Monday, July 3, 2017

The Whole Tragic Mess (1963)

Book Review from the May 1963 issue of the Socialist Standard

Britain in the Sixties—Housing, by Stanley Alderson (Penguin Special 3s. 6d.). 

Let us warn you right away. If you think that Mr. Alderson will provide you with a solution to this most pressing problem you are going to be very disappointed. This is quite a well written book, and informative, particularly when you remember that it spans only 174 pocket size pages. But having acknowledged the enormity of the housing scandal, Mr. Alderson gets bogged down in advocating the usual reformist measures to deal with it.

We are left with the awfully depressing feeling that if every one of his suggestions were put into action tomorrow, the housing problem would be just as bad the day after—and for many more days after that. Like all reformist writers, he cannot see that slums, overcrowding, homelessness—in fact, the whole tragic mess—is only part of a bigger general picture of private property society with its sordid profit motive. The emergence of council housing over the past few years does not invalidate this basic contention. Indeed, it is a clear illustration, if any were needed, of the essential indignity of being a member of the working class. The author gives us a hint of this when he tells us on page 94:
  The difficulty is in becoming a council tenant. The man who set about it efficiently would get an essential job, marry young, father a child a year, find himself a slum flat, share it with another family, and develop chronic ill-health. With all these qualifications, he could even expect to get a house before he was thirty.
Like many other writers on this subject, Mr. Alderson is in favour of “a national policy for housing." He has been groping his way towards it, he tells us in the last chapter; and stripped of verbiage, what is this policy? Why, spend more money on housing, of course. He forgets some of the snags mentioned earlier in the book, all of which arise from the profit motive. For instance, on page 11, we read:
   Some of the firms building houses in vast development schemes lose money. . . . Some of the biggest and most efficient firms in the industry refuse to touch housing at all.
And again on page 22:
   What do people want? What can they afford? These are the questions that have to be answered in determining future standards of houses, motor cars, washing powders, or anything else.
So whatever may be planned and intended (and housing is probably the biggest graveyard of scrapped plans that there is) the author admits that we shall get what we can afford, and we all know what that means as far as the working class is concerned. Here is the nub of it, the reason for the poor housing standards of the past, present and future, too, why ". . .  there are houses being erected now which will give dissatisfaction to their first occupants and in ten years will be regarded as sub-standard." It is the factor which plagues and hampers the slum clearance schemes, for as Mr. Alderson points out, lots of the poorer tenants cannot even afford to pay subsidised council rents. At the same time, “many of the old and decayed dwellings needing to be re-built are in areas where there is little or no profit in rebuilding."

It is no intention of ours to sneer at Mr. Alderson’s attempts to grapple with the vast and depressing housing problem. Perhaps it is to his credit that he has at least taken a look at it, for all too often it fosters an attitude of apathy and hopelessness. But when this has been said, there is nothing in his book to shake our conviction that bad housing is a product of private property society. The solution is no to tinker around with Schedule "A" tax reform and extensions of state power, but to institute a world of common ownership and production of goods for use. Houses will then be lived in not just out of necessity, but because they are worth living in, too.
Eddie Critichfield

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