Tag Archives: Peter Marcuse

In Defense of Housing: Madden & Marcuse

Madden and Marcuse have written a great book here  in In Defense of Housing — concise, clear, and challenging to the status quo. It is a great outline of some of the key structural challenges we face, and ways forward to short and long-term transformation of how we deal with housing.

The tragedy of Grenfell Tower is only one in a long line of tragedies caused by putting profit over human life. These moments of spectacular violence shock and enrage — hopefully driving a will to change. But there is a slow violence at work here too, the way high rents drive anxiety and force families to make hard choices every day of every month, and the way poor housing conditions destroy both physical and mental health every minutes spent inside which add up to a life damaged and often death at a younger age.

In thinking about housing  in the US, there is a key fact to start: There is no state in the US where someone working full time on minimum wage can afford to rent a one-bedroom apt paying what is ‘affordable’.

That generally means paying no more than one third of your income. That is fucking crazy, right? Forget about trying to have any kind of family on that income. Forget about living life well on that income. Leaving two choices, which should probably go together — raise minimum wage, and lower what people must pay for a home.

These are eminently political questions. We go back to good old Engels.

We take from Engels the idea that the housing question is embedded within the structures of class society. Posing the housing question today means uncovering the connections between societal power and the residential experience. It means asking who and what housing is for, who controls it, who it empowers, who it oppresses. It means questioning the function of housing within globalized neoliberal capitalism. (6)

Like Harvey and Lefebvre, Marcuse and Madden emphasise:

Housing and urban development today are not secondary phenomena. Rather, they are becoming some of the main processes driving contemporary capitalism. (8)

Thus it is real estate and housing development that is soaking up investment and driving the accumulation of wealth. The other end of the spectrum?

for poor and working class communities, housing crisis is the norm. (9)

You been there, you don’t need anyone to tell you what that’s like. All because someone’s making money off your housing.

I found the distinctions between the US and the UK useful to think about, I am still getting my head round them.

In the United States, the discourse of housing crisis is often used to condemn state “interference” in housing markets. In the UK, the crisis frame is invoked in support of granting new legal powers to developers in order to override local planning guidelines. (10)

Above all I appreciate Marcuse’s point that the housing crisis is not a result of the system breaking down, but of the system working as it is intended.

Just let that sit a while. Writing this in the aftermath of the horror and death in Grenfell Tower, there could be no better way to capture just how capital and government collude to maximize profit on real estate, cutting corners, silencing complaint, and in the end killing children.

Thinking about this really comes home, when they write:

The built form of housing has always been seen as a tangible, visual reflection of the organization of society. It reveals the existing class structure and power relationships. But it has long been a vehicle for imagining alternative social orders. Every emancipatory movement must deal with the housing question in one form or another. (12)

We can see what our current system has brought us in the flames exploding up to engulf that building. Time to imagine something better. Still, there’s not much behind that sentence in the book itself.  There is so much more to explore there, but at least it is signaled here. Also the importance of land in defining identity

…struggles over housing are always, in part, struggles over autonomy. … No other modern commodity is as important for organizing citizenship, work, identities, solidarities, and politics. (12)

But what is missing here is mortality, morbity, life chances and particularly how this ties to segregation and racism. of course, this is where my own work focuses, so I’m bound to be critical. They have a section for intersectionality, that always drives me a little crazy, because there is a lot more going on there and it weaves through everything. My principal critique I think.

Against the commodification of housing

This is key, well-argued, everyone involved in housing should be working to this end and that means a substantial shift in some of the strategies used by both charities and advocates. There was a time in the UK when most land wasn’t actually a commodity — more acts of violence were needed to make that happen, through the privatization of the commons. This was still in process in the 1840s:

when Engels was surveying the dwelling conditions of the great towns of industrial Britain, he was in part describing the emerging impact of the commodification of housing. (22)

Through this period, housing became

ever less an infrastructure for living, and evermore an instrument for financial accumulation. (26)

The problem in a nice nutshell there. I think there’s more to tease out about how housing and neighbourhood remain part of the social reproduction of power and wealth, with segregation/enclaves occurring globally now. Still, it’s very true that real estate is increasingly the driver of the economy per Harvey and Lefebvre, they look at three other trends leading to hyper-commodification of housing:

  1. removal of restrictions on real estate as a commodity
  2. financialisation — ‘a generic term to describe the increasing power and prominence of actors and firms that engage in profit accumulation through the servicing and exchanging of money and financial instruments.’ (31)
  3. globalization — housing market now dominated by economic networks global in scope

These ensure housing has become a commodity as never before — and easily converted to investment capital, the heart of the present crisis.

The value of super-prime real estate is secure because of the ease with which it can be converted into money through loans, debentures, mortgages (37)

Full deregulation and building new housing cannot be the answers to the crisis. First, because the

State has always been central to the process of making housing a commodity…Government sets the rules of the game. It enforces the sanctity of contracts, establishes and defends regimes of property rights…[connects] the financial system to the bricks and mortar… (46-47)

Second because of issues around power — housing is a domain of struggle.

The commodification of housing is a political project that refuses to acknowledge itself as such. (47)

Opposed to people’s needs for a home, the real estate industry does anything possible to raise prices within a market now moved by global investment forces, not local demand for somewhere to live. Marcuse and Madden write:

The solution to the housing problem, then, is not moralism, but the creation of an alternative residential logic. Exhorting for-profit real estate companies to act differently in the name of creating a less vicious housing system is pointless. Housing problems are not the result of greed or dishonesty. They result from the structural logical of the current housing system. Alternative, decommodified models of residential development must therefore be created. (52)

Residential Alienation

Like Lefebvre, they apply the idea of alienation to housing in addition to more traditional Marxist uses of alienation in labour.

Alienation means estrangement, objectification, or othering. The idea is rarely applied to housing, but it should be. (56)

They begin to get at the meaning of home (see Dovey or Cooper-Marcus for much deeper examinations of this…)

Home is an extension and expression of our capacity to create. It takes an infinite variety of forms, but making a home for ourselves is an essential and universal activity. Residential alienation is what happens when a capitalist class captures the housing process and exploits it for its own ends. (58-59)

They summarise experience of today’s housing market in three words: precarity, insecurity, disempowerment. (59) They write ‘In America, the narrative that housing is the key to dignity and stability is deeply ingrained…’ (74) but this is only true for elites. We need a new definition for a successful society, and that is one where ‘the residential good life is provided to everyone’ (82)

Disalienation would mean reorganizing the housing system around the goal of providing residential stability and ontological security for all. (83)

Oppression and Liberation in Housing

In all social settings, dwelling space structures power relations. It can be used to maintain the social order, or to support challenges to it… housing is part and parcel of social and political struggles. (86)

Yep. Housing is worth fighting for. I can never quite believe that this has been a struggle for so many marxists.

I confess hadn’t thought much before of the additional benefits of emptying the discontent from the city centre.

The zones of empty luxury housing at the center of global cities are as peaceful as cemeteries. Commodification is not only a strategy for capital accumulation. It is also a technique of governance, a political process as much as an economic one. (94)

After nodding my head through all of this,  I then found here a subtitle — the intersectionality of residential oppression. The nodding stopped, I must confess that I don’t really like that this isn’t woven through, that it is a section apart, contained.  It kept bugging me. But there’s some good stuff here. I like bell hooks’s idea of the ‘homeplace’

“where all black people could strive to be subjects, not objects, where we could be affirmed in our minds and hearts despite poverty, hardship and deprivation.” from Yearning, Race, Gender and Cultural Politics. NY:Routledge 2015, p 42

I think this is so important to recognise, home is a place of strength. We don’t just need affordable housing, but housing that enables its residents to ‘confront power, social inequality, and structural violence…’ (117)

The Myths of Housing Policy

I always enjoy some myth debunking. These two are doozies.

  • The myth of the benevolent state — that the government has tried to solve the housing crsis, acting for the benefit of the majority. Nope.

all based on controlling the poor, preventing revolution and worst infectious diseases. Actions like slum clearence, despite all claims to the contrary, were always prey to real estate and development interests from the beginning. Then there’s idea of ‘Affordable’, an ideological term, and one that helps legitimize the building of luxury housing if it ensures provision of a little ‘affordable’ housing as a result. Rather vomitous

  • The myth of the meddling state — one that just gets in the way arising through the 1980s. But this ignores the need for the state to guarantee the conditions for the housing market to exist, so the state is always involved, it just depends on which side.

The question will always be how the state should act towards housing, not whether it should do so. (142)

This narrative of the meddling state prevents an open view of the services the state renders to housing markets. A useful obfuscation.

Housing Movements of New York

I’m glad this was in here.

Conclusion: For A Radical Right to Housing

They argue for struggle to ensure housing as a right, and look to steps that are small enough to be doable, but that point towards much deeper structural change towards a true right to the city. Useful thinking for housing organisers. There three main areas of suggested action are:

  • To decommodify and de-financialize the housing system (as an overarching goal) — public control, rent control, secure tenancies, public ownership of land, public financing, limits on speculation, regulation of home-finance mechanisms (201)
  • To expand, defend and improve public housing (203)
  • To let a thousand housing alternatives bloom — cooperatives, mutuals, communes, limited equity co-ownership, land trusts (209)

A good place to start.






Peter Marcuse and the Right to the City

So we’re in crisis. Things are bad. Davies and Peter Marcuse present two takes on the whys and hows of how we got here, and they aren’t all that different. What is different is that Davies is limited to limited criticism of the existing system, he cannot see beyond it. He joins the cautious optimism that we can correct it, that something simply went very wrong in a system that is perfectly all right, and that with the right technical fixes we can leave all of that behind us. Marcuse looks beyond, as should anyone who has lived through the many crises that our economy has rocked, or has asked questions like why inequality is rising, astronomically. So where does he think that we who live in the city actually want to go, and how is it that we get there?

For a while some intellectuals talked about the “Good City.” A biblical reference, an ideal of what could be but lacking in a way to arrive there, utopia.

There’s also the idea of the “Just City.” On its face none of us would disagree with some justice. But this has been limited in its definition to the goal of inclusion. We need a fair distribution of goods, services, maybe we could even manage opportunities. But we can’t rock the boat too much, the system we have is a good one, just needs a little tweaking.

You can tell I don’t like that one! Neither does Peter Marcuse. So what then? What is neither utopian nor rigidly practical and self-limiting? The Right to the City. Coined by Henri Lefebvre, and please do read Lefebvre, he’s been rocking my world lately, particularly State, Space, World, which is sitting half-read on my desk even now. But his Right to the City is the right to an alternative system, the right to construct an alternative vision of what could be. It is a right that must be demanded, and a vision of radical democracy where we all collectively create our communities together with the rest of our neighbors and those who actually live here.

Some people already have this right. The very wealthy primarily. We need to be clear that this campaign is not for them, it is to ensure that everyone has power in this. I agree with Marcuse that this is important.

And where does the campaign come from? Marcuse argues that there are two groups who will drive this, and begs forgiveness for the inadequacy of the titles. These are:

  • The deprived. The unemployed, the exploited, the poor. Primarily people of colour.
  • The discontented. The artists, the intellectuals, those who see the deep injustice of the world and feel a need to do something about it.

And what is the role of theory in this? Critical urban theory is the glue, it is required to build the mutual understanding of how and why these two different groups need to come together, not to mention the multiple subgroups contained within each of them. We need to come together and fight for our right to the city.

I’m mostly all for it, and I’m sure you shall be hearing more about Right to the City. Marcuse even gave a shout out to the American alliance of that name, having been at the founding of that made me happy. For me, however, it is pivotal that those who Marcuse calls the deprived be the drivers. That those who suffer most from having no rights to their city should be the ones to frame the question and push forward the process of radical democracy that Lefebvre argues is the key factor towards the new city. It is to these demands and this process that the discontented need to ally themselves, and that theory needs to dialogue with in a way that builds each, while building something entirely new and beautiful.

(also published at drpop.org)

Marcuse & Davies: 2 views on roots of crisis

Thought I’d start out with a funny quote I’d forgotten about, courtesy of Howard Davies. It’s all downhill from here though…

“Bank failures are caused by depositors who don’t deposit enough money to cover losses due to mismanagement.”
–Dan Quayle

Peter Marcuse spoke on Tuesday night at University College of London, and Howard Davies spoke in the heart of LSE on Wednesday at noon, so technically I suppose they weren’t speaking to each other. But they should have been. So they shall through me. This is my interpretation and expansion on events of course, not a faithful recording of exactly what I heard…just to be clear.

Who are these guys exactly?

Peter Marcuse is the son of Herbert Marcuse, and a lawyer and planner. He has been a professor of Urban Planning since 1972, for three years at UCLA, and at Columbia since 1975. He has also been president of the Los Angeles Planning Commission, and has written extensively on housing and planning issues.

Howard Davies is the director of the London School of Economics, and the former head of the Chairman of the Financial Services Authority, the UK’s single financial regulator since 1998. He also served for two years as Deputy Governor of the Bank of England after three years as Director General of the Confederation of British Industry.

Two basic summaries of root causes:

Marcuse started with what are commonly seen as the underlying roots of the current economic crisis (then he tears those apart, but I’m saving the best bit for last!). In his view (his headings with with my own filler) these are:

  • The housing bubble – you know, that whole mortgage crisis thing. The inflated price of land, the mad speculation in it, the crazy loans to people with no equity. Those damn NINJA loans (I’ve always been with the pirates myself).
  • Unscrupulous people – the greedy bankers, the banks, those bastards who were out there sweet-talking your grandma into a loan worth more than her house, one that she would never be able to pay back. So she now lives with you instead.
  • Securitization – this is a big word, and of course it’s complicated. It’s deliberately complicated to get around annoying regulations and the agencies that tried to enforce them. Thousands of mortgages all packaged up together and insured and sold and then maybe reinsured and sold again and then maybe one more time…the important thing to know is that it made a lot of people rich as long as the housing market kept going up.
  • Deregulation – Not only were those “unscrupulous” people getting around existing regs and preventing the implementation of new ones, but they succeeded in getting rid of the Glass-Steagall Act which was made law in the 30’s to ensure that the Great Depression never happened again. Nice work.
  • Too much money floating around looking for something to invest in. You have to laugh at that really (and then cry), I’m sure none of us have known the feeling of too much money, too few options of what to do with it. But apparently there were trillions of dollars floating around the world economy that needed a home. I wished they’d asked me, but if equality and a just distribution of wealth around the world aren’t issues, than I suppose perhaps that could be seen as a problem.

This isn’t actually all that different from the analysis of the problem given by Mr. Davies, though he got much more technical around issues 3, 4 and 5, and sliced them up rather differently. I didn’t catch his final “summing up slide as he was talking fast and out of time, but the earlier top 4 underlying causes were:

  • Global imbalances – There was a huge increase in global imbalances, I know this is bad. I can’t remember exactly why, I do apologize! You can see the chart of global imbalances here, along with many other charts full of much technical financial information. I will, of course, be correcting my ignorance.
  • Loose monetary policy leading to a mispricing of risk and a credit bubble. What was Greenspan thinking keeping interest rates so low? There was just way too much money out there, anyone could borrow anything, and god help us all, they did. Luckily China was able to come in and sell the West lots of cheap goods (since they don’t really pay their employees) and then buy US treasury bonds. A third of them. That kept the wolf of inflation from the door, but confused everyone as to what kind of market they were operating in. Especially Greenspan.
  • Excess leverage facilitated by procyclical regulation and regulatory arbitrage. Yikes, no? It just means that banks were doing the same thing that all of those “gullible” homeowners (the same ones who are now getting evicted) were doing, taking out massive loans with no down-payment and not enough savings in the…er…bank. They had nowhere near enough money to cover their asses. And why did they think this was ok? Because their advanced historical and cyclical analyses of the housing market told them it was one market that would always go up. So everything would be fine. The equations promised.
  • ‘excess’ unmanaged growth of the financial sector – it exploded into one area really, securitizing mortgages and playing with derivatives, and by moving into this area the financial sector thought it was diversifying risk (you know, putting down bets on lots of horses, not just one. And placing bets as part of a pool so to speak, by insuring your bets and…it’s complicated). But turns out so much money was being put into trading these property related bonds and CDO’s and etc, they were actually creating risk rather than managing it. A failure of betting strategy if you like. The fall of dominoes was insanely impressive however.

As a combination of factors it all makes some kind of sense, it certainly hangs together. And if you’re a bit rusty on your economic jargon, it makes your eyes glaze over but it sure sounds damn impressive. I think I’ve got a handle on most of it, but who really knows? Understanding the ins and outs of what actually happened takes a massive amount of energy, involving remote corporate skyscrapers, hundreds of acronyms, and unfathomable sums of debt being sliced up, repackaged, insured, reinsured, moved constantly from one major player to another. And it’s all happening on a global scale. And let’s not forget the distracting million dollar bonuses and offshore accounts…

And so these kind of explanations lead to even more complicated solutions, we are witnessing a grand escape into the technical. For Howard Davies? We need more and better regulation, better internal management of banks, better global coordination and so on into excruciating detail and even bigger words.

But instead of delving into all of that, let’s return to Peter Marcuse’s lecture: everything I have written above is interesting, but really it is missing the point entirely. You got it. Missing the point entirely. How is it that so many incredibly smart people are missing the point?

Focusing on technicalities of regulation and management hide the reality that the economic system itself is fundamentally flawed.

Some of us take that for granted, others will never believe it is true. Capitalism? Well, you know what they (or some of us) say. Crisis happens. We’ve been in crisis quite regularly for several hundred years, and that will continue as long as the system continues. Because crisis is inherent to the capitalist system.

What is the motor of the current system? Adam Smith called it self-interest, but it seems rather silly to expect people to hold the contested and rather imaginary line between self-interest and greed. Greed ultimately is the motivating force, it is the entrepreneurial way and a constant pressure. When you see regulation as the answer, you really aren’t giving people enough credit. They are hell of smart. And there are thousands if not millions of them trying to get around any rule keeping them from their self-interest. And they will. The mass securitization of incredibly risky mortgages as sound investments was just one clever proof of the power of invention to get around regulation. We can fix that loophole, but there will surely be others as it is symptomatic of the fundamental basis of the current economy.

Why is this particular crisis concentrated in real estate, as so many of them are? When buying real estate, you aren’t just investing in land, you are investing in a commodity that has only a fixed supply. There’s only so much of it, and it’s all spoken for. Because of this, you can sit on it, do absolutely nothing at all to improve it, and it will continue to grow in value. This value is due entirely to population and urban growth, it is socially created, it is ‘easy’ money. It invites speculation, always has and always will until we change how the housing market and property ownership work, and we change it completely. As long as housing is seen as a means of profit and vehicle for investment, this kind of crisis will be a recurring one. There’s nothing new about housing bubbles!

Too much money? No, there isn’t too much money, there is too much capital. Capital is what is produced by the exploitation of workers, it is profit extracted from production and at great cost to those who actually produce, and it is money whose sole purpose is to be reinvested to make more money. For me, this distinction goes some way to explaining a world where we can have simultaneously the problem of ‘too much money’, and millions earning less than one or two dollars a day. Clearly there needs to be change there, as the fundamental dark absurdity of such a world is obvious. Isn’t it?

So if Marcuse is right, and I rather think he is, it renders much of current policy and debate a bit meaningless really. All of these solutions are looking at the “fundamental” roots of an issue that really has foundations much deeper still. And if we dig those up, what will we build instead? That is the perennial question.

So the next blog will be about Marcuse’s vision of the Right to the City and the role of critical theory in building a new world…very exciting, even my cynical self can get somewhat excited about that. And I will.

The other very exciting note is that Howard Davies admitted that we’ve seen the failure of the efficient market hypothesis, a mainstay of economics for years. The idea that investors will act rationally? Well, obviously, that’s been proved laughable, so we really need to start all over again there. They’re creating something to take a look. I’m going to have to watch the aftermath of such an admission, I mean, where can they go after that while keeping within their framework? I have no idea, but do hope it will be interesting. It should be, I have immense respect for their intelligence. So we’re all rebuilding, though not quite together, and not quite for the same people. But it’s an interesting time to be alive.