Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Always worrying.

Readers, I'm worried. And what am I worried about. Area effects. I discussed area effects in a recent blog entry and I am woried that, perhaps, I trivialised them too much. Over the last few days I have had a chance to reflect on area effects borne of my experience of living in my obsolete terrace house that is unsuitable for modern living, especially for a contemporary flexible service sector householder like me. The problem seems to be this. Area effects happen when habits are transmitted between households. This is a problem when bad habits are transmitted between neighbours that are from the same social class backgrounds. It embeds the culture of that class when, perhaps, it is wrong and needs to be challenged. The way to resolve this is to create neighbourhoods with a social mix so that households from social class backgrounds that have good habits can act as role models and transmit their habits to other households so that they achieve a boost. I am beginning to think that there might be something in this and I want New Labour to do something about it because the human race is facing a crisis situation that we will not reverse unless radical action is taken to address it. And I think that social mixing can help us reverse the situation we face. And, funnily enough, housing market renewal can teach us a lot in this respect.

Let me explain. I think that the some people have some very bad habits and that these bad habits are being transmitted through the population like a disease. The bad habit I am talking about is 'rising aspirations' or over consumption if you like. This is a bad habit of the middle classes and I am worried about them. This obsession with consumption is devaluing human life and human relationships. The more we seek happiness from status, and status from onsumption, the emptier we become as people and the emptier our relationships with other people become. So it seems obvious to me that we need to break this habit. And I think I know what to do about it and, better still, housing market renewal is my solution. What I am thinking is this. There is a monolithic provision of bland detached and semi detached houses in suburban locations across Britain that are often under occupied and that primarily act as status symbols. The consumption problem writ large! Now, the problem with these areas is that they are sufering from chonic levels of what I think I will call 'superfluous demand' (a bit like low demand but in reverse). This is a waste when the realisation of this superfluous demand results in a general impoverishment of human beings. So we've a big problem here. Clearly, areas that are sufering from the problem of 'superflous demand' should now be deemed to be experiencing chronic 'housing market failure'. What I propose - and I am guided by the principles of housing market renewal here, which I find most helpful - is that we undertake a radical restructuring of these suburban housing markets. I propose that we issue compulsory purchase orders on houses that have a 'high value' (in exchange terms) but low value in utility terms. Personally, I would demolish some of these houses (but not all of them) and replace them with obsolete terrace houses that would be owned and managed by the state. Now if we put working class people in these houses, I think they would have a good role model effect. I say this because working class people, generally speaking, tend to prioritise the use value of their houses over their exchange value. This is certainly the case in the neighbourhoods in Liverpool that I studied (see my book HOusing Market Renewal and Social Class). If working class people did act as role models in this way then they could potentially save the middle classes from themselves and avert a human disaster. I am suggesting, then, that my proposals could pull us back from the brink of our obsession with consumption (in particular, its symbolic aspects) by returning us to a basic concern with use value, need and happiness. So, possibly, there is something in this area effects stuff after all. My recommendation today is: kick me out of my obsolete terrace house and put me into a nice bland semi in some suburban hell where I can compete with my neighbours for distinction and see how I like it there.


jean said...

You make some interesting points here - but why do you insist on an outmoded and simplistic working class/middle class distinction?

And don't you think it's a sloppy use of language to equate 'rising aspirations' as 'over consumption'?How, after all, did you become a sociology lecturer if not with the help of a bit of aspiration?

And even if we confine ourselves to 'over-consumption', are you sure it's only the middle classes who are infected by it?

Chris Allen said...

Thanks Jean. In reply to the points you make;

1. Class distinctions. I don't think that the class distinction is outmoded (this is a variant on the argument that terrace housing is obsolete). Many academics would like to think that the working class does not exist anymore but few, if any, of them spend any time in the places I am talking about. Put simply, if people still think they are working class - and if working class culture still exists - then there you are. The working class is, however, constituted in complex ways - as is the middle class. So, you are right, simple class distinctions cannot be drawn (see my book on HMR and social class for more on why this is the case). I use the broad terms on this blog to make straightforward points, without going into the complexities of class. Best to keep it straightforward because the important thing is to provide people with an entry point into the arguments. If readers of the blog are so interested, they can follow through the various complexities of it in the book; by the way the proceeds of the book go to 'Fight for Our Homes' and not me.

2. Your point about 'rising aspirations' and 'over consumption' is an interesting one. Again, I don't think it is innapropriate to equate the two. First, from a normative point of view it is entirely legitimate to suggest that the elevation of things such as housing into a symbolic economy of consumption (i.e. where we live says something about us as people, e.g. that we are middle class), as opposed to a practical economy of consumption (i.e. where we live is largely a practical matter) constitutes over consumption or whatever you want to call it. Second, aspirations are not linear. So just because you aspire to become a sociology lecturer does not mean that you are seekiing to escape on identity in order to acquire another. So some aspirations are not simply about social mobility - although this seems to be changing. For instance, a few colleages and I are starting a new and accessible magazine to encourage the circulation of radical ideas because those that used to do this (e.g. student magazines) have lost their critical edge. They seem to be increasingly seen as a step on the career ladder rather than a forum for radical ideas; with the two seemingly being incompatible. Third, there is lots of work to sugget that working class people derive a sense of authenticity from who they already are. So they do not feel that they need to aspire to things that other people have to 'improve' themselves. (Work on the middle classes suggests that they are more likely to think that authenticity is something that is achieved, as opposed to something that you alredy are!). Moreover, there is something interesting in how working and middle class people acquire aspirations. They are, of course, socially imposed and then internalised by people. I also write about how this happens in my book when I talk about the symbolic domination of working class people which results in them relating to housing in (e.g. aspirational) terms that are not their own. So, you are right, it is not just middle class people that over consume. But that is not really the important point here. The really important point in all of this is that aspirations are imposed and, furthermore, they are imposed on people that often cannot satisfy them, notably working class people. So these people then begin to feel that they are failures. But their 'failure' is nothing of the sort. It is a social creation. So you cannot look at these things outwith an understanding of how power works to oppress working class (and middle class) people.
Again, see more on this in my book.

Thanks again for your comments. I hope this reply is useful.