And if there is, what can we do about it?
At the UK Climate Camps of a few years ago a certain difficult dynamic arose: the founders of the movement were left activists with anti-capitalist politics, while some of those who joined later had more reformist ideas. This caused much open division and contributed to the decline of the camps.
Some of my interviews in London Renters Union revealed that some of the more marginalised members of the union hold opinions that don’t quite match up with those of the founders of the union and other core activists. Here are a few quotes from interviews with such members:
[I heard about] a policy where temporary accommodation tenants have the same rights to buy as permanent [council] tenants. And I thought that was quite very interesting, because that would apply here. So that could be something that, you know, that LRU could campaign on.
[We don’t] talk about getting on the property ladder. I would like to see more help for people to do that.
A lot of people in the union wants a utopian housing system, I’ve never seen that. I think it’s gone wrong in that there isn’t enough social housing.
Private landlords should never been eliminated, because you’d then create a monopoly for the council, make them more powerful.
These are all understandable views, but my interviews also confirmed to me that there are many members in the union who would like to propagate a more anti-capitalist politics, for whom fighting capitalism is in fact their main motivation for being in the union. To them views like this look too ‘reformist’. So is the union running into trouble by recruiting people who largely want their housing problems solved immediately, while others in the union would rather bring down capitalism in the process of getting better housing? Is there a radical/reformist tension building within the union?
There’s a certain type of response that some LRU members might have to ‘reformist’ talk of being able to buy houses more easily, which is to feel that these more peripheral members of the union have not been sufficiently radicalised. That what they need is greater exposure to explicitly anti-capitalist or socialist politics. But as I interviewed more peripheral members it gradually became apparent that most members in more marginal or oppressive housing situations didn’t so much want to be less radical as they wanted housing proposals that were positive, specific and achievable. Given their own poor housing situations this should not surprise us: these members understandably want to ‘win’ good housing in a foreseeable time-frame. While LRU dabbles in populist rhetoric by attempting to construct landlords as an enemy, more marginalised members were often uninterested even in this, with the exception of a couple of members who strongly felt they had been victimised by landlords. Rather, most were interested in houses that they could live in within their lifetimes.
Rather than trying to ‘radicalise’ or ‘politically educate’ members, there is another reaction that an ‘organic intellectual’ (i.e. an activist who thinks about what they do) might have, which is to listen carefully to these marginalised members and understand that their positions are much closer to the wider public than that of LRU’s core activists. These are what Gramsci called the ‘common sense’ views on housing that ordinary people might have, and to truly become a mass organisation LRU needs to fully understand and engage with them. This intentional listening does not, I believe, require giving up radicalism, rather it means weaving together differing views to create new and unique analysis appropriate to what the union wants to do and who the union is.
While some activists focus on living ‘prefiguratively’ (as though we were in a better world already), this is difficult at scale in the case of resource-intensive needs such as housing, so some activists or organisers focus on unmasking the ‘ideology’ (in the Marxian sense) of the status quo. If anyone asks for specifics of what a better future might look like, it is often deferred to some hypothesised post-revolutionary period, or described in fairly vague terms (We believe we all deserve to live in a world where all homes are commonly owned, are beautiful, sustainable and are accessible for all people – from LRU’s five year strategy). But no revolution appears imminent in the UK, so this appears to most people as a future that will never come. Meanwhile the union does offer some ‘reformist’ campaigns such as rent control or enforceable housing standards, but they occupy a curious position in which they are often presented as all-important in recruiting, while to many core activists they are of chiefly strategic importance, with the union needing to win them in order to build up its profile and power. And the purpose of that new power, once attained, would be to help confront capitalism. I am sympathetic to this point of view, but it is much harder to achieve than getting decent housing for everyone, which if we are being honest, has previously been achieved in the UK under capitalism, albeit a 1970s social democratic version of it.
What is it that leads some members of LRU to defer their vision of a better future to a post-revolutionary scenario that appears out of reach in our lifetimes, while others want a positive and practical narrative of what housing should look like? We need to ask the painful question of whether the material position of some young, middle class LRU members is what leads them to set aside what I have suggested is the ‘common sense’ type of radicalism. While many of the union’s core activists are in poor housing situations at present, many of them are likely to inherit houses or substantial portions of the value of a house at some point in the future. Since their parents own family houses it is also likely that many of them could move back in with their parents if evicted, meaning they need never truly fear being homeless on the street. While it is in the nature of our ageing society that people may not inherit until they are in their forties or fifties, that is very different from never inheriting anything at all. Does the future inheritance of housing, however distant, give a greater sense of security to some members, thus allowing them to forego near-future reforms and dream of housing changes that are unlikely to be achieved in their lifetime? This could be seen as a rather brutally material way of assessing the differing ideological approaches across ‘typical activist’ and marginalised members, and it’s true that some would not fit within these tendencies – there are surely members who appear ‘middle class’ whose parents will leave them nothing. Yet I think it likely there are tendencies at work arising from differing material positions.
Meanwhile the more vulnerable or marginalised of LRU members are either scraping by in slum-like private rented sector accommodation from which they have little hope of escape (particularly if they have ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’), or in low quality Temporary Accommodation on council waiting lists. Temporary Accommodation is the real ‘sharp end of the housing crisis’ in London. In 2022 there were 300,000 people on London’s council waiting lists (London Datastore, 2022) and 95,000 households with 120,710 dependent children were stuck in Temporary Accommodation. LRU has multiple members who have spent many years in Temporary Accommodation (which is not as temporary as it sounds), often reaching a state of hopelessness about the idea of getting a council house. Those not in Temporary Accommodation because they are less vulnerable have even less chance of getting a council house. A lot of these members are at a much higher risk of street homelessness (or being put in an emergency hostel) if they are evicted by a landlord, compared to the generally younger, whiter, activist members.
A member I interviewed in Temporary Accommodation said this when asked what a positive vision of housing might be:
You know, clean housing, homely housing, houses that people could you know, could be happy to come to, so at work you’re looking forward to coming home because it’s a good home, housing where children can have a bit of place to actually play, rather than the situation whereby children come from school and they just sit down and play [computer] games because there’s nowhere for them to play.
This is in some ways a modest vision of positive housing, and reflects how dire the housing is that the member currently lives in. But for everyone to be able to live in that situation it would require massive changes to the current housing system. So is it a radical vision or not? It seems to depend in part on your own material position. What I think emerges from the differing viewpoints of members in LRU is that the radicalism/reformism dichotomy could be resolved through focusing less on ‘correct’ critique of the housing system and more on positive visions of housing.
But people shouldn’t just believe me about what might work. Let’s think about what processes could help bridge the gap between differing viewpoints in the union. The union states that one of its values is ‘always listening, always learning’, but the everyday work of the union has to be done, and without prioritisation of deliberate learning there is often little space to ask big questions. While LRU claims to want to be led by the most impacted renters, in my experience it often has a simple idea of what it should learn from them, namely their experience of abjection within the housing system. This springs from the laudable idea that campaigns can be better directed and more helpful to oppressed groups if better informed by people from those groups, but this doesn’t cover any of what Gramsci suggested ‘organic intellectuals’ should be learning about mainstream culture. There is then little notion of an exploratory or mutual learning process to bridge the class or race divides between members, even as the union seeks to diversify. Brazilian radical educator Paolo Freire proposes that such learning processes are very important:
The more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into a dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side. (Freire, 1996, p. 39)
Perhaps the union’s organic intellectuals/activists would be able to do the pedagogical (teaching and learning) work that Freire lays out. What the intellectual/activist must grasp within the thought of oppressed groups is the ‘common sense’ prevalent in the group, but they must also bring their own understanding of the world into the process, which Gramsci describes as the job of separating the ‘good sense’ from the common sense. As pointed out by Rodrigo Nunes (in ‘Neither Vertical Nor Horizontal’), there are still clear roles for each. Nunes describes the proposals of Paolo Freire as recognising the difference between ‘intellectual’ and ‘worker’ while the former must suspend certainty about their knowledge:
[T] he pedagogical process was understood as the confluence of different knowledges held by ‘teacher’ and ‘student’ alike, and striving towards whatever emancipation participants managed to produce together, rather than the realisation of some pre-established goal set from the outside. (Nunes, 2021, p. 267)
So the organic intellectual (or union activist) must be careful to avoid going into their dialogues with an analysis – of housing or housing solutions or anything else – entirely pre-formed. There needs to be space for new analysis to develop, and new ways of expressing the politics of the union, which requires that members listen to each other with full attention. Since this work is time-consuming, it might not happen all the time, but perhaps once a year, maybe in the lead-up to the all-member assembly.
I think, going from my interviews, that the union could create a more coherent political community through focusing on positive housing visions. But much more importantly I believe that intentional learning processes – in meetings where we decide to dedicate time to listening to each other – would be beneficial to LRU. Such encounters would uncover differences and point ways forward that we could be taking together, helping to ensure that no radical/reformist split develops in the union, now or in the future.
This blog post is a very shortened version of a draft chapter in my PhD thesis. If you know me or you know someone who knows me, do get in touch if you’d like to read more.