Ten Years Since the Global Financial Crash of 2008, We’ve Been Screwed by Austerity, and Now The Predators Want Our Homes

16.9.18

An image summing up the global economic crash of 2008.Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist, commentator and activist.

 

Yesterday, September 15, marked the 10th anniversary of the day the new world order that started under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and continued under Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, blew up spectacularly when the banking giant Lehman Brothers went bust, precipitating a global economic crash that was the worst since the Great Depression of 1929.

The crash came about because investment banks like Lehman Brothers had been involved in risky, toxic deals that should never have been legal, primarily involving “sub-prime mortgages” — lending money to buy homes to people who couldn’t afford them, and then packaging those toxic debts up in other complex financial packages.

The collapse of Lehman Brothers, with debts of $613bn, started a domino-like collapse through the entire financial sector, which had previously thought of itself as infallible, and had been supported in this absurd notion by politicians and economists.

In response, governments spent billions bailing out the banks, while everyone else suffered. No senior banking executive faced prosecution for their crimes, but individuals lost money, businesses folded, unemployment was rife, and the easy credit on which so many people depended dried up. Immediately after the crash, it was at least obvious that others were suffering too — building sites across London, for example, lay abandoned, and even the rich felt the squeeze, but salvation, in the UK at least, was soon at hand when the Tories, with the support of the Liberal Democrats, were able to form a government after the general election in May 2010, and immediately set about creating a new narrative — that the problem was government spending, not bankers’ crimes, and that the solution was to cut public spending.

The resultant ‘age of austerity’, a savage regime of relentless cuts to public services, has come to define Britain under the Tories, and it has been a profoundly cruel and miserable experience. In the bonfire of the state provision of services, almost nothing has been spared — except MPs’ salaries, of course, parts of the UK’s military and other right-wing causes. Even the police have faced cuts (surely an illl-advised move for a would-be authoritarian state tightening the screws on society as a whole), but most of the burden has fallen on the poorer members of society — the jobless (cynically portrayed as work-shy scroungers, despite there being a void where meaningful jobs should be), the disabled (subjected to cynical and savage cuts that have led to numerous suicides), the young (via the axing of youth services and the tripling of university tuition fees), and the old (via cuts to care and the NHS).

Throughout this carnage, meanwhile, the rich and the super-rich have been pampered and their growing wealth facilitated, ensuring that the gap between the rich and the poor has become a chasm. In addition, the Tories have also lavished insane amounts on money on vanity projects — the Olympics in 2012 (a £9bn exercise in jingoism) and the £15bn Crossrail project, making sure that no corner of the capital is immune to the predatory behaviour of housing developers and the whole sordid business of estate agents and the middlemen that comes with it.

And in fact, housing has become the replacement for the dodgy investment business that collapsed in 2008. Everyone, after all, needs a roof over their heads, and so the political establishment has continued to bolster the housing bubble that began under Tony Blair, and that largely replaced all other meaningful activity in the UK economy, so that the UK has become a nation of ‘buy-to-let’ landlords, personally screwing individuals one home at a time, and has also presided over a relentless boom in high-rise, ‘luxury’ tower blocks largely aimed at foreign investors.

Meanwhile, those in social housing are having their homes destroyed, as councils, responding to further government cuts, have identified their own housing estates as a lucrative source of plunder. Having run their estates down for decades, councils are now insisting that they cannot afford to refurbish their own estates (a lie that is comprehensively refuted by Architects for Social Housing) and are hooking up with private developers to demolish their estates and to build new developments from which the majority of residents — tenants and leaseholders (those who believed Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ dream) — are excluded.

In other cases, councils are working with housing associations to effect the same destruction, as housing associations — formerly social housing providers — have adapted to the government-led squeeze on their finances by largely becoming indistinguishable from private developers, replacing existing social tenancies and social rents with higher rents, largely unfettered service charges and less secure tenancies.

Unchecked, this devastation — which in the capital might accurately be described as ‘the London clearances’ — will lead to tens of thousands of people (or more) being priced out of their neighbourhoods, or even out of the capital altogether, and variations on these themes are also taking place up and down the country, as shady international finance organisations — those bankrolling developments — gorge cannibalistically on the social rented homes that, within living memory, seemed secure — as, of course, they should have, because who would have expected that tenants who paid their rent on time, and who lived in structurally sound buildings, would be made homeless and dispossessed because a cabal of unprincipled politicians and bureaucrats, including their own social landlords, see nothing but pound signs when they look at their inconvenient bodies and their inconvenient homes obstructing their ability to make profits.

Throughout this whole depressing period of modern British history, the unrest has typically been far too muted. In the early years of resurgent Tory rule, there were vibrant student protests, and the Occupy movement with its clever seizure of public space, but for the most part efforts at resistance have been too small and fragmented to become much of a movement. On housing, finally, it may be that this is about to change. After all, when everyone who rents — half the population — is either being fleeced in private rented accommodation, or is being threatened with having their homes knocked down, or re-categorized so they too can be fleeced like those paying private rents, a reckoning may be coming.

Certainly, the Grenfell Tower fire last June was a galvanising disaster, when 72 people died because those responsible for them — from central government to local government to the management company responsible for their homes, to the entire industry involved in refurbishment — prioritised profiteering and cost-cutting above their safety. The anger around Grenfell has not gone away and has radiated from the powerful community response in north Kensington across London and across the country.

From this righteous and indignant anger, it seems to me, a movement can arise that finally challenges the juggernaut of dispossession, but people have to be prepared not only to fight, but also to build alliances to ensure that those in power realise that they are hopelessly outnumbered.

Will it happen? I can’t say for sure, but I take heart that change is possible from the Grenfell community, from the people of Haringey, who successfully defeated the largest proposed cleansing project to date, a £2bn deal between the Labour council and the rapacious international property developers Lendlease, and because, in Lewisham, where I live, I’m part of the occupation of a community garden to protect it from the bulldozers of my own Labour-controlled council, and from Peabody, once a renowned philanthropic social housing provider, but now behaving like a grubby private developer. Please check out our struggle, and, if you like what you see, please get involved.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London.

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Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

10 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, marking the 10th anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the global economic crash of 2008 that changed the world – and specifically looking at the UK, where it led to a Tory-led government implementing a cynical “age of austerity” designed to destroy the state provision of services, and also led international finance to look to housing for its profiteering rather than dodgy financial packages.
    The result, as more and more people are coming to realise, is unaffordable tower blocks for foreign investors, unfettered house prices, unfettered private rents and the destruction of social housing, whereby councils, starved of funds by the Tories, hook up with rapacious private developers and corrupted housing associations to demolish structurally sound council estates – people’s homes – to build new developments in which new tenants pay increased rents but have far less rights, while existing tenants – and leaseholders – are generally priced out.
    In closing I also focus on the occupation I’m involved in right now in Deptford, in south east London, where, typically, a Labour council has forgotten who it is supposed to serve, and is intent on destroying a valuable community space and a hugely important environmental asset – as well as a block of structurally sound council flats – to make way for new and more expensive housing. Like that little Gaulish village holding out against Caesar, we are hoping to make Lewisham Council and the developers Peabody change their minds.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Alan Hunter wrote:

    Very apt Andy. And homelessness continues to rise. This government is taking the country in the wrong direction. Councillors get secretly rich and the people they represent get poorer. And more homeless! Lewisham Council is a disgrace.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    I wholeheartedly agree, Alan. Good to hear from you.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Mark C Lord wrote:

    Lewisham shouldn’t be singled out though, they are all pretty much the same across the board. Start voting Green and bring about change in policy and decision making all round.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m with you, Mark. Broken, one party-dominated councils are everywhere, and they all behave atrociously – Labour, Tory, even Lib Dem. But the system is rigged. We need a proper PR system – in both general and local elections – to, for the most part, have a chance of getting Green councillors or MPs elected. I was banging on about this back in 2015! http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2015/05/06/time-for-proportional-representation-whatever-the-outcome-of-the-general-election-our-voting-system-is-unfair-and-unrepresentative/

  6. Andy Worthington says...

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    A slight digression but it’s a little too common, and always has been, that corrupt local councillors are able to get away with sketchy behaviour because local media can’t afford to do investigative journalism. I’d like to understand, for example, how it is that some local councils are investing public pension funds into Fracking companies? Why would councillors vote for that?

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Revolving doors, I suspect, David. That’s what happens with housing, as this revealing article shows: http://35percent.org/revolving-doors/
    And check out Anna Minton’s article that prompted the 35 Percent campaign’s article: http://spinwatch.org/index.php/component/k2/item/5458-the-local-lobby-and-the-failure-of-democracy

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Jon Stern wrote:

    What has happened and is happening is a massive asset stripping and transfer from public or commons hands to a select private few. This means that bit by bit virtually every square foot of God’s, Allah’s or (to quote Woody Guthrie) your and my land is being sold privately by people who have no right to sell it, to people who have no right to buy it, for profit. And state utilities such as the National Grid or the NHS are hawked off to Qatar and Branson or whoever by people and to people who won’t be satisfied until there isn’t anything left to buy or sell. Meanwhile the largest cause of global misery, the arms industry and the foreign policies designed to do the same asset stripping in foreign countries kill hundreds of thousands, leave countries like Libya, Iraq and Syria decimated to oblivion all supported by the vast majority of MPs and councillors of all parties who have the cheek to call themselves moderates and those that oppose this extremists. And it isn’t only public assets that are asset stripped. These days businesses are often bought out solely to strip and make money from without any real interest in having them thrive when money can be extracted while they fail. And hedge funds and currency speculators manipulate national and international finance again extracting money while others lose out. So Brexit becomes something to be supported for its greater opportunities to asset strip and deregulate leading to increased profits while the EU becomes something to support for its ready supply of cheap labour and guarantee to carry on supporting corporate capitalism and furthering the concentration of wealth to the few. So with their snouts in the trough and supported by gutless journalists and a kind of middle “professional” class who fear losing their comfortable existence the world heads for Social and environmental destruction. And austerity is completely unnecessary and only practiced to run down and facilitate the asset stripping that the greedy demand. So who are the real parasites on society feeding off others?

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Excellent, Jon!

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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