The Moral Economy of Housing

Belknap-Spring-2018-Moral-Economy (1)

We must be insistently aware of how space can be made to hide consequences from us, how relations of power and discipline are inscribed into the apparently innocent spatiality of social life…(Soja, 1989, p. 6)

We are first and always historical-social-spatial beings actively participating individually and collectively in the construction/production—the ‘becoming’—of histories, geographies, and societies. (Soja, 1996, p. 73)

The fortification of housing insecurity, if left unchallenged, will constitute a normalized social basis, in which an ever-growing number of impoverished households are routinely ostracized. Analyzing the dynamics of this social condition demands robust explorations of the concrete reality in which housing, in general, is developed, reproduced and institutionalized over time and space.

At its most fundamental level, housing is more than a market segment or policy, it is a social relation that serves as the kernel of human survival, which can have profound consequences for the actors involved, the actions they take, and the outcomes that follow. As such, housing provides a set of meanings and values, a material form of emotional, cultural, political and economic significance. It is an institution that points to polyvalent higher order social arrangements that involve both patterns of social mobility and symbolic systems that infuse human activity with a powerful essence. Housing insecurity, therefore, is not a just a means of financial dispossession, but an ontological crisis concerning personal identity and the relationship to the rest of society.

Thus, the inherent task is to conceive of a situational dynamic that structures a housing system that enables residents to profoundly overcome socioeconomic inequity. The mission is to construct a moral economy, so to speak, that is generated along the lines of a systematic effort to maintain a high quality of life, whereby value, norms and obligations are metabolized through particular fields constituted by dynamic combinations of meanings and practices that embody a generalized sphere of community, a realm of possibility to enhance the development of one’s potential.

Overall, the intention is to allow for a normative discussion about what possibilities exist for assessing housing as a spatial activity that altogether adheres to socially determined aesthetic and moral expectations, that is, to approach housing as a language of dignity, as opposed to a vocation of spatio-temporal fixes. Hence, the responsibility of providing the means of socially equitable forms of shelter is not an insurmountable challenge; it can be administered in the name of social stability.

What is requisite is a recognition of moving beyond close instrumentalism and incrementalism with respect to short-term benefits of goal-specific tasks. This presupposes a negation of distancing from outward signs of housing insecurity, which inherently is a society-wide phenomenon, since institutional benign neglect only contributes to the slippery slope vulnerable people continually risk, toward the untouchable-caste status of homo sacer.

Soja, Edward W. (1989), Postmodern Geographers. New York: Verso
Soja, Edward W. (1996), Thirdspace. Oxford: Blackwell.

David Fields is a political economist from Utah. His work primarily centers on international political economy, with particular concerns on the role of finance in economic development. He also delves into the political economy of community planning, in order to promote socially equitable housing cross-nationally. This post was first published on the URPE blog. E-mail him at:



Finance Damages Democracy – and Brexit Will Make it Worse!


The ‘do or die’ Brexit deadline this Halloween has come and gone without bringing much certainty about the policy and political landscape going forward. UK voters who hoped for a clear-cut end of the Brexit saga were disappointed as big questions remain unanswered while new ones have been added: What will the December election bring? Will there be a second referendum? A different deal? A further extension? 

There seems, however, one definite outcome of the Brexit process: UK democratic institutions have been hollowed out permanently. Individual politicians have certainly contributed to this outcome. However, it would be too easy to blame the disintegration of democracy in rich countries entirely and exclusively on Johnson, Trump, and the like. Rather more systematic and structural trends are at play, which raise the old question of whether capitalism and democracy are compatible or rather contradictory systems. The claim that capitalism will usher in democracy, since free markets rely on an open societal order, or at least fundamentally weaken authoritarian regimes, has been proven untenable. This is particularly clear as the Chinese Communist Party tightens its grip over social media, using information technology to survey ever-growing parts of Chinese people’s lives.   

It is striking though that among rich countries the crassest examples of democratic disintegration are unravelling in the two Anglo-Saxon economies which have been hailed as economic success stories during the 1990s and early 2000s: the UK and US. Much of their growth spurts over this period was fuelled by the increasing size and influence of their finance industries and so is the current hollowing-out of their democratic institutions. In brief, we are currently experiencing the effects that financialisation has on democracy. Of course, capitalism and democracy are generally difficult to reconcile as convincingly argued by Polanyi. The fact that a democratic order calls for equality of all citizens before the law and provides all of us with the same vote, while our economic order simultaneously introduces a strict hierarchy based on ownership is possibly the clearest illustration of the conflict between democracy and economic order. But it is further stoked under financialisation. This blog post unpacks how financialization affects democracy in a variety of ways, through three examples, namely social provisioning, the Euro crisis, and the Brexit saga.Read More »

Advocates of the SDGs have a monetarism problem

UN Secretariat Headquarters, New York. UN Photo.

More expansionary fiscal and monetary policies are needed to meet the Sustainable Development Goals

This month, the international community will gather at the United Nations in New York to review progress on the implementation of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that are intended to reduce poverty, hunger and economic inequality and promote development, particularly in developing countries. But only one of the SDGs, #17, says anything about how to finance all the efforts. While SDG 17 calls for more international cooperation and foreign aid, it only suggests that developing countries strengthen domestic resource mobilization (DRM) by improving their tax collection and curtailing illicit financial flows, etc.

While important, this approach neglects much bigger problems with the prevailing set of macroeconomic policies that hamper the ability of developing countries to increase public investment, employment and scale-up the long-term investments in the underlying health and education infrastructure needed to achieve the SDGs. The policy framework used in many developing countries is characterized by an overly restrictive low-inflation target achieved by using high interest rates and backed up by strict inflation targeting regimes at independent central banks.Read More »

Smithian or mercantilist nations? Two opposite models of development

1024px-The_Battle_of_Cape_Passaro.jpgWhile classical political economy has been considered outdated by many social scientists, I argue here that it can provide insights about the world today and the challenges we face.[1] One of these insights has to do with the early disagreement that existed between Adam Smith and the mercantilists of his era with regards to the wealth of nations, a topic sometimes captured under the label “development”. Based on this disagreement, this blog post develops a typology of Smithian and Mercantilist nations as different models of capitalist development that may be considered alternatives for developing countries today.Read More »

Misunderstanding the average impact of microcredit?

Photo: Peter Haden. Microfinance center leaders tally the week’s loan payments in India.

By Milford Bateman and Maren Duvendack

A recent article on the “average impact of microcredit” by Dr. Rachel Meager (LSE) has received much praise over the past few weeks. Meager deploys Bayesian hierarchical modelling to provide a new take on the argument in favour of a reformed system of microcredit. Her work builds on the data provided by six randomized control trials (RCTs) conducted by Abhijit Banerjee and colleagues (see Banerjee, Karlan and Zinman, 2015). Meager makes an attempt to exculpate the microcredit model from the awkward fact that its impact on the poor has been very much less than originally envisaged. She also claims to show that the critics have overstated the negative impact of microcredit. Microcredit should therefore continue to be a policy intervention, she goes on to say, but there need to be changes in the operating methodology for a more meaningful development impact to be possible in the future.

While seemingly a well-meaning attempt to explore the impact of microcredit, we were struck by the way that her overall argument appears to seriously misunderstand, and it definitely misrepresents, the existing research on microcredit as a development instrument. Read More »

Mind the Gap: Addressing the Class Dimension in Higher Education

7038952701_bb67cdb2d7_oThe debate in Higher Education (HE) in the UK is slowly starting to recognise that inequality in education is both the cause and consequence of societal elitism. As a result, there is an increasing debate about widening access to academia, and more and more newspaper articles are devoting attention to the few who made it through the Oxbridge close-circle system. 

On the 17th of May 2019 the Reteaching Economics and IIPPE Teaching Political Economy working group organised a workshop on economic pluralism, teaching and research. I was chairing the panel on “Challenges and Opportunities for the Economics Curriculum Around Decolonisation, Gender and Diversity” which included brilliant contributions from Dr Meera Sabaratnam (SOAS), Dr Lucia Pradella (King’s College), Dr Ingrid Kvangraven (University of York) and Ali Al-Jamri (Rethinking Economics, Diversity Campaign Manager). They addressed various political, historical and cultural  issues around neocolonialism, imperialism, racism, sexism and gender segregation in HE at large and in the economic discipline in particular. Considering the potential great complementarity of the topics, I thought it was relevant to bring in the class dimension in the discussion. I noticed that while the marginalization of women and people of color is rightly getting increasing attention, the class dimension is sometimes forgotten. Indeed, although class remains a crucial lens to untangle injustice and exclusion in the HE industry, it isn’t dealt with with as much urgency. Maybe also because it’s a bit less visible. Indeed, last week I was discussing this issue with another ‘academic migrant’ from Southern Europe, and he suggested: “Panels should ask “what do your parents do/did for a living?” during job interviews.

To prepare my presentation, I approached a couple of ‘data intelligence’ offices in UK universities asking for facts about the class dimension of access to higher education in the UK. I was pointed to the Office for Students, which is a new resource that enables us educators, but also students, to look at various key bits of data on the university sector as a whole, and on individual universities. A very useful resource indeed! 

So here is what I found, and the results are pretty discouraging. Read More »

Harvesting data: Who benefits from platformization of agricultural finance in Kenya?


By Gianluca Iazzolino and Laura Mann.

Getting access to credit is a critical challenge for small-holder farmers all over Sub-Saharan Africa . A new breed of financial-technology firms (fintech) promises to address this issue, claiming that digital technologies can lower the barriers for borrowers and cut transaction costs for lenders. As part of our ongoing project on digitisation and data in US and Kenyan agriculture, we have been examining these claims, studying how tech companies translate them into business initiatives and exploring the implications for knowledge production, economic growth and value redistribution.

In rural Kenya, fintech innovations are premised on greater efficiency and transparency and inspired by narratives of digital disintermediation. Similarly to what argued for migrant remittances by Vincent Guermond in a previous post of this blog series , digital lenders harness data (extracted through digital infrastructures) and algorithms to make farmers more legible and, therefore, more predictable. In order to expand their pool of data, Kenyan fintechs are increasingly embedding themselves into inter-connected digital infrastructures, or platforms. These platforms provide farmers with end-to-end solutions, and thereby bundle together financial services with the provision of agricultural inputs and information extension services. In so doing, lenders recalibrate and harmonize their risk-assessment procedures, and construct an ideal type of farmer whose financial behaviours and importance in the local value chain can be clearly pinned down.Read More »

Does one size fit all when it comes to financial inclusion? Scrutinising the effects of class, race, gender, and age

524195139_1c8a3ec97c_b.jpgIn recent decades, market-based solutions such as financial inclusion have become more popular in developed countries to reduce inequalities and boost wealth and incomes of the poor. There is no better example of this than the recent thrust of low-income families, women, ethnic minorities, and the young into the subprime mortgage lending expansion in the USA since the early 2000s. Higher access to formal loans for these households was argued to enable them to climb the magical ladder of homeownership and achieve their American Dream. But as we know, the picture didn’t turn out to be quite so rosy.

10 years since the Great Recession, many families are not seeing recovery as the impact of the crisis was substantially harsher for the subprime borrowers (Young 2010; Henry, Reese, and Torres 2013). Financial inclusion in the subprime period turned out to be predatory. In this post, I explore how things went wrong when policy makers failed to account for the institutional conditions in the US economy, which led to dramatically different experiences of financial inclusion across social classes, gender, race, and generations.Read More »