Book Review: Getting By – Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain, by Lisa McKenzie

Getting By is the result of ethnographic research by sociologist, socialist, and social housing resident, Lisa McKenzie in her own council housing estate: St. Anne’s “Stanzville” in Nottingham in England. It is an important read for understanding how class works in Britain today. Class is not just a relation to the means of production – it is a social relation defined by being fucked around and having to get through difficult circumstances on a daily basis to get by. Through telling the stories of residents at St. Anne’s we get an idea of the difficulties people have to face on a daily basis and of the strategies used to manage and negotiate these circumstances. In doing so it provides an important counter-narrative to what you might hear from the mainstream media or stereotypes about the scum and worthless benefit scroungers. Instead McKenzie is motivated by trying to show the value of who and what is there on her estate. What she gives us is a picture of a community who are constantly considered worthless by the outside and in response create their own internal systems of valuation and respect (and a lot of this value system is something the outside word should learn from, for example being black or mixed race is envied in St. Anne’s). Highlighting these kinds of things is important in order to show the value of what is there in working class communities. Because without this you have ‘community development’ programmes, designed by outsiders which miss the whole point of council estate problems. The example is given of a mentoring programme claiming that “As a result [of our programme] a ‘mentor’ feels more valued in his own community” (p 162). As McKenzie points out, “This is a very simplistic approach to exclusion and disadvantage, […] and works within a limited framework. Being respected in your community is not the problem: it is being respected outside the neighbourhood that residents of council estates struggle with” (p. 162).

Image from the publishers, Policy Press

The most interesting part of the book is not by design of research. The book talks about how the estate is stigmatised by the outside and in response the residents are creating their own value system and systems of respect. Luckily for the researcher, just as she was finishing the research, the whole business of the 2011 riots happened, and the alternative value system that Stanz people had been creating in place of the one that rejected them began to accelerate. (alternative value systems are usually ignored, and when they are looked at, they are assumed to be statically existing rather than developing). And this gives a very interesting picture of what happens. The value system they are creating values belonging to the estate and an in-group identity. As this accelerates, this identity becomes counterposed to the identities of other council estates, and with that came intra-estate violence and riots. This is what McKenzie calls ‘estatism’:

“While boundaries were put up by those who lived on the estate in order to feel safe […], at the same time those boundaries acted as a wall, keeping in a closed and suspicious group of people, whose fear of stigma and ‘being looked down on’ often prevented them from engaging in pursuits that might make real and positive differences to their lives […] I have described a tight-knit community, which has been built on pride, a sense of belonging, humour, and sharing, but also fear, instability, and stigmatisation” (p. 149).

One of the chief directions of this wall was against other council estates, something that led to turf wars, even in the city centre of Nottingham, where some areas and shops were seen as Stanz territory, and others belonging to other estates like Meadows or Radford. And when the riots came, these inter-estate rivalries became battlelines. It would be fascinating to know how it changed in the aftermath of the riots. The main outcome seemed to be that the police and the courts, spurred on by the right-wing media and politicians, cracked down on any scapegoats they could find. We hear about the stories of people who had no involvement in activities but who were imprisoned by court systems that thought they needed to sate the appetite of a right-wing press and political class.

Like the example of Perry, who was walking home with his take-away dinner on the night of the riots, when he found himself being chased by police and was arrested and later trialled and convicted by jury and sentenced to three years in prison:

“The main argument of the prosecution was that Perry had been on the street in order to ‘get up to no good’, otherwise why else would he have been there? Another part of the prosecution’s argument was that Perry was wearing a red bandanna, which, they argued, was a signifier that Perry was part of a gang in St Ann’s. This line of defence seemed to go along way with the jurors, even though there was no evidence that Perry had done anything apart from being on the street that night, and he looked like a rioter. The police went through Perry’s phone records and contacts – he was not in contact with anyone else who had been arrested that night, and the police admitted that he didn’t seem to know anyone else who he had been arrested with. But among the furore about the riots, and the rising fear of ‘the underclass’ and inner-city ‘gangs’, 12 men and women from Nottingham believed that Perry was a ‘rioter’” (p.190).

This can only feed into the existing perspectives that everybody is against them. McKenzie describes how the talk among men in the boxing gym or or barbers was always about “conspiracy theories they had read on the internet, and swapped information about new sites with ‘new evidence’, which, for them, explained ‘their situation’” (p. 98). The most popular conspiracy theory was about the Illuminati,

“an organisation that is centred around Jewish bankers and Zionist politics, which holds politicians, the media, the legal system and the banks in their hands […] and their racism towards black people is purposeful and political, with the aim of keeping racial order and continuing inequality, thus keeping poor people in poverty, while its members and the Masonic order become more wealthy and more powerful” (p. 98).

What struck me reading this is how much of ‘their situation’ they are trying to explain: racism, poverty, inequality, the1% hoarding all the wealth, the political system, the media and the courts as tools keeping them down… However, as she continues, “while these theories are discussed in the greatest detail, argued about, and the men enjoy the debates that come from new evidence they find on the internet, there is little interest and even less knowledge of national and local politics, apart from the consensus that all politicians, like the police, cannot and should not be trusted” (p. 99). And this distrust leads to a process of looking inwards towards the safety of the estate, something which manifests itself as the inter-estate rivalry and violence. What I’m wondering is if the enemies can be more concretely pinpointed and if different working class communities might come together on the basis of this shared bad treatment after the riots.

An important thing about the book is that the author is working class. This is somebody telling the story of the community she is part of, rather then somebody looking in at them. It is important that knowledge is produced by the working classes rather than for the working class by outside middle class observers. One tendency of university-educated working class people is that the university values and encourages writing for academic or policy-making audiences and the use of language that reflects a grasp of social theory or the management/corporatist ethos of the neoliberal state. This has the effect of bribing/conditioning the brightest of the working class to ‘graduate’ and become culturally middle-class. McKenzie seems to resist this. She makes use of social theory to reveal aspects of estate life, but she doesn’t make theoretical points or convolute her language with references that prove to university audience how much she knows but just make reading it difficult for everybody else.

This poses a question though: who would read Getting By? Is it likely that people from the St Anne’s estate will read this? I don’t know, but it is probable that at least some from other working class estates or communities will read it. And it is here that the biggest potential is. If there is a way to autonomously develop awareness of common experiences of (gender, racial, class) oppression and common interests, surely it must be through recognising oneself in the stories of another. Indeed, this is exactly the kind of remedy to the chief problem that she identifies. Although she tells the story of St. Anne’s from the perspective of the people who live there, she is not shy to be critical when she notices the tendency towards estatism. What this book and other estate-produced knowledge have the potential to do is to counter this division that estatism seems to create by helping people to recognise that WE are all the same (because we are all fucked over by THEM – the true enemies e.g. punishing state, upper class demonisation and complicit media, racism, capitalism, etc…).

And here there is a bit of a contradiction that I don’t think is picked up on by the author. Elements of ‘naming the enemy’ are already there: “since the end of 2010, apathy has been replaced by fear that things are getting worse, and that no one cares, that it is state policy to purposefully run down council estates, and their residents, through death, prison, or both” (p 98). But this anger gets channelled into estatism. This estatism became most pronounced and most visible during the riots that pitted groups from one estate against the others. But the source of the riots was the police murder of Mark Duggan. Somehow, council estates and working class communities all across Britain knew that it was them whose time had come to rise up. It might not be the kind of mobilization that those on the activist or organised left would hope for, but it was undeniably a working class uprising, where people (ok, men more often than not) responded to circumstances on the basis of a shared identification as council estate people – even if this mobilization was channelled intuitively into inter-estate rivalry rather than unity.

So, contrary to the idea that the working class is hopeless, the riots showed that the working class is perfectly capable of self-mobilization, even if is not on the basis of a class identity that ‘we’ would hope for, and even the mobilization it is not of a form that ‘we’ consider strategic or even recognise, and even if it is targetted at groups who should be comrades rather than enemies. Still, this is how the working classes mobilize and if leftists want to have any relevance, the 1st step is in understanding and engaging with this type of mobilization. Getting By is not an analysis of the 2011 riots, but it is an important part of understanding the last part of that contradiction in particular – when people identify as part of but against the working class.

Diversity commentary: single-author monograph written by a working class woman, although she is white and heterosexual she has a mixed race family. University educated up to post-doc level but she was the first in her family’s history to go to higher level education. From and living in and about an English-speaking, European, advanced capitalist country.

5 years after we Occupied Everywhere

The other day I was walking through Amsterdam with a friend and as we were passing Beursplein I thought back to one October morning when thousands of people converged to Occupy the square. And I realised that said morning – 15th October 2011 – was five years ago give or take a few days. I mentioned this to my friend but he said “Yes but what was achieved after everything?”

I didn’t give an answer because I didn’t have one. But it set me thinking. Ok, the revolutionary year has led, either directly or indirectly, to some terrible outcomes, e.g. civil wars in Syria, Libya, Ukraine, Iraq, Yemen; authoritarian and sometimes quasi-fascist regimes in Egypt, Turkey, Hungary, the disunited kingdom; plus some electoral scares elsewhere such as Austria and amerika. Nowhere has the burden of the capitalist crisis/heist been shifted onto Capital. All this being said, it has also led to some positive legacies, Rojava being the most promising, but also the PAH in Spain along with the municipalist experiments, and several liberated factories where workers and communities have reclaimed them from anti-productive capitalists (e.g. the VioMe coop and solidarity support is still preventing the theft of their facility).

But the reason I couldn’t give an answer to my friend is that simply listing the long-term outcomes seems to insult the importance of an amazing process as it was happening back then. It doesn’t feel right to try to do a results-based evaluation as if it was a marketing campaign, or lobbying service, where we ascribe value (‘evaluate’) to effects, count them against the others on offer, and ‘choose’ the most cost-effective product on the market.

The Movement of the Squares came 3 years into an economic crisis/heist and was a game changer in calling out the classed nature of state-imposed response. The elite, as a political-economic class, controlled wealth and governments and were shifting the costs of economic contraction onto the rest of us – us who had prior to this been silent or even not realised that we belonged in the same category until then. All this changed when the Movement announced itself loudly and very visibly, whether in the form of Mohamed Bouazizi the street vendor setting himself alight after being harassed by local officials and his goods confiscated, the M15 setting up camp opposite parliament and proclaiming “They call it democracy and it isn’t”, coupled with “It’s not a crisis but a scam”, or in the Occupations bringing the spotlight onto massive financial powerhouses of the 1% and declaring “We are the 99%”. It was no longer a case of pressuring governments to modify this or that particular policy or measure, but a proclamation that the entire system where governments who claim to represent the will of the people but who in reality implement the will of Global Capital had to change.

And on top of this, once given form in the shape of slogans or tactics the ideas seemed to take on a life wholly independent of those who coined them. Choose the metaphor you want – wave, forest fire, virus, whichever – but once it had been ignited the contagion was unstoppable. One man’s protest in Tunisia almost immediately inspired and empowered the multitude across north Africa and the Persian Gulf, then Madrid and Athens once infected became epicentres, and then Wall Street and then countless squares across Europe, Anglo- and Latin America and beyond were simultaneously Occupied on the morning of 15 October. In the days coming up to that date I remember reading messages about the different occupations being proposed under the phrase ‘Occupy Everywhere’ and thinking ‘Yes, this is it, this is the revolution we have been hoping for. It is global, it is one, it is autonomous, and is – we are – unstoppable. The world is transformed’.

The fact that it turned out to be in fact quite stoppable is irrelevant to how things looked at the time – for those of us involved in whatever way, the horizon of what was believed to be possible was completely exploded. This was a libertarian and anti-capitalist revolution, on a scale what was imminently global, intimately connected yet perfectly autonomous, where within the one revolt each confluence freely and radically democratically decides what to do and how to do it in their context. It was real, it was happening, the realisation of the Alter-globalist phrase “One No and many Yesses”, and the Zapatistas’ “world where many worlds fit”, all of which were identified in signs and human mics naming the one and many enemies: austerity, banks, budget cuts, the IMF, capitalism, debt, greed, the EU, money, corporate-controlled democracy, war, Sarkozy and Merkel, cannabis prohibition, fascism, the Bloomberg conspiracy, Draghi, the Germans, chemtrails, … Ok, the list contains some dubious candidates. But the point is is that they were allowed to fit. And in being spoken at assemblies the dreams, visions, and theories of a radically better world that all of us had been building inside us – some of us for years, others only recently becoming politicised – suddenly were no longer dreams and theories but concrete possibilities. They were happening. And that is the ember that still burns however quietly and clandestinely, long after the inferno has been contained. Although 2011 failed, we know that the smallest protest with the most moderate demands contains the possibility for a world transformed.