Disillusion and Dispossession: An Expansion

Anarchists usually don’t get too hot and bothered about general elections. While a change of command can no doubt mitigate some of the harms inflicted by particular governments, it makes no meaningful step towards the better world that anarchists want to see. We don’t feel any great victory if and when the lesser of two evils gets elected, but we might feel a sense of relief that particular injustices might be put on pause for a few years. On the other hand, when the greater of two evils gets elected, we might take solace in the hope that the current system could become so awful that it hastens its own demise. (I am reminded here of when American Leftists say they wish McCain had been elected over Obama — though their administrations would have been nearly identical, Obama’s pretty face is enough to prevent the revolution that McCain might have otherwise provoked.)

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, there are two reasons why I was rooting for a Labour victory (or at least a Conservative defeat).

As someone who started thinking about politics around the time Tony Blair decided to send British Armed Forces into Iraq, I have always loathed New Labour. The British Left’s endorsement of new Labour on the basis that, whatever their faults, they kept the Tories out, is probably a major contributing factor to my disdain for the mainstream British Left to this day. In the lead up to this election, I was hearing more and more pro-Labour sanctimony; that they’re not perfect by any means, but they are our only hope. This snowballed into outright worship of Ed Milliband at a shockingly fast rate. All I could think about is how stupid these supposed Leftists would feel if Labour had gotten elected, and continued the overarching agenda of neo-liberalism at home, and economic and military imperialism abroad. Maybe after placing so much hope into the possibilities of meaningful change through the electoral system, they might start seeing why the problems society faces to day are nothing to do with the personnel at the top, but rather, the existence of a “top” at all. In other words I hoped that the election of the main party on the mainstream Left, and their ultimate disappointment, would hasten the end of the Left’s support for the Labour party, and perhaps the state altogether.

The other reason I had for hoping that Labour would win (or that the Tories would lose) was of other kind: I hoped that one particular harm that the Coalition was perpetuating might be mitigated by a change of government.

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. This added on top of a layer of state interventions that give certain developers privileged access to land, and all the cronyism that dictates urban zoning rules. The increasing number of flats being built in London get bought as investments by people who live overseas and will often keep them unoccupied. 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. Since the whole point of council houses is that they are not for sale (at least, not to people who don’t live in them), developers have to lobby the government to kick the residents out in some way. 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, such as Berkeley Homes, 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. Council tenants often end up being rehoused somewhere where their taking up space doesn’t have such an opportunity cost to the accumulation of capital (Wales, the North of England, etc.). Small businesses in the old developments are promised access to the new developments, only to be left on the outside looking in.

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 (or inherited them from those who bought them) under the “right-to-buy” scheme.

During his flirtation with the New Left, Murray Rothbard argued that the state’s control of any property is illegitimate and criminal, as such it should be considered the private property of its actual users and occupiers. For this reason I think that council homes should be considered the natural property of their residents (individually, or collectively as homeowners’ associations); however, even for those who don’t share this view (and one need not share this view to be concerned about the forcible relocation of people) and think that governments has some right to make “hard choices” about how to allocate housing, there is still cause for alarm. Even those who bought their homes under the “right-to-buy” scheme are being forced out. 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. Karl 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 in any way. 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, pushed around, and denied any degree of autonomy by the state. The robbery of the working class is not an inevitability or a “natural” economic force; it is something that can be brought to an end. If there were no state through which to violently impose the will of corporate developers, they would have to find other more honest ways of earning their money. As Franz Oppenheimer said, there are two ways to make a living: one can create wealth (the “economic means”), or one can take wealth from those who create it (the “political means”). Without help from the state (which Oppenheimer called “the organization of the political means”), housing developers would have a far harder time making a living.

The Conservative Party’s insistence on inflating the value of property, thus driving the forces of primitive accumulation forward along with Labour’s rejection of the various “help-to-buy” schemes that contribute toward this, 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. Perhaps it was naïve to think that anything could stop it at this point, just as there is such opportunity cost for developers not to get the government to give them control of all this urban space, there was also too much of an opportunity cost to those same interests for allowing Labour to get elected. Then again, it was probably naïve to think that if Labour had gotten in, they would have had the desire or the political wherewithal to get in the way of such primitive accumulation. 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.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory