On Housing Struggles



Introduction

The presentation below on the housing question was given in January ‘07 to a group of Seattle activists who genuinely aspired to create some “urgency and action” among working class people around the issue of rising rents and indifferent absentee landlords. The meetings were organized primarily to discuss the local housing situation, and lasted for approximately 2 1/2 months before the group agreed to disband with many of them realizing that their enthusiasm and their desire “to do something” was insufficient to keep them together. As one of them said at their last meeting: “these meetings are like a bad date with a lot of people,” while another commented that he did not want to be part of the group “...because he [could] not handle the level of incoherence and general mish-mash of ideas” and further, “that even though they had come together to create ‘productive actions’ none had been created.”

Even before the group officially disbanded it was apparent that it was going nowhere fast, and, as is often the case, demoralization and a sense of frustration at the inability to be “productive” set in, as is reflected in the quotes above -- also blame. But if there is any “blame” to be acknowledged it would be “collective” blame because the group as a whole, at their first meeting, explicitly agreed that it was not their intention to delve into political differences; the purpose for them was to come together around the issue of “Seattle's housing crisis...in discussion that will lead to action, not abstract philosophical debates”. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the absence of political discussion evolved into further incoherence and frustration which was articulated in a general feeling of “enough already.”

In an attempt to provoke discussion around the issue of housing as a class issue and housing struggles historically, a presentation was given by one of the members who disagreed with the overall activist orientation, but who was looking for an opportunity to discuss with other Seattle radicals. This member dropped out shortly after the meeting at which the presentation was given; the majority of the group voted to continue with an action oriented agenda which included calling attention to Seattle’s high rents through a postering campaign. However, only a few weeks later the group stopped meeting altogether. Individuals in the group, some more than others, were unhappy with the fact that “nothing ever happened in Seattle,” so one can only imagine that their frustration with each other became frustration with the working class, from whom it would seem they expected something but got nothing. The disillusion came full circle here, disillusion within the group, and disillusion with the class ... both stem from the same source, an impatience for change, which can only really come from a growing awareness and a collective resistance by the class as a whole to the increasing intensity of attacks on its living conditions.

The common thread of such activist groups is their need to “do something”, to “create a spark” or “light a match,” in order to show the class (or whomever) the way forward; in other words, “voluntarism”. They believe that the power of their example can create a collective struggle where there was none, and so they focus on that, rather than on intervening in struggles that spontaneously develop, and they downplay the need to have a theory and do the theoretical work that makes an effective intervention in such struggles possible. This confused approach to activism is common within the anarchist milieu. On the one hand, they want to engage in open, militant struggle as “ordinary” proles, yet also as a vanguard, since the rest of the class is quiet. On the other hand, they don’t actually organize themselves on such a (class) basis, but rather, on the basis of their anti-capitalist or anarchist political perspective. Such groups refuse to understand the distinction between class-based struggle organizations and political (or anti-political) minorities, a distinction which the past hundred years of militant class struggle has amply demonstrated.

These discussions took place at the beginning of the year, before the present sub-prime mortgage crisis and the velocity of millions of home ownership foreclosures. Overall the group's identification with “tenants,” as opposed to “homeowners,” coupled with an interest in the poorest sections of the working class, created divisions based upon income and status, as opposed to what the class has in common. This illusion was further emphasized by the false idea that homeowners had more options and were better off. They saw housing problems from the standpoint of those who rented, period. This division between tenants and home owners does not take into consideration the historical changes that capitalism has entailed, including changes in the living conditions of the working class: being able to pay one's mortgage today is not that different from being able to pay one's rent 40 years ago. (“The rates of homeownership [in the US] rose dramatically after WWII, from 45 percent to 65 percent in little more than a decade fueled by the now-classic 30 -year fixed-rate mortgage; many of these homes were outside of cities, in the suburbs, ...today that figure has increased to 69 percent and has been fueled by the sub-prime mortgage boom.”) (Urban Institute: “America's Second Housing Boom” by Edward Gramlich, 1/30/07). Home ownership today is certainly not indicative of bourgeois or petit-bourgeois existence - and the sense that it is, seems indicative of a pronounced nostalgia for a bygone age of proletarian life.

An article from the World Socialist Web Site, “Wall Street Hides Impact Of Subprime Mortgage Meltdown” by Cesar Uco, clearly outlines the tragedy and the devastation wrought on “...millions of working families, single mothers and immigrants who see their modest savings wiped out .…” Moreover, if we take “... the poor and elderly who took out second mortgages to make ends meet ….” the picture becomes even bleaker. Although some manage to hang onto their homes, “...they do so [only] by cutting back on other basic necessities like food, healthcare, clothing, education and transportation.” Some comparisons are given that apply to New York City, but could definitely be applied to other big cities as well. For example, “...in the trendy Manhattan districts of Greenwich Village, Soho and Chelsea, as well as in the more traditional quarter of wealth and privilege, the Upper East Side, the percentage of home purchases and refinancing loans that are sub prime amount to only about 1 percent, and foreclosures are less than 1 in 1,000. In contrast, in the South Bronx -- the Mott Heaven-Melrose district -- where the median household income stands at $15,500, home purchases with sub-prime loans have grown from 7.1 percent to 40.9 percent between 2002 and 2006; refinancing with sub prime loans has escalated from 29.4 percent to 42.4 percent. The home foreclosure rate here hit a high of 23.7 per 1,000 in 2005, which will soon be eclipsed by the current crisis.” Figures published in the New York Post last week indicate that foreclosures have soared in the city's predominantly working-class outer boroughs. For the period July 2006 to July 2007, the paper reported, “foreclosure filings increased by 54.3 percent in the Bronx, 50.6 percent in Brooklyn and 126.1 percent in Queens… In the final analysis, the spectacular growth in sub-prime mortgages in New York City's poorest districts -- as well as elsewhere across the country -- has amounted to a usurious instrument for transferring wealth from the working class straight into the pockets of the banks .…”

What needs to be stressed, and what the present crisis illuminates, is that decent housing is increasingly threatened for a growing part of the working class, not just in poor countries but even in the richest ones; that this tendency will increase as capitalism’s crisis deepens, so class struggle around housing problems in working class neighborhoods may become a serious issue, an important aspect of a generalizing break with capitalist normalcy and legality. That said, one cannot deny the fact that working class neighborhoods in the US (and elsewhere) are fast disappearing, the capitalist class have dismantled the manufacturing sites and working class neighborhoods have disintegrated. As foreclosures mount, as houses are boarded up, working class families are dispersed outside of their old neighborhoods with a decreased sense of identity as productive working people. This will impose hardship on struggles that are based upon housing conflicts alone. But for now, the present crisis, for millions of working class homeowners, demonstrates exactly how insecure they are.

As the presentation below emphasizes it is the “coming together of the class as a whole,” tenants and homeowner alike, connected to workplace struggles, that will give the class struggle “the power ... to overthrow capital”.


SOME THOUGHTS ON HOUSING ISSUES




1. Is Housing a Class-issue?


Yes. Capitalism attacks our class both in its living and working conditions. There are many examples in the history of class struggle of rent strikes, collective resistance against evictions and of appropriations of housing. Furthermore, we can expect the issue to gain in importance in the future. Rents have been going up tremendously in the past years and many working families have to spend 30% or more of their income on it. Already more than a quarter of the homeless men in the US are people with jobs and their number is bound to increase. Millions of workers, pushed by high rents and lured by low interest rates, went deep in debt to buy homes at inflated prices in recent years. When housing prices fall, as they have already started to do in some parts of the US, they will find themselves with debt-obligations higher than the nominal value of their houses, which will force many of them out of their homes. The level of indebtedness of the working class has increased tremendously and in the US especially. This is a real time bomb, ready to explode when the next recession arrives. It seems quite possible that this will happen in a not too distant future and that the shock will be hard. Housing will then most likely become a burning issue, which workers will have to face in a collective way.

On the other hand, we also must take into account the impact of the changes that capitalism underwent in the last quarter of a century. The capitalist work process changed, creating new jobs and eliminating many others. The law of value penetrated every aspect of society, every corner of the earth, turning all social activity into a capital-labor relation, thereby turning hundreds of millions of doctors, scientists, educators, researchers, freelancers, caregivers, peasants, craftsmen, independent producers, etc., into proletarians. The working class has grown but also is recomposed. The industrial proletariat has shrunk in the US to no more than 17% of the total work force. Even more so than work, housing has become dispersed. The dense urban proletarian bulwarks are receding into the past, at least in the West.

Furthermore, the differences in income within the working class (due, amongst other things, to the oversupply of unskilled and low skilled labor and the scarcity of some specialized kinds of labor) inevitably result in differences in living conditions. However, these differences do not arise from a difference in interest between those categories: they are both exploited by capitalism and can only free themselves by coming together as a class. It is imaginable that there could be situations (for example when young, better paid worker families move into a poor neighborhood) in which there would be a “gentrification” conflict pitting workers against workers. I don't see what could be gained from this from a revolutionary point of view. (Pro-) revolutionaries do not have a fetishist interest in the poorest segments of the working class. While it is true that these are the first to suffer and may therefore be the first to resist, if their struggle remains a struggle for the poor, it is doomed. What interests us, as revolutionary militants, is the coming together of the class as a whole, because only from that can the power come to overthrow capital. That brings me to my next point:

2. What is the potential of housing conflicts from a (pro-) revolutionary point of view?

We are interested in housing conflicts for the same reason as we are interested in workplace conflicts: because they can lead to an empowerment of the class, a break with normalcy, a questioning of the capitalist order, the collective imagining of a different society -- but only if the struggle is waged on a class-basis. In a struggle around housing, this can be less evident than in a struggle at the workplace, for the reasons mentioned above. To the degree that it is possible for pro-revolutionaries to participate in such struggles, they should stress the class nature of the conflict and plead for connecting the struggle with resistance at the workplaces. It seems unlikely that a strong movement just around housing could arise in the absence of unrest at the site of production. If it would, it would be condemned to recuperation and defeat.

3. Should pro-revolutionaries try to organize housing actions?

Should they undertake direct action against bad landlords in the hope of scaring them into making concessions, so that small victories demonstrate to the renting population, which is too “backward” to fight unless someone shows them how, the benefits of direct action? To think so, one would have to believe that a determined minority could transfer its will to fight to the masses. It implies a vanguardist confidence in the belief that the masses can be dragged onto the path of revolution, and a corresponding underestimation of the creativity of the class. In that respect, groups like the CLAC are the same as classic Leninists. It is one thing to say that, when the conditions are ripe for housing struggles, we should encourage them and enthusiastically support them, but quite another to say that we should instigate them and organize them. What interests us is not so much the immediate result of a struggle (a landlord promises to abide by the rules, or to make repairs, or to cancel an eviction) but whether it contributes to the self-awareness and self-confidence of our class, to a growing consciousness of its potential power. That requires self-organization, a break with the ingrained social practices on which the perpetuation of the status quo rests, which make workers believe that they cannot act on their own, that they need the support and leadership of unions and other specialists. If we only replace this dependence on union or church leadership by a dependence on direct action-specialists, we will have contributed nothing fundamental to the challenge to capitalist normalcy.

In Europe, there was a peak in housing struggles in 1975-1980, with, amongst others, a strong, politicized “krakers” (squatters) movement in Holland in which anarchists and even some left communists played a leading role. This followed after a decade of very intense class struggle in the factories, strong anti-war protests, etc. The energy generated by this eventful decade was still palpable, even though the class struggle was declining. By focusing on housing, a politicized minority was trying to keep that energy alive on another terrain for action. Some hoped that the spark of the housing movement would rekindle the broader fire. That didn't happen.

To some extent, the focus on housing today of some anti-capitalist activists, impatient for change, may be similarly motivated by disillusion caused by the lack of struggle in the workplaces and by illusions in what can be accomplished on the terrain of housing alone.

But if the squatter movements of the late '70's can arguably be seen as a last gasp of the wave of class struggle of the '60'-'70's, could housing struggles today not be the beginning of a new wave? Well, who knows? Nobody has a crystal ball. But if that were to occur, it would arise from a collective will. That is what is still lacking today. It would be much simpler if people would want to fight but needed the example of activists to show them how, but that's not reality.

There is no doubt that more intense attacks on the living and working conditions of our class are coming. Only within a context of collective resistance to those attacks can housing struggles have an anti-capitalist dynamic. Without that context, they can easily be repressed and/or recuperated.

The Dutch capitalist class showed itself very adept at recuperating the krakers movement without any damage to its rule. Some creative agreements with landlords were struck allowing squatters to stay and legalize their situation, but many other squatters were evicted or dispersed. A part of the movement was incorporated into the left of capital, a part found a niche in social services, and the rest evaporated. In the absence of a renewal of class struggle in the workplaces, nothing else was possible. It is true that performing social services (giving direct support or legal advice to tenants threatened by eviction, etc.) can be very useful from a humanitarian point of view but that doesn't make it anti-capitalist. It can even be supportive to the capitalist order by forcing the “rotten apples” to become “good landlords,” thus being a part of the self-correcting mechanisms of capitalist democracy. Participation in housing struggles can only be anti-capitalist if it recognizes that such struggles must arise from and be organized by the workers households themselves and if it seeks to connect such conflicts with resistance to capitalist rule in the workplaces.

Carol


Home Issues of IP Texts Discussion IP's French site Links