The law applies to everyone. Wall Street protesters should be held accountable if they engage in illegal activity — and so should Wall Street banks. There is no excuse for protesters to violate public safety laws — and no excuse for powerful financial institutions to defraud their customers or investors.
This is how Elizabeth Warren chose to open a 2011 editorial calling for more Wall Street regulation. The equivalence here is daring and perhaps meant to be a bit ironic. Still, the underlying logic is pervasive throughout liberal critiques of activist movements.
There are two kinds of wild interest-seeking that need to be corralled: the angry mob and the corrupt elite. If everyone just worked hard and played by the rules, deep rifts in society could be mended through cooperation and consensus.
In fact, the average working-class person finds themselves continuously in conflict with a confusing web of laws and expectations. The market confronts them as an array of scams and rip-offs. They face unexpected fees, uncooperative landlords, suspicious case workers, and complex medical bills. Why not transgress the law or just bend the truth in their interactions with these systems? The power imbalance is so extreme and its deployment so seemingly irrational that that’s often the only way to survive.
The culture of uncertainty and predation is the context in which people experience gentrification. When people attack symbols of commerce and luxury, there is a strong impulse to criticize this as a detour from more efficient methods of struggle. The problem is that most people are already in a grey area where rule-breaking surrounds them.
They are also already encouraged into different avenues of community action — the church, city elections, volunteerism — and are already constantly reminded to obey. The benefit of socialist organizing is that it can build insubordination into collective action that departs from the assumption that the existing system is irreparably biased against the working class.
Debates around gentrification often focus on “misplaced anger” — the perceived tendency for working-class communities to harm their own interests by opposing development in clumsy ways. This ranges from the Econ 101 rehearsals about rent control and supply and demand to slightly more sophisticated stories about density and revitalization. Sometimes targets of popular anger seem oblique from underlying structures — witness the enormous frustration at tourism in places like Barcelona.
Yet such anger provides opportunities to make links from tourism to land use to evictions to fundamental questions about popular democratic control of the city. Again, in Barcelona, this is the circuit that helped build powerful social movements that have spilled over into traditional political institutions.
In their book In Defense of Housing, David Madden and Peter Marcuse put it succinctly when they say that “real estate is attacking housing.” The character of buildings as an investment is fighting it out against buildings as a place for people to live. Government policy has tended to reinforce the commodity character of land and buildings to assure developers and homeowners a steady rise in asset values.
While this sociological imagination is central to understanding the contradictions of capitalism, it’s important to remember how people experience all of this — through the actions of disparate individuals or abstract institutions.
The experience of inequality in a city can be maddening. Cities are segregated by price — many experiences are simply inaccessible to people without much money. This begins in the choice of a place to live but shapes the rest of a person’s day, as well. Restaurants with summer patios that cater to young professionals. Luxury shops that sell expensive clothes. The knowledge that the people who are part of this consumer bonanza are, on balance, committed to keep things this way.
Real estate is attacking housing, but it’s individuals in the financial sector and elsewhere who are fighting the battle. Well-off professionals and those in business tend to have a near-monopoly on traditional electoral politics — some pushing for gentle reforms but most fiercely defending the status quo. It makes sense that large sections of the working class simply refuse to buy into the idea these professionals will fight on their behalf — despite enormous advertising campaigns aimed at convincing them otherwise.
While abject neglect exists, more often there is a push and pull that maintains a limited sense of social peace. Social supports that are withdrawn are often paired with emergency solutions that help people survive. The participation of significant numbers of professionals in the administration and delivery of supports — or lobbying in favor of these institutions — builds a parallel care economy. This blurs with related sectors like education, health, and government administration.
When reformist politicians emerge, they often come from this broad category of social-purpose professions. That means that progressive movements tend to raise leaders that are more often lawyers than people in conflict with the law, more often middle-class social workers than people in poverty. This can give the movement a cast that it is struggling on behalf of a population rather than genuinely rooted in it.
One benefit of electoral politics is that it can reduce these conflicts to hard numbers. It creates concrete goals for get-out-the-vote and helps with sorting work to set priorities for outreach. It also reduces individual complaints to a helpful score — if people complain too much, it’s best to ignore them and focus on others.
There are certainly a lot of wins that can be found this way. At the same time, electoral politics can reproduce all the same relationships discussed above: the alienation from institutions and the lowering of expectations that people associate with being managed from above. The bulk of socialist activism needs to focus on changing those relationships from below — through direct action and difficult fights to build class-rooted organizations and a new democratic culture.
Building organizing relationships from below is not simply a new civic-mindedness. These new democratic movements have the capacity to overturn the settlement proposed by developers and establishment politicians. Tenant organizing can lead to rent strikes and community actions to force changes in the behavior of landlords and officials. Cultural interventions can challenge the domination of local arts scenes by developer money and elite tastes.
It would be wrong, though, to conceive of this solely as the gradual accumulation of counterpower. Explosions of popular action more often have politicians and movement leaders playing catch-up, while counterattacks can decimate careful movement planning. At times, the sensible emphasis on patience and hard work within movements can end up sounding like the “keep calm and carry on” demands of the political mainstream.
The sorts of beliefs and emotions that drive left populism have a life of their own outside the central focus on elections. The often-painful experience of living in a city, especially around struggles over housing, creates sites of conflict that must be exploited by socialists.