If there has been no let-up in the pace of social cleansing, at least opposition to it is now represented by figures that are warmly received in the media. Motherhood has played a central role in this. Focus E15 Mothers chose to intervene in portrayals of single mothers as incapable, irresponsible scroungers. They created a more empowering image of mothers as serious and capable, even heroes – not only in relation to everyday life but also in relation to the political sphere. As The Guardian put it: “They were once treated as a problem, to be shuttled between temporary accommodation; now they’re pushing solutions to the real issues – preventing London from becoming a city in which the rich live while the rest of us are bussed in to serve them”. They also mobilised tropes of vulnerability and innocence: “Don’t make our babies homeless!” they chanted. When Russell Brand visited the Sweets Way occupation recently, the resulting videos show him discussing with young boys rather than with their parents. Don’t make out babies homeless!
But is not only the struggle itself which created these figures. As a member of Focus E15 pointed out, Jasmin Stone of Focus E15 is a Marxist but this never gets mentioned in the media. The media like to privilege certain groups and divide people into the deserving and undeserving poor. Normally it excludes, for example, black people or recent immigrants from the deserving.
We should ask why the figure of the working class mother has been able to symbolise the deserving poor in this moment. Mothers, perhaps, are reassuring figures of reproduction in a time of fear about capitalism’s ability to sustain the state and its population. They conform to the nurturing ideal of womanhood and the link between woman and the home supported by the right. Perhaps they are also safe figures to represent resistance, because older stereotypes are available be resurrected if needed. The category of the single mum will never completely escape its connotations of feckless promiscuity.
And it is not just a matter of representation but one of demands. Privileging the struggle for council housing sidelines the needs of others – all those, for example who have no chance of ever getting it. What about childless women? Are we less important? Men? What about less obviously working class people, people with University educations for example, who still live with extreme precarity. Are we less important?
This privileging of the needs of a particular group leads to another problem: it puts everyone else in the position of supporting them. It puts them in the position of activists, engage in struggles not orientated to solving their own needs. People advise housing activists not to “go in with their own pre-agenda”. It is important, they say, that “residents” lead campaigns, with activists backing them up… helping them with the media maybe. The problem with this approach is that activists then act like other professionals who craft media representations or perform in the political sphere. No challenge is made to the division of politics from life in general or to the way out interests are perceived as hierarchically divided.
Us in the Aylesbury occupation followed Focus E15 in drawing strength from acting to defend our own immediate practical needs. We described ourselves as squatters rather than activists. We are mainly childless and are from range of class backgrounds. We aim to make Aylesbury our home and to show how empty estates can be directly taken by all those who need them. In our work with tenants and leaseholders in the estate, we are trying to build a movement through which we can gain the solidarity to allow us to defend our occupied flats. But in campaigning to “repopulate” Aylesbury and to defend council housing, our stalls and events also involve us making demands contrary to our own interests. The repopulation of the estate by the council would not solve our housing crisis.
If we are all to fight together in equality for our survival in this city, we need to build a way of talking and acting together which acknowledges our spectrum of fractured interests. Despite these differences, all our different battles are against the capitalist system which divides us up. Calling out this system, and the impoverishment it means for us all in different ways, means forcefully crafting a more radical way of talking, probably against the discourse of the media.
Unity brings us to the problem of community, another concept mobilised with regularity when we speak about the housing struggle. Again, this term is loved by the right as much as the left. But what does it really mean and who does it include and exclude? Many people are forced move around within London a lot, are migrants who have only lived here a short time, or live their whole lives totally cut off from their neighbours. Talking about community is at best a lazy, media-friendly way to talk about class struggle. When we say community, we should mean choice in where we live and who live with and security and power in the place we live.
The problem with all these figures – the mother, the activist, the community – is that they ignore or paper over the differences which keep all of us apart. We need a different language which describes our various situations and experiences in relation to their common root. We need ways of acting which aim to improve the situation of everyone involved. In this way we could create a housing struggle with the power to really challenge the current trajectory of things.
Squat the lot!