Monthly Archives: November 2014

A black Friday: The kingdoms to come?

Not long after I returned from living in Australia I picked up J G Ballard’s Kingdom Come, a further exploration of a semi-fictional suburban location, one of what he calls in the book rather nicely, the Heathrow towns. Ballard’s novel isn’t so much prescient as a kind of social science fiction that already resonated with contemporary events. After four years in one of the older quiet suburbs of Hobart the story resonated strongly with my experience upon emerging, blinking into the fast-paced lifestyle of what felt like an overpopulated, congested and disorderly urbanism of the British kind so despised by Daily Mail leader writers and expatriates. The book connected my own feelings of disorientation to the partially unfamiliar sites and feelings I experienced back in a now unfamiliar homeland.

ballard dreams of violenceFor those who don’t know the book it concerns a vast shopping centre which forms the centrepiece of the narrative and focal point for consumers bereft of alternative pastimes. Alongside this site Ballard recounts an obsession with sport and the conflation of cultural with hyper-nationalist zealotry that is turned against a scapegoated otherness of retiring Asians. The imagined future of the book is too painfully close to current events and fears to be shelved simply as a fiction that should not overly trouble us. Driving from the south of England to its to urban north to take up my new post I was struck by the red crosses of St George, on car bumper stickers, flying atop A-road burger bars and churches. Were there really as many when I left? Even articulations of such discomfort are themselves subjected to a kind of hostility and suspicion in the current climate.

As with many of Ballard’s books a key theme is how the veneer of civility in modern urban life can so easily be moved to reveal the cruelty, emptiness and violence of everyday life. Spectators in the novel move between the non-places of sports stadia, work and the shopping centre while channeling their boredom by bashing vulnerable migrants. The tone is aloof and clinical, suggesting a kind of moral ambivalence and complicity of the central character in the aggressive outpourings of the surrounding mob. We are left with the impression of a space that speaks for so many others – offering us nothing more than consumer distractions and hidden violence in lieu of the terror of facing the real emptiness of life. The pursuit of imagined or inherited identities, meaningless acquisition or vacuous tournaments between in and out groups on sports pitches are the means by which alienation is handled.


Picture courtesy Daryl Martin, CURB.

With consumer products as cheap as chips, houses are bought and sold as much for profit as homes to live in and a merry-go-round of political distractions and scapegoating of migrants and welfare scroungers important questions are raised about the nature of our social existence. Where can we go to feel joy, surprise, intrinsic interest in the over-capitalised and under-nourishing urbanism generated in the last urban renaissance? Without improving urban design and reducing social inequalities we appear compelled to pursue personal advantages and neglect others, jockeying to avoid spaces we may deem too risky or unpleasant to go near. What political and communal voices will identify ambitions of community safety, human spaces for self-development and social contact and avoid further sell-outs to large scale private capital and to an ‘anything but’ agenda that leaves private wealth untapped and public spaces and assets shoddy or dysfunctional. The rise of the political right across Europe and the gloss of respectability among its counterparts entering mainstream politics now are not surprising in this context. Inequality, social exclusion and genuine fears about local disorder, uninhibited incivility and a vacuity at the heart of political and corporate life are the bedrock of a mild economic resurgence, even as precariousness and economic disaster mark so many urban districts nationally. Ballard achieved much by offering a mirror to our lives that showed the hollow and unpleasant core to contemporary capitalism and the kind of politics and places cast in its shadow.

Is the UK fair?

Some people may think that choosing to tax the assets of the wealthy is as random as choosing to tax water but surely there is some logic to it. One of the more interesting aspects of what has been said about the very wealthy and the institutions that they run is that they have had a disproportionate impact on the kinds of policies and currents of thinking operating in political life. Although it sounds rather like old school Marxist theories of knowledge the argument is essentially that there has been a capturing of agendas, decisions and frameworks for policymaking by financial institutions, the wealthy and the powerful intermediaries that work across these spaces. On the one hand this has meant politicians have felt the financial services sector is so important that all other decisions are secondary to the need to ensure their vitality. In short, this has lead to bailouts for banks and the collective paying-down of debt as a result. Not only has this been a slowly unfolding social disaster over the past six years or so but even more perversely we inhabit a media and political culture that has very successfully made discussion of taxation and progressive resourcing of the public realm an apparent mad house that no one should bear to entertain.

Not long ago I was invited to give a presentation at a meeting organised by the York People’s Assembly on whether Britain seems fair. I took this as a rather rhetorical opening for a debate about why Britain is broken, broke or both and this is a kind of summary of the things I tried to get across in that session.

The best social research on crime, education, jobs, housing and so on is that these remain problems, that access to opportunity is a key issue and that it is the familiar groups and places that are faring badly.

We need to decide whether the arrangements and social structures we see around us are justified, due to chance, to hard work or because we live in a rigged system that will continue to produce and reproduce low paid, sick, poorly educated, under-employed and groups deemed to be deviant and workshy by a media system looking for cheap stories or, worse, under the editorial control of uncritical or partisan news media empires (and the BBC increasingly appears to be acting in such ways too).

In Herbert Gans’ essay The Positive Functions of Poverty he pokes fun at the establishment by saying that we NEED poverty, it provides jobs for social workers and other state professionals, it gives us something to wring our hands over and ponder the morality of others and it provides energy for the politics of the left. As a community we certainly seem to enjoy moralising and pointing at the broken social wrecks of our economy and policy decisions – Benefits Street is one of several examples of the kind of voyeurism and social spitefulness that has become embedded in our culture today.

On politics – the mindset of contemporary social life is co-opted to the rhythms of indebtedness (including that generated by homeownership), resistance and protest are unthinkable, it is also often seen as futile and increasingly severely repressed, the shiny baubles of the information age distract us and reduce our energy or attention to social problems (ipads, videogames, pornography).

The position of many is to adopt what Fromm called the marketing personality, we sell ourselves and calculate our worth or failure in our successes or failures in work – keep your head down, play by the rules and hope your number isn’t called.

Implicit in the choices of many is what Iain Angell positively describes as a kind of new barbarianism – we make decisions based on personal gain, made to feel we are on our own by government (commodification of state assurances) driven by commercial imperatives. We see this culture all around us – a robbing of the social commons by political and corporate elites to take what they can before someone else does so. You better get educated, get a ticket to the right job in an increasingly precarious labour market, move to a gated community and insure yourself by investing in your health, taking those common goods that help you (good schools and public health systems) while arguing for low taxes and the dismantling of inefficient welfare systems. Just hope you don’t end up on the wrong side of the fence because then it really will be game over.

Piketty gives us the startling overview and Harvey the mechanisms underlying much of what is going on. Their apparent radicalism is to propose, in Piketty’s case, that no one can win in a system so rigged towards the favouring of those who already own so much. Countries like the US, France and UK are all similar in this. The interesting thing here is that Piketty is on the inside – he sees a core value in capitalism but he would like to be more just and, as Harvey once said in questions at a lecture, social deomocracy would be a start. In Harvey’s case the analysis focuses on the points of weakness (the contradictions) for those who argue that a system so unequal, so destructive to nature and prone to continuous and costly disaster is the only game in town. In Piketty’s case he has been picked up by the financial press and globally by those who see his incredible data and analysis, and a route map for dealing with the worst excesses, but he is no apologist, citing his own up-bringing in the communist era as a kind of education against alternatives. Harvey’s popularity lies in his dogged exposition of Marxist analysis of the system and his ‘translation’ of Marx via a chapter by chapter analysis of lectures freely placed online (to say nothing of his standing as a critical geography for more than forty years). Moreover David Harvey is gauging that theft, extortion, organised crime, financial usury and the rigged financial system is part of how the system now works and money is concentrated and reproduced in a neoliberal class. So the project of neoliberalism was an attempt to regain the returns and position of the elite that it had occupied in the early part of the century and as Piketty’s data now shows – they have got it back, and more!

For the criminologist John Lea, crime has become part of the engine as well as the exhaust of the system – well, we might also say that unfairness and inequality are also part of the engine and the exhaust of the machine – we need them to make the gains accrue to capital, even worse is that the middle classes or increasingly pervasive and can see that they have a common interest with the low and no-paid against rampant contracting-out, crony capitalism, privatisation and asset stripping. In all of this we need to remember that there is a political economy to wealth and housing – politicians continue to work towards sustaining the contradictions, offering more subsidies for the weakest buyers (instead of reducing inequalities, taxing property wealth, or programming towards a long term flattening of house prices). Do you want your house value to go up or to see other people housed? Interestingly perhaps the continued dipping of owner occupation among younger households may mean that this dynamic shifts in their favour and away from the expansion of private renting fiefdoms by those who have already done very well.

Increasing polarisation and anti sociological posturing, immigrants, benefits street style treatments, lack of recognition of money poverty and conditions – scape goating, distractions

Some suggestions

Stop focusing on the poor, turn the heat and light upwards!

Role of the universities – Orientation to policy is for the most-part a falsehood – policymakers and politicians look for justifications, rather than evidence, they may remain elite insitituions but as spaces for free thinking and for investigating our social and economic condition they remain unrivalled.

In the past the argument for reform and social investment of the kind seen in Piketty’s analysis in the post war period was that these were necessary to stifle dissent, were based on the need for principles of social investment and democracy and that ultimately we all paid the price for opting out of taxes in the kind of degraded public realm that all could see. Now the good (or bad) news is that we can retreat from the negative externalities of the system (disorder, bored youth, crime, poor public services) to private estates, gated communities and to private education and health services.

The social construction of policy-maker realities – The political elite is in many ways divorced from witnessing social difference and the effects of their own policy programmes. They are wealthy and schooled in leafy areas away from zones that had already seen massive social losses of all kinds. The danger of a socially insulated executive is the possibility not only of ideologically charged assaults on the poor, but a callous and indignant approach to inequality more generally. To go back to the beginning, the very wealthy are served by the quite wealthy and almost unconsciously collude in each other’s needs.

Raise taxes fairly on income, land and property to progressively pay down debts where and if needed. Piketty’s proposals for massive taxes on private wealth should be debated far and wide. Public housing, the NHS and other collectively funded forms of social insurance and provision that make us safer, healthier, better educated need protecting from an assault by the logic of the market that will deliver new forms of inequality just as it generates new dividends to the corporations waiting in the wings.

Exhausting places

In 1975 Georges Perec observed a public space and wrote his every observation in a very short book entitled An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. Like much of Perec’s work the engagement provides scope to rethink our relationship to place and to be more playful in our understanding of what space can offer us – does the space become more banal or exciting in its appearance as a result of trying so hard to observe its every occurrence and features? Of course places can be exhausting on a number of levels and debates about the quality of place, the lack of services, cuts to public provisions and the like generate continuing rounds of discussion about how best to allow neighbourhoods to be places that advantage and prop-up their residents in some way. The debates about area affects, the idea that it is worse to be poor in a poor place than a space that is more socially diverse, captures the idea that  neighbourhood life somehow might drain the vitality and opportunity of its residents. This can happen in numerous different ways – increased pressure on social, education and health services, the social fatalism generated by stigmatised social identities in such spaces as well as the potential isolation from work opportunities or transport connections.


Those interested in this patchwork of disadvantage also well know that central mechanisms for reducing inequalities of wealth and income, and local, spatial programmes of intervention to off-set such effects are notable for their absence. We are doing little to nothing to challenge the regional and local inequalities generated by economic policies and structures, nor the deeper effects that massive cuts to social provisions are having. Yet the logic of these processes is much deeper than we might at first imagine, I have been struck at the usefulness of Saskia Sassen’s new book Expulsions which seems to me to provide a rather fresh and exciting perspective on how places and people are being transformed and denuded by the systemic architecture of the world economy. Notions of poverty and inequality don’t capture this fully. For Sassen we are seeing the tendentious emergence of forms that are leading to the literal evacuation of vulnerable populations – the theft of natural resources by international corporations, the massive displacement of populations and the removal of rights of citizenship for key groups living in poverty. More worryingly we can think of these forms of expulsion as being not fully intended – the systemic architecture of a globalised capitalism will produce forms of social and spatial organisation that feed this machine by destroying the livelihoods of millions while generating the positionality of corporate and state actors who unknowingly conspire to enable these forms of extraction to proceed. For some this might seem to let too many off the hook and yet I think there is a curious power to the notion that much of the social distress and dispossession is the emergent outcome of the system at work, rather than of careful planning or anti-social intent as such. This exhausting of places and people is the system at work, driven to the logical endpoint of its own unsustainability but no doubt also guided by the personal ambitions of key corporate actors able to take what they can from the commons before it is finally drained.

The barbarian manifestos

All of the major political parties operate with barbarian manifestos, all appear to represent (either through ideological fervour or the game of second-guessing what ‘we’, the electorate, apparently want) the needs of capital, private interests via the selling-off of public assets (the NHS, public spaces, security, hospitals, schools, the post office). This politically mediated theft has been pursued in lieu of a more progressive agenda that might begin to target the staggering wealth of the very few globally and nationally, and the protection of that wealth by seeking cuts to publicly funded projects and programmes instead of personal or corporate wealth. All of this arguably makes this it an easy time to be a housing or urban policy analyst since there isn’t much going on except for persistent thinking about what to do with very little or no money.

The great triumph of Big Society thinking is that deep down there are indeed many people who believe communities, rather than these kinds of government, can do a better job. So there is a real need for urban, housing and social studies to be premised more firmly on equitable forms of taxation and resourcing, instead of austerity. Despite the massive popularity of thinkers like David Harvey and Thomas Piketty we appear to have not produced either a key thought leader or mainstream set of principles capable of advancing such goals. Attempting to face-down the prospect of being portrayed as radical for stepping outside the narrow boundaries of political thinking set by government and conventional news media is a hard prospect indeed. We need to adopt an unblinking fearlessness to such views however; based on the raft of data and analysis globally that points to the condensation of wealth, the social disaster of austerity and the pursuit of short-term gains by various elites. The very moderate arguments for municipal, public and shared forms of provision and infrastructure also need to be part of such arguments. If we want to discuss problems like housing provision, health and our welfare we will need to start with prescriptions that do not start by tinkering with less resource, contracting-out or other substitutes – we need to state up-front that there is a cost and, indeed, that we as a community can bare such costs given our combined wealth. Unfortunately this position has been eschewed by many on the political left, while the media has ignored or viewed as risible those asking for tax justice. In this sense those who work to such principles are seen to be asking for the world, or as fantasists not facing-down the reality of budget deficits – even while we know that even a handful of billionaires could wipe-out poverty world-wide. Positions of corporate and individual wealth, so carefully and constructively attacked by Piketty’s detailed empirical analysis, need to be challenged or they are increasingly likely to be shamed to action by a more vocal public no longer willing to tolerate their disproportionate take, all the while aided by a subconsciously compliant political class. I doubt it is only me that feels these points are so glaringly obvious, just as they appear to be so clearly off the map of current political leadership and action.

Nothing space and nothing people

I was struck while reading Steve Hall and David Wilson’s piece about serial killing in a recent issue of the European Journal of Criminology. They make the argument that we need to develop deeper theories of motivation and the influence of social structural conditions that may shape such motivations. In a nutshell, is the inclination to do harm linked to predispositions that are hard-wired (some people are always born with violent propensities) or do the peculiarities and geographies of social and economic stress also play their role. I know where my money is, but this is a long-running argument and one which continues to need elucidation, not least because of the persistent denial of the role of social forces and increasing belief in genetic and personal factors. It is also important because, as they point out, the crime-drop has been much less marked in highly deprived areas – spaces that, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, have fared less than very well over the past six and many more years. Violence is concentrated, under-reported and internalised in the traumatised personal biographies of those living in these districts, and these stresses (pressured services, lack of employment, education and skills deficits, stigma and abuse) are pushed even harder because of the kinds of decisions about (non) investment and funding that government presides over in relation to the macro-economy.


Packaged recycling, courtesy Daryl Martin (CURB, University of York).

Taking as their example serial killing and the kinds of subjectivity associated with such offenders they make the observation that most of these have, counter-intuitively, barely registered in the media circus because they have taken place in abandoned spaces, involving people who are valued little by society more broadly. They use a framework developed by Simon Parker and myself about the idea of autotomic space* that appears to capture the kind of spaces sought out by killers – perhaps strategically because they tend to away from any casual gaze of unwanted encounter, but also because the people we find in such spaces are capable of being treated differently. This combination of spatial and social neglect renders the inhabitants and users of these spaces available to differential treatment. It isn’t just governments and policing agencies that act to produce sch spaces by their avoidance of responsibility and the ceding of control over such areas. We can also see how people make judgment calls about avoiding certain places because they are seen as too risky or dangerous, sometimes because inhabitants also act to deter or intimidate those who don’t belong there (points made long ago by writers like Gerry Suttles in his work on slums and their reputations and social organisation as ‘defensive’). All of this perhaps renders an intensely complex phenomenon rather simple, but it does help us to say something that moves us beyond notions of citizenship/incorporation or the kind of privatisation of public space thesis that have been the polar points of discussion around urban space in recent years. If we can treat people differently, suspend ordinary rights of citizenship, because they live in a place that has seen public funding removed, policing reduced (not something that can ever be acknowledged) and services withdrawn we can then see a vicious circularity to these processes. Sites and people are stigmatised because they don’t belong, they don’t belong because they have been financially exiled and have seen services withdrawn and this reinforces a position of partial social exile (I’m reading Saskia Sassen’s book Expulsions right now which scales these concerns to a planetary level, thoughmore on this in another post).

The production of autotomic, abandoned space is connected by Hall and Wilson to the ways in which space influences the production of damaged people with ill intent, and the way in which spaces that are relegated to the status of hopeless, sink status appears to legitimate the creation of targets for predatory criminality. Meanwhile we have long-seen the kinds of discursive treatment and further relegation of estates and post-industrial areas in media treatments that try to understand why people live like this in ‘these’ areas. Something here is rather broken and such fractures are soon revealed when we look to the geography of predatory male criminality in the north of England, the Rotherham abuse revelations among many others can be linked to these ideas of autotomic spaces and exceptional conduct (click here for an earlier article on the social and economic conditions of the town that further helps to cement these points) . Clearly there is much to be said here about gender and culture (as well as deep problems in the operations of the criminal justice system) but there is also something to be said about how these spaces create patterns of trauma that stem from wider economic and policy cycles that have rendered many such towns and cities fatalistic, inwardly facing and dangerous for weaker and discriminated groups within those spaces.

The media’s persistent role in defaming and casting-out particular social groups remains important in all of this, in just last night’s evening news on the BBC prostitutes were shown in the red light area of Amsterdam using long lenses with barely post-pubescent girls looking bemusedly to the camera as though their rights to privacy can be suspended because of their occupation and, critically, the place they work where ordinary rights are suspended. Hall and Wilson seem to be onto something here and it seems worth pursuing the idea that there is a real kind of disintegration (a falling out of society and space) of the other that occurs in places of social degradation produced by the national and urban economic and political order. This helps us to understand more about the persistence of violence, its concentration in particular areas and, in part, the lack of concerted responses to victimisation. As Hall and Wilson sum it up:

In a nutshell, the autotomic process is a process of exfoliation, shedding and abandoning a former part of the urban social body that can no longer be commercially exploited or socially controlled…Perpetrators of serious violence, homicide and serial murder take advantage of the vulnerable individuals who can be found in the unprotected spaces created by capitalism’s periodic bouts of creative destruction p.649.

 * The fancy term, autotomic space, is used as a means of capturing something about particular spaces that suggests a kind of orchestrated ejection, a rejection of spaces and social groups that takes place where the cost of trying to continue to include them in mainstream society and the wider life of the city is seen to be too high. It stems from the term used to describe animals capable of shedding a part of their body in response to attack by a predator – thus a metaphor for the ejection of parts of the city in relation to the risks associated with the continued maintenance of those segments.