New article in the Socialist Register 2012: The Crisis and the Left. Available now for subscribers and through many universities here. Otherwise, look for it in your local bookstore in December, or pre-order on Amazon.
In an article in the New York Times on 5 February 2011, entitled ‘Housing Bubbles Are Few and Far Between’, Robert Shiller, the economist who many consider the great housing expert given his role in the construction of the Case-Shiller index of housing prices in the United States, reassured everyone that the recent housing bubble was a ‘rare event, not to be repeated for many decades’. The ‘enormous housing bubble’ of the early 2000s ‘isn’t comparable to any national or international housing cycle in history. Previous bubbles have been smaller and more regional’. The only reasonable parallels, he asserted, were the land bubbles that occurred in the United States way back in the late 1830s and the 1850s. This is, as I shall show, an astonishingly inaccurate reading of capitalist history. The fact that it passed so unremarked testifies to a serious blind spot in contemporary economic thinking. Unfortunately, it also turns out to be an equally blind spot in Marxist political economy.
Property market booms and busts are inextricably intertwined with speculative financial flows and these booms and busts have serious consequences for the macro-economy in general as well as all manner of externality effects upon resource depletion and environmental degradation. Property booms and capitalist crises also refocus politics on the city as a terrain of anti-capitalist struggle. The history of urban struggles, from the Paris Commune through the Shanghai Commune, the Seattle General Strike, The Tucuman uprising and the Prague Spring to the more general urban-based movements of 1968 (which we now see faintly echoed in Cairo and Madison) is stunning. But it is a history that is also troubled by political and tactical complications that have led many on the left to underestimate and misunderstand the potential and the potency of urban-based movements, to often see them as separate from class struggle and therefore devoid of revolutionary potential. And when such events do take on iconic status, as in the case of the Paris Commune, they are typically claimed as one of ‘the greatest proletarian uprisings’ in world history, even as they were as much about reclaiming the right to the city as they were about revolutionizing class relations in production.