March 12, 2017
After Labor (why SEIU protests LATU events)
Say this in your bitchest voice, why don’t you, “housing is the new labor.” I mean, don’t. But how else to put it? Labor organizing has reached four new blockades, and an old one has come to haunt it: 1) the concatenation of capital and landlords 2) the reign of independent contractors; 3) the self-defeating allegiance between labor and real estate development; 4) the facility of housing organizing to respond to financialization and wealth inequality 5) the contradiction in renting, and renting persons, full stop.
1) stealing from McKenzie Wark, David Harvey, Ulysses Pascal
Post-, semio-, cognitive-, neoliberal-, platform-, late- are some of the many prefixes by which scholars have sought to distinguish contemporary capitalism. We understand specific social, technological, and economic orders as defined by those who have the most power: feudalism (landlords), communism (laborers), capitalism (capitalists). What if some demon were to creep into your loneliest loneliness and say to you, “this is no longer capitalism.” Based on the current coordination between landlords and capitalists, you might have to call them right.
In the current coordination of landlords and capitalists marks the formation of a new class, with the power to shape and re-shape space for profit. It may even mark a new contemporary order, in which the powers of eviction and exploitation, dispossession and deprivation, are merged. We are used to understanding class struggle in three dimensions: laborers, capitalists, landlords. Power gained by one is lost by the others: higher wages or higher rents lower profits. Capitalists appropriate the surplus produced by laborers; landlords appropriate the surplus produced by capitalists. When tensions between classes are resolved, new classes emerge. Now, we live in an era of a two-dimensional class struggle.
Rent may have told us this was coming for some time. First, there’s monopoly rent: exclusive control over portions of the globe means you can charge for its use no matter how shitty it is. Then, there’s “differential rent,” another way of saying landowners don’t make money off of how productive their land is in the absolute, but how unequally productive their land in comparison to others. The landowner thrives off inequality of productivity. It goes like this: you have some farmland, it’s awesome; your next-door neighbor has some farmland, it’s not as good. What makes you able to charge rent is how much better yours is. Okay, but your neighbor’s farmland is closer to the dirt road that runs into town. So actually it’s a wash, until you make a bunch of campaign contributions and then the town delivers you a new paved road right past your house. If you’re a landlord: two things are good for you: producing a center and producing inequality.
The concatenation of landlords and capitalists into a new class means both producing a center and producing inequality is smoother than ever. For landlords, profitability and locational advantage are not inherent in land: they are produced, relative to central markets and paradigms of production. Capital can be harnessed to magnify unevenness. Landowners with capital, or capitalists with land have an active interest in producing uneven geographies.
Landowner-capitalists control land and how capital moves through it. They can deterritorialize land as capital and reterritorialize capital as land. Speculation drives up their land values and forces users to maximize profitability, eking out more profits with what the market calls “highest and best use.” At the same time, landowner-capitalists can manage the flow of capital to their land by manipulating networks and infrastructure. By investing in, owning, and operating the conduits and barriers through which goods and capital flow, landowner-capitalists can perpetually re-center and de-center space.
Gentrification, or displacement and replacement for profit, is exactly this process. It subjects land to the processes of capital (financialization, speculation, maximization) and capital to the processes of land (fixity, monopoly rent). With it, the power of eviction (dispossession) has overtaken the power of exploitation (deprivation) to shape the lives of workers. Gentrification produces centers and exiles populations to produce more peripheries. Resisting gentrification is precisely how we resist the new class of landowner-capitalists, in a capitalism so “late” it became something else on its way.
2) So much has been said about the flexibilization, fragmentation, and precarity of work. Capitalists found a way around what little labor protections labor organizing has won. Indeed, they made jobs much more like renting a single family home or studio apartment: temporary, unstable, un-collaborative. Precarious labor is the reduction to tenancy.
3) Labor has struck a devil’s bargain with real estate development. They have bought the lie of endless growth. They have bought the lie of endless building. They have bought they lie of trickle down employment. They do so at the expense of their own housing, and at the expense of the planet that houses us all. Like with emotional labor, to cordon off a space or field of activity as “women’s” is often simply to deny it protection from the ravages of an economic order. Housing has suffered for its domesticity. Labor has encouraged this.
4) Housing better connects people’s everyday lives to the structures of power we are living under. First, as outlined above, landlord-capitalists combine eviction and exploitation, dispossession and deprivation: gentrification is precisely that process that remakes space in the interest of capital and remakes capital in the interest of space. Resisting it requires that we connect to our precarity as tenants in addition to as workers. Second, housing connects people’s everyday experience to financialization. The mortgage crisis was a financial crisis, and vice versa. Indeed, land ownership, that is—the powers of eviction and dispossession—has contributed more to consolidation of wealth than corporate profits—the powers of exploitation or deprivation. The redistribution sought by revolutionary practice isn’t of profits, but of wealth. We know where wealth lives: housing, land.
5) stealing from David Ellerman, Cedric Robinson, Onur Ulas Ince
There is something rotten in the idea of rent. It is irredeemable. Yet wage labor naturalizes rent; it makes acceptable the “renting of persons,” even if we use the word “hire.” There is no difference between “hiring” and “renting persons.” If someone hires you to kill someone to kill someone else, you are also punished, held responsible for that action, which is the result of your collaboration. (Corollary: if an enslaved person committed a crime, only then were they treated as a person.) If someone hires you to work, you are not also rewarded, held responsible for the profit, which is the result of your collaboration. You sign over your productive humanity with a wage contract. But you cannot sign over your humanity should you commit a crime. The signing over is a lie. It’s not the difference between capitalism’s before and “after” slavery to consider, but their indifference.
By buying into the acceptability of wage labor, Marx can only ever argue that workers are exploited because they are underpaid. This is a “wrong road.” A road that denies the recurrent dispossession that continues to prop up accumulation, through cycles of displacement and replacement. A road that denies capitalism’s essential colonial violences. A road that denies financialized assets drive more surplus than work. Will universal basic income do more than give landlords a floor to raise rents beyond? We need a theory not of deprivation but dispossession. We need a movement not against exploitation but eviction.
Say this in your bitchest voice, why don’t you, “rent strikes are the new general strikes.”
—Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal