Housing: Asset Or Necessity? Disobedience May Define It, Along With The Future of Capitalism

Arial View of Okland with the sun setting behind buildings
Oakland photo by Doug Letterman is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Oakland at sunset. Sunset for capitalism, too?

Two homeless mothers together with children have occupied an empty house in Oakland, California. Currently, there is more housing held empty by investors speculating in Oakland than there are homeless people who need housing. And yet governments — those democratic bulwarks of modern capitalist society — seem helpless to address inequities like these that have a growing impact on communities, regions and nations.

Since the reality of capitalist ownership seems to forever trump a human need for shelter, unpermitted occupation of housing owned by someone else is wrong. Whether that wrongness is criminal or merely damaging to the owner, those four women will face retribution if they persist in their occupation.

How do you punish those who have nothing?

Will growing lawlessness by occupiers, or retribution against them become the flaw that brings down capitalism?

Why on earth should it?

Marx, a classical economist, was guilty of what is considered a sin in many modern democracies: he proposed that capitalism appeared to have built-in instabilities that might one day cause it to fail.

Marx never proposed killing capitalism — that was eagerly pursued by other ‘isms,’ many of which were swallowed by communism in its push for global political dominance.

But if Marx was correct, it ultimately doesn’t matter whether capitalism forever continues to defend itself against other hostile ‘isms’. Its own inherent flaws will bring it down.

So why now?

The commodification of human necessities — in particular shelter1 — is contributing to  a toxic social climate that even worries some billionaires who have achieved the pinnacle of capitalist success.2

The concern that capitalism is approaching the end of its useful life is hardly restricted to billionaires. It is increasingly a topic of political conversation.3

Berlin in Germany has already seen widespread occupations of empty buildings.4

If the housing crises blossoming everywhere are not addressed, the lawlessness will only spread.

And if capitalism can actually survive the loss of human shelter to financial speculation, can it survive the repression needed to contain protests against the loss of this basic human need?

In the US, that would be the extension of Gulag America: concentration camps to corral those who sin by being (or wanting to be) an American citizen, though they own nothing, not even shelter. Needless to say, the precedent for such camps already exists and could be easily expanded5.

The rumblings from Washington that focussed recently  on California’s homeless population suggest that punishing the victims will be more convenient than addressing the thorny problem of commodified housing6.

Is private jailing — the commodification of incarceration and already the product of several federal administrations — any more likely to preserve the capitalist system with its apparently flawed foundations already shaking?

Read more about the plight of four homeless mothers in Vice: The Homeless Moms Who Took Over a Vacant Oakland Home Say They Aren’t Going Anywhere


  1. Unfamiliar with the term ‘commodification of housing?’ It’s coming more and more into general use. For a definition and some understanding of the problem, dip at least a few paragraphs into the following article in OpenCanada: Five Questions With… The UN Special Rapporteur On The Right To Housing, Leilani Farha
  2. Try this article in The Seattle Times: Billionaires Are Worried About Capitalism — They Should Look In A Mirror
  3. For an example, try this article in The Nation: Capitalism Is Broken. It’s Time For Something New
  4. To find out more about what happened there, try: Berlin Local Government Tackles City Affordable Housing Crisis
  5. Try this current article in Common Dreams: ‘Inhumane’: US Border Officials Deny Request by Doctors to Administer Free Flu Vaccine to Detained Migrants
  6. For a catalogue of ugly possibilities, try this article in CURBED: Trump’s New Homeless Czar A ‘Real-Life Horror,’ Say Housing Advocates