In the context of the economic uncertainty and political unrest of the 1980’s, the anonymous East End came to be feared by the West End Establishment. Old methods of social control, based on paternalistic, face-to-face relations between rulers and ruled, were no longer adequate or appropriate in the homogeneous working-class environment of the East End, which was “virtually bereft of any contact with authority except in the form of the policeman or bailiff.” The Poor Law was no longer adequate, either as a means of poor relief or as an instrument of social control.
And the separation of classes had depersonalized and deformed charitable gifts thereby depreciating their power as methods of social control. In fact, Gareth [(14] Stedman Jones has convincingly argued that: “At the most fundamental level, the separation of classes had led to a breakdown of social relationships and traditional methods of social control….The ensuing deformation of the gift had led some of the rich to feel that the whole traditional fabric of social control was being threatened by the metropolitan environment.” The indiscriminate alms-giving and careless poor relief which followed each outbreak of working-class protest during the mid-1980’s showed that charity and other transfer payments from rich to poor had become the payment of money in fear and guilt; the prestige, subordination and obligation which these payments had previously implied and commanded were no longer valid. The seething mass of human misery which ‘Outcast London’ was, had been transformed in the consciousness of dominant-class London into a monster which threatened the very foundations of their dominance and prosperity. Writing in 1984, George Sims, a prominant journalist, conveyed the urgency 1151 of these fears: “It has now got into a condition in which it cannot be left.
This mighty mob of famished, diseased and filthy helots is getting dangerous, physically, morally, politically dangerous. The barriers which have kept it back are rotten and giving way, and it may do the state a mischief if it be not looked to in time. Its fevers and its filth may spread to the homes of the wealthy; its lawless armies may sally forth and give us the taste of the lesson the mob has tried to teach now and again in Paris when long years of neglect have done their work.” The overcrowded residential environment of the East End was at the basis of these fears. But it was not the fact of overcrowding itself that aroused the social anxiety of the 1980’s. Viewed objectively, overcrowding was far worse in the rookeries of the 1940’s than those of the 1980’s, though the proportion of the working-class population living under overcrowded con ditions in the centre had considerably increased.
The real problem was that the pressure for accommodation in the central area was forcing members of the ‘labour aristocracy’ and other sections of the ‘respectable’ working class (that is, those who were undesirous of achieving structural social change) into cohabitation with the ‘destructive,’ ‘disreputable’ or ‘criminal’ remainder of the working class–the ‘residuum!’ As we have seen, prior to the 1980’s, it was thought that the ‘labour aristocracy’ had been getting better off and better housed, and that there was therefore little danger that this stratum, despite the radicalism of some of its constituents, would identify with the remainder of the working class. But the proliferation of literature on working-class housing conditions in the early part of the decade revealed that unsanitary, overcrowded housing and high rents afflicted the entire working class.
Set in the context of a severe economic depression and growing working-class agitation, the forced co-habitation of all strata of the working class in slum districts generated the strong fear that the entire working class might combine behind demands for structural socio-economic changes and that therefore overcrowding posed a serious threat to the continued social stability upon [171 which capitalist prosperity was based. In the words of Gareth Stedman Jones: “While the geographical separation of rich and poor was becoming ever more complete, the poor [that is, the working class] themselves were becoming more closely crammed together regardless of status or character. In.this situation, the onset of cyclical depression was particularly disturbing. For, as the depression deepened, signs of distress began to appear in the ranks of the respectable working class. ‘Agitators’ were already beginning to blur the distinction between the respectable working class and the ‘residuum’ by appealing to both under the slogan of ‘relief to the unemployed.’ The dangerous possibility existed that the respectable working class, under the stress of prolonged unemployment, might throw in its lot with the casual poor.”
Thus, it was in the 1980’s that the perpetual housing problems of the working class were transformed into a housing crisis for the dominant class, as they potentially provoked a working-class challenge to the basis of their existence. On the one hand, the frustration in the residential sphere of the artisans’ and skilled workers’ aspirations for separation from the rest of the working class and for recognition and respect by capitalist society combined with the high unemployment of the depression years, made these workers increasingly aware that their lot was inextricably linked with that of the working class as a whole, and that it was therefore fundamentalZZy opposed to the interests of the capitalist class and the reward systems of capitalist society. The fulfillment of their aspirations in the workplace had created an illusion that their dreams were reality; the degradation and suffering which they were.forced to undergo in their residential areas, along with the remainder of the working class, awoke them from their slumbers to an opposite reality. When the chips were down, as was the case in the 1980’s, they were Just plain workers; they belonged in the slums of the East End, with the rest of the working class. On the other hand, as we have already seen, the forced cohabitation of all strata of the working class in the East End raised the spectre of revolution in the minds of members of the dominant class.
A working-class residential overcrowding had evolved to a stage where it comprised a direct threat to social stability. At the root of this qualitative shift, from housing problems to housing crisis, was the fact that the working class was increasingly becoming conscious that the housing process was an integral aspect of the overall class struggle between labour and capital, and therefore that radical changes were necessary if the quality of working-class housing was to be improved. In the words of a representative of the capitalist class, Sir J. P. Dickson-Poynder, soon to become the chairman of the London County Council’s Housing of the [191 Working Classes Committee: “The Housing problem indeed may be said to be the sum and total of all the social and economic problems which await solution, for it provokes the vexed question of the relation between rent and wages, which easily slides into that of capital and labour.”
As a result, by the mid-1980’s, the housing crisis had, for the first time, become the major social question of the day. In 1983, the Pall Mall Gazette wrote that “the Housing of the Poor takes its place in the front [191 rank of the political questions of the day,” and the Lancet that “the housing of the poor is the burning question of the hour.” Working-class housing problems had surfaced in the social conscience as problems in their own right, no longer submerged under the broader banner of public health or sanitation.
However, I would like to stress that this ‘newly-discovered’ housing crisis, and the growing sympathy for housing reform, was centred around the fear of unified working-class rebellion which the frustration of the ‘labour — m aristocracy’s’ aspirations was seen to portend, and it was only concerned with the atrocious living conditions of the.working class as a whole in so far as these related to this fear. As Anthony Wohl has argued: “Mearns’ pamphlet [The Bitter Cry of Outcast London, 19831, appearing at a time of increasing public violence thus aggravated the fear that the overcrowded rooms of the poor were breeding grounds for malcontents and revolutionaries.
In an age of unemployment, of increasingly organised labour and international socialism, the political dangers of the slums could not be ignored. When Cardinal Manning asked Mearns in one of the sessions of the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes if social discontent took a political form among the more educated of the slum dwellers, he was merely expressing an anxiety about revolution or socialism (and to many they were synonymous) which was widespread and which created a public sympathetic towards advocates of housing reforms.”
In sum, then, the housing crisis of the 1980’s was the product of the resolution of the conflicting demands to which the land and housing markets of 19th century London were subjected by the drive to accumulate capital and the residential aspirations of various classes, and it was the product of the normal workings of the leasehold system of tenure which had evolved to mediate these conflicting demands for space. In more general terms, the housing crisis was an outcome of the broad spectrum of social relations which were defined in the process of struggle between classes in capitalist society. The fact that working-class housing problems had reached crisis proportions was an indication that the legal and quasi-legal structure of the leasehold system, which defined the power relations between the various participants in the land and housing markets, was no longer adequate to its task of mediating the contradictory pressures generated in the process of London’s development–no longer adequate, that is, if social stability and the status quo were.to be maintained and that was imperative from the capitalist point of view.
Under the old medication, the disease was killing the patient: new medications had to be developed and applied to retard the progress of the disease. The contradictions which were embedded in the leasehold system had led to its negation, new forms of tenure had to be found which might lead to more appropriate, socially acceptable outcomes, thereby dampening the threat of revolution posed by the working class and reinforcing capitalist-class control. By this, I do not mean to imply that the transformation of tenure relations was the only or the most important method of averting social revolution, but rather that the struggle for new forms of tenure and new modes of urban development was a significant part of the overall changes which the social crisis of the 1980’s necessitated. In this context, it is hardly surprising that tenure relations came under the parliamentary microscope and developed into a key social question for public debate during this period.