Thursday, 13 August 2015

Joe and the word "homeless" (part 2)

Homeless protest camp, St Anne's Square, Manchester, August 2015

Many homeless people have been kind enough to grant interviews to us for The Homeless Library. We have also spoken to staff in organisations that work with homeless people. Here, advice worker Joe Barson from The Booth Centre defines the word "homelessness", calling on Marx, Eric Hobsbawm and Post-Modernism for help. This is the second half of Joe's interview.


I'm a Marxist, it's an interesting way of understanding the world. Marx was groundbreaking, in fact he broke everything - down to basics. People use their labour to create commodities and they use the commodities to survive. Eric Hobsbawm (the historian) suggested that there is more unemployment these days because capitalism no longer requires the same levels of labour. If there's not enough need for labour they become superfluous humans. I've started to accept that analysis.

In the 1980s we closed mines and destroyed communities. That legacy is still with us we still haven't compensated. There is a mass of humans who haven't got work, or dignified work at least. So rather than "homeless" I see a group of people who are "workless" and are therefore unable to home themselves; some get housed, some don't. There's no place in creating or producing for them, which is what we require of society's members. Therefore they are rejected. Some of them get a bit of help, some fall through gaps. That's capitalism and it's just not good enough. But there's no alternative because we've discredited it.

If you discredit the USSR, you discredit the theory of Marxism. Then you can ignore Marx - hence the rise of neoliberalism. Homelessness is a by-product of the social and economic situation we live in and its an economic situation which seems unchallenged. I believe if we didn't live in a property-based society but in a community-owned society, our way of interacting would be different. I'd hope there'd be greater acceptance.

Which neatly leads me onto Post-Modernism! This is a more difficult idea. One that I'm struggling with, trying to connect to Marxism. The idea goes that If you can start to break down or challenge discourses you begin to remove oppressive structures in our society. The basic idea by Foucault is that our way of understanding the world is by linguistic discourses. For instance, we treat mental health as a health issue because the discourse has become medicalised. Homosexuality has a separate identity to heterosexuals as they are labelled and constructed in discourse as different. We try to identify people through labelling and it doesn't work. Even the labels of Men and Women can be broken down. But these discourses can be linked to the economic structure. The change in women being allowed into the workplace surely comes from the fact that capitalism no longer needs such a sharp division in gender roles?

Back to homelessness. The situation of people who don't meet the norm created by the economic structure can be looked at with fresh eyes using post modernism. If a man doesn't behave as a man is supposed to he's ostracised. Being abnormal can lead to social alienation and possibly homelessness. The reasons that we ostracise people are very relevant to homelessness. Post-Modernism might help us challenge these norms, these words and labels we blithely use.

Sign outside homeless camp, under motorway flyover, Oxford Road Manchester Aug 2015 

I don't believe homelessness has to exist, or has always existed. If you go back to pre-agricultural society, way way back, there is evidence that suggests a major change occurred when we started farming the land as opposed to hunter gathering. They've found evidence of Neanderthal society looking after their disabled, not disposing of them as some may presume. We now think there were people who were blind living 20 or 30 years, disabled children living four or five years. It wasn't a brutal society they looked after each other. We could learn a lot from them, you might even say that we've been going backwards since then.

Our idea of progress is based on technical innovation, whereas our social relations are degenerating. Very early on we had bonds of care but then with the rise of agriculture we became more brutalised. There was a need for people to be fitter if they were to be useful and a need for more and more bodies. All this coincided with a rise in woman-robbing. When I look at society today it seems to me that the government policies and codes of behaviour are all about whether you can work or not in a capitalist labour market - and if not you are ostracised. The economic structure needs to be understood to understand how we relate to one another in society.

We have an impersonal society and I think that's something that affects a lot of people who come here, into the Booth Centre. I am idealist, it irritates people but fuck 'em. I'd like to finish this interview by quoting Trotsky, for all his sins: "Life is beautiful. Let us rid it from all evil, oppression and violence, so everyone can enjoy it to the full."

Interview with Phil Davenport at The Booth Centre July 2015

The arthur+martha project The Homeless Library is the first ever attempt to write a history of homelessness in Britain. It includes not only individual testimonies, but also poetry and art, giving it a shape like no other. The project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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