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.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Attending a lecture by Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky is 88 years old. Born in 1928 he witnessed the bulk of 20th century history, not through the eyes of a passive observer but as someone who was actively involved and also constantly reflecting intelligently on the events unfolding throughout what was undoubtedly one of the most dramatic centuries in human history.

On 10th May 2017 he gave a lecture entitled "Racing for the Precipice: Is the Human Experiment Doomed?" at The Concert Hall in Reading, England. I was lucky enough to have been offered a ticket by someone with the foresight to buy a few before they all sold out. It was a memorable evening. Chomsky is of an age where if you haven't seen him in the flesh yet you don't really expect you will get the chance. Kropotkin lived until he was 78, so did Malatesta (dying when Chomsky was aged 4) and even the old man Rudolf Rocker died 3 years younger than Chomsky is now. He's doing exceptionally well for an anarchist, (it's only a shame he hasn't chosen to grow a huge beard!) so it was a real treat and a surprise to get the chance.

The theme and Chomsky's introduction instantly reminded me of Kropotkin's 'species-ism' outlook found in books like 'Mutual Aid - A Factor of Evolution' and 'Conquest of Bread'. The idea of stepping back and looking at humanity as a species and asking the questions, where have we come from and how has this shaped us? Where are we destined to end up? And ultimately, what kind of species are we, can we pull together to survive and thrive or will we fail?

The diagnosis was less optimistic than 100 years ago when Kropotkin was giving his last lectures. We may be an intelligent species but intelligent species don't necessarily fare better, in fact it's the most simplistic species that go on for millions upon millions of years. We've already surpassed our life expectancy. Not only that, but now, through the looming dangers of nuclear war and environmental catastrophe we have directly threatened our own existence in a very real and concrete way, and the one weapon we have in our favour, democracy, is failing. 

This grim take on the prospects for the human species aptly reflected the mood in the car on the way there as we'd discussed the prospects for the coming UK general election with most people having already conceded it to the Conservatives who remained stubbornly ahead in the polls by a margin of up to 20 points (although this is dropping now). The idea that we as humans might be fundamentally selfish/ idiotic/ stubborn probably seemed plausible enough to most of the enlightened, well educated audience members. 

Here is where this approach can hit the limits of how far it's going to take us. By treating humanity as one big lump, (or at best divided between a minority of progressive individuals and a mass of idiots) we naturally move on to supposing that we, as humans, mostly have relatively fixed attributes - whether these be for the better as in Kropotkin or for the worse as in Chomsky's lecture. 

So if we really are a recklessly short sighted and short tempered and possibly short lived species it's hard for a person to know what to do. If you've decided that you don't want to see the end of life on earth as we know it, if you think you've got an idea of what kind of social system could take us back from the precipice and allow us to go on to survive and thrive, then what? How do we get from here; at one and a half minutes to midnight on doomsday clock, to there; peace and harmony and justice?

The options seem limited, do we try to persuade people? If so who? In a world where some people have much more power and influence or sheer money to do something about all this than others then surely them? Or do we start to think about how we could protect ourselves and the people we care about from impending doom? Or do we prefer to try to to stay pure, and to at least ensure that if the world is going to die it's not going to be our fault? 

Chomsky's voice is silent on this issue, like a last warning from a person who has seen us repeatedly refuse to learn lessons from the past intentionally leaving us to frantically search for the answers ourselves if we want to prove him wrong.

Proving such a pessimistic assessment from such an intelligent man wrong will be no easy task. As the capitalist system enters what must surely be it's final decades before we face the crossroads of revolution or collapse we will need now more than ever to be armed with the right analysis and theory and be ready to take the right actions derived from it. Both Chomsky and Kropotkin's methods of analysing human history undoubtedly have a basis in science but neither of them seem willing to engage with and contribute towards a whole field of study set up to answer these questions; scientific socialism. Anarchists everywhere avoid it, probably because it sounds exclusively Marxist and so arrogant but it's a treasure trove. 

I've found (to my gratification) that in general people don't listen to someone ranting on at them trying to convince them to think a certain way. They have to grab hold of questions for themselves, wrestle with them, attack the key texts, fight the seminal thinkers and come out the other side and face the original problem again. 

To deal with the challenge that Chomsky left in this lecture, and for another way to approach the problem in itself I recommend starting with this short pamphlet from Engels: Socialism: Utopian and Scientific

Don't take my word or Engels word or Chomsky's for anything, see what you think.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Nationalisation in the Labour Party Manifesto - an anarchist perspective

The leaked Labour Party manifesto contains plans for the nationalisation of certain Key industries. I've called for a vote for Labour and yet I still call myself anti-state. How does that work?

Let's hear from Engels about nationalisation first:

"...the transformation — either into joint-stock companies and trusts, or into State-ownership — does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces. In the joint-stock companies and trusts, this is obvious. And the modern State, again, is only the organization that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists. The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine — the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers — proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is, rather, brought to a head. But, brought to a head, it topples over. State-ownership of the productive forces is not the solution of the conflict, but concealed within it are the technical conditions that form the elements of that solution". (Socialism, Utopian and Scientific).

That speaks for itself but there is a bit more from me.
These industries, which were previously nationalised and then sold off into private hands by the Conservatives were never really de-nationalised. They still operated with contracts to run from the state and they were still largelly funded by taxation. The only difference was that capitalists have been allowed to use them to make a profit since they were "sold off". "Re-nationalising" them puts them back into some level of democratic control by the people who funded and built them and prevents any parasites from getting rich off them. It's clearly a step in the right direction, however small.

The anarchists' job is not to try to stall steps like this but to never be satisfied by these small ventures towards socialism and to demand the maximum personal autonomy for the working class at every stage. A vote for Labour is still perfectly good and fit for the purpose of accelerating the revolutionary process (as described in the previous post here Positive Accelerationism).

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Positive Accelerationism

(I refuse to give a spoiler warning for the film Inception when it's been out for 7 years... and now I've done it anyway) 

In the film Inception the main character Cobb and his wife Mal get trapped in a dream world limbo for decades. Eventually Cobb realises that the only way to wake up is to die in the dream. He has to convince his wife that the world they've lived in for all those years was just a dream and to get back to reality they have to kill themselves. The idea becomes so powerful that it won't go away, even once they've awoken again in the real world it comes to absolutely define Mal, leading her to commit suicide for real in a vain effort to wake up for real.

The idea of accelerationism grew out of a tiny seed of truth implanted deep within the minds of those who first came up with it but it's grown well beyond it now.

The idea is:

Capitalism produces the conditions that will eventually destroy it.

 The gravediggers of Capitalism

The unthinking assumption about the sequence of events made by adherents of accelerationism is that capitalism makes people's lives unbearable and brings them to a point where they have nothing left to lose. They then revolt in huge numbers, this snowballs into a revolution and capitalism, just when it was at it's most crushingly brutal, is suddenly brought to it's knees.

It's a somewhat convincing tale at first. When people's quality of life is reasonable what real incentive is there to risk death in a revolution? That's why our protests become more and more docile the more comfortable everyone's lives are, right? That's why a lot of people are totally disengaged with politics and the struggle altogether right? Because their lives are basically fine?

The trouble with this is that it really is an assumption and it takes no account of some huge problems that should be obvious:
  • Capitalism in recent years has destroyed most of the horizontal links between the working class. From freindly neighbourhoods looking out for each other to trade unions to even our families everything is melting away. We're becoming scared, isolated individuals that accept the blame for our miserable lives and believe that we deserve what we get. 
  • As capitalism progresses, our jobs and our homes become precarious, stepping out of line can lead to anything we've managed to hold together in life from our mental health to our bank balance or a relatively pleasant life for our children being wrecked.
  • In recent years we've seen that as capitalism cannibalises the welfare state that was put in place to stabilise it people are going hungry and not getting the health care they need. Even life expectancy is beginning to fall. Every person who hasn't eaten properly for months or is walking about waiting for an operation is another person who is going to have difficulty concentrating or carrying out any kind of revolutionary actions.
  • Every step that capitalism strides forwards involves working class resistance to it being crushed. Every cut to vital services that was resisted but happened anyway or every strike that never achieved what it intended to do and was broken is a defeat and eventually after enough of this people just give up.
  • The less disposable income people have the less they can travel around to protest/ meet people/ fund actions. 

It also ignores the historical evidence. During the 1950s and 60s when conditions we're rapidly getting better people wern't pacified at all. With a sense of security from full employment and rapidly expanding social housing, a few 'wins' under their belts to give them some hope the unions were powerful, the youth were getting militant and the authorities were worried. 

As conditions began levelling off and then deteriorating during the 1970s, 80s and 90s there were some extremely bitter struggles (e.g. miners strike and poll tax resistance) but I would argue that these were so furious and bitter because people had glimpsed that a different way of living was possible and many people still had a certain level of community solidarity and security that had been built up during that period and the collective memory of winning a number of previous struggles convinced them that it was worth having a go.

Since then in the 00s and the 10s we've been in a funny stage. Since the crash and recession post '08 there certainly has been a return to struggle but it's hardly been a mass movement. We haven't even been able to convince people to vote the Conservatives out yet because they've been so ground down, betrayed and atomised that even after a huge spike in homelessness and millions of people being pushed into relying on food-aid and insecure work no one seems to really believe that we can do much about it, or they have come to interpret it as basically the fault of the homeless and hungry and just hope that they can keep their own heads above the water.

Positive Accelerationism

Anyone who is really serious about accelerating towards a revolution should look carefully into the evidence about what kinds of conditions are right and necessary for it to come about. I doubt they will find that there is a sure fire recipe but there is certainly some evidence from history that it's not revolts due to total desperation that are likely to snowball into revolution but the experience of progressive 'wins' that build confidence and improve people's material conditions and teach them about who's got the same interests as them and who will fight them all the way, that could turn into something much bigger. 

Why not think of this as positive accelerationism? The idea that trying to accelerate the demise of capitalism is a noble thing but this belief that the rise of fascists or total domination of conservatives politically will provoke it is probably not justifiable. 

In positive accelerationism it's all much more straightforward, wins are wins and are to be celebrated. The eventual revolution in this model will occur when we provoke desperate revolt from the ruling class because we've pushed too far - not the other way around. They will attempt a coup or a massive repression not because they're confident they can get away with anything but as a last hope. This then provokes seasoned confident individuals used to struggling together to smash it once and for all. 

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

International Workers Day 2017 London

Yesterday I joined the anarchist bloc on the London may day march. Anarchists were certainly in the minority. I would estimate maybe 30-40 of us maximum. Class War were there and some people from the London Anarchist Federation + some independents like myself who turned up and tagged along.
Last year I turned up and managed to find about 8 other anarchists so this was a step in the right direction! Would be nice to see a much bigger bloc next year though. 

I'm particularly keen on this because I don't see anarchism as being some fringe rebellious cult that relies on the state and capitalism and all the authoritarians continuing to be there in order to have any identity and meaning. Instead anarchism needs to place itself firmly within the working class revolutionary movement - as the libertarian wing. That's why anarchists should be marching along with the trade unions and all the other international socialist groups making it clear that we're serious and dedicated to the emancipation of our class and global revolution.

Everyone who did turn up was great, a handful of us climbed up on the base of Nelson's Column and waved some black and red flags and held up some good old home made signs, that felt good. The Anarchist Federation had their stall out which seemed to be getting some interest from a few passers by and the main anarchist publication that was being promoted 'Rebel City' is free as well, unlike many of the other groups desperately trying to sell their papers.

I don't think that the "other groups" are all created equally either from an anarchist point of view. Some are fairly friendly and receptive, the group Workers Liberty are pretty chilled with anarchists (even though I don't know much about them and I'm certainly not vouching for them in general!), although the Spartacist League aren't much fun to talk to. 

May day of course has specifically anarchist origins. Let's not be outnumbered by Stalinists next year!

Still a good day out celebrating everything the workers movement has achieved so far while keeping one eye on the future.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

The Housing Struggle

(I originally wrote this for the Journal Marxist World it's on their website and in print in issue 3)

Just like at the time that Engels wrote The Housing Question in 1872, there is an acknowledged housing crisis in the UK today. Also, just like then, it’s mainly acknowledged as a crisis because it’s got so bad that even middle class people are being affected by it too.

Just like the instability that capitalism causes in industry with its cycles of boom and bust, housing conditions seem to peak and trough. In better times, people have relatively secure tenure, minimum standards are enforced and their housing is affordable. In worse times, people are constantly being uprooted and displaced by forces they have no control over, conditions deteriorate and housing costs take away an increasing proportion of their incomes.

What’s changed since then?

A lot of water has gone under the bridge since 1872. In that era in England, the vast majority of people rented their homes from private landlords. The 20th century saw big changes in housing tenure for the working population. From 1919, councils were required to provide some form of social housing, partly due to the number of soldiers returning from the first world war and needing to have somewhere to live. After the second world war, again with the return of the soldiers and the fact that some city centres had been badly damaged by bombing, there was an intense housing crisis which resulted in a mass squatting movement and people putting up their own unregulated housing developments in some places (Heslop 2015). A huge council house building programme, combined with finishing most of the inter-war job of slum clearances, meant that more social housing was being put up than private right up until the late 50s. During the rest of the 20th century the proportion of people privately renting fell continuously, and the proportions of people living in social housing or owning their homes steadily rose, peaking at roughly 30% in 1981 and around 70% in 1997 respectively. Since then, private rented housing has made a rapid come back. The number of people occupying homes with private Assured Shorthold Tenancies has doubled in the last 10 years and currently stands at about 20%.

This swing back towards the private rented sector has come along with all the problems associated with it from past times: overcrowding; homes failing to meet minimum decent standards; abuse and threats from landlords; and a lack of security. Assured Shorthold Tenancies are the result of 30 years of deregulation for landlords making it much easier to evict and to put rents up at the landlord’s will (Shelter 2014).

Clearing up the terms

A simple but worthwhile task is to clear up some of the terms we use for housing. If we are going to be able to talk about things in a coherent way we need to be confident with the terms we’re using:
  • Privately rented housing – Housing rented from an individual landlord or a for-profit business.
  • Slum – An area of poor quality private rented accommodation. It doesn’t need to have open sewers and it might not even look obviously bad from the streets outside but it’s a slum. Slums can be licensed like many houses of multiple occupation (BBC 2015) or unregulated accommodation such as Beds in Sheds (BBC 2014).
  • Shanty town – A shanty town is different from a slum in that the occupants have constructed it for themselves. In the UK these are usually ‘tent cities’ on wasteland or around the edges of towns where there is an acute housing shortage (Manchester Evening News 2016).
  • Social housing – Social housing is housing that is usually better quality, bigger, cheaper and more secure for tenants than privately rented housing. It includes housing associations (which can be run as anything from tenants’ mutuals to organisations that are barely distinguishable from a for-profit housing developer), council housing and also a patchwork of others such as housing co-operatives and community land trusts. Even some alms houses still remain.
The housing struggle today

Most of the best-known campaigns, groups and protests have been centred on London and the South East and have sprung up in just the last few years, although similar activity is bubbling up all over the country. There have been four primary forms that the housing struggle has taken:
  1. A struggle to hold on to social housing which is slowly but steadily being lost to redevelopment and being sold off under the ‘right to buy’ (e.g. Focus E15, Sweets Way Resists, the campaign to save the Aylesbury estate in South London).
  2. The fight against gentrification and the breaking up and displacing of working class communities (e.g. Class War’s campaign against the poor doors, the ‘Reclaim Brixton’ event)
  3. The emerging struggle against the worst of the new private landlords (e.g. eviction resistance which happens on a case by case basis, usually specifically focused on the most obviously unfair landlords, and London Coalition Against Poverty’s ‘direct action casework’).
  4. The fight for better treatment of those people who become homeless (the group ‘Streets Kitchen’ are an example of a group providing practical help and solidarity to those on the streets but also combining this with political and social activism).
Most of these struggles, events and campaign groups are being led by the people who are most affected by the issue, and they require our support and solidarity. In addition, it’s worth beginning to try to understand what is happening: what is causing the trends we are seeing? What is likely to happen in the near future? What solutions can we contribute?

What is going on?

Housing has become a commodity like any other in the sense that it is produced by labourers and sold by the developer at a profit. That happened a long time ago. But the money to be made out of housing doesn’t stop there and so the forces that shape our housing conditions don’t stop there either. Three things that are notable about the current trends in housing:

Firstly, despite the fact that 91% of private landlords only have one or two properties (Homelet 2015), these landlords are in a monopoly situation. We know that the law of value is the centre of gravity which prices of commodities revolve around but rental costs for housing are not directly related to value. Housing is essential, house prices are beyond a growing number of working class people’s reach and there is a recognised shortage of housing. All these three factors combine to put landlords in a position where they can charge rents at the highest level that the market will bear. They are not competing against each other for tenants. Instead, tenants are being forced to compete against each other for the chance to have somewhere to live.

Secondly, whilst gentrification is often talked about in terms of its effects on particular neighbourhoods, the process of gentrification is gradually pushing low paid and unemployed workers out of London and the South East entirely. A new benefit cap has recently came in which will put families with more than two children and who are on benefits on a road to eviction across the South East and all high rent areas. There will be no choice but for them to be rehoused somewhere cheaper. This is worsening the economic segregation between more skilled workers, who will be less vulnerable to technological unemployment and stay in the big cities where higher wages can be found, and less skilled workers who will be forced away.

Thirdly, it’s worth noting that the primary reason for the destruction of social housing in London and other places facing the same issues is that it represents an opportunity cost to developers. This process is a reflection of the way that, centuries ago, peasants were removed from their homes and their fields to make way for sheep which offered a greater return on investment. It is likely to create sparks which can turn into riots and other efforts at resistance, but it also mirrors enclosure in the sense that it’s happening bit by bit, not all at once, making it difficult to put up a united front of resistance to it.

What is special about the housing struggle?

The housing situation of the working class is sometimes treated as just another unpleasant symptom of the capitalist system. In some ways it’s fair enough: poor housing is a symptom, private landlords and speculators don’t fundamentally drive the capitalist economy – only commodity production can do that. But the struggle for better housing and towards a housing revolution has an important and special place. Why?
  1. Primitive accumulation was necessary for the formation of capitalism, both in terms of concentrating enough capital in the hands of the bourgeoisie for them to begin to invest in industry and also to create a class of landless workers with nothing to sell but their labour (Marx 1867). The condition of workers as dispossessed individuals with nothing to sell but their labour must also be maintained for capitalism to function properly. Housing costs are a big factor in forcing people to work longer hours and, over longer years, owning housing and land potentially could give people another source of income other than wages which might weaken the position of capitalists.
  2. Even at the peak of “home-ownership” in the UK, most people still owed huge mortgages, so for all intents and purposes the banks owned their homes and they were being milked for interest rather than rent, making little difference in practice. We’ve never really been in a position where a majority of workers have been owner occupiers without mortgages, and where we’ve come closest it’s been a temporary phenomenon owing to the fact that capital was expanding so rapidly after the second world war. All this has left us with is a stratum of the population inheriting these homes and becoming landlords for the next generation.
  3. In a situation where an increasing number of workers are also private tenants, we have to refer back to the fact that landlords are in a monopoly position. Any gains that we make at work will be taken away from us at home. If wages rise, rents will rise with them.
What does the future hold and what is to be done?

Private tenants are mostly being exploited by a petty bourgeoisie landlord class at the moment, but for the same reasons that industrial capitalists swallow each other up, capital in housing will amass into fewer hands. As the private rented sector increases in size we are also beginning to see some government regulation coming in that will professionalise this sector. Government regulations will be much more likely to force the smaller landlords out of business and again concentrate housing into the hands of bigger landlords. This will make tenants’ collective bargaining easier. Right now you could have a road full of privately rented homes and everyone with a different landlord. While conditions may be bad for everyone and rents are going up beyond what they can pay, it’s harder to organise effective resistance. With bigger corporate landlords, tenants’ unions will be able to organise rent strikes, more planned and systematic eviction resistance and other techniques for keeping the prices down and remaining in their homes against the forces of gentrification. Eventually these will be in a position to seize housing en-masse.

As more and more workers are becoming private tenants there is a growing need for workplace unions to also represent their members as tenants as well as workers. As mentioned above, any gains made at work can be taken away at home for private tenants. Only when the workplace struggle and the housing struggle are linked will we be able to avoid this. Whilst the private rented sector is still in its wild west, petty bourgeois, cowboy landlord stage with lots of little landlords along with wildly varying conditions, the best a tenants’ union will be able to do is to appoint housing advisors who are able to represent tenants in court against illegal evictions, illegal rent rises and dealing with unhygienic/unsafe unsuitable property at a time when council inspectors are finding themselves completely overwhelmed and unable to carry out the task of requiring landlords to keep properties at minimum standards effectively. They could also ensure that members get whatever statutory duty that they are owed by their local authority if a tenant does become homeless – again, this is at a time when councils have been shown to be avoiding their duties when people don’t know their rights.

Homelessness is on the rise sharply. Many towns and cities are seeing the erection of tent cities. Some are already engaged in struggles against their sites being cleared and being moved on. If this increase continues, the homeless poor in the developed world will need to look to movements such as ‘Abahlai baseMjondolo’ in South Africa and Brazil’s ‘Landless Workers Movement’ for tactics and strategy going forwards in terms of access to land and the chance to shelter themselves.

BBC. 2014. ‘”Beds in sheds” fires in London cost 13 lives’.
BBC. 2015. ‘The lowest rung of the housing ladder?’
Brixton Blog. 2015. ‘”United we stand” says Reclaim Brixton’. Brixton Blog.
Class War.
Eviction Resistance.
Focus E15.
Heslop, J. 2015. ‘Self-Build I – The Plotlands, Basildon’. Unofficial Culture.
Homelet. 2015. ‘Landlord Survey 2015’.
London Coalition Against Poverty.
Manchester Evening News. 2016. ‘Who lives in Manchester’s tent city?’
Marx. 1867. Capital. Chapter Twenty-Six: The Secret of Primitive Accumulation.
Shelter. 2014. ‘Housing Facts and Figure’s.
Southwark Notes – whose regeneration?
Streets Kitchen.
Sweet Ways Resists.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Your quick guide to the UK snap general election 2017

A 'snap' general election was called yesterday in the UK to be held on 08/06/17. No one saw it coming and nothing about it was leaked beforehand.

  • The Conservatives only have a slim majority and a bunch of them were about to get done for electoral fraud from last time round.
  • Labour were churning out some decent policies recently and no one had tried to oust Corbyn for a few weeks. The Conservatives are clearly terrified of him and this is a last ditch attempt to get rid of him forever (i.e. everyone assumes that if Labour lose this election he'll have to step down). 
  • The Conservatives were having their own internal crisis over Brexit. A load of them are taking this as an opportunity to quit. Including George Osborne. 
In short, you don't just call a general election for a laugh. Far from being some cool power play to ensure 5 years more of Tory domination this is a desperate move from a party that was in far more internal turmoil than we had realised. There may yet be some deeper scandal yet to be revealed behind all this too. 

Are we happy?

Yes. It's a qualified yes, but it's still a yes. 

Jeremy Corbyn being elected twice as leader of the Labour party was a big deal. For American socialists reading this it's a bigger deal than if Bernie Sanders had got the Democratic Party nomination for example. Unlike Sanders, Corbyn and his closest ally, shadow Treasurer John McDonnell, are genuine democratic socialists (John McDonnell even more so, he's known to have read Marx and has described himself as a Marxist in the recent past). They've got a long history of taking a principled stance on a number of big issues, not that I agree with them on everything but they've got more principles than the vast majority of their fellow MPs (examples here: 24 Things that Jeremy Corbyn Believes). 

If you need any further confirmation of this look at what happened since he became labour leader; he's faced coup attempts, been forced to face a second leadership vote and he's had the entire press against him. 

Most people had begun to believe that he wouldn't be able to survive the ride till the next general election (which would have been as late as 2020). Now a snap one has been called, so Corbyn gets a chance to be tested in an election after all.  

Obviously a Corbyn led Labour party in power is not in any way equivalent to an anarchist revolution. Even if Labour do get in, it may have to be as an alliance with the the SNP, the Greens and possibly even the Lib Dems plus he'll have a divided Labour party full of horrible little right wingers trying to make things difficult at every step. But putting all that aside, the lessons from what happened in Greece when Syriza got into power in 2015 are instructive. A whole party of 'Corbyns' got in and have achieved absolutely nothing.

So, we are happy because if he gets in it will be unprecedented and it will be interesting to see what happens, it will be treated as a poll to prove that the UK population is moving towards the left rather than towards the populist right and it might give us a chance to strengthen our grassroots movements. Contrary to popular opinion I don't think that having a left wing government will cause apathy. It's more likely to bring confidence and get people back to refusing to be treated like shit. Considering we've got millions now having to rely on charitable food aid in the UK and hundreds of thousands of people homeless and yet very little mass resistance is being shown that could be very important. 

What should we do?

This is not a normal election. The 2015 general election in the UK was a normal election. We had the standard non-choice of Conservative or conservative-lite. This is an unusual event that hasn't come along for many years and won't come again for many years. I'm sorry to have to put it so bluntly but this time round anyone going about saying that this is just same old same old is lying and probably just trying to draw attention to themselves. 

I am advocating that everyone vote for Corbyn's Labour Party, even anarchists. This is on the following grounds:
  • It's not about Corbyn himself. It's not about whether he's a good leader and it's certainly not about whether he's a dynamic personality. It's not even really about what he'll be able to achieve.
  • It will take half an hour to go and tick a box. 
  • It will be registered by the elite as a protest vote. It will be clear that the public are pissed off if Labour win, everyone will get into a massive meltdown again like after Brexit. They're better when they're scared. 
  • The majority of the politically engaged working class in the UK will vote for Labour. You don't need to have any illusions about it to show some solidarity with the rest of your class. Even if you hope to drag them into much more radical waters ASAP. You may think you're some kind of super-radical, way beyond all those lumpen proles, and maybe you're right but with such small numbers there has been a very tight limit on what the far left has been able to achieve.
  • It will help build confidence in the left. People will start holding their heads up a bit higher and standing for shit a bit less than they have been doing. Direct action gets the goods but only a mass movement will make a revolution and that isn't happening in any way shape or form right now. We need a change. 
If you are planning to vote but for a different party, don't. This is a one off. Go back to voting for your time wasters after this if Corbyn fails but you can't live through this and not take the opportunity.

If you insist on not voting fair enough, at least direct most of your public outrage towards the Theresa May and the Conservatives. 

If you aren't in the UK then just do memes to help.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Has identity politics killed solidarity? - (Janet) Guest post!

Social media has manipulated and capitalised on our emotions in order to usher in a new era of fascism, and it’s also managed to silo some movements and render them ineffective (check out the final third of Adam Curtis’ Hypernormalisation). More than that though, it’s also facilitated a very dangerous sense of individualism.

This individualism has taken form in the new manifestation of Identity Politics. In the past, Identity Politics has been a vital tool in talking about lived experience, inherent prejudice and using privilege to help others, platforming those struggles. The next steps for identity politics should be as follows, beautifully summarised by Devyn Springer:

It is not an end to identity politics we seek, rather a politic that encompasses the realities of different identities infused with class analysis and observation of power dynamics.

However, many are cultivating a new version which has manipulated Identity Politics into a method of avoiding solidarity and even justifying prejudice. After all, and this needs to be said loudly: identity doesn’t make you instantly Left-radical or active. Bigoted, neo - Conservative and any kind of people of marginalised identities exist in abundance. Fascists of marginalised identities exist, such a Milo Yiannopoulos, who use they their identities to validate their fascism.

I want to discuss how something so positive has been misused, and I want to rally people of marginalised identities into real action against the state and all forms of oppression.

To tackle this trend, I need to outline the value and limitations of identity politics first, not least to avoid giving ammunition to a racism and bigotry that even the Left think they’re immune to. I’ll also need to discuss this in three sections, to be as thorough as possible, and speak essentially to different audiences, all of which I am personally a part of myself in some way. This will make this piece longer, but far less susceptible to clickbait manipulation (hopefully).

Why identities are important and the limitations of identity.

Lived experience is incredibly important - it’s the reason why White Feminism (well satirized here, although White Feminism can indeed be LGBTQIA inclusive and racist) is a failure and reinforces racism. These are people with literally no idea of the reality of racism openly ignoring or capitalising on the struggles of women of colour. Look no further than the “I’m with her campaign” or photos of white liberal feminists hugging cops. It’s an intentionally exclusionary phenomenon of people who are benefitting from racism, naturally continuing in that fashion. The conundrum which occurs though, is the platforming of these people solely based on their identity, without consideration of their politics. A similar danger occurs when we analyse transphobia in ‘feminism’, most notably illustrated by Trans Exclusionary ‘Radical’ Feminists (TERFs), ‘feminists’ with an incredibly fascist agenda against transgender people. People are uncomfortable calling out their racism and transphobia because of their identity as ‘women’. As women, their experiences are genuine and a lot can be learned - but identity isn’t a default authority, it’s not research or statistics, and it doesn’t trump the safety or experience of other marginalised people. It’s only an element, only a part of a wider thought process or idea or stance.

You see racism in other movements designed to facilitate freedoms for oppressed people too, even in the actual anti-racist movement. You can wear a solidarity safety pin or have an antifa t-shirt and be racist. For the record, being an ally, or preferably an accomplice, doesn’t give you the right to treat other people in a bigoted way. The marginalised people you may have ‘helped’ shouldn’t be grateful to you.

Arguing this with those who feel like they’re immune to racism takes us unfortunately to this weird fetishization of the White Working Class in England. An identity (obviously) but apparently different to identity politics (somehow). This is a harrowing example of the feeling of entitlement and victimhood from some on the Left.  The White Working Class sounds like something from a BNP pamphlet circa 2009, but it’s actually a term now used by some to pander to casual racism. It’s also something US Nazi poster boy Richard Spencer is interested in bringing to the Right even more:

Donald Trump's movement, whether [Trump strategist] Kellyanne Conway wants to admit it or not, was fundamentally about identity for white people. - Richard Spencer, not just a man from those gifs getting punched by an antifascist.

A Left trying to mobilise the working class community avoids introspection of racism and class engagement when they validate the term White Working Class. Yes, academic circles and posturing are alienating and exclusive, but it’s not because of their whiteness that people are excluded, it’s a class thing. Middle class people of colour exist, but they’re not propelled to this status in harmony with their colour. This renders the term useless, and in a white majority and racist West, it literally reinforces racism and a victim complex employed by the ideology of White Supremacy. If they’re clutching at straws to justify why their engagement with working class communities is low, stop trying to sell papers and actually listen to people. Chances are, those you might identify as such actually hugely resent the term White Working Class.

Identity is important in that it’s vital to know and celebrate your history and who you are in a place which marginalises you for that. Identity is why Bernadette McAliskey called upon other Irish people and people of Irish descent to stop partaking in the oppression of Black people in America, so the Irish know who they are and where they’re from. Identity isn’t however, a currency or an all confirming view, so shouting about ‘white people/the Irish were slaves too’ when engaging with Black people on the topic of slavery is literally using a struggle to defend your own white supremacist ideas and victimhood. That is not the solidarity that Irish people called for. Without genuine solidarity with other movements, struggles and people, none can really succeed.

Worse still, there is the incredibly harrowing trend where celebrities, millionaires and brands are being praised as activists, while working class people putting everything on the line to make a stand against the state are ignored. Someone living in a mansion can assert themselves a feminist or flirt with radical iconography, and profit from it, especially if of the right identity (see Miley Cyrus for example). Philanthropy is scraps from the table. In this age, even politicians are given a break based on identity. Of course, if you only attack celebrities and politicians of colour/who are female or non-binary, then you are, of course, a piece of shit.

Racism, which is my main focus in this conversation, concentrates most violently in poorer, working class areas. What you see at Goldsmiths or a SOAS campus is not life in Stoke on Trent. The kinds of language used in some of the London-centric scenes and university social circles, for example, aren’t used frequently in other places. The focus on smaller cultural gains and spaces is a haven only for people who have the luxury of being part of those circles. It’s not a reality for the rest of us. Trends like the new Identity Politics don’t translate at all in places where racism is intense and our spaces are limited. Our approach in Stoke, Bradford and Portsmouth (to name but three places) is more immediate, dangerous and vital, therefore an individualist approach isn’t an option.

The middle class scenes which perpetuate this new kind of Identity Politics focus on maintaining a micro-environment while being very removed from the more intense threats.

How identity can be misused by people of marginalised identities.

Here, I’ll write but a couple of examples of my experience as a Pakistani woman which have pushed me to write this article, these are more the issues which are festering on the Left, as opposed to the overt examples (Sikhs of the EDL etc.).

  • Seeing a Muslim person saying something to the effect of “as a Muslim person the responsibility of that knowledge [knowledge of the death tolls and inaction of the world in regards to the Holocaust] or acknowledgement isn’t on me”. When did we, South Asians, become incapable of or above solidarity, empathy and basic research?
  • In 2016, where a transgender model and activist posed in a dress made of 76 countries where homosexuality was illegal. The liberal Left, and Right, celebrated this, but Writer Sarah E. for Anti rightly noted:

It not only glosses over the general anti-Queer violence of the global north, but entirely ignores the relationship between the imperialist north and the conditions of these southern peoples...The constant message playing in the back of the First World population’s mind is asking “why can’t they be more like us? What’s wrong with them?” entirely forgetting how we got here.

This perfectly shows our complete ignorance of the wider struggles of the world, colonial history, foreign policy. It shows actually an ignorance of our real identities and their uncomfortable histories. We want to celebrate Nike having a campaign featuring women in hijab, but we don’t want to talk about the Muslim and indigenous women in Nike sweatshops. All we see is identity, binaries and single ‘facts’ in a Western bubble. It’s easier to like and share a meme than to analyse nuance and history, than to consider the complex and acknowledge responsibility.

This change from using identity to know oneself and your struggle, to only caring about your own existence, has occurred hand in hand with social media. Here the gamification (turning something into a game for better engagement) of social interactions has happened seamlessly - getting likes and validation is winning. Selfies garner likes, being visible gets you interactions. This obsession with self promotion, including using your identity as a USP (Unique Selling Point), has killed any radical notion associated with celebration of a marginalised people. This depressing phenomenon is SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) friendly too - keep your politics simple (read: without nuance or research) and you’re onto a winner. It’s a celebration of you, desolately, only you.

A further example of this is an article by Nico Quintana, a transgender, QPOC and Latinx activist who argued this year that Black Bloc is a racist tactic, urging white activists to stop employing it. Concealing your identity from the police is actually:

a) not a white invention
b) literally what’s keeping any radical movement afloat, police will target you at a vigil let alone a protest, surveillance is 80% of the game
c) not a privileged thing: many people, namely working class people, will lose their jobs, homes and sometimes even children should they be exposed supporting ‘radical’ protest.

We shouldn’t ask white people to de-mask, we should mask up ourselves.
The current dangers for all oppressed people right now are immense. We need solidarity: knowledge and action, resource and time, seeing the links between struggles. Focusing on isolated identities is the reason why anti-blackness is rife in South Asian circles for example - now Identity Politics makes us more inward, and often more bigoted, totally removed from radical politics. Arguing over whether Beyonce is allowed to wear South Asian dress in a music video becomes the most important discussion to be had according to the Internet vanguards (cultural exchange dies alongside solidarity too). These critics certainly aren’t the ones campaigning for justice for Kingsley Burrell, or any number of black people being brutalised by the state. They’re not frontline contributing to any radical change or the safety of a people. Nuanced cultural discussion and direct action can of course both occur, but I’m telling you that right now, they’re not.

Where do we go from here: Utilising identities for action, not complacency.

Legendary radical Audre Lorde was right when she said that self care isn’t self indulgence, however, anyone who uses this radical Black woman’s voice for passivity is appropriating works beyond their understanding.

We need to look after ourselves in a dangerous world which threatens us because of who we are. We must take care of ourselves while we fight the fascists, the state, and all other threatening bodies that are advancing quickly.

Identity shouldn’t be used as a way to shirk responsibility for starting, joining or having solidarity with movements: it should be your motivation. Identity cannot be the end-all-and-be-all of activism. This tired student/middle class/liberal reflex to poke holes or declare something vaguely problematic means more hypothesizing the abstract instead of acting on the reality. Which is the intention. And no, I'm not saying critique as something progresses isn’t important. This isn't the same.

I’m arguing that this new evolution of Identity Politics is holding back action. Not in a “if we acknowledge our differences and dynamics it’s divisive” way, which is of course bullshit, but in a “my identity means I won’t act” kind of way.

The use of identity to shirk of responsibility is one I’ve experienced more intensely recently in England.

“I won’t join an anti-racist group or general movement with lots of white people/males”

This exists in two veins:
  • We want allies, the ones we know have privilege in society, to take action. We see it as their responsibility as they benefit from the racist or sexist dynamic.
  • We don't want white and other privileged people involved, and we won't do anything to change the movement or make our own. So, it'll remain white and we'll remain passive.

In either case we want autonomy. However we won’t take the lead, and we don’t fight for that autonomy.

A group in England (an intentional anchor back into the context I’m discussing, these ideas can’t and shouldn’t be wholly applied to an environment like France or the US, for example) will remain white until you walk in and say this is my thing now, let’s get stuff done, and invite other POC to join. A group may indeed be inherently bigoted and so you start your own local movement. It can be difficult, it can be scary, but activism is hard.
At this stage, inaction is facilitating fascism. Let's just think about the messy hypocrisy of “I want freedom but only when white/men facilitate it for me and/or stop fighting for it with me”.

Of course these groups can be shit, but there are so many people of marginalised identities doing nothing tangible, all these people who actually can get together, and make something new. There are so many people of marginalised identities making their own movements, struggling, because you’re not showing up for them.

Our actions need to reflect our ideology - do we really love our roots and people? Do we really believe in justice and freedom for all people? If so then we need to act, otherwise we only love ourselves.

There were three racist White Lives Matter demonstrations in England toward the end of 2016 - if everyone who was able was there or contributed in some way (activism isn't of course just physical bodies) these would have been much more successful demonstrations on our side. We love to talk about White Supremacy in the states, but it’s apparently not as interesting here.

It’s true, some activism is actually more popular than other kinds, some has a social element and is popular on social media - you can even tag yourself at events. What isn’t so glamorous, however, is waking up at 6am to help the residents of Bradford fight off the EDL, or the community of Rotherham where a Pakistani man was literally murdered. You know what’s a real drag? The police violently targeting activists at these kinds of demos, so Facebook tagging is kept to a minimum. If it didn’t happen on Facebook, did it happen at all? Was it worth doing? Judging by the turnout of ‘anti-racist’ activists or people, apparently not.

Some struggles are just easier to talk about and not as harrowing. Sure, some identities can mean facing state brutality and fatality, but why not focus solely on an issue like white body positivity instead? Why would you act on black and brown people being detained or murdered by the state when you could focus only and exclusively on your own struggles? Least likely still is considering the intersections between say, body positivity and being black or brown. Let’s try something even bigger and more complex: Why think about the way every facet of capitalism is racist when you can hone in exclusively on your own experience?

In writing, I’m not trying to put all responsibility on marginalised people. I acknowledge too that everything around us encourages us to be insular, ‘selfish’ and isolated, we’re supposed to feel like movements won’t work but signing a petition might do the trick. Facing a world of complexity and violence, a violence targeted at every facet of our lives, is difficult. Being active in fighting it is even harder. What I’m doing is putting urgency into how we move forward, so yes, we have revival of movements like the Asian Youth Movement, seeing organised communities work in solidarity with others. Let’s give more time and support to Black Lives Matter UK and Jewdas, let’s actually take a stand with other struggles.

Let’s self organise, let’s join movements and the ones that need it - let’s diversify them, let’s lead the way. Can you write? Design? Flyer? Babysit? Do admin? Cook? What skills can you contribute to an active anti-fascist movement which confronts racism head on, irl? Think about it, then do it.

To summarise in two key points (TL;DR):
  1. Identity is a key element in any social and political discourse, but it’s not an absolute or total authority on a subject. Lived experience is incredibly valuable, but it isn’t the entire story.
  2. Identity should be used as a motivation for action, a way to map different privileges and help others, and not to shirk responsibility to focus only on your own struggles.

Who you are does define what struggles you face, but where you sit in the world and how you fight different oppressions together is key to completely fighting fascism.