Speech at the Galway International Arts Festival on “The Idea of Home”
NUI Galway, 21 July 2018
May I begin by thanking Dr. Catriona Crowe for her very generous invitation to address the Galway International Arts Festival, and may I commend you, Catriona, and all those who have volunteered and worked on this endeavour for such a wonderfully curated selection of topics and speakers.
At the outset, I would like to pay a special tribute to Catherine Corless, who will be speaking later today at the Aula Maxima. She has demonstrated not only courage and perseverance but a remarkable commitment to uncovering the truth, to historical truth and to moral truth. All of us in this republic owe a debt of gratitude to Catherine for what was an extraordinary act of civic virtue.
Today, I have returned to what are most familiar surroundings. I have very fond memories of delivering lectures in this university, though some of those lectures were given in very different circumstances. I can recall being handed that most dreaded of university time-slots – 9 o’clock in the morning – for one of the courses I had prepared. Fortunately, this was Ireland in the 1970s so when I entitled the course ‘Deviance, Crime and Punishment’ I was ensured a lecture hall full of students, many of whom I was later informed were in fact auditing the course.
I introduced them to Michel Foucault – then considered an avant-garde thinker - and to many an exciting source of the new sociological ideas on the role and nature of gender, incarceration and crime in modern societies, perhaps not what they were expecting or indeed hoping. I remember hearing from the chair of the Department of Political Science and Sociology, Professor Edmond Dougan, fellow sociologist, Head of Department, and a Franciscan, that our students had told him how, in introducing the concept of society, I had taken it all apart for them. ‘Yes, Michael’, he asked, ‘But did you put it back together for them at the end?’.
The sheer breadth of the theme of ‘First Thought Talks’ strand of the Arts Festival – ‘home’ – provides me with an opportunity to return to, and to reflect on, some of the matters with which I have sought to engage, as a university lecturer, and as a citizen. It would be too great an impertinence to hope that I can put everything back together for you at the end of my reflection on the concept of ‘home’, and I’m not promising anything!
Today, unlike my lectures all those years ago, I do not wish to begin with Foucault but with a reference to the work of two very different philosophers that Foucault himself nonetheless considered as formative intellectual influences, even if his own thinking developed in radically different directions – Martin Heidegger, whose legacy continues to be haunted by his monstrous moral failings in the 1930s and 1940s, and Gaston Bachelard, a French philosopher who transformed the philosophy of science in the 1950s. Though neither share much in terms of perspective or trajectory, they both offered meditations on the manifold meanings of ‘home’.
In an essay entitled ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’, published in the collection Poetry, Language, Thought, Heidegger asked two questions, ‘what is it to dwell?’, and ‘how does building belong to dwelling?’’. He writes that, ‘[d]welling is the basic character of Being in keeping with which mortals exist’. Dwelling and the processes of building, making and shaping thus emerge almost as circular phenomena – even as people create a place, they forge a relationship between themselves and that place, such that they begin to dwell. In Heidegger’s words, ‘the relationship between man and space is none other than dwelling, strictly thought and spoken’.
As a student of migration, I am particularly struck by the implication of this last sentence, expressing as it does an underlying assumption in favour of the universality of a fixed relationship with a specific space, and indeed perhaps a specific time. It displays a disposition so intrinsic to much of modern social science – one that finds it difficult to encompass the experience of movement or of the interstices, the space between spaces.
Migration and movement have always been a part of the human experience – indeed, for some historic peoples they constituted the very foundation of their social and economic lives. An obvious example are nomadic peoples. The life of all migrants, seasonal and settled, cannot be handled by such formulation. That is not to say they did not dwell, nor that they did not form relationships between themselves and a particular space, such that it became a treasured place in which a home could be made, but they were never sedentary, nor bound to one place, or even one identity, often being people of split identities. ‘Transience’ requires a near continuous re-definition of ‘home’. This is something caught in literature, as it is missed by a privileging of the sedentary in the social sciences.
In 1958, a number of years after Heidegger first delivered the lecture that would become ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’, Gaston Bachelard completed a short volume entitled The Poetics of Space. Though better known for his epistemological work, he turned his attention to what he termed the ‘phenomenology of the imagination’, the study of the poetic meaning of the house and of the intimacy imbued within everyday household places, such as the attic, the cellar or the drawers. In the Poetics of Space, he writes, ‘[the house] is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word’, that it is ‘the topography of our intimate being’. Think of the positioning of the chair near the fire in Arensberg and Kimball’s Study of Lough and Raymona in Clare in the 1930s.
The house, Bachelard reasoned, emerges as the home by becoming a site of intimacy and creativity, of memories and dreams. What is remarkable is the degree to which, in the work of Gaston Bachelard, concerned as it is on the face of it with the evocation of the architecture of spaces, home is presented not only as a physical space, but as an immaterial reality, not a defined place of retreat but a series of relationships and intimacies with places and between people, and indeed I would add that between people the estimation of the form of the house, the status it indicates takes on a role as an indicator of position in the class system, even of respectability, or assumed lack of it.
Is this definition of ‘home’ then to be a function of residence, simply occupying space with security, a space from which one moves to participate, circulate and how and when does a condition of ownership arise? Is it as a guarantee of security, occupation being an insufficient criterion of what is ‘home’?
Going beyond the theme of ‘home’ as a set of balances, perhaps between security and freedom it may be useful to consider briefly the evolution of our planetary ‘home’ from earliest times through to the ‘Anthropocene’. Time restricts a deep consideration of ‘home’ in terms of our shared planet, our loss of symmetry between nature and habitation.
Yet, I believe that this is a perspective that we must seek to recover and uncover anew as we try to wrestle with the consequences of the changes that humanity has wrought upon our shared and vulnerable planet, a planet home now to over 7.6 billion human beings and innumerable other animals and plants.
These changes that we live with, suffer from today’s world, are themselves a product of a very particular type of human civilisation, one formed by two great revolutions in economic and social organisation, the Neolithic and the Industrial Revolutions, both of which produced and reproduced very particular ideas and ideals of ‘home’, ones which in their assumptions are our contemporary legacy but are not open to critique and evaluation as they should be in responsible scholarship and citizens’ debate, and perhaps this constrains our capacity to re-imagine our collective future today.
The Industrial revolution, usually timed as in the second half of the eighteenth century, is now understood to have inaugurated what the Nobel Prize winning atmospheric chemist, Paul Crutzen, has categorised as the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch in world history marked by the influence of a single species – our own – on the global environment.
The term Anthropocene has its own distinguished genealogy – it was first used by the Italian geologist Father Antonio Stoppani, in 1873, who was in turn influenced by the American diplomat George Perkins Marsh, whose 1863 book Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, was foundational for the environmental movement in the United States. At the core of Perkins’ work lay an imaginative analysis of the acute crises of the sedentary civilisations the ancient Mediterranean world brought about by soil degradation occasioned by the intensive farming techniques of the Neolithic Revolution, an early example of surplus seeking affluence provoking an environmental crisis.
We can discern in the rise and fall of these ancient cultures a presaging of the Anthropocene. Though not yet cursed with the capacity to radically transform the carbon or nitrogen cycle, these older peoples were still yet able to degrade the environment enough to doom themselves, to lose their ‘home’ in nature.
Theirs was a radically different culture than that which had gone before. It was based not on migration, hunting and foraging, but upon the cultivation of the soil and the domestication of animals, upon settlement, whether in isolated homesteads, clusters of dwellings, or densely populated cities, and, above all, upon the capacity to transform the muscle and sinew of humans into energy.
For the first time since our ancestors, the Homo habilis, emerged 2 million years ago, human beings created cultures focused on a single, sedentary space in which buildings, such as the temple, rather than nature, became the locus of spirituality, and hierarchical social relations emerged to co-ordinate production in Neolithic societies, overseen as they were by a new administrative/managerial class, often claiming divine sanction, driven by a new, highly gendered division of labour.
It is not a co-incidence that slavery, the most abhorrent of human institutions, arose in those years – in a recent work, the anthropologist James C Scott made the chilling observation that the walls erected around settlements in the slave societies may have been built not to exclude those without, but to imprison those within. I do not necessarily subscribe to the thesis hinted at by such speculations, namely that the foundation of a state, whether historical or in the present day, has and can only rest on violence. After all, the city-states of the ancient world would create, over time, protean republics, albeit ones marred by systemic and profound injustices.
We find, in ancient Rome, even in the works of conservative member of the senatorial class such as Cicero, a commitment to the ideal of political community founded upon solidarity, with a shared commitment to an ideal of justice, however hypocritical the exclusion of slaves, women and even other Italian men from citizenship would later appear. This ideal also suffused the civic life of Athens, finding its expression in the Politics of Aristotle and the orations of Demosthenes.
It provided a basis for an ideal of ‘home’ as a set of relationships and shared commitments, rather than a settled place – as important as place was. This is represented above all by the success of the Athenian statesman Themistocles who persuaded his fellow citizens to evacuate their beloved city to facilitate a unified Greek response to the invading Persian empire. Even though Athens was burnt to the ground, the Athenian city-state continued anew in a neighbouring fishing village.
Yet, this was an ideal of immaterial home and homeland that was exclusive and profoundly unjust, available only to the small pool of men eligible for citizenship.
How much can we consider the Greek household, the oikos, from which we derive the word economics, or household management, as a home in the physical sense, as the site of intimacy and belonging imagined by Gaston Bachelard? It was more likely that it was a place of alienation and loneliness for many members of the household, excluded as women and slaves were, from any participation in public life.
Even as the concept of the public realm was given form by city-states so too arose a new vision of the private household, dictated, managed and controlled by the aristocratic patriarch, a social construction later given juridical form within Roman Law. We might recall the image of the Roman Senator, controlling households with thousands of slaves, in addition to his wife, sons and daughters.
The social construction of the patriarch was to prove the most durable, if lamentable, foundation of the Roman world, weathering the disintegration of the sedentary Roman civilisation under pressure of countless migrations by nomadic peoples, who would in turn lay the groundworks for the feudal order of the Medieval world.
The political imaginary of that new world was one entirely dominated by ideas of hierarchy, represented by the great Chain of Being imagined by the Neo-Platonists connecting the lowliest plants and animals to the heavens, and by the gradual sacralisation of the figure of the monarch.
Despite all the distance in time and space between Medieval France and ancient Mesopotamia, they were both still Neolithic civilisations, impelled to produce energy through human effort alone.
The peasant, the labourer bound to the land, was the archetypal producer in all Neolithic cultures. Tied to his homestead, subject to the often-arbitrary power of his superiors, whether a feudal lord or a municipal administrator, he and his family provided, through a life-time of back-breaking toil, the material basis for the entire civilisation. The Roman Republic was one of the rare ancient or medieval policies that, for a time, professed to be a confederation of independent farmers, a community of households and families each with their own small stake in their country.
The house of the peasant was clearly a place of work, one with its own gendered division of labour, as women and children carried their own burden of the labour, not only in ensuring the survival of the family through the historically feminised tasks of caring and cleaning but through work in the field and, then as the insatiable Atlantic empires of North-West Europe began to inexorably expand their economic capacity through conquest, the concept of the ‘workshop’ emerges.
For example, as a recent article in the Economic History Review by Jane Humphries and Benjamin Schneider has detailed the massive extent of hand-spinning in eighteenth-century England. In the 1750s, it was the single largest category of employment, with nearly a million women and children engaged in yarn production, their work constituting over a third of a poor household’s income.
Such labour was overwhelming carried out in workshops in the home, and it was exploitative, as employers owned the materials and simply ‘put it out’ to their employees to work on and return.
Then came the mechanisation of production, which Humphries and Schneider speculate was a response not to high wages, as previously hypothesised, but to the availability for employment of still more impoverished women and children. This moved the world of paid work from the house to the factory. Social construction of time, of behaviour, social and even sexual, were changed by this. The split between factory time, without the allowance of discretion, and home time where the family could be reproduced.
Inventions such as the spinning jenny still required energy produced by the human and animal energy. For all the sophistication of Neolithic civilisations, whether in medieval Ethiopia or early modern England, they were ultimately constrained by nature and relied on plant life to sustain both people and livestock.
That constraint was eliminated in time by the discovery of the ability to convert energy released by the combustion of carbon into mechanical energy. This gave rise to a new relationship between economy, ecology, ethics, culture and society, one that rested upon a narrow and distorted vision of political economy. A vision of accumulation that sanctioned poverty amidst plenty, and internationally an imperialist ideology that integrated the new science and technology of the era in an ideology that asserted a hubris of superiority that regarded the conquered and the dispossessed as, at best, backward, inferior.
In the industrialised heartland of Western Europe, this new industrial civilisation required, not peasants, but workers, and a new working-class emerged in the towns and cities. By the end of the nineteenth-century, skilled workers would be enabled, in a mimetic sense, to replicate the domesticity of a growing professional and mercantile middle-class, with women carrying out domestic unpaid labour and men undertaking paid work in the new factory system. The product of work and the worker were distanced from each other.
This is the era in which Emile Durkeim first begun his work which, inter alia, offered us the concept of ‘anomie’ arising from his study of suicide, and of course, it is also the era in which Karl Marx wrote, to whom the idea of ‘alienation’ was central. Changes in the mode of production forced deep changes in the wider context of personal, family and social relations. The writings from literature have a theme of a world in which one could not be ‘at home’.
It is perhaps not surprising then that it was also the era in which there occurred, in legal scholarship as much as in everyday practice, a separation of the idea of home and house, of property and dwelling. For the conflict between ideas of home and property, between dwelling and belonging, was never greater than in the industrial and imperial era. The clash in the assumptions of differing civilizations in conflict would lay the seeds of a harvest that took a century to ripen.
We need only think of the native peoples of North America and Australia, whose ideals of life and what was envisaged as ‘home’ were very different from those developed in North-West Europe.
When I visited Australia last year I did so in the knowledge that such ideas were still a matter of contestation, not least in the aftermath of the Mabo judgement which finally recognised the interests of the Aboriginal people to the land, at least within the ambit of the common law. The conception of land, and of ‘home’ - of ‘country’ - held by the first Australians, the oldest surviving human culture, was that the people belonged to the land as much as the land belonged to the people. The Mabo judgement overturned the doctrine of terra nullius, a hubristic, monstrous, imperialistic fiction that the peoples of Australia had no claim, at least under English common law, to the land they had inhabited and shaped for 60,000 years.
The vast confiscation of tracts of land, not only in Australia but in North America were justified and consecrated by the theories of John Locke, sometimes heralded as a father of modern liberal thought and toleration, although his categories were constructed by exclusion.
If his Essays on Toleration excluded the Catholic Irish with the memorable phrase that ‘papists are like serpents’, thus did he exclude those who did not farm the land from his theory of the right of property as a natural right. The native Americans were, Locke wrote, ‘savage beasts’.
As the Italian philosopher Domenico Losurdo rightly reminds us, the idea that land becomes property by virtue of being mixed with labour was used to exclude an entire continent of people who did not share such a conception of property, and whose natural resource management was not considered ‘labour’ by those who considered themselves settlers.
Such a theory of property was then the basis for what we should call the ‘great dispossession of home’ inflicted on the peoples of America and Australia.
David Hume in 1767 in his History of Great Britain wrote:-
“The Irish from the beginning of time, has been buried in the most profound barbarism and ignorance and as they were never conquered, never invaded by the Romans from whom all the Western world derives its civility, they continued still in the most rude state of society and were distinguished only by those vices to which human nature not tamed by education, nor restrained by laws, is forever subject.”
Our own national history is indeed marked by its own great dispossession and the sustaining prejudices of the project of colonisation. Even as the conquest and creation of the imperial settler states reached its zenith and its conclusion in the late nineteenth century the conception of ‘home’ in this country, and its relationship to property ownership, was undergoing its own transformation under pressure from one of the greatest movements of thought and action ever seen on this island, the land movement.
Irish society in the 1870s was a product of the conflicts of the seventeenth century, of an Act of Union that would lead to the impositions of single paradigm of economic thinking as to trade and productivity, and of the catastrophe represented by the Great Hunger.
Ireland was a largely rural society, characterised by a large number of fragmented smallholdings, though not as many were farmed on a subsistence basis as on the eve of the Famine. At the height of economic and legal relations sat a small number of landlords, operating through estate mangers or middle men, with intermediate landlords and sub-letters.
The common sense political economy of property ownership had changed in content but not in form, as the Lockean idea of property as a natural right had given way to the Benthamite idea of secure property rights as the most efficient means to ensure that the owners of capital would maximise the utility of capital, and do I not hear an echo of this in present circumstances? In 1848, in the depth of the Famine, James Fintan Lalor raged against the idea that property should be inviolable, writing:
‘I acknowledge no right of property in eight thousand persons, be they noble or ignoble, which takes away all right of property, security, independence, and existence itself, from a population of eight millions, and stands in bar to all the political rights of this island and all the social rights of its inhabitants. I acknowledge no right of property which takes the food of millions and gives them a famine, which denies to the peasant the right of a home and concedes, in exchange, the right of a workhouse.’
Against that individual right, Fintan Lalor asserted a still greater right, the right, in his words, ‘to live in [this land] in security, comfort and independence’. His statue now stands in his native Portlaoise – despite his acknowledgement by and great influence on Davitt, Connolly and Pearse, he perhaps still remains something of a lost prophet, his democratic radicalism unjustly paling beside the more easily managed romanticism of his friends in the Young Ireland movement.
Yet, it was his idea of ‘home’ as an inalienable social right, and its association with the idea of the nation, of the wider national community as ‘home’, that was invoked, whether knowingly or not, by Charles Stewart Parnell when, at a public meeting in Limerick on 31st August 1879, he implored the tenants of Ireland to ‘ke[ep] a firm grip on their homestead’ and to join the Land War, which had then taken the form of a nationwide rent strike to secure the historic demands of fixity of tenure, fair rents and free sale.
Beyond the intimacies of home there is the longing for the security of the dependents to whom it constitutes shelter. It is still somewhat forgotten today that when the male leaders of the Irish National Land League were imprisoned, it was the women who took up the fight, bringing a level of organisation and discipline hitherto unseen in the conduct of the Land War, Parnell’s sister, Anna, being the most prominent amongst them.
They brought a new and renewed energy and vigour to protests against evictions, and, where they failed to prevent families being removed from their homes, they erected temporary shelters and buildings for them in anticipation, it was hoped, of a return to their homes following victory in the Land War. Security of the home and homestead was not, as far as they were concerned, to be subordinated, as it might have been by others, to the prospect of Home Rule.
It is significant that the Ladies’ Land League, the ‘first national organisation of Irishwomen led and organised by women, as Jennie Wyse Power would later remember, sought no small or partial objective, but a transformative set of demands, orientated around the protection, and indeed creation, of ‘home’ – home as a physical dwelling and shelter, home as a place of security and safety. In doing so, they redefined the very vision of what the wider national home could be, and what it should seek to be.
I do not wish to necessarily revisit the history of the Land War or the manner in which vast amounts of land was redistributed, through successive Land Acts, to those who were in many respects the most powerful of the tenant farmers, even as those in marginal lands or landless labourers continued what had become a familiar pattern of emigration.
Political economy does matter, the assumptions of differing versions of political economy feed policy. I would, like to reiterate a point I made during a lecture I gave at the University of Melbourne last October, where I reflected on the influence of Irish political economists in Australia and Ireland. It illustrates how an instrument can have different outcomes and be defined by historical setting. In the 1840s, an Irish disciple of the economist David Ricardo named Robert Torrens emigrated to the infant colony of South Australia, hoping to establish a ‘New Hibernia’ in the Southern oceans, populated by independent Irish farmers tilling small plots of land.
That plan failed as South Australia was instead caught up in a huge wave of land speculation as land grants issued by the colonial government were rapidly resold to such an extent that title disputes were endemic in the new colony. That crisis of ownership was resolved by Torrens’ eldest son, Robert Richard, through the introduction of the principle of registration by title, the defining feature of which is the indefeasibility of title given to the registered proprietor.
There is a moral and ethical point here – the Torrens system did not only constitute a means to resolve a temporary crisis of colonial speculation, but it constituted a legal technology of empire by which to extirpate any claim to title held by the first occupants of the land, who in turn, did not share any of the assumptions inherent in either common law ideas of property, whether legal or philosophical, or in the Torrens system. Land grants had been issued to colonial speculators on lands inhabited by the first peoples of Australia, and the Torrens system guaranteed their expropriation, despite the pledge to respect the ‘rights and enjoyments’ of the first occupants outlined in the Letters Patent authorising the colonisation of South Australia.
The great irony is that the Torrens system when extended to Ireland in 1891 in the context of the Land Acts of 1885, 1891, 1903 and 1909 which successively financed the purchase and transfer of the landlords’ interest in the land to their tenants. Even as the principle of title by registration was used to dispossess the first peoples of the colony of South Australia, it was used to reconstitute the property relations built over the long centuries of conquest in Ireland, severing the old ties to the land and delivering to Irish tenants unencumbered freehold title.
In Ireland, this represented a partial liberation from the past to enable something of the making of home, albeit one gradually in much part dominated by a new hegemonic grazier class.
In Australia, it heralded a total suppression of the past marking a subjugation of a concept of home to the new demands of industrial-era imperialism.
To return to the idea of the home as an immaterial reality, as that set of relationships between people and with place, we might gain an understanding of just how traumatic such a rupture and confiscation was, not just in Australia, but for all indigenous people.
In what areas are markets the appropriate, mechanism? On what terms should their presence be regulated? If housing is to be a right in what circumstances does it being a right call for protection, vindication, by the State? These are unavoidable moral questions. Standing behind our present debate on housing are all of those assumptions as to the role of the state, the status of essential needs versus property rights. For citizen choice policy options have to be transparent and evaluated in terms of the assumptions they make as to the role of the market and the state.
We are also forced to look once again at our own efforts in this country to utilise the idea of ‘home’. Those of you attending Catherine Corless’ talk later will recognise that for those placed in Mother and Baby homes, the ‘home’ constituted a place of incarceration, of loss, of retribution, even of invoked revenge for the breaking of an authoritarian version of birth, life, the family and society.
Returning to Gaston Bachelard’s idea of home as the site of intimacy and of safety, we must ask has not the ‘private home’, the household - that concept so prominent in the inheritance of Roman Law – has also been a place of oppressive gender relations, the most terrible manifestation of which is domestic abuse?
As to work itself, the more quotidian example is of course the distribution of domestic labour, and the double burden of working in the market economy and in the household still placed on women. In this present moment, it feels as if the women’s movement has been infused with a renewed vigour and authority, and so I am confident that we will continue to make progress by acknowledging the past and continuing to build a better future.
This university is fortunate I believe to host the Centre for Housing Law, Rights and Policy Research, whose work is so critical to enhancing our understanding of the housing system here in Ireland, and its complex relationship with international and European financial and monetary policy developments. The Centre is home to scholars who provide a comprehensive understanding of the role of housing, so may I quote Dr. Padraic Kenna, ‘[h]ousing addresses the basic need for human shelter, but also facilitates the essential human requirement for home’. I am obliged not to stray any further into the detail of housing policy in Ireland, not only for constitutional reasons but also because I am aware that Catriona has assembled an excellent panel to discuss housing this evening. I do, however, wish to make two more general observations at the level of principle.
First, that Dr. Kenna’s observation is absolutely vital – indeed, it is a moral truth that reflects the struggles in our history. Even as a residual or minimum response, the Land Acts were, after all, accompanied by a series of Labourers’ Acts which were passed, after concerted activism, to provide Exchequer subsidies to local authorities to construct new housing at fair rents for landless rural labourers in Ireland. Between 1883, the year of the first Labourers’ Act, and 1914, nearly 50,000 rural cottages were built by local authorities in Ireland, housing over a quarter of a million people.
We should not underestimate what a remarkable deviation from the laissez-faire verities of the day this represented, nor what a partial victory, however belated it was, for the more emancipatory elements of the Land League, even if the purpose of the costs of losing social cohesion was to be the driving motive, that and the need for labour. In Irish cities, local authorities were rather slower to make use of the Housing of Working Classes Acts, the urban counterpart of the Labourers Acts.
There was, of course, no legal right to ‘home’ recognised, but a moral right was asserted, and it was partially recognised. It was a recognition that home is something greater than shelter, not merely any temporary expedient. It is about the acquisition of the means to belong in community and to participate in society without shame as Amartya Sen might put it.
There is not, as yet, a justiciable right to home as housing in the Irish legal order, though I welcome previous discussions of the Convention on the Constitution on the possible incorporation of economic and social rights in our Constitution.
This is a debate that we urgently not only need to continue but be deepened by taking into account the work of Professor P.J. Drudy, Des Collins, Punch, and others as well as Dr. Kenna. Can and should we integrate the idea of the right to a home into our law and policy-making in a serious way?
If we recognise that housing is necessary for the creation of home in our society, we need to think seriously about all the constituent parts of our housing system. I use the term system deliberately, for the term housing market can obscure the massive and necessary role played by the state through fiscal, monetary or other policy areas, in all the various parts of the system, from planning to the financing of construction, to the design and regulation of construction itself, and to the various mechanisms by which occupation of a home is financed, whether it is through rent or by home purchase.
How many homes should be constructed every year? How should construction be financed? How should living spaces be designed? What mix of housing tenure do we collectively believe is appropriate? What kind of ownership structures, whether it be municipal, private or collective? Let us widen the debate and engage seriously with a full range of the policy answers to these questions, being willing to eschew any ideological obstacles to the widest possible range of policies.
Re-reading the White Paper on Housing published in 1964 is instructive – its historical review outlines how the State decided to embark on a massive house building programme in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression.
As a consequence, local authority homes constructed exceeded private construction for the fifteen years between 1933 to 1948. That was a public policy choice, and the State was clear about it, and clear and open in its objectives.
It was during that same period that the Swedish Social Democrats enunciated a remarkable political ideal, the folkhemmet, or, in English, the People’s Home. It is a phrase that contains within it the idea of a home as a political community and as a set of solidaristic relationships, not unlike in their period and setting the Irish ‘Clochán on Baile’ and it is one that, in its policy implementation, demanded, and continues to demand the provision of homes as a matter of right for all the people.
In this age of the Anthropocene I believe that not only that ideal of home as a political community committed to a rights-based vision of justice can be sustained, but that it must be sustained. To do so, however, our horizons cannot simply be confined to a single territorially-defined political community. We, all of us on this planet, share what Pope Francis has termed ‘our common home’, and, if we are to meet the challenges presented to this common home we are obliged to widen our perspective of home to encompass all the people of this earth.
For in the twenty-first century there can be no partial solidarity, whether national solidarity or European solidarity. We require now an international solidarity, shorn of national antagonisms, open and willing to co-operate where we can and sacrifice where we must.
or Europe, this may well be another century of the immigrant, a reversal of the great outflow to the New World and colonies experienced in the nineteenth century.
This is not only a moral or political argument, but a practical one. After all, birth rates are far below replacement levels across the European Union, and an ongoing necessity for immigration to support our economies in the Global North will continue to draw people to our shores.
Then too, given the current trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions, despite all the promises of the Paris Climate Agreement, there will also be millions of people seeking refuge from environmental degradation and the depletion of natural resources. Our capacity for solidarity will be tested, and it will be measured by our willingness to welcome those fleeing climate disaster, war, and persecution.
Many of the challenges we confront are those which test our capacity for, and willingness to engage in, collective deliberation to discern the common good, and collective action to achieve it.
The history of the indigenous peoples of the world is their testament to our human ability to forge collective conceptions of home, conceptions upon which collective institutions of government and governance can be built. Let us recall and draw on the best ideals available to us from our collective past, and let us imagine together a shared future for all the peoples of our common home.
Go raibh mile maith agaibh go léir.