Book review: Rent and Its Discontents: A Century of Housing Struggle

Edited by Neil Gray and reviewed by Ana Drago


Created
26 Jun 2019, 10:43 a.m.
Author
Ana Drago
DOI
10.1177/0042098019847433

Rent and Its Discontents: A Century of Housing Struggle

Edited by Neil Gray and reviewed by Ana Drago

London and New York: Rowan and Littlefield International, 2018; 253 pp.: ISBN: 978-1-78660-575-7, £27.95 (pbk)

 

Rent and Its Discontents is a most welcome book. While we are facing the spectre of a housing crisis haunting neoliberal economies on a vast scale, this volume edited by Neil Gray comes to our aid, providing an array of different disciplinary analyses and activist perspectives on a century-long history of housing/rent struggles in Britain and Ireland.

The book is composed of three parts that engage in a conversation with this situated history. The first part mainly revisits Scotland’s rent strikes at the beginning of the 20th century, during the First World War. Probably best known to international readership through Castells’ account in The City and the Grassroots, these struggles are reconceptualised in this volume as a founding moment of the politicisation of housing, leading to the state intervening in the housing market by imposing rent controls for the first time and paving the way towards a compromise, with housing rights being within the welfare state after the Second World War. Providing new accounts of these struggles, one of the book’s most interesting aspects is how the analyses shed new light on the role of working-class women at a time when men were away at war, and how they organised a legitimation discourse that both mobilised and challenged the asserted role of women in politics within a broad coalition of left-wing political parties and working-class organisations. The second part of Rent and Its Discontents collects a set of reflections on more recent struggles on the repoliticisation of housing within neoliberal/austerity times – mainly focused on movements and campaigns based around rent/housing policies. Probably the main contribution of this second part is that it signals a peculiar mismatch: housing is consensually viewed as a central feature in the individual/community identity and it has had a pivotal role in embedding financialisation within our everyday experiences, but difficulties seem to persist in building strong organisations in the long term – each battle against housing privatisation organises tenants, but stumbles when attempting to put together a wider perspective of organising as tenants. These debates, by being framed in a century-long perspective, incite us to consider how much has changed in the socio-political and ideological terrain of post-industrial capitalism and the difficulties posed to collective organisation when political subjectification is no longer forged by common spaces of work and living. And finally, the third part aims at discussing theoretical-strategical possibilities for re-enacting the politicisation of the present housing crisis – and how such a move can be articulated within the wider frame of anti-capitalist struggles, paving the way towards political alternatives.

One can always say that these approaches would be enhanced by a dialogue with recent literature on present-day struggles – with Spain, but also Greece, coming immediately to mind. Such a statement is always true, but it is always redundant. Although openly centred on Britain’s history of housing struggles and policies, Rent and Its Discontents offers a great deal to all our present-day debates. Britain has always posed itself as a relevant case in housing theory debates for several good reasons, and this book discusses them convincingly. Firstly, as this book underpins, because of the pioneering victories of working-class struggles that led to the first rent controls in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century; secondly, later, and due to this politicisation, because of a referral public housing provision developed within the post-war welfare state configuration. Thirdly, for pointing from the 1980s onwards to the relevance of housing policies within the making of neoliberal governance – as the book argues, the privatisation of housing has been an integral element of neoliberalisation and Britain has shown how rapidly that agenda has been implemented. And, finally, for the symbolic Thatcherite trope that aimed at redefining formulations of democratic citizenship from housing rights to a ‘right to buy’.

But also, because interventions throughout this volume point to a common theoretical approach of this century of housing struggles, offering us two relevant propositions. First, these debates come as a challenge to century-long perspectives that tended to overlook housing struggles by conceiving them either as secondary contradictions of capitalism or, probably worse, as merely striving for reformist concessions in contemporary capitalist formations, which cannot amount to more than a subordinated political integration of an urban working class. Gray’s theoretical debate makes this challenge particularly clear. Departing from the Italian autonomist method of analysis, Gray advocates a spatial composition methodology for foreseeing structural tendencies within contemporary capitalist formations that are shaping what happens – and urbanisation of capital has become paramount. This approach reasserts the relevance of Henri Lefebvre’s thoughts on the urban revolution – the shift from industrial capitalism to the urbanisation of capital – whose profound consequences we have learned at our cost in this decade of global (housing market triggered) financial crisis. But mainly, Gray’s approach to housing struggles is a theoretical perspective on political subjectification. In fact, throughout the historical analysis in this volume, what becomes relevant is the profound connections between production and reproduction spaces in class formation as a political actor during the 20th century – underlining the inextricable relations between the factory and the city, work and everyday – signalling the constitutive nature of the so-called reproductive sphere struggles within the making of a working-class politics. This becomes quite clear when the housing struggles in Scotland a century ago are discussed – as Gray argues, while rent strikes did not pose a direct menace to production relations in the factories, they did raise a political threat that forced state intervention through rent controls. Anti-capitalist politicisation evaded its theoretical limitation to working spaces.

Secondly, by discussing rent struggles this book also advises a more attentive discussion on a constitutive element of capitalist economy and its political imaginary – property (and its uses, since property gains meaning through its uses). Property has always been at the core of class struggle, and nowadays it stands at the core of a constitutive conflict on what a democratic society ‘is’. The shift towards a rentiers’ economy during the last decades has come to show that the relevance of property in both its senses, as real estate and as private ownership, are connected. In Rent and Its Discontents the accounts on housing struggles evolving since the neoliberal turn in the 1980s show the effects of its new ideological mechanisms: how homeownership was deployed as a seductive goal for families, but also that such an ideological move has been interpreted in straight connection with the politically driven erosion of welfare as a credible collective solidarity for the eradication of poverty, the provision of collective rights and a safety net for economic distress.

Despite being aware of these obstacles, the perspectives presented in this volume also risk discussing how to move forward. In their text, Joubert and Hodkinson advocate a conceptualisation of housing commons that at times seems to resonate with the perspectives of the cooperative movement during the 19th and 20th centuries. I find these proposals quite challenging. First, in a gloomier sense: because we know now that ‘the city’ has become central not only for accumulation through dispossession, as Harvey (2004) puts it, but also for scattering conflict in the present-day political landscape with efficient ideological and structural mechanisms. But I also find these proposals challenging because they seek to move beyond denunciations or ‘just’ ideological campaigns – pointing out that the contesting of the existing neoliberal capitalism must also aim towards providing ‘useful’ practices for better and more just societies, which involve popular-participative ‘production’ of exemplary alternative forms of social provision, which in turn act as a politicisation device in a broader context. In fact, one must remember that it was also through a network of support in the reproductive sphere that working-class socialist culture-politics grounded itself in the past.

All these discussions are crucial for our current debates. At a time when many are providing valuable insights on financialisation and the hyper-commodification of housing, when we witness the social and political effects of the coming of a global housing/real estate market, and its trail of evictions, displacement, touristification and (trans)gentrification, this attentive discussion on housing struggles is central. Rent and Its Discontents, thus, poses us a challenge: to look for, analyse and re-enact the repoliticisation of housing towards decommodification. Ready or not, housing struggles and their broad challenge to the right to the city are coming our way.

References

 

Harvey, D (2004) The ‘new’ imperialism: Accumulation by dispossession. Socialist Register 40: 63–87. 
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