HOME-OWNERS are all middle class. If you’ve bought your house or got a mortgage you’re a property owner, got a stake in the system, been bought off. Any activist must have come across such comments. It was an argument popularised in Britain during the years of Margaret Thatcher’s Tory governments in the 1980s. She pushed the notion of a ‘property-owning democracy’.
The idea was that by giving people a stake in the system, some property, they would come to share the capitalist ethos and become natural Tory voters. It is an idea that has been taken over by New Labour.
After the Second World War 60 percent of people in Britain rented their homes. Today 68 percent own their homes or pay a mortgage. But the reality of ‘home ownership’ was always far removed from the Thatcherite propaganda.
As house prices slumped in the late 1980s and interest rates soared many found the dream of home ownership turned into the nightmare of repossession. A new report published last week has underlined what the reality of home ownership is for many people today.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report says, ‘The prevailing view of home ownership continues to be one that associates the tenure with affluent households.’
In fact, says the report, ‘half of all people living in poverty today are home-owners’. The report used a standard and very basic definition of poverty-whether people could afford key necessities such as a warm coat or a fridge. On that measure they found that 25 percent, one in four, of Britain’s population is poor today. That is itself a shocking figure.
Perhaps more surprisingly it found that half of those living in such poverty either owned their homes outright or were paying mortgages. Almost one in five of those living in poverty owned their own home outright. Many of these are pensioners who struggled all their working lives to keep up mortgage payments, only to retire into poverty.
And a third of those living in poverty are mortgage payers, many people with jobs battling to keep up payments while going without basic necessities. All this is with interest rates at a historically low level and with unemployment at still relatively low levels by recent standards. Any recession, rise in unemployment, or rise in interest rates will plunge millions more mortgage payers into poverty.
The reality is that far from having a ‘stake’ in the system, most mortgage payers are at the mercy of the banks and building societies, and many are also living in miserable poverty. The Rowntree survey also shatters another popular myth of recent years.
This is the idea, pushed by some politicians and commentators, that we live in a two thirds, one third society. This argument is often based on an assumption that the two thirds of people who pay mortgages or own their homes are OK while there is an ‘underclass’ mainly concentrated on council estates.
The new report shows decisively that poverty can be found on streets where people own their homes or pay mortgages just as it can on any estate. Behind all such discussions lies an argument about what we mean by class. It is an argument that goes back long before Thatcher.
In the 1950s and 1960s some people argued that workers who bought TVs, fridges or washing machines, or went on foreign holidays, had somehow been bought off by the system. Some sociologists even coined the term ‘bourgeoisification’ to describe this supposed process by which workers were becoming part of the middle class, or bourgeoisie.
The argument was wrong then and is still wrong when it comes to mortgages today. Class is not about whether you buy a few commodities, a car, TV or whatever. Nor is it about to who you pay money in order to have a roof over your head. In capitalist society a small minority of people form the ruling class. They own and control the vast bulk of wealth and property.
They run the companies, control the banks, building societies and finance companies, own the land.
The vast majority of people are not in that position. Even if they own a few possessions or a house, they still have to work. Those ‘home-owners’ who lose their job can quickly find they cannot keep up mortgage payments and be repossessed by the bank or building society. The vast bulk of people in society depend entirely on working in order to survive. They are therefore part of the working class.
There is not a shred of evidence to support the notion that workers with mortgages are less likely to be trade union members, for instance. In fact most union members today are mortgage payers. Simply becoming a mortgage payer doesn’t make you more likely to vote Tory, or not go on strike.
In the 1984-5 miners’ strike, for example, many miners were mortgage payers. That did not stop them standing firm on the picket line for a year. Today the majority of firefighters own their own homes or are mortgage payers. The same applies to many other groups of workers, from the school teachers to the college lecturers who have struck in the last year. Work is what shapes class, and it is class that shapes whether people can and do fight.
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