-by Yasmina Mrabet, adapted from her talk at a July 28 Community Forum in Washington, D.C.
WHAT IS CAPITALISM?
Capitalism is an economic system in which resources are organized to create wealth for a tiny number of people at the top, at the expense of the human needs of the masses of people. In other words, capitalism is an economic system where decisions are made based on what will generate profit for the corporate owning class. It does not matter if those decisions negatively impact communities, or the environment, or the ability to receive a decent education, or adequate medical treatment. All decisions are largely made based on this: what will make money and create wealth for the private corporations? Consider aspects of our lived reality that we accept as “just the way things are.” For example, minimum wage does not match the cost of living. Why? 30% of homeless adults in Washington, D.C. are employed, yet remain homeless. This does not make sense, and therefore should not be justified.
Anyone who spends their time and labor power to contribute to society should be able to live comfortably in that society. There is absolutely no reason why minimum wages should not match the cost of living - except, of course, the reason that they don’t: the profit motive.
The the self-proclaimed corporate “owners” of the earth's natural resources and land are hoarding wealth that is produced. The capitalist class has promoted a narrative that misleads the masses of working people to believe that the value of labor is measured by wages. "Skilled" workers receive higher wages, "unskilled" workers receive lower wages. Those who work in industries that have lower paying jobs (though they may be multi-billion dollar industries) are considered to be worth less. The truth is that the value of labor can be measured only by time. If workers spend their time laboring, should they not reap the fruits of their own labor?
THE ROLE OF POLITICIANS
It is critical that we understand the role of politicians in the capitalist system. Many of those who claim to be “progressive” align themselves with the Democratic Party, arguing that it is the alternative to the racist, conservative Republicans. Is it the alternative? No. If capitalism is a snake, we have to think of it as having two heads. Two parties. Both represent the wealthy elite. Both the Democratic and Republican parties are the functionaries of private corporations and the managers of society, working to ensure that it functions to serve the profit interests of the corporate owners. One party is open about its racist, white supremacist agenda. The other party has a much more cunning approach to its dirty work.
The Democratic Party functions to suppress resistance, by guiding those outraged by inequity in a direction that serves the profit interests of the owning class.
THE CAPITALIST APPROACH TO HOUSING POLICY
We can use current examples from housing struggles in the nation's capital to demonstrate the ways in which decisions made about housing are formulated based on a profit motive, rather than on the needs of the people.
Mid-City Financial, the developer at Brookland Manor in Northeast Washington, D.C., seeks to demolish 535 units of affordable housing in the Brookland Manor community, replace them with three times as many units, while simultaneously eliminating all 4 and 5 bedrooms, a significant number of 3 bedrooms, all while reducing the overall affordability from 535 units to 373 units, and restricting 200 of the 373 units to seniors only, 62 and older.
Mid-City was required to present this luxury redevelopment plan to the D.C. Zoning Commission before it could move forward. If you were on the D.C. Zoning Commission, and you were aware of the following facts:
- There is a city-wide affordable housing crisis
- Almost 7,000 families are homeless
- Rampant displacement and gentrification has resulted in the expulsion of tens of thousands of working class Black people from D.C.
Would you, with these facts in mind, approve a redevelopment plan in a working class Black neighborhood that would eliminate affordability and eliminate family housing?
The D.C. Zoning commission, however, has approved Mid-City's plan. Why? Because of the profit motive. This decision was clearly made based on money, rather than the needs of the people.
Tenants at public housing property Montana Terrace, in Northeast Washington, D.C., have long been subjected to slum conditions by their landlord, the D.C. Housing Authority.
If you were a local politician, and you were aware of the following facts:
- That the city has $2.4 billion dollars in reserves
- That the city has used many millions of dollars from its existing budget to subsidize luxury developments, build sports stadiums and dog parks
- That the city has effectively gifted many millions of dollars worth of public land and property to private developers
Would you continue to turn a blind eye to the slum conditions that tenants at Montana Terrace and other public housing communities have been subjected to? Or might you instead, reorganize the many resources at your disposal to ensure state-of-the-art maintenance for public housing residents? Needless to say, the politicians and their bureaucratic arms continue to formulate decisions on the city's budget, made possible by tax dollars, based on a profit motive, rather than the health, safety and security of District residents.
At Congress Heights in Southeast Washington, D.C., tenants have waged a five year, ongoing struggle against slum conditions and for the preservation of affordability in their community.
If you were the Mayor of D.C., and you were aware of the following facts:
- Geoff Griffis, big time developer and known slumlord to whom $95 million worth of pubic land was given away for $1, now wants to move forward with an unaffordable, 200 unit luxury development in Congress Heights, a working class Black neighborhood in Ward 8
- The tenants of Congress Heights meanwhile, have secured a development partner willing to purchase their properties and move forward with a plan that would build 200 units of quality, affordable housing
- The affordable housing stock throughout the city is rapidly declining
- Unemployment rates in Ward 8 are the highest in the city
With these facts in mind, would you elect to partner with Geoff Griffis and facilitate the building of 200 units of unaffordable, luxury apartments in a working class Black neighborhood in Ward 8, where unemployment rates are the highest in the city, or would you partner with the tenants association at Congress Heights, and facilitate the building of 200 units of quality, affordable housing?
Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C., instead of working with tenants, invites Geoff Griffis to Wizards basketball games, continuing to work with him, while she and her agencies have actively ignored and undermined the tenants campaign to protect affordability in a city where housing policies continue to threaten them with displacement. One thing is clear: it is not that the Mayor cannot make different decisions, it is that she will not make different decisions. Her decisions are designed to function for profit interests, rather than the needs of the people.
WHAT WILL STOP GENTRIFICATION IN D.C.?
The same thing that will stop gentrification everywhere else: the decommodification of housing. In other words, the removal of housing from the private market, such that it is no longer a product to be bought, sold and profited from, but rather a basic human right. The current "solutions" to the affordable housing crisis put forth by politicians making the decisions described in examples outlined above, as well as those touted by well meaning advocates, such as a demand for vouchers, are wholly inadequate, as they fail to initiate the decommodification of housing. Any proposed solution that does not take housing out of the private market will fail, as evidenced by the continuing failures of both the private market and attempts to reform housing policy under the private market.
The solution is a public option - a publicly owned and controlled housing market that meets the affordable housing needs of all people. We must organize immediately to expand our rights and initiate alternatives to the existing policies and structures that restrict housing options to those that can "afford" it. Decommodification of housing is a way to redistribute wealth that was extracted from us through policies that have legalized the subsidization of luxury developments through our own tax dollars - luxury developments that we, in turn, cannot afford, as our wages remain stagnant, and cost of living continues to rise.
We must not only defend communities under attack by predatory developers seeking to displace and gentrify, such as at Brookland Manor and Congress Heights, but we must additionally begin to offensively organize against this system by mainstreaming the idea of a total alternative, and organizing to demand and institute that alternative.
To read more about the concept of social housing, click here.