New approach to homelessness is old approach to homelessness

by Arran James

We decided to create an employment academy offering training schemes, which will be integrated into a not-for-profit members’ club opening in autumn 2013. The club will provide opportunities for work experience in a dynamic environment and first-rate commercial hospitality training. The club, charity and employment academy will be part of the beautiful and historic building at 1 Greek Street, Soho, offering a new vision for members’ clubs, one with the drive for social change at its heart.


The full story of this club-cum-training academy is available on the Guardian’s website. After only a quick assay of the story it seems undeniable that this is an exercise that partakes of precisely the same logic that ATOS and the Workfare Program operate by. That is, take people who are in a position of desperation and get them to work for nothing. Of course, they aren’t working for nothing at all. This is a training program for future employment in the hospitality industry. Yet aside from vague hopes that it will provide a means to ‘reintegrate those devastated by homelessness into sustained employment’ there is no discussion of exactly what positive impact this will have on homeless people.

In fact, the article, written by one of the projects architects, is more aimed at cooing a liberal, media-savvy, and probably media employed (it’s in Soho after all), audience. They identify their hoped for clientele as: ‘architects of social change, the interested and interesting and the incurably curious’. The first group is vague enough to catch pretty much anyone with a social conscience, the second anyone vain or voyeur enough, and the last- I don’t know…the incurably curious? This sounds like scientists or explorers. The upshot is that it sounds like an advert for an “ethically sound” private members club that allows the liberal elite, and whoever it wants to bring along, to indulge in feeling good about helping, whilst rubberneck at, the homeless who parade around as unpaid chefs, barstaff and waiters with no ultimate guarantee of employment. How many business meetings will be conducted over a nice salad and glass of white?


There is also a basic problem with one of the core assumptions of this model: it operates as if a lot of these homeless people won’t already have skills. They will. They may even (shock horror) be highly skilled! They might have, until recently, been in employment but, thanks to the structural recomposition of capital, and the demand that capitalism be saved at all costs, they may have been made redundant after having lost most of their savings in the banking crash or in some exorbitant mortgage. Or perhaps, as is common on the streets of London, they will include people who have fled from abusive, traumatic conditions and have found themselves, with any support or without the prerequisite requirement of a fixed abode (that isn’t a homeless shelter), unable to find work…even in a bars! 

But no, they should of course feel thankful and obliged for this olive branch, this latest extension of charity from these good people. Such good people that they manage to include in their list of ‘architects of social change’ presumably include those who are helping to finance this project. These include such luminaries of the radical world as Virgin Media and benguo

This leads us to consider the charitable capitalist aspect of this project. In one fell swoop it accomplishes two things on behalf of the more affluent members of society. Firstly, it allows them to feel as though they are “contributing” something to the homeless, a good ego boost, and lets them situate themselves as the modern day equivalent of 19th century philanthropists (without the £millions, and more into going along to see Brian Cox talk about physics, or listen to the radio-approved guitar music Slow Club…actually I’m tempted to go just because Ekow Eshun will be chairing a discussion and I’ve always enjoyed hating him). 

This philanthropic function, clearly what interests a monolith like Virgin Media, is the function not just of easing consciences but also of presenting what we regularly hear called “capitalism with a friendly face”, thereby providing the illusion that capitalism can be a humane, non-exploitative, love-fest of mutual empowerment. Except that that isn’t the case and homelessness is one of the most visible reminders that the structure of capitalism means that that isn’t the case. Except that one side benefit of this project is that there will be a hell of a lot less homeless visibility, even if there won’t be any reduction in homeless itself. A neat trick! Come and look at/help out the homeless by helping to make them disappear.

While we are at it, let’s not ask any of those nasty structural questions that people are beginning to ask. Obviously there are bad capitalists but look at Virgin Media, they are the good capitalists (let’s ignore their history of outsourcing jobs to more easily exploited labour forces, tax avoidance, what sounds a lot like centralised employee surveillance, and that they are a very large territorialisation of financial capital). Let’s also not ask about our own situation, our own involvement in, as reproductive elements (exploited and exploiting) of a global economic system. This is the second function, the function of ignorance and of beautiful souls. The ethical consumer gets to point to herself as someone outside of those systems of exploitation and violence and identify the evil of the fallness of the world as elsewhere. As Zizek puts it, ‘when you buy something, your anti-consumerist duty to do something for others…is already included into it’. These two moments of generalised philanthropy generate an almost identical mirage that expropriator and expropriated can both identify with. The problem of homelessness, which is properly a symptom of capitalism, is thus maintained. Indeed, what do we see in this project? What we see is the inclusion of the homeless population into considerations of a reserve army of labour. On this I am being strictly Marxist and echoing Marx’s claim that ‘capitalistic accumulation itself… constantly produces, and produces in the direct ratio of its own energy and extent, a relatively redundant population of workers, i.e., a population of greater extent than suffices for the average needs of the valorisation of capital, and therefore a surplus-population’. 

With all this said, let’s not be so foolish as to think that there won’t be homeless people who do welcome this intiative, and for whom it makes absolute sense to welcome this initiative. These are not idiots or victims of some false consciousness. We can also applaud the motivation of those at House of St. Barnabas for what it is they think they hope they accomplish. Who exactly though is going to benefit from a private club that talks about providing a space for ‘entrepreneurial exchange’ at an annual cost that ranges between £300-£5000, with additional annual fee, 50% of which go towards charitable work. I am not suggesting that these are evil capitalists trying to hoodwink idiot liberals into exploiting the innocent homeless. Such would be to trade in caricatures. What I am saying is that this doesn’t look like a model that really wants or can effect structural politico-economic problem of homelessness.