"I'd love to get active with you and the social democrats!"
"Not social democrats, democratic socialists!" I said with feigned offense.
"But seriously, there's an important difference between the two." I continued.
This conversation with a friend I've had now a few times in various forms.
Now that socialism has returned to mainstream American discourse, there's a lot of opinions about what it actually means.
For the sake of this post, let's use the Democratic Socialists of America's (DSA) definition,
We believe that working people should run both the economy and society democratically to meet human needs, not to make profits for a few.
What this implies is a radical shift in power in our society. Right now the economy and society is run by a wealthy elite in the interests of, well themselves.
Many think of socialism is just more liberalism. Take the current housing crisis compounded by the pandemic. A liberal might want a government aid package that has funds to assist people struggling to pay their rent. A socialist might want rent cancelled entirely during the duration of the pandemic.
But if that were the socialist's stance, it doesn't inherently shift the power structure to one where working people are democratically managing housing to meet our needs. We could engage in traditional petition signing, calling your reps and lobbying to try and get that done. Even if we were successful in getting that concession from the government, once the pandemic subsides and rent is once again due, to the power dynamics remain intact.
To shift power, a campaign needs to do two things:
1) frame the conversation around the current predatory power dynamic and the democratic counter-solution we are fighting for
2) carry out the campaign in ways that build working class power
Radical Visions, Liberal Framing : The Pitfall of a Peoples' Bailout and "Can't Pay, Won't Pay"
Most of the framing I've seen from the #CancelRent campaigns popping up across the country (and world) combine a radical tactic (rent strike) with a liberal framing: we can't afford to pay our rent.
It makes sense at first glance. Many of us truly can't pay our rent and the heartless logic of capitalism is trying to squeeze blood from a turnip even in the midst of a pandemic. But ultimately, if we rest our argument for a moratorium on rent payments around our ability to pay, we are in an unwinnable debate that doesn't shift power.
Instead we're now left defending our personal choices,
"Why didn't you have savings?"
"Well, then apply for this rental assistance program"
"Ok, we can work out a payment plan."
"Cancel your netflix subscription."
This isn't the debate we want.
What we want is a conversation that puts the spotlight on the commodification of housing, which is a basic human right. Right now banks and landlords are still making money hand over first while we struggle to even stay in our homes. People shouldn't be making money off of housing in the first place. Even if we could "afford" to play into this money making scam for the wealthy, we shouldn't.
This pandemic opened up what we see as possible. One of the greatest challenges to another world, is simply believing it to be possible. Campaigns like #CancelRent can open up and hold our imaginations of something different, but only if we frame it that way.
It can feel like splitting hairs, and sometimes it is. Here's a table though, to differentiate between a socialist framing a social democrat framing.
Socialist vs. Liberal Politics
|Democratic Socialist||Social Democrat|
|Housing is a private commodity that banks and landlords enrich themselves from at the expense of the working class. We need to shift to housing that is democratically run for house us all, eg: public housing, community land trusts, etc.||Housing is a private commodity that is ok to profit off of, but the government should supplement that with subsidies and public housing for the poorest of us.|
| Housing is a private commodity that banks and landlords enrich themselves from at the expense of the working class. We need to shift to housing that is democratically run for house us all, eg: public housing, community land trusts, etc. | Housing is a private commodity that is ok to profit off of, but the government should supplement that with subsidies and public housing for the poorest of us.
Keeping the above differences in mind, here are some slogans that match each.
|Democratic Socialist||Social Democrat|
|Housing is a Right!||Can't Pay, Won't Pay||Rent is Theft||Food, Not Rent!|
|Build Tenant Power||Bailout the People|
Of course, it's not always clear whether a slogan is a socialist framing or a liberal framing. "Housing Justice!" can mean a lot of things. "Bailout the People, Not the Banks!" brings in a class analysis, but the term bailout implies this wasn't our wealth that was stolen from us in the first place. Slogans are short and inherently limited.
It's also not to say the path to revolution is nitpicking what each other's banners say. Simply that, it's good to be clear on what story we're telling. The Occupy Movement's "We are the 99%" wasn't perfect, but it did set the stage for narratives focused clearly around wealth inequality and shifting to democratic, worker power.
A good story speaks to our immediate material needs while connecting to a broader analysis of power. We aren't going to move many of our neighbors to join us in a rent strike by starting with a socialist analysis of the privatization of housing. We're going to move them by speaking to their situation, whether it's skipping their prescription one month to pay rent or the fact that they didn't pay rent last month because they lost their job. It's the material conditions we start from, but when we tell our story to one another's we connect that to the larger picture. Not only can we not pay our rent, but it's twisted that our landlord makes so much money off us in the first place. And to insist on profitting further in a pandemic?? That's criminal.
So when we talk to the media, we need to start from our situation but quickly point out how the viciousness of a system that has a small few getting rich of our basic need for shelter.
For example, this testimonial from a laid off server with mounting bills and no job is moving, but it doesn't go on the attack against the predatory housing industry.
This isn't meant to single any one group or media maker out. In fact, it's a great example of working class folks telling their story. Scrolling through the Twitter hashtag #CancelRent I had a hard time finding any posts that went on the offensive against the banks and landlords.
Here is a rare video that talks directly about landlord greed. A tenant organizer makes the important point that one of the landlords they're organizing against owns their property outright and so is profitting massively while putting the squeeze on renters.
Even this message could have hit harder on the racket that the landlords and banks are running.
We don't want a "return to normal" we want a world where housing is a right. To do that, we need stories, slogans and analysis that demands such and puts profiteers on the defensive.