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266. Development (VIII)



To return to experience: I intellectually abandoned my teenage Marxism by the time I was twenty-one, but I only felt it experientially when I took a temp job during my postgraduate degree. The job was at a satellite estate built outside the city after the war, the usual slum clearance program formed from concrete blocks, each named after British war heroes from the Victorian age. The final dishonour.


I worked at the central administration block for the estate, a largely abandoned concrete rectangle that was in collapse. “You’re going to sort the files,” said the manager, “so you’ll find a few the rats have gnawed.” I found bureaucratic confetti in large empty rooms, and sometimes the lights would go out when the rats forced their way through the cables. The estate’s administrators were the dross who end up employed by the state: one day I turned up to work and found they had locked themselves out. The office was fitted with thick steel shutters, so it was a firm seal. “It’s to keep the tenants out,” said one administrator, “if the fuckers come round asking about repairs we keep the shutters closed and pretend nobody is in.”


It was true that the tenants were pretty obnoxious, but far from all were so; and the general indifference from those administrators who hid behind the shutters extended to the old women who rang up to have their overflowing toilets fixed. They were met with sneers; the phone was held away from the administrator’s ear as he laughed and rotated his finger about his head to indicate she was mad. A simple repair would take weeks—if not months—to arrange. I realised that though the free market can generate hustlers, people motivated by profit are effectively kinder than those who are paid by the state to be “kind”—as Mandeville observed, private vices lead to public virtues.


When the state owns everything, everyone becomes a spy upon each other; and so tenants would call the administrators to try and settle vendettas indirectly—to get a rival family evicted. This had its own problems, for the administrators were responsible for “pedo management”; we shifted newly released sex offenders about the estate—their files marked bright pink. The estate rumour network hummed when a new “nonce” arrived. “Where’d you put the fucker? Cherry Tree Park? I’ll burn the fucker out.”


The people who were burned out were the homeless. A homeless man was granted a prized four-bedroom house on the estate; since Thatcher the council house supply has dwindled—a whole house is a privilege. Within a week he had drunk himself into a stupor and burned it down; he was back on the streets. And this is why I laugh when leftists propose that a small percentage of Bezos’s fortune could “solve homelessness”—people ain’t homeless due to scarce material resources, they are homeless because they lead terminally disorganised lives. The only hope for the homeless is non-stop supervision in a quasi-paramilitary environment—a frightfully illiberal proposal.


Yet I preferred the tenants—rough as they were—to the cruel administrators, Labour voters all; they knew where their bread was buttered. The manager drove me about the estate in his BMW, when he saw a single mother with a pram he said: “Should I run the fucker over? One less. Ha. Ha.” Then he tilted the wheel at her slightly. He liked his Walter Bagehot; and so he made an unlikely social Darwinist, for I am not sure he would have thrived in the free market. The estate was a pretence; many tenants were hopelessly in arrears, but they would never be evicted—and anyway their rent was paid by the state. We pretend to work, they pretend to pay us; it was a place to warehouse people and let them rot—it was socialism. In other words, totalitarian, inefficient, ugly, and cruel—yet all based on the sweet lie that it was all to help the weak and vulnerable.

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