Written by A$AP Révolution and some comrades from Toulouse and Marseille. First published on A$AP
Because you don’t own anything, you have to give money every month to have the right to live under a roof: that’s rent. Rent is nothing but monthly wage-theft, money we’ll never see again. That’s why the question of housing in the capitalist economy has always been linked to the question of work. Because we are forced to work in order to survive, we are forced to live where we find work. This is why many of us live close to places of production or places where commodities circulate, i.e. in big cities, where rents are, as we know, particularly high.
Rent is our first expense, first of the month and first in amount. Instead of spending it on clothes, drinking or going on vacation, we give our money to a landlord who has invested in brick as he could have invested in stocks, companies or racehorses. So housing is not just about being able to live somewhere, it’s a way for other people – the landlords – to earn money and own more and more things, apartments, houses and so on. Like everything else in this world of capital, housing is a commodity that allows land capitalists to capture part of the surplus value produced.
In addition to having to work themselves to death to pay rents that are already very expensive, proletarians are further exploited by the tenant/owner system, because in order to make money, the investor tries to make his property bear fruit and therefore inevitably increases the rent. Capitalism wouldn’t work today without a rental system and without lightly facilitating access to property, with the help of low-interest loans. By renting, the landlord inevitably participates in the escalation of the real estate market, the gentrification of formerly working-class neighbourhoods and the eviction of tenants who can no longer afford to pay. The landlord is therefore structurally opposed to the tenant, because he’ll always defend his own interests first. Faced with this antagonism, we have no choice but to push to organize and collectively attack those responsible for this little game that puts us all in trouble: landlords, real estate agencies, developers, housing organizations, banks. We don’t just want to defend ourselves: we’re attacking and we’re hungry!
This exceptional situation of isolation means that many people won’t be able to pay their rent because they’re out of work. In any case, most of them were already struggling to make ends meet every month. We’re currently living in an unprecedented period of capitalism. But for us, the end of the month was already complicated, and the fall will be even harder: tomorrow it won’t just be seasonal workers or temp workers who won’t be able to pay their rent, but a good part of the exploited. The State may well extend the duration of unemployment benefits, give crumbs to some temporary workers or freeze the bills, but when you’re out of work you’re out work, and out of any means of paying your monthly expenses. The state and the capitalists are managing the crisis, their only goal is to keep the system going in their own interests. All the economic measures taken go in this direction, with the result that our living and working conditions are deteriorating.
It will therefore be even more difficult for us to fight against our exploitative conditions, as the bosses take advantage of the situation by exacerbating competition between proles, lowering our wages, increasing our rhythm of work and making it easier to fire us. The question of housing has too often been raised as a single-issue movement, as if it were disconnected from our daily exploitation. Housing, before being an issue of reflection on the gentrification or the aesthetic modification of our living spaces, is money that we lose every month. This is why housing cannot be a separate struggle: the rent strike integrates the question of housing with the question of work, class exploitation and finally the social movement. We are not demanding home ownership, a quieter and “revitalized” “living environment” in our neighbourhoods, we are fighting for our material conditions, and these necessarily derive from work and therefore from the balance of power that we are capable of posing as a class. We have nothing to expect from increases in housing benefits, the development of low-cost rents, new laws, real estate safeguards or justice; we aren’t negotiating anything, we’re just going to stop paying.
Rent strike, that’s classy!
Here we will refer to rent and bill strikes as an anti-capitalist and collective practice by a group of people to impose a lower price for a product or service until it is free. Self-reduction includes various forms of non-payment for goods or services. It can result from a refusal to pay higher rents or to pay for utilities such as electricity, gas or water. It can be carried out with the aim of redistributing goods to those who need them. For example, by collectively engaging in shoplifting, not paying bills, public transport or cinema tickets.
As long as money exists, there won’t be enough for everyone. Trying to impose that everything be free could be a major stake in struggles beyond allowing to build a direct balance of power with the bourgeoisie. By hitting where it hurts, in the wallet, we can directly improve our living conditions by reducing the part of our salary dedicated to our reproduction. Rent is imposed on us because we need it in order to live as a prole, to be in shape in order to produce. Without it we find ourselves on the street and in poor health. To collectively impose that everything be free-of-charge is to reject this capitalist swingle, and to put the communist perspective into action.
“The goods we have taken are ours, as is everything we have, because we have participated in its production and sale” (Excerpt from the brochure “Italian Self-Reduction 1970).
Suppose you work as a cashier in a supermarket. The labour-power you sell to the bosses earns you a wage, which, by the way, is pathetic. If this wage is high enough, it allows you to be able to feed yourself, dress yourself, pay rent, make phone calls, go to school, do sport, take care of yourself, pay for fuel, alcohol and the sleeping pills you need to be able to go to work the next morning. So the logic is unstoppable and always benefits the same people. It is a double punishment, that of being exploited at work and then having to reproduce your labour power by buying or renting the goods we have produced from capitalists.
In the history of struggles, the appearance of rent and bill strikes was due to a brutal change in the prices of consumer goods or in the price of rents, as for example in Barcelona in 1931 with a massive tenants’ strike, but also more recently in Chile when many people refused to accept the repeated increase in the price of metro tickets in Santiago de Chile. The reaction was not long in coming, with attacks against almost all 164 stations, during which barriers and turnstiles were destroyed. The angry wind then spread, resulting in numerous demonstrations throughout the country, which soon turned into widespread riots.
For many years, “right to housing” associations have decided to co-manage the situation with the state by defending the legalist reformist path and by actively cooperating/negotiating with local authorities (town hall, police, prefecture) during evictions. Far from carrying out an offensive movement rising to the situation (15,000 rental evictions according to the Abbé Pierre foundation) or really questioning the capitalist real estate system and private property, these associations participate in the management of social misery, of our misery as the exploited. Rent strikes are a necessity for many isolated people, you only have to go to court to realize it. The period of confinement will accelerate the deterioration of proletarian living conditions, and it is therefore more than essential to organize ourselves to make rent strikse effective and to produce an effective balance of power in the face of all kinds of slum landlords.
Faced with a potential rent strike, the state has reaffirmed, through the Minister of Housing, that there is no way to declare a freeze on rents as was partially declared in Lisbon for example, reassuring the fears of real estate agencies and landlords. For the time being, the only crumbs offered to proletarians has been a measure to freeze the price of CROUS housing for students until the end of the school year… We must find the collective means to combat capital and the state while seeking solutions that aren’t in the civil code, the latter’s main function being the defence. Repression won’t be inevitable; it is precisely by affirming our political positions, our numbers and our collective determination in the struggle that we’ll be able to overcome it.
“Finally, the strike began to be broken by the police practice of arresting evicted people who had reoccupied their homes with the help of their neighbours. By November, the level of strike activity had significantly decreased. But the rent strike continued to some extent in a clandestine form, with incidents and occasional disputes with landlords.
“In December, the local government, controlled by the Esquerra, responded to the rent strike by passing a law that allowed tenants to claim “unfair rent” – a law that proved to be unenforceable and largely useless for working-class tenants. In many parts of the city, landlords had been forced to seek an arrangement with their tenants, agreeing to reduce rents rather than face the prospect of no income for a long period of time. Or, to ease the conflict, the landlord simply agreed to forget about unpaid rents during the strike period. The result was that many tenants felt that they had at least gained something from the strike.” (Extract from the brochure “Barcelona 1931 – Massive Rent Strike”)
Rent and bill strikes allow for the construction of a balance of power against the capitalists. They also have the effect of demystifying the state, which presents itself as a “mediator” in the provision of services to citizens. They point the finger to the class nature of the state and its territorial administrations, while at the same time concretising the link between our wages and living conditions.
Capitalism and its contradictions: small property owners and proletarians
When we talk about rent strikes today, we’re usually confronted by the following remark: “My landlords are also workers who have worked hard to buy their shack, so there’s no way I’m going to stop paying my rent!” From this point on, it seems essential to clarify the relationship between workers and private property.
First of all, it is obvious that not all workers are tenants. In France, but also in other countries such as the United States, public policies have, for several decades, favored access to private property with the aim of bringing workers into the capitalist logic and creating the illusion of a middle class separated from the rest of the proletariat. This is especially true when you look at the myriad residential suburbs on the outskirts of the cities, or in the countryside where you generally own your own shack even if it means going into debt for 20 or 30 years. This worker-owner we all know, is the perfect image of the citizen that we have been sold for 50 years on the 8 o’clock news. It is this model citizen who, by his relentless efforts, opposes the class struggle in practice.
For governments, protectors of private property and the capitalist economy, these policies make it possible to transform the “small worker into a small speculator”. The house is no longer just a shelter, a place of comfort and intimacy, but also an investment that must bear fruit: we buy it in the hope that it will increase in value, for ourselves or for our children. We build an extension, for our comfort of course, but also keeping in mind that if one day we want to sell the house, it will be worth more. For governments and capitalists, this process of individualisation makes it possible to undermine collective logic and workers’ struggles, such as rent strikes, for example.
On the other hand, it is also necessary to understand the reason that pushes workers to own property. Capitalists, especially the bosses, need to have workers with nothing but their labour power in front of them in order to be able to generate profit. Under these conditions, owning a house is a form of security in the capitalist system, so we say to ourselves that “if I lose my job, at least I will have a roof over my head” or that “at least we will leave something for the children”. We also think that we’ll waste less money, because even if we pay the equivalent of rent by paying off the credit every month, at least the house will be ours at the end. Access to ownership then appears to be an individual solution to the plunder of our wages as tenants.
Nevertheless, the owner will still be a worker, he will still have to get up in the morning to go to work to sell his labour power because he will have a credit to pay back, taxes, food and canteen for the kids to pay, etc.. Sometimes indebted for several decades, he will then be at the mercy of the bank to which he will have to repay his credit every month but also of his employer, who can no longer afford to leave his job. During financial crises, proletarians who have invested in a shack are unable to repay their loans and are among the first to suffer. And of course, the rest of the proletariat suffers later on. The example of the so-called subprime crisis in 2008 is revealing. Behind the myth of a society of property owners, this crisis reminded millions of proletarians, from the US to Spain and Greece, who were expelled from their mortgaged houses, that it was not so.
However, we have only talked about those workers who buy their house or apartment for themselves, for their comfort and safety, and that of their children, if they have any. This is not the same thing as renting out the property one has just bought in order to generate a profit on the backs of another worker. In this case, we are truly entering into a capitalist logic and the relationship becomes problematic. When you rent a house you always try to pay as little as possible, you do not want to see half of your salary disappear all of a sudden every 1st or 5th of the month in order to buy the right to have a roof over your head for the next month. On the other hand, the landlord, even if he is also a worker on minimum wage every month, will try to make as much money as possible from the property he rents out to us.
This contradiction is not separate from the contradiction between bosses and workers (even if renting out a property doesn’t imply the exploitation of the tenant). On one hand bosses seek to maximize their profits and therefore tend to pay their employees as little as possible, while on the other hand workers seek to have the best possible salary. The tenant, on the other side, seeks the cheapest rent possible, while the landlord seeks to charge as much as possible.
From this point of view, housing appears to be a battleground for wages, because a rise in rent implies a fall in real wages. No matter how “cool” a landlord may be, and no matter how much he or she is a worker “who has toiled all their life to pay for their shack,” if the neighborhood in which his or her property is located increases in value and the price of the land skyrockets, the landlord will end up raising the rent. If the tenant can’t pay, they will be asked to move out and find housing elsewhere and will soon be replaced by a senior executive with a higher salary. No matter how “cool” a landlord may be, he will always be a small landlord who comes to take a part, if not the majority, of our rent.
In any case, “cool” or “not cool” is not the question. It’s not a question of attacking landlords because there is no good or bad landlord, just as there is no good or bad boss. It is about attacking private property itself. This doesn’t stop us from wanting to knock out landlords who fatten on our backs by piling us up in rotten buildings or by raising rents as soon as our neighbourhood rises in value on the real estate market. Yet this isn’t the way to get rid of private property and exploitation. Let’s abolish wages and property so that no one needs to pay for a roof over their head any more.
Tenants of the world…
Ironically, the coming crisis will also be a housing crisis. Real estate is always one of the first sectors to start sinking: the proles can no longer repay their loans, the banks explode because they are over-indebted, investors freak out in return, the state goes into debt to save the banks etc… It will also be a different housing crisis, in the sense that tenants will simply have no money left to pay their rent, putting landlords and real estate agencies in trouble. To this crisis of capitalism, the rent strike makes a simple and radical proposal: we refuse to pay because we refuse to pay the damages of a system that exploits us. At least this time we want to eat our food before the landlords do.
We’ve just talked about it, going on a rent strike will involve resolving this landlord/tenant conflict and dismantling the fable around the “small owners”. But the most important political task will be to organize and put the coming strike into practice… Because if proletarian isolation at work is enormous, it reaches frightening levels in the world of housing. Diverse configurations of landlords (agencies, social landlords, individual landlords), urban sprawling accompanied by a rise in transport prices (we are far from each other and therefore disorganized), repressive structures of daily life (vigilant neighbors, local cops): in the modern city, we are first of all isolated in our place of living. And this complicates class organization. This structural isolation is coupled with isolation by a number of details that, when put together, form real repulsions to collective organization: misunderstandings between roommates, solidarity leases, guarantors, non-presence on a lease. Often we don’t really choose our housing, we rather do what we can and take what there is, accepting everything that it comes with.
The rent strike makes a clear proposal: the balance of power is not only to be built in the street, at work or in education/training, but by extension also where we live; in your building, in your bar, in your residential area. And this complicates class organization. This is where the battle will play out. In this space that allows for the reproduction of the labour force but is also the playground of promoters and other investors, wickedly putting pressure on our wages by speculating on the land value of our neighbourgoods. The next-door neighbour might not have struggled yet, but he won’t have a choice now. It always seems a bit far away in France, but it’s already the reality in England, Spain, the USA or Quebec: who there can still claim to be quiet on the 1st of the month when the traditional message from the landlord comes in? No illusion: many of our neighbours are not our allies and will never enter into a conflictual relationship with landlords. Simply put, class solidarity must be created, alliances must be invented! Militant investigation, critical cartography, propaganda on the doorstep and on the window sills: these are the necessary tools to bring this rent strike to a successful conclusion.
But if the balance of power in the field of housing and private property is to be built on the scale of one’s neighborhood, or even one’s own building, it should not be reduced to this framework alone. At the end of the day, when it comes to paying or not paying rent, work and exploitation are always at stake. The neighbourhood may be a starting point in the struggle but should never be an end in itself. It is not so much a question of creating a tenants’ union, of momentarily managing the “crisis”, as of organizing real class self-defence and developing tools that will enable us to fight more effectively against capital, in our neighbourhoods, at work and in all aspects of our lives. The rent strike is therefore one means of action among others, and a step to lay the foundations of a true offensive class solidarity, whether that is through self-reduction, defending ourselves against bailiffs and landlords, fighting collectively against our bosses, or broadening the struggle everywhere to destroy property.
Note: This text aims to talk about the tenant / landlord relationship, and does not address all the situations in which proletarians can live, we will look at the issue of small property, credit, etc… in a future text.