It doesn’t look like much. A bit tinny in fact. Rendered cement block pillars with concrete cappings and a gate made out of slender hollow aluminium extrusions with spear points I suppose for the joy of it. All it says is don’t come in. The sign notes that this is the entrance to houses 12-13-14 only, so you can’t get in to the whole place that way, the whole 14 houses, properties more correctly, that are tucked in behind this fence and this gate in the expensive part of Toowoomba.
It doesn’t look like much, but for whatever reason it ruffled my feathers. What was in there that needed this sort of protection? Gold? Jewels? State secrets? Julian Assange? Does the pizza delivery boy have a key I wondered, to save the nuisance of answering the gate call? And what about the drivers of ambulances and fire trucks, cops for that matter if they’re ever needed? Maybe gated communities don’t have emergencies.
But then as fences and gates go this one wasn’t much more than a gesture. The real question for me at the time was just who, in assertively egalitarian Queensland, did the occupants think they were? What flag were they waving at me?
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/ What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense./ Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down. …
The emboldened print in the real estate ads suggest that the idea of a gated community is a big drawcard. According to the 2009 census more than 10 percent of the occupied houses in the US at that time were in gated communities, a 53 percent rise from 2001. In the south and west of the country this figure was as high as 40 percent. Many of these communities are in what Joel Garreau calls ‘Edge Cities’, the new developments on the fringes of older cities, farmland become ‘technoburbs’, where the shopping malls, the office tower blocks, the corporation headquarters are, and where their inhabitants live in new gated communities. Some time ago Garreau pointed out that there were 190 ‘Edge Cities’ larger than Orlando (the City Beautiful, a fairly random benchmark) in the US; but only forty downtowns the size of Orlando.
But what do we discover about how these communities operate? In the wealthiest ones domestic workers are the main source of activity during the day. (A fascination of mine. It’s tradies, cleaners, gardeners and pool boys who wallow in this luxury as a rule.) Studies have confirmed that in general, gated communities in the US constitute dormitory towns for their inhabitants. Most daily activities – work, leisure, study, or purchasing activities – happen elsewhere.
In a bitter critique of this development, Tom Vanderbilt says ‘Edge City is fundamentally hostile to community. … It is aggressively designed to keep others out. … What Edge City boils down to is not only an economic and cultural distancing from people of a different race and class, but a purposeful withdrawal from involvement in and responsibility for the greater politic of the city.’ He cites as an example Atlanta Edge City coalition ‘where 75 chief executive officers of major firms joined together to substitute for and supplement governmental actions affecting quality of life … funding equipment needs for mall policing, providing improved roadway access, support for the public high school, marketing the community through an annual guide book….’ Hardly malicious or illegal; just a narrow definition of the body politic. Liberté, perhaps egalité, but fraternité only with folks like us.
‘What are you doing round here?’ is the last confirmed recorded comment made by George Zimmerman, volunteer neighbourhood watchman for Twin Lakes gated community in Florida, before he shot dead Trayvon Williams, a 17 year-old black teenager who was staying with a friend who lived at Twin Lakes.
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Gated communities can be larger and more autistic.
La Rouvière on the outskirts of Marseille consists of seven giant buildings comprising 2,200 dwellings with a population of about 9,000. It was built originally to house settlers (colons) returning from Algeria in the 60s and 70s and, with its internal shopping, schools and leisure facilities, could be called self-contained. Its gates are closed at night.
As real estate agents say, it has been tightly held. Operating exactly like an engorged body corporate, its management monitors the background of any prospective new buyers. Its boss is quoted as saying, ‘New residents all belong to the same class (white, lower middle class) … Immigrants know they will not be welcome. That is the case and it’s a very good thing.’ There is a consensus among its populace that people who live there are courteous and there are no delinquents. There is certainly no graffiti. About half the votes cast in its polling booths at the last election were for the Marine Le Pen’s Front National, but you can’t leap to judgment. Courtesy, hard-working youth, clean streets … who’s complaining? And I think the La Rouverians would draw a causal connection with their vigilance.
However as the Syrian (and North African) refugee crisis sweeps through Turkey, Greece, Italy and into various parts of Europe where are the fences and gates to be erected? They’re going somewhere, these several million people. They don’t simply evaporate. For those with longer views these are the tidal surges of history. One of the more recent was in 1938 with a different crew involved. A solution was proposed and enacted.
And what is this doing to the grand vision of a comparatively borderless Europe embodied in the European Union? A great deal is the answer. Yanis Varoufakis, the former Minister of Finance in Greece’s Syriza government has written a new book And the weak suffer what they must? It draws a picture of how the governments which produced and insisted on the Sisyphean solutions to Greek’s economic crisis are now being populated by anti-semite and anti-refugee xenophobes. He believes that the far right has achieved a position of being ‘in power if not in office’ in many of these countries. Today’s headline in The Guardian: ‘Austria’s lurch to the right shocks EU’.
Fear of the other (Muslim or infidel, Jew or Palestinian, and so on in very long list) is meat and drink for authoritarian/ nationalistic political movements. These are apparently not times for generosity of spirit. That’s for fools.
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And they can be larger again.
Gating of a residential areas is a very old phenomenon, and may have had always had similar bases — the primary one being to keep unwanted people out.
It was a way, for example, to assist the aristocracy with managing riotous behavior as well as the various plagues which ran through the locals. But on a larger scale the idea was that security would be enhanced by protective walls.
Whether even this one, all 21,000km of it, worked is moot. Around 1600 the wall did its job for 40 years. But in 1644 the Manchus (the northerners of primary concern) overran the Shun and Ming overlords via the gates at the Shanhai Pass. With or without a gate, a wall will inevitably present challenging problems, but a gate will always be a weakness. Despite its triple-decker walls and fortifications which are impressive even today, Constantinople fell in 1453 because someone left a postern gate open.
And there’s this one.
In 1992, the idea of creating a physical barrier between the Israeli and West Bank Palestinian populations was proposed by then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, following the murder of an Israeli teenage girl in Jerusalem. Currently more than 500km of the barrier has been completed. Another 212km is planned. The impact on the occupants of the area, especially the Palestinians, has been profound. One fairly sober account of that impact can be found here.
And Donald Trump wants to build a wall, I beg your pardon, he insists that Mexico build a wall along the border between that country and the US. That border is around 3,200km long. In his defence there is already, at the behest of the US Senate, some sort of fencing for 1,125 km of that distance at a cost of USD2.4 billion.
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‘The gated community is nothing but the legitimate and natural response of a people who through hard work and enterprise have come to the point in their life when they can give themselves and their children a quality of life the state is unable to offer.’
— Indian businessman/ property developer Rohit Gore, responding to a journalist’s question in Mumbai.
‘So pervasive has neoliberalism become that we seldom even recognise it as an ideology. We appear to accept the proposition that this utopian, millenarian faith describes a neutral force; a kind of biological law, like Darwin’s theory of evolution. But the philosophy arose as a conscious attempt to reshape human life and shift the locus of power.
‘Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.
‘Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counter-productive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.
‘We internalise and reproduce its creeds. The rich persuade themselves that they acquired their wealth through merit, ignoring the advantages – such as education, inheritance and class – that may have helped to secure it. The poor begin to blame themselves for their failures, even when they can do little to change their circumstances.
‘Never mind structural unemployment: if you don’t have a job it’s because you are unenterprising. Never mind the impossible costs of housing: if your credit card is maxed out, you’re feckless and improvident. Never mind that your children no longer have a school playing field: if they get fat, it’s your fault. In a world governed by competition, those who fall behind become defined and self-defined as losers.’
— George Monbiot, The Zombie Doctrine (read it all, and you should, right here)
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The gated community at Toowoomba that sparked these reflections is innocent and trivial in this world of comparisons. But what reinforced the strength of these feelings was something else I wrote about in the blog on the Darling Downs: the massive shift towards the privatisation of Australian schools. The really serious issue driven by the neoliberals of our current government — in whatever party — is the reallocation of public resources to the private sector: to ensure that there is a second suite of tennis courts, or a new arts and music centre, a new auditorium, a training pool, a campus in China leaving the residualised public schools — still educating two-thirds of the population — with minimal support for kids with special needs or for providing additional literacy support.
Because it is right here, absolutely on this point rather than anywhere else, that the cost to the community of exclusion (partial, symbolic, financial, themed, whatever) becomes most apparent and the issue most palpable.
First, you can run neoliberal arguments about entitlement related to adults if you must. But children (aged 5 for example!), ipso facto, are not in a position to control their development and thereby their destinies. They need help, support and direction — all of them, not just a select group.
Second, no country can afford to deliberately choose to have an ill-educated and disaffected sector within their community. The cost of that is appalling; and it is a cost to the whole community, everyone, in liveability if not in taxation. That vast cost is also only about remediation to some sort of maintenance level; it is not investment in growth and development. We don’t get that much out of the AUD2.6billion we spend annually on keeping people in prison, a very high proportion of whom are illiterate or close to. AND, suggestive of the presence of this problem right now, the reason Australia’s international test scores are as bad as they are is because of the extraordinary spread of performance. The bottom end has a long tail. It’s that mob outside the gates talking back.
And then there is the question of walling out or being walled in?
When I went to university I lived in a boarding college which had a preponderance of graduates from private schools, some of my closest friends today in fact. But I also had friends among the private school boyos, many of whom are now highly placed in the professions and commerce. Unless they were good at sport, high school boys puzzled them in so far as they thought about them at all. High school boys were never likely to understand the exigencies of life because they hadn’t been inducted into a lifestyle where the one certainty, beyond the existence of hierarchies in which everyone had a place, was that they belonged to a group that was different, better and therefore entitled. In so far as they thought about high schools girls, they were probably sluts, and that was that. Resolved. Simple.
There’s a lot missing from that picture and not just as I have sketched it. My point: the personal cost of having such a distorted and cavalier view of the world from this sort of ‘gated’ and socially-ordered perspective is profound. Walled in, you miss so much.
At Kłodzko in southern Poland I remember looking in wonder at the fort which dominated the town with its layers and layers of fortifications, accretions from 1300 until the second world war, and being forcefully struck by the resultant sense of enclosure and imprisonment — walled in. And like the invisible darkness full of the unknown around the corner in a horror film, a source of terror.