Pic: PM Theresa May visits Grenfell with the protective cladding of the state.
“It really is remarkable to see first-hand how the cladding has lifted the external appearance of the tower” Former Leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council (Nicholas Paget-Brown)
The terrible avoidable events at Grenfell Tower have exposed a society of hiding and silencing. Hiding is a logic of entrepreneurial rule. Architectural cladding is the obvious, but not the only, instance of this. To ‘clad’ is to cover and mask an original structure with a coating or clothe made of different material from the original. Cladding is sometimes thought of a ‘protective’ and this meaning needs careful contextualization. Social cladding, I argue, applies not only to buildings but to unwanted communities. It also applies to masking and protecting the state and powerful from outside scrutiny. Cladding is the normal functioning of a politics that silences those ‘hindrances’, ‘eyesores’ and ‘dissenters’ to entrepreneurial regeneration.
Following the Grenfell Tower fire, the cladded language of the state has been intensified. This is a stilted linguistic form: rationalistic, a-emotional, technically, legally and institutionally complex. The Public Inquiry will extend this linguistic mask. We are likely to hear recommendations for ‘better’ government, fine-tuning of safety and management procedures, and more ‘responsiveness’. It is possible that criminality will be identified and powerful individuals held to account. We may even hear critical murmurs regarding the role of austerity against the poor and government culpability in failures in health and safety. This is important but these problems will be framed mostly by the state as a forerunner to its pronouncements about ‘failures’ and ‘solutions’. Public Inquiries assuage state illegitimacy, they are not known for spearheading the beginnings of a progressive “intellectual-moral bloc” as Gramsci termed it.
State pronouncements and linguistic manoeuvres are not likely to address the politics of hiding or the physical and symbolic cladding that masks the fractured and unequal society we live in. Fireproof cladding should have been used but, as residents’ groups have been saying before and after the tragedy, ‘why were our living spaces cladded in the first place’? They ask: why should we be ‘hidden’, ‘silenced’ and ‘beautified’. Why are we not co-participants in our own government? The kind of routine hiding experienced here expresses an entrepreneurial regeneration that replaces organic communities with mechanistic and faked ones.
Cladding facilitates silencing and marginalisation at the architectural, political and cultural levels. It has involved re-naming, re-branding and re-inventing dominant narratives of ‘place’. This imagineering exercise reflects a society that deliberately sows division and suffering, and yet is preoccupied with hiding the contradictions it generates. Entrepreneurial regeneration promotes illusions of ‘fun’, ‘culturally vibrant’ and ‘wealthy’ cities. Surface and image – or the brand – is everything. The scripting of refined emotional landscapes and a business friendly urban ambience represents a sleek manufacturing of the city alongside an all-out revanchist political programme of attacks on ‘threats’ to the rejuvenated city (homeless people, asylum seekers, buskers, roaming youths and dissenters to entrepreneurial politics).
Look around any city and we can observe how state ‘place-making’ has prioritized a visualized aesthetic. Emotionally airbrushed ‘places’ mask and legitimate a brutal cleansing and gentrification of urban people and culture. While youth clubs, refugee centre, domestic violence support networks, libraries close and green spaces are built over, the brand lives on! Euphemistic state generated terms mask a great dispossession. State generated terms over decades, such as ‘partnership’, ‘community involvement’, ‘culture-led regeneration’ and ‘heritage cities’, represent political cladding or the routine hiding of socially harmful entrepreneurial city building.
The outer cladding that ignited the outside of Grenfell in 18 minutes was part of this mendacious mentality. The physical and cultural cladding of the poor is cosmetic politics in a society obsessed with adornment (bling), make-overs, nips and tucks. It is a gigantic regeneration experiment that impacts on place, space and bodies. As such, social cladding symbolizes a narcissistic politics of vision hell bent on hiding ‘the ungovernable’ whether in mind, body or spirit. Such a mentality stifles compassion and emotional identification with those who cannot or will not submit to entrepreneurialism.
As argued here, cladding is anti-social. It has hidden the brutal nature of an absentee state. A state that cannot think or feel for the subjects it has brutalized. In response to the preventable deaths at Grenfell, and the ripping of cladding from buildings up and down the county, will we also see a much deeper un-cladding of the managed heart of entrepreneurial politics? The residents know the mechanics of their own silencing and they objected to the physical cladding on their building on these grounds as well as health and safety. Will the critical sensibilities of victims, survivors and dissenters guide a new common sense and obliterate the wider anti-social cladding of entrepreneurial statism? Can this society begin to open eyes, ears and hearts to create a what Gramsci called a “new morality” and “compassionality” in its politics?