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Start of some videos talking about power structures with an emphasis on “people power” in building self determined communities
Fred Hampton (August 30, 1948 – December 4, 1969) was an American activist and revolutionary, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP), and deputy chairman of the national BPP. Hampton and fellow Black Panther Mark Clark were killed during a raid by a tactical unit of the Cook County, Illinois
As soon as next month, the net could become the exclusive plaything of the biggest such corporations, determined to squeeze as much profit as possible out of bandwidth. Meanwhile, the tools to help us engage in critical thinking, dissent and social mobilisation will be taken away as “net neutrality” becomes a historical footnote, a teething phase, in the “maturing” of the internet.
In December the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plans to repeal already compromised regulations that are in place to maintain a semblance of “net neutrality”. Its chairman, Ajit Pai, and the corporations that are internet service providers want to sweep away these rules, just like the banking sector got rid of financial regulations so it could inflate our economies into giant ponzi schemes.
That could serve as the final blow to the left and its ability to make its voice heard in the public square.
It was political leaders – aided by the corporate media – who paved the way to this with their fomenting of a self-serving moral panic about “fake news”. Fake news, they argued, appeared only online, not in the pages of the corporate media – the same media that sold us the myth of WMD in Iraq, and has so effectively preserved a single party system with two faces. The public, it seems, needs to be protected only from bloggers and websites.
The social media giants soon responded. It is becoming ever clearer that Facebook is interfering as a platform for the dissemination of information for progressive activists. It is already shutting down accounts, and limiting their reach. These trends will only accelerate.
Google has changed its algorithms in ways that have ensured the search engine rankings of prominent leftwing sites are falling through the floor. It is becoming harder and harder to find alternative sources of news because they are being actively hidden from view.
Google stepped up that process this week by “deranking” RT and Sputnik, two Russian news sites that provide an important counterweight – even if one skewed in its pro-Russia agenda – to the anti-Russia propaganda spouted by western corporate media. The two sites will be as good as censored on the internet for the vast majority of users.
RT is far from a perfect source of news – no state or corporate media is – but it is a vital voice to have online. It has become a sanctuary for many seeking alternative, and often far more honest, critiques both of western domestic policy and of western interference in far-off lands. It has its own political agenda, of course, but, despite the assumption of many western liberals, it provides a far more accurate picture of the world than the western corporate media on a vast range of issues.
That is for good reason. Western corporate media is there to shore up prejudices that have been inculcated in western audiences over a lifetime – the chief one being that western states rightfully act as well-meaning, if occasionally bumbling, policemen trying to keep order among other, unruly or outright evil states around the globe.
The media and political class can easily tap into these prejudices to persuade us of all sorts of untruths that advance western interests. To take just one example – Iraq. We were told Saddam Hussein had ties to al-Qaeda (he didn’t and could not have had); that Iraq was armed with WMD (it wasn’t, as UN arms inspectors tried to tell us); and that the US and UK wanted to promote democracy in Iraq (but not before they had stolen its oil). There may have been opposition in the west to the invasion of Iraq, but little of it was driven by an appreciation that these elements of the official narrative were all easily verified as lies.
RT and other non-western news sources in English provide a different lens through which we can view such important events, perspectives unclouded by a western patrician agenda.
They and progressive sites are being gradually silenced and blacklisted, herding us back into the arms of the corporate propagandists. Few liberals have been prepared to raise their voices on behalf of RT, forgetting warnings from history, such as Martin Niemoller’s anti-Nazi poem “First they came for the socialists”.
The existing rules of “net neutrality” are already failing progressives and dissidents, as the developments I have outlined above make clear. But without them, things will get even worse. If the changes are approved next month, internet service providers (ISPs), the corporations that plug us into the internet, will also be able to decide what we should see and what will be out of reach.
Much of the debate has focused on the impact of ending the rules on online commercial ventures. That is why Amazon and porn sites like Pornhub have been leading the opposition. But that is overshadowing the more significant threat to progressive sites and already-embattled principles of free speech.
ISPs will be given a much freer hand to determine the content we can can get online. They will be able to slow down the access speeds of sites that are not profitable – which is true for activist sites, by definition. But they may also be empowered to impose Chinese-style censorship, either on their own initiative or under political pressure. The fact that this may be justified on commercial, not political, grounds will offer little succour.
Those committed to finding real news may be able to find workarounds. But this is little consolation. The vast majority of people will use the services they are provided with, and be oblivious to what is no longer available.
If it takes an age to access a website, they will simply click elsewhere. If a Google search shows them only corporately approved results, they will read what is on offer. If their Facebook feed declines to supply them with “non-profitable” or “fake” content, they will be none the wiser. But all of us who care about the future will be the poorer.
Opening Up Francis McKee
In November 2003, Wired magazine published an article on the rise of the open source movement, claiming that. “We are at a convergent moment, when a philosophy, a strategy, and a technology have aligned to unleash great innovation.”
Open source ideology has now moved beyond the coding and programming to inform the broader fields of information and content distribution. At this level it acquired the power to fundamentally change the way in which society is organised.[expand title=”trigger more text”]
The term ‘open source’ originally referred to the development of computer software. Rather than a propriety piece of software that a customer would buy but could not then modify, open source software is developed collaboratively by many programmers and the source code is shared freely in the public realm thereby allowing anyone to modify or improve it. Often the programmers developing this software are volunteers, part of a larger collective enterprise producing reliable products that are then in competition with those sold by corporations.
The most obvious success story in open source must be the development of the Linux operating system. In 1991, a Finnish student called Linus Torvalds began writing a new computer program and solicited help via the internet from other volunteer programmers or hackers. Within a few years their exchange of information had spawned a global network of participants who had created a new operating system that was more reliable than many commercial alternatives. And it was free.
As Thomas Goetz points out in his Wired article1, this use of collective intelligence has spread far beyond the basics of computing:
Software is just the beginning. Open source has spread to other disciplines, from the hard sciences to the liberal arts. Biologists have embraced open source methods in genomics and informatics, building massive databases to genetically sequence E. coli, yeast, and other workhorses of lab research. NASA has adopted open source principles as part of its Mars mission, calling on volunteer “clickworkers” to identify millions of craters and help draw a map of the Red Planet. There is open source publishing: With Bruce Perens, who helped define open source software in the ’90s, Prentice Hall is publishing a series of computer books open to any use, modification,
or redistribution, with readers’ improvements considered for succeeding editions. There are library efforts like Project Gutenberg, which has already digitized more than 6,000 books, with hundreds of volunteers typing in, page by page, classics from Shakespeare to Stendhal; at the same time, a related project, Distributed Proofreading, deploys legions of copy editors to make sure the Gutenberg texts are correct. There are open source projects in law and religion. There’s even an open source cookbook.
ROOTS AND SOURCES
Open source ideology is closely bound up with the right to free speech and it is argued that there are links between the rise of the free speech movement in Berkeley in the early 1960s and the later developments in software in the same locality. Ironically, it is an attack: on machinery that lies at the heart of the most celebrated moment of the free speech movement. Concluding a speech on the Berkeley campus in December 1964, activist Mario Savio declared :
There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!
In his history of free software, Andrew Leonard3 cites a graduate student from Berkeley at that period who was familiar with both the free speech movement and knew the developing Unix software scene in the area:
Gage grins. Berkeley Unix, he proposes, offered a different way forward from the painful agony of hurling oneself into the operation of a demonic crankshaft. Berkeley Unix, with its source code available to all who wanted it, was the “gears and levers” of the machine. By promoting access to the source code, to the inner workings of that machine, the free-software/open-source movement empowered people to place their hands on the gears and levers, to take control of their computers, their Internet, their entire technological infrastructure.
“The open-source movement is a free speech movement,” says Gage. “Source code looks like poetry, but it’s also a machine—words that do. Unix opens up the discourse in the machinery because the words in Unix literally cause action, and those actions will cause other actions”
It wasn’t just the free speech movement however that provided the context for the development of free software in Berkeley. As the hippie culture evolved in San Francisco it also spawned groups that began to formulate ideas and practical solutions that would provide a framework for an ‘alternative’ society. One of the most important of these groups were the Diggers, activists who tried to create an infrastructure for the burgeoning Haight-Ashbury scene. Their work ranged from radical street theatre to more practical support for the communities appearing across the city, setting up free clinics and soup kitchens. Like Mario Savio, they vilified an industrial culture that folded man into machine though they identify computers as a means to free people from this relationship. In ‘Trip Without, a Ticket’, they state that Industrialization was a battle with 19th-century ecology to win breakfast at the cost of smog and insanity. Wars against ecology are suicidal. The U.S. standard of living is a bourgeois baby blanket for executives who scream in their sleep. No Pleistocene swamp could match the pestilential horror of modern urban sewage. No (children of White Western Progress will escape the dues of peoples forced to haul their raw materials.
But the tools (that’s all factories are) remain innocent and the ethics of greed aren’t necessary. Computers render the principles of wage-labor obsolete by incorporating them. We are being freed from mechanistic consciousness. We could evacuate the factories, turn them over to androids, clean up our pollution. North Americans could give up self-righteousness to expand their being.
This vision grows into a declaration of a free economy that is linked to a freedom of human impulses:
The Diggers are hip to property. Everything is free, do your own thing. Human beings are the means of exchange. Food, machines, clothing, materials, shelter and props are simply there. Stuff. A perfect dispenser would be an open Automat on the street. Locks are time-consuming. Combinations are clocks.
So a store of goods or clinic or restaurant that is free becomes a social art form. Ticketless theatre. Out of money and control.
“First you gotta pin down what’s wrong with the West. Distrust of human nature, which means distrust of Nature. Distrust of wildness in oneself literally means distrust of Wilderness.” (Gary Snyder).
Diggers assume free stores to liberate human nature. First free the space, goods and services. Let theories of economics follow social facts. Once a free store is assumed, human wanting and giving, needing and taking, become wide open to improvisation.
Written in 1968, these statements provided a Utopian blueprint for the communes and alternative cultures that followed. The practical realities of such schemes often meant they crashed quickly or descended into the same power struggles and petty greed of the society they were supposed to replace. Some practitioners though found practical applications of these ideas in a limited form which worked and revealed alternative economic models which were viable. One remarkable example was the archetypal hippie band, The Grateful Dead, who tacitly permitted the taping of their concert by fans. This led to the formation of a tape-swapping community that bypassed the traditional economics of the recording industry where music was heavily protected by copyright and taping was perceived as a threat. One taper, Alexis Muellner, recalls the events that sprang up around the tapes :
Software is just the beginning. Open source has spread to other disciplines, from the hard sciences to the liberal arts.
The beauty of it was that we were doing our part to expand the taping phenomenon by educating more and more people, and helping to unlock mysteries surrounding the tapes…At the same time, we spread the magic of the music through our events, which then went beyond just the music. They became a fertile ground for exploring artistic and creative freedom through multimedia, dance, and improvisation – some of the same themes the Acid Tests explored. In doing all of this we were creating a large community of active Deadheads in western Massachusetts, who in turn were sharing the music with all of their friends. It was a classic snowball effect.
The tapes not only spread the word about the Grateful Dead’s music but spawned a whole new series of cultural events. The real economic impact of this phenomenon only became clear long after the demise of the Haight-Ashbury culture. By the eighties, the band seldom recorded but toured prodigiously. The tapes in circulation generated such a reputation for the group that they consistently expanded their fan base and established themselves in a secure, and lucrative, position outside the trends of pop or fashion.
THE FREE WORLD
It was within this radical, Utopian context that programmers at Berkeley developed the world’s first standard operating system for computers – Unix. While few of these programmers were active radicals themselves, the general spirit of the region at the time certainly seems to have permeated their labs and gelled with a general academic respect for the sharing of knowledge. As Andrew Leonard6 points out, the most striking aspect of the Berkeley coders was their attitude:
Berkeley’s most important contribution was not software; it was the way Berkeley created software. At Berkeley, a small core group — never more than four people at any one time — coordinated the contributions of an ever-growing network of far- flung, mostly volunteer programmers into progressive releases of steadily improving software. In so doing, they codified a template for what is now referred to as the ‘open-source software development methodology.’ Put more simply, the Berkeley hackers set up a system for creating free software.
This general spirit of freedom and cooperation would have consequences that eventually reverberated far beyond Berkeley. Richard Stallman, a programmer who worked at Harvard in the ’70s, practiced a similar philosophy of sharing, establishing an ‘informal rule’ that if he distributed free copies of the software he was developing, hackers would send any improvements they made baCk to him. When Stallman’s lab community of hackers was eventually drawn into a private company in the ’80s, Stallman retaliated by matching their innovations program by program (distributing his work freely) in an unprecedented bout of coding that lasted almost two years. Setting up GNU in 1984, an organisation dedicated to ‘free software’, Stallman laid the foundations for the emergence of the open source movement in the ’90s.
At the same time, the world’s media was being transformed by several key developments. The video recorder was about to become a domestic commonplace, revolutionising viewing habits for cinema and television as films became infinitely reproducible. For musicians, the rise of sampling technology revealed an equally radical future as elements of one song could be lifted and then dropped into an entirely new musical context. The economics of cultural property and intellectual copyright began to be Challenged in ways in whiCh the movie industry, the music business and the art world had not foreseen.
THE NEW WORLD
In the early 21st century ‘open source’ begins to make sense of many of these developments. The ’90s saw traditional media industries flounder as they attempted to come to terms with a changing world where Napster, video pirates and web publishing overturned previous certainties for good. Now, recent initiatives in science and business are beginning to describe a new landscape. Looking at ways in which open source could benefit his business, for instance, Paul Everitt, of Digital Creations explains:
Thus, the question was, “Can going open source increase the value of our company?” Here’s what we saw:
Going open source will increase our user base by a factor of 100 within three months. Wider brand and stronger identity leads to more consulting and increased valuation on our company.
Open source gives rock solid, battle-tested, bulletproof software on more platforms and with more capabilities than closed source, thus increasing the value of our consulting.
Fostering a community creates an army of messengers, which is pretty effective marketing.
This is not the last innovation we’ll make.
In the status quo, the value of packaging the software as a product would approach zero, as we had zero market penetration. What is the value of a killer product with few users? The cost to enter the established web application server market was going to be prohibitive.
The investment grows us into a larger, more profitable company, one that can make a credible push to create a platform via open source. Since our consulting is only on the platform, a strong platform is imperative.
Open source makes the value of our ideas more apparent, thus the perceived value of the company is apparent.
Our architecture is ‘safer’ for consulting customers. With thousands of people using it, the software is far less marginal. The customer is able to fix things themselves or reasonably find someone to do it for them. Finally, the software will “exist forever”. Dramatically increasing the base of users and sites using it gives us a tremendous boost in “legitimacy”.
The exit plan isn’t about the golden eggs (the intellectual property) laid last year. It is about the golden goose and tomorrow’s golden eggs. The shelf life of eggs these days is shrinking dramatically, and the value of an egg that no one knows about is tiny. Give the eggs away as a testament to the value of the goose and a prediction of eggs to come. The community can work with us to dramatically increase the pace of innovation and responsiveness to new technical trends, such as XML and WebDAV.
Ride the coattails of the nascent Open Source community and its established Channels suCh as RedHat. OSS has a certain buzz that is greater than its real customer-closing value, but this buzz is getting hot. Moving aggressively towards Open Source can make us a category killer for the web application server market segment.
Perhaps the developments in science have been even more surprising. Interviewing biologist Michael Eisen, Thomas Goetz (2003) discovered that older models for scientific publishing are in decay:
“The guiding principle of science has been that freely available material is more useful; it’s more likely to generate better science,” Eisen says. But freely available is not the same as free of Charge. Science journals, with their historically narrow readerships, often charge thousands for a subscription. One of the biggest disseminators is Elsevier, the science publishing unit of an Anglo-Dutch media conglomerate, which distributes some 1,700 academic journals, from Advances in Enzyme Regulation to Veterinary Parasitology.
“The whole premise for that model just evaporated with the Internet,” Eisen continues. “Technology now makes openness possible; it’s maximum openness. The rules of the game have changed, but the system has failed to respond.” Proof that the scientific community at large have recognised this failure came in 2003 when TheWellcome Trust: produced a position statement on scientific publishing that acknowledged the value of open source8:
With recent advances in Internet publishing, the Trust is aware that there are a number of new models for the publication of research results and will encourage initiatives that broaden the range of opportunities for quality research to be widely disseminated and freely accessed.
The Wellcome Trust therefore supports open and unrestricted access to the published output of research, including the open access model (defined below), as a fundamental part of its charitable mission and a public benefit to be encouraged wherever possible.
This statement returns science to the spirit of the early natural philosophers sharing discoveries through networks of letters and journals such as the Transactions of the Royal Society.
With the acceptance of open source ideas in such areas of society it becomes more likely that these concepts will have a lasting impact. The collapse of the dot com bubble proved that older models of entrepreneurship lack the intuitive grasp of the internet as a medium and do not yet comprehend the odd mix of gift economy and commerce that have shaped its development. A more agile approach now seems necessary for any entrepreneur entering this new economy.
THE CCA – CENTRE FOR CONTEMPORARY ARTS IN GLASGOW
In 2006 CCA began to develop an ‘open source’ approach to its organisational structure as a pragmatic response to the expansion of the building in 2001. The lottery refurbishment of CCA added greatly increased the size of the building which now occupied most of the Greek Thomson structure, and all of the 19th villa behind it. The organisation struggled economically to fill such a large set of spaces and the aggressive business model that accompanied the new building did not work with the kind of programming that was expected by CCA’s audiences. It was clear though that the new building has fine resources, excellent gallery spaces, an acoustically perfect performance space, a dramatic central courtyard with a restaurant, a wood workshop, a small cinema, an artist’s flat. And Glasgow is a city with a large artists community, a great music scene, audiences hungry for film, literature and performance. It seemed clear that the building had much to contribute to those wider groups. In its debilitated state in 2006, the preciousness
The collapse of the dot com bubble proved that older models of entrepreneurship lack the intuitive grasp of the internet as a medium
of the building as a ‘lottery jewel’ had also faded. This gave us an opportunity to ‘repurpose’ several spaces. The bookshop space that felt misplaced became a third gallery on the ground floor. CCA office spaces that felt overly luxurious became a hack-lab and the Creative Lab residency space. Glasgow Life came in to support an independent programme for Intermedia Gallery which had become unmoored from King Street. Initially through word-of-mouth the theatre, clubroom and cinema were made available to artists and organisations that needed temporary project space.
When it became clear that offering the space in this way was useful and supportive to other organisations we started to formalise the process. For artists and organisations with minimal funding we would offer space for free. Technicians and Front of House staff would have to be paid for if needed but we offered our staff at cost, taking no profit from the organisations. Of course, if organisations clearly had additional funding we would charge for the space but still at a subsidised rate. The galleries on the ground floor remain at the heart of CCA’s own programme and are programmed solely by our own curatorial team.
To make this policy work two elements are vital. The first is co-ordination. As activities grew in the building, we created a role for someone to liaise and co- ordinate the multiple events across the building. The second vital element involves selection. Clearly such a policy could easily be taken advantage of or it could quickly become a kaleidoscope of random events. To prevent this, each event and every partner programme is considered internally and every new event must be proposed to the CCA.
Our criteria for inclusion in the programme are based on a wide variety of things. Quality is a priority and we also give a great deal of consideration to whether the proposal is appropriate to CCA. Our programme stresses experimental work and activities that cannot be easily housed in other venues. So, for instance mainstream theatre proposals are not a high priority as there are many venues
across the city that are better suited to those proposals. Equally, proposals that tend to demand high amounts of rehearsal time are not high priorities as they occupy space that could be used by other, more public, activities.
Over several years we have built up many long term partners through this open source policy. Regular users tend to come to. us at the beginning of the year and speak to us about dates across the entire year. The benefits for everyone from this include a much greater feeling of ownership of the space by a wider spectrum of the arts community. The openness of the programme also brings in a broader variety of audiences and helps us break down some of the barriers to access that can easily grow around an art centre. The building can provide support for a large section of the arts
community in the city and the programme can reflect more cultural perspectives than our small team could achieve on its own. Perhaps the bottom fine is we hope the activity cultural momentum and diversity of the programme demonstrates the best possible use of public funding for the arts in the city.
Opening up Francis McKee
Source: East End Transmissions I 15
Radical Imagination Project. Updates from around the community
The financial crisis of 2008 was not just a crisis of the global economy but also a crisis of the “home ownership dream.” The bursting of the debt bubble has placed the possibility of owning a home beyond the reach of an entire generation. In the US, the UK, Ireland, Spain and many countries affected by the financial crash, renting is on the rise for the first time in a century. This is much more than a shift in housing tenures; it represents a shift in the politics of housing.[expand title=”trigger more text”]
Rent increases and evictions have become key issues and even the standard of accommodation and overcrowding, in a throwback to the early decades of the twentieth century, are major challenges. The shift to renting means that more wealth is being transferred from low-income households to wealthy investors, where the former have no possibility for the formation of housing wealth through ownership and the latter are increasingly driven by financialized dynamics. The inequality at stake here is not just about wealth: renters typically have weak rights in terms of security of tenure and the regulation of rents, and as such evictions, frequent moves and abysmal quality properties are the norm.
From individual crisis to collective organizing
Against this backdrop, a new generation of grassroots organizations are emerging to challenge landlords and government and to organize tenants. Three such organizations set up in recent years are:
- Living Rent (LR), a Scottish tenant organization with branches in a number of cities. It was established in 2014 and has recently expanded into a national union of tenants.
- The Dublin Tenants Association (DTA), in which I participate. It describes itself as a space for tenants to come together to fight for their right to housing. It was established in late 2014 as a volunteer, tenant-led group. The association engages in peer-support, campaigning and advocacy.
- The London Renters Union (LRU), a soon-to-be-launched project created by a number of London housing groups with the intention of fighting “for a fair deal for renters and to build the power we need to transform our housing system.”
These organizations are developing new ways of responding to the growing conflict between tenants and landlords and between housing as a right and housing as a financialized asset. They aim to become more than radical activist groups, but rather to organize tenants en masse and to change the structural conditions and policies which condemn tenants to a life of high rents, frequent evictions and low-quality housing.
All the organizations mentioned above are involved in collective action in response to individual issues, in particular rent increases, evictions and poor housing standards. This involves providing information about tenants’ rights, negotiating with landlords, media campaigns targeting specific landlords and taking legal cases. For tenant organizers this is about tenants working together to fight for their rights, rather than charity.
Renting can be an isolating and individualizing experience. The only time a tenant is likely to reach out to others is during a particular moment of crisis, such as a rent increase or eviction. These moments provide the possibility to de-individualize the experience of renting, but also to politicize that experience by showing that by working together tenants can change their reality.
Yet this kind of “case work” brings its own challenges — and not just in terms of the considerable resources it requires. It risks drifting into a kind of charity-based service provision and even produce a dynamic whereby the activist becomes a kind of housing rights expert, with the tenant passively receiving their help. This is something tenant organizations are currently negotiating. The challenge is to find a way of organizing that collectivizes and politicizes individual experiences in a way that strengthens agency.
Campaigning for change
Behind these individual experiences are wider social structures that perpetuate the conditions tenants face. If these structures are not challenged the individual crises they give rise to will be reproduced indefinitely. Renters in the private sector, unlike homeowners and social-housing tenants, have extremely limited rights on all fronts, and the sector has been subject to deep deregulation. The result is that the rental sector is the “wild west” of the housing system, peppered with irrational and dysfunctional policies that even the febrile mind of the most fundamentalist neoliberal would struggle to defend.
Living Rent emerged as a national tenants’ organization in response to a consultation opened by the Scottish government in relation to security of tenure. In common with England and Wales, Scotland had one of the weakest forms of security of tenure in Europe. The inclusion of “no fault evictions” meant that tenants enjoyed effectively zero security. LR used this opportunity to engage with tenants, to shape debate and discourse around tenants’ rights and to impact on policy change.
Their main tactic was to set up street stalls and go “door-knocking” to engage tenants, inform them of the consultation and encourage them to make a submission to the consultation process. They designed a postcard addressed to the relevant government department, which tenants could fill out. At the end of the process, Living Rent delivered sacks full of the postcard submissions to the consultation process. The focus of LR’s campaign was on security of tenure including ending “no fault evictions” and securing long-term security for tenants. However, rent levels, which were not originally included within the consultation process, were also raised by LR, and their campaign included a demand for rent controls.
The Dublin Tenants Association, meanwhile, also conducted a campaign for rent controls and security of tenure in the context of a government consultation process in 2016. Tenants were asked to take photos of themselves holding a placard stating the impact of high rents on their lives and share them on social media. This was the first time, at least in recent decades, that tenants have featured as an organized and public voice in debates about housing.
The campaigns conducted by LR and the DTA met with a surprising level of success. Particularly in the case of LR, policy reforms were introduced that far exceeded what might have been anticipated. Indefinite security of tenure was introduced and regulation of rent increases, which was initially not even included in the policy agenda, was also introduced. A form of rent control has also been introduced in Ireland, as well as moderate reforms to security of tenure, although this was a result of a concerted campaign by a variety of civil society actors, in particular housing charities, and cannot solely be attributed to the DTA.
Successes and challenges
A number of factors help explain the effectiveness of these campaigns. Firstly, both DTA and LR achieved a very effective and informed engagement with policy. This has also been a strength of Generation Rent, one of the constituent groups of the London Renters Union. In critiquing current policy and developing alternatives, examples from other European countries were also important. For example, both DTA and LR were able to point to data from countries such as Denmark and Austria to show that tight regulation of rent increases is compatible with adequate supply of rental accommodation.
A second theme is effective engagement with the media. This is enormously facilitated by a firm understanding of policy detail, which makes possible credible arguments and proposals but also allows activists to combat anti-tenant perspectives. Media work was further facilitated by the fact that none of these countries have heretofore had organizations representing or advocating for tenants as a specific social group (at least not in recent decades). This created a vacuum that tenant organizations could fill.
Tenant organizations have furthermore developed a language to speak from a tenants’ perspective, reflecting the experiences of tenants but also articulating “tenants” as specific social actors and as a collective. Creating this sense of collectivity is a specific goal of tenant organizations to counter the individualizing nature of renting. The DTA, for example, set out from the beginning to develop a language through which to speak to and for tenants, based closely on their experiences rather than relying on a traditional left-wing discourse to produce a readymade critique of the rental sector. This is not just a case of “representing tenants” and communicating with them, but a case of speaking as tenants.
There are, however, a number of challenges in campaigning for renters’ rights. There is a danger of falling into a representational politics in which tenants become almost a “consumer group,” whose interests need to be factored into the policy process. This depoliticizes the fundamental antagonism between renters and landlords, and between a home as a right and as a speculative asset. It also potentially divides tenants in the private rental sector from those in social housing.
Furthermore, there are class divisions and other forms of stratification operating within the rental sector. This is typically ignored by media reports, which tend to focus on a “generation rent” consisting exclusively of “young professionals.” Minorities, migrants and female-headed households are very significantly over-represented within the rental sector, but may be underrepresented in tenant organizations. The London Renters Union has paid particular attention to this issue and organized extensive engagement designed to create an inclusive organization that is led by the different social groups that make up renters.
Unionizing and organizing tenants
Of the three organizations discussed here, two have established themselves as tenants unions, meaning they have a fee-paying membership structure. Tenants formally join the union, pay monthly due, are able to participate in decision-making, and are eligible for support such as legal advice.
The power of the union model is that it can combine and strengthen both casework and campaigning, the two principal forms of action which tenant organizations are already engaged in, and as such achieve the kind of mass-scale required to bring about structural change. In particular, a fee-paying membership creates independent revenue, which allows for hiring paid staff. LR and the LRU both view paid staff as a prerequisite for organizing effectively on a mass scale, and have either already hired staff or are in the process of doing so.
The DTA is more agnostic about the benefits of a somewhat professionalized structure. Indeed, all of the organizations are concerned about the political questions at stake in creating a well-structured union with paid staff, and this will no doubt be a challenge to be confronted — and hopefully overcome — as the organizations develop.
The DTA, LR and LRU are certainly not the only grassroots tenant organizations springing up across Europe. Acorn, the grassroots “community union,” is organizing around tenants’ rights in a number of English cities, and renters’ unions have recently been launched in both Barcelona and Madrid. The proliferation of these groups tells us something important about how the politics of housing is changing today. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, the focus among many researchers and activists was on the issue of housing debt and the associated forms of social conflict and activism. Mortgage arrears and repossession have been important political issues in Ireland and the United States, but most significantly for the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH) in Spain.
However, new banking regulation and more stringent credit standards coupled with declining wages and job security make accessing mortgages increasingly difficult. Today, the principal drivers of housing inequality are not excessive debt levels but exclusion from access to credit and homeownership. As households find themselves increasingly relegated to the rental sector for life, and with social housing continuing its decline, the types of issues which dominated “the housing question” in the early twentieth century have returned to prominence: rent increases, evictions, overcrowding rack-renting, and so on.
Political and social conditions today are, however, markedly different. The tenant organizations of the past typically organized in locally concentrated, neighborhood-based working-class communities characterized by relatively high levels of homogeneity and well-formed social networks. Much like the situation faced in precarious workplaces, today’s tenant organizers confront a highly fragmented and individualized rental sector. The challenge, then, is not just to mobilize tenants but to create a shared sense of being a tenant in the first place, as well as the social relations, forms of discourse and shared culture of organizing and political practice required to sustain any successful movement.
Propaganda for beginners. Never a better time to to take note of the nature of the propaganda machine at election time when it’s in full swing. When its tactics become unguarded, blatant and raw.
A group of us are trying to bring May Day back to the Green and make it
what it was meant to be, a family day, a fun day, a day to celebrate the
solidarity of the working class. Continue reading