in Drogheda (1649).
  • Horatio Nelson (1758 – 1805), was a naval flag officer whose leadership is credited with a number of decisive British victories, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815). Nelson spent a large part of his career in the Caribbean and developed an affinity with the slave owners there, using his influence to argue against the abolitionist movement in Britain.
  • All three statues stand at Goldsmiths University’s Deptford Town Hall building,  SE14 6AF, despite a student campaign for their removal.

Sir Henry De la Beche – name on front of Imperial College (old Royal School of Mines)
Royal School of Mines, Imperial College London, South Kensington Campus, , SW7 2AZ
Sir Henry De la Beche’s name is, among others, inscribed on the front of the geology dept at Imperial College. He was a slave owner who did his “seminal” geological work surveying his plantations, and was a vocal opposer of abolition. For over a year students have been trying to get a society at the college named after him to change too.

Robert Geffrye 
The Museum of the Home, Kingsland Road, E2 8EA
Robert Geffrye was an eminent East India Merchant, another Lord mayor of London. His statute is located on the Museum of the Home (until recently called The Geffrye Museum), which is housed in former Almshouses built from money left in his will
Geffrye made his fortune with the East India Company (who carried out imperial atrocities for profit in Asia for centuries) and the Royal African Company, and used this money to build the Alms Houses that became the Museum of the Home. The East India Company used military force to seize control of trading in Asia: goods like spices, silk, and tea were plundered and imported to the European market. The Company later imposed murderous regimes in India which led to genocide and mass starvation.

We could also rename Colston Road in Mortlake
Colston Road, SW14 7NX
As many people across the country now know,  Edward Colston was a slave trader who was head of the Royal African Company. During his time with the company, they transported an estimated 84,000 men, women and children. The names of these individuals are largely unknown today however, Colston’s name is memorialised throughout the UK. The statue in Bristol memorialising him was torn down yet there are other remnants of him around such as Colston Road in Mortlake.

PS” There are other racists, imperialists, eugenicists set in stone, some of which had hands in the slave trade. For example

Churchill’s statue previously decorate with a turf mohawk during the Mayday 2000 party

Winston Churchill
Parliament Square.
Where do you start? Racist, fan of eugenics, hater of Indians, native peoples everywhere, He said that he hated Chinese people, with “slit eyes and pig tails… the world will impatiently bear the existence of great barbaric nations who may at any time arm themselves and menace civilised nations. I believe in the ultimate partition of China – I mean ultimate. I hope we shall not have to do it in our day. The Aryan stock is bound to triumph.” To him, people from India were “the beastliest people in the world next to the Germans.” This may have influenced his thinking when he agreed policies that caused mass famine in Bengal in the 1940s.
Churchill was of the view that British domination, in particular through the British Empire, was a result of social Darwinism. He had a hierarchical perspective of race, believing white people were most superior and black people the lowest forms of human. Churchill advocated against black or indigenous self-rule in Africa, Australia, the Americas and the Caribbean. He admitted that he “did not really think that black people were as capable or as efficient as white people.” 

This is without even considering the large number of British people that Churchill hated – working class people, especially trade unionists, in particular. As Home Secretary he sent troops to repress South Wales striking miners, and threatened to bring machine guns into London to turn on striking train drivers. He did think that Britain needed a eugenics program to weed out the weak and inferior (including disabled and other races…) from the glorious national gene pool. His opposition to nazism was as opportunist in many ways as much of his political life: Churchill was also an avid admirer and follower of physicist Fredrick Lindemann, who regarded colonial subjects as “helots”, or slaves, whose only reason for existence was the service of racial superiors. Lindemann also supported scientific racism and mass lobotomies of Indians so that they would have “no thought of rebellion or votes, so that one would end up with a perfectly peaceable and permanent society, led by supermen and served by helots”.
We could always permanently restore the straitjacket mental health campaigners locked Winston in in 2004.

The Jan Smuts statue
Parliament square, SW1P 3JX
Jan Smuts was the instigator of segregation and apartheid in South Africa and is commemorated by a statue in Parliament Square, just across from the statue of Nelson Mandela, who devoted his life to tearing down the racist institutions Smuts built

Christopher Columbus
Belgrave Square Garden, Belgravia, London, SW1X 8PQ
Coloniser and slave trader. Abuser and exterminator of Native American indigenous communities.
Before his voyage to ‘discover’ two continents people by millions, Combus signed a contract promising the King and Queen of Spain rule over any lands he encountered and exploitation of their resources and people. In one particular note, he promised: “as much gold as they need and as many slaves as they ask.”

With an extensive arsenal of advanced weaponry/horses, Columbus and his men arrived on the islands that were later named Cuba and Hispaniola (present-day Dominican Republic / Haiti). Upon arrival, the sheer magnitude of gold, which was readily available, set into motion a relentless wave of murder, rape, pillaging, and slavery that would forever alter the course of human history.
A young, Catholic priest named Bartolomé de las Casas transcribed Columbus’ journals and later wrote about the violence he had witnessed. The fact that such crimes could potentially go unnoticed by future generations was deeply troubling to him. He expanded upon the extent of Columbus’s reign of terror within his multi-volume book entitled the “History of the Indies”:

“There were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over 3,000,000 people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it.”

After his second voyage, Columbus personally sent back a consignment of natives to be sold as slaves.

Several statues of Columbus in the US have bit the dust this week…

The Lendy Memorial Lion
Pantiles Court, 79 St The Walled Garden Thames, Thames St, TW16 6AB

Memorial statue to remember two colonising brothers, Captain Edward August Lendy & Captain Charles Frederick Lendy, both responsible for murdering African tribes with machine gun fire in the 1890s.

Statue of Charles James Napier
Trafalgar Square, WC2N 5DX

Napier was a general who led the military occupation of the Indian province of Sindh (now in Pakistan) in 1843 on behalf of the East India Company and was its colonial governor until 1847. Napier provoked a war with local leaders in order to provide a pretext for the occupation. Approximately 10,000 Indians were killed in the conquest. Napier’s view of effective colonial rule is summed up in his comment that: “if you get hold of any chap plundering your camels try what a flogging will do; but hang the next and keep his body guarded a sufficient time to hinder his people touching it: that will make the execution more effective.” He admitted that economic gain was the only purpose of the colonial violence he perpetrated: “Our object in conquering India, the object of all our cruelties was money.”

Statue of Robert Clive, Whitehall
King Charles St, Westminster, SW1A 2AQ

Clive looted India, and even if the profits of this hadn’t lined his own pockets, what he did was grotesque. His massive statue sits by the treasury. The statue was erected well after his death, and after the behaviour of Clive’s East India Company had been criticised widely in British society – even at the time. It was apparently pushed by Lord Curzon, who also presided over famine in India.

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This is barely a beginning. These are only the most obvious memorials – London is full of buildings, streets and institutions loaded with histories of exploitation. We can’t go back and alter that – but the past can be highlighted, discussed, laid bare, and names can be changed and monuments either demolished or moved to more suitable locations.

Two good sources for locations of statues, their meaning and symbolism: 

Topple the Racists which has handy maps for all of the UK!

Set In Stone, Statues and Slavery in London

There’s also an article here on when a lot of these statues were put up in the UK and US (rarely in the era the racists commemorated lived in, often much later), suggesting some thoughts on the motives in their erection, the social context of inequality at THAT time… Shoring up white supremacy and re-inforcing current imperial colonial policies decades or centuries later by celebrating historical slavers and defenders of slavery. Public monuments were ALWAYS already reflecting the dominant ideas of the era when they went up – so it’s no surprise that whether they should stay up reflects the struggles and contested views of our own time.

There’s also lots of statues and monuments that haven’t yet been flagged up – but that a bit of digging would provide some evidence of very nasty links.

It’s not erasing history to draw attention to statues, memorials and street names that honour these wealthy men, or to point out where their wealth came from, and what that money created and contributed to.

Some investigate work has been and is being done… check out one website with some research into just one area, Croydon.

More info on UK individuals and institutions who owned slaves – not just who traded them and profited from this horror-industry – can be found at Legacies of British Slave-ownership 

Colonial Countryside is also a great project – connecting young people with the colonialist past of Britain’s ‘great country houses’.

A couple of campaigns for statues to be erected we would flag up and support: for feminist pioneer Mary Wolstonecraft
and gay playwright Joe Orton
… but how about some statues commemorating some of the Black, Asian, migrant radicals who have helped shape the capital’s history: William Cuffay, Robert Wedderburn, Claudia Jones, Jayaben Desai, Olaudah Equiano, spring to mind off the top of my head… or proper memorials to the more than 1500 people who have been killed by police, or in police/prison custody in recent decades?

We might have to build them ourselves; rather than going through the ‘proper channels’.

Tomorrow – Slavery, Wealth and Statues in London, Part 2: ‘Uncrowned Kings’ – one small area of South East London, its links to slave trade and the wealth that it brought to the merchants who controlled it.

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For Entertainment Purposes Only: 

Some Advice from an Egyptologist:

For ANYONE who might be interested in how to pull down an obelisk (which might be masquerading as a racist monument) safely, from an Egyptologist, who never ever in a million years thought this advice might come in handy

The key to pulling one down is letting gravity work for you. Chances are good the obelisk extends into the ground a bit, so you want to get CHAINS NOT ROPE (it’s 2020 AD not BC; let metal work for you) extended tightly around the top (below pointy bit) and 1/3 down forming circles;

For every 10 ft of monument, you’ll need 40+ people. So, say, a 20 ft tall monument, probably 60 people. You want strong rope attached to the chain—rope easier to hold onto versus chain. EVERYONE NEEDS TO BE WEARING GLOVES FOR SAFETY; [not to mention fingerprints. Ed]

You probably want 150+ ft of rope x 2…you’ll want to be standing 30 feet away from obelisk so it won’t topple on you (safety! first!). This gives enough slack for everyone to hold on to rope, alternating left right left right. Here’s the hard part…pulling in unison;

You have two groups, one on one side, one opposite, for the rope beneath the pointy bit and the rope 1/3 down. You will need to PULL TOGETHER BACK AND FORTH. You want to create a rocking motion back and forth to ease the obelisk from its back;

I recommend a rhythmic song. YOU WILL NEED SOMEONE WITH A LOUDSPEAKER DIRECTING. There can be only one person yelling. Everyone will be alternating on rope left right left right not everyone on the same side. No one else near the obelisk! Safety first!

Start by a few practice pulls to get into it. Think of it like a paused tug of war, pull, wait 2, 3, 4, 5 PULL wait 2, 3 4,5. PULL AS ONE, PAUSE 5 SECONDS, you’ll notice some loosening, keep up the pattern…you may need more people, get everyone to pull!

Just keep pulling till there’s good rocking, there will be more and more and more tilting, you have to wait more for the obelisk to rock back and time it to pull when it’s coming to you. Don’t worry you’re close!

WATCH THAT SUMBITCH TOPPLE GET THE %^&* OUT OF THE WAY IT WILL SMASH RUN AWAY FROM DIRECTION. Then celebrate. Because #BlackLivesMatter

and good riddance to any obelisks pretending to be ancient Egyptian obelisks when they are in fact celebrating racism and white nationalism…

Here’s a rough schematic. I note this is experimental archaeology in action! Just my professional Hot Take and you may need more people, longer rope, etc. everything depends on monument size.

thanks @indyfromspace

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Other ways of subverting the myriad of place-names in London (or anywhere) that celebrate history’s bastards: you could print out nice new street names and road signs, measured nicely to fit nicely over the existing ones, with new names… Anarchist magazine Crowbar did this in the 1980s, printing up 4000 or so street signs reading Blair Peach Street, Cherry Groce Street, Cynthia Jarrett Street, in memory of people killed or maimed by racist police…

Our own statues, plaques and memorials… It can take time to go through the proper channels to get plaques put up, statues raised; but a bit of DIY spirit goes a long way. On radical walks in the past we have erected our own plaques guerilla style; but you could also talk to owners and tenants of buildings, see what they think about giving permission to a new memorial hung on the side of their gaff…

 

Rare Doings at Camberwell: A Wander around some of the radical history of London SE5

RARE DOINGS AT CAMBERWELL

A walk based on research done for a radical history walk around Camberwell, under the title “The Right To Live”, held on Sunday 25th June 2006, as part of Camberwell Arts Week. The walk was researched, designed and mostly spoken by Melissa Bliss and Alex Hodson, though other locals contributed their own reminiscences… In April 2007 part of this material was reprised as a talk at the Camberwell Squatted Centre (aka Black Frog) in Warham Street. We’ve run some public variations on the same walk since… This text owes much to the original researches and ideas of Melissa Bliss.

This isn’t the history of Camberwell. It’s not even the history of the events, personalities and movements that it covers. It is, at best, a series of linked themes, exploring some social history and the more disorderly and politically radical underside of SE5. It has serious omissions, could cover more social history, more on industrial development and those who worked in those industries; more on the different communities that have made their home here, and the conflicts they have experienced; more on madness and its containment, and especially more on recent gentrification and class. Maybe another time…

Also: we are not historians. We came to history as rebels and activists, fighting for a world where people’s lives, personal relations and survival are organised for our needs and desires, not for someone else’s profit. Our interest in history arises from a wider desire, to change the present collectively. The past, its links to the present and to a future we aspire to create, are not separate areas of study; the ideas and practice of rebellion against the authority of one class over another, and the methods of social control that class society develops to maintain itself, link history, our own battles in our own lives, and the visions of how we would live if we could freely choose. Some of us have lived in Camberwell, and have experienced some of this ‘history’ first-hand.

An earlier version of this text was also published as a Past Tense pamphlet, ‘Rare Doings At Camberwell’ in 2008.

When done as a physical walk, this route could take some time… it could be split up into sections. Walked backwards. Whatever.

START: CAMBERWELL GREEN

Camberwell has a deep and interesting past, full of working class struggles, radical, subversive and downright mad personalities, rowdy popular entertainment and some outbreaks of class war.

A brief Overview of Camberwell/ general history

Up until the 18th Century Camberwell was a rural village, based around St Giles Church Church, the Green, (scene of the annual Fair) and a spa and healing well, which was located up Camberwell Grove.

Some historians believe the healing well may have given the area its name, as they think Camberwell means ‘well of the crooked or cripples’. This chimes in with the local church being named for St Giles, patron saint of lepers. People expelled from the City of London for having leprosy may have settled here for treatment.

However it is also possible that the ‘Camber’ refers to an old settlement of Britons, who in the days of the Saxon conquest of Southern Briton called themselves Cumbri (in modern Welsh, Cymry’). This might be linked to neighbouring Walworth, thought by some to be named by neighbouring Saxons for the ‘Welsh’ (Britons) who lived there. The whole area might have been an enclave of older celtic communities…

The Metropolitan Borough of Camberwell’s old coat of arms. When we did our first version of this walk, we made up an old standard with this and paraded it around, spoofing the old beating the Bounds ceremony

The old medieval parish of Camberwell St Giles included Peckham, Nunhead and much of Dulwich. The parish was controlled by the Vestry; when the parish was replaced as an administrative body by the Metropolitan Borough of Camberwell in 1900. In 1965 the Borough was amalgamated with the Metropolitan Borough of Southwark and the Metropolitan Borough of Bermondsey to create the London Borough of Southwark.

The popularity of the Spa gradually transformed the village into a place of middle class retreat, and farms were replaced by big houses up the hill… The area became more suburban during the 19th century, as London expanded; speculative building firms bought up land and built large housing estates.

Later in the Century, the class of persons living in area ‘went down’, especially after “workman’s tickets” on trains enabled the working classes to live further from their place of work. In common with many other areas of South London, large areas of Camberwell saw mass house building to accommodate newer working class residents. Many earlier middle class areas thus were transformed into working class neighbourhoods from the 1860s-70s – for example around Southampton Way and St Lukes.

The following population figures give some sense of the massive 19th Century growth of the area, though they represent the whole parish and not merely Camberwell the village/suburb:

Census for parish of Camberwell                           Population

1801                                                                           7,059

1841                                                                           39,868

1861                                                                           71,488

1891                                                                           235,344

In 90 years a few rural villages were swallowed up by the rapid expansion of the metropolis.

So who were these people who moved into the area, and where did they live?

In Booth’s Map of Descriptive Poverty, from Life and Labour of the People of London,1890, the relative social class of people living in various parts of the area was sketched out. You can get an interesting picture of what had become a suburb of London, and where people of different classes lived.

  • South, up the hill, from De Crespigny Park, to the top of the hill at least, was upper class, and upper middle class, wealthy, almost exclusively.
  • The middle classes lived all round Church St, the Green, especially in houses lining the main streets. Also middle class was Brunswick Park, the east end of where the Elmington Estate now is, Camberwell Grove, Grove Lane, Coldharbour Lane, and along Peckham Road.
  • The next class down, a mix of the ‘fairly comfortable’ with others on ‘ordinary earnings’, can be found behind Daneville Road, round Wyndham Road and Medlar Street.
  • Mixed areas of ‘some comfortable, others poor’ lived behind the modern magistrates courts and off D’Eynsford Road, round the west part of the modern Elmington Estate…
  • The poor (’18 to 21 shillings a week per family’) clustered to the north of Camberwell Green, round the old Father Red Cap pub/Camberwell Road, and also to the north of Southampton Way, north of Commercial Road (now Commercial Way), and north of the Elmington. “A confusion of alleys and courts enclosed by Lomond Grove, Camberwell Green and Camberwell Road” was described as holding the chronically poor in the 1880s (Dyos)
  • Very poor areas (‘Casual, chronic want’) were found behind the Cock in Cock Yard (behind the modern Tiger (formerly the Silver Buckle) pub), round yards between the southern bus garage and Denmark Hill, and also in the Sultan Street area (known as Camberwell Mill or Freemans Mill), off Wyndham Road. Several streets here – Crown Street, Wyndham road, Pitman Road, and Bethwin Street were said in the 1880s to be “of very bad character”…”The only policemen venturing there were very foolish policemen.”
  • Interestingly though, there were no concentrated areas of the “lowest class, vicious, semi-criminal” as could be seen all over Southwark and Newington further north.

With some exceptions and accepting that this is a broad generalisation, it could probably still be said today that Camberwell New Road, Church Street and Peckham Road form a kind of border, and those who live to the south in the main are better off and maybe hang with a ‘higher’ social class than those who live to the north… Not entirely, and areas are more mixed now than in the past… But it has some validity.

Local industries: In the mid to late 19th century, the printing, small engineering, leather trades became widespread in the area, mainly in the north of Camberwell round Southampton Way, and where modern Burgess Park now lies. The old Surrey Canal that ran from Camberwell to the Thames through Surrey Docks helped stimulate a lot of local industrial growth, especially along its banks.

Revelry, Disorder, Space and Social Control

For centuries, Camberwell Fair was held locally, every August. First recorded in 1279, it moved from being held in ‘Gods Acre’, the immediate grounds of St Giles Church, to Church Street, opposite the Cock Pub (which was by the corner of Denmark Hill); by the 18th century it had moved on to the Green itself.

Originally held for three weeks, (9th of August to September 1st, the latter being feast of patron saint St Giles), by the 1800s the Fair, with it’s catchphrase; “Rare doings at Camberwell”, had been shortened to only 3 days – the 19th, 20th, and 21 August. Local farming had declined, and the Fair’s traditional rural economic functions (based around trade, but also hiring of agricultural workers for the year ahead) had eroded; the Fair now mainly featured drink and food, music, and acts, shows and performances, with a generous side helping of illicit sex, debauchery, and some robbery and violence.

Cheap food stalls of food, (oysters, pickled salmon, fried plaice, gingerbread) mingled with with junk and toy stands; side by side with exhibitions, animals that performed, or had bizarre deformities, plays, merry go rounds, shies etc…hawkers, pickpockets, jugglers, performers, magicians… People from all over South London flocked to the event, with carts, donkeys, old nags, offering rides, often the drivers singing songs or bantering with each other.

But the growing middle class of early 19th Century Camberwell hated this plebeian disruption.

“For these three days the residents of Camberwell were compelled to witness disgusting and demoralising scenes which they were powerless to prevent” …
Peckham Fair, in the same parish, ran every year for the 3 days following Camberwell Fair (namely 22nd – 24th August), and was a similarly troublesome – local authorities had to pay for extra policing for the whole week and passed this onto the parish ratepayers.

The two events attracted petty, and not so petty, crime. In 1802 at the end of Peckham Fair; a “numerous and desperate gang of pickpockets” robbed & assaulted respectable folk en masse as they were leaving the Fair. The gentry and middle classes attending the Fairs were seen as fair game (pardon the pun)…

There were constant attempts to control and restrict the fair and people’s enjoyment of it. Fairs at this time were a major source of moral outrage (think of modern objections to the Notting Hill Carnival every year).

However, the Fairs were a source of income for many of the poor and working classes, both legally, and through crime and the conning of fairgoers; there’s no doubt that it also brightened up people’s lives, an explosion of wild relief of the daily grind of poverty in a huge party.

There were several concerted attempts during the early 19th Century to shut the Fair down. In 1807 a Notice was pasted up:
“Notice is hereby given that no drinking, booths, unlawful exhibitions or music, will be permitted at Camberwell or Peckham Fairs. That the constables have strict orders to prevent all gaming, or seize and carry away all implements used or employed therein, and to apprehend all the offenders, and that no dancing or music will be permitted at public houses, which are required to be close shut at eleven o’clock at night.

By order of the magistrates.”

Apparently “officers from Union Hall Police Office and the Patrol from Bow St, attended… some trifling incidents occurred, but none of serious importance.”

In 1823, a Camberwell Vestry meeting was held to see what authority there was, in the form of an old grant or charter, to hold the Fair, This backfired, as evidence was produced in a Petty Session case to support its right to be held. In 1827, the Vestry managed to ban Peckham Fair for good.

Another attempt to ban Camberwell Fair in 1832 failed, but by 1855, the Fair’s days were numbered: a local Committee for the Abolition of Camberwell Fair was set up by leading residents, who pressurised the parish authorities into buying the Green, and closing down the fair, with the help of the police. The glee of one middle class historian is palpable: the Green was “encumbered for the last time with its horde of nomadic thieves, its coarse and lewd men and women and this concentrated essence of vice, folly and buffoonery was no longer allowed to contaminate the youth of the district and annoy the more staid and respectable residents.”

The Green, said before then to be a Waste, was bought from the Lord of the Manor, landscaped, turned into a ‘proper’ park.

The closing down of Camberwell Fair should be seen in the context of a widespread campaign in the early 19th Century, to impose social and moral control over the growing working classes. National government, local vestries and parish authorities, officials of most churches, and various bourgeois organisations such as the Constitutional Society and the Society for the Suppression of Vice, were broadly united in attempting to control and ‘reform’ the ‘immoral’ behaviour of the working classes, especially the poor, through encouraging/them forcing them into hard work, proper respect for authority and religion, and by attacking ‘vice’, disorder and immoral behaviour. This meant repression of ‘vice’ in the forms of pubs, prostitution, those who radically challenged religion or the political establishment.

Fairs, widely viewed as hotspots of immorality, disorder and in many cases satirical political plays and speeches, were a prime target. Not only this, but in an era of political upheaval and widespread radical agitation among the working class, any gathering of the poor was seen as dangerous. The open spaces where Fairs traditionally took place were also under attack, through the enclosure of commons, Greens and the increasing landscaping into parks, or development into housing. The physical alteration of space was seen as having a moral effect on the disorderly behaviour of the poor: proper ordered open space replacing ‘waste’ and common was believed to encourage respectability…

For local Vestries, the high cost of policing the Fairs and cleaning up afterwards were also a factor.

But the Green’s tradition as a place of entertainment and hedonism has continued. It has long been a site of public meetings, rowdiness, rallies, protests, and parties.

Not only in terms of its continuing use by street drinkers, who, as in many other parks have gradually reclaimed open space in defiance of those who would keep them socially cleansed and invisible.
Read a longer post on Camberwell Fair

Festivals and parties have also taken place on the Green over the years.

For instance: in June 1998, during Camberwell Arts Week, a Summer Solstice party was held, featuring a three-quarter size model of Stonehenge, made of fibre-glass. Several hundred urban pagans reproduced their own Stonehenge Festival… during which a slightly inebriated reveller fell against one of the stones and, as they were all roped together) nearly dominoed the whole lot!

From 2006-2008, the annual ‘Bonkersfest’ celebration of madness and creativity was held there (more on this later).

Here’s a temporary plaque we put up on the Green to remember Camberwell Fair (some fancier banners about the Fair hang on the railings these days)

CROSS THE ROAD TO THE CORNER WITH CAMBERWELL NEW ROAD, STOP OUTSIDE THE BANK

Poverty, Crime And Policing

Look over the road to Tiger pub:

Tigers Yard and Joiners Arms Yard, behind the Cock Inn (ie behind the modern Tiger pub & the Joiners Arms) were among the poorest places in Camberwell in the mid to late 19th century… the people who lived here existed in chronic poverty. Large numbers of families living in a few houses, often unemployed and overcrowded. (These yards were still described as one of the area’s blackspots when demolished in 1930s. There had been much agitation by local Labour councillors to demolish the old overcrowded houses and rehouse the inhabitants, despite much opposition from the Tory-controlled Borough Council.)

Camberwell slums in 1930

The bottom of the hill had always had some poor even when the area was rural; not all the forelock-tugging, law-abiding poor either. Some inhabitants who lived in cottages opposite the Cock Inn (round about Kennedy’s Sausages) were said to watch out for wealthy travellers dismounting from the coach, which stopped at the corner of Camberwell Green, and setting off walking to Dulwich… They would then follow them and lighten them of their possessions in some suitable dark spot…

This re-distribution of wealth led to the building of the constables’ Cage and Watchhouse, which stood on Denmark Hill, next to today’s Joiners Arms, until the founding of the Metropolitan Police in 1829. This was replaced as the stronghold of local law and order by a Police Station the Northwest corner of the junction of the Green and Camberwell New Road, (now the bank) which was built in 1848, and demolished in 1898.

The Cage was succeeded by other centres of control and restraint. On the corner of Medlar Street and Camberwell New Road, Lambeth County Court used to stand, in the early 20th Century (with a Masonic hall and Sorting Office behind it, next to the railway). Camberwell Magistrates Court was built behind Camberwell Green in the early 1970s (we will return to this later).

Wyndham Road used to house the Southwark Diocesan Boys Shelter, in the late 19th/early 20th Century. This was an Approved Probation School for boys 16-19 put on probation in police court. The institution attempted to “build them up morally mentally and spiritually”, by prayer, a tough physical training regime, and training in domestic skills so they could better themselves by becoming servants in hotels and the homes of the wealthy etc. The usual mix of morality and brutality.

WALK UP CAMBERWELL ROAD TO THE NORTH: STOP AT THE CORNER OF WYNDHAM ROAD

Radicals and Rioters

19th Century Camberwell may have been largely a middle-class suburb but also had a local working class tradition: possibly originating in the tradition of London trades traveling out to rural pubs for days of merriment and sometimes political debate.

In the early 19th Century, with working people being increasingly forced off the land and into urban areas, with the growth of factories and massive spread of Cities, working class people were rapidly becoming politicised and conscious of themselves and their class interests. Working class organisations, radical clubs and early Trade Unions formed a growing network across many cities… London was no exception.

In 1832 the National Union of the Working Classes met at the Duke of York pub, Camberwell New Road (which stood opposite the modern Union Tavern, but has long since been closed).

The NUWC had arisen from an alliance of radical artisan societies in London, who had been organising both on economic levels, fighting for better wages and conditions, and politically, seeing parliamentary reform and more rights for working people as fundamental to achieving economic improvements… The NUWC were involved in encouraging working class pressure in support of the campaigning for the 1832 Reform Act; however, the Act enfranchised the middle classes and reformed outdated constituencies and corrupt practices, but did nothing for the workers. More radical elements of the NUWC together with other groups, prepared to step up their activities – many felt armed uprising would be necessary to achieve change… This led to confrontations with the new Metropolitan Police, as at the Battle of Coldbath Fields in 1833, when a NUWC rally was attacked by the Met and a policeman killed in the ensuing riot (it was later found by a Jury to be Justifiable Homicide in self-defence, due to the police attack on the crowd!).

In 1833, the Sawyers Arms, Camberwell (which we haven’t yet located) hosted meetings of the 91st Class of the NUWC, in particular they held a dinner for the acquitted George Fursey, a defendant from the Battle of Coldbath Fields.

The Chartists

As the 1830s went on, the NUWC and groups like them evolved into what has been called the first national movement of the British working class – the Chartists.

The Chartists aimed broadly at an increase in political power for working class people, at that time mostly not allowed to vote and formally excluded from the political process. Chartism became a huge broad-based mass movement, organised around six major demands for political reform that had been the program of the British reformers and radicals since the 1760s…

  1. A vote for every man twenty one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.
  2. The ballot – To protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.
  3. No property qualification for members of Parliament-thus enabling the constituencies to return the man of their choice, be he rich or poor.
  4. Payment of members, thus enabling an honest tradesman, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency, when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the country.
  5. Equal constituencies securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors,–instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of larger ones.
  6. Annual Parliaments, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since though a constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelvemonth; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.

The Chartists’ tactics included huge monster meetings, and a petition to Parliament, presented and rejected three times between 1838 and 1848. The movement was made up of thousands of local branches, whose activities went far beyond pressing for reform, but built a whole culture, of education, songs, history, their own ceremonies and open discussion; they were conscious of their links to radicals of the past and similar movements abroad. and included all kinds of people, women and men, black people… Although most did not advocate the vote for women, some Chartists did, and female democratic associations formed an important part of the movement.

As their petitions and political pressure failed, many Chartists began to advocate a working class seizure of power by armed force, and divisions split these ‘Physical Force’ Chartists from their ‘Moral Force’ counterparts. Several Chartist uprisings were planned in 1839-40, which failed or were repressed. Plotters, and Chartists involved in organising rallies, strikers and other actions were jailed, transported to the penal colonies in their thousands.

Local Chartists who lived in Camberwell include one Simpson, of Elm Cottage, Camberwell, who sold tickets for a Chartist-sponsored soiree in honour of radical MP T.S. Duncombe in 1845; and David Johnston, a moral force Chartist, born in Scotland, a Weaver, then apprentice baker, who was elected Overseer of the Poor in St. Giles, Camberwell, 1831, ‘by popular vote’. Johnston ‘was a keen (moral force) Chartist. Johnston left in 1848 for the US, after ‘rowdies from Kennington wrecked my shop’.

The Chartists held mass meetings in South London the 1840s, mainly on Kennington Common, especially in 1848, the year of the last great Chartist upsurge, when they prepared the third Great Petition for the Charter. While the plans for presenting the petition were developed, physical force Chartists again prepared uprisings; in London in ’48 several riots ensued when rallies were attacked by police. Through the Spring and early Summer the capital was in a state of alert: the authorities feared revolution (which was breaking out in France and across Europe), and Chartists hoped and worked for a popular rising to achieve their rights.

On 13 March 1848, a week after a mass meeting in Trafalgar Square, that led to 3 days of rioting, a Chartist mass meeting was held on Kennington Common. Nearly 4000 police were called out; despite this 400 or 500 demonstrators moved off to Camberwell by back streets, led by a band. When they got to here, Wyndham Road, then called Bowyer Lane a riot broke out; looters armed with “staves of barrels, and sticks of all descriptions”, including palings, rifled shops and fought with the constables. The whole episode occurred within the space of an hour and only nine arrests were made (by a party of’ mounted police, assisted by special constables) at the time, but since a number of the rioters had been recognised by the locals twenty-five were brought to trial in April. Identified among the leaders were Charles Lee, a gipsy, and David Anthony Duffy, a ‘man of colour’ and unemployed seaman, known to the police as a beggar in the Mint, where he went about “without shirt, shoe, or stocking”; and  Benjamin Prophett, known as ‘Black Ben’, another ‘man of colour’ and seaman. These and fifteen other men, of whom four had previous convictions, were sentenced to from seven to fourteen years’ transportation and three to one year’s imprisonment. More on the Camberwell Riot

The Camberwell riot was short, but it attracted some publicity, and contributed to the hysterical prelude to 10 April 1848, when Chartists met nationally on Kennington Common, aiming to march on Parliament. Shocked by the rebellious atmosphere in London and the country, the Government had fortified the bridges over the Thames and brought in the army and recruited middle class volunteers to defend them. The Chartist leaders backed down from confrontation.

Note the participation of black radicals in the riot: the early 19th Century radical movement was notable for the involvement of prominent activists of African descent. One of the leaders of the London Chartists, prominent in the April 10th events, was William Cuffay, a Black tailor whose father had been a slave from St Kitts in the Caribbean. Cuffay was arrested in June that year accused of involvement in the planning of a Chartist Uprising and transported to Tasmania for life.

Other Black radicals well known in South London was Robert Wedderburn, ex-slave, who had come to England, become a Methodist preacher, and then got involved in radical politics. Wedderburn used to preach on Kennington Common. His contemporary William Davidson was executed for taking part in the plans for a radical uprising in 1820.

A plaque we left here to remember the Chartist Riot of March 13th 1848.

After the anti-climax of 1848, the Chartist movement began to go into a decline; although many groups still existed, the Chartists were largely a spent force. Smaller groups of radicals continued to agitate and meet, but mass agitation for reform did not revive till the mid-1860s, when the National Reform League formed and many local reform-minded groups began to spring up. From this pressure came the 1867 Reform Act, which won some limited increase in the franchise for working men.

Liberals and Radical clubs agitating for once again became widespread in the 1870s, many emerging under the influence of the Secularist Movement, others from growing Republican agitation.

WALK BACK DOWN CAMBERWELL ROAD TO CORNER WITH CHURCH STREET

Secularists and Republicans

The Secularist movement arose from scattered radical groups, many of which had survived the collapse of Chartism, others of which emerged in the reform agitation of the 1860s. Influenced by powerful speakers like George Holyoake and Charles Bradlaugh, they discussed, debated and attacked the religious control over many aspects of people’s lives, much stronger and integrated into all walks of social, working and home life then. Secularists spoke at street corners, often in direct competition with Christian preachers, and formed clubs or branches of Bradlaugh’s National Secular Society. Gradually they also became associated with pressure for the right to birth control, and a strong republican strand, demanding the removal of the royals and a British Republic. More on South London Secularists

In the 1870s Camberwell Church Street was a local Speakers Corner: Secularists used to regularly denounce religion in large open-air meetings here. The area in fact became one of their strongholds – the Camberwell National Secular Society branch, an offshoot of the large Walworth branch built a hall at 61 New Church Road in 1882.

The United Republican League held Sunday morning meetings in Church Street (and afternoon ones in the Rose & Crown Pub, Acorn Street in Peckham) in the early 1870s, when republicanism was very strong among the working class, and the Royal Family very unpopular. Famous class warrior Dan Chatterton spoke here.
There were also three Radical Clubs in Camberwell in the later 19th century – one in Denmark Hill, one in now vanished Muswell Road (not sure where this was), and North Camberwell Radical Club, in Albany Road.
For more on North Camberwell Radical Club – see Mayday in South London

There was also a Camberwell Radical Club in ‘Gloucester Road’ (possibly Gloucester Grove, SE15?) in the 1880s: William Morris was listed to speak there twice in 1885-6.

CROSS ROAD, UP EAST SIDE OF CAMBERWELL ROAD JUST AS FAR AS… USED TO BE AN ENTRANCE TO TRAM DEPOT HERE.

War and the Workers

Camberwell Trades Council, representing local trade Unionists and Union branches, was founded in 1913.  Almost immediately it was thrown into the political hotbed with the outbreak of World War 1.

Despite a sustained campaign against the impending war in the months running up to its actual outbreak, most trade unions and Labour Party activists fell in behind the government and supported the national war effort. The war achieved instant popularity, and thousands of men enlisted enthusiastically. Camberwell was said to have provided a good response to the call-up (though nearby Brixton was described as “full of slackers”!)

However, Camberwell Trades Council, in common with a minority of socialists and union activists, took an anti-war position when war broke out. The Trades Council issued pacifist leaflets, including a leaflet calling for people not to worry about paying rent during war, as surely landlords wouldn’t evict people during such a national emergency! The police tried to suppress this leaflet – unsuccessfully.

The Trades Council held meetings about the high cost of living, denouncing privations caused by the War, and launched campaigns for free school dinners for kids; useful work for the unemployed and democratic control and distribution of food.

In 1915 it also founded a Trades Council bakery, officially to try and increase the distribution of bread to the local working class; unofficially the bakery also provided jobs to conscientious objectors on the run from the authorities trying to force them into the army. Although this project collapsed by end of year, its work was incorporated into a similar bakery scheme run by neighbouring Bermondsey Trades Council.

In 1916, when the Government introduced conscription to force men into the trenches, Camberwell Trades and Labour Council also expressed its strongest opposition. It declared conscription in any form “to be a violation of the principle of civic freedom hitherto prized as one of the chief heritages of British liberty.” Anti -conscription demonstrations were held on Peckham Rye and on Camberwell Green by the Trades Council and ‘The No Conscription League’. One motion passed by a mass meeting stressed: “Conscription would be against the best interests of the working class and would be a strong weapon in the hands of reactionaries to enslave the British People.” Trade unionists were outraged when Military Tribunals were set up under the oversight of Borough Councils to hear claims for exemption from conscription. Trades Unionists were in most places appointed to take part in these borough tribunals, but then Tory-controlled Camberwell Borough Council refused to appoint any.

The Anti-war movement locally centred around the Independent Labour Party. Some ILP delegates followed the Christian, pacifist line of George Lansbury. Some were inspired by the ethical conviction that violence, organised or not, was evil and immoral. Others argued against the War on on socialist, internationalist grounds.

Leaders of anti-war activity in this part of South London included Charles Ammon, a member of the Fawcett Association, the postal sorters union, and Parliamentary Secretary of the ‘No Conscription League’ (he later became Lord Ammon of Camberwell), Dr Alfred Salter, (later to become MP for Bermondsey), and Arthur Creech-Jones, twenty-three year old Secretary of Camberwell Trades Council. In 1916 Creech-Jones was called up for army service. On appeal he attended four Tribunals and although supported by Labour Party leaders Fenner Brockway and Herbert Morrison his appeals were dismissed: he was finally arrested in East Dulwich in September. After being taken to the local Recruitment Centre, then based at Camberwell Baths (in Artichoke Place), and refusing to take orders, he was sentenced to three years imprisonment in Wandsworth and Wormwood Scrubs Prisons.

Creech-Jones gained much support in the local press. One letter from the National League of the Blind, Camberwell Branch praised his Trades Council work. When he was jailed, he was replaced as Secretary by Florence Tidman, delegate from the Women’s Labour League. Many trade unionist soldiers had returned from the front and were now becoming sympathetic to pacifism and opposed to the war.

Not all Trade Unionists locally opposed the War however. In March 1917  the local branch of the National Society of Operative Printers and Assistants disaffiliated from the Trades Council, disagreeing with its anti-war position. Many trade unionists reflected the jingoistic and pro-war/anti-foreigner feeling as the wider population they lived among.

The majority of the local population capitulated to the upsurge of national chauvinism. Camberwell, like many areas of London, had a small german population, often proprietors of small bakeries and other shops – there were German delicatessens, toy shops and haberdashers, and other local shopkeepers proudly announced that ‘hier spricht man Deutsch’. Others worked as music teachers, artists and waiters. There were around 60 German families in the area in 1914.

But many Germans were detained when World War 1 broke out (although some exiles had fled political persecution in Germany, or were descended from political refugees.) Racist hysteria against the “Hun” was whipped up to a crescendo in South London. Riotous mobs burnt and looted shops with German names in East Street, Camberwell Green and the Old Kent Road in October 1914.

The South London Press in early July 1916 reported a heavily underlined banner headline extending across seven columns proclaimed “Camberwell’s Great Patriotic Festival.” Seven miles of cheering crowds, we read, lined the streets to bid farewell to Lieut.-Colonel Hall and the men of the Borough of Camberwell Gun Division as they marched off for training.

Camberwell Borough also played host to Belgian refugees, driven out of their country by the German invasion. 300 were sleeping in Goose Green public baths in October 1914.

In May 1915 anti-German rioting resumed across the country after the ship Lusitania was torpedoed by German u-boats, with the loss of many lives. Sometimes the ‘foreigners’ targetted were not german, due to various levels of stupidity and bigotry intermixing. Frederick George Jeffreys, a 22-year-old plumber’s mate was fined 40s plus 10s compensation for smashing up a hairdresser’s shop in Wyndham Road, Camberwell in May 1915. The Lambeth magistrate H.C. Biron was scathing: “You behave in this way, and instead of attacking a German you attack a perfectly harmless Pole and wreck his shop. Even if he were a German you bring discredit upon your country by behaving in this way.”

Recuperation huts on Camberwell Green, during WW1

Opposition was growing to the war, however, often in small local meetings across the country. At the Surrey Masonic Hall, Camberwell New Road, in June 1915, Charles Trevelyan MP addressed the South London Ethical Society: “The peace, when it did come, should not be made by diplomats sitting in secret, but there should be a real public opinion for the real ending of war on the right lines.” He warned his large audience not to listen to the militarists who claimed the time was not right for discussing the terms of peace. “They would keep on saying this until the last shot was fired.” Trevelyan had been a founder member of the anti-war Union of Democratic Control, established the previous year.

Check out Against the Tide, an excellent book on World War 1 and resistance in Southwark, Bermondsey and Camberwell.

Mutiny!

At the end of World War One, there was widespread social unrest.  Disillusionment with the war increased across the country, as conscription and mass death had hit home, but repressive conditions at work and wage depression led to an upsurge in strikes. The Russian Revolution in 1917 inspired workers across the world to believe a new more egalitarian social order was possible. The unrest spread to the various armies, and mass mutinies helped to end the war, sparking revolt and revolution across the world.
Camberwell was affected by this ferment…

In January 1919 Army Service Corps men in a camp somewhere in Camberwell went on strike, during a mass movement of mutinies and demonstrations to demand faster demobilisation of troops all over Britain and in the army abroad. Despite some investigations we’ve not discovered where this camp was, whether in the Borough or SE5 proper… though theoretically it could be somewhere near to the present Territorial Army Barracks in Flodden Road.

In 1920, the British Government’s determination to send troops, including conscripts, to Russia to try to overthrow the new Soviet state, led to a mass movement inspired by socialists and trade unionists who were sympathetic to the Russian Revolution, to prevent troops and supplies reaching Russia. Local councils of action formed to oppose the move, and actions included dockers refusing to load goods and munitions for these ships. In August 1920, the Camberwell Council of Action demonstrated on Peckham Rye, where it called for “complete trade and peace with Russia”, and demanded that the National Council of Action send an ultimatum to Lloyd George along these lines.

The 1926 General Strike

In May 1926, the leaders of the Trades Union Congress called a General Strike. Nearly 2 million workers all over the country joined the strike, in support of a million miners, locked out by mine-owners for refusing to accept wage cuts of up to 25 per cent, after the ending of the Government’s coal subsidy. The General Council of the TUC didn’t want to call the Strike: they were pushed into it for fear of losing control of the mass of union membership.

Nine days later, afraid of the losing control of the situation, in the face of massive working class solidarity, the TUC General Council called the Strike off.

The General Strike was a massive defeat for the working class. The TUC General Council capitulated; many of the strikers were forced to accept lower wages add conditions: the miners in whose support the Strike was called were eventually starved into submission.

Locally Trades Councils or Councils of Action co-ordinated the union branches and workers involved in the Strike.

Camberwell Borough Council fully supported the Government against the strikers, it was cooperative with the Emergency Powers Act and its functionaries, and it appointed the Treasurer and Town Clerk as the officers in charge of food and fuel. This contrasted with other local boroughs eg left-wing Bermondsey, where the local Council supported the Strike and opposed the Government.

Camberwell Trades Council march on Mayday demo, 1st, 1926

Camberwell Trades Council organised the Strike locally. According to a post-Strike Report by the Trades Council:
“only a fortnight before the strike, [we] obtained a roneo duplicator and a typewriter. When the possibility of a strike loomed up we made three tentative preparations for this eventuality, viz:

(a) We enquired for an office, which we might take for a month as a minimum.

(b) (b) We obtained a lien on a hall where we might have a large meeting and would run no danger of the hall being cancelled by opponents.

(c) We made arrangements for a Committee meeting to be called the day after the general Strike began, if it did so begin. On May Day we thought the importance of demonstrating was sufficient to warrant us paying for a band, banner bearers etc, and for us to give a lead in having a good turn out. This we had organized and we secured a fine response from Camberwell workers. Whilst on route to Hyde Park came the news of the General Strike declaration – truly a fitting send off, thus demonstrating to the rich loafers in the West End out power and solidarity.”

The Strike Committee organised effective picketing of workplaces. Tramwaymen and busmen, who made up 3000 of the 8000 workers affiliated to the trades Council, were solid, as were roadmen of the Borough Council also came out, (bar one depot where men were reported working.) Tillings Bus Co., however, of Peckham, a major local employer, was a black spot: large numbers of police specials were stationed to ensure these buses were never stopped from running.

Reports which came to the Strike office as to the need for pickets were transmitted to the Strike Committee concerned at once by an organised messenger network.

The Trades Council concluded that: “we were not ready. We quickly improvised machinery… Everything had to be found on the spur of the moment, and we rose to the occasion fairly well in our own estimation., considering the difficulties of lack of our own premises, voluntary workers, and having to set up, equip and run an office after the Strike had commenced.”

In the Borough of Camberwell, as it was then, two strike bulletins were produced, the Camberwell Strike Bulletin and the Peckham Labour Bulletin – both produced from Central Buildings, High Street, Peckham.

The South London Observer of Saturday May 15th reported that a man was convicted of selling the ‘Peckham Labour Bulletin’. The paragraph headed “French workers refuse to blackleg” was thought by the court to be provocative. Police Inspector Hider in his evidence stated that it would cause “a certain feeling among certain people”. Inspector Hider also saw copies of the ‘Camberwell Strike Bulletin’ also produced at Central Buildings on a duplicator by Eddy Jope, who denied any connection with the ‘Peckham Labour Bulletin’. 

Trams were not running, till the local electricity generating station was reopened by naval ratings…

On May 5th, commercial vehicles were stopped & trashed here by strikers. The trams were in the main kept off the roads. Altogether there were 12 attempts by voluntary (mostly middle class) recruits supported by police and special constables to run trams from Camberwell Depot to New Scotland Yard – resulting in crowds of pickets and supporters attacking scab trams, smashing their windows and pushing them back inside, preventing them from running.

The British Worker (A daily paper put out during the Strike by the TUC) reported:
“BANNED TRAMS SCENE: An unsuccessful attempt was made shortly after four o’clock on Wednesday afternoon to run LCC tramcars from the Camberwell depot.

Earlier in the day two lorries with higher officials of the tramways Department and OMS recruits arrived at the Depot, where a strong force of police had been posted.

A large crowd, including tramwaymen, their wives and sympathisers, collected, and when the first car came out of the Depot gates in Camberwell Green there was a hostile demonstration.

Some arrests were made. Following this incident the cars were driven back in to the Depot to the accompaniment of loud cheers.” (British Worker, 5th May.)

Strike-breaking buses were also stoned in Camberwell on Saturday night (8th May) There were huge public meetings at Camberwell Green, as well as at Peckham Rye and at the triangle near the Eaton Arms, Peckham. During a public meeting at Camberwell Green, waves of police with drawn truncheons marched on the people, who broke and ran after repeated baton charges.

After the TUC sold the strike out, there was confusion here. Crowds of workers gathered at the Tram Depot, not knowing what to do. Each worker had to sign a form on future conditions of service, hours and wages. Some never got their jobs back at all.

At the end of the Strike Camberwell Trades Council sent £10 to the Miners from the funds collected during the Strike, continued that support as the miners fought on alone after the TUC sellout.

Camberwell Borough Guardians took a hard line during and after Strike – issued ‘Not Genuinely Seeking Work’ forms to stop strikers getting any dole payments.

Following the defeat of the Strike, the Government brought in the Trades Disputes Act, known as ‘the blacklegs Charter’, which outlawed all General or solidarity strikes and prevented many civil service workers from affiliating to Trades Councils… Camberwell Trades Council formed a Trade Union Defence Committee to oppose the Act – without a lot of success.

A plaque put up here remembering Camberwell working people’s action against scabs in the General Strike

1935 Painters’ strike

On March 15th 1935 a strike erupted over trade union membership among the Camberwell Borough Council painters. Eleven non-union painters were employed, but a week later, there being no agreement between the National Society of Painters and the Borough council, 85 painters were sacked. The dispute became official and following a motion condemning the employers from the Camberwell AUBTW, continued for nearly two months. The borough council was prevented under the 1927 Act from making union membership a condition of employment. Two members of the Camberwell NSP branch, E. Milligan and C Laws, were Chairman and Secretary of the Trades Council Industrial Section which strongly supported the strike.

The London Bus strike of 1958.

The Tram Depot later became a Bus Depot. In 1958, bus workers struck for higher wages, in a dispute that lasted nearly two months, but was eventually severely defeated. On May 24th the T&GWU, Camberwell Bus Garage branch organised a march of 250 from Camberwell Green to Peckham Rye to publicise the busmen’s plight. But the strike hadn’t 100% support in the area. A scab organisation known as the People’s League for the Defence of Freedom recruited drivers to drive buses. The scab drivers later revelled in the fact that they had scabbed and publicised an organisation they had formed known as ‘Blacklegs Incorporated’.

In 1998 this northern section of the Bus Garage was squatted for exhibitions and parties.

WALK THROUGH CAMBERWELL PASSAGE TO THE NORTH SIDE OF CAMBERWELL NEW ROAD, TURN LEFT AND STOP AT THE GYM

Though the 1850s saw the end of Camberwell Fair, in many ways though working-class Camberwell recreation had become no less rowdy for being forced inside off the Green.

The New Grand Hall Cinematograph Theatre in Camberwell New Road, opened in 1912, on the north side of Camberwell New Road, between Depot entrance and Camberwell Passage; (it later became a Snooker Hall).

In 1956 there was a Teddy Girls and Boys riot at the New Grand, after they’d watched the pioneering rock ‘n’ roll film Blackboard Jungle, featuring Bill Haley & the Comets. Teddy girls in black jeans encouraged by their boy-friends swarmed across the rows to stamp seats free from their hinges. They stamped, clapped their hands, screamed and beat out the 12 bar blues by kicking seats until they splintered… The police scattered them, then restored order by escorting the Teddy boy ringleaders from the theatre.

Teds were the hoodies of the time: teenage working class kids, in an era of increasing prosperity emerging after the restrictions and poverty of the war years… They were listening to outlandish music that baffled their elders and betters, and getting together for dancing, drink and some splatterings of violence. Gang warfare was common between different ted gangs. The Elephant & Castle area was one of London’s strongest ted areas.  A 2000-strong crowd of teds had fought the police outside Elephant & Castle’s Trocadero cinema shortly before this, inspiring similar battles across the country, mainly after viewings of the film.  Respectable fears, moral panic and mass crackdown followed.

Teds were often scapegoated as the cause of all troubles and many paranoias of authority and conforming social hierarchies were projected onto them.

Today’s kids are similarly seen as out of control, street violence, knifings, shootings etc are widely seen as new and frightening developments: in many ways the terror and legal/political responses mirror the reaction to the teds, but similar scares have emerged repeatedly in the last 200 or so years. Usually no matter how serious developments are, they are represented as unprecedented; often in fact patterns and numbers are very similar. Not to disparage the genuine despair, fear and anger that the current crop of South London murders arouses. Fear of crime though, is always often out of kilter with the reality of crime.  Returning to Camberwell Green, many kids now avoid the place, seeing it as too dangerous to hang out there; recently Peckham and Camberwell teens have been especially targeted as being out of control.  Control of space and potential troublemakers’ access to it, seen in the enclosure and respectabilisation of the green in the 1850s, is reflected in the 6 month exclusion order regularly imposed on the centre of Camberwell over recent years, allowing the police to ‘escort’ anyone under 16 found in the area home whether they are up to anything dodgy or not.

WALK DOWN TO 303-309 CAMBERWELL NEW ROAD, THE TFC BUILDING (NEXT TO THE GREEK ORTHODOX CHURCH)

Around 2001, the upper floor of this building housed the clandestine HQ of the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), an undercover unit of the Metropolitan Police Service’s Special Branch.

Between 1968 and 2008, when the unit was disbanded, it organised the systematic infiltration of undercover police officers into campaigning and protest groups. Officers pretended to be activists to worm their way into 1000s of groups, from national organisations to small local campaigns, many using the names of dead children to set up false identities. The police spied on campaigns for justice for people killed by racists and by the police; animal rights activists, peace groups, union branches campaigning around health and safety, the anti-apartheid movement, anti-racists, environmental groups, socialists anarchists, feminists, MPs… Many of the (mostly male) officers entered into deceptive relationships with women in false names; they lived with people, fathered children and then disappeared completely when their tour of duty was done. Many acted as agent-provocateurs to get people arrested.
Over the last ten years activists have exposed many of the names and histories of these officers, but much more of what they did remains secret. After it was proved that the unit had spied on the family and campaign of Stephen Lawrence, murdered by racists in 1993, the government announced a Public inquiry into undercover policing would take place. We are still waiting for the first hearings to be held in 2020.
For more info contact:

Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance

Police Spies Out of Lives

Undercover Research Group

Blacklist Support Group

For a local slant on one of the campaigns infiltrated by the SDS, see later on when we visit the Institute of Psychiatry…

BACK ACROSS CAMBERWELL NEW ROAD, WALK DOWN TO JUNCTION WITH DENMARK HILL, THEN UP WEST SIDE OF DENMARK HILL TO CORNER OF COLDHARBOUR LANE

Camberwell became well-known for music halls; many were in the back hall of pubs. Music Hall arose from the last of the old tavern ‘free and easies’, where people could get up and do turns, usually songs or comedy acts.

The People’s Palace of Varieties, or Lovejoys, at the Rosemary Branch, Southampton Way, was held in “a long, shabby room adjoining the tavern, furnished with chairs and tables, and illuminated with flaming gas brackets. At one end a stage with footlights screened with blue painted glass. A Chairman sat in front of the stage facing the audience. He wore the most deplorable evening dress. Another gent sat at the piano on the stage. Everybody seemed to be drinking and talking while a man in shirt sleeves was dashing about with a tray loaded with glasses of beer. Each turn was announced by the Chair. He rapped with his hammer both to attract attention and to assist applause. A tall gent sang a song about his wife, his trouble and strife.”

The Rosemary Branch was demolished in 1971. The Castle on the Camberwell Road bears the name of an earlier pub that housed the Bijou Palace of Varieties or Godfrey’s Castle Music Hall from 1875 to 1889.

The Father Redcap pub, on the north side of the Camberwell Green, originally held a music hall built in 1853. On 2nd December, 1867, the audience here could enjoy “the great W J Collins, a banjoist from America, a Shakespearean sketch, Professor Davis in the renowned rope trick, and Mr Mucus Hellmore in his great delineation of Mephistopholes”

Later it was a gay bar at least back to the 1970s till 1997, and later again the Red Star, a party venue, holding many gigs including benefits for various worthy causes. (we will return to this building later).

In 1896, the Dan Leno company opened the “Oriental Palace of Varieties”, on Denmark Hill, which was soon replaced with a new theatre, with a capacity of 1,553, in 1899, named the “Camberwell Palace”. Famous old timers who appeared here included Marie Lloyd, Harry Lauder, Nellie Wallace and Harry Tate.  By 1912, the theatre was showing films as a part of the programme; it became an ABC cinema as “The Palace Cinema” in 1932. Later it reverted to a variety theatre in 1943, but closed on 28 April 1956 and was demolished. (The 1957 film The Smallest Show on Earth, the story of a family-run suburban cinema, was probably based on the Palace).

Nearby at the corner of Denmark Hill and Coldharbour Lane was the “Metropole Theatre and Opera House”, opened in 1894, which held transfers of West End shows: “The theatre had a very ornate interior with private boxes, stalls, dress circle, balcony and gallery. Ladies who came in their fashionable hats were respectfully informed that hats and bonnets were not allowed in the stalls or first two rows of the dress circle.”

No wonder Camberwell starred in a 1915 music hall song. Chalk Farm to Camberwell Green by Lionel Morrekton, about a young lady who went for a ride on the top of a bus with “a fellow, a regular swell”, on what is still the no. 68 bus route:

Chalk Farm to Camberwell Green
All on a summer’s day
Up we climbed on the motor bus
And we started right away

When we got to the end of the ride_
He asked me to go for a walk!
But I wasn’t Camberwell Green
By a very long chalk!

The replacement of live theatre and music by cinema was also reflected locally: the Empire was demolished to build an Odeon cinema in 1939; itself since closed in 1957, becoming Dickie Dirts (see below)… Besides these, on Denmark Hill, where Somerfield now stands, there was the Golden Domes, (later called the Rex and then the Essoldo); across the road, on the site of the Post Office, was the Bijou, known locally as the Bye Joe; and the Coronet, a small cinema in Wells Way.

WALK UP TO CORNER OF COLDHARBOUR LANE TO NANDOS

Where Nandos and the flats behind now stand, was the site of the Empire, later the Odeon, which became, as we said above, Dickie Dirts clothing warehouse. Closing in the late 1970s, it was squatted in August 1984 as a back-up/centre/crashpad/gigspace holding benefits, for the September 1984 Stop the City actions/defence fund. Stop the City was a series of days of action against the capitalist exploiters in the City of London, initially against firms making profits from war and arms manufacture, later expanding to oppose many other causes… 1000s of mainly young anarchist-influenced activists attacked, demonstrated against and besieged City institutions. The Dickie Dirts squat was evicted on 3rd October ’84 by cops, bailiffs and builders; the building’s owners apparently turned up in a Rolls Royce to watch! The three people found in Dickie Dirts at the time were kicked out. The police had broken in on the bailiffs’ behalf; obviously the Met were slightly aggravated by the Stop the City link.

Dickie Dirts was resquatted several times, eg in June 86 for gigs, when  Camberwell indie band House of Love played here.

The Dickie Dirts building, after standing derelict for most of a decade, was demolished in Spring 1993, and a block of flats for homeless young people called ‘The Foyer’ was built on the site, plus a restaurant; this was later replaced by Nandos.

Camberwell has also played host to a number of other squatted venues and social/political spaces and centres, as we will relate…

WALK DOWN COLDHARBOUR LANE TO CORNER WITH CRAWFORD STREET

Crawford squatted social centre, on the corner of Crawford Street and Coldharbour Lane, 2003. Run by the Black star collective (who had previously occupied another squat in the Coldharbour Lane area), the place held gigs, a “lost film festival”, and served as a drop in centre for some local old Jamaican dudes… After the collective handed out invitations to locals to come and get involved (in which they charmingly asserted that they ” are well-mannered and reasonable people…. Not into drugs or anything alike.” This building was still empty 5 years later after its eviction by Lambeth Council.

Looks like the remains of the old Muesli factory still stand

WALK BACK DOWN COLDHARBOUR LANE TO DENMARK HILL, OVER ROAD AND BACK DOWN TO JOINERS ARMS

The old Muesli Factory behind the Joiners Arms was squatted around 1992-3… mainly for rave parties etc… By some of our remembrance,  it could be a bit nasty in fact, a lot of aggro and some bad drugs.

 

And others: the Old Labour Club and Groove Park, which we’ll talk about later), also some others which are bit off the route of this walk:

Location, 299 Camberwell New Rd, Squat party by LSDiezel crew is advertised for 7th Feb 1992. Were other parties held? Probably. Demolished?

Area 7, 64 Camberwell Church Street: An ex-Council Building squatted for an arts centre in 1993 but quickly evicted.

Kwik Fit on Denmark Hill, was squatted for 2 (or more?) punk shows in October + December 2003.

There have been some great local squatted social centres more recently too;

Warham Street, the Black Frog/Camberwell Squatted Centre in 2007

The Library House, behind the Minet Library, squatted 2008

WALK BACK UP DENMARK HILL TO CORNER OF DANEVILLE ROAD, WALK DOWN TO ALLENDALE ROAD OR KERFIELD CRESCENT

Squatting

The modern squatters’ movement started in 1969 caused by the contrast of rising rents and widespread homelessness, while thousands of houses stood empty, many being slum clearances and Compulsory Purchase Orders, that local councils had left to rot for years (up to 7 years in some cases). The 1970s saw a huge increase in squatting, both for personal housing needs and increasingly as part of an alternative lifestyle that questioned, opposed or rejected traditional conformist ways of life, including work, the sanctity of private property (including leaving houses empty), and conventional social, sexual and economic values.

Southwark Family Squatters Association had originated in October 1970 when Lewisham squatters occupied some empty houses in Peckham. At this time councils had, under pressure from squatters and lengthening waiting lists, started to licence squats in property they were planning going to use, notably in Lewisham.

Squatting in Camberwell began in January 1971 in Cuthill Road, Allendale Road and Kerfield Crescent (all just to south of Daneville Road) in houses left empty, while the Daneville Road/Selborne Road area was waiting for redevelopment, scheduled in 1974.  Southwark Family Squatters Association moved 4 homeless families in to nos 13 and 25 Cuthill Road, 44 Allendale, and  22 Kerfield Crescent. The Council claimed they were going to repair the houses and use them, but squatters, and others, had their doubts. The families had all been made homeless due to private eviction or were living in properties too small or unhealthy, and had been let down by the council refusing to rehouse them or dragging its feet.

The following report appeared in Camberwell Candles, in February 1971:

“You might be forgiven for not noticing anything very special about these houses. They look ordinary outside And inside, the only noticeable things are the good state of the decoration and the absence of any of those damp patches that afflict many older properties in Camberwell.
But since January, when the Southwark Family Squatting Association moved in
and rehoused four families under eviction orders from their previous homes, 4 of these houses have been the homes of squatters .
Before the squatters moved in these houses were empty with doors and windows boarded up – usually a sign that nothing’s going to happen for a long time.

The Council say that the Houses were awaiting “patch repairs” – which you might find curious if you were to go and inspect them. The only repairs needed that anyone other than the Council can see – are an outside wall that needs some attention, and a roof that leaks slightly into a landing – just enough with
an hour’s rain, as one of the squatters’ children put it, “to make a baby’s puddle” …. hardly enough to warrant boarding the place up when there is a housing waiting list of thousands, many of whom are desperate for a decent home.

Squatting sadness

The story of Southwark’s squatters is a sad one. NOT just because the squatters’ hopes for decent homes are being frustrated the Borough Council sticking to the rules of bureaucracy – though that may
true.
NOT just because some families in really desperate need are being kept waiting because houses intended for them have been taken instead by squatters – though that may be true.
BUT BECAUSE the Council and the squatting associations are in conflict and are
frustrating each other’s activities IN SPITE OF THE FACT that their aims are basically the same – to improve the housing situation in Southwark.
THE REASON for this is simply that the two sides are not cooperating with each
other.
THE BLAME for this non-cooperation non-cooperation is the Council’s. The Southwark Family Squatting Association wants to cooperate: the Council does not

SQUATTING IN CAMBERWELL

Camberwell’s first squatters are in Cuthill Road, Allendale Road and Kerfield Crescent. Before the squatters moved in, the 4 houses were boarded up and there was no way of finding out exactly what was going to happen to them. The whole area, including Dane ville Road & Selborne Road,is due for redevelopment in 1974. It seems un likely that houses should be kept empty for that long – but it has been known to happen before.

THE BOROUGH COUNCIL

The Press Officer at the Town Hall when asked why these houses had been boarded up, said he had no details of particular properties, but that most such houses were in development areas due for demolition. Southwark now has about 1600 empty houses, 1200 of them due for demolition this year, and the other 400 due for repairs.

The Asst. Town Clerk, Mr Thomas, said that the four houses in question aimed at putting people into property were in fact due for “patch repairs. And he complained that the squatters, by taking over the houses before the repairs were done, had deprived other families at the top of the waiting list of their rightful tenancies.

When asked what repairs needed to be done, Mr Thomas said that he could not give details – not that there was any secret about it, but because with hundreds of repair jobs either on the files awaiting approval or in the hands of various sub-contractors this would be difficult.

Why did the Council not get the repairs done before the squatters moved in? Because, apparently, there is always “considerable delay what with decisions and the sub-contractors’ – with architects’ plans and committees decisions and sub-contractors’ own schedules.

THE SQUATTING ASSOCIATION

When given Mr Thomas’ information that the houses had been due for repairs, Mr Barry Stone, of the Southwark Family Squatting Association said that if only the Association had known that in advance, they would not have taken them over: “WE are only too pleased if the Council are going to USE a house.
If they would only tell us which empty houses they do not intend to use and which are awaiting repairs, we will vacate the ones they want to use. Our programme is aimed at property  that is not going to be used again.
But the Council refuse to give us any information”.

The squatters have also told the Council that if the Council would co-operate, they would give an undertaking only to house people on the Council’s housing list, and in consultation with an officer from the Council.

THE SQUATTERS OWN STORIES:

Aston and Zoila Bartley are now at 13 Cuthill Road, having squatted previously at Gordon Road Peckham, where they had an eviction order. Prior to that they were in Bermondsey, but the flat was damp and unhealthy and in their opinion “No place for the kids!!
They have 3 children, the youngest a baby of a few weeks born by Caesarean.
In Bermondsey Mrs Bartley had pneumonia and a lot of bronchitis – due
to some extent at least to the damp.

Joseph and Joan Peters are at 44 Allendale Road. They too have squatted before, and been evicted, having left a fiat in Lausanne Road that they found far too small for the whole family.
The Peters have had trouble even getting on the housing list at all,
apparently through letters to and from the Council going astray somewhere along the line. This has been more than usually frustrating, since one of their children is “in care” and not allowed home until “suitable accommodation” is found. But they are hopeful of hearing good news from the Council before too long.
Gloria McFarlane of 25 Cuthill Road lives there with her husband Lloyd and their 4 children. They too were evicted from Gordon Road, having already been evicted from a flat in Bermondsey when their landlord wanted the flat for his own family.
The McFarlanes were offered accommodation in Barry Lodge in Sydenham.
They refused it –  “It was so filthy!”

John & Beryl Lindsay… 22 Kerfield Crescent. They had a flat in Southwark from which the
landlord evicted them in September.
The Council refused to offer them a place at all – for the unfortunate reason that, although they have been together as man and wife for 8 years they are not officially married, and are therefore classed as an engaged couple!
Since they moved into Kerfield Crescent, they have been offered a place in Chaucer House. “But the state of the place was so bad”, said Mrs Lindsay, “that I wouldn’t take
children in there. A friend of mine was sent there –  just for 6 months
they told her – she’s been there four years!”
(Report from Camberwell Candles magazine, St Giles Camberwell Church, Feb 1971)

The were some 1600 empty street properties in the Borough of Southwark at the time. Southwark Council refused to do deals with squatters as other councils had – the local authority was old-Labour controlled, John O’ Grady (later infamously to join the gentrifying redevelopers of the London Docklands Development Corporation) was in charge, and their approach to housing and local politics in general was “we do stuff FOR people, they don’t do it for themselves.” They evicted the Camberwell squatters and trashed the houses to stop them being occupied, claiming the houses could be patch repaired & used for people in the normal way, and that squatters were “queue jumping”.

In response the squatters launched a campaign for the Council to recognise the squatters, and give them licences… their tactics included marches, demos, and deputations to the Town Hall. On 21 April 1971 FSA families invaded the Town Hall Council Chamber, 50 people barricaded themselves in and held an alternative council meeting. When Council Leader John O’ Grady tried to speak the squatters’ Mayor ruled him out of order!

They also occupied Transport House (the Walworth Labour Party HQ) on 10 May 1971, 30 people were involved, waving a banner reading: ‘Labour Southwark fights the Homeless’.

The Council still refused to deal with the squatters, and pressed on in court, but good legal defences meant cases got adjourned in many cases… Some Council social workers were in fact supporting the squatters,  despite pressure from above. Southwark applied for injunctions to stop named squatters entering council property (a tactic revived by Southwark against squatters in the Heygate Estate in Elephant & Castle in 2006) – but in fact made a mess of this.

We’ll continue this story round the corner in Grove Lane…

BACK TO DENMARK HILL, TURN LEFT, WALK UP HILL TO FRONT OF MAUDSLEY HOSPITAL

Camberwell’s association with mental health care/imprisonment goes back centuries: there were two large ‘lunatic asylums’ on Peckham Road in the 18th-19th centuries… (Which we’ll come to later)

The Maudsley

The Maudsley Hospital dates from 1907, when Dr Henry Maudsley offered London County Council £30,000 (subsequently increased to £40,000) to help found a new mental hospital that would:
– be exclusively for early and acute cases,
– have an out-patients’ clinic,
– provide for teaching and research.

The Hospital was always intended to be a progressive centre of treatment and research rather than confinement and “asylum”. World War I intervened and the Hospital didn’t open until 1923. A specific Act of Parliament had to be obtained (1915) to allow the institution to accept voluntary patients.

The Maudsley continues to provide in-patient and community mental health care to local people in Southwark and Lambeth and nationally across the UK, though contested, and problematic, (see below) In close proximity to the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London it is also a contributor to both psychiatric research and the training of nursing, medical and psychology staff in psychiatry.

As part of the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust (SLaM) it also has close links with Bethlem Royal Hospital – the original “Bedlam”.

Reclaim Bedlam, and Mad Pride

“In 1997, the Bethlem and Maudsley NHS Trust marked the Bethlem hospital’s 750th anniversary with a series of celebrations. Pete, who had been a patient at the Maudsley, saw nothing to celebrate in either the original Bedlam (“a symbol for man’s inhumanity to man, for callousness and cruelty,” in historian Roy Porter’s words), or the state of mental health care.
“How can you celebrate LOBOTOMY, LIFETIME INSTITUTIONALISATION – TAKING YOUR OWN LIFE – DEPRESSION – DRUG DEPENDENCY ECTS…” (Survivors Speak Out)

1997 saw the 750th anniversary of ‘Bedlam’ – the asylum which was the precursor of the Maudsley. Inside the Maudsley were anniversary “celebrations”, outside was a big demo of mental health survivors under the banner of  “reclaim bedlam”, organised by Pete Shaughnessy.

Reclaim Bedlam organised ‘Raving in the park”, a picnic/rave/a sit-in outside the original Bedlam site at the Imperial War Museum to protest.

“Maudsley & Bethlem Mental Health Trust saw itself as la crème de la crème of mental health. In 1997, it was more like the Manchester City of mental health. Situated in one of the poorest areas of the country, it put a lot of resources into its national projects, and neglected its local ones.

It’s history went back to the first Bedlam, the first institution of mental_health. If you pop down to the museum at Bethlem Hospital, you will see a picture proudly displayed of the 700th celebrations in 1947, with the Queen Mother planting a tree. Well, not exactly planting, more like putting her foot on a spade.

So, when some PR bureaucrat came up with the idea of 750th_celebrations, it must have all made sense. An excuse for a year of corporate beanos. The Chief Executive could picture the MBE in the cabinet. There was only one problem: in 1947, the patients would have been well pleased with a party, in 1997 some patients wanted more.

In the so-called ‘user friendly’ 90s, I thought ‘commemoration’ was more appropriate. So, a few of us went to battle with the Maudsley PR machine. It was commemoration vs. celebration.

I think for the first time, we were taking the user movement out of the ghetto of smoky hospital rooms and into the mainstream. We spoke at Reclaim the Streets and political events. We would gatecrash conferences to push the message. I know we pissed users off by our_style; personally I found some users more judgemental than the staff we talked to. They were even a few users who wanted to have their stall at the ‘Funday’ and cross our picket line. Frustrating. When that proposal was put to me, I lost my nut, which meant I threatened to_bring Reclaim the Streets down to smash up their stall. Because of that remark, I had two police stations hassling me up to the day_of our Reclaim Bedlam picnic and the picket at the staff ball, the_appropriate opening event of the celebrations, had to be dropped.

We had our first picnic at Imperial War Museum, one of the sites of Bedlam Hospital; Simon Hughes MP came and spoke. Features in Big Issue and Nursing Times, and we were afloat.

Our next event was to screw up the Thanksgiving Service at St Paul’s_Cathedral which a member of the Royal Family was attending. BBC2’s ‘From the Edge’ got in on the act for that one, and it’s widely_thought that because of our antics on the steps of St Paul’s – as well as stopping the traffic at 11am with a boat forcing Tower Bridge to open – that the Chief Exec didn’t get his MBE.

Our next event was to join up with ECT Anonymous and the All_Wales User and Survivor Group and picket the Royal College of Psychiatry. It was the first time Reclaim Bedlam had been involved in International Direct Action. Keeping up the pressure on the Royal College of Psychiatry we hijacked their anti-stigma campaign, ‘In Every Family in the Land’. The soundbite I used was: ‘the psychiatrist is patting you on the head with one hand, and with the other hand he /she is using compulsory treatment to inject you up the bum.” (Pete Shaughnessy)

Hundreds of mental patients around the country supported Reclaim Bedlam, and the BBC2 series From The Edge made a programme about it. At a time of many community- care horror stories, a very different message was finally getting out.

Pete and others around Southwark Mind organised a demo against SANE head-quarters in 1999 “opposing their support (at the time) for compulsory treatment orders being proposed by the government – to no small part because of SANE’s lobbying – things started to get serious. We managed to get 200 people turning up to the SANE march – which at the time was an unprecedented figure for a ‘mad’ demo. We had whistles, drums, a 7-foot long syringe together with a kitchen table, corn-flakes and milk, tridents (because we’re the devil), banners, flyer you name it – we pulled out the stops. SANE didn’t know what the fuck had hit them. They dropped their support for CTO’s and to this day, they’re still reeling from this event.”

Then Pete went on to found Mad Pride with Robert Dellar, Simon Barnett and Mark Roberts.

Mad Pride orchestrated a campaign of publicity and protest – holding a vigil on Suicide Bridge in Archway, to remember all of the people who’ve died there and all of the other people who commit suicide – ‘murder by society.’; protesting against the pharmaceutical industry’s predominance over psychiatric services; organising a Mad Pride open-air festival in Stoke Newington in July 2000; the publication of a book ‘ Mad Pride: A Celebration of Mad Culture,’ which was highly acclaimed and successful… “we got user-led mental health issues into the media as never before, and we inspired many people. We also, without a doubt, moved the paradigm of the British ‘user movement’ left-wards.”

Pete Shaughnessy tragically took his own life in December 2002.
Sadly Robert Dellar also died in 2016.

See Into the Deep End, Pete’s chapter for Mad Pride – A Celebration of Mad Culture. Edited by Ted Curtis, Robert Dellar, Esther Leslie & Ben Watson.

A plaque we left here in memory of Reclaim Bedlam

At the time this walk was originally thought up, South London mad folk were up in arms about the closure of the Psychiatric Emergency Clinic at Maudsley, the 24 hour emergency service for mentally ill people in crisis. mental health trust, the South London and Maudsley Trust, ran up surpluses in the preceding year, and was told it had to find £8m of savings the following year, because the two primary care trusts which fund the NHS locally were cutting their mental health budgets. The Maudsley’s walk-in emergency clinic, the only 24-hour self-referral service of its kind in the UK, open since the 1950s, was targeted for the cuts. The Maudsley said that King’s College Hospital A&E, just across the road, was creating a separate area to deal with this, and that voluntary sector providers were coming in to run an information service: None of which has happened. Rallies, demos, of mad and allegedly sane alike followed for two years, but the clinic closed for clinical admissions and treatment in January 2007.

The chief executive of King’s admitted that they never had any intention of creating a separate area to replace the emergency clinic. I’d rather be mad than a lying bureaucrat.
The campaign to re-open an emergency clinic continues.

Madness, Creativity, Individuality

“Creative Routes have identified normality as a mental health issue.”

Between 2006-2008, Creative Routes, an arts charity, run by the mad for the mad, organised the Bonkersfest on Camberwell Green: a free annual one day summer arts and music festival, illuminating and celebrating madness, creativity, individuality and eccentricity; combating stigma and promoting good mental health – A day of loony celebrations for everyone – mad or not… Sadly missed.
Creative Routes celebrated and promoted the unique creativity of mad people, promoting mental well-being, and creatively campaigning against discrimination and for the acceptance of individuality in society.

… they also believed MADNESS should be viewed positively facilitating an outpouring of immense and unique creative energy. Wahey!

WALK BACK DOWN DENMARK HILL, TURN RIGHT INTO DE CRESPIGNY PARK, ALONG TO THE INSTITUTE OF PSYCHIATRY

Institute of Psychiatry – the South London Animal Movement picketed here regularly in the early 1980s, protesting the Institute’s policy of testing on animals. At this time we think Mike Chitty, undercover police spy run by the Special Demonstration Squad (remember them, from Camberwell new Road, above?) was infiltrating this group. The Animal Liberation Front also raided the lab here in 1984, releasing caged rats, destroying computer tapes and trashing the lab.

PAUSE AT NO 30 

No 30 De Crespigny Park used to be a long term squat, a very large house, squatted on and off for many years in the 1980s and 1990s, lived in by lots of lovely people; finally evicted in 1999.

CONTINUE DOWN DE CRESPIGNY PARK TO GROVE LANE, TURN RIGHT, WALK UP TO NO 93

Continuing the story of squatting locally (started at Daneville Road, above)…
93 Grove Lane was the site of Southwark’s Homeless Families Department

On 2 June 1971, the office of Edna Cummings (head of the Department) was besieged, then occupied by Southwark Families Squatting Association. 25-30 people got inside, while other squatters stood outside with placards. The occupiers answered phones, and claimed they’d set up a new council squatting department! They demanded Edna Cummings’ resignation and more housing for homeless families. The 5 hour-occupation was eventually removed.

Eventually after the 1971 elections, younger, left Labour councillors who supported the squatters pushed through deals and many squats got licences. In July 1971 the council made deals with the Family Squatting Association, which led to the creation of Southwark Self Help Housing. 30 houses were initially given over to them, many of which had been previously scheduled for demolition. It is still going today, having bought all its housing stock from the Council.
The council office at no 93 was later closed and has been turned into flats.

A plaque left here celebrating the occupation of the homeless families department.

WALK BACK UP, TURN LEFT THROUGH PASSAGE NEXT TO HULL COURT/GROVE COURT, TURN RIGHT UP CAMBERWELL GROVE,  TO NO 201

In the 1980s many of Camberwell Grove’s huge Georgian houses were lying empty, in decline. They were in a very bad state of repair, rising damp, wet and dry rot, leaking roofs, gutters/ downpipes knackered, smashed windows. But their old spiral staircases had been listed, so the Council couldn’t just knock them all down, to their great dismay.

Originally several houses, at least numbers 201 to 218, were squatted in 1983, and a community built up, which worked very communally and collectively, at least for a while. Organic gardens, growing vegetables were set up, and many houses shared power supplies with each other – some of it obtained in slightly unorthodox ways:

“I lived for a couple of grim years, in a gigantic pile on Camberwell Grove, just round the corner from the top secret government listening station (easily identified by the large graffiti we used to place on local road signs reading “This way to Top Secret Government Listening Station”). I became adept at tapping neighbours gas and water supplies. At one point a resident eight houses down was supplying 40 squatters with power from the spur that ran the train layout in his garden shed. I think he had half a dozen Hornby Dublo models that, for the six months before they caught us, were drawing more power than the British Rail London to Manchester line…”

In 1984 Southwark Council offered them a deal: short-term tenancies of 18 months up to 5 years though Hyde Housing Association. This sparked a furious debate over what to do; since many squatters in those days, especially those influenced by anarchism and other similar ideas advocated refusing to co-operate with councils and other authorities at all. A leaflet was circulated urging people to do no deals, and a meeting (at no 207 in November 1984) urged this position. The majority voted to accept the deal with Hyde, though. Nos 201-218 were ‘shortlifed’ (given indeterminate licences to remain with no guarantee of rehousing or proper rights, but free from immediate eviction) in February ‘85. They formed a Housing Co-op. Some houses were taken to the high court for eviction proceedings in July 1985, and many were evicted around 1989-90, though some squatting survived and sporadically still houses in Camberwell Grove were being occupied into the 21st Century. I’m not sure when the Co-op was evicted if it was…

We left a plaque here to commemorate the Camberwell Grove squats

BACK DOWN CAMBERWELL GROVE TO GROVE PARK, TURN LEFT AND WALK DOWN TO NO 2 (ON THE RIGHT)

This was known as Groove Park, c. 1991-2? A large squat centre/gig venue, occupying a Council children’s home (which closed down after a scandal due to mistreatment of kids in September 1990, and immediately squatted). It was renamed Groove Park, and put on gigs, cafes, raves, and other fun and games. “Human-sized ducks hang from the ceiling. Parachutes in others; industrial waste grows into metal sculptures and the walls have been decorated by a dozen Jackson Pollocks.” 20 odd people lived here, and formed an ‘Arts Co-op’. leafletting the neighbours claiming to be all teetotal non smoking vegetarians (somewhat inaccurately)… Many locals signed their petition to be allowed to remain in the building, including neighbour Terry Jones of Monty Python (though he later came round to complain about the noise, apparently!).

CROSS ROAD TO GATE TO NO 113

113 Grove Park was formerly a Listening station, run by a MI6/Police/MI5 combination.

MI6 Telephone intercepts were for some time handled at the London Station or VBR, by a group of specialists and linguists known as UKZ and operating with a team of specially cleared BT engineers known as the OND. Metropolitan Police Interception and Special Services Centre was situated at 113 Grove Park, Camberwell, London SE5 and served as a joint MI5/MI6/MPSB/C7/GC & CS unit. This had been in operation as ‘Grove Park’ since around 1919 and was still a covert listening site well into the 1980s.

Some operations were transferred to Sandridge near St Albans in the late 1930’s and that base was taken over by GCHQ in 1946. A fleet of detector vans was based there throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s. By 1970’s had reverted to Home Office control and had became a Surveillance Research centre developing equipment for Grove Park and other users.

WALK BACK DOWN TO FENCE AROUND NO 123

The large house (a former youth offending training centre) and extensive land here has been empty for a while. The supposed owners are trying to sell it on for 10.5 million as it is, with the planning permission granted. They got a 4 million mortgage from the Secretary of state for communities 2 years ago.. (an expect to make a 6.5million profit when they sell).

There has been a community campaign to prevent the sale and save the land and the trees; hopefully as a community space. The house was squatted previously, and the house and land was squatted as part of the campaign (around 2017); and re-named GroveArk… Check out their wonderful facebook page

The squatters lost in court in August 2019; but on 6 November 2019, they resisted eviction: “squatters and Rebel’s barricaded and climbed on the roof, safe for now.#homes4all Resist ALL evictions. Calling for anyone to come and support tomorrow morning in case bailiffs return. Needs tree climbers , rebel feast tonight. Musical protest resistance tomorrow morning onwards. Wish list people, rebels , pallets, wood, rope, chains and locks, lock ons, food, paint tools, super glue, long ladders, transport, empty building addresses, musicians ( for round the fire in massive tree grove garden .) Cake ,flap jack, torches, bring friends hang out on the frontline for free Adrenalin. Save one of the last groves in this part of south London. Please network to media and social media” 

The building was evicted in January 2020: “The large house on Grove Park that has been squatted on and off for the last couple of years is currently being cleared. Started about 8.30 this morning. About 50 bailiffs and private security and another 30 or 40 police and community support officers. Seemed pretty disproportionate to me. Grove Park itself closed to traffic. Given the general shortage of visible policing in Camberwell and Peckham it seemed a bit galling that so many are able to turn up to oversee the needs of a private landlord. I know they are there to monitor the bailiffs too but it seemed like a lot. By the property owner’s admission the squatters only occupied the property when his maintenance team left the place unlocked. That huge area of mature woodland behind the house will, I guess, shortly be cleared for more ‘luxury’ housing.”

There’s a petition to save the space

BACK TO CAMBERWELL GROVE AND DOWN TO CHURCHYARD PASSAGE, THROUGH PASSAGE TO CHURCHYARD

St Giles Church features the first recorded black presence in Southwark, as being in Camberwell, in its records of the African John Primero, servant to Sir Thomas Hunt, baptised April 3 1607, buried St Giles Church 3 Feb 1615. (Obviously this only means that earlier records may no longer exist).

West Indians began to settle in numbers in Camberwell in the early 1950s, an offshoot of the Brixton community, though there were more Pakistanis and Indians mixed in here. Caribbeans moved in mainly to the north of Camberwell Green, ie in the poorer parts of the area, mostly in run-down, short lease 2-3 storey houses. The black community here was less dense, more scattered than the more obvious Brixton West Indian community; Camberwell was maybe a slightly more favourable climate than Brixton in some ways. There seems to have been less racial tension, maybe partly because the incomers were less clustered and noticeable as a group.  The long association of Harold Moody and his family here as local doctor and activist may have also contributed to a more accepting attitude (see below, Wren Street).  Camberwell Borough Council were said to be more positive towards the migrants than Lambeth. A figure of 1500 black residents comes up for 1956, perhaps though, this was for the Borough of Camberwell as a whole.

Since then clearly the population has grown, and black people now number some 20 per cent of Camberwell’s inhabitants, according to the stats.

Racism and fascism have reared their head in the area; anti-racism has been around for just as long. We will return to this later on…

Timothy Brown is also buried in St Giles Churchyard: he lived nearby at Peckham Lodge, Rye Lane, in the early 19th Century. He was known as ‘Equality’ Brown due to his outspoken democratic views. Among other things he insisted on calling a meeting of parishioners in the Church to get a resolution of sympathy for Queen Caroline, around 1820: th estranged wife of king George IV had become a cause celebre for opponents of the monarchy and establishment. But the parish churchwardens wouldn’t allow this meeting to be held on church grounds… Inspired by Brown, a deputation set out from Peckham with an address of support for the Queen; ‘Equality” Brown, however, is said to have died in the very day it set out…

NIP BACK DOWN CHURCHYARD PASSAGE TO CAMBERWELL GROVE, THROUGH MARY BOAST WALK, (THE PASSAGE BY THE SIDE OF THE GROVE TAVERN), BACK TO GROVE LANE; TURN RIGH & WALK UP TO NO 45: CAMBERWELL HALL

Behind the Grove Tavern, at 45 Grove Lane, Camberwell Hall, built in 1748, was by the mid-19th Century used as a venue for social activities, including the Camberwell Working Men’s Institute, who held classes and lectures here. Dickens included it in Sketches by Boz.

The Working Men’s Institutes were set up initially by middle class reformers to oversee education of working class men; partly to help them improve themselves, though also to try to wean them from either drink, immoral behaviour and crime, or from extreme radical politics. They mainly encouraged adult education, sobriety, self-improvement; but they also did provide a venue for many artisans and working-class men to come together and discuss ideas and knowledge. Although politics was generally frowned upon, many groups of working men drew upon this experience, and became radically political active; some groups split directly from WMIs to form self-organised working men’s political and social clubs.

Radical groups met at Camberwell Hall: for example a meeting of the Freedmen’s Aid Society at Camberwell Hall was held to hail the abolition of slavery in the United States.

Art critic John Ruskin lectured here in 1865, it being a short walk from his house Born in Herne Hill, Ruskin lived at no 163 Denmark Hill at this time, opposite modern Ruskin Park.

John Ruskin, 1819 -1900, lived most of his life in Herne Hill and Camberwell, and is best known for his work as an art critic and social commentator; he was also an author, poet and artist. Ruskin’s essays on art and architecture were very influential in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

As an Art critic, he was heavily judgemental. He supported the pre-Raphaelites when they were widely disapproved of as being too avant-garde, and was particularly outspoken in support of Millais’ “blasphemous” paintings of Christ.

His books on architecture, The Stones of Venice and Seven Lamps of Architecture argued that art cannot be separated from morality, by which he meant that the arts should be the expression of the whole moral being of the artists, and of the quality of the society in which the artist lived. He believed that man achieved their own humanity through labour, but through creative labour, not drudgery. He attacked mechanisation and standardisation of goods; this led him increasingly into rebellion against 19th century capitalism. “Mens pleasure in the work by which they make their bread” lies at the heart of a just society, was his underlying thesis. His view was that Capitalism was turning workers into machines: he viewed craft and artisan skill as vitally important, and looked back in some ways to the Middle Ages, to craft-based guilds. He also condemned the separation of manual and intellectual labour… “the workman ought to be often thinking, and the thinker often to be working… As it is… the world is full of morbid thinkers and miserable workers.”

Fundamentally Ruskin condemned the division of labour, which formed part of the heart of capitalism. His ideas were crucially influential on the development of William Morris, and the Arts and Crafts Movement; he also influenced the setting up of the National Trust, the National Art Collections Fund and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

Following a crisis of religious belief Ruskin abandoned art criticism at the end of the 1850s, moving towards commentary on politics, under the influence of his great friend Thomas Carlyle. In Unto This Last he expounded his theories about social justice, which influenced the development of the British Labour party and of Christian socialism. Upon the death of his father, Ruskin declared that it was not possible to be a rich socialist and gave away most of his inheritance.

Ruskin lectured at the Camberwell Working Men’s Institute; his talk on “Work and Play” was given on January 24th, 1865, and took this theme: that work had to be useful, fulfilling and enjoyable.

He founded the charity known as the Guild of St George in the 1870s and endowed it with large sums of money as well as a remarkable collection of art. He also gave the money to enable Octavia Hill to begin her practical campaign of housing reform. He also taught at the Working Men’s College, London and was the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, from 1869 to 1879, he also served a second term.

In 1871 Ruskin began publication of Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain. Between 1871 and 1878 it was issued in monthly parts and until 1884 at irregular intervals. Ruskin intended the work to be a “continual challenger to the supporters of and apologists for a capitalist economy”. It was Ruskin’s socialist writing that influenced trade unionists and political activists such as Tom Mann and Ben Tillett.

Fors Clavigera: 89th Letter (1873) 

”Trade Unions of England – Trade Armies of Christendom, what’s the roll-call of you, and what part or lot have you, hitherto, in this Holy Christian Land of your Fathers? Whose is the wealth of the world but yours? Whose is the virtue? Do you mean to go on for ever, leaving your wealth to be consumed by the idle and your virtue to be mocked by the vile?

The wealth of the world is yours; even your common rant and rabble of economists tell you that: “no wealth without industry.” Who robs you of it, then, or beguiles you? Whose fault is it, you cloth-makers, that any English child is in rags? Whose fault is it, you shoemakers, that the street harlots mince in high-heeled shoes and your own babies paddle bare-foot in the street slime? Whose fault is it you bronzed husbandmen, that through all your furrowed England, children are dying of famine?”

Like so much of London’s interesting underground geography, Camberwell Hall has now sadly been sold off for housing for the rich. In an advert for the sale of the building, some of its history was regurgitated as sanitised heritage, to help bump up the developers’ profit.
More on Ruskin

We left a plaque remembering the Hall’s past

WALK DOWN TO CAMBERWELL CHURCH STREET, TURN RIGHT, STOP AT 84 CHURCH STREET, (CURRENTLY HEAVEN SENT NURSERY) WHICH USED TO BE THE LABOUR CLUB

The old Labour Club, at 84 Camberwell Church Street was squatted for gigs & parties in November 1990 or so… Some of crew involved had previously run the pioneering Peckham Dole House Squat 1989-90, one of first inner London Squat rave venues.

The Labour Club was described by Southwark Squatting/Housing Comic Ship News thus: “Conscientious types, world muzak, Country and western etc… Scenewise, a bit off the beaten track. Labour party nipped back in to resquat their ideological home while occupants were out…”

According to one of the organisers/residents:

“Not much I can remember about the Labour Club, bit too tripped out. Got pigged one night when Eat Static were due to play… The Caff was on a Friday called ‘Fresh From The Skip…’ or something similar… Bands that played included Poisoned Electrick Head, Back To The Planet, RDF, Brain Of Morbius… we also used to put gigs on in what is now The Stirling (or is it The Castle), over the road, even persuaded the Levellers to play for nout…The saddest thing about the place was that we weren’t evicted, we all fucked off to a festival one weekend and when got back to London the owners (the labour party) had squatted it and were turfing everything out onto the road (we’d all moved out by then, squatting somewhere a lot cleaner in Peckham, the Labour Club was very difficult to use as a home although good as a venue). This was after some woman from their head office when it was up Walworth road turned up at the door and ordered us out, then returned with the police a few minutes later after we told her to fuck off. They couldn’t be bothered and told her to take us to court. The police also turned up to check our leccy supply about a month after it was squatted, thinking we were abstracting (not at that point) as our door bell was a length of flex

hanging out the top floor window attached to some empty beer cans; if they’d bothered to look at the flex they’d seen it was attached to nothing. Thick cunts!!…”

A plaque was put up here to remember the Labour Club squat

WALK EAST DOWN CHURCH STREET/PECKHAM ROAD TO CORNER OF HAVIL STREET

Unemployment

Under the old Poor Law systems that preceded the Welfare State, the poor who were unable or unwilling to work were the responsibility of the Parish authorities. These local worthies being ratepaying respectable folk, responsible to their fellow ratepayers, tried to spend as little as possible on unnecessary expenses like relieving the skint and destitute. Poor folk were often forced out of the parish if not native, or incarcerated in Workhouses, which increasingly became prisons for the lower orders, feared and hated. Especially `after the New Poor law was introduced in 1834, the Workhouse was made as inhospitable and repressive as possible to discourage people from resorting to it unless they had no other option. Men and women were split up, families divided, backbreaking labour was normal and the food was usually scanty and of dubious quality.

The old Workhouse, Havil Street

Camberwell’s old Workhouse stood here on the corner of Camberwell Church Street and Havil Street. The Workhouse had been built in 1727-8, despite opposition from local worthies, who didn’t see why they should pay for it. It was rebuilt several times here, most notably in 1827. This latest building was “very hot in the summer and particularly draughty in the winter.”

Over the years, the Havil Street site became increasingly important as a hospital. In 1873 a large new infirmary was erected at the north of the site, at the junction with Brunswick Road. Its central administrative block was five storeys high and contained offices, staff accommodation, and special wards.

The infirmary buildings were further extended in 1899-1903 with new ward blocks, operating theatre, and nurses’ home. A large administration block fronted onto Brunswick Square (now St Giles Road). The Board of Guardians, the Borough Council officers responsible for giving out ‘relief’ (benefits)and administering the Workhouse, had their office built on the site of the old Workhouse… (maybe not just because the land was vacant:  presumably the Workhouse site would have had enough bad resonances with the poor to scare some off from applying for relief!?) The Workhouse buildings were demolished in 1905.

In 1930, the Havil Street site was taken over completely by the London County Council and renamed St Giles’ Hospital. Many of the original buildings have now been demolished to make way for flats.

In 1878, Camberwell erected a new workhouse at a site to the west of Gordon Road, Peckham. [Aside: this was the old site of the convent at Nazareth House; after the Workhouse closed its derelict sheds became a dosshouse known as the Spike. The empty hospital buildings were partly demolished for flats in the 1990s, the other half of the site became a scrap recycling project and was then squatted in 1999, to become the famous Spike. Several people lived here, had parties, and organised many projects until its eviction in 2009.]

The Right to Live

Camberwell had a long tradition of unemployed organising themselves to fight for more generous systems of benefits. (Interestingly Myatt’s Fields Park was bought & turned into a landscaped park, after over 10 years of local campaigning, and laid out 1887-8. The work was actually done by the unemployed. After unemployed rioting in the West End in 1886, the authorities set up work-for-your-charity schemes for the doleys to try to stop them causing trouble. The park opened in 1889.)

During the high unemployment of 1905, a Camberwell Joint Unemployed Committee campaigned locally for more relief from the Guardians, having a membership of 1,500.

In the early 1920s Camberwell Green was also the starting point for rallies and demonstrations against unemployment, and against government measures which hit the unemployed hard.

After the First World War, unemployment rocketed. Partly this resulted from the change in the economy from the ending of the War/munitions industries, partly employment and economic figures had been distorted with hundreds of thousands of men in uniform. With large numbers of unemployed ex-servicemen looking for work, and firms laying people off, many working class people were thrown into poverty. This was not taken lying down however. From 1920 on, local unemployed committees organised against government measures to restrict money for relief of poverty and unemployment; against local authorities who were administering these restrictions (and in many cases adding some of their own) and against firms who were laying workers off, or working lots of overtime… Many of these committees were organised by trade unionists and socialists and communists who had been active in the strike movements before, during and after the War, and many members were unemployed ex-servicemen, who had spent years in the trenches only to come back to hardship.

In 1921, most of the Committees combined to form the National Unemployed Workers (Committee) Movement or NUWM.

The early to mid 19th Century saw a sharp rise in the number of people diagnosed as insane and committed to institutions; possible reasons for this include the social dislocation and pressures of industrialisation, urbanisation, with vast numbers of people being forced off the land and flocking into factories and slums to survive; although higher numbers being diagnosed may have contributed.

Rebellious, awkward or unorthodox behaviour could also land you in the asylum; poverty and increasing turbulence of life also drove many people mad. No adequate figures exist, but large numbers of people were forced into asylums as social control, or as a cheap alternative to workhouse.

The alternative to the Workhouse… the Madhouse

As mentioned above, Camberwell has hosted institutions for the treatment/incarceration of people with mental health problems for centuries. Two such ‘hospitals’ used to stand on Peckham Road:

Camberwell House and Peckham House

Camberwell House, a huge private establishment, stood on the north side behind the Town Hall, occupying the land as far as Southampton Way (where the Sceaux Gardens Estate is now). Built originally as a school, it was converted into a ‘lunatic asylum’ in 1846. Holding up to 483 inmates it was the largest of its kind in the metropolis in the late 19th Century.

A painting of Camberwell House

The institution was held to be “the epitome of the enlightened approach to mental disorders at a time when the public asylums were busy creating the ignorance and brutality, the mistrust, that still lingers in the public mind today of mental homes” (Blanch); the proprietors’ pioneering regime contrasted with the cruel and barbarous conditions prevalent in Bedlam and other asylums. “The utmost liberty, with safety, is permitted”, it was said of the regime there.

While it was said to cater to ‘all classes’, the private paying guest was clearly at the forefront of the proprietors’ minds… Not only was care emphasised, but the hospital also provided some pretty plush facilities for its ‘patients’: 20 acres of grounds (some of which were over Peckham Road, where Lucas Gardens are now) cricket, football and hockey pitches, tennis and squash courts, croquet; there were garden parties, dances (in a purpose built ball room!) theatricals, concerts, billiards… Camberwell House eventually closed in 1955: the building are now part of the University of the Arts.

Peckham House, on the other hand, (which stood on the site now occupied by the Harris Academy, Peckham, was clearly intended for the more plebeian end of the market. An old mansion till 1826, it then became a public asylum, in response to the urgent need for “a suitable establishment for the insane poor”; and to the urgent need for local parishes to cut the cost of sending their mad poor to public asylums north of the river.

It was smaller than Camberwell House, holding around 350 people; again it was supposed to be for “all ages and classes”. but in 1844, there were 203 pauper and 48 private inmates.  Pauper inmates were sent from various parishes, (an allowance was paid for their upkeep – 17s. 6d. in 1874, though not sure if that’s per year, per week or what?)

Being a public asylum, Peckham House was regularly checked out by the authorities that paid for it. Although much more so than today, you have to read between the lines, the inspectors reported that the accommodation was ‘excellent’, but consistently there were complaints about the food. Even the stingy worthies who pulled the purse strings were stirred into action: “this house has always been a source of trouble to us upon the subject of diet…”

Peckham House in the 1950s (south elevation)

In 1844, patients received on alternate days either meat, potatoes and bread, or soup and bread. It was described mouthwateringly: “the soup is made from the liquer in which the meat from the whole establishment (private paupers and servants) is boiled the previous day.” Please sir, can I have some more?

All in all, despite its ‘excellent’ accommodation, Peckham House was considered to be in a bad state in 1844, and may have only stayed open because the vestries who paid for it realised that the only alternative place for most of its poor inmates would be the workhouse – at their expense.

Class and money divided those interned here. In 1874, ‘Private’ patients whose “friends paying from one to one and a half guineas for their board, lodging and attendance” lived in separate blocks, in better circumstances than paupers… According to a South London Press reporter,  “the rooms are light and cheerful, ruddy fires burn in the grates. Here are bathrooms, with a supply of hot and cold water, and a bagatelle table for the amusement of the patients… In connection with this block is a pleasant strip of garden…” In the next ward “we rise a step in the social scale. ‘People who have moved in a superior station” my guide whispers as we enter. They are quiet and orderly people… The apartments are superior to the last… lounges and couches give a decided air of home comfort to the place.”  The final ward was “a long and elegantly furnished room…” About 42 ‘ladies’ inhabited this ward, paying fees of 5 to 20 guineas a week… Every comfort was allotted to them.

The asylum in 1874 had clearly improved from thirty years previously  – so that it “can be fairly compared with any similar establishment in the kingdom….”
Peckham House closed in 1952.

ALONG PECKHAM ROAD TO CAMBERWELL COLLEGE OF ART

 Camberwell unemployed in 1920 occupied Camberwell School of Art, as part of a campaign for free places for the unemployed to meet.

“Their local strength was reflected in the fact that they could ‘pack’ a Labour Party meeting in the Camberwell Baths and get the following motion carried: ‘We the workers at this meeting, under the guidance of the Mayor, realise the impossibility of any proffered solution to unemployment during the life of the Capitalist system. We pledge ourselves to work unceasingly for the overthrow of Capitalism and the establishment of a workers Republic.”

On Sept 21st 1921 there was a mass march of local unemployed, from Camberwell Green to Peckham.

In 1922, Camberwell Board of Guardians (who administered relief) planned to stop milk for babies of the unemployed… On February 1st, Camberwell women marched to the House of Commons, as the order was rumoured to have come down from the Ministry of Health. A Ministry inquiry reversed the decision.

Unemployment being high, it became a hot political issue. In 1922, elections were held for the Board of Guardians (the Council body that administered not only relief but the Workhouses etc). A flurry of electoral leaflets from various candidates addressed the issue. Labour candidates Arthur Andrews and Louis Edwards campaigned on the platform of giving out full rations to those on relief (not as was current policy, on the Mond scale, half-rations). They also opposed giving out food instead of money as out-relief. Their leaflet invoked the class nature of unemployment: “Its is only our class that go to the Workhouse or Infirmary. Send the Labour candidates to make the institutions as comfortable as possible. They stand the same risks as you do of having to go there.”  They also amusingly advised: “Don’t wait for our car [presumably to pick up voters and ferry them to the polls]. We haven’t got one. Workers don’t own cars, they only make them.”

There were also two candidates from the ‘Camberwell Central unemployed’, Burnett and Smith, who stood on the basis of their long activism in local unemployment politics, having been members of delegations to the Board of Guardians several times… What were their affiliations? They disparaged political parties in their leaflet, who would make loud noises to get elected and then make no changes.

Workers Defence

In 1927 the Government introduced the ‘Not Genuinely Seeking Work Clause’, as well as cuts in benefit. In 1931 the National Government introduced the means test, and more dole cuts … the response of the local NUWM branches was to organise more broadly-based organisations known as Workers Defence Movements. In 1931 the Camberwell WDM claimed an active membership of 1,000 and got even more support at meetings outside the Peckham Labour Exchange. With the support of the Labour MP, John Beckett, thousands marched along Peckham Road via the Unity Labour Club in Consort Road, to the Rye. (John Beckett later lurched to the right, joining Oswald Mosley’s British union of Fascists.)

Towards the end of 1931 Southwark and Camberwell Workers Defence Movement joined forces for a mass march of 4,000 local unemployed from Walworth Town Hall via Camberwell Green to the Rye. En-route factories and other places of work were visited and employers asked to sign a statement to the effect that they had no work to offer.

The Workers Defence Movement was also involved in preventing evictions, especially during rent strikes, for example in Peckham’s Goldsmith Estate in 1931-2…  They also supported NUWM-organised hunger marchers and passive resistance to public works not given to local unemployed.

Arthur Cooper, Secretary of the Camberwell Trades Council after the Second World War, remembers that a common local tactic was to inform the police that the mass unemployed would converge on a local street such as Southampton Way. Hundreds of police would arrive to find Cooper addressing a meeting of ten outside the Samuel Jones factory (a waxed paper works, by Peckham Grove) while the bulk of the unemployed were attending demonstrations in the West End!

Interestingly, in 1999 the College was occupied again, on 10 March 1999, by students in protest at lack of tutors, equipment, space, grants and hours of access.  College management used various methods to harass them, including bogus fire alarms, threats to prosecute, turning off heating & hot water. 8 students were taken to court over the occupation.

During the wave of occupations of universities and colleges over the winter of 2010, part of a wider movement against increased student fees and cuts generally, students took over the upper main room at Camberwell Art College’s Wilson Street building, staying throughout the Christmas holidays.
More here

CROSS OVER PECKHAM ROAD, WALK BACK DOWN WEST TO THE CORNER OF VESTRY ROAD

During the cold war London was divided into 4 (later 5) groups, each reporting directly to Kelvedon Hatch,
in turn each group was subdivided into the individual boroughs, each of them having its own control centre. The South East Group War HQ at Pear Tree House, SE19 had six sub-controls, Greenwich, Bexley, Bromley, Croydon, Lewisham & Southwark. The Southwark control, designated 51C5 was located beneath a health centre at the junction of Peckham Road and Vestry Road, SE5, almost opposite Southwark Town Hall. Local officers and councillors would have taken shelter here in the event of a nuclear attack, to ‘co-ordinate action’, while the rest of us died horribly.

After the bunker’s closure, the empty health centre was demolished in the late 1990s because, according to the Southwark EPO, local children kept breaking in to it. The bunker below remains intact. The plot of land is now derelict awaiting redevelopment, one side of the stairway into the bunker below has been filled with concrete leaving a six foot drop onto the steps. A hinged grille has been fixed over the remaining part of the well and this is kept securely locked.
More on the Bunker

Lucas gardens housing peace camp 1981

From October 8-12 1984, local housing activists set up a housing peace camp on the lawn of the town hall. The main focus of the protest was against the council’s introduction of PIOs (Protected Intending Occupier) against squatters, to allow police and council officers to evict them without going to court. (As happened to your current author, PIO’d from a Southwark council flat in the Browning Estate in December 1991. 8 days before Xmas…)

CROSS THE ROAD TO SOUTHWARK TOWN HALL

Peckham Action Group

From 1977 to 1982 the Peckham Action Group (PAG) led a campaign against the demolition of the north side of historic Peckham High Street for a new town hall and huge 4-lane high road.

Southwark council came up with a massive scheme to create a dual-carriage highway through the centre of Peckham, with an effectively realigned High Street and a new, grandiose, multimillion-pound town hall.

This led to the formation of a dedicated Peckham Action Group to campaign against the plan. Action included demos and leafletting, lobbying, and the cutting of a now iconic punk rock seven-inch single, ‘No Town Hall’, recorded by the band Crisis. The cover depicted a Southwark sledgehammer embedded in a building, and a coffin bearing the legend ‘RIP Peckham’.

Winning support from councillors, the campaigners were able to help change minds about the new town hall and highway scheme.

This campaign echoed the earlier fight to prevent the South London Cross Route being built through Peckham and Camberwell, which would have led to the demolition of thousands of homes locally. This was a part of the Ringways project, a plan to encircle the capital with concentric rings of motorway and dual carriageway, with radial motorways and links roads fanning out in various directions. Two major elements of the Ringways scheme got built – the M25 and the North Circular Road. The South Circular expansion got bogged down; so did the third and innermost proposal, the ‘Motorway Box’ which would have formed an ‘inner ring road’; this was to have meant the demolition of thousands of homes and the relocation of over 100,000 people. In the north of the city new eight-lane motorways on raised concrete pylons were to be erected through Dalston, Highbury, Camden, Canonbury, Kilburn, Shepherds Bush… The South Cross route of the new autobahns would have driven through Barnes, Balham, Battersea, Clapham, Brixton, Camberwell and Peckham to Kidbrooke and Greenwich.

But locals in all the neighbourhoods threatened with mass demolition got together and fought the ringway proposals in the later 1960s and early 1970s. In 1971, opposition movements coalesced into the London Motorway Action Group. The massive economic cost and opposition eventually led to the vast majority of the ‘Motorway Box’ being shelved in 1973.

The only sections that got built of the inner ring road were the A102/Blackwall tunnel, and the tiny M41 in Shepherds Bush, (squatted for the 1996 Reclaim the Streets party on the motorway, during another wave of protests against roadbuilding).

But interestingly, the so-called Barrier Block, Southwyck House in Brixton’s Coldharbour Lane, was built with a startling resemblance to a Swedish Prison, with few and tiny windows and few entrances on the road facing side, because the motorway was expected to bulldoze down Coldharbour Lane through central Brixton (The motorway, and the grotesque Brixton plan designed to go with it, would have also reduced all of central Brixton to a Birmingham Bullring style raised interchange surrounded by 50 storey tower blocks. Its collapse left 1000s of compulsorily purchased street housing empty for several years, which was then gradually squatted for housing, projects and centres, and blues clubs, contributing much of the area’s counter-cultural life for the next four decades.

On 7 March 1990, Southwark Town Hall was stormed by 500 local anti-poll tax rebels, during setting of poll tax rate.

BACK DOWN TO HAVIL STREET, TURN RIGHT, WALK DOWN TO DALWOOD STREET, TURN RIGHT DOWN ONTO THE SCEAUX GARDENS ESTATE; WALK DOWN TO LAKANAL HOUSE

“It began with a faulty electronic appliance starting a fire in a flat. But the flames spread across the outside of the building, taking hold on cheap composite panels, not compliant with building regulations, which had been fitted during a refurbishment. Terrified residents called emergency services and were told to stay put in their homes, where they later died.

In the aftermath, questions were asked. How did risk assessments miss this? How did the system of building regulation allow the refurbishment to take place? How could this happen so close to the wealthiest part of one of the wealthiest cities on earth?

In social housing right now it seems history repeats itself twice as tragedy. Because this is not a description of the Grenfell Tower disaster, but Lakanal House – a fire eight years earlier …” (Inside Housing)

Lakanal House was built in 1959: a 14-storey tower block containing 98 flats. Southwark Council had previously scheduled the building for demolition in 1999, although later it was decided not to demolish it.

On 3 July 2009, a fire broke out a flat on the ninth floor of Lakanal House, caused by faulty television.

One single central stairwell was the only way in and out of the building – this filled quickly with thick dark smoke, making escape – and rescue – difficult. Around 150 people were evacuated or rescued from the flats. The Fire Brigade rescued a number of people from the flats. Many were taken to Guy’s Hospital, King’s College Hospital and Lewisham Hospital with injuries including smoke inhalation.

The fire killed three people in their flats – three people died of their injuries in hospital. Nine other people were treated at an emergency centre set up by Southwark Council. One firefighter was also admitted to hospital after being injured while fighting the fire.

The dead were three adults and three young children: Dayana Francisquini, 26, and her children, six-year-old Thais, and Felipe, three; Helen Udoaka, 34, and her three-week-old daughter Michelle; and 31-year-old Catherine Hickman.

The Fire Brigade had responded with a total of eighteen fire engines attending, setting up an operational command centre was erected on the seventh floor. People within the flats calling 999 were told to remain in their flats instead of attempting to flee, based on the theory of ‘compartmentation’ – the idea that the structure of the building meant the fire could not spread from flat to flat, so staying in their flats would help protect the families while the blaze was contained. This was supposed to be safer than braving the smoke-filled stairwells and corridors.

However, the flames spread from flat to flat and between floors on the outside of the building, as cladding and insulation caught fire. The exterior cladding panels had burned through in less than five minutes.

Catherine Hickman spent 40 minutes on the phone with 999 responders who urged her to stay in her flat; at the end of the call the responder could no longer hear her breathing.

A Fire Brigade investigation into the fire later helped bring to light that it had already been identified, before the blaze, that the structure and layout of Lakanal House posed a risk of enabling a fire to spread, if one should occur in one of the flats.

An inquest into the deaths at Lakanal House found that the rapid spread of the fire, due to the igniting of the exterior cladding, had trapped people in their homes. As in the case of the Grenfell Tower fire eight years later, residents were advised to remain in their homes in the event of a fire. The inquest also concluded that substandard renovations had removed fire-stopping material between the flats – a problem not uncovered by any Southwark council’s fire safety inspections carried out before the fire.

The layout of the flats made escape in case of an emergency difficult. The two-bedroom maisonettes were based on a two-storey interlocking design. The flats are entered from the right or left side of a central access corridor. On the access level, there are two bedrooms and a bathroom. There are stairs to the upper level where a lounge and kitchen stretch across the full width of the block. This means that the lounge for each flat is above one of the bedrooms of that flat and one of the bedrooms of the flat on the opposite side of the access corridor. The flats were built with fire exits from the lounge and the kitchen to ‘exit balconies’ on either side of the building, and also a fire exit from the largest bedroom into the central access corridor, separate from the front door.

The block had no central fire alarm system – not required by virtue of the then Building Regulations Approved Document B for England And Wales.

Southwark Council claimed after the fire that it had recently spent £3.5 million on refurbishment to meet current fire safety standards.

Residents evacuated from the flats sheltered in nearby community centres, helped by donations and solidarity from other locals and people much wider afield. Some of the residents found alternative accommodation with relatives although the majority were provided with accommodation by Southwark Council. Lakanal House was boarded up. Refurbishment work commenced in 2015, and the block had reopened to residents – many of those who lived there prior to the fire found it too painful to return, however. Southwark spent millions on refurbishment of several blocks after the event.

A number of tower blocks of a similar design exist: Marie Curie House, also nearby, is of identical design to Lakanal.

Despite many calls for a proper investigation and inquiry into the causes of the rapid spread of the fire, no public inquiry has ever been conducted into the Lakanal House fire. At the inquest it was concluded that no realistic prospect of any corporate manslaughter charge was possible, despite many clear failings by the council. However, London Fire Brigade eventually brought a case against Southwark Council to court, eight years later. The Council pleaded guilty in February 2017 to four charges concerning breaches to safety regulations. It was fined £270,000, reduced from £400,000 because it had pleaded guilty, plus £300,000 costs.

Less than four months later, Grenfell Tower caught fire, and the blaze spread in a very similar way, up flammable cladding & insulation on the outside of the building. Again, people were told to stay in their flats as this should protect them from fire better than trying to escape down the stairs.

This time 72 people died.

But might Grenfell never have happened, if proper notice had been taken of events in Lakanal? Recommendations for changes in construction and fire regulations, and to how fires are dealt with by the emergency services, after Lakanal House burned were never acted on at national level, leaving thousands of residents living in potential death traps.

After the 2013 inquest into Lakanal, Coroner Judge Frances Kirkham wrote to Southwark council, the London Fire Commissioner, and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, with a series of recommendations to prevent a similar disaster occurring in future.

She made more than 40 recommendations, including that more guidance should be given to residents in high rise blocks, including clear advice on how to react if a fire breaks out and what to do if circumstances changed – for example if smoke starts coming into a flat.  She also recommended that block layouts should be given to emergency workers responding to fires.

The Department for Communities and Local Government, led by then-minister the (Right Corrupt and Frankly Disgusting) Eric Pickles, was asked to publish national guidance on the confusing ‘stay put’ principle and ‘get out and stay out’ policy.

The government was also asked to provide guidance on building regulations and check the safety of materials and whether refurbishment work can reduce existing fire protection, and to consider retrofitting sprinklers across high-rise blocks.

The government published a response committing itself to publishing new building guidance and committing to make fire safety and priority. This was a smokescreen – no review ever came.

Grenfell repeated Lakanal – but on a scale many times worse. The impact has been massive – on residents, families, friends, communities. A wave of support and solidarity for the affected; an upsurge in social housing tenants organising, especially in blocks with similar issues. Huge lip service has been paid by politicians, corporations and councils, in response to the outpouring of outrage. A Public Inquiry has been quickly set up this time. But yet again campaigners and those most involved in the after-effects have been saying for nearly three years that this should never have happened, warnings were there before the fire, and the evacuated have been increasingly marginalised by the authorities. Cynics (AKA people with some experience of the housing system) have been expressing the view that despite everything, they suspect that things will go back to the way they were before. Deaths, outrage, inquiry, recommendations, burial, silence, normality. Repeat.

Why? How can people die in horrific fires – caused by the institutions supposedly there to look after their interests, and by the large corporations contracted to carry out the building work… and no-one puts into practice any lessons learned? How does it happen again: much, much worse?

Could it be because the people in charge of housing and housing policy overwhelmingly do not live in social housing, have never lived in social housing, will never live in social housing, and consider those that do as at best a nuisance to be ignored or ‘managed’, or an impediment to the proper and ‘vibrant’ commercialisation of inner city land, to be shifted, shafted and short-changed? Housing is for profit not people’s need, and the people had better get used to that?

Some say we need another way of living…

Justice for Grenfell

Grenfell United

We didn’t visit Lakanal on our original walk, (the fire hadn’t yet happened) and so didn’t put up a plaque. Mind you – we can’t see any other memorial to the dead on the block. Is there one anywhere?

BACK DOWN TO HAVIL STREET, TURN RIGHT, WALK DOWN TO BRUNSWICK VILLAS, TURN LEFT HERE, NEXT LEFT INTO ST GILES ROAD, AND NEXT RIGHT INTO BRUNSWICK PARK; WALK DOWN TO 16

Una Marson lived here

“No more moaning and groaning, No more self-hatred masquerading as integration. No more rejecting your own Ethiop’s child for somebody else’s Barbie doll. You are part of a strong African-Caribbean influenced literary tradition. Affirm your right as an individual, a woman and a writer to be both Black and British.”

Una Marson (1905-1965), Jamaican writer, feminist, activist, lived in 29 Brunswick Square (now 16 Brunswick Park) for a short while in the mid-1930s.

Born in a middle class rural Jamaican village, her pioneering social work in Kingston’s slum yards, and her expatriate life in London at war, Una Marson (1905-65) became a fighting partisan of Black poetics and politics.

She came to England in 1932, originally for a few weeks, but like many other migrants this turned into many years. She was the first Black woman programme maker at the BBC, where she worked from 1939 to 1946 and helped many service men and women and Caribbean people during the war. West Indies Calling was her maiden programme in her five years of association with BBC, 1940 to 1945. She founded her own programme, Caribbean Voices, in March 1943, and became the BBCs first Black woman producer. But, she became increasingly sceptical and disenchanted with the “internal battles and troubled moments” with BBC managers, who thought only of promoting British authors to Caribbean listeners, influenced by government policy to requisition colonial labour and resources while stifling nationalist activism.

Two main issues provoked her poetic work. She captured the calypsonian air of topical stories, sounds and music; and she exposed colonial fears and prejudices. She combined themes of cultural identity and female sexuality, of self-doubt and disadvantage… “her Black poetics and politics offer a firm basis for a writer’s commitment to a fair and equal world”. Marson explored the multi-layered heritage of Blacks in colonial Jamaica, emphasising ancestral African roots. In Songs of Africa (1930) she applauds the music of Afro-Creole people of the Americas that fosters race pride and the determination to be free. Fragments of colour, people, places and warmth form an intricate pattern. Again, in There will come a time (1931) she cries out for racial equality as the foundation of her dream of the oneness of the world’s diverse peoples. Marson illustrates how women used poetry to express their sufferings and avoid terrible retribution, like the Black preacher during slavery. Her first collection of love poems Tropic Reveries (1930), set in Jamaican colonial culture, explores women’s political and subversive yearning for freedom from cultural domination. Marson honed her skills in political poetry. Her narrative wartime poem Convoy salutes “my own blood brothers/ Brown like me.”

Una Marson became well known in London as a feminist and anti-racist activist, putting her energies into helping disadvantaged Black people in south London. She worked as secretary to the League of Coloured Peoples, the first Black-led political organisation in England, in the company of activist CLR James and welfare officer & cricketer Learie Constantine. Believing that building Black solidarity around the world could open the road to Black Freedom, Marson welcomed Jamaican Marcus Garvey’s pan-Africanist message of “African liberation, at home and abroad”. As a writer, she kept in touch with the icons of the “Harlem Renaissance”, African Americans writers Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson.

She railed against the maltreatment of women workers, students and nurses, (in particular the discrimination against black nurses) and joined the radical Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Later as secretary to Haile Selassie she traveled to the League of Nations with him in 1936 to plead for Abyssinia, when it was invaded by Italy; and later still the 1960s she worked in Israel. Una has gained a pioneering literary reputation, as the first major woman poet of the Caribbean and a playwright.

See The Life of Una Marson 1905-1965, by Delia Jarrett-Macauley. Manchester University Press 1998. http://www.deliajarrettmacauley.com/

Here’s a plaque we left there in 2006 – though in 2009 an official blue plaque was put up on her former home

Some other well-known feminists who have lived in Camberwell

Mary Hays:  a novelist and early feminist, friend of Mary Wolstonecraft, (author of Vindication of the Rights of Women, the first great feminist text) lived in Camberwell 1807 – 1824. Born in Southwark, almost nothing is known of her first 17 years. She took up writing, probably spurred by an early love affair with a man her parents disapproved of, who shortly afterwards died. her to take up writing. Throughout the 1780s she wrote essays and poems. A short story “Hermit: an Oriental Tale” was published in 1786. It was a picturesque tale, which warned against feeling too much passion. She exchanged letters with Robert Robinson, a minister who campaigned against the slave trade. She attended the “Dissenting Academy” in Hackney in the late 1780s (founders & members of which were very active in the reform and anti-slavery movements)

In 1792 Hays was given a copy of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, which made a deep impression on her, and she became friends with Wollstonecraft. Hays next wrote a book Letters and Essays (1793) and invited Mary Wollstonecraft to comment on it before publication. She was inspired to leave home and support herself by writing. After borrowing a copy of Enquiry concerning Political Justice by William Godwin, she became friends with its radical author, who became a guide and teacher. About this time Hays started writing for the Analytical Review, a liberal magazine, of which Mary Wollstonecraft was fiction editor. She is popularly credited with introducing William Godwin to Mary Wollstonecraft; the two married in 1797. When Mary Wollstonecraft was dying, due to complications following the birth of their daughter, Mary (later Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein), Mary Hays helped to nurse her and also wrote an obituary of Wollstonecraft for the Annual Necrology. Hays and Godwin drifted apart after Wolstonecraft’s death.

Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796), probably Hay’s best-known work,  draws on the experience of her affair with Cambridge mathematician William Frend, and possibly her relationship with Godwin. The heroine falls in love with a penniless man Augustus Harley, and offers to live with him as his wife, without getting married. She is rejected and then turns to Mr Francis, a character based on Godwin. They exchange philosophical letters, but in the end he advises her against becoming too emotional. The critical response to the novel was divided along political lines. Free love is seen to be aligned with social revolution, and domestic repression is shown as upholding the political order.

Her next novel The Victim of Prejudice (1799) is emphatically feminist and critical of class hierarchies. The backlash against the French revolutionary terror led critics to slate the novel as too radical and hysterical. In 1803 Hays published the six volume Female Biographies, detailing the lives of 294 women. However by this point Hays perhaps realised that it was politically dangerous to praise Mary Wollstonecraft, and somewhat bottled it by omitting her from the book.

Moving to Camberwell, Hays associated with many leading literary figures of the age, including Charles and Mary Lamb and William Blake. The last 20 years of her life were somewhat unrewarding, with little income and only her work increasingly ignored. She is buried in Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington.

Hays lived in 9 St. George’s Place, Walworth (although Hays refers to the house as being in Camberwell), a short row of houses along Amelia Street, 1803-6, then after moving around alot, then moved to Champion Hill, 1832 -1842.
More on her life and letters

We put up a plaque to remember Mary Hays

Vera Brittain: Camberwell Versus Death. From a well-to-do Derbyshire family, Vera Brittain later became a feminist and pacifist. She served  as a nurse during WW1 at the 1st London General Hospital in Camberwell from October 1915-September 1916, as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) member of the British Red Cross.

Her fiancé, Roland Leighton, her brother Edward and many of their friends were killed during the war.

Returning to Oxford after the war to complete her degree, Vera found it difficult to adjust to peacetime. It was at this time she met Winifred Holtby, a close friendship developed with both aspiring to become established on the London literary scene, and the bond developed between them until Holtby’s untimely death in 1935.

Brittain’s first published novel was The Dark Tide (1923). In 1933 that she published Testament of Youth, detailing her war experiences, (which features the Chapter Camberwell Versus Death) followed by the sequels, Testament of Friendship (1940) – her tribute to and biography of Winifred Holtby – and Testament of Experience (1957), which spanned the years between 1925 and 1950. Vera Brittain wrote from the heart and based many of her novels on her experiences and actual people.

In the 1920s she became a regular speaker on behalf of the League of Nations Union, but from 1937, after previously speaking at a peace rally with Dick Sheppard, George Lansbury, Laurence Housman and Donald Soper. she joined the Peace Pledge Union. Her newly found pacifism came to the fore during World War II, when she began the series of Letters to Peacelovers.

During WW2 she worked as a fire warden and travelled around the country raising funds for the Peace Pledge Union’s food relief campaign. She was widely denounced for speaking out against saturation bombing of German cities in her 1944 pamphlet Massacre by Bombing.

Vera Brittain died in 1970.

WANDER DOWN BRUNSWICK PARK

Squatting in Brunswick Park and Vicarage Grove

Many empty houses were squatted in Brunswick Park & Vicarage Grove in the 1980s, most of which were initially divided into flats. There were 70 squatters in Brunswick Park and Vicarage Grove, around 1984-87. It was very much a community: squatters set up an active group here, based at 9a, Brunswick Park, in March 1984. Plans for a communal centre in the basement of no 4 were being worked on in October 1984. The Council had no plans for the houses, but tried to evict squatters at first, though by April 1984 they had come to an unofficial deal (after some defeats and adjournments in court) that they wouldn’t evict them till they had plans for the houses. The squatters regarded themselves as “unofficial licensees” after this… But the Council was constantly undecided as to what to do with the buildings; there were rumours (eg one which spread in in November 1984) of plans to evict and gut them, make them unusable. In early ’85 there were still odd attempts to evict individual houses… none succeeded. Cases usually got suspended.

On 24 October 1985, Council officers and workers turned up and evicted two squats here, helped by a van load of cops… and a High Court Sheriff. He claimed there had been notice given, which was a lie. 30 squatters soon gathered outside. Several houses were evicted, people’s belongings were chucked out and their homes boarded and steel-doors attached. Then the Council and their lackeys buggered off… leaving the squatters to immediately re-occupy the houses!

The Brunswick/Vicarage Squatters group still existed in 1987, at this point it had its own van. Some squats were turned into galleries and museums.  But by January ’87 Southwark Council had evolved a pilot scheme to evict Brunswick Park and Vicarage Grove squats, do them up and use them for shortlife housing, ie to evict some young single homeless to make room for other young single homeless. This was to become Borough wide policy for long term empties.

25 squatters from the two streets here went to a Housing Committee meeting in August ’87; local council tenants had signed petition on support of them… But the scheme got voted in, and there were no more negotiations. Between 1987 and 1990, many of the squats were evicted, with some legal and not so legal resistance; several got adjournments in court on the grounds that they had had licences from the council, also the council had done work on them while squatted.

Some squatters in Brunswick and Vicarage formed housing co-ops, some of which I think still exist; and squats were still popping up in these streets occasionally until very recently.

Many other streets and estates in Camberwell have known squatting, over the last 40 years: especially the Elmington Estate, Crawford Estate off Coldharbour Lane, and the Southampton Way Estate (many of whose blocks have now disappeared), in Caldicot, Bavent and Cutcombe Roads near Kings College Hospital (many former Lambeth Self-Help Co-op flats, whose long-term residents were moved out by the Hospital, on the grounds that they were planning to demolish them to extend the Hospital for much needed ward space, were squatted, then evicted in 1999 en masse; then sold off for huge profits.)

Skyrocketing house prices, changes in housing legislation, sell-offs of council property, and inner city gentrification (as the middle class decided that decades after leaving areas to the poor, now they want it back) have made self-help housing initiatives like squatting and housing co-ops endangered species, but who knows what will happen, with the so-called credit crunch and increasing council inability and unwillingness to house anyone at all. There are fewer empties than there used to be, but many newly built so-called luxury flats are now lying unused or unsold… Squatting residential property was made a criminal offence in September 2012.

Here’s another 2006 plaque to remember the squats here

DOWN TO BENHILL STREET TURN RIGHT, & TURN RIGHT AGAIN INTO ELMINGTON ROAD

Fascism and Anti-Fascism in Camberwell

Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts reappeared on the streets of South London in 1957, having been defeated in their post-WW2 agitation (mainly against Jews) by the Jewish ex-servicemens 43 Group, which battered them off the streets.
Several parts of Lambeth and Southwark had by now a growing West Indian community, which replaced their earlier focus on Jews as their main target for race hatred. By 1961 organisations such as the European Union of Fascists and the British National Party (Mark 1) were meeting regularly in the area. In October 1961 a rally on Peckham Rye organised by the British National Party was attended by 60 people.  The BNP’s John Tyndall, later National Front leader and later still in the 80s, fuhrer of a reborn British National Party, used to speak publicly on Camberwell Green… Never will again though eh, since he popped his little nazi clogs a couple of years back.

In the 1970s the National Front achieved a much larger membership and influence than the hard right groupuscules they emerged from, and became more confident and provocative. The NF did gather a lot of members and sympathisers in South London, though the massive turnout against them in Lewisham in 1977 showed how much opposition there also was. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party election victory in 1979 to some extent cut their support as she adopted many of their policies.

The Front marched from Camberwell to Peckham, a number of times, in the 1970s, in, 1980, and on Oct 23 1982.

Local anti-fascists opposed the rise of such racist groups: Southwark Campaign Against Racism and Fascism was set up in 1976. In 1979 SCARF secretary Rod Robertson was prosecuted under the Representation of the People’s Act, for a leaflet suggesting people not vote for the NF.

But rightwing racist ideas continued to have some local support in Camberwell…

In July 1991: The British National Party (Mark 2) stood Steve Tyler as a candidate for the council by-election in Brunswick Ward, which mostly consists of the Elmington Estate and some surrounding streets. Their campaign was vigorously opposed by local anti-fascists, leftwing groups, and some squatters who lived in the area. etc, However, they did manage to march in force round the estate.

At the time, the Elmington was very run down: Southwark was one of the poorest boroughs in London. The Estate’s local housing officer, Rachel Webb, was a well-known socialist, (also a Labour councillor in Lambeth at the time). The BNP campaign was aimed at attacking her and squatters living on the estate. ” [Rachel Webb} is more interested in evicting white residents for being ‘rascist’ than in evicting the drunken and drugged up squatters that infest our estates.”  “Squatter scum off our estate” graffiti was seen round the estate at the time. There had also been racist attacks on the estate with dogs set on black kids, and black families had their windows bricked; residents and even passers-by had been hassled by a group of 20 white kids in combat gear, who it appeared had links to the BNP… At the time BNP were doing paper sales in East Street Market and the ‘Blue’ market in Bermondsey, and saw this area of South London as having potential for recruiting disaffected white working-class residents.

10 or so people had to sign backing them from the ward, some of whom were living on the estate. It’s possible that Charlie Sargent, later supremo of nazi streetfighting group Combat 18, lived here at the time – he was officially living on the Elmington a couple of years later.

The BNP campaign was opposed by a number of groups, including the South London branch of Anti-Fascist Action, who took the position you have to oppose their presence wherever it shows its head, as it leads to/feeds on racial attacks increasing (as in Welling and Thamesmead at the time, even if electorally they were not likely to win the election. A variety of other left groups, plus some Southwark councillors were involved in the opposition to the BNP; others, like the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), informed us the BNP were irrelevant, a distraction from the real issues (tell that to the people they were attacking). The SWP later reversed this position and their reformed the Anti Nazi League.

The campaign consisted mainly of leafleting the area, talking to people, a rally on the estate, and public meetings (at least one of which turned into a disastrous squabble between lefty factions).
Tone march against the BNP; the BNP themselves had a march of about 70 people round the estate, which anti-fascists found out about too late and could do very little to oppose.

BNP leafletters weren’t as open as us, preferred to do publicity at 2 in the morning. They also didn’t attack our rally or public meeting, a favourite tactic of theirs elsewhere in those times.

A picket was held outside Town hall during the election count. The BNP’s Tyler got 132 votes, quite a lot for a fringe candidate in a council by-election. Police heavily protected Nazis at the count.

Some dodgy white residents who were strongly suspected of being among those who signed BNP forms burgled squatters living on the Elmington who were involved in Anti Fascist Action: the squatters were forced to move…

The BNP presence was not massively sustained and built on, as they never stood again. But their strategy of standing in elections did grow after this, to the point here they finally got a neglected councillor a couple of years later in East London.
A longer, and much more thought out, response to this anti-fascist campaign in 1991, can be read here

Since 1991 the Elmington estate, has changed beyond what we then would have said was possible. Development, the destruction of many social housing blocks and their replacement by private housing has radically altered the class mix here. Gentrification is a more direct threat to many people on the ground in London these days than fascist boots.

DOWN ELMINGTON ROAD AND TURN RIGHT UP LOMOND GROVE; CROSS NEW CHURCH ROAD TO RUST SQUARE

In 1974, squatters moved out of the famous Elgin Avenue in West London, were rehoused by the Greater London Council (which then owned 1000s of houses and flats all over the capital) in Rust Square, New Church Street, St George’s Way, Jardin Street and Albany Road, around the western edge of Burgess Park. 170 people were rehoused in 14 properties. These squatters had fought a long and widely publicised campaign for rehousing by the GLC, and arriving in South London, they of course got active and made links/caused trouble locally. They were still living in the houses in April 1976. At this time Kathleen Hoey and her family were squatting in Kitson Road (behind Addington Square/Rust Square). The council took them off the waiting list because they were squatting council property; however the Housing Dept were at the same time sending homeless people down to the Rust Square squatters group with letters of recommendation!  A widely publicised campaign was waged on behalf of the Hoeys.

Eventually the Rust Square squatters got rehoused again; some on the Aylebury Estate.

BACK DOWN LOMOND GROVE TO THE SITE OF CAMBERWELL MAGISTRATES COURT

Camberwell magistrates Court was opened in 1971 (on the site of houses demolished by a WW2 V2 rocket) and said in the 1990s to be the busiest Magistrates Court in the country. Outside of the usual, some occasions it has seen heavy use include: after the Brixton uprising of April 1981, other riots/rebellions of July 1981, after the 1985 Brixton riot, and during the Poll Tax, when not only were non-payers from Lambeth prosecuted there but anti-poll tax rioters from various shindigs in 1990 at Lambeth Town HallBrixton Prison etc, were had up. Anti-poll tax activists generally supported non-payers here, 1991-93, including a (somewhat damp squib, by my memory) demonstration called against the first prosecutions for non-payment in Lambeth on February 14th 1991: ‘St Valentine’s Day… Massacre the Poll Tax!” 

(More personally the author has known the cells there, more than once, one time for criminal damage after being interrupted painting anti-poll tax graffiti on a wall in Angell Town in Brixton… sadly before the said graffiti made grammatical sense!)

CROSS THE ROAD TO CAMBERWELL ROAD AND tTO NOLLYWOOD: THE SITE OF THE OLD FATHER REDCAP

“ the Redcap in its heyday was an ideal mix of performance and people of every bent — cheap, cheerful and sleazy, a sort of beatniks’ Silver Buckle.”

After its incarnations as a music hall, this building used to be the Father Redcap pub.

Here’s a poem on a fight in the pub in the 1960s

A number of pubs in this part of South London were well-known by the 1960s as gay venues including the Union Tavern on Camberwell New Road and the Father Red Cap, here on Camberwell Green, both of which put on regular drag nights. The Redcap gave one of the founders of the gay disco movement his first big break. On 1st July 1971 Richard Scanes (DJ Tricky Dicky), took to the decks at the Father Red Cap and began to play the new disco sound to the local crowd. His aim was to bring disco to a local audience making things more intimate and friendly (compared to what were known as the ‘gay ghettoes’ in town). Scanes said: “At my discos the gay boys and gay girls can dance together and no-one is going to say a word. This time last year you wouldn’t have seen gay people dancing together.” (Check out this issue of Gay News for an interview with Tricky Dicky) In 1975 Tricky Dicky went on to found a purpose-made gay disco, Fangs, which led the way for the first gay superclubs like Bang which opened the following year. Tricky Dicky was famous for finishing his sets at the end of the night by playing what he called a ‘Camp Revamp,’ winding down the crowd with a camp classic – like Marilyn Monroe’s ‘I wanna be loved by you’ for example – something which became a tradition in gay discos everywhere.

The landlord was Charles Holmes who was proud of his pub’s status and put up a Take Courage sign outside saying ‘The Father Red Cap, the Gayest Pub in Town’. Both men were In 1974 Holmes and the manager of the Redcap were pulled up before the courts and each fined £100 for permitting and abetting in running a ‘disorderly house’ after the police had moved in to stop the gay discos.”

But they weren’t discouraged for long and other venues began to follow their lead.

The Redcap closed as a gay pub – around 2007 ? By early 2008 it had re-opened, as the Red Star, putting on dance music and edgy club nights, including gigs by Alabama 3 and other Brixton faves. However, behind the Red Star were the owners of the Brixton Dog Star, a dubious bunch, highly implicated in the gentrification of Brixton… The Red Star lasted a few months, then the building lay empty for a while.

In 2010 the building was squatted and turned into a squat centre, as the Rat Star. The then owner allowed them to stay without threat of eviction. At this time, for a couple of years, Camberwell again became South London’s squat central. Following the Black Frog in Warham Street, and the Library House, the Rat Star was one of a series of local squat centres, with lots of events, gigs, meetings, film nights, part of London’s anti-capitalist scene… Opposite the Rat Star on the other side of Camberwell Road, several other buildings were occupied, and a thriving radical squat scene sprang up.

The Rat Star squat was raided on 27/4/2011, along with two other Camberwell squats and other squat centres, in the wake of the large anti-cuts demo on March 26th that year, which had led to some occupation of shops, damage and fighting with police, and mass arrests.

The raid against Ratstar was carried out under a Section 18 warrant to search for ‘stolen goods’; the TSG officers at the scene appeared find no evidence of theft. 14 arrests made were for “electricity abstraction” (connecting to the electricity supply while neglecting to pay the bill. Another Camberwell squat tradition – see Camberwell Grove above!) Twelve hours later, dozens of cops were still searching the premises for anything incriminating. Members of Counter Terrorism Command, S015, were present at the eviction making use of spotter cards to try and identify possible suspects from March 26th.

Hopefully more on the Ratstar and other nearby squats will be added to this post later…

The Redcap/Redstar/Ratstar is now ‘Nollywood’.

DOWN THE SIDE OF THE GREEN TO CHURCH STREET; CROSS OVER THE ROAD TO WREN ROAD – WALK UP TO ‘THE COLONNADES’ FLATS AT THE SOUTHERN END

Camberwell Green Congregational Church used to stand here. Dr Harold Moody’s funeral was held here on 1st May 1947. Dr Moody (1882-1947) was a doctor, activist, and founder of the League of Coloured Peoples in 1931.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1882, the son of a pharmacist, He came to England to study medicine at King’s College.

He was completely unprepared for the colour bar in Edwardian London. He found it hard to find lodgings; after winning many prizes and qualifying as a doctor in 1910, he was rejected for the post of medical officer to the Camberwell Board of Guardians, despite being the best qualified candidate, because the matron refused to have a ‘coloured’ doctor working at the hospital’: he was told ‘the poor people would not have a n****r to attend them’. In February 1913, he started his own practice in Peckham which became very successful.

For 30 years Dr Moody helped hundreds of black people who came to him in distress, having experienced at first hand a degrading, or humiliating aspect of the colour bar: finding it hard to get lodgings, or work. Moody would confront the employers and plead powerfully on behalf of those victimised.

He was instrumental in overturning the Special Restriction Order (or Coloured Seamen’s Act) of 1925, a discriminatory measure which sought to restrict subsidies to merchant shipping employing only British nationals and required alien seamen to register with their local police. Many Black and Asian British nationals had no proof of identity and were being laid off.

Moody and other black activists founded the League of Coloured Peoples in 1931 in London, with the goal of racial equality around the world: the League was a powerful civil rights force until its dissolution in 1951.Though the League’s primary focus was black rights in Britain, it also pursued other civil-rights issues, such as the persecution of the Jews in Germany. In 1933, the League began publishing its civil-rights journal The Keys.

At the inaugural meeting, the League established four main aims:

  1. To protect the social, educational, economic and political interests of its members
  2. To interest members in the welfare of coloured peoples in all parts of the world
  3. To improve relations between the races
  4. To cooperate and affiliate with organisations sympathetic to coloured people

In 1937, a fifth aim was added:

  1. To render such financial assistance to coloured people in distress as lies within our capacity

From the League’s founding until the outbreak of World War II, its primary focus was eliminating the colour bar in the British workplace, in social life, and in housing. Throughout Britain in the 1930s, black people were refused service in many restaurants, hotels, and lodging houses, and also found it extremely difficult to find a job in many industries; the medical profession in particular drew the attention of the league, most likely due to founder and president Dr Moody’s personal struggles in that area. By 1935, a branch of the league focusing on equality in the shipping industry had grown to over 80 members. During the 1930s, The League of Coloured Peoples struck many blows for black people’s rights in the workplace.

Dr Moody died in 1947 at the age of 64. He lived in a house in Peckham on Queens Road which now has a blue plaque dedicated to him. Many hundreds of mourners attended his funeral here.

We put up a plaque to Dr Moody here.

WALK ALONG CHURCH STREET TO NO 18 (NOW TUCKERS SOLICITORS)

The League of Socialist Artists.

Based at 18 Camberwell Church St in the 1970s, the League favoured ultra-marxist realist art, and sound today hilariously dogmatic. “Our art must serve revolutionary politics. We place our art unreservedly at the service of the working class.” By which of course they meant “under the overall leadership of the  Marxist-Leninist party….”

In some ways they echoed Ruskin’s view of the role of art and the artist: “Within [the] overall tasks of the proletarian socialist revolution a role of unprecedented importance devolves upon… creative artists. For it is precisely through art that science., the knowledge, understanding and experience of the laws of motion of the universe, including particularly of human society, is distilled… artists, whether of the visual or the dramatic arts, are no less than “engineers of the human soul” {JV Stalin}… Quotes from Stalin, in the 1970s, no less.

“Proletarian socialist art is a reflection in artistic form of the class struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie… The method of artistic creation of proletarian socialist art is therefore proletarian -socialist realism…”

They had some great rhetoric: “we Socialist Artists declare our aims and work to stand completely apart from and in irreconcilable opposition to the formalism and commodity fetishism of capitalist art which serves at one and the same time to mystify the movement  and conflict of social classes, to preach and inculcate the helplessness of man before the “unknowable” universe, and the  “atomic chaos” of the “existentialist” society – as also to provide the effete, luxury loving ruling class with those soporific, sensationalised and alienated titbits which might, for an hour or a day, provide an anodyne to bring forgetfulness of the moment of doom for their class which the approaching proletarian-socialist revolution is bringing ever nearer.” And so on…

Socialist realism was the only path, “In place of the pop art, mobile junk, psychedelic and other fringe lunacy of decaying capitalist art we will erect an art which expresses the dignity of working people, into which life is breathed from out of their very struggles…”

Maureen Scott was a member of the LSA. We love her portrait of Pat Burke, formidable former landlady of the Prince Albert in Brixton

We left a plaque to commemorate the LSA (though we should have made it more abstract/pop-arty)

WALK TO ARTICHOKE PLACE AND DOWN TO THE LEISURE CENTRE

Camberwell Public Baths was officially opened here on 1 October 1892.

The baths were built as a public resource by the then Camberwell Borough Council, at a cost of £28,575, with two large swimming pool halls, one behind the other.The original facilities at the baths in 1892 were vital for locals, many of whom had no bathroom, or even running water, in their homes, or shared bathrooms and laundry rooms with other families. In the early years, facilities included:

  • Men’s First Class: 24 private baths, one public swimming bath 120 feet (37 m) by 35 feet (11 m) with 81 dressing boxes at the side
  • Men’s Second Class: 40 private baths, one public swimming bath, 120 feet (37 m) by 35 feet (11 m) with 65 dressing boxes
  • Ladies First Class; 12 private baths
  • Ladies Second Class: 20 private baths
  • Public Laundry: 78 compartments
  • Establishment Laundry

Camberwell was one of the first baths with electric lighting, powered with its own generator. There was an apartment at the rear of the building for an engineer who also served Dulwich Baths.

By 1903 the baths were officially reported as failing to achieve their goal of being self-sufficient, being in deficit by £7,000.

This may be linked to an attempt to close the baths in 1907 (see picture) – defeated by local women, it would appear.

The baths were also used as a venue for various political events, including on 11 December 1908, an exhibition of protest banners by the National Society for Women’s Suffrage.

During World War 1 the baths serve as the local recruitment centre for volunteers to sign up to join the army; and when conscription was brought in from 1916, Conscientious Objectors were arrested and brought here as the first step to forcing them to serve, or the first step to prison or a detention camp.(See the story of Arthur Creech-Jones, above.)

In 2001 there was controversy when lifeguards at the baths refused to support nude swimming sessions of the Gay London Swimming group. The group agreed to provide their own lifeguards.

From the 1970s, the baths began to fall into decline. Although even then many people locally had no access to a bath or only to shared bathing in their homes. Gradual improvements in domestic arrangements, council refurbs, people having bathrooms put in, buying washing machines, and so on, led to a fall off in income from what had once been a self-financing operation. By the late 1990s, Southwark Council was arguing the building of new facilities at Peckham Pulse meant the baths were no longer needed.

Friends of Camberwell Baths was formed in 1998 to defend against closure.

Save Camberwell Baths Campaign march, 2006

The campaign laster several years. From May 2006 until October the Council planned that the Baths would receive £5m to £6m for full refurbishment. In January 2007 the Council had decided to “provide up to £1.5 million capital funding to ensure that the Centre stays open with its current facilities” – ie, no new money to improve the building. Funding of £1.45 million was however, later confirmed on 31 March 2009 for improving the centre with the total refurbishment budget from all sources amounting to £4.7 million. Additional funds came from the Southwark Investing in Leisure programme of more than £2 million and the Youth Capital Fund allocated £576,000 in May 2009 for a council managed youth programme within the site. The building was closed from Wednesday 25 November 2009 till its re-opening in 28 February 2011.

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That’s all for now… More another time…
maybe END AT A PUB: THE HERMIT’S CAVE? assuming it re-opens after all this Corona Caboodle.

Today in London’s fashion history; 1719: silkweavers begin ‘calico riots’ against imported clothes

For centuries Silk Weaving was the dominant industry in Spitalfields and neighbouring areas like Bishopsgate, Whitechapel and Bethnal Green, spreading as far as Mile End to the east, and around parts of Clerkenwell further west.

In the early years weaving in Spitalfields was a cottage industry, with many independent workers labouring at home. This quickly developed into a situation with a smaller number of masters, who employed journeymen and a legally recognised number of apprentices to do the work. Numbers of workers, and training, in the Weavers Company were regulated by law and in the Company courts; later wages came to be a matter of dispute and the courts had to deal with this too.

Masters often sub-contracted out work to homeworkers, so that by the end of the 18th Century, many silkweavers were employed in their own homes, using patterns and silk provided by masters, and paid weekly. Later still there developed middlemen or factors, who bought woven silks at lowest prices and sold them to wholesale dealers. This led to lower wages for the weavers themselves.

Although skilled, and often reasonably well-paid, the weavers could be periodically reduced to poverty; partly this was caused by depressions in cloth trade. This, and other issues, could lead to outbreaks of rebelliousness: sometimes aimed at their bosses and betters, and sometimes at migrant workers seen as lowering wages or taking work away from ‘natives’.

For decades, the silkweavers fought a long battle against mechanisation and low wages. Like the Luddites, their campaign was volatile and violent, and was viciously repressed by the authorities. But their struggles were more complex and contradictory, in that sometimes they were battling their employers and sometimes co-operating with them; to some extent they won more concessions than their northern counterparts, holding off mechanisation for a century, and maintaining some control over their wages and conditions, at least for a while.

Silkweaving was also notable for an occasional kind of cross-class unity: masters and journeymen, often at each others throats, instead joining together to press for protectionist measures in support or defence of their trade… The calico riots were one example…

1719-20 saw a prolonged Silkweavers’ agitation over imports of calico, dyed and patterned cloth from India, which had become very fashionable. Silk, wool and cotton weavers widely perceived calico as causing reduced demand for their products (calico was quite a bit cheaper than silk). Calico printing was now becoming an industry of size in London.

Calico printing

In petitions to Parliament the calicoes were denounced “as a worthless, scandalous, unprofitable sort of goods embraced by a luxuriant humour among the women, prompted by the art and fraud of the drapers and the East India Company to whom alone they are profitable.”

In a pamphlet and broadsheet war, the issue was debated; among broadsides from the wool weavers, a well known “Ballad of Spittlefields, or the Weavers Complaint Against the Calico Madams”, sold on a penny broadsheet, summed up the textile weavers case against calicoes:

In the Ages of Old,
We Traded for Gold,
Our merchants were thriving and Wealthy:
We had silks for our Store,
Warm Wool for our Poor,
And Drugs for the Sick and Unhealthy:
And Drugs for the Sick and Unhealthy.

But now we bring Home
The Froth and the Scum
To Dress up the Trapes like a gay-Dame:
And Ev’ry She Clown
Gets a Pye-spotted gown,
And sets up for a Callicoe Madam.
O! tawdery Callico Madam…

Here they Stamp ’em and print ’em,
And Spot ’em and Paint ’em,
And the Callico Printers Brocade ’em;
Hey cost little pay,
And are tawdery gay,
Only fit for a Draggle-tail madam.
O! this tawdery Callico Madam.

Ev’ry Jilt of the Town
Gets a Callico Gown;
Our own Manufack’s out of Fashion:
No Country of Wool
Was ever so dull,
‘Tis a test of the Brains of the Nation:
O! the test of the brains of the Nation.

To neglect heir own Works,
Employ pagans and turks,
And let foreign Trump’ry o’er spread ’em:
Shut up their own Door,
And starve their own Poor,
For a tawdery Callico Madam.
O! this Tatterdemalion Madam.

Were there ever such Fools!
Who despising the Rules,
For the common Improvement of Nations:
Tye up the Poor’s Hands,
And search foreign lands,
For their Magpie ridiculous Fashions.
For their Magpie ridiculous Fashions.

They’re so Callico-wise,
Their own Growth they despise,
And without an inquiry, “Who made ’em?”
Cloath the Rich and the Poor,
The Chaste and the Whore,
And the Beggar’s a Callico Madam.
O! this Draggle-tailed Callico Madam.

Nay, who would lament it,
Or strive to prevent it,
If the Prince of Iniquity had ’em:
Or if, for a bride,
They were heartily ty’d
O some Pocky Damn’d Callico Madam.
O some Pocky Damn’d Callico Madam.

In June 1719, thousands assembled in Spitalfields and the Mint, and marched in protest over calico imports; this developed in to rioting, attacks on calico print works, and somewhat dodgily, tactics included attacking any women walking in the City wearing calico, or printed linen.

Obviously this tactic is not without its, er, issues, and one woman, at least, did respond in print, denouncing “a gang of audacious rogues to come and fall on us on the streets, and tear the clothes off our backs, insult and abuse us, and tell us we shall not wear what they do not weave; is this to be allowed in a Nation of Liberty?” Class and gender relations tangled here in confused ways: the weavers were poor workers, the women targeted mostly middle to upper class; but male power and violence was clearly involved too. The pamphlet war also muddied the water, as not only was the wearing of calico portrayed by some writers (for instance famous author and pamphleteer Daniel Defoe), as unpatriotic, but there was a suggestion that female servants formed a chunk of the market for calico, and some of the agitation seems to have been infected with middle or upper class desire to control these women’s ‘uppity’ dress sense…

Old fashioned harassment of women (widespread in London’s streets regardless of dress) also often got mixed in with economic grievance, and all sorts got involved in the general ruckus for the hell of it. Although women weavers were also prominent in the calico riots. Hmmm. Discuss.

The Lord Mayor of London called in the ‘Trained bands’ – citizens enrolled in City militias – to keep the crowds off the streets. Arrested weavers were sent to South London’s Marshalsea Prison, but the mob avoided the militia, attempting to rescue the arrestees; the militia wounded several weavers firing on them, and more were nicked and sent to Newgate Prison.

In 1720, weavers rallied in Old Palace Yard, Westminster, and more attacks on calico wearers followed. The protests of 1719-20 were to some extent successful, leading to a ban on calico, enshrined in the Calico Act, as well as penalties for anyone convicted of wearing printed calicoes. The London Weavers’ Company for a while brought court proceedings against calico-sellers, and paid informers to bring calico-wearers to court, but eventually gave it up as uneconomic. But as late as 1785, people were still having gowns sabotaged: “Last week a gentlewoman of Mile-end had a new linen gown entirely destroyed by pouring spirits on it, by some wicked fellows, supposed to be Spitalfields silk-weavers. This practice is grown so common at the eastern end of the town that most of the females are fearful of leaving home in cottons and linens, especially in the evenings.”

So there was an attempt to deflect the direct action of the weavers, as contradictory as it was, into a legal process, though it didn’t end calico-madam taunting completely. At the same time heavy sentences were imposed on some caught attacking those wearing printed fabrics, running up to seven years transportation of the penal colonies…

High import duties were also imposed in the 1720s on the importing of French made silks, the main competitor for Spitalfields cloth; this led however to a widespread trade in smuggled silks from France. As with the Calico producers, the Weavers’ Company spent a great deal of effort trying to prevent and punish smuggling, with limited success.

Today in London’s apocalyptic history, 1795: the day London was to be destroyed, according to prophet Richard Brothers

“There started up in London about the beginning of the late war, a new pseudo-prophet whose name was Richard Brothers, who called himself King of the Hebrews, and Nephew of God
… he had seen the Devil walking leisurely up Tottenham-Court-road”
(Robert Southey)

In 1795, prophet Richard Brothers prophesied that London would be destroyed and the English government be removed, annihilated, utterly destroyed… He announced that 4th June was to be the day of judgement.

Brothers was born in Newfoundland, Canada, on 25 December 1757, to an English soldier garrisoned there (surely being born on Xmas Day helped kickstart Messianic thinking?) He was sent to England as a child for his education; he later became a midshipman in the Royal Navy, aged thirteen. However, his experience of life in the British Navy was not pleasant, leaving him with a lasting repugnance for wars and blasphemy, especially for Christian prayers for military success and mandatory sacred oaths for military allegiance. Brothers semi-retired from the Navy as a Lieutenant on half-pay (potentially available for recall to service) in 1784. His activities and whereabouts for the next five years remain a mystery, though he is thought to have served on merchant ships, traveling to ports in France, Italy and Spain.

At some point in his career, possibly around 1789, Brothers became convinced that God was speaking to him personally, through divine revelation, and that he had been called to be a latter-day prophet and eventual messiah. Well, haven’t we all…?

Around 1789-90 Brothers found himself back in England, in the region of London. His growing belief that swearing oaths to serve the king was wrong left him not only skint (as he had to swear to receive his half-pay) but increasingly questioning religious orthodoxy. During unusually severe thunderstorms in 1791, he fled London, believing that God was about to destroy the city for its wickedness. When London was not, in fact, destroyed, Brothers attributed its temporary salvation to his own prayers to God for its deliverance.

Brothers became convinced that he was a chosen Israelite of the House of David, empowered to call the Jews and other Israelites out from their dispersion among the nations and lead them back to Jerusalem in Turkish Palestine. He claimed descent from the biblical King David and through Jesus’ Brother James the Righteous, making him a “Prince of The Hebrews” and rightful latter day King of Judah, as well as the Messiah. Nice gig if you can get it.

In February 1792 Brothers declared himself a healer and claimed he could restore sight to the blind. He drew large crowds, but not due to his healing ability as much as his small gifts of money to those he prayed for.

Brothers’ prophesy that he would lead all the world’s scattered Israelites back to Palestine and there rebuild Jerusalem tapped into and helped firm up the growing strand that was the British ‘Israelite’ tradition – the belief that Britons and other western Europeans are descended from the biblical ten lost tribes of Israel… a fascinating bywater that has produced some strange and on occasion very dodgy ideas…

The new prophet was sometimes called the “Nephew of the Almighty,” apparently by his growing band of followers, as well as by those who branded him a religious fanatic and a madman.

Brothers’ revelations (accompanied by his own commentary on selected biblical texts) began to appear in print at the beginning of the 1790s and some were compiled into a booklet for public sale in London as early as 1794.

As prophets tend to do, Brothers emerged at a time of great social dislocation, political turmoil. Britain was at war with the revolutionary French regime – a war that was growing increasingly unpopular. Brothers’ prophesies and pronouncements chimed somewhat with the growing radical movement demanding political reform and denouncing war on a revolutionary France which inspired them; his millenarian prophecies excited radicals and the disillusioned and desperate; his followers to some extent cross-pollinated with the tavern-going radical scene. The partial merging of radical, religious and mystical ideas which surrounded Brothers and other such figures produced definite hybrid radical-millenarians like James Hadfield, would-be assassin of king George III.

The time, and the milieu, in some ways echoes the years of the English Revolution, though going back as far as the 16th century there had also been such religio-political rebels who crossed the streams, like the Anabaptists… and a tradition combining millenarian religion and social discontent goes back to the Brethren of the free Spirit, the Taborites, and well beyond…

Brothers’ ‘Revealed Knowledge of the Prophecies and Times’ was published early in 1794. Like most self-appointed prophets, his writings claimed a working knowledge of the immediate plans of God, shot through with the (re-rigeur) spicy passages from the Book of Revelation, eg “All nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of Babylon’s fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication,
with her, and the merchants of the earth are waxed rich through the abundance of her delicacies…” Wrath of the almighty, imminent smiting, repent, repent, Etc etc.

Some of his political predictions (such as the violent death of the French king Louis XVI) seemed to be proof that he was inspired.

“Some of his vague predictions could not fail to appear to be fulfilled, and they were recalled to mind when the French armies were victorious.” Members of the radical London Corresponding Society used to visit him: they perhaps even prompted some of his ideas.

William Sharp, a famous, engraver and political reformer, became a disciple (Sharp also later followed another prophet Joanna Southcott).

Richard Brothers

Brothers “wrote letters to the King and to all the members of parliament, calling Upon them to give ear to the word of God, and prepare for the speedy establishment of his kingdom upon earth. He announced to his believers his intention of speedily setting out for Jerusalem to take possession of his metropolis, and invited them to accompany him. Some of these poor people actually shut up their shops, forsook their business and their families, and travelled from distant parts of the country to London to join him, and depart with him whenever he gave the word. Before he went, he said, he would prove the truth of his mission by public miracle, he would throw down his stick in the Strand at noon day, and it should become a serpent; and he affirmed he had already made the experiment and successfully performed it in private. A manifest falsehood, but not a wilful one; in like manner he said that he had seen the Devil walking leisurely up Tottenham-Court~road … He threatened London with an earthquake because of its unbelief, and at length named the day when the city should be destroyed.” (Robert Southey, Letters from England, 1807.)

An 8‑page leaflet was published of Brother’s Prophecy of all the Remarkable and Wonderful Events which will come to pass … foretelling the Downfall of the Pope; a Revolution in Spain, Portugal, and Germany; the Death of Certain Great Persons in this and other Countries. Also a dreadful Famine, Pestilence, and Earthquake… . In England there was to be ‘sorrow and great woe, mingled with joy unspeakable’; ‘the proud and lofty shall be humbled, even to the dust; but the righteous and poor shall flourish on the ruins of the wicked; the Palaces shall be ‑‑ and Cottages shall be ‑.’As for the Famine, Pestilence, and Earthquake, these were to be seen as metaphorical:

The Famine shall destroy none but the Caterpillars of Spain and _. The Pestilence shall sweep away the Locusts that eat up the harvest of Industry; and the Earthquake shall swallow up the monstrous Leviathan, with all his train. In all these things the poor, the honest, the virtuous, and the patriotic, shall rejoice.

‘France must bleed afresh, but none but contaminated blood shall flow.’ ‘Italy shall hurl the Antechrist from his throne…’ Turkey and Russia will be plunged in war, ending in the destruction of the Ottoman Porte, the Mahometan Faith, the Russian Empire and the Greek Church. At the end of these signs of mercy, there will be an era of universal brotherhood. ‘All shall be as one people, and of one mind. . .. The Christian, the Turk, and the Pagan shall no longer be distinguished the one from the other’:

The time is come, and now is the whore of Babylon falling, and will fall to rise no more. Go forth, then, ye Sons of Eternal Light, and instruct the Sons of Ignorance and Darkness…

Then shall there be no more war, no more want, no more wickedness; but all shall be peace, plenty, and virtue.”

The date Brothers fixed when the imminent maelstrom would hit the capital was June 4th 1795. Did people take him seriously? Some did. Reformer and radical printer, John Binns wrote in his autobiography that many believed in the prophesy in the capital: “It would be difficult… to convey and adequate idea of eh nature and extent of the fears and apprehensions to which this prediction gave birth.” As it happened, June 4th coincided with a thunderstorm of ‘exceptional severity’, accompanied by heavy rain and hail, which sent some into a panic; Binns, on his way to a meeting of the London Corresponding Society, took shelter from the downpour in an ale-house, where he found 50 or 60 people (to his amusement and surprise) awaiting Brothers’ foretold apocalypse. See the header of this post also, for Gillray’s engraving, Presages of the Millennium, as Revealed to R. Brothers, published on the very day of the foretold apocalypse.

“Many persons left town to avoid this threatened calamity; the day passed by, he claimed the merit of having prevailed in prayer and obtained a respite, and fixed another …”

Shortly afterwards Brothers announced that London had been spared only as the result of his personal last-minute intervention; and since he obviously wielded such influence with the Almighty his following was doubled at a stroke.

By this time, Brothers himself was behind bars. His pronouncements that the king and royal family would either have to abdicate in his favour or be destroyed by God, and foretelling the imminent destruction of parliament, and the capital to be followed by the apocalypse, were expressed in language that alarmed the authorities. Unlike his more quietist contemporary Joanna Southcott, Brothers had begun to seem a threat to order. He was arrested on the orders of the Privy Council shortly before the foretold Apocalypse, in May 1795, charged with teaching seditious nonsense and claiming that God command England refrain from military action against Republican France… He was then sectioned.

“Government at last thought fit to interfere, and committed Brothers to the national hospital for madmen … Thus easily and effectually was this wild heresy crushed. Brothers continued to threaten earthquakes, fixed days for them, and prorogue them after the day was passed, but his influence was at an end … He was lucky enough to find out better consolation for himself. There was a female lunatic in the same hospital, whom he discovered to be the destined Queen of the Hebrews; and as such announced her to the world. At present he and this chosen partner of the throne of David are in daily expectation of a miraculous deliverance, after which they are to proceed to Jerusalem to be crowned, and commence their reign.”
(Robert Southey, Letters from England, 1807.)

Escaping a sentence of treason, by reason of insanity, and with the advocacy of an MP who supported his case, he was committed as a lunatic to a private asylum in Islington (probably Fisher House, which stood off Essex Road). The “Nephew of God” was locked in the madhouse for eleven years.

While he was in the private asylum Brothers wrote a variety of prophetic pamphlets which gained him many believers. But when Brothers predicted that, on 19 November 1795 he would be revealed as Prince of the Hebrews and Ruler of the world, and the date passed without this manifesting, followers tended to drift away either disillusioned or embarrassed.

He was finally released in 1806, when the authorities decided he was no longer a menace to society.

Besides being widely reprinted under his own name, several of Brothers’ prophesies were included in a popular rendition of apocalyptic predictions published later in 1795, entitled The World’s Doom.

A few of his followers, like George Turner of Leeds, continued  to agitate for his release until the turn of the century (threatening destruction upon the English Babylon if the prophet remained confined).

Due to his long incarceration, Brothers gradually faded from public prominence; to some extent, his mantle as the Chosen One was taken over by Joanna Southcott, who picked up many of his followers over the years. In some of the Southcottian traditions that survived into the 20th century Southcott is identified as identified as Brothers’ successor, a bit like John the Baptist to her Jesus.

Socialist historian EP Thompson theorised that the support for the millenarian and apocalyptic predictions of Brothers and Southcott was stimulated largely by the terrible dislocations of the industrial revolution which were upheaving many long-held ways of life and pushing millions into new and more exploitative forms of work and poverty. This ‘chiliasm of despair’, as he called it, seemed to him a response offering some certainty and an immediate better future in dark times. However, Clarke Garrett, in his study of millenarianism in relation to the French Revolution, ‘Respectable Folly’, points out that to some extent Brothers and especially Southcott’s greatest support came when the dream or belief in an English revolution seemed to have been disillusioned; if people had felt there was a chance of more egalitarian social change or political reform in the favour of the lower orders, this was dissipating in reaction and war. Garrett suggests Southcottianism in particular represented a retreat from political ideals into mystical promise. I do wonder if some of the enthusiasm for Brothers’ prophesies of doom was a kind of nihilistic desire among the despairing to see a society they hated crash and burn…
This kind of draining of social ideals into otherworldly or individual mysticism does seem to follow a pattern; the 1650s saw similar trajectories after the Civil War ended with defeat for the most progressive elements; and check out what happened to all those radicals from the 1960s in the 70s, and the immense growth in meditation, eastern religion, cults and other nonsense.

Richard Brothers died in London, largely forgotten, in January 1824.

The Panacea Society, still holding on to the dream of the Millennium after all these years, have some copies of Richard Brothers’ prophesies in their archive

Today in London radical history, 1381: Essex and Kent rebels hold conference at Barking as Peasants’ Revolt gathers pace

“… Why are those whom we call lords, masters over us? How have they deserved it? By what right do they keep us enslaved? We are all descended from our first parents, Adam and Eve; how then can they say that they are better than us… At the beginning we were all created equal. If God willed that there should be serfs, he would have said so at the beginning of the world. We are formed in Christ’s likeness, and they treat us like animals… They are dressed in velvet and furs, while we wear only cloth. They have wine, and spices and good bread, while we have rye bread and water. They have fine houses and manors, and we have to brave the wind and rain as we toil in the fields. It is by the sweat of our brows that they maintain their high state. We are called serfs, and we are beaten if we do not perform our task… Let us go to see King Richard. He is young, and we will show him our miserable slavery, we will tell him it must be changed, or else we will provide the remedy ourselves. When the King sees us, either he will listen to us, or we will help ourselves. When we are ready to march on London I will send you a secret message. The message is “Now is the time. Stand together in God’s name”. (John Ball, 1381)

At this time – it’s worth remembering that the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt had at least part of its origins in a pandemic: the Black Death of 1348-9, which killed maybe half Europe’s population.

The disruption the plague introduced led to huge social upheaval (whole towns & villages died or people fled); to loosenings of bonds of feudal society in England. labour shortage led to villeins leaving the manors they were tied to in search of better conditions. Some demanded concessions from lords.

The government passed laws to try to prevent serfs getting uppity & keep a lid on this discontent. But the process accelerated; and several decades of resentment at tight hierarchy & poverty of feudal society was triggered by the poll taxes of the late 1370s/early 1380s.

How will the pandemic we are experiencing, and our response to it, change social relations for OUR futures… The wealthy & powerful will again try to make us pay the economic & social costs and avoid losses to their power and way of life. Revolt is already taking hold in the US…

How we work and live, how structured of power control and divide us and how we resist, are not separate. Revolt against state/racist violence, opposition to austerity, mutual aid for all our survival and keeping ourselves safe & as well as we can in the face of plague: all linked…

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In June 1381 the south and east of England erupted into revolt.  Self-organised armies made up of thousands of peasants attacked royal officials and local landowners, freed prisoners and armed themselves, before marching on London to lay their many grievances before the king. In the capital, they would settle scores with royal officers, ally themselves with the London poor, storm the best-defended fortress in the land, assert egalitarian claims… For a brief time they threatened to topple the government.

This Peasants Revolt began almost simultaneously in the counties of Essex and Kent, bordering on London.

The outbreak began in Essex on May 30. One of the king’s new commissioners collecting the poll tax, called either Thomas Bampton (or John of Bampton), rode out to Brentwood to revise the taxation returns of the hundred of Barstable in the south of Essex. He was accompanied by three clerks and two sergeants-at-arms, but was not expecting trouble.

Under the feudal social system prevailing in the fourteenth century, villeins – peasants who did the agricultural work – were bonded to the lord of the local manor, who had the right to decide what services he required of them and could levy fines and restrict their movements as he saw fit. The Black Death of 1348-9, however, went a long way to undermining this social relationship, as the huge numbers who died left massive labour shortages, which tipped the balance in favour of agricultural workers, increasing their value. Previously tied to manors and unable to leave, villeins began to up sticks in search of paid work in towns or more favourable conditions elsewhere; some were clearly angling to get more out of their lords, though how much collective bargaining went on is unclear. The government passed laws like the Ordinance of Labourers, to prevent free movement and hold wages down, but these attempts to put the genie back in the bottle would largely fail. Still, tension around manorial service, and the feudal duties serfs ‘owed’ to their lords, provided a fierce undercurrent of resentment that would erupt in 1381.

The immediate trigger for the Peasants’ Revolt was a Poll Tax. Ruinous wars with France led to heavy taxation, including three impositions of poll-tax in 1377, 1379 and 1380. The final tax increased threefold from that of 1377 and was levied at a flat-rate of 1s per person over the age of 15. It would fall hardest on those least able to pay.

By 1381 some 450,000 people had ‘disappeared’ from the register, in a attempt to avoid paying. Bampton’s task in Essex was root out some of these tax evaders. He began with a visit to three marshland villages (Fobbing, Corringham and Stanford le Hope); however, but a crowd of the inhabitants, mainly peasants and fishermen, turned up to greet him, prepared to resist. Men from Fobbing informed Bampton they wouldn’t pay an extra penny above what they’d already paid. Thomas Baker was accounted their ‘leader’, but there were over 100 men involved. Bampton  tried unsuccessfully to arrest the spokesman, only to be beaten and stoned out of town. The rebels retreated to the forest, a traditional refuge for outlaws, and sent messages round south Essex, calling out their neighbours. (Thomas Baker has been called the ‘first instigator of the Revolt – and he paid for it with his life, being hung, drawn and quartered in Chelmsford on July 4th 1381 in the fierce repression that followed the risings.)

In late May, the Chief Justice of the Commons Pleas, Robert Belknap (or Belkneap), who headed for Brentwood to open a commission into poll tax defaulters. He was set upon by an ‘armed multitude’ and forced to swear on the Bible that he would never hold another such session. His papers were destroyed; he escaped with his life, but others were not so lucky. Three local jurors, called to present evidence or defaulters before Belknap, were beaten to death and beheaded (their houses were torn down); and three clerks were also killed.

These Brentwood killings were followed by a general outbreak of riot and plunder, which spread through Essex through the first week of June. Rebels sent out letters to other counties, asking people there to rise also. Among the rebels’ were literate men.

The Peasants’ Revolt had begun.

Kent swiftly followed Essex into revolt. On June 2 a small armed band, headed by one Abel Ker of Erith, burst into the monastery of Lesness, and frightened the Abbot into swearing an oath to support them. Names of those involved are mostly lost – though John Yonge, Jordan de Bladyngton, Robert Draper, John Cheseman, John Clerk and Thomas Chaump were later named in documents after the revolt as having been associated with Ker in breaking into the houses of prominent men in the county.
Then Ker and others took boat across the Thames estuary, conferred with the rebels from the villages about Barking.

What a conference that must have been! Not necessarily the leaders, but the most vocal and active elements in the moment, discussing where this could go, and maybe setting out what each group would do on either bank of the Thames… How much of the cataclysmic events of the next week and a half were plotted there and how much developed spontaneously we will never know… What made the Kentish men sail across the fiver in the first place – had word spread from Essex about agro there so quickly? Were some folk (fishermen maybe?) accustomed to sailing between the counties, who had friends, contacts, relatives on the other bank?

The Kentish rebels sailed back over the Thames on June 4, bringing with them a band of about 100 rebels from Essex to swell their numbers. The insurgents of the two counties remained in close touch, acting in concert.

A debate that has engaged historians for decades – was a ‘Great Society’, a secret underground network among the peasants, pre-dating the Revolt, which organised this sudden rising of the masses against the elite?

Judicial records from investigations into the rebellion in he months after it died down, seem to indicate testimony along these lines… But it may come down to a misreading of the language used. (as well as rebels being pressured telling officials what they wanted to hear?)

Historian Rodney Hilton comprehensively rejected the notion of a ‘Great Society’ organising the revolt. Hilton’s Bond Men Made Free: Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381 (London 1973), takes the form of a Marxist analysis of the revolt, examining its causes, nature and significance.

Rather than the revolt being just the creation of a few nasty malcontents and ‘evil men’, as the medieval chronicler Froissart called them, Hilton shows that it was the class nature of medieval society that led to 1381, (and many other medieval peasant movements). The rising was not merely the accidental creation of the corrupt imposition of the poll tax, as some historians suggest, nor was it any kind of ‘provincial’ rising, uniting the classes against a faction of the aristocracy. It was the product of long-standing class struggles in the countryside over the feudal power of landowners, (both secular and church), clearly led and directed by the exploited themselves.

Hilton rejects the idea of a ‘Great Society’ on the grounds that the Latin phrase found in the judicial records of the revolt could be translated as meaning various ‘big gangs’ rather than a single organisation.

However, the picture Hilton gives, of a revolt which began ‘spontaneously’ and which developed organisation locally and haphazardly, creating these ‘gangs’ which attempted to direct events, has itself been criticised by other Marxist historians. Hilton’s view that villagers rose up in two counties ‘spontaneously’ is problematic for some modern party-oriented socialists who can’t seem to conceive of organisation less structured than democratic centralism…

Hilton is criticised in some quarters for implying that the Revolt, and medieval peasant rebellions generally, are ‘elemental’ almost unconscious, reactions.

Other historians who have examined the speed with which the revolt spread in Kent and Essex, the co-ordination of activity across two counties, the preciseness of attacks on gentry and strongholds of authority, suggest that a high level of organisation was at work. Nicholas Brooks’ ‘The organisation and Achievements of the Peasants of Kent and Essex in 1381’ (published in Studies in Medieval History Presented to R.H.C. Davis, eds. H. Mayr-Harting and R.I. Moore, 1985), sees the rebellion as ‘somewhere between the two extremes…’ of ‘a disorganised and chaotic explosion of rural and urban anger’ or a consistent and disciplined plan of action…’ His study of how the revolt spread in the two counties is worth a read. He takes subtle indications as signs of a deeper planning to events, such as the apparent wide spread of villagers who provided the 100 Essex men who sailed back across to Kent with Abel Ker and his mates. They came from quite far afield in the county: Brooks sees this as evidence of a fairly far-flung network.

By June 6th, several days of secret meetings, ‘conventicles’ where oaths of comradeship were sworn and plans made, began to evolve into open armed rebellion. For three days, men went from village to village in Essex encouraging each to rise (Nicholas Brooks likens them to flying pickets – unsurprising, given that he was writing at the time of the 1984-5 miners strike). On the morning of 10th June, armed bands congregated together in both Kent and Essex to march on London.

As Brooks points out, it only took two weeks for the insurgents to enter London after the initial outbreaks, and the way that the marches on London followed in parallel on the spreading web of agitation and assaults on local landowners and sheriffs does follow a suspiciously similar pattern.

‘The synchronised assembly and movement of the insurgent forces in the two counties did not fit by chance into so neat a pattern. Decisions had to be taken and orders sent about meeting places, about dates and about targets; these decisions had to take account of the distances to be covered by each band on each day and of the time that would be needed to open gaols and to break into properties and destroy [tax] records. Every village that sent men to the assembly-points had to be contacted in advance. . . the fundamental plan for bringing out the two shires simultaneously and moving next day to the county towns and to London on the following day must have been planned in advance by some form of central high command’.

Brooks also notes that there is good evidence that the radical demands for the abolition of serfdom, and the effective annihilation of aristocratic government, existed right from the start of the rebellion.

One point worth noting, is that underground networks were to be found in England only a few years later. The Lollards, religious dissidents who opposed some of the dogma and hierarchy of the Church, formed secret congregations which built through clandestine contacts, which spread widely throughout the country in the last decades of the fourteenth century and into the fifteenth. Lollardy to some extent inherited some of the social protest that had characterised the 1381 Revolt though interpreting it in religious terms. If there had been underground networks before 1381, perhaps Lollardy was built on some of their remnants; or on the contacts that had been quickly evolved during the rebellion. Only 33 years after the Peasants Revolt Lollards were attempting their own revolt – though it was a terrible failure.

A centralised high command or not, there was possibly a conscious minority co-ordinating activity across the Thames (suggested by the June 2nd conference), although revolt can also throw up its own capable organisers and long-standing grievances can lead people to come to the same conclusions about what has to be dismantled to improve their lives.

The Essex troubles were more agrarian and less political than Kent’s. Essex was more rural and its grievances more feudal. The rebellion in the county saw a systematic attack on the king’s officers. John Ewell (Escheator of the County) was murdered at Langdon Hills, John Sewall (Sheriff) had his manor ransacked at Coggeshall and the dwelling of Sir Robert Hales (the king’s Treasurer, popularly labelled ‘Hob the Robber’) was destroyed at Cressing Temple. Admiral Edmund de la Mare’s manor at Peldon was also sacked. Destruction of court rolls, leases and charters occurred as bondmen burnt documents that enslaved them. Religious houses (among the largest landowners and thus owners of serfs) were not spared: at Waltham Abbey every document that could be found was burned.

Colchester fell into rebel hands without resistance. As would later happen in London, a xenophobic element diverted the revolt into racist pogromming, and massacred several Fleming merchants, another of their number meeting the same fate at Manningtree.

Kent saw its own insurgency. Manor houses were attacked. Rochester Castle was seized, then Maidstone Prison attacked, and its prisoners liberated, including radical priest John Ball, who was to become the theoretician of the rebellion.

As the Essex and Kent bands moved towards London on June 11, London’s urban poor started in on the government, targeting hated institutions and unpopular officials from June 12th: the Marshalsea Prison & Lambeth Palace were stormed… the king’s despised uncle, John of Gaunt’s, London townhouse was torched.

The Kentish rebels camped on Blackheath, and the Essex rebels on Mile End Fields, both large open spaces within sight of the capital… Here rebel priest John Ball preached a doctrine of equality and freedom, but also of rebellion and class antagonism: for all:When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondsmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who would have had any bond and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may, if ye will, cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty. I counsel you therefore well to bethink yourselves, and to take good hearts unto you, that after the manner of a good husband that tilleth his ground, and riddeth out thereof such evil weeds as choke and destroy the good corn, you may destroy first the great lords of the realm, and after, the judges and lawyers, and questmongers, and all other who have undertaken to be against the commons. For so shall you procure peace and surety to yourselves in time to come; and by dispatching out of the way the great men, there shall be an equality in liberty, and no difference in degrees of nobility; but like dignity and equal authority in all things brought in among you.”

The revolt’s high water mark came when the two groups joined forces and entered London on June 13. The following day a shaken Richard II agreed to the demands of the Essex men at Mile End (a general pardon, the abolition of villeinage, liberty to trade and fixing of rent at 4d per acre).

It was short-lived. Many of the rebels began to march home after this, feeling they had won… but the king was only buying time. The following day saw a second meeting with the king at Smithfield, when rebel leader, Wat Tyler, was killed by the king’s supporters. (Ironically, the date was June 15, the anniversary of Magna Carta.) The revolt began to unravel. Remaining peasants were rounded up; bands who had departed were chased down; a battle at Billericay on 28th June between a rump of the Essex men and the king’s soldiers saw total defeat for the rebels, with unknown numbers killed. Leaders and spokesmen were hunted down and executed, including John Ball and Jack Straw, and Thomas Baker of Fobbing, who had done so much to spread the revolt at its beginnings. The king announced that all the concessions he had granted were revoked, telling the villeins: “Serfs you were and serfs you are; you shall remain in bondage, not such as you have hitherto been subject to, but incomparably viler.”

And yet it was not to be. The bonds already loosened by the Black Death and other social changes were hastened, if anything after the Revolt. Serfdom and villeinage began to break down, a slow and complex process its true, but undeniably, a century after 1381, England changed hugely, and the feudal system evolved and was altered, helping to produce the beginnings of a massive change across the whole society. The rebels played a part in that, whether or not it would have occurred in any case, the rebellion forced the pace.

And their dreams and hopes were not completely lost; rebellions in the fifteenth century would revive some of their ideals, and the plans and programs of the ‘Great Society’ continued… even today…

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Of course, this wasn’t the last attempt to impose a Poll Tax in the UK. Nor the last rebellion that this triggered. The anti-poll tax movement that fought and beat off the Thatcher government’s attempt to push the costs of local government entirely onto the people who have the least money was a fitting echo of the Peasants Revolt.

And led to thousands marching on central London in anger again

Again the state and the press were in no doubt that the was a network of opposition that had organised the protest – and they were right… However, they again looked for secret leadership when attempting to exact retribution for he Trafalgar Square riot. Once again the ‘outside agitators’ had organised the whole event – this time anarchists were responsible. The UK’s small anarchist movement had been heavily involved in resisting the poll tax on the ground, and many were present at Trafalgar Square and took part in the fighting. But had no more orchestrated it than the police did – except in the sense that after the wave of local revolts at town halls that had rocked March 1990, many of those present expected and desired a larger outbreak. But as in 1381, the presence of activists in the movement and the rioting doesn’t obscure the ability of people to get together, often quickly and competently, to organise against attacks on their livelihoods or a practical response to cataclysmic events.

Which has echoes again for us in 2020, and the Covid-19 lockdown. The support and solidarity, organised through newly-sprung up mutual aid groups or simply through neighbours, friends, existing bonds and communities, that has been the answer to the virus, reminds some of us of the widespread strength and grassroots base of the anti-poll tax movement. It’s an inspiring development.

Many of the activists who played a part in the anti-poll tax movement hoped that that kind of community organisation would evolve, grow and begin to challenge other aspects of the exploitative, unequal and murderous society we experience; that it would be the beginning of a general community revolt against capitalism. In most places, however, anti-poll tax groups did not carry on into other campaigning, for lots of reasons; though ideas, experiences, inspiration did, in many forms.

Will the spirit of mutual aid we now see continue, build, evolve? As we write major rebellion is also taking place in the US against racist police violence. Across the world resistance is building to the job cuts, hunger and poverty being created under the cover of ‘protecting us’. In the UK there are debates about the lockdown, how it might continue; what kind of future we face; there are genuine divisions about whether it is a project imposed from above or a co-operative effort we can have control over from below.

To some extent we stand at a crossroads: the vested interests of capital and the ruling elites can see vast potential in the technocratic possibilities of post-lockdown, new ways of imposing work, reducing their costs and increasing ours, new ways of control and surveillance, track and trace software, beefing up laws to stop us congregating to fight for our interests at the grassroots. On the other hand there’s the potential of our fluid solidarity, of the growing rage against the wealthy and powerful who profit from us as we live and work, profit from our deaths, profit from the health and careworkers’ labours even as they deny them adequate PPE, and simperingly clap them once a week… The rich are getting richer, and as after the crash of 2008 they will make us pay for the vast economic cost of lockdown through cuts, austerity, repression.

If we let them. Spirit of June 1831… March 1990, anyone?

“Why are those whom we call lords, masters over us? How have they deserved it? By what right do they keep us enslaved?”

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Derived from an entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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