Neoliberalism and the Grenfell Tower disaster

If British reports are to be believed, the Grenfell Tower inferno in central London might have been averted for a cost of a mere $6,000 — or a little more than $100 for each of the 58 unfortunates who, on the best estimate available this weekend, perished in the disaster.

According to the London Daily Mail, when the tower was recently renovated, builders opted for a cladding material so inappropriate that it is rated “flammable” in Germany and its use in tall buildings in even lightly regulated America is banned.  The attraction was a saving of a mere 10 percent.  On the Mail’s numbers, that added up to a total saving compared to a safe material of £5,000 — equal to a little more than $6,000.

Such is the dystopia that deregulation, British-style, has wrought — a dystopia whose excesses are now finally coming to be widely recognized by voters and elected leaders alike.

Source: Eamonn Fingleton

This is neoliberalism in action.   First you privatize a public service, as was done with public housing in Great Britain, because for-profit corporations are supposed to be intrinsically better able to make decisions than public bodies.  Then you make decisions based on assumptions about profit-and-loss, because this is supposed to be objective and rational.

Also, you judge the worth of a human life based on that person’s financial net worth.

Thankfully, not everybody makes decisions on this basis.  The brave firefighters who saved Grenfell Tower residents were motivated by a sense of duty, not a cost-benefit analysis.  Yet firefighters, too, in the UK as well as the USA, are being weighed in the neoliberal balance and found wanting.

I don’t know how the decision was made to buy the cheaper material, but I can imagine how the late Milton Friedman might justify it, in the same way that he justified the sale of Ford Pintos with exploding gas tanks.

First of all, the decision to buy the cheaper material was probably not made in isolation, but as part of an overall effort to cut costs.   So you would based your decision on the entire cost saving, not just one part of it.

Then you set some monetary figure as the value of a human life.  Then you would discount this figure by using some risk assessment figure, that the odds are (some very high number) to one against a disaster happening.   Then you express that figure in a way that makes it seem trivial, such as the number of months subtracted from the average human life.

Because these decisions are expressed in precise numerical terms, they are held to be rational.  Yet the assumptions behind this reasoning are arbitrary.   The value of a human life is almost always expressed in terms of economic loss.  The odds factors in risk assessments are almost always arbitrary because they are seldom based on enough past experience to be definitive, and, even if they were, the unpredictable can happen.

Not everybody makes decisions that way.   Thousands of lives were saved after the 9-11 attacks because the New York Port Authority, which owned the Twin Towers, had spent the money to widen staircases and taken the trouble to insist on evacuation drills.   As Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote, we seldom hear about  heroes whose precautions averted disasters.

Obviously there are upper limits to the amount of money you can spend on anything, including to protect human life.   It is neoliberalism  that provides the rationale for ignoring common sense and ordinary moral intuition, and driving that figure down to the lowest possible level.


After the London Inferno, a Question for Laissez-Faire Zealots: Is a Human Life Worth No More Than $100 by the Irish financial journalist Eamonn Fingleton for Counterpunch.  Fingleton has been an editor for Forbes and Financial Times, and is not a typical Counterpunch left-wing writer—not that there’s anything wrong with being a typical Counterpunch left-wing writer.

Fears on cut-price cladding were ignored on Grenfell Tower by Jonathan Bucks, Andy Young and Mark Nichol for The Daily Mail.

A firefighter’s account of the Grenfell Tower blaze for Save the UK Fire Service via Michael Rosen.

The Grenfell Tower Fire and London’s Public Housing Crisis by Feargus O’Sullivan for The Atlantic.

London’s fire: Taxpayers paid £11mm to company managing tower by Gareth Davies for The Daily Mail.  [Added Later]

Photo via dezeen

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6 Responses to “Neoliberalism and the Grenfell Tower disaster”

  1. Vincent M Says:

    I tend to agree, Phil, but it is too early to place such blame. In matters of building regulations + health & safety, there is such a complex web of distributed responsibility that it remains to be seen where the shortcomings have occurred in practice.

    And your starting quote, if I may say so, is typical stirring-up by the Daily Mail. It may be true, but one would want to see what levels of approval, by what bodies, were given or illegally bypassed. An official investigation, then the holding to account.

    There is too much anger & gossip about the whole business, whereas the thing to do is help the homeless, bereaved, destitute etc; and hold back on politicizing everything – something very hard to do when governance is teetering on chaos already.

    Yet when we’ve had terrorist attacks, there’s been a sense of national togetherness.


  2. peteybee Says:

    Reblogged this on Spread An Idea.


  3. stuartbramhall Says:

    Reblogged this on The Most Revolutionary Act and commented:
    The Grenfell Tower inferno in central London might have been averted for a cost of a mere $6,000 — or a little more than $100 for each of the 58 unfortunates who, on the best estimate available this weekend, perished in the disaster.


  4. marblenecltr Says:

    Economics is ultimately based on human desires, so don’t look there for the cause of the Grenfell disaster. Look to a leadership that believes in the need for great culling of the species of human beings and is acting with that belief in mind.


  5. Mark Says:

    I am not so sure the value of a human life was considered in the cost analysis. I’ve worked in more than one large company where the procurement organization has a goal of reducing costs by X%.

    Materials are replaced by lower cost items all the time as long as they satisfy the “specification” (whatever that might be). If fireproof or “non toxic” (thinking of PVC versus teflon cabling) was not part of the specification, the buyer will get the least cost item that meets the other requirements.

    This would also imply the building inspection missed this kind of requirement as well.


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