Saturday, 31 March 2018

The eternal science?



Introduction - (or, how I ended up writing this)

The first time I was ever stopped and searched by the police the most seditious thing they found on me was a copy of Marx's Das Kapital Volume I. I had bought it on the way to an anti-fascist protest. Pleased with the fact that one of them had commented, somewhat negatively, on it I enthusiastically began to read it later that night. 

Over the next few months I trawled through it. I found it obscenely difficult to understand but I persisted, made copious amounts of notes, Googled things that I couldn't understand and eventually came stumbling over the finish line to the end. Soon afterwards I went through it again this time with the aid of a local Marxist reading group and then finally once more accompanied by David Harvey's series of lectures on it via YouTube (found here). 

I was extremely taken with it, it was certainly intellectually stimulating and seemed to offer immensely powerful new tools to analyse the world around me and new ways of answering the question 'what is to be done?'. I went on to read a number of other books and pamphlets by Marx and Engels some by Lenin and a handful of more modern Marxist texts and articles even contributing an article to a Marxist publication on the subject of housing and a blog post on the Marxism and Anarchism in the 21st Centurwhich did the rounds a bit in certain circles online.  

It's been quite a journey. Prior to this I had only really been reading anarchist material for a number of years and whilst I found, and still find, much of it insightful and beautiful in it's ideals none of it quite compares to Marxism for it's scope or for it's brilliance as a unified, consistent and constantly developing theory.  

My trouble has been that I have found my anarchism much easier to reconcile with my Christian faith than my Marxism. I studied a BA-hons in theology at the London School of Theology from 2006 to 2009, my final year project was entitled 'To what extent is the gospel good news to the poor and bad news to the rich?' to which I answered 'very' to both. Along side this I've worked in homelessness and housing from 2005 until present and unavoidably seen how society really works, first hand.

Anarchism is extremely broad and flexible, as long as there is general commitment to oppose hierarchy in society you can pretty much mix it with anything you like. I loved the idea of an anarchist eschatology, the ideal post-revolutionary society of peace, abundance and radical equality as being akin to the Kingdom of God come to earth in all it's fullness. I still do. As I have said though Marxism has been tougher to place. It seems to describe social phenomena so accurately but it is also claimed by many to be a necessarily atheistic philosophy. This, slightly longer, piece of work is the results of my thinking and research on this topic. 

If it's written to anyone I think it's mostly to fellow Christians really but I'd like to think that Marxists would also benefit from reading it. 
Part 1 - Human history as a science


"The challenge now is to develop human history as a science, on a par with acknowledged historical sciences such as astronomy, geology and evolutionary biology"

-Jared Diamond (Ecologist, geographer, biologist and anthropologist)

These are the words written towards the end of what is probably Jared Diamond's best known book 'Germs Guns and Steel' (A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years). Written in 1997 and turned into a documentary by the National Geographic Society which was broadcast in 2005 it has sold over 1.5 million copies and won a number of academic prizes. Diamond certainly intended it to be a seminal work in this new field of 'human history as a science'. It's a decent book and certainly worth a read but what is interesting for the point of view of this blog post is Diamond's apparent unawareness of the historiography of this approach. Marxists have been promoting it through a school of thought known as historical materialism for over 150 years. In 1880 Friedrich Engels wrote his short work, 'Socialism: Utopian and Scientific', about the historical development and the contemporary state of historical materialistic thought:

"The materialist conception of human history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders is dependent on what is produced, how it is produced"
- Friedrich Engels (Philosopher, social scientist and journalist)

There is, and there probably always has been, a tremendous amount of confusion about what 'Marxism' really is so in some ways it doesn't surprise me that even someone of Diamond's intellectual stature isn't really aware of it. Some of this is confusion deliberately sown, some is probably accidental. Either way Marx is so great but such a challenging thinker almost anyone who is even vaguely politically conscious has a passionately held opinion about him and the movement that has formed around Marxist thought (despite the fact that so few seemed to have taken the time to read anything he wrote). That aside, the story and the impact of the Marxist movements has been of epic proportions.

(It is well beyond the scope of this blog post to give an adequate account of Marxism, the following short explanation is intended to be functional in order for the reader who is new to Marxism to continue reading but nothing more. Anyone who is interested in a slightly fuller introduction is encouraged to read this: Socialism: Utopian and Scientific)

Marx analysed a broad sweep of human history, focusing particularly on the way in which the 'means to support human life' were produced and how they were distributed. He detected that different socio-historical situations had means of production and of distribution associated with them - economic systems. He noted that these were associated with political systems and systems of thought which were layered on top of the economic base system to enforce it and to justify it. He focused particularly on the system of his day (and our day), capitalism. Not as merely a 'free market' but as a system where people with capital invest it in order to extract profits primarily but also rents and interest. Where 'commodities' are produced and exchanged in order to generate profits and, eventually, where the whole of human society becomes shaped around the needs of capital (given it's own agency through the actions of the 'capitalist') and it's constant drive to expand - a dictatorship of capital.

But Marx didn't simply describe capitalism, he also looked to a brighter future:

"The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it"
- Karl Marx (Philosopher, economist, historian, revolutionary socialist)

He never attempted to give anything like a detailed prophesy but a rough guide as to where the major forces operating in society might be taking us next. I'll let him explain in his own words (from Capital Volume 1):

Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolise all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.

Marx wrote very little about communism. If communism was anything to Marx it was a society in which these 'means of production' that produce things that support human life would be managed collectively and that goods and services would be distributed according to needs. He did not try to justify it by suggesting that capitalism was 'evil' and communism would be 'good' or 'moral' in comparison. For Marx, communism was simply the future, and it was in the direct interests of the great mass of impoverished suffering working class to speed it's arrival.


Part 2 Christianity and historical materialism in theory

Now that we have, hopefully, busted a few myths about what Marxism is and established it as an attempt to give a scientific basis for socialism (whether or not you believe it was successful or that this was a worthwhile endeavour or not is irrelevant at this stage) we are ready to look at the interaction between Christianity and Marxism, specifically focusing on the science of 'historical materialism' and how Christians can approach it (read here for more on historical materialism if I haven't explained enough).

The history of relations between Christianity and Marxism has been almost totally antagonistic. It is no exaggeration to state that in most cases where the political movements of the working class who associated themselves with Marxist thought made an impact, the church rushed to the side of the capitalist class and to defend the capitalist order. In return, on those occasions where 'communism' emerged victorious the church was often brutally persecuted as an enemy of the working class. As a Christian and as someone who is heavily inspired by Marxism I find this embarrassing and tragic and I won't use much space in this blog post to go over it, what I will do in the next chapter is look at some of the exceptions where we both have done better.

Most practitioners of Marxist historical materialism are atheists. They approach it not simply as a tool for scientifically analysing human history but as an all encompassing philosophy. It should be clear though that if one were to come at historical materialism on it's own terms; as a science, we already have some well developed theological approaches for how Christians can approach science which, whether or not they are palatable for an atheist are satisfying to many Christians.

Putting aside the anti-science and fundamentally anti-intellectual approaches of some Christians we have real distinguished scholars like Alister McGrath (who holds doctorates in both molecular biophysics and in theology) who can speak to this issue with authority on both sides. In his book challenging the new-atheism of Richard Dawkins (Dawkins' God) he writes:

"The interaction between science and religion has been influenced more by their social circumstances than by their specific ideas"
Alister McGrath (Theologian, scientist)

If you've grasped a flavour of historical materialist analysis and you think you might note hints of it in the above quoted sentence and you'd probably be right. McGrath has stated in an interview when asked about his own intellectual background:

"I still use Marxism – it’s very good at social analysis – but there seemed vast areas of life where it didn’t give good answers"
  
McGrath's is saying that science and religion may not be so intrinsically opposed as it may seem. Whilst a Christian will never expect it to answer the ultimate 'why?' questions it's perfectly fine to expect it to answer the 'how?' questions. He goes on:

"Underlying these essentialist accounts of the interaction of science and religion is the unchallenged assumption that each of these terms designates something fixed permanent, and essential, so that their mutual relationship is determined by something fundamental to each of the disciplines, unaffected by the specifics of time, place and culture. But this is simply not so. The relation of science and religion is historically conditioned, bound to the social and intellectual conditions of the age. What we are seeing at present is a growing interest, on both sides of the divide, in seeing how the two disciplines can illuminate and even assist each others efforts"

As with Marx's work, if you're interested in more than my basic functional accounts of McGrath's arguments, buy the book. The point is Christians are capable of embracing science, not as an independent holistic philosophy maybe, but as valid, true and holding an important place within our own theology. Christian theology, even historically, has held that a rational ordered universe which can be understood by the human brain is linked to a God who also loves rationality and order and has both ordered the universe this way and placed within us a desire to study it and even an appreciation of the beauty of science. Theology itself is undoubtedly something of a rationalistic project. 

Most Christians have been able to gradually accept new scientific knowledge as it is diffused out into society much as the general public has done; sometimes inconsistently, often lagging behind the experts but still bumbling along forwards with everyone else. One troubling tendency has remained though, an idea known as 'the God of the gaps' (mainly to it's detractors). This idea holds that those things that science cannot explain, that's where God can be located. So, we don't believe that conception is supernaturally miraculous any more because it's a generally scientifically accepted and understood process, on the other hand, since scientists have been unable to give a clear reason for why we yawn... that MUST be God! If nothing else, the problem with the God of the gaps is that he is constantly shrinking as science discovers more and more about the universe around us. A much better approach is to consider science as revealing the amazing universe that God has created and to see God in everything, not just those things that are not yet understood.

So, when we apply a scientific perspective to human history we've got to choose the approach we want to take. Do we as Christians wish to try to keep science out believing that by doing so we are protecting God's role as the force guiding humanity throughout the ages towards our eventual destiny of reconciliation with each other, with creation and with God himself.

Or, are we going to be able to accept that historical materialism can beautifully illuminate the rationalistic way in which God often works (whilst of course allowing for the fact that he sometimes chooses to break his own rules). If we feel that are able to do the latter then Marxism must be met on it's own terms and debated as a science, does it explain phenomena we see around us satisfactorily? Is it able to make accurate predictions? etc. I have already stated my bias on this. It does and it can. To accept it is to ensure one's place on the right side of history and avoid being stuck clinging to a decaying order which has no stake in the future and which God and his science has no stake in now.

The Bible regularly describes God as being 'on the side of the poor'. Marx claims that "the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles" that is the struggle between an oppressor class and and and oppressed class, the rich and powerful and the poor. But Marx also shows, through the scientific analysis of historical materialism that history is bending towards victory for the poor. So to claim that God is using scientific processes for his purposes, in order for the poor to 'inherit the earth' (Psalm 37:11) can hardly be considered inconceivable.

Those who can't be bothered to read Marx and understand the thinking behind the movement which has been the hope of much of the world's oppressed peoples (and this is a deliberate challenge) don't really deserve to have their opinion about Marxism taken seriously.

To those Marxists whose insistence on atheism causes them discomfort with notions of Christians attempting to wield historical materialism whilst retaining their faith I will only say that we all live in the same universe. Intelligent Christians are quite capable of studying science and indeed have been leaders in certain scientific fields (I will briefly mention Francis Collins  leader of the human genome project who is a Christian as an example) but it's how we choose to interpret the evidence which is the point where we part company. The association of Christianity and irrationality belongs to certain situations in certain historical periods, clearly not to all time and everywhere.


Part 3 Christianity and Marxism in practice

Christianity and socialism are old friends, many Christian movements have taken on forms of utopian socialism (meaning; socialism based on their ability describe a different idealised version of society which is 'better' than whatever oppressive social order they were working under). It's not in the slightest bit difficult to read in the prophets of the Old Testament and the gospels and letters of the New Testament to find clear demands and practices that we could label as socialistic moral demands and practices today.

Come now, you who are rich, weep and wail for the misery to come upon you. Your riches have rotted and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and consume your flesh like fire.You have hoarded treasure in the last days. Look, the wages you withheld from the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts.
(James 5: 1-4)

The reference to unpaid wages even sounds decidedly Marxist. Throughout church history communities have attempted to put these moral ideas into practice but this blog post is not about them, noble as their attempts were and as deserving of attention as they were.

Marxism as a specific, modern form of socialism has never sat quite so easily with the church. Firstly, as mentioned above Marxist political movements and the church have often found themselves on opposite sides of very real conflicts, but exceptions can always be found.

Liberation Theology

Liberation theology has been the main vehicle for working towards a synthesis of Christianity and Marxism. Pioneered in Latin America in the 1950s to 1970s but since having spread and applied to a wide variety of situations of oppression and exploitation around the globe there exists; black liberation theology, feminist liberation theology, Palestinian liberation theology, Dalit liberation theology and more. Again, better to let a few of them speak for themselves, enough maybe to whet some appetites to discover a bit more about this rich tradition:

James H Cone has been keen to establish a discourse between Marxism and the Black church in the USA.

Marxism may be understood as a scientific tool for analyzing the economic, political and social 
structures of this society so that we will know how to actualize in the world the freedom that we affirm in faith.
James H Cone - The Black Church and Marxism, what do they have to say to each other (link)

Leonardo Boff spoke about how Marxism could be a useful tool in the hands of liberation theologians but only if it were carefully subjugated to the gospel: 

'Therefore, liberation theology used Marxism purely as an instrument.  It does not venerate it as it venerates the gospel.  And it feels no obligation to account to social scientists for any use it may make - correct or otherwise of Marxist terminology and ideas...To put it in more specific terms, liberation theology freely borrows from Marxism certain 'methodological pointers' that have proved fruitful in understanding the world of the oppressed.'
Leonardo Boff

Liberation theology is also currently being actively put into practice through movements such as Abahlali baseMjondolo:

For example, liberation theology will refer to Mathew 10:34, in which Jesus states: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” Additionally, liberation theology will turn to Matthew 26:51-52 and Luke 22:35-38, in which Jesus refers to the “sword,” and interpret these passages as motivation for revolutionary mobilization (Samarajiwa). In relationship to social uprising and revolution, liberation theology is also largely tied to Marxist doctrines, particularly the concept of the incessant class struggle.
Abahlali baseMjondolo (link)

Obviously, I could go on and on.

The point really of all this though is to show that I am far from the first person to have considered how Marxism and Christianity might interact much more positively. It is also to pose a question; to those who insist on essentialist accounts of religion and Christianity and their place in the social order, what is it that makes the conservative establishment church hierarchies of the West the 'true' expression of the Christian religion and these not?

The Sandinista revolution and the church

The Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua in 1979 must occupy the level of prestige for Christian Marxists that the Russian Revolution or the Spanish revolution do for socialists in general. It must be studied and critically reflected upon. What went right, what went wrong, what lessons can we learn from it in our own time.

In short this was one shinning example of a socialist revolution in the 20th Century where sufficient ground work had been done within the church that when revolution came much of the church was ready to support it and the Marxist revolutionary FSLN movement which eventually gained power in turn found it perfectly possible to work with the Nicaraguan Church.

I have not yet done enough research to say much more at this stage but I will and at some point I plan to write more on it.

Conclusion

So, to sum up:

  • Marxism is a school of thought which attempts to give a scientific basis for socialism. 
  • Christians don't have to be anti-science and so can and should look into whether or not Marxism succeeds or fails in it's quest on it's own terms and should not simply denounce it because someone told them it was 'bad'. 
  • There are decent examples of Christians using Marxist insights through liberation theology all around the world. They claim it has helped. There is even a real life example of the church assisting in the overthrow of a capitalist regime hand in hand with a bunch of Marxists. These things ought to be studied further.
Thanks for reading.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Homelessness, a Tory Minsiter who doesn't get it but who actually does?


(This is one of those Facebook posts that got too long and had to become a blog post instead!)

Last week we all heard that the new minister for homelessness Heather Wheeler didn't acknowledge Conservative cuts as the reason for homelessness but, when grilled a little further, admitted that she didn't know why homelessness was on the rise (this was all shortly after saying that she'll quit this role is she doesn't solve the issue within a few years).

Anyway, it seems that Heather Wheeler has now had the opportunity to learn something about homelessness which is obviously good (even if we'd be naïve to think that she's likely to change her mind about much as a result) as seen in this article: http://www.24housing.co.uk/news/homelessness-minster-gets-actual-insight-into-homelessness/

But at this point after reading the article there is something that overshadows all that. I am now on a personal mission to stop people talking absolute nonsense about homelessness numbers:

This article says:

"Latest statistics show 4,751 people slept outside overnight in 2017".

When people who are supposed to know and understand homelessness can't get their head around simple statistics we've got just as big or bigger issue than the Tory Minister who has obviously taken on a role that she isn't prepared for.

This is a complete misunderstanding of the figures! On one night during 2017 that number is how many people we all managed to count in our annual street count (in England alone, not for the UK as a whole).

It may be close to accurate for the single night it was taken on (although almost certainly many people were not found) but to state that this is how many people slept out during the entire year is just wrong and will lead people to vastly underestimate the problem and therefore propose solutions that can't work.

At least 8000 people were recorded as having slept rough during 2017 in London alone (according to figures from the CHAIN database). Homelessness is not a static issue, meaning that there are not a fixed number of people with 'homeless' branded on their foreheads. It's a fluid issue. People become homeless, they may sleep on the streets for a while, they may sofa surf or squat and then eventually they may get housed again, hopefully.

A snapshot of the number of rough sleepers at any given moment is pretty much irrelevant compared to the rate at which people are flowing onto the streets over a given time and how long on average they're stuck there. That's why you can't just build 4751 new homes for homeless people and deal with the issue just like that.

Homelessness is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to much bigger housing supply issues and issues about security of tenure and affordability and rough sleeping is the most visible tip of that tip. You have to deal with the whole damn iceberg if you want the most ugly visible and painful bits of the problem to go away.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Justice for Grenfell

JUSTICE FOR GRENFELL



On the 14th of June 2017 a fire broke out in a tower block in West London. It took 24 hours to get it under control and over 60 to get it fully out. At least 71 people have died. 

The story of Grenfell didn't start at 54 minutes past midnight on 14/07/17 though. It's one episode in the long neo-liberal journey towards the total destruction of social housing in the UK. In this case it was in the aftermath of huge cuts to the body that regulates social housing. Roger Jarman the former head of housing at the Audit Commission - which has previously inspected social housing for safety - wrote to the Guardian newspaper in the days after the fire saying this:

"Unlike the healthcare, social care and education sectors, social housing in England no longer has an inspection regime that assesses the performance of landlords delivering services to the 4 million households living in housing association or local authority housing. Between 2000 and 2010 the Audit Commission carried out 1,400 housing inspections of housing associations and local authorities, but when the commission was abolished by the coalition government these inspections stopped".

The tenants who lived there had already given stark warning of what could happen. They had been ignored. 

2 days after the fire, on Friday 16th of June word spread via social media that a protest was planned. I was free that evening and jumped straight onto the train after work. I arrived in Kensignton to find the town hall occupied and local people filling the streets. 

We then began marching towards the tower:








The atmosphere was like nothing I'd experienced before on a protest. While the likes of the Socialist Workers Party had predictably turned up there was nothing they could do to 'manage' this protest, they were spectators at best. 

On route all vehicles stopped, car horns were beeping loudly, people were getting off buses to join in with the protest, people were shouting and whistling from balconies along the way. As we arrived speeches were given, almost all from local people as far as I could tell. 

Demands were read out. Posters were up all over the place with names and pictures of those who were still missing, many people were in tears. 

The Justice for Grenfell campaign continues. 

There will be no justice until people responsible for cutting corners are fully identified and dealt with and social housing rises again and the working class in the UK are saved from the clutches of corrupt housing associations that have long lost their purpose, greedy scheming private landlords, massive capitalist housing developers and the banks.

All of us who live at the mercy of landlords who don't give a shit about us unless the rent is late live at risk of fire, mould, pest infestations, poisoning and being worn down by cold and damp conditions. This kind of housing is killing us all slowly.

Decent social housing for all, democratically controlled by the residents is a revolutionary demand. When we have control of our own homes and our streets and our neighbourhoods we will be well on the way to taking control of our lives and living in the safe, healthy conditions that the class of people who have built the entire cities we live in deserve.



Friday, 9 February 2018

Leave it to the left

I've seen what happens when Liberals go toe to toe with the right in a debate. When they face off with anyone from mainstream conservatives to the alt-right to full-on fascists it nearly always ends in embarrassment.

Why should we socialists feel embarrassed by the antics of liberals that get in over their heads?

Because, for better or worse we get associated with them, especially when it comes to dealing with the reactionary right.

I've seen enough of liberals tying themselves up in knots, stumbling over their words, saying things they didn't mean to say (or at least saying things they didn't like the sound of when they came out). And the 'logical', 'strong', 'intelligent' right winger launches blow after blow with a smile on their face as, to their delight, everything they expected to happen when they got into a debate with a liberal does, in fact, happen:

The average liberal's world view turns out to be mere fluff. Full of inconsistencies, based on assumptions about expected norms of 'right' and 'wrong' and belief that social pressure can continue to enforce these, lacking any background study and so failing to understand the philosophical points at stake in each round they begin to look for a way out, or worse they begin seeking compromise or approval.

Why does this happen?

Because the right wing arguments are perfectly suited to their natural environment, capitalism. They often make fairly good sense in a world where everyone is an individual, responsible for whether they 'win' or 'lose'. In this world, plainly, everyone, is already getting what they deserve, because they deserve whatever they managed to grab during this short life and 'losers' deserve their lot too.

Liberals enter into the debate with the same basic individualist assumptions, even if they've got icing on top of theirs, it's the same cake.

If you accept a world where capitalists have freedom to run a private business you're going to struggle to show how people who don't own that business get a say in how it operates. If you accept a world where everyone has to compete to survive you will find it quite a challenge to justify inserting in special clauses that limit the way this operates to ensure that people who are ostensibly 'losing' don't get such a rough deal.

It gets worse.

I have literally heard liberals argue that all migration is good on the basis that "if we don't let migrants in who's going to do all the shit jobs we don't want to do?" At which point, presumably the fascist who hadn't considered the benefits of importing a class of slaves to clean their toilets begins to reconsider their position...

Leave it to the left. Please.

Let us show how the right are acting as lap dogs for the capitalist class who own our homes and our workplaces and run our government, require us to feel atomised and isolated, blaming ourselves for anything that goes wrong and/or being willing to step on people's heads to stay just above them on the ladder while the capitalists are ten floors up at the party already, egging us on and laughing. Listen then, to how our message - that if we all learn to have a bit of solidarity with the rest of our class  and start working together against these greedy bastards we can win - starts to sound a bit more appealing... no? Where are the right wing going to go now they've been exposed?

Let us show that private businesses are based on systematic theft and that the socialist alternative where industry is run democratically by the class of people who do the work, not unaccountable bosses is the only solid ground for demanding equality for all. Not begging the boss to be nicer, or kissing the bosses ass as the right advocate.

Let us show that people deserve the right to settle where ever they want but also deserve the right not to be bombed or starved out of their homes too. That bosses do try to use open borders to bring in cheap labour but that, obviously, isn't the fault of the workers than come to take up the offer. That the value of all working class people, immigrant or not isn't found in whether we can be of useful service to the boss or please the ruling class by adhering to their bourgeois morality or nationalism, but in our human dignity.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

The social gospel?

"But when I leave, you’ll remember I said, with the last words on my lips, that I am a revolutionary. And you’re going to have to keep on saying that. You’re going to have to say that I am a proletariat, I am the people. I am not the pigs. You’ve got to make a distinction" - Fred Hampton

I am a proletariat, and because I'm conscious of that fact I am necessarily a socialist and I am a revolutionary and so when I pick up my Bible and read it I read it as a conscious member of the proletariat and I'm looking for answers to proletariat questions.

If I continued to pick it up only in the way I'd been trained, in the way that has been handed down to us by the ruling classes, I'd be picking it up looking for the answers to questions I wasn't really asking. Abstract questions that I have very little time for. If I had continued to approach the Bible that way I would have probably given up on it a long time ago.

The ruling class have everything they need but they feel that their souls are troubled and so when they come to the Bible looking for salvation it's to save their souls alone. 

They may find it but they have to tread carefully, lest they fall into the hands of the real Jesus.

"The work of salvation is a reality which occurs in history" - Gustavo Gutierrez

The real Jesus, real salvation. What are these things? We exist in a material reality. We are not divided up into two, the body and the soul/spirit we are one. The real Jesus was one and was one with us and the real salvation is a plan to save the world.

"...creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies." - Romans 8:21 - 23

The ruling class' have done their best to spiritualise away the true message of the Bible, that is to divide it, to divide it away from the everyday experiences of the majority of people on this planet and to confine it to a false prison, the soul. But read the above, isn't it creation that is to be liberated, isn't it our bodies that wait eagerly to be redeemed?

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour." - Luke 4: 18-19

In the ruling class' message of salvation it is essential that the prisoners and the blind and the oppressed are only imprisoned, blind and oppressed in a spiritual sense. In the real gospel of salvation we take Jesus at his word.

"What if Jesus meant what he said?" - Shane Claibourne

If Jesus meant what he said then the good news of the gospel is the announcement of the coming Kingdom of God. A revolutionary society in which those who are now first will be last, a society that has literally abolished death, sadness and pain (Revelation 21:4). This is not 'heaven' for after we die, it's the world transformed and turned upside down (Revelation 11:15). The mission of the church is to embody it now and to and fight for it. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are radical incarnations of the future - the future Kingdom of God already among us. The second coming of Jesus is that rupture with the old order where the revolutionary decisive break has been made. Sin is conformity to the old order, obedience to God is preparation for the new world and the new society.

Salvation really means salvation from all the things that you really thought you needed salvation from.

No blog post can stand in for you doing your own investigation. Read one of the gospels in the Bible (I suggest trying Luke first), suspend what you thought you knew about it or what Christians have said about it. Don't try to step outside of yourself, reflect deeply on your life, your needs, your anxieties and your hopes - not just individually consider your class, consider the ways in which people like you are oppressed and then go to it and see if it's got any of the answers.

Solving homelessness; novelty gestures, manipulation or housing activism

Novelty gestures

Special vending machines, reverse advent calendars, so called 'tiny houses' and attempts to squat and set up encampments for homeless people on derelict land, coats tied onto lampposts etc. These are examples of the 'novelty gesture' approach to solving homelessness. In some ways they're a bit like the old soup runs/ soup kitchens but they're way more fun and they generate much better social media content.

Image result for coats tied to lampposts for homeless people
Homelessness in the UK is at critical level and continuing to worsen. It's an acknowledged fact that there is a very serious housing crisis and that the entire housing market is broken from the perspective of millions of working class people, especially younger people. Real people are dying and real families are being torn apart. So does this model have what it takes?

Image result for tiny houses homelessAbsolutely not. This response continues in the tired old tradition of charity designed to make dire poverty feel slightly more tolerable but lacking any ambition to change the fundamental situation. At it's worst practitioners of the 'novelty gesture' approach limit their involvement to one off random outings where homeless people are not even consulted on what they want or need in any way.

The first vending machine for the homeless, set up by the charity Action Hunger in the Broad Marsh Shopping Centre, Nottingham. The real goals of this approach are to: get rid of waste food and old clothing, make givers feel better about themselves and provide them with the experience of a little adventure. Whether the practice is illegal - such a squat or handing out food against the wishes of local authorities or whether it's all permitted and above board makes no difference, it's simply not effective, doesn't really set out to change anything and only succeeds in treating homeless people like pet projects and receptacles for waste.

Image result for food not bombsThrowing spare change into a hat was never going to solve the housing crisis, neither was setting homeless people to work selling magazines or getting them to eat copious amounts of soup. And that's because, if we're all honest, they're not even vaguely intending to.

Manipulation

What about manipulating people into changing their behaviour so they make correct life decisions? Could this solve homelessness? This is the basis of most of the professional work done with homeless people in the UK. Again, no. However it's dressed up it's a way of blaming individuals for being the victims of systematic problems and cajoling them into doing things that commissioners of services find acceptable.

Maybe if homeless people would take more responsibility, maybe if homeless people would learn to be more independent, maybe if homeless people would stop drinking alcohol or taking drugs? Maybe it would turn out that there wasn't really a housing crisis after all, it was just a growing number of lazy stupid people who couldn't get their shit together all along and they could have had somewhere to live if they'd just put the effort in.

No. That's not the one. It's not setting out to solve homelessness. It does nothing to make housing more accessible, or affordable or to win more security for tenants... it just sets up hoops for people to jump through in order to help ration what little housing is available for the very poor.

Housing Activism

Housing activism is different:

  • Treat the crisis of homelessness as a housing issue - soup can't fix it. 
  • Treat housing as a right - stop trying to work out who deserves it. 
1. First of all you can't have the people you're trying to help dying on you. Homeless people's average age of death in the UK is around 47. You also need to beat that crappy idea that people need to hit some kind of 'rock bottom' before they'll accept help. Rock bottom is often death, even if it's not it's just letting people fall further into the abyss making the journey out that much harder and longer. People who are traumatised and suffering from extreme depression or anxiety or other issues are not some how magically going to say - "okay I guess the only way is up from here!". It just hurts people so you do need to start with meeting some immediate needs - food, clothing, basic shelter, safety. But's it's got to be well organised and reliable and involve the homeless people in planning and operationally.

(If you feel I've slated your good work above under the 'novelty gesture approach' try thinking about what you're doing as 'step 1 housing activism' instead. You may need to think about how you can make some tweaks to make it more reliable and include the intended recipients in what you're doing but that's achievable right? - I encourage you not to stop there though, could you go on to step 2 below or link up with others who are attempting it?)

2. Step 2 is case work. Even under the existing system people do have some rights. Some people have a right to housing from their local authority, some evictions are illegal but does everyone who is a victim of this housing crisis know exactly where they stand? No. You can learn the ins and outs of homelessness and housing law. You can find out what help people are owed, you can understand the codes of guidance that local authorities work from, how case law has impacted on the way the system works. You can find out what landlords can and can't do, you can advise tenants getting into difficulties how to avoid being chucked out. You can offer to go along to court with people, you can even start calling yourself a 'legal advisor' if you get confident enough (since it's not a protected term like 'solicitor'. 

3. Finally, you've got to campaign to change the system. You know how to maximise people's ability to get what they need out of the current system but is it enough? No it is not. We need:
  • A mass social housing building programme - now.
  • Unions of tenants beating back landlord tyranny.
  • Legislation that recognises the fundamental right to suitable, safe, affordable accommodation for all. 
This is the answer to homelessness. 

Monday, 30 October 2017

Stop saying that there are only 4134 homeless people in England

In the autumn of 2016 all local authorities were required to either count or estimate the number of people sleeping rough on their patch. The returns came in with figures ranging from Westminster’s 280 to West Devon’s zero. When they were all added up they totalled 4134. This is currently the latest official national count of people sleeping outside in England therefore, isn’t it fair enough for people to talk about this as a fairly reliable indication of how many people are homeless in this country?

No, categorically, it is not. This real figure is probably around 60 times higher. The real number of homeless people is so completely incomparable with the results of that count it needs addressing. It needs addressing not just because it’s so wildly misleading but also because if the figure is more like 250,000 we have a very significant problem that requires a structural shift in the way our society handles housing. If it’s around 4000 we have a sad, but marginal issue which probably requires someone, somewhere to just have a heart and provide them all with a home.

So where is the disconnect between the two? I’ll tackle this in stages….

1.       This 4134 figure is just those people that can either be found or are known by agencies supporting them to have slept outside on the night when their count was done. Obviously, some people won’t have been found, or won’t have been known to anyone who was present when they came up with the estimates.

2.       This 4134 figure is just a snapshot. Even if it had been accurate on the night it was taken it could have halved or doubled by the next night. Homelessness is not a static issue. Treating it as static makes out that homelessness is an integral part of who some people are, not a temporary condition of being without accommodation. Homelessness must be understood as being in motion all the time, there are people losing their accommodation and becoming homeless and there are people finding accommodation who were previously homeless and becoming housed. If the rate at which people are becoming homeless is greater than the rate at which homeless people are getting housed then a snapshot count taken on a series of nights will show the number of people stuck in the middle, who are currently without anywhere to live, will be going up.

3.       The first two points there are quibbles really compared to this; homelessness doesn’t simply mean ‘sleeping outside’. Homelessness is a state in which a person has no accommodation that they have a legal right to occupy or could be reasonably expected to occupy.

a.       A person fleeing domestic violence has a legal right to occupy their former home but can’t be reasonably expected to stay there.

b.      A person whose friend is allowing them and their kids to sleep on their living room floor for a little while because they refuse to see them on the streets or in the hands of social services has no legal right to that living room floor and must be recognised as being homeless.

4.       A further category of people should also be categorised as homeless; those people who are currently occupying specialist temporary accommodation for homeless people. This may be a Night Shelter provided by a small charity, a supported housing project (hostel) provided by a housing association or a room in a B+B provided by the local authority as a part of their statutory duties under the 1996 housing act or by social services because there were children involved.  

It’s once you add in those last two categories that you get close to the real figure. Shelter have done the hard work in estimating these and it was them who came up with the 250,000 figure albeit almost a year ago now so we can’t keep on quoting that one forever.

A quarter of a million people in this country with nowhere to call home is a huge issue. In London it’s 1 in every 51 people and it’s getting worse every year. This is the direct result of the attack on social housing and the pushing of the private rented sector.

Despite the cheap talk from the Tory government about support for social housing they have put a stop to councils being able to borrow money to build it, they have given developers new loopholes to avoid planning regulations which require them to provide it, they have redefined what it means to include houses for sale which only people on way above average incomes could afford and they have accelerated the speed at which it’s being sold off.

At the same time, despite the whining of private landlords over them not being able to deduct mortgage interest from their tax payments (this is taken to be an all-out ideological assault on their right to exist and practice their ‘profession’) the Tories have, over the years laid on all of the conditions necessary for their sector to more than double in size since the turn of the century. The scene was set by the ripping up of private renters’ rights in the 80s and the financial incentivisation of buy-to-let in the 90s. All the while the government were busy creating a new market for private landlords by selling off social housing and preventing more being built, changing the rules to allow local authorities to discharge their homelessness duties by setting people up with private tenancies and filibustering bills written to provide tenants with just a few simple protections again.

Reliance on the private rented sector for housing will lead to what it always led to from the beginning of the industrial revolution up until the mass building of social housing and the expansion of homeownership in the post-war 20th century – slums and homelessness. And it’s already well on its way.