Under Capitalism: Second Manifesto of Architects for Social Housing

Party politics in the UK is over, at least for the next five years and probably for far longer. For the fourth time in ten years the UK electorate has voted a Conservative Prime Minister into power, this time with the largest parliamentary majority since 1987 and at the head of the most right-wing cabinet in living memory. Whatever challenge the Corbyn experiment presented to parliamentary politics has ended in electoral disaster. The Labour Party is returning to the political philosophy that the faux-socialist rhetoric of the past four-and-a-half years failed to conceal from those of us who read its policies and opposed its practices in council and city hall. The 2010s concluded with a menu of world-ending disasters jostling for our attention; and the new decade has opened with a provocation to war in the Middle East at least, and perhaps more. Without underestimating the threat it poses to immigrants and minorities, the rise of the far-right with which liberal democracies have justified their introduction of more intrusive and repressive legislation does not constitute the greatest threat to world politics; that threat lies squarely with the move to the right by those democracies. The past decade saw left-wing governments in Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia and across South America overthrown or threatened with military coups by the US Empire, while right-wing governments have been democratically elected to power in Europe, the Middle East, India and the Americas.

In response, protests and uprisings against government authority have emerged across the world — from those reported by the British press in Hong Kong, Catalonia, Venezuela and Iran to those it has been silent about in France, Palestine, Algeria and Chile. Yet here in the UK we have been largely content to put our trust in the parliamentary system by which we have been ruled for 800 years to bring about political, social, economic and, most recently, environmental change. What protests there have been have been largely polite affairs, orchestrated to further the parliamentary aspirations of the Labour Party or, more recently, to promote a so-called ‘green’ new deal for capitalism. As a consequence, this largely wasted decade has deposited us here, in 2020, when a UK politician suggesting even the minor revisions to capitalism proposed by Jeremy Corbyn is denounced by the entire British establishment — including his own party — as unelectable. The increasingly narrow Overton window framed by the political establishment and UK media has been moved so far to the right that even a social democratic government has now become all but impossible under our current political system. That may change in the future, but so firm is the grip of international capital on our public life that it doesn’t look likely; and even if such a government should somehow win electoral power, its possible interventions against the state apparatus of parliament, judiciary, civil service, financial sector, media, security forces and military would be far too little and far too late. Politics in the UK is over.

What replaces it? Over the past five years of practice Architects for Social Housing has consistently argued that waiting for a social democratic — let alone socialist — government to be elected to office is an indulgence of liberals sitting at desks a long way behind the front line of the class war being waged through housing in this country. Faced with our cross-party consensus on the neo-liberalisation of housing provision, it has been necessary for us to formulate and actualise practices of a socialist architecture in the present. If that was true both before and during the Corbyn experiment — which did nothing to halt the implementation of this neo-liberalisation by Labour-run local and municipal authorities — it is doubly so now. The light at the end of the tunnel of Conservative rule that maintained the left’s faith in the parliamentary process over the past four-and-a-half years has now well and truly been snuffed out. Obedience to the old hierarchies of party politics and the so-called democratic process has been revealed for what it is — the means by which the ruling class holds onto power. In the struggle that awaits those of us who will take it up, we have only ourselves to rely on. The spectacle of protest, which dominated left-wing politics of the last decade, has been appropriated and evacuated of agency by the propaganda arms of political parties and corporate bodies to sell their policies to a scared public looking for salvation. If supported by direct and industrial action — as it is notably in France — protest may continue to serve as a means of political change; but in the non-striking UK it is time to come up with new forms of practice that are at once social, environmental, economic and political.

These forms must avoid two pitfalls. On the one side is the idealism of liberalism, which maintains that capitalism — as Labour’s former Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, proposed before the general election — can be ‘transformed’ to produce a more socially equal society. On the other side is the idealism of what passes for anarchism in the UK these days, which acts as if the always-imminent revolution will be greeted with universal joy rather than violently opposed by all the financial, ideological and military power of the capitalist world. A socialist political practice must walk between these two idealisms, on the rigorously materialist road laid down by capitalism, which is the only road there is. It is on this really existing road alone that a socialist future will be built in the present, not on the random emergence of rapidly recuperated rebellions, and not in the revisionist or revolutionary dreams of idealists. We must be absolutely realist in our plans to bring about what seems impossible in the present. That means engaging the mechanism of this movement — the cogs whose articulation will propel us forward — with the existing conditions of capitalism.

For this reason, the subtitle of the book we are writing, For a Socialist Architecture, in which we are beginning to formulate this mechanism is: Under Capitalism. By this we don’t mean that socialism can exist in some sort of cosy harmony with capitalism — an idea that has a long history of appeasement by so-called ‘socialist’ governments. In the UK today, socialism is equated with everything from identity politics to liberal ethics; but we maintain the proper meaning of the term to describe an economy managed for the benefit of all and the society built upon it. But with neither a socialist society nor a social-democratic government on the horizon or anywhere near it, we cannot afford to wait for either to appear, but must instead work towards the former in social and political practice outside the parliamentary aspirations of this or that political party. Now more than ever we must awaken from the dream of a parliamentary road to socialism and face the waking world with our eyes wide open. That means putting into practice the principles of a socialist architecture under the existing system. By this we mean practices that function both under the rule of capital — rather than in some infinitely deferred future — and to undermine that rule. As the hegemony of the capitalist system penetrates further into every part of our society, economy, politics and environment, the task of implementing socialist practices that undermine that system becomes ever more urgent.

To this end, in For a Socialist Architecture we have mapped out the development process from 1) strategy, legislation and policy to 2) urban design, master-planning and brief development to 3) project design and the planning process to 4) procurement and construction to 5) management and maintenance, and identified the moments of political agency at which the agents for a socialist architecture can intervene in and disrupt the capitalist structure and functioning of this process. In addition, we have also identified moments that are outside this development process proper, but which can be brought to bear upon it, including the tasks of education, dissemination and agitation for change. In doing so, we have developed a framework for both individual and collective agency that extends far beyond the skills of an architect, and is not limited to either industry professionals or the layman’s protest. All of us are potential agents for a socialist architecture; but to be called ‘socialist’ that agency must go beyond voting and protest — both of which give legitimacy to the vaunted ‘freedom’ of capitalist democracies — to oppositional political practice. In this respect, we hope that the principles and practices we have articulated may be translated into other forms of social and political practice, and are not limited to architecture or housing; and that our book may become a starting point or outline for a broad range of socialist practices that seek to question, circumnavigate, challenge and undermine the hegemony of neo-liberal capitalism in our social, productive, economic and political lives.

With a new decade upon us, and the class war in housing set to be waged at levels of ferocity that will make housing precarity, poverty and homelessness the norm for millions in the UK — if they are not already — now seems to us the time to reframe the principles and practices of Architects for Social Housing in a new manifesto: backed by the strategies and interventions we are formulating in our book, that we sketched out in our Vancouver lectures last year, and which we are already implementing in our own projects and campaigns in the UK. Confronted by the complicity of the Labour Party in implementing the housing crisis, the past five years of our practice has mostly been conducted in the face of opposition from the liberal left; but we hope that those who placed their faith in the parliamentary system will finally learn from its latest failure and work now instead to form a socialist movement outside the suffocating embrace of the Labour Party and its business-friendly unions. If we don’t, and we continue to march down the blind alleys of parliamentary politics, the next decade will almost certainly be even worse than the last was for the working class of Britain. Forty years after the neo-liberal revolution that has brought us to where we are now in 2020, only a socialist movement of and for the working class can hope to confront and resist the forces of capital by which we are threatened in every aspect of our lives.

That resistance starts with housing, through which so many strands of life in the UK today passes: not only, most obviously, our social and economic life, with an increasing proportion of our individual incomes spent on housing costs and over 60 per cent of the UK’s net wealth invested in residential property; but also our environmental and political life, with up to 40 per cent of our carbon emissions produced by the construction industry, and many of our government policies — and not only on housing — designed to attract global investment in that property at the expense of both our environment and our communities. Without resistance to the unchecked neo-liberalisation of housing, our British citizenship is a rental agreement which the capitalist state will not hesitate to terminate at the first opportunity, as it already has for the 320,000 people living without a home in the UK. The struggle for housing has the capacity to politicise and organise UK citizens against this liberalisation, and in doing so expose them to the radical and revolutionary practices and ideas this country so desperately needs.

If an Englishman’s home is his castle — as politicians like to remind us when placing increasingly out-of-reach property ownership at the foundation of their housing policies — the UK’s increasingly homeless population is being progressively forced outside the protection of that castle, from which the violent sallies of global capital will continue to strip us of what common wealth and land and rights we have left. But before we can think of overthrowing its battlements and towers or defeating those inside, we need to defend the homes we have, and make sure those we build will not only meet our housing and community needs but also protect us from the wealth and power of the feudal lords and robber barons that rule over us. In our book, For a Socialist Architecture: Under Capitalism, we are laying out the strategies, plans, procedures, mechanisms, designs, construction and direction of this work of defence, which may also teach us how to undermine and, one day, replace the rule of capital.

Architects for Social Housing

Architects for Social Housing is a Community Interest Company (no. 10383452). Although we occasionally receive minimal fees for our design work, the majority of what we do is unpaid and we have no source of public funding. If you would like to support our work financially, please make a donation through PayPal:

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