As an anarchist, I avoid doing anything that expresses consent to being governed, or an endorsement of any government; I am therefore a principled ballot-spoiler. However, this time around I was secretly rooting for a Labour victory (or at least a Conservative defeat).
The Conservative Chancellor has been sustaining and inflating the housing bubble, particularly in London. The intimate and fragile ties between the housing market and financial products being traded in the City has meant that in order to protect GDP, the value of housing has been inflated through artificially cheap mortgages for landlords and more recently direct subsidies for first time buyers. The ever-increasing value of land in central urban areas has meant not only that there is a continual exodus of the poorest to cheaper areas out of town, but that developers look upon inner city council housing with pounds signs in their eyes. From the perspective of the government and their cronies, the opportunity cost of permitting poor people to take up urban space is just too high. Of course, a straightforward eviction of council tenants and subsequent private development of the land would be too inhuman for most people to tolerate. But when corporations and the state get together, it’s a case of “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Many London borough councils have gone into partnership with private developers to “solve” the housing crisis by building more houses. Council estates are handed over to such developers for them to redevelop with vague promises in return that some proportion of them will be “affordable”, and that council tenants will be rehoused in the new development. Unsurprisingly, the developers usually find reasons to back up on their promises.
One does not have to dig very far in the mainstream left-wing media outlets to find countless incidents of these kinds of tales of gentrification through developers failing to deliver on the promises that putatively legitimised their redevelopments in the first place. But what is often brushed over, is that many of the people being forced out of their homes actually purchased their homes under the ‘right-to-buy’ scheme.
Developers ‘offer’ homeowners a certain price (way under market value) for their property, and promise them that they will be able to afford to move back into a new unit once the redevelopment is finished (even though the whole purpose of redevelopment is to increase the value and hence the price of the property). Unfortunately homeowners don’t have the right to turn this offer down. There is too much money to be made by redeveloping inner city space; so the borough councils and the developers they are in bed with can hardly let a few holdouts get in their way.
The seizure of land belonging to the poor, for the benefit of the wealthy elite at the behest of the state, is not a new phenomenon. Marx called it “primitive accumulation”: it was a necessary condition for the creation of capitalism in England, and went on throughout the early modern period (and continues overseas today). If someone owns their own land, which, before the industrial revolution, meant their own home and their own means of production, there is no way to exploit them. No framework for exploitation means no income for the classes who deem themselves too highborn for real wealth-creating work. Workers owning their own land is therefore a stumbling block for economic exploitation, one that, as history has shown, can only be removed forcefully through the state. Modern capitalism gets its legitimacy from the notion that, while perhaps unfair or ugly in many ways, it does not depend upon theft or fraud. The fresh round of primitive accumulation going on in London should be a reminder to everyone that this is a fiction: in order for economic exploitation to continue, the poor must be continually plundered, with the assistance of the state. As Franz Oppenheimer said, there are two ways to make a living: creating wealth (the “economic means”), or taking wealth from those who create it (the “political means”). Without help from the state, housing developers would be forced to make an honest living.
The Conservative Party’s insistence on inflating the value of property, and Labour’s rejection of the various “help-to-buy” schemes led me to think that for all the harm a Labour government would continue to inflict, perhaps this, most naked form of injustice, might be mitigated or even stopped.
Maybe we all get a bit naïve around election time. But now that the Tories are safely back in power, let us not be naïve anymore. If every time an election comes around, our best (and in reality, vain) hope is that a party will get elected that will achieve some small reduction in the suffering caused by the ongoing global system of economic exchange rigged to benefit a certain class, then we really need to do better at looking beyond the ballot box for achieving change.