Advocacy, which has all the markings of a rational, empirical approach to the housing question, attempts to see housing market problems through the “objective” lens of state planning and regulation. Indeed, grand policy declarations and positions, such as “affordable” housing schemes or the dream of social housing, appear to take seriously the immense power of today’s state apparatus. Yet behind the advocacy mode of thinking is a quixotic theory of power, one often centered on rational persuasion and electoralism. Those in office should be persuaded of the relevance of bold policy proposals, which are seductive because they might garner favorable outcomes for the working class. And while an imagined carrot is extended outwards, it is backed up by the spectral stick of the electorate. There, voters are imagined as punishing policy makers if they do not make good on obviously popular and rational approaches to housing policy. However practical this imagined politics may seem, it militates against the idea that class struggle leads the way.
This is not only because the advocacy orientation seriously underestimates the political power necessary to realize its goals. A perfunctory look at our current situation shows that even modest reforms—such as the repeal of California’s anti-rent control law Costa-Hawkins—are extremely difficult to achieve. Worse still, class configurations and their relative organizational statuses are not taken into consideration. Rather than an analysis of local and regional class structures that are shot through with mechanisms of cross-class collaboration, we are left with a highly economistic understanding of a majority of working class voters who will ostensibly pursue their class interests.
Stalled and held back by the immense political power of ruling class factions for whom concerns of asset values reign supreme, an opposite political orientation can often take root that centers on a politics of service, like legal counsel and food distribution programs. This form of service work is advocacy’s humanistic counterpart, a political style whose concern is always focused on harm reduction.
A tacit implication of the service mode of politics is that the underlying structures which give rise to today’s acute housing crisis cannot be directly addressed. From this view, service work around housing market contradictions appear all the more rational: better to try to attenuate the worst excesses since it is impossible to challenge the system at the structural level. A principal problem, though, is that the state is all too happy to step back and allow its subjects to engage in undercapitalized self-help. Service, however useful for the community, can be understood as the product of diminished political expectations. Rather than a process of collective power that forces concessions to appear, we have a model that attempts to fly under the political radar. Here we arrive at another dead-end, except this time the ironclad mechanisms of the market remain unaddressed, as the work itself can only realistically occur within the interstices of a housing market deemed unstoppable.
While these two tendencies appear as opposites, they share a flattened view of the relationship between class and state. On the advocacy side, willful human activity is considered to be the animating force of the state, and we are invited to imagine the implementation of restructuring policies from its heights. On the service side, we have a wholesale relinquishing of all foreseeable agency around the state structure. Here our practical activity is geared towards stop-gap measures that, though helpful, can sometimes too easily accommodate the housing market at the systemic level. Either human agency is switched “on” and we are allowed to transform society by fiat, or else agency is switched “off,” which is to say that there is no ability to transform housing at a structural level. Implied in this dichotomy is the absolute removal of class struggle; there is no room for learning from proletarian action, no place for reassessing the relative balance of class forces, nor sufficient space for laying foundations for a new sequence of struggle.