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By Neil Gray, Mute Magazine

Forced out of the areas they occupy, the involuntary subjects of urban gentrification confront a double challenge: the need for housing, and the need to radicalise campaigns beyond the parliamentary liberalism of rights discourse – writes Neil Gray in his extended report of last August’s Right to Stay Put conference in Manchester

The Right to Stay Put: Contesting Displacement in Urban Regeneration/Development Schemes event, August 2009, was organised as part of the Institute of British Geographers’ Annual International Conference (IBG) in Manchester by the Participatory Geographies Working Group.i The free event was planned as a supplement to the IBG event in the spirit of making geography relevant ‘beyond the policy-academic complex’. No doubt questions of ‘knowledge transfer’ and ‘scalar resistance’ were aired at the exclusive IBG event, but the Right to stay Put conference (with next to no financial support or assistance from the main conference) was the only concrete public sign of an attempt to break down the specialised divisions and hierarchies which typically neuter the political role of academic institutions.ii

The title for the event was taken from the American urban theorist and housing activist, Chester Hartman who, in relation to low-income groups struggling against gentrification, advanced the notion of the ‘right to stay put’ some 25 years ago.iii For Hartman involuntary displacement is a product of gentrification and private owner or state-led disinvestments, and the motivations of ‘displacers’ is tied to profit calculations and ownership rights. ‘Planned shrinkage’ (of services and amenities) is a conscious policy designed to induce displacement through ‘blight’, reducing living standards at the same time as the conditions for profitable re-investment are generated via the managed lowering of land and property prices.iv Hartman’s ‘right to stay put’ – against the owners’ ‘right to displace’ – is based primarily on ‘an interest in securing greater equity’ for those in society who fall at the ‘lower end of the spectrum of resources and power.’v

Using Hartman’s essay as a heuristic model for a geography conference inevitably invited comparison with the ‘Right to the City’ paradigm elaborated by Henri Lefebvre in 1967. Lefebvre’s text has long asserted an influence over urban studies and the theme has recently been taken up by blue chip geographer David Harvey, and by the ‘Right to the City’ movement in the Unfortunately, given that the organisers sought to ‘restore Hartman’s principle to the heart of gentrification research’, his original text received no critical treatment throughout the conference. This, despite the fact that Hartman makes frequent appeals to what some may see as a regressively reformist, liberal human rights discourse: ‘common sense’, ‘common decency’, ‘fairness’ and ‘socially meritorious’ outcomes. Moreover, Hartman himself has acknowledged the limits of regulating capital via ‘just cause’ legislation and mortgage and rent controls.vii This critical neglect meant that an under-theorised discourse of ‘rights’ remained latent beneath a general discussion of strategies and tactics of urban resistance. This unresolved tension will be explored in the summary below.

By way of an introduction to the conference and the locality, Dave Thomas, chair of the local residents’ association talked about the residents’ ‘positive’ experience with ‘the first PFI social housing project in the UK’.viii He argued that the residents’ association was treated as an ‘equal partner’ with the council and regeneration consortium after fighting hard to be heard as ‘primary stakeholders’. According to Thomas, the area had been transformed from a site of severe criminality, full of void and derelict housing, to a decent and vibrant community. The dangerous back alleys had been eradicated and CCTV installed throughout. He said there were two types of resident before: ‘settled’ and ‘transient’, but that with the ‘welcome’ influx of professional types the area had now become stable and settled. When a delegate asked where the ‘transients’ had gone, however, Thomas was unable to answer.

Beyond critical questions around the fate of displaced ‘transients’, and the overall quality of design, one suspected that this particular estate had received relatively favourable treatment as a symbolic ‘loss-leader’ for further PFI developments, an insidious part of the wider marketisation of public housing overall.ix Moreover, Thomas offered little analysis as to why the area had suffered from major disinvestment. Yet circumscribed urban devalorisation, as Neil Smith has cogently argued, ‘produces the objective economic conditions that make capital revalorization (gentrification) a rational market response.’x As Smith has noted, there is nothing natural or inevitable about disinvestments, and its irrational, socially dysfunctional consequences, and the mapping of devalued zones – alongside the naming and shaming of those responsible for it – should be of crucial import for gentrification studies and resistance.

The following overview represents a necessarily incomplete selection of the presentations delivered throughout the conference, drawing out some of the main themes as I saw them.

The ‘Role’ of the Academy

The first paper, presented by Matthias Bernt from Berlin, usefully set out to define the term displacement – the central theme of the conference. To this end, he mobilised Peter Marcuse’s four-fold definition as a diagnostic tool with which to rebut positivist, celebratory claims around gentrification.xi To summarise here, the terms of Marcuse’s definition are broadly as follows: Direct last-resident displacement: physical (e.g. when landlords cut off the heat in a building, forcing the occupants to move out) or economic (e.g. a rent increase); Direct chain displacement: includes previous households that may have been forced to move at an earlier stage due to physical decline or earlier rent increases; Exclusionary displacement: refers to residents who cannot access housing because it has been gentrified or abandoned, reducing availability; Displacement pressure: the dispossession suffered by poor and working-class families during the transformation of the neighbourhoods where they live.

As Bernt noted, in Berlin, as elsewhere, housing policy has shifted from a nominally social democratic agenda – including public subsidy, rent caps and tenant protection – to a familiar neoliberal assemblage of fiscal austerity and privatisation via deregulation. To defend public housing against this neoliberal onslaught, Bernt suggested using the differing definitions of displacement to support different policy alternatives, and the critical intervention of social scientists into public and policy debates. To my mind, however, his presentation didn’t make enough reference to the role of tenants’ and residents’ movements, and his analysis tended to frame the housing problem as one to be resolved at policy level. Despite the conference’s aim to go ‘beyond the policy-academic complex’, for me, questions around ‘roles’ and the specialised division of labour, would continue to surface throughout the event.xii

Katie Mazer, describing her role as ‘an emerging planner or scholar’ gave an account of her involvement in a ‘revitalisation plan’ for a Business Improvement Area (BIA) in downtown Toronto. To get people talking ‘more meaningfully about inclusion’, and to ‘spark some critical exchanges’, Mazer and her colleagues attempted to find a ‘new language’ to ‘re-operationalise’ recuperated terms such as ‘community’, ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’. In order to build ‘critical tension’ around who gets to make important decisions in revitalisation plans, they decided to engage with the local business community; here they found political possibilities ‘lurking in unsuspecting places’, and gained access to resources and ‘real decision-making forums.’xiii.

In summary, Mazer acknowledged that any ‘improvement’ in the area, would probably displace many residents and shop owners via rises in property values, yet argued that their experiment in ‘reclaiming language’ had been essential nonetheless. When drawing up the recommendations, she said, they cared ‘less about the end products, and more about the confrontations and conversations that would happen during their implementation.’ Contesting the meaning of the ‘devil’s glossary’ represents an important site of struggle but, to my mind, engaging with the business community seems to rest on a disavowal of capitalism as a totality.xiv For those seeking an exit from capitalism (and I include myself here), what matters fundamentally is that capital is a system that inexorably imposes itself (violently) over dead and living labour to accumulate value. The individual capitalist (small or large) is merely a function in this central conflict between capital and labour.xv In this light, negation and antagonism seem better bedfellows than ‘negotiation’ and ‘facilitation’, and Mazer’s emphasis on language left me feeling unsatisfied

Also working through her role as an academic was Winifred Curran. Curran talked about partnering a grassroots organisation, the Pilsen Alliance, to produce a service learning class in urban geography designed to fight the displacement of working class Mexican-Americans from the Pilsen neighbourhood of Chicago.xvi Utilising her access to resources, Curran marshalled a group of students to survey over 5,000 buildings, gathering data on building conditions, land use and zoning, property values, taxes and sales so that communities in resistance had a better knowledge of material processes on the ground. Curran seemed to have taken Neil Smith’s call to map the ‘frontier lines’ of gentrification seriously.xvii Like Mazer, Curran is interested in the way that developers and policy makers have co-opted the meaning of ‘community’ (‘Are you down with your burritos?!’), but her direct solidarity with the Pilsen Alliance – allowing them to decide on the terms of engagement themselves – represents, in my opinion, a more useful model of how academics can critically use their ‘roles and responsibilities as academics in resistance’.

The Housing Question

Glyn Robbins, from Bethnal Green in London, delivered a suitably knowing and sardonic account of ‘mixed-use’ development; a mantra for planners, developers and politicians that is routinely presented as an urban policy panacea. Robbins related how the term, recuperating a discourse of sustainability borrowed from the American urban theorist Jane Jacobs, was developed around 1995 in the UK policy context. He went on to show how Jacobs’ generous (liberal) notion of mixed-use development manifests itself as ‘flats and a shop’ for present day developers – a rhetorical device acting as a ‘Trojan horse’ for the gentrification of working-class areas. Mixed development, he argued, only works one way: the migration of the poor into wealthy areas is not on the agenda of ‘mixed community’ development. Robbins also discussed ‘planning gain’ (the increase of land values when planning permission is granted).xviii Developers are obliged to give something in return for this gain, but what is gained in return is ‘affordable’ housing that is unaffordable, and social housing targets that are routinely subject to retrenchment. While Robbins criticised ‘AAS-led gentrification’ (artistic affluent singles), he also pointed to the proletarianisation of artists and called for more cross-community solidarity and resistance, citing a developing relationship with the Bangladeshi community in the local ‘Stop the Block’ campaign.xix Robbins concluded with the suggestion that the UK housing crisis presented a ‘moment of potential’ to challenge ‘market-led assumptions’ about housing provision.

Paul Watt, also working through the housing problem, outlined the alarming decrease of local authority tenure UK wide.xx Watt pointed out the significant role that registered social landlords (RSLs) play in the process. RSLs (predominantly Housing Associations) are only obliged by law to provide mainly social housing. Effectively this means that if RSLs provide 51 percent socially rented homes, the rest can be built for the private market under the guise of ‘mixed development’. As he noted, the marketisation of housing and the transfer and revalorisation of land are the real motors of ‘mixed housing’ rhetoric. In opposition to this process, Watt discussed his involvement in the successful High Wycombe anti-stock transfer campaign, one of over 100 successful anti-stock transfer campaigns throughout the UK.xxi Watt argued that the Defend Council Housing (DCH) campaigns, which have been central to many anti-stock transfer victories, represent one of the more significant collective movements against privatisation in Britain’s recent history.xxii He went on to argue that the ‘Decent Homes’ standard presents an opportunity for campaigners to hold local councils and housing associations to account on their obligations to housing quality standards by 2010.

Having been involved in a successful campaign against stock transfer in Edinburgh (one that set a precedent for a series of crucial ‘no’ votes in Scotland), I share Robbins and Watt’s interest in agitation around housing issues. These struggles have the fundamental merit of engaging on the plane of the everyday, but unfortunately until now have remained at a primarily defensive level. The DCH demand for a massive state-funded increase in supply will not necessarily lead to an increase in quality, as history has taught us.xxiii However, privatisation has led to even worse housing quality at more expense, with less public accountability, and the housing question demands a response. To their great merit the campaigns have shown how shrewd activity around concrete issues in historically defined processes (each local authority is obliged to ‘ballot’ tenants’ for stock transfer), can achieve significant results. This timeliness, to my mind, provides an object tactical lesson to other campaigns and disputes. An untimely proposition, however, is required to shift the debate away from the false dichotomy between Keynesian pump-priming and market-led calculus.

Glocal Cities

Capitalists, like everyone else, may make their own historical geography but, also like everyone else, they do not do so under their own individual choosing…

-David Harveyxxiv

Vesna Tomse outlined Zurich’s current status as a solidly bourgeois city where global quality of life awards are won year upon year. Yet, as she pointed out, Zurich was once an industrial town with a large working class core. Tomse hinted at the erasure of this population through the demolition of the factories that originally produced Zurich’s wealth, but rather than attempt to recover these disavowed, working class subjects for history, Tomse went on to give an interesting but routine account of global city building through mega-projects. Her synopsis suggested that attention would be given to local resistance against such projects, but as this amounted to conservative resistance via small business networks (and thankfully Tomse seemed to have little faith in their radical potential), it would have been good to hear a more thorough explanation of the historical erasure she merely implied. Suggesting a way forward from the dominance of neoliberal global city narratives, one strategy may be to enact a politically vigilant restoration of historical memory, and crucially, to connect interpretations to an ongoing social and political praxis. As Benjamin remarked, ‘even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins’ – in every era the attempt has to be made anew ‘to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.’xxv

Lawrence Cassidy from Salford, Manchester, started off with an incisive account of Salfords’s transformation from a working-class district with ‘huge social networks’, to its current position as a gutted inner-city locale, being run-down in preparation for profitable ‘regeneration’. The area has suffered the full gamut of dislocation over a decades-long forced exodus, with 2,300 people displaced in just the last three years. New homes have higher density, meaning higher rates and revenues, and social housing promises have failed to materialise as promised. The past is either erased or repackaged in heritage nostalgia, and present-day residents are routinely demonised to provide an alibi for gentrification. Against this ‘memory removal programme’, Cassidy has been involved in a series of gallery and community exhibitions aimed at the remaining 10 percent of the Salford population (and those who have already been displaced from the area). The purpose of Cassidy’s work is to re-trace histories, map trajectories of displacement, re-group, learn, educate and contest. Neither a description here, nor a link to his website, can capture the accessibility and resonance of Cassidy’s work and the engagement with working-class subjectivity his work helps engender.xxvi But for me his work eschews nostalgia, while purposively responding to Edward Said’s injunction to restore the energy of lived historical memory and subjectivity as fundamental components of meaning in representation.xxvii Relating this restoration of meaning and memory to some form of contemporary praxis is the next, more difficult stage.

Kate Shaw’s research in the Fitzroy area of Melbourne, showed that nominally social democratic governance still has a role to play in a defence against gentrification. The area is known for its liberal/left governance, with a strong tradition of public ownership and union activity. In one remarkable map, Shaw showed gentrification (via increased property and land values) advancing on the Gertrude Street area – while newly funded community services came out to meet this advance! Moreover, rather than hiding local community facilities for the poor, the Gertrude Association (a local civic organisation) celebrates community welfare provision on its website (in this case ‘diversity’ includes otherwise castigated drug and alcohol users, asylum seekers and aborigines).xxviii The local term for, ‘the celebration of cultural, social and artistic diversity and community connectedness’, is ‘gertrudification‘ – a cannily detourned term promoting, according to Shaw, community and cultural activity that is not entirely subsumed as value production for capital. Further, Shaw asserted that the historic left tradition in the area motivates cultural producers to work in, or alongside marginalised community groups, playing an active part in solidarity movements and anti-gentrification struggles. My feeling was that the Fitzroy area may have have only found a partial reconciliation with gentrification strategies, but by concentrating on actually existing neoliberalism, Shaw’s research provided a useful corrective to over-determined accounts of urban plunder, and suggested the necessity of defending whatever spaces of relative autonomy still exist under neoliberalism.

Ben Turnstall and Ana Lopez reported from the ‘Friends of Brixton Market’ (FBM) campaign in London.xxix They related how the Afro-Carribean institution is under threat from Tesco expansionism and the typical commodification and embourgeoisement of street markets we’ve seen elsewhere (an expensive ‘ethnic borough market’ on the South Bank has been mooted as a model for Brixton Market). The market is now run by London Associate Properties (LAP), who were partnering the local council until the council were targeted and embarrassed by FBM pressure on issues of multiculturalism and race relations. The council eventually moved over to help the campaign. The ‘development’ has now been stalled indefinitely and FBM attribute this to a number of forces: the popularity of the market, the campaign, the credit crunch and LAP’s capital outflows elsewhere. Whatever the reasons, FBM’s defence of the market was smart and successful. But the future of the area concerns more than the single issue of Brixton Market. Indeed, the Market’s ‘unique’ character might be mobilised to provide the ‘mark of distinction’ that valorises surrounding property Starting from the local, as FBM have done, is crucial but, as Harvey has noted urban investment is a class-based phenomenon arising from prior surplus-value extraction – wider resistance will have to engage with this central fact.xxxi

Global Cities

Martin Slavin described himself as an ‘enthusiastic amateur’; a citizen journalist involved with the Games Monitor website, raising issues and awareness about the London Olympics 2012 development process.xxxii Slavin’s subjective account stressed the development of his critical consciousness through a locally specific investigation. His accompanying notes expressed the process of leaving behind his initial apathy: ‘I talked to a lot of people, read a lot and started taking pictures…I joined a local environmental action group…I found a tattered sticker on a local lamppost advertising a group called No2London2012…to which I posted the stories I was discovering…’. He described the scale of the critical task that led inexorably ‘through larger and larger overlapping scales of institutional control and complexity’ back to ‘control of the public domain; back to our everyday lives where we live work and play.’ Without some critical grounds for resistance, there is no possibility for action and praxis, and the Games Monitor has burgeoned to produce a vital resource that emphasises the need for independent research and journalism derived from locally specific knowledge. In his presentation, Slavin pointed out that mega-projects like the Olympics, and large-scale Urban Development Projects (UDPs), produce new models of neoliberal governance for forthcoming projects. The state of exception is now the rule, and mega-projects are now increasingly used as vehicles to establish ‘exceptionality measures’ in planning and policy procedures.xxxiii If this problem of governance is acute in the advanced capitalist countries of the West, the problem is intensified in the global South where exceptionality measures provide an alibi for land grabs, gentrification and displacement on an enormous scale.xxxiv

There is no democracy for the poor in South Africa. Abahlali have been saying this for years. Now it must be obvious to everyone. It is time that we all stopped pretending that everything is ok in our country.

-Abahlali base Mjondolo (AbM)xxxv

Zodwa Nsibande and Mnikelo Ndabankulu explained how, in the run up to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the AbM shackdwellers’ movement are confronting the type of gentrification where, ‘whole settlements are destroyed and the poor are driven out of the cities to rural human dumping grounds.’ These human dumping grounds are tin shack towns that roast in the summer and freeze in the winter. Peripheralised shackdwellers are cut off from work in the city, and pay the same in travel as they earn in wages. ‘We can no longer afford to walk’, they said. AbM Shackdwellers’ land near the city, as in the peripheral areas, is owned by the State with no right of tenure. The Durban 2010 World Cup means more development of shopping malls and stadiums, and more development pressure on the land. Nsibande and Ndabankulu told us how there has been a 200 percent rise in property prices over the last seven years. They told us how the number of South Africans on less than a dollar a day has doubled since 1994, and cited a figure of 48 percent working age male unemployment. They talked about a ‘new apartheid’ – this time of rich and poor – and repeatedly condemned the African National Congress (ANC) for backsliding on election promises, and leaving the poor behind: ‘This is the democracy we fought for – this!’

To resist this ‘big oppression’, they told us how shackdwellers had gone ‘back to the streets’. They argued for resistance every day in a ‘living politics of the poor’ as opposed to the ‘party politics’ of the ANC: a ‘false unity’ masking real relations of domination. They reject the false dawn of the spectacular commodity economy, saying: ‘we accept that we are poor, then attempt to change our lives.’ Their Living Learning booklet describes how they resist having their arguments demobilised by radically reduced ‘service delivery protests’ via the ‘non-profit industrial complex’, and how they reject NGO attempts to buy them off, arguing that academics and professionals should ‘not be on top, but rather be on tap.’xxxvi

Since the Right to Stay Put conference, members of the Kennedy Road Development Committee (a pivotal AbM organising and educational node) have faced violent attacks and harassment by the ANC. Many are homeless, in prison, in hospital and in hiding, and death threats, allegedly by the ANC, are still being issued to AbM activists and their families. The ANC, say AbM, are using the false pretext that AbM have amaZulu connections in order to pursue an ethnicised campaign of terror. Support remains a pressing issue.xxxvii At the same time AbM have won a major case against the Slums Act in the Constitutional Court.xxxviii The KwaZulu-Natal Slums Act empowered municipalities to evict illegal occupants from state land and derelict buildings, and to force private landowners to do likewise. AbM saw the Slums Act as an ‘an attempt to mount a legal attack on the poor’, focusing on facilitating eradication, not in providing adequate housing. This ‘major legal victory for poor people’s rights to housing and shelter’ means that the legislation is now inoperable and cannot be replicated in other provinces. Before the World Cup in 2010, under massive state pressure to valorise land resources and ‘disappear’ the poor from inner cities, this represents an extremely significant line of defence for squatter communities.

The scale of this problem is not confined to the global south. Bahar Sakizlioglu told us how the collapse of rural subsistence economies has seen massive migration to Istanbul, with ‘ad-hoc solutions’ leading to 45 percent of the population living in ‘slums’.xxxix Along with this development has come the mushrooming of gated communities. Sakizliogu related how expropriation is the ‘symbolic weapon’ of the state, and massive Urban Transformation Projects (UTP’s) are a major policy directive, leading to the peripherilisation (‘apartmentalisation’) of huge numbers of the population to make way for intensifying waterside development. Only property owners have legal rights in Istanbul and the illegal gecekondus (buildings which ‘appeared’ in the ‘night’) have been the target of a ‘civilising’ project whose aim is the regulation of the recalcitrant urban poor via neoliberal revanchism.xl This approach has been met by mobilisation from NGOs, Unesco and Habitat (Sakizliogu noted that some of these elements were professionalised and reactionary), a city-wide platform of residents associations and what she described as a resuscitation of left history.xli She asked if a ‘Right to Housing or ‘Right to the Citymovement might help focus struggle, and made the suggestion that a more powerful resistance to the victimisation, separation and privatisation of tenants/residents groups might lie in the convergence of movements of different tenure types.xlii

Knut Unger, from the Reclaiming Spaces Network, focused on the global influence of transnational landlords (TLs) and Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) and suggested possible forms of resistance to them.xliii REITs now own up to 850,000 former public housing units in Germany.xliv REITs are specifically composed for return orientated real investment. To challenge this monopoly form of capitalism, Unger called for a deeper analysis of the international structures of private equity and more expertise on international structures of property ownership. Unger is also a board member of Habitat and called for more joint advocacy at international levels to ensure ‘the human right to adequate housing and habitat.’xlv The mention of Habitat and ‘human rights’ had me concerned about the direction of the argument, but Unger seemed to be talking about more than just a simple ‘demand’ for abstract rights. He suggested moving from general reflections or local reaction towards targeted campaigns and transnational action, and illustrated an effective example of these tactics between the Ruhr Tenants Forum in Germany and tenants similarly affected by the Apartment Investment and Management Company (AIMCO), a major REIT in the US.


To some degree, the conference was successful in its aims to go ‘beyond the policy-academy complex.’ In an advanced capitalist economy, however, it should hardly be surprising that the tendency towards separation and specialised roles should still be evident. In this context, the organisers should be commended for attempting to push participants beyond the existing division of labour, and challenge the reified routines and roles of academic (and activist) specialists working in the area of geography. Almost all of the participants were actively involved in struggles on the ground – an achievement in itself when considered against the pressures many face to produce surplus value at work and university. To my mind though, many of the contributions could have benefited from an engagement with the critical tendencies of the ultra-left. Even if the dialectical certainties of the Situationist Internationale (SI) failed to materialise, their rigorous critique of separation, and of roles, developed under the influence of Marx, Lukacs and Lefebvre is often too easily disavowed.xlvi

One of the questions raised in the conference notes was the potential for creating a ‘Right to the City’ movement. Scepticism about ‘rights talk’ is, of course, entirely justified. As long ago as 1875, in The Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx lambasted his pale epigones in the social democratic movement for putting undue emphasis on distribution. The ‘fair’ distribution of the products of labour, realised through ‘equal rights’, was a fantasy according to Marx, as long as distribution remained a concomitant feature of the exploitative mode of production itself.xlvii This ideological cleavage between production and distribution, consolidated in the German socialist Erfurt Programme of 1891, and by the writings of Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky in the late 19th and early 20th century, created what Rosa Luxembourg called an ersatz Marxism, concentrating on the minimal (parliamentary) question of distribution, rather than the maximal (revolutionary) question of production. The left has failed to supersede this dichotomy ever since. But as Marx argued in his exemplary critique of the Gotha Programme, after the underlying relation has been made clear – the capitalist mode of production – why retrogress again?

The proponents of the ‘right to the city’ are not oblivious to these critiques. Henri Lefebvre emphasised ‘concrete rights’ over ‘abstract rights’ and argued that the pressure of the working class remained essential for the inscription of rights into new codes of living: ‘Only social force, capable of investing itself in the urban through a long political experience, can take charge of the realisation of a programme concerning urban society’.xlviii David Harvey, meanwhile, acknowledges that under present conditions, neoliberal concerns about individual rights to private property and profit trump calls for collective social democratic rights. Moreover, he cites Marx to emphasise his scepticism about abstract ‘rights talk’: ‘Between two rights…force decides’. But Harvey resists abandoning the field of rights entirely to neoliberal hegemony and the poverty industry, going on to argue that even within the limited liberal conception of rights laid out in the UN charter, the enforcement of these rights (to education, to organise unions, to economic security, etc.) poses a serious challenge to neoliberalism. AbM’s legal victory in the South African constitutional court, for instance, will surely help what is already a concrete social movement defend what limited space they have already seized. As Robert Neuwirth has commented on squatter movements in the global South, ‘they are not seizing an abstract right, they are taking an actual place’. Without this power, abstract rights can only ever be a polite claim for parity.

While Harvey’s analysis of the spatial, cultural and economic forms of capitalism has exerted considerable influence within urban studies and geography, this admiration sometimes borders on uncritical veneration. In an excellent analysis for Mute magazine, Chris Wright and Samantha Alvarez recently took Harvey to task for aspiring to ‘redeem’ capitalism via social democratic mechanisms.xlix By creating a false duality between ‘bad’ accumulation (for wealth and profit) and ‘good’ accumulation (surplus-value creation for more even distribution), they argue that Harvey downplays the necessary link between productive exploitation and the violent destruction and depreciation of older modes of production.l Further, Wright and Alvarez remind us that a social democratic state does not preclude the enslavement of nations abroad, and the goal of ‘fairer’ distribution can only be gained at someone else’s expense. The central conflict, they argue, is between capital and labour, and Harvey’s recourse to Roosevelt is misplaced: ‘The task is not to defeat neoliberalism or any other model of accumulation, but to deny accumulation itself.’li

But rather than get embroiled in the old dichotomy between revolution and reform, might it not be better to work through the once productive tension between minimal and maximal programmes? What Reagan taught us, Harvey reminds us, is that running up deficits is a way to force retrenchment in public expenditures: attacking the standard of living of the mass of the population while feathering the nests of the rich can best be accomplished in the midst of financial turmoil and crisis. As current attacks on the conditions of the poor accelerate, one would hope this onslaught is met with popular resistance. While Wright and Alvarez remind us of the pitfalls of social democracy, perhaps we also need to acknowledge its current poverty, and the grounds for the historical emergence of radical thought itself? The task might be to work out a method of solidarity that engages dialectically with the minimal struggles of social movements over immediate needs (recognising the limitations, but engaging with people where they are, if they are there at all), and maximal struggles for the supersession of wage-labour, exchange and the state. Lefebvre used to argue that we should demand the impossible to get all that is possible. That would be a good start. But in order to dismantle the conception of what is deemed possible within current limits, it remains necessary to demand the impossible per se.

Neil Gray <neilgray00 AT> is a writer and film-maker based in Glasgow


i See,

ii It should be noted that another autonomous Planning From Below event was also organized as a sister event to the Right to Stay Put conference. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it to both events.

iii The original text, Chester Hartman, ‘The Right to Stay Put’, is available here:

iv See Rachel Weber, ‘Extracting Value from the City: Neoliberalism and Urban Redevelopment’, in Brenner and Theodore, eds, Spaces Of Neolibralism: Urban Restructuring in North America and Western Europe,Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2002, p.172-193.

v Hartman, op. cit., p.308.

vi See, David Harvey, ‘The Right to the City’, New Left Review, Sep-Oct, 2008, and

vii ‘Rent control can at best only help keep housing affordable. It cannot create universally affordable housing’, Hartman, op. cit., p.314.

viii The Residents Association gave the conference free access to a meeting room and facilities at the Ida Kinsey Village Centre. The event might not have been possible otherwise.

ix See,

x See, Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City, London: Routledge, 1996, p.67.

xi For a good overview of Marcuse’s continuing relevance to critical debates within geography and the social sciences, see, Tom Slater ‘Missing Marcuse: On Gentrification and Displacement’, City Magazine, Issues 2 and 3, 2009,

xii ‘Further, the division of labour implies the contradiction between the interest of the separate individual or the family and the communal interest of all individuals who have intercourse with one another…And out of this very contradiction between the interest of the individual and that of the community the latter takes on an independent form as the State, divorced from the real interests of individual and community…’. Karl Marx, The German Ideology (Students Edition), London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1982, p.53.

xiii A text by Mazer which follows a similar trajectory to the arguments she made at the conference is available here:

xiv Iain. A Boal, ‘The Devils Glossary’:

xv For a seminal account of this position, see, Gilles Dauvé and Francois Martin, The Eclipse and Re-Emergence of the Communist Movement, London: Antagonism Press, 1997, p.23-25.

xvi For the Pilsen Alliance, see,

xvii See, Neil Smith, op. cit., p.189-209.


xix The best I could find online was this petition: . Note also the narrow position of the AAS-led ‘Save Shoreditch’ campaign:

xx In 1914, for instance, 10 percent of Britain’s housing stock was owner-occupied: the figure is now around 72 pecent. Shelter Scotland recently reported a crisis in socially rented housing in Scotland, with available housing at its lowest level since 1959, new available lets falling by 8% since 2004-5 alone, and 142,000 on council housing waiting lists:

xxi Stock transfer is the transfer of public housing to ‘not-for-profit’ Housing Associations. Along with other transfers to PFIs and ALMOs, stock transfer represents a process of privatization of public housing.

xxii See,

xxiii Moreover, the ideological role of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in many DCH campaigns is ambiguous to say the least.

xxiv David Harvey, ‘From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism: The Transformation in Urban Governance in Late Capitalism’, Geografiska Annaler. Series B, Human Geography, Vol.71, No.1, 1989, p. 3.

xxv Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, London: Pimlico, 1999, p.246.

xxvi Cassidy has also contributed to The Salford Star, ( ) Britain’s best proletarian glossy, now fighting for funding to continue in paper format. His own website can be found at

xxvii Edward Said, ‘Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies and Community’, in Hal Foster ed, Postmodern Culture, London: Pluto Press, 1985, p.157-158.

xxviii The Gertrude Association website can be found at . For more on their involvement with normally castigated groups, see

xxix See,

xxx David Harvey, ‘The Art of Rent’, Socialist Register, Vol 38, 2002, available at:

xxxi ‘From their inception, cities have arisen through geographical and social concentrations of a surplus product. Urbanization has always been, therefore, a class phenomenon, since surpluses are extracted from somewhere and from somebody.’ See, Harvey, ‘The Right to the City’, op. cit..

xxxii See,

xxxiii See Eric Swyngedou et al, in ‘Neoliberal Urbanization in Europe: Large Scale Urban Development and the New Urban Policy’ in Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore eds, Spaces of Neoliberalism: Urban Restructuring in North America and Western Europe, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2002, p.195

xxxiv See Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions:

xxxv See,

xxxvi For a description and analysis of the evolution of the term ‘non-profit industrial complex’, see The Living Learning booklet can be found at

xxxvii See,

xxxviii See,

xxxix Robert Neuwirth prefers the term ‘squatter communities’, which suggests more agency and has less negative connotations. Robert Neuwirth, Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World, London: Routledge, 2004, p.241.

xl Revanche in French literally means revenge. Neil Smith used the term to denote US urban policies from the ‘60s onwards, which, like the vicious right-wing Revanchist movement following the Commune in 1870, formed a brutal vengeful reaction against perceived liberal gains. See, Neil Smith, op. cit., p.44-47. For a great account of the gecekondus and Istanbul’s remarkably resilient slum population, see Neuwirth, op. cit., 143-173.

xli She didn’t mention which elements, but for an account of the ‘Habitat fantasy’ see Neuwirth, op. cit., p.241-249. ‘Down on the mud streets, where the people Habitat want to represent actually live, the agency has almost no relevance at all. The people working for the agency are dedicated to the cause. But they are most comfortable talking to themselves or people like them’.

xlii The fledgling Glasgow Residents Network is borne from an understanding that public housing has been drastically reduced in Scotland, therefore making a ‘tenants movement’ a less potent force numerically. The group hopes to link different tenure groups, not just around housing issues, but also around issues of ‘space’ and amenities – as residents:

xliii See,

xliv See,

xlv See the Reclaiming Spaces ‘demands’:

xlvi See, Guy Debord, ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ (1967), and Raoul Vaneigeim, ‘The Revolution of Everyday Life’ (1967), and, of course, ‘On the Poverty of Student Life…’ (1966):

xlvii Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, in David McLellan ed, Karl Marx: Selected Writings, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 610-616.

xlviii Henri Lefebvre, ‘The Right to the City’, in Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas, trans. and eds, Writings on Cities, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003, p.157.

xlix Chris Wright and Samantha Alvarez, ‘Expropriate, Accumulate, Financialise’, Mute, . They quote Harvey: ‘Paradoxically, a strong and powerful social democratic and working class movement is in a better position to redeem capitalism than is capitalist power itself’. A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, p.153.

l ‘After World War I, Europe was immiserated and the US followed suit after 1929. Only war, turned inward by means of bureaucratic administration and outward as imperialistic aggression, destroyed capital and allowed the restoration of the rate of profit through investment in production. 40 million deaths and, not Keynesian pump-priming and social democratic distribution, created the grounds for the order of the post-World War II period’. Wright and Alvarez, op. cit..

li Ibid.


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