“The fact that there are a bunch of people suddenly interested in a #rentstrike who have no experience with orthodox organizing isn’t a mark of spontaneism or ultraleftism or some moral failure to have been previously involved in orthodox organizing. It’s a mark of the fact that shifting material conditions have presented that strategy as one that combines a) survival & b) newly increased leverage. New conditions mean new modes of organization rather than stamping your foot and insisting on the old kind.”
“But I can’t possibly evict all of them at once!”
These are strange times. Spring has arrived, accompanied by a pandemic caused by a virus that has advanced with alarming speed and the totalitarian response from the state that puts us in a new situation. While the police enjoy their new powers, many people have lost their jobs and many more already have no idea how they are going to make it to the end of the month. In this context, disobedient voices are emerging and the idea of a rent strike has gained traction. We at Editorial Segadores and Col·lectiu Bauma have wanted to investigate this kind of strike, reviewing some famous past examples and imagining what a rent strike might look like in the coronavirus era. We hope that these reflections help whoever is interested in strategizing and acting. In response to confinement—critical thought and direct action.
WHAT IS RENT STRIKE AND HOW DOES IT WORK?
A rent strike is when a group of renters decide collectively to stop paying rent. They might have the same landlord or live in the same neighborhood. This might occur within another campaign or as part of a bigger struggle, or it might be the principle axis of a struggle against gentrification, against insufferable living conditions, against poverty in general, against capitalism itself.
To succeed, a rent strike requires three elements:
1. Shared dissatisfaction.
At the beginning, even if neighbors haven’t collectivized their demands, it’s necessary that many of them perceive the situation in more or less the same way: that it is outrageous or intolerable, that they run the risk of losing access to their housing, and that they don’t trust the established channels to provide justice.
As we’ll see below, the vast majority of rent strikes begin with a relatively small group of people and grow from there. Therefore, they need the means to spread their call to action, communicate their complaints, and ask for support and solidarity. In many cases, strikers can win with only a third of the renters of a property participating in a rent strike, but sufficient outreach is necessary to get to these numbers and to make the threat that the strike will spread convincing.
Those who go on strike need support. They need legal support for court procedures, housing support for those who lose their homes, physical support to fight evictions, and strategic support to face repression on a larger scale. In many cases, especially in large strikes, striking renters have found all the support they require within their own ranks, supporting one another and creating the necessary structures to survive. In other cases, strikers have turned to existing organizations for support. But the initiative for the strike always comes from the renters who dare to start it.
HISTORIC STRIKES AND THEIR COMMON CHARACTERISTICS
Now we’ll look at how these three vital elements were achieved in major rent strikes throughout history.
De Freyne Estate, Roscommon, Ireland, 1901
In 1901, a rent strike broke out on the farms belonging to Baron De Freyne, a big-time landlord in Roscommon County, Ireland. Over the preceding decades, renters in the region had consolidated their organizing power against the owners of large estates, in a movement connected to the resistance against English colonialism and the effects of the Great Famine. These movements hadn’t taken root in Roscommon, but surely the inhabitants knew of the practice and had also participated in some of the semi-illegal forms of resistance that have always been a part of rural tenancy (mass meetings, physically resisting eviction, sabotage, arson).
At the beginning of the 20th century, the residents were organized under the United Irish League, a nationalist organization that dealt with agrarian and economic issues. When the inhabitants started their autonomous strike, they quickly connected with the local UIL, while other groups connected with them to support their strike. At the same time, the high-ranking leadership acted ambiguously, sometimes offering support, other times trying to frame the strike as an independent undertaking that did not reject the concepts of rental and property outright, since the leadership of the UIL were still trying to persuade some part of the owning class to join them.
The immediate causes of the strike included a torrential rain that destroyed much of the harvest and drove up the price of feed; De Freyne’s refusal to lower the cost of rent; the accumulation of debt and the evictions of many families; and a long history of injustice with respect to land ownership, aggravated by a recent episode in which some of the inhabitants of a neighboring estate had been allowed to buy land while all of De Freyne’s tenants were forced to keep living like serfs.
The strike got underway in November 1901. At first, many of De Freyne’s tenants organized themselves clandestinely and informally, since the UIL didn’t take the initiative, although it did support the tenants. The strike spread to other estates, lasting over a year. Over 90% of the tenants on De Freyne’s lands participated. They resisted evictions by building barricades, throwing rocks at the police, and illegally constructing new dwellings.
All this caused a national scandal. In 1903, the English Parliament was forced to adopt extensive agrarian reform, putting an end to the system of tenant farming.
The Brooms Strike, Argentina, 1907
In August of 1907, the Municipality of Buenos Aires decreed a tax increase for the next year. Right away, landlords started raising rent. The conditions in poor areas were already miserable. In the prior year, the Argentine Regional Workers’ Federation (FORA) had campaigned for the lowering of rent.
On September 13, the women in 137 apartments on one block initiated a spontaneous strike. They drove out the lawyers, officials, judges, and police who tried to eject the tenants. By the end of the month, more than 100,000 renters were participating in a strike led by women who organized in committees, aided by mobilizations and structures organized by the FORA. They demanded a 30% reduction in rent; when the police came to evict a tenant, they fought with all they had, throwing projectiles and fighting hand to hand.
The strike spread to other cities, including Rosario and Baía Blanca, drawing the support of various labor, anarchist, and socialist organizations, chief of which was the FORA. Police repression was intense; in one case, they murdered a young anarchist. In the end, although the strikers stopped many evictions, they did not succeed in forcing the landlords to reduce the cost of rent. After three months of fierce battles and the deportation of many organizers (like Virginia Bolten) under the Law of Residence, the struggle ran out of steam.
Manhattan Rent Strike, New York, 1907
Between 1905 and 1907, rents in New York City rose 33%. The city grew without stopping, swelling with poor immigrants who came to work in the factories, in construction, and at the port. There was also a surge of anarchist and socialist activity. In the fall, landlords announced another rise in rents. In response, Pauline Newman, a 20-year-old worker, Jewish immigrant, and socialist, took the initiative, convincing 400 other young women workers to support the call for a rent strike. Already, by the end of December, they had convinced thousands of families; in the new year, 10,000 families stopped paying, demanding a 18-20% rent reduction. Within a few weeks, some 2000 families saw their rent reduced. This event was the beginning of a few years of neighborhood struggle and eventual state control over rent.
Mrs. Barbour’s Army, Glasgow, 1915
In the years preceding 1915, the Scottish city of Glasgow grew rapidly with wartime industrialization and the immigration of rural families. The property-owning class speculated on housing, leaving 11% of houses vacant and not financing new construction, while the working class found themselves in ever more crowded and deteriorating homes. Organizations such as the Scottish Housing Council and various labor unions spent years working to execute legal reforms in the housing and renting sector; they won some new laws, but in general, the situation continued to worsen. Furthermore, with the Great War, the prices of food rose without stopping and many of the country’s men were abroad. The property owners took advantage, thinking that it would be easier to exploit poor families with their men gone. From August to September 1913, there were 484 evictions in Glasgow. From January to March 1915, there were 6441.
In the misery, exploitation, and carnage that persecuted the working class, the property owners of Glasgow saw a good opportunity. In February 1915, they announced a 25% price increase for all rentals. Immediately, on February 16, all of the poor women in the southern part of the Govan neighborhood held a mass meeting. In attendance were the organizers of Glasgow Women’s Housing Association, an organization that had formed the previous year but still had little traction. At the meeting, they created the South Govan Women’s Housing Association, affiliated with GWHA. They decided not to pay the increase, but instead to continue paying the original rate. This spread throughout the neighborhood.
GWHA called a rally for May 1, drawing 20,000 participants. In June, the women of Govan won the cancellation of the rent increase. The movement grew from there. In October, more than 30,000 people participated in the rent strike all over the city. They came to be known as Mrs. Barbour’s Army, named after Mary Barbour, a worker of Govan. In the course of spreading and maintaining the strike, they organized rallies and protests and defended tenants against evictions, fighting hand to hand with the police. The unions threatened to go on strike in the armament factories; at the end of the year, they succeeded in winning the suspension of any punitive action against strikers, a rent freeze maintaining pre-war rent prices, and the first rent control laws in the United Kingdom—an important step towards social housing, which was introduced not long after.
From early on, the movement won the support of leftist parties and other existing organizations that focused on housing, like the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, connected with the Socialist Party. But it’s important to highlight that the women created autonomous organizations rather than joining traditional organizations. Some, like Mary Burns Laird, the first president of GWHA, also organized with political parties (the Labor party, in the case of Laird), while others, like Mrs. Barbour, weren’t affiliated with any party, creating their own path for the struggle. In any case, the GWHA’s activity was far from traditional leftist politics: their meetings took place in their kitchens, in washhouses, and in the streets. In large part, the force behind the acronym was the solidarity network that the poor women had already established in their daily caretaking activities.
Comité de Defensa Económica, Barcelona, 1931
In 1931, Barcelona had recently emerged from dictatorship. People eagerly awaited the improvements that democracy would bring… and they kept waiting. Barcelona had become the most expensive city in Europe, with rent amounting to 30%-40% of wages. (Today’s figures are similar, or even worse, but at the time, the average in European cities was 15%.) Conditions were abysmal. Many who could not afford to rent a place for themselves went to the “Casas de Dormir,” rooms where they could rest between factory shifts; often, these rooms didn’t even have beds, just ropes on which workers could rest their arms.
A rent strike erupted in April with the participants demanding a 40% reduction in rent. It lasted until December, involving between 45,000 and 100,000 people throughout the city. The Comité de Defensa Económica (CDE), or Economic Defense Committee, founded by the construction union of the CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, National Confederation of Workers), played a crucial role in the coordination and spread of the strike.
Like so many other strikes, this one was characterized by solidarity among striking neighbors who built barricades and resisted evictions together. When they succeeded, they celebrated in the street; when they did not, they broke back into the evicted house and celebrated inside. The very same workers who shut off the water or electricity in the morning came back in the evening to turn it back on. They were, of course, afiliated with the CNT. Sometimes the police ended up throwing furniture out of the windows or otherwise destroying it, fed up with having to return to reoccupied homes. Other tactics included what is known today as escrache, that is, protests in front of a landlord’s house.
Obviously, the strike didn’t come out of nowhere: it was based in community traditions of autonomy and rooted in a multifaceted network of relationships and ties that grew out of neighborhood and kinship. The movement was also closely linked to the radical culture that the CNT had been fostering since World War One.
“Santiago Bilbao, organizer of the CDE, saw the tenants’ strike as an important act of economic mutual aid through which the dispossessed could counteract the power of the market and take control of their daily lives. The CDE’s advice to the workers was: “Eat well and if you don’t have money, don’t pay rent!” The CDE also demanded that the unemployed be exempt from paying rent. However, although the strike spread through mass meetings organized by the CDE, the movement really came from the streets, which were more essential to it than any organization.”
-Barcelona (1931), Huelga de Inquilinos
“The rent strike was born in the neighborhood of Barceloneta where there is a vital social consciousness, both from the hard lives of fishermen and from the laborers who work in the Maquinista Terrestre y Marítima, one of the most important companies in the metal industry. It’s no surprise that these grievances emerged from this historic fishing neighborhood next to the Mediterranean, where fishermen’s houses are still known as matchboxes. These were homes of 15 or 20 square meters where whole families lived, sometimes with lodgers such as relatives recently arrived from the village. […] It is the Sindicato Único de la Construcción of the CNT that will mobilize the discontent of working families, which, little by little, will spread to the margins of the city and in each of those neighborhoods, the strike will have its own characteristics, its own idiosyncrasies and methods of struggle.”
-Aisa Pàmpols, Manel, (2014) “La huelga de alquileres y el comité de defensa económica,” Barcelona, abril-diciembre de 1931. Sindicato de la Construcción de la CNT. Barcelona: El Lokal.
The strike was effectively ended by means of severe repression, headed by governor Oriol Anguera de Sojo and the president of the Property Owners Association, Joan Pich i Son, who also killed the insurrection of October 1934. The new democratic republic did not look much different from the old dictatorship once it brought out its entire arsenal: police, Guardia Civil (Civil Guard), and the Guardia de Asalto, the new paramilitary police. The Law of the Defense of the Republic was applied, a gag law that offered carte blanche for repression. Some were imprisoned as “governmental prisoners” and the CDE was declared a criminal organization.
Despite all this, the continued protests continued to stoke the embers for the revolution that was to come.
Much of the original documentation of the strike was destroyed in the war, perhaps as a result of the fear inspired by this example of proletarian resistance. Consequently, we are missing a large portion of the voices of the women who played a central role in the strike. Formal organizations are always given more weight in historiography than informal organizational spaces, although there is no doubt that the central role of the CNT was an important feature of the strike. However, the fact that strike tactics were different in each neighborhood tells us that the strike was not centralized, but depended above all on the initiative of those who carried it out.
St. Pancras, London, 1959-1960
St. Pancras, in London, was a mostly working-class area, with some 8000 people living in social housing.
In 1958, the district voted to raise the rent in social housing. At the end of the following July, after the Conservative Party won the district elections, they raised rents again, this time more dramatically (between 100% and 200%), and kicked out the unions (whereas previously, workers in the district had to be members). Up to that point, there had been little neighborhood organization, but as August began, tenants in one district neighborhood formed an association. By the end of August, 25 such tenant associations had been formed and these had representatives in the central committee of a new organization, the United Tenants Association. The secretary, Don Cook, had already been secretary of one of the few (and small) tenant associations that existed before 1959.
From the beginning, most of the base favored direct action and a rent strike, but the Labor Party, which wanted to use the tenants’ demands to beat the Conservative Party and regain control in the district, held them back.
On September 1, 1959, a march and meeting took place involving 4000 people. The participants adopted positions including a refusal to fill out the required paperwork to evaluate each family’s new rent, a call for unity, a promise to defend any family facing eviction, and a demand for solidarity from the unions. Over the following months, the tenants continued to hold demonstrations and, with support from the unions, established committees on every block, which held weekly delegate assemblies often attended by 200 or more participants. They published three weekly newsletters to disseminate information from the leadership to the base. By the end of the year, the UTA included 35 tenant associations.
Women protested by night at the homes of district counselors. Each counselor was targeted twice a week or more. They lost plenty of sleep. One of the few stories of the strike written by a participant (one Dave Burn) recognizes that women “formed the backbone of the movement, remaining active every day and supporting each other.” Still, most of Burn’s story focuses on formal, predominantly male delegate organizations.
The rent hike was set to take effect on January 4, 1960. At first, fully 80% of social housing tenants didn’t pay the increase, only the previous rent. After many threats and with the district’s eviction process beginning, participation in the strike dropped to a quarter of all tenants, or about 2000. In February, the Labor Party advised the UTA to call off the strike so they could negotiate with the Conservatives. The UTA refused: without the strike, they would be totally defenseless and several families were already in the midst of eviction processes.
To concentrate their forces, the UTA organized a collective payment of most of the back rent so they didn’t have to fight so many evictions at once. The first judgments were issued and three evictions were scheduled for late August. Tenants began to organize their defense, determined not to allow a single eviction from social housing. In the middle of that campaign, in July, UTA leaders met with district counselors—but the negotiations failed, since the Conservatives didn’t want to hear anything about tenants’ problems. From that moment, the UTA began a total rent strike, and in mid-August, 250 more eviction notices arrived.
By August 28, massive barricades had been erected; tenants had prepared a system of pickets and alarms to alert the entire neighborhood, so that workers could walk out and come to defend people’s homes. As of August 14, the number of eviction notices had risen to 514. The Labor Party and the Communist Party feared the rising tension and called for the strike to end, but it was too late.
On the morning of September 22, 800 cops attacked. A two-hour battle followed in which one policeman was seriously injured. Police managed to evict two homes, but on one block, the clashes continued until noon. Some 300 local workers came to help defend the strike—but the labor unions did not offer support. In the afternoon, a thousand cops attacked a march of 14,000 tenants. Confrontations continued.
The leader of the district counsel signaled that he was prepared to meet with UTA representatives. The next day, the Minister of the Interior declared the prohibition of all demonstrations and gatherings.
Due to the political scandal the riots had caused, the Labor Party abandoned the tenants and began to denounce “agitators” and “radicals.” They alleged the involvement of outside provocateurs and insisted that the conflict had to be resolved through dialogue—despite the fact that throughout the year, the district’s Conservatives had nearly always refused dialogue. Meanwhile, after negotiations, the Conservatives approved a small rent reduction.
Under attack as much from the left as from the right and facing daily threats of new evictions, the UTA decided to change strategies to avoid more evictions. They paid the back rent due from neighbors who faced the highest risk of eviction and decided to aid the Labor Party to oust the Conservatives in the coming elections. In May 1961, the Labor Party won control of the district counsel, 51 counselors to 19. Several UTA delegates had joined their ranks and the main plank of their electoral platform was rent reform.
Tenants awaited the reform of the rental plan in social housing… and waited… and waited. The two tenants who had been evicted found new homes, but after a few months, Labor counselors announced that rent reform would not be possible. The strike had failed.
Autoriduzione, Italy, 1970s
The 1960s and ’70s in Italy were a time of increasing precarity in labor and housing, and also a moment in which people dreamed of a world without exploitation and dared to pursue it. In 1974, counting on the neutrality of the Communist Party, the most forward-thinking technocrats of the industrial and financial sectors introduced Plan Carli. This Plan aimed to increase labor exploitation and reduce public spending.
During the 1960s, a strong autonomous workers movement in Italy had influenced the rise of an autonomous movement in the neighborhoods based in self-organized neighborhood committees in which women played a crucial role. Focused on practical and immediate survival, these committees organized “auto-reductions” in which tenants and neighbors themselves decided to reduce the price of services—for example, only paying 50% for water or electricity.
In Torino, the movement gained considerable momentum in summer 1974. When public transit companies decided to raise fares, the response was immediate. Participants spontaneously blocked buses at various points, distributed pamphlets, and sent delegates into town. From there, the most militant unions began to organize a popular response: they would print transit tickets themselves and volunteers would hand them out on buses, charging the previous price. Through collective strength, they forced the companies to accept the situation.
The auto-reductions in electricity payments spread quickly, organized in two phases: first, collecting signatures committing to participation in the auto-reduction, in both factories and neighborhoods; second, picket lines outside the post office, taking advantage of leaked information from the public utility unions about when and where bills were mailed. Picketers handed out information about how to participate in the auto-reduction. After a few weeks, 150,000 families in Torino and the Piedmont region were participating.
Auto-reductions were stronger in Torino because the regional unions were autonomous from the national committees controlled by the Communist Party, which blocked every direct action initiative against rising prices. Thus, in Torino, the labor unions could lend their power and support to spontaneous initiatives and those by neighborhood committees, while in cities such as Milan, the unions did not support those initiatives or else, as in Napoli, there were no strong unions in the first place. In some cities, like Palermo, students and young people made auto-reductions possible through illegal actions.
The movement extended to auto-reductions in rent, aiming to keep rent from exceeding 10% of a family’s salary. Various tactics were employed from small group efforts to neighborhood committee initiatives backed by the more radical unions. In the first half of the 1970s, participants squatted 20,000 homes, temporarily liberating them from the commercial logic of rent. There were also rent strikes in Rome, Milan, and Torino.
The feminist movement was a major part of these efforts. In this context, women developed the theories of triple exploitation (by bosses, husbands, and the state) and reproductive labor, which remain crucial in present-day struggles.
Soweto Township, South Africa, 1980s
Soweto is an urban area of Johannesburg with a high population density. In the 1980s, it had 2.5 million inhabitants. Throughout the last decades of Apartheid, the residents of Soweto experienced extreme poverty and social exclusion. In 1976, this erupted in the Soweto Uprising, a series of powerful protests and strikes and a police crackdown that ended in dozens of deaths. The material conditions of the area began to improve, but only thanks to the continued struggle of the residents.
The housing situation was appalling. Houses were of poor quality, unhygienic, and disordered. Rent and services amounted to a third of the typical salary of the residents, not counting the skyrocketing unemployment rates. On June 1, 1986, when word spread of a plan to raise rents, thousands of Soweto residents stopped paying rent and services to the Soweto Council. The Council tried to break the strike with evictions, but the neighbors resisted with force. In late August, police shot at a crowd that was resisting an eviction, killing more than 20 people. Rage intensified and the authorities halted the evictions.
In early 1988, the authorities declared a state of emergency to try to suppress the rise of black resistance across the country. The sole focal point that they did not manage to extinguish was the Soweto rent strike. In the middle of the year, the strikes continued and the authorities cut off the electricity to nearly the entire area as a means of pressure. The press claimed that the strike was not realistic, that it was only sustained by the violence of young militants. The reality turned out to be different: despite 30 months of a state of emergency that stopped much of the activity of the anti-apartheid movement, the vast majority of the residents continued to support the strike. In the end, the authorities recognized that they had completely lost control. In December 1989, they canceled all overdue rents—a loss of more than $ 100 million—definitively stopped evictions, suspended all rents pending negotiation with neighbors, and, in at least 50,000 cases, ceded ownership of the houses directly to the tenants.
Before these strikes, the anti-apartheid movement had used rent strikes as a tactic in its protests against the white government, so the entire population was familiar with them; the mobilizations and organizations of this movement had extended the practices of solidarity. But the first major rent strike started in September 1984 in Lekoa as an immediate response from the neighbors themselves to a rent increase; the most involved organization was the Vaal Civic Association, Vaal being the local region. This was probably the source of the rent strike tactic that the African National Congress (ANC) and other organizations subsequently began to use.
Similarly, the Soweto rent strike emerged from the neighborhood itself in response to its immediate conditions and survival imperatives. It is a classic example of informal neighborhood networks being key to the organization of strikes, with formal structures being created as needed once the strike had already begun. And while they were excluded from some of the formal organizations, women maintained a key role in organizing and maintaining those vital neighborhood networks.
Boyle Heights Mariachis, Los Angeles, 2017
In an attempt at racist gentrification, a homeowner raised rental costs by 60-80% on a small number of apartments in a building next to Mariachi Plaza in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. Half of the tenants formed a coalition immediately—including tenants not directly affected by the rent increase—and demanded dialogue with the landlord. When the landlord tried to engage with each of them separately, the coalition launched the rent strike. Subsequently, the Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU) began supporting the strike, helping to mobilize and secure legal resources.
After nine months, they received a rent hike of only 14%, a three-year contract (very rare in the US), the cancellation of any penalty for non-payment, and the right to negotiate the next contract as a collective after three years.
Burlington United, Los Angeles, 2018
A strike began in three buildings on the same property on Burlington Avenue, a Latinx neighborhood in Los Angeles affected by rapid gentrification, at a moment when the number of homeless Latinx people had been skyrocketing. When the landlord raised tenants’ rent between 25% and 50%, 36 of the 192 apartments declared a rent strike; the poor conditions in the buildings were also one of the complaints shared by the tenants. By the second week, a total of 85 apartments were on strike, almost half. The residents organized themselves starting with the strike declaration. Subsequently, the local LATU and a nearby neighborhood legal defense activist organization opposing evictions provided assistance to the strikers.
The legal system divided resistance through separate court processes for each apartment. Half of the apartments won their judgments; the others were forced to leave.
Parkdale, Toronto, 2017-2018
In 2017, the tenants occupying 300 apartments in multiple buildings with the same owner carried out a successful strike in the Parkdale neighborhood of Toronto. The neighborhood was undergoing rapid gentrification and the real estate company in question had already earned a bad reputation among its tenants for poor apartment conditions and trying to force them out via price increases.
When the company tried to raise prices, some neighbors decided to declare a strike; others quickly joined, organizing as an assembly. Another important element in the context was the activity of Parkdale Organize, a tenants’ organization from the same neighborhood that had emerged out of another neighborhood struggle in 2015. Parkdale Organize helped mobilize the strike, knocking on doors in the affected buildings, offering resources, and sharing models of resistance. After three months, they managed to block the rent increase.
Inspired by this example, tenants in another large, 189-apartment Parkdale building began a strike the following year. When the real estate company decreed a sharp rise in rents, the tenants in 55 apartments organized in an assembly and went on strike. After two months on strike, the tenants won their demands and the owner canceled the rent increase.
Most of these strikes were started by women; women played an important role in all of them. The strikes always occur in a context in which many tenants suffer similar conditions: rent that takes up a large proportion of salaries; the danger of losing housing; and some additional cause for outrage, such as very unhealthy conditions, a contextual issue like English colonialism (as in the Roscommon strike), or an unjust reform that favors some and harms others. And there is almost always a spark: most commonly, a price increase or a decrease in the economic opportunities of the tenants.
Often, strikes began spontaneously, which does not mean they appeared out of nowhere, but that they arose—in a favorable context—from the specific initiative of neighbors, implemented through an assembly or through affective and neighborhood networks. From there, they either create their own organizations or draw the support of existing organizations. In other cases, a formal organization exists from the beginning of the strike, but it is a rather small organization created by and for tenants, not one of the big union organizations or parties. We have only found one case in which a rent strike was called for by a large organization—1931 in Barcelona.
Regarding the chances of victory, it is important for the strike to spread as widely as possible, but it isn’t necessary that it involve a majority. Strikes have been won with the participation of only a quarter or a third of the tenants under the same owner; in the case of strikes in a given territory, that are not directed against a particular owner, it may be a much smaller proportion of the total inhabitants of a city, as long as there are enough to interrupt normalcy, provoke a crisis in the government, and saturate the legal system. The determination to maintain high spirits and solidarity rather than seeking individual solutions is more important than the number of strikers.
Another factor, perhaps the most important, depends on context. What are the state’s capacities to inflict repression? Is it better for them to crush disobedience, or to appease conflict and restore their image?
Current Conditions: More than Adequate
As we have seen, certain conditions are necessary for a rent strike to spread throughout the population: precarity that makes it impossible for more and more people to access housing and a shared sense that things are going very badly. Do these conditions currently exist?
Increasingly, large international investment funds are buying up property around the world and setting rent at record highs. As they devour the housing market, the price that people have to pay for access skyrockets.
For example, in the Spanish state, the price of rental housing reached its historical apex in February 2020 (the last month for which the data was available at the time of writing this text) at €11.1 per square meter, an increase of 5.6% over February 2019. The communities with the highest prices are Madrid (€ 15.0) and Catalonia (€14.5). In Madrid City, the price is €16.3 per square meter, a growth of 3.5%; and in the city of Barcelona, €16.8 per square meter, a growth of 3.7%. But all the tourist cities have experienced a similar increase. Between 2014 and 2019, the average rental prices in the Spanish state have risen 50%, far exceeding the highest point before the 2008 crisis.
Over the same time period, the average salary in the Spanish state has not even risen 3%. That’s right: a 50% increase in housing costs and a 3% increase in salaries. But the mean salary includes both working people and millionaires, and the latter do not have to pay rent. If we refer to the median salary or the salary earned by the greatest number of people (i.e., the most common salary among the masses), we see that it has risen much less and has even decreased in some years. In short: now there are more people than ever who cannot access housing. We have seen this situation coming for the past five years, long before the coronavirus.
This lack of housing access shows in the statistics, as well. In 2018, there were more than 59,000 evictions in the Spanish state, with an increasing proportion of evictions for non-payment of rent. In 2019, there were more than 54,000, 70% via the Urban Rental Law. Both years, the communities of Catalonia and Andalusia led in the number of evictions. The decline between 2018 and 2019 is largely explained by the resistance to evictions that has emerged everywhere and by the trend towards fewer foreclosures each year, as fewer people can get mortgages now and banks are more willing to negotiate after the explosion of resistance over the last twelve years. Between 2017 and 2019, the number of homeless people in Madrid grew by 25%, officially reaching 2583 people, although other experts say that there must actually be around 3000. There are an estimated 40,000+ homeless people throughout the Spanish state. [In the United States, the number of homeless people in Los Angeles alone exceeds this.]
The coronavirus pandemic only exacerbates this situation. Many people have lost their jobs; it is no surprise that the government’s emergency measures have been more concerned with increasing police and martial powers, protecting financial institutions, businessmen, and people with mortgages, and therefore have left the most precarious people unprotected—tenants, people without papers, and the homeless. On the other hand, it is a time when solidarity initiatives have spread at the speed of light, with cacerolazos (noise demonstrations with pots and pans) on the balconies and a rapid expansion of social demands, all despite the state of siege imposed by the government.
In short, it is not just the right time for a rent strike, but there is more need than ever to organize such initiatives right now. If this is not the time—all-time highs for housing precarity, a pandemic, and the rapid spread of social initiatives—perhaps there will never be a suitable time to launch a rent strike?
It is understandable that renters who might be in favor of going on strike will have a number of doubts.
Practical and Legal Concerns
Initial doubts stem, simply, from a total lack of familiarity with rent strikes: to our knowledge, there has been no rent strike in Spanish territory since 1931. How does it work? What are my rights and what are the possible penalties if I stop paying the rent?
In short, you only have to do two things to join the rent strike: stop paying and communicate it to others. You can communicate your non-payment to the owner or not do so. Communicating it may make the strike stronger, but if several tenants of the same owner join the strike, that will also convey the message. The Union of Tenants of Gran Canaria has an example of a form that you can send to the owner.
The second step is very important: informing others that you have joined the rent strike. The more people join, the less danger there is for each person. Talking to your neighbors is the best way to encourage them to join the strike. It is also very important to communicate about the strike to networks that can provide solidarity in your neighborhood. These could be neighborhood associations, housing or tenant unions, or even solidarity-based labor unions such as the CNT. If they know more or less how many people are on strike, they will be able to distribute information and resources and help organize a collective defense in the event of an eviction process. Remember: together, we are much stronger.
As for the legal consequences, if you stop paying the rent, the landlord may start an eviction process to kick you out of your apartment. But in many cases, when multiple tenants of the same landlord stop paying the rent, the landlord is compelled to reach an agreement that can include a rent reduction. In a situation of generalized crisis like the current one, it is very possible that the state will intervene with a moratorium on evictions if many people go on strike.
The emotional aspect is essential in a rent strike. Precarious housing exists everywhere, every day. The fundamental element to spark a rent strike is the courage of those who say enough is enough, who decide to take risks, to take the initiative. It is a bit of a paradox: if everyone dares, victory is almost guaranteed and there is very little risk. But if everyone hesitates, without the safety of the group, the few who dare may lose their homes.
Yet right now, we obviously have the advantage. Millions of people from humble neighborhoods are in the same situation—and we all already know that we are in this situation. There will not be “a few” who take risks, because there are already tens of thousands who have lost their jobs and will not be able to pay their rent, and this number will only increase. If we suffer in silence, we may not risk anything, but all the same we may lose our homes. But if we raise our voices and collectivize our struggle, we have everything to gain and nothing to lose.
The slightly more privileged people—those who can survive a month, two months, three months without pay, or who have retained their jobs—also have a lot to gain if they join the thousands of people who have no other way out, because none of us know how long the quarantine will last or how long the consequent economic crisis will continue. Regardless of the pandemic, in most of the cities in the Spanish state, we were already losing access to housing. If normality returns… then tourism will return along with Airbnb, gentrification, and the unbearable pressure of ever-rising rent.
We have another advantage on our side: during the state of emergency, the courts are also paralyzed. Some cities have already postponed all evictions and other municipalities will not be able to manage them at all, or only extremely slowly.
There could not be a better time to start a rent strike. The only thing that is needed is to raise our voices and collectivize the situation that we are all experiencing.
ORGANIZATIONS SPECIALIZING IN THE HOUSING STRUGGLE
Social organizations play a very important role in a rent strike. They can convene it, they can support it—or they can damage it. What are the characteristics of a strong and effective relationship between the housing movement and organizations?
First, we must recognize the reality of movements for housing. The movement consists of everyone who suffers from poor housing conditions or who is in danger of losing access to housing. They, the precarious, are the ones who have everything to lose and everything to gain; they are the ones who have to take the initiative to declare a rent strike or other acts of resistance.
Organization is a matter of the utmost strategic importance within a rent strike, but there is no specific organization that is essential. An organization that is already very strong can call the strike, as in Barcelona in 1931. But if the neighbors themselves need to go on strike, they will call the strike themselves and then create the organizations they need to build support and coordinate their actions. Even when organizations specializing in housing already exist, if they do not respond to the residents’ immediate needs, the residents will ignore them and create their own organizations. And in the very unfortunate case that an organization considers itself the proprietor of the movement and tries to lead it according to its own political needs rather than the needs of the residents, as occurred in the strike in St. Pancras, London, in 1960, it will end up sabotaging the strike and harming the tenants.
The fact that the vast majority of rent strikes have been organized by women reflects this dynamic: the formal organizations of the Left have emerged largely according to a patriarchal logic that puts “party interests” ahead of the human needs of the most affected people. For this reason, women often organize their own structures, among other things, within their own networks and with their own methods, rather than joining the large organizations that already exist.
A strong and effective relationship between the housing movement and social organizations could be based on these principles:
1. Social organizations respond to the needs of the residents. They can help to formulate strategies, but they should not turn a blind eye to the realities and inclinations of the residents.
2. Organizations exist to support residents, not to lead them. If the organizations assume that their leadership is essential, residents will likely have to create their own initiatives when action is urgent.
3. The most important support structures that organizations can provide are psychosocial and defensive. In regards to the first, the organization helps residents to see that they are not alone—that together they are strong, they can win. In this sense, the essential thing is to feed people’s spirits, not to discourage them or sow fear or false prudence. As for their defensive role, this is the activity of coordinating physical resistance to evictions and gathering legal resources for legal processes. Without this activity, the strikers will fall house by house.
By contrast, what are the characteristics of a counterproductive relationship between social organizations and the housing movement?
It is admirable when people dedicate their lives to solidarity struggles for dignity and freedom. But problematic dynamics arise when a specialization is derived from this approach that generates distance between the experts and “normal people.” In the case of the fight for housing, activists may end up being more aware of the perspectives of other “organized” activists and militants than they are of what is happening to other residents and precarious people. Consequently, they prioritize the interests of the organization (affiliating more members, looking good in the press, gaining status through negotiations with the authorities), when the interests of the residents should always take precedence (gaining access to decent and stable housing).
This alienation between activists and neighbors can manifest itself as false prudence. It is true that a rent strike is a very hard fight; it is not something to propose lightly. But taking a conservative position in the current situation seems to us to deny the reality that many people are already experiencing. A rent strike is dangerous—but it is undeniable that within the current crisis, the danger is already here. This month, tens of thousands of people will not be able to pay the rent, not to mention the tens of thousands who already live on the street in a situation of absolute vulnerability.
The danger of specialist activism is especially great in the case of economically privileged people. It is admirable when people from well-to-do families decide to fight side by side with precarious people. But it is totally unacceptable for such people to try to determine the priorities or set the pace of the struggles of the precarious.. As in all cases of privilege, they should be transparent with their companions and honest with themselves and support the struggles of precarious people instead of trying to lead them.
Limited scale or fragmented vision.
It is entirely understandable that people who have spent a lot of time fighting for housing would feel a little overwhelmed or doubtful about a general call for a rent strike. Indeed, it would be troubling if they didn’t feel that way. It has been more or less a century since we saw rent strikes on this scale. But we must also acknowledge that it has been nearly a century since capitalism has experienced a crisis as intense as the one developing today—and the rent strike continues to be an effective tool. It should give us some peace of mind to know that tenants and organizations that have been involved in rent strikes for the past three years in Toronto and Los Angeles are supporting the current international call.
As for the danger of dividing up the struggles, we consider totally unacceptable any call-out that does not take into account the needs of the homeless and those without documents. Although it is understandable that many organizations seeking short-term changes focus on a more specialized field or topic, they should not contribute to the fragmentation of struggles, undermining the possibility of solidarity. It is a tactic of the state to offer solutions for people with mortgages but nothing for tenants. We should not reproduce this approach even if we have good intentions. Therefore, all calls should support a moratorium on evictions and also legitimize the practice of occupying empty houses, or at least connect with calls that do.
The Reform/Revolution dichotomy.
To speak plainly, it’s an illusion to believe that it’s possible to win a revolution and abolish all oppressive structures from one day to the next: revolutions consist of a long path of struggle after struggle. It’s also an error to believe that it is possible to gain real reforms without creating a force that threatens the power of the state: states maintain social control and the well-being of the economy and they don’t protect those who are dispensable to those causes. Almost all really beneficial reforms have been won by revolutionary movements, not by reformist movements.
There is a lot of important debate about the appropriate relationship between the state and political movements, about tactics and strategy. But we are stronger when we work together—when those who are dedicated to small but urgent gains are connected to those who work against the fundamental sources of exploitation and fix their gaze on a horizon where exploitation no longer exists. At the end of the day, our struggles comprise an ecosystem. We’ll never convince the whole world to think like we do, nor will we dominate all social movements; whoever tries to do so only weakens their movement. We should cultivate healthy relationships based in solidarity between different parts of the same struggle, sharing whenever possible—and when that’s not possible, permitting each other to continue on a more or less parallel path. In order that this solidarity can function, it is necessary to respect the immediate work some people focus on and at the same time not to denounce any group’s “radicalism” to the press or to the police.
It’s easy for someone who spends half of her earnings on rent to appreciate a law that caps rent; for someone who can’t afford private insurance to appreciate public health services; for someone who lives in a squatted apartment to appreciate a moratorium on evictions; for a migrant to appreciate legal protections against deportation. Those who don’t personally experience any of these situations should empathize with those who do before solidifying their political ideas.
At the same time, many of us who experience precariousness choose not to create an identity out of it. We have to get to the root of the problem. Public health and rent control are great, but legal reforms and “public” good are not under our control, they are under the control of the state, and they will do us no good when the state decides it’s inconvenient to maintain what they once gave us. Why has this pandemic resulted in such a grave crisis? Because the state has continually reduced the quality of public health services. Why has rent increased so much? Because the state passed the Urban Rental Law, stripping away protections won by previous generations.
Short-term measures are necessary, but we also need a revolutionary perspective, at least for whoever doesn’t want to spend their whole life fighting for crumbs, for mere survival.
Capitalism is global. States support one another at the global level. A revolution in one single place isn’t possible, at least not for the long term. An internationalist vision is essential in this time of pandemic, xenophobia, borders, and transnational corporations. In the Spanish state, internationalism has been pretty weak of late. In Latin America, there have been strikes and revolts for free public transportation, there have been right-wing coups, there have been months and months of struggle, and many deaths. Yet in the Spanish state, not a peep. In Hong Kong, there was almost an entire year of protests against new authoritarian measures. In the Spanish state, silence. For all of 2019, just on the other side of the Pyrenees, the yellow vests gave it their all fighting against austerity. How many rallies showing solidarity have there been in the Spanish state?
Movements for freedom and dignity and against exploitation must be global. Right now we’re suffering a global pandemic—and the strongest states, from the US to China, are responding with apathy and deadly incompetence or with a level of totalitarian surveillance (drones, real-time location surveillance of individuals, cameras in every public space that use facial recognition). In the Spanish state, we see a combination of incompetence and police authoritarianism.
The rent strike is already spreading through various neoliberal countries, where vast numbers of people are in danger of losing their homes. There is no doubt that this is also the situation here in the Spanish state. If we’re not capable of internationalizing our struggles now, will we ever be? ■
For solidarity and dignity,
Written by the Segadores and Bauma collectives of Catalunya
English translation by CrimethInc.
Featured Image Station 40, a housing collective in San Francisco, is already on rent strike.
“I found a stock of masks that was available and Americans – I’m not talking about the American government – but Americans, outbid us, … They offered three times the price and they proposed to pay upfront. I can’t do that. I’m spending taxpayers’ money and I can only pay on delivery having checked the quality... So we were caught out.”
Those were the words of Valérie Pécresse (the president of the Île-de-France region, which includes Paris) in an interview with BGMTV as she discussed the critical lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in hospitals last month. Shortly after, the French weekly L’Express reported that Paris, which has requisitioned all masks amid the shortage, seized stock from Swedish producer Molnlycke that was headed for Spain and Italy.
The reality is that the USA, like much of the world discovered too late that they were unprepared, as doctors and nurses were forced to work in bin bags, they had to do something radical to save face. The solution was to spit all other their own free market bullshit.
At the start of April the Trump administration ordered 3M, a Minnesota-based manufacturer, to stop exporting protective masks to Canada and Latin America on Thursday. Trump has invoked the Defence Production Act to stop exports of critical equipment which allows the state to dictate the manufacturing and distribution processes of private companies.
It didn’t stop there, true to form the belligerent behemoth took to piracy and economic force to cover up the failures of the Trump government. They began outbidding on PPE being shipped in from elsewhere. Shipments destined for Canada turn up light, Trudeau making it clear in a statement that the US has simply paid a higher price during transit and left their partners in the lurch. The German’s were similar done over when the USA seized 200,000 N95 masks mid transfer in Thailand. Commenting to RTL radio regarding how American officials had swooped on a Chinese airport to take away a planeload of masks that France had ordered. Dr Jean Rottner described the methods they are using;
“On the tarmac, the Americans arrive, take out cash and pay three or four times more for our orders”
The nature of the international mask trade right now is clear. We’re seeing spy agencies such as Israel’s Mossad enlisted to secure coronavirus testing kits (as reported by La Figaro) and wilf scenarios as the one described by Peter Pellegrini, prime minister of Slovakia until just a few days ago, who told a Slovakian TV channel “We were already preparing cash worth 1.2 million euros in a suitcase. We planned to use a special government flight and go get the masks … However, a dealer from Germany came there first, paid more for the shipment, and bought it”.
We’re not special either, I’m told by government insider that “boxes of PPE landed in Heathrow, due for the DHSC to go to NHS stockpiles and were recalled. They never left Heathrow. Everyone on our side was fuming” The PPE was already paid for and tracked, none the less, they were re-called mid flight. So much for international solidarity eh?
Perhaps one could forgive a desperate state taking desperate measures, however we have to remember that they see the world through the lense of capitalism. In a press briefing last week the Trump administration confirmed that they were in fact giving these very stockpiles to private distributors who would then sell the PPE in, as the questioning reporter had described, “Ebay style auctions”. Their defence was simply that these corporations had more capacity to distribute across some 600 warehouses.
The reality is that hospitals and services that serve poor communities, have no chance of keeping adequate supplies. We’re seeing “mask deserts” where entire regions are suffering critical lack of PPE while affluent and high prestige areas (as well as private enterprises) have no concern. Once more the class disparity and inherent racism in the state logistics of the USA become all too painfully clear.
This self serving attitude is especially problematic for small nations such as Barbados who had a shipment of ventilator seized despite having been paid for and places such as Cuba and Pakistan than still remain the victim of embargos. Foreign governments using the working classes as political collateral in their ongoing political pissing contests.
Back in blighty?
It’s no better. The Department of Health outright rejected advice from Nervtag, in 2016/7 to renew stockpiles of PPE because it would be too expensive. Nervtag were established the review government policy and provide recommendations in case of a influenza pandemic, however in a meeting in June 2017 They were told by Jeremy Hunt to “reconsider” their formal recommendations due to as a health department official present stated “the very large incremental cost of adding in eye protection.”
A minute from the meeting stated that “a subsequent internal DOH economic assessment has revealed that following these recommendations would substantially increase the cost of the PPE component of the pandemic stockpile four-to six-fold, with a very low likelihood of cost-benefit based on standard thresholds.”
The cost-benefit there refers to the fact that providing adequate eye protection to NHS staffers was deemed a bit costly. The direct result of this three years later is the deaths of over a dozen NHS doctors and nurses, sacrificed to Tory cost cutting measures. Nervtag also advised that intensive care units (ICUs) should be designated “hot spots” carrying out aerosol generating procedures. Therefore, FFP3 respirators “should be recommended for all staff at all times in these areas when a patient with pandemic influenza is present”. Meanwhile we have dozens of reports of NHS staff having to buy their own, battling the ever inflating prices with one nurse in Yorkshire telling the Guardian she had to spend £100 to buy a FFP3 respirator online.
Now of course the government is scrambling for PPE, caught out by their lethargic response to a looming pandemic only too late did they realise the situation, now the government tenders site is full of emergency requests for respirators, eye protection, gowns and body bags.
Their deepest fear is being caught out in their lies and cost cutting. They fear the bad press caused by such horrific revelations as the three nurses stateside who were forced to wear bin bags for PPE and who are now all ill with Covid -19. Even as similar stories pour in here, even those that have ended in death, the government is in deep denial. Last Sunday Hancock sayid that 5.7% of hospital doctors were off sick or absent because of Covid-19, however the Royal College of Physicians held a survey of more than 2,500 medics found the rate was almost three times that – 14.6%.
Protect the NHS?
Of course now they’ve had a few weeks to get their act together, now they want to praise the NHS, tell us they care. The repeated lies and manufactured mythos of a Tory part on the side of the NHS, alongside sympathy for Boris, seemingly earning them the favour of the house bound votership. This is utterly laughable considering they have been such prominent agents in is destruction. Over the past thirty years we’ve seen successive Labour and Tory governments undermine the NHS, seeing the number of beds halved and countless jobs discarded. Most recently we’ve seen the ever growing threat of full privatisation begin slicing the NHS apart with huge chucks of it’s operation sold to the highest bidder, farmed out for private tender so corporations can get fat on the labours of the national treasure. It’s nothing but an utter disgrace.
The bastards laughed, clapped and cheered as they blocked a pay rise for nurses.
To help us in forgetting the past few years with Brexit exiling thousands of staff and disgusting racist policies sending home yet more, the government have doubled down on their ersatz solidarity. “Protect the NHS” indeed.
More like treat our doctors and nurses like sacrificial lambs to the slaughter, let them die a noble death protecting the community just as long as no one thinks to blame the government for their critical lack of support and essentially kneecapping the service. To aid this new narrative they’ve started portraying our doctors and nurses as soldiers, giving their lives in the “war against Covid 19”. We’ve seen over a dozen NHS workers die during the pandemic and they’ve been held up as “front-line heroes”, warriors who willfully gave their lives to save us all. It’s a lie in the truth and political spin bullshit to displace the truth.
They are using the language of military stoicism to make their deaths lamentable self sacrifice instead of what they actually are which is entirely preventable results of systematic undermining by a state which has persistently chosen to restrict the funding of the NHS over actually providing them with the means to save lives. They want us to forget that our doctors and nurses are dying because they didn’t care to support them... they want them to become simply numbers, an anonymous figure they can list of those who died fighting Covid 19.
Each death should be sending ripples of revolutionary rage across the country but instead with been corralled into the grim acceptance, “people die in war, thoughts and prayers, nothing can be done. Oh well”.
This separation from reality and projection of war time self sacrifice is infectious mind and it’s not just the cabal at the top of the Tories, were seeing the same in reports from the BBC and in the tabloids, heck even Queenie references Vera Lynne in her speech and across the pond Trump stands at a podium and makes the same pantomime;
“You watch them and they are putting their outfits on , putting their masks on and it’s incredible. It’s like no different than you watch the war movies, the old clips of war – running up hills, to me it’s the same thing.”
It’s a powerful narrative that parasites can call upon to stir up some sense of duty in the proles they were quite happy to sacrifice to herd immunity. Early on in the crisis the shortage of workers was concerning farmers, hoisted on their own petard, they found themselves without a wealth of foreigners to abuse all day for shit pay. They began a campaign to recruit volunteers for the now jobless British population, when that didn’t work they petitioned for more flights to bring eastern European workers over, now as they empty milk into drains and letting veg rot they are calling the campaign to hire housebound Brits “the land army”.
Remember that this is the government that was quite seriously considering doing very little to stymie the spread and once again weighting up protecting people vs damage to the economy. Until early March Cummings and co we’re looking to sacrifice a projected 250,000 people, in a policy which would, as Boris would describe to Philip Schofield as “...perhaps you could take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population...”. Ofcourse this was before Hancock actually listened to some specialists and managed to get the crew to instigate social distancing and lock down policies, bringing the projected deaths down to 20,000. It was only at the end of March they began robust testing after much pressure and the numbers tested remain depressingly low.
Even this was presented in a politically wet manner, the threat Covid-19 presented undermined, that if we got ill we’d only have to spend 7 days in isolation (the W.H.O. advise being 14 days at the time). Don’t get worried at all, we don’t want to hurt the economy too much eh? The subsequently national holiday saw Snowden break records, nothing to worry about tho eh, it’s not all that bad, they’ve not even said wear a mask! ... the job don. We went into lock down.
It’s time to blame the working class!
By week two this came with a sickening implication that it’s the public who go outside during lock down who are killing the doctors and nurses. Why aren’t you supporting the troops they bleet, while Hancock gets caught out on TV having not even bothered to caught how many nurses had died. Don’t blame the consistent undermining of the state, it’s Steve whose popped to the shop for a none essential item whose to blame. The Met. police have been inundated with snitches dobbing in people walking down the road or stopping for a breather.
The papers are full of sub bathers being shamed while flights continue to come in, their passengers heading unchecked down onto public transport on their journey home. As we stand 2 meters a part to head into the shops were working with cling film screens between us and workers on job sites up and down the land having the concerns about PPE and no social distancing dismissed by the bosses are “wet” and “fear mongering” meanwhile Transport for London alone has lost atleast ten members of staff. Call centres act as a breeding ground for contamination, and the construction sites are still open. The working class ever expendable exposed to risk to keep their money flowing while the upper management work from home scratching their arse on zoom, slightly more valuable to capitalists as they are.
Overwhelming it’s women on the front lines too, occupying the majority of healthcare and service industry roles as the residue social reality of centuries of enforced social division continue to sow discord, or that early figures suggest that black and minority ethnic members of our community are over represented in the figures of infected and dead. No, we don’t have to talk about that because Steve’s nipped out to Daves for a none essential bag of grass and some coppa has been breathed on, the latter incident resulting in a summary sentence of 3 months banged up as examples need to be made.
The cops new found powers to stop and hassle anyone they fancy has been taken to, shall we say, over zealously with countless reports of harassment for perceived offences. The threat of imprisonment and huge fine used to control people with fear. Sure we should be maintaining isolation and sure people have ignored the threat, but to use the threat of violence to impose the states will? No, that isn’t OK.
What adds to this distrubing series of events if just how much they are being applauded. The hostility and rage spewing out from social media on anyone who steps out of line is sickening and all to quickly we have people celebrating the police using drone to track people and CCTV vans driving through parks. Justice has been summary and the punishments utterly disproportionate to the offense. This new was of draconian authourity has entierly embraced the digital age too with Google utilising it’s tracking features to monitor peoples movements and provide data on where people congregate to officials and policy makers.
In South Korea several websites have sprang up so you can check how close you’ve been to someone with Covid-19. These sites use information from the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) and pin point visited locations and travel routes of people diagnosed with coronavirus using a color for each patient.
This is by no means a solitary example of how the desire to collecting data under the guise of “security” is inflicting very real threat to basic liberty. On March 17th, Israel’s Netanyahu approved a very broad set of surveillance measures which he described himself as “invasive”. In Iran, people were instructing to download an APP called AC19. It pretended to be a diagnosis tool but was infact malware beaming their real time location to the state. Given that Iran is currently in a state of near civil war it’s easy to see how this data could be weaponised. In Taiwan it’s mobile tracking they’ve labelled an “electronic fence”, Poland? Send in a selfie to prove you are in quarantine. In Austria they are mass monitoring peoples movements via telecom networks as are Italy, Belgium and Germany. The UK government is deep in talks with the likes of Google, O2 and EE to mass collect tracking data and the NHSX, the digital arm of the NHS, are developing a contact tracing app, It’ll be opt-in but thats moot when everyone is playing snitch and the social obligation to download and play along with be overwhelming.
Meanwhile pundits on the TV are now asking how long we’re going to keep hurting the economy by protecting vulnerable members of our communities and when it’s not about the economy we have the emotional black mail such as this charmer from Graham Medley;
‘We will have done three weeks of this lock down so there’s a big decision coming up on 13 April. In broad terms are we going to continue to harm children to protect vulnerable people, or not?’
That’s right, why aren’t you thinking of the kids at a time when we’re heading into the projected height of the death toll. This unsettling narrative pushing us all to “get on with it” is going to lead to an second wave if we rush back into protecting the economy from it’s own lack of redundancy.
Pretty soon the same parasites who laid off thousands will be blowing their own trumpet and talking about how they’re offering jobs and helping the economy. #ClapforBoris for getting us through it eh? Now, download the app and get back to work, aren’t you happy to get out of the house? We got through it together didn’t we? The stoking of nationalism fever already well in effect and at the end of the day only serving to keep the capitalism thriving. We’ve already seen independent and small businesses shut up shop (especially pubs and cafes) as the market leaders continue on strong, ever increasing their market dominance and reducing competition into a handful of corporations who control pretty much everything, much as we saw in the food industry over the last 25 years. Remember to that the DOW had is best day since 1933 closing 2,112.98 points higher — or more than 11% — at 20,704.91. Meanwhile, Somerset Capital Management, which Rees-Mogg has a 15% stake in, said that the crisis was a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to profit from stocks in emerging markets such as Brazil and South Africa. Someone sure is suffering here and it ain’t the toffs.
The questions now are whether or not we’ll let them get away with this murder and the theft of liberty?
Will we forget the austerity policies of parasites and how they used fear to enforce a police state?
Will we act as the memory of a working class who are tired of being chewed up and spat out, neither forgiving nor forgetting?
That choice is yours. ■
Peter Ó Máille
The history of eco-fascism is somewhat cloudy, but its origin draws from the previously existent eugenics movement and combines it with a form of hideous ecological disguise that aims to justify its murderous elements. The eco-fascists, more or less, are the same people Murray Bookchin described as ‘self-professed deep ecologists who believe that Third World peoples should be permitted to starve to death and that desperate Indian immigrants from Latin America should be excluded by the border cops from the United States lest they burden "our" ecological resources.’ While there has been a great deal of trying to dress the movement up, often with deepening appeals to the sanctity of nature, the beauty of the natural world, and the ugliness of industrial pollution, the roots of the movement are inescapable; the essence of eco-fascism is the idea that the World is sick, and the illness is humanity. Therefore the eco-fascist claims that we should do our best to eliminate as many people as necessary – or at least accept their deaths – to allow the World to ‘heal’.
It would be remiss to mention this without giving a brief mention to Thomas Malthus, the 19th Century English thinker who argued that the ‘power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.’ That is, he argued that there were too many people (or at least, would be too many people) in relation to available resources, causing an inevitable issue for humanity. Malthus’ argument was, when boiled down to the most fundamental ingredients, that the Earth could only support so many individuals and that there needed to be some boundary put on how many individuals could be allowed to exist. Culminating in the idea that we should not seek to cure disease, should not seek to curb famine, and should encourage the poor to live in overcrowded and unsanitary environments, and that we should even ‘court the return of the plague’, Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population is not the first piece of eugenical writing, but is certainly one of those most responsible for popularising these perspectives. Malthus’ nonsense drew a response from early English proto-anarchist William Godwin, whose lengthy Of Population opens with the claim that Malthus’ theory is ‘evidently founded upon nothing’.
Why write about this? At least, why write about this now; isn’t there a pandemic going on? Should I not be writing about that? The answer is a simple one, although malignant in its purity; with the world thrown into yet another new flavour of turmoil due to the outbreak and subsequent global spread of COVID-19, there has been an equal rise in opportunism designed primarily to take advantage of the fact that people are scared and worried. Ever the opportunists, and ever the predators of the fearful, one of the most prominent factions in this has been the far right wing, and even more specifically, the eco-fascist movement. Social media has made this even more prevalent, since messages can be distributed widely very quickly and all it takes is a single share for a piece of carefully designed propaganda to leak out from amongst one group into a much wider pool of people who will keep the message going without really being engaged with the original sentiment. It’s easy for somebody to stumble into spreading fascist adjacent ideas without ever really meaning it – but more on that later.
One of the most pernicious roots of eco-fascism is in the eugenics movement that preceded it. While there are clear differences, they are largely differences in tactics rather than sentiment; the eugenicist seeks to sacrifice given groups of individuals to the altar of genetic superiority that they have in their heads, arguing that the existence of whichever group being discussed is a flaw in the species. The eco-fascist seeks to sacrifice groups of individuals to the altar of the environment, arguing that the existence of whichever group is being discussed is a core ingredient in ecological disaster. To return to Bookchin, it can’t be ignored that the groups under discussion are almost always the same in either case; the poorer people, the people of colour, the people who are differently abled.
COVID-19 has drawn much of this discussion into the public sphere. Whereas it’s generally seen as poor taste to refer to groups of people as infections, diseases, and plagues – for good reason – this seems to be forgiven when the group being referred to is non-specific. Hand waving at humanity in general, as if being vague is ethical bulletproofing, gets a pass. It is relatively common today to find another viral tweet with tens of thousands of likes gesturing towards the clearing waters of Venetian canals, or the wandering deer of Japan navigating neon-lit city centres and declaring that the Earth is healing itself; the smog-cleared skies of California receive a probing enquiry – perhaps we were the real virus all along?
Strange as though it may seem, musings of this kind have become more and more common as the weeks have gone by and the evidence of nature ‘reclaiming’ previously populated areas has begun to accumulate. Suffice it to say, there is more than a little of the eco-fascist ideology floating around in the assumptions of that question; when somebody asks if humanity is the ‘real virus’, they set up a system in which the Earth is a being and humanity a problem that needs to be solved. The solution being proposed is rarely stated outright, but it doesn’t have to be because it’s implicit in the question; you cure a virus by getting rid of it. Beneath the surface level wonder at seeing a wild boar shuffle across Italian cobblestones, there is a lurking belief that maybe the world would be better off without us. Or, more commonly, the world would be better off without some of us, with who that some is being left as a blank to be filled in by the subconscious of the questioner. Unquestionably, whoever that somebody is, will be someone else.
It doesn’t take long to see the correlation between the eco-fascist ideal and the underlying logic of this line of reasoning.
Something that is vital to note is this; despite the fact that many of the assumptions of the ‘humans are the real virus’ rhetoric are shared with eco-fascists, not everyone who has spread it or internalised it is necessarily a fascist. Reality is sometimes difficult to parse, especially when so much is happening with such frequency. The difficulty is compounded by modern media, which bombards everybody with a deluge of barely intelligible nonsense composed of equal parts guesswork, blatant lies, misrepresentations, and government stenography. The baseline intuitiveness of the eco-fascist assumptions at work are easy to understand. For an individual lacking a systematic critique but searching for answers, it can be easy to adopt elements of this thought – this means that even people who would ostensibly baulk at the idea of outright genocide being discussed openly, such as liberals or social democrats, are able to buy into and spread the auto-virality meme without ever truly realising the dangerousness that underwrites the entire concept. So what’s the trick? How can this horrible concept become so natural that even relatively pleasant individuals can spread it and accept the logic at its base?
Simply put, there has been a piece of rhetorical trickery here; a bait and switch. We are constantly being told that these apparent ecological recoveries are the result of human beings receding from the world; the more of us that are quarantined or in self-isolation, the fewer of us that there are out and about causing environmental issues. On the surface, this appears to make some kind of sense; the fact that this formulation isn’t immediately and obviously nonsense is the hook that eco-fascists use to draw in even the well-meaning liberal. The trick is to realise that what has primarily changed is not humanity at all – the death toll of COVID-19 is growing, and it is both tragic and politically infuriating, but it hasn’t yet killed the millions, or potentially even billions, that would be required for the change to be attributed to fewer humans. The fact is that there are almost as many human beings today as there were months ago: what has changed is the behaviour of those human beings. That is to say, what has changed, to some degree, has been our modes of social organisation.
The language of the eco-fascist claims that human beings are the problem, and that with their self-isolation – that is, their removal from the system – has come ecological recovery. Such individualised and atomised analysis prevents the ever-important systematic approach; the real problem is capitalism, and it is with the interruptions and staggerings of capitalism that recovery has come along. Deeply embedded in the language of the right wing, the misattribution of the worst elements of capitalism to the mere existence of human beings exists as a dual weapon.
Firstly, it allows them to turn their vitriol upon individuals. Which individuals are chosen as targets is obvious beyond discussion; in this case, the virus has been racialised by members of the right as the ‘Chinese Virus’, a horrible formulation that has come with a rise in anti-Chinese racism and (as a simple visit to the front page of various popular newspapers will reveal) a desire to punish. This has leaked out even into supposedly left-wing and liberal discussions of the subject: a recent collection of essays published by the editorial iniative ASPO bears the name Sopa de Wuhan, (Wuhan Soup), and features essays by the usual list of left and liberal thinkers: Slavoj Žižek makes an appearance, alongside Georgio Agamben, Judith Butler, David Harvey, and Franco Berardi. Secondly, it allows them to imply a connection between the two; to link the existence of capitalism to the existence of individuals and bind them together ideologically; to present capitalism as human and therefore inevitable and inescapable.
It has long been argued that one of the worst impulses of capitalism, and really the one which puts a firm cap on how long it can last, is the requirement for continual growth and expansion. Capitalism, to put it lightly, is greedy and constantly demands more; more production, larger markets, more factories, more profit, and therefore more extraction, more waste-product, more fuel burned, et cetera. When left in the hands of governments and corporations, this tendency is indulged as often and as wantonly as possible. COVID-19 is a virus, and it is not beholden to capitalism, and therefore it doesn’t care that its proliferation puts a spanner in the works. People self isolate, the amount of work that’s being done slows; ‘it’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs, or legal consultants to […] vanish’, David Graeber writes in his book Bullshit Jobs, and mass quarantine and self-isolation has answered the unasked question: humanity would not suffer. These jobs are entirely superfluous and could be done away with; so much of the work humanity does is done purely to keep people occupied, and it has become abundantly clear that this occupation is no good for most people.
Further, with self isolation and the closing of so many workplaces, the number of cars on roads drops, the amount of fuel being burned drops, and the result is some measure of ecological bounce-back. But we all know, and anarchists have argued for a very long time, that nobody needs to die for this kind of thing to happen. Observations that the world has begun ‘recovering’ since the introduction of mass quarantine would be premature – you don’t ‘fix’ the environment in a few weeks – but it’s hard to argue that visibly clearer air isn’t good on at least some level. It would be entirely within the bounds of imagination to do away with millions of cars on the road in any given day and to replace them with better forms of public transport, which serve more people and vastly reduce environmental damage. The abolition of nonsense work and the re-structuring of transport are just two examples of improvements to our lives that are realistic and easy; we simply need to re-organise our society.
Slightly more than a decade ago now, British writer, theorist, and music critic Mark Fisher published his now classic book Capitalist Realism, an attempt to diagnose and decipher the cultural environment of modern capitalism and begin thinking about how we might escape its grasp. To cut a relatively short story – Capitalist Realism is a very brief work – even shorter, Fisher argues that capitalism has been perceptually fused with ‘reality’ in such a way that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism; that capitalism is the ‘only game in town’. He also argues that one of the best ways to point out how artificial and potentially changeable this kind of social organisation is, is to look towards the un-ignorable crises that appear to rip into the fabric of capitalist realism. Fisher chose, in 2009, to use mental health issues, bureaucracy, and incoming climate catastrophe as his examples. Today, these examples loom ever larger, with mental health having been largely ignored and the horrors of apocalyptic climate change bearing down on us with an increasing rage. It is now commonplace to hear statistics claiming that vast swathes of the population have serious issues with depression, anxiety, and a host of other conditions. Similarly, it’s not unusual to turn on the news or (more commonly) open up Twitter and see how yet another wildfire has ravaged yet another country, leaving smoking forests and smouldering corpses behind.
However, we can now add another example to the list of things which lift the veil and expose the levers and pulleys working behind the scenes; COVID-19 has, if nothing else, shown that a pandemic can do much the same as any wildfire. Suddenly a way of life that we were told was inescapable is swept to the side; jobs that we were told were vital become meaningless as offices and executive suites get abandoned and huge portions of the workforce either become unemployed or begin to work from home – workers that have previously been treated as scapegoats or ignored and dismissed as menial and unskilled become ‘essential workers’ without whom no country could stand. This is, of course, the message anarchists and the left in general have been pushing for well over a century; so much of the work we do is unnecessary, and so much of the work that is necessary is demeaned and under-compensated.
Given this perspective, it becomes obvious that the eco-fascist framework in which any given human is part of a planet-wide disease is flawed at the core. Similarly, the diluted and diffused version of their discourse that gets spread around by largely well-meaning people is based on a misconception that confuses a social system with those individuals who take part in it. The outbreak of COVID-19 has, to return to Mark Fisher, thrown aside many of the claims that there is no alternative to our current system, revealing a variety of ‘fractures and inconsistencies in the field of apparent reality’ that make its contingency and fragility all the more obvious. Whatever the government and popular consensus might like us to think, it’s impossible to look at a world where workplace populations can drop so drastically without damaging any vital services and then fail to imagine that things could be different.
The right wing and the state has already taken advantage of this, of course; opportunists, as mentioned earlier, are on top of this kind of thing. Governments across the world have taken this opportunity to hand out enhanced police powers, to enforce lockdowns and punishments for people who might be out of their home too often; Hungary has already managed to skip straight into out-and-out dictatorship, using the pandemic as an accelerant to Orbán’s bigoted fire. As the surface of political discourse shifts, forced into motion by the earthquake that has caused decades of neo-liberal consensus to show the cracks in the foundations, the right wing has taken every chance it can get to push towards its own goals; the left should do the same. Undeniably, there has already been a start; rent strikes have broken out in various countries; General Electric workers have demanded their factories be converted to build ventilators, and mutual aid networks have emerged in their hundreds. Those who consider themselves to be unconcerned with ideology have found that ideology is extremely concerned with them, and the already shaky grip that the centre has had on mainstream discourse for some time has become even more tenuous.
We cannot, however, allow ourselves to be fooled that a crisis will, with some minor coaching from a rent strike, end capitalism or the state. If any credit can be given to apparatuses such as these, it’s that they have demonstrated a remarkable tenacity and the ability to worm their way into surviving nearly any disaster. Anarchists can’t rely on the state to crumble under its own inadequacies; it must be pushed. Mutual aid networks are a fantastic start, despite how many of them have faced internal disruption from party political actors seeking to subvert them into hierarchical structures. The rumblings of worker solidarity found in factory walk-outs, and the backlash against landlords, too, are brilliant beginnings. But true change doesn’t come with a few good signs; there must be increasing pushback against the state, and it must be continuous. COVID-19 has torn a hole in the veil of capitalist realism; what we knew for a long time – that things can be different – is now becoming common knowledge to those who have had their world rocked by this pandemic. Anarchists and other leftists cannot allow any avenue to remain unexplored, or to be reclaimed by the right; the ecological aspect is included in this.
For years, ecological catastrophe has been one of the few continually inescapable tears in capitalist hegemony. For years, it has been looming as a threat, with each news story growing increasingly alarming; scientists have been issuing dire proclamations of end-days deadlines for a long time, and there has been little reason to doubt the legitimacy of these claims. Damage caused by industrial capitalism is there for anyone to see. Visiting a beach, seeing the endless stretches of logged forest, watching species after species vanish into extinction; all of this is undeniable to anybody willing to engage legitimately with the evidence. Capitalism is at extreme contradiction with ecological sustainability. For the eco-fascist, it has been trivial to marry these obvious observations with COVID-19 to introduce a form of self-destructive hippydom; at the core of fascism lies a desire for the end – as the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote, it is a ‘war machine that no longer had anything but war as its object’. Usurping the language of the environmentalist, the eco-fascist sees an opportunity to mask the violence and overt misanthropy of their ideology, but is only that; a mask. Fascism is, at its core, ‘a line of pure destruction’, to return to Deleuze, and any attempt to claim that the true motive is environmental sustainability is transparently absurd. The only true environmentalism is liberatory.
What needs to be enforced by the anarchist movement, at every turn, is the reality of the situation: COVID-19 and the subsequent shuffling of society has not proven that humanity is a curse with which to be done away; it has proven that capitalism is nothing but a series of choices and structures that we make and reinforce everyday, and those choices can be made differently; those structures can be torn down. Claim this moment and these apparent ecological recoveries as ideological, but claim them correctly; if there is something that needs to be sacrificed for the ongoing health of the planet and its inhabitants, it’s capitalism. ■
Jay Fraser is an anarchist, poet, amateur philosopher, and basketball fan. He can be found on Twitter or anywhere that has good coffee.
This article featured in the Organise! Pandemic Special
Polish translation: Federacja Anarchistyczna
Discussion with the author: Anarchist Bookfair In London