A Critical Analysis of the Life Situation of the Working Class in Relation to Housing and the Police—and What To Do About It
I have been accused, among union circles, of being condescending. However, if by condescending is meant questioning actions that do not lead to goals that I believe are worth pursuing, then I admit to be condescending.
Some may consider the following to be academic. However, I have had some experience with activism. For example, in the early 1980s, when I worked at a brewery in Calgary, I refused an order by supervisors and justified my refusal by stating that I had nothing but contempt for capitalists and their representatives. I was sent home on two consecutive nights. When the union president and the bottling manager met to discuss the issue, the bottling manager stated: “Do you know what that Marxist son of a bitch said?” We workers won this particular battle—the order was cancelled. That, of course, did not mean that we had won the war.
I would appreciate criticisms and suggestions for improvement in what follows, both in terms of accuracy and in terms of arguments.
Immediate Incident as an Occasion for Grassroots Activism
On Good Friday, April 2, 2021, 23 police cruisers showed up at 33 Gabian Way, which is a 19-story building owned by Vila Gaspar Corte Real Inc., or Villa Gaspar Corte Real Non-Profit Housing Inc. (there is some inconsistency in spelling the company).
The building is a combination of rental and social housing, built in 1993. There are 248 residential units. Apparently, the building is linked to Project Esperance, which is a non-profit registered charity. It services 111 units of from one- to three-bedroom units. Rents are geared to income.
According to the police, there were so many police present in order to remove a large number of protesters. The facts speak otherwise.
There were indeed protesters; they were protesting the eviction of Alex, a father of a one-year old and a six-year child. Alex had made arrangements with the landlord to pay rent arrears by March 29. Alex had managed to obtain the money to pay the rent, but a sheriff’s officer showed up to evict him on April 2, without warning. He left the apartment with his two children, but he returned to obtain his possessions. The police showed up and forced their way into the apartment.
The police denied that they were there to enforce the eviction—but if that were the case, why did they force their way into the apartment? Furthermore, one police officer claimed that the police had a court order for eviction and that they were there to evict Alex.
Due to the resistance of neighbours and supporters, Alex was not evicted.
This incident has several aspects to it. Firstly, immediate organized resistance to those with power and wealth can be effective in the short-term. Secondly, when there are supporters for those who are to be evicted, it is likely that the police will show up—in force.
Thirdly, and something that was not emphasized in references to the incident, it is sheriff’s who have the legal right to evict a tenant (with the assistance of police if the sheriff believes there will be trouble), and they need not inform the tenant when they are coming, as the website Steps to Justice: Your Guide to Law In Ontario points out (https://stepstojustice.ca/questions/housing-law/what-happens-if-theres-eviction-order-and-i-dont-move):
“After the Landlord and Tenant Board makes an order to evict a tenant, a court official called the Sheriff is in charge of enforcing or carrying out the order.
If you have not moved out by the date the eviction order says you must move, the Sheriff can make you leave and let your landlord change the locks.
Only the Sheriff is allowed to physically evict you
The law does not let your landlord, a private bailiff, or a security guard physically evict you or lock you out. Only the Sheriff can do this. The police can’t evict you either but the Sheriff can ask the police for help if the Sheriff thinks there might be violence.
You can get evicted at any time of year
Many tenants believe that the law does not allow evictions in the winter. That is not true. The Sheriff can enforce eviction orders at any time of year.
The Sheriff does not have to tell you when they are coming to evict you
If you have an eviction order against you, the Sheriff could come to change your locks on any weekday after the date the Board ordered you to move out.”
The issue of the power of sheriffs to evict links up to the more general issue of the modern property system and the aims of those who engage in resistance to evictions (and other forms of resistance involving law-enforcement officers).
Fourthly: What was the aim of the supporters and neighbours? To prevent the eviction, evidently. It worked. It is a short-term victory, however. There will be other evictions, and other evictions, and other evictions. This issue can be looked at from a number of angles.
Strategy and Tactics
The left here in Toronto and elsewhere frequently collapse strategy and tactics, in effect advocating only tactics. This leads nowhere except the perpetuation of the problems and the constant need to resist and to struggle—without any realistic hope of resolving the conditions which constantly generate the problem. This does not mean that reforms should be thrown out of the window. It does mean, however, that activism that stays at the level of tactics will never address the more profound causes of the immediate problems. Robert Knox (2012) addresses this problem in his article titled “Strategy and Tactics.” in pages 193-229, The Finnish Yearbook of International Law, Volume 21, writes, p. 205:
“only tactical interventions occur, which are then branded as strategic interventions, foreclosing the possibility of an actual strategic intervention.”
What is the difference between strategic interventions and tactical interventions? The difference has been specified in terms of war as follows (pages 197-198):
“Carl von Clausewitz, one of the most influential exponents of modern military theory, defined strategy as:
[T]he use of the engagement to attain the object of the war … It must therefore give an aim to the whole military action. Its aim must be in accord with the object of the war. In other words, strategy develops the plan of the war, and to the aforesaid aim links the series of acts which are to lead to it; that is, it plans the separate campaigns and arranges the engagements to be fought in each of them.
Strategy is – in essence – how it is that one would fight and win a war: connecting the various individual battles together so as to achieve this broader objective. In contradistinction to this is tactics, which is concerned with smaller and shorter term matters. Tactics are concerned with how to win the individual battles and engagements of which the war is composed.
If we wish to translate this metaphor into more general terms, we might say that strategy concerns the manner in which we achieve and eventually fulfil our long term aims or objectives, whereas tactics concerns the methods through which we achieve our shorter term aims or objectives. The obvious conclusion here, and one that will be important to bear in mind throughout this article, is that when we talk of ‘pragmatism’ or ‘effectiveness’ it need not be referring to only the immediate situation. As will be explored more fully below, any tactical intervention will also have strategic consequences. This means that when thinking about effectiveness, it is necessary to understand the inherent relation between strategy and tactics. In so doing, the distinction allows us to consider how effective particular (seemingly ‘short term’) interventions might be in the longer term.”
If evictions are going to be stopped permanently, then immediate forms of resistance and immediate actions need to be linked to that goal—not just to incidents of crisis as they arise.
Nothing Fails Like Success
This is a take on the title of chapter one of Jeremy Reiman’s and Paul Leighton (2017), in The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice; that title is “Nothing Succeeds Like Failure.” They argue that the police and prisons fail to reduce crime rates and, in their failure, perpetuate their own need or existence. Page 45:
“Failure is, after all, in the eye of the beholder. Here lies the key to understanding our failing criminal justices ystem: The failure of policies and institutions can serve vested interests and thus amount to success for them!
If we look at the system as “wanting” to reduce crime, it is an abysmal failure that we cannot understand. If we look at it as not wanting to reduce crime, it’s a howling success, and all we need to understand is why the goal of the criminal justice system is to fail to reduce crime. If we can understand this, then the system’s “failure,” as well as its obstinate refusal to implement the policies that could remedy that “failure,” becomes perfectly understandable. In other words, we can make more sense out of criminal justice policy by assuming that its goal is to maintain crime than by assuming that its goal is to reduce crime!”
Leftist activism, similarly, but from the opposite end, by succeeding in short-term tactics, perpetuates its own constant need to engage in activism—activism for activism’s sake. It may make those who engage in such activism feel useful, but it fails to address the need to incorporate a strategic approach into activism. If activism succeeded in eliminating the need for activism, it would eliminate itself. This is one reason why strategy is collapsed into tactics—it permanently perpetuates the need for activism. Its short-term successes guarantee the continued need to engage in—short-term tactics.
The Bad Infinite
We can give this problem a philosophical turn. G.W.F. Hegel, a German philosopher, criticized the theoretical equivalent of this view in the following terms of the “bad infinite”–an infinite that never reaches an end (from The Encyclopaedia Logic, page 150:
“A limit is set, it is exceeded, then there is another limit, and so on without end. So we have nothing here but a superficial alternation, which stays forever within the sphere of the finite. If we suppose that we can liberate ourselves from the finite by stepping out into that infinitude, this is in fact only a liberation through flight. And the person who flees is not yet free, for in fleeing, he is still determined by the very thing from which he is fleeing. So if people then add that the infinite cannot be attained, what they say is quite correct….”
The bad infinite never reaches any end since it presupposes the general context that generates the particular or specific problems will continue to exist. To go beyond the bad infinite requires questioning that context—and hence developing a strategy designed to specify the problem at the general level while simultaneously addressing more immediate problems in such a way that successes feed into the resolution of the problem at the more general level.
Housing and Capitalism
Houses and housing form a central aspect of capitalist society. This has been noticed since the World Economic Crisis of 2007-2008. Wolfgang Streeck (2016), in his book How Will Capitalism End? Essays on a Failing System, argues that there have been four crises of democratic capitalism since the last world war:
“With the crash of privatized Keynesianism in 2008, the crisis of postwar democratic capitalism entered its fourth and latest stage, after the successive eras of inflation, public deficits and private indebtedness (Figure 2.5). With the global financial system poised to disintegrate, nation states sought to restore economic confidence by socializing the bad loans licensed in compensation for fiscal consolidation. Together with the fiscal expansion necessary to prevent a breakdown of the ‘real economy’, this resulted in a dramatic new increase in public deficits and public debt – a development that, it may be noted, was not at all due to frivolous overspending by opportunistic politicians or misconceived public institutions….”
Monetary instability (inflation), unemployment, public deficit spending and indebtedness followed by a shift to private indebtedness and deregulation of credit (and austerity measures) led to a bubble in housing prices and to speculative credit extended to those unlikely to be able to pay for mortgages once interest rates rose or they became unemployed. Of course, the crash of 2007-2008 increased public debt several fold and the pandemic has done the same.
Housing, Capitalism and the Police
Brendan Beck and Adam Goldstein (2017), in their article “Governing Through Police? Housing Market Reliance, Welfare Retrenchment, and Police Budgeting in an Era of Declining Crime, argue somewhat differently from Reiman and Leighton—though both arguments may complement each other.
They note, like Reiman and Leighton do, that crime rates have generally declined since the 1990s. On the other hand, police budgets have generally blossomed. They explain this general increase in municipal police budgets because of the increased centrality of real estate in the city economy. Page 1183:
“One key puzzle is why penal state growth continued unabated long after crime levels peaked in the early 1990s. We focus on local policing and consider the relationship between growing city-level law enforcement expenditures and two shifts: first, the move toward an economy increasingly organized around residential real estate; and second, city-level welfare retrenchment. We argue that increasing economic reliance on housing price appreciation during the late 1990s and the 2000s heightened demand for expanded law enforcement even as actual risks of crime victimization fell. At the same time, cities increasingly addressed social problems through criminal justice—rather than social service—capacities.”
As homes became a vehicle for workers to not only live but also to obtain some security with rising house prices, their interests in maintaining the price of the house increased. This interest has spilled over into support for policing efforts (however ineffective) that contribute to the maintenance of the prices of housing and land. This spillover, in turn, has racist implications since concentrations of coloured and minorities are perceived by homeowners as threats to property prices—but there is counterevidence that in the case of the Latino population there is no such perceived threat. Page 1186:
“Thus, the threat theory hypothesizes that investment in police forces (per capita force size and/or expenditure) will be positively associated with racial minorities’ share of the local population, net of crime rates. Studies have consistently found support for this hypothesis (e.g., Carmichael and Kent 2014; Jacobs and Carmichael 2001; Kent and Jacobs 2005; McCarty, Ren, and Zhao 2012; Sever 2003; Vargas and McHarris 2017). In fact, the percentage of black residents typically appears as one of the single most significant predictors in models of city police strength. However, recent studies find no evidence of a similar positive association between the percentage of Latino residents and police strength, neither cross-sectionally nor longitudinally (Holmes et al. 2008; Zhao, Ren, and Lovrich 2010).”
On the other hand, it is necessary also to consider competition between workers in working for an employer:
“Two different studies, King and Wheelock (2007) and Stults and Baumer (2007), use geocoded survey data to probe the mechanisms underlying racial threat effects. Both found that the observed association between the percent of black residents and police size is driven substantially by whites’ perceived economicthreats in the labor market and in social service provision. Racial threat is driven to a lesser extent by whites’ fears of crime victimization (Stults and Baumer 2007).”
However, their study seems to use the threat of falling residential prices as a proxy or for economic threat. Page 1187:
“In examining the use of police as a means of governing housing markets, we also consider how the ethno-racial makeup of cities might have interacted with shifting forms of economic threat. As we elaborate below, as urban economies came to be based more and more around real estate, perceived economic threats (and the racialized fears on which they draw) increasingly took the form of concerns about protecting housing prices. Previous research, using the Gini coefficient to measure economic threat, finds a positive effect on police department size (Carmichael and Kent 2014). We use measures of more specific economic threats: those around housing.”
They mention other factors that influence the growth of police budgets, such as the structure of municipal politics (the degree to which it is subject to partisan politics), whether it is a mayoral election year and the previous year’s budget.
The Financialization of the Housing Market
Beck and Goldstein argue that, as crime rates declined in the 1990s, there was a simultaneous financialization of the housing industry. This compensated, at least in part, for the stagnation in wages and salaries. Page 1188:
“Between 1992 and 2005, the median home price doubled and the amount of outstanding mortgage debt tripled (Census Bureau 2012; Federal Reserve Board 2016). Wages were stagnant during this time, but the proliferation of home equity loan instruments allowed homeowners to utilize their houses as income streams, making homeowners’ economic livelihoods predicated increasingly on continual housing price growth (Davis 2010). Home equity extraction made up 10 percent of households’ income nationally and as much as 15 percent in places like California and Florida (Greenspan and Kennedy 2007; Irwin 2006). Home value was important for homeowners and for regional economies.”
Homeowners, especially in the present, where heightened prices for homes takes up some of the slack for limited wage and salary increases, tend to support the police more than renters:
“Given linkages in popular narratives between crime rates and residential property values, we suspect that part of the explanation for continual expansion of policing can be found in the increasingly central role of housing markets in the economy, and politicians’ responsiveness to homeowners’ concerns about protecting property prices. As Simon has theorized, “the more a person’s future economic security depends on the value of his or her home, rather than earning capacity, the more we might expect this person to focus on factors like crime that could damage the value of the home” (2010, 195). Past research has shown that homeowners are more satisfied with and supportive of police than are renters (Reisig and Parks 2000; Schuck, Rosenbaum, and Hawkins 2008).
The shift from homes being a place primarily to live in and have a private life to a form of equity involves not just support for measures to reduce crime but other measures to ensure that the “public area” of the surrounding neighbourhood be protected from potential threats of disorder and not just crime:
Economists have long documented the negative effects of reported crime levels on housing prices, and this effect was especially pronounced during the 1990s (Hellman and Naroff 1979; Pope and Pope 2012; Schwartz, Susin, and Voicu 2003). The deleterious impact of crime on property values represents a salient social fact within the residential real estate field, one that is ubiquitously repeated in popular media and on real estate websites. Indeed, the reorientation toward real estate heightened the importance of guarding against not only crime, but also disorder, lifestyle nuisances, loitering, and anything else that might threaten property values. The salience of such economic fears may help explain the fact that the same exact majority of GSS respondents (57 percent) supported spending more public money on law enforcement in 2006 as they did in 1990, when crime rates were 50 percent higher.3 Even safe-feeling homeowners might have supported expanded policing to protect home values.”
It was no longer actual crime (however defined by the status quo) but the threat or possibility of disorder and crime that became a concern. Pages 1188-1189:
“…policing strategies that had police respond to perceived disorder, the expanded role for police went hand in hand with an expansion in the justificatory logics and motives to rationalize continued growth. For instance, a 2010 Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services report aimed at the law enforcement community argues that police agencies should reconceptualize their role and refocus their energies on combating fear of crime (rather than crime) because—among other things—it undermines residential property values (Cordner 2010).
At the same time, as governments retrenched on welfare services, the police were called upon to address problems normally handled by such services. The expansion of police services and the retrenchment of welfare services, however, should not lead the left to idealize welfare services. Welfare services have been oppressive in various ways such as supervising personal lives to ensuring that those who receive assistance are the “deserving poor.”
Furthermore, as the incident at 33 Gabian Way demonstrates, public housing can be quite oppressive. Evictions can occur in just as brutal fashion as in private housing. The left should not idealize the public sector—which they often do.
Housing, Police and the Working Class
The use of houses as equity among the working class has led to a split within the class in terms of immediate material interests. From Michael Berry, Housing Provision and Class Relations under Capitalism: Some Implications of Recent Marxist Class Analysis, in pages 109-121, Housing Studies, Volume 1, Issue 2, pages 115-116:
Income differences are, as has been argued, also internalised within classes. In the case of the working class, for example, higher paid workers in primary jobs are doubly advantaged; they enjoy both higher and more secure wages and a higher probability of: (a) gaining access to owner-occupation; and (b) securing high capital gains from domestic property ownership. Conversely, workers in the secondary job market and those relegated to the reserve army of unemployed are more likely to be denied access to home ownership, or, if allowed access, concentrated in housing submarkets where property values remain relatively stable. Tenancy therefore evolves as a residual tenure category in a dual sense; not only can land supporting rental housing often be converted to more profitable non-residential uses, it evolves as ‘housing of last resort’ for less privileged sections of the working and nonworking population whose low incomes place strict limits on the rental returns to landlords, both factors leading to a degree of underprovision and homelessness.
In summary, working class disunity, associated with unequal access to and benefits from home ownership, and its political expression through various forms of struggle, is part of a wider system of inequality and exploitation. Both forms of advantage to higher paid workers privileged position in the workplace, over and against the immediate interests of other workers. depend on their being able to maintain their privileged position in the workplace, over and against the immediate interests of other workers.
Bad Infinity Again, or the Labour of Sisyphus—Unless We Begin to Link Strategy and Tactics
The upshot of all this is that unless activists begin to linking the immediate issues to larger issues, it is highly likely that they will achieve only fleeting success. The split in the working class means that there will be substantial resistance by a substantial section of the population to efforts to defund the police or to abolish it unless measures are taken to address the wider concerns and issues.
How to Link Strategy and Tactics
How can this be done? One possibility is to divide those who do have relatively secure positions, with relatively well-paid jobs (frequently the unionized sector) into two or three age groups as well as dividing each group into homeowners and those who do not own homes (condos, townshomes, houses, life leases or other forms of home ownership).
Those who are nearing retirement are unlikely to want to threaten their own security, both in terms of their pensions and in terms of their home ownership (for the importance of security for identifying working-class consciousness, see Marc Mulholland (2010), ‘Its Patrimony, its Unique Wealth!’ Labour-Power, Working Class Consciousness and Crises: An Outline Consideration. Pages 375-417, In Critique: Journal of Socialist Theory, Volume 38, Issue 3—although I believe he fails to include other aspects that motivate workers, such as the fight for their freedom and justice). Older workers also do not also have a whole life ahead of them to work for an employer. It is likely that only if their livelihood were threatened in some way (such as redefining the age of retirement) would they be prone to engage in serious battles with the aim of changing the economic and political structure. Older unionized workers would more likely support the police and less likely support a movement for defunding the police or in abolishing the police (empirical studies are needed here. Are there any?)
Some middle-aged workers, on the other hand, may still have to pay off their mortgage and still have to subordinate their will to the power of an employer for some time; others, of course, may approach older unionized workers in having a secure life. Some middle-aged workers may thus be more prone to oppose the police whereas others may be more prone to support them. It all depends on their life circumstances.
Younger unionized workers may have inherited housing from their parents, so they may be more prone to support the police. On the other hand, they more likely have a lifetime of having to work for an employer (although some may aspire to owning their own businesses, of course). These workers may be more susceptible to opposing police funding and the existence of the police because of their life situation.
To combat some of the unionized workers’ tendency to support the police, it would be necessary to show them the nature of their situation for the foreseeable future and to criticize alternative views that present their lives as somehow being fair. On the one hand, it would be necessary to show that their life working for an employer in hopes of owning a home entails a substantial part of their lives being used as means for employers’ ends over which they have little control. On the other hand, it would be necessary to criticize union rhetoric that presents collective bargaining and collective agreements as somehow fair.
To provide such criticisms, it is necessary to show that workers are used as means for other person’s ends. To that end, I reproduce the page on my blog on the money circuit of capital (it is fairly detailed, but it is necessary in order to oppose the rosy picture presented by union and business rhetoric about the future life of workers—especially younger workers) (if anyone has alternative means for exposing the limitations of union rhetoric, feel free to criticize this writing, including what follows, or if they can simplify it in any way).
If a movement for defunding the police is to gain ground, it is necessary to use every opportunity that arises to criticize the economic and political structure in the wider sense and not just engage in activist actions at the micro level. The micro (where tactical decisions must be made) and the macro (where strategic decisions must be made) need to be linked constantly. How to do that is the central question.
In the movement for a fight for $15, for example, for whatever reason, the fight in Canada (not in the United States) has been paired with the concept of “fairness.” This provides the more radical left with an opportunity to challenge such rhetoric.
The same could be same with union rhetoric. For example, I compiled a list of 10 statements by CUPE on the fairness of collective agreements, put them up on my blog and queried how collective agreements, which limit the power of employers (and hence are, generally, better than no collective agreements) are somehow fair.
I would like to hear from others on how to link strategy and tactics together in the case of defunding the police and abolishing the police. Alternatively, I would be interested in reading arguments that short-term tactics can solve long-term problems.