The housing question just like all other questions that arise from the economic struggles of proletariat today ultimately requires the same answer if to truly be resolved, a communist revolution.
We could fight for reforms that could be passed or not, followed through with by bourgeois state actors, or not based on the strategic will of the ruling class. A rent cap here, while food and gas prices surge without our wages increasing. A local government initiative for a few dozen low-income housing units here, a law in favor of tenant’s rights there, that requires years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to hold management companies accountable. Talk about touching the power of the banks to foreclose on the homes of proletarian families, or force oligarchs to open up their years vacant buildings and the capitalist class are sure to close ranks and deliver hard lessons about the true nature of our wonderful “democracies”. This system is for them not us.
Consider, there is estimated to be well over 5 million people currently living homeless on the streets in America. Millions more on the brink, couch surfing and so on. The US in 2022 has an estimated:15 million vacant homes, 90,562 hotel and motel businesses, and 2.58 million rental properties available for seasonal occupation. Is it that there is not enough structures? What exactly is the housing crisis? The reality is that the crisis at hand, is the capitalist system. The only solution to this system is to smash it and obliterate its bourgeois state and as the working class, collectively dictate society through neighborhood and workers councils. Only then can we have the power necessary to implement creative solutions, to expropriation these structures retained by the oppressors, and immediately provide a massive improvement in millions of lives. While the international revolutionary left is hardly in position to realize revolutionary change tomorrow, we can’t have a start by being mired through spreading self-defeating reformist illusions that continually invest working class peoples confidence, hopes and aspirations for a better world into a state structure so thoroughly and completely dominated by the bourgeois, today more than ever before in history.
Housing Crisis? And Half Measures.
In his pamphlet The Housing Question, published in 1872 Friedrich Engels shows that housing “shortages” are inherent to class society. Engels demonstrates that since modern states are dominated by the bourgeois, they have little to no interest in investing in public works that benefit the workers they pray upon. Likewise, capitalists, in the form of landlords, will always have an interest in ruthlessly exacting, the largest share possible of the surplus value generated by the workers. Given these points, Engels shows the futility of the bourgeois and anarchist (Proudhonist) reform programs that were proposed at the time.
The solution to the housing question for many anarchists was then as now, to abolish rent or “decommodify housing”. The way they thought to accomplish this in Engels time was by passing reforms that would allow renters to eventually purchase their own homes from the landlords. For the Anarchists, home ownership was an essential element within their wider program for economic change. It was a vision rooted in a petit-bourgeois nostalgia for a time before the industrial revolution, when production was centered around artisanal cottage industries operated out of single family homes where each family unit would produce its own finished good and bring it to market for exchange. They thought that if home ownership and the moralistic principles of “universal justice” were generalized it would allow each producer to exchange the individual products they made for equal value of its production, and voila the problems of capitalism would be reformed away.
Engels points out that this was an impossible solution as it amounted to turning the clock back on 100 years of history. A return to the cottage industries of the past represented a backward facing nostolgia, rather than a realistic or practical program for change. Practically it would have meant millions of workers returning to the status of starving toiling peasants. Despite industrializations horrors, as the material necessities of life were now produced by many many hands instead of atomized family units, the necessary preconditions for a globally interconnected socialist society were being generated by the system itself. The scheme presented by the anarchists to abolish rent also misses the mark because capitalists pay workers the bare minimum, typically only enough for the working classes to fulfill their basic needs; thus were workers to own their own homes, in the long run it would only result in capitalist being able to reduce wages, and thus would result in no net economic gain for the working class.
Further, such reform programs within capitalist society can often have a reactionary character as they are premised on the old ideals that glorified a connection to the land. They would often also create a bulwark of support for the bourgeois through doling out land to mass of formerly landless people.
“The cleverest leaders of the ruling class have always directed their efforts towards increasing the number of small property owners in order to build an army for themselves against the proletariat. The bourgeois revolutions of the last century divided up the big estates of the nobility and the church into small properties, just as the Spanish republicans propose to do today with the still existing large estates, and created thereby a class of small landowners which has since become the most reactionary element in society and a permanent” (The Housing Question, Page 35).
He continues to discuss how home ownership in America was being used as a tool to bound workers to the land and trap them into debt slavery. Although not mentioned in the text, we can also reflect on how the promise of land ownership was used in the process of colonizing the American West, as masses of workers were now tasked with defending capitalist property relations on expropriated indigenous land. Beyond this Engels argues that when workers have no attachment to the land, this gives them leverage against capital as they can move around to undercut wage decreases in a particular area. This all leads Engels to the conclusion that the only way to fundamentally change the housing situation is to alter the societies social relations through anti-capitalist revolution, something no reform program can accomplish.
The Relevance Today
Today we can see that much of what Engels talked about almost 150 years ago is still relevant as the presence of vast shanty towns of unhoused working class people are now a normal fact of life in every American city. With absolutely no viable solution being presented by anyone in the ruling elite, outside ignoring the problem, or within the local left, outside literally handing out band-aids. The enduring housing “crisis” within capitalism has only gotten worse as the capitalist class has detached itself from any social responsibility in the face of a demobilized working class across the western world. Home ownership once presented as the path to the “American Dream” has increasingly become a trap as millions of wised up to starting in the 2008 subprime mortgage loan crisis.
If we understand the nature of the housing situation is as Engels describes in the Housing Question, there is no reforming ourselves out of the problem. While the working class in the United States is often isolated and divided, the issues presented by the housing “crisis” has increasingly become an area with the potential to unite workers across sectors. In the face of continued assaults by capital in the form of rising rents, evictions, and poor general conditions, defensive struggles by tenants will continue to crop up; however, these fights will require a generalization into opposition to capitalism itself in order for any real enduring change.
Today, in the United States groups such as the Autonomous Tenant Union Network have arisen in recent years with membership across the country and thousands of tenants involved. Such networks are promising in that such Autonomous Tenant Unions, operate free of large union bureaucracies with paid staffing; however, without a focus on developing a larger revolutionary sentiment they could easily fall into the same reformist pitfalls. Revolutionaries immersed in tenant organizing should join such preexisting structures where they exist, and to assist tenants in forming their own council structures from which they can engage in collective struggle, where they do not.
While the genesis of such structures emerges from the urge to resolve immediate issues faced by tenants they serve as the educational vehicles towards developing a larger revolutionary socialist consciousness. Through struggling together tenants reinvigorate a sense of collectivity and begin to encounter the deeper realities of class forces behind their daily issues. Through engaging in serious acts of solidarity and relationship building, revolutionaries can over time help fellow tenants understand the larger realities of the class society that set the stage and empower the landlords, whom are responsible for our miserable conditions. When we as tenant and workers understand our immediate economic struggles as connected to the broader struggles of workers both locally and internationally we can see ourselves as part of a global movement of the working class, fighting for a better future beyond capitalism.
To resolve the housing question, revolution is the only appropriate answer. As hard as this pill might be to swallow, peddling false solutions doesn’t get us any closer. While the abolition of rent, sounds like a radical solution, ultimately it is a reformist half- measure which relies on the intervention of the capitalist state itself. Campaigns for political reforms from the capitalist state only send the message that the working class should continue to invest its future in the same state which must necessarily be destroyed in order for the capitalist class society to exit the historical stage. Likewise strategies that put tactics at the center such as calls for a perpetual “rent strike”, mirror the same problems of calls for a “general strike” within the union movement.
Instead, we should understand that all economic struggles fought by working class tenants are defensive fights pending revolution. Economic demands for concessions from elements of capitalist class itself, when won by self-organized organs of the working class itself, invest power and confidence into the class without counter-productively acting like sheep pleading for protection from foxes against the wolves.
While the material conditions of today’s capitalist society work to isolate individual members of the working class and make taking collective action an extremely risky prospect, revolutionaries can intervene by creating opportunities to assist the most isolated workers and tenants connect and network with each other. Through these efforts revolutionaries can help our fellow tenants and workers develop the necessary foundations for collective action while being able to offer access to information and critical lessons of the class struggle as it has been historically waged. Through the shared burden of collective struggle bonds of solidarity against a common enemy are forged and revolutionaries can work to foster new forms of collectivity and solidarity amongst members of the class where none, exist, which is really the critical work today.