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Anti-State Statism and Slumlord Capitalism


John Whitlow (@zhionny74) is an Associate Professor at CUNY School of Law, where he co-directs the Community and Economic Development Clinic.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore has written that “we are faced with the ascendance of anti-state state actors: people and parties who gain state power by denouncing state power.” This tendency surfaced in the wake of the economic and legitimacy crisis of liberal capitalism in the 1970s, and has gained strength in the decades since, taking hold in both major political parties and surviving a catastrophic financial collapse a decade ago. The Trump administration is the most garish and contradictory iteration yet of this tendency: [1] an agglomeration of race-baiting grifter capitalists intent on slashing the last vestiges of the safety net while at the same time expanding the carceral and militarized functions of the state. I have argued elsewhere that it is useful to view the current administration as the federal-executive embodiment of the unscrupulous landlord. In this post, I will examine the administration’s particular brand of anti-state statism through the prism of the Trump family’s real estate practices.

The context for Trump’s rise has been structured by decades of neoliberal policy-making and ideological mobilization. As Gilmore notes, “the agenda for capitalists and relatively autonomous state actors has been to restructure state agencies that had been designed under the enormous emergency of the Great Depression (the New Deal) and its aftermath (loosely, the Great Society) to promote the general welfare.” While the redistributive and social welfare functions of the state have been systematically dismantled over the past several decades, the state’s repressive apparatuses have grown exponentially. The entirety of this process has, from the start, been racialized – from welfare reform to the war on drugs to the war on terror – and has also been an overwhelmingly bipartisan project. Notwithstanding the popular narrative that the Trump presidency represents a rupture in our politics, Trump’s rise to power – and his administration’s deployment of that power – has been a further outgrowth of the trend depicted by Gilmore: extreme austerity, predation, and hyper-regulation directed at workers, immigrants, poor and marginalized people; and largesse and permissive regulatory oversight for the already-wealthy.

The tendencies currently on display in the Trump administration’s version of anti-state statism are familiar to tenants and tenant advocates, who for years have lived with a concentrated dose of landlords reaping the benefits of corporate welfare while simultaneously preying on – and decimating legal and regulatory protections for – racially differentiated groups of poor people. The New York Times recently reported that the Trump family built its wealth using a combination of legitimate and dodgy business practices in New York City’s real estate market. From the outset, the Trumps have taken advantage of a range of government subsidies and protections, while at the same time shirking their tax burdens and obligations to their tenants. Trump’s father, Fred, made a fortune building federally-subsidized rental housing, creating shell companies that allowed him to evade taxes and pass along inflated repair costs to his tenants. The Trumps were notoriously racist landlords, and were sued by the Nixon Department of Justice under the Fair Housing Act for racial bias against African-American tenants.

These practices are also integral to the workings of the real estate empire of Trump’s son-in-law and political advisor Jared Kushner, whose holdings run the gamut from luxury developments in Manhattan and Brooklyn to distressed apartment complexes in and around Baltimore. Like his in-laws, Kushner has relied heavily on government assistance – in New York, he has benefitted from the 421-a program, which gives developers a generous property tax abatement in exchange for an agreement that units will be covered by rent stabilization (more on that shortly). More broadly, he has benefited from the federal Section 8 program, which grants low-income tenants a voucher that goes toward their monthly rent. Kushner’s involvement with Section 8 has been significant enough that he has recused himself from policy decisions related to the program.

As Kushner has continued the family tradition of building wealth on the backs of his tenants while benefiting from government subsidies, he has also engaged in predatory practices that undermine tenant protections and weaponize the courts to collect dubious debts. In New York, Kushner has repeatedly failed to meet his obligation to register apartments as rent stabilized, including in buildings subsidized by the 421-a program, making tenants vulnerable to unlawful rent increases and evictions – in the process, he has profited from the increase in value when a building has few regulated units. And in Baltimore, he has regularly gone to great lengths to sue low-income tenants for dubious debts, including in cases with no merit.

The real estate practices of the Trump family, now amplified under the imprimatur of the federal executive branch, amount to a kind of slumlord capitalism – a formation that, similar to Jackie Wang’s characterization of late capitalism, is fueled by the most extreme methods of racialized dispossession and extraction, and whose subject – increasingly, the majority of the US population – is rendered lootable. Indeed, the rationale of racialized predation coupled with corporate fealty is the linchpin of the Trump administration’s policy and ideological agenda – from tax cuts to federal judicial appointments to immigration policy. Ta-Nehisi Coates famously said that Trump’s ideology is white supremacy; in reality, it is an explicit, unabashed, and revanchist racial capitalism.

If the Trump administration’s brand of anti-state statism and slumlord capitalism is an amplification of his family’s real estate practices, then it is appropriate to draw lessons from tenants and organizers who have fought against predatory landlords and their political allies. Through a range of strategies and tactics, they have worked to build the power of racially and ethnically heterogeneous groups of people to confront elite interests and the political machinery they wield. Recently, for example, tenant advocates in New York waged a successful campaign to ouster a group of centrist Democratic state legislators who had blocked efforts to tighten tenant protections, sparking hope that loopholes in the rent laws will be closed and programs like the aforementioned 421-a tax abatement will be shelved. And on a daily basis, tenants across the city meet in their apartments and the lobbies of their buildings to organize against landlords who withhold crucial repairs and engage in variegated forms of rent gouging. These gatherings are the substrate of a movement for housing justice that over the years has spawned rent strikes, eviction blockades, and building takeovers.

Organizing efforts like these have been successful in large part because they have been able to construct a political frontier with the capacity to mobilize differentiated identities in solidarity for a common cause: e.g. challenging the practices of the unscrupulous landlord. When faced with the bracing reality of the current political moment, the cause that binds is the construction of a society based in principles of democracy, economic equality, and racial justice, and opposed to selective austerity, racialized predation, and permanent war. As we orient ourselves and organize towards that cause, it is helpful to remember, as I do every time I walk into a meeting of tenants in a building owned by a powerful slumlord, that we are many and they are few.

[1] I use the term “contradictory” here because, in some respects, Trump did not run on an explicitly anti-state platform as a candidate. That said, the point remains that he has governed in keeping with Gilmore’s definition of anti-state statism.