Housing forms a vital part of everyday life under capitalism, as argued in my new book Urban Displacements. It is a place where people prepare their meals, eat, sleep, entertain friends and family, enjoy solace from the outside world, and often work. For many, however, the security and stability of a home is a distant fantasy. A growing number of working poor face a vicious cycle of overindebtedness, evictions and homelessness – a condition I call displaced survival. These dislocations have been particularly acute in urban spaces across the globe. Even in the European Union (EU), with its relatively higher levels of social protection than other regions, there has been a rising number of impoverished households that are compelled to turn to consumer loans and/or to go without food, heat or transportation in order to pay for housing. Rental dwellings, which encompass both social housing and the private rental sector (PRS), are at the heart of these dynamics. Many of Europe’s urban poor depend on these rental dwellings yet have been subject to displacement from them with growing frequency over the past two decades. Why?
Disrupting the Housing Crisis
The notion of the housing crisis has often been invoked to explain growing levels of displacements, especially in the wake of the 2007/08 financial crisis and subsequent rounds of austerity. While these events have undoubtedly intensified displaced survival, they do not explain how or why this reality has continued apace for well over twenty years.
Instead of seeing crisis (be it a financial, a refugee or a housing crisis) as just rupture and disorder, we would do well to grasp how they also yield order in contemporary capitalism, as argued by David Harvey in The Limits to Capital. The following quote furnished by the Irish Housing Minister in 2017 – at the time, the pinnacle of its first-time homeless families – captures such an attempt at yielding order:
Our housing crisis is completely normal. Every country in Europe has equivalent issues in terms of affordability, in terms of homelessness, in terms of the appropriateness of the mix.
My book lays bare these social orders and rationalities of global capitalism with the aim of comprehending the everyday violence of insecurity and marginalization experienced by the urban poor, especially along racial, gendered and class lines. I do so in two ways. First, I draw on an interdisciplinary approach (historical-geographical materialism) based on insights from a variety of critical framings ranging from urban geography to feminist political economy. Second, I deploy detailed empirical case studies of the eurozone and urban geographies – Berlin, Dublin and Vienna.
Through these case studies, I make legible the class, racial and gendered nature of global capitalism under the dominance of finance that has led to growing levels of housing precarity among urban residents across three key cities in the eurozone. For instance, Berlin, as the capital of the most powerful country in the EU, has been experiencing increasing levels of urban displacement since the early 2000s. Even the world’s housing prototype, Vienna, has rising levels of housing exclusions. And, despite recording some of the highest growth rates in the EU, Dublin continues to register extreme levels of homelessness and market inequalities with respect to housing access.
Through a comparative analysis of these three cases, I argue that historical and geographical configurations of monetized power have served to reproduce displaced survival by silencing its gendered, class and racialized underpinnings. I reveal that the main beneficiaries of this constructed, albeit incomplete and contradictory, reality have been landlords (public and private), creditors and employers, who prosper at the expense of the growing number of people who have been relegated to everyday lives of displaced survival. By exploring capitalist state control over social power of money (social surplus), I reveal how various forms of monetized governance – including debtfare – deployed at multiple scales (regional, national and urban) has served to discipline the displaced whilst disappearing and depoliticizing the structural violence inherent to urban dislocations. The outcome has been the facilitation and normalization of the everyday violence of displaced survival, on the one hand, and expanded capital accumulation dominated by credit-based transactions, on the other.
Social Orders of Surplus and Scarcity
As noted earlier, a sad marker of global capitalism is that it has yielded spectacular amounts of surplus wealth for the few, alongside a scarcity of jobs offering living wages and/or employment security for the majority. The recent COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the importance of low-wage essential workers in keeping cities running, including long-term care workers, cleaners, grocery clerks, taxi drivers, delivery agents and so forth. Although essential to contemporary capitalism, these workers are also rendered expendable that they neither possess job security nor are paid living or adequate social wages. Indeed, even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, these disruptions seem to be steadily growing in scope and intensity along class, race and gender lines.
In the book, I investigate how surplus (people, money) and scarcity (social surplus) are simultaneously produced and governed across various spaces. Put another way, I set out to understand how and why those workers made disposable in global capitalism have been compelled to survive in the face of displacements. And, just as importantly, I seek to grasp how everyday life of insecurity has become normalized through new rationalities and social orderings, including hierarchies and fragmentations often along racialized and gendered lines. In Neukölln, one of Berlin’s poorest boroughs, migrants and low-income Germans with migrant backgrounds have been represented as non-integrating foreigners, with refugees currently at the forefront of exclusionary practices. In Vienna, non-native Austrian residents were excluded from the city’s famed social housing until 2006. Since this time, racialized migrants continue to find it difficult to access social housing units in Vienna. Meanwhile, in Dublin, a key demographic of those expulsed from rental housing has been families headed by single-parents, primarily women.
In all, Urban Displacements is much more than a book about housing. Instead, it seeks to explain why the powerless continue to have no place of security and stability in contemporary capitalism.