Comment | The criminalisation of squatting is a deeply political act
New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Monday, September 3, 2012 22:19 - 3 Comments
By Tony Mckenna
In 2010-11 the number of people sleeping on the streets in London rose 8% to 3975 while in the same geographical space there were over 6000 council homes left unoccupied (photo: BBC)
Having offended the Gods, Tantalus was condemned to spend eternity squatting in a pool of water which would recede whenever he went to sip from it, while just above, luscious fruit dangled forever out of reach. This myth, of course, has given us the verb – ‘to tantalize’ – but it also provides us with an illuminating parable on modern day capitalism.
In 2009 it was revealed that 2 million people living in the UK were undernourished and yet a recent estimate suggests supermarkets waste up to 300 000 tonnes of food each year. You might be forgiven for thinking maybe that’s because the food is mouldy or otherwise past its sell-by-date, however that assumption would prove faulty because, as eco chef Tom Hunt points out, more often than not the food is still viable and, more shockingly still, sometimes – ‘the quality of the ingredients are second to none’.
This kind of wastage is not simply confined to the production of food. In 2010-11 the number of people sleeping on the streets in London rose 8% to 3975 while in the same geographical space there were over 6000 council homes left unoccupied (a third of which required repairs). Perhaps more importantly still, 60% of all newly built properties in central London were bought up by foreign investors, many of whom had no intention of living in them, so they were simply left to sit empty.
Consequently, in one of the world’s greatest cosmopolitan and commercial centres there are ever increasing numbers of people who experience the pangs of hunger while everywhere a superabundance of mass-produced food overflows into landfills; in the same moment, there are growing numbers sleeping rough on the streets – sometimes only yards from the most luxurious abodes; those swanky properties with the kind of mod-cons which make life so much more comfortable – only with nobody in residence to take advantage of them.
But perhaps the most perverse thing in all of this is how – to the current government – none of it appears as in any way perverse. For Cameron, Osborne and their cohorts the real nightmare is not the spectre of the almost Dickensian poverty which now stalks our streets, but rather the shrill, petulant fear that any of these empty spaces might be claimed by people whose wellbeing could depend on it. For this, parliament has passed a bill which criminalises squatting from September onwards.
One of the reasons why the bill is likely to pass with little more than a whimper on the part of the general population is because of the media image which has been so meticulously cultivated against the squatting phenomenon; squatters are nearly always portrayed as dirty follicley-challenged layabouts ready to swarm and colonise a house the moment its occupants take an extended weekend in the Costa Del Sol. The media is riddled with stories about how home owners return home from holidays only to be barred from entering their own premises by a group of straggly haired malingerers.
In reality, however, the image of some woolly liberal government, full to the brim with pc largesse, prepared to exile people from their homes in order to facilitate the whims of vagrants – is little more than a reactionary myth. The squatting laws were always specific on this point; those who squatted would be protected by certain rights against eviction only with the proviso that nobody was living in the property in the first place, and that there was no possibility of it being occupied by its owners in the imminent future.
The law to criminalise squatting is about something else entirely. Supermarkets are often compelled to destroy food because they are caught in the unrelenting vortex of competition; if they give away the leftover surplus, the value of future sales is damaged. Likewise, in the case of the property market, houses are sometimes left empty by landlords and investors in order to drive prices up.
Inevitably a conflict emerges between genuine human need – the need for food, the need for shelter – and the imperatives of a social system driven by competition and the accumulation of profit. For this reason we should understand squatting not as some arbitrary phenomenon but as a profoundly political act; i.e. the endeavour to assert the priority of human need in the geo-political space – over and against the incursions of the market.
And, in essence, hasn’t squatting always been about this? The squatting phenomenon traces its roots to the agrarian communists ‘The Diggers’ who, in 1649 when food prices spiked at an all-time high, made the move to resist the enclosures and occupy common land so they could plant vegetable crops – no doubts with the rather humble agenda of ensuring their own survival. They were forced from the land by the threat of army intervention, but not before being branded amoral and promiscuous (charges regularly levelled against the squatters of today).
More recently, in the aftermath of the Second World War many ex-service men and their families, tens of thousands of people, occupied sites across the country, because of an acute housing crisis – though the image of heroic servicemen as squatters is, of course, one which has been airbrushed out of the conventional historical narrative.
Nevertheless, squatting has been at the heart of British political struggle for centuries which is why its hard-fought for rights made the transition into law in the first place. Its criminalisation does not only threaten up to 50.000 people who are currently squatting in (empty) properties across the UK. It also represents a triumph of a market imperative.
Like Tantalus, the drive for profit can never be sated, for it expands inexorably, feeding on itself, driven to limits which are unbound by considerations of genuine human needs. But, while it may never be satisfied, it will always be resisted.