The Null Device
Alex Proud, who previously wrote about the Shoreditch-modelled gentrification and sanitisation of the down-at-heel parts of London, has a new article about the end state of this process of gentrification and the future of hyper-gentrified London, a homogeneously rich, clean, and dull, place, with all the edginess and excitement of Geneva or central Paris, a city of "joyless Michelin starred restaurants and shops selling £3,000 chandeliers":
Two decades on and you can play a nostalgic little game where you remind yourself what groups London’s inner neighbourhoods were known for 20 years ago. Hampstead: intellectuals; Islington: media trendies; Camden: bohemians, goths and punks; Fulham: thick poshos who couldn’t afford Chelsea; Notting Hill: cool kids; Chelsea: rich people. Now, every single one of these is just rich people. If you want to own a house (or often just a flat) in these places, you need a six figure salary or you can forget it. And, for anyone normal, that means working in finance.
Inner Paris is a fairytale for wealthy people in their fifties (and outer Paris looks like Stalingrad with ethnic strife) while Geneva has dispensed with the poor altogether. As a result, both cities are safe, pretty and rather boring places to live – and soon London will be too.The article is a fine rant, dripping with bons mots like “Bitcoins for oligarchs”, “like Jay-Z as reimagined by someone who works at Goldman Sachs”, and “the bastard offspring of Kirstie Allsopp and Ayn Rand”; the prognosis is not hopeful for London either:
Why? Because the financiers who can afford inner London neighbourhoods are not cool. Visit Canary Wharf at on any weekday lunchtime and watch the braying, pink-shirted bankers disporting themselves. Not cool. Peruse the shops at Canary Wharf. From Gap to Tiffany’s, they’re all chains stores and you could be anywhere wealthy, safe and dull in the world. Rich people like making money and spending it on dull, expensive things. That’s what they do – and they’re very good it. But being a high-end cog in the machine is not cool.
In the short term, our city’s young creative class will continue to move further and further out. Is New Cross the new Peckham? Is Walthamstow the new Dalston? But there are limits to this: there’s not much of a vibe in Ruislip and there never will be; really, the cool inner suburb ship sailed in 2005. So, when you’re stuck out amongst the pebble-dashed semis of Zone 4, miles from a centre that’s mainly chain shops, boutiques for the tacky rich and restaurants you can’t afford or even book, you might start wondering if the World’s Greatest City (TM) really is for you. Then maybe you’ll visit friends, somewhere like Bristol or Newcastle or Leeds or Glasgow. And maybe you’ll discover that there you can buy a house that’s walking distance to a centre full of shops that cater to you, restaurants that want your custom and pubs and clubs whose prices wouldn’t make someone in Gstaad blanch... Perhaps London’s craven fealty to the ghastly rich will finally accomplish what no government policy ever has – it will rejuvenate our provincial cities.Though chances are, the cities with fast links to London will end up hypergentrified as well; Brighton (or “London-by-the-sea”, as some call it) is well on the way to going there, and some speculate that places like Margate (one hour from London along a partly high-speed railway, and already sprouting vintage shops and a modern art gallery amongst the everyday-is-like-Sunday shabbiness) could end up following suit. Birmingham, meanwhile, might jump from never-quite-fashionable to bourgeois luxury for the new-economy elite when HS2 arrives, allowing those who aren't fully-fledged partners to afford somewhere within an easy commute of Canary Wharf.
Proud blames this state of affairs on a system rigged to pander to the beneficiaries of this state of affairs—house-flippers, buy-to-let landlords, ex-Soviet oligarchs looking for somewhere to park their wealth—at the expense of the little people to whom it is made clear that the city does not belong, and who are gradually squeezed further out, towards the periphery and beyond; who still hold onto their shrinking, expensive foothold on the precious land inside the M25, believing that it's stil worth it because of the aura of brilliance surrounding the idea of London; an aura increasingly based in nostalgic delusion, and one which can't last.
Readers of the Guardian or New Statesman will have seen this story numerous times, from different angles and at different points in time, more or less the same, only with the place names moved slightly further out every year. However, part of the message here is in the medium; Proud is writing in the Daily Telegraph, a paper owned by the Barclay Brothers, long associated with the Conservative Party (it's often nicknamed the Torygraph), and one which one might imagine would be perfectly au fait with the ideals of the Thatcherite “property-owning democracy”. When the Torygraph is publishing articles bemoaning how gentrification is hollowing out and sterilising London, then perhaps it is time to be concerned.
I wonder how much this is due to one of the less-often-quited corollaries of the neoliberal/market-oriented mindset of the recent few decades: the idea that anything of value is traded on a market, and everything is a convertible hard currency, this time applied to cultural capital. It used to be that cultural capital and economic capital were separate spheres, and absolutely not interconvertible. There were no cool rich kids, or those who were hid their economic capital. (The word “cool”, in fact, originated with socially and politically disenfranchised African-Americans; in its original meaning, the word didn't mean chic, fashionable or at the top of the status hierarchy, but refered to an unflappability, an unwillingness to let the constant low-level (and not so low-level) insults and aggressions of an institutionally racist and classist system be seen to get you down; as such, it was, by definition, the riches of the poor, the exclusive capital of those excluded from capital.)
Fast forward to the present day; after Milton Friedman declared everything to be convertible goods in a market. Reagan and Thatcher applied this to economic goods, launching the “Big Bang” of deregulation and the 20-year economic bubble that followed. Then the Clinton/Blair era of the “Third Way” coincided with its own Big Bang, this time deregulating the cultural marketplace; starting off with Britpop and going on to Carling-sponsored landfill indie, New Rave, hipster electro (and indeed the recycling of the term “hipster”, originally meaning a habitué of the grimy jazz-and-heroin demimonde of the Beat Generation, now referring to trust fund kids in limited-edition trainers), yacht rock, chillwave and whatever. The old regulatory barriers between the mainstream and the underground were swept away as surely as the barriers between high-street and investment banks had been a decade earlier; the rise of the internet and the cultural globalisation played a part in it, though the mainstreaming of market values once seen as radical would also have had a hand. Soon everything was in a commodity available on the marketplace; 1960s guitar rock and Mod iconography was revived as Britpop, post-punk, stripped of unmarketable references to Marxism, Situationism and existentialist paperbacks and sexed up, as generic NME-cover “indie”, and we were faced with a multifaceted 80s revival that ran for longer than the 80s. Major-label pop producers used ProTools plug-ins to grunge up their protégés, giving them that authentically lo-fi “alternative” sound, while bedroom producers armed with cheap laptops and cracked software made tracks that sounded as expensively polished as anything heard in a Thatcher-era wine bar. Knowing about Joy Division or Black Flag was no longer a badge of being “hip”, as anyone with an internet connection could do the research; the new shibboleths were evanescent memes, like referencing Hall & Oates right down to the facial hair, or reviving New Jack Swing and calling it “PBR&B”, or the whole Seapunk subculture; currents one wouldn't have caught wind of in time without being connected, and whose cultural value became void once the wider world heard of them.
This coincided with the dismantling of free education, the rise in income inequality, and the gentrification of “cool” areas full of the young and creative, and soon it was a good thing that having economic and social capital didn't bar one from cultural capital, because having a trust fund was increasingly a prerequisite. If Mater and Pater bought you a flat near London Fields for your 18th birthday, and if you had a reserve of money to spend while you “found yourself”, and the likelihood of being able to land an internship on a career track in the media once your Southern-fried-hog-jowls-in-katsu-curry food truck failed or you got bored of playing festivals with your respectably rated bass-guitar-and-Microkorg duo, then you had the freedom to explore and develop, and that development could take a number of forms; travelling the world's thrift shops, picking up cool records and playing them at your DJ night, spending the time you don't need to work for money getting good at playing an instrument (and recent UK research shows that people in wealthier areas tend to have better musical aptitude), or just growing a really lush beard. With the rolling back of the welfare state and the "race to the bottom" in wages, these quests for self-actualisation are once again the preserve of the gentry; it's rather hard to develop your creative voice when you're on zero-hour contracts, and spend all your time either working in shitty jobs, looking for work, or commuting from where you can afford to live. And so economic capital has colonised cultural capital, and what passes for “cool” now belongs to those with money. It's not quite like a Gavin McInnes troll-piece about the coke-addicted bankers' scions who form the Brooklyn scene or a Vice_Is_Hip parody tweet about the coolest bar in the Hamptons or the latest sartorial trends from Kuwait's hippest princelings, but those are looking less and less unbelievable.
The question is, what happens in the end? Will cultural capital converge with economic capital, and “cool” be redefined to be a sort of cultural noblesse oblige, a manifestation of wealth and status, or will, as Proud suggest, the whole thing collapse into a cultural low-energy state of tidy tedium?