Tuesday, April 13, 2010 • 12:00 AM Comments (3)

Real Estate Intervention, Capitalist Ultimatum

posted by John Drabinski

We flirted with buying a house this summer. We didn't, but that's another story. The process of looking and thinking and scheming got me interested in the meaning and value of real estate for the first time, really, though all of us already know too much about loans, sub-prime, collapsed economies, and so on. At the same time, and of course not unrelated, I started watching HGTV's show Real Estate Intervention. The show is quick, well-paced, dramatic, and full of all the sorts of small and big stories needed to keep attention riveted. In those stories, it also sets out a sort of capitalist ultimatum, nicely tailored to our economic and cultural moment, but always a lesson about capitalism as such.

The show has a straightforward method and storytelling structure. A person or couple is faced with the problem of selling a home. The home hasn't sold, and some sort of urgent situation comes up necessitating quick sale (note: things regularly end poorly...this is not feel-good television). So, the show brings in "real estate expert" Mike Aubrey to assess the problem and offer solutions, and the music and visual edits invest the moment with all due seriousness. It is serious. Narrative tension inevitably comes from the reluctance of the homeowner(s) to go along with the advice and accept Aubrey's diagnosis of their sale-problem. Maybe they take his advice, maybe not. Maybe it sells, maybe not. The consequences are always real and serious.

Real Estate Intervention is in many ways just a chronicle of our difficult moment. It is also practical, being HGTV and all that, showing you bits and pieces of how to more easily sell one's home (hint: it has to do with asking less for the property). But it also reveals something very important, to my mind, about the relationship between sentiment and capital.

A house is an important part of one's world. How could it be otherwise? After all, a house is where we eat, sleep, argue, cuddle, laugh, host, grow older, maybe raise a child or two, and invest physical and emotional labor in decoration, renovation, and just general occupation. A house is a connection to place. That makes it spiritual.

As well, over the past decade and a half, a house, aside from a job, is a primary way for regular folks to make money, whether that be by way of access to credit or consistent, even extreme growth in value.

When you mix these two things together, a house becomes an existential phenomenon. It ceases to feel like a commodity. For all the snark some might have for the cliché "the American dream of home ownership," that turn of phrase means something. People do dream of having a place invested in all ways with family and self. (Is the alternative of rental better? I'd rather say that landlords do the devil's work.) Paint on the walls is not just paint. Any couple who has made it through choosing from the paint-card wall at your local hardware store knows this is serious emotional business! Adornments of body and place - this means everything. To then live, love, fight, coddle, grow, suffer, support, and all of that so very human stuff in the midst of that adornment, all in a structure we call a "house," makes a home part of our very existence.

So, you can't be surprised when Aubrey's advice is received with hostility and despair. If you watch the show, you can't help but be frustrated with folks' bad choices and stubbornness. And yet it is obvious why there is so much despair. Real Estate Intervention isn't about an emotional appreciation of your home, it is about the financial viability of your proposed sale. Aubrey captures it perfectly in perhaps the show's signature phrase - one that recurs, but would never be the advertisement tagline - that "value is what the market will bear." What the market will bear. Wow. All of that deep meaning, rendered as an output of market-force inputs.

At that moment, we see capitalism's ultimatum. It says that the existential is not, and indeed cannot, factor into what we call "value." This is why capitalism is defined by its alienating effect. Not because I don't like capitalism or hate money or whatever other shrug-off one might have about that remark. But because capitalism operates with a notion of value completely alien to a sense of value permeating daily life. Real Estate Intervention makes that so explicit that baring it is almost too much to bear. Sure, the real immediate pain is that of a particular couple or family, but the pain also extends outward from the screen, describing most of where we live and what we do. Once we leave the house, our value as people is just like the actual value of where we make our home lives: what the market will bear.

This is a painful lesson. Sometimes I think Real Estate Intervention buries this too deeply. It is television, after all, on a network dedicated to loving your home, not seeing it as one of the most intimate sites of alienation. But the capitalist ultimatum comes with every show. When I see that moment, and feel the highly televisually constructed (and completely real) despair and astonishment at alienation, I wonder if this might in fact be the most politically radical show around.

Comments (3)
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Just as I was finishing writing this, I came across the following article:

http://financiallyfit.yahoo.com/finance/article-109295-4790-4-does-a-masters-degree-pay-off?ywaad=ad0035

The bearing of the market, it turns out, means that less education is better, so long as you have "just enough." I find that a terrifying lesson, but surely not an unexpected one!

Posted by John Drabinski on 4.13.10 at 11:26

To see this as a problem of capitalism per se strikes me as wrong. (How many times must I read a crushing criticism of capitalism's supposed "alienating effect" followed by the apologetic "not to say I don't like capitalism." Please!) It is a problem of human nature or, more specifically, of other people. It is unfortunate that other people who may want to buy your house just don't appreciate the very things you think are most special about it--for example, that kitchen remodeling that you love, but that potential buyers dismiss as having to be gutted and replaced--and even more unfortunate that they don't understand the things that, for you, make your home so much more than a physical object, a mere, cold piece of property. (It cannot be, by definition, a commodity.) Or maybe they do appreciate that, but just not in the way that you do. We would all like to sell our houses to people who deeply understand what they mean to us---but if we need or want to sell, we will sell to whoever offers the most. And, again, this is not a matter of capitalism but what "other people" are willing to pay (and what the seller is willing to accept). As for alientation: when you come right down to it, a house is a physical object, a thing, a material extension that we too easily take to be representative of ourselves and it strikes me that the very thing which is described positively here--i.e., a house becoming an "existential phenomenon"--is actually the true and deep alienation, alienation of a person from what is actually important in this world--which is definitely not bricks and mortar. As my father said to me when I bought my first house years ago, which seemed such a big step to me: you'll live in more than one house in your life and perhaps will decide ultiimately you don't need a house at all. It just isn't that big a deal."

Posted by Martin Newhouse on 4.15.10 at 11:23

How many times must I read a capitalist defend the system that has brought America to its knees as not the real problem this nation faces. Please!

Perhaps it's true that owning a house "just isn't that big a deal," but it certainly seems big enough to have forced Wall Street's face into the mud.

Please explain, Mr. Newhouse (someone who gets paid by the corporations that make this country "great") how capitalism protects "what is actually important in this world." How can "what "other people" are willing to pay" NOT be "a matter of capitalism"?

It would seem to me that we've reached capitalism's end-game (a land dominated by monolithic corporate control, rather than competition), and the only way to prevent collapse is either starting from scratch or taking another course. Your barrage of rhetoric doesn't seem to stand a chance of stopping the bleeding.

Posted by G. Krasner on 4.19.10 at 0:55
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