Workers Hammer No. 239
We need a new ruling class - the workers!
Grenfell Tower fire: capitalist murder
The following leaflet was issued by the Spartacist League on 23 June. Since then, the death toll from the fire has risen to at least 80 but only 49 of the victims have been formally identified. The survivors continue to face contempt from both the local council and Whitehall, with only 14 families having been rehoused as of the middle of August. Meanwhile, more than 200 other high-rise buildings have failed fire safety checks mandated after the Grenfell atrocity.
The fire that ripped through Grenfell Tower on 14 June was cold-blooded capitalist murder. The 24-storey building — home to 400-600 people — lacked elementary safety measures such as a sprinkler system and emergency exits. It was covered in highly flammable cladding that went up like a torch — 20 floors were covered in flames in 15 minutes. Survivors watched in horror as those trapped in the building signalled frantically at their windows. Despite the heroic efforts of firefighters and local residents, the official death toll stands at 79. The building burned for nearly 24 hours and is so gutted that it may never be possible to identify all the victims.
Grenfell Tower stood in north Kensington — one of the poorest wards in the country located in the “Royal” Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the richest borough in Britain. Residents of Grenfell Tower included many minorities and immigrants — including 23-year-old Syrian refugee Mohammed Alhajali, the first victim to be officially identified. The burned out shell of his home resembles nothing so much as the wreckage left by the imperialist bombing in Syria. The racist British bourgeoisie and its servants in the Westminster Parliament have proved once again that they have nothing but murderous contempt for minorities and poor and working people, in Britain as around the world. It’s high time for the rule of the capitalist exploiters to be swept away and replaced by a workers government!
The Grenfell Tower atrocity was easily preventable. According to the Fire Brigades Union, there have never been multiple deaths in a fire in Britain in a building fitted with sprinklers. The cost of installing a sprinkler system in Grenfell Tower was estimated in 2012 at £138,000. Just last summer, £10 million was spent in a refurbishment that turned a 20th century hovel into a 21st century fire trap, adding the combustible cladding which ensured that the wealthy neighbours didn’t have to look at the ugly1970s concrete block. Fire-resistant alternative cladding was rejected because it was £2 per square metre more expensive — for a saving of £5000.
For four years, the Grenfell Action Group, a tenants’ association, had been warning the property management firm, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), about the inevitable consequences of the “almost criminally lax manner in which the KCTMO treats fire safety issues” (grenfellactiongroup.wordpress.com, 14 March). A notice posted on the group’s website on 20 November 2016 chillingly predicted:
“It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders.”
Residents who campaigned against the fire dangers at the tower block were reportedly threatened with legal action by the KCTMO. Among those who protested were two women, Mariem Elgwahry and Nadia Choucair, feared to have died in the fire.
Up and down the country, tower blocks have been covered in the same highly flammable cladding used on Grenfell Tower. Successive Labour and Tory governments have ignored calls to require sprinkler systems to be retrofitted in all existing tower blocks. Decades of cuts and privatisations have gutted Britain’s council housing while private rents have rocketed up and up. Dangerous wiring, damp, overcrowding and disrepair are rife in low-cost housing — to say nothing of the more than a quarter of a million people in England alone who have been rendered homeless by the high cost of housing, low wages and unemployment.
Writing nearly 150 years ago about the “infamous holes and cellars in which the capitalist mode of production confines our workers”, Friedrich Engels observed in The Housing Question (1872):
“As long as the capitalist mode of production continues to exist it is folly to hope for an isolated settlement of the housing question or of any other social question affecting the lot of the workers. The solution lies in the abolition of the capitalist mode of production and the appropriation of all the means of subsistence and instruments of labour by the working class itself.”
A massive programme of public works to rebuild housing and infrastructure across Britain is urgently needed. As are workers committees that would make sure that shoddy designs and penny-pinching construction will be stopped before they endanger people’s lives, and that lifesaving repairs and maintenance will not fall victim to the axe of austerity. But under capitalism, the basic needs of working people and the oppressed are continually subordinated to what is profitable for the bourgeois exploiters. The situation cries out for the banks, construction industry, factories, transportation and land to be taken away from their profit-driven owners, and rationally developed in the interest of society as a whole.
The likes of radical journalist George Monbiot have been pushing the lie that European Union regulations protect people like the residents of Grenfell Tower. In reality, the EU — with its explicit commitment to privatisation and market competition — has been used by capitalists to loot public infrastructure. Through schemes like forced competitive bidding for government contracts, the EU undermines union protections and safety standards and drives down wages. In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn campaigned against Brexit in last year’s referendum, and today his commitment to tariff-free access to the European single market runs completely counter to his promises to uphold the interests of working people. Down with the bankers’ and bosses’ EU! For a Socialist United States of Europe!
In contrast to the undisguised contempt with which Theresa May and Kensington and Chelsea council have treated Grenfell Tower survivors, Corbyn has struck a chord with working people by calling to house the survivors in empty luxury properties. In truth, homelessness could be tackled overnight, simply by requisitioning the mansions, luxury hotels and real estate holdings of the ruling class so that everyone has a place to live. To start with, seize Kensington Palace to house the residents of Grenfell Tower, and Buckingham Palace, making use of the £369 million budgeted for renovations! Abolish the monarchy, that bastion of reaction and inbred privilege! Put its property at the service of working people!
For all of Corbyn’s condemnation of the inequality and injustice rampant in this society, his programme of parliamentary reformism cannot solve the housing problem, or fulfil the other basic needs of the population. The Westminster “Mother of Parliaments” does not represent the “will of the people” but has for centuries presided over capitalist exploitation at home and the brutal and bloody conquest and slaughter of colonial and semicolonial peoples around the world. The capitalist rulers will never willingly give up their vast holdings — and behind them stand the forces of the capitalist state, an apparatus of organised violence for defending the interests of the ruling class against workers and the oppressed.
When workers become the ruling class, the housing crisis, insoluble on the basis of capitalist private property, will be resolved in a straightforward way. A workers government would undertake a programme to construct residential communities designed to facilitate free and equal social relationships. Free access to quality education and culture will allow the fullest development of all, while facilities and social services will be vastly expanded to free women from the drudgery of housework and the burdens of child-rearing.
Putting the productive wealth of society at the service of working people and the oppressed requires socialist revolution, led by a party modelled on the Bolsheviks, who overthrew capitalist and landlord rule in the tsarist empire 100 years ago. The Spartacist League is working to build a party, a British section of the reforged Fourth International, that will lead the fight for new October Revolutions.