Who or What is to blame for the Grenfell Fire?
Engels and Social Murder
‘Social murder’ was first coined by Friedrich Engels in his 1845 work THE CONDITION OF THE WORKING CLASS IN ENGLAND whereby "the class which at present holds social and political control" (i.e., the capitalists and their political agents) places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death" (‘Oxford World’s Classics’, 1999, Section 5, Results pp 107-107).
For Engels, this was in a different category to murder, and manslaughter committed by individuals against one another, as ‘social murder’ explicitly was committed by the political and social ruling class against the working class through their private ownership of the means of production and distribution.
Grenfell Tower Fire and The Blame Game
Engels reference to ‘social murder’ has been revisited with the Grenfell Tower fire in which 72 people were killed.
The fire took place on 14 June 2017. There were dedicated workers who tried to save lives – “the firefighters who went back into the fire, up the smoke-filled, dangerously hot staircases, with no water, faulty radios and no guarantees that the building was not about to collapse around them” (Peter Apps, SHOW ME THE BODIES: HOW WE LET GRENFELL HAPPEN, 2022). Members of the working class helping to save members of the working class. And then there were the volunteers helping the survivors with food, clothing, shelter and comfort. They gave freely of their time. Members of the working-class helping members of the working class.
Who were responsible for the short cuts and malpractice which resulted in dangerous, combustible cladding being attached to the outside of the building and at least 457 other high-rise flats in England? Were they culpable of ‘social murder’?
The Grenfell Inquiry’s lead counsel has criticised firms involved with the refurbishment of the Grenfell Tower for blaming others for what went wrong.
In his opening statement for phase two of the inquiry, Richard Millett QC highlighted that contractor Rydon, its subcontractors and all those involved with the refurbishment, have said they relied on other firms and did not acknowledge any failings.
Millet said: “One finds in these detailed and carefully crafted statements no trace of any acceptance of any responsibility for what happened at Grenfell Tower. Not from the architects, the contract managers, the main contractors, the specialist cladding subcontractors, the fire safety engineers of the TMO [tenant management organisation]. Any member of the public reading these statements and taking them all at face value would be forced to conclude that everyone involved in the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower did what they were supposed to do, and nobody made any serious or causative mistakes.” (CONSTRUCTION NEWS January 27, 2020)
And at the end of the inquiry, he returned to the “blame game” played by those involved. In his winding up speech he said:
“Each core participant who played a material part in the refurbishment of the Grenfell Tower has laid out a detailed case for how it relied on the work of others and how in no way was the work it did either substandard or non-compliant. In every case, what happened was, as each of them would have it, someone else’s fault.” (HOUSING TODAY 11th November 2022).
Richard Millet went on to conclude that many firms giving evidence at the Grenfell Inquiry have indulged in a “merry-go-round” of “buck-passing” to protect their own legal position and economic interest.
While individuals will be found culpable, the social system in which the tragic fire took place will not be questioned. Capitalism will escape censure as will the profit motive.
What is not being blamed
Two fundamental considerations that will not be blamed at the Grenfell Fire inquiry and will not form part of the final Grenfell Tower Fire final report are capitalism and the profit motive. In fact, capitalism was never questioned by the inquiry. It was the elephant in the room. The social system with no name.
But what exactly does ‘capitalism’ mean? Capitalism is the social system which now exists in all countries of the world. Under this system, the means for producing and distributing goods (the land, factories, technology, transport system etc) are owned by a small minority of people. This small minority is the capitalist class who form a powerful political and economic minority in society.
Most people in society are the working class and they must sell their ability to work in return for a wage or salary. There were no capitalists living in Grenfell Tower at the time of the fire although it occurred in one of the richest parts of London. It was housing for the desperate; it was housing for the poor, the immigrant and the working class. The capitalist class get the best money can buy. Those living in the luxury flats at the Barbican will not worry about facing a Grenfell Tower-type fire.
The working class are paid to produce goods and services which are then sold for a profit. The profit is gained by the capitalist class because they can make more money selling what workers have produced than the wages paid to workers on the labour market. In this sense, the working class are exploited by the capitalist class. The capitalists live off the profits they obtain from exploiting the working class whilst reinvesting some of their profits for the further accumulation of wealth.
The refurbishment of Grenfell Tower was all about profit and maintaining property portfolios not in meeting human need. If human need was being met workers would not be housed in buildings like Grenfell tower in the first place. Under capitalism housing is just on aspect of the poverty facing the working class. In socialism men and women and their families would be housed in buildings the best society could produce. That is what is meant by the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society. Under capitalism most workers get the housing stamped “for the poor”. For many others it is living with parents or on sofas in a friend’s flat. For an unlucky few it is in sleeping bags on the street.
This is what we mean when we say there are two classes in society. It is a claim based upon simple facts about the society we live in today. This class division is the essential feature of capitalism. The two classes defined here that are the key to understanding capitalism and its poverty.
Capitalism is all about making a profit from the exploitation of the working class. In capitalism, the motive for producing goods and services is to sell them for a profit, not to satisfy people’s needs. The products of capitalist production must find a buyer, of course, but this is only incidental to the main aim of making a profit, of ending up with more money than was originally invested.
Production of the cladding panels used at Grenfell tower formed part of a profitable commodity chain not by what consumers are prepared to pay for to satisfy their needs but by what the capitalists calculate can be sold at a profit. Those commodities may satisfy human needs, but those needs will not be met if people do not have sufficient money or not involved in the process. As tenants the occupants of Grenfell tower were not involved in the construction process. They had no control over what materials were used in the cladding, their safety or the benefits. Fire alarms were not a consideration. The decisions were commercial decisions; a drive to keep costs down but still allow profit. That corners were cut with disastrous results is a consequence of competition and profit.
The profit motive is not just the result of greed on behalf of individual capitalists. They do not have a choice about it. The need to make a profit is imposed on capitalists as a condition for not losing their investments and their position as capitalists. Competition with other capitalists forces them to reinvest as much of their profits as they can afford to keep their means and methods of production up to date.
It is the class division and profit motive of capitalism that is at the root of most of the world’s problems today, from starvation to war, to alienation and crime. Every aspect of our lives is subordinated to the worst excesses of the drive to make profit. In capitalist society, our real needs will only ever come a poor second to the requirements of profit. The tragic fire at Grenfell tower is no exception but capitalism will not form part of the Inquiries report.
Regulation or Socialism
Those who look for justice and for the Grenfell Tower fire not to happen again blame the Council, the architects, the building inspectors, the manufacturers, the politicians and the Government. The ‘answer’ is supposed to be more regulation. And regulation has already been enacted with changes to the building regulations.
However, since Engels wrote his THE CONDITIONS OF THE WORKING CLASS, each year there has been more and more regulations passed as workers get killed or maimed either in their homes or at work. In the area of working-class housing there is now a warehouse full of legislation. But ‘social murder’ continues from one generation to the next.
The problem with health and safety regulations is that they can be watered down, repealed (like so much EU regulations currently being binned by the government) ignored, by-passed or have unintended consequence. They can also become unwieldy and bureaucratic as anyone who has had to use the building regulations or codes of practice in construction have found out. Inspecting buildings to see if they comply is fraught with problems of time and access.
In the political field the capitalists have the government on their side. The employers’ ownership and control of industry, particularly the construction industry, rests on their control of political power through their political parties. And if this is so the purpose of government is not the welfare of the working class but, instead, to preserve the capitalist’s monopoly of the means of wealth production. The profit motive cannot be questioned. Private proper ownership is sacrosanct.
Therefore, in the end all governments must take the side of the employers, by protecting their ownership of property and resisting the impositions of regulations. It is also why the workers must organise politically into a socialist party with a policy based on the class struggle and taking the class struggle to its political limits with the abolition of the profit system.
And for one very good reason. The means of production and distribution are privately owned. The profit motive under capitalism is supreme. And politicians exist to serve the interest of the capitalist class. All governments are at the mercy of capitalism’s economic forces and the need for British capitalism to lower costs and compete on the world market. Sometimes the Labour Government brings in health and safety regulations, sometimes the Conservatives. Sometimes the Conservatives cut back on regulations, sometimes the Labour Government.
There is only one-way ‘social murder’ can be prevented in the future. And that is to abolish capitalism though the political and democratic action of a socialist majority. Until then we tragically look forward to more Grenfell Tower fires and more unnecessary working-class deaths.
Workers should be able to work and live in a safe environment. They should not need to be protected from the profit motive by regulations. Workers should have control over how they work and how they live. And they can only do this in socialism. There is no reason why enough decent houses for all could not be built. The materials exist; so, do the building workers. What prevents good houses from being bult? The reason simply is that there is not a market for good houses since most workers cannot afford to pay for them from their salaries. Workers are then at the mercy of what they can find; and tragically for 72 workers all they could find was a death trap known as Grenfell Towers.
Object and Declaration of Principles
The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.
Declaration of Principles
THE SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN HOLDS:
1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.
2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.
3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.
4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.
5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.
6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.
7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.
8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.