Last month protesters from OWS along with community organizers broke into a home in East New York that had stood empty since being foreclosed in 2008 and turned it over to a woman and her family who had been homeless for the last 10 years. In similar actions in Columbus, Atlanta, San Francisco and Southgate, foreclosed, empty houses are being occupied by Occupy and turned over to those without homes. Evictions, sometimes as soon as 2 months after failing to make a mortgage payment, are being resisted by large crowds making it impossible for police to force people out of their homes. Through this action, OWS is putting its money where its mouth is by highlighting poor communities and how they have been affected by our economic system. It is also exposing some of the central questions we should be considering if we want to rethink how we run our societies.
In order for the movement to grow the coming year it is essential that it proves its relevance in helping to solve problems. The true relevance of OWS in starting a new conversation on how we want to see the future of our societies can only be maintained by not restricting ourselves to pointing out what is wrong but by proposing alternatives and implementing them where possible. Only by testing our ideas can we ascertain if they work. We have nothing to fear from the messy process of trial and error.
The focus on repossessed homes exposes one of the central differences between capitalism and socialism, between private property and community property, between the right of the individual and the right of the community. The question is what is of greater value, the right of an individual to buy an apartment building and leave it empty, for whatever reason, or the right of 20 families to housing at the expense of the individual?
A city belongs to all its inhabitants. When you buy a plot of land in a city that has been zoned for dwellings, do you have the right to not develop that land? The permits and deeds give you the right to make a profit from developing an apartment building that will serve a number of families, it does not give you a right to not build that building.
Finding the correct balance between the rights of individuals as opposed to the rights of a collectives is tough. Within reason, there is much to be said for the concept of private property. It is not difficult to find examples where the tyranny of the masses, or those claiming to speak for the masses, has trampled the rights of individuals. That this can and does happen in collectivist societies should not be used as an excuse to prevent criticism of the opposite extreme.
We are witnessing a tyranny by individuals who have amassed enough wealth and political power to trample the rights and interest of the many in order to serve the privileged few. Besides highlighting these perversions, we need to make sure we spend enough time thinking about how we break these power structures without merely replacing them with equally unbalanced and perverse structures and then to act. The housing crisis, at the heart of the current economic meltdown, is the perfect testing ground to try and rethink the balance between these rights in very practical terms.