I watched an interview with anti-inequality campaigner Gary Stephenson the other day, in which he described the strange, mixed emotions of getting his first £400,000 bonus as a 23-year-old city trader from a working class background.
How it seemed like even sharing the news of his good fortune with friends seemed cruel, such was the gap between what they had and what he’d just been given.
I have never had someone just drop £400,000 into my lap, but I do live in social housing in the North East, and right now there are some ironic parallels. It used to be a standard bit of North-South banter to tease your London friends by telling them how much you paid in rent for a flat twice the size of theirs. Now that gap has grown so wide it no longer feels like good-natured ribbing, it feels needlessly heartless. It’s not funny anymore – it’s horrifying.
I have friends with good jobs who, after finally getting on the housing ladder in their thirties, are now fretting about how they can pay their mortgage. Not only am I better off than people who are trapped in the private rental market, I’m now better off in real terms than a decent number of homeowners. That’s nuts!
What I have is not absurd wealth. I have a reasonable rent that doesn’t eat up half my wage. I have security of tenure. My landlord will not sell my home out from under me or hike the rent up 20 per cent in a year. I can put up pictures and paint my walls. I can own a pet. My home, for all the fact that it’s rented, is mine in every way that matters.
The absurdity of the situation is that we have somehow built an economy that makes me a lucky outlier. To want everyone to have something as basic as access to affordable, secure housing has become a revolutionary demand.
We got here gradually. Over many decades, whether for reasons of pure ideology or for personal enrichment, those running our economies have sought ways to take ever more public goods into private hands. From social housing, to water and energy, and even the basic provision of public services, the state has been slowly asset-stripped.
This massive transfer of wealth from the poorest to the richest in society has been like a game of Jenga, with every new player taking more and more blocks out from the bottom and stacking them on top. But every game of Jenga ends the same way – you try to take out a block that turns out to be load-bearing, and the whole tower comes crashing down.
That the sharp end of this crisis should have its expression in housing is no coincidence. The strategy of the asset strippers was to hide what they were doing by transforming housing from a basic good into a new asset class, and allowing the price of this asset to rise, creating the illusion of broadly-shared wealth amongst the middle class. What began in the 1980s with Right to Buy ran out of road once the state started running out of council houses to sell.
In the 1990s and 2000s, we tried increasingly ludicrous financial shenanigans that decoupled the mortgage market from people’s incomes, until that ended with a massive meltdown in the global economy in 2008. Since then we’ve been trying to achieve the same outcomes by keeping central bank interest rates at close to zero, making mortgages affordable even as the underlying asset prices rose. Now this has failed too, and people are going to end up paying 1990s interest rates on 2020s house prices, a disastrous combination for a significant chunk of the population. Every strategy for keeping the scam going has eventually come undone.
The looters calculated that you could get away with screwing over those at the bottom, as long as you let those just above them feel as if their relative comfort was a reward for hard work and virtue. If people believe that what they’re seeing happen to the marginalised will never happen to them, because they are inherently better and more worthy, they will accept the poverty of others.
But now, here we are in another crisis, and a lot of people are finding out that they weren’t more special and virtuous and harder working than those lumpen proles below them, it just wasn’t their turn to get screwed yet. Having cut everything at the bottom right down to the bone, they’re moving up to the people who thought they were safe and insulated.
Ironically, just as the banks in 2008 were too big to fail, so the sheer level of the damage that has been done to the economy makes this problem seem too big to solve. We have finally noticed that relentless looting hurts everyone, not just the “skivers and scroungers” the papers and Tory MPs gave us as easy targets to blame for their own immiseration, but it has happened when the problem is so far advanced that it’s surpassed the capacity of our political imagination to think of a way out of the mess.
Any solution sufficient to tackle this crisis is considered lunatic, unworkable communism, and likewise any solution which fits into our idea of “sensible” is going to be desperately insufficient.
I shouldn’t have to be lucky to have what I have. It should not be a wild demand that rents be affordable, tenures secure, that people should be able to live without the grinding, enervating fear of poverty pressing down on their souls every moment of the day. People should have room to breathe and the capability to live a life worthy of the living.
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What makes it seem unthinkable isn’t what’s being demanded, but the distance we must go to get there – not only in fixing the damage but, perhaps more importantly, in convincing people it’s even possible to imagine a better world.
But think it through. Am I actually an insane Stalinist for wanting such basic standards of living to be available to everyone? For believing that we can exchange precarity for security? Do these rules, that we have been told are the only sensible way to manage the economy, actually make any sense?
The people who sit on top of the Jenga tower of the economy tell us that the rules are set, that we have to keep pulling out blocks from our levels and putting them on theirs. Keep denuding the state of everything that sustains us, abandon any ideals we might have for decent housing, affordable energy and food, a liveable environment, clean beaches and healthy children. That the only possible strategy is to come up with a cleverer way of piling more and more blocks at the top of the tower.
But if you want to keep the tower standing, you only have one strategy: put the blocks back where they came from. Return the wealth back to the people who it was taken from. Rebuild the sustaining infrastructure that we all rely on. Do the unthinkable. Change the rules.