I watched an interview the other day with anti-inequality campaigner Gary Stephenson, in which he described the strange and mixed emotions of getting his first £400,000 bonus as a 23-year-old urban trader from working class.
How cruel it seemed that even sharing the news of his good fortune with friends felt, such was the gap between what they had and what he had just received.
I’ve never seen someone drop £400,000 into my lap, but I live in council housing in the North East, and right now there are some ironic parallels. It used to be a standard North-South joke to tease your London friends by telling them how much you paid in rent for a flat twice the size of theirs. Now that the gap has grown so wide it no longer looks like good-natured ribs, it feels unnecessarily heartless. It’s not funny anymore – it’s horrifying.
I have friends with good jobs who, after finally hitting the housing ladder in their 30s, are now worried about how they can pay their mortgages. Not only am I better off than the people who are trapped in the private rental market, but I am now better off in real terms than a decent number of landlords. It’s crazy!
What I have is not absurd wealth. I have a reasonable rent that doesn’t eat up half my salary. I have security of tenure. My landlord won’t sell my house on my orders or raise the rent 20% in a year. I can put pictures and paint my walls. I can own a pet. My house, despite being rented, is mine in every way.
The absurdity of the situation is that we’ve kind of built an economy that makes me a lucky outlier. Wanting everyone to have something as basic as access to affordable and secure housing has become a revolutionary requirement.
We got here gradually. For many decades, whether for purely ideological reasons or for personal enrichment, the leaders of our economies have sought ways to take ever more public assets into private hands. From social housing, to water and energy, to the provision of basic public services, the state has slowly stripped itself of its assets.
This massive transfer of wealth from the poorest to the richest in society has been like a game of Jenga, with each new player taking more and more blocks from the bottom and piling them on top. But every game of Jenga ends the same – you try to remove a block that turns out to be carrying, and the whole tower comes crashing down.
That the sudden end of this crisis has its expression in housing is no coincidence. The asset strippers’ strategy was to hide what they were doing by turning housing from a commodity asset into a new asset class and allowing the price of that asset to rise, creating the illusion of a wealth widely shared within the middle class. What began in the 1980s with the right to buy fizzled out once the state began to run out of public housing for sale.
In the 1990s and 2000s, we tried increasingly ridiculous financial shenanigans that decoupled the mortgage market from people’s incomes, until it ended in a massive collapse of the global economy in 2008. Since then , we try to achieve the same results by keeping the bank interest rate close to zero, making mortgages affordable even when the prices of the underlying assets have risen. Now that too has failed, and people will end up paying 1990s interest rates on 2020s house prices, a disastrous combination for a significant portion of the population. Every strategy to maintain the scam ended up unraveling.
The raiders calculated that you could get away with screwing up those below, as long as you left those directly above them feeling like their relative comfort was a reward for their hard work and virtue. If people believe that what they see happening to the marginalized 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 many people are discovering that they weren’t more special, virtuous and hardworking than those proletarians below them, it just wasn’t their turn yet. make have. After cutting everything down to the bone, they go back to people who thought they were safe and isolated.
Ironically, just as the banks in 2008 were too big to fail, the sheer level of damage to the economy makes this problem seem too big to fix. We finally noticed that the relentless looting is hurting everyone, not just the “skiers and crooks” that newspapers and Tory MPs have given us as easy targets to blame for their own impoverishment, but it happened when the problem is so advanced that it has exceeded the capacity of our political imagination to think of a way out of the mess.
Any solution sufficient to deal with this crisis is seen as crazy and unworkable communism, and likewise any solution that fits our idea of “meaningful” will be hopelessly insufficient.
I shouldn’t be lucky to have what I have. It shouldn’t be a thoughtless demand that rents be affordable, tenures secure, that people can live without the overwhelming, maddening fear of poverty that weighs on their souls every moment of the day. People should have room to breathe and the ability to live a life worthy of the living.
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What makes it unthinkable is not what is required, but how far we have to travel to get there – not just to repair the damage but, perhaps more importantly, to convince people that it is even possible to imagine a better world.
But think carefully. Am I actually a mad Stalinist for wanting these basic living standards to be available to everyone? To believe that we can trade precariousness for security? Do these rules, which we have been told are the only sensible way to run the economy, really make sense?
The people who sit at the top of the Jenga Tower of the economy tell us that the rules are set, that we need to keep removing blocks from our levels and putting them on theirs. Keep stripping the state of everything that sustains us, abandon any ideals we might have for decent housing, affordable energy and food, a livable environment, clean beaches, and healthy children. That the only possible strategy is to find a smarter way to stack more and more blocks on top of the tower.
But if you want to keep the tower standing, you have only one strategy: put the blocks back where they came from. Return wealth to those from whom it was taken. Rebuilding the support infrastructure we all rely on. Do the unthinkable. Change the rules.