Category Archives: Neoliberalism

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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The Plan? Wealth, Housing Need and Austerity

I have never been quite sure where it is from but I have a copy of a cartoon in my office called ‘The Plan’. In six frames it shows the ebb and flow, back and forth, of affluent and poor-black households in US cities, first changing places in the inner city and then in the suburbs. Yet research on gentrification suggests otherwise – with tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of urban households displaced via the attention of higher-income households and investors to areas in which poorer households congregated (these are major currents of the urban politics of cities like San Francisco with debate moving from a concern with yuppies to Silicon Valley employees and rocketing house prices, or London with its influx of super-rich and international investment capital in the new-buiold apartment market). The lack of investment in such neighbourhoods, by landlords and owners, meant that properties in these locations offered a bonus dividend – invest here and prices might align themselves with higher prices elsewhere. The search for ‘gentrifiable’ properties and ‘up-and-coming’ neighbourhoods has been a key strand in the story of property wealth in the US and UK over the past twenty years. To understand gentrification is to provide a window on the otherwise closed workings of the economy and the politics of homeownership that permeates our culture today, in short – who are the winning and losing groups in society today?

the plan cartoon

The image of the affluent upping sticks and landing wherever suits them best in my cartoon may seem an unproblematic story, indeed one that is emblematic of what we have become as a flexible, location-maximising constituency of worker-homeowners. But who is this ‘we’? Some years ago I attended a policymaker forum in Melbourne convened at the onset of the global financial crisis. Here Australian Federal bank officials rationalised the story of low interest rates, arguing that they had benefited the macro-economy and the needs of ‘us’ homeowners. Well, even in Australia homeownership (like the US and UK) remains at just over two-thirds of households so it is not the embracing form of ‘we’ that we might want to refer to (data analysis on our project on London’s supe-rich shows that owner occupation has declined from 56% of households to 50%, the big gains going to owner-investor landlords benefitting from a rise in private renting from 17 to 26%). In all of this the self-identified role of many politicians and public bankers has been legitimated through reference to keeping things rolling nicely for ‘us’. Indeed those who would like to join ‘us’, aspirational owners seeking to get on that ladder of wealth creation and relative personal security, are also critical to understanding a large part of the banking/housing crisis – asset values rose because the architectures of the state and private finance were fundamentally aligned to fulfil the desire of existing and prospective homeowners, even as this project generated the basis for the current catastrophe as low income owners and their debt poisoned the new products built upon them.

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‘Cherish Public Housing’ – Poster on HK train.

As David Harvey (1) has eloquently argued, the crisis was underpinned by the ‘fix’ needed by capitalism to expand after ‘local’ supplies of labour and opportunity diminished. As labour and commodities came to be supplied more cheaply by countries like China and India a further stage of expansion could only be effectively generated by allowing consumers, many of them not at all well-off, to become indebted over increasing timeframes and using new products in ‘sub-prime’ deals, offered to millions of low-income households in the US. With the house of cards that this situation created now very much collapsed the costs, we were told, should not be borne by these financial institutions and, under an increasingly transparent ideological project, continue to be tackled through cutting the cost of public services. Critically, one of the many manifest outcomes of these cuts will be the way that the state provision and particular geography of public and private rental housing in major cities like London. Three key issues can be identified that need to be understood to make sense of what now appears to be happening to public housing and, by extension, to poorer households in our cities:

  1. The sense that public housing is a tarnished state project that is so stigmatised in the public eye and its households so economically marginal that reducing its costs is deemed politically desirable (by making conditions so bad that others are not inclined to want to use such services) and fiscally commonsense;
  2. Public housing, in its ‘estate’ form, represents an opportunity to contain the mad, bad and sad in spaces that can be policed and monitored by a punitive welfare regime that sees benefit uptake as a kind of deviance (literally not that which ‘normal’ or included society does) – demolition and the thinning-out of such pockets is seen as desirable and will make way for new rounds of capital investment and opportunities for international capital and high income households, and;
  3. The concentration of economic losers and social stress in public housing generates risks to included society (such as through criminality and anti-social behaviour) that higher-income groups seek to avoid by using housing and schooling systems as a means of insulating themselves from the risk of contact with poorer households (the ‘dinner party test’ is useful in establishing such practises – good schools are identified not through academic merit so much as by the ‘kind’ of children that go there, academic performance can then be used as a proxy measure for the social composition of schools).

This social, political and economic context has helped soften-up public housing for the onslaught of the current political regime. Housing benefit in the private rental sector has been capped and rents in public housing have moved closer to (up to 80%) of market rents where possible. These plans bring us back to the low status of public housing assistance in the UK. However, these new interventions should not only be attacked because they will not work and will displace poorer households, rather they should also be understood as the products of ideas and values shaped by affluent interests and lifestyles. These values are generated by the sheltered personal biographies and daily spatial pathways of policymakers who have little experience of such conditions or the impact of their proposals. Indeed our political elite are active in a process of insulating themselves; both from the risks generated by the social exclusion derived from the cuts themselves, and from paying for the current predicament. The callousness of political priorities is generated by the social pathways and deeper class interests of the wider spectrum of political elites who, for them and the constituencies they represent, refuse to allow the prospect that recent decades of massive wealth generation should be clawed-back, taxed or otherwise captured to tackle the crisis and re-build municipal and civic facilities.

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A front page from The Observer (2) brings fifty years of research on gentrification and its impact on the urban poor to the forefront of debates about the changes that will result from government commitments to erode the security of public and private tenants. Many will be displaced from high-cost neighbourhoods and, as Saskia Sassen (3) has recently argued, provide golden opportunities for accumulation by a locked-out aspirational class of prospective homeowners who so want homes at affordable prices in places that will be seen as the investment and gentrification hotspots of the future. While some commentators were aggrieved at earlier government ‘plans’ to engender local social mix as a form of gentrification in fact this plan appears to be something much more emphatically ambitious – deploying a crisis of capitalism as an opportunity to displace the poorer and middle classes and benefit investors (in much the same way that Naomi Klein (4) has described as endemic feature of our economic system). What is even more remarkable about the socially constructed parameters of current debate is that many of us have ingested the logic of cuts and requirements of corporate capital and attacking each other as the illegitimate beneficiaries of bloated state expenditure. This discursive race to the bottom of social insecurities and labour-market flexibilities will simultaneously provision a spatial switch as low-paid workers and benefit recipients make way for higher income tenants (in public and private rental accommodation) and owners (taking advantage of sales of repossessed housing). Cities like London will be for the rich, its hinterlands for a subsistence poor desperate to take work on almost any conditions in lieu of the assurances of the state (the argument that the private sector will not be capable of substituting for public employment is logical, yet we can see how highly indebted and insecure households may yet make abundant, cheap and flexible labourers for it).

There is something almost awe-inspiring in the scale of subterfuge on offer. Unashamed by their inability to predict or counter the excesses and collapse of the system many economists continue to debate and determine the direction of cuts, rather than their need. Instead of building common assurances and securities through a state that is seen as the product of a leviathan built of ‘us’ there remains massive cultural investment in a discourse of self-interest and wealth accumulation as the vehicle to personal welfare and insecurity from economic risks. This bind between property wealth and politics perhaps helps to explain the more muted response to cuts so far in the UK when compared with other countries, yet it is unlikely that so extensive a roadmap will not radicalise a much broader range of social groups and interests.

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Those spaces likely to be more resilient to a possible second economic downturn are inhabited by the lifeblood of political authority and planning today. For these groups their daily spatial circuits and friendships rarely cross with those who will see the social catastrophe and toxicity that will be sewn into many such localities for years to come (often on already lengthy histories of economic marginality and community decline). Political life has, whether it is of the left or right, largely failed to prevent the excesses of corporate-political agendas seeking the bottoming-out of wages and social benefits – for many people it is not at all clear how to respond or articulate an effective response that might challenge such alienating projects. It has also palpably failed to reduce inequalities in ways that might bring fairness and safety from the harms generated by economic secondaryness. The horrorshow of child neglect, para-criminal ambition as substitutes for legitimate careers, anti-social behaviour, incivility and the death of personal fulfilment via secure modes of work and community life will be the inter-generational gift of the ongoing plans of our political establishment.

This is an extended and updated version of a piece that first appeared as ‘Cities for the Rich’ in Le Monde Diplomatique.

Sources

  1. Harvey, D. (2010) The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, Profile Books.
  2. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/oct/24/exodus-poor-families-from-london
  3. Sassen, S. (2010) A Savage Sorting of Winners and Losers: Contemporary Versions of Primitive Accumulation, Globalizations, 7, ½, pp. 23-50.
  4. Klein, N. (2008) The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, London: Penguin.

A statement of academic practice

In line with some of my recent posts around academic practice, ideas of the pro-social and notions of collective I am posting a statement that I drafted some time ago. In the light of recent instrumental assessments of academic work, the privatisation of the funding to universities and the backdrop of a neoliberal consensus in politics I thought this might be of interest to some readers. It seems to me that who ‘we’ are as academics in a context in which our students present and have been molded as (highly indebted) consumers presents challenges for our identity and the relationship between universities, public, corporate and political life. All of this is in a kind of deep flux but perhaps that sense of change and uncertainty is precisely the time we should be active in helping to form and retain important aspects of academic practice that, if anything, are needed now as ever they were.

A statement of academic practice

  1. Academics seek to work in an environment that offers space for new ideas, thinking and discoveries that address problems outside the space of the university itself.
  1. We understand that the academic environment exists to help us to create, discover, share and apply knowledge through both our teaching and research.
  1. As academics and colleagues we seek to measure our qualities and value by reference to our provision of research and ideas to communities outside the university and through teaching which generates graduates who will also take their ideas, skills and knowledge to those communities.
  1. This statement acknowledges the origins of universities as publicly funded, regulated and accountable institutions, some of which were also created by local subscription.
  1. We recognise the potential for higher education to transform people’s lives and welcome a diverse range of students and staff to the University’s own community.
  1. Academics remain keen and able to communicate the excitement and value of their research to people in their city, the region and the wider world.
  1. Academic work is underpinned by a number of core values that are essential to scholarly pursuit and the communication of knowledge. These include collegiality, curiosity, independence of mind, innovation, internationalism of outlook and connection, openness, reflectiveness and understanding.
  1. As academics we believe in a higher education culture built on a positive interaction between learning, teaching and research, for their students and for communities more widely. We take collective responsibility, with colleagues who have professional, teaching and research expertise, for ensuring that this culture fosters the distinctive development of graduates that are knowledgeable and skilled, and who are responsible, independent, critical and creative thinkers with a similar commitment to the social good.*

 

* Adapted from the Sheffield Academic statement

The poverty of urban research: London’s super-rich

The Shard

The Shard

Space matters, as geographers often like to say to sociologists – it also matters to the very wealthy who are overwhelmingly concentrated around the social asset-rich spaces of London’s super-prime property markets. Unless you have been living in a cave for the last few years this is an issue that is exercising rather a lot of people. What kind of a city has London become and who is it for? The project that I am co-leading with Roger Burrows (Goldsmiths) is focused on trying to understand the changes that the city has experienced alongside the massive increases in wealth, both from international and ‘local’ sources. Instead of looking down, as has often been criticised in sociological research, we are trying to look-up and understand the property markets, neighbourhoods, social circuits and wider impacts of these groups on the city.

For the super-rich and the merely very wealthy London works – it has relatively low levels of property taxation, unrivalled cultural and leisure circuits, sits astride the time line and is a relatively safe city, both to live and do business. But there is a much broader series of political questions that lurks in the background here – austerity, welfare cuts, stagnating housing supply, gentrification, estate demolitions and the general sense that London works for capital rather than its citizens. If anything we feel that this makes studying the rich a more urgent problematic – the displacement of low-income households in the city is by no means disconnected from the rising fortunes and investments of off-shore investors and to the insulated political lives of those making the decision to cut welfare and housing programmes. As we move into the research we are learning much more about how and why the wealthy are choosing London, as a place to live or as a place to park money for a time. Much of London’s gain has been generated by the chaos of other regions globally, or the relative intrusiveness of the state in other countries.

The social splitting-off of super-affluence represents one of the foremost challenges for applied social science. Fundamentally this relates to the lag between models of society, power and civic life and the growth, dynamics and effects of super-affluence that have not tended to be captured through these lenses. In a city like London it is clear that there are those investing in, but rarely living in, the city, but there are also many very wealthy people who seek to be in the city. What do these types of engagement and non/elective belonging imply for politics and fiscal policies?

Gaining contact and learning more is fraught with difficulty, one of the reasons ‘studying-up’ , though laudable, is so difficult in the first place. The very rich present us with difficulties precisely because they tend to challenge the ability of a public sociology to locate, understand and report on them.  In many cases the very possibility of connection with such groups has evaporated, and the state already acknowledges this. In the past the traditional imperatives of research meant that work on elite was difficult – secretaries, various defensive and other power relationships kept social investigators at bay.  But, more recently, services like the Australian Bureau of Statistics and US statistical authorities have expressed concern at what is effectively the growing myopia of the state to super rich citizens whose residential arrangements, such as gated communities, prevent their basic profiling. Instead of concern with unemployed and young males, the perennial problem group for survey researchers, we need to acknowledge the increasing opacity of affluent life – from the state and from public understandings of the full range of social life. The state sees unevenly, and appears to be predisposed to support most those it sees least.

London’s burgeoning high rise landscape appears to be driven by underground pipelines of capital flowing into the city from across the globe. London’s luck brings more luck, the longest run of a nationally-sanctioned pyramiding scheme in the form of its property market. Perhaps worst of all the city of Lanchester’s Capital is a heartless space, money talks and politicians listen. Hostility to migrants but not migrating money, to new homes but not to empty homes speak of a callous money-logic that trumps attempts at stating the case for the city as a place for communities, social life and nurturing spaces. How very old-fashioned and cringe-worthy even to suggest such things.

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One Hyde Park, ultra prime market residences.

Any basic commitment to an equitable social and economic agenda should feel obliged to encompass these changes and move beyond speculation to learn more about the extent, lifestyles, attitudes and daily life of the very wealthy. Debates about taxation, house-building, civic engagement and urban politics cannot proceed without such insights. This is not to suggest that with knowledge might come political action or condemnation, but that we cannot achieve commitments to social equity and more just cities without it.

Managing information overload

Lest people think I am slightly mad I want to start with another word I found in the Chambers English dictionary, you will notice it also starts with ‘a’, so you can see I haven’t got very far as yet. The word is (perhaps in a rather Steven Fry QI voice) abibliophobia noun the fear or anxiety that one will run out of things to read. This set me thinking as I believe I am with the majority of academics whose fear is of even marginally keeping apace of the books, journal articles (a large part of my inbox used to be journal alerts for contents pages), reports, blogs (!) and perhaps twitter as well. Surely one of the core anxieties of our times is how we can navigate this sea of information, remain informed and not be bluffers who have only read the abstract. We are in danger of being locked into Thomas Hylland Eriksen’s Tyranny of the Moment (think of your average day of repeating the same tasks over and over again and being locked into this kind of activity and you have it – for most of us its email of course, with Eriksen noting that he would go home in order to do decent work – but perhaps even that was before webmail…). The reality is of course that most such information is incredibly ‘thin’ and refers to little of consequence, a good example of this being coverage of the stockmarkets. We can almost tune-in from one day to another and be confronted either with disaster or elation at the performance of the market. This isn’t simply a function of the current crisis, it is just as much about a move away from analysis and the educative role of the media to a point at which the media apparently reflect momentary interests and data, hence we don’t see graphs for the past week or year to set things in context, never mind a proper briefing on what it all means. The project of writers like John Lanchester (check his series of articles for the London Review of Books, Whoops! and How to Speak Money) has been precisely to cut through the froth of media attention and the emotion machine of the stockmarket and offer people deeper understandings of the way markets, governments and bankers work (and often don’t). The reason I raise this is because arguing about the value and need for longer loops of thinking in the academy belies the reality that so many of us are already the kind of twitching subjects of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism – plugged into headphones, phones, ipads, laptops and desktops – frantically trying to reduce the size of our inboxes or trying to boost our social media profile (ahem). This is corrosive stuff, the partial equivalent of the film The Matrix and a new reason to take critical theory seriously – we are being deeply affected by information overload, by immersion in momentary takes on social life and confronted by the ways in which big data and privately run social monitoring systems are challenging the voice and relevance of social research in the academy. There IS a kind of corporate, neoliberal, commodifying, dehumanising aspect to the way that universities and academics are being repositioned as quick voices and quicker thinkers. Say it isn’t so and then reflect on the daily pressures we all face. I hope to move on to words beginning with b soon.