The Blog

Neoliberalism and the Death of Community


"The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA. Thank you very much."

--Gordon Gekko

This past week the Washington Post ran an article declaring how "25 hedge fund managers earn more than all kindergarten teachers in the U.S. combined" while The Guardian ran a story entitled, "London house prices most overvalued in the world, says UBS." It would seem that we are living in times when those working in the most important of our societies' professions, caring for our young and nurturing the minds of our future, are even more unlikely to be properly remunerated as western economies are shrinking despite promises of recovery. And in London for most working in education, much less a reception year teacher, the ability to purchase a home is becoming more and more a dream further away from any tangible reality. As attractive as London is for professionals, artists, and students, most salaries make life here difficult if not impossible.

In recent years have witnessed handfuls of friends leave London for other parts of the UK, for Germany and other EU nations, and many departing for countries far further away in hopes of receiving properly paid employment in their fields of study or expertise. Many grow tired of attempting to put down roots in London as the affordability of this city defies so many professionals' salaries. One friend of mine was doing post-production special effects for cinema in Soho and making £23,000 per annum. Another friend was earning the same salary as an assistant curator at the Tate (where administrative assistants at the very same gallery earn far more, only working a forty hour work week as assistant curators often work weekends and evenings). Additionally my friend was required to get a Master's degree which the museum did not subvention in order to keep her position. Indeed, as I look across my friends who work in London, very few are making liveable salaries (liveable in the sense that they will not be entering retirement with Ross and Phoebe as flatmates), most are not in respectful working situations where their personal lives have a space, and practically none can purchase a home, much less consider buying one.

I have even met people throughout London who run their businesses primarily through unpaid internships where work life today resembles more the indentured servitude culture of the West Indies of earlier centuries, rather than allegedly developed and wealthy western nation opening up its economies to all freely. On the one hand London seems like this fantastic metropolitan capital, while on the other, one is starkly aware how money is that factor which separates people into those who are able to capitalise on their wealth and those who will likely never amass any. We see this as well in the bankers' greed in London where the ideology is to sell products at all costs for commissions and annual bonuses which are in excess of most Londoner's lifetime salaries. The PPI (payment protection insurance) scandal in the UK alone resulted in £40 billion from misrepresented and mis-sold PPI to customers, with some banks returning only 15% of their PPI revenue to claimants.

Earlier this year a friend in Brighton asked me what I thought about Airbnb. I was quite blunt in my response and told her how this kind of ostensible "sharing economy" is anything but altruistic and is certainly nothing akin to "sharing" as I pointed to the polemic of people with property who get richer and richer which inevitably trickles down to the many who have no chance of owning land and who are paying outrageous sums in rent. This friend's response was to me that she was "not well off" to which I pointed out that she owned an amazing home in Brighton and that owning home in this town is definitely considered well off. She then explained that she is not working full time and uses Airbnb to subsidise her choice not to work full-time. I pointed out that the larger communal and ethical problems of undertakings such as Uber and Airbnb which allows those with property to even more money while massively undermining the working class and giving those who undertake these enterprises the feeling that they are engaged in some edgy entrepreneurial endeavour. I indicated some of the problems Airbnb has created in New York City and San Francisco causing rents to increase, putting at risk rent stabilisation, causing smaller, independent hotels financial loss and affecting the pricing of hotels across the city. Add to this the increase in inconveniences and crime to which neighbours are subjected, there are clearly mostly advantages to the "struggling" home owner, few for their neighbours. Crack downs are under way in the USA, but in cities like London, the floodgates have just recently been opened to this practice in a city where tenants are spending 72% of their income on rent alone. If New Yorkers are already being priced out of the city by Airbnb there, I hate to imagine its effects in London.

What is most worrisome to me however is not even the economic damage that such industries promote, it is the neoliberal mentality where "new is equal to good," few people thinking about the ethical repercussions that renting their properties might inflict upon local business, neighbours, non-home owners for whom prices are being driven up by such practices. While those, like my friend, who have a distorted view of poverty (if owning a home in Brighton is skid row, please get me there then!), who have despairingly poor notions of the real life economic struggles for London renters today, and who see this practice as somehow innovative and not avaricious (which it is), what are damaging, selfish and greedy practices are suddenly spun into neoliberal fictions of "disrupting" capitalism (while in fact these are merely newer forms of it) and creating "innovative business models." Ultimately the "sharing economy" is merely the packaging individual freedom in reactionary language whilst such "sharing" activities are actually destroying the working class and raising rents in cities where today professionals can simply not afford rent much less the purchase of a home even in London's outer zones where house prices have risen 46% since the financial crisis of 2008.

Community is quickly disappearing as those with property feel entitled to make even more money on their homes simply because they can. There are no stops or safeguards in place which force these individuals to contemplate the risks to their own safety and the dangers to local economies. Add to this the desperation that either drives people to rent out their homes or the delusions of poverty and greed that drives others to do so. Or as American comedian Bill Maher recently quipped: "You really think anybody wants to have total strangers living in their apartment for a week? 'Oh look, someone else's pubes on my soap -- I'm living the dream.'" Indeed, Maher queries if the "sharing economy" might just be the "desperate economy" with people adapting to the "greed is good" culture, rather than making personal changes, political action, and challenging what is quickly becoming the status quo. Until we analyse how we embrace greed as "sharing," I fear we will forever perpetuate the demand for more and more (while others have increasingly less and less) as we delude ourselves into obliterating all hope of class discourse and critique.

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