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.”
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.