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

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

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

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

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

Pokemon no-go

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

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

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

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

 

A criminology that arms us for the times ahead

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

 

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

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

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.

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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.

 

 

Tax avoidance: Not illegal, just harmful and deviant?

The furore over tax avoidance, both by our national and international elites, reveals new social fault lines while highlighting a crisis of legitimacy to calls for togetherness and common purpose.

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Mayfair, hedge funds and capital’s heartland

The word plutocracy combines two elements to its meaning – that of wealth and power. To live in a plutocracy, many argue, is to see the warping of the political process by those with the resources to do so – representation for all is eroded by a seizure of control by the few.

The impact of such control is evident in financial support for political campaigns, as well as the massive infrastructure of lobbyists, the subtle closing-down of political debate and the voting patterns of ‘bought’ politicians. Yet in many ways simply understanding control by the wealthy as the capture of political institutions and actors by the rich is a rather limited reading of what we might mean by plutocracy. A broader understanding of a plutocratic society is one where our social and economic world is run to, and for, those with increasing levels of personal wealth. While these processes are often difficult to substantiate they amount to a corruption on a grand scale which pervades much of daily social and economic life, particularly given the scale exposed by the recent leak of the Panama Papers.

A society organised in this way is one in which material wealth and privilege is identified as the mark of aspiration and success, but also has the right to be passed-on to those who are members of this class. For those in such a position it is deemed natural, right and socially useful to retain and expand such privileges.

Following the revelations of huge and systematic tax avoidance by the global affluent have arisen defences by those who argue that offshore investment is nothing to concern ourselves with – this response has been rapid and aggressive, a grand denial of wrongdoing and an assertion of the freedoms of individuals to take rational decisions in the search to bolster their private wealth. The indignation of those charged with avoiding their tax dues has been impressive to watch, a form of denial of harm or wrongdoing that criminologists will recognise as strategies of avoiding the charge of illegality. In the world of the elite in this, more extensive, notion of a plutocracy, in which making money is the primary function of individuals, moving money offshore is seen as legal and rational. Indeed, it is seen as the logical choice of those with the resources to pursue tax efficient vehicles which are supplied by a cadre of operators who help those with money to maintain anonymous offshore accounts.

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There are at least two problems with this position and reasons to believe that real and effective pressure will come to bear on the Amazons, Googles and Camerons of this world. First, those institutions and individuals using apparently legal forms of investment are increasingly being challenged as normative readings of what is morally problematic and consequential on their choices changes – increasing numbers of people think it is reprehensible to avoid tax and more are now aware of the scale of these issues through leaks like the Panama Papers. Second, a key problem for those seeking to defend offshore investment is the impression we now have of the stellar wealth of our elites (such as stories of £200,000 ‘gifts’). The scale of such wealth is problematic because we also know material inequality, particularly that measured by wealth, is increasing. In addition many people have been deeply touched by forms of social and economic pain following cuts to the public realm that this and the former coalition government espoused were necessary for us as a community. Clearly this was rather a partial reading of the term community, or at least one predicated on an idea of noblesse oblige and patrician responsibility that operated in tandem with a hotline to a Panama broker.

Another key problem for our elites following the Panama Papers revelations relates to the increasingly clear impression we have of a class of people who are defined by their finances and whose allegiances are built around these interests. This is a class or group for whom identity is increasingly structured by however, and wherever, fast money can be made and enlarged, rather than through any sense of being part of a national or local community. What is revealed is a newfound robber-baron logic of plunder and secede that sees the wealthy secreting their money where it can grow and avoiding their national tax regime. In a political context in which an entire political project has been built upon the idea that there are limited resources to run essential public services (and new resources need to be found) the entwined sense of wealth and avoidance feels like nothing less than grand betrayal.

Because of these problems, of inequality and a rather profound breakdown in social cohesion, there is now a deep legitimacy crisis at work. This will not be explained away by an appeal to a legal/criminal distinction or the idea that the wealthy are like the majority of us. Instead it is much more likely that judgment will be formed on the basis of a belief by many that the structures of our economy work to privilege those who seek to avoid, work around and undermine forms of collective purpose and provision. Linked to this is the growing recognition that what we have seen thus far is only a glimpse of the trillion dollar economy of offshore finance placed by individuals looking to make more money for themselves than they can within their own tax jurisdictions.

So the key question ultimately generated by this mess is – if we are not in fact in this together, whose side are we on?

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Buy to ruin: Abandoned or neglected mansion on gated road, north London

Where politicians and corporations apply the ‘not illegal’ defence then counter-arguments are only likely to be bolstered amidst the sense of social outrage. Criminologists have long observed how socially harmful practices (in this case tax avoidance) can move to become recognised as a form of social deviance that generates shame among those engaging in such behaviour (slavery, smoking, domestic violence can be given as examples of such transitions). Another possibility seems even more likely – that we are seeing the prelude of more concerted attempts at legal prohibition that are founded on this moral outrage as well as plausible economic evidence regarding the damage of avoidance. Here the difference between evasion and avoidance may yet be the winning or losing of the next election, rather than the well-worn anecdote about it being the thickness of a prison wall.

It seems a distinct possibility that much tax avoidance will become defined as tax evasion because the majority population feels that it is morally right to frame such behaviour in this way. Moves to prohibit anonymous ownership of offshore investments seem to be a precursor to this. A synoptic world, in which the many closely watch the few, is fuelled by social media and instant leaks of millions of documents that also drive moves in this direction. Strange as it may seem, the weakness of a plutocracy today is that it emerges into conditions of counter-surveillance that may challenge its ascendency. In a world run to the rhythms of money and little else the legitimacy of plans to raze public housing, reform public health systems, cut essential social care while protecting those with profound wealth seem at worst extraordinarily callous, at best plain wrong.

The case for alternatives to austerity and a deeper form of collective endeavour is made all the stronger by the Panama Papers and, no doubt, other revelations to come about the secret life of our elites.

 

 

Urban crime cinema – Some alternatives

Life is full of clichés, no less perhaps than in the area of crime cinema. Yet the influence of crime and mystery cinema on daily cultural life is hard to underestimate, from the daily darkness of Scandinavian noir imbibed by millions, to the banal reality of crime presented in The Wire or the Scarface-quoting real gangsters that underpin the film of Saviano’s Gomorrah (see his interview in the DVD extras). So far, so obvious. Crime and violence is pervasive and its more subtle effects remain under-examined. Where then to start with films that offer authentic insights, useable frames of reference for understanding harm or an attempot to grapple with some of the mainstays of contemporary cultural reference points that, somehow, we should have watched? Here is a list of some of the more obvious examples, with a less obvious and perhaps more exciting alternative. This list will (hopefully) grow over time…

 The Wire

Watch it because you must, all five series and all all 60 hours or so. I am no fan of episodic boxed sets and The Wire wins-out because it achieves strong narrative development alongside naturalistic writing and some of the most insightful analysis of urban problems, inequality, racial divides and the fuzziness of moral boundaries. Plus you get one of the finest urban folk heroes in the form of Omar.

Alternative – Red Riding

This is tough and hard to stand-up to the resources and combined team-writing power of American television. Red Riding runs across three film-length treatments of police corruption, serial killing and the backdrop of the soon to be post-industrial wastelands of northern England. By turns a realist cop drama and realist fantasy it at least tries to achieve a sense of monumentality that is lost in the confusion of trying to work between real events and an overblown script.

Or try:

Spiral – sprawling (super) tough and often harrowing Parisian cop drama, an attempt to suggest and interrogate the machineries of law, policing and drug gangs.

 

Robocop (the first version)

Cop becomes cyborg cop to what was then thrilling effect, the effect feels clunky now and yet this is surely a prescient vision as public policing becomes a playground of corporate invaders hawking their dreams of total dominance over criminal scum using armed robots that cant tell the difference between good guys and bad, sounds familiar?

The alternative – Chappie

The follow-up piece to District 9 (essential) and Elysium, the themes are back again, a fracturing metropolis, criminal gangs operating in a society of haves and have-nots. What might happen if a law enforcement robot were re-coded as an attempt at human intelligence and development that is then captured by a violent gang? Can the vulnerable child-drone be taught to be bad? By turns funny and incredibly moving this is a must-see for the issues it raises about morality, drift and personal development in a world of mad programmers with good and ill intentions. Jaw-dropping special effects in daylight urban environments yet again prove Blomkamp can produce a winning formula.

Oceans 11

Plan a heist, have fun, we are on the side of the not so good guys, who cares?

The alternative – Pickpocket

Bresson’s beautiful and closely observed study of an anomic male deserves attention. His pickpocket is a man adrift in the masses of Parisian society, a pretence at conformity and respectability while cultivating his skills as a pickpocket addicted to the easy wins of pilfering from the punters and street inhabitants around him. Watch it because it is both beautiful and has much to make us think about where we can and cannot find excitement in a complex world that casts some of us adrift.

Training day

Not such a mainstream film perhaps, Denzil Washington acts as the morally corroded inductor of rookie cop Ethan Hawke. Washington’s presence is magnetic, with Hawke struggling to maintain the respect he craves from his mentor while trying to avoid being dragged into a world of easy wins, brutality and plain bad methods at winning.

The alternative – Beast cops

This Hong Kong variant is a charming study of life in the city, humorous plays at the old hand/rookie conventions while trying at a serious attempt at a realist crime drama. Best Film at the HK film awards this is a great introduction to the world of Hong Kong cop drama.

Die hard

Watch it because you must, because it is fun and still has some of the best one-liners from Willis and Rickman, a period piece that still works in its own terms.

The alternative – The Raid

A cult hit, The Raid features Iko Uwais, awesome martial artist from Indonesia. It is hard not to be impressed by the energy while wincing at the brutality of what is on show here. The plot revolves around an attempt to retake a tower block occupied by gangsters and the poorer residents of the city (perhaps the alternative to this film is the newer Judge Dredd but it is so one-dimensional and dreadful it cannot be recommended). It might be pushing it to suggest this is a dystopian vision of urban life and violent policing tactics but those elements are certainly here. What we only glean is any sense of how the poverty and violence of the city produces heroes and anti-heroes of this kind.

Additional – Grand Theft Auto 5

An alternative to the glut of wargames and organised crime games that are the ubiquitous mainstay of gaming culture today, this is hardly a sleeper hit or subcultural phenomenon – this IS our popular culture today. The is also likely to be the game that your young son or daughter is likely to be playing because their older brother or sister has a copy, or because their friends have an older brother or sister with a copy. It rates certificate 18 for its immersive world of freaks, villains and charismatic sociopathy. Treat it as a play-space for your latent desire to maim and slaughter without consequence, while worrying about its corrosive effect on vulnerable others that really shouldn’t be exposed to this. Undoubtedly impressive, but what are we ultimately to do with cultural products like this and their permeation into popular culture?

 

Ushering capital in, and people out

Last Sunday the Observer newspaper ran with a story covering our research on London’s alpha territories – the places in which the wealthiest live. The story was pitched around a series of working papers that we have been writing, increasingly focusing on how urban arenas like London work for those with most resources. We have been trying to say, both subtly and forecefully, that the UK is not a plutocracy in the sense that money is used simply to buy the voices of politicians or voters (though some would certainly make that argument!). Rather what we see is the way that the city, its economy and and politics, works for those with money. It produces fine and gauche homes (in quantity and vertically), it offers spaces to play and to buy and networks of contacts that provide seamless service to wrap the wealthy-up and make them feel at home. As I have written elsewhere, this cosseted lifestyle is important politically because it allows (and is desired by) the rich to feel distant from much of the distress around them.

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I have little doubt that many, indeed all, of those with eye eatering somes of money to burn have no ill intent towards their fellow citizens, indeed many of them feel that the world around them is richly dverse and full of good folk from all walks of life (and our interviews often bear this view out). The point of course is that this money is mediated and channeled through various systems of accumlation, hidden when possible from the demands of the state to find necessary services for all (tax evasion and avoidance) and, critically, produces a city that is alien to many who have lived there for generations. It is also a city that is alienating and dispossessing as we see public housing demolished, plans for the eradication of ‘sink’ estates (old chestnuts, lies and myths have come around again about the links between design and crime without looking at their social context), more welfare cuts, the layering of stress onto communities by cash-strapped or co-opted local governments and the rise of a sense that within this dogfight of contemporary urban existence – why should the poor think they should be reserved or offered some kind of free place?

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The evacuation of the public realm is an ongoing mission of the current government, in the name of economic prudence. Yet the real limits to this logic are increasingly visible. As the middle-classes are priced-out and even the upper classes (if we should call them that) feel displaced by the changes in their neighbourhoods and the political class act in the name of money rather than loyalty to their cities and constituents. In this sense the government do indeed appear to be ‘at it’ – on the one hand saying that all of this pain is necessary (or denying that any injury has even taken place) while appearing to gleefully attack forms of municipal and public provision because somehow such systems are outdated, outmoded or do not help inflate the balance sheets of those paying for their suppers. Such views don’t seem too cynical, nor are they hard to develop or access as the media increasingly focus on social and political elites and the lives of the wealthy. The rich are more and more visible and when institutions like Oxfam get angry (yes, they don’t just care about the poor elsewhere in the world, in fact they see the plight of the poor as being generated by many of ‘us’) we should take note because the nature of this debate is changing and the real contradictions of a political system that sells the majority down the river in their own name while selling assets and opportunities to the monied cannot last without being challenged or faced down electorally – we can surely expect these debates to become ever more heated.

 

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Charting the Alpha Territory

This is simply a list of links to cumulative blog outputs from the ESRC funded Alpha Territory that I have written to date and others with colleagues (Roger Burrows, Hang Kei Ho, Simon Parker, David Rhodes) project by myself and in conjunction with colleagues. I will add to this as future outputs emerge.

 

The spatial consequences of Piketty’s understanding of Capital: A response to Piketty & Savage, Theory, Culture and Society blog

http://theoryculturesociety.org/rowland-atkinson-on-the-spatial-consequences-of-pikettys-understanding-of-capital-a-response-to-piketty-savage/

 

The super-rich in London: they live amongst us, but you won’t run into them (if they can help it), British Politics and Policy, LSE

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/a-seamless-floating-space-mobility-the-super-rich-and-london/

 

The Power of Raw Money, Le Monde Diplomatique

http://mondediplo.com/2015/05/14london

London: where only the wealth of a global elite can find a home, Guardian

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jul/22/london-wealth-global-elite-home

Cities for the Rich, Le Monde Diplomatique

http://mondediplo.com/2010/12/22housing

Wealth, Housing Need and Austerity, Autotomically blog

https://autotomically.wordpress.com/2015/01/23/the-plan-wealth-housing-need-and-austerity/

The random neighbourhood, Autotomically blog

https://autotomically.wordpress.com/2014/10/17/the-random-neighbourhood-bringing-concentrated-wealth-into-the-concentrated-poverty-debate/

A city in thrall to capital? London, money-power and elites, Discover Society

http://discoversociety.org/2014/12/01/a-city-in-thrall-to-capital-london-money-power-and-elites/

On the Frontline: Domestic Sovereigns, Wealth and Public Space, Discover Society

http://discoversociety.org/2013/12/03/on-the-frontline-domestic-sovereigns-wealth-and-public-space/

A City Both Full and Empty: London and the Super-Rich, Critical Urbanists blog

https://criticalurbanists.wordpress.com/2014/11/20/a-city-both-full-and-empty-london-and-the-super-rich-by-rowland-atkinson-university-of-sheffield/

On our own: Loneliness and social anxiety

Perhaps in many ways we really are on our own.

In the final analysis we are of course, but many other changes now place in a less social environment and this runs counter to our needs as social animals. The idea of loneliness may seem 2015-10-21 11.07.12a curious thing in a ‘mass’ society filled with social media, screen distractions and anxieties about being, if anything, too connected. As perhaps we increasingly realise, these connections are ‘social’ to the extent that we are interacting with others, yet the quality and depth of those connections if quite another thing. Facebook ‘friends’ are not companions or necessarily those we confide in and share daily experiences (though confidences and experiences are of course shared by many). In our lives many of us will feel a sense of frustration and even despair at a lack or absence of social contact with others in ways that are more meaningful and close than social media can deliver.

A whole host of social, economic, technological and demographic changes are implicated in these 2015-10-09 10.41.29issues that suggest the possibility that social life is changing in really quite deep and unsettling ways. On holiday this summer I was struck by a family sitting for dinner in a beautiful riverside location, all four of them, two young children and the two parents, were looking at their phones. One of them would remark about something or other that was amusing or an interesting fact they had learned while none of the others responded when they did so. Even in leisure we find there isn’t enough time or focus for us to engage those around us or closest to us. The world of work is little better and likely to be much worse. Email corrodes human contact while weighing many people down with distractions that feel easier than phoning others and make us sufficiently busy to shun the possibility of a coffee and chat. We claim to despise ourselves for being so busy while submitting to the mantra of being busy, almost professionally so. Similar problems exist for parents in relation to children and, more deeply, for the elderly in relation to those around them. Increasing numbers of people living on their own, family break-up and long working days all play a further role in diminishing the core of social life as a space and experience of interaction with the faces and voices of others.

Perhaps ironically to claim the value and importance of such experiences might be seen as od-fashioned and yet, as we increasingly find, we realise that the basis of a meaningful life comes not just through self-examination, but also through who and how we associate with others. Problems like obesity, diet, exercise, senses of self-worth and personal vitality are all linked to the quality of our social relationships. Meanwhile the need to have, rather than to experience and simply to be with others, further erodes the sense we have of ourselves as social animals. Our intense materialism 2015-09-23 08.02.44and holding dear of objects and possessions that are lifeless yet priceless to us further erodes the social around us. As someone once said, there is no such thing as society, and perhaps, while that was and is not true, it is MORE true than it was even then. Some of this comes from the designs of governments of many political stripes seeking to bring the mechanisms of the market into more aspects of social life that run to the rhythm of notions of trust, reciprocity, civic gain and social benefit. Such changes have not only altered the landscape of key institutions like schools, universities and hospitals but have also changed our sense of ourselves into, again, less social animals – we are on our own and it is not the state or the church or another institution that might offer an ethic or possibility of care and interest in our well-being. This has served corporations well, not least the burgeoning of caring technologies with robots and programmes developed to keep the elderly happy, distracted and less lonely. Yet another perverse effect has been the increasing meaninglessness of work within such corporations in which those a layer from the top experience a sense of personal drift and anxiety in their own work and personal lives and to which the idea of occupational continuity and a career has become almost a thing of the past. Looking outside these lives there is of course a hunger for therapies and insulating ideas that seek to preserve a sense of meaning without togetherness. As organised religion becomes mistrusted still further there are few discoveries of belief systems and ideals that might also help to give us the sense of us in connection with and supportive of, and cared by others. This is less a call for belief for its own sake but rather the need to understand perhaps that our human condition and the anxiety of a finite existence compels us to think of what ethics and values we will live by when markets trump the call of national identity, religion or notions of community.

2015-09-23 08.07.27So let us return to the idea of loneliness itself. What is it and why might we see it as a social problem. Of course the reality is that many of us have had or will have experiences of a profound sense of aloneness that persists even for those with busy lives, families and a sense of status and standing in the world. It also clearly exists for those who are disconnected or who experience prejudice that isolates them within the communities and neighbourhoods they live in. Yet, as I have tried to indicate here, the idea of loneliness perhaps strikes to the much deeper core of what it means to be social and human and to understand how that world is being affected, eroded, changed and sometimes even improved by technologies and other shifts. In a context in which governments worldwide are cutting back on the public, the social, the municipal and the shared we would do well to wonder at the logic of these choices but also start to consider the more subtle impact of austerity on us and communities as social entities that profoundly require each other in order to thrive.

Getting to know the super-rich, a reading list

For those wanting to reach the unreachable here are initial pointers to help you on your way. When we started there was very little out there, this brief list will be almost doubled in the coming year or two as a slew of edited collections and monographs appears. Social scientists, journalists and pressure groups have firmly begun to challenge forms of privacy and social closure that left such groups hidden from view and ignored by conventional social research as too hard to reach. Those days are long gone and perhaps the really exciting prospect now is of a new-found relevance to research that informs public opinion and political choices amidst a popular hunger to know more about the roots of inequality and the excesses of our system more broadly.

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Dorling, D. (2014) Inequality and the 1%. Verso Books. Dorling highlights the gap using relevant data and arguments on how wide the gap has become and how problematic this is for us all today. A great complement to Pickett and Wilkinson’s Spirit Level.

why-we-cant-afford-the-rich-fcSayer, A. (2014) Why we can’t afford the rich. Bristol: Policy Press. An angry and systematic analysis of the perversity and deep impacts of the rich on contemporary society, Sayer has spent a long time assembling deep arguments that highlight the problematic position and illegitimacy of excessive wealth in our society and others.

Capital_in_the_Twenty-First_Century_(front_cover)Piketty, T. (2014) Capital in the 21st Century, Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Read this or the summaries because you want the evidence base that explains the long-run fortunes of the wealthiest groups in society. If anything this is more powerful because it is from someone who is signed-up to the capitalist model of running things but who would join those pushing for swingeing cuts to the wealth bases of the 1%. This is the good news bible of those looking for a more equal society and ideas for how to do it, the writing is beautiful too.

di muzioDi Muzio, T. (2015) The 1% and the Rest of Us: A Political Economy of Dominant Ownership, London: Zed Books. Examines capital and wealth as forms of power that affect the rest of us in subtle and more direct ways. Perhaps most interesting for thinking through the deeper political ramifications of what is going on that pushes back against the idea that TINA.

pinconPinçon, M., & Pinðcon-Charlot, M. (1999). Grand Fortunes: Dynasties of Wealth in France. Algora Publishing. A useful and very interesting insight into the lives of the true bourgeois families in France. Despite criticism from some quarters the book is a revelation and a great insight into the patrician sensibilities and everyday life of those who are wealthy but perhaps a long way from being the footloose, globe-trotting and more selfish super-rich of a decade and a half later.

plattPlatt, S. (2015) Criminal Capital: How the Finance Industry Facilitates Crime, London: Palgrave. Important for what it says about the culture of the finance industry and the impediments to reforms that might see a more effective stemming of the facilitation of mass criminal activity and laundering which, as Platte reveals, have become the everyday stuff of the global financial economy. It remains a thorny issue that governments will not challenge the cash cows of their finance/service economies and a source of great international anger. Worried about drug trafficking, corruption and the subversion of government agendas? Start here and gem-up on how it works.

51ZwR240C0L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Hay, I. (Ed.). (2013). Geographies of the Super-rich. Edward Elgar Publishing. Unfortunately you will be need to be rather well-off to buy this collection but it offers an excellent selection of very useful essays that goes well beyond social geography and takes in contributions from a range of social scientists responding to the charge that the rich had been getting away with it for far too long – look out for his new handbook, with Jonathan Beaverstock, out next year.

mindsAndreotti, A., Le Galès, P., & Moreno-Fuentes, F. J. (2014). Globalised Minds, Roots in the City: Urban Upper-middle Classes in Europe. John Wiley & Sons. Terrific analysis of the ambitions, choices and urban lifestyles of managers in three European cities. This takes on the idea that the upper middle classes have exited the urban system in some sense and reveals a grounded and engaged group, despite using education to get their children ahead. I don’t think this contradicts the work of others on the idea of urban secession by the very successful, it isn’t about the super-rich or gated dwellers but a great addition to the literature.

sampsonSampson, A. (2004). Who runs this place?: the anatomy of Britain in the 21st century. John Murray. A sad loss not to have writers like Sampson anatomising the establishment and dissecting them for all to see, arguably not supplanted by Jones’ The Establishment, Who Runs This Place? Offers a great insight into the key institutions and a prescient analysis of the international schools, mobility, influence and suburban presence of a growing class of the super wealthy that could have been written today.

plutocratsFreeland, C. (2012) Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else. Penguin. This books is interesting for being one of the few to say something about the rich themselves, using interviews and anecdotes we gain an impression at least of the hyper-mobility, the bitchiness and competition within the ranks of the super-rich themselves. This is a light treatment but the arguments about ‘cognitive capture’ of politics by money is important and worth remembering.

 

Films

The Mayfair SetThe Mayfair Set – Seminal film from Adam Curtis that explores what the establishment did following the realisation of the declining place of Britain on the world stage and murky adventures in the arms and other trades. James Goldsmith’s off-shore palace, which features in the documentary, is now a luxury hotel.

A seamless, floating space: Mobility, the super-rich and London

One way of thinking about the wealthy and inequality in our cities is to consider how they circulate and engage with public spaces, to what extent are the super-rich really engaged with the city and why does this matter? Themes of privacy, security, status and London’s relative safety emerge as key to these flows.

Iceberg homes and secure nodes

The Daily Telegraph recently gave coverage to a £4.5m home for sale in Hampstead. The house, notable for its price tag alone perhaps, was deemed distinctive because it was largely underground, sporting, in iceberg fashion, a barely noticeable street level presence that concealed an extensive and airy home and gardens below. Such homes are not a new phenomenon but they are increasingly prevalent and connect to the growth of a group of the very wealthy now living in London. As a sociologist one way of thinking through the implications of gated communities and fortress homes is to consider what these spaces say about and do to urban social practices and patterns of sociability – why are such homes created; what fears and aspirations do they respond to; how do such spaces reinforce and help to reproduce the existing inequalities of the city? Of course this is now a world of pronounced inequality and one in which the public realm and social investment are increasingly at stake in a political vision of the world in which trickle-down economics and naked personal ambition are feted by politicians and think-tanks. The result of these inequalities and social conditions is the production of urban anxieties that translate into bunker style homes as well as the opulent display of defensive measures like remotely accessed gated developments in more suburban gates, as affluent residents of the street in Lanchester’s novel Capital learn ‘we want what you’ve got’.

Elite gateway

To say that such anxiety is new is of course untrue, there are certainly continuities here, but there are subtle and qualitative differences with earlier concerns about a culture of fear as the gap between the very wealthy and others becomes ever more marked – domestic space is increasingly private and inaccessible as though wealth grants a permit to invisibility. Is this because of a fear of crime, a fear of intrusion, perhaps even a worry about public visibility, envy and a celebrity culture? In many ways it is a complex combination of all of these factors, but it also relates to changes in income, wealth and urban society generative of changes in the built environment of the city. Much has happened to make London it a rather different city from even a decade ago. Part of the story of these changes is certainly about the moving frontier of gentrification and displacement that now takes-in the destruction of good public housing in return for private and ‘affordable’ apartments but and scant new council homes. The changes are also linked to the increasingly composition character of households in the city, many of whom are largely absent, international investors as well as those who appear at key moments in the social and sporting calendar. In the background changes in housing affordability, austerity and critical changes to the conditions under which welfare support is offered have also had massive impacts.

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The changes we have seen in London and the appropriation of positional homes by international capital say something about the desirability of this particular city for those looking to invest and make further gains (the argument of economics), but they also say something about the nature of London’s urban culture and built environment which facilitates a lifestyle conducive to a group whose steps into public space are often timid, or at least wary of where and who is safe (an argument of the role of culture). As many wealthy people suggest, when one has money the character of the world around becomes more pushy and potentially threatening.

Domesticated public spaces linked to fortified home spaces

In this context debates about cosmopolitanism, inequality and territory have ensued – who is London for and who do its political class really serve? How do the wealthy move around and through these spaces and what, more importantly, do these mobilities say about their own social politics and connection to the wider citizenry of the capital? Of course insights into these patterns are hard to discern yet are important to a broader evaluation of the value of the wealthy to the city, in both social and economic terms. In fact much of the narrative around London for the rich is that the city is a safe place, in both social and economic terms. For one thing, having money confers the ability to occupy a home that is a fundamental base from which forays into public and other private spaces can be made.

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Elaborate security systems, a supporting cast of staffers and other services enable a seamless engagement with space are all in place and emanate from the domestic realm. The ultimate goal of many buyers is a space that allows drive-in car parks with internal exits (common in many of the newly planned skyscrapers for the city to come in the next decade). The poor doors of apartments alongside Versace interiors at the Battersea power station (Nine Elms) development are but one example of the ways in which the wealthy flow around the city almost in tandem with its wider population yet are impermeably separated – tinted glass, locked taxi doors or in lifts that piggyback on those used by lesser residents among other strategies of distance and control. In this sense the wealthy are not an extra-territorial presence in cities like London but enjoy the sense of being threaded through the fabric of the city while being able to negotiate what are seen to be more risky groups and spaces. Co-ordinated forays using personal drivers are an essential element of these networks and allow the conspicuous trappings of wealth, relatively unremarkable in such an affluent capital, to slip from view via communication by phone. Yet, for them, the city appears as a delightful and open system whose emissaries welcome them in the form of ushering estate agents and no less entrepreneurial politicians.

A politics of invisibility

Despite the privatisation of public spaces and ongoing debates about the forced expulsion of the homeless, those on welfare and modestly paid workers, London feels as though it embraces the wealthy. The renewed politics and legitimacy of austerity is not so much ignored, rather it is simply not part of this world, indeed it has helped to protect it. Yet the mood of the city can only remain bullish to the extent that it denies an interest in those struggling with a straining infrastructure of over-priced homes and crowded transportation. The search for a space that is safe leads to London for many international buyers and those with money more generally, the sense of danger found in many other national capitals fades from view even if the instinct for safety never dies. London works because exposure can be limited and because districts and schools can be found that match needs which will not be compromised on. The implication, to return to the example of the iceberg home, is the existence of a fortress archipelago of gated and fortress homes linked by sealed mobilities and encounters with safe zones. Whether we care about the qualities and feel of this increasingly securitised form of urbanism is one thing, whether the excesses upon which it is built will be challenged is perhaps quite another.

WP_20140917_052Thia blog is a version of this freely available article: Atkinson, R. (2015). Limited exposure: Social concealment, mobility and engagement with public space by the super-rich in London. Environment and Planning A, this blog also appeared on the LSE politics blog here.

Snooty City

Can we now say that money is breaking the city even as the veneer of Versace apartments with poor doors and homes with car lifts glosses over these realities?

In a recent Agony Uncle tirade the FT’s columnist David Tang lamented the kind of service now offered at the most lavish hotels and restaurants. In tandem with the increasing numbers of super wealthy clients hotel staff, he suggested, felt able to treat all but the richest with disdain as they fawned over these arrogant and rude clients. There is more to this vignette than first meets the eye. Cities like London are being made for the whims of money and the power that it bestows: Politicians fawn over the largesse of tax-paying high net worth individuals as though the city should be grateful, developers chase the premiums they can derive from designer interiors and lavish features while construction for affordable (don’t even dare whisper the prospect of public housing!) is almost non-existent.

In many ways these changes have occurred because the UK wealthy have been joined to all intents and purposes by a huge wave of international money and rich people seeking to invest or live in the city. The uprating of spaces and services in pursuit of this wealth thus damages and displaces the ability of the city to be a place for all people in which essential public services and spaces should be retained and paid for from the public purse. A great change has thus occurred which doesn’t simply take us back to an Edwardian era of massive dynastic wealth and leisured elites but a city the logic of which is a new and diverse set of elites who are often not in and perhaps not for the city. Like HSBC of late the risk of chasing this money is that another cultural hotspot does it better or cheaper in future or offers greater incentives to mobile capital and footloose investors. However, the real damper on this possibility is that many of the wealthy do not see London as a substitutable space – it has an almost unparalleled social calendar, cultural infrastructure, personal and financial service sectors. To live there, part or full-time, does not in any case mean that other places and spaces cannot be accessed when fancy takes hold.

In the background to this the state of national and urban politics is fragmented or supportive of these changes. What will happen to a city so beholden to its financial services? What if construction were starved of financial oxygen despite building expensive boxes that few will spend any time in? Why can’t a more inclusive social politics be built around the needs of the absolute majority of urban residents who are not served and indeed excluded by these changes within mainstream political life? Is the underlying reality of these changes the result of a political system in debt or thrall to the logic of money, despite the negative consequences for so many residents? The butler class of politicians appears to subconsciously react to the needs of a growing, energy hungry and wealthy transnational group who flow like mercury in search of financial vehicles that will serve them best and to countries to which they owe no real allegiance or patrician interest. Can we now say that money is breaking the city even as the veneer of Versace apartments with poor doors and homes with car lifts glosses over these realities?

Crime, Capital

This is a brief version of my keynote presentation at the 2015 British Society of Criminology, following Elliott Currie, on the relationship between the city and crime, using data and insights from a longer-term project looking at the super-rich in London, funded by the ESRC.

I am very struck by the simple elegance of Elliott’s consistent argument that academic research should do more to take data and arguments into the public domain and conversations that need to be prepared before political action may be possible. However, I am also very pessimistic about the degree to which these domains can be influenced, or impacted. How do we make cities less unequal and less generative of the kinds of conditions that create such worrisome and unjust social problems? One way of responding to this challenge is to see cities less as sites in which crime is more or less concentrated/produced and begin to think about how cities act as systems which produce harm and which insulate policymakers and other elites from acting with greater effort to reduce these problems. The response of these elites in the wake of London’s 2011 riots was instructive because it gave an insight into the ways in which an insulated class spoke only with outrage about the actions of rioters and ignored the social conditions and inequalities that made such an explosive reaction a possibility. To return to the themes of much critical criminology, such a one-sided explanation does nothing to make future eruptions less likely, but remain compatible with the view that our elites act more to shore-up the interests of the wealthy and homeowners and landlords than they do the excluded produced and enlarged by conditions of austerity and middle-class welfarism.

The point I want to make today is that in cities, like London and many others globally, we find a wide range of deep social problems while, at the same time, the wealthy and its political class appear untroubled by declining social cohesion, massive inequality and the lack of housing. In years gone by analysts like J K Galbraith made the argument that inequality generated problems that exposed the wealthy as much as the weak, thus offering an inducement to reform – if we didn’t want to be exposed to a lousy public realm, the risk of public violence and declining essential services the rationale for tax and public investment was clear. Now these relationships are much less clear – staggering wealth combined with new technologies and mobilities allow the wealthy to make housing choices and decisions about how they move around the city that enable these problems to be circumvented or for micro-secessionary spaces (the Shard, One Hyde Park, The Lancasters, The Chilterns and other bunker-like spaces) to be produced around the principles of a private security club, to which membership grants the ability to essentially off-shore risks and social problems (as suggested in the dystopian film Elysium). These possibility raises two questions for me. First, how does the city and its spaces affect the mentalities and dispositions of those in power and their relationship to social problems? Second, what is the role of the financial base of the urban economy in facilitating crime and regional instability in locales globally? These questions are both related and mutually reinforcing, as I shall now elaborate.

One way of thinking about London’s contemporary social milieu is to use Robert Sack’s (A geographical guide to the real and the good) arguments about the relationship between place and understandings of social reality. Sack invokes the idea that places are more or less good/bad, moral or immoral depending on how they allow us to be connected to the communities and life of the world of which we are a part. Cities like London have become difference machines that sort wealth and illicit gains from poverty and exclusion and which generates segregated and insulated spaces. Going back to my point about the riots it is important to try and understand how these bad places (what David and Bertrand-Monk called evil paradises) celebrate a form of urban culture and space that permits disregard, aloofness and disinterest in the casualties of the urban and national economy and its now withering welfare system. The perverse triumph of such a city is to cleave away the socially marginal and to neutralise any externalities or risks that they might generate for the affluent, indeed to remove them from view by virtue of the way that the wealthy flow through the city and engage with public spaces and the city’s population.

Neighbourhoods that cocoon and protect the wealthy help to offer an insulated worldview that may enable denial and disconnection from the wider problems of the city itself (now hit hard by austerity, gentrification, housing demolitions and welfare reforms) and the woes of the globe more broadly. Sack would call these immoral places since their daily life and physical seclusion enables a kind of distancing from the reality of the world around, an analysis perhaps particularly well applied to gated communities. Davis and Monk might add that the city has become a kind of evil paradise – appearing to offer all that is desired while denying the hard market realities of labour, high housing costs and possibility of a free-floating class of those benefiting from such an excessive system.

The position of the 1% and compliant policy elites is threaded through with illicit gains from international rounds of primitive accumulation, elaborate forms of property tax avoidance and the secretion of wealth into housing. For criminology the city has tended to be the place where most crime happens. Early bodies of theory offered us ecological and subcultural models of deviant conduct that were predicated upon a need to understand how inequality and the social sorting of the city into key neighbourhoods might help us to understand why people turned to crime. In today’s context the word crime appears increasingly blunt, not simply because of the wider attention criminologists pay to the notion of harm, not only because of the sense of global interconnections and problems that cities are a part of, and not least because we now recognize that we should pay much more attention to the architecture of our economies and the actions of the powerful in shaping its production. White collar crime is not simply about fraud but also about the way in which fraudulent instruments facilitate the actions of criminals in remote locations and to which the city and City benefit directly in the form of property investment and the use of ‘our’ financial services sector.

In these various respects the city is a fundamental mediating point through which a wide range of socially harmful acts are relayed and amplified. In various ways our theoretical positioning of the city in relation the question of crime, deviance and harm requires attention not only to the distributions and associations of variables for particular types of crime, but also to the way in which the city as a social/political and economic system is capable of generating harms that are located internally and at removed locations. London is a space where, to be sure, various kinds of harm and violence are enacted, but also a system built upon a finance economy that is deeply implicated in capitalist and criminal economies that span the globe. As Platt (2015) argues, to see money laundering as something that criminals simply do once they have their ill-gotten gains is a vastly outmoded perspective. Money in the system (from tax evasion, corruption, people trafficking, terrorism and so on) is in reality constantly courted by finance capitalism across the globe that vies for this trade alongside licit investment. We can suggest two results from this. The first is that the kinds of excess seen in property markets is a sign, at least in part, of the desirability of assets in a stable city within a globally unstable system. Ghost neighbourhoods and high house prices are the result (Transparency International). By extension we can understand these ‘gains’ as the result of a two-way process in which the security of the City’s operations acts to destabilise and facilitate crime and para-legal activity elsewhere. This system is going nowhere very soon despite public anger at the closet operations of individuals with dodgy backgrounds buying palatial property in London, the acts of multinationals off-shoring subsidiaries in fiscal refuges and other problematic practices. But there is something else at work here that we need in our theories of the urban and criminality and this relates to the way in which social space itself is wrought in ways that assist in the denial of the wealthy and political elites that someone is paying a price for these interconnections (this returns us to the arguments about the kind of milieu produced which I have discussed above).

Taken as a whole these changes not only further feed the wealth of the wealthy, they also amplify displacement pressures on those straining to maintain a foothold in the city’s property market. These are complex relationships and ones that have not hitherto been deeply considered by criminology. Urban studies and criminology can perhaps offer important contributions when set in tandem and to the project of understanding more about what is really urban about crime and which are barely captured by conventional notions of social ecology – notions of crimes of the powerful, white collar crime or social ecology don’t go far enough in capturing these complexities of crime, capital and politics. While the local implications of critical criminology are for better social supports, protective programmes and investments that offer greater social resilience and inclusion these proposals need to be supplemented with an understanding of how we might act at an international level to root out the deeper forms of inequality, excess/fraud and expulsion from livelihoods that permeate the global urban order. These are surely some of the greatest challenges for critical social science today and to which the efforts of accountants will be as useful as those of sociologists or geographers and the like. Transparency International (2015) have revealed through forensic analyses of documents that 36,342 properties in London have been bought through hidden companies in offshore havens and while a majority of those will have been kept secret for legitimate privacy purposes, vast numbers are thought to have been bought anonymously to hide stolen money (London has around 3.3m dwellings according to the 2011 census). On top of this the National Crime Agency (NCA) estimates that around £100bn could be laundered through the UK each year (1). These figures are only estimates of local activity and reveal little of the wider kinds of global disorder generated by these institutions, not the wider levels of fraudulent behavior within financial institutions that have so undermined public trust and fueled so much anger in recent years. All of this suggests that there is a need to channel incisive social enquiry into these zones and institutions and offer new ways of conceptualizing harm and its interconnections at the scales of the globe and cities more generally.

  1. http://www.lawgazette.co.uk/news/solicitors-prickly-economic-crime-chief/5045241.fullarticle