Housing and hegemony: the US experience.

Author:Ivanova, Maria N.


Ever since the 1930s, housing has represented an area of paramount social and economic importance in the USA. Homeownership was central to the particular model of capitalism forged in the postwar period on the prewar Fordist foundation that acquired hegemonic status through the New Deal (see Florida and Feldman, 1988). An essential component of the new social order became the strategy of coping with profitability crises through the progressive commodification of necessities of life, with housing being the generalized and overarching case. But the commodification of housing not only softened the immediate pains of accumulation by maintaining the vitality of construction, real estate, production of consumer durables, and a host of banking, financial, and legal services; the spatial reorganization of built environment and the fostering of corresponding work-life strategies have also been instrumental in the shaping of a particular form of society and in supporting its reproduction.

The 2007-? housing crash represented the first serious challenge to the hegemonic homeownership project that emerged in the course of the transition from Americanism'--the 'economic-corporate' stage characterized by disjunction between economic and social reality--into 'Fordism'--a large-scale attempt at creating a planned economy, a corresponding planned society, and a 'new man' (Gramsci, 1971). Postwar US hegemony was consolidated as a broad-based class alliance of the owners of capital, the managerial and professional cadres--'the organization men' (Whyte, 1956)--and the unionized workers in the Fordist industries, grafted onto the appeal of an asset-owning democracy, wherein the suburban, mass-produced, single-family house emerged as the main asset within reach of the aspiring middle class.

This paper examines the historical evolution of housing in the context of the wider transformation of US capitalism, with a particular emphasis on the significance and impact of homeownership as an ideology and social practice on the reproduction of hegemony in the USA. It further highlights the role of the US state in the fostering of the material and social foundations of homeownership. In addition to providing a proper legislative framework, institutional support, and an array of mortgage guarantees, the state has been heavily involved in the purposeful crafting and propagating of the allure of homeownership, hailed as the key ingredient of the American dream. The housing policies of the US state thus epitomize dialectical materialism in its purest form--they have been serving capital while keeping labour dreaming by selling ideas and commodities at the same time.

Further, the paper challenges widely held views that identify public policy errors and government regulatory failures as primary causes of the ongoing housing collapse. Its purpose is to show how the subprime solution that triggered the housing crisis organically evolved out of the growth imperative to keep harnessing the economic and social benefits of homeownership. Far from being a sole enterprise of the state, narrowly defined as the administrative and bureaucratic apparatus of the government, this project arose as a concerted effort of the American 'integral state'--a joint endeavour of government and business, of 'state and market', of political and civil society. The failure of the subprime solution signals the failure of the profit-seeking system of privatized housing provision to overcome the limits of production based on capital.

Origins of American hegemony: Americanism, Fordism and scientific management

Hegemony as a form of class dominance

Hegemony is a form of class dominance, grounded in highly specific national and historical contexts: no two hegemonies are alike. The idiosyncrasy of the American case derives from the peculiar way in which capital, methodically and organically, has penetrated in time and space every aspect of human existence--social and individual, public and private--and moulded with it, thereby transforming it to serve its reproduction. This section draws from the work of Antonio Gramsci to examine the foundations of Fordism--the hegemonic project that created an American version of planned economy and society. It further employs the Gramscian concept of hegemony to explain the entrenchment and subsequent resilience of Fordist capitalism.

Gramsci's insights are valuable for the present analysis in a way that is fundamentally at odds with 'idealistic' interpretations of his writings, whose thrust is captured by Hughes's (1977: 104) contention that,

In Gramsci's hands the [Marxist] doctrine returned to its idealist beginnings. It was in the consciousness of intellectuals alone, he recognized, that the great social ideas had their origin. They did not spring spontaneously from material conditions and economic relationships. They had an irreducible autonomy of their own. In a similar vein, some students of Gramsci have tended to become preoccupied with putative 'constructivist' aspects of his writings: 'Gramsci's approach has many affinities with the hermeneutic tradition in sociology, and particularly with constructivist sociology. He places great emphasis on the ability of groups to develop hegemony through a process of social construction' (Kemeny, 1992: 94).

The view taken here is that such interpretations are problematic for at least two reasons. First, while ideas, culture, ideology and social construction play an important role in Gramsci's theory, this role is instrumental and not autonomous: class and not culture is the defining feature of hegemony. As noted by Ghosh (2001:11), 'the cultural and "intellectual" dimension of hegemony [is] an epiphenomenon of class [... and] the intellectual [is] no more independent of the ultimate logic of class evolution than the politician.' Second, idealistic and constructivist readings of Gramsci are often peculiarly ideological in nature--and thus, arguably, products of the same dialectic they strive to explain--in that they overemphasize the consensual and noncoercive character of hegemony, thereby making its author appear more 'democratic' and more palatable to the mainstream. Such interpretations obscure the fact that the so-called consent, far from being the spontaneous outcome of 'free choice', is actually manufactured through complex mechanisms, linkages and processes. Hence, every serious study of hegemony should by necessity include an inquiry into 'how the ideological structure of a ruling class is actually organized: that is, the material organization meant to preserve, defend, and develop the theoretical or ideological "front"' (Gramsci, 1996: 52). Lack of awareness that consent is manufactured--since relatively few are privy to the inner workings of the hegemonic machinery or possess the intellectual capacity to uncover the truth--nurtures the belief that consent arises 'freely' and spontaneously (Buttigieg, 1995: 6).

Hegemony is a social order wherein the economic dominance of a class is reproduced as political and cultural leadership on a multitude of levels ranging from the public sphere to the most intimate domains of private life. In order to achieve hegemonic status, a social class must be able to articulate its own particular interest in universal categories that have an integrative effect on society at large; that is, hegemony is achieved and maintained through the construction of a broad-based class alliance. Hegemony is indeed founded on consent, but one of peculiar character: the dominant social class establishes itself as such not by outright repression but by the radical reorganization of work and life that enables it to acquire control over the total human environment, monopolizing it both spatially and intellectually. 'There are no alternatives' becomes a palpable fact of life. The crafting and propagating of universal 'values' and 'ideas', which assume the status of 'popular religion', constitutes merely the icing on the cake. For an organic hegemony can never be achieved solely by ideological manipulation; it is always grounded in social relations, in the economic structure of society: in the 'civil society'. And Gramsci was quite particular in pointing out that American hegemony was 'born in the factory', that is, grounded on the structure and, at least in these early stages, relatively little superstructural work was needed to cement it--in the 'rationalized' society 'the "structure" dominates the superstructures more immediately and [...] the latter are also "rationalized" (simplified and reduced in number)' (Gramsci, 1971: 285-6).

In light of the above, there is nothing 'idealistic' about Gramsci's treatment of ideas--these are the mental structures and images through which the dominant hegemonic project is absorbed and reproduced by society: 'values' legitimate the production of value, 'ideas' sell commodities, and '"passions" are, precisely, economic facts' (Gramsci, 1996:186). Gramsci's ideas are a social, material force in that they derive from material conditions. For while ideas exist in the mind, they do not spring from it, but originate out of spatio-temporal activity thus constituting a 'real abstraction' (Sohn-Rethel, 1978: 38). And Gramsci was adamantly opposed to any attempt at destroying the dialectical unity of the philosophy of praxis by splitting it into 'philosophical materialism on the one hand, while on the other hand, modern idealist high culture has tried to incorporate that part of the philosophy of praxis which was needed in order for it to find a new elixir' (Gramsci, 1971: 396). His concept of 'dialectical historicism' encapsulates the attempt at grasping the social reality in its totality and complexity as a union of material forces and ideas.

But in addition to not being an 'idealist' or a 'democrat' in the contemporary common sense--or in any sense at all if we follow Ghosh (2001)--Gramsci was not even a 'liberal'...

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