1990s >> 1990 >> no-1033-september-1990

A message for Cathy

Somewhere in the middle of the Byline broadcast ‘Cathy Where Are You Now?’ (BBC1, 9 July), which was promoted as a sequel to the twenty-year-old documentary drama ‘Cathy Come Home‘, viewers may have heard a familiar lament to the effect that we all “have a right” to a roof over our heads. Let us state at the outset that if there is one essential need among many others that under the capitalist system we have absolutely no right to it is a home. Were it otherwise none of us would be without one. Cardboard City could exist only as a sick joke in a tuppenny historical satire. That exploiter of human need, the landlord, would have gone the way of the slave-trader and the witch-burner.

What failed to emerge from the broadcast in any other than an incidental sense is that housing, far from constituting an inalienable right, carries no higher status than that of an entitlement conditional upon the would-be purchaser’s having enough money to pay for it. Since most of us are dependent on a wage or salary, what we finally own is not a home, which is the property of the money-lender, but a mortgage. Moreover, as with any other commercially-negotiated loan, it has to be paid for—”serviced”, as the euphemism has it—and expensively at that. Mrs Thatcher’s “property-owning democracy” is, for most of us, a shadow of a thing, productive of nothing more substantial than nagging worry if not illness and, for a desperate minority, even suicide. That this judgement applies as absolutely to those of us who are buying “our” council houses as to any other house-buyers is axiomatic (Mrs Thatcher’s “gift” of a qualified ownership has already been paid for in rent over the years). Erstwhile council tenants can be—and indeed are being—evicted where they default on their new mortgages.

And what, exactly, have these council tenants been offered? A quick trip round the average council estate should disabuse even the most hostile among the self-styled “middle classes” that its occupants, where they are able or willing to buy, are “getting something for nothing”. Built on the cheap, many of these mean ghettos have degenerated into underserviced and infested slums, veritable universities of disaffection and crime, where the policeman enjoys a higher profile than the social worker or the health visitor. The sorry truth is that thousands of council tenants, far from being able to buy their all too basic accommodation, stand in arrears of rent and are in no position to clear their debt.

For many—nowadays a majority—who are obliged to resort to the private market, theirs is in many respects an equally depressing plight. While government ministers juggle cynically with their recurrent financial crises (an endemic feature of the capitalist system they so enthusiastically espouse) house-buyers are finding their mortgage repayments increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to meet. Let borrowers introduce the term “rights” when they next meet their building society manager in yet another effort to renegotiate their loans. Their reward must be, if not the uncomprehending stare, then the patronising smile of the worldly-wise money merchant whose primary purpose is to safeguard the building society’s assets, not to provide shelter for the “impecunious”.

Skid Row and Cardboard City

In the case of that increasingly large number of erstwhile “proud home-owners” who are forced onto the street, there remain the hotel room and the shared kitchen and lavatory already discovered by so many single parents—usually abandoned young mothers—and their children. A few statistics provided by the Byline programme help to illustrate this growing scandal. In 1966, homeless families in emergency accommodation numbered 4.400; in 1989, that figure had risen to 38,000. In what was described as an average hotel of thirty-six rooms the occupants shared one kitchen bookable in advance, forcing many to resort to the junk food market or to shift for themselves late at night— too late for the children, who had to make do with a stop-gap meal earlier in the evening.

In these circumstances it is hardly surprising that so many homeless people are prepared to risk police and local authority harassment by taking to the road in converted vehicles, or living in tented dwellings. Squatting continues to provide some homeless with a roof but relentless official pressure backed by changes in the law have made this option much more difficult. Such makeshift arrangements as vehicle conversion, fixed of mobile, do at least afford a measure of independence, tenuous though that may prove to be. The long-tolerated experiences of traditional travelling people such as the gypsies, for whom harassment of one kind or another has always been a hazard, are visited upon these more recent and, in many cases, involuntary nomads. Authority in its various manifestations has always and everywhere found it difficult, both socially and politically, to come to terms with those who demonstrate a readiness to break free from its magisterial control. Police harassment. often prejudiced in itself, is in reality a response to any uninformed public resentment which may contain more than a hint of jealousy.

The final depth for all too many, however, has to be the cardboard boxes of Skid Row. During a recent Nick Ross phone-in the Housing Minister, Michael Spicer, was heard earnestly reminding us that Cardboard City is populated by the single homeless male—as if, even were it entirely accurate, this dismal fact constituted an extenuating circumstance for government to cling to as it peddles its miserable excuses. We are now informed that the government will commit fifteen million pounds to the task of clearing city pavements of their down-and-outs. That this is cosmetic—mere political opportunism—is searingly obvious. What an advertisement for “popular capitalism” in Britain, one of the world’s richest countries (but rich for whom, one wonders?) that visitors to London should have to run the gauntlet of the cardboard squats of the moneyless and jobless as they negotiate the precincts of the concert halls, bridges and underpasses of the capital city. Why. even poor old Mother Theresa confessed to shock. So they’ll find a barracks for them and then amend the law to prevent them from returning to be stumbled over. Out of sight, out of mind. Charles Dickens would have relished such material: Spicer’s ugly cant would have made his mouth water. So what is to be done?

Providing homes no problem

At this point the ‘Cathy’ follow-up collapsed into bathetic nonsense of the “nobody should have more than one home” variety. “People who are prepared to work hard should be allowed a loan. Security? Why, the house they promise to build, of course”. ‘‘Bricks and mortar should be released for all who want them”. (“Released”? There’s a euphemism for “sold”, if you please!). Nowhere in the broadcast was it even hinted that, were we all to enjoy, as of right, adequate housing the capitalists, who control the building industry would be bankrupted. Abundance in any commodity spells ruin for the profiteers. Prices would plummet and production cease.

Paradoxically, the planet itself is made of building materials. And in this country alone the necessary skills abound. Thousands of building workers are unemployed. The accumulated experience of centuries could be brought to bear on matters—heating and ventilation, for example—that even the Romans could approach with confidence. It could all happen but for one baleful impediment: under capitalism capitalists must capitalise—or perish. This inescapable requirement applies as surely to state capitalist Russia and China as to the mixed economies of Japan and the USA. The money system serves to facilitate what amounts to a form of rationing in the means of life itself. And the misery this entails is allowed to continue in order that a small minority class of parasitical manipulators should be maintained in the life-style to which it is accustomed.

So the only answer to housing deprivation, as to all other such “problems” under the capitalist system, remains unfettered production to meet need (as opposed to profit). Which means the end of capitalism. All of which leads to one unavoidable conclusion: whereas the world’s capitalists understand this perfectly clearly, which is why they make—and have always made— such monstrous and unprincipled efforts to conceal the truth from the rest of us, we, the working class, who produce everything, have hardly begun to. Until we do, the Cathys of this world must remain homeless.

Richard Cooper