1872-2016: 144 Years of the Housing Crisis

In the latest in our series on socialist classics James Grannell reviews Frederick Engels: The Housing Question, (1872)

Socialist Worker 389

1872-2016: 144 Years of the Housing Crisis

‘It is perfectly clear that the existing state is neither able nor willing to do anything to remedy the housing difficulty. The state is nothing but the organized collective power of the possessing classes, the landowners and the capitalists as against the exploited classes, the peasants and the workers. What the individual capitalists (and it is here only a question of these because in this matter the landowner who is also concerned acts primarily as a capitalist) do not want, their state also does not want.’

So says Engels, in his pamphlet The Housing Question, which was originally written as a series of articles in response to the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon who had called for the outlawing of private landlordism and turning tenant’s rents into purchase payments for their dwellings among other measures.

Engels argued that there was no such thing as a housing crisis in itself, rather, the crisis was within capitalism. The housing crisis itself was an evil caused by the exploitation of workers by capital. The capitalist economic system, which is one and the same as the political system under capitalism, would constantly generate housing crises due to its very nature. This fact makes it apparent that the only way to finally  solve the problem of housing is the overthrow of capitalism and the abolition of private property.

Since the economic crash there has been an exponential rise in homelessness and precarious housing conditions in Ireland. Focus Ireland estimate that there are up to 5,000 homeless people in Ireland at any one time, and in 2013 they worked with over 10,000 people, providing support for families and individuals who were either homeless or at risk of become homeless. On top of this very immediate crisis, figures released by the Central Bank this year show that there are over 117,000 mortgages in arrears across Ireland.

These and many other deplorable incidents , such as the deaths of a number of “rough sleepers” in Dublin, have spurred the political establishment into the type of action they love – the creation of an Oireachtas Committee on Housing and Homelessness. This Committee will, no doubt, thrash out and rehearse the same arguments that were made during nineteenth century debates on what to do about the housing question. Their solutions will also fail in the long run, because they (the capitalist  government) are attempting to treat the housing question alone, without admitting the true cause of this evil.

At the same time those who are hard-pressed to pay their mortgages and those who have been made homeless are the subject to the most revolting moralism from the press and politicians. In December 2015, Senator David Norris said that poor (those on social welfare) people shouldn’t be allowed to buy drink.

This is part of the age-old moralism that the poor are poor because they squander their money on frivolous things like alcohol and cigarettes. Yet Engels pointed out that the rich drink just as much in their clubs, and who can deny that the rich squander immense amounts of money on all manner of frivolity?

Today’s rich are the same as the Victorian do-gooders who only doled out their scraps of charity  to the “deserving poor” leaving the “undeserving poor” to starve in the ditches. Our enemy is the same now as it was then, and their tactics are just as insidious.

This housing crisis is nothing new and it will continue as long as capitalism continues. This is Engels’ main argument.

While parts of the pamphlet may seem remote to the modern reader who will probably be unfamiliar with the individuals Engels was arguing against; the core of Engels’ argument is as true today as it was when he wrote it in the nineteenth century.

The crisis is capitalism. Capitalism leaves people to die in the streets. Capitalism forces people out of their homes. Capitalism leads to extraordinary rises in rent, and tenants having to search further afield for accommodation that is often substandard. Therefore, if we are serious about solving the housing question there is one clear solution – the abolition of capitalism. We must fight for housing, yes, but our struggle must also be a broader one. We have a world to win.

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