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Fighting eviction to build class power

The Tenant Class gets a lot right, but disappointedly gives the power to policymakers

Economic CrisisLabourSocial Movements

Photo by Peter Pelisek/Flickr

The Tenant Class, a new book by author and researcher Ricardo Tranjan, is a timely and welcome intervention. As rents rise the homeless population grows. Meanwhile the media, spoon-fed by housing experts, barrages us with landlord sob stories and supply and demand hysteria. In response, Tranjan demolishes the myth of the ‘mom and pop’ landlord, argues the social need for housing cannot be met by the market, and highlights the increasing number of tenants who are getting organized to defend their homes.

Tranjan is a trained political economist working for a prominent think tank, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. What distinguishes him most from other experts is his sincere belief that renters must engage in collective struggles. As people involved in directly supporting tenant struggles we find his open allegiance refreshing and we know others will too. Even so, we are critical of his institutionalist theoretical approach outlined in the opening pages of the book and the reformist political implications of the discussion of tenant organizing today in the book’s penultimate chapter.

Tranjan’s analysis follows institutional political economy. This says that while labour creates all wealth, the dominance of non-labouring groups results in an uneven distribution of wealth that creates a power imbalance between landlords and tenants. To this end, Tranjan employs American philosopher Nancy Fraser’s theory of injustice, which centres on maldistribution and misrecognition. The state must redress these dual injustices, Tranjan argues, by forcing landlords to give up part of their unfair share and recognizing tenants as full social partners with other groups in capitalist society.

In the institutional political economy tradition, the economic and the political are separate spheres. Wealth is created in the economic sphere and only state intervention in the political sphere can alter the distribution of wealth and raise the status of disadvantaged groups. We argue the determinant social relations of capitalist society are not distributional power relations between competing groups, but class relations.

Marx’s critique of political economy reveals that the basis for exploitation is in capitalist production that is premised on the separation of the working class from its means of existence. In feudal societies, peasants were bound to produce for their lord. With the breakup of the feudal system, the labouring majority was subjected to a new ‘double freedom’; producers were now free to enter into employment contracts and also ‘freed’ of any independent means of subsistence.

The condition of the doubly free worker presupposes private property ownership because absent the power of landlords the majority would retain the ability to live on communally worked land. Denied any independent means to make a livelihood, workers are compelled to sell their capacity to work to a capitalist who owns the means of production as his private property. Marx calls the historical and ongoing process of the separation of the producers from their means of existence primitive accumulation. In North America, primitive accumulation depends first of all on the ongoing colonization and dispossession of Indigenous peoples.

Evictions and rent increases that displace working class renters, including Indigenous people, contribute to the ongoing process of primitive accumulation by forcing workers to sell their capacity to work under even more exploitative conditions and securing for landlords a greater portion of workers’ wages in rent.

Separated from their means of existence the worker must sell their capacity to work, or what Marx calls their labour power, in order to live. Marx stresses that the worker sells to the capitalist their labour power for a definite period, say one working day. During the first part of the workday, the worker performs the necessary labour time to replace the goods and services they require to live. During the second part of the workday, the capitalist compels the worker to perform surplus labour that the capitalist appropriates as surplus value. The class struggle that inevitably emerges—whether over wages, working conditions or the provision of housing—cannot be reduced to a distributional power struggle. As Mike Gouldhawke writes, “The wage isn’t an unjust or undemocratic share in the product of labour, because the worker has no share in the product to begin with, because they’re a worker and not a capitalist. Wages aren’t unfair compensation for labour, but rather the means to buy the capacity for labour and to reproduce the worker as a worker, as a person without means other than this capacity.”

Simon Clarke asserts that class struggles over the provision of housing demonstrate the inseparability of the economic and the political spheres under capitalism. Tenants experience exploitation both economically and politically: the state enforces rent payment with eviction. When tenants organize, they not only undermine the landlord’s sources of revenue in rents and potential investment, they also challenge the rights of private property.

Take for example the ongoing rent strike against above guideline rent increases by tenants in the Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood of Toronto. By withholding their rent payments in protest of rent increases, tenants cut the landlord off from one of its sources of revenue in collective defiance of Ontario landlord-tenant law. In response, the landlords, Public Sector Pension Investments, a Canadian crown corporation, and Starlight Investments, have filed eviction applications at the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) against some rent strikers. If the LTB hears the eviction cases, it will attempt to maintain the separation between the economic and the political by imposing the rights of private property on rent strikers to ensure that they continue to make rent payments and compete for housing in the market. The function of the LTB is consistent with Werner Bonefeld’s analysis of the state: it is the political form of the society based on the social reproduction of a class who owns nothing but their labour power.

The practical implication of Tranjan’s institutional political economy approach is that tenants should push for state policies aimed at rebalancing the power relations between landlords and tenants. An upcoming rally organized by the York South-Weston Tenant Union calling for “fair rent” takes this approach. Policies such as rent controls, funding for public housing, and collective bargaining rights for tenants may temporarily improve the conditions of housing for some workers but such gains are always provisional. In her study of Vienna’s vaunted system of public housing, Susanne Soederberg has shown that the benefits of extensive rent controls and public housing may be eroded as lower housing costs reduce the value of workers’ labour power and exert downward pressure on wages. In submitting to a collective bargaining framework and a grievance process, tenants would furnish landlords with the power to impose no-strike clauses and other restrictions on their organizing in exchange for a seat at the table. State intervention in the rental housing market does not alter the basic condition of the working class’ separation from the means of existence and its exploitation in the production process.

Fundamentally, encouraging working class people to incorporate their struggles into the state, through electoral or other initiatives, risks undermining their independence, agency and strength. In their classic book, Poor People’s Movements, Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward show that in the United States the mass strike waves of the 1930s won the right to unionize, effectively integrating workers’ struggles into administrative procedures and diverting them “into less politically disturbing forms of behavior.” Despite these lessons from labour history, Tranjan writes, “it is for movements to choose a course of action that works for their reality” so long as they win “important concessions from governments.” Evaluating the organizing activity of working class people based on how effectively that organizing is able to increase the influence of tenants within the state apparatuses misses the mark.

For us, working class organizing is a process of developing the capacities, initiative, and oppositional politics of the working class as a whole. Independent organizations of working class people based in apartment blocks and rental districts can contribute to this process. The rent strike in Thorncliffe Park in Toronto is a good example of independent organizing and it is a struggle that Tranjan himself supports. We have supported other recent struggles that have directly confronted landlords and stopped evictions, suppressed rents and improved housing conditions. Still, not all organizing strategies contribute to the development of working class power, and Tranjan conflates groups like Parkdale Organize that support independent organizing initiatives with groups like ACORN that engage in electoral and lobbying strategies. Strategies that divert activity into established legal and political channels introduce into struggles mediators like politicians, judges, and non-profits who hold interests separate from those of working class people. Labour history shows us that the imposition of collective bargaining on landlords and tenants would serve to contain working class struggles and weaken their revolutionary potential. For this reason, working class organizers are correct to resist the incorporation of their struggles into the state.

The Tenant Class is an important contribution. The book affirms the work of tenants who are organizing against their landlords and challenges the assumptions of housing experts that working class people can secure their right to housing in the market. However, the irony contained in the book’s title is this: Tranjan’s theory of distributional power relations is not a Marxian class analysis and neither do tenants constitute a class. While the majority who live in rental units are members of the working class, the tenant category refers to housing tenure. Class indicates a much more fundamental social relationship: the working class is defined by its separation from the means of production. The class with no independent means of surviving is compelled to sell its capacity to work. The redistributive interventions of the state do not change this basic condition of working class life. Social democracy aims to achieve a fairer society through balanced power relations between classes, but no matter how many rights tenants hold under capitalism, landlords still exploit them. The classless society depends on the self-organized, revolutionary activity of the working class to end its condition of separation. Organizers must resist the incorporation of working class struggles into the state, otherwise they ensure the ongoing reproduction of capitalist social relations.

Cole Webber (@colefwebber) is a community legal worker at Parkdale Community Legal Services in Toronto.

Josh Hawley (@squashhawley) is a former PhD student in Ottawa.


Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

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