Serve the People? Some questions on tenants' union consciousness.

by Tom Gann, josie sparrow
December 11, 2020

In the first of three pieces, Tom Gann and josie sparrow reflect on some of the possibilities and limits of tenants' organising. 9481 words / 37 min read


For various reasons, 2020 has seen a notable upturn in housing activism in the private rental sector, with a variety of tenants’ unions organising against the increasing vulnerability of private renters brought about by the Government’s response to the pandemic. This upturn takes place within a wider context of historical and ongoing housing activism, with groups such as Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL) and Greater Manchester Housing Action, amongst others, organising not only in the private rental sector, but with social housing tenants and people experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness. The activities of these groups often connect up with wider community issues, particularly around development, the uses of space, and the ‘Right to the City’.

This surge in private renters’ activism, particularly in the form of unions such as ACORN and LRU, has provoked critical reflection on the efficacy of the union model for housing organisation, as well as on the question of whether the focus of these unions can or should be restricted to private tenants. These questions led to a discussion in the pages of New Socialist, with Nick Bano (a HASL member) and Kate Bradley (an ACORN member) each contributing articles.

Building on these conversations, GMHA and HASL joined together to host a series of panel discussions. New Socialist will publish a reflection and response to each of these events, in hopes of furthering the discussion and strengthening the movement.

The first of these took place on November 12th, and brought together activists and organisers from a range of groups: Nick Bano (HASL), Kate Bradley (ACORN Manchester), Aaron Downey (CATU), Robert Reid (Dorchester Court Tenants’ Union, and Rachel White (London Renters’ Union).

Before we begin, we’d like to briefly situate ourselves within these discussions, and the wider context of housing struggle. We’ve each, in quite different ways, had a long engagement with these issues, and we offer our specific experiences as a means of materially grounding our comments. Tom was involved quite intensely in housing activism in South London between 2012 and 2016. This included establishing a private renters’ group in Southwark, and wider activism, including with HASL, around social housing and homelessness. He also helped to set up a previous Dorchester Court Tenants’ Union. josie grew up in a now-demolished council block in Liverpool. She was made homeless at the age of 16 and survived over a decade of homelessness and precarious housing before getting a place at university at the age of 30. Both of us are now in our late 30s and remain trapped in London’s exploitative private rental system. All of this to say that we have first hand knowledge of the ways in which the housing crisis can impact upon and severely limit lives and opportunities. These experiences will doubtless inflect our comments below.

The discussion was open, comradely, and generative; we would encourage people to watch it. We have organised our response around a set of themes which we felt were threaded throughout the conversation, and which reflect the points at which we found ourselves relating critically to what was said. There were also many points of agreement, some of which we have highlighted to the extent that they coincide with these themes. We have presented our response in this way because we feel that these themes are, perhaps, under-theorised and under-considered within much contemporary housing activism—in our experience, at least.

We would add here that none of what we write is intended to discourage or belittle those involved in housing activism, including in private tenants unions. It is almost invariably better to do something than to do nothing, and, as we argue, theoretical problems tend to work out in response to practice. We recognise too that our critiques come from a position that is, at present, external to existing housing movements—despite our previous experiences. We claim no particular authority over and above anybody else. The theoretical claims we make are condensations of experience, both our own and that of others, and it is because of this condensation of experience that they may be relevant, though whether their application is legitimate or useful remains an open question.


If under capitalism the working class is able to live its relation to its conditions of existence transparently, ‘authentically’, why does it have a need for socialism at all?

Stuart Hall

How can we understand the role of experience within housing activism? Nick opened the discussion by saying that “people really know and really think about the forces that make their housing conditions so miserable, and how best to resist them”. It strikes us that this claim—and how it can be unfolded—is central to understanding the possibilities and limitations of a certain type of housing activism. On the one hand, a trust in the capacity of the exploited to make sense of their own situation, with a view to changing it, is at the basis of any serious project of socialist democracy. It is also true that, for a private tenant, the exploitative relationship between tenant and landlord is clear and comprehensible in ways that other forms of exploitation under capital may not be. However, precisely because of this transparency, wider social mechanisms can become obscured by an overemphasis on ‘landlordism’ as if it were the primary site of exploitation. This overemphasis or singular focus can have malign political and organisational consequences.

In ‘What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of our Movement’, Lenin describes a limited ‘trade-union consciousness’, characterised by a “conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation”. It’s important to note here that this is a particular type of consciousness arising out of a set of practices and a failure of politicisation; not all trade unions or trade unionists will possess it. Lenin locates the roots of this consciousness in the idea that the spontaneous experience of oppression at the point of production (ie. in specific workplaces, particularly factories) is adequate to the task of political transformation. Hall’s observation, quoted above, that it is impossible for the oppressed to live the conditions of their existence transparently is derived from this line of thinking.

If there is a ‘trade-union consciousness’, grounded in the posited adequacy of spontaneous experience, is there also a ‘tenants’ union consciousness’, grounded in the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the landlords, and strive to compel the Government to pass necessary housing legislation? At certain points in the discussion, it seemed to us that the speakers representing tenants’ unions made arguments that were suggestive of such a tenants’ union consciousness—a line of thinking that could pose organisational limits.

If there is a ‘trade-union consciousness’, is there also a ‘tenants’ union consciousness’?

The basis of this line of thinking seemed to emerge out of economism: the belief that shifts in the material base have direct and immediate political effects through effects on consciousness. In this model, the upturn in private renters’ organising is explicable by certain material shifts (particularly the effects of the pandemic), rather than by the effective organisational efforts of militants within groups such as ACORN and LRU. This obscures the hard work of organising, which should be celebrated, and which, frankly, is thankless enough already. Economism naturalises our efforts and struggles: because political action ‘just happens’, it does not call for recognition, much less celebration. In the same way, that which cannot be properly recognised cannot be properly critiqued. This is the other facet of this naturalisation: because political action ‘just happens’, whatever consequences it may have are taken to be the only possible consequences. It’s a deterministic system, which (like all deterministic systems) places real limits on the possibility of (self-)critique. Whatever arises is taken as being entirely adequate to the situation, because the foundations are never subjected to critique. The central task is to grow the union.

In the tradition of Lenin and Gramsci, trade-union consciousness is held to be enclosed. Just as, when one enters the workplace (wherever it may be), the rest of one’s life is supposed to recede into the background, so trade-union consciousness focuses entirely on the struggle at the point of production, the antagonism between worker and boss. ‘External’ struggles, such as those on the terrain of social reproduction or anti-imperialism, are excluded, along with any question of wider political contestation with the state. However, there remains within trade union struggle—and even trade-union consciousness—the possibility for collective action against a shared enemy. But, as Nick Bano has pointed out, “the weapon underpinning syndicalism—collective strike action—is difficult to wield in housing because private tenants tend to have disparate landlords”. In some cases—as with the current wave of student rent strikes, or Dorchester Court Tenants’ Union, both of which primarily target a shared landlord—the union model can deliver real consequences. But even in these cases, the extensive legal powers held by landlords over tenants impose hard limits on what can be achieved. And in the majority of cases, when there is no shared landlord to organise against, the capacities of tenants’ union consciousness to deliver even limited consciousness are even more constrained.

Tenants’ union consciousness is thus characterised by a double enclosure: firstly, the enclosure described above, which it shares with trade-union consciousness, in which one site of exploitation is detached from the wider functioning of capitalism; and secondly, the enclosure of individual subjects within individualised relationships of exploitation, lacking the possibilities of collectivity that exist within a shared workplace. The argument is that the shared experience of being a tenant can stand in for this, with the concept of ‘landlordism’ standing in for the boss—but this unification is unlikely to be able to do the necessary work in the absence of an organically collective basis.

Both trade- and tenants’ union consciousness take for granted the contradictions that produce them. In the discussion, the most pronounced consequence of this was that, rather than imagining the abolition of private renting, what was imagined was “a rental system that works for all renters” through a “redressing of the balance” between landlords and tenants. This “redressing” will presumably happen through a combination of various kinds of direct action against specific landlords and applying pressure on the Government to regulate the private rental sector. Whilst these practices are likely to deliver welcome consequences for participating tenants, they are also limited in their transformative potential, because they remain caught within the logic of a structurally exploitative relationship.

An alternative to tenants’ union consciousness is suggested by the activities of CATU in Ireland. Aaron made a strong case for a model based around a wide range of community struggles, combined with a politics of alliance and articulation, that necessarily avoids the enclosure of tenants’ union consciousness. By taking a whole set of interrelated issues, rather than the landlord/tenant relationship, as a starting point, CATU’s model has the potential to denaturalise some of these relations of exploitation. This breaking out of the enclosure—of the atomised relations of exploitation—is a central part of Aaron called “the politicisation of everyday life”: an expansion of capacities, connections, and powers to act, with and for others. Both Aaron and Robert spoke movingly about their experiences of solidarity—something that was also communicated by Rae and Kate in their talks. However, the large-scale tenants’ union perspective tends to de-emphasise these effects in favour of “winning power” and “growing the union”.

Underpinning this is the economistic model that treats experience or consciousness as always adequate to its situation. The possibility of learning through collective action, or through experience considered as a process rather than a given, tends to be marginalised in favour of the immediately and obviously practical. Any serious model of housing organising is rooted in the idea that problems have to be collectivised—all of the speakers rightly emphasised this point. But what do we mean when we talk about collectivising problems?

When Tom was involved with HASL, he noticed that people who felt desperate and isolated in their housing difficulties often felt ashamed that they were struggling. The individualising structure of capitalist rationality both demands and ensures that we blame ourselves, and this shame can be incapacitating. The caring structure of HASL meetings meant that people could share their experiences in a supportive atmosphere, and it was powerfully moving to witness people discovering that they were not alone and not to blame for what had happened to them. In reading Mark Fisher’s Post-Capitalist Desire: The Final Lectures, we were struck by his emphasisis on the experience of relief that comes with the understanding that the problem is not yours, as an individual. “Even before you do anything,” he writes, “something has happened… You’ll feel better1 These transformative processes are valuable in and of themselves; crucially, however, they are also a precondition for taking collective action to improve the situation. Everyone has the capacity to grasp—and to transform—their situation, but, as Stuart Hall remarks, we do not live our conditions transparently. The logic of capital acts on and through all of us, alienating us from these capacities. The moments in HASL meetings when people were able to break through this logic were both emotionally powerful and politically effective.

By contrast, the impression given by Rae and Kate of their respective unions’ approach to organising relied on the idea that both housing problems and their solutions, and the capacities to make (and feel entitled to make) demands, are obvious and given. Collective action then functions as practical problem-solving within a set of determinate parameters, rather than an open-ended and transformative process. It’s that determinism again: a logic of means and ends where there is one set of means, through which people are guided, towards a specific end.

This is not to say that deep transformations are impossible within tenants’ unions! Any form of political action can do this—indeed, even the Labour Party, a significantly less auspicious site for such things, has had transformative effects. Every victory won by a tenants’ union builds confidence, increases solidarity, and—crucially—keeps somebody in their home. We note, too, that ACORN does describe itself as a “community based union”—and though they appear at present to be operating largely as a private tenants union, there is significant potential in their making good on this claim. Moreover, there were suggestions, particularly from Rae, of practices of care that could help to found the sorts of relationships necessary for transformative politics, which we’ll discuss shortly.

Every victory won by a tenants’ union builds confidence, increases solidarity, and—crucially—keeps somebody in their home.

In ‘The Right to the City’, Henri Lefebvre wrote:

Only social force, capable of investing itself in the urban through a long political experience, can take charge of the realisation of a programme concerning urban society.

The conditions in which private renters find themselves—frequent relocation, often to increasingly peripheral parts of the city—mitigate strongly against this sort of “long political experience” on an individual level. To counter this, a strong institutionalisation of experience is necessary. As Hilary Wainwright notes:

With many libertarian movements there has always been a tendency to start afresh in each new situation without a collective historical memory of what lessons have been learnt in the past.2

“Libertarian” is significant here, denoting as it does those movements whose coherence and institutional memory is not guaranteed by the state. For Tom, it was striking how, outside of HASL, whole hosts of experiences and struggles—including being involved in helping to set up an earlier Dorchester Court Tenants’ Union—have left no, or very little trace. It is encouraging that both ACORN and LRU may be developing the institutional strength and coherence to collectivise, and therefore preserve, experience so that it—and the capacities developed through it—will not be lost so easily.


During the Q&A, a member of the audience raised a crucial question: how do we prevent middle class people from dominating private renters’ unions? Kate’s response referred to a “Marxist definition of class” grounded in “your relation to capital”; under this definition, tenants are necessarily working class because “their relation to capital puts them in a weak position.” Rae agreed with this point, and emphasised that tenants are of a different social class to landlords and to home-owners more widely. While both speakers acknowledged the need for organisations to make certain adjustments to broaden accessibility (which we will discuss shortly), their deployment of this definition of class rather dodged the question, by claiming that middle class capture of institutions isn’t a problem, and that any barriers to access or to recognition are rooted in problems external to class.

Against this, we would argue, firstly, that Marx himself, and the wider Marxist tradition, do not tend to conceptualise class in this way—including in relation to housing. Secondly, this definition has pernicious theoretical and organisational effects. It also reflects and typifies the problem of experience, as discussed in the previous section. Above all, the economistic centring of an enclosed site of exploitation presents ‘tenant’ as a simple category that is not traversed, intersected, or overdetermined by anything external to the landlord/tenant relationship. Because this relationship is taken to be simple, it is also taken to be static. We might contrast this position with that of Engels, in The Housing Question, for whom the composition of those affected by the housing crisis, even under generalised conditions of exploitation, is always shifting and dynamic. Writing of the conjunctural housing crisis of the late 1860s and early 1870s, he argues:

This housing shortage gets talked of so much only because it does not limit itself to the working class but has affected the petit bourgeoisie also.

For Engels, then, we can note two things against the supposed “Marxist definition of class”. Firstly, that class is not fully determined by one’s relation to housing; and secondly, that those struggling with housing, including renters, are not always necessarily working class.

This is not to say that the landlord/tenant relationship is not exploitative, nor that this relationship is unimportant within Marxism. In texts geared more towards analysis of particular social formations,3 rather than the capitalist mode of production as a whole, Marx discusses a variety of forms of exploitation, including taxation, debt, and rent. He views these forms of exploitation as being structurally subordinate to the exploitation of productive labour; but, at the same time, he recognises that they may prove to be just as (or even more) politically decisive—and may also inflict a greater level of suffering. Our lives can be traversed by multiple forms of subordinate exploitation, as well as the structuring exploitation at the point of production.

Class is not fully determined by one’s relation to housing; those struggling with housing, including renters, are not always necessarily working class.

Our argument here parallels and supports our previous argument around trade- and tenants’ union consciousness. Following Nicos Poulantzas, we believe that:

social class is defined by its place in the ensemble of social practices, ie. by its place in the ensemble of the division of labour which includes political and ideological relations.4

Like Poulantzas, we would define class “principally but not exclusively” in terms of place in the production process. However, basing a conception of class exclusively on exploitation at the point of production (trade union consciousness), or indeed on the landlord/tenant relation (tenants’ union consciousness), reduces the ensemble of social practices, including the various forms of exploitation, to a simple economic relationship.

If the objection was merely that the definitions offered by Kate and Rae did not correspond to a Marxist account of class, we would be operating on the terrain of theoretical pedantry. However, we also believe that these definitions reveal (and may compound) potential organisational problems, which are likely to have material consequences.

The economistic presumption that renters cohere as a class, and that this material basis automatically produces a unified organisation, both occludes divergent interests, needs, and capacities, and ignores the need for the genuinely political work of creating real solidarity that is respectful of, and responsive to, those differences. Engels’s argument is significant here, since it suggests a real division within the group of people broadly affected by housing problems. The ideal imagined subject of the private renters’ unions appears similar to Engels’s petit bourgeoisie; that is, somebody whose struggles solely and purely take the form of housing problems. A life untraversed by other significant forms of exploitation and injustice is a life within which a single experience of exploitation and injustice will register more strongly as an affront. As somebody whose life has been marked by generational poverty and homelessness, josie has often talked about the shame, the guilt, and the resignation (“this is just what life is like for me; I should put up with it”) that has prevented her from taking action in the past.

Not only that, but actions such as rent strikes carry disproportionate risk for those of us without families to return to should the landlord evict, and particularly so in cases where people are already traumatised by experiences of homelessness. These are real problems, and they are classed problems; they cannot be wished away, but only ignored. When Kate said she was unaware of any problems such as this, it was an appeal to immediate experience that rejected the entire premise of the question: “I haven’t seen it, so it isn’t a problem.” But how can you see it, when our shame makes us hide it all away? How can you hear about it, when we’re afraid to speak up? The work of politics does not only happen on the surface: it isn’t only about listening, but about considering who can speak, and creating contexts where people are able to be heard in the first place. Setting up a meeting is one thing, but if we forget that people might bring other struggles with them when they enter the meeting-room, we risk slipping into tenants’ union consciousness with all its limitations. An attention to this risk would be truly transformative, and truly political. As Jacques Rancière remarks:

Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time.5

Struggles over hegemony, therefore, are as important within organisations of the oppressed as they are within society as a whole. Hegemony is always a question of whose interests and needs are made to be the general interest, whether or society or of the group. What part of the group ‘private renters’ is taken for the whole?

The work of politics does not only happen on the surface: it isn’t only about listening, but about considering who can speak.

In Tom’s experience of private renters’ organisations, two examples made clear the role of internal contradictions and the taking of a part (those oppressed only by their housing problems) for the whole.

On landlord licensing, the majority of the private renters’ groups supported and lobbied for its introduction, as it was very likely to benefit this section of renters. However, the group Tom was involved in opposed landlord licensing, believing that its focus on ‘antisocial behaviour’ and its intersection with the Immigration Act 2014 risked harming those tenants less likely to be represented both in private renters’ groups and in the public imagination.

Equally, there were consistent tensions within private renters’ groups around the question of militant action, with many feeling that not physically opposing evictions (or engaging in other forms of militant direct action, such as resisting immigration raids or occupying buy-to-let flats) was a price worth paying for ‘respectability’. Regardless of what actual decisions are taken around strategic direction, any serious and democratic organisation needs to acknowledge that there will be real and structurally-determined divisions within the group—or, if there genuinely aren’t any, that those who are ‘different’ are clearly being deterred from participating in a way that functions as exclusion. Again, it’s not only about giving attention to what people are saying—it’s about who’s in the room in the first place.

The question of middle class capture thus cannot be defined out of existence in terms of strategic direction and whose interests are represented. Equally, in terms of the everyday functioning of the organisation, where Kate and Rae did have suggestions around inclusion and accessibility, the depth of the problem—including its class-based determination—still felt under-acknowledged. Kate rightly emphasised the need to acknowledge all the work done in reproducing and growing the group; however, by itself, this is not good enough. Part of what Poulantzas treats as “political and ideological criteria” within “the ensemble of the division of labour”6 is the division between intellectual and manual labour, with intellectual labour associated with control both of one’s own life and, sometimes, of others. The question then—and this is decisively a classed question (although very often one overdetermined by gender)—is not only “do we acknowledge the person who puts away the chairs?” but “who is putting away the chairs, and how do we ensure a rotation of functions, particularly those associated with control, that breaks with the way in which an organisation may naturalise the classed and gendered distinctions between intellectual and manual labour?” If we define the problem as likely to be one of middle class capture, rather than the flattened model suggested by the speakers, we are much more likely to be attentive to this.

Rae, in her response, framed it as an issue of who has the capacity to negotiate activist spaces. There is definitely an overlap here, and having an awareness of this is likely to lead to generative solutions that expand inclusion and access. However, particularly when grounded in a spontaneous, economistic, tenants’ union consciousness model, it risks treating political experience—or even politics itself—as an illegitimate intrusion. In some ways, then, the ideal subject of a private renters’ union is something of a blank slate—and, as we will discuss later, this presents problems around conceptions of political education. It also runs the risk of treating a working class person who has acquired certain political skills or opinions through organising, perhaps in trade unions or political parties, as having the same, or even greater, illegitimate capacity to act as a middle class person with acquired habits of command and control derived from their role in production.

Again, CATU (along with some of HASL’s practice) offers us an alternative set of possibilities to the theory and practice suggested by flattening all tenants into the category ‘working class’. A significant part of CATU’s theory and practice is informed by and rooted in the specificities of Irish history. To return to Marx’s model, one side of this is, as in any colonised country, the preponderance and intensity of the various subordinate forms of exploitation. The other side is Ireland’s historic and ongoing anticolonial resistance to these forms of exploitation—a resistance that has always activated heterogenous points of struggle whilst remaining articulated to an overarching movement. This gives a much stronger basis for a wider community politics which acknowledges differences and the need to make alliances—including cross-class alliances. There are instances of this articulated community politics in Britain—particularly in racialised communities which have been, and continue to be, subject to forms of exploitation and oppression that are reminiscent of colonial practices, and are often resisted in ways reminiscent of anticolonial struggle. In the following section, we’ll look at whether and how these models might be more widely applicable to housing struggles in Britain.

Community, Articulation, Alliance

These histories and contexts, and with them the refusal of the flattenings and enclosures of tenants’ union consciousness, suggest a different trajectory for housing struggles. This would overlap with some of the work HASL have done, in which struggles over housing were articulated to organising against immigration raids and engaging in wider migrant support work.7 Here, of course, the focus is not on the ‘pure’ subject of tenants’ union consciousness, but precisely those who are struggling in the face of multiple and interconnected forms of exploitation and oppression. This could also have affinities with a politics of ‘the right to the city’, as articulated by Greater Manchester Housing Action. As Aaron pointed out, a wider community politics (rather than framing CATU as an organisation solely for renters) has been crucial to CATU’s development; indeed, given the relatively low levels of private renting in Ireland, articulating private renters’ struggles to a wider range of community struggles avoids single-issue isolation and is therefore a precondition for effectively asserting the interests of private renters. Outside of a few major urban centres in Britain, low levels of private renting suggests that the narrow focus of a union intended solely for private renters may run into the kinds of limitations that CATU have managed to avoid. Unfortunately, the question of what housing or private renters’ organising could look like in towns, much less rural areas, was not explored in this discussion.

The question perhaps posed by this would be: whilst there are very strong reasons for preferring a community model of politics over the private renters’ union, does the more attractive model require particular histories (and sets of attitudes embedded in or emerging from those histories) which are absent from much of Britain? This might mean arguing that the move towards renters’ unions is the best that can be done, given the sheer badness of Britain, rather than an error in itself. However, even if we were to accept this, it would not mean that the actually existing conceptions and practices of tenants’ unions ought to pass uncriticised. Tenants’ unions that break with the presumptions involved in what we’ve been calling tenants’ union consciousness may well have their own role in helping to build up a wider communal politics. This would require ensuring that they do not become enclosed, structured by a limited set of needs and interests, and isolated from their wider communities. We would also insist that any politics of alliance and solidarity cannot begin from the presumption that everyone is the same.

The move towards renters’ unions may be the best that can be done, given the sheer badness of Britain.

Growth, Politicisation, Internal Models

These differences between a politics of alliance that gains its power through the articulation of struggles—“the politicisation of everyday life”, as Aaron put it—and the internally-cohered union model also lead to pronounced differences: in internal functioning, in the ways in which organisations grow, and in questions around politicisation and political education (and how far there is a difference between the two). During the event, these issues were discussed most substantially with reference to tenants’ unions, so in this section we will largely focus on what was said by the speakers from these unions—though we will also explore the implicit contrast between these approaches and those that might be more grounded in the politicisation of everyday life.

For the speakers from LRU and ACORN (we exempt DCTU from this because of their highly localised, and therefore restricted, model), growth is presented as desirable in and of itself, largely because an increase in membership size increases the leverage of the organisation. The notion of ‘leverage’ is central here, because of the self-conception of these unions as vehicles for “redressing the balance of power between landlord and tenant”. Growth, then, is largely a question of quantity—of how much weight you can apply to the scale—with membership numbers assumed to have a fairly direct relation to the power of the organisation.

It was also acknowledged, however, that growth brings with it a set of risks that must be mitigated or avoided. The first of these risks is that people within the core of the group may find themselves overstretched and burnt out. In the discussion, there was no explicit acknowledgement that either of the big tenants’ unions have a ‘core’ of more active members with more responsibility than the ‘periphery’ of less active or ideologically-engaged members.

These divisions exist in any political organisation under current conditions; in class society, as Gramsci remarks, “there really do exist rulers and ruled, leaders and led”.8 The political choice we have to make, to borrow from Tom’s ‘Introducing Bad New Times’,

is whether these distinctions are asserted as natural and permanent… or whether the activity of politics is the long revolutionary undoing of that distinction, both within politics itself and in terms of the class contradictions [and, we would add, division of labour] and wider relationships outside of it.

When we fail to recognise that these distinctions exist, they become almost impossible to undo. How can we challenge what we cannot even name? And, if we can’t name these distinctions, it is so much harder to think about their effects—including the very real problem of burnout—on people in leadership or other kinds of responsible roles.

To mitigate against these possible effects, Rae emphasised the need for a set of practices that “put care at the heart of the union”. We agree wholeheartedly with this: if any radical organisation is to function well—in terms of practical effectiveness, of building relationships, and of prefiguring worlds-to-come—it must attend to the question of care. Another means of avoiding burnout, according to Rae, is for organisations to exercise caution around slipping into “a service model” built around “casework”, as dealing with the volume and urgency of housing problems will likely exhaust people.

The problem of casework and service was also mentioned by Kate, which brings us to the second posited risk of organisational growth: that of “NGO-isation” and, consequently, a loss of specifically political bite. The risk of something like “NGO-isation” is undoubtedly real, but we feel that it was slightly misconceptualised in the discussion, and that therefore some wrong conclusions were drawn.

These concerns were articulated as a fear that the growth of tenants’ unions might cause them to become “like Shelter”—that is, a charitable organisation that is able to achieve certain things, and to support individual people in particular ways, but at the expense on having very pronounced limits around political activity, including its ability to directly confront the state or capital.

These are very real risks; we would argue, however, that they are rooted less in the “service and casework”-type model, and more in processes of incorporation into the apparatuses of the state. Far worse than Shelter, for example, has been the integration of housing and homelessness charities into the repressive functions of the state, with (as Nick mentioned at the beginning of the discussion) St Mungo’s working with Home Office patrols to arrest and deport rough sleepers. St Mungo’s argued that their contracts with local governments required them to do so as a condition of being able to provide outreach and support in “a difficult climate”. Collaboration with and incorporation into the repressive state apparatuses, they seem to say, is a price worth paying.

This risk of incorporation is a tendency which may be aided and supported by the unclarified relationships of control centred on intellectual labour, and may be further compounded by models of political education that serve to reproduce these relations of leaders and led, even as political education is held to be one of the means by which we might avoid NGO-isation. A focus on attempts to pressure the Government into changing laws is also likely to further this tendency. It is likely to push forward members and professionalised officers with lobbying skills and the right connections, and to give the organisation a role in negotiating with the state on the behalf of members. As the case of St Mungo’s demonstrates, negotiating with the state can often have extremely destructive effects on some of the most vulnerable and overlooked people.

To return to problems of trade-union consciousness, this negotiating function also entails a disciplinary function; a move towards respectability (which is the only way one can be heard by the state) which involves using the capacity to discipline and control members as part of a negotiating strategy. As Poulantzas notes, conventional trade unions are very much part of the ideological state apparatuses.9 The suspicion of “becoming a service” may lead to a narrow hypervigilance and, consequently, an overlooking of (or complacency about) other integrative tendencies. It may also limit, through overcorrection, what the group can do in terms of direct practical effects.

Both Kate and Rae stressed the importance of the meeting as a means of avoiding the risk of NGO-isation. Their emphasis on the meeting as an egalitarian form seemed to take some of the divisions and dynamics we’ve discussed above as being necessarily external to the meeting—left outside the meeting-room, perhaps. The collective solving of problems through meetings was presented as being central to the organisational models and self-conceptions of both ACORN and LRU, complemented by both groups’ necessary and correct emphasis on training and the sharing of skills.

This aim of democratising capacities and knowledge, rather than hoarding them, is of great importance. If large-scale tenants’ unions are to achieve the goals they set for themselves, it will be necessary for them to employ a group of paid workers who can devote themselves to the project. Many things, as Rae pointed out, simply cannot be achieved if a union is forced to rely on their members having ‘spare time’ in which to do it. This paid group of workers—in effect, a bureaucracy—might, however, be at risk of becoming too independent, too controlling, too top-down. The democratisation of knowledge has the potential to create a broad range of engaged members capable of acting regardless of the wishes of this bureaucracy. Democratising knowledge is also, as we’ve suggested above, essential to the maintenance of institutional longevity, as well as to the building of lateral relationships of care that might begin to dissolve the leaders/led distinction.

The emphasis on democratising capacities against bureaucratisation was welcome and incredibly valuable. However, we may want to question certain other aspects of the organisational self-conception of private tenants’ unions—some of which may represent a limit on the possibilities for democratisation. This relates particularly to the aforementioned hypervigilance about becoming a “service and casework”-type organisation. If the issue with Shelter—and even more so, St Mungo’s—is that they are institutions of the state, the risks of “becoming like them” are not connected to casework without politicisation. Our questioning here also relates to how politicisation might be thought. In the implied models offered by Kate and especially Rae, politicisation was largely, but not entirely, conceptualised as being a process of giving people the correct ideas—the main one of which being the slogan “there are no good landlords”. In LRU, we were informed, this process of politicisation takes place via a mandatory video presentation at the beginning of each meeting—rather a passive way of learning anything, and one unlikely to build capacities in and of itself. The building of capacities, then, becomes disentangled from politicisation; rather, it is something that is practically necessary, and that might help avoid some of the pitfalls (e.g. burnout) associated with growth.

The video presentation is interesting. It suggests a tacit acknowledgement that—counter to the immediate, economistic model we’ve critiqued above—an individual’s lived experience as a renter may not automatically lead to adequate politicisation; however, precisely because it contradicts that model, an external, didactic form of education (the video) is introduced as a means of smoothing out the contradiction. Our position, by contrast, would be closer to that of Stuart Hall, whereby the understanding that conditions are not “lived transparently” leads to an understanding of politicisation as a process in which practice outruns and transforms consciousness. As Hall writes in ‘Gramsci and Us’:

People become empowered by doing something: first of all about their immediate troubles; then, the power expands their political capacities and ambitions, so that they begin to think again about what it might be like to rule the world.

This conception of knowledge as something produced by practice-from-below is the means of drawing a sharp line between housing struggles and the state—including Shelter. It displaces the state’s monopoly not only on legitimate violence but also on legitimate political action and knowledge.10 This then suggests an alternative to the opposition between a charity like Shelter and a politicised tenants’ union—one that might open up the possibility of stressing casework, and even service provision, along the lines of the “direct action casework” model undertaken by groups such as HASL and other members of the London Coalition Against Poverty. In this model, what pushes beyond the limits of something like Shelter is twofold: firstly the possibility of confrontation with the state, and secondly, how much the empowering possibilities of the whole process are emphasised. In other words, it’s not necessarily about the form the work takes: it’s about the content.

It’s worth thinking about the ways in which the notion of ‘service’ can function as an institutional ethic. On the one hand, there is service as a bourgeois-philanthropic ethos. Sharply distinguished from, yet sometimes (as Raymond Williams notes11) confused for solidarity, this conception of service is ideologically held to be at a distance from the state but is in fact profoundly of the state. On the other hand, we have ‘service’ in the sense of “Serve the People”: a practice of solidarity, making oneself useful. First formulated by Mao, this conception was crucial for the practice of much of the politically active part of the 1960s New Left, most notably the Black Panther Party.

These contesting notions of service also run through how we organise. Rancière, in The Ignorant Schoolmaster, talks about the “circle of powerlessness” that is “always already there”; “it is,” he writes, “the very workings of the social world.”12 This circle of powerlessness, he argues, is embedded and reinforced through pedagogy: that is, through how we think about education, about knowledge, and about the capacities of others to understand and to act. The circularity of this disempowerment arises from a sort of imposed helplessness, a process by which “those excluded from the world of intelligence themselves subscribe to the verdict of their exclusion”13 because they genuinely believe, and are encouraged to believe, that without the proper instruction, they are incapable of understanding. This connects to what we said earlier concerning the perceived illegitimacy of those who arrive at the tenants’ union meeting already politicised, already with some idea of what forces structure their oppression, and of how these forces might be resisted. What does it mean to insist that people can “solve their own problems” when we’re mistrustful of them having their own ideas? To treat potential comrades as raw material, as blank slates onto which we can inscribe the ‘correct’ beliefs, the ‘correct ideas’, seems to us not only to strengthen the circle of powerlessness, but also to to risk, far more than casework, the kind of patronising ‘service’ model that characterises so many mainstream housing charities.

A further potential risk of a particular sort of union model might be what could be called a ‘bootstraps-ism of the left’, centring the need for renters to “solve their own problems”, and characterising that solving as being somehow virtuous in itself. The necessity of attending a meeting—and, in the LRU, watching a political education video—has some problems. Practically, we have the question of accessibility. Who is able to make it to meetings? Who can afford to travel there? Is the meeting accessible to people with disabilities? (Are there stairs? Narrow doors? Traffic noise? Is it near an accessible public transport stop?) Who is excluded from support by the focus on physical attendance at meetings?

Arising out of these practical problems are a set of theoretical effects. Where unions could argue for and prefigure the unconditional meeting of needs around housing, how far does the dependence on meetings end up presenting the satisfaction of needs as conditional, or even transactional? Do formalised models of member solidarity always slide into conditionalities in ways that may be appropriate to workplace organising, but are less so in housing struggle? In a workplace struggle against a shared enemy who may well resort to divide and rule tactics, conditionalities dependent on taking shared risks and disciplined collective action are necessary. In a housing context, one does not particularly need institutionalised regulation against the selling-out of one’s fellow tenants.

The notion of ‘service’ runs through how we organise. To treat potential comrades as raw material, as blank slates onto which we can inscribe the ‘correct ideas’ risks emulating the patronising model of mainstream housing charities.

We might want to ask here, too, why, given the obvious limits of Shelter, people continue to seek its support. Some of this is a question of the reach and publicity of a large and well-established organisation—but some is about accessibility and the unconditionality of support. What if people shouldn’t have to solve their problems by themselves? As josie has experienced, often the insistence on “solving your own problems” can be actively disempowering, not only because it is loaded with centuries of moralising castigation of ‘the idle poor’, but also because one very quickly runs up against the hard limits of what one can achieve without authority or institutional power. Tenants’ unions are, of course, a potential means of building this institutional power—but if they had existed at the time, the focus on private renters would have excluded josie from participation, even if we bracket out the question of accessibility. Shelter, on the other hand, gave her advice over the phone with no expectation of anything in return. If Shelter presents a barrier to radicalising housing struggle, shouldn’t its hegemonic role—a role that gives it political authority even as it claims to be apolitical—be challenged by politicised housing groups offering unconditional and accessible support across all types of housing struggle?

It is notable that Robert, the speaker from DCTU, did not emphasise the notion of “people solving their own problems” as much as the speakers from ACORN and LRU. Robert talked about the ways in which DCTU had solved problems for residents, including getting the communal heating (which is centrally controlled) turned on as usual in October, despite the landlord and management company’s penny-pinching reluctance to do so. This practical meeting of needs, Robert told us, had the effect of drawing more residents into the union, strengthening their capacity to act. This offered a striking contrast with LRU, whose speaker, Rae, implied earlier in the discussion that merely getting a boiler fixed does not mean very much without it being yoked to a formal political education. Following Hall, we would suggest that the process of politicisation precisely begins with getting boilers fixed, and can end up in people thinking about what it might be like to rule the world. Politicisation is an expansion of capacities and demands; it may also include those with greater capacity to act making themselves useful to others—even if that means acting on their behalf—and thereby building the trust that is necessary if one is to make political arguments in a way that is effective, relevant, and comradely.

What would it mean, then, to make oneself useful in housing struggles, with all necessary attention to the risks of burnout and the importance of building care into praxis? Firstly, thinking this through requires us to acknowledge that people bring very different capacities to act into their organising, and to consider the implications of this. Some renters will have a greater capacity to act, which may be due to legal or political knowledge, personal connections (e.g. with journalists), citizenship or residency status, having somewhere to go if evicted (e.g. a family home), not being subject to racialisation, relative ease of moving between homes owing to a lack of specific accessibility needs, and so on. Others may not be so lucky, but may still have greater capacities to act, owing to good mental or physical health, physical strength, the ability to navigate complex systems that many oppressed people must develop in order to survive, and so on. A key part of the function of an effective democratic institution involves the identification and development of capacities— particularly those that may not be recognised, even by those who have them, because of the way the “circle of powerlessness” operates. People who possess—and who recognise that they possess—the capacity to act can make themselves useful to others who do not. In this making-oneself-useful, there is the real possibility of breaking the circle of powerlessness, of democratising knowledge and practice—the possibility, in short, of liberation.

Something along the lines of the direct-action casework model has, in Tom’s experience, been much more effective in this democratisation than a model where “training” or “upskilling” is treated as external to everyday organisational practice. The direct-action casework model requires people to work closely and intensely with one another, often in varied and flexible ways. Sometimes the aim is to challenge the state directly; sometimes the aim is just to get around it and its effects. This collective and flexible practice denaturalises the state’s claim on the legitimate monopoly of political knowledge and action, as well as the state-derived authority of intellectual labour and its recognised practitioners, the middle class.

To externalise politics from the processes of solving housing problems has the effect of forcing sharp exclusions to be made on political grounds of who can be helped. Kate was explicit that somebody who expressed racist opinions (such as blaming their housing problems on migrants) would not be eligible for help from ACORN. Clearly, there are important considerations here: it would be shameful to expect racialised members of an organisation to tolerate racism. But does the same hold true for non-racialised members?

When organising in a private renters’ group, Tom helped tenants on an estate who were faced with a significant increase in rent. One of the residents of this estate came along to a group meeting and talked about how “immigrants” had created the pressure on housing in London that allowed his landlord to impose such an exploitative rent increase. Tom (who is a white man) was able to help tenants on this estate challenge their landlord and successfully resist the proposed rent increase. It was only then, having made himself useful and built a relationship of trust, that it became possible to have conversations that challenged this person’s racist understanding of his situation. After talking it all over, this person agreed that the problem was private ownership and the exploitative behaviour of landlords—a problem which he recognised he shared with migrants.
Tom’s decision to help this person with his housing problem was underpinned by two things: firstly, the fact that Tom is a white man and therefore was not at risk of harm in this interaction. Secondly, a conception of politicisation that is rooted in the understanding that we do not live our situations transparently, and that practice (including the building of trust) is a precondition for shifts in consciousness towards a better understanding of conditions. As much as anything else, making support conditional on one’s ability to live one’s situation transparently, or having the ability to keep one’s racism politely hidden, risks affirming conditionality in access to housing. It also creates a terrain that could easily be exploited by the far right.

Finally, a purely quantitative view of growth, coupled with the analytical naturalisation of organisational expansion (missing, as we’ve argued, opportunities to praise militants and to critique methods), potentially leads to cynicism and adventurism. In his two amusing pamphlets on British Trotskyism in the late 70s and early 80s, ‘Go Fourth and Multiply’ and ‘As Soon as this Pub Closes’, John Sullivan coins the phrase “the primitive accumulation of cadres”. It’s possible a similar process is occurring among private renters’ unions. This issue may be particularly salient in London; a question was raised by an audience member about ACORN recruiting on LRU’s ‘patch’, so to speak. The primitive accumulation of cadres, in the case of a private renters’ union, would probably involve the irresponsible taking-up of putatively radical positions (or over-claiming for the radicalism of a position), as well as overestimating the organisation’s strength and capacity to act, in order to draw people in.

The proposed LRU rent strike was quite possibly an instance of this. It remains unclear whether it amounted to a dangerous adventurism in a situation where, as Nick and Franck Magennis argued in New Socialist, “political posturing will cost people their homes”—or, perhaps more likely, an over-claiming of its radicalism. As Nick and Franck suggest, the rent strike branding concealed a less radical proposition:

Calling for the suspension of rent is not a rent strike: petitioning for the legitimation of not paying rent (in the form of legislation suspending rent) does not amount to taking on the landlords. Their approach is to insist that the Government obviates the need for a rent strike by suspending rents, rather than organising a strike in support of more ambitious demands.

This sort of mystification is not only dishonest in itself, but actively harmful to building the necessary institutions. Drawing people into an organisation on the basis that the organisation is powerful and the decisive victory is just around the corner risks disillusionment and disengagement when the great event doesn’t come. It also risks tactical mistakes based on an overestimation strength, and an unwillingness among members to do the slower, more cunning, less dramatic work of building capacities to change existing conditions. Organisational growth is certainly desirable as a means of increasing collective capacity to act, but its centring, by any means, and at the expense of the necessary care and attention, is potentially extremely dangerous.


It is worth returning to Aaron’s arguments concerning the ways in which groups that are exclusively for private renters risk isolation from wider struggles and a capacity to act. A model of community politics, or a group for all people struggling with housing, would avoid this risk, and therefore, as well as answering the needs of those who are not private renters, would also be likely to strengthen private renters’ capacities to act. A group that is only for private renters, by contrast, risks through its isolation particular kinds of depoliticisation and incorporation by the state. Lacking an expansive capacity for action, there is a danger that the interests and ideas of its most privileged sections (Engels’s petit-bourgeoisie) may be generalised—the part taken for the whole. This generalisation would give a voice only to those most able to make claims on conventional terms—both in the sense that these claims can be made in ‘respectable’ non-confrontational ways, and in that the resolution of these problems would largely be a question of regulation. The increased collective profile and power achieved through such an approach would thus marginalise those most affected by the housing crisis, be they private renters or not.

Ultimately, though, all the questions we have raised will be answered in practice, either directly or through the theoretical developments that will emerge from the confronting of problems and the empowering of people. We hope we have offered something useful to the conversation. Where our reflections are helpful, we hope they can be made use of; where they are unhelpful, we hope they can be disregarded.

This is the first of three texts corresponding to each of the GMHA/HASL events. Links to the other pieces will be added here once they are published.

We have been informed that when Rae - at 36.10 in the video - said, “the first thing that happens when you come to a London Renters meeting is you sit through a presentatyion on the housing crisis and I can picture it in my head, the slide that says there’s no good landlord”, this didn’t refer to the ordinary meetings but to core training meetings.

  1. Mark Fisher. 2020. Post-Capitalist Desire: The Final Lectures. London: Repeater, p. 118 

  2. Hilary Wainwright. 1987 . Labour: A Tale of Two Parties. London: Hogarth Press, p.166 

  3. See in particular the various texts on France, especially ‘The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850’, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’ and ‘The Civil War in France’ 

  4. Nicos Poulantzas. 1973. ‘On Social Classes’. In New Left Review 1(78):27-74, p.27 

  5. Jacques Rancière. 2013. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. London: Bloomsbury, p.52 (ebook version) 

  6. Poulantzas, ‘On Social Classes’, p.27 

  7. This may well still be the case; we use the past tense because we are relating this to Tom’s experiences of organising within HASL 

  8. Antonio Gramsci. (1929-35) 1971. ‘The Modern Prince’. In Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. London: Lawrence and Wishart, p.144 

  9. Nicos Poulantzas. 1976. ‘The Problem of the Capitalist State: A Reply to Miliband and Laclau’. In James Martin (ed.). 2008. The Poulantzas Reader: Marxism, Law and the State. London: Verso, p.183 

  10. Nicos Poulantzas. 1978. State, Power, Socialism. Translated by Patrick Camiller. London: Verso, p.56 

  11. Raymond Williams. 1958. Culture and Society: Coleridge to Orwell. London: Hogarth Press, p.309 

  12. Jacques Rancière. 1991. The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Translated by Kristin Ross. Stanford: University of California Press, p.15 

  13. Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, p.16 


Tom Gann (@Tom_Gann)

Founding editor

josie sparrow (@ofthesparrows)

josie is a writer, an artist, and a philosopher. Her interests coalesce around the intersection of the poetic and the political, with a particular emphasis on process, relationality, socialism, ethics, ecologies, words, and flowers. Her future plans include dismantling capitalism and co-creating a more beautiful world, with and for others. She is General Editor at New Socialist. You can read more of her work at