A dramatic and painful answer to that question was provided to us this week with the shocking image of the burning London tower block. If we ever wanted evidence of how – even in a society that is relatively affluent – the poor can be disregarded while the rich pursue their own interests, this was it.
The ‘towering inferno’ occurred in one of London’s most affluent boroughs. While around 120 poor families were crammed into Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey tower block, most of the borough comprises leafy suburbs and million-pound houses.
The borough’s elected local authority apparently saw it as its first priority to lift property values in the borough and, as a necessary step to that end, to corral the poor into limited locations, getting them off the streets, out of sight and out of mind. The residents of Grenfell Tower, it seems, sensed that this was the case – a perception borne out when the concerns they repeatedly expressed about the safety of the tower block were ignored.
We all saw the consequence of that neglect. It is already clear, even before the necessary inquiries into the tragedy have been set up, that the building was unsafe and had been from the moment that the first tenants had taken up residence.
There were, it seems, no fires sprinklers. The fire alarms were inadequate. The building design made no attempt to inhibit an outbreak of fire and on the contrary ensured that flames would spread rapidly. Worst of all, it seems that the cladding attached to the building when it was refurbished a little time ago was of ‘limited combustibility’ – and we now know that any degree of combustibility was too much.
These manifestations – literally of ‘care-lessness’ – reflect an order of priorities that should have no place in a civilised society. The local authority seems to have been more concerned with saving the ratepayers money, avoiding “unnecessary” regulation, and promoting the interest of the wealthy in seeing property values rise, rather than in providing a safe living environment for those who could not afford to buy their own homes.
We might have hoped that the democratic process would have ensured that the interests of the poor could not have been so easily swept under the carpet. But, sadly, the western world offers many instances of how democracy can be diverted to serve the interests of the already powerful. In Donald Trump’s America, for example, the President is celebrating his “achievement” in denying health care to 23 million Americans so that he can deliver billions of dollars in tax relief to big corporates.
In New Zealand, we like to think that we are spared such excesses. We know, because we read about it, that there are people who are homeless – living in cars and garages – and that there are many children growing up in poverty, suffering ill-health and inadequate education as a result.
We read about it, but it fails to make an impact on us, because our own lives are relatively comfortable. It is someone else’s problem – the government’s – and when we cast our votes to elect a government, we are more concerned with how much tax we pay than about the cold, damp rooms, the overcrowding, the wheezing lungs and the empty tummies.
Thankfully, these attitudes do not produce by way of consequence – or have not done so far – anything remotely as dramatic as a flaming tower block. We do not, after all, have many tower blocks available to test out degrees of combustibility – or culpability.
But the damage we do to ourselves – as a society and to its individual members – can be just as serious as the fire at Grenfell Tower. The flames that engulfed so many were a demonstration – cinematic in its power and intensity – of what inequality can mean. We have persuaded ourselves that we can live with the less dramatic but no less lasting penalties that we choose in effect to impose on our fellow citizens.
We may not force them to jump out of burning windows. We simply condemn them to a lifetime of disadvantage.