Re: [OPE-L] the state and the the housing market

From: Gerald_A_Levy@MSN.COM
Date: Sun Sep 11 2005 - 11:26:08 EDT

The state can, in particular instances,  construct or be a partner in
the construction of a housing market.   This is particularly true in urban
areas where city governments make decisions on land use.  In many
cities in the US, communities and commercial areas where 'constructed'
in the urban planning process as part of  an urban "redevelopment" plan
many years before there was actual physical construction.  This process
of state-initiated 'construction' oftentimes requires the destruction of
existing communities, e.g.  the destruction of Poletown in the 1980s
in order to construct a new GMAD plant in Detroit.  The state is often
an essential partner -- along with real estate companies, construction
companies (and sometimes the leadership of construction workers unions),
landlords,  and financial institutions -- in the process of gentrification.

Rental markets, in some cases, were 'constructed' by the state. This is
clearly and most obviously the case with public housing where tenants
pay rent to the state.  Additionally, there are many ways in which the
state can shape different segments of the rental housing market, e.g.
rent control and rent stabilization laws in NYC (which drive landlords
and conservative economists bonkers!) have had the consequence of
creating and reproducing  segments of the market that wouldn't have
existed in the same way without these laws.  The state can also redistribute
land to different groups and classes (there was a recent US Supreme Court
case, concerning my home town, in which the Court sided with the
City of New London in a dispute with a working-class residential community
which the City sought to obtain  the land of  via eminent domain laws in
order to then sell the land to commercial developers who would then pay
higher taxes.  This is a case that, interestingly, has even enraged
conservative forces because of its implications in terms of property rights
and the extension of the scope of the state to use eminent domain to
acquire land: previously, land could be acquired only if it was for a public
purpose; now land can be taken away from one group by the state and
sold to another group if the latter group will pay higher property taxes
because the receipt of more taxes allegedly benefits the public!)

How, then, are we to conceive of the role of the state under capitalism
in the housing market?  In the  description of Boourdieu's book,
different claims are made.  One claim is that the housing market can't
be understood simply through mainstream ('orthodox') economic theory
-- an inter-disciplinary approach is required.  I agree -- if we are to
grasp the character of  an individual housing market then we must 'locate'
that market (historically) in time and space and consider the role of
different classes, groups, and social institutions including the state in
that market.  I would consider this, if properly done from a Marxian
perspective, to be class analysis.   Within the context of class
analysis in which a particular development is considered at a level of
concretion much less abstract than the domain of abstract theory, it
could very well be the case that there are 'inversions', contradictions,
ironies, and complexities: e.g. the role of the state or individuals may be
greater or less than what we might anticipate in general.  Our grasp of
abstract theory should not blind us to these complexities; rather, we need
to examine individual ('micro') cases in such a way that all of the
determinants of the historically-'constructed' subject are considered and
not assumed away (a problem, perhaps, for quantitative modeling).
However -- and here I depart from Bourdieu's emphasis -- I think it is
misleading to assert that _in general_ housing markets are 'constructed'
by the state.  Some have been (as I have explained) but I think the focus
on the state might lead us to lose focus on the role of different classes
and 'market' phenomena in the determination of what happens in terms
of who lives where and pays what amount for housing.  Again -- to
repeat a point I made in a prior post --  many of the roles of the state
in the 'construction' of the housing market are relatively new historically.
While "free markets" are a historical fiction (excepting isolated and
exceptional cases) ,  it is the case that for most of capitalist history and
within many capitalist social formations today, the state has played a more
limited -- and largely secondary -- role in shaping what happens in housing
markets.  Yes, yes, of course, the state in every capitalist formation plays
_some_ roles in housing (and all other)  markets (e.g. by establishing and
enforcing by force if necessary the rights of  the landowning and capitalist
classes to private property).  Yet, the housing market remains ... well ...
a market ... and we should not lose sight of market forces.   The
intellectual tension here might be between perspectives that privilege the
role of the state (as many anarchists do), perspectives that privilege the
role of the market (as mainstream economists and some Marxians do),
and other perspectives which grasp the ways in which capital, the state,
and other forces shape (a term I prefer to 'construct')  economic (and
other social) realities (as still others, including class struggle
anarchists,  autonomist Marxists, Althusserians, and many other
Marxians do).

In solidarity, Jerry

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