As the “Occupy” fad goes global, I find it hard to combat my cynicism. And yes, I have observed how it’s affected the bourgeois political discourse on the recession and subsequent austerity package, and indeed I have listened, once again, to the latest parade of millenarian post-modern declarations of how it represents a “new” this and a “new” that, with the implicit rejection therein of all the lessons learnt from centuries of popular political struggle (and isn’t it ironic how talk of “new politics” is actually an exercise in de-politicisation that is as old as the hills?), yet I still feel cynical.
Now, as I see you rolling your eyes at the back there, let me clarify: it’s not the comfortable or pleasant sort of cynicism that prefigures inactivity; rather, it is a bitter sense of frustration at the conscious decision of hundreds (?) of thousands of (predominantly young) people to uproot themselves from their own homes and camp within the cracking, plate-glass bowl of finance capitalism, far away from the very real conflicts that the individual – or the decentralised group of individuals – undertakes against capital on a daily basis.
Unfortunately, none of the discussions and statements I’ve seen emerge from the various Occupys (with the possible exception of Occupy Oakland) communicate to me as an individual about my personal problems. When I overheard one friend ask another if he’d been down to St Pauls recently, his quipped riposte rather struck me: “I do pay rent y’know!” It was a flippant comment, but one which neatly serves to make my next point. After all, I do have a room – with a bed, furniture and so on in it – but I only manage to retain it thanks to the sweat of my brow (my rent and bills accounts for approximately half of my monthly pay cheque), and I am loath to waste that in order to withstand the cold, the discomfort and the insecurity of an open air camp. More fundamentally though, I can’t agree with them, and neither can I empathise with them on a human level, since – in this age in which I flip-flop from one crap job to another – I struggle to think of a more consistently undermining and undignifying relationship than the one I have with my landlady.
Those of us who are private tenants are living in a misanthrope’s wet dream; a sort of Wild West in which landlords are the biggest names in town: the gun-toting cowboys kicking open the swing doors of our measly, damp flats or terraced houses, fully aware that the diktats of the housing market, the recession and – more than anything else – the crushing isolation of residency in London in 2011 will, more often than not, trump even the most fundamental of tenants’ rights. We are almost powerless against their assaults on multiple fronts: rent hikes, illegal or unjust conditions on our tenancies, illegal and unjust intrusions into our homes and lives, deposit thefts – the list is almost endless. And these tales of landlord abuse are not exceptional: it is a unifying feature amongst friends and family, regardless of background and political perspective.
Personally, I seem to have spent the majority of the second half of 2011 in the laborious and exasperating business of room-hunting. My last long-term contract expired at the end of July and, after a brief stay of execution round the better half’s (she’s not ready for me as a room mate, would you believe it?), I became bored of the interminable internet searches, the wild goose chases to the darkest corners of Deptford, and the toe-curlingly awkward smalltalk with prospective housemates in a sort of mock job interview for a new faux-friend, and I settled on the first house which, rather than – as they say – ticking all my boxes, merely didn’t place an X in either of them. Now, just seven weeks after completing the exhausting and draining process of moving in, I find myself once again scrawling Gumtree for something that – again – doesn’t look shit. Except now, my understanding of an ‘acceptable’ place has been considerably tightened.
Maybe I should have seen the signs: my landlady’s cold aversion of eye contact with my prospective housemates when I came to see the room, her subsequent threat to remove the room off me when I mistyped her card digits on my deposit down payment, and then the torrent of abuse my tragically docile Scottish housemate received for the supposed infraction (using an unoccupied room) of someone else. Within an hour of her departure, and as a direct result of our landlady’s tantrum, my housemates were screaming at each other in the kitchen, a row which even entered my own room at one point. Another housemate later called her to complain about smoke emanating from my room, a mere 20 minutes after informing me that smoking in our rooms was fine. Bear in mind, dear reader, all this happened within the first night of my arrival!
As days turned into weeks and then months, I rapidly became exposed to the rampantly arrogant existentialism of contemporary houseshares between strangers. For my housemates, hell truly is other people. Living in single-person tenancy alongside strangers causes a sort of micro level cabin fever, which manifests itself in an irrational, paranoid mistrust of your immediate neighbours. Conversation is weak and insincere, mostly limited to enquiries as to the health of the internet connection, or – worse – chance kitchen encounters which often encompass passive aggressive commentaries on specks of dirt or food on work surfaces, the floor or – one time – the sink. Shared space is heavily contested, with bitchy notes on the bathroom door and contemptuous sighs around the electricity and gas meters. Ultimately, everyone much prefers the meagre comforts of their own bedrooms, leaving the corridors resembling a cheap hotel in their sad anonymity, while our rooms look like storage spaces for our lives, a sort of train station waiting room piled high with opened suitcases, papers and other such signifiers of temporality.
However, in case there is any doubt, I don’t mean to merely deride some selfish housemates (after all, such an asinine complaint would scarcely merit mention…right?). Rather, I write this because following an altercation with my landlady and her husband, I realised that the mutual disdain and resentment between us tenants was as much a product of their hostility as anything else. For my landlady, the every action of the five tenants is an imposition: I have been chastised for using the pots and pans, threatened for going to the ‘wrong’ bathroom, and insulted for owning a bike. Repairing my blinds was equated to martyrdom, while demanding notice of their intentions to ‘visit’ (as they do regularly on Sundays, usually to try their hand at Tim Allen-esque DIY ventures – cf: the kitchen shelf that lasted a grand total of four days before crashing down in the dead of night) was seen as beyond the pale, and grounds for my eviction.
I came to understand how property ownership and social conservatism are natural bedfellows, and how the urge to protect one’s property leads to attempts to restrict any sort of activity therein, thereby inevitably creating direct conflict with those semi-permanently sheltered inside. However, conversely, there are possibilities for betterment here: collective discussion between housemates could lead to a decision to confront the couple over their abuses with the threat of further action should our demands be disrespected. More longterm, we could contact other tenants with the same proprietor or estate agent, or even on our same street, and we could share information and tips, or even present a united front against the cowboys. We could organise a mass rent strike in order against above-inflation rate hikes, and start to dictate our own terms of engagement with the private property sector.
Yet, this potential was never realised, in my case at least – my landlady’s campaign of intimidation and harassment instead being internalised by the tenants and regurgitated as fear and self-absorption, creating an ugly atmosphere of suspicion and disregard in the process. As a result, the aching discomfort I feel in my house is matched only by my desperate sense of impotence.
If we are to accept the profile of an Occupy LSX-er (or, indeed, those who passively or actively support it) as an educated, internet -savvy twenty- or thirty-somethings, then their wilful desertion of their own homes (which are, probably in their majority, private rents within Greater London) indicates a continuation of the worrying trend within political “activism” which sees politics and economics as things which happen externally to the mundane rhythm of everyday life (in a bank, a financial sector, or a summit meeting), rather than the two shards of broken glass through which our every experience is refracted. The notion of the Occupiers leaving behind all the unhappiness and indignity of their ‘own’ rooms as a metaphor for them abandoning the project of improving their own lives is so strong that it goes beyond the figurative. And indeed, as things stand, Occupy can be compared to a music festival, or a gap yah gallivant, in its cocksure rejection of ‘normality’ (the crushing alienation of wage labour, the diminishing returns it grants us and, increasingly, the atomised habitation of a glorified washing machine) in favour of the romantic, the grand, the spectacular. It is only when talk of re-occupying our own existences, in all their tedious, fragmented glory, becomes as popular as talk of occupying a town square that we will start to see the quantum shifts in social power for which we so lust.