The Workers City group was formed in 1988 as a response to Glasgow’s nomination as the European City of Culture in 1990 (ECoC). The name ‘Workers City’ specifically challenged the contemporary branding of an inner-city area as the ‘Merchant City’; a process whereby a restoration of the reputation of Glasgow’s colonial Tobacco Merchants was made public by Glasgow City Council. Enshrined in numerous Glasgow street names – Buchanan St., Miller St., Ingram St., etc – the Tobacco Lords were deeply implicated in the colonial slave trade, yet the Labour Party-led council have reconstructed a narrative of daring entrepreneurialism for these progenitors, while delivering a cocktail of state-led inducements to the would-be neo-entrepreneurial ‘merchants’ of the present. As author, and Workers City group member, James Kelman put it, however, these same merchants made their money by “the simple expedience of not paying the price of labour”.(1) The name ‘Workers City’ was coined to emphasise the class-based nature of that labour.
The core Workers City group was composed of around fifteen to twenty individuals, who received considerable outside support and solidarity. Amongst these core members were activists of long-standing, some with political experience going back to the 1940s. Around them were “a wider circle of friends and acquaintances, young and old”, including younger artists, and figures from the cultural, political and literary spheres who made contributions for publication.(2) The group published two volumes: Workers City (1988) and The Reckoning (1990). Throughout this period, and continuing until 1993, they also published over twenty editions of The Keelie newssheet; an anonymous, irregular “scandal-mongering organ” described as the ‘heart’ of the group to which everyone was encouraged to contribute.(3) These publications are collected and made available together online here.
Why re-publish Workers City material now? What does their work in the late 1980s and early 1990s have to offer for the present? We don’t intend to, nor could we, provide any definitive answers to these questions. However, we propose that the Workers City group catalyse many pressing questions for the present.
The we here is Strickland Distribution, an artist-run group initiated in 2010, supporting the development of independent research in art-related and non-institutional practices. Our critical engagement in the social and discursive relations around the cultural economy in Glasgow and elsewhere, and our interests in urban politics and histories from below, led us to the publications by Workers City and discussions around re-presenting those documents of their activity in a contemporary context – one where culture is ubiquitously wedded to urban gentrification strategies. In a year-long series of projects collected under the umbrella of knowledge is never neutral and undertaken with Transmission Gallery, we found a resonant context for re-presenting the Workers City material. With the gallery located in the branded ‘cultural quarter’ of the ‘Merchant City’ and thus bound up, albeit critically, with the City Council’s ‘artist-led property strategy’, the series explored the circumstances surrounding cultural practices and knowledge production, self-reflexively situating these processes within a wider set of social and historical relations.
Transmission Gallery, as well as the nearby Scotia bar, was a meeting place for the Workers City group at the turn of the 1990s. A number of former gallery committee members were involved in the Workers City group, the production and dissemination of The Keelie, and the Glasgow Free University (which developed alongside these struggles). The well-worn scission between ‘politics’ and ‘art’, between everyday life and art, long a subject of dispute among the historical avant-gardes, remains largely extant today. The Workers City group, however, drawn from divergent backgrounds in cultural production and political activity, enacted a convergence between politics and culture that remains relevant in a period where political life and public discourse is ever more subsumed in the cultural economy, and vice versa.
As art and culture are routinely instrumentalised for property development and reified visions of the city, how might we situate our own critical positions regarding the incorporation of artists' life and labour in to regeneration strategies? What possibilities are there for resistance and the construction of new social relations arising from a dialectically embedded critique of arts' conditions of 'doing'?
The spectrum of the Left in Glasgow, as elsewhere, has often seen ‘cultural’ questions as ancillary to ‘real’ struggles in the (factory) workplace. A massive transformation in labour relations since the heyday of the Left movements means that this position has become increasingly untenable. In contrast, the Workers City group had, perhaps uniquely, formulated a collective ‘politics of space’ in relation to the now ubiquitous forms of neoliberal ‘cultural regeneration’ that link cultural events with urban property development strategies. To put this in context, Glasgow’s nomination as ‘European Capital of Culture, 1990’, was the first time that an old industrial city had won the award, in the process becoming a model strategy for other ‘post-industrial’ cities in the UK and elsewhere. While other destructive waves of 'redevelopment' had certainly proceeded it, it is this moment which perhaps most defined the city’s symbolic transformation from ‘Red Clydeside’ to neoliberal paragon, and its material transformation from industry to services.
Entrepreneurial urban narratives (physically and discursively embodied in the ‘Merchant City’ for instance) continue to resonate in Glasgow despite sharply divisive social contradictions. We hope that that renewed circulation of the Workers City material will enable the relevance of their activities to be explored for this contemporary situation. Concerted attempts to erase particular histories and knowledges in Glasgow, including revisionist reconstructions of official archives and ways of remembering, require contestation.
What, and how, can we learn from the Workers City group's material when we approach it from our own contemporary experiences and contingencies?
More problematically, archival retrieval has often been mobilised to foster the ‘ghosts of repetition’ and nostalgia for a radical past; going concerns in the circuits of commodity art production and consumption. Much of the Workers City literature was concerned with excavating Glasgow’s radical past to activate a politicised present. We hold similar intentions.
But does our re-publication of this literature create an ‘excavation site’ or a ‘construction site’? An associative mining of cultural capital, or an attempt at mobilisation through framed recirculation? We are also alert to what is absent when we discuss the resistance of the Workers City group in the context of the 'European City of Culture, 1990'. What other groups might we have considered? Who have we omitted?
Our focus here necessarily remains on the Workers City group, but groups like the Glasgow-based ‘Spirit of Revolt’ continue to recover and disseminate radical working class history just as some members of the Workers City group did through the Glasgow Labour History Workshop – “[r]eclaiming history, exhibiting the radical tradition”.(4) The task of brushing history against the grain is ongoing.
Despite our reservations, and trying to work through them, we believe that re-presenting the Workers City material offers a historical ‘cut’. that may be useful in a current conjuncture where the urbanisation of capital has come to largely supersede industrial capital in the UK. The instrumental co-option of culture, the symbolic imagineering of the city, the surface erasure of class and economic differentials and the neoliberalisation of the city that the Workers City group examined have only intensified since 1990. Public land sales, recognised in their critique as an obscene disposal of common resources, are now routine, largely unobserved, often involving generous public subsidy. The privatisation of public space that the group challenged, in particular at Glasgow Green, is now ubiquitous. The capture of cultural facilities and amenities as economic assets is now mainstream under the rentier economy and urban financialisation.(5) It is the acceleration of these processes that we describe and critique below.
We don’t agree with everything that the group published, nor necessarily treat what was produced as a unified consistent whole. There are some stories and essays which we find less useful. However, we have decided to reproduce the anthologies in full so that the texts as a complex, composite document can be re-circulated for readers to draw their own conclusions. Contradictions and tensions in the Workers City material exist and endure as they do in The Strickland Distribution. These contradictions are themselves a cause for reflection on the production and circulation of knowledge. City boosters and urban elites have acted to erase Glasgow’s radical history through their recuperation of 'Red Clydeside', creating a flattened homogenous version that disavows its contested nature. By contrast, the Workers City group created “a record of opposition, some other history”(6) which situated them squarely in the heterodox ‘history-from-below’ tradition; an area of inquiry that we explored as part of the knowledge is never neutral programme.
Beyond historical contestation, however, the subjects of the Workers City critique and their collective modes of action opened up a terrain of struggle – often beyond the workplace as narrowly conceived – that has only become more germane over time. By exploring the relevance of their activity for the present, we hope to contribute to a current conjuncture desperately in need of expanding contemporary practices and cultures of opposition.
Against a politics of closure, what has happened to resistance in Glasgow in the period between 1990 and now? What types of struggle have emerged? Who undertakes them? Crucially, what types of class composition have arisen since 1990?
By ‘class composition’ we mean the various forms of behaviour which arise when particular forms of labour-power are inserted in specific processes of production. This can be broken down into ‘political composition’ which refers to the degree that political subjectivity and organisation is made a basis for counter-power, and ‘technical composition’ (capital’s plans) which refers to organised capitalist production, including the division of labour, technological deployment, social planning, supervision and discipline.(7) How these inter-related questions connect to Workers City praxis is worth exploring.
The Workers City group publicly took no formal political position or line. Some were ex-members of political parties, others were still involved; others had never been. It was a “non-sectarian formation” in Kelman’s words, and differences of opinion were common. The literature suggests, however, they shared certain tendencies:
“Present in abundance were experience and energy, physical and intellectual. […] In common was a left-wing sensibility, an impatience with humbug and distrust of professional politicians and arts administrators.”(8)
Farquhar McLay, editor of the Workers City and The Reckoning volumes, describes the group’s modus operandi in the introduction to The Reckoning:
“…one thing which we are all agreed on is this: the city belongs to its people and not to the political gangsters and the big money men whose only interest in Glasgow is what they can milk it for”
Through a combination of publishing activity, media work and direct action the group generated an ‘aesthetics of resistance’ to ‘Culture Year’ that still resonates today. In a context where mainstream mass media dominance and culture industries hyperbole has largely evinced public contestation of hegemonic neoliberal governance, it is worth examining those Workers City media strategies in more detail. To take one example, in the campaign against the privatisation of a third of Glasgow Green by Glasgow City Council the group distributed around forty to fifty thousand leaflets, alongside a large tranche of The Keelie newssheet. For Hugh Savage, however, the real "secret weapon" was a "wee loud speaker van" that spent nine months covering Glasgow, arguing that the Green was not for sale; that it belonged as common land for the people of Glasgow. The group gathered over 200 people in demonstrations outside the Council's City Chambers during monthly Labour Party and City Council meetings. Over 500 people demonstrated on the day of the occupation of the Chambers. Savage notes that the campaign was unique in Glasgow’s political history: they were not seeking votes, did not sell literature, and did not push any political philosophy down the public’s throat.(9) Two things stand out here: (a) the group mobilised with a range of different registers in various sites within the city; (b) They refused to use the ‘issue’ as a means to build 'the party'. Compare this to the way opposition to the current policy reserved to Westminster of the ‘Bedroom Tax’, for instance, has been taken up; providing many competing political organisations with political gain whilst leaving the wider decimation of social housing largely untouched.
What is also notable is the object of Workers City's campaigning – the focus on public space rather than the workplace. The public campaign to save Elspeth King’s role as curator at the People’s Palace on the Green was likewise unfamiliar territory for an industrially-oriented Left. A public campaign to save the job of a curator and her assistant, Michael Donnelly, seems unusual to say the least. Yet with the demise of industrial and manufacturing work these campaigns presciently opened up the territory of social reproduction – the areas of housing, ‘community’, transport, ‘culture’, welfare and social services; as well as biological reproduction and the (often) hidden labour behind the reproduction of labour power (housework, family maintenance, etc). All this in the context of an intensified rentier economy built around an accelerated privatisation of housing and the expansion of the debt relation. It is worth returning here to the specific material and institutional context in which the Workers City arose in order to grasp the salience of their critique. The City of Culture year in 1990 was the defining moment in a concerted municipal urban regeneration strategy begun in the 1970s, subsequently exerting a major influence on UK inner-city regeneration strategies. Culture Year's strategic convergence between urban and cultural regeneration has since been intensified in the city via cultural and social policies, consumer and entertainment tourism, the instrumental construction of ‘cultural quarters’, and successive media and promotional branding campaigns. We examine this context briefly here, at the same time scrutinising the continuing social contradictions which have arisen from this form of entrepreneurial urbanism.
How cogently did the Workers City group reflect upon and act upon the social and economic changes wrought by capitalist restructuring circa 1990, and what can we learn from them? Given the group’s limited resources, what expectations is it legitimate to obligate them with?
As a background to these questions, and with the benefit of hindsight, we provide here a brief overview of changing class composition in Glasgow since the 1980s. Given the importance of urbanisation in this period, we will also consider the trajectory of tenure change in housing and the political economy of urban re-branding and reconfiguration through signature architectural and regeneration projects.
Urban policy in Glasgow has since the 1970s been predicated on the decomposition of manufacturing and industry in the city, and managing the urban wreckage left behind. The beginnings of Glasgow’s neoliberal urban policy can be traced back to the Glasgow East Area Renewal (GEAR) project which ran from 1976 to 1987. The exceptional nature of this early intervention was legitimised by Glasgow being widely seen as the most striking example of urban decline in the UK, thus requiring immediate and concerted action. The total land area was vast, covering 8% of the city, all concentrated in the de-industrialised East end. The project was one of the first major public-private comprehensive regeneration projects in Europe, and a UK prototype preceding renowned inner-city urban regeneration projects such as London and Merseyside Docklands by six years.(10) The role of the Scottish Development Agency was central, encouraging private sector involvement in Glasgow’s urban strategy and re-calibrating the public sector as facilitator of private investment.(11)
The GEAR project marked out Glasgow City Council as an exemplar of “proto-neoliberalism” in the UK(12), thus disproving two foundational myths: (a) Glasgow as a home of municipal socialism; (b) The myth of the ‘absent state’ in the development of neoliberal urbanism. After a brief period of Conservative rule in Glasgow between 1977 and 1980, the Glasgow Labour Party, chastened and reconstituted in 1980, began to pursue competitive city re-branding and local economic development with alacrity.(13) The Labour-run City Council took direct inspiration from US models of neoliberal urban boosterism. For instance, Michael Kelly, then Lord Provost, was heavily influenced by the New York Department of Commerce ‘I Love New York’ campaign in 1977; a campaign which masked and legitimated New York’s emergence as the prototypical city of revanchist(14) neoliberalism (a conflation conveniently elided by Glasgow’s urban boosters). The ‘Glasgow’s Miles Better’ promotional campaign in 1983 was the result. Alongside the 1990 European Capital of Culture, other defining moments in Glasgow’s deeply uneven urban transformation include the 1988 National Garden Festival and the 1999 UK City of Architecture and Design. The Commonwealth Games 2014 is only the latest in a long line of symbolic festivals and events designed to reposition Glasgow as a site of tourism and consumption.
The material underpinnings of the city branding initiative were established through some key policy initiatives in this period. In 1984, the Scottish Development Agency (SDA) commissioned an influential report by McKinsey & Co, which recommended promoting a service sector economy in Glasgow. A year later, the SDA launched ‘Glasgow Action’, “the first clearly defined public-private partnership in urban Scotland”.(15) Like the ‘Miles Better’ campaign, Glasgow Action was inspired by the spectacular downtown urban renewals of de-industrialised rust-belt cities in the US such as Minneapolis and Baltimore.(16) The Myerscough report of 1988, which stressed the "economic importance of the arts in Glasgow", and the Comedia report of 1991, which argued for the economic capture of Glasgow’s "cultural assets", further cemented the policy symbiosis between the cultural and service economies and urban redevelopment. The Comedia report was co-written by Charles Landry, who has described the report as the opening gambit in his influential ‘Creative City’ thesis – a now shopworn position that has been substantially disputed but which nevertheless remains a policy sub-text for Glasgow’s neoliberal urban policy.
It is in this overall context that we can gain some traction on the Workers City critique. The changing composition of capitalist development in the city, and the concurrent de-composition of the industrial and manufacturing workforce, can be seen as the background for the group’s analysis of Culture Year, 1990. Intuiting the pivotal symbolic, legitimising role of culture regeneration in the new forms of urban entrepreneurialism, they began to grasp the cultural logic of capitalism in a de-industrialised era just as they grasped the economic and social contradictions that underpin current re-branding strategies such as ‘Glasgow: Scotland with Style’ and ‘People Make Glasgow’. Their critique and campaigns against the proposed gentrification of Glasgow Green, the ‘Elspeth King’ affair at The People’s Palace, and the ‘Glasgow’s Glasgow’ exhibition point to a prescient understanding of the role of culture and representation in forms of social reproduction. This analysis helps obviate the charge of ‘workerism’ levelled at Workers City by Right and Left alike.
In fact, the Workers City moniker can be seen as a misnomer when considered in the context of the seeming permanence of unemployment then and now. Yet the name was chosen to reassert the importance of the role of workers in city-building against a history of great heroes, just as Brecht had done in A Worker Reads History. Against the ‘cultrapreneurial’ erasure of ‘the working class’, the antagonistic basis of the class relation is affirmed. The name of the group itself challenges an implicit reification in city branding making it clear that ‘Glasgow’ itself doesn’t do things, it is not a homogenous classless entity, but is in fact a product of uneven social relations.(17) This point was central to the Workers City demystification of Culture Year in 1990. Against a (partly justified) post-modern scepticism around limiting forms of identity construction, the moniker stresses particular relations of exploitation based on labour.
However, narrow interpretations of work through the labour theory of value have also come to circumscribe the Left within a world of waged work. The increasingly inapplicable ‘dignity of labour’ thesis tends to reify labour as ‘abstract labour' within the wage-labour relation, thus maintaining exploitative capitalist relations of production while hoping for more equitable redistribution after the fact of production. The obverse of abstract labour, ‘concrete labour' (un-alienated free production outside the wage-labour relation), is typically laid aside, along with the antagonistic role of labour in a radical rejection of capitalist relations.(18) In the Preface to The Reckoning, Farquhar McLay implicitly challenges the ‘workerist’ charge against the group:
“The traditional image of the ‘worker’ as ‘producer of wealth’ gets more problematic every day. We are now moving towards permanent non-employment of workers on a massive scale. […] The workerist and productivist notions we were brought up on – having pride in our role as indispensable (although cruelly exploited) units of production, taking our identity from the job we did and suffering a terrible kind of shameful death with its loss – these are now much weakened, if not yet completely obsolete. People may still feel shame when out of work, but capitalism no longer demands it”.(19)
If that was true then, it is more so now. The continuing re-composition of capitalist relations under de-industrialisation, producing a seemingly permanent ‘surplus’ labour force(20) and a burgeoning precariat without cultural, social or economic security, has only accelerated since 1990. With the statement above, and the Preface in general, McLay approached an autonomous ‘refusal of work’ position – not as some simple-minded ‘exodus’ but as a collective refusal based on an imminent understanding that capital no longer requires workers in the UK to secure profit. Causualisation of work, working poverty, welfare cuts and workfare are just some of the indications of that condition. The discursive recourse to 'the working class’ as the primary agent of social change has to be radically re-considered in the present era of deregulated, fragmented labour markets and the symbolic splintering of workers' identity.
But while the Workers City group, and McLay in particular, usefully grapple with these questions in the ‘Culture Year’ era, a problematic notion of authenticity remains evident in the literature: a tendency to frame certain forms of culture and work as ‘real’ (as if a yuppie’s cappuccino is not ‘real’) and to bracket ‘the working class’ homogonously with little reflection on the many divisions and scissions within the working class. Since ‘authentic’ patterns of working class Glasgow culture have long been valorised in the ‘heritage’ industry and aestheticised via postures of rootedness in endless auto-biographies and nostalgia-porn internet forums, there is a danger of essentialism here: something like a ‘Glasgow spirit’ shorn from a contemporary material context of fragmentation, individualism and subsumption. (Another co-option is evident in the aestheticisation of the vernacular, reducing it to an oral pose or style(21); a signifier of 'national' distinctiveness.)
Some members of the group have acknowledged the lack of young people and women involved and their regret that a wider, more diverse composition wasn’t possible. The group were typically white, heterosexual, male – and thus archetypal old Left at one level. Yet we have no wish to historically denigrate male working experience in industry, one aspect of the gendered division of labour in what has been seen as the dominant historical trend of industrial and manufacturing work in Glasgow. Animosity towards the working class often has such an expression. The group did in fact raise questions of social reproduction then more typically associated with feminist discourses – questions of housing, community, culture, public space, welfare, health, etc – even if a strong feminist position was largely absent from their varied output. In the present era, the fact that the formal workplace in Glasgow now contains more women than men, signalling ongoing gender divisions of labour related to de-industrialisation and the 'affective' turn to the service industries, remains largely unconsidered in dominant Left politics(22) despite obvious ramifications for political practice.
The ‘social factory’ thesis suggests that social reproduction is no longer identifiable with a particular space or a distinctive set of work practices but has become contiguous with everyday life and production more generally. Are there ways to pose an antagonism between characterisations of life against work and acquire critical standpoints grounded not just in separate spheres of labour practice but in the possibility of different qualities of life? How are we to make visible, and subject to contestation, intersectional hierarchies and divisions of labour within both work and life – exploring questions of class struggle and women’s struggle, capitalist exploitation and patriarchal domination, feminism and workerism? While it would be incorrect to say that women’s voices were absent from Workers City material and actions, there is a different complexity to developments of struggle today, in part through forms of feminist struggle emerging as an immanent dialectical relation to changes in capitalist composition. In other words, in and through forms of capitalist restructuring.
The demise of manufacturing and the construction and growth of the service sector in Glasgow was already stark by the 1970s and has since accelerated. The type of work, its duration, and who does it, has changed markedly in this period. It is prudent not to take ‘official’ statistics at face value, but in those that follow we do gain a general measure of labour market recomposition in Glasgow. The food and drink industries, finance, IT and other business/service activities, tourism and public administration are the new core sectors.(23) As of 2006, only 5.1% of the workforce was employed in manufacturing, and only 69% of the workforce was full time, falling from 81% in 1981. In the same period, part-time work patterns increased from 18% to 30%. These trends will have accelerated markedly in the intervening years. As noted before, the gender composition of labour also significantly shifted in this period, following the trend towards precaritisation: male full time employment decreased from 50% to 40%, with part-time work increasing from 2.3% to 7.7%, while female full-time rates of employment stayed at around 29%, with part-time working increasing from 16% to 23%. By 2006, official statistics showed more women were working in Glasgow than men, but this growth shift in female employment was typically evidenced in “low paid, part-time and casual work”, with many women taking on more than two formal jobs – escalating the concept of ‘double-work’ that feminists have posited to describe both reproductive care work in the home and paid labour in the workplace.(24)
McLay’s assertion that the death of industry would see sustained unemployment in the city has been borne out. In 2012, Glasgow had the highest percentage of ‘workless households’ in the UK, with 30.2% workless (not employed in the wage-labour relation). For nine consecutive years, since records of ‘worklessness’ began, Glasgow, along with Liverpool, has continually topped this metric.(25) We do not see ‘worklessness’ as a ‘lack’ that needs to be filled with more shit jobs, but bearing in mind the generalised increase in precarity and working poverty, and the way that unemployment figures have been continually manipulated and re-categorised over the last couple of decades, these statistics illustrate the continuing failure of the city’s social and economic policy on its own terms. The number of those considered ‘economically inactive’ has actually increased in Glasgow since 2004: 32.7% in comparison to an average in 'Great Britain' of 22.7%.(26) Meanwhile, 33% of children in Glasgow live in poverty – a staggering 51% in the Springburn ward(27) – sharply illustrating the social contradictions and material implications of this policy failure.
The end of the Keynesian contract between the state, labour, and industry in the post-war manufacturing period led to a vast diminishment in the workers' share of national wealth, and thus spending power.(28) Globalisation and offshoring increased profits for a few, but reduced consumer demand in the UK for the goods and products that companies produced elsewhere through cheaper labour. The solution to under-consumption was the debt-fuelled housing bubble. This in turn was fuelled by the privatisation of public housing and a fire-sale of land and property assets. The effect has been dramatic in Glasgow.
If Manchester was the ‘shock city’ of the industrial revolution, then Glasgow was the ‘shock city’ of the Modernist housing revolution.(29) In the 1960s nowhere else in the UK constructed as many large high-rise blocks as Glasgow. The subsequent promotion of private enterprise alongside de-industrialisation left many people increasingly dependent on state support. Fiscal retrenchment and capital flight left the local state to pick up the bill for basic social reproduction: unemployment benefits, social work, and public housing. The ‘modernist housing revolution’ in Glasgow can thus be seen in part as Glasgow City Council’s reformist effort to save Glasgow from social and environmental collapse, and potentially public disorder. Facing the gravity of the city’s housing situation, David Gibson, the ‘crusading angel’ of Glasgow’s housing revolution, unleashed the most concentrated drive of ‘creative destruction’ – in the form of 'slum clearance' and high-rise construction – of any city in the UK between 1961 and 1968.(30) By 1981, 63.2% of the population lived in council housing.(31)
But the ‘middling modernism’ that the city produced, tempered by economic and political constraints(32), was already running into problems by the early 1970s: wholesale destruction of tenement communities, depopulation to the new towns, alienating peripheral estates, poor design, lack of amenities, and social ghettoisation. The ‘right-to-buy’ policy introduced by the Conservative government in the Housing Act of 1980 was the first major step in the process of housing privatisation. In 2003, the entire remaining public housing stock of the city (81,000 homes) was transferred to Glasgow Housing Association (GHA, now the ‘Wheatley group(33) in what was described as “likely the largest public sector modernisation project in Europe”.(34) GHA now has only 43,000 ‘social’ homes (no longer ‘public’). 19,000 have been demolished or sold as part of a 30,000-home demolition programme.
This drastic reduction of public and social housing must be further reviewed in the context of grant funding cuts for social housing, “putting at risk the very existence of the community based housing association movement”.(35) The Scottish Government’s housing strategy signals its intention to adopt a more “radical” approach to housing supply through the development of new funding models.(36) For ‘radical’ read private. Glasgow City Council’s strategic housing investment plan likewise will “rely less on public funding and more on alternative financial investment models”.(37) With ‘affordable rent’ defined at 80% of market rent(38), this model of housing provision is simply beyond the means of most people living in social or council housing as well as those subject to spiralling rents in the private sector.
The solution to the property-led economic and banking crisis of 2008 has been to accelerate the source of the problem, but this time backed by even more fantastic levels of public subsidy. With property the primary component of the ‘cost of living’ crisis, an acceleration of housing struggle is more than ever necessary. As noted previously, the Left has traditionally seen struggles over social reproduction as ancillary to workers' struggle. This was always a problem as any wage rises could simply be offset by inflation at the ‘community’ level in housing, transport costs, etc. At a time of wage and welfare cuts the area of social reproduction becomes even more central as an arena of class struggle. This may be why many of the more recent struggles in Glasgow have centred around public space and facilities. What is required is to grasp such campaigns more broadly as primary immanent struggles against present day forms of capital enclosure and commodification.
While the Workers City group did not focus on housing struggle specifically, apart from their involvement in the campaign to stop a housing development project on the Fleshers Haugh at Glasgow Green(39), their critique of the entrepreneurial re-branding of the city’s urban fabric via asset-stripping, privatisation and loft conversion, was part of a critique of the wider privatisation of public space and municipal assets. Brendan McLaughlin’s ‘Glasgow’s Not for Sale’, for instance, remains a telling account of the privatisation of the city through urbanisation. These are no longer ancillary issues but the very ground upon which monopoly rents are extracted and the cost of living is dramatically increased.(40)
The closure of debate around the housing question(41) and the wide acceptance of the private model is a striking everyday example of the ‘post-political’ thesis. Based on formulations by a cohort of radical philosophers since the late 1990s, including Ranciere, Zizek and Mouffe, among others, the thesis criticises the seemingly consensual foreclosure of ‘proper politics’: that which is disruptive of the status quo and which introduces dissensus and disagreement as central axioms of democracy. The point is not that political contention has disappeared, post-politics is not ‘endist’ (as in the ‘end of politics’), rather that dissensus has been abrogated and politics and democracy largely subsumed within government-led consensual parameters: de-politicisation as a “technique of consensual persuasion able to manufacture assent”. In his discussion of protests over the privatisation of Pollock Park Ronan Paddison describes this post-political condition in Glasgow very well.(42) Is it possible, however, through the literature of the Workers City group, to ask questions about the periodisation of the post-political, as well as asking who is being post-political and why?
Were the anti-parliamentary, anarchist, socialist and communist currents in the Workers City group already in 1990 articulating the foreclosure of welfarism and social democracy, well in advance of the so-called post-political condition associated with ‘new’ or exacerbated forms of democratic (urban) enclosure in the late-1990s? The Workers City critique of Glasgow’s ruling Labour Party and affiliated trades unions (alongside their historical critique of the Labour Party) are writ large over their publications. Despite being branded ‘Stalinist’ – a slur designed to caricature their antagonistic proletarian stance and mitigate their impact – the group knew who the real Stalinists were. Thus the Labour-run City Council, led by Pat Lally, was christened ‘Lally-grad’, designating the top-down anti-democratic nature of a thoroughly rotten borough. We should also bear in mind here that many of the ‘revolutionary’ parties of the Left have merely aimed to capture the Left of this right-wing Labour Party despite their recalcitrant rhetoric.
Returning to Hugh Savage and his comments on Workers City organisation and tactics, it is worth re-considering the radical dissensus the group incorporated. Dissensus is Ranciere’s defence against post-political enclosure and the partition of the sensible – a form of proper politics that understands contestation as central to the democratic process and a form of intervention on what is visible and say-able. This form of contestation is more than ever necessary in this de-politicised era of bio-political management and consensual incorporation.
We do not wish here to fetishise the Workers City group. But an active, critical reading of their output and activity, we think, is worthwhile in a current conjuncture which their critical work presages by some twenty odd years. Against the dominant entrepreneurial narratives of the city, other narratives of resistance and critique must evolve to meet the changing circumstances of the present.
The Strickland Distribution