Towards a new neighbourhood: Building something new in the shell of the old

Eviction fighter Eddie Windom Bey tells a crowd of community supporters to keep fighting.

When thinking about what kind of housing model we really want for the future, we can see the new structures sprouting in the very acts of resistance we have today.

Resistance, in the political and social sphere, is both the means and the ends.

For many, daily lives are systems of constant compromise and the passive acceptance of oppression. We work as meandering underlings in jobs where we do not control our labor. Our personal relationships are often tainted with the same kind of inequality. Access to the most basic resources requires a constant struggle and insecurity is expected. It is the moments when we reject the basic assumption of this quicksand that we have already begun to build the new society in the shell of the old.

Housing strategies in the last two years have taken leaps and bounds. This is not simply because the Occupy Movement, and subsequently Occupy Our Homes, has made the idea of spatial takeover a common sense routine, though this did connect the dots for many. In reality, it has been as such because it was necessitated. Though for many the housing market has always be precarious and homelessness on the other side of a missed paycheck, it was still seen as a relatively stable form of wealth accumulation for many. People tended to hold their money in their pension and their homes, and now both were unraveling. It is true that people, without many options, can succumb to the fatalism of a given society and accept the hand that was dealt, but not this suddenly and without justification. Now the banks rolled through and created a housing desert, a complete loss of faith in the idea that these neighborhoods were available for us to live in.

Movements like Take Back the Land came in with a common sense approach of a two-fold strategy. First, rely on direct action to defend people against the evictions from these fraudulent foreclosures. This meant standing in solidarity with a family who does not want to leave their home, often times winning because of the power the community showed during the resistance. Second, to support homeless families moving into empty bank-owned homes. Again, this meant that the community would not accept a perfectly good home sitting vacant on their street while people are sleeping under bridges.

The important thing about both elements of this strategy is that they focus their resistance on direct action. This stands out in a world of liberal reformism in that when it becomes successful it is because of the collective action of working class people, not because a moralistic benefactor of the ruling class has determined it so. A positive result in both situations comes because the community showed power that clashed with the forces of repression that keep these ghettos isolated.

The question that comes out of this tactical concern is often what this means for housing in the future. Direct action retains itself as the method for liberation because it shows people that they can act without the mediation of the State or a capitalist enterprise, but that was in terms of defending against the destruction that was already at bay. What about afterwards? It is here that we can really see what the anarchist/anti-authoritarian project really holds in that its methods of resistance can act as a roadmap for prefiguring the functionality of the future it hopes to build. In defending neighborhoods, in supporting families illegally taking over homes, we see the structure of a new form of housing emerge.

Anarchism is often distinguished from its revolutionary cousin Marxism in the way that it determines theory. While Marx wrote a dialectical history of the working class and its determined future, Anarchism developed praxis from the work as it was being done. As David Graeber points out in Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology,

"Now consider the different schools of anarchism. There are Anarcho-Syndicalists, Anarcho-Communists, Insurrectionists, Cooperativists, Individualists, Platformists… None are named after some Great Thinker; instead, they are invariably named either after some kind of practice, or most often, organizational principle." (1)

Experimentation of form and structure tends to remain foundational, while many may still refer to Marx on many points of economics since it remains a philosophical tract rather than a strategic one. Graeber outlines this as a binary distinction between Marxism and Anarchism, though it is not nearly as simplistic as this.

1. Marxism has tended to be a theoretical or analytical discourse about revolutionary strategy.
2. Anarchism has tended to be an ethical discourse about revolutionary practice. (1)

This is not to say that there is not a distinctly Anarchist philosophical study, and today it may even outshine Marxism outside of the academy, but that much of the theoretical assumptions are often driven directly out of lived experiences.

With this simplification of ideas it can be easy to then really think about what is at the heart of Anarchism, or transformative organizing more broadly. Many Syndicalists will boil down unionism, either inside the workplace or in the community, down to simply solidarity. This means just the acknowledgment that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” In its most basic form, a union is people coming together to support each other to a common end. Anarchism, with its “lived” praxis, could even be boiled down to some of its key components. Solidarity, mutual aid, voluntary association, and direct action.

The real difference that aligns the housing movement as it has evolved out of the financial crisis is that these principles have often been the starting point. With such a radical attack on housing for most people occurred, a radical solution seemed common sense to many. It is through this that the immediate ideas of what housing could be began to take shape. Could the methods used for defense actually translate to building something new?

The question arises as to why these simplified principles, like direct action, are inherent to a new society. Direct action is often seen as a political tool that can be used to affect the kind of change that you want, and when thinking about cause and effect during organizing it usually is just one option. The difference is that direct action is linked directly with developing the kind of class power that can not only push through to a complete overhaul of the current society, but also build praxis for social organization that attempts egalitarian and non-alienated relationships. This has again been central to a number of Anarchist struggles over the years, especially in labor.

What distinguished the syndicalist position in the struggle for political right from that of the political parties “was the form of the struggle” for political rights and “the aims which it has in view.” Fundamentally, contended Rocker, the “people owe all the political rights and privileges” that they enjoy “not to the good will of their governments but to their own strength.”(2)

Instead, it was the power of the people themselves that actually transferred the center of control. The change was forced, not requested of the ruling class.

This class power, which really just means the strength of solidarity and mutual aid in a community, defines the community’s ability to combat oppression directly. To do this it has to create the kind of networks that maintain the principles that run counter to the institution they are fighting. When a system of oppression retains a character that is elitist, racist, sexist, homophobic, and unequal in the most obvious ways, the community that stands against it must inevitably challenge those things in its tactics. In a world that lacks even the most basic sense of connection between individuals, standing in successful solidarity shows an entirely new world altogether.

The bonds of this new vision are then solidified by going back to some of the same principles that can make for a successful movement that is targeted at specific issues, such as housing. When it comes to eviction defense, a few things are always going to have to take place if a neighborhood is going to see its goals met. People have to stand with each other, engage in actions that are not always sanctified by the State, and have the freedom to associate and disassociate. This new type of social relationship is being formed as the campaign is waged, and people do not just give up these new friendships and ideas after one immediate gain is made. When oppression is so visible in your daily life, the non-alienated expression of a community organized can give a glimpse as to what possibilities are out there. This is organized resistance then stands as a model for a new mode of organization, a new way to relate to your neighbors and your community, and a new way to operate so as to see “success” in your pursuits. From there the next step becomes how to move forward and into a lived reality that continues these principles beyond this immediate struggle.

For this the answer is much more ambiguous, as it is with most prefigurative projects. Housing has been defined by the social conditions we live in, and often a response to the different modes that capitalism has progressed through. A previous agrarian living space, where most people lived where they grew up, was abandoned as the Industrial Revolution forced people into crowded urban areas looking for work. Here people were alien to each other, often not knowing their neighbors as they had in their previous towns. This again changed as suburbs were developed and redeveloped, creating neighborhoods where the same alienation remained present even though the houses themselves had changed. During moments of crisis, such as the Great Depression or the financial crisis of 2008, these slowly changes housing structures were raddled to their core, and a new space of possibilities began to open up. It is here that we can begin to redefine housing in a way that is not framed simply by its position in relation to economic centers and as a commodity. With the new structures seen during the course of resistance the options for how to form a home, a neighborhood, and entire region, have changed. The expectations and the methods have been transformed. Where once having a stable place to live came from the luck of choosing the correct career path it now seems possible to have the same kind of security by turning towards your community for strength and support.

This is not as simple as it sounds as it is not going to be realistic solutions for most people to simply create autonomous zones where by the rules of capitalism have no play. The reality is that people still have the pressures of the economic system in which we live, and that will not change if people simply move into communal living situations or squat indefinitely. Instead an entire system has to change at its fundamental core, and this is a revolutionary process in the most literal terms. Dual power, as mentioned before, is the force by which a new social system is sprung in the midst of an existing one.

"In the broadest sense of the term, dual power refers to situations in which a) parallel structures of governance have been created that exist side-by-side with the old official state structures and that b) these alternative structures compete with the state structures for power and for allegiance of the people and that c) the old state is unable to crush these alternative structures, at least for a period of time." (3)

Lets say, for a moment, that people of an entire city stop paying their mortgages and their rent. Other people begin moving into bank owned homes publicly and en masse, refusing to leave when asked. From there they create large-scale networks that defend people against evictions, as well as structures that help people fix up their homes. They continue forward and create ways for everyone to get food, education, healthcare, and so on. This is, by its definition, a social revolution, where by property was expropriated and a new society was formed. It would then be the State’s duty to engage with this new community that has so flagrantly disavowed the rules of the previous social order. This would happen in any situation where the new social system was large enough to pose any serious threat to the previous inequality; otherwise it is simply a small project that does not have the same kind of transformative power. This is a moment of dual power, where by the two systems are forced to clash. The old State will not allow this kind of secession, and will forcefully crush the revolt. If it is incapable because of the power of the community, then it can stand wings of a revolution.

The process that the housing movement was built on still has the seeds of this type of transformation, even the kind of dual power that can rattle nations. The level of success these principles can have in creating a new system of housing can only be seen on the type of scale it is attempting to have. At its most basic level it can begin to create a new perspective on how housing should be allocated and empower people to begin creating systems of living justice in their neighborhoods. At its most complete stage it smashes the most basic assumptions of capitalism and the State, and at this level it requires a type of challenge to power that is much more profound than a one off eviction protest blockade.

At the same time there is always an expectation that there will be consolidations from the State, which is often the result of social movements that exert pressure with direct tactics. This can have a very real and immediate benefit on the communities, and with housing this can lead to incredible results like eviction moratoriums and increased funding to public housing. While these are the reforms that we should be looking for, they do not equal the kind of transformation that we should be satisfied with. Instead, these successes should be seen as part of the transformative process that empowers people to continue on and create the kind of movements that have a sense of dual power fermenting just under the surface. It is with this goal in mind that we can create a vision for what type of housing we could have, as well as the kind of society that is possible, that reflects the kind of ideas we had when we headed into the streets to stand with each other.

The social structure for direct action is often called direct democracy, which forgoes the “representation” people are normally accustomed to in the political sphere. This means, simply, that the people in the community make the decisions of a community. It is this form that many in the housing movement hope to see as the lasting result, often phrased as “community control over land and housing.” The actual implementation of this can bring us back to the same question of what depth we are talking about. In its grandest interpretation it can mean that an entire social system has to be replaced with something more humane and involved. When it comes to a specific project, such as a collective living situation in a liberated home, it can be traced directly from the methods it took to liberate that home. Direct action, solidarity, and mutual aid have led us to the forms of resistance that made this space possible, and therefore can continue in making it work successfully.

The final word on transforming housing is going to be in transforming all the elements that craft what a home is. In a world where a piece of property is bought and sold as wealth, where people are divided in neighborhoods, and where inequality and the myths of meritocracy remain embedded in our social relationship, it is hard to imagine direct democracy spreading from neighborhood to neighborhood. But if the social forces of community resistance continue, push for larger demands, and eventually confront the key structural elements of our culture, you can imagine that this kind of community control will come as a direct result of the principles that were set forth right from the start. The State can always be pressured to give allowances, but it can always reverse these. What is needed is a constant presence, a fire that never ceases. This runs from our streets to our workplaces, our schools, and every other social space where the struggle to survive happens. We can make the demands that can allow a neighborhood council to determine how property will be used, but it is not until we take them over that we will be able to count on it.

If we want to see a true democracy in our neighborhoods we need to embed our vision with the tools that we have created to bring down the tyranny we resist.

Endnotes

(1) Graeber, David. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, LLC), 5-6.

(2) Schmidt, Michal, Lucian van der Walt. Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism. (Edinburgh: AK Press UK), 140.

(3) Day, Christopher, San Cristoral. “Dual Power in the Selva Lacandon.” in A New World in Our Hearts: Eight Years of Writings from the Love and Rage Anarchist Federation. Ed. Roy San Fillippo. (Oakland, AK Press), 18.