Tag Archives: violence

Nicaragua: the road to ‘pacification’

The transformation of Managua’s road system should be seen as a case of “infrastructural violence” which is intrinsic to a broader regime of injustice, argues Dennis Rodgers (BWPI).

Managua has undergone many metamorphoses during the past half century. The reasons range from a devastating earthquake in 1972 to the utopian urban planning of the Sandinista revolution during the 1980s, and subsequent attempts by right-wing post-revolutionary governments to erase these material and symbolic traces of Sandinismo. Since 1998, however, Managua has undergone a remarkable and wide-ranging makeover, which has fundamentally changed the metropolis’ morphology in an unprecedented manner.

From a ramshackle, sprawled out, and impoverished city widely nicknamed “la ciudad caótica” (“the chaotic city”), the metropolis has been completely re-organized, its transport network improved, new buildings erected, and it now has numerous expensive restaurants, bars, night clubs, hotels, casinos, designer stores, and malls. Although these transformations can be linked to the post-1990 market economy suppressed during the Sandinista period, the city’s makeover has also been the result of a very purposeful process of state-led planned transformation.

This is especially obvious when considering the striking transformation of Managua’s legendarily abysmal road infrastructure over the past decade and a half. As late as 1997, potholes were a chronic driving hazard, traffic was chaotic, car-jackings frequent and there was no discernable logic to the city’s byzantine road infrastructure. By 2000, the Managua municipality had carried out a large-scale programme to fill in the potholes, resurfaced and widened the major arteries of the metropolis, built a suburban bypass, and replaced traffic lights with roundabouts.

These works ostensibly aimed to speed up traffic and reduce congestion, but when considered on a map, a definite pattern emerges whereby the new roads predominantly connect locations associated with the lives of the urban elite, for example linking the (newly re-modelled) international airport to the Presidential palace to malls to the “Zona Rosa” of restaurants, bars, and nightclubs to the exclusive Las Colinas and Santo Domingo neighbourhoods, and so on. This particular road network has enabled the urban elite to move safely between the different points of their lives, no longer impeded by potholes, congestion, traffic lights, or crime (roundabouts considerably reducing the risk of being car-jacked).

As such, Managua’s pattern of road development has been the keystone of a veritable process of socio-spatial “disembedding”, whereby a whole layer of the city’s fabric has been “ripped out” from the general patchwork quilt of the metropolis and constituted as a “Nueva Managua” (New Managua) that is exclusively for the rich, who now live in what could be termed “splendid segregation”. At the same time, however, the process arguably goes further than this, with the road building also constituting a means of actively “pacifying” the poor, as the view from barrio Carlos Fonseca highlights well.

Barrio Carlos Fonseca is a settlement of approximately 1,500 inhabitants and about 180 households in the South-East of the city. The neighbourhood has little to distinguish it from other poor neighbourhoods in the area, except for the fact that the pista Cardenal Miguel Obando y Bravo extends through it. The pista is a four-lane highway that cuts East-West across South-Central Managua, and was built in three stages for a total cost of US$5.6 million, or about 10% of the Managua Municipality’s budget.

The first two stages of building the pista in 2006-07 involved widening and improving pre-existing roads. The third stage, in 2008, involved literally bulldozing throughbarrio Carlos Fonseca. This affected 40 households in the neighbourhood: 16 houses were completely destroyed, and 24 were partially destroyed. The details that emerged about this process from interviews that I carried out in the neighbourhood in 2009 suggest that there was very little consultation, differential compensation, and also likely instances of corruption. None of this is very surprising, however –political clientelism is a well-established practice in Nicaragua, as is corruption, and undermining possibilities for organized resistance through “divide and rule” tactics makes eminent sense.

The consequences of the pista’s construction for local barrio life have been devastating, however. Many of those whose houses were affected but not completely destroyed have found themselves living in cramped conditions. In one case, there were 19 people living in 3 rooms instead of the 6 they had previously had. Only 3 of the 16 families whose houses were completely destroyed accepted re-location outside the barrio, and the Municipality re-settled the rest in a baseball field in the neighbourhood, providing them with materials to build houses that were generally not as spacious or solid as their previous ones.

The baseball field had moreover until then constituted a primary focus for neighbourhood socialization, and the re-settlement consequently eliminated thebarrio’s primary area of public space. As a local inhabitant called Don Victor told me: “Where are the youth supposed to meet and play ball now? They used to get together in the park all the time, and we’d all gather to watch them, and you would be able to chat to other inhabitants of the barrio. Now you just talk to your neighbour, and even then, hardly ever, because everybody stays locked up in their homes due to the crime and insecurity, so it’s just hello and goodbye whenever you’re coming or going…”

The pista also literally cut the barrio in half, significantly changing local attitudes and behaviour patterns. As Doña Angelina explained: “you go less to the other side, you don’t see people anymore, there’s no exchange… If you go to the other side, they say to you, ‘but you’re from the other side’, which never happened before, we were all from barrio Carlos Fonseca, now it’s like you have Carlos Fonseca 1 and Carlos Fonseca 2.”

Although negative views about the new road were widespread, there simultaneously existed a clear acceptance. A local youth called Mungo for example responded to my critiques by saying “hey maje, this road, it’s progress, and you can’t stop progress, we’ve gotta keep on moving forward to improve things in the city…” Similarly, Doña Angelina once told me: “you know, I don’t mind living next to thepista. It’s beautiful at night, when it’s all lit up. There are no street lights in the barrio, but here yes, and so you feel that here you have progress, you know.”

Such discourses reflect a socio-psychological process of “pacification”, in the sense developed by Norbert Elias in The Civilizing Process, wherein he traces how the assimilation of a particular discourse can condition the world view of individual social agents in ways that lead them to conform. Individuals become “psychologized” into a dominant value system, even if it is oppressive and unequal, and Doña Angelina or Mungo had clearly internalized a vision of Managua’s infrastructural development that led them to believe in the inevitability – and indeed, the necessity – of transformation, irrespective of its negative impact on their lives.

When viewed from this perspective, a case can be made that Managua’s makeover constitutes a case of what might be termed “infrastructural violence”. This goes beyond seeing infrastructure simply as instrumental to instances of oppression and domination, but rather considers it as intrinsic to a broader regime of injustice. In other words, the issue here is not so much that political economy and infrastructure are inevitably interrelated, but rather the way a particular articulation of the two can come together to purposefully produce outcomes such as “pacification” in barrioCarlos Fonseca.

This is important because much recent writing belonging to the so-called “infrastructural turn” has adopted a view of urban infrastructures as complex “assemblages”, that is to say highly contingent, unplanned, and often temporary material configurations. This arguably obscures the way in which infrastructural development can constitute an intrinsic basis for oppressive forms of domination in cities. The concept of “infrastructural violence”, on the other hand, provides a lens through which to capture this. When seen from such a perspective, Managua’s makeover emerges unambiguously as a deliberate reengineering of metropolitan topography by an urban elite aiming to both segregate and manage the poor in the city. Both in terms of intent and consequence, such a pernicious process merits being labelled “violent”, but doing so also squarely situates blame and responsibility, and as such is the first step towards trying to transform this profoundly unjust reality.

This article was first published on OpenDemocracy.net (8 November 2011)

Shop a Looter: Renaissance style

by Stephen Milner, Serena Professor of Italian, School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures.

The outbreak of seemingly random violence and looting which marked the end of the summer continues to generate comment, analysis and discussion in the press and amongst politicians, policy makers, and academics as evidenced already in this blog. Causal explanations have been drawn from the full range of ‘–ologies’ made available to us by the social sciences whose own disciplinary roots lie in late nineteenth century attempts to account for collective violence, crowd psychology, and the relation of the individual to social structures. Many have blamed the loss of moral compass in the political and social realm by linking the street level opportunism of the urban dispossessed with the corporate opportunism of the financial sector and political opportunism of some MPs who continue to place private wealth before any common wealth and who view the state as a supplier of patronage for the benefit of friends and relations.

Yet unlike the complex and intricate investigations into covert political and financial malpractice, the very public nature of the recent riots and looting has seen the police deploy information collected from so-called ‘security’ cameras and surveillance technology to help identify participants. This ‘publication’ of the riots, in the sense of both using media to identify and capture participants and in calling on the public to participate in the policing endeavour, resulted in Manchester in the ‘Shop a Looter’ campaign: faces caught on camera were displayed on billboards together with the number of a confidential helpline for use by the general public when forwarding information.

As a historian of Renaissance Florence based in Manchester, I’m naturally interested in the analogy that was often made in the nineteenth century between the two cities. It was to Italy and to Florence as the cloth, wool processing, and financial capital of late medieval and Renaissance Italy that the industrialist entrepreneurs turned when seeking a cultural paradigm that fused capital accumulation with cultural production in a civic context. In the figures of the Medici and Strozzi, this new industrial class saw fellow merchants who demonstrated a high level of cultural discernment and civic pride in their roles as patrons of the arts and builders of the city’s architectural fabric.

Yet the analogy also encompassed the respective cities’ social inequalities, for both cities also had their underclass. Just as every mill-owner and merchant employed a mass of workers, so every Florentine mercantile dynasty employed numerous lesser guildsmen and wool-carders. The uprising and seizure of power by the so-called ‘Ciompi’ wool workers against their patrician overlords in 1378 is often given pride of place in western histories of social insurrection and industrial dispute as the so-called ‘popolo minuto’ sought wider political participation within the governance of the city’s affairs. The parallels with the Chartists abound. Behind the great palaces of both cities, the living and working conditions of the labouring poor were abject. Engels’ description of Manchester assumes a Dantean hue as he describes how his partner, the working-class Irish radical Mary Burns, acted as both Virgil and Beatrice in leading him through the slums of Cottonopolis and its ‘subterranean dens’ and ‘smokiest holes’.

But recent events, and specifically the ‘Shop a Looter’ campaign, reminded me of a more pertinent parallel between the two urban centres, albeit at over 500 years remove, a parallel which begs again the question as to how recent events look when placed in a broader historical context and what such a view may tell us about the enduring characteristics and dynamics of urban life. I’ve recently been looking at the Florentine town criers as mediators in the flow of information in Renaissance Florence having come across 500 written proclamations that were read out on behalf of the Florentine policing magistracy between 1470 and 1530. Proclaimed by the banditori, or criers, of the so-called ‘Otto di Guardia’ or ‘Eight of Security’, these documents are bound into communal registers. Significantly the bandi do not just proclaim the law on behalf of those in authority, they also call for information from members of what we might term ‘the general public’ concerning those who have transgressed. In fact they constitute a latterday form of ‘Shop a Looter’ or ‘Crimewatch’, publishing to a wider constituency what may have been known to only a few in the search for information. Just as contemporary viewers voyeristically scan the faces of looters or tune in to find out what goes on out there, so, I would hazard, contemporary Florentines awaited these proclamations with a certain relish, fascination and faux disgust.

The scenarios described are easily recognisable today. The vandalising of allotments; riot and the assaulting of police officials; breaking and entering; arson; street fights betwen gangs using slings and knives; drunken brawls and so on. Most take place outside the hours of curfew as established in the city’s statutes and chimed out by the city’s bells. Once such calls for information had been proclaimed, citizens were invited to pass information to the authorities anonymously by placing details on a piece of paper which they were required to deposit in sealed wooden boxes, known as ‘tamburi’, which were located at key points around the town. Judicial officials would then empty these boxes daily and were legally bound to investigate all denounciations. Amongst those sought for questioning are Niccolò Machiavelli and Benvenuto Cellini, neither of whom can be charactrised as members of an underclass.

Renaissance Florence was probably one of the most policed pre-modern cities in Europe. It certainly had a pletora of magistracies concerned with law and order. Yet what these documents show is that even within what, by current standards, was a small city bounded by a circle of walls, they still struggled to contain social unrest and crime, calling on fellow citizens to help maintain the rule of law and bring offenders to court. They bear witness to governmental anxiety concerning their ability to maintain order, to moments otherwise unregistered, to incidents behind which lie irrecoverable stories, to the traffic of the street, in sum to social practice beyond the ritualistic.

And it was in the streets that most of this action took place. Defined by the built environment, streets embody the networks that their social traffic constructs. At once place and space, they offer a literal ‘via del mezzo’ between the two foundational co-ordinates of sociology as a discipline, namely structure and agency: whilst the former prioritises the description of social structures and the institutions of social ordering, the latter foregrounds the agency of the individual as he/she negotiates a route through the conditioning (not determining) cultural landscape. On the one side stand figures such as Weber, Durkheim, Parsons, and the early Foucault on the other the likes of the voluntarists Gabriel Tarde, Walter Benjamin, Goffman, Bourdieu, De Certeau and Latour.

For it is the street in particular which provides a liminal space, physically and symbolically, in which the continuing dialogue is carried out between the binaries of society vs the individual, frames vs flows, and maps vs pedestrians. Indeed, it is precisely the inbetweeness of the street as an empty space which allows identities to be called into being, regenerated, challenged, contested and afforded a scene. They are also the prime urban site through which social energies are channelled. In the process they obviate in the clearest way the tension between the desire for liberty on the one hand and the need for security on the other. The street, therefore, can be thought of as a medium through which information flows, a way (via) of delivery and dispersal rather than a decisive factor in disciplining identifications. Unlike the ‘Other’ places studied by Foucault which marginalised and contained those considered a threat to the normative structures of potentially repressive political ordering, the streets and open spaces of the city are permeable, and as such ‘The’ places where such normative structures of social ordering are legitimated and contested. As practiced spaces, streets and squares have always been perennially receptive to the imputation of symbolic meanings and resistant to definitive closure. As sites of social centrality they are resistant to any form of political marginalisation. Consequently, they remain ‘places of invention’ for the individual and society, empty spaces through which the life-blood of communities flows. As sites of contiguity they generate community but conversely they carry the perennial threat of contagion. In the words of Friedrich Kittler, ‘The City is a medium’ and as such it constantly challenges us when seeking to read its message.

Tough on rioters, tough on the causes of riots?

Bansky street cleaner - Chalk Farm

by Alan Harding, Director of the Institute for Political and Economic Governance.

Question. What do Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Hackney, Newham, Tower Hamlets, Southwark, Lambeth, Nottingham, Islington, Haringey, Salford, Sandwell, Leicester, Greenwich, Lewisham and Camden have in common? Two correct answers that I’m not looking for are, firstly, that they all recently suffered the worst rioting seen on British streets since the early 1980s and, secondly, that a depressingly large number of them had witnessed similar scenes thirty years previously. These observations should nonetheless give us pause for thought, especially when politicians and opinion formers have been so keen to emphasise that ‘this is not a repeat of the 1980s’.

At one level the talking heads are right, of course. Poor relations between ethnic minority youths and police, exacerbated by the indiscriminate use of stop and search powers, was much less of an issue this time around, even though the flashpoint in Tottenham rekindled tragic memories of deeply troubled police-community relations. And there’s little doubt that the desire to loot, whipped up via social messaging, drove many a discriminating contemporary rioter rather than became an additional temptation once more spontaneous acts of destruction had begun and the police had become distracted. Just as it would be foolish to argue that the rioters of 1981 were a more noble, politicised breed, though, so it would be churlish not to ask what parallels exist between now and the early 1980s.

Had Harriet Harman asked Michael Gove, during their celebrated stand-off on Newsnight, why he thought this scale of urban conflagration isn’t commonplace, he might have argued that mass outbreaks of ‘pure criminality’ are inexplicably cyclical. He might, however, have acknowledged that there seems to be something about the combination of a national economy in or near recession, high unemployment, eye-watering levels of youth unemployment and a further fading of the already-poor prospects for the young in our poorest communities that seems to require relatively little – a few days of good weather, a distant tragedy, a local incident, a Blackberry – to trigger mayhem.

There may also be a further factor. What if there’s a perception, amongst the recent perpetrators of violent destruction and theft, that nobody cares about their lives? Time to answer that original question with an unfortunate fact. The local authorities that cover the seventeen named areas each appear in the list of the top thirty authorities that are having to implement the largest net cuts in local spending.

Within months of Margaret Thatcher promising, in 1981, that her government would never reward rioters, we had the Scarman report, which ushered in a sea-change in community policing, and Michael Heseltine introduced his famous ‘it took a riot’ Cabinet paper to kick-start a new phase in urban policy. This time around, the recently-appointed Minister for Cities, Greg Clark, is said to have until Christmas to dream up a new cities strategy. Unless he’s confident that he can conquer global warming and produce cooler summers, he’s going to need all the help he can get.

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.

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

Performative urban spaces, democracy and citizenship in South Asia

Image – Street protests: an endemic feature of Indian cities. Here, a police officer charges on a group of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) party workers in Mumbai October 21, 2008. Police in Maharashtra arrested MNS chief Raj Thackeray on Tuesday after attacks on migrant workers, sparking violent protests and the shutting of some businesses in the financial hub of Mumbai. REUTERS/Punit Paranjpe (INDIA)

by Anindita Ghosh (History)

The city as a valid category of cultural investigation, planning and policy making has made a fairly recent debut in South Asia. It was the village that dominated the imagination of ideologues, academics and artists on the one hand, and planners and politicians on the other, until about the 1960s, when the Nehruvian vision gradually began to take its hold of modern India. As the focus changed, with cities emerging as the nerve-centres of the new democratic India, politics and citizenship came to be defined increasingly in competitive urban languages of belonging and rights, and collective public displays. Of course, there are antecedents within the nationalist period when mass movements such as strikes, picketing, marches, and even riots paralysed the colonial government in major Indian cities. Recent research has highlighted the connections between political populism and aggressive posturing and shown how the visual and performative aspects of popular culture have co-constituted political programmes in both historical and contemporary India.

Urban space is not just what is produced by planning, architecture and landscaping, it is also a social product, the end result of a series of negotiations between the state and its people. The post-1857 moment of British entry into town-planning in colonial India was to exercise social control, whereby civic planning was a ruse to re-establish order – through public architecture, sanitary regimes, and regulation of communication networks. It was to discipline a rebellious population into silence and complicity. But such programmes were fraught from the very start. In Bombay, many aspects of civic reform remained unimplemented due to fears of political repercussions. My own research on colonial Calcutta shows how there prevailed an on-going war between the residents of the city and the municipality over disposal of privy waste (1). The urban visions of technocrats and planners have been historically thwarted in South Asia by those very people against whom these ideas were aimed.

In its milder form opposition from discontented citizens can be represented by passive resistance of urban planning laws. At its extreme it can also metamorphose into spectacular displays of discontent against the administration or establishment. When a bust of B.R. Ambedkar (hero of Dalits or untouchable castes) in front of a medical college in Bangalore was vandalized in 1995, the state of Karnataka went under a violent siege for ten days with Dalit protestors targeting state property, burning buses and obstructing road and rail (2). Such collective enactments in public spaces allow a range of possibilities for self-definition through permanent and/or temporary occupations of city space in languages that are increasingly violent in South Asia. They re-territorialize cities and redefine public life in ways that challenge existing social and political leaderships, and unleash struggles over entitlements to space in the city in the political language of citizenship and rights. The massive response to the perceived insult of a symbol of caste assertion in this case, underlined the emergence of Dalits as rival political power pockets in the state. Newer communities can thus gain sudden and violent visibility through concerted public display, indicative in turn of the changing constituencies claiming access to the urban public sphere.

The city as a site of new and intensified forms of violence in India, and caste and communal violence in particular, has transformed the political scene in contemporary South Asia. Mass action in colonial India was usually orchestrated by political and union leaders, where loyalties and actions of the mobbing crowd could be in theory regulated by ties to local patron figures. But this changed rapidly. Styles of mobilisation of urban groups were forged later on that departed from those of nationalist and left-wing struggles. From more recent times, Thomas Blom Hansen has shown, in the context of radicalisation of religious and ethnic communities in Mumbai in the early 1990s, how radically newer possibilities of self-definition are offered by the urban-industrial settings of towns and cities in South Asia that are different from the loosely ideological and paternalistic modes of previous times. Taking urban violence as his starting point, Hansen shows how urban identities mobilize ethnicity and masculinity in the process of refashioning forms of assertion and notions of citizenship itself (3).

There are undoubtedly lessons to be learnt from the bloody aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition, the aggressive rallying of Hindu activists in Gujarat and Maharashtra, and the repeated terrorist assaults on Mumbai. But perhaps the South Asian city itself – with its unique mixed rural-urban morphology, strong ties of caste and community, and tremendous technological possibilities – lends itself to such stupefying anarchic moments. As Hansen notes again, The ‘assertive, often violent mode of being urban’ is a sign of a ‘full-blooded plebeian engagement with modern city life and its technologies of power’ (4). South Asian urban societies seem to be built out of an endless chain of chaos and order. Violence has become a way of life, almost a rite of passage for the emergence of newer political constituencies in the region as the sub-continent enters the twenty-first century.

1: ‘Calcutta: Scandals, Death and Crime in a Colonial City, c. 1850-1920’, monograph being prepared for publication.
2: Janaki Nair, The Promise of the Metropolis: Bangalore’s Twentieth Century (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005) pp. 287-90.
3: Thomas Blom Hansen, Urban Violence in India: Identity Politics, Mumbai and the Postcolonial City (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2001).
4: Thomas Blom Hansen, Urban Violence in India, p. 9

Explosive urbanism: fifteen years after 15/6

by Kevin Ward.

Manchester City Centre IRA Bomb

Image: Greater Manchester Police


It is a sunny Saturday morning in the centre of Manchester. I have just arrived into the city and I am heading from the bus station in Piccadilly Gardens to the train station. It is a ten minute walk. England are due to play football against Scotland at 3pm at Wembley, as part of Euro96. I have a ticket for the game against the Netherlands on the Tuesday. There are helicopters overhead. Why, I wonder. This normally only happens late at night when the police take to the skies. People are talking about the helicopters as I step off the bus, and begin to make my way, slowly, around the periphery of the Gardens. I am almost at the end of the street and about to turn right, to walk up to Piccadilly train station. Strange. The Gardens seem unusually busy. Last renovated in the 1970s they are not the sort of gardens you would want to spend too much time in, especially at night. Then there is a bang, a loud bang. A bang the like of which I have not heard before (or since). And then there is a hush. It is unnerving. Manchester city centre is never this quiet. And then there is noise and lots of it. People are screaming. Shop alarms are all ringing. And there is smoke where there shouldn’t be. I pause. Piccadilly Gardens is getting busier. I turn and walk to the train station. I know something has happened. I don’t know what. I figure I will find out soon. I do. My train is delayed by an hour. Not an uncommon occurrence of course. However, in this case the train instructor informs us this delay is due to an ‘unforeseen event’ in the centre of Manchester. Trains are unable to enter or exit the train station. People look at each other. No one says a word. A bomb has gone off in the centre of Manchester…

15 June 1996 and its aftermath

It is now fifteen years since a large explosion ripped through the heart of Manchester city centre. This was before New York and 9/11 and the images that accompanied it. It was before London and 7/7, the subsequent bombing in Madrid, and the more general growth in counter-terrorism urbanism. The viewing public was shocked by the scenes. Smoke was rising upwards while buildings were falling downwards. People were unsure where to run to, but had concluded that it was better to run than to walk. The three and a half thousand pound IRA bomb, left in a white van at the junction of Cross Street, Corporation Street and Market Street brought devastation to the surrounding area: literally creating a space. But what to do with it? In the immediate aftermath Manchester City Council, together with others, set about talking up the opportunities created by the destruction. While only a handful of buildings were structurally damaged, those in charge of the city would not be limited to pure necessity. They had their eyes on a bigger prize: a wholesale revalorization of a swathe of the centre.

The impetus for remaking the city centre wasn’t new or solely a result of the bomb; Manchester had already been undergoing redevelopment. To the south of the centre Hulme and Moss Side had been rebuilt. Nearer the centre, a series of new apartments had been built in Castlefield, next to the canal. All around the city centre old and disused exchanges and warehouses – remnants and reminders of the City’s industrial past – were being converted into apartments. New builds were emerging, as the price of land in the centre and to the south of the city continued to rise sharply. Gentrification was at full throttle. The ‘Northern Quarter’, adjacent to the centre, and the ‘Gay Village’ to the south were being constructed as sites of cosmopolitanism and difference, open and tolerant and ripe for marketing and exploitation. The City Council together with other city, regional and national agencies had taken a lead on the revalorization of the city centre and neighbouring areas. Capital had begun to return to the city, and people were not far behind it. That was the point. Those governing the city already knew what kind of city they wanted: theirs was a model borrowed in part from elsewhere but partly a product of Manchester.

Yet, some areas of the city centre had not kept apace. At the time there were concerns about what to do with the Arndale Centre. A prime example of all that is great about modernist architecture to some it may be but to many others it was viewed as an absolute eyesore. Next to it Shamble Squares was considered to be a magnet for social undesirables. Their behaviour, together with that of the alcoholics, the punks and the others that gathered there day in and day out was considered a threat to the project the Council was overseeing. Piccadilly Gardens, right in the centre of the city and organised loosely around a set of public gardens, showed signs of neglect. You took your chances if you walked through it at night. I was chased more than once by a group of alcohol-charged youths. That they failed to catch me said more about their drink consumption than it did about my turn of pace! In a flash at 11.15 on Saturday 15 June 1996 the future of each of these sites became up for grabs.

No sooner had the dust settled – literally – than plans were afoot to undertake a significant redevelopment of the retail core of the city. This unfolded over the following months. Speed was of the essence. The Trafford Centre was nearing completion in the neighbouring borough, and Manchester City Council were keen the city retained its share of what Harvey (1989) terms ‘the spatial division of consumption’. That it did and over the subsequent decade and a bit saw almost unbridled growth, as Manchester created a niche for itself as the regional retail centre. And the Council’s ‘silver lining’ story stuck. The following is not uncommon amongst those who write now about the city centre: ‘The IRA did the city a favour by forcing large-scale rebuilding of an area spoiled by the bad retail architecture of the 1960s’. So, the Council successfully packaged the post-Bomb redevelopment as an opportunity to radically overhaul the city centre, allowing them to pursue a narrow and aggressive consumption-driven agenda.

15 June 2011 and the current situation

Fast forward and what sort of city centre does Manchester have? Well it is one that certainly looks better. It consists of, amongst other things, cleaned up Victorian buildings, some new funky architecture, the odd piece of greenery, and a sprinkling of ‘public’ spaces. The core is punctuated by expensive clothes retailers of many sorts. It is awash with designer names. It has a Selfridges together with a Harvey Nics and the largest Marks & Spencers in Europe. It is also not possible to go far without coming across a bar, restaurant or pub. There is no shortage of hotels, at both the lower and the higher ends of the market. So, those consumer tourists who visit Manchester have somewhere to store their purchases, and don’t have to stumble far after a night eating and drinking. The Arndale Shopping Centre continues to be gentrified, although it may have reached its limits on that front. It retains a notional nod to its working class roots, while a growing proportion of its outlets seek to capture more of the middle class market. Piccadilly Gardens has been completely re-sculptured. There is now a water feature in the centre, and it is both a bus and a tram stop. At the corner of the Gardens is a large development, consisting of offices and bars and restaurants. This is an altogether more private ‘public’ space. As if to reinforce this, the area is now under the auspices of CityCo, a public-private partnership responsible for managing the city centre. This arrangement is emblematic of a new culture of ‘authoritarianism and control’ according to Anna Minton (2005: 40).

Piccadilly Gardens_EH Smith

Image: E H Smith

CityCo and its approach to urban ‘public’ space perhaps embodies the kind of centre Manchester now has in 2011. It is one made in the image of residential and retail consumption. The core is a business, the city centre an experience to be packaged and sold. It is about stakeholders (or is shareholders) rather than citizens. The over reliance on residential consumption was brought into sharp relief recently. The over-supply of apartments that had accrued in the preceding decade left the city centre housing market horribly exposed as the economic winds of change blew through the city during 2008 and 2009. Many apartments simply could not be sold and a series of incomplete building sites remain testament to how quickly capital can flow out of a city. When the sums don’t add up, capital cuts its losses and runs. While many bars and restaurants have remained viable businesses during the recession, others have not been so fortunate. Empty outlets have begun to pop up around the centre.

Whether the city centre model pursued so vigorously by an alliance of the City Council and various representatives of capital is robust and resilient enough to survive the next couple of years is a moot point. On a number of indicators those in Manchester are set to get a whole lot poorer. With more public sector employment cuts on the horizon and a private sector that is just about muddling through the omens are not good. And remember, this is already a city that is one of the poorest in the UK. Perhaps that is to miss the point however? Maybe the City Centre we have not is not for the citizens of the city. Somewhere along the line it was wrestled away from us and we did not even notice. The Council together with a number of other stakeholders placed all their bets on a particular sector of the economy, a decision which raises questions about the Centre’s very sustainability.

The Centre seems to be for those who come from elsewhere, those who can continue to engage in one form of conspicuous consumption or another. For sure the city centre remains busy. Are people spending enough money though? Perhaps out of the next couple of years will emerge a realization that there should be more to a city centre than consumption? A rebalancing to the debate might open up the possibility for a reinsertion of ‘the public’ into the city, as problematic as that term remains. We live in hope.

Harvey D (1989) The Urban Experience. John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, Maryland.
Minton A (2009) Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty First Century. Penguin Books: London

“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.