So anyway after a rather fruitless, if not utterly rancid, sojourn in the city of cotton and vile architecture I returned to my 'home' town a few months ago. It wasn't that long ago I previously lived here, but I put 'home' in inverted commas because it's a very different place to what I remember. The streets and bus routes remain the same, but it's acquired the texture of an elaborate dream or parallel dimension; where there's something not quite familiar about that block, face or social ecology. I've sometimes found myself with the urge to walk behind the city's landmarks, to check they're not just giant facades painted onto billboards. But this isn't the best time to ask latent psychosis to come out and play. I'm ill at ease enough as it is. A series of social shifts, policies and deals came together to 'make strange' a city I once knew like the back of my hand. Things remain nominally the 'same' but with peculiar kinks, reversals and detours deviating from what I took for granted as its shape. Not so much upside down, as wonky in a unnerving direction. I won't name the place, but an alias may be useful here: Bizarro Town.
Anyone in the UK, and in many other places in the world, would recognize the accent of Bizarro Town. The strange thing is, when I frequent the city centre, I don't recognize the accent anymore. Received pronunciation dominates the bars, cafes, restaurants and cinemas. All consonants are respected wherever I go. The vague discomfort I used to feel at arts 'events' I now feel everywhere. If there's working class people about (apart from security guards in every non-residential doorway) they're being uncharacteristically quiet about it. Gone are the huge numbers of local or 'accented' students from elsewhere (this town used to be very quiet during summer - now it's summer all year, if you know what I mean). Students that remain (in drastically reduced numbers) have more disposable income and the wardrobe to prove it. It's not just the accents making themselves scarce. Friday and Saturday nights are awash with seas of grey and bald heads. Pounding music, that not-so-subtle incentive to drink faster, is rarely heard in Bizarro Town's mumbling nightlife. There's no longer any need to hopscotch around vomit on Sunday mornings. That was back when the kids were having fun. Now the kids aren't having so much fun, it's become difficult to distinguish one evening from another.
I'm only slightly exaggerating, but I'm still trying to get a handle on Bizarro Town's general form. I also can't shake the feeling that the city itself successfully aimed for a general form, at the (very conscious) expense of 'undesirable' particularities. Liminal entities have largely vanished from public view, and with that what I took to be the 'character' of the city. The police have had their load lightened with the great sweep of cuts, incarcerations, sackings and closures. The homeless don't appear to beg as much, but it's unlikely that's because they're doing well under this government. Perhaps due to the committed efforts of ATOS, even the visibly disabled can be seen selling Tory shitrag The Big Issue outside a Tesco on every corner. Sure, there's activists peppered around - lumpen but well-educated elements, huddled together in tiny zones of imagined autonomy - but their concerns are so localized and petit that their bearing on the city as a whole is minimal.* And again, that scene is rapidly getting as grey and/or received in its pronunciation as the nightlife. They mean well, but at this stage whatever meaning they seek is largely relevant to themselves. There are limits to that internal conversation and limits to who can join in. Nice book club you got there, but the more abrasive edges of the city have been sandpapered away. In a city once notorious for its levels of industrial militancy, leading unions betray their leaflets by working for reconciliation and harmony. I suppose it could be worse - they could be the Labour council.
I should qualify the snark by disclosing my (current non-)involvement with the above. The
hand fingerful of you who know what I look and smell like may be aware of personal issues I've had with Bizarro Town's enclosed circle of activists (and take it from me, the personal was the issue that kept most of them motivated). I also have political issues with their clearly-marked distance from that increasingly invisible element known as the working class. That great mass of people once known, indeed reviled, for making a lot of noise in this town. Priced out of leisure, precarious beyond sustained organization, whitewashed from the city's PR image, expelled from lucrative property, or packed away in those (increasingly rare) storage containers known as social housing: The proletariat has pretty much been silenced. A half-arsed, aimless handful of 'Occupy' tents came and went within days. Marches are dominated by those nearing, or surpassing, retirement age. Like several cities last year, Bizarro Town participated in 'riots'; but eyewitness accounts vis-a-vis police reports left me rather suspicious about how minor disorder was orchestrated into something worthy of national media attention. Let's just say it was the tidiest riot I've ever heard about. For all their 'anti-cuts' bluster, the local Labour party continues to satisfy its main agendas: Keep the police sweet and rebrand local 'heritage' into the property developers' eyesore of choice.
Living here during the Blair years, it's clear I wasn't really paying attention to certain developments (give Tony some credit - he turned us all into war nerds), despite my semi-reluctant role in them. The city as we understood it was being deliberately wiped away in a sense, and once I was paid to move that process along. Working for Blairite 'initiatives', under job titles that no longer exist (believe me, I've checked), it's apparent how I helped erect the new walls of Bizarro Town. "Market Stalinism" was indeed the order of the day when it came to public sector work. Public/private 'partnerships' that sought to quantify, modify, classify, and extract value from the "socially excluded" (remember them?) were a Foucauldian nightmare; mainly assisting several levels of auditor. That many who enforced this nightmare were once active lefties of various labels may or may not be relevant. Either way, the 'community' gained no 'cohesion' from it. Instead, they/we were further atomized into productive units for the benefit of targets, organizations or 'projects'. Following the Great Quango Cull, much of this has either been erased, or survives as a cynical source of management fees; squandering the time of that growing reserve army of volunteers, interns and 'apprentices'. More established institutions peek nervously at that dangling sword privatization, and worry when the axe will fall on their livelihoods. The private side of the 'partnership' continues to thrive. Tories are less sanctimonious offering opportunities for plunder. The "socially excluded" are scattered to the winds with ever more gusto, and now I'm just another piece of confetti. I always was really. Looking for work, I'm drawn towards the 'public' sector devil I know, which by now seems to only pay for two roles: Fundraising or marketing. But then 90% of all current vacancies appear to be for salesmen of one kind or other. Unfortunately, I may be the worst salesman in all of Bizarro Town. My cynicism has hardly been of the profitable kind.
I'm aware I've lunged into navel-gazing here, but a ghost town tends to have that effect after a while. Bizarro Town has pacified its former incarnation into a slow, quiet shadow. Home-owning retirees, RP students, sub-quango cadres, the petit-autonome activist clique - they are of course not the main architects of this sorry state of affairs. I don't want to engage in substituting sub-sections of the population for the actual class enemy (a game for bloggers with better salesmanship than I). I doubt they're even anywhere close to the top 10%. But I know one thing - they're out there and I'm in here. Or rather, we are. Burrowed into precariously rented homes, needing increasingly mutilated services, awaiting mail that brings nothing but threats and bad news, painfully aware that social participation is as demanding of contacts, salesmanship and resources as much as livable employment, vaguely bewildered at a city that announces NOT FOR YOU from every corner: This is the Condition of the Working Class in Bizarro Town. Occasionally supermarkets, burger bars and pasty chains beckon for our devalued labour; if we can demonstrate the 'right attitude' (note: I can't). Failing that, providers of job-seeking 'services' extract their own value promising to train us in the 'right attitude' and mandatory salesmanship. Otherwise we can shut the fuck up, get off the streets, and watch TV shows informing us that we're scum. Or, as far as one's amour propre can allow, talk to faceless strangers on machines that mine and collect details of every careless utterance. This is how neoliberalism ends: Not with a bang, but whimpering, numbing Dystopian cliche. A design against life.
*I suspect they're riddled with (influential) undercover police. Their petty, feuding ineptitude can't be intended, surely?