Activism, Capitalism, economy, essay, Socialism

A Short Marxist Discourse on Land and Property Rent

John_Constable_-_The_Hay-Wain_-_WGA5191

            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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Capitalism, poetry, Socialism

Untitled

MullerDeath

The body is

a hungry thing

and it eats whatever

It can reach

It feeds upon the largesse

of the land

And its people

The body has an appetite

That cannot be satiated

So it consumes and

Hoovers up

The bounty of the world

It grows strong as the people

Starve

The body has no remorse

Not an ounce of humanity

It reaches out for all it wants

And munches greedily

It packs on the pounds

As the world grows skeletal

The body is a glutton and a fiend

It gobbles up societies and

Chews them up

Like a cow with its cud

The body masticates

And annihilates

And digests

And eliminates indiscriminately

Across the face of mankind

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Capitalism, Communism, economy, essay, Existentialism, Philosophy, Politics

Cyclops

Kulturgeschichte / Industrie / H¸ttenwerke / Walzwerke

Imagine if you will a foolish paradigm; a notion you may soon enough choose to forget. But imagine just the same. See the world as it is; riven, tempestuous, “everywhere man in chains”. There are mechanisms in the world, institutions and cabals. Not in a sense that an idiot would have you understand; no Bilderberg or Soros boardrooms or Masons. No something much more banal then all that. Governments and representative bodies, capitals and palaces and parliaments and cathedrals. All beautiful outward expressions of civil vitality and republican freedom. But of course the republic is shadow box, playing off the dreams and yearnings of catered nationalist sentiment. No real passion, no real potency, no real ambition. Just threadbare panache disguised as a national dialogue.

The world as it is, as it truly is, the people as they are, do not crave influence or ambition without limit. We do not look into the eyes of a golden god and hope for a lifetime gifted with the Midas touch.

We look deeply, longingly into the eye of a Cyclops. It is the eye that looks back whenever a man contemplates his life and work. Adolph von Menzel painted a masterwork called Steel Rolling Mill, but it is often called the Cyclops for the glowing furnace that stands gaping and glaring at the center of the composition. All working human beings know something of this eye, this point of contemplation and desperation. It is a life that stares back, a lifetime of work or worry or stress or fear condensed and floating like a collapsing star in the midst of an existence of existence, of the reality of pain and work and love and pleasure. The working human being is always watched by the Cyclops, by this beast of spiritual burden bourn by everyone not born sucking on silverware. No one but a true human being, a true member of the proletariat, can contend with this boogey of subtle, satisfying angst. No millionaire or potentate can understand the withering gaze of expectation, want, shame and lust that every human being who wants for anything must contend with at every moment from birth until death. Only the poor know this Cyclops. The rich can only comprehend a blind fate.

The perversion of government, the true friend of this Cyclops, this beast, makes us reluctant anarchists; not wanting misrule or the collapse of the social contract, but a mode of ruling ourselves without any sort of system built upon the inherent mistrust of the people, the proletariat. The problem with the current manifestation of the left wing is that it expects revolutionary results from a system inherently antithetical to the notion. We celebrate a democracy that never existed, a promise that was never fulfilled and we espouse in the name of institutions, values we never really practiced. There can be no democracy in a republican system, in a capitalist system, indeed in a system that does not recognize the inherent drive for comfort, happiness, love and improvement that define the human animal. There is no innate drive to wealth and there is no natural craving for the exploitation of others. This is taught, inculcated and is indeed mimicked without thought by generations who saw nothing but a celebration of greed and largesse in their societies and culture. There is no natural monopolist or millionaire. Humans want a more rich reward and have a simpler creed: respect, mutual and unforced, and love unyielding and understanding.

Why not try things anew? Why not risk death or pain in the pursuit of peace and happiness? You do already now, and within the current system any such satisfaction will be perpetually deferred. If you are being pushed over the edge why not then just jump? Perhaps you will land on your feet. Perhaps you can live to see the day when the working part of humanity looks back into the eye of the Cyclops and force him to blink. It was a foolish paradigm, I know that now, and you should not feel guilty for forgetting about it all.

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Activism, Capitalism, Communism, economy, Free Market, Socialism

Socialism, Capitalism, and Bill Moyers

Economist-Richard-Wolff-via-screencap-615x345

[Analysis of the Moyers and Company interview of Dr. Richard Wolff airing 22/2/13

All quotes from the show are in italics]

                Things just get more and more interesting. Today I had the pleasure of watching the show Moyers and Company on PBS during one of my many late night working sprees. I was surprised to find the doyen of left-wing media interviewing an economist from the ideological wilderness, at least when compared to most economists who are blessed with the status if media talking head. Richard Wolff is a graduate of Harvard, Stanford and Yale and currently teaches at the New School University in New York and at the Sorbonne in Paris. This is the sort of pedigree that produces your Larry Summers or your Alan Greenspan’s; loyal officers in the command of capitalist industry and the powers that be in their thrall. Not so Dr. Wolff. He is a proud critic of the capitalist institutions that the people of the US, or rather the proletariat, have come to depend on and all but worship. He made it known to Mr. Moyers that he makes special effort to go beyond his classical economics education, the realm of Smith and Keynes et al, and into the much maligned and feared realm of Marxist critiques of the traditional economic theories of capitalist orthodoxy.

He describes himself as a Marxian economist in the tradition of Etienne Balibar and other continental Marxist philosopher/theorists. He is a proponent of what he refers to as “worker self-directed enterprises”, a form of democratic economic worker organization that aims to defuse the authority from within a business or place of work back to the workers so that they may have a real and empowering stake in the mode of production and the allocation of excess capital. Dr. Wolff sees such a pursuit as a step in the direction of larger scale socio-economic reform that can in time facilitate “democratiz[ing] education”.1

Moyers knew he was dealing with a figure of immense energy and expressiveness and he kept his questions simple but to the point. The focus was mainly on the assumptions made about the American capitalist system and the benefits and drawbacks inherent to the system. Dr. Wolff discussed the impact of the Roosevelt New Deal policies on the modern perception of government action in the market system. Roosevelt struck what was then a grand bargain with a segment of the corporate class and capitalist barons of industry that allowed for the creation of the modern welfare state that preserved a semblance of order and comfort in a market that had gone haywire mostly on account of capitalist abuse (or I suppose proper use) of market mechanisms. Dr. Wolff made clear his belief that the robust minority of socialist, anarchist and communist parties and movements in the early 20th century pushed the greater civil society towards demanding just such a bargain that Roosevelt ended up making. This collaboration ended with the end of the boom caused by war spending during the global conflict of 1939-1945 as the newly coalescing middle classes separated from the proletariat roots of reform and gained a foothold in the rising market state bolstered by the funding of the welfare state. Dr. Wolff said “After the war the history of the US was the history of the dismantling of the communist and socialist parties and the unions.” This process, according to the good Doctor, continues to this day and has reached full expression in the populist hatred of organized labor and the welfare state itself. Such antagonism appears as a reactionary fear of losing the promise of “The American Dream”.

Moyers pressed the issue and asked some pointed questions probing this thesis. Would the American proletariat be perpetually stuck in this mode of reinforcing through belief and coerced participation their own exploitation by the forces behind market mechanisms? The story so far was verging close to fatalism. But Dr. Wolff was far from fatalistic. He confirmed that indeed “[Americans] thought that the American dream got better and better and got more available[and] They can’t quite believe it’s not there anymore”, but this was not to be taken as an excuse for perpetual pessimism. Just because the American proletariat had a longer way to fall did not mean that they would never reach rock bottom, a point where even the placated American worker would find his situation unbearable. Dr. Wolff says that what is needed to achieve the American Dream i.e. credit, debt, grueling work and an education that most people will not be able to pay-off until they have their first grandchild, is becoming ever more and more impossible. Dr. Wolff explains that this realization that the American dream that the proletariat was promised in exchange for their fealty to the capitalist system no longer really exists anymore and this realization

“[…] produces a kind of stasis, a kind of shock […] and then a boiling over.”

It is this “boiling over” that Dr. Wolff sees as the true reason for optimism in the face of a nihilistic capitalist system. Perhaps then the American proletariat can begin to see their future beyond this dream that has become a nightmare for so many and forge a new promise that can be sustained and passed from one generation to the next.

Moyers ended the interview on this positive note and I could not help but feeling a bit disappointed. The interview had lasted the better part of an hour but I really did want to hear more from a classically trained economist who nonetheless subscribed to Marxist theory and social democratic principles. It is rare enough to find such a point of view expressed in public media discourse. Marxism is still taboo in the capitalist wonderland (or rather dystopia) that is the United States and to see it talked about in an unbiased manner by a man who is both a critic and a proponent of the theories involved was refreshing indeed. Dr. Wolff explained that within the realm of business (a discipline he insists is entirely separate than the pursuit of pure economics)

“if you criticize capitalism then you do not understand it.” 2

Wolff puts the lie to this notion with this interview and I do hope that he will have chance to make this clear to a wider audience in the future.

 

 

  1. Democracy Realized, Wolff, Richard, retrieved from http://rdwolff.com/content/democracy-realized
  2. All quotes in italics from Interview with Dr. Richard Wolff,

http://www.rdwolff.com/content/moyers-company

 

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