Category Archives: Inequality

Going up? High Rise Housing, Wealth and Social Alienation

Jephcott's Homes in High Flats, 1971

Jephcott’s Homes in High Flats, 1971

The politics of wealth, inequality and austerity are hotting-up in the run-up to the general election. Anger is pervasive, from all political sides but the ‘mediamacro’ presentation of the reality and need for continued austerity remains intact it seems. This is particularly depressing for those seeking to launch renewed optimism about the possibilities for reform, progressive taxation (getting those into it who should but aren’t and those avoiding it) and initiatives to address major issues like the crisis in housing affordability and provision. Cities, like London, are spaces of dramatic excess or continued social abandonment. Yet many of those renting (public or private) in London sit adjacent to massive changes to the built environment that speak of the extraordinary excesses of consumption and accumulation among the very wealthy, despite one of the largest historical economic reverses the country has known.

There have been some excellent analyses of London’s and New York’s dramatically evolving skylines environments recently, pointing out that much of this landscape is an exclusive landscape, off-limits to those distressed and upended by the property market across the city. In the context of ongoing debates about what to do about the super-rich (as though they were inseparable from the operations of an expanding, more global, neoliberal and capitalist system) this transformation is nevertheless notable. As human societies it seems curious that the possibility of such a new landscape could not be applied to the need to face-down much social need. ‘Going up’ will not mean helping out. Yet one of the most curious features of the changes happening in London is that high rise has shaken the taint that we continue to apply to tower blocks and public housing estates – it is social composition and only partially design that separates these structures.

Talking to capital, photo Rowland Atkinson, 2014

Talking to capital, Rowland Atkinson, 2014

I was particularly struck by this change when I recently picked-up Pearl Jephcott’s study of high rise living in Glasgow from 1971 (Homes in High Flats), there is much to think about here, particularly in the context of super-prime real estate that suspends residents for the scant time they spend in these homes. Even by the early seventies the story of a new utopia was facing a rapid turnaround in fortunes for a model that had initially appeared to offer good, clean living after the mess of the slums and tenements. Jephcott’s study had meticulously considered the problems (the difficulties for families with children, noise, new feelings of isolation within vertical communities and emerging anxieties about crime) including measuring the waiting times of lifts in a rather interesting appendix! Yet this story appears old now, almost as done and dusted as many of the blocks themselves and system-built complexes like Pruitt Igoe, destroyed by another administration that had done as much to fail its own experiments by defunding it as changing social conditions overtook its initial promise. But this story continues to unfold. A recent report suggests that around 50 estates have been remodelled in London to add homes of other tenures but we also know that these stories have generated evictions and net losses of affordable homes – new rounds of expulsion in the wake of cash-strapped local authorities facing the lure of investment from private investors.

Today high rise means high profits for developers on small land footprints, increasingly conspicuous displays of wealth and panoptic views of the city for the partial elite of residents who spend perhaps only a few weeks there, leave it to grow in value unoccupied or decide to let it out. In this context it isn’t surprising that high rise can be made to deliver (despite of course the obvious anxieties that followed the attacks on the World Trade Centre fourteen years ago and after which predictions quickly emerged that high rise was doomed as the potential target of future suicide bombers). What is more surprising is the dearth of imagination and means that might see public investment channelled to deliver more housing to those on more modest means in a city with such stressed physical infrastructure. These new rounds of construction spring from the ground because they are connected to flows of capital accumulated across the global economy, both because of and despite the economic downturn. Anyone who follows the FT’s How to Spend It, their property section or the websites of the elite property vendors and luxury goods houses will know that the consumption of the rich, and their number, has been one of the most recession-proof stories at a time when housing stress, homelessness, food-banks, beds in garden sheds, precarious and zero hours contracts mark the life of the capital outside the bright lights of the super prime areas.

It is interesting that we have moved from visions of the catastrophe of tower block living, widespread height reduction and demolition programmes and the block as the stand-in for social distress and crime in popular films and news media to the shiny new landscape of the world cities and their Shards (London) and Nordstrom (NYC) developments. The residents of these blocks may already have gone mad from boredom, like the residents of J G Ballard’s High Rise (1975), who descend into chaos and warfare between the levels of their brand new block. Unlikely perhaps. But the deeper commentary that Ballard was offering rings true – a concern about an alienating physical environment, the boredom of affluence and perhaps most importantly the barely concealed violence of the wealthy. Is a city that only provides for the wealthy in the face of need not pathological? The imperatives and logics of capital accumulation, purchase, investment and renting will always trump the concerns for a city more grounded in the attempt to tackle human need unless we say it is wrong. If the height and structure of the 260 plus high rise blocks in London’s centre are an index of anything it is the de facto callousness of political systems and politicians who suggest that this is the only game in town and, worse, that somehow this benefits those on no and low incomes. It may seem a rather obvious observation but surely we need more than ever before to being these ambitions back down to earth and make cities like London work better for all citizens.

View from the Shard, Rowland Atkinson, 2014

View from the Shard, Photo, Rowland Atkinson, 2014

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Thinking the pro-social

Social researchers spend so much time considering problems of inequality, crime, poverty, ill-health and related questions that they rarely have time to pause and consider more utopian, counter-factual ideas, to step outside the ‘realities’ and constraints of needing to be policy relevant or palatable for other audiences. Many of us act in ways that are self-disciplining, if not self-defeating – we make careful pre-judgements about who will listen and this often prevents us from making proposals or running ideas that might make the world a, dare we say it, better place. This has long been the case but in the context of contemporary forms of unparalleled inequality, ecological crisis and economic instabilities the role and perhaps duty of social researchers is to draw on their evidence and intervene effectively in helping social conversations about these issues. It doesn’t strike me as a terribly partisan comment to suggest that the UK coalition government and its new round of proposed cuts is inherently anti-social (not least because the mainstream alternative/s offer much of the same). Indeed it has managed to triumph in promoting a worldview that suggests precisely any other argument around taxation, spending and investment is either loopy or some kind of powerful ultra-leftist viewpoint that would endanger civilization as we know it.

Today’s economic, political and social environment undermines everyday social life as notions of the shared, the public, the municipal and common space have been fundamentally challenged. The global financial crisis has ended-up granting energy and fresh confidence to narratives that legitimise cuts to the funding of public services, disinvestments in diversionary and creative programmes for vulnerable groups and fresh rounds of public asset stripping. The apparent logic of such attacks is that we cannot afford, do not need and should not pay for arrangements, institutions and provisions that are shared or collectively provided. Yet social investigation now tells us, through convincing and in-depth investigations (like that of Pickett, Wilkinson, Sassen, Piketty and Dorling) that gross inequalities, absences of social insurance and expulsions from citizenship and common provision generate expanding forms of hardship and social problems.

It appears increasingly evident that the kinds of social distress, climate change and other modern evils cannot be contained in convenient or cost-free ways to the wider population. We appear to be seeing the ‘escape’ of social problems from traditionally vulnerable spaces and populations to include those who have more often been able to avoid such problems has led to renewed efforts by the affluent to insulate themselves from these risks (I wrote about this sometime ago as a ‘cut’ in which the affluent are now able to insulate themselves from the costs of inequality that has diminished arguments for promoting greater equality or progressive taxation).

We now find that a number of problems (insecurity, fear, ill-health, violence, education and reducing social mobility) are being exacerbated by new rounds of value extraction from the public realm in the name of increasing efficiencies and economic growth. New forms of anxiety, hardship and concealed exclusion appear to mark this situation, with mounting concern about the long-term consequences of dismantling a variety of forms of common provision and mechanisms that might guard against extreme wealth and income inequalities (notably the NHS but also systems such as water). One critical basis for arguing against this ongoing disaster is to suggest that we are more capable and happy as private, free citizens when freed against the excesses and intrusion of such a dominant corporate-political sphere of influence. In other words, strong forms of municipal provision, affordable health, education, meaningful and financially rewarding work lead not only to some mad vision of a more equal society – they offer deeper and substantial rewards in the form of personal emancipation, freedom and self-realisation than in societies marked by declining public investments and provision. In such contexts what we find is not only troubling forms of social damage and loss (to say nothing of the revolting levels of excessive wealth and consumption by the affluent amidst poverty) but also diminished forms of self, community that ride alongside the vision of a minimal state and corporate capture of assets and profits.

With social and policy thinking often fixed on notions of the anti-social it appears timely to consider the value and limits of the social itself, of the kinds of mechanisms for community participation and self-realisation amidst these powerful social and economic forces. The position of the academy in relation to these debates and to questions of social resilience, emancipation, social justice, the nature of collectivity and forms of social sustenance and protection are also raised by this context. The real lie amidst all of this is that there are sides to choose from when the systemic logic of markets that pervades and dictates so many areas of social life is antagonistic to almost all visions of a sustainable, enjoyable, healthy life for all.

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.

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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.