The housing crisis of the 1980’s was the origin of all London’s housing struggles, and it defined their direction. It was both the reason for the existence of the land and housing reform movements of the following decades, and it patterned their responses by serving as a historical and real-life reference point for their actions. As a direct result of the housing crisis, a period of experimentation ensued, a search for new and more appropriate forms of tenure. Old forms of urban development continued to occur, but they began to mesh imperceptibly, to become subsumed by the new forms of the future. These struggles were given a new urgency during the First World War, and they culminated in the early 1920’s with the institutionalization of home-ownership for the middle stratum and council housing for the working class–new forms of tenure which led to new forms of urban development…and to new problems.
But that is altogether another story! Right now, we must proceed to develop the third thread of this thesis. It concerns the theories which were developed to understand and explain the housing problems of the working class and to propose solutions to them. And it examines the ideological transformation which the housing crisis of the 1980’s necessitated and generated. ‘Palliatives for 19th century London’s working-class housing problems were not explicitly dealt with in the previous chapters, as these made an insignificant impact on the social and spatial geography of the city. However, these attempts to mitigate the problems offer important lessons for presentday practice in relation to contemporary housing problems. Consequently, this chapter will focus on official and philanthropic definitions of the nature of working-class housing problems from the 1930’s to the 1980’s, on the theories or assumptions upon which these problem definitions were based, and on the consequent proposals for the solution or mitigation of the problems.
The purpose is not to delve into the details of the application of each approach: these are peripheral to the main argument and have been well covered by other writers. Furthermore, their overall effect–that they did not solve or even mitigate working-class housing problems but rather reinforced the developmental processes described in the previous two chapters and thereby further exacerbated the working-class predicament–which is important to my argument, is obvious and incontrovertible. Instead, I will explore certain overriding, unifying features of each approach which have received far less attention: namely, the material and especially the ideological functions of approaching housing problems as they did.
By viewing working-class housing problems as essentially separable from the social, economic and political structure of society, and by uncritically acquiescing to the prevailing ideology of 19th century British capitalism, these approaches offered problem definitions, theories and policies which merely extended this ideology into the housing field. As a result, housing reformers served the changing needs of the capitalist system, as opposed to the needs of the working class who lacked adequate housing and whom they purported to serve. In other words, each approach was but an aspect of the prevailing ideological paradigm by means of which the dominant class understood and explained working-class housing problems.
Furthermore, this paradigm served the important functions of reinforcing certain aspects of London’s development, described in the previous chapters, and of legitimating the oppression and hardship which was a necessary, if unfortunate, part of this developmental process. But the crisis of the 1980’s was as much a material crisis as it was an ideological one. The paradigm was no longer adequate as a device for maintaining the status quo. It had to change if it was to continue performing its reinforcing and legitimation functions. And change it did, as we shall see. In the final chapter of this thesis I will argue that similar ideological processes are prevalent today. Consequently, this argument is very relevant to the role of modern city planners and housing policy-makers who, like their predecessors, are the people charged with performing these status quo maintenance functions in relation to housing and urban development. I do not mean to imply a conscious conspiracy on their part. Most of these professionals are unaware of performing this function; they go about their work in the sincere conviction that their actions will alleviate housing and other urban problems. But few pause to reflect on the paradigm through which they view the problems. And this paradigm is the force which constrains them in the direction of status quo maintenance and the cons ent perpetuation, not solution, of housing problems in one form or another.
The aim of this thread of the thesis is to make city planners and housing policy makers aware of the pitfalls of uncritically accepting an ideological paradigm. Demoralization One canon of classical political economy dominated the ideological climate of Britain during the period under consideration. This was the firm belief in the efficacy of an idealized notion of freely competitive, selfregulating markets, as a mode of organizing the economic functions of society. Laissez faire reigned supreme.
According to the Ricardian economic doctrine, the interference of government, or organized collectivities such as unions, in the economy, particularly the labour and essential-commodity markets, was at best pointless and at worst counterproductive, in both an economic and a humanitarian sense. The less government intervened in the economy, the better. Government intervention in economy and society had played a vital role in the previous era of capitalism. During this phase, which Karl Marx characterized as a period of “primitive accumulation,” a high level of government involvement in the economy was necessary in order to separate the actual producers from the means of production and subsistence and to transform these into capital, under the control of a small capitalist class, and [51 the actual producers into wage-earners.
In other words, government intervention was vital to promote capital accumulation in the infancy of capitalism. At the same time, social policy was shaped by the essentially feudal assumption that “government had a duty to maintain a stable society in which every man had a right to live in the (generally low) station to which the Almighty had called him.” But, by the early 19th century, industrial capitalism had reached a stage where it could stand on its own two feet. The capitalist class had achieved sufficient economic power to accumulate capital without the assistance of government legislation. Indeed, most existing forms of government interference had become hindrances–they contradicted their original purpose of promoting capital accumulation–and therefore had to be 171 eliminated.