Category Archives: Uncategorized

Home as refuge from social change

How does the contemporary home offer a window on the social ruptures and anxieties of our time?

The idea of risk has become so embedded in our thinking that it forms a pervasive and taken-for-granted backdrop to our lives. Yet these lives take place in particular places, our impression of major social change, disruption, division, catastrophe and ecological damage are registered by us from within our homes – through windows, gates, doors and screens. Our interpretive frameworks are created not only by participation in social groups, networks and institutions, but also via the domestic space of the home and its place in shaping a sense of predictability and continuity. Without this sense of refuge from unsettling and accelerating social change becomes difficult to process and accommodate – social subjects are rendered more anxious and unsettled themselves. Yet the home itself is neither a place of stability or security. This is not simply because of pervasive and persistent problems of domestic violence. Diverse household forms change over time and do so in the context of housing systems that produce or withhold opportunities for stable, affordable, appropriate and safe houses. The cries of generation rent are for just such forms of stability and continuity. The anxieties of the middle-classes are split between a desire to maintain their own property rights and wealth and a concern for the ability of their own children to experience similar advantages. The horror of homelessness is of losing our place almost fully in social terms, to have this core site of our self-maintenance stripped-away.

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The homes of public housing tenants, long assured, have been sold-off or threatened increasingly by destruction in the name, of all things, of producing more affordable housing. Housing systems more generally are partially mediating or failing to mitigate the risks of our times – precarious labour conditions, changing technologies. Housing stress generated by the lack of available homes renders us insecure by failing to provide a stable territorial core from which private actors can become confident social participants. Home is the centre. Without a decent place to stay it is hard to be.

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It seems increasingly important to understand the housing crisis as a perpetual feature of of market-oriented housing systems. The home is a point of confluence in which social actors come into being and learn about the risks, dangers and shape of the social world around them. The rise of gated estates and fortress homes indexes social fear by those with the resource to seek an escape route and a means by which feelings of risk can be managed. In a social environment characterised by rising social divisions, political polarisation and the market resolution of social goods and risks the sense of the individual as risk-bearer is surely as never before. The home becomes a bastion outside which we understand life to be intensively competitive and increasingly unsupported.

If the home is a private refuge it is also a place of freedom and personal expression, a place in which ideas of social nurture are paramount. It seems increasingly evident that rising social inequality pushes us towards a recognition of the idea of home as a refuge when our public spaces and institutions are seen as places of disinvestment and danger. To recognise the need for good housing for all is to understand the need for homes that offer a place of security, located in a social universe outside the home characterised by stronger civic spaces and identities.

 

Borderlands of the Private Home and the Fortress Impulse

Can we speculate that there is a relationship between the massive changes in policy and political life since the financial crisis of more or less ten years ago and the look and feel of the streets and homes and in our towns and cities? It was not long after the crisis began that I made a journey by car through the semi-rural areas bordering Manchester and Chester and was surprised at the number of homes with new, large and electronic gates. Why would we find these kinds of features in leafy areas with presumably low crime rates? Why indeed would we expect to find now well over a thousand gated communities in a country like the UK that has traditionally not only enjoyed a relatively low crime rate but also a history of more or less open streetscapes and a celebration of public footpaths and byways? We know that the reasons for these changes are complex and lie in a mix of factors that include a search for badges of social standing as well as a fear of crime. Yet the reality in many streets today is of a proliferation not of large gated communities but the rise of what Sarah Blandy and I recently called domestic fortresses LINK. In many neighbourhoods it is possible to see shuttered and gated large homes side-by-side with those with little or no such visible protection. What explains these variations and what does it mean, if anything at all, for questions of policy today?

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Forting-up, London

One step-change in urban life appears to be a move from segregation at a neighbourhood level to sharper differences within local spaces. Much of these changes speaks also of changing community and social relations and the connections of social networks across space rather than the traditional pattern of, more often, knowing one’s neighbours and those in a geographical and proximate community. Life is different today along a series of rapid changes in many areas of daily life. It seems to have taken very little time for the assurances, and perhaps irritations, of community life and a sense of nation and state to be replaced by a deeper series of anxieties and losses within which the individual is both the celebrated author of their own social trajectory or fate. Sociologists have been banging-on about the loss of community and notions of risk for more than two decades but I was reminded of how far we had come while settling down to the gem of a book by Wolfgang Streek LINK who asks in his most recent book – When will capitalism end? For Streek the end will come not because of alternative plans and competing blueprints of a more equitable social and economic system, rather it is the massive contradictions of a system of based around the patronage of corporate life by governments, our wholesale surrender to markets at a global scale and the loss of x, to say nothing of climate change and the ecological limits of our condition, that present a kind of systemic over-reach that is much more likely to topple the principles by which we live rather than a unionized or revolutionary movement driven by mass social movements.

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Fortress USA, Detroit

How is all of this relevant to gated communities and fortress homes I hear you ask in some exasperation? We know that things aren’t good and look set to be pretty unsettled in a fragmenting Europe and an uncertain global context with contests and displays of power between charismatic oligarchs and politicians so where does the home come into this? Well, the home links into this enormously complex and unsettled environment in one very important sense at least. Home is where we live. It is the place that we look out at all of this disruption and the site to which we project an array of dreams and desires about who we will become and the households and families around us. It, or a variant of it, is where we formed out ideas about how social life works and who we can distrust or should not at any costs. And for this environment to fully sustain and settle us requires not only the safety of the home but a sense of assuredness about the world outside.

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Fortress, Australia

Much of the subjective life we inhabit, in our minds, also takes place inside the shell of the home and both, it seems, are under threat from myriad sources. Our lives are rules by short-term contracts, profit and enterprise orientations, selling our ‘selves’ through selfies and narcissistic displays, worried about crime or the threat of invasion (either in terms of the home or at the wider borders of the nation) and overseeing this is a diminished state that only seeks to usher or loosely regulate capital and companies. In such a fractured state who will we call if we have an emergency? If it is a public or private fire, police or ambulance service is increasingly open to new possibilities of contracting, sub-contracting, leases and other arrangements. Will the ambulance get to me in time to help if they cant navigate the gates? Who will help mitigate the risks generated by inequality and which include violent and other forms of criminal and harmful acts? Who will police those risks and help me if things go wrong? Of course all of these rhetorical questions point to the need for the role of a state with some capacity, capacities which are either voluntarily ceded by the central state or which are denuded by austerity [linkl to Crewe LRB piece] at the local level.

The fortress home is an expression of social escape from communities that no longer exist into a world of possibilities fed by an array of debt-financed consumer products, electricals, ICT and audio-visual systems. It is here that we are on our own but also triumphally placed by consumer advertising as the authors of our own emancipatory dreams and ambitions. We are also free to feel a gnawing sense of doubt, loneliness and anxiety rendered starkly in films like Cosmopolis or grotesquely but somehow presciently in depictions like Day of the Dead [check]. For the ultimate treatment of this condition we can more readily turn to the social science fiction of La Zona in which marginal social groups, desperate to make a living, invade a gated community to be viciously dealt with by an angry and fearful mob of armed homeowners in an unnamed, yet familiar, Latin American city. All of which points us to where I am going with all of this dystopian stuff – somewhere rather unpleasant, a place in which the hollowing of the state, social services, corporate excess and free license and gross wealth inequalities leaves us in fact disempowered yet dreaming of the possibility of escape from the Hobbesian conditions generated by the ideological tropes that we bought into, or were contracted-out on.

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Jung’s home, a castellated dream

As with many things the tell-tale advance of what we can think of as a process of micro-fortification around, if not armed in this country, homeowners says something of our consumption-led identities, the escape to the freedome of some brave and unbounded social self that is connected to a disintegrating public realm. We might then suggest that political commitments to market logics lead us not only to the sense of an increasingly unequal and insecure society but also one that is more visibly differentiated between those that have and do not have security. The deeper lie undergirding this is that panic rooms, gated communities can offer-up a widely experienced sense of human security. And yet fearful subjects are also compliant to notions of hard-work for financial reward since who wants to be cast into the kinds of material and social insecurity that are so pervasive today? Yet the security fixes that we see around us are also illusory because they belie the deeper fact of the ineffectiveness which is to say that for security to really work we would also hope to feel more secure and on this dimension research tells us it is clearly failing.

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So-called ‘Ha Ha’, Castle Howard, the illusion of an accessible rural idyll with earthworks inspired by war-time defensive systems.

All of this points the way for the need for an interest in social policy to connect closely to the politics of economic management and statecraft in which markets and international enterprise are heralded as all-powerful and universally benefitting. A concern with security, segregation, homeownership and gated communities combine in fact with a curiosity about who we as a society, and others like us, are becoming in a world that is cast by those in charge as being runaway and in need of riding, rather than taming. Streeck’s analysis appears enormously astute because it highlights the need for us to think and speak in different registers in ways that grasp the enormous and unsettling realities of global and national systems that give way to unchecked inequality and the subsequent impact of this insecurity on human life. To understand the rise of the domestic fortress we need to comprehend, like the best of sociologists, the multi-dimensional and reinforcing logics of a system that may yet kill itself but which, in the meantime, is likely to continue to do much damage yet.

This is a slightly extended version of my blog for the Policy and Politics journal blog.

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Pierre Koenig’s perched case study home, with unimpeded views across the city, Los Angeles

Is there still room at the top?

We’ve come quite some way from images of the young Joe Lampton jockeying to be top-dog in the social realist film of John Braine’s Room at the Top. The vision of ambition and social mobility in post-war Britain became a popular rendition of ideas about moving-up the social ladder and competition.

Today we can look back and reflect on a rather quaint portrayal of a pretty stable and increasingly affluent society of near-full employment and sense of entitlement and direction in the lives of the protagonists. In a series of startling facts and insights revealed by social scientists in recent years we have begun to understand the depth of radical changes to societies in which a sense of career fragmentation, rising social anxieties, material excess and want. In addition to these worrisome changes we can observe a growing sense of conflict and palpable anger over excessive inequalities. We are faced with the view of powerful billionaires commanding historically unprecedented fortunes, as well as political actors, the stressed conditions of declining and desperate post-industrial regions and the significant dismantling and defunding of many aspects of the public realm, hospitals, schools and universities among them. Perhaps not since the Edwardian era have the excesses of those thriving seemed so out of sync with the conditions and prospects of an increasingly anxious population – at least one key difference being the incredibly clear visibility we have of those conditions at the top.

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A number of facts and figures can be quickly marshalled to reveal the extent of the extraordinary gulf between those at the top of our society and the rest of us. We might, for example, capture a sense of this globally by considering the research by Oxfam which baldly states that 62 people have the same wealth as literally everyone else in the world combined. That is less than a bus load, not that you are likely to see them electing to get on your local 52 to the town centre any time soon. Alternatively we can consider the fortunes of the top 1%, a group whose fortunes, according to the French economist and sociologist Thomas Piketty, who have seen their wealth expand dramatically over in recent decades at a time when the income and wealth of the rest has stagnated or declined. Finally, we might turn to the work of those locating the homes of the world’s billionaires and ‘ultra high-net worth’ individuals of whom around 80 now live in London.

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What these figures reveal little of is the much larger imprint on our daily lives, culture and poltics that the rich now influence. Wealth and excess are now a significant aspect of our fascinating (perhaps also our disgust) with the lives of the rich and famous. Underlying the changes seen in London, a shiny façade of trophy towerblocks and fortress homes for the rich along the Thames, lies two kinds of anxiety. First, that without offering the best possible deal to offshore millionaire and billionaires the city will somehow buckle and shed its pre-eminent position to other global capitals vying for their attentions. Second, for the population at large, that the city has sold its soul, skyline and space to the wealthy with less than scant regard for the everyday citizen competing for housing in the city.

While we are fascinated with what life must be like at the ‘top’ much of this interest is driven less by admiration or envy and more by a sense of the socially and environmentally unsustainable position of those with so much in the face of yawning inequality and widespread social poverty. We know that their travel and homes are excessive and a drain on environmental resources, that they vie for political control, that they avoid or evade paying taxes (in many cases to the countries that house them) and that they are often narcissistic and remote from the concerns and indeed desperation of many living through government austerity measures and cuts. There is little to laud and everything still to understand about how the machineries of our economies, governments, societies and cities are linked-to the demands of the growing ranks of the wealthy. In a time of polarised and often angry and hate-filled political discussions a way forward that celebrates the social, forms of togetherness and moderation are needed in order to make society a place of greater social justice. There is an urgent need to deliberate on these thorny issues further while many dream of an island escape amidst the dog eat dog world of austerity, the gig economy and rising social anxiety about where we are going more broadly.

“You don’t get out much, do you”. Or, the poverty tour

The accusation of being an ivory tower academic is a painful one, yet ‘getting out’ can also mean we look like we are seeing the lives or places of the poor and excluded as somehow different, wrong, abnormal even. Doing research on poor Scottish housing estates the strong sense that I often came away with was how keen people were to present life as very ordinary, despite what the crime, education and health stpoverty-tourismatistics told me. Should I accept this insider’s view or impose some other designation – that the area had deep problems? If I didn’t use the language of exclusion or poverty how would those with power over resources know that these were areas and people that desperately needed the investment of public resource? Alternatively, were the people of these places going to be further stigmatised and included by precisely these labels? The moral bind seemed impossible to break through.

The last thing that any university sociologist can bear is the charge that they don’t know how ‘it’ is out there, that they are out of touch. Certainly the abstractions of statistical models, surveys and the promise of ‘big data’ continue to push us away from real-world experience. So how can we better see the world around us, understand how it works, who lives there and the problems it holds? To understand social problems, to really work in such a way that we might change the world for the better, we need to get into it, watch how people act in practice and talk to them. But doing this also presents a problem – whether we stay in our offices or get out into communities it is easy to see what social researchers do as a kind of voyeurism. The spectacle of poverty, if we might call it that, is something that generates huge interest from those not immersed in its hard reality. Similar things can be said of dangerous places where we see organised poverty tours alongside the forays of researchers, only for both to return to the safety of life in included or mainstream society.

Is this a fair assessment? What would happen if we voted with our feet and joined as activist neighbours in such communities? More provocatively – would we be helping or taking advantage of low-cost housing as middle-class gentrifiers? I have been on numerous tours of public housing across the world, often organised as part of a conference and as much as I felt enriched and educated by these experiences it was sometimes hard to shake the feeling that these visits presented places as human zoos where residents were unable to decline access in the way that professionals can via secretaries or closed doors. The question this raises is how are we to know the world and its problems in order to do something about them without exploiting or degrading those we are trying to help? We need to avoid the naïve position that if we can relay the voices of the excluded to the powerful we will improve the conditions or resources of the excluded. While things have got better to some extent over the past five decades since the Community Development Programme the problems of poverty and exclusion remain with us. The more I reflect on the nature of research the more I see that that its real promise is less about the potential for change and more about the need to present problems as an unpleasant intrusion in the conscience of the powerful. There is something to be said for all politicians having to visit the kind of places and talk to people that would rarely figure on their own social circuits. The trick for researchers, it seems to me, is in finding the ways and means by which their encounters can be made to show the contradictions of poverty in a nation of plenty so that it is seen as morally untenable. To do this we still need to get out and about, but we need to think carefully about how and why we do this.

This piece was part of an edited collection on engaged learning, Facing Outwards, edited by Brendan Stone at the University of Sheffield.

Pokemon no-go

There is a rare pokemon in my garden and it is luring the public into my personal, domestic space.

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This was the apparently unlikely complaint recently brought by Jeffrey Marder of West Orange, New Jersey. The prospect that benign hunters of rare Magnemites, Snorlaxs and Bulbasaurs might be better construed as criminal mass trespassers facilitated by Nintendo’s hit game raises interesting questions about the interaction of networked social/ game media and the boundaries of the private realm of the home.

From numerous media stories it has become clear that the search for the small monsters has become concerted – stories of kids lost in caves, dangerous drivers, the invasion of private buildings and other places becoming an almost daily event. The apparently random or selective placement of the monsters using algorhithms and socio-demographic data was perhaps always likely to generate boundary problems between public and private spaces populated with the monsters. Marder’s claim might generate some sympathy, though it is unclear what form the intrusion took and Niantic, the developer of the game, have already argued that users must ‘adhere to the rules of the human world’, including avoiding trespassing on private property. The future possibilities of augmented reality gaming may yet be dictated by the 200 or so cases likely to be brought against Niantic’s game in which players can see the monsters in the ‘human world’ via the screens on their smartphones (in case I need to tell you!).

What is also interesting about this case is the way in which private property rights are invoked as a means of challenging the architecture by which players throw their poke-balls at Squirtles in innumerable gardens across cities globally. Perhaps more worrying is the possibility is that the aggressive defence of the private domestic realm will not yield some human tragedy at the hands of an anxious or gun-toting homeowner given past such events. The pokemon stories being relayed also suggest that the domain of the private home is being eroded or renegotiated in previously unforeseen ways. Despite the sense of the home as an inviolable space the rise of Pokemon Go and future games like it raise the possibility of massed forms of trespass and surveillance by goal-directed users. Like dumpster hunters for personal details in confidential waste, or computer viruses and internet predators, the precise form of future threats to the domestic home from new technologies are hard to fathom until they arrive in the front garden.

 

A criminology that arms us for the times ahead

2016-07-07 21.40.26Last week saw the inaugural meeting of the British Society of Criminology’s new Critical Criminology group. This is an important event for all kinds of reasons, not least the need to develop a criminological sensibility informed by and responding to the problems we see around us in this complex social moment. These problems need little rehearsal – traditional concerns with crime and victimisation, the apparent reversal or changes in the long-run decline in crime observed in official data, profiles of the most economically depressed regions and neighbourhoods that offer insights into internalised social pain, depression and violence and national economic and political settings that both exacerbate and deny the depths of many our problems. This is only the local context however and it was good to see concerns with ecological limits, international political economic and humanitarian problems foregrounded alongside a new confidence to assessments of the roots and complexities of crimes of the powerful. Where to next?

 

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All of these issues show that a critical criminology is required that identifies with and locates forms of human damage and violence within the systemic roots and social structures that give momentum to these problems. A sociology, in the widest sense of that term, of how these complex problems arise and what we might do to offer a blueprint for social relations and structures that would either diminish or do-away with such problems forms the basis of such a critical position. The danger at this stage seems to be long-standing in my view – how to avoid some internecine battle over definitions or scope of such a project. For my own part it seems to me that an inter-disciplinary project focusing on crime and harm that brings light to the deeper sources of alienation, violence and exclusion offers one of the most important and exciting pathways forward for criminology as an intersecting point for those desperate to counter the excesses, depths and inequalities associated with our growth/market/capitalist societies. Criminology wins to the extent that it offers an accessible, grounded and intelligent response to these challenges. It must offer vocabularies and conceptual tools that can be relayed to society to help it and its members interpret and access the roots of their problems and worries.

2016-07-11 20.52.24-1This is essentially an ongoing and positive project that connects with a much longer tradition of free-thinking, social justice-oriented and ‘radical’ positions within academic enquiry that go beyond conventions and conservative (with a small ‘c’) interpretations – what does a field of inquiry that says things are either ok or the best we can achieve do for us today? The next step is to carry on doing what we are doing and to ensure that systems-level thinking is combined with close empirical and theoretical analyses of the leading problems of our time. As one keynote, Anne Pettifor, offered, we will have to attend to this bigger picture if we are to understand the kinds of crime and harm that will be generated by the economic and social structures changing in front of us. The rise of the popular political right, a hyper mediatised and voyeuristic society, the dependency of desires for baubles and gadgets on exhaustible and exhausted materials and the backdrop of climate change and approaching planetary finality will be important grounds on which critical criminology and social science should be located.
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Onshore havens: Home, morality and tax

The homes and spaces of wealthy elites are a crucial missing part of the recent tax avoidance debates.

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Recent revelations about tax avoidance have highlighted an important aspect of daily economic life – the role of space or, more specifically, the non-spaces of jurisdictions deemed to be ‘off-shore’ that are a key element of the financial system. As sociologists and economists have long pointed out – the global economy is a space of flows and finance and this generates a range of risks and interconnections that challenge the ability of individual countries to set rules that might somehow check or draw benefits from these flows. Tax avoidance and evasion highlight one such risk, the search by those with money (both individuals and corporations) to get the best investment deals by moving their money to places where taxes are lower or from which they can conduct business anonymously are something that few governments want to challenge where they benefit their own coffers or institutions. The revelations in the Panama Papers that our Prime Minister and many others sought these methods to protect and grow their personal fortunes spoke volumes about an elite with one toe (or a full limb, more likely) planted somewhere outside of the system that they lead. Space matters to money since being offshore has a number of benefits that those with stronger morals or smaller purses are unlikely to want, or be able, to pursue. If taxes are the sign of a civilized society what does it say that those governing it are happy to play with the rules under which these essential revenues are generated?

DSCF0128In all of this debate there is plenty to be angry about. Money laundering by global criminal enterprises, the glacial pace towards moves to name tax avoiders, the extent to which finance is held in thrall by political life and the disconnection of finance from the essential role of being in service to society and its economy are just a few such reasons for resentment. But something is missing here and to find it we should turn our attention a little closer to home. We should try to begin to shine a light on the hidden yet very much ‘onshore havens’ of the neighbourhoods, enclaves and gated communities of the elites themselves. Here the picture is not only one of profound economic vitality but of affluent lives unimpinged by the sight of social distress, scarcity or competition for life’s fundamentals. London’s commuter belt, and that of Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham among others, offers an archipelago of electronic cottages, barriered homes, modern bunkers and Goldfinger lairs that protect the lives of those avidly looking-after their fortunes while explaining, so very patiently, how important it is that property and corporate taxation should remain as low as possible. We need to formulate the kind of arguments capable of reconnecting these social escapees, from their homes, pretty towns and socially homogenous networks to the lives of the damaged and excluded, not least because their fortunes are so clearly interconnected with a vocal call for an assault on public spending which is justified by a lack of public resources.

cobhamIn such a project we might begin by understanding that part of what so many consider to be the immorality and corrupting of upper middle-class and elite life is shaped by the places and spaces where they retreat behind gates and high walls? Some years ago a pair of social philosophers made the argument that the sense we have of the reality around us is deeply influenced by the social groups we are part of. They suggest that it is who we associate with, the peers and networks that form our daily social life, that shape our values, our impression of the structure of social life (for example, whether we think social mobility is an open and fluid process or one shaped by significant inequality and a rigged system) and its relative rules. Apply this argument to the lives of the super-rich and the spaces they inhabit and we begin to see how working within particular institutions or being faced with the pressures and routines of life in say banking, leafy suburbs or among the rich themselves may help to drive a worldview that is at once mercenary and immune to questions of inequality and social distress. These concerns almost literally have no reality in the social lives of such individuals operating in these groups and spaces, but we can perhaps go further. Can we begin to argue that there is something essentially immoral and socially problematic about allowing large enclaves and socially homogenous areas to arise in the first place? These arguments are applied to planning applications for, god forbid, public housing and the aspiration to produce socially diverse areas – so why not the same ideas and obligations for wealthy areas? Perhaps social diversity is something that lesser folk appear to have to endure, despite pronouncements from on high asking us to do our bit.

2016-05-10 15.06.35In this kind of society it is not the rich who are the robbers but the workshy and immigrants who are viewed as criminals or scroungers while tax evasion, financial secrecy that enables criminal activity and personal gain at the expense of others is seen as pragmatic paths to getting ahead in life. We need to understand that social norms about what is acceptable are shaped by the spaces and groups we live in and which help to produce the kind of callous and self-serving ideas of the wealthiest. Those with money want to keep a larger share of it while helping others elsewhere to be seen as a threat to economic prudence and flourishing. The depths of the revelations about how elites have worked to circumvent the rules of their ‘local’ tax offices have helped to rebalance the distribution of information between the have nots and have lots, but who wish to hide this fact. If thinking about a simple binary division between the 99% and 1% has, for all its undoubted simplicity, helped many to understand the extent of wealth concentration at a time of hand-wringing austerity then the tax haven debacle has further highlighted how a rigged system was not only invested in by political leaders who spoke of being in this together, but also show little interest in doing something about offshore investments and laundering. Well, now we know why.