Monday, September 27, 2021

All that glitters . . . (2021)

Book Review from the January 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

The London Dream. Chris McMillan. Zero Books. 2020. £19.99

Subtitled ‘migration and the mythology of the city’, this is a critical look at London and the immigrants who are attracted to live and work there. McMillan writes broadly through a lens of Marxist class analysis, though also draws heavily on some of the ideas of non-Marxists such as Richard Florida, who has written extensively about the ‘creative classes’ within capitalism and the dynamic turbulence of which they are an intrinsic part. In London’s case, much of this is perceived as being centred on the so-called ‘flat white economy’ and Silicon Roundabout in Shoreditch, though it stretches much further and wider than this.

For McMillan, the ‘struggle between the hope of the London dream and the exploitation it fuels’ is the main focus of his investigation. Through analysing a variety of themes and sectors (the cleaners that service the City of London travelling in on the night buses, to jobbing actors and writers seeking their fortune but struggling to make any sort of living, through to the Uber drivers), McMillan does a good job of laying bare the exploitation that keeps the city going. He interviews a number of people who have come to London to chase their dream and is mature and reflective in analysing their success (or – largely – otherwise). In this respect he knowingly treads some similar ground to Ben Judah’s excellent This is London, which we reviewed in the Socialist Standard in June 2016.

London is now very much the ‘world city’ and whereas in 1951 as few as 5 percent of the population was born outside the UK, now the total is well over a third and growing – indeed two thirds of children born in London today have at least one parent who was born outside the UK. The Huguenots and Jewish refugees of earlier stages of capitalism have been replaced by Afro-Caribbeans, Bengalis and latterly eastern Europeans and those seeking their fortune and new experiences from the old colonies like Australia and New Zealand. But it is the low-paid, gig-economy jobs they typically fill – the waitresses, bartenders and delivery drivers. While two-thirds of registered London black cab drivers identify as ‘white British’ this only applies to 6 percent of Uber drivers, many of whom sometimes earn as little as £2 per hour net pay.

Though the book seems to be marred periodically by an unusually large number of typos and similar errors, McMillan is a good writer and brings the city and its people to life. He ends by saying: ‘London is a city of hope, a city of misery. A city where there is always something to do and no shortage of precarious workers struggling to do it. It is all part of the London dream. And still, they come. But for how much longer?’ (p.258). True enough, though what the book really lacks most is a re-imagining of the city in a way that transcends capitalism itself and the exploitation it engenders. But it is a stimulating read and a book that demonstrates that all that glitters in not all gold – and why.

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