Can Renters Organise Beyond the Block?

Esmond Sage reviews Isaac Rose’s The Rentier City: Manchester and the Making of the Neoliberal Metropolis (Repeater, 2024)

The Beetham Towers, Manchester.

How did we get here? The Nineteen-Eighties. Thatcher. Neoliberalism. Reaganomics. Right to Buy. A graph where the proportion of people living in public housing is suddenly stretched into a thin safety net. Thatcher. 

You don’t have to be involved in housing struggles to know this story. As a gospel, it has synoptic siblings that get told from a slightly different perspective (such as labour) and it has been regularly reinforced as the main historical line to counter right-wing explanations and ‘solutions’ for the housing crisis.

The problem with establishing watersheds in history is that they obscure views of the land either side of them, their lead-up, and what happened next. Pinning it all on Thatcher has fed into a kind of complacency when it comes to understanding what happened and what to do about it; a brutalist’s nostalgia for the post-war consensus which yearns for days that are acknowledged to be irretrievable.  

Perhaps this simplicity of framing is what accounts for some of the unease underlying the tenants’ movement in Scotland, spearheaded by its national union, Living Rent. Despite our victories – we have slowly clawed back rights for renters, letting agencies are acceding to our open-shut member defence cases without a fight, and tenants’ rights were, for a time at least, a ministerial brief – there is uncertainty ahead. Our cry for nearly the last ten years, RENT CONTROLS, has finally been tabled before Parliament in the new housing bill, but in a vague form that we are now intensely campaigning to improve. Setbacks for branches of Living Rent in the course of their struggles against developers in Edinburgh and Glasgow are forcing the union to reconsider what is required to continue growing its movement, rather than become another flashpoint of resistance, which has been all too common in the history of housing struggle.

Isaac Rose, an organiser with Greater Manchester Tenants Union, finds the same problem in Manchester and his diagnosis is that our analysis is short, stale and skewed. That it’s absurd to blame Thatcher as if she invented capitalism, and that a more complete investigation of Manchester’s political economy and historical struggles before the 1980s (but also after) is far richer and more useful in understanding the cycles of gentrification which have happened since then and which are now the conditions that tenants struggle against. The main body of The Rentier City outlines this expanded revision.

From Cottonopolis to the New Urban Left

The history is organised according to two eras when the city was inserted first into primary and then secondary circuits of capital; that is, circuits respectively of commodity production and of urbanisation, following David Harvey’s theory. As commodity production slows down, capital ‘switches’ into land speculation. These circuited eras are separated by an ‘interregnum’ which, like most interregna, proves more interesting than the reigns of apparent stability either side of it. 

The first era spent in the primary circuit is what initiates Rose’s convincing case that Manchester’s early incubation of industrial and imperial capitalism is an ideal starting point for his revision to urban history.  His account begins by rehearsing a well-known narrative: Liberal Manchester, Cottonopolis, ‘Shock City’ – Rose takes Howard Platt’s term – is the city which beguiled and repulsed nineteenth-century observers and perplexes us today . Rose cites the breathless observations of Carlyle, Dickens, Faucher, Marx and, of course, Friederich Engels. From here, under the toil of slaves and then workers, the economy accelerated towards the crises of the World Wars, before the post-war settlement nationalised industry, nationalised the right to develop land, and rolled out public housing at scale.

Rose emphasises the fate of the rentier during Manchester’s phase in the primary circuit. Private landlords reigned over vast Victorian slums before being ‘euthanised’ by the state from the 1940s onwards. Skipping ahead, it is their return which defines Manchester’s contemporary era within the secondary circuit, and which is also reasonably well known: the Arndale bombing and the New Labour government coming together in the mid-1990s to initiate waves of ‘urban regeneration’ and land speculation that have driven rents up and long-time residents out. Rose draws on his own experience and contacts as an organiser to pull together the stories of groups disparate in time, space, and even class which have rallied against this injustice. At the end of the book, it is this disparateness which continues to trouble him.

But before that, there is the ‘interregnum’ of the 1970s and 80s, when Manchester stepped into post-industrial decline and exited the circuits of capital. This gap is the core of Rose’s critique of bogey-Thatcher, and the alternative sources he finds for Manchester’s – and by his extension the UK’s – housing crises are more discomfiting. By the 1960s, cracks were emerging in an increasingly rigid and brittle post-war consensus. When clearing slums, the municipal Labour right did not seem to care about the localised obliteration of working-class social connections which followed. The traditional economic base of the Labour Party was declining and its members were deproletarianizing. Out of this emerged the ‘New Urban Left’, which emphasised a new ‘grassroots’ and ‘community’ orientation to socialism that entailed greater openness and democracy at the heart of Labour’s approach to local government, which they won in the 1980s following a protracted struggle with the old Labour right.

The 1980s! I hear you say – but then it is Thatcher! Neoliberalism, Reaganomics, Right to Buy, a graph where the proportion of people and so on. While it is true that the left, when governing Manchester City Council struggled against and was subject to Thatcher’s laissez-faire urban policies particularly after 1987, Rose demonstrates how their ‘transparent’ and community-based approach to governance, with an increasingly ‘proto-Blairite’ focus to grow the service sector and leverage private investment, dovetailed all too conveniently into the municipal entrepreneurialism that has defined Manchester’s entry into the secondary circuit after 1996. This is underlined by the ease with which certain personalities from the New Urban Left transformed into the entrepreneurialists, especially Pat Karney and council leader Graham Stringer.

Local Militants

The main question that this entire analysis raises, further hinted at throughout the book with each fleeting appearance of a housing action group or neighbourhood council, and finally posed in the last few pages, is: what is to be done, and who is to do it?

The final campaign group Rose introduces is Block the Block, organised in Hulme against the proposals for the latest iteration of Purpose-Built Student Accommodation (PBSA) on the site of a closed pub, in a neighbourhood where social facilities had been extinguished one by one and picked over by developers and universities.

Union Evangelical Church, Hulme, January 2020. The second half of Rentier City analyses poorer neighbourhoods in southern Manchester under the shadow of encroaching skyscrapers.

Between the book’s completion and its publication was the January meeting of the Manchester City Council planning committee which, after numerous previous refusals, finally granted permission to the mixed PBSA and commercial development that Block the Block had campaigned against for over three years. Like a premonition, the book’s account contains feelings of dismay and hope intermingling like oil and water. Rose bitterly acknowledges the near inevitability of such losses under the present planning system, a feeling shared as already mentioned by community campaigns in Scotland. The book ends with an uncertain note of hope out of this dismay, rooted in the militant particularism theorised by Raymond Williams and David Harvey.

Militant particularisms are described as ‘ideals formed out of the affirmative experience of solidarities in one place [that] get generalised and universalized as a working model of a new form of society that will benefit all of humanity’. That the term can be used as a countable noun ‘-ism’ is telling, relating it to speech phenomena like ‘colloquialisms’ and ‘spoonerisms’ which pass on the tongue but don’t tend to last. The problem which Rose identifies along with Harvey is: it seems common enough that the people in a particular place can mount a particular struggle against particular capitalists. But it then follows that the victory or defeat will also be particular, and the problem becomes one of how these struggles might be ‘scaled up to a greater level of abstraction and universality’ where they can sustain struggle elsewhere and elsewhen, beyond themselves.

It could be questioned whether this is a fully accurate model of what moves and constrains localised struggles. It forecloses the possibility that a struggle’s particularity could be an entry point towards universality, by assuming instead that particularity is an obstacle. Scaling up struggles from particular to universal is presented as a kind of alchemy, and one which is perhaps just as likely as alchemy to succeed.

For Rose, a critical analysis of the rentier city (beginning from outstanding examples like Manchester) provides a framework in which the scaling up of militant particularisms can concretely take place without a process as mystical as turning lead to gold. Militant particularisms will be scaled up when they demonstrate how they are ‘always produced in and through’ global relations of capital. From there, the problem then becomes who will struggle to achieve this transformation, which Rose freely admits to having no clear answer for. His hope is that analyses such as his will ‘contribute towards the crystallisation of a general force [my emphasis]’.

Living Rent’s Risk

Unmentioned but unlikely to be absent from Rose’s mind when asking this question to the reader is the contradiction for tenants’ unions in the UK, including Scotland, that has opened up and sharpened since the mass expansion of private landlordism and Right to Buy. That is: living cheek by jowl with many tenants can be just as many homeowners. This contradiction, when questions of rent return to being questions about land and the intangible quality of home, is not lost on him when he describes the Trees Not Cars campaign. Here, the protagonists are not social tenants in a dilapidated estate but the renting and home-owning gentrifiers of gaudy ‘new Ancoats’, who have fought with some success against proposals for a temporary car park. This car park was proposed on a site whose development had stalled in the very same scheme which was being ‘regenerated’ for the likes of them to move in to. Living Rent’s response to this kind of contradiction has been to grit its teeth and transform into a ‘tenants’ and community’ or ‘mass-membership’ union that mobilises on the fundamental basis of spatial rather than economic relations; on the basis of neighbourhood rather than tenure.

This itself is an attempt to identify militant particularisms and universalize them by connecting them together before they isolate themselves. The struggle must be a sequence of victorious militant particularisms which grow the movement like a hermit crab shedding itself ever larger, ever more universal, until it outgrows militant particularism altogether and becomes powerful enough to become the ‘general force’ that will take the fight to Poseidon.

The risk is that Living Rent becomes a mass organisation without the intermediate analysis which leads to a true mass line, that is, a line which advances the interest of the masses. As its own experience and that of campaign groups in The Rentier City demonstrate, the power which tenants or communities pursue must be grounded in something more than just the number of people who can be rallied to the cause. The politics of ‘community’ and local democracy, as demonstrated by the New Urban Left, are not immune to capture by capital. 

Rose concludes with what seems to be a sincere but optimistic uncertainty about the next steps. His historical analysis and critique of Manchester’s political economy, as well as the Machester left, point to the need for everyone who is involved in the struggle for housing and for land to understand the history and present state of their exploitation and to deploy this understanding to critically develop the movements for our liberation.

Esmond Sage is a tenants’ unionist and town planner in Aberdeen.