We are used to the poor being absent, invisible from debates, taught by long years of austerity measures and the steady drip of hate from sections of the media to be embarrassed about their poverty and to be silent. We have all been trained, over recent decades, to accept neoliberalism and globalisation not simply as the dominant paradigm, but as the only paradigm. Accompanying this has been the steady erosion of thinking of the welfare state as a means of levelling inequalities and promoting egalitarianism, instead we have become used to contemporary debates being framed via mid-Victorian understandings of poverty. Political discourse, then as now, places the emphasis on an individual’s own failings and behaviour, and away from any acknowledgement of the broader structural factors which form the backdrop to our decisions, actions and choices. And yet we need to remember that it has not always been like this, and nor is it always like this now.
It would be wrong to argue that squatting has become marginalised and vilified in recent years – it has always been marginalised and vilified by some sections of society – but the recent change in the law criminalising squatting residential property has made squatting more difficult than ever. This has occurred within a context of nearly four decades of attacks on various forms of direct action and domestic disobedience. The combined effect of the collapse of the labour movement since the 1980s and the increasing criminalisation of civil resistance from the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act onwards has corroded and removed the structures of established forms of opposition. When taken together with the ever-expanding surveillance of everyday life by the state and private companies the message is clear: opposition to government policy and the actions of corporations is acceptable, but resisting and engaging in more direct action if and when your voice is not heard, is criminal. Dissent has been delegitimised. Squatting is often singled out for particular ire: moving into empty houses sees squatters blamed for ‘queue jumping’ and taking homes away from ‘hard working families’; and occupying luxury flats in Mayfair is dismissed as trouble-making by ideologues.