Throughout this year, I experienced what were largely critical, but ultimately indulgent, viewings of celebrity house tours on YouTube. As I was watching Hillary Duff give a tour of her family home, she motioned to her “quarantine hangspace”: a specific social area beside her private pool, with four chairs spaced two meters apart for her friends. It felt oddly dystopian, as I was also watching from my own “quarantine hangspace”: namely my bed-turned-desk. This causes one to ask: how else are people experiencing lockdown?
By applying Alexander and Bruun’s (2018) analysis of moral economies of global housing on top of the UK’s lockdown, we can uncover the dimensions of isolation in relation to kinship (relationships), citizenship, and embodied social inequalities. As a result, I reflect on the importance of redefining the domain of the “home” by including it into the political discussion of national health.
Housing, Health, and Politics: a History:
In anthropology, a moral economy was originally used as a comparative metaphor for the production, distribution, circulation, and use of morals within a social space (Fassin, 2009:37). However, Palomera and Vetta argue that the moral economy must be understood as a global object within the architecture of structural inequalities. In other words, the specific landscapes in which social norms and practices process structural inequalities is what should be referred to as moral economies (2016: 414). Consequently, there is no single moral economy- there are multiple overlapping ones.
Alexander and Bruun expands this concept of multiple moral economies as a heuristic device for assessing how people grapple with their housing rights in the face of political-economic institutions and processes (2018:130). Their conclusions included:
- Moral economies exist in dynamic multiplicity and can rival or enhance each other (Das and Walton, 2015).
- Since citizens can feel betrayal in response to state-like actors, there is no singular authority of the state. State-like actors can include many things including mortgage lenders or community movements and members.
After WW2, political economies globally surfaced and could be understood as the “social contract” between capital, labour, and the state; systemic state interventions were referred to as “welfare states” (Esping-Andersen, 1990). This understanding assumed a hierarchical and binary sense of the state and the citizen- which omitted the existence of multiple state-like actors.
But how does a material home be involved with political economies? Globally, housing complexes were created to condition certain types of communities. Houses were formed as nuclear family units, placed within social infrastructures and communal spaces (shops, childcare facilities, parks, etc) and emerged out of specific histories (Alexander and Bruun, 2018:125). For example, Israel used public housing to mould a nation state (Kalluss and Law Yone, 2002) and early Soviet collective living guaranteed laundry and childcare facilities to decrease domestic labour by women (Buchli, 1999).
By the late 1970s, austerity, financialisaton, and neoliberalism developed private home ownership- which changed the dimensions of the state and market. Under Thatcher, the “right to a home” was transformed into the 1980 Right to Buy act. USA Subprime loans reinforced the racialised class gap as low-income non-whites continued to live in insecure housing. Whilst the conditions for accessing adequate housing has become more marginal and unrealistic, gentrification expanded and became more violent as ethnic-minority communities’ housing was destroyed, replaced, and resold. Gentrification makes demands for adequate housing volatile, as it is results in destroyed homes and displacement of residents (Alexander and Bruun, 2018:127).
As a result, access to housing is as complex as it is exclusionary. For example, the variety of dimensions to what is considered “public housing” points to focusing on how access, redistribution, and maintenance of housing or public goods depends on legal and proprietorial contexts. Considering this, the home can be identified as an artefact of overlapping multiple economic, moral and political domains with unique historical backgrounds.
Dimensions of Isolation:
Alexander and Bruun note that a prevalent dimension of adequate housing is “security”- which can appear in many forms (financial, environmental, etc). The need for security is core to the moral economies of housing (2018:130). Graeber interestingly notes that personal debt has become a contemporary way of defining (2010). This caused me to think about the mass evictions across the covid-19 pandemic in both the UK and the USA. Mathew Desmond, founder of the first national eviction database ‘The Eviction Lab’ for the States, powerfully talks about the home as a “vaccine”. This has got me wondering- in our redefinition of “housing”, should we also include the condition for permanency? Since April-November 2020, 90,063 people in the UK has either been threatened with, or are experiencing, homelessness. Like the USA, the UK’s “Everyone In” scheme was aimed to stop evictions based on pandemic related reasons. However, Desmond rightfully critiques this, as “pandemic related reasons” is extremely broad, isolation has proven how inter-connected everything is. For instance, the UK scheme does not cover those who are unable to pay rent since March, despite financial schemes during covid-19, including furlough, excluding three million taxpayers, in just May-June 2020.
The “public-private” bourgeois distinction reduces the public sphere to one of politics, and the private sphere to social relationships (Davidoff and Hall, 2002 : xv). However, housing creates specific kinds of citizens (and populations) through the clash of social relationships and domains of law, politics, and economics. The home is the meeting point of multiple actors and spheres- both real and imagined. Houses behave as conduits of political and economic relations, and as means for engaging with communities and local actors.
I saw this in action by observing how isolation expanded our kinship networks, as we engaged with political actors (the government) and community members (our neighbours) from our homes. Every Thursday at 8pm during the UK’s first lockdown, citizens clapped for the work of frontline workers: including carers and NHS staff. My mother would always run to the balcony when she saw the clock strike eight. During a time of isolation, we extended our homes with our neighbours and created new forms of relations. Citizens engaged with their homes as a place to meet with the ‘public sphere’: a domain to assert support for free public healthcare by the state. On 28th May, the ‘Boo for Boris’ campaign emerged out of disagreement in Boris Johnson’s response to the Dominic Cummings Scandal- criticising state actors for their lax obedience to national lockdown rules. Through this lockdown ritual, I could see how the house stood as a nexus of multiple moral economies, and citizens express their shifting relationship with multiple state actors.
Social Inequalities – Is lockdown safe?
Understanding the home as a place that brings different people together (Douglas, 1991) demonstrates how the material design of modern living can contribute to the constitution of social identities (Miller, 2001) or cultural warfare (Lofgren, 2003) as normative gendered roles are recaptured in its heteronormative and modernity design (Attwood, 2010; Madigan et al., 1990). As a result, people advance their engagement with their citizenship (Alexander and Bruun, 2018:129).
The Institute of Labor Economics note that independent survey data in March-April show that UK and US women are more likely to lose their job, and less likely to be able to work from home than men ( Adams-Prassl et al, 2020). As well as that, women are significantly more likely to be responsible for childcare. Etheridge and Spantig from the University of Essex note that this contributes to women’s significant mental health decline (2020). The Health Foundation notes that ethnic minorities in London are disproportionately more likely to be key workers, therefore being at higher risk to infection and unable to isolate. From these examples, we can see how being able to work from home directly effects health- the home becomes an extension of the “private sphere” and exacerbates social inequalities.
Domestic abuse victims and activists also call attention to the harms of lockdown. The New York Times noted at least 34 deaths during March to May from domestic abuse, observing that the pandemic plan in March had no mention of domestic abuse. Labour MP Jess Phillips told NYT that there is no defined government strategy, and calls to action- such as domestic abuse commissioner Nicole Jacobs’ appeal for emergency funding- were ignored. Travel restrictions, court delays, and strained domestic abuse services lead to victims having no safety network away from their abusers. Therefore, I find the house becomes a threat to individual safety and points to how domestic abuse victims become expendable under national lockdown policy.
By including multiple state actors, maybe the government’s individualistic narrative of “Stay Home, Save Lives” begins to disintegrate. By targeting government auxiliaries, the burden of health is not just on the citizen, and “the state” becomes less abstract. Instead, the home becomes a place for us to reconstruct our citizenship, and observe the materiality of a house as an extension of political, social, and economical domains. By expanding adequate housing to including health, we can begin to prevent the risks towards mental and physical health witnessed during the UK lockdown by recognising how social inequalities take shape. Likewise, the “citizen” also becomes less abstract: socio-cultural factors such as class and race are included and therefore challenges blanket non-tailored guidance for health solutions.