Activism, Capitalism, economy, essay, Socialism

A Short Marxist Discourse on Land and Property Rent

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            The system of tenant renter based housing has been at the center of socialist and housing rights movements throughout the world. The exploitative practice of collecting rent from a group of renters living on property owned and operated by a largely unaccountable landlord (the term itself a left over from the pre-capitalist feudal economies) has long been a plague upon the working classes. The structure of a rental property agreement is largely a pyramid scheme that can be manipulated and shaped to fit the needs of the landlord and his interest in making a profit off of the workers and families who rent his property. This of course is not all the fault of the landlord; the system of regressive and restrictive property taxation and the dearth of government participation in creating affordable safe housing. Though referring in particular to arable land rents, Marx  in his essay Rent of Land makes a general point about the landlord/renter system that is equally valid when applied to modern day rental housing: “the rent of land [or the property thereon] is established as the result of the struggle between tenant and landlord” (The emphasis is Marx’s). Marx goes on to quote Adam Smith:

               “The rent of land, therefore, considered as the price paid for the use of the land, is naturally a monopoly price. It is not at all proportioned to what the landlord may have laid out upon the improvement of the land, or to what he can afford to take; but to what the farmer can afford to give.”  

            This goes to the inherent corruption in the rental system; there is no accountability or reckoning when it comes to how rental rates are established or how the income made therefrom is used to improve the properties or reduce rental rates. There is indeed an incentive built in to the arraignment that rewards the landlord for maintaining substandard conditions and a high or even punitive rent. The drive towards profitability, the capitalistic ethos that underpins the belligerent relationship between renter and landlord, and the bias in favor of the landlord and landowner inherent in most forms of local and state governments, makes certain that renters are always, or at least nearly always, the loser in the equation.

            It is a fact that much in the way of making a rental property habitable is taken up by the renter himself. In my personal experience as a renter, I have found that the landlord often will not take the initiative in improving the property or repairing appliances or utilities. Indeed, some landlords structure the rental agreement so as to put as much responsibility for the upkeep and maintenance of the property and appliances/utilities into the hands of the renter, without a commensurate reduction in rent. There is therefore no incentive for the landlord to repair property, as he controls the rate of rent totally, and a punitive mandate for the renter to maintain the property at a potential loss to his personal income. This situation is alluded to by Marx, once more quoting Smith:

“…Improvements, besides, are not always made by the stock of the landlord, but sometimes by that of the tenant. When the lease comes to be renewed, however, the landlord commonly demands the same augmentation of rent as if they had been all made by his own.” (From Rent of Land)

            In fact, the agricultural renter/tenant has the potential advantage of deriving some sustenance or income form the property rented. The housing renter simply does not have that option. What, then, is the renter/tenant to do to bring equity and justice to the situation? The answer is nothing, nothing, at least, within the confines of the current capitalist land renting/taxation/purchasing system. There must be a radical departure from the current way renters are treated and indeed how they rent. We cannot expect such change to come from above, indeed capitalist control over the governmental apparatus and political system precludes this. So the change must come from us, the renters and the workers. Since we do not have a viable democratic socialist system and structure with which to work in we must make do with the system we have, and to come at it from a revolutionary and counter-capitalist perspective.

            The cultural disdain extant today against the renting of property, usually purely for housing purposes in this day and age, is in America largely a result of the bias against the working classes and the poor in general. The renting of property is an implicit acknowledgement of defeat in the pursuit of the American dream of owning property and transcending the bounds of welfare state which as implemented is as much use for the humiliation as for the benefit of the working classes. This is of course a somewhat hilarious prejudice given the pitiful and criminal system of mortgage and finance available to the middle class. As the recent housing market collapse has shown us, renting is not the financially unsounds option claimed by so many gurus of personal economics. The renting system merely puts the renter in a more dramatic and visceral situation vis a vis the exploitative market forces at play; the landlord can find resource in archaic and punitive renters laws and has direct control over the circumstances and obligations that must be maintained in order to secure housing. The home owner, or rather mortgage owner given the realities of the system put in place for the purchase and financing of housing, has a few levels of corporate and banking bureaucracy between him and the visage of his exploiter, but he does exist to exploit him nonetheless.

            The state of affairs is of course violently opposed to the interests of the proletariat because there is no recourse available to the renter against the whims of the landlord. The landlord holds the deed and directly pays the taxes on the property, and as the renter has no legal right to negotiate a more equitable arrangement (nor is there even an expectation of such parity between the two parties) there can be no law but whim and personal greed. This is a remnant of a feudal system that never hid its intent to exploit and constrain the proletariat. Marx said

               “It is absurd to conclude, as Smith does, that since the landlord exploits [through the collection of rent] every benefit which comes to society, the interest of the landlord is always identical with that of society.” [Rent of Land]

            This of course begs the question, how can land be seen as property? Upon what basis does one man transfer ownership of fixed area of earth to another? And why should the basic human need of shelter be subject to the whims of those seeking to derive profit? These are question I do not presently have an answer for but it should be the pursuit of a contemporary socialism to puzzle it out and elucidate a theory upon whose foundation a new system can be created.

 

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