Over the last month, strong attention in Irish public debate has concerned the dramatically deteriorating housing conditions of an increasing number of people in the country, especially in the main cities. Launched by a variegated network of activists and groups, the Home Sweet Home campaign has been centred around the occupation of a vacant building owned by NAMA in the city centre of Dublin to give a shelter to homeless people who experience on a daily basis the serious lacks of the Irish welfare system in relation to housing. Solidarity towards the campaign has rapidly spread in the city (with more than a thousand of people volunteering in the project) and all around the country. I here do not want to account for the actions and strategies occurred up to last week when the building was evacuated following a court’s injunction; my aim is to stress the political importance of the Home Sweet Home campaign since it brought back direct action in Irish political arena.
The main political aim of Home Sweet Home is to give a grassroots-led response to the “housing crisis”, an idea full of political ambivalence. In fact the “housing crisis” has been recently invoked and used by the Irish government to support new supply-centred measures, thus guaranteeing conspicuous profits for developers. However such specious rhetoric collides with the material constraints of thousands of households who struggle to pay the rent or are in arrears with their mortgage; quoting David Madden and Peter Marcuse, we see how “the state of their housing is critical indeed” (2016: 11). So the direct action promoted by the Home Sweet Home campaign represents a response by those whose lives are severely conditioned by the “housing crisis”.
Direct action in housing through squatting vacant buildings is a long-standing political practice in Europe which has been traditionally associated by social and political scientists to several positive consequences for transformative politics, such as the experience of direct-democratic decision-making, and the prefiguration of another mode of organizing society through the challenge of private property rights and the power of making profit (exchange value) over material needs (use value). More recently the squatting of vacant buildings has re-appeared in southern Europe (where is has a strong social and political tradition), notably in Italy and Spain.
Spain represents a particularly relevant case for the Irish audience since the events leading to the “housing crisis” there echo what happened in Ireland with the boom and the burst of the bubble. Following a massive wave of evictions and foreclosures (made easy by a very punitive mortgage law) all around Spain, “mortgaged lives” (to quote the powerful concept introduced in a text edited by the current mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, a former spokesman of the PAH) soon started to organize to give a response to such a dramatic trend: the Plataforma de los Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH) was created in Barcelona in 2009 and rapidly spread all around the Spanish country (currently counting more than 200 nodes).
For sure one of the main strategies leading to the success of the PAH has been its ability to cope with difference both in terms of people involved and repertoire of action, combining practices borrowed from anticapitalist/radical autonomy (e.g squatting of vacant buildings owned by financial institutions) with reformist practices (e.g. negotiating with banks, appealing the Spanish mortgage law in courts). Urban scholar Sophie Gonick has defined this encounter between different visions/perspectives realized by the PAH as agonistic engagement. Here the point is not to review all the different strategies and successes of the PAH, but emphasize how such agonistic engagement (deeply embedded in direct action in the form of blocking evictions or occupying buildings) has determined a double shift:
– in public discourse/popular narratives around the housing crisis, challenging those discourses/narratives blaming evicted/foreclosed people as irresponsible;
– in the material living conditions of thousands of people who got their eviction blocked or obtained new social housing agreements thanks to the direct action of the PAH.
While I do not believe in the possibility of simply imitating/replicating what done by the PAH because it is the result of contextual factors and practices, I think it is important to keep it as a source of inspiration and reference for a campaign such as Home Sweet Home and for all those activists who struggle everyday for a more inclusive and equal system in which basic needs/rights (like housing) are acknowledged and defended.
Direct action like the re-appropriation of a vacant building destined to real estate speculation and private profit is important because it sheds lights on the political possibilities that we have here right now: while formal institutions are completely trapped in market/profit-centred measures/rationalities and some critical voices continue to call for a massive public intervention in the housing sector through new social housing construction, Home Sweet Home has unveiled another political possibility centred around re-appropriation, people’s engagement and the opposition to the power of non-transparent institutions serving private profit instead of promoting public wealth.
Of course the path initiated by Home Sweet Home is still new and will have to face a massive resistance from the part of conservative institutions (and the legal system developed to serve the interests of those in power and preserve the status quo). However direct action is able to create among those involved a passionate awareness and hope in the possibility of change, shaping new political subjects who do not see themselves anymore as passive receipts of the decisions made over their lives but are ready to create new worlds centred around solidarity, inclusion, respect, redistribution and mutual care.
Cesare Di Feliciantonio
Cesare Di Feliciantonio is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Geography Trinity College Dublin. His work lies at the intersection of social/urban geography, political economy, housing studies and urban studies with a focus on neoliberal subjectification and its contestations.