Solving California’s Housing Crisis: Reformism or Revolution?

The contradictory impasse of capitalism has led to skyrocketing housing costs and homelessness—while at the same time, millions of homes stand empty. This is perhaps most graphically evident in California, where nearly a quarter of the country’s homeless population resides. Tens of thousands of people—many of them with jobs—are forced to live in their cars or on the streets, mere blocks from some of the swankiest neighborhoods in the world. And with nowhere else to go, tent cities have sprung up like mushrooms—despite repeated, often violent police evictions.

California’s legislature, controlled by a Democratic supermajority, has utterly failed in its attempts to address the crisis. The reason is simple. When the rubber hits the road, the Democratic Party sides with the class that controls it: the capitalists. Time after time, when landlords, private housing lobbies, and finance capital come knocking, Democratic Party careerists dutifully carry out the bidding of their class. Or, if they aren’t missing in action altogether, they wring their hands and apologize for the constant defeats and capitulation, blaming their impotence on the fact that their “hands are tied.” Their hands are, indeed, tied—by the limits of capitalism.

The Trump administration’s 2019 budget included the largest cutback in federal housing aid since 1937, and the proposed 2020 budget would cut a further $4.6 billion. Naturally, the left has demanded action to address the crisis. But what is the way forward? Eclectic, gradualist reformism that tacitly or explicitly accepts the boundaries of capitalism? Or a fundamental restructuring of society’s entire approach to housing?

California’s legislature, controlled by a Democratic supermajority, has utterly failed in its attempts to address the housing crisis. / Image: Pete Bobb via Wikimedia

Jacobin, currently the most prominent left publication in the United States, dedicated an issue last year to the housing question. The following conclusions were drawn by various contributors: “The biggest challenge is the power of the real estate industry to shape the narrative about what is even politically possible in the United States.” “With a committed political movement and a little bit of state power, [the housing crisis] can be confronted.” “[We need] a concrete path away from neoliberal urbanization and the right to a city.” “We need an anti-capitalist planning movement.”

While some of this may sound fairly radical on the surface—at one point, the need to crush “the root cause of inequality” is even raised—it is in reality an entirely defeatist approach. We are told, in effect, that since capitalism is all-powerful and cannot be overthrown, the best we can do is “push back” within the limits of the system. However, since the system is rigged in the interest of relentless profit maximization, any solutions that go against that driving motive will of necessity be stymied, limited, and in constant danger of being rolled back.

In Ryan Cooper and Peter Gowan’s inappropriately titled “How to Solve the Housing Problem”—which should really be called “How Not to Solve the Housing Problem”—the authors take five policy “tools” to solve housing and rate them on a scale of effectiveness and political viability. The problem, according to the authors, is that none of the tools they recommend are both effective and politically viable. It would seem, therefore, that based on the authors’ own limited criteria—there is no solution to the crisis.

Other articles point to examples like “Red Vienna” or the Scandinavian social democracy. However, while highlighting these important experiences, they put little to no emphasis on the bitter class struggles that led to these gains for the working class. Nor is the direct influence of the 1917 Russian Revolution acknowledged. The fact that these countries have mass working-class political traditions is not highlighted either. Also missing is the fact that these reforms were sustainable for a limited historical period only because capitalism happened to be passing through the most powerful boom in its history. Now that the boom is dead and buried, the gains won by workers in the past are being aggressively whittled away by the ruling class.

A recent issue of New Statesman took up the question of Red Vienna:

Unlike the Bolsheviks, (and partly because, as a provincial government, it lacked the powers to do so), the Social Democratic Party of Vienna did not expropriate or nationalize factories or private industry without compensation, but instead paid former owners whenever buildings or land passed from private to public hands. The party built what it perceived to be the chrysalis of a new egalitarian society, while leaving the market and private ownership of the means of production largely intact.

The Social Democratic Party of Vienna did not expropriate or nationalize, but preserved capitalism. This was the fundamental and fatal flaw of all reformist initiatives over the last century. / Image: Christian Hellmich via Wikimedia

That is to say, they preserved capitalism. This was the fundamental and fatal flaw of all reformist initiatives over the last century. The article goes on to illustrate the crisis of reformism that has spread across Europe as modern-day reformists continue these dead-end policies in an epoch in which capitalism demands counterreforms.

As another example, some have touted the recent rent control bills in Oregon and New York as victories. However, while they cap rent increases at 7% and 2% respectively, the latter includes no right to lease renewal or caps on rent increases for non-rent stabilized buildings. Moreover, the Rent Stabilization Association landlord group has already begun pursuing a lawsuit against the bill in what will likely be a prolonged legal struggle. We support any steps that help the workers, but we must be clear that much more is needed, as measures such as these represent only a slight attenuation after decades of attacks on the living standards of the working class.

Unsurprisingly, given its limited, reformist political horizons, there is no mention in Jacobin of the need for a socialist revolution to transform society, or for an independent, mass working-class party to fight for such a transformation. The Marxists are accused of being “unrealistic” or “impractical” for proposing a revolutionary solution. But in practice, it is the reformists whose “practical” solutions are anything but—since they can never actually be put into practice under capitalism.

Marxists fight tooth and nail for reforms that can materially improve the lives of the workers, but we connect these struggles to the need to change society. The working class must fight capitalism on a class-independent basis—we can have no confidence in the organizations or parties of classes whose interests are hostile to ours. Reforms are a byproduct of revolutionary struggle—not of class collaborationism, political horse-trading, and liquidating into capitalist political parties. We also know full well that any reforms won are always subject to reversal as long as the capitalist system remains intact.

Marxists take a dialectical, long view of history. We understand that when our class decisively moves into action, it will conjure up social forces that haven’t been seen in generations—and which will eventually question capitalism’s right to exist.

The IMT’s program calls for an immediate moratorium on evictions, as well as the nationalization of foreclosed and vacant homes, with quality housing for all capped at 10% of wages as part of a socialized housing plan. / Image: Public Domain

Millions of workers are learning from bitter experience that the rapacious capitalist housing market means overcrowding, gentrification, evictions, and homelessness. They will eventually move into action on a mass scale. The real question is how to prepare for such developments in advance—and around what program.

The IMT’s program calls for an immediate moratorium on evictions, as well as the nationalization of foreclosed and vacant homes, with quality housing for all capped at 10% of wages as part of a socialized housing plan. To achieve this, we will need a workers’ government. To be sure, this is not about to take place by next Monday morning. But this is our historical task, and unless we begin working towards this now, we will never achieve it.

In his classic work, The Housing Question, Friedrich Engels takes on the reformist ideas of Proudhon with his characteristic wit, humility, and faith in the working class:

If this polemic serves for nothing else it has the value in any case of having provided proof of how impractical these so-called “practical” socialists really are. These practical proposals . . . appeared at a time when the proletarian movement was still in its infancy . . . The development of the proletariat soon casts aside these swaddling-clothes and produces in the working class itself the understanding that nothing is less practical than these “practical solutions,” concocted in advance and universally applicable, and that practical socialism consists rather in a correct knowledge of the capitalist mode of production from all its various sides. A working class which is secure in this knowledge will never be in doubt in any given case against which social institutions, and in what manner, its main attacks should be directed.

The class balance of forces is exponentially more favorable today than in Engels’s day, and the working class has never been stronger. The ground for the growth of revolutionary Marxism has never been more fertile—and we still have a world to win. There can be no serious or lasting solution to the housing crisis without tackling the entirety of the capitalist system. With a Marxist perspective and program, we can solve the problem of housing, ensuring that everyone has a decent and affordable place to live.

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