This post first appeared on Cava Sunday’s blog and is reposted here with their kind permission.
Following the Fuck Parade 3, Ian Bone recently announced that Class War would be mad not to continue to target independent businesses, due to the publicity they received for attacking the Cereal Killer Café. Class War have been consistently involved in some great ‘slow-burn’ campaign work against Property Developers and Council Corruption with regards to Gentrification. I also have no interest in defending profit making enterprises of any size from public criticism by virtue of their size. Political instability is a business risk like any other, and a very low one at that, due to the effort that goes into the militaristic securing of inner London by the Police. But to subvert the meaning of anti-gentrification campaigning into populist campaigning against Hipsters is a dangerous mistake, especially in the interest of self-serving publicity. Over the next few days, I will be posting three articles that discuss distinct problematic dimensions to hipsterphobia and populist anti-gentrification campaigning:
1) Hipsterphobia is Theoretically Outdated
2) Hipsterphobia is Xenophobic
3) Hipsterphobia Sails too close to Homophobia and Gendered Norms
These have been informed by discussions I have had over the past few days, but also a fair few years of undergraduate research into gentrification and the law. Also, I freely move between both the Anarchist scene and East London’s other subcultures, so I have a fair bit of anecdotal knowledge too. I’ve tried to avoid too much obscurity and I hope you will be able to get something out of it.
Hipsterphobia is Theoretically Outdated
For a World where Everyone Knows their Place: Kryten and Lister Speak in Hushed Tones of the Dangers of Deviating from Class Norms.
I want to introduce the work of a Marxian geographer called Neil Smith. He sees gentrification as a global economic strategy for realising the value in urban land. He believes three distinct phases can be witnessed to any gentrification project in the West. I think they apply particularly well to London.
Phase One – Sporadic Gentrification
This refers to the ideas of the author who first coined the term ‘Gentrification’, Ruth Glass. In the famous quote, Glass argues:
“One by one, many of the working class quarters have been invaded by the middle class – upper and lower … Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social social character of the district is changed” (Glass, 1964, p.xvii).
Referring particularly to areas in inner London where a few clusters of fairly derelict housing were being refurbished by liberal professionals who didn’t mind “slumming it”, this seems to be the definition of gentrification that people operate on today, some 50 years later. A lot has happened in 50 years.
Phase Two – Anchoring (1980s-1990s)
In this ‘Anchoring’ phase, the potential for gentrification to secure votes, investment and a degree of stability is acknowledged by the government, and they begin to make the changes necessary for it to ‘Anchor’ itself into the national economy. We could cite the introduction of the ‘Right to Buy’ council houses, the Scarman report’s recommendation that urban riots could be avoided by investment in poor urban areas, and the Thatcher governments decision to use that as an opportunity to pump cash and cops into city centres to secure them as retail and leisure destinations. During New Labour, we saw the introduction of Anti Social Behaviour discourse as a means of sorting the ‘responsible’ council tenants from the disorderly ‘underclass’. This also included incentivising working class participation in local urban regeneration schemes that sought to change existing council and squatted tenures into predominantly housing association or owner-occupied tenures. Of course, these schemes were all total stitch-ups. The goal was to use public money to devolve the dubious ‘power to privatise’ to the masses. This is precisely why I am so skeptical of Corbyn’s promises to democratise public services. We also see the normalisation of CCTV and changes in architecture to reflect social control. This period takes us from the decline of Social Democracy and a National ‘chain of manufacturing’ economy, into the shiny, globalised world of Neoliberalism and a service economy. We also begin to see an explosion in the financial services industries, which needs constantly feeding in the form of land, debt and profit. This is best epitomised by the idea of New Labour’s commitment to a British Urban Renaissance, that redefines inclusion in the national fabric through an individual and collective obligation to be an obedient consumer-citizen.
Phase Three – Generalising (2000s +)
At this point, ‘urban regeneration’ has become hegemonic and unquestionable. Property in London is fragmented, lying in the hands of investors, speculators and developers the world over. Councils are ideologically committed and legally obliged to submit their stock and services to a fire sale to the private sector. The constant turnover of ownership and the constant fluctuations in prices of land feeds the various speculative industries involved, which now most of the economy is deeply interconnected with and dependent upon to stay afloat. Regulation stifling this constant changing-of-hands has been worn away. The governmental structures of Boroughs, Cities and Nations alike are compelled, by virtue of the structure they operate in, to use their resources (tax money, planning permission, law-making, law-enforcement etc) to secure what Smith refers to as “Geo-bribes” for local and international capital to make it’s home in whatever locale they happen to be in charge of. Think of the big developers here, the retail chains, the global architects, the law firms as well as the big banks. This is done because capital can move freely from nation to nation in search of the best deal. Think of our governments using our urban space as a sweetener to make these deals: a ‘slush fund’ of human lives. Urban regeneration becomes a socio-economic dogma that is used to fix everything; unemployment, poverty, lack of investment and crime. Of course, the irony being, that it is also one of the biggest things that causes these problems.
In this context, the idea of someone spending a fiver on a bowl of cereal seems rather superfluous, doesn’t it? Equally, we can see that the reasons why someone barely clinging on to living in Shoreditch can’t afford to spend a fiver on a novelty café-cum-tourist attraction is infinitely more complex than the cereal café itself, or even the recent subculture that it supposedly epitomises. However, we can also see that this person’s poverty is definitely deeply interconnected with the past 30 years of neoliberal urban development. In identifying gentrification as the enemy, we are close, but in identifying hipsters as the enemy we are missing the mark entirely. Arguing that the problem is with a [sub]culture of sale and consumption ignores the fact that there has been a global economic interest that has taken decades of preparation to realise that moment of consumption. Given that I know (and share) the contempt that groups like Class War have for ethical lifestylism, there is a serious inconsistency here when arguing that the consumption-sphere of capitalism is the place to make a change. Under capitalism, we are all consumers. Capitalism justifies itself by saying “the consumer is king!”, but our daily realities tell us otherwise. Consumption is an emotive area, for sure. It can be cruel, miserable, and fatal. It can be liberating, libidinal and excessive. But if we subscribe to the idea that our misery and liberation hinges on consumption, then we are cutting our analysis very short, and trapping ourselves within the realm of capitalist ideology. It is ultimately, like it or not, a liberal populist argument about poverty, wealth and greed.
“Spend a fiver in the greasy spoon, not the Cereal Café!” is what is implied here. Personally, I’m not interested in where someone eats their £5 breakfast, or how they choose to spend their money. Lifestyle policing is not my idea of liberating, revolutionary praxis. Short of this, it definitely won’t bring about any change in the global forces that have an interest in urban regeneration.