Saturday, December 20, 2014

Working class women take property investors to the cleaners

This is outstanding. 'Market value' will not prevail in the New Era estate.  A poor people's movement, a movement led by working class women, has beaten the rich, beaten them hands down, taken them to the fucking cleaners.  Or, as the FT wittily put it, 'US private equity beaten by Russell Brand'.

Westbrook Partners, an investment company that has been buying up billions of pounds worth of property in the US and UK, had bought the New Era estate in Hackney with the intention of driving rents up to 'market value' - trebling the cost for the residents.  A two bedroom flat that already costs £800 per month to rent, because London is insane, would cost £2400 per month.  

This is obviously not an isolated instance.  It is part of a wider process that is driving up rents, forcing poor households out of London, and gradually converting the city into a playground for the rich and newly affluent.  This gentrification/ghettoisation is built in to neoliberalism, and the forces favouring it are so much more powerful than those resisting.  So, this win is not a small thing.  And the campaign should be studied and learned from as a case study in poor people's power: you can be certain the speculators will learn from it.

The success, though, does have some limits which should be soberly confronted.  It is a defensive victory that was possible in part because the existence of neoliberal third sector institutions like Dolphin Square, whose very existence as a charitable foundation owes itself to Westminster council properties being flogged to a bunch of investors known as Westbrook Partners. The function of such institutions seems to be as a stopgap - maintaining housing in the private, commercial rented sector while keeping costs at a politically manageable level.  Such stopgaps are not an alternative in the long-term, and they aren't supposed to be.

Part of the problem is that we are stuck in a model of capitalism where people's future incomes are tied directly to stock market values and property values - especially if they have pensions.  That's what is happening with Westbrook Partners.  The money they invest is money that comes from the pensions of American public sector employees, just as the money invested by UK property developers, speculators, traders and so on is often money from British public sector workers pensions.  If you want to have a half-decent retirement, you need the system to boom.  So it isn't just the power of the City of London that keeps things this way - there are strata the population who are better off and more politically mobilised, and who have internalised the social aspirations and priorities of investors as its aspirations and priorities. As much as people may want to imaginatively murder the bankers, there's a strong counter-tendency which is to want the system to boom again, and be prepared to make any sacrifice to the gods of finance, of any number of poor people, so that this can happen.

New Era is what happens when the poor become mobilised. But we need a thousand New Era campaigns, connected and demanding a public housing system, linked to a public utility banking system and a public pensions system. Otherwise these victories, as salient as they are, will be crushed in the long-run.