Sunday, August 10, 2014

Housing Resistance



“The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles... [in this] the bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part... [it] has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation... [this revolutionary force] must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.”

These words are taken from the opening lines of the Communist Manifesto, written more than 150 years ago.  Yet they perfectly describe the world we live in today; a world rent by economic strife and class struggle driven deep into every tiny crack and crevice of modern society.

But the world was not always like this.  Some few human communities still exist as they have done for hundreds of years, in peace and security, where money has little use except in trade. In certain remote and ancient villages in northern Africa or the Middle East, whitewashed homes still stand cool and secure, where successive generations are raised without debt or mortgage, or fear for the future.  These houses have doors made of wood and iron that have never felt the knock of a Sheriff or a Banker or a Real Estate broker.  The children raised in these homes play and grow to marry without ever once calculating the inheritance they'd collect if only their parents would have the decency to die.

Yes, in some places, evidence still exists of a better way to live than this.  But not here.  In our world, all our relations are in some respect, “money relations” as Marx put it.  Ours is a world where poverty and oppression go together like pasta and sauce.  Where a mother's love, and a father's devotion are reducible to precise dollar values in divorce proceedings.  Where lawyers and accountants must first slice up the family home before the bride is allowed to cut up her wedding cake. Where parents charge rent to their children and evict their unemployed teenagers for overdue arrears.  Where the division of a parent's estate is fought over while these same parents sit, still very much alive, silently ruing their part in raising such a brood of monsters... this is the “market economy”, where “money problems” are served at every family dinner, and “financial insecurity” slips under the sheets to intrude itself between husband and wife when the lights go out.  This is the Bourgeois Revolution, triumphant.

Seen in this way, it is an outrage, but seen every day, it fatally evades attention.  It is a tumour growing on the body of society.  Everyone you meet on the street has the same affliction, growing within them, dominating their thoughts and sapping their strength... “How do I make more money?  And like so many cancer sufferers, to stop for a moment and reflect, what is that stabbing pain? Is to admit doubt, and with doubt, fear, and with fear, anxiety, and with anxiety, weakening and collapse.  We must keep moving, growing! but we are not growing, it is the tumour that grows.  We have no time to stop, we must work!  We can't afford to be sick!  When finally the “problem” becomes so enormous it can no longer be denied, it is of course too late.  At the end of our lives, we realise we have served this thing growing inside us to the exclusion of almost everything else that matters.  And finally, at the very moment our eyes are truly open for the first time, we die.

This is the life we have made for ourselves. We cannot imagine living any other way.  Yet there is another way, if we could, squinting, only see it, and choose it.

One thing, a small thing really, but a thing nonetheless which has been made a killing field in the class struggle, is the fight over Housing Security.  It was not an issue until the bourgeoisie made it one, but now that it is one, it is a fight to the finish, at least as far as workers are concerned.

Capitalism, as Marx demonstrated, must possess everything, own everything, control everything, no matter how sacred or seemingly insignificant.  And the family home is such a thing. The process of owning everything requires disruption and destablisation. Workers, the sole producers of value must be unsettled so they can be parted from what they have earned and acquired and rely upon.  And of course, the single most important thing that any worker can own, besides their lives and health, besides their time and labour, is their home.

A worker who owns their own home is secure.  They have resources and leisure in which to contemplate their lot in life, and their duty as human beings.  They do not have to work as hard to support themselves and their families.  They are free, at least to think, to question.

Workers who do not own their own homes, who must work to pay off a a heavy mortgage, whether it is theirs, or their landlord's, are in a precarious situation.  If they lose their jobs, they lose their homes, and in our society, being homeless and unemployed is a form of “fiscal death” which is itself a form of “social death” leading in some cases to physical death.  Workers rightly fear it.  This fear makes them amenable to control.   Workers who are tenants, or in debt are therefore more compliant, more docile, more subservient, and easily dissuaded from taking collective action as they ought. 

Housing insecurity therefore can be seen as a form of Social Control, one which keeps pressure on workers so that ideally, they will be more “productive” and less politically disruptive.  Where this form of social control becomes public policy, you are looking at the class struggle, aimed squarely at your head.  Now imagine instead an army of workers secure in their homes, able to work a little less, and attend a few more meetings, read a few more books, and think.  Such an army of workers would be very hard to put down.  Which is yet another reason why housing security is such a hotly contested social battle ground.

It is no coincidence then, that “property investing” and the commodification of residential housing began at the same time that Neo-Liberalism was popularised by Thatcher and Reagan.  Since the 1980's, an incipient “housing bubble” has been inflating, fueled by low taxes for the rich, oceans of printed money and a lemming-like urge to repeatedly buy assets that inarticulate instinct tells us we should already own by right.  We fell prey to an unbelievably pervasive public relations campaign showing happy families and picket fences. We were sold on the idea that we owed it to ourselves to get into debt.  Banks and financial advisors around the world advised “mums and dads” to replace the vanishing pensions their taxes had already paid for with “rental property portfolios” using borrowed money.  This would bring in “passive income” from “renters” who would obligingly “pay your mortgage for you” so that you, the “smart money” would be able to “secure your financial future”.  Millions bought it, literally, and promptly lost everything because of it.  The promise of financial freedom, dangled like a carrot from a white picket fence post was alas a lie.

For more than 30 years, property prices have increased on the back of this propaganda barrage, from an historic average 2:1 ratio of house price to gross income, to more than 6 times, as it is now.  A simple wooden house built in 1930 that was not meant to last more than 50 years now sells 80 years later for over $1 million.  If the present situation continues, with house prices growing at current rates, the same mouldy house will be priced at $2 million in 2022.  In contrast, worker's wages have not only failed to keep pace, they have actually declined in the same period.  This is a ridiculous and unsustainable state of affairs.

The answer is clear;  while so ever worker's homes are treated as commodities to be traded and speculated upon, workers can never be secure.  The only solution is to put an end to the speculative market in residential properties.  The easiest way to do this is to remove the commercial incentive for investing in property for exploitative purposes.

This is currently considered unthinkable, but in fact, it has been done before, many times, in different ways, and in some of the most unlikely places. 

One way this has been done is through Rent controls.  The United States has an extensive history of rent control, with rent controls common in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Washington DC.

Rent controls can take many forms, but typically involve putting a cap on rent rises for a tenant while they are occupying the property, and granting the tenant much stronger occupancy rights.  These stronger occupancy rights effectively remove the distinction between home ownership and rental tenancy, making the tenant as secure in their control of the property as they would be if they actually owned it.  Rent control tenants in many San Francisco properties for example cannot have their rent raised, even after decades, and cannot be removed or evicted unless the owner themselves or their immediate family intends to move in. 

Many millions of Americans know what rent control is, and would count themselves very fortunate to live in a rent controlled property in a city like San Francisco.  However, it seldom crosses their minds to consider that rent control is actually a form of Socialism, won by struggle, through the organised participation of militant tenant associations. 

Contrary to the rabid fears of Neo-Liberals, such rent controls do not adversely affect rental accommodation availability in these cities.  Instead, rent controls merely drive out the speculators.  Property owners continue to buy apartment buildings for their intrinsic value, not their speculative value.  Rents typically cover property taxes, maintenance and the opportunity cost of the original investment. 

While not an entirely adequate Revolutionary Socialist solution, it nonetheless breaks the back of the property hoarders and speculators, and restores housing security to workers.  Activism in this context is crucial for the creation of class consciousness – tinkering with reforms will not suffice.  However additional support can come in the form of  legal restrictions on the number of rental properties that can be owned concurrently, the creation of housing co-ops, Building and Friendly Society formation and so forth.  All of these methods together serve to subvert the commercial incentives for speculators, improve home affordability and housing security, and thus take pressure off of workers.  Taking pressure off of workers is vital, as it allows them leisure to examine their role in society, and to develop other social policy changes even more wide-ranging and ambitious than housing reform.

In New Zealand, most Kiwi's, shocked at the growing gap in housing affordability seldom consider that there is anything that can be done about it, other than to work harder and save more.  This is precisely what the bourgeoisie want workers to think.  The bourgeoisie are solving their need for greed by propagating the myth that there is “no alternative” to Neo-Liberalism and pitiless “personal responsibility”, when all the while, the game has been rigged from the beginning.  But there is an alternative to “generational mortgages” and permanent home insecurity. It is called resistance.

Linda M.
Socialist Aotearoa








No comments: