Each time I stumble across this mosaic in Birmingham city centre I’m a) reminded that I’ve already seen it b) confused as to why I’ve forgotten about it and c) notice that it is disintegrating rapidly. There are several of them in the city centre – they were usually in the many subterranean walkways under the ringroad; sometimes redevelopment of those walkways has meant the mosaics have been relocated, most notably the JFK memorial and the Great Western Railway mosaic.
The Horsefair mosaic is no doubt waiting its turn for some redevelopment scheme to pay for its repair and relocation. No doubt they represent a problem – they remove too much active frontage at street level – no shop windows, no office doors, no advertising space – and putting them above street level brings additional problems. At least they’re still here – I remember the murals on the walkways around the Bull Ring which only survive in photographs now.
Britain is dotted with examples of what may be broadly classed as socialist realist art. From frescoes at Birmingham University to Meet the Widwife, they are attempts at celebrating the lives of the real working class. They’re socialist because they are commissioned based not on customer demand but on moralizing or pedagogic intent.
Famously in 2003 a member of the real working class torched the impressive “Forward” statue in Centenary Square in Birmingham. Afterwards, no one really gave a toss that it was gone. He probably did people a favour. The kid made out that it was accidental, but who “accidentally” torches a huge, socialist realist edifice?
In the same way that people didn’t really give a toss about the expenses scandal in Britain because people’s trust in politicians was already rock bottom, I get the impression that most people know that these socialist realist celebrations are nothing of the sort. Real work is piecemeal, temporary, badly paid, ignored and inglorious. It’s not worth celebrating. Real workers don’t want to be celebrated: they want out. They don’t even want solidarity – Trade Unions are dead. The poor know that the odds of winning the Lottery are next to nothing. That’s beside the point: they are desperate and next to nothing is better than nothing.
People must also know that Capitalist Realism is equally fantastical (For a brilliant discussion, see Capitalist Realism by the late Mark Fisher). They know that the images of modern capitalism bear no relation to reality, and that suspension of disbelief (or anti-depressants and alcohol) is needed to mask the stench of bullshit and get to the point. There are the pedants who shout “but it wouldn’t happen like that!”, but those are minority voices. Most people aren’t so far along the autism spectrum.
So let’s call these socialist and capitalist unrealism, and instead leave socialist and capitalist realism to describe the “true” documents of life under those economic systems, away from the finance, the marketing, the tie-ins, the profit-seeking, the political negotiation, the pedagogy, the brownie points. I’m treading unfamiliar water here, but I think that one modern cultural exponent of life under capitalism in the 21st century is Grime. My research is entirely down to having to endure young dudes sodcasting on the number 11. But I do that a fair bit, so I’ve heard a fair bit of Grime.
There’s little celebration or things to celebrate in Grime. There’s a lot of stabbing, gun toting, reefer smoking, posturing, childish insults, sexism, racism, ageism – in short perfect descriptions of how shit modern life is. It says “I am powerless, you are powerless, we are scared and we have no future”. The only way for the powerless to gain respect, to beat the fear and to get power over those who already have it, is to outshock them, especially in public spaces. Tattoos. Piercings. T-shirts with outrageous slogans. Ripped clothes. Swearing loudly. Openly smoking cannabis. Racism. Spitting. Disregard of rules. “Don’t judge me” is a common theme in grime. “Despite my anti-social behaviour, I’m still a good person – we have to act like this to survive” is the subtext. It would be quite powerful if it wasn’t so petty and misdirected, in the way that most robbery takes place in poor areas – the poor robbing the poor, because most thieves are too lazy to travel far. The centre of power isn’t the Bull Ring Shopping Centre or the number 11 bus.
The mistake of Grime and the mistake of the cynics of capitalist realism is that the audience is still consuming the messages – the beautiful people, the nice house, the new car, the organic cotton baby clothes. No matter how cynical or ironic or resistant: the messages still get the airtime. And like the dickheads that we are, we still lap it up.
Cities are the concentration of capital around dense networks of trade. In very simple terms, the more frequent the transactions, the taller the buildings. All transactions take place in physical space: digital trade will involve a customer, a supplier and many interactions in between, all with a physical presence somewhere. “Cyberspace” is less ether, more a warehouse on motorway junction. So alien is the concept to human minds and so rapidly has the digital economy swamped our capacity to understand it, we would rather imagine Keanu Reaves hopping across grids of blue light.
Urban density is a visible manifestation of capital. It diminishes until it becomes peri-urban greenbelt, dog kennels, horse riding schools and sports clubs before the profits from agriculture are sufficient to justify its retention as farmland.
Capital in the 21st century loves shiny buildings, its medieval hilltop fortresses or monasteries. Outside the edges, are the modern equivalent of the hovels of those eking out a living from the scraps – remember the monastery in the 1986 film of The Name of the Rose. It is a concrete, glass and steel pyramid of the debt that has given us the illusion of rising living standards: capitalists in the penthouses, owning the debt of the desperate edge dwellers eager to get inside the gates far below.
This is a typical sight in a typical city: the fortress where capital is concentrated and its edge, beyond which lies dereliction: holes left fallow waiting until the potential rewards are great enough and secure enough to de-risk investment and redevelop it. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of these edge spaces politely wait and suffer the social consequences, unaware of the parasitic nature of the debt that created the hole, and welcome its redevelopment with yet more exclusionary uses that feed their misery: more consumption and regressive sales taxes using borrowed money, the promotion of luxury and individualism, the slave-ships of offices for “knowledge workers”.