I’m very flattered to be quoted by David Harvey in his paper “Universal Alienation and the Real Subsumption of Daily Life under Capital: A Response to Hardt and Negri” (sorry, I can’t add the link, but it’s well worth a read and available on line, reference tripleC 16(2): 449-453, 2018). In it, Professor Harvey skewers the ideological and economic stupidity that underpins our approach to housing. He describes the shift from the home of his 1950’s childhood as a place ” to eat, sleep, socialise, read stories, do homework or listen to the radio” to the neoliberal world of homes as an “instrument of speculation” in which “there should be no social housing at all”. Some of his housing facts are a bit off, but I’m not going to nit pick about that and certainly not with one of the world’s most eminent Marxist scholar’s overall argument that these forces represent a fundamental shift in the pattern of capitalist accumulation, producing (among other things) new forms of alienation.
There are many symptoms of neoliberal housing neuralgia and for me, some of them are illustrated by this photo, taken round the corner from where I live. Our area is an epicentre of the type of speculative accumulation of the type David Harvey describes, with all its attendant social contradictions and tensions, some of them captured by this image. Late Victorian/early Edwardian homes, including the one I live in, have become huge financial assets, embodying numerous meanings beyond their basic function as shelter.
Artists are key arbiters of today’s East End. This lane was refashioned earlier this year to restore its cobbles, at a cost of £100,000 – approved and administered by Tower Hamlets Council, paid for by Transport for London. In a quixotic moment, I tried to challenge this flagrant inversion of spending priorities. I was told what was being achieved was the restoration of an unusual “traditional streetscape”. I countered with the argument that all our streets could be excavated to produce the same effect, but soon realised I was fighting a losing battle against fake historicism, as well as vested bureaucratic, financial and political interests. But part of my anger was fuelled by the thought that the exchange value of the private homes and artist’s studios along the lane had been enhanced by thousands of pounds at public expense.
Not long after, I noticed that what I assume to he one of the beneficiaries had painted one of the street-stones gold. I find a lot of the art that surrounds us too arch to understand or care about. But in this case, I thought ‘You’re just taking the piss!”
Another poignant feature of the photo is that at the end of the lane is the local homeless services department, named after a man (Albert Jacob) who saw council housing as the key to resisting the universal alienation described by David Harvey. It’s a tragic irony that Albert’s name now denotes our failure to preserve his beliefs.
But there’s another luminous street that may lead to different conclusions. Dorothy’s Yellow Brick Road led to a shimmering city founded on illusion where she was reminded of the true value of Home. Perhaps we’ll all take a step along a similar journey in 2019.