Public Fiction: A critique of Anna Minton

By Lewis Bassett-Yerrell and Joseph Leigh, 9 March 2015

In her first book Ground Control and her current research project How to Work Together, Anna Minton has contributed to the growing criticism of neoliberal housing policy in the UK. But, drawing on their close experience with housing activism in London, Lewis Bassett-Yerrell and Joseph Leigh challenge Minton’s use of ‘the public’ as an organising category for resistance



The emerging awareness of a ‘housing crisis’[1] attests to the tendency, fully apparent under the current neoliberal regime of capitalism, for the sites of social reproduction to become integrated into the circuits of financial accumulation.[2] Foreclosures and evictions are generic features of economic crises, but under the current ‘financialised’ mode of capitalist accumulation the privatisation of social housing and resultant rises in property prices and rent which cause household debt to soar have become core features of economic strategy.[3] In this context, understanding the links between ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres acquires practical and theoretical significance for critics and political activists alike. Anti-austerity politics faces the challenge of how to make ‘public’ the crises of homelessness, indebtedness and dispossession that appear as ‘private’ crises. Anna Minton’s critique of the capture of urban development projects by corporate interests and her call for ‘social value’ to be prioritised over ‘economic benefit’ are thus welcome contributions.[4] We agree with Minton that the domination of corporate interests over social needs is pernicious. However, we would like to challenge the public/private dichotomy around which Minton organises her work which actively obscures the property relations that her call for the redefinition of ‘the public interest’ around ‘the principal of common access to public goods’ intends to challenge.[5] In our analysis, the terrain of the housing crisis is shaped by forms of social power and distinctions of status that mediate between the putatively ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres embedded in Minton’s liberal imaginary.[6] Class based and ethno-nationalist forms of exclusion constitute the actually-existing public domain as a sphere of socio-political contestation and stratification, the significance of which Minton’s notions of a homogenous ‘public domain’ and ‘public interest’ conceal. In other words, Minton’s public/private dichotomy brackets the structural conflicts that shape the current struggles over social housing, reducing the problem of the unequal distribution of social resources to an idealised ethics of the definition of the ‘public interest.’


Before we describe our observations of the housing crisis, we want to further specify the impact of Minton’s use of ‘the public’ on her socio-historical analysis.  For Minton, ‘public life’ refers to the Aristotelian separation of polis from oikos: ‘public life is best understood as a dimension of political, social and cultural life [...] interconnected with the idea of the public interest, as distinct from private interests.’[7] The ‘public interest […] depends on public institutions most notably government and the rule of law, but it is not limited to them, incorporating also charitable institutions, private individuals, private firms and agencies.’[8] Minton’s analysis therefore proceeds from the characteristic liberal rendition of the public/private dichotomy: the public sphere is conceived as the domain of rational deliberation and constraint, while the private sphere is identified with the pursuit of self-interest. Although Minton suggests the post-WWII welfare state was hindered by ‘modernist planning strategies’ and ‘top down centralism’, for her it also represents the zenith of the ‘public interest’ - i.e. the moment at which ‘common goods’ obtained their highest degree of priority in government planning.[9] But to gloss the social struggles from which the welfare state emerged as a conflict between ‘public’ and ‘private’ interests as Minton does is to obscure their socio-historical content. The ‘public/private’ dichotomy arises from a facile analysis of history that enables, as an explanation for the collapse of the post-war consensus, the equation of leftist critiques of technocratic welfare administration with the neoliberal desire to remove all state regulation from the labour and housing markets.[10] The welfare state created in 1945 represented an historic compromise between labour and capital, with the former acquiescing to exigencies of post-war national reconstruction in return for social security, the latter accepting taxation and state regulation as the price of social order.[11] As well as the capitalist crisis of the 1930s and the Second World War, its emergence was the product of an ongoing series of class struggles signalled by the general strikes of 1842 and 1926, and widespread labour militancy in 1919 and 1921. In this sense, the welfare state represents a somewhat unique moment in the history of capitalism when capital began, via taxation, to invest in the social reproduction of the labour force. Thus, although the welfare state might, inter alia, have come to posit itself as the institutional embodiment of ‘the public interest’, its socio-political significance can hardly be reduced to this anodyne formulation of ‘the public good.’  


Yet this political antagonism, between the interests of the working class and the interests of capital, cannot appear within Minton’s categorial universe. For Minton, the rise of the public begins with the 1832 Reform Act, which enfranchised approximately 8% of the total adult population, and the Crown Lands Act of 1851, which established the system of London and Edinburgh’s royal public parks.[12] According to Minton, ‘the growth of civic and public buildings, from town halls and libraries to schools, hospitals, asylums and work houses’ laid the foundations for the public works programmes of social housing and national infrastructure instantiated in 1945.[13] Minton turns the 1832 Reform Act, and its confirmation of the property qualification on the franchise, into the origin of a liberal public sphere and then suggests that the establishment, by the propertied, of penal institutions for the poor – asylums, workhouses – represents the positive progression of the ‘public domain’. She sees these developments ‘as the countervailing trend to the privatization of the enclosures’.[14] Yet the advent of work houses and asylums, together with the general expansion of the legal and penal systems in the 18th and 19th centuries, were, as E.P. Thompson describes, produced by the same historical process that facilitated the enclosure of the fields: the growing rule of property.[15]  What needs emphasising is that the emergence of the ideal public domain described by Minton refers historically to the ongoing development of private property that created the division of society into proletarian and ruling class elements. Moreover, to idealise the distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’ as a kind of ethico-political resolution to social stratification is to ignore the way property mediates between the two domains. We agree with Minton that (‘private’) corporate interests exercise control over social institutions, but this needs to be understood as an expression of the antagonism between the propertied bourgeoisie of Habermas’ ‘public sphere’ and those dispossessed by the rule of property.[16] Redefining the ‘common good’ is hence the task of a common struggle against the rule of property. For ‘social value’ to supersede profit requires the form of ‘value’ itself to be embodied socially. That is, for social movements and their associated political institutions to conceive of ways to socialise the means of social reproduction.



Minton’s argument that the ‘public interest’ should be ‘redefined [...] around the principal of universal access to common goods’ raises the question of what, concretely, opposes the universalization of social resources?[17] For her the answer is clearly ‘private interests’. From our perspective, more important than the negotiation of private and public interests are the forms of social power and status that define the terrain of socio-political contestation and housing activism – what Minton might call the 'public domain'.


To demonstrate this analysis empirically, we present K's history, obtained by observation and interview.[18] Before K moved to London he worked in a glass container factory in Canada; the furnaces and forming machines used to get so hot during the summer that he would be dazed by the heat. ‘Canada is a beautiful country’ K told me, ‘I was barely ever out of work.’ Some two decades later in London, K worked a zero-hours contract as a hospital security guard for two years but lost his job and hasn’t found another.


We first met K when he accepted a Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth flyer in Brixton. He explained that his landlord wanted to evict him and hand over the property to an agency offering higher rents. We arranged with him to visit Brixton’s Housing Office, named after the community activist Olive Morris, so he could apply to the council as homeless. Housing Offices in each borough we have visited function according to a series of definite stages whereby an application for housing provision is ordered into a sequence of gate-keeping mechanisms. At Olive Morris House, stage one is relatively simple: K takes his ticket, 67, from a self-service machine that determines the nature of his visit via the selection of programmed options. K and I then take a seat. The queuing system is calling 49.


As always, the hall where we sit is packed with people waiting. Here in the hallway the urgent crisis of impending eviction is translated into the slow rhythm of institutional time. K and I wait to be seen at a desk that would give us access to another part of the building where we would wait again to be seen by the Homelessness Team to complete an Initial Assessment. Once completed, K would reach the Full Assessment; a more technically demanding interview concerning his status — national, local, marital, employment, and so on — and his ‘housing needs’. The results of the interview would finally be assessed, by workers in the inaccessible upper floors of the building, to determine whether or not the council has a duty to house K. Depending on the success of the application, only then may K enter a new circuit of bureaucracy for housing provision requiring him to take on part of the administrative workload, negotiating a status-based system of points in order to bid on social housing and complete endless searches in the private rental market, comparable to the search of the jobless for employment required by the current welfare regime.


Finally K and I are called for his Initial Assessment. The office employee explains firmly that K will not qualify for assistance:

‘As you are a single man, with no dependents and no disabilities, you will not be considered priority need.’

 ‘Are you saying that I have to be close to dying before you will help me?’ K Asks.

I add, ‘It's a good question. The council have categorised you as fit enough to live on the streets.’

 The employee doesn’t respond. The meeting is over.


In relating this story, we do not claim it to be exceptional. Everyone behaves normally; the housing officer does her job; K is not treated especially badly; our encounter is everyday, ordinary. But the very ordinariness of K’s story evokes the way in which the antagonism between the propertied and those who stand outside this privileged position is translated into ‘the public’ domain. K is designated Not Priority Need, Single Man, Fit to Work: he is subjectivised as a worker by the state. Given the system’s designation of Single Men as a lower-order priority he is hence made to depend on the private rental market for his housing needs. The public sector in this instance has the role of privatising K’s circumstances, rendering them a matter of ‘personal responsibility.’ Nevertheless, given that it is the political agency of the welfare state that performs this act of privatisation, we can say that K’s circumstances only appear as a private matter to the extent that he is dependent on the public sector for his social reproduction. This paradox reveals the importance of breaking down the liberal tendency to conceive of actually separable ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres. Minton’s public/private dichotomy suggests that individuals meet their needs as freely associating, rights bearing citizens, that is, as the subjects of private interest. The role of the ‘public’ domain is therefore to order and constrain these activities in order to ensure their harmonious outcome. But K does not enter ‘the public’ as a ‘private citizen’; his subject position is already given by the categories of Priority Need, Single Man, Fitness to Work, etc. Of course, we can argue in favour of reforming the welfare state, of strengthening forms of taxation, of imposing development charges on corporate interests to fund public works, but to bracket social stratification and status differentials and assume ‘the interlocutors in a public sphere’ can ‘deliberate “as if” they were social equals’ is to ignore the contradiction between ‘political democracy’ and ‘social inequality’. If social resources – Minton’s ‘common goods’ – are to become universally accessible, ownership itself must be socialised; it is not the balance between ‘public’ and ‘private’ interests that is at issue, but the maintenance of a social hierarchy rooted in property ownership.



Although ‘class’ has been our main lens for rethinking Minton’s public/private dichotomy, housing activism in South London constantly raises problems of state racism with respect to migrants. This becomes clear from Q’s story.


Q lives with her husband and two children above a hardware shop in South East London. According to their immigration status, Q and her partner have ‘Leave to Remain with No Recourse to Public Funds’ meaning that, although she can remain in the UK, Q has no access to welfare payments or other benefits. She can only claim Child Tax Credits or Working Tax Credits temporarily, and only in ‘exceptional circumstances’. As she answers the door, Q apologises for the state of the communal hallway leading to her flat; and, entering, the damp and neglected condition of the building explain her apology.


Sitting on Q’s bed, we listen as Q, in a low voice, recounts the story of why the Social Services want to evict her from the flat, where they’ve been housed temporarily under the Council’s Child Protection duties. After losing her job, Q and her partner got into arrears and fell behind with rent payments. At the same time, they fell out with their social worker over their lack of access to public funds. Unable to change her classification, Q is unable to apply for legal aid to appeal her eviction. However, we discover that she is able to claim through her children. This means she could access legal advice by acting as her children’s guardian. Motherhood supersedes immigration controls in this instance, but, ironically, Social Services are threatening to take the children into care because of her impending homelessness.


Q talks to the social worker over the phone about her eviction. The conversation is going badly and Q passes the phone to me. ‘We want the same things’, I suggest. ‘They need somewhere to live and you don’t want to make the children homeless.’ The social worker does not want to talk me, but initially concedes that there may be grounds to appeal, something Q had not heard before. However, this opening soon gives way to the repetition of a threat the social worker has been using against Q for a while: ‘We don’t have a duty to house the family, only the children. They can be taken into care.’


Q’s situation is neither particularly uncommon nor particularly new. In 2009/10, approximately 6,500 people without recourse to public funds were supported by Social Services. This is the result of case law dating back to the 1948 National Insurance Act which states that local authorities have a duty to those in need of ‘care and attention’ who have no right to claim from the benefit system due to immigration controls.[19] The establishment of the postwar welfare state – the high point, for Minton, of the ‘public interest’ – therefore assumed the existence of non-national ‘outsiders’ living within the community who would have no right to demand support from the national fund, yet who would nevertheless have to be managed and maintained by the state. In this sense, the 1945 social compact between employers, workers and government was always uneven vis-à-vis immigrants who, as Ambalavaner Sivanandan argued in the 1970s, were economically necessary yet socially undesirable.[20] This logic promoted the internalisation of immigration controls in the form of restricted access to benefits with the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962, and crystallising in the Thatcher era with the 1981 British Nationality Act. As Q’s case demonstrates, access to ‘public goods’ has never been simply defined in terms of universal rights; rather national resources are allocated on the basis of particular kinds of legal status, themselves the result of the classification of people into ethno-nationalistic categories.


From this perspective, the ‘public interest’, hardly functions as the ethical representation of ‘social value’, as Minton wants it to: the domain of the ‘public’ is always already defined through the exclusionary act of classification according to which one either does or does not belong.



As we have emphasised, it is not Minton’s assessment of the destructive influence of ‘private’ or corporate interests in the context of housing, or the welfare state more generally, that we find problematic. Rather, it is by reducing the content of struggles over property to a conflict between ‘public’ and ‘private’ interests that leads Minton, in our analysis, to misunderstand the stakes of the present ‘housing crisis.’ Although for Minton it is liberal institutions like charity and the mainstream media who take centre stage in the struggle against privatisation, it is clear that a growing movement is emerging in London that acts outside Minton’s rendering of the ‘public sphere’. This February, the Radical Housing Network launched a successful week of action [] with events and protests across London. The network brings together over 24 groups organising struggles against private landlords, the welfare state, gentrification and homelessness. Furthermore, since last year Unite the union have launched Unite Communities, an initiative with the theoretical potential to transform the union movement in an era of precraity and the financialisation of social reproduction. To that effect Unite Community activists have recently been organising resistance to evictions on the Guinness Estate in Brixton and the West Hendon estate, and in doing so expanding its membership base beyond the workplace. These examples, we believe, highlight the basis for any real redefinition of the ‘common good’. [21]





[1] See, for example, Aditya Chakrabortty’s work in The Guardian on Enfield Council, and Polly Toynbee’s ‘No exit: Britain’s social housing trap’, The Guardian, November, 2014.

[2] As Silvia Federici argued in an interview for Mute in 2013, ‘every aspect of reproduction is becoming an immediate a site of accumulation.’ Although, ‘In the post-WWII period, the capitalist politics was to invest in the reproduction of the workforce […] the struggles of the ’60s convinced the capitalist class that having more space and time would not make workers more productive but only more rebellious. This is why we have seen an inversion. Now we have to pay for our reproduction, they tell us it is our responsibility.’ Marina Vishmidt, ‘Permanent Reproductive Crisis: An Interview with Silvia Federici’, Mute, 7 March 2013,

[3] The significance of this last feature is clear from the unprecedentedly low rates of interest currently set by the Bank of England and US Federal Reserve. Cf. ‘Inequality and financialisation: a dangerous mix’, Martin, Kersley and Greenham, The New Economics Foundation (2014). The authors show that the privatisation of social housing has increased the integration of households into circuits of financial capital meaning that ‘the decade before the financial crisis saw unprecedented levels of housing equity withdrawal as homeowners used rising house prices to increase their borrowing to fund consumption. In total, household debt rose in the UK between the period of 2000 and 2008 from 75% of GDP to 107%.”

[4] Minton argues ‘For the last decade at least, the benchmark test for whether new development should go ahead is whether or not it is of economic benefit. That benchmark test needs to be changed to emphasise the social value’, Anna Minton, Common Good(s) — Redefining the public interest and the common good,

[5] Ibid. p.2

[6] The anodyne character of Minton’s concept of the public sphere is evident in the following characteristic remarks: ‘Today, much of public life takes place within the political, intellectual and cultural public realm, which includes the public institutions of the country, from government, the civil service and the rule of law, to universities, publicly funded arts organisations, heritage and conservation agencies and the BBC and the media.’ Ibid. p.2

[7] Ibid. p.10

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. p.5

[10] See Minton, p.5

[11] Wolfgang Streeck, Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, London: Verso Books, 2014.

[12] Ibid. p.4

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] See E.P. Thompson, Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act, London: Allen Lane, 1975.

[16] Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Cambridge, MA: MIT press, 1991.

[17] Ibid. p2

[18] All names have been changed to preserve anonymity.

[19] No Recourse to Public Funds Network, Executive Summary Social Services Support to People with NRPF: A National Picture, 2011, p.2,

[20] A. Sivanandan ‘Race, Class and the State: The Political Economy of Immigration’ (1976) in Catching History on the Wing: Race, Culture and Globalisation (Pluto Press: London, 2008)