Those who can, buy – from Robert Holtom

Having read the inspiring article about Focus E15 Mothers I wondered how London had become a place where shaving foam companies were invited to display their advertising on the side of vacant properties but people in need of housing were denied entry to these places – how can advertising take priority over alleviating homelessness?

There are many answers to this question and my curiosity took me in search of a few. Firstly I wanted to know who owns London. And a quick internet search revealed that London is largely owned by royals and aristocrats who have inherited property and the land it sits on. Meanwhile, the property mogul Paul Raymond owns a big chunk of Soho and increasingly overseas investors are buying up large chunks of real estate. The Church and historic universities such as Cambridge and Oxford own large tranches of land. The Qatar Investment Authority, the Vatican and the City of London Corporation are also players in the game.

And that’s just it – it is a game, Monopoly to be precise. Except the players do not start with a mere £1500 of colourful notes, they start with millions of pounds of inherited wealth and the family estate, or they start with millions of pounds of interest from investments around the world that mean they really can afford to buy Mayfair. And given that privatisation of resources (inc. land), commodification, and wealth accumulation are some of the hallmarks of neoliberal capitalism it is not surprising that the 21st century capitalists are doing what capitalists have done so well for centuries – buying.

Once or twice I’ve heard a Conservative, disaffected with the state of democracy in the UK, wonder out loud if a benign dictatorship would be a better form of rule. Well, capitalism as we know it makes monarchs of the wealthy and tyrants of the freeholders, who often treat their lease holding tenants very badly. It is not that capitalism is reflecting an inherent truth about human nature that, for example, we are inherently selfish, it is just that the structure of the board we are playing on prioritises accumulation over sharing and self-interest over community-interest. Free market capitalism is described as being amoral – as the market is considered the fairest mechanism for distributing wealth. But the market is not some amorphous entity it is the sum total of millions of acts of accumulation, and humans are all sorts of things but certainly not amoral. Furthermore, when the inbuilt mechanisms of the economy we live in encourage us to hoard wealth and materials then we do end up in the sort of society where Gillette’s advertising campaigns take priority over re-housing people. And it’s worth bearing in mind that we do not all get £200 when we pass go, some get millions, others get in debt, and many don’t even get there at all. It’s hardly a fair game, even if well-meaning meritocrats wish it were.

But it is groups like Focus E15 Mothers that call for sanity and humanity in the face of a compassionless, politico-economic machine. This society is waiting for a giant redistribution of wealth/property and it is our task to make property ownership far less desirable. So perhaps we could campaign for a Land Value Tax or befriend the next in line to Lord So-and-So’s estate, encouraging them to put their money not where their mouth is but where their heart is, or could be.

Robert Holtom is a freelance writer and storyteller who has written for The Guardian and Transition Free Press. Robert will be performing at House of the Commons on the evening of Friday 30th October 2014. @Robert_Holtom