With the death toll climbing to 72, the horrific apartment tower fire in London on June 14 is as maddening as it is heartbreaking. Many residents died completely unaware of the danger around them, others were told to stay in their units, a few jumped out of windows. How could such a calamity strike in 2017? The answer has implications beyond London and the UK. The truth is, it could happen in NYC and in some ways already does. It happens because late capitalism has driven us to collectively abandon the hard lessons of civic responsibility and the public interest that we’ve learned over the last 100 years.
The New York Times has an in-depth look at the fire and the blame falls squarely on late capitalism run amok. More specifically, the fire appears to have been caused by a refrigerator on the fourth floor that exploded in an apartment (it’s unclear as to why yet). Normally, large concrete towers would be able to contain such a blaze at least long enough to evacuate the building and/or for firefighters to contain it with minimal damage. However, several factors contributed to the rapid and fatal spread of the fire at Grenfell.
First, in an effort to “beautify” the building’s exterior (more on this later), highly flammable aluminum cladding was installed around the building. The material is made in America but is only allowed on buildings in three states (the same cladding caused the recent fire in a high-rise apartment building in Dubai). The refrigerator was positioned on an exterior wall and the cladding quickly caught fire and spread up and out across the building.
Second, business-friendly government officials (spanning all major parties) eager to reduce “red-tape” ignored repeated warnings from fire experts on the cladding, instead favoring the arguments from the construction industry on the low cost outweighing the minimal risk. Objective, informed expertise was secondary to a self-serving private interest.
Finally, and most shockingly, residents (most of which are low-income) were virtually ignored despite raising concerns for years over basic regulatory measures for fire inspections, sprinklers, clearly marked fire escapes. These residents knew how dangerous their home could potentially be and organized repeatedly to change it by pressuring management and the government. Those pleas were ignored and many of those that made them are now dead.
Neoliberalism preaches the power of the market. Deregulation, privatization, and globalization are supposed to be the three pillars of a free and prosperous golden age. Grenfell Towers is the stark counterpoint to this illusion.
The tower was built in 1974 as social housing (pubic housing) run by the government at the local borough level. In 1996, as part of an effort to deregulate and disinvest the government from housing, the tower became part of a newly formed Tenant Management Organization (TMO) called the Kensington & Chelsea TMO owned by the local council. The organization’s leadership is made up of residents, people appointed by local elected officials, and several independent members. Uniquely in the UK, K & C is also an “arm’s length management organization” (ALMO) that is normally an independent property management organization. So it is landlord and manager, in fact the biggest in the UK.
This semi-private structure is supposed to allow more local control and greater efficiency but, as many critics argue, it does the opposite. The mission and incentive structure for the organization is to lower costs above all else. Finding cheaper ways to run something is perfectly fine, but there are other efficiency priorities that need to be balanced, such as basic safety. As has become increasingly apparent as more information comes out about the fire, that wasn’t the case with K & C - nor did locals have the agency within the complex to change that focus.
On the other hand, it appears that non-residents had more say in the operation of the building. Though the tower has a working-class population, the surrounding area is one of the wealthier sections of London. Pressure from these residents, some of which are on the leadership council, to beautify the exterior (so they don’t have to look at a stark, brutalism building) was given priority. The aluminum cladding that propelled the fire was installed last year as part of an 8.7 million pound renovation to appease these wealth neighbors rather than to fix long-standing resident complaints.
I can’t think of a more brutal example of late capitalism than Grenfell. A building constructed to serve the public interest and provide affordable housing was (effectively) privatized and deregulated. In the process its owners prioritized wealthy neighbors instead of working-class residents. The result was a cosmetic change with known risks that has killed 79 people.
We have public institutions because we live in states with governments designed to represent the public interest, the shared destiny of its citizens. However flawed these institutions are, their existence and function are central to the idea of that shared identity and shared purpose. They are the only way to create legitimacy in a society with competing interests and values. When we devalue these institutions, we devalue the idea of civic responsibility to each other and our society.
Privatization is often categorized as a binary choice between incompetent, wasteful bureaucrats and efficient, expert businesses. That’s bullshit, but it’s also myopic. Any organization, public or private, can be well run or poorly run. The difference is the bottom line. For private companies it is to run a profitable business to maximize shareholder value, which, for the most part, is just fine. But that’s not how we should view public institutions. Their bottom line is to provide public services to support and nurture a complex society.
In the UK and the US particularly, we have internalized the supremacy of the market as the ultimate tool to run our society. As a consequence both countries have been rocked by financial crises, rising social inequality, and erosion of trust in the state. When you spend decades ripping functions out of the state’s hands, that’s inevitable. We blame the state for this, but we should be blaming the market. Everywhere you look, whether it’s the retrenchment of monopolies, the dilution of labor protections, or the disinvestment of infrastructure, our society’s priority of short-term profit has fundamentally weakened our ability to protect our citizens from basic risks like fire.
The true tragedy of this episode and the inevitable future episodes to follow is that we have already learned these lessons, in some cases a century ago. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911 killed 146 garment workers in NYC. This outrage created the modern regulatory system for buildings in NYC and the US and spurred the creation of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union to fight sweatshop conditions.
Is NYC better prepared than London today? Perhaps, but I wouldn’t be too sure for the simple reason that our city, like many local governments across the country, is starved for resources. Basic inspections are backlogged. Maintenance work is delayed. Complaints are barely registered.
I’m not just speaking about public housing. Frankly, NYCHA has done an incredible job maintaining their facilities under such dire restraints for years. There are reasons for concern and diligence, but the potential risk isn’t in public housing alone. How many small, old buildings in NYC are prepared for a fire? How many large new buildings?
The problem isn’t just fires. The problem is much larger and deeper. We’ve gone through terrible traumas as a society, but many of them occurred before anyone today was alive. The public institutions that were built to address these issues worked, but now we’ve forgotten why they are needed. Our collective complacency as residents, as owners, as officials, is clear and disturbing.
The lesson from Grenfell, like the Triangle Fire before it, is simple. If we take our civic responsibility seriously, we must support the public institutions that serve it. We can’t trust that the market will solve our problems for us. We need the market to fit into our civic needs, not the other way around. More innocent people will be killed if we fail to learn that lesson yet again.