2021 - by Daniel Jewesbury
I can see them leaving: every day, a few of them, maybe recently there have been more. They carry those supersized woven plastic laundry bags with a plaid print on them, in light pinks and blues and yellows. They drag wheelie suitcases over the stones and the protruding roots; sometimes the zips are broken, and they use ratchet straps, or gaffer tape, to hold them closed. They take warm clothes, blankets, tents, tarps, pots, little grills, axes, knives, sleeping bags, and lots of thick cardboard and kitchen foil. Around here there are woods, although we aren’t in the countryside. They just separate us out that way, they space out our suburbs with these green buffer zones. It used to be that you’d go out there and have a barbecue or go for a run. Now they go out with their sheets of scavenged polystyrene and plastic and they cut down branches and tie up lengths of blue nylon rope and light braziers. People still go to work, they still need money, you can’t live in these woods just by catching birds or mice. Wash and brush, take out the clothes you fold and sleep on to keep them crisp, nobody needs to know, except everyone else is doing it too.
We are being squeezed out of the city. We are being squeezed out of cities that we built, with our hands and our labour, and, even reluctantly, with our struggle. There is no room for us any more. Just a little piece of pavement for us to crouch on, an edgy scrap of grass. And move on again please, now. If the city is a machine, it has metal rollers whose faces meet perfectly as they turn, crushing and squeezing. We are being squeezed by the city.
And the mechanism by which this is done is concealed somewhere behind the banality of a word; a clumsy, invented word with a technical lustre, used by people uncertain of what it means, because it can mean anything and nothing, and academics cannot seem to tie it down or agree about what it might refer to: financialisation. When I type it, a wavy red line appears underneath it to let me know that it doesn’t really exist. At its most general, it refers to the replacement of all motives and logics by, not a profit motive exactly, but just a kind of shark sense: if money stays still it dies. And where’s the sense in that? There’s no schools or hospitals if the money dies. No libraries or shopping centres or new tastes and sensations. They had it wrong, those old welfare state greybeards who thought they’d found a solution for inequality and waste: just produce enough, and share it. But if we only produce enough, then everything is worthless in no time at all, and nobody has the money to make more or buy more. The money just dies. The money needs to be set free. The money needs to be the determinant, the money must decide how to provide.
And everything needs to become the money. The buildings need to become the money, streets and dustbins and rivers and views and public transport become the money. Everything becomes financial. I don’t just mean that it’s all about the bottom line, being efficient, making more money than you’re spending, about everyone having to explain decisions in terms of profit and loss. I mean it literally, that the trade in financial commodities derived from the built environment of the city outstrips the total value of the city many, many times over. What are you trading? I’m short selling options on tranches of the debt loaned to the bank underwriting the ferry company that’s going to have to move because the people in the new apartments don’t like the noise and the smell. I’m going long on a swap on the fund that bought into the contractor who secured the new university development. I think the futures on the pensions company that has a majority share in the clinic in the neighbourhood where the immigrants set up their outdoor market are undervalued since that newspaper article appeared. That’s the money, right there. A gamble on the future, a gamble on a gamble on a gamble. That’s the money moving. If you like, the city is now a massive front, like a bagel shop that launders drug money. Or maybe it’s a deserted stage set, an enchanted castle made of painted plywood, behind which the money is flying and diving and swooping like a flock of swifts riding a current.
New parks become financial too. Not the ones with trees and grass and flowers, but retail parks, business parks, logistical parks, science parks. These are the parks where the money goes to play on the swings.
I have grown used to talking about ‘the city’, which is the to say, in the abstract, as no place at all, as if the things experienced in it are the same wherever we are. Sure, there are differences of scale, and local cultural differences, but by and large, the point of talking about ‘the city’ is that we are not talking about something that happens uniquely in one particular city – not about a particular place – but about a set of functions that are called ‘city’ and are adopted and applied around the world. We are talking about a machine, yes, or perhaps, a tool for doing something – an instrument. Most obviously, a financial instrument. The city is the most complex derivative that has ever been invented but the investors don’t want to have to get bogged down in local texture and colour and detail. They want to see the product. Surely this is why municipal authorities spend so much time and money branding their cities, trying to sell to investors the unique qualities that make them all so exactly alike.
A fence, a boat cast adrift, a sprawl on the steps in an incongruous suit. We are going to become the refugees from an asset class which no longer needs us. Buildings no longer need actual tenants, since their balance sheet status can be packaged and wrapped and tranched and optioned, and simply the increase in market value – the money it could make from rent, or from resale – can generate multi-million returns, tens of thousands of miles away.
During the financial crash I was living in a city that had rapidly begun to develop, after many decades during which intractable violent conflict had stifled almost all economic activity. There had been ten years of speculative demolition and rebuilding, and the launching of grander and more ambitious projects and schemes, until, over 2008 and 2009, everything just stopped. The pyramid schemes run by the banks collapsed spectacularly, and systemic failure trickled down from developers to contractors to sub-contractors and individual builders, who found that the same banks were now threatening to foreclose on mortgages they could no longer pay, for overpriced homes that had become worthless. For five or more years, the enormous abandoned buildings stood empty, like Lego sets left half-finished by children whose playtime had abruptly ended. The great monuments of Rome, Greece, Egypt and Babylon had taken long centuries to turn to elegant ruins, which then came to be valorised for their ability to epitomise imperial decadence, overreach, and decline. At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the process was happening in real time before our eyes: the ruins of our age stood there before us like blunt, unavoidable metaphors. What comes after tragedy and farce? The city had become its own cemetery.
We are clinging to the city by our fingertips, but we are fragmenting individually and in our collectivity. We are not meant to be here, we are intruders. We will take whatever terms they give us in order to believe that the thing we used to call ‘city’ is still here around us, but maybe it is already gone. This unreal city (I had not thought death had undone so many) is just a backlot, a thing made in the city’s shape, and we aren’t meant to be here. The private security firm that patrols here now are on their way to escort us to the exit. We form a procession, no longer talking to each other, trundling away on our refugee march into the hills. Once we’re there, we can build something new, something that nobody will want to trade or short or flip. Every so often when we need more materials, we can form a raiding party, run down to the business park at night and steal sheets of plywood and plastic and wheelbarrows and fence posts. We vaguely remember something about the city, and perhaps our structures mimic it a little.