After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini shut down Tehran’s coffee houses. They were places where conversations about poetry, film and literature took place, where women mixed with men who weren’t their husbands, and where alternative political movements formed. But, because of this, they were viewed as deviant social spaces that had the potential to give rise to dissidents, and so were quickly closed by the ultra-conservative Khomeini. The closure of these coffee shops changed the face of the city and the country’s politics by removing the possibility of alternative counter-cultures and the political movements they could have formed.
Something akin to this has been taking place in London. Britain’s Conservative government is a far cry from Iran’s Islamic Republic, but it has allowed a similar wipe out of spaces across the country that play host to counter culture. The announcement that Fabric nightclub will lose its licence and be forced to shut permanently is the latest example.
Fabric’s licence was revoked following the drug-related deaths of two people. The decision has caused outcry among the great and the good of London’s cultural scene. More than 150,000 have signed a petition to save the club and social media is abuzz with potential protests.
Some have argued that the decision is a massive over-reaction, while others see it as the latest decision in what is the rampant gentrification of the city, and the subsequent destruction of key cultural icons.
These arguments are valid. But the decision to close the club is also part of a broader, far less tangible (but no less obvious) atmosphere of shutting down sites of counter-culture.
Space for subculture
Spaces where like-minded people can come together to express a particular subculture or political message have been a defining characteristic of the modern metropolis. Opium dens in Paris in the early 20th century, speakeasies in New York in the 1930s, squat raves in Manchester in the 90s, and Tehran’s coffee houses, to name just a few. The conflicting politics of cities have always produced “safe” spaces for counter-culture.
They have been “safe” because people can do things like talk about revolution and generally escape from the perceived mundane routine of modern life. They are all part of the much-celebrated rich and varied cultural capital of modern global cities that exist alongside more traditional forms of cultural consumption, such as museums, galleries or the theatre.
Fabric has been one of these important counter-cultural spaces since 1999. But no more.
Fabric was an electronic music venue that shaped rave subculture. But more than that, Fabric was an iconic venue where people came together to escape the self-absorbed, competitive and market-driven worlds of their nine-to-five jobs and engage in social experiences that were the exact opposite. It allowed social interaction between groups that would otherwise be unlikely to come together, dancing with strangers and creating a mass of people moving to the music. These spaces give rise to political possibilities, too, because they allow discussions and experiences of alternative and subversive politics to flourish.
Fabric’s battle to stay open has similarities with a famous skate spot on London’s South Bank, which was saved from demolition in September 2014. The site was under threat from development into generic retail outlets. But because it championed the counter-cultural, alternative and subversive politics of skateboarding, saving the site was critical because losing it would have dramatically reduced the cultural capital of London forever.
City for sale
The influx of vast amounts of money into London from the super-rich means that no part of the city is safe from being sold off and turned into luxury flats or identikit shopping malls. Housing, retail and social services are all being hawked by cash-strapped local councils, but in doing so, many of London’s key cultural icons are being lost forever (Battersea Power Station and Earls Court to name just two).
When places like Fabric disappear – places that allow particular subcultures to flourish and alternative forms of politics to be forged – the damage is even more telling as they destroy the very possibility of subcultures forming in the first place. Hence, the richness and diversity of London’s cultural capital suffers.
The closure of Fabric is a huge black mark against London’s current “redevelopment” craze. Like Tehran in the 1980s, if London continues along this path of destroying its iconic counter-cultural sites, all that will be left is an empty shell of a city that has no real culture at all.