30 September 2009

The Housing Question

[CU for Thursday, 1 October 2009]

Frederick Engels, thanks to his book “The Condition of the Working Class in England”, (researched in 1843 before his subsequently lifelong political partnership with Karl Marx had begun) is, among many other things, the father of modern town planning.

So, one is apt to approach his book “The Housing Question” expecting answers to that housing question. One might hope for instructions about what to build. One might expect sermons about “delivery”, or even model house-plans. Instead, one finds severe polemic about very fundamental issues of class struggle.

This is a good opportunity to examine what polemic is, for a moment, before we return to the main topic. Engels’ opponent Mulberger had complained that Engels had been blunt to the point of rudeness. Engels concedes little more than sarcasm:

“I am not going to quarrel with friend Mulberger about the ‘tone’ of my criticism. When one has been so long in the movement as I have, one develops a fairly thick skin against attacks, and therefore one easily presumes also the existence of the same in others. In order to compensate Mulberger I shall try this time to bring my ‘tone’ into the right relation to the sensitiveness of his epidermis.”

But later, admitting that he had misrepresented Mulberger on a particular (quite small) point, Engels lambastes himself as “irresponsible”.

“This time Mulberger is really right. I overlooked the passage in question. It was irresponsible of me to overlook it…”

The rules of polemic are roughly this: It is in writing. It is always against a named individual. It is direct and frank and cares very little for bourgeois squeamishness; on the other hand, it pays the utmost respect to the meaning of the opponent’s words. Opponents in polemic never misrepresent each other. Everything else is permissible.

Development is class struggle

After the above preliminaries, Engels goes straight into a long paragraph that contains a summary of theory and practice, vanguard and mass, from the 1840s up until his point of writing, which is just after the fall of the Paris Commune. The paragraph includes “the necessity of the political action of the proletariat and of the dictatorship of the proletariat as the transitional stage to the abolition of classes and with them of the state.”

This is the “whole tutti”. So why does Engels “go to town” to this extent? Is this not “housing” we are talking about? Something that everybody needs? Classless, surely? A win-win situation? Motherhood and apple-pie?

Engels says: NO!

What we can read in Mulberger, through Engels’ eyes, is the petty-bourgeois (and full bourgeois) greed for this Housing Question as a means of reproducing petty-bourgeois consciousness, and this is just exactly how the post-1994 South African Government ended up dealing with the housing question. Yes, there should be lots of houses, it said in effect, but they must be petty-bourgeois-style houses, both in type, and in ownership.

The argument about housing is an argument about the reproduction of capitalism. It is an argument about the continuation of the ascendancy of bourgeois values over those of the working-class. For the bourgeoisie, the creation of a dwelling is an opportunity to invest that house with peasant-like values of individuality, and with petty-bourgeois ideas of “entrepreneurship”, and to regulate and control the people.

Everything that happened in “housing” in South Africa post-1994 is pre-figured in Mulberger’s banal prescriptions. Any critique of housing in South Africa now will therefore have to follow the example of Engels if it is to be of any use at all. Please, comrades, read the first pages and the last paragraphs of this document, if not all of it.

The history of all hitherto-existing societies has been a history of class struggle. The coming “development” period of South African history will also be a period of class struggle. We may not necessarily win every specific struggle. What this text of Engels says is: let us never fool ourselves. Win or lose, we are in a class struggle and there is no neutral ground, least of all on the question of housing and land development. There is much more to be studied here, but the key is political. In the next part, we will look at this matter through the eyes of some contemporary writers.

[Pictures: Shack, Abahlali BaseMjondolo; RDP House, David Goldblatt (Miriam Mazibuko watering the garden of her new RDP house, Extension 8, Far East Alexandra Township. It has one room. For lack of space, her four children live with her parents-in-law. Johannesburg. 12 September 2006)]

Click on this link:

The Housing Question, 1872, Part Three, Frederick Engels (9957 words)


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