Over the last few days, some sections of the media have picked up on the mild kerfuffle that took place at the Cereal Killer café on Saturday night during Class War’s latest “Fuck Parade”. Class War and the other attendees of the parade are being portrayed as a right bunch of crunchy nutjobs for daring to have a (snap, crackle and) pop at the café, and police are treating the whole affair as being very cereal.
Despite all the attempts to paint it up as something dramatic, this really doesn’t seem like that big a deal (for the sake of clarity, I’ll add that I wasn’t present for the night’s events, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped a lot of the other people who’ve weighed in about it). The only proper damage that took place during the Fuck Parade was a broken window at an estate agent – interestingly, none of the people complaining about the decision to target the cereal café have come out in defence of estate agents – and, looking at footage of the event, you can see people waving boxes of cornflakes, which doesn’t really seem like what you’d do if you wanted to seriously intimidate anyone. August 2011 this was not: if not quite a storm in a teacup, then maybe a tempest in a cereal bowl.
As if it needs spelling out, I don’t think that actions like this are particularly effective in fighting gentrification: the hard work of organising tenants, making abandoned houses liveable, and so on, as seen at places like Sweets Way, Focus E15, the Aylesbury Estate and others, is far more significant in the long term. The cereal café may be a particularly effective symbol of gentrification, but at the end of the day it’s just that: a symbol. Still, by pointing out these limitations, I’m not particularly intending to knock the action: it sounds like something that would have been a bit of a laugh on a Saturday night, which is always better than not having a laugh.
Leaving aside the hyperbole involved in trying to turn a bit of paint and some cornflake-shaking into some kind of riot, a lot of the condemnation of Saturday’s events is rooted in the idea of the sanctity of small businesses: the idea that small employers are somehow outside the class struggle, and only “big corporations” can ever be legitimate targets. At the start of the year, some workers employed at small local business in Oakland wrote a great critique of this idea, which is well worth reading if you’ve not encountered it before: at the risk of repeating them, there’s no magic line separating small businesses from larger ones, and pretty much every big corporation once started off as somebody’s local small business.
Looking at some specific examples, Sheffield IWW’s campaigns against unfair dismissal and unpaid work at the (marvellously aptly-named) Greedy Greek deli and Old Courthouse wine bar have been fights against small businesses, as have most of the wage theft campaigns taken up by Brighton Hospitality Workers. The North London Hospice, target of a long campaign by the Haringey Solidarity Group, is a small local charity, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was complicit in government forced work schemes. To the “small is beautiful” crowd, presumably all these are more examples of the “wrong targets”, and wine bars, delis, cafes and cornershops should be left alone to steal their employees’ wages and fire them at will.
This exceptionalism about small businesses is always a sign of confusion, but it’s particularly wrong-headed when it comes to gentrification. While big financial capital certainly stands behind the players in the property market who decide which areas to invest in, the first waves of gentrification usually rely on new business opening up in an area that make it feel “up-and-coming” and “vibrant” enough to be attractive to well-heeled incomers. Fume all you like about big bland chains, but a new McDonald’s, Greggs, Tesco or Starbucks opening up in an area is hardly going to make it feel “desirable” enough to increase property values and rents, but small, independent, local businesses like quirky cafes, craft ale bars, and “pop-up” anything, on the other hand…
The Cereal Killer café is hardly the greatest evil the world has ever known, and a bit of paint and theatricality is hardly going to put an end to the housing crisis. But any fightback is going to have to pick specific targets at some point, and all those objecting on the grounds that small quirky businesses are somehow outside of capitalism, gentrification and class struggle are displaying exactly how limited their understanding of those issues is.