Homelessness, public space, and the limits to capital: An interview with Don Mitchell

May 11, 2021

Editor’s note: This interview was conducted via e-mail during February-March 2021, in response to Don Mitchell’s latest book–Mean streets: Homelessness, public space, and the limits to capital–and his overall work on space and capitalism, which can provide us with some arguments and conceptual tools for winning the advancing housing struggles such as the Cancel the Rents movement. The purpose of the Liberation School interview series is to expose our comrades and friends to a range of thoughts, and in these interviews we discuss certain topics for that purpose alone. Mitchell’s work will help us understand how capitalism produces homelessness, space, and cities, which can inform our own understandings and actions, strategies, and tactics.

About Don Mitchell

Mitchell teaches and studies the capitalist production of culture, Marxist analysis on geography, cities, labor, landscapes, and struggles over the “right to the city.”

Mitchell is primarily an academic, but he’s also said that “sometimes we just need to put away books and go out on the frontline, using our talents in whatever other sort of ways” [1]. While Mitchell does not label himself an organizer or activist, we are publishing this interview because we acknowledge that research and analysis takes a lot of time and effort, and that progressive researchers and academics can make significant contributions from which revolutionary organizations can benefit. After all, Marx all but locked himself in the reading room of the British Library for almost a decade to study political economy. Yet Mitchell does important activist work. While at Syracuse University, Mitchell attended several protests–some of which were led by the PSL–and, unlike many– maybe even most–of his colleagues, not only attended protests, but spoke at them.

Mitchell helped found and was an active participant in the People’s Geography Project which, “to make critical, radical geography useful to people in their everyday lives and a resource for those engaged in the struggle for social and economic justice.”

PSL members Derek Ford conducted the interview and Collin Chambers helped develop the topics we used to guide what follows.

Getting to the structural causes of homelessness

Liberation School: Thanks so much for agreeing to do this interview with us, Don. Your research is increasingly relevant to many struggles we’re engaged in across the U.S., in terms of fights for free speech and struggles over public space and for housing rights. These struggles are both for immediate and realizable reforms as well as part of our struggle for building a socialist revolution in the U.S.

To begin with, then, could you tell us some of the most dominant misconceptions about why so many people are homeless in the U.S. and the function these misconceptions serve?

Don Mitchell: Well, the standard explanation for homelessness focuses on faults in people’s character and or lack of discipline. Homeless people are supposedly addicted, or mentally ill, or “have made bad choices” in their lives and thus have criminal records. Sympathetic versions might point to a lack of decent mental health care in American society; less sympathetic ones tend to see homeless people as failures. Solutions always take the form of therapy (either empathetic varieties or calls for “tough love”), maybe job-training, or other kinds of counseling, which may or may not be coupled with a promise of transitional housing. Progressive accounts of homelessness focus on the lack of affordable housing, the steady destruction of public housing, and the inadequacy of emergency shelters. Both explanations are wrong.

There is no doubt that many homeless people have significant problems with mental and physical health, with addictions, and so forth.  Many do indeed have criminal records.  And there is just as little doubt that housing is unaffordable and public investment in housing has been eviscerated over the last forty or fifty years. But both these explanations miss the root cause of homelessness.

Liberation School: So what is the real structural reason for homelessness?

Don Mitchell: The root cause of homelessness lies in the dynamics of capital circulation and accumulation.  The production of surplus value – the basis of all profit in capitalism – demands the immiseration, that is, the making poor, of ever-growing numbers of people.  As Marx put it, the accumulation of capital at one pole is the accumulation of misery at the other pole.

These “poles” are actually quite geographically complex.  At one level, we can see them as the great North-South divide that defines global capitalism, which has made the amassing of great wealth in the imperialist North possible.  The Global South is the waiting room of the global reserve army of labor – the masses and masses of people who need to be available for capitalism to “grow into,” as well as those whose role in the economy is to provide super-low wage competition for working classes in other parts of the world.  Yet at the same time, this reserve army has to be available, and has to play its role in pressing down wages, in specific places including in the industrial regions and the booming cities of the Global North.  Some large part of this reserve army of labor – a defining feature of capitalism from its earliest days – is who we see on the streets as the homeless.  Homelessness is a necessary feature of capitalism, not an accidental one, or one that can be solved by focusing on individuals and their problems—even if focusing on these problems and fighting for decent affordable housing might be very important indeed.

The primary function the individualization of homelessness plays is ideological: it turns attention, and political struggle away from root causes and in doing so bolsters the system that produces homelessness in the first place.

Cities and the capitalist production of space

Liberation School: Right, so it’s kind of the corollary of Marx’s critique of primitive accumulation, which was a bourgeois apologist idea that the rich got rich because they were smart, entrepreneurial, risk takers, and made good decisions but that the poor are poor because they’re lazy, made bad choices, and so on. Even though it’s still a dominant ideology today, Marx’s critique showed it was force—slavery, colonialism, policing, prisons, dispossessing people and nations of the land, labor, and resources, etc… that created the conditions necessary for capitalism to emerge.

Before getting into the particulars of homelessness, we’re wondering about the roles that cities play in capitalism and the contradictions that these roles bring to the fore in general? In other words, why is it important to have a Marxist analysis of cities?

Don Mitchell: Cities pre-date capitalism, of course. But cities now are capitalist cities.  At the most rudimentary, metropolitan areas basically define the extent, or the scale, of the labor market.  Obviously, technology shifts this extent: trains, buses, and cars have made it possible (and often a necessary burden) to trek great distances to and from work; electronic communication has made possible new forms of distance-work. But nonetheless, we still need regular interaction with colleagues and comrades.  Many economic activities require close proximity and intense cooperation.  Cities facilitate this.  (I should say at this point that when we talk of cities as economic spaces, we should also keep in mind their hinterlands – the rural and semi-rural areas attached to them). 

At the same time, cities are the site for social reproduction – that is, the spaces in which we go about the work and play of living and they host the institutions that make such reproduction possible: schools, hospitals, shopping areas, parks, banks and post offices, entertainment venues, and not least public spaces, from street corners to squares to libraries that make it possible to eke out a bit of enjoyment in life (to say nothing of engaging in political action).  This is true whatever the shape of the city: compact and walkable or spread out and a nightmare of traffic.

So cities have this dual function: they are sites of production, defined in scale by the extent of the daily labor market, and they are sites for reproduction, defined in fact by the demands we place on them as places to live. 

But as capitalist cities, they are something else too: they are great big storage facilities for capitalist value.  Capitalist cities are predominantly produced as great big collections of capitalist commodities (bricks, power lines, sewers, street trees, houses, factories, shopping malls, parking decks, hulking stadiums, picket fences, trash cans, bus stops … you name it).  We can think of the city as a “built environment” which both stores and makes possible the production of capitalist value.  Marx made the point that not all money was capital.  Money is only capital when it is thrown into circulation in order to produce new capital (the money in our pockets that we use to buy groceries is not capital).  Even more, capital is “value in motion,” which is to say capital is only capital when it is in the process of circulation.

Well so what?  The so what is this: in order for some capital to circulate, other capital has to be frozen in place (in the form of factories, electrical and communication wires, the asphalt of streets, machinery).  Value has to be frozen in the built environment.  Some of this value frozen in the built environment serves as part of the “consumption fund,” by which is meant it serves as infrastructure for our necessary consumption – our social reproduction.  This value will deteriorate over time, unless new capital is added to it in the form of maintenance and so forth.   Buildings wear out.  Other parts of this frozen value serve as “fixed capital”: the buildings, machinery, roadways, wharves, and so forth that make production possible.  This value wears out too, but it also slowly transfers itself to the commodities it is essential in making.  The “turnover time” for the buildings that comprise an industrial bakery, for example, might be twenty or thirty years: it will take that long for the buildings to transfer all their value into loaves of bread. 

This is the primary geographic contradiction of capital and of capitalism in cities and the production of space. On the one hand, capital has got to move.  On the other hand, for it to move, it has got to stay put. And when it stays put, it is vulnerable.  Floods can hit, or fires.  Markets can shift: after a few generations of eating industrial bread few of us have the stomach for it anymore (literally: see the epidemic of glucose intolerance) and the machinery and buildings can become useless before the end of their economic life.  New technologies can be invented: better ways to bake bread (for those of us who still eat it) that take a different architectural configuration than what a bakery built in 1986 can handle.  In all these cases, the value frozen in the built environment is at risk of being devalued – of disappearing in a puff of smoke (sometimes literally).  This is true of the consumption fund too, especially since this whole process is built on a system of private property which comes to express not just value, but especially people’s (and society’s) wealth, which can likewise be destroyed by all these forces.  Capital (or wealth) frozen is capital (or wealth) in danger.

A Marxist analysis of cities allows us to not only see that this is a central geographic contradiction of capitalism, but that this contradiction is decisive for how we organize our social, political, and economic lives.  Public policy, political debate, decisions over whether to build a park or not, the flimsiness of school buildings – all this is shaped by this contradiction.  And moreover, anything – anything – that threatens the values frozen in the built environment is thus perceived to be dangerous.  Homeless people are usually understood to be exactly this kind of threat.

Liberation School: Yes, and I remember in your book, The Right to the City, you argue that one way capital tries to deal with this contradiction is through ideology. By touting itself as infinitely mobile and able to leap across the globe at the drop of a dime, capital is increasingly able to dictate a range of local possibilities and practices. And you say that “by effectively masking the degree to which capital must be localized in space, the ideology of globalization allows local officials… to argue that they have no choice but to prostrate themselves before the god Capital” [2].

To build on that last question, we’re thinking about relatively recent changes in U.S. cities that began around the 1970s-80s. This is often a focal point for understanding what some call “neoliberalism” or “post-Fordism” today, but how does geography–including the geography of homelessness–add to our analysis of these transformations? And are we still living through these transformations, or is there a “new era” or a new way we should understand cities and capitalism?

Don Mitchell: Back in 1970, the French Marxist philosopher and spatial theorist Henri Lefebvre argued that the era of industrial capitalism was coming to an end and it was being replaced by an era of urban capitalism.  Though it was only just beginning when he was writing, what he saw has pretty thoroughly come to fruition.  What he saw was that surplus value produced within industrial processes (making shoes, or bread, or cars, or bomber planes) which had been the predominant force in capitalism since about the 1840s – the pivot around which the totality of the capitalist political economy turned – was giving way to a system in which surplus value produced as part of and within the space of the city was the predominant force.  This was what he called the urban revolution.  The urban revolution was not just that the majority of the world’s population was now living in cities, but that the urban was replacing the industrial as the primary site of surplus value production and capital accumulation.  Industrial production has hardly disappeared; but it has lost its hegemony.  To the degree capitalism is now post-fordist, it is in just this sense that industrialism is no longer hegemonic.  To the degree that it is neoliberal, that is merely the phenomenal form (in social policy, in the shape of labor relations, etc.) that this urban revolution is taking. 

To the degree this is correct (and it is easy to overstate the case), it means that the production of space itself is now at the heart of global capitalist production.  It used to be that spaces (streets, factories, etc.) were produced to support industrial production.  Now, as much as anything, industrial production occurs to support the ongoing production of space.  If that is so, then geographical analyses are essential – just as essential as were (and remain) analyses of labor processes, industrial design, struggles over productivity on the shop floor, and so forth, were for earlier eras. 

Homelessness is class struggle

Liberation School: One of the central theses of your latest book, Mean Streets, is that there is no such thing as a “homeless crisis” and that homelessness is class struggle [3]. What exactly does this mean, in terms of our understanding of the development of capitalism in the U.S. and its current state, as well as our understanding of class and the class struggle?

Don Mitchell: I argue that homelessness is not the crisis; capitalism is the crisis.  As I have said, homelessness is necessary to capitalism; capitalism  needs it.  At the same time, to the degree the urban revolution thesis is correct, homelessness is deeply contradictory in capitalism: it threatens all that wealth wrapped up in the built environment (the presence of homeless people does bring down property values, for example).  At the same time, though, homelessness is a problem for capitalism.  It is primarily a problem of management.  Homeless people are, first and foremost, people. They will do what they must do in order to live.  Sometimes what they will do is organize and seek to radically transform the system (there are plenty of examples of this in American history).  Other times they will merely cope.  

Merely coping might require stealing some of that industrial bread you and I are eating less of; it might mean urinating, defecating, and making love in parks or slightly private alleyways because there is no private place to take care of these needs and desires.  It might mean spending all day at a computer terminal in a library looking for work, reading the papers, or watching a film, even though you have not had a shower in a week and know that you smell horribly.  It might mean building up an encampment on an abandoned city lot where you can restore a bit of dignity, develop lasting relations with friends, create a community that gives you strength.  Those of us in housed society find these behaviors noxious or threatening or disgusting.  We demand that they be managed, that homeless people be made invisible, that we live undisturbed, that our comfort and property values be protected. The state responds.

Homelessness is a class struggle in the sense that this struggle over management shapes the nature of class dynamics in the city.  It is also a class struggle in the sense that the condition of the reserve army of labor is central to establishing the value of labor power in a particular locale.  It is a class struggle in the sense that the accumulation of capital at one pole is the accumulation of immiseration at the other, and thus how much there is at each pole defines exactly what capitalism is, historically and geographically.  It is class struggle in the sense that a struggle to create a world in which there were no homeless people necessarily entails the creation of a world where there is no capitalism and thus no capitalist classes.

Liberation School: In Mean streets, you also write that homelessness isn’t actually defined by the absence of shelter [4]. This seems at first glance to be counterintuitive. What do you mean by this, and why is it politically important?

Don Mitchell: As I noted above, homelessness is endemic in capitalism.  Historically, in the US and elsewhere, whole homeless classes have existed (and exist now) who have in fact been housed.  In early modern Europe – in the early decades of capitalism – the homeless were “masterless men” and women; during the US’s industrialization, the homeless were (typically) men who were severed from bourgeois family and culture, whether housed or not.  During the 1950s and early 1960s, the homeless were (typically) men who lived in Single Room Occupancy hotels on Skid Row, but who were (typically) elderly, white, alcoholic, “unemployable,” and “bums”. Shelterlessness is not the defining feature of who is deemed homeless in capitalist society.

Fighting for reforms and revolutions

Liberation School: I found your argument that capital can profit by investing in Skid Rows quite compelling, something I hadn’t realized before. The Single Room Occupancies, labor sharks or offices, the bars and arcades and more were ways capital could concentrate and therefore more easily surveil and control the homeless while also profiting from them. That also speaks to your claim that homelessness is class struggle, and as a class struggle it impacts and involves the entirety of the working class—with or without homes, with or without jobs, with or without documents, and so on.

Photo: Liberation News

Last May, we launched a nationwide initiative to Cancel the Rents, a campaign we’ve continued to fight and that includes canceling rents and mortgages not only for tenants, but also for small business owners and small landlords, and the demand to provide immediate shelter for the homeless in existing surplus of housing in the U.S. In our view, these demands are absolutely realizable under capitalism. Do you agree and, if so, what would it take to win these demands?

Don Mitchell: Of course they are realizable under capitalism.  And they are necessary and possible.  They seek to create a bit of space defined more by use value than by exchange value, more by need than by profit.  They nibble away at the edges of capitalism and have the potential to either open up an opportunity to return to something like a Keynesian welfarism which will have the effect of softening at least a few of the sharp edges of the raw neoliberal urban capitalism we have been suffering through for the last two generations or to pave the way for what the Marxist urban planner Peter Marcuse (following a long line of Marxist thinkers) calls “non-reformist reforms” – those reforms that possess the seeds of much more radical transformation.  The greater the weight of use and need within the political economy, the lesser the weight of exchange value and profit, then the gravity of Marx’s two poles begins to shift, maybe so much so that the whole political-economic gravitational field reverses.  That’s something to struggle towards and the struggles and force and power of each side will determine what the outcome actually is.

But be clear: providing housing is necessary; wiping out mortgages is necessary; reigning in rents is necessary. But none are sufficient for eliminating homelessness. That truly will take a reversal in the political economic gravitational force field.

As for winning your demands: Perseverance? Militancy? Knowing when to accept temporary setbacks and when to push forward?  Building coalitions and alliances (even occasionally unholy ones)? Imitating the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit in the 1960s and both engaging directly in class/race struggles and working to elect allies to low-level political offices (like district judges, fiscal officers, city council members)?  All these, I imagine.

Liberation School: Yes, the Cancel the Rents struggle is one for immediate reforms. By fighting for reforms–and winning them–we can build a movement, and, by winning reforms, we can inspire confidence in ourselves and others, make palpable the fact that we can win much more than reforms. To do this, we have to link the reforms to the struggle for a socialist revolution in the U.S. This seems to be one of the key contributions your work makes: it shows the importance and limits of reforms not only in theoretical terms but as they’ve played out historically. What are some agitational tools we can use to move the struggle for reforms into a revolutionary movement?

Don Mitchell: I tried to hint at some of these above (and I imagine my answers are fairly weak: I have never been a particularly good strategist; I think my talents lie more on the analytical side…), but I think the answer to your question is in the question itself: finding ways to show how reforms can be building blocks for a lot more.  Reforms can prop up a system, but they can also get under its skin (if I can change my metaphor!), the trick – and there is no single or sure way to perform this trick – is to constantly seek to understand the difference, to do the analytical work that allows for seeing where the limits to a reform or a strategy lies and then to seek ways to surpass those limits, which is exactly how the struggle advances.

Liberation School: In any case, Marx never wrote much about what the socialist future would look like, except for a few scattered remarks and in polemics with specific socialist programmes and parties of his time. But have you thought about what socialist cities would look like in the U.S.? We’re not thinking in terms of blueprints, but of general guiding principles. How might U.S. cities operate under socialism?

Don Mitchell: I try hard not to prognosticate – and when I do, I am inevitably wrong!  So this is a bit of a dangerous question for me.  And it is dangerous in another way: the influential Marxist geographer David Harvey long ago pointed out a problem with utopian thinking (while also recognizing its importance for any socialist struggle): utopia comes in two forms, he argued.  The first is what he called a utopia of spatial form.  Thomas More’s original Utopia was one of these.  More imagined an island, and mapped out all the spatial arrangements for a utopian society – the shape and structure of housing (and families), where production would occur, and all that.  American suburbia is in many ways a utopia of spatial form.  With a utopia of spatial form, the assumption is that if we just get the spatial arrangements right, then a beautifully just society will result.

The second type of utopia is what Harvey called a utopia of social process.  Here the argument is that if we just get the starting social conditions right (a perfect market; a perfect form of cooperative or syndicalist production; a perfect endowment of rights), then we just need to turn the clock on and let society roll blissfully into the future.

The problem with the utopia of social process is that it has to touch down somewhere, and when it does, when it gets frozen in a built landscape, then so too are the processes stabilized, frozen, hindering their evolution, development, and transformation.  The problem with a utopia as a spatial process is in fact similar: whatever the social and spatial relations at the moment of inception those are the social relations for all time.  They might, as thinking develops, encapsulate oppressive gender relations (consider the suburban house and how it was built on and tends to enforce a certain gendered division of labor).

All of that is a long way of saying that the future socialist city has to be worked out, fought over, and evolving, not defined once and for all in advance.  I have my idea of what a good dispensation of public and private space might be (I value certain kinds of privacy; I value certain kinds of publicity), but I bet it might be quite different from many of your readers, even if all of us have some sense of what a city built more for use and for need might be.  But I do think these last two points are indispensable: cities built for use and for need, for people not for profit as Peter Marcuse and some of his colleagues put it a decade ago.  That will mean redirecting the urban revolution so that the point of cities is not the production and accumulation of capitalist value, but the production and deployment of social surpluses in ways that allow us to live, to play, to thrive beyond the realm of necessity itself.

Liberation School: Well, thanks for taking that risk with us, and thanks for taking the time for this interview, translating some dense theory in an accessible way, and engaging with our own campaigns. And of course, it’s always great to hear and learn from you again. Solidarity Don!


[1] Gough, A., & Valisena, D. (2018). From factories in the field to activist scholar: Don Mitchell reflects on intellectual practice and the state of the university today. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 29(4), 64.
[2] Mitchell, Don. (2003). The right to the city: Social justice and the fight for public space. New York: The Guilford Press, 165.
[3] Mitchell, Don. (2020). Mean streets: Homelessness, public space, and the limits to capital. Athens: The University of Georgia Press.
[4] For some examples, see ibid., ix, 13, 17.

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