We need a radical approach to the housing crisis

An answer prompted by a George Monbiot article in The Guardian: Poor tenants pay for landlords to have a good time.

I agree that “government policy has created heaven for landlords and hell for tenants.” I am a tenant. I always have been, and always will be. Not through choice but because I have never been rich enough to buy. As tenants my partner and I are treated like children. Constantly reminded it’s the landlord’s house, not a property we’re paying to call our home. All tenants are made to feel as though they should be grateful to the landlord for letting us rent their property. How would you feel if someone could turn up at your door whenever they choose, and just let themselves into your home? It makes you feel vulnerable. As if you have no agency.

I think we need a radical approach to the housing crisis. One that puts tenants front and centre. Yes we need rent controls. But we also need guaranteed long term leases. Terms of five or ten years should be the standard. Everyone needs that kind of stability to make a life for themselves.

There should be a register of landlords. You need a license to drive a taxi. You should have a license to rent private property. Tenants should be able to report neglect of a property, or abusive behaviour, without fear of eviction. A register of landlords would go some way to keeping both parties safe.

I think the owners of a ghosted property should be fined. Not small, slap on the wrist fines, but value of the property fines. Investors then have a choice, sell their ghosted property, or let it at rent-controlled rates. Similarly second homes, or holiday homes, should be either treated as ghosted properties, or taxed out of existence.

Mortgages should be calculated not on earnings, but on a proven ability to pay rent. I would argue paying rent is better indicator of someone’s ability to repay a mortgage than earnings. And if lenders still require a deposit they should be offered to individuals by the government, in the same way as student loans are, and similarly administered by HMRC.

The problems with the housing market were created by decades of poor political choices. For the sake of everyone, we need to make better choices.

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[The sinister face of social media] The Guardian: Jamie Fullerton: Teenage girl kills herself ‘after Instagram poll’ in Malaysia

There is a cold inevitability to this headline. A sadness that goes beyond the mountain of sadness that is this girl’s death. I’m filled with questions about the kind of people social media is engineering. And that brings a chill when I think about the people around me. We really are fucked if we’ve become a world where voting on someone’s death or life is given so little thought. My guess is every one of the 69 per cent who voted “death” are going to say they didn’t think she was serious. Their response to “Really Important, Help Me Choose D/L”, was as random as flipping a coin. They didn’t think about the question, or the outcome. They just flipped a tail instead of a head at the toss. An even more worrying implication is the lack of of critical thinking present in her followers. Would this girl still be alive if she had put an “L” before the “D”? I’m going to make a dangerous assumption that she put the “D” before the “L” because she had suicide in mind. Her metric was already headed in that direction. The answer just confirmed her choice. The 69 per cent chose randomly, and followed blindly. That possibility has ramifications reaching way beyond this girls suicide, taking us somewhere over the horizon, and dropping us in a well so deep we may never get out. In a complicated world social media simplified a question into a choice between, “D” or “L”. Ironically they understood the difference between the abstract “D” for death and “L” for life, but not the nuance of putting “D” before “L”. In life there are no binary choices. I fear we are forgetting that fact, forgetting how to navigate that complexity.

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Can you create fire from nothing? Novara Media: George Monbiot: We’ve got to go straight to the heart of capitalism and overthrow it

This is an interesting and impassioned argument from Mr Monbiot. I agree with what he has to say. But it does feel a bit like one of the podium speeches from the film Reds, Warren Beatty’s 1981 biopic of Jack Reed. The question I have for Mr Monbiot is simple; where do I plunge my sword? I’d love “to go straight to the heart of capitalism,” and strike the fatal blow. Personally I don’t think you can, because capitalism doesn’t have a heart. And because it doesn’t, there is no focus for our rage, no place for my aim to strike.

This raises the question, what form does contemporary capitalism take? It’s not the capitalism of the nineteenth century. The one Jack Reed was battling in Reds? That seems almost quaint by contemporary standards. Cut the head off the bosses. Take control of the means of production. Job done. These days you can cut the head off as many bosses as you want, capitalism will continue. It just grows another head, or two, like the spawn of Hydra. It strikes me that capitalism is more like an all-consuming ball of viscera, held together with clots of blood, and the chimeric limbs of a virus, grabbing at everything in it’s path.

Describing it in this way makes me think I should adjust my understanding of the monolith. For me the metaphor for contemporary capitalism has always been the panopticon. The panopticon I’ve written about in previous posts is a machine of control, a prison. It has a tower at the centre. With cells arranged around it. The watchers watch, and the tenants comply, because they never know when they’re being watched. With the visceral image in mind I think I have to revise my vision of the prisons architecture. It needs to accommodate this unrelenting ball of viscera.

If contemporary capitalism is a ball, always rolling, always consuming, where do the cells of the panopticon fit? I can only think they line the inside of the ball like the proteins lining the wall of a virus. This changes the orientation of the cells, tipping them over. That means we’re no longer being watched along a horizontal axis, instead we’re being monitored from above. If we inhabit these six-sided boxes, hermetically sealed cells, what are we seeing when we look out? If we look left or right, front or back, we should be able to see the other tenants of the panopticon. But we don’t. They should be there, staring in on us, as we stare in on them. Could we be so similar to each other we mistake them for our own reflection? Is it that we see them, but like Narcissus we’re so transfixed by our own reflection, all we see is a haze of movement in the background.

If when we look around we only see reflections, what are we seeing when we look up? Can we even see the spherical version of the tower? All watching? All knowing? Omnipotent? Do we see the virus gnome, hovering above us like water sliding on oil? Are we seeing God? Is that why capitalism hasn’t destroyed our notions of God? It needs us to believe in the almighty so we keep looking up. If we’re always looking up, we’re not looking down. If we’re not looking down, we don’t see the viscera, the clots of blood, the chimeric limbs of the virus. We don’t see the true horror of capitalism swirling beneath our feet. We’re told the fiery chambers of hell are waiting should we transgress, but they’re not. All that is beneath us is the bloody intestine of the beast that has swallowed us.

If the Devil is the beast, and the beast is the machine, how many of us have the courage to cut into its flesh? How hard is it to kill an animal? How much fear and loathing must we have to slice through the flesh and bone? How much more courage would you need to slice and escape through those chimeric limbs? Their entire reason for existence is to grab everything in their path, and draw it into the beast? Any individual escaping their cell would become just another resource for the machine, more protein for the wall of the virus.

It is no wonder that beast seems impossible to slay. We’ve been shadow boxing our reflection for so long, we’re exhausted. But strength must be summoned from somewhere. Any attack on the beast must be coordinated. It requires a vast percentage of the panopticons prisoners to break through the walls of their cell, and slice into the beast simultaneously. The trauma must be so catastrophic that the beast is unable to repair or mutate. Each and every chimeric limb must rendered irreparable. The unrelenting production of heads must be hacked until the machine has neither the will or the energy to produce more. Only then will we be able to hack through the clots of blood, and escape.

This would not be the end of it. Who knows what will be found on the outside. Will there be anything left? It could be so depleted it can no longer sustain us. Consider also, how prepared are we for this new life? After forever in a box, will we have the skills we need to thrive? A practical life is not a technological existence. The abstract thinking needed to thrive in a cell is not the same as the practical skills needed to survive in the wild. Can you create fire from nothing? I’m not sure I have such a basic skill.

This is not an excuse to stay where we are. We have a choice. Escape the panopticon. Destroy the beast. They are one and the same. If we don’t the beast will continue until it has consumed everything. Then it will feed on us until that resource is gone. Finally, alone, the beast will wither and decay. It will not matter. No one will cry. There will be no one left to notice.

We have a choice. Learn to make fire.

Mattha Busby’s bias

The article above by Mr Busby presents a deeply confused piece of opinion that conflates wrangles over Brexit with Mr McDonnel’s negative view of Winston Churchill. As if characterising Churchill as a villain somehow negates the Labour position on Brexit.

Ms Kuenssberg inject a squirts of capsaicin into the conjunctiva with her comment, “these remarks at @politic event could stir a lot of trouble.” Neither Ms Kuenssberg or Mr Busby quote Mr McDonnel correctly. He actually said Winston Churchill was “more villain than hero”. A subtle but substantial difference. Yes Churchill was a great wartime leader, but there are many more situations in which his actions could, at best, be described as villainous. Both parties could do worse than listen to the episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast “The Prime Minister and the Prof“. They might also like to take a few minutes to read Tom Heyden’s article “The 10 greatest controversies of Winston Churchill’s career“. Both offer a very different view of Churchill. Yes he did great things for this country, but he also had some very unsavoury attitudes, and took some “villainous” action. To wilfully ignore and misrepresent this aspect of Churchill is an act of “villainy” all of its own.

New Statesman: Peter Hain: No Deal is a dangerous fantasy – it is time for the Brexiteers to come clean

The Brexiteers know the disasters we are facing, they just don’t care. They don’t care because they have “faith”. Faith that the grass is greener outside of the European Union. That we will prosper if only we have faith to stay the course. There is one thing we should remember about people with faith; they are unshakable in their convictions. You can not argue facts and figures with them. They have their “faith”, and their “faith” will see them through. Brexiteers are fundamentalists, and like all fundamentalists they would rather do something suicidal than admit what they believe is wrong. You can unpick the logic, offer mountains of evidence, but as soon as they say “I believe” and the argument is over. It’s over because evidence based thinking is heresy. The problem from the start is that Remainers allowed the Brexiteers to frame the argument, and that argument was framed in the hyperbolic emotion of faith.

The Financial Times: Martin Wolf: Inaction over climate change is shameful

Inaction over climate change is more than shameful, it’s suicidal. But shaming those who can do something about global warming will not work. They have no shame. Because they cannot see the wrong in what they do. I agree with Mr Wolf that “we need to shift the world on to a different investment and growth path right now”. I agree rich countries who caused the problem need to pay. The redistribution of wealth to “countries that matter for the solution” needs to happen. But I don’t think it will.

The wealthiest individuals, in the wealthiest economies, are like the character Sydney Stanton, the hobbled billionaire in 1950’s sci-fi film “When Worlds Collide”. He thinks his wealth buys him a seat on the ark. It does not. It only buys the opportunity to build it. Think about this for a moment. The 1000 richest people in the United Kingdom increased their wealth by 184 per cent in the ten years that have accompanied austerity. They accrued £468 billion on top of the £256 billion they already had, while the rest of the population experienced the worst decline in living standards in a generation. They no doubt accumulated this wealth by working hard, making shrewd investments, and leading successful businesses. They also managed to convince successive neoliberal governments to decreased their tax liability. £468 billion could do a lot of good. Why isn’t it? Because trying to shame the Stanton’s of the world into changing their ways is like eating glass. The only person with a lacerated tongue is you. “You did it to yourself.” Shaming them will not work. They still think they can buy a seat on the ark, and a way out of the apocalypse.

Diversity perspective: The power of the divergent species

I recently submitted one of my screenplays to a writing competition. The competition came with this statement of intent.

This initiative is aimed at reflecting the diversity of all of the UK and we encourage talent currently under-represented in TV Drama to apply – including women, disabled talent, BAME talent, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. With this in mind, please tell us about your unique voice and the diversity of thought that you will bring to the competition.

The application asked for my “diversity perspective”. I enjoy writing most when I am at the edge of my understanding. When I discover something. When a vague idea finds a form. I think that happened while writing this. I started with nothing but a cluster of notions. Writing gave that cluster a form. To be honest I’m not even sure if I answered the question. They probably only wanted a short paragraph.  I ended up writing two pages of single spaced text. I submitted the following.

The question of unique voice and diversity of thought are really hard questions to answer. The pressures at play are dynamic and constantly shifting. When pitched against women, disabled, or black, Asian and ethnic minority talent, I am part of the over-represented demographic. I am white, British and heterosexual. I certainly haven’t felt the prejudices experienced by a black man, the sexism suffered by women, or the difficulties encountered by a person with disability. The thing is, I don’t feel privileged. I understand this feeling is relative. If I were forced to walk the path of a woman or a black man I would feel differently. I just don’t see myself reflected in the demographic of white heterosexual men. They have an education I never had. They have wealth I have never known. They have a sense of entitlement I have never enjoyed. In many ways they seem to me like a completely divergent species. If you pushed me to describe my background, I’d have to say it was, disadvantaged. I was born in the North East of England. My family tree is populated with a succession of miners who were poor. According to family lore, my paternal great-grandfather pushed a cart, loaded with his family and possessions, eastward across the Northumberland moors, looking for work. To escape the pits and the poverty my father joined the army. He uprooted his family, took us away from the North East, and moved us around the world for more than a decade. Despite this, and having lived in London since the late 1980’s, I still feel the weight of my North Eastern heritage. As the adage goes, you can move the boy out of the council estate, but you can’t get the council estate out of the boy. As flippant as that might sound, it holds kernel of truth. At the core of that kernel is a feeling that can only be described as doubt. The kind of doubt the divergent species seems untroubled by. He approaches the world with a confidence that comes from knowing his mistakes are temporary. Family wealth insulates him from his failures. This is perhaps one of the many reasons why those from disadvantaged backgrounds moderate their aspirations. They have no choice but to mitigate their failures or risk suffering the full consequences of their temerity. But family wealth is not just financial. In his book “Outlieres”, Malcolm Gladwell notes that wealthy parents adopt the active strategy of parenting that “foster and assess a child’s talents, opinions and skills”. While poorer parents adopt the more passive strategy of “accomplishment by natural growth”. The key point is that wealthy parents teach their children to negotiate a world in a way poor parents don’t. The advantages of wealth, in all its forms, give the divergent species a head start. The most pressing example I can give, from my own experience, is writing. I didn’t start writing seriously until I was in my early-thirties. It grew naturally from a frustration. I had worked myself into a cul-de-sac, and writing was a chance to take my career in a different direction. My family has suffered because of my temerity. We survive but do not prosper because I made the choice to risk everything and write. I have the feeling that if I were born to a wealthy family my aspiration would have been found, and nurtured. I would not have had to discover it for myself as part of “accomplishment by natural growth”. But my commitment to the craft of screenwriting is still no guarantee of success. The stories I tell still have to negotiate the institutions that favour a very specific worldview. The problem is, no matter how good my writing becomes, I do not share the divergent species worldview. In 1996 Andrew Marr interviewed Noam Chomsky about power and the media. The key exchange happens when Marr tries to push his view that the news media in this country has a “wide range of opinion” and speaks “truth to power”. Chomsky refutes the claim, instead arguing that through a programme of selection that starts in nursery school, individuals are selected for compliance, and dissenting voices are weeded out. The exchange ends with Chomsky telling Marr that if he didn’t share a very specific worldview he would never have been allowed to become a journalist at the top of his profession. “CARR-10-N” describes a worldview that is at odds with divergent species view on drugs. Drug users are routinely scapegoated as the cause of all the ills of society. Drugs are a threat to the social order. It can be stopped if we unite against this common enemy. We may have to exceed a few individual freedoms but this is a small price to pay to rid society of this scourge. I see the war on drugs as a war on a countries population. Drugs are not about public health; it’s about public control. My unique voice, my worldview, is born from a disadvantaged background. My diversity of thought is deconstructive at its core. I have a way of thinking that is critical of, and hostile to, the power of the divergent species.

Thatcher’s authoritarian personality

Margaret Thatcher died on Monday. In death, as in life, she divides opinion. Personally I think she was the worst thing that happened to this country since the Second World War. All the problems we currently face have their genesis in her premiership. I think the financial collapse of 2008 was a direct result, not just of the economic strategies she initiated but more importantly a way of thinking she promoted. The senior managers and business brains of the banking sector were the Young Turks of the financial industry when she came to power. The mantra of rampant self-interest she espoused and they took to with such vigour is the same “I’m all-right Jack” attitude that made these big bonused bankers do business the way they have and continue to. Her devotees say she was a strong leader. For me she was a “strong leader” only to those who need that kind of guidance. To the rest of us she was nothing more than a bully. I think there was a callousness in her leadership that was nothing short of sadistic. She had a viciousness about her that I see in the “tough decisions” fiscal policy of George Osborne. No to a plan “B”, “C” or “D” is all-right when your worth £4.3 million, have a Notting Hill property worth £1.8 million and a wife who’s father is a life peer. A life peer who interestingly was also a member of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet. But I digress from the title of this post. Recent entries about Carrion, specifically those regarding Anthony Reiner, have made me realise something about Margaret Thatcher I didn’t understand before now. Her success was due in no small part to her authoritarian personality. At this point it might be a good idea for you to take a look at Erich Fromm’s 1957 article The Authoritarian Personality. (1) I referenced it in posts that grapple with the totalitarian mindset of prohibition and Reiner’s authoritarian personality. Fromm makes some interesting insights into the nature of the authoritarian personality, notably the symbiotic relationship between the passive and active authoritarian. If I were to characterise Reiner as a passive-authoritarian; the individual who belittles himself so that he can, as part of something greater, become great himself. I would characterise Thatcher as the active-authoritarian; the sadist who feels strong because she has incorporated others. To those who say she encouraged people to be free of the state, to go out there and do it for themselves, I say the free market is not freedom. Ask anyone struggling to pay a utility bill or trying to buy a house or even secure a living wage; how free do they feel? Market freedom is only freedom to those who have. If you already have it you’re free to take it somewhere else. What if you don’t? That argument aside, one of the most interesting thing for me in realising Thatcher had an authoritarian personality, is realising how many people have the emotional need to follower her. The irony of her message of self-reliance and freedom is actually a message of subjugation. You must supplicate yourself at the alter of Thatcher or you’re one of “them” and if you’re one of “them” you’re vilified, blamed for everything that is wrong with society; if we get rid of them, things will be better for us. And that people is the dynamic of totalitarianism. Which is perhaps Thatcher’s real legacy. Personally I do not mourn her passing. Unfortunately I have to live in the world she created.