The spatial consequences of Piketty’s understanding of Capital: A response to Piketty & Savage
By Rowland Atkinson, University of Sheffield
I am writing this response at the close of a major project that I lead with Roger Burrows, in which we looked at life in the wealthiest neighbourhoods in London. Our primary aim was to look at areas not subjected to sustained social scientific investigation. As we began, very little was being said about the extremely wealthy – though this has changed dramatically since we started the project, and the appearance of Piketty’s (2014) work was a timely and incredibly important intellectual resource for us. In many ways, the project we conducted might be identified as an attempt to ‘spatialise’ and locate the processes of wealth condensation, forensically charted by Piketty and his colleagues. Nevertheless, the work was also a real attempt to push an interdisciplinary team to the relative limits of empirical investigation and see how much we could understand about the super-rich, the neighbourhoods they inhabited and the kinds of impact that their presence generated for urban life more generally.
Nearly a full decade has passed in which pro-market orientations within government have achieved a hegemonic position. A second round of Conservative government in the UK indexes the triumph of the political stewarding and protection of capital that has been widely absorbed as a necessary path toward economic integrity and sustainability. Given this, the consequences of the rich for London are that they do not only touch the city in terms of their presence and purchase of housing resources, but they also generate more widely felt impacts. Neoliberalism, for the rich, can be considered in terms of the ways this group has consequentially been favoured and their fortunes expanded (despite the financial crisis and austerity measures), but also charted in gifts received of bespoke and golden keys to the cities they inhabit – unlocking resources, secret doors and services that are closed and even demolished for those less privileged.
For London, a key impact of a growing presence by the global rich has been the capture of politics by money, less perhaps in the direct sense of funding and lobbying and more in a subtle game, in which city and national success are understood in terms of how the financial services sector fares and votes of confidence are inferred through the super-rich deigning to live in London. Rather like rankings of elite universities, this urban hierarchy is ordered by metrics like Gross Value Added and loose arguments about the need for core financial sectors to spin ever-faster to turn other sectors and communities otherwise understood largely as dead weight. As I have argued elsewhere with Simon Parker and Roger Burrows, London is a plutocratic city in which money-power is understood, courted and channelled wherever possible by central and local governments that are signatories to the mantra of footloose capital and trickle-down or that believe they have little agency over such forces. Critically, the end result is not interior to the lives of social, money, political or other elites – it underwrites the legitimacy of arguments made for dislodging the poor and middle-income groups seen as less valuable to the urban economy or whose purchasing power is identified as inferior and vulnerable to displacement through the market allocation of essential resources like housing.
In this situation, we might agree that the problem of wealth is one of data gaps. Yet it is also perhaps a wider problem for social science in terms of the need to offer relevant evidence and argumentation aligned with questions of social justice without fear of politicised harrying. The social conversation regarding inequalities of various kinds requires engagement by the social sciences, and while it is true that the long-observed research gap on these issues has begun to close, there is little room for complacency; it is important that we know about and can enact changes to mechanisms by which the system works and favours those who have done best or are favoured in a system clearly understood as rigged and unfair. In this arena, Piketty’s calls for taxes to capital and housing investment are welcome and should be debated more extensively within the housing and urban studies communities. Assuming this desire to engage is a given, we then need to ask how best to move beyond interior debates (endless discussions of class constitution, for example) within the social sciences and to communicate this work in forums and for institutions that, even on the political right of centre, increasingly witness the contradictions produced by the political economy – a cascade of downward pressure on localities and people driven by a political agenda that privileges the privileged in the name of economic vitality.
The move to a system more nakedly driven by the logic of money and increasingly uncoupled from the economy from one promoting a city in service to all people and communities produces key aspects of the contradictions mentioned above. Here tensions around the symbolic remaking of the London skyline, endless basement digs and the reconstruction of trophy mansions (see Webber & Burrows, 2015), sterile and empty neighbourhoods, herald an urban politics focused on pillaging the social city by and for money. This is an important point – the theft of the city by capital is felt in the Conservative heartlands and the public housing estates. Whether the anger and resentment generated by these shifts may coalesce into a more fully inclusive politics against the excesses and machinery of capital remains to be seen.
Rounds of gentrification in many urban centres (the leitmotiv of urban research from around the early nineties) are giving way to the realisation that the exit of poverty and destruction of public housing and welfare systems globally requires publicly accessible and widely understandable models and theories. Many cities are being a) captured through investment strategies that recognise new market potential (such as Manchester and other northern urban centres), b) evacuated of state resource and used as low-cost containers for surplus populations and barely looked-after citizens or c) protected as the enclaves of super-capital formations, as with London. There is a real savagery to these processes, cloaked in a language of opportunity and new horizons of international investment. Meanwhile, the policy-making elite are able to live sheltered from the consequences of their severe decisions made in leafy districts, clubs and leisure circuits uninterrupted by what are no doubt viewed as envious, low-paid workers or lazy benefit recipients. The changes in London we have observed in the alpha project may be unlikely to move us further to a system offering a revitalised public realm and fewer bunkers like that of One Hyde Park. More discussion on the role of publicly funded research within austerity is required to consider these and other options.
In closing, I suggest there are a number of areas to exert research effort that bridge Piketty’s ambitions. For more detailed work on wealth with interests in the spatial consequences of these processes, we might present two possibilities. First, the relationship between new and dynastic forms of wealth suggests the value of integrating housing system operations as means of storing, securing and reproducing familial wealth more forcefully into accounts of inequality. Second, as others suggest, the focus on the top one percent or some other fraction requires grounding in concepts, class or otherwise that reveal the political, social and mechanical processes through which these gains were made and the socio-spatial consequences of these inequalities. Despite the legitimate concerns of progressive social researchers about the necessarily malign impact of inequality, we still have an under-developed sense of how inequality generates a wide range of social harms. In this sense, money-power and questions of capital are not simply questions of power intrinsic to a particular group; they are suggestive of a much deeper capacity relating to the power to affect or be embraced by political elites who articulate their needs in ways that damage wider society and urban life.
Rowland Atkinson is Professor and Research Chair in Inclusive Society at the University of Sheffield.
 I think if the tax rate is sufficiently high and very large property holdings, it’s quite a deep questioning of property rights because in a way that’s a way to make property a temporary rather than a permanent attribute. If you have £1 billion in property and you have to repay five or ten per cent each year, in effect you have to return five or ten per cent each year to the rest of society, in a way this is saying, you know, well you are the owner but you are not really the owner, you know, you return to society, for example. (From the TCS conversation of Savage with Piketty)
Piketty, T. (2014) Capital in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Harvard University Press.
Webber, R. & Burrows, R. (2015) ‘Life in an Alpha Territory: Discontinuity and conflict in an elite London ‘village’’, Urban Studies (online first) DOI: 10.1177/0042098015612983