Ireland and Its Discontents: On the “Homelessness Crisis”

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t is saddening and disheartening to hear of the homeless dying on the street, or the dozens of stories of individuals or families on the verge of, or having already gone over, the brink of utter destitution, either in seeking emergency accommodation or in joining the ranks of “rough sleepers.” The oft-cited figure reiterated in numerous editorials from the end of 2017 was at least 5000 adults and 3000 children currently being housed in emergency accommodation. As of January of 2018, one sees the number up to an estimated minimum of 9000. It is nothing new, except to those who momentarily enjoyed the artificial glut of the “Celtic Tiger” — cruel landlords, evictions, and resulting homelessness and destitution has been something of a morbid Irish tradition for a few centuries now. Familiarity, particularly for this, certainly breeds contempt.
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But that contempt is not exclusively reserved for the “authorities” to whom fingers are pointed in blame. Certainly, there is an unredeemable guilt on their part. Equally souring, however, is the backwash that often accompanies the rhetoric of the people’s self-proclaimed champions, of the media commentators who, if saying any sort of political statement at all, invariably demand that the “government” get their act together, solve the situation, fix the system, build more houses, whatever else. The intentions are often well-meaning — but we can well quote Oscar Wilde to remind ourselves that “good intentions have been the ruin of the world,” or at least have helped very little. Less cryptically, the homelessness crisis, as many of the other social crises that have plagued Éire regularly ever since the solidification of British rule over it, runs far deeper than the bungling of one party or another, and it is much the same sorts of problems faced by other colonial states the world over, to greater or lesser degrees. Those who do not strike at these roots may be well-meaning, but are doomed to merely watch history repeat itself despite their efforts.

The government doesn’t need to get their act together, plain and simple. Time and again, regardless of the regime, they have proven their utter incompetence when it comes to social well-being, but not as a result of a failing on the part of the officials involved. Simply, that is how a modern “state” functions, especially in its most recent, neoliberal incarnate. Here, it is necessary to give some basic definition of what is referred to by a “state.” My preferred definition, a la Nietzsche, is:
the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies also; and this lie creeps forth from its mouth: “I, the state, am the people!

In elaboration, we may refer to Pierre Clastres, the preeminent but quite controversial anthropologist/ethnographer of the Amazon, and his definition of a state. A State is a distinctive, administrative organ which effectively exercises power — that is, coercion and a demand for obeisance — over the rest of society. It is those who command, the High, the elite, the government, those who dominate; while the rest, and the greater bulk of the society, are those who obey, the Low, the commoner, poor man, the dominated. Some States are kinder, others are crueler — but at its heart it remains a “divided society,” of which a smaller portion is expected to subjugate all others to their will and interest. When that will and interest is of the capitalist or neoliberal variety — a vested obsession in the generation of capital via the exploitation, as one may, of both human and natural “resources” — over a society which has likewise, by and large, come to cherish the pursuit of capitalist consumerism, then one has on their hands a State that no longer has to make much pretensions or pretext that it exists for anything other than the administration and refinement of power — their power, over all others.

It is no more a failing of any one party as it is of the inherent inequity of the modern State and the dominant cultural forms of Ireland today — and indeed, much of the modern West — that replicates individuals prone to using and abusing others without much forethought, as a matter of course, for their own elevation.  Such a State does not, and will not care how harsh their domination is to their subjects, unless their power and dominion is threatened; at which point, they might, graciously (and perhaps through coercion by greater State powers on the global scene, be they public — “governments” — or private — corporations), throw their baying hounds a bone so that they quieten down, and/or else brutally-suppress dissent. Then they will go about their merry, usual way of walking over the backs of everyone to keep themselves out of the muck, no matter how unbearable the crush becomes for those beneath.

The health of society is anathema to the nature of such a state, for a remotely-healthy society would not require its existence. And here we might make a further Clastrean distinction to begin to scrape the surface away over the depth of this casual assertion, that healthy societies do not and necessarily cannot have a State, and, when present, the degree to which a State can effectively exercise and consolidate power is a measure of just how diseased the society has become. As briefly noted, the dominated, the commoners, are invariably the bulk of the society — i.e. you will never have more rulers than you will the ruled, and from it, we get the common symbolism of hierarchical social structure being a pyramid, with the wide base being the majority, and those to whom they support and who in turn inversely exercise authority over them narrowing until one reaches the pinnacle of authority, be that authority an Emperor or an exclusive and tiny oligarchy. We might, from this, be able to justifiably call this subjugated mass Society, emphatically, for they are not only the overwhelming bulk before a vanishingly small elite, but they also can exist, govern their own affairs, and have existed in times past, without the presence of a State.

If Society can function without a State, then what does a State do? The answer can be quite complex — and certainly opinionated — but by and large, if we accept the State is unnecessary, then we can say, if nothing else, that the State exists only to exist, to preserve and perpetuate itself, and in order to do this, it must parasitise, exert itself over Society — it serves only its own interests, and only by happy accident might it occasionally benefit the Society it subjugates. Anything it can get away with, it will, any walk through history will show you, if it means enhancing their own wealth and status. We need not even go back 200 years to see this exemplified in one of the most grotesquely-cruel displays of the self-serving but ingrained “incompetence” of the State, in An Gorta Mór, the “Great Hunger” which starved to death over a million people and which caused millions more to flee the country or die. It hardly matters that it was “British” rule — the State structure remains, by and large, fundamentally Anglican, modelled after the government of the former colonisers with only the barest lip service to a native, pre-colonial past and inheritance, and it is replete with all of the insouciance and cruelty particular to such a State.

angortaFamine Memorial, Dublin

No, it is not the State that needs to get its act together — the State is doing exactly as it has always done, what it is by its very nature designed to do, in denigrating those who submit to it. It is communities and families — Society — that need to “step up,” instead of constantly, and, over the decades, increasingly asking for the State’s intervention. Even so much as asking is a surrender of one’s own agency to such a power, and, again, it is a power that never has, and never will, have your own interest in mind. It cannot be stressed enough that this cold monster’s only desire is to have subjects, for submission, and whether that submission is within a comfy cage or in bare iron bars matters very little to it. If people — Society — want to truly solve the “homelessness crisis,” they need to start looking after their own, building (or rebuilding, as it may be) family, communities, and the social stability and independence inherent in their functional forms. The State of course will and has historically already done much to destroy/oppose just that through various, innumerable measures — the self-sufficiency of Society, of the people, has always entailed a drastic reduction in the State’s power, in barring or rendering superfluous its presence and share in any pool of social wealth and unrestricted interaction.

However the State does and will fight it, the fact remains that such is how one solves “homelessness” —  by building “homes.” Not in the physical sense, that is, the structure of a house, as is in the minds of the simpletons demanding “accommodation” in public housing. How many examples one could cite or simply come across of those given such a shelter, but otherwise being scarcely less hopeless and miserable in their solitude or shame than if they were living on a doorstep? It is in the social sense — a habitus, a place within a group, family or tribe, to which a person “belongs,” from which a common and unbowed culture shapes and gives meaning to their perspective and existence, from which they can get the support as demanded by the bonds of filial loyalty. In essence, it is a call to enech — that is, “honour” (more literally, “face”). This is not, as is commonly mistaken, precisely a call to “virtue,” though the virtues upheld by a Society are critical in determining one’s “honour” — but one’s “face,” one’s reputation, based entirely on one’s relations, respect, and the obligations one keeps to to one’s people. (For a bit more on this, see the “About” section of the site: https://honourandecology.com/about/)
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A call to honour is then both a call to virtue — to remedy the general moralbankruptcy left in the wake of the ravages of colonialism and its continued policies and neat march with neoliberalism — and a call to a commitment, an ethic of care, towards a community — a tribe, if you would — which can in turn offer the same to the individual. And the latter of which is often for many, by and large, almost entirely dissolved beyond the narrowing window of the nuclear family (parents and their children). It is not uncommon to encounter individuals who are quite alright with letting their blood suffer beyond their own children (and sometimes not even managing that grace) — because “they are adults,” let them fend for themselves, they are besieged as it is by the challenges of raising their own “seed” in the inhospitable and shifting sands of an increasingly-neoliberal world. They have no loyalties, except to themselves and, again, to perhaps the nuclear family — and of course, to the government, the State, to whom they look to or demand “care”  and social securities, of which such an impersonal thing has none to give, except only as much (or as little) as they can to insure that they remain their economic hostage, their “loyal” subject.

Any number of social structures, prior to or besides the modern model, can be cited in exemplifying how this is not a normal or healthy state of affairs. Even those past societies with a State often did not infringe so much on these basic and ancient bonds of human Society — loyalties and reciprocity, honour, to family, to kin, and, more distantly, to a whole tribe — that they utterly dissolved into the truly Hobbesian vision of “every man against each other.” We have our own inheritance to look for in example and inspiration, though. Although by many accounts a strictly-hierarchical society, the old social order of the Gaels by and large lacked any kind of centralised State (except for the often-defunct seat of the Ard Rí, or “High King”) — the tribalistic character of both the society and the culture, with frequent antagonism between groups, generally persisted in obstructing such a thing from arising. While of course bold and blatant about the inequality inherent therein and the concept of every person having a “price” accorded to their honour and status, even the most allergic “egalitarian” should find the various systems of social obligations and right-conduct (broadly, a system of honour) enumerated in mediaeval texts an admirable and oft-successful attempt at restraining the power of the local, tribal “State” (if we can indeed call it such) and guaranteeing economic and social sureties between individuals, families, lineages, and tribes. The poorest members of such a society, or those unaffiliated, but not in disgrace, with any particular tribe (such as warrior bands, i.e. fianna, or hermits/”mad men,” gealta), were granted at the least basic rights of subsistence on any land, regardless of the tribal occupants, as demanded by honour. One such passage detailing these rights from the Brehon Laws can be translated as follows:

“What are the privileges allowed to any native man of the country?

To cut wild crab trees to make shafts for fishing spears, for fishing the rivers; to burn brushwood in the night for the dressing of fish; to cut small branches of white hazel for yokes or such tackle as will twist for the plough, and for hoops and churnstaves; they are free to the produce of woods bordering the sea, to seawreck, seaweed, and to every food thrown up by the sea onto the shores and rocks, but in collecting these, they must go quietly and peaceably by sea from place to place. They are also allowed to play the game of fidchell (“chess”) in the house of a noble, and to have salt in the house of a hospitaller; on leaving the shore, the boats must be chained and locked.

It is noble and generous to forgive small trespasses committed by the humble countryman; the strong should not shew their strength over the weak.”

There was also an elaborate system of fosterage (altram) and hostage/surety (aitire) among the more elite classes — there was a less-formalised system for lower classes. In the former of which, the basic, functional political and (extended) family unit, the fine, would send their children away to be raised for a time by other households within the fine or, at times, to other finte in the tribe. This system of fosterage served both to enculturate the child in many different skills or values beyond that of his biological parents, and also to develop familiarity and filial feelings towards the various families or other finte within a territory, contributing to the social cohesion and stability of a tribe. Foster-children and foster-parents are described with a scarcely less, if not more, important and sacred relationship than the relationship between biological parents, for whereas one represented loyalty to the limited nuclear family, the other was the individual’s present and future connections to the honour of the tribe — to Society — and all that it demands and stands to give him. While hostages could also be taken between finte — fosterage, in a way, was a kind of hostage/surety — one also found it between tribes, in which members of importance in one tribe would be given over (and in other instances, taken by force) in to the care of another. Hostages would be treated with good will and a surety of trust between tribes — but, conversely, there was the knowledge that should one tribe ever break this trust or the expectations of good will, the hostages could be killed in retribution of or a sign of breaking such a trust.

Gallowglass.jpgDrawing of “Irish Mercenaries” by Albrecht Dürer 1521

What is admirable in this glance at the Gaelic social structure, and what is exemplary, is that these dealings were not primarily accomplished by the coercion of a centralised State (as there was none), and even the tribal State likely had little to do in inspiring fear to obeying such conventions beyond the frequent, equalising hostilities. This was primarily accomplished by a common culture, in which the concept of one’s face before one’s relations was a matter of life and death, upheld more by Society — the people — rather than a powerful and punitive State, as today. It was also facilitated in part by a singularly unique system (excepting what may have once existed in continental Celtic cultures) of mobile poets/learned men (druids in pre-Christian days, clergy and historians later on) and artisans who could variously transgress the rigid boundaries of the tribe, bringing with them elements of a culture that tribes adapted to their own use, if there was a use for it. For those who object to any and all notions of hierarchical society or any virtues implied in it, tribalistic societies with much less hierarchy (or none whatsoever except for a system of prestige), and lacking anything like a travelling class of culture-bearers, have demonstrated similar systems of honour and reciprocity upheld by a “common culture,” simply through the institutions of marriage and negotiation between groups in a given area, some of the latter of which can resemble hostage and fosterage. What is also exemplary is the “place” — painfully explicit, in the Gaelic system — given to every person, some honour accorded to every individual, great or small. Even the most destitute had the right to subsistence at everyone else’s expense, something perhaps very stunning to the sense of the modern person in a world where politicians regularly chastise and deny the lowest a right to fulfil any of their basic needs — food, potable water, or shelter — except at the behest that they indebt or enslave themselves to another.
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Either way, whatever social model we use or compare to, we see a stark contrast between a society bound by culture, accountable to honour, the relationality of those things — and societies like our own at the present, societies held together by the power of a State acting in neoliberal interests, where every man is alienated and against the other to survive, and as such, where it is acceptable to allow the most deprived of all to freeze to death on the streets. We need not reproduce/revitalise the exact society of our native culture, with all of its own prospective problems accompanying it — but as stated previously, we do need a society that, like our ancestors of yore, placed virtue and commitment to place and people, honour, above the cultivation and centralisation of power for elites. We need a society for Society — that is, the people — not a society for the State, and this again comes down to rebuilding communities, a process that involves, inescapably, various degrees of decentralisation, taking back power from its current, central body of the State apparatus, both in the form of political autonomy and a large degree of economic self-sufficiency.

Though the solution sounds simple enough, it is of course surmountingly difficult. Pessimistically, we might refer to the likes of Étienne de La Boétie, author of the seminal 16th century work of “The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude,” in assuming that, once it has surpassed a certain point, the State and its impetus to power becomes nigh-on impossible to dismantle — the effort demanded is too high, and the State’s power over the minds of the people and its resources has become so unshakeable, except by their own blundering/exhaustion of resources. “Revolution” has often only traded one tyrant for another, sometimes slightly kinder, offering a respite, other times just as cruel, for the State machinery and its nature of power for power’s sake remains immutable. Nonetheless, the demand is nothing less than for all people to do what they can to uplift and strengthen their “tribe” or community, engaging the mechanisms of the State as minimally as possible, or flagrantly dismissing it, as must eventually happen, given the State’s fingers in most social affairs presently.

Give of yourself, freely, as often as possible, with of course greater obligations going towards those closer to your “place.” When an acquaintance comes to you in need, do not turn them away, but do all in your power to aid them, and rally others to your cause to assist as well. Encourage cultural heritage projects, ones that actually serve one’s local community in their efforts of cohesion and empowerment — that is, regaining power, necessarily by taking away from the central authority — rather than lip services designed instead for the amusement of tourists and the enrichment of State entities. Organise and celebrate at your rising strength as a people seeking freedom; encourage others to do the same, form alliances with them — but do not insist on ruling over another’s people, as then one merely tends back towards the centralised and most authoritarian mode of the State. The point of strength, strength through freedom, is important to note, for it — as shall be given further justice, undoubtedly, in its own post — marks the difference between a “solidarity” tending towards the political autonomy of decentralisation, and a “solidarity” upholding the subjugated role of “workers,” the latter of which is a solidarity aiming for nothing more than a change in regime, a demand of a continued but somewhat more lenient subjugation and indignity.

There are many things that can — and should — be done towards the end, and that end is giving a place — a home — for all peoples, to place culture and its honour and obligation above currency and material, and to invoke a three-fold shame, from the gods, from one’s peers, and from one’s own internalised sense of place and honour, on those who do otherwise, who forsake honour for the pursuit of power, that is, pursuit of and service to the State at the expense of all others. There is no reason for anyone to be dying on the street other than the lack of will to take care of one’s own, to recall the place and purpose that the modern State would gladly keep from all of its subjects.

The task is a formidable one. Culture is the “weapon of the weak” — that is, the people, Society, the dominated — and, as the task is essentially that of a culture-builder, the demand itself is to nurture and muster strength where there is currently little, before a foe, the State, who is no stranger to power and its brutality. But the task is a worthy one — indeed, assertively the only worthy devotion in a world that has largely lost its honour. For just as culture, and the honour it entails, is the Weapon of the “weak,” so is it its only hope, its only chance to lift itself up from subjugation and its pleas of mercy before the State. Homelessness shall remain but one of our many chronic, social illnesses otherwise, at times latent, other times flaring up, until we remember, or find, ourselves, our courage, our honour.

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