From the January 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard
In 1969, in the suburbs of North West London, property developers built a block of flats which was regarded at the time as a model to which all future working-class housing was to be built. The idea was sold to local councils who subsequently erected similar flats all over the country.
Some thirty years later, out of the original twenty flats twelve are now empty and have been for over three years while the remaining eight have occupants living in conditions bordering on squalor. They have now become Show Flats to capitalism's inability to meet human needs and to the reformists of the time who erroneously believed that capitalism could do this. Up and down the country there are similar examples of such recently-built slum housing. There is a certain irony too since at the time the then Labour Minister of Housing and Local government, Richard Crossman. wrote:
I am getting used to being shown the most magnificent plans in the council offices and then feeling a sense of anti-climax when I walk outside and see the actual buildings going up. (Town Planning Institute Journal. LI, 1965).
Quite—and Crossman, the developers and subsequent ministers did not have to live in them either. Workers get housing which befits their subordinate class position within society. It is only the capitalist class who get the housing that meets their needs and they do so through their class ownership and control of the means of life. They did so in the 1960s and they do so today.
Workers living in squalid post-war slums are more fortunate than some others in our class. At least they have a roof over their heads, albeit one often needing an umbrella. Some twenty miles away from the suburbs of Harrow, near the South Bank in central London literally scores of homeless workers, of both sexes, are forced to live in the open air because they simply do not have enough money to rent even slum accommodation.
In an article called Freaks. Misfits and People Like Us in July 1987 (the situation has got worse since then) the Architectural Journal gave statistics on how workers became homeless. Not surprisingly, these showed that this derived from the insecurity and unpredictability associated with the class position of workers under capitalism: the majority of homeless became so because parents, friends or relatives were no longer able to accommodate them: next came the breakdown of relationships with partners, loss of home due to mortgage arrears, loss of a service tenancy, eviction from council homes for rent arrears, and eviction from private dwellings for rent arrears or for redevelopment by the owners of the property. It is important to note too that the number of homeless began to rise sharply from 1978 onwards, under a Labour government, thereby refuting Labour's current claim that homelessness is the fault of the present Tory administration—of that 'evil and uncaring woman'. Mrs Thatcher—rather than a result of capitalism itself.
Under capitalism houses are produced as commodities to be bought and sold for a profit. The developer is compelled by competition to struggle for profit—a struggle against competitors who if more successful might drive him into bankruptcy, a Hobbesean 'war of each against all' in a market, which for many developers is often nasty, brutal and short. The housing needs of workers are not his problem. In this profit struggle the diverse needs of society can never be met.
It is easy to bemoan the predicament many workers find themselves in over housing. But, under capitalism, as workers what better can we expect? We are born into a class system in which we are propertyless and can only exist by selling our labour-power to an employer. We get the housing corresponding to that class position.
If we want to end the conditions we exist under we will not do so by misguidedly placing faith in politicians nor through subscribing to charities. What is required is class consciousness and democratic political action. Until then houses will leak and fall into disrepair and the homeless will eke out a precarious existence between the current celebration of capitalism’s decadence at the Andy Warhol exhibition and the pimps and muggers lurking in the streets around Charing Cross station.