In the wake of the heavy handed eviction of housing activists in Dublin, Stewart Smyth labels the move by masked gardaí as an own goal and lays out the socialist solution to the housing crisis.
In many long running campaigns, a single event can capture the essence of the issue, communicate it to a wide audience and galvanise the movement involved. In Memphis in 1968, it was the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker which sparked the sanitation workers strike for better working conditions and union recognition, despite more than a decade of previous attempts to organise a local union.
The broadcast of the Ken Loach television drama Kathy Come Home was another such event, highlighting how easy it was for a family to fall into homelessness in England in the mid-1960s. We do not know in advance when these events are going to occur, but the eviction at 34 North Frederick Street, Dublin on the evening of 11th September, carries the potential to be such a turning point.
For years, successive governments have presided over a deepening housing crisis (which has now turned into a national emergency) with charities and campaign groups, like the Peter McVerry Trust and Focus Ireland, highlighting the issues but seeing their proposed solutions fall on the stone ground that is government housing policy.
However the sight of masked “private security”, flanked by balaclava-wearing police officers, evicting housing campaigners and then boarding up an empty house brings into sharp focus not just the housing emergency but the role of the Gardai, the priorities of the government and capitalist society, more generally.
A political own goal
Even in the short time since the eviction, we have already started to see how it is causing political problems for the Fine Gael government. Under the Housing Minister, Eoghan Murphy, homelessness has rocketed to over ten thousand people, rent levels are now higher than before the 2008 crash and the levels of evictions are increasing as private equity capital seeks to exploit the dysfunctional private rented sector and make super-profits.
It was this socially impaired housing system that led the community around Dublin’s north inner city to start occupying empty homes back in August.
The regular refrain from Varadkar, Murphy and the rest is that the housing problem is a complex one with no silver bullet. The events in North Frederick Street run a coach and horses through this refrain – if you’re a landlord there is a very clear silver bullet, the use of violence by hired goons and backed by the police force.
It did not take long for social media to generate comparison images between evictions carried out a hundred years ago, with bailiffs flanked by police officers with the Crown on their uniforms, and the recent events in Dublin. Some news outlets reported that the van carrying the masked thugs had a British registration. However, to develop a nationalist-based analysis from this point is a major mistake and something that as long ago as 1899, James Connolly railed against;
After Ireland is free, says the patriot…
‘… we will protect all classes, and if you won’t pay your rent you will be evicted … But the evicting party, under the sheriff, will wear green uniforms and the Harp without the Crown …
Of course, any potential links to unionist paramilitaries needs to be investigated but not on the basis that if the hired goons were from south of the border this would in any way make their action more palatable.
The impact is the same, whether the eviction is carried out at the behest of an Irish landlord or an international private equity firm, homelessness increases, and peoples’ lives are thrown into chaos.
Profits or social need
These events and the housing emergency raise a more profound question – how has it come about that a basic human need is being denied to so many citizens? The answer lies at the start of Marx’s Capital, where he starts his analysis of capitalism by looking at the commodity. Capitalism is a social system that is dominated by the production of commodities – cars, bananas, coffee, computers, the list is almost endless.
Marx argues that each commodity is composed of two different and competing values – exchange value and use value. Exchange value represents what the commodity can be bought and sold for. This value is the basis of markets and hence the drive to make profits.
On the other hand, use values of commodities represent the benefit that people can obtain from using or consuming the commodity. For example, a car can help you get to work or visit family; a banana can help sustain life through a healthy diet.
In capitalism it is the exchange values that dominate – commodities are valued for how much money they can make, not what social use they can be put to. In an acute manner this currently applies to housing in the owner-occupier and private rented sectors.
This dominance has always been the case in capitalism. However, the policies pursued by the governments on this island (housing is a devolved responsibility in NI) and elsewhere in the world over the past four decades have accentuated the contradiction between exchange and use values. As radical geographer David Harvey has argued about the US housing market since 2008, “the pursuit of exchange value destroyed access to housing as a use value”.
Police and Thieves
Once we grasp the exchange/use value contradiction in the housing system, the events in North Frederick Street highlight the social theft that the landlords and courts, through granting injunctions, are undertaking. They also illustrate the primary social role of the police force – to protect the private property and maintain the settled conditions for continuing profit-making and capital accumulation.
This why police attack demonstrators who appear to challenge existing government policy or even the foundations of the state, as in the case of the civil rights movement in NI in 1968. And why strikers on pickets lines are violently abused and removed, so that scabs can carry on making profits and undermine existing working pay and conditions.
A silver bullet
Earlier I noted the refrain from establishment politicians that the housing emergency is complex and there is no single solution to it. This line of argument is pure obfuscation, deployed to distract from the lack of political will to change the existing social priorities and policies.
In contrast, socialists have a very clear and simple solution to the housing emergency – we need more housing solely for its use value, i.e. for people to live in, not to profit from. In practical terms this means increasing the housing stock that is not part of the private market (whether that be renting or buying).
The single most important change is to fund local authorities to build new homes on their own land, rather than free-market fundamentalism of giving even more public assets (i.e. the land) to private developers to generate more profit from. It is also means Mortgage-to-Rent policies where homeowners who fall behind on mortgage repayments can transfer their home to their local authority and rent it back at affordable levels, where affordable is based on ability to pay not an over-inflated market rate.
Finally, earlier when the events in North Frederick Street were labelled a political own goal, largely portraying it as an image that shows the true nature of the housing emergency, and later the role of the police. However, there is another element of this own goal that was shown on the streets of Dublin the night after the eviction, when 1,000 people joined a protest. The protest was large enough and radical enough to block traffic across O’Connell Street for up to 45 minutes.
This protest shows how the North Frederick Street eviction can be the turning point in the housing campaigns on this island and be a key stepping stone building up to the protest outside the Dail on 3rd October.
The solution to the housing emergency lies on the streets.