A Better World is Possible

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By Nick P.


The term “social housing” has gained traction on the US Left today. Prominent political currents in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have become more comfortable using the term to gesture vaguely at some more just allocation of housing than what currently exists. For example, DSA’s “Building for Power” (B4P) campaign encourages DSA chapters to “…work with tenants and/or tenant unions as well as building trades unions to retrofit social or other tenant housing,” operating under the assumption that social housing is an existing thing that can be improved upon. 


Notably, the Housing Justice for All coalition in New York state lists only two examples of such “social housing.” B4P then suggests that DSA chapters “…can work with building trades unions […] on building projects that create a state-owned developer corporation to build green social housing.” Setting aside whether this “builds power,” one is compelled to ask what exactly is meant by “green social housing?” As socialists and communists, do we distinguish between social housing and “green” social housing, being only in favor of the latter? We appear to be in a conceptual muddle.


Not only does “social housing” get trotted out by liberal organizations to justify minimally reformist changes to housing, but fundamentally, there is no proposed theory of how we ought to properly socialize housing. That is, there is a failure to grapple with capitalism as the root cause of the misallocation of housing. Communists should therefore ask themselves: how are we to understand social housing?


To begin, we must ask: what is housing? Housing is first a home; a necessity for the production and reproduction of dignified human life – in other words, the shelter provided by housing exists first and foremost as a use-value. But second, housing is a relation between a person and society. Housing is where every interaction between individuals and society begins and ends. Capitalism distorts this relationship first through enclosure – by depriving non-landowners from the use of land (as a home or for subsistence) – and second through the extraction of rent – by subjecting land and its use to the imperatives of the market, including improvement, surplus value, profit, etc. Capitalism thereby transforms housing into a commodity, realizing its exchange-value


Thus we can see most acutely under capitalism the relationship between housing and society: the inadequate distribution (or artificial scarcity) of housing means that some (those with access to housing) can participate in and contribute to capitalist society, while those that are forcibly excluded from housing (often under the auspices of “market logic”) are left to languish in misery. The capitalist allocation of housing impinges on the social value of individual humans and entire categories of people, racialized and otherwise. Thereby we can see how the unequal allocation of housing promotes the reproduction of capitalism as such. 


The question, therefore, is how to change this relation, not only in a prefigurative way that anticipates the end of capitalism, but in a way that actively undermines the weaponization of land by capitalism against the dispossessed masses.


What, then, is social housing


Let us be clear: social housing is a horizon, not a liberal-technocratic policy prescription. If housing under capitalism is exclusive, extractive, and monopolized, then a communist perspective on social housing should aim for the abolition of exclusivity, extraction, and monopolization in housing – and in society writ large


This requires the reintroduction of a political imaginary and a set of political aims and methods to achieve them that follow from a rigorously applied ideological disposition. Social housing, thus conceived, is not a concession from the state or a means to “curtail the excesses” of capitalism, but an integral part of the “real movement which abolishes the present state of things.” 


That is to say that social housing cannot be realized through piecemeal, reformist and opportunistic strategies of legislative and electoral meandering, but only through the mass organization of the dispossessed, proletarian class. In what follows, we elaborate on a communist perspective of social housing. 



illustration of a happy sunrise over a crowd of people with safe and sustainable housing

Social housing must first be a redistribution of land from landowners to the landless. This means that social housing cannot be passive; it cannot simply make housing “available” and “affordable” (One must ask: available to whom? Affordable by what standard?), though it must be both of these things. Social housing must be active – it must expropriate the basis of all life on earth (land) from the clutches of capitalism and deliver it straight into the hands of the dispossessed, through which it may be sustained and rejuvenated. Capitalism requires the private ownership of land, upon which the very possibility of surplus value extraction is based. If any “social housing” does not dare to challenge this fundamental relation of the capitalist mode of production, then it is not worthy of the name. Furthermore, social housing must collectivize land ownership, not simply transfer a deed from private landowner to state landowner. 


Second, social housing must be democratically controlled. By this we do not mean to trade in bourgeois, strictly pluralistic notions of democracy – instead we mean that social housing must authorize those who directly depend on the provision of the housing in question to decide the fate of their community. Social housing does not offer an equal seat at the table to developers, investors, or city councilors. Social housing prioritizes and makes real the collective will of tenants. 


Third, social housing must guarantee livelihood, not simply a life. By this we mean that social housing cannot protect tenants from extractive and punitive rents alone, but must also protect tenants from exploitative wages and deteriorated conditions of life-making. Social housing must create the conditions for tenants, now in possession of the basic necessity for the reproduction of social life, to produce a wholly new economic arrangement. 


In the long term, this must be the sublation of the wage labor relation – and by extension, capitalism. In the short term, this should mean the creation of communities that can be operated and sustained by the people that constitute them. By extension, social housing must be deeply ecological, maintaining the land for future generations and abolishing the “metabolic rift” that capitalism provokes between humans and nature. Furthermore, for social housing to promote livelihood, it cannot reproduce carceral relations between communities and the state. A heavily policed, state-owned apartment is not social housing. 


Fourth, social housing must dismantle alienation and build community. A distinguishing quality of housing under capitalism is that of alienation – tenants, living next to one another, suffering the abuses of the same landlord, are made to feel alone and isolated. They leave their homes to suffer the same abuse and alienation in the workplace. Social housing must create the conditions for tenants to realize their collectivity both at home and in society at large. In this way, social housing should actualize the political subjectivity of the dispossessed. Social housing cannot be the same alienating tenements provided by capitalism with a stamp-of-approval from the state.


In sum, we understand social housing to exist in relation to the material conditions of society. Social housing cannot live up to its name if it is predicated on imperial resource extraction, the wage labor relation, the heavily-policed nation-state border, and so on. 


That is, social housing cannot be fully realized under capitalism


To the claim that “reforms may be made that improve housing conditions”, we reply: “Reform is not the goal of communists.” Our goal is the abolition of capitalism and the subsequent liberation of humanity. We will consider all paths to this goal, but the paths must be pursuant to this goal. We do not argue that reform is not important in the short-term, or that the changes brought by reform are meaningless to those subjugated by landlords and wage labor. 


However, we maintain that reform is not sufficient to carry us down the path toward the goal of communism. We implore our comrades to consider social housing as a destination along this path, and resist the temptation of deviations when they come at the cost of our independent power.


What, then, will move us toward our goal? Nothing less than the mass organization of tenants, in the places where they live, fighting back against the depredations of landlords. If we want to achieve social housing, then our task should be clear: organize the tenant movement in whatever way possible. Knock doors in your neighborhood, talk to your neighbors, form tenant councils or associations, use your collective power to deprive landlords of the ability to dictate our lives. 


Just as the social organization of production by capitalism can be viewed as its Achilles’ heel, so too can the social organization of housing – in buildings, apartment complexes, neighborhoods, and so on – be viewed as the basis for the transformation of one of the crucial linchpins of the social reproduction of capitalism. In the same way that transforming the mode of production would dissolve the basis of capitalist political economy, so too would the transformation of the mode of reproduction dissolve the basis of the capitalist allocation of housing. In the last instance, then, social housing is nothing less than the invention, through practical, social experimentation, of the basis for communist reproduction.


In this vein, we find much to agree with in the definition of social housing provided by the Alliance for Housing Justice. However, we must acknowledge that neither B4P, Housing Justice for All, nor the Alliance for Housing Justice, situate tenant organization – the only lever of collective power that can feasibly overturn the capitalist allocation of housing – as the vehicle for establishing social housing. 


Communists should reflect on this fact, both insofar as it distinguishes us from our political contemporaries, and insofar as it orients our tactics and strategy. With the goal of dismantling capitalism and in its place erecting a more just, collective society based on the “free association of producers” (one might modify this: “…producers and tenants”), we should see tenant organization as indispensable and primary in a political organization with finite capacity such as DSA. Through this struggle, we shall create the conditions for social housing to flourish as the vehicle of communist social reproduction.

(Illustrations provided by Katy Slininger)

Group photo of a Cargill Tenants Union rally
Caption: Rally to Defend Cargill Tenants Union in Putnam, CT