IN DEFENCE OF SOCIAL PROPERTY: ‘KILL THE HOUSING BILL’, RENT STRIKES, AND OTHER CALAMITIES

by George Laver

On 13th March 2016, a rally took place in support of the ‘kill the housing bill’ campaign, aimed at confronting governmental attacks on council and social property and redressing our attitudes towards it. Since then, numerous student-led rent strikes have also ignited. The cause for anger in both of these movements stems from different stimuli, but both address issues of rent and property.

The first, from the legacy of Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’ scheme, which initially undermined council housing; the final blows were to come from this Housing and Planning Bill. The second, from the frankly ridiculous cost of rent that is borne by students in London — although this could extend across the UK, as many students will readily testify to the advantage-taking circus that are landlords. Geared towards annihilating social housing, the Housing and Planning Bill in particular aims at increasing the rent payments of council house tenants in wealthier areas. A natural product of this would be the forcing of people out of their council houses and into the arms of another set of robbers — or, private landlords.

In response to this, the demonstration of March 13th attracted thousands of protesters, targeting their motions towards the fact that sharp increases in rent would facilitate an eviction of council tenants in all but name. These issues should be labelled for what they are: the government taking control of people’s very lifestyles. By increasing rent prices, they are forcing movement; it seems to bear many similarities to a covert attempt to stimulate the private housing sector. Once again, their interests lie in private property — we are merely pawns on the board.

Could the ideological impetus of this Bill lie behind the council’s reasoning in evicting an elderly man from his council home, as I wrote in an earlier piece?  There can be no doubt in the government’s capability for coercion, especially where private property is concerned. At the moment, we are witnessing the softer coercion; once the smoke has cleared, rest assured the government’s desire to use physical force against the poor in the interest of property right will come to the forefront. For now, it is on paper; but any large-scale resistance would soon send it spiralling into armed reclamation and repression. Then again, the case of the elderly man evicted from his home of 30 years could tell otherwise, as it is a perfect demonstration of the readiness of governments to use armed force without the presence of mass resistance movements. The right of increase connected to private property are the real governors of this society — capitalism is merely its orchestrator and jurist.

Once again, their interests lie in private property — we are merely pawns on the board.

But what happens when this orchestration fails? Movements ignite. These organisations consist of all different colours from the social strata. Something important at this moment in time, however, is the student rent strikes now underway at University College London (UCL) and Goldsmiths under the banner of the ‘Cut the Rent’ movement. Students have taken to denying their rent payments in protest of exploitative rates. One can hardly blame them, as any student today will testify to the extortionate cost of rent for living in halls. However, once we’re out of student accommodation, we trade in the relative security of halls for the gambling game of usurious and criminal landlords at the price of a slightly lower rent instalment.  But it doesn’t stop there, as landlords will do all in their power to crack the spines of students through an enforced contract that pits all possible in their favour against the tenants. It begs the question of just when people will become sick of this treatment, especially students, who are notably more vulnerable than those who have lived for decades within the parameters of the property market.

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Photo: Niklas Halle’n/AFP/Getty Images

There can be no doubt in the government’s capability for coercion, especially where private property is concerned.

It is therefore crucial to ask: is not housing — as with all other things — the natural inheritance of the society, not proprietors? To quote Proudhon:

“A force of one thousand men working twenty days has been paid the same wages that one would be paid for working fifty-five years; but this force of one thousand has done in twenty days what a single man could not have accomplished, though he had labored for a million centuries. Is the exchange an equitable one? Once more, no; when you have paid all the individual forces, the collective force still remains to be paid. Consequently, there remains always a right of collective property which you have not acquired, and which you enjoy unjustly.”

Industry pertains to a series of codependences, without which it will not survive. Everything down to the paving on which we walk was created by a multiplicity of labour, one providing the resources to the next to furnish our streets, our houses, and even our backs with the products that we enjoy. It is therefore unjust for any proprietor, with the unilateral force of legislation waiting in the background, to claim ownership and inheritance of these goods. Taking as the premise that law merely reflects our conceptions of justice — and not the backward notion that justice springs from the law — then it is understandable that centuries of perceptions in this manner would create the situations we face today. But it does not automatically qualify them as just or even correct. It is from this perspective that I can defend social property and the inheritance of the people to the means of a dignified existence.

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Photo: UCL Cut the Rent

Fundamental to this mechanism is the ability for capitalists to externalize theft and corruption through the mediator of business and market alike, as through that it becomes law. If it were on any individual ground independent of these institutions, it would be criminal violence. But even now, the collective force remains to be paid; ready to inherit centuries of stolen wealth. This will only come with a critical look at our institutions and their relations, followed promptly by a full-scale reorientation of organization to disengage proprietors from the production and distribution process, which can only be achieved via expropriation.

To give these movements a critical eye, I would argue that they do not go far enough in their outlook or conclusions. There are still tendencies that must be addressed if the root of the issue — rather than the symptoms — is to be cured. In this light, there are still hurdles to overcome. However, what should be borne in mind is the fact that people have begun to recognize corruption where they see it and, crucially, they are acting upon it. Our task is only to try to ignite these causes in fertile grounds and take them further.

Featured Image: Mark Kerrison/Demotix/Corbis

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