Contemporary philosophy and literature expert Professor William Watkin on what Foucault's theory of state power — violence of exclusion and neglect says about Grenfell.
The 72 who died in The Grenfell Tower fire just over a year ago were mostly the poorer residents of Kensington, one of the wealthiest places in the world. Immediately after, Theresa May was slow to respond and reluctant to visit the scene. This did nothing but confirm a general feeling the government didn’t care about survivors because they were neither rich nor powerful.
Rehousing the 250 plus residents made homeless was a fiasco. Although the borough is full of unoccupied property, the council struggled to rehouse residents, some of whom it sent hundreds of miles outside the city. Even now, many have not been permanently rehoused. Meanwhile, more than 100 more tower blocks are still clad in the same material that made the Grenfell fire spread so quickly.
Residents’ anger in the aftermath was palpable. They stormed local council offices. They felt their lives were worth less than the financial benefits and burdens of development and improving safety. Across Britain, many felt the victims were victims not of fire, but of neglect, exclusion and poverty. Speaking of the planners’ and councillors’ greed and dismissiveness, it was not uncommon to hear the accusation, “murderers!” Understandable in the circumstances; emotions were running high.
But if the residents were victims of neglect and disregard for the value of their lives, is this neglect a form of violence against them? Is it going too far to suggest the 72 dead were murdered by cost-cutting and profiteering? I don’t think so.
In 1976, French philosopher Michel Foucault outlined a new theory of state power. In doing so, Foucault effectively invented a new idea of violence. If a state’s role is to protect its citizens’ lives, and to enhance and prolong them, then when a state fails in this duty, it is committing an act of violence, the violence of exclusion and neglect, the violence of ‘letting die’. He went as far as to call the neglect of life on the part of the state a form of murder.
Foucault’s reasoning is devastatingly simple. If the modern state extends its power over citizens by promising to protect them against violence, offering longevity through health care; if it regulates and surveils its citizens arguing it is for their protection, it has entered a social contract with them, with you. The state basically argues ‘I will take rights, cash, privacy and power, and in return promise to protect and enhance your life.’ This is certainly the promise of social housing in the capital.
If then the state’s job is to make your life safe and worth living, when it lets you die, here through short-term profit and disregard of the poor, then it has, by definition, killed you. Not through directly, as when despots and torturers ruled centuries ago, but through indirect inaction. Letting someone die, when you have a moral and legal responsibility to keep them alive, is already a form of manslaughter. So, it is that outlandish to suggest that Grenfell was murder?
Few would agree that the 72 dead were murdered, perhaps viewing this as overly emotive, too extreme. Yet on Foucault’s terms, the violence of exclusion and neglect by a state whose power is based on the promise of protecting and enhancing life, resulted in precisely that: the murder of neglect.
Why does it matter that we call it murder rather than manslaughter? Because murder implies intent. Did the developers and council intend to kill the residents? No, but that is not the logic of what Foucault calls biopower. The intent of a biopolitical state is the intent to make live, so to actively disregard of that, to have no intention to protect, then is murder.
Calling it murder makes a stronger political point. The wealthy of London town, and the cronyism that supports them, aggressively undermines poor people’s ability to live normal, safe lives. They are increasingly forced into substandard rented accommodation that is often dangerous. Or made to live in tower blocks beautified by cladding to enhance views from the overlooking mansions.
The money that should have been spent on vouchsafing residents’ lives, was spent adding value to property and the area. Money that could make live, was squandered and the result was 72 people we left to die, were let die. This is the murder of neglect.
Grenfell needs to be a turning point in housing in this country. But evidence already shows lessons learnt are being ignored, those culpable are being protected, ex-residents are not looked after while hundreds of tinder boxes containing tens of thousands of ordinary souls, just wait for the next spark. So yes, accusations of murder were initially emotions boiling over, but on sober reflection, with just a little bit of help from one of the world’s most respected thinkers, one year later, it would appear they had a point. The murder of neglect is an invisible crime, most of the time. But Grenfell brought it into the open, and each of those tower blocks with equity-enhancing but life-threatening cladding, is one more crime-scene waiting to happen.
This was first published on William Watkin’s blog
images: ChiralJon; Organ Museum