One of the main thrusts of my thinking and writing is about home. The concept, the application, the economics and management. Recently, I’ve had reason to reconsider my relationship to home, to my home and to my idea of home. I wrote about this, I thought exhaustively, a few weeks ago; but it turns out I have more to say. Dave Pollard, in How to Save the World, recently posted an essay about being home-less, and this triggered quite a bit of thinking on what that means in this culture.
Being homeless is not the same as being houseless. In most cultures of European descent many people are homeless — that is, they do not have a place that they adhere to, that shapes them as much as they shape it, that completes their being and gives them meaning and definition. Many people of Euro-Western cultures are itinerant, not tied to any particular location and not obligated to any particular group. But relatively few of these nomads have historically been houseless. This is changing in younger generations.
The opposite is true of indigenous cultures. I suppose by definition. Indigenous comes from the Latin indigena, meaning “born inside”. The word had shifted in meaning somewhat before migrating to Latin’s descendants with connotations of being place-based. And then indigenous cultures got ahold of the concept and melded it to their own ideas of nativity and home, to where it is now common to see the Latin word defined as some variant of “from the land” — which is not what the word meant then but is certainly what it means now. These are peoples with a specific area that is home. They are of it and it is of them, both in right relationship. Or at least striving to be. Home is a fixed location and idea for each group. But it is generally not a house — or not only a house. It is the living land.
And so there are many people in the world who have a home but do not have a house, nor even a small territory that they claim for exclusive use. There is not much in the way of claimed territory in cultures with a well-defined sense of home, ironically enough. If territory is claimed at all, it is as the land that a group has access to and use of. It is not owned by the group or any individuals within the group. Houses may be built as needed; food may be gathered and farmed; water and stone and other resources may be used by all — as long as there is no overuse or abuse from any. And this is closely monitored and enforced. There is no concept of a privately owned bit of land that an owner may exploit, deplete, and destroy for his own personal gain. And in fact, there is no such thing in reality.
There is no land that is not connected to everything around it, that does not predate any ownership nor will not outlive any owner, that is not full of living beings who have the right to continuity of life. Private property is a construct, a concept developed to justify taking without any regard or compensation. It is an idea formed by those who do not have a home, who do not have respect for the place that nourishes them and gives them shelter. It is a ludicrously egotistical and vain idea, claiming ownership of something greater than you in all ways. For a great while, Native Peoples on this continent just laughed at the hubris of the settlers and their crazy ideas of property ownership. “Look at the little bugs, believing they control the bear,” they giggled. Until those ideas bred violence.
Those who are house-less by choice, those who do not conform to our views of property are treated as the worst kind of traitors to society. The Natives to this place had homelands, not houses. And most of the atrocities committed against the indigenous population were enacted in the effort to force those peoples to participate in the system of property ownership by giving up their homeland access and settling in houses, preferably on lands that the settlers deemed inferior. That this was a priority was clearly articulated in every settler chronicle. It is why they came to this continent — to gain access to free land, to capitalize on that land, to magically convert that land into property and wealth. They fervently believed in their right to do this because the native populations were not doing it. The settlers took the native lack of private property, of fixed housing that could be easily quantified and sold, as a lack of attachment, a shiftless homeless life of no account. They believed this justified taking the land for their own superior uses. That there was guilt behind this from the beginning is, I think, evident from their excessive use of violence and their dehumanizing attitudes toward the voluntarily house-less Indians.
Europeans, on both sides of the Atlantic, nearly always have houses. And these privately owned houses on some area of land are essential to the functioning of capitalism — far more so than either industry or agriculture. Without the house there is no industry nor agriculture as such. There is no market, no consumer society. There is no measure of the increasing value of property except for what is built on that property. Logging and mining may increase wealth as the value of those things is taken from a property, but then the property becomes depleted and its value drops. So there is no capital accumulation without houses. Our system of wealth production is built upon houses — houses that are not homes, houses that are repositories of that wealth.
Americans have a deeply ambivalent relationship to the idea of home. Home is both praised and disparaged. The principle signifier of status in the US is owning a home, or rather, a house. Owning a house is the rosy-cheeked dream of apple-pie America. We are supposed to display our homes, spend money on our homes, improve our homes. We must have a home simply to have personhood in this society, and the material quality of the home directly correlates to the social quality of the person. But we are not supposed to want to remain at home. Our society ridicules home-bodies. People who prefer to stay home do not spend as much money as those who go out and travel around. This bothers the overlords to no small degree as we have seen recently in their increasingly shrill exhortations to get out of the house now that we’ve “recovered” from the plague era. But nobody in this culture wants the obligation of a true home. Moreover, the overlords are perhaps right to be shrill, since our economy would fail if we treated our houses as homes. So for all that the house is central to our economy (mind that definition, friends!), we are still homeless. We do not have a place that is part of us as we are part of it, that is valued for its own sake and cared for, that is who we are.
These structures that we call home are what the propertied class calls income. Houses, “improved properties”, are how wealth is created in this country. This has been true since the Mayflower brought this disease to this continent. (If you need more than my assertion on this, read Howard Zinn, Edward Baptist, William Cronon or Andro Linklater — and probably a good number of others that I’ve not read yet.) Houses are not primarily shelters for humans in this culture; they are revenue. Having shelter is contingent upon rents and mortgages remaining profitable, indeed, more profitable than any other revenue stream the structure might generate. Even if you pay your rent, you could find yourself homeless if your landlord finds it more profitable to turn the building into an AirBnB, for example. This is a highly tenuous situation and is already failing large numbers of people — who are now houseless. But they are not only un-housed, they are un-personed. They bear the weight of the stigma that our culture puts upon those who do not have a house.
This stigma is rooted in our notions of independence and self-sufficiency (which are not things, but will be topics for later discussions on this blog). To need help is shameful in this culture. To be poor is to be deficient, to be less capable, to be dependent. Being poor in a culture where the wealthy are dependent upon those who are poor for both wealth and labor (and therefore harboring deep guilt about that) is a character flaw (because the guilty wealthy set the standards and that makes them feel better). Being poor is a fault in this culture, the cardinal fault of those who are poor. But to need help with housing strikes at wealth doubly — it takes money from the wealthy (as they see it, though they don’t actually pay into the tax pools that give assistance to those in need), and homelessness reduces their potential income base because the un-housed are not paying them for housing. When you are homeless, you are an affront to our entire system of capital accumulation and that system heaps you with opprobrium in every form — from making it nearly impossible to become re-housed to violence and scape-goating to complete erasure. Few groups are silenced like the homeless who are invisible even as they are ubiquitous. We will ourselves to not see those who do not sleep in a house, even when we know those people are not house-less by choice. To be “the homeless” is to not be a human person. It is to become invisible, unvoiced, and crippled with the shame of your defects.
When I was a young woman, I experienced that shame. It began when my two jerk housemates inexplicably decided to simply not pay their share of the rent and got us all thrown onto the streets. For a couple months, I lived in my car (an AMC Gremlin without a locking back hatch). I had friends who helped out, but it was uncomfortable. This happened in May, so the weather at least was survivable. It would have been much worse had it happened in January, but the weather was just the beginning. I had so many daily obstacles to work around. Not least was a lack of bathrooms. I could use the bathroom at work, but I had to come into work presentable — without a bathroom. One of many ugly Catch-22’s in being without a house.
When I was homeless I felt less than human. I was evicted through no action or inaction on my part. I had no reason to feel ashamed, and yet I was deeply humiliated. I never even told my boss — out of embarrassment, not out of fear of reprisal. Quite to the contrary, in all likelihood she would have offered me a place to stay if I could have faced the pity in her eyes. But I couldn’t. I had accepted this culture’s view that I was at fault and was solely responsible for fixing the situation, that any help would be a “hand-out”, charity, something I didn’t deserve. I had accepted the stigma and did everything I could to hide it. This judgement on being house-less has not improved in the intervening decades; I still don’t talk of it much. The plight of the homeless is much more visible than when I was house-less, yet they are still “the homeless”, not people. They are less human than those who have managed to remain housed — which is an increasingly onerous task.
A capitalist economy is unsustainable if it can’t generate increasing returns on capital — which is based on property and the monetization of human needs. There is no balance point. A capitalist economy is not one that can remain stable; it must have growth, by definition. But in the waning days of empire and post-colonialism, there are no longer large swaths of cheaply exploitable land and labor to feed into that growth and the growing is grinding to a halt. So the situation of property-as-revenue-stream is intractable. To keep capitalism growing, the rent class must wrench increasing revenue out of fixed property, meaning they have to charge more for the same thing, which leads to a place where the renting class can’t afford to pay rent. Which is approximately where we are now.
My son lives in Brooklyn. He has very good wages and in any other time and place he would be considered wealthy. But in New York, he lives in a rent-controlled apartment that, cheap as it is relative to New York averages, eats up nearly half his income. He has no expectation of ever owning property. Nor do any of his friends and co-workers. His generation has given up on the American dream, seeing it as a fantasy that is both economically improbable and more generally unwanted. They don’t want the burden of a house, with its infinite mortgage and almost infinite maintenance costs. And they do not even seem to understand the idea of home, having never experienced a place that is part of them as they are part of it. They only know houses and they want no part of that, sour grapes though that attitude may be. Because they certainly can’t afford to own a house, they are paying far too much of their income merely to remain housed. This is where late capitalism, with no more land and labor to exploit, has brought us — to feeding off the future of our children, in every way, even to taking away the idea of having a stable home.
Logically, one might expect that property owners would eventually be forced to accept less income from property rather than no income from property because nobody can afford to pay the costs. But I think the last year has shown that this is not what is happening. Rather than forgive rent for the thousands who lost jobs in the pandemic, we’ve seen evictions. Rather than accept a loss of income from a jobless renter pool, they are allowing their properties to sit vacant until they can find tenants who can pay higher rent. And now they are joyfully applauding the “return to normal”, raising rents to nearly pre-plague rates, even as there is little to indicate that wages or employment have recovered. Not that wages have risen at all in the last many decades, while rent has exploded in cost. Even without the pandemic we had a housing crisis. The pandemic might have actually eased it in the most expensive urban markets, since those with money and flexible jobs left their high-rent urban apartments for places with lower population density (thereby increasing housing costs and creating tight markets in all sorts of improbable locations like Burlington, Vermont; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Scottsdale, Arizona). In any case, our housing system is failing because rent is more than wages nearly everywhere, and one might think that property owners would be nervous about this, that they would lower rents and accept lower profits rather than see their investments implode because nobody can afford the rent.
That this is not at all the case is difficult to understand unless the emotions surrounding our housing system are factored in. This refusal to change the system so it does not fail everybody catastrophically is, I think, tied to the guilt of the wealthy over wealth generation, the guilt that has, in turn, created the stigma of homelessness — as well as the actual condition of homelessness. The guilty rarely bend; they don’t make concessions. Guilt forces the guilty to persist long past any potential benefit in persistence. Guilt is intractable and illogical and quite frankly stupid. And guilt is now creating the mass crisis of an entire generation becoming un-housed. In a culture that is already homeless.
If there is any root to all our problems, it is this. Similarly, if there is any magic bullet, it is to fix this. To create a system that prioritizes human need over property and wealth generation is to destroy much of the system that is destroying the planet. But to create a system that values home, now that would utterly unmake capitalism. There is no exploitation when you have a home. There is no destruction and waste when you value your place. There is no path to planetary annihilation if we love this planet as the singular nurturing cradle that it is to humanity. If we are to fix what the pursuit of wealth has wrought, then we need to find our way home.
©Elizabeth Anker 2021
Teaser photo credit: By Ruth Hartnup from Vancouver, Canada – Homeless snowman, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42674093