Some Thoughts on the Notting Hill Carnival of Vanities 2022

The UK’s Notting Hill Carnival returned to London’s streets after a two-year absence caused by the coronavirus pandemic. My first thought is why given that a deadly virus is still around and putting people in hospital and killing thousands, would two million people turn up to an event that, by its very nature, would spread the virus and cause untold suffering and possibly death to vulnerable people who will in the future come into contact with persons who went to the Carnival?

If that was not bad enough, footage has emerged on the internet of people packed so tight on the street that it constituted a threat to safety. To escape being crushed, people climbed over railings and into basements to avoid the surge of people. The scenes were reminiscent of the Hillsborough disaster, only thankfully without the death toll.

Quite what attracts people to this event is a mystery. While I grant you the costumes are pretty, and some people have a bit of fun, the experience must be pretty bad for the majority. With an all-time high of 38 gigantic sound systems, you would have thought the music would have been of a high calibre. However, this was not the case. The fact that no musicians of any world renown would be caught dead performing at Carnival is telling.

Secondly, having experienced being close to a fifty-foot sound system, one is completely numb and deaf after only a few seconds. It is also very difficult to appreciate the musical vibes when you are sky-high after breathing in gallons of nitrous oxide. So far, thousands of large gas canisters weighing in total 4 tonnes have been collected from the streets. Hospitals expect to have to treat a large number of young people for nerve damage.

It is also hard to fathom why people think it is their democratic right to have fun, dance, drink, and take drugs while the victims of the Grenfell fire have still not received justice. The RBKC council and the organisers of the Notting Hill Carnival paid lip service by holding a 72-second silence but still allowed the Carnival to go ahead. At the same time, the ashes of over 72 people remain in the tower block, which can be seen in full view of people dancing and parading in the streets. The reason for this is not hard to fathom. The Carnival has become big business.

The presence of companies including Red Bull and Virgin Atlantic have meant the Carnival has become not only a money spinner for big business, but several small organisations and even residents have monetised the event out of all recognition from its earliest anti-racist and anti-capitalist origins.

As Dr Razaq Raj writes , “the commercialisation of Carnival began with the sponsorship of Lilt in 1995, a tropical fruit-flavoured soft drink manufactured by Coca-Cola, in which it became the Lilt Notting Hill Carnival; this arrangement continued in 1996 and 1997 (Carver, 2000). The Carnival was sponsored by Virgin Atlantic in 1998 when Nestle (who were meant to sponsor the event) withdrew their support  (BBC News, 1998). Western Union Notting Hill Carnival became the festival’s name in 1999 when Western Union sponsored the event. Notting Hill’s commercialisation highlights the event’s growth since its humble beginnings. It is symbolic of the conflict between the political and radical past to the present day organised and funded event. The commercialisation of Carnival highlights its growth but also critical problems for the event and carnival management. The conflict between the radical past and conservative operations of Notting Hill Carnival presents the main questions as to the future purpose of Notting Hill Carnival. Has this cultural event that acted as a political vehicle for the community fallen victim to the Western capitalist society?[1]

Carnival 2022 was a sanitised and unpolitical event. The Carnival has become so far removed from its origins that it is unrecognisable from its early days as a vehicle of protest against racism and slavery. In historical terms, sixty years is not a long time. Sixty years ago, the fascists were openly marching on the streets of Notting Hill, and the fascist leader Oswald Mosely was holding meetings on the Goldborne rd.

As the Marxist writer, Cliff Slaughter wrote in 1958, “The race riots in Nottingham and London came like a bolt from the blue to most ordinary men and women in Britain, just as they did to the Press, that self-styled watchdog of the public conscience. The Observer, usually more far-sighted than most newspapers, spoke of the race riots as something which seemed a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand a few days earlier. So long as we look only at the surface of social life and try to deal with each question separately as it arises, we shall continue to find ourselves bewildered by events like the race riots. But they are no nine days wonder. Every worker in the country must clearly understand this.

Every member of the working class must endorse the condemnation by the Trades Union Congress of racial discrimination and violence. But this is not enough. Only if we can trace the social roots of racial conflict shall we be able to weed them out and those who profit from it with them. The starting point for the working class must be unity and solidarity against the employers and their political representatives—in the first place, the Tory Party. All the problems the working class now faces—growing unemployment, the housing shortage, rent increases, the rising cost of living, attacks on wages and working conditions, and, above all, the threat of an H-bomb war—can be solved only by the unity and determined action of the working class. It is no accident that the steady growth of unemployment over the last year has been accompanied by an insidiously growing campaign around the slogan ‘Keep Britain-White’.”[2]

The problems faced by the working class in 1958 are the same but on a much higher scale, unemployment, the housing shortage, rent increases, the rising cost of living, attacks on wages and working conditions, and, above all, the threat of nuclear war. These issues and more will not be solved by a few dances on the street or by sniffing a gas up your nose. Young people especially need to think about the choices they are making now. They do not have too much time.

[1] Exploitation of Notting Hill Carnival to increase community pride and spirit and act as a catalyst for regeneration. Dr Razaq Raj

[2] Race Riots: the Socialist Answer- From Labour Review, Vol. 3 No. 5, December 1958, pages 134-137. 

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