By Danny Hayward, 15 September 2017

Two new books appearing in the aftermath of the (ongoing) Grenfell tragedy attempt to take stock of the UK 'housing crisis':  Anna Minton's Big Capital and Josh Ryan-Collins, Toby Lloyd and Laure Macfarlane's, Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing. Danny Hayward argues that, despite the insights into housing policy and struggles here, the new discourse of 'crisis' in both cases functions to prevent the drawing of socially necessary conclusions 


In every social formation there exists a form of criticism whose twofold purpose is to express discontent and to minimise blame. Like music piped into a strip mall, these languages of establishment dismay are intended to be sufficiently dreary to get their users to move through them quickly but not so piercingly untrue that they walk straight out without buying anything. ‘Decadence’ in plantation-holding eighteenth-century England, ‘corruption’ in industrialised early twenty-first-century China, ‘poverty’ in the USA of the 1960s, are the names given to social problems that dominated groups are encouraged to feel bad about. In the case of the first two, the criticism is simultaneously a diagnosis, which in turn insinuates a group that might be held responsible, disciplined, or diminished in social importance: the aristocracy, or the ‘stratum’ of municipal officials. In the case of the third, the criticism specifies only an object, which is typical of developed capitalist societies in which ruling groups are terrified of criticizing one another and increasingly uncertain of their ability to conceive of a culture of discontent in any language other than that of a returns policy.  


In the UK, the object currently at the centre of most legitimate criticism is ‘the housing crisis’. Today the housing crisis is proclaimed in every imaginable political forum and serves the purpose of articulating an abstract kind of political sympathy. Like previous crises, such as the energy crisis, the homelessness crisis, and the financial crisis, it has the advantage of naming a problem without yet specifying anything about its causes, its solution, or even yet its ultimate identity. By bringing under the same roof the frustrations of liberals anxious at the breakdown of an ‘intergenerational contract’ and conservatives reduced to bluster by the ‘betrayal of a whole generation’s aspirations’, the headline is customizable for the most studious middle-class navel gazing and the most cramped petty nationalism. It clears away the waste of merely sectional privations and leaves open a bit of underused space for the articulation of real social problems, like forced displacement and retrenchment in state provision; and in so doing it provides to state politicians a convenient ethical alibi. Just as in capitalist urbanization, working-class residents are forced out of their homes and into outer boroughs, in the spontaneous theory of the housing crisis, working-class concerns are not expelled altogether but are instead pushed into an intellectual margin, in which concepts like gentrification and capitalist development can be observed through the Closed-Circuit Television of higher-order values such as proprietorship and economic stability. From this perspective they cease to constitute anything like an historical threat.


In the last months two new works have been published that represent variously successful attempts to rip up this account of the British political economy and to offer something different in its place. The first, Anna Minton’s Big Capital, belongs, generically if not politically, in the tradition of ‘two nations’ literature.[i] Her book proceeds step-by-step from the Real Estate Forums in rich investors buy up new residential assets to the consultancies, marketing companies and council offices where the same individuals keep their armies of goons and retainers. Its central organizational emphasis is on separation, or the socially administered distance between the beneficiaries of asset inflation and its victims; and this literary trope is used again and again to explicate the colossal indifference of rich investors to a system of profit-making that is premised on fucking over poor people and stealing their homes. Minton never loses sight of this premise. It is the great strength of her book that throughout all of the stages of its argument it moves away from the pastiche of consumer excess to which downwardly mobile Thatcherism is naturally attracted and towards what all of the devices of speculative real estate are meant to screen out, which is the desperate enthusiasm of community campaigns and protest movements, the mental breakdowns, the marches and the organizing meetings, the new and incipient solidarities, and finally the growing belief of the great majority of people that they shouldn’t be treated like this and that it must be possible to take matters into their own hands.


The second book takes a deliberately more distant approach. Compared to Minton’s text, the New Economic Foundation’s Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing occupies a less colourful location in the literature of capitalist development.[ii] Its protagonists are ‘policy makers and mainstream economists’. At its crux is a theoretical argument about the ‘paradoxical’ nature of land, treated not as the ground in which things can be planted and on which homes can be built but more ineffably as ‘positional space’.[iii] Policy makers and economists have failed to grasp this theoretical paradox, with the result that the policies that they have made have been badly conceived, and have led to social outcomes that are obviously undesirable. On this basis, the authors promote a full-scale rehabilitation programme: ‘mainstream’ economists should be excluded from commenting on the literature of capitalist development until such time as they respect the basic values of ‘positional space’ and have mastered harmful propensities like ‘self-correcting equilibrium in landownership or land values’ (192). Moving anti-social economists out of this literature will free up space into which a variety of non-binding and class neutral policy proposals can be moved in.


This difference in focus between these two works embodies a fundamental problem for anyone whose aim is to develop a radical approach to housing under contemporary capital. On the one hand this approach has to do with rising rents, retaliation evictions, the chicanery of municipal officials or support workers, gatekeeping, welfare cuts, anti-migrant prejudice, the erosion of rights guaranteeing security of tenure, and every other form of the everyday brutality that mounts up to a colossal shift in class power away from the residents of homes to their legal owners.[iv] On the other hand, it has to do with money, understood in the broad sense as a technology for controlling social life. The two sets of ‘issues’ are undeniably related and yet they take their places on different levels of activist consciousness and in the light of different jargons and habits of thought, in different tones of urgency and expert professionalism. Each level has its own distinct view out over the domain of the politically possible and its own particular office culture. What is more, the further one commits to fighting legally or otherwise in the one domain, the more difficult it becomes to move freely into the other. Anyone who has even a cursory acquaintance with ‘community’ activism will know this.[v] The pathway that leads from ‘the locality’ to ‘the state’ is strewn with the filing cabinets of legislative histories and legal bylaws, any of which might at any point be brought hurtling down on those who start from the bottom looking up; which is nevertheless the only way that theoretical pronouncements on the reform of money or credit policy can avoid drifting into the kind of technical stupor to which economists are so congenitally prone.


What kind of history of ‘real estate’ could allow both of these sets of problems to be dealt with at the same time? Which is to say, in such a way that we lose sight neither of Minton’s question of who the city is for nor of its implied but unspoken correlate? Who is the city against is not a question that the New Economics Foundation is willing to pose, but their commitment to treating economics as a theory, in which can be made out aims and ambitions that might with a little squinting resolve into something beginning to look like a strategy, of which you might think, if not all the time then in dark moments of morbid suspicion, that their aim is to bring about ‘misconceptions’ – this commitment perhaps gets closer to the reality of the international bourgeoisie than Minton does, when she depicts them looking out with dim-witted enthusiasm into the sublime recesses of their VR goggles. And so what have been the aims of the British ruling class? What is their strategy? Is the current state of the British economy a ‘mistake’, resulting from errors in judgement, or has it been consciously pursued? If it has been consciously pursued, what are the implications for a serious, coordinated political response?




The history of residential inflation as an ‘accident’, which occupies a central place in both NEF’s and Minton’s accounts, relies heavily on a vision of the ‘system of planning’ that was introduced in Britain in the period immediately following World War II. It is an outlook the elements of which are familiar from other accounts of the ‘Spirit of 45’ that allegedly ‘gripped the nation’ at the end of the war. The slogans are all fairly well sunk into the national character by way of the state education system: national togetherness achieved through mutual sacrifice in conflict, an upsurge in popular initiative, a new openness to the human potentials of state planning, etc. In the present section I will reconstruct that position by way of three criticisms. These are (roughly speaking) terminological, historical, and economic.


The first problem has to do with the implications of the idea of a planning system. Like many other ‘systems’ that are used to refer in shorthand to what are in fact chaotic historical processes defined by permanent conflict (see ‘the system of government’), ‘the planning system’ is treated by both NEF and Minton as a machine with the credible minimum number of components. In this case the number is two. In both accounts the machine was built up by the doughty engineer of British social democracy, Aneurin Bevan, and succeeded for a certain number of decades in maintaining an imperfect but acceptable equilibrium between the tasks of housing construction, on the one hand, and of capitalist enterprise in real estate, on the other. The Town and Country Planning Act 1947 was the blueprint for this system, its product was the unprecedented expansion in house building that took place in the succeeding decades, and its cultural afterglow was the generalized sense of ‘progress’ and community that shone most vividly on the screens of tens of millions of televisions tuned to the civic programming of the BBC. As late as the 1960s the system seemed to be running smoothly, until – sudden disaster! – one of its components fell off. And here a slight difference opens up between the two presentations. Both books agree that ‘the planning system’ was made out of (1) protections for the environment under the heading of ‘greenfield land’ and (2) a system of development taxes, levied at the point of sale, on increases in the value of land. And they agree also that the origins of the present catastrophe, in which real estate prices increase incessantly and eat into working-class wages, are to be found in the destruction of the second of these levers. But they disagree over what brought it about.


The difference at first seems as if it comes down to a distinction in politics. Minton’s version of the story focuses on the tennis tournament of parliamentary legislation in which Tory governments knocked the post-war development taxes away only for Labour governments to return them as soon as they were reelected, until the Thatcher regime accomplished its fateful game, set and match.[vi] By contrast, NEF’s version conspicuously underplays this parliamentary aspect and instead dates the breakdown of the system (now romanticized into a ‘settlement’) to a series of ‘court judgments on compensation’, the most important of which the authors attentively misdate by a half decade to 1969 (in fact the judgement was issued in 1974) (88).[vii] From here Minton might have considered the ways in which popular mobilizations, organizational accomplishments, and accumulation drives were transformed into the Labour legislation that she describes; and this in turn would have helped to explain why state controls over land were progressively adulterated every time a Labour government reimplemented them. But in this case it would have been impossible to make statements like the following: we have a ‘malfunctioning planning system that no longer bears any relation to what its architects intended’; we need ‘a development land tax to recoup rising land values under control, championed by luminaries from Adam Smith and Lloyd George to Churchill [sic]’; we need ‘a new social contract to control foreign investment and fix the broken planning system, housing market, and benefits system’. Phrases like these always suppress politics, they are always the vocabulary of class power in the syntax of social concern, even in a book that in its best passages brilliantly savages the rhetorical technocratic bullshit with which those under threat of displacement are constantly inundated. (The strongest passages of Minton’s book are a terrific exposition of the forms of developer corruption that are licensed in the technical vocabulary of ‘viability’.) In her basic sympathies Minton could hardly have less in common with the Tory former Housing Minister Gavin Barwell, but Barwell, who is a Tory of the modern office-photocopier variety, also delectates in the idea of a ‘broken housing system’, and he does so because the figure of speech perfectly inverts the reality that he is professionally obliged to defend.[viii] It disguises the fact that housing has not been ‘broken’ but on the contrary has risen in value in direct proportion to the depreciation of the labour of the people who are forced to pay for it. ‘Brokenness’ is only the language most amenable to those in whose interests this system has been fixed.


The second problem is prepared by the first and serves to deepen it. If politicians are treated as the repair people of a system that was set up in 1947, then their political choices will be evaluated not on the basis of what they desire, the constituency they serve or betray, their petty duplicities or grand intrigues, but instead in terms of their effectiveness in keeping the system up and running. On this view, when Lloyd George proposed his ‘People’s Budget’ in 1909, accompanied by his backup singer Churchill, he would have been ‘anticipating’ a system of planning that would ultimately come online in 1947. This ‘system’ would then have continued to operate quite smoothly until an incompetent politician (Harold MacMillan or Ted Heath) came along a few decades later and threw into it the spanner of smallminded class interest. But into this sequence of ‘woulds’, and the little engine of historical far-sightedness that they happen to power, there enters a problem, namely that actual historical process was nothing like thisLloyd George was not presaging a ‘system’: what he was doing was drawing on a long tradition of Liberal strategizing with its roots in imperial policy, and more specifically in the ‘question’ of whether to pacify tenant revolts in Ireland by bribing them or drowning them in blood.[ix] He was, also, making a gamble about the strength and the dynamism of the class from which the revenue was to be squeezed. The political measures that he introduced did not represent a ‘compromise’, or a ‘contract’, or a ‘compact’, as per the metaphors that easy-going historians use to speak about whole decades of post-war history, but a deliberate attempt to put the boot in; and their whole rationale implicitly relied on this judgement and would have been nugatory without it. In other words, without the belief that rent-extracting interests in Britain were stagnant, and that their influence on the nation was in irreversible decline, no parliamentary majority would have ever agreed that it was the duty of those interests to pay both for working-class placidity at home and imperial projection abroad.[x]  


At this point we are pushed towards another question. If the ‘system’ wasn’t central for Lloyd George, was it central for Neville Chamberlin, or for Harry Truman or Vincent Auriol? Which is to say, is it possible that the historical significance that is ascribed by Minton and the New Economics Foundation to the fiscal provisions of post-war development policy is in fact a projection of contemporary concerns (and also of class relations and tendencies of accumulation) back into the minds of the ‘architects’ of the post-war planning system? Why else would the whole Fabian sideshow to do with the ‘unearned increment’ have given way, two decades later, to the soporific wrestling match between ‘planning’ and Keynesian ‘demand management’,[xi] if not because of a decline in the significance of the landholding class?[xii] And why else would the removal of a few development taxes, resolved at the time as part of a much larger programme of urgent, state-directed housing construction, now be addressed in television debates and op-eds as the major issue of ‘our civilisation’,[xiii] or as the basis for a reactionary pseudo-class politics of resentful downward mobility? Social commentators who peer back into the mists of time in search of a more distinctly national origin for the present predicament of the UK economy do everything in their power to see through their constitutive pall of historical complexity; but all that they end up seeing is the deeper fog emitted from the sauna of charismatic leadership.[xiv]


The third and final point is more general. What kind of historical view do we need to confront the class relations, institutional deadlocks, forms of bond market discipline, and cultural stupefaction that together make up our own ‘land question’? The desire to present an exemplary history of social democracy is in a way understandable, and is in any case by far the dominant way of expressing opposition to the current state of affairs. It communicates a wish whose appeal is fairly obvious, which is that the general tendency of capitalist development prove itself cyclical and not secular, with the result that the present dictatorship of asset holders might prove to be just one turn in a process that tends over time to be self-correcting. Furthermore, in contact with the economist’s concept of the trade ‘cycle’, the wish can undergo a metamorphosis, certifying itself as a theory-by-association; and so acquiring, like a list of recycling symbols, the ultimate power to exclude from its process any element or historical eventuality for which its authors cannot find an immediate intellectual use. Increased demand for mortgage debt, and increased bank profits and mortgage credit belong to the ‘cycle’ and can be placed into it. Declining post-war industrial productivity (i.e., profitability), trade liberalization, expanding competition and persistent current-account imbalances belong in the trash along with used nappies, sanitary pads and smoke alarms without batteries.


Adherence to this method of handling historical materials tends to produce a certain kind of outlook. Its chief characteristic is anxiety, in the particular sense that it tends to hedge conclusions just where they need to be most in your face. In NEF’s analysis the argument about cycles leads finally to a central claim: ‘Any fall in land values that such a reform [as the introduction of Land Value Tax] would bring about could cause financial chaos if measures were not also taken to deal with the land-credit feedback cycle that lies at the heart of modern capitalist economies’ (222). And the same point becomes even blunter in Minton: ‘although a housing market crash would reduce prices, they are now so high that it would make little difference to most Londoners’. It is typical of this anxious tendency in contemporary writing on ‘the housing crisis’ to fret about such a possibility, as if a given set of prices were itself a political constituency, because it is assumed that any change to the status quo must include the consent of homeowners. In this view, homeowners are invested in the system as it is. They are the key to state political authority. The subaltern renting classes remain tragically in the position of its minoritarian doormat. And there is no imaginable route into the Houses of Parliament that does not involve stepping over those classes, whether in a posture of grimacing embarrassment or in anticipation of a stampede. As NEF write: ‘No government wants to see the damaging effects of a fall in house prices, especially when almost two-thirds of voters own a property’ (147).


With the introduction of this adverbial clause the anxiety swells up into a kind of full-blown panic attack. A decline in house prices is especially ‘damaging’ when property owners represent a majority of the electorate; but it follows from this qualifying statement that it must also be damaging when property owners are a minority. That is to say, if concern for the majority of homeowners expresses itself as concern for their ability to withdraw ‘equity’ on their homes, which in Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing is treated as an addition to total income regardless of whether it enters into the circuit of consumption or capital investment,[xv] then concern for house prices as such, independently of any calculus of electoral prospects or the whims of ‘special interest groups’, represents a desire to preserve for the national capital the ability to ‘withdraw equity’ on a world scale.


It seems to me that the historical significance of this ability exerts on left accounts of the ‘housing crisis’ a baleful influence. The influence goes beyond any individual policy or proposed solution and works its way into the total structure of thought of the left in the countries in which residential asset bubbles have become an essential element of the national political economy. In its most basic outlines it can be defined as a pronounced misalignment between rhetoric and programme. The left is willing to speak with an unprecedented fluency about capitalism and crisis, but it has never been more inhibited in demanding, or even yet in imagining, or organizing with a view to, a sudden transformation in relations of ownership. The historical undertow of that attitude is not only organizational weakness: it also has to do with the global interdependency of paper values and existing relations of distribution; or the vague intuition that existing class structures, which are defined principally through ownership of assets (rather than e.g. direct control of firms) are themselves at the basis of dimly intuited forms of national privilege. As this interdependency deepens, with the ongoing reflux of global surplus value into ‘British’ property (and not only in the form of direct investment but also through the secular expansion of mutual funds), the mismatch between the rhetoric of anti-capitalism and the mildness of the practical proposals to which it leads becomes all the more striking.[xvi]


How deep does this connection go? Is it possible to see, in the economics that cannot decide whether to maintain the swindle or get rid of it, and which raises its ambivalent relation to national advantage into a theory of a housing ‘crisis’, some kind of parallel with the culture of the ‘left’ in the country in which it was formulated? Or: if the left is denatured into an attitude, or a set of performed antipathies, and tends to luxuriate in exactly the conditions to which it objects, then isn’t there a trace in that attitude of the economics that recognizes the advantage of the ‘factor’ whose significance it wishes to restrict, in order to make its economy ‘successful and innovative … [like those of] Germany and Switzerland’ (215)?[xvii] What is the culture of a national form of economic advantage? What organizational and intellectual commitments might help us to get beyond it?  


On 14 June of this year, a few weeks after the publication of the two books reviewed above, the Grenfell tower in North Kensington, London, was destroyed in a massive preventable blaze. The number of deaths was in fact around a hundred and was initially pegged by the state, displaying in this as in all things its great zeal for shrinking the deficit, as nine. One day later, the leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn suggested in a closed parliamentary meeting that empty homes in Kensington, where a significant proportion of UK speculative real estate capital is locked up, be requisitioned to house those who had been made homeless, ‘if’, as he put it, this proved to be ‘necessary’. His proposal, which quite obviously was necessary, since two months later only nine families have in fact been rehoused,[xviii] led instantly to a significant groundswell of popular support, connected ambiguously to the language in which it was articulated:


Occupy, compulsory purchase it, requisition it, there’s a lot of things you can do. Can’t we as a society just think all of us? It’s all very well putting our arms around people during the crisis but homelessness is rising the housing crisis getting worse, and my point was quite a simple one, in an emergency you have to bring all assets to the table in order to deal with that crisis and that is what I think we should be doing in this case.[xix]


The language has a particular claim on the national memory. ‘Requisitioning’ is in British usage deeply associated with the acquisition of country manors as barracks during the Second World War. Its justification of the disruption of bourgeois property relations is defined in terms of a national emergency that has descended upon them from the outside, rather than in terms of the emergency that bourgeois property relations have become; and so its pronounced radicalism rubs shoulders with the virulent chauvinism of the journalists who denounced it and breathes the same stale atmosphere of imperial nostalgia.[xx]


I think that there might be a lesson in this about constraint. Corbyn’s invocation of World War II also had what from the perspective of the majority of the bureaucrats in his party was the great additional merit of provisionality. No sooner had media attention shifted away from the hundreds of now homeless survivors, than the ‘emergency’ was tacitly declared over. Instantly the window of opportunity for emergency measures was slammed firmly shut. And this retreat is what counts as good political sense. Politicians are constrained to move with the times not because they want to but because the cycle of electoral politics dictates to them that they must, on pain of alienating the ‘interests’ of property owners, who, as all analysts of the housing crisis never fail to point out, are now integrated with the ‘interests’ of large finance; and also because they live in a media culture in which expropriation counts as savagery while the declaration of emergencies counts as strong leadership. But the flipside of this is that housing policy is defined in abstraction from any open-minded account of how property relations might be transformed in the interests of the majority. What is now tokenized in everyday journalistic language as a ‘crisis’ is free from ‘emergencies’ of the kind identified by Corbyn almost by definition. ‘The’ crisis is what resumes once the emergency is over, as soon as the newspapers have gone back to fretting over the POTUS’s Twitter feed. It is the general crisis; the everlasting crisis; crisis as ideological welfare for the materially deprived. In an earlier era of class injustice and national stagnation, its name was the housing ‘problem’;[xxi] and its subsequent rhetorical uprating does not represent a radicalization of everyday outlook but only a worsening of the condition that is nevertheless agreed to fall short of an emergency, which is the only condition in which existing property relations can be challenged directly and openly.  


In this sense, ‘crisis’ and ‘emergency’ alternate with one another and define one another’s boundaries of political significance. Both sound like bold descriptive gestures and yet what they add up to in effect is the idea that there can be no long-term transformation in existing relations of ownership. What other outlook can we realistically hope for? What would a politics of housing look like that works to get beyond this kind of tacit conservatism?  


I have argued that the problem with the exemplary history of social democracy on which both Minton and the New Economics Foundation rely is that it misrepresents the economic and class relations in which the state has previously imposed significant taxes on the ‘value’ of land. Put simply, those taxes were levied on land when the class of landholders was in significant decline. Presently that class is very much in the ascendant, with the result that sober state managers are unwilling in any way to endanger it as a source of accumulation. Meanwhile the value of land is held up by inflows of global capital that could fairly well switch elsewhere if the capital gains that are presently realized on it were significantly reduced, with the result that the heroism that characterizes the exemplary history becomes compensatory.[xxii] What it compensates for is a considerable pusillanimity when it comes to the real substance of the reform measures that are now being proposed, which end up providing the state with so much opportunity to water them down or put them off that it isn’t clear that in practice they would make any difference at all: ‘Land value tax could be introduced as a replacement for other taxes … and [phased] in gradually over an extended period of time’ etc (203).


If the exemplary history of social democracy is undermined by its blindness to questions of class power, then what class in British capitalism is in decline today? Strip out the exemplary history from Minton’s and NEF’s accounts and the answer is clear. It is the class, or the sub-class, of owner-occupiers, which has been declining steadily for almost two decades, at the same time that the class of private landlords has been expanding (82–3). This tendency is difficult to miss: Minton’s book dedicates a whole chapter to it under the (misleading) heading Generation Rent. It is also a tendency for the long-term. In the absence of gigantic and unpredictable historical events, the number of people whose incomes will be sucked up by a class of mortgaged rentiers will increase year on year in the UK for the next several decades. And so here is a constituency that can be organized and won over to a political agenda that is not constrained to mystify serious challenges to the existing system of property – including the measures that would have to be taken were asset values in British real estate to plunge – by making them into the accessory of a national emergency. It is not constrained in this way, because there is nothing to prevent its members from coming to a lucid recognition that the historical basis for their organization is a long-term trend, and not the vagaries of a five- or four- or two-year election cycle, which means, among other things, that it can insist on the immediate socialization of large property holdings, the right to lifetime tenancies, rent controls in the private sector at parity with those in the social sector (with socialization of property as the penalty for non-compliance), and the introduction of democratic processes for the allocation of existing resources; and that it can fight for these things in the knowledge that even small practical steps can exert large amounts of pressure on parliamentary politicians (whether of the left’ or ‘right’). It means also that it can fight for a culture in which it is recognized immediately and as if by second-nature that landlordism is a hostile social fact the basis of which are global transfers in surplus value from working-class groups elsewhere. There are now a number of renters’ unions in the UK that are either in existence or soon will be. These are some of the practical issues of long-term outlook that their members will be able to discuss.


The spontaneous ideology of the ‘housing crisis’ just doesn’t permit this outlook. It translates the necessity for gradual organisational development into the long march through the institutions, a strategic trudge that culminates in anxious calculations concerning the electoral proclivities of homeowners; or in another boring valediction to the ‘traditional politics of class’;[xxiii] or into a gnawing sympathy for everyday oppressors who feel that their living caricatures are giving them a bad rap. It views its goals melancholically, across the laminated glass of a value system that can’t be kicked in because to do would only cause the whole thing to shatter into an opaque mess. When it opens its mouth to give decisive voice to its aims, it speaks in a list of imperturbably boring and unbelievable verbs (to tackle, to take seriously, to solve, to stop refusing to admit the existence of, to address, to face, to fix, to prioritise). And finally it leads towards an outlook that is so ensnared in adjudications and qualifications and triangulations that even a violent catastrophe like Grenfell appears to it as nothing more than the result of ‘big decisions that in hindsight were taken within particular wider contexts and possibly in good faith’.[xxiv]     


This is the kind of humane sobriety with which we have to contend. Its components click into place in the most predictable fashion imaginable. It is possible to acknowledge, reasonably and without too obvious a show of pleasure, that anger on its own does not bring back the dead, or that culpability is difficult to establish, or that Tory property millionaires have a high estimate of their own moral probity. And possibly to that line of argument can be affixed some kind of acrid homily on the art of the possible, the usual tactic of which is to insist on a certain kind of patience: that we preoccupy ourselves with the details of types of plastic insulation, chains of subcontracting, tendering processes, budgetary constraints, mixed messages and human misunderstandings. Possibly once that list has been dragged on for long enough the enormous fact of preventable death can be made to recede into a kind of broader perspective,[xxv] or swallowed up in pub philosophizing about what a faith is and how long it needs to be left unrefrigerated before it goes bad, or regarded, without too obvious a show of pleasure, as just another terrible accident. And possibly that accident, once it has been pored over, expertly defined, reconfigured in hindsight, publicly commemorated, and mythologized under the usual banal slogan of its unrepeatability, will have been so effectively disconnected from the real history and the changeable class relations that so obviously led up to it that all of the conditions will be in place for it to recur.


We can treat the most murderous aspects of our current social system like this; and different agents do treat them in this way for different personal and professional reasons. But what unites all of these possibilities and weaves them into a public awareness of national decline is in the last instance a system of values that is conceived of as a source of national advantage. Despite its many strengths, the work of Anna Minton, Josh Ryan-Collins, Toby Lloyd, Laurie Macfarlane – and allowing for differences in emphasis and approach – fails to deal decisively with the economics of national advantage, and so it remains trapped within the ideology of national decline. Put more fully, it remains trapped in an intellectual bubble in which the ‘housing crisis’ is always simultaneously a housing boom, possibility is always a euphemism for a restraining order, and no idea for reform, however innovative, far-sighted or radical, can be prevented from realizing its true potential as small change.


Danny Hayward is committed to the collective ownership of the means of reproduction



Anna Minton, Big Capital (London: Penguin, 2017)

Josh Ryan-Collins, Toby Lloyd and Laure Macfarlane, Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing (London: Zed, 2017)


[i] Anna Minton, Big Capital: Who Is London For? (London: Penguin, 2017). Further citations in the main text.

[ii] Josh Ryan-Collins, Toby Lloyd and Laure Macfarlane, Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing (London: Zed, 2017). Further citations in the main text; and from here on I’ll refer to the authors of the book by the acronym NEF.

[iii] The definition of land as ‘positional space’ belongs to the theoretical component of NEF’s book. It is part of their extended attempt to distinguish ‘land’ from ‘capital’ as distinct factors of production with their own peculiar properties: ‘Land is permanent, capital is temporary’; ‘Land is immobile, capital can move and change’; ‘Economic rent from land does not increase investment or production’. All of this discussion leads towards the conclusion that ‘economic policy has failed to properly incorporate the differential properties of capital and land’ and that a theory that is capable of doing so will provide a sound basis for ‘policy’. NEF write: ‘That economic policy has failed to properly incorporate the differential properties of capital and land can be evidenced by current policies pertaining to property’ (62). Unfortunately the authors immediately contradict themselves:


If you are a buy-to-let landlord in the UK [!] you are given a tax ‘allowance’ for the ‘capital’ depreciation of the physical furniture in your home. But at the same time you are supposed to pay a ‘capital gains’ tax when you sell your home … Clearly the furniture in your home can depreciate in value – as do the bricks and mortar – at the same time as the total value of the home goes up. In fact, it is actually the land underneath it that increases in value … We confuse these two effects by referring to both as ‘capital’, even though the tax system recognizes the difference’ (62).


There is a logical slippage in this argument that derives from the need to prove something false, which is that incorrect economic theory must lead to bad policy (which a proper understanding of the ‘factor’ of land will permit us to rectify). This is why it is first claimed that ‘current policies pertaining to property’ have failed to incorporate the differential properties etc. But then towards of the end of the passage that immediately follows this assertion there is a shift in terms, so that suddenly it is not ‘policy’ that is confused but us (not policy but ‘[w]e confuse these two effects’), and the tax system ‘recognizes’ what we were at first told it ‘failed … to incorporate’. What the argument in fact proves is that the names that the state gives to different sources of revenue are irrelevant for so long as it can continue to monitor, tax and confiscate them. 

[iv] Minton mentions Focus E15, the Radical Housing Network, and Architects for Social Housing. She also mentions, without naming directly, the Revolutionary Community Group.

[v] The point is well put in one of the contributions to Viewpoint’s recent dossier on housing activist groups: ‘You Can’t Evict a Movement!: Strategies for Housing Justice in the United States’, < ‘Oftentimes, organizations put political education last. The priority is mobilizing the base around the policy fight. But as more radical journalists are gaining support, the journalists from The Atlantic for example, they are looking for people who are doing the day-to-day organizing to have experts on hand who can frame the issue for them. And because we are so busy trying to figure out how to get abuelita to the meeting, we may not have time to think through the role of neoliberal urban development in the planning of cities’.

[vi] The theoretical problem with Minton’s argument begins when it becomes necessary to establish an explanation of developments like ‘land banking’, the process where house builders buy up large tracts of land and then keep them vacant in anticipation of further appreciation of house prices. At times like these her treatment of the economic ‘theory’ of vested interests can seem credulous. On the one hand, Minton agrees with a mouthpiece of the Tory Bow Group that ‘Extra supply feeds house price inflation’ rather than dampening it, by inducing in investors the strong belief that supply will increase further still (and so stimulating their own demand for land). But a few pages later she endorses the view of Kate Barker that ‘housebuilders have greater guarantees of profits if they limit supply and keep prices high’. It isn’t easy to see how both of these theoretical declarations can be true. The response that ‘supply’ is referred to in different ways in each instance is only an evasion of the theoretical contradiction and is in any case a direct consequence of the ineffability of the concepts being used. In other words, it might well be possible to assert by some act of discursive sleight-of-hand that the Bow Group mean supply generated by state fiscal stimulus while Barker means something more like capacity utilization; but then you might as well just say that the Bow Group mean that it is good to throw poor people out of their homes and watch them die and that Dame Barker means that Gordon Brown isn’t to blame for anything.

[vii] See Peter Hall and Colin Ward, Sociable Cities: The 21st Century Re-invention of the Garden City, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2014). NEF’s book also provides a greater focus on finance and its mechanisms. The passages that deal with this, and especially those focusing on the dynamics of the failure of the UK building societies in the financial crisis of 2007–8, are the book’s strongest.

[ix] In brief, Liberals assumed (a) that the best means of ensuring the pacification of the Irish was to make political concessions to Catholic peasant tenants; (b) that the sacrifice of Anglo-Irish landlords would in any case do no lasting damage to the state; and (c) that further measures taken against landlords could not harm the prospects of a Liberal Party that had already sloughed off its remaining landholding supporters. A clear account of these considerations is given in Ian Packer, Lloyd George, Liberalism, and the Land: The Land Issue and Party Politics in England, 1906–1914 (Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2001).

[x] In another work, Packer argues that the focus on the land tax in the budget of 1909 was in reality a ‘prodigious sleight of hand’, meant to increase the popularity of a spending programme that in fact was mainly structured around increases in consumption taxes. Ian Packer, Liberal Government and Politics: 1905–1915 (Palgrave: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006), p. 134.

[xi] Representing in part a conflict between Labour’s base in the trade unions and the corporate management class.

[xii] Jim Tomlinson, Democratic Socialism and Economic Policy: The Attlee Years, 1945–1951 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 3. A sense of the relative, contemporary unimportance of this policy can also be arrived at by noting its total absence from earlier synoptic overviews like John Cowley’s Housing for People or for Profit? (London: Stage1, 1979).

[xiii] See Rowan Moore, ‘Big Capital: Who Is London For? by Anna Minton – review’, The Observer, 12 June 2017: ‘The current state of London housing is an affront to civilisation. It is going to require creative and determined public action, not blind faith in the market, to change it’.

[xiv] My argument is not that land prices didn’t increase in the period immediately after World War II but that these rents were not important to the national capital as a whole. Tory objections to the new ‘system’ during the parliamentary debate that preceded the introduction of the Town and Country Planning Act make it clear that Conservative opposition was motivated by the prospect of a reversal of the principle of ‘free enterprise initiative’ and ‘fair’ compensation to private interests, rather than by any more fundamental desire to prioritise the economic interests of landholders (in his introduction of the Bill, Lewis Silkin frequently emphasizes that much of its substance was also government policy under the wartime coalition government). By contrast, in a period in which those same landholding interests have become more fundamental to national accumulation, the state will not reimplement the measures it took in an earlier period unless popular action can have the effect of making rent-led accumulation unviable. The concealment of this dimension of the problem is at the same time the concealment of the specialization of the British capitalist economy within the tightening net of the world market.   

[xv] That is to say, the authors argue that equity withdrawal increases ‘income’ and make no distinction between loans that are used as capital and loans that are used for purposes of personal consumption. This undermines their criticism of the ‘lifecycle model’ of bank lending, according to which loans simply shift an individual’s consumption backwards and forwards on the basis of personal convenience. In fact many loans, including loans secured by means of equity withdrawal on appreciating housing assets, will function in exactly this way, while others, used for purposes of investment, and therefore for surplus extraction, will not. This is the corollary of the argument made by all Marxist authors about the differences between different kinds of homeowners, depending on their situation of employment and their relationship to financial institutions. See for example Mary Robertson, ‘The Great British Housing Crisis’, Capital & Class, 41, 2 (2017), pp. 9–10.

[xvi] Tony Norfield, who argues that banking is the ‘one measure of power where the UK exceeds the US’, defines international status in terms of ‘the relative size of the international assets and liabilities of banks operating in particular countries’ (108). But ability to lend and borrow internationally, which is one source of surplus value inflows to a national economy, is in turn very strongly related to the ability to make use of property assets as collateral. According to Norfield, ‘Some 30 per cent of total bank loans are also secured on dwellings, largely representing residential mortgages’ (144). Banks make their own credit, but not in conditions of their own choosing.

[xvii] In NEF’s defence it might be said that, were their ‘maximum’ programme to be implemented, then housing asset inflation would certainly be brought to a stop (see the great suite of measures proposed in their final chapter). The problem here is that many of these measures are so scalable as to provide the state with a great deal of opportunity to comply with them without yet making any fundamental changes in the overall social structure.

[xviii] ‘Moreover, within North Kensington its abundantly clear that the crisis remains active. Only nine families have been permanently rehoused. The vast majority of those who escaped the fire are living in the limbo of hotel living. The council have made deals where people can be housed in close West London boroughs. One family were offered multiple homes in Ealing, choosing one on offer, only to be told it was too expensive’ (Facebook post by Frank Natter, 8 August).

[xx] The atmosphere may be immeasurably thicker in proclamations like Sam Leith’s in the Evening Standard, that with the demand for ‘expropriations’ ‘this is starting to run beyond politics … something is simmering in this heat … something ugly is being born … [etc]’; but Corbyn’s idiom retains a trace of it even after its rhetorical evaporation into the spirit of the blitz.

[xxi] Cowley, Housing for People or for Profit?, p. 9. Before that it was the housing ‘question’.

[xxii] In Michael Foot’s biography of the person most responsible for British housing policy, it is clear than Bevan, though faced with implacable vocal opposition, was not inhibited in his policy measures by anything like organized resistance on the part of a landlord class.

[xxiii] The rejection of the ‘traditional politics of class’ may be necessary, depending on what we mean by the world ‘traditional’, but what it shouldn’t lead to is an equally traditional politics of compromise with the beneficiaries of capital gains, or to the pseudo-categories of social analysis (the ‘oligarchy’, the ‘people’) in which that compromise is theoretically consecrated. (In this sense it’s no coincidence that the country whose mass radical left has most consciously rejected class as a category of analysis – Spain – is also a country with an exceptionally high level of homeownership. Minton touches on these issues in her final chapter.)

[xxiv] See Dave Hill, ‘Inside Housing’s Grenfell paper trail is one for the inquiry to follow too’, <>. The author of these lines is a one-time Guardian journalist who now runs a personal website from which he so regularly launches attacks on housing activist groups that it’s difficult to see the site as anything other than an extended curriculum vitae for newspapers to the Guardian’s right.

[xxv] The best overview of these technical details, which in no sense allows questions of culpability or of politics to go missing, is