“Happy Crisis and Merry Fear” (Slogan on Athenian Wall, December 2008): Designing the dissensual city

Erik Swyngedouw at the School of Environment and Development writes about cities and urban activism.

Cover of Newsweek, 17 February 2009

On 6 December 2008, 15 year old Alexis was shot by the police on an Athenian square, an event that triggered weeks of violent urban protests and cascaded throughout Greece. Less than two years later, on 5 May 2010, three people were killed during riotous protests in Athens in the aftermath of the draconian policy measures the Greek socialist government had to take under the policing eye of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to restore budgetary rigour and to safe French and German banks overexposed to Greek sovereign debt. On 17 July 2010, Grenoble was set on fire in a clash between rioters and the police. These are some of the recent installments of a sequence of events that saw insurgent architects in the global North trying to re-assemble the urban through anarchic outburst of irrational violence. This they did in the face of turbulent urban and social transformations for which they felt neither responsible nor had much power over their design. Emblematically starting with the French urban revolts of the fall of 2005, the retaking of the streets by protesters jumped around from Copenhagen to Lisbon and from London to Riga. Urban revolts and passionate outbursts of discontent have indeed marked the urban scene in Europe over the past decade or so. Rarely in history have so many people voiced their discontent with the political designs of the elites and signaled a desire for an alternative design of the city and the world, of the polis. Yet, rarely have mass protest resulted in so little political gain.

Politically impotent as they may be, these signs of urban violence are nevertheless telltale symptoms of the contemporary urban order, an order that began to implode, both physically and socially, with the onslaught, in the fall of 2007, of the deepest crisis of capitalism in the last 70 years, a crisis that finally exposed the flimsy basis on which the fantasy of a neo-liberal design for the city and the world of the 21st century was based. Several trillion Euro worth of bailout funding was put up by governments in the US and Europe to safe the financial system while the subsequent budgetary difficulties, manifest from 2010 onwards, prompted radical and devastating austerity measures of which the devastating implications still have to become clear.
There is apparently no alternative. The state as the embodiment of the commons has to be marshaled to serve the interests of the elite few. On 7 February 2009, Newsweek headlined its cover with the slogan ‘we are all socialists now’. Indeed, Newsweek is correct; they (the elites of the world) are all socialist now, corralling the state to serve their interest and to make sure that nothing really has to change – that capitalism can go on as before. And indeed, political dissent is virtually absent; few dissenting voices among ‘official’ political leaders, whether left or right, are heard. The only way – or so it seems in which real dissent can be articulated –is by making the public spaces of cities as recurrent theatres of impotent, violent, but passionate, outbursts of radical insurgent architects.

Urban activism that is aimed at the state and demands inclusion in the institutional registers of urban governance ripples throughout the urban and rituals of resistance are staged as performative gestures that do nothing but keep the state of the situation intact and thus contribute to solidifying the post-political consensus. Resistance as the ultimate horizon of urban movements has become a hysterical act; a subterfuge that masks what is truly at stake – how to make sure that nothing really changes. The choreographing of urban conflict today is no longer concerned with transgressing the boundaries of the possible, acceptable, and representable. Rather it is a symptom of the deepening closure of the space of the political.

Yet, the Real of the political cannot be fully suppressed and returns in the form of the violent urban outbursts, outbursts without vision, project, dream or desire, without proper symbolization. This violence is nothing but the flipside of the disavowal of violence of consensual governance. And it is exactly this repression of the properly political that surfaces invariably again in violent gestures in a sort of re-doubling of violence. That is, the return of the repressed or of the Real of the political in the form of urban violence, of insurgent architects, redoubles in the violent encounter that ensues from the police order whereby the rallying protesters are placed, both literally and symbolically, outside the consensual order; they are nothing but, in Sarkozy’s words and later repeated by the Greek prime minister, ‘scum’ (racaille), people without proper place within the order of the given.

If the political is foreclosed and the polis as political community moribund in the face of the suspension of the properly democratic, what is to be done? What design for the reclamation of the polis as political space can be thought? How and in what ways can the courage of the urban collective intellect(ual) be mobilised to think through a design of and for dissensual or polemical spaces. I would situate the tentative answers to these questions in three interrelated registers of thought.

The first one revolves around transgressing the fantasy that sustains the post-political order. This would include not surrendering to the temptation to act. The hysterical act of resistance (‘I have to do something or the city, the world, will go to the dogs) just answers the call of power to do what you want, do live your dream, to be a ‘responsible’ citizen. Acting is actually what is invited, an injunction to obey, to be able to answer to ‘What have you done today?’ The proper response to the injunction to undertake action, to design the new, to be different (but which is already fully accounted for within the state of the situation), is to follow Bartleby’s modest, yet radically transgressive, reply to his Master, ‘I’d prefer not to …’. The refusal to act, to stop asking what they want they want from me, to stop wanting to be liked. The refusal to act as is also an invitation to think or, rather, to think again. The courage of the urban intellect(ual) is a courage to be intellectual, to be an organic intellectual of the city qua polis. This is an urgent task and requires the formation of new imaginaries and the resurrection of thought that has been censored, scripted out, suspended, and rendered obscene. In other words, is it still possible to think, for the 21st century, the design of a democratic, polemical, equitable, free common urbanity. Can we still think through the censored metaphors of equality, communism, living-in-common, solidarity, proper political democracy? Are we condemned to rely on our humanitarian sentiments to manage socially to the best of our techno-managerial abilities the perversities of late capitalist urbanity, or can a different politics and process of being-in-common be thought and designed. I like to be on the side of the latter. This brings me to the second register of thought required.

This second moment of reclaiming the polis revolves around re-centring/re-designing the urban as a democratic political field of dispute/disagreement: it is about enunciating dissent and rupture, literally opening up spaces that permit speech acts that claim a place in the order of things. This centres on re-thinking equality politically, i.e. thinking equality not as a sociologically verifiable concept or procedure that permits opening a policy arena which will remedy the observed inequalities (utopian/normative/moral) some time in a utopian future (i.e. the standard recipe of left-liberal urban policy prescriptions), but as the axiomatically given and presupposed, albeit contingent, condition of democracy. Political space emerges thereby as the space for the institutionalisation of the social (society) and equality as the foundational gesture of political democracy (presumed, axiomatic, yet contingent foundation). This requires extraordinary designs (both theoretically and materially), ones that cut through the master signifiers of consensual urban governance (creativity, sustainability, growth, cosmopolitanism, participation, etc…) and their radical metonymic re-imagination. Elements of such transgressive metonymic re-designs include

1. Thinking the creativity of opposition/dissenssus and reworking the ‘creative’ city as agonistic urban space rather than limiting creativity to musings of the urban ‘creative class’
2. Thinking through the city as a space for accommodating difference and disorder. This hinges critically on creating ega-libertarian public spaces.
3. Visionary thinking and urban practices: imagining concrete spatio-temporal utopias as immediately necessary and realizable.
4. Re-thinking and re-practicing the ‘Right to the City’ as the ‘Right to the production of urbanization”. Henri Lefebvre’s clarion call about the ‘Right to the City’ is indeed really one that urges us to think the city as a process of collective co-design and co-production.

Thirdly, and most importantly, however, is to traverse the fantasy of the elites, a fantasy that is sustained and nurtured by the imaginary of an autopoietic world, the hidden-hand of market exchange that self-regulates and self-organizes, serving simultaneously the interests of the Ones and the All, the private and the common. The socialism for the elites that structures the contemporary city is Really one that mobilises the commons in the interests in the elite Ones through the enrolling and disciplinary registers of post-democratic politics. It is a fantasy that is further sustained by a double fantastic promise: on the one hand the promise of eventual enjoyment – “believe us and our designs will guarantee your enjoyment”. It is an enjoyment that is forever postponed, becomes a true utopia. On the other hand, there is the promise of catastrophe and disintegration if the elite’s fantasy is not realised, one that is predicated upon the relentless cultivation of fear (ecological disintegration, excessive migration, terrorism, economic crisis and urban disorder), a fear that can only be managed through post-political technocratic-expert knowledge and elite governance arrangements. This fantasy of catastrophe has a castrating effect – it sustains that impotence for naming and designing truly alternative cities, truly different emancipatory spatialities and urbanities.

Traversing elite fantasies requires the intellectual and political courage to imagine egalitarian democracies, the production of common values and the collective production of the greatest collective oeuvre, the city, the inauguration of new political trajectories of living life in common, and, most importantly, the courage to choose, to take sides. Most importantly, traversing the fantasy of the elites means recognizing that the social and ecological catastrophe that is announced everyday as tomorrow’s threat is not a promise, not something to come, but IS already the Real of the present.

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One thought on ““Happy Crisis and Merry Fear” (Slogan on Athenian Wall, December 2008): Designing the dissensual city

  1. Pingback: The ‘Occupy’ Movement: Emerging Protest Forms and Contested Urban Spaces | Berkeley Planning Journal

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