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Marxism for Whores

By Magpie Corvid

My story is the same as many thousands of people who have found themselves unable to find steady, decently paid work. Our story is about austerity; we are everywhere, subsisting on meagre benefits, part-time work and a few occasional jobs. Some of us go into business for ourselves; some of us make websites; some of us fix cars, and some of us do sex work.

I entered sex work, along with so many other people, as a straightforward solution to the awful risks of poverty. I am not a sex worker because of a poignant story. I am not a sex worker because I am mentally ill, or have a history of abuse, or have daddy issues, or because I want attention. It is sometimes wonderful and sometimes difficult, and it’s not a job for everyone, but sex work is my job. It is a job that I can do, that I am good at; it provides for me. When I sell my sexuality as a product, the only difference between me and another service worker, or another performer, is in the sexual nature of the work. Of course, sexual labour can be intense, and dangerous, and of course making it illegal does nothing to alleviate these factors. Activist Jenny Pearl, of the English Collective of Prostitutes, said;

I go out to work now because of economic pressures. Benefits don’t cover the cost of gas, electric, water rates, replacing household equipment. I can’t live on benefits long term. When I have to buy coats or shoes I can’t afford them. Most of the other girls or women that I meet on the street are there for very similar reasons, purely to keep their families together, their children out of care. It gives them a little bit of control about when to have the heating on or not, instead of having to stay in bed with the covers on to stay warm. They go out for an hour and make enough money to pay a bill. Sometimes that is the only control, the only choice we have in our lives. We can stay in bed, live in squalor, survive on bread and jam, but personally I feel I deserve more and so does my daughter. So I choose to go on the street and earn some money because I want a better life. What I do is not dishonest. It is hard work. I wouldn’t do it if I had a choice. But now that I have a criminal record for soliciting, it is the only job I can do that enables me to earn some money without neglecting my daughter. Because of my daughter’s disability, when I go out I have to earn £60 just to cover sitting costs even though she is twenty-five, before I get the money to pay the bills.

• • •

I was not born into poverty; I was raised in a middle class family, and aimed by my parents like a rocket at the American Dream. But before I became a sex worker, I was broke, with a precarious hold on food and rent. Two years into sex work, I am living a decent life, in a wonderful marriage as a financial equal with my husband, and I am able to save up for a mortgage while having enough time to devote to writing and politics. So why, when it looks like, superficially, I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps, like a stocking-wearing Horatio Alger with a crop, am I a Marxist?

I am a Marxist because the Whore Imagined* – the cheater, the deceiver, the trafficked, the downtrodden, the insane, the streetwalker, the courtesan, the dominatrix – is used as a tool to keep women in line, and under the thumb of patriarchal control. It is no wonder that the hegemonic, corporate feminism, the feminism of the Angelina Jolies and the Sheryl Sandbergs of this world, so champions the rescue industry; that statistics-fabricating, lie-telling machine that conflates voluntary sex work with sex trafficking. If the corporate feminists would liberate women, why not start with the undocumented migrant workers of America? Why not start with those suffering appalling conditions legally, without the right to change employer, under the tied visa system in the UK? They will not, because they still want the marginalised and controlled cleaning their boardrooms, plucking their chickens and watching their children. But not as whores; never as whores.

The feminism of the rescue industry is a carceral feminism, one that strengthens the state, one that ‘rescues’ with arrests. The new raft of anti sex work laws and police tactics attack the screening tools of sex workers, like our advertisements online and identity verification tools, making all of us less safe under the aegis of stopping sex trafficking. The Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation (SAVE) Act in the United States and the accompanying series of high-profile raids against internet-based sex workers, Canada’s Bill C-36, which restricts advertising and criminalises clients, along with the adoption of laws criminalising clients across Europe mean that sex workers are thrown into jail more often, and our work is more difficult, and increasingly dangerous.

Those in the very elite of the feminist movement – women like Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer – are championing this work as noble rescue. They are captivated by the Whore Imagined and ignore the reality of sex workers. The police conducting periodic raids in Soho find many sex workers, but seldom those who have been trafficked, instead labelling sex workers working together traffickers and pimps. As new regimes settle in, in countries where clients are criminalised, work gets scarce, screening becomes more difficult and those who are truly on the margins of the sex work scene, where coercion might well be taking place, retreat even further into the shadows. It is because I am committed to solutions that address the plight of those who are indeed coerced into sex work, and am not willing to accept a superficial approach that merely pushes coercion offstage, I am a Marxist.

I am a Marxist because I know that women are expected to become avatars of male sexual desire, but that if a woman sells her skills and appeal, tunes them, hones them and sees her work as a challenge, then all of her art, drive and ingenuity is reduced to the sale of her body. And I am a Marxist because we all sell our bodies, our time and our will to our bosses, our families, our countries, our religions, our lovers and our friends, but it is the Whore Imagined who allows us to distance ourselves from all the countless ways that we whore ourselves. When we see them, the whores, lined up and filmed after a raid, exposed on television, we do not see the real sex workers – disrupted, outed, deprived of work, jailed, hounded, deported – we see the skirts and the heels. We do not see the ambition to cross an ocean or the drive to provide for a family.

• • •

People all over the world, mostly women, often mothers, become sex workers, often to support their families. If a radical feminist says to me that my work is an abomination, I say to her that all work is an abomination, and invite her to step down off her pedestal. Here on the ground, women clean fish, and toilets, and the bottoms of the disabled and elderly. And some of us do sex work. I stand with her against the coercion, degradation, and fear that is undeniably present in some parts of sex work, but if she wishes to end it, let her stand with me against austerity, and the indignity of so much of the labour of women. Let her stand with me for decriminalisation. The abolitionists offer the most harrowing stories of women kidnapped, tricked and drugged into sexual slavery, and posit themselves as the inheritors of the tradition of Wilberforce, but without a critique of capitalism, the coercive force of the market, we cannot end any form of slavery, which, of course, never truly ended at all.

I am a Marxist because I understand that the taboo, the marginalisation and the othering of sexual labour is not intrinsic, like the mass of a thrown rock. My work exists because of patriarchy, and many feminists feel that the abolition of my work would be a boon for women everywhere. But it is a misguided feminism that would jail and terrorise sex workers, and would sacrifice our safety, freedom and livelihoods for the empty trophy of a raided brothel. The carceral ‘feminism’ of the elites has no problem with raiding a brothel and forcing its occupants into a sweatshop to sew. But a socialist, intersectional feminism must listen to the voices of sex workers, rather than ignoring them and treating them as symbols. While American courts divert sex workers into faith-based programs, sex workers themselves organise to share safety and screening information. Surely we could do even more to improve our working conditions if police and society stopped targetting us.

I acknowledge that my work is privileged relative to that of many other sex workers. But as a Marxist I understand that if they are not free, to choose – or to not choose – sex work and to organise for better working conditions, than neither am I; and the ultimate freedom and safety of sex workers lies in our work being viewed as work. Millions upon millions of workers all over the world, the overwhelming majority of whom are not sex workers, work in appalling conditions under a greater or lesser degree of coercion. There are, in fact, many millions of actual slaves – more than there have ever been – and the vast majority work in trades other than sex work. The Whore Imagined is often a standard bearer for campaigns against modern slavery, but the solution to modern slavery, even that part of it that does involve sex workers, is not – as the rescue industry would claim – to criminalise the sale or purchase of sexual services. The solution may be a number of things, all of which would be wholly unacceptable to a mainstream government. What would end the scourge of modern slavery? For a start, a radical re-thinking of borders and migration, so that those who migrate for work have all of the rights and services that citizens have. Add to that a dramatic increase in the powers of trade unions and the full decriminalisation of sex work, without the restrictive legalisation of places such as Germany, which has merely subjected sex workers to the oppressive regimes of massive brothels. And a fundamental part of the solution would be a sustained effort to end poverty, starting with a guaranteed minimum income.

I hold out little hope that the traditional Left – in all its forms, from the Labour Party to anarchism – will wholeheartedly embrace the movement for sex worker rights any time soon. There are many leading voices in the sex worker rights movement who distrust feminism and anything that smacks of the state, and they are well advised to be wary; the Whore Imagined has made too powerful an imprint on the consciousness of the Left, and on its notions of its intellectual history. Dworkin invoked her when she said,

Prostitution in and of itself is an abuse of a woman's body. Those of us who say this are accused of being simple-minded. But prostitution is very simple … In prostitution, no woman stays whole. It is impossible to use a human body in the way women's bodies are used in prostitution and to have a whole human being at the end of it, or in the middle of it, or close to the beginning of it. It's impossible. And no woman gets whole again later, after.

And even those feminists who claimed to be more sympathetic to Marxism, like Gayle Rubin and Catherine Mackinnon, essentially wrote out class, condensing it into a mere attribute, rather than a dynamic relationship within society. As Brooke Beloso said in her 2012 paper, ‘Sex, Work, and the Feminist Erasure of Class’,

Absent Marx’s conceptualization of class as a dynamic relation under capitalism, feminists writing about sex work in the wake of MacKinnon and Rubin generally fail to distinguish between woman-as-laborer and sex as “the particular product of individual labor”. Instead, feminists tend to conflate the two, everywhere seeing prostitutes as victims who always happen to be women (or girls) but never workers.

Although there were many close alliances between the sex worker rights movement and the mainstream feminist movement during the early days of second wave feminism, the later predominance of essentialising ideas about sex work within radical feminism has broken that alliance. Today’s sex worker rights campaigners often use the language of intersectional feminism and privilege theory, and make their case in terms of social and economic justice, but, even in this recent year of feminism, the ideas of leading voices like Melissa Gira Grant have remained outside the mainstream. Similarly, even as people campaign against austerity, the issue of sex worker rights has remained on the outer margins.

The fierce, anarchic blessing of our age is the Internet, and through it, sex workers have the capacity to relate to the public without the mediation of activists, scholars or political parties. New York City's Red Umbrella Project recently made international headlines when it conducted a study of Brooklyn courts' diversion program for prostitution arrests; instead of jail it offered mandatory classes, from life skills to yoga. RedUP activists attended court proceedings, monitoring and analysing them, and determined they were racist and persistently marginalising of defendants. With their results they engaged directly in politics, taking for themselves the long privileged role of researcher.

In the UK, sex workers have taken politics by storm, decisively routing November’s attempt by abolitionists to slip the criminalisation of clients into the Modern Slavery Bill. The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), which spearheaded that effort, is pressing its advantage with a simple pledge in support of the full decriminalisation of sex work. They have long had a focus on the relationship between poverty and sex work, particularly for single mothers, and they hope that their campaign, aimed at trade unions, will make visible the broad support for decriminalisation, and will force a difficult but necessary debate. They’re already seeing some results; in his personal capacity, Austin Harney, Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) representative to the Ministry of Justice, told the ECP:

It should never be in the interests of any Trade Union to allow the lives of sex workers to be endangered, especially as they are entitled to pay, terms and conditions in line with the human rights of all employees. Criminalising clients will, only, exacerbate the limited safety of sex workers who could face life threatening attacks in the criminal underworld and be subjected to false arrests by the police who are supposed to protect the innocent. Sex Workers are of no threat to society and should be welcomed to stand in solidarity with all communities that are facing destruction in an age of austerity!

Meanwhile, much of the Left’s been left behind. While the Green Party, the Liberal Democrats, and even some elements of the Labour Party have moved forward on the issue of sex worker rights, alliances like Left Unity and individual revolutionary groups are still debating whether sex work is work or not. By lending credence to outmoded ideas about the essential awfulness of sex work, they strengthen conservative moral panics and contribute to the marginalisation of sex workers as well as ignoring the voices of some of the people most affected by austerity. The Left hopes to take inspiration from the unprecedented victory of Greece's SYRIZA, and their successful election strategy of drawing connections between different types of marginalisation. But even SYRIZA has shown itself lacking on issues such as LGBT rights; while it has promised to open up civil partnerships, it backtracked on the issue of adoption by LGBT people. It remains to be seen whether Syriza will backtrack similarly on sex worker rights. That the British Left largely ignore or dismiss sex worker rights is a missed opportunity, but that ignorance will not stop us from making the connections ourselves. It is my belief that sex workers can rebuild the Whore Imagined in our true image, without the guidance of any sage or party.

Since I walked away from the organised Left, I have never done so much politics. Sex workers, and many others, are finding that we can build real world community, and effective campaigns, through the ferment of social media. Supporters of Monica Jones, a black trans woman who was arrested for ‘manifesting prostitution’ in 2013, built an international campaign that incisively exposed the intersections of race, class, trans identity and sex work. When the charges were overturned on appeal, her campaign victory had left a strong and organic network in its wake, with a politics and a feminism that is decidedly radical, with a robust critique of austerity. The brilliant upsurge of sex worker resistance to the laws and moralities that would criminalise us is a part of a broader resistance to austerity, but it remains to be seen whether the global movement against austerity will acknowledge sex workers as full comrades in that struggle. I am a part of both worlds, both movements, but in my hope that feminism and the organised Left will let go of the Whore Imagined and embrace the struggle for sex worker rights, I am a Marxist.

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*I owe this concept to Melissa Gira Grant's essential Playing the Whore, whose most powerful concept is "the prostitute imaginary."

Neoliberalism as the Agent of Capitalist Self-Destruction

By Neil Davidson


The neoliberal era can be retrospectively identified as beginning with the economic crisis of 1973, or, more precisely, with the strategic response of state managers and employers to that crisis. Previous eras in the history of capitalism have tended to close with the onset of further period of systemic crisis; 1973, for example, saw the end of the era of state capitalism which began in 1929. The neoliberal era, however, has not only survived the crisis which began in 2007, but its characteristic features are, if anything, being further extended and embedded, rather than reversed.

Yet, although neoliberalism has massively increased the wealth of the global capitalist class, has it also restored the health of the system itself? The crisis which gave rise to neoliberalism was, after all, caused by the end of the unprecedented period of growth which characterised the post-war boom, and the consequent accelerating decline in the rate of profit, unimpeded by the countervailing tendencies – above all arms spending – which had held it in check since the Second World War. These levels of growth were never resumed, but it would be wrong to claim that capitalism experienced no recovery after 1973. The boom from 1982 to 2007 was certainly uneven and punctuated by particularly sharp financial crises and recessions in 1987, 1991, 1997 and 2000; but these were normal expressions of the business cycle and only a misplaced fixation with using the unique and unrepeatable period between 1948 and 1973 as a comparator could justify treating these as symptoms of crisis. When crisis did return in 2007–8, it simply proved that neoliberalism was no more capable of permanently preventing this than any other mode of capitalist regulation.

Neoliberalism does, however, represent a paradox for capitalism. Its relative success as a ruling-class strategy, particularly in weakening the trade union movement and reducing the share of profits going to labour, has helped to disguise that some aspects of this mode of regulation are proving unintentionally detrimental to the system. Serving the interests of the rich is not the same – or at least, not always the same – as serving the interests of capital and may, in certain circumstances, be in contradiction to it. Simply doing what the rich want is unlikely to produce beneficial results for the system as a whole, although it may help increase the wealth of individual capitalists. For not only are capitalists generally uninterested in the broader social interest, which we might expect, but they are also generally incapable of correctly assessing their own overall collective class interests, which might seem more surprising – although as we shall see, it is a long-standing phenomenon, observed by many of the great social theorists from late eighteenth century onwards. As a result, capitalist states – or more precisely, their managers – have traditionally acted to make such an assessment; but in the developed West at least, neoliberal regimes are increasingly displaying an uncritical adherence to the short-term wishes of particular business interests. This is not the only emergent problem: the increasingly narrow parameters of neoliberal politics, where choice is restricted to ‘social’ rather than ‘economic’ issues, has encouraged the emergence of far-right parties, usually fixated on questions of migration, which have proved enormously divisive in working-class communities, but whose policies are in other respects by no means in the interests of capital.

The self-destructive nature of neoliberal capitalism has nothing necessarily to do with the removal of restrictions on markets. The rise of neoliberalism made it fashionable to refer to Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, the assumption being that neoliberalism is in the process of realising Polanyi’s nightmare: reversing the second part of his ‘double movement’ – the social reaction against markets – and unleashing the mechanisms that he saw as being so destructive of society and nature.

Leaving aside the fact that capitalism was always capable of producing social atomisation, collective violence and environmental destruction, even in periods when the state was far more directly involved in the mechanisms of production and exchange then it is now, there are two problems with this position. First, rhetoric apart, capitalists no more favour untrammelled competition today than they did when monopolies and cartels first appeared as aspects of the emerging system in the sixteenth century. Second, one would have to be extraordinarily naïve to believe that the neoliberal project has been about establishing ‘free’ markets in the first place, although this myth has been assiduously perpetrated by social democratic parties who, eager to disguise their own capitulation to neoliberalism, emphasise their opposition to the marketisation of all social relationships, even though no-one – except perhaps the followers of Ayn Rand – seriously imagines this is either possible or desirable. In what follows I will mainly draw on the experiences of the UK and the US, since these were the first nation-states in which neoliberalism was imposed under democratic conditions – unlike Chile or China, for example – and where it has in many respects gone furthest. To understand the real nature of the difficulties inadvertently caused for capital by neoliberalism we have to begin with the role of capitalist states ‘in general’.

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Labour, Pasokified.

Richard Seymour

We were exhorted by Labour’s supporters to ‘vote with hope’ in this election. What now that hope has been so cruelly dashed? What now that neither the ‘Edstone’, nor ‘Milibae’, nor pink buses for women, nor condescending to Scottish voters has been enough to deliver victory?
For Labour, the result is just marginally better than in 2010, when it incurred its worst election defeat since 1918. This was not inevitable. In 2012–3, during which period Labour flirted with opposition to austerity, it consistently led with over 40 percent of the vote. In this election, it gained just over 30 percent, compared to 29 percent in 2010. The only major Tory slayed was the despised Esther McVey in the marginal constituency of Wirral West. In other marginals, such as Nuneaton, the swing to Labour was pitiful. In North Swindon, a safe Tory seat since boundary changes in 2010, the Tories actually gained. Worse still for Labour, Ed Balls supplied the Tories with their ‘Portillo moment’, losing his seat in Morley and Outwood, not from incumbency but from opposition.

Why is Labour’s result so poor? It is not because of the overweening strength of Conservatism. Overall, the Tory vote has barely shifted from 36.1 percent in 2010 to (as of writing) 36.8 percent. The Tories have been in a crisis since 1992, since which time their vote has oscillated between the low to mid-thirties. In previous elections, a vote share of this scale would have left the Tories on the opposition benches. This is not, chiefly, a Tory surge, but the confirmation of a Labour collapse. Labour’s total enervation is also reflected in the turnout, which at 66.1 percent was barely a point above what it was in 2010. And while relatively affluent voters turned out to support Cameron – with a 75 percent turnout in Thornbury and Yate, where the Tories overturned a 7,000 Liberal majority ­– working-class constituencies had some of the lowest turnouts in the country. In Manchester Central, turnout was 52.9 percent. The exceptions to this pattern are where there was some sort of alternative. Across Scotland, turnout was 71.1 percent. In Bristol West, where the Greens came second, turnout was projected to be approximately 85 percent.

So, Miliband’s failure is a confirmation of Labour’s degeneration, its crisis, not of Tory strength. In fact, both Labour and the Conservatives are in the middle of a long-term crisis, which neither has done anything to reverse: the question in this election was, whose crisis is worse?

Unsurprisingly, and highly satisfactorily, the Liberals have been crushed, their share of the vote falling from 23 percent to 7.7 percent. Indeed, this is the big shift in the 2015 election: the collapse of the Liberals and the rise of the smaller parties. I want to point out something of great importance regarding the Liberals. I said previously that the reason their leadership didn’t care about getting mauled in the elections was because they were preparing themselves to act as kingmakers in future coalitions, as exercisers of ‘responsible’ political authority, detached from their base but integrated into the machinery of government. This, let us be honest, is where they’d rather be. And in the last few days, we’ve had Nick Clegg saying that a government without the Liberal Democrats involved would lack legitimacy: even knowing that his party would be hammered into fourth place, he still saw a central role for his wheelers and dealers. In effect, the Liberal apparatchiks chose, with the Orange Book coup against the centre-left Kennedy leadership, to turn their party into a mandarin, de facto apparatus of an increasingly post-democratic state.

The obverse of the Liberals in this election is the SNP. Every tendency in advanced post-democracy is being reversed in Scotland, where working-class electoral participation and party membership is rising, not falling. The SNP took fifty-eight seats, up from six in 2010. The tsunami-like proportions of this wipe-out may be exaggerated by the electoral system, but the swing is huge and signifies something far deeper than a shift in voter identifications or, God help us, a ‘protest vote’. Old right-wing Labour stalwarts like Tom Harris, interviewed on STV last night, demonstrate some vague comprehension that since the Independence referendum, something at the deepest strata of Scottish working class consciousness shifted. But neither he nor his political confederates get what shifted, or why.

The referendum ‘No’ coalition signified everything that was wrong with Westminster politics: all the main parties in it together, on the side of militarism and the multinationals. Despite Gordon Brown’s absurd ‘big beast’ posturing, despite all the talk of the ‘UK pension’ and the ‘UK NHS’, Labour attacked independence from the right, from a position of loyalty to the state, to the war machine, and to the neoliberal doctrines of the civil service. Miliband, during the election campaign, tried to reassure middle-class voters that Labour utterly ruled out any SNP influence on policies like austerity or Trident. And while the Labour Party tailed the Tories on austerity, mimicked Tory language on welfare, and practically grovelled on immigration, the SNP defended a simple, civilised position: no austerity, and no demonising the poor or immigrants. In England, Labour aping the Right led to the base staying at home, as they have done in growing numbers since 2001. In Scotland, working-class voters had a tried-and-tested reformist alternative, with an optimistic political identity linked to a profound socio-demographic shift, and were able to rally to it. And now, with England cleaving broadly to the right and Scotland shifting left, it’s hard to see how they current constitutional arrangements are sustainable. Scotland will simply not assent to being governed by the Tories, and Sturgeon will be under huge pressure to deliver another referendum.

There will be more to say, on the other side of the political spectrum, about the farraginous hordes that are banging at Cameron’s door, but for now it’s worth pointing out how many of them there are: almost four million in this election. UKIP is England’s terrified, resentful answer to the SNP. While the SNP were able to capitalise on the sheer detachment of the Westminster centre parties with a centre-left nationalism, UKIP linked Britain’s growing crisis of democracy to European domination and a series of reactionary gripes about immigration, political correctness and uppity Jocks. Only the perversities of the electoral system prevented UKIP from gaining the fifty or sixty seats they would have gained on this basis, if their vote were more geographically concentrated. As it is, Douglas Carswell, the least UKIP of UKIPers, is the only one to have held onto a seat. What is particularly absurd about this is that the distribution of UKIP’s votes points to its political strength: UKIP managed to eat into Labour heartlands almost as much as Tory seats, making UKIP possibly Britain’s first truly successful, cross-class, populist formation. In Sunderland, for example, it drew tens of thousands of voters, a surge first noticed during the city council elections last year when it took almost a quarter of the vote. Of course, the party is still very fragile and schismatic: its momentum may now dissipate, and it will be much weaker now that Farage has resigned the leadership. But the basis upon which they won these votes was ideologically hardcore, with Farage using the televised debates not to broaden his support but to consolidate his base. If the dominant parties are forced to accept PR, as seems increasingly likely, this signifies a major realignment on the Right.

Finally, there is the Left. The results for TUSC and Left Unity were predictably nanoscopic. The major left tributary of disaffected Labour voters in England was the Greens, who did well to get 3.7 percent of the vote, a four-fold increase on 2010. In addition to keeping Brighton Pavilion, with a 10 percent swing in their favour, they also came second with a swing of 23 percent in Bristol West, where the sitting Liberal was overturned. And they came a good third in a number of constituencies, such as Norwich South, or Holborn and St Pancras where Natalie Bennett got over 7,000 votes. I think this represents something more than a protest vote. Once more, if we get anything like proportional representation, the game is up: in those circumstances, the Green vote will easily surge past 5 percent toward the double figures, and the Pasokification of Labour will take another lurch forward.

This election has been about the collapse of the Labour Party, of labour-movement politics and more generally of representative politics: precisely as I warned. The hope we were exhorted to embrace has been hugely devalued by overuse and by misapplication. There is no hope in the Labour Party. It has neither the political will nor the resources to reconstitute itself, nor would it have a clue how to do so if it did. The Left has to accept reality, and move on. Rebuilding is a slow, difficult, thankless task. In the meantime, hope is precious: it must be rationed.

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Re-asking the Housing Question

By Mary Robertson

Chronic under-supply, crippling unaffordability, and – for the first time in a century – deteriorating physical conditions, are pushing housing to the forefront of political and economic debate in Britain. It is an indication of its breadth and severity that we are spoiled for choice in seeking a headline figure that encapsulates Britain’s housing crisis. A twenty-six percent increase in homelessness since 2010; average house prices more than five times larger than average incomes; ballooning social housing waiting lists; or three quarters of the British public agreeing that there is a housing crisis in Britain – all these things and more point to Britain’s growing inability to house its population.

But its escalating problems are also making housing a site of intensified struggle. A scattering of local defensive actions across London have turned into some of the most vibrant and inspiring campaigns seen in Britain in a long time. For the most part, these are campaigns led not by the usual suspects or dedicated activists, but by people directly affected by housing issues and new to political action. Significantly, for a generation of leftists accustomed to political defeat, housing has also proved the site of some rare, if small, political victories, such as the New Era campaigners ousting their American buyer or Focus E15 forcing part of the Heygate estate into use. The momentum building around housing struggles raises the question of whether housing can be a site of transformative social struggle.

It has been a long time since housing garnered such attention. Significant improvements in housing in the inter- and post-war periods relegated housing to the relative political wilderness. Viewed from a longer perspective, however, housing problems are not new. The nature and inevitability of housing problems, and their potential for transformative change, were discussed by Engels in his pamphlet ‘The Housing Question’ in 1872. Engels argued that capitalist society would fail to provide workers with sufficient or adequate housing, and that the contradictions and uneven development of capitalist society would generate recurrent housing problems. With the housing question resurfacing so forcefully after decades of progress in the middle of the last century, this insight seems highly prescient. However, while there is much in Engels that remains relevant today, the nature of the housing problem has inevitably been transformed by a century and a half of capitalist restructuring. Most notably, the growth of primary and secondary mortgage markets has embroiled housing in financial markets and made housing a site of speculation. To comprehend the present crisis, Engels’s analysis needs updating so that it is able to grasp the novel features acquired by the housing question in the era of financialised capitalism.

Engels’s prognosis for housing was paired with a thesis about the nature of housing struggle. While he granted that housing problems might be temporarily mitigated through the actions of states, capitalists, or workers themselves, Engels ultimately saw housing problems as a reflection of, and subordinate to, the exploitation of labour under capitalist production. Consequently, he argued that the housing problem could only be definitively solved through the overthrow of capitalism and not through isolated struggles around housing:

As long as the capitalist mode of production continues to exist, it is folly to hope for an isolated solution of the housing question or of any other social question affecting the fate of the workers. The solution lies in the abolition of the capitalist mode of production and the appropriation of all the means of life and labour by the working class itself.
Accordingly, he insisted that workers, not tenants, are the agents of revolutionary change, derisively dismissing Proudhon’s suggestion that ‘[a]s the wage worker in relation to the capitalist, so is the tenant in relation to the house owner’ as ‘patently untrue’. As housing struggles emerge at the forefront of contemporary resistance, this thesis demands to be revisited. In particular, is there anything about the financialised reincarnation of the housing question that alters or elevates the transformative potential of housing struggles today?

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Marxism for Whores

Magpie Corvid

My story is the same as many thousands of people who have found themselves unable to find steady, decently paid work. Our story is about austerity ...

Read more »

Neoliberalism as the Agent of Capitalist Self-Destruction

Neil Davidson

The neoliberal era can be retrospectively identified as beginning with ...

Read more »

Labour, Pasokified

Richard Seymour

We were exhorted by Labour’s supporters to ‘vote with hope’ in this election. What now that hope has been so cruelly dashed?

Read more »

Re-asking the Housing Question

Mary Robertson

Chronic under-supply, crippling unaffordability, and – for the first time in a century – deteriorating physical conditions ...

Read more »