Tell him he’s dreamin’: On the impossibility of home ownership

The Kerrigans’ Coolaroo château—with its lead-poisoned soil, towering powerlines and proximity to the airport—is a shithole. But it’s their shithole. Darryl, a family-oriented towtruck driver, is endearing in the same way as Kath and Kim are: they’re recognisable as archetypal Australian characters, embodying a familiar cultural cringe that one observes in others but rarely in oneself. They’re ‘bogans’. It’s remarkable that a word that marks someone out as being from a lower social class is a comment exclusively about their cultural sensibilities, completely divorced from their material status (‘cashed-up bogans’ are still ‘bogans’, after all). So, while the Keerigans may not be rich, they’re recognisably lower class. And yet, in addition to their Coolaroo home they also have a holiday retreat in Bonnie Doon, where they keep their boat (well, dinghy).

This perverse conception of class politics has contributed to the lack of urgency and alarm about the current housing crisis; if class affiliations form along cultural lines, the divide between the propertied and the unpropertied is obscured. But this illusion only survives if the unpropertied believe homeownership is obtainable; once this becomes impossible to imagine, it’s hard to avoid the reality of one’s own status as a permanent member of the underclass, regardless of one’s cultural sensibilities. 

For the generations systematically locked out of homeownership, Darryl’s abiding belief that a man’s home is his castle is a meaningless cliché. Castles are fortified—they can’t simply be taken. A rental property can never be a castle for the renter because there is always the looming prospect of having to hand it back to the landlord. But this is the prospect many young people now face. In 1997, when The Castle was released, the median Melbourne house price was $177,500. It’s now over $1 million. Wages, needless to say, haven’t risen at anything like the same rate. 

Those who were lucky enough to own property before prices boomed have lined their pockets, allowing them, in some instances, to acquire multiple castles and establish their own fiefdoms. While those who weren’t—many by virtue of having not yet been born—are forced to choose between the insecurity of the rental market or, if they can scrounge up enough money for a deposit, perpetual indebtedness.   

There is a too often unacknowledged freedom that comes with homeownership. Owning one’s home provides certainty, stability and rootedness. When Simone Weil wrote that ‘To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul’ she was thinking explicitly about private ownership of one’s home, which—along with a strong public sector—she considered a precondition of freedom. The certainty that it permits provides the opportunity for human flourishing—the possibility to build meaningful communities safe in the knowledge that one won’t be evicted or pursued by debt collectors. The corollary, of course, is that a society that permits landlordism is, by its very nature, un-free and unjust.

Weil understood that spiritual and material freedom are entwined; this has been corrupted by those who imbue the market with a kind of divine power, unable to be fully understood, but a force one ought to surrender to nonetheless. One of Australia’s chief proponents of this theology is the Liberal MP Tim Wilson, who’s recently been campaigning to allow young Australians to dip into their superannuation to buy their first home. While the forced financialisation of personal savings is replete with its own problems, this ‘solution’ would only further drive up property prices, widen the divide between rich and poor, and condemn those who can take it up into another form of un-freedom—a kind of debt bondage. An existence, in other words, subsumed by the need to service one’s mortgage.

For most people, servicing this debt means engaging in waged labour and, obviously, the larger the debt the longer it takes to pay off. Under these conditions, meaningful freedom can never be realised. In This Life, Martin Hägglund echoes Weil in arguing that this isn’t just an economic issue but also a spiritual one:

The exercise of our spiritual freedom depends both on material conditions of production and social relations of recognition. Insofar as we spend our time working a job that is not fulfilling but merely serves as a means for our survival, our labor time is unfree, since we cannot affirm that what we do is an expression of who we are. Instead of being free to engage the question of what makes our life worth living—the question of what we ought to do with our time—our lives are mortgaged to a form of labor that is required for our survival. To live a free life, it is not enough that we have the right to freedom. We must have access to the material resources as well as the forms of education that allow us to pursue our freedom and to ‘own’ the question of what to do with our time.

Debt acts as a constraint on the pursuit of freedom; the importance Hägglund places on ‘forms of education’ is noteworthy because education is indicative of how a kind of market fundamentalism has corroded contemporary society. Education isn’t, of course, restricted to formal institutions. However, the fact that tertiary education used to be seen as an investment in the future—a cost borne by the state in the knowledge that, over time, it would be paid back in the form of productive labour—whereas now it’s a cost borne by the student (who, upon graduation, enters the labour market already indebted) represents a significant cultural shift. It also normalises debt and indebtedness. As is so often the case with money, it reduces something that’s morally problematic to a matter of impersonal arithmetic.

Beyond the fact that the burden will disproportionately be borne by young people, a society built on an edifice in which debt is widely accepted and forced upon people is not only potentially unstable both financially and socially, it’s also ethically problematic. And Australia has one of the highest rates of household debt in the world.

Monetary debts, David Graeber writes, reduce complex social interactions into a simplified, universally recognised number and, in so doing, legitimise violence and exploitation. Informal credit-debit arrangements have always existed between trusted parties (as they do today when, say, you agree to buy the first round based on the unspoken understanding that your drinking companion will get the next), but the inception of money, which is essentially an IOU, allowed these arrangements to be extended to parties who neither knew nor trusted one another. Therefore, there needed to be some guarantee that the debt would be paid—and that guarantee is always implicitly or explicitly coercive, as Graeber shows:

The difference between a ‘debt’ and a mere moral obligation is not the presence or absence of men with weapons who can enforce that obligation by seizing the debtor’s possessions or threatening to break his legs. It is simply that a creditor has the means to specify, numerically, exactly how much the debtor owes. […] However, when one looks a little closer, one discovers that these two elements—the violence and the quantification—are intimately linked. In fact it’s impossible to find one without the other.

This has always been true, but it’s not always immediately apparent—even when one has to go into debt to achieve a life that goes beyond mere survival. Even when a basic human need has become the defining marker of inequality in this country.

It’s common to list the policy failures that have led to the current state of affairs; to point out that the property market has been artificially driven up—championed by those who claim that the market is free—by tax concessions and rent-seeking schemes that disproportionately favour the owners of capital. But the more significant failure is a moral one. That people can own multiple homes while others go homeless is wrong—it’s a social and economic failure. 

Perhaps The Castle’s biggest lie is that Darryl—out of naivety or perhaps an innate sense of justice—thinks he can take his case to the High Court and win. And, inexplicably, he does. Today, the same forces that have made homeownership unattainable for many have also led to a widespread loss of faith in institutions. There’s a pervading sense, especially among young people, not just that we’ve been let down by those in power but that we’ve been betrayed by them. They promised us that their vision would make the world a better place, but it hasn’t; it’s made it much worse.

Houses cannot provide a place of rootedness in an increasingly ungrounded world if they are primarily used for financial speculation or rent-seeking. In other words, under these circumstances, houses cannot be homes—let alone castles.

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Tim Robertson

Tim Robertson is an independent journalist and writer. He tweets (occasionally) @timrobertson12

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This article is an excellent complement to Housing Policy in Australia: A Case for System Reform by Hal Pawson, Vivienne Milligan and Judith Yates (Palgrave Macmillan 2020). Perhaps ‘complement’ is not the right word; Robertson says what Pawson et al left unsaid, perhaps in the name of some kind of misconceived academic ‘objectivity’. See my website for my ‘Housing Heist’.

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