Telescopic Urbanism and the Poor

By Prof. Ash Amin, 1931 Chair in Geography, Cambridge University

Prof. Amin will be giving a lecture at the University of Manchester on Wednesday 14 March, as part of an afternoon of global urbanism lectures and events. All welcome!

Slums, Mumbai - image wallygrom on flickr

As globalization turns cities into complex, stretched entities with multiple geographies of affiliation, it becomes easier for some to make the self serving argument that any internal integrity to cities disappears, that there is no innate reason why their parts – social and geographical – can or should hold together.  The result is a divided optic – a telescopic urbanism – that projects only parts of the city, eschewing any need to think the city a field of shared life and common rights and obligations.  The city returns only as a space of discrepant juxtapositions and severed obligations, a provisioning for some and not others.

Two powerful projections reinforcing this optic, I wish to claim, have risen to the fore, one from a colonising minority with powerful allies, and the other from advocates of a bounded majority, both ironically tracing similar subjectivities of survival and reward.  One is the ‘business-consultancy’ projection, supported by powerful allies, for whom the urban poor are a mere encumbrance and embarrassment, while the other is the ‘human potential’ projection, sold to the poor by their allies that the only way forward is to build capabilities and other means of entrepreneurial advancement.  My argument is that such telescopic urbanism is centrally involved in preventing the growing scale and severity of human struggle, particularly in the cities of the South, from being seen as anything other than a problem of autochthonous development.

My claim is that the urban imaginary will need to change radically for things to be different, and a start would be to think the city once again as a provisioning and indivisible commons.  It would be easy to dismiss such a premise as unworkable let alone too idealistic, by pointing to the omissions that follow from entitlements being defined by the legal rather than existential status of urban inhabitants (therefore excluding the majority city of illegals and non-citizens), the biases arising from hamstrung, inefficient or corrupt public authorities captured by the rich and the powerful, the organisation of elites, interests and communities who benefit from the apportioned and appropriated city, the sheer magnitude of need in the city of endless migration from the countryside and increased reproduction.  But without an optic that sees the whole city, and as a shared commons, the rudimentary response of telescopic regimes to a 21st century problem of bare survival for a very large chunk of humanity on the urban fringe will remain unchallenged.

Thinking in this way leads me to suggest that the state of the world demands once again a politics of large-scale social engineering, but of a distinctive sort.  Junking the totalising ideals of old-style socialist modernism or the brashness of modern capitalist colonisation of desire, a place to start is to commit to the universal distribution of the basic staples of human development and association, from access to shelter, clean water and sanitation to the means to access the rest of the city and its public goods.  Without extending the ‘infrastructural’ rights of the poor, business consultancy urbanism will take over the city, as it has already begun to do in parts of the world aspiring to world-class city status.   Here, the elites are on the march, bent on clearing slums and people of an unpleasant bearing to make way for business-consultancy city, with its shiny buildings, glitzy consumption, fast highways, clean and safe streets, plentiful real estate, a pro-business state, global connectivity, and an investment-tourism-consumption-knowledge friendly environment.

In aspiring world-class cities such as Delhi and Bombay the cleansing elites are already getting their way.  Here, even the affordances of the concessionary state to the poor in response to their organisation as a claims-making rather than rights-bearing body, are being choked off, fanned by a paranoid rhetoric from behind gated communities of bad life in upgraded slums whose real estate ought to be handed over to the prosperity-bearing middle classes.  Other cities of the post-colonial world will choose to follow suit as rumours of rich pickings from business consultancy urbanism spread.  They too will want their place in the sun in the unfolding post-occidental modernity, by letting the poor roast in the sun.  It may be time to rove the telescope to police the colonising urban elites, to insist on the basic infrastructural rights of the poor, without qualification.

Prof. Amin’s  book Land of Strangers, which examines the biopolitics of belonging in the contemporary West, is published in 2012 by Polity. An interview with Ash about Land of Strangers can be found on podularity.com.

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