It Was That or Starve
vol. 3, August/September 2021
Running right though the hot, hammering heart of Los Angeles is a long, weird artery called North Beachwood Drive. It is the strangest slice of human contradiction where I’ve ever sweated through a pandemic. As you turn and walk toward the Hollywood Hills and the sidewalk gets cleaner, the apartment blocks metastasize into swollen mansions and there are orange and pomegranate trees growing on every lawn.
You can walk for two miles before the houses and cars get so cartoonish that security guards start giving you the side-eye. But turn right, back towards the city, and the fruit trees are replaced by rotted lawn chairs; after you cross Franklin the sidewalk disappears entirely, carpeted by tents and mattresses. There are about twenty people living beneath the overpass, and you have to pick your way around their makeshift living rooms (if you’re one of the few people in L.A. who walks). The air stinks of exhaust fumes and the human funk you get when people have no access to healthcare, housing, or indoor plumbing. It’s the same street, and the same story. Walking up North Beachwood drive you are reminded — as everyone is every day in urban California — of how much it’s possible to lose. The dispossessed, unhoused people function as a warning: whatever you do, don’t become what the anthropologist Craig Willse calls “surplus life.”
There were more than sixty-six thousand unhoused people in the Los Angeles metro area even before the post-Covid evictions, and the city just made them all officially criminals. From September 2021, it will be functionally illegal to be homeless in L.A.: the order, signed by Mayor Garcetti in July 2021, makes it illegal for the 66,000 to pitch tents. The fines for unauthorized occupation of public space are unlikely to be a major earner for the city, but the legislation will make it far easier for police to clear the tent cities that have mushroomed in fancy neighborhoods like Echo Park and Santa Monica, as well as under the North Beachwood overpass.
This sort of disposession is what, centuries ago, settlers came to the New World to escape. The question of what to do with “vagrants” and “sturdy beggars,” with the tens of thousands of human beings made destitute by land enclosures and the expansion of industry, was the ethical conundrum that built the modern nation-state. Some of the very first welfare bills were introduced in England in the 16th century, alongside early laws that made homelessness a crime. Those laws made the link between property and the franchise — owning land and property soon became the basis for citizenship. Those same laws were part of the ethical source code for America’s racialized housing crisis. They were unconcerned with managing poverty. They were far more concerned with managing the poor.
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In the age of Empire, England managed its poor by repurposing them as the shock troops of primitive accumulation. The convicts stuffed into ships and dumped in alien countries were the surplus life of Britain’s hungry cities, which had grown into stinking hells of human deprivation. As the cities swelled, human beings had not yet learned how to live together in such numbers in such conditions; there was no sanitation, no public transport, no social housing, and no safety net for the hundreds of thousands starving in the most prosperous cities in the world. London and Manchester teemed with destitute, desperate people for whom Victorian morals were just another luxury designed to separate rich and poor: what good was a priest or a policeman telling you not to steal, swindle, or fuck for money if it was that or starve?
So much of the socioeconomic thinking that remains foundational to the West’s way of life was formed in response to these sudden, crushing contradictions. European capitalism had not counted on the sheer scale of human suffering it would produce, and spent its spare energies looking for solutions to the problems of mass poverty and dispossession that would not require the wealthy few to change their habits. If this is sounding familiar, that’s no accident.
So Britain cast its hungry eyes on the world. It exported, along with wool and steel, the half-starved sons and daughters of dockers and factory hands who were used to fighting to survive, and told them that the New World was theirs if they could keep it and didn’t mind a little theft and murder. The colonies functioned as a moral laundry for the sins of industrial capitalism: the fleets that returned with rum and cotton and gold and glory and a grand narrative of White triumph set out with their hulls groaning with the expendable poor. When the centuries of colonial conquest are discussed — if they are discussed at all — this part of the story is usually omitted, just as it was always omitted from the simple stories of empire adventurism that inform what we think of as liberty.
Land occupation was once a radical movement. From the earliest years of English revolution in the 1600s, ordinary people occupied land that had been appropriated by the wealthy as a political statement. Most Americans don’t know much about the English revolution, but then most of the English don’t know much about the empire; like most British pupils, I finished eighteen years of schooling without having been taught a single line of Imperial history. The modern movements to topple the statues of slaveowners like Edward Colston and tyrannical colonial butchers like Cecil Rhodes run up against centuries of weaponized ignorance about what, exactly, was done in our names so very far away.
But before all that, England was full of revolutionaries who resisted land enclosure by farming on common ground and defending it with their bodies. In 1649, the True Levellers occupied St George’s Hill in Surrey. Gerrard Winstanley, one of their leaders, inspired a protest ballad that urged free men and women: “Your houses they pull down to fright your men in town / But the gentry must come down and the poor shall wear the crown / Stand up now, diggers all!” It has a catchy tune. Sadly, the story ended like so many others that start with earnest people asking the rich to share. It ended quickly.
* * *
Ten years ago, during the British student occupations and, later, as part of the Occupy movement in America, there was a sudden mania for reclaiming public space and building ephemeral communities of care. I reported on those temporary autonomous zones as a baby journalist, swept up in the thrill of what it meant for precarious and indebted young people to simply demand space. Occupy everywhere, was the slogan, as protest tent cities proliferated around the capitals of the Global North
Imagine our embarrassment when First Nations and indigenous activists turned up at Zuccotti Park and pointed out, with what in retrospect was near-superhuman grace, that the land in question was, in fact, already occupied.
Today I’m writing this on more stolen land that was never ceded. In the middle of the pandemic I flew to Australia to join my partner in the heart of Melbourne, where the traditional custodians are the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, in a tiny apartment on a busy corner on a sheer street that feels like it’s falling into the Yarra River. The wind buffeting the glass makes it feel like a ship, cast out to the very edge of the world.
The first friend I made here told me to read Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, a classic now taught in Australian schools. It’s inspired by the life of the author’s ancestor, a British convict who was shipped to New South Wales after being spared the death sentence for stealing from his employer to feed his family. Fully half the book follows this man’s fight to stay alive in the London slums, and by the time he makes it to his Australian land-claim, knowing nothing about farming, you’re rooting for things to work out, for something marginally less shitty to happen in the helpless thrashing wreck of this man’s life.
And then you discover that the land he has claimed already belongs to the Dharug people and you remember that you know where this is going and you screw up your eyes as the story careens towards a cliff-edge of complicity and massacre and ruin. Our protagonist — because white men are somehow always the heroes of this sort of story — wrestles with what he knows is about to happen to the Aboriginal families who live on the banks of the Hawkesbury. But he doesn’t wrestle for too long. He wants that land. He wants to protect his . All he needs is a moral hall-pass, and white supremacy gives him one, and he decides to call it freedom.
Without understanding what it might have meant for a starving sailor to suddenly be “given” a plot of land, it is impossible to understand what it really means when Americans talk about freedom — and what it doesn’t. For a White man in the mid-nineteenth century, the chance to actually own property, to build some sort of security, really was unimaginable and miraculous freedom. The sort of freedom desperate people would kill for, and make up a story to justify it later. That‘s the sort of freedom that is baked into the foundational ideas of America, of Australia, of so many settler nations. The freedom for able-bodied White men to do what the rich and liberated had done for centuries in Europe: to take and hold the land.
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But there are no more lands left to conquer, and now the whole world is a hungry city.
The world is a hungry city, riddled with new diseases and choking on its own filth for exactly the same reasons that the Victorians made London into a living hell: because our capacity to impact each other vastly exceeds our capacity to care for one another, and we have not yet built the moral infrastructure to dig ourselves free. What we do in this decade will determine how the story ends: whether we start eating each other, or whether, instead, we finally start feeding each other.
Laurie Penny is an award-winning journalist, essayist, public speaker, writer, activist, internet nanocelebrity, and author of seven books. Their next, Sexual Revolution: Modern Fascism and the Feminist Fightback, will be published by Bloomsbury in January 2022.