If there is one thing that has marked the libertarian tradition, at least in the classical sense, it has been the focus on transformative organizing. This may simply appear as rhetoric to some people, and in many cases it is. The phraseology is often employed simply to celebrate tactics that are cartoonish or illogical, while at the same time allowing people to decry more traditional tactics as “too reformist.” This loses the fundamental nature of the term and its roots in direct action. As part of the anarchist dictionary, direct action can act as a type of dogma for many people in movements. Its use is for its own sake, as if this is the foundation of transformation both for the individuals and the community. This misses the context for how to approach tactics and what will make them truly transformative.
As we entered the seemingly perpetual financial crisis, and the realities of corporate finance started to crystalize in the minds of the public, it became clear that there were material necessities that were increasingly lacking in neighborhoods. As things are taken away from working people, as collapse becomes eminent, the discussions about how transformative an action is can seem arbitrary. The reality is that people need food, education, and housing. By the time we entered 2010 the housing crisis became the most obvious eruption and the necessity became critical. Since the beginning of the financial crisis, some reports estimate that between 20 and 30 million people will be forcefully displaced by foreclosure in the United States. This is then combined the rising number of rental evictions, the falling standards for rental properties, the slashes in social spending and public housing, and a general climate of instability. Together this becomes an intertwined net of financial failure, one that allows a margin at the top to pillage the rest of us. Here is where direct action has become a marker of transformative organizing because it is necessary simply to live and meet your needs.
It is on this precept that the housing movements we engage in, especially with movements like Take Back the Land and Occupy Our Homes, allows us to feel a sense of the new world growing within the shell of the old. There are two primary realities: the homeless population is growing and there are people being foreclosed on and evicted at record rates. Our response to this? Put people in homes and block evictions. This is not a simple proposition, nor is it one where the details are assumed, but it is on this basic declaration that we build the rest of the housing movement.
The most obvious of these is often the liberation of empty bank owned homes. Around our major cities, especially in post-industrial rust belt cities, there are a frightening number of empty homes that litter working class neighborhoods. Though the specifics may lend a long list of sociological explanations as to why these houses are empty, the broadest way to see these abandoned home is simply “foreclosures.” The banks, as the primary vessel for home ownership in the U.S., began a predatory and fraudulent lending pattern. We have seen them as an almost paramilitary force destroying out communities; removing people with force and occupying the land for the financial gain of a few. This is not a story of obscure market forces or the flux of international economies, but a deliberate process of the rich to roll the dice of the poor. A paradox occurs here where hundreds of homeless people in a given area are matched by thousands of vacant homes. The answer to this in an organizing framework based in common sense and rooted in direct action. The project of Take Back the Land, Occupy Our Homes, and other movements is to support people to move into those empty bank owned homes. Instead of living as a “squatter,” they fix up the home, turn on the utilities, and maintain it as if they own the place. This is the most efficient and direct way to house a family who is without aid, and at the same time shows that to simply support them to live as human beings we must break the law. In this way living has become a form of civil disobedience, and for every family that is successful there is another moment of resistance against a web of corrupt financial institutions.
The second foundation of this housing movement is in the direct support of families attempting to fight their foreclosure and to develop a solidarity network that forms between other families going through the same situation. We are again placed into direct action by the necessity of these circumstances since the position of the state and local governments is to immediately side with the banks demands. Those in Take Back the Land and other movements often provide casework support for people going through foreclosure, lending our own networks so that people can get the support of attorneys, government agencies, and other organizations. The work is not in these institutional forms, but is instead in the solidarity that is exhibited by those involved. The very source of this support is in the notion that any one of us could be victimized next; forced out of our homes and away from our own stability. We give support in a fashion that working class people use to create change, whether in the union hall or in our communities. A final confrontation with both state and capital takes place when the police use government resources to evict a family at the behest of the bank. The government, in the form of the police, immediately takes a side in the civil dispute with the bank, even though we have seen a systemic epidemic of fraud in the handling of these foreclosures. The benefit of the doubt is given to the lender and the family is forcefully removed from their home. This leaves them with a necessity that must be filled: a place to live. Just like the housing liberation, we take up the mantle to physically defend the house through civil disobedience. Here people will protest and picket, blockading the home, often chaining themselves to immobile objects and risking arrest. It begins to become a liability for both the bank and the city, which both operate under public pressure and commerce. Here we again are forced to meet people’s needs by engaging in direct action in violation of the law, except it is in preemption of homelessness instead of a reaction to it.
In these moments of confrontation, a person is able to see exactly what the power of a movement looks like. This is not in the abstraction of electoral politics where many progressives finally reduce their hopes, where an elected hero will hopefully combat the forces of repression on their behalf. In both of these situations, when successful, a person’s situation is overturned. Their homelessness becomes a memory; their house remains their home. In these concerted moments a community acts as one, understanding that the plight of their neighbor is theirs as well. Here we are able to see what happens when we fight together for what is right and what is possible, and to win. These are the most direct moments in lives where participation is often discouraged or impossible, and where the events of the world seem hopeless. This can transform those involved by giving a sense of immediatism to a long-term movement. The relationships that have most recently governed housing like commodification, markets, development, and gentrification, suddenly become replaced by the tools that were able to save it: solidarity and direct action.
Anarchism, unlike utopian and revolutionary visions past, is about both the present and the future. The way we survive today is the way we will be victorious and joyous tomorrow, and if we can build movements that accentuate this mechanism we can hope to “build the new world in the shell of the old.” We know that transformation comes internally when it comes externally, but only when it comes from the direct involvement of the people and in a way that reflects the world that should be. When this happens we cease to simply be actors in a social project, but are transformed by the sense that we can really build a society that reflects us. We aren’t just activists and hobbyists.
The center of our housing work is our belief in direct action, and from here we can build a multi-faceted approach to a housing movement that takes on multiple approaches when necessary. Whether this is work on local policy, land trust models, or radical social work, all of it is in support of direct action with the understanding that this is the most effective method in terms of results and is the way that communities begin to show that they can survive the banking onslaught. It is through this that people will begin to be revitalized to a political and social life. Where most people have been so alienated from the power in themselves and their community they begin to see an actual cause and effect and this empowerment breeds involvement, fostering a movement that only grows and grows.
The final solution to transformative housing, one that is beyond the temperamental realms of capital or the paternalistic hand of the state, is not something a few people can declare with any certainty. The final establishment of community control can only come by creating models to prevent mass displacement, foreclosure, and homelessness. As we are able to see the power that we have ourselves we are able to peer into a possible future for our neighborhoods, and a whole world of social relationships.