Connections and Combinations: the view from Brussels, December 2016

If you had visited Brussels in December 2016, you would have found a city going about its business, a city preparing for the festive season.

Yet you might also have felt, for all the lights, for all the glitter, that there was something subdued about the atmosphere.

Perhaps that’s not so surprising. After all, Brussels was still recovering from the shock of the terrorist attacks that killed over 30 people earlier in the year. And of course 2016 was the year in which the UK delivered a shock, perhaps even a traditional British two-fingered gesture, by voting to leave the European Union.

So how do we come to terms with those twin shocks, those crises? How do we get an understanding of the roots of the problems, the better to address them? Do we look back to the crash of 2007-2008? Do we look back to the attacks in America in 2001? Yes, clearly; but we will have to look back a good deal further than that to get at the roots of these crises.

Brussels, in fact, is not a bad place to start. If, during your pre-Christmas visit to the city, you had stood beside the looming Palais de Justice, built on a hill to see and be seen by the townsfolk in the nineteenth century, you could have looked out over much of the north of the city. To your left, over the roofs, the area of Molenbeek. Somewhere to your right, and about the same distance away, though hidden behind intervening streets and buildings, the European Quarter – home of the European Parliament, the European Commission and so on.

Both regions have been in the news this year. For many people, the very name Brussels is a shorthand for the European institutions. The term is used as a symbol of political power, for good or ill.

Yet mere streets away, within this same powerful city, a city with, on average, one of the highest levels of wealth of any European region, there are pockets of high unemployment, poor conditions and marginalisation. Areas such as Molenbeek, a place known today, if at all, as the base from which some of those terrorists who struck in Paris and Brussels set out.

It wasn’t always known for that. Walk to Molenbeek from the Palais de Justice, and you will come to the Rue de Liverpool. Follow that and cross the canal, and you find yourself in the Rue de Manchester.

Why is there a Liverpool Street, a Manchester Street, in a marginalised quarter of Brussels? Why, indeed, was Molenbeek known, in the nineteenth century, as Little Manchester? What is the connection between that area of Brussels and the northern industrial towns of the UK?

Molenbeek was known as Little Manchester because the area had its own Industrial Revolution, modelled on, and indeed learning directly from the original industrial revolution that had just taken place largely in northern Britain. Just like Manchester, it grew on the back of thriving industries; it had access to coal, and thus to steam power; it had a canal, and could thus transport raw materials and finished goods; and it had access to a ready workforce. Workers were drawn in from other parts of the country, from across Europe, and eventually from other parts of the world.

Then, in the twentieth century, the industries began shut down, leaving behind densely populated, formerly industrious regions, with high levels of poverty, and, in some cases, a high proportion of people from minority ethnic communities.

So if we want to know how we got to where we are today, we could do worse than start by looking at these areas of poverty and power nestled alongside each other as neighbours in Brussels.

How did we arrive, in 2016, at a moment of crisis in liberal democracy, marked by the vote for Brexit here in the UK and by the rise of Donald Trump in the US? How did we arrive at the crisis marked by terrorist attacks in Europe and chaos across the Middle East and North Africa?

These crises seem set to deepen in the coming years – along with a third crisis that may yet come to dwarf the others: climate change.

But if all these are signs of an unsustainable system, then to understand the dynamics of that unsustainability, we’re going to have to dig deep down to the roots – the historical and material forces that were set in motion sometimes centuries ago: slavery and Empire, armed global trade, the birth of the coal age, but which are still playing out today, in this, our global neighbourhood. We’re going to have to grapple with the logic of the system dynamics that have produced inequality, environmental destruction, and conflict.

And that’s what we are going to do on this website.

We’re going to look at some of the factors that combined to produce the situation we find ourselves in today, and at some of the people who combined together, sometimes in the face of great resistance, in pursuit of greater democracy, equality and sustainability.

Because, it is in those connections and combinations that we can begin to understand not only how we got here, but, perhaps, what we need to do to make progress towards a more sustainable, more equitable, and less violent political and economic system. A new global neighbourhood, as it were, in which we learn to live together, for all our differences, as nonviolently as possible on this our one planet, and in this our corner of it.

Maurice Macartney
1 January 2017

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