A Chorus for Corus
The Failure of COP15: Rambling manifesto to the Corus steel workers on Teesside and those who would be their buddies
The occupation of the Vestas wind turbine on the Isle of Wight during the summer of 2009 shows how potent the weapon of sustainable production can be and how it can serve the workers' cause – as well as everybody else's if they could but know it - if deployed imaginatively. Prior to that some workers occupying the Visteon factory a Ford subsidiary in north London had almost immediately called for a redirection of production away from manufacturing useless knick knacks to making things people really need. These are significant first steps. Rarely in the past forty years has anything like this achieved a popular profile in strikes and occupations and apart from a few examples pointing to an indivisible social/ecological emancipation in Italy in the late 1970s/early 1980s most of the time such practical but visionary measures have remained on the level of pious wishes. True, a little earlier the situationists were among the few who did point to the necessity of an immediate transformation of production, distinguishing between real and false needs and as against under-development there was now a crisis of over-development meaning there was a crying necessity to consume less and to live life more directly and passionately. Alas, what a pity some of this hadn't been taken up by those at the sharp end as we wouldn't now be in the sorry mess we are in. As for the UK, sadly factory occupations weren't that inspiring and, apart from the odd exception, were devised as a more militant tactic within a TU perspective (e.g. the Manchester engineering workers in 1972) or else to prevent asset stripping of machinery etc by management. Really there was only the Lucas Aerospace Plan (see elsewhere on the RAP web) however; this proposal wasn't organic to a strike or factory occupation. Now the question has returned with a renewed and more popular vigour acquiring a greater profile as the need for sustainable production has become a question of the continuance of life itself.
But what is to done with Europe's largest blast furnace in Redcar on Teesside that has been blazing away for 140 years and that has now been dampened down, mothballed and 1000s of workers laid off in the unlikely chance it will find a buyer? There is moreover a very interesting story behind it and it strikes us the eco weapon could have been employed to maximum effect in the struggle to keep the plant open by emphasising the need to redirect production. It seems amazing no one thought to use it because as a tactic it was staring everyone in the face. We can only assume the dead hand of trade unionism had much to do with stifling initiative and that consequently steel workers have a bad opinion of themselves as a result of being unable to force the pace of struggle and feel their own strength. Thus cowed they are more easily manipulated by bureaucrats who claim they know what's best for them and that prevents the rank and file from ever stepping radically out of line. Reviewing the notes one of us took, typed in the margin was the following: "the language of suicidal moderation rules this struggle".
Sadly steel worker struggles in the UK have been lacking in flare for a long time and a brief summary may help here. Once, a long time ago, the "plug plot" rioters of Halifax, West Yorkshire in the 1840s – so-called because they capped the plugs on the furnaces - set the area alight marching and rioting up the steep ascent of Holly Bank to Mountain on their way to Bradford to get help from other workers who instantaneously responded. Around the same time the steel works in Low Moor in Bradford were taken over to make cannon that were going to be used against adversaries on the way down to London where the powers that be were going to be blown to bits. And then.....and then......and then! Then 140 years later came the catastrophe of the completely TU policed and benign strike of 1980 led by the ISTC chief, Bill Sirs (instantly/appositely renamed "Sir Bill" and a former steel worker from West Hartlepool, just up from Teeside) who could only grovel and grovel and grovel. If it hadn't been for the intervention of South Yorks miners at Hadfields in Sheffield the strike would have passed without incidence. Thus insult to injury followed as the Attercliffe steel plants were swept aside replaced by the mighty and grotesque Meadowhall temple to consumption. Later in the day Sir Bill after fucking the strike over called for militant action but by then hearts had been broken. Typically, now the Corus closure is a fait accompli, the steel unions are flexing their muscles and calling for strike action. (GMB gave authority for strike action 19th Feb 2010 - Really? Big deal!) This reads more like the art of defeat than war from which bureaucrats will come out smelling of roses claiming they were ready for fight but were then betrayed by workers who had no stomach for a fight. It has been a tactic of steel unions for well over 30 years to call for all out action when action is in the process of being wound down – in this case never to be restarted.
The Redcar plant is owned by Corus which is the second biggest steel producer in Europe. The real heyday of steel in this country was after the Second World War when battered European economies especially rebuilt their infrastructure and steel boomed for three decades. After the onset of economic crisis in the 1970s and the still un-winding crises of profitability, production was scaled back and British Steel was privatised in 1988, merging with the Anglo Dutch group Corus in 1999 and then taken over by the Indian giant Tata Steel in March 2007 owned by Lakshmi Mittal, undoubtedly one of the world's richest men. It became one of the most successful planetary firms replete with international development, production and marketing strategies, based upon buying up, merging with or establishing strategic alliances with firms in other countries; a truly global company having long since left the national economy behind and now one of 29 giant transnationals. And for those who say the state is a bygone entity in terms of real influence, think again. Advanced capitalist states use up more GDP than ever - excepting war - in maintaining their imprint. They are however more polyglot and though occasionally dictating somewhat to the needs of global transnationals obsequiously assist them more often than not. In return, companies like Corus regularly require state assistance even though it is channelled through many nation states throughout the world which they then try and play off against each other giving the company many headaches when seeking protection for their wares. How these companies must wish at times for a powerful world state utterly responsive to their needs whereby they could reduce their expenditure on manipulative bullshit regarding the minor players!
Moreover, we must also remember Lakshmi Mittal hands out the odd £million or three to the UK Labour party so there was no way any resurgent Dept of Trade & Industry was going to gainsay the steel magnate's decision to close Corus.
What is more Mittal was able to make eco-money out of the closure thus recouping his Labour party's handouts. Because of the smear campaign launched by climate deniers and the right wing against the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), it has proven impossible to make proper use of the relevant data. By shifting production to India and modernizing plant, Mittal is able to draw on the UN's Clean Development Mechanism which is operated by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the organizers behind COP15. Thanks to the UN's CDM, Mittal is laughing all the way to the bank, having cashed in on reducing carbon emissions by replacing inefficient old plant in India with a higher 'organic' (!!!!) composition of capital similar to that already in place on Teesside. Tata also plans to increase steel production world wide to 123 million tons and has announced plans to build a 20 million euro plant in the Netherlands and which will result in yet more CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere. In the name of reducing emissions Mittal has astutely exploited the loopholes in the carbon markets, a market which has done nothing to reduce carbon emissions but which has succeeded in launching another commodity onto the world market: the carbon commodity.
The chair of the IPCC is Dr Pachauri who recently has been arraigned for weaknesses in the International Panel for Climate Change's (IPCC) climate report, particularly over the section that set a firm date for the melting and disappearance of the Himalayan glaciers upon which India and China depend. However this has been seized on to prove the science is false, when it is only the date that is out. An article appearing in The Independent of 22nd Jan 2010 established that receding glaciers were already a problem in Northern India and that a government engineer Chewang Norphel had hit upon idea of creating artificial glaciers to help local framers irrigate their once yearly crops. But, as with most career bureaucrats, there are episodes in Dr Pachauri's past he is as embarrassed as hell about and that continue to bear poison fruit: in 1981 he became director of the Delhi based Tata energy research group before finally making it to Director General in 2001. He is obviously open to accusations of a conflict of interests but the important thing is, surely, that we take this information out of the hands of the right wing and turn it to radical ends, undermining both the right and 'left' in the process.
The steel workers of Teesside were in a position to use it to maximum effect and it beats us why they failed to do this. Perhaps the steel unions were telling the workers not to be led up the garden path by such shameful right wing propaganda! Fat chance! They certainly were telling them to stay cool whilst another buyer was found; the TU's brazenly claiming there were now credible offers on the table at the very moment the furnaces were doused. The steel workers were less sanguine and said it was merely politicking and how come, at this critical moment, offers suddenly started to come out of the woodwork? Clearly the TU's and the Government were afraid the steel workers, now pushed to the limits of exasperation, might begin to take matters into their own hands and act for themselves. And so the business secretary and north easterner, Lord Mandelson, was hastily dispatched to Teesside to announce a £3.8 million aid package for Corus apprentices, local Tees Valley businesses and to ensure that cracks don't appear in the steel workers front and that solidarity in defeat is maintained. And there is every possibility this front will hold, the faces of the steel workers, their wives, their fuck buddies, gay and straight, and grown up children lined with weariness as though all hope has gone from their lives. Moreover a wind turbine production unit has been promised for the North East after the Vestas ignominy.
However we would like to think the situation still remains open and, even at this late date, defeat can be turned if not to victory well something memorable and inspiring by the use of imaginative tactics that could set the oppressed alight here, there and everywhere (remember Corus is one of the great 29 transnationals). But we are up against the legacy of a closed shop, a conservative legacy whose function in terms of drilling workers into submission has been all but forgotten about during the decades of neo liberal assault. The closed shop also delivered unprecedented power into the hands of TU bureaucrats and which a more enlightened management was quick to use for its own ends by cosying up to them, permitting facility time and dishing out all manner of perks. And so the problem of actually being able to contact steel workers even outside the gates in order to discuss more imaginative tactics and, yes, open minds to possibilities, has been, and still is, that much harder than with the largely non-unionised Vestas workers where one didn't have to run the gauntlet of pointless trade union procedure and up-tight wrath.
Instead of choosing to hold a protest in the Riverside stadium when Middlesbrough FC were playing at home, the steel workers along with all kinds of mates could have gone on to occupy Saltholme marshes RSPB reserve as well as a part of the Corus plant in a far more meaningful play off of Ecorus United v Ecoapitalist Wanderers. Now there is no denying this would take guts. Right on the door step of the foundry, the spot was supremely well placed from which to launch an expose and which could have reverberated around the world. However not only would the TU's have come down on it but also the owners, the Teesside Environmental Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the Regional Development Council (RDC) and any other shit thrower determined to crush worker resistance once and for all. But first they would have been very nervous about doing so precisely because real creative tactics had been deployed and that's where our opportunity always lies. (Remember "Quick" was the most devastating slogan of May '68 in France). Following hard on the Vestas occupation and the failure of COP15, it would have instantly grabbed the headlines and put the fire back into people's souls, if not the furnaces. The more waves it created the more likely steel and other workers and non-workers would have joined in, especially if the doors, right from the start, had been thrown open to local people from all over Teesside and elsewhere. A wide ranging debate could have been initiated with the potential to rock the planet as well as Corus, the planetary transnational. The Saltholme Reserve, together with all the other official nature reserves in these vast marshes, provides a focus second to none from which to expose the manifold contradictions and shame that besets the North East, now become the country's prime victim of the financial services revolution with nothing henceforth to offer other than a lifetime of submission, deprivation, hardship, art and nature reserves. Given the publicity it would have attracted it would not have been easy for Corus management to threaten the withdrawal of redundancy money, though given the viciousness of management today that's what they would immediately have done, though fearful of the scorching flames and shame of publicity!
Having a long association with the area, a grandfather and uncles once working the long defunct ironstone mines in the Cleveland Hills that supplied the Redcar blast furnaces with iron ore, as well as others working at Consett steel works and the cliff top furnaces of Skelton & Brotton a little to the south of Redcar we know how passionately the working people of Teesside feel about their native landscape. There is no denying the Saltholme Reserve is a quality instance of land restoration in the interests of wildlife and that, though force of example, can only show up the ignominious pit spoil heap makeovers which conservationist organizations like Butterfly Conservation foolishly became involved with. Though chiefly for birds, in May and June masses of Common Blue and Small Copper Butterflies can be seen flying on a sensitively reclaimed 20 acre tip. Moreover, the rare Grayling butterfly has been seen here though its real home is in the adjacent Haverstock Hill Marshalling Yards. Saltholme was once salt marsh, the Victorian Klondike for salt underground reserves. The salt was extracted through boreholes that still funnel the site and which became the basis along with the alum from Sandsend near Whitby of the Teesside chemical industry.
In our early teens we loved to cycle the fifteen to twenty or so miles that separated the wild life rich magnesian limestone strip on which we were happily brought up on, to Tees Mouth and there experience an alluvial environment of a completely different sort. But industry in various stages of inviting decay was the one thing the two places had in common and we were not alone in our enjoyment of it. Carol Gowland who grew up in "The Clarences" (the adjacent terraced cottage rows originally for the salt miners) during the 1950s (did we ever bump into each other, and was it love at first sight?) has left an unforgettable impression of this magical place: "the local newspaper said we lived in dirty slums and this was a bad place, just because it was back-to-back houses with outside toilets. But we loved this place. We'd play here even though it was forbidden because of the dangerous drainage ditches. But no one ever drowned. It was our wilderness. We could run free, pick a few wildflowers, listen to the skylarks". Carol went on to say "Industry has protected the place rather than ruining it. We want to preserve the wilderness and get the skylarks back. This is about our identity, but you have to know where you are. The river is our identity". The chair of Teesside Environment Trust recognized it was "the meld of industry and nature that makes this reserve so distinctive and so relevant to the people here" (our italics).
Surveying the scene and one is left searching for words to describe the extraordinary contrast between an area more typical of fenland and the backdrop of blast furnaces, cooling towers and the meandering tubes of petrochemical refineries. To us this contrast has always signified nature at its most intense and it is what we grew up with and delighted in. By intense I don't necessarily mean these sites were the most bio diverse, though in point of fact they have tended to become that and may even have been so when we were children. They were so little investigated because of a deep seated anti brownfield site prejudice that has hardly budged since, despite the mountain of evidence they are wild life havens-or at least are until career ecologists get to do their worst, as happened with the 'Turning Tide Project' that was unleashed on Co Durham's industrial coastline in the 1990s. These sites produced in us (and clearly others, as Carol's testimony proves) a near rapturous enjoyment and seemed to foreshadow a new way of looking at things and living and it was always with some reluctance we would make our way home at the end of the day. In their own way they were also a protest against domestication because there was also much that was forbidden about them. When Carol, above, speaks of them as embodying an identity she is referring to her real identity, the one that got lost among the way, becoming alienated and wound up, individuals like Carol and ourselves, whose lives are still stirred by similar unforgettable memories, forever feeling that coiled tension deep within.
Unquestionably the creation of these various nature reserves has not only diminished the magic of the place but has also socialized it by making it family friendly. The laughing children we see in web mast heads are always accompanied by 'responsible adults', these images of fun and happiness clearly meant to celebrate the values of nuclear family life. In fact they merely insult our integrity life because the nuclear family is being torn apart everywhere and is set to disintegrate even further. The RSPB project manager Kevin Bayes spoke of it as "the rejuvenation of family friendly wild life watching" where "we have created open, friendly buildings and designed habitats so people can get close to wildlife". The Centre that dominates the site is not just any old shed but was designed by name architects, the Regional Development Authority spending £2.3 million on the reserve and the European Development Fund contributing £1.4 million. The "wildlife discovery centre" at Salthome takes pride of place (not nature!) on dedicated webs and which underlines the importance of signature architecture in the rebranding and selling of regions and cities anxious to slough off their industrial past. The RSPB's flagship reserve on the reclaimed Rainham Marshes on the lower reaches of the Thames was the first attempt to rebrand a run down area using nature as a sales strategy, a secretary of state, Ruth Kelly, appearing on national TV when the reserve was opened, to great public fanfare, in November 2006.
The RSPB expected before the recession (which threatens never to end and tip over into the most devastating depression capitalism has ever encountered) 100,000 people to visit Saltholme each year. spending upwards of £1 million in "one of the most needy local economies in the country" adding "it is a brilliant example of an RSPB project aiding regeneration where it is needed most" (Nov 2007 Vol. 21). A 'Guardian' newspaper article (18th Feb 2009) candidly spoke of the RSPB 'business model' praising it for recognizing "the importance of wild life to social and economic regeneration". The same issue of the RSPB, mentioned above, carried an ad for an RSPB credit card, the sales pitch proclaiming "more money for birds". This venture was guided by the Cooperative Bank, a bank that has emerged unscathed from the crunch with 'credit' to its name. The same cannot be said for the now nationalized Newcastle based Northern Rock which, when it failed spectacularly in the summer of 2007, was the first visible warning sign of the financial crises and that was altogether a symptom of a far more profound crises of capitalism. No one to date has bought out the full significance of the fact that a sociobiologist Matt Ridley, author of 'The Red Queen' and friend of Richard Dawkins, was a director of the Northern (C)rock. An extreme market orientated fundamentalist, he has gone on record as saying that belief "in the financial dictum that you should have substantial savers deposits to finance your lending schemes was a myth to be cast aside"! This also could be a fitting epitaph to sociobiology because it unequivocally lays bare the connection between it and the resurgence, from the mid 1970s onwards, of free market truths, against which protest is a waste of time because it is a biological given and as implacable as the tides!
But these are just the sort of burning issues that an occupation of Saltholme, or the other nearby nature reserves, open to all comers, would have raised and which could have been used as a platform from which to denounce the new economy of few and far between hi-tech services, of neo avant-garde cultural over-production and light entertainment, of Ant 'n' Dec, Cheryl Cole, Heather Mills and industrial makeovers, the first out-of-town shopping centre, the Gateshead Metro Centre, erected on the site of an old ash pit, as the North East gave the appearance of having embraced the "post industrial life style". Beginning with the 'Angel of the North' the area was ripe for rebranding, Gormley's monstrosity closely followed by PR "destination slogans" (e.g. Newcastle/Gateshead 'World Class Culture'), as its cities, especially Newcastle and its second to none engineering heritage rather than the cathedral city of Durham, were targeted as "destination cities". 'Time Out' voted Newcastle the best city to visit in the UK and "Lonely Planet" named the region one of the 30 best destinations in the world, the Newcastle /Gateshead nexus "a post industrial vortex of great pulling power"!
Teesside, still playing the game of catch up, has limped along a very poor second, the Corus workers only too well aware Middlesbrough has not been able to 'reinvent' itself. The £200 million Middlehaven dock development with plans for 1m sq ft of offices, homes shops restaurants and a luxury hotel, is a prosaic late comer and fails to 'spark' when compared to the lottery funded conversion of Gateshead old Baltic Flour Mill into a rival of London's Tate Modern and which, in the boom years up to 2007, gave the illusion art, as a generator of 'wealth', could replace the loss of heavy industry. A 'Financial Times' article of April 6th 2005 acclaimed post modern Newcastle as the "creative reinvention of an industrial giant", citing the views of the US based writer Richard Florida, author of "The Rise of the Creative Class", that Newcastle was a prime example of knowledge based artists and professionals as "now the ultimate economic resource". Praising the "influx of creativity from sculpture to bioinformatics", the triumphalist rhetoric is that of a vanished era that perished in 2007 and will now only raise eyebrows but, unfortunately, not yet fists.
But people (and not just in the North East) are beginning to hunger after radical theory. What they won't accept is that they are in anyway to blame and that this is the price of feather beading and overindulgence as formerly preached by the Chicago School of Economics. They've been had and they know it and are looking for someone to blame. This time around it is the local Labour party nomenclature that is likely to come under attack, for nowhere else in the country has it put down such deep roots, providing unique career opportunities to those prepared to spin the wheels within wheels of a soviet-style party machine. This always was, and remains, the real 'big brother', not Ant 'n' Dec. However in 2006 when the country got to hear of the escapades of Dave Abraham's, the son of a former Mayor of Newcastle, the impregnable, pork barrel, monolith that had been greased by men in shabby suits in smoke filled committee rooms from time immemorial, was exposed in a comic fashion. Accused of making illegal donations to the Labour party to buy favours (so what's new!), this Walter Mitty character of multiple personas, names and companies, would, for example, turn up at VIP gatherings with a wife purchased especially for the occasion. This was also a sign of cracks beginning to appear in the conservative hegemony of North East Labour politics. Having taken on more than it could handle, the region having lost its traditional anchors, was beginning to spiral out of control.
The accumulating insanity was topped a year later just before the credit crisis really broke, by a Mr. Darwin who had faked his own death by sailing out to sea in a canoe so his wife could claim life insurance to pay off the mortgage. Though officially dead, he had lived in the couple's house in a hidey hole, disappearing when neighbours popped in to reemerge, and go for walks, on Seaton Carew beach (just up from the Corus steel works) wearing an improbable beard, moustache and wig that wouldn't fool a three year old. The insurance money was peanuts compared to even an average City of London bonus and barely worth cashing in. However to us it graphically illustrated how any attempt to create working and lower middle class dynastic family chains based on the inheritance of property was bound to go horribly wrong in a region traditionally accustomed to making things not manipulating money. Nonetheless the couple received savage jail sentences. If they'd been part of the financial elite they would have been somewhat commended followed by a slight shake of the head.
The long detour of "new paradigm economics" is over for a region that for long has seen itself as a place apart, "the madness of the market" translating into real outbreaks of madness and alcohol fuelled despair. Gazza's turmoil reflects the insecurities of a region that has been catapulted to fame only to find it cannot manage the contradictions of its new found celebrity status and yearns for something more substantial and real in an industrial past become a museum piece, including the traditional working class values of solidarity and loyalty. In the meantime, on an individual and regional level, it has become an object of derision, to be pitied more than helped. In point of fact however the area is more dependent on state support than it has probably ever been. The situation is becoming so desperate, either the downtrodden of the North East who have been sold a line (and only Labour was able to do it) will "hang em high" or they will hang themselves, the ladder of fortune proffered by New Labour become an ascent to the scaffold if the region does not rise up.
They also want 'industrial renewal' but know it has to be of a sustainable sort, a renewal which reconnects with the areas great engineering traditions. This heritage has of course has been increasingly commoditised as a tourist attraction over the last 20 years in particular. However amongst 'the workers' (an emotive category that is very strong in the North East and that includes those that 'feel' they are, though probably never having done a proper days work in their lives) it is a heritage that burns deep within and could easily be turned to fruitful account once more. In the meantime the area has been split apart by the most catastrophic - and visible - of all regional schizophrenias: on the one hand the toiletry sponsored event artist, Spencer Tunick, can manipulate a gullible army of naked men and women into voluntarily stripping off and standing to attention on a cold morning on Newcastle's quayside, on the other when Alan Shearer was signed up to Newcastle United for the whopping sum of £18m in 1997, he excused himself on the grounds "I'm still a sheet metal worker's son from Newcastle". It drew a mighty roar from the St James's crowd. Of course it let Shearer of the hook who had also arrantly claimed the signing fee would make no difference to him! But it was also a howl for the lost economy of mines and shipbuilding, a loss more powerfully felt than anywhere else in the country, including South Yorkshire. And that is really saying something!
By mid 1967, and as the need for a total revolution became blindingly obvious to us, we came to perceive that the Russian Constructivists could never entirely ditch the notion of art and that we had to make a more thorough job of it. This utter rejection of the role of artist was a source of anguish to the Constructivists but they also had a horror of being labelled the bohemian fringe of an industrial society they were so anxious to merge with and become the heart and soul of. A crew cut and the wearing of workers' clothes were not good enough and they had to become proletarian producers themselves. However they could not simply become workers and though they felt they had much to learn from the workers, always at the back of their minds was the wish to transform ('reconstruct') life, beginning at the point of production. Still producing the bare necessities, Russia was only just to say launched on its industrial revolution and there was little spare capacity for play, the play coming from the 'artists' of the reconstruction of daily life, not the workers, as in "The amazing adventures of Mr. West in the land of the Bolsheviks". And though the Russian industrial proletariat was a "miracle of history" in terms of its readiness to fight and create new social organs, the urge to radically transform production was far more advanced in places like Newcastle, then about to enter, in the late 1960s, the epoch of an increasingly rapid deindustrialisation.
The shine should have long gone off engineering feats in the land of our birth, but in point of fact the opposite had happened and, looking back, we can see why, deep down, we had long regarded the engineer as more of a creative force than the artist. There were also historical reasons for this. The great mechanical inventions that made the North East justly famous were put together in small workshops rather than large factories. What came out of these unprepossessing workshops was more of a one off than a serial product typical of mass production. If you like, this was a type of collective creation, more of an engineering made by all, the division of labour then far more fluid than now. There was little R&D, much trial and error and learning by doing. It certainly put a great power into the hands of engineers and that anarcho-syndicalism was not slow in latching onto, for these engineers rapidly bridled at business-like strictures, especially when it concerned the dilution of their skills.
Of course this could have reactionary consequences but, on the other hand, from an early age we always felt these little workshops that once dotted the North East were open, friendly places, full of promise. We never felt we had something to teach the people that worked in them, rather that they had something to teach me. This tutelary relationship was the opposite to that of the Russian Constructivists and from the mid sixties onwards we felt it was the social relations of production that was the block to achieving full potential, not the lack of 'artistic' direction. Such a self conscious imposition would only inhibit the free rein of the so far unexpressed unconscious of engineering, a potential spanner in the works that goes beyond that of mere bridges engines and cranes, and that's essential to 'a life worth living' and which there are only the barest hints of in Russian constructivism.
The Russian industrial proletariat was also a young proletariat, its actual numbers, if not impact, small when compared to the vast body of Russian society. Having made a revolution it had become an object of veneration, but still an object in other words. The avant-garde wished to make it a formulaic expression of their geometries and self-image, Meyerhold's theatrical gymnastics (biomechanics) included. Having been on much more intimate, ultimately appreciative, terms with an industrial working class that had been a major part of everyday life in this country for at least 150 years; we couldn't muster that kind of arrogance. Less inclined to impose, it was apparent to us the avant-garde was also a vanguard, a consciousness raiser from the outside but who would be condemned to complete nullity following the Soviet Party Decree of 1932 that replaced the avant-garde with the state controlled "Union of Architects and Artists". Convinced a revolution was immanent and utterly loathing, by mid 1967, any form of artistic pretence, we knew the only way forward was get rid of this reactionary label completely and connect with the only creative power that mattered, that of the autonomous activity of the masses re-inventing everything from the bottom up. Compared with us the Russian avant-garde was an elite. Condemned for formalism by Stalin's aesthetic cohorts, it was the formal element that would ultimately triumph both in the west and east, its rise and runaway success linked to the catastrophic unleashing of neo liberalism and the bubble economics that have proved so disastrous.
As the North East became progressively stripped of its engineering plant and deindustrialised, ironically a Gormley would eventually substitute for a Tatlin, art actually triumphing over industry rather than confronting head on the challenge of industrial renewal and the questions thrown up by an insurgent industrial proletariat. Gormley stands in a comparable relation to the revolutionary direction events were taking in Newcastle in the late 1960s as Gabo and Pevsner did to the Russian Constructivists, both the latter unashamedly celebrating a tecnophile aesthetic of materials that suggests industrial production rather than directly engaging with it, even to the limited degree practiced by the constructivists. And that certainly excluded any feel for the industrial proletariat and their struggles just as it does with Gormley, his modish regard for the derelict industrial symbols of a by gone era mere form without content. Though no one has yet said so, it is snobbishly predicated on the defeat of the industrial working class who undoubtedly would have given him a lot of stick. At least Gabo and Pevsner had once rubbed shoulders with the likes of Tatlin and Malevich whose words always merit close attention. Gormley on the contrary, had nothing remotely subversive to recall and therefore, nothing to betray. Certainly nothing of abiding interest to say, a few of Gabo and Pevsner's earlier statements from 1920 demonstrating at least some merit, though even then blazoned with untroubled flourishes generally absent from the searching statements of others involved in the group,INKhUK.
Gormley's "The Angel of the North" was the forerunner of Big Art: a proxy of industrial production, the bigger it grows the more certain the disappearance of industry. The industrial proletariat has also followed the relocation of industry abroad; taking with it the problems it perennially gave rise to in this country. What next, one wonders, for this neo constructivist of good riddance to the industrial working class? Instead of the "Monument to the Third International", an environmentally friendly "Monument to the Multinationals" on the site of the Corus blast furnace, which the RSPB will wholeheartedly welcome because able to pull in the crowds? When Tatlin's 'Monument' was unveiled it at once became iconic and, as the years passed, even more so, the instantly recognizable pictogram the trade mark for the post modern Leninists of "New Left Review", still totally unable to break free from statist models of 'emancipation'. The 'Monument's' top down chain of command reflects the bolshevisation of Marx, not the direct democracy of the workers – and non-workers - councils. As such it is also a stark symbol of the inability of the Russian avant-garde to cut through to the essentials of proletarian democracy as expressed in the primacy of the workers councils. But one thing's for sure: Gormely wouldn't be able to follow a word of this debate, still less contribute to it.
Back in 1966/7 we were already searching for a unity of industry and nature, albeit in a 'conceptual' form. Coming from a country burdened with the semi feudal legacy of an immeasurably vast rural hinterland, the Russian avant-garde would have abhorred the very idea. The countryside to them was also the repository of all that was reactionary in terms of representational art, whether as regards picture making or the writing of novels with, as their historical core, Russia's great estates. However, from our earliest childhood, our experience of nature was of a very different, superior order, because much more democratic and direct, nature an end in itself rather than a pretext for representation. Apart from the odd holiday by the sea, and even then smokestack industry was never that far away, it was almost wholly bound up with the existence of industry 'ours' rather than 'theirs', it was far from being a unique experience either, as Carol's moving testimony above bears witness too. It has left behind a very potent residue which won't lie down. Though at present waylaid by a reservation perspective framed against an eroding industrial background, in is in quest of a higher unity and that could easily lend itself to calls for a green industrial revolution of great imaginative depth. We fervently hope the above might someday be off assistance to that end.
For certain, in any wide ranging debate conducted in an open assembly, the question will be asked, sooner rather than later, is a sustainable, green industrial revolution possible within the capitalist framework? Moreover, the economic problem for capitalism in the 21st century is not that there is a shortage of investment possibilities. It is that such investment is not profitable enough. Is it not a contradiction in terms because it also questions the very lifeblood of capitalism: competition? One things for sure, north easterners shudder at the thought of years of further financial speculation where, since the early nineties, the twin engines of growth have been consumer debt and the speculative activities of the City of London as it has fanned out, like never before, over the rest of the country, consuming everything in its path. Under the tutelage, and yoke, of Old and New Labour, the one dovetailing into the other though not always neatly, the North East was undoubtedly the biggest regional patsy of them all. With an innocence that is entirely out of character, they went along with the elevation of the rentier and speculator that began with Thatcher and reached its apogee under New Labour. But this time the party's over for good and, more than any other region in the country, the North East is staring into the abyss, that dread prospect etched all over the despairing faces of the Corus steel workers, fuck buddies and all!
But does this scenario outlined in detail above about a particularly desperate and beautiful region we forever dream about tell of the underlying momentum in capital accumulation or rather the glitches encountered? We are it seems at the cusp of the death knell of that long drawn out moment when globally a growing pool of money growth - with money in the hands of productive as well as non-productive (fictitious) capitals - and looking for outlets that might provide higher levels of profitability. In the UK however profitability in the 1970s was eroded by intense workers' struggle which, reinforcing the social wage drastically cut the amount of money going to capital. This situation couldn't last too long and we know the sad outcome as neo-liberal reaction, albeit enhanced by the lucky strike of the North Sea oil bonanza, succeeded in shutting down great swathes of industry – thus largely getting rid of "the enemy within" – replaced by a liquorice allsorts of speculation and unproductive activities as money was moved from one pocket to another via stock markets, estate agents, art and installation, conspicuous consumption, a designer lifestyle based on the house as a mass market bank and a ubiquitous celebrity media under the rubric of "the creative industries" whereby we are entertained to death, plus all the rest of a sickenly familiar shit we want to be rid of and pronto. The vast expanse of finance created the illusion of a long upturn of productive accumulation when nothing was farther from the truth; indeed this illusion has turned out to be one of the greatest cons in history.
Are we therefore at the threshold of a no-going forward / no-going back nightmare of confusion and the impossible moment of capitalist accumulation where all its checks and balances breakdown? Yet we may have reached the point where short of the unlikely green capitalist industrial revolution previously mentioned sweeping away all the tsunami of speculative froth we could be encountering the moment where according to Henryk Grossmann in the "The Law of Accumulation and the Breakdown of the Capitalist System" and writing in the 1920s says "...the mechanism as a whole tends relentlessly towards its final end with the general process of accumulation...Once these counter-tendencies are themselves defused or simply cease to operate, the breakdown tendency gains the upper hand and asserts itself in the absolute form of the final crisis", which means the seeming swollen mass of capital can no longer sustain accumulation on the level required both for all the promoted and advertised false needs as well as the real needs necessary for day to day survival.
Much of what has been raid here could be put a lot more relevantly in a dynamic confrontational situation. Let 30 or 40 Corus workers – a lone determined posse – acting for and by themselves, ignoring all useless, so-called democratic procedure take over one or two sites and armed with nothing more than edgy critique adamantly refusing a moribund Labour party and TU movement together with the rest of their hangers-on could (and would) shake a giant transnational to its very core(us). As well as general critique such a posse could also practically outline how to begin re-directing steel production away from metal sheeting for cars or the use of steel in the big art / big engineering rubbish of signature grandiosities put together by finks like Sir Richards Rogers etc and begin to consider a really sustainable steel future moving beyond the ultimately destructive paradigms demanded by capitalism. No doubt such a reorientation debate would be difficult with the police looking on intently but hundreds, if not thousands would quickly come to the aid of this flaming beacon of real hope and this time not from the towers that always lit up the Teesside skyline...
We can but hope!
Stuart & David Wise: Spring 2010
Below: The growing beauty of industrial dereliction around Teesside in 1973 including shots of Haverton Hill Marshalling Yards, Teesside steel works, St Hilda’s (Middlesbrough), Warrenby and Locomotion No 1 - then on Darlington Bank Top station.
Below: scenes of industrial dereliction channelled into nature reserves 36 years later and most in and around Salthome Nature Reserve including the “Wildlife Discovery Centre” and the nuclear reactor near Seaton Carew.