by Matt Broomfield
1993: media in Columbus, Ohio receive a press release from a group styling itself Arm The Homeless (ATH). They announce they’ll be collecting money through a network of mall Santas and “distributing donated firearms and ammunition to local homeless people”.
Outrage flares from the local to the Associated Press, to CNN and talk-radio blowhard Rush Limbaugh’s nationally-syndicated show. “What he is proposing would endanger the community,” rages the head of a local homeless shelter. “I’d like to have him come down here and talk about what the homeless really need to lower their vulnerability – access to shelter, medical care, food and hygiene.”
Arm The Homeless out themselves as university hoaxsters a day later.
That the hoax was perpetrated by university students is significant – there is a deep divide between the ‘mainstream’ revolutionary left and those who are actually most vulnerable in our society. (This chasm yawns more colossally in the slogan’s most famous iteration, scrawled on the guitar of multimillionaire Rage Against The Machine singer Tom Morello.)
As the Black Panthers’ ‘Minister for Information’, Eldridge Cleaver came closer than most to actually arming the homeless. His words offer caution against hasty demands made on behalf of those most-marginalised in our society by the rest of us: “There are those who are all too willing to do our thinking for us, even if it gets us killed.”
We are not (yet) arguing for wholesale distribution of lethal firearms to street homeless individuals. Nor are we trying to do their thinking for them. What we are arguing is that any revolutionary programme must centre rough sleepers, homeless people, vagrants and bums: among those whom Marx dismissed as the lumpen-, or ragged-, proletariat.
In Marx’ earlier works, ‘lumpenproletariat’ simply describes the irreconcilable scum of the earth – “vagabonds, discharged soldiers… pickpockets, tricksters… tinkers, beggars.” Unlike the virtuous, hard-working proletarian, they can never achieve class consciousness, and their only significance is that they will likely “sell out to reactionary intrigues” and be used to beat back revolutionary movements.
We see this appropriation of the lumpenproletariat by reactionary elements occurring in a debased, post-modern sense in popular discourse today. Stripped of all agency, invariably figured as white, straight and British, often as “discharged soldiers”, the homeless are used as a rhetorical tool to gainsay support for refugees – a social formation clearly figured as revolutionary by the establishment, whatever their assimilationist intent.
But in Capital, Marx comes to a firmer understanding of the lumpenproletariat as part of the “the reserve army of labour”, the un- and under-employed masses left hunting for work or starving as capital becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.
This progression in Marx’ thought resonates in today’s distinction between rough sleepers in particular and the homeless in general.
In 2012’s the Communist Horizon, Jodi Dean follows Etienne Balibar in leaving aside the proletarian as a static class in favour of “proletarianisation” as a dynamic, something continually being done to struggling and marginalised people by capital.
Only about 10,000 of the 300,000 homeless people in London are actually sleeping on the streets, for example – precarity is a watchword of the era, and those who’ve lived sofa-to-sofa or in squats or B&Bs know how close the street can seem.
Dean concludes by discussing the Occupy camps as a vanguard moment where a self-willed class she terms “we as the rest of us” broke the consensus of communicative late-capitalism. Of course, Occupy then collapsed into over-horizontality, impotency and disarray – Tom Morello’s vocal support notwithstanding.
If Occupy ever did establish a break in capitalist consensus, it was literally through members of the precarious classes – students, workers, activists, in messy intersection – entering into a condition of voluntary “lumpenness”, becoming ragged and unwashed, camping out on the street.
Yet I’ve spoken to Occupy organisers who note that the presence of increasing numbers of actual street-homeless people in the camps hastened their demise, bringing with them ethical responsibilities the camps could not bear, along with harsh media attention.
Here, homelessness takes on a charged potential – radical in one moment, counter-revolutionary in the next. A truly revolutionary vanguard will be strengthened, not weakened, by “lumpen” street homeless joining its ranks.
The Black Panthers actively sought to build their base from among the lumpenproletariat – “we began, as always, by checking around with the street brothers,” Huey P Newton writes in his account of the Panthers’ formation as an armed check on police brutality. He’s not talking about the street homeless necessarily, but the unemployed, often criminalised under-society of the “Black American ghetto-dweller” is not so very far away.
Guns were the most visible way the Panthers armed the ‘street brothers’, a means to command attention and show the party were “more than talk”. But as Bobby Seale makes clear, “Revolution is not about shootouts… revolution is about the need to re-evolve political, economic and social justice and power back into the hands of the people.”
The majority of their income always went into their “survival programmes”, health clinics, educational opportunities and free-food distributions. We are talking about “arming” in a broader sense than merely dishing out guns, about direct empowerment from the street-level up. Our political movements must offer breakfast first and talk of revolution second.
An ideology of arming the homeless and precarious, of empowering them with the skills they need to enact meaningful resistance to capital, finds one endpoint in the squat. I know former street-homeless addicts who’ve come up through squats and ended up heading crews and cracking buildings on their own, providing shelter to rough sleepers currently in the same tough spot they were in a couple of years before.
More specifically, we can look at America’s National Union of the Homeless, which used squatting and criminal direct action to win 24-hour intake in city shelters, the right to vote and public showers (by holding “bathe-ins” in public fountains). Co-ordinated squatting of federal buildings across multiple cities won housing provision for hundreds of members.
Like the Panthers, they used criminality as part of a broad social programme, deploying “lumpen” skills and activities toward a socialist end.
Rough sleepers are an embodied threat to the precarious working classes under capitalism, even as they embody capitalism’s failures. Spiteful campaigns framing begging as a “criminal behaviour” seek to establish them as a class outside, not contiguous with the virtuous working poor.
It’s a false narrative, taking rough sleepers as an excluded “other” even as labour casualisation and precarity are pushing every worker into contingency. As J. Moufawad-Paul writes, whether we acknowledge it or not we are all becoming part of the lumpen “reserve army of labour”.
“Now the papers are going to call us thugs and hoodlums,” Panther Bobby Seale said. “But the brothers on the block, who the man’s calling thugs and hoodlums for 100 years, they’re going to say: “Them’s some out of sight thugs and hoodlums up there! Who is these thugs and hoodlums?”
Two decades later, the NUH’s discourse deliberately targeted precarious workers with slogans like “you are only one paycheck away from homelessness”.
When “we as the rest of us” next come together on the street, we must be prepared to centre and support those whose world we are encroaching on: hoodlums, “street brothers”, rough sleepers. Their presence should not be a hindrance or a distraction, but serve to make our demands unavoidable.
Through deeds and not words, we must claim them as our own, providing an answer through socialist programmes – and drawing on criminalised skillsets to socialist ends.
Under the pavements, the beach: lying overlooked on their cold surface, an army capable of tearing them up.
Matt Broomfield is an award-winning poet, writer and activist. On An Execution Morning – his fictional account of a real squat eviction in London – is available on Mount Analogue Press.
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