We need a radical approach to the housing crisis

An answer prompted by George Monbiot’s article in The Guardian.

The Guardian

I agree with Monbiot that “government policy has created heaven for landlords and hell for tenants”.

I’m a tenant, I always have been, and probably always will be. Not through choice but because I’ve never been rich enough to buy. As tenants we’re treated like children, constantly reminded, it’s the landlord’s house we’re living in, not a property we’re paying to call our home.

All tenants are made to feel beholding, as if we should be grateful to landlords for letting us rent their property. It’s a completely asymmetric relationship. How would you feel if someone turned up at your door, 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, one that puts tenants front and centre. Yes we need rent controls, but also 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 out property. Tenants should be able to report poor conditions, 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 them 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. If lenders 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 have been created by decades of poor political choices.

For the sake of everyone, we need to do better.

We’ve got to go straight to the heart of capitalism and overthrow it

Novara Media reports George Monbiot’s impassioned attack on capitalism, as seen on Frankie Boyle’s New World Order (2017-).

I agree with him, 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 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 this version of 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.

Contemporary capitalism isn’t the capitalism of the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, the one Jack Reed was reporting in Ten Days that Shook the World (1919). 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 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 its path.

I think we 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 the perimeter. 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’re inhabiting 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 oil sliding on water?

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’s 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 wouldn’t 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.

It’s not an excuse to stay where we are. We have a choice. Escape the panopticon, destroy the beast, they’re one and the same. If we don’t the beast will continue until it has consumed everything, then it’ll 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.

Neoliberalism promised freedom – instead it delivers stifling control

I agree with most of George Monbiot’s analysis of neoliberalism in The Guardian. He’s right to say that “the freedom we were promised turns out to be freedom for capital, gained at the expense of human liberty”.

Where I differ is in my understanding of the “extremes of surveillance” adopted by the neoliberal project.

For me it’s more than the Amazon wristband designed to monitor employee movements. It goes much deeper. For me there are a series of psychological and social technologies, institutions that have internalised that surveillance in us. We don’t even realise we have been socialised into behaving a certain way, manipulated into thinking certain things, made to understand things that are entirely manufactured as “natural” phenomena.

My previous employer wanted me to install an app on my phone. It was presented as entirely natural, offered under the guise of efficiency, so I could punch in and out of shifts. It used company wifi, and needed access to the GPRS on my phone. I refused, I didn’t trust the company not to misuse the information gathered, or the access granted. I wasn’t forced to install the app, but I was made to feel like my concerns were somehow the territory of the paranoid conspiracy nut.

My phone, like everyone I know, contains all kinds of personal information. It’s part of my “transactive memory”, and no employer should have that kind of access to any employee. That app represents a level of intrusion that most other employees in the company accepted as entirely natural.

While the app represents an example of an external intrusion I resisted. It doesn’t address the issue at the core of the intrusion. The internal, unavoidable, surreptitious intrusion. The behaviours that are integral to, and encouraged by, our digital devices.

I was recently asked to write about “why digital matters?”

I started by asking three questions. Question one. What’s the difference between a physical book and a book on your kindle? Is it the convenience of having a thousand stories there in your hand? Number two. How is a photograph different from the images you take with your digital camera? Could it be the immediacy of seeing the image you just snapped? Finally. Why is the music played from a disc different from the music you stream from Apple? Is it the idiosyncrasy of the playlists you compile?

Digital has certainly made things easier, faster, and more personal. But is that enough to explain the profound shift in behaviour digital has brought? I would argue not. In mathematics there is something called a factorial. A factorial is the product of an integer, multiplied by all the integers below it. For example factorial five is 120: 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 120.

I think digital can be explained in the same way. Factorial digital is intimacy. Digital multiplied by convenience, multiplied by immediacy, multiplied by idiosyncrasy, equals intimacy.

Intimacy conjures up feelings of affinity and warmth, rapport and affection. It invokes feelings of love. Why? Because our devices allow us to connect intimately with our passions.

Increased levels of sharing, unprecedented levels of access, is inherent in the devices that have been brought to market throughout the neoliberal project. From the VCR to the iPhone we have been sold devices that make things easier, faster, and more personal. They have fundamentally changed the way we behave, the way our brains are wired.

Hard won rights of the past have been given away without even a thought. We have willingly consumed the morality of a machine that, I want to say controls us, but control is the wrong word, the word I think is governs?

We have willingly consumed the morality of a machine that governs our behaviour.

We unquestioningly give away gigabytes of information about ourselves for free access to a platform. Why? That feeling of intimacy we get from the feedback loop of share and like.

My social media is like my own personal advertising campaign. In return for me “getting out there”, and being able to reach the world, my social media platforms fill my timelines with adverts it judges are of interest to me.

What are the algorithms that push these adverts doing to me? Are they feeding a view I have of myself? Am I constructing who I am based on what they push? Are they sculpting me to service their needs?

The devices we’ve let into our lives have allowed us to reach beyond the very narrow circle of people we physically know. They persuade us that there are myriad possibilities, while simultaneously honing our view of the world.

What was once intrusion is now sharing.

All of that amounts to a paradigm shift in human existence. We all want to be liked. We all crave approval. Is that desire being used to shape us? Probably yes. Is that desire making us accept things that are against our own interest? Again, probably yes.

Will I stop using them? Defiantly not.

We can only live in the world we have. We can be passive and allow it to happen to us, or we can be active and aware. We can wake up to the ways the “extremes of surveillance” are governing our behaviour.

I don’t think we can fight it.

That’s like fighting Tyler Durden. You just end up punching yourself in the face. We can only point a finger, make a claim, call out what we see.

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