The social sciences often have a hard time being heard. Making arguments for social investment, reducing inequalities of various kinds and addressing structural divides across regions and communities require significant public investment. But we do, at least, have the money to do the job. Even a light tax regime on the estimated $35tn of monies held in offshore tax havens could pay for the entire cost of the COVID-19 pandemic. The property wealth of homeowners is among the most significant elements of national wealth and, of course, the key to the wealth of these households. Today, most young people have grown-up in these same wealthy households, or have looked-on bemused and angry at the unending flows of luck flowing to those have been able to afford their own homes. Those same young people are more likely to emerge as renters as house prices rise out of reach.
The past decade has been a period marked by a politics that has consistently rejected the possibility that the state tax and invest, whether this be corporations, land, property or other forms of wealth. Austerity was the very core of this project, an attempt at cutting public costs while leaving private and corporate wealth untouched. Despite this, the public are in fact very supportive of attempts at finding fair methods for taxing unearned income. In the same decade there has been a massive enlargement of the public’s awareness that fiddling with income inequalities is a concern with small fry, property wealth and personal wealth more broadly is where the big fish lie.
Yet even a hint of a suggestion of increasing taxes mobilises a thousand responses in the comments sections of articles in the FT, sees the big guns wielded out by lobbyists paid for by big money, only to be relayed by tabloid newspapers and more or less absorbed by sections of the public who see any form of tax proposals as an attack on liberty and personal hard work. But these gains need to be set in context. Fair and quite modest proposals have been proposed and these are based on a position that we are in this altogether, despite tax evasion, avoidance and inherited wealth.
If we exist in some kind of national community then the inevitable question its members may legitimately ask is what contribution each of us makes. The very deep pain and trauma of life in poverty, in left behind communities and of looked-after children, the sick and disabled, the homeless and a catalogue of further social horrors is not a place well-known to many who have benefitted from the economic and housing policies that have lifted the boats of investors, landlords and homeowners. There is both a spatial and social gulf between the circuits of those on high incomes who have seen their portfolio of assets rising due to quantitative easing, low interest rates and an attack on the cost of public services rather than challenging unearned gains of house values and other forms of wealth.
As many commentators are increasingly saying, looking at the intergenerational consequences of a politics of housing, class and assets – I could have less and can contribute more to help others to have the kind of opportunities that all should have. Many who are wealthy want to help more, many in business are moving from ideas of simple shareholder value to an understanding of the place of commerce in social and community life. Right now, the crunching of public sector finances is also pushing a more progressive tax agenda, even among many on the right of centre.
The UK has not had an effective spatial policy agenda for some years (at least since around 2010). New labour’s dozens of spatial programs and emphasis on education can be looked back on as the almost last gasp of active intervention in the way that capitalism has a series of spatial consequences – regions left behind, communities starved of health and education services and the decline of urban spaces in physical terms. We can characterise the existing arrangement of policymaking as a kind of smiling revanchism. The smiles comes in the public defences of why there is no money to spend on important social investments. The revenge comes in the broader formation of interests and ideas that are persistently mobilised to attack the poor and to denigrate and leave behind the many spaces languishing beyond the horizons of sunny Somerset gardens or from Oxfordshire kitchen windows.
To wilfully neglect those without opportunity and to ensure the reproduction of wealth and advantage is, in reality, a terrible form of violence. Such aggression must be enacted with real effort to actively ignore the consequences of cuts for a decade and now the de facto cuts and insecurities generated by COVID. In this kind of environment the persistent denial of contribution by those with most must be called-out for the kind of naked class project that it represents and tackled with evidence and vigour. Continued proposals for tax reform and social investment are urgently needed, particularly as the social determinants of health are so clearly being eroded, while wealthier homeowners and landlords lead carbon hungry lifestyles implicated in climate change.
There is no prospect of escape from the coming combination of climate devastation, faltering public finances, lack of social investment and the ongoing damage to our social cohesion generated by highly visible inequalities. From all political positions these are issues that cannot be ignored because ultimately they touch all, even if many among the wealthy are morally sheltered in their outlooks. If our togetherness and common purpose could be restored, in lieu of social media spats, deepening social polarisation and rising inequalities, we might hope to see more careful and thoughtful deliberations on what to do next and how to do this fairly, recognising the need for all to contribute.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Fortress USA, Detroit
How is all of this relevant to gated communities and fortress homes I hear you ask in some exasperation? We know that things aren’t good and look set to be pretty unsettled in a fragmenting Europe and an uncertain global context with contests and displays of power between charismatic oligarchs and politicians so where does the home come into this? Well, the home links into this enormously complex and unsettled environment in one very important sense at least. Home is where we live. It is the place that we look out at all of this disruption and the site to which we project an array of dreams and desires about who we will become and the households and families around us. It, or a variant of it, is where we formed out ideas about how social life works and who we can distrust or should not at any costs. And for this environment to fully sustain and settle us requires not only the safety of the home but a sense of assuredness about the world outside.
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.
Jung’s home, a castellated dream
As with many things the tell-tale advance of what we can think of as a process of micro-fortification around, if not armed in this country, homeowners says something of our consumption-led identities, the escape to the freedome of some brave and unbounded social self that is connected to a disintegrating public realm. We might then suggest that political commitments to market logics lead us not only to the sense of an increasingly unequal and insecure society but also one that is more visibly differentiated between those that have and do not have security. The deeper lie undergirding this is that panic rooms, gated communities can offer-up a widely experienced sense of human security. And yet fearful subjects are also compliant to notions of hard-work for financial reward since who wants to be cast into the kinds of material and social insecurity that are so pervasive today? Yet the security fixes that we see around us are also illusory because they belie the deeper fact of the ineffectiveness which is to say that for security to really work we would also hope to feel more secure and on this dimension research tells us it is clearly failing.
So-called ‘Ha Ha’, Castle Howard, the illusion of an accessible rural idyll with earthworks inspired by war-time defensive systems.
All of this points the way for the need for an interest in social policy to connect closely to the politics of economic management and statecraft in which markets and international enterprise are heralded as all-powerful and universally benefitting. A concern with security, segregation, homeownership and gated communities combine in fact with a curiosity about who we as a society, and others like us, are becoming in a world that is cast by those in charge as being runaway and in need of riding, rather than taming. Streeck’s analysis appears enormously astute because it highlights the need for us to think and speak in different registers in ways that grasp the enormous and unsettling realities of global and national systems that give way to unchecked inequality and the subsequent impact of this insecurity on human life. To understand the rise of the domestic fortress we need to comprehend, like the best of sociologists, the multi-dimensional and reinforcing logics of a system that may yet kill itself but which, in the meantime, is likely to continue to do much damage yet.
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.
The accusation of being an ivory tower academic is a painful one, yet ‘getting out’ can also mean we look like we are seeing the lives or places of the poor and excluded as somehow different, wrong, abnormal even. Doing research on poor Scottish housing estates the strong sense that I often came away with was how keen people were to present life as very ordinary, despite what the crime, education and health statistics told me. Should I accept this insider’s view or impose some other designation – that the area had deep problems? If I didn’t use the language of exclusion or poverty how would those with power over resources know that these were areas and people that desperately needed the investment of public resource? Alternatively, were the people of these places going to be further stigmatised and included by precisely these labels? The moral bind seemed impossible to break through.
The last thing that any university sociologist can bear is the charge that they don’t know how ‘it’ is out there, that they are out of touch. Certainly the abstractions of statistical models, surveys and the promise of ‘big data’ continue to push us away from real-world experience. So how can we better see the world around us, understand how it works, who lives there and the problems it holds? To understand social problems, to really work in such a way that we might change the world for the better, we need to get into it, watch how people act in practice and talk to them. But doing this also presents a problem – whether we stay in our offices or get out into communities it is easy to see what social researchers do as a kind of voyeurism. The spectacle of poverty, if we might call it that, is something that generates huge interest from those not immersed in its hard reality. Similar things can be said of dangerous places where we see organised poverty tours alongside the forays of researchers, only for both to return to the safety of life in included or mainstream society.
Is this a fair assessment? What would happen if we voted with our feet and joined as activist neighbours in such communities? More provocatively – would we be helping or taking advantage of low-cost housing as middle-class gentrifiers? I have been on numerous tours of public housing across the world, often organised as part of a conference and as much as I felt enriched and educated by these experiences it was sometimes hard to shake the feeling that these visits presented places as human zoos where residents were unable to decline access in the way that professionals can via secretaries or closed doors. The question this raises is how are we to know the world and its problems in order to do something about them without exploiting or degrading those we are trying to help? We need to avoid the naïve position that if we can relay the voices of the excluded to the powerful we will improve the conditions or resources of the excluded. While things have got better to some extent over the past five decades since the Community Development Programme the problems of poverty and exclusion remain with us. The more I reflect on the nature of research the more I see that that its real promise is less about the potential for change and more about the need to present problems as an unpleasant intrusion in the conscience of the powerful. There is something to be said for all politicians having to visit the kind of places and talk to people that would rarely figure on their own social circuits. The trick for researchers, it seems to me, is in finding the ways and means by which their encounters can be made to show the contradictions of poverty in a nation of plenty so that it is seen as morally untenable. To do this we still need to get out and about, but we need to think carefully about how and why we do this.
This piece was part of an edited collection on engaged learning, Facing Outwards, edited by Brendan Stone at the University of Sheffield.