Buying Time: Evictions and Tenant Organizing at the Pandemic Slow End
The dearest currency in any crisis is time. During the pandemic, everyone from individuals to states sought after this currency, hoping to ward off the immediate consequences of the crisis. In the face of a real crisis, compromise rules the day, and those hoping to last must be willing to adapt to the exceptionality of circumstances and make a casualty of all norms. Typical procedures may be circumvented, rules suspended, precedents shredded, institutions dissolved. In the most dire situations, the mores and strictures regulating violence, around which society itself coheres, may be transgressed in favor of the most forceful means of effecting an end. The sacred may be profaned in the service of buying more time, paradoxically suspending the status quo in order to preserve some semblance of it. Normality is suspended in order to open an interval for future attempts to restore normality, to take a gamble on future contingency. But, far from guaranteeing exact restoration, such periods provide occasion for lasting shifts in power by putting the very constitution of prevailing social relations in question. The last year and a half of the global COVID-19 pandemic has sent tremors up numerous fault lines which have yet to fully resolve. The balance of class forces, mediated through all of social organization, has entered into a period of strenuous realignment as struggles escalate on multiple fronts. One of the most significant of these is the relation between landlords and tenants.
Under usual circumstances, landlords extract a portion of tenants’ wages in the form of rent and, in exchange, the working class in aggregate has a means of securing housing. The power to extract rent relies on a number of coercive measures available to landlords, enforced by the state, the most fundamental of which is the ability to evict. The scale of job loss since the start of the pandemic would have triggered an unprecedented wave of evictions, which would have almost certainly exacerbated the pandemic and resulted in a spiral of subsequent long-term immiseration. This possibility hangs like the sword of Damocles over the US even still. For the state (at multiple jurisdictional levels), imposing eviction restrictions and passing stimulus bills functioned as a way to forestall more drastic social deterioration, trading financial losses for the preservation of the fundamental relations which structure society. In short, the state has been buying time. This has temporarily, but dramatically, limited landlord revenues, pausing a collapse of the landlord-tenant relation by transgressing its sacred rules, allowing nonpayment of rent and disallowing eviction, thus severing the landlord’s ultimate mechanism of coercion. For tenants, this has enabled prolonged nonpayment of rent—albeit with geographically-varying stipulations about who qualifies and the burden of proving an inability to pay. Such measures have also bought time for both tenants and landlords, opening up the possibility for each side to organize in anticipation of coming confrontations, and for the state to arrive at some kind of satisfactory mediation of conflict which avoids the most destructive scenarios.
We are still in the midst of this state of suspension and the struggles over realignment are only now tending toward resolution. Developments have proceeded enough, however, to suggest some of the outer contours of the manner in which this rupture will eventually be reconciled. It is incumbent upon tenant organizers and communist militants to begin characterizing the shifts which have taken place and hew strategy as close to the actual shape of class relations as possible. The final conclusion is easy enough to state: the capitalist rule of property still reigns supreme. But more careful, detailed attention is required to grasp the relative extent to which capital’s reign is extended or constrained. Behind the veil of fetishized social relations, it remains difficult to characterize precisely the relative class forces and the terrain of struggle. Instead, we have to tabulate various proxies, and search the landscape for hints or signs of the movements happening under the surface. Furthermore, it would be both impossible and foolish to predict exactly how these struggles will be decided, ignoring a number of crucial ambiguities with regards to legal rights, respective organizational capacity, and indeterminate “force multipliers” latent in the yet-undecided scale and timing of any attempted return to normality and in the continued unfolding of the pandemic crisis. Whatever results will be a compromise formation triangulating between political deadlock, state (in)capacity, the mass scale and urgency of need, and the relative tractability of tenants and landlords acting towards their respective class interests. With these caveats, we will nevertheless attempt to map out the trajectory of the struggle between tenants and landlords.
Towards this end, we will turn first to a brief history of the current situation and the state’s actions, from eviction moratoriums to rent relief, aimed at first suspending and then reestablishing normal landlording practices. In the next section, we will look at this same history from the perspective of tenant organizing. Then we will examine the broader history of housing under capitalism and its effects on class composition, looking specifically at the role of homeownership versus tenancy in the US since WWII. Finally, we will conclude with some thoughts on the practical difficulties of building vehicles for proletarian mobilization which can successfully politicize the explosion of economic struggles.
I. The Gambit
“Sometimes by losing a battle you find a new way to win the war.” — Donald Trump, on his failure to evict the tenants of 100 Central Park South, Trump: Art of the Deal (1987), p. 249
The temporality of the pandemic crisis reflects the necessity for unprecedented gambits, with a rapid succession of disruptions, followed by similarly rapid stalling maneuvers which have slowed the working out of the immediate implications, smearing the initial explosive moments across the last 19 months. Events moved quickly within the first few weeks in which the pandemic began to spread within the US: the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic on March 11, 2020, and within a few weeks a panoply of state and local lockdown measures were rolled out in the US; unemployment claims jumped to an all-time high of 14.8 percent, as nearly a third of the American workforce were furloughed, laid off, made part-time or otherwise demobilized; on March 27, Congress passed the CARES Act, a 2.2 trillion dollar omnibus bill with a range of emergency measures, and the Federal Reserve expanded its loan facilities by 1.95 trillion dollars by April 9. Yet these fiscal and monetary measures did little to alleviate the immediate subsistence needs of masses of people. The contraction of income was on such a scale that savings were rapidly wiped out and still did not touch the bulk of the rent owed.
Landlording, as it is reliant entirely on formal property relations and exists as a parasitic stratum within the wider economy, is especially sensitive to such disruption. Real estate is primarily bought on credit, hence most landlords do not have the option of withstanding a lapse in rents. Tenants tend to be even more precarious. Rent itself has become such a large part of monthly wages that even a few missed paychecks abrogate tenants’ ability to pay. Facing this crisis, the policy options that would keep people housed were to 1) take over liability for rent by issuing direct rent relief, 2) mandate rent forgiveness outright, or 3) suspend evictions and translate missed rent into debt—in other words, for the loss to be absorbed by the state, by landlords, or by tenants. The US government was not willing to mandate a program of rent forgiveness, and in any case such a measure would likely fall outside the state’s legal bounds, opening it to legal challenge. Naturally, tenants were consistently pushed to absorb the loss, reflecting the context of overwhelming landlord power in which these deliberations were taking place. The fact that rent forgiveness has never been on the table demonstrates that, unsurprisingly, even as the crisis brought us to the brink of a real disruption in the reproduction of capitalist social relations, a transformation of those relations in favor of tenants was never seriously considered.
The relationship between capital and the powers reserved by the state—a matter far too complex to fully characterize here—is such that, in this case, the state is self-limiting in its capacity to regulate property, and therefore incapable of mandating anything which would actually displace landlord power. Without a significant organized force of tenants, it remains unlikely that the state would even curtail that power. The two paths taken by the state to forestall an eviction wave, the moratoriums and various forms of general and rent-relief assistance, were short-term and tepid in nature, indicating the expectation that normalcy would promptly resume. The actual policy pattern suggests a reluctant actor moved only by fear of a greater catastrophe, willing only to make tentative adjustments which mitigate extremes and manage fallout without solving fundamental conflicts. Furthermore, state authority in the US is splintered amongst different jurisdictional levels; at no point was a moratorium in effect which unilaterally protected tenants. Nor, arguably, could there be one. Social protection in the US can only catch so many plunging victims with such threadbare netting.
The first protections were instituted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development on March 18, 2020, prohibiting foreclosures and evictions on single-family properties insured by the Federal Housing Administration. Around the same time, the Federal Housing Finance Agency instructed its corporations, known as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, to offer 90-day forbearance to landlords, stipulating that no tenants be evicted during this time.1 Across the country, most states and many municipalities and counties instituted some form of eviction mitigation. An analysis conducted by Eviction Lab suggests that, early on, most state eviction protections were a rather loose-knit patchwork; in any case, by the end of summer 2020, the majority of states only had protections in place which were below the minimum required to successfully keep people housed.
The first federal-level legislative moratorium was contained in the CARES Act, signed on March 27, 2020. This legislation is worth examining in some detail, as it demonstrates both the priorities of politicians and the limits of state power. The tenant protections in the CARES Act were at once carefully written and hastily ambiguous. The protection itself prevented tenants from being forcibly removed from their housing until 30 days after the end of the moratorium, and stopped landlords from filing notices to vacate. In addition, it barred landlords from collecting late fees, but left it open for landlords to retroactively apply late fees to uncollected rent. Importantly, it explicitly stated that tenants were still generally liable for paying rent. These protections were no longer contingent upon the landlord applying for forbearance, as with the HUD moratorium. But exactly who was protected?
The CARES Act specified that evictions would not be allowed in “federally-related” properties. This term is defined in two different ways in different articles of the act, one more restrictively than the other. The more restrictive definition gives a heuristic—basing it on two previous sets of programs, those included in the Violence Against Women Act and, additionally, the rural housing voucher program—while the more expansive definition specifies these but leaves the language open. In fact, the federal government itself had no idea who, or even how many people, were covered. The Atlanta Federal Reserve estimated that it covered between 28 percent and 45 percent of occupied rental units nationally. But, as the Fed researchers lamented, there is no systematic database of rental units, rendering a precise estimate infeasible. The ambiguity of the coverage, particularly with respect to which mortgages are covered, and the fragmentation of the data generally (there is no national database of 1 to 4-unit rentals with federally-backed mortgages) means that no single government body could objectively assess the coverage. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had tools which could only provide information about 5-unit buildings. Unable to provide its own tool, the House Financial Services Committee suggested that tenants use the National Housing Preservation Database as a way to determine if one was covered by the Act. Of those purportedly “covered,” many simply had no idea or any way of determining whether they were. Tenants would know if they used federal vouchers, but they would not have any knowledge of the kinds of mortgages their landlords had taken out. The US Census Bureau’s Rental Housing Finance Survey found that 31 percent of landlords with a mortgage did not know whether it was federally backed or not, hence would not know whether they were covered. This ambiguity trickles down, undermining any attempt to forge policies at lower levels of government which would be calibrated to (and complementary with) federal coverage.
The CARES Act was carefully constructed so as not to extend beyond a federal jurisdiction, which had to be defined wholecloth. The Atlanta Fed noted that this was because more sweeping protections would likely be unconstitutional, and thus unviable. But the lack of data means that even this more careful half-measure faced serious barriers to implementation. What this suggests is that the structure of legal authority in the US is actually at odds with the institutional capacity of the federal government to enforce its own mandates, a structural self-limiting which reflects the withering of political vehicles for disciplining capital. This incapacity was legally enshrined in the consequential lack of enforcement mechanisms in the act. A June 2020 National Housing Law Project survey of legal aides in 38 states found that 91 percent of respondents reported illegal evictions happening in their area. A study of eviction filings in the Houston area found that nearly 24 percent of evictions were illegal. It has since become clear that people were evicted nationwide in spite of protections. Not content with a toothless regulation, a consortium of landlord lobbying groups circulated a letter to legislators begging for the moratorium to be means-tested, with tenants on the hook for demonstrating that their inability to pay can be traced unambiguously to the pandemic. With the CARES Act moratorium set to expire on August 23, analysts began to speak of an “eviction cliff” facing nearly 20 million renter households, as was discussed in a previous article about tenant struggles. The initial stopgap measures which froze things in place threatened to collapse, opening the way to an impending disaster. In search of more time, the Trump administration issued an executive order on August 8, calling for the CDC to implement a moratorium to replace the expired CARES Act.
The CDC moratorium, which began on September 4, is founded on different legal grounds than the CARES Act, not referring at all to federal housing jurisdiction but justifying itself on the basis of public health. This was simultaneously flimsier and more expansive. On the one hand, the CDC moratorium applies to all renters, whether in federally-related housing or not, eliminating the issues that arose from that limitation. But, importantly, the moratorium did not prohibit landlords from filing eviction notices, which has allowed a massive backlog to build up. Landlords could now begin immediately applying late fees. Furthermore, the landlord lobby got its wish: tenants were now required to prove their eligibility, showing that they had exhausted all avenues for securing rent relief payments and that they were specifically at a health risk if evicted. Having learned from the toothlessness of the CARES Act, this moratorium did have a penalty for violation, though in the interest of fairness tenants too faced severe repercussions if it was found that they had filed under “false eligibility.” The Trump administration made sure to issue a guideline clarifying that there was nothing in the order that prohibited landlords from challenging tenants’ claims of eligibility, reiterating that the purpose was not to prevent eviction proceedings from being initiated.
Meanwhile, the CDC moratorium immediately faced legal challenges. It was renewed four times, once by Congress and three times by the CDC, before finally expiring on July 31, 2021. By this time its legality had been successfully called into question, with the argument that the moratorium was outside the CDC’s statutory powers. The Supreme Court, in an opinion written solely by Brett Kavanaugh, had determined that congressional authorization would be required for the CDC to extend the moratorium past July 31. On August 3, the CDC attempted to extend it again in response to the rising number of Delta variant cases; a request was immediately filed in the DC District court to lift the stay, which was eventually granted by the Supreme Court on August 26. Congress has thus far failed to muster any kind of subsequent protections. On August 27, the Treasury Department, HUD, and the Department of Justice released a joint letter fecklessly imploring governors, mayors, and state courts to pass their own eviction moratoriums. Only California and New York have done this. Having exhausted the avenues for implementing a federal moratorium, much of the rhetoric has abandoned any calls for direct protections from evictions in favor of urging the rollout of relief cash.
Federal funds earmarked for rental assistance came in different pieces of legislation, totaling 46.55 billion dollars. As of writing, just 8.41 billion dollars has been disbursed to tenants in need.2 The snail’s pace of fund disbursement goes alongside and accentuates a number of other barriers to receiving rent relief, from the confused patchwork of different programs and requirements to the often-required cooperation of the landlord. Often, there are programs at both the state and the local level, leaving tenants confused over where to apply and, presumably, bureaucrats struggling to confirm that each applicant hasn’t already received their funds elsewhere. Nearly half of these programs do not allow tenants to self-attest their own eligibility, meaning tenants must find and submit appropriate documentation of hardship or loss of income. Many programs require that tenants and landlords work together to get relief, and some make landlords the primary applicants and beneficiaries, leaving tenants nothing to do but wait and worry whether their landlord might not prefer eviction to rent relief. Meanwhile tenants across the country remain in debt. As of July 5th, an estimated 14.7 percent of renters nationally owed back rent, with the problem particularly acute in the South.3 This amounts to an estimated 23 billion dollars in outstanding debt, with estimates varying from about 8 billion dollars to 52 billion dollars. In short, as the federal eviction moratorium comes to an end, there are still millions of tenants with rent debt and without disbursed relief funds. A patchwork of local and state moratoriums still offer some protection for about half of US renters, leaving half under a more immediate threat of eviction.
By this point, everyone from leftists to mainstream pundits have commented on the worrisome “cliff” or “wave” of evictions expected to come as the moratoriums are lifted. As mentioned above, the outcome of this moment remains unclear, but we venture to guess that such a dramatic climax will never arrive. There likely will be increases in evictions, spread over multiple months, unfolding across the country along with the removal of moratoriums—but these evictions may well be spread out enough and on a small enough scale that they become a new normal. From early on in the pandemic, the disbursement of stimulus and unemployment funds dampened the effects of lost income. The eviction moratoriums slowed the pace of evictions, but coexisted with a continuous stream of self-eviction, harassment, and illegal evictions that persisted throughout the pandemic. Now, as the moratoriums end, a slow and haphazard rent relief program attempts to fill the remaining gap with government funds. To the extent many evictions do occur, it seems less and less likely that they will occur in the form of the collective, dramatic, almost universal experience implied by ‘cliff’ or ‘wave.’ Together, emergency measures on all sides seem to have turned a cliff into a sloping valley.
II. Emergency Organizing
“Personally, I can say this. Since the time I first went on rent strike things have gone better for me. Long live the working class! And long live the struggle of the tenants!” — Anonymous woman interviewed in the midst of a rent strike in Milan, 1970
What exactly does it mean to organize, and how many of us have really been a part of an organization in the same way as the anonymous woman quoted above? The notion of social agency we inherit from our conditions is so hollow, impoverished, and obscure that it is often quite difficult to even think about organized activity with any of the categories immediately familiar to us. Rather than organizing people together to fight a common struggle—as tenants or workers or both—organizing can become sharing posts on social media, attending city council meetings, or volunteering for a food bank. In brief, without a concrete reference point for organizing in our own lives, we can forget the content, the historical importance, and the context that gives organizing its impact. Instead, organizing becomes any arrangement of people and things. By this same logic, not only do we lose the distinction between organizing a tenant union and attending a city council meeting, we also lose the distinction between both of these and arranging one’s sock drawer in Marie Kondo fashion. In this article, we use “organizing” to mean the building of working-class power by organizing working people into lasting institutions so they can struggle collectively to improve their everyday lives. Without experience with this sort of organizing, our work becomes unconsciously influenced by innumerable pitfalls, based on our received habits of relating to others. Rather than overcoming our own annoyance at fellow tenants and working to redirect that anger against the landlord, we can fall into petty feuds. Rather than building respect and kind relations among a core of organizers, we can descend into individualism, arguing thoughtlessly for our own beliefs and interests, or we can expect everyone else to behave like a machine, the way things do at work, where each cog is paid to play its part in the greater whole. The distinction between building a mass organization and recruiting acolytes to join in ritualized busy work is a fine one; the potential conflation of these often hinges on a kind of momentum well outside the control of the organization in question, which merely becomes the accidental beneficiary. The question of actually advancing, of generating this momentum, is a subtle one, with no recipe which can be dragged from context to context and repeatedly executed without a hitch.
The truth of the matter is that organization is no simple process of designating roles, hosting meetings, giving each other to-do lists. Forging an organization through which one can act necessarily relies on amassing genuine power, which cannot be created ex nihilo by the will of organizers. Power may begin with something as simple as a reputation for integrity, a gift for fiery speech, a good sense of how to build trust. It is inextricable from one’s social ties, and from the slow task of weaving these together into something both strong and flexible.
But, neither is this kind of power reducible to mere people skills. It is not strictly organic, something to be uncovered in exceptional individuals and let loose onto the world. The successful exercise of agency entails the production of situations which would not otherwise occur, immanent to the participants but only in their precise combination. Collectively determining some direction, pursuing it effectively, continually reaffirming it internally and communicating it outwardly, growing to accommodate and incorporate newcomers, adjusting to unplanned obstacles, reassessing the directions taken and determining the course anew: this kind of collective movement requires the development of the means to think together, to clarify properly for one another, to set in motion a process that unfolds with a force which was not previously present. Vacuous gestures, no matter how well choreographed, will amount to nothing if they are not oriented towards one’s real circumstances, always feeling for the handholds with which to seize the machinery of one’s subjectivity. More than a nameless ethereal thread strung between individuals, organization becomes a material collectively worked over, a medium of knowledge built up over time, a cast through which individuals think and act.
Such an ideal development can only happen in the best of circumstances. Organization must always be built with what is at hand, while weathering whatever catastrophe blows the material for it within reach. The exceptional nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, giving rise to the modes of governmental action articulated above, created a unique set of circumstances that acted as both an accelerant and a limit to the development of tenant organization.
The pandemic could not create new organizations, but it did radically change the social terrain upon which organizations were forming and acting. The relation between landlord and tenant is longstanding and, before the pandemic, organizing had made only slow incursions into this terrain. Tenants had to be introduced to new ideas, new relationships had to be built without a clear and immediate purpose, and organizers had to forge ahead without many examples to work from—all of this against the inertia of decades of “normal” relationships between tenants and landlords. To organize the tenants of a particular landlord to take action together, even something as small as writing a collective letter of demands, took significant time and effort.
The pandemic changed this situation utterly. Where before there were “normal” relationships, now many tenants were unable to pay rent and felt justified in their inability to pay. Where before the simple act of writing a collective letter seemed unknown and potentially dangerous to most tenants, now many tenants were on rent strike whether or not they wanted to be. Finally, where before landlords had significant power to discipline tenants, pandemic eviction moratoriums curtailed and blocked much of this power in the interests of managing the larger social crisis. In this new context, tenants expressed the all-too-human impulse to understand their new situation, to seek help from others, to work through what this changed situation meant for their lives, and to figure out how to act. Tenant unions across the country saw wave upon wave of tenants reaching out, looking to understand and to organize. The social terrain had shifted, and this shift proved fertile to the growth of tenant unions and tenant organizing.
To the extent we are aware, every existing tenant union experienced significant growth during the beginning of the pandemic. Tenant and Neighborhood Councils (TANC), in the California Bay Area, saw its membership triple in a couple of months, and similar growth was experienced by the Los Angeles Tenant Union and the Greater Boston Tenant Union. New citywide tenant union organizations sprung up throughout the country, and many tenants began organizing their own buildings or complexes even if not connected to a larger union. However, as described above, organizing is no simple matter. To the extent that cities had pre-existing autonomous tenant unions, they saw significant growth as the unions adapted to these changed circumstances. But no matter how fertile the terrain, starting an entirely new organization in such a short time frame remained difficult. The same trend could be seen on the building level: buildings that had pre-existing organization could develop that organization into a fighting force during the pandemic. By contrast, it remained difficult though not impossible to organize a building from scratch and keep the organization going throughout the later months of the pandemic. Many newly organized buildings—without the time to build a strong fabric of social ties, common goals, and relations to the greater tenant movement—experienced burnout and disintegration during late 2020 and 2021.
Similarly, the more fertile terrain didn’t necessarily lead to more organizing. Between a fertile terrain for organizing and the actual birth, growth, and development of working-class organizations lie many conscious choices and contingent events. The US remains a depoliticized, individualistic, and atomized society, with little practical experience with organizing. In this environment, it’s no surprise that much of the potential and energy set loose by the pandemic found its way into vague calls for a country-wide rent strike or into demands on the state to “cancel rents.” This type of activism generally remained at the level of social media campaigns, non-profit organizations, and legal rights education, with occasional detours into building-level organizing—detours that were later redirected back to political campaigns or local advocacy.
The approval of various rental assistance programs in late 2020 and early 2021 marked the state’s decision to resolve the rent debt crisis by absorbing large portions of this debt onto the state’s balance sheet and attempting to reestablish regular, individual tenant-landlord relationships. By this point, the vague calls for a country-wide rent strike had largely disappeared, and the more durable “cancel rent” campaigns, seeing the writing on the wall, quickly declared that the state’s decision was in fact their own well-earned victory. Tenant union organizing also saw a sharp demobilization. Rent relief tended to diffuse the conflicts between tenants and landlords, and collecting and completing the required forms tended to reimpose an individual relationship between tenant and landlord. Organizations at the building level (or combining multiple buildings owned by the same landlord or managed by the same property manager) tended to experience demobilization and burnout. In the Bay Area, only a single one of these tenant councils was both organized and ingenious enough to transform this moment to its own organizing advantage.4 At the same time, the rolling out of vaccinations and waiving of pandemic restrictions led to a sharp drop in attendance at union Zoom meetings, which only recently began to pick up again. Understandably, no one wanted to continue attending nightly meetings on Zoom when they could go to bars, visit with friends, and generally experience social life directly again.
As the pandemic began, the initial surge in tenant organizing occurred too rapidly for solid foundations to be built, and often occurred without the benefit of a preexisting organization either at the building level or from an existing tenant union. It remains an open question to what extent this surge will lead to permanent growth in the strength of the tenant movement, of tenant unions, and of building-level councils. At this point it seems that at least some of this growth will be preserved and that preexisting organization has been a significant factor in the extent to which this growth remains permanent. As we write, many tenant union organizers, some minted during the pandemic, are attempting to consolidate the gains they’ve made, learn the lessons of the last years, and begin again the slow process of organizing outside of an emergency situation.
III. Housing, Space, and Class Composition
“No man who owns his own house and lot could be a Communist. He has too much to do.” — William Levitt, pioneering suburb developer
In his 1872 articles against bourgeois reformers, Friederich Engels mused that efforts to solve the “housing question”—that is, the endemic lack of safe living space—by way of turning working-class tenants into homeowners, besides being impossible to the point of ridiculous, threatened a major social regression, in which the urban proletariat traded its thoroughly modern freedom of movement through the city for the shackles of land proprietorship and were cast back into peasant isolation.5 His friend Karl Marx, 20years prior,6 had characterized the isolation of peasants as a matter of profound political dislocation, likening them to a “sack of potatoes,” relating to each other in a purely formal and additive fashion, never cohering into a social force greater than a mere collection of adjacent individuals.7 This suggests that it is not merely the fact of physical residence, but the manner in which the spatial organization of everyday life is mediated which is at stake in the housing question. Housing has always been a significant factor in working-class composition, i.e. the ways in which workers are arranged and governed within production and society at large, structuring the forms in which those workers in turn organize as an oppositional force. Urban density, public space, geographic mobility—these are as significant for liberation as universally guaranteed housing. The trick for working-class militants is to enfold the housing question into a general program of substantive self-composition, in which access to living space is the means and mediation of forging solidarity, rather than a wedge to pry apart social movements. The function of housing arrangements in decomposing and disempowering workers has been perfected into a science in the US, leading directly to the housing crisis we are experiencing today. In the past, workers tended to live near their workplaces, building ties outside the factory floor that often helped strengthen their sense of solidarity and fighting spirit, but over the last 50 years housing has functioned as a method for depoliticizing, splintering, confusing, and reinforcing racial division within the working class.
To understand this shift, let us start by returning to the “golden age” of capitalism in the US. The growth of built space proceeds according to the rhythms of investment, production, and profit as more dynamic sectors attract more workers, thus raising demand for housing, amenities, and other consumption goods. Where this dynamism is lacking, state planners, through recourse to a number of mechanisms developed during and after the New Deal, could attempt to conjure up large-scale investment. Like cladding on a frame, built space thus reflects and shapes class composition itself, springing up around great deployments of labor-power, constructing physical barriers between class fractions, falling to ruins during a downturn or capital flight. Such rhythms vary across history and space, but can be periodized into dominant trends. An image one could keep in mind is alternating cycles of populations flowing into and out of cities and back in again, condensing and dispersing, with capital articulating space on multiple scales at once.
The first cycle of interest entailed an era of industrial concentration with masses of workers finding shelter in cheap housing complexes on the cheapest land on the outskirts of cities, often within walking distance of industrial plants. Though such concentrations were the perpetual target of shallow reforms, more concerned with dressing up the unsanitary conditions than with overturning their causes, working-class neighborhoods formed an organic basis of community and solidarity accompanying the mass concentration of the factory. In short, such metropolitan centers became nodes for working-class milieux, culturally and politically.8 Urban space not only expressed but was an outward form of working-class composition, in its double sense: workers concentrated as a consequence of the real subsumption of the production process in the form of industry; worker density resulted in thick knots of consciousness, which it took the bourgeoisie the entire first half of the 20th century to hack away at.
The articulation of class fractions within urban space and the workplace was not without its antagonisms. Two world wars and the intensification of white terror in the South drove millions of African Americans into Northern and Western cities. Ethnic neighborhoods defined by this or that European diaspora, already harnessed for several generations as the workhorses of the Second Industrial Revolution in the US and with pretensions to full assimilation into white respectability, now butted up against newly formed Black districts. A multi-ethnic working-class intermingled within the factories and shops of the city. This provided occasions for solidarity, overcoming the centrifugal pressures which drive workers apart in the sometimes quite fierce competition for paying work. However, such pressures were not overcome in every instance, and the subtle tensions of cultural difference were exploited by bosses eager to sow mistrust on the basis of job precarity.9 Other splinters were wedged into further consequential distinctions. The reorganization of the labor process, itself a class struggle over control of the shop floor, and advances in corporate structure to match the increasing monopolization of capital led to the growth of new salaried managerial and administrative strata. Such divisions—secured via the distinction between intellectual and manual labor, disparate treatment, workplace privileges, and, most importantly, pay differentials—began to be reflected spatially in the gradation of “good” and “bad” neighborhoods, inflecting the existing racial segregation, as professionalized managers and even some workers sought a semblance of class mobility.
These trends came to a head as the US experienced a huge shift toward suburban homeownership following World War II. A series of dramatic shifts in the organization of industry precipitated a pendulum swing towards what Chris Wright calls “deconcentration,” with the intra-class scissions accumulated in the previous period meeting up with a host of new developmentalist state policies that placed credit in the hands of the most privileged layers of workers and a petite bourgeoisie restless to evade the bogeymen of the city. The National Housing Act of 1934 and the G.I. Bill in 1944 created mechanisms through which finance capital in the banking system could more actively pursue new markets for credit, primarily in home mortgages, now subsidized and insured by the federal government. Mortgages themselves were restructured with the advent of the 30-year mortgage, lower interest rates, smaller down payments, and insurance against loss through foreclosure. In the 1940s, about 45 percent of US households owned their homes; by the 1960s, that number had increased to 62 percent, and has remained relatively steady since then.10
As is now becoming common knowledge, this entire process occurred along racial lines.11 The federal government specifically subsidized homeownership for white applicants and endorsed policies of redlining across the country. This means that the growth in homeownership not only split the working class between those who own a home and those who don’t, but also reinforced racial divisions within the working class. The 1960s left the US with a large racial divide in homeownership, and homeownership went on to define the experience of working-class life since the 1970s. Even as de jure racism diminished in the US, the pre-existing racial divide in homeownership ensured that a de facto racism was preserved and deepened over the following decades. Because homeownership never maps perfectly onto race, this new system of de facto racialization worked less uniformly than the old, explicitly racist laws. Still, in 2017, the gap between black and white homeownership was 30 percent. Among households who make less than 25,000 dollars per year, 50.8 percent of white households own a home, while only 24.1 percent of black households do.12
This trend in housing was a major component of a larger tectonic shift within US society. As people buy a home and move to the suburbs, their mentality changes. People use their homes like they would any other commodity purchased on the market, but the home is unique in that it also functions like an asset, preserving and even increasing its value over time. In just 20 years, a large section of the working class were made into homeowners, asset holders, and investors in the growth of the economy at large. The interests of the working class are clouded by the possession of an asset (the house) at the same time as workers’ spirits are blunted by burying them in a mound of debt (the mortgage). At the same time, these workers use their newfound assets to become better commodity buyers—to purchase the cars that make suburbanization possible, and the fridges, washers, and other machines that fill their homes. The suburb they now live in isn’t like the urban neighborhood, or even the rural town. Instead, each family rules its own little kingdom, tends its own lawn, relaxes in front of its own television. Suburbanization and homeownership change not only the material situation of the working class, but also its cultural and social context. With the purchase of a suburban home, the working class takes a step towards becoming the modern consumers we still know today: depoliticized, atomized, and stunted in the class struggle.
The home under capitalism exemplifies the contradictory structure of the commodity to a degree unique among commodities. Homes are use-values par excellence, to the point of defining and providing the very space and social context where the vast majority of personal consumption takes place, so much that the home forms a secondary complex of hidden abodes, the domestic sphere, where candles are daily burned at both ends to square the circle of proletarian subsistence with the unwaged toils of social reproduction. The home constitutes the limit of capital, a social world that cannot be directly subsumed, but, for that reason, has been entirely incorporated into its workings, beyond capital’s direct reach, and so has become the prime site to which the ugly, irrational necessity of use-value has been relegated. At the same time, when the occupants own their home as private property, all the irreplaceable private moments of intimate joy which take place there become subordinate to the home as an asset, as value. Homes are not merely commodified, but capitalized, and homeowners must tend their investment with all the clawing tenacity of a small business tyrant. For this reason, homeownership is uniquely capable of mediating the cross-class reaction formation that we call the “middle class;” the cultural trappings ascribed to which derived almost entirely from the consequences of the home as a contradictory unity of use-value and value. The home serves as collateral to be leveraged for upward mobility and luxury consumption, a shelter from the hungrier neighbors across town, a bedroom refuge far from the bustle of working life, a display case for the equity earned. While this fundamental unit of the middle class ends at the property line, no house is truly separable from its social context, just as a house is dependent upon its connection to infrastructure in order to provide the expected amenities of a home. Each household, and therefore each homeowner, has a real stake in their surroundings, in the practices which produce the tenor of the neighborhood. This stake may be exercised with genuinely civic and communal intent, to be sure, but, for the most part this, too, is subject to the law of value, specifically the logic of property values. As such, the intensely individual, “potato-like” sociality entailed by private homeownership translates into activity, both quotidian and overtly political, which contributes to this separation. Homeownership, especially in the era of asset price inflation, therefore does constitute a kind of urbanism but not quite: a suburbanism, which actively structures the shared space of cities, promoting the semblance of yeoman independence, common spaces accessed only in serial fashion, the security of exclusion, lives indifferently collected side by side as if at the bottom of a sack (cul-de-sac). It is no coincidence that homeownership, a project of decomposing collective subjectivity, is the immediate basis for landlording, completing the project of mass embourgeoisement piece by piece with each slumlord who retires to the suburbs and every suburbanite who invests their savings into real estate.
Corollary to the shift towards suburbanization is the systematic abandonment of the city, pivoting towards sprawlification of metropolitan areas. The 1970s proved to be a turning point in US and world history, often dubbed as the advent of “neoliberalism” or “late capitalism.” From the 1970s onward, real wages in the US began to stagnate while the economy became more and more financialized. The growth of industrial production, the initial backbone of urban concentration, began to decline, as general economic growth stagnated as a result. New industrial centers, exerting a centripetal force on the recently dispossessed peasantry of the postcolonial periphery, produce astounding megacities, simultaneously dense and sprawling. Industrial employment as a relative share of employment has declined across the board, scuttling the dynamic composition of mass workers even in industrializing areas. In the “post-industrial” core, the factory as a centripetal force is completely absent. Finance capital flows into many cities, but this is the captured surplus value of industrial capital dotting the globe; local activity is predominantly in marginalized services, organizing the consumption of these great nerve centers of capital. The sites where industry is located in the US are primarily exurban, in the office parks and warehouses of the outskirts, where suburban workers—often salaried, “skilled,” midde-class—commute everyday.
The city centers, lacking coherent political formations capable of pursuing class interests, were completely marginalized economically. The racial divisions reinforced by midcentury redlining and white flight metastasized into white covenants thinly disguised as gated communities, dominated by revanchist fixation on the racialized urban Other, and internal colonies of Latino, southeast Asian, and especially Black communities, upon which war was declared. Although this period marks the end of most of the racism enshrined openly into US law, many of the social programs that were walled off by this de jure racism become both harsher and more hollow. Municipal governments, some of which were the veritable vanguard of the Great Society, were hollowed out by the fleeing tax base, and increasingly turned to public debt, precipitating a series of fiscal crises in which budgets were “balanced” through austerity. The state and municipal fiscal crisis continues, leading to a general environment of rotting infrastructure, predatory fee farming, and budget cuts. By the 1990s, any mention of a Great Society has crumbled away to leave only the steady chanting of “crime” and “police” in the halls of the Capitol. Housing again played a central role in this great historical shift.
As real wages stagnated and home values surged, homeownership came to define different working-class experiences of life. If one owned a home, stagnating wages could be compensated for by rising home values. At the same time, the home guaranteed access to good credit, which could be used to start a business, to send a kid to college, or to simply maintain a good living standard. Homes also become family assets, passed down generation to generation, and often the purchase of a new home was partially funded by home-owning parents. The home was a key step in the path to becoming petty-bourgeois or professional, or in maintaining that status across generations. On the other hand, workers who didn’t own a home lived through a period of stagnating wages, rising rents, and dwindling social benefits.13
Throughout most of recent history, homeownership underpinned a myth of American success and prosperity. While in 1965 the homeownership rate was 63 percent, it had risen to almost 70 percent during the housing boom of 2004–2006 (despite stagnation during the 1980s and early ’90s). Up to that point, one could still look at a graph and imagine that homeownership would continue to increase until, in a hundred years or so, every US resident would own their own home. The 2008 crisis shattered that image—though, even shattered, its fragments continue to haunt the US political landscape. It is now clear that huge pools of surplus capital, in their mindless search for profit, had pumped the housing market into a gigantic speculative bubble. Instead of realizing the American dream, Wall Street dealt it a fatal blow. By 2016, the homeownership rate had fallen back to 63 percent, though the recent rise in asset prices has sent it into another period of increase. More than the simple decrease in homeownership, the crisis of 2008 erased the wealth of a whole swath of aspiring working-class homeowners, demonstrating that homeownership is increasingly, like any asset speculation, a risky endeavor.
To summarize the trends in spatial development in the US in the last century: an earlier period of industrial development and rationalization generated dense urban living and a combative working class, each phenomenon an aspect of the process of proletarian composition. The formalization of industrial relations after World War II, which diverted combativity into official mediation, enshrined a division between a labor aristocracy and many more marginalized fractions of workers. An expansive policy of homeownership and suburbanization realized latent social divisions in space and subjectivity itself, increasingly isolating cities and undermining the tax base of (what little existed of) their social programs. The industrial city reached its zenith in the late 1960s. Competition from newly industrializing countries and the intensification of repression against anti-colonial movements kicked off a scramble for accumulation in a truly global arena less and less fettered by borders or the political threat of Communism. The offshoring of production, the major result of these processes, compounded by flagging profit rates in industrial manufacturing, led to rapid deindustrialization, demobilizing a jobless proletariat left to fend for themselves in the gutted remains of cities. Deconcentration became paradigmatic, but it was only a generation before certain factors exhausted themselves. The position of mortgages in the financial sector grew with the deregulation of securities, precipitating a construction boom at an unfathomable scale. The free-flowing credit went a long way toward obscuring the significant decline in wealth and quality of life that was taking place under neoliberalism. The true debt that the middle class owed to the paradigm of cheap mortgages for its existence was revealed in stark terms, most acutely in the foreclosure crisis in the wake of the 2008 housing market crash, with the disintegration of the creditworthiness regime in the face of a stagnant social wage. Real estate continues to maintain pride of place in financial markets, only the mortgages are less the means of private individual households to gain membership in the middle-class formation than the domain of investors, engaging in speculation and rentiership. There has been a massive “return” to city centers, largely on the basis of incomes from a handful of relatively highly profitable industries, drastically raising rents across all American cities above a certain size. This apparently counteracts the previous tendency toward deconcentration, but in reality, continues it in inverted form. As former working-class neighborhoods and industrial districts are retrofitted to become new spaces of luxury consumption and landlords, city officials, and cops engage in a violent spree of displacement, poverty is “suburbanized”; that is, the working-class is driven to the exurban peripheries of metro areas.14 Within cities, the urban poor are under siege, most literally by cops armed with military surplus. The service sector—barely remunerative, unorganized, physically and psychologically taxing, in the service of entitled yuppies—remains the only lifeline available in many urban areas. The past decade in particular has deepened the trend of deconcentration, drawing forth its immanent tendencies of interrelated gentrification and slummification, the new urbanization completely detached from the composition of an oppositional social force, which remains conspicuously absent.
These new conditions, however, are butting up against limits, yielding new fronts of struggle. Such fronts, whether the uprisings against police and prisons, rank-and-file labor agitation in unorganized sectors, or the nascent tenant movement, reveal some of the mysterious dynamics of class self-composition. With the fallout from the 2008 crisis, the uptick in socialist ideas, and the beginnings of a tenant movement, perhaps homeownership has begun to fail in its role of depoliticizing, atomizing, dividing, and confusing the aspirations of the US working class. In fact, if the tenants movement continues to grow, especially to the extent working-class people increasingly become tenants, housing may well become the furnace of new class struggles. Recent economic trends give a number of justifications to these possibilities.
First, economic growth has stagnated in recent decades. Although the pools of stagnating capital in part drove the housing boom that preceded the 2008 crash, this lack of long-term economic growth makes it unlikely that capitalists will continue to speculate on mortgage loans for working-class renters. To the extent this speculation does happen, and the homeownership rate increases, this change is likely to be temporary. Just as in 2008, an initial increase in homeownership would be followed by a more drastic drop.
Second, low wages and growing inequality underpin the growth of the service economy. As the number of highly productive industrial jobs has decreased, more and more workers find employment in the service sector. Services, almost by definition, are labor-intensive. For this reason, they work like a shock absorber for the capitalist labor market. As people become desperate for work, capitalists selling services can offer lower wages and correspondingly lower prices for their services. With prices lowered, people will buy more services and capitalists can hire more workers. All together, this means that the service sector rapidly turns desperation and unemployment into low wage jobs.15 Because the US economy depends on the service sector to absorb excess workers, it cannot offer the high wages that open the path to working-class homeownership.
Finally, house prices have themselves increased to such an extent that purchase becomes difficult for the working class. Take San Francisco, where average home prices surpassed 1 million dollars in 2014 and now are above 1.5 million dollars.16 The continued rise in home prices underpins the value of mortgage loans, but prices have already reached such a height that workers are effectively barred from the market. This trend appears blatantly in major metropolitan areas, but can be seen across the country.
Combined, these trends point toward a country where homeownership becomes an increasingly exclusive club, a country of mansions and apartment buildings, a country where working people increasingly rent and support themselves through service jobs. These descriptions already ring true, at least for major metropoles like the Bay Area and New York. Homeownership will become the basis for American reaction instead of the American dream. Rather than something universal, something everyone can aspire to, homeownership will become petty and insular. In short, these trends point toward a collapse of capital’s most powerful tool for depoliticizing, atomizing, dividing, and confusing the US working class. As the fog fades, the class landscape becomes increasingly stark.
At the same time, the nascent tenant movement reflects and reinforces this change in the composition of the US working class. As working-class tenants organize together for lower rents and better conditions, they also organize together as the part of the working class free from both the benefits and the confusions of homeownership. Tenant organizing is a method for further clarifying the US class landscape and for cohering a socialist working class. As described here, this tenant organizing is no straightforward matter. Although a group of tenants can unite directly against their particular landlord, and all tenants can unite against the class of landlords, this unity remains potential. In actual life, tenants are often just as atomized and depoliticized as the working class at large. Frequent movement by tenants from apartment to apartment, and the scattered holdings of any particular landlord, add difficulties to organizing. It is precisely these difficulties that the nascent tenant movement currently faces and has begun to overcome.
In contrast to working-class tenants, workers who own homes have divided loyalties. For them, the home acts both as a consumption good (they use their house to live in just like they use their food to eat or their chair to sit in) and as a speculative asset. As a worker simply living in their home, they recognize the damaging effects of rising property values on their neighborhoods and the livelihoods of their renting coworkers and neighbors. However, as the owner of an asset generally worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, the same worker prays for those property values to continue rising and fears any fall in housing prices. As an asset owner, the worker has the same desire as the local landlord, or the Wall Street investor. The position of the working-class tenant is clear, but the working-class homeowner is primed for class collaboration.
In fact, if that same working-class homeowner uses the equity in their home to speculate further and buy a second house, they could become a landlord. Any rental property functions only as an asset, used to extract rent and to speculate on property values. The importance of housing as a consumption good decreases, and its importance as an asset increases. While petty landlording of this sort is much more common among local lawyers, accountants, doctors, and small capitalists, a couple of workers have certainly joined their ranks. Worried about their personal incomes, these petty landlords often lack even the most basic respect for the rights of tenants. Without any staff to deal with complaints and maintenance, they tend to harass tenants personally and leave units in disrepair. By contrast, large-scale landlording and property management can seem an improvement, despite its potentially faceless and bureaucratic character. For large landlording or property management companies, Wall Street often lurks in the background, sowing the funds and reaping the profits. Although the tasks of property management may be more efficiently pursued on a large scale, owning rental property as an asset can be pursued at any scale. Just like the stock market, owning rental property is open to anyone with the money to purchase a way in. It bridges the interests of the smallest landlord and the biggest Wall Street firms: everyone wants their property values to go up. Building the tenant movement combats the historical possibility, expressed in the working-class homeowner, of working-class division and collaboration with the capitalist class.
IV. On Politicization
“All these conditions [of political education, of class-consciousness and organization] cannot be fulfilled by pamphlets and leaflets, but only by the living political school, by the fight and in the fight, in the continuous course of the revolution.” — Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, p. 121
There is a classic but misunderstood distinction in the communist movement between economic and political struggles. At a superficial level, these two terms seem to imply, in the former case, struggles over economic arrangements such as wages and pensions and, in the latter, attempts to assert rights and gain representation within the political system; each struggle is thought to occupy a separate domain. The terms are better understood as naming a different distinction between the relative thresholds reached at different points in a given cycle of struggle, or, put another way, from differences in the depth and development of class consciousness. Economic struggles are those that emerge from immediate conditions, in the urgency of unmet needs. These are often trapped in the logic of economism, taking the fetishes of capitalism at face value, and rarely rising beyond merely flexing leverage in an unequal negotiation; the fundamental social forms framing these struggles are necessarily left intact. Worker struggles in the early stages of a cycle tend to remain within the limits of economism, conscious only of particular situations, unable to articulate their demands on the basis of more universal conditions. Political struggles do articulate just such a universality, or attempt to, cohering the previously disconnected economic struggles into a self-conscious and strategic force, orienting activity into action. Initially inchoate, the wave of struggles can reach a point of maturation, a threshold, in which the stalemate between classes is upset, demanding a response from the state; hence, the economistic containers of struggles reach a mass breaking point we can call politicization. The economic and political are thus moments within a dialectical sequence of struggle.
These moments, while logically intertwined, may miss each other in time. The propulsion of economic struggles may never resolve into true politicization, into a crisis for the social order. Conversely, the revolutionary inflexion points may be recognized in discourse, latent to the moment as a theoretical debate. Such debates may lead to programs and positions that come to influence or even determine parts of the class organization. These party formations can certainly sharpen the capacity to prefigure and superintend transitions in the sequence of struggle, but such formations can also be fatally anachronistic, substituting theoretical pointedness for organizational breadth. In short, recognition of the need to push through the threshold to politics can amount to putting the cart before the horse. This dilemma puts another classic distinction into sharp relief: the difference between subject and object, or objectification and subjectivization. At their vulgar extremes, these positions can be respectively stated either as a total submission to blind forces, perhaps laws of history, in the guise of objectivity, or as a kind of protagonism in which history is decided through a battle of wills between the subjects of an all-encompassing struggle. Organizations come about when militants are attempting to bridge the gulf between these polarities, to advance into the realm of direct political struggle. The construction of this bridge is a problem facing all social movements.
These concepts can be placed alongside that of class composition with which we have already been working. Composition is a reflection of the objective conditions of the working class, the relative distribution and ideological makeup which most suits the needs of bourgeois hegemony, reducing billions to the bare capacity to labor-power, superseding any other qualities. At the same time, what might be called self-composition is an inflection of this objectifying placement, turning the empty universality of the proletarian condition against itself by recovering and appropriating what is shared as the basis of solidarity and coordination. The breaking point of politicization is this inflection. This process can be cumulative, when there is genuine transmission of consciousness and maintenance of organization, directing a historic arc, a “living political school.” But such a build-up of force is a delicate thing, riven with internal contradictions and facing offensive action which threatens to dissipate the sequence. The bridges come crashing down, a disorienting condition which Asad Haider has called depoliticization. He writes, “depoliticization has as its global and historical condition the failure of the 20th-century revolutions and the closure of the revolutionary form of the party and the post-revolutionary form of the socialist party-state.” In other words, depoliticization reflects the receding horizon of past strategies of emancipation, defeated and now ill-suited to contemporary conditions, for which the active stance of politics is elusive.
But in our framing, politicization comes about not as a moment in a grand historical narrative but at a moment in which the universal content of struggles become particularly exposed, a moment in which the economic and the political are intertwined. Immanent to the course of any struggle, this moment waits only for a given scale of activation, for tentative ideas to be demonstrated through action, for the right articulation to bring about unity within the diverse. Bringing this moment forth is a process of education. Rather than a matter of dictation by the knowledgeable to the unlearned, this education requires sharpening intuitions against the givenness of a situation, turning objective conditions into a whetting stone for subjectivity, learning from the fight and in the fight.
Revolutionary organization must be self-originated, from the proletariat’s pursuit of the satisfaction of its social needs against and beyond the mediations of capitalism. This entails mediating its own activity and orienting such efforts towards its own ends, on an expanding and offensive basis. Such a “turn inwards” or inflection must be dynamic and adaptive, able ultimately to supersede the evolving complex of repression, recuperation, and reactionary consciousness instigated in response to various forms of proletarian militance. There is a fundamentally circular logic at work here, a chicken-and-egg coordination problem, which can only be resolved in the actual life of struggle and organization.
Our organizations, which serve as placeholders for consciousness, must be formed with this process of political inflection as their end. This process doesn’t start with the elaboration of “correct” political lines, but remains a scarcely expressible orientation and openness to the struggles of the moment. It begins by reflecting those struggles, which in turn reflect the conditions of their origination, and runs over the limits of this reflecting. Such limits are well known to any organizer. Some contingent circumstance briefly ignites a spark of engagement. Events are planned which best focus this energy, clarifying where to direct the outrage and hopefully suggesting something of an appealing path towards resolution. Work goes into sustaining this spark, into maintaining attention, integrating the new with the established, advancing demands to the offending parties, holding the nascent flame against known flashpoints in hope of a catch. But it doesn’t catch and the ember dies. The frustration of such cycles can lead an organization into fatal “tailism,” perpetually chasing an elusive animacy to be harnessed from “the masses.” Organizations live and die within these limits.
The pandemic provided circumstances which immediately accelerated the universalization of needs. All at once, millions of people were out of work and unable to pay rent. Such universality is precarious: mass recognition of shared danger, with no prior social links, no established practices of struggle, no trusted organizations bringing people together, runs the risk of turning quickly to panic and despair, never unifying into anything. But, throughout the most urgent months, the potential inherent in the emergency was held fast, as the stark absurdity of the situation provided a powerful focus. The moralism which always lurks around the naked parasitism of landlords lent itself to a fairly clear-cut consensus, converging around the need to cancel rent, freeze evictions, and rebuke the power of a landlord to endanger tenants during a pandemic simply for the sake of their petty profits. Though clear-cut, the extent to which this consensus transformed into concrete, longer-term, powerful tenant organization varied from place to place.
The backbone of any autonomous tenant union is the tenant council. This is a concrete answer to the anonymity, mobility, and isolation of urban living. A council amasses what organizers call “structural power,” that is, an identification of the structural place of antagonists to ground strategy. The formula is simple. All tenants are formally and materially individuals, each caught in an individual and coercive relation to the landlord. But they are also materially unified by the fact that the landlord derives revenue, whether for capital expansion or personal consumption, from the rent collected from all the tenants together, a fact which remains suppressed and submerged by the typical uninvolvement in each other’s lives. The council formalizes this material unity, pushing the power immanent to the relationship to the fore. As such, the council, like the labor union, is the necessary form of class composition, which must first concretely and determinately counter exploitation as an immediate fact in its specificity.
As discussed above, the emergency status of the pandemic functioned as a stress test for the nascent tenant union infrastructure, a chance for application and growth. There was a thorny inversion of ideal circumstances at work here, as the sheer scale of the emergency really necessitated an infrastructure with a much higher capacity, wider scope, and established reputation against which the anxiety and doubts could comfortably rest. But this is not the class situation as it exists. Inverted moments are potent, however, in that what is clearly absent but needed is at least clear to those in need. From day one, tenant organizers began to convene to figure out how to best meet the still-unfolding moment. Outreach led to intake, from which connections could be forged between tenants. Unfortunately, data on the autonomous tenant movement as a whole is difficult to come by, but TANC by itself grew at least three-fold in membership, which led to the establishment or contact with over a dozen new tenant unions.
How growth in the midst of this inversion was navigated—imperfectly, of course—is something worth discussing in detail. Before delving into it, it is worth describing the structure of TANC. General membership is on an individual basis, to account for tenants moving. The autonomy of the union derives from the dues structure, allowing members to pool their resources and democratically determine their expenditure. Dues are on a sliding scale, down to 1 dollar per month, in order to enable unemployed and houseless tenants to participate. Members do not have to be a part of any council, but the general intake ideally involves inquiry into their living situations to begin the process of forming one. Councils are composed of tenants who all rent from the same landlord and they have a great deal of autonomy from the rest of the union. This is necessary because of the utterly chaotic state of the housing market, with great variation in landlord temperament, resources, and property. The locals form a parallel sub-structure to the councils, bringing together members from a specific region of the city. Each local basically reproduces the union structure in miniature, with elected coordinators and regular meetings to determine organizing strategies. Each local is also semi-autonomous from the rest, taking independent action locally. Certain actions and decisions are binding across the entire organization, pending a democratic deliberation, and dues are centralized and then distributed for independent use by locals. This structure is intended to afford flexibility, autonomy and unity; it was worked out in the constitution prior to the pandemic, for the most part, and so far it has served the growth of the organization, with some adjustments.
Councils may formalize the movement of composition into an enduring and strategically structured organization, but, like any formal moment, could possibly arrest the development of the struggle. This corresponds to the notion of economism outlined above. Again, the name is deceptive, because it seems to specify its object as some sort of economic domain, but really what this concept refers to is the languishing of a struggle within its immediately given contours, fundamentally structured and limited by its inherited terms. This tendency can be thought of as a process of decay and arrest, as a movement of disruption is stopped in the container of immediate appearances and starts to exhaust itself in circular motions. In short, an organization thatfetishizes the council-form can recapitulate the problem of composition at a higher level of abstract remove: just as individuals united by an idea but materially separated don’t amount to much, a series of councils completely focused on their own particular fight, but out of sync and with no lines of communication between them, won’t amount to a political force attacking the relation of rent and tenancy itself. This situation of isolation cheapens the councils, distancing them from their historical importance, their grander purpose, their political force.17 Earlier, we said that the backbone of the autonomous tenant union is the tenant council. By the same token, the spirit of each tenant council is the greater tenant union.
In part due to the ad hoc nature of improvising, to the relative lack of experience, and to the inertia and confusion that comes with an organization which has not determined its own internal processes in detail, certain patterns of behavior were laid down which ceased to serve the goal of composition. The urgency of council-building—from door-knocking to figuring out best practices for decision-making to successfully delegating tasks within the council—was acutely felt, and this quickly absorbed all of the capacity of the organization. Every individual was helping one or more councils. Of course, there was no formal distinction between “organizer” and “tenant”—the two positions are ideally completely fluid. But tenants newly involved, unemployed, and fearful of what was coming around the corner tended, understandably, to have only enough energy for their fight. A barrier formed between an “outside” layer of tenants in need and an “internal” core of organizers devoted to meeting needs, which became persistent and hard to shake. This barrier bred bad habits: communication bottlenecks between a group of tenants and the rest of the organization, lack of strategic cohesion between councils, the formation of parallel and untouching domains between the union and the councils. In some ways, this recapitulated a kind of nonprofit service model, of the kind critiqued by a fellow TANC organizer, Justin Gilmore. The union was building councils, but this was not building the union; as such, the center started to buckle and the councils lapsed into a prism of economism.
It should be underlined that this economism was in no way an intention on the part of anybody. There was more or less a consensus that the process was veering in this direction. For months every internal conversation landed upon this topic. It certainly wasn’t the intention of any of the less integrated tenants and councils to remain on the outside of this barrier: many requested repeatedly to be given more of an orientation, for the organization to be more accessible. The logistical difficulties of accommodating this simply took time to figure out, after myriad experiments in study groups, political education, mentorship programs, partnerships with other organizations, special meetings where delegates from different councils could workshop issues, and newsletters which informed the general membership of the goings-on of their comrades. The lesson here is that economism is often a structural matter, implicit in the wayward tug and pull in every direction that comes about in the emergence of struggles. Inchoateness is a concrete feature of composition in its process, the entropy which haunts organization and which it must overcome.
The points of contact, the flow and connections between groups, the transparency of processes—somewhere in the process something was breaking down. Importantly, such a breakdown was recognized not to be an intellectual issue, something ascribed to an incorrect thought. Rather, the constitution of the organization was a process mediated within itself. It took a specific form and it was this form which continually generated the same barriers. Fundamentally, it required flexibility; willingness to turn on a heel and reorganize. The organization, as a concrete formation of specifically proletarian forces, supersedes and survives any particular form it could take. The council, as the rational form of antagonism against particular landlords, had to be retained and reproduced at a higher level which could begin to approach rentier exploitation in its general aspect. Any subsequent resolutions which have alleviated the impact of this barrier are, of course, entirely provisional; it is a work in progress. But something began to give with some more care and intention applied to the beginning of the organizing process, before grooves could be fallen into. New councils were no longer put into contact with a devoted organizer, but instead routed into the parallel structure of locals. In this context, tenants in a council can discuss their concerns and ideas with other members. They can request funds and access to the print shop. This places the union resources directly into the hands of council members, without the need for a devoted intermediary. It also instills a sense of involvement and increases the points of contact between council and union. Already established councils are still in the process of becoming formally affiliated and assimilated into this alternative method of integration. Similarly, what had been termed onboarding, basically the process of introducing new members to the internal structures of the union, has received a lot more focus and some rationalization. The content of all these attempts at reorganization revolves around the fundamental practice of self-composition, a feat of orienting a mere collection of desires and aims into collective force and agency. Again, this process is ongoing and incomplete, but it spells a practical lesson for the process of linking different forms of power, embeddedness, and coordination, which are each critical ingredients for the determinate sequence of exceeding immediate circumstances and puncturing the barriers separating struggles to push through to inflection.
The relation between quantity and quality is not terribly precise. A small, well-composed group that wields its power effectively can transmit good practices and sharp theory as it grows. A large group loosely organized can and likely will waste what power it potentially has. Throughout the emergency, tenant organizers worked tirelessly and engaged in constant, intense dialogue to try to think through the practical limits which confronted them every day. It was widely recognized that the eviction moratorium constituted a lifeline, an opportunity for genuine regroupment which would not soon be repeated. For the first time in living memory, tenants could meet and organize, carry out actions, and withhold rent without fear of eviction. Everyone knew that this gambit was no more than time bought for the ultimate benefit of landlords and the capitalist state; but, like anything purchased for exclusive possession, this time could be appropriated for other ends. Balancing patience with urgency, the widest horizons with concrete focus, much effort was expended attempting to work through self-composition in its actual room for maneuver. These experiences and lessons are indispensable; it is the responsibility of tenant unions across the country to articulate them and inscribe them within real practices, to safeguard the memory of struggle for the next opening. Memory, political education, repeatable tactics—these are the components of flexible activity when time becomes scarce.
- This timeline was derived from this Congressional Research Services report.
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s Emergency Rental Assistance tracker.
According to an analysis presented in the New York Times, with data from Surgo Ventures. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/28/opinion/covid-eviction-moratorium.html
The Alice Street/Ivy Hill Tenant Council, a member of Tenant and Neighborhood Councils, used the rent relief programs to strengthen their organizing position with their landlord. https://itsgoingdown.org/tenant-union-rent-strike-oakland-ends/
Frederick Engels, “The Housing Question (1872),” in Marx/Engels Collected Works: 1871-1874 (London: Lawrence & Wishard, 1988), 23: 344.
Karl Marx, “The 18th Brumaire of Napoleon Bonaparte (1853)”, in Marx/Engels Collected Works: 1851-1853 ((London: Lawrence & Wishard, 1979), 11:187.
It should be noted that neither thinker was referring here to exploited and dispossessed peasant-serfs, remnants of the feudal epoch, which each acknowledged had a significant role in the revolutions to come, but rather to the somewhat historically novel class of small landowners, the kind of idealized yeoman on the basis of which Thomas Jefferson imagined his constituent democracy. Engels even notes how bourgeois revolutions in the 18th century made a point to divide up the big feudal estates into small plots in order precisely to create a class of small landowners who would function as a “permanent hindrance on the revolutionary movement of the urban proletariat.” Napoleon III accomplished the same via public bonds in France. Engels, “The Housing Question”, 330.
It was at the dawn of this cycle that Engels wrote his polemics on the housing question.
For a historical account of scientific management and the manipulative promotion of racial enmity, see Elizabeth Esch and David Roediger, “Scientific Management, Racist Science, and Race Management,” in Rosemary Feurer and Chad Pearson (eds.), 2017, Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2017).
https://www.urban.org/urban-wire/breaking-down-black-white-homeownership-gap. For higher-income households, this gap decreases.
Of course, the picture is more complex than this. The growth in home values depended significantly on the centrality, and the racial and class makeup, of a neighborhood, along with many other factors. This means that some working-class homeowners saw the values of their homes drop or stagnate during parts or the whole of this period.
“Suburb” would be a slight misnomer as, while that term implies the absence of government infrastructure, this lack is made up for in personal wealth among the inhabitants. Such an environment in the context of an immiserated working class populace becomes something much different, combining the worst aspects of a suburb and an inner city slum: poorly maintained housing, lack of infrastructure, and aggressive policing in an environment defined by long commutes, community fragmentation, general dependence on cars, and great distance from an already meager pick of jobs.
Separated councils often recognize this loss, and attempt to resolve it by attaching themselves as an appendage to a political or legislative demand or campaign. This sutured relationship is of little benefit to the campaign, and tends to weaken or destroy the tenant council as such.