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‘The Dusty Hat’: a new short story by China Miéville.


Salvage is going to press, and big changes are coming soon in our online presence. To prepare for and celebrate that, we’ve launched our webstore. Click here to pre-order our first issue, for Red tchotchkes, and by far most important of all, to subscribe to our print edition

We urge you to subscribe, and in turn to urge your friends, comrades and instituations to subscribe, too. Subscribers are the life-blood of any publication. The more blood there is to run, the quicker it can get up. Please be our blood. 

To keep you reading till your copy of Salvage arrives, we’re pleased to publish a brand new short story by China Miéville, taken, exclusively for Salvage, from the forthcoming collection, Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories.

Read on for recalcitrant matter. For the materialism in the historical.



The Dusty Hat

China Miéville

 

I have to talk to you about the man we saw, the man in the dusty hat. I know you remember.

Stop for a moment. I know you have a thousand questions, starting with Where have I been? What I want to start with is the man in the hat.

I was late to the conference. I’d had to stay in to watch a builder squint at the cracks in my outside wall and across my kitchen ceiling, cracks that had been there for a long time, ever since I moved in, but that started to spread about a year ago and were making me increasingly uneasy. And then the journey across the city was slow as a bastard so I arrived after the start and tried to creep quietly in to the lecture hall but everyone stared at me while I made my way to the seat you’d saved for me. I muttered something apologetic about subsidence. You mocked me sotto voce for being a bourgeois homeowner. I told you to hush and tried to pay attention.

But the man in the hat made us badly behaved. He was sitting in the audience right in front of us and when he got hold of the microphone and started speaking you leaned over to me and quietly pointed out quite how dusty his hat was. So I looked and that was me gone, I started giggling like an idiot and that set you off and we both had to look down at our hands as if we were taking careful notes. I don’t think we fooled anyone.

It was a wide-brimmed dark green felt hat like a cowboy’s or an adventurer’s. Even clean and new it would’ve been unlikely at a socialist conference in a university hall in south London: as it was it was extraordinary. It was old and pleasingly well-worn. It looked loved. But it was just filthy with dust.

‘His hat’s that dusty because he can’t take it off to clean it,’ you whispered. ‘Because his wife found out he gave her chlamydia and she put superglue in the brim.’

‘His hat’s that dusty because he’s arrived straight from tin-mining in Cornwall,’ I whispered. ‘Climbed straight out of a tunnel.I mimed flicking the hat’s brim and doubling over coughing.

The man was talking about the deep dynamics of the Egyptian revolution and Tahrir Square. I listened. He was weaving back through the history of the region, getting from there to something about Ukraine, to reflections on austerity in London, backwards again to much older struggles. Startling stuff woven together startlingly. 

I said, ‘His hat’s that dusty because he’s been sitting still for forty years.’

The man said to the room, What you see when you see this will depend on which eye you open. His formulations were like that. A moment later he said, Marat knew and the glass of his windows knew.

I blinked and said something about Hansel and Gretel, that following him talking was like following a breadcrumb trail laid by a lunatic. You said you liked the implication that most breadcrumb trails were laid by sane people. 

He was in his late seventies, it looked like, tiny and bony, his face crumbled with lines. Grey hair boiled out from under that dusty hat. The microphone looked huge in his hands while he muttered into it. Most people weren’t listening.

We sat behind him and looked at the tide of dust on the brim.

 

 

This was the inaugural conference of those we considered the mainstream opposition, who’d only just left the larger organisation, the Mothership, out of which several of us – of the ‘Left Faction’, among various grand monikers we granted ourselves – had stormed months before. Relations between the first and second wave of self-exiled were fractious, to the schadenfreude of those from whom we’d once accepted discipline, but we were always going to come to this, whatever our caution and grievances.

            It’s not exactly as if things were superb within each wave, either. This was just after you and I and our friends had walked out of the grouplet we helped set up after our initial split. Things had got too toxic again.

We were all a mess, really, bruised. We’d met while on the same side of that vicious fight with former comrades, as our own group’s publications spread smears about us, while – talk about Anti-Oedipus – we were savaged by those to whom we owed the politics according to which we now opposed them. And it still felt as if everything, everywhere, was weighing in, was politicised for or against one side or the other of this battle, according to some agenda.

Some of the conference sessions left us as flat as we’d feared they would. But a few of them cheered us up a bit. I’d had a moment to patch up some beefs outstanding since the split. There were people we were glad to see, collaboration to moot. Some of the more naïve of the new lot even tried to get us to join, which was a nice gesture, if unconvincing.

We were unimpressed if not surprised to hear that some of our hosts were going to attend the Mothership’s annual political jamboree. ‘As if this fucking fetish for “reasonableness” ever got them anywhere,’ you said. ‘Too slow to get angry, too slow to say fuck you. Plays right into their sclerotic hands.’ As if, even if it wasn’t ethically questionable to attend – which given what had gone down, it was – it wasn’t a strategic fail. For there to be any political point to us tiny splinters, we had to distinguish ourselves.  

I was expecting some of the more sophisticated loyalists from the Mothership to be present, in fact, but I only saw one lonely soul staffing a bookstall. He talked stiltedly to the man in the dusty hat while I read the news on my phone.

There seemed to be sinkholes opening up everywhere. I was looking at pictures of cars angling up from where roads had subsided into nothing, giant holes in the cement of cities around the world.

You remember. It was during the lunch break, and we went outside, me and you and A and S, so you could have a cigarette on the lawn. I was reminiscing about when I’d joined and gone visiting contacts, trying to ‘have the argument’ – we couldn’t use any of these clichés any more without air-quotes – on their doorsteps. You mocked me, saying you didn’t believe I’d ever been active.

We were debating one of the new crew’s organisers, amiably enough, when A suddenly nudged me and I saw that his eyes were like fucking dinner plates and I looked across the path and right there a portly middle-aged man in an ill-judged leather jacket was marching along chin up like Johnny Head-in-Air.

It was the History Man, the highest-profile intellectual in whom our erstwhile tendency had ever rejoiced. He’d been in the leadership as long as any of us had been members, right through what A called the stramash, and he still was.

Some rebels engaged in tedious Kremlinology about him – he’s actually a wet, he’s actually really unhappy with what’s gone down, he actually wants change. If true it’s an open question as to whether that makes it better or worse that the History Man was by far the most effective and brutal of the polemicists against us. Whip-smart and erudite, you’d say he’d shamed himself with the degraded stuff he’d written against the internal opposition – willful bullshit and theoretical misprision – but he seemed immune to shame. Unless, as per my fantasies, he wept himself to sleep each night.

It was a genuine shock to see him, an adrenaline-rush shock. I’d last crossed paths with him at a meeting during and about the fight, and been singled out for a contemptuous tongue-lashing.

‘Holy fucking shit,’ whispered A. ‘He’s got some face, I’ll give him that.’

I too felt a jolt of appalled admiration that he was just going to come to this thing, just turn up and sit and brazen it out and dare the organisers to ask him to leave. I knew they wouldn’t.

We were all staring. He didn’t look at us. He turned off the path towards a side-building, where by an open door I saw a tall, pale woman I also recognized, a notorious hack, an enforcer never shy to police an orthodoxy.

The History Man paused in the threshold. There was a swirling in the air as a wedge of pigeons came past low to land heavily on the lawn. History Man stared through the glass front of the hall towards the bookstall where the loyalist failed to converse with the hatted man. He went inside. The old man turned his head. He must have seen the birds. 

‘They’re not here for us,’ said the organizer. I tip-toed to the door with jokey exaggeration and pulled down a photocopied sign that said, LEFT TENDENCY - MEETING ON GREECE: ROOM 2F. ‘It’s the Europe-wide meeting,’ he said. ‘Leadership only. Can you believe we both booked this place on the same day?’

I could. There’s not a huge pool of suitable venues.

We fantasised about what we’d say to History Man if we bumped into him in the toilets. The laughter was a bit forced, unlike yours and mine a few minutes later when we went back in and saw the dusty hat again.

 

 

The last session was on strategy and ‘the conjuncture’ – Left for ‘now’. Speakers ranged from traditional rah-rah to an analytical pessimism I found more convincing and certainly less rote. There were about a hundred people in the hall. We knew the organisers would be disappointed and wondered whether they’d admit it. (They didn’t. You remember?)

We recognised almost everyone there. Neither of us had ever seen the man in the dusty hat before.

He got the mic again. You could see people decide he was one of the many more-or-less harmless eccentrics clustered around the far Left. Those of us still listening waited for tells that might locate him politically, but he didn’t check off the tropes of orthodoxy, didn’t have the defensive blather of the centrists, the adenoidal sneer of a Spart. I’ve been to a large number of meetings like that one, over a depressing number of years, and I’d never heard anything like what he said before.

Of these things perhaps we might learn, he said. Neoliberalism is vulgarised time, he said, but, he said, vulgarity is a geared wheel itself so against it do we deploy a slow watermill or acid guano or a stone wedge?

And I was just loving this, of course, loving it.

The chair started to interrupt with ‘Sum up now,’ and ‘You’ve had your three minutes.’ I felt like heckling on his behalf, demanding he be given as long as he wanted, simply because he didn’t drone out the usual langue de bois or recite clichés.

He muttered something like, What got us through that sweet Boston slick, they said that was our side, there are false flags.

Some people were sniggering. I looked around thinking Am I the only person hearing this?

Capital’s like a glass spike up through things, he said, an accumulative rhythm to which we might find antiphase, create interference.

The audience’s groans increased and I was thinking Are you insane? Listen to him! This is amazing. But the man petered out in the impatient scorn. He handed the microphone back to the stewards and sat with forlorn dignity.



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Neoliberalism as the Agent of Capitalist Self-Destruction

By Neil Davidson

1

The neoliberal era can be retrospectively identified as beginning with the economic crisis of 1973, or, more precisely, with the strategic response of state managers and employers to that crisis. Previous eras in the history of capitalism have tended to close with the onset of further period of systemic crisis; 1973, for example, saw the end of the era of state capitalism which began in 1929. The neoliberal era, however, has not only survived the crisis which began in 2007, but its characteristic features are, if anything, being further extended and embedded, rather than reversed.

Yet, although neoliberalism has massively increased the wealth of the global capitalist class, has it also restored the health of the system itself? The crisis which gave rise to neoliberalism was, after all, caused by the end of the unprecedented period of growth which characterised the post-war boom, and the consequent accelerating decline in the rate of profit, unimpeded by the countervailing tendencies – above all arms spending – which had held it in check since the Second World War. These levels of growth were never resumed, but it would be wrong to claim that capitalism experienced no recovery after 1973. The boom from 1982 to 2007 was certainly uneven and punctuated by particularly sharp financial crises and recessions in 1987, 1991, 1997 and 2000; but these were normal expressions of the business cycle and only a misplaced fixation with using the unique and unrepeatable period between 1948 and 1973 as a comparator could justify treating these as symptoms of crisis. When crisis did return in 2007–8, it simply proved that neoliberalism was no more capable of permanently preventing this than any other mode of capitalist regulation.

Neoliberalism does, however, represent a paradox for capitalism. Its relative success as a ruling-class strategy, particularly in weakening the trade union movement and reducing the share of profits going to labour, has helped to disguise that some aspects of this mode of regulation are proving unintentionally detrimental to the system. Serving the interests of the rich is not the same – or at least, not always the same – as serving the interests of capital and may, in certain circumstances, be in contradiction to it. Simply doing what the rich want is unlikely to produce beneficial results for the system as a whole, although it may help increase the wealth of individual capitalists. For not only are capitalists generally uninterested in the broader social interest, which we might expect, but they are also generally incapable of correctly assessing their own overall collective class interests, which might seem more surprising – although as we shall see, it is a long-standing phenomenon, observed by many of the great social theorists from late eighteenth century onwards. As a result, capitalist states – or more precisely, their managers – have traditionally acted to make such an assessment; but in the developed West at least, neoliberal regimes are increasingly displaying an uncritical adherence to the short-term wishes of particular business interests. This is not the only emergent problem: the increasingly narrow parameters of neoliberal politics, where choice is restricted to ‘social’ rather than ‘economic’ issues, has encouraged the emergence of far-right parties, usually fixated on questions of migration, which have proved enormously divisive in working-class communities, but whose policies are in other respects by no means in the interests of capital.

The self-destructive nature of neoliberal capitalism has nothing necessarily to do with the removal of restrictions on markets. The rise of neoliberalism made it fashionable to refer to Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, the assumption being that neoliberalism is in the process of realising Polanyi’s nightmare: reversing the second part of his ‘double movement’ – the social reaction against markets – and unleashing the mechanisms that he saw as being so destructive of society and nature.

Leaving aside the fact that capitalism was always capable of producing social atomisation, collective violence and environmental destruction, even in periods when the state was far more directly involved in the mechanisms of production and exchange then it is now, there are two problems with this position. First, rhetoric apart, capitalists no more favour untrammelled competition today than they did when monopolies and cartels first appeared as aspects of the emerging system in the sixteenth century. Second, one would have to be extraordinarily naïve to believe that the neoliberal project has been about establishing ‘free’ markets in the first place, although this myth has been assiduously perpetrated by social democratic parties who, eager to disguise their own capitulation to neoliberalism, emphasise their opposition to the marketisation of all social relationships, even though no-one – except perhaps the followers of Ayn Rand – seriously imagines this is either possible or desirable. In what follows I will mainly draw on the experiences of the UK and the US, since these were the first nation-states in which neoliberalism was imposed under democratic conditions – unlike Chile or China, for example – and where it has in many respects gone furthest. To understand the real nature of the difficulties inadvertently caused for capital by neoliberalism we have to begin with the role of capitalist states ‘in general’.


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Labour, Pasokified.

Richard Seymour


We were exhorted by Labour’s supporters to ‘vote with hope’ in this election. What now that hope has been so cruelly dashed? What now that neither the ‘Edstone’, nor ‘Milibae’, nor pink buses for women, nor condescending to Scottish voters has been enough to deliver victory?
 
For Labour, the result is just marginally better than in 2010, when it incurred its worst election defeat since 1918. This was not inevitable. In 2012–3, during which period Labour flirted with opposition to austerity, it consistently led with over 40 percent of the vote. In this election, it gained just over 30 percent, compared to 29 percent in 2010. The only major Tory slayed was the despised Esther McVey in the marginal constituency of Wirral West. In other marginals, such as Nuneaton, the swing to Labour was pitiful. In North Swindon, a safe Tory seat since boundary changes in 2010, the Tories actually gained. Worse still for Labour, Ed Balls supplied the Tories with their ‘Portillo moment’, losing his seat in Morley and Outwood, not from incumbency but from opposition.

Why is Labour’s result so poor? It is not because of the overweening strength of Conservatism. Overall, the Tory vote has barely shifted from 36.1 percent in 2010 to (as of writing) 36.8 percent. The Tories have been in a crisis since 1992, since which time their vote has oscillated between the low to mid-thirties. In previous elections, a vote share of this scale would have left the Tories on the opposition benches. This is not, chiefly, a Tory surge, but the confirmation of a Labour collapse. Labour’s total enervation is also reflected in the turnout, which at 66.1 percent was barely a point above what it was in 2010. And while relatively affluent voters turned out to support Cameron – with a 75 percent turnout in Thornbury and Yate, where the Tories overturned a 7,000 Liberal majority ­– working-class constituencies had some of the lowest turnouts in the country. In Manchester Central, turnout was 52.9 percent. The exceptions to this pattern are where there was some sort of alternative. Across Scotland, turnout was 71.1 percent. In Bristol West, where the Greens came second, turnout was projected to be approximately 85 percent.

So, Miliband’s failure is a confirmation of Labour’s degeneration, its crisis, not of Tory strength. In fact, both Labour and the Conservatives are in the middle of a long-term crisis, which neither has done anything to reverse: the question in this election was, whose crisis is worse?

Unsurprisingly, and highly satisfactorily, the Liberals have been crushed, their share of the vote falling from 23 percent to 7.7 percent. Indeed, this is the big shift in the 2015 election: the collapse of the Liberals and the rise of the smaller parties. I want to point out something of great importance regarding the Liberals. I said previously that the reason their leadership didn’t care about getting mauled in the elections was because they were preparing themselves to act as kingmakers in future coalitions, as exercisers of ‘responsible’ political authority, detached from their base but integrated into the machinery of government. This, let us be honest, is where they’d rather be. And in the last few days, we’ve had Nick Clegg saying that a government without the Liberal Democrats involved would lack legitimacy: even knowing that his party would be hammered into fourth place, he still saw a central role for his wheelers and dealers. In effect, the Liberal apparatchiks chose, with the Orange Book coup against the centre-left Kennedy leadership, to turn their party into a mandarin, de facto apparatus of an increasingly post-democratic state.

The obverse of the Liberals in this election is the SNP. Every tendency in advanced post-democracy is being reversed in Scotland, where working-class electoral participation and party membership is rising, not falling. The SNP took fifty-eight seats, up from six in 2010. The tsunami-like proportions of this wipe-out may be exaggerated by the electoral system, but the swing is huge and signifies something far deeper than a shift in voter identifications or, God help us, a ‘protest vote’. Old right-wing Labour stalwarts like Tom Harris, interviewed on STV last night, demonstrate some vague comprehension that since the Independence referendum, something at the deepest strata of Scottish working class consciousness shifted. But neither he nor his political confederates get what shifted, or why.

The referendum ‘No’ coalition signified everything that was wrong with Westminster politics: all the main parties in it together, on the side of militarism and the multinationals. Despite Gordon Brown’s absurd ‘big beast’ posturing, despite all the talk of the ‘UK pension’ and the ‘UK NHS’, Labour attacked independence from the right, from a position of loyalty to the state, to the war machine, and to the neoliberal doctrines of the civil service. Miliband, during the election campaign, tried to reassure middle-class voters that Labour utterly ruled out any SNP influence on policies like austerity or Trident. And while the Labour Party tailed the Tories on austerity, mimicked Tory language on welfare, and practically grovelled on immigration, the SNP defended a simple, civilised position: no austerity, and no demonising the poor or immigrants. In England, Labour aping the Right led to the base staying at home, as they have done in growing numbers since 2001. In Scotland, working-class voters had a tried-and-tested reformist alternative, with an optimistic political identity linked to a profound socio-demographic shift, and were able to rally to it. And now, with England cleaving broadly to the right and Scotland shifting left, it’s hard to see how they current constitutional arrangements are sustainable. Scotland will simply not assent to being governed by the Tories, and Sturgeon will be under huge pressure to deliver another referendum.

There will be more to say, on the other side of the political spectrum, about the farraginous hordes that are banging at Cameron’s door, but for now it’s worth pointing out how many of them there are: almost four million in this election. UKIP is England’s terrified, resentful answer to the SNP. While the SNP were able to capitalise on the sheer detachment of the Westminster centre parties with a centre-left nationalism, UKIP linked Britain’s growing crisis of democracy to European domination and a series of reactionary gripes about immigration, political correctness and uppity Jocks. Only the perversities of the electoral system prevented UKIP from gaining the fifty or sixty seats they would have gained on this basis, if their vote were more geographically concentrated. As it is, Douglas Carswell, the least UKIP of UKIPers, is the only one to have held onto a seat. What is particularly absurd about this is that the distribution of UKIP’s votes points to its political strength: UKIP managed to eat into Labour heartlands almost as much as Tory seats, making UKIP possibly Britain’s first truly successful, cross-class, populist formation. In Sunderland, for example, it drew tens of thousands of voters, a surge first noticed during the city council elections last year when it took almost a quarter of the vote. Of course, the party is still very fragile and schismatic: its momentum may now dissipate, and it will be much weaker now that Farage has resigned the leadership. But the basis upon which they won these votes was ideologically hardcore, with Farage using the televised debates not to broaden his support but to consolidate his base. If the dominant parties are forced to accept PR, as seems increasingly likely, this signifies a major realignment on the Right.

Finally, there is the Left. The results for TUSC and Left Unity were predictably nanoscopic. The major left tributary of disaffected Labour voters in England was the Greens, who did well to get 3.7 percent of the vote, a four-fold increase on 2010. In addition to keeping Brighton Pavilion, with a 10 percent swing in their favour, they also came second with a swing of 23 percent in Bristol West, where the sitting Liberal was overturned. And they came a good third in a number of constituencies, such as Norwich South, or Holborn and St Pancras where Natalie Bennett got over 7,000 votes. I think this represents something more than a protest vote. Once more, if we get anything like proportional representation, the game is up: in those circumstances, the Green vote will easily surge past 5 percent toward the double figures, and the Pasokification of Labour will take another lurch forward.

This election has been about the collapse of the Labour Party, of labour-movement politics and more generally of representative politics: precisely as I warned. The hope we were exhorted to embrace has been hugely devalued by overuse and by misapplication. There is no hope in the Labour Party. It has neither the political will nor the resources to reconstitute itself, nor would it have a clue how to do so if it did. The Left has to accept reality, and move on. Rebuilding is a slow, difficult, thankless task. In the meantime, hope is precious: it must be rationed.


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Re-asking the Housing Question

By Mary Robertson

Chronic under-supply, crippling unaffordability, and – for the first time in a century – deteriorating physical conditions, are pushing housing to the forefront of political and economic debate in Britain. It is an indication of its breadth and severity that we are spoiled for choice in seeking a headline figure that encapsulates Britain’s housing crisis. A twenty-six percent increase in homelessness since 2010; average house prices more than five times larger than average incomes; ballooning social housing waiting lists; or three quarters of the British public agreeing that there is a housing crisis in Britain – all these things and more point to Britain’s growing inability to house its population.

But its escalating problems are also making housing a site of intensified struggle. A scattering of local defensive actions across London have turned into some of the most vibrant and inspiring campaigns seen in Britain in a long time. For the most part, these are campaigns led not by the usual suspects or dedicated activists, but by people directly affected by housing issues and new to political action. Significantly, for a generation of leftists accustomed to political defeat, housing has also proved the site of some rare, if small, political victories, such as the New Era campaigners ousting their American buyer or Focus E15 forcing part of the Heygate estate into use. The momentum building around housing struggles raises the question of whether housing can be a site of transformative social struggle.

It has been a long time since housing garnered such attention. Significant improvements in housing in the inter- and post-war periods relegated housing to the relative political wilderness. Viewed from a longer perspective, however, housing problems are not new. The nature and inevitability of housing problems, and their potential for transformative change, were discussed by Engels in his pamphlet ‘The Housing Question’ in 1872. Engels argued that capitalist society would fail to provide workers with sufficient or adequate housing, and that the contradictions and uneven development of capitalist society would generate recurrent housing problems. With the housing question resurfacing so forcefully after decades of progress in the middle of the last century, this insight seems highly prescient. However, while there is much in Engels that remains relevant today, the nature of the housing problem has inevitably been transformed by a century and a half of capitalist restructuring. Most notably, the growth of primary and secondary mortgage markets has embroiled housing in financial markets and made housing a site of speculation. To comprehend the present crisis, Engels’s analysis needs updating so that it is able to grasp the novel features acquired by the housing question in the era of financialised capitalism.

Engels’s prognosis for housing was paired with a thesis about the nature of housing struggle. While he granted that housing problems might be temporarily mitigated through the actions of states, capitalists, or workers themselves, Engels ultimately saw housing problems as a reflection of, and subordinate to, the exploitation of labour under capitalist production. Consequently, he argued that the housing problem could only be definitively solved through the overthrow of capitalism and not through isolated struggles around housing:

As long as the capitalist mode of production continues to exist, it is folly to hope for an isolated solution of the housing question or of any other social question affecting the fate of the workers. The solution lies in the abolition of the capitalist mode of production and the appropriation of all the means of life and labour by the working class itself.

Accordingly, he insisted that workers, not tenants, are the agents of revolutionary change, derisively dismissing Proudhon’s suggestion that ‘[a]s the wage worker in relation to the capitalist, so is the tenant in relation to the house owner’ as ‘patently untrue’. As housing struggles emerge at the forefront of contemporary resistance, this thesis demands to be revisited. In particular, is there anything about the financialised reincarnation of the housing question that alters or elevates the transformative potential of housing struggles today?


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Marxism for Whores

Magpie Corvid

My story is the same as many thousands of people who have found themselves unable to find steady, decently paid work. Our story is about austerity ...

Read more »

Neoliberalism as the Agent of Capitalist Self-Destruction

Neil Davidson

The neoliberal era can be retrospectively identified as beginning with ...

Read more »

Labour, Pasokified

Richard Seymour

We were exhorted by Labour’s supporters to ‘vote with hope’ in this election. What now that hope has been so cruelly dashed?

Read more »

Re-asking the Housing Question

Mary Robertson

Chronic under-supply, crippling unaffordability, and – for the first time in a century – deteriorating physical conditions ...

Read more »