The story of the housebuilding company Persimmon has a beautiful, Christmassy spirit. Its chair, Nicholas Wrigley, has quit over his role in awarding its chief executive, Jeff Fairburn, an obscene bonus of £110m. I was about to put quote marks round obscene, since that’s the judgment of assorted charities and politicians, but really it needs no attribution – it is objectively obscene.
Before you’ve even read any statistics on housing; before you’ve heard the story about the family of four in one bedroom of a bed and breakfast infested with cockroaches; before you’ve considered that Persimmon’s success can be traced in part to benefits reaped from the government’s help-to-buy scheme, which itself has done nothing for the millions who need the help: one look at that amount of money, showered upon one man for his contribution to an industry in which so much inequality crystallises, and various words irresistibly suggest themselves, of which the least obscene is “obscene”.
Wrigley isn’t the hero of this Christmas story: he’s a key character in the arc of the protagonist, who is Jeff Fairburn. Apparently, when Wrigley originally green-lit the bonus, he tried to persuade Fairburn to give some of it to charity, whereupon Fairburn laughed so hard that he blemished his diamond tooth implants. The full story of that bit will come out in the final episode.
Right now, Wrigley is the last vestige of conscience in the system, the moss of flawed humanity power-hosed out by the high-pressure greed at the story’s core. The fact that Wrigley probably resigned with countless millions of his own pounds, and no personal damage that a bit of light reputation management can’t sort out, we’ll leave for a much more boring, autumnal novelist. At Christmas you have to imagine Dickens in charge of every tale, tending every fireside. At some point over the coming week, Fairburn will have start to have his funny stilton dreams. He probably doesn’t meet those most impoverished by his business decisions.
Modern management means outsourcing your lowest-paid jobs so that everything is G4S’s fault; modern housing development means cleansing the poorest out of even social housing, so that everything is the council’s fault. If Jeff Fairburn has a poor family pricking his conscience, it will be one he read about on Twitter or saw on ITV News. Either way, he’ll have some dream over the next few days, wake up and give away all his money. Then he’ll spend the rest of his days fighting the injustices and indignities that proceed when we dehumanise the concept of land, and ask only about its value and nothing about its use.
Because housing is the bete noire of free-market fundamentalists. When you keep your focus on poverty, you can always dredge up some personal fault with which to tarnish the victim: the Sun found a woman last week who had spent £2,000 on Christmas presents for her kids, despite being on disability benefits. Never mind that her incredible discipline, quotidian thrift and rigid financial management ought rightly to make her chair of some major business – such as Persimmon, for instance. Who was she to spend taxpayers’ money on her children?
If she could spare it for a luxury, she shouldn’t have had it in the first place. I didn’t properly understand the problem with dividing the poor into deserving and undeserving until contemporary politics started to do it. The category of “deserving” gets smaller and smaller, until the only people left in it are the ones with a single pair of shoes who eat nothing but toast because all their vegetables go in the children (oh, but they’re not allowed to be fat).
Shift your gaze to housing, and the assumption of individual fault starts to shatter: can it possibly be right that a person on the minimum wage has to sleep in his car, or that a qualified nurse can’t afford a rental deposit? Don’t we have to conclude that wages are too low, or rents are too high, or possibly both? Simultaneously, the extraordinary wealth of housebuilders and developers re-enters the picture. High net-worth individuals usually occupy a completely different story, one of comical extravagance and carefully demarcated isolation: they live in their own world.
Only a student playwright would try to tether them back to the single mother trying to keep her type-1 diabetic baby healthy in temporary accommodation. Yet trace these destinies back to the land; ask how it came to be distributed from public to private ownership and over what period; who won and who lost, and in what degree; where the people who would once have been housed by the state can now afford to live; and what social value companies such as Persimmon are forsaking to spend £500m on bonus packages for their senior staff. All the human stories in their quest for shelter start to hang together, a constellation as old as time, or at least as old as money.
It is amusing to note the new place of “Marxist” in the compendium of political scary words. Because many of Marx’s economic theories have been vividly borne out. Use value and exchange value – the difference between what a commodity is worth to the person using it, and what it’s worth to the person exchanging it – has particular relevance, described elegantly by the academic David Harvey – to the housing market. Put quickly, where supply is finite and speculation almost infinite, the exchange value will peel away from the use value to the extent that nobody who needs to use it will be able to afford it. There’s no point blaming feckless baby boomers. Even Jeff Fairburn is a symptom and not a cause. Our situation was created by an inexorable and dynamic contradiction of capitalism, and only radical creativity will solve it.
• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist