Koukaki neighbourhood in Athens, discovered by designers, curators and savvy Airbnb users, September 2018.Aristidis Vafeiadakis/Press Association. All rights reserved.
The Euro-zone crisis that started in 2009 supposedly came to an end in August 2018 with Greece the last European country to exit the crisis phase. Yet, in the meantime, what in fact happened all around Europe is that apparatuses that were working for people’s well-being such as pensions systems, healthcare, education and so forth took one of their most severe hits in recent history.
This did not only happen exceptionally in the name of emergency but as part of much more systematic and widely orchestrated policy paradigm change. For instance, the Dutch king has announced since his inauguration the end of the welfare state and the start of a ‘participation society’. Tory governments in Britain talked about ‘Big society,’ while in places like Greece and Portugal government ministries of social solidarity appeared, requesting society to take over activities previously carried out by the state or by public/private partnerships.
Given this context we might well wonder at the new hegemonic socio-economic system emerging in Europe after this supposed end of the crisis. To pose the question ethnographically, how will people cope with this systemic transformation?
We argue that a focus on the relationships among three socio-material elements can help us orient ourselves in this world of post-welfare Euro-capitalism: mobility, property and digital technologies.
British real estate
A good case study that helps us understand this relationship is the following: the British real-estate market is trapped in a perpetually inflated bubble and has become unaffordable for working and low middle class Britons. Less and less newcomers to the house market have access to the notorious ‘property ladder’ unless they (or their parents) already have the wherewithal for a hefty paydown. As prices increase, they outprice increasing proportions of the population who are trapped in the ‘carnivorous’ rental market.
Yet this deregulation of the market and new digital technologies have made it possible for those people to explore foreign markets by just using an inexpensive laptop or smartphone. The anthropologist Deema Kaneff (2009) has shown in her research on Britons buying real estate in rural Bulgaria how property is redefined by people as a form of private welfare, an investment in their survival. Since the majority of British people feel that the state provision is fading away and a decent pension is a pipedream, owning property is perceived as a way to secure their retirement. Yet the only place they can afford this is in much cheaper real estate markets than the British one.
What this ethnography makes clear are the new ways in which social class distinctions are increasingly relocated outside the borders of a particular national economy: they are becoming transnational. In the Bulgarian case the “accumulation by dispossession” that David Harvey brilliantly described in his New Imperialism(2003) is not (merely) the mobility of big capital. It is carried out by “ordinary people”, in Kaneff’s words, who are buying out the Bulgarian countryside and consequently causing the Bulgarian real-estate market to become unaffordable for the Bulgarian average income, at only a fraction of the British one.
On the one hand the British landlords of Bulgaria have a house that is their own to stay in if they have to, or they can always rent it to others, foreigners usually, thereby covering their rapid loss of real income back at home. On the other, Bulgarian sellers who need to sell their assets to cope with their own economic problems caused by post-socialist deregulation also achieve better prices than selling to their compatriots. As a result, class polarization in the UK is decompressed and partly resolved in Bulgaria, and vice-versa. Class polarization in the UK is decompressed and partly resolved in Bulgaria, and vice-versa.
This pattern can also be used to understand the increasing popularity of Airbnb, one of the most successful start-up companies that fall within the so-called “sharing economy”.
Airbnb has been connected with the rise of mass tourism over recent years in many European cities, together with low cost airways. In our own research this kind of transnational interaction due to the neoliberal aftermaths described by Kaneff can be seen in an increasing number of people putting their houses in Airbnb in crisis-ridden Athens.
The home, once a sign across most of the social class spectrum of intergenerational continuity and solidarity in the Greek context is becoming the only means of income or vital supplementary income in a country with the highest taxation in Europe, enormously decreased wages, as well as one of the highest unemployment rates in the EU.
In 2011 there were a dozen properties in Athens in Airbnb in, while in 2018 there are over 30,000 in the general area of Attica. People who may be facing the effects of neoliberalism in their own lives back home are allowed to fly abroad and stay more cheaply by making contact with Greek Airbnb hosts. They can thereby fulfil one of the primordial promises of capitalism, namely, travelling. Moreover, they can obtain a property for their use one month per year and Airbnb for the rest of the tourist season for a fraction of a similar property in their home countries. The Greek state sees Airbnb as another opportunity to earn tax income in order to pay back the largest loan a country ever took out and Airbnb landlordsare certainly up for this. Today in Greece it is Airbnb which to a certain degree saves houses from bank auctions.
Nevertheless, there is another side of the Airbnb coin. Many Greeks, Bulgarians or Spanish people who need to rent or buy a house are priced out because the micro-landlords or mega-landlords will not ‘waste’ their properties on a normal monthly rent when they can make more money during the summer season in Airbnb. And what about people working in low-cost airway companies? According to Darragh Golden, the low fares provided by Ryanair are the result of extremely precarious working conditions for their staff. What about the university students in Greece who cannot find a place to rent in the cities to complete their studies? Or the doctors and teachers deployed on Greek islands who if they are lucky can find housing contracts for only 9 months per year, because their landlords want the property back in May for the opening of the Airbnb season? How does this play out in the social fabric of smaller and large communities?
In an age when each one of us is interpellated as a micro-entrepreneur with individual responsibility to negotiate his/her existence as a private individual matter, ‘post-crisis’ globalized capitalism provides new tools and narratives to secure its reproduction.
Perhaps it is the internet and free market that allow northern Europeans to own a property elsewhere and not take to the streets in their home country protesting against a worsening health system, increased cost of living and unaffordable housing market, while thousands of Airbnb properties in Greece similarly keep plenty of Greeks of the streets.
Perhaps it is low-cost tourism that allows a Norwegian millennial to feel like a middle-class traveller even though his/her prospects are way worse than their parents at his age.
Yet this access to property, mobility and digital technologies is simply gestating new forms of pan-European class distinctions, and new forms of micro-imperialism.
Harvey, D. (2003). The New Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Kaneff, D. (2009). “Property and Transnational Neoliberalism: The Case of British Migration to Bulgaria” in Accession and Migration: Hanging Policy, Society, and Culture in an Enlarged Europe, Edited by Eade, J. and Valkanova, Y.