A city in thrall to capital? London, money-power and elites

A city in thrall to capital? London, money-power and elites

Photo: Hang Kei-Ho

Rowland Atkinson (University of Sheffield) and Roger Burrows (Goldsmiths, University of London)


The usual preamble doesn’t apply to this article. Normally we would begin by saying that social scientists haven’t taken wealth and the very rich seriously enough in recent years. We would add the caveat that this is often very hard to do precisely because the wealthy are a kind of non-traditional hard-to-reach population. While these propositions remain valid in certain ways it is clear that the global financial crisis, the role of new media and a marginally more politicised social science have made more transparent the traditionally opaque position of social, political and wealth elites.

However, it is only in recent years that there has been renewed interest in elites and, only really since Piketty’s work – his recent book on Capital in the Twenty-First Century and the World Top Incomes Database – that the increasing condensation of wealth for the very few has raised new questions about the legitimacy and influence of such money-power within society more broadly. While interest in social elites arguably waned in the 1970s it re-emerged with a focus upon the (urban) middle classes, questions of gentrification, social power and taste from the early 1990s. While it perhaps pays us little to add to the fractious nature of sociological enquiry to point out the neglect of wealth and power by sociologists, it is possible to restate how important it is for us to try and frame, describe and critique the kinds of gross inequality that has emerged.  This is occurring at a time of unprecedented attacks on the public sphere, welfare and even middle class incomes while private wealth and corporate life, and the systemic risks the latter has presented, are protected from discussions about how best to re-fund the state project.

These questions form the basis of our study of the neighbourhoods in which the very wealthy live in London and how the nature, character and social life of spaces has shifted alongside Piketty’s observations (and those of Harvey, 2005) that trace a long emergence of corporate and elite wealth over the past thirty to forty years as part of a neo-liberal project. To rehearse Piketty’s arguments again, the post-war consensus, new-found welfare protections and more defensible levels of inequality, now appear to have been an aberration alongside earlier and present epochs, where returns on capital are far greater than returns on income. One question we might ask in this context is how we might measure the presence and influence of such wealth in the core cities that form capital’s international heartlands and operational hubs?

London is an instructive, perhaps the pre-eminent, exemplar given its highest concentration per capita of billionaires and super-wealthy households. For the past eighteen months, we have been engaged in a study of the key areas of London in which the very wealthy live. Reversing traditional approaches to ‘community studies’ and area effects, we have tried to gather as much data as possible about the geography, daily lives and functions of these neighbourhoods in much the same way as we have previously done on areas of urban disadvantage in the past. The difference however is critical – these are areas blessed by massive injections of money capital in bricks and mortar, of intense cosmopolitanisms and barely touched by the lives and faces of those entangled with the costs of austerity, exclusion and competition for scant housing resources in the capital.

Such gilded ghettos have barely been challenged by political authority or concerted attempts at devising programmes that might aim to increase house-building, provide for low and middle-income households and, perhaps, show London as a city that truly values all of its citizens. Indeed it doesn’t seem to look terribly good that, alongside sales of some of the world’s most expensive real estate, we have seen the forced displacement of council tenants, high profile demolitions of public housing estates, preferential sales of key land resources to foreign developers and funds, the de facto removal of households through the bedroom tax and historic lows in public housing construction. In all of this, the political class claims it has little agency despite wishing to challenge such problems. Depending on one’s own politics this is either a city that truly works for capital and the market as it should, or a nightmare vision of a fracturing urban system straining under the weight of such ‘success’, a kind of evil paradise – as the urbanist Mike Davies (2011) suggest.

There is little doubt that a wide range of complex factors raise intense challenges for any form of public planning and resource allocation that might address foreign capital flows. The only game in town for the major political parties appears to be the scapegoating of migrant workers (unless they are very rich), further swingeing rounds of austerity cutbacks to public services and support for wealth, while viewing criticism as envy or an attack on liberties (the movement of capital and the wealthy) and good fortune (the profound wealth of a new cadre of corporate captains globally). As many commentators now observe, there is something different about this era, the constitution of the wealthy and their ability to capture the unconscious policy formations and designs of a compliant political class who fear global competition for this apparently footloose class. Our work already suggests, however, that this is not true – people choose London because it is not rivalled by other national capitals or locations for a wide range of economically rational, cultural and social factors.

If social scientists truly are now interested in examining the rise of inequality and wealth, and offering a critical voice and enlightening role within social conversations, it is critical that further research efforts are devoted to this increasingly evident money-power (a plutocracy) in urban life. This is something which has tended to be largely absent in sociological and other framings of contemporary urban life.  Such power can be observed in the physical and symbolic reconstitution of London in its myriad new high rise buildings, its bunker-like show homes for transnational corporate elites, its transport of choice, and the incredible array of commercial functions that service the needs of the very wealthy. Thus money has restructured the city physically in ways that are indexical of the raw money-power at play underneath the streets and in invisible capital flows connecting the city to economies of land, service and resource extraction globally: One Hyde Park and the Shard are but the most well-known examples.

The second articulation of wealth-power can be witnessed in the adjunct role of the central state which has protected corporate and personal wealth while attacking the already precarious position of working people more generally and the shared public services they rely on. Emerging research on the re-sorting, segregation and exit of lower paid and poorer households in the city give testament to the impacts of these policy programmes that appear not only to prop-up private wealth but also seem to be the expression of ideological and revanchist sentiment toward an unworthy urban poor.

The final expression of money-power by the super-rich elite comes in the form of changes in patrician life whereby the kinds of monied elites now so evident in London (and almost nowhere else in the UK according to our data) have entered a social space in which reciprocity, social responsibility and engagement with local civic and cultural life have been eschewed. This is perhaps partly in favour of the apparent security of anonymity and exit from the public domain. This sets this new wealth apart from aristocratic and more socially engaged cultural elites who previously appeared active in many of the key institutions in the city’s public life. The continued pursuit of social research into the relative invisibility of such groups and the mechanisms by which they are systemically advantaged is essential in order that informed public conversations can be held and the possibility of tempering the excesses that Piketty and others have so valuably provided might be advanced.

Davis, M., & Monk, D. B. (Eds.). (2011). Evil paradises: dreamworlds of neoliberalism. The New Press.
Harvey, D. (2005). A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford University Press.
Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the Twenty-first Century. Harvard University Press.


Rowland Atkinson is Chair in Inclusive Societies at the University of Sheffield. Roger Burrows is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London.