Tag Archives: class

Burnett’s A Social History of Housing: Housing the Middle Classes

Burnett’s A Social History of Housing looks at the breadth of housing across class — and the insights in how housing connects to ideologies of how life should be lived and how success should be measured are important rewards I think. The poor, the working classes don’t really have much to say about what their housing looks like, how it is structured, how it sits within a neighbourhood (as explored in post 1 and post 2 on this book — it’s a big book to be fair). It is arguable just how much the bourgeoisie have a say between the power of the building and advertising industries and the constraints of culture, but undeniable that they do have more power to live where and how they wish.

The 1800s saw the greater rise of the middle classes and their codes — not unified but tiered, yet they still held in common male superiority and absolute rule over family, women who did not work, sex for procreation, and the home as a sacred institution, pivot of both comfort and moral rectitude.

The rigid statement and enforcement of such a code was of particular importance to a class which, despite its evident energy and enterprise, was still new, insecure and largely unrecognized in political and social status. Many of its members were first-generation recruits, who needed clear guidance on rules of conduct and behaviour. A code would define status: it would serve as a unifying force to combat the enemies without and protect the members within, affording a private retreat behind which the strains and stresses of business life could be washed away, or at least concealed. The home, then, had to fulfil these many functions–to comfort and purify, to give relief and privacy from the cares of the world, to rear its members in an appropriate set of Christian values, and above, all, perhaps, to proclaim by its ordered arrangements, polite behaviour, cleanliness, tidiness and distinctive taste, that its members belonged to a class of substance, culture and respectability. The house itself was to be the visible expression of these values. (99)

This was explicitly developed through a series of early how-to books, which I may very soon become just a little obsessed with as they sound amazing.

Books set out exact budgets, the minimum at which one could live. Men began marrying later even as household budgeting became  of ‘prime importance’, with much spending as much about social position as comfort. For most middle class families, the guidebooks advised one tenth of the income to be spent on rent, not to exceed one eighth. (100)

I’d heard of Mrs Beetons, for example, one of the earliest. (I’m going to get my hands on that.) This focus on social position also drove the felt need not just for a home, but for a series of homes — the rather disgusting upward rise from more simple house exchanged for bigger and bigger ones, more servants, a carriage as husband’s salary rises with age. All of these things allowed people to place you precisely within the social hierarchy. What a waste of life.

Not least because all this was happening at a time of grievous morbidity — average life expectancy with poor and rich averaged together: 41 in England and Wales. Liverpool only 26 and Manchester 24. Cities were increasingly seen as unhealthy, poverty-stricken, and so they were, and this was part of the push to the suburbs. But this didn’t explain all of it.

Yet the movement of the wealthier classes outwards form the town centres was not only an escape from their evils; it was a conscious and positive migration towards a different physical environment and a different set of social values…a dream or an image of a different style of life. (104)

And that’s what’s interesting really — the content of that life, those values. Apart from having an ever bigger house and more servants. Burnett writes:

Some of the really great manufacturing families, like the Drinkwaters and the Phillips of Manchester, had, it is true, moved further out to country houses in park-like estates, where from Prestwick the head of the Philips family each day endured the inconvenience of a three-mile ride on horseback to Kersal Toll Bar where a four-wheel cab met him to convey him to his warehouse. In Liverpool, where life was more gracious and spacious than in the industrial cities, some of the merchant princes had ‘marine villas’ as well as town mansions. These were at Waterloo, just clear of the Mersey estuary… This was extreme social segregation (109)

I rather love that image of Phillips, and his ride on horseback to a four-wheel cab, also really hate extreme social segregation.

Architecturally this was also a time of changing styles. The old? The picturesque of the 1790s–associated with Humphrey Repton and John Nash, the villa and cottage, ‘a revulsion against an urban aesthetic, against order, uniformity and control.’ (115) This shifted to Greek Revival around 1800s, Robert Smirke and William Wilkins, best seen in large public buildings and consolidated by John Claudius Loudon’s architectural copy-books. He’s fascinating, his wife, Jane Webb, even more so (I extemporize here). He read her novel about a mummy (creatively titled The Mummy!: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century) and asked a mutual friend to bring her to lunch and the rest, so they say… but in truth she probably had something to do with those copy books as well.

Anyway. Back to Housing the Suburbans:

The total separation which the great country house afforded, encapsulated in its own geographical territory and strictly-controlled environment, was not economically possible for the middle classes, but the suburb gave a high degree of single-class exclusiveness behind frontiers which were clearly distinguishable on the ground even when not openly labelled as ‘private’. So strong was this desire for protection, based perhaps on fear that this tender flower of civilization would be contaminated, even destroyed, by contact with ‘the multitude’, that many suburbs fought hard, and often successfully, to prevent the building of tramways and the extension of cheap workmen’s fares on the existing railway routes to their territories. (192)

Burnett describes even more books to hunt down and find. There is Robert Kerr’s The Gentleman’s House (1864), which seems quite brilliant and gives key considerations to a house and plans as well, and which will be explored later, when I get round to reading the original. But the 12 key considerations for a home that he lists are: ‘privacy, comfort, convenience, spaciousness, compactness, light and air, salubrity, aspect and prospect, cheerfulness, elegance, importance, ornamentation‘. (194)

A telling list. It has lots of amazing budgets and plans, fine distinctions on neighbourhood. If you wanted to live withing ‘the dinner-party radius‘ it had to be Bayswater, Kensington and Bloombury. (201) That made me laugh out loud I confess. Some pictures:

I’ve always wanted a house with a parterre (but no, not really)


There is another book by a Mrs Panton — From kitchen to garret: hints for young householders — from 1888. I am going to read them all.

Burnett gives as an example of this growing suburban movement the ‘most famous Edwardian suburban estate’ — Hampstead Garden Suburb — by architects Parker & Unwin, but conceived by Henrietta Barnett in 1905. I want to know more about her too. But here is a plan of the ideal as it has developed here:

And some of the early drawings:

We have been wandering through here I believe, ourselves stopping at The Spaniards Tavern which was itself awesome but full of terrible people, just like Hampstead Park.

It’s amazing to think that is only around this time that the bungalow came to England — so much I didn’t know about this housing form with a long colonial history. The term comes partly from the bangla of Bengal, and first developed as an Anglo-Indian house-type, becoming the predominant colonial building form in the nineteenth century. In England it tended to be built at the seaside, the 1st one Birchington, near Westgate-on-Sea, Kent. Burnett writes:

These early bungalows were described as combining ‘real comfort’ with ‘pleasing rusticity’; they were ‘cosy’, ‘rural-looking’, ‘quaint’ and ‘perfect as to sanitary qualities’. At this time their use seems to have been confined to the upper classes and wealthy professional people. By the late eighties the bungalow began to move inland. (212)

I have this vision of houses slowly creeping away from the ocean. But in reality it was a developer, R.A. Briggs, who brought them inland (in 1887), earning himself the sobriquet of Bungalow Briggs.

As interesting final note. In most of these early books and discussions of design there is little discussion of the kitchen, and nothing about its comforts. This is because they were assumed to be the province of servants. I desired kitchens, but to find more of them I have to turn to:

America, where ‘the servant problem’ was experienced earlier, and more middle-class women actually worked in their kitchens, serious consideration was given to the organization of the work process as early as 1869 by Catherine E. Beecher. (216)

Not sure I like the term ‘servant problem’ given I come from a long line of servants, but I’m glad we were more quickly liberated in America.

[Burnett, John (1986) A Social History of Housing: 1815-1985, 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge.]

Burnett’s A Social History of Housing: the early 1800s

I quite loved A Social History of Housing by John Burnett. I’m still trying to get my head around quite what a difference the industrial revolution made to how cities and towns worked and looked like and were lived in, which requires a slightly dfferent periodization I think, but here we start in 1815.

A time of flux, the 1800s. Professionals (see, I’m not entirely sure who they are in 1815) are moving out of the centres. The houses they leave behind are being subdivided and becoming overcrowded, the poorest quarters. Outside city centres, housing was being built up in terraces, back-to-backs and courts in very unplanned way, ‘by considerations of immediate profit‘ (11).

There were, of course, a few exceptions where one landowner regulated what happened to development — many examples are up here in the North, I have been to them (and didn’t notice I confess!). There is Ashton-under-Lyne, where the Earl of Stamford included conditions about ‘good, firm and substantial build’ in the leases. Huddersfield, where Sir John Ramsden ‘enforced wide streets and “good, straight houses”‘ and Glossop, laid out by Duke of Norfolk in regular form and regulated ‘streets, avenues, passages, drains, sewers and other conveniences‘. (11) Most other such exceptions are to be found in London.

Architects were not involved in the activities of speculative builders or any kind of planning. Possibly the first example of when this changed was the work of Norman Shaw, who in 1876 designed the middle-class suburb of Bedford Park. I found a lovely lithograph of it:

Trautschold, Adolf Manfred (1882) The Tower House, Bedford Park, London

It’s in the V&A collection, and their description is quite nice too, tying it back to William Morris:

In 1874 William Morris imagined an ideal town where ‘people lived in little communities among gardens and fields, so that they could be in the country in five minutes.’ The realisation of this idea was Bedford Park, a suburban development funded by a socially minded entrepreneur and designed by several prominent architects. This print shows the Tower House and its surrounding garden. Bedford Park had an important influence on the Garden City Movement of the following decades. [2005]

Architects mostly simply added embellishments onto houses, and put all of their energies into designing larger more public buildings or country mansions. Thus is was speculative builders who have had the most influence really, using the cheapest materials to hand and designing with one finger in the wind of popular opinion on a desirable house, but with the main eye to profit.

Part of what I love about the book is how it looks at design and materials as much as anything else. Burnett notes that while brick came to dominate the trade there were also many restrictions.

[S]uitable brick-earth deposits were not widely diffused, fuel for firing bricks was scarce in many areas, and transport of the finished product over any great distance was difficult and costly. The result was that no one building material dominated…English house before the 19th century had been built of a wide variety of locally available materials. These included stone (either ‘dressed’ or ‘rough’ and supplemented with turves, furze or any mixture of available materials), timber (for building a frame, filled in with clay, wattle and daub, lath and plaster, or weather-boarding), and in areas where neither of these was easily available, like East Anglia, clunch and flint. (27)

He’s not much of a fan of these other forms, picturesque as he admits them he describes the living conditions as generally quite terrible.It’s interesting to compare his descriptions to those of Clough-Ellis of cob and chalk — admittedly fancier houses, but proof they could be kept clean and comfortable and warm, though it seems too often they were not.

This is also a book of both city and country — I love that too. The next chapter is on the country cottage. It has to start, however, with the enclosures, with people forced out of their cottages through all sorts of means — creating intense overcrowding in those that were left. Interesting how this was driven by desire for the land (greed you know), but also later by changes in poor rates after 1795  requiring parishes to support the ‘indigent’. This gave extra inducement to tear cottages down so families could not settle (greed you know). There grew a distinction between closed parishes, controlled by one (or two) landowners, who had torn all worker accommodation down, and open parishes inhabited by multiple small proprietors where all those evicted settled as an occasional labour force for the parishes where they could not live. This was noted as a problem in the amendment act of 1834 and became one of the political questions of the 1830s and 1840s.

Burnett catalogues the ‘general hierarchy of accomodation that was available to the working classes‘ (58). They are pretty grim.


Almost always, cellar-dwellings are described as dark, damp and airless, the abodes of the most feckless, improvident and intemperate sections of the population, and the sources of much of the dirt and disease which sullied the industrial towns. Very often they are equated with the period of Irish immigration from the 1820s to the 1840s, with the implication that cellars have not been used for habitation by the english worker until his standard of living was forced down by alien influence. (58)

Good examples are in Engels descriptions of Manchester and Flora Tristan’s of Oxford Street.


Intended primarily as very temporary shelter of a minimal kind, all too often they became permanent homes for the near-destitute and near-criminal classes and almist indistinguishable from a normal tenemented house except by their gross overcrowding and promiscuity. (62)

It’s a bit later, but Mary Higgs’ firsthand experience of these was fascinating.

Tenement House

Burnett writes that the line between tenement and boarding house thin and shaky, describes the rise of the rookeries, and he gives a list:

St Giles, Saffron Hill, Ratcliffe Highway, Jacob’s Island, Berwick Street (St James’s), Pye Street, Westminster in London. Oxford Rd, Little Ireland, Parliament St, ‘Gibraltar’ in Manchetser, Boot-and-Shoe Yard in Leeds, the ‘shambles’ behind Long Row in Nottingham, and areas in Durham, Newcastle, Gateshead and Barnard Castle. (64-65)

Some were old house, some new built, but

…in general, tenements were to be found in existing, and often old, houses which had once accomodated families of substance, if not affluence, but which had now sunk to rooming-houses of an infinite variety of respectability and disreputableness. They were part of the process of town decay. (65)


Burnett writes that all of the other forms of housing were ‘not specifically designed as such: they were strictly residual, left over and adapted from their original us as family dwelling for better-off classes, and because never intended for multi-occupation, necessarily lacking in the requisite amenities’ (70). But not back to backs, those were a new thing. He quotes Chadwick (who is actually quoting a Mr Mott) on just what these were:

An immense number of the small houses occupied by the poorer classes in the suburbs of Manchester are of the most superficial character; they are built by the members of building clubs, and other individuals, and new cottages are erected with a rapidity that astonishes persons who are unacquainted with their flimsy structure. They have certainly avoided the objectionable mode of forming under-ground dwellings, but have run into the opposite extreme, having neither cellar nor foundation. The walls are only half brick thick, or what the bricklayers call “brick noggin,” and the whole of the materials are slight and unfit for the purpose. I have been told of a man who had built a row of these houses; and on visiting them one morning after a storm, found the whole of them levelled with the ground; and in another part of Manchester, a place with houses even of a better order has obtained the appellation of “Pick-pocket-row,” from the known insecure and unsubstantial nature of the buildings. I recollect a bricklayer near London complaining loudly of having to risk his credit by building a house with nine-inch walls, and declared it would be like “Jack Straw’s House,” neither “wind nor water tight:” his astonishment would have been great had he been told that thousands of houses occupied by the labouring classes are erected with walls of 4t inch thickness. The chief rents differ materially according to the situation, but are in all cases high; and thus arises the inducement to pack the houses so close. They are built back to back, without ventilation or drainage; and, like a honeycomb, every particle of space is occupied. Double rows of these houses form courts, with, perhaps, a pump at one end and a privy at the other, common to the occupants of about twenty houses.

The later work of councils would be to tear all of them down.

‘Through’ Terraced Houses

For many town workers in the first half of the century the quality hierarchy ended here. For a minority…of skilled artisans, it extended to a higher level… the ‘through’ terraced house, with two ground-floor rooms and with light and and access at both front and back: it followed that there would also be some small area of private space–garden or yard–at teh rear of teh house with entrance from a continuous alley running behind the terrace. (77)

These were the direct descendant of the Georgian town terrace, and earlier groups of rural cottages

…the residents of divided houses and interior courts set back and screened form the main roads inhabited little, private worlds in which they shared space and amenities like water and privies in a communal way: their lives were more interdependent and more public, though separated from the mainstream of ‘progress’ by warrens of narrow passages, alleys and stairways. Such places were anathema to Victorian reformers who assumed, not always correctly, that they ineviatbly bred vice and criminality as well as dirst and disease. In the terraced house, on the other hand, the front faced the public street and was exposed to teh general gaze and attention: family life was turned inwards, towards the back room and the back yard or garden, usually separated from its neighbours by high brick walls. Private territory replaced public space, and as the terraced house spread in many towns in the sceond half of the century into the typical working-class dwelling, a new type of privatized family life developed, which was to be an important part of the social transformation of the Victorian age. (79)

Workshop Houses

These were just what they sound like. So on to who was building what and how, because the design of houses themselves only gives a taste of what it was like to live in them. As important is how they sat within the city.

Cities were in fact changing quickly, and government was being forced to respond. More on this exciting phase in part 2.

[Burnett, John (1986) A Social History of Housing: 1815-1985, 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge.]

Malpass on Housing and the Welfare State

Housing and the Welfare State. So this took me some time to read — housing policy is such important stuff but not exactly gripping. Took me longer to blog, as work is life crushing at the moment.

I always wonder really why I am drawn back to housing over and over again.

Still. This made me see Britain in rather a different way, not having much delved into histories of the welfare state. I am glad I read it before a number of others that all refer to it, but don’t engage in the same kind of structural analysis that I value so much.  It is widely refered to, though rarely with full agreement.

So in thinking about how to define the Welfare State, Malpass finds two broad tendencies — one broad and one narrow. Narrow is encompassed by a defined set of public services, ie education, NHS, housing, personal social services and social security. The broad definition:

a specific type of society in which the state intervenes within the processes of economic reproduction and distribution to reallocate life chances between individuals and/or classes.(5)

For Malpass this state intervention does not exist in solitude, rather he quotes Esping-Anderson who writes:

we cannot grasp the welfare state without locating its activities in relation to the private sector…it is a myth to think that either markets or the state are more naturally equipped to develop welfare. Instead, markets are often politically created and form an integral part of the overall welfare-state regime. (6)

I would say that markets, at least in our times, are always politically created, what else underpins contracts, ownership, property? But I digress. Malpass describes himself as broadly in agreement with the academic literature in how it periodizes the welfare state:  two main periods (pre and post 1988), but also recognising  the difference between the postwar consensus and shared principles around welfare state, the mid 1970s watershed and its redefining and renegotiating of the welfare state, and then the 1980s and the work to re-engineer (and destroy) the welfare state as a whole.

Malpass also describes agreement around three distinct welfare state ‘settlements’:

political-economic: compromise between capitalism (private ownership & free markets) and socialism (state ownership & centrally planned economies). Commitment to a managed capitalist economy with central goal full employment, together with a series of universal services, free at the point of consumption, funded from taxes and insurance contributions. (9) (this has of course been renegotiated to a smaller role for the state in both managing the economy and delivering services. The cost of the 1980s renegotiations? Accepting labour insecurity and markets. The emphasis now is on ‘preparing/disciplining the work force‘  and a ‘redistribution of risk and responsibility from the state to the individual.’ (10)

social: which is centered around the push for full employment — though of course this would be full white male employment and he describes the ‘gendered, patriarchal and racialized nature of the postwar British welfare state.‘ (9-10) where the ‘Universalism of the welfare state was, in fact, deeply circumscribed’. (10) So even in the good old days, it wasn’t good for over half of us. Now? Changing patterns in households, much more diverse, more two-earner households, and no-earner. More pensioners. Old assumptions of white male breadwinners no longer work, but nothing has replaced it really. And of course the welfare state required full (male) employment, without it, things become very expensive. I’m not sure where that leaves us.

organizational: an early consensus on the way that these services should be delivered — large, public sector organizations in which professional and bureaucratic modes of coordination predominated. (10) Arguably, things could improve a lot. Now? Local authorities as ‘strategic enablers rather than service providers, relying on a range of private, voluntary and community organizations for service delivery. These are typically required to compete in provider markets or quasi-markets for the right to provide services.‘ (11)

And so we come to Malpass’s main argument about housing, noting how it has been seen as the wobbly pillar of the Welfare State. He writes, following Harloe (1995), that housing was always the

least decommodified and the most market-determined of the conventionally accepted constituents of such states.

Continuing the argument he quotes Cole and Furley (1994) on housing as ‘a stillborn social service lodged within a capitalist dynamic of property relations’. Housing is a commodity, and was seen even through the post war consensus as a commodity. Thus for Malpass, the turning point in the history of housing is not the end or transformation of any postwar settlement, but rather the ‘economic convulsions‘ of the post war boom and collapse of Keynesian policies in 1975. This book challenges

…accepted ways of looking at housing…arguing that housing policy in the postwar period is not best understood in terms of the welfare state. In relation to the more recent past and the present period, instead of seeing housing as being ‘amputated’ from the welfare state, it will be argued that it provides a model for the new, more limited, conditional and market-reliant form of the welfare state, increasingly delivered by non-municipal organizations. In this sense the modern housing system is more clearly delineated in terms of a large, private market serving the majority, and a slimmed down social rented sector, more focused on the least well off than at any previous point in time. … in relation to housing the postwar welfare state was a kind of rhetorical or ideological overlay on market driven processes that were already under way…(24)

Thus, while housing was something we did fight for and that we did win, when provided it was always for the better-off working classes until the 1970s. Only then did it become ‘residualised’. Where it had once started out being for the better off, it is now for the worse off, and brings with it all the stigma and social exclusion that such an obvious connection between tenure and the many dimensions of poverty can bring.

What I didn’t know (but have since read over and over again) — class was always explicit in housing policy’s foundations. Malpass acknowledges the difficulties in defining the term class, but notes that it is:

unavoidable in this context, if only because it was formally built into housing policy until the Housing Act, 1949. Until that time local authorities were technically restricted to providing housing for members of the working class… (27)

Yet even then, it was for workers, and the better paid ones. I think the key point is that the housing market alone has never provided decent affordable housing for a large segment of the population, so that the state successfully argued it had been forced to step in, yet this never

led to a decommodified state-run service comparable with those associated with other main planks of the welfare state. On the contrary, it is the persistence of the market as the main mechanism for delivering housing to the majority that is striking and demanding of explanation. (30)

While there have been step changes to manage the housing market, there had been no challenge to hegemony. He argues that it is significant that large scale provision of housing came only after the crisis in the housing market affected a large proportion of the working class. In this, housing policy has always worked to support the market, not challenge or replace it. For much of the twentieth century, this meant slum clearance, and building subsidized housing. For the latter end of the century, it moved to helping better off working class into their own homes, the least well-off into social housing.

Thus from 1915-1975 (when he argues the true change in housing policy came) he follows Ginsburg (1999: 226-35) in arguing that British housing policy followed a ‘liberal collectivist’ framework:

  • rent control/regulation for PR housing w/out significant fiscal incentives or cash support for landlords or tenants
  • nationally regulated and subsidized provision of local authority rented housing for the ‘respectable’ working class
  • programmes of Victorian slum clearance with replacement council housing for poor people
  • fiscal and general government support for owner occupiers (19)

From 1979 to 1989 under the Conservative government, consistent emphasis on

  • the promotion of owner occupation
  • the deregulation of private renting
  • acceleration of the trend away from general housing subsidy towards means-tested assistance with housing costs
  • the cultivation of the idea that local authority housing was a failed solution and that it had become part of the problem to be solved. (21)

By the 1990s, BEFORE Blair comes along in 1997, a new paradigm for housing established

  1. As opposed to subsidy, housing now characterized by taxation
  2. Always before it was the private sector subject to restructuring, now it is the public, social rented sector
  3. issue of demand on public agenda once more, yet unlike earlier period, resources for public housing continue to be cut despite projected massive increases in demand and assumption, relying on private market to produce housing and fund social housing through use of planning policies. Second problem is that now viewed that demand overall is needed to build in large numbers, but some areas demand is a real problem. (21)

Blair just followed along this trajectory.

In summary, from the conclusion to the introduction:

The housing market has never provided decent affordable housing for a large segment of the population, yet this has never ‘led to a decommodified state-run service comparable with those associated with other main planks of the welfare state. On the contrary, it is the persistance of the market as the main mechanism fir delivering housing to the majority that is striking and demanding of explanation. (30)

Step changes might have been made to manage the market, but no challenge to hegemony.

The rest of the book brings greater depth this argument through the many years of post-war housing policy, the shifting negotiations and increasing privatisation. I have so little time to blog, not sure I will have time to catch up with it. Hopefully I will have time to come back to it after reading a little more widely. I confess though, it’s the historical stuff that I love the most…

Malpass, Peter (2005) Housing and the Welfare State: The Development of Housing Policy in Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Karen Tei Yamashita: I Hotel

I just finished I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita. The last book started on a holiday that already seems months ago. It is splendid, one of the best things I have ever read I think for its power of storytelling, its innovations, its illustrations, the way it brings together these interconnecting lives circled around a single building and a struggle to change the world.

Two full years of my own life were spent in just such a struggle to save a residential hotel, our Morrison Hotel a mix of white, Latinx, African American, ours not knitted deep into an activist community through shop fronts or anything like the community of old Manilatown. Ours sat where it once fitted the scale and character of the street, but the long-ago razing of neighbourhood had left it more isolated, almost anomalous so close to the convention centre. Our generation did not believe the revolution was upon us, did not quote Mao to frame our defiance of capitalism, did not raise fists over small points of praxis. yet so much resonated, it made me ache. I miss my LA family.

I loved all of it, could have quoted anywhere, but you know the bit I am quoting ridiculously extensively below is about cities–like Tropic of Orange, this is all about the city but so different from that novel… This is long, also brilliant in how it says so much about the place of hotels in our world of work and poverty, about home, about nation, and opening with the solidarities that were, that could be, that should be built:

Thus we emerged from every living crevice in our hilly city, every tenement, blighted Victorian, public housing project, cheap hotel, single or collective rental, many of us the forgotten and abandoned people whose voices were muffled in the underbelly of working poverty, stuffed into the various ethnic ghettos, we the immigrants from the Old and New Worlds, from the black and white South and tribal America, we the dockworkers from the long shore, we the disabled and disavowed vets, we the gay and leathered, we the garment workers, restaurant workers, postal and clerical workers, we who praised the Lord in his house at Glide and his People’s Temple, we of the unions, tired and poor, we the people.

But why save an old hotel?

Because if we remembered the history of our city we would remember how frontier towns began: with a trading post and a saloon with a second floor of lodging rooms. … When we took everything away and thought only about the second floor of lodging rooms, we remembered that people have always come from distances and had to be accommodated, given shelter and a bed, and what we used to call board…

This basic town got complicated and multiplied into a thing we call a city, with every kind of reinvented trading post and saloon and lodging that over time we could imagine. And we supposed that the history of any city could be told through the comings and goings of any trading post or saloon, but thinking as we do, as people coming to the city to find work to pay for shelter and board, whether just for ourselves or for our families accompanying or  left behind, it was the lodging that most concerned us. And we could see how city life and hotel life were inextricably connected, and what the city had to offer had a home in the hotel. Over time, we’d forgotten that hotels in our city have long served as temporary but also permanent homes, that living in hotels had been a normal consequence of living in our city. From the inception of our city, our city life could perhaps be translated as hotel life, the way that we as young, single, and independent people could arrive to find work in the industry of the city, find the small cafes and bars, theaters and social clubs, laundries, shops, and bookstores, all within walking distance or perhaps a cable stop away. Even if we did not actually live in hotels, we may have participated in, if not considered, the simple luxuries of life: the bustling social life of our streets, the hotels’ communal restaurants and social galas, the convenience of maid service and bedsheets changed, the possibility of being completely freed from any housework, the possible leisure to think or to create, and finally the anonymity and privacy of a room of our own. Hotel life defined the freedom of the city, but such freedom has been for some reason suspect, and there are always those who want to police freedom.

Finally, like the society that evolved in our city, there have been, of course, hotels for those with money and hotels for those of us with not so much money. And even though the city required our labor and allowed us housing in cheap hotels, in time we came to know that laboring people are necessary but considered transitory. Eventually, it was thought, we’d just go away or become invisible. So even if hotels depended on our constant occupancy, we were not considered permanent or stable members of society. We did not own homes. We may have had families, but hotels were suspect places to raise children, and so we were suspect families. Our communal lives in hotels with shared bathrooms and shared dining, shared genders, shared ethnicities, and heaven forbid, shared thinking that might lead to shared politics, were also suspect. Hotel life might even be subversive. A famous scholar who studied our hotel life warned us that when there are no homes, there will be no nation. But what did he mean by home? And, for that matter, what did he mean by nation?

By the time we got the red alert to place our bodies in a human barricade around an old hotel that held seventy years of our city’s hotel history, we were already the displaced people in the city’s plan to impose a particular meaning of home and a particular meaning of nation. Since our hotel life was considered suspect morally and socially, our hotels should naturally be replaced by proper single-family houses built in locations distant from the city, and our hotels and all our businesses that services us should be replaced with what the city was properly useful for: trading posts, jails, courthouses, and saloons. And no one should be allowed to live over a saloon unless he was just passing through. A commercial room was simply not a dwelling. These edicts were substantiated  by zoning and blight laws…Almost as quickly as an earthquake, our neighborhoods located in the Fillmore and South of Market were already razed and being replaced by forty-eight-story multinational corporate trading posts. Even if we were expected to build, maintain, clean, and service these posts, we weren’t expected to live anywhere nearby. Be at work promptly at eight a.m., but please, please disappear by five p.m. But this was an impossible request because we could not leave, and we had nowhere to go. (588-591)

We could not leave, and had nowhere to go.

I love how this situates the residential hotel in a long history of city building, in the development of our urban form. How little things have really changed — though this makes me see US cities with new eyes. Seeing the saloon, the trading post, the lodging house. The change is in the way that capital is working, the way that workers are no longer welcome in the city centre, the disciplining of the poor into certain kinds of homes or punitively forcing them into homelessness. This captures both so beautifully, captures just what it was we were fighting over — not just the profit that owners wished to make on a building they had violently extracted every penny from at the cost of its tenants, but their ability to flick aside human beings and their security and their dreams as if they were nothing. The structural workings of race and class and labour and value that made such cruelty possible. The I Hotel was lost in 1977, and still we were fighting in 2007. Others still fight today, is there any organisation I love and respect more than LA CAN?

As two thousand of us were eventually bullied away from the hotel entrance, we saw our sheriff enter at the head of his deputies, leading them into the hotel and the final phase of the eviction, breaking into the doors of each of the hotel tenants and ordering them to leave their homes. And yes, we knew that each room was a tiny home, a place of final refuge for a lifetime of work, and the the room, though housed in a hotel, was sill a home. (591-592)

The last paragraph excavates something inside of me. Why we do, why we write.

And in time we may remember, collecting every little memory, all the bits and pieces, into a larger memory, rebuilding a great layered and labyrinthine, now imagined, international hotel of many rooms, the urban experiment of a homeless community built to house the needs of temporary lives. And for what? To resist death and dementia. To haunt a disappearing landscape. To forever embed this geography with our visions and voices. To kiss the past and you good-bye, leaving the indelible spit of our DNA on still moist lips. Sweet. Sour. Salty. Bitter. (605)

[Karen Tei Yamashita (2010) I Hotel. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press.]


Reading I, Daniel Blake: Screenplay and Film

I, Daniel Blake was my first screenplay, I found it quite a fascinating read after watching the film and reading lots of interviews and watching lots of Loach’s other films and writing a film review (another thing done! Whew). I might have done all of this in the wrong order, but I liked seeing where things started and comparing that to where things ended up. I liked seeing where they had stuck tightly to the script, and where actors had improvised lines. I liked how Laverty wrote their lines, disjointed, like speech actually comes. I liked seeing the sections cut, and the pieces added. You get a much better sense of the process of making a film, the collaboration involved — the extras in here, interviews and bios, add even more insight. And of course, as I always love most about reading, you can linger, go at your own pace. Sometimes I resent how films hurtle you through space and time, or like this one, drag you towards an ending you know will momentarily blot out your sun.

And of course, it was as powerful, though I didn’t cry quite as much because I find words a kind of buffer between events and my tear ducts though not my emotions. I liked that too. Still, this ending…it gets me.


They call this a “pauper’s funeral” because it’s the cheapest slot, at 9:00. But Dan wasn’t a pauper to us. He gave us things that money can’t buy. When he died, I found this on him. He always used to write in pencil. And he wanted to read it at his appeal but he never got the chance to. And I swear that this lovely man, had so much more to give, and that the State drove him to an early grave.

And this is what he wrote.

“I am not a client, a customer, nor a service user…. I am not a shirker, a scrounger, a beggar, nor a thief… I’m not a National Insurance Number or blip on a screen… I paid my dues, never a penny short, and proud to do so. I don’t tug the forelock, but look my neighbour in the eye and help him if I can. I don’t accept or seek charity. My name is Daniel Blake. I am a man, not a dog. As such, I demand my rights. I demand you treat me with respect. I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen, nothing more and nothing less. Thank you.





Conflict and Controversy: The Genius of Saul Alinksy I

Don’t get me wrong, I have a hardcore critique of Saul Alinsky, but I forgot just how good and smart and hell of committed he was — Rules for Radicals is an important thing to read I think. There is still a lot of room for some of these old school tactics and organizing basics, though maybe not so much for the super-hero profligate organizer and thank god we have some a long way in thinking about intersections of class, race, gender and sexuality…

But damn, is he still a lightening rod for right-wing vitriol or what. My internet search for images turned up some fairly crazy shit. Do we care if he slept with Hilary Clinton? No.

But anyway, I had forgotten just how much Alinsky’s work speaks to its times–it speaks to ours as well of course, but in such a different way. Makes me nostalgic for times I never got to live really, written in 1971, it opens:

The revolutionary force today has two targets, moral as well as material. Its young protagonists are one moment reminiscent of the idealistic early Christians, yet they also urge violence and cry, “Burn the system down!” They have no illusions about the system, but plenty of illusions about the way to change our world. it is this point that I have written this book. these words are written in desperation, partly because it is what they do and will do that will give meaning to what I and the radicals of my generation have done with their lives.

They are now the vanguard, and they had to start almost from scratch. Few of us survived the Joe McCarthy holocaust of the early 1950s and of those there were even fewer whose understandings and insights had developed beyond the dialectical materialism of orthodox Marxism. My fellow radicals who were supposed to pass on the torch of experience and insights to a new generation were just not there. (xii-xiv)

This is perhaps the tragedy of the McCarthy period —  Alinsky himself owes a whole lot to the organizers of the 1930s when he got his start. But the history of struggle in the UK has actually convinced me that it was perhaps not entirely a bad thing to be allowed to reinvent ourselves from the bottom up. But that’s a whole other argument. For now, Rules for Radicals. This first post looks at the big picture, the second looks at the nitty gritty.

The Purpose

What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away. (1)

Sweet enough, right? He quotes from the Spanish Civil War — better to die on your feet than to live on your knees. Nothing more true in life or death, but of course, it was Zapata who said that. The Mexican Civil War did come first, but never mind.

Alinsky always claimed he was steadfastly non-ideological. The more I read about the communist party in the US, their show trials  (I can think of nothing I’d hate more), the great move as dictated by Russia away from what brilliant neighbourhood and tenant and anti-racism organising they did sponsor to the popular front and all of that followed by Stalin and Hungary and…well. I can’t rightly blame him. None of that history sits well with me and he lived it blow by blow.  It’s left its mark, he writes:

We have permitted a suicidal situation to unfold wherein revolution and communism have become one. These pages are committed to splitting this political atom… (9)

and also

This is not an ideological book except insofar as argument for change, rather than for the status quo, can be called an ideology; and different times will construct their own solution and symbol of salvation… I detest and fear dogma. I know that all revolutions must have ideologies to spur them on. (4)

I question this definition of ideology, but like this practical adaptability. Seems like Marx would have wanted it more that way. In truth, this reads something like Clausewitz or Sun Tzu’s Art of War. This is about tactics and strategy (never enough on the long game).

Radicals must be resilient, adaptable to shifting political circumstances, and sensitive enough to the process of action and reaction to avoid being trapped by their own tactics and forced to travel a road not of their choosing. In short, radicals must have a degree of control over the flow of events. (6-7)

Funny how Alinsky becomes the perfect postmodernist. I never see him credited though. I do like his list of characteristic belonging to an organizer, it’s repeated several times.

An organizer…does not have a fixed truth–truth to him is relative and changing, everything to him is relative and changing. He is a political relativist. … Irreverence, essential to questioning, is requisite. Curiosity becomes compulsive. His most frequent word is “why?” … To the extent that he is free from the shackles of dogma, he can respond to the realities of the widely different situations our society presents. In the end he has one conviction–a belief that if people have the power to act, in the long run they will, most of the time, reach the right decisions. (11)

I don’t think all is relative, but building on such community organizing as one strand of work in combination with a revolutionary process of conscientização as outlined by Freire or Horton will get us where we need to go I think. Horton knew Alinksy, discussed some of these issues, you can read more here.

The world operates on multiple levels, you bring in a deeper understanding of hegemony, of intersectionality, of micro-power then you start seeing a very different picture than that painted by Alinsky. But much of the world does actually operate on this basic level, and these kinds of tactics are often most useful.

It is painful to accept fully the simple fact that one begins from where one is, that one must break free of the web of illusions one spins about life. Most of us view the world not as it is but as we would like it to be.

Political realists see the world as it is: an arena of power politics moved primarily by perceived immediate self-interests, were morality is rhetorical rationale for expedient action and self-interest. (12-13)

The strides in community organizing since his time have been incorporating all of this into a broader framework. I had forgotten that Alinksy himself had recognised some of the dangers of his style. He notes that the folks from the back of the yards organized under

equality for all races, job security, and a decent life for all. With their power they fought and won. Today, as part of the middle class, they are also part of our racist, discriminatory culture. (16)

This is the heartbreak, this the thing we have to work to transcend. I think it goes deeper than

It is the universal tale of revolution and reaction. (17)

Moving from how this fails to address race, I think class is more complex too, but this is an interesting way to cut it (and there is always a strategic usefulness in making complex things more simple):

The setting for the drama of change has never varied. Mankind has been and is divided into three parts: the Haves, the Have-Nots, and the Have-a-Little, Want Mores. (18)

We have to reach the second two, he argues. If only everyone knew in their very bones that this was true, how much better the world would be:

A major revolution to be won in the immediate future is the dissipation of man’s illusion that his own welfare can be separate from that of all other’s. (23)

For Alinksy, even so, it all comes down to self-interest. I think this works for some, not all — I don’t think the low road is ever to be found in the great swells of movement and sacrifice that rise from time to time. To not see beyond it feels like a weakness, but this remains a good point for some people among us, and after all, what else is Keynsian economics really?:

I believe that man is about to learn that the most practical life is the moral life and that the moral life is the only road to survival. He is beginning to learn that he will either share part of his material wealth or lose all of it; that he will respect and learn to live with other political ideologies if he wants civilization to go on. This is the kind of argument that man’s actual experience equips him to understand and accept. This is the low road to morality. There is no other. (23)

Of Means and Ends

I find it funny that Alinsky would have seen eye to eye with Trotsky as well as Bismarck on this. We don’t really have fights about this any more in the US or the UK, do we? Except perhaps in the very smallest of groups. This seems so dated, but I realise only because we have given up on revolution in a way, and for all Alinsky’s faults he hadn’t.

That perennial question, “Does the end justify the means?” is meaningless as it stands; the real and only question regarding the ethics of means and ends is, and always has been, “Does this particular end justify this particular means?”

He goes on to quote Goethe — at the end I have collected a list of all the literature Alinsky quotes, and I swear it will surprise you.

The practical revolutionary will understand Goethe’s “conscience is the virtue of observers and not of agents of action”… (25)

I haven’t thought about means and ends for a long time, but this is challenging, and I think true. I think about Palestinians fighting and fighting for any recognition of their rights, and decades of nothing and I think so much of this holds true.

The most unethical of all means is the non-use of any means… (26)

As do Alinsky’s eleven rules for the ethics of means and ends (he promised us rules in the title, and he always delivers. He also uses a lot of italics):

  1. one’s concerns with the ethics of ends and means varies inversely with one’s personal interest in the issue.
  2. the judgement of the ethics of means is dependent upon the political position of those sitting in judgment. (26)
  3. in war the end justifies almost any means. (29)
  4. judgment must be made in the context of the times in which the action occurred and not from any other chronological vantage point. (30)
  5. concern with ethics increases with the number of means available and vice versa.
  6. the less important the end to be desired, the more one can afford to engage in ethical evaluations of means.
  7. generally success or failure is a mighty determinant of ethics.
  8. the morality of a means depends upon whether the means is being employed at a time of imminent defeat or imminent victory. (34)
  9. any effective means is automatically judged by the opposition as being unethical. (35)
  10. you do what you can with what you have and clothe it with moral arguments.
  11. goals must be phrased in general terms like “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” “Of the Common Welfare,” “Pursuit of Happiness,” or “Bread and Peace.” (45)

This is a philosophical question most current discussions of community organizing aren’t entering into at all, and maybe we should. Similarly, Alinksy devotes a whole chapter to how we use certain words, and the battle over them that needs to take place.

A Word About Words

He talks about words that are ‘loaded with popular opprobrium’ … words prevalent in the language of politics, words like power, self-interest, compromise, and conflict. (48) This isn’t Voloshinov getting into how we fight for meanings in the most awesome of ways, but it is a level of awareness of how our use or avoidance of certain words shapes our movement. For that very reason I don’t know that I agree with all of his analysis of these words, but I love that he includes this argument with the prominence of a chapter.

Power is a good word though. This may be a bit simplistic in its analysis, but worth thinking about.

Striving to avoid the force, vigor, and simplicity of the word “power,” we soon become averse to thinking in vigorous, simple, honest terms. We strive to invent sterilized synonyms, cleansed of the opprobrium of the word power–but the new words mean something different, so they tranquilize us, begin to shepherd our mental processes off the main, conflict-ridden, grimy, and realistic power-paved highway of life. (50)

Disagreeing with his analysis of self-interest, I rather disagree with this, though I love the style of that last sentence. But the idea that how we speak truth to power is as much about the form as the content (I know, I know, you shouldn’t separate them) is important, and is often lost. I like this too:

To know power and not fear it is essential to its constructive use and control. (53)

The next post is on the nitty gritty of being an organizer and actually digging into the process of community organizing.

But first, a look at the books and authors that Alinsky draws from. I don’t know when this man had time to read, but he was no small-time intellectual.

Upton Sinclair
Alice in Wonderland
de Tocqueville
Henry James
La Rochefoucauld
Founding Fathers (ALL of them)
George Bernard Shaw
Mark Twain
Trotsky writing about Lenin
Bertrand Russell
St Ignatius
Clarence Darrow

[Alinsky, Saul ([1971] 1989) Rules for Radicals: A pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. New York: Vintage Books.]




Shirley Baker: a splendour of community amidst the slum clearances

I loved the Shirley Baker exhibition, found it moving and inspiring both. ‘Women and Children; and Loitering Men’ at the Manchester Art Gallery. Her photographs are vibrant, beautifully composed, full of life, provocative–everything photographs should be–and at the same time her subject is the one closest to my heart: everyday life and working-class community.

From the Manchester Art Gallery Website:

Pioneering British photographer Shirley Baker (1932-2014) is thought to be the only woman practicing street photography in Britain during the post-war era. Baker’s humanist documentary work received little attention throughout her sixty-five years career. This exhibition includes previously unseen colour photographs by Baker alongside black and white images and ephemera such as magazine spreads, contact sheets and various sketches. It specifically focuses on her depictions of the urban clearance programmes of inner city Manchester and Salford. This intense period of study, spanning from 1961 – 1981, documents what Baker saw as the needless destruction of working class communities.

This is an exhibition put together by Anna Douglas, first shown in London (of course, already I am feeling this North-South injustice)

For an amateur photographer and an urbanist and with a lifetime devoted to building power and community, these photographs sing. They document this structural period of demolition, the hope of better lives and council housing, the children my god the children everywhere and you love every one of them. Mothers everywhere too (and all my fears of being like that, like them, that joy vanished from them though I know often it is still there and it is my own fear speaking still, it seems visible only in the children and some of the old men).

The old men, the unemployed, the laundry, the cats and the dogs, the hope and despair, beauty and laughter and oppression and a hard working life all painted in black and white and glorious colour.

Maybe I loved most sharing this space with others, it felt like these rooms were filled with unusual suspects for a gallery, and a couple of older men were reminiscing behind me for a while about these days I was staring at captured with such compassion and immediacy it was altogether beautiful.

Some pictures from the website dedicated to her. There was another picture with a cat that was my favourite. I cannot find it. The unexpected heartbreak of denial in an internet age. Reminds me of my own poverty-stricken youth. Nothing like this though.    The kids above — I imagine this was a day that all of them have remembered all their lives. The kids below — those faces too old and wary. I knew so many kids like that, love this country because seems like they are rare now. Nothing sad about this kid though.  There is so little about Shirley Baker and I want to know all of it, devour all of her photographs. The book cost £30 — impossible at the end of the month. The other books from the handful of times her work has been shown all over £100. Luckily there is a website dedicated to her, it states:

Shirley Baker (1932 – 2014) was one of Britain’s most compelling yet underexposed social documentary photographers. Her street photography of the working-class inner-city areas, taken from 1960 until 1981, would come to define her humanist vision.

“It has always astonished me how quickly things can disappear without a trace.”

Hampered by union restrictions on female press photographers, she abandoned plans to work for the Manchester Guardian…. it is her empathetic but unsentimental photographs of inner-city working-class communities in Salford and Manchester as they experienced years of ‘slum’ clearance that has come to define her distinct vision.

“My sympathies lay with the people who were forced to exist miserably, often for months on end, sometimes years, whilst demolition went on all around them.” (Shirley Baker, on the slum clearances of inner Manchester and Salford)

Portrait of the photographer Shirley Baker (1932-2014), kneeling down to take a picture with her Rolleiflex camera. circa 1980s

Look at these incredible visions of the city and the life that filled it and spilled over it as the face of it was being transformed.

They are incredible, I wanted to see all of them. I wanted to know more of how she thought about them. I loved too, the exhibition’s integration of oral histories from people in these neighbourhoods, though I kind of hate the technology so I didn’t listen to all of them.

I will be patient, I suppose, and wait for more.

In looking for some of my favourite photographs I found this one online, an older Shirley Baker in front of this building I love and have long wondered about as I walk past it all the time on my way home, now a Chinese Restaurant on Plymouth Grove. It’s somehow so warming to think of her here, in my own place.


Barbara Fields on Class, Race and Racism

A classic and groundbreaking piece from Barbara Fields, ‘Ideology and Race in American History’ is such a brilliant piece of work, a foundation that made so much other work possible on the concrete and changing historical formations of socially constructed ideas of race. A fight that still needs fighting because this is still true:

It is my intention to suggest that Americans, including many historians, tend to accord race a transhistorical, almost metaphysical, status that removes it from all possibility of analysis and understanding. Ideologies, including those of race, can be properly analyzed only at a safe distance from their terrain. To assume, by intention or default, that race is a phenomenon outside history is to take up a position within the terrain of racialist ideology and to become its unknowing-and therefore uncontesting-victim.

The first false move in this direction is the easiest: the assumption that race is an observable physical fact, a thing, rather than a notion that is profoundly and in its very essence ideological.(144)

Thus the construction of race must be studied in its social and ideological context.

Race is a product of history, not of nature. And as an element of ideology, it is best understood in connection with other elements of ideology and not as a phenomenon sui generis. Only when set next to contemporary ideas having nothing to do with race can ideas about race be placed in the context of the ideological ensemble of which they form a part.(152)

I am still not as familiar with this early period as I should be. Fields looks at Walter Rodney’s study of the Portuguese, and the complex relationships between Europeans and the people along upper Guinea Coast:

They were capable, as are all human beings, of believing things that in strict logic are not compatible. No trader who had to confront and learn to placate the power of an African chief could in practice believe that Africans were docile, childlike, or primitive. The practical circumstances in which Europeans confronted Africans in Africa make nonsense of any attempt to encompass Europeans’ reactions to Africans within the literary stereotypes that scholars have traced through the ages as discrete racial attitudes. (148)

I think this is a key point, and one that bears repeating because I still find it shocks me every time I see anew the extent to which human beings are capable of being perfectly at ease with a common sense view of the world that incorporates completely conflicting views.

The idea one people has of another, even when the difference between them is embodied in the most striking physical characteristics, is always mediated by the social context within which the two come into contact. This remains true even when time-honored tradition provides a vocabulary for thinking and talking about the other people that runs counter to immediate experience. In that case, the vocabulary and the experience simply exist side by side … An understanding of how groups of people see other groups in relation to themselves must begin by analyzing the pattern of their social relations-not by enumerating “attitudes” which, endowed with independent life, are supposed to act upon the historical process from outside, passing through it like neutrinos to emerge unchanged at the other end.

The view that race is a biological fact, a physical attribute of
individuals, is no longer tenable. (148-49)

The sarcasm in here is something to relish. She later writes:

Precisely because ideologies consist of contradictory and inconsistent elements, they can undergo fundamental change simply through the reshuffling of those elements into a different hierarchy. (154)

This echoes Stuart Hall’s idea of articulation, and how formations change over time. Similar also, perhaps, to his focus on understanding the work that changing, and highly conflicted constructions of race performs is this:

In the end we cannot resolve the problem quantitatively, by the addition of example and counterexample. We can resolve it only by posing the question “What kind of social reality is reflected-or refracted – in an ideology built on a unity of these particular opposites?” … If ideology is a vocabulary for interpreting social experience, and thus both shapes and is shaped by that experience, it follows that even the “same” ideology must convey different. meanings to people having different social experiences.(155)

But this argues a more complex understanding I think, where very different understandings and experiences of race exist  depending on personal history, experience and positionality — which opens up room in thinking about alliances and where change can happen. I wrestle so much with the relationship between class and race, the pitfalls and possibilities of solidarity along class lines rather than the continuous fracturing along lines of race, and so found her views on their nature and articulation particularly interesting:

Class and race are concepts of a different order; they do not occupy the same analytical space, and thus cannot constitute explanatory alternatives to each other.15

class is a concept that we can locate both at the level of objective reality and at the level of social appearances. Race is a concept that we can locate at the level of appearances only. A material reality underlies it all right, as must be true of any ideology; but the underlying reality is not the one that the language of racial ideology addresses. … because class and race are not equivalent concepts, it is erroneous to offer them as alternatives to each other; and because any thorough social analysis must move simultaneously at the level of objective reality and at that of appearances, it is self-defeating to attempt to do so.(151)

This creates a very different view of white supremacy — not in the totality of its effects but in how it is understood and…er…practiced (?) by different groups. She writes:

White supremacy is a slogan, not a belief.29 And it is a slogan that cannot have meant the same to all white people. Those who invoke it as a way of minimizing the importance of class diversity in the South overlook this simple but basic point….

But white supremacy was not simply a summary of color prejudices. It was also a set of political programs, differing according to the social position of their proponents. Prejudices fed into them, naturally; but so far from providing a unifying element, they were as likely as not to accentuate the latent possibilities for discord. (156)

This is actually a rather hopeful understanding of white supremacy perhaps, one that can be levered apart, maybe dismantled little by little. Maybe. Though it’s complicated, right? A holistic view also shows how multiple aspects of life prop up understandings of white supremacy, and even life experience does not necessarily challenge that.

But racial ideology constituted only one element of the whole ideology of each class. And it is the totality of the elements and their relation to each other that gives the whole its form and direction; not the content of one isolated element, which in any case is bound to be contradictory. (158)


Racial prejudice is sufficiently fluid and at home with contrariety to be able to precede and survive dramatic instances of interracial unity in action.37

Pretty depressing. It highlights the necessity of work in the Freirean tradition where action is always followed by reflection. But how better to describe some of those who have brought Trump to power and continue to support him in face of everything:

The racialism of the black-belt elite, after all, carried with it the luster of victory. That of the white common people became ever more tightly bound up with the rancor of hard blows and final defeat, as they watched the basis of their proud independence eroded by economic and social forces with which they were finally unable to cope. Their rancor became pervasive in the cultural atmosphere of the South and lent itself to demagogic manipulation by politicians seeking to turn it to electoral advantage. But it could never be fully assuaged; quite the contrary. Arising from a bleak day-to-day experience to which the slogans and rituals of white supremacy offered no material solution, that rancor only grew larger the more it was fed. (159)

This kind of gives me chills it makes so much sense — especially the extra-chill factor of the bolded bit.

A racialist ideology harnessed to a ruling-class will, intention, and capacity to dominate both blacks and whites may be characterized by a patronizing tolerance, while that of a rednecks’ movement to unseat their white masters may be virulent and homicidal.38 … Historical analysis cannot distinguish these positions as “more” and “less” racist. Rather, they represent the different shape of the space occupied by racialism in different ideological ensembles. To think of them as different quantities of the same ideological substance is fundamentally mistaken. (160)

Academia and the non-profit world are both rife with examples of ‘patronising tolerance’, I find so useful this understanding of the distinction between the two. We have to look to history to understand the shapes of these ‘spaces occupied by racialism’, always a key to US politics from its beginnings with slavery.

Slavery thus became a “racial” question, and spawned an endless variety of “racial” problems. Race became the ideological medium through which people posed and apprehended basic questions of power and dominance, sovereignty and citizenship, justice and right. (162)

This is echoed in Roediger, who has done some of the best work in understanding how this space has been shaped. His work also supports Fields’ argument that it just didn’t have to turn out this way, that this was not in fact what most people wanted.

While the freedmen were being hustled into the market economy at the well-intentioned (though not always disinterested) initiative of various groups of Yankees, the white yeomanry was also being drawn into that economy: in their case, through a combination of indebtedness and complex changes in law and social usage that followed in the wake of the Civil War. Both groups, as more and more studies make clear, would have preferred a different outcome.52 Secure tenure of land and peace in which to pursue essentially self-sufficient farming, with only incidental resort to the market, would have suited their desires more than conscription willy-nilly into the world of commercialized agriculture, with its ginners, merchants, storekeepers, moneylenders, and crop liens. There never was much chance that they would get the kind of world they wanted. (166)

Fucking capitalism. Zombie capitalism even. I don’t think she gets the credit for the term, and I am not sure this is dialectical enough for me, but I love this imagery:

It is not that ideas have a life of their own, but rather that they have a boundless facility for usurping the lives of men and women. In this they resemble those creatures of horror fiction who, having neither body nor life of their own, take over the bodies and lives of human beings. The history of racialist ideologies provides excellent examples. (153)

I will end where Field ends:

Race is neither the reflex of primordial attitudes nor a tragically
recurring central theme. It became the ideological medium through which Americans confronted questions of sovereignty and power because the enslavement of Africans and their descendants constituted a massive exception to the rules of sovereignty and power that were increasingly taken for granted. And, despite the changes it has undergone along the way, race has remained a predominant ideological medium because the manner of slavery’s unraveling had lasting consequences for the relations of whites to other whites, no less than for those of whites to blacks. There are no tragic flaws or central themes in which to take shelter, however reluctantly. There are only acts and decisions of men and women in a society now past, and a responsibility which, because the outcome remains provisional, we are obliged to share with them. (168-169)

Barbara Fields, “Ideology and Race in American History,” in Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward. Ed. Morgan J. Koussar and James McPherson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982, 143-177)





John Berger on Ways of Seeing

John Berger Ways of SeeingWays of Seeing by John Berger is a most wonderful wonderful book. Told both in words and pictures, what follows is a lopsided collection of sentences that does some violence to the whole I confess. I was particularly interested in photography, but found myself swept away into other places and didn’t mind at all. It is a book I look forward to reading many more times — and hunting down the series as well. I so wish I had been lucky enough to have been given this to read in the high school Art History class that has remained with me all through my years. Better late than never.

It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. (7)

Nothing is ever settled. I love this unsettling. Love this sense of history:

The past is never there waiting to be discovered, to be recognized for exactly what it is. History always constitutes the relation between a present and its past. Consequently, fear of the present leads to mystification of the past. The past is not for living in; it is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act. (11)

Just a sentence and then off he goes in another direction. I want to think more about this alongside Trouillot and the erasings and the silences, but later perhaps.

Because we are off to Frans Hals, always one of my favourites:

Hals was the first portraitist to pain the new characters and expressions created by capitalism. He did in pictorial terms what Balzac did two centuries later in literature. (16)

The regentesses of Haarlem’s almshouse, such an unforgettable picture but never had I thought of it this way:

Frans Hals — Portrait of The Regentesses of the Old Men’s Almshouse Haarlem, 1640s?

And this, my favourite statement of the power that images hold, the potential they carry, a statement that makes me think of things quite differently though I have for a long time been thinking about this — like the wonderful obsessions of Otto Neurath and his isotypes:

If the new language of images were used differently, it would, through its use, confer a new kind of power. Within it we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate. (Seeing comes before words.) Not only personal experience, but also the essential historical experience of our relation to the past: that is to say the experience of seeking to give meaning to our lives, of trying to understand the history of which we can become the active agents.

The art of the past no longer exists as it once did. Its authority is lost. In its place there is a language of images. What matters now is who uses that language for what purpose. (33)

I don’t know why Berger’s passages on oil painting struck me as they did, I think because they represent what a profoundly different way this is of understanding painting as it sits within its context — I love it.

Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations. It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity. All reality was mechanically measured by its materiality. … Oil painting conveyed a feeling of total exteriority. (87)

I can see this exteriority, feel the velvets and silks under my fingers in these paintings. That always struck me, the incredible details. I think there was such a love of these sumptuous textures in themselves, but yes, also this:

Works of art in earlier traditions celebrated wealth. But wealth was then a symbol of a fixed social or divine order. Oil painting celebrated a new kind of wealth — which was dynamic and which found its only sanction in the supreme buying power of money. Thus painting itself had to be able to demonstrate the desirability of what money could buy. (90)

And then there is the section on advertising, the co-optation of art (not that that was anything new, as can be seen in the quote above) and this unapologetic reading that made me happy:

The pursuit of individual happiness has been acknowledged as a universal right. Yet the existing social conditions make the individual feel powerless. He lives in the contradiction between what he is and what he would like to be. Either he then becomes fully conscious of the contradiction and its causes, and so joins the political struggle for a full democracy which entails, among other things, the overthrow of capitalism; or else he lives, continually subject to an envy which, compounded with his sense of powerlessness, dissolves into recurrent day dreams. (148)

So to end with photography, which sent me here in the first place and of which I found but little, though I did not care in the slightest.

First, something that seems so simple, and yet… before thinking about it I might have said as a reflex that photography was somehow more ‘objective’, I might still lapse into that feeling. But really,

The photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject.  (10)

On the other hand, I had not before thought through how the camera changes our perspective, how it differs from painting, how it decentres us from time and space:

The camera isolated momentary appearances and in so doing destroyed the idea that images were timeless. Or, to put it another way, the camera showed that the notion of time passing was inseparable from the experience of the visual (except in paintings)….

This is not to say that before the invention of the camera men believed everyone could see everything. But perspective organized the visual field as though that were indeed the ideal. Every drawing or painting that used perspective proposed to the spectator that he was the unique centre of the world. The camera — and more particularly the movie camera — demonstrated that there was no centre.

The invention of the camera changed the way that we saw. The invisible came to mean something different to them. This was immediately reflected in painting. (18)

This is something I need to think much more about. It’s interesting how this is one of the major differences between Western and non-Western art, it doesn’t surprise me at all that it is Western art of a certain period that put human beings always at the centre. It must be a good thing to destabilise that, but I’m not sure I entirely grasp how photography and film do that. Our own private viewings into the world of others.

But there is so much joy in art and pleasure in thinking about it here…

Robert F. Williams on White Racism

While the bulk of Negroes With Guns deals with self-defense and the story of trying to organise for political, racial and economic equality in Monroe, North Carolina, Robert F. Williams also gives some real thought to the problem of white racism. Know your enemy. He writes:

What has happened and continues to happen in Monroe,
N.C., illustrates an old truth: that words used in common
by all men do not always have a meaning common to
all men. Men have engaged in life-or-death struggles because
of differences of meaning in a commonly-used word. The
white racist believes in “freedom,” he believes in “fair trial,”
he believes in “justice.” He sincerely believes in these words
and can use them with great emotion because to the white
racist they mean his freedom to deprive Negroes of their
basic human rights and his courts where a “fair trial” is that
procedure and “justice” that decision which upholds the
racist’s mad ideal of white supremacy. On many desperate
occasions when our constitutional rights were denied and
our lives were in danger, we called on the Justice Department
and the FBI to investigate the Monroe situation, to protect
our lives and to restore our constitutional rights-in
other words, to administer justice. And they always refused
our request. (54)

It can still shock me, I realise, to read those words written decades ago and realise how true they still are. These words still ring with emotion in the mouths of Trump supporters, don’t they. Without understanding this dissonance, there is no other way to explain patriotic white discourse around ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms’ and ‘justice’, when at the same time children are being shot dead and nothing happens to their uniformed (or even non-uniformed) killers. When the NRA can defend to the death the right to carry any kind of arms whatsoever with no controls at all ever. Unless you are Black.

An aside to say that Robert F. Williams actually formed a chapter of the NRA while they were training with guns. That has a sweet taste to it, though some bitterness too.

I appreciate a section with the title:

Minds Warped by Racism

Because you can see it, and it is not pretty. Williams continues:

We have come to comprehend the nature of racism. It is a mass psychosis. When I have described racial conditions in the United States to audiences of foreign newsmen, Cubans and other Latin Americans, they have been shocked to learn of the depths of American race hatred. (72)

I, too, am still continuously shocked. Stretching from the hatred directed at Sandra Bland or Trayvon Martin to those gloating white faces over bodies that had been lynched and burned, it can only be a kind of psychosis. That is too easy a word really, it needs more unpacking from the likes of Fromm and others. But it begs the question of an adequate strategy in its murderous face. Williams asks:

Why do the white liberals ask us to be non-violent? We are not the aggressors; we have been victimized for over 300 years! Yet nobody spends money to go into the South and ask the racists to be martyrs or pacifists. But they always come to the downtrodden Negroes, who are already oppressed and too submissive as a group, and ask them not to fight back. There seems to be a pattern of some sort of strange coincidence of interest when whites preach a special doctrine to Negroes. Like the choice of theology when the plantation-owners saw to the Christianization of the slaves. Instead of the doctrines which produced the rugged aggressively independent and justice-seeking spirit that we associate with Colonial America as the New England Conscience, the slaves were indoctrinated in the most submissive “trust-your-master,” “pie-in-the-sky after-you-die” form of Christianity. (75)

Even Martin Luther King would tire of this liberal refrain. Nor did he have an entirely easy relationship to strict non-violence. The very real threat of violence meant that many communities he visited armed themselves and sat watch to protect him, as they did for the youth of CORE and SNCC — Cobb writes of this across the South. Williams was not alone in his assessment of white violence, and the means to prevent it.

This is one of the more eloquent statements on self-defense, and the challenge even this poses to white liberals, that I have read:

This fear of extermination is a myth which we have exposed in Monroe. We did this because we came to an active understanding of the racist system and grasped the relationship between violence and racism. The existence of violence is at the very heart of a racist system. The Afro-American militant is a “militant” because he defends himself, his family, his home and his dignity. He does not introduce violence into a racist social system-the violence is already there and has always been there. It is precisely this unchallenged violence that allows a racist social system to perpetuate itself. When people say that they are opposed to Negroes “resorting to violence” what they really mean is that they are opposed to Negroes defending themselves and challenging the exclusive monopoly of violence practiced by white racists. We have shown in Monroe that with violence working both ways constituted law will be more inclined to keep the peace. (76)

I put my favourite part in bold, but I like all of it. I like the acknowledgment that it is through lack of challenge that the system perpetuates itself, which means all of it needs to be challenged. I like the questions this raises for piecemeal change — not that we don’t need small steps to move forward, but that we should understand that they are steps. I feel that he understood both the potential and the limits of the Montgomery bus boycott before most commentators and civil rights leaders did (Ella Baker is one clear exception to this of course, I know there were others):

The Montgomery bus boycott was a victory-but it was limited. It did not raise the Negro standard of living. It did not mean better education for Negro children, it did not mean economic advances. Just what was the issue at hand for the white racists? What sacrifice? Remember that in Montgomery most white Americans have automobiles and are not dependent on the buses. It is just like our own experience in Monroe when we integrated the library. I called the chairman of the board in my county. I told him that I represented the NAACP, that we wanted to integrate the library, and that our own library had burned down. And he said, “Well, I don’t see any reason why you can’t use the same library that our people use. It won’t make any difference. After all, I don’t read anyway.” Now, this is the attitude of a lot of white Southerners about the Montgomery bus boycott. The white people who control the city didn’t ride the buses anyway. They had their own private cars, so it didn’t make any difference to them. But when Afro-Americans get into the struggle for the right to live as human beings and the right to earn the same amount of money, then they’ll meet the greatest amount of resistance, and out of it will come police-condoned or inspired violence. (77-78)

The limits came from how little it challenged the true structures of Black oppression — though it is terrifying really, even now, just how hard they had to fight for such a small change.

An inspirational chapter title:

“The Future Belongs to Today’s Oppressed”

And finally, the fact that Williams never did give up on the struggle, nor on white people. His theory, that they needed an honest look at themselves:

Whenever I speak on the English-language radio station in Havana (which broadcasts for an audience in the United States) I hope in some way to penetrate the mental barriers and introduce new disturbing elements into the consciousness of white America. I hope to make them aware of the monstrous evil that they are party to by oppressing the Negro. Somehow, I must manage to clearly reflect the image of evil that is inherent in a racist society so that white Americans will be able to honestly and fully see themselves as they really are. To see themselves with the same clarity as foreigners see them and to recognize that they are not champions of democracy. To understand that today they do not really even believe in democracy. To understand that the world is changing regardless of whether they think they like it or not. For I know that if they had a glimpse of their own reality the shock would be of great therapeutic value. (85)

An honest look is still what is needed. Wendell Berry too talks about the need for a double consciousness required from this level of injustice inflicted on another groups of human beings, the illusion-building needed and the distortions that it has caused. But instead of taking a hard look, those who most need it have elected, and continue to support a president handing out nothing but lies.

Not that we all don’t need a good long look in the mirror on a regular basis.