Gentrification is a dirty word. But, what it represents, is not the singular cause-effect relationship that it seems at first glance: something that has allowed it to become the in-vogue signifier of all things bad in the neoliberal city. What, essentially, we must avoid is blaming the individual for a systemic issue, blaming residents and not landlords, blaming supply and demand and not the entire capitalist system.
That said, what I would like to avoid is a kind of apologia for rich people moving to cheap parts of London. This isn’t that. But, what I would like to address is the individualist lens that seems to be focused on the various groups now renting and buying. Arguments derived from terms like “gentrifiers” and “colonisers” are overtly individualist, and therefore are not constructive if we want to see real change.
Individualism is a handy tool in deflecting blame away from systemic economic issues, and it’s no wonder that it’s gone hand in hand with capitalism’s core cultural logic: divide and conquer, the “I” not the “Us”, the ascent of the ego. The Individual pitted as master and commander of their own universe, economic destiny, environmental footprint and place in the world. You can have it all, and if you can’t, it’s the fault of your neighbour and not the system itself.
Crisis happens. That’s just how capitalism works. It’s been a handy narrative in skirting blame for issues intrinsic to neoliberal governance. In times of boom, it works for all. In times of bust, it’s simply the will of the market. But it gets a little trickier when the will of the market defunds the mental health organisations that prevent teen suicides, or help with sexual health, or provide care for our ageing population.
Back to gentrification. Take any area in Greater London: you have an increased demand for housing, this gives you an increase in housing prices, and thus an increase in renting price. Money and infrastructure improve as councils, authorities and business begin to see profits rise. It’s a sad reality and there isn’t much you can do to stop it within the current economic system.
This is how markets work. Neoliberalism is, in the simplest terms, the belief in allowing markets to underpin the core componentry of our society. The blame we are attributing to middle-class families of four, and students, and median-income creatives, actually relates to a far larger, more complex issue that they are mere effect of.
The old-guard of a geographical area are also not one homogeneous group of hapless victims. If they owned their house, or used Right to Buy to purchase their council home, then they were exactly the people who profited from the gentrification. If they rented, then they got priced out and had to move. Simply put, a lot of older residents sold up and moved out at a huge profit.
When you talk about gentrifiers in this light, from an individual perspective, what you’re really talking about is asking either a pre-existing or prospective occupant to preserve some abstract concept of geographical purity by either not selling, buying or renting in a certain area. Attaching individualist blame to entities using a system which should not even be a deregulated market-based systemis absurdly symptomatic. The problem is systemic and will always be systemic. If a system can be abused, people will abuse it.
The Housing Act 1980, which included the infamous Right to Buy legislation, was an early step in the slew of Thatcherite deregulation that led to the present situation: The Market as judge, jury and executioner of value – a term which was henceforth tied exclusively to profitability.
With this deregulation and fundamental change to the structure of the housing market came the disgraceful state of landlordism we now find ourselves in. Never has there been a more parasitic, uncreative, worthless profession than owning dwellings for profit and charging working people an obscene premium to live in them. But, as is the case with much of this kind of deregulation, it has become the new normal. There’s been a paradigm shift, on a moral as well as economic level, and the behaviour is thus excused through greed’s new window-dressing: entrepreneurialism. A grim, post-Thatcherite expression, chief signifier for “Get rich quick. By anymeans. Fuck everyone else”.
When you consider this entire ontological shift against the worsening state of housing, or the worsening state of the environment, or higher education, amenities, employment, or the rich-poor divide, you begin to realise that this whole world of guilt placed on the individual is not only counterproductive, it’s the direct offspring of the survivalist logic of the market itself. Operating unconsciously, this market, at all costs, practices self-preservation. By piling that delicious, post-Protestant sin on individual heads, the market and its corporatist engine remains unchecked.
So what do we rally for? While it’s easy to snarl at those top-knotted, kombucha-swilling denizens of Sweaty Betty, it’s harder to crystallise a collective thought in our own hyper-individualist epoch. The political theorist Chantal Mouffe, along with Ernesto Laclau, developed a concept called “Chains of Equivalence”, which is essentially the idea that most of us are victims of hegemonies of oppression. There is a thread that ties superficially disparate groups together. Here I am highlighting that this “chain” (so to speak) is precisely the post-Thatcherite neoliberal economy.
We need to openly and actively support a system which will reverse this laissez-faire deregulated shit-show. This is socialism. Its chief function in economies like ours is to first wrest these essential amenities – like housing, water, and transport – out of the twisted, iniquitous claws of private interest.
Capitalism is making us attack the effects of its degradation, not the degradation itself; not the system. Let’s remember how much we have in common: how we will all continue to be screwed in one way or another if we can’t change the system we’re in.
Words, Arthur Hawkes
Image, Edward Green – @nedgreen