Thursday, April 12, 2007


Martin Kelly joins us once more with a lengthy piece on hypermobility and the new feudalism. It reaises questions over the issues of expats and the loss of community. If you get a chance, check out his quite different blog which now, sadly is only an archive but what an archive.

Having been very graciously invited to join an expat's blog, one must be careful in one's choice of words on this subject - but one cannot help but wonder whether the current fetish for hypermobility is one of the most regressive social developments in history.

"Although it should be
working on its corporate ethics, BAE Systems is working on an "Onboard Threat Detection System." The system consists of tiny cameras and microphones implanted in airline seats. The Onboard Threat Detection System records every facial expression and every whisper of every passenger, allowing watchful eyes and ears to detect terrorists before they can strike. BAE says its system is so sophisticated that it can differentiate between nervous flyers and real terrorists.
Think about this for a moment. Aside from the Big Brother aspect, the Onboard Threat Detection System is either redundant or the security authorities have no confidence in the expensive and intrusive airport security through which passengers are herded."
One would have thought that the easiest way of reducing terrorism on aircraft would be to reduce the number of flights; but perhaps sticking to our routines of going on holiday to countries like Egypt and Turkey, places where jihadists can actually kill you and where our very presence is considered by some to be an act of aggression, is a manifestation of a kind of 'Dunkirk spirit' which is otherwise notably, and shockingly, absent in a nation allegedly at war.

It's not so much 'Keep the home fires burning' as 'Keep the engines turning' that's now what counts. The natural conclusion to be drawn from this is that it is government policy to prefer that citizens be exposed to the risk of mid-air terrorism rather than to ground planes. Although I used to love the excitement of flying - the anticipation of travelling, of the act of doing something out of the routine - since 9/11 I have not been an enthusiastic flyer; I'm not afraid of saying I now prefer to use other means of transport where at all possible.

By the same token, the hypermobility madness flies in the face of what we are told to believe are immutable truths concerning the state of the environment; and is also irreconcilable with what we are told the technologies available to us can actually do.

For example if any government wishes to cut carbon emissions from aircraft then there is a very starightforward tool available to them with which they can do so; tax business travel out of existence. When business travellers are all already likely to have Blackberrys and mobile internet and the benefit of extremely competitive mobile phone rates, why do they actually need to travel out their front doors at all?

When such technologies are able to increase personal interconnectivity across the globe to a degree that would have seemed impossible even 25 years ago, what is so special about their particular travel requirements that they can't just do what they have to do by picking up the phone?

Or sending an e-mail? As a wise man once said, 'There are no easy answers, only simple answers', for sure; but that seems to be a particularly simple answer which might go some way towards solving a problem which we are told is particularly pressing.

What's the problem?

But the same fetish for hypermobility, in fact it's encouragement as policy, acts as a negative force in terms of travel within nations as without.

Anecdotal, personal evidence is never the best - but my family's history of home ownership helps illustrate the point.

My maternal grandfather (1894-1950) was a prosperous businessman, probably a millionaire in today's terms; but he never owned a house. My paternal grandfather (1907-1984), in his pomp only a very slightly less successful businessman, only ever owned one, which he bought at the age of 46. My parents (both war babies) have owned two properties over the course of their married life, and have been in their current home for over four decades.

My brother, a relatively late entrant to the housing market on account of his having spent the first few years of his working life as part of the Scots diaspora in London, is on his second property, having bought his first home aged 27. I am also in my second property, having first bought aged 26 - I anticipate moving at least once more. My sister is now in her fourth property, having first bought aged 19.

Whether or not this new mobility is a consequence of more liberal borrowing arrangements or the availability of a wider range of mortgage tools or greater social expectations or perhaps even of changes to the labour market, I don't know; but if the experience of me and my kin is not unusual, what it does seem to illustrate is that the property ladder, and property dealing and trading, plays a far bigger role in our economic lives than it used to - and that while we're all buying and selling properties like billy-o, we're not pursuing other, perhaps equally productive , activities.

To extrapolate this greater mobility to what I for one consider to be its logical conclusion, the effect of all this accumulated movement might be quite pernicious in that it has the potential to completely break the bonds we hold in common. Man has always been a hunter-gatherer, with the difference between now and the Ice Ages being that we hunt in the office from Monday to Friday and gather in Tesco at the weekend; but this mobility might just have the capacity to turn us back from living in settled communities towards the nomadic state - or, worse than nomads, into a state which we eradicated from our culture a very long time ago.


From different perspectives both Tim Worstall and The Pub Philosopher have commented on how London prices might be being driven up by investors, usually City types on phone number bonuses. While that particular cause would not necessarily duplicate across the country, its effect would - the bonus hounds drive up the price of London property; the Cockneys realise they can make a killing, so sell up and move to Anglesey/Aviemore/Cornwall; the prices in A/A/C thus get driven up; and Daffydd, Hamish and Jethro get priced out of the local market.

The more this happens the worse off more people become. People become lifelong tenants, just as my grandfather was, without ever being able to invest in property.

Add to this that we are now more heavily indebted than we have ever been and that our collective prosperity seems to depend as much upon inherently unstable places maintaining their fragile stability and the goodwill of the Chinese Communists, and the picture becomes, to these eyes, bleak.

But lifelong dispossession from the property market is not as low as this scenario might take us. Not by a long chalk.

When sufficiently few people own a sufficient volume of property, it is inevitable that they will organise; and when that happens, the risk of liberty being diminished, and of the resurrection of feudalism, becomes real.

The New Feudal Order need not establish itself by pillage, invasion or droit de seigneur; all it needs are a few tweaks to the letting agreement and a sufficiently high number of people desperate to house themselves and their families.

Our culture of debt has impoverished our children; it remains to be seen whether it will one day make them serfs.

And if that happens, all those who shouted the joys of fluid housing might care to mind Adam Smith's injunction that there is 'much ruin in a nation'; and behold what they have done, and reflect that there is just as much ruin in a market.

[If you haven't already read the Devil's Kitchen's earlier piece, Prion for your Thoughts, you'd best get there straight away. It can't be missed.]


Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Very interesting post, Martin and I find that quite scary about the in-flight security system - because, as you say, it doesn't say much for the operators' confidence in airport security. I, too, used to enjoy flying but it is such a hassle now [necessarily]. Some interesting thoughts about all this movement breaking up our societies; it could happen!

Crushed by Ingsoc said...

We already have a new feudal order.
If you bear in mind that most people's homes are actually owned or part owned by banks, less people OWN the roof over their head than did in 1900.
Most of us will die pretty much owning nothing but owing nohing. We just paid our way.
While a few, a happy few owned our labour- mental or physical- 40-60 hours a week, 50 weeks year for forty+ years.

Tom Paine said...

Anyone who thinks telephone call and emails are a substitute for - rather than an adjunct to - personal contact has never been in business, that's for sure. You're fired!

Martin said...


I have been in business; in fact I've only ever worked in the private sector. I ran a temp recruitment desk for 30 months; and during that period I would have to say I never met most of the people with whom I placed staff.

Perhaps my experience was exceptional; perhaps it was just a normal practice of the industry I was servicing; but I have to say I think they were happier getting the service they received rhan with me knocking on their door for a cuppa and a chat. They had too much work to do.

I am not suggesting that 'business travel' be outlawed - Heaven forfend, no, Mammon must have his sacrifice - but given that very much more business can now be conducted internationally through electronic media, and given that cutting carbon emissions seems deemed by all and sundry to be a worthy policy goal, then taxing travel for the purposes of business that could be conducted electronically seems rather sensible.

To me, at least.

Tom Paine said...

Recruitment is a special case. I have a friend in that business who hardly ever leaves his home for business purposes, poor soul. That takes a special kind of person, and I am not surprised you stuck it only 30 months!

95% or more of all my contacts with clients (I am a lawyer) are by phone and email, but it's just not conceivable to execute complex deals without spending time together. If those deals are across borders, that involves travel.

Leaving aside the vexed question of climate change "science" (he said gingerly, being in the house of a true believer and in fear of a stake through the heart) it would be the easiest (and if one were a martian the most amusing) thing in the world for climate change theory to have the same impact on C21 economies as socialism did in the C20.

Weak economies are dirty economies. And you have to remember peoples' hierarchies of needs. They can only think about the big important stuff if the immediate survival needs have been addressed.

Somewhere between "shut the world down, it's getting hot" and President Putin's position that "Russia could use some global warming" there is a sensible compromise where we keep our economies producing so that we can fund environmental protection.