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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.

• • •

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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?

The housing question then and now

Engels’s explanation of why workers cannot be adequately housed under capitalism is rich with insight, containing, for example, progenitors of Harvey’s spatial fix, the rent gap thesis, and much modern gentrification theory, to name a few. However, his analysis is concerned with the form taken by the housing problem at his time of writing, and focuses on the rapid urbanisation that accompanies industrialisation:

What is meant today by housing shortage is the peculiar intensification of the bad housing conditions of the workers as the result of the sudden rush of population to, the big towns; a colossal increase in rents, a still further aggravation of overcrowding in the individual houses, and, for some, the impossibility of finding a place to live in at all.
Furthermore, Engels’s views are percolated through his critiques of particular solutions to the housing problem proposed by political adversaries. His discussion in the Housing Question is organised around a discussion of the ideas of homeownership and bourgeois philanthropic provision, advocated by Mulberger and Sax respectively, and why they must fail. To update Engels’s analysis for the current housing crisis, we must, first, extract Engels’s most relevant points from their polemical context and, second, relocate them in mature capitalism, which is characterised by established cities usually devoid of industrial production. I focus on three, in particular, which, suitably updated, are most relevant for us today.

The first is the contradiction arising from housing’s role in social reproduction, which confronts capitalists in general. Capitalists want to pay workers wages as low as possible in order to maximise profits. But low wages condemn workers to bad housing, leading to disease, which may spread to capitalists and undermine their need for a steady stream of workers entering the labour pool. These two imperatives therefore contradict each other, leading to cycles of doomed attempts to solve the housing problem. Big capital, as Engels says, ‘want[s] to maintain the basis of all the evils of present-day society and at the same time want[s] to abolish the evils themselves.’

The second concerns the imperatives confronting housebuilding capital in particular. While housebuilding capital may periodically find it profitable to provide working class housing, in rapidly developing cities working class housing depresses the value of land below its potential. As a result, it will periodically be torn down to allow land to be put to more valuable uses, leading to a recurrent under supply of working class housing.

The growth of the big modern cities gives the land in certain areas, particularly in those which are centrally situated, an artificial and often colossally increasing value; the buildings erected on these areas depress this value, instead of increasing it, because they no longer correspond to the changed circumstances. They are pulled down and replaced by others. This takes place above all with workers' houses which are situated centrally and whose rents, even with the greatest overcrowding, can never, or only very slowly, increase above a certain maximum.
The third and final point drawn from Engels concerns the impact of a particular ‘solution’ to the housing crisis – working class homeownership – on workers themselves. Engels sees homeownership as a throwback to feudalism and cottage industry. Hence he focuses on limited labour mobility as the main risk to workers arising from homeownership, as tying workers to a particular locality would increase workers’ dependence on a particular employer. However, he also mentions two other risks, which are worth returning to today. One is that ‘workers must shoulder heavy mortgage debts’ in order to purchase a home, which would make them more vulnerable to exploitation by capital. The other is that homeownership would ideologically incorporate workers by inculcating individualist attitudes and ‘stifl[ing] all revolutionary spirit’.

These three dimensions of the housing problem have been transmogrified and foregrounded in the present crisis. To see how, we first need to situate housing within contemporary, financialised capitalism. The origin of the present housing crisis lies in two developments in the 1980s: the privatisation of social housing and the liberalisation of mortgage markets. The former dramatically reduced the availability of affordable housing and pushed more and more people into the owner-occupied and private rented sectors. The latter induced a huge influx of credit into the housing market. This increased availability of mortgage credit expanded effective demand for housing, and drove up ground rent on residential land.

Mortgage lending is a form of credit creation – it not only directs value in circulation in the economy towards residential land, but also expands the total amount of value in circulation. As a result of increased mortgage lending, then, a growing component of value in circulation in the economy is capitalized into land values. Because this ground rent is based on credit, it is volatile – hence the cyclicality of land and housing prices and their proneness to speculative bubbles. Nonetheless, the way in which finance has channelled value to residential land and driven up ground rents has meant that there are large profits to be made from speculating on land. As a result, land, and particularly residential land, has come to behave more and more like a financial asset, and the housing system is increasingly organised around the maximisation and appropriation of ground rents at the expense of providing decent housing for all.

How have the aforementioned dimensions of the housing problem played out in this context? First, in the context of stagnating real wages, cut backs in social housing provision, and mortgage market liberalisation, mortgage credit grew exponentially to bridge the gap between wages and housing costs. However, this influx of credit chasing housing has fed dramatic and prolonged house price inflation. This has widened the gap between wages and housing costs, and exacerbated the contradiction confronting capitalists who want to pay low wages while having an adequately housed workforce. Reliance on credit has also injected housing with a new source of instability, as brutally demonstrated by the 2007-9 financial crisis.

Second, the tension between land’s present use and its potential value under other uses has been heightened by credit-driven house price increases. Rapid house price increases have expanded the gap between actual and potential land values, fuelling the processes of speculation, dislocation and replacement that Engels sees arising from the pursuit of ground rent. Illustrations abound of ferocious and often state-led processes of gentrification, whereby, under the guise of regeneration, working class housing is cleared from valuable inner city land to make way for more profitable developments. Such processes are at the root of many contemporary housing struggles, with both Focus E15 and the New Era campaigns arising out of attempts to remove social housing from valuable inner London land. Indeed, in places like Newham there have been open and systematic attempts to export parts of its working class population to other parts of the country. Here we see the valorisation of land taking precedence over housing’s role in social reproduction or, as its more commonly put, housing’s exchange value dominating its use value.

We can also see this occurring within housebuilding capital. Britain’s housebuilders are speculative, that is, they buy land and build houses on it without agreeing buyers in advance, which makes any change in land values between purchase and final sale a key determinant of their profitability. Inflated land values give housebuilders a strong incentive to focus on making profit through the capture of ground rent. This has had a negative impact on housing supply because it encourages housebuilders to sit on land while it accumulates value, rather than building out on it, especially in cases when expanding supply significantly will lower the value of all the land that they own. It is for this reason that we see housebuilders holding on to banks of planning-permissioned land, which is often used for speculation rather than building. Again we see that a system that treats housing more and more as an exchange value, is limited in its ability to provide housing as a use value.

It is not just that speculation on residential land has intensified; it has also become more widespread, incorporating other types of capital and even workers. A dramatic development in the last thirty years has been the mobilisation of streams of payments for certain wage goods, including housing, into financial circuits through financial engineering. Securitisation allowed for the right to a stream of future mortgage or rental payments to be detached from the particular property that underpinned it, packaged up and sold, enabling international financial capital to appropriate ground rent through trading such securities. Such asset-fuelled speculation has become increasingly important to a British economy recently bereft of industry and dependent on its financial sector. It would be exaggerating to say that property speculators, mortgage lenders, estate agents, and the property booms that sustain them are the lifeblood of British capitalism, but they are certainly a vital organ.

Workers have been implicated in this speculation through the spread of owner-occupation, which over the last thirty years has been elevated from being one among several types of housing provision to being the default tenure. But working class homeownership has not meant a regression to peasant-like existence, as Engels expected it to in his day. On the contrary, the promotion of homeownership has been bound up with the use of housing as an asset, as workers have been encouraged to adapt to financialised capitalism by becoming saver-investors. This process was compounded in the context of recurrent attacks on collective forms of welfare, as workers were encouraged to treat housing as a nest egg for retirement, the centre piece in an asset-based welfare system. Again, steadily rising house prices have a vital role to play in this system. The additional mortgage lending needed to move more people into owner-occupation drove up house prices, making housing look like a failsafe investment. This in turn attracted more people to owner-occupation. Thus, mortgage credit and the use of housing as an asset have been mutually reinforcing and the expansion of owner-occupation since the 1980s has encouraged the pursuit of ground rent by consumers.

This brings us to the third dimension - the threats of exploitation and ideological incorporation arising from working class homeownership. A significant current within Marxist literature on the financialisation of households has emphasised the first aspect. For example, Costas Lapavitsas regards household mortgage debt as providing a new channel for financial capital to extract value from workers, in a process he terms ‘financial expropriation’. Lapavitsas’s analysis captures the way that, for some, homeownership has meant crippling debt and insecurity, the US subprime market being the paramount example. However, this is not the only, or even the dominant story. In the UK, where credit-fuelled, above-inflation house price increases have become the norm, a substantial portion of the working class has accumulated significant wealth through housing. For this portion, the ideologically pacifying character of homeownership foreseen by Engels has acquired a material foundation in form of often substantive capital gains accruing to working class homeowners – property ownership’s stifling of revolutionary spirit will be all the more powerful if workers fear losing an appreciating asset. Both of the problems that Engels saw arising from working class homeownership are therefore realised with renewed vigour in the contemporary housing system, as the spread of owner-occupation has been a highly uneven and divisive process. The result is that housing has become an increasingly important source of social division, with contours emerging between secure and insecure homeowners and between those on and off the housing ladder.

Across these three dimensions, then, the housing problem is accentuated in the era of financialised capitalism. So what to make of recent housing struggles in light of this discussion and Engels’s insistence that labour, not housing, must be the catalyst for social change? Do the novel characteristics of the housing problem today endow housing struggles with more or less transformative potential?

Locating housing struggles today

Although the housing problem takes evolving forms, its recurrence reflects the essential role of housing in social reproduction. Engels is right to see the tensions in social reproduction as a facet of the contradictions that beset the capitalist mode of reproduction, but we would be wrong to dismiss the transformative potential of housing struggles on this basis. Four features of the modern housing problem point to housing’s importance as a site of struggle.

First, housing is fundamental to social reproduction, but the growth of the primary and secondary mortgage markets have also embroiled housing in financial circuits. With these financial circuits holding increasing sway over the economy as a whole, housing emerges as a concretisation of one of the core contradictions of contemporary capitalism: that between real and fictitious value. The disruptive potential arising from this status was dramatically demonstrated by the world-shaking events triggered by the sub-prime crisis.

Second, the pacifying effect of working class homeownership needs to be weighed against the increasing inequality that widespread homeownership is giving rise to. Housing reflects and reproduces class relations, but it can also transform them by fragmenting or reconstituting class consciousness. We see this in Engels’s fear that working class homeowners would be co-opted, something compounded today by the material gains that have come to be associated with owner-occupation. But the wealth accessed through owner-occupation has been unevenly distributed, making housing an increasingly important source of social division. The counterpart to a section of the working class reaping large capital gains from their housing is: rising homelessness; the decimation of social housing provision; a growing section of the population dependent on an over-crowded, over-priced private rented sector; and a generation saddling themselves with debt in a desperate bid to grasp the bottom rung of the beguiling housing ladder. The recent surge of housing activism is a sign that, for these groups, the experience of housing exclusion is radicalising. Furthermore, the recent March for Homes suggested that they are starting to see their experiences as inter-related.

Third, class is not the only dimension of social division with which housing interacts in important ways. It also intersects with race, gender, and even generation, all of which are implicated in progressive struggles today. A long-established symbiosis between housing and racial division finds modern expression in the often racialised dimension of gentrification, whereby second- or third-generation immigrant communities are priced out of inner-city areas in which they have lived for decades – witness Notting Hill in the 1990s or Brick Lane and Brixton today. The prominence of women has been a notable feature of recent housing campaigns. Both Focus E15 and the New Era campaigns were not only led by women, but gained traction in part by demonstrating an overt commitment to female empowerment. While its force is mitigated by the intertwining of housing and inheritance, there is growing recognition that housing inequality has a generational dimension, reflecting the capture of the bulk of housing wealth by the baby boomers.

Finally, casualised, short-term, and unskilled labour are constituent of financialised capitalism and have made work-based organisation more difficult. Under such circumstances, we should not rule out the possibility that housing becomes correspondingly more important as a site of collective action. Today’s housing movement is being led by people who have grown up in an era in which trade unions, hamstrung by repressive legislation, struggle to organise in a workplace that is increasingly transient and unstable. The strength of the movement is an indication that, in these conditions, housing can become the primary source of community and solidarity, and a site for collective action.

For all these reasons, housing struggles today may be more important than granted by Engels. That said, underestimating the potential of housing struggles to trigger broader change does not mean Engels was wrong to be pessimistic about the possibility of solving the housing problem under capitalism. Danny Dorling has recently won plaudits for arguing that the current housing crisis is not one of supply, but of distribution. Britain has ample housing for its population, he argues, what is needed is not more building but better use of existing buildings. This is to be achieved through taxation of those who ‘hoard’ housing in the form of large homes or multiple property ownership. It is striking to come across a similar thought in Engels:

But one thing is certain: there are already in existence sufficient buildings for dwellings in the big towns to remedy immediately any real "housing shortage," given rational utilization of them.
However, unlike Dorling, who thinks taxation alone will suffice to achieve such a rational utilisation, Engels recognises the scale of political change required to achieve such a shift:

This can naturally only take place by the expropriation of the present owners and by quartering in their houses the homeless or those workers excessively overcrowded in their former houses. Immediately the proletariat has conquered political power such a measure dictated in the public interests will be just as easy to carry out as other expropriations and billetings are by the existing state.
The return of housing activism is galvanising the left for good reason. Because of its location in contemporary capitalist dynamics, housing has the potential to act as a catalyst for broader change. But, to succeed on its own terms, the movement must see that the housing crisis is rooted in these same dynamics, and use housing as a basis for a wider programme of transformation.

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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 ...

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Neoliberalism as the Agent of Capitalist Self-Destruction

Neil Davidson

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

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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?

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Re-asking the Housing Question

Mary Robertson

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

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