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27 November 2023

The return of London’s netherworld

We are becoming a society of strangers, held together only by the exercise of power.

By Jonathan Rutherford

Our first neighbour was an old man. He had no friends apart from his dog. One day his dog died and a few weeks later so did he. He died intestate and his house lay empty, open to whoever wanted it and plenty did. Over a period of several years, they moved in off the street, lit fires, got drunk and fought. When they left, others took their place, selling cheap heroin and smashing the windows as if they were enacting scenes from one of Pieter Bruegel’s medieval nightmares. The rubbish was ankle deep in the backyard, swimming in the stagnant water from the blocked drain. This was in the time just before Canary Wharf was built in the late 1980s, when London was teetering on the edge of its own past, uncertain if it would go forward or fall backward.

It didn’t fall backward. It flourished in the new financialised global economy and created unimaginable wealth. The money brought gentrification. Our new neighbours were bankers, then architects and publishers, and then TV producers. There are now very few people left who have spent their lives here. The small factories, builders’ yards and independent shops that were once dotted around this area have all gone. Instead there are restaurants and delis. Poverty and wealth exist side by side and people of a multitude of ethnicities live radically different lives in parallel to one another.

The constant changes of this in-between area tell a story about the transformation of our country in the last 40 years. It has become an exemplar of the liberal order of globalisation. A society without roots, all surface, with no particular depth, and so prone to the fear of disorder.

And after several decades, the harbingers of disorder have returned to our neighbourhood. Into its inchoate world come men at night, shouting, wandering, lost figures with the jerky, hyper movements of those in need of their next fix. Without work or home, without family and without identity, they have suffered a social death and make up a kind of netherworld that returns to haunt the liberal order that has created it.

Georg Simmel (1858-1918), the great sociologist of city life, described the unsettling figure of the stranger who comes today and stays tomorrow. He is both near and far at the same time. His coming and going continues despite his remaining within the boundaries of a community. To be young and unencumbered by family or poverty is to experience the city as an “infinite opportunity” for “new adventures”. Among young progressives today diversity is the first principle of a dynamic city life. Difference is celebrated. 

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But in the modern city there is often no community to hold strangers and no boundaries to define who they are. Everyone is a stranger. We are at home but not at home, managing strangeness by a constant effort to transform the unpredictable city into our own routine world.

The liberal order has fulfilled our desire to be free of restrictive moralities and the emotional confinements of a narrow communalism. We can aspire to be different, distinguish ourselves from others and so express our own unique way of being human. But when our individual pursuit of self-determination exceeds our collective sense of obligation, society begins to fall apart. For those with the least resources it becomes a battle for survival.

All modern life is now city life, writes the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman in the wake of Simmel. The lost security of community and decline of tradition has been replaced by the liberal illusion that our individuality is the starting point of history and not its result. The politics of liberation mistook authority for power rather than the stewardship of our civilisational inheritance, and never offered an alternative, more democratic and consensual model. We are becoming a society of strangers, held together only by the exercise of power with its threat of coercion and violence, projecting our fears of trespass, break-ins and invasion on to a netherworld that is both real and imagined.

Across the Channel, Europe is turning to the right, rejecting liberalism, searching for the illusory return of a lost familiar world. A deep existential current of anxiety and rage is driving reactionary sentiment across the continent. The politics of this new age will be increasingly occupied by the need for security and stability. People fear losing their jobs, losing their homes and not making ends meet. They fear the anarchic impact of crime. They fear the loss of borders. For many, migrants crossing the Channel on small boats and illegally entering the country are harbingers of chaos. The recent calls for jihad and anti-Semitic chanting on the streets of our cities, and amplified by social media, are proof it has arrived. They fear the loss of the symbolic borders that define social order, family life and common decency.

Labour has partly understood the mood. It has shed its liberal progressive language and has made security a central part of its economic policy. But its politics does not yet match its rhetoric. It remains trapped in the old liberal order and struggles to embrace the new, more tragic mood. It does not yet enjoy the trust and enthusiasm of an electorate cynical of the governing class.

People want the freedom to find self-fulfilment but fear anarchy, and so also want social order. The task of politics is to work with this paradox. To recognise that people are in revolt against the economic and social changes of globalisation because they fear the anarchy of social collapse – that they too will be overwhelmed by or discarded into the netherworld. 

Following the death of our neighbour, order was restored when the house was finally sold and taken into ownership. A dozen semi-derelict houses in the street were renovated by the Greater London Council and families moved in. Investment, relationships and a sense of a common life brought a greater sense of security. The netherworld receded, only to return three decades later, a sign of the times.

[See also: Ten ways to wreck a country]

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