On the Peckham Peace Wall

This comes out of an essay I wrote for The Occupied Times “Social Cleansing in Southwark: The Urban Frontier”, I wrote a fair bit more on the horrible Peckham Peace Wall in a draft and I thought some people might be interested. It might make more sense in the context of the original essay.

2014-05-25 16.55.15 2014-05-25 16.50.30

2014-05-25 16.44.402014-05-25 16.43.41

2014-05-25 16.43.29 2014-05-25 16.58.37

Peckham has, in the past decade, been consistently sold as “edgy” and “vibrant” as if these were natural properties, rather than a dubious distortion of, as Raymond Williams would have it, a culture that is always made, often in conditions of and against oppression.

Much of the artistic production coming out of Peckham is similarly rooted in the sense that the culture of Peckham’s inhabitants is exotic and natural rather than social and produced. This is the case both in art forms that enclose this “vibrant” culture and sell it on and in art forms that treat pre-gentrification Peckham as a cultural wasteland, whereby, as Southwark Notes observes, “a dubious set of supposed cultural often accompanies the imposition of ‘culture’ into local areas in the form of public art as if we have not been making our own culture for hundreds of years here.” In “The Fine Art of Gentrification”, Deutsche and Ryan describe how in 1980s New York, “the unprecedented commodification of art engendered an equally ubiquitous aestheticisation of culture…graffiti came off trains and into galleries”.

Notable here for its occlusion of cultural production and contestation is the Peckham Peace Wall, a public artwork in response to the 2011 London events outside the library. The work is derived from messages on post-it notes that were stuck to a burnt-out Poundland, which have now been transformed into a permanent artwork. The now imitation post-it notes consist of bland or twee expressions of local patriotism, occasional vaguely social democratic pleas for more jobs and for the government to care more about Peckham, and, more commonly revanchism, either of a “nice” sort, “the police are human too, have respect for them”, or, often of a more vicious sort, “bring back national service”. It must be stressed, of course, that the immediate cause of the events was the murder of Mark Duggan by the police, a murder that could have happened as easily in Peckham, that the events were “about” racist policing not “about” jobs and, above all, that the demand that black Londoners respect a police force that harasses them, beats them and kills them is obscene.

Limited edition prints of imitation post-it notes, signed by the “artist” are also available for £68. The Peace Wall is typical of the art produced by gentrification. Firstly, only certain sentiments are admitted to the work, creating a homogenous local patriotism of “real” inhabitants of Peckham against those involved in the events so contestation is hidden and those with absolutely reasonable grievances against the police excluded from the community brought into existence by the work. There is in the Peace Wall, in a way similar to the “broom army”, as anatomised by Joe Kennedy, a polarising “niceness” of civic sense and public spiritedness, the community, opposed to the politically meaningless violence and “avarice of the lumpenproletariat”  Secondly, the sentiments of the peace wall are presented as natural not already cultural, which is further testament to their authenticity, an impression which is supplemented by the (often false) naiveté of a lot of the pictures and handwriting within the work so cultural production is hidden. This allows the artists to pose as the producers of the work, with the original post-it notes treated as a natural resource.

It would be important to contrast the implications for gentrification of the London events of 1981/85, which created and solidified, as Neil Smith argues in The New Urban Frontier, “anti-gentrification lines”, that prevented, for a while, the rent gap leading to gentrification in much of South London, with the 2011 events. The events of 2011 have not served to limit gentrification, if anything they may have accelerated it, this is partially a mark of the success of firstly police led pacifications, and secondly the processes of gentrification and social cleansing which followed this. Smith details the history of the police strategies around gentrification in the 1980s, “the frontier emerges in London as what became known as the “frontline”. Following riots between police and Afro-Caribbean, South Asian, and white youths in London (and other British cities) through the 1980s, a territorial line emerged in several neighborhoods. These front-lines, such as All Saints Road in Kensington and Chelsea or those in Notting Hill or Brixton, were simultaneously defences against police incursions in the 1970s and at the same time strategic “beachheads” established by the police. They also quickly became antigentrification lines in the 1980s. Sir Kenneth Newman, former Metropolitan Police commissioner, launched the police dimension of this frontline strategy in the early 1980s, and explained its purpose in a lecture to the right-wing European Atlantic Group. Citing the “growth of multi-ethnic communities” which were responsible for producing a “deprived underclass,” Newman anticipated “crime and disorder,” and identified eleven “symbolic locations” in London, including the frontlines, where special tactics would be required. For each location, “there was a contingency plan to enable the police swiftly to occupy the area and exert control”.

In the wake of police-led pacification and destruction of estates there is, of course, the urban renaissance, in Peckham the Sterling Prize winning library and “town square” on the site of the “notorious” (and it must always be described as notorious, as if nobody ever made a life there or was happy there) North Peckham Estate. An “iconic” building to create “civic pride” (as if nobody had any pride in Peckham before Alsop) and destigmatise an area in the eyes of the rich and timidly adventurous is the ideal location for the Peckham Peace Wall, which conjures up a community pacified enough not to scare the timid but still “vibrant” enough to offer edge and for artists to enclose.

Advertisements

Against Landlord Licensing

This came out of a discussion at SLRURG (The South London- formerly Southwark and Lambeth, but now we have members from Lewisham and Croydon- Radical Urban Reading Group). Thanks to Kathryn, Dan, Christine and Robert, who contributed to the discussion.

Various London councils (as well as some outside London) are proposing to follow Newham in introducing systems of landlord licensing. Whilst Shelter and some private tenants groups believe licensing will improve conditions for private renters, it may be the case that landlord licensing will harm tenants, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable under current conditions.

Disciplining Tenants

Councils are only able to introducing licensing in situations where there is low demand for private renting (irrelevant in London) or where private renting in a particular area is linked to antisocial behaviour. To a degree, councils proposing introducing licensing are using antisocial behaviour as a pretext but the impact of linking licensing to antisocial behaviour still remains. Waltham Forest’s stalled licensing scheme, for example, demanded that landlords obtain references from all potential tenants. Ultimately, what the antisocial behaviour provision means is shifting the burden for disciplining tenants and ensuring their good behaviour from a distant, underersourced state with relatively limited possible punishments to landlords, who are able (indeed will be required by licensing) to make tenants homeless easily.

The shift and intensification in discipline and law enforcement from state to landlords is also likely to intersect extremely negatively for many tenants with racist legislation and bigoted cultural attitudes. Landlord licensing will intensify the already malign effects of the provision in the Immigration Act that landlords must check the immigration status of potential tenants. As Martha MacKenzie of Shelter has pointed out, regarding the 2014 immigration act, “The hassle of verifying less familiar pieces of documentation (necessary to prove immigration status), and the risk of penalties to landlords, will prove a serious disincentive to let to some groups – making it even harder for people to secure a safe and decent private rented home”. The already toxic mixture of landlord laziness and racism, will be intensified by both the immigration act and the demands of licensing. It is both telling and obscene, given this, that Shelter have praised Newham’s licensing scheme for helping to catch immigration offenders.

Furthermore, with landlords already increasingly unwilling to rent to housing claimants, the stigma that suggests those in receipt of housing benefit are more likely to engage in antisocial behaviour may make it even more difficult for benefit claimants to secure private rented accommodation.

How will we afford to live?

For Shelter and for London councils like Southwark and Islington, the real justification for landlord licensing is to, “drive up private rented standards”. This entails a stretching, albeit a not unreasonable one, of the antisocial behaviour provision in particular to link antisocial behaviour to overcrowding. However, the focus on the quality of the home says nothing about the lives of the people who were living there or their ability to afford this home. Poor Londoners “choose” to live in overcrowded, inadequate, even dangerous homes because they can afford nowhere else. As Engels says in The Housing Question, in the capitalist city, “there must always be tenants, even for the most infamous pigsty”. The removal of the infamous pigsties will not see poor Londoners living in better quality homes, it will leave them nowhere to live. If one were being cynical (and cynicism tends to pay when considering Southwark council’s housing and regeneration policies), the likelihood of licensing tending towards social cleansing (a better class of property for a better class of tenant) may not be an unfortunate side effect of licensing but part of its intention.

The forced choice of a squalid or dangerous home undermines the distinction which landlord licensing is based on between “rogue” landlords who “give the sector a bad name” and the majority of apparently blameless “good” landlords. Londoners live in overcrowded death traps not only because of the “rogue” who rents it out but also because they cannot afford to rent a decent (and decent may be generous) one bedroom flat in Peckham at £1,195 a month from a “good” landlord and because there is no available council housing.

Without strict rent controls and secure tenancies (as the most moderate interferences in capitalism for the benefit of tenants), licensing, by removing the cheapest homes from the market will lead to a situation where, either, (Engels) “the breeding places of disease, the infamous holes and cellars in which the capitalist mode of production confines our workers night after night, are not abolished; they are merely shifted elsewhere! The same economic necessity which produced them in the first place, produces them in the next place also”, with the infamous holes shifted to where there is no licensing, or, if licensing is imposed and properly enforced over the whole city, the poor, especially the poor whose immigration status irregular being forced out of London. Without a break with capitalism in housing (at the very least), the choice is not between living in squalor and living in decency, it is between living in squalor or not living in London at all.

Cover for other failings

In responding to the Focus E15 Mums occupation, Robin Wales made great play of Newham’s licensing scheme as a way of covering for the extensively documented limitations (to say the least) of the council. Licensing is being used to give the impression councils are acting to resolve the housing crisis in our interests at a time when they are unable (both due to legal restrictions and a lack of the wit to get round them) and unwilling to build council houses. For those forced into the private sector by a lack of council housing, licensing represents at the very best the chance of small amelioration of horrible conditions. In Southwark, licensing gives the impression that the council cares about private tenants, when its pro-gentrification policies serve to increase private rents.

Practical Concerns

There are a number of practical concerns that potentially limit the usefulness of licensing for tenants. Firstly, particularly when it comes to the condition of properties, an extensively resourced Environmental Health team is a necessity, but this is extremely expensive and it has been suggested that Newham does not have the money to carry out this enforcement. Secondly, it is difficult to imagine a means by which tenants can complain about their landlords without risking retaliatory eviction. Thirdly, tenants’ lack of knowledge and power makes the possibility of redress difficult. Shelter have suggested that an unlicensed landlord should be unable to use Section 21 for a “no-fault” eviction as in cases where a landlord has not protected a deposit. However, given tenants’ lack of knowledge of the legislation around deposit protection, it is reasonable to think that this protection when applied to licensing may be fairly ineffectual, especially given landlords’ willingness to carry out illegal evictions.

Conclusion

It may be possible to design a licensing scheme that answers these critiques, particularly under different circumstances, indeed, with secure tenancies and rent controls, licensing may be a necessary part of ensuring that the condition of homes is maintained by landlords. It may also be that these reservations are overstated. However, there is a clear danger that the justified desire to “do something” about the horrendous conditions of private renting in London at a time when the national government is only making problems worse, may lead to groups with the best intentions proposing solutions that could be extremely harmful for some tenants.

Labour’s Rent Reforms

February 3rd, 2015. Labour have reiterated these proposals so I thought it might be worth revisiting this post. Since it was written, Generation Rent have produced substantially more radical proposals for rent controls with any monthly rent above the level of half the annual council tax band for the house subject to a 50% surcharge to pay for new social housing. There are clear questions over how this would work: would landlords reduce rents, particularly in areas of high demand, or might they increase them to try to cover the surcharge and, if so, why should private renters be covering the cost of social house building rather than it be covered out of general taxation? (and what is defined as “social” housing, anyway?) Nevertheless, their radicalism compared to Generation Rent’s previously insipid proposals indicates how both political struggle and the winning of small victories, as Labour’s proposals are, changes the terrain of politics and expands possibilities. Essentially, Labour’s proposals mean any private renters campaign not demanding rent controls that would bring down rents and secure (lifetime) tenancies is an irrelevance.

Labour’s proposals remain, however, timid and inadequate. The focus on security, stability, “driving up standards” (especially as landlord licensing is to be a large part of this) and how little is got for such high rents rather than the eye-watering rents themselves mark their limit. As Engels wrote, the housing crisis “gets talked of so much only because it does not limit itself to the working class but has affected the petty bourgeoisie too”, whilst Labour’s proposals will benefit all private renters, they only go a long way in resolving the problems the most privileged private renters- precisely those, as in 1872, whose difficulties have prompted the incessant talk about the housing crisis- face. Private renting in the UK, even with Labour’s changes will remain deeply exploitative and fundamentally unsuitable for all but the most privileged private renters, and, in particular, those people forced into the private rented sector because of the lack of council housing.

The first thing to say about Labour’s proposed reforms to private renting is that what is being proposed is concrete and meaningful and, if implemented, will significantly improve the lives of private renters; the second thing to say is that the proposed reforms are insufficient, particularly in terms of what is being offered in terms of controlling rents- we are, sadly, a long way from “Venezuelan-style rent controls”– but also in the potential loopholes and unclarified points that could be exploited by landlords particularly in rapidly gentrifying areas like Peckham and Hackney.

Before addressing the limitations of and problems with Labour’s proposed reforms, it is worth dwelling on their quite surprising radicalism and how much this radicalism represents a victory for those of us involved in the private tenants’ movement and for other housing campaigners. There is an ultra-leftist danger that, whilst, rightly attentive to the limitations of what is being proposed, downplays the usefulness of these reforms and how much the situation in which Labour can propose such reforms is the result of militant organising. In abstracting the reforms from militant, extra-parliamentary organising and action, the ultra-left position exhibits a peculiar dependence on the Labour cheerleading that presents these measures as the gift of Labour politicians. To grasp the relative radicalism of the reforms, it is worth comparing them with the policy demands of the campaigning group Generation Rent, who have been “working to change the culture, making long-term tenancies much more available” and calling for house building programmes and energy efficiency programmes to reduce costs. What is notable about Generation Rent’s proposals is how much weaker they are than what Labour is proposing with its willingness to use state power to introduce three year tenancies with considerable restrictions on landlords’ abilities to evict tenants and, albeit in a very moderate way, to control rents. Labour’s proposed reforms have rendered groups with moderate demands who claim to represent private renters entirely irrelevant. The proposals, particularly in admitting a role for the state to intervene in private renting in the interests of tenants, considerably expand the area of what constitutes “reasonable” demands from private tenants’ groups; the terrain on which we organise has been transformed.

It is the conceptual leap of the reforms and the expansion of possibilities that they could allow, in allowing a role for the state, acting in the interests of private tenants, to use legislation rather than asking, necessarily ineffectually, for “cultural change” that is behind the absurd squealing from Conservatives, landlords and right-wing thinktanks- City AM’s frontpage headline was “Labour’s War on Landlords”, The Conservatives have described the reforms as involving “Venezuelan-style rent controls”.

The resolution of the housing crisis in London in a way that improves the position of private renters does, in fact, require Venezuelan-style rent controls. In Venezuela, homes are inspected by the government in conjunction with tenants’ groups in order to determine the real value of the property, which is usually considerably less than the market value, rent is then set at between 3% and 5% of this value. Labour, by contrast, proposes that at the beginning of a three-year tenancy landlords may set whatever rent they wish but this rent may only be increased once a year and this increase will be capped based on “average market rents”. This ceiling does introduce a measure of protection but, particularly in rapidly gentrifying areas like Peckham, where letting agents brag about rents having increased by 50% over the past 5 years, its benefits will be fairly limited, as my Southwark & Lewisham Tenants comrade Robert says, “Labour’s proposal..sound[s] like a managed real-terms incline of rents. A trimming of the very worst extremes.”

In terms of tenants’ experiences of where we live, and our ability to enjoy them as homes, making the standard tenancy three years, with the abolition of Section 21, which allows for “no-fault” evictions, and a fairly limited set of causes allowing a landlord to evict a tenant, represents a huge improvement that will considerably reduce anxiety and insecurity. Furthermore, longer tenancies with the end of Section 21, will make it easier for tenants to exercise their rights to demand repairs without fear of eviction (in 2013 one in eight private tenants did not ask a landlord for repairs for fear of being evicted, and one in thirty-three had been a victim of retaliatory eviction).

However, Labour’s proposals still allow for evictions, this should be opposed. Some of the cases in which evictions are allowed may well allow considerable space for abuse from landlords, particularly in rapidly gentrifying areas. Evictions will be allowed, with two months notice, when there are rent arrears, a tenant is convicted of anti-social behaviour, if the landlord wishes to sell the property, needs the property for their or their family’s use, if the tenant breaks the tenancy agreement or if the landlord wants to change the use of or refurbish the property, – this is the most concerning case. A friend and comrade in Peckham is currently being evicted because their landlord wants to refurbish their home and let it out again at almost double the rent. This is not atypical in areas in which rents are increasing rapidly, the “physical change in the housing stock” (Neil Smith) is a major part of the gentrification process and the promise of higher rents for landlords- the closing of the rent gap, which necessarily will involve the eviction of tenants to allow (Smith again) the fixing up of buildings in run-down neighbourhoods is explicitly allowed in Labour’s proposals.

Labour’s proposed reforms will not fix the private rented sector for tenants, although they will substantially ameliorate things. However, as private tenant militants, it is necessary both to celebrate the victory that these proposals represent and how far they transform the political terrain around private renting. Private renters must continue to demand, as London Renters demanded of Labour, rent controls which would see rents fall in London, genuinely secure tenancies and that more council houses are built allowing tenants to exit an inherently exploitative relationship.

On Taking Action as Private Renters

This is a version of the talk I gave at the Radical Housing Network’s Housing Weekender on Sunday on a panel with activists from Defend Council Housing, Squatters Legal Network and Lambeth Housing Activists. It didn’t have the Lefebvre epigraph when I delivered it.

Action and action alone can bring this healthiness and this elementary equilibrium, this ability to grasp life in its varied aspects, without being deliberately gloomy or abstractly optimistic. Action alone can supersede the aesthetic or theoretical attitudes which allow people to see in the real only what they want to see: degradation, humiliation, stupidity, or conversely joy and greatness left, right and centre – either looking at life on the black side or through rose-tinted glasses. Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, Volume 1, p. 186.

I’m a member of what is now Southwark and Lewisham Tenants– we were just Southwark Tenants but as so many of our members have been forced out of Peckham to parts of Lewisham by rent increases we’ve decided to cover both boroughs. We are part of the London Renters coalition of private renters’ groups from all over London. Both Southwark and Lewisham Tenants and our sister groups in London Renters use a variety of tactics including lobbying councils, responding to government consultations, providing advice to tenants, organising tenants to fight their landlords and putting on Renters’ Rights nights in conjunction with local law centres, which may be one way of beginning to socialise legal knowledge to fill in, slightly, for legal aid cuts. However, I want to focus on the actions we have taken as this is where we can learn most from other housing groups and where the logic of the action and demands it expresses often makes organising across tenure necessary.

There are number of reasons why we need to be taking action as private renters, firstly, planning and carrying out actions is a useful way of building solidarity within our groups. When we occupied Strata along with Lambeth Renters, people who had never been involved in direct action before came away incredibly and keen to do something similar again. Part of building solidarity in this way also involves celebrating our victories, even if they’re small-scale victories, a small-scale victory may only be that the action went off successfully or that an eviction was delayed or that we got some positive press coverage. The situation around housing in London can often seem so hopeless that even the smallest victory needs to be celebrated.

Action, furthermore, is proactive it tests and goes beyond the limits of what we are told is realistic. Our responses to consultations, rigorous as they have been, have necessarily been defensive and limited to a narrow logic of what is possible. They also presume a consensual, non-antagonistic mode of politics where contradictory interests can all be reconciled by the (apparently) disinterested state. We responded to the recent DCLG consultation, opposing the part of which that suggested that evictions of private tenants be made even easier but it was our occupation of DCLG that allowed us to make more the radical set of demands. We demanded that Section 21, which allows for retaliatory evictions, be scrapped and that private tenants have genuine security of tenure. These demands, rather than the defensive demands of the replies to the consultation, are what allow links to be developed with housing groups form other tenures. Ultimately, the demand for security of tenure for private renters, necessarily links up with squatters’ demands for security and the repeal of the criminalization of squatting in residential buildings, it also links with the resistance of council tenants to moves to privatise their housing and introduce tenancies that are similar in their insecurity to PRS tenancies. In fact, Occupy DCLG was planned with squatter activists, although on the day most of them were resisting the eviction in Queen’s Park.

Our occupations of Stratford Halo and Strata also, necessarily, involved moving beyond issues which are exclusive to private renters. Our Stratford Action was supported by Action East End activists form the Carpenters Estate as, alongside highlighting unaffordability of private rents and demanding rent controls any reckoning with Stratford Halo requires addressing processes of gentrification and social cleansing including the demolition of social housing. As private renters we know that renting is inherently exploitative and for large numbers of people forced into it whether by lack of social housing or the criminalisation of squatting in residential buildings extremely unsuitable. We were inspired by Focus E15 Mothers borrowing our tactic (which we had borrowed from the French group Jeudi Noir) of occupying and holding a party to resist being forced into the private rented sector and demand decent secure housing for everyone. Similarly, Southwark Tenants and Lewisham Renters’ occupation of Strata necessarily opened up questions around gentrification and the destruction of council house provision. We are currently planning, in conjunction with other housing groups in Southwark and Lambeth further action around Heygate. As private renters we know building more “luxury”- and it’s worth noting what a mean version of luxury the small, depressing interiors of Stratford Halo and Strata offer compared to 1960s built council houses- private rented properties- is no solution to London’s housing crisis. 

We all know there is a housing crisis- and I don’t mean “we” as housing activists, but “we” as people living in London, even the Daily Mail has covered the unaffordability of London housing. However, the way in which the housing crisis is conceptualised by the media both mischaracterises the situation and promotes inertia. Much of the media focus is either on “young professionals” as part of “Generation Rent”, who ten years ago would have been able to afford somewhere “nice” in Clapham and five years ago would have been able to afford somewhere tolerable in Balham but now are forced into renting, or on the most dangerous and degrading overcrowding and squalor, neither of these situations are those of the majority of private renters in London and neither can egenerate militant organising- both have ready-made state-led charitable, emergency or bureaucratic solutions proposed for them. Militant demands- that is demands beyond what is currently held to be possible or reasonable- and action, including cross tenure action are absolutely necessary because only they can interrupt the fatalism around our various housing situations in London. Militancy and action both creates solidarity within our groups and across tenure whilst polarising those, like us, whether private renters, council tenants, squatters and even many home owners, for whom a home should satisfy the need for shelter and comfort, and those, landlords, property developers and capitalists who seek to profit from exploiting our need. Without interrupting the capitalist process determining housing in London, the current catastrophe can only get worse.   

Novocastrian Faust: Our Friends in the North, Modernization and Corruption

“Green are the meadows, fertile and in mirth,/ Both men and herds live on this newest earth,/Settled along the edges of a hill/Raised by the masses’ bold industrious will./A veritable paradise inside,/Then let the dams be licked by the raging tide,/And as it gnaws, to rush in with full force,/Communal will fills gaps and checks its course./This is the highest wisdom that I own,/The best that mankind ever knew;/Freedom and life are earned by those alone/Who conquer them each day anew.” (Goethe, Faust, 11563-76).

“The Faustian model of development gives top priority to gigantic energy and transportation projects on an international scale…Instead of letting entrepreneurs and workers waste themselves in piecemeal and fragmentary and competitive activities it will strive to integrate them all. It will create a historically new synthesis of private & public power symbolised by the union of Mephistopheles, the private freeboater and predator who executes much of the dirty work and Faust, the public planner who conceives and directs the work as a whole.” (Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air, p. 74).

In A Guide the New Ruins of Great Britain Owen Hatherley seems to suggest that Austin Donohue is a less interesting character than T.Dan Smith, “when thinking about Smith and Poulson, it’s impossible to keep from your mind their fictional portrayals on British television. Smith became Austin Donohue, corrupt local Labour in Our Friends in the North, a snake-oil salesman of ‘cities in the sky’…This is the dark heart of postwar urban politics- backhanders, the threat of violence, one-time socialists forgetting they were in politics to help anyone but themselves” (p. 173). Hatherley is certainly correct to suggest that Our Friends in the North is relatively uninterested in the precise form of Smith/Donohue’s urban ambitions; however, then claim Donohue is presented merely as a snake-oil salesman misses the genuinely tragic presentation of the character, which is made apparent by Berman’s analysis of Faust.

Donohue exists, in fact, at a point between Berman’s and Lukács’s, in Goethe and his Age, opposing readings of the character of Faust. Berman writes, “the clearest analogue [to the world Faust creates] seems to be the tremendous surge of industrial expansion that England had been going through since the 1760s. Lukács makes this connection and argues that the last act of Faust is a tragedy of “capitalist development” in its early industrial phase. The trouble with this scenario is that, if we pay attention to the text Faust’s motives and aims are clearly not capitalistic. Goethe’s Mephisto, with his eye for the main chance, his celebration of selfishness and his genial lack of scruple, conforms pretty well to one type of entrepreneur; but Goethe’s Faust is worlds away. Mephisto is constantly pointing out money-making opportunities in Faust’s development schemes but Faust himself couldn’t care less. When he says that he means to “open to the millions living-space/ not danger proof, but free to run their race,” it’s clear that he is not building for his own short-term profit but rather for the long-range future of mankind, for the sake of public freedom  and happiness that will come to fruition only long after he is gone. If we try to cut the Faustian project to fit the capitalist bottom line, we will cut out what is noblest and most original in it and, moreover, what makes it genuinely tragic. Goethe’s point is that the deepest horrors of Faustian development spring from its most honourable aims and its most authentic achievements. If we want to locate Faustian visions and designs in the aged Goethe’s time, the place to look is not in the economic and social realities of that age but in its radical and Utopian dreams; and, moreover, not in the capitalism of that age, but in its socialism” (p. 72). The socialism in which Berman locates Faust is specifically Saint-Simonian utopian socialism.

If we return now to Our Friends in the North, the tragic synthesis of the public planner Donohue (Smith) as Faust and the private freeboater and predator Edwards (Poulson) as Mephisto and its particular socialist context can become clear. As Hatherley writes T. Dan Smith, “claims, rather than being corrupted, he was using Poulson all along” (p 180). Here we have the attempted integration of the private and public in the public interest and the centrality of planning (a Saint-Simonian feature), as Hatherley points out “under Smith, Newcastle was the first English council to have a planning department” (p. 175). In the priority of the public, in the fusion utopian heroism and planning in Smith/Donohue’s intentions we see the Saint-Simonian socialism of the project. However, whilst Lukács misses the specifically socialist character of Faust, the focus in Lukács’s analysis of Faust on the failure of revolutionary politics as constituting the situation for the tragedyis also useful for considering Donohue/Smith. Lukács writes, “Goethe could not seek the path of democratic revolution” and Berman summarises Lukács’s position in relation to the weakness of the political interlude in Act four, “we should not belabour Goethe’s tragedy of modern revolution. Its main function is to give Faust and Mephisto an easy rationale for the political bargain they make.” (Goethe and His Age, p. 191, All that is solid melts into Air, p. 63). I want to suggest the Dononhue/Smith project is constituted similarly, the Saint-Simonian socialist Faust-Mephisto alliance is underpinned by the failure of the (French) democratic revolution and the absence of the proletariat as a revolutionary subject; the Saint-Simonian socialist Donohue (Smith) – Edwards (Poulson) alliance is underpinned by the absence of a revolution and the inertia of Labourism.

Lefebvre, like Berman links, in his case particularly Stalinist, politics of development to the figure of Faust, “In his megalomania Stalin plotted gigantic operations which were intended to alter the face of the planet; under the organization of socialist power, men would change the course of rivers, move mountains, modify climates”, Lefebvre continues, suggesting “unforeseen values are emerging from official institutional, ideologized and ‘consecrated’ Marxism. These values are Promethean and Faustian” (Henri Lefebvre, Introduction to Modernity, p. 31). In Introduction to Modernity, the line of this argument continues, in particular, in Fourth Prelude “On the Theme of the New Life”, suggesting the project of modernization is constituted by the failure of the world revolution, the missing of the possibility of philosophy realizing itself (the parallels but divergences with Adorno’s beginning of Negative Dialectics, “philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realise it was missed” (p. 3)are instructive here), leaving modernization to attempt to complete the transformation of the world that philosophy-Marxism could not bring to fruition. (Introduction to Modernity, p. 65-94).

A similar dialectic of failure and modernisation is apparent in Our Friends in the North, the scene prior to Donohue’s speech is a birthday tea with a tetchy debate over Labour’s or, more precisely, Labourism’s failures or betrayals, which sets the scene for Donohue’s Faustian Saint-Simonian corruption. What is central in the discussion in terms of what is to come is the (accurate) cynical critique of Labour made by Felix Hutchinson, “what’s been stopping them building houses for the last 50 years, they’ve run the North-East since 1919…The Labour Party of which I was a member was the first to condemn the Jarrow marchers as hooligans.” Interestingly prefiguring some of the approaches of the 1980s around Marxism Today, Donohue aims to explode this sclerotic Labourism simultaneously from the left and from the right with Hatherley describing T.Dan Smith as “the missing link between Marxism and Mandelsonism” (A Guide to the New Ruins of Britain, p. 181). The explosion of Labourism from the right is clear in the mobilising of private capital, from the left, Smith’s emergence from the far left, Hatherley again, “Thomas Dan Smith was of what people used to call the hard left…he took control of Newcastle Labour Party along with a group of fellow far-left entryists” (p. 172) and the necessarily limited, both by circumstance and by labourism, of mobilising of the working class or the people, “the man in the street’s enlarging capacity to tell us what he needs.”. In a sense the Newcastle region functions almost as a (Geordie) nation, allowing this equivocation between the working class and the people. What unites the left and right poles is impatience and ambition.

In “The Right to the City”, Lefebvre writes of the necessity of a social force (the working class), “capable of investing itself in urban experience through a long political experience can take charge of a programme concerning urban society” (p. 156). This conception of an emancipatory project is opposed to the technocratic, which accepts the city as a pre-existent technical object. Lefebvre also demands that a political programme be initiated by the working class rather than the political parties which represent or wish to represent the working class. Furthermore, for Lefebvre it is essential that the emancipatory programme remains independent from the political parties that claim to represent the working class and the working class must be able to alter and transform the programme. (p. 155). Lefebvre’s analysis helps elucidate the tragic limits of Dononhue/Smith.

The first limit is defined by labourism, “empirical and flexible about all else [Labour’s] leaders have always made devotion to [the parliamentary] system their fixed point of reference…the leaders of the Labour party have always rejected any kind of political action (such as industrial action for political purposes) which fell, or appeared to fall, outside of the parliamentary system” (Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism, p.13- hence the betrayal of the Jarrow March). Lefebvre’s analysis allows for the place of a party of left, but not as the point where the urban project is initiated. For all the rhetoric of the enlarging capacity of the man in the street, Donohue/Smith lacked the social force to break out of the limitations of labourism, the urban project was, necessarily, imposed from above through parliamentary (local council) means, with corruption marking the point where the transcendence of the sclerosis of those limits was attempted. Here, corruption, ironically, corresponds with the “left” pole, as Miliband argues, “the Labour Left’s own acceptance of the categories of the parliamentary system has been distinguished from that of the leadership by a continuous search for means of escape from its inhibitions and contradictions”, the alliance with Mephisto-Edwards-Poulson thus represents an attempt to escape the limitations of labourism.

The second, related, limit is the technocratic limit, whereby the capitalist city is accepted as a pre-existent technical object to be reformed, albeit radically. Lefebvre’s critique of technocracy here mirrors Moisei Ginzberg’s attack on Le Corbusier, “you want to cure the city because you are essentially trying to keep the same as capitalism made it.” (Quoted in Owen Hatherley, Militant Modernism, p. 67). The two limits- labourism and technocracy- are conjoined in “modernization”; Miliband writes of the Wilson government’s rhetoric of “modernization”, which for all its apparent radicalism, “was not the vision of a socialist society, but of a renovated capitalism, freed from its aristocratic and gentlemanly accretions, dynamic, professional, entrepreneurial, numerate and efficient.” (Parliamentary Socialism, p. 355). Wilson, however, had the opportunity to surpass these limits, he is not tragic, not Faustian, Donohue-Smith did not, he is tragic, is Faustian in his (inevitably) failed effort to break through these limits through sheer force of will and cunning.

In Our Friends in the North, the politics of all the other characters are essentially responses to the failure of this heroic project; it confirms the antipolitical cynicism of Felix Hutchinson, frustration at the limitations which Donohue aimed to surpass leads to the more radical but pathetic urban terrorism of Nicky Hutchinson, attempting to force the situation, it leads to moralising leftist conservatism of Eddie Wells, that against the corruption that resulted from transformative grandeur of Donohue’s politics would prefer to be right, with clean hands rather than take a risk of changing anything. Finally, the failure of the grand project leads to the proto-Blairite biopolitics on the terrain of the estates of Mary Cox, as council leader, managing the social disintegration that Donohue’s project in some ways produced but also could have prevented had it been successful. For all the other characters concerned with politics in Our Friends in the North, the other side of Donohue’s (or, repeated as farce, in Nicky’s urban terrorism) impatience becomes resignation, a narrowing of horizons with politics reduced to managing symptoms.

It is the grandeur ambition contrasted the narrowed horizons of contemporary politics and urbanism that begins to explain the revival of interest in T.Dan Smith, not only in Hatherley and in the “City State- Towards the Brasilia of the North” exhibition which he discusses but also in Alex Niven’s Folk Opposition, in which T. Dan Smith figures as “Oppositional Precedent No. 1: Breaking the Power Structure” (p. 46). Niven emphasises both Smith’s “vigorous modernist developments” (p. 47) and the regionalist and internationalist aspects of Smith’s “utopian project….drawing out the distinctive sense of place in Newcastle…[which] captured the spirit of a city that had long sought to declare its noncomformity with English stereotypes through a commitment to internationalism, bravura modernity and audacity in the arts” (p. 48).

There is now an untimeliness to T.Dan Smith, an untimliness that forms part of a contradictory counter (counter to hippies, to Carnaby Street…)  ‘60s of brutalism, municipal socialism but also of Western Maoism, feminist consciousness-raising and the militant rather than aesthetic aspect of ’68. All the aspects of this counter-‘60s tend to be met with embarrassment but this embarrassment must be addressed dialectically. In Minima Moralia, Adorno writes of how Ibsen is “condemned as old-fashioned and outdated” but that this condemnation is the effect of embarrassment at the inability to bring the emancipatory promise of Ibsen’s critique of the position of women, “this is the way of all outdatedness. It is to be explained not only by mere temporal distance but by the verdict of history. Its expression in things is the shame that overcomes the descendent in face of an earlier possibility that he has neglected to bring to fruition. What was accomplished can be forgotten, and preserved in the present. Only what failed is outdated, the broken promise of a new beginning.” (§57, pp. 92-3). The continued presence, despite demolitions, of the emancipatory promise of the modernist architecture of social democracy- “its expression in things” lies behind the hostility and embarrassment, with which we enjoined to approach these buildings.

The tragedy of modernization (or development) then is not, as Berman argues in his basically Hegelian reading of Faust, the destruction of the old world- Philemon and Baucis’s cottage (pp. 66-7)- indeed, Our Friends in the North has no sense of idealising the old world, to see this in Peter Flannery’s work we have to turn to the (underrated at least by the left, so much of the depth of police corruption is made legible, Inspector George Gently, especially Gently Between the Lines, whose starting point is resistance to slum clearance. Neither is the tragedy of Dononhue, again in Berman’s Hegelian reading that once the developers’ world-historical function is completed he is superfluous, “ironically once this developer has destroyed the pre-modern world he has destroyed his whole reason for being-in-the world” (p. 70). The tragedy of modernization, as made clear in Our Friends in the North, is that modernization cannot realise its own promise. Following Lefebvre and the implication of some of Lukacs’s analysis, in the case of Donohue/Smith the labourist and technocratic limitations of modernization could not be transcended. The tragedy then is that the absence of the possibility of a revolutionary resolution of the problems of the city forces Donohue (Faust) to sell his soul to Edwards (Mephisto). Donohue/Smith is, ultimately, an inverted and almost as tragic Robespierre or Saint-Just, for whom corruption rather than virtue is the means to construct utopia, whereby, “the principle of politics is the will, the more one-sided, i.e. the more perfect, political understanding is, the more completely it puts faith in the omnipotence of the will the blinder it is towards the natural and spiritual limitations of the will the more incapable it becomes of discovering the real source of the evils of society.” (Karl Marx, “Critical Notes on ‘The King of Prussia & Social Reform’”, p. 413).

The excavation of the promise (the Oppositional Precedent), however, is not a hauntology; the oppositional precedent was actually constructed, it is defined by its vigour and the continuing obviousness of its productions, hauntology, by contrast, in its lack of vigour and productivity- its contemplative rather than militant or productivist stance, mirrors the passivity of the Labour Left, albeit in the aesthetic rather than moral realm. T. Dan Smith won, albeit briefly, before his tragic fall.

Smith’s own analysis- “capitalism itself is fundamentally immoral and corrupt, and its major corruptions are all legal” (quoted in A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, p. 181) of his fall further makes clear the gap between the heroic utopian socialism of his vision and the squalor of local councils today. The tragic Smith/Poulson pairing stemmed from an acknowledged contradiction between the public and private interest, it is this contradiction which meant that Smith could be claiming to be putting Poulson to use in the service of the public. For most contemporary local councils there is no contradiction between the public and private interest, the interests of developers are generalised to the extent that everything is corrupted but nothing registers as corrupt.

The closeness between Southwark Council particularly the leader Peter John and the Cabinet Member for Regeneration and Corporate Strategy (!) and Lend Lease as well as the revolving door between senior council officers and developers has been extensively documented by Southwark Notes and The People’s Republic of Southwark (there’s a clear summary on this edition of Novara with Lilli from People’s Republic), a closeness that includes Olympic opening ceremony tickets being bought for John and his wife and John and council officers being flown to the MIPIM property fair in Cannes by Lend Lease. However, unlike in Our Friends in the North the incentives are irrelevant, without them the council would behave in exactly the same way; there is no public interest to sell out.

The transcendence of the law in the planning process does remain in contemporary councils; however, whilst with T.Dan Smith the law was transcended, albeit corruptly, in the interests of the people, in Southwark today it is transcended in the interests of developers. What is perhaps most notable in the planning process in Southwark is how often the council’s own planning rules mandating affordable housing are suspended by the council itself, for example with the Heygate development, in which having any more than 9.4% “affordable” housing (and there are, of course, huge issues about the current definition of “affordable housing” anyway) is held to render the development “unviable”. The closest parallel here is to the police, whereby again the law is suspended in the “public interest” as it held to be unviable in certain emergency situations, and this suspension, retroactively creates a new law. The affinity between the police and planning suspension of the law should not be surprising as both deal in the re-arrangement and moving along of people, the denial of the right to the city in order to create space as ordered space to be exploited by capital.

London Renters and The Right to the City

This was published by The New Left Project a couple of months back. I’m reposting it here in case anyone missed it- I’m fairly proud of it and it serves, in a way, as a manifesto for what I want to be doing with this blog and explains its blog’s title. I also mean to expand on the sections on the interior, the right to leave traces and the right to dwell, and the way in which the capital used to gentrify is generated and deployed in the near future.

London Renters and the Right to the City

The New Economics Foundation’s recent report Distant Neighbours makes some grim predictions about Islington in the near future, claiming that “by 2020 a family need to earn more than £90,000 to afford market rents in Islington.” Alongside the very rich, the report suggests there will still be a group “on low incomes at the bottom living in social housing”. Even more worryingly, it is quite possible that the report, which also argues that mental health will worsen along with social isolation, may even be rather too sanguine about Islington’s near future, not least because it takes for granted the maintenance of social housing and a genuinely affordable level of social rent.

The grim projection of Islington in 2020 is not, of course, restricted to Islington, neither is it solely a prediction. The unaffordability and insecurity of private renting has already reached crisis levels. In Southwark, research conducted by Southwark Tenants has discovered that rents are increasing at rates substantially above inflation and 78% of those surveyed said that they had, on occasions (or more often) struggled to pay their rent.[i] Research conducted by Shelter in 2013 showed that 47% of private renters in London had less than £100 left a month after paying their rent and for other essentials. Large numbers of those surveyed in Southwark talked extensively about their fears of being priced out of the area, particularly Peckham and Elephant and Castle, or the more general insecurity of living in the private rented sector. People also talked of wanting to have children but being unable to given their housing expenses, conditions and insecurity. The government’s policies, beholden to the interests of landlords, property developers and owner occupiers, are not addressing this crisis and are in fact deepening it.

In “The Right to the City”, Henri Lefebvre insists “policy is not enough” to resolve the urban crises.[ii] He argues that a technocratic politics, taking the city with its structure and relations as a “pre-existent reality” necessarily sides with the capitalist forces that produce its disintegration. Against this paradigm, Lefebvre affirms the necessity of working class innovation and the indispensability of revolutionary initiative to bring solutions to urban problems.”[iii] In this essay I want to use the demand for a “right to the city” to explore the politics of private renters’ struggles in London. Such struggles inevitably assert this unconditional right to inhabit our city and, consequently, will a radically different London from the neoliberal city willed by policy makers, landlords and property developers.

The basis for the incommensurability of our London and their neoliberal city is twofold. Firstly, our city depends on a protection of the urban commons against their efforts to transform, appropriate and destroy it. Secondly, it is underpinned by the contradiction in how a home is experienced by private renters and how a property is experienced by a landlord. For us a home is “a thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs”; [iv] for them, whether they own one or thousands of properties, our home is both something with exchange value that could be bought or sold and a means of generating profit through rent.

Although being a private tenant does not describe a work relationship private tenants are profoundly proletarianised and a ‘right to the city’ perspective can make this apparent. Unlike owner occupiers, who own property, and council tenants who still (just about) have access to a welfare state commons, private tenants have, in Marx’s terms, been “robbed of…all the guarantees of existence”; our belonging in the city is precarious and conditional on the whim of a landlord.[v] Furthermore, the number of private renters is expanding through the destruction of council housing in the interests of capital. In Southwark, for example, the Heygate Estate is being cleared and the land, more or less, given away to a private developer.[vi] This is a process of  “primitive accumulation” or, as David Harvey has it, “accumulation by dispossession”,[vii] and is a constant in capitalism. We can add to this the government’s criminalisation of squatting, destroying another “guarantee of existence”, the commons of use of empty buildings.

Most obviously for theorising the struggles of private renters, Harvey treats rent, particularly rent increases through gentrification, as an instance of the appropriation of our cities, which we have produced and maintained. He writes,

The primary means by which [the commons] is appropriated in urban commons is, of course, through the extraction of land and property rents. A community group that struggles to maintain ethnic diversity in its neighbourhood and protect against gentrification may suddenly find its property prices (and taxes) rising as real estate agents market the “character” of their neighbourhood to the wealthy as multicultural, street-lively, and diverse. By the time the market has done its destructive work, not only have the original residents been dispossessed of that common which they had created (often forced out by rising rents and property taxes), but the common itself  becomes so debased as to be unrecognizable.[viii]

Harvey names, amongst others, South Baltimore, Williamsburg in New York, Christiana in Copenhagen and St. Pauli in Hamburg as instances of this debasement and appropriation of the urban commons. It would be easy to add Hackney, Brixton and Peckham to this list.

London Renters, Let Down and The Right to the City

London Renters are a coalition comprised of several local action groups: Advice4Renters (previously Brent Private Tenants’ Rights Group), Camden Federation of Private Tenants, Digs (Hackney Renters) Haringey Housing Action Group, Islington Private Tenants, Lambeth Renters, Southwark Tenants Tower Hamlets Private Renters and Waltham Forest Renters.

London Renters’ demands include the introduction of rent controls and secure (lifetime) tenancies and, with this, an end to retaliatory evictions. We call for an end to discrimination against Housing Benefit Claimants in the private rented sector and that housing is comfortable, safe and of an adequate size and that more council housing be made available .Rent controls would substantially ameliorate the capitalist character of housing, limiting dispossession through rent increases, (hence, even in their most moderate form are opposed to the shrillest degree by landlords and their sycophants) Secure tenancies would limit the precarity of tenants, and the end of retaliatory evictions, the fear of which often prevents tenants demanding repairs, would make it substantially easier to exercise what rights we have. More and more people are forced into the exploitative landlord-tenant relation through exorbitant house prices, the destruction of council house provision and the criminalising of squatting. So more council housing would allow tenants to exit this relation in a more socially just way than policies like Help to Buy, which enable a few well-off private renters to escape whilst further inflating the cost of housing to the benefit of landlords and property developers.

Both the London Renters coalition and the individual groups make use of a variety of strategies to enact our demands and to improve conditions of private renters. The choice of strategies often depends on the local situation, the receptiveness of the local council to demands from private renters and the differing expertise of members of the groups. As well as efforts to enact our demands groups also provide advice to private renters (Digs’s website is especially useful) and events to educate tenants in their rights and how to enforce them.

Let Down is a campaigning group born out of London Renters which has focused on more direct action. Campaigns have been run against letting agents fees- a particularly parasitic form of appropriation which are banned in Scotland, and we recently occupied a “luxury” flat in Stratford and held a house-warming party to protest against the government’s Build to Rent policy to protest against the government’s Build to Rent policy.[ix]

A Handbook for City Renters

As private renters we are aware, down to its effects on the interiors of our homes, that our right to inhabit not just our homes but also the communities which many of us have lived in for years is always dependent on the sufferance of a landlord and the state. This precarity has been further deepened by government policies such as the benefit cap, which are often directed at the most vulnerable and have forced private renters into impossible choices. Our vulnerability, our lack of an unconditional right to inhabit, is expressed most vividly in six-month tenancies, particularly in a situation in which rents are increasing far faster than wages, making planning for the future or the contented and secure enjoyment of a home close to impossible.

The links between urban experience, the interior and our precarious belonging both in the city and in our own homes, can be illuminated by some of Walter Benjamin’s consideration of “dwelling” in the 1930s, both in The Arcades Project and his commentaries on Brecht’s cycle of poems “The Handbook for City Dwellers”. In the background to Benjamin’s arguments is his claim that “to dwell is to leave traces.” [x] Benjamin opposes this, comfortable, confident bourgeois experience to Marx’s description of the renter:

the basement apartment of the poor man is a hostile dwelling, ‘an alien, restraining power, which gives itself up to him only insofar as he gives up to it his blood and sweat.’ Such a dwelling can never feel like home… Instead, the poor man finds himself in someone else’s home,.. someone who daily lies in wait for him and throws him out if he does not pay his rent.[xi]

In the Brecht commentaries, Benjamin focuses on “The Handbook for City Dwellers”, particularly the repeated injunction to the city dweller to “cover your tracks”, and the poem’s anomie, which expresses the always provisional character of urban existence for the renter. This vulnerability which sees the world of (the landlord’s) objects privileged over our lives, is,  presented with great clarity in Brecht’s third poem:

“House, stove and pot can stay

And you must vanish like smoke in the sky

Which nobody holds back.”[xii]

Something similar can be seen in private rented homes today: our white or beige walls express most clearly that the property must be adaptable for the landlord’s interest of renting it out again rather than the satisfaction of our need for interest, play or joy in our homes. We are often forbidden to decorate our homes and forbidden to leave traces.

This vulnerability impacts on the ability of private renters groups to organise and aspects of what Lefebvre describes as the “long political experience” necessary to transform urban socity, become impossible.[xiii] In Southwark, for example, two key members have, in the last six months, been forced out of the borough by rent increases.

The International Context: Inspiration from the Third World

That our vulnerability is caused by the capitalist character of housing unavoidably introduces an international dimension to the struggles of private renters in London. It is instructive to look at the relationship between the international generation and absorption of surplus and the class character of this process in the case of the redevelopment of Elephant and Castle, much of which has relied upon capital generated in Singapore and China’s most neoliberal cities such as Guangzhou The new properties in Elephant and Castle have largely been marketed in China (especially Guangzhou and Hong Kong) and Singapore, including the destruction of the Heygate.

The existence of cities always rests on the production of a surplus. This is true across history with even the earliest cities requiring an agricultural surplus to support city dwellers,who were not producing food. Harvey argues that urbanization “has always been…a class phenomenon of some sort, since surpluses have been extracted from somewhere and from somebody, while control over the use of the surplus typically lies in the hands of a few”.[xiv] This claim of Harvey’s is, in a sense, transhistorical; it applies to any class society with any degree of urbanization. Capitalism, however, adds and refines a crucial aspect, which is that it needs urbanization to absorb the surplus product it perpetually produces.”[xv]

The redevelopment of Elephant and Castle has taken place in a context in which in the weakness of the UK economy has left few opportunities for the absorption and generation of surplus outside of the property market. (Harvey, for example, grounds the housing bubbles in the United States, Spain, Ireland and the United Kingdom in the lack of other opportunities for the profitable deployment of capital in industry.)[xvi]. One side, of the class character of the Elephant and Castle development is the generation of surplus in Singapore and China’s more neoliberal cities.[xvii] At this pole, documented most movingly and rigorously in Hsiao-Hung Pai’s Scattered Sand we can see the horrifying working and housing conditions that underpin low wages for migrant workers.[xviii] The ability for Guangzhou capitalists to pay low wages has allowed a substantial profit to be generated, some of which, in turn have been reinvested in Elephant and Castle. At the other pole is the investment of this surplus in processes of gentrification, impacting hugely on our conditions as private renters, whether in Britain or elsewhere: it increases our rents, impoverishes us, forces us to endure poor conditions and drives us out of our areas.

This capitalist urbanism is international, but there is resistance to it,. One of the most notable instances of this resistance is Abahlali baseMjondolo, the South African shack dwellers’ movement who demand “the democratisation of urban planning and the realisation of our right to the city.” There is a great deal of inspiration we can draw from Abahlali baseMjondolo’s, in the bravery of their militancy, their ability to grasp their situation and their successes, including in  and their successes whether in resisting evictions, sometimes through direct action, sometimes by making use of the legal process, connecting thousands of shacks to electricity and opposing xenophobic violence. .

On the one hand it might seem presumptuous to link our struggles as private renters in London to those of militant groups subject to political assassinations and considerable state violence, truly heroically resisting processes of dispossession. What is more our specific demands are obviously different from Abahlali baseMjondolo’s. However, they are resisting the same capitalist processes to which we are subject (albeit with a more violent face in South Africa than in London) and on similar terms. They are as S’be Zikode says “struggling for a world in which human dignity comes before private profit and land, cities, wealth and power are shared equally” ,a struggle which must be won if South Africa’s cities are not to “become ATMs for the politicians and the rich”, This is a stark warning and could just as easily apply to London. The choice for London and for Durban – and for countless other cities – is between a city which has become a playground for the rich, from where the poor have been cleansed, and a radical space that affirms human dignity and everybody’s right to the city. The struggles of private renters in London are part of the struggle for such a city.

[i] Southwark Tenants surveyed 100 private renters in Southwark between October and December 2013.

[ii] Lefebvre, H. (1995) “The Right to the City”, in Writings on Cities (Oxford: Blackwell), p. 154.

[iii] Lefebvre, “The Right to the City”p. 156.

[iv] Marx, K. (1976) Capital, Volume 1, (London: Penguin), p. 125.

[v] Marx, Capital, Volume 1, p. 875.

[vi] See the exhaustive chronicling of this disgrace by Southwark Notes.http://southwarknotes.wordpress.com/heygate-estate.

[vii] For “accumulation by dispossession” see Harvey, D. (2012) Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (London: Verso) and Harvey, D. (2003) The New Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press), especially p. 158, where Right to Buy is explicitly conceptualised as an instance of accumulation of dispossession. For the primitive accumulation as a constant in capitalism, see Caffentzis, G. (2013) In Letters of Blood and Fire: Work Machines and the Crisis of Capitalism (Oakland: PM Press).

[viii] Harvey, Rebel Cities, pp. 77-8.

[ix] Build to Rent provides subsidised finance (through loans or equity) to private developers for privately rented homes which will be let at market rents. Owen Hatherley has offered a useful critique of the policy (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/18/london-property-developers-paradise), which situates within the wider context of government housing policy and the transformation of the social demand to build more homes into something that serves the interests of big capital.

[x] Benjamin, The Arcades Project, (Cambridge MA., Harvard University Press) p. 9.

[xi] Marx, K. (1992) “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts”, in Early Writings (London: Penguin), p. 359. Quoted in Benjamin, W. (2002) The Arcades Project, , p. 223.

[xii] Quoted in Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, p. 61. details?

[xiii] Lefebvre, “The Right to the City”, p. 156.

[xiv] Harvey, Rebel Cities, p. 9.

[xv] Harvey, Rebel Cities, p. 9.

[xvi] Harvey, Rebel Cities, p. 44. Gopal Balakrishnan (2009), “Speculations on the Stationary State” in New Left Review 59, p. 10-11 similarly grounds real estate bubbles in the decline of the rate of profit of capital in the West since the 1970s.

[xvii] in some other Chinese cities there are alternatives to this model, most notably Chongqing, in which there has been substantial investment in affordable housing and transport infrastructure. See Harvey’s Rebel Cities, p. 64, 136. for more information

[xviii] Hsiao-Hung Pai (2013). Scattered Sand: The Story of China’s Rural Migrants, (London: Verso).