For a Class Analysis of the Housing Question

We have translated this article from the latest edition of Battaglia Comunista, paper of our sister group in Italy, because it clearly frames the ‘housing question’ as a key part of the class struggle which must inevitably sharpen as the working and living conditions of the working class come under attack on all fronts.

Here, the groundswell of outrage provoked by the Grenfell Tower fire where around 80 people were burnt to death has put the wind up all shades of the political class. For them it is a warning of “the growing social divisions” in the UK and the need to come up with some sort of policy to paper over the cracks. But the cracks are widening and government incentives to ‘fix the broken housing market’ sit unconvincingly against the scrapping of rented social housing, constant cuts in housing benefit and the blatant cleansing of working class residents from areas favoured by the super-rich. And it’s true that Grenfell is like a microcosm of capitalism. On one side of a road artery in London’s richest borough are apartments and mansions belonging to the super-rich; on the other side dilapidated tower blocks like Grenfell built for the working class: 24-storey building with a single entrance and exit and no sprinklers, wrapped in flammable cladding to disguise their existence from the rich gits over the road.

Despite all the protests and ‘consultation’ meetings very few of the people made homeless have been properly re-housed. Yet over 1,857 properties are empty near Grenfell Tower, many owned by rich offshore speculators as ‘buy to leave’ investments. Over one-third have been empty for more than two years. The solution is glaring. Even if the Grenfell residents are too traumatised and broken up to see it yet, others like the women of Focus E15 and the New Era Estate who have been fighting against evictions and social cleansing are realising that they have no option but to organise for themselves. And, as the article here explains, since capitalism has no solution to the housing question the battle for a decent roof over our heads needs to become part of the wider fight for a new world.

Under socialism one of the first problems to be tackled will be the housing crisis. It will be the first need to be made free. It will do this by abolishing rents and mortgage repayments overnight, giving all security of tenure. This will be accompanied by a further recognition that housing is a need and not a piece of property on which to speculate by the confiscation of all empty dwellings and second houses and using these to re-house those who need it. Housing will be organised by local communities themselves in their own associations run by all and not by some remote bureaucracy.

The Housing Problem and the Condition of the Working Class

On 3rd April 2011 Corriere della Sera reported that there were 245,000 empty dwellings in Rome alone and 24 million in the whole of Italy, a far larger number than really needed. Clearly, the emergence of the housing problem has nothing to do with scarcity of supply. The real question is how the housing is being used inside this System: not to meet the needs of the population but to generate profits and fuel speculation.

These are the terms of the housing problem under capitalism: millions of proletarians have to pay exorbitant sums for somewhere to live: crumbling and/or overcrowded buildings, or else they don’t even have this and are forced to occupy, with the ever more pressing nightmare of being evicted and thrown out into the street, losing their personal belongings. On the one hand the satisfaction of a basic need that should, in a free and equal society, guarantee first-rate living accommodation for everybody without exception. On the other hand the incessant thirst for profit for a few. The housing question – along with the general condition of the working class which is facing increasing exploitation, insecurity, unemployment and impoverishment – is becoming increasingly drastic and requires a response at the level of the class as a whole.

From this standpoint the question of need is necessary but not sufficient. We must also have the courage and strength to frame the problems in terms of their wider significance: starting with political consciousness, and that means questioning the system as a whole.

A brief history of the struggle for social and living space

The big occupations carried out by thousands of workers in the ‘70s (San Basilio in '74 included amongst them) [1], were followed by the reflux of the ‘80s and the gradual de-politicisation of the Movement. In the ‘90s the movement revived with occupations of new social spaces, the CSOA,[2] and other residences. However, in the late 90s popular housing and legal protection for buyers and renters[3] progressively declined until it practically disappeared. At the same time many social spaces were conquered as a result of very significant battles. Unlike earlier occupation movements, this new movement no longer referred to communism in general – albeit often too generally – and did not pose the issue of how to resolve the contradictions of capital. The slogan that was used exclusively in the '90s was "re-appropriation and fight for needs": any reference to the working class or revolutionary demands had disappeared. These occupations served both to build a new identity for a Movement which increasingly repudiated class politics and as a means of bringing social calm to the many emergency housing situations that the market and the suffocated social housing sector could not satisfy.

With the re-opening of the capitalist crisis – which began in the 1970s but which has become increasingly severe since 2007 – the spaces for compromise and tolerance have diminished both in proportion to the unfolding of the crisis itself and to the inability of our class, the proletariat to fight on its own class ground. Over the last 10 years the occupation movement has increasingly drawn in thousands of Italian proletarians, largely immigrants. The preponderant theme of the struggle has become the "right to a home" and for an end to hardship. But inside the capitalist state it’s only the bosses who have rights …

The opportunities for negotiation are shrinking to nothing.

For years protestors have barricaded themselves into social centres, occupied houses, faced evictions and fallen back for their defence on the "theme of needs and rights"; aiming for – often finding – a negotiated ‘settlement’ within the system with the help of supporters, advisers, trade unions ... opportunities for negotiation that allowed them to survive for decades, perpetuating the illusion that it was possible to "progressively regain possession of what is rightfully ours". As we said, a combination of the crisis on the one hand, and the failure to put forward a class perspective on the other, completely eroded these mediation spaces. Today, the class enemy is winning on almost all fronts. The policy of "zero tolerance" is becoming increasingly commonplace: municipalities are increasingly subject to the dictates of the Ministry of the Interior. Behind the democratic and participatory illusion capitalism’s political management system has become more and more arrogant, violent and reactionary as the crisis has worn on. Historically it is from bourgeois democracy that fascism has always been born. …

Emergency Policies

The economic crisis obliges this state – which is always the bosses’ State– to continually redefine itself in line with the changing requirements of the ruling class. The formally democratic management of social problems only serves to demonstrate the essentially fascist and authoritarian essence of the bourgeois state. The authoritarian management of social questions is hidden behind the screen of “emergency” which has become a model for handling the most difficult situations. In an emergency there is no discussion: it acts; no dialogue: it represses; problems are not handled ... they must disappear. And those who oppose must be persecuted. This paradigm clarifies the political substance of the housing problem better than any other.

Limitations of the struggle for needs.

… We know that it’s important to fight for basic needs and wants but at the same time we realise that our needs, so long as capitalism remains, will never be fulfilled. This is the contradiction in which we live. Becoming aware of this contradiction means to begin to develop a political reasoning, the only one that can frame a perspective beyond the immediate.

Internationalist communists and the housing struggle.

It’s vital that revolutionary political consciousness and organisation take root. A proletarian, communist, revolutionary political way of thinking means developing the ability to hold together two closely linked levels of struggle: one for immediate class interests (needs) plus the struggle for the general interests of the class as a whole (affirmation of a new social order based on economic and social equality).

Many activists are under the illusion that capitalism’s social problems can be resolved from within, without rocking the capitalist boat. In contrast, whilst internationalist communists do their utmost to support and sustain situations where sectors of our class are struggling to defend their immediate interests – in this case a place to live – at the same time they speak out against any illusions in democracy and unions; they condemn the role of national or local institutions and the false friends who sit in the halls of power. They try to stimulate the most determined struggle whilst constantly calling for it to be widened – for the housing question to be linked to the issue of jobs, in all its various parts. Our goal is to reconstitute the whole class front, starting from the different immediate interests (needs) and moving towards what is common to all the exploited: opposition to the whole system of exploitation and its overthrow.

It is only in the light of this approach that it will be possible to reshape our class and guide it to the revolutionary assault, the one action that can meet all of our material needs once and for all. This simple strategy pivots on the need to organise the best and most perceptive elements from the struggles themselves around the international political platform. Building a class party, an authentic revolutionary proletarian party, means shaping the political instrument which is the key to the class struggle taking a revolutionary direction. Of course all this has nothing to do with participating in elections or in various democratic theatres: our goal is to overthrow the whole society from the top down.

We clearly assert our political identity, our intentions, and our programme, because without a revolutionary party every rebellion will be condemned to burn itself out inside the System.

We strive to ensure that a truly revolutionary organisation grows from our involvement in the struggles of our class: by giving them greater depth and perspective, in order that the individual episodes become part of a wider, global, battle of all the exploited, of all the proletarians of the world until finally this capitalist society that daily tramples on us, humiliates us, oppresses us is brought to an end once and for all.

We will never stop, at least not until the only law governing the whole world has become:

From each according to their ability to everyone according to their needs.

Rome Section of Battaglia Comunista

12 November 2017

Notes

[1] It was here in Sept 1974 that the police evicted working class squatters who had not been offered new houses under a regeneration scheme and been occupying the flats due for demolition since November 1973. A battle followed in which 47 police were wounded (some of the squatters had old hunting rifles) and one of the squatters' supporters, Fabrizio Ceruso, was shot dead by the police.

[2] Centro Sociale Occupato Autogestito: Self-managed Social Centres under Occupation

[3] Under legislation passed in 1978 known as equocanone (L.392/78)

Thursday, November 23, 2017