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.

Statement: IMPACT Trade Union on anti-water privatisation victory

Statement by IMPACT Trade Union on Irish parliamentary committee’s recommendation to hold referendum on public ownership of water.

The background: Ireland was one of the worst hit countries to experience the austerity treatment in the EU but unlike Greece or Portugal, resistance was not very visible. Until plans were announced to privatise water. A resistance movement embracing direct action tactics of non-payment of charges and blocking installation of water meters swung public opinion so that all political parties declared themselves against water charges at the election in March 2016, forcing the new government to climb down. But this victory was not enough for the campaign. Although this government scrapped the plan there is nothing stopping any later government from re-introducing it. That is why the campaign went on the offensive and pushed for a constitutional referendum enshrining public ownership of water – that way any future government would not be able to privatise water without going back to the people in another referendum, where they would be defeated. Earlier this month, a parliamentary committee recommended holding a referendum, signalling a big victory for the anti-austerity movement in Ireland.

Originally posted on the IMPACT blog.

The decision of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services to recommend a referendum on enshrining public ownership of Irish Water in the Constitution was big news for the European water movement. For us, this was a huge encouragement for the many local and national groups fighting the privatisation of water services across the continent.

It followed on the heels of the Slovenian Parliament’s decision to introduce an amendment, guaranteeing the right to water, into the country’s constitution. Today [Wednesday 22nd March] is World Water Day, an occasion for us to celebrate the huge contribution that decent water services make to public health and quality of life, and to highlight the opposition to privatisation that’s growing throughout Europe.

People in Ireland and elsewhere are making it clear that water services should remain in public hands.

The concern that water services could be liberalised through trade agreements, like the CETA deal just agreed by the EU and Canada, motivated many workers to protest. And it mobilized Irish and European trade unions to start a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) on the right to water.

Attracting nearly two million signatures from across the EU, this became the first ever successful ECI, effectively placing the issue on the EU’s legislative agenda at the behest of its citizens. The European Parliament then fully supported the ECI demands in an opinion piloted by Irish MEP Lynn Boylan.

The European Commission responded, as it had to. But it failed to bring forward the legislation sought by unions and the European water movement.

Despite the clear message delivered directly by citizens through the ECI, and by their elected representatives in the Parliament, the European Commission fails to listen. In the case of Greece, where people rejected water privatisation, the Eurogroup has been forcing the government to sell shares in the Athens and Thessaloniki water companies.

World Water Day is also an opportunity to ponder the extensive research that underlines why private water companies want to stay on the pitch and make huge profits from what is a public good and a human right.

The University of Greenwich Public Services International Research Unit, which has undertaken extensive work on the issue, says public ownership is the right model for delivering quality water and waste services not least as public authorities can source cheaper loans than private corporations, and because the profit motive pushes up the price of water delivered by multinational private companies by as much as 10%.

Another drawback of privatisation that gets scant attention is that financial and other risks are never transferred to the private sector when lucrative contracts change hands. The quality of the water in our taps is put at risk. Public authorities remain responsible. But private companies can simply walk away, without sanction, when things go wrong.

On top of all this, the European Commission highlighted in 2014 that private water and waste contacts are a potential source of corruption.

These are the reasons why local authorities in European countries like France, which risked costly experiments in water privatisation, have been bringing services back into public ownership. The Portuguese city of Mafra followed suit after years of rising bills for water users.

The Irish people have made crystal clear their desire to see water and waste water services remain in public ownership. Their instinct is supported by the overwhelming results of research that shows privatisation is a bad choice.

Ireland has the support of Europe’s trade unions and the broader water movement, which is connecting the resistance to privatisation across European borders.

Kevin Callinan is Deputy General Secretary of IMPACT trade union. Jan Willem Goudriaan is General Secretary of the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU).

Is the end in sight for the austerity experiment?

The annual Greek drama ended in June this year with a relatively tidy deal: further austerity in exchange for more emergency loans. It was a less turbulent story than previous years, although not without some bumps. However, the striking thing this year is that the biggest shockwaves came from the international establishment and not from the resistance in Greece. Just prior to this year’s agreement in June, the Governor of the Greek Central Bank proposed a counter-cyclical strategy as an alternative to austerity. This despite the fact that last year when Varoufakis proposed pretty much the same package he sided with the Troika and refused to even look at it. This followed earlier overtures from the likes of the head of the commission, Junkner, who in May made allusions to debt relief being part of the next package. Also in May, the imf, stated

“We do not believe it will be possible to reach a 3.5% of GDP primary surplus [in 2018] by relying on hiking already high taxes levied on a narrow base, cutting excessively discretionary spending and counting on one-off measures as has been proposed in recent weeks.”

So why these sudden signals from the transnational economic dictatorsh-network suggesting they see austerity in Greece as a problem rather than the solution? We are just over one year since the European establishment elite forced a very humiliating defeat on Syriza, so what has changed since then that would bring elements within them to ‘propose’ the same deal that they would not even entertain last year?

The answer is easy to miss because it is so obvious – Syriza has changed since then. It has changed in two ways that the Establishment are acutely aware of. First it is no longer an anti establishment party and secondly, the political space vacated by them is there to be claimed by the fascist right. And the Establishment are also acutely aware that this is a microcosm of Europe more generally. Across Europe we are seeing both electoral success of radical left parties supported by – but still disconnected from – grassroots struggles, and simultaneously a the rise of the far right. As Paul Mason puts it, when the Establishment is being asked for debt-relief they are effectively being asked which side they are on. The answer is neither, but I would put money on it that if forced to choose between the two they would prefer a tamed and impotent left that can contain the hopes of the grassroots and keep them in check, rather than a lunatic fascist right that represents a very real possibility of bringing the EU crashing down.

So having de-fanged Syriza, the timing is perfect to continue the housetraining and reward them and the greek populace with some relief from austerity, which will have the intended effect of signaling to greek voters to stay with this serious party that can deliver results rather than experiment further with any parties on the left or right. Although Varoufakis’ insider leaks would suggest that the Eurogroup and their ilk don’t know shit about macro economics and are blissfully unaware of a fact that the majority of people have grasped from experience, I think a more likely explanation is that they are very much aware of how austerity medicine is one sure-fire way to worsen a crisis and prevent economic recovery – only they don’t care about this as long as their interests are secured. Time and time again cunning politicians will underplay their intelligence in order to avoid giving honest answers to difficult questions, to seem like a ‘man of the people’ and most importantly, because it is much less damaging for journalists and satirists to make fun of their medium-level intelligence than their knowing willingness to commit evil.

And when it comes to cunning and making a sham of democracy there is an absolute master at the helm. I’m still surprised at how after two years, many people mistake the political ideology of the sham-master-J. The widespread notion is that he is a ‘federalist’ – something that dates back to one of the previous times that he and Lagrande have been placed in the same paragraph. Think back to the hissy fit Cameron threw in response to the rise of UKIP as an electoral force in the European elections in 2014. These election had been billed as the most democratic in the history of the EU, because for the first time the european electorate would get to ‘decide’ who heads the commission, a flimsy and exaggerated requirement that aimed to give the unelected and unaccountable Executive, the European Commission, a veneer of democratic legitimacy through making the heads of state ‘take account’ of electoral wishes when appointing a new head of the commission. So when the grouping of European peoples’ parties (christian democrats) won the most seats in the powerless parliament, master-J was expected to be appointed to the commission. But they had another trick to make the appointment seem even more democratic. Apart from the continued dominance of the centre-right, those elections also saw success for many far left and far right groupings, so instead of a straightforward appointment of Junkner the european publics were sold the illusion of a ‘debate’ about whether or not he was too much of a federalist, with Lagrande proposed as an alternative candidate – an illusion that served two purposes: a) by having a public ‘discussion’ the EU could be made to seem more democratic at the time of its most glaring democratic deficit, and b) the question of whether the J-man represents a more or less integrated europe was only a distraction to temporarily hide the real victory for more of the same neoliberal austerity politics.

And two years later, this charade still forms the idea that many people have of the head of the european executive. So it is worth taking a look at what he actually represents. To start with, he became prime minister in Luxembourg in 1995, a position he held onto until 2013 with the help of a very professional and successful election machine. This guy managed to stay in power for 18 odd years, a track record that will humble the most conniving of careerist of politicians. Of course a liberal analysis would conclude that his longevity is a sign of his ability to stay in touch with the concerns of the people and secure their consent, but a more pragmatic approach would be to see this as a very successful manipulator with remarkable consistency in turning unstable variables (people) into preferred outcomes (votes). However, even the most successful brands can’t hold poll position forever (does anybody remember when IBM made computers?), and so the sham-master-J’s tenure did eventually come to an end in 2013 when in a snap-election his christian conservative party failed to deliver a majority-coalition of seats for the first time since forever. Coincidentally, with the european elections just around the corner, this end to an 18 dynasty was just in time to make him available to ‘run’ for the post that he currently holds. (strategically convenient you might say, but are you really that cynical??)

So, what this man represents is not a particular ideology that he will stick to to the end, (although he is clearly on the right of the spectrum), it is instead an expert on how to play the institutions of liberalism. So put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself how would they strategise? The first thing is that contrary to the belief that THEY don’t know that austerity doesn’t solve broken economies, – as I argued above, we may be dealing with devious monsters, but not idiots – they know well that the austerity assault has to come to an end sometime. Already with 8 years of it THEY have achieved a lot of neoliberal restructuring. What June 2015’s Syriza-Eurogroup drama represented was the culmination of 7 years grassroots struggle against austerity-capitalism, channeled into institutional structures and language, and for the first time coming face to face with the Establishment. The Establishment rallied to this battle which they could not afford to lose lest it serve as inspiration and the message gets out that ‘WE’ can defeat austerity. No. Instead Syriza’s capitulation drove the message across Europe that there is no possibility to defeat it on ‘our’ terms. One year later however, the space vacated by Syriza and by the equivalent inspirations in other countries is now ripe for the picking. Many countries are experiencing electoral instability, as one set of establishment parties follow another in failing to implement the will of electorates. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a defender of representative democracy as being democratic, but as a system it needs stability, which actually prevents political differences, and any time it becomes unstable, the concentrated power and violence of the state becomes ripe pickings for the extreme right. And the extreme right has only grown over the last year both with xenophobic anti-refugee rhetoric, and because voters have less and less parties to jump to (aside from ditching voting altogether and organising instead) as one after another parties on the left capitulate.

So actually, THEY are extremely well placed to capitalise on all this. THEY know austerity-neoliberal restructuring cannot continue indefinitely and have already got a lot out of this ‘experiment’: austerity-capitalism has become the ‘common-sense’ response to economic crisis when the lunacy of the pre-2008 era should have left capitalism with no legitimacy; they have lowered living- and labour- standards in Greece to make it ‘competitive’ with emerging economies, all while proportionally increasing returns the capitalist class expect on their investments; and they have learned just how far they can subvert democracy without a revolution. And hey will no doubt be looking forward to taking these lessons out of the laboratory and generalising them across the continent. But at this moment, having symbolically defeated the left-wing last year, political calculus would show that there is a chance to kill three birds with one stone in the coming six to 18 months. If they grant debt relief and a change in strategy now, they will simultaneously pre-emptively undercut the support building of the fascist right, they will discredit the extra-parliamentary left who say that change will not come from existing institutions, and to crown it all they will themselves appear as the heroes who deliver salvation and paste a thick layer of veneer over the perceived crisis of legitimacy of the EU.

But then, I could be all wrong about it and the bastards might be willing to let fascism take over europe again.