21st century city

 

London at night from a photo taken on board the International Space Station in February 2013 by Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield (© National Aeronautics and Space Administration).

London at night in February 2013 © National Aeronautics and Space Administration

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© National Aeronautics and Space Administration

© National Aeronautics and Space Administration

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Voyager I photographs Earth from beyond the planet Neptune on 14 February 1990.

In Voyager I’s image (above), the Earth resembles a pale blue dot. [1]

We live in an age of contradictions on this dot in the Universe that we call home. Humans show great capacity to help each other yet an equal capacity to neglect. For instance, three-dimensional printing can build a prosthetic hand for a child. Yet 16,000 children aged under-five unnecessarily die every day from malnutrition, pneumonia, diarrhea, sepsis and malaria.[2]

Humanity and inhumanity often share the same stage. The top image shows London as a nocturnal light cluster. London sits at the heart of many of humanity’s contradictions. In 2016, doctors in London, Seattle and Washington use Skype and social media to provide real-time support to surgeons in other parts of the world. They support overstretched and under-equipped surgeons carrying out life-saving surgery on Syrians, a people ravaged by a brutal and unnecessary geo-political proxy civil war between a dictatorship, fundamentalist religious armies and two nuclear superpowers. [3]

Londoners’ own health improves generally yet substantial inequality persists. Neurologists at the St George’s Hospital, Tooting, in south London, perform a mechanical thrombectomy where hair-like wires remove blood clots from cardiac arrest patients. Yet just across the capital, people on lower incomes in the east London boroughs of Barking and Dagenham and Tower Hamlets are more likely to suffer long-term, life-threatening illnesses (mental health, cancer, heart disease) than affluent people living in wealthier boroughs like Kensington and Chelsea.

Life expectancy for women in affluent Kensington and Chelsea at 86.2 years is almost four years higher than in Barking and Dagenham (82.4). Men in Kensington and Chelsea can expect to live until 82.6 years compared to 77.5 years for their counterparts in Tower Hamlets.

Within Kensington and Chelsea, and neighbouring Westminster, men in the most deprived wards can expect to live eight years less than men in the most affluent parts of these boroughs. [4]

Some wards in Brent, Ealing, Harrow and Newham have rates of tuberculosis higher than in poor and war-torn countries like Rwanda and Iraq.

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Transformation

Yet scientists and engineers across London continue to develop innovative and life-transforming materials, products and production processes. Ranging from aeronautics to earth sciences, bioengineering to product design, these innovations could revolutionise production and consumption. Medical advances could improve people’s quality of life, not just in London but throughout the world. Other new technological developments harnessed to procure profits might change the way people work and live, empowering some working people whilst making others permanently redundant.

London always reflects the transformation of production. Steam power replaces horse and muscle power during the Industrial Revolution, transforming people’s lives in London and the rest of the United Kingdom. Working people – labour – find themselves increasingly wage enslaved to factory owners – capital. London itself becomes a centre of diverse manufacturing and a port city.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, an American neo-liberal ideology dominates British politics.  This neo-liberal monetarism fuses with the populist politics of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Thatcherism removes restrictions on capital and warmly welcomes international finance to London. Freed from its shackles, global capital devours privatised UK public assets and utilities. Capital disinvests from London’s manufacturing base, breaking dependent local supply chains. Similarly, London’s upstream docks are already in decline and decay, caused by a loss of trade, containerisation and battles between owners and labourers.

Global financial interests then take over London’s docklands, building trading office floorplates in tower blocks on the quaysides. Capital then spends two decades in London binging over banking, insurance and real estate, spewing forth a global financial and socio-economic catastrophe in 2008-09 – the worst crisis since the depression of the 1930s.

Londoners still experience the unwinding legacy of that 2008-09 meltdown. With their hard-earned cash, they bail out insolvent banks, rescue the City of London and stave of the collapse of finance dominated capitalism with their taxes. This gouges out an increased deficit in government finances. Working people are then asked to pay once again in the form of austerity, driven by a  coalition government elected in 2010. Spending on public services is to be savagely cut until at least 2020 and maybe beyond. Public sector pay is frozen and left to stagnate whilst the private sector, including the ‘zombie’ banks, can offer its top brass enhanced fat salaries, bonuses even when profits fall, and expendient golden handshakes.

The coalition pedals austerity as a bitter medicine that working people must swallow. This mantra takes the form of populist sayings, such as ‘we must live within our means and pay our way in the world’ – and the bitterest pill of all to swallow, ‘we are all in this together’. Global finance, based in London, is excused, and indeed recuses itself from sharing any part of this obligation, proving that an inverse truth applies; as far as global finance and zombie banks are concerned, ‘you working people might all be in this together, but hey, not us’. Global finance and the banks believe they merit an almost divine right to live beyond their means and to be constantly rescued by working people if and when they fail. In their endeavour to promote this risk-free pseudo-capitalism, global finance and the banks are facilitated by politicians, many of whom easily slip through the revolving door that spins between politics and global finance – and by a mainstream media that helps to manufacture a passive, apathetic public and electoral consensus that this state of affairs is the only way forward.

One key element of this fake lore is that the national economy is akin to a household budget. The state, like any household, must live within its means and balance its books. This Thatcherite tenet overlooks the simple fact that the state bears no resemblance to a household budget. No household is constantly fed by taxes paid by all of its neighbours to enable it to repay its borrowing. Public expenditure, based on tax revenue and borrowing, that is spent on public services is, in fact, a creator of money, in that taxation spent on public services generates further tax revenue. This deficit financing of capital expenditure makes economic sense from a cost benefit perspective – and from any societal benefit analysis generates almost immeasurable advantages.

Yet, in 2017, Londoners still live in a world where, rescued by working people’s money, capital’s vortex of powerful vested geopolitical financial interests – regenerated and radicalised – continues to incite war, hunger, poverty, refugee crises and ecological destruction across the world. These grave crises will impact on generations of 21st Century Londoners as 2050 nears – unless this vortex, much of it centred on London, can be controlled, tamed and its resources used to invest to grow productive economic activity and to create skilled, well-paid jobs.

Investment in other non-manufacturing sectors of the economy will be needed; such as in public services, life-long learning and education, and in the arts and culture. Anxiety grows that ongoing technological revolutions – in robotics, driverless vehicles, global financial transactions, communications, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, online retailing, wearable technologies and 3-D printing – means capital needs less labour, fewer human beings.

In parts of London, this emancipation of capital from labour evaporates working peoples’ economic security. In turn, this frays and dissolves the social fabric of families, streets, neighhourhoods and communities.

Collective solidarities and block identities built around homes, factories, offices, pubs and pastimes are eroded and eradicated. London’s buildings, culture, and values disappear. Many Londoners themselves move out of the city to seek work and find homes they can genuinely afford. Their departure gradually eviscerates London cultures and ways of life established over centuries. London’s political economy renders Londoners increasingly obsolescent.

Londoners are held captive by individualism, real estate speculation, tax evasion, consumption, absentee global foreign investors and a low wage economy. This perpetuates London’s 21st century economic and social malaise. It deepens a crisis deeply rooted within a market economy that commandeers central and local government to create a ‘market state’ – where power is essentially handed over to corporate private interests that spread inequality across London.

Yet politicians and media constantly tell Londoners they live in an era of unprecedented wealth and prosperity – and that an even fairer world is just around the corner.

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  1. Earth, as a pale blue dot. © National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The top image shows a nocturnal photo of London, taken from the International Space Station, flying approximately 240 miles above Earth. The photo was taken on 2 February 2013 by Flight Engineer Chris Hadfield, a Canadian Space Agency member of the Expedition 34 crew. © National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
  2. World Health Organisation
  3. The Times, 16 October 2016
  4. (London’s Poverty Profile, Trust for London and New Policy Institute, London, 2010-2016)

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© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, London, 2017