In the First World especially, the vision of housing in the future has increasingly tended toward the small, “minimalist” and often recycled homes that we see advertised in science and innovation magazines. So-called pod homes, shipping container houses, modular flats and even recycled water pipes have become not only a vision of life in the future, but luxury as well. After all, there is something beautiful about a home that lacks all the unnecessary elements, and that is, no doubt, the draw. Especially when they are mobile, or at least easily relocatable. Never mind an old-fashioned prefabricated trailer, those are boring, what is interesting is how one can live in tune with nature from the safety of their cabin, refitted from an old shipping container, or a hotel, as they have in Austria and Germany, made from recycled sewage pipes. Given the tenacity with which people pursue these concepts, one may be tempted to expect that they could serve as adequate housing for the billions of people living in squalor in the Third World. How dare they think such a thing.
Unfortunately, despite the supposed ethic of delivering luxury downard, connecting the super rich with the simple and the simple with the super rich, there is very little room for the Third World in these fantasies. That is not to say that recycled options have not been experimented with to give survivors of catastrophes and victims of crisis a place to live, but when one takes a look at the result, it is hardly the “simple, stunning cabin of the future” advertised by the “ecologically conscious” businessmen of the First World. In fact, little evidence and fewer images can be found of these ideas being put into mass practice in the Third World in order to solve the global housing crisis. Instead, what we find is the conscious appropriation by individuals of these unorthodox building materials for their own use, rarely meeting the aesthetic or living quality imagined by neoliberal startups, and in some cases the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie relishing in the same kind of “simple” living that is extolled in the First World. Nevermind the conditions of years-old, overcrowded refugee camps and tin-shack favelas. Perhaps those could be the next step in amerikan “simple living” aesthetics.
Despite the well-known existence of these potential alternatives, the world still suffers with more than 2.5 billion people having no access to any type of sanitation, and 1.6 billion lacking adequate housing. Why is this? Especially when these alternatives are so sought after in the west, and have been the focus of many experimental NGO and “startup” projects. Rather than affordable and available housing for all, complete with simple sanitation and amenities, what we have are many people indeed living out of shipping containers and old sewage pipes. The reality is hardly the picturesque image we were promised, although they continue to advertise these alternatives with videos of modular collective housing and the success of amerikan petty bourgeois in making a dream home among the California redwoods. It is an insult to injury that the “fad” of rich westerners with simple natural escapes is conflated with a real alternative to the rampant homelessness in the Third World. Certainly it could be, but it is readily apparent that there is no serious movement toward its utilization for these ends.
Ideally, a socialist government in the Third World could make great use of recycled housing designs. Many of them are complete with simple sanitation components, and the building materials are readily available. That isn’t to say that we should aim to increase production of shipping containers and sewage pipes for the sake of housing, but when the alternatives remain out of reach for the moment, and such infrastructure exists for these alternatives, we make use of them in a planned way to ensure a solution to pressing problems for the proletariat. Yet, individually, there is little possibility that one could even afford a shipping container in the Third World. After all their typical price range goes from a bare minimum of about 800 dollars to over 5000 dollars, and this is without considering the price of transportation and building materials to make it habitable. For a First Worlder, this is not a steep price to pay, but for someone living on less than a dollar a day, or more commonly on less than 10 dollars a day, these alternatives remain an absolute impossibility.
Even when we consider the development projects being supported by corporate and—rarely—by state subsidy, they remain out of reach to the world’s most desperate. In the Third World, this is not the minority of people, but the majority. According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2011, still 7 in 10 people in the world live on less than 10 dollars a day. Of course, these people are almost exclusively located in the Third World or global semi-periphery, with very few existing in the global north. Despite being hailed as the future of affordable housing, to the world proletariat, these alternatives are still quite unaffordable. They don’t have to be, but for the moment they certainly are, because despite all that they claim, those who propagate these myths do not build their pod homes for Third Worlders, and least of all for the global proletariat. They are meant for petty bourgeois relaxation and western tourism.
It gives the western liberal a warm, fuzzy feeling to think that their luxury could be solving world crises in housing and sanitation. That is what they would like to believe. It is not the case, however, and they should be invited to look at the world situation with all its uncomfortable realities. Capitalism simply does not care about providing housing to those on whose shoulders the global system of capitalism-imperialism rests, and we should not expect that it will ever be moved to. The only alternative is to move away from neoliberal idealism toward a realistic, materialist world outlook. The world will not be saved by bourgeois creativity, which, despite all its material promises, fails to deliver on any of them to the world majority. Instead, the world will be saved by communism and socialism, which can effectively organize even the most meager of material conditions into something that can provide for whole countries and the whole world.
Addendum: It also must be stated that the whole discussion of producing new affordable homes as a possible solution to the housing crisis is at its core shackled to the neoliberal paradigm. This is because it fails to overcome one of the most basic problems of capitalism: the problem of supply vs. distribution. In the west it is well known that there are far more homes than there are people, and that for every homeless person in the united $tates or europe, there exists numerous empty homes with nobody living in them. The “creative” neoliberal suggests that we create many new “affordable” homes in order to house those with none. This is an interesting prospect, and as we’ve demonstrated, could be achieved in the west given the parasitic wages that most First Worlders receive.
However, this backward logic presumes that it is easier to build new homes than to fill the ones already built. Certainly the prospect of affordable and recycled homes are a good idea where a genuine shortage exists, such is the case in many Third World countries and areas affected by disaster. However, given what we know about the capitalist system, even if we were to build all the “pod homes” necessary for everyone to sleep with a roof over their head, capitalism will still demand, through its own anarchic system of allocation, that those with a right to shelter will go without it. Bourgeois creativity cannot solve the problems of bourgeois distribution, and, as demonstrated above, it has no interest in doing so.