A summary of the books 50+ action points can be downloaded here:
I thought it would be useful to create a summary of my book Alpha City: How the super-rich captured London. This is a plan language summary of the key ideas and arguments, alongside a set of concrete proposals for how to address the challenges of a city that works against low and middle-income residents in favour of capital investment and the wealthy.
Text version of summary, free to download:
Audio version of the summary can be downloaded here:
Alpha City is best bought direct from Verso or your local, independent bookseller.
In reading Marshall Berman’s essays on Marxism and his New York life it is possible to think we may indeed lead duller lives in a more sterile world. His vivid prose evokes the sense of personal biography, mixed with theories in search of less alienated lifestyles, to the backdrop of a changing but exciting city. Berman’s New York is a place of revelations, excitement, love and community, just as it is one of hard work, sudden unemployment and other traumas. He makes knowing references to literature that help to make sense of personal fate and, in one such essay, he moves from his close knowledge of Miller’s Death of a Salesman to the recognition that in his own father’s loss of work could be seen a similar evolution of personal alienation and obsolescence. But what is brilliant here is also the offer of a deeper search and realisation that in the work of the early Marx he could understand the rack on which his father had been stretched and ultimately broken. It was, and is, important for us to understand how deeper forces, systems and structures generate personal tragedies and traumas.
Berman’s New York is a place of delight and Sesame Street-like encounters, with good people, a sense of community and a world of fun. It is a place with patina, not the sterile, post-revanchist city of gentrification and zero-tolerance policing (even though this was Trump’s nascent arena). And it is certainly not the world that came later to be scarred by global terrorism or the realisation of new environmental horizons. In this sense it appears a place both passingly familiar but also achingly nostalgic, combined with the sense that we could might never recover or revisit such a city. What Berman highlights is that such a city was both good and bad, a place of winners and losers, community and alienation, change and continuity.
Just the night before reading Berman I watched Alan Pakula’s 1971 film Klute. The film is ground-breaking for all kinds of reasons, not least its bold and apparently liberated central female character. But this New York is also a city of gender terror, silent callers, stalkers and cold corporate life. The brownstone homes that were to be cleaned-up and gentrified from the mid 1990s are shown with broken windows, central city streets are messy, filled with different kinds of bodies, clothes, styles and community life. The physiognomy of the street is uneven, not the more or less featureless ensemble of office workers and the wealthy in more or less matching clothes we find today.
The world of Klute is a colder, harder city than Berman’s recollections, but it also asserts the truth of what runs through his writings – that city life is always in tension, a place of contradictions. Urban life operates as part of an economic system that can produce enlivened, excited and striving social subjects, just as it may also offer a world that destroys, alienates and denudes those same people. But city life should not be seen as just some rich tapestry that displays inevitable horror and beauty, like a Grayson Perry’s rug for the super-rich featuring a homeless man laid out. Instead we need to take up Berman’s challenge to look deeper and work out the operation of the loom that keeps producing these outputs.
The word façade carries two key meanings, it is both the face of a building and the social appearance presented to the world. The Chambers’ English dictionary extends this latter meaning to include the sense of being ‘showy’, the sense of a social face with little of substance behind it. One of the signal changes in a landscape of distinct and distinguished facades has been the creation of a significant number of new developments that use subtle facades and architectures in restrained ways, requiring in the viewer a tacit knowledge of the function, and cost, of these developments. Much of the historical and recent architecture of London’s West End arguably fit both meanings of the term façade quite well, offering both the impression of new and expensive frontages but also their deployment as a sign of position behind which little of substance or social life takes place.
Clarges Mayfair, more or less anonymous when seen from southern aspect onto Piccadilly, the boulevard adjacent to it, seems to say very little about its function or social position. If we were not aware of the stratospheric value of real estate in this district we might think very little of its subtle frontage. But this is rather the point – one needs to be in the club, in the know, to comprehend that immense money-power and the barely present lives of its super-rich residents that go on behind it. The West’s extensive scape of mansions and stately addresses, built by the almost historically unparalleled wealth of the city’s global nouveaux riches of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, are also still here of course. Those pre-eminent positional goods are still regularly snapped-up by staggeringly wealthy individuals from around the world. Yet many of those immense homes were lost, either because the wealth of subsequent elites was insufficient to maintain them (with many lost to demolition) or sub-divided over time. Clarges is something slightly different, offering convenience, security and a chaperoned place in the city, part of what we might think of an ‘ultraland’ of new, super-prime apartment blocks scattered around the city’s most expensive central property markets.
Where the robber barons and patrician super-rich of the 19th and 20th century city often sought to construct their own ‘pile’ to show their arrival and profound wealth, aspirations today tend to be mediated by developers building for multiple occupancy. This fact does little to detract from the way that such developments are still used to soak-up enormous amounts of surplus capital by the world’s super-rich as they look for a safe investment and a safe city capable of accommodating the need for places of work, but, more often, one of play and investment. Clarges’ façade presents an almost humble, understated presence – an almost blank face behind which the visiting, partying world’s rich can sojourn while in London. Perhaps even more importantly this and similar residences play the role of enabling an almost anonymous presence and comfort for its residents. Its interior dwellings are better thought of, not as homes, but as resting places for the wealthy winners of the global class-war of rentier capitalism. It is a mediating and sorting nodal space, one that sifts the winners from the many losers and keeps them tucked-up and securely looked-after, as do similar blocks in other cities around the world that adopt a similar style guide and pattern book – fortress pied a terre. Clarges does not present a showy face, yet it does offer a heavily secured veneer, a thin but very tough carapace to protect those passing through behind.
Completed in 2019, Clarges Mayfair overlooks Piccadilly – the core route that runs from London’s centre to Hyde Park Corner, Buckingham Palace and onwards to Knightsbridge. The building’s unassuming nine storeys offer open views through the plane and lime tree canopy to The Green Park and beyond. This vista encompasses the Shard to the south-east, to the London ‘Eye’ ferris wheel and then glimpses of Westminster Palace to the south. Despite the lively clamour of traffic, pedestrian flows and inescapable pollution of the major boulevard below the impression of centrality and access to the jewels of London’s vibrant leisure district are here in abundance. Clarges is a short stroll from the Ritz hotel, only a block further to Fortnum and Masons for provisions, the elite clubs of St James’, to Bond street for its fashion houses and jewellers and to a huge array of discrete elite eateries and bespoke private services across Mayfair itself. As its real estate agents will say, Clarges isn’t about location, it is THE location. Yet such blustering sales pitches need to be stripped away to reveal the deeper functions and role of these kinds of new development.
Clarges offers a commodity within what we might describe as an economy of facades. Here quiet distinction is the order of the day, not brash statements built from grand porticos. We might say that its capacity to seduce prospective buyers comes through being closer attention to its constituent parts. These details can be located if we look closely at the references to nature in the subtle tessellated shapes of its brass gateways (remotely controlled from the guardhouse), to its fine craft metalwork balconies and the nod here towards flattened classic columns in white stone. But if you want to see the penthouses you will be disappointed, these are staggered back from the top layers on the 10th and 11th floors in order to avoid street-level surveillance. Such intrusion may seem unlikely at a development that appears almost entirely unremarkable at ground level. Here still empty commercial space yields blank windows, offering the feeling perhaps of an empty central city office block. It seems likely that only those who know what they are looking at would likely be interested.
Clarges has the feel of a protective shell, apartment frontages that enclose, secure and hide their occupants. Such a metaphor also works to allude to the offshore world of companies registered in beachfront offices in the Caiman or British Virgin Islands often used to purchase and conceal ownership of properties in blocks like these (an estimated 36,000 properties worth around £50bn pounds in London alone). In this sense the façade is also a discrete cover, a means by which a para-criminal and indeed illicit world of offshore finance is concealed and enabled by many residential facades like Clarges. Like much of prime real estate in central London one can be forgiven for believing that such developments have been constructed simply to absorb vast amounts of liquid surplus, often criminal, capital looking for a place to call home, to grow or to be carefully stashed away. Given its almost equilateral square frontage the impression that the building generates is of a, very large, money box. At £12m (€14m) for a 2-bedroom apartment, and £18m for a 3-bed and much more for a penthouse, the prices are, even for central London, help to reaffirm this feeling.
In many ways the West End property market is a circuit of capital flows built on ‘front’, a place for investment by the more or less immodest winners in the global economy that helps to line the pockets of other hangers on and those whose own wealth comes from that of the super-rich including estate agents, lawyers and developers. The West End is a place built on a trade in facades, addresses that can be wielded like social trophies over cocktails, dinners or business lunches as marques of social and economic prowess. Of course, the money looking to secure a place in Mayfair, one of the most expensive in one of the priciest cities in the world, does not need to shout about its presence. One of the very remarkable things about the ultraland developments, splinters of capital subtly emerging in London’s most affluent territories, is their very lack of overt ostentation.
Clarges Mayfair replaced a somewhat anonymous, now-demolished 1950s office block with arguably a similarly insignificant construction. The first impression of Clarges is its impressive inconspicuousness. If Clarges was placed in a smaller regional, central urban setting it would not look out of place. It takes location to animate the site and excite its prospective residents, to confer the sense that this is a place of quiet opulence capable of conferring lofty status. Barely recessed window casements appear without usable balconies, no doubt partly for security and because of the high pollution levels from the street below. Looking up from Piccadilly towards the ‘rump’ of Clarges one sees almost no signs of life. Its apparent ‘front’ (actually its back in terms of access for residents) the development presents only a blank face.
The real life of Clarges Mayfair is to be found in its numerous basement levels (de rigueur for developments in the capital looking to make maximum use of small footprints), driveway (which can be secured if required) and of course the luxurious interiors of its marble, chrome and silk decorated interiors. The development presents itself as a more-or-less hard and featureless eggshell. But this external wrapping conceals a softer, nurturing yolk-like space inside. The list of its services and facilities is undoubtedly impressive enough to generate the possibility of never needing to leave. These include a business suite, dining room, English spa, treatment rooms, stairs sporting detailing apparently referencing wrist watches, a 25m subterranean swimming pool, gym and 18-seater cinema, also underground. In the enormously spacious interior reception hall a large cantilevered spiral staircase features low-level underlighting, supplemented by natural light from a large glass dome in the lofty ceiling. The dome itself features a light sculpture designed to allude to the designs of aristocratic houses and utilising dynamic lighting that changes over the course of the day. The sensory embrace of the development is further heightened by its incredible quietness and the subtle hallway fragrances, changed over the weeks and seasons by the development’s commissioned perfumier.
Curiously the internal privacy of residents is also carefully designed into the building’s operation. There are two saunas and another two steam rooms, the cinema and dining rooms can be booked, and even the gym can be partitioned for personal privacy. Service and ‘help’ for the owners can be accommodated in adjacent secure units. The sense of a resting community of world travellers is not perhaps apparent – instead internal segregation seems to be an important part of the offer, not the ability to form friendships with new neighbours. The building’s ‘real’ front is the functional space of the carriageway-style drop-off point for residents, visitors and staff. Access is controlled to this semi-public space by rising bollards and mechanised, concertina gates – either to control flows of traffic or prevent unwanted access. It is also looked-over by resident security staff, ensure access only to residents to the building, challenge passers-by or curious social scientists seeking to take pictures of its frontage. A car lift allows resident’s vehicles to be disappeared from (private) street level to the cavernous parking bay below.
Clarges is one of several notable contenders on a relatively new circuit of super-excessive, discrete buildings within central London’s super-prime property market. These are the spaces to which international capital is drawn come rain or shine – capital knows that this is a safe bet of a location, a place to give cash a holiday and watch it grow, only to be brought back into action when the time is right. Most residents will not simply live here, this will be one of a string of international addresses located in the key neighbourhoods of cities and choice leisure zones around the world to which rapid and often brief access is required on occasion. This development and many others are also intensely wasteful spaces. Not only could more, and more affordable, homes easily be accommodated within the footprint of each interior floor, the sense of disposability and crass excess is evident as soon as one connects the building to the hyper-mobile and international jet setting of its residents. The block is designed to act rather as a kind of transportation plug-in to the mobility systems of the global super-rich, a drive-through pad when access to a weekend in central London is needed. British Land, its developer, paid £130m in 2012 for the site – but the contribution to affordable housing stemming from the development was £1.85 million, less than a tenth of one of the price of a single one of its apartments. Despite, or indeed because, of such low contributions the developer, has made more than £1bn profit.
Clarges was the name given to the city featured in Jack Vance’s novel To Live Forever (1956), a kind of urban utopia in a barbaric world. Its residents have gained knowledge of the technology required to achieve immortality, but to avoid over population this is only granted to those who have made notable contributions. It seems unlikely that the super-wealthy resident’s of the real-world enclave of Clarges Mayfair have managed to defy the laws of nature in this way, and we might debate their achievements, but it is also clear that such residential space is used as a kind of spatial protective, its leisure rooms, gyms, swimming pool and treatment rooms speak of a desire to extend and secure the body through the use of fortress architectures, pampering personal services and adherence to strict, life-enhancing regimes. The façade leaves everything to the imagination, but it is nevertheless situated within a social politics that is increasingly aware of the illicit flows, gross excesses and extraordinary material waste of the super-rich. While Clarges and other developments are used to gain entry to the social and economic circuits of London’s elites the legitimacy of these lives and lifestyles is being placed under increasing scrutiny, however subtle or concealing their facades.
London’s ultralands and its super-prime fortress homes create a subtle inlay of super-affluence in an already historically affluent area that has, for more than a hundred years, offered a place for the world’s rich. The main difference from that time is the more subdued presence of wealth and its subdivision, residence in apartments rather than mansion houses. It is possible to witness Clarges up-close by accessing the sweep driveway and square to its rear, but be prepared to be challenged by its gatekeepers. This is an understated site whose luxury is only revealed to those with the staggering resources required to gain access, a private space whose mistrustful residents and staff are keen to keep it quiet.
My thanks to Stefan Fuchs for giving permission for this draft version of a chapter that will appear as part of a collection updating the themes of Walter Benjamin’s Passegenwerks in a volume focused on the rise of the facade: Fuchs, S. / Dillhof, R. (Eds.) (forthcoming) Fassadenwerks (working title), Hamburg.on my blog
Thomas Piketty’s eagerly awaited Capital and Ideology opens almost poetically, with real force – ‘Every society must justify its inequalities’ (p.1). In all nations and at all times societies require some sets of ideas and beliefs capable of defending the disparities that exist within them. Over the course of time societies have achieved this in their own distinctive ways, much of this more than 1,000 page work delves into the long history of such arrangements. Piketty calls these narratives and systems of thinking inequality regimes. There is power at work in these narratives, ideas and legitimising frameworks, deployed by elites, enshrined in laws and regulations, and which are often shared more broadly within society as a whole. Yet, like the story of a leisured, narcissistic and complacent bourgeois party at the centre of Jean Renoir’s film La Regle du Jeu (Rules of the Game, 1939), the patrolling of legitimating codes and ideology may be subtle, but it is also a kind of violence. Hierarchies are defended without question, internalised in ways of being, outsiders or threats are deftly repelled or, worse, humiliated. Arrogant, ruling and wilfully ignorant elites often remain left untroubled by potential challengers.
As Piketty highlights, there is nothing natural or necessarily desirable about the choices we make about how to live, for choices they are. Defences of the established order can be challenged, and such challenges may become emphasised. This may occur due to the feeling that inequality has become too excessive to remain unquestioned, or because the plight of the system’s losers becomes evident and untenable. Alternatively breakdown or change may be presaged by shifts in the (inequality) regime itself, a querying of the narrative and appeals to modes of social organisation. Here we might think today of the significant redirection of corporate mandates away from shareholder primacy to a wider recognition of stakeholders that has seen around 200 CEOs signing up. Of course we might also believe such effort themselves to be efforts at shoring-up a defence of privileges! Nevertheless, as Piketty reminds us, social organisation is always made-up of choices, we have the power to put in place arrangements other than the ones we may see around us.
Today the social sciences have sharpened their tools and strengthened the measures they use to investigate the operation of our own inequality regime. Piketty refers to this as a neo-proprietarian society in which property and finance have generated profound returns to those with wealth, leaving others languishing in ways not seen since the belle epoque of the roughly 1880-1920 period. The work of Piketty’s earlier Capital in the 21st Century and those of his various ‘comrades in data’ (Saez, Zucman in the US, Shaxson, Christensen and others in Europe) offered, through painstaking analysis, a new narrative that callanged the inevitableness or desirability of where we are today. This body of work offers a challenge to the order and its elite defenders. But its targets are, to take up the question of ideology, the many others brought under the influence of the narcotic quality of the kind of inequality regime we find outself in today – ‘populist’ governments and leaders, and the many defenders of the neoliberal or hypercapital order of today’s global north and beyond (in banking and finance, business, government and elsewhere).
Once we move beyond the ‘simple’ question of the extent of inequality to the ‘whys’ of that inequality (why particular groups win and lose over time, why such inequality is defended in circulating systems of thought and discourse), things may change as a result of the sudden redirection of social science in its focus ‘upwards’, allied to the work of numerous investigative journalists, online leads and cases brought. For those on the left (crudely speaking, the ones who would seek to challenge the inevitability or desirability of the extent of inequality) shattered by recent electoral losses the chink in the edifice of the current regime is the potential for new social scientific work to challenge or expose such a grossly unfair system. Many governments, corporate leaders, parties and those in civic society have become particularly interested in how to re-organise the world around them, perhaps sparked by realisations of the long-term redundancy of a business as usual model in which environmental concerns pose an existential threat.
Piketty’s practical responses to wealth inequality (forget about income if you want to see how big this thing is) are compelling. The first is to understand how important education is to circuits of opportunities, and its closure to many others (among other things the book highlights the break between the working class and parties of the left on the back of these educational shifts). But this cannot work without a much fairer playing field and this field is, of course, profoundly shaped by capital – wealth would have to be redistributed for an education system to be properly funded and for all to ‘start’ from a similar position. The second set of proposals are focused on the need for tax, and for these efforts to be focused on annual taxes on overall wealth (getting rid of unpopular and widely avoided death duties). No longer would billionaires pay rates lower than their cleaners, all wealth (shares, property and other assets) would be taxed annually as an effective means of bringing it into wider circulation, benefitting those without a stake and challenging the place of dynastic and rentier fortunes.
City, capital, inequality
Cities lie at the hear of the ideological conditions detailed by Piketty, though they inevitably play almost no part in an account built from national data over, in some cases, centuries. Yet urban life is central to the inequality regime of today’s hypercapitalism and property-based rules. It seems particularly productive to think of how the governance, economy and society of cities might be instrumental in helping us to flesh out the concept of inequality regime, to place that regime, so to speak, and to understand how space inflects, shapes and might even deepen ideological defences and narratives.
In a financialised world property assumes a central place with the creation and trade in homes and other real estate central to such an economy. The obvious point to make here relates to the location of those physical assets, clustered (particularly in the case of the most valuable forms of property) in cities, and in the dominant ‘world’ cities in particular. The property-based regime is, for the most part, a distinctly urban regime, an order that shapes social divisions, but also an environment in which we as bodies experience those inequalities. It is in the city that we see the system’s winners and co-ordinating elites, here we find residential landscapes circulating or built for capital investment and it is again in the urban realm that the finance systems, regulatory agencies and other key components of a capitalist property-based economy are settled. If one could pan out to see this regime at work we could also see how it is predicated on the flows of many billions of coins flowing from the pockets of the global mass, the stagnant bottom fifty percent, via their phone contracts, private rents, uber payments and so on. We could then imagine these coins sliding into the pockets of corporations, investment funds, banks and rentier capitalist superheroes and their combined use to purchase fine homes, football clubs, clothes, investments and multiple other purchases (we might also examine efforts at political influence). These purchases by the rich and by those sectors and operatives who have become immensely on the back of this system are instrumental to our understanding of how this regime dislodges the low-paid, raises the cost of living for whose who work and who lack access to the wealth and property increasingly hoarded by the relative few.
We might say that none of this new, but its intensification appears qualitatively different, and its capacity to obfuscate the sources of exploitation and marginalisation are powerful. Grappling with this is important if we are to understand the continued legitimacy of the system, and it is here that we are again back to Piketty’s challenge to understand the functions of ideas and narratives underpinning urban and national life today. One might also add that it is in many cities that that compact between capital and labour is most evidently unravelling, it is here that we see rioting and protest, and it is here that voting has produced a more variegated pattern of allegiances under populist mantras around national sovereignty in various contexts. Here again the relationship between the city and this particular kind of inequality regime seems important to consider in more detail.
A focus on wealth takes us to the city, not just because of the overwhelming concentration of the rich in their largest and most economically powerful examples, but also because the physical assets and real estate of the city is itself a critical component of wealth storage and accumulation. We can also see how investment in property has become a central method of taking value out of the city (often through offshore funds used by the wealthy) and para-criminal enterprise as billions are used to buy and later sell homes and estates to hide ill-gotten capital (here again the state’s silence, in statistical or policing terms, is notable). In Piketty’s terms the use, accumulation and storage of property are particularly important to the kind of economy that we inhabit because it is to a proprietarian inequality regime that we are now subject.
We need to understand how such unfair conditions continue to stand up, despite their evident inequalities. It seems important to again consider the role of the city in this context. It is the city that is the very theatre in which these narratives are identifiably played-out, not least in the fray of political discussions and media narratives lauding a capitalist property economy. We can also see how the city is the site in which conversations, plans, investments and markets operate and which are identified as the lifeblood of its economy. Any political or social challenges to such activities and narratives are easily dismissed, not least by the derisive snorts of those who appear to wield knowledge of how this world works (the Treasury view and so on).
In another key sense the city helps to bind adherents to its unwritten codes by galvanising into action the many who rely on or who are linked to the operations of the economy and to its wealth elites. This comes in the form of so-called dark money in politics, the more overt social networking and schmoozing between wealth, political and corporate elites, the chasing of international investment capital and buyers by developers and in the sale of public and other assets. More subtly still the physical environment of the city provides an elaborate labyrinth space constituted of private clubs, fine homes, restaurants and other sites of informal interaction. These spaces offer a particularly comfortable but also physically shielding environment that enables the economic order’s casualties and losers to be rendered more or less visible. The city in its physical form helps to hardwire the legitimation of the inequality regime at work around it. Numerous historical examples of suburbanisation, gating and other forms of elite escape support this idea.
In these various examples it seems productive to think of an inequality regime not simply in terms of economic, social and political codes and systems of thinking and justification. It would also be useful to supplement these important ideas and proposals with greater recognition of how space might shape and inflect these systems and how the institutional and spatial form of cities is at work in the modes of justification used to defend or naturalise contemporary forms of inequality.
7th February 2020
The image says ‘London’. My editor responds to my meekly expressed concern that the proposed cover of my new book, with its focus on Canary Wharf and Docklands, is not really the heart of the ‘alpha’ city. Grudgingly at first, I begin to absorb his point – if you are not a Londoner, if you are only faintly aware of what that city is about, if you might struggle to ‘place’ the city in some way, then this is indeed its heart to all intents and purposes. It helps that the U-shaped loop of the Thames offers an aesthetically pleasing enfolding of this space – the otherwise straight-line flow of the Thames repelled by the citadels of corporate HQs and finance houses. The effect is an attractive, symmetrical focal point to the cover.
Where is London’s centre of power, and what do we consider that power to consist of? If I were forced to put a thumb tack on a wall map of the city to indicate its heart I might hesitate, before plumping for the intersection of roads in front of One Hyde Park, Harrods and Harvey Nichols. This, as much as any other seat of city, City or national government, or transnational company’s office block, speaks of what the city has become in the past decade – a place for money and the moneyed. In this sense power feels like it is comprised of finance on the one hand, an international visiting, resident or investing wealth elite on the other, and with public service and government relegated to a backroom role of engineer, operating to maintain the machine and its component characters, institutions and flows of bodies, cash and bricks.
Picking a cover image is an attempt at distillation, just as the book itself is an attempt at distilling, viewing and summarising enormous forces and processes. By pointing to visible examples we can begin to glean the force of capital as it continues to shape the city.
As London and the UK begin a formal of severance of links to the EU today, the broader, more abstract empire defined by capital will be more assertively embraced, the saviour of the City, if not many of its citizens who endure a place of austerity, poverty and dislocation.
Rowland Atkinson and Gareth Millington
This short blog discussed the genesis and themes of our book Urban Criminology, published by Routledge in 2019.
Our frequently discussed globalised urban condition has sparked much discussion among urbanists – where and how will people live in dignity? How will they be governed? How will such living be sustainable in economic and environmental terms? We might equally ask – how will this condition generate new rounds of victimisation and why? How will questions of crime, safety and control be resolved in new and existing urban arenas?
We came to these issues as urban sociologists with a strong interest in the question of crime and harm, but also with the realisation that we could fruitfully engage a more formal dialogue between urban studies and criminology. Criminology of course is in many ways an ‘urban’ discipline – who did not know their Chicago school and its concentric rings, who had not been exposed to the maps of Mayhew? Moving beyond this we tried to think about why would we not also want to engage more deeply with the often unacknowledged links between the city, political economy and the development of a critical approach to urban life today. We were particularly keen to explore how urban conditions, characterised by intensifying inequalities in wealth, around housing and access to core services were immensely relevant to criminological thinking. What kind of shared canon, ideas and cities themselves might be foregrounded in a more explicit dialogue of relevance to scholars of the city, as well as those interested in crime and harm?
Urban Criminology starts with an observation, that there is much going on in urban studies that is neither recognised nor considered in criminology, but also that reverse is true. This problematic led us to consider a range of domains in which the conceptual armoury and studies of both disciplines might be engaged in a rewarding exchange of ideas. We organised these areas in terms of questions about more traditional forms of crime and harm, such as those clustered in deprived neighbourhoods or in forms of explicit interpersonal violence, on the one hand, while also thinking about new, emerging or less recognised forms of harm that have become of more widespread concern in recent years. Here we might consider the move from white collar to grander crimes within finance, the use of new technologies and aggressive methods for control in cities, the operation of housing systems that produce new social geographies and stresses or the adoption of new tactics for terrorism in urban arenas around the world.
While these various issues seem immediately relevant to thinking within and across urban and criminological studies arguably none are emphatically new. Our contribution lay in trying to offer a fresh synthesis that highlighted the need for a clearer dialogue between urbanists and criminologists. At the back of these concerns was a challenge to the reader – that to understand many forms of crime today we need to understand how the city itself ‘works’ and indeed, does not work. Such operations include of course a wide range of social, political and economic structures that themselves vary according to national and urban contexts but which are also influenced by global economic forces that generate new and mutating forms of harm.
To offer some sense of how these new combinations of factors and outcomes are coming into view we examine such issues as the relationship between neoliberal governance regimes and the deregulation of safety implicated in the Grenfell tower disaster and creation of more precariously employed city labour forces more generally. Global capital is now also more entwined with the unhousing and trauma associated with demolition, housing displacement and continued mobility of many around the world as capital looks for new spaces to gentrify and appropriate. New forms of boundary making, around gated communities and affluent enclaves with private modes of policing, also appear as a kind of security ‘foam’, complex physical and urban governance structures that raise new questions about how inequality, crime and (in)security are distributed and related through the contemporary city.
We might ask, what is ‘urban’ about crime? We suggest in the book that what binds much of the varied concerns of criminology and urban studies today is the need for a deepened critical perspective. Such a perspective should recognise the primacy of the urban condition and its manifold form. It should also avoid naivety in understanding that, at root, power and inequality produce more aggressive responses to the question of crime (while sidelining others forms of harm), but also that these same conditions are themselves generative of harm in cities around the world today. In addition, the relationship between national and global political management of economies can be linked to new forms of risk, value extraction (from labour and nature) and the expansion of financial services. All of this generates significant questions for how we should understand to the question of how urban systems are producing new and different forms of crime and harm. Fraud, manipulation and laundering among global and urban elites seem particularly important areas for further investigation.
Where to from here? We hope that Urban Criminology offers the means of galvanising critical criminology in attempts at seeing the city as a site in which harm may be produced and indeed mitigated. Urban life is replete with examples of violence, harm and aggressive political actions towards vulnerable populations. But it is also a site of hope, social action and movements that are increasingly conscious of and antagonistic toward question of inequality, power and unfair modes of social control. Cities may be key sites of harm as we move forward, but they may also offer the crucibles within which fairer and more just social conditions may be formed. We hope that the book may offer some contribution to such discussions, between urbanists and criminologists in the future.
Urban Criminology is published by Routledge
The unchecked lifestyle choices of the globe’s super-rich, and its affluent more broadly, are a curse on our planet.
In 1958 Shirley Jackson wrote about the retreat of an affluent family into their palatial home. Preparing for the end of the world she describes how the world outside ‘was to be plundered ruthlessly for objects of beauty to go in and around the house; infinite were the delights to be prepared for its inhabitants.’ (P. 8 Jackson, S. (1958) The Sundial, London: Penguin). Post-war North American affluence pales into insignificance beside the excesses and gross consumption of today’s consumer societies and the habits of its wealthiest. In 2010 Oxfam reported that 388 people owned as much as half of the planetary population. By 2014 the figure was 85, by 2016 it was 62 and, in the latest revision, the organization found that a mere 8 people commanded wealth unparalleled since pre-Biblical times.
There is rising concern not only at the level of power and influence that such riches command, and how such power is used in the pursuit of further wealth, the erosion of support for the poor and massive over-consumption of fossil and other resources. Worse still, opulent lifestyles, privileged social networks and secluded homes feed a mechanism described by a US sociologist as the ‘toilet assumption’: our damaging human effects and the increasingly denuded world outside are rendered invisible. What prospect for reform and healing if the harms we do remain unseen?
The rise of the world’s super rich and the concentration of global wealth has come at a bad time for the planet. The popular political formations, themselves forged of these conditions, are offer images of continued economic growth, public denial of harm and denigration of the conscious. Those with achieve a disproportionate take on resources and lead profligate lifestyles – multiple residences, private jets, extensive cohorts of staff, gourmet delights alongside endless rounds of newly accumulated clothes, precious metals and jewels. The world’s rich are not sustainable. This is not simply because of what they themselves do and own but because of their lead and influence within a culture fixed upon fashionable rounds of consumption, disposability and the signaling of success through monetary worth and acquisition of status goods. The revelation that SUV drivers globally form the equivalent of a seventh nation in terms of pollution in their own right is likely to lead to a morally inflected discussion among communities and calls to shame those making personal choices with public and planetary consequences. The hyperactive flightpaths of celebrities, the rich and academics have come under scrutiny. Yet the rich are not only a problem because many would like what they have. What many now understand to be needed to face-down multiple climate crises and injustices, in social and environmental terms, will not be achieved unless excess is more firmly regulated, or their lives become more firmly embedded in the communities that increasingly censure them.
Rising inequality, as many now agree, is bad for us all. One reason for this is that the wealthy are able to outbid and out-consume others on merely mortal incomes. London’s skyline is now puffed-up with more than 500 skyscrapers at some stage of construction. Many of these apartments are bought purely for investment and lie empty for much of the year. The most recent estimate is that half of homes in London’s ‘prime’ property areas are under-used according to their extremely low use of utilities. Reality television shows regularly highlight the excessive consumption of the bunkers and fortress homes of the super-rich, but in my own research I have seen homes with ten bedrooms, personal cinemas, underground pools and even car lifts to sunken parking. In many cases beds and indeed houses lie empty for much of the year, visits timed to coincide with key cultural events and arts openings. More remarkable still is the creative destruction that accompanies more extreme cases – the demolition of extensive and often prized residences. The next step is often construction of a much larger home, capable of supporting grander parties and with expanded wall space for prized modern art canvases and sculptures bought more for investment than aesthetic reasons. Everything, including kitchen sinks, are regularly thrown out and reinstalled to maintain a look that is of the times. These lifestyles and homes offer standards now gawped at by many – considered the glittering potential prize of social escape and total luxury. Yet the cost is clearly huge. The excessive consumption habits of the rich show that luxury is untenable at a time of profound necessity and our increasing realization of ecological limits.
Cicero suggested that to have a library and a garden is to have everything we need. For the global super-rich such ecological groundedness and erudition is twisted into the bloated wings attached to multiple homes and extensive lawns patrolled by private security guards. The costs of hyper-consumption are plain to see – unending air miles in private or chartered jets, diamond encrusted baubles, edible gold leaf cocktails designed to coax money from the wealthy. What damaging mindset is generated by societies that have allowed or encouraged the growing ranks of the wealthy? Such attitudes matter because they infect our public life and damage our grossly unequal societies. Think tanks and complicit politicians defend excessive wealth and the inequality that goes alongside it. But in ecological terms we know that affluence is costing us the earth and those with less are affected worst and first. For the rich the dream is of escape, from taxes, from social obligation and even from nations. The latest news on the rich is their purchase of estates in New Zealand as bolt-holes come environmental or political apocalypse and attempts by billionaires to create cities in the sea free of tax and social burdens.
Working toward a celebration of connection to environments, to society and meaning are values that require emphasis in our public culture. Yet the expansion of the ranks of the wealthy militate against this. Indeed the actions of many millions among the affluent middle classes are also part of this story. Attempts at bringing harmony, happiness and an ethic of sustainability become rather like comedian Sean Lock’s suggestion that personal environmental efforts often feel like bringing a dustpan to clean up a volcano. Strenuous efforts at valuing that which is finite around us is increasingly common. Yet we know that rising living standards and private incomes unleash countless forms of waste and over-consumption on a fragmenting and damaged world. In this sense our consciousness must be aware of the need to engage and challenge excess as moral issues that bind us together, despite the rhetoric of personal wins and choice. The one percent are not with us on these issues.
Woody Allen once said ‘I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying’. For the rich an anxiety about death is met not with a sense of common humanity and obligation, but with attempts at building wealth, ego excess (foundations and gifts for named wings of museums in some cases) or a strong interest in living forever through technological advances. One of the very real problems that we face as a global society is that those with money and power have a tendency to choose to give very little of what they have, rather than changing or improving the mechanisms by which such unnecessary wealth is generated in the first place. We must all have less if the world around us is to survive. The message for the super-rich is that they need a lot less.
Released by Verso in June 2020, Alpha City will offer a panoptic of London, focusing on how the city works for its richest residents and what their wealth means for the city more broadly. A competing subtitle was ‘How London works for the super-rich’ but this was dropped in favour of ‘How London was captured by the super-rich’. I have been writing segments, chapters, notes and observations for some years now, the book brings this together in a coherent analysis. The chapters are as follows:
1: Capital City
2: The Archipelago of Power
3: Accommodating Wealth
4: Crime, Capital
5: Cars, Jets and Personal Cruise Liners
6: My Own Private Stronghold
7: Life Below
8: Too Much
Afterword. A Capital City
The 2019 general election result is likely only to re-emphasise the role of private capital in the city, disparities in wealth and opportunity and the role of the urban context as a strategic operating system through which elites maintain their position. Come crisis or complacency London’s role as a core attractor of the global rich appears assured.
I will be posting a series of short pieces in the run-up to the release of the book, culled from roughly another book’s worth of notes and cuts that didn’t make the final edit.
This is a much longer version of a piece published in the Le Monde Diplomatique which can be accessed here.
More than 400 high-rise developments are now in progress or have received planning permission in London (New London Architecture, 2016). Almost none of the dwellings these towers yield will be affordable. Close to zero are what we might loosely term public housing, reserved for those on no or low incomes. In the stories now told of London’s massive inequalities (Cunningham and Savage, 2017) and housing problems (Minton, 2017) the towers in place and those to come signal the city’s social extremes and the inability of state or market to resolve social need. Despite the intention that these high quality pads are for the globe’s elite the feeling on seeing these new spaces is rather of a somewhat disposable environment that fits their need, in many cases, to rest money. The community in mono imagined by ‘starchitects’ and estate agents on billboards and in brochures are sales pitches to a floating class of the rich and investors. Whatever drugs the architects of the gold apartment block at Battersea power station were smoking it seems their inspiration was pound signs rather than the giant floating pig pictured on Pink Floyd’s Animals album cover. As in many other parts of London construction here is undertaken solely in the pursuit of money rather than people (Watt, 2016). Much of the development along the Thames appears to offer a parody of place and a mirage-idea of communal life. These are essentially dead spaces and dwellings, their lifelessness important in maintaining clean conditions to allow the realization of maximum exchange value, rather than being valued for use as places to reside. The question of who benefits from such development is an ongoing irritant to the city’s managers and politicians that will not go away.
London’s position as a shining beacon for the globe’s super wealthy has not been good news for the wider population of the city. When the good times were rolling they were marked by an aggressive expansion of gentrification, private tenant evictions, the demolition of dozens of public estates, welfare reforms and household displacement. Some have suggested that these forms of investment and destruction are related (Atkinson, Parker and Burrows 2017) but, with the advent of Brexit deliberations, the potentially negative role of international investment has been glossed over by the city’s elite who have had to recognise their addiction to international capital. Despite this the rich themselves appear more as a sign of the slow death of the city than one of vitality as in many cities around the world who now appear to be suffering under the vertical weight of the wealthy (Graham, 2017).
One possible ghost guide to the new follies and ruins generated by investors and developers might be Erich Fromm who, in his later life had become exercised by the focus in our culture on things rather people. Having rather being. There remains something powerful in his idea that our desire for lifeless things suggested we inhabit a kind of necrophiliac culture, a society fixed on the denial of death and the pursuit of shiny objects. Can we not read the pursuit of apartments and empty homes as the peak expression of such desires and drives by the wealthy (Sudjic, 2006), the towers themselves as a form of necrotecture? Can we think of London’s inflated skyscape as the result of an urban political economy harnessed to the death-drive of capital and the unchecked global accumulation strategies of the wealthy?
In The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973) Fromm had identified necrophilia as a form of attraction to anything dead, a mechanical form of interest that evaded notions of the social or human connectivity. This love of dead things appears to offer an apposite framing of the love of dead things expressed by the world’s super wealthy. Properties are snapped-up as signs of personal progress and status while remaining wholly or partially uninhabited. Marketing materials for many of the new developments offer images of empty chrome and velvet interiors looking-out over the city. Prospective buyers are able to project their presence as the city’s triumphant captains without seeing signs of community life or troublesome social difference. The psyche of affluence is thus able to insulate itself from any sense of connection or social reciprocity while inhabiting myths of personal success driven by ambition and hard work. This might not matter if dead things and spaces were not so corrosive to the social life of the city more broadly. Massive injections of international capital have fed the logic of building for the needs of the wealthy and international buyers (Ho and Atkinson, 2017). Such investment also damages the apparent legitimacy and vital role of public housing (Marcuse and Madden, 2016) as it has come to be framed as a form of lavish public expenditure while higher bidders wait in the wings. Here the wider sociality of the city is afflicted by a creeping necrosis as other parts of the urban body are starved of a vital supply of people and social circulation generated by absent owners and their investment vehicles – overseen by a political system that has misunderstood city standing to be indexed by the presence of wealth, rather than its creation and wider distribution (Engelen et al, 2016).
The lifeless interiors of the architecture that has emerged from a confluence of capital investment and status-seeking by the wealthy seems to speak of the real endpoint of urbanism (Minton, 2012) and any ability to enable citizens assurances of livelihood and home by urban political economy (Aalbers and Christophers, 2014). The housing crisis is produced by a system in which money rather than people is the primary index of success. Political and economic forces have combined to produce lifeless spaces that are dynamically linked to global chaos, low intensity warfare and globalized criminality elsewhere (Transparency International, 2017) and upon which London’s economy now depends and of which few questions are asked.
If you want to see these processes of accumulation and emptiness in the flesh it is instructive to wander past One Hyde Park or the many empty mansions lining The Bishops Avenue and others in North London. One of the reasons that so many people are exercised about the cost and lack of housing in the city is that in it they witness their own and other’s competition for these resources juxtaposed with a landscape of empty shells that should be homes. While many and sometimes most blocks are almost never occupied many households on local authority waiting lists are exported outside their borough or to the regions (Greenwood, 2017) and a third of a million households languish on waiting lists for public housing in London alone (DCLG, 2016). While taking a walk along the Thames near Nine Elms one can see many new towers, apparently suspended by an invisible line along the river’s corridor. Rather like dead mackerels these luxury high-rise developments shine but they also stink, the odour generated by corrupt planning agreements and a housing system out of sync with the needs of ordinary folk in the city (Scanlon et al, 2017).
A city for money or its citizens?
The sense of outright winners and vulnerable losers raises big questions about who the city is for (Minton, 2017). If we could buy the argument that the wider economy and population somehow benefit from such investment the new skyscape might have some grain of defensibility. Yet such arguments appear threadbare. Those with economic and political power nevertheless identify an economy of property and finance as the magical machine driving living standards and reputation. London’s new mayor has moved in a slightly different direction, launching an enquiry into the number of homes bought by offshore investors and which appear to be more or less unoccupied (Wallace, Rhodes and Webber, 2017). Some sense of the scale of these problems can be identified with even the discreet presence of the rich leaving traces. One recent study examined utility records to locate homes with abnormally low electricity use which generated the estimate that around 21,000 homes are long-term empty (Transparency International, 2017). In fact around five percent of homes in Central and Western London lie in such empty conditions according the to the government’s statistics agency (Gask and Williams, 2015).
Non-partisan groups have highlighted significant flows of criminal and anonymous purchasing of thousands of homes that appear to be decidedly non-trivial. The head of the National Crime Agency has suggested that criminal money has driven-up property prices and that hundreds of millions of pounds of property purchases are the subject of criminal investigation as suspected proceeds of corruption, yet these figures only represent a fraction of the total amount. Transparency International (2015) has already revealed that around 10% of properties in Kensington and Chelsea were owned through a “secrecy jurisdiction” and tied to around £122bn of offshore money. The question of who cares is left hanging, with many cases not pursued by resource-starved tax agencies.
One of the most glaring injustices is that while essential workers and even those on respectable incomes struggle to access decent housing the city is producing thousands of apartments for people who may never use them. If you countenance that this is the sign of a functioning housing market you might like to reset your market principles – who does it benefit that housing lies unused by its buyers? How broken is a planning system that leaves unchallenged the construction of blocks of hundreds of flats sold north of £600,000 for a studio but in which the idea of a handful of affordable homes is seen as a threat to its market viability? Mounting evidence shows that developers and planning consultants work hard to circumvent their duty to offer either affordable housing or cash contributions to the local authority (here it is worth consulting the work published at http://www.ourcity.london). Criticism of this system has been growing for some years now but the rising intensity of anger is palpable, even if effective resistance remains elusive.
Urban growth and decline
In 1951 the population of Greater London, its 32 constituent boroughs and the square mile of the City, was 8,164,416. Like many other British cities the mid-century census recorded what was, for another 60 years, its peak. It now seems difficult to remember that Britain’s inner cities were places of economic stagnation, social decline and out-migration. The term inner city was used to invoke a social imaginary marked by these features as much as any sense of real geographical place. By 1981 the nascent Thatcher government occupied a London whose population had fallen to 6,608,513. The most recent survey of the city’s population now shows an all-time high of 8,173,900. This apparent demographic health belies massive shifts in the structure of the city’s economy and new rounds of casualties in housing markets. Alongside changes in the city economy that saw it move to become a nodal point in the world financial global economy massive changes have reworked many neighbourhoods thought untouchable as gentrification opportunities decades before (Jackson and Benson, 2014).
Today the city again faces an uncertain future. Economic pre-eminence in a global system of urban command centres appears to be giving way to anxieties about London’s future and this includes the possibility that financial institutions may start to move away. Trying to keep the goose that lays the golden eggs, even if they did little for the city’s working class, is even more emphatically the name of the game under the Brexit threat. Such worries appear only to add vigour to the grab for land and sky by capital with projections for the numbers of the super-rich in the city set to grow significantly in coming years (Knight Frank, 2017). Meanwhile those criticising construction aimed solely at international investors are cast as out of touch with the realities of seeking custom in a global market. Yet even the trade in premium real estate sales appears fragile in the context of Brexit and the possibility that key financial institutions may be lured away to competitor cities as the crisis talks continue with sales in the top ‘prime’ markets showing dramatic reductions in volume. Despite this questions of social inequality and exclusion have been pushed to the side by a government scrambling to attract buyers and institutions to keep the national books balanced.
London’s patrician class appear to have recognised which side their bread is buttered on some time ago. What was once our establishment might now be better characterised as ushers to capital and the discrete vendors of prized assets and products (Shaxson, 2011). The international rich come for the city’s financial services, generate construction and jobs for decorators and nannies and are prepared to pay fees and taxes on property sales (or work hard to avoid them). Property professionals and financial wizards continue to offer portentous and authoritative assessments of how tariffs, taxes or regulatory moves would kill flows of capital investment. This may be true now but it wasn’t even just two years ago when selling £10m flats before they were built was possible. What is true now is that the systemic threats being revealed today will injure the city’s poor and working-classes much more deeply than it will the wealthy. If in the last decade we had hung on to the coat tails or Masseratti exhaust pipes of the super-rich our grip must tighten if we are to catch any crumbs that might be dropped our way in the future (Koh, Wissink and Forrest, 2016).
The City’s own strength is simultaneously the wider city’s Achilles heel. While the economic role of the City is well understood, its asymmetrical dominance in the structure of the urban economy presents risks (Christensen, Shaxson and Wigan, 2016). For the price of a cup of coffee any economic geographer will tell you that a key danger for any single-industry town is that it is more likely to die or be filleted as changing fortunes become apparent over time due to competition from rivals. Where in the past such change wrought devastation on the likes of Glasgow, Middlesbrough, Birmingham and the rest of a long list, it may yet be that London’s fate is to see many of its core services lost to the Dublins, Paris’ or Frankfurts of this world. Analysts are now pondering the question of how many individual bankers or institutions will leave after an exit from the EU. The likely answers appear to be thousands and, well who knows! Even if banks are not as mobile as the currencies and services they deal in an orderly or partial evacuation over years remains a real possibility.
When the good times rolled prior to the Brexit vote (please bear with me here if you were on a waiting list, crammed two to a room or saving for that elusive deposit to get on the housing ladder) we were told not to touch the market, maintain a low tax environment to enable overseas monies to flow and benefit the wider city. With the risks to the city’s economy from Brexit this logic asserts itself more emphatically, leaving a city with an apparently very large neon ‘for sale’ sign above it. Many of its most prized assets are now the property of foreign wealth funds or individuals (Harrods, The Shard, Harvey Nicholls). Much of the commercial property on the street on which the Sloane Ranger of the 1980s was born is now owned by the Qatari sovereign wealth fund. These changes are emblematic of concurrent shifts in class and taste and reflect a move from gentry and landed wealth (Webber and Burrows, 2016) to the arrival of an expanding cadre of those who have benefited immeasurably from globalization, the lucky control of state assets or associations with international criminal activity. Their brashness and raw money power is perhaps only matched by the vitriol cast on them by the last vestiges of wealthy long-term residents in the city’s inner West who appear not to realise that it is others in their class that put up the ‘for sale’ sign in the first place.
It’s the money stupid…
The most obvious answer to any question we might wish to ask about London’s problems today is money. Money is why our political interests turn a blind eye to offshore and criminal purchasing of real estate, no matter how shady the source. Money is the reason that public housing is being demolished in the name of ‘affordable’ housing. Money is why gentrification is a good thing and poor residents might be better placed elsewhere. Money lies at the heart of keeping taxes low and regulations slack. Money is the reason for the new dead spaces along much of the Thames and beyond. The city shaped by this dominating rationality is like a negative doughnut, wealth and high-rise housing in its core that falls away to suburbs increasingly marked by slow physical decay and an enlarged presence of the city’s poor. Our claim to world standing is to play host to the most ultra-high net-worth individuals of any city globally – 4,750 living within its boundaries and around 80 billionaires (Knight Frank, 2017). Such boasts appear poor slogans for a city that has become a sorting machine for opportunity and fortune – the rich in one door, the poor out of others, necessary casualties of a city dominated by a prime real estate and finance economy.
London’s dead homes are the offspring of demands for the unfettering of markets and ambitious urban remaking. Yet we also need to recognise that for many others the city’s new architecture indicates that we are moving in the right direction. Here the notorious assessment of the new director of Zaha Hadid architects, Patrick Schumacher, was a frank disclosure of the values circulating among some practices – pave over Hyde Park, remove public housing, let the market really rip and dictate who gets to live here. Surely, he suggested, everyone knows we benefit from dinner parties in the homes of the rich? Misjudging the views of the wider audience of these comments (the new mayor, for one, slammed his ideas) such ideas remain dominant among those whose bread is buttered by capital. Meanwhile protecting municipal housing, alleviating real poverty in a rich city, wider regional inequalities or caring for the elderly and disabled are seen as unfortunate by-products of a system damaged by the legacy of a previous government. The prospects for challenging the overall direction of the city and its politics appear miserable (Atkinson et al 2017).
Twenty years ago, before Meet the Russians Channel 4’s show, Big Train, offered a skit in which the jewel of London’s hotel establishment was sold to a wealthy oligarch. There would be few changes, the new owner briefed staff, but a small request – to change the name from the Ritz to the Titz. Such possibilities have become thinkable. The culture-shock and clash of capital against everyday life are features of a city that is barely working for its working population. Gross excess is now a mainstay of many reality TV programs on the super-rich, their tastes and demands gawped at by millions where the unnecessary is the very mark of success. More, bigger, shinier, emptier.
The ranks of towers on the banks of the Thames are born of a deep-seated market subjectivity which, in turn, moulds the thinking of those seeking to capture the desires of the hypermobile wealthy. If we build them, they might come, if we don’t, we are screwed. We can speculate on what will happen to a city that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. The good times of high rollers and flagship buildings did little for the mere mortals of the city, yet the future holds the prospect that anxiety and economic insecurity will mean that the rich are welcomed with even more firmly open arms.
Authors note: This piece is dedicated to those that died in the Grenfell Tower disaster, a 24-storey public housing tower block in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
Aalbers, M.B. and Christophers, B. (2014) Centring Housing in Political Economy, Housing, Theory and Society, 31, 4, pp. 373-394.
Atkinson, R., Parker, S., and Burrows, R. (2017, forthcoming) Elite Formation, Power and Space in Contemporary London, Theory, Culture and Society.
Atkinson, R., Burrows, R., Glucksberg, L., Ho, H.K., Knowles, C. and Rhodes, D. (2017) Minimum City? The Deeper Impacts of the ‘Super-Rich’ on Urban Life, Chapter in Cities and the Super-Rich, London: Palgrave, pp. 253-271.
Christensen, J., Shaxson, N. and Wigan, D. (2016) The finance curse: Britain and the world economy, The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 18, 1, pp. 255-269.
Cunningham, N. and Savage, M. (2017) An intensifying and elite city: New geographies of social class and inequality in contemporary London, City, pp. 1-22. Online first available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13604813.2016.1263490
DCLG (2016) Households on Local Authority Waiting Lists, Live Table 600, London: Department of Communities and Local Government.
Engelen, E., Fround, J., Johal, S., Salento, A. and Williams, K. (2016) How Cities Work: A Policy Agenda for the Grounded City, CRESC Work Paper 141, Manchester: CRESC. Available at: hummedia.manchester.ac.uk/institutes/cresc/workingpapers/wp141.pdf
Fromm, E. (1973) The Anatomy of Human Destruction, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Gask, K. and Williams, S. (2015) Analysing Low Electricity Consumption Using DECC Data, London: Office for National Statistics.
Graham, S. (2017) Vertical: The City from satellites to Bunkers, London: Verso.
Greenwood, G. (2017) Homeless Families Rehoused out of London ‘up five-fold’, BBC News: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-39386587 Accessed 16 June 2017.
Ho, H. K. and Atkinson, R. (2017) Looking for Big ‘Fry’: The Motives and Methods of Middle-Class International Property Investors, Urban Studies, pp. 1-17. Online first at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0042098017702826
Jackson, E. and Benson, M. (2014) Neither ‘Deepest, Darkest Peckham’nor ‘Run‐of‐the‐Mill’ East Dulwich: The Middle Classes and their ‘Others’ in an Inner‐London Neighbourhood, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 38, 4, pp. 1195-1210.
Koh, S.Y., Wissink, B. and Forrest, R. (2016) Reconsidering the super-rich: variations, structural conditions and urban consequences, Chapter in: Hay, I. and Beaverstock, J. (Eds.), Handbook on Wealth and the Super-Rich, London: Edward Elgar, pp.18-40.
Knight Frank (2017) The Wealth Report: The Global Perspective on Prime Property and Investment, London: Knight Frank.
Marcuse, P. and Madden, D. (2016) In Defense of Housing: The Politics of Crisis, London: Verso Books.
Minton, A. (2012) Ground Control: Fear and happiness in the twenty-first-century city, London: Penguin.
Minton, A. (2017) Big Capital: Who is London For? London: Penguin.
New London Architecture (2016) Tall Buildings Survey, London: New London Architecture.
Scanlon, K., Whitehead, C., and Blanc, F. with Moreno-Tabarez, U. (2017) The Role of Overseas Investors in the London New-Build Residential Market, London: LSE/Homes for London.
Shaxson, N. (2011) Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World, London: Bodley Head.
Sudjic, D. (2006) The Edifice Complex: How the Rich and Powerful, and Their Architects, Shape the World, London, Penguin.
Transparency International (2017) Faulty Towers: Understanding the Impact of Overseas Corruption on the London Property Market, London: Transparency International.
Wallace, A., Rhodes, D. and Webber, R. (2017) Overseas Investors in London’s New-Build Housing Market, York: Centre for Housing Policy, University of York.
Watt, P. (2016) A nomadic war machine in the metropolis: En/countering London’s 21st-century housing crisis with Focus E15. City, 20 (2), pp.297-320.
Webber, R. and Burrows, R., (2016) Life in an Alpha Territory: Discontinuity and conflict in an elite London ‘village’. Urban studies, 53 (15), pp. 3139-3154.
 Even the London mayor’s response to the reports commissioned by him to look into overseas investment recognised “international investment plays a vital role in providing developers with the certainty and finance they need to increase the supply of homes and infrastructure for Londoners” https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/jun/13/foreign-investors-snapping-up-london-homes-suitable-for-first-time-buyers
This past weekend saw the annual passing of the Notting Hill Carnival in London’s West end. The carnival has taken place each year since 1966 but this is a special year. The carnival followed the disasterous fire at Grenfell Tower in the same London borough with the procession starting with a commemoration for those who died in that fire. Picking-up the FT at the weekend I always flick to the House and Homes section, this week the feature (Get the Party Started, FT, 26-27 August 2017) was on real estate in the area. Here a graphic informs us that £1m will buy us a 2-bed flat, that £10m will secure a 5-bed penthouse or that a more unfeasible £35m will deliver a grand 8-bed detached home with a car lift. It is worth remembering that the constituency in which these excesses are played-out in the housing market was the site of one of the major upsets of the 2017 general election. Called in a fit of hubris the election produced a reduced majority for the government, but also the first Labour member of parliament ever in the Kensington and Chelsea constituency. Change is afoot and not least because housing issues are at the bleeding-edge of experiences among those damaged by austerity policies and a city economy which delivers homes for investors or those who have already made money in the housing market while neglecting those facing overcrowding, stagnating incomes or the city’s poor.
The terrible events at Grenfell Tower revealed an arrogant and largely dysfunctional local government that was incapable of looking after the safety of its tenants or dealing with the subsequent emergency, which was then placed in the hands of NGOs like the Red Cross. Long an area of wealth and poverty (this is the same area that Wyndham Lewis could describe as Rotting Hill in his novel of 1951, but also the romantic stamping ground of Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant in the film of 1999) Notting Hill and its wider London borough of Kensington and Chelsea still has around a quarter of its residents in public housing (2011 census data), often living adjacent to wealthy streets and terraces that feature in global property supplements. The deeper point not to miss here is that property speculation and investment rides on the cultural heritage and diversity of the area, the community carnival seen as a timely reminder to consider what and where to buy that is exciting and with the prospect of capital gains. Yet such advice surely sits uneasily with the kind of social anger being widely expressed about the inadequacy of the central and local state’s response to the immediate tragedy of Grenfell, and the longer-run crisis in affordable housing provision in the capital. The job of property journalists reveals these faultlines amidst continued screening and scraping for new opportunities and places in which to invest. This logic has been catastrophic to the low-income communities of London and other cities in which capital and its intermediaries has forced the exit of thousands. The spectacle of the carnival, the crisis of Brexit and ongoing commitments to defund public facilities and services remain key events that are entwined with the working of property markets and speculators with the result that anger and division seem set only to widen further in the city.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.