property rights, kulaks, and the right to buy

A few thoughts on reading Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums (Verso, 2006). Currently on chapter 4, ‘Illusions of Self-Help’.

The neoliberal solution to slums: property rights. According to Hernando de Soto, ‘Third World cities are not so much starved of investment and jobs as suffering an artificial shortage of property rights’.

What a shining example of a capitalist abstraction!

But the reality of land titling is that it leads to increased stratification within the slums, as the early settlers able to claim property rights end up renting to the less well-off new arrivals, and does nothing to improve housing quality for the majority (Davis, pp.79–80).

This all reminds me of the much maligned kulaks of the Russian village, on the one hand, and Margaret Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’, on the other.

The kulaks, if you remember, where the wealthier peasants, who were targeted in 1920s Soviet agricultural reforms as a nascent bourgeois class standing in the way of collectivisation. The Russian peasant village was much celebrated for the vestiges of primitive communality preserved in it, although these had all but disappeared by the time of the Revolution. I wonder if the kulaks emerged through a similar process of social differentiation, as a communality of resources was replaced by the institutions of private property.

The right of council house dwellers to buy their homes, introduced in the 1980s, might have helped some families build up their assets by getting on the housing ladder. But I don’t believe it did anything overall to alleviate the structural causes of poverty, and led to increased misery for many as they found themselves exposed to the volatility of the housing market and negative equity.

But what land titling does do is create a whole new tax base for governments and, through increased social stratification, promote the political fragmentation of the poor.

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