Archive for April 12th, 2011

Property-Owning Democracy Now!

Indebted generation must find their voice – The Irish Times – Tue, Apr 12, 2011

negative-equity generation should be out on the streets – but it’s hard
to embrace collective power when you’ve grown up an ardent

If Fintan O’Toole wanted a here’s-one-we-made-earlier explanation for why the group he names as the ‘negative-equity generation’ has not staged any sort of revolt, he could have looked at the name he gave it.

The ‘negative-equity generation’, which is to say, those people who bought property and whose outlay on said property now exceeds its market value, have a vested interest, namely their house, in the reproduction of the same social relations that fostered the boom in the first instance. To be primarily concerned with negative equity, ceteris paribus, is to hang on to the same values that kept you primarily concerned with positive equity, AKA ‘equity’.

Negative equity will never be the basis or the defining characteristic of a socially progressive movement, because it depends on the very values that trample on social solidarity. It is pointless to await the voice of a generation so defined to make itself heard, because it won’t happen.

Whilst we are often invited to think of home ownership as a primal urge swelling deep in the Irish collective unconscious, and bungalows with plaster geese wearing trousers as the manifest content of nightmares of the eviction and flight of ones’ ancestors, an apparent fetish for home ownership is nothing special in neo-liberal states.

It was Margaret Thatcher’s ideal that Britain be transformed into a ‘Property-Owning Democracy’. What was intended was that working class people would internalise capitalist values, focusing their attention on the appreciation of their own assets -whether land, bricks and mortar or company shares- and away from such patent evils as collective bargaining, universal benefits and services and any institutions that might perpetuate social solidarity.

But the success of these initiatives on people’s consciousness is not as clear cut as the dominant media of their societies might represent it.

It was not at all, as O’Toole would have it, that people who bought into this system perceived that risk was preferable to security. Let’s recall again what Wilde said about how there was only one group that thought more about money than the rich and that was the poor: amid the widening inequality that characterises neo-liberal societies, ‘risk’ is the justification for the accumulation of massive wealth on the backs of others at the top end, whilst people further down see the acquisition of debt as the only means of obtaining security.

If the rate of increase in house prices is many multiples the rate of growth in your wages, then why would you not seek to buy a house? It has nothing to do with greed: it is the feeling that you are getting progressively poorer because the cost of accommodation rises relative to your wages. Then, when the bubble bursts, it emerges in the cold light of day that it is the most wealthy who feel security is always preferable to risk.

The rich need constant reassurance from governments that the working class is getting pummelled -through the dismantling of the welfare state, the worsening of working conditions, and the threat of unemployment and destitution- so that profit margins are protected.

Meanwhile the working class, who have acquired massive mortgage debts, must shoulder in addition the risks associated with insecurity and falling living standards: disease, psychological trauma and early death. And those who still have jobs, as O’Toole notes, are very frequently unable to organise along traditional lines, but they still have to pay the mortgage or the rent every month.

When, for mortgage holders, the payment burden increases on account of an interest rate rise, or -what is for them the same thing- they get their pay cut or their taxes raised, the most important thing for them is to hold on to their job so that they can keep afloat and not sink into poverty.

The combination of deep indebtedness and the need to hang on to a job might engender political docility, but this is hardly the stuff of being in thrall to neo-liberal consciousness. Sure, some of them will identify with the ‘common sense’ prescriptions of right-wing economists and managerialist oligarchs, but this is not least because they identify -understandably, and not entirely unreasonably- the prosperity of their employer with their own prosperity.

How does O’Toole know these people think trade unions are an anachronism, as opposed to organisations they perceive as not doing enough to represent their interests? How does he know they think protests are a hippy-dippy indulgence and not a doomed endeavour because whenever they have seen mass protests organised, they have never produced anything concrete?

I sense that he’s too easily led by the images of other people produced by the media institutions of the dominant class.

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April 2011
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