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The Divide is a new documentary that offers a stinging critique of the capitalist philosophy sold to the Western world. Focusing on the UK and the US, it tells the story of seven individuals striving for a better life in in a society where the top 0.1 per cent owns as much wealth as the bottom 90 per cent. It examines both economic and social trends, ultimately exposing a division in society that is perpetuated by fear rather than fairness. With insightful commentary from academics, Wall Street bankers and economic advisers – mixed with the thoughts and personal stories of people from all walks of life – it traces the historical process of adopting neoliberal free market economics at the expense of ordinary people.
So what’s that got to do with renters’ rights? Well, on one level, the UK’s current housing system – which encourages anyone with a small amount of capital to buy a home then rent it to a tenant at a rate that could easily leave the tenant without enough money for food or heating – is a huge driver of the inequality that the film discusses.
On another level, we were interested in the film’s focus on how people justify their economic status and their position of advantage. Private landlords repeatedly resist attempts to regulate the sector, even arguing against having to meet basic safety standards. This is what makes a film like this relevant to renters’ rights. Psychologist Paul Piff argues that we have seen the pursuit of self-interest over collective interest, resulting in a ‘moralisation’ of greed, with greed seen as a good mentality. As Wall Street analyst Cathy O’Neil puts it: once you have cleaved off ethical considerations, you are incredibly efficient.
That’s what’s relevant to the renting debate. London’s 2.5 million private renters frequently find themselves victims of no-fault evictions, uncontrolled rent rises and poor conditions, yet when policy makers suggest anything resembling a fairer system, private landlords argue that it would damage their profits and their assets. We need to be having a discussion about buy to let landlords, what they can reasonably be allowed to charge their tenants, and in return for what kind of treatment.
The Divide’s focus is on income inequality, with attention drawn to the CEO of Walmart who earns 1,000 times the average income of his sales assistants. Director Katherine Round exposes a system in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. As archival footage shows the technology boom leading to a rise in sports car sales, this is accompanied by adverts for short-term loans such as those offered by Wonga. It is a matter of accountability. As the former Vice President of Deutsche Bank puts it, ‘to Wall Street, debt is just a product that they can buy and sell and package. So it’s just another way for them to get as much profit as they want. They treat it as such. They treat it like a game.’
But it is not a game that private renters can win. In an unregulated rental market, private renters have little choice but to pay whatever rent is demanded in order to pay off the mortgages of their landlords. New research from Centre for London shows that housing costs are linked to living standards, and that the proportion of private renters living in poverty increased from 23 per cent in 2001 to 33 per cent in 2011. The majority of these are in work. Research from Trust For London last year found the number of children living in poverty in London’s private rented sector has doubled to a quarter of a million.
The way out of the private renting sector is increasingly restricted. Social mobility is at an all time low, and it is those who are born into wealth that achieve wealth. This can be applied to housing in the UK, where it is now only those who can depend on family wealth that are able to get a mortgage, as buying is impossible based on salary alone.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. The film depicts three of the individuals challenging the dominant narrative by speaking to the press and joining worker strikes. When it comes to private renting, the situation in the rest of Europe is different. There are more rights for renters, more regulation and more rent controls. At Renters’ Rights London, we talk about renters’ rights all the time – not because renters currently have lots of them (we don’t), but because we have to try first to introduce people to the idea that we could have any.
Inequality is not about economics, it is also a human problem. Director Katherine Round’s interviews with individuals are intense and enlightening, and offer a counter-narrative to what is commonly heard in the media.
The documentary works to draw our attention to the institutions and attitudes that prioritise getting ahead with no attention to the consequences. As one commentator notes, ‘Inequality isn’t caused by a few bad apples. It’s the actual barrel that’s bad.’ In the film, he’s talking about the banking crisis, but it could just as easily apply to the way we structure the housing system. It is the barrel itself: the institutions, the structures and the collective sense of what is an acceptable thing to do to another person.
Find your nearest screening at www.thedividedocumetary.com