In both France and Britain, state commitment to financing housing for poorer tenants is now being radically reduced, with governments relieving themselves of responsibility for the welfare of the population in the assumption that people will take care of their own well-being, without the organised redistribution that fiscal systems allow. What do anthropologists say? We’re all for self-determination aren’t we? Doesn’t that sound like keeping the state at bay? There are still many anthropologists of the romantic persuasion who like to see themselves as vaguely left-wing yet feel that people should govern themselves on the most local level possible. Which leaves us in a fix – self-determination good, welfare good, welfare is organised by the state, state interferes in local relations. In this day and age, these views are being adopted by those who support neo-liberal small-states; ‘let people form communities and be responsible for themselves’.
Use and abuse of anthropology is not new. A big hurdle for me in approaching Das Kapital was the opening discourse about the natural state of man based on the old armchair anthropologies and missionary reports. Conservatives argue that people have become too dependent on welfare and should be encouraged to ‘take responsibility’ for themselves, the implicit assumption being that good old fashioned villages had a place for everyone, and everyone looked after each other. It’s an odd mix of old-Tory (rich man in his castle, poor man in his cottage) and neo-liberal (welfare makes you lazy), but it is buoyed up by long trails of romantic sociology which saw villages having authentic social relations and cities as anonymous. That we haven’t moved so far beyond this is evident in the need to do something called ‘urban anthropology’. But you find housing and housing-planning in both rural and urban areas, in bureaucratic and ad hoc systems, and in formal and informal contexts, and in permanent and temporary use (including holidays and tourism). Which takes me back to the beginning – in that housing for poor tenants is not a separate field. Governments have been quick to bail out the banks who frittered away money on poor property investments (etc. etc.), but remarkably less keen to bail out the poor people who can no longer afford to pay their house loans or rents. There’s a category distinction at large that is being hidden, a connection being ignored, with pretty grim consequences.