For almost five months, the Student Housing Action Cooperative (SHAC) squatted several properties in Farady Street, Carlton belonging to the University of Melbourne. When the squat was established in August 2008, the properties had been vacant for three years, having previously housed offices providing students with counselling. On January 14, 2009, after having issued numerous demands to vacate, the University finally arranged for the eviction of the squatters, conducted by a small group of about 25-30 police, accompanied by a handful of University employees.
There is little dispute regarding the general housing crisis in Melbourne. The University’s own housing service states: “The current shortage of housing in Melbourne’s private rental market has increased the demand on student housing providers located in the city and close to the University’s Parkville campus”. It further notes that “With a population of over three million people, Melbourne is a cosmopolitan and multicultural city. The University’s main campus is located in Parkville, a suburb that is approximately two kilometres from the city centre. The inner-city suburbs surrounding the University are diverse. Some are quiet, some are surrounded by parkland, some are surrounded by bars and cafes. The city itself offers a vibrant lifestyle.”
The principal requirement to gain access to the city’s vibrant lifestyle is of course money. This fact hardly needs reiterating, but its existence is both determinative and regarded as being as natural as breathing; as such, it provides the framework for almost all of the discussion which SHAC generated.
- Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not money, I am become as a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not money, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not money, it profiteth me nothing. Money suffereth long, and is kind; money envieth not; money vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. . . . And now abideth faith, hope, money, these three; but the greatest of these is money.
I Corinthians xiii (adapted)
Over a century ago, a Frenchman called Paul (1841-1911) made the following observations on property.
Individual property can only exist in a primitive stage of human life, because of its two attributes, it is the product of the owner’s labour, and it is used by him.
These two qualities, regarded as indispensable to and inseparable from individual property, have left so strong an impression upon the human mind that the defenders of capitalism idiotically state that property is the reward of toil. Nevertheless, capitalist production can only exist when individual property is stripped of the two attributes which alone justify it.
Personal wealth is still, indeed, the result of labour, but it no longer belongs to the workers who produce it; the means of production (land, machinery, mines, &c.) are not owned by the wage-workers who use them, but by the capitalist who has not made them, and who does not work them. Capitalist property does not, consequently, possess the two attributes of individual property.
The economists, the moralists, the philosophers, and the politicians puzzle their brains to discover some attributes which can give it the appearance of being justifiable. Not being able to give the capitalist the character of a producer, they give him that of a thrifty man; his wealth is the result of his saving, they say. But, as he does not work, he must, then, save on the labour of others – in other words, he robs the workers of a part of the fruits of their labour, in order to make himself rich. The “thrift” argument having been recognised as being as silly as it is inconvenient, the leading politicians have generously endowed the capitalist with the qualities of organiser of labour and captain of industry, which by a genial co-operation with the labour of the wage-workers, beget his millions. But, reply the Socialists, as these qualities are not possessed by the capitalist, but by his managers and foremen, they cannot justify his ownership of wealth.
Then, arriving at the end of their inventive genius, they transform the transcendent virtues of the capitalist into a metaphysical entity. It is chance, it is blind fortune which makes him owner of property.
The existence of joint-stock companies demolishes these arguments, so laboriously maintained, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. The capitalist who possesses shares in them has not the least contact with production; he may be ignorant of the place where it is carried on, as of its nature; he receives his dividends, and that is all he cares about. The joint-stock company breaks the last bonds which unite the proprietor to his property; it has depersonalised property.
The shares of a joint-stock company can belong to Peter, Paul or Nicodemus, they can change hands every day at the Stock Exchange, and sometimes several times in one day; but the factories still go on producing as if the property had not changed hands. The joint-stock companies which create a kind of collectivist property possessed by shareholders, demonstrate the absolute uselessness of capitalist production and clearly show the parasitical nature of the capitalist class. It is not the possessors but the non-possessors who are useful in the field of the capitalist production; but the Social Revolution will sweep away these parasites.
~ Paul Lafargue, Capitalist Property (June 1903), from Justice, 13 June 1903, p.3 (Originally published in Droit du Peuple)
On March 13, 2008, former student politician and President of the Australian Union of Students The Hon Julia Gillard MP gave a nice speech titled ‘A Higher Education Revolution: Creating a Productive, Prosperous, Modern Australia’ (note that the AUS declared Higher education in crisis in 1983; the same year that Gillard became President). In her speech, Gillard announced a Review, the Bradley Review, into higher education. The Expert Panel’s final report was released on December 17, 2008, and is meant to be available online (although I cannot download a copy for some reason). In response to the release, the man ultimately responsible for evicting students from University property:
The acting vice-chancellor of Melbourne University, Professor Peter McPhee, told The Age yesterday urgent action was required to stop Australia subsidising research from teaching budgets. “What I think needs to be stressed is this affects every element of university life,” Professor McPhee said. “The impact of not having research fully funded is larger classes … and university classes are simply too large” (Unis lobby for fully funded research, Katharine Murphy, December 31, 2008).
Whether or not Peter gets what he wants, it seems likely that students will be getting less, especially as far as ‘income support’ is concerned. Thus:
MORE than a third of university students receiving the main form of government financial assistance live in households with incomes of at least $100,000, according to government figures. Nearly half live with families on incomes of $80,000 or above, prompting critics of the Youth Allowance to say it is being rorted and not going to the students who need the aid… Centrelink data given to the review shows 148,000 students received some form of aid in 2007, a decline of 12,000 students since 2000. About 69,000 of those received the Youth Allowance. ~ Widespread rorting of uni student allowance, Stephanie Peatling, Sydney Morning Herald, January 13, 2009
The Youth Allowance, of course, is peanuts. For a single with no children, 18 years and over and not living at home, the maximum payment is $371.40 per fortnight ($185.70 per week) plus a maximum payment of $73.47 per fortnight ($36.74 per week) in Rent Assistance. That’s a maximum income of $222.44 per week; as of July 2008, the standard Federal Minimum Wage (FMW) weekly rate was $543.78. “A recent report by the Welfare Rights Network indicates that both Youth Allowance and Austudy (including rent assistance) payments are almost 40 per cent below the Henderson Poverty Line” (Wanted: A place to call home, Chris Povey, The Age, January 12, 2009).
Outside of the media, SHAC also sparked conversation in the blogosphere. John Surname, who frequently contributes to Grods, pulls no punches in his post on Diddly-Squatters (January 14, 2009). Of the squatters, John reckons “they’re fuckwits who think they deserve to live in someone’s else property for free because it’s their right to live in the inner city.” A less tired and emotional Andrew Norton simply dismisses the idea that Universities should have any other obligation to consumers (students) than to provide a commodity called Education, aka “some residual notion of the university as a community with obligations beyond the strictly educational” (Why do squatters get to stay so long in university property?, January 12, 2009).
- On 3AW, ‘Spoilt brats’ staying put, January 6, 2009. “Do you think that Max and his mates are doing the right thing by making a political point about the affordability of rental accommodation? Or are they just a pack of spoilt brats?” Student squatters spark housing debate, Architecture & Design, January 14, 2009, discusses the wonderful architectural possibilities provided by empty shipping containers.
The resentment on display in much of the popular commentary is noteworthy, and revealing in terms of the extent to which Mr.Block and his legions still dominate popular thinking on matters of Property, and the howls of outrage which accompany any challenge, however slight, to the subordination of the citizenry to its prerogatives. The argument goes something like this:
Spoilt brats attend unimelb; the squatters are spolit brats. Instead of renting, or otherwise obtaining some other form of lawful accommodation — as other citizens, including students, are forced to — this small group is utilising their mis-guided sense of privilege — and the liberal attitude of the authorities at unimelb — to break the law and to obtain a commodity to which they are not entitled. Worse, the ‘students’ in question — and their status as students, rather than as trouble-making anarchists, has been questioned — are seeking accommodation in the heart of the inner-city. (“One protester wore a t-shirt backing radical group Arterial Bloc, which has been blamed for much of the mayhem during the anti-G20 riots in Melbourne. [Q.] ‘Do you [think] it’s appropriate to wear an Arterial Bloc t-shirt to a protest like this?’ But while an official spokesperson for the Student Housing Action Cooperative denied suggestions they were anarchists, and not homeless at all, others weren’t so sure. [Q.] ‘Are you an anarchist?’ [A.] (Laughs) ‘What a hilarious question… I guess there are anarchists living here, as well as people of all different political persuasions’.” ~ Melbourne University denies students squatters’ claims it’s stingy, Matthew Schulz, Herald Sun, January 7, 2009.)
Let’s be honest here. A lot of students are in dire need of housing, and making ends meet as a student is never easy. But if being a student has lead to homelessness, it’s probably time to assess about whether it’s a good idea to continue studying, or whether you should go and get a full time job and come back when you’re in a better position to be able to afford to study.
If you’re on AusStudy [sic], there is no reason why you should be homeless. Squatting on AusStudy [sic] is a lifestyle choice, not a choice made out of desperation.
There are a number of obvious rejoinders that could be made to this argument, but I’ll leave that up to the reader.
As for the socio-economic status of the squatters, to some extent an accurate assessment depends upon their conforming to the profile of an average student. In terms of its student population, at unimelb in 1999, 7.3% of domestic students were from a low socio-economic background, as opposed to 14.7% of domestic students across all higher education institutions (Socioeconomic background and higher education: an analysis of school students’ aspirations and expectations [EIP 02/05]). A newspaper report from 2004 notes that by 2002 there had been an increase of 0.6% in low SES students at unimelb. Another report states that in the three years to 2005, the ‘Participation share for students from low socio-economic status backgrounds (all ages) for selected universities, 2005 (%)’ at unimelb had risen 0.1% to 8.0%.
The report’s author, Richard James, further notes that:
Like most leading universities, the University of Melbourne is in a difficult position. The University has an informal, unwritten social contract because of its history and place in the institutional hierarchy. The consequences of tinkering with this implicit contract are evident in the press coverage around the Melbourne Model this year. Awkwardly, the community expects the University to stand for academic excellence and to stand for equality of opportunity in equal measure. The tensions between these two values are profound in a society in which senior school completion rates and achievement levels are so strongly correlated with socio-economic status. The bind for the University is that it is open to criticism of either elitism or declining standards if any changes are made to its policies for student selection, access and equity.
The strong correlation between school achievement and socio-economic status is starkly evident in the University of Melbourne case, as with many of the Group of Eight universities. It is now so very difficult for the University of Melbourne to recruit students from low socio-economic backgrounds who have suitable levels of academic attainment, at least as measured by the ranking provided by ENTER. This dilemma has been experienced most keenly in the highly competitive fields of study, such as Law. The University of Melbourne has the challenge of assessing the genuine academic potential of students to be successful in a higher education environment, for which there is obviously no suitable measurement tool at the present time.
In other words, unimelb is an elite institution whose student population is overwhelmingly drawn from the middle and upper classes, the majority of whom attended a fairly small range of private or ‘selective’ public schools. unimelb is typically understood as being a middle or upper-middle class institution. (In 2005, for example, only 8% of students were categorised as coming from a background of low socio-economic status.)
Of course, even if all of the squatters were from privileged backgrounds, this would not render SHAC worthless. Certainly, the abuse directed at the squatters is in accord with that heaped upon other malcontents. It may have been pretty safe to say in 1966 that the student is the most universally despised creature in France, but in Australia in 2008, the student is merely a figure of contempt.
Oh Mr. Block,
you were born by mistake,
You take the cake,
you make me ache.
Tie a rock on your block
and then jump in the lake,
Kindly do that for Liberty’s sake.