What happens when there is no housing market?
Decent, functional and even beautiful living accommodation is unarguably one of humanity’s prime needs. It is the one prime need in fact that, more than any other, save food and water, is vitally conducive to harmonious and pleasant living at all. Conversely, the lack of it is almost always a cause of misery, meanness and domestic strife. The question of housing allocation in a socialist society is therefore by no means a novel one, and has been discussed and debated for a very long time. That old Fabian fraud George Bernard Shaw, for example, once said that he was often asked who would live in the big house on the hill in this socialist society of his, and Bernard Shaw’s ever-ready response was ‘The same as now, whoever can afford to live there will’.
We beg to differ. All of what we say below notwithstanding, if there is one certain fact concerning life in a future socialist society that we can predict, it’s that how much money you have will most definitely not be the deciding criterion that determines where you live. There won’t be any money for a start – bits of colourful paper, or, more so these days, numbers on a computer screen, that denote how deserving you are of living decently as a human being.
Shaw’s solution to capitalism’s housing problem, like that of the other 56 pseudo-brands of ‘socialism’, was simply an ill-thought out version of reformed capitalism, inexorably welded to and determined and dictated by the market for houses. In socialism, there won’t be any market for houses. Shaw’s ‘solution’ was, bizarrely, simply predicated on the continuing existence of the very cause of the housing problem in the first place.
But, to be fair to him as much as possible, Shaw’s non-solution of reforming capitalism in such a way as to solve the housing problem, has been practically everybody else’s non-solution too. Long before Shaw was preaching his illogical nonsense, one of the pioneers of socialist ideas, the co-author and life-long friend of Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, wrote a short series of articles entitled The Housing Question. Engels was writing in the mid-Victorian period, a time when the ‘success ‘ of British capitalism was at its height and yet, a time also, when the housing conditions of the working class were especially miserable, unspeakably wretched and degrading. Needless to say, then as now, all manner of reformist nostrums were proposed by a whole range of political activists; from followers of the French anarchist Proudhon, who advocated that every worker within existing capitalism should have their own little private property dwelling, bought on the ‘never, never’, to representatives of the capitalists themselves, with their ‘factory-provided houses’ abominations. These, needless-to-say, were not only factory-provided, but factory-owned and job dependent, with all of the horrors of job loss and consequent eviction that were entailed. Indeed, in criticising these proposed multi-various reforms, Engels’ work is almost entirely devoted to dealing with the ways and means of how not to solve the housing question.
Not a problem of housing
As a matter of fact, as Engels explained repeatedly, the real issue is not at all a ‘housing’ problem – that is, a shortage of labour power or a dearth of nature-given materials that are necessary to provide everyone in society with housing accommodation commensurate with their needs – but a capitalism problem. Deal with the real issue of capitalism’s general diktat of production for profit, and the housing question, like every other misnamed ‘problem’ in capitalism, will solve itself. It is the only concrete solution to the problem of lack of housing, the inferior quality of housing and the location of housing. If there is any other solution, apart from the common ownership of resources proposed by the Socialist Party, it has never been revealed. All we hear today, from Housing Associations, charities and political parties are mere echoes of the ideas and social quackery that Engels exposed and lambasted as absurd nonsense 150 years ago.
Having stated the general solution to the housing ‘problem’ we are invariably questioned as to how the solution of common ownership will work in practice. Socialist society will undoubtedly require administration at a local level, a regional level and even a world-wide level. How this administration is organised and functions will be a matter for the inhabitants of socialism. What decisions these socialist bodies take, and how they will be implemented and even enforced if necessary, will be entirely up to them. That goes without saying. Although we refrain from crystal ball-gazing, we can, of course, make some general points as to what might happen in regard to housing provision in socialism. There are two things, we would imagine, a socialist society will want to deal with immediately. The first is the homeless problem.
For the first time ever, a problem that has been grappled with constantly in all modern societies, that has been discussed ad nauseam, fought over, lied about, written about endlessly, and thousands of charities and other organisations have done to death for as long as capitalism has existed , will at last be capable of solution. The administrative bodies in a socialist society will know best at the time how to do this.
The second task will be to look at the existing occupied housing stock, its condition and the needs of its occupiers, with a view to rehousing those in the worst of circumstances immediately. Again, decisions will need to be taken by socialism’s representative bodies over how best to implement this aim.
As a party, we have never claimed to be in possession of ready-made solutions for each and every question that the future socialist society will need to take up. Nor would it be sensible or desirable for us to do so. In regard to housing alone, the actual considerations and requirements are seemingly inexhaustible. The production and transportation of bricks, copper piping, slates, sand, cement, glass, wooden batons, joists and fencing, to name but a few of the most obvious that spring to mind, are each a major operation in themselves. Plumbers, electricians, roofers, bricklayers, joiners, glaziers and gardeners, will all need to be coordinated. Further, surveying, land availability, planning, road traffic considerations, amenities provision, public transport, again to name only those that readily spring to mind, give an additional idea of the complexities involved. It is absurd to suggest that we living today should make concrete plans for all this.
Likewise, the number of people involved in existing professions that are tied economically (and are mostly useless, with little or no connection to the actual construction of buildings) to housing in capitalism, that will be unleashed by socialism’s construction for use economy, run into the tens of millions. Our pamphlet From Capitalism to Socialism, lists over 70 of these professions themselves. And that’s only in regard to housing. The number of people engaged in useless jobs in capitalism generally and not connected with housing but who would be available to be deployed in that area where required is astronomical.
We don’t know
How will socialist society allocate Shaw’s big house on the hill? Our answer is, and can only be, we have no blueprint. It will be up to the inhabitants of socialism to decide ‘who gets what’. More importantly, even if such a question is legitimate, it certainly has no significant bearing on the case for socialism that we argue in the present.
However, such questions can be useful in one sense, for they highlight the chief difficulty of prediction: why should we assume that the social norms of today will be exactly those of the future? Certainly, there is no reason to believe that the attitudes of those living in an entirely different type of society will be exactly the same as today. To expect the norms of life in capitalism as it exists now to remain exactly the same as when there are, for example, a billion socialists, is naive enough. To expect a socialist society to be, in the first place, established on the notions and ideas of capitalism, and even more unlikely, remain completely static, is patently absurd and flies in the face of all past human experience.
Is it likely that people in a future socialist society will have the same desires, concerns, views, needs, aspirations or requirements that we find so ‘natural’ and indispensable in capitalism today? No matter how rigid and seemingly set in stone they appear now, it is absolutely certain that our present concerns for property ownership, for big houses, for big cars, for the baubles and trinkets so beloved of capitalism’s apologists, and in a nutshell, a concern for ‘who gets what’, will be simply looked upon with astonishment and incredulity and, eventually, intense curiosity.
Is such a belief in the possibility of such a profound change taking place idealistic or utopian? The history of a mere couple of decades or so tells us no. Not even the imaginative genius of Oscar Wilde could have ever dreamed of such an utterly unimaginable event as two men getting married – to each other! Think about that and consider the extraordinary change in attitude that has taken place in such a short historical time span, so that, apart from a small minority of religious bigots, no one bats an eyelid at what once was, barely yesterday in historical terms, such an inconceivable proposition as to be simply dismissed out of hand by practically every human being on the planet. Yet now it is widespread and the ‘norm’.
But to speculate, perhaps, in the immediate aftermath of the transition from capitalism to socialism, as a start, the inhabitants of socialism will decide, after making adequate provision for the existing occupants, to agree a list of the 500 (1000? 2000? 5000?) biggest and most beautiful private dwelling buildings in a metropolis such as London. Perhaps they will then decide to convert 100 into havens for the mentally ill, 100 into centres for the care and healing of victims of sexual abuse, 100 into centres for the study and treatment of those suffering from seemingly uncontrollable and socially harmful sexual urges, and 100 into recuperation centres for those suffering the effects of being incarcerated under capitalism for crimes against property.
Perhaps also, in an advanced socialist society of 20 years standing, when most or all of these problems have been eradicated, the majority of the very same buildings will, one by one, be simply left to run themselves as examples of by-gone notions of desirable (or even undesirable) architecture, with accommodation upstairs for those who want to preserve and protect them. The point is, we simply cannot predict what will happen.
How will socialist society come into ‘possession’ of these buildings? Again, we don’t know. Is it possible that they will be simply requisitioned for the use of everyone? Absolutely. After all, to describe the matter bluntly, the capitalist revolutions of the past were to privatise the earth and everything in it and on it, to proclaim the rights of private property and to convert it into the ownership of a few.
A socialist revolution will be aimed at taking the property back we have created, taking it out of the hands of a parasitic few and to place it at the disposal of society. That is what a socialist revolution is.
How the inhabitants of a future socialist society will act, what their priorities will be, and what is important and desirable for them, can be safely left to them to decide.
What happens to an insignificant number of ‘more desirable than others’ buildings is only one aspect of the matter, and by far the least important. The question of housing provision in general, both now – as in the lack of it – and the potential that socialism will undoubtedly open up, is far more important.
To make glib, possibly well-intentioned – though usually ultimately utterly futile – proposals to deal with housing problems in capitalism’s restrictive profit-driven market for houses is one thing; to deal with the necessity to provide healthy, decent, and even – a purely subjective opinion, of course, beautiful – living accommodation in socialism’s production for use on the basis of a free access economic system, is quite another.
We would make it abundantly clear again, in any discussion of how a socialist society will deal with the general allocation of housing, that we cannot speak for a future society in regard to what decisions will be necessary in the construction or location or provision or allocation of housing – any more so than we can on the future prospects for harmonicas or hairnets.
Our only concern at present is to drive home the necessity for the one over-riding solution to the problems of capitalism and that is socialism. This will create the only possible basis for solving the so-called housing problem. And this, as we say repeatedly, for the simple reason that it isn’t a problem at all, but merely a consequence of the artificial scarcity in housing created by capitalism’s disgraceful and disgusting inherent drive for profit. Socialism will unleash the tremendous construction capability necessary so that we can begin practical steps towards not only solving issues like homelessness and slum-dwelling, but constructing beautiful housing accommodation – we are, after all, admirers of the ideas of the early Marxist William Morris – so as to meet the self-defined needs of every human being.