Strategic Embellishment and Civil War: More Notes on the New Urban Question

via flickr by jgarber

via flickr by jgarber

by Andy Merrifield, Leverhulme Visiting Professor, Geography, University of Manchester

No matter how many times you read Walter Benjamin’s musings on Paris they never disappoint. They never sound worn; there are always new nuggets buried within, lurking between the lines, little sparkling gems you never expected to find, nor saw upon your first reading. There is always something, too, that speaks as much about our century as the fabled nineteenth, over which Paris, Benjamin said, majestically presided. He spent hours upon hours — years and years in fact — scribbling away under “the painted sky of summer,” beneath the huge ceiling mural of Paris’s Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF), amassing piles of notes (some still apparently lying unpublished, gathering dust in BNF’s vaults) on the arcades projects that so mesmerized him, on Fourier and Marx, on Baudelaire and Blanqui, on Haussmann and insurrection. Those latter two themes — Haussmannization and insurrection — have piqued my interest recently, helped me frame my thinking about what I’ve been calling (for want of a better term) “the new urban question.”

“Speculation on the stock-exchange,” says Benjamin, commenting on “Haussmann or the Barricades,” “pushed into the background the forms of gambling that had come down from feudal society.” Gambling transformed time, he says, into a heady narcotic, into an orgy of speculation over space, seemingly addictive for the wealthy and indispensable for the fraudulent. (The two, unsurprisingly, fed off one another then and still do.) Finance capital began to make its sleazy entrée into the urban experience; beforehand the urban was simply the backdrop of a great capitalist drama unfolding around the time Marx wrote the Manifesto. It was simply the seat of the stock market; suddenly, though, the urban itself became a stock market, another asset, now for a wheeling and dealing in space, for state-sponsored real estate promotion, for investing in new space and expropriating old space. The passionate embrace between politics and economics underwent its modern consecration.

Benjamin underscores two principal characteristics of Louis-Bonaparte’s master-builder Baron Haussmann — who, remember, prided himself on his self-anointed nickname: “l’artiste démolisseur” [“demolition artist”]. (“Baron,” too, was likewise a purely egotistical creation, having no official credence.) First was Haussmann’s immense hatred of the masses, of the poor, rootless homeless populations, the wretched and ragged victims of his giant wreckers-ball, immortalized by Baudelaire’s “Eyes of the Poor” Spleen poem. Benjamin recalls a speech Haussmann made in 1864 at the National Assembly, fulminating about the stepchildren his grand works had actively created. “This population kept increasing as a result of his works,” Benjamin says. “The increase in rents drove the proletariat into the suburbs.” Central Paris thereby lost its “popular” base, “lost its characteristic physiognomy.” Typical of so many tyrant-visionaries (like Robert Moses, who admired his gallic antecedent), Haussmann was a bundle of contradictions: publicly-minded (his underground sewers and macadamized boulevards replaced shitty overground drains and boggy lanes) yet scornful of real people; a lover of Paris, “the city of all Frenchmen,” yet  suspicious of democratic elections and progressive taxation; Haussmann saw it all as his God-given duty, his natural right “to expropriate for the cause of public utility.”

Yet, for Benjamin, there was something else behind Haussmann’s works, a second, perhaps more important theme: “the securing of the city against civil war,” a desperate desire to prevent the barricades going up across the city’s streets. A red fear. The breadth of those new boulevards would, it was thought, make future barricade building trickier, more onerous and protracted an ordeal in the heat of any revolt; besides, “the new streets,” says Benjamin, “were to provide the shortest route between the barracks and the working-class areas.” Hence the forces of order could more quickly mobilize themselves, more rapidly crush a popular insurrection. Urban space was concurrently profitable and pragmatic, aesthetically edifying yet militarily convenient; “strategic embellishment,” Benjamin labels it, a vocation eagerly practiced to this very day, though with new twists.

*  *  *

The new twist is the scale of this dialectic, the depth and breadth of the twin forces of strategic embellishment and insurrection. This dialectic is immanent in the our current urban-global condition, and respective antagonists feed off one another in dramatic ways. They are both immanent within the upheaval of our neoliberal market economy, just as Marx said that a relative surplus population was immanent in the accumulation of capital; and therein, borrowing Benjamin’s valedictory words, “we can begin to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled.” While we can pinpoint Haussmann-like acts in every city across the globe, North and South, East and West, it’s nonetheless vital to see all this as a process that engineers planetary urban space. We need, in other words, to open out our vista, to see the global urban wood rather than just the city trees, to see an individual despotic program as a generalized class imperative, as a process of neo-Haussmannization, as something consciously planned as well as unconsciously initiated, pretty much everywhere.

Our planetary urban fabric — the terrestrial texturing of our urban universe — is woven by a ruling class that sees cities as purely speculative entities, as sites for gentrifying schemes and upscale redevelopments, as machines for making clean, quick money in, and for dispossessing erstwhile public goods. Cities therein are microcosmic entities embedded in a macrocosmic urban system, discrete atoms with their own inner laws of quantum gravity, responsive to a general theory of global relativity. Splitting city molecules reveal elemental charges within: let’s call them “centers” and “peripheries,” complementarities of attraction and repulsion, of speculative particles and insurrectional waves. Is there a master-builder therein, some great God presiding over these heavenly bodies, a living Baron Haussmann? Yes and No.

Yes, because there are particular prime movers in making deals, actual class embodiments of finance capital and speculative real estate interests, real lenders and borrows, actual developers and builders, breathing architects and administrators, some of whom are moguls who mobilize their might like the Baron of old; all, too, have their own local flavoring and place-specific ways of doing things, culturally conditioned dependent on where you are, and what you can get away with.

No, in the sense that although there are complicit individuals, both in public and private office, with varying degrees of competence, who may even be cognizant of one another, in explicit cahoots with one another, it would be mistaken to see it all as one great conspiracy — a “Great Game,” as Kipling quipped of English imperialism in India — as a single coordinated global conspiracy undertaken by an omnipotent ruling class. Indeed, that would attribute too much to this aristocratic elite, over-estimate their sway over the entirety of urban space.

To peripheralize en masse necessitates the insulation of centers. Insulation means controlling borders, patrolling risk, damming leakiness, keeping people out as well as in; “control,” the Invisible Committee say in The Coming Insurrection, “has a wonderful way of integrating itself into the commodity landscape, showing its authoritarian face to anyone who wants to see it. It’s an age of fusions, of muzak, telescopic police batons and cotton candy. Equal parts police surveillance and enchantment!” That’s the nub of neo-Haussmannization, its law of social physics. Thus aristocrats in our age of Enlightenment acknowledge their fear of the sans-culottes they help create, the citizens they disenfranchise, the deracinated they banish to the global banlieues.

Thus the civil war is everyday, is about strategic security in the face of economic volatility; and the stakes have ratcheted up since 9/11. In fact, 9/11 set the terms of whole new set of odds about what is now permissible. The “war of terrorism” gets reenacted on the everyday civilian urban street, where “low intensity conflicts” justify paramilitary policing and counter-insurgency tactics — just in case. (For a graphic survey, we need look no further than Steve Graham’s brilliant exposé, Cities under Siege [2010]. “The war on terror operations in London,” says Graham, “efforts to securitize and militarize cities during G-20 summits an other mega-events, the counter-drug and counter-terror efforts in the favelas of Rio… link very closely to the full-scale counterinsurgency warfare and colonial control operations in places like Baghdad or the West Bank.”)

The fragmented shards of global neo-Haussmannization are likewise reassembled as a singular narrative in Eric Hazan’s Chronique de la guerre civile (2003): “nonstop wail of police sirens on the boulevard Barbès, the whistling of F16s high in the sky over Palestine, rumbling tanks rattling the earth in Grozny and Tikrit, armored bulldozers crushing houses in Rafah, bombs exploding over Baghdad and on buses in Jerusalem, barking attack dogs accompanying security forces on the Paris metro” — all provide testimony of a business-as-usual battle scene in an ongoing global urban civil war. In fact, paramilitary policing in Palestine, says Hazan, serves as something of a model everywhere for “the war of the banlieue.” Jerusalem isn’t any further from Ramallah than Drancy is from Notre-Dame; yet it’s a war in the periphery that’s rendered invisible from the standpoint of the center. (“In Tel-Aviv, you can live as peacefully as in Vésinet or in Deauville.”) And behind all the din and shocks, the bombs and barking, global centers experiment with new depersonalized high-technology, unleashing democracy at 30,000 ft, modern warfare orchestrated on a computer keyboard. (High-tech Israelis are closely linked with American research institutes and with the military-industrial complex; arms trade and patents are worth billions of dollars. “The military and the monetary get together when it’s necessary,” rapped the late Gil-Scott Heron; he left out the academy, or “the academary,” which goes together with the military and the monetary when it’s necessary.)

*  *  *

A force is a push or pull exerted upon an object resultant from its interaction with another object. Centers and peripheries emanate from such interaction, from such contact interaction, from a Newtonian Third Law of Motion: that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. We can name that oppositional reaction insurrection, even if, in the Third Law of Newtonian Social and Political Motion, that reaction is opposite but never equal; it is a minority reaction despite being voiced by a majority; it is a reaction that creates its own action, or, as The Coming Insurrection suggests, its own resonance. Insurrection resonates from the impact of the shock waves summoned up by bombs and banishment, all of which unleash reactive and active waves of friction and opposition, alternative vibrations that spread from the banlieues, that ripple through the periphery and seep into the center.

If there are twin powers of insurrection, one internal, another an external, outer propulsive energy, then it’s the latter which might hold the key in any battle to come, in any global intifada. And here it’s not so much a solidarity between Palestinian kids lobbing rocks and casseurs in Seine-Saint-Denis, between jobless Spaniards and Greeks taking over Madrid’s Puerta del Sol and Athen’s Syntagma Square, between school kids in Chile and looters in Croydon, nor even between the Occupy movement in the US and its sister cells across the globe; it’s more that each of these groups somehow see themselves in different camps of the same civil war, fighting as territorial foot soldiers, as relative surplus populations sharing a common language and, significantly, a common enemy.

The war of the banlieue is a special kind of war, the scene of military maneuvering different from Clausewitzian warfare of old, staged on an open battlefield. This war no longer comprises grandiose campaigns by troops but is rather a micro-everydayness of peacetime intervention, a dogged affair in which the police and the paramilitary play interchangeable roles, indiscernible roles. Maintaining order and destabilizing order require new urban tactics, different from past warfare and previous insurrections. The terrain of the civil war is now at once more claustrophobic and more fluid, more intensive as well as more extensive. The urban needs to be theorized as a tissue with capillaries and arteries through which blood and energy circulate to nourish this tissue, to keep its cells alive, or sometimes to leave them partly dead from under-nutrition or blockage. This understanding let’s us see the urban’s complex circuit card, its networked patterning, its mosaic and fractal form, stitched together with pieces of delicate fabric; an organism massively complex yet strikingly vulnerable.

Insurrectional forces must enter into its flow, into the capillaries and arteries of urban power and wealth, enter into its global network to interrupt that circulation, to unwind its webbing and infrastructure, to occupy its nodes at the weakest and most powerful points. In a sense, given the global interconnectivity of everything, this can be done almost anywhere, accepting there are nodes that assume relative priority in the system’s overall functioning. Just as cybernetic information can be hacked, so too can acts of subversion interrupt and hack flows of money, goods and transport. The system can be stymied, symbolically, like outside Wall Street or St. Paul’s Cathedral; and really, like when, in December 2011, Occupy Oakland took over the US’s fifth-largest port, “Wall Street on the waterfront,” crippling operating revenues that amount to a hefty annual $27 billion, striking aristocrats hard where it hurts them most: in their pockets.

Perhaps sabotage is a valid retribution for the incivilities that reign in our streets. “The police are not invincible in the streets,” the Invisible Committee write, “they simply have the means to organize, train, and continually test new weapons. Our weapons, on the other hand, are always rudimentary, cobbled together, and often improvised on the spot.” The power of surprise, of secret organization, of rebelling, of demonstrating and plotting covertly, of striking invisibly, and in multiple sites at once, is the key element in confronting a power whose firepower is vastly superior. Once, in the past, sabotaging and thwarting work, slowing down the speed of work, breaking up the machines and working-to-rule comprised a valid modus operandi, an effective weapon for hindering production and lock-jamming the economy; now, the space of twenty-first-century urban circulation, of the ceaseless and often mindless current of commodities and people, of information and energy, of cars and communication, becomes the broadened dimension of the “whole social factory” to which the principle of sabotage can be applied.

Thus “jam everything” becomes a reflex principle of critical negativity, of Bartlebyism brought back to radical life, of Newton’s Third Law of Political Motion. Ironically, the more the economy has rendered itself virtual, and the more “delocalized,” “dematerialized” and “just-in-time” is its infrastructural base, the easier it is to take down locally, to create apoplexy, to redirect and reappropriate. Several years ago, insurrections in France against CPE bill (contrat première embauche), the first of a series of state laws to make job contracts for young people more insecure, “did not hesitate to block train stations, ring roads, factories, highways, supermarkets and even airports. In Rennes,” the Invisible Committee recall, “only three hundred people were needed to shut down the main access road to the town for hours and cause a 40-kilometer long traffic jam.” Blanqui, too, that professional insurrectionist, the shady conspiratorial figure who so fascinated Benjamin (and Baudelaire), likewise recognized how urban space isn’t simply the theater of confrontation; it’s also the means and stake in an insurrection, the battleground of a guerrilla warfare that builds barricades and gun turrets, that occupies buildings and strategic spaces, that employs the methodology of moving through walls.

But barricades today aren’t there simply to defend inwardly. They need to be flexible and portable, and outward looking. They need to move between nodes to disrupt and block, and to foster new life within. They need to be mobilized to tear down other barricades that keep people apart, that trap people in, that peripheralize. Those latter sort of barricades are walls of fear that need smashing down like the veritable storming of the Bastille, so that new spaces of encounter can be formed — new agoras for assemblies of the people, for peoples’ Assembly.

Benjamin was mesmerized by the spirit of Blanqui haunting Haussmann’s boulevards, Blanqui the antidote to Haussmannization, Blanqui the live fuse for igniting civil war, for catalyzing insurrectional eruption. And although Blanqui’s secret cells of revolutionary agents — those hardened, fully-committed professional conspirators — had an inherent mistrust of the masses, Benjamin nonetheless saw in them a capacity to organize and propagandize, to spread the insurrectional word, to figure out a plan and give that plan definition and purpose. They could even help guide an activism that seizes territories and schemes mass desertion; that could, in our day, reinvent a neo-Blanquism (neo-Jacobinism?) to confront intensifying neo-Haussmannization, an opposite and almost equal reaction. Indeed, perhaps the thing that most fascinated Benjamin was Blanqui’s notion of “eternal recurrence,” that stuff comes around full circle, including revolutions, that democratic passions don’t disappear: they crop up again and again in new forms and in different guises, with new tricks and covert tactics, with new participants whose prescient ability is to imagine the dominant order as ruins even before it has crumbled.

About citiesmcr
Co-ordinator of cities@manchester

7 Responses to Strategic Embellishment and Civil War: More Notes on the New Urban Question

  1. Reblogged this on anomie//géographie and commented:
    Andy Merrifield on Benjamin, Blanqui and Civil War.

  2. Reblogged this on multipliciudades and commented:
    Otra aportación más de Merrifield desde Manchester…

  3. alexanpv says:

    Reblogged this on Experimental Geographies and commented:
    Andy Merrifield with some more thought reflections on the ‘new urban question’ with a particular focus on Benjamin, Blanqui and Hausmann

  4. stuartelden says:

    Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
    Andy Merrifield continues his discussion of the new urban question at the cities@manchester blog.

  5. gagoal says:

    That is indeed an excellent post. It reminded me of Mitchell and Kelly’s paper on wandering around North-Belfast with de Certeau. http://www.conflictincities.org/PDFs/Working%20paper%2017.pdf

    Thanks for sharing.

  6. The Global Perambulator says:

    Great article. Wonderful to see you work Gil-Scott Heron into it. I love that song. Here in Istanbul we see the same forces at work every day that you describe in this article. The only difference is that here those forces are even more hardened and pervasive. Every day the television news is protesters getting crushed by the police in protests all over the country. The only other thing you see on a daily basis is the ongoing operations against the Kurds. Order and disorder on every level over here…..

  7. Pingback: Strategic Embellishment and Civil War: More Notes on the New Urban Question « Pluto Press – Independent Progressive Publishing

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