When I heard the geographer Clive Barnett had passed away on Christmas Eve, it took me a while to reconcile that it was the Clive Barnett who’d died, the Clive Barnett I hadn’t seen for many years yet whom I still considered one of my closest friends. I can’t believe Clive has gone. At Oxford, for three years—late ’80s/early ’90s—I’d shared with him some of the happiest moments of my life. We were doing our DPhils together, under David Harvey’s watch, became inseparable, like brothers, living in rooms next door to one another, drinking and eating together, arguing together, staying up all night together, reading the same things, almost breathing the same things.

In those days, Clive was a desperately shy lad, with a freshly minted BA from Churchill College, Cambridge. I was almost a decade older, a “mature student” from Liverpool Polytechnic. I always called him “young man”—not condescendingly, more with Joyce’s eponymous Portrait of the Artist in mind. (It was a label I’d still use even in recent email exchanges, when he was a middle-aged prof; he always called me “Andrew,” like only my mother ever did.) Clive was the nearest incarnation I’d seen of Stephen Dedalus: brooding, dressed in black, self-effacing, haughty, aloof, solitary, and very, very brainy. He seemed forever trying to cast off the tradition of the dead generations, shake off the fetters of his provincial East Grinstead upbringing, his middle-class, middle-England background, quietly expressing himself in some mode of life or art as freely and as wholly as he could. It would be a lifelong pursuit, one that would only cease in death, last week.

Even back then Clive had seemingly read everything, and already bore the hallmarks of the great intellectual he’d become. We were chalk and cheese, hailing from very different backgrounds, having radically different temperaments. He, gentle and softly spoken, subtly ironic; me, loud and brash, rather heavy-handed; he, into the intricacies of theory, into its deconstruction; me, wielding theory as practice, like a sledgehammer. Yet we bonded around our love affair over knowledge, with its quest, come what may, and that we were both Harvey boys and proud of it. David became our centre of gravity, the subject matter of much of our nocturnal conversations, of our tenacious passions. In fact, our lives revolved around David, and into this orbit we also had the privilege of a young Erik Swyngedouw, then a junior lecturer, a dear friend who mingled with us graduate students as if he were still one. Soon Adrian Passmore, Michael Samers, and Argyro Loukaki would enter the Harvey fray, a member’s club headquartered at the Kings Arms or Bookbinders in Jericho.


Clive’s interests were so diverse, so cross-discipline, that it was tough for him to narrow them down into a singular project like a doctorate. His mind worked otherwise; it always would. In Geography, though, he found his space, someplace where his mind didn’t really need a discipline, could flourish in all its expansive grandeur. As students, I wanted to master Marxist urban theory, and wrote a thesis on it relatively quickly; Clive patiently sought some purer truth, something even vaster for which nobody ever received a PhD. That’s probably why he took so long finishing up, having to box up his universality into something particular. I remember his generosity the day I had my viva, the day I got my DPhil. We spent the whole evening in his room, slowly drinking a bottle of whiskey, celebrating throughout the night, and afterwards, just as the sun rose, strolling across a ghostly Port Meadow at dawn. He was as thrilled as I was that I’d finished.

But there was sadness, too, a sadness then of knowing that we both had to move on, had to go off in different directions. Clive embraced academia in a way I never could. He’d found his safe harbour, as a dedicated teacher and globally respected scholar, a space from which he could sail his ships. Though I still remember Clive’s early career, how his brilliantly restless mind was mistrusted by universities. For several years, I watched him struggle to find a steady job, to convert his knowledge into a saleable product. He hustled around temporary positions, before landing at The Open University and later Exeter, becoming the Professor he’d always secretly wanted to be. What else could he do anyway? he used to say, oh so long ago. And now that voice, that quiet whisper I can still hear in my mind’s ear, utters no more wisdom. I’ll miss his piercing insights, his scathing diatribes, his wry humour. I’ll miss a presence I rarely saw yet knew loomed large and touched many people. I am very sorry, young man, that we never stayed in closer contact.

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 Guy Debord has been dead twenty-seven years today. In Panegyric, his elegiac autobiography, the author of The Society of the Spectacle famously said that more than anything else his life had been marked by the habit of drinking, by consuming alcohol. “Among the small number of things I have liked and known how to do well,” he said, “what I have assuredly known how to do best is drink. Even though I have read a lot, I have drunk even more. I have written much less than most people who write, but I have drunk much more than most people who drink.”

Yale University’s Beinecke Library houses many black and white photos of Debord, taken in Italy during the 1970s. These comprise part of the archive of the Italian Situationist Gianfranco Sanguinetti, Debord’s close friend and political confidant. The images are tremendously evocative of the times, when radical hopes of the previous decade had been dashed and many urban revolutionaries—like Debord and Sanguinetti—assumed a life of free-spirit wandering, of ducking and diving, of creating trouble while trying to stay out of trouble, often taking shelter in the countryside. Very few close-ups of Debord from this period show him not drinking. He’s usually sat in some cheap café or bistro, alongside wife Alice, savouring his beverage, cradling a little wine glass, seemingly relishing every tacit moment, every quiet sip. “It is understood,” he said, “that all of this has left me very little time for writing, and that is exactly as it should be: writing should remain a rare thing, because one must have drunk for a long time before finding excellence.”


Since Debord’s death, though, it’s become evident that such comments are his own brand of self-mythologising. Not so much about drinking, which was real, truly excessive. More about the rarity of his writing. For what has emerged is how Debord was one of the most prolific letter writers of twentieth-century politics. In 1999, Paris’s Librairie Arthème Fayard began publishing these letters, beginning in September 1951, when Debord was still an enfant terrible making mischief with fellow Lettristes at the Cannes Film Festival, and culminating à la fin—at the very end—with a valedictory communiqué dated 30th November 1994, the day of his suicide.

This correspondence voices deep feeling and lived experience: from intimate love letters, scathing polemics, and everyday pragmatics (one asking Sanguinetti to talk to Debord’s Florentine landlady, asking her to turn on the gas heating prior to his and Alice’s return) to subversive muckraking, political letters about current events and strategy, about present and future writing projects. For over forty years, Debord wrote and mailed off hundreds and hundreds of letters, dispatched telegrams, posted postcards, each one now packed into what amasses to seven whopping volumes—eight, if you include other loose, earlier letters “retrouvées,” those missing from previous volumes, collated in volume “0.”

If Debord was drinking all the while, then as he drank, he wrote. How else could he produce so much? He wrote carefully, by hand, with aplomb, rarely in haste, never slapdash. Taken as a totality, Guy Debord Correspondance offers a wonderful glimpse of a radical life on the hoof, passed in clandestinity—in Florence and Barcelona, in Arles and Paris, in the verdant hills of Chianti and in the little lost kingdom of Champot, his Auvergnat retreat. Forever surrounded by people, in the post and in person, Debord may have been the most sociable recluse who ever lived. He pissed not a few friends and comrades off with ruthless dismissals and savage denunciations; yet plenty more formed his loyal entourage. They trusted him, respected him, enjoyed his company, and he theirs.

The other noteworthy thing, more recently revealed, isn’t that Debord “read a lot”; it’s truer to say that he read enormously, never stopped reading, took immense pleasure from what he read, maybe as much pleasure as he took from drink. Debord never annotated his books, never marked them up or touched them with his pen. Books seemed too precious to him, too pure an interlocutor to be violated. (One thinks of an exiled Machiavelli, telling friend Vettori how he lovingly entered “the ancient court of ancient men [in his library], where, received by them with affection, I feed on the food which is only mine.) Instead, Debord compiled copious notes on little “Bristol cards,” meticulously referencing quotations, adding commentaries, hinting where he might use this wisdom in his own work. Words, sentences, and whole paragraphs are recorded in tiny cursive that assume a specific gravity for Debord, as if they provided personal sustenance, a guide for living rather than for merely citing.


Debord read plenty, and painstakingly labelled thousands of these fiches, classifying them into dossiers such as “Poetry, etc”; “Machiavelli and Shakespeare” (like Marx, Debord was an avid reader of the great English bard); “History”; “Philosophy, Sociology”; “Strategy, Military History”; “Marxism”; and “Hegel.” These cards have since found a protective home in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, curated as a labour of love by Laurence Le Bras, who now oversees “Le Fonds Guy Debord,” an archive of the dead Situationist revolutionary deemed a French “national treasure” in 2009. Yet the “library of Guy Debord”—what he read, why he read what he read, what he took from what he read—isn’t just lying dormant in some forgotten Parisian basement: in 2018, the independent publisher, Éditions L’échappée, began unearthing Debord’s reading list, reprinting his fiches de lecture in what has already filled three handsome volumes, Stratégie (2018), Poésie, etc.(2019), and Marx/Hegel (2021), each exceeding 500-pages, each illustrated with facsimiles of Debord’s own handwritten cards. (Two further tomes, Histoire and Philosophie, are eagerly awaited.) All this constitutes nothing less than a marvellous public treasure, a veritable feast for Debord fans, letting us lean over his shoulder, ponder a revolutionary brain at work, lay witness to the same sort of dogged, behind-the-scenes intellectual labour that Marx, another independent scholar, had carried out in the British Museum.

In one letter to Eduardo Rothe (21st February 1974), Debord says that theoreticians might now want to make better use of Thucydides, Machiavelli and Clausewitz alongside Marx, Hegel and Lautréamont. It could be, he says, that such philosophers of war and societal breakdown, of cunning realpolitik, are better suited to a contemporary capitalism that operates more deviously and ideologically than anything Marx ever analysed. Clausewitz and Machiavelli are incisive and decisive for demystifying the cynical society of the “integrated spectacle,” where what was once diffuse or concentrated has now combined into a singularly potent force, incorporating the whole world and conditioning everybody under its treacherous economic sway.

Machiavelli warned that the common defect of men in fair weather is to take no account of storms. The crafty Italian Renaissance strategist was a prophet of storms, taught the shrewd how to manoeuvre through heavy weather, how to keep one’s head throughout. Debord mused a lot on storms, and Machiavelli helped him ride a few, offering lessons about discretion and deception, about how to avoid snares and frighten off the wolves. Fittingly, then, the first volume of Debord’s Library opens its leaves to “Strategy,” to the history and practice of war, with Machiavelli and Clausewitz starring.

The latter infamously said that war is the continuation of politics by other means, and Debord agrees, yet revels in the maxim’s reversal: that politics is the continuation of war by other means, another brand of warfare, a game of strategy and chance, of attack and defence, requiring intense study and courageous practice. “I’ve been very interested in war,” he said in Panegyric, “in the theoreticians of strategy, but also reminiscences of battles and in the countless other disruptions history mentions, surface eddies on the river of time.” Debord had studied war for years, read broadly and widely around military history, been fascinated by the logic of war, by its domain of danger and disappointment, by a reality that leaves no room for facile optimism.

For years, too, he’d collected little metal toy soldiers, something first wife, Michèle Bernstein, always teased him about. (On one fiche, Debord writes: “I’ve a side of me that’s entirely puerile. I rejoice in cards, in wargames and little lead soldiers. I also love grander games: art, cities, and overthrowing society.”) Debord’s own cinematic undertakings splice clips from movies he’d adored in his youth: battleship cannon fire, cavalry charges and troop formations, Custer’s Last Stand and the Charge of the Light Brigade all bring the folly and fortunes of war to Paris’s divine comedy of the 1950s. He’d even patented his own war game, Kriegspiel, modelled on Clausewitz’s writings, presenting “the forces in contention and the contradictory necessities imposed on the operations of each of the two parties.” “I have played this game,” Debord said, “and, in the often difficult conduct of my life, have utilised lessons from it.” Kriegspiel, he quipped, may well be the only aspect of his oeuvre that has any lasting merit.

Tactics is the art of using troops in battle; strategy is the art of using battles to win the war. So speaks Clausewitz, from the heart as well as the head, from first-hand combat experience gained in the Napoleonic era, when he served as a Prussian field soldier. In 1806, Clausewitz was captured by the French, yet by the age of thirty-eight (in 1818) he’d risen to the rank of Major-General, already playing a pivotal role in the resurrection of Prussia and in Napoleon’s final waterloo at Waterloo (1815), earning him an impressive cameo in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Clausewitz was bookish and smart and operated as effectively in Berlin’s intellectual circles as on any battlefield. His approach to war was distinctively dialectical, weaving into his “realist” account the frailties of human nature and the uncertainty of the physical world. (Napoleon’s worst enemy, Clausewitz said, was bad weather.)

Debord scrutinised the Prussian strategist’s posthumous masterpiece, On War, a classic that also impressed Marx & Engels, and Lenin & Trotsky. Yet in Stratégie we see Debord prioritising Clausewitz’s shorter pamphlets, seemingly following the Major-General’s own urging: “that no combat exemplifies the process of strategic thought as clearly as the Campaign of 1814 in France.” Many of Debord’s fiches transcribe Clausewitz’s delineations of Napoleon’s Grande Armée campaigns of 1812, 1814 and 1815. One of Debord’s oft-cited phrases hails from Clausewitz’s latter work: “In every strategic critique, the essential thing is to put oneself exactly in the position of the actors.” Another favourite, suggestive about Debord’s understanding of theory’s relationship to practice, flagged up at the close of The Society of the Spectacle, the film, is: “To repeat what we have often said, here as in all practical matters, theory has the function of informing the practitioner and to educate their judgement, rather than assist them directly in the execution of their tasks.”


Michèle Bernstein often said of her ex-husband that behind his cold-fish demeanour, his sangfroid, lay a deeply passionate romantic. Poésie, etc., with a reading list steeped in the romantic tradition, confirms the like, demonstrating Debord’s passion for the poetic, for sensual refrains of the life-spirit, whether in prose or verse. Debord loved a beautiful turn of phrase, and, like Baudelaire, wanted to speak the fine language of his siècle, bawl it out in the streets, in the public realm. He says it was modern poetry that brought him and his Situationist comrades into the streets in the first place; and we can hear this poetic refrain, jubilantly and forlornly uttered, in films like Sur le passage de quelques personnes à travers une assez courte unite de temps (1959), Critique de la séparation (1961), and, especially, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978), Debord’s masterpiece threnody on Paris, his chip off Dante’s block: “Midway through the path of life we were surrounded by a sombre melancholy, expressed in such sad and mocking lines, in the café of lost youth.”


Many entries in Poésie, etc. are, as we’d expect, bad-boy staples: Lautréamont and Cravan, Villon and Poe, Rimbaud and Baudelaire; there’s Lacenaire, too, and Dante, of course, whom Debord read in Italian, as well as Apollinaire, an adolescent favourite, together with those sages of the finite aspects of time, with its slipping away: Omar Khayyam, Jorge Manrique, and Li Po (Chinese T’ang Dynasty poetry gets its own separate annex in Poésie, etc.). “Perhaps you still retain the cheerfulness of youth,” said Li Po, “but your hair is already white; and what is the use of complaining?” “We come in like water,” wrote Omar Khayyam, “and leave like the wind.”

Not a few pages of Poésie, etc. cover the beloved Greek, Homer, and favoured Brits, read in translation (Debord had no English): Shakespeare, Swift, Carroll, de Quincey, Lowry (Under the Volcano), as well as an unexpected Thackeray (The Book of Snobs) and Graham Greene (Brighton Rock). There are multiple fiches for French classicists Bossuet, Pascal, and Chateaubriand, lesser numbers for German romantics Goethe, Schiller, and Hölderlin, and begrudging entries for André Breton, on his Manifestos of Surrealism and Anthology of Black Humour. (I say “begrudging,” because Debord admired and disdained the Pope of Surrealism in equal measure; he could never quite reconcile his love-hate relationship with son semblable, son père. The same might be said of Jean Cocteau.)

De Musset’s play Lorenzaccio, meanwhile, seems to remind Debord of past Florentine sojourns, of ill-fated flings: “Goodbyes, goodbyes without end, the shores of the Arno are awash with so many goodbyes!” Debord had a bit of a penchant for Gogol, the Russian satirist: “Be a living soul not a dead one,” Gogol scribbled on a scrap of paper, only days before starving himself to death; Debord enjoyed the cautioning, finding pleasure in another, zany Gogol line, from Diary of a Madman, framing, perhaps, the integrated spectacle: “I’ve discovered that China and Spain are the same thing and it’s only ignorance that makes people take them for two separate countries.” (Inside the left margin of the Gogol card is a curiously urgent note-to-self, written in January 1989: “Read quickly The Government Inspector, The Quarrel [Between the Two Ivans], then Nevsky Prospect; reread The Overcoat.)

Pierre Mac Orlan, another fav, helps Debord appreciate the poetics of war. The former’s Le bataillonnaire (1931), the infantryman, re-enacts the Great War through the lens of a young working-class Parisian, Georges Lougre, a Pigalle pimp and loser. When Lougre enlists, the proximity of death has him soon revalue his life. The futility of war is evident enough, even for men of little learning. But a richer meaning is gradually discovered through the tacit camaraderie he finds with fellow Joyeux, a shared melancholy every combat soldier feels, feels in their bones, a strangely poetic sensibility: le cafard, evoked by Mac Orlan’s lyrical prose and sentimental songs. It’s the doldrums of men without women, of men who mightn’t see tomorrow, men who recognise the difficulty of ever returning to civilian ways, yet, at the same time, can’t really settle into military life, either. “Soldiers, true soldiers,” says Mac Orlan, “aren’t conscious of their real worth. Very few love adventure. However, at certain hours, you might believe that they understood the tragic beauty of their itinerant fate.” Near the novel’s end, a train ride lulls Georges into introspection, “reviving in him,” Mac Orlan says, “the slackers he knew from the past, the desperate and often burlesque characters who roamed the streets of his youth, those of a Montmartre now entirely wiped out.”

Debord always insisted he preferred Musil to Proust; but Poésie, etc. equally reveals he’d nonetheless poured over Proust, was intimate with À la recherche du temps perdu, perhaps having more sympathy for Proust than he cracked on. At least for Swann, the Proustian dandy who chose not to live amongst elegant bourgeois but opted instead for the Bohemian Quai d’Orléans, a disreputable spot in the eyes of Swann’s snobbish peers. None of this would’ve been lost on Debord. He knew the Quai well, had it feature frequently in his films, panned at dusk. It was an image of Paris he was particularly fond of.

Another surprise is Debord’s intensive reading of The Bible, especially the Old Testament. His fiche on “The Books of Kings,” presumably dating from the mid-1970s, witnesses him grappling with the title of In Girum Imus Nocte, wondering if The Bible’s Latin “et consumimur igni” means “we will be consumed by fire, or maybe the reverse, that the fire consumes us.” Elsewhere, two vertical lines, Debord’s chief method of emphasis, home in on “The Book of Proverbs”: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it,” all of which sounds like a reworking of In Girum’s closing sequences.


Surprising in Poésie, etc., too, because of its categorisation, is Lewis Mumford’s The City in History. Debord mobilises Mumford’s text from 1961 as a masterpiece of fine prose as well as fine ideas, reading it fresh off the French press (translated in 1964), since his dialogue with Mumford is couched in the drafting of La société du spectacle (1967), shorthanded by Debord as “SduS.” “For the Society of the Spectacle,” Debord tags his first Mumford fiche, richly annotated by a young mind clearly energised by the history of cities, by its shift from the Greek polis to the American Megalopolis, from the birth of municipal liberty to its death throes. The City in History stakes out the contours of SduS itself. “Universal history was born in cities,” says Debord in Thesis #176, following Mumford, “whose climatic moment was the decisive victory of the city over the countryside.” “But if the history of the city is the history of freedom,” Debord continues, “it is also the history of tyranny, of a state administration that controls the countryside and the city itself. The city is the locus of history because it is both the concentration of social power, rendering possible an historical undertaking, and a conscience of the past.”


Debord, like Mumford, thinks the modern desire to control and commercialise urban life is facilitated by the liquidation of historical memory, by the instigation of a collective forgetting, the spectacle’s principal arm. He cites Mumford citing Emerson: “The city lives by remembering.” (In parentheses, Debord quips: “the inverse is true!”) Mumford says the spectacle is ingrained in city life, was there in Roman gladiatorial games, and developed over time with assorted precessions and pageants, bread and circuses that have culminated in our own mass adoration of the gadget commodity. Debord makes a fascinating pairing of Mumford and his contemporary Karl Wittfogel, bringing each to bear on understanding the despotism of the spectacle and modern urban life. Wittfogel’s important book Oriental Despotism appeared four years before The City in History, and if its title left little doubt about the book’s subject matter, the subheading merely hammered things home even more: “A Comparative Study of Total Power.” Large-scale urban planning initiatives and resource control (especially water management), Mumford and Wittfogel say, necessitate highly centralised organising bodies, statist autocracies that can administer total power. Throughout history, in both the East and the West, under state communism and state capitalism, managerialist bureaucracies have seized power and managed to recreate built environments in their own image, imposing their despotic will on citizens.

Wittfogel was a German-born Marxist historian who moved to the United States during the Second World War. For years, he taught at New York’s Columbia University, quickly turning renegade, becoming a virulently anti-communist conservative. By the 1950s, he was happily testifying at McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, denouncing, amongst other people, fellow sinologist Owen Lattimore, a Johns Hopkins geography professor. As such, it’s curious why Debord would want to insert pages and pages on Wittfogel in his Marx/Hegel library? (Lukács, for one, detested Wittfogel, calling him a “vulgar materialist”; the feeling was mutual: Lukács, for Wittfogel, was a fluffy idealist.) Debord’s fiches on Oriental Despotism almost outnumber those on Marx himself and one might wonder why? Perhaps because Debord and Wittfogel both share profoundly anti-Stalinist and anti-Maoist tendencies, and Debord plainly liked the provocation of placing him alongside humanist Marxists, flagging up the threat of dogmatic centralism in its ranks.

Many notations in Marx/Hegel hark back to the late 1950s, when, in a little black moleskin carnet, Debord, a twentysomething radical, was meticulously compiling the citations of another twentysomething radical, a young Karl Marx. Marx/Hegel represents a sort of Debordian Grundrisse, notebooks never really intended for the public light of day. Each text is united in its engagement with Hegel. Debord, too, was something of an unofficial pupil of the mighty German philosopher, studied him closely, and his dossier on Hegel runs to a bulky 118 pages. Yet Debord, like Marx, was no idealist, and took from Hegel the logic of the dialectic, its form rather than its content. Entering Debord’s dialectic is like plunging into a Dantesque labyrinth, full of twists and turns, rhyme and reason, inversions and subversions, theses and antitheses that constantly bite off one another’s tail, that loop and curl incessantly, as if the whole Marxist-Hegelian canon were fair game for negation, for Debord’s brilliant détournements.


Dense reflections on Lukács’s focus on reification, on the triumph of the world of things over the world of people. Lukács’s ground-breaking History and Class Consciousness (1923) helped Debord frame the link between the alienation of urban subjectivity and the commodification of city space. Spectacular society, says Debord, is a hyper-reified version of Lukács’s world, a reality of separation, which the young Marx had stressed in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844): workers separated from their activity, from the products of their labour, from their fellow workers, even from themselves. Reification happens when something is denied, taken away from a thinking subject, displaced into an object, into a thing external to the self, against the self, something that forcibly sunders mind from activity, mind from itself. Here unity spells division. And yet, Debord projects theories of alienation and reification onto a more ambitious and sinister plane of immanence. Henri Lefebvre had brought the commodity-form to bear on “everyday life,” extending Marx’s notion of abstract time (value), having it incorporate abstract space; now, suggests Debord, abstract space is itself another aspect of the spectacle: “The spectacle is the other side of money; it is the general abstract equivalent of all commodities.” “The spectacle is the moment when the commodity had attained the total occupation of social life.”

Thirty-years Debord’s senior, Lefebvre was something of a godfather figure for the youthful Situationist. They’d befriended one another, developed a warm friendship for a while, spent nights together, communed with each other. Debord seems to have read most of Lefebvre’s weighty oeuvre; his all-time favourite is Lefebvre’s own all-time favourite: La somme et le reste (1959), the philosopher-sociologist’s two-volumed intellectual autobiography. “At present,” he told Situ pal André Frankin, in a letter dated 14th February 1960, “I am reading La somme et le reste. It is very interesting, and close to us—here I mean: the theory of moments.” A week on (22nd February), Debord wrote the same Frankin a long, detailed letter, analysing Lefebvre’s “theory of moments,” and now we can scrutinise for ourselves, from Debord’s numerous fiches, the source of these comments. Debord’s discussion is very technical and very serious: it’s the 1960s, after all, and you sense the political stakes are high, on the brink of something. Debord thinks Lefebvre’s moments are more durable, more precise, purer than the Situationist’s notion of situations; yet this might be a defect. Situations are less definitive, potentially richer, more open to mélange, which is good—except, says Debord, how can you “characterise a situation?” Where does it begin and where does it end? 


Over half a century has unfolded since Debord wrote a lot of these notes. Highly technical debates around Marxist theory seem less challenging nowadays, less pertinent, and many ideas in Marx/Hegel no longer strike as the intellectual bombshells they doubtless were in their glory days. Debord would never again read Marx or Hegel with the same ferocity and intensity as in the runup to and aftermath of SduS. The book sealed a magical era for him. “Whoever considers the life of the Situationists,” he contended a few years later, “finds there the history of the revolution. Nothing has been able to sour it.” It was how it’d been for the Communards, who really lived it for 73 days, whose fulfillment was already there. Fulfilment was already there for Debord, too: he really did live it in the situations of May 1968, and now the music was over. Yet as the dust settled from the street-battles, an emptiness prevailed in the ruins. Many soixante-huitards suddenly found themselves stuck between the rock and the hard place, between a degenerative past and an impossible future. For a moment, the dream of spontaneous freedom became real, in wide-awake time. An instant later, it disappeared in a puff of smoke.

In late Debord, Marx and Hegel recede, have been steadily replaced, superseded, by the likes of Clausewitz and Machiavelli, Cardinal de Retz and Baltasar Gracián. Resistance for Debord hereafter became more a question of strategy, something more poetic—we might say more ontological, a state of being rather than an act of theory, a dilemma about how to live out a poetic life now, in spite of it all. It’s maybe one reason why I found Marx/Hegel less intriguing than the earlier two volumes of Debord’s library. It’s maybe why, too, the most enduring lesson we might take from Debord is precisely how to endure; it isn’t so much his Situationist muckraking as the more stoical lesson he can teach us about how to stay true to our nature in desperate times, how we might resist the dominant values of these desperate times, how we might do it with fellow kindred. Debord never lived to see the most desperate times of all, those of the current moment. He was lucky. He never witnessed fake news or Reality TV or the unashamed rise of the populist Right, with imbeciles like Trump and Johnson. He anticipated them, of course, and in Poésie, etc. (p57) there’s an entry that heralds their passing, that offers us wishful thinking about their passing. It comes from The Bible, from the Old Testament’s “Book of Daniel,” and Debord uses it in the conclusion of his preface to the “Fourth Italian Edition of The Society of the Spectacle.”

Fingers of a human hand appear and begin writing on a wall. King Belshazzar watches as the hand daubs mysterious words, rather as Debord had daubed on rue de Seine all those years ago: ne travaillez jamais. The King’s face turns pale. He’s so frightened that his knees start knocking. Nobody knows what the words mean, not even the wise men of Babylon. Nobles are baffled. Enter Daniel, who can explain riddles, interpret dreams and resolve difficult problems. You, Belshazzar, have not humbled yourself, he says; you praised gold, have drunk the wine of your people, deceived them. That is why the inscription on the wall says: MENE, TEKEL, PERES.

MENE means your days are numbered and your reign is about to end; TEKEL means you have been weighed on scales and found wanting; PERES means your kingdom is to be divided, spread amongst the just. “Under each project of the present society,” Debord signs off, “one sees everywhere inscribed the words MENE, TEKEL, PERES.” Thus the writing is on the wall. The days of this society are numbered. Its merits have been weighed and found wanting, a lot wanting. Is it only a matter of time, then, before the knees of its rulers knock and their reign crumbles with them?

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LAND OF STORMS: Guy Debord in Champot

Driving forty-five minutes from my home, I can get to Bellevue-la-Montagne, a sleepy, semi-abandoned village, perched at 990 metres in France’s Haute-Loire. It was twenty-years ago when I first discovered Bellevue. I’d just stepped off a plane then, from New York, pre-9/11 and COVID, days when you could travel easily, fly relatively hassle-free; afterwards I’d motored halfway across France. I wanted to see the house where Guy Debord had killed himself. I was finishing up my book, Metromarxism, and suddenly found myself in a kingdom very far from any city, far from Paris, far from anywhere and everywhere.

Yet Bellevue wasn’t my ultimate destination: I sought a tinnier hamlet, a more hidden underworld: Champot. I had no idea where it was, whether it really existed. The day I drove into Bellevue everywhere was closed, boarded up, long-forgotten. All apart from the butcher’s store, one of few of the village’s remaining petits commerces. In I went to ask for directions. Madame Soulier, the butcher’s wife, happily obliged, drew me a little map, immediately shared gossip on the Debords, guessing it was he I came about, the man who used to come to her store, ate her husband’s meat, spoke little.

Madame Soulier soon became my secret accomplice. Each time I went back, desiring further information, her hair was different colour. Bright pink and purple were favourites. So, now, I’m back in Bellevue again, twenty-years later, an anniversary homage to Champot, on a gorgeous sunny Sunday. No worries today. I didn’t care everywhere was closed again, didn’t care about anything. I’ve no idea whether Madame Soulier is alive; but the butcher’s store is still in business, and the vividness of its shutters suggest that the said Madame is probably encore en vie.

In those days, Champot felt miles away from Bellevue; really, it’s rather nearby. On this lovely day, I decide to hoof it, take a stroll down the medieval pathway, beyond Bellevue’s chateau (now the village bibliothèque), passing via Champot Bas, onwards to Champot Haut, chez Debord. Even in the deep silence of a rural French Sunday, even in the emptiness of a wilderness shuttered up, Champot feels as magically radiant as it always did, as it first had in 2001; a strange, mystical force grips you here, gripped me back then, in my forties, changed my life, still grips, in my sixties. One feels most of all a presence and life-force, not a death-sentence. Behind the high stone wall, inside the house’s ramparts, Debord once stood on the grass at night, staring at the Milky Way; the house seemed to open directly onto it, he’d said in Panegyric. His widow, Alice, wrote in her poem “Voie Lactée” that Guy was fascinated by the Milky Way, drew upon it, she said, “as a source of peace and serenity.” For her, its immensity brought on only vertigo.

Debord wrote beautifully about his sojourns in this land of storms: “they’d approach noiselessly at first,” he said, “announced by a brief passage of a wind that slithered through the grass or by a series of sudden flashes on the horizon; then thunder and lightning were unleashed, and we were bombarded for a long while and from every direction, as if in a fortress under siege.” No storms today. Only fair weather, sunshine and calm, warmth, not even a barking dog can be heard. Debord’s printanier refrains best capture today’s mood: “a great sweetness in the air, a sweetness you can taste…and a dazzling shade of tender green that comes over the trees, in the tremulous light of the sun rising before them.”

Nothing can better that. No other words can improve upon it. I don’t want to add anything more myself, either, about a subject-matter I’ve already written much about. Instead, I’d like to share a photomontage of this homage, a glimpse of Champot’s tremulous light, of a tender green that is still as dazzling as ever, shimmering in the sunshine like a glorious emerald carpet. Twenty-years on, indeed. Perhaps I do retain the cheerfulness of youth, as Debord said, citing poet Li-Po. “But your hair is already white; and what’s the use of complaining?”




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LEFEBVRE AND ALTHUSSER — Reinterpreting Marxist Humanism and Anti-Humanism

This blog was published at Monthly Review Online on Jun 13, 2021

Since the October Revolution, Marxism has experienced almost as many crises as capitalism itself. Crises are Marxism’s bread and butter, if not its chalk and cheese. Meltdowns of capitalism usually come as little surprise to savvy Marxist theorists, who’d seen it all coming long ago, even while those capitalist economies basked in booming glory. But economic crises are one thing; economic crisis plus a global pandemic is something else again, beyond an everyday capitalist norm, more akin to the political-economy of wartime. And for a thought that fuses theory and praxis, pandemic, like war, threatens not only life and limb, but also solidarity and tender acts of human togetherness.

But there’s another aspect to pandemic as well as to a Marxism of pandemic: the delicate balance between the individual and society is disrupted, between a liberty at the personal level and the needs of a society at the population level—the scale of much epidemiological enquiry. Pandemics necessitate that public health exigencies assume priority, even at the expense of the liberty of the person. Willy-nilly, collective rights find themselves clashing with individual rights, and not always to everyone’s liking—especially in lands where personal freedom is touted as sacrosanct. We’ve seen this most starkly expressed in the conflict over face-mask wearing, where protecting other people is seen by some as a downshifting of the self, as an assault on individual liberty.

For the theoretically-minded, this strikes as another way to frame debates about agency versus structure, about freedom versus necessity, about which is the more important, the determinant rather than determined. Marxists might recognise such a dialectic as a rerun of debates that raged throughout the sixties and seventies about humanist versus anti-humanist Marxism, about whether subjectivity ought to prevail over objectivity; or whether Marxist history is really objective, a process without a subject, a theory more amenable to the affirmation of collective necessity.

Humanists like Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991) suggest Marxism should celebrate what Hegel called a “freedom of subjectivity,” that it should prioritise the free will aspect of Marx’s vision, his yearning for “an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” The young, romantic Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts are particularly dear to the humanist Marxist’s heart. Here, in 1844, still smitten by Hegelian idealism, the concept of alienation dominates—or rather dis-alienation—the transcending of alienation, the freeing of human beings from capitalist enslavement, from wage labour. Marx posits a “total man” as the liberated person, as subject and object finding unity, rediscovering inner human essence, the ability for people to realise a limitless variety of possible individualities. [1]


For anti-humanists like Louis Althusser (1918-1990) this reasoning rings out bogus, as something ideological, problematic for any socialist ambition. Socialism needs a “scientific” concept, says Althusser. “Humanism” here presupposes an “empiricism of the subject,” a kind of “essence” to human beings, which, Althusser reckons, the mature Marx—the Marx from the mid-1850s onwards—rejects. Humanism throws a “universal” veil over society, whereas revolutionary struggle isn’t a struggle to liberate “humankind” as such, but a struggle between classes. So, if we should ever talk about humanism, says Althusser, we might at least talk about “class humanism,” or “proletarian humanism.” Marxist liberation isn’t about releasing any transcendental human essence, nor expressive of personal freedom; it’s a historical phase that ends class exploitation, that builds democracy for the working classes. [2]


Humanist Marxists accuse anti-humanists of dogmatism—of endorsing an “official” Marxism, under Stalin’s watch, with its programme of “the dialectics of nature.” Class struggle therein is seen as objective and deterministic, unfolding without conscious human agency, almost behind the backs of real people, like waves eroding the shoreline. Dogmatic Marxists, Lefebvre says, are happy to move people aside, being especially leery of Marx’s early writings. After all, they might give Soviet workers dangerous ideas about alienation in their own society. But if world communism is inevitable, an inexorable act of nature, as Stalin insists, people can be readily expunged from making history; Marxism elides into economism. Everything else—sociology, psychology, speculative philosophy, etc.—is reformist, irredeemably bourgeois.

Anti-humanists reckon the problem with dogmatism is too much humanism, not too little. Humanism encourages “the cult of personality,” says Althusser, the agency accorded to glorious leaders who supposedly make history all by themselves, like Stalin—or Hitler and Mussolini, or like a few of our own contemporary despots. This is divine worship of the individual, subjective humanism sneaking in through the back door, ideologically poisoning the rest of the house. The cult of personality has no place in Marxist theory, Althusser says, which is why he posits the provocative thesis that Marxists should break with the idealist category of “subject.” History has a “motor,” according to Althusser, but no subject. “Individuals aren’t ‘free’ and ‘constitutive’ subjects in the philosophical sense of these terms,” he says. “They work in and through the determinations of the forms of historical existence of the social relations of production and reproduction.” It’s another way of repeating Marx’s oft-cited dictum, that the masses make their own history, but not under circumstances chosen by individuals themselves.

Lefebvre and Althusser, as budding opposites, joined the French Communist Party (PCF) as young men. The former, scared by the Great War, in 1925; the latter, inspired by militant Resistants, in 1948. Lefebvre would, for “ideological deviations,” get expelled in 1958, though he’d reembrace the Party in the 1970s; Althusser would never leave, yet remained an outspoken critic. As dissident Party members, Lefebvre’s Marxism bathed in sunlight, was energised by what Ernst Bloch called a utopian “warm stream”; Althusser’s assumed a darker, colder, more melancholy cast. Lefebvre’s sixty-odd books overflow with the loose spontaneity and passion his Marxism advocates; Althusser’s writings, by contrast, are essays, tight and concise, shorn of frills.

Althusser’s anti-humanism insists that Marxism beds itself down in “the concrete analysis of a concrete situation.” [3] But Lefebvre’s humanism doesn’t want to give up the ghost—geist—of alienation. If progressives jettison it, he says, won’t the living baby disappear with the stagnant bathwater? And yet, maybe twenty-first-century Marxism needs to loosen alienation from its subjective moorings, where it can degenerate into subjectivism, into an expression of bourgeois individuality and freedom. Maybe we need to see alienation not as undermining some abstract human essence, but posit it concretely, as a historical category, at work and in life. The traits of Marx’s factory system have entered into the generic traits of our society writ large. Life itself nowadays assumes a kind of industrial logic, with speed-ups and intensity drives, drills and efficiency targets, audits and assessments. As workers lean in, as they fill in those leaky non-workday pores, alienation is concrete. It moves with the times and so should we. It takes on meaning in different epochs, changes as we change, as our needs and aspirations change, as they change us, as we change them.

Decades ago, witnessing many German and European workers opt for fascism, vote against their class interests, Lefebvre spoke of alienation as mystified consciousness, recognising how propaganda transformed people’s minds en masse. He never saw this morph into social media, into misinformation and fake news, into twenty-first century estrangement, whose ideological channels never switch off and span the entire planet. Our alienation is different now, more cunning, less evident. And our consciousness is different, too, reshaped and re-mystified by a culture deliberately intent on undermining people’s capacity to think critically, to analyse broadly and deeply. Bombarded with banal messages and commercial stimuli, our brain cells have been pulverised by informational overload. Differentiating truth from falsity becomes increasingly difficult, fertile terrain for cults of personality to prosper, for demagogues to make promises they’ll never keep. But no matter.

Here, Althusser’s analysis still shines light on the murky zones of ideology. Ideology is never just free-floating, says Althusser, never simply (or complexly) a system of ideas innocent in life. Rather, ideology gets “materially” constituted, is embedded in particular capitalist “apparatuses” that manufacture it, that transmit it. They stalk the public, statist sector—in education and law, in the police and army, in religious institutions and political parties—as well as civil society—in business and advertising, on TV and radio, in newspapers, in social media and information technology. In fact, everywhere, we are enveloped in ideology. State ideological apparatuses can act repressively, through force (sending in the police and military), or else engineer compliance via consent, via more subtle modes of domination.

Althusser says ideological apparatuses “interpellate” people, “hail” us as concrete class subjects. It all happens, he says, along the lines of the most commonplace everyday scene—a hailing from across the street: “Hey, you there!” Conscious we’ve done something wrong, we look over, get taken in, believe the caller. Somehow, instinctively, we listen, accept it is us being called. This is how reality takes place through ideology, Althusser says, even if it seems to take place outside of ideology, beyond it. This is how we get “recruited” as class subjects and why Marx says life conditions consciousness—and not the other way around. What Lefebvre calls mystified consciousness, Althusser terms “an imaginary representation of our real conditions of existence.”

Ideology isn’t false consciousness: it’s real, has real anchoring to reality, real material existence. The bluster of Trump or Boris Johnson interpellates large numbers of people because their calls have what Althusser labels “a recognition function,” something a person needs to believe, wants to believe, recognises. It hits a reality buzzer somewhere inside them, becomes the necessary mood music for dissatisfied and alienated people. They want to hear this music, are open to it, feel the need to believe it. It’s on the level of feeling that messages get through, stoke up visceral emotions. Yet recognition functions through illusory representations, through imaginary distortions of actual reality (like the notion the Presidential election was rigged). “Experience shows,” says Althusser, “that the practical telecommunications of hailing is such that they hardly ever miss their man.” Verbal calls, messages popping up on screens, entering inboxes or dropping through mailboxes, getting bawled out at political campaigns, tweeted on social media—“the one hailed always recognises that it is really them who is being hailed.”

Althusser labels the drama of interpellation his “little theoretical theatre,” and the notion of theatre here is suggestive, full of dialectical resonance. Theatre stage plays involving actors with scripts. These actors assume roles and know how to learn their lines. They memorise them, act these lines out in character. Before them lie audiences, gatherings of people looking on, perhaps innocently, perhaps dangerously—dangerously in the sense that they are identifying with the actors. In interpellation, actors and audience become one, get bundled together; you can’t differentiate one from the other—at least in audiences’ heads—because the latter begin to live out the roles they’re watching. They come to the theatre, Althusser says, really to see themselves, and that’s why it’s dangerous: it’s precisely how interpellation hails you in life.

Althusser took a keen interest in theatre. While he plainly sees bourgeois theatre like bourgeois life, as a paradigm of interpellation, laden with ideology, he nonetheless understands theatre as part of the solution, too, as educational for not getting taken in by ideology. In this respect, misrecognition becomes a vital arm of political resistance, something Althusser tries to highlight in his articles on Bertolt Brecht. [4] Althusser says Brecht revolutionised bourgeois theatre the same way Marx revolutionised bourgeois philosophy. Marx says philosophy shouldn’t be contemplative and neither should theatre says Brecht.

It shouldn’t be “culinary,” he says, mere entertainment for audiences to drool over the play’s “hero.” In Brechtian “epic” theatre, there are no heroes, not even in plays like The Life of Galileo and Mother Courage, two of Althusser’s favourites. This is “materialist” theatre. There, the masses make history, not heroes. Brecht wants no object of identification—either positive or negative—between spectators and the spectacle, no complicity between the two, no pity or sentimentality, no anger or disgust. It’s the only sort of alienation that kindled Althusser’s political imaginary: the famous “alienation-effect,” Brecht’s Verfremdungeffekt—or V-effekt—the distancing that avoids reifying inter-subjectivity, that counteracts any possible emotional empathy audiences develop with the characters.

Brecht demands cool thinking responses from his audiences, not hot feeling outbursts. He wants to foster critical interpretation, a thought that provokes action. Overthrown are classical ideals of Greek theatre, where the repressed energy of the drama erupts into what Aristotle called catharsis—a stirring emotional release, usually at the play’s finale. It sounds like the din of a Trump rally, its demagogic rage. Brecht wants to snub any fictional triumph, any fear and misery of the Second Term. He interrogates context rather than panders to confabulation. “The public ought to cease to identify with what they’re watching,” says Althusser. “They ought to find a critical position,” take a stand on the outside, not be taken in on the inside. It’s precisely this critical distance that needs to be carried over into real life, into our diseased life. Like with all viruses, prevention is always better than cure.

As Althusser drifted away from the PCF in the late 1970s, Lefebvre drifted back into it. The decade pushed and pulled socialists and communists everywhere, ushering in as much a meltdown of the post-war Left as of post-war capitalism. Gramsci might have called this an interregnum, between a dying past and a new era yet to be born, haunted in the meantime by monsters. For awhile, the Left in France called for unity, for a “Union of the Left”; a popular unity to ward off monsters, between the PCF and the Socialist Party (PS), in solidarity with other Left factions and forces—avoiding, on the one side, dogmatism and sectarianism within its own ranks, and striving, on the other, to forge an electoral pact, a ballot box socialism.

The European Left was distancing itself from Moscow, abandoning commitment to “dictatorship of the proletariat,” embracing instead so-called “Eurocommunism”—“the democratic road to socialism.” The workers’ movement needed to fight for structural reforms, transform the capitalist system by stages, eventually altering it wholesale. Head on confrontation between bourgeoisie and proletariat ought to be avoided; socialism without the consensus of a large majority of the “progressive” population would be impossible. Rather than take the enemy’s fortress by assault, in one fell swoop, Eurocommunists needed to encircle this fortress, undermine it gradually, vote it out, erode its power. Later on, they could seize control, democratise the state.

Althusser thought this a grave tactical error, a betrayal of the working classes, and said so after the Union’s electoral defeat in 1978; Lefebvre seemed more open to its exploration, to its possibility. Althusser wrote a series of blistering articles in April, 1978, serialised in the newspaper Le Monde, about why he thought the Left union had collapsed and “What Must Change in the Party.” [5] He said the Party had to step out of its own “fortress,” embrace the popular movement, have more faith in the rank and file. “Democratic centralism” could only work, Althusser said, if the PCF loosened its absolutist grip on the workers’ movement. Party bigwigs, alas, had been more concerned with defending their institutional privileges against the PS than in allying to combat a national bourgeoisie.

Lefebvre also released a text in 1978—a crucial year in the demise of European Left—a book with a revealing title: La révolution n’est plus ce qu’elle était [The Revolution Isn’t What it Was], a dialogical exchange with Catherine Regulier, Lefebvre’s newly-wed and young PCF militant. Althusser is frequently pilloried by Lefebvre; Regulier usually sides with her Party comrade in opposition to her husband, making the conversation particularly fascinating because of its tangled loyalties. Like Althusser, Lefebvre disagrees with Gramsci: the Party isn’t a Modern Prince; Stalin put paid to such imagery. Yet rather than orchestrate “democratic centralism,” Lefebvre wants to develop and generalise “autogestion,” a worker self-management, pushing the Party to accept more decentralisation; power needed devolving to local communes; more coordinated direct action required fostering at ground level. Lefebvre, in effect, sought a democratic line between Party and state, wishing both would wither away.

Étienne Balibar, a former student and confidant of Althusser, and co-author with his teacher of Reading Capital, told me via email that Lefebvre and Althusser actually encountered each other during this fraught period. They met along with other Marxist theoreticians (like Christine Buci-Glucksmann and Jean-Marie Vincent) at Lefebvre’s apartment on rue Rambuteau (overlooking the Pompidou Centre). Balibar says they were “private meetings” [réunions privées], organised by another ex-Althusser student Nicos Poulantzas, whose idea was “to try and reunite Marxist intellectuals and relaunch, if possible, Leftist debate and the Union of the Left in distress [L’Union de la gauche en perdition].” [6]

“Lefebvre was old,” recalls Balibar, “but very alert and a charming conversationalist.” He wanted the Left “to bury the old hatchets,” to overcome its internal differences and disagreements, have everyone make peace with one another. Perhaps he was recalling what Lenin said about Marxists and anarchists; that there was nine-tenths similarity and one-tenth difference? Didn’t the same go for humanists and anti-humanists? “Althusser was often ill and absent in those days,” Balibar remembers. “He came a few times to the meetings without saying much, sometimes saying nothing at all.” “Lefebvre,” says Balibar, “told me that the Presses Universitaires de France had commissioned him to do a book on ‘Marx Today’. ‘Why don’t we do it together?’ he asked me. Like an idiot I refused, under the pretext that the deadline was too short for me, and that I write much slower than he does. To this day, I regret not doing it.” [7]

Lefebvre’s and Althusser’s work over that decade, from differing perspectives, tried to valorise for the Left a capitalist state in crisis. Could a unified Left leverage state power away from a disgruntled Right? Could it do so in the streets, in the factories, and through the ballot box? Could forces within the state be modified by organised pressure from the outside? Could pressure from the outside not only transform the inside but actually become that inside? “On s’engage,” Althusser used to say, “et puis on voit.” And yet, after engaging, after jumping into the fray, what one saw was a dramatic power shift, a transition and renewal in the reverse direction. It was the Right who got its act together, who closed ranks, who “condensed” its class power, just as the Left’s fell apart, as its unity fractured into disunity.

By the mid-1980s, a lot of ideas about popular unity and democratising the state, about Eurocommunism triumphing, collapsed, got rejected—almost before the votes were cast. Somehow its programme had overly compromised; or else hadn’t compromised enough. It was as if the Left didn’t know whether it was coming or going, having no more legs to stand on. It had kicked away both the Party and the People, hobbled lame. Still, unlike Britain and the US, “the Left” did nonetheless triumph in France, in 1981, under François Mitterrand’s Socialist Party; yet victory soon turned Pyrrhic, as its “leftist” policies began drawing straight from the Right’s playbook. By then, too, in a gentrifying Paris, an octogenarian Lefebvre had been evicted from his rental on rue Rambuteau and a depressed Althusser had strangled his beloved wife, Hélène, in a moment of “temporary insanity,” ending his days as a public figure. Poulantzas, meanwhile, had freaked out at a friend’s apartment, throwing himself out of the window in an impulsive suicidal defenestration.

Suddenly, the “New Right” set off on its long march, telling us there is no such thing as society anymore, only individuals and families. From struggling to ensure a providential state, now there was apparently no more state, not a public state for people anyway, only one preparing the political terrain for free market entrepreneurialism. Thus arose an awkward predicament for progressive people, especially for Marxist theoreticians: those items of “collective consumption” so vital for reproduction of the relations of production, so indispensable for propping up demand in the economy and for satisfying working class needs—public housing and infrastructure, hospitals and collectively consumed goods and services—were getting cast aside. How could this be? What once appeared essential ingredients for capitalism’s continued reproduction, for its long term survival, now turned out to be only contingent after all.

The Left has never really come to terms with a seismic tremor that registered big digits on the neoliberal Richter Scale. The 1980s bid adieu to social democratic reformism, to an age when the public sector was the solution to capitalism’s woes and the private sector the problem. Henceforth the former needed negating, Right ideologues argued; the private sector was the solution and a shot and bloated public sector the problem. State bureaucrats dishing out items of collective consumption through some principle of redistributive justice gave way to reality in which the market ruled. Writ large was the beginning of the privatisation of everything, of an ideology of possessive individualism. “Freedom” became its tagline: free markets, free trade, free choice, freedom to consume, freedom to do one’s own thing, freedom not to care about other people’s freedom.

Successive generations have been force-fed this ideology of freedom, treating anything public, any realm of necessity, with suspicion, as shoddy and inefficient, as something symbolising unfreedom. Now, it’s no longer an ideological category: it’s embedded in people’s brains, a belief system that teaches us how to forget, how to turn our backs on the public realm and ergo on any social contract. Maybe for good reason: the public state has been hollowed out to such a degree that it is shoddy. Its core functions—the planning and organisation of public services—have been outsourced to private consultants and contractors who’ve delivered little yet raked in much.

And as pandemic raged, countries who’d hollowed out their states most of all fast discovered they had neither the hardware capacity nor the software know-how to deal with a massive societal problem. So they doled out millions to private consultant “experts” like McKinsey who apparently did. When, in Britain, the latter instigated a National Health Service (NHS) test and trace system that hardly worked, we realised these “experts,” too, were clueless. COVID-19 has exposed the shortcomings of the privatised state, of the incompetence of private enterprise addressing public health—and of how public health challenges aren’t resolvable by individuals and families alone.

There’s plenty of collective necessity, of course, dealing with a global pandemic. But collective necessity can only work if people recognise the state as “democratic,” know good government from bad. These days, in populist nations, democracy seems like a vision from another planet. We might call these uncivil states because people there have lost their sense of duty to one another. We’ve been kidded by demagogues into thinking we’re all free agents capable of doing what we like, and if we can’t then it’s someone else’s fault. The European Union’s? Big government’s? Rarely big business’s. Private inclinations have run roughshod over public interests, cults of personality have gone viral. Maybe intelligent people, inspired by some Brechtian V-effekt, might one day acknowledge society again, might distance themselves from ruling class lures and lies. Perhaps then we’ll see how we can be freer if each of us admits that we are part of a public culture in desperate need of collective repair, that the goal of socialist democracy is to fight to reclaim public power.

En route, we might also remember Marx, who insisted that real freedom came though addressing necessity. “Freedom can only consist in socialised man,” Marx said, “when associated producers rationally regulate their metabolism with Nature.” “A shortening of working day is the basic prerequisite for freedom,” he thought. Life blossoms forth on such a basis, he said. Freedom without necessity is yet more bourgeois claptrap, another ideological ruse to perpetuate its class dominance. Little wonder: “The bourgeoisie lives in the ideology of freedom,” Althusser tell us, and makes us live in it, too, forces its concept down our throats. But real freedom is hard when you have to worry about making the next rent check, when you wonder if your job will be there tomorrow, or what happens if you get sick. Free choice means practically nothing when you’re financially enslaved. Freedom here isn’t very humanist. Indeed, so far as anti-humanism goes, capitalism has got Marxism licked any day.


[1] See, especially, Dialectical Materialism (1939), Lefebvre’s humanist rejoinder to Stalin’s Historical and Dialectical Materialism, published in Moscow a year earlier.

[2] See Althusser’s For Marx (1965), the best introduction to his anti-humanist Marxism.

[3] We might remember that even Marx’s abstract reasoning is concrete. Marx is weary of abstract abstractions, calling them in the Grundrisse “chaotic conceptions.” In a way, Marx would have been sceptical of epidemiologists’ scale of “population.” “Population,” Marx says, is an abstract abstraction, “if I leave out the classes of which it is composed. These classes in turn are an empty phrase if I am not familiar with the elements on which they rest. E.g. wage labour, capital, etc. These latter presuppose exchange, division of labour, prices, etc.” When we follow Marx’s concrete logic, we can see more clearly how the COVID pandemic doesn’t just affect the population, but strikes different populations, strikes them unevenly and unequally, subject to positioning in the wage-relation and division of labour. Here we might add different races, too, and different classes of those races.

[4] Two instances are “The Piccolo Teatro,” a discussion of Bertolazzi alongside Brecht, which Althusser included in For Marx; and another, “Sur Brecht et Marx,” in Écrits philosophiques et politiques — tome II (1997).

[5] New Left Review translated and republished Althusser’s missives as a standalone essay (see NLR, No.109, May-June 1978).

[6] Even if little of practicality emerged from these meetings, protagonists did help pioneer a very interesting, if short-lived, theoretical journal called Dialectiques; between 1973 and 1981, 33 issues appeared, full of wonderful material that still inspires. Both Lefebvre and Althusser feature within its now-yellowing leaves, yin and yang opposites of a truly dialectical Marxism for what were truly dialectical times.

[7] Ironically, the book, Être Marxiste Aujourd’hui [To be a Marxist Today], would only materialise years later, in 1986, co-written with Patrick Tort, a strange homage to Georg Lukács. The focus was a conference at Paris’s Hungarian Institute from 1955, celebrating Lukács’s 70th birthday, an opportunity for Lefebvre to critique as well as champion his old Hegelian-Marxist colleague. If Balibar regrets passing up on joint-authorship, we can only regret not reading what might have been.

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LEFEBVRE IN THE AGE OF COVID — Lessons from The Urban Revolution and Paris Commune


This essay was originally posted at Monthly Review Online on 28th March 2021 

B40FA13A-E29A-4D41-8F41-DA8F087E6FB5Henri Lefebvre’s The Urban Revolution (1970) quietly celebrated its 50th birthday under lockdown, and our greatest ever urban revolution, the Paris Commune (1871), just toasted its 150th. Both book and event have lost none of their lustre for helping progressive people think about city life, even as COVID-19 threatens to destroy that life. We might say especially as COVID-19 threatens that life, because both The Urban Revolution and the Paris Commune offer vital instruction about how we might rebuild a post-pandemic urban world, rebuild it democratically.

COVID has upended urban life as we once knew it. But it intensified already existing pathologies, those contaminating “normal,” pre-pandemic life. For decades, business-as-usual exploitation has meant cities have become not only functionally and financially standardised, but also unaffordable and unequal. Recent social distancing disrupts these inequities even more, crimping cities as sites of physical encounters, hurting poorer, immobile denizens the most. Nowadays, our urban reality is one of the de-encounter, a thinning down rather than thickening up, the dispersion and dilution of city life, its fear and loathing.

Such denigration of the city would have hardly surprised Henri. He knew all about anti-urbanism and thwarted hopes. After all, The Urban Revolution was born of them, rooted and incubated in the promise of 1968, yet anticipating much more the depressing era that would follow. [1] By 1970, Lefebvre recognised that the promise of those street-fighting years was dashed; a sober reconceptualisation was warranted, a taking stock, particularly of material circumstances. What he foresaw, post-1968, was a revolution fellow Marxist Antonio Gramsci might have labeled “passive”—a revolt from above, a counter-revolution. (It’s what Marx meant in the Manifesto when he said “the bourgeoisie has played the most revolutionary part.”) Still, what Lefebvre wanted in The Urban Revolution was a revolution more akin to the Paris Commune, something Gramsci would have called a “war of position,” a popular, historical assault from below.


Like Marx inverting Hegel, Lefebvre stands mainstream economic and sociological wisdom on its head: “we must consider industrialisation as a stage of urbanisation,” he says, “as a moment, an intermediary, an instrument. In the double process (industrialisation-urbanisation), after a certain period the latter term becomes dominant, taking over from the former.” This is a bold, provocative statement for any Marxist. For it suggests that the mainstay of the capitalist economy isn’t so much industrialisation as urbanisation, that industrialisation all along was but a special form of urbanisation. Capitalism reigns, Lefebvre says, because it now manages and manufactures a very special commodity: urban space itself—an abundant source of surplus value as well as a massive means of production, both a launch pad and rocket in a stratospheric global market.

We must no longer talk of cities as such, he says; all that is old hat. Instead, we must speak of urban society, a society born of industrialisation, a society that shattered the internal intimacy of the traditional city, that grew into Engels’ industrial city, but which has, in turn, been superseded, absorbed and obliterated by vaster metropolitan units. Rural places, too, become an integral part of the urban process, swallowed up by an “urban fabric” that continually extends its borders, ceaselessly corrodes the residue of agrarian life, gobbling up everything and everywhere in order to increase surplus value and accumulate capital. “This term, ‘urban fabric’,” explains Lefebvre, “doesn’t narrowly define the built environment of cities, but all manifestations of the dominance of the city over the countryside. In this sense, a vacation home, a highway and a rural supermarket are all part of the urban tissue.”

The Urban Revolution appeared a year before Richard Nixon devalued the US dollar, wrenching it from its gold standard mooring. Gone, almost overnight, was the financial and economic regulation that kept in check a quarter of a century of capitalist expansion. As the US economy bore the brunt of war in Vietnam, an American balance of trade deficit loomed. Nixon knew fixed exchange rates couldn’t be sustained, not without overvaluing the dollar, not without losing competitive ground. So he let the dollar drift, devalued it, and loosened Bretton Woods’ grip. World currency thereafter oscillated; capital could now more easily slosh back and forth across national frontiers. A deregulated capitalism became rampant, without restraint; Lefebvre sensed its coming, saw how it facilitated what he’d call the “secondary circuit of capital,” a siphoning off of loose money that could speculate on real estate and financial assets, liquid loot yearning to become concrete in space.

From capital’s point of view, as a class, this makes perfect bottomline sense: the landscape gets flagged out as a pure exchange value, and activities on land conform to the “highest,” if not necessarily “best,” land-uses. Profitable locations get pillaged as secondary circuit flows become torrential, just as other sectors and places are asphyxiated through disinvestment. Willy-nilly people are forced to follow the money, flow from the countryside into the city, from factories into services, from stability into fragility. The urban fabric wavers between devaluation and revaluation, crisis and speculative binge, a ravaged built form and a renewed built form—and a fresh basis for capital accumulation. Once, it was a gritty warehouse on a rusty wharf; now, it’s a glitzy loft on a prim promenade. Once, an empty field on the edge; now a core neighbourhood on the up.

Half a century on, Lefebvre’s insights in The Urban Revolution sound as fresh and as meaningful as ever. Yet anybody expecting a rebel-rousing manifesto here will be disappointed. This isn’t a book like The Right to the City (1968), which climaxed with a passionate “cry and demand” for urban life. In 1970, Lefebvre gave us a more reflective text, cautious in its militant musings. If we want clues about what kind of radical revolution The Urban Revolution actually does espouse, we must look backwards, turn towards the past, and to an earlier Lefebvre work: La proclamation de la Commune, written in 1965. Reading it can help us move forwards.  


It was the style of the Commune that kindled Lefebvre’s political imagination. What style? “The style of an immense, grandiose festival,” he says, “a festival that citizens of Paris, essence and symbol of the French people and of people in general, offered to themselves and to the world. Festival at springtime, festival of the disinherited, revolutionary festival and festival of revolution, free festival, the grandest of modern times, unfurling for the first time in all its dramatic magnificent joy.” [2] For 73 days, loosely affiliated citizen organisations, neighbourhood and artist associations, propped up by a “Central Committee” of the National Guard, transformed Paris’s 20 arrondissements into a liberated zone of people power, freed from bourgeois authority, from its army and police, from its economy and bureaucracy.

In the early hours of 18th March, a crowd of disgruntled citizens, predominately women, gathered on the Butte Montmartre, and surrounded obsolete cannons that were public property. General Lecomte ordered the National Guard to seize the cannons, and to open fire. Three times he gave the order to shoot. The soldiers stood silent, reluctant to turn their weapons on their own, on “the people”; they were, after all, themselves “the people,” conscripts from the working-class, and before them stood their would-be mothers. Suddenly, the tide had turned. Machine guns switched direction, took aim at the rule of Order. Lecomte would be shot later that day, alongside General Clément Thomas, one of the chief executioners in the 1848 “June Days.” 10 days on—28th March 1871—in the Place de l’Hôtel-de-Ville, la Commune de Paris was formally proclaimed. “Here is the holy city,” wrote Rimbaud not long afterwards, “seated in the west.”

It was, Lefebvre says, “grandeur and folly, heroic courage and irresponsibility, delirium and reason, exaltation and illusion” all rolled into one. Insurgents corroborated Marx’s ideal of revolutionary praxis at the same time as they refuted it. For this was no worker uprising incubated in the factories; rather, “the grand and supreme attempt of a city raising itself to the measure of a human reality.” An urban revolution had made its glorious debut, reenergising public spaces and transforming everyday life, touting victory while it wobbled in defeat. It was condemned to death at birth, notwithstanding the gaiety of its baptism. “The movement’s success,” says Lefebvre, “masked its failings; conversely, its failures are also victories, openings on to the future, a standard to be seized, a truth to be maintained. What was impossible for the Communards stays until this day impossible, and, by consequence, behooves us to realise its possibility.”

Ironically, the particular singularity and uniqueness of the Commune—that it occurred when Paris was besieged by war, surrounded by Prussian forces—makes it somehow more universally applicable for us today, as we, too, are besieged by forces that likewise surround us, that likewise invade our lives. In fact, the Commune’s pre-history sounds ominously like our own present history. Poorer populations suffered most. Paris’s economy was kaput. Enterprises folded daily. Food was scarce. Unemployment grew. People stood in long lines outside essential services, like boulangeries, desperate for bread. Winter had been bleak. Spring stayed chilly. There was little fuel for heating. Meantime, the rich had fled, cleared off to the countryside, along with their money. The Bourse and the Banque de France equally upped sticks; an interim bourgeois government ruled from Versailles.

This “de-structuring” of social life, says Lefebvre, rippled from top to bottom. On the other hand, its “re-structuring”—the reconstitution of urban life—flowed the other way, from the bottom upwards. People reorganised and rebuilt Paris in the rubble, from the rubble. Here we can learn plenty. There was a moratorium on rents; debts were written off; parasitic practices forbidden. Paris was “de-capitalised.” “There was a sort of qualitative bond,” writes Lefebvre, “in the activity of the Parisian masses.” The city’s base became “the people of Paris…artisans, small business owners, workers, petty-bourgeois allied to proletarians—who became spokespeople and participants in municipal events.” These unsung heroes and heroines “were proud of their anonymity.”

The promise of city reveals itself here when all is taken away, when city life is most in danger. For what remains are only its human resources—its citizens, citizens acting as citizens, joining hands, participating, creating their own public institutions, organising one another, doing so voluntarily, without monetary tags, without competitive compulsions; doing so, we might say, for the wellbeing of everybody else. It was the great gift of cooperation that Marx outlined in Capital, his core vision of democracy. Marx spoke about cooperation at the workplace; here we’re talking about cooperating in an entire city, human beings pooling their will and wits as a municipal power. When people work together, Marx says, they “have hands and eyes both in front and behind, and can be said to be to a certain extent omnipresent.” This is a rather lovely way to describe things. Marx thinks that when we “cooperate in a planned way with others,” we strip off the fetters of our individuality, “and develop the capabilities of our species.”

But the problem with cooperation in “normal” capitalist life is its phoniness, that it’s controlled exclusively by the bourgeoisie, by the ruling class, who exploit people’s togetherness for their own commercial ends. Human omnipresence gets transformed into capital’s omnipotence; a collective power, in other words, not mobilised for the common good but creamed-off as private gain. Marx calls it a “free gift” for business, an associative force that costs capital nothing. And “as cooperation extends its scale,” he says, “the despotism of capital extends.” That’s the bad news. The good news is that “as the numbers of cooperating workers increases, so too does their resistance to the domination of capital.” Marx always willed this at the factory; for 73 days, in Paris, we glimpsed it in the street, in daily life, where we still need it most.

Could we ever imagine those extraordinary circumstances of Paris’s Commune becoming somehow ordinary, embedded in a city life released from a competitive free for all? What happened in 2020 has been something extraordinary. COVID-19 instigated its own revolution in daily life, a passive, if deadly, revolution. But what of Lefebvre’s active revolution, and his right to the city? Could a de-commodified, de-capitalised city life ever become a little less extraordinary, maybe even something completely normal? What if real cooperation became the order of day, that our hands and eyes were in the front and behind—as Marx suggested—and that we became “to a certain extent omnipresent”? We’ve seen what a strong state can do when it intervenes in our economy and society, what it can do at a crisis moment; now we need reimagine it intervening once the crisis has passed, intervening democratically, fostering cooperation and participation, enabling some bottom-up reconstruction of a world that has undergone so much topdown destruction.

One thing is for certain: that the right to the city no longer means the right of the rich and powerful to mobilise its own property rights, to use them to abuse other people, to rip off at work and at home, to pay too little while charging too much. There has to be some institutional control of flows into the secondary circuit of capital, some way those flows can be stymied, channeled into infrastructure and property geared towards public use-values, not corporate exchange-values. In Lefebvre’s Marxist terminology, concrete space must prevail over abstract space. Those “blind-fields” of thinking of the world in terms of quantitative growth for quantitative growth’s sake must be broken down, rendered longer-sighted, more socially visionary.

Lefebvre said the right to the city, if ever it came to pass, would resemble a giant social and spatial contract. Associative ties would bond people together, bond them to each other and to their city. What we might add, in an age of public health crisis, is that these “rights” now need to be complemented by “duties.” The Commune, again, is suggestive. Communards gave to the city, recognised that to make their city function they had responsibilities. Public space wasn’t just about them, exclusively about individuals. Public service meant respecting the collective, respecting each other in the realm of one another. Freedom here came through collective necessity, through contributing towards the common good—existentially profiting from this common wealth, primarily because people were helping create it themselves. The sense of unselfish achievement was legion.

The value of the public realm, in other words, was affirmed, kept robust and healthy. In our own times, we’ve seen how this public realm has been denigrated and torn apart. The breakdown of the social contract is nowhere more evident than where unfettered self-interest reigns, where responsibility for other people is denied. What prevails here is an absurd anti-social contract, exemplified by the flagrant unwillingness to wear a protective face mask in public, since it supposedly threatens individual liberty. Successive generations have been force-fed a capitalist ideology that seduces people into thinking they’re free agents capable of doing what like, and if they can’t their rights are being flouted.

Anything public and shared is treated with suspicion, as shoddy and inefficient, as a third-class entity, something to be avoided. This no longer appears ideological: it is embedded in people’s brains as an objective reality, as the way it has always been. It’s a belief system that has taught people how to forget, how to turn their backs on the public realm and ergo on any duty to the city beyond the self. Perhaps for good reason: the public state has been hollowed out to such a degree that it is shoddy. It seems perfectly natural these days to see public sector core functions—planning and the organisation of collective services—outsourced for vast sums to distant private consultants and contractors. But COVID has exposed the shortcomings of the privatised state.

There’s plenty of collective necessity involved in dealing with a global pandemic, and in dealing with a city during one. It’s like rebuilding Paris in a revolution. One aspect of any right to the city has to be a willingness to acknowledge society again, that there is such a thing after all, that we can be freer if each of us admits that we’re part of a bigger whole, part of a public culture that requires collective rebuilding. The remarkable success story of the UK’s vaccine roll-out hinges on an unofficial subplot: the army of dedicated volunteers who have chipped in to lend a cooperative hand, organising every vaccination centre, the line ups and traffic flows, even administering the injections. They’ve done it everywhere with good cheer and with great efficiency. Maybe it’s because collective participation offers personal fulfilment. Everybody knows it, everybody appreciates it, is inspired by the positive spirit in the air. Waiting for your jab, standing in line, those hands and eyes in front and behind are really palpable, and uplifting. (One might dream of a public health system commandeering this much respect and manpower in ordinary times.)

In a strange, more modest way, perhaps this collective feeling corresponds with what the Communards felt. It’s a sensibility that crops up often in Lefebvre’s La proclamation de la commune, and gets expressed by a word seldom spoken anymore: “dignity”—la dignité. We seldom hear it because so much of our life today, notably our urban life, has no dignity, is hard, an alienating daily struggle to survive, to make ends meet. In amongst it all, dignity becomes a luxury, a far-off ideal. But the sense of dignity, as the Communards knew, derives from solidarity, from public engagement. Poor but proud, they retained their dignity, did the right thing, did it with others, staved off isolation and disempowerment, struggled to overcome adversity together, sensing that for a while it could work, that you could succeed. Perhaps the right to dignity is really what The Urban Revolution quietly proclaims 50 years on, like the Commune, at its 150th anniversary: the right to be respected, the duty to respect others. If ever there’s a style worth emulating, then it’s dignity. A grand style, for sure. One that should never have gone out of fashion. Vive la Commune!



[1] Henri Lefebvre, La révolution urbaine (Paris: Gallimard, 1970); and The Urban Revolution (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2003)

[2] Henri Lefebvre, La proclamation de la Commune (Paris: Gallimard, 1965). Lefebvre’s interpretation of the Commune led to a fallout with Guy Debord and the Situationist International (SI), who accused their former comrade of pilfering its ideas on 1871. Debord said Lefebvre’s take was lifted from SI’s own “Theses on the Commune” (1962). “This was a delicate subject,” admitted Lefebvre in a 1983 interview. “I had this idea about the Commune as a festival, and I threw it into debate, after consulting an unpublished document about the Commune that is at the Feltrinelli Institute in Milan. I worked for weeks at the Institute.” “I don’t care about these accusations of plagiarism,” Lefebvre said. “I never took the time to read what they wrote about the Commune in their journal.” All the same, Lefebvre thanks Debord in La proclamation de la Commune, for his friendship and support “in the course of fecund and cordial discussions in the elaboration of this book.” But in a typesetting howler—or Lefebvre practical joke?—Debord is cited as M. Guy Debud! In 2018, La fabrique éditions republished Lefebvre’s La proclamation de la Commune, with an excellent preface by the late Daniel Bensaïd, from 2008, discussing at length the Lefebvre-Debord tiff, which unfolded like Gogol’s tale of the two Ivans. In La fabrique’s reprint, though, Lefebvre’s Debord acknowledgement has been cut.

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Today, 212-years ago, on April Fool’s Day, the writer Nikolai Gogol was born in the Ukraine. As his birthdate might suggest, Gogol was never a man to miss an opportunity to joke, and in this essay I pay homage to perhaps his most biting satirical story, THE NOSE—a tale for our times.


Sniffing out stupidity and malevolence was Gogol’s great gift. His most olfactive tale, appropriately enough, is The Nose, a comically grotesque satire from 1836—grotesque in the sense of its storyline: a drunken barber finding a nose in his breakfast roll. (Think of it like the severed human ear we see close-up in the grass, crawling with ants, at the beginning of David Lynch’s film noir Blue Velvet.) If The Portrait had haunted us with those terrible eyes, then Gogol’s own portrait has its nose take prominence, become a nasal force, fleeing the frame to blow of its own volition. Remember, Gogol had a conk complex, a thing about noses, especially his own. “My nose,” he once told a lady friend, “is decidedly bird-like, pointed and long. However, in spite of its ridiculous appearance, it is a good beast: it has never been known to turn up, it has never sneezed to please my superiors or the authorities—in short, in spite of its excessive size, it has behaved itself with great moderation, for which, no doubt, it has got the reputation of a liberal.”

In 1828, as a naïve nineteen-year-old, humiliated by the reception of his self-published poem, Hans Küchelgarten, copies of which he tried to burn, Gogol set off to emigrate to America, getting as far as Lübeck before giving up the ghost. Had he made it to the new world, he’d have most certainly had a nose job, found some plastic surgeon to reshape it. The Nose even alludes to such a possibility: “I’ve heard there’s a certain kind of specialist,” somebody says, “who can fix you up with any kind of nose you like.” In a way, The Nose is Gogol’s nose job; he sticks it into the petty affairs of Petersburg officialdom, mocking its ranks, suggesting it’s not quite true that he never turned his nose up to anyone. After all, he does something much worse: has “Major” Kovalyov lose his. Gogol cuts off the self-satisfied bureaucrat’s nose in order to spite his face, wrenching him out of his snotty complacency. Gogol’s satire had always been biting: now it was so voracious that it bit off something completely.

Gogol was a natural born storyteller even as a solitary writer. When he wrote, he’d lock himself away in his room and scribble standing up at a lectern. According to his friends, who’d sometimes spy on the unsuspecting writer through the keyhole, before getting anything on paper Gogol frantically paced up and down composing in his head, voicing aloud his characters’ dialogue, laughing to himself, engaging in all manner of bodily contortions, clutching his hair, pulling weird faces and generally waving his arms about. Thus the thespian element was embedded in his finished comic set-pieces, explaining why Gogol was such a brilliant reader of his own texts.

When it came to “Major” Kovalyov, the comedy was merciless, no holds barred. For one thing, Kovalyov isn’t a real Major, just a Collegiate Assessor who calls himself a Major out of vanity. For another, this is no dream; that nose really does turn up one morning at Ivan Yakovlevich’s, the wastrel barber, in the middle of his onion roll. And the latter recognises whose nose it is, though has no recollection of ever severing it with his razor, having shaved Kovalyov a few days back. Praskovya Osipovna, the barber’s wife, says he can’t remember because he was dead drunk that day. In any case, she cries, “I’ve heard three customers say that when they come in for a shave you start tweaking their noses about so much it’s a wonder they stay on at all!” “I’ve a mind to report you to the police myself,” she says. The barber gets in a tiz about how to get rid of the snout, deciding to dump it in the Neva river, wrapped up in a handkerchief. But a policeman spots him on St. Isaac’s Bridge, up to something fishy, and hauls the barber in for loitering suspiciously. Thereon after, the nose appears across town, “wearing a gold-braided uniform with a high stand-up collar and chamois trousers.”


Meantime, waking up early, there was no mistake about it: Kovalyov’s nose had gone. “He began pinching himself to make sure he wasn’t sleeping, but to all intents and purposes he was wide awake.” “Damn it!” he screams. “What kind of trick is this?” Hmm. It’s Gogol’s trick, of course, heaping scorn on parvenu conceit, wreaking revenge, maybe, on all those who mocked his own elongated beak when he was a lad, imagining them, like Kovalyov, losing theirs. Noseless, Kovalyov can no longer pursue his sleazily habit of chatting up pretty young girls. Nor can he wine and dine with his old cronies, or swagger proudly along the Nevsky Prospect, or boss about his inferiors at the office, pulling rank just for the hell of it. Now, “instead of a fairly presentable and reasonably sized nose,” all Kovalyov has is “an absolutely preposterous smooth flat space.”

By chance, one afternoon, he spots his nose stepping out of a carriage, and follows it to Kazan Cathedral, confronting it inside: “Don’t you realise,” says Kovalyov, “you are my own nose!” The nose has none of it. “What do you want?” it replies, curtly. The nose looks down on Kovalyov the way the Collegiate Assessor looked down on people when it was firmly affixed to his own face. He gets a touch of his own medicine, having his nose turn itself up at him. Then it slips away, disappearing into the crowd. Infuriated, Kovalyov heads straight to Police H.Q., to report a scoundrel on the loose. But the authorities are as indolent on the job as Kovalyov is on his; the Commissioner isn’t about; and nobody at the station gives a toss about a stray nose. So Kovalyov decides to put in an ad at a Petersburg rag, about a missing body part, hoping somebody might hand it. The newspaper clerk, nonplussed, says such an announcement would give the paper a bad reputation, end up as a libel case, like the one they had the other week with a lost poodle. “My God!” despairs Kovalyov. “What have I done to deserve this?”

Before long, the nose is seen taking regular strolls along the Nevsky Prospect, at exactly three o’clock every afternoon. Crowds of inquisitive people flock there to watch the spectacle. After a few days, the police seize it and bring it to Kovalyov. He’s thrilled yet perplexed about how to stick his nose back on. The doctor is as clueless as anybody, and suggests putting it in a jar of alcohol; “better still, soak it in two tablespoons of sour vodka and warmed-up vinegar, and you’ll get good money for it. I’ll take it myself if you don’t want it.” In the end, the nose miraculously shows up again, in its rightful place on the Collegiate Assessor’s face, between his two cheeks, and Kovalyov wonders if the whole ordeal had been a bad dream. “He grabbed it with his hand to make sure—but there was no doubt this time. Aha!”

The Nose is a decidedly weird tale even by Gogol’s decidedly weird standards. His letters suggest he’d initially conceived the story as a dream, but then decided to present it in waking Petersburg life. Still, it’s not so straightforward with Gogol. Nothing ever is. After all, his narrator tells us that Kovalyov was “to all intents and purposes wide awake.” It’s the “to all intents and purposes” that raises doubts. “Perhaps I dreamt it!” Kovalyov wonders, planting further seeds of ambiguity. “How could I be so stupid as to go and lose my nose?” Was it, then, something he did himself? Or was it the barber? But how could the barber do it and Kovalyov not know it? Whatever the case, this isn’t realism we’re dealing with here. It’s Gogol’s experiment in absurdist literature, his surrealist black humour, anticipating Kafka’s Metamorphosis by eighty-years, playfully pulling the rug from underneath the reader—or pulling the wool over our eyes—provoking us, taunting us, especially with its disclaimer: “The world is full of the most outrageous nonsense. Sometimes things happen which you would hardly think possible.”

His final paragraph has us wonder if this was Gogol’s April Fool’s gag all along: “All of this took place in the northern capital of our vast empire! Only now, after much reflection, can we see that there is a great deal that is very far-fetched in this story. Apart from the fact that it’s highly unlikely for a nose to disappear in such a fantastic way and then reappear in various parts of town dressed as a state counsellor, it is hard to believe that Kovalyov was so ignorant to think newspapers would accept advertisements about noses.” On the other hand, says Gogol, you won’t find much in life that isn’t on the absurd side somewhere. “Whatever you may say, these things do happen in this world—rarely, I admit, but they do happen.”

Almost two centuries after its publication, Gogol’s Nose still pokes fun at authorities and (dis)organised bureaucracies everywhere. Gogol mobilises absurdity to pillory the negative, to voice the artist as critic; yet with absurdity he also defends the “little people,” those victims of petty power who feel its injustice and complacency, who feel it while they experience their own sense of powerlessness. But Gogol is no bleeding heart liberal. His moral stances are frequently difficult to pin down, never fully settled upon. Sometimes the wielders of petty power are precisely his little people. In their fawning servility, in their yearnings to rise up the slippery slope of officialdom, Gogol knocks them down. He knows how power is scary because it is ordinary, because it is apparently autonomous, working behind the backs of those who work under it, of those who work with it and want it.

Vladimir Nabokov, in his brilliant little study of Gogol, says Gogol’s nose isn’t a proxy for sexual organs, nor any castration fantasy—which is probably how the cocaine-sniffing, nose-obsessed Freud might have read it. Rather, nasal symbolism for Gogol is more a narrative device, not so much a tongue-puller as a nose-twister, a piece of mischievous trickery related to the nose-humour so ubiquitous in Russian carnival tradition and in the hundreds of Russian sayings that revolve around the nose. Gogol knew them well. Nosology and nose-consciousness was rife in his day, all of which doubtless drew attention to the fact that his own beak was exaggeratedly long.

“The man with the longest nose,” a Russian proverb goes, “sees further.” Gogol didn’t just see further, but, as Nabokov says, brought new odours to literature and life. That’s doubtless why the authorities objected to his olfactivism: it was sniffing out awful truths about society, scenting other possibilities. When Gogol first penned The Nose, publishers weren’t turned on. They passed up on taking the tale, dismissing it as “sordid.” In printing it they feared prosecution. Gogol’s friend Pushkin eventually took the story for his own journal, The Contemporary, yet warned Gogol of probable trouble ahead, of censor repercussions. And so it was. The first beef was that the nose chose to cavort in Kazan Cathedral, a holy institution. As such, the setting was offensive, blasphemous, and had to be axed. In later versions, Gogol changed Kovalyov’s encounter with his nose to a shopping arcade—though modern reprints have restored Kazan Cathedral.

By the time of its third printing, in 1854, two-years after Gogol’s demise, the story went under the censor’s nose again. “The aim of the author,” they claimed, “is obscure and capable of being interpreted in various ways.” In condemning the tale accordingly, censors provided no better testimony to Gogol’s genius, that he was the creator of dangerous literature, a literature so ambiguous that it gave people all sorts of ideas, maybe ideas above their station. Readers might thereafter follow their own noses, and threaten the status quo, challenge the authorities as Gogol had challenged us to challenge them. Gogol’s literature stimulates deep feelings in a variety of ways, in unforeseen ways, in ways beyond the grip and grasp of governments.

That’s as good a reason as any why we should continue to read him, why we should continue to laugh with him. Most of us know from Pinocchio what happens to kids who tell fibs. Big fibs meant big noses; nice boys who fibbed and said sorry had the woodpecker come to peck their noses back to normal size. But that’s a children’s fairytale. In an adult parable, fib-tellers would lose their noses entirely; no woodpeckers would help them. “An absolutely preposterous smooth flat space” would prevail as a badge of dishonour. Corridors of political and economic power would be crawling with noseless Kovalyovs, from the petty fibbers to the really big liars, sprouting nonsense about Brexit, about how the election was rigged, about how the pandemic is nothing to fear, how it’s all a great hoax. Gogol could rewrite the script of our times, if only for a day, for April Fool’s Day, his day, and give us florid descriptions of noseless villains, clambering around frantically, outed as malicious lie-tellers, there for every honest person to see. What a day! Fake news’ nose snubbed! Whatever you may say, these things do happen in this world—rarely, I admit, but they do happen. Don’t they?

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On the mornings when I used to walk my daughter to school, years gone by now, we would pass by a little pub called “The Prince Albert,” along a narrow old lane, near the town centre, by the cathedral. On a pole sticking out above the pub’s entrance hung a portrait of the said Prince Consort, Queen Victoria’s husband, painted in 1840 by royal artist John Partridge. On windy days, the prince oscillated, creaked in the breeze, reminding you that he kept watch overhead. Every morning I’d grin, laugh to myself, sometimes laugh out loud. It got a bit boring for my daughter, for she knew what I was laughing at. After all, I’d tell her everyday, “you know, that Prince Albert up there, he’s a dead ringer for Gogol.” She knew, too, that I meant Nikolai Gogol, the great Russian writer, a longtime favourite of mine. The thin prominent nose, the vivid eyes, the little well-groomed moustache, the general affected air, camp despite the military regalia—all that was Gogol to a tee!

I remember seeing an image of Gogol himself, likewise painted in 1840, by a St. Petersburg artist pal of his, Fyodor Möller. It had been on show at London’s National Portrait Gallery, in a special exhibition from 2016 called “Russia and the Arts.” The thought that Gogol had a doppelgänger, that Prince Albert was secretly Gogol, or that Gogol was secretly Prince Albert, sneaking out of Russia, spooked, after the authorities resented his mockery of provincial officialdom in the rollicking drama The Government Inspector, eloping clandestinely into British royalty, struck me as quintessentially Gogolian. Roaming Europe under an assumed identity was as bizarre and surreal as only Gogol could render believable, like the rumour he’d make stick near the close of Part I of Dead Souls, his unfinished novel: that Captain Kopeikin was really Chichikov. How on earth could a war veteran peg leg with a missing arm transfigure into a fully-limbed shyster conman? Only at the touch of Gogol’s satirical quill.

I’d probably read too much Gogol myself to think up such a pairing; even though the Ukrainian-born Gogol (1809-1852) and the German-born Prince Albert (1819-1861) were pretty much contemporaries, and even though both died relatively young, each at forty-two. But it was seeing the portrait of Prince Albert, with his bird-like nose, and glimpsing Gogol’s own image—with his famous beak—that had me recall Gogol’s short story, The Portrait. That alone was enough to put ideas in your head. Prince Albert’s eyes stared out each morning as those eyes had leapt out on Gogol’s poor young artist Chartkov. Gogol has Chartkov rifling through dusty worn paintings one day, at a cheap Petersburg art shop, where he stumbles across a portrait of an old man, with a bronze, gaunt, high-cheek-boned face. Most extraordinary of all were the eyes. After much deliberation, the young artist parts with his last few kopecks and staggers back with the canvas to his draughty garret in the grungiest part of town. Once there, “two terrible eyes fixed directly on him, as if preparing to devour him.”

At nightfall, trying to doze on the sofa, he can’t bare the thought of those eyes, like some terrible phantom, staring at him. He tosses a bedsheet over the portrait. Still, moonlight intensifies its whiteness, the portrait’s ghostly presence. As Chartkov falls asleep, Gogol’s pen springs into action. The sheet is no longer there; the old man has stirred. Suddenly, leaning on the frame with both hands, he thrusts both legs out to free himself of his confinement. Chartkov attempts to scream, only has no voice. The old man steps down, takes out a sack containing packets of fabulous golden roubles. One pack drops to the floor; Chartkov runs over, clutches it, tries to prise it open but can’t. He cries out—and wakes up.

By morning, the room is bleak, gloomy as “an unpleasant dampness drizzled through the air.” It seems to Chartkov “that amidst the dream there had been some terrible fragment of reality.” “My God, if he had at least part of that money,” he sighs. A knock at the door heralds the arrival of the landlord and a police inspector, “whose appearance,” Gogol says, “as everyone knows, is more unpleasant for little people.” The landlord wants the unpaid rent. He’s a retired civil servant, “an efficient man, a fop, and a fool,” quips Gogol, “who had merged all these sharp peculiarities in himself into some indefinite dullness.” Chartkov, dirt broke, offers him his paintings. But the landlord scoffs uninterestedly. Meanwhile, the inspector examines the portrait of the old man, and, clumsily picking it up, its frame splits apart. One side falls to the ground along with a packet, wrapped in blue paper, with the inscription “1,000 Gold Roubles.” Chartkov, like a madman, rushes over, seizes the heavy packet.

His woes are over—or so it would seem. Now, he has a fortune—as he’d foreseen in his dream. He pays off the landlord, installs himself in a swanky bourgie apartment along the Nevsky Prospect, Petersburg’s finest commercial thoroughfare. He has his hair curled, sports fashionable tailored suits, dines at fancy French restaurants, struts along the sidewalk admiring himself, like the most elegant of dandies. Strangely, too, Chartkov’s reputation as a great artist soars. That because he gets a Petersburg newspaper to publish an article he’d written himself, about his own extraordinary talents, a brilliance worthy of any Titian or Van Dyck. Petersburg’s elite become mesmerised by a new genius in town, and flood him with commissions. At first, his portraits glow with subtle brush strokes and masterful shading. But sitters want less, are thrilled by banality, by cliched images, by empty smiles and upper-crust stiffness. The shallower the portrait, the better—and the more he’s in demand. He’s rewarded with everything: money, compliments, handshakes and kisses, invitations to dinners, to glamorous soirées. Soon, says Gogol, “it was quite impossible to recognise in him that modest artist who had once worked inconspicuously in his hovel.” After a while, though, the lustre of riches and finery wears thin. He tires of churning out hundreds of the same portraits, of the same faces, whose poses and attitudes he knows by rote.

When the Academy of Art invites Chartkov to judge a new work by a young Russian artist, already hailed a great genius, he’s sceptical. After seeing the canvas in the gallery, surrounded by hoards of visitors, he’s stunned: the purest, most immaculate conception hangs on the wall, a painting so modest, so divine that tears flow down the cheeks of onlookers. He’s blown away, stands motionless, “open-mouthed before the picture.” Chartkov’s whole being, says Gogol, “is reawakened in one instant, as if youth returned to him, as if the extinguished sparks of talent blazed up again.” The blindfold suddenly falls from his eyes, and he realises he’d not heeded his professor’s advice, that he’d ruined his best years, neglected the long, arduous lesson of gradual learning. He’d become that dreaded species: a fashionable painter. (One wonders whether John Partridge, Prince’s Albert’s depicter, ever felt the same way, ever regretted his life as a court artist, whipping off fawning portraits of royalty, nobles and society people?)

Chartkov can no longer bear those lifeless pictures, the portraits of buttoned-up hussars and state councillors, of eternally tidied ladies; he orders them out of his studio. Then he remembers the strange portrait he’d purchased, which had somehow kindled all his vainest impulses, and heralded his demise. A rage bursts into Chartkov’s soul. Bile rises up in him whenever he sees a work marked with the stamp of greatness. He begins to buy up great masterpieces, hauling them back to his room, where he tears them apart, shreds them, cuts them to pieces in a savage orgy of destruction that portends Chartkov’s auto-destruction, bizarrely mimicking Gogol’s own fate. A cruel fever, compounded by galloping consumption, soon sees off our artist. “His corpse was frightful,” says Gogol. “Nothing could be found of his enormous wealth; but seeing the slashed remains of lofty works of art whose worth went beyond millions, its terrible use became clear.”


Gogol worked over The Portrait many times over many years, adding and revising, chopping and changing, shaping it up into one of his finest stories. He’d first published a version in 1835, in Arabesques—“a mishmash” collection, he’d called it—of historical essays on art and architecture, on the Middle Ages, and on Pushkin, alongside two other brilliant stories, The Nevsky Prospect and Diary of a Madman. The Portrait Take-2 appeared seven-years on, longer and better honed, and it’s the one I’ve been citing here. The well-known critic and liberal spokesman, Vissarion Berlinsky, Gogol’s most trenchant interlocutor as well as most ardent champion, thought the supernatural in Take-1 too clumsy. It wasn’t leavened by the story’s brilliant realism, a feature, Berlinsky said, that made Gogol’s most unbelievable and incredible moments believable and credible. As ever, Gogol took only part of Berlinsky’s critique to heart; he would never abandon his torquing of reality, never expunge the surrealist flourishes that made his ordinary so extraordinary, his satire so biting, his creations so idiosyncratic and original. He was too subtle an artist to capitulate to either the dullest social realism or most contrived surrealism. He’d forever work against his predictability, often turning his own inventiveness against itself, sometimes even against himself, just when we’d least expect it. He has us, the readers, twist and turn as his characters twist and turn, as he himself twists and turns, gyrating to some weird cosmic force.

It turns out, Gogol tells us in an annex second section to The Portrait Take-2, that the old man with terrible eyes had been a dreadful moneylender, a loan shark who extorted Petersburg’s poor, sometimes even extorting Petersburg’s rich. Calamity befell on everybody who took money from him. He possessed some strange, dark curse, which damned him and anyone he touched. Even the artist who painted his portrait was struck down by demons, yet managed to cast them off by becoming a repentant hermit monk. The painting similarly imparted devilish forces, and tragedy afflicted everyone who owned it, who felt its burning eyes. At the close of The Portrait, as the painting is about to be auctioned off, the painter’s son suddenly appears, demanding the thing be burned, destroyed at all costs—or else.

So warns Gogol’s story, which tells us plenty about the role of the artist in our society, about the dichotomy between artistic integrity and everyday materialism, between the art of pure creation and the act of earning a living. It tells us plenty, too, about Gogol’s own plight in the world, about his allegiances with “little people,” and about how art for him ought to make the highest service to the moral good. He knew, as we know, in a society dictated by money values, and governed by shallow, buttoned-up people, that genuine artistic passion will always be up against it. Artists like Chartkov are there, isolated and destitute, dedicated to their creation, yet fair game to be bought off, commissioned as hired hands, seduced by all the trappings of a high society that, in Gogol eyes, is really pretty low down.

In 1844, two-years on from Gogol’s Portrait, a young Karl Marx, probably not much older than Chartkov, pilloried, with Gogolian irony, “The Power of Money in Bourgeois Society.” Money, said Marx, “is the universal whore, the universal pimp of men and peoples,” the “inversion of all human and natural qualities.” Marx called money a “divine power,” indicting it on the same plane as religion, “as the estranged and alienating species-essence of man which alienates itself by selling itself.” Money turns one thing into another, inverts everything it touches, converts people and objects into their opposites, into “contradictory qualities” antagonistic to their own qualities. As such, money “transforms loyalty into treason, love into hate, hate into love, virtue into vice, vice into virtue, servant into master, master into servant, nonsense into reason and reason into nonsense.” With its implicit disdain for how money corrupts, The Portrait exhibits more than a hint of young Marx’s romanticism, helping us recognise something I suspect I knew when I was laughing each morning at Prince Albert: that Gogol’s Portrait is really a picture of ourselves.

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FUNGAL POLITICS — Dreams from Underground

“Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.
You cannot tell always by looking what’s happening…
Penetrate quietly as the earthworm that blows no trumpet.
Fight persistently as the creeper that brings down the tree.
Spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden…
For every gardener knows that after the digging, after
the planting,
after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes”
                                                                                  —Marge Piercy, “The Seven of Pentacles”


Every once in a while The New York Times publishes a knockout article. This past December, the newspaper’s Sunday magazine section featured “The Social Life of Forests, a long, lusciously illustrated portrait of the Canadian forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, digging away in British Columbia’s old-growth forests. Forest ecology, ordinarily, isn’t my bag; but the subject of the piece—fungi and their secret underground world—was so utterly fascinating and suggestive that it set my mind abuzz about our above-ground human world.

For years, Simard has been thrilled by forests. As a kid, she foraged mushrooms and huckleberries, even ate handfuls of dirt, relishing, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Rebeca from Hundred Years of Solitude, the taste of damp raw earth. This taste never went away. Now, as a sixty-something college professor, she’s become an authority on the forest’s undergrowth. Decades ago, she noticed how commercial logging hacked down diverse old forests, replacing them with homogeneous plantations, stripping the soil of its underbrush. The logic went that without competitors, and with more space for light and water, young saplings would thrive. But they didn’t. Frequently they withered and died, proving more vulnerable to disease and climatic stress than trees in entangled ancient forests.

Simard discovered the reason why lay in mycorrhizal networks, the threadlike fungi that envelop and fuse with trees. Here, beneath ground, something pretty amazing takes place. These fungi pass on to trees nutrients—phosphorous and nitrogen—and help extract the water required for photosynthesis. Around ninety percent of trees depend on these mysterious underground mycorrhizal networks—mykes is the Greek word for fungus and rhiza root—which link trees, even trees of different species, sharing life, knitting together the earth’s soils in a complex system of symbiosis. When we see mushrooms sprouting, this is just one part of the story, only the fruiting body of fungi, its blossom, the visible realm where spores are produced and transmitted. A lot more of the action is subterranean, occurs deep down. Carbon, water and nutrients pass from tree to tree via underground circuits, shifting resources between the oldest and the biggest to the youngest and smallest, from strongest to weakest.

While Simard says conflict in a forest is undeniable, she knows, too, that life abounds there because of negotiation and reciprocity, because of widespread mutuality. Earlier in her career, these ideas were disparaged as “girlie” by her male “growth and yield” forest colleagues. Nowadays, Simard’s vision of a forest ecology based on cooperation and selflessness has seeped into the mainstream, even gotten written into college textbooks. Hers isn’t so much a critique of Darwin—who, remember, stressed contest and self-interest in the evolutionary process; it’s more a little caveat, a modest rejoinder: When we think about sustaining life on earth, fungi teach us that real resilience comes about through cooperation not die-hard competition. [1]

Loggers replacing diverse forests with homogeneous plantations sounds uncannily like the dynamics of today’s urban environments, where developers similarly create homogeneous plantations out of messy old human woodland. Our cities likewise wither from frailty, stripped bare of human undersoil, devoid of any selfless life. There, only the richest survive. There, willy-nilly, people are forced to compete with one another, compete in labour markets, pit themselves against each other in housing markets. In a way, Simard’s studies of fungi provoke us to reevaluate the whole notion of cooperation in human life.

Cooperation, after all, lies at the core of Marx’s vision of democracy, yet it’s dealt with in perhaps the strangest chapter of Volume One of Capital. If we listen to Marx’s voice there, it is schizoid, dualistic, sounding a bit like Nick Carraway’s in Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, both fascinated and repelled by his subject matter. Marx, too, is a great advocate of cooperation, fascinated by the sheer power of human beings pooling their will and their wits. When people work together, he says, they “have hands and eyes both in front and behind, and can be said to be to a certain extent omnipresent.” This is a rather lovely, if odd, way to describe things. Marx thinks that when people “cooperate in a planned way with others,” we strip off the fetters of our individuality, “and develop the capabilities of our species.” “Not only do we have here an increase in the productive power of the individual,” he says, “but the creation of a new productive power, which is intrinsically a collective one.”

The problem with this kind of cooperation, of course, is that it’s phoney: it’s controlled exclusively by the bourgeoisie, by the ruling class, who use it for their own commercial ends, as a means to boost relative surplus value. This is why Marx is repelled by cooperation, because it has been subverted, converted into an alien force, thrown back in people’s faces. Human omnipresence gets transformed into capital’s omnipotence; a collective power, in other words, not mobilised for the common good but used to exploit social labour, creamed-off as value-added. Marx calls it a “free gift” for business, an associative force that costs capital nothing. And “as cooperation extends its scale,” Marx says, “the despotism of capital extends.” That’s the bad news. The good news is this is “an unavoidable antagonism,” somehow dialectically necessary, perversely progressive. Indeed, “as the numbers of cooperating workers increases,” says Marx, “so too does their resistance to the domination of capital.”

Our technologically advanced society might realise human needs and desires—if only production could be wrested from private gain, put to cooperative public use; if only cooperation could lead to resources becoming common property rather than Intellectual Property. This vision of cooperation is one of the most hopeful things dramatised in Capital, and it’s there lying undeveloped, getting pushed and pulled by capital, and pushed and pulled by Marx. Marx gives us an ideal of humanity rich and expansive, generous in its affirmation of people as fundamentally cooperative beings. Much as he admires Darwin, he never accepts human life as intrinsically competitive. “It’s remarkable,” Marx says, “how Darwin rediscovers, among the beasts and plants, the society of England with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’ and Malthusian ‘struggle for existence.’ It is Hobbes bellum omnium contra omnes.”

Darwin’s biggest stumbling block is Malthus, the quack theorist of overpopulation. Darwin’s natural selection took from Malthus the belief that life is a battle over dwindling resources. The world is crowded out by species jostling each other for survival. Only by shoving an inhabitant out can a new species flourish. Darwin used the “wedge” metaphor to highlight how any new species had to create their own little chink by displacing another. Success came from bullying out a rival, making space for oneself at their expense. Which pretty much runs counter to what Suzanne Simard found in her packed old-growth forests, running counter to Marx’s own ecological vision as well. Only through cooperation, he says, can people develop a fuller sense of individuality, as well as a “higher form” of collective coexistence—like trees. Ironically—or perhaps dialectically—it’s a higher form of existence that emanates from Marx’s underground imagination. For he, too, has a trusty digger in the subsoil: the mole.

Moles, like mushrooms, regulate soil and plant ecosystems. True, their tunnels are a gardeners’ curse, pushing up great mounds of earth that wreck pristine lawns. Yet, in the bigger ecological scheme of things, all that is cosmetic, rather superficial. For moles eat earthworms and soil-inhabiting insects, aerate the earth, turn it over, and thereby serve a vital function within the soil’s natural food chain. Marx’s mole has his own special laws of underground motion. Propelled by a tough head and powerful shovel-like paws, packing a digging power forty-times their own bodyweight, moles’ tunnelling represents nothing less than the revolution itself, the incessant spade work needed to loosen capitalism’s foundations, the underground agitation and cooperation required to make fixed capital crumble underfoot.

We first encounter Marx’s “old mole” in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s the ghost of Hamlet’s dead father, no longer living but transformed into some strange underground “pioneer”:

“Well said, old mole. Canst work i’ th’ earth so fast? A worthy pioneer!”

These are cryptic, somewhat inexplicable lines, yet Marx, the irrepressible reader of Shakespeare, plainly loved the symbolism. Perhaps he knew that even after he was long gone, dead and buried in London’s Highgate Cemetery, where mushrooms would sprout out of the decay, the moles would still be digging away at the earth, creating tunnels everywhere in society’s infrastructure, pioneering the revolution in Marx’s worthy name.

The figure of “old mole” crops up in 1852, in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire. “The revolution,” Marx says in his polemic against Napoleon III, “is thorough-going. It is still in the process of passing through purgatory. It does its work methodically.” There’s still much cooperative spade work to be done, Marx says, much digging, much to bring down to earth the ideological superstructure of capitalism. Yet when the foundational groundwork is put in place, Marx declares, paraphrasing his great hero Shakespeare, “Europe will leap from her seat and exultantly exclaim: Well-grubbed, old mole!” Four years on, Marx’s old mole was still at it. In a speech given in 1856, celebrating the anniversary of the Chartists’ People’s Paper, Marx redoubles his furry, well-grubbed imaginary. In the steady work of political agitation and organisation, he says, we’ll recognise “our brave friend . . . the old mole that can work in the earth so fast, that worthy pioneer—the Revolution.”

There’s a memorable moment in “The Social Life of Forests,” when Suzanne Simard digs beneath British Columbia’s Selkirk Mountains. After working the earth for a long while, near the roots of a whitebark pine, she suddenly uncovers a delicate gossamer web of tiny threads. “Holy shit!” she exclaims, “it’s a mycorrhizal network!” “So cool, heh?” What Simard held were the material filaments of what mycologists and ecologists now refer to as the “Wood Wide Web,” nature’s very own broadband, traversing humous subsoil everywhere. Channels for resource exchange and communication are here always open without tariff or subscription. In this other-worldly kingdom, the “internet of things” is nothing new: “smart” forests have been around for thousands of years.

Stitched together by this connective tissue is much life on earth. Its constitutive ingredient is a mystical and magical substance called mycelium. Mycelium operates more as a process than a thing, possessing an innate directional memory that spreads outwards radially, forming a white spidery circle of filaments in all directions. Mycelium expands until it touches something, finds something to latch on to, to feed on and nourish, anything dead or alive, organic or inorganic, decaying and decomposing—not only tree roots and plants but old books and carpets, bits of wood and floorboards, trash and food waste, mouldy wallpaper and even cigarette butts.

The British biologist Merlin Sheldrake says that if you teased apart the mycelium found in a teaspoon of soil, laid it out end to end, “it could stretch anywhere from a hundred metres to ten kilometres.” It’s impossible, Sheldrake reckons, to measure the extent to which mycelium connects the Earth’s structures and systems—“its weave is too tight. Mycelium is a way of life that challenges our animal imaginations.” Mycelium is how fungi feed, how they digest the world, absorb matter and grow. Fungi draw sugars from a tree or plant’s photosynthetic activity, fuelling themselves, at the same time as trees and plants benefit from mycelium’s ability to extract nutrients from the soil. It seems like a marriage made in heaven.

Sheldrake marvels at how fungi like truffles produce tastes commanding thousands of dollars per kilo; how is it, too, he asks, that delicate cap mushrooms push through asphalt? Some fungi are the hardiest organisms on earth; others—like puffballs—are the most fragile, things you can literally blow over. At calamitous moments in human history, fungi have not only survived but thrived. After the atom bomb incinerated Hiroshima, the first living thing to sprout was a matsutake mushroom. Chernobyl’s nuclear reactor exploded; yet amid the devastation and contamination a large population of fungi spawned, flourishing in hot radioactive particles, harnessing radiation as a source of life-giving energy, blooming into gorgeous benign fruit.

“Radical mycologists” have been most vociferous in arguing that fungi can be active agents in environmental clean-up and detox programmes. They call this “mycoremediation,” stressing the enormous appetites fungi have for breaking down and gobbling up hazardous toxins, for degrading chemicals and crude oil, happily digesting plastics and other man-made pathogens that contaminate our soils and waterways. Some fungi also have a knack for bypassing termites’ defence systems and have been deployed to wipe out entire pest colonies; the mould metarhizium has proved particularly effective against malarial mosquitoes. Fungi, radical mycologists say, are amongst the ablest organisms for environmental remediation. [2]

In reality, though, the shady underworld of mycelium remains mysterious. A lot is darkly inexplicable. Why do mushrooms reveal themselves above ground, popping up as lonely protuberances, whereas others blossom beautifully in packs? Are mushrooms spontaneously generated by lightening strikes, as ancients thought? By thunder claps, by things that go bump in the night? They seem only to flower nocturnally, spookily in blackness, as we mortals sleep. They haunt like weird surreal dreams—remember Alice, in her wonderland, meets a caterpillar siting on a mushroom, smoking a hookah. And near the end of Finnegans Wake, James Joyce has Anna Livia muse, as she “lies as quiet as a moss”: “Why, them’s the muchrooms, come up during the might.”

Finnegans Wake is Joyce’s dream book of the night, whose underground isn’t so much buried deep in the soil as hidden in the human mind, in its unconscious; in “underground heaven,” Joyce calls it, “a mole’s paradise.” It’s a dream that even gets punctuated by shuddering claps of thunder. Aficionados are torn about whether the mind of Finnegans Wake reflects the dream-thoughts of a single man—the Dublin publican H.C. Earwicker—or whether the book’s dream is too vast to be a condensed solo night flight. Is it more our collective unconscious working itself through, “humble indivisibles in this grand continuum” tossing and turning in sleep?

Joyce’s friend and benefactor Harriet Weaver said Finnegans Wake was never intended to be the dream of one character, but that the “dream-form” gave the writer the greatest freedom to explore “a night-piece,” the multiple layers of our personality, revealed in broken and stuttering language. It was Joyce’s own version of civilisation and its discontents. While he mocked Jung and Freud—“Jungfraud’s Messongebook,” “freudful mistake,” “when they were yung and easily freudened”—and never let himself or his bipolar daughter Lucia be psychoanalysed by Jung, Joyce nonetheless absorbed the psychoanalysis of his age.

The dream in Finnegans Wake, then, isn’t only the domestic torment and anxieties of Earwicker and wife Anna Livia, those between husband and wife, between father and mother and their two twin sons, Shem and Shaun, between father and mother and daughter Issy—the love and hostility that Freud labelled “Family Romances”—but it’s also a dream about Ireland, about the history of the world, about mythology and folklore, about reoccurring all-too-human themes like birth and death, family and sexuality, guilt and judgement. These are dreams that incorporate sixty languages; sleep thoughts, its “langscape.” When Joyce wrote Finnegans Wake he had only around ten percent sight. For a ninety percent blind man, it made perfect “soundsense” that his book prioritised hearing: Earwicker isn’t called that for nothing. His is an “eartalk”; he’s an “earwitness” to things; a “paradigmatic ear.” And so Joyce gives us the sloshing sounds of a somnolent underground, better heard with others than read alone. [3]

What we can hear here is Joyce’s “fermented language,” the puns and portmanteaus that push up like mushrooms on the page. One of the active agents in fermentation—vital for the ale and spirit production so prominent in the Irish psyche (“Ireland sober is Ireland stiff”) and which flows liberally in Finnegans Wake—is yeast, a type of fungi. In fact, it’s no surprise that the Wake should be full of fungi and mushroom symbolism. Earwicker himself, in his raving night sweats, is “sitting on a twoodstool on the verge of selfabyss.” Had Joyce been eating hallucinogenic magic mushrooms? Fried in butter, they’d complement the Swiss white wine he loved to tipple. Finnegans Wake lets us enter the “museyroom,” visit Phoenix Park, whose fate doesn’t rise out of burnt ashes: it spawns in a damp “fungopark,” with its “many warts, slummy patches, halfsinister wrinkles.” The Earwicker household has made its “hoom” on “limpidy marge,” on the banks of the Liffey where them muchrooms grow and where life looks a lot clearer. We find people there “as gentle as a mushroom,” which, quite possibly, is the nicest mycological sentence in all English literature. Joyce’s wordplay even sounds like fungal spores, onomatopoeias of soil stirring:

A spathe of calyptrous glume involucrumines the perinanthean Amenta: fungoalgaceous muscafilicial graminopalmular planteon; of increasing, livivorous, feelful thinkamalinks; luxuriotiating everywhencewhithersoever among skullhullows and charnelcysts of a weedwastewoldwevild.

If Joyce’s other great work, Ulysses, adopted Homeric punctuation to its eighteen episodes, Finnegans Wake’s four-part ring cycle takes Vico to heart, Giambattista Vico, the eighteenth-century humanist author of New Science. Joyce borrowed Vico’s “poetic wisdom,” the belief that humans alone create the world: we recreate our own creations, inherit and reinvent them from other men and women—not from gods. [4] Another Viconian inflection in the Wake is very Marxian: the notion that civilisations pass through definitive phases, cycles when, for Vico, we’ve imagined divine gods, invented myths about great heroes, only to later, in another cycle, come to recognise things in explicitly human terms, as a life comprising real men and women. That said, Vico was no believer in progress, never seeing each cycle as advancement, as an improvement in our lot. The all-too-human phase spelt dread as much as democracy.

Joyce has his Viconian cycles interrupted by loud thunderclaps, noise that rattles the earth, that signals the end of one epoch and the birth of another. But just as those mushrooms push up gently in Fungopark, he veers away from Vico: the riverrun of Finnegans Wake circulates like capital for Marx, taking us forwards, dialectically towards progression, metamorphosing into something vaster, more open, fuller of human possibility, an act of detoxification. Our night sweats are shrugged off by morning; we awake refreshed, brought back to life, cleansed, in conscious life, in broad daylight. “Soft morning, city,” says Anna Livia in the closing sequences of Finnegans Wake. “Rise up, man of hooths,” she urges her husband, “you have slept so long…rise up now and aruse!”

All of which bodes the question what might that “wake” in Finnegans Wake really mean? The obvious response is one Joyce mobilises himself, without an apostrophe: the actual “wake” of Tim Finnegan, recounted in the Irish ballad of the eponymous “hod” carrier, a bricklayer who, drunk one morning up a ladder, falls and is thought dead. At his wake, somebody splashes whisky—the “water of life” in Gaelic—on Tim’s head, only to have him suddenly leap up, bawling, “D’ye think I’m dead?” The ballad’s theme of death and resurrection appealed to Joyce’s scatological imagination, which, like Marx’s, remained darkly optimistic. Forever fascinated by the potencies of fermentation, Joyce has Earwicker transfigure and resurrect into Tim Finnegan. There’s something fungal about all this, too, about how putrefaction can be fecund, about how decomposition means rejuvenation; rot and decay, even death, can somehow be glorious, a miracle of mycelium: out of trash heap of the past emerges new life. “He dumptied the wholeborrow of rubbages on to soil here.”

Without that apostrophe in Finnegans Wake maybe there’s another sense to who might be waking. A clue comes from Joyce’s own allegiances, that he was drawn to outsiders and the downtrodden, to déclassé middle-class (like himself) and working-class people; they tend to populate his creative universe and command his political sympathies. Maria Jolas, who knew Joyce intimately at the time of his writing Finnegans Wake, says that those Finnegans were “the small men of the world,” the unsung heroes of his Wake, little insignificant people, a nameless working-class, who, as the ballad goes, “to rise in the world carry a hod.”

This is the Bildungsroman of an aspiring working-class everywhere, common people who graft hard, hoping to become upwardly mobile, that their graft might eventually pay off, especially for their children. Failing that, of course, this rising up might also spell judgement day for the ruling class. When hopes of respectable mobility are dashed, when the inevitably of the fall under bourgeois society becomes apparent, then we might see those Finnegans wake, wake up collectively, cooperate to awaken as a class-conscious working-class. Which is why Anna, like so many women the world-over, initiates the rally cry of socialists, mimicking the refrain from The International: “Arise ye workers from your slumber.” “Come! Step out of your shell!” says Anna to Earwicker. “Hold up you free fing! Yes. We’ve light enough.”

Joyce, like Marx, believed in the world, thought of it in terms of progress, that those seventeen years he spent cagily calling his Wake “work in progress” also affirmed a human progress, that the world itself could be a work in progress. In that sense, his book is radical, expressive of an underground that went to the root of things. Mycologists say fungi’s existence brings about “change from the roots,” and getting to the root of things, remember, was always Marx’s notion of radicality, of being radical. Maybe, one day, we can dream of a “mycorrhizal Marxism,” as cooperative roots push up and nourish the overground, ripen into gorgeous benign fruit. “Connections are made slowly,” Marge Piercy reminds us, “sometimes they grow underground.” And “after the long season of tending and growth,” she says, “the harvest comes.”

Time mulches hope. What we have before us is similarly a work in progress, albeit a desperately flawed one. At the close of “The Social Life of Forests,” Ferris Jabr talks about eons, “the eons, through the compound effects of symbiosis and coevolution, that forests developed a kind of circulatory system. Trees and fungi were once small,” he says, “unacquainted ocean expats, still slick with seawater, searching for new opportunities. Together, they became a collective life form of unprecedented might and magnanimity.” Could we ever imagine social history rising up to such magnanimous heights?


This essay was conceived through two Zoom talks given at the The University of Orange, in a seminar series entitled “Mushrooms and Marx.” Since 2007, The University of Orange, rooted in Orange, New Jersey, has been a non-profit community organisation, “a free people’s urbanism school that builds collective capacity to create more equitable cities.” I am especially grateful to Mindy, Molly and Doug for inviting me, and for their encouragement and inspiration.


[1] Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Overstory, loosely brings Suzanne Simard’s story to fictional life as the pariah forest scientist “Patty” Westerford. The hearing and speech impaired Westerford, with “all the intuition of a girl who grew up playing in the forest litter,” recognises early on that trees talk to one another. Powers’ is the best tree narrative since 1953, when Jean Giono dazzled readers with The Man Who Planted Trees, the French shepherd who over four decades disseminated hundreds of acorns, turning a Provençale wilderness into a wooded Garden of Eden. The account was so compelling that people actually believed the selfless shepherd’s existed. Giono’s novel was a genius of simplicity; Powers’ novelistic skills are more self-conscious, more strained. But the overall performance in The Overstory is rewarding: the lives of eight individuals entwine around trees, infusing a forest epic so tight that, like fungi and tree roots, it’s hard to say where one organism leaves off and another begins. 

[2] An early pioneering radical mycologist, nowadays something of a mushroom rockstar, as well as a crowdsourcing fungi entrepreneur, is Paul Stamets. Stamets cultivates mycelium en masse at his hangar sheds along Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. Over past decades, he has secured environmental contracts with assorted US universities and federal government agencies. In 2008, Stamets did a remarkable TED talk, viewed over three million times, called Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World, presenting a half-dozen “mycological solutions” to how fungi can prevent species extinction, our own included.

[3] This is one reason why Finnegans Wake is best read in a group, or listened to, at least initially, because its musicality is more instinctively understandable. There many abridged audio recordings of the Wake; the sole complete is Patrick Horgan’s admirable effort from 1985. The former Star Trek actor, a Finnegans Wake addict since his college days, realised this full recording in less than a month. After forty years of poring over Joyce’s masterpiece, Horgan thought it about time he fulfilled his life-long ambition. Little wonder, too, that another Wake enthusiast, the avant-garde composer and musicologist John Cage, would want to put Joyce’s great “Irish Circus” to music. In 1979, Cage composed Roaratorio, a strangely lulling yet cacophonous mix of Irish pub ballads and streaming water, chattering and clangings from Dublin’s everyday life, all blended together with Joyce’s own garbled words. As it happened, Cage was also a fanatical mushroom forager, a fungi expert in his own right, author of A Mycological Foray (1972), a text that lets us glimpse, through writings, compositions, photos and art work, the composer’s long fascination with mushrooms and fungi. Atelier Editions rereleased the book in 2020. 

[4] The idea might sound obvious; but Marx himself, discussing Darwin in Capital (chapter 15, footnote 4), also invokes Vico to remind us.

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Reclaiming Public Values in the City

These days, with lockdown, I don’t get out much. But I can still talk and meet people—across the airwaves, on Zoom. A few weeks ago, I was in Seoul—well, sort of. I’d been there before, for real, five years back, and this time I was invited to talk at the Seoul Urban Regeneration International Conference, with its big inflexion on post-COVID-19 cityscapes. World Bank and UN-Habitat bigwigs, together with academic planning experts, were all present, rapping away virtually. My own stint was an annex panel called “Special Talk,” tagged on at the end of the two-day meeting, and it comprised a dialogue between myself, Hakjin Kim, Seoul’s Vice-Mayor, Soontak Suh, the President of the University of Seoul, and Mike Batty, from UCL’s Bartlett School of Planning.

Seoul itself, a metropolis of some 10 million people, figured high on the conference agenda: what challenges does COVID-19 throw up for the city’s economic base? What are the new infrastructural requirements for mega-cities like Seoul? How does social distancing affect community solidarity when face-to-face interaction is threatened? Mr. Kim, the city’s Vice-Mayor, said Seoul now faces enormous problems, but equally, he stressed, there are new opportunities. A deeper question voiced was one I want to consider in this blog: what kind of “values” should urban governance embrace? Seoul’s leaders were “seeking advice about which direction to take urban regeneration.”

I said that coming from the UK I felt uneasy about giving advice to a country that has handled COVID-19 so ably. Boris Johnson, after all, has blustered and blundered his way through the COVID crisis, handling it awfully, the worst of all western nations, in terms of per capita death rates, even worse than the United States. So there was little I could tell, wanted to tell, South Korea, whose first confirmed case was on January 24th and since then hasn’t had any major lockdown. Meantime, Britain’s death toll has soared beyond 50,000, whereas South Korea’s has yet to top 500–yes, 500; 497 to be precise! All of which had nothing to do with South Korea being small; it isn’t. It’s a pretty large country, with a population of around 51 million. Nor is it low-density. As at 2018, South Korea had 515 people per square kilometre, compared to the UK’s 281 and England’s 432.

South Korea’s densely urbanised society has been incredibly effective at suppressing COVID outbreaks. They’ve employed excellent contract tracing and vigorous mass testing. Maybe most vitally is its people have unanimously complied with social distancing rules. None of this surprised me, I said, given what I’d seen on my past visit to Seoul, during a lovely week one balmy spring attending a conference. I told Mr. Kim and Mr. Suh that I remember wandering around the city, looking and listening, mindful of Jane Jacobs’s dictum that urbanists “needed an observant eye, curiosity about people, and a willingness to walk.” (Who isn’t nostalgic about those yesterdays when you could roam uninhibited around town?) Strolling through Seoul’s neighbourhoods, I was struck by the quietness of the city, notwithstanding its magnitude and busyness, how peaceable its residents, how dignified their interactions were with each other in the public realm, along the narrow streets, and in the ubiquitous little stores. There was a serenity and mutual respect you rarely saw in Western cities anymore.


In such a city, I said, I imagined mask-wearing wouldn’t be an issue. People would doubtless don a mask in public because they know they have responsibilities towards others. Public space isn’t just about them. It’s a shared experience. Seoul’s citizens seemed to understand implicitly what a social contract meant. Thus, if I had anything to say about Seoul, and South Korea, it would be that they had to defend this dignity in public, this dignity of the public, guard it as a badge of honour. They must continue to affirm the value of the public realm, keeping it robust and healthy, because where I come from it had been denigrated and torn apart. And now we were paying the price. This breakdown of a social contract, I said, was nowhere more evident than in the United States, where an ideology of unfettered self-interest denies any responsibility for other people. What prevails is an absurd anti-social contract, people’s flagrant unwillingness to wear a mask in public because it threatens individual liberty.

Mr. Kim had his own take on this observation, explaining why he thought Korean society was less resistant to mask-wearing. A lot had to do with the city’s rapid development, he said, of how, since the 1960s, after the Korean War, its population increased two-fold every decade. Thirty years ago, the city had no systematic sewerage facility. Mr. Kim, who’s an approaching forty-something, remembers electricity arriving to his household only when he’d reached age fifteen. It was also then that he got his first pair of sneakers; hitherto he’d been walking around in rubber slippers! He, like other people, still retained this memory of backwardness, of a dark age nobody wanted to return to, a life without electricity and sneakers. If we didn’t work together, he said, the COVID pandemic would shut us down, destroy our economic wellbeing, and propel us backwards rather forwards. Hence Korea’s high social resilience, our favouring of solidarity and cooperation.


I was glad Koreans remember their past because, I said, in Britain (above) people have forgotten. In the 1980s, throughout my twenties, Margaret Thatcher assumed the mantle of power and famously announced there was no such thing as society, “only individuals and families.” It was the beginning of an ideology of possessive individualism, of a fervent, obsessive inculcation that the public sector was the problem and the private sector the solution. The public sector needed negating, right-wing pundits and ideologues insisted, replaced by free-market entrepreneurialism. New business paradigms devised methods to deliver public services at minimum cost. Health and municipal services were contracted-out to low-balling private sector bidders; whole government departments were dissolved or replaced by new middle-management units whose machinations became as publicly transparent as mud.

Successive generations have been force-fed this ideology that treats anything public with suspicion, as shoddy and inefficient, as a third-class entity, something to be avoided. Only the poor travel by mass transit, right, when the rich drive a car, frequently a big one, often more than one; only the most vulnerable rent property when the better off owner-occupy. Now, this no longer appears ideological: it is embedded in people’s brains as an objective reality, as the way it has always been. It’s a belief system that has taught people how to forget, how to turn their backs on the public realm and ergo on any social contract. Perhaps for good reason: the public state has been hollowed out to such a degree that it is shoddy. It seems perfectly natural nowadays to see public sector core functions—planning and the organisation of services—outsourced to private consultants and contractors.

But as the pandemic raged, the UK government had neither the hardware capacity nor the software know-how to deal with this massive societal problem. Instead, it doled out millions to consultant “experts” like McKinsey who apparently did. When the latter instigated a National Health Service (NHS) test and trace system that hardly worked, we realised they, too, were clueless. COVID-19 has exposed the shortcomings of the privatised state, of the incompetence of private enterprise addressing public health, and of how public health challenges aren’t resolvable by individuals and families alone. Mr. Kim was right to stress the importance of sneakers as cultural items for young people; but when a society prioritises buying sneakers seemingly above everything else, like in the UK, which affirms consumer sovereignty by the box load, we know then that it has lost its collective way.


Mr. Suh, the University of Seoul’s President, seemed to know his Rousseau. He’d recognised I was alluding to the eighteenth-century author of The Social Contract, whose democracy defined freedom as a recognition of collective necessity. There’s plenty of collective necessity involved in dealing with a global pandemic, and in dealing with a city during one. But collective necessity can only work if people recognise the state as “democratic,” know good government from bad. In populist nations like the UK and US, democracy seems like a vision from another planet. We might call these uncivil states because people have lost their sense of duty to one another. They’ve been kidded by demagogues into thinking they’re free agents capable of doing what they like, and if they can’t it’s their own fault. Private inclinations have run roughshod over public interests.

But in Rousseau’s civil state a different morality would prevail. Rather than pursue narrow self-interests, people would “act according to other principles, and consult reason before heeding to inclination. Although in this state a person denies themselves a number of advantages granted by nature, they gain others so great in return—their faculties are exercised and developed, their ideas expanded, their feelings ennobled, their entire soul soars so high…and out of a stupid, limited animal emerges an intelligent being.” Somewhere inside us, then, an intelligent being lurks, one yearning to burst out, someone who reaches out, upwards, towards Rousseau’s high bar, knowing that we’ve hitherto set this bar so desperately low. Intelligent creatures might even acknowledge society again, that there is such a thing after all, that we can be freer if each of us admits we’re part of a public culture that requires collective rebuilding.

Seoul’s leaders shouldn’t only defend public culture, I said, but, post-COVID, they’ll likely have to bring it to bear on private culture—on market culture. The social contract imposes limits not only on anti-social individual behaviour; it equally reins in anti-social organisational behaviour, the behaviour of big businesses concerned only with big business. There are small businesses that serve local needs, that contribute to the public good; and there are big businesses that serve shareholder needs, frequently detrimental to this public good. Defending the public interest is destined to disgruntle certain private interests, and doing so will require courageous leadership, honest leadership, the sort of civic leadership currently in short supply.

During my Zoom encounter with Seoul, I spoke a little about my last blog, “Beyond Plague Urbanism,” with its appeal to government support of struggling small businesses, particularly important in South Korea because of its large numbers of self-employed people—around 25 percent of the total workforce. After I’d left the meeting, I started to reflect on demagogy, on how it destabilises good leadership and undermines public culture. In the UK and US, we’ve seen demagogy thrive. (Is it now history in the US?) Politicians in both countries have freely engaged in what Jonathan Swift, half-a-century before Rousseau’s Social Contract, labelled “the art of political lying.” (Swift’s essay actually appeared in the year of Rousseau’s birth, 1712.) Being honest, Swift said, doesn’t require much crafting, not like “salutary falsehoods,” which, he reckoned, usually demanded great care to fabricate. But the problem, the author of Gulliver’s Travels noted, is that even the stupidest lie has to be believed for only an hour for its work to be done. Twitter helps. “Falsehood flies,” said Swift, whereas “truth comes limping after it.”

Peddling salutary falsehoods no longer seems to disgruntle masses of people, let alone harm a demagogue’s political career. On the contrary, it assures this career, guarantees it, because there’s a popular willingness to believe in falsehoods. Even when we knew Brexit would never save Britain’s NHS £350 million a year, as Boris Johnson had bragged, or that Donald Trump was ever going to make America great again, the lie nonetheless became the necessary mood music for huge numbers of people. They wanted to hear it, yearned to trust, felt the need to believe, and 71 million Americans still do, insisting that Trump can still make their country great and that the election was rigged.

Demagogy harks back to the Ancient Greek word “demagoguery.” Initially, it had neutral and sometimes positive connotations, since it meant simply “leading the demos.” The demos was the Greek popular masses, the bulk of the people, the poorest if largest political class. One of earliest deployments of demagoguery was in Aristophanes’ comic drama Knights, publicly unveiled at the Lanaea festival in 424 B.C., to great acclaim. Pericles had died five years earlier, and Athens was still soul-searching for a worthy replacement. Knights captures the mood of this leadership vacuum and the role of demagogy in the power struggle.

“Hard not to be outspoken/ When your political system’s broken,” the chorus of Knights bawls. Aristophanes’ brilliance was to twist the meaning of demagogy, exposing it in its negative sense. The great playwright had seen how wannabe leaders mobilised rhetoric to manipulate the masses, seducing crowds for their own cynical, unscrupulous ends. (I am leaning here on Robert Bartlett’s Against Demagogy [University of California Press, 2020], which introduces and offers fresh translations of Aristophanes’ plays Acharnians and Knights.) “Demagoguery,” Aristophanes had his character Demosthenes say, “no longer belongs to a man acquainted with/ the things of the Muses or to one whose ways are upright,/ But to one who is unlearned and loathsome.”


The Donald Trump of Aristophanes’ day was Cleon, an arch-demagogue, who flattered the people while secretly despising them, shamelessly slandering his enemies, taking bribes, encouraging wars, lying and manipulating the legal system—it was a West Wing playbook avant la lettre, using every ruse imaginable to retain power and accumulate wealth. Aristophanes had it in for demagogues like Cleon, as well as for the gullible Athenian demos, ignorantly letting the wool get pulled over its eyes, too readily believing in the demagogue’s hollow pledges. As Athenian citizens watched Aristophanes’ drama, they found themselves implicated in the plot, often bearing the brunt of his jokes, of his lampooning and pillorying. They were laughing at themselves, and this, for Aristophanes, was the crux of political theatre: the shock of recognition. (Gogol pulled a similar gag in his equally ribald Government Inspector, when at one point actors turn to point the finger at the audience: “What are you laughing at? You’re laughing at yourselves, that’s what!”)

The unlikely hero of Aristophanes’ Knights is a sausage-seller, a wizened streetwise old man. He pushes his portable kitchen into the agora, starts frying, and soon confronts Paphlagon—“the blusterer”— Cleon’s alter-ego. In front of them both is the demos, whom Aristophanes symbolises as a single Athenian household, and a “chorus” of wealthy Athenians, the said “knights,” riding on horseback. Paphlagon and the sausage-seller hurl abuse at one another. Their verbal combat, full of vulgarity and vaudeville, quickly takes on the tone of the theatre of the absurd. The cunning street vendor, though uneducated, has been round the block a few times and seen plenty; he’s a maestro of ironic put down. And after awhile it is clear to everybody listening that the demagogue has met his match. He’s exposed as the lier and charlatan he really is.

“How could there be a citizen, O Demos,” Paphlagon proclaims, “who feels more/ friendship for you than I do?” But the sausage-seller doesn’t buy this tosh, responding: “he’s the bloodiest bastard, O dearest little Demos, who’s done the/ crookedest misdeeds!/ When you stand agape,/ He breaks off the stalks of officials undergoing an audit/ And gulps them down, and with both hands/ He sops his bread in the public funds!” “I’ll teach this very thing to you first,” says the sausage-seller to the demos, “that he isn’t your friend or well disposed,/… he gives no thought to you seated here on such hard rocks.” “Why don’t you judge, Demos, which of the two of us/ Is the better man when it comes to you and your stomach?”

The sausage-seller isn’t sophisticated. But he’s a good man, a better man than Paphlagon, an honest man connected to real people because he is a real person himself. He cares about the public and knows the value and importance in government of “noble and good gentleman.” And he’s bothered about social betterment, not just about himself. Before long, the demos recognises his worthiness, somehow comes to its wits, and is won over by the sausage-seller’s more earthy rhetoric, words of a mere-man rather than those of a conceited, self-professed God-man like Cleon. Aristophanes would have needed to wait six centuries to see his sausage-seller participate in Rousseau’s Social Contract, stalking its pages as “the public person,” “formed by the union of all other persons.”

Rousseau’s public person is an archetype of the social contract, a representative of the “reciprocal commitment” between an individual and society. The public person singularly personifies the demos much the same way as Aristophanes had it personified in a single household. We can also read this person as a paradigm of the reciprocal commitment we’ve seen breakdown over recent years in the Anglosphere, gone because we know it’s gone, because Rousseau said its presence would make people “aware less of what belongs to others than what does not belong to oneself.” We’re no longer aware of this. And yet, reciprocal commitment is the bedrock of a public value—the bedrock, moreover, of public virtue.

Rousseau never tells us how we might reach this virtuous state, attain a society in which the social contract bonds together its citizens, maintaining the delicate balance between freedom and necessity. Nonetheless, he does give us a few hints about what needs to be in place beforehand, and I’d caught glimmers of this, in its modern everydayness, out on Seoul’s streets: “Just as the architect, before erecting a great building,” says Rousseau, “observes and plumbs the ground to see if it can bear the weight, so the wise founder of institutions does not begin by drafting laws good in themselves, but first examines whether the people for which he intends them is capable of supporting them.”

Fast forward several hundred years, and we can see Rousseau’s public person get reincarnated in Jane Jacobs’ “public character,” her wily earth-spirit patrolling the sidewalks of Death and Life of Great American Cities. “The social structure of the sidewalk,” Jacobs says, “partly hangs on public characters,” those men and women who have “frequent contact with a wide circle of people.” Storekeepers and barkeepers are obvious public characters in city life (Joe Cornacchia, a deli owner along her Hudson Street block, actually sells salamis); yet there are plenty of public characters anchored to the sidewalk, too, she says, “well-recognised roving public characters.”

Public characters know stuff, see things, engage in city affairs, even if it means sometimes sticking their noses into these affairs, like Aristophanes’ sausage-seller. Their main qualification is that they are public, that they are visibly out in public, in public spaces, there talking to lots of different people. With public characters, “news travels that is of sidewalk interest.” Their presence helps create a certain “togetherness” in neighbourhood life, connecting people to other people, spreading the word “wholesale,” Jacobs says, enlarging our notion of the public.

Rebuilding public institutions in the city will doubtless require not a few public characters, helping change both the public and political mindset. Maybe, post-COVID, as an increasingly outdoor, open-air urbanism takes hold, we can hope for a few more sausage-sellers on the block, confronting the structures of political power and demagogy, doing so in the new and necessary agoras we have yet to invent. These al fresco street markets might go back to the future and reenact our own version of Athenian public-political theatre, whose dialogues, like Aristophanes’, will prompt greater civic and critical awareness on the part of citizens as well as leaders, who’ll both have their legs pulled by the actors. Turning on us, the amused audience, they might even ask: What are you laughing at? You’re laughing at yourselves, that’s what!

Ah, if only life were that funny.

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Beyond Plague Urbanism

Our most insightful urban commentators generally agree that the liveliest cities are those with greatest diversity. Diversity of activities, diversity of people. Jane Jacobs long ago highlighted the link between economic diversity and social vitality; how the former fuels the latter, how economic activity ensures the presence of people, concentrations of people, different kinds of people, who in assorted ways all help keep economic activity afloat.

Henri Lefebvre, in France, made pretty much the same point, if in a different register. He wasn’t so much interested in the economic forces that create diversity as how diversity creates dynamic encounters. Cities, for him, are sites of encounters, dense and differential social spaces in which people assemble. City spaces come alive through proximity, through concentrations of different social groups and activities, gathering in place. Lefebvre said the enemy of encounters—indeed the enemy of urbanisation itself—is segregation and separation, two profoundly anti-urban impulses.

Over past decades, the diversity that Jacobs extols and the encounters animating Lefebvre’s urban visions have had their work cut out. The form and function of our cities have been moving in the exact opposite direction. Jacobs emphasised the need for high- and middling-yield enterprises mingling with low- and no-yield enterprises. Instead, predatory city economies have throttled small businesses: high-yield has become the only asking price. Many corner stores as well as corner people have been forced out of business and out of town. Cities have become functionally and financially standardised, predictable and unaffordable, predictably unaffordable, sucking dry their vitality, their Jacobean life-blood.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 assailed world, killing and upending urban life as we once knew it, intensifying those existing pathologies. Economic distancing had been gnawing away at the urban fabric for awhile, executing the separation Lefebvre feared so much. Now, social distancing explicitly breaks into urban densities, crimping cities as sites of physical encounters. Suddenly, our new urban reality is one of de-encounter, a thinning down rather than thickening up, the dispersion and dilution of city life, its fear and avoidance.

As the pandemic raged, the rich who’d hitherto been colonising citadels everywhere, shaping them in their own crass class image, exited fast. Same story the world over: a wealthy urban exodus, a hunkering down by the shore, up a hilltop, at the country estate, anywhere without people. Between March 1 and May 1, the first two months of lockdown, 420,000 of New York’s wealthiest quit town. Manhattan’s Upper East Side emptied out by 40%. Denizens fled to second homes upstate, in Long Island, in Connecticut and Florida. “Farewell Poor People,” said the Daily Mail (March 19, 2020), catching the spirit of London’s select out-migration. Its most well-heeled populations similarly headed for rural sanctuary, paying up to £50,000 per month in rentals. British estate agents have since been inundated with requests for country mansions and isolated manor houses.

In times of plague, the rich outrunning the spread of infection has been a time-served tactic. In A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), Daniel Defoe describes the harrowing scenes of the 1665 “Poors Plague,” the bubonic epidemic that struck London, striking it unevenly. The famed author of Robinson Crusoe narrates his tale of the Great Plague through the lens of an alter-ego character, an independent merchant, H.F., who had agonised about whether to stay or flee London like his class peers. Eventually, unlike them, he decides to stay put, even ventures out, and walks the streets and bears witness to the mass slaughter of a terrifying disease few understood.

In 1665, Defoe would have been a five year old lad, so A Journal of the Plague Year is a novelistic invention—an artistic creation based on historical fact. Like the good journalist he was, Defoe did his research thoroughly, read meticulously around the plague, the books, pamphlets and scientific studies, and H.F. evokes graphic details reliably accurate and believable from the standpoint of an authentic observer: the desolate streets and parishes, the shut-up shops, the over-run cemeteries, the fevers and vomiting, the pains and swellings, the destruction of whole families and the reality of 97,000 Londoners perishing because of a bacillus now known to be a parasite of rodents, transported by fleas.


H.F. is a sympathetic, if eccentric, flâneur, both fascinated and frightened by the disease, compassionate about the calamities afflicting populations that bore its brunt, that suffered the greatest body count. Even the poor’s insurrectional tendencies found an understanding ear. At one point, he distinguishes between “good” and “bad” mobs, between dissenting peoples whose marauding cause seemed legitimate, and those who seemed to be acting because they’re deluded by false propaganda. This sounds oddly contemporary, a refraction of our own COVID-19 crisis moment, with growing economic inequities ripping apart society, cross-cut by ideological battles between mask wearers and right-wing anti-maskers, Black Lives Matter protesters and white supremacists. Separation and segregation here encounter one another. Our public life has fractured into trench civil warfare, even direr than in Defoe’s seventeenth-century.

Public space is a menace, a threat to public health, not only because of the spread of virus, but also because it is fraught with violence: “I can’t breathe,” is one expression, immortalising George Floyd’s dying words on a Minneapolis street, as a white cop pressed his knee into the black man’s neck. “Don’t shoot!” is another, after Michael Brown’s valedictory plea in Ferguson, Missouri, just as the police opened fire, heralding a spate of police killings of young, unarmed black men (and women). Such homicidal tendencies beget a few questions: What remains of the public realm? Is it for population-level wellbeing, for public safety? Or is it for individual liberty, the right of a person to freely express themselves?

Right-wing libertarians say forcing people to wear face masks in public is an assault on individual freedom, an infringement of personal liberty. It’s a perverse logic, another instance that unfettered self-interest is best; that a greedy drive for profit maximisation and unregulated consumer choice brings about a healthier, more robust society. It doesn’t. It’s a big lie, a foil for a selfishness that bears no responsibility for how it hurts others, economically or otherwise. The mask isn’t only a personal protective equipment: it’s there to ensure other people’s health isn’t put at risk. There have to be limits to what is deemed acceptable individual behaviour in public. There’s more need than ever for a social contract, for a democratic covenant in which everybody recognises duties as well as rights, accepts that our inner selves are constructed through a social identity.

It’s a touchy subject. Yet it’s an agenda Jean-Jacques Rousseau set himself over two and half centuries ago, forty years after Defoe’s Journal, and its basis remains instructive about what we still lack: “a form of association that defends and protects the person and goods of each with the common force of all.” “I had seen that everything is rooted in politics,” Rousseau said, “and that, whatever the circumstances, a people will never be other than the nature of its government makes it.” “Great questions as to which is the best possible form of government,” he thought, “seems to me to come down in the end to this one: what is the nature of the government most likely to produce the most virtuous, the most enlightened, the wisest, and in short, taking this word in its widest sense, the best people?”

These days, people are far from virtuous, enlightened and wise. As presidents and prime ministers bully, lie and peddle misinformation, stoke up hatred and division within society, they’ve rendered us stupid. They’ve destroyed our ability to judge truth from falsehood, good sense from (social) media nonsense. Some describe this as a denigration of our “cognitive immunity,” the destruction of our mental defence system, the ability to ward off pathological ideas, just as our immune system might ward of a pathological disease. We’ve got what we deserve, an anti-social contract, a model of government that has hoodwinked its populace into believing it is free, that it is upholding its individual liberty, when in actuality we’re enslaved.

Past pandemics—from plague in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire’s Plague of Justinian, to Europe’s bubonic epidemics in the Middle-Ages and eighteenth-century, passing through typhoid and cholera outbreaks in the nineteenth, onwards to “Spanish flu” in 1918 and the latest COVID-19 epidemic—have all revealed underlying crises in their respective societies. Plagues sparked terrible tragedy, yet were often outcomes of crises, not initial causes, a symptom of something lurking within the culture, about to give, a growing malaise, soon to worsen. COVID-19 isn’t so different, exposing structural defects in our economy and politics, our encroachment into the natural world, our destruction of it, and how zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 now more virulently jump from animals to humans. When COVID-19 struck, our mix of under-funded public and for-profit private healthcare systems proved woefully inadequate to cope. The virus spread like the wildfire and flash-flooding evermore frequent in our midst. Another hurricane had hit, hitting our urban system particularly hard, which had long been in an endgame crisis.

Endgame happens when the rich displace the poor from the city’s checkerboard, when they banish all but a few pawns from their isotropic plane of business immanence. The game is up yet we continue to feign the moves. The Irish writer Samuel Beckett wrote a play called Endgame, a prophetic play about the end of the world. There he hones in on his peculiar specialty: claustrophobic confinement—although now, in our case, this confinement is engendered by a space-hungry, market-driven urban expansion. As buildings go up in cities, partition walls move in for millions of people. Speculative space opens up, dwelling space closes down, gets sliced up and subdivided to maximise rents and property values. Wealth for the few resonates as crampedness for the many, little squares for the pawns. Britain’s lack of affordable housing, as elsewhere, has pushed more and more people into tiny shoebox lives, and studies show how micro-dwelling negatively affects our health and happiness—even in “normal” times.

Beckett’s short story The Lost Ones gives us an unsettling sense of those walls closing in, with “one body per square metre or two hundred bodies in all round numbers…The gloom and press make recognition difficult.” Is this a vision of a death camp, or refugees in a transit camp? Or is it just the ordinary everyday madness of multi-occupancy in an unaffordable city, where rents have skyrocketed? Whatever the case, it’s an environment conducive to the spread of virus. Public space on the outside, shorn of people and finance, resembles another Beckett mis-en-scène, Waiting for Godot, with a main street (and its boarded-up stores), a tree, and a few vagrants hanging around. We can almost hear one of them grumble, as Estragon had grumbled: “We’ve no rights any more.” “We got rid of them,” sidekick Vladimir rejoins. “Well? Shall we go?” Vladimir wonders. “Yes, let’s go,” says Estragon. They do not move.


History is maybe on our side, expressive of long-wave good news. Over the centuries, humans have survived tragedy through the incredible stoicism of not moving, of standing one’s ground, of resisting, of engaging in tremendous creativity. Wars, plagues and mass ransackings of cities in Ancient Greece gave us poetry like The Iliad, epic drama like Trojan Women, scholarship like Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War and Plato’s Republic. When bubonic plague hit seventeenth-century Britain, theatres closed and Shakespeare’s plays could no longer be performed. But none of this prevented the bard from writing them, from letting his creative juices flow, in the misery and isolation, penning such masterpieces as King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra.

In the mid-1850s, Marx lived through a cholera epidemic in London’s Soho, killing hundreds of people because of a contaminated water pump. Marx was destitute, had several children die before him, lodged in a truly dreadful, cramped apartment—this as economic crisis deepened and workers’ revolt dissipated. Nonetheless, he continued to work, never stopped studying capitalism, never let up writing Das Kaptial. He never stopped hoping, either, telling his comrade Friedrich Engels that “in all the terrible agonies I have experienced these days, the thought of you and your friendship has always sustained me, and the hope that, together, we may still do something sensible in the world.”

In the twentieth-century, disgust with an economic and political order that plunged us into two murderous world wars helped spark Surrealism, a revolutionary movement that affirmed its own extraordinarily creative dialectic. On the one hand came Max Ernst’s brilliant pictorial horror story, “After the Rain II,” painted between 1940-2, a hellscape of hope smothered by petrified and calcified structures, by corpses and decayed vegetation, by deformed creatures in a prehistoric premonition of our own COVID-19 fate.


On the other hand emerged an optimism, an art and literature that celebrated the dawn of romantic love, the primal form of the Surrealist encounter, epitomised by André Breton’s Mad Love. Fascist bombs rained on Guernica and Hitler’s Third Reich was about to stomp across Europe, yet Breton wrote: “I have never ceased to believe that, among all the states through which humans can pass, love is the greatest supplier of solutions, being at the same time in itself the ideal place for the joining and fusion of these solutions.” (Three decades on, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme nodded in agreement. As racial hatred raged across America, its triumphant choruses sought “resolution” through love, as well as the “pursuance” of this love resolution.)

Perhaps what we’re experiencing now is an interregnum that progressives need to ride out, need to struggle through, sustain ourselves by hope, by a love supreme, by friendship, believing there’s light somewhere beyond the darkness, some way still to do something sensible in the world. This too will pass. Hopefully. Perhaps we can use the time alone, in quarantine, to think collectively, to reflect together on how we might reconstruct the public realm of our cities, even the public realm of our lives. Maybe we need to start by thinking up a transitional “public sphere,” incorporating the virtual into the real, developing online links with others, collapsing the social distance on the outside through time-space compression on the inside, via our computer screens, through the Zoom communities that continue to sprout.

In our private households, we can plot another public world, do it together, from the underground, as it were, where dissidents and activists have traditionally hidden out when the political going has been rough. There we might reframe the notion of “intimacy,” tweak its meaning in the interim. With Zoom, after all, not only can we look into people’s faces: we can enter into their homes, too, into their personal spaces, see the art on their walls, the books on their bookshelves, the family photos, share a strange sociability and camaraderie that helps us almost touch one another. It’s not ideal, not the same as face-to-face encountering; but let’s use it nonetheless, let’s try and find partial nourishment in this interregnum, by sharing ideas, launching discussion and reading groups, webinars and virtual gatherings, talk and debate and listen to one another, organise one another, forge solidarity in kind, if not in person. It’s a first-cut attempt at scheming a new beginning.

There have been hints of what post-pandemic cities might do to bounce back. Usually this involves smaller-scale design rather than any vaster public planning. The key issue seems to be ushering in fresh air into urban life, creating cities that flourish in the open, in the public realm, making them al fresco playhouses, bringing a touch of Ancient Greece back into our civilisation, when open-air amphitheatres became scenes of mass political and intellectual communion. Researchers indicate that we’re twenty-times more likely to catch COVID-19 indoors than outdoors. So there’s need to reimagine a different open-air public life, more resilient to future pandemic, with different spaces and places, accessible spaces and places, with commercial and recreational activities that not only entice people back into cities, but offer enough to make us want to stay, to feel safe as well as stimulated.

Design initiatives propose squeezing roads to widen pedestrian sidewalks, enlarging café and restaurant terraces; radiant heating and cooling technology can extend outdoor seasonal usages. Future cities will be a lot greener, more walkable and bikeable. Cars and car-oriented infrastructure will get scaled back. Abandoned lots and obsolete multi-storey car parks might flourish as urban farms, using hydroponics, providing cheaper, fresher produce for neighbourhoods, on their doorsteps, minimising food miles and distribution costs. Such innovations now seem de rigueur, standard repertoires in design game-plans. Ditto opening up streets and parkland to vendors and commercial activity, reanimating open-air city retailing, allowing it to be improvised and spontaneous—maybe like it once was.

After decades of “quality of life” campaigns, this would be an enormous volte-face for a city like New York. Since the mid-1990s, during Giuliani’s mayoral years, Business Improvement Districts have waged war on unlicensed street activities, converting Manhattan into a glorified corporate suburban theme park, funnelling people into the chain malls and cleansing the streets of grubby diversity—of food stands and street peddlers, of artists and homeless booksellers, stuff that brought vitality to many sidewalks.

Al fresco city life has always thrilled our most romantic urbanists. Their ideal visions invariably affirmed the outdoors, the street. They sat in cafés, wrote books, fretted home alone; but their real muse was without a roof, amid the crowd, out on the sidewalk—no matter the weather. It was an open-air intimacy, amongst strangers. Poet Baudelaire suggested we embrace the crowd, bathe in the multitude, take universal communion, find ourselves as we get lost in public, merging with the masses, though not too close. Surrealist André Breton recognised his great heroine, Nadja, enjoyed being nowhere but in the street, “the only region of valid experience for her, in the street.” Nadja, the phantom woman who’d chosen for herself the name “Nadja,” because in Russian it marked the beginning of the word hope, and because she, Nadja, was only a beginning.

Lefebvre’s urban encounters were likewise street-based and streetwise. For him, streets were modes of attraction and assembly, of union and proximity, of human co-presence. Jane Jacobs said the liveliest streets have the most dynamic choreographies—“intricate street ballets,” she called them—changing with the time of day, never repeating themselves from place to place. We’ve seen some of these choreographies adapt and change over past months, as dancers dodge and sway, twirl with other members of the ensemble, guarding social distance on city streets everywhere.

But Jacobs knew that sidewalks needed more than just urban design to keep them alive, more than a street bench here, a charming park there. Design alone, she suggests, can only go so far. We need a bolder vision of how to reintroduce public life. How might we recapture the diversity and vitality dear to Jacobs’s heart? Especially since her cherished small businesses and street corner societies have been heading towards extinction.

Local commerce needs life-support even more than it did pre-COVID. 21,000 British small businesses went under during March’s lockdown. The British Chamber of Commerce fears as many as one million little enterprises might collapse soon, leaving empty shells and boarded up main streets across the land. New York lost 3,000 small businesses during its March quarantine. Many Manhattan street corners, even in neighbourhoods like Greenwich Village, are boarded up and graffiti-splattered. Big retail chains have made conscious choices to elope. After years of plundering Manhattan, seeing off little independent competitors, sucking life out of many New York blocks, big brands like Gap, J.C.Penney, Subway, Domino’s Pizza lead the charge out.


We need a public action plan that restricts private interests chomping away at the common wealth. In our largest cities, this common wealth has been squandered by conspicuously wasteful large enterprises, administered by elites who thrive off unproductive activities: they roll the dice on the stock market, dance to shareholder delight, profit from unequal exchanges, guzzle at the public trough, filch rents and treat land and property as a pure financial asset, as another money-making racket. Invariably, too, they dodge their fair share of the tax burden. They leech blood money out of urban territories and underwrite what might be termed “parasitic city” development, antithetical to the “generative city” that any public action plan would now need to reinstigate.

Accumulated wealth ought to be reallocated to benefit ordinary people and public infrastructure. Top of this plan’s agenda is making city life viable for little businesses as well as little people. There’s need here to impose some kind of commercial rent and business rate control. When urban economies thrive, commercial landlords jack up rents, speculate and inflate property markets, become the “monstrous power” that Marx recognised. “One section of society,” Marx said, “demands a tribute from the other for the right to inhabit the earth.” In downturns, when the economy dips, landlords prefer to sit on vacant property, leave their premises empty until they find tenants able to pay the market rent, the inflated market rent. It’s a double whammy that inevitably works both ways against less resourceful tenants.

A carrot option for municipalities is to offer landlords tax incentives to release commercial space at more affordable rents, making it worth their while to see rents reduced. Yet there are harder alternatives, too, bolder policies that might be pursued, which necessitate a stick. One could be the creation of a “living rent” program, a landed counterpart to the living wage ordinances already passed in a lot cities around the world. A living rent would be a rent that enables small business owners to earn a living, to pay for a lease in accordance with their modest income streams. In a property market designed not to screw everybody, potential small business concepts might actually become real practical endeavours; little entrepreneurs are encouraged to take the risk, to go for it. A living rent would allow landlords to receive a rent-controlled return, a fair return, not an extortionate, parasitic return, subject to taxation at an appropriate rate. Leases would be negotiated over five year terms. At each renewal, living rents would be recalibrated according to the tenant’s past and prospective future earnings. Refusal of landlords to comply to living rent ordinances would mean that the municipality sequesters the property, procures it as a public landlord.

Imagine, in such an incubating culture, what little generative activities might flourish. By themselves, they’d be modest ventures. But scattered around a whole city, they’d collectively add up to a lot. They’d signal the return of the re-skilled worker in the city, empowered in their labour-process, answerable to themselves as well as their locale. These artisans would pioneer little start-ups the likes of which we’d already begun to glimpse, pre-COVID. In grungy, abandoned areas of town, we’ve seen micro-breweries and distilleries prosper in small-scale fabrication units. Let’s hope they continue to prosper, and have others emerge alongside, post-COVID: bakers and candlestick makers, bookbinders and printers, potters and carpenters, furniture repairers and cheese-makers, welders and sculptors, clothes and craft producers, artists and urban farmers. We can imagine them together, bringing a little diversity and curiosity back into the ’hood, adding vitality to an everyday ordinariness of grocery stores and corner delis, who’ll now equally be able to make the living rent.

Meantime, city officials need think hard about what they’re going to do with the glut of office space remote home-work now betokens, the new norm for the privileged white-collar employee. Much of this office space was speculatively built, produced by over-accumulated capital, colossally unnecessary even at the best of times. Now, at the worst of times, we have it, looming large, a dark cloud hanging over urban space, threatened with devaluation. It’s a lesson in how to kill a city, to make large swaths bland, the kind of blandness only money can buy. But here, again, imagine how vast open-planned floors could be rezoned and converted into affordable individual dwellings and family homes, with real space between partition walls, fitted out with balconies and breathable outdoor terraces. City governments could obtain the leases or the freeholds of these premises, recruit local architectural practices to engage in innovative designs; local construction companies might undertake the actual rehab itself.

Importantly, some of this affordable housing would need to be set aside for younger people. Since lockdown, millennials have undertaken a mass urban exodus, too, and this flight out continues everywhere, from New York and London, to Paris and Tokyo. Even before COVID-19, younger people were wilting under the pressure of exorbitant big city costs, enduring tiny domestic spaces because of the wealth of amenities outside, on their doorstep—the bars and restaurants, the theatres and art galleries, the cultural attractions, the sheer energy of flocks of people, the sense of opportunity. Yet given that many of these attractions remain closed today, costly big cities have quickly lost their lustre. Their bright lights have dimmed. Many millennials have left, some opting for cheaper small towns, others working remotely from their parent’s home, wondering if they’ll ever return to city life again.

It says a lot about our civilisation, about what’s gone wrong: young people fleeing cities because they’re too expensive, because the high cost is no longer worth the hassle, that the city’s promise has been a let down. It equally bodes badly for our urban future, when so much young creative capacity decides to up sticks, leaving a worrying urban footprint in its wake. Historically, cities were places where young people always flocked to, went there to liberate themselves, to grow up in public, as independent adults, beyond the grasp of their parents. The city was an existential rites of passage. Now, it’s an exit from a no exit. As the cost of living soared, the city’s romance was already talking about alimony.

Anybody who has ever watched French nouvelle vague cinema, directed by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Louis Malle, will have felt this urban romance, imbibed its moody atmosphere. Much of the dialogue and action in these films unfolded in the street, in the everyday public realm, on a café terrace, up and down the boulevard, day and night. The city was a site where young people fell in and out of love, argued about politics, read books, discovered themselves, extended themselves. In cities you broadened your horizons, deepened your whole being. Few young people went motivated by money. Indeed, cities were places where the young preferred to be poor, because there you led a richly adventurous life. And the cold water affordability was part of the bargain, a fair exchange.

The city itself was portrayed here as a sort of Great Book, as a seat of higher learning, as an open-air library where one learned, received a humanist education about how to be a public person, with civic rights and responsibilities. There, almost unwittingly, you engaged in what the American educational philosopher Robert Hutchins once called “The Great Conversation.” How to initiate a Great Urban Conversation nowadays? How to get people talking again about the city in humanist terms? Not just map it on a moneyman’s spreadsheet, or run it through a technocrat’s algorithm. The Great Urban Conversation is to dialogue around our collective destiny. Might we find the civic leadership courageous enough, visionary and intelligent enough, to step up to the plate, to accept this challenge, to help us discover a new urban social contract together, to make our minds as well as our cities generative again? It’s hard to tell. Some days it seems impossible. Yet despite the apparent hopelessness, I can’t quite give up the ghost, can’t quite give up hope for a time beyond the coronavirus, beyond what we have now, beyond Trump, beyond Johnson—for a time when our urbanism might inspire rather than plague us.

*NOTE: I am very grateful to Bill Morrish, at New York’s New School, for helping me frame this discussion. Many of the ideas here are his own put into my words.

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