Sunday, October 24, 2010

Social cleansing

Quite by coincidence, I was reading about Dame Shirley Porter's gerrymandering yesterday. You might remember that under her leadership, the Conservatives on Westminster city council implemented an elaborate and expensive plan to engineer the movement of thousands of the borough's poorest citizens out of certain 'marginal' wards that were in danger of going Labour. This was because the Tories had just about retained control of the council in the 1986 bye-election. Following the exposure of this scandal, and the launching of an official inquiry in the early 1990s, Porter eloped to Israel where she remained until 2006. She has never been brought to book, but the project was overwhelmingly successful, ensuring that Westminster remained under Conservative control - today, 80% of its councillors are Tory.

This is presumably not the same type of scheme. For one thing, it's far too brazen a form of 'social cleansing'. Councils in the centre of London are openly organising an exodus of 200,000 of the capital's poorest people into outlying areas such as Reading, Luton and even Hastings. This is the result of a combination of cuts in social housing benefit, lower levels of socially affordable housing, higher rents and the failure to impose any kind of rent cap on landlords. It adds a new layer of callousness to Iain Duncan Smith's demand that the unemployed should "get on the bus" and find work - this from a minister whose job is to know that jobseekers are already compelled to travel far and wide in order to take work if it's available.

The alternative to being shunted out of the capital, away from friends, relatives, communities and - interestingly enough - jobs, will possibly be to sleep on the streets as, according to the National Housing Federation, the cuts to housing benefit "could see more people sleeping rough than at any stage during the last 30 years". And then it will be the job of the cops to keep the problem invisible - in the tourist areas anyway - by arresting and 'moving on' said rough sleepers who find a shop doorway or station entrance to curl up under. Such 'social cleansing' is, to different degrees and in different ways, an aspect of all spaces where neoliberal accumulation is the rule. The rule is for a global system of opulent, highly securitised 'green zones' to proliferate, with the working classes compelled to commute for hours a day from outlying, dilapidated suburbs, banlieues or ghettos, to work in shops they can never buy from, clean hotels they can never sleep in, sweep streets they have no stake in, and make goods they will never take home. The combination of economic pressures - high rents and consumer prices, declining relative wages, unsustainable debt levels, etc - would tend to have 'socially cleansing' effects in themselves, forcing the city's working classes to seek affordable accomodation in outer London overspill areas like, say, Barking. The Tories, by attacking housing benefits, have just made such tendencies into official policy.

Oh, and by the way, spare a thought for this scumbag, who has been struggling with his conscience.