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London’s Overthrow – a New Introduction
2012’s essay London’s Overthrow, a diagnostic snapshot of the city between riots and Olympics, has had various incarnations – in a magazine, online, in print. And now it is available in French from Pocket, along with a new introduction for French readers. With our thanks to the publishers for their permission, here we reproduce that introduction in English.
This is a peculiar political moment, feeling by abrupt turn deadened and static, increasingly apocalyptic, and unexpectedly, wrenchingly generative of Sehnsucht, all in lurching rhythmless rhythm. It’s an indication of this unpredictability that scant weeks after they were written, the concluding tenor of the reflections that follow already feels too bleak. We’re a very long way from inaugurating a moment of political buoyancy or boisterousness, but it is a cautious, embattled joy to feel – as we do, as will be made more clear from Salvage’s new Perspectives document, shortly to be published in issue 2 and online – as if the carapace of neoliberalism is, even for a moment, even a crack less hermetic and sealed now than when what follows was written.
The introduction below may prove to be wrong, a museum-piece, out of date. We do not expect, but fervently hope, that this is so.
No moment is ever only the sum of its parts. There’s always a surplus. Every human instant has a constitutive core, that’s derived from the material of its clear components, certainly, but irreducible to them. We all know this. We acknowledge It every time we agree with friends that It feels like there’s something in the air today, or smile that Everyone is in a good mood, or frown, because Everyone is on edge.
London’s Overthrow is a snapshot of a bad moment.
That baleful sense that clotted up the streets of London in late 2011 was hardly a mystery, of course. One could itemise its elements. In the still-smoking rubble of the economic collapse, there was a new government, a coalition of the predatory and the in-denial, overseeing an acceleration of iniquity and inequality. In the aftermath of the extraordinary riots resultant from the unpunished death of a young Black man at police hands, the opinionated classes opened the spite-sluices against the disempowered, with denigration and carceral politics every bit as shameful as Sarkozy’s 2005 ’racaille’ smear. The Olympics were coming, and underneath the neurotically repeated fanfare demanding preemptive celebration could be heard the discordant clattering of social cleansing – ‘gentrification’.
Still, beyond all these and many other points of the list, there was also that excess, a surplus foreboding.
Of course, subsequent to the Olympics, those of us who had expressed scepticism about their ‘legacy’, to invoke a degraded term, were chided for being Cassandras, for having been ‘wrong’ – on the basis that the Olympics had been a popular spectacle.
As if, even if that were measurably or meaningfully true, it was the axis on which such judgements could be made. Our prediction – that in the long term the vaunted projects would, to put it politely, not benefit the poor communities of east London – firmly stands. Our critics must evaluate it on a scale not of months but years, and according to more meaningful criteria than fleeting televisual entertainment.
But whatever the pressures and our pessimism, that excess quiddity of a moment, of social hope and anxiety, flows according to complex currents, a fluid dynamics of affect. And as months passed, and the continued punitive politics of our leaders notwithstanding, the sense of embattledness in those short crepuscular days of late 2011 ebbed somewhat.
Only a fool would have said that life in London became a delight, in the following months and years. One could still easily itemise all the ways in which Londoners (among many others) were being browbeaten. But – anecdotally, in unclear but palpable ways – some gloom did lift. Things felt better.
Not, it should be stressed, that London’s Overthrow felt – to its writer at least – like a chronicle denuded of all hope or joy. Guarded and girded, yes – lugubrious, no. It certainly was, though, and quite explicitly, apocalyptic. Because that was how it felt. And, or but, or and and but, for whatever opaque reasons, in the months after its publication, that horizon seemed, somewhat, to recede.
No matter at all. If the book worked, it would be as a snapshot of a moment now waned, and still perhaps have some value for that. Indeed who wouldn’t prefer for the essay to be of a moment of history, one that could be read in better times.
But those undercurrents – and overcurrents – still tug. And their directions change. And this time the drivers behind a more recent shift are unusually clear.
We in London are now in the aftermath of a general election the outcome of which was – for those committed to a freer world, more breathable air – worse than the worst predictions of almost anyone. Neoliberal ‘austerity’ – so called – remains unpopular, but seemingly increasingly remorseless. Rampaging across the face of the city at accelerated rate is what we might term the landlordist-gentrification complex, wreaking a peculiarly philistine form of venal dystopia on London.
I revisit London’s Overthrow now less with recollection than with recognition. We are in another bad moment.
During the recent referendum in Scotland, the secret name cooked up by those opposed to independence for their own campaign was ‘Project Fear’. Its aim was to persuade people not of the rectitude of its advocates’ positions, but that its opponents will be punished for their desires for anything different – better. Weaponised despair, torqued through bureaucratic democracy. This is the neoliberal method in miniature, and writ large it is what overhangs us.
The lesson to be derived is not that there is no point resisting: there is every point, and manifest necessity. It is to acknowledge the scale of what it is we must resist. The overthrow of something for which we hanker – a life worth living, a London we deserve – is not prophesied but in process.
London’s Overthrow was a record of a foreboding city – both in the sense that it engendered and that it suffered the anxiety of catastrophe. For a short time it seemed as if it was a worst-case memory. It feels now, to me, minatory. I wish that were not so.
China Miéville is a founding editor of Salvage. He is the author of various works of fiction and non-fiction, including The City & the City and London’s Overthrow. His latest book is Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories. He is currently collaborating with Robert Knox on the forthcoming Against International Law.