Editorial from the July 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
So many things about the Grenfell Tower fire continue to stink, even weeks after the disaster. The flames were not even out, nor the bodies counted, before the recriminations and finger-pointing began.
Not surprisingly the building owners, Kensington and Chelsea Council, quickly came under savage criticism for spending £8.6m on a recent refurbishment aimed at creating new rentable space and prettifying the exterior with new cladding, but not bothering to install sprinklers or ensure that the cladding material was fire-proof.
Why, people wanted to know, was there only one fire exit in a building of 120 flats, an exit frequently blocked by rubbish including old mattresses which the council did not remove? And why, when the fire broke out, was there such chaos on the ground with nobody from the council on the scene to establish any kind of central meeting and information point for survivors and anxious relatives?
Perhaps it was to deflect some of this blame that the council leader shamelessly implied to the press that sprinklers had not been installed because residents did not want the inconvenience. Though disaster frequently brings out the best in ‘ordinary’ people who fall over themselves in a rush to help, as we also saw after the Manchester and London attacks, the same cannot be said for elected officials. While Jeremy Corbyn lost no time in racing to the scene, and even the Queen turned up, the hopelessly aloof Theresa May bungled yet another press opportunity by ignoring the victims and speaking only to firefighters, sparking a huge march in Whitehall demanding her resignation.
It would be a truism to point out that capitalism doesn’t care about the poor. It comes as no surprise to learn that tower blocks for rich people have multiple exit points, sprinkler systems and efficient fire-proofing. A similar fire that swept through Dubai’s plush Torch Tower in 2015 yielded no casualties at all. The fact that residents’ frequent warnings about the building’s safety were ignored by a council presiding over one of the richest boroughs in one of the world’s richest cities is also par for the course.
What we ought to learn from this, if we don’t already know it, is that capitalism’s elected officials and bureaucrats are not smarter, better or faster than the rest of us but are, on the whole, greedy careerists and bone-idle time-servers with their eyes on the perks and not on their responsibilities. When it really counts, it is the so-called ‘ordinary’ people who, time and time again, show initiative, common-sense, cooperation and indeed heroism, while the elected officials stand around with their thumbs up their backsides waiting for someone to tell them what to do. If socialism relied on people like that, we would give up the revolutionary project right now. Instead, it is the ‘ordinary’ people – the vast majority of the world’s population – who show in times of crisis that they have got what it takes. They are, in short, ‘ordinary’ enough to change the world.