Radical Social Responses to the Right to Housing


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Ireland is in the middle of a catastrophized recession. This will come as no surprise to anyone in Ireland, though perhaps it is not known as well internationally as one might think. One of the crucial features of the time leading up to the boom was the activity of the property developers, the ‘risk-taking’ darlings of the neo-liberal miracle. The developers built and built, while prices and availability of cheap credit grew. Until one day it all fell apart and the Irish economy collapsed into a heap on the floor. What was once ‘prime residential’ housing, is now a ‘toxic’ asset. A crucial feature of the post-crash Irish landscape is the presence of vacant or half-built houses and apartments. The question I want to address here is what those radicals concerned with social justice in Ireland should do in the face of this landscape. To get to the point, I would like to go back and point towards an alternate historiography which reveals that rights have been used in truly radical demands and assertions. This is necessary to challenge the (neo)liberal hegemony that rights are ultimately a relation to the state, and that the economy/market is the necessary determinant of policy. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, questions of property are key.

MacPherson famously says of Locke that he placed property at the heart of natural law, and then stripped the natural law from property. This is a curious formulation but one which bears drawing out. Locke begins the crucial chapter V of the Second Treatise on Government with the very old and tried argument that the earth is handed in perpetuity to Adam and his kin to be held in common. Locke then goes on to explain how private property is justified. In particular the issue of waste is crucial. Locke details how natural law prohibited the collection of more than you could use. The old adage was; waste is a sin. However, he shows how money facilitates the escape from this prohibition on waste. Because money is substitutable and cannot go to waste (i.e. it cannot go past its sell-by date), one is entitled to accumulate as much as one can. Thus, because of money there is no problem with unlimited accumulation. In chapter V Locke strips the natural law from property while maintaining the legitimacy of the ‘natural’ status for property.

It is little surprise then that the telling of the human rights history so often simply repeats the same old tried and tired linear narrative. If  we are to think of radical rights responses to the death-rattle of neo-liberalism, we must look beyond the already given answers of this historiography. I suggest that this question of property and waste is crucial. There are other rights traditions which are far more useful to us as we look in at the collapse of the neo-liberal imaginary. These traditions are perhaps more difficult to lay one’s hands upon, but a brief look to such various figures as Gerrard Winstanley, Baruch Spinoza, Ernst Bloch or even the modern radical historians like Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker. These figures allow us to begin to conceive of alternatives, to think of natural or indeed human rights which are more at home in the slums and tenements than the Fianna Fail tent at the Galway Races.

So what would this alternative history begin to look like? Bloch associates the natural rights tradition that human rights emerge from with the struggle for social justice.

Social utopias and natural law had mutually complementary concerns within the same human space; they marched separately but, sadly, did not strike together. Although they were in accord on the decisive issue, a more humane society, there nevertheless arose important differences between the doctrines of social utopia and natural law. Those differences can be formulated as follows. Social utopian thought directed its efforts toward human happiness, natural law was directed toward human dignity. Social utopias depicted relations in which toil and burden ceased, natural law constructed relations in which degradation and insult ceased. (Bloch, E, Natural Law and Human Dignity, (The MIT Press, 1987) preface, p. xxix)

However, he is not entirely correct in this assertion that the two remain separate and do not mix. Rather, earlier texts often brought the two senses of justice together. Magna Carta here is a prime example. Travel the offices of human rights professors of the world and quite often you will find a facsimile of the Universal Declaration and the Great Charter of King John. Rarely, if ever will you find its far more crucial supplement, the Charter of the Forrest. To bastardize terribly, let us briefly say that while Magna Carta granted certain rights and privileges, the Charter of the Forest guaranteed disafforestation and the commons. For a much more accurate and far superior rendering of the charter see Peter Linebaugh’s The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All (University of California Press, 2008). This was nothing less than a form of social justice, commoning was after all the sustenance of the poor of the middle ages. Mushrooms, berries and most importantly wood were free to any who would take them. The commons were free sites of pasture. If the human rights historians are to be believed, Magna Carta is a birth pang of modern human rights. However, if this is the case there is an illegitimate twin which emerges with the newly born discourse.

Let us take up this illegitimate strand later in the radical egalitarian natural law argumentation of Gerrard Winstanley the leader of the English Revolution’s ‘diggers’. There again we can find an a-legal mix of social utopia and natural rights. It is a-legal because, like the social movements around the world that utilise what Hakim Bey calls ‘temporary autonomous zones’, Winstanley argued for the withdrawal from legal norms and argumentation of his time. Instead he proposed the return to the commons whereby communities would farm the waste ground (often this common land had been recently enclosed or appropriated). Property was evil and sin stemmed from envy, he said. Natural law for Winstanley was the entire overthrow of the system of ownership and political priority for those that owned more than 40 shilling, which Locke was later to defend and naturalise.

A final, and very different example of this comes in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath where the poor are forced to starve by the constantly falling wages and lack of employment, yet their natural sense of justice, which retains much of the theological that can be seen in the previous two examples, screams at the social injustice:

And the homeless hungry man, driving the roads with his wife beside him and his thin children in the back seat, could look at the fallow fields which might produce food but not profit, and that man could know how a fallow field is a sin and the unused land a crime against the thin children. And such a man drove along the roads and knew temptation at every field, and knew the lust to take these fields and make them grow strength for his children and a little comfort for his wife. (Steinbeck, J, The Grapes of Wrath, (Penguin Classics, 2000), p245).

There is a long tradition that says waste is against natural law. This is the radical political and legal message of Steinbeck, Winstanley and the Charter of the Forrest. Food and shelter, speech and association, this is the stuff of life. Against Bloch, natural law and social utopia are at times bound together.

Yet this is the message of all good human rights activists and academics as well: Civil and political rights are indissociable from economic, social and cultural rights, they form one corpus. However, let me suggest that the trajectory of the liberal adherents of economic and social rights is limited by the material that they must work with. Law, too often, curtails quests for justice and demands ‘reasonable’ solutions. As any good critical theorist will tell you, the ‘reasonable’ is always an expression of the current political hegemony. That women were irrational and should not vote was a ‘reasonable’ political position at the beginning of the last century, that the poor (not just the idle poor) were immoral ab initio and prima facie was ‘reasonable’ during the previous century, along with prejudice against Jews, blacks, Irish, etc. It was still politically ‘reasonable’ to talk of the African ‘natives’ as being ‘prelogical, living in a world of dreams and make believe, of mystery and awe… they are fetishists, animists, pre-animists or what have you and so on,’ only fifty years ago (Evans-Pritchard, E, E, Theories of Primitive Religion (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1965), p105). What is ‘reasonable’ in any given political society is not eternal, it is constantly shifting and rarely an expression of justice. Certainly the law does, at times, rupture the given mores of a particular society, however these are rare and often overblown instances. Normative shifts occur not because an elite (be it juridical, economic or political) wills it, rather it occurs because of social movement, what we might romantically call, after Steinbeck ‘the awakening of the people’ (Steinbeck, p249).

We know well that Ireland’s history of economic, social and cultural rights is abysmal. We know that asylum seekers are kept in the most appalling of camps (and I use that term with the full historical significance in mind). We know that there is a glut of unsold housing built or almost built around the country. So, what if we take the beginnings of this alternative history of human rights seriously. What would an a-legal assertion of human rights in resistance to waste look like? What would Steinbeck, Winstanley and the Charter of the Forest suggest for our current times? It would not involve arguing and fiddling over bank bail-outs and toxic assets which are the very epitome of waste. I would like to suggest that we attempt to shift the imagination of our times. The term ‘toxic asset’ completely disassociates us from the fact that we are talking about houses, apartments, businesses. A ‘toxic asset’ is poisonous in that it does not make the money it should have done.

To begin the task of shifting the neo-liberal imagination, I suggest the crime of squatting (for it is a criminal offence in Ireland). Squatting is to take direct action, not against this or that policy of the government, but against trite neo-liberal abstraction and injustice. By placing people, real lived experience, in these ‘toxic’ assets, the reality of the situation is manifested in a material sense. Ireland is increasingly a country which is divided between the rich within their neat comfortable zones, and the poor who are increasingly subjects of toil, insult, degradation and burden. It is not alone in this, but that is not the issue. What if the 43,000 families currently waiting for social housing, broke into the empty houses and apartments all over the country, now in state (or at least NAMA) ownership? I suggest this would at once be an a-legal vindication of their economic rights, but it would also present an attempt to rupture the neo-liberal ideological hold on the country. This act would not solve any of the countries problems, but that is not the point. As a manifestation, it would present the problem in a different light by rupturing the all too regular tendency to make abstract that which is material. The act is certainly illegal, it is also entirely ‘unreasonable’ in a neo-liberal economic sense. However, that does not mean that it is unjust. It was ‘reckless fanaticism’ when Emily Davison threw herself in front of the Kings horse (‘A Memorable Derby,’ in The Times, 05/06/1913), it was economically ‘irresponsible’ for Thomas Clarkson to suggest that slavery should be abolished, however, in each instance the vision of the activist saw the true injustice behind the conservative rhetoric of the times. Perhaps it is time to break the strangle-hold of the neo-liberal economic discourse with the radical a-legal assertion of human rights.

Dr Illan Rua Wall is a law lecturer at Oxford Brookes University. This article originally appeared as part of the Human Rights Lexicon on the Human Rights in Ireland blog. The photo is taken from a scene in Wallets Full of Blood: Houses on the Moon.


3 Responses

  1. Robert McCann

    March 21, 2010 6:32 pm

    Ernst Bloch wrote a great deal and indeed I’m one of those obscure souls who has tried to wade thorugh his ‘Spirit of Utopia’ (1964) and for me one of his more interesting thoughts was that “…a history of hedgehogs, even of cows in fifteen volumes really would not be very interesting” in comparison to this life which has been given to man; “man making history…” (Bloch E. 1964 p,234) and I suppose here we are in Ireland, perverting our own history, one that allows 50, 000 people to languish on housing waiting list whilst some 300, 000 private dwellings lie empty for want of people to buy into the dream of owning a home.

    And the squatting idea is interesting, and even moraly valid, however in some ways it might let the government, the banks, and the ‘greedy’ devlopers off the hook. Though I think the term greedy developer is an ignorant media label which in many ways does not add to the discussion, rather it feeds into simlified notions of housing development / policy. However the discussions around the current governments political ideology, in terms of treating houses as commodities no different than a packet of biscuits, is is incredibly important, not least if we hope to get out of this property collapse disaster.

    Indeed if we take a simplified Lockeian view (as I understand it)Locke looks at notions of ownership including property and land as ‘that which comes into your ownership by virtue of your labour’.
    So if one cuts down a tree and that tree had never been owned by any person prviously, then by virtue of your labour, it becomes your property.

    Now say you are walking alongside a river with the tree-trunk on your shoulder, and you pass by an island, and there is a person stranded, with no food or water, or shelter, starving, and soon to perish if she can’t get off the island. You could if you wished use the the log to make a bridge allowing her to get off the island so save her life. Well the fact is according to a Lockeian property ownership (neo-liberal) point of view, you own the log so you have no obligation to use the log as a bridge and so save the stranded persons life. You worked hard to cut down the log, you own the log, you can do what you f***ing like with the log, it is your private property. (Of course there are moral arguments why you might want to use the log to make a bridge and so save the perons life, but that is for another day). Now you could just give her the log to make a bridge to get off the island, or you could rent it to her, or sell the log to her. But she is stranded, starving with no money. And of course you are human, and you do want to help, but this person has got herself into this mess, (just like those home owners, who aspired to partake in the climb on the property) ladder, so to give her the log without anything in return on her part, well this just wont do.
    So you think for a while, eureka, you will mortgage the log to her on the basis of her paying back the loan, with interest, and of course she is desperate, so really you can name your terms, and of course there is no reglation by government to protect her from an unsrupulous lender of tree-trunks & logs to make bridges, does this sound all too familiar? Whether there is a moral in the story, maybe it is this, ‘dont depend on this government to bail you out, because there are very few life belts in a private property market baby…

    No I think that we should see these ghost estates demolished, and the pictures should be beamed around the world, “this is private property in action”. It is a misery by another name, it is an immoral appeal to that most basic of human needs, that of shelter security & sanctuary. It is the exploitation for profit of the dignity of the human person. In short it is disgusting, and the government should bear wittness to these edifices ‘built on sinking sands’ collapsing around them. Imagine the power of that image, housing estates being demolished as folly to ideology. I would go further and suggest that one or two of the most prominant property bubble ediffices / ghost estates should be preserved as a contemporary monument to this governments folly, something akin to the buildings of East Berlin preserved as monuments to the folly of war, and whilst the comparisons are tenuous, ask those who are up to their necks in debt, worried to death about how they are going to take care of thier family, on the verge of being made homeless. Ask them if they do not feel like they are in a ‘property war zone’. The misery for them is just as severe, just as real, just as heartbreaking. and this government must answer for its ‘property war crimes’.


    Note all the inverted commas, I’m not aware of anyone who has committed any property crimes or war crimes, except maybe Tony Blair who I hope to see in the dock some-day charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, including those poor human souls in his own country who see themselves even less likely to climb up the social mobility ladder than when Thatcher was in power!

  2. Tim

    March 23, 2010 8:29 pm

    “We know well that Ireland’s history of economic, social and cultural rights is abysmal. We know that asylum seekers are kept in the most appalling of camps (and I use that term with the full historical significance in mind).”

    no. we “know” neither of those things, because they are just the opinion of one author. On the second point, I assume you are not talking about the Scouts, so you must be suggesting that Ireland is keeping people in Concentration Camps. nice.

    “Dr” Wall also states:
    “Squatting is to take direct action, not against this or that policy of the government, but against trite neo-liberal abstraction and injustice.”

    NO it isn’t. It might be a lot of things, but that is not one of them.

    Human Rights do NOT include the right to take another’s property. That is something else entirely, and you cannot call upon the concept of Rights to justify a state of affairs you might want to see for other reasons, like Sticking it to the (Neo-Liberal) Man, which seems to be “Dr” Wall’s priority.

    Call for it all you like, but don’t pretend it has anything to do with some supposed “Right” to housing. I have only a right to a house if I pay for it myself – and I have the Right NOT to have it forcibly removed from my ownership. In fact, most Human Rights are negative Rights, and the idea than another has the duty to work for free for me is, frankly, laughable.

  3. Robert

    August 13, 2010 11:49 pm

    Tim, you have to at least recognise the fact that your assumptions about the ethics of squatting are contingent upon a very specific conception of property rights (and I’ll deploy “right” in both senses of the word). This conception is by no means given and universal.

    Contrast the notion of squatting as a universal moral wrong with the fact that possessory (proprietary) rights arising through adverse possession (i.e. squatting) are recognised in a majority of common law jurisdictions. Rights are rarely if ever unproblematic. Here, an individual interest in holding without using must be weighed against a public interest in ensuring that “the commons” are put to good use. (This itself is not a radical proposition, and has been a constant tension in Western property law, influencing the development of doctrines of succession, among other things.)

    These facts hold even before we get into the territory of competition between established rights, which is something that people discussing rights often seem not to consider.