The Housing Crisis in San Francisco: a review of 'Dispatches Against Displacement'

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A work by a prominent San Francisco housing activist in a context of ongoing defeat for San Francisco renters

Nobody gets paid to fight against capitalism in America. Anyone who receives a paycheck as an “organizer” in social struggles is first and last getting a paycheck. Good intentions don’t matter — money talks and all other stuff walks. The evolution of social work in the 20th century and the rise of the parasitic non-profit industrial complex are fringe expressions of the dynamism and sophistication of democratic capitalist regimes; unlike historically obsolete Stalinist and fascist tyrannies, advanced capitalist democracies are skilled at peaceful integrating discontent into the legitimate decision-making apparatus of the state, and with this diffusing the possibility of discontent expanding in any sustained, disruptive, autonomous direction. Jobs integrating discontent into the decision-making mechanisms of a democratic capitalist order usually pay badly, but this doesn’t bestow plebeian virtue on them, or otherwise alter their objectively pro-capitalist social and political function.

Anyone can get paid to register voters. In San Francisco this sometimes includes sincere activists who call themselves anarchists. But nobody gets a paycheck to foment collective action against market society and against the class power of the private sector elite. For comically obvious reasons subversive action around real human needs can only be pursued on an unpaid volunteer basis.

In this larger context, long-time housing activist James Tracy’s 2014 book ‘Dispatches Against Displacement’ offers an overview of the minutiae of housing politics in San Francisco. Tracy pours on copious details pertaining to an endless series of housing and public space struggles, setbacks and defeats as working class and low income people engage in efforts to keep their heads above an ever-rising tide of market forces.

James Tracy has sometimes described his perspectives as those of a “class struggle anarchist.” As a housing activist he has demonstrated a considerable amount of energy, perseverance and dedication. His sincerity is beyond doubt or reproach. However as a part of his efforts as a professional housing activist Tracy has been receiving a steady paycheck, and good intentions aside this has been in part to pedal illusions to hard-pressed poor people about the character of their powerlessness under capitalism in America. Regardless of subjective intentions, his role as a professional activist colors his perspective.

In “Dispatches Against Displacement,” City Hall, elected officials, and electoral politics are the star around which James Tracy’s planet orbits. What is the practical legacy of this unrelentingly pro-electoral politics, work-within-the-system approach to the market-generated housing crisis in 21st century San Francisco? Today San Francisco is well on the way to becoming the world’s nicest looking office park. This is happening without credible, real world resistance — collective action that doesn’t play the capitalist election game, that does an end-run around the bourgeois political apparatus altogether, and that inflicts real damage on the economic interests of the private sector elite. Regardless of subjective intentions the activities of work-within-the-system housing activists have helped pave the way to a contemporary situation of demobilization and defeat for working class renters and poor people in San Francisco.

An example from Tracy’s account is telling: at one point during the first dot-com boom of the late 1990’s, wall posters appeared around San Francisco, sternly intoning, “Never Mind the Politicians — Build a Housing Movement.” These posters were a call for yet another demonstration on the steps of SF’s City Hall. The sad and laughable character of a call to ignore politicians by petitioning them again drives home with concision the fact that this brand of housing activism is always work-within-the-system activity, and delivers discontented people to a local branch of the capitalist state.

Today’s dot-com boom is imposing a demographic catastrophe on the San Francisco Bay Area. The class composition of the region is being negatively transformed in the extreme. The consistent failure of a work within the system approach has not resulted in any attempt to break out of a cul-de-sac on the part of people who claim to be against what capitalism is doing to housing in the Bay Area. Bay Area Housing activists today use the same set of obsolete tactics that housing activists have been using since the 1970’s with consistent poor results. They appear to be more afraid of surprises than anything else.

This is an emergency situation. It is time to retool.

Some of what this retooling must now involve include:

1. Recognizing that the problem of housing in market society is not just a housing question, but part of a larger struggle over social space city-wide and a struggle to maintain the integrity of working class neighborhoods. Bourgeois types are often first lured to working class areas by bourgeois-oriented restaurants, bars, shops and other businesses. Making a working class area unwelcoming to these businesses can make a neighborhood threatened by gentrification less welcoming to gentrifiers.

Bourgeois types value convenience above all else. When it is clear that they will be consistently inconvenienced in an area that is being gentrified, they will seek convenience elsewhere.

2. Opposition to what capitalism does to a city means communicating an electrifying message in transparently clear language that defines the problem in class conflict terms, and in doing this increases antagonism between social classes,

3. Combative renters must use the organizing tools of previous mass popular movements — talking to our neighbors to find out what’s happening in other people’s hassles with landlords, speculators, banks, and the real estate industry; going door to door, block after block.

Ongoing high-profile public meetings are crucial.

At the same time it means using tools that can be spontaneously taken up by working people without making it necessary for working people to get involved in organized activity.

4. Struggles around housing and social space need to break out of their isolation and become linked to other social struggles of wage earners and poor people.

Examples include action in and around mass transit systems that create direct links between working people employed by bus and subway systems and the vast numbers of working people who ride public transit.

Others will be able to think of inventive examples as well.

A struggle over what capitalism does to housing narrowly defined around housing is not going to have a significant impact on what the capitalist economy is doing to housing.

By every salient indicator the United States is a society in precipitous decline. Profound accelerating structural social inequality and the accompanying deterioration of our living conditions are nothing to celebrate, but they offer new opportunities for mass resistance that haven’t existed in the past. Even the most small-scale local efforts must become part of an openly proclaimed larger goal of creating a mass popular anti-wage labor social movement of the wage-earning class. This includes social struggles outside of the workplace that are not directly about working for a wage. Commodity society is a totalitarian phenomenon. The market invades and deforms all aspect of life, and as we are confronted by the market everywhere we can and must respond everywhere. And, to mix metaphors, the Occupy movement was a flash in the pan and a mile wide and an inch deep, but it was the first widespread spontaneous expression of bigger and badder events to come. The recent wave of nationwide public outrage against police violence expresses a similar deep discontentment with what passes for life in capitalist America. The right kind of actions now can make a difference. And the same-old-same-old is going to keep doing exactly what it has been doing.

Back to “Dispatches Against Displacement.” In “Dispatches…” James Tracy’s most far-going and visionary response to what capitalism does to housing in America is to argue in favor of “Community Land Trusts.” While this might not be a terrible thing in and of itself it tends to suggest that our options are limited to trying to shop our way out of the grief we get under the dictatorship of the market. For the petition politicians crowd, the capitalist system — wage labor, money, the market — and its political racket are eternal; they will always be with us, we must always work with them, and there is no possibility for another kind of society, let alone of fighting for it now. Quotes from Herbert Marcuse can’t obscure this.

Opposition to market relations themselves and to the capitalist political apparatus are beyond the cognitive reach of remember everything and learn nothing salaried housing activists. Their timid vision, the consistently poor results they have produced, and the endless bogus rationalizations they make for their failures are proof that there is no such thing as a paying gig fighting against capitalism in America. This draws attention to the best insights of Kropotkin, Emma Goldman, Rudolf Rocker and the old IWW of one hundred years ago, which is that the only way liberatory change happens is through mass collective direct action. Any involvement with electoral politics, no matter how supposedly supplementary or tangential to the main effort, turns a good effort into social work, and social work is the antithesis of radical social change.

In “Dispatches Against Displacement” it can be seen that in San Francisco getting politicians elected and complaining about them afterward has been a failure. The Bay Area’s galloping demographic catastrophe screams that it is time to engage in actions that will cut elected officials out of the picture, and consign professional housing hustlers to a position in front of a computer monitor in the unemployment office. Dispatches Against Displacement is available from AK Press

Other links:

BuzzFeed: http://www.buzzfeed.com/justinesharrock/san-franciscos-last-rebellion-against-the-techies#.ngrrkqq4ja

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