Grenfell and the Instrumentalization of Suffering

Will Searby comments on the depoliticization of trauma in the aftermath of the Grenfell fire.

Steve Eason / Flickr

One week on, it’s untrue to say that there has been no state infrastructure at Grenfell. The Met Police have been harassing residents for days, backed with a budget that dwarfs any relief funds. At the protest on Friday, one resident shouted at the police cordon, ‘are you going to send riot police to the funerals too?’. Just like the chronic government neglect that helped cause this disaster, the police presence in Kensington is anything but neutral: the situation is being managed as a security issue. Theresa May promised a pathetic £5 million in relief, days after the fire. Today, government ministers have assured traumatized local residents that they will not be subject to the sadistic and vindictive regime of benefit sanctions. That this is, apparently, the best this government can offer shows where its priorities lie.

In treating the traumatization of a community as a security problem, the government is pre-empting any community mobilization that might address the political causes of the Grenfell fire. However, the response of the community is already highly politicized. The Grenfell Action Group was formed in 2010, and was already campaigning against the neglect that was placing the tower at serious risk of a catastrophic fire. Of course, this sort of political response is built from years of experiencing the daily indignities of working-class life. Interviews with residents in the aftermath of the fire demonstrated not only a humbling eloquence, but also articulated the solidarity that emerges from a common experience of violation and degradation. ‘What do you want?’, asked Jon Snow on Channel 4 News. ‘We don’t want human beings to live in buildings like that’, replied Nour Osman, a resident.

What the reaction to Grenfell has shown is that it is because of, rather than despite, the sense of being in an immediate community that people are connecting the fire to the far wider issues of a class-society. On this point, much of the organized Left are lagging behind. It is a strange sign of the period that calls to ‘bring down the government’ seem almost timid in comparison with the anger and resentment articulated from Grenfell. In this context, the frankly formulaic interventions of groups who have used the response to Grenfell as an opportunity to build already-planned demonstrations requires a nuanced response. Criticism of this tactic can fall into depoliticizing trauma that has a political cause and requires a political response. At the same time, the response of socialists must be premised upon working in solidarity with the community’s ongoing fight to reclaim political agency. Whilst it is important to stress the need for sprinklers, for safety regulation, for fighting gentrification and the decimation of social housing, none of these issues alone can express what Grenfell represents. Attempts to express the rage at Grenfell through a Labour Party whose local councils are still selling off social housing across London, or through the rhetoric of anti-austerity and opposition to cuts seem woefully inadequate to the politics of raw anger articulated by those affected.

But whilst it is important to maintain an organic connection to the trauma, the grief, and the struggle in Grenfell, this is no excuse for inaction. We have a responsibility to oppose the restriction of political agency. Our politics should be built on offering support to those who are trying to coordinate and execute a political response whilst also struggling to rebuild their lives and find or mourn loved ones amidst the trauma of this disaster. Here, it might seem insensitive to generalize the issues at play in Grenfell into a broader manifestation of class-struggle that encompasses everything from housing, to the discipline and management of labour, to the politics of migration. It might seem callous to state that this isn’t just an issue of ‘fire safety’ or tenants’ rights, or even austerity. But it is also necessary. Whilst we should be wary of subordinating the suffering of residents, victims, and their friends and families to a familiar political narrative, we must be clear that it is only through situating Grenfell in its broader political context that political solutions, like the requisition or occupation of empty houses, can be proposed.

To achieve justice for Grenfell, we need to talk in general terms about politics. That is, to achieve justice, and not merely an inquest, or emergency beds, or relief funds, we need to talk about what that justice will mean for the countless others forced to live in circumstances identical to those which caused the Grenfell fire. And here, we need to recognize and resist any initiative from the Right or the Left that will depoliticize the years of working-class anger and decades of ruling-class violence endured by those directly affected.

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