Lurking behind my last blogposts was another question. The political idea that owning something transforms the owner can be reflected onto other house-owners. Does owning more than one home make you an even more respectable citizen? Does the ownership of a house transform everyone associated with it? Are landlords transformed by ownership? And while I highlighted beliefs about the ownership of a home by a citizen, the corollary would be to ask how or whether anyone thinks the state is transformed into a socially responsible entity by owning things like housing. Rather than remind readers how the state is only a fictive performance (pace Philip Abrams), I’d rather point out that anthropologists have been so keen to speak up for the repressed and alienated, that we might forget that there are people for whom the state is not an enemy. Of course, there are the elites at the top who always stand to gain, but there are also many people for whom the welfare state, in particular, made a great deal of sense, if not now then at least earlier, in the 20th century. Some of the elderly residents who I go to know on a housing estate in Sheffield remembered clearly their moves from overcrowded cramped housing in the city centre (several houses to a yard, a toilet block across the courtyard). The city provided them with beautiful modern apartments, with splendid views across the moors, clean air, lawns and trees. They didn’t provide a community centre, but residents began to organise and campaign pretty quickly. A member of a tenants association in a new housing estate in the late 1960s or 70s could arrange to have a direct discussion with the Director of Housing in the local authority (municipality, council), and get an answer to a problem with a commitment to its implementation.
In the neoliberal state of the 2000s, (and already before then), the Director of Housing is less accessible, but even if the tenants’ representative were able to arrange a meeting, the Director could not implement any agreement, since housing services are subcontracted or outsourced through at least one further organisation, over whom they have no immediate control, contracts having been agreed and set for a period of time, sometimes years. The most she could do is sympathise and pass on a request to someone else. In this way, the state no longer appears to be a monolithic framework with an internal logic. Today, the state is more likely to appear to be a mess of fragmented organisations, with little personhood, little coherence and even less sensitivity. So what does housing tell us about our ideas about the state? It certainly means that we can rethink the question of ownership. While the classical arguments over the rights of persons over their home assumed that ownership gave security, for many tenants, public housing offered – until now – security too, not least because it came with guarantees. Resistance to the privatisation of council housing was strongest among tenant groups, so much so that the Blair government had to offer utterly biased terms to force people to ‘vote’ to leave council ownership (ie, leave the council and get investment for refurbishment and maintenance, or stay and get nothing). As unusual as it is to see governments trying to rid themselves of power, there are questions to be asked about the consequences of governments also ridding themselves of ownership. Does it make the state appear heartless, literally with the heart removed, or metaphorically as lacking in feeling? In practice, in the housing estates, as elsewhere, there was a strong feeling that the state failed to care for residents. A failure to care led to the relinquishing of ownership, but they went hand in hand. You don’t bother to hold on to things you don’t care about. Perhaps owning did, indeed, give the state personhood. So where will it find its personhood without ownership?
13 thoughts on “Owning and caring”
I’d rather point out that anthropologists have been so keen to speak up for the repressed and alienated, that we might forget that there are people for whom the state is not an enemy.
This is a profoundly important observation. It reminds me of Aihwa Ong’s analysis in Flexible Citizenship. According to Ong, humanity can now be divided into three social classes. There are the global elite, who are frequently multiple passport-holders, for whom citizenship in any particular nation state is a matter of convenience and access to employment. At the other extreme are the global poor, who, if they emigrate to another country, become illegal workers exploited with 19th century industrial brutality. Sandwiched between them are the middle-class citizens, the stay-at-homes, on whom democratic states depend for their legitimacy, for whose votes political parties both left and right must compete. (It is interesting, in this respect, that both Barack Obama and Ed Millibrand have declared their primary mission to be the defense of this class—a notable departure historically speaking from “workers of the world, unite!”)
Anthropologists who focus on the global poor, write about elites in terms of hoary stereotypes, and simply ignore the middle class to which they themselves are likely to belong not only leave a huge gap in the holistic understanding of humanity that was once anthropology’s goal. They also render their critiques less than compelling to the middle class they too clearly despise. They move no votes and, whatever the justice of the cases they make, have little influence on politicians for whom votes and the money required for political campaigns are the bare minimum required for serious consideration. (I recall a group of anthropologists ranting about the lack of anthropologists on Bill Clinton’s race relations commission. I was, at the time, deeply involved in US Democratic Party Politics and still remember asking, “And precisely how many votes can you deliver?”)
Two great posts, with important points made. The class structure involved is more than economic however, it is also social. The one class I think which has done the greatest damage to the poor in developed nations, is the class of the intelligentsia.
The romantic way many anthropologists view the poor is to place them in a paternalistic state. To many of the world’s poor, their greatest immediate enemies are other poor people. The idea that once someone is poor that they can no longer help but become criminals, or killers, and need to be cared for like children over generations has often hurt the poor to a greater extent than boogiemans like capitalists and elites. Much of the hostility or anger toward the police, who are the agents of elites in many intellectual models, is based on the fact that the police don’t patrol their neighborhoods as much as they feel they do in nicer neighborhoods. That is, they’d like to see the police more. There was a time when the police abused poor minorities when they did come around, and acted as a proxy for local elites, but it is highly anachronistic to think that things haven’t changed in 50 years.
I can only speak for ghettos in the US, but much of their decline in the late 1960’s (increase in crime and fear), can be more closely connected to the intelligentsia than to economic elites. The poor became a cause, and an abstraction to be saved. Before this the poor were to either be developed into the middle class, or ignored. It wasn’t until they became the pet project of intellectuals, that a paternalism developed that is with us till today. It’s so profound within this intellectual class, that when they watch a movie about the ghetto, or a show like the wire, or hear about a shooting, that they never stop to think that the people involved might not be good people; or, that their neighbors want them arrested. They are made into faceless, voiceless, automatons with no will of their own; pawns in the game of global elites.
When you get to the point that you can’t bring yourself to even think that some guy who shoots another guy is not only not a bad guy, but that he himself is a victim, then you’ve taken away people’s humanity. Only when you’ve striped a person of their humanity and lumped them into the voiceless proletariat, can you think that holding them to lower standards and promoting them to become lifelong wards of the state is a good idea. It’s also a very subtle and pernicious form of racism found among intellectuals. If you think I’m full of it, all you need to do is ask yourself if you think it would be fine if someone held your children to significantly lower standards and made them wards of the state. I imagine the idea would be unthinkable for most of the members of the intellectual class.
It seems that the decline in “personhood” of the state you’re describing is pretty tied up in the “personhood” of residents in relation to the state. Here’s an unqualified blanket statement that fits the situation at hand: we see others as agents when we ourselves feel invested with the power of agency relative to them. The “care” the state provided, as you’ve described it, involves not only the one-way gift of nice, new apartments with good views, but the possibility for developing community, both among tenants and between tenants and managers. It is probably especially important, as Rick points out, that tenants feel their own power and the “caring” power of ~owners to respond to both the good *and* the bad that develop in the process of building community.
In pushing for privatization, the government isn’t just divesting itself of technical ownership – it’s removing the potential for that relationship between tenants and ~owners about the conditions of life in these places, hence the potential for tenants to feel they have a stake in controlling/improving/deciding those conditions.
Wish I could make this longer – many thanks for these interesting posts. As a kid who grew up in a neighborhood with projects, crackhouses, home businesses, and a quaint parade of 2.5BR/1Bs staffed by determined old ladies and a wide variety of lower-lower-middle-class families making life work, I really appreciate this look at comparable conditions across the pond.
There are also people like the Tea Partiers for whom the state is a frenemy. Their libertarian rhetoric line is that the U.S. Government is destroying their economic well-being and civil liberties. That’s a lot like a vegan militating against international capitalism. Dude, why are you under the impression that your interest group could even exist without the institution you want to gut?
I’ve never read anything by Ong so I’m curious as to how she works indigenous peoples (and by that I mean indigenous communities on the ground, not just the identity politics of indigeneity) into her tripartite. At first blush it would seem to take quite a lot of shoehorning to make the peoples of Kabylia and Akwesasne fit.
I think there are two questions in your post Simone. On the one hand, there is the issue of whether the state is more likely to maintain and improve properties that it owns, as opposed to ones that it leases or farms out to contractors. I think this is a point that can be examined by decomposing the concept of ‘the state’ and just examining the institutional dynamics of the various sections of the civil service that are responsible for the properties. I’m not sure when ‘the state’ was ever a monolithic whole — at least for those people on the receiving end of it who are passed from one queue to another in their quest to get it to do something for them.
The second point and more interesting point is the way the state is personated, or (as Peter Benson would put it) ‘facialized’ by its representatives and imagined by the public. Do citizens begin to think of the state as sharing the same qualities a bourgeois home-owner has by virtue of its possession of real estate assets? Does it seem to be industrious, nurturant, future-oriented, interested in cultivating its estate, and so forth? I guess we could call this the ‘Darcy effect’ after Pride and Prejudice, where its the state of the estate that triggers recognition of the morally well-ordered state of its owner. Such a framing of the state’s personality can have little to do with what is actually going on in terms of finances!
Rex: “the way the state is personated, or (as Peter Benson would put it) ‘facialized’ by its representatives and imagined by the public.”
Absolutely, great point. I think this is actually the key to deconstructing what’s going on in social phenomenon. The political scientist Walter Lippman, made this the thesis of his 1925 masterpiece, “Public Opinion.” He learned all about how people come to know facts and form opinions as the editor of a major paper and reporting during WWI.
“Our first concern with fictions and symbols is to forget their value to the existing social order and to think of them simply as an important part of the machinery of human communication. Now in any society that is not completely self contained in its interests and, so small that everyone can know all about everything that happens, ideas deal with events that are out of sight and hard to grasp. Miss Sherwin of Gopher Prairie is aware that a war is raging in France [WWI] and tries to conceive it. She has never been to France and certainly she has never been along what is now the battlefront.
Pictures of French and German soldiers she has seen, but it is impossible for her to imagine three million men. No one, in fact, can imagine them, and the professionals do not try. They think of them as, say, two hundred divisions. But Miss Sherwin has no access to the order of battle maps, and so if she is to think about the war, she fastens upon Joffre and the Kaiser as if they were engaged in a personal duel. Perhaps if you could see what she sees with her mind’s eye, the image in its composition might be not unlike an Eighteenth Century engraving of a great soldier. He stands there boldly unruffled and more than life size, with a shadowy army of tiny little figures winding off into the landscape behind. Nor it seems are great men oblivious to these expectations. M. de Pierrefeu tells of a photographer’s visit to Joffre. The General was in his “‘middle class office, before the worktable without papers, where he sat down to write his signature. Suddenly it was noticed that there were no maps on the walls. But since according to popular ideas it is not possible to think of a general without maps, a few were placed in position for the picture, and removed soon afterwards.'”
The only feeling that anyone can have about an event he does not experience is the feeling aroused by his mental image of that event. That is why until we know what others think they know, we cannot truly understand their acts.”
This is just as true in peoples’ conceptions of the “city,” involved in public housing. I think ethnographers should automatically assume that everyone they encounter in such situations, have access to only bits and pieces of the larger picture. Also, that the bits and pieces they have can be as indicative of divisions in larger social networks and information flows, as they are of what’s actually going on. One would mistakenly think that elites have access to larger bits of information, but that hasn’t been my experience. Often the more power a person has, the more isolated they are.
Re MT Bradley’s comment about indigenous communities: One might also observe that the global elite category does not distinguish between upper middle-class employees of transnational corporations and the super rich who own them. Finer-grained distinctions are always possible.It may also be worth noting that Ong is herself of Malaysian-Chinese extraction and the prototypes of her categories are wealthy overseas Chinese (global, multi-passport elite); Chinese, Malays and Indians in Malaysia and Chinese-Americans in California (middle-class stay-at-homes), and Indonesian and Hispanic illegal immigrants in Malaysia and California respectively.
None of this is of great comfort to those concerned with indigenous community rights; but the model applies pretty well to populations in the range of tens of thousands to tens of millions, and to global phenomenon that are likely to affect us all.
Yeah, but the distinctions seem pretty broad in this case. ‘People not covered by Ong’s heuristic’ is almost an adequate definition of Fourth World. Indigenous communities aren’t monolithic, but it’s fairly common to find that their members are not elites; have a vested interested in staying in place, often under conditions of duress; and while working hard at being stay-at-homes are completely marginal to the legitimacy of the national government claiming jurisdiction over them.
I’m not trying to hate on Ong—as I said, I am completely unfamiliar with her work. But a theory of how the modern world works which doesn’t include indigenous people is going to look suspiciously familiar to some of us.
Could you say a bit more about that equation of Fourth World with indigenous communities? I can see what you are driving at, and it seems fair to me to observe that Ong’s model omits large swathes of humanity who are neither middle-class nor immigrants, people stuck where they are because they see no alternative.
I ask because, to me “indigenous communities” suggests Australian Aborigines, Native Americans or other groups that are small as well as marginal. A broader sense might, of course, include several hundred million Chinese or Indian peasants who never leave the countryside.
These are lovely comments, and the question of how an abstract concept like ‘the state’ is recognized in daily life is an excellent one. Of course, we have much evidence that people relate to organizations through their employees and their signs and symbols (Susan Wright’s volume on organizations has several illustrations of this).
Much of the criticism of the neoliberal state reflects the loss of human sympathy in the relations between, for example, clients and bureaucrats. Local level bureaucrats have become progressively disempowered through the application of increasingly specific financially-driven rules that leave less room for autonomy. So while depersonalization is always a function of bureaucracy, recent changes strip bureaucrats of the possibility of being humane. These are changes that I think apply since Lipsky’s street-level bureaucrat was seen to bend rules in clients’ favour while absorbing the terrible dilemmas that state bureaucracy presents.
Good post. It reminds me of Tony Judt’s recent writings on the social welfare model and the role of the state. As Rex pointed out, owning and caring seems to personify the role of the government, and moves us away from understanding the institutions, procedures, etc. which allow the exercising of the power of government and how these change with shifting social and economic conditions.
I’m not as clear about public housing in England. In the USA, a panic over crime rates in the 80s, new policies, and new institutions led city governments to deconcentrate poor urban areas. In large-scale social experiments attempting to address chronic poverty and crime (Gautreaux project and subsequent MTO programs), local governments dumped public housing, getting out of the ‘owning’ (and caring) aspect of housing. A bunch of criminologists, sociologists, and housing experts have written about the consequences of these programs in the 80s and 90s (any anthropologists?). Did the state do this out of compassion for the urban poor? With policies driven by the increasing financialization of our society, I would guess getting out of public housing is more about increasing revenue from taxes than any sort of dehumanization of the bureaucracy.
Is interesting to consider the history of the social welfare state in Europe and the USA, and the supremacy of labor and production as the organizing unit in society at the time. The social welfare model was influenced by Christian ideas of charity, protecting the worker, national insurance schemes, need for security after the depression, etc. Of course, this too was an exercise of power, a form of control, a patronizing role for the state. Urban housing schemes for the poor were not built out of compassion, but more as a form of control, to isolate, concentrate and disempower residents, and to facilitate law enforcement. There was a total lack of ownership by the state for decades. Let’s not confuse the fact that because the state provided housing it was somehow charitable and humane in the 20th century. Our desire is to feel like the government really cares about citizens or once did!
One fairly facile thing to say about indigenous peoples is that they have strong ties to place, but as your comment implies such a characteristic would hardly set them apart from millions of other people. Demography, as you say, contributes to the vulnerability of indigenous peoples, as too does marginality. Marginality might be environmental in nature, though such is not limited to groups we tend to call indigenous.
Though not invariable, I think one common issue for indigenous peoples is a resistance to see enfranchisement in a nation-state as the limit of political identity. The ways in which goals of AIM were distinct from those of the civil rights movement is illustrative of this.
My last post on this thread about 4 or 5 days ago, didn’t seem to go through and it did’nt go for moderation either. Is there anyway to retrieve it?
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