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Can Housing Struggles —> Ecosocialism?

by Anitra Nelson on March 13, 2018

The ‘housing question’ to which Engels famously contributed and that raged in the 1870s in Germany, has returned, especially in global cities, such as Sydney and Melbourne. Such challenges are often framed as ‘unmet demand’ with calls to stimulate housing supply yet price trends are more complicated than simple scarcity of housing in an era marked by a significant number of empty dwellings.

Last century households shrank from 4.5 to roughly 2.5 people per dwelling in Australia as the average size of new dwellings grew to break international records. Housing reflects, and creates space for, over-consumption. Growing indebtedness and consumption force us to become more integrated within, and therefore to perpetuate, capitalism. Competing for rentals and homes is commonplace.

Commodification and financialisation of the housing market triggered the global financial crisis and contributes to the global environmental crisis of which climate change is just the tip of the iceberg. Buildings contribute around 30 percent of world carbon emissions. The housing crisis is a multi-headed monster.

Left responses

Left responses include more public or social housing, regulated rents, shelters for the homeless, taxes on empty buildings and banning foreign investment in housing (Madden and Marcuse 2016, 200). Instead, I advocate ecosocialist principles for, and ideal types of, housing and various anti-capitalist strategies for achieving them. Ecosocialists focus on meeting our needs fairly and sustainably within the limits of Earth’s regenerative capacity — replacing individualistic, bourgeois society with a collective and creative sense of humanity.

In practice, permaculture, degrowth and simple living movements have used alternative housing and household practices as strategies for, and illustrations of, post-capitalist economic and political relationships. As such, Australian permaculture co-originator David Holmgren (2017, 2108) has argued that such strategies marry social with environmental solutions, and everyday means with revolutionary ends.

A main aim of Small is Necessary: Shared Living on a Shared Planet — just published by Pluto Press (London) — is to show that struggling for affordable and environmentally sustainable housing can cradle grassroots governance, collective sustainability and one planet footprints. ‘Collaborative housing’ models discussed range from shared households, dwellings and land co-owned by three or more non-related people to cohousing in numerous attached dwellings and apartments, and ecovillages that include productive farming to achieve substantial collective sufficiency. Cases of ‘eco-collaborative housing’ drawn on include housing solutions realised by activists, such as squatters in Berlin and Barcelona.

Eco-collaborative housing and self-management

Small Is Necessary interrogates dwelling size historically and the future significance of ‘eco-collaborative’ housing. Characterised by sharing resources, spaces and skills and by collective governance — collaborative housing develops precisely those values, skills and relationships one would expect to proliferate in ecosocialism. Eco-collaborative housing, incorporating low impact living, can be considered a transformative hybrid, trialling and demonstrating viable post-capitalist futures.

Low impact living aims to create a relatively seamless inhabitation of land and water to minimally disturb natural landscapes. Based on varying levels of collective sufficiency, self-management, environmental and social values, developments typically use permaculture and do-it-ourselves mutual support, moving beyond housing to embrace livelihoods. Examples I focus on are about actively housing ourselves rather than relying on governments or developers to provide housing. Beyond the right to housing, a right to the city and a right to environmental justice, this is about a right for us to act in our own interests, in solidarity and collectively.

Eco-collaborative and low impact living

Both eco-cohousing and ecovillages economise on personal space in modest private dwellings to the benefit of well-used communal spaces and facilities. A cohousing project might have, say, 25 attached and small private dwellings with a common house with a big kitchen, function and guest rooms, common laundry and workshops. Earthsong Eco-Neighbourhood (New Zealand) has 32 dwellings whose households share just 4 lawnmowers. Like the best eco-collaborative models, they share open space with the local neighbourhood community, run outreach environmental education programs and campaign locally for more ecologically-friendly suburbs.

Both cohousing and ecovillages involve participatory design, so residents have a much greater say in floor planning, style and the materiality of their dwellings than normal. They have more opportunities for self-building, other forms of sweat-equity and co-financing — making housing more affordable. Cohousing and ecovillages develop neighbourhood governance principles and processes that build personal and collective skills in grassroots democracy and consensual decision-making. Self-management enables and encourages residents to be more environmentally sustainable. I argue that all these socio-political skills in co-governance will be critical in creating not only sustainable neighbourhoods but also socialist futures.

The most inspiring cases are housing solutions with utopian drivers and outcomes dreamed up and realised by activists, such as the rural Twin Oaks (United States) that strives for collective sufficiency, and the cultural, community and sustainability based ufaFabrik (Berlin). Such grassroots groups unite in Occupy! style to form, typically ecovillages, independent of the state and market — drawing on rich socialist, feminist and anarchist traditions but with a contemporary concern to address climate change through radical innovations, frugal and convivial living. They have formed communities that point towards the ‘community-based mode of production’ referred to by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano.

Calafou was established by 30 or so ex-squatters who successfully sought a collective loan to create an ‘eco-industrial post-capitalist colony’, a peri-urban ecovillage. Ecovillages can be as large as thousands of residents and as long-standing as Christiania, the semi-autonomous Freetown of Copenhagen. Many, like the income-sharing Twin Oaks have around 90–100 residents.

Twin Oakers are around, say 80 percent, collectively sufficient and, thus, independent of the market. As a non-market socialist I argue that collective living makes substantial gains in as much as large households and neighbourhood communities of households are collectively sufficient and focus on social and environmental values rather than monetary values. Twin Oakers all contribute to their general product and take what they need from it. You can even earn work credits for some campaigning!


Now — when many leftists are depressed about the proliferation of single issue and identity politics — Small is Necessary shows that actively pursuing affordable and sustainable housing can incorporate a revolutionary focus. Some cases analysed even show that when people are actively involved in creating sustainable housing collectively, ipso facto, they become ecosocialists with grounded skills and knowledge for a post-capitalist future.

Anitra Nelson
Anitra Nelson is an activist-scholar and Associate Professor at RMIT University’s Centre for Urban Research, author of Marx’s Concept of Money: The God of Commodities (1999), co-editor of Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies (2011), and her Small Is Necessary: Shared Living on a Shared Planet was published by Pluto Press (London) in January 2018.

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