Building Profits V Building Homes

A post about the practicability of socialism, this is an abridged version of an article from World Socialist (No.2 Winter 1984) by Brian Montague and Ray Rawlings about how socialism will address real problems. The article anticipated the rise of the internet and the home computer and interactive television and the promise of E-democracy.

Housing is one problem of capitalism which has been a constant source of difficulty and is part and parcel of working class life. Few members of our class escape some aspect of housing trouble. Whether it is the complete crisis of homelessness, or the stress involved in keeping our homes through paying rent or repaying a loan. Most members of our class live in relative poor housing, some of which is within the bounds of adequacy, while the rest reflects the worst in living conditions.

Our quality of housing acts as good guide to the degree of suffering associated with the many other problems inherent in our class position such as bad health, poor nutrition and inadequate education. We can therefore accept that the problem of housing reflects the problems of capitalism. Accepting this, it is logical to assume that the solution to the housing problem is only attained through the solution of the problem of capitalism.

In the beginning an investigation into housing difficulties , one simple observation should help us overcome our surprise at the absurd nature of our findings: that production under capitalism, not least the production of buildings, is based on he ability to achieve a profit and not to fulfil human needs.

Housing Shortage?

The first fallacy to dismiss is the belief that “housing shortage” is the beginning and end of the problem. As it so happens, there is currently in some areas of the world severe “housing shortage” and this has been the case at different times throughout history. This is not however the source of the problem, because if it were it could be logically assumed that there was some intrinsic inability of society to meet the housing needs of its populous. It has had plenty of time and resources to do so, so this is clearly not the full story.

The problem in the economically developed parts of the world is one of “allocation”. In other words, how best the housing stock is to be distributed to meet human requirements. A scant observation shows that the ability to pay is the deciding factor in gauging the standard of housing to which you are entitled. A walk around the slum areas of your city will tell you that it is the elderly, the mobile poor and the immigrants who are concentrated in the poorest housing stock. It is no coincidence that these lowest financial groups live in the poorest housing conditions; housing conditions which least meet their needs – the elderly with no care facilities, and young children in high-rise flats. It is also important to realise that this group and others such as the homeless, mental patients and ex-prisoners – those who make the poorest section of our class – have little chance of housing themselves, and must accept “being housed”. The limitation on their freedom puts them in a more degrading position than the urban poor in the shanty towns of Latin America and elsewhere who have at least built their own homes, even though living in the most incredible poverty.

No inherent inefficiency

Another fallacy which tends to cloud our conception of the issue is that which suggests that the housing problem has its basis in the inefficiency and lack of organisation of the building industry. It is true that this industry is not generally well organised in relation to output and the workers employed there; it is also true that at times it can operate in an inefficient manner. The fallacy is however that this is a cause of the housing problem rather than, like the housing problem itself, an effect of an inefficient and unrealisable social system. How can the construction industry possible be efficient when it is subjected to the demands of profitability in a system which produces an uneven flow of work, conflict between employers and employees, and most importantly, the fact that buildings which create the greatest profit in construction are usually the least socially useful and therefore take preference over housing?…

No way out within capitalism

The relationship between the housing problem, the building industry and our economic system has hopefully become clearer. The facts tell us the industry suffers many problems which have been related to one thing: the contradictions and conflicts of the system of capitalism. It is us as members of the working class who best know the problems we go through in order to acquire and keep the place we live in and the standard of accommodation we are subjected to. From this experience it is abundantly clear that the provision of housing is not related to our needs. The facts also inform us that capitalism prevents this from happening because of the economic obligation forced on those who do the building. No one decides we should live in slums.

If our slums are a product of the inability of the building industry to supply to us the type of housing we want, then this is because the building industries are clearly responding instead to the realities of capitalism. That reality is the profit motive and the cost is that human needs will not be met. This will continue for as long as this system continues and you will suffer your housing conditions and be aware of the housing conditions of the rest of our class as long as the system continues.

Brian Montague

Housing reform and the profit motive

Housing is probably the one basic need which , were it properly satisfied, would be the most conductive to good emotional and mental health. It is, surely, very pleasant and soothing to relax among pleasant and agreeable surroundings.

The fact remains that such a happy situation only applies to the small to the small minority of the population who have the means to buy beautiful homes. The vast majority suffer a housing problem of one sort of another, whether it be living in slums or near slums or being plagued by the fears and insecurities caused by trying to pay off a mortgage.

Governments do initiate various housing reforms to try to solve these problems, but these always fail. Why is failure so total, especially when the materials, know-how and labour power exist to adequately deal with the problem of providing decent housing for all?

Is it because of stupid or corrupt politicians? Many people believe so and view a particular governments shortcoming’s in light of the various abilities and characters of its leading members. But in actual fact these factors play a very subsidiary part and make no fundamental difference. Some politicians and civil servants , assigned various tasks, may be very well-meaning and in some respects efficient, but in the final analysis fail because they cannot succeed.
Under capitalism all production, government-initiated or not, is with a view to profit, not the satisfaction of human needs, material and recreational. Since the profit motive is the very life-blood of the capitalist system, it logically follows that government housing programs will also be introduced with a view to providing a profit for some capitalist group or other. Whether or not the politicians involve be good guys or con-artists is immaterial, because the financial institutions putting up the money for these reforms want a return (sometimes a large on) for their investment…

When socialism is established

When socialism is established it will be necessary to set up councils at local, regional and global levels for the administration of social affairs in every aspect of productive activity. Also there will have to be councils whose functions will be to co-ordinate the work of the various specific councils. The majority of the people in a local area will make decisions affecting that area specifically, the people in a certain region will make decisions for that region and everyone will make global decisions.

This will mean that everyone must have access to vast amounts of knowledge, concerning what each area produces, where it is stored, how what is needed can be got from one place and moved to another. All this knowledge can be stored in computers which can be hooked up to the TV system, so that people can receive whatever knowledge they wish by pushing a button.
When it comes to voting on specific issues people need go no further than their living room. Even today TV stations invite viewers to phone in their verdicts on alternative programs. The results, which depend on what the number is dialled , are quickly computer translated and announced in only a few minutes. If this is possible under capitalism, one can imagine the tremendous advantages that can be made in a socialist society when people will be able to utilise the technology built up under capitalism as well as improve on it.

People could, if they wanted to do, check and see how a certain project was progressing by tuning into a computerised -TV-News media, so that whatever was happening could be under the constant scrutiny of society as a whole.

First priorities for housing

When socialism is established it will have two important projects concerning housing. One will be to find homes for the millions throughout the world who have none. The other will be to clear the world of the horrible slums and shanty towns in which so many of its population live. Therefore an enormous world-wide reconstruction project would begin which would involve the democratic participation of nearly everyone, in one way or other
It would have to be decided, what region and what local area requires houses, how many, what type or style, what materials they will be made from and how much of each is required. Obviously, with this will go the many and various decisions concerning town planning, roads, recreational facilities, shopping centres (though we may not call it shopping then). Though the work involved may require many people, they will be forthcoming from all the occupations made redundant by the overthrow of capitalism, such as production for war and anything concerning finance, advertising, etc. Schools for training and re-training people in the various skills will be set up, and as far as the productive work goes they will have the machinery capitalism created plus whatever advances on this the first members of socialist society will make.

People with specific skills related to housing, or those who wish to learn them, can give their names and lists of skills to an administrative office similar to present man-power or labour exchange offices and can be notified where their skills can be used.

In the longer run: an end to urban crowding

After socialism has solved the initial task of clearing away capitalism’s rubble in every respect ( feeding, clothing , housing, educating, clearing away the pollution, curing curable diseases ), then it will be apparent that the change in society will be more than just production for use instead of profit, but will entail vast changes from top to bottom in every part of society. Nowhere will this be apparent more than over how we group in communities. Cities as we know them to day will probably no longer exist as people won’t want or need to be condensed in a particular area.

When starvation has been stopped and when every human being has a roof over their head, then socialist society can turn to satisfying people’s needs in a more sophisticated way , and this will certainly be the case in housing.
Whenever there is a need for a new type of house, a town or a building for the use of the community, architects will submit plans and models which can be voted on by the community as a whole in a given area. Though there may be competition between the various architects and planners, it will be from the premise of who can best beautify the locality. One can be certain that there will be new types of dwellings. Along with the disappearance of cities as we know them will also go the high-rises, those up-turned shoe-boxes where people are crammed in like sardines, to be replaced with buildings where people can at least live like humans.

With whatever changes in the family structure the new social conditions will create will also come a need for new types of homes; there may be a type of communal home. And it may be that the design of a building will be determined by its functions, its given physical environment and the materials to be used.

Whatever the case, people will be able to choose their home to suit their own particular needs concerning physical comfort and recreational requirements.

Who would not want such a society? So why not organise politically for its speedy establishment.

Ray Rawlings