Atkinson takes us on a fascinating tour around London and illustrates how the city is carved up into different strata of the superrich according to the significance and development history of each domain. In the West End one can find the patrician heartlands which have historically been and are still a haven for old money (which includes the 1066 land grabbers, and the aristocrats fat from a millennium of assets yet have never worked a day in their life). To the north, which includes bits of Camden and Islington boroughs, settled newer old money, mostly those who became rich off the back of slavery, colonial activities, war and the industrial revolution. In and around the more recently developed riverbank, Hyde Park and Mayfair, Chelsea, Kensington, and farther afield bear the hallmarks of new money (bankers and hedge fund managers, gamblers, launderers, criminal networks). In the liminal spaces across the city there are substantial zones where new and old meet.
The rich exurbs consisting of stockbroker belts and rural gated communities in Surrey), such as St George’s Hill are popular among Russian oligarchs. Only last week St George’s Hill was in the spotlight following Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine which led to protests and calls to expel the secretive owners of billionaire mansions harbouring Russian dirty money. St George’s Hill was ironically where the socialist agrarian Diggers first broke ground in 1649 but that history is long lost. Atkinson highlights its 20th century history as the home of celebrities including rockstars, F1 champions and supermodels (John Lennon lived there in the early 1960s, as well as Ringo Starr, and also Elton John, Tom Jones, Jenson Button, Kate Moss and countless more). Until recently it was considered one of the most desirable gated communities in Europe.
While once the celebrities and buzzy rich community would wander around the gated community in relative freedom and enjoy a sense of elite community spirit, this way of elite public life has largely been replaced by secretive oligarchs seeking privacy and invisibility. Most of the activity is limited to the staffers of the oligarchs running errands and chores for their largely absent employers, who may be in London only one or two days per year.
The pattern of superrich zones inhabiting formerly active communities which have been hollowed out and replaced with largely deserted and heavily surveilled dead zones is a recurring theme of the book. This is just one way in which the super rich instilling a sterile, resentful and distrustful atmosphere into a city once known for its vibrancy and dynamism.
Parasites and their hosts
Alpha City elegantly captures the parasitic nature of the super-rich and how their essences sucks all of the nutrients out of cities. Atkinson explains how London is a particularly unique case owing to a combination of factors including history, location, topography, leading to particular patterns of socio-political and economic development. London is certainly unique in Europe and globally there are perhaps with only a handful of cities on a similar level (New York, perhaps Shanghai, Moscow). The heavy financialisation has created a city which is fully geared towards serving the needs of the super rich, at the expense of everyone else.
The financialisation of the city was certainly accelerated after the 2008 crisis and the end of the post-war consensus, but the wheels had already been set in motion prior to that. Finance has been the fundamental element of the city’s development programme since the Thatcherite period throughout the 1980s and expanded under Blair’s New Labour from 1997 until the 2008 financial crisis. The biggest different today is that the neoliberals have lost all legitimacy and no longer need to pretend they believe in social benefit for the many.
The rhetoric around trickle-down wealth creation, already a thinly veiled lie, ceased to bear any weight after the 2008 crisis and the redistribution of global financial capital after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will see and end to the neoliberal order and will usher in a very dangerous era. The main output of the neoliberal project has been incredible, intense levels of inequality which are now extraordinarily visible in London, the Alpha City of mind-boggling contrasts.
Everyone loses, nobody wins
Alpha City captures very well the anxious, fearful lives the super-rich lead. They are obsessed with control over every single aspect of living their lives and require squadrons of staff to ensure no detail, no matter how small, is overlooked. Their aim seems to be to ensure their surroundings are constant at all times and no matter where they are. Same temperature in their air-conditioned rooms. Same décor, same food, same types of people on hand to serve their every need. The much-acclaimed HBO TV series Succession encapsulates very well the paranoia, anxiety, fear, and downright unhappiness that characterise the lives led by the superrich.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in London most people are struggling. The displacement of the poor through various means of gentrification: sometimes forcibly, other times stealthily, and too often tragically (such as the appalling aftermath of the Grenfell disaster whereby many of the surviving families are, almost 5 years later, still displaced) breaks and re-moulds less affluent areas and destroys communities to fuel the rampant property market and speculation on land.
The undercurrent running through London is that of violence: the violence of a dysfunctional economy led by property developers, the stress and struggle of the majority of inhabitants, and the hatred and fear of the superrich towards everyone else creates an aggregated effect of unhappiness across the spectrum.
Having just finished reading Alpha City a few days after Russia invaded Ukraine and while the west are, justly, piling an increasing number of sanctions on Russia feels eerie in its timeliness. What we learn in Alpha City is that London, and the British Government, have played no small part in the Russian oligarchy. For almost all of Putin’s reign the City of London has been actively propping up a Russian mafioso state, ushered in by the policies of successive governments (Blair, Cameron/Clegg, Cameron, now Johnson). Theresa May to a lesser extent, instead she made a brief pivot towards Indian capital.
Oligarchs, not only Russian but from around the world, and their dirty money are embedded within the UK economy and disentangling from that is going to take a clear vision and a ton of political will. To date I have seen no evidence of either of these things. Johnson’s sabre-rattling so far has proved to be largely tokenistic, particularly when shining a torch on the measures he has taken so far in comparison with other western governments. But: this deserves an entry in its own rite.
Alpha City neatly highlights the burgeoning class of “enablers”: those who themselves are wealthy but not superrich (millionaires rather than billionaires) and whose livelihoods largely depend on the superrich and therefore they have an interest in ensuring the superrich continue to feel welcome in London. Unfortunately, this class includes our lawmakers, political class, and property development sector.
The political class are culpable for allowing money laundering and criminal networks to thrive. Not only have they turned a blind eye to it, but they have positively encouraged it with their policies and exclusive property marketing campaigns targeting the money of oligarchs directly. The super-rich with their appalling social attitudes have been encouraged to settle in London as a safe haven, a welcoming and secure place to expand their networks and clean up their money.
This has come with a high price for those who are not part of the elite class nor their enablers. The skyline in London, a historically horizontal city, has been scarred by developments built for the wealthy, with appalling abuse of Section 106 (e.g. Nine Elms, for which I will provide a separate entry at some point). The psychosocial impacts of the super rich on the city have been dreadful: who cares about a fantastic skyline when you can’t afford bread or a roof over your head?
Alpha City offers a bleak view for the future, made even bleaker by a pandemic and yet another violent war (let us not forget Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria) subsequent to the publication of the book. Atkinson suggests capping profits on housing developments, and the conclusion points to the fact that social housing must be a component, rather than a feature to eradicate, of a functioning city.
However, with no political will to implement either of these things and cross-party appetite to continue to appease the super wealthy, the prognosis for the Alpha City in the post-pandemic, European war 2022 does not look good at all.