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Alphahood Watch

Interview by Andrew Stevens.

3:AM: Going back to an earlier work, Doreen Massey’s World City, published in 2007 as the global financial crisis was unfolding, was for me at least the first hard assessment of the financialization of London in keeping with her contention that space is always “an expression of and medium of power”. Certainly ties in nicely with Alpha City, but an influence?

Rowland Atkinson: There is a lot in the mix in terms of influences. The primary goal was to create an accessibly written overview that grappled with the complexity of how the city ‘works’ for the rich and, by extension, for money and the moneyed more broadly. So yes, Massey is in there in that sense, but so are stylistic conventions and ideas from a wider range of authors and analysts, all working to try and get inside the workings of something almost unknowable in its totality — London, and cities that offer parallels. 

The book is certainly a take on how space is used to, or inflected by, power. The power is not in simply making the space, or places to be invested in by capital, I wanted to say something about how I think neighbourhoods, buildings, and districts create a psychically and physically insulating string of spaces that enable flows of power and capital to run freely, but how such space operates in ways that allow the rich not to pull back the curtain that reveals a much more vicious play of daily life. Financialization and its regressive consequences is one element of this story, but so is the new terrain of the offshore island tax havens revealed by investigative journalists, the academics looking at tax and the vanishingly tall long tail of the spectrum of the wealthy by analysts like Piketty. 

Somewhere, in terms of style and ambition, there was something of C. Wright Mills’ power elite, an attempt to build an impression of the power ‘bloc’ as he termed it and to locate those new and old groups in the longer history of the city as a place that made the wealthy, but also one in which the wealthy could use space to access networks of power and comfort. The range of influences on my thinking were broad, but the central goal was to try and find a way of expressing, in pretty basic prose, how this ‘thing’ works and how it has changed in subtle and more overt ways over the past decade in particular. In this sense the book is absolutely not one ‘for’ an academic audience, it is really trying to do something to engage a broader conversation and arm a wider readership with findings, ideas and metaphors that can be used to help think through how the city can be much better than this.

3:AM: When did that process start in terms of London’s place identity, as Massey had it, and function for what you’ve described or has it just always been that way?

RA: Well there are continuities and more obvious breaks with earlier phases in the history of the city. Elements go back some hundreds of years to the expansion into the West by speculative landowner-developers who created the enormous terraces, then the staggeringly wealthy individuals of the Victorian and Edwardian period who built massive mansions of their own. After the aristocrats and the new bourgeoisie of the industrial period (many of whom sought to make their mark in ‘society’ by moving to or buying in London) to some extent, we can fast forward to the new new wealthy, the ‘self-made’ wealthy arising from the expansion of the global economy, some of which is financial, some of it resource and commodity-based. 

It is this internationalisation of the buyers that is so interesting in terms of the city’s position as a city of the rich, rather than looking only to its internal shifts to a more finance-dominated economy. Of course, the story remains complex, the kinds of Venn diagrams and overlapping relationships between these various elements are hard to distinguish with total clarity. The finance economy has driven wealth at the top, including among corporate life, but it is only one ingredient in the alchemical mix that the city offers the rich themselves. That includes questions of history, culture, social and sports circuits of multiple kinds, and the distinctive architectures and urban design of the city more broadly. 

In all of this we are looking not simply at a story of a particular kind of urban economy, but of the complex relationship of that economy to the city’s colonial history, the cognitive position of its districts in the mind’s eyes of newly rich buyers and its blessed accessibility from various parts of Asia and elsewhere around the globe. That story also includes an enabling class made-up of various actors and institutions who have tried to make the city a place friendly to business as well of course!

International Quarter London, Stratford

3:AM: Publicity for the book mentioned the rich’s “hangers-on”, who do you have in mind here?

RA: The enablers are indeed central to the story. In trying to think through what has been happening at the top of urban society and the question of who the city’s elites are we are faced with some real challenges. As I try to work through in the book, notions of the establishment are not fully up to the job and there has been an internationalisation of major corporate roles and among the rich themselves. Interwoven is the dynastic wealth, the old money, and in general terms a newly arrived wealthy group with fortunes generated in other countries, new industry sectors, and from the operation of the global finance economy. 

But the enablers are a strand of the elite, many of them very wealthy, but who are the power brokers, agents and deciders who work with, for, and who seek to attract the wealthy elite — they work in law, real estate, politics notably and corporate life. In many ways, this group is the keystone in the architecture of the alpha city. We might say that our attention should be less on the rich themselves and more on those who traditionally had an interest in the long view of how the city might turn out and who now see a nice nest egg, a speaker circuit, a nice bonus or paycheque as the guiding rationale. 

At the bottom of this is something deeper and elusive in the changing character and culture of the city, but equally something knowable in terms of being indexed simply by monetary value. It is a place in thrall to, directed by or rallied to the call of pounds, dollars, roubles and other currencies and those who wield them. We can see this power in the new skyline, in the basements dug beneath mansions, in the planning decisions that see profit as the guiding measure of progress and in the interwoven networks of super-rich from overseas with party circuit connections and political ties.  Knighthoods, political party funding, money laundering, planning kickbacks and other signs of corruption form the tip of the iceberg, signs of something much deeper and galvanising in the subterranean life of the city and the way that money captures and influences so many people. 

While the net is in danger of being cast too wide we can also see how life in a costly city means that many service roles and providers also become aligned with the idea that the wealth economy of the city is a good thing or that it needs to be lubricated in order for the pennies to continue to rain down. If we want to improve the city, to force some recalibration of how we understand what success is made of, then it will be the enablers’ doors that we will want to knock on first.

3:AM: Alpha City came out around the same time as the [House of Commons] Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia Report, though both were written on different timelines.  At times though the content overlapped and I wasn’t quite sure which one I was reading, especially regarding London as a haven for oligarchs, blind eyes turned and PR firms.

RA: Those revelations were more or less ‘known’ and of course there was much redacted that leaves scope for speculation, even for sober imaginations. But yes, the depth and breadth of links and networks between what we might have thought of as outside influences are increasingly highlighted as being within the fold of policymaking and the planning of the city. More of this will follow, much of it from investigative journalists, via data dumps relating to tax and havens and so on. 

What the book tries to argue throughout is that the alpha city works hard to take an active disinterest in regulation, policing and patrolling the dubious, criminal and problematic sources of money rolling around. In fact, there is a clear incentive to do very little, while talking-up periodically the need for more concerted action on issues like dirty money, corruption or the way that the media landscape is so influenced by big money. One sees this undergirding a popular narrative, a kind of economic commonsense, that emerges in the comments sections and editorials of the financial press — why do we want to get all moral about this, someone else will benefit if we want to act, what is the harm, why turn off the tap at a time of severe economic crisis. Those feelings and ideas will only be galvanised in the painfully slow recovery to emerge from Covid-19. 

Here we find the city somewhat mirroring the conditions that emerged from the earlier financial crisis of a decade ago after which the ascendency of capital was made way for by arguments that without bending backwards to allow development and investment the city would suffer. Such arguments undergird the debates about freeports and will likely foreclose traction on action to challenge the embedding of wealth interests in the House of Lords, money laundering and planning for diversity and community engagement in planning processes in the city. Enabling can work very effectively through active ‘non-decision’-making in this sense. 

3:AM: PR firm head Lord Mandelson is mentioned in the book for his being “intensely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich”, but you don’t really assess what would cause him or any Labour politician to make such a statement?

RA: I think I do, but the point is not made explicitly in relation to left-Labour politics perhaps. That point is that money offers the metric, the core measure by which, in so many cases, we see overturned much of what we traditionally felt as social scientists were the key factors determining urban, economic, housing and social policy and our response to the root causes of social problems. We can put this more simply by suggesting that where we thought that perhaps the left was aligned with questions of redistribution and social support, the logic of money and the ‘money economy’ of finance and international capital flows become an inveigling, dominating logic and a badge of ‘nous’ by many who feared being seen as out of touch with the realities of the world economy and economics more broadly, even as those models have been shown to be so incredibly weak or problematic today. 

Those considering themselves savvy in economic terms came to feel that the only realistic, viable and indeed correct way forward was to open the path to capital and wealth flows and to the intermediary actors and institutions that would help this free money to roll in. The rich are a sign of such an economy but are also increasingly the party-givers and seducers — offering the exciting circuit that draws-in so many — read Tatler and sections of the tabloid press to keep up with this circuit. So this group have become a powerful cultural as well as economic force and this position has also helped them to shape ideas and trump or break some traditional class-alliances, particularly where exit routes from political life are being cued up! 

By all of this, I do not mean to be overly cynical, it is easy to risk the naive view that all politicians are in it for the money, are neoliberals or that they are dupes of a capitalist ideology that sweeps all beneath it. So we need to avoid generalisations while also understanding tendencies and shifts. Certainly, left-Labour councils in London have been some of the worst ‘offenders’ in the way that the planning system and land economy have worked against the people, but this is not simply a question of ideological triumph either — many are beggars in a withered public funding landscape in which only scraps of public funding are offered and the architecture of the planning system also militates against local communities. 

But the arguments made that this is the only or best way forward need to be singled out and shot down wherever we see them. To balance all of this up we need to understand that money has also redefined the politics of elements of the right and the way that pro-market positions have eroded more benign or socially engaged forms of thinking that were connected to ideas of a cohesive nation or local communities (perhaps without which its own legitimacy would ultimately falter). 

So these logics also operate on the right but it is not simply the case that conservatism is fully overlapping with neoliberalism but that notions of investment for the long-term, of making provision, of reciprocity with communities that support owners, managers and landlords have been eroded as values by, as I see it, the staggering coalescence of wealth at the top. That money gives the rich and rich corporations real power. Here our naivety may work in reverse — we need to understand that much of what the political right offered was antagonistic to social need! Nevertheless, the turbo-charged sale of so many assets (including land) everywhere, of all social provisions to be questioned and eroded, for any endeavour to be available to purchase by international wealth while hanging a British flag over these processes do seem to me to make the offer of a more engaged and patrician politics of the right something preferable to what we see today. 

One Hyde Park, Knightsbridge

3:AM: The point about Labour-run local authorities is a germane factor, but in the book and quite widely elsewhere you refer to London’s ‘alphahood’ enclaves for the super-rich.  Where do you have in mind here?

RA: Well, the alphahoods are a way of trying to understand the distribution of the different ‘tribes’ of the super-rich and the way that taste, sources of wealth and culture are entwined with the built environment of the city. So there are five such types of area and each forms a kind of string of island spaces, like an archipelago across the city. The old money, some of it inherited from what were the nouveau riche of the late nineteenth century and so on, remains clustered in the patrician heartlands, the city’s West End as we know it today. Within this space we can find sprouting up new mansion-style blocks that are like very high-tech, super-secure units. There are quite a few but the kinds of examples that stand out are sites like Clarges Mayfair near the Ritz, and One Hyde Park almost opposite Harrods. These are what I describe as the Ultralands — playspaces for capital and the rich, ultra in the sense of being off the scale of all economic reason and economy and often temporarily accommodating households with new money. 

This is an intensely international series of residential units and very discreet, drive-under parking, guards, cameras are pretty abundant. Outside this core of the city’s prime neighbourhoods, we can talk of prime London. This will aggravate the estate agents who use ‘prime’ to designate the elite neighbourhoods in toto, but it works well as a term to describe the areas attached to what are now the super-elite central city of old and staggering new money, and the more established but more spacious former outer suburbs of the city — the Hampsteads, Highgates and Wimbledons and so on. Here the drive is not for centrality so much as space and, in many cases, security and distance. In all cases many international buyers see the West End as the cultural and social centre of the city, but all of these spaces are a hop away from each other using powerful cars, whether with or without personal drivers. The final area is beyond the formal boundary of the city but it is an important area that remains attached, in terms of usage and social networks, to London proper. 

This final area I describe as the Suburban Exclaves, formed of super-sized executive homes, cul-de-sac estates in the now super-rich commuter towns and villages and gated individual residences and communities in key parts of counties like Surrey. The terms are used playfully but their value is in discriminating some of the variability of motives, international origins of the wealth elite as well as the physical form and ambience of these places which is more intimidating, exclusive and privatised than it was in many cases historically.

3:AM: You describe those tribes of super-rich as HMWIs (High Net Worth Individuals) and UHNWIs (Ultra High Net Worth Individuals), but where did these terms originate? Is that how the super-rich refer to themselves and organise their affairs, for example through ‘family offices’?

RA: All of this goes to the heart of the question, who are the rich? I took a pragmatic approach and though I engage in a fairly lengthy discussion about different sections of the wealth elite (new and old money, the relatively and sometimes very rich enablers of the super-rich) the easiest way is to adopt the terminology of the wealth managers! There is little point in talking about the one percent if we are to have any kind of precision because thinking about the richest person in every one hundred is far too expansive, the classifications of High Net Worth and the more uber classification of the Ultras — these are expressed in terms of having liquid assets, houses and other fixed assets don’t count, of $1m and $30m, which corresponds to roughly £660,000 and £20m in local currency. 

Where this is advantageous is actually in cutting-out debates about culture, class, taste and networks but those are also quite interesting debates to have. Much of our general knowledge about the scale of the groups at each of these wealth points is generated by an industry of analysts looking either to sell data to others who are chasing the money of the rich (charities or luxury goods providers, for example). 

3:AM: As you suggest, London has been remarkably successful in becoming the alpha city as a friendly berth for HNWIs and UHNWIs, but it’s certainly not short of competitors in that regard.  There’s a whole global ‘wealthcraft’ industry with city indices and report recommendations for city governments and other jurisdictions to court them, don’t you worry the book could be used as a kind of ‘how to’ guide?

RA: I think even the subtitle is enough to put the boosterists on guard! But you are right that there are many who are looking to produce the alchemical recipe needed to turn local assets into a place that will attract the rich, or their capital at least. I think there is little in here that could be used to create that recipe, in many ways it is a recognition that the geography of pre-eminence, if we can call it that, is very stable over time and hard to challenge by smaller or new contenders. 

Many who work in real estate, law, large corporates, politics and so on recognise that the money flows almost no matter what you do. Despite the bleating of estate agents around any possible tax or levy many were saying it would not really matter how much these were, it would not put off the many who looked to buy in London. Some things have punctured this deep-seated arrogance and complacency. One thing was Brexit which created uncertainty, and therefore cheap deals that some snapped up. Covid is another story because it inverts the logic of a wealth economy and the agglomeration of the rich in key centres. Time will tell whether the suburban exclaves will dominate in new rounds of migration by London’s and the international rich. More likely is that with or without a vaccine new measures and hygiene regimes can be integrated into the spaces and networks of the wealthy and their agents, creating life bubbles that are more or less free-roaming and supplemented by the use of private jets, in-house healthcare and vetting of service personnel.

3:AM: You also suggest in the book that “For more than a decade, London has been a ‘fuck you’ city”.  What do you mean by this?

RA:  Yes, I was trying to shock the reader into realising what kind of attitude seems to emanate from the social ‘top’ of the city, the sense of arrogance and disengagement from responsibility or connection. This was a way of capturing the mood of the city, the feel and ambience of some of the districts that I have spent a lot of time in over the last few years.

Fuck you money is supposedly the amount needed to tell an employer where to go, to have enough to be independent. A related meaning is how much money one needs to feel no inhibition in one’s treatment of other people, the ability to be abusive, to degrade, or to simply brush off another person with complete disdain. Consider the scene in the film of The Talented Mr Ripley, where the two protagonists take the cane from a blind man and then throw money at him. The money is irrelevant since the cane is vital, he cannot get home without it. That attitude is, in a microcosm, the sense that anything and anyone can be bought, even if they utterly rely on a particular good, or service. Every day the vast power of capital and those who wield it is exactly this kind of purchase, a kind of force-given licence by the ability to throw enough money on the table to make any problem or person go away or rally to one’s cause.

More prosaically it is the oligarch of The Fast Show, walking around and saying ‘I buy it’ but again, in reality, this kind of attitude comes through in the philanthropy, in museum and university bequests, in party political donations and networks that act to soften the city, its fabric and its institutions and to make it amenable to the desires of those who undoubtedly have too much. I don’t say this to say that all rich people are bad, mean, narcissistic and so on, the logic is more insidious than that because it cascades down making hangers-on and defenders out of many who would be working in other sectors, occupations and roles if the city provided them.

3:AM: You mentioned earlier that the book is an attempt to “help think through how the city can be much better than this”.  So what do you think needs to be done?

RA: I try not to be pessimistic on this front. But the screws are being tightened and the future is likely to be pushed into what we saw a decade ago after the last global financial crisis. At that time the argument was that the wealthy and unchecked capital flows were needed to get the real estate sector and urban economy going. Now we look back and realise that the subsequent boom was precisely the time at which the contribution of capital to community could have been demanded in much greater quantity. It is a standing injustice that during that period such contributions were challenged by developers, allowed by planning authorities and whipped forward by a national government that clearly identified the very selective beneficiaries of an alpha city economy. 

We might say that little of this is new, but there is something deeper and more insidious at work here than a post-colonial, finance-driven economy. We can look to the recent report on Russian influence in British politics, the networks of the party-goers, the influence of lobbyists and enormous sway, and integration of the rich into political and cultural life. These figures existed historically, but they sought a place in society, not one that was so evidently extractive, secretive and protective of its wealth. Such generalisations can be quibbled with, the point here is that philanthropy will never be a stand-in for the kind of radical reforms to tax, public spending and redistribution to make work pay for those helping to keep us safe, educated and cared for. 

A new settlement is required, derived from a social conversation that brings the rich into a debate about what is just. But many are co-opted into the belief that any tax proposal, any kind of corporate regulation and most forms of redistribution are an attack on the prosperity of all. Things will likely get worse before they get better, but we probably need to start putting pressure on the enablers and those ‘bought’ by big money rather than the rich themselves. I have no interest at all in the rich and feel no need to worry about the label of radical brought to those offering the argument that wealth requires greater contribution. The unchecked ambitions and riches of a few are part of a story about London and other cities in which everyday life has become tougher much less fun, and, by steps, far less cohesive. So many are suffering in this context when it is clear that fairly simple choices could be made to deliver something happier, more rewarding and better that would benefit so many more people than today, even the rich themselves.

Photos: Andrew Stevens

Professor Rowland Atkinson is Research Chair in Inclusive Societies at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and most recently author of Alpha City (Verso, 2020).

Andrew Stevens is an associate editor of 3:AM. 

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, September 4th, 2020.