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COVID Life and the Asset Economy

Published onJul 23, 2020
COVID Life and the Asset Economy

Following the 2007/08 financial crisis the creation of a less unequal and fairer world appeared to be a major prospect. As is by now all too familiar, after the financial crisis, instead of becoming more progressive, societies turned out to be more unequal, with inequalities and asset-based class divisions becoming more embedded and entrenched, and runaway wealth becoming the signature of the post-crisis world.1

The world is now suffering an entirely different kind of emergency, the COVID-19 pandemic. In numerous countries, death rates are soaring, non-essential businesses and workplaces have been shut down, governments have put in place ‘stay-at-home’, ‘shelter-in-place’ and social distancing mandates, millions have lost their jobs or have had their jobs furloughed, and hundreds of thousands of people, mostly those in white-collar professional occupations, are working from home.

There have been plenty of rapid-fire commentaries on the crisis, especially on how wide-ranging inequalities are actively shaping the furrows of COVID life. This has included commentary expressly contesting problematic claims―made by the UK’s Minister for the Cabinet Office among others―that the COVID-19 virus is a great leveller that does not discriminate between rich and poor.2 Commentators―social scientists among them―have been quick to point out that rather than being equally exposed to the virus, workers who have been classified by governments as doing essential and key jobs, and are compelled to keep working―health care, public transport, residential care, food retail, cleaning and delivery workers―are disproportionately exposed to risk, especially when compared to many members of the white collar professional classes in non-essential jobs enjoying the luxury of salaried working from home.

Paradoxically, and medics aside, many COVID frontline essential workers are amongst the lowest paid in Anglo-capitalist societies. Before the pandemic, these workers’ jobs operated as a means of survival: to pay rent, to buy food and to keep afloat. Now, these pay-cheque to pay-cheque survival jobs are also sites of danger, exposing workers to a potentially deadly virus with little to no protection provided. It is also no small irony that after years of wage stagnation and austerity, essential COVID workers―who are disproportionately women and disproportionately Black, Asian and minority ethnic―are now being cast as heroes, as sacrificing themselves for the good of society and celebrated by the very governments that have played significant parts in authoring and authorizing their impoverished and precarious working conditions.

With poor and already vulnerable frontline workers exposed, and as we become horrifyingly accustomed to hearing daily of the deaths of frontline essential workers―nurses, doctors, teachers, and bus drivers among them―distinct pandemic cartographies are emerging with the poorest boroughs and districts of major Western cities recording the highest infection and death rates.3

In this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that social scientists have highlighted that the responses of governments to the pandemic have yielded a particular politics of life, one that has demarcated lives that have value and those that are disposable.4 Moreover, the responses by governments have put the very lives that have been deemed disposable in the service of protecting those whose lives are deemed valuable. In short, essential workers are enabling the valued to live and are themselves only attributed with any kind of recognition in as much as they sacrifice themselves and labour towards this end. The COVID crisis has, in other words, seen the labour and lives of essential workers both instrumentalized and sacrificed.

This state of affairs plays itself out in what have rapidly become familiar day-to-day rhythms: as non-essential white-collar professionals work safely from home, all the while receiving their pay-cheques, essential workers deliver food and other necessities to their door, collect their garbage, ensure their Wi-Fi keeps running and, if they fall sick, care for them. And as essential workers continue to risk their health and their lives, many of those working from home have chosen myopia. Instead of recognizing their privileged position they spend time on social media reporting on their own suffering: the time being taken out of their days by home schooling, their unfair domestic divisions of labour, the exhaustion of working online, the unwelcome incursion of the workplace into the home, their anxieties about not being able to spend time with their friends, their yearning for vacations, and their new found fears about the potential loss of their own jobs, their homes and their middle-class existence.

It is important to recognize that the use of state authority to instrumentalize and sacrifice lives and to demarcate between valuable and disposable lives is by no means confined to our current COVID moment.5 But it is equally important to recognize that interpreting this moment exclusively in terms of the operations of this kind of authority is to fail to do justice to the economic conditions in which the COVID-19 pandemic is operating in Anglo-capitalist societies, namely the dynamics of the asset economy. This is an economy dominated by the logic of assets and especially by the logics of asset appreciation and depreciation.

In our forthcoming book The Asset Economy we outline how, characterized by increasing inequalities of wealth, the asset economy has been built on decades of a double dynamic of wage stagnation and asset inflation and especially property price inflation. This double dynamic has fundamentally reworked the social structure such that class positions and life chances in Anglo-capitalist societies have come to be defined less by occupational positions and more by relationships to assets, especially to housing as a wealth generating asset. This means that even if people have the same jobs or earn the same wages, there are deep rifts of inequality between those who own assets, and especially residential property, and those who do not.

Fuelled by political programmes aimed at the democratization of asset ownership and capital gains, as well as by the liberalization of credit markets, the double dynamic of asset appreciation and wage stagnation initially saw house values soar and expanding rates of owner occupation. One outcome was not only increased rates of credit-driven homeownership but also the transformation of the home into an asset that appreciated at a much faster rate than wages and inflation, indeed that generated capital gains that compensated for stagnant real wages. And as credit-driven homeownership grew there was an initial democratization of the ‘wealth effect’ of asset ownership such that property owning households saw major gains in their household wealth portfolios.

But the very logic of credit-driven home purchases pushed prices up to heights where it became increasingly difficult to enter the market. In the US as well as in other Anglo capitalist countries―especially the UK, Canada and Australia―homeownership rates show a particular pattern from 1980 to 2020: an upward followed by a downward trend. Property inflation over time has eroded the possibility of buying a home on the basis of a wage alone. In many large cities, it is now virtually impossible to enter the property market just on the basis of an average wage. As a consequence, private rental markets have expanded, rental prices have risen dramatically, and new modes of occupancy have emerged, including multigenerational living. What is more, renters are not simply locked out of home ownership but also out of the wealth effects that home ownership opens out, including the prospects of asset-based capital gains.

A chasm has therefore opened out between those with and without housing assets, one that not only marks a differentiation in the possibilities of wealth accumulation but also life chances. The children of those owning housing assets are, for instance, being distinctively advantaged through asset-fuelled intergenerational wealth transfers that are enabling them to have access to home ownership and with it, participation in the dynamics of property-based asset inflation and capital gains. In the context of sustained asset appreciation, such transfers themselves have a distinctive speculative dimension. Rather than a passive transfer of wealth, they concern a series of strategic decisions regarding how best to position children in the asset economy. Leveraged to serve as the basis of asset ownership, such transfers therefore operate less as a one-off lump-sum with a value that is fixed in time and more as an opening into the wealth effects of asset ownership.

Meanwhile, those surviving on wages alone without the prospect of parallel asset-based transfers have little hope of making the leap into home ownership. This, however, is not to say that those living on wages alone don’t participate in the asset economy or that their lives are any less asset-based. Their rental payments constitute income streams for landlords to service mortgages on multiple investment properties, their increasing rents are precisely the outcome of asset price inflation, and their inadequate wages the consequence of a sustained and embedded political strategy to deflate wages and inflate asset prices.

It is against this backdrop that the contours of COVID life must be located and understood. Essential workers, for example, may well be being instrumentalized to work in the service of other and wealthier sections of populations, but at the same time they are most likely not to be living entirely commodified and instrumentalized lives. Like their non-essential worker counterparts, they are also participants in the asset economy. Even if it has failed to yield returns, essential workers are likely, for example, to have invested in their human capital by borrowing funds for their education or training that they are now paying down, to be paying rents that keep on escalating, or using their wages to pay down a mortgage in the hope of future capital gains. Indeed, the state of emergency declared by many governments has not wiped away the political economy of asset-based lives or asset-based lifetimes. Instead, people are living the pandemic in the time of the asset economy.

This is perhaps most clearly expressed in how relationships to assets, and especially to residential property, are central in shaping how COVID lives can and are being lived. This is not least because the lockdown, social distancing, ‘stay-at-home’ and ‘shelter-in-place’ mandates of governments precisely assume access to private, residential property. And here, home ownership (whether owned outright or mortgaged) is critical, because it marks a divide between those who are able to lockdown, stay-at-home and stay safe and those who cannot. Even with the laying off and furloughing of millions of workers, moves by some Anglo-capitalist governments (notably the UK, Australia and Canada) to implement wage subsidies are ensuring that for many, mortgages can still be paid and hence that owner-occupiers can remain safe in their homes. And even for mortgaged home owners who have lost jobs and have no access to wage subsidies, mortgage payment holidays and payment pauses being enacted by mortgage companies and major banks are ensuring that asset holders remain asset holders and that mortgaged households stay both safe and afloat.

At the other end of the scale are the non-asset holding classes, especially renters. While some states such as Australia have put in place eviction moratoriums, at the time of writing, no parallel across the board protections or guarantees have been put in place for residential rental payments, despite rental relief being offered to cover commercial properties. Even where local measures have been implemented to allow for rent holidays, tenants will need to pay back rental arrears and hence will likely accrue personal debt as a consequence of the pandemic. Indeed, while residential property owners may well see the value of their properties continue to increase after the pandemic,6 and have the option of drawing down equity to keep themselves afloat, the only option for many renters will be to take on non-leverageable forms of personal debt.

Many non-asset holders, therefore, find themselves adrift and unprotected with their ability to stay safe and afloat undercut by their non-asset holding status. At the same time, special COVID measures are seeing landlords benefit from new rafts of supports, including new tax concessions and reductions.7 COVID life has then thrown the inequities of the asset economy into stark relief and made explicit how the asset economy has itself yielded its own politics of life. And it goes almost without saying that those at the very top (the super-rich) who hold diverse asset portfolios, including numerous residential properties, have been able to retreat from the world in places far away from COVID hotspots, often in holiday homes, to wait the crisis out.

While the rich sit, watch and wait, a two societies model is being invoked to draw attention to the inequities in the ways the pandemic is being lived. It has been observed for the case of New York, for example, that ‘one society was able to run away to the Hamptons or work from home and have food delivered to their door; the other society was deemed “essential workers” and made to go out to work with no protection’ (Pilkington and Rao, 2020). However tempting it might be to draw such models, especially to focus attention on how the impact of the crisis is falling hardest on the poorest, including on those who simply can’t afford to socially isolate and those who are falling through the gaps in government job and income protection programmes, they cannot do justice to the ways in which, across the board, relationships to assets are shaping and structuring the inequities and contours of present day COVID lives.

Thus, while the very wealthy live off income flows from assets and stay luxuriously safe, and non-asset holders (renters and the homeless) are unprotected and cast adrift even if they are receiving a wage or forms of income support, an increasingly anxious home owning or mortgaged home owning middle class sit in relative safety. COVID lives, are in other words, being actively refracted through the logics of the asset economy.

This analysis of COVID life, especially of how institutions are doubling down on their support of asset owners, asset ownership and asset-based capital gains in the context of economic shut-down, will doubtless disappoint those who see in this moment an opening or portal to something new.8 The wage subsidies and guaranteed income support offered by the UK, Canada and Australia have, for example, fuelled hopes for a more enduring revival of Keynesianism or even a more radical programme of progressive economic policy that would include ‘bailouts for the people’, universal basic income, the nationalization of key industries and the building of a new social contract.

Of course, crises do typically widen the horizon of political possibility, but we should not forget how quickly a hoped-for return to Keynesianism was converted into a virulent austerity politics in the aftermath of the 2007-08 financial crisis. But the stakes are even higher this time: if the post-COVID era sees another wave of asset inflation driven by the upscaled quantitative easing and associated policies we are now witnessing from the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and the European Central Bank, and if homeownership remains the only realistic way for ordinary people to buy into that logic to some extent, we will see a further deepening of the asset-based inequalities highlighted here.

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