Mark Fisher's Introduction to Savage Messiah by Laura Oldfield Ford captured a vision of London paved over by neoliberalism, but where glimmers of a different world were visible through its cracks. We share the text in memory of his life and work – his brilliant, expansive writing. ‘Savage Messiah is written for those who could not be regenerated, even if they wanted to be. They are the unregenerated, a lost generation, ‘always yearning for the time that just eluded us’... So many dreams of collectivity have died in neoliberal London.’
‘I regard my work as diaristic; the city can be read as a palimpsest, of layers of erasure and overwriting,’ Laura Oldfield Ford has said. ‘The need to document the transient and ephemeral nature of the city is becoming increasingly urgent as the process of enclosure and privatisation continues apace.’ The city in question is of course London, and Savage Messiah offers a samizdat counter-history of the capital during the period of neoliberal domination. If Savage Messiah is ‘diaristic’, it is also much more than a memoir. The stories of Ford’s own life necessarily bleed into the stories of others, and it is impossible to see the joins. ‘This decaying fabric, this unknowable terrain has become my biography, the euphoria then the anguish, layers of memories colliding, splintering and reconfiguring.’ The perspective Ford adopts, the voices she speaks in – and which speak through her – are those of the officially defeated: the punks, squatters, ravers, football hooligans and militants left behind by a history which has ruthlessly Photoshopped them out of its finance-friendly SimCity. Savage Messiah uncovers another city, a city in the process of being buried, and takes us on a tour of its landmarks: The Isle of Dogs... The Elephant... Westway... Lea Bridge ... North Acton... Canary Wharf ... Dalston... King’s Cross... Hackney Wick...
In one of many echoes of punk culture, Ford calls Savage Messiah a ‘zine’. She began producing it in 2005, eight years into a New Labour government that had consolidated rather than overturned Thatcherism. The context is bleak. London is a conquered city; it belongs to the enemy. ‘The translucent edifices of Starbucks and Costa Coffee line these shimmering promenades, “young professionals” sit outside gently conversing in sympathetic tones.’ The dominant mood is one of restoration and reaction, but it calls itself modernisation, and it calls its divisive and exclusionary work – making London safe for the super-rich – regeneration. The struggle over space is also a struggle over time and who controls it. Resist neoliberal modernisation and (so we are told) you consign yourself to the past.
So they win again. If anything is to be taken from the miserable time we endured last week, it must be to learn some lessons about how the enemy operates. It couldn’t have worked much better from their point of view. A series of punitive attacks on the poorest and most vulnerable in society ended up being simultaneously cloaked and justified by the brazen hijacking of an appalling, aberrant act of violence. This is one part of the “legacy of Thatcher” that we will be invited to reflect upon in the coming days. The bitter edge to all those leftist celebrations of Thatcher’s death is all too evident. She retired from the field of class war twenty years ago, her work a spectacular success. Looking at Britain now - a country much more Thatcherite than when she left office – she could have died a happy woman.
The Tories have long been struggling with the problem of how to escape Thatcher’s shadow while continuing her project. Last week, we saw their quest to square a circle – how to lose their ‘nasty party’ image while actually intensifying the attack on the remnants of social democracy – bearing some fruit. Helmed by the reinvented IDS, now cast as a caring but tough-minded friend of the poor, the simple strategy has involved the displacement of the concept of unemployment by that of welfare dependency. The idea of welfare dependency is inherently obfuscatory, part of the inverted world magical thinking the Tories have been all too successful at pushing in opposition. In Thatcher’s day, unemployment was the price to pay for reconstruction; now, insofar as the Tories now mention unemployment at all, it is posited only as an effect of welfare dependency. Just as the state “crowds out” private sector entrepreneurialism, so – we are solemnly informed – the benefit system obstructs the capacity of people to act in their own interests. The Tories now can sound like inverted Marxists who aren’t attacking individuals, but the system which produces their behaviour. In the immortal words of Grant Shapps: “It is not that these people were trying to play the system, so much as these people were forced into a system that played them.” By shifting the focus onto the benefits system, the Tories can pose as the good patrician parent, offering the tough love solution to the bureaucratic indulgences of left paternalism.