Borderlands of the private home: Uncertain social times and our growing fortress mentality


By Rowland Atkinson

Can we speculate that there is a relationship between the massive changes in policy and political life since the financial crisis of more or less ten years ago and the look and feel of the streets and homes in our towns and cities? It was not long after the crisis began that I made a journey by car through the semi-rural areas bordering Manchester and Chester and was surprised at the number of homes with new, large and electronic gates. Why would we find these kinds of features in leafy areas with presumably low crime rates? Why indeed would we expect to find now well over a thousand gated communities in a country like the UK that has traditionally not only enjoyed a relatively low crime rate but also a history of more or less open streetscapes and a celebration of public footpaths and byways? We know that the reasons for these changes are complex and lie in a mix of factors that include a search for badges of social standing as well as a fear of crime. Yet the reality in many streets today is of a proliferation not of large gated communities but the rise of what Sarah Blandy and I recently called domestic fortresses. In many neighbourhoods it is possible to see shuttered and gated large homes side-by-side with those with little or no such visible protection. What explains these variations and what does it mean, if anything at all, for questions of policy today?

One step-change in urban life appears to be a move from segregation at a neighbourhood level to sharper differences within local spaces. Many of these changes speak also of changing community and social relations and the connections of social networks across space rather than the traditional pattern of knowing one’s neighbours. Sociologists have been discussing the loss of community and notions of risk for more than two decades but I was reminded of how far we had come in these debates while settling down to the gem of a book by Wolfgang Streeck who asks in his most recent book – how will capitalism end? For Streeck the end will come not because of alternative plans and competing blueprints of a more equitable social and economic system; rather it is the massive contradictions of a system based around the patronage of corporate life by governments, the surrender to markets at a global scale and the ecological limits of our condition that is much more likely to topple the way we live, rather than any revolutionary movement.

The home links into this complex and unsettled environment in one very important sense – home is where we live and the site of our various efforts at ensuring a sense of predictability and security for ourselves, our families and households. For this environment to fully sustain and settle us requires not only the safety of the home but a sense of assuredness about the world outside. Our lives are often ruled by short-term contracts, profit and enterprise orientations, worried about crime or the threat of invasion (either in terms of the home or at the wider borders of the nation) and overseeing this is a diminished state that only seeks to loosely regulate capital and companies. In such a fractured state who will we call if we have an emergency? Such questions point to the need for the role of a state with some capacity, capacities which have been dramatically eroded by cuts.

The fortress home is an expression of social escape from communities that no longer exist into a world of possibilities fed by an array of debt-financed consumer products, electricals, ICT and audio-visual systems. It is here that we are on our own but also triumphally placed by consumer advertising as the authors of our own emancipatory dreams and ambitions. We are also free to feel a gnawing sense of doubt, loneliness and anxiety rendered starkly in films like Cosmopolis or grotesquely but somehow presciently in depictions like Land of the Dead. For the ultimate treatment of this condition we can more readily turn to the social science fiction of La Zona in which marginal social groups, desperate to make a living, invade a gated community to be viciously dealt with by an angry and fearful mob of armed homeowners in an unnamed, yet familiar, Latin American city.

All of which points us to where I am going, somewhere rather unpleasant, a place in which the hollowing of the state, social services, corporate excess and free license and gross wealth inequalities ultimately leave us dreaming of the possibility of escape from the Hobbesian conditions generated by the ideological tropes that we bought into, or were contracted-out on. The advance of micro-fortification says something of our attempts at escape to the perhaps illusory security of the private home as the public realm outside disintegrates. Political commitments to markets lead us not only to the sense of an increasingly unequal and insecure society but also one that is more visibly differentiated between those that have and do not have security. Yet many of the security fixes that we see around us are illusory to the extent that they do little to allow us to really feel more confident and less fearful.

Ultimately a concern with security, segregation, home-ownership, gated communities and fortress homes is also a curiosity with who we as a society are becoming in a world that appears to be uncontrollably changing for the worse.

If you enjoyed this article you may also like to read Policy, politics, health and housing in the UK by Danny Dorling.



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