Essay/The Home

Nobody is home

From the footloose networker to the exiled migrant, home has been displaced by an idea that’s both elusive and contested

Charles Leadbeater

The wise man built his house upon the rock, in the middle of the Drina river in Serbia. Photo by Marko Djurica/Reuters

Charles Leadbeater

advises organisations, cities and governments on innovation and creativity. He is chairman of Apps for Good and an associate at the Centre for London. His latest book is The Frugal Innovator (2014). He lives in Highbury, North London.

3,100 words

Edited by Marina Benjamin

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The tiny home is one of the many oxymorons of our strange times. Thousands of people, mainly on the west coast of North America, have built small homes, little bigger than a garden shed, that they tow around on trailers. Since they first started appearing a few years ago, tiny homes have become an open-source ‘maker movement’ of thousands who share their designs for very small and often elaborate mini-mobile homes that cost as little as $5,000. It is one of the mutant social phenomena that spread in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, and it’s uplifting, amazing and slightly shocking all at the same time.

Tiny homes evoke a frontier spirit of people trying to remake their lives after a catastrophe. The fact that these homes are on a trailer and don’t touch the ground can exempt their owners from property tax in states where they count not as homes but as a vehicle. That is part of what makes them affordable to run. Tiny-home owners often gather in impromptu sharing communities. Yet as proprietors of vehicles, they have to keep moving. It’s difficult to feel you have roots if your home is on wheels.

The tiny house is just one example of the lengths to which people will go to create a sense of home even when they lack the means for it. It’s just one symptom of a much wider and intensifying search for belonging, which makes home as important to politics as the idea of class or rights – especially now, when so many people feel displaced, both literally and figuratively, by life in innovation-driven, high-tech, networked capitalism. On top of that, the contest over where home is and who is entitled to live there, is – in the form of the current apparent crisis over migration – driving global political debate.

Home is where the heart is, and there is no place like home, yet a sense of being at home can come from many sources. Home can be a place of residence, where you go back to after work. It can mean the place you come from: where you grew up, and to which you return in your memories and for important family rituals. Feeling at home can come from an activity in which you feel at ease, in flow, in a landscape that’s  familiar and uplifting. Doing satisfying work can evoke a sense of home, as can being with friends or walking along a beach with someone you love.

The common thread to all these meanings of home is that they provide us with a tethered sense of identity. Home matters so much just now because so many people feel the tether coming loose.

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The philosopher who understood this search best is controversial: Martin Heidegger.  A member of the Nazi Party, Heidegger never expressed remorse for the Holocaust and was often an arrogant, duplicitous bully. Some critics argue that his philosophy is too contaminated by racism to admit rescue. His ideas are often dismissed as parochial, nostalgic and regressive. Even his advocates acknowledge that his prose is deliberately dense.

Yet, as the Australian scholar Jeff Malpas has shown in several thoughtful books and essays, studying Heidegger helps to explain why we are now so preoccupied by feelings of displacement that are triggering a search for home. Given Heidegger’s Nazi leanings and the rise of the populist Right in many parts of the developed world, his work could repay study.

Heidegger detested René Descartes’s dictum ‘I think, therefore I am’ which located the search for identity in our brains. There, it was secured by a rational process of thought, detached from a physical world that presented itself to the knowing subject as a puzzle to be solved. Descartes’s ideas launched a great inward turn in philosophy with the subject at the centre of the drama confronting the objective world about which he tries to gain knowledge.

Had Heidegger ever come up with a saying to sum up his philosophy it would have been: ‘I dwell, therefore I am.’ For him, identity is bound up with being in the world, which in turn means having a place in it. We don’t live in the abstract space favoured by philosophers, but in a particular place, with specific features and history. We arrive already entangled with the world, not detached from it. Our identity is not secured just in our heads but through our bodies too, how we feel and how we are moved, literally and emotionally.

Instead of presenting it as a puzzle to be solved, Heidegger’s world is one we should immerse ourselves in and care for: it is part of the larger ‘being’ where we all belong. As Malpas puts it, Heidegger argues that we should release ourselves to the world, to find our part in its larger ebb and flow, rather than seek to detach ourselves from it in order to dominate it.

Heidegger has his own account of what dwelling meant: he spent much of his time writing in an austere mountain hut in the depths of the Black Forest. He felt at home in a clearing in the forest, sprung from the soil of the homeland and redolent with a nostalgic feel of German peasant life. He’s not arguing that we should all go to a forest clearing, but that we need our own equivalent: a place that makes us feel at ease with the world. One can find it lying under a tree in a city park, looking at the clouds above, or sitting in a café watching people all around.

Heidegger’s pessimistic diagnosis of the ills of a restless and rootless modern society, driven by science and technology, is that it systematically robs people of this feeling of being at home in the world. It is set up to deny the very thing we most need for a sense of identity and purpose. For Heidegger, nostalgia – the unrequited longing to return home – is a necessary condition of being modern. Technology is a big factor in this.

A bedroom can become an income-earning asset when its role in our lives is reassigned by the click of a mouse on a digital platform

When the technology of the home was more like a tool to augment human muscle power – a place for the washing machine, the fridge, the boiler – the home was as a private, bounded space. Now technology is breaking down those boundaries. When parents worry about where their children are going (metaphorically) and to whom they’re talking on social media, they’re acknowledging that people can be at home, in their bedrooms, and yet somewhere else simultaneously. Young people seem to be most at home when they are on – or perhaps ‘in’ – their phones, flicking between apps, surfing their social networks.

Meanwhile, home, always a workplace for women, has become a place of work for many more people, at least those whose first action on waking is to check emails. The small kitchen table in my parents’ house was used only for breakfast. A table in the dining room was laid out for tea. Neither were used for work. In contrast, the table in our family house has to be cleared of an Apple store’s worth of equipment before we can eat.

Airbnb is one expression of this technological transformation of the home. I wrote the first draft of this article in a Japanese tea house in someone’s garden in Berkeley, near San Francisco, rented through a website that allows us to share our homes with strangers as a commercial activity. A bedroom can become an income-earning asset when its role in our lives is reassigned by the click of a mouse on a digital platform.

As homes become more like flexible assets and workplaces, where we bank and shop, so contemporary workplaces are styling themselves as homes. Many people in cities seem to work in cafés. The most achingly trendy shared workspace in London is called Second Home. WeWork, the fast-growing US co-working provider, has now launched the sister company WeLive, through which young people can rent rooms barely large enough for a bed so they can be closer to their very small desks. 

Yet this ambiguous domestication of work and commodification of home is overshadowed by a more malevolent sense of displacement generated by technology. Much of the populist anger sweeping through advanced economies comes from men who feel displaced because there is a dwindling supply of work that gives them meaning or status. Judging by the outpouring of books about our bleak near future without work, this fear of losing our place in the world to the technologies we’ve created will overshadow the next few decades.

Modernity, as Heidegger contended, condemns us to a painful, usually thwarted and often nostalgic search for a sense of home in a world set up to make it difficult to achieve. Of course, implicit in Heidegger’s account is a tension and a risk. It is easy for us to imagine that our particular version of home, at a certain time, should be fixed as a universal ideal – as if home has an unchangeable essence that needs protecting at all costs.  

This is how the largely university-educated generation who entered the UK’s labour market after the 2008 financial crisis feels. As wages flatline and inner-city property prices rise, young millennials struggle to afford a home. ‘Generation Rent’, who grew up in London and the south-east in particular, feels betrayed because their childhood homes are now well beyond them. They complain of being infantilised by having to stay at home with their parents for longer than they’d like, or ending up with shared kitchens and bathrooms in soulless short-term lets, like students. Generation Rent’s righteous anger stems in part from a thwarted search for something deeply conventional: a place to call home, recognisable from their own childhoods.

From Australia to Austria, politicians are running scared of the populist Right whipping up a fear that your home is about to be lost

Yet the lengths to which Millennials have to go in search of home pale in comparison with the struggles faced by most economic migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. Their search for home has become the stuff of a much angrier politics.

We are in the midst of a refugee crisis with 65 million people on the move around the world. In Europe, they have been met by many ordinary citizens willing to offer them their homes: in Germany, thousands have taken in refugees as an act of hospitality. But that has been matched by a rising populist backlash against unwanted outsiders who are cast as infiltrators intent on messing up and taking advantage of ‘our’ home, siphoning off state benefits, and abusing public services.

The Brexit vote in the UK, the rise of the Danish People’s Party, the Alternative for Germany party and the National Front in France are all symptomatic of this easily provoked fear of an imaginary pristine national home being ruined by outsiders. In Canada, a society with a deliberate approach to encourage immigration, the prime minister Justin Trudeau is one of the few politicians to make a popular pitch based on welcoming diverse strangers. Virtually everywhere else, from Australia to Austria, politicians are running scared of the populist Right whipping up a fear that your home is about to be lost, or transfigured beyond recognition.

It’s not just a question of populism, though. The rootless fluidity of globalisation so recently celebrated by many young, educated urbanites feeds a new division between those who want the cosmopolitan city and those who prefer the settled provincial life; between those who think airports are part of daily life and those who go there only for their holidays; those that like the provisional, digital, networked economy and those who want the certainty of living in the same place, with the same people and following the same routines.

Heidegger maintained that modernity makes us feel homeless much of the time. Indeed, one reason large companies are so distrusted is that they seem to relish exactly what we recoil from: being homeless, a ‘citizen of nowhere’, as Theresa May, the new British Prime Minister, recently put it in a speech to the Conservative Party. Corporations manage to get away with paying minimal tax because they can threaten to relocate at the drop of a hat. The jobs on which our homes depend appear to be hostage to people who regard rootlessness as an optimal state. Heidegger’s point is that such tensions can only intensify as modernity accelerates.

An even larger movement than refugees are the almost 740 million people a year who migrate within their own country to a city. These people and the cities they move to, especially in China, is where the real struggle for home will be played out over the next 40 years. The recipes that the urbanist Jane Jacobs developed while creating a sense of home in downtown Manhattan – low-rise mixed neighbourhoods with an active and convivial street life – will have little place in the extreme urban conditions of the many cities that China is planning to build under the One Belt, One Road plan for a new Silk road into Asia and Europe. These cities will never figure on Monocle magazine’s list of the world’s most liveable places. Marvels of rapid development, they threaten to become social nightmares unless their citizens’ appetites for consumer goods for their homes are satiated.

Overlaying all of that is the shared existential threat of climate change and rising sea levels that could displace many millions of mainly poor people from their homes. More than 100 major cities worldwide are on coastlines that will be affected by rising sea levels: Miami is the canary in the mine, a city that’s booming as fast as it’s sinking. Largely unchecked carbon emissions mean we risk making our shared planetary home inhospitable. We are just coming to terms with our own creation, the Anthropocene, when everywhere on the planet is touched by human action and truly wild nature exists only in pockets. The world is ours – the question is, will we treat it like a resource to be exploited or like a shared home? To achieve that will require not only better science and clean technologies but also more frugal lifestyles and perhaps a return to ideas cherished in indigenous cultures that revolve around a deep interdependence with nature.

Across these issues ­– from technology to immigration, urbanisation and climate change – the idea of home is central. Fears that we are losing our place are rife. We live in a restless, rootless world that prompts nostalgia, a yearning for an impossible return to an imagined home. Perhaps that’s why there are so many books in English about the Danish idea of hygge, how to make everything cosy and warm. (It involves blankets, fires, sitting in circles, chatting and not breaking out on your own.)

The clues to what people yearn for are hiding in plain sight in popular culture: television series such as Downton Abbey about a British aristocratic family trying to hang on to a home that supports an entire social order; or The Great British Bake Off, now franchised across the globe: what more homely activity is there than baking? Even I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! is about whether a group of fairly annoying people can create a home together in the Australian jungle: the winners are invariably those who make sacrifices to get food, tend fires, put up hammocks and provide a shoulder to cry on.

Many support measures to exert greater control over their homes, to build walls, erect gates and keep at bay unruly forces 

True, not all our dilemmas about home are due to technology-charged mobile capitalism. Our sense of home is also being profoundly unsettled, for example by ageing. All over the world, adult children are struggling with the painful dilemma of whether their elderly, infirm parents should go ‘into a home’. To most, that’s a death knell because it means the very opposite of what it says.

The spread of dementia – soon to become a global epidemic – will sharpen this unease. Old people are most vulnerable when displaced from their homes: they lose the props they need to keep everything in order. As people with dementia lose their short-term memory, so longer-term memories of where they grew up and their lives in childhood become more important. One woman I know with dementia now anchors her identity in repeated wartime stories of sleeping in an Anderson shelter with her mother. Those are among the few memories she can still conjure up. Home is a place long ago, as much as it is the flat she now lives in, which holds almost no meaning for her.

Tensions over the meaning of home will only intensify; if people feel thwarted in finding their place in the world, they can become angry, depressed, defeated and sad. Many of them will support measures to exert greater control over their homes, to build walls, erect gates and keep at bay unruly forces that threaten to take their homes from them. They will want to restore an orderly home, however imaginary. At the moment, politically, only the populist Right seems to fully understand the power of this idea, when what we need is a creative, shared response to remake our sense of home.

It could be too much to hope that we might have a homely capitalism, with homely capitalists but, in a sense, that is what people are asking for: an economic system that helps them build a shared sense of home. After all, that’s exactly what far-sighted 19th-century capitalists did in the days of Robert Owen’s New Lanark Mills and the Cadbury factory at Bournville. In the wake of the Second World War, modern capitalism was at its most successful and productive when it built not just factories but millions of homes, from Dagenham to Detroit; homes that were filled in an orderly fashion with consumer durables brought by a capitalism organised around national democracies. Capitalism needs once again to give people an orderly sense of home, rather than pitching them into insecurity, as if anything they have might be taken from them in a moment.

Equally, the progressive Left will renew itself only if it comes up with a more optimistic, pluralistic and democratic account of how people can create a shared sense of home together. Perhaps the lead will come from places such as Canada and Denmark; or from cities that grow and yet remain liveable; even from new approaches to caring for the elderly, from shared housing and from new technologies for building homes cheaply using 3D printing.  

We need a new kind of shared home economics, of home-making and building. The route to power to change society starts at home.

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