I normally keep my politics out of this blog; this is a writing blog, not a political one, and I know you don’t come here to read about my personal views on things. Well, things other than writing. I’m going to make an exception this week, because in thinking about what I should have as a topic for this Tuesday, there was nothing I wanted to write about more than Grenfell Tower.
If you didn’t see it in the news, Grenfell Tower was an apartment building in London in which a fire broke out last week – for reasons yet undetermined – and then, with horrifying speed, the entire building was quickly ablaze. At least 79 people are known to have died (by the last count I have seen) but the number is very probably higher since there are still people missing and no realistic hope of survivors. Apparently the fire was intense enough that there may simply be no identifiable remains of everyone who perished inside.
So, Grenfell Tower was a terrible disaster, but that’s not really why I wanted to write about it for today. I wanted to write about it because what happened there was, among all the other things it was, a particularly graphic illustration of the consequences of a particular kind of politics that seems to have far more support than it should, presently. The disaster at Grenfell Tower was the result of deliberate decisions, to reduce government budgets (for things like fire departments), to cut health and safety regulations, and to loosen restrictions on corporations. All of this is supposed to be somehow beneficial, but what we got was an appalling conflagration.
Obviously this all happened in the UK, but the ideas that led to Grenfell Tower are certainly not unique to Britain. The message of cutting regulation, of lowering corporate tax, and cutting civic budgets is perfectly familiar here as well. We are told that if we do all these things on behalf the wealthy, these benefits will trickle down to the rest of us. Rich corporations hire people and buy things. Let them make money.
The problem with the message is two-fold. First, as most economists seem now to argue, trickle-down is a lie. If you make the wealthy wealthier, all you do is make rich people richer. There’s not a lot of evidence that this has any benefits beyond their bank accounts. Second, of course, is Grenfell Tower. The UK government spoke with pride about abolishing the ‘health and safety culture’ that they said was a hinderance to the economy.
Money. Money placed above people’s health and safety. This, as a policy goal.
The people who renovated Grenfell Tower apparently saved about £2 a siding panel going with the non fire-retardant panels rather than the fire-retardant ones. This is almost certainly why the building went up the way it did. I saw the total savings estimated at about £1500, for the whole building. The contractor says that they followed all regulations, which may well be true. However, the person or people who made that decision simply did not give a damn about the people who were going to live in Grenfell Tower, or what might happen to them. I have no doubt that it helped, or rather hurt, that these people were poor and mostly not white, but the overriding concern was clearly to cram a few more bills into already stuffed pockets.
There were other problems. The building had no sprinkler system and apparently the fire alarms were not working. It’s possible that fire breaks meant to stop the spread of fire from one part of the building to another, which were removed as part of the renovation, were never put back. Residents in the building had complained about all these things, with no effect, probably because the people they brought their concerns to were wealthy and powerful and also did not give a damn about the people who lived in Grenfell Tower.
The former government of David Cameron boasted of cutting the time fire safety inspections took from 6 hours to 45 minutes. Do it fast. Do it cheap. Do it well, or do it right, an increasingly alien concept, to people of this philosophy. There is a frightening truth that I think we need to come to terms with to understand how our society works, and how to make our decisions about what to do and who to support going forward. That is simply this: Corporations are not your friend. The wealthy are not on your side. They will not look after you, they are not interested in helping you. Perhaps it is necessary to be ruthless to be a success in business, but the rest of us need to absolutely recognize and keep that ruthlessness in mind. They don’t care about us, perhaps because they can’t, more likely because they simply don’t want to, but either way – they are rich and powerful and they are not on your side, not ever.
These are the terrorists that I am afraid of, the ones who will look you in the eye and tell you they’ve done their job, smile and tell you that everything is taken care of, and then turn away and let you live in a deathtrap.hey are killers drenched in blood and they do it for a buck rather than any cause that they believe in, or perhaps money is the only thing that they do believe in. They’re terrifying because, again, they don’t appear to be, will tell you with apparent sincerity what altruistic and benevolent people they are, and then make the most ghastly, heartless decisions a moment later, deny it until confronted with overwhelming evidence, and then simply shrug and say it was all perfectly normal practice. It is, really, and that is why ordinary people absolutely need a government that will be on their side to somewhat redress the balance.
I really don’t think there’s anything to be done about people who will save a few dollars getting the non fire-retardant materials for a building people will live in, except that we need our government to protect us from them. I saw a thing a little while ago arguing that we should love our regulations and love our bureaucracy because they keep us safe. They do. You don’t have to look very hard to find slag heaps of evidence that letting corporations ‘regulate themselves’ is an absolutely suicidally bad idea. (If you’re interested, maybe start with the Hanford Site and work on from there)
Corporations will not do a single thing that doesn’t directly help their bottom line unless there’s something that can force them to do so. Left to their own devices they will cut corners and cut the throats of people as long as it increases profits. One might argue that’s literally all a corporation is supposed to do, and maybe that’s true, but it’s also why we absolutely need politicians and governments who are ready and willing to put limits and controls on them. We need them to be on our side, the side of ordinary people. We need to choose allies who are explicitly on the side of ordinary people first and foremost, and we need to carefully interrogate the real policies of people who claim to be to see whose interests they are really serving.
What I mostly want to do is encourage you to remember all of this the next time someone tries to tell you that we need to cut civic services, reduce regulations, and ‘get out of the way’ of corporations. I want you to remember this the next time someone tries to tell you that we need to run government or society like a business. Tell them that you know exactly where that road leads. It leads to a tower of ash and grief.
Thanks for reading. Next week things here will be back to normal, or as normal as they ever are.