Place and Politics Essay

This essay examines and analyses the political protest movements on the French government built and operated Grand Ensembles. It shows that the socialisation of the housing of these estates made it possible for the residents to join together and engage in collective bargaining with the SCIC. This was because the SCIC was the sole provider on the estates of the goods of collective consumption, the lack of which created the protest groups. Yet these groups were not class based groups, but interest groups. This is because they were more concerned with a politics of location.

As such, the groups were concerned with their own immediate local interests, which was based on whether they were home-owners or renters. In this way the groups competed with each other over their spatial interests, rather than class interests. In the case of Australia, this will be shown by the competing and opposing interests of local community groups, opposed to the building of the second Sydney airport in their area. In this sense, for one group’s interests to prevail, the other local groups must be resisted and overcome.

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“. . . I have said many times that a citizen’s real standard of living, the health of himself and his family, his children’s opportunities, his ability to enjoy the nation’s resources for recreation or culture, his ability to participate in the decisions and actions of the community, are determined not by his income but by where he lives”

Former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, in (Parkin, 1982, pp. 7-8).

From the perspective of this essay, Whitlam was correct. It examines the political protest movements on the French, state run, housing estates known as the Grand Ensembles. First, it shows that the collective bargaining undertaken by the residents of the Sarcelles estate was made possible due to the socialisation of housing by the state. By supplying a standard form of housing for all classes, it gave these classes both the reason to protest, and a single target for this protest. In fact, as will be shown, the state actually creates the basis for this type of protest, from its role of supplying the goods and services of collective consumption.

Second, the type of protest movements, whether class based or interest group based, on the Sarcelles and Val d’ Yerres estates will be considered. It will be argued that these were interest groups, not class actions. This is due to the fact that they were based on home-ownership, not on class identity.

Finally, the idea of the territorial politics of location will be considered. This will be shown in the situation of both the Val d� Yerres estate, and from the perspective of Australian interest groups opposed to a second Sydney airport.

Castells (1983, p.285) argues, that the protests in Sarcelles were akin to a form of urban trade unionism. His argument is that due to the socialisation of housing by the SCIC, the residents were able to engage in collective bargaining in order to have their demands met.

This was made possible due to two main reasons. First, the early residents of Sarcelles were primarily working-class, therefore it seems reasonable to suggest that they would have had much in common socially (Castells, 1983, p.286). This fact would have made it relatively easy for these early residents to initially form their organisation, and then to decide on the aims and objectives of the organisation. Second, the SCIC the were the primary builder of the housing estate, as well as the owner and landlord. It is in this sense that Castells speaks of the socialisation of housing.

This total control over Sarcelles by the SCIC was markedly different than the residents previous experience of rental accommodation. Whereas in the private sector the consumption of housing and urban infrastructure was controlled and supplied by diverse and separate organisations, in Sarcelles the housing and infrastructure were mainly controlled and supplied by the SCIC (Castells, 1983, p.287). This centralisation of control over the estate made it possible for the residents to undertake collective bargaining, with the SCIC, in order to have their demands met. In fact, this process of collective bargaining continued even when groups with higher social status such as middle managers were brought into Sarcelles in the early to mid-1960s.

This was due to the fact that the socialisation of the Sarcelles housing estate went beyond simply centralisation of ownership and control, but included the socialisation of the spatial and built environment. This can be seen in the uniformed style of architecture used to build the estate, which created a relative form of homogeneity in the living conditions of the residents (Castells, 1983, p.287). This shared homogeneity or standardisation of living conditions, made it possible for all groups and classes to realise their common interests; which in the case of Sarcelles was the harshness of the living conditions, especially for the early residents. From this, it is only a small step to the political mobilisation of these groups and classes to defend their common interests.

This raises the question of consumption and the role of the state in supplying it. This is taken up by Castells, who argues that the best way to understand urban areas is by their manifestations of consumption. To Castells, understanding consumption is more important than the spatial, physical, and social elements which make up urban areas. His argument is that in modern capitalism, consumption becomes increasingly collective and inter-dependent in character, with the state playing a central role as its organiser, becoming “the real manager of everyday life” (Castells quoted in Parkin, 1982, pp.9-10).

This view of collective consumption is also taken up by Dunleavy, who argues, that as the state has a role in promoting consumption, it actually creates the basis for local political action, since this collective consumption is determined by politicians and administrators (Elliot and McCrone, 1982, p.132).

In this way, by supplying a standard type of housing for particular social classes, the socialisation of housing would appear to match closely the idea of collective consumption. In other words, by the standardisation and homogeneity of the spatial and social environment of the housing estates, the state appeared to be promoting collective consumption. This was because the residents of estates such as Sarcelles, could reasonably be expected to require the same services, and have similar consumption patterns and requirements for goods. Yet in the case of Sarcelles and Val d’ Yerres, the SCIC failed to supply the goods and services of collective consumption, such as schools, libraries, and public transport. It was the lack of these goods and services of collective consumption, that prompted the different classes of Sarcelles to band together and engage in collective bargaining with the SCIC, in the first place.

This raises the question of class. What becomes immediately apparent is that terms such as collective bargaining, are very much the language of class politics.

On the surface it may appear that the protest movements in Sarcelles and Val d� Yerres were class based movements. An example of this is Sarcelles, where the resident’s demands were primarily economic in nature, which has parallels with working-class trade unionism.

Yet it appears more likely to be the case that these movements were in reality protest movements based on interests, not class. In the case of Sarcelles, this can be seen in the way the middle-class joined together with the working-class in order to fight for their common interests, to the extent that the middle-class was prepared to cross the political spectrum and vote for the socialists at municipal elections (Castells, 1983, p.290). This is clearly a case of interest group politics, not class politics. If it was class politics then the middle-class would have formed their own separate groups and either had these stand for election, or have supported other parties that shared their interests.

In Val d� Yerres things are somewhat more complicated. This estate was composed of people from both ends of the social spectrum, both working-class, and middle-class. Yet this diversity tended to be limited by the residential segregation of the different classes. Yet, as Castells makes clear, the main social division of the estate was between home owners and renters (Castells, 1983, pp.294-295). In fact it appears that most of the class conflict on the estate revolved around the SCIC’s attempt to integrate the social space. This was met with hostility by the residents, as it appeared to break the social rules of class segregation (Castells, 1983, p.296). To the middle-class, this class integration threatened to undermine their social status. In other words, the class conflict on the estate, was manly limited to each group trying to keep the other out of their area of the estate, rather than in political action.

As Cox points out, class politics of location is mainly associated with lower income groups, such as the working-class, whereas home-owners are far less likely to engage in class politics (Cox,1989, p.78 and p.71). To Cox, localised urban political movements are based on the idea of a territorial politics of location. He argues that this type of politics revolves around the competitive collective consumption of localised consumers. As such the outcomes of this type of politics is not due to class struggle, but by the creation and competition between territorial coalitions, or community interest groups (Cox,1989, p.78 and p.71).

This territorial politics of location can be seen in Val d� Yerres, where the home-owners created their own particular style of politics, which had little to do with the economic issues of the renters, revolving primarily around issues of lifestyle (Castells, 1983, p.299). This is not to say that the home-owners were not concerned with economic issues at all. These appeared to be mainly concerned with property values. In order to maintain this, the home-owners realised the importance of maintaining and defending their immediate spatial environment, such as the protest against the destruction of the small wood. Yet this wood had more than economic significance for the home-owners, as they valued it as much for its aesthetic properties, as well as for its social uses such as picnics and other family uses. In this sense, the interest group nature of the Val d’ Yerres residents can be seen.

This territorial politics of location extends to the point where people see their particular locality as being at least as, if not more important, than national, even global issues (Cox, 1989, p.81). From this, class and other social cleavages are undermined and replaced with what Cox terms “. . . a conception of a common or community interest . . .”, which is not divided by class but which, “. . . opposes those [interests] of people in [other] localities everywhere” (Cox, 1989, p.81). In the case of Val d’ Yerres, other localities meant not only other areas outside of the estate. It included the areas within the estate that were segregated between home-owners and renters. What mattered more was whether a resident was a home-owner or renter, rather than class association. Class differences were overcome by the shared interest of either home-ownership, or renting, in deciding group allegiances.

The territorial politics of location can be seen in contemporary Australia. An example of this is the federal government’s contentious decision to build a second airport for Sydney. This has seen the creation of local groups of residents, in potential airport areas, to oppose the airport being built in their area. Two such groups are the No Aircraft Noise Party in inner Sydney, who are opposed to any extension of Sydney Airport, and the Communities Against an Airport in Western Sydney, which opposes an airport being built at Badgerys Creek. Both of these groups are clearly interest groups, rather than class associations. As it is fundamentally clear that no matter what class residents belonged to, they would all be equally affected by aircraft noise (Carney, 1998 p.8).

Yet, these groups, although united in their opposition to a second Sydney airport, are also in opposition to each other. As stated, Cox showed that these community groups “. . oppose those [interests] of people in [other] localities everywhere” (1989, p.81). In the case of these groups, their foremost priority is to oppose the building of the airport in their area. For this to happen the airport must be built in some other group’s area. So each group must compete with, and oppose the interests of, the groups in the other areas. This attitude can be most clearly seen by two Councillors on Canterbury Council. Who are opposed to a joint study with South Sydney Council to measure the possible effects on inner Sydney from an airport at Badgerys Creek. As the Express newspaper reported “they disagreed because the concerns of South Sydney Council had nothing to do with the people of Canterbury” [emphases added] (1998, p.8).

In conclusion, it can be seen that the states’ involvement in housing supply made collective bargaining by residents possible. This was because the state gave the SCIC the role of being builder, provider, and landlord of the housing estates, effectively making it virtually the only organisation the residents needed to deal with. When this was combined with the SCIC’s failure to provide adequate urban infrastructure, it gave the residents both the motivation and a single target for their protests. Whereas in the private market the decentralisation of service providers, and the multiplicity of living environments, made overcoming class differences very difficult. The standardisation and homogeneity of the spatial environments, and the equal suffering of all classes from the lack of amenities, gave the various classes the basis for combined action. Thereby increasing their ability to undertake collective bargaining.

Yet these urban protest movements did not constitute class based politics. It was an interest group politics, based on a territorial politics of location. Where different and opposing consumption interests, in this case home-owners versus renters, became the basis for political grouping and action. As these groups were primarily concerned with their own immediate environment, their allegiances were to community organisations, rather than with a class identity. This can clearly be seen in the attitude of the two Canterbury Councillors.

Clearly Whitlam was correct. The protest movements of Sarcelles and Val d’ Yerres revolved around the social and spatial conditions of the estates. By not having the same services and urban infrastructure as they had previously enjoyed, the residents standard of living, and opportunities, were markedly reduced. This was irrespective of their class position or differences in income.

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