by Lewis Bassett.
Society as a whole is more and more dividing into two hostile camps, into two classes directly facing each other — the rentier and the renter. Three decades of neoliberalism has transformed simple property ownership, housing in particular, into a primary variable of material status. Yet as severe as this objective distinction has become, the spectre haunting the capital today is not one of class conflict but the spectre of flat-whites and Aperol Spritz.
The growth of service sector employment accompanying London’s rentier economy draws subjects from the non-propertied classes into the cultural orbit of middle-class distinction. Miscomprehension as to the meanings of an expanding middle-class habitus has been one factor inhibiting a response to gentrification that accurately corresponds with London’s contemporary class reality. To be a hipster is not simply to be middle-class in the objective, property owning sense – in fact, adopting aspects of middle-class taste can be a prerequisite for employment in London’s service sectors.
Responses to gentrification are needed which eclipse a cultural relativist understanding of class; not because quotidian reality has no bearing on politics, but because it does. Here I plot the development of conditions which have enabled current levels of rent seeking before theorising the typical consciousness of those employed in London’s related affective industries. In doing so I outline the necessity by which working-class subjects are familiarised with middle-class taste, often to the point of subjective endowment. Simple cultural responses to gentrification which target signifiers of middle-class taste therefore split those affective labourers from their objective allies among others in the non-propertied classes, placing them instead in defence of cultural interests which form the basis of a hegemonic bond with the landed consumer classes.
The total number of private renters has grown 30 per cent in the past five years; particularly affected are a younger generation who, despite record low borrowing costs are denied progression to the status of owner occupation. The cost of rent eats into an ever increasing amount of earnings. Last year the average cost of rent rose 10.7 per cent, compared to the 2.4 per cent increase in tenant’s incomes. The 2014 English Housing Survey showed that private sector rents take up 40 per cent of tenants’ gross income, while Shelter in 2013 found that in London private rents account for more than 50% of a family’s monthly earnings in 23 out of the capital’s 33 boroughs.
Data from the Ministry of Justice showed that 42,000 homes were repossessed by landlords in England and Wales during 2014, a rate of 115 a day. This was the highest figure since the records began in 2000, and came as the number of mortgage borrowers having their homes repossessed fell to its lowest level in eight years, a trend likely continue for as long as interest rates remain fixed close to zero.
The development of this crisis (a class crisis, rather than the benign ‘housing’ one) is traced back to the dismantling of the social democracy which had previously delimited the power of industrial capital. Today, a national accumulation model dependent upon rising asset prices combined with increased juridical and state privileges, form the outlines of the rentier class’ power.
Since the neoliberal revolution, the British economy has been awash with hyper-mobile money exhibiting a declining preference for direct investment in manufacturing. The process of financial liberalisation leading up to the 2008 crash has been compounded by the response of governments to the crisis; the primary aim of reviving banks’ with supplies of cheap money has encouraged the pre-crash trend of speculative asset investment. Cheap liquidity and greater perceptions of risk has meant that incentives for short-term speculative investment have never been so great. As such metropolitan house and land prices continue to climb (10 to 15 per cent annually in the south east), much to the general merriment of the rentier class.
The ascendency of Landlordism has been aided by the introduction of assured shorthold tenancy (AST) contracts in 1988 has meant that private tenants have no rights when it comes to staying beyond their fixed term of most often 6 to 12 months, making AST contracts the most precarious in Europe. While the political power of this class can be attested to by the fact that 70 percent of the £1.9bn increase in the housing benefit bill goes to private landlords, as does the majority of the £1.88bn spent by local councils on poor quality temporary and emergency accommodation for homelessness applicants.
For the propertied, simple ownership provides access to liquidity via rent, sale or credit as well as a limit from the rent burden, forming the basis for lives of consumerist leisure. While in terms of the propertyless, the need for wages draws many towards the production of cultural desires that primarily serve London’s liquid middle-classes.
London’s service sectors account for 85 per cent of all private sector employment in the capital, even when discounting financial services the figure is more than half of all private sector employment. Accurate research is lacking as to the exact volume of workers in these sectors (combining hotels, restaurants, public relations, retail, fashion, etc) and as yet very few empirical accounts have been made of these worker’s consciousness; however to an extent theorisation as to latter can be reasonably formulated a priori. First, we can recognise that in so far as employment concerns a cultural product (an atmosphere, a meal or an outfit, for example) work in London’s expanding service industries will necessarily require knowledge of that product, a knowledge shared, however unequally, between producer and consumer. Second, that a sense of taste is notoriously hard to imitate. As such, given a competitive labour market, the sense of taste necessary for such employment is likely obtained by means of subjective enjoyment — such is the distinction between service work that mimics the master’s desires and that which grasps, indeed is, the real thing.
Enjoyment is the epistemology necessary to the functioning of the rentier’s middle-class metropolis, and hipster is one of this economy’s ideal typical workers. Hipsterism is, in part, a process that imbricates working-class subjects not only in the service of the tastes of London’s solvent classes but in the affective enjoyment of that cultural production.
The problem that the analysis of taste poses for objective categories of class —defined by the property distinction— is magnified when one sees that the summits of contemporary middle-class culture have been assembled by means of journeys which depart from positions either side of the property divide.
It was relatively recently and by indirect means that many of London’s new rentiers acquired such status; Thatcher’s right to buy offered one avenue for property ownership while the sudden acceleration in house prices afforded liquidity. The political inclinations of this group can be traced to this lack of direct class-struggle accompanying its ascendence. While Blairism is this trend’s major political corollary, also culturally the tastes of London’s contemporary rentiers fails to resemble those of the class’ historic precedents. Gastronomically speaking, esoteric French influence is still found in Mayfair, however as the loci of rent-seeking has spread beyond these old quarters the city’s contemporary beneficiaries have sought new practices, partially through reformulating practices historically belonging to London’s working-class and migrant traditions.
Entering it’s twenty-first year, Fergus Henderson’s St.John perhaps defines the modern era of British cuisine and provides an early indicator as to the combined nature of the palate which hailed the current tastes of London’s nouveau-middle-class. It is St. John’s (smoked) salt of the (organic) earth concerns and the appearance of some form of wax-jacket clad modesty that appeals to London’s middle-classes, old and new.
For this class contemporary humanist pretensions avoid the tenets of aristocratic sadism, rendering its consumer habits mobile and pervasive, its borders porous to alternative sources of vitality and its gestures combined with by-gone memories of working class culture. At St John’s the slogan ‘nose-to-tail eating’ dictates puritanical dishes composed largely of entrails and turnips. On the menu, among the steaming bowls of tripe, smoked eels and roasted marrow bones — all takes on historic working-class cuisine — is also deep fried squirrel, a slow-food adjustment to the contemporary subaltern taste for chicken and chips.
The Politics of Pie and Mash
The response to gentrification on the part of some class activists has shown a failure to recognise contemporary middle-class taste as a historically combined phenomena, born out of the cultural compatibility of two objectively opposed classes. Instead, these activists interpret metropolitan consumption patterns solely in terms of a war of commodification between two fixed groups, those of the working-class and those of middle-class outsiders.
Back in October the Tower Hamlets based anarchist group, Class War, protested outside the already notorious ‘Cereal Killers’ cafe on Brick Lane. The hipster cafe trades on over-priced sugary breakfast, flavoured milk and nostalgia for American pop-culture in a borough which, as many pointed out, is one of London’s least white and one of the UK’s poorest. Class War’s ‘Fuck Parade’ was accompanied by a statement which laid the blame for social cleansing on rich non-British outsiders. During the protest, as amongst similar events in recent memory (for example ‘Yuppies Out’ in Brixton), symbols of authentic working-class taste were opposed to those of the gentrifiers. One Fuck-Parader, for example, turned up with a box of Tesco Value corn flakes to wave at Brick Lane’s cereal killers.
Should the fulcrum of anti-gentrification be an object of authentic working-class culture — the holy-grail of working-class reaction — pie and mash might of been as good a culinary example as any. With listed status, one of the London’s few remaining pie and mash shops in Walthamstow now stands as living testament to the city’s industrialised past where a taste for pastry grew out of the need to protect food from the smog and dust that blew Westwards from city’s industrial East End. As with fish and chips, another proud culinary tradition (of jewish origin), pie and mash (Italian), was a cheap source of the calories required for physical labour in London’s industrial and mercantile economy.
Departing from the sociological determinism of class under industrial capitalism, the temptation for some has been to fall back on largely reconstructed cultural determinants, from where one slides easily into xenophobia. Proletarians, as the historic bearers of ideal political subjectivity, have disappeared from all but a few leftist’s fantasies; here they must leave also – the sooner, the better.
Salvaging a class analysis useful to the politics of this century requires reformulating sociology from its objective lines of enquiry to the development of research in terms of consciousness. As Marx and Engels moved in analysis from necessary labour time to the factory discipline that was the distinct character of the proletarian subject, so must we move from an analysis of rent to affective labour.
As long as the renewal of economic disaster remains unforthcoming middle-class preoccupations will continue to expand. Yet resistance to gentrification articulated in terms of cultural relativism shows an inability to grasp the affective nature of work in the middle-class metropolis. Any authentic subjects ‘outside’ of this process (whether or not such autonomy has ever existed) has in many quarters been disorientated and evicted or else integration with the rentier economy by means of the right to buy and service sector employment.
While directly resisting evictions and social disorganisation as it occurs, any broader political project must aim at the objective interests of London’s rentier class as an expression of a decaying growth model premised upon asset inflation. If it is true that in the middle-class metropolis renters’ and workers’ objective enemies can appear as their natural allies, the left’s response to gentrification must be to abandon the relativist politics of pie and mash.
Lewis Bassett is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Manchester. He lives in London.If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.