Aesthetic anti-capitalism is hurting Asheville’s working class

Andrew Paul

BY ANDREW PAUL

“Aesthetic anti-capitalists” can be spotted in the wild all over Asheville. You might find them shopping at Whole Foods, which they insist on calling Greenlife. They may have some gray in their hair, and they might drive a Prius or an SUV.

They often crop up in the Asheville papers, too. Nearly every week an article or letter appears warning that the city has lost what made it special, that it’s becoming like Charlotte or that its new houses and apartments are all made of ticky-tacky.

But there’s something fundamentally wrong with aesthetic anti-capitalism — Karl Marx himself might bristle at it.

Sometimes it’s a well-meaning response to the commoditization and homogenization brought about by economies of scale and vast accumulations of wealth. It originates in the alienation we experience when our surroundings feel out of control.

But aesthetic anti-capitalism perniciously prioritizes the interests of the city’s privileged landowners while ignoring Asheville’s younger, multiracial working class. It’s a politics of purity whose adherents pride themselves on righteousness. At the same time, it is deeply conservative, the core idea being that we must “make Asheville great again.”

Character sketch

In practice, Asheville’s aesthetic anti-capitalism is almost exclusively concerned with residential zoning and land use. It demands that the housing stock be stuck in time, to preserve the city’s so-called “character.”

But restricting the definition of something’s character to superficial aesthetics precludes the chance to make Asheville more supportive of mobility, livability and affordability. Why not define a place’s character by its ability to foster connection and well-being? In fact, we often counterpose the “content of one’s character” to what is externally visible. No amount of art deco and “mountain views” can account for the deficit in character that our city holds for mistreating its most vulnerable residents.

Aesthetic anti-capitalists often lament that Asheville is no longer “weird,” but they misidentify the cause. Residential construction hasn’t kept up with population growth, and the resulting scarcity pushes up rents and home prices. This means that the folks who make Asheville weird, its artists and young people, are being pushed out.

By focusing purely on aesthetics, Ashevilleans miss the point that it’s the material conditions of a city that empower or disempower its cultural workers and foster character in a meaningful sense. Aesthetics are downstream from economics.

But aesthetic anti-capitalism doesn’t just arise from a sense of cultural loss: It also reflects a desire to protect property values as well as racial and class homogeneity. Housing scarcity is caused by many factors, but chief among them are local codes that amount to exclusionary zoning. Sometimes called single-family zoning, these land use restrictions were created in the Jim Crow era by segregationists who saw that even small apartment buildings and duplexes brought poor and Black people into their neighborhoods. Aesthetic anti-capitalist homeowners fiercely defend these codes today.

In doing so, they point fingers at “greedy developers.” This is the pot calling the kettle black. In a housing market like Asheville’s, builders hold relatively little power. It’s homeowners who constitute a hegemonic class — one whose interests are opposite those of poor and working people desperate for housing.

Our homeowning anti-capitalists may in fact be the greediest of all. Scarcity is profitable when you hold the scarce assets. Consider that at the birth of capitalism, both Adam Smith and Karl Marx decried the role of landowners — whom they called “rentiers” — in monopolizing and speculating in limited resources that might be better used and distributed.

Scarcity breeds gentrification

Housing scarcity, imposed by the asset-owning class through land use codes, is at the root of gentrification. But we can change Asheville by banning exclusionary zoning and promoting more “gentle density,” as the city of Minneapolis and the state of California have both done in recent years.

Applying that approach here would empower local workers, giving them more housing options and reducing financial strain. Having more homeowners would also dilute the concentration of housing-based wealth.

The more abundant a commodity is, the riskier speculation in it becomes and the less power those asset holders have. Studies have consistently shown that housing abundance guards against rising rents and home prices.

We are in a crisis. Dismissing housing scarcity because builders might earn money is like demanding that food production halt during a famine because General Mills would profit.

Yes, we should aim for public housing and social housing, too. But be wary of bad-faith actors. Wealthy, self-interested homeowners will combine aesthetic anti-capitalism with misleading laments that any new construction won’t be affordable when, in fact, this is merely a devious strategy for maintaining the status quo of housing scarcity. At the same time, these people will engage in fearmongering about tree canopy loss and increased crime to distract attention from the bigger issue.

Striving for equity

Speaking of crisis, capitalism is certainly at fault for the ongoing climate catastrophe. But nostalgia is not a substitute for environmentalism any more than it is for class analysis.

Driving to the farmers market in an SUV — or even a Prius — with a “Keep Asheville Weird” bumper sticker plastered on it can’t compensate for the fact that more and more Asheville workers live outside the city, and they’re dependent on fossil fuels to commute. Those who acquired inexpensive land in the mid-to-late 20th century have apparently decided that the city should now be the exclusive preserve of the wealthy, foreclosing the possibility of transforming our communities to enhance sustainability. Asheville can’t possibly invest in public transit efficiently as long as we keep forcing people to sprawl out.

It’s no wonder that the last census revealed a declining Black population. Fearing a homogeneous visual landscape, aesthetic anti-capitalism is making Asheville more homogeneous and xenophobic than ever.

Let’s stop pitting established residents against newcomers and immigrants — and older Asheville homeowners against its struggling young renters. Instead, let’s build an Asheville defined by a “character” that prioritizes equity, diversity, livability and worker power, not one obsessed with anti-corporate aesthetics and nostalgia.

Andrew Paul teaches history at A-B Tech and is co-founder of the nonprofit organization Asheville For All.

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19 thoughts on “Aesthetic anti-capitalism is hurting Asheville’s working class

  1. WNC

    Why don’t we open the borders in an insatiable way, to help alleviate the problems of
    To little housing
    To little water
    Schools overwhelmed by students from abroad who require
    extra services
    To little police
    To little medical services
    To little sanity
    Wait we’re already doing that and becoming a third world country who will have to quit sending borrowed money abroad.
    If you want a third world country where every one is equally hopeless just pick any of a number of countries and see ya.

  2. NIMBY

    Thank you Andrew. This piece is spot on. Appreciate you having the courage to write this and share.

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  3. MV

    Okay, sure, I hear you, but it’s tricky, right?

    Let’s build everywhere and let everyone come who wishes to move here, no matter what destruction we inflict on *existing* multi-racial affordable neighborhoods where citizens have built their lives and community for decades. Just don’t come crying to me when another pandemic comes to wipe out service-industry jobs…or when cyclists get run over on Merrimon when future traffic far exceeds what the ‘experts’ predict.

    If we must build more, let’s make sure our current council forces Ingle’s to put some housing atop their newly proposed markets (don’t recuse yourself, Esther!). And let’s urge North Asheville people to allow some 5 over 1 apartments on their golf courses so that they’ll have workers to bag their groceries.

    Maybe floating tiny homes on Beaver Lake?

    • WNC

      Your welcome to buy everyone’s property that’s for sale and you can afford

  4. Enlightened Enigma

    Let’s ALL thank the Mayor and Council for their recent purchase of land using taxpayer money to donate to the Haywood Community Housing program! These ladies set a new record price for the price paid per unit for affordable housing in Asheville ! $1.3 Million for .86 acre for 45 affordable units! That is $28,888 per unit land cost! I immediately raised the price on my affordable housing land for sale nearby! Thanks, ladies!

  5. Curious

    Is Aesthetic Anti-Capitalism a term from . . sociology? . . political science? . . economics? Is there a standard definition? Google is not helpful here.

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  6. kw

    Okay, Andy. Just don’t push back when they put a taller skinnier affordable workforce housing complex with lots of barking dogs in front of your home…

  7. WNC

    Want to make Asheville like California and Minneapolis that’s a good way to make Asheville more sustainable, since people are leaving both those areas.
    On a safety score with 100 being safest a 1 being least safe Minneapolis rates 3 (yes 3) and you would like Asheville (and I presume Buncombe county?) to be like Minneapolis!
    It could be worse I guess Oakland rates 1.

    When you are in that unsafe of environment it’s like the Wild West, the biggest horse and fastest gun are in control. That’s not very inviting or equitable.

  8. StephenH

    The author makes some valid points in the article. We don’t need more sprawl and many parts of Asheville need to get denser to reduce costs. Single family zoning is very problematic if it’s rigid and too wide-spread. People are being priced out.
    But the author does exactly what he is critical of by emphasizing a false dichotomy of “us versus them”, “rich versus struggling”, “green space and tree canopy versus affordable housing”, etc. Most people choose to live here because they like the climate, the mountain scenery, the eclectic character of the city, the vibrant social and entrepreneurial spirit, and live and let-live attitude of most of the population. Our American society is fractured by false dichotomies and all the old arguments of “this versus that” get very tiresome.
    The CHALLENGE is to build a better Asheville for All that allows people in any occupation to live here affordably AND enhance the aesthetic, economic, and environmental sustainability of our city. It’s a tough task. Networks like Strong Towns (just google it) are very helpful in showing how things can work organically and provide more equitable solutions to common urban problems. New thinking and attitudes are needed to avoid getting hung up in false dichotomies.

  9. Snowdog

    You mean “conscientious consumers.” The type of folks who use their purchasing power to claim the moral high ground on saving the earth through the purchasing of products that align with their values, while twitter raging against those that don’t. You are speaking of the loss of true change making being replaced by capitalist participation in brand identity. “I’m a liberal conservationist, so I’ll shop at stores that support that view.” This push of the last two decades by consumer citizens to force corporations to display values has made the world worse. Now we have LLC’s and Movie producers displaying their signals to buyers, in nothing more than a ultra-refined advertisement to dupe consumers into a lifelong purchase/supply relationship. For instance, you have Google social justice signaling yet 75% of all management is the traditional bogeyman, white, educated, males. It’s all bs and serves a purpose worse than inaction, doing something that is worse than doing nothing. You have Asheville working hard to reparate one group of people while all groups are being displaced by rampant inflation, realtor lobby backed laws bringing in out of state venture capitalist, etc. In other words, the focus on the cause du jour while backseating things that improve all working class lives regardless of skin tone or sexual affiliation has left our country bereft of real social justice for all. Clean water can’t be achieved by liberal middle class whites buying “gluten free” water. Neither can it be achieved by purchasing organics at those grocery stores all on Charlotte Street (and Ingle’s and other crap grocers for the working stiffs outside of Charlotte). It takes regulation, taxation, and no more hipster fleeting causes that go stale after 2 years, leaving the armchair activists in pursuit of yet another popular, self-congratulatory movement.

  10. MV

    This is one of the more obnoxious opinions I’ve ever read…sweeping generalizations and myopia abound.

    • Shultz!

      Agreed. I wonder how the author’s opinion would differ if they were a well-paid white collar worker & about 20 years older w/a home they spent the last 20 years putting money into.

  11. Fenix zbrabbins

    Just another person arguing on behalf of the “have-nots”. I, as a 30 yr. landowner, graduated from two colleges, worked my a** off for what I have, can tell you right now I do not owe anyone anything. If all you can do because of your level of intelligence and level of education is live in an apartment or mobile home (I lived in mobile homes too) and work in retail or the fast food industry (which I’ve done both those too), then at least you’ve gone your limit and done your best. That’s all I’ve ever asked of any human being. But don’t ever tell me, as the author of this article did, that I as this author has labeled us “privileged land owners”, that I owe anyone in Asheville anything. As I said, I worked for everything I’ve got. Graduated from high school, graduated from two community colleges, worked while I went to school, built a business, acquired land. So if this author think for one minute I’d ever be happy about an apartment complex being at my front door, I front of the privacy my land affords me that I worked my whole life to acquire, you bet I’d fight that too.

  12. indy499

    I found the article reasonably balanced, but a couple points really resonates with me.

    One cannot reasonably be opposed to both greater density and sprawl.

    One cannot reasonably support significantly expanded public transportation and be opposed to greater density.

  13. Aisling

    I’m disappointed to read such a lengthy piece that is so blatant in its ageism, (the elderly are an easy demographic to discriminate against), an article that chooses to disregard the complexity of the issues by blaming and dehumanizing a group of people instead. As a result, this article greatly detracts from any valid points it wants to make—although it does successfully put forth a lot of jargon and intellectual speak in order to impress us and establish that the author knows more than we do, and so it’s ok to be ageist, I guess. There’s not a lot of mention of the many complicated factors that have led to and continue to contribute to our current housing crisis, including the difficulty of developing in the mountains and developing infrastructure, the cost and scarcity of building materials, labor shortages, and the 2008 recession’s lasting impact on the shortage of housing—something being felt around the nation. These issues coupled with the influx of people moving here have helped to create the situation we’re experiencing now. But nope, not much mention of this; it’s just the anti-capitalists (?) old people who live in homes here, shop at Whole Foods and drive a Prius, and who care about aesthetics, things like tree canopies. Oh, and it’s the fault of the Appalachian folks already living here, too–another easy demographic to pick on, especially by someone who likely moved here from a non-Appalachian place. (Don’t get me started on discrimination against Appalachian people from non-Appalachian folks who think they are so much better.) The author uses a very broad brush on the people he targets—they are all blindly lumped together as greedy, conservative, racist, xenophobic homeowners who don’t care about artists or young people or immigrants and who are just out to speculate on property. Really? It’s that simple? All of them? That’s a lot of people to dehumanize, and it doesn’t tell the full story of the average homeowner in Asheville who may be leery of becoming Anywhere, USA. These homeowners may be “local workers” who are also immigrants or artists or young people themselves. They may have spent countless weekends picking up litter, or planting trees, or other volunteer activities around town that may add to the “aesthetics” or what many people would view as beauty. And does “restricting the definition of something’s character to superficial aesthetics” really preclude “the chance to make Asheville more supportive of mobility, livability and affordability”? Are homeowners who value Asheville’s character and its beautiful landscapes and streetscapes, neighborhoods, and architectural treasures, really what’s standing in the way of solving Asheville’s housing crisis? Also, are we actually “restricting the definition of something’s character” to what is mere “superficial aesthetics”? The author is wrong to suggest that aesthetics are merely “superficial” and nonconsequential, as numerous studies have found ones environment, particularly nature, plants, trees—to play a role in health, wellbeing and healing. If Ashevilleans did not value these aspects of Asheville that make it unique, would people still want to move/live here? Would the author have moved here? There are other mountain cities/towns in the Appalachians that do not value aesthetics; you can build anything anywhere you want, cut down all the trees you like. No value in building sidewalks or planting trees. No zoning. No one cares. Housing is more affordable there, too. And yet, despite having a similar climate, mountain views, access to nature, amenities, etc., not many people seem to be interested in living in those places. Unfortunately, it feels like the intent of this article is not to meaningfully address and engage us on the issues at hand, but rather to take the easy route—to find an easy group(s) of people to scapegoat (while making yourself sound superior, righteous and blameless), which only serves to distract from the issues and, contrary to what the article claims to want, pits groups of Ashevilleans against Ashevilleans, turning us into mere “groups” and making us feel more divided.

    • Robert McGee

      Thank you! Your passionate words are a breath of fresh air after reading the divisive diatribe of Andrew Paul.

    • MV

      Bravo! Well said!
      Down with ‘Asheville For Everyone’ and that mean-spirited pseudo-intellectual Andrew Paul.

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