The Echo of The Voiceless Pt 2: The Echoes of Power

Bentley Former Council Offices

I often walk past the building in the this photograph on my way to one of the two jobs I work. Although it has long since been hacked away, the writing above the main entrance is still perfectly legible. It reads:

BENTLEY WITH ARKSEY COUNCIL OFFICES AD 1913

As you can see the building is in a state of disrepair and is currently up for sale. Existing long past its intended use as a hub for local authority, its days are now sadly numbered.  Most likely it will end its one hundred year life as residential flats – either through conversion or through demolition – and another little piece of local history will be confined to the mists of forgetting.

Times change. Places change. Sometimes for the better. Sometimes for the worse. More often than not change brings a mixture of both good and bad where the proverbial baby spirals down the plughole along with the proverbial bathwater. Doncaster’s own bathwater was coal-black, death-cold and gritty as a slag-heap, but the baby was strong, defiant and just; even if it wasn’t the cutest kid on the block.

The areas where the Brexit vote was strongest were those areas where local industry has long been decimated. These are the former Labour heartlands where, once upon a time, a single industry could keep a whole community alive.

In Doncaster the core industry was, of course, coal mining. Industry brings its own problems (as a child I used to wake up to the sound of my next door neighbour coughing what remained of his lungs onto the street outside my house) and there are few miners who lament the job itself. What they do miss, however, is the comradery, the economic security and the collective power they once enjoyed with regard to so many aspects of their lives.

I touched on economic security in part one of this post when I said:

Every basic security has been swept away … One of the most basic of human needs, shelter, has become a pension scheme for the affluent, causing the widespread return of absentee landlords and a rise in sub-standard living conditions. This has [made] house ownership all but an impossible dream for the vast majority of people living in impoverished towns. Without the dream of a better life who can really be enthused by the prospect of low-paid, zero-hour, menial work which will do little more than pay the bills and put food on the table until you die (usually prematurely of a poverty related disease) … Can anyone really fail to understand the bitterness, cynicism and anxiety which runs through these communities.

Contrast this to the relative autonomy of mining communities. Housing was closely tied to the dominant industry (the housing estate where I live was even designed with the job-roles of  men who worked the mine in mind) and the collective power the miners which was used to ensure safety and fairness at work (there are still some old guys in Doncaster who can recite vast tracts of work-related law from memory like some Ragged Trousered Perry Mason) was also used to ensure that the town as a whole had enough political leverage to guarantee that each of the town’s residents needs were met, regardless of whether they were miners or not.

It wasn’t a perfect system by any means. Each town was, quite understandably, fighting for their own interests against those of the many other towns which make up the borough of Doncaster. Machismo, ego and posturing meant that Doncaster was run more like a group of independent Mafia families than a collective whole; a situation which was instrumental in the development of the Donnygate scandal.

The old structures of power in Doncaster may have been prone to corruption, but this is far from unique in any bureaucratic institution. Indeed the dominant neoliberal system (a system so cruel and pernicious that it has elements of both the ‘fair’ right and the ‘caring’ left attacking poor communities for their poverty) has made an art form (and an economy…) out of Machiavellian manoeuvrings.

If neoliberalism can be defined by any single trend it is the global rise of a dominant apparatchik class; the dangers of which are brilliantly observed in Bob Shea’s The Empire of the Rising Scum.

Both the apparatchik and the state of modern democracy can be summarised using the following lines from Shea’s essay:

The ability to get ahead in an organization is simply another talent, like the ability to play chess, paint pictures, do coronary bypass operations or pick pockets. There are some people who are extraordinarily good at manipulating organizations to serve their own ends. The Russians, who have suffered under such people for centuries, have a name for them– apparatchiks. It was an observer of apparatchiks who coined the maxim, “The scum rises to the top.”

Unfortunately, the existence of this talent means that every successful organization will sooner or later be taken over by apparatchiks. As such people achieve influence within the organization, whenever there is a conflict between their own interest and the interest of the organization, their interests will win out. Thus, over time, the influence of apparatchiks will deflect the organization further and further from its original intent.

It often happens that when a person possesses a particular ability to an extraordinary degree, nature makes up for it by leaving him or her incompetent in every other department.

Even the nature of the neoliberal economy – focusing mainly on generating wealth from debt (money for nothing) – reflects how unproductive (in both social and economic terms) your average apparatchik really is. But at the local level it was impossible for the apparatchik to wreak real havoc. Yes, they could be dangerous, self-serving and greedy, but, while they were still directly tied to the wider community, that community’s social norms and values (and hard-line community activists) would keep them in check. This meant they were accountable, and that accountability meant that their unique talents could still be used for the benefit of the local community as a whole.

Unfortunately the kind of human-scale power structures which once allowed at least some form of local autonomy (no matter how faltering) have long-since been replaced with centralised bureaucratic, technocratic and corporate power which is perfectly structured to protect those who are, quite blatantly, stealing from the poorest and most vulnerable.

The neoliberal economy’s ability to steer the flow of wealth and to capitalise on every aspect of human life could not have come into existence without the radical restructuring of socioeconomic (and, as we shall see in the next part of this post, cultural…) power.

However crass, greedy, anti-social and ecologically suicidal the neoliberals might be, they are far from stupid (although their arrogance – and/or perhaps their psychopathy – does tend to make them blind). This is an ideology which believes in the long-game while happily raking in short-term gains. Over the course of decades neoliberalism has whittled away the political, economic and cultural power of the working class.

The first and most obvious attack on working class power for many people was the highly visible (and, in the case of the miners, highly physical…) attack on workplace power. The Anti-Union Legislation measures introduced between 1980 and 2000 do not only dis-empower workers, they have also been used to counter other forms of popular dissent.

As a long-term ecological activist I saw first hand how, in the 90s, Anti-Union laws were routinely used against road protesters and since that time additional, non union related, laws have been introduced make many forms of legitimate protest much harder, if not impossible.

Judicial subjugation reached its peak in the New Labour era (New as in ‘Neo’ and Labour as in ‘Liberal’) when 3000+ new ‘anti-social’ laws effectively illegalised childhood in the UK. But the supposed Tory opposition, despite its anti-Nanny State rhetoric, continues to swell the law books in favour of the dominant neoliberal class.

Such abuses of political power could only come into force once the structure of political power itself had been altered. First to come under attack were the local authorities who have lost ever greater powers to Westminster over the course of decades. What should be the front-line of democracy in Britain, delivering the will of the immediate population at a local level, has become little more than an administrative service for central (and ever more heavily centralised…) government. What is more, as the Joseph Rowntree independent inquiry into the nature of democracy in Britain, Power to the Peoplefound back in 2006, the balance of power in parliament has shifted to the executive so that even those who are elected to represent the interests of a given community/region are not in a favourable position to guarantee any real help for their electorate.

Power to the People is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how we got to this place and what can be done, with regard to representative parliamentary democracy at least, to counter the collapse of democracy in the UK. A collapse which, I believe, ultimately led to a widespread and decisive vote for Brexit in the former Labour heartlands.

While political power is the most heavily observed (and critiqued) aspect of power, economic power has as much, if not greater, influence on the socioeconomic prospects of a given region. As well as having a higher percentage of Leave voters, the industrial and formerly industrial Labour heartlands also have the highest percentage of relative poverty in the UK.

This is not a problem specific to Britain (neoliberalism is a global system after all). Magnum photographer, Matt Black‘s groundbreaking project, The Geography of Poverty combines geotagged photographs with census data to map and document America’s poorest places.

Black’s criteria was to document places with poverty rates above 20%; a poverty rate all too common in the former Labour heartlands (Yorkshire & Humber consistently average around 22%). The 20% threshold is something of a tipping point in terms of socioeconomic divisions and prospects. As Black says in an interview with Daisy McCorgray for Professional Photography magazine:

“Once you pass that threshold, poverty doesn’t affect just the ‘poor’: it affects the entire community … Things like schools, roads, healthcare. All areas of life begin to be impacted.”

Black knew that he wanted to look at the bigger picture regarding poverty:

“Journalism and photography deal with poverty as an isolated event, or single out one place. With that, what you’re doing is heightening the differences between these places. What I’m trying to do, instead, is to find the commonality.”

Interestingly the commonality he found was that:

“Mainly, they are places that produce something: in the Central Valley of California they produce food, in Appalachia they produce coal, in Detroit and Michigan they produce automobiles.”

This is, of course, an observation which is also true of the impoverished former Labour heartlands. Doncaster, as I already mentioned, used to produce coal and Lincolnshire, which recorded the highest Leave vote percentage in the county at 75%, produces food. Interestingly, since the loss of coal mining as its core industry, the food industry has become the major employer in Doncaster too. If productivity really did equate to wealth then these areas should be prosperous, but as Black also found, this is not the case:

“These communities are excluded and the big decisions and choices that impact lives in these places are often made elsewhere … Finding commonalities and building connections between these places, it made me think of poverty as something much more than economics. It’s not just dollars, it’s a symbol of social power. Who gets what, and why. Whose work is valued, whose products are valued and whose aren’t … the power and the psychology behind it.”

Black’s project shows that if a community works hard to produce tangible and necessary goods – the essentials of daily life – then it much more likely to find itself economically and politically excluded.

If you live in an impoverished area then this really isn’t news. But if you’re following the mainstream media then this really, literally, absolutely isn’t news. In fact the news will tell you pretty much anything but this simple economic fact. The mainstream media in the UK is awash with blatant classism and poor-blaming and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find voices of dissent anywhere in the media.

This is because the third, and in my humble opinion most important, loss of power which the former Labour heartlands (and the working class in general) has faced is the loss of cultural power. Why do I feel cultural dis-empowerment is the most important factor of them all? Partly because I am a working class artist frustrated by the scarcity of projects in the vein of Matt Black’s and the lack of genuine working class representation, but mostly because, as I hope to argue in the next part of this blog post, only a newfound cultural empowerment can hope to reverse the trend towards sociopolitical exclusion in the former Labour strongholds.

When Black says ‘Whose work is valued, whose products are valued and whose aren’t’, he points to one of the most destructive elements of the neoliberal machine; its ability to shape – through its media and its control of modern communication technologies – the underlying narratives by which we live our lives. Isn’t it time we told a new story?..

(rant not quite over)

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