Performing The Housing Crisis

foxtons-piss

Introducing Crisis

Probably you’ve heard or read of the phrase, ‘crisis’ in some form of news and thought something along the lines of, “oh no, what are we going to do?” But there are quite a few crises, probably too many even.

First off, there’s the financial crisis, then there’s the world food crisis, the EU crisis, the climate crisis, the ISIS (crudely branded as being syntactically two thirds of a crisis), the refugee crisis, the housing crisis, and countless more if we include all the personal crises that are affecting us humans on a daily basis. There’s also the Crisis Crisis (that’s the crisis of their being too many crises). All of these are ongoing and I’m afraid that you are embroiled in their world-scuppering mess.

But what can a person do aside from lilt one dandyish hand across a woe-begotten forehead and moan skywards? ‘OOOooooooOOooo, wretched earth!’

Or join a political organisation?

Or go on demonstrations through town and city centres?

Or attempt to stage an insurrection?

Or make a scathing snark upon on the issues of the day?

Or just do anything to feel somehow better about ALL THIS CRISIS.

Though sometimes it might seem best to blank it out. Inebriate and forget about it.

Do the shifts, steer the path, watch the box set, play the game, read the thing, go to sleep – die if you absolutely must.

Is it your choice?

Who really has the time or energy to resist these days?

Maybe you rebelled a bit at school. Took up a resistant stance at a university, argued with figures of authority – the landlord, the warden, the manager, the bank clerk, the councillor, your parents, anyone who told you ‘no’ – maybe you are still trying to force change despite all this. But haven’t you got work to do now? Haven’t you got rent to pay? What about your future? And then there’s the debt.

What are you going to do about all that?

How are you performing in this crisis?

…But, wait, without wanting to sound offensively presumptuous here: are the crises that make up this crisis really crises, or would it perhaps be more accurate to reckon that they are actually the continuation of long-standing struggles, punctuated by sensational events? The housing crisis, for example, flourished with the occasional high-profile eviction or spectacular new building, involves many people struggling to find a place that allows for a decent overall standard of life. A new report tells us how homelessness is on the rise, whilst many don’t have enough cash left over after securing the daily essentials to enjoy themselves, and work cuts harshly into free time. When did this crisis begin exactly, and how does it compare to all the other things that we might think of as crisis?

Maybe housing is worse today than it was in the past. Maybe it’s totally correct to call it a crisis, in comparison to what the housing crisis would have been back then (whenever that was). After all, the word ‘crisis’ does carry significant propagandistic value. When an issue gets elevated to the level of ‘crisis’, it can zip right up to the top of a political agenda – an urgent appeal.

Whatever’s bothering you, call it a ‘crisis’ then and see what happens! But maybe consider that this ‘crisis’ word could be detracting from the visibility of certain historical through-lines and struggles that might be useful in alleviating wider issues. Is the housing crisis not just a continuing tension between working and living in an economic system that demands the subjugation of a majority through controlling the amount of pressure that is put upon workers? Rent and wages seem constantly maintained to squeeze as much out of people as possible, and I’m not so sure that this is a particularly recent phenomenon.

When we think about one specific kind of crisis, are other crises not always somehow related?

To draw a parallel, calling ‘crisis’ on something is a bit like announcing that you need a shit. Things won’t wait, something has to happen soon, it is very important, and so everybody should be on the lookout for a practical solution. But the shitting crisis is not an entirely new one either; at times it might feel sadly all too familiar. For just as needing a shit is part of a general struggle against the bowels, finding a home is part of a general struggle against the property and labour markets. These are age-old difficulties that we are probably quite accustomed to by now. And so it might be apparent to us, that when all of the typical solutions for experiencing essential relief appear to be blocked, finding a place to squat might be necessary.

Squat?

The squat offers respite to those who find themselves unable to rent. Hans Prujit, who has written authoritatively on the subject, highlights four main types of squatting: Deprivation squatting, alternative housing strategy, political squatting, and entrepreneurial squatting.[1] Common to all of these is the basic premise that an otherwise empty building should be utilized as living space until it is otherwise occupied – which would seem to make excellent sense in the midst of a ‘HOUSING CRISIS’.

 

disused-building-hangar-lane(A large disused building near Hangar Lane, West London)

Deprivation squatting is the most strikingly necessary of these forms, and it’s probably the kind of squatting that seems most immediately apparent to an outsider. Someone gets evicted, they don’t know where to go, a squat can keep them safely indoors for a while. Very practical, very humane, very nice.

But why would anyone voluntarily do this? And isn’t it greedy or selfish to take up free spaces when there are so many struggling without?

Here’s where your other types come into play. Making these places happen is time consuming and involves a constant play of strategic manoeuvre against the forces of governance. An adaptive and resilient physical network has to be in place so that when one squat gets evicted, the actual-human-beings who have been forced into the street can have another place to be. So squatting is a form of resistance against housing shortage, and for some, this may seem to justify itself. If empty buildings exist, then occupying them constitutes a responsible political choice – but committing to this practical idea can be akin to having a full-time job. Convenient then, that squatting eradicates the issue of having to work full-time for rent.

Particularly well organized and undisturbed squats can turn into proper community centres, which is a little problematic since this lets local councils off the hook – if anything has a duty to create these spaces, it’s government, not people. Still though, in times of ‘crisis’ perhaps this sort of alternative strategy is the only effective means of setting up new public areas. And perhaps the social togetherness that emerges from creating, running, and partaking in these projects offers a whole lot of beneficial experiences for people. However, since 2012 the laws about squatting have tightened, with more arrests and faster eviction rates [2], resulting in less time available for building long-term projects that might offer genuinely helpful services. The Sisters Uncut project in Peckham was just one recent example of this kind of squat, focusing politically on domestic abuse whilst offering childcare, accommodation, and a supportive place for those who have been drastically let down by their council.

So should government step up to the challenge of alleviating these struggles by making more public spaces available and offering better housing support for those who need it, or might they tighten the law further and keep prosecuting people until the problem just goes away for ever?

As things stand, we’ve been lumped with the latter approach, as the Conservative party forces a necessary reaction from the public.

“Agitate, to alleviate.

Theresa May: exterminate.”

-Contemporary folk chant, highlighting a need for disruptive social movements. Alludes to speculation surrounding the British prime minister’s possible identity as a Dalek.

Finally, however, there are the jobsworth wastrel artists who just want to live for as little as possible so they can work on their ‘art’ – which is probably all crap and definitely not the sort of stuff that any right thinking person would ever want to hang on a wall, have in their house, or play to their family over a pleasant Sunday luncheon. These disgraceful reprobates have no right to live outside the system, they’re only in it for themselves, and it’s evident that all they really want is to avoid doing a Hard Day’s Work like everybody else does. Utterly Inexcusable.

“Unsuccessful artists who do not work are parasites on society, they contribute nothing of any real value and never invite me to their parties.” – Karen Bradley MP, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

This perspective aside, some, such as Mark Fisher, have argued for the cultural benefits of squatting. “It’s no accident that the efflorescences of cultural invention in London and New York in the late 1970’s and early 80’s (in the punk and post-punk scenes) coincided with the availability of squatted and cheap property in those cities. Since then, the decline of social housing, the attacks on squatting, and the delirious rise in property prices have meant that the amount of time and energy available for cultural production has massively diminished.”[3]

 

Wave Machines – Punk Spirit

If we think that cultural movements are worthwhile, then perhaps we could be doing more to help foster the social conditions that enable them. Becoming an artist requires quite a lot of free time along with physical support networks, which unpopular comedian, Stewart Lee, believes have now largely disappeared. “Squats, and student grants, have all gone. We’ve got this whole thing where London celebrates punk rock this year, as if it’s some part of our heritage. But it fundamentally would never have existed, in this city now. Because it’s the music of cheap accommodation.”[4]

What we seem left with today is an increasingly small group of people who believe that they can afford (in terms of both time and money) to seek out ways of getting around the dominant system of wage n’ rent. In return we receive an sickeningly-exclusive, weak-assed, depoliticized death and mummification of our culture (See: Mumford and Son’s).

How can we expect a thriving culture of resistance when the people best placed to contribute are already living comfortably within the existing system?

What would be more desirable then, is if wannabe creators across the entire social spectrum could see for themselves a realistic future in building up large-scale, culturally significant ‘alternative housing strategies’. Perhaps beginning with a popular resurgence in squatting.

…Are you interested in this?

Although the outlook might not seem quite so prime as it once did ‘back in the day’, squats do still exist and can be found/created in London. There is a real network, and though it might not be possible to waltz into a squat at first moment’s notice, the peoples and ambitions are out there, ready to be discovered by anyone who believes in the collective project.

Every week, London plays host to ‘practical squatting nights’, where those with hopes for living without rent can find others with similar goals, talk with those who have done it already, and learn more about how to become practically involved.

http://www.squatter.org.uk/for-new-squatters/practical-squatting-nights/

This old machine hasn’t given up the ghost quite yet.

Rent

Rent too much? Landlord negligent? Don’t want to work in a job that you hate all the time? Better things to doing in life than dealing with all this accumulating hokum?

Too right, pal.

Devout followers of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens might not want to hear a word of it, but The Bible does offer a handy get out clause for paying rent:

“Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” – Romans 13:8

Can’t say fairer than that when the bailiffs come knocking.

See also the following relevant Christian ditty:

“Rent! Rent!

From hell it was sent!

Usurped from your wage, an ungodly percent.

A hole in the pocket to surely resent.

If not at all the time, give it up just for lent.”

See, bible proves it.

However, I am aware that many are committed to a strict doctrine of so-called ‘rationality’ and may therefore be ideologically opposed to any form of theological argumentum. Thankfully then, alternative housing strategies have been proposed by non-theistic bodies as well:

“Oh really your folks are away now? Alright I’m coming, I’ll be right there.”

– The Stokes 12:51

Living in friendly people’s spare spaces might play a vital role in transitioning from rent paying to full-time living, allowing as it does the spare time for exploring local possibilities in setting up collective housing solutions.

“At a certain season of our life we are accustomed to consider every spot as the possible site of a house…Wherever I sat, there I might live, and the landscape radiated from me accordingly.”

– Henry David Thoreau, in his book Walden, forms a nineteenth century precursor to the phrase, ‘Squat the lot’.

So finding ways to experience life without having an unreasonable chunk of it devoted to the age-old tradition of living in a place that has a roof, can be done with reference to ethical and political arguments. Squatting is socially responsible as it provides direct help for people without homes, it is politically useful as a form of protest that enables organisation, and it is also a pragmatic solution for individuals who want to try living outside the system, which could hopefully lead to the creation of things that the Daily Mail will dislike.

To live without rent is to be part of an emancipatory project.

…Options to do this are available, and if you think the ethical arguments for exploring them can be balanced with what it actually seems possible to do, then this might well determine how visible the range of opportunities is for a greater number of people. More people rejecting rent, either in theory or in practice, means more people questioning and challenging the dominating logic of work/rent that seems to have primarily engineered this whole housing mess in the first place.

Where then to focus? Are we still in a crisis?

How is the crisis performed? Can anyone be involved?

Is it just about people who are without homes?

Is anyone who is at all involved with any sort of property a part of this?

Are we all performing the housing crisis?

What you are encountering here is my own attempt at performing the housing crisis.

 

What the hell am I doing?

img_2163

I’m not trying to diagnose the ‘housing crisis’, surely there are enough projects out there already devoted to this task. Nor am I trying to directly raise awareness of the issues involved (See: LSE’s programme of housing related short films that do this very well). At least, these two aims do not fall into the primary challenge I have set myself of personally exploring this crisis in order to produce work that might directly counter some of its affects. I also hope that it could provide some sort of entertainment, though I can’t help but doubt that it will.

I made my plans for this semi-public by first posting a brief explanation and accompanying plea for accommodation on Facebook, followed by an update of how it was going. Somebody asked me what the end goal of this is. But that’s not really how I have been thinking about it. The approach that I take here is borrowed from one of philosophy’s top-of-the-range serial pontificators, Jacque Derrida. Succinctly summarized by Catherine Turner, Derrida’s term, ‘deconstruction’, “is not a method but simply a way of reading, writing, thinking and acting. Rather than seeking an endpoint or a solid conclusion, the means cannot be distinguished from the end. The ongoing process of questioning is the end in itself.”[5] Deconstruct, seems like an appropriate verb to enact upon the housing crisis.

So I decided to see about exploring this whole mess by turning my life into something of an exhibition.

With a vertigo inducing degree of unoccupied time extending ahead of me after the completion of my studies, I decided not to get a bullshit job[6] or find a room to rent. Instead, I hired a garage in North London that would serve as my storage space and emergency sleep den. Since then I have been living around the city in any place that will have me for free. I have been fortunate, as friends and comrades have been ready to support me since I made this potentially very daft decision.

housing-garage-mehousing-garage-box-me

(Whilst spending a night in the garage, I noticed how a sticker on one of my boxes now held new significance and resemblance to my own life as never before. Just one of the many life-changing revelations that occurred to me whist engaging with this issue.)

From experience I’d say that doing this allows a person to write, think, create, read, and learn more than at any other point in life. It offers access to a wide spectrum of conversations and allows for active engagement in grassroots politics, making possible the attendance of protests, discussion groups, meetings, and strikes. It allows time to be devoted to all kinds of productive projects. But I felt bad because nobody else I knew was doing it.

Perhaps this is because there is a strong expectation that people should be in full-time work, which Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek refer to as the ‘ethic of work’. This is not necessarily a new phenomenon, but they argue that in order to build a world in which doing work that we hate does not come to dominate our lives, organisation must occur between disgruntled workers and wider social movements. “This, at first, involves taking tentative steps and creating communal models of living and building support systems. But if this is to move beyond a mere survival mechanism or niche lifestyle pursuit, its aim can only be the transformation of our world into a truly post-work society.”[7]

So when I began to feel pressured by this ‘ethic of work’ (“Shouldn’t I just get a real job and try to function like most other people?”) I would then think to myself, “work hard? We’re all working hard in one way or another. It’s just that some of us are working hard trying to think of ways and ideas that will enable us all to work less hard.”

This thought made me feel better about things. It probably also means that my project is de-facto situated within a wide-ranging, future-oriented political aim of transitioning to a ‘post-work’ society, one that aims at reducing the amount of time people have to spend on working at repetitive jobs for unnecessarily long hours. All the while, everybody’s livelihood is, (within this framework), to be supplemented with a ‘Universal Basic Income’. This position is advocated by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, quoted above and in their book Inventing The Future, Post-capitalism and a World Without Work, and also by Paul Mason in his 2015 book, PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future.

I supplement this section with one final quote from an interview with Angry Worker’s World group, who have been a significant inspiration to me, with their excellent commitment to organizing forms of worker’s resistance in West London warehouses:

“To question and change our own position in society should be part of the collective process to question and transform it.”[8]

 

Personal Summary

What is this about debt?

We are born into debt. I was born into lots and am accumulating still more yet. This debt is what I’ve nabbed off society, in one way or another. That’s all the favours anyone has ever done me, inspiration given, stories borrowed, times when I’ve been given the benefit of doubt, supportive laughter, and though I have sometimes fought not to admit it, emotional care. It’s the selective school I went to, access to music, a well-maintained bookshelf, all the material goods I was given as well. Basically, everything I have ever used to eke out a place in society.

That’s cultural, social, and economic capital.[9] And the overall debt is incalculable, but probably enormous. Though it was accrued mostly by virtue of good luck and a deeply flawed political system, to excuse myself from the responsibility that I have to repay it all would be criminal.

The value of everything that went into giving me this questionable position should be transformed into something worthwhile. But what could I possibly add to society? It is what I’m trying to find out.

How to express capital in a way that is socially beneficial becomes a core problem. Spend it on consumer goods? Invest it in business? Give it away to good causes? Save it for later? Use it to free up time for developing a project specifically aimed at addressing issues that stem from capital inequality?

To utilize resources in a way that broadens our sense of society and aids in dissolving hierarchical barriers between people seems pretty responsible to me, so I make the choice to do that. Perhaps I am going about this in a deeply incorrect way, but from my position, the project seems an ethical duty, and I hope that what I am doing is at least marginally useful.

For all of this, housing seemed like a suitable site of conflict to stage a beginning.

garages

 

[1] Hans Pruijt, Squatting in Europe in the Squatting Europe Kollective (eds.), Squatting in Europe, Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles, Minor Compositions, 2013

[2] http://squashcampaign.org/docs/SquattingStatistics2015_Full%20Report.pdf

[3] Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life, Zero Books, 2011, P.17

[4] http://thequietus.com/articles/19817-stewart-lee-interview

[5] Catherine Turner, Jacques Derrida: Deconstruction, Critical Legal Thinking, May 2016, http://criticallegalthinking.com/2016/05/27/jacques-derrida-deconstruction/

[6] David Graeber, On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, Strike Magazine, August 2013, http://strikemag.org/bullshit-jobs/

[7] Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Superconversations Day 86: Nick Srnicek & Alex Williams respond to Antonio Negri, “Notes on the Abstract Strike”, E-flux, September 2015

[8] https://libcom.org/library/greenford-love-interview-angry-workers-west-londons-warehouses

[9] These terms are lifted from the work of Pierre Bourdieu, which he uses in The Forms of Capital (1986) to draw distinctions between the different kinds of capital that have been utilized for sustaining divisions and inequalities in society.

 

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