Dear River Thames: The pollution of privatisation under late-stage capitalism
Monday, 27 May 2024 16:41

Dear River Thames: The pollution of privatisation under late-stage capitalism

Published in Cultural Commentary

Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.

- W.H. Auden, First Things First, 1956

If we regard the British Isles as a body of nations then its rivers and waterways are its veins, its lifeblood. A walk along a riverbank is so much more than a leisure activity. It is a cultural journey, for our senses, our selfhood and our humanity. The water’s unending and unpredictable undulations encouraging and enhancing the temporal flow of our reflections, our memories, our daydreams and our inspirations. However urban we may think we are, however down-to-earth we may think we are, our rivers make romantics, poets and philosophers of us all. It thus behoves us to take the time to understand them, to protect them from the depredations of capitalist economic arrangements. We need to preserve and cherish them, for now and forever, before it is too late.

For some the Oxford and Cambridge annual boat race is the epitome of the Corinthian spirit, raced by scholar-athletes who combine academic rigour with elite physical prowess, watched by adoring crowds on the banks of the Thames and broadcasted to millions. For others it is an antiquated folk ritual for the wealthy and privileged to congratulate themselves. It is not an example of meritocracy but rather a monopoly where the same two teams play each other every year in the final. Inclusive it is not, it’s a public school-dominated pursuit with just one black participant in almost its two-hundred-year history.

The Filth and The Fury The Daily Record March 2023

Nonetheless the tradition holds that the winning crew throw their cox into the river in celebration of their triumph. This year the custom was abandoned. Why? To put it bluntly, there was shit in the River Thames. The privatised Thames Water has overseen mismanagement of sewage, discharging billions of litres of untreated sewage into the river. This meant there were high levels of Escherichia coli in the river. Losing Oxford captain Leonard Jenkins revealed that he and several crewmates had been plagued by an E. coli-related illness and said, ‘it would be a lot nicer if there wasn't as much poo in the water.’

A week later, on 4th April, the London Evening Standard carried on its front page an emoji of a poo, crying, with the logo of Thames Water. The title reads ‘London’s great stink’ and the subheading ‘Sewage flowed into capital's rivers for almost 10,000 hours last year.’

The title deliberately echoes what the press at the time called the Great Stink of London in 1858. Back then hot weather intensified the smell of untreated human waste and industrial effluent on the banks of the River Thames. As the heat increased, centuries of waste began to ferment, people got ill and thousands died. The smell hit the recently rebuilt Houses of Parliament, and the politicians finally acted with plans for a new sewage system to be built with the gusto typical of the era. But the resonance is clear, our current treatment of water and sewage has taken us back to the reign of Queen Victoria, as well to the river analyses and proto eco-criticism of Friedrich Engels.

Child labour, intense poverty and ostentatious wealth: the mechanics of capitalism

The Engels family wealth can be traced to Friedrich’s grandfather who moved to Wuppertal, now the north Rhineland of Germany. This was due to the lime-free rivers and tributary of the river Rhine. This promised and delivered riches. Extracting elements from the river proved useful to bleach linen yarn, and later to power water mills. But the Wuppertal that Engels is later born into is not the idyllic high valleys, green fields, vibrant forests with clear fast-running streams it once was. Due to the extraction and subsequent pollution of the river, surrounding nature, and the industry in the area – and prefiguring what he will later find in Manchester – there is overcrowding, child labour, intense poverty and ostentatious wealth. In his 1839 Letter from Wuppertal, Engels opens with a discussion of the river:

The purple waves of the narrow river flow sometimes swiftly, sometimes sluggishly between smoky factory buildings and yarn-strewn bleaching-yards. [It has a] bright red colour…[due] simply and solely to the numerous dye-works using Turkey red…[T]he muddy Wupper flows slowly by and, compared with the Rhine just left behind, its miserable appearance is very disappointing.

Young Engels reacts against this and rebels against his wealthy mill owning father’s business and its social and environmental implications. He is aroused by developments in German philosophy (Hegel), French politics (the Revolution), and English Romantic poetry. Engels' father becomes concerned about his son’s poetic sensibility, revolutionary thoughts, and atheism, and wants to move him from such unseemly influences. How best to neuter a wistful, intellectual, young radical Romantic poet? Send him away to Manchester to become a middle manager of the family textile business. Have him learn the numbing and nauseating miseries of business. That is, of linen and cotton spinning and weaving, bleaching and dyeing, stocktaking, audit and accounting. In Manchester Engels will reluctantly learn the ins and outs of world trade, currency deals, import duties, the division of labour, pricing-costs-profit, the extraction of surplus value from the worker, and all the mechanics of capitalism. This will, however, be put to good use in the critique of such a system.

The Manchester Engels is sent to is the most advanced site of industrialisation in the world. The damp, wet climate, with rivers of soft water, are ideal for treating cotton and washing cloth. The first canal in Britain was in Manchester, and the first inter-city railway in the world is between Manchester and the port of Liverpool. This transport system links to the colonies, and brings in coal, cotton from the plantations, aids the formulation of manufactories, and eases bulk imports and exports. The exponential growth of the cotton industry sees Manchester referred to as Cottonopolis.

Manchester is the first manufacturing city of the world, and the scene of the starkest social divides and sanitary horrors Europe had to offer. Engels is compelled to write The Conditions of the Working Class in England (1845). This is a celebrated polemic, a critical analysis of relentless capitalism, and the unvarnished horrors of industrialisation and urbanisation. It mixes history and statistics, political philosophy, medical records, government documents, court reports, newspaper articles, and Engels' own eyewitness accounts, accompanied by the unsung heroine, Mary Burns.

The Manchester here stinks, is noisy, oppressive, full of grime and human deprivation and horror. There are ‘foul pools of stagnant urine and excrement’, ‘cattle-sheds for human beings’, pigs share stiles with children, there are slum tenements, crushed limbs, misshapen spines, disease and infirmity, and ultimately retreat to the two comforts no one can take from you: drunk stupors and sexual relief. This is a working class with hardly any political rights. Engels, like any decent journalist, wanted to speak truth to power about these conditions.

The Punch Magazine 1855

Punch magazine, 1855

The book often reads as Dickensian or Victorian gothic horror, and here is an extract with concern for the river apparent:

The view from this bridge … is characteristic for the whole district. At the bottom flows, or rather stagnates, the Irk, a narrow, coal-black, foul-smelling stream, full of debris and refuse, which it deposits on the shallower right bank. In dry weather, a long string of the most disgusting, blackish-green, slime pools are left standing on this bank, from the depths of which bubbles of miasmatic gas constantly arise and give forth a stench unendurable even on the bridge forty or fifty feet above the surface of the stream. But besides this, the stream itself is checked every few paces by high weirs, behind which slime and refuse accumulate and rot in thick masses. Above the bridge are tanneries, bone mills, and gasworks, from which all drains and refuse find their way into the Irk, which receives further the contents of all the neighbouring sewers and privies. It may be easily imagined, therefore, what sort of residue the stream deposits. Below the bridge you look upon the piles of debris, the refuse, filth, and offal from the courts on the steep left bank…

Engels writes in The Conditions of the Working Class in England, that ‘I accuse the English bourgeois before the entire world of murder, robbery and other crimes on a massive scale.’ These accusations stand the test of time. Despite advances in chemical treatment, engineering, sewage systems, technology, decline of polluting industrialisation, and so on, our rivers are not in a dissimilar state to the ones noted by Engels. The wealthy and privileged crew of a boat cannot even frolic in the river, and newspaper headlines recall Victorian conditions. What went wrong? In essence, the answer might be the turning away from a minimal form of the socialism Engels promoted and instead the turn to privatisation.

For much of the 20th century, water in England and Wales was provisioned publicly in an era of the Keynesian welfare state. The capital costs and initial infrastructure was met by the State. The population was supplied with universal access to water. However, under the rundown (underfunding and then selloff) of state assets by Thatcher within the ethos of neoliberalism, it was deemed that water should now be governed by the 'free market'. The 1989 Water Act privatised water, selling off public assets to private water and wastewater firms for £7.6 billion. At the time the UK government took on the sector’s entire £4.9billion in debts and gave the new private corporations £1.5bn of public funds. The marketing campaign to sell shares was ‘You could be an H2Owner’ – to the sound of Handel’s Water Music. A basic human right, held in common by all, provided on the basis of social equity, became a private commodity.

What has water privatisation achieved? For Conservative peer, Baroness McIntosh of Pickering, ‘Private water and wastewater companies have enabled unprecedented spending and cleaning our beaches and rivers to reach record quality levels.’ For others, the privatised water system is leaking sewage, water, and money. Privatisation was meant to result in cheaper costs – yet water bills rose by 40 per cent in real terms (National Audit Office).

Sewage Map The Rivers Trust 2022

Sewage map, 2022

Privatisation was meant to unlock more investment – yet less was invested in 2018 than in 1990. Privatisation was meant to improve the services – yet despite inept regulation, fines for non-compliance with drinking water, quality standards have exceeded £1.5 million over the last five years, and we lose enough water for 20 million people to leaks every day. Water companies find it more profitable to pay relatively small fines than avoid sewage dumping. Austerity-led cuts to the government’s Environment Agency have seen monitoring levels fall, leading to the necessity of the largest citizen science water testing project ever to take place in the UK. It found that 83% of English rivers contain evidence of high pollution caused by sewage and agricultural waste, aquatic life struggles to survive in such conditions.

Since 2010, shareholders have enjoyed dividends upwards of £13.5 billion - money which could have improved water systems, addressed environmental concerns, or served the State. In this sense there has been a shift of wealth from public hands into private hands. Far from Thatcher’s vision of a ‘shareholder democracy,’ current shareholders, often registered in countries like the Channel Islands to pay lower tax, include four major pension funds and four overseas investment funds which between them hold over 90% of the company's shares.

The cost of maintaining and improving water and sewer infrastructure has been paid for by an increase in debt, which has risen from almost zero at the time of privatisation to nearly £40bn in 2016. Having siphoned off as much profit as possible, shareholders are reluctant to pay their debts and now the suggestion is that state owned banks of China will bail out Thames Water. You couldn’t make it up! Water, once state owned in England, gets run down and sold off, it gets exploited, and debt increases while shareholders receive dividends. Shareholders don’t want to pay off the debt, so it is sold to an overseas state. The Conservative government do not like state ownership of utilities, unless it is an overseas state it seems.

A class war

Consumers are urged not to waste water, not to use hosepipes, to use a shower instead of bath, to not flush at certain items, to move away from possible flood areas and so on. That is, consumers are called upon to act in the public interest while the private equity owners operate in the interests of shareholders. This is the trick of diverting attention from production and water companies and on to consumption and individual behaviour. ‘It’s your fault – you left the tap dripping all night.’ Privatisation can be seen for what it really is: a transfer of economic power from the public purse to the private pocket, an associated attack on unions, a break-up of the state, an ideological mission of neoliberalism and, therefore, what we called in the old days – a class war.

What is happening with Thames Water is indicative of what is happening more broadly around the country’s rivers, beaches, woodlands, environment and so forth. And indicative of what is happening on a wider scale when capital exploits the planet and exploits cultural activities. Lake Windermere suffers illegal dumps of sewage and Lough Neagh is described as a toilet without a flush. We are due to run short of water in 20 years time, and added to this is the climate crisis and various tipping points. Shareholders' concern is for short term gain, there is no incentive, and they cannot be relied upon to organise the long term projects that are required to address the incoming environmental issues.

What’s worse is that under Brexit, ministers are planning to diverge from the EU’s water framework directive which sets pollution standards for European waterways. This further weakens the already impotent regulation around water quality. England is the only country to have fully privatised its water and sewerage system. European cities such as Paris and Berlin have re-nationalised water and sewer systems as outsourcing contracts come to an end. What do we see in England is a public asset ruined by private extraction. What do we need? Re-nationalisation. A return of water (and other utilities) back to the commons and then further collectivisation. After all, who doesn’t want to see an Oxbridge student tossed into the river?

This country’s rivers and waterways historically, spiritually and naturally transcend the short-term, self-serving, self-importance of economic and political enterprise. They are earthly phenomena for the cultural activities of enjoyment and escape, conviviality and community, perspective and peace. They are venues of vitality where picnics are prepared, personal decisions are pronounced and marriages are proposed.

Millions of people would prefer such life-affirming human happenings to occur in surroundings that are fresh, flowing and crystal clear rather than amidst the corpse-like clutter and contagion of late-stage capitalism.

Jon Baldwin is Senior Lecturer in Film and Digital Media at London Metropolitan University. He recently edited a film/television special edition of the Journal of Class and Culture. Brett Gregory is an Associate Editor for Culture Matters, a reviewer, interviewer and filmmaker based in Manchester.