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Dropping out won’t fix the world: It is possible to drink a Starbucks latte with your politics intact?

The guilt of complicity is a red herring.

I have a confession to make: I have spent money in Starbucks. Not every day, but yes, on occasion I have ventured into the temple of mediocre coffee and smooth jazz and emerged with my politics intact. According to Louise Mensch, Theresa May and tedious hordes of free market apologists, this is impossible. The second one sickly drop of cinnamon latte passes your lips, you forfeit your right to comment upon the abuses of capitalism. Like Persephone in the underworld, who ate the food of the dead and was forced to live amongst them, you are doomed to remain a silent drone in a corporate wasteland, forever regretting your moment of caffeine-deprived weakness.

We have been hearing versions of this argument ever since protest became a regular feature of contemporary politics. The notion peddled by right-wing commentators is that you cannot have any serious, sustained objections to fiscal feudalism and its discontents if you happen to have grown up in a detached house, or attended an elite university, or if you once, in a moment of weakness late at night, found yourself walking out of a well-known conglomerate with a box of suspicious chicken pieces coated in unmentionable sauce and wondering what your life had become. Anyone who engages left-wing politics in a serious way faces this idiotic charge. I've lost count of the number of times I've been told that because I have a smartphone and went to a private school, I have no business speaking about social justice.

At root, this argument is about a fear of ideology: a terror of real political and economic alternatives in a society that would still rather group people into warring tribes based on income and lifestyle. The left is not entirely immune from this sort of lazy reasoning. It is, of course, indicative that the vast majority of the British cabinet are millionaires, but even if they all lived together in a skip in Southend, it would hardly make their permissive stance on corporate tax avoidance morally tenable.

The trouble with that logic is that it cuts both ways. There are plenty of decent, politically right-on people who believe that buying an overpriced macchiato, or a pair of shoes they don't need, or whatever it is that alleviates, for a moment, the numbing exhaustion of daily life in a post-Fordist society in some way excludes them from the debate. A guilty little smile of complicity accompanies this thought process, as they hand over money at the cash register. We've had our imperialist latte, it says, so we're already fifth columnists, it says -- there's nothing we can do to make a difference, much as we'd like to.

I, for one, am sick of that excuse. If capitalism is a disease, everything and everyone is infected. Look around the room you're in and tell me with absolute certainty that there's nothing in it that was stitched by child-slaves in the developing world, or sold to you by exploited workers from the kind of company that thinks "sick pay" is the name of a minor 90s grunge band. There is almost no way to exist in this society without being contaminated by capitalism, unless you spend your whole life lying down in the dark, in a recycled rattan coffin, being drip-fed organic vegan mulch by a succession of fairly paid assistants, and if you do, I'm sure you'll feel great about yourself, but people will still make fun of you, and you won't be a step closer to changing the world.

Quarantining yourself from capitalism is not going to create a cure, and those who mock protesters and radicals for owning iPhones and buying burgers know that extremely well. Left, right and vacillating in the middle, we all need to decide if there is still room in this age of austerity for ideas and ideals, or if we truly want a world where we're just lined up into suspicious rival camps according to how much we earn. American libertarians call that sort of thuggish, annihilating excuse for politics "class war". Class warriors call it "missing the point".

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 14 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The NHS 1948-2011, so what comes next?

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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