Housing crisis or capitalist crisis? Anti-gentrification and the Left
Platypus Review 108 | July-August 2018
On February 17, 2018, at the 4th Platypus European Conference, the following panel discussion was held at Goldsmiths University London, with Simon Elmer (Architects for Social Housing), Matthew Lee (Stop the Elephant Development; University College London Cut the Rent) and Austin Williams (Future Cities Project; author, China's Urban Revolution).
Simon Elmer: I want to focus on one question, which I think is coming into sharper focus in the UK, and which relates most closely to the attempts of Architects for Social Housing [ASH] to propose alternatives to London’s estate regeneration programme. This question is:
‘Why does capitalism appear to produce a housing crisis? And can it be solved in capitalism?’
By proposing that our current housing crisis has been produced, this question refuses the discourse of ‘crisis’ which has paralysed us and made us accept, I think uncritically and without question, the ‘solutions’ proposed to solve this ‘crisis’ instead of challenging the ends which have produced it. One only has to recall that the same terminology has been applied to the financial crisis, the deficit crisis, the benefits crisis, the NHS crisis, the education crisis, the population crisis and (the mother of all crises) the environmental crisis to understand how this discourse acts as an instrument of privatisation.
But I also chose this question because it calls attention to the extent to which the so-called solutions to the housing ‘crisis’ are in fact producing and reproducing the very crisis they have been proposed in order to ‘solve’. In doing so, it helps us to understand our housing crisis as an instrument of capitalism’s latest process of colonization – the colonization of what housing activists inaccurately describe as a ‘human right’. Indeed, if we wish to understand the mutation capitalism is undergoing as it shifts on its global axis, we could do worse than to examine London’s housing ‘crisis’.
The first thing I’d say in answer then – and which I first wrote in an article on ‘The London Clearances’ in 2015 – is that there is no housing crisis, if by ‘crisis’ we mean something that is out of our control. On the contrary, the shortage of housing and the corresponding boom in UK house prices and rents has been, in fact, carefully prepared and legislated for over a number of years to serve the interests and fill the pockets of those who have the most to gain from it, both politically and economically. There is – in actuality rather than in the ideology of our society – a class war being waged through housing. Thus far, it is all going to plan. Far from being out of our control, the housing crisis is well in hand.
The question of why capitalism produces a housing crisis (there is no ‘appear’ about it) I won’t answer, as its essentials have already been answered in the series of articles on ‘The Housing Question’ published in 1872 and 1873 by Friedrich Engels. So accurately do these articles describe not only the causes of our current housing ‘crisis’ but also the false solutions proposed to solve it, that in 2016 ASH published excerpts on our blog illustrated with photographs of some of the effects of these solutions. Engels is unequivocal about the causes of the housing crisis. ‘The real answer to this question’, he writes, ‘is that capital does not want to abolish the housing shortage, even if it could.’ I’d go further and say that capitalism needs the housing shortage. This is nowhere more true today than in the UK.
The estimated total value of the UK housing stock in January 2017 was £6.8 trillion, having increased by £1.5 trillion in the previous three years alone. Equivalent to 3.7 times our GDP, and nearly 60 per cent of the UK’s entire net wealth, the housing market now constitutes an economy in itself, larger than the GDP of many European countries. Nobody will be surprised to hear that £1.7 trillion of that housing stock is in London. According to the 2016 Sunday Times Rich List, 26 of the 100 wealthiest people in the UK listed property as a major source of their wealth while, among the richest 1000 people in the UK, there are 164 property moguls with a combined wealth of £143.7 billion. The pre-tax profits of the four largest builders in the UK – Persimmon Homes, Taylor Wimpey, Barratt Homes and the Berkeley Group – rose from just under £419 million in 2011 to over £2.6 billion in 2016, a more than six-fold increase in just five years. And we’ve all heard about the CEO of Persimmon being paid a £110 million bonus.
Hardly surprising, London house prices have risen by 86 per cent since 2009. At an average asking price of over £600,000, London houses now cost more than 17 times the average London salary of £35,000. In Inner London, the average price rises to around £970,000. Homeownership in the UK, which peaked at 71 per cent in 2003, has been declining ever since and now stands at 63 per cent, with only 40 per cent of Londoners predicted to own their own home by 2025.
Meanwhile, rents on London’s private market, which now includes 20 per cent of British households, have risen to an average of £1,532 per month for a two-bedroom home, more than twice the national average. The total rent paid by UK tenants last year rose to £51.6 billion, more than double the £22.6 billion paid as recently as 2007. Millennials (born between 1977 and 1995) paid £30.2 billion of that rent, which is more than three times the £9.7 billion they spent in 2007. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has predicted that over the next quarter of a century rents will rise at twice the rate of incomes, and renters will be twice as likely to live in poverty.
As a result of this huge escalation in the cost of housing, at the end of last year the charity Shelter estimated that there are now 307,000 people in Britain who are homeless – meaning accommodated in temporary housing, bed & breakfasts and homeless hostels or sleeping rough. That’s one in every 208 of the UK population. In London, where 165,000 of those people are homeless, that figure rises to one in every 59. These numbers, however, don’t include the hidden homeless, with an estimated one in five people under the age of 25 having couch-surfed over the past year, a quarter of a million of them in London. This trend is predicted to increase, with Shelter warning that more than a million UK households are at risk of becoming homeless by 2020. Across Britain the homes of 41 percent of semi-skilled and unskilled workers, and 31 per cent of skilled workers, fail to meet Shelter’s new Living Home Standard. In London, 56 per cent of all homes fail to meet this criterion of affordability. The housing crisis, in other words, is a crisis not of supply but of affordability.
This brings me to the second part of the question, which is whether the housing crisis can be ‘solved’ under capitalism. Even within the fine gradations of neoliberalism that differentiate the major political parties in the UK, at the last General Election the manifesto pledges on housing published by the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties shared a remarkable consensus that the solution to the housing crisis was a massive programme of new-build housing developments. In fact, there was nothing remarkable about it given that all three parties drew on the same reports produced by the same think-tanks headed by the same directors of the same housing associations under the sponsorship of the same building companies and estate agents. And what all three parties promised was that, if elected to the government of the UK, they would build one million new homes over the next parliament. By doing so, they all agreed they would not only provide the homes Londoners, present and future, need, but also, according to oft-quoted ‘law’ of supply and demand, drive the price of that housing down.
The trouble with this programme or pledge – which industry professionals have all agreed is impossible to meet anyway – is that, while the law of supply and demand describes a capitalist myth of competitive markets responding to human needs, London’s financialised housing market, flooded by global capital, is driven by profit margins. More than 100,000 UK land titles are registered to anonymous companies in British overseas territories such as the Virgin Islands. Transparency International has been unable to identify the real owners of more than half of the 44,000 land titles registered to overseas companies, but 9 out of 10 of the properties were bought through tax havens. An extraordinary 30 per cent of properties sold in London last year were bought by overseas investors. At the high end of the market that increases to over 50 per cent. Building more properties for capital investment and buy-to-let has pushed, and will continue to push, house and rental prices up. And yet that is precisely what those given the task of solving the housing crisis – the councils, housing associations, property developers, estate agents, architects and builders – are doing.
59 per cent of demand in London is for lower-mainstream properties (up to £450 per square foot or below £315,000) and properties for sub-market rent, but only a quarter of the roughly 38,500 properties currently being built will sell for this price. Last year, builders started work on 1,900 properties priced at more than £1,500 per square foot, only 900 of which had sold by 2018. And, as of January this year, there are an additional 14,000 unsold lower-prime properties on the market priced between £1,000-£1,500 per square foot. By contrast, in the year ending March 2016, only 6,550 homes for social rent were built across the whole of England, and not a single such home was built in London in the year up to October 2017.
So, even though Engels was writing about a housing market that is now a century-and-a-half old, he has already answered this question for us. ‘Capitalists have only one method of settling the housing question’, he writes: ‘after their fashion – which is to say, by settling it in such a way that the solution continually reposes the question.’ The refusal to see this perpetual recreation of cause and effect leads to all the moralistic explanations of the housing crisis, which try to explain it away by references to the ‘greed’ of a few capitalists and the ‘cruelty’ of the government. We have no shortage of such explanations today from the mouths of so-called left-wing politicians who sell something they call capitalism ‘for the many not the few’, and whose proposed solutions to the housing crisis are in practice reproducing and multiplying its effects. The estate regeneration programme, which is the basis of the housing policies of both the Labour and the Conservative parties, and which is systematically replacing the UK’s council and social housing with properties built and priced according to the demands of the market, is the primary instrument of this reproduction.
In response to the larger question that we are convened to discuss – ‘Housing crisis or capitalist crisis?’ – my answer is: neither. The housing poverty and homelessness, which more and more of the UK population is being driven into, are the products of the success of capitalism, not the symptoms of its failure.
Matthew Lee: I’d like to apologise that I haven’t had much time to prepare. I only got this brief last night, so I may not be able to speak as eloquently and for as long as my friend on the left. I’d like to start off by talking about what the campaigns that I’m currently involved in are doing, and how this relates to historical tactics and to the struggle for socialism.
With regard to the occupation and the ‘Stop the Elephant Development’ campaign: we, the student-led wing, are currently focussing on University of the Arts London’s involvement in the Delancy development underway at Elephant and Castle in Southwark [South London]. Essentially this is a housing development which is going to knock down a shopping centre and the London College of Communications, which is part of University of the Arts London. The shopping centre is majority-owned by Latino and Latina shop owners and is very much the heart of the community – one of the very few places in central London which still has affordable rents for independent shopkeepers and affordable prices for the people who live there. This new development will not offer any compensation to these shop owners or to the local community, and social housing will only make up three per cent of it, with only 60 units in this 1100-unit development affordable on the living wage in London, which we know many people don’t even have. So obviously there’s a problem in Southwark. Technically, the council – which is a Labour council although Blairite if I may say – is meant to have 50 per cent social housing in any new development. This has already been reduced in Elephant and Castle to encourage developers which, quite frankly, are not welcome in the area by the local population. It has been reduced to 35 per cent, so obviously the new development’s three per cent is an insult.
We have to ask why this was allowed and how you can have such regulations of capitalism and a capitalist housing market that allow for a situation to arise in which these regulations are breached. That’s because, quite frankly, wherever there are regulations and a market, the forces of the market are going to find a way to get around those regulations. For instance, the Delancy corporation (which is an offshore development company) has gotten around these regulations by working with the university, and that counts as so-called ‘community engagement’. The majority of the students are opposed to this. It’s only really the head of the university who’s ‘artwashing’ this project to try and make it acceptable. Obviously, there is a failure of even left-wing reforms within capitalism. Social housing and capitalism are not compatible in this situation.
So how do we act on this and how do we deal with this? There are various campaigns taking place within this specific situation, including ‘Stop the Elephant Development’ and its student wing mentioned before, ‘Up the Elephant’ and ‘Latinx Elephant’, which is the shopkeepers’ campaign. You have people involved in the Aylesbury Estate campaigns, and people who were involved in squatting at the Heygate Estate a few years back, which failed unfortunately. And there is a deep history of forms of housing activism – anti-gentrification, anti-social cleansing – which were originally separate within the area but are now coming together for this project. I think this is something which resembles the larger struggle for socialism in the sense that you cannot simply focus on one area and on a certain group. You have to expand into different areas and have to maintain a pluralist approach to tactics. You have to organise different groups while still very much focussing on your specific area and expertise, doing what you have the best ability to do.
As students, we’re not really members of the local community. Personally, I’ve never really lived in Southwark. I only have links there through friends who are involved in this campaign, and that’s how I got involved. However, I do have knowledge and experience of how to push universities to pull out of projects – for example, the recent history of the Carpenters Estate in Stratford in 2013 where UCL [University College London] was hoping to expand. It was going to knock down this estate which includes 3000 units of social housing, and which is very important to an area that has been increasingly socially cleansed. Through various occupations and various direct-action events against the university, we found the source of power and directly targeted it. This campaign did not solve the crisis, but it did prevent it from getting a lot worse. And I think that is similar to the relationship between the housing crisis and socialism as a whole. I would very much agree that you cannot solve the housing crisis without solving capitalism in general. This is very much a capitalist-made crisis. We have more housing in this country than we need. It is in fact illogical for the capitalists themselves to create this crisis, to push working people out of their homes, to create housing that’s not being lived in, but is just a physical manifestation of wealth creation and wealth investment by capitalists all over the world. Marx examines this in Capital quite well, and he talks about how even though it is illogical for capitalists to create these crises and to act in such a way, it’s simply impossible for them not to. It is systematic within capitalism – you have to compete, you have to continue creating capital, you have to continue creating wealth in order to compete with competitors, in order to survive as a capitalist.
David Graeber, a wonderful professor, provided a good example of this in a piece he did a few years back, in which he talked about the fossil fuel industry in Canada. These companies saw the extent to which they were destroying the earth, how unsustainable what they were doing was, how unsustainable their pursuit of capital was, and they knew they couldn’t stop it. You have executives from these companies going to the government and saying: ‘Please, put regulations in place before we destroy this country, this earth.’ Thus, you have to ask what the reform and regulation of capitalism actually can do. And the answer is: not a lot! It has failed again and again throughout history. We’re finding that increasingly within campaigns, and within the supposed struggle for socialism, particularly in the UK, we’re not focussing on progress but rather constantly dealing with the problems that capitalism keeps throwing at us. Much of the housing crisis and much of housing activism is not based upon fighting for better housing conditions – for more housing based upon community mutual aid and solidarity – but rather on pushing back at the problems which capitalism keeps pushing at us, such as social cleansing – people being pushed out of their homes, homes falling into disrepair which are not being maintained well and landlords increasing rent. I’m a member of the ‘Cut the Rent’ campaign at UCL, and, although we’ve been fighting for years and we’ve been putting on rent strikes at the university, our victories have mostly been rent freezes, not decreases in rent. We’ve only had a decrease in rent in two of our many residence halls.
I think the Left and those who struggle for socialism in whatever form that may be – for anarcho-communism or some form of state socialism – have to start fighting for these issues in a more pluralistic way. You have to fight them in combination with the general fight against capitalism, because otherwise this struggle is merely going to continue. You may win campaigns. You may stop the gentrification of an area. You may freeze the rents for however many years. However, within a few years, you’re going to have to repeat those struggles. No progress is being made, and ultimately that’s what the struggle for socialism is about. It’s about progress, not about simply trying to maintain the conditions which have already been won. You have to keep pushing for more. And I think that is a big problem within housing activism and particularly anti-gentrification activism, which is that we’re not pushing to have better conditions, to end capitalism and to end the crisis that capitalism has caused within housing, but simply grappling with the problems that capitalism constantly poses for us. In conclusion, I think the Left needs to cooperate. It needs to take action, to start making itself into an offensive operation instead of a defensive operation against capitalism. It needs to occupy, to push, to create solidarity networks, to do all these things. It needs to not burn out, to keep acting in a way which very much puts the fire at the capitalists’ gates rather than trying to protect ourselves from what the capitalists are doing to us.
Austin Williams: I’ve just come back from living in China for six years. I was teaching architecture, as it happens, at a university in China, and I know there’s a lot of very interesting, weird and wonderful left-wing groups there. I’m not a Maoist, and, as a matter of fact, I’m a staunch critic of China. But it is interesting to see the way that some of the cherished notions of left-wing politics such as state provision, social housing and progress play out in another country. And it slightly opened my eyes a bit about what we mean by some of these concepts, whether we hold them dearly as an orthodoxy or whether we can start to challenge some of their principles.
First, I would say as a general comment that it is striking that gentrification is not a dirty word in China. Actually, there isn’t a word for gentrification in China, but let’s pretend that there is. The idea of gentrification is not a dirty word. It’s basically social progress. It’s about emerging towns and cities, and about people craving social improvement and a route out of poverty. Thus, this whole discussion really doesn’t happen. In certain respects, China is about 40-50 years behind the times and perhaps 20 years ahead in others. Some of the discussion about social housing and gentrification in China hasn’t really caught up to the way we see it. And maybe all the better for that. Remember that in China everything is social housing, everything is state sector (even the private sector is state sector), and most of it is beyond the reach of ordinary peoples’ pockets. The other thing to remember is that anything built by the state is not necessarily any good. So I don’t think we necessarily have to celebrate it as a victory. The desire for social improvement by any means necessary in a society that tends to regulate opportunities for individual advancement means that gentrification is a pragmatic option. That’s my starting point.
When I was thinking about this talk and my time in China, I was reminded about when I first moved to Newcastle. I’m from South Wales originally. When I moved to Newcastle in the 1980s, my introduction to the city was going along the Scotswood Road. I came across a brutalist concrete block with a gigantic banner saying ‘Get us out of this hell’. I always remember it. I thought: ‘What the hell have I come to!’ That was when gentrification was good. That was when regeneration hadn’t become a dirty word. They wanted improvements. They wanted to move – or, rather, the prospect of moving didn’t hold any fear for them. The prospect of having their homes demolished, and of moving on and getting somewhere better, was actually something which didn’t trouble them. The idea of community wasn’t a stultifying concept, which I think perhaps it is today in too many respects. Those people at the time wanted to have social improvements.
In the 1980s – very tumultuous times compared to fairly static, apolitical times we live in today – there was kind of a broader vision about what society (whether as a general political project or in its different aspects, housing or whatever) had to offer. And I think that today – with local authorities craving cash, private landlords marketising their capital, ordinary people becoming pawns rather than social actors today, objects of history rather than subjects of history – disruption is a destabilising force in people’s lives, and stability is craved; destruction is something to be avoided.
I think that Corbyn’s idea that councils have to win ballots from existing tenants if any redevelopment is to take place is quite evasive and opportunistic. I don’t think they necessarily represent democratic mandates. And I think that weaponising the issue of housing activism is not necessarily going to lead to a dynamic reinvigoration of politics. Rather, it’s likely to be the other way around. I think it’s going to be akin to embryonic class-consciousness. I fear it’s going to be more like conservatism. These things often develop into a recipe for stasis rather than activism.
In this country, gentrification has a negative connotation. It’s almost like saying that if you’re against sustainability, you’re for unsustainability. I think gentrification is one of those words you can’t possibly be for anymore. The architecture critic Hugh Peyman calls it a ‘boo word’ and says that it’s used to imply that a badly run-down area is some kind of affordable paradise that shouldn’t be touched. And I share that worry. I share the idea that the ambition for social improvement is downgraded in policy discourse and subjected to suspicion – a suspicion of intentions, of local authorities, of big businesses, Lend Lease, etc. But this kind of nervousness and suspicion cannot be a positive model. I think that cynicism has its downsides. If we’re cynical about the motivations behind all of these things, I think our position becomes slightly problematic. It undermines the concepts of democratic accountability and of progress and social mobility, and it also risks undermining the solidarity that we talk about as necessary for successful struggle.
In the Western Left’s frame of reference, the public sector, social housing and council housing are seen as inherently good. I don’t necessarily think they are. Social housing has become a bit of a mythology, the equivalent of the NHS. We have to distance ourselves from it a little and be critical when it deserves it. State provision can be crap.
I think that gentrification is not necessarily the problem. The concentration of poverty is the problem. The lack of options for people that in many ways comes with poverty is the problem. In some ways, it’s a social question we’re discussing here and we shouldn’t fetishise housing. And you can’t wish these things away. I’d even go so far as to say that when it comes to people who live in rented sector housing, they don’t enjoy the same rights as private ownership does. By definition. It’s a privilege rather than a right, so therefore they are going to be less stable. They are going to be more prone to eviction, partly because that’s the way it is. You might not like it, and I don’t like it, but that’s the case I think.
Finally, I wanted to go through a couple of headings if that’s alright. I’m a modernist. And I think that the idea of universal provision (the idea of universalism) is now seen politically and philosophically as a problem. And it comes from the fact that we’re often enjoined to celebrate diversity rather than what makes us communal. I think that there’s something we need to tackle in terms of politics there, and we need to consider how we frame this. Modernism was the end of the old order. It was an era of social transformation and it reflected an ambition for more liberty. We often look at China and say that they’ve lifted 500,000,000 people out of poverty in the last 20 years, which is true in some respects. However, we don’t really analyse the tragedies on an individualistic level. We see it as a universalising benefit of social transformation. Whether you think that’s good or bad is up for discussion. My contention is that the contemporary era is one of general miserablism in society, illiberalism, anti-humanism, pro-environmentalism, misanthropy, etc. I think we need a more critical engagement with these issues.
Which brings me to the topic of progress. I agree with what Matthew said about progress. I wrote a book called ‘The Enemies of Progress’ exactly 10 years ago, in which I identified the creeping social and aspirational restraint within the discourses of sustainability and environmentalism. ‘Don’t do things today in case they cause harm for future generations.’ That’s a policy of low ambitions and of minimum disruption, and that’s what I’m worried about. George Monbiot, the environmentalist, says that environmentalism is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity. Therein lies the problem for me. From that springs the notion that we should build less, not build more. I really have a problem with that. How can you argue for more housing if you identify housing as the biggest cause of CO2 emissions? How can you argue for more social housing if you say, as Shelter does, that children living in social housing have more mental disorder problems? It’s easier to pay for a psychiatrist than to pay for a house. More housing is difficult to advocate for if you want to protect nature from concrete. And more housing is problematic if you say you want to conserve communities rather than seeing these things as a social form in flux. Genuinely healthy communities are social organisations which are not fixed entities. Richard Florida himself says ‘place exerts a powerful influence over our ability to lead happy and fulfilled lives’, which I think is a far too fatalistic idea. It’s not place. We create place, we create these places. At the moment, humans are playing second fiddle to the places they inhabit.
And, one final thing on community: I’m reminded that exactly 30 years ago Prince Charles (remember him?) called for a new community to be developed that will ‘engender a sense of pride where community values are sacrosanct.’ And he said that everyone ought to contribute to the planning and organisation of such urbanism. Then came the localism act as a direct consequence. Everyone laughed at Prince Charles at the time. But now you find that that kind of paternalism has been absorbed by planners and politicians alike. These days contemporary architecture is forcing social solidarity into existence, and, more worryingly, condemns those people who don’t conform within those communities. I agree in general terms that we need more good, well-designed, well-built and affordable housing. But I think that requires a political vision rather than a technical plan based on numbers. And it will also cause disruption to people’s lives to do that – but disruption for the greater good. If your starting point is not breaking eggs, then nothing is going to happen.
SE: One of the things we do at ASH is propose alternatives to the demolition and redevelopment of council estates, and, far from being NIMBYs or naysayers or anti-modernists or anti-progressives, we’ve come up with solutions that we’ve costed and that keep these communities together; solutions which expand and develop these communities. Our proposals are part of the wider campaigns. We try to combat these abstract narratives of progress, which I think Austin has just given us a very good summary of. The building programme in the UK – which is being pursued primarily (not exclusively but primarily) through estate demolition, particularly in inner London – is not leading to this utopia of progressive buildings, but rather to the kind of social ills which social housing was created to combat. I think Austin has given a very good summary of the kind of things we read in newspapers, the kind of things that architectural practices tell residents when explaining why they have to kick them out of their homes and that councils talk about all the time. I think it’s very important that we don’t get caught up with these abstract narratives, and that we actually look at what’s going on. We should stop looking at the future, at what we’re promised is going to happen when we build these one million homes over the next five years. We should look at what’s going on right now. And hopefully, based on the figures that I quoted previously, you can see that what is actually driving this so-called ‘modernising programme’ has absolutely nothing to do with taking people out of their terrible poverty. What it’s actually driven by is the kind of profit margins which come from these developments.
I support what Matthew is doing. I think it’s great. I really liked what he said at the end about how activism is very reactive, about how you’re trying to build up walls when literally you’ve got these bulldozers coming in. And I think housing activism for a long time has been sort of stuck in this place, quite understandably. And I think it’s very important that we make alternative proposals. This is one of the things that ASH is very involved in doing. We don’t proclaim: ‘Don’t demolish this estate.’ We say: ‘We’ve got other plans for this estate.’ Even for the estates that we don’t design but that we’re called in to advise for, we always say: ‘Come up with an alternative.’ Don’t just say no, say yes. I think it’s very important that housing activism, and activism in general, doesn’t remain stuck in the very reactive position that it is in and that it starts coming up with a bigger plan.
ML: I very much agree with a lot of what has been said, but in particular with what has been mentioned about the importance of housing, about good housing conditions for keeping communities together, and about a lack of displacement of people. I agree that you do have to crack a few eggs to solve this issue. I think we’ve historically seen that. The greatest re-building of housing and improvement of living conditions in the UK happened after World War II, after the mass destruction of what was already there – after the mass destruction of industry. Only through that could we have radical changes such as providing toilets in people’s houses for the first time, proper heating and proper social housing. However, I think it’s currently of vital importance to keep communities together. Because I think the greatest egg to crack is capitalism itself. If we want to solve this crisis altogether – if we want to improve from the position we’ve got today, from the welfare state – this system needs to be brought down. It’s impossible to solve this crisis without doing so first, and therefore fighting the displacement of people, and the displacement and separation of already-existing communities and of already-existing bonds, is of vital importance because that is what builds mutual aid, solidarity and, to an extent, class consciousness. That is what creates grassroots ideas, campaigns and struggles, which not only keep together communities and help keep what has already been won, but also keep us fighting for the future and for what is eventually going to help us achieve progress. Thus, I agree that practical solutions to housing, and to solving the housing crisis in the UK, need not view gentrification as something that’s inherently dirty, but I think it is justified to look at it that way whilst we’re still living under this form of governance and living under the capitalist economic system.
AW: I’m an anti-capitalist. I’m a Leninist. I think it’s very important that we challenge the system. The question is how you do it – what’s the approach you take? In the spirit of anti-sectarian taking it on the chin, I will say to Simon that maybe I didn’t explain myself very well. Because I’m not saying that the private developers are the bee’s knees! As a matter of fact, I agree with you. They are assholes. They are part of the problem. And I know what they’re doing it for, and they’re not doing it for the common good. However, what I am trying to say is a little bit like the debate over aid to developing countries. I would say that there is an immediate necessity to give people aid who are starving in the Third World while at the same time I recognize that giving aid makes people reliant on aid, and that doesn’t allow for human flourishing (or even capitalist flourishing) in a way that might otherwise happen. And so, I get it, I think what you’re doing is incredible. However, from my political perspective, I think there needs to be somebody arguing at the same time that there are certain limitations to that argument which reinforce the same problem, which I would like to stand above.
There’s a very famous book called the ‘Soul of London’ by Ford Madox Ford, in which he says in terms of progress we wouldn’t ‘move any further forwarder’ (very Victorian, archaic language) if we were to look at the minutiae of everybody’s miserable life. You have to have a broader social vision of what is required, and that distance can seem quite ‘Daily Mail-ish’. It can seem quite unappealing to deal with – the misery of ordinary people’s poverty – but at the same time someone has to do it. Thus, I’m saying that if we don’t challenge the philosophy of restraint – if we don’t challenge in many ways the sustainability motif, which argues that we shouldn’t do things in case it causes problems – and we look at ‘risk aversion’ as a model for many of the ways we live our lives, then we’re never going to have a future-forward vision. Our vision is always tunnel vision rather than 360-degree vision today. And I think that’s problematic for generating a broad vision for how to solve any crisis, let alone the housing crisis.
Simon said that we have more housing than we need. I’m always worried about that idea. I don’t know what it means. I think we need more and better housing, and a revisitation of existing housing, making it better – the standard of technology and aspiration today is not what it was 20, 30, 40 years ago. Therefore, I think we need to revisit our housing and have a constant rebuilding of what we need. Need and desire are two very distinct things, and I’m very much in the desire camp rather than the ‘let’s live with what we need’ camp. We don’t need holidays but they’re bloody nice things, right?
Q & A
It’s been a very interesting conversation so far, and there’s been something of a debate between Simon and Austin. I don’t want to leave Matthew out of the conversation, but I actually think there are some interesting points of agreement that might be found between Simon and Austin. Before anyone asks a question that might point to that, I do want to bring up something which feels like an elephant in the room, which is the question of the state. It’s perhaps more associated with anarchism today, but the idea of smashing the state, of overthrowing the state, is a concept going back to Marx, which has been central to Marxists’ revolutionary practice for a long time. Even in the 1980s, Marxists were more aware of this imperative to overcome the capitalist state. And the question of social housing was considered in that framework. I would like the panelists to reflect on the question of the state and its relevance to leftist politics today regarding housing.
SE: One of the things we do in ASH is try to tell people what it’s like to live on an estate in order to combat stereotypes about them – that they are places of crime and drug-dealing and that they are subsidised by the state. Implicit in Austin’s analogy with overseas aid is the powerful myth that social housing is subsidised by the state. It was initially but almost every postwar estate has paid off its cost of building and its debt many years ago. Various state subsidies are going to the development programme which resulted in the policies like help to buy, like right to buy, like buy to rent. There is an enormous amount of money going from the state (out of our pockets) into these private developments. I would actually say that one of the great motivations for builders and developers at the moment is getting money from the state to build so-called affordable housing which is almost all for private sale now anyway.
So certainly, in terms of housing, the division between private and public doesn’t really exist anymore. There is almost zero provision for something called social housing at the moment. Everything that the political parties are promising is for affordable housing, which is overwhelmingly now for shared ownership. Thus, one of the things we try to talk about is a sort of third space between these two very distinct sources of revenue, the public and the private. That is the space of community. Rather than being something which is retrogressive, inward-looking, and averse to change, which is how Austin characterised it, I think that the focus on community and the creation of community is one of the most progressive forces that has come out of the housing movement. Estates that were built in the 1970s were actually informed by extraordinarily progressive images of how people live together. Nowadays, housing is really property – it’s real-estate, which is worth an amount of money. That’s the thing about this postwar housing – the housing which is being demolished at the moment by our councils and redeveloped into basically deposit boxes in the sky. These estates really had a vision, a very progressive vision, of the social. They are not simply collections of boxes which people live in. It was about creating community. And I think it took several decades for people in those estates to actually figure out how to live there, for communities there to find out how to live together. I think that this is something we should be recovering – not in a reactionary way, not in a scared way – and trying to promote. And I think that the type of housing which we build now, which we should be building, should be about promoting the space of community.
I think the kind of activism that Matthew’s involved in has found such an echo across the country, particularly in London, not because it is simply a reaction to the threat of people losing their homes, but rather because it responds to a desperate need to find a space of community which is neither subject to the ravages of capital nor to the corruption of the public sector. I’ve worked for three years with ASH and tried to deal with the councils of this country, which unfortunately a lot of people still (!) seem to think are on their side. You won’t find someone with a lower opinion of the public sector than myself.
ML: I’m actually quite glad you brought up this topic. Personally, as an anarchist (if you hadn’t already guessed by my lack of eloquence and by my smell!), I do think it is a dual struggle to get rid of capitalism and the state together, and that one cannot simply go without the other. If you look at the work of people such as Kropotkin, and more recently David Graeber, you’ll see how markets and states cannot exist without one another. Wherever you have a state, there will also be a market. In my opinion, markets are what inevitably cause housing shortages, housing crises and bad conditions within housing, even in socialist societies (I need to be very careful about what I call socialist societies; I know it’s a big debate within the Left). In East Germany, where the state controlled the housing sector, the market was still a tool of repression used by the state to determine who could get housing. And there was still a very prominent housing activist scene. There was a lot of squatting and that sort of thing because even the state in a socialist society couldn’t solve the crisis. It couldn’t deal with the issues of housing and still had its own interests at heart, which ultimately led to the crisis continuing. Even though there was more than enough social housing for people, people were still left without homes and people were still left with homes that were insufficient to their familial needs. Therefore, I do think that it’s very necessary, as the question suggested, to smash the state alongside capitalism if we are going to solve the housing crisis. As I said, markets and states exist together.
But in terms of social housing right now, and of social housing as a temporary solution to the problems we have and that you see within housing under statism and capitalism, I think we have to be very careful. We have to acknowledge the benefits of social housing and that it is far better than the alternatives, even though, as was mentioned, there is increasingly a lack of distinction between the private and social sphere. Even those houses which are owned by councils can very easily be sold off to development companies and transferred over in right-to-buy schemes if governments put them forward. Thus, we have to see social housing as a solution, albeit a temporary one which is reversible – a solution which we have to work hard to maintain if we want it to continue to exist as a temporary fix under capitalism.
I also want to make clear very quickly that social housing is not merely a state solution. Social housing can exist in a stateless society. I think that when we think of social housing, we often only think of the way we have organised it within the environment and atmosphere of capitalism and statism. Therefore, we need to rethink how we view social housing and how we act in social-housing campaigns. And we need to think about how we can bring in ideas from outside this environment, which you could argue the conditions are not ready for. Regardless, we still need to think outside of the current tunnel vision which Austin briefly mentioned earlier.
AW: Once again I apologise if I’m not explaining myself as well as I ought to. My bizarre shift towards the African aid example wasn’t meant to examine state support or state subsidy. Rather, it was to examine what forces encourage agency – what creates the subject, the active subject in history. And I think that’s the key we have to try to address if we’re ever going to build a socialist movement, or any movement. If you’re going to try to overthrow the state instead of creating something on a small scale at an activist level, how do you overcome the general timidity? How do you overcome the inability to break out of embryonic class-consciousness? A Leninist perspective is through vanguardism, which you may or may not have any truck with. But what I’m trying to say, in general terms, is that you have to go beyond yourself. And if you are constantly forming small groups, and localism becomes a central feature of your life, I think that, in some ways, philosophically or politically but not ‘activistly’, they are actually a restraint on you.
There’s something nice about communities. I get it. As a matter of fact, in today’s society I think we need to have much more active communities. I think we need to stop things that are happening on the streets. We’ve become individuated and fragmented rather than having anything with genuine solidarity. So I’m all for creating solidarity. The only thing I would say, in terms of the panel here, is that I’m not going to do it. I applaud it, but it’s not what I’m going to do. In some ways I do think it’s part of a broader problem, and if we concentrate on creating solidarity, we avoid or shift away from what I think is the bigger problem that needs to be addressed. I’m sure that Simon and Matthew think the opposite. Regardless, I’d rather use my energies to try to develop a political critique of the culture of limits, and of the way that we generally, socially, see the world. That’s my thing.
In terms of Brexit, I voted for it because I’m a democrat. I’m against the state. But there’s the nation-state, which I think is a bit more progressive and in a democratic tradition, and the European super-state of unelected authority and technocrats. So, on that level, are you going to condemn me for supporting the state? Or are you going to see it as a kind of necessity for going forward? With regard to the idea of representative democracy: I’m against parliamentary talking shops and all the corruption that goes with it. However, I recognise that at the moment, if it is under attack, there’s something in it which needs to be defended and held dear. So that’s where I’m coming from. It’s not necessarily a pro- or anti-state position. Fundamentally, of course I’m anti-state. I’m an anti-capitalist. I’m a communist. But the point is that we have to understand the contemporary era and the problems that we live with today. There are very local and immediate problems of poverty and homelessness. I completely endorse and understand people who want to be involved and help with that. I think there’s a real problem that, if we accept a culture of limits, we’re never going to build any more housing. Hence, it’s the culture of limits that I want to try and tackle. Perhaps it’s kind of tangential, but hopefully we’re in the same ballpark.
I thought this was a very interesting discussion, thank you. I’m not directly familiar with London and the UK, but I am familiar with North America, so a lot of my knowledge comes from New York and Chicago, and New York I imagine is similar to London. First, short of overthrowing the state and expropriating the bourgeoisie, I’m curious what sort of political transitional demands could be made, for example things like rent control. And I guess what I’d like is more of an explanation of the process that has been going on in the last 30-40 years. Because certainly New York, and I imagine it was the same for London, was a much more affordable city in the 1960s and 1970s than it has become, and the process of it becoming more unaffordable has accelerated. And it’s not the case that now we have capitalism and before we didn’t. Thus, even within capitalism there has been some relatively recent change over the last generation and I don’t quite understand it. I know that in a place like New York, which is not typical of the whole of the United States, obviously there’s financialisation and very wealthy people. However, most people who live in New York or London are not rich. At some level, you’d think this would affect the ability of capitalism to function. You still need workers to work in these cities and there’s a maximum amount they’re willing to pay in rent. And we know that in places like New York, the cost of housing has gotten so high that it’s affecting not only working-class and middle-class people but also people one would have thought were upper middle class, who are finding it impossible to buy what they expected they could buy.
I also wanted to ask one question about gentrification. One neighbourhood in Chicago that I’m familiar with is Pilsen, which is a working-class Mexican neighbourhood that has been rapidly gentrifying because of the supply of housing stock and because it’s convenient. Unsurprisingly, there’s a tension between the mostly white gentrifiers and the locals, which of course has a racial/ethnic component, but there’s also a clear division between the people who live there based on whether or not they own their house. If you own your house and you’re a Mexican person, then you tend to welcome the gentrifiers because they are raising the value of your property. Whereas if you’re renting, gentrification is just going to make it unaffordable for you to live there. Hence, there’s a kind of class divide within the same ethnic community. My question is, would you be in favour of policies which encourage more homeownership or would you consider those conservative policies?
SE: In Engels’s text about the housing question, he starts off by saying that this is nothing new for the working classes – that they always lived in appalling housing conditions. What makes it new (he’s talking about the 1870s) is that it is now going to affect the middle classes. And that’s kind of what you’re referring to now, that things are getting so bad that cities are almost becoming places where people can’t live and work. They are becoming investments for international capital. [Audience: ‘Doesn’t that create problems for the capitalists?’] I think it does. We went to a conference in New York which had people from Canada, from Paris, from New York, and from London. And we know that similar things are going on in Australia. So, we were eager to distinguish between what is clearly a global phenomenon within capitalism affecting major cities and what makes London particular. We got a sense from talking to people at the conference that London is further along in this particular housing crisis. The New York speaker said that most of the issues about social housing there were about how to refurbish and maintain it, how to stop more bloody stuff from falling down because maintenance has been withheld from it. They haven’t got to the point where we are now in London, which is not about gentrification at all. I think that what is happening to London at the moment has nothing to do with gentrification. What is happening to London at the moment is social cleansing. These are not gentrified neighbourhoods. These are ones that are simply being cleared out, and what is being built there is not housing. In my talk I called them properties because they’re not housing.
To answer your question, I think rent caps are obviously very important. It’s something they have in Germany although of course we never copy that. It seems to me that the UK always looks at what is worst in the world and then says: ‘We’ll have some of that.’ What we’re doing at the moment is trying to re-create London very much on the model of Paris. Parisian social housing is generally in the banlieue, and they dump all their immigrants there, bringing them to work in the centre and then kicking them out again. We’ve seen in the last few years what kind of social contract that leads to. What we have in London is very different because we had council housing earlier. A lot of London public housing is right in the centre of the city currently, so you’ve got to get those people out. That’s what’s driving it. I don’t think gentrification is an accurate word to describe what’s happening in London at the moment, certainly not in relation to the global phenomenon of money flowing in from capital around the world for investment in inner London housing. That’s happening because of political acquiescence – because of the kind of laws we have which allow that to happen (allowing it not to be taxed). London housing and London properties are among the most (politically) stable commodities in the world, and, over the last decade, they are also among the commodities that have most rapidly increased in value. That, I think, is not something you can describe as gentrification. We never use that word, or almost never.
ML: I think you made some really good points and you mentioned quite a lot so I’ll try to respond to certain issues. With regard to what you mentioned about how this is harming the capitalists, I think that’s true. But that’s because capitalism is ultimately illogical even for the capitalists. They do this in order to create capital and in pursuit of capital, but in doing so they further marginalise workers. When you push workers to farther-out zones – moving people who work in Zone One out to live in Zone Six or what have you – it decreases productivity, which decreases the amount of capital you can create. But in the short term it does help the capitalists, so that’s why they do it. It’s not that capitalism and the capitalists are very logical and they’re purposefully planning to socially cleanse and gentrify those areas in order to create wealth and to help themselves in the long term – to continue to create capital. They’re doing it very much for the short term and within a tunnel vision, and it’s benefitting no one. It’s a problem that is systemic to capitalist society.
In terms of what you mention about homeownership, I think that’s a really good point. I do think it’s important that, while we still have social housing and rents, we do implement rent control and limit the damage that states and capitalism specifically do to the working class. I think encouraging homeownership is incredibly important, but it is also a very sensitive issue and we have to be very careful about how we do it. And we’ve got to make sure that if we encourage homeownership, it is universal. Homeownership cannot be encouraged for certain classes or certain parts of the working class – it can’t just be for the upper working class. Homeownership has to be encouraged for all, and you have to ensure that the system you put in place gives everyone the ability to be homeowners, otherwise there will continue to be exploitation and a separation of interests in the working class between those who own their homes and those who don’t. But ultimately, I think that homeownership is a very good thing, and that it does increase community support and empower people. And it does allow for the working class to take back more control and to take greater ownership of their lives in general.
AW: I haven’t got that much to add. I think I kind of agree with what has been said. I think Simon’s right that there’s a kind of bourgeois architect conversation happening over here about what should happen and then there’s the reality on the ground. And if you read the architects’ press, the big discussion is about collective, Soviet-style living in the rental sector for upper middle-class creatives who will dine in a collective restaurant. And, again, that’s premised on the discussion about sustainability – which is that we should never buy carpets any more, we should rent them. We shouldn’t buy chairs. We shouldn’t buy anything anymore. We should always rent because it’s a transient relationship and we can hand rentals back to be turned into something more useful. The idea of using a property in the same way – in which we just rent it and see ourselves as a transient migrant community – doesn’t allow us I think to set down those very community roots that other members of the panel have been speaking about more fully.
I do think there’s something about homeownership which gives you a stake and a value in a place and a property, but I’m not here to defend it or to say that it’s good or bad. People do it for a million and one reasons, whether it’s for inheritance or for making money where they can’t make it anywhere else. It’s very interesting to see that in Wales the Right to Buy has been banned. They’ve stopped it. And you could say that’s a good thing – an anti-Thatcherite kind of politics. But in some ways the reason for doing it is because they’re not building anymore, and therefore they want to eke out a little bit more use from the existing infrastructure. It’s like that accident that happened on the motorway a couple of months ago, where they’re turning the hard shoulder into an additional lane. Instead of building more roads, they say: ‘We’ve got this hard shoulder and no one’s using it. We should drive on it.’ Of course, someone parked on it and got ran into. If you say that we’re not going to build anymore infrastructure but we’re going to use it a lot more efficiently – that when you go to work, someone else is going to sleep in your bed – there’s certainly an efficiency to that and a communitarian kind of harmony to that. But I think there’s something negative about this whole discussion. For me, it’s about providing more and better than about how we purchase it.
I’ll start on your last point about building more motorways, for example. In the 1970s there was a big campaign around this concept that you build more motorways, make them bigger, and you’ll reduce traffic. In fact, what you saw happen was exactly the opposite. You actually create demand and you increase traffic. And this is exactly what we’re seeing happen in the debate around housing supply and demand. We see that in the places where we’re building more, demand is increasing. In the places where we’re not building, demand is reducing. So, again, this is about trying to unpick this narrative about supply and demand – that the market will be able to satisfy supply and demand, which I think is fundamentally flawed.
My second comment regards this idea that was mentioned about gentrification as some kind of social progress. I think that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what gentrification is. Gentrification is the displacement of one social class by another. It’s not the working class becoming middle class. That’s not my understanding of what gentrification, as a process, is. And I think that it’s really important that we understand these processes very precisely, because otherwise we’re using words that really don’t mean what we want to mean. And I think that obviously comes back to your point about gentrification and what we’re discussing here as social cleaning, which I think are different processes.
My final point concerns this discussion of different forms of ownership. I think there are new forms of ownership that we’re seeing, such as collective ownership – things like housing cooperatives. And I think housing cooperatives aren’t necessarily the sort of things that have been described here, which are the kind of collective ownership in which posh middle classes sip their lattes in Community Land Trusts. But housing cooperatives traditionally came out of the squatting movement and traditionally entailed more working-class communities. They’re in abundance, not as much in the UK as in places like Germany where something like 30 per cent of housing is provided in alternative forms of collective living. And I think in the UK we’re certainly supportive of some of the council estates that we work with who are looking to take collective ownership of their estates, which wouldn’t necessarily mean they’re coming out of public ownership. They could be collectively owned and managed. One of the estates we’re working with is cooperatively managed but still has public ownership. That entails a very different relationship between the estate residents and the management of their homes. I think there’s many different forms of collective living and ownership that don’t entail a very strong division between the public and the private.
AW: I used to work for a housing cooperative a long time ago, and, let me tell you, it wasn’t a very pleasant experience – for them as well as for me! With regard to the discussion that ‘we must use words that mean what we want them to mean’. True. But maybe you want to mean something slightly different from what I want to mean. As I said, gentrification is a ‘boo word’ that cannot possibly now be used positively. Because I cannot say that I’m in favour of gentrification – you’d throw me out! I’m not in favour of gentrification by the way! But I’m saying let’s not over-egg this. There are some benefits to improving an area, which I think most people recognise on the ground as it happens.
And, with regard to words, I really have a problem with social cleansing. Because that really is dangerous. This is not Mussolini. Poor people are being moved out of areas. Migrants, immigrants, are being shipped to Bradford and pissed about all over the country. I get it. Call it what it is. But it’s not social cleansing – that is, some kind of fascistic mechanism. If we use terms like that then we’re really in dangerous territory, and we muddy the water between evictions and the Holocaust. This is something which I really feel strongly about. I get what you’re saying. I don’t think we’re on a different wavelength completely, but I think maybe we’re on different sides about how we achieve these aims or what priorities we place on them.
ML: I think that what you’re saying about gentrification is very true, and that any form of improvement in an area which comes from the top down is never going to benefit the local community. It’s never going to be a sustainable improvement for the people who live there – for the, presumably, working people who live there. And although we shouldn’t disregard all improvements to areas and improvements to conditions, if they are going to occur then they have to come from the communities themselves. It has to be a grassroots movement from the bottom up, because ultimately that’s the only way that the interests of working people are going to be protected in the long term. Therefore, I disagree with the idea that gentrification, or whatever we see as improving an area, doesn’t have to be seen as something dirty all the time. In the context of capitalism and of the society in which we live, and of the way these improvements often play out in practice, gentrification is almost always wrong. It is almost always not in the interests of working people. We need to build a culture around grassroots movements, not just around fighting against these improvements but also, as was mentioned earlier, around advocating counter-improvements and counter-schemes that are genuinely going to improve these areas for people.
This has been a very interesting discussion, and I find it particularly relevant because I live in an apartment building in Toronto and they’re building a 25-storey apartment building right next to it. So instead of the lake, I’m now going to have a view of another apartment building. Hence, I think about these issues essentially every day. That leads me to think about the fact that, when we talk about these issues and we talk about policy and what’s happening, it’s always someone else who’s acting. I think one of the fundamental issues of gentrification, or whatever you want to call it, is how people experience change. For example, following the Second World War, the city I’m from bulldozed all the slums and social housing, and it wasn’t considered a negative thing because this Dickensian urban squalor was replaced by clean, relatively nice housing. And there was a sense of popular participation in this development – a sense that people were building the post-war welfare state. But now when these sorts of changes happen, I don’t think there’s the same sense of participation. People aren’t acting. Rather, they’re acted upon by these forces that are out of their control. With regard to terms like disruption, I think that is due to the way people experience change now – namely, as driven by the force of these abstract, larger interests. Do you agree?
SE: I do support and use this term social cleansing, which of course evokes the term ethnic cleansing, because it clarifies that this process is not about gentrification. Gentrification was a term coined in the 1960s by a sociologist who lived in Islington and noticed that, after the exodus from London by the middle classes, suddenly everyone said: ‘Wow, there’s all this beautiful Georgian and Victorian housing all over London. We can pick them up for nothing!’ And then they slowly moved in. Some of you might have seen that wonderful series ‘A Secret History of our Streets’, which talked about precisely that. And those so-called slums, which were sort of demolished in Deptford, are now going for several million quid. Architecture doesn’t create poverty. Poverty creates bad architecture.
To answer your question, gentrification is a gradual process. One might argue that when investment is brought into an area, it may trickle down. According to this whole trickle-down theory of capitalism, if you move some middle-class people into a working-class area that is impoverished, capitalism will bring more money into the area and their lives will improve – there will be some losses, but there will also be some balances. That’s not what’s happening at the moment. As you said yourself, people are being ‘acted upon’. They are being cleaned out of an area. As Geraldine said earlier [Question 2], gentrification is this kind of slow movement of money into an area. That’s not what’s happening here. People are being moved out wholesale, and they don’t come back. There are 230 estates which are undergoing, are threatened with, or have undergone some form of regeneration that leads to a loss of social housing. Almost always, it’s demolition and then redevelopment. There is not a single borough in London that doesn’t have an estate regeneration programme. People are moved out. They’re not being gentrified. They’re being kicked out. That’s why they feel they’re being acted upon, and that’s why they use this term social cleansing.
AW: I wanted this question to reinforce my speech! I think that you’re right in the way you phrase the question. People are acted upon rather than acting upon their situation. Now, the question, is that an individualistic response or a community response to a social issue? You can take it on many levels. I think that in order to act in your situation, you can pragmatically say: ‘This is the one problem. This house is being built. This is blocking my view. I’m going to organize a campaign and get it stopped.’ You could do that through a protest or a campaign against the developer, or by lobbying your local authority. All that is interesting activism, and in some ways training people to do that – the Jane Jacobs school of bourgeois thought – is fine by me as a starting point, as an embryonic understanding. I do find that in some ways there’s an anti-democratic element to some of these protests, in which, rather than holding the public political conversation, there’s much more internal lobbying and hooting horns at local-authority meetings to try and get things stopped. For example, look what has gone on in the Haringey discussion [the Haringey Development Vehicle]. It’s up for debate how democratic that conversation was. For me, the broader issue would be how to create a sense of agency, not of individual action but of the ability to act on a situation. That is, the ability to see yourself as an active agent of historical change that goes beyond the local situation and to see something more social. Because I’m interested in politics.
SE: I think you’re talking so abstractly about what we could do. We need to look at what’s happening now!
AW: No, you can do that. That’s what I’m saying. That’s where my example of aid comes in – of practically saving those people on the ground starving in Africa. Someone has to go there and feed them, right? And I respect that. But I don’t think that it actually helps to resolve the development of Africa in the future.
ML: In terms of the question asked, I’ll keep it short and snappy. I think the reason people are experiencing these issues differently, and experiencing the way they’re being acted upon differently, is because in general our experiences of capitalism’s forces changed rapidly in the past couple of decades. I think the globalisation of capitalism has created a much greater lack of engagement, a much greater lack of community and a much greater sense of disillusionment among people – particularly within housing where it’s so easy now to bulldoze communities and to ship foreign investors in to basically empty out areas and to keep these homes as assets. Thus, I think that, when we look at why people’s experiences of these things are changing, we need to look at it within this greater scheme.
Q1: I’m Piers Corbyn, brother of, but I am speaking on my own behalf. I would like to point out that I was there in 1968. And I don’t think anyone else here was there. And we were the action. What ’68 brought us (and I think some of you ought to talk about at some point) is student occupations, squatting, worker occupations and so forth. The point about this is that we had a programme of action and demands that worked. And what we need now is action and demands. I’m sorry that Simon is gone because I agree with 90 per cent of what he said.
I was in the International Marxist Group for a while. We put forward the truth that the demand for decent housing for all was a revolutionary transitional demand, which means that it can’t be met under capitalism but it’s still a good thing to do, and it was a very reasonable thing to do. In terms of the action and demands we have now, I’ve got a list here of things agreed by Southwark Group of Tenants Organisation and many others: requisition and anti-poverty, rent controls and so forth, and ballots. Now I want to say that the idea of ballots is very good, and it’s a part of accountability, which is good. We had a massive action in Haringey, which has resulted in stopping that evil special-purposes (destruction of social housing) vehicle. And, of course, the powers that be don’t miss a chance when they’re being destroyed to say: ‘Oh my god, that’s terrible, because developers won’t be able to help (help!) provide housing anymore.’ Well, developers are the cause of the problem, and what drives them is international capitalist investment.
In Vancouver, they put forward an idea and it has been agreed. They’ve made it illegal to have money-laundering developments. Now, if they did that in London, then 90 per cent of what you see on the skyline would end! And that would be fantastic. In the Aylesbury estate, 75 per cent of the estate is still there. And we are still fighting 20 years on. And, at the current rate of development, they might finish their plan in 50 years. I hope Matthew will be there to celebrate whatever achievements then. And some key things have come out of the Aylesbury inquiry. Namely, that the council have admitted that refurbishment would have been cheaper, and they’ve admitted that they didn’t give full information to the councillors! In other words, the whole shooting match is wrong.
I just want to end by saying that we have to build a mass movement against social cleansing. And it really is now becoming a movement. The key flag that we fly under, if you like, has to be: defend the vision that was put forward in post-war social housing, which was fantastic and it still is fantastic. The powers that be want to destroy everything that was good after the Second World War. We have to defend and extend that vision under the banner of decent housing at all cost.
Q2: Rent control was mentioned several times. Rent caps in Germany don’t work. There are rent caps but they essentially don’t work if rents are rising. And I want to come back to the homeowner question that was raised. Doesn’t renting have greater potential for freedom? Homeownership seems to be a demand that is rather petit-bourgeois in character. It is similar to the concern of the peasant who wants to be tied to his own land. Isn’t there a potential for freedom in renting?
My second question is about rising wages. Isn’t there also a potential for organising workers to raise their wages instead of only controlling their rents?
Q3: I live in a city that used to be called Red Vienna. About 100 years ago, they basically started to abolish the housing market. They replaced it by massive state building. This was not socialism. For them, it was a defensive mechanism to actually defend the city against the countryside. But they were quite clear actually that homeownership itself was not the goal. Normally, Red Vienna is this subject of nostalgia for the Left, but I was kind of surprised that it never got mentioned here because it was the earliest and biggest attempt of the Left to change the housing market completely. And it offers more flats to people than most places in the world, similar to North Korea and Cuba. [Moderator: ‘Social housing isn’t socialism. Is that what you’re saying?’] They were clear about that, but it was considered a transitional thing. What’s the heritage of that?
SE: I’m kind of surprised that you two are both strongly in favour of homeownership. I’m very much against homeownership. I think homeownership encourages us to see something that should be a use value as an exchange value. The enormous proportion of people living in their own homes in England, even though it’s falling given the rising prices (compared to European countries), is one of the reasons why our particular housing crisis is so bad. It’s encouraged. It has created a whole lot of commodities for people to invest in. I think that homeownership, and the encouragement of homeownership by subsequent governments (both Labour and Tory) since Thatcher came in as well as the enormous reduction in social housing which has come from that, drove up not only housing prices but also rental prices. And I think that it all came from seeing homes as commodities. Thus, I’m completely against homeownership. I also love what you said about the idea of renting. I’ve rented all my life. I couldn’t dream of owning my own home. But I actually quite like it. I like the freedom it gives you to move around. I think we fight for estates not just for communities living there now, but also for the communities that are going to come after them, including their children and other people who move into them. They are transient things that people move through. I think that’s a very positive way to see housing, rather than as something that you own from the cradle to the grave and then pass on to your children. I think the latter notion is a source for the particularly severe housing crisis that we’ve got at the moment.
ML: With regard to rents allowing for greater freedom, I understand where you’re coming from. However, I think something we have to understand here is that, for the vast majority of people, you are not free when you rent – you literally rent where you can, especially in London. My friends don’t pick where they live. He doesn’t pick to live in Seven Sisters. I don’t pick to live where I live. I live there because it’s literally the one place at that very point in time where I could afford to live. I think there’s great potential for freedom within renting, but under capitalism that simply never occurs. It’s simply impossible – even, I think, transition wise. I think it’s very difficult to do. As you said about rent controls, you can put them in place – and you should at least try to – but in practice there are ways of getting around them. They don’t particularly work. And that is true of every regulation and reform of the housing market. There are ways to get past them if you try hard enough, and the forces of the market will try to.
In terms of homeownership, I maybe wasn’t clear enough about this. I’m not advocating sporadic homeownership and simply encouraging people to get homes wherever they can, and for homeownership in the very normalised and standardised definition – you buy a home, you live there for your whole life, you pass it down to your kids when you die. I’m talking about alternative forms of homeownership mentioned earlier such as collective ownership, and about completely eradicating rental markets within areas by providing homes for all the people who live in those areas – leaving none of them out – because they have united interests, and it creates a sense of community within those areas. They can collectively work together to make sure that homeownership is not used to exploit anyone in the community but rather to improve the conditions of the working people who live there.
AW: Ironically, the London rental sector is extortionate. To some degree, people buy houses because the mortgage is cheaper than the rent. The distinction for me is not how you pay. It’s the quality of the good – use-value goods or exchange-value goods – that you’re occupying. The priority is for more good, cheap, affordable and convenient housing. For me, how you pay for it – obviously, we’re still talking about living under capitalism, rather than some socialist paradise where we don’t pay for it, and it’s a community good – is less interesting and less important. It’s ironic that you say that renting increases freedom or increases a sense of freedom. It’s quite interesting, because I think a lot of people buy their houses in order to give them a certain sense of freedom. They have capital and they might be able to sell their house in order to move somewhere else. Renting involves the freedom to upsticks at four weeks notice and to move somewhere else. That’s fine and I get it. But in terms of freedom as an independent agent under capitalism, to have a £100,000 asset to sell off in order to supplement one’s non-existent pension – that’s a different type of freedom. I think it’s horses for courses.
Q1: My question concerns this point about the comparison of the housing question with aid for Third World countries. I was thinking about a piece by Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution, and how it’s a critique of the Bernsteinian point of making reforms instead of revolution. And she was critiquing the idea that reform and revolution are separate from each other. Do you see your political action or goals in the here and now as being connected to the bigger question of socialism? Or anarchism? How are the goals for the here and now connected to this bigger political question?
Q2: The previous question is actually my question as well, but I want to specify it in terms of the short and the long term. Matthew talked about how capitalism tends to be irrational because capitalists act in the short term but maybe don’t consider the long term. This is a problem on the Left as well, right? [Matthew: ‘Yes.’] With regard to emphasising things like community and defending small shopkeepers, it’s difficult to see how this will develop a class consciousness in the community that could then connect them to the struggle for socialism. As a housing activist, that’s the form that one’s resistance or reformist politics might take even though you seem to have a vision of the future that’s greater than defending small shopkeepers. Thus, I want you all to specify how you see your current practice and the way that you’re presenting your theory and the work that you do as connected, and how it’s connected to this revolutionary view as well as how it’s in harmony with what Austin spoke about as unleashing the forces of production that are contained within capital for the ends and needs of humanity, as opposed to simply restraining them and sort of playing defense as Matthew described.
Q3: How do you see the housing question, or your engagement with the housing question, building toward something greater? It seems that the concrete demands you make are very local. It appears to be a concrete politics within a neighbourhood or a city. But how or where do you see the potential and possibilities for this politics linking up to something bigger? Rent is a problem, or it seems to be a problem, in large metropolitan areas, but what about in the deindustrialised areas where rent has gone down and where no one wants to live? For example, in where I come from, the Ruhrgebiet, one can buy a very nice flat and the owner will pay you $500 to move in because no one wants to live there! Does the rent concern go beyond the urban middle class and people living in big cities?
ML: I think it’s a very valid point that you bring up with regard to how we link these issues to a greater socialist and revolutionary campaign. The fact is that it’s in the building of these campaigns, and it’s in the building of activist networks. They mobilise communities to rise against great injustice in their area, and they encourage people to start doing things themselves – to become critically engaged with more aspects of their society and of their community. My engagement with housing activism is very much part of a wider struggle. I don’t do these things because I think the housing crisis is the greatest issue that is facing society. It’s part of a grander scheme of work that I do to fight back against capitalism, and to encourage more people to get involved in actively fighting these things and actively acknowledging what is wrong with society. There are people who aren’t critical of capitalism that get involved in these campaigns. You can radicalise them and make them more revolutionary through these campaigns, and they in turn do that with other people. It is like a domino effect. It is very important to engage with people locally in order to get them to engage with issues outside of their local context. Community campaigns are what creates a solid base and gives people the confidence to challenge our society in bigger and more radical ways relating to the greater scheme of socialism and revolution.
If you consider things in a historical perspective, rent strikes such as the one in Clydeside in 1914 and Kirkby in the 1930s (if I remember correctly) were very much initiated by women in these areas who had a relation with revolutionary socialist groups. After these rent strikes won, they transformed into greater movements against patriarchy in these areas. And they continued to advocate revolution and socialism within their areas. Without the initial mobilisation around rents, those greater movements simply wouldn’t have happened. I think that it’s very important that we don’t get lost in only trying to reform the system, and that we do engage these local communities within a larger context. But it’s still very important that we continue with these campaigns and that we don’t focus only on revolution.
SE: Funnily enough, I spoke a couple of months ago at a panel like this, which I think Austin actually organized, and it was called Reform or Revolution. I don’t think that’s a good way of thinking about what our options are at the moment. Personally, I don’t think the revolution is around the corner, at all, and I think that the discourse of revolution, of ‘we need to do something radical and change things up’, is actually put in the service of things like that great big poster of the girl with her hands in the air saying: ‘The rent revolution is here, £300 a week!’ It’s like saying: ‘Are you going to be a reformist and tinker with things, or are we going to do something big and change things?’ I think that the discourse of revolution is being used to promote privatising ideas such as: ‘Let’s chuck everything out. Let’s demolish these estates and build these homes!’ Hence, I don’t think that it’s a very good way, necessarily, to think about this. Furthermore, the idea that the UK is on the edge of revolution is not one that I buy for a second. On the other hand, I think that something is changing. Housing is something that affects everyone. It’s one of these really big issues that’s increasingly going to affect everyone.
In terms of my own practice, when we set up Architects for Social Housing, which is not a political group, we were interested in pursuing real, practical measures. It came from a sense that the marching, the protests, the banners and even more practical things like eviction resistance were creating great solidarity but were nevertheless getting walked over. That’s why we’re a very practical group in terms of what we’re doing.
There’s another side to our work, and that’s what we call the counter-propaganda side, which tries to change the understanding of what’s driving this housing crisis, what has created it, and above all to encourage suspicion of the solutions that are being put forward. In 2015, when we started, there were a lot of independent groups really getting things done. People were occupying estates, whether it was the Carpenters or the Aylesbury. People were getting up to all sorts of antics. We were really attracted to that scene. Even though there wasn’t unity, there was a collectivity and people were doing things. Since then, that scene has all but disappeared. It has been taken over by the Labour Party. There are very few housing activists that I know of who don’t support Jeremy Corbyn. And one of the things that we do a lot of, which I have become personally reviled for, is to read actual Labour housing policy and to talk about what Labour councils are doing. And I think that the collective and independent activity, or activism if you like, that existed in 2015 is now caught up in this incredibly naïve and very uninformed belief that if we get Jeremy Corbyn into the government of this country, then everything is suddenly going to be okay. And that simply is not going to happen. The Labour Party now call themselves the party of homeownership for Christ’s sake. Labour councils are the main implementers and innovators of estate demolition and redevelopment. God, it really grinds me down that the Labour Party has so successfully managed to turn what was a very rebellious kind of anarchist scene in 2015 into people who want to vote for the Labour Party, as if somehow with people like Novara Media and Paul Mason, and with things like the ‘Spirit of ’45’ [Ken Loach], the Labour Party has been transformed into the party of Aneurin Bevan and will build all this stuff. It simply hasn’t. We have to read these policies. So that’s one of the things that we do. We try to get people to read these bloody policies and to realise that voting for the Labour Party will not solve the housing crisis. What is going on now in estate demolition is a Labour Party policy. There is no split between the so-called Blairite councils and the Corbynite ones. It just doesn’t exist. Read their stuff, read our stuff. We’ve written piles and piles about it.
The other thing that we try to do in terms of the long-term perspective regarding our very concrete action, is to change opinions about the role of architects. At the moment, the architectural profession, without which none of this happens, is completely supine in service to the builders. Hence, we’re engaged in polemics with them. One of the main polemics is: ‘You don’t need to demolish these estates in order to increase housing capacity.’ But we’re trying to change things ideologically as well, and that’s the idea of the longer term, of the bigger picture, for our very particular practice.
AW: As an architect, I take that on the chin [laughter]. Literally sometimes. I think my activism is an intellectual project. It’s not necessarily bums on seats or boots on the ground. I think we have to understand and challenge some of the orthodoxies. Why are they orthodoxies? Maybe some of the orthodoxies are correct. That’s fine. But we have to critique them. With regard to what Simon said, I’m not going to tell you to read Labour Party policy. You’ve got better things to do. But I advocate reading as much and as widely as you can. In some ways, there are a lot of discussions about this subject that are not about this subject. We don’t read housing manuals in order to understand what we want to do. We want to talk about politics. We want to read sociology, philosophy, all kinds of things. Academic journals are at the forefront. Take the return of Malthusianism, for example, which is suddenly being talked about in chattering-class discussions. It has become credible to blame the existence of too many people for the problems of society. That is something that we have to challenge. If we accept that ideology, then forget about building more houses – we shouldn’t have more houses because we shouldn’t have more people that we need to house! That illiberalism, that risk aversion and that lack of experimentation is in circulation in society today. What social conditions have allowed these reprehensible reactionary philosophies to grow? I think that’s what we need to tackle on an intellectual level. Then, when we operate on the ground, we’ll have much more armour with which to tackle these things on a first-principle basis. So that would be my appeal to you: read widely and get involved in discussions and these kinds of events. And then more power to you whichever way you want to go. | P