Tag Archives: Protest

Postpolitics, Parks and Protest

Graham Haughton, Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning, Planning and Environmental Management, School of Environment, Education and Development, University of Manchester

A protest camp sprang up overnight in Alexandra Park in January earlier this year, in one of the coldest spells of winter. The camp was set up in response to contractors moving in their equipment to begin felling trees around the park. Tents appeared, including some in the trees. Two rallies were held in protest attracting large numbers of people. Support came from local people passing through food and others supplies for the protestors. Quickly a strong security and media presence emerged too, with media coverage in the local press and regional TV[i]. Very quickly this became a major news story in South Manchester. The council defended its actions, claiming community consultations had been extensive and had led to a welcome scheme to regenerate and revive a park, attracting people back into it.

Whilst at one level this was a protest about tree removal, it very quickly emerged that the protestors had other concerns that underlay these. Consultation had been poor, in terms of gaining public awareness and engagement.  Some felt that the consultations had focused on the positives, underplaying the loss of trees. The science was disputed too, particularly the claim that felling involved only 200 or so ‘trees’, which protestors said was an underestimate as it failed to include the undergrowth areas. What constituted a tree was very much open to question – trees it seems are a sociocultural construct as much as a natural phenomenon. For some the restoration of flowerbeds was a problematic privileging of one type of ecology, the formal gardens preferred in the Victorian era when the park was created, whilst for others overgrowth trees were seen as ecologically inappropriate, with poor light resulting in limited opportunities for other ecological niches to develop. Other concerns included whether the renovations would permanently impact on Moss Side Carnival which had been a major event in the Park’s calendar since 1972, the climate change impacts of removing trees, and whether lack of consultation was because the city leaders felt immune to criticism due to its heavy domination by one party.

The contractors continued warily with their work of felling trees as protestors sought to disrupt them, with police and other security forces brought in to provide protection. Some concessions were made to the protestors to pull back on some of the planned felling. After about three weeks the tree felling programme was largely complete and the protest camp faded away, but leaving behind a continuing sense of grievance among some in the local community that they had largely been ignored.

Cities@manchester agreed to fund us (Anna Gilchrist, Graham Haughton and Erik Swyngedouw) to examine what was going on, quickly agreeing to fund some research whilst the camp was still in place. This allowed us to visit the protestors on site a couple of times, observe the contractors and security operations at work including talking police and contractors. After the camp had gone we continued our research, meeting a range of local policy makers, from the leader of the council to officials, professional ecologists and others. There was also a major public consultation event in the park soon after the protest camp which we attended. As if to confirm the protestors view, despite the fact that one of uses the park almost daily we only saw notices about this the day before .

We have made two videos about the protest camp, with the hope that we and others would be able to use them for teaching about postpolitics. That they helped in our emerging research was a bonus. The first video was self-filmed by Graham during a consultation meeting, on a day when he was noticeably starting to come down with a cold. It is proudly amateur and spontaneous, but hopefully it captures the spirit of the event. The second video is a companion piece, again self-filmed a few months later, covering our internal discussions as we sought to make sense of what the protests, with musings on urban political ecology and postpolitics to the fore. These can be viewed on the University’s you tube channel under the cities@manchester playlist. A key question that we address here is why the protest movement lost its momentum, that is how it failed to scale up to a more substantial challenge to the city authorities. Drawing on recent theoretical work on postpolitics, Erik in particular argues that this was in part a failure to move on from the initial focus on trees to the wider issues that protestors were also animated by. This was very different to another ‘trees in park’ protest this summer that reverberated around the world, Taksim Square in Istanbul.

 


 

[i] For the unfolding story, see for instance, this ITV clip, which contains links to videocasts from its broadcast coverage: http://www.itv.com/news/granada/topic/alexandra-park/ . For the BBC coverage see:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-21289875  and http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-21321490 and http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-21491870 . The story as seen by the protestors themselves is powerfully conveyed on their website: http://savealexandraparkstrees.wordpress.com/ 

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Progress on a cities@manchester seedcorn project to investigate the consequences of the 2011 riots in Greater Manchester

Jon Shute, Centre for Criminology & Criminal Justice, School of Law

Image via flickr from NightFall404

Memories, like attention-spans, can be short, and it already seems a long time since the community of Pendleton in Salford, and Manchester City centre erupted into full-scale public disorder in August 2011. It is also difficult to recall the radically different nature of those riot sites only a few kilometres apart; the former associated with strong and longstanding anti-police sentiments; the latter being much more consumer goods focussed. Nearly 400 people were arrested, and 300 charged with riot-related offences; and the bill for policing, property damage and loss ran into millions of pounds. A disproportionate number of poor and (in the City centre) minority ethnic youth were arrested and given an unusually high proportion of unusually long prison sentences. A significant number of first time offenders were also dealt with harshly. The riots therefore raised a serious set of issues relating to legal and material inequality, and on the urban landscape in austerity-era Britain.

In this context, a proposal was submitted and accepted by cities@manchester to develop a major research proposal to investigate the consequences of the Greater Manchester (GM) riots. Bringing together colleagues from criminology, politics, psychology and environment, the project funded the employment of a Research Associate to research and develop innovative methodologies for the bid, and to liaise with research partners in GM Probation Trust and Manchester City Council. Over the course of 2012, we contributed to the literature on the riots (see Lightowlers & Shute in issue 106 of Radical Statistics), and made a range of local contacts including Dan Silver of the Social Action & Research Foundation (SARF), in Salford. In order to produce a richer, deeper level of qualitative data than available in the very limited published work on the GM disturbances  we carried out several narrative interviews with convicted rioters, and worked with the Council to develop strategies for accessing this hard to reach population. The data arising from this work, together with more in-depth quantitative statistics is being written up as a major mixed methods piece for the British Journal of Criminology. An ESRC Research Grant proposal is also close to submission and will investigate the individual, community and systemic level consequences of the riots, hopefully starting in late 2013. This will explore, among other things, the possibly counterproductive effects of harsh sentencing, and will attempt to construct a comparison ‘snowball’ sample of people involved in the riots but not arrested and sentenced. In this way, we hope to move on from a media-driven agenda of quick-response research and simplistic causal reasoning to a fuller understanding of the lived experience and long-term trajectories of those involved in – and affected by – the disturbances.

Urban Jacobinism?

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

via flickr by Cocoloco Photography

via flickr by Cocoloco Photography

 

“When the government violates people’s rights, insurrection is, for the people and each portion of the people, the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties?”

— Robespierre

“The history of the revolutionary movement is, first of all, the history of the links that give it its consistency”

— Agents of the Imaginary Party

One of the recurrent gripes about the movement we’ve  come to call “Occupy” — from the mass demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to the eventual clearing out of Zuccotti Park — has been its failure to conceive a plan of action, a concerted strategy during its insurrection. There wasn’t and still isn’t any strategic campaign, critics says, no coordination between particular occupations, no sense of how to amalgamate and channel all that anger and dissatisfaction into a singular, unified oppositional force — one that can stick around over the long haul. (The most recent salvo is Thomas Frank’s in The Baffler magazine (#21): “With Occupy, the horizontal culture was everything. ‘The process is the message’… Beyond that there seems to have been virtually no strategy to speak of, no agenda to transmit to the world.”) The other, related quip is: What comes next after the insurrection, after the good guys have assumed power, or even when they’re still trying to wrestle against power? (Zizek has been vocal here: “carnivals are cheap,” he says. “What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal lives. Will there be any changes then?” Egypt, as a case in point, is still feeling the heat of a “successful” insurrection from a year or so ago.)

These two questions are intimately related and form part and parcel of the same revolutionary simultaneous equation: organizing an insurrection, consolidating it, moving through it, and, then, planning for its aftermath, putting in place something new, establishing a different set of social institutions and social relations in lieu of the old oppressive ones. (Simultaneous equations, we might remember, are equations between two unknowns, unknowns that must be solved at the same time.) This dual conundrum has preoccupied revolutionaries and revolutionary thought since time immemorial. Walter Benjamin, we know, plotted the revolution in his own head, even while — especially while? — he lurched toward his shadow figure, Blanqui, the man of action; Blanqui the arch-conspirator who spent thirty of his seventy-six years on earth in various French gaols.

Blanqui was everything Benjamin wasn’t: practical, fearless, ruthless. His very raison d’être was organization, plotting and propagandizing for the insurrection; Blanqui, Marx said, was the “head and soul” of the French workers’ movement. But Blanqui satisfies only the first part of that revolutionary simultaneous equation. “The activities of a professional conspirator like Blanqui,” Benjamin says, “certainly do not presuppose any belief in progress — they merely presuppose a determination to do away with present injustice. This firm resolve to snatch humanity at the last moment from the catastrophe looming at every turn is characteristic of Blanqui — more so than any other revolutionary politician of the time. He always refused to develop plans for what comes ‘later’.”

Blanqui dreamed of a worldwide league of revolutionary communists. He also tried to put that dream into reality, countenancing conspiracy as one method for instigating insurrection. Blanqui’s communism was an eclectic mix of Marxism avant la lettre and heterodox anarchism, of trying to consummate the revolutionary hopes begun in 1789, yet which ended in Thermidorian backlash. Blanqui “couldn’t adjust himself to an organization of huge dimensions,” Samuel Bernstein says in Auguste Blanqui and the Art of Insurrection (1971). “It rendered absurd his strategy of insurrection; and it placed in the foreground the working class which he had never regarded as a key propeller of history.” Blanqui’s political organization was limited in size, Bernstein says, tightly pulled together, hierarchical in structure; made “like a seamless garment, programmatically homogeneous, disciplined, obedient, and ready to move.” Blanqui’s insurrection  was vertically organized yet spread itself out horizontally, immanently entering daily life, not so much a factory struggle as an urban war, a civil war rooted above all else — or below all else — in the street.

*  *  *

The key organizing medium for Blanquists was the “Society of the Seasons,” formed in the 1830s when Marx was still a fresh-faced lad. The society met clandestinely; leaders went unseen; meetings recruited foot soldiers who’d form an army of revolt, ready for action, likely violent action. The Society’s network barely stretched beyond Paris; but its covert nature of cells unnerved the powers that be and meant the Society punched above its weight, or at least threatened to. In Blanqui’s time, these Society of the Seasons were the revolutionary Jacobin clubs forty years down the line. (Blanqui may have disagreed: In his early career he admired the “Incorruptible” Jacobin, Robespierre, but later claimed he was really a Hébertist, a descendent of the radical eighteenth-century journalist Jacques-René Hébert.)

Blanqui knew, just as Robespierre knew, just as any revolutionary today must know, that if an insurrection were to succeed, and consolidate itself afterward, it would have to muster support from the faubourgs, from the banlieues, from the peripheral hinterlands. We might see any society of revolutionaries nowadays similarly needing to establish cells in the banlieues, cells within urban cells, revolutionary activity flowing through the capillaries and arteries of our global urban fabric, through its physical and fiber-optic infrastructure, through its hardware and thoughtware. These secret cells must plot to stymie the dominant flow of things and will likely be spearheaded by professional organizers and tacticians, by black bloc’er anarchists, by socialists and autonomous communists of different stripes and persuasions, by anonymous rookies, by those who’ve never been politically active before, by men and women, blacks and whites, young casseurs and voyous, by everybody who, with Occupy, with the Arab Spring, with the revolt in the banlieues, with the ongoing urban civil war everywhere, with growing unemployment, have found some medium to channel and refract their energies and dissatisfactions.

Perhaps there’s a neo-Jacobinism blowing in the wind, not quite bawling out but certainly getting whispered, a revival of Jacobin values with its great desire to abolish slavery in our urban neo-colonies, to denounce aristocratic plenty and root for sans-culotte empowerment. In 2010, for instance, Jacobin: A Magazine of Culture and Polemic was launched in the US by a young socialist journalist Bhaskar Sunkara; the mag attempts to tap a younger radical readership, urging people “to modify your dissent,” to turn the screw against neoliberalism; within its pages Zizek has already invoked “The Jacobin Spirit,” defending Robespierre and his “virtue of violence.” (See, too, Zizek’s presentation of Robespierre: Virtue and Terror [2007]; and Sophie Wahnich’s In Defense of Terror [2012].) Meanwhile, French radical publisher La fabrique not so long ago published the selected writings of Robespierre — Robespierre: pour le bonheur et pour la libérté [for happiness and for liberty]: “citoyens, voulez-vous une révolution sans révolution?”; and a biography by Georges Labica, first published in 1990, is scheduled to reappear soon, maybe at a riper moment, through the same house: Robespierre: une politique de la philosophie. “La Révolution n’est pas terminée,” warns editor Eric Hazan, mischievously.

The Jacobin club was founded on the eve of Revolution, in a Dominican convent on the Seine’s Right Bank, along rue Saint-Honoré. Meetings there were secret debating societies, made up of left-leaning deputies, republican enemies of the monarchy who’d push for the constitution of 1791. The club bore the noble label “Society of Friends of Liberty and Equality”; later it opened its membership to small storeowners and artisans. Over 5,000 clubs operated throughout France; pamphlets and newspapers got published; rallies and processions organized. After the fall of the monarchy, Robespierre led the Jacobins in the National Convention. But the revolutionary fervor of the Jacobins came through its popularism, through the support of the sans-culottes, “those beings,” a 1793 archive says, “who go everywhere on foot, who at no point have millions in the bank, nor a chateau, nor valets at their beck and call; who lodge simply and at night present themselves to their section … applying all their force to pulverize those who come from that abominable faction of stately men.” And those stately men, the aristocrats? “They’re the rich,” another 1793 document says, “all those fat merchants, all the monopolizers, the mountebanks, the bankers, all the swindlers and all those who have something.” Sound familiar?

And a “Society of Friends of Liberty and Equality,” a neo-Jacobin radicalism today that’s as organized and offensive as its namesake from the 1790s? Why not? This time, though, any society would really need to be “popular,” would need to open its doors to all types of sans-culottes, and of all genders. Meeting halls, debating chambers and political networks might be less grandiose: in cafés and on street corners, in estates and at youth centers, in universities classrooms and at mall bowling alleys, anywhere where young people hang out; dialogue might be online as well as face-to-face; a society of “friends” puts another egalitarian spin on Facebook camaraderie. A contra-Tea Party that drinks fair trade coffee.

But let’s be clear: secrecy would be paramount in these meetings, certainly initially, during the plotting, given how the forces of law and order mercilessly cracks down on all subversive politicking. We’ve heard about how the FBI infiltrated Occupy Wall Street (OWS), tracked known activists and student radicals, even on college campuses. The “Partnership for Civil Justice Fund” (PCJF), a US watchdog civil rights group, recently blew the whistle when they obtained FBI documents: “from its inception,” PCJF say, “the FBI treated the Occupy movement as a potential criminal and terrorist threat.” FBI offices and agents, “were in high gear conducting surveillance against the movement even as early as August 2011, a month prior to the establishment of the OWS encampment in Zuccotti Park and other Occupy actions around the country.” And in France, especially in the banlieues, the “Brigade anticriminalité” (BAC), overtly and covertly, has intensified “special police units” patrolling “les zones sensibles.” As Mathieu Rigouste writes in La domination policière (La fabrique, 2012), “the generalization of the BAC in urban territories is one of the decisive stamps of the counter-insurrectional restructuring of the police.”

If anything, “austerity” these days has become a veritable 9/11 in Europe: a watchword, in other words, for neoliberal governments to quieten any dissenting voice. In Greece, where austerity has been most brutally implemented, “centers of lawlessness” have been nipped in the bud. Early this past January, two longstanding “occupied” social centers in Athens, Villa Amalias and Skaramanga, with over 100 makeshift residents, were summarily evicted; and former denizens promptly arrested in an relentless police war of attrition, “Operation Zeus,” against all those outside the dominant orthodoxy, including undocumented migrants. (In Al Jazeera newspaper, Antonis Vradis reports from the frontline: www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/01/2013115105715250554.html.) “The eviction of Villa Amalias and the forthcoming police operation,” Vradis says, “reveals what is an inescapable contradiction in the reformulation of power in the Greek territory: In its short-term quest for stability, it is accelerating long-term social and political change.”

*  *  *

Against such short-term desperation for stability comes, then, an urgent and accelerated need for social and political change. Any Jacobin revival has to take us into and through the insurrection; and  it has to leave us with something to build upon on the other side, in its aftermath. Which leads us to the second part of our revolutionary simultaneous equation. One of the amazing things Eric Hazan points out in Une histoire de la révolution française (La fabrique, 2012), his fresh, partisan take on an old story — the French Revolution — is how quickly it all happened, how fast an immense and deeply entrenched power structure and administration evaporated, caved in, without neither warning nor transition. Hazan evokes the spirit of the Jacobin club, as much about what it might still be as what it once was: “the Society and its affiliates functioned as a system of diffusion of radical ideas. Nothing is more absurd than the notion of ‘Jacobinism’ as an authoritarian Parisian dictatorship. That’s a fabrication inherited from the [counter-revolutionary] Thermidor, which endures along with a hatred of the Revolution.”

Hazan devotes memorable, generous lines — again with the same spirit of going back to the future — to the National Convention, the first revolutionary assembly elected through universal (male) suffrage. “Was the Convention representative of the people?” he asks. If considered as an electoral system, he says, which is to say, as a system of participatory democracy, then clearly not. Yet the virtues of the Convention, as well as its suggestive, enduring visionary politics, came and might still come through an altogether different means. To be sure, the Convention is still unprecedented in how it allowed ordinary people to intervene in its sittings. That ordinary citizens and not a few sans-culottes could pass through the hollowed gates of Parliamentary politics was remarkable then and almost unthinkable now.

Although the Convention’s “Salle du Manège” was limited in size, it did manage to receive three thousands citizens at any one time; and at tribunals, says Hazan, ordinary folk “didn’t hesitate to noisily speak out their opinion”; deputies were forced to respond on the spot and were directly answerable to peoples’ plain outspokenness, to interrogation from their constituents. Alongside this popular participation, sittings of the Convention kicked off by listening to peoples’ letters, often voicing long commentaries on deputies’ propositions, offering suggestions, sympathetic encouragement, angry critique. “In this regard,” concludes Hazan, “the Convention is the first and only national assembly where the people had been able to have their voice directly heard.”

So a message rings out, loud and jarringly: what an insurrection needs to do is force those Parliamentary doors open, smash them down if necessary, so that “the people” gain access. Not so much a participatory government as the chance for a real representative assembly, one in which elected politicians, for the first time in centuries, would actually be responsive to their electorate, engaging with them within an open democratic structure; they’d be answerable, in other words, to the populace not to the usual powerful suspects.

But how to keep counter-revolutionary economic and political interests at bay, how to justifiably shut them out of any new Convention, how to ruthlessly shut them out if necessary? The theme of violence inevitably enters the scene, the idea that there’s a legitimate violence responsive to the everyday violence initiated by the forces of law and order, from its judiciary to its paramilitary, from its surveillance and containment to the outright wars it wages against people its power base doesn’t like. War, from this standpoint, is a just-in-case response, a strike-first-ask-questions-later initiative, a branch of “democracy” that needs to construct its own inconceivable foe: terrorists. Guy Debord confirmed as much back in 1988: “Its wish is to be judged by its enemies rather than by its results.” “People must certainly never know everything about terrorism,” says Debord, “but they must always know enough to convince them that, compared with terrorism, everything else must be acceptable.”

More than two hundred years after Robespierre’s execution, an ideological logic lives on in governments around the world, one that defiles the Jacobin legacy, panders to a revisionist, right-wing Thermidorian telling of the truth: Robespierre was a bloody tyrant, a fanatical monster, a terrorist butcher. And yet, as Eric Hazan maintains, “Robespierre took positions of great coherence and astonishing courage — positions where he was always a minority and sometimes absolutely alone: against suffrage censitaire [census suffrage], for civic rights of actors and Jews, against martial law, against slavery in the colonies, against the death penalty, for the right to petition, for the freedom of the press … In what country, in what assembly, have we ever heard so much contre-courant argument declared with such force of conviction?” Robespierre was defiled, still is defiled, because what he said threatened ruling class privilege, upset their status quo; to defile him thus serves to tarnish every future hope of revolution, of future social change. “I was born to fight crime,” he says in a final speech from 1794. “The time has not arrived for men of substance to be able to serve their homeland with impunity; defenders of liberty will be outlaws, for as long as the horde of scoundrels predominates.”

The new urban question is about creating a Jacobin movement that can contest the “horde of scoundrels” who still predominate, stand up to their arsenal and ideologues; a movement that can loosen the neo-Haussmannite grip on our society, and declare war against its protagonists and puppets. Manuel Castells saw the old urban question as a question answered by “urban social movements” struggling for their right to the city; yet the new urban question needs to be countered by something much more expansive, something much more far-reaching: by an urban political movement that struggles for generalized democracy, that organizes a concerted insurrection; and, moreover, knows exactly what it’s fighting for as well as against. To do so we need visionaries as well as agitators, conspirators like Blanqui but also leaders like Robespierre, people with big plans and grand convictions — outlaw mathematicians who know, perhaps more than anything else, all about revolutionary simultaneous equations.

 

Material Struggles, Imaginary Struggles

by James Scorer, Lecturer in Latin American Cultural Studies

via flickr by Doug88888

via flickr by Doug88888

In December 2010, thousands of people seized the area known as Parque Indoamericano in Buenos Aires, a large space of open land in the south of the city’s autonomous central district.  Demanding the right to dignified housing, the occupiers were forcibly removed after some days by the three state police forces that bear some jurisdiction in Capital Federal (Policía Federal, Policía Metropolitana and the Gendarmería).  Local vigilante groups from adjacent neighbourhoods also participated in the evictions, which eventually resulted in three deaths.

The taking of Parque Indoamericano highlights the ongoing material struggle over housing and the right to the city in Latin America, a tension that, in Buenos Aires, continues to afflict the city despite the significant advances that have been made in social housing during the centre-left Kirchner era (2003-present).  In the wake of the events of 2010, the use made of the Park by the Gobierno de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires [The Government of the City of Buenos Aires], led by the right-wing Governor Mauricio Macri and staunchly opposed to President Cristina Kirchner, has underlined the importance of that material struggle over the city.

The information provided on the City’s website about the Park is an exercise in sleight of hand.  The same administration that, both via judicial means and state-sanctioned violence, uprooted the occupiers, now states: ‘El Parque Indoamericano es una causa de los vecinos que este Gobierno abrazó desde el principio’ [The Indoamericano is a cause {also lawsuit} of the neighbours that this Government has embraced from the beginning].  The statement implies sympathy for the vigilante groups, suggesting that those protesters living in the shantytown bordering the park (Villa 20) were not neighbours.

The words also draw a veil over the xenophobic comments that Macri made during the occupation about the protesters, some of whom, in turn, expressed their political affiliations by stating that they wanted to call their future settlement ‘Néstor Kirchner’ after the deceased former President.[i]  The Governor exploited the protest by stating misleadingly that the City of Buenos Aires was suffering from waves of immigrants and that the City was propping up the poorer countries that neighbour Argentina.  The city’s ongoing housing crisis can hardly be attributed to immigration, however, levels of which, if anything, have fallen rather than risen since the economic crisis of 2001.  Not only did Macri’s words reflect the growing fear that the Argentine capital is suffering from ‘Latinamericanisation’ but they also tried to massage the material realities of Buenos Aires.

The webpage of the City’s Government also demonstrates that, since those verbal interventions, Macri’s administration has invested heavily in the Park.  The public space now benefits from walkways, new lighting, tree planting, public toilets, basketball courts and football pitches, among other amenities and improvements.[ii]  The tents of the protestors, symbolic of their precarious living conditions, have now been replaced with an assortment of other, pointedly more permanent, material interventions.

These transformations embarked upon by the City take advantage of the Park’s political capital both in material terms and also to reinforce the image of the incumbent as a governor who, as his advertising campaigns state, ‘makes’ Buenos Aires.  The administration’s belief that politics (and the political imaginary) is achieved, measured and sustained via the material, therefore, not only reflects the corporate-led vision of the governor but also masks the manner in which Macri also manages and refashions the urban imaginary.

The recurring formulation of the relationship between the material city and the urban imaginary as a dichotomy between the real and the not-real is not the most effective way to analyse the intersections between the social, political and cultural landscapes of the city.  It often leaves out the imaginary altogether or, at best, relegates it to the position of an inferior cousin.  We need to think beyond such rigid frameworks of analysis and move to a conceptual position that situates the imaginary as a constitutive and structuring dimension of urban politics.  In the case of the Argentine capital, for example, such analysis could include the recent attempt to market Buenos Aires as a ‘green city’, Macri’s mobilisation of the city’s youth via rock music on the campaign trail, the City’s advertising campaign ‘Haciendo Buenos Aires’ [Making Buenos Aires], or the altogether more anomic depictions of the city-being-made in films such as Medianeras, directed by Gustavo Taretto.  Using this interdisciplinary approach to reflect on how these and other urban imaginaries participate in the construction of the city will illuminate how imaginaries mobilize the multiple material and contested infrastructures of the global urban south.  Such is the departure point for the Argentine case studies that Dr. Leandro Minuchin and I began to research in 2010.

James Scorer, Lecturer in Latin American Cultural Studies, University of Manchester

 

Rioting and Architecture

by Mark Crinson, Art History

They broke every window in our street… You have to hammer at the window glass for twenty minutes to get an impression. They were able to batter them to such an extent they were able to break through the glass (i).

More than 130 people, many youths, were arrested in a night of turmoil which saw £500,000 of damage caused when the mob descended on the exclusive Emporio Armani (ii).

The rioters vandalized the centre of the city and have destroyed everything that came in their way. Fire bombs were thrown at shops and windows were smashed. The police was overwhelmed by the huge number of rioters that reached 2000 persons… After they have destroyed the shops, the looters have stolen electrical items, jewelry, designer clothes, mobile phones and alcohol. They have trashed high street shops and banks and smashed them to pieces and banks too (iii).

Armani Store and John Rylands Library , Spinningfields

 

Was architecture merely incidental to last summer’s riots? Did it seem not only to contain the things desired or reviled, but in itself to be loathed: the complacent bank and the sleek boutique, as much as the decorated sheds of retail parks? Could not some of the damage be seen as an attack – if often blurred and mis-targeted – on the architectural forms of our ‘rampantly feral’ capitalism(iv)? Images of burning buildings and broken glass certainly played a notable part in the media coverage, acting as both trace and symbol of broken Britain. Because this damage was largely to shops and high streets, however, it was easily subsumed to the politicians’ view that the riots were not symptoms of social breakdown but opportunistic outbreaks of acquisitive criminality. Yet, in such a complex sequence of events and causes, could not some of this building bashing be interpreted in a different way?

That the immediate target of much of the rioting, the membrane to break through, was glass, has not been commented on in the numerous blogs and articles on the riots. In a sense it’s too obvious and therefore ignored in the search for reasons and causes. Of course people smash windows when they riot, it’s much easier than smashing concrete or brick. Along with fire, the shattering of glass offers the most direct challenge to the materials of urban order. And now there is an awful lot more glass around – glass walls and floors, the aquaria of offices and shops, the time-denying gleam of glass towers. By extension, then, this smashing can be understood to deal a different kind of violence to a history of modern urban and architectural thinking. Glass was never just glass, never a mere building material – there was a poetics and theoretics to it (v).  Glass embodied many of the symbolic properties of modernity, including the interpenetrating magic of space-time itself. It meant intoxicating forms of living through the dematerialisation of walls and the exposure of previously hidden interiors. It would revitalize experience, offer a ‘new vision’, and promise new states of consciousness. It would clad the Stadtkron and other crystalline fantasies. It promised a new reconciliation of man and nature, a new oneness facilitated by modernity, and a life leaving behind old habits and traces. If it had once shown people glimpses of paradise and let in God’s light, now it enabled the panoptic gaze, ‘[spawning] new paranoias’ and new forms of ungodly exhibitionism (vi).  Its taut skins seemed to supersede oppositions of the mechanical and organic. It evidenced democracy and promised egalitarianism, a new social transparency, the open society, accessible government: as contemporary architects like Richard Rogers and Norman Foster still repetitiously insist, glazed walls signal ‘democratic values of openness and participation… [or] the accessibility of a judicial system’, ‘the transparency and openness of the democratic process’, ‘dignity, transparency and openness’ (vii). In all this glass was always closely bound into modernism’s dialectics of the rational and the enchanting.

If such is the rhetoric of modern architects and their clients, for others glass may not and may never have signified in these ways; it may actually be about false accessibility, about temptation and leading astray. One of the original arguments, for instance, against building the Crystal Palace – that free trade utopia, icon of modernist pre-histories, and paean to glazed showcasing – was that it would inevitably be stoned by the mob (viii). The 2011 smashing of glass might be seen, then, as an appropriation of the architects’ view of it, and if it was sometimes a refusal of that kind of rhetoric it was also a way of taking it literally. What is inside is desirable and must be got at even using illegitimate means? Democracy is just another means of delusion? Transparency is finally recognised as obfuscation? If so, then this doesn’t mean the end of a now long history of utopian glass thinking but another chapter in it. After all, even some architects might continue to welcome riots as ‘the awakening of cleanliness’.(ix)

Suggestive parallels to the recent riots can be found in Isobel Armstrong’s fascinating book Victorian Glassworlds (2008). The breaking of glass in riots leading up to the 1832 Reform Act and then during the Chartist-linked Birmingham Bull Ring riots of 1839, were clearly demonstrations of alienation from political process: ‘[the crowds] affirmed something about the specificity of their own experiences as well as, or through, shattering glass’ (x). The patrician attitude of establishment figures like the Duke of Wellington (whose houses and tours were a frequent target for stone throwers) was that such smashing up demonstrated the endemically irrational behaviour of the lower classes, justifying their exclusion from legitimate politics (xi). Although those riots did not have an element of material acquisition to them, it is the cathartic fury directed at glass that parallels the recent riots. Breaking glass generates a visceral excitement as barriers are broken and the building’s orifices penetrated: the façade can demonstratively be cracked, defenestrated. Armstrong suggests that the sound of glass breaking was more than the accompaniment to this somatic release, but also an ‘insistence of being heard… [being] redeemed from anonymity’, challenging the insulation of privilege through the direct agency of body against building. This kind of corporeal assertion contrasts with the property-owner’s order, ‘demonstrating that his are literally constructed categories, bound up as they are in his very buildings (xii).’

Like E. P. Thompson’s famous argument for the ‘moral economy’ of eighteenth-century rioting against the economy of the free market, Armstrong insists on the self-discipline and idealism of her Victorian rioters, their refusal to loot. This may not sit easy with comparisons to the summer of 2011, let alone to other crystal nights. A glib way to express this is to say that the commodification of labour has been replaced by the commodification of desire – a demand for change by a demand for trainers – though this misses the initial protests of 2011 and the sense of deep injustice around stop-and-search and the killing of Mark Duggan. That there were protesters and there were looters, and sometimes the two were indistinguishable, is what makes the riots of 2011 too complex, too diverse in cause and effect, for us to reach easy conclusions about. But there are some parallels with Armstrong’s account. Among its drives, rioting is about a taking over of space, an ownership of it and a sense of power through owning it, however briefly. Such was certainly behind the spontaneous taking to the streets of the powerless and the disaffected after Duggan’s death. And the group action of rioting, its ‘performative unity’ (xiii), raises the prospect not of the spectral rabble but of an urban collectivity acting on its disenchantment – as indicated by those instances of co-operative looting among rioters, even between members of different gangs (as observed in the recent Guardian/LSE report ‘Reading the Riots’). Is to riot in this way to reverse the expected behaviour of the disempowered subject and the individual consumer?

It’s clear that in Manchester’s case the spaces in which riots took place were the same spaces as the city’s much acclaimed ‘regeneration’; that’s to say, at the centre of the Victorian industrial city in those areas revamped in response to the 1996 IRA bomb and the threat of out of town shopping in the Trafford Centre. The post-1990s regeneration has been uneven, and largely focused on the central city. A new urban order has been created which seems mainly to be about the rebranding of central Manchester. Yet although it does not use shops to hide slums from the bourgeoisie, as in Friedrich Engels’s canonical account, it does share much with Engels’s notion of a ‘hypocritical plan’. The conspicuous demonstration of the resources and pleasures of affluence are narrowly bestowed on certain areas of the city, leaving the ‘underclass’ as marginal onlookers. In this context, then, we might adapt Armstrong’s idea that her Victorian rioting constitutes its own style or aesthetic into an understanding of the 2011 rioting as a form of architectural criticism. Was this an ironic way of dealing with the spaces of consumerism as disqualified consumers seized hold and upturned the effects and meanings of transparency? To put it differently, how does the shattering of glass sit with the hermeneutics of glass? Let’s look at one – admittedly limited – instance.

Among the areas of Manchester’s city centre attacked on the evening of 10 August was Spinningfields. The name is redolent of Manchester’s Cottonopolis past and the area, midway along Deansgate and between it and the River Irwell, was one of the most notorious slums of the Victorian city, one selected by Engels for particular attention. Spinningfields was re-zoned in Manchester’s postwar city plan as an area for Manchester’s courts and its legal profession, and it is this legal architecture that has been updated in the last five years, linking it to a considerably expanded business quarter. Two of the features of this form of regeneration are particularly important for the argument here. One is the extraordinary vista of glazed buildings that have taken over the area; and the other is a new kind of mixed zoning that has deliberately been built into this as the area touches Deansgate itself, for long one of Manchester’s main shopping streets.

One of the shops targeted by the 2011 rioters was Emporio Armani, fronting Spinningfields on Deansgate. (Emporio Armani was also a particular target of the looting in Birmingham, as one of the quotes at the head of this article shows.) Apparently, rioters were baulked here by a line of security guards and only smashed one large window before heading off to easier targets. The shop fills the ground floor of No 1 The Avenue, an entirely glazed building but of a specifically 21st century type. It was designed by the London-based architectural firm Sheppard Robson and opened two years ago. Sheppard Robson is one of the many middling practices (though of large size) that diffuse (and perhaps defuse) vanguard styles for mainstream clients. In this case the building is a near-parody of late deconstructivism mixed with high tech, Daniel Libeskind crossed with Norman Foster. Such buildings must have a ‘concept’, and here this is based on a simple-minded game of slicing a parallelogram, flipping it and then misaligning the two blocks. The cantilever created by this misalignment provides a wedge-shaped canopy for shoppers, with a sharp-edged arris of glass panes pointing at the street. One detects that recent concerns about architecture and security have entered many architects’ unconscious – even in a shop like this there is a strange combination of vulnerability and aggression, come-hitherness and repulsion. Across the whole building and reinforcing its strident geometry is a jazzy diagonal cladding of trapezoidal glass panels. The skill of the architects here, if it can be called that, is to tantalize and enthrall. We look into the darkened windows to see the displays but also see beyond them to view parts of the shop’s interior. Perhaps it’s meant to flatter the consumer with a sense of discretion, entitlement, and hipped up slickness. Transparency as obfuscation, then: as teasing glamour, a heightening of emulative desire, with more than a hint of those intoxicating qualities that some modernists perceived in the potential of glass.

No 1 The Avenue is a local if not very distinguished example of a widespread phenomenon, named by Owen Hatherley as ‘pseudomodernism’ (xiv). Here, in a reactionary metamorphosis, the postmodernist love of the building as sign has now turned back to the surface effects of modernism – a veneer of its good taste or even of its political associations – so providing the boosterist built logos of our neoliberal age, its glass shards, obelisks and gherkins. As Hal Foster has suggested, the old transparency of modernism has become ‘spaces that are not only opaque, but that are illusionistic… [such space] purports to be about perceptual experience, but in many ways it does the perceiving for us.(xv)’ One cannot argue that these glazed buildings were the particular target of rioters; in fact many styles and periods of buildings were attacked. But there was a particular poignancy at Spinningfields that would emerge only a few days later.

Passage, Spinningfields

In the week following the riots across British cities many of the perpetrators of both righteous protest and opportunistic shopping were hastily brought to court as part of the avenging government’s attempt to show that it was in control. One of the busiest courts was the Manchester City Magistrates Court and Coroners Court located, as it happens, in Spinningfields just behind the Emporio Armani shop. The court building’s entrance façade is clad to its full height in glass and displays a multi-level escalator within, implying a kind of vaguely efficient and, of course, ‘transparent’ disposal of functions. On one side the court building turns a corner and becomes a menswear shop, on the other it terminates a wide pedestrian passage – while Armani is on the left, the new extension to the John Rylands Library is on the right (the library also fronts onto Deansgate). This passage is parallel with The Avenue, which houses several more luxury clothes shops, but the link between the courts and The Avenue is barred by a glazed wall, clearly an ad hoc measure to separate a restaurant’s outdoor space from court attendees snatching time for a last cigarette. The passage can’t be described as a street nor is ‘pedestrianised way’ quite right – too old fashioned for one thing – though it certainly evokes vague associations with older planning fantasies. Such passages are designed for shopping and certain other leisure activities deemed legitimate, a ‘right to the city’ is the thinnest of its effects. Manchester has quite a few of them, and quite a few were also the places where the rioting happened – in the pedestrianised Market Street, for instance, and in New Cathedral Street. The latter is not as cloistered as it sounds but actually a group of high-end shops on an elevated curve of walkway leading to the ersatz environment that is Manchester’s version of a cathedral close.

With these spaces, seductive and absurd by turn, the city attempts to ward off the rivalry of the out of town shopping centre, offering an urban density of commerce close by the cultural, civic and religious institutions of the traditional city. In Spinningfields the uniform material of different building types signals a uniform rhetoric of accessibility – whether of the judicial system (transparent justice), of a library (access to learning), or even of an ‘exclusive’ menswear shop (‘modern lifestyle… with a sense of classic sophistication’). Cynical and insensitive in social terms, the development is alternately ‘sensitive’ and ‘cutting edge’ in the terms of architects’ and developers’ jargon, the commercial and cultural cream for the business quarter beyond. In Sheppard Robson’s own publicity No 1 The Avenue is described as pivotal in form and location, ‘tying Manchester’s retail and business district with its civic core (xvi),’ and the building itself embodies this mixed-use, combining Armani with offices, a roof terrace, and a basement nightclub. (Another example, that epitomizes the absurd end of this fad for mixed-use, is close by – the oast house-style pub, clad in faux-distressed materials, that now fills the square in front of the older court building.)

Emporio Armani benefits, then, from its proximity to the Rylands Library and the courts. And they all benefit from an extraordinary CCTV concentration inside and outside the buildings, the vehicle of a new social contract assuring security and inviting affluent exhibitionism. We are in the heart of a 21st century panopticon here, one intersected by the complementary practices of shopping, surveillance, and punishment, and coterminous with an immaterial architecture of data formation and retrieval (xvii). And like most previous panopticons, of course, it courts failure, reproducing the conditions that brought it into being, its pleasures and disciplines emptied out and turned perverse because of the lack of a complementary political space.

In its great wisdom Manchester University in 2007 saw fit to build a minimalist glass box to house a café and shop as the most public face of the Rylands Library’s extension in Spinningfields. Sitting in the café one can take a table right beside the glazed wall and, eating one’s carrot cake, observe the human traffic into and out of the courts, as well as into and out of Emporio Armani. The rioters apparently sniffed at attacking this extension, probably because it had nothing obvious that could be looted and perhaps also because a library had no evident recognition factor – it clearly wasn’t a bank or Starbucks or Miss Selfridges. One might complacently say this confirms the marginality of learning in these our neoliberal times, but if so it is a marginality the university itself had already played into with the architectural appearance and the very function of its new extension. The original Victorian library’s glory, now made into a mere appendix by the new extension, was the way it addressed the street directly and then absorbed the visitor in its evocative entrance spaces. It used the gloomth of neo-Gothic tectonics to suggest the special mysteries of learning; access here was a matter of passing through successive spatial densities. Now the hidden structures of contemporary architecture suggest nothing but the lightness of modern being.

So, there is this extraordinary conjunction of functions more or less cheek by jowl in Spinningfields – designer clothes shop, magistrates court, and academic library. And inbetween these buildings, as if to cap the conjunction, is a mini glass shard, an enigmatic transparent pyramid that turns out to be the entrance to the underground nightclub – not so enigmatic after being boarded up following the night of 10 August. So in this 21st century corridor we run the gauntlet or we take to the catwalk. Glass is used to different ends, but the glazing also unites these institutions in a common play on a now meaningless accessibility. Part of the lost potential of this area might have been in the very dissonance of these institutions; that there might be something interesting about the clash of their values. But, post-riot, the leveling transparency had become guilty spectacle. This was where Manchester’s regeneration got differently confrontational, where the contemporary glassworlds of the law, security, consumerism, and learning were newly exposed in terms of who is entitled to use these streets in the manner for which they had been designed.

Georges Bataille defined architecture as the physiognomy of a society’s authority, and saw such events as the storming of the Bastille as a way of transgressing against the very nature of architecture: ‘it is difficult to explain this impulse of the mob other than by the animosity the people hold against the monuments which are their true masters (xviii).’ It is perhaps no more than an interesting fantasy to imagine the riots as an uprising against our present phantasmagoric forms of transparency. But even to say ‘this shattered window is the work of my hands’ is to reveal a certain kind of meaning in the moments of madness.

References

i. John Henn, owner of a shop in Wolverhampton, as reported in The Guardian, 5 December 2011.

ii. http://www.expressandstar.com/news/2011/08/09/birmingham-riots-100-arrested-after-night-of-looting/ accessed 8 December 2011.

iii. www.londonisburning.co.uk/…, accessed 6 October 2011.

iv. David Harvey, ‘Feral Capitalism Hits the Streets’, The Bullet (Socialist Project e-bulletin), 535, 12 August 2011, http://www.socialistproject.ca/bullet/535.php accessed 10 November 2011.

v.  For the various mythologies that follow see Detlef Mertins, Modernity Unbound: Other Histories of Architectural Modernity, London: Architectural Association, 2011.

vi. The architectural practice Diller, Scofidio & Renfrew, as quoted in Hal Foster, The Art-Architecture Complex, London: Verso, 2011, p. 98.

vii. The first quote is Richard Rogers, the second and third are by Norman Foster: as quoted in Foster, The Art-Architecture Complex, pp. 29, 48.

viii. Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds: Glass Culture and the Imagination 1830-1880, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 11.

ix. Le Corbusier, The Radiant City: Elements of a doctrine of urbanism to be used as the basis of our machine-age civilization (1935), New York: Orion, 1967, p. 23.

x. Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds, p. 62.

xi. Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds, pp. 65-66.

xii. Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds, p. 68.

xiii. Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds, p. 67.

xiv. Owen Hatherley, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, London: Verso, 2010, pp. xx-xxiv.

xv. ‘Art lessons’, interview between Thomas Wensing and Hal Foster, Architecture Today, 222, October 2011, p. 14.

xvi. www.sheppardrobson.com/projects/page.cfm?projectID=100052, accessed 7 December 2011.

Are Riots Normal? Or, ‘Don’t panic, Captain Mainwaring!’

London Riots

by Leif Jerram.

As we watch riots tear through the centres of British cities, many people have (instinctively and understandably) tried to see something of profound importance in them. For Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, they show why the budget for his police force should not be cut. For those on the left, the riots have been an essay in the perils of vacuous consumerism on the one hand, and shameless abandonment of the poor by the state on the other. And for our Conservative prime minister, it is confirmation that parts of our society are sick and evil. For David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham (the epicentre of the riots), we must tackle the ‘Grand Theft Auto’ culture of gang pride and instant gratification.

But as a historian there is a parallel issue we need to consider. Consider this take from the Manchester City News:

Brutality is still in the ascendant. Day after day the shameful and sickening catalogue runs on. No morning comes now without its black calendar of disgusting crime. Neither the sentences of justice, such as they are, nor the protests of the press, seem to be of the slightest avail… [W]e are only expressing the feeling which is shared by all decent persons, whether rich or poor, when we say that this is condition of things altogether unendurable by a civilised people. (1)

The next month, the new Conservative government set up an inquiry into the law on assault. Disraeli was the Tory PM, 1874 the year.

People have been vociferously complaining about an alienated or feral or disconnected or criminal or impoverished or hopeless urban underclass (especially youth) since they became an object of study and classification in the late 18th/early19th centuries – with the emergence of modern cities themselves. And periodically, ‘stuff’ happens involving this ‘class’ of people. As we rush to explain this wave of violence, who remembers now the all-absorbing press coverage and social concern about gang cultures in Manchester and Glasgow between the wars? Or the anti-Semitic riots of post-World War Two Liverpool? The flick-knife violence around mods and rockers in British seaside towns in 1964? The football violence of the 1900s (it was far worse then than ever since), or the 60s, 70s and 80s? The swiftly rising crime and drug addiction of the pre-Thatcherite ‘golden age’? By forgetting our history, we have paralysed ourselves in expensive (emotionally and financially) frustration, on both right and left.

There is a terrifying alternative – terrifying to academics, journalists, and politicians alike. Maybe history shows us that these riots, horrible as they are (and particularly in light of the deaths of three young men in Birmingham) mean nothing at all? Maybe they’re just one of those random things that happens in all sorts of societies from time to time? Maybe there is no story of decline here? Maybe these sorts of things have happened episodically in all sorts of British cities for all sorts of reasons? Sometimes rich bankers go bonkers and wreck loads of stuff for reasons they themselves don’t understand; sometimes 30 year old classroom assistants do it too. Of course it’s bad that fathers abandon their kids – but it’s bad because it’s bad, not because it leads to riots. It’s always been bad, riots or not. People sometimes just do weird stuff they can’t really explain – sometimes, there isn’t an over-arching narrative. Society, like Celine Dion’s heart, goes on.

The deaths of three young men is a terrible, terrible thing. So is the destruction of homes, the muggings, the fear, the arson. I would have been terrified to have been a police officer or a shopkeeper in Wolverhampton or Woolwich. But some of what we need to think about is this: which parts of relatively persistent features of urban societies (like disorder, and anxiety about disorder) are random in their occurrence but persistent in their nature, and so probably don’t need explaining, because in fact they can’t be explained? (Except with a grand theory of everything) Which parts of the persistent features do have a common cause, but one which we don’t really know how to start explaining because haven’t got really convincing tools? And which parts have a common cause, and one which we can explain reasonably clearly? Before we rush to blame absent fathers or computer games, we have to be sure that these riots aren’t just random, otherwise we’ll spend a lot of money on not very much, and expend a lot of emotion getting not very far. A proper survey of urban disorder over the last 100 years could show us this.

Because by crisis-ifying this, we may in fact be playing right into the hands of those who seek to dismiss whole chunks of our society as being sick or evil or criminal, and thereby avoid having to include them in our vision of the future. Equally, by crisis-ifying it, we might be playing into the hands of those who advocate huge government programmes of interference and intervention where it is unwarranted, ineffective or unwelcome. After all, the economic harm caused by these rioters pales into insignificance compared to the economic harm caused by bankers – but we don’t spend much time trying to understand their moral alienation (for those on the left), or identifying them on the front pages of newspapers and locking them up (for those on the right). And which has rendered more people homeless and destroyed more small businesses: the banking crisis, or the riots? Sometimes in history weird stuff happens – universes are created, planking takes off as a craze, banks collapse, Steve Jobs invents the Mac. At each point, we should be ready to ask ourselves whether we’re handling a wacky anomaly or not. Is Britain Broken? I don’t think so. If we go looking for friendliness and good behaviour, we’ll relatively easily find it, but we give it almost no thought. ‘Years of Calm on Poor Estate’ has yet to appear on the front page of any newspaper, though it would describe most poor parts of Britain.

The nature of the problem is infinitely complicated – not just in this disorder, but in all of the moments of our collective urban lives – by the utter randomness of city spaces. Real encounters with real people make a mockery of journalistic scene setting or blame-making, academic investigation, or governmental strategies. Louise of Louise’s Hair by the bus depot in Wolverhampton came out of her shop and shouted at the 200 or so rioters to leave her alone – and they did. Louise is black; a woman; speaks with a mixture of a West Indian and Wolverhampton accent. According to most of the hackneyed theories we have, she shouldn’t be powerful, in control, confrontational, dynamic, or even a businesswoman at all. Yet she drew a line in the sand and confronted 200 young men with sticks and rocks, and they just left her, and her shop, alone. She was asked by the BBC why she did what she did. She said,

‘[My life] is a long story. But I’m here. And I don’t think some low life who dow’ want to work, who want everything given to them should just come along and destroy my shop. In five minutes? No way in hell. … I bloody well stan’ my ground. I told them, “Just leave my shop”, in no uncertain words. I give’em the language they are used to. They are used to nothing better. We all suffer. We all grown up with nothing. We all come from the same place. We all struggle for what we have and work hard. Nothing is easy, but get a job. If you want trainers you can damn’ well buy them and you’ll appreciate it more… It was just for fun – there was no protest.’ (2)

I say this not to heroise Louise, but to randomise her. The randomness of Louise is clear – we couldn’t set up a programme to produce Louises; we couldn’t train them; we couldn’t station them around a town if we could. We’ve got no idea whether Louise is a good or bad person in other areas of her life. We can’t define why Louise was successful in getting the rioters to move on, when the police could not. It was a random person in a random moment exercising random effects. So why, then, should we expect to be able to understand the rioters, whether through metaphors of evil, decline, or alienation? Let’s fix what we’re sure we understand. Let’s allow a bit of randomness into the world to though, and stop pretending we can understand everything. History shows us we can’t do that even in retrospect. Sometimes, bad things happen. And sometimes good things too.

References:
1. Cited in Andrew Davies, The Gangs of Manchester (Preston, 2008), 74-5.
2. Interview on BBC Radio 4, PM, 10.8.11.

“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.