THE PLUTOCRATIC CITY: ELITE FORMATION, POWER AND SPACE IN
A working paper by:
Rowland Atkinson, University of Sheffield (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Simon Parker, University of York (email@example.com)
Roger Burrows, Newcastle University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In this paper we examine elite formation in relation to money power within a
specific urban arena, the city of London. Our primary aim is to consider the impact of
the massive concentration of such power upon the city’s political life, municipal and
shared resources and social equity. We argue that objectives of city success have
come to be identified and aligned with the presence of wealth elites while wider
goals, of access to essential resources for citizens, have withered. A diverse national
and global wealth-elite is drawn to a city with an almost unique cultural
infrastructure, fiscal regime and ushering butler class of politicians who guide wealth
into a milieu. We consider how London is being made for money and the monied – in
physical, political and cultural terms. We conclude that the conceptualisation of
elites as wealth and social power formations operating within urban spatial arenas is
important for capturing the nature of new social divisions and changes.
The Capital after Capital
In this paper we develop an interest in extreme wealth in relation to new and
existing work on both elite formation and urban studies as a spur to thinking through
the impact of global wealth-elites on the dynamics of political and social life in the
city of London. Piketty’s (2014) Capital in the Twenty-First Century raises many
important issues for the critical social sciences (Savage, 2014a). His analysis of a
contemporary re-emergence of the ‘über-wealthy’ has been crucial in shifting
debates away from abstract distributional concerns relating to income and wealth
towards a realisation that a better understanding of the ‘tiny, stratospheric apex that
owns most of the world’ (Hay and Miller 2012: 75)
is a necessary prerequisite for
something approaching an adequate social science (Sayer, 2014). However Piketty’s
analysis has been criticised for lacking much in the way of a critical geography of
capital or elite formation (Jones, 2014; Savage, 2014a; Webber and Burrows, 2015).
In particular we wish to insist that financialization and globalization, while important
in terms of explaining London’s particular attraction to global wealth-elites, need to
be combined with analyses of political and socio-cultural factors in order to
distinguish London’s reconfiguration as the pre-eminent plutocratic city of recent
There a number of different ways of measuring the number of ‘über-wealthy’
individuals across the globe, but perhaps the most popular are the annual World
Wealth Reports produced by Capgemini and RBC Wealth Management for the
financial services sector. The most recent of these (2015) calculates that there were
some 14.6 million of what they term High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs) – each with
$1m or more of investable assets – distributed around the globe (although in a far
from random pattern) in 2014. By way of comparison the same source estimates
that the global population of HNWIs in 2008, at the time of the global financial crisis,
was just 8.6 million. This global population is heavily urbanised and concentrated in
the command centres of the global economy (Hay, 2013) and in those cities
facilitating investments into real estate and financial products as well as significant
flows of illicit capital (Platt, 2015). It should come as no surprise then that, of this
group, some 550,000 reside in the UK, with the great bulk of them – about 0.5m -
living in London and its environs (Savage et al., 2015).
The annual ‘rich-lists’
produced by The Sunday Times are also helpful in identifying the individuals and
families who possess huge amounts of wealth. The most recent of these (Sunday
Times Magazine, 2015) reveals that, as of 2014, there were 80 individuals with
wealth of more than £1 billion resident in London, far and away the city with the
greatest number in the world (compared to New York with 56, San Francisco with 49,
Moscow with 45 and Hong Kong with 43).
How best to conceptualise this ‘stratospheric apex’ of the ‘1 per cent’ (Dorling, 2014)
is a source of much debate. For some we have entered a ‘second gilded age’
(Freeland, 2012: 1-6) – a new era of, what Piketty terms, ‘patrimonial capitalism’.
This, it is suggested, requires a reinvigoration of the analysis of elites (Aguiar and
Schneider, 2012; Birtchnell and Caletrio, 2013; Savage and Williams, 2008; Aalbers et
al., forthcoming), and the ‘super-rich’ in particular (Beaverstock et al., 2004;
Featherstone, 2014a; 2014b; Hay, 2011), who, in more popular parlance, are
variously labelled as a ‘superclass’ of ‘plutocrats’ imagined as residing in a global
‘Richistan’ (Frank, 2007; Freeland, 2012; Rothkopf, 2008). For us it has been a
reimagining of this concept of a ‘plutocracy’ - the presence and influence of ‘money
as power’ in the political realm – that offers most analytic purchase on our primary
concern here: to better understand the impact of the global ‘über-wealthy’ on the
local geography of London.
Hitherto the notion of a plutocracy has tended to be considered in terms of the
mechanisms by which wealth attempts to purchase a compliant political class
(Green, 2012). In this paper we want to examine how this phenomenon might
manifest itself in the urban sphere. We attempt to adapt the idea to help develop
the concept of, what we term, a ‘plutocratic city’. The core of our argument is a
simple one: if, by the late 1990s London had become a city of the ‘middle-classes’
(Butler with Robson, 2003), now it is a space increasingly made by, and in response
to, the raw power of supremely monied individuals; individuals whose profound
wealth is both courted and supported by a large cadre of cultural, financial and
political intermediaries (Beaverstock et al., 2004; Hay and Muller, 2012).
Such a city
could, of course, be identified and understood quite narrowly via the connections
between the wealthy and political elites but, as we argue here, the changes extend
to a wider set of domains and are felt increasingly deeply. These domains include
changes within key elements of the physical, cultural, economic and social landscape
of the city that has been constructed for a wealth-elite upon whose coat tails a raft
of intermediaries increasingly hang.
In recent years London’s skyline, ambiance and economy have changed in
increasingly evident ways, indexing the emergence of a plutocratic city. A range of
indicators can be invoked to help mark the presence of these changes and the rise of
a conjunction of factors that highlight that the city not only works for global capital
in the abstract, but also for its embodied form – the expanding groups of the super-
wealthy who invest, circulate and contract-out the re-sculpting of the very fabric of
the metropolis in order to smooth the way for their bodies, social lives and
investable assets. While classical Marxist analysis suggested that the money power
of the bourgeoisie bought control of the means of production and of political power
(Harvey, 2010) such power has, hitherto, tended to be overlooked within studies of
elites (Savage and Williams, 2008; Davies and Williams, 2016). Such power, often
mediated through compliant city governance elites (Freeland, 2012), has enabled the
mass construction of bunker residences and super high-rise towers (Atkinson, 2006;
Graham, 2015), seamless and sealed mobility systems (Graham, 2014), and a
burgeoning infrastructure of personal financial facilities and luxury outlets
(Beaverstock and Faulconbridge, 2013; Glucksberg, 2014). These are dramatic shifts
which express a more enhanced and deepened accommodation of wealth than
hitherto; of a city more fully animated by the allure and underlying force of money-
power emanating from those benefitting from historically unparalleled rises in their
The locational choices of the extremely wealthy are one of a series of selections
relating to the maximisation of opportunity and security, for themselves and for
their capital. Yet, as we argue here, a more subtle series of accommodating
strategies are put in place by policy and corporate elites, architects, designers and
personal and financial services operators that operate as a supporting infrastructure
that subconsciously aligned with the needs of capital and those who hold it. The
central argument of this paper is that the raw money-power of new household,
dynastic and individual formations of mega-wealth, thereby shapes the politics, built
environment and social life of cities such as London and colonises the mentalities of
those who benefit from it. We find a correspondence then between these increases
in wealth and the capacity of its bearers to exert agency over the city’s look and feel
while diverting those political agendas required to sustain the social and municipal
elements of the city. We outline the geography and levels of such wealth in the city,
consider some of the mechanisms by which such power is exerted and, finally,
profile the kinds of changes to London that have emerged as it moves more closely
to being something we might label a plutocratic city.
A New Belle Époque?
Epochalist conceptualisations are widespread within sociology (Savage, 2009), and it
may be useful to avoid viewing the rise of this new global wealth-elite as, in some
way or other, emblematic of the emergence of some ‘new’ social formation; there
are, to be sure, both continuities and changes in the production and formation of
these groups. As Savage (2014b) has recently pointed out, within contemporary
debates it is already possible to identify an implicit ‘soft’ epochal language that
draws links between different periods of capitalist development, the analysis of
social class and processes of urban change. So, within such frameworks, if the period
of industrialisation, from the late eighteenth century onwards, marked the
emergence of the manual working classes, then the emergence of ‘Fordist’ forms of
capitalist production, coupled with the expansion of an ever more bureaucratic
state, saw the growth of the salaried middle classes alongside this proletariat. Both
of these periods were accompanied by attempts to make sense, not just of these
distinctive class formations, but also their implications for the urban form (Saunders,
1981). So earlier thinking on cities and modernity gave rise to the classical
sociological thinking of Marx and Weber and, to a lesser extent, that of Durkheim,
Simmel and Tönnies - arguably part of the same conceptual pantheon. These
commentators attempted to understand the growth of the industrial working
classes, accompanying forms of urbanisation and its distinctive urban culture. Euro-
American sociology from the mid-twentieth century onwards, however, tended to
foreground analyses of the professional and managerial classes, with analysts as
diverse as Bourdieu, Goldthorpe, Giddens, Lockwood, Riesman, and Wright-Mills all
identified by Savage as representatives of an emergent form of ‘modern’ sociology
concerned to come to terms with the socio-cultural significance of the middle
classes. Concerns with suburbanization processes, the aestheticization of specific
forms of housing, cultures of home ownership, issues of globalization and belonging,
gentrification and a gamut of other ‘urban’ topics can be viewed here as spatial
concerns concomitant with this analytic focus on middle-class formation and urban
Analyses that almost entirely focus upon the working and middle-classes have been
slow to shift course. Indeed, only until very recently those at the very top of the class
structure have been something of a minority interest amongst both sociologists
(Sayer, 2014) and geographers (Beaverstock et al., 2004; Hay and Muller, 2012).
However, Savage suggests that this is now changing fundamentally (2014a; 2014b).
Yet, even as it does, perhaps we must be careful not to define emerging
conjunctures - neoliberalism and financialisation processes with an emblematic
global wealth-elite influencing restructurings of urban space (Andreotti et al., 2015) -
simply as a new epoch. Rather, what we are seeing in London is the result of policy-
generated, long running and growing wealth inequalities made possible by
deregulation and permissive capital accumulation regimes. At the same time, the
impact of extending global wealth-elites, or what Aalbers et al (forthcoming) refer to
as ‘transnational wealth elites’, for the built environment and the socio-economic
makeup of London, is profound and also likely to be long lasting. What is needed
then is an analysis able to capture these two realities - the longue durée of
established money power and the more recent ‘event’ of global elite-wealth
incursion. Global wealth-elites are certainly contributing to fundamental changes in
the contemporary urban fabric. As we noted at the outset, in the past few years
London’s skyline, ambiance and economy have all changed in profound ways. Whilst
the post-Piketty (2014) research agenda certainly foregrounds the emergence of
new global wealth ‘safe deposit box’ real estate purchases (Aalbers et al.,
forthcoming), at the same time, in the UK context at least, it is also important to
note the persistence of long established land-based wealth holdings by the Crown,
the English aristocracy, Oxbridge colleges, major charities, and national and local
government bodies and agencies; traditional sources of wealth that sits alongside -
and increasingly interacts with - the new global wealth elites and their expanding
super-prime property portfolios.
The freehold of much of London’s super-prime locations continue to be controlled
by ducal estates - Bedford, Cadogan and Grosvenor - that still resonate with the
names of the best appointed squares, streets and crescents in Bloomsbury, Belgravia
and Mayfair. The Duke of Westminster has only recently been displaced as the
wealthiest owner of UK landholdings by Asian investors who have had to make do
with super-prime redevelopment opportunities such as Battersea Power Station
(owned by Malaysian investors) and One Nine Elms (by Chinese). Foreign sovereign
wealth funds have also taken an increasing stake in London’s prime real estate,
especially those based in the Arab Gulf. Qatar owns 95 per cent of The Shard, and a
large share of Canary Wharf, and freeholds on Chelsea Barracks, the Olympic Village,
the American Embassy and much of Sloane Street, Camden Market, as well as the
jewel in the cognitive geography of the newly-arrived wealthy - Harrods. But despite
the encroachment of such foreign ‘buy to leave’ investment, the Forestry
Commission, the Corporation of London, the Ministry of Defence, and the National
Trust still remain London’s top landowners. Trinity College, Cambridge owns the O2
Arena while Peterhouse includes the prestigious Piccadilly luxury apartment
complex, The Albany, in its investment portfolio.
Therefore, as Yates and Murray
(2013) point out, it is all of London’s landowners – and the relationships between
them – that shapes and reshapes the city. For the moment it is entirely
understandable that we should focus on the impact of the massive incursion of
capital from overseas on the restructuring of the city, but it is the manner in which
this capital interacts with, and is mediated by, established and traditional forms of
wealth and socio-political power that is generative of the ways in which London as a
city has changed and will likely change in the next decade and more.
While the resilience of ancient money-power remains important and relevant to
London’s history, there is no doubt that the raw money-power of new household,
dynastic and individual formations of mega-wealth is impacting profoundly on the
politics, built environment and social life of London today. There is undoubtedly also
a close correspondence between increases in wealth and the capacity of its holders
to exert agency over city life and cultures (Shaxson and Christensen 2013). This
synergy between wealth and politics goes well beyond traditional growth-machine
or regime type explanations more familiar to urban economies in the US precisely
because national government, the City of London, the Mayor of London and wealthy
inner London boroughs perform much more as a Chamber Orchestra in terms of
harmonising the conditions for an optimal accumulation regime. As Raco argues in
his forensic analysis of the privatisation of urban development in contemporary
Under regulatory capitalism, hybrid relationships emerge between states
and powerful corporations, to the point that the distinctions between
providers and policymakers become increasingly blurred. The implications
for decision-making, policy effectiveness and accountability are potentially
enormous as private interests become involved in co-producing all aspects
of urban projects (Raco, 2012: 453).
The concentration of money-power has, alongside longer running neoliberal modes
of governance at national and borough levels, impacted heavily on those in most
need of state funding and resource, more so at a time of fiscal austerity. In this
context we can see how city success, so often judged by measures of GDP and
economic growth, fail to capture the grounded reality and failure to satisfy much
human need in urban centres (Engelen et al., 2014). Layered onto this sense of social
disconnection and invisibility run the machinations of a political sorting machine that
gives rising emphasis to the privileging of wealth and its legitimation while paring
back the resources allocated to the least well-off, especially through the capping of
public housing subsidies and state benefits (Dorling, 2014; O’Hara, 2014).
The idea that city ‘success’ can be measured in terms of equal access to essential
resources has withered as a guiding ideal within political life. UK central government
appears to see its function increasingly as that of an auctioneer presiding over the
discounted sale of state assets, including swathes of the capital’s public land to
foreign investors (Meek, 2014). These preoccupations are less about the direct
power of plutocrats to bend rules or invade political life in a direct sense. Rather, we
would argue, they derive from a ‘butler class’ orientation (York, 2015) of central and
local government that deferentially seeks to guide and service the locational
infrastructural needs of global wealth elites with their premium on new build,
private access, security and prestige super-prime addresses.
These concerns extend earlier commentaries on the roots of the world financial crisis
that were located in the ‘cognitive capture’ (Freeland, 2012) of political life by the
perceived needs and lobbying of financial elites and institutions.
In this sense
perhaps there has been a gentrification of urban statecraft strategies which have
moved from focusing on the needs of footloose, creative and affluent groups
(Florida, 2008) to the housing, cultural and security needs of global plutocrats who
were deemed to have ‘saved’ London and its housing market during the early phases
of the financial crisis (Shaxson, 2013). This latent bias towards the wealthy emerges
in planning dictats (Webber and Burrows, 2015), welfare changes and housing plans
as the city acts to effectively divest itself of what is seen as redundant human capital,
now marked by the significant displacement of welfare recipients (Fenton et al.,
2013) and, symbolically, through the demolition of public housing estates in favour
of ‘mixed-use’ sites (Watt, 2013).
Despite the wealth and pedigree of many members of the current British
government the real wealth and power of global capital is felt as a loss of control
over the locational choices of the wealthy and the sense of their necessity to a vital
urban economy. The real anxiety here is often expressed as a concern that rival
plutocratic cities, such as those of the Gulf States, Switzerland, New York, Hong Kong
and Singapore (York, 2015) might win-out. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has
been a notable cheerleader for the super-rich in this regard; writing in his Daily
Telegraph column, Johnson claimed that:
‘the top 0.1 per cent – about 29,000 people – pay an amazing 14.1 per cent
of all taxes’ …[so]…stop any bashing or moaning or preaching or bitching
and simply give thanks for the prodigious sums of money that they are
contributing to the tax revenues of this country, and that enable us to look
after our sick and our elderly and to build roads, railways and schools.
Indeed, it is possible…that they might contribute even more if we cut their
rates of tax; but it is time we recognised the heroic contribution they
already make. In fact, we should stop publishing rich lists in favour of an
annual list of the top 100 Tax Heroes, with automatic knighthoods for the
These conditions and coalitions form a tight nexus of interests that guides the
psycho-political frames and tropes by which the potential triumph of the core
industry sector, high finance, may be further secured in its global pre-eminence
(Engelen et al., 2011). Here the interests of finance and the super-rich are viewed as
being identical to those of good economic growth and economic prudence.
Beyond the ‘Dual City’?
The very considerable gap between the highest and lowest income groups in London
masks a much more complex underlying reality. The ‘dual city’ - once identified by
Mollenkopf and Castells (1991) - is increasingly giving way, in global cities such as
London, to what we might describe as a ‘scalene’ city, characterised by an unequal
triadic formation comprising: (a) plutocrats (several thousand ultra-high net worth
individuals (UHNWIs) and perhaps a hundred billionaires) supported by a local urban
establishment, gentry and financial elite (several tens of thousands); (b) a majority of
more or less precarious white collar and manual service class workers on ‘sub-
mortgagable’ incomes; and (c) a retired, unemployed and underemployed
population in private rented or social housing living on bare subsistence incomes
numbering several million.
Attempts to produce an inventory of urban money power, even in relatively ‘open’
economies such as the United Kingdom’s, are fraught with difficulties relating to the
peculiarities of English property law because only land that has been bought and
sold needs to be registered, whereas land that has been passed from generation to
generation does not appear on the Land Registry (some 30 per cent of all land in
England and Wales). However, in Central London, as much as 85 per cent of ‘prime’
properties (valued at £5m or more) were acquired by overseas buyers in 2012-13
according to estate agents LPP, while nearly all sales of properties worth over £10
million went to foreign buyers.
Those investors who wish to avoid UK tax liabilities
and external scrutiny often favour overseas-based shell companies that shield the
identity of owners (Platt, 2015). Indeed UHNWIs will often go to extraordinary
lengths to ensure that details of their global property and business assets are kept as
secret as possible, with teams of lawyers, accountants and private banks
permanently engaged to ensure the maximum degree of security and confidentiality
(Shaxson, 2012; Webber and Burrows, 2015). As a recent report by the Financial
London is often seen as a safe haven by wealthy investors when they want
to move money out of their home markets. Property in the capital is a
popular choice as a store of value because its ownership structures are
relatively opaque, making it harder for assets’ ultimate ownership to be
traced. Property owners who hold their homes through a company
structure need only to register the name of the company with the Land
Registry, not the name of the beneficial owner. Short of the outbreak of
world peace, it is hard to see how this trend will change.
It is really only when these plutocratic assemblages seize the optimum moment to
spatially fix their assets in a new development or planning permission that we see
the extent of the governance leverage behind UHNWI and corporate power. Major
portfolio landowners, several of them private equity companies, operate as both
investment vehicles for global wealth elites and facilitators of UNWHI housing
markets by skewing development opportunities away from affordable rent and
public use functions (such as schools, parks, and playgrounds) towards luxury, high-
end residential or commercial developments.
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which contains some of the most
exclusive and expensive addresses in the world, had a waiting list of 2,677 social
housing applicants in March 2014. Yet the local authority planned to build no new
social housing of its own, while agreeing to contribute a very modest £2.9 million in
funding to a Peabody Trust led housing project, which will provide 112 new homes
(although the number of social housing units is not specified).
In 2013 the local
authority granted permission for 450 ‘mega basement’ excavations (compared to
just 46 in 2001). Although the council has sought to limit the depth of basement
extension to one storey and no more than 50 per cent of the existing garden area, it
has been ‘aggressively opposed’ by basement developers ‘every step of the way’
according to the cabinet member for planning policy.
This brief example indicates
the structural bias of juridical and political governance regimes in favour of the
accumulation strategies of very wealthy homeowners, while the homeless and those
in housing need are disenfranchised from the right to the city through the
unavailability of social housing provision, and unaffordable private sector rents
leading to what even Mayor Boris Johnson has referred to as ‘Kosovo-style social
cleansing’ of those households for whom no properties are available within the
central government imposed housing benefit threshold.
Who are the Rich?
There has been something comfortable and relatively precise about the
identification of a social group based around threshold measures of income, wealth
and other forms of asset. Measures of wealth such as the notion of a HNWI used by
the financial services industry, while possessing some degree of precision cannot
easily be translated into positions within traditional schemas of social class or even
self-aware status groups. The difficulty with such consumption-based elite models is
that they fail to make a distinction between the outward manifestation of global
power (money or asset wealth) and the command power of an emerging stateless
money-power elite that continues to exercise political power either directly or
through proxies (principal-agents) that enjoy privileged and continuous access to key
decision-makers at every scale of government.
The chair of the investment committee at Vestra Wealth explained that UK taxes on
foreign residents were still fairly light relative to other jurisdictions. According to
Jenny Tozer, ‘During the financial crisis France, Italy and Spain ramped up taxes on
foreigners who own property, which has only increased the appeal of the UK’.
Under Chancellor George Osborne, reductions in corporation tax, and the higher rate
of income tax as well as the UK’s ‘opt out’ of the new EU financial transactions tax
have cemented London’s reputation as a highly wealth friendly environment which
has attracted a substantial expatriate community (York, 2015). Similarly the changes
to inheritance tax now further favour wealthy estates and can be seen as added
evidence of a revanchist politics that targets unworthy state recipients of support,
while offering assistance and favours to the already wealthy. However since only 18
per cent of HNWIs believe that local taxation conditions and the local political
situation would negatively affect their ability to generate wealth in the next five
years, and 70 per cent of European HNWIs believed that their wealth would
increase, it seems unlikely that London’s resident super-rich are significantly anxious
about an imminent democratisation of their asset wealth (Knight Frank, 2014).
We can identify a number of defining characteristics of the new urban form, culture
and politics that has emerged under the control and indirect influence of the very
wealthy. These underline the importance of understanding money-power as a major
form of latent planning and influence over the decision-making and resource
allocations that occur in the cities in which such power is clustered. In short there is
a non-random geography of the super-rich in cities like London in which the key
ingredients of open and centralised financial service sectors, transparent and low
tariff tax regimes, a fixed supply of positional property assets and the presence of a
globally positioned cultural circuit drive the locational searches of the first and
second home purchases of the über-wealthy.
A particular feature of contemporary wealth formations is its stratospheric position
(wealth as a means of almost literally floating above the wider social mass and
physical fabric of the city) that has displaced the codes and, in some cases, physical
position of a more patrician, aristocratic and monied elite which offered a more
reciprocal, engaged and connected form of patronage (Webber and Burrows, 2015).
The kind of business elite exit from civic life identified by Lasch (1995) began to mark
a new kind of relationship between an increasingly wealthy fraction of a nouveau
riche class who had been fattened under neoliberalism and the accrual of gigantic
rewards for work in finance, banking, insurance and real estate. Whether or not a
class as such, this group began to harvest windfall gains within a series of global
theatres of increasingly interconnected urban command centres and national
economies in which privatisations, newly commodified markets (such as Russia and
Mexico) and political elites, captured by the logic of neoliberalism, thrived. But the
increasing potential for a kind of sub or latent political power, manifest for example
through newspaper ownership, political party backing or lobbying for crucial
deregulations and lowering tariffs, began to work back upon mainstream political life
to create the impression that it was the interests of this group that needed to be
courted in order for wider national economic success to be granted.
Thus national political parties in Britain, from the mid-1980s onwards, tended to
espouse the need for deregulation, privatisation, and reducing the tax burdens of
the wealthy, often justified because of claims that this would not only benefit the
wealthy - whether they actually believed so or not - but would begin to lift all boats
in a rising economic tide. Yet as Piketty (2014) and Harvey (2010) have argued, this is
not what happened; rather, modest gains by the middle classes were utterly
outstripped by a rapidly expanding and increasingly wealthy group under these
The kind of city that emerges under these conditions is, as we have argued
elsewhere (Atkinson et al, 2016), a kind of ‘minimum city’ in which the bargain struck
with private wealth has been the hierarchical ordering of a city in which private
capital becomes the pre-eminent organising principle of urban life while low-income
and middle-class households find themselves unsupported or dislocated. The loss of
public housing, demolition of housing estates, subsidy arrangements for ‘affordable’
housing to high income earners and welfare retrenchment are characteristic not only
of an emergency austerity mode following the financial crash, but a deeper response
by the political elite to maintain the needs of the wealthy - chaperoning the wealthy
in order to insure the wider city against losses or leaks by capital and wealthy groups
to other cities globally vying for their attention. For the middle-classes the emerging
story is of a kind of victimisation from increasingly financialised forms of gentrified
gentrification. This has produced a re-scaling of class changes in local
neighbourhoods so that rather than the middle-classes displacing the working-
classes it is often now the super-rich who are set against the local, long established,
patrician elites in areas like Chelsea, Kensington, Highgate and so on, furious at their
displacement and the symbolic loss of the city to money and foreigners (Webber and
Burrows, 2015). The result has been a mix of emotions in which confusion,
alienation, post-colonial sentiment and more direct forms of economic displacement
have re-shaped the places that were the core territories of London’s more
territorially located establishment.
From the Neoliberal to the Grounded City?
What characterises the neoliberal city, as Williams and colleagues (Englen et al.,
2014) point out, is a change from locally accountable and elected urban governance
to ‘new organisational setups, ideally public-private partnerships, and a strategised
approach to city promotion’ (see also Jessop, 2002). Whereas:
‘[o]ld municipalities were administrative spaces for providing social
housing, transport, education, rubbish collection, public space and other
directly useful service…[the]…[n]ew municipalities have, over the last two
decades, spent their resources rather differently, on the construction of a
discursive space of urban neo-mercantilism’.
This concept of ‘new mercantilism’ is useful in considering the nature of these
changes (Robinson, 1973). The central argument suggests that ‘the global economy
is made of a set of national economies and of private actors having unequal
economic, financial and political power’ (Uzunidis and Laperche, 2011). For
Robinson, the fiction at the heart of laissez-faire political economy was Adam Smith’s
claim that free trade enriches all through a growing division of labour and an
international system of unrestricted self-regulating markets. In this context
international trade, as in all economic relations generates asymmetries of outcome:
Since the total market does not grow fast enough to make room for all,
each government feels it a worthy and commendable aim to increase its
own share in world activity for the benefit of its own people. This is the
new mercantilism (Robinson, 1973: 10).
In the 1960s, at the height of the Keynesian Welfare State, Robinson’s insistence that
financial and political power gave private elites an unfair advantage in the global
division of wealth was not widely shared. The collapse of the Bretton Woods system
in 1973 appeared to herald the death of the ill-fated attempt to operate an
international gold standard pegged to the US dollar and the advent of a fixed-
floating exchange rate mechanism. The ensuing deregulation of foreign exchange
controls, balance sheet deposit ratios, low to non-existent capital transfer and
corporate tax rates, and the scrapping of controls on the foreign ownership of UK
corporate assets in the 1980s, especially the City of London ‘big bang’ deregulations
of the mid 1980s, firmly established London as the premier ‘Treasure Island’ of the
international financial system. As Hettne argued:
The contemporary context of the mercantilist logic is no longer the nation-
state…but the international political economy, in which ‘the political’ refers
to a transnational framework of economic transactions; in brief, a world
order (emphasis in original).
This logic comes to roost in the daily life and governance of London in which pro-
wealth governmentalities operate to ensure the frictionless capacity of disembodied
wealth even as it recognises that these permissions benefit its own compliant elite
while forcing the subsistence and dislocation of a large bulk of the wider urban
population. As Robinson observed:
The free-traders used to mock at the old mercantilists for thinking that a
country could grow rich by amassing treasure. The new mercantilists
believe that it is not necessarily foolish to prefer to acquire sterile money
(our emphasis) rather than useful goods or profitable assets (Robinson
The essence of this is that money and riches are signs of triumph in their own right,
and that the bearers of such wealth are signs of this victory of the city over others. In
an era where the return to capital is greater than economic growth and wages
(Piketty’s ‘r > g’) it makes sense for city managers and the political establishment to
acquire ‘sterile money’ (super-prime real estate and other investment and the use of
financial services) as the mainstay of a contemporary mercantilist economic growth
strategy. Where these highly valued goods exist in finite supply (be it gold, silver, fine
art or real estate), those who control it also control the means of wealth generation.
Increasingly high value economic transactions and the legal and political
environment in which they take place are dominated by a very small group of
UHNWIs whose need for privacy and discretion in the management and scrutiny of
their financial assets, high level personal family and property protection, tolerant
foreign domicile regimes, high quality/high status private education, and the
avoidance of tax liabilities determines the territorial location of their investments.
All of this suggests that the rise of a plutocratic city (a site in which money drives,
cajoles and lures political choices and the built environment and culture of the city)
comes on the back of longer term investments, ideological apparatuses and
concerted political efforts. These seek to generate the conditions under which the
rules of international capital (money flowing to where the returns are greatest)
privilege the national centres of competing cities in a new global hierarchy. In all of
this it seems especially important to understand how political actors conflate city
fortunes with the physical presence of the very wealthy. To be open to capital flows
is also to be open to the prospect of migration to the city by the wealthy themselves
and to be seen to offer any kind of hostility to the wealthy is seen as running the risk
of deterring such investment. This position has come under increasing pressure as
the traditional political heartlands of right of centre parties have found themselves
trying to balance a desire for unchecked capital investment while increasingly being
forced to acknowledge that even their wealthier constituents are now increasingly
alienated by the kinds of symbolic changes, environmental disruption and rising
costs of living in what they see as ‘their’ territories.
We have sought to chart the changes wrought by the global super-rich in broad
terms, characterising this plutocratic city as more than a set of connections and
networks between wealth and a compliant or ‘bought’ political class (though, no
doubt, many would argue this point too). Politicians at all scales of government have
generally welcomed a highly mobile global elite and defended their presence by
insisting that UHNWIs are few in number and that their use of resources has a very
modest impact on the wider population. Global wealth elites are also cherished for
bringing reputational capital, high levels of spending and the injection of major
investment into real estate and financial vehicles in the city.
At the same time, these changes have generated an urbanism of two speeds and
directions – the super-charged rush of capital and bodies to the luxury districts of
the city, and a slower yet marked exodus of lower paid workers and marginal groups
that are seen as an illegitimate burden on the newly wealthy. These dichotomies
also emerge from the longue durée of capital accumulation and its sedimentation
within the key centres of global urban power, which only temporarily abated as a
result of global conflict and a relatively brief period of welfare Keynesianism during
the twentieth century in the UK and USA. The return to rates of growth for capital
and unearned income closely resemble levels last seen in the early part of the 20
century and, like that period, we appear to have seen similar forms of symbolic,
cultural, political and economic change alongside – the spectacle of competitive and
overt displays of architectural excess, leisure playgrounds and closed circuits of
consumption, discrete mobilities, a move away from public engagement and the
capture of a political class in fear of losing investment to other global centres.
As Raco has argued, ‘despite decades of global “good governance” discourses and a
broader emphasis by states on devolution and community empowerment, the
political realities of regulatory capitalism often involve a systematic erosion in the
power and legitimacy of democratic systems’ (Raco, 2012: 453). This is particularly
evident in the accommodationist strategy that successive UK governments since the
Thatcher era have adopted in relation to foreign owned corporations and non-
domiciled UHNWIs, and the aggressive defence of the City of London’s self-
regulating powers and its medieval system of local representation, which uniquely
retains the ‘non-resident business vote’. As Andreotti and colleagues write:
a new elite, made of urban social groups within upper or upper-middle
classes, is taking advantage of the increasingly relevant mobility tendencies
to challenge existing national elites, push for different modernisation
projects and promote their own ambitions and interests’ (Andreotti et al,
We are seeing then nothing less than an elite unbundling of the post-war Keynesian
compact which, however one sided, linked the material wealth of the national
grande bourgeoisie and the upper reaches of the professional and managerial class
to the labour market and welfare aspirations of the working and middle classes. The
irresistible rise of a global, cosmopolitan and super-wealthy elite and their strong
disposition towards deregulated, capital friendly entrepots such as the United
Kingdom and especially its capital city are the key drivers of the kind of a plutocratic
city that emerges in which money influences politics, media, the cityscape and
economic choices of the elite. Cities like London run the risk of alienating both the
poor and middle-income groups as money is courted to the detriment of broader
programmes of social investment and infrastructure. The future of these
antagonisms and the form of urban politics generated by them will be interesting to
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Notes in the Text
The figures in this regard are now stark. Oxfam (2016: 4) has recently reported that
in 2010 some 388 individuals had accumulated the same amount of wealth as the
bottom 50 per cent of the global population, by 2015 it was 62.
See the recent report in The Guardian on the strong metropolitan preferences of
the very wealthy in the UK:
Whether these individuals constitute a social class is, of course, a moot point
(Savage et al., 2015), and one to which we hope our discussion here will make a
James Fitzgerald, ‘Who owns London?’ The Londonist, 24 August 2014.
See for example http://www.academyofurbanism.org.uk/here-now-3-london-term-
This term, ‘cognitive capture’, emerged from a briefing note by one of the major
banks, but a key outcome of this has not only been to align the city and its facilities
to those of the rich but also to shift the mood, culture and physical fabric of the city
more broadly. Shaxson (2011) and Dorling (2014) talk about similar processes in a
more conspiratorial fashion, suggesting City of London funding of right-wing pro-
wealth think tanks
Although this model will be more complex as generational differences in property
ownership from earlier periods still retains some efficacy. Households of quite
modest means who, either by luck or judgment, purchased a property decades ago
in a neighbourhood that has subsequently come ‘up’ will not fit so easily in to this
Lee Boyce, ‘London for sale! 85% of homes in the capital's centre sold to overseas
buyers as weak pound sees foreign interest soar’, This is Money
Financial Times, London and the World, September 30 2014, http://im.ft-
Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, Freedom of Information Request, 14 April
2014, REF: 2014-409,
‘Kensington and Chelsea's clampdown on 'mega-basements' backed by inspector’,
Planning Resource, 3 December 2014,
‘Boris Johnson opposes David Cameron over housing benefit cut’, The
Independent, 28 October 2010,
Vanessa Houlder, ‘UK tax take on wealthy ‘non-doms’ rises 6%’, Financial Times, 3