You can realise vital things about capitalist property relations and its power dynamics in the most unexpected of places these days.
I wanted to write about Britain and its endemic snobbery towards people living in the private rented sector and, by implication, those in the social housing sector.
Three figures step onto the stage of this rather banal story: Garage Man, Man with Privet Hedge, and Postal Worker.
Lying at the end of the driveway between next door and the building in which I rent a flat is a huge garage. Owned by next door’s landlord, it is an illegal structure in that it obtrudes on land owned by my landlord. The result is a chronic issue with parking: people just can’t get their cars through the gap between our building and the garage in order to access the area at the rear reserved entirely for me and my neighbours. It is an issue of long-standing resentment, but none of the car owners affected say anything to remedy the situation.
The garage is rented by a sort-of odd job man who accesses it daily for his work. With a face like a Jerusalem artichoke, he is constantly coated in mortar dust and grime. His walk is eccentric, but charmlessly so, his centre of gravity in the shoulders, as if actioned by an invisible puppeteer with the aid of a coat hanger. Garage Man wears a permanent snarl. His irredeemable ugliness could never be leavened by an attractive demeanour because his personality is forever fixed on contempt for anyone and anything.
Unsurprisingly, he has it in for me. One Sunday nearly three years ago I told him off for leaving his engine running. I could smell the fumes in my second floor flat; the vehicle itself was parked directly outside my neighbour on the ground floor – right on top of a child’s bedroom. We have had a couple of moments like it since. Time and again it strikes me how little this man grasps the most basic courtesies we must all extend to our neighbours (he is, after all, a neighbour) in the interests of building a civilised society. Such as: don’t intoxicate babies with exhaust fumes.
I know he has has it in for me because he has let slip the odd comment or two to my neighbour. ‘Who does he think he is? He rents a flat on [—] Road.’ There. Literally and metaphorically put in my place. Garage Man is so deficient in irony that he fails to recognise he has implicated his interlocutor in his snobbery.
Garage Man rented a flat above one of the shops across the road from us, the road for which he has contempt. He rents the garage – ‘I rent here too’, as he said during his tirade to my neighbour. He seems to have no place to call home, but pours scorn on people who do (we are all fairly longstanding tenants). Of course, I draw attention to this merely for the purposes of the contradiction between his own situation and his disdain for others.
Man with Privet Hedge
We share a back wall with two large semi-detached houses. A retired man and woman live in one of these houses. I think they have lived there for much of their adult lives. The garden seems cultivated, although none of us can actually see it; they are exactly the kind of folk who spend their time pruning back nature, even when it is unnecessary (mostly it is). The second floor flats have a view of the porch outside their back door. Not that we deliberately peer at them – they’re in our line of sight as we look out from our small kitchen windows, such is our entitlement.
Naturally it is the man who has made himself known to me and my neighbours. On more than the odd occasion he has been seen in our grounds checking how overgrown the privet hedge cultivated by them as some sort of defensive barrier against the marauding renters has become. This means he has trespassed on our land without so much as a salutary knock on the first available front door to ask if he can do so. You look out of your kitchen window to find a man in your back garden looking at things. He knows we rent our flats, I know he owns his house – indeed, as he told me once when I caught him during one spot-check, he used to own the house next to his. Even in this area of ours, not entirely desirable but with high quality, historical housing stock, it is relatively privileged to have two buildings to your name.
Perhaps it is a mark of such privilege that Man with Privet Hedge thinks it is entirely acceptable to walk up a driveway and look at things in the garden at the end of it for more than ten minutes without any supervision from the people who actually live there. He has been challenged by my neighbours, lucky not to have been challenged by me. His response has been to frame the challenge as a hostile gesture. Which it was. With good reason. Sometimes it is necessary to be reasonably hostile.
The territory around his property is of course marked clearly by high fencing and a gate – no doubt with at least two locks for security. Meanwhile, the land for which we pay to access as our homes has one small gate for the path leading to one building and a space where gates should be for the aforementioned driveway alongside the building in which I live. In the interests of furnishing yet further banal detail, there is no possibility for a gate to be installed, firstly on account of its size (landlords won’t invest their hard-earned surplus capital in that much wrought iron), and the fact that we live on a main road, which does not afford drivers the time or space to get out of their cars to open unwieldy gates.
On the plus side, the lack of gates makes it easier for our regular postal worker to make his deliveries. Diminutive in stature, this man is a true candidate for the accolade of Postman Pat. I see him regularly driving his little red van too, although never with a black and white cat in tow. He has an officious demeanour, not exactly rude as such but possessed of a character to which I can’t take. One day I asked him not to post what I considered junk mail along with my actual post. He was definitely rude in this instance, raising his voice with his back to me: ‘DYA THINK I LIKE DOING THIS? YOU’LL ‘AV TO RING ‘EM UP!’ Alternatively, he might have said: ‘Yeah, it’s a pain, isn’t it? You can ring them or fill in an online form. In fact here’s the number’. Maybe not the last bit. This show was performed in front of a neighbour, and I was pretty pissed off about it. I complained along the lines of, ‘I don’t expect to be spoken to like that while your worker is on my property’. Royal Mail is fortress-like in its organisational culture, ironically impossible to communicate with, and so nothing really came of the complaint.
But he was informed about it. I knew this because I just happened to be in my kitchen when I could hear more than the usual voices beneath my window, dominant amongst which was Postal Worker’s, who was holding court with my neighbours. I was incensed but in a state of disbelief: there he was, bitching, complaining about me complaining about him. I considered complaining again but instead let off steam afterwards with the neighbour to whom he had blurted.
From that neighbour I discovered that they had released some highly guarded information about my personal life to postal worker. This involved reference to a life-changing event, and postal worker had been arguing that it was because of a similar situation that he had behaved the way he did. Not only had I felt slightly invaded by being spoken to in the original instance, and in turn spoken about in relation to it, I felt a small amount of personal dignity slipping away as a result of my neighbour’s disclosure. Despite having the capacity to memorise my name on account of his frequent deliveries, his reference to me in the form of the personality-stripping, coldly calculating ‘he’ and ‘him’ grated, especially as he has little problem in calling his other customers by their names.
Some weeks later he rang my bell in order to hand me a package too big for the letterbox. This had occurred on numerous occasions in the intervening period, and he had done so without speaking or looking at me, shooting out of sight no sooner the package had left his hand. After a while I expected him to deliver a decree nisi along with the usual crap from Iceland or Farm Foods. I answered the door and snatched the package from his hands. If I acted immaturely, it was out of a felt desire to lay the issue to bed. He almost licked his lips at the thought of taking the moral high ground.
Postal Worker: ‘No need to snatch.’
Me: ‘I didn’t.’
Postal Worker: ‘Yes you did.’
Me: ‘No. I didn’t.’
Postal Worker: ‘Yes you did.’
Me: ‘No I didn’t.’
I decided to cut this ping-ponging down to size:
‘Look, what’s your problem with me?’
He then told the sorry tale of having been complained about, that he could have lost his job, that he had had a ‘torrid’ time, that he had worked the same route for so-and-so years without a single complaint, that he was high up back in the depot, that and that and that and that and that and that. . .
Now who was blowing things out of all proportion? What about the three verbal and a written rule? If he was the model employee, then why would he feel so threatened by a verbal, that is if Royal Mail saw fit to issue one in relation to our tiff?
I explained that I did not think it was appropriate for someone in a professional capacity to speak to me like he did on my property.
With a glazed look and a level of contempt that had clearly been rehearsed over the years, he said: ‘It’s not your property. You don’t own it.’
Aside from stating the bloody obvious to one who knew very well the terms of engagement when they signed a contract with their LANDLORD, I shot him back:
‘Hang on a minute, you’ve just betrayed the fact that you think I have fewer rights because I rent.’
He tried to sidestep my indictment with the lousy line of, ‘Well, if we’re going down that route, I own my house but it’s not mine until I pay off the mortgage’.
Rather than exploding, I gushed with empathy for his situation, even if at no point had he exhibited the same towards mine:
‘Just because the bank technically owns your house doesn’t mean you have fewer rights until you pay off your mortgage.’
My charity in view of the property-owning homunculus standing before me nearly moved me to tears.
Earlier on I had expressed outrage at his suggestion that I could have lost him his job:
‘Wait a minute. Now wait a minute. I would never EVER do something that prevented another’s ability to work. Have you seen the Labour poster in my window?!’
It was the time of the General Election, the snap one Theresa May vowed she would never call. The Labour poster was more in support of Jeremy Corbyn than my MP. I had got a bit Outraged on Radio 4, and I almost agreed with the Postal Worker when he rolled his eyes. That said, I pressed on with this line of defence, and he seemed to accept the point.
Garage Man returns for a few seconds
Garage Man had been hovering at the mouth of his man cave during mine and Postal Worker’s altercation. He then stepped onto the stage as a disembodied voice:
‘Is that him again? He causes SHIT, him!”
Postal Worker asked if Garage Man was joking. Sadly mine and Garage Man’s long-standing biblical hatred for each other has precluded such repartee until the end of our days, and so I rolled my eyes as I confirmed that no, Garage Man was not joking. I decided against dealing directly with Garage Man’s interjection as it was going swimmingly with me and Postal Worker. We drew to a halt and I held out my hand in the spirit of reconciliation.
What I learned – or had reaffirmed
Garage Man is working class. Postal Worker is working class. Even Man with Privet Hedge is working class, even if he differs from the other two by virtue of having owned more than one property in his life.
Postal Worker has martyred himself on the crucifix of his mortgage. Garage Man looks down his nose on people very much like him (renters), and would seem never to hold the prospect of attaining material conditions more in line with his snobby prejudices. Man with Privet Hedge is obsessed with securing his property – both as a physical territory and one protected from onlookers from rented flats – but erases in the temerity of a single gesture the same right for others to be secure from his violations.
All three can be defined by their abject snobbery. As working class men – two of whom continuing to earn their living in typically working class jobs and the other almost certainly having done so before he retired – they would be the last people to indict with the social attitude practised more lavishly by the middle and upper class tiers of British society. Their barely concealed contempt for people living in rented accommodation is a posh way of saying they think they are SCUM. In Britain, people who rent are thrown in with users of public transport as SCUM OF THE EARTH. (And we haven’t even considered what is thought of people living in social housing.)
How are they not SCUM? By using public transport and renting, they RELY. Throw in a dusting of welfare dependency and they may as well [READER, COMPLETE THE SENTENCE]. They are not just SCUM but STUPID SCUM: month after month, year after year, they throw good money away by renting the roof over their head rather than slogging their guts out to make money for the property market with a small return on their investment. SCUM: they have failed [to INVEST]. Future? They have no future, SCUM WHO RENTS, SCUM WHO GETS ON BUSES. BUS WANKER!
Britain: humans were humans first, subjects of capital later. You hate renters and bus wankers for relying but fail to recognise the many instances of reliance in your own life. Your view of your total independence in life is the lifelong lie you will keep telling yourself. You are just far too fucking busy pouring snobby scorn over those beneath you.
CAPITALIST REALITY CHECK: There is always someone above you. You make that happen so long as you think others are beneath you.
Our three main characters would do well to realise this. They probably do. Which is why all three of them (Man with Privet Hedge perhaps the lesser inclined in this regard) perform acts of class treachery against their very own kind to the degree they are themselves oppressed by capitalist property relations.
The response to the fact there’s always someone above you? Perpetuate class division.
This fact was further underscored recently by a family member whose contempt for the people they live alongside was registered by a bullish declaration of property ownership: ‘We’re the only ones who own our own house on that street!’ Perhaps those renting on the same street of terraced houses may think: more fool you.
There is always someone above you. Even the neighbour you oppress because they don’t own their own home may come back at you by saying they wouldn’t want to own their own home in this shit hole anyway.
Tiers within tiers within tiers. Endless stratifications based on the resentment capitalism fuels on the basis of having no money whilst earning some money whilst having no money whilst…
The events described above amount to very little in the grand scheme of things. They are micro-aggressions in a world of larger catastrophes. Yet the spectrum is undeniably the same: the downward spiral of dehumanisation. The contractors who install unsafe cladding and councils turning their social housing stock to private developers through to Garage Man, Postal Worker, and Man with Privet Hedge, are to varying degrees united in the view that those who fail to subscribe to the status quo of capitalist property relations are deemed somehow less human and worthy of rights.