The philosopher’s dogbox

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by Damon Young on August 31, 2015

My grandmother is a homeowner. This fact seems banal in Australia, as two thirds of households have mortgages or own their homes outright. But for my grandmother, real estate is more than cash from a bank to a vendor. It is an identity. Property affords a superior self, exemplifying trust, enterprise, and freedom.

A child of the depression, one of my grandmother’s favourite slurs is “bludger”: a shirker, an idler. It echoes the property equivalent: renter. To lease a home, in this universe, is to be capricious, lazy, and vulnerable. And the last is like a cosmic punishment, to be pushed around by landlords is the penalty for sloth. Those who lose the housing game often end up in flats or apartments, what my grandmother calls a ‘dogbox’.

Her esteem for the real estate market is chiefly generational. My grandmother made her first money playing and teaching piano, buying a house in her early twenties. The big band era of live music coincided with her youth and young adulthood, and gave security to an otherwise precarious vocation. More importantly, it was also an age when land and housing were cheaper. In fact, she purchased her first house during the war, when, as researcher Nigel Stapledon notes, price controls kept costs artificially low. Later, my grandmother paid off a second home as a small business owner and single mother. For her, this was a simple equation: steady work plus scrimping equalled assets.

Costly kennels

Now, the numbers do not add up. As in the United States and UK, real estate prices in Australia have grown steadily in the last four decades, with greater rises after the nineties. But wages have not kept up. Housing snatches more from wallets, and jobs are often shakier: casual or contractual. Reports from the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) reveal that poorer homeowners are buying later, if at all. They suffer more housing stress, and this can worsen as they age, the debt swelling well into retirement.

Many buy in regional areas, but these can have sparse infrastructure, long commutes, and stingy equity. These homeowners become “trapped in space”, as AHURI puts it, next to wealthier citizens. Some couples are putting off parenthood in order to purchase their plots. The point is not that owning property is impossible, but that it now asks for greater sacrifices in years, cash, waking hours, health, and family.

Many cannot afford mortgages at all – including, to my grandmother’s alarm, my wife and myself. Part of a general trend of falling home ownership, we will never be that couple on bank advertisements, beaming after bidding. We rent, and we keep shifting as high turnover and prices force us from house to unit, suburb to suburb. And we are now competing with wealthier renters, whose accounts are fat enough for leasing but not for buying. Even with discipline and austerity, virtues my grandmother rightly lauds, we will not be rewarded with her three bedrooms, red bricks, and hydrangea borders. We live well, but our two bedrooms and tiny courtyard are that bestial symbol of failure: the dogbox. (A kennel that costs almost half our household earnings, after tax.) My grandmother’s mantra – work hard, save cannily and own early – is sadly anachronistic.

Requiem for a Platonic dream

What might become of this view, which links ownership with responsibility and drive? For those struggling mortgagees, virtue is uncoupled from reward. Someone can be diligent in the office and cautious with cash, yet still suffer from the market’s flux.

In some cases, this might prompt reflection on a broader Aristotelian point: good character is no defence against the precariousness of existence. As Martha Nussbaum notes in The Fragility of Goodness, Aristotle recognised that many of life’s goods require vulnerability, and the earlier Platonic dream of a life without risk or change is literally inhuman.

Even for the well-heeled, much that is worthwhile in life – friendship and family, for example – brings with it the chance of horror and grief. No amount of data or prudence can guarantee freedom from suffering – in fact, sometimes this very susceptibility gives existence its preciousness. Nussbaum puts it this way, after a careful and sensitive reading of Euripides’ play Hecuba:

“There is a beauty in the willingness to love someone in the face of love’s instability and worldliness that is absent from a completely trustworthy love. There is a certain valuable quality in social virtue that is lost when social virtue is removed from the domain of uncontrolled happenings.”

The current market provides an opportunity for homeowners to reflect on this conclusion. Importantly, this is no argument for regressive policy, punishing the poor for lacking wherewithal and connections. On the contrary, the ‘fragility of goodness’ can justify social reform. Uncertainty is everywhere, but not everyone has the resources to avoid harm.

Becoming less stupid

Renting and its angst can prompt the same Aristotelian idea: despite two jobs and care with pennies, uncertainty and unsteadiness are our lot. This is partly a historical development. What geographer David Harvey calls “the condition of postmodernity” is a global tendency toward volatility and polarisation, which encourages speed and flexibility in the interests of profit, not wellbeing. This applies to the rental market, and the jobs with which we pay for it. But it also reflects Nussbaum’s point about the tenuous relationship between character and fate, and the naïvety of believing that psychological steadiness secures the self. Virtues can protect us from some ills, but not all – goodness is no defence against all threats, and in some cases it actually requires jeopardy.

Another notion emerges out of the gap between real estate and identity: the artifice of property itself. For many, ownership is existentially supportive. The mortgagee is not simply someone who has a house – she is an owner, with all the conscientiousness and safety this suggests.

And this selfhood is also bolstered against its shadow: the renter, whose unreliability and untrustworthiness bring about deserved unhappiness. Property has all the solidity of nature itself: ownership is part of the order of things.

But this tradition hides a more complicated illusion. As Marx notes in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, property distorts human possibilities:

“Private property has made us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours when we have it – when it exists for us as capital, or when it is directly possessed, eaten, drunk, worn, inhabited, etc., – in short, when it is used by us.”

For Marx, property is seen in two ways: as my labour, something inside of me which I sell to my boss; and as capital, something outside of me, which I get for labour (mine or someone else’s). But each of these is only one alienated part of a whole, which is humanity itself – what Marx calls our “species being”. What belongs to us is not simply this commodity or that asset, but our basic creativity: the ways in which we develop in history, by transforming nature and ourselves. Marx suggests that private property, even when a bargain, is selling our existence short.

In this light, renting might help to make some less stupid, in Marx’s sense. When we no longer identify as owners – successful or failed, canny or imprudent – we are one step away from this emphasis on having.

Yes, we still use our homes, chiefly to stay alive, rested and sane for tomorrow’s toil. “The life which they serve as means is the life of private property,” Marx wrote, “ – labour and conversion into capital”. And we are thronged by things to buy: the latest must-have, soon-to-be passé brands, for example. There is no simple escape from capitalism. But for many, the mortgage is the chief purchase of their lifetimes – the property that justifies drudgery and symbolises superiority.

Without the illustrious dream of purchase, property can lose its enchantment. If we are not labouring for the mortgage, what is the point? Perhaps there is more to life than debt, compliance, and competition.

Marx’s answers to these questions are not final – they are, if anything, a little too sanguine about the human condition. But as reflections on property, they goad an uneasy conscience. As my grandmother’s proud home-owning retirement becomes a nostalgic fantasy, some might discover a more profound loss: the common human potency that makes property possible.

From the ‘property’ edition of New Philosopher magazine, if you’d like to support the magazine and receive the quarterly print edition click here to subscribe now.

Erratum: the version published in the print edition erroneously included the words “Interest to go long” as the final sentence.

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