Future Shock

Previously published in March 2015 at antipode foundation.org

by Andy Merrifield

Speculating on the future, especially on the political future—and especially especially on a Left political future—is something you get slammed for these days; “they” tell you you’re writing fiction, particularly if your future threatens the status quo. On the other hand, if your future can be absorbed within the status quo, or else puts a different spin on that status quo, your future is realistic, permissible not dismissible: technocratic futures are okay, as are big futuristic master plans that involve lots of high-tech urban design stuff—lots of corporate high-tech urban design stuff—ones endorsed by some billionaire and administered by a patented scientific corporation. The reasons behind this are of course intellectual and political, particularly when ideology and politics underwrites commercial economics. Contemporary academia and a lot of scholarly social science have pretty much given up thinking about radical futures.[1]

It’s sad how low the bar is set, how unambitious and unimaginative the academy is with its knowledge production, keeping its thought within the narrow confines of academic specialization and arcane professional journals. Social science has retreated inwards, or has become servile, a mere handmaiden of power. Crucial therein is the dominance of the positivist-empiricist tradition, something perhaps obvious in our age of “experts,” in our era some describe as “post-political.” Positivism has always hidden behind the shield of quantification and “objectivity,” always tried to rid itself of politics. Now positivism/empiricism is a convenient methodological foil for technocrats trying to find consensus without conflict, gaining grants without upsetting anyone. Their opinions are neutral and expert, right? Their objective knowledge isn’t value-laden. Yours, if it’s critical and theoretically partisan, is warped, ideological; worse, fantasy.

All this got me thinking recently about the late Edward Said, about his BBC Radio 4 Reith Lectures from the early 1990s, on the role of amateur and professional intellectuals in knowledge production, about how one speaks truth to power, while the other speaks the truth of power. I won’t easily forget Said discoursing across the airwaves, inspiring intellectuals—and budding intellectuals (as I was then)—to reflect upon our craft and political engagement.[2] Hearing him was a big learning curve for me; not because I was learning something new; more because I was learning how to frame what I already knew, and what I might learn in the future. I’d actually seen Said in person, at Oxford, in its Sheldonian Theatre, a little while before he gave those Reith radio lectures. A packed house saw him present a dress rehearsal of his radio performances.

I was a graduate student in those days, writing up a PhD with David Harvey on “The Dialectics of Urban Space,” tussling with my own inner dialectic: a working class kid from Liverpool immersed in a world of Oxford professionals, upper class professionals, who talked a lot different from the way I talked—still talk a lot different from the way I talk. In that epoch, I considered myself very much a dedicated amateur—a dedicated amateur urbanist. Moreover, after tuning into Said at the Sheldonian, after hearing him on the radio, imbibing what he said, I was damn sure I would remain so. (I like to think I’ve been true to myself ever since.) I knew and still know that I could never give myself over to the professional world, sell myself over, capitulate, especially to what even back then was becoming a professionalized academic world, a world of grant-seekers and citation scores, of career promotions and tenure torments.

In accepted wisdom, we tend to think of amateurs as people who dabble, who don’t do things for a living, but who do something as a hobby, at weekends, in their spare time. We see amateurs as less accomplished than professionals. But professionalism, said Said, can constitute a form of compliant behavior, of making yourself marketable and presentable to the powers that be. None of which denies the need for competence, for being conscientious about what you do, and for having the right skills to do it. Not anyone can do heart surgery or pilot a plane, teach high school or cure animals. It involves training and learning. So it’s not the skills question that concerned Said; it’s more the professional practice, how you employ those skills, to whom you sell them, how you apply your knowledge, in whose interests you’re acting. Pros aren’t usually controversial; they’re on the payroll, they’re there to provide a service. Professionalism means having an expertise to hide behind, an often narrow expertise, an esoteric language that sets you apart, that gains entry into a professional bodies, one strictly off-limits to rank amateurs.

Amateurs, by contrast, aren’t moved by profit or pay; they usually care more about ideas and values not tied down to any profession; their vision is often more expansive, more eclectic, not hampered by the conservatism of narrow expertise, preoccupied with defending one’s intellectual turf. To be an amateur is to express the ancient French word: love of, a person who engages on an unpaid basis, a non-specialist, a layperson. Nothing pejorative intended. Amateurs sometimes care for ideas that question professional authority because they express concerns professions don’t consider, don’t see, don’t care about. Thus an amateur might likely be somebody who rocks the boat, who stirs up trouble, because he or she isn’t on anybody’s payroll—never will be on the payroll because of the critical things they say. In this sense, an intellectual ought to be an amateur, Said insisted, a thinking and concerned member of a society who raises questions at the very heart of even the most professionalized activity. Still, the issue for amateurs today is how to deal with the flagrant professionalism in our midst—in urban studies, in urban life, everywhere?

Professionals and wannabe professionals are everywhere in urban studies, everywhere in the exclusive running (and ruining) of cities, everywhere in the control of urban economies, in mayors’ imagination, everywhere in think tanks and institutions who study cities (especially in right-leaning, lavishly-funded ones), everywhere mass media have a say about cities, everywhere in the thinking (and non-thinking) about cities, everyplace where the grant money flows, the payroll beckons, the spotlight shines. We know, too, how university academics and their bosses desperately want a piece of this professional action, of this lover’s embrace with corporatism, of the professional branding of your center, of your “Urban Age” programme. Only professionals get a look in, get promoted to Chairs of this and that, hence every academic—well, almost every academic—wants to be a pro, a pro with brio.

The annals of professionals knowing best are bloodstained in urban history. We’ve had all sorts of ideas imposed on peoples’ lives from above, all kinds of paradigms that go from professional boardrooms to somebody’s drafty living room, if they’re lucky enough to have a living room. In the 1960s, for instance, Roger Starr published Urban Choices: The City and Its Critics (Penguin, 1967), a series of influential essays that framed urban issues very much from the professional’s standpoint. The book is revealing for the scorn heaped on “well-intentioned amateurs” [sic], as Starr responds to “the hundred critics” who dared question professional urbanists—city officials, planners and architects, private developers, realtors and of course Roger Starr himself. His roster of interferers reads like a Who’s Who of popular urbanists: Jane Jacobs, Saul Alinsky, Lewis Mumford, Ada Louise Huxtable, William H. Whyte, Herbert Gans.

Interestingly, Starr himself was on the real estate payroll. At the time, he was “Executive Director” of New York Citizens’ Housing and Planning Council, a mist-enveloped ideological veil for his reactionary activities. Loaded New York real estate interests bankrolled this bogus and misleading organization, which still exists (and still has little to do with real citizens). Meanwhile, Starr was given a loud megaphone to voice his dubious ideas: he was “Urban Affairs” commentator at The New York Times. Starr was in serious disagreement with Jane Jacobs, perhaps our greatest amateur urbanist, someone who famously stood up to that most formidable pro, Robert Moses. Starr can’t quite address Jacobs on equal terms; she is framed as a desperate housewife: “The critics of the American City,” says Starr, “have been talking to it as a nagging wife addresses her drinking husband—in sublime confidence that the victim suffers from a simple disease, requiring only a simple remedy. If only, says the wife, you could stay away from that first highball when you leave the office… If only, Jacobs tells the city [her husband], you didn’t hang out with those nasty city planners, and left yourself alone… You ought to take up a nice constructive hobby, like gardening, without artificial fertilizers.”

The same (male) hubris was directed at another rank amateur of Jacobs’ generation, Rachel Carson, arch-defender of the countryside, whose plight was similarly under assault from postwar corporate forces at large, intent on business. Carson’s Silent Spring (1962, Penguin) became the companion to Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961, Random House), published within a year of one another. Just as professional planners tried to discredit housewife Jacobs, so too did professional scientists (bankrolled by the chemical industry) try to discredit housewife Carson. Professional pesticides were killing our cities and our countryside.

The plot thickened in the 1970s: Roger Starr became New York City’s Housing Commissioner and in 1976 masterminded a national program following directly from his earlier representations of urban reality: Planned Shrinkage. Planned Shrinkage became the received professional wisdom of Federal government’s urban policy: the purposeful running down of blighted neighborhoods, of those seen as no longer economically “viable,” as too costly and too much of a Federal burden to save. “Shrinkage” was a cover for elimination, for the deliberately masterminded destruction of “bad” communities across America. Bad because pros said so, apparently proved so.

To bolster Planned Shrinkage, Roger Starr peddled Rand Institute data, manipulated and doctored data as it happened, the pure pseudo-science of the right-wing think tank’s political leanings, unsurprising given it was part of the Rand Corporation’s empire. Rand used statistical systems analysis far too complicated for the average amateur citizen to understand; alas, it was often far too complicated for the Rand Institute to comprehend as well, so they decided to cut corners, make assumptions that came from no other proven source than Rand scientists’ own heads.

The whole professional “logic” of Starr & Rand’s Planned Shrinkage was scientifically baseless and purely politically motivated, a ruling class war against costly public services; it signalled the beginnings of the hatchet job that neocons Reagan and Thatcher would soon wage, soon make their own. Indeed, in 1980s’ Britain, the Tories leapt on the bandwagon, recycling Planned Shrinkage in Liverpool after the 1981 Toxteth riots. Thatcher’s Chancellor Geoffrey Howe—now Lord Howe—thought Liverpool a lost cause. He even schemed spending cuts under so-called “Managed Decline.” The Howe revelation only became public in 2011, under the thirty-year ruling, which allows general access to National Archive files and Cabinet minutes. At the time, Howe was opposed to Secretary of State for Environment Michael Heseltine’s proposal for a regeneration fund to rebuild Liverpool’s ruins and riot-hit communities, believing it a waste of government money. “I cannot help feeling,” Howe said, “that the option of Managed Decline is one which we should not forget altogether. We must not expend all our limited resources trying to make water flow uphill.”

Fast forward to today: consider the historical lineage between Planned Shrinkage and frenzied pursuit for “austerity.” Planned Shrinkage and austerity have two common characteristics. First, is an overriding goal to rundown and/or plunder the public sector, to make “unproductive” public services productive for vested unproductive interests—you know, for financial parasites on the make. Second, both policies justify their programs through made up “evidence.” For austerity, just as for Planned Shrinkage, economists are the redoubtable voice of authority. Recently, the Harvard economic duo of Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff published “Growth in a Time of Debt” in the American Economic Review, saying economic slump is the right time to slash public spending.

Nations with a public debt burden of more than 90% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Reinhart and Rogoff say, will experience withered growth and economic stagnation. To prevent this, debt must be purged—public debt they mean. When crisis hits and hurts, rather than recommend state spending to support needy people, Reinhart and Rogoff invoke data to authorize further public sector downsizing. Alas, this data has been picked apart, shown to be spurious by a conscientious young graduate student, showing how the entire basis of Reinhart and Rogoff’s article, as well as a lot of austerity’s received wisdom, is utterly without foundation.[3] But, like Nassau W. Senior’s “last hour” from the nineteenth-century (satirized by Marx in Capital), who cares if it’s spurious and unfounded: the 90% claim has been music to the ears to ruling class professionals, to austerity honchos, to figures like Paul Ryan, the former Chairman of the U.S. House Budget Committee, and to Olli Rehn, a top economic official at the European Commission. These guys believe anything, seize upon anything, only to justify their own biases and policies, only to favor creditors and bondholders over everybody else.

For good reason was the French Marxist Henri Lefebvre suspicious of professionals sticking their mugs into concerns of the city. Let’s not forget how Lefebvre constructed a whole social theory from the standpoint of amateurs, from the standpoint of their everyday lives. To be sure, pros have everyday lives as well, and live in this same lived realm as all of us. But they function differently, play roles that affect ordinary people’s everyday life in ways that are often detached from their own privileged everyday life. Lefebvre tries to understand this in The Production of Space (Blackwell, 1991), with his “spatial triad,” which locates how different visions of reality coexist and conflict. He insists we all somehow “make” space, yet all of us can’t make that space in the same way, or on the same terms, especially on the terms of those who have wealth and power and authority.

With the notion of “representations of space,” Lefebvre underscores how assorted professionals and powerful people envision their world, envision the world we’re forced to live in. They have the power and wealth to make their own abstract conceptions into real-life representations, concrete and ideological manifestations; they make space subject to their own signs and codifications, to their own grandiose plans and world-historical paradigms. These representations of space may be “abstract,” conceived in professional business imaginations, in corporate boardrooms and at high-level consultations, but “abstract” is misleading: there’s nothing abstract here, nothing abstract in the sense of something purely conceptual, existing only in the mind. Their abstract is deeply, troublingly real; it really is embodied in a space like the world market, embodied in glass and steel, in concrete, in social relations and institutions, in security zones, in assorted trade agreements, in the kind of vision of the world that gets schemed at places like Davos each year, at the World Economic Forum.

Abstract space has very real social existence, just as interest rates and share prices on the stock market do; it finds a real objective expression in specific buildings and housing markets, in activities and modes of market intercourse over and through space, especially through urban space. This is why it’s so difficult for ordinary amateurs to work in the other direction: to abstract from everyday life and develop futuristic conceptions, politically shifting from the concrete to the abstract, and then back again to the concrete. Power begins on an abstract plane and foists its conception down on us, in the concrete; it makes its abstractions concrete. Since we amateurs don’t have that means or money, we must start concrete and try to scale upwards and outwards, try to realize our abstract renderings, our utopian and futuristic yearnings. In the process we frequently fail: we encounter barriers en route, political and economic obstacles that prevent this project getting generalized, like a socialist city trying to develop a socialist nation, or a socialist movement trying to create a socialist international.

Lefebvre himself tried to work through this dilemma theoretically, affirming something called transduction, an awkward term yet an important one. Transduction isn’t fact-filled empiricism, isn’t about induction; it’s a theoretical hypothesis, something more even than deduction. It supposes an incessant toing and froing between concepts and empirical experimentation, between what’s here now and what might be here soon, what might be here in the future. I tried to think that way in The New Urban Question (Pluto, 2014), constructing a “theoretical object”—or “virtual object.” It’s a method (and style) that plays havoc with standard social sciences. You ironize about the past, play around with the present and future; you excavate the past—conjure up the spirit of Rousseau and Robespierre, of the French Revolution, of 1848 revolts, of the Paris Commune, etc.—only to exhume the future. Are we talking normatively or literally, theoretically or metaphorically? All four.

Indeed, you run roughshod over what’s real and normative, what’s concrete and abstract, what’s deductive and inductive so that everything gets blurred into a very strange mode of thought. And you don’t get grants for it. Above all else, you leapfrog the empirical, the empirical as testable, as an operational research program, displacing it into the realm of the political. For the urban is itself a political object, a very special virtual political object; so is the “right to the city.” Urban rights are ones that need inventing, need inventing offensively; they aren’t established safeguards already there, ones you can invoke defensively, a Bill of Rights to which you can appeal in times of danger. Rights aren’t passive: they become your right by working through danger, by orchestrating effective political action. You make rights your right.

Hence the reason why so many people misunderstand what’s meant by right to the city, where the future necessarily stalks the present; horizons open up for the virtual to be glimpsed, for rights to actualize themselves through politics. Virtual theory, as such, isn’t a theory that explains reality, nor even “corresponds” with reality; it’s more a theory that is correct because it enables politics to be correct. It nurtures the correct politics, a robust and possible Left politics: theory here opens up space for a radical politics that hitherto wasn’t there, that as yet has no space. It opens up the vastest and most thrilling futuristic space of all, the noblest of all cloud-cuckoo lands: the continent of hope.


[1] For some exceptions from Geography see, among others, Mark Purcell’s The Down-Deep Delight of Democracy (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), J. K. Gibson-Graham’s A Postcapitalist Politics (University of Minnesota Press, 2006), and David Harvey’s Spaces of Hope (Edinburgh University Press, 2000).

[2] Said’s lectures were later written up and published in an invaluable little book called Representations of the Intellectual (Vintage, 1994).

[3] See Robert Pollin and Michael Ash’s “Debt and growth: A response to Reinhart and Rogoff”, The New York Times, 29 April 2013.

About Andy Merrifield

Writer, Urbanist, Marxist, Educator
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