9. 22. 2021
The Front Lines of Everyday Life
Sean K. Isaacs
Greed, speculation, deregulation. Neoliberalism’s financial crises have often been blamed on predatory bankers and the political puppets who do their bidding. Yet, beyond these individuals and their acts of greed, a deeper structural shift has been underway: spaces of social reproduction, where workers reproduce themselves as human beings – housing and schools, for example – have been transformed increasingly into new areas for capitalist investment and accumulation. This development has important implications for our understanding of contemporary capitalism – and for the strategies we adopt to oppose it.
Finance capital’s invasion of everyday life
Capital’s encroachment on our apartment blocks and classrooms, its conversion of the necessities of everyday life into investment opportunities for capitalists seeking high returns, is sometimes described as financialization. While the pursuit of profit through finance – through the exchange of credit, debt, and money itself – long predates neoliberalism, it has become ever more central to capitalism as a whole, increasingly leaving no area of life untouched. The material interests of the entire capitalist class have become tied to financial profits; the line between financial and industrial sectors of the economy has blurred if not dissolved completely. The practice of packaging mortgages with other financial assets and selling them to investors, for example, changes how housing is produced and distributed. Such dynamics have made workers increasingly dependent on finance to survive – subprime mortgages and expanded consumer credit are well-known examples of this phenomenon – while creating new sources of profit for capital. The problem is not merely that financial speculators are in need of better regulation. Financialization is central, internal, to capitalist development itself.
Social reproduction theory (SRT) is a body of thought that shows how capitalism relies not only on workers making commodities, but also on new workers being made – since capitalists can’t extract profit from workers’ labour without the ongoing reproduction of the working class. Spaces of social reproduction like schools and homes thus represent both an “outside” to commodity production and a necessary condition for it. Not only does SRT connect production and social reproduction in this way, but it also recognizes systems of oppression like patriarchy and structural racism as integral to the makeup of existing class relations.
Such a perspective is important when we consider how financialization has had profoundly gendered and raced material effects. It’s often feminized and racialized workers who work part-time and precarious jobs, and who depend on credit to purchase food, housing, and transportation. Meanwhile, these workers’ reliance on debt creates new areas of accumulation for capital. For example, in the leadup to the 2007-2008 housing crisis, the predatory marketing of subprime mortgages to Black communities in the US was central to a massive increase in profits across the entire US economy.
While financialization has sometimes pretended to operate in the interests of working-class people, offering mortgages and other credit to cash-strapped workers, it hasn’t lastingly improved the material conditions of the working class or decreased gendered and racial inequality. Single mothers in particular have become disproportionately dependent on credit, which can in turn perpetuate a need to work multiple precarious jobs just to make minimum bill payments, continuing a cycle of debt. Most Black communities in the US still have less access to education, transportation, and employment than their white counterparts, and remain concentrated in the most impoverished areas of cities, factors that made them hyper-vulnerable to foreclosures and evictions when the housing bubble burst in 2007.
Shifting modes of class formation and class struggle
These debilitating entanglements with credit and debt have become increasingly central to working-class life under financialized capitalism – so a struggle against that system must centre the experience of the people caught up in such processes. If we understand the composition of the working class and other classes as dynamic rather than unchanging, we can see how neoliberal financialization has transformed the terrain of class struggle. Instead of understanding class power as determined primarily by workers’ position at specific sites of production – factory workers who can jam up an assembly line by sitting down on the job, warehouse workers able to disrupt supply chains by striking – we need to attend to how class power is developed also at sites of social reproduction. The working class is an historical social relation, not an already-defined objective category, so a working-class political strategy must adapt to changing social conditions. As Katy Fox-Hodess and Camilo Santibáñez Rebolledo point out, for example, the success of recent strikes by Chilean dockworkers depended on collaboration with social movements located outside that workplace, including students and other workers living in the community.
Because sites of social reproduction have increasingly been reorganized according to the interests of finance capital, they represent important spaces of working-class formation and class struggle today. Housing is an important example. There are common interests and potential points of solidarity between the workers who build housing developments, others who hold the mortgages that are bundled into complex investment instruments and sold to investors, and the tenants who depend on credit to make rent. This perspective expands the notion of what it means to be a strategically placed member of the working-class, by including in that category, for example, women and other feminized workers who may not be engaged in wage labour, and workers who hold multiple part-time service-sector jobs so they can pay their landlord. While such workers may not be located at what have traditionally been considered strategic points of production, their relationship to financialized housing makes them important actors in the struggle against capital in its current form, especially when bonds of solidarity are built between them and other segments of the working class.
These struggles over everyday life have become all the more important as traditional unions have lost power and workers have become increasingly dependent on debt to survive. When we foreground such struggles in our organizing against capitalism, we prioritize workers often excluded from traditional conceptions of the working class: people of colour, women, and others marginalized on the basis of gender, for example. Struggles at sites of social reproduction prioritize these workers not only because it’s they who often do the majority of socially reproductive work, but also because these workers have been central to financialization and profoundly affected by it: they are an important layer of the working class.
Left strategy in financialized times
While it’s necessary not to lose sight of the struggle against capitalism as such, any viable anti-capitalist strategy must be shaped by an understanding of the specific role of finance in capitalism today. There is no returning to an idealized past of permanent, full-time productive employment – not least because such a past never existed for most workers in the first place, but also because the influence of finance capital has accelerated the trend towards precarious work. Nor is greater regulation or nationalization of the financial sector a promising prospect, since the state itself has become bound up with finance capital – consider public pension funds invested in Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) – and so won’t act as a serious impediment to it.
By understanding finance as inseparable from both capitalism as such and the capitalist state, it becomes possible to see how the struggle against financialized housing is an important part of the struggle against global capitalism as a whole. Struggles over the right to housing have been pivotal to the high points of mobilization in Spain in recent years; the Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST) in Brazil is one of the country’s largest social movements; and tenants in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood continue to undertake high-profile rent strikes. At the centre of such struggles are workers who have been largely excluded from working-class organizations: those who do not work for a wage, work in precarious and part-time jobs, or reside in areas of the city that are not typically exposed to organizing efforts. These workers, traditionally marginalized on the left, are located today atop an important faultline of class struggle.
These conflicts have only intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. Annual growth in housing prices across the rich member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reached 9.4 percent in the first quarter of 2021, the sharpest spike in three decades. “The Dutch property market has become a burning political issue,” according to the Financial Times. “Prices of existing homes in the Netherlands rose 14.6 percent in the year to June, the highest rate for two decades,” with the homeless population doubling in the last 10 years, and poor folks facing a 15-year wait for social housing. One of the reasons for the fall of the Swedish government last month was its proposed lifting of rent controls. In Berlin, residents are set to vote yes or no on the expropriation of almost a quarter of a million properties from large-scale commercial landlords. Meanwhile, in Canada, the housing affordability crisis has reached heights not seen in almost three decades, with mortgage payments representing 45 percent of average household income. In the United States, the Biden administration has just extended a three-month federal eviction moratorium, imposed to protect renters during the pandemic. The threat of mass evictions looms just beyond the moratorium’s expiry date. Housing will likely continue to be a strategic domain of class struggle in the coming years.
A focus on housing on its own won’t be sufficient if we hope to rebuild mass anti-capitalist movements. But tenant groups, trade unions, and anti-debt movements could together represent a powerful multi-racial, feminist working-class coalition. Just as militant workers at major points of production have needed to build connections to organizing efforts outside the factory, those struggling at sites of social reproduction should look to build bonds of solidarity with unions and other social movements. All of us who hope to contribute to the fight against capitalism should prioritize such social reproduction struggles – and intervene alongside the workers and tenants on their front lines.
Sean K. Isaacs is a PhD student, anti-capitalist, and punk.