Whose Streets? Our Streets!

The transition, at least in the UK, from post-war mixed-economy Capitalism to full-blown neoliberal Capitalism has been long and painful for the most of us. Of course, both models were Capitalist – the exploitation of people and our Planet for the accumulation of wealth and power for a terribly small number of a privileged ruling class.

But neoliberalism – the deregulation of State laws and dismantling of State-funded welfare and social infrastructure – is the most crude and harsh model of class rule, other than fascism itself.

In many ways it appears, the ideology of neoliberalism is close to fascism but without the fascist party and its street-terror.

In his book, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey identifies the creep of social control by the Corporations and Billionaires, managed by their State apparatus. Amongst the contrivances, he identifies the development of the infantilisation of the population through opiates and disempowerment – utilising authoritarian education and “fear of other”.

Harvey also gives evidence of the need for the militarisation of society, from its anti-migrant borders through to gun-toting police parading through Christmas street markets and shopping malls. We experience the slow but steady increase in authoritarian organisation and unaccountable power at the top, trickling down to petit-authoritarianism and unaccountable power of the professional classes, technicians and middle-management.

A passive population accepts its own micro-management and enforced petit-rules. Know thy place.

One morning, a few weeks ago, we awoke to a strange local imposition. For months our local roads had been churned-up by a relentless workforce digging holes and laying a new fibre-optic cable to eventually serve every household and business in the City. This, despite the fact we already have such a network, being the logic of capitalist competition, the waste of hundreds of millions of pounds in duplication for the sake of one set of super-rich accumulating private profit instead of another.

One morning, a few doors away, a fresh, fat, creosoted telegraph pole was erected, 10 metres high, in the middle of our pedestrian pavement. We watched as parents with young children and prams, already harassed to get their charges to nursery and school on time, tried to navigate the imposition. Some pushed the pram between parked cars and into the open road, their way otherwise barred.

Attached to the pole was a laminated notice, proclaiming the ownership of the pole and, at the bottom, in tiny print, the address for complaints. I complained, by email using the existing fibre broadband service already connected to my home. It took a while, but around a week later the company sent and engineer and his mate to speak with me.

I say with, but it felt more like a lecture, the engineer making his specialist qualifications very clear from the beginning and exerting his authority. The situation of the pole was within regulations, offered a metre gap to walk through and he had no case to answer. He certainly did not consider himself accountable to the local community.

When I explained we had video footage of a man walking straight into the pole on a dark night, hurting his head as a result, and people with heavy shopping unable to pass, he repeated his 1 metre-gap legal liability fulfilled. When I said the pole impeded mobility and represented discrimination against people with disabilities such as those with walking sticks let-alone wheelchair users, he argued I was expressing mere opinion whilst he was standing on fact.

When I suggested that the combined experience of an entire neighbourhood turns subjective sensations into objective reality, he repeated the pole complied with “standards” and was staying put.

I pointed out the road being a multi-tenanted inner-city neighbourhood with many households of people with high social need, the area already suffering poor social infrastructure. He showed complete disinterest. And when I finally blurted-out against this wall of intransigence that his company wouldn’t get away with such an imposition in a middle class area, he condemned me for “being political”.

The following day I received a return email from the Company, declining to uphold my complaint and closing the matter. The Pole would stay.

Next stop, the City Council. I contacted our local elected representatives. They took time to reply, each saying they had “referred on” my complaint to someone else. After a time, I attempted to use the Council’s complaints system, finding only that there is no mechanism for complaining about street furniture. Eventually I blanket-bombed emails to every possible department that might have some responsibility for walkways.

Responses came back to reassure they were “looking into it”. meanwhile cabling was creeping closer and we knew that, once the lines were up on the pole it would be there forever. I launched a petition and window poster campaign, a few neighbours joining-in to help, collecting nearly 50 signatures from householders in the first day.

And we took photos and contacted the local press.

Within hours the emails flooded back, council officers falling over themselves to reassure intervention was on the way. A local journalist had done her investigations and, by midweek, we received notice that the pole would be removed. By the end of the week. Just like that.

When the lorry arrived on Friday afternoon, we stood on our doorsteps and applauded as the pole was pulled. “Who’s Streets? Our Streets!” “This is what democracy looks like!”

I walked up to the presiding engineer, who was not amused. He suggested the pole should be re-situated outside my front window, clearly and visibly angry with me and suggesting retribution.

When I asked where the pole would be placed, he said they would not follow the Council’s advice, their municipal engineers having suggested placing the pole at the residential curtilage a few metres away. But no, he refused, exuding the unaccountable power of the Corporation.

Instead, he said, because of our campaign, there would be no cabling to these households, our pole-pulling antics resulting in residents never being able to access their service. He spoke as an official, vindictively passing judgment over naughty and recalcitrant subjects.

Needless to say we now have a new campaign, demanding equity of service and highlighting the “blame the victim” discriminatory decisions of the company as an institution. A core issue here is the right to universal provision of public utilities, whether by private companies or public bodies.

We have no opposition to socially advantageous and empowering technology, and of course technological infrastructure has to be upgraded and outdated systems replaced. But provision today is devoid of any notion of being a public service. Provision is for profit, the highest revenue at the lowest cost. Plonk a pole in the easiest location, cheapest to erect whatever the inconvenience to the public – punters to be plundered.

There are wider political issues to be considered here. For example, the right to consultation before any changes of impact upon our living environment, and the economic priorities at a time of climate crisis.

I consider this tiny local campaign a microcosm of what’s happened to society: the rise of unaccountable corporate power; the empowerment of “officials” without recall; the imposition of technology over human need; the neglect of the human, let alone the natural environment; the intensification of class stratification – entitlement and privilege; the wholesale dissolution of democracy.

It is not only that those with authority feel personally aggrieved if not abused when challenged – a negation of social responsibility in itself. It is more the more general success of the free-market control of human behaviours – the development of the supervisory strata to point where we are all micro-managed at work and in our communities, not towards the development of human rights and suffrage but in the exact opposite direction. Naked obedience and subjugation.

There is a severe tension here.

The supposedly anti-establishment conspiracy theorists attached to the far-Right challenge the intellectual elites, the complainers, we the protesters as the enemy. For the Right, England needs a new authority based upon individual power-and-control: a dog-eat-dog survival-of-the-fittest society with none of this bureaucracy, the final end of mediating structures, just dictatorship of white male (and, here at least, Protestant Christian) self-interest.

Those of us seeking democracy and human rights, from liberals to lefties, object to unaccountable authority. For the Left, we seek the democratisation of production away from private profit and for production for human need. We have to fight for our say, our suffrage, our communities, our neighbourhoods, and our environment. Locally as well as globally.


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