Changing our minds about homelessness

Stephen reflects on the normalisation of a certain media portrayal of ‘home ownership’, and the implications for thinking about the crisis of homelessness in Ireland and the UK.

It is one year since Home Sweet Home campaigners took over Apollo House in Dublin to provide food and shelter to 40 of the city’s homeless, an occupation that last from16 December, over the Christmas period, right up until the Dublin High Court evicted them on 11 January 2017.

The NAMA-owned Apollo House is due for demolition but Home Sweet Homes’ act of compassion and defiance continues to resonate, not least for its profound symbolic importance, bringing the issue of homelessness and the housing crisis in Ireland into sharp focus. But also politically, it showed what is possible where there is a will, while on a purely practical level, we can surmise that it saved at least someone’s life who might otherwise have died on the cold streets of the Irish capital over the festive period. RTE reports that 14 people died in Ireland between 31 August and 6 December this year.

Yet Ireland’s housing crisis goes on unabated with over 8000 people homeless in the south of Ireland. In the north the number of homeless has risen by 32 per cent in the last five years, with nearly 12,000 households – individuals and families –  accepted as homeless. Across Britain, 300,000 people – the equivalent to one in every 200 – are officially recorded as homeless or living in inadequate homes, according the charity Shelter.

These figures are alarming enough but they merely belie stories of personal distress and family hardship. They stand as a measure of systemic failure rooted in an infuriating adherence to free-market economics, underscored by a set of ideological, cultural assumptions about home ownership that Ireland and the UK articulate separately, and which posits home ownership as an essential national characteristic.

Conor McCabe draws attention to the myth that owner-occupancy is somehow in the ‘Irish gene’; an innate part of the Irish character because of a history of plantation, land wars and famine. In his book, Sins of the Father: The Decisions That Shaped the Irish Economy, McCabe argues that it was in fact the privatisation of urban public housing throughout the 1960s and 70s that pushed forward home ownership, with public ownership becoming a ‘byword for poverty and violence’ (2013: p 58)

There was nothing politically benign about the push for owner occupancy. In 1952, James Tunney, a Labour Party senator, told Dublin County Council, ‘I am a firm believer in private ownership, because it makes for better citizens, and there is no greater barrier against communism’ (quoted in McCabe, 2013, p 29). Such sentiments were echoed five years later by the Bishop of Cork, the Most Reverend Dr Cornelius Lucy, who encouraged the conversion of the country to property ownership to ‘prevent social unrest’ and ‘revolutionary change’ (ibid: p 30).

The UK in the 1980s home ownership was framed as the duty of all good patriots, loving parents and free citizens. The Conservative government’s environment ministered at the time, Michael Heseltine, was a cheerleader for the ‘right to buy’ Housing Act of 1980:

There is in this country a deeply ingrained desire for home ownership. The Government believe that this spirit should be fostered. It reflects the wishes of the people, ensures the wide spread of wealth through society, encourages a personal desire to improve and modernize one’s own home, enables parents to accrue wealth for their children and stimulates the attitudes of independence and self-reliance that are the bedrock of a free society.

The media’s response to this new domestic dispensation has been a proliferation over the last 37 years of house buying, DIY home improvement and domestic lifestyle programmes, such as Location, Location, Location, Grand Designs, Room For Improvement, DIY SOS, and many television series dedicated to cooking and entertaining at home, fronted by the likes of Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson. At last count, Channel Four had twelve ‘property programmes’ and last year it was reported that it is threatening more.

On the one hand, we might see these shows as trivial entertainment, but on the other, their sheer ubiquity has normalised home ownership. At the same time the melodramatic structure of property shows, with their emotional highs and lows in the quest to build, find and improve, portrays the home as the fulfilment of desire; an achievement of the deserving, not the of the right of every human. And if there are people who are deserving of a home then there are by implication others who are not so.

The home is viewed as a measure of our moral value – residence of the conscientious and meritorious domestic citizen. The parade of home owners on our screens, coupled with the omnipresence of advertisements that seek to inspire copious, conspicuous domestic consumption, renders homelessness a mere aberration in an otherwise glossy parade of new builds, well appointed interiors, fitted kitchens and conservatories.

Changing housing policy will require a change in how we think about homes and homelessness. For at the moment the lack of political conviction to tackle the housing crisis finds its cultural corollary in the plethora of banal forms of light entertainment that validate home ownership.

How can we tolerate people dying for want of a roof over their head? Maybe it’s because we have been encouraged to see the home as an extension of the self; a state of nature; a measure of moral superiority. In which case the homeless are easily reduced to the abject, inferiorised, eccentric objects of charity or contempt.

Stephen Baker

11 December 2017

Better to light a candle…

Maurice reflects on the disparity in wealth between the employees and the owners in a well-known High Street store.

Tea-lights, each around 35mm across.

On Thursday 7 December the Guardian carried this story:

More than 800 senior Asda shopfloor staff face pay cut or redundancy.

It’s a rather unhappy tale in the run up to Christmas – but surely, you might think, not a major one, what with all the Brexit negotiations going on, to say nothing of the events in America covered in the last post?

Yet look a little closer and it speaks volumes about our whole political economy.

First, the headline is slightly misleading – ‘senior’ is a very relative term. We are talking here about ‘section leaders’, senior shop floor assistants, not boardroom executives. So already pretty low paid. Wage cuts or redundancies could be devastating for them and their families.

Still, sad as it is, the story may not appear such a big deal. But look at this other story from August:

Asda urged to drop equal pay challenge and raise shop-floor wages

Earlier this year, the GMB brought a successful case to tribunal on behalf of store staff – mostly women – who had been paid significantly less than the mostly male warehouse workers. Asda was ordered to make up the pay gap.

Better news, then; but could the two stories be connected? Is it a coincidence that, having lost at tribunal over equal pay, the company is now announcing cuts among the same category of employees? A connection isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility. Certainly, rather than paying up, Asda has chosen to appeal the decision.

In terms of the mooted job cuts, the company says it is necessary to cut costs to meet the competition of Lidl and Aldi. A race to the bottom, then, but understandable, perhaps, given the pressures of the fierce competitive environment they have to work in. Or it would be understandable if Asda were a struggling small to medium enterprise. But it is owned by Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, whose five main shareholders, the Walton family, are among the wealthiest people in the world.

Another story, this one from October:

The Heirs to the Walmart Fortune Just Made $5 Billion in One Day

“The five members of the Walton family who are the main heirs to the Walmart fortune saw their collective net worth increase by $5 billion yesterday”, says this story.

A billion each. Or £747m at today’s exchange rate.

How does that compare to the shop floor workers? They are reported to get around £12,820 per year.

To help get our heads round the scale of the disparity, let’s convert pounds to millimetres, and work it out in pounds per day – as we have done before here at the Combination.

If the Waltons each saw their fortune rise by $1bn this year, it would work out at $2.7 million a day, or over 2 million pounds sterling (at today’s rates). Two million millimetres is two kilometres. No building – indeed no mountain – in the UK would be high enough to roll your measuring tape off to mark out this height.

In fact, you’d have to stack Slieve Donard, Northern Ireland’s tallest mountain, on top of Mount Snowdon, and then some, to mark this out vertically from sea level.

On the same scale, the Asda employees’ wages would measure 35mm – the width of a strip of photographic negatives, or roughly the diameter of a tea-light candle.

It’s the crank economy in action: cut jobs or wages at the bottom in order to ‘compete in the market’, boost profits and thus wealth for the (sometimes already unimaginably wealthy) shareholders.

Of course, we’ve been assuming the Waltons only gained a billion each for the year.

Just time for one last story, then, this one from November:

The Walton Family Just Added $10 Billion to Their Fortune.

Yes, having seen their fortunes rise by a billion dollars apiece in October, the Waltons saw another gain, this time of two billion each, in November – giving them at least a $3bn rise for the year.

$3bn, or £6.14m a day, measured on our scale, comes out at over six kilometres. That’s a lot of tea-lights.

So when you see lots of symbolic candles being lit tomorrow, 10 December, for Human Rights Day, think about lighting one for the shop floor section leaders of Asda.

Better still, join the GMB or another union, and start spreading the wealth and power sideways.

Maurice Macartney

9 December 2017


The tyranny of the vertical

Maurice looks at the ‘breathtaking’ tax bill passed by the US Senate, and sees in it the essence of the crank economy.

Last minute changes to the bill in the form of notes scribbled in the margins.

There’s plenty happening on this side of the Atlantic, and indeed on the island of Ireland, what with the Brexit negotiations reaching crunch point over the border, but what has just happened in America is breathtaking.

Not the noxious Tweets, allowing us to say literally that the President of the US shares the views of quasi-fascist extremists Britain First. Not even the fast moving Russian probe. But the shocking tax bill that has just been cleared by Senate. Given that the House has its own, not dissimilar bill on the go, it seems almost certain that a variation or combination of these is likely to be signed into US law pretty soon. Here’s why I think this would be disastrous.

The plan is basically the crank economy in stark form.

It contains huge tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy; smallish cuts for some middle earning Americans; and actual increases in taxation for other middle and lower earners.  And even the small tax breaks for the middle earners will disappear in a decade, leaving the corporations the only clear winners.

Thus very wealthy Americans – who own those corporations – are by far the biggest gainers. It is estimated that the wealthiest 1 percent will reap 80 percent of the tax benefits in this package.

Companies will use tax breaks to ‘reward’ owners like Mr Trump and his family; already high-income managers (who are likely also to be owners) will share in the bounty. Some rewards, of course, may go to ordinary workers, should the corporate owners decide to invest in creating jobs; but the track record suggests they will, rather, reward themselves still further, in the form of extra shares and dividends.

And because these rich people’s tax breaks will massively push up the deficit, a republican no-no, it won’t be long before the less well off and the very poorest Americans will face cuts in public services and a squeeze on welfare payments.

They will lose health care coverage into the bargain: one of the last minute additions to the bill removed the guts of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

And the environment will suffer: another minute change permits oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

The Grand Old Party, in short, wants to turn the oil-fuelled crank in the economy faster than it has ever been turned before. They say it’s to make the economy more ‘dynamic’, and to create jobs, as well as the wealth that you need if you are to be able to afford to redistribute it in the first place.

Here’s the problem:  it is the turning of the crank that is creating the crisis it purports to solve.

All or most of the forces in the crank economy are geared vertically as I argued in a previous post. The crank economy pushes power and wealth to the top. But it gets the ‘purchase’ to do so by putting downward pressure at the bottom – whether by cutting public spending in order to free up money for tax breaks, or by dismantling hard-won gains in power made by workers and other groups marginalised by the political economy, or by dumping toxins into the environment.

(As an aside, once you start looking it is easy to spot examples of the way our thinking is governed by ‘vertical’ models. The career ladder, the housing ladder, even the idea of ‘top’ earners. I confess I have often used the phrase ‘those at the bottom’ to describe people without much money or power. I resolve to change that, and shake off the tyranny of the vertical, by the end of this article.)

It’s worth noting that some ordinary, not particularly well-off Americans may support this “behemoth piece of legislation” as the NYT has it, “that could widen American economic inequality while diminishing the power of local communities to marshal relief for vulnerable people — especially in high-tax states like California and New York, which, not coincidentally, tend to vote Democratic”.

Some will do this because, let’s not shy away from it, they have had it tough over the last few years, and even decades; and they have been told, by President Trump and others, that the problem is this: big (liberal) government keeps taking your hard earned money, in the shape of taxes, and handing it to lazy people living it up on welfare. Many of them (the usually unstated implication goes) people of a ‘different’ race.

Here is President Trump defending his tax bill:

“Welfare reform, I see it, and I’ve talked to people. I know people that work three jobs and they live next to somebody who doesn’t work at all. And the person who is not working at all and has no intention of working at all is making more money and doing better than the person that’s working his and her ass off. And it’s not going to happen. Not going to happen.”

This, by the way, in the same breath in which he claimed that wealthy people like himself and his friends would end up paying more because of the tax bill – one of many patent falsehoods he continues to get away with among his supporters.

So not only will this tax bill crank up inequalities in wealth, but it is likely to be accompanied by yet further deepening of divisions between Americans along social and ethnic lines – divisions that, whether designed to do so or not, will tend to deter those at the wrong end of the crank economy from connecting and combining against it.

This narrative is not confined to the US, of course. Some conservative proponents of the crank economy over here also claim to champion the working class against the unjust depredations of those even worse off than them.  Working class versus underclass. Especially ‘foreign’ (in one way for another) underclasses. Deserving poor versus ‘undeserving’ poor. Their answer? Cut support for the underclasses. Reward the ‘wealth creators’. Turn the crank faster. (News breaking as I post this: Theresa May’s Social Mobility team have just quit en masse because there is ‘no hope’ of a fairer society under the current set of policies).

Those who gain power through the crank economy use that power to maintain the system: they buy up the media and push their line to millions every day (and note how much of this line is about ethnicity or religion or nationality); they make large donations, some of them secretive, to the political parties that will deliver their demands; they fund ‘think tanks’ that recommend we solve the problems caused by the crank by turning it faster.

If the Republicans in the US get their way (they still have to work out a compromise with the House, and there’s the rapidly moving Russian investigation to contend with), the wealth and power gap between ‘bottom’ and ‘top’ in America will be cranked up, teetering, to unprecedented proportions. This cannot end well. It will be worth watching developments in the US closely.

So what can be done over here?

Where the forces of the political economy are arranged vertically, we must find or invent ways to inject a new dynamic, and redirect the gearing horizontally, and such that it cycles and recycles wealth and power until it is distributed across the whole common, democratic plain.

To democratise the economy is to democratise power distribution – be this electricity generation or political power. We must redirect the flows to create a socially and environmentally (you can’t have one without the other) sustainable political economy, one that observes the limits of what Kate Raworth calls the ‘doughnut’.

How? Put pressure on your representatives in local and national politics to ensure funds are injected and can cycle in local economies.  Find out about and join in with your local commons, cooperatives, trade unions. Lobby to get workers on boards, especially remuneration committees; lobby to overturn the TU Act; press for participatory democracy and participatory budget setting; visit your local council and work out ways to bring democratic pressure to bear. Connect your issues to those of others who are struggling for sustainable grassroots democracy, and combine forces.

Shift the forces of the political economy to the horizontal; end the tyranny of the vertical.

There may be ‘top’ earners, and there may be ‘low’ earners, but democracy demands broad equality in power, – that is, equal political status as commoners for all, and a democratically agreed (not plutocratically imposed) distribution of power.

In today’s context, democracy demands that we turn away from the Trumpist model, the crank economy, and, as commoners, hold our common ground.

Maurice Macartney

3 December 2017