Friday, 12 June 2015

Live Mortgage-Free, Be a Happy Wanderer

It's ironic that I choose to copy this out now...when I am looking to buy my own place and take on a huge mortgage. And an agent has already been assigned to me by my real estate friend whom I once interviewed and wrote a kick-ass story on. (You will find it in these pages, maybe three years ago?)


You will see from my few words of explanation that the propositions, God is evil, and Property is theft, are not mere paradoxes. Although I maintain their literal meaning, I no more want to make it a crime to believe in God than I do to abolish property.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, 1864

Oh, to be free of this cursed mortgage! When I give talks about the pleasures and advantages of idleness, I am always asked: "What about the mortgage?" People cite their mortgages as the prime reasons for doing work they don't want to do. "It's all very well to talk about sitting around doing nothing," they say, "but I've got a mortgage." Clearly, the mortgage has become a symbol of repression. "I just need to pay off the mortgage, then I'll be free," they say. There it is, the monstrous elephant of a mortgage, sitting in our way, holding us back. Property, promiser of liberty and deliverer of slavery!

Now, what is a mortgage? It is simply a very large debt which you take out in order to be able to live in a house or flat. Because the debt is paid back over 25 years, the interest rates are relatively low compared with shorter-term loans. We commit ourselves to a certain monthly payment on the debt. We base the size of this payment on our current earnings and perhaps on our hope of higher earnings in the future. Having a mortgage is supposed to be the sensible thing to do, because, the idea goes, at the end of it, you will own a property outright. Underpinning the mortgage, therefore, is a property outright. Underpinning the mortgage, therefore, is a notion of a nation of property-owners. But, in chasing this ownership dream, we give the lion's share of our property to the bank. So the idea that we own this house is a myth - the bank owns it, while we pay the bank. Interest payments on the loan will total more than the actual loan by the end of the term. On a £200,000 mortgage, for example, you will have paid well over £240,000 in interest by the end of the term. Therefore the bank has sold you £200,000 at a price of £440,000 - quite a mark-up. And all the above assumes that interest rates are fairly low and fairly constant - but it is possible that, through absolutely no fault of your own, interest rates could rise. For a while, we were suckered into the endowments system, whereby an extra payment was made each month and invested on the stock exchange. This was later (much later and too late for many) revealed to be a massive con. People object to renting in principle because, they say, you are "throwing money down the drain", but the mortgage system is an organised way of throwing money down a different drain, the one owned by the usurers.

The very thing that we take on board in order to provide us with security - a home - seems to offer instead only anxiety and a feeling of being trapped. Now, why should this be? The conventional wisdom (I might say the 'brainwashing', as in our arrogance, we sometimes think that we have come up with this idea all on our own) is that you are supposed to take on the biggest mortgage you possibly can. I read of a nauseating Tory couple in Notting Hill who said that they "stretched every financial sinew" in order to buy their modest terraced house in fashionable West London. Apart from the fact that they should be cast out of polite society for coming up with such a puke-making phrase as "stretched every financial sinew", the idea behind it seems ridiculous: make your life a perpetual misery in order to pretend that you have enough money to live in a smart part of town.

And because homeowners tend to sort out a mortgage that is just beyond what they can really afford, the wealthy make themselves feel poor. I have lost count of the successful, high-earning middle-class couples I've met who choose to live in vast palaces financed by giant debts and then complain about the mortgage and money and the terrible suffering of their lives, as if they had no choice in the matter.

Well, there are many alternatives, both practical and attitudinal. We will look at the practical alternatives to mortgages but also at the way we have forged of the mortgage in our own minds a manacle, and see that freeing ourselves from it is in reality the work of a nanosecond. And I'm also going to recommend, here as elsewhere, the low-cost, low-effort, high-fun approach to life known as Permaculture.

Renting is, of course, the obvious alternative to taking out a mortgage. We've been renting our house in Devon, while renting out a house in London, for four years, and while one potential downside is that you don't do the place up to the same extent that you might if you owned it, it has the advantage of being extremely cheap, since although the rent may compare or even be greater than the mortgage interest payments, there are no maintenance costs, no boilers to replace and so on. The landlord looks after those.

Renting would be a perfectly reasonable alternative to buying were leases longer and rents lower. What has happened over the last 20 to 30 years is that market forces have eclipsed any humanitarian considerations. We are all exposed to the slings and arrows of the outrageous marketplace, and we all have to become mini-capitalists 0 i.e., building up a small amount of capital and then taking out huge loans to finance expansion - in order to play our part in the pushy meritocratic society. Rents have shot up and leases in general can be terminated at a month's notice. As a renter, you are completely subject to the unpredictable whims of market capitalism. This makes it hard to put down roots. If we had a system of longer leases, say, 30 or 40 years, and lower rents, renting would be a fine alternative. The Bloomsbury Group, for example, rented Charleston and took responsibility for its upkeep. John Seymour rented his tumbledown cottage from a farmer. He did all the repairs himself and paid a modest rent. The CRASS people at Dial House in Essex rented it for 30 years. Renting also means that you do not have to find the initial deposit. The getting of this deposit creates a lot of unpleasant work for a lot of people.

It is not so much ownership that we want as a place where we can live without the fear of being thrown out at any momentum somewhere to plant fruit trees and grow vegetables, somewhere we can keep chickens. In the Middle Ages, rents tended to be low, as properties were administered by the monks. Even the manor houses tended to be kinder landlords than is generally considered. In The Common Stream, Rowland Parker's history of the Cambridgeshire village of Foxton, we read of annual rents of one penny for a 27-acre smallholding, a sum which could be a hundredth of the peasant's annual income. Imagine paying £300 a year today for a 10-acre farm. Land was more evenly shared: in Foxton, 27 families shared 840 acres. Manor house owners and monks weren't like today's property developers; they did not buy and sell properties in the hope of making vast capital profits. They were long-term stewards of the properties and the lands that went with them. The institution - whether family or monastery - was bound to outlive any individual. Therefore, sustainability was built into the programme. Rowland Parker finds examples of rents unchanged for 500 years; there were also peppercorn rents, meaning, nothing. As in other areas of life, the maintenance of a healthy community, a commune, was more important than money-getting, and low rents with long leases tended to promote local harmony.

In Masterless Men, his study of vagrancy in the period 1560-1640, A.L. Beier notes the high Middle Ages the poor were comparatively firmly rooted to the land. Before the mid-16th century, they retained gardens and crofts where they still grew some food...they kept livestock on the commons; and they supplemented their incomes through casual labouring and cottage industries. When times were bad, they no doubt received assistance from relatives, neighbours and friends.

It was in the late 16th and early 17th centuries that this system began to be dismantled. Says Beir: "the whole pattern of agriculture in open-field villages was altered from a communal pattern to an individualistic one." In the 16th century, he said, the new landowners increased rents and imposed new duties, and "by 1600 the English people had had the country's major resource seized from their grasp." The Middle Ages saw an almost communistic spread of property ownership or tenantship. In Chippenham, for example, the proportion of landless householders rose from 3.5% in 1279 to 63% in 1712. Uprooted from the land, the peasant poor, :were no longer part of a manorial economy".

Before 1600, the average peasant was living very well. He was more free than is generally thought. He was living exactly the life to which today's stockbrokers aspire: a big house in the country with horses, animals and land. It's just that the peasant didn't have to slave in the city from 7am every weekday to get it: he just had to work for a day or two each week on the manorial land. Every tenant peasant had his own arrangement with the manor house. Here are two 13th century examples from Rowland Parker:

Thomas Vaccarius holds 9 acres of land with a house, and he must do each year 100 days work, plough one acre and do carting service when required. He shall receive one hen, and shall mow and stack. His services are valued at 10s a year, and he pays a rent of 3d.

John Aubrey holds 18 acres of land with a house, and he must do 52 days of work a year, must plough for 2 days, do 2 boon-works at harvest, mow the meadow for 2 days, cart the hay, repair the roof of the hall, harrow the oat-land along with his fellows, and he shall receive one hen and 16 eggs. His services are valued at 9s 8d and he pays a rent of 2s 6d.

Thomas Vaccarius paid a tiny fraction of his wages in rent for his nine-acre holding. He worked just two days a week. John Aubrey had 18 acres of land and a job which only required him to work one day a week and which, in today's values, pays him thirty grand a year (putting his rent at £7,000, a modest amount for such a considerable property). The rest of the time John and Thomas would be working on their smallholdings and practising a craft or several crafts by which they earned more money.

Then came the dastardly Henry VIII/Puritan attack on the old ways. The mortgage, which puts all the burden of buying a house on the individual, is the logical outcome of the individualisation of ownership. But the reality is that in being sold the idea that we should all own our own house, we have simply given into a giant usury con.

We need to diffuse land ownership, ban usurious mortgages, stabilise rents and bring house prices right down. We could perhaps do this by simply losing interest in money-making. And landlords need to reinvent themselves as kindly patrons uninterested in profit. A good role for the rich would be to let property to the rest of us at low rents and with long leases. We also need to stop constantly wanting bigger houses. One of the great attractions of Permaculture is that it shows you how to make the most of what you have and to enjoy where you are rather than blaming your problems on lack of space or money or time.

Until that magical day comes, you might like to consider squatting. Squatting makes a lot of sense to the freedom-seeker. Squatters simply occupy empty buildings and live in them. This can work beautifully. One group of friends had a squat for over five years. They gradually did the place up, learning and building skills in the process. They paid no rent and there were no mortgage payments to make, so one of the primary motivations for taking unpleasant work was eradicated, leading to a high level of freedom.

The great Mutoid Waste Company made squatting into an art form in the 1980s and 1990s. They lived in squats all over London, then in Berlin and across Europe. They would move into a large warehouse, where they would spend the days making fantastic sculptures out of scrap and the nights partying; truly the Troubadours of their day. Like St Francis of Assisi, they rejected money in favour of travelling the world as fools and truth-tellers.

Another realistic option is communal living. Get together with a few friends and share a house. You could even buy a house together and share out the loan. Or join an existing commune. According to Diggers and Dreamers, a book which lists communal living experiments currently operating in the UK, there are at least 2,500 people living in over 100 communities in the UK, and I don't doubt that the real figure is very much greater than this, since more informal arrangements will not be listed. Find four terraced houses in a row and knock the walls down like the Beatles in Help!

As students, many of us share houses, and it's a system that, besides the inevitable grime that spreads when four irresponsible and useless young adults live together, work reasonably well. When we grow up, we come to decide that one of the benefits of wage slavery is our own little flat, perhaps shared with a partner, and escaping from the houseshare situation becomes a status issue. But think how well domesticated young adults might be able to live together.

We have today the living example of Dial House in Essex. It is a five-bedroom cottage with an acre of land, and up to 20 people have lived there at any one time, although, right now, there are just three. The house demonstrates what can be achieved with people rather than money; by any standards the place is beautifully decorated and the gardens simply splendid. The inhabitants have built sheds and extra rooms in the gardens. It is an efficient blueprint, the only surprise being that more people have not picked up on the idea, an idea which, after all, is just a group of friends renting a house together. the house is now owned by a syndicate, which bought it when the house was under threat from property developers.

The idea behind CRASS house was that it should operate an 'open house': in other words, all were welcome and all would be given hospitality and shelter. In this sense, it is a secular equivalent of a medieval monastery, a place of peace and refuge, which is also a thriving working environment - cooking, baking, growing things, making things. Penny Rimbaud is a secular priest, while fellow artist and house-dweller Gee Vaucher is Mother Superior. Penny's latest project is a wood-boarded shed with a bell tower and stained-glass windows. It looks suspiciously like a chapel. Perhaps an even closer similarity is with the Brethren of the Free Spirit, those bohemians of the 14th century who lived in groups in what they called Houses of Voluntary Poverty.

Penny Rimbaud envisaged a new network of such houses across the country, all within a day's walk of one another. I think more of us should follow its example and declare our own houses open to travellers.

Another option would be to buy a very cheap house in the middle of nowhere. You can always travel to the big city for trips and stay with friends. Then you will have a tiny mortgage. Or build your own house. I understand that houses built of cob and thatch are making a comeback. Buy two acres of land and build a little house for yourself. Then make it bigger as the years go by. Be an architect. Share the cost with friends. The other question to ask yourself is: do you need such a big house? I know many successful city types who, in their desire for a big house in the country, have saddled themselves with the most enormous mortgages, meaning that they are literally enslaved to the job. Despite earning what would appear to most of us to be a fantastic salary, they feel burdened by the debt and therefore will resort to all sorts of Machiavellian strategies in order to keep their job or get promoted. They earn a lit of money but are still freighted by anxiety. But what is the purpose of the big house? Certainly it saddles you with a lot of expense. The bigger the house, the more work there is to do. More cleaning, more furniture to find, more costs, more toil, more encumbrance.

Again, I would recommend taking a look at the Permaculture magazine, which is full of examples of people who have created low-cost living styles for themselves, sometimes building their own houses out deep in the woods. The problem they often encounter is planning law. For some crazy reason, planners will allow any number of wasteful supermarkets to clog up our cities, but if you try to get permission to build a log cabin in a wood, it is practically impossible. Clearly, the authorities cannot stand people who want to be free.

A further alternative is vagabondage. Rid yourself of the mortgage and take to the streets. Vagabondage, as we've seen was actually socially approved in the Middle Ages, largely because of the example of St Francis and his mendicant friars. Jesus never seemed to struggle with monthly mortgage repayments; he was a wanderer, throwing himself on the hospitality of others. In India today, we have the example of the sadhus, the crazy holy men who come into the village, are fed and sheltered for a few days, and then move on. The Indians do not put the sadhus on restart programmes and try to get them into work. They do not pity them as homeless and make efforts to incorporate them into straight society. So it should be here when the Mutoid Waste Company comes to town; we should welcome them with open arms, not try and force them to get proper jobs.

The problem with vagabondage is that big governments can't stand it. They hate the chaos, the unruly elements, the sense that people are wandering around the country doing what they like. When governments increase in power, they all have a resentful way of cracking down on vagabonds. After having been left alone or even positively encouraged for 900 years, the intrusive, centralising, ordered, ordering governments of the Tudor period introduced a number of laws against vagrancy. That vagrancy had become a problem can be explained by two factors; the first is that, following the Reformation and the Enclosure Acts, thousands had been thrown out of work by a process that today we would call privatisation. The old collective ways of operating had been attacked. So there were more beggars. Secondly, the beggars were no longer looked after by the monasteries and the great aristocratic households. On the one hand, the monasteries had been stolen by the new avaricious posies, and on the other, the Catholic tradition of hospitality was being undermined by the emerging Protestant individualism.

A different work ethic also failed to understand the social purpose of the wanderer. In 1565, government man Sir Thomas Smith writes: "Not having rent or living sufficient to maintain himself, does live so idly, he is inquired of, and sometime sent to gaol, sometime otherwise punished as a sturdy vagabond: so much our policy does abhor idleness." When the prisons had been filled with such sturdy beggars, the authorities decided to send them off to the new plantations in Jamaica, where they would be indentured for seven years. It is reported that they were treated worse than the slaves, because the slave owners had an interest in ensuring that their slaves were well fed and reasonably happy in order that they would give a lifetime of service, while the indentured exiles would leave in seven years and there was therefore no interest in keeping them healthy or even alive.

Houses of correction were the Elizabethan equivalent of Nazi concentration or work camps: an act of 1576 promoted the notion that "youth may be accustomed and brought up in labour an work" - and lazy children aged five to 14 were put in the stocks or whipped. Other categories of men viewed with distrust by the authorities were "pedlars and tinkers, soldiers and mariners, entertainers, students, unlicensed healers, fortune-tellers, wizards". Gypsies and the Irish were treated as vagrants and an act of 1572 ordered the Irish, associated with 'Popery' and rebellion, back to Ireland. It's the familiar story: government cracks down on idleness.

Perhaps the most important question is: what do we mean by 'home'? It is possible that the homeless wanderer can be more at home than the mortgage-bound banker. Putting a lot of time and money into mortgages and the "dream home" is never going to be more than a distraction from the real issue, which is you, and your state of mind. The mortgage is a commercial exploitation of our longing for home. You'll know when you've found what you're looking for when you stop looking.

But the final answer to worrying about the mortgage is simply not to worry about it. It is a fiction. Don't let the debt get you down. Who cares about the debt? Are you ever going to be homeless or starving? Unlikely. So how bad can things get? The Thing loves you to be in debt. The money-getters in the City who own your debt love your debt; they are not doing you a favour, much as their promotional material would have you believe otherwise. They are exploiting you. The usurers are having a field day; do not for God's sake let them make you feel guilty. They're the ones who should feel guilty because they are sinners, condemned to the eternal flames. Yea!

(Tom Hodgkinson, How to be Free)

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