Right to the City

October 7, 2009

“Middle class scum. Fuck Off! Class War!” – Hackney graffiti

First up I’ll provide a couple of links which are worth perusing: the online version (well, part version) of the City journal, which contains a couple of articles that you can download for free, that are concerned with the current edition’s analysis of the effects of gentrification on the city and the response of the Right to City movement. The second is the No Longer Empty campaign (here) which I’ll get to later.

What prompts this post is Peter Marcuse’s public lecture entitled ‘From Critical Urban Theory to the Right to the City’ that was delivered at UCL’s Cruciform Building (I like that word and the form-based naming convention) last night. Firstly, for those expecting a significant difference in Critical Urban Theory, and Critical theory, you might be disappointed. What Peter Marcuse offered was a neat summation of the problems facing the city today – especially given the recessionary pressure – alongside a critical explanation of the crisis as counterpoint to the traditional versions currently offered. Secondly, and perhaps frustratingly for those looking for a practical, he went on to discuss – and I hesitate to use the word solutions – alternative responses to the problems of crisis.

So, the traditional explanations for the current recession can be characterized in a number of ways; banker’s greed, and by extension greed generally; the impact of speculation; too much money floating around; and so on. Peter Marcuse’s contention, and it’s here that the critical aspect of the Urban Theory comes in, is that it’s a crisis of capital that causes these problems. Explaining away recession and the burst in the housing bubble within the constraints of the capitalist system serves only to obscure the wider problem, the problem of a system whose totality is based around profit motive, that teaches the drive for profit as a good thing; that greed is good.

For Marcuse then, it’s not a significant, or even effective step to admonish bankers for greed: they are playing by the rules of the system, and simply have exploited them with are greater degree of efficacy than others. What’s needed is a wider framework for criticism that sidesteps the problems of immanent reformism in viewing the crisis as a symptom of capitalist operation as a whole.

The graffiti quoted at the top of the post (and viewable in the Thomas Slater essay from the link at the start) is a visual expression disgust at the slow creep of gentrification. A process that often acts with the kind of incremental quantitative change that is invisible when in constant contact with an area, but readily apparent as a significant change when encountered with longer intervals between observations. What’s occurring then, is an asymmetrical class war. A war of attrition that is creating a new set of displaced and dispossessed people.

Peter Marcuse discussed the impact of the foreclosure (or repossession) on areas. That those who had been sold mortgages without sufficient ability to repay them beyond the initial period – sub-prime mortgages – are faced with repossession and relocation. Brooklyn is notable for it’s hyperkinetic wave of gentrification that’s swept off the East River and left poorly constructed condo towers and half finished development projects littered in its path as it has rolled, albeit one imagines, temporarily, back. Indicators again, of the problems of excess capital. Repossessed or foreclosed homes, then become empty shells, and are returned to the asset roster of the banks that leant mortgages, often to stand empty, or be offered to cash rich buyers. One of the proposal’s made by Marcuse, and one that I think warrants significant consideration, is the nationalizing of repossessed homes. They are taken out of the housing market, and reinstated as a places for housing cooperatives, workers cooperatives and not-for-profit enterprise.

What this hinges on, is the divorce of exchange and use value from property. The need for systemic reform is partly born out in a Marxist critique through the removal of the right to land: to own property. It’s this right that provides the foundations for the problems of speculation, securitization, gentrification to develop. It’s this right that skews the balance away from the worker – where the right to housing should be viewed as a need, rather than as a commodity for exchange – and towards those aggregates of capital: investors, development organizations and multiple owners. In separating the use value from exchange value: in maintaining the function of the house, but not treating it as an asset, there exists an opportunity to start to restructure the network of social relations and stigmas that govern attitudes towards private property.

There’s the theory to back up the practice, but there’s little practice that makes sense of the theory. In some areas, and here I refer to the No Longer Empty campaign, there is something being done about the increasing number of empty storefronts (a sign of owners holding onto the property in order to gain larger rents when the recession ends) as they are appropriated as artistic space. As a place for communities to convene and engage in creative activity.

This brings me to the final thing that I’d like to mention; Marcuse’s deprived / discontented definition. In mentioning who the critical theory was for, he tentatively put forward the idea of two distinct groups; the deprived (the homeless, those on welfare, those in underpaid and low-wage jobs) and the discontent (those who are materially better situated, but unhappy with the systemic problems surrounding them). He noted that he wasn’t happy with the language of the categories but the problem is how to unite them. Talking of 68, Marcuse sounded relatively elegiac as he addressed the occupation of Columbia University by students of both categories, but in different buildings, and the workers and students protests dissolved into separate factions in the same year in France. So if we accept the Right to the City, the question then becomes: how do you bring together deprived communities and the discontented in a meaningful and significant way in order to enact change?

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