The Ethics Of… Class War

So we’re three weeks into 2017 and already Donald Trump has been implicated as a Russian stooge thanks to blackmail footage they (may) have of him (allegedly) involving two prostitutes, the bed the Obama’s slept in in Russia, and a whole bunch of bodily fluids. It’s not every day you see the word ‘defiled’ in a newspaper, but today is one of those days.

And frankly, I’m in over my head here. This feels like the juiciest ethical topic the world has ever offered me, but I’m so overwhelmed at finding myself in the plot of a cheesy cold war thriller that I honestly can’t figure out where to start with it.

So screw it, let’s talk about throwing bags of rotting meat at hipster cafes instead.

2017 is off to a good start, isn’t it?

http://cdn.newsapi.com.au/image/v1/b3190a6c199361a80e8a8754114c0c0f?width=1024

On the bleary morning of 1st January 2017 Melbournians awoke to find out someone had apparently declared war on ‘Hipster Scum’ in the inner city suburb of Footscray. Naturally most of us were kinda baffled – sure you might find the fashion kinda pretentious, but that’s hardly worth going full hate crime on a burger place. And it didn’t stop there; in total at least three businesses were targeted in the area, some multiple times, with the attacks ranging from graffiti to smashed up windows, to eggings and the infamous bag of rotting meat, and even an incredibly passive-aggressive postering on one occasion.

https://i0.wp.com/www.smh.com.au/content/dam/images/g/t/k/r/g/9/image.imgtype.articleLeadwide.620x0.png

Naturally this spurred your standard round of ‘law and order’ hysteria that always happens after these sorts of things, but even taking that into account, these attacks appeared all the more grotesque for their meaninglessness. Why hipsters? Why in this specific area? Why a burger place when the owner doesn’t even identify as a hipster? For the majority of people it got written off to drunkenness, young people, immigrants or ‘general moral decay’ depending on your favourite hobby horse, but it turns out there’s an additional factor in there – one that could lead to quite a bit more trouble if it isn’t addressed.

Let me spin you a tale…

Imagine you are living in a cheap, semi-rough suburb that happens to be surprisingly close to the city. You’re not exactly poor, but sure as hell aren’t rich and basically spend as much time working in low-skilled jobs as you can in order to keep your head above water. You aren’t desperate, but it wouldn’t take much to get you there, and since getting ahead these days tends to require qualifications that you never really had the capacity to get, your best bet is simply to knuckle down, work your arse off and hope nothing goes wrong – fortunately your suburb is close to town and all the work around there.

Sadly while you were busy treading water, the world was not and things around you are changing at a rapid pace. Maybe you’d seen the pattern before; friends or colleagues who once had affordable housing near their jobs in other suburbs like Fitzroy or Collingwood, who gradually found the rent was going up, the cost of living was rising with it, and that they increasingly couldn’t find the money to get by. Eventually it all becomes too much and they had to move further out to an area with rent they could manage – sure they now have to waste time and money travelling to work and that makes life harder, but at least they’re getting by again.

Until the rent starts going up there as well…

Graph 1: Real House Prices and Fundamentals

Rent prices follow house prices after all, and Melbourne’s housing market is, to be conservative, utterly absurd.

But so far everything seems to be going fine in your suburb so far. It’s the same old blend of low-income families, new immigrant communities and eclectic low-price shops that support those communities.

And then the fancy burger bar opens up.

In the middle of your all-too-busy work life, this might go unnoticed or uncared about. Sure it sticks out like a pillar of self-important wankery amongst the otherwise purely-functional shops around it, but whatever, right? If some idiot want to sell overpriced fast food then good for him, nothing to do with you.

And then another one opens up. And then a third. And they start to fill up with particular demographics of people that you rarely saw around these parts – they’re well-dress in a deceptively casual kinda way, they sport giant beards and vaguely ethnic jewellery that are clearly sources of pride rather than custom, and above all else they give off the air of one thing: money.

The hipsters have arrived, they’re going to move in, and they’re going to be willing to pay quite a bit more than you are able to for rent.

And you, my dear working class friend, are screwed.

https://i0.wp.com/bcncoolhunter.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/moda-hipster-barba.jpg

Pretty lame harbinger of doom, but it’s the one you can afford.

See, you’re about to become a victim of gentrification, and there is bugger all you can do about it. You low-cost, inner-city, culturally interesting suburb has been discovered and has started to attract people with more money. Trendy small businesses like the burger joint above take note of this and decide this is a fresh new market (with low rent) they’d like to get into. Soon enough of the new crowd have moved in (which was easy considering they’re young, upwardly mobile professionals with plenty of cash and no inconveniences like kids or income insecurity for landlords to have to worry about), and before you know it, this low-cost suburb no longer is. And you can’t afford to live there anymore.

Right now Footscray is at the beginning of this journey, but the writing is on the wall. The current residents see it coming but are discovering that there’s nothing they can do about it – other than move further and further and further away from the city and their sources of employment. The only way to keep rent low without moving is to own the property yourself, which is obviously not an option when you’re a low-income renter. Even working in collectives, the amount of property is going to be limited, the costs significant and the level of required financial expertise enormous. You can complain to the local council, tenants union, newspaper or state government, but guess what? You’re a low-income nobody who lacks the skills, cash and possibly language skills to get noticed, and since it’s so much easier and more profitable to ignore your situation, prepare to be ignored.

https://cdn-images-1.medium.com/max/622/1*naQipen2ww5IkajboHTxlA.jpeg

Money is power; poverty is powerlessness.

So what are the current low-income residents of Footscray to do? Meekly go find a cheaper house in a more remote suburb and take the financial/time/quality of life hit that comes with it? Commit themselves to protesting against this process at an enormous cost to their finances/time/quality of life and likely get ignored anyway? Stick their heads in the sand and blindly hope these economic realities cease to exist?

Or do they throw bags of rotten meat through café windows?

https://i0.wp.com/www.smh.com.au/content/dam/images/g/t/k/r/g/9/image.imgtype.articleLeadwide.620x0.png

This is starting to make a lot more sense now, hey?

This is not to justify or excuse these attacks – violence is destructive, hurts others, makes the entire area less safe, and in the case of class struggle, tends to end badly for the poor people as the rich and middle-classes have the law on their side.

Violence is also pointless in this case; we’re talking about an untapped real estate market would tens of millions of dollars. You reckon people are going to ignore that because of some minor acts of vandalism? If anything you just handed them a ‘law and order’ mandate that will make it all the easier for them to move in and occupy the area – a little bit of racial/class profiling and the cops will have you lot in line before you can sneeze.

But worse than both of these problems is the fact that the people you’re the wrong group of people. Young, educated, affluent middle-class folk are moving into your area A. because it’s cheap but also B. because they like it. Despite appearances these aren’t wealthy elites coming in with nefarious plans to push out the locals, they’re moving in because they face many of the same issues you do – high rent, the need to be closer to town, the inability to buy a house within 200km of the city, and believe it or not, job insecurity.

Oh sure they’re far better off that you, but targeting hipsters as the source of gentrification misses the point entirely – it ain’t them that’s driving this trend. That would be the landlords, real estate agents and above all the governments that are allowing, or rather encouraging this to happen, pumping up housing value to insanely unsustainable heights, failing to provide sufficient affordable housing in inner suburbs, pitting desperate renters against each other with ‘rent bidding’, and just generally ignoring the fact that they are continually screwing over low-income tenants in the process.

But as usual the upper classes aren’t the ones on the ground in Footscray where all this is going down, and so it’s the hipsters and trendy new bars that are seen as the source of the threat by lower-income tenants, a tiny minority of which lash out at them – and now we have that classic situation where the lower classes and middle classes turn on each other, while the rich profit from the mess and quietly encourage it along to keep anyone from noticing who’s actually causing the problem.

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In case you’re getting a communist vibe here, I think it’s worth pointing out that I’m definitely not a fan of that ideology either.

But here’s the real tragedy of this entire situation; there is no one specific group to blame. You can’t blame the low-income folk for being upset about being continually marginalised, even if you think the tactics some of them use are reprehensible. You can’t blame middle-class folk for taking advantage of cheap inner-city rentals, nor the trendy businesses for following them out. And believe it or not I can’t really blame the upper-class landlords for choosing more reliable, wealthier and more secure tenants, nor real estate agents for making the most of such a rare, untapped market – they’re not running charities after all.

So what we have here is a massive, society-wide phenomenon that is beyond the scope of any group to control, and which will automatically punish any group that tries to ignore or defy it. So who can possibly do anything about all this?

The god damn government, that’s who. Seriously, problems like this are what the entire field of civic planning was created for – to butt into the market whenever something goes seriously wrong and the market itself can’t do anything about it. In this case all it would involve is the very simple regulation that all inner city suburbs must have a certain percentage of residential housing reserved for low-income housing. Boom, problem solved and hardly . Sure gentrification still occurs, but low-income tenants now have enough options closer to town that they’re not constantly being pushed further out. The middle class get their trendy new suburb and the upper class get to make their extra money and no one loses.

But sadly the government is only as good as those that vote for them and/or lean on them and as mentioned before, money talks. That said, the government of the day is ultimately responsible to voters and if enough people mutter about a certain subject, they will listen – and that brings us right back to you dear readers. You now understand not only why a bag of rotten meat was thrown through a burger store window, but why that matters and that we all need to be aware of this problem. That is the first step to getting the government to do its damn job and fix problems like this that they’d frankly rather just ignore.

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