Serve the People, Seize the Land: Prospects for Revolutionary Struggle Around Affordable Housing

The crisis around affordable housing in the United States resembles situations in rural areas of the Global South where land inequalities have fueled revolutionary anti-capitalist movements.     

In Biopolitics, Dual Power, and the Revolutionary Characteristics of “Serve the People” Programs, I argued that successful revolutionary movements generate concrete, material benefits for their participants, and to the masses in general.  Attempting to generate tangible gains, outside of existing institutions, forces radicals to grapple with basic questions of governance, and pushes forward the development of autonomous institutions that can act in parallel and in opposition to those of capitalism—while also breaking the biopolitical control that capitalism exerts over people, allowing them more space to struggle and organize.

Then, in The Political Economy of Revolutionary Struggle: Lessons from the Black Panthers, I argued that the question of organizational funding is a political question, and that the economic foundation of a revolutionary organization heavily influences its political and social future.  This was seen through the example of the collapse of the Black Panther Party in the 1970s, a result of their financial dependence on the changing, uneven politics of liberal petite-bourgeoisie donors.  Thus, developing an autonomous economic base is a necessity for revolutionary movements, and the development of various cooperative, community-based institutions—like urban gardens and worker coops—is a key way of achieving this.

Both of these essays put forward frameworks for thinking about how to build proletarian dual power.  Revolutionary communists must help build organizations that “serve the people”, and these organizations must be sustained economically via productive assets under popular and democratic control (as opposed to dependence on non-profit foundations or charity workers).  But it is critical to not view these as two different areas of revolutionary strategy, but rather, as pointing toward a combined framework where communists engage in struggles that simultaneously develop an autonomous economic base and bring concrete benefits to the masses.

Struggles around land are perhaps some of the best examples of this combined framework being put into action.  Most of the socialist revolutions of the 20th century took place in countries dominated by feudalistic and agrarian systems, and were propelled in no small part by peasants angry over issues of land inequality and the accompanying social hierarchies; in such a context, popular seizure and redistribution of land was a self-propelling process, where peasants could expropriate land from traditional landowners and thus secure themselves immediate material benefits, a productive base on which to sustain themselves and fuel further expropriations, and space from which to support and coordinate with radical segments of other sectors of the population.

The explosive potential of land struggles is still present today.  The communist insurgency in Nepal from 1996 to 2006 was rooted in land inequality, and there is ongoing unrest in Latin American countries like Brazil over peasants lacking access to land.  But the strategy of seizing land, and its position to wider revolutionary struggles, should not just be seen as a potential in rural, agrarian settings—such a strategy can be easily mapped into the context of Western cities, where conflicts between landlords and tenants are escalating.  It is crucial for communists in the West to recognize this potential, and to strategize accordingly.

Southern Fronts

The case of the Nepalese Civil War, which began in 1996 and lasted for ten years, is particularly illustrative.  The civil war was kicked off by peasant militants associated with the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) mobilizing to attack local landlords and the security forces which secured their rule.  Nepal was, at the time, a theocratic monarchy splintered by feudal relationships, caste divisions, and land inequality.  A government survey in 2001 (several years after the revolution started) found that 5% of the population owned 37% of the arable land, while 47% owned only 15% of the land; 25% of households owned no land at all.  This stark contrast in land ownership meant that huge portions of the population were dependent on a small class of landlords in order to gain access to land, and be able to farm and sustain one’s life and family—a stark example of  the biopolitical nature of economic inequality (Joshi and Mason 2007: 410).  This system of feudalistic biopolitics had a clear, distortive impact on Nepal’s fledgling democratic institutions and the ability of peasants to engage with legal political processes:

Under these circumstances, withholding one’s vote from political parties that advocate agrarian land reform—reforms that would break the power of landed elites over the lives and loyalty of peasant cultivators—can become a rational course of action for marginalized peasants.  By voting for reformist parties, peasants risk incurring the wrath of their landlord and jeopardizing their access to land and other subsistence guarantees.  (Joshi and Mason 2007: 399)

The economic realities of rural Nepal meant that standard, legal methods of political mobilization were prohibitively difficult.  On the other hand, a political strategy that directly intervened and inverted these obstacles would have huge sway among the masses—which is exactly what happened.

When Maoists moved into a district, they first targeted landlords and their allies in the local government.  Once they had eliminated the landlords, they redistributed their land, destroyed bondage papers, canceled debts, compelled local government officials to resign, and constituted “people’s governments” in the villages.  By driving out the landlords, they effectively released peasants from the clientalist obligations that had bound them, allowing them to more freely support the insurgent communists. (Joshi and Mason 2007: 411)

In other words, the revolutionary communist strategy in Nepal simultaneously brought clear and present benefits to participants, radically uprooted old systems of oppression and control, and established a material base from which to fuel new uprisings and struggles—all of which fed into an overarching project of developing and expanding proletarian dual power.

CPN(M) militants gather for a rally in Western Nepal, May 2001.

CPN(M) militants gather for a rally in Western Nepal, May 2001.

The results of the communist movement in Nepal are ambiguous.  On one hand, the insurgency succeeded in overthrowing the monarchy and disrupting oppressive social and economic hierarchies; on the other hand, there has been a clear retreat from radical leftist politics and mass organizing, with former insurgent leaders now occupying the centers of state power and replicating old systems of oppression and hierarchy.  But even so, the revolutionary strategies deployed by the Nepali Maoists reveal the feedback loops latent in struggles around land.  Land expropriation undermined the socio-economic power of landlords while simultaneously boosting the power of the peasants, thus creating increased space for further expropriations, and so on.

Similar dynamics can be observed in other contemporary land struggles.  In Brazil, the Landless Workers Movement (MST) continues to be one of the country’s most powerful and militant radical social movements, challenging land inequality and poverty via mass occupations and seizures of land owned by rural elites and private corporations.  The MST was officially established in the 1980s, and exploded in popularity in the mid-1990s, when its peaceful occupations were met with violence.  Around the same time, the Zapatista uprising took place in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, when indigenous peasants of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) took up arms and seized control of local towns and the surrounding lands; even when they were pushed back, they managed to maintain their hold over much territory.  The Zapatistas remain strong, and have used their land to cultivate autonomous political, social, and economic systems, as well as to support other radical movements in Mexico, such as the National Coordinator of Education Workers (CNTE), a militant teachers union.

As with the Maoists in Nepal, both the MST and the EZLN found land to be an effective material base for the development of radical left politics:

For these two movements, the existence of spaces of resistance based on subsistence agriculture, which are not completely dominated by the capitalist logic, has permitted the development of responses to the neoliberal crisis of peasant agriculture.  These spaces of subsistence have also provided a material basis from which to build something more than economic responses.  They have allowed the EZLN and the MST movements to envision and implement development alternatives based on alternative models of societies and polities that are rooted in the autonomous rural community.  (Vergara-Camus 2009: 387)

The Western Urban Context

At this point, it is almost a cliché to talk about the housing crisis in urban America.  Unlike other emerging issues in contemporary capitalism, few contest or disagree with the fundamental premise that there is a housing crisis, even if there are vigorous disagreements on optimal solutions and on the precise nature of the impacts.  The crisis is particularly acute for renters, who according to the US Census Bureau (Table 3) make up around 36% of households, and are disproportionately people of color.  Recent research from Harvard University shows that some 50% of renters pay more than 30% of their income on rent, and 25% pay more than half their income on rent; related research projects that the crisis will continue to worsen over the next decade, with an 11% increase by 2025 in the proportion of renters losing more than half their income to rent.  Given that these are national figures, its important to recognize that the figures for cities will be even more dire.

Another important statistic is the dramatic changes in the proportion of housing capital owned by different income groups, as discussed briefly in this article from The Economist on the impact of land scarcity on global economic growth.  Since 1917, the majority of housing capital in the US was owned by the bottom 90%; the 2008 financial crisis demolished this trend, with the top 10% gaining control of the biggest share of the country’s housing capital.  Also of note is the fact that the share of capital income from housing, as a proportion of national income, has increased from 3% in 1950 to 10% today.

economist_land_3

There are other important dynamics to the issue of housing in the US—for example, individual homeowners arguably still pay a form of rent to the banks, in the form of mortgage payments—but the basic point is clear.  For large swathes of the working class in the United States, the situation regarding access to housing and shelter is becoming increasingly dire, in ways that resemble cases in agrarian regions of the Global South, like Nepal and Brazil.  A small class of landlords, with a monopoly on land and housing, are securing and deepening their social and economic power, and extracting ever greater amounts of wealth from the pockets of landless workers.  But if the problems are analogous, then so too are the potential solutions.

Challenging the assumed rights of the big landlords to their property—and the corresponding ability to dictate the nature of the housing market, and to extract increasing amounts of rent from tenants—has self-evident material benefits for militants and participants.  Intervening against rent translates into upending a key plank of capitalist biopolitics, forcing open space for workers to participate in wider struggles by reducing the amount of labor that must be sold in order to fulfill the minimum financial standards for day-to-day living.  And struggles to reduce or even eliminate rents, and expropriate and collectivize housing, have enormous potential to not just put much-needed money into the pockets of workers, but also into related organizations and movements, thus establishing a material base for sustaining autonomous proletarian institutions.  And initial gains from revolutionary-minded housing struggles—especially successful expropriations and collectivizations—can fuel further expropriations, thus establishing the kind of revolutionary feedback loop (of the sort observed in Nepal), that can generate a real revolutionary rupture across society.

There are important differences between rural agricultural land and urban housing projects.  Housing isn’t a productive asset; seizing control of an apartment complex has very different implications for capitalism than does seizing control of a farm or a factory.  But by the same token, this means that seizing control of housing is more straightforward than seizing control of productive assets, since there is no need to figure out the who/what/where of selling products, or the who/what/where of buying the necessary raw materials.  The only technical complication is maintenance and upkeep; but given the massive gap between how much people pay out in rent, and the actual cost of maintenance, this complication is arguably trivial.

Of course, expropriating and collectivizing housing is a strategy that is a long ways away from being deployed on a mass scale, beyond existing squats of vacant properties.  Such a strategy would require a level of political and social networking and organization far above what currently exists in the radical left in the United States, as well as a break in the popular acceptance of landlord property rights in the public consciousness.  However, the general point—that housing struggles have enormous potential because of their direct and obvious material benefits—still stands.

Ongoing Movements

There are numerous and ongoing struggles around issues of housing in the US, and their history and politics confirms the importance of land in contemporary capitalist society—as well as its potential to spark revolutionary change.  Many of these groups emerged out of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which in addition to its main strategy of creating encampments, also staged direct actions against foreclosures and evictions that were directly connected with the exploitative policies of the banks and the consequent financial crisis.

Even after the initial Occupy movement disintegrated, groups focused on housing issues and tenant organizing thrived.  In Seattle, Occupy-era foreclosure defense efforts consolidated into the organization Standing Against Foreclosure and Eviction (SAFE), and fueled the growth of the Trotskyist organization Socialist Alternative and related struggles, like the Fight for Fifteen minimum wage campaign.  In Brooklyn, New York, former Occupy activists helped create the Crown Heights Tenants Union (CHTU) to coordinate struggles against landlord exploitation and abuses; the group has expanded dramatically since, and now has a presence in 60-70 buildings in the Crown Heights neighborhood.

In Chicago, housing movements are particularly noteworthy for their radical transnational politics, as seen in this “movement roundtable” on housing struggles around the country from Viewpoint Magazine, that includes contributions from the Chicago-based groups Centro Autónomo and the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign.  Centro Autónomo (the Autonomous Center), a radical community center that helps organize tenant organizations, is part of the Mexico-US Solidarity Network, and draws inspiration for its housing work from the Francisco Villa Popular Independent Leftist Organization (FPFVI), or Los Panchos, a radical movement in Mexico City that has seized and collectivized thousands of homes since the 1980s.  The Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, which centers their strategy on using direct actions against evictions and foreclosures, draws inspiration from the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign in South Africa, which has organized militant actions against evictions and service cuts since the turn of the millennium.

Some housing struggles are combining tenant organizing with innovative analysis that frames gentrification as a form of colonialism, wherein the flow of capital displaces and disrupts working-class communities of color via the flow of white yuppie transplants.  This is the kind of politics that is driving radical mobilizations in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights; here, tenant organizations like Union de Vecinos are forming alliances with radical political collectives like the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist group Serve the People—Los Angeles, and are organizing public assemblies and deploying militant tactics against gentrification, displacement, and landlord exploitation.

Public assembly in a Boyle Heights apartment complex, called to discuss the relationship between art galleries and gentrification.

Public assembly in a Boyle Heights apartment complex, called to discuss the relationship between art galleries and gentrification, July 13, 2016.

What is noteworthy in all this is that many of these movements are both radical in their political orientation, and have sustained and grown their organizations and networks for relatively long periods of time.  They don’t get the same level of media exposure as more insurrectionary and widespread movements (like Occupy Wall Street), but are clearly more durable and resilient, maintaining and growing outside of the usual cycles of street unrest and media spectacles.  They are, after all, grounded in activities that yield obvious and tangible benefits, that tap into feedback cycles of struggle and regeneration–as opposed to movements that focus on abstract goals, like legislative reforms or “raising awareness”, that seem to inevitably burn out campaigners and activists whose labor is often indistinguishable from volunteer charity work that relies on endless altruism.

Revolutionary Horizons

Housing struggles have grown and multiplied over the past decade, and based on economic projections around the housing crisis, this trend will not change anytime soon.  Thus, it will become increasingly critical to escalate existing movements from the realm of fragmented social movements, into the realm of revolutionary class war.

Organizing to seize control of housing means organizing to destroy a major plank of capitalist biopolitics, given that wide swathes of the working class sees more of their income disappear into the pockets of landlords than any other single source.  The benefits are self-evident, and thus root communist organizing in the realm of concrete, material projects.  And it simultaneously builds up proletarian dual power, since expropriation will necessarily require a high level of organization and institution-building, to coordinate the day-to-day activities of housing projects and tenant organizing.  Furthermore, these two aspects—the generation of concrete material benefits, and the development of dual power—mutually reinforce one another.  Resistance against parasitic landlords directly translates into more economic security for tenants, and thus more freedom and finances to engage in social and political struggle—a material basis that is developed out of the struggle itself.

The task for revolutionary communists, then, is to take heed of the centrality of housing to the material interests of the working class, follow the radical examples being set by contemporary movements, and put work into growing, expanding, and radicalizing the movement for housing.  Efforts must be made to argue the illegitimacy of landlord property rights and assert the right of the proletariat to expropriate housing stock, and study and strategize around how expropriation, governance, and defense of proletarian housing would actually look like in practice—and, of course, to ground this in a general framework of revolutionary struggle that links the exploitative nature of landlordism to the exploitative nature of capitalism in general, and to study and strategize how housing movements can integrate with radical movements in other sectors.

The Acapatzingo settlement in Mexico City, built and run on a radical cooperative basis, is home to 2,400 people.

The Acapatzingo settlement in Mexico City, built and run on a radical cooperative basis, is home to 2,400 people.

Unlinked Citations

Vergara-Camus, Leandro.  “The MST and the EZLN Struggle For Land: New Forms of Peasant Rebellions”.  Journal of Agrarian Change, Vol. 9, No. 3.  July 2009.  pp 365-391.

Joshi, Madhav and Mason, David T.  “Land Tenure, Democracy, and Insurgency in Nepal: Peasant Support for Insurgency Versus Democracy”.  Asian Survey, Vol. 47, No. 3.  May/June 2007.  pp 393-414.

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