The road from Damascus

What a year it’s been, so far. Back in January, I suspect like many others, I felt that mine was a very small voice in a very large wilderness. I wrote a series of posts on this blog about the future of the welfare state, in the hope, which I knew to be forlorn, of trying to influence the debates in the run-up to the general election that now seems so long ago. Even people who admitted to agreeing with me privately gave the impression that they thought that such views were too off-the-wall and old-fashioned to be taken seriously – even that it would damage Labour’s prospects in the election to express them at all.

Over the years those labels – ‘loony left’, ‘man-hating feminist’, ‘bleeding-heart liberal’, ‘politics of envy’  – have left their sticky imprints. We (I imagine my experience is not untypical) got used to being marginalised, seen as unrealistic, quaintly old-fashioned and irrelevant. Before we even opened our mouths, people knew what they expected to hear and their eyes glazed over and they stopped listening. Yadda, yadda, yadda, we heard them think, even if they were too polite to roll their eyes to the heavens or drum their fingers. The neoliberal common sense that says it is naive to care, and that any policy not based on appealing to homo economicus’s self-interest is deluded and bound, in the end, to do more harm than good had become so taken for granted a part of the ideological air that everyone breathed that questioning it seemed, well, mad. And we got habituated to this, in some cases self-righteously so, gaining a sense of being on the moral high ground, of not having sold out, even in situations where we were manifestly in a minority of one.

Now suddenly this has changed. I am still confused about what pronoun to use because the merging of the I with the we is so sudden, but will revert to the singular because I do not want to falsely over-generalise. Over the last few weeks, and particularly the last few days, I have had a growing sense of being in synch with huge numbers of other people. When Jeremy Corbyn decided to stand for the leadership of the Labour Party I immediately became a supporting subscriber and donated some money, to discover a few hours later via social media that thousands of other people had done the same. Last week I felt impelled to do something personally to support refugees and even as it occurred to me discovered that there were hundreds of other people out there with the same thought – starting petitions, raising money, organising convoys to take donations to the camp in Calais, setting up websites to share your spare room, organising demonstrations.

We are, it seems, part of a huge collective moral sea-change. Earlier visible in the surge of support for Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, it has spread and can be seen too in the unexpected wide appeal of such figures as Pope Francis, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. And it is now broader still: a veritable tsunami.

It is fitting that the symbolic turning point in public opinion was that heart-rending photograph of a drowned toddler on a journey from Syria. At a stroke, refugees were converted from alien ‘others’ into people with whom anyone who has hugged a child could immediately identify. It was, after all, on the road to Damascus that Saint Paul experienced the sudden revelation that converted him from a persecutor of Christians to a Christian himself, symbolism that will surely not be lost on theologians.

If there is one word that encapsulates the new sense of connection between people that seems to be emerging it is ‘humanity’. The common outrage is overwhelmingly directed at its opposite – inhumanity. We want to dissociate ourselves from what is being done so heartlessly by politicians in our names to refugees, to the homeless, to benefit claimants, to the Greek people, and in doing this we claim a sense of common belonging to the human race and open ourselves up to empathy.

Among the last people to ‘get’ what this is about are the neoliberal politicians – the Blairs and Camerons – who increasingly remind me of Bob Dylan’s Mr Jones (‘Because something is happening here. But you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mister Jones?). I wonder to what extent, at least in Britain, this lack of awareness of any common humanity on their part may have been instilled in childhood. One of the ways the British ruling class has perpetuated its ruthlessness through the generations has been by tearing its little boys from their parents at an early age and putting them in the hands of sadistic and abusive strangers. No hugs for their inner toddlers. No opening for empathy to leak through.

Whatever the reason for their moral obtuseness, the awakening of a collective moral sensibility more broadly is something to celebrate. And, for those of us who suddenly find ourselves part of a crowd, so too is the dawning of new hope. (Go, Corbyn!)

PS. Rather to my shame, the last time I remember this sudden feeling of being part of a much larger crowd than I previously knew existed – of being, so to speak, on the right side of history – was at the 14-hour Technicolour Dream at Alexandra Palace in 1967. ‘Oh my God, there are thousands of us!’. Perhaps if more of our generation had spent less time grooving and devoted ourselves to the serious things in life – as Corbyn evidently did – then the world wouldn’t be such a mess now. But this may be our chance to redeem ourselves.

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The creativity of bar tenders

I have just experienced one of those disruptive moments when different aspects of life come into headlong collision with each other. And, now, in reflecting on this, I am adding yet another interruption to the ever-lengthening to-do list for August (which is, in principle, meant to be my quiet writing/editing month).

One of tasks I am in the middle of is writing an article on what i have referred to as an emerging new paradigm of labour (OK, I know that sounds pretentious, but wait till you read it before passing judgement) which is itself a distraction from a book I am also supposed to be writing.

But in the middle of all this I was called upon in my capacity as secretary of a local residents’ association in Dalston to intervene in an ongoing debate about Hackney Council’s  consultation about its licensing policy. I thought I had done my bit by attending various meetings, responding formally to the consultation process, encouraging other local residents to fill in the online survey and speaking to various local journalists. But no. An obviously well-funded and well-organised aggressive campaign has been launched aimed at convincing young people that Hackney is trying to close down the local ‘creative’/’night-time’ economy and stop them having fun. After a series of phone calls and emails asking me to say something I posted this piece on the residents’ association website designed to correct some of the inaccuracies in their arguments.

I did a bit of background research to demonstrate that recent attempts to limit the numbers of new alcohol licenses granted have had absolutely no effect, and pointed out that recent government policies have actually made it easier than ever before for clubs and pubs and bars to get one-off all-night licenses. Then I turned my attention to the sleight of hand by which  the concepts ‘creative’ and ‘night-time’ are elided and, once this has happened, the employment figures relating to the estimated size of the ‘night-time economy’ are then used to claim that this is creating thousands of ‘creative’ jobs in the borough.

At this point I suppose I went into auto-pilot mode. I have been doing research on local economic development, on employment statistics, on the growth of the service economy, and on creative industries on and off since the 1970s and am familiar, to a yawn-provoking degree, with the statistics on pay and occupational change and the literature on ‘good jobs’/ ‘sustainable employment’/’decent work’. So without thinking much about it, I summarised what I and others have written umpteen times before – and presented the conclusion that most of the jobs generated by the night-time economy are not ‘good’ by most conventional standards.

(impatient readers can skip this bit, intended only to illustrate some of the complexity) To be a bit technical about it, the rough estimates of employment in the ‘night-time economy’ that economists can produce will be based either on counting the number of establishments in a given area that come into certain planning categories (Class A3, ‘food and drink shops’, Class A4 ‘drinking establishments’, Class D2 ‘premises for entertainment and leisure purposes’) and making certain assumptions about how many people each of them employs on average and multiplying the two together or taking the figures on employment by industrial sector (in this case ‘food and beverage service activities’ and  ‘creative, arts and entertainment activities’ )  which tend not to be broken down to much level of detail at the scale of single London borough, let alone a ward, or taking certain occupational categories (e.g. waiters, bar staff, doormen, entertainers etc. – I won’t bore you with the many four-digit codes involved) for which the most recent census figures would date back to 2001 and 2011 (you need two dates to see a trend). Each of these is riddled with problems, not least defining what constitutes a ‘job’ when many of the workers in question (such as cleaners) may work for a number of different organisations and others (such as dishwashers) may be employed on an extremely ad hoc casual basis, and taking account of the fact that people who live in the borough and those who work in it are not necessarily the same people.

Of course it is not appropriate to inflict a lot of technical stuff like this on a casual blog reader with an attention span of a few seconds but I did not want to let the assertion go unchallenged. If, I thought, these people are using the language of local economic development in making their claims about job creation then they must at least be familiar enough with the basic principle (local economic development 101) that when talking about new jobs one should speak about their quality as well as their quantity, so felt entitled to comment on this. And how is job quality usually judged? By the answers to such questions as: is it well paid? is it secure? is it permanent? are the hours compatible with family life? does it entail health hazards? how stressful is it? what are the promotion prospects? what kind of pension does it offer? is it likely to expose the worker to aggression, bullying or harassment on the grounds of gender, sexuality or ethnicity? And so on. And it seemed to me glaringly obvious that, on the basis of the available statistics and innumerable studies, most of the jobs in the ‘night-time economy’ score very poorly on most of these factors, so I did not bother to quote chapter and verse.

Well, how wrong can you be? The post provoked a storm of protest and viewing figures went up from the normal two digits a day to four . There was quite a flurry in the twittersphere and my inbox was deluged with abusive comments. Above all, the point that they all took exception to was the comment about job quality (I have since then amended the post in an attempt to make this point more clearly).

It was interesting  that most of the tweets were not from individual twitter accounts but those of particular bars and clubs. So at first I thought it was their proprietors reacting defensively to what they saw as accusations of being bad employers. I also thought perhaps they had picked on this point because it was the only one that was not incontrovertibly substantiated and therefore the easiest to deny. But then I realised that something else was going on. A lot of these young people really did seem to feel personally outraged that their jobs had, as they saw it, been denigrated. They could not see the distinction between critiquing the working conditions and critiquing the worker forced to put with them. They obviously had a huge personal investment in their work: in disparaging their jobs they thought I was attacking them as human beings. How dare I (snooty, middle-class property-owning nimby as they obviously saw me) so belittle them? For them, working in a cool venue in Shoreditch or Dalston clearly represents something to aspire to – a job at the heart of the ‘creative economy’, in touch with the newest fashions, rubbing shoulders with the famous. What could be more glamorous? For job satisfaction, and for image, it certainly beats working in a call centre, or totting up figures on spreadsheets in an office, sitting behind a cash desk in Marks and Spencer or whatever else a Job Centre might have directed them towards had they been uncool enough to try to find work the conventional way.

Numerically, of course, such people are a tiny minority of the sum total of people in Hackney doing menial jobs connected with preparing and serving food and drink and cleaning up after customers. I doubt if it would occur to them for one moment to identify themselves with this larger group of cleaners and waiters and dishwashers (although there is often a great deal of day to day contact, which I witness from the rear window of the room where I am writing this now, between the staff of the cool night club that more or less backs onto my house and the Turkish kebab restaurants that neighbour it, who share a common alleyway  for disposing of the rubbish, wringing out mops and stealing quiet moments to smoke and text).

Yet, untypical though they may be of these larger occupational groupings, these articulate media-savvy young workers do represent something important in the changing landscape of labour, something which is perhaps not new but certainly growing in importance – a sensibility in which the labouring self is the locus of a deep contradiction. On the one hand it is highly individualised (in the sense that each person has a need to present him or her self as a unique, highly stylised personality in the way that Gina Neff describes so well in her wonderful book Venture Labor). On the other hand, this personal identity is merged into the larger identity of the ‘scene’ in which the employment is located (in this case Hackney’s cool nightlife) from which it derives its sense of importance. The individual can thus be seen as simultaneously both a separate entrepreneur and part of a collective enterprise  into which his or her labour is co-opted (and within which power relationships may or may not be explicitly visible). Whether this identification with the larger entrepreneurial project forms the basis of these workers’ insistence that they are part of the ‘creative economy’ is unclear to me, but is a question I would like to investigate further. It is also possible that, like many before them, some of them do not identify directly with their jobs but see them as temporary roles that provide an income until they emerge into their ‘real’ creative identities, as actors, film directors, singers, photographers or whatever. The impoverishment of ‘real’ creative workers in the current conditions of a global digital economy makes this only too likely. This too demands much more research and is something we are giving attention to in yet another activity that is claiming my time at present – this research network.

To which kaleidoscope of mutually refracting mirrors of changes in labour in I must now return.

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Intellectual jamming

When the news of B B King’s death reached me earlier this summer, I turned, as I’m sure many others did too,  to Google and Youtube to find recorded performances to remind me of the greatness of this inspirational blues guitarist. I had known that he was extraordinarily prolific and catholic in the company he kept but it was still astonishing, in this overview, to see the range of people he performed with over his long and hard-working career: singers ranging from Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Van Morrison and Bonnie Raitt to Tracey Chapman, Susan Tedeschi and Chaka Khan not to mention other guitarists influenced by him, like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood (and even the likes of U2 and Mick Hucknell).

What shines through from many of these performances, as well of course as King’s talent, is an extraordinary generosity of spirit that is always open to new dialogue: that attentive, respectful listening and voicing, breathing in and breathing out, call and response, giving the other people the right amount of time to express themselves before answering, that musicians call jamming and that characterises not just human communication at its best but also how other forms of art are made co-operatively.

I suppose this represents some sort of ideal of collaborative creative labour, exhibiting how new wholes can be made that are so much greater than the sum of their parts. For it to work, each participant has to have skills that are recognised and admired by the others, but such interdependence, especially when it involves taking unrehearsed risks in public, also entails making oneself very vulnerable and has to be underpinned by strong mutual trust. It set me thinking about how rare this kind of jamming is in intellectual work these days.  Rare but not non-existant.

I remember it very clearly in my teens and early twenties, in long profound conversations that went on till dawn about the meaning of life in which each insight from one person seemed to spark an even brighter response from the other. The morning afterwards, of course, many of these insights were forgotten, or understood to be clichés, or at least less original than one had supposed, but they nevertheless left residues that led to further thought, or reading, or even works of art. But it was not just private conversations that had this quality. In my first ‘proper’ job, at Penguin Education, which I joined in 1970, I was lucky enough to work with a team of people who collaborated in a way that was more characteristic of a film crew than many publishing projects. Here, series editors, commissioning editors, copy editors, authors, picture researchers, graphic designers, typographers, photographers and illustrators, each with a clearly defined role but also willing to learn from each other, collaborated on several series of illustrated books and audio-visual materials for schools several which were groundbreaking at the time.

Among the most famous were the Voices (and its supplement for primary schools, Junior Voices) anthologies of poetry, prose and pictures (here is a link to a recorded version of some of them). Another was Connexions, published, under the editorship of Richard Mabey, when the leaving age for secondary school pupils was raised from 15 to 16 in 1972, to introduce these final year students to contemporary discussions in a groovy way. Celebrated here, it was probably the first time the technical potential of offset litho printing was used (by designer Arthur Lockwood) to bring the ‘feel’ of a magazine to what was still in theory a school text book. The first time a kid was spotted reading one on a bus, as I recall, a bottle of champagne was cracked open. Whilst there were of course hierarchies in the organisation of work what I remember most clearly is a strong sense of joint endeavour and shared satisfaction.

It is a model that does not guarantee success. There are always risks: of creative disagreements; incompatible personalities; competitiveness overpowering collaboration; sharp-elbowed scrambling for recognition;  the usual tensions between democracy and efficiency;  all combined with the pressures of time and budget. Some of these have been addressed in the film industry by strict mechanisms of attribution (though invisible power battles underpin even those endlessly rolling credits).  But it is clear that, despite these many difficulties, our culture would be very much poorer (if, indeed, it could be said to exist at all) if people were not prepared to open up their imaginations to each other in this free and generous way in the faith that, by doing so, they will create something that no individual could accomplish alone. Each has taken the personal risk that the gesture might be seen as a clumsy, the solo might dissolve into incoherence, the joke be unfunny, the sentiment mawkish, or the whole thing met with blank incomprehension; all this has been braved in the hope that if it all works, something glorious will emerge.

I could write at length about the complicated relationship between being alone, and being with others, reflecting and expressing, that is entailed in so many creative processes, but that is not what I want to do today. Nor do I want to get too deep into a discussion of the ways in which ‘project-based working’, whilst drawing on many of the traditions of how teams work together in creative industries, is also used a an instrument of casualisation, keeping workers in a state of perpetual insecurity, with a constant need both to beg and to brag (I have a chapter on ‘begging and bragging’ in this book). No, what prompted me to write this post was the simple regret that this collaborative spirit is so singularly lacking in academic life, despite the rhetoric of collegiality that still haunts university campuses.

Far from being places where colleagues freely share ideas and inspire each other to generate new collective understandings, many universities now feel more like prisons for ideas, corralled into separate schools and disciplines – places where non-competitive behaviours and disrespect for hierarchies and boundaries may actively be punished. The unsuspecting new entrant may arrive with a starry-eyed vision of common rooms and high tables where ideas are aired for general appreciation, to be met with wit, informed debate, recognition and a sense of having contributed to the development of a larger body of knowledge. But, like a cow discovering the limits of a field through a series of shocking encounters with electric fences, you will soon learn the reality. Send an article unsolicited to a senior colleague for an opinion? FSSSTTTT-KKK*! You didn’t really expect them to have time to read it, did you? Co-author an article with a student for publication in a non-ranked journal? FSSSTTTT-KKK! What’s that going to do for your department’s ‘excellence’ score? You do realise you have performance targets to meet, don’t you? Talk about some ideas at a conference that you haven’t yet published in an article? FSSSTTTT-KKK! You have given valuable intellectual property away to your department’s rivals, what were you thinking of? Put your deepest thoughts into a research report that is a ‘deliverable’ for a collaborative project? FSSSTTTT-KKK! You just gave that well-known professor from a Russell Group university the material for his next article! Do you seriously think you’ll be properly acknowledged? Discover that there is someone in a different department of your university whose ideas really chime with yours and suggest a joint project? FSSSTTTT-KKK! You have started a major row between warring deans about who will own the outcome. How COULD you? Explain what you mean in really, really simple language? FSSSTTTT-KKK! Oh, come on. Be serious!

People being the curious, creative, idealistic beings that they are, there is clearly now a continuing hankering for alternative spaces in which intellectual jamming can take place. It is evident in the profusion of blogs and postings on mailing lists by young scholars, in the setting up of new networks and attempts to find ways of organising conference sessions that go beyond the sequential delivery of over-rehearsed pre-prepared texts. Not least, I see it in the enthusiastic participation of large numbers of, mainly young, researchers in the events organised by the Dynamics of Virtual Work  network I am currently leading.

But these opportunities for dialogue increasingly feel like small gaps in the electric fences through which hands can be grasped occasionally and a few ideas at a time can be smuggled. Where is the wide open landscape, the public realm in which an independent intelligentsia can converse openly? We are all, of course, free, within certain circumscribed limits, to make use of the means put at our disposal by global corporations to express ourselves, but, with no independent source of livelihood, this is increasingly looking like Anatole France’s famous freedom to sleep under bridges and beg in the streets. Apart from a lucky few, those inside the academy have no time, and those outside it no money to create opportunities for unhurried, focussed collaboration. The intellectual common, such as it is, is now a  minefield of contradictions. On the one hand it provides the main means for expression and collaboration for an exponentially growing proportion of the world’s citizens, but on the other it is also increasingly a site for the accumulation of new capital. We navigate it at our peril.

* Several people have asked me what this strange acronym represents. It is actually my – clearly rather feeble – attempt to evoke the sound that is made when living flesh comes into contact with an electric fence. Here is a recording of what it actually sounds like.

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Uber and under

In recent weeks I have been doing a lot of travelling (involving taking a lot of taxis) and speaking at various events about the so-called ‘sharing economy’, so Uber has been much on my mind.

I am never quite sure how much various different audiences know about the topic so one of the things i sometimes do is show a powerpoint slide with various phrases people might have come across ( ‘crowdsourcing’, ‘cloudsourcing’, ‘sharing economy’, ‘peer-to-peer networking’ etc.) and then show them the logos of various online platforms which they might have heard of to see what glimmers of awareness emerge. Last year, with a bunch of students I thought would be quite savvy about such things, I asked them to put up one hand if they had heard of the company or recognised the logo and two hands if they had used it. One admitted to having heard of Airbnb, two people had heard of Uber and one (a lecturer sitting in on the class) confessed to having used it. Of the dozen or so other companies (including several – like Elance, Peopleperhour, and Taskrabbit) that might have offered them a source of supplementary income, none kindled a spark of recognition. I was astonished by their ignorance.

brussels taxi

With typical Belgian understated style, Brussels taxi drivers respond to ‘clandestine taxis’ with a cultural reference to Magritte’s ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’.

European academics tend to have heard of Amazon Mechanical Turk (partly, perhaps, because it is used a lot to find samples for surveys, as well as having been much studied in the USA) and a few have also heard of ‘clickwork’ but not of the German company of that name. Some make use of online platforms that provide cleaning, household repair or construction services without putting much, if any, thought into how their workers are treated. And many are enthusiastic customers of Airbnb and Etsy.

A couple of months ago at the European Parliament I didn’t ask the question formally, but it was clear from the discussion that quite a few people were familiar with both Airbnb and Uber, though less so with the platforms that co-ordinate things like construction work, cleaning, hairdressing and so on. This suggests that the topic has begun to appear at least at the periphery of policy debates about the ‘Digital Single Market’.

The politicans’ concern is not trivial. Uber vowed in January 2015 ‘to create 50,000 jobs in Europe as part of a “new partnership” with European cities’*. And this is welcomed by many in some cities, where taxi drivers are regarded as a privileged elite (and taxi licenses cost a small fortune). One Italian participant at the meeting spoke eloquently of the way that working class people in her city welcomed affordable taxis, regarding the existing drivers as a kind of mafia-like closed shop. There was nobody there who spoke to represent the taxi drivers as organised workers represented by trade unions, which better reflects the reality in many countries. It is clear that much popular opinion is not on the side of the official taxi drivers but welcomes what it thinks will offer cheaper alternative taxi services (though Uber’s ‘dynamic pricing’ policy suggests that this is sometimes not the case, and, if official taxis are driven out of the arena, may become less so in the future). Even leaving such qualifications aside, it is clear that the policy response has to be more sophisticated than a simple knee-jerk defence of the existing regulations.

On my way back from the European Parliament building to the train station, with Uber on my mind, I was amused to see how the Belgian official taxi drivers were responding to this threat to their dominance.  In what I can only presume to be a conscious and witty reference to the famous Magritte painting of a pipe, captioned ‘ceci n’est pas une pipe’, but with reversed significance, they have added stickers to the sides of their cabs proclaiming ‘ceci n’est pas un taxi clandestin’.

Cut to Berlin, where, a month later, I was doing a talk, also on the sharing economy, for a conference organised by Die Linke, the Left Party, and the situation is very different. I was expecting a high awareness of Uber, given the news stories that went around the world in september 2014 about a ruling by the Berlin court upholding a ban on Uber in the German capital. It was reported at the time* that this had come about as a result of heavy lobbying by the German taxi drivers’ associations.

uber ad on taxi in germany

Berlin taxi in rank outside main rail station advertising Uber.

Yet when I gave my presentation nobody in the audience admitted even to having heard of Uber. And when I left the conference, outside the nearby railway station in the official taxi rank, what should I see but taxis actually advertising Uber.

What’s going on here? I cannot pretend to  know anything about the background to this. Has some huge administrative or legal sea-change taken place in the last six months? Is Uber now running official taxis? Have the organisations that represent official taxi drivers capitulated to such an extent that their members are now forced to drive around advertising the very service that spells the death-knell of their bargaining power? Has Uber adopted the kind of bullying strategy that the forthcoming TTIP will open up to many more international corporations – to sue any body that prevents them elbowing their way into any market, including the market for advertising on taxis?  Whatever the case, there seems to be a huge disconnect  between what is going on in the streets and what is going on in the perceptions of German left-wing intellectuals.

A week later, in Toronto, I was confronted with a different sort of disconnect. Many North American intellectuals are only too aware of the changes in work organisation signalled by the advent of the ‘sharing economy’ and this is starting to become evident in that most reliable of indicators, the topic of a growing number of PhD theses. Yet I found absolutely no evidence that this awareness is being translated significantly into political positions that inform daily practice. One leading US socialist intellectual with whom I had a conversation about how we had both got to central Toronto from the airport told me that although he had taken a regular taxi on the way in, he was planning to use Uber on the way back because it was so much cheaper. I detected no sense that he felt any matter of principle was involved.

Thus are wedges driven into the working class, with the USA, as so often, showing us in Europe what lies ahead of us: with workers acting as service users placed in a position where every act of consumption runs the risk of worsening other workers’ positions as service producers, and with ever-expanding proportions of transactions mediated by increasingly powerful global corporations.

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wisteriaI am never sure how much my love of wisteria is visual, how much to do with its exotic literary associations (The pillow book of Sei Shonagon, the first Japanese book I read in translation, positively drips with them) and how much simply because of the sound of it: the way the word compresses ‘wistful’ and ‘hysteria’ – two such different stereotypes of femininity – into a surprising in-out gust of energy that mimics the vigour of its growth.

I had always wanted to live in a house with a wisteria up the front, like the lady in the pillow book, and planted this one in  2010 or 2011 (I can’t remember which) when the house was still at the mercy of builders, and it has flourished ever since, and now brings joy to me (and I hope the neighbours) every April.

There is obviously something in the Dalston terroir particularly conducive to wisteria growth. Nurtured by the droppings of rats with a protein-rich and chemically-enhanced diet of fried chicken and chips, the cocaine-infused urine of hipsters, the delicate hints of amyl nitrate wafting in the night air, and the beer – Oh the beer! – how can it not thrive?

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Rung sweet rung

Dalston development 5 c

One of the most striking features of last week’s televised leaders’ debate was the extent to which it displayed a common vocabulary among the party leaders, regardless of political persuasion. In this new policyspeak,  citizens have been transformed into ‘hardworking families’ (when they are not ‘customers’ or ‘taxpayers’) and homes are invariably ‘the first rung of the housing ladder’.

These rungs are only too evident in Dalston.  Despite valiant attempts by local groups, such as Open Dalston, to save some of the area’s cultural and architectural heritage, the ‘town centre’, as the planners call it, has become a giant building site. Cashing in on Dalston’s hip reputation, the hoardings show images of the young and cool and feature slogans like ‘see it, be it, love it’ placed strategically where they can catch the eye of people leaving the nearby Arcola Theatre and Cafe Oto and late night clubbers staggering their giggling way towards the Overground Station.

Dalston development 3Dalston development 4

Yet it is hard to imagine a larger cultural gap than that between the edgy, self-ironising hipster aesthetic that made Dalston cool in the first place and the bland mass-produced blocks produced in their thousands by Barratt and Taylor Wimpey who are currently the two main developers in the area. They also happen to be two of the largest construction companies in the country. Even the staunchly Tory Telegraph regards Taylor Wimpey as a predatory company that is bringing undue pressure on public bodies to allow it to develop where it likes (see this article for an indignant expose of construction companies’ attempts to pressurise politicians to let them develop the Green Belt) while Lawrence Barratt (founder of Barratt Homes) is a well-known donor to the Conservative Party).

The evidence is that the overwhelming majority of buyers of these flats are not the young ‘creatives’ referenced in the images on the hoardings. Many are investors from countries like Russia, China and Pakistan (and more recently from crisis-hit economies in Southern Europe) wanting to park some of their money in the London property market. Such has been the increase in value in recent years that many do not even bother to rent them out – the flats are earning so much money (and, no doubt, helping their owners avoid so much tax and/or financial scrutiny back home) that there is no need for the hassle. In other cases they are bought by buy-to-let landlords. Their tenants are often people who work in the City of London, which is just a few bus stops down the road. Few, if any, are people from the local authority’s list of people with a real and desperate need for shelter. It could also be (but I have no firm evidence of this) that we are beginning to see a phenomenon that is already statistically visible in New York, whereby single people or couples who cannot afford the rent take a 2- or 3-bedroom flat that is too big for their requirements on the basis that they can boost their income by renting out the spare bedroom (or even in extremis the whole flat) through Airbnb – a process that drives up the market rents in an area, while depriving the local housing market of affordable rental properties for families

What is clear is that these flats are not intended for long-term occupation by people who want to put down roots in the area. A couple of years ago I actually went and viewed a show flat in the Barratts Dalston Square development on behalf of a friend of mind who is disabled and was looking for somewhere she could buy that had a disabled parking space and full wheelchair access.

dalston development 2 The disdainful young woman who showed me around was completely unprepared for such a request. All the glossy documentation she showed me featured graphs  demonstrating the return on capital over various different time periods according to a range of different economic scenarios, carefully differentiated to show both capital appreciation and potential rental income. When I asked her which flats were actually wheelchair accessible she told me that only two floors (four flats) in one 13-storey block (out of several blocks for which they were selling apartments ‘off plan’) came into that category. I noticed that the show flat had a lip over the threshold of the front door that was difficult to get a wheelchair over and asked her if the ‘accessible’ flats were available without this. She didn’t know. I also asked whether it would be possible to get kitchen units with the lower height worktop that wheelchair users need and she said ‘You’d have to talk to the architects about that’. It would definitely ‘cost extra’. How much? Again, she didn’t know (and clearly didn’t give a damn). When I said that I thought the point of buying off plan was to be able to customise such things she said that it wasn’t part of the normal package, had to be dealt with by a different department and – when pushed hard – admitted that ‘it wouldn’t be less than £20,000 extra’. The disabled parking space would also add £20,000 to the cost of the flat. She couldn’t get rid of me fast enough. The last thing they wanted, it was clear, was to have owner-residents actually living there who might make real demands on them as freeholders.

Dalston residents have fought long and hard to try to get the planning applications for these developments amended, but with rather little success. After strong lobbying, the number of ‘affordable homes’ in one development (a vast tower block that will go up beside Dalston Kingsland Station and cast its shadow down Ridley Road Market when the sun shines from the west and all the way across the borough boundary into Islington when it is in the east) was increased to 14 (11%) out of the total of 125 flats. When questioned about this policy of allowing these huge private developments, Hackney Councillors on the Planning Committee explain that there is a requirement for a certain number of homes to be built in the borough imposed by government policy and that they have designated this area (which has also been designated as a retail area and a centre for the night-time economy – uses which might seem to clash with each other) as one of the places this quota will be met.

But this policy seems to have absolutely nothing to do with meeting the actual social needs of Hackney residents. These flats have no gardens and no childrens’ play areas. They typically contain a mix of one, two and three bedroom flats (with the 3-bed ones only conceded very reluctantly after pressure from local objectors). They are not designed even for small nuclear families, let alone extended families. To the extent that they meet people’s housing needs at all (as opposed to the needs of global property investors) these are the needs of those emblematic ‘hard-working people’ who want to get their feet ‘on the first rung of the property ladder’. These people, if we are to believe the propaganda, are childless singles and couples who work in central London (and like a bit of partying). We can presume that they are expected, very soon, to move up to the second rung, which, if the likes of Barratt and Taylor Wimpey have their way, might be a 3-bedroom ‘town house’ in a suburb (in another Barratt or Taylor Wimpey development). In the next stage, they can move up to the third rung, one of those new-build 5-bedroom houses one spots from trains in the home counties or the edges of provincial towns, with an anonymous Disneyesque architecture that strips them of any association with the local soil (although no doubt the interiors feature those all-important en suite bathrooms attached to the master bedrooms and open-plan kitchen-diners that feature in the daytime TV property programmes): houses that really could be anywhere. Probably by this time these third-rung people will have children who, if they have artistic pretensions, will run screaming as soon as they are old enough to the nearest inner city location with enough poor people left living in it to offer some illusion of cultural authenticity, and the whole wheel will start turning again. In due course their parents will downsize and move onto further rungs, before making their final investment in a managed retirement community (releasing the capital for their offspring to start on rung one, having tired of bohemian squalor). But wherever they move, the benefits will accrue to the property developers and the new rentier class.

In the meanwhile, something priceless has been destroyed: the idea of a home as a home: somewhere to live, and for your children to live, as part of a stable community, knitted together through the generations. Whether it is owned or rented, what should matter is where it is, who the neighbours are, who is involved in the local school, the local political parties and the other organisations that make up the fabric of social life. Of course we should not idealise the past. Most London boroughs, for example, have a long history of appalling slum landlords, overcrowding, homelessness and vagrancy, coexisting with privilege and polarisation between the servant-employing classes and their servants. Nevertheless, much of the history of the twentieth century was a history of struggles to ameliorate this: to create decent public housing, education, health services and provision for the sick and destitute and to place these things in the hands of elected and accountable public bodies. To the extent that this succeeded, it created bodies of citizens, rooted in particular geographical areas (often through secure long-term jobs, as well as secure tenancies), who were able to exercise some leverage in their local communities,  in the knowledge that they belonged there and the faith that commitments they made to their neighbours and local institutions would be reciprocated. Thus are communities built.

This is not the place to rehearse those stories, endlessly repeated since the 1980s, of how the rhetoric of ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’ brought about the destruction of the communitarian and solidaristic values that had been created through such processes. But, with a crucial election looming, it is worth remembering that what we are seeing now, a culmination of this, is a dual process: not only does it place huge and growing proportions of our housing stock, as well as other commons, into the hands of enormous corporations; it also atomises and fractures communities, scattering people willy nilly to wherever the idiosyncracies of the market leave spaces for them.

In this process, Hackney, to stick with this local example, ceases to be a cluster of communities and becomes an unstable and temporary staging post in a myriad atomised trajectories made up of competing individuals fighting for a foothold, one rung at a time. Once designated as an area for the first rung and not for families, it starts to implode socially. People who have been brought up here have to move out. And incomers make little more commitment to the area than they would to the surrounding location of a motel they have booked into for a night or two. Who are the losers? Well interestingly enough, they are quite a diverse set of bedfellows: several communities that have made their homes here in successive waves of immigration; the British people who settled here because they liked this multi-ethnic environment and wanted to use its interesting shops and restaurants and bring up their children here; the later waves of students and artists and assorted hipsters and their gentrifying hangers-on; but also the institutions of local democracy. Hackney is a safe Labour parliamentary seat and Labour also has a majority on the local council. But in allowing the property developers to ride roughshod across the borough, the party is running the risk of kicking away the basis of its own support: the rungs of its own ladder; its electorate.

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More on the Citizens Income – a quick update

Since I wrote about it here in December there have been quite a few developments in the debates on an unconditional citizens income in the UK. These were partly triggered by an unfortunate television interview with Green Party leader Natalie Bennett on Sunday Politics, in which, when aggressively questioned by Andrew Neil,  she failed to provide a convincing argument that it was affordable. Subsequently, Green MP Caroline Lucas, who was also grilled about this on the Radio 4 Today Programme, stepped onto the back foot, saying that although the Green Party was still committed to this demand it would not be in their election manifesto.

A lot of the damage was done by an article in the Guardian by Patrick Wintour, misleadingly stating that ‘The Citizen’s Income Trust (CIT), which has given advice to the Green party and been repeatedly cited by the Greens, has modelled its scheme and discovered it would mean 35.15% of households would be losers, with many of the biggest losers among the poorest households.’

The model referred to here is Euromod, a tax-benefit microsimulation model developed by Holly Sutherland at the University of Essex. Like all such models, the results it produces depend on what assumptions you feed in in the first place.  Whilst it is perfectly true that some early attempts to model the impact of the Green Party’s proposed Citizens Income did produce results that showed that some poor households could be net losers, more recent studies, like this one, based on more sophisticated assumptions, have been done that show conclusively that, in the words of Malcolm Torry:

It is perfectly feasible to implement a Citizen’s Income of £72 per week for every adult, with lower amounts for children and young people, and higher amounts for pensioners, by reducing to zero the personal tax allowance, abolishing higher rate tax relief on pension contributions, and taking households’ Citizen’s Incomes into account in the same way as other income is taken into account when their means-tested benefits were calculated. This scheme would be revenue neutral, it would impose no losses at the point of implementation on low-earning households, and it would impose few losses on all households. All means-tested payments would be substantially reduced, every household would experience much lower marginal deduction rates or current MDRs on much reduced earnings ranges and then reduced MDRs on the rest, and about half of all households currently on working tax credits would be floated off them.

There is, however, a larger and more important point to be made here. And this is the insistence in all the media discussion that any innovation has to be ‘revenue neutral’. This is the default assumption adopted by any journalist interviewing any politician about any demand. Each change has to be justified on its own merits, independent of any other change, on the assumption that all other things remain the same, in a kind of parody of the experimental method.

In reality, of course, any new government would introduce a whole range of changes, all of which would interact with each other. Inevitably, microsimulation models like Euromod, are better able to deal with ‘givens’ that are clearly set out in government policy (such as tax and benefit rates) than with changes arising in the market (such as changes in wage levels, prices or unemployment levels) and cannot hope to model the full complexity of these interactions. Any government that came to power wishing to introduce a citizens income would undoubtedly also want to make other changes, such as raising the minimum wage, changing the rates of income tax, creating some extra taxes, abolishing others and so on. These would radically alter the sums, as, of course, would changes in employment levels related to the dynamics of the world economy. But even leaving these points aside, it is clear that a government committed to redistribution would not find itself short of resources to redistribute (just look at the tax evasion by HSBC customers currently being uncovered).

Such considerations did not feature in the debates following the debacle of the Bennett Sunday Politics interview. In fact several commentators seemed to grab the wrong end of the stick in ways that, perhaps unconsciously, seem willfully counter-intuitive.

Here, for example, is  Zbigniew Tycienski (blogging as ‘Tychy’) gleefully reflecting on Bennett’s ‘car crash’ interview, in a post called ‘A flagship sunk’.  He quotes my earlier post on Citizens Income (the part where I say that, given the choice, some people might like to ‘live on very little and devote your life to art, music, prayer, blogging, archaeology, chasing an elusive scientific concept, conserving rare plants or charitable work’) and describes this as ‘anti-social’.  What an extraordinary conception of society this is!  In his view it is anti-social to contribute to the general cultural, spiritual and scientific good of humankind, but, presumably, not at all anti-social to devote your life to competition, the acquisition of material goods and the pollution of the planet with the resulting detritus. Thus has the neo-liberal logic been absorbed and internalised and become part of a grotesque new Orwellian common sense in which the common good has become the common bad.

The more I hear arguments like that, the more committed I feel to the need to challenge these inside-out ethics. The question is, how?

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