Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Letters: Housing problem (1991)

Letters to the Editors from the March 1991 issue of the Socialist Standard

Housing problem

Dear Editors,

A few years ago I gave a talk on housing at a Socialist Party branch. I pointed out that the housing problem can never be solved as long as houses are built for profit and not for human need, and quoted statistics on homelessness and the numbers of people in sub-standard accommodation. In order to illustrate the consequences of bad housing at a personal level. I cited a newspaper article (Guardian. 18 December 1982) about a man living on a council estate in East London who set fire to the flat where he lived with his wife and small daughter in a desperate bid to get rehoused. (Capitalism was able to solve his accommodation problem, in the short term at least, by sending him to prison for nine months).

In seeking material for another talk on housing recently, I came across an article (Guardian, 17 November 1990) about a man who set fire to his house, killing his two-year-old daughter as a result. This time the man “owned” the house himself, but after being made redundant could no longer keep up the mortgage payments. To stop the building society from repossessing the house, he burned it to the ground, with tragic consequences.

Such acts of desperation are only the extremes to which people can be driven. But with the number of homeless increasing, with record figures for mortgage arrears, with the unbelievable squalor of inner- city council estates, with three building workers being killed on site every week, it is clear that capitalism is utterly unable to meet people’s housing needs. The earlier claims of reformist politicians to have solved the housing problem are exposed as hollow, and nobody would make such outlandish statements now. The truth is that the “housing problem” is really a poverty problem, and will not disappear until the cause of poverty— capitalism—has been abolished.
Paul Bennett

East Timor

Dear Editors.

Having read your November 1990 issue about the Economic Causes of the Gulf War, may I say that you should not trivialise the economic significance of East Timor.

The key to understanding Australia’s support for the Indonesian takeover in 1975 was that their oil companies knew of enormous oil reserves under the Timor Sea. Hence, well before the Indonesian invasion in December 1975, the Australian ambassador in Jakarta reminded Canberra to take this factor into account when determining its attitude towards East Timor’s future status. Australia gave de jure recognition of Indonesia’s "integration” of East Timor in 1979 and from then on entered into negotiations for the joint exploitation of these reserves. Its reward is the conclusion of the Timor Gap Treaty in December 1989 which will provide a bonanza for Australian petroleum companies. The reserves in the Timor Sea are thought to exceed reserves in the Middle East.

The oil question worked in reverse for East Timor as compared with Kuwait, i.e. that it was in the West’s interest for Indonesia to control the country.

Even without oil, East Timor produces a great deal more than carrots. Its crop of high quality coffee has always been a great world market attraction. Since the invasion, the coffee trade has been taken over by the army and has profited people like General Murdani who commanded the invasion operation and continues to take a keen interest in Jakarta's policy of colonial control and exploitation of East Timor.
Carmel Budiardjo 
Indonesian Human Rights Campaign 
Thornton Heath, Surrey

William Morris

Dear Editors,

DAP (January) agrees with my general point that there are attempts abroad to “confuse William Morris's Marxist heritage’’, but suggests that the new book, William Morris and News From Nowhere: A Vision For Our Time is not amongst them. DAP goes on to suggest that I should back up my “generalities with some facts and evidence’’. It seems to me, however, that swopping textual analysis of the book is unlikely to clarify the point at issue. This can be done without the need to quote too much chapter and verse.

News From Nowhere is probably the finest example of a number of utopian socialist works written in the last years of the nineteenth century. The motivation for their production is easy enough to see. There had not at that time existed anywhere “socialism in power". Therefore there was a need to speculate on what socialist society might be like. That does not of course make Morris a utopian socialist himself.

News From Nowhere therefore is about a vision of socialism and to focus specifically on it is to run the risk of avoiding the question of how that vision related to Morris's political practice. In this sense the book skews matters from the start.

What is needed is not to use News From Nowhere as a starting point for further utopian explorations but to tie it back to the debates in the socialist movement at the time. Some chapters in the book, for example Jan Marsh's "Concerning Love" on the woman question do this very well indeed. Although I do not, of course, agree with Marsh’s actual treatment of the subject. But others, for example. Paddy O’Sullivan's “The ending of the journey” (which DAP also criticises) which uses Morris as a stick to beat opponents in a debate about late twentieth century ecological politics, quite clearly do not.

The book is a political curate’s egg and in so far as it tries to claim Morris for some form of utopian socialism quite muddle-headed. That is not to deny that it is an interesting book. But if socialists wish to revive the memory of William Morris, and that would be no bad thing, another vehicle will be needed.
Keith Martin
London, N11

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