Notes on Marx’s “General Law of Capitalist Accumulation”

If someone were to ask me what my favourite bit of Marx’s Capital is, I’d tell them Chapter 25, on “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation.” Not that anybody has ever asked me; but I suspect I wouldn’t be alone in selecting this pinnacle performance, the beginning of the climatic unfurling of Volume One. For here those “laws of motion” that Marx had been trying to lay bare throughout Capital, really do motor before the reader’s very eyes, in all their disturbing fluidity. Hitherto, Marx had been attempting to piece together the intricate “inner mechanisms” of capitalist society. By Chapter 25, he’s ready to analyse these inner mechanisms as a giant well-oiled whirring machine.

And he’s mesmerised by the prodigious power of this machine, by capital accumulating, bursting through every historical and geographical restriction, conquering the entire world of social wealth. Yet, at the same time, he’s appalled by the ruthless force it unleashes, by the horrors the machine inflicts upon its cogs. Meanwhile, its normal functioning soon takes on a spiralling dynamic all its own, operating beyond the control of any single capitalist master. After a while, the enviable freedom of the capitalist gets transformed into a die-hard necessity, into an infamous historical mission: “Accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake.”

The drive to accumulate capital dramatically pits capitalist against capitalist, capitalist against worker, worker against worker. Accumulation fuels competition, and competition, Marx says, “subordinates every individual capitalist to the immanent laws of capitalist production, as external, coercive laws.” Thus, as capitalists strive to accumulate, as their actions become mere functions of capital, they inevitably clash with other capitalists seeking to do likewise. What erupts is a fratricidal war; different fractions of capital jostle one other, struggle to corner markets, to control and monopolise markets, to control and monopolise labour; a zero-sum accumulation mania transpires and conspires. Accumulation is the centrifugal impetus of “capital in general.” But competition hastens a splintering of capital, just as it hastens a splintering of labour, compounding each side into many “aliquot parts.” Thus, as capital accumulates, the formation and intensification of class structure manifests itself as a paradoxical obliteration of class structure.

Before long, the hullabaloo of accumulation is “supplemented” by concentration and centralisation, by big capitalist fishes gobbling up little fishes and sharks chomping on big fishes. Marx says this enhances the scale of operations, accelerates the overall effects of accumulation, but in uneven ways, for capitalists and workers alike. Trouble and strife brood. For, on the one hand, competition and the obligatory development of a credit system become powerful levers of centralisation—of the formation of joint stock companies, trusts and conglomerates, mergers and acquisitions—and of expanded accumulation; on the other hand, though, the “organic composition of capital”—the ratio of dead to living labour, of machines to workers, of constant to variable capital—gradually starts to creep upwards, diminishing the relative demand for labour.

Before long, too, the system breeds a new species: Marx labels them “a new financial aristocracy, a new variety of parasites in the shape of promoters, speculators and nominal directors, a whole system of swindling and cheating by means of corporation promotion, stock issuance, and stock speculation.” Could Marx be talking about us? By God yes. Nowadays, we know these people by name, by sleazy reputation; we know, too, that within the overall accumulation process this new financial aristocracy has a stake very different to that of productive capital’s.

The former plays a extremely limited, if any, enabling role for valorisation: stock exchanges are now billion dollar markets for speculating on already existing stocks and shares. Little activity here actually raises money for new productive investment. Businesses generate money by selling stock and shares, relinquishing part of the company to shareholders; but little of the accruing booty gets recycled into future investment. Invariably, it’s doled out as dividends, and/or creamed off through inflated CEO salaries.

One of the reasons I like to affirm Chapter 25 isn’t only because it explains the working conditions of the world’s peoples today; it also explains the conditions of our whole existence. Marx’s general law of capitalist accumulation is nothing less than the lever upon which all our lives now pivot. Its frame of reference needs to be opened out, out onto the broader canvas of life, especially planetary urban life. The mighty machine has made us cogs everywhere. It’s here where I’d like to develop Marx’s law, “a law of tendency,” as he calls it, which expels people from dwelling space as well as from the workplace. As such, this law isn’t just a condition of earning a living; it’s a condition of earning a life.

Marx knew in the 1860s that “the absolute” general law of capitalist accumulation could be “modified in its workings by many circumstances.” But in every case, he says, it “followed that in proportion as capital accumulates, the situation of the worker, be their payment high or low, must grow worse.” In our present-day “neoliberal” context, the economy flourishes through sub-employed and over-employed workers, through contingent and gig economy workers, through zero contract hours workers: from Uber to Deliveroo, Handy to Hermes, Amazon to Adjunct Professors, work is evermore casualised and irregular; and worker benefits seem to diminish by day. Toilers here assume that category Marx reckons the general law of capitalist accumulation progressively produces: “a relative surplus population”—or, alternatively, “an industrial reserve army of labour.”

“Every worker,” Marx believes, “belongs to this relative surplus population during the time when they are only partially or wholly employed.” Marx, it’s worth pointing out, sees all work under capitalism as precarious; always has been, always will be. It’s a precariousness dependent on a consistently fickle capitalist business cycle, on short-term soars and long haul dips. Wage levels, he says, get regulated by the relative surplus population, by its expansion and contraction. Wages “aren’t determined by the variations of the absolute numbers of the working population,” Marx insists, “but by the varying proportions in which the working class is divided into an active army and reserve army, by the increase or diminution in the relative amount of surplus population, by the extent to which it is alternately absorbed and set free.”

Sometimes wages might even rise should demand for labour rise. At these moments, wages can conceivably keep increasing so long as they don’t impinge upon the overall expansion of capital. Something resembling this actually occurred during the boom of the 1950s and 1960s, when real workers’ wages did in fact rise. Still, the more typical rule, Marx thinks, is that “the mechanism of capitalist production takes care that the absolute increase of capital isn’t accompanied by a corresponding rise in the general demand for labour.” “Capital,” he says, does something more innovative instead, something more dialectical: it “acts on both sides at once”:

If its accumulation on the one hand increases the demand for labour, it increases on the other the supply of workers by ‘setting them free’, while at the same time the pressure of the unemployed compels those who are employed to furnish more labour, and therefore makes the supply of labour to a certain extent independent of the supply of workers. The movement of the law of supply and demand for labour on this basis completes the despotism of capital.

And under this despotism, real wages have effectively stagnated, almost nowhere keeping pace with cost of living hikes. One of the U.S.’s top capitalist mouthpieces, The Harvard Business Review (October 24th 2017), admits that hourly inflation-adjusted wages for the typical American worker have, since the early 1970s, hardly risen, edging upwards a mere 0.2% per year. Throughout this period, remember, the overall economy has been growing. Thus American workers haven’t participated in any of the growth, nor benefited from gains in their own productivity. The reason why is classic Marx Volume One: new technology has put downward pressure on less-skilled workers’ wages; and workers displaced from work send disciplinary messages to those still active in work: work harder or else!

Whether in times of prosperity or decline, the industrial reserve army produces much the same effect: “it weighs down the active army of workers; during periods of over-production and feverish activity, it puts a curb on their pretensions.” The relative surplus population is “the background against which the law of the demand and supply of labour does its work. It confines the field of action of this law to the limits absolutely convenient to capital’s drive to exploit and dominate workers.”

If we dig a little deeper into Chapter 25, we can see how Marx identifies three types of relative surplus population: stagnant, floating, and latent. Alas, we haven’t got to dig too deeply, nor have too much imagination, to see how Marx’s types remain our types. The stagnant form, for a start, is “part of the active labour army,” he says, “but with extremely irregular employment. Hence it offers capital an inexhaustible reservoir of disposable labour-power.” It’s characterised “by a maximum of working time and a minimum of wages.” The downsized blue-collar worker might be filed under this category, since stagnant surplus populations, Marx says, are “recruited from workers in large-scale industry who have become redundant, and especially from decaying branches of industry where handicraft is giving way to manufacture, and manufacture to machinery.”

This stagnant workforce consists of time-served men repulsed from blue-collar employment and drawn into irregular jobs like security and custodial work, janitors, cabbies and deliverymen. Older generation blue-collar workers, who once worked the mines, the auto plants and steel mills, now find themselves literally stagnant. They’re no longer able (or willing) to do low-grade work, yet are too young to retire. So instead they slouch into the ranks of a non-participating labour-force. Men who once set rivets together now sit alone, able to recite daytime TV schedules by heart. Utter stagnation lingers everywhere in rust-belt Europe and America, where empty union halls look out over the rubble of what used to be the company plant.

The dialectic of the floating relative surplus population is similarly one of repulsion and attraction, but its charge is much more volatile. Participants here encounter working conditions wholly unstable and uncertain. The only thing that’s regular is the irregularity of their work. These men and women represent a huge pool of under-employed and sub-employed workers—part-time, on-call, self-employed or zero hours contractors—whose resumé is marked by a floating in and out of jobs. Despite the job-hopping, few new skills are ever learned. Steadily, its fluctuating force assumes a predictably deadening life-form.

Many workers are absorbed into the “personnel services industry,” where the hiring and firing is managed by employment agencies like Manpower, Inc., who recruit temporary workers across America and the world. (Manpower has offices in fifty countries, and places 1.6 million “in assignments with more than 250,000 businesses worldwide annually…providing our customers with productive workers and our employees with work.”) The growth of this personnel services industry means evermore despotic control of an anarchic labour-market. Supply and demand for labour tightly track the expansions and contractions of capital; yet always its motioning seeks to trim monies laid out on variable capital.

As at May 2017, the U.S.’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) said nearly 6 million workers are “contingent”—i.e. “persons who do not expect their jobs to last or who report that their jobs are temporary.” Moreover, there are a further 10.6 million people working as “independent contractors,” together with another 2.6 million on-call. And this doesn’t include 1.4 million temporary help workers nor the 933,000 employed by contract firms like Manpower. Which suggests that true numbers for contingent America tot up to somewhere in the region of 20 million people. No coincidence, too, that the nation’s two largest employers are contingent kings Walmart and McDonald’s.[1]

Techie giants like Google, often seen as egalitarian employers with idyllic workplaces, are likewise massively reliant on temporary and contracted labour. In fact, “a shadow workforce of temps” now outnumber Google’s full-time employees. As at March 2019, Google uses 121,000 temp and contracted workers, compared with a full-time workforce of 102,000. Google temps are employed by outside agencies and, in the U.S., make less money than Google full-timers. They have different benefits packages and no paid vacation. Last April, hundreds of Google employees signed a letter protesting the company’s “two-tier system,” as well as the dismissal of 80 percent of a 43-person artificial intelligence team of contingent workers. OnContracting, a temp employment agency for the high-tech industry, says that companies like Google save $100,000 a year on average per American job by using a temporary contractor instead of a full-time employee.[2]

Women swell the ranks of this floating contingent workforce. In the U.S., women are three times as likely to hold regular and irregular part-time work as men. These women make up about a fifth of the overall female workforce, earning, on average, 20 percent less than equivalent women employed full-time and 20 percent less that their male counterpart part-timers. Minority groups fare worse than their Anglo peers, and minority women worst of all. On the whole, African-American women tend to be twice as likely to be lower paid temps and much less likely to be self-employed; Hispanics, meanwhile, have a larger share of low-wage “on-call” work.

Capitalism has a handy knack of constantly inventing and reinventing its reserve army of labour. Often it does so miraculously, tapping into assorted branches of society and sectors of industry where labour has been lying latent. Thus, alongside the stagnant and floating forms, Marx acknowledges another category of flexible labour, the “latent” category, a sort of reserve reserve army of labourers. “As soon as capitalist production takes possession of agriculture,” he says, “and in proportion to the extent to which it does so, the demand for a rural working population falls absolutely.” “Part of the agricultural population,” says Marx, “is therefore constantly on the point of passing over into an urban population or manufacturing proletariat. There is a constant flow from this source of the relative surplus population. But the constant movement towards towns presupposes, in the countryside itself, a constant latent surplus population.”

The movement of peoples from rural to urban areas, from agriculture to an urban-based factory system, continued apace during the twentieth-century. As at 2006, its flow tipped the global demographic balance: the majority of the world’s inhabitants, some 3.3 billion people, live in urban agglomerations, not rural areas. Some of that generation’s latent surplus populations, i.e. people formerly displaced from agriculture and reabsorbed into urban factories, have since fallen into the ranks of floating and stagnant relative surplus populations. Yet by 2030, 60% of the world’s population is projected to be urban; an additional 590,000 square miles of the planet will be urbanised, a land surface more than twice the size of Texas, spelling an additional 1.47 billion urban dwellers; many of whom will bolster the ranks of a latent reserve army. They’ll offer sustained nourishment for expanded capitalist accumulation everywhere.

A big chunk of this latent surplus population lurks in China. Shanghai is the planet’s fastest growing metropolis, expanding a massive 15 percent each year since 1992, boosted by $120 billion of foreign direct investment. Half the world’s cranes are reputed to be working in Shanghai’s Pudong district. Rice paddies have been filled with modern skyscrapers and vast factories. Outlying farmlands now host the world’s fastest train links and the tallest hotel. Four thousand buildings with twenty or more stories have gone up, ensuring Shanghai has twice the number of buildings as New York. With 171 cities of more than one million inhabitants, China over the past decade has commandeered nearly half the world’s cement supplies, and will doubtless monopolise the world’s supply and demand for latent surplus labour populations.

Of course, after 1989, with the tumbling of the Berlin Wall, another reservoir of latent labour flooded the capitalist marketplace. A freshly- proletarianised workforce initiated a primitive accumulation of capital, transforming former Eastern European state employees into freelance wage-labourers, set free to pit their wits on the flexible European labour market. The Eastern bloc’s headlong embrace of Western-style neoliberalism prised open a whole new array of market niches, together with a jamboree latent labour reserve—both at home, in some newly-formed nation-states, and in the European Economic Area (EEA). Almost overnight an ideology of dictatorial personality morphed into an ideological dictatorship of the free market, with its attendant rights of consumerist man.

Out of the ashes of communism rose the Phoenix of cheap labour. Western manufacturers, halving labour costs, beat a hasty path eastwards; while a lot of latent labour, almost as hastily, trekked westwards. Stimulated by the European Union’s freedom of labour movement (2004), they’ve found low-grade jobs in powerhouses like Britain, Germany and France. Pay is better than before, yet a lot less than homegrown workers’. British businesses have prospered enormously from this influx of Eastern European labour, especially Polish. Enterprises have been able to valorise a cheap labour they’d not had since the 1950s, when Afro-Caribbean Windrush immigrants arrived. The British agricultural sector has been a big gainer. Prior to 2004, crops like asparagus, cherries, raspberries and strawberries were suffering long-term decline. Remuneration in these sectors was meagre; the work backbreaking. Few locals were turned on. Yet since 2004, rather than invest in expensive new berry-picking technology, growers have exploited Eastern European labour reserves, latent labour-power, which has rekindled agricultural capital accumulation and boosted productivity.

When Marx formulated his General Law of Capitalist Accumulation, cities were sites for manufacturing valorisation. It was in urban factories where commodities got produced and surplus value created. The factory system—“Modern Industry,” Marx called it—was the mainstay of capital accumulation, and workers were attracted and repelled from this urban employment. Later in Chapter 25, however, Marx notes how the general law operates outside the factory gates as well—vividly exemplified, he says, in “‘improvements’ of towns which accompany the increase in wealth, such as the demolition of badly built districts, the erection of palaces to house banks, warehouses, etc., the widening of streets for business traffic, for luxury carriages, for the introduction of tramways, [which] obviously drive the poor away into even worse and more crowded corners.”

It’s not a bad description of what still happens in big cities today. Marx’s point here is “that the greater the centralisation of the means of production, the greater is the corresponding concentration of workers within a given space; and therefore the more quickly capitalist accumulation takes place, the more miserable the housing situation of the working class.” Landlords squeeze workers, ripping them off at home, as tenants, just as industrialists rip them off at work, as wage-labourers. Rents are high precisely because pay is low. Vulnerable workers equate to vulnerable tenants; both feel the force of “property and its rights,” Marx says.

“Everyone knows,” he adds, “that the dearness of houses stands in inverse ratio to their quality, and that these mines of misery are exploited by house speculators with more profit and less cost than the mines of Potosi were ever exploited. The antagonistic character of capitalist accumulation, and thus of capitalist property-relations in general, is here so evident.” Marx’s adopted hometown of London, one of world’s richest cities, had the most squalid, overcrowded habitations, “absolutely unfit for human beings,” he says. Marx knew this because he and his family lived in many of these hovels. “Rents have become so heavy,” he cites one government health inspector saying, “that few labouring men can afford more than one room.” 1865 or 2019?

And yet, in another sense, a lot has changed since Marx’s day. Back then, his focus was on production in the industrial city; a century and a half on, the city itself has become the form of industrialisation. In the 1860s, cities were places where commodities got produced; nowadays, cities are themselves commodities, centres of gravity for the General Law of Capitalist Accumulation and for the expansive power of capital. Now, urban space itself is both the subject and object of valorisation, the means of production as well as the product this means of production creates. In manufacturing, Marx said new technology would prompt a change in the “organic composition of capital.” “The growth in the mass of means of production,” he argued, “as compared with the mass of labour-power that vivifies them, is reflected in its value-composition by the increase of the constant constituent of capital at the expense of its variable constituent.”

So, too, now, is the organic composition of capital in cities rising. Quite literally rising. Constant capital is displacing variable capital: capital circulates into the construction of new fixed capital assets, new items of the built environment, such as office blocks and shopping malls, Hudson Yards and Coal Drops Yard, upscale housing and elite cultural amenities—high-yield activities for the expanded reproduction of capital rather than low-yield necessities for the simple reproduction of labour-power. This is the sense in which workers have now been set free from life, not just from work: they’re displaced from dwelling space as they’re rendered superfluous from the workplace.

The progress of urban accumulation lessens the relative magnitude of the variable part of capital, even if, as in industry, it can’t lessen it entirely. Capital, after all, needs its minion service workforce of busboys and valet parkers, of waiters and barmen, of cleaners and security guards, of nannies and cooks, of superintendents and doormen. But a push-pull effect has taken hold, a dialectic of attraction and dispossession, a sucking into the city of a relative surplus population together with a spitting out, a banishment from the centre. Poor old-time stagnant populations, as well as floating and latent reserve armies, now embrace one another out on the periphery somewhere, where rents are lower and life cheaper.

This system produces planetary geography as a commodity, as a pure financial asset, using and abusing people and places as strategies to accumulate capital. The process embroils everybody, no matter where; even when it doesn’t embroil, even when it abandons people and places, it embroils. Cities, like the factories of Marx’s era, become vortexes for sucking in everything the planet offers: its capital and power, its culture and people—its dispensable labour-power. It’s this sucking in of people and goods, of capital and information that fuels the urban accumulation machine, that makes it so dynamic as well as so destabilising. For it’s a system that secretes a residue, chewing people up when needed, spitting them out when they’re not.

Residues are something more than relative surplus populations and probably include a fair number of lumpenproletariat. They’re minorities who are far and away a global majority. They’re people who feel the periphery inside them, who identify with the periphery, even if sometimes they’re located in the core. Residues are workers without regularity, workers without any real stake in the future of work. Residues are refugees rejected and rebuked, profiled and patrolled no matter where they wander. Residues are displacees whose land has been grabbed, who’ve been displaced from housing, thrown out of housing, whose living space teeters on the geographic and economic edge. Residues are disenfranchised and decommissioned people everywhere who feel isolation strike them deep within. Residues come from the city as well as the countryside and congregate in a space that’s often somewhere in-between, neither traditional city nor traditional countryside. We might call this somewhere in-between the global banlieue. (Remember, the French word banlieue comes from lieu, meaning “place,” and bannir, “to banish”; hence “place of banishment.”)

A lot of these residues know that now work is contingent life itself is contingent. And with little security, there’s little to lose, and, moreover, little to gain from playing by capitalism’s rules. So what’s the point? There is no point. Some residues play by different rules, beat a different drum. Others listen to reactionary demagogues and swing right, embrace populist ravings against the machine. Many others voice muffled hopes from the left. All somehow know the capitalist game is rigged, that those in power are liars and cheats. Still more residues know that a career of hustling and hawking, of wheeling and dealing, of petty criminality, of opioids and outlawing, become coping mechanisms from the outside to a life that offers no discernible future on the inside.

One of the problems Marxists face—and I think Marx knew it might one day become a big problem—is that many residues have lost their class address. How can they regain it, find the right door bell to ring on together? How can workers who have no Party, no regular workplace or arena for collective bargaining—in fact who have no real public arena at all—how can they find one another? Perhaps the more vital question is how can the twenty-first century “dangerous classes” become really dangerous? How can they endanger the capitalist system rather than just endanger themselves?…

[Next time I want to talk about this, about the Marx’s “dangerous classes.”]


[1] Walmart’s low-wage workers are so poor that they receive around $6.2 billion in federal assistance, principally in the shape of food stamps. The billionaire Walton business thus gets a huge public handout for its low-balling employment practices. In a recent study, conducted by the Organization United for Respect (OUR), 55 percent of Walmart part-timers admitted they didn’t have enough money to meet basic needs.

[2] See “Google’s Shadow Workforce: Temps Who Out Number Full-Time Employees,” The New York Times, May 28, 2019

Posted in All | 1 Comment

Grand Inquisitors in Our Midst

Demagogic chauvinism is thriving across the globe. Tolerance has undergone core meltdown. Nationalism is alive and apparently well. And just when we thought the Cold War was long over, certain political leaders now seem intent on wanting to blow up their peoples if not each other. What our demagogues have in common today is the uncanny knack of persuading masses of people that they have nothing in common. Like the 1930s, whiffs of fascism are in the air, a fear and loathing of “others.” Borders are getting staked out, walls set to go up, closing in on us, keeping people in as well as out.

In recent years, intelligent people have tried to explain this disturbing trend. They’ve suggested we’re living in “post-truth” times, which provide a fertile context for demagogic hate-mongering. Mass media, especially social media, now saturate us with information and misinformation, morning, noon and night and much of the time in between, making it hard to pass critical judgment, to discern which truths aren’t falsities.

Still, haven’t politicians always been rather creative with the truth, engaging in what Jonathan Swift, three-hundred years ago, called “the art of political lying”? Telling the truth doesn’t require great art, Swift reminded us, not like “salutary falsehoods,” which, he said, need to be carefully made up. The problem, the author of Gulliver’s Travels noted, is that a lie only has to be believed for an hour for its work to be done. Twitter helps. “Falsehood flies,” Swift said, whereas “truth comes limping after it.”

Fast forward to the early 1970s, when political theorist Hannah Arendt, commenting on the “Pentagon Papers,” concurred with the old curmudgeon Swift. Trying to get behind U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, Arendt said “the basic issue raised by the Papers is deception,” and the “extravagant lengths to which commitment to non-truthfulness in politics went to the highest levels of government.” “Truthfulness,” Arendt concluded, “has never been counted among political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings.” In other words, post-truth is hardly anything new. It has been the bread and butter of politicians in representative democracy, always has been, maybe always will be.

But few of us in the past really bought those lies. Nowadays, though, what seems to be distinctly new isn’t so much the centuries of peddling political falsehoods; more our popular willingness to believe them. Even when we knew that Brexit would never save Britain’s National Health Service £350 million a year, or that Donald Trump was ever going to make America great again, the lie became the necessary mood-music for millions of people. They wanted to hear it, yearned to believe.

Why? Someone who can perhaps shed light on this murky matter is the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky created twisted and tormented characters like Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov and The Idiot’s Prince Myshkin, fictional beings we know might not be so fictional after all. But it’s his 1881 masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, that has the most remarkable contemporary ring. One of its key scenes is when modernist intellectual Ivan Karamazov recounts to his devout brother Alyosha “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor.”

Ivan takes us back to sixteenth-century Spain, to Seville, during the Inquisition, and reimagines the return of a humanistic Jesus. In these pious times, Jesus, whose chief concern is with freedom of conscience, is seen as a subversive, as a radical threat to the church’s power. He’s quickly thrown in prison, condemned to be burnt at the stake the next day. At midnight, the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor pays Him a visit. “Now, today,” the Inquisitor says, “people are persuaded that they are freer than ever before, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet.” We don’t need somebody like You here, he says, promising them real freedom. It doesn’t take much to control people’s consciences, the Inquisitor says. Promise them bread and they’ll gladly give up their freedom. They’ll throw themselves to the mercy of “three powers that are able to hold them captive,” a reactionary trinity of “miracle, mystery and authority.”

Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor is an apt prophet of facist regimes and totalitarian movements. The parable still has religious resonance, but its real power, the primary source of “miracle, mystery and authority” these days, isn’t the church but the state, in its incumbent and wannabe leaders, whose lust for power is secular. They promise miracles that seduce the masses, that conjure up the spectre of nationalism, a particularist and peculiar identity flourishing not from blood or soil or DNA but from some arbitrary desire of the human imagination, from people’s minds, a manufactured bigotry. Our Grand Inquisitors also shroud themselves in mysteries (what conniving really lay behind that 2016 Presidential election result?) and assume an authority that brooks not only no dissent but can seemingly do no wrong, nor tell any lie.

Was the Grand Inquisitor Dostoevsky’s own vision of humanity? It’s hard to tell but I’m hoping not. The Grand Inquisitor, after all, is a mortal enemy of Jesus, who believed the meek would one day inherit the earth. At the end of the parable, Dostoevsky’s Alyosha, who’d listened intently throughout, wonders if the tale isn’t just a sick joke. We know Ivan is playing devil’s advocate; it might be a joke, but we know now, with Nigel Farage lurking, that it’s no laughing matter. Perhaps we can never prevent our politicians from practicing the art of political lying. But maybe some day we can hope to create the social conditions whereby people’s needs for miracle, mystery and authority dissipate, somehow whither away, in a society that can absorb human sorrows and fulfil our deepest desires. To call on people to give up illusions about our condition is, above all else, to make a call to give up a condition that requires illusions.

Posted in All | Leave a comment

Marx at His Limits

I was in New York recently, and as per custom I like to walk its streets checking out used bookstores. Used bookstores are a species in danger of extinction in Manhattan, ever more picked off by rising rents and booming property prices. But one of my favourites, Mercer Books, along Mercer Street, smack in the heart of New York University’s ghetto, miraculously lives on. I’m always surprised, and not a little relieved, that NYU’s real estate machine hasn’t yet gobbled it up.

Piled up in one corner of the bookstore were dusty back copies of old literary and political journals, many dating from the 1960s, a treasure trove for those who cared to rummage, there at giveaway prices. Digging around I discovered a few gems: a Partisan Review from 1965, with an article by Joseph Frank on “Dostoevsky and the Socialists”; and a 1983 Antioch Review with Raymond Carver’s story “The Compartment.” My great find, though, was a 1978 issue of Dissent, containing Marshall Berman’s original take on “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air.”

For a couple of dollars, I now had my hands on an early draft of what would become the mainstay of Marshall’s famous book. Indeed, “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: Marx, Modernism and Modernization” was a fascinating discovery for anybody who knows All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, published by Simon & Schuster in 1982. Not least because the Dissent piece, I’d soon recognize, read very much like a work in progress, sounding a lot flatter and less lyrical than the eventual book chapter. As a standalone article, I guess it had to sound more direct, spelling out more emphatically what would later get developed over the course of an entire book.

Marx’s dialectic is unique, Marshall says, because it straddles two distinctive ideas of modernization and modernism. Typically, analyses of each have been set apart. Modernization, on the one hand, has meant sustained economic development and industrial expansion, large-scale social planning and urban growth, bureaucratic regulation and rationality, the shattering of traditional cultures, perpetual progress and productivity. On the other hand, modernism suggests something more artistic and experimental, a movement more iconoclastic, sometimes destructive, occasionally destructive to its proponents as well. With modernism, Marshall says, “we find ourselves in the midst of an endless series of spiritual upheavals and cultural revolutions—the death of God, the theatre of cruelty, Dada, jazz, the twelve-tone scale, Existentialism, abstract art, and so on.”

Enter Marx, the first thinker, Marshall believes, to make these two worlds connect. It was Marx, after all, who wanted to discover the underlying unity of life. Marx’s horizon is vast and his vision packs together an enormous range of things and ideas that nobody had thought of throwing together before, breaking down boundaries, piling things together that seem to clash and totter on the brink. Take one of his central images from Part I of The Communist Manifesto (1848): “All that Is solid melts into air.” “The cosmic scope and visionary grandeur of this image,” Marshall says, “it’s highly compressed dramatic power, its vaguely apocalyptic undertones, the ambiguity of its point of view—the heat that destroys is also super abundant energy, an overflow of life—all these qualities are supposed to be hallmarks of the modernist imagination.”

Marx’s prose, says Marshall, hurtles along with the same breathless energy and reckless momentum as the society he depicts. The need for a constantly expanding market has the bourgeoisie settle everywhere, nestle everywhere, establish connections everywhere. A world market rapidly emerges, absorbing and destroying local and regional markets; improvements in communication draw everybody under the sway of bourgeois economy and culture; capital concentrates into the hands of fewer and fewer bigger and bigger producers; “Modern Industry” rationalizes production, in both the factories and on the land; rural labourers are uprooted and pour into ever-expanding cities; a factory proletariat swells its ranks, learning the hard way about machines and modern exploitation.

Before long, “no other nexus exists between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’.” A brave new world of capitalist modernity sprouts. Mountains are moved, railroads laid down, and canals rerouted, all of it done in the name of bourgeois modernity—should the price be right. Everything we once thought solid suddenly disintegrates into air. “By the time Marx’s proletarians appears,” Marshall says, “the world stage on which they were supposed to play their part has disintegrated and metamorphosed into something unrecognizable, surreal, a mobile construction that shifts and changes shape under the players’ feet”:

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

Marshall wonders what kind of people these permanent revolutions produce? Those who’re compelled to face, “with sober senses,” everlasting uncertainty, this restless obsession with sweeping away forms of life “before they can ossify”? He’s talking about us, remember. “To survive in modern bourgeois society,” he thinks, “our personality must take on an open form.” “We must learn not to yearn nostalgically for the ‘fixed, fast-frozen relationships’ of the real or fantasized past, but to delight in mobility, to thrive on renewal, to look forward to future developments in our conditions of life and our relations with your fellow men.” It’s an exciting, if troubling, vision of ourselves.

A few days after I discovered that 1978 copy of Dissent, I did a big walk around the Hudson Yards development on Manhattan’s westside with my friend and former teacher, the Marxist theorist David Harvey. It was a soaking wet spring afternoon, chilly and grey, and we both tried our utmost not to let the weather, nor the awfulness of this project, a spillover from Michael Bloomberg’s mayoral years, dampen our spirits.

The twelve acre site, behind Penn Station and Madison Square Garden, had once been gritty rail tracks and storage yards for Long Island Rail Road trains. Now, a $20 billion mega-plan promises shingled blue-glass skyscrapers, with office space, deluxe condos and high-end retailing galore, to say nothing of an eco arts centre and bizarre pedestrian walkway. Talk about all that was solid melting into air! Completion isn’t destined until 2024; but much is already in place. Hooking up to the High Line and a revamped No. 7 subway station, Hudson Yards is set to symbolize the pride and joy of a post 9/11 Big Apple, a celebration of Michael Bloomberg’s bleeding edge: New York, Inc.

The bourgeoisie has torn away sentimental veils, Marx said in the Manifesto, and put in its stead “open, shameless, direct, bare exploitation.” In all this—in open, shameless, direct, bare exploitation—we are, at Hudson Yards, on familiar ground. The New York Times’ architectural critic, Michael Kimmelman, called the development “a super-sized suburban-style office park, with a shopping mall and a quasi-gated condo community targeted at the 0.1%.” It’s the largest private real estate venture in US history, and in the brazen world-leader of private real estate deals that’s saying a lot.

In office, Bloomberg pumped 75 millions’ worth of public dollars into the development, matching it with a similar sum from his own deep pockets. Moreover, BlackRock, a midtown investment company, managing a $6 trillion portfolio, wrote off $25 million in state tax credits, buffering the move of its 700 workforce to Hudson Yards, less than a mile westwards. Some estimates suggest the whole initiative has totalled as much as $6 billion in tax breaks and public finding. Socialism for billionaires is how the scam has been described—even as those self-same scammers wax lyrical about the virtues of the “free market.”

Still, one of the most startling of Hudson Yards’ scams, reputed to have amassed some $1.6 billion’s worth of financing, is even more insidious, only recently becoming public news. (1) It centres on the controversial investor visa program called EB-5, part of Poppy Bush’s immigration reform of the early 1990s. Bizarre as it may sound, the program lets immigrants secure visas in exchange for investment in the US economy. We’re talking here about super-rich foreigners, not fresh off the boat immigrants, nor even fresh over the wall ones. They’re people who can pump between $500k and a million bucks into American real estate. That’ll enable—no questions asked, no hoop-jumping—to gain fast-track visas, for work or study. (It’s been something of a favourite in recent years amongst wealthy Chinese families.) The monies are meant to go into federally-targeted areas, into poor and distressed neighbourhoods across America, so-called TEAs—Targeted Employment Areas.

But the jurisdiction of TEAs—where its boundary lines are drawn—is rather loose, hence open to meddling and manipulation. And in New York, the Empire State Development, a public-private organization under New York state’s banner, is the arch-meddler and manipulator. Somehow, it managed to secure Hudson Yards TEA status, stretching its remit into poor census tracks of Harlem. Thus funds intended for real estate aid in poverty-stricken neighbourhoods, like Harlem, were siphoned off and redirected into a super-luxury mega-development. “Think of it a form of creative financial gerrymandering,” is how Kriston Capps put it. That’s how the developer Related Companies raked in around $380 million at Hudson Yards, bypassing distressed area scrutiny through a greedy audacity that beggars belief. Or perhaps not, in Trump’s America. (And, by the way, son-in-law Jared Kushner has been busily promoting Kushner Companies’ projects with EB-5 investors in China.)

Something more publicly obvious at Hudson Yards is, however, the scale of its banality. A stroll around doesn’t reveal too much intrigue. What we find here is something not only unfair but uninteresting, a city space flattened by familiarity, even as those glitzy skyscrapers go up. It’s the sort of predictability that only money can buy. Its ubiquity resides in its sameness, in the predictability of both its form and function. Here, as elsewhere, we have the same predictable city within a city, the same predictable sleek glass and steel architectural structures, housing the same financial and high-tech services, same multinational corporations and accountancy firms, same banks and management consultancies, same retail giants, destined for the same wealthy consumers. In the mix, there’s no mix. All real urban texturing is expunged.

Apart from, that is, a mix of spectacular gimmickry. And at Hudson Yards there are a few. First off we have the “Vessel,” touted as Manhattan’s Eiffel Tower, designed by multimillionaire Brit developer Thomas Heatherwick, a $200 million 16-story pedestrian walkway, a stairway to nowhere, looking like a truncated giant honeycomb, serving no other purpose than to serve, than to promote spectacular contemplation.

Nearby, meanwhile, comes the “Shed,” a $500 million eco-friendly arts centre and performance space, which actually looks like a shed, or, as someone said, like an aircraft hangar wrapped in a down comforter. Maybe it’s a quilted Chanel handbag. At any rate, the structure is a movable feast, a shell that glides along rails, seating 1,200 people at any one time, “physically transforming itself,” the hype says, “to support artists’ most ambitious ideas.” Which artists? Whose ambitious ideas? We still have to see. In 2013, the City of New York handed over $50 million towards the project, to Related Companies and the Oxford Properties Group, representing the single biggest capital grant given in that year.

Wandering around Hudson Yards, David and I spoke of something he’d written about over thirty years ago, in his book Consciousness and the Urban Experience: “the restless analyst.” It’s the mythical figure haunting The American Scene (1907), Henry James’s roving travelogue around fin-de-siècle America. James had been away from the US for twenty five years, living in Europe. As a “returning absentee,” between 1904-05, he spent a year rediscovering his native land, indignant at much he saw; many changes, he said, became “a perpetual source of irritation.” “Charming places, charming objects,” James wrote, “languish all around the restless analyst, under designations that seem to leave the smudge of a great vulgar thumb.”

The gaze of James’s restless analyst was the gaze of “an inquiring stranger.” The character likely came to mind at Hudson Yards because we, too, felt there like “inquiring strangers,” out of place and similarly indignant at much we saw. In Consciousness and the Urban Experience, David said he’d “long been impressed with this character the restless analyst. It seems to capture the only kind of intellectual stance possible in the face of a capitalism that reduces all aspects of social, cultural, and political (to say nothing of economic) life to the pure homogeneity and universality of money values and then transforms them according to the roving calculus of profit.” It’s hard to better this as an insight into what was unfolding all around us.

Maybe the restless analyst can be a sort of radical archetype, somebody we need more than ever today, an “inquiring stranger” who scours the capitalist landscape, restlessly keeping abreast with capitalism’s restless (and reckless) penchant for, as Marshall said, melting things into air, levelling everything even as it builds up. Perhaps the restless analyst is the archetypal modern commentator, whose sceptical gaze is never seduced by dazzling appearances, by that smudge of capitalism’s great vulgar thumb.

When it comes to the “roving calculus of profit” in cities these days, the question of land rent has to be foremost on any restless analyst’s mind. That most restless of restless analysts, Karl Marx, didn’t say much about urban land markets. His was a theory of agricultural ground-rent where the central challenge lay in understanding how land can have a value without being a product of labour. In The Limits to Capital, David’s masterpiece from 1982, urban land markets are tackled full on, and a brilliant reinterpretation of Marx’s theory is offered. It’s one of the most strikingly original features of Limits to Capital, a piece of genius in its apparent simplicity: that land under capitalism—especially urban land—has become another form of fictitious capital, another financial asset, having more in common with an asset-bearing investment—and hence with interest-bearing capital—than any arcane debate about rural soil fertility.

Ground-rent is a kind of “imaginary capital,” David said. What’s bought and sold isn’t so much land itself as “a title to the ground-rent yielded by it. The money laid out is equivalent to an interest-bearing investment. The buyer acquires a claim upon anticipated future revenues, a claim upon the future fruits of labour.” So the “value of land” is intimately related to the circulation of interest-bearing capital, as well as to the stock market, and to finance capital in general. In this way the spatial landscape of cities gets shaped by shifts in interest rates and by the ebbing and flowing of money capital, by its supply and demand. Perceptions of future rents deeply affect land values and property prices. This speculative bent can make or break certain locations, conditioning what might, and mightn’t, be built at any given moment. The built environment of cities thereby sways to the rhythm of capital accumulation.

In fact, the notion isn’t too far removed from Marx’s understanding; he’d hinted as much in drafts of Volume Three of Capital: “in cities that are experiencing rapid growth,” he’d said, “particularly where building is carried on with industrial methods, as in London, it is the ground-rent and not the house that forms the real object of speculation” (Marx’s emphases). And elsewhere: “capitalised ground-rent presents the appearance of the price of the value of land, so that the earth is bought and sold just like any other commodity.”

Curiously, the recent publication of Marx’s Economic Manuscript of 1864-1865, making available for the first time the only full draft of Volume Three of Capital, has shone light on Marx’s own view of ground-rent. (2) I say Marx’s “own view” here because the posthumous publication of Volume Three of Capital bore the heavy imprint of Marx’s collaborator, Friedrich Engels. Engels had edited and added, divided and subdivided what Marx wrote as a continuous interconnected flow; the sections on interest-bearing capital and ground-rent particularly suffered under Engels’s stewardship. The former he blanketed with an overriding (and erroneous) concern for the “credit system”; the latter discussion on rent he chopped up and reordered into discrete sections. The reordering, alas, severed Marx’s close affiliation between interest-bearing capital and ground-rent—vindicating just how Marxian David’s vision of rent actually is in Limits.

In the Economic Manuscripts of 1864-1865, Marx called interest-bearing capital “the externalization of surplus-value.” In interest-bearing capital, he said, “the capital relation reaches its most fetishized form.” Here we have the appearance of money breeding money, of money no longer bearing any trace of its origin. “The social relation is consummated in the relationship of a thing (money) to itself.” It’s clear how Marx viewed ground-rent as another form of “externalized surplus-value,” as something parasitic rather than productive, a redistribution of total surplus-value and hence a filching of the fruits of labour. Only, of course, it doesn’t look like that.

Somebody has to pay, always; and usually it’s the working classes who get fleeced with increased levels of exploitation and oppression. “The tremendous power this gives to landed property,” said Marx, “when it is combined together with industrial capital in the same hands enables capital practically to exclude workers engaged in a struggle over wages from the very earth itself as a dwelling place.” In a single sentence, Marx seems to have laid bare the whole dynamics of New York’s housing and labour market. (He added, immediately thereafter, in parentheses, “here one section of society demands a tribute from the other for the right to inhabit the earth, just as in landed property in general the proprietors demand the right to exploit the earth’s surface.”)

Interest-bearing capital circulates through land markets, chasing enhanced future ground-rents; land prices get fixed accordingly. In a certain sense, the process becomes self-fulfilling: the pursuit of enhanced rents will often enhance those rents. Marketing, publicity and “place-making” play their role. “In this case,” said David, “the circulation of interest-bearing capital promotes activities on the land that conform to the highest and best uses, not simply in the present, but also in anticipation of future surplus-value production.” “Highest and best uses,” are, needless to say, capitalistically defined. Exchange-values are gouged out of what should be use-values. Locations like Hudson Yards are preeminent expressions of capital becoming an automatic fetish. Space becomes an exploitable commodity, a monopolizable financial asset, a frackable parcel of planet earth. Maximizing rent is akin to power-drilling for oil. Black gold in the city.

By eyeing future gains, landowners and developers “inject a fluidity and dynamism into the use of land that would otherwise be hard to generate.” We could say that this is precisely the impetus behind all that is solid melts into air; (3) that speculation in land may be necessary to capitalism but its restlessness and recklessness unleashes “speculative orgies,” which, David said, “periodically become the quagmire of destruction of capital itself.” The twist is that capital has various lines of defence to buffer these crises, to underwrite potential financial loss. The principal risk manager is none other than the state itself, the “last line of bourgeois defence,” David called it.

It’s perhaps the only occasion in Limits to Capital where I find myself in disagreement! For, nowadays, the state is surely the first line of defence, a defender of bourgeois ranks even before battle is waged. The state has a variety of powers at its disposal: land regulation (zoning), land expropriation (eminent domain), planning initiatives and the provision of public infrastructure—using taxpayers money to put in subway stops, roads and transport links, all of which can be capitalized upon as private gain. Meanwhile, tax breaks and assorted corporate alms add to the state’s relief arsenal.

Perhaps, in the past, pre-1982, the state mobilized its power as a last resort, countering market hiccups and incoherences, stepping in, as we know it has, to bale out capital when its speculative binges have wrought havoc, rescuing the system from total collapse. And yet, increasingly, the state now anoints capital in the first instance, putting in the initial spade work so that those speculative wheels of motions can run smoothly. Therein the state absorbs the contradictions of rent as fictitious capital. But so long as it remains a capitalist state, especially a neoliberal one, it can never abolish those contradictions. And thus solid society seems forever fated to melt into air.

Later in my New York trip I reflected upon something I already knew but hadn’t much thought about before: David’s Limits to Capital and Marshall’s All That Is Solid appeared in the same year—1982, during the first term of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Not exactly the most auspicious moment for two books professing allegiance to Marxism. But then again, what a testing ground: the inauguration of a deregulated, union busting and fiscally-downsizing capitalism, privatizing daily life, handing out tax cuts to the rich while waging brutal class war against the poor.

Two sorcerers of the “free market” had conjured up the powers of the monetarist netherworld, and unleashed it on the world stage as right-wing economic orthodoxy. They’d “set up that single, unconscionable freedom: Free Trade”—like Marx suggested the bourgeoisie would, “wherever it got the upper hand.” All of all, then, maybe just the ticket to ride for seasoned Marxist analysis. A senseless material world that Marxists could make dialectical sense of? The great bearded prophet ought to have been our critical main man, the most trenchant thinker to expose the fetishism of the free market, together with the dogmatism of those free-marketeers.

Yet it wasn’t the case: Limits to Capital and All That Is Solid were both quietly received. Marshall’s friend, the cultural critic John Leonard, gave All That Is Solid a rave review in The New York Times (January 8th, 1982), with a little sting—“Seize the day and the change the world,” wrote Leonard, “Modernism is a ‘permanent revolution,’ full of radical sunrise and great dawn…I love this book and wished I believed it.” Elsewhere, All That Is Solid had no elsewhere, made little impact. For the bottom line Simon & Schuster, it wasn’t terribly important. The jacket image revealed bundles about its lack of commitment: dull blue with a faint gaseous white plume, dissipating upwards, going nowhere, signifying nothing. Marshall said his book fast disappeared, went immediately into limbo; the publishers, he said, placed it “into an ominous category of being ‘indefinitely out of stock’.”

Limits to Capital, meantime, did the academic rounds. The Annals of the Association of American Geographers described it as “a marvellous achievement, demonstrating a tremendous personal and intellectual feel for the texture of Marx’s arguments.” If anything, bourgeois geography warmed to Limits more than scholarly Marxism—a tradition, after all, dominated by historians (think of Eric Hobsbawm, Perry Anderson and E.P.Thompson). The privileging of history over geography, of time over space, within the Marxist tradition, has meant to a rather one-sided kind of leftism, an interpretation that has often downplayed capitalism’s spatial dimension. David suggested the system’s temporal and financial contradictions get displaced into space, that internal crises are susceptible to an external “spatial fix”: “geographical expansion and uneven geographical development,” he said, “hold out the possibility for a contradiction-prone capitalism to right itself.” In other words, capitalism buys time for itself out the space that it conquers, that it perpetually transforms, in both the city and the world.

As both books languished, though, radical publisher Verso stepped in, giving each the kiss of new life, a popular afterlife. After a few years of nasty exchanges and threats of lawsuits, Marshall said All That Is Solid was prised loose from Simon & Schuster; Verso then ensured it had a future, that it “had legs”—a longer shelf-life than anyone ever imagined, never out-of-print since, even venturing into regions and intellectual realms Marshall himself never dreamt of. Verso, moreover, pricked up its ears to Limits to Capital, a full seventeen years after its initial publication. But by 1999 they really listened, largely because one of their honcho authors, Fredric Jameson, said they should listen.

In the pages of publisher’s companion journal, New Left Review, he’d called David’s book “a magisterial review and re-theorization of Marx.” Limits was one of the “most lucid and satisfying recent attempts,” Jameson said, “to outline Marx’s economic thought.” And it was, he added, “perhaps the only one to tackle the thorny problem of ground-rent in Marx”—that “structurally necessary fiction” under capitalism. Jameson’s article was entitled “The Brick and the Balloon,” and it dealt with the link between architecture and real estate; how each is mediated by aesthetics, and how aesthetic mediation usually involves the economic logic of rent. It was a typically brilliant Jameson essay, piling up references and ideas and concepts almost to the point of bursting; yet it brought heavy-duty attention to David’s almost-forgotten opus.

David said Limits wasn’t about building firm or fixed building blocks, but a fluid, dialectical mode of argumentation and presentation; and in this he and Marshall found common ground. All That Is Solid depicts an impressionist Marx, the Marx of the Manifesto, loosely sketching out capitalism’s laws of motion; the brush strokes are fast, the detail fuzzy—especially if you venture up close. This isn’t necessarily a fault; it’s more a perspective from which Marshall wanted to enter a particular experience, the experience of being modern, of living within these broad brush strokes. Limits, on the other hand, moves inside that canvas, is more precise about where it applies its paint. Here Impressionism gives way to Realism; moving in close with David lets you see the detail of the layers of Marx’s paint, how he endlessly reworked and touched up.

Limits follows the Marx of Capital, beginning with the commodity, dealing at first with capitalism as a closed system. In Volume One of Capital, Marx had purposely closed it down. He’d wanted to capture the system’s purity, its essential movement—from the standpoint of its “cell-form.” Only when Marx understood what lay within this restless urge for movement and expansion could he let his theory be open to this restless urge for movement and expansion. Thus it’s only later in Limits, when David theorizes crisis, that his and Marshall’s vision complement one another. Crisis meant “creative destruction”; capitalism tears down its solid edifice in order to renew its monetary spirit. Renewal is an innately ruinous and nihilistic imperative. To accumulate capital, the built landscape is configured at one moment only to be ripped apart and reconfigured at a later moment. Devaluation somehow prefigures revaluation. So it goes.

But so it goes for how long, and how far? Nobody knows—not even Marx. Marx made a series of contingent projections about capitalism’s destiny, not, as some think, absolute predictions. Near the end of Volume One of Capital, we think it’s the end; we think Marx has finally had it in for capitalism, that its own “immanent laws” are about to destroy it. Here he is, in Chapter 32 on “The Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation,” letting rip, giving us a crescendo of stirring prose, hitherto kept under wraps:

Along with the constant decrease in the number of capitalist magnates, who usurp and monopolize all the advantages of this process, the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows; but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production which has flourished alongside and under it. The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labour reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. The integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.

This seems as good a place as any to stop, to finish Capital on an upbeat note, gleefully celebrating the collapse of bourgeois society, its own melting into air. But no, this isn’t how Marx’s dialectical brain operates. Suddenly, he moves against himself, against his own wishful thinking, forcing open his Pandora’s box, unsealing his closed system, opening it up to fresh rounds of “primitive accumulation.” Pow, now there seems no stopping capital’s expansion machine again, spinning off into a colonial orbit (Chapter 33). Now the world is seemingly its oyster. New fertile soils emerge to rip off and to privatize, to kickstart its accumulation process—in the US and Canada, and in Australia.

Marx had earlier toyed with the “secret” of primitive accumulation; now he makes it public knowledge. Primitive accumulation, he says, plays the same role for capital as “original sin” does for theologists. It’s the starting point of something revelatory, an epiphanal beginning, an initiation into virgin territories, into pre-capitalist lands, into “New Worlds,” civilizing the uncivilized, exploiting where it hasn’t already exploited, already established links, putting in place new social relations of domination. The possibilities for primitive accumulation appear infinite. Isn’t Hudson Yards yet another instance of “primitive” accumulation in the “civilized” city?

Nowadays, primitive accumulation mobilizes high-tech sophistication, plunders modern territories, dispossesses lands and states—land-grabs, people evicts, invades the whole public realm (privatizing spaces, schools, services, hospitals, infrastructure)— smashing and pilfering where it can, anyway it can. Marx ends Capital devilishly open-ended because he knew how capital itself is devilishly open-ended. It turns on new axes, gyrates to all manner of new gyrations. What else could the man do but to gyrate himself?

And yet, and yet, perhaps the limits of capital’s gyrations in the city will be set by capital itself, by its own cannibalization of urban space. Aren’t there endemic problems with expelling workers “from inhabiting the earth as a dwelling place”? They’re value producers, after all. Won’t capital here fall foul of its own automatic fetish, of money creating more money ex nihilo? The limits to the “general law of capitalist accumulation” might really be the limits of the law’s inherent logic.

This law, remember, creates a “relative surplus population”; men and women who feel the brunt of capital’s business cycles, of the pushing and pulling of industrial production, sucking people in when the economy soars, spitting them out when it dips. Marx knew how this system “creates a mass of human material always ready for exploitation by capital’s own changing valorization requirements.” “Its own energy and extent,” he said, produces a “relatively redundant working population, i.e. a population superfluous to capital’s average requirements.”

So, too, now, in the city, capitalism’s new factory for valorizing capital, where primitive accumulation’s messenger boy is interest-bearing capital circulating through spaces, searching out those titles to future ground-rents. The process renders workers superfluous, not only from work but from the totality of living space, displacing from dwelling space as it downsizes the workplace. Can accumulation at one pole and relative superfluity at the other continue together, forever, in the city? Won’t we reach a point when a kind of Endgame sets in, when the general law of capitalist accumulation generalises its own illegality?

Here, when the rich have banished the poor from its urban core, from its isotropic plane of business immanence, won’t we have reached a strange apotheosis? Won’t we have reached an Endgame, like in chess, when the game is up although we continue to feign the moves? When, after little is left on the urban checkerboard besides a few loose pawns and kings, kings playing off against other kings, square by square, isn’t there’s nothing left to win nor any real possibility of ever winning? Nothing to exploit, nobody to valorize capital?

Or… or is it more that those pawns might learn “to thrive on renewal,” as Marshall said, and “delight in mobility,” keep moving on come what may? Maybe these pawns will edge along together, agonizingly, one square at a time, until they finally make it to the end of the board, transforming themselves into powerful queens, winning the Endgame against all odds.

Ah, I know this checkmate is probably pure fantasy. But even if it never happens, I’ll take comfort in the meantime from one basic idea underlying both David’s and Marshall’s work: that of a Marx without limits, an ever-renewable thinker whose thought and practice will live on so long as capitalism lives on, so long as working class people everywhere retain a capacity to still make moves.


(1) See Kriston Capps, “The Hidden Horror of Hudson Yards Is How It Was Financed,” CityLab (April 12, 2019):

(2) See Marx’s Economic Manuscript of 1864-1865 (Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2017)

(3) In All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, Marshall suggests this melting process is an example of “bourgeois nihilism.” He also cities, in a footnote, David’s work to this effect. “It is only recently,” Marshall says, “that Marxist thinkers have begun to explore this theme. The economic geographer David Harvey tries to show in detail how the repeated intentional destruction of the ‘built environment’ is integral to the accumulation of capital.”

Posted in All | 1 Comment

Buttoning Up With Marx

At a quarter to three in the afternoon, March 14, 1883, Karl Marx passed away peacefully in his favourite armchair. Three days later, a few miles up the road, he was buried, a citizenless émigré, in London’s Highgate Cemetery. At the graveside, eleven mourners paid homage to “Old Moor,” and listened to Marx’s longtime comrade and benefactor, Friedrich Engels—“The General”—remember his dear departed friend: “An immeasurable loss has been sustained both by the militant proletariat of Europe and America, and by historical science, in the death of this man. The gap that has been left by the departure of this mighty spirit will soon enough make itself felt.” “His name,” Engels predicted, “will endure through the ages, and so also will his thought.”

A hundred and thirty six years on, Highgate Cemetery continues to receive a steady stream of Marx well-wishers, of all ages and nationalities, the curious and the converted, and fresh flowers and moving inscriptions, in almost every language under the sun, regularly adorn the great revolutionary’s gravestone. Towering overhead, seemingly indomitably, is the man himself, or rather a gigantic bust of him, with its menacing eyes staring out into the distance, perhaps frowning at his conservative rival Herbert Spencer, whose remains lie opposite across the path.

Over the years, too, the cemetery has attracted its fair share of naysayers, people who’ve had it in for Marx and for all he stood for, still stands for. Reactionaries have taken hammers and chisels to his monument, daubed graffiti over it, tried to blow it up with a pipe bomb—in 1970, in a National Front affront. But the grave’s design—solid bronze bust with a brick-reinforced granite plinth—has so far resisted everything thrown at it. I say “so far” because just this past week, as I write—late February 2019—perhaps the nastiest attack to date has been perpetrated; the Grade I-listed monument might never be the same again. The nastiest attack in the nastiest of times, and that, alas, is no coincidence.

In early February, vandals took a blunt instrument to Marx’s headstone. But they hadn’t reckoned on its thickness. So they returned later that same night, with what seems like a lump hammer, taking further swipes. This time they shattered pieces from the tablet, those bearing the letters of Marx’s name, as well as members of his family, including his four year old grandson, Harry Longuet. And then, several weeks on, the tomb was ransacked a second time, splattered with lurid red paint, saying: “Doctrine of Hate” and “Architect of Genocide.” Ian Dungavell, chief executive of Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust, a man responsible for the cemetery’s 53,00 graves, was shocked by both assaults, condemning them as a “particularly inarticulate form of political comment.”

My heart sank when I heard the news. Perhaps because I knew that, these days, inarticulacy is very much the form of our political commentary. Maybe, too, because over past decades I’ve tried to articulate my own vision of Marx and Marxism. Marx’s thought has never been rigid dogma or some sterile formula for me; instead, it’s a rich source of ideas, a vibrant critical (and self-critical) culture, capable of innumerable spin-offs and reinterpretations, imaginative adaptations and provocations. Marx’s vision is about human liberation not collective enslavement. Why would any tyrant ever imagine a society in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (The Communist Manifesto)? Or a “society in which the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle” (Capital Volume One)?

Marx’s thought has survived for more than a century and a half because of its fluidity and dynamism—not because of its solidity and rigidity. I say all this while never really being smitten by Marx’s Highgate bust, by an immense iconic image of the man, and of Marxism, a Marxism of big statues and flag-wavering, of a holy orthodoxy far removed from the messy profane world of real mortals. Marx himself, of course, occupied this messy profane world. In real life, he was an intricate and vulnerable figure, a feisty yet frail patriarch, a poor peripatetic vagabond who spent more than thirty years traipsing from one crummy London apartment to another, his whole family often living in just two cluttered rooms, avoiding debts, pawning what little he had (including his own overcoat), shrugging off illness, watching four children pre-decease him. (The two survivors, Eleanor and Laura, later killed themselves.)

Marx’s personal pains far exceeded his political woes. Never had anyone, he once said of himself, written about capital in general amidst a total lack of capital in particular. Marx’s own ironic—not iconic—Marxism often seemed more akin to a Groucho Marxism, avoiding any club that would have him as a member: “I, at least, am not a Marxist,” Karl is once reputed to have a told a French socialist, after seeing his thought bastardised. More often than not Marx resembled a dishevelled underground character from Dostoevsky or Gogol, having his overcoat ripped off his back, feeling the chill breeze of the economy and the climate pierce his threadbare clothing. (The Communist Manifesto is full of such imagery.)

Marx’s clumsy outsiderness, his foreignness, his broken English, could have easily earned him a lead role in a Beckett performance. Marx knew the ropes and tropes of dingy bedsit tenancies populated by the likes of Murphy, or the anonymous evictee of “The Expelled,” flung out onto the rooming-house’s steps, hearing the door slam behind him. For Marx, waiting for the revolution was invariably Waiting for Godot. Marx’s alter-egos were more Watt than Stalin, more Molloy than Mao. His Vladimir was a Didi not an Ilyich. He was the intellectual champion of the underdog principally because he was one. He learned about the brutality of capitalism from political activism and mammoth reading sessions in the British Museum; yet his knowledge of working class domestic oppression came first-hand, was lived out. A prophet of genocide? Give me a break.

I was beginning to agree with the Marxist academic Fredric Jameson: that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Some days, it does feel like we are living through the end of the world. Everything seems such a hopeless dead-end—our politics, our economy, our high-tech culture, our collective future. Maybe it’s a sort of Endgame: the game is up yet somehow the match goes on, square by square, pawns besides Kings. “It’s time it ended,” Hamm says in Endgame, Beckett’s play about the end of the world, a world that had ended yet continues to trudge on miserably. “Clov,” Hamm asks his half-crippled assistant, in a question we might pose today, if only to ourselves, “Have you had enough?” “Yes!” Clov answers. Then, pausing, wonders, “Of what?” “Of this…this…thing,” says Hamm. “I always had,” says Clov.

Have you had enough? Of what? Of this…this…thing? At low times, I’ve really had enough. I suspect I’m not the only one. Daily on the news: I try to avoid looking, try to close my ears. Yet I hear it everywhere. Newspapers. People talking. On screens. In the air. This thing that depresses. Trump? Brexit? Climate meltdown? Consumer capitalism? Hate-mongering nationalists wanting to build walls or create little islands? And then the desecration of Marx’s grave, which tipped me over the edge, or else brought on a raging fever. I knew then how Wally Shawn’s traveling protagonist felt in The Fever, a play about a personal contagion that’s really a political self-reawakening.[1]

In fact, reality has depressed me so much that I vowed now was the time to get back to Marx. It’d been awhile since I’d read him closely, and almost twenty years since I’d taught him at university, in my former academic days in America. God knows, it had been truly awful then, under post-9/11 George W. Bush’s reign. It would’ve been hard for my friends and I on the Left to imagine, in our most terrifying nightmares, that things could ever get worse. Little did we know. First time tragedy, this time farce.

Thus my pledge: to get back to Marx, back to Capital, to Volume One. 2019 would be nothing less than Capital Days: A Year Reading Marx, commencing February, the month his thought was most brutally violated. It would sound pretentious to say A Year Re-Reading Marx, but that would have been truer, since I must have read Volume One of Capital a half-dozen times already, at least. This time I decided to buy a brand new copy—Vintage’s handsome Marx Library Edition, from 1977—so that I could read it afresh, uninhibited by past annotations, by the old scribbles and underlinings found in my tatty Penguin copy, first read in 1986, during Thatcher’s second term.

Everybody says, even Marx himself, that those early chapters of Capital are the most difficult. In 1872, Marx was thrilled to see his great work translated into French and serialized. But he warned French readers not to be too hasty: “the method of analysis which I employed,” he said, “and which had not previously been applied to economic subjects, makes the reading of the first chapters rather arduous.” “The French public,” he feared, “always impatient to come to a conclusion, eager to know the connection between general principles and the immediate questions that have aroused their passions, may be disheartened because they will be unable to move on at once.”

Still, despite his cautioning, there’s something wonderfully dizzyingly about moving inside Marx’s mind, about laughing at his acerbic wit, hearing his often poetic lyricism and following his analytical logic, even getting bogged down in this analytical logic. What Marx is up to early on in Capital is something today we might call coding. He’s literally programming capitalism; and reading him is our attempt to download the critical app he’s created for us, the conceptual software that allows us, step by step, contradiction by contradiction, to trace out capitalism’s whole evolutionary movement. He’s like some genius computer hacker, or maverick theoretical physicist, inhabiting a vast virtual and material universe, scouring it for economic black holes and political event horizons.

Marx’s plane of immanence incorporates the whole wide capitalist world, with its intricate web of global money flows and commodity exchanges, of capital accumulating and stock prices rising and dipping. This system taps into the furthest and widest reaches of our planet while plumbing the depths of our everyday lives. And yet, for all that, its atomic composition, its basic constitutive part—its “cell-form,” Marx calls it—is the “ostensibly trivial” commodity, abounding in all sorts of “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” What Marx wants to demonstrate here is how such “a motley mosaic of disparate and unconnected expressions of value” aren’t so disparate and unconnected as we might think.

One of the great cameo appearances at the start of Capital is the tailor, together with his trusty product, the coat. For a dozen or more pages, the tailor’s coat, and its counterpart, the linen, comprise some of weirdest and most brilliant sections of Marx’s whole text. For centuries, Marx says, humans have made coats without a single person ever becoming a tailor. It’s only with the advent of capitalism that tailoring became a specialist trade, “an independent branch of the social division of labour.” Suddenly, the tailor’s wares became value-creating abstract labour; the coat an objectification, the incarnation of “socially-necessary labour time,” a material thing extinguished of all sensuous characteristics, exchanged on the marketplace for money.

This is how Marx puts it:

In the production of the coat, human labour-power, in the shape of tailoring, has in actual fact been expended. Human labour has therefore been accumulated in the coat. From this point of view, the coat is a ‘bearer of value,’ although this property never shows through, even when the coat is at its most threadbare. In its value-relation with the linen, the coat counts only under this aspect, counts therefore as embodied value, as the body of value. Despite its buttoned up appearance, the linen recognizes in it a splendid kindred soul, the soul of value.

“As a use-value,” Marx continues,

the linen is something palpably different from the coat; as value, it is identical with the coat and therefore looks like the coat. Thus the linen acquires a value-form different from its natural form. Its existence as value is manifested in its equality with the coat, just as the sheep-like nature of the Christian is shown in his resemblance to the Lamb of God.

“In order to inform us that the linen’s sublime objectivity as a value,” Marx says a bit later, “differs from its stiff and starchy existence as a body, it says that value has the appearance of a coat, and therefore that in so far as the linen itself is an object of value, it and the coat are as alike as two peas.”

And again:

in the value-relation of commodity A to commodity B, of the linen to the coat, not only is the commodity-type coat equated with the linen in qualitative terms as an object of value as such, but also a definite quantity of the object of value or equivalent, 1 coat, for example, is equated with a definite quantity of linen, such as 20 yards. The equation 20 yards of linen = 1 coat, or 20 yards of linen are worth 1 coat, presupposes the presence in 1 coat of exactly as much or the substance of value as there is in 20 yards of linen, implies therefore that the quantities in which the two commodities are present have the cost of the same amount of labour or the same quantity of labour-power.

And a few pages on, Marx resumes:

If one kind of commodity, such as a coat, serves as the equivalent of another, such as linen, and coats therefore acquire the characteristic property of being in a form in which they can be directly exchanged with the linen, this still by no means provides us with the proportion in which the two are exchangeable. Since the magnitude of the value of the linen is a given quantity, this proportion depends on the magnitude of the coat’s value. Whether the coat is expressed as the equivalent and the linen as relative value, or, inversely, the linen is expressed as equivalent and the coat as relative value, the magnitude of the coat’s value is determined, as ever, by the labour-time necessary for its production, independently of its value-form. But as soon as the coat takes up the position of the equivalent in the value expression, the magnitude of its value ceases to be expressed quantitatively.

Thus “the relative value-form of a commodity,” Marx says, “the linen for example,

expresses its value-existence as something wholly different from its substance and properties, as the quality of being comparable with a coat for example; this expression itself therefore indicates it conceals a social relation…The coat, therefore, seems to be endowed with its equivalent form, its property of direct exchange ability, by nature, just as much as its property of being heavy or its ability to keep us warm. Hence the mysteriousness of the equivalent form, which only impinges on the crude bourgeois vision of the political economist when it confronts him in its fully developed shape, that of money.

When I read these sections on the coat, I’d not long finished Samuel Beckett’s early novel Watt, written in the south of France in the early 1940s, as the author fled Nazi Occupation. What struck me immediately were the similarities between both men’s mode of argumentation, their irresistible urge to understand inexplicable realities through dialectical gyrations. At Knott’s house, Watt fixates on the pot much as Marx had fixated on the coat.

“Watt was greatly troubled by this tiny little thing,” says Beckett,

more troubled perhaps than he had ever been by anything, and Watt had been frequently and exceedingly troubled, in his time, by this imperceptible, no, hardly imperceptible, since he perceived it, by this undefinable thing that prevented him from saying of the object that was so like a pot, that it was a pot, and of the creature that still in spite of everything presented a large number of exclusively human characteristics, that it was a man…Thus of the pseudo-pot he would say, after reflection, It is a shield, or, growing bolder, It is a raven, and so on. But the pot proved as little a shield, or a raven, or any other of the things that Watt called it, as a pot.[2]

Yet Watt’s logic is much less politically charged than Marx’s. The coat, for Marx, has profound political as well as dialectical significance. We might even say that the political significance of the coat for Marx emanated from the personal significance of the coat for Marx. Peter Stallybrass’s essay, “Marx’s Coat,” offers a fascinating glimpse of poor Marx, not only journeying to the British Museum in his old overcoat, but also having to periodically shuffle to the pawnbroker with his old overcoat.[3] Marx was so broke that he was often forced to sell what little he had to the pawnbroker. One time, Marx went to the pawnbroker with wife Jenny’s family silver, a precious heirloom. He was unkempt, with a ragged mane, and the silver bore the crest of the Duke of Argyll. The pawnbroker, seeing such a noble stamp peddled by such a wretched soul, became suspicious, called the cops, who took Marx away to the station, locking him up in a cell for the night.

Throughout the 1850s and 1860s, Marx’s coat was in and out of the pawnshop.
When Marx’s fortunes picked up, if either Engels helped out, or Marx published a piece of paid journalism in the New York Daily Tribune, he’d go back to the pawnbroker and try to redeem his old coat. Until then, he’d be housebound, especially in winter. Without his coat, no British Museum. Without the British Museum, no research for Capital. “What clothes Marx wore,” Stallybrass says, “thus shaped what he wrote.” As a use-value, Marx’s coat kept him warm in winter, brought him the appearance of a respectable gent, able to access the bourgeois Reading Room of the British Museum. But his coat, as an exchange-value, is evacuated of its use-value; its physical existence, Marx says, then becomes “phantom-like.”

It’s hard to imagine that Marx, the great devourer of Shakespeare, Goethe and Balzac, hadn’t at some point read Nikolai Gogol’s phantom-like tale The Overcoat, from 1842. Gogol was already famous in Marx’s day. And The Overcoat’s hero—or anti-hero—Akaky Akakievich, has his overcoat ripped off by thugs one dark night, much as Marx’s Communist Manifesto (written six years after Gogol’s tale) said market expansion (with its daylight thuggery) would tear away all veils and protective clothing of the labouring classes, overcoats included.

Gogol’s Akaky is a lowly titular clerk, poor and passive yet silently stoic. His problem is that his overcoat is so threadbare that in places its cloth is transparent. It’s nigh useless against the vicious onslaught of Petersburg’s wind, whipping up off the Neva. Akaky fears his coat is done for. So he takes it to Petrovich, the drunken tailor “living somewhere on the third floor up some backstairs.” Petrovich takes a long look at Akaky’s rags and shakes his head. “No,” he says, “I can’t mend that. It can’t be done, sir. It’s too far gone.” He can make a new one—for 150 roubles. Akaky’s head begins to swim. How an earth will he find such a sum?

Somehow, tapping modest savings, scrimping here and there, together with an unexpected little work bonus, Akaky cobbles together the money for the new coat. And Petrovich couldn’t have delivered it at a more opportune moment. The severe frost had just arrived and was set to get worse. But Akaky is warm now, and triumphant; the day of its first wearing is like a great festive holiday, Gogol says. Akaky walks taller down the street. His work colleagues, instead of pillorying him (as usual), now admire him, decked out in his majestic new garb. They organize a drinks party in his honour.

But Akaky isn’t used to these occasions and creeps away early. Though it’s already well past his bedtime; and he’s a bit tipsy after a glass of champagne. Everywhere is closed, shuttered up, and not a soul about the dismal streets. Suddenly, as Akaky’s enters a square, a pair of burly shapes dodge out of the shadows, grab Akaky’s collar, punch him in the face, pull off his coat, and knee him in the groin. The overcoat has gone. Akaky calls for help—to no avail. The night watchman had seen nothing, hadn’t been watching the night. Akaky runs off home, “in a shocking state,” says Gogol.

The next day, he goes to the police. But they’re not bothered. Complain to a superior, they say, to an important person. (Gogol uses italics to denote important people in the bureaucracy.) And yet, important persons aren’t terribly interested in hearing from a poor folk’s grumblings about a stolen overcoat: “If I may be so bold as to trouble you, Your Excellency…” stammers Akaky. “Do you realise who you’re talking to?” the important person admonishes. “Do you know who’s standing before you? Do you understand?…” “Where did you pick up such ideas?” says the important person. “What is this rebelliousness spreading among the young against their chiefs and higher-ups?”

“The important person seemed not to notice,” Gogol says, almost parenthetically, “that Akaky was already pushing fifty. And so, even if he might be called a young man, it was only relatively.” Belittled by this important person, frozen in a raging Petersburg blizzard, on his way home Akaky catches a fever. The malady progresses violently. Akaky breathes his last a day later. “So disappeared forever,” Gogol says, “a human being whom no one ever thought of protecting, who was dear to no one, in whom no one was in the least interested.”

But as so often with Gogol, the end is never really the end. Comedy lurks somewhere around the corner of tragedy. Akaky disappeared, until, until… he comes back to life, haunting the city, this time as a phantom intent on revenge, intent on nocturnally ripping off the overcoats of others, with no regard for rank or title, even tracking down the important person himself: “Suddenly the important person himself felt a violent tug at his collar… ‘Ah, at last I’ve found you!,’ says the phantom. ‘Now I’ve, er, hm, collared you! It’s your overcoat I’m after! You didn’t care a toss about mine and you couldn’t resist giving me a good ticking-off into the bargain! Now hand over your overcoat!’” The important person is terrified out of his wits: It may have been what Marx meant when he said, in the Manifesto, that losing your overcoat was sobering, that then you’d have to face, “with sober senses,” your “real conditions of life.”

I can’t help think that Marx would have loved this imagery of the underdog haunting the overdog. He loved the idea of spectres haunting Europe. And he wasn’t talking about Brexit, either. His spectres haunted the bourgeois order, the spectre of a new social contract, an affinity between people without a country, without a national community, based on a common belonging to a class, a solidarity that brings justice and peace. A phantom-thought still. But let it haunt; let it disseminate our culture as a ghostly presence ready to tear the coats off the backs of important persons. I thought of this as I walked up the hill of Swain’s Lane, on my way to Highgate Cemetery, to its East Wing, going to pay homage to old Moor myself, see what was happening to his vandalised grave.

The brutality of the attack shocked me. Some of the red paint had already been scrubbed off. Yet the plinth had been assaulted with terrifying force, by someone verging on the demented. Scary that they’re still walking London’s streets. (We might wonder what kind of world we’d have if this type ever seized power?) I took a photo of the damage, along with the little bunch of daffodils some gentle soul had placed there.

One suspects that the perpetrator was himself an underdog, somebody who’s had his own overcoat torn away by our system, yet who feels a bilious rage inside, enough to lash out rightwards. There are a lot of bouquets at the base of the grave, from all over the globe, and a sign, on A4 paper, sellotaped on the plinth, left by the Turkish Revolutionary Path movement. Torn but intact, it reads, in red uppercase: “YOU CAN DESTROY MARX’S GRAVESTONE, BUT YOU CANNOT DESTROY HIS IDEOLOGY.”

“Normally,” said Ian Dungavell, “we take signs down, but on this occasion, I think we’ll leave it.” It’s a nice thought: that that ideology, that those ideas, might still be blowing in the wind, haunting the world, despite the hammer blows that try to destroy them. I could even imagine Marx’s own phantom, Akaky-like, floating up Swain’s Lane, headed towards Highgate Village, up and over and beyond, a phantom intent on vengeance, nocturnally ripping off the overcoats of others—with no regard for rank or title, tracking down important bourgeois persons, before vanishing into the darkness of Hampstead Heath. (On Sunday summer afternoons, up on the Heath, the whole Marx family delighted in reenacting Shakespeare together.) But now I need to cross over Hampstead Heath myself, button up against the damp air, and get back to my Capital Days.



[1] “One day,” Shawn’s dramatic monologue goes, “there was an anonymous present sitting on my doorstep—Volume One of Capital by Karl Marx, in a brown paper bag. Did someone leave it as a joke? Did someone seriously think I should read it? And who had left it there? I never found out. Late that night, naked in bed, I leafed through it. At first it seemed impossible, a sort of impenetrable tangle of obsessively repeated groups of words curling around each other like moles underground, but when I came to the part about the lives of the workers—the coal-miners, the child labourers—I could feel myself suddenly breathing more slowly.”

[2] It’s perhaps worth mentioning that Beckett has his own tailor tale, a joke Nagg tells in Endgame: An Englishman goes to the tailor for a new pair of trousers. The tailor takes his measurements and tells him to come back in four days. Four days later: “So sorry,” the tailor says, “come back in a week, I’ve made a mess of the seat.” A week later: “Frightfully sorry, come back in ten days,” the tailor says, “I’ve made a hash of the crotch.” Ten days later: “Dreadfully sorry,” the tailor says, “come back in a fortnight, I’ve made a balls of the fly…a smart fly is a stiff proposition.” The Englishman, now at the end of his tether, complains bitterly: “God damn you to hell, Sir…there are limits. In six, do you hear me, six days, God made the world, yes, Sir, no less Sir, the WORLD! And you are not bloody well capable of making a pair of trousers in three months!” “[Tailor’s voice, scandalised]” “But my dear Sir, my dear Sir, look—[disdainful gesture, disgustedly]—at the world—and look—[loving gesture, proudly]—at my TROUSERS.”

[3] Peter Stallybrass, “Marx’s Coat” in Patricia Spyer (ed) Border Fetishisms: Material Objects In Unstable Spaces (Routledge, London, 1997)

Posted in All | 1 Comment

Encountering Marshall Berman and Mike Davis

Marshall Berman’s Nation review of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, ‘LA Raw,’ from 1991, is an all-time favourite of mine in part because Davis’s book on Los Angeles is an all-time favourite of mine, one of the greatest urban books ever. ‘I said that City of Quartz is refreshing in its neglect of Hollywood,’ Marshall wrote, ‘but this isn’t quite true. There’s a full frontal Hollywood in Davis’s back-cover self-presentation. He doesn’t mention going to school anywhere or studying anything with anyone, so I guess we’re meant to think he learned all he knows at the rack or on the road. Above the jacket copy there’s an elaborately staged (and stagy) cover photo, in which the author comes on like Charles Bukowski’s doomed younger brother. We see him standing on a closed overpass (evoking factory or prison garb), dressed in proletarian clothes, glaring out at us as if to say this is his turf and he doesn’t want company, hugging himself tight to fight off the DTs or maybe the existential cold. The look is that of an ageing, ravaged light-heavyweight who could have been a contender but has taken too many shots to the head.’

I remember buying City of Quartz at the Museum of Modern Art bookstore in December 1990. A big-formatted, glossy hardback, hot off the press, what a thrill it was. I was visiting New York from Baltimore. In the latter place I was spending a sandwich year at grad school, at Johns Hopkins, between my stint at Oxford. David Harvey told me I should go to Baltimore, study it; the city, he said, once deemed ‘the armpit of the East,’ would make a good dissertation comparison with Liverpool, my hometown. David lived and taught in Baltimore for decades before moving to Oxford, and still kept his house there, near Homewood campus, in Hampden. Part of the house was vacant. He said I could stay there if I wanted. I did want.

When I came to New York that Christmas I got a ride off another grad student with a car. We blasted up Interstate 95 one Friday night in the pouring rain. He dropped me off on the Lower East Side, along Avenue A. For some reason I’ll always remember the music playing in the car as we cruised the East Village’s dark and wet streets – John Coltrane, his 16-minute lead-out number, ‘Africa,’ from the 1961 experimental album Africa/Brass. Those menacing syncopations of Coltrane’s tenor, hooting like frantic car horns, will always remain evocative of that evening, with its wild jungle feel, an unknown chaos, an impending doom, demonic and threatening. Coltrane’s sax and the brass section, the drums and piano and bass, all worked against each other, in a disruptive cacophony, perfect for the kinetic sound of the city that evening, a brilliantly inventive jazz that forever plays in my brain when I think of New York, pulsating with an energy at once scary and invigorating.

To call it scary and invigorating was about right then because the Lower East Side was scary and invigorating. I stepped out of the car with Tompkins Square Park immediately before me. In those days it was tent city for New York’s ever-expanding homeless population, hundreds of residues and displacees of Ed Koch’s mayoral years. Everything was soggy and tense that night. Conditions were gruesome; lots of angry shouting and growling dogs, chained to trees, frothing at the mouth, as well as a heavy-handed police presence, similarly frothing at the mouth, patrolling the perimeter of the twelve-acre park; an odd commingling of Sesame Street, Hooverville and Haight-Ashbury, someone called it. For a while the space had been highly contested terrain. Homeless populations, housing advocates, and East Village anarchists regularly clashed with the NYPD.

This stark dystopian backdrop prologued my New York City visit and set the tone of the urban zeitgeist. Mike Davis caught this zeitgeist in City of Quartz, gave it a dazzlingly new narrative form. It was his style that I’d found so captivating. Mike could really write, had tremendous storytelling gifts. He wove together cultural history and politics, economics and literature, film and music, capturing the whole city, the whole implicate order, while keeping his nose close to the street, pacing the sidewalk, cruising the freeway. A giant city like Los Angeles was laid down solid on the page, in print. This wasn’t dry scholarship. It was the real thing, he was the real thing, a gritty urbanist after my own heart, one I wanted to emulate. I even loved the stagy flap image of him, hugging himself under an underpass, coming on like Bukowski’s doomed younger brother – as Marshall said! There were plenty of places in Baltimore where I could similarly hug myself, affect the same DT pose.

Mike amalgamated all the things a 30-year-old grad student, struggling to write an academic PhD, could only dream about. I wanted to pull off a similar scam myself, but knew I couldn’t. Not as a PhD. I knew it would take me someplace else, someplace beyond academia. I was envious and admiring of Davis in equal measure. He’d blended together Blade Runner with Antonio Gramsci, hip-hop gangbangers with Scientologists, critical urban theory with Raymond Chandler; Cal jazz legends Art Pepper and Ornette Coleman shared airtime with novelist Thomas Pynchon. This was a Marxism beyond my wildest fantasies, and I wanted more. It was dramatic and exciting. When Mike spoke about the jazz and literature I loved, his prose soared: ‘Living in Skid Row hotels, jamming in friends’ garages, and studying music theory between floors during his stint as an elevator operator at Bullocks Wilshire, Ornette Coleman was a cultural guerrilla in the Los Angeles of the 1950s.’ Meanwhile, Art Pepper ‘studied bebop on Central Avenue, did graduate work on heroin in Boyle Heights, and became emeritus at San Quentin.’ As for Thomas Pynchon, his Crying of Lot 49 (1965) ‘provided the ultimate freeway-map ontology of Southern California.’ ‘As radically “decentred” as any contemporary Althusserian could have wished, Crying of Lot 49 wastes no time grappling with the alienation of its subject.’

The street-fighting, tough guy persona you got from Mike wasn’t really Marshall’s shtick. But he’d appreciated how Davis had carried off something special. Davis wrote beautifully, Marshall said, ‘about less glamorous places and themes of LA’s; about its industrial ghost towns, like Fontana, where Davis was born in 1946, full of shattered dreams and awaiting new development.’ ‘Fontana probably has more wrecked cars per capita than anywhere else on the planet,’ Davis said. The town is full of wrecks.

‘Scattered amid the broken bumper cars and Ferris wheel seats are nostalgic bits and pieces of Southern California’s famous extinct amusement parks. Suddenly rearing up from the back of a flatbed trailer are the fabled stone elephants and pouncing lions that once stood at the gates of Selig Zoo in Eastlake (Lincoln) Park, where they had enthralled generations of Eastside kids. I tried to imagine how a native of Manhattan would feel, suddenly discovering the New York Public Library stone lions discarded in a New Jersey wrecking yard. Past generations are like so much debris to be swept away by the developers’ bulldozer. In which case it is only appropriate that they should end up here, in Fontana—the junkyard of dreams.’

‘Narratives like these,’ Marshall said, ‘not only show Davis at his best but also, I believe, show Marxism doing what it can do best: bring us closer to the historical long waves that drive and wreck our everyday lives; force us to see ourselves and one another and our whole society and all our inner contradictions in depth face to face. If Marxist thought can do that, I think it has plenty to be proud of.’ Still, Marshall knew that for some Marxists this isn’t enough, never enough. ‘They feel Marxism has to provide a transcendent revolutionary zap. It has to bestow the powers that Jim Morrison pursued—to break on through to the other side, to bring on the end—or else it isn’t worth anything.’

Marshall’s great insight into City of Quartz was also an insight, I know now, into myself. I’d shared then, perhaps without even recognising it, the two souls that dwelled in Mike Davis’s own breast. Davis had a yearning for this ‘Big Bang’ zap; a radical concerned citizen, Marshall said, both humane and humanitarian, ‘who wants to grasp the totality of city life’; and yet he’s equally ‘a radical guerrilla aching to see the whole damned thing blow.’ Is he embracing the whole city or telling it all to go to hell? Doubtless he’s yearning for both, maybe at the same time. This is perhaps what makes City of Quartz so enthralling. ‘Who will he be, try to be?’ Marshall wondered, ‘Whitman or Céline? Davis sounds unsure, but I’m rooting for Whitman.’

Marshall was good for me. He was a generous soul when I sometimes wasn’t. He was a guy who tried to see the good in the bad, seeing positivity beyond negativity. I had a lot of negativity in me, frequently without much positivity. It wasn’t like I was a pessimist; I mean, I wasn’t. I was angry somehow, an angry optimist, a dark optimist. He was gentle spirit, a hugger rather than a puncher, a man who saw the power of love frustrating the power of hate. He was a partisan of happiness, of joy over misery, a Whitman rather than a Céline. Joy will give people more power to change the world for the better, Marshall said.

In Marshall I saw my shadow self. In Mike Davis I recognised my angrier part, the undertow that tugged with my Marshall part, the loving part. These were the two souls dwelling in my breast, dwelling in my feeling and thinking about cities as well. I was more dystopian than utopian. Funnily enough, this is what I wanted to discuss with Marshall, who’d become a friend. We’d agreed to see each other, to talk about a letter he’d sent me about an article I’d sent him.

Both letter and article were about Marx’s and Dostoevsky’s concept of suffering and freedom, why their concepts might be important for urbanists. It was another way to frame the Whitman and Céline split. Marshall thought it a great idea, told me so in a wonderful letter, handwritten in his handsome cursive, in blue felt-tip pen, on Gothic sepia notepaper, rimmed by gargoyles and demons, by lions pulling tongues and deformed monkeys looking like crippled humans. It was trippy, little green man notepaper, spookier than you’d imagine coming from Marshall. Maybe this was his shadow self on display?

In his letter, Marshall said I should send my article to Dissent or New Left Review. ‘It’ll look great in print!’ he said. I did send it to Dissent who quickly passed, and afterward to New Left Review, who likewise weren’t smitten. They weren’t so fast. I’m not sure they ever got back to me. We’ll be in touch, they said. Which meant they’d never be back in touch. What counted most then was Marshall’s affirmative response, that handwritten letter, worth a million referees’ reports. ‘Your Marx-Dost piece immediately disappeared into one of the hundreds of stacks of paper,’ he’d written me, ‘and I just retrieved it a couple of days ago. I enjoyed it a lot! I’ve always looked for a way to juxtapose that ‘suffering’ passage in M+D, but I’ve never figured out how. So now I’m both a little envious and a lot relieved—you’ve done it, weight’s off my head.’

‘One place where you can bed down M+D,’ Marshall said, ‘is the desire to overcome mechanical, closed-society models of the good life. M’s romance of “free development” is meant as an alternative to classical and medieval closed societies. Marx enjoyed Utopian thought, ripped it off plenty, and stayed friends with Moses Hess (who may have even written some of the Manifesto). But he dissed it because all its models were Crystal Palaces. So you could see M+D both engaged in imagining critical + radical forms of an Open Society.’

This was Marshall’s vital life-spirit there in print, in a preciously handwritten letter, to me, revealing as much about his own model of the good life as ‘M+D’s.’

For years, I’d been a big fan of Dostoevsky’s novella from 1864, Notes from Underground, even considered myself a bit of an Underground Man. The book had kept me going in Liverpool after I’d quit high school at sixteen, when I was reluctantly forced to engage with the overground. Dostoevsky spoke about a long-suffering ‘underground’ character. This Underground Man had a ‘hysterical craving for contrasts and contradictions’ and wondered whether human beings liked something else besides prosperity. Maybe, the Underground Man said, we like suffering just as much? Suffering meant doubt, meant negation, and ‘what would be the good of a Crystal Palace if there could be no doubt about it?’

In the Crystal Palace, there’d be ‘nothing left to do’; you’d not be able to stick your tongue out at it, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man said, nor ‘thumb your nose on the sly.’ What worried him most wasn’t whether abolishing disorder and conflict was possible but whether it was desirable. He hoped people would only love Crystal Palaces ‘from a distance,’ invent them as fantasies but not want to inhabit them in reality. For living in them meant the end of novelty, of adventure and fantasy, the end of Mike Davis’s dystopian panorama in City of Quartz. Everything would become routine, the death knell of the spirit. Passion would be throttled, and from where, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man wondered, would intensity of experience, that sole origin of consciousness, then emanate?

I’d said, in my article, that this concern chimed with the young Karl Marx. I knew, when I said it, Marshall would be on my wavelength, perhaps the only person on my wavelength! After all, he’d pioneered the whole frequency in the first place, tuned me into how Marx, in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, framed things strikingly similarly. Like Dostoevsky’s, Marx’s point of departure was that humans are endowed with ‘vital powers.’ Vital powers, Marx said, exist in us as ‘dispositions,’ as ‘capacities’ and ‘drives.’ We come to know ourselves by passionately using these vital powers to feel and see and comprehend the external world all around us, a world simultaneously ours and one which incorporates other people. Passion, Marx said, is our ‘essential power vigorously striving to attain its object.’

‘To be sensuous is to suffer (to be subjected to the actions of another).’ (The italic is Marx’s.) Suffering is an ‘integral human essence,’ Marx said, ‘an enjoyment of the self for man.’ The Underground Man couldn’t agree more! This was Marx affirming the primacy of “free conscious activity” in the ‘species-character of man,’ the vitality of free will and individuality – features so dear to Marshall’s own heart, to his own species-character. It was why, too, Marx indicted capitalism so ardently; not simply because it makes people suffer – of course it makes people suffer – but that it makes people suffer in a particularly crippling manner. The senses are numbed rather than stimulated; the parameters of free individual development are restricted, despite what capitalists say about freedom. Marx, like Marshall, yearned for a society where people fully express their individualities and desires. Both men were into positive suffering, without injustice, wanted a society where each human sense – seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking, contemplating, sensing, acting, loving (the list is Marx’s) – could blossom as ‘organs of individuality.’

When we suffer we feel, we learn things about ourselves intellect alone can’t discern. It’s a learning process, ‘an integral human essence.’ It happens to everybody, everywhere, at all times, whether we like it or not, whether we confront it or not, acknowledge it or not. Strangely, we need it somehow. Painful encounters offer an intensity of experience that help us become whole people; paradoxically it may even make us feel, in Dostoevsky’s language, ‘more alive,’ helping us stave off what Marx called ‘one-sided individuality.’ All told, it seems, we, as human beings, crave a society where both positive and negative passions need to get played out and worked through, openly and honestly, and here the city comes into its own, makes its life-form so compelling as a life-force. Because there, and maybe only there, can people vigorously strive to attain their object. So it was as Marshall had said in his letter: Marx and Dostoevsky – or M+D – remain existential bedfellows. They challenge us to imagine critical and radical forms of an Open Society – just like Mike Davis’s City of Quartz.

Posted in All | Leave a comment

Surrealist Love at the Barbican

For a while now, I’ve been laughing out loud at a play about the end of the world. It seems a bit odd that I would laugh about something so serious, so seemingly dire. But then, sitting here, I started to wonder why I was laughing. I mean, really belly laughing. One reason might be that the play is genuinely funny—even if it’s not meant to be funny. Another reason is that these days it often does feel like we are living through the end of the world. What better thing to do, then, than to laugh, to laugh one’s head off, while we’ve still got a head on.

You laugh to stay sane. So goes the old adage. But it’s not really been like that recently. I haven’t felt that sane, nor much like laughing. Actually, like a lot of other people—and you hear about this all the time these days—I’ve been down in the dumps. Depression levels, we’re told, are soaring almost everywhere. Some of my own worst doldrums have been deep-down depressions, lasting months on end. These depressions have been cyclical, coming and going more regularly over past years, hitting me hard sometimes.

That’s probably why I’ve tried to laugh them off, laughing at a play called Endgame, a film of this play, in fact, made in 2000 by Conor McPherson. I’ve been watching it on YouTube, guffawing to my heart’s content. The play itself was written in 1957 by Samuel Beckett, a Nobel Laureate. Part of the amusement could be Michael Gambon, the English actor who plays Hamm, the lead character. Gambon’s Hamm is frighteningly brilliant, just as Beckett would have wanted it. Hamm is such a suffering soul he’s beyond pity. He knows it. What else is left but to laugh at him, and at yourself, to have a strange sympathy for the devil. Perhaps it’s a gallows humour all our own today? Perhaps I’m listening to a dialogue of what’s going on inside my own head, going on on the inside while I’m thinking about life on the outside?

The setting is bleak, dark walls of a dark mind on dark days. Bare interior. Grey light. Two small windows, curtains drawn. It might be an attic room somewhere, an attic room nowhere. Though it could be somebody’s living room, practically anywhere, even one full of objects of life. The wind whistles its haunting draught. Four characters. Hamm, blind, infirm, wheelchair-bound; Clov, younger, lame, Hamm’s helper, a sort of adopted son; Nagg and Nell, Hamm’s father and mother, old and legless, living in two ashbins. “Clov,” Hamm asks, in a question many might pose today, if only to oneself, “Have you had enough?” “Yes!” Clov answers—then, pausing, wonders, “Of what?” “Of this…this…thing,” says Hamm. “I always had,” says Clov.

Have you had enough? Of what? Of this…this…thing? At low times I’ve really had enough. I suspect I’m not alone. Daily on the news: I try to avoid looking, close my ears. Yet I hear it everywhere. Newspapers. People talking. On screens. In the air. This thing that depresses. Trump? Brexit? Environmental meltdown? Modern life?… Have I had enough? I always had. No, I always hadn’t. It seems to have worsened over recent years. That “It.”

“The whole thing is comical, I grant you that,” says Hamm. “What about having a good guffaw the two of us together?” Upon reflection, Clov says, “I couldn’t guffaw again today.” “Nor I,” Hamm laments. “Outside of here it’s death,” he says. “Beyond is the other hell.” Looking through his telescope, at this outside, Clov says “nothing stirs. All is—” “All is what?” demands Hamm. “What all is? in a word? Corpsed,” says Clov. It’s a killer line. Could he be talking about our outside?

Endgame is a peculiar deadlock in chess. Almost all the pieces have been lost or sacrificed. Little is left on the checkerboard save a few pawns and kings, a king playing off against another king, square by square. There’s nothing left to win nor any real possibility of either opponent winning. The game is up yet the match goes on. “Enough,” says Hamm, in his Endgame, “it’s time it ended. And yet I hesitate to…to end. Yes, there it is, it’s time it ended and yet I hesitate to—to end.” Marcel Duchamp once described Endgame as “a problem with no solution.” Duchamp was a chess maestro as well as an artist, a pal of Beckett’s. On the brink of Nazi occupation of Paris, they played chess together for a while, on the Atlantic coast, in Arcachon, at a mutual friend’s house. Beckett always lost. It may have been there where he first conceived his play.

Duchamp featured in an exhibition I saw this autumn at London’s Barbican. I was in a gloomy Endgame state of mind that day and couldn’t guffaw anymore. I went hoping it might cheer me up, perhaps inspire me to write something. It was one of those dreary London days, suitably Beckettian. Grey upon grey. Light black, from pole to pole. The wind whipped up between buildings. I felt cold and forlorn. I didn’t expect much, almost regretted coming, balked even at paying the entrance fee. Still, I went in, and am glad I did, because soon I realised I was experiencing the shock of recognition, something Duchamp and his fellow Surrealists might have called an ENCOUNTER.

An encounter with what? An encounter with art and literature, with beauty and intimacy, with love. Perhaps it was an encounter with hope, with a solution, an encounter with myself. It had been there all the time, this hope, somehow always there; but I didn’t feel it enough, hadn’t recognised it inside me. Yet, now, amid two-floors of paintings and sculptures, of rare manuscripts and objets d’arts, of old photos and romantic verse, I saw it all for what it was: Mad love. I’d entered a den of “modern couples,” a saga of forty-odd twentieth-century relationships between avant-garde artists and writers, between subversive people who fell in love with one another and changed the world. These modern couples were straight and gay—sometimes straight and gay at the same time—men and women whose love affairs infused their art, just as their art infused their love affairs. They mobilised something sacred, something time-served, still vital: imagination, the power to imagine themselves, to break out of convention, out of servility.

The roster of couplings is impressive: Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West (whose gender-bending exploits inspired Woolf’s Orlando), Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood, Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Salvador Dali and Federico Garcia Lorca, Paul Éluard and Gala Éluard, Paul and Gala Éluard and Max Ernst (in a ménage à trois), Paul Éluard and Maria Benz (aka Nusch), Salvador Dali and Gala Dali, Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington, Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning, Man Ray and Lee Miller, Lee Miller and Roland Penrose, André Breton and Léona Delcourt (aka Nadja), André Breton and Jacqueline Lamba, Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso, Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp. The list is by no means exhaustive.

The most exhilarating collection was devoted to Surrealism, striking me with all the sublime sensual force that its leading light, André Breton, loved to describe in his books. In front of the Surrealist cabinet, my heart seemed to miss a beat, overcome with a trembling excitement. “Beautiful like the tremor of the hands in alcoholism,” wrote Lautréamont. I hadn’t had a drop to drink in years but was drunk before the convulsive beauty of Nadja’s pencil sketch, “The Lover’s Flower,” paired with a rare first edition of Paul Éluard’s 1935 love poem, Facile [Easy], whose refrains floated dreamily across Man Ray’s startling solarised images of the poet’s amorous confidante, Nusch. Meanwhile, like a giant eye looking out, keeping tabs, was Dorothea Tanning’s Rapture, her totemic sunflower, enrapturing anybody who happened to enter its gaze. She’d painted it in 1944, two years before she and lover Max Ernst had shacked up in Sedona, Arizona, in the middle of nowhere. Rapture’s dreamscape saw it all coming, prefiguring their desert hideaway, amid the red rocks and rattlesnakes. Breton’s poem “Tournesol” had already immortalised the heliotropic plant as the Surrealists’ love talisman; now, in full striking colour, here it was, like a homing pigeon sending emergency kisses from afar.


I felt a marvellous rush. A feathery wind brushed across my temples, producing a real shiver. “Easy and beautiful under your eyelids,” wrote Éluard. “Like a meeting of pleasure/ Dance and its continuation/ I spoke the fever.” It was staggering—quite literally—this fever. A very special emotion had been aroused. Something deep inside me had stirred, quite unexpectedly, decidedly powerfully, a tottering disquiet—an anti-Endgame. Before me was something to live for, a flame to keep burning. I’d had my encounter.

The idea of ENCOUNTER was elemental to Surrealists and meant something much more than mere meeting, than mere rendezvous, than some kind of get together. It was, is, an event of seismic magnitude, a fortuitous event, a random event, a predestined event, an event that lasts, that strikes and sticks, that changes its participants forever, henceforth never the same again. It’s not that I hadn’t had my own Surrealist encounter before. Like plenty of people, plenty of fortunate people, I’d encountered mad love before. I’d even written something about it in my last book, What We Talk About When Talk About Cities (and Love) (O/R Books, New York, 2018), a sort of homage to the American writer Raymond Carver, as well as my little paean to city life, to its romance, to that haunting ideal that maybe, just maybe, we might find true love in the city. I was into love’s purity, still am, have to be.

I’d also encountered Surrealism itself long ago, in the 1980s, when I’d been a budding Liverpudlian Surrealist—or at least had delusions of being one. It was my Surrealist encounter during the dark reign of Margaret Thatcher, whose only dream-fantasy was the desire to have, to own, buying people off with her false material dreams. Surrealism kept my inner life alive during that dire decade. Since then, I’d alluded to Surrealism often in my books about cities, even penned a “Opinion” piece quite recently in British Guardian newspaper (June 11, 2018), about Surrealism and the British high (main) street.

I’d suggested there that identikit Britain needed a touch of Surrealism to keep its high street from dying off entirely. The Surrealists yearned for novelty and chance encounter, for mystery and adventure in the city—indeed, the meaning of city life, they said, is found in novelty. Alas, there isn’t too much novelty down our chain-dominated high streets. Little is there to inspire dreams. A paucity of romance, and zilch desire. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them, because now that those dreary chain stores have monopolised our high-rent high streets, driving out smaller independents in process, they’ve decided to abandon places that can no longer pay up. The once predictable and boring high street is destined to become something worse: deserted and boarded-up. A Hobson’s choice between a sterile wilderness and a dead wilderness. Isn’t there another alternative?

My thinking hitherto had been preoccupied with Surrealism as an urban phenomenon. Yet the problem with our lifeless cities is really a deeper problem of our Endgame life. I’d been approaching Surrealism as something physical, as street-oriented, rather than something metaphysical, as people-oriented, along the lines of what I’d just seen and felt at the Barbican. So perhaps we need to explore that other feature of Surrealism, its frequently taboo-breaking, often erotic, occasionally perverse feature, its insatiably resilient feature: LOVE. Perhaps we need to move forwards from this primal point of departure. Love is celebrated by Surrealists as the supreme moment, as the ultimate fusion of the self with the other. It’s a dialectic that expresses contradictions, creative as well as destructive contradictions; but it also conveys a unity that inspires, that can lead to a mutual blossoming, to a creative coupling that, despite its tensions, endures, and goes on enduring, sometimes beyond death.

Listen to Breton speaking in Mad Love, from 1937, published one year after fascist bombs rained down on the Spanish town of Guernica and four years after Hitler came to power and his Third Reich jackboots were about to stomp across Europe: “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. People despair of love stupidly—I have despaired of it myself—they live in servitude to this idea that love is always behind them, never before them… And yet, for each of us, the promise of the coming hour contains life’s whole secret, perhaps about to be revealed one day, possibly in another being.” For a man sometimes accused of misogyny, and often as ruthless with his friends as with his foe, this is one of the nicest evocations of something that makes the world go around.

Surrealism built its dream house in the ashes of the dominant order, out of a disgust and distrust of this order, an order that had blasted and butchered in the Great War and would blast and butcher again, unabatedly, absentmindedly, two decades later. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Surrealism proclaimed its diabolical dialectic, an extraordinarily creative impulse of tragedy, on the one hand, epitomised by Max Ernst’s post-apocalyptic “Europe 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 the future; and, on the other hand, an optimism, an art and literature celebrating the dawn of romantic love—aube, as in the French, as in André Breton’s love-child, mothered by Jacqueline Lamba, his Mad Love muse. Thus a new day was heralded, the beginning of new era, bidding adieu to yesterday’s fear and loathing.


Breton closed Mad Love with a touching letter to Aube, born in 1935, addressing her as a sixteen year old, as a teenager perhaps tempted to open her father’s old book, whose title, he wrote, “will be wafted to you euphonically by the wind bending the hawthorns.” “Whatever will be your lot,” Papa said, “increasingly fortunate or entirely other, I cannot know, you will delight in living, expecting everything from love.” “Let me believe,” he added, “that these words, ‘mad love’, will one day correspond uniquely to your own delirium… You were thought of as possible, as certain, at the very moment when, in a love deeply sure of itself, a man and a woman wanted you to be.” “I WANT YOU TO BE MADLY LOVED.”

But there’s also something else about Surrealist love worth stressing and exploring: Surrealists were prepared to fight for it. Some fought life and limb as Résistants, publishing and politicking underground, as Maquisards, spilling blood as well as bottles of ink. Love and liberty somehow became synonymous, the love of liberty fused to the liberty of love. René Char and Paul Éluard were perhaps the greatest Surrealist poets engagés. Char’s famous logbook, Hypnos, composed of 237 “leaves,” ruminations and private musings, never initially intended for publication, stands as one the finest anti-war prose-poems.

Written “under strain, in anger, fear, rivalry, disgust, cunning, furtive reflection, the illusion of a future, friendship, love,” Char said the French people, as well as the nation’s body politic, had been lulled to sleep, hypnotised—hence Hypnos, the Greek God of Sleep. Everywhere a dreadful contagion raged, sounding oddly familiar today: sleepwalkers seduced by reactionary propaganda, by generalised lies, by hate-mongering demagogues. The poet was there, though, to arouse the people, to force them to remember, to wake them up. Char and his comrades went about their moonlit nocturnal business, collecting arms airdropped by Allied forces. “The plane flies low,” he wrote. “The invisible pilots jettison their night garden, then activate a brief light tucked in under the wing of the plane to notify us that it’s over. All that remains is to gather up the scattered treasure. So it is with the poet.”

Paul Éluard joined the Resistance movement the same year he joined the French Communist Party, 1942, and saw no discordance between a communist poet and a romantic poet, between a poet of militant democracy and a poet of inner emotional life. To fight against injustice was to fight on all fronts, to scribble a poem at the same time as to derail an enemy train. Éluard’s own great Resistance poem, “Liberty,” was a love letter to his wife and résistante Nusch. The poem quickly became a watchword for emancipation everywhere: “On my devastated shoulders/ … On the steps of death/… And by the strength of one word/ I begin my life again/ I was born to know you/ To name you/ Liberty.”

Its 21 quatrains were first published in June 1942, in an underground journal called Fontaine [Fountain], diffused from Marseille. In 1943, thousands of copies of Éluard’s poem were scattered across Maquis France, on printed sheets folded 32 times, parachute-dropped by the RAF. On March 25, 1945, the BBC premiered “Liberty,” broadcasting Roland Penrose’s English translation. “I thought of revealing at the end,” Éluard admitted, “the name of the woman I loved and for whom this poem was intended. But I quickly realised that the only word I had in mind was the word liberty. Thus the woman I loved embodied a desire even greater than her.”

And so it was that Surrealists proclaimed love as the liberation of dark times, as the antidote to a time of cholera, to an era of borders and hate, to mass death and national division. Is that era really behind us? Perhaps it’s too early to tell. Meantime, is it too late to reclaim the heady ideal of mad Surrealist love?

Posted in All | Leave a comment

Artists and Urbanization

In the late 1980s, the philosopher Gilles Deleuze did a series of quirky filmed interviews with Claire Parnet, a journalist at the French daily, Libération. Eight hours of documentary footage emerged, an Abécédaire, in which Deleuze extemporises on all things A to Z, Animal to Zigzag. Here Deleuze is perhaps at his most fascinating best. We get a rare glimpse not only inside the life (and living room) of a notoriously media-shy thinker; we enter inside his own head, too, inside his own thought-process, watch him ad-libbing, smiling and ruminating, unrehearsed before the camera. It’s something refreshingly different from today’s canned, bland TEDx gabbing.
Deleuze is always inspiring, and I like to watch him when I’m feeling down about the world. So, a little while ago, I checked out his Abécédaire again, homing in on the letter “G,” for “Gauche”—“Left,” wondering what Left might still mean today. “What does it mean for you to be ‘Left’?” Parnet taunts Deleuze. “I’m going to tell you,” he says, “that there’s no government of the Left. A government of the Left doesn’t exist, because to be Left isn’t an affair of government.”

But let’s start with what it means not to be Left, Deleuze says. This is to think of the world “a bit like your postcode. You begin with yourself… the street where you live, the city, the country, other countries further and further away.” On the other hand, “to be Left [être de gauche] is the direct opposite.” It’s to perceive the horizon, to move inwards from the outside, to imagine the planet, “the continent, your country, region, city, street… you.” “Left,” says Deleuze, is an affair of perceiving that horizon, of keeping your vision of yourself and the world expansive, large. It’s to live with the vastness of the planet, with its immensity.

Perhaps this is one way in which we can reimagine urbanization, understand its immensity. Perhaps we can understand what is happening to our cities as a reflection (and reinforcement) of what is happening to our global political-economic system. Cities today are defined by the closing of the circle of a particular form of capitalism; less a model of industrial or agricultural production, more as something predicated on the production of space, as a system that produces planetary geography as a commodity, as a pure financial asset, using and abusing people and places as strategies to accumulate capital. This process quite simply embroils everybody, no matter where. That’s its immensity.

In a sense, cities don’t so much spread themselves out as grow because they become vortexes for sucking in everything capitalism offers: its land and wealth, its capital and power, its culture and people—its dispensable labour-power. It’s this sucking in of people and goods, of capital and information that fuels the city machine, that makes cities so dynamic as well as so destabilising, because the energising and totalising force of cities expels people, secretes people who are somehow residual to this system, dispensable to it.

“Residues” are remainders who live out the periphery, people who feel the periphery inside them, who identify with the periphery, even if sometimes they’re located in the core. Residues exist in the world of work: precarious and downsized workers, informal and gig economy workers, workers without regularity, without any real stake in the future of work. Residues are refugees rejected and rebuked, profiled and patrolled no matter where they wander, people forced off the land, thrown out of their housing (by impersonal property markets and violent eviction), whose homes have been repossessed, whose living space teeters on the geographical and economic edge.

Plenty of artists fill the ranks of residues and now know how capitalism’s cutting edge is frequently a bleeding edge for art. True, high art can be exploited as super profitable cultural capital; but progressive art, Left art, leaves many artists—painters, installation artists, performance artists, writers, poets, etc.—out on the margins, struggling to earn living inside the meanness and aggressive bluster of global capitalism.

Artists have special needs for space, not only for living space but for spaces to create, display and perform their art in, spaces to practice their art in, and that’s why artists have historically been very vocal in demanding their “right to the city,” since they feel the pinch in urban areas alongside other modest means people. And that’s why artists often find affinity with these other people. Artists have been forced to think about their place in the world, in the city, about their links for other communities, about their relationship to the class system. Urban areas offer artists access to markets and to audiences, to fellow-traveling artists, to like-minded creative people. Yet urban areas with soaring rents and property values also put intense pressures on artists that makes them sometimes wonder whether they’ll ever have the means to create at all.

Meanwhile, political demands are now placed on artists. Indeed, artists can make a crucial contribution as residues, because their art can help other residues recognize one another, find one another. Artists can open up lifelines where residues can encounter one another. Artists can create imaginative spaces of encounter, events, objects and happenings that give expressive form to this vortex of planetary urbanization, helping residues navigate and survive in this vortex.

Radical art can do this by formulating forcefields of resistance, creating new ways of perceiving those planetary horizons that Deleuze said Leftists should perceive.
Deleuze knew that all great art was about creation, was about formulating new concepts of Becoming, about how Leftists never really cease “becoming minorities” [devenir-minoritaire]. In his Abécédaire, Deleuze says that, maybe, minorities will never actually make up the majority. To be Left, and be a Left artist, is to affirm your Being by Becoming a minority, alongside other minorities, other residues, be proud of it, wear it as a badge of honour. It’s to assemble and form an ensemble with your fellow minorities, to express your becoming out in the world together.

The poet Charles Baudelaire long ago suggested that the modern artist should aspire to become “a spiritual citizen of the universe,” that they should create a cosmopolitanism which doesn’t only touch the horizon: occasionally it pushes beyond that horizon, opens up new doors of the perception. Baudelaire drafted what might well be the greatest single definition of what art should be: something only completely true in another world. This sets the tone for artists today, for the artist as marginalized creator, for the artist who’s equally a truth-teller, a rebel, a he or she who isn’t afraid to stand up to the corrupting forces of money and power, and who, in many ways, has nothing to lose. Truly independent artists are free to let us glimpse—maybe even grasp—that other world. Before us now lies a massive expansion of urban life across the planet, an opening up of our urban horizons and frontiers, matched by a closing of the political mind, a withering of the established political will.

Ruling forces seemingly everywhere appear intent on blowing this planet apart, cowering before provincial smallness rather than embracing cosmopolitan vastness. Art can keep things large and intact. It can create visions expressive of a mutually shared planet in which people who look different, who talk different from one another, who don’t know one another, who may even hate one another, have more in common than they might think.

This likeness is an ever-growing mutuality of disadvantage, of despair, of suffering and, perhaps, of hope. There’s affinity here even if it’s rarely acknowledged. Art and artists can help us identify how this affinity might get recognised, how it gets mediated, undermined, upended by forces upending the planet, forces that conspire together, that throw everybody into a scary mix. The hope against hope of art is that it can help inspire a new urban sovereignty in which people strive to become wholly human.

Posted in All | Leave a comment

“Fulfillment was already there”: Debord and 1968

This essay was originally published on Verso’s blog on May 17

On the brink of working class and student insurgency came Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967), the radical book of the 1960s, perhaps the most radical radical book ever written. Its 221 strange theses give us stirring crescendos of literary power, compelling evocations of an epoch in which unity spelt division, essence appearance, truth falsity. A topsy-turvy world where everything and everybody partook in a perverse paradox. Debord mocked the reality of this non-reality, an absurd world in which ugliness signified beauty, stupidity intelligence, subjecting it to his own dialectical inversion, his own spirit of negation. This was theory that identified enemy minefields and plotted a Northwest Passage, getting daubed on the walls of Paris and other cities during May 1968: “POWER TO THE WORKERS’ COUNCILS,” “DOWN WITH THE SPECTACULAR COMMODITY ECONOMY,” “THE END OF THE UNIVERSITY.”

Its refrains were all over the modern high-rise environment at the University of Paris-Nanterre, a classic scene of urban isolation and separation, a “suburban Vietnam,” where a peripheral new town university coexisted with working-class slums and Arab and Portuguese shantytowns. The place was sterile, sexually and socially repressive, and totalitarian. This was the spirit of a society without any spirit. The same centralisation, hierarchy, and bureaucratic obsession persisting in the educational sector persisted in other aspects of the French state. Tough rules governed student dorms and freedom of movement; classes were overcrowded, resources stretched; professors were distant, student alienation rife. The right-wing Gaullist regime attempted to modernise the economy, in line with Common Market membership, and unemployment was growing.

At the University of Strasbourg, two years prior, a handful of Situationists had intervened, angry students of Henri Lefebvre and friends of Debord. They’d riled and denounced, tried to revolutionise students with an influential pamphlet called “On the Poverty of Student Life—Considered in its Economic, Political, Psychological, Sexual and especially Intellectual Aspects, with a Modest Proposal for its Remedy.” They’d infiltrated the National Union of French Students (UNEF), accused students at Strasbourg of pandering to a society dominated by the commodity and the spectacle. Student poverty was a poverty of ideas, a poverty of guts. Students were really “submissive children,” labour-power in the making, without class consciousness. They accepted the business and institutional roles for which the “university-factory” prepared them, never questioning the system of production that alienated all activity, products, people, and ideas. The Situationist’s text struck a chord; translated reprints extended its audience, notably to the U.S., Britain and Italy. In Strasbourg, the document caused a scandal; a coterie of students refused to be integrated, resisted co-optation. Critical awareness gathered steam over the next year and a bit, until, late March of 1968, it blew a gasket at Nanterre.

On Friday, March 22nd, assorted Situationists, young communists, Trotskyists, anarchists, and Maoists invaded the university’s administration building, and began occupying it. The week before, the “Committee of the Enragés and the Situationist International” had been established. Its members put up posters and scribbled slogans on the walls of Nanterre and the Sorbonne in the Latin Quarter: “TAKE YOUR DESIRES FOR REALITY,” “NEVER WORK,” “BOREDOM IS COUNTER-REVOLUTIONARY,” “TRADE UNIONS ARE BROTHELS,” “PROFESSORS, YOU MAKE US GROW OLD,” “IF YOU RUN INTO A COP, SMASH HIS FACE IN.” In early May, “the March 22 Movement” met with UNEF at the Sorbonne. The authorities tried to break up the meeting; instead they only unleashed its latent power. The gendarmerie mobile poured into the Sorbonne’s courtyard and encircled its buildings. Several thousand students fought back, inside and outside, ripping up paving stones on the street. Skirmishes broke out elsewhere, spreading both sides of the Seine, flaring up at Châtelet and Les Halles. On May 6 and 7 a huge student demonstration took over the Boulevard Saint Michel and thoroughfares near rue Gay-Lussac; protesters overturned cars, set them ablaze, dispatched Molotov cocktails, and manned the barricades.

On May 13 there was a one-day general strike. With the French Communist Party (PCF) and general worker’s union (CGT) joining the action, “student-worker” solidarity suddenly looked possible. Situationists and students took over the Sorbonne. On one revered fresco they emblazoned the caption: “HUMANITY WILL ONLY BE HAPPY THE DAY THE LAST BUREAUCRAT IS HUNG BY THE GUTS OF THE LAST CAPITALIST.” Exams had been cancelled at the barricades; sociologists and psychologists became the new cops. Next day, in Nantes, workers at the Sud-Aviation plant occupied their factory and locked out the bosses. Meanwhile, Renault workers at Cléon in Seine-Maritime followed suit. Then the Nouvelles Messageries de la Presse Parisienne launched a wildcat action, halting newspaper distribution. Workers’ councils linked up with students’ councils, becoming comrades in arms. The working class, at last, declared its unequivocal support for the student movement when rank and filers at Renault-Billancourt took over France’s largest factory.

By May 20 strikes and occupations became contagious. Nationwide, around 10 million workers downed tools and froze assembly lines. France seemed on the precipice of revolution; a festival of people was glimpsed. Alienation was cast off, momentarily; freedom was real; capitalised time abandoned. Without trains, cars, Metro and work, leisure time was reclaimed, time lived. Students and workers seized the contingent situation, acted spontaneously, created new situations, realising something what no trade union or party could ever do, or wanted to do. And yet, as quickly as things erupted, they were almost as speedily repressed, by state and bourgeoisie, soon backed by the Communists and the CGT. The optimistic promise, the beach beneath the paving stones, had dissipated, for now. The music was over. There was no other side to break on through to.

The occupation of Paris was, still is, seen throughout the world as an event of historical significance. Solidarity between workers and students had for a moment expressed itself; so too direct action militancy and student internationalism. From the LSE to Berkeley, from Columbia to Nantes, from the Sorbonne to Barcelona, dissatisfaction had spread like wildfire. At the same time, The Society of the Spectacle’s demands, as Debord would write (with Gianfranco Sanguinetti) in The Veritable Split in the Situationist International (1972), “were plastered in the factories of Milan as in the University of Coimra. Its principal theses, from California to Calabria, from Scotland to Spain, from Belfast to Leningrad, infiltrate clandestinely or are proclaimed in open struggles…The Situationist International imposed itself in a moment of universal history as the thought of the collapse of a world; a collapse which has now begun before our eyes.”

In old photos of the student occupations of the Sorbonne, Debord is visible in the thick of the action, lurking with intent. He was no student himself, nor was he particularly “youthful”: in May 1968, Debord, the freelance revolutionary, was thirty-six, older than a lot of junior professors, and almost twice the age of many student leaders (like Daniel Cohn-Bendit). He must have seemed like an old guy to many kids, somebody’s dad drinking in the student bar. Already his appearance had started to deteriorate. Surrounded by a large crowd of student activists, we can see him standing side on, without glasses, wearing a white jacket. His face is a lot puffier than a decade earlier; a boozer’s physiognomy was rapidly becoming apparent. By comparison with other ’68ers, who were mere political toddlers, he was a veteran provocateur.

Debord and other Situationists were genius agitators and organisers, and their presence was felt, practically and theoretically. The spirit of The Society of the Spectacle was there, even if some kids had never read nor fully understood it. On the other hand, Debord was frequently the most sectarian, invariably falling out with allies—especially falling out with allies, being most ruthless with old friends and former comrades. “Guy was a very tenacious person,” Jean-Michel Mension, a past oustee, remembered in his Situationist memoir The Tribe. “He was already very hard—very strict in the way he conceived of existence with this person or that.” There “were certainly jokers who became part of Guy’s group merely because they were friends of so and so, people who had no business there and who lasted only six months or a year before Guy found them really idiotic and kicked them out.”

Debord likewise dissed former pal Henri Lefebvre, the Nanterre Marxist professor, denouncing him as an “agent of recuperation.” He said the sexagenarian philosopher had stolen certain Situationist ideas. Debord reckoned Lefebvre’s take on the 1871 Paris Commune was almost entirely lifted from SI’s pamphlet, “Theses on the Commune” (1962). “This was a delicate subject,” Lefebvre recalled in a 1987 interview. “I was close to the Situationists…And then we had a quarrel that got worse and worse in conditions I don’t understand too well myself…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.”

Both Lefebvre and Debord believed the Commune some sort of historical antecedent of 1968. For seventy-three days, between March and May of 1871, when Prussian forces at war with France surrounded Paris, the city had become a liberated zone of people power. The barricades went up, even across Haussmann’s mighty boulevards, amid the carnivals and pranks. Freely elected workers, artists, and small business owners were suddenly at the helm. Their rally cries were territorial and urban; their practice was festive and spontaneous. The Communards, until the National Guard massacred 20,000 of them, launched a revolt in culture and everyday life, demanded freedom and self-determination, crushed Louis Napoleon’s authority as he’d once crushed their freedom, occupied the streets, shouted and sang for their “right to the city.”

For the first time, it looked like a working-class revolution wasn’t merely possible, but imminent. In “Theses on the Commune,” Debord said the Situationists believed that the “Commune was the biggest festival of the nineteenth-century” (Thesis #2). “Underlying the events of that spring of 1871,” he went on, “one can see the insurgents’ feeling that they had become the masters of their own history, not so much on the level of ‘governmental’ politics as on the level of their everyday life.” “The Commune,” Thesis #7 said, “represents the only realisation of a revolutionary urbanism to date.” It “succumbed less to the force of arms,” the next thesis explained, “than to the force of habit.” “Theoreticians who examine the history of this movement,” continued #11, importantly, “can easily prove that the Commune was objectively doomed to failure and could not have been fulfilled. They forget that for those who really lived it, the fulfillment was already there” (emphasis in original). “The audacity and inventiveness of the Commune,” #12 stated, “must obviously be measured not in relation to our time, but in terms of the prevailing political, intellectual and moral attitudes of its own time, in terms of the interdependence of all the prevailing banalities that it blasted to pieces.” “The social war of which the Commune was one moment,” declared the penultimate #13, “is still being fought today. In the task of ‘making conscious the unconscious tendencies of the Commune’ (Frederick Engels), the last word is still to be said.”

In the wake of May ’68, Debord released a film version of The Society of the Spectacle, dedicating it to wife Alice Becker-Ho, whose beautiful image, clad in flat cap, leaning on a wall with a cigarette drooping nonchalantly from her mouth, fills one frame. It evokes an Alice-cum-Brando’s Wild One pose: “Alice, whattya rebelling against?” “Whaddya got?” The film’s dialogue closely follows Debord’s original text, but the rapid-fire captions, disarming classical music, and exaggerated footage make it visually stunning. There are battle scenes and moody vistas of Paris, spliced between images of Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Castro, all giving speeches; Debord plainly disapproves. There are news clips from the ’68 Renault strike, with workers locked inside the factory by the unions; scenes from the Bourse alive with frenzied traders, participating in money mayhem; there’s a vision of the Tower of Babel amid pitched battles from Vietnam and Watts (Los Angeles), circa 1965; Paris’s streets are ablaze, and students can be seen fighting cops; there are burning barricades at night, the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917, street altercations in Italy in the 1960s, Italian police leaping from jeeps, truncheoning a crowd of young people; West German security forces patrol another street, while Soviet tanks push back German workers in Berlin in June 1953.

The Society of the Spectacle, the movie, sealed a magical era for Debord. “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, whose fulfillment was already there. Fulfillment was already there for Debord, too: he really did live it in ’68, and now it was over. Nothing could sour it. Yet as the dust settled from 1968, 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.


Posted in All | Leave a comment

Two or Three Things He Knows About Paris

Originally published on Verso’s Blog, 11th April 2018

There are few urbanists today who know their city as intimately as Paris’s popular historian, publisher and organic intellectual, Eric Hazan. He’s the only writer I’m aware of whose books have indexes for street names. But Hazan doesn’t just know Paris’s backstreets and inner courtyards: this guy seems to know all the names on doorbells, too. Since The Invention of Paris, he’s been knocking on doors and listening to footsteps, harking paeans to his hometown under fire. Hazan takes leave from one of Balzac’s remarks: “old Paris is disappearing with a frightening rapidity.” Balzac is one of Hazan’s heroes, and like the great nineteenth-century creator, Hazan himself isn’t so much a realist portrayer as an urban visionary, an observer of a Paris to come. He’s not one to go in search of lost time, nor even lost steps. Lost steps? There aren’t any.

Hazan’s pages are full of writers lamenting Paris’s perennial sacking — Balzac, Victor Hugo, Chateaubriand, Baudelaire, Louis Chevalier, Guy Debord. And yet, the septuagenarian Hazan is over his grief for a lost loved one. He embraces a future very different from a once glorious past. He’s spent decades inventing another Paris, a popular one. Hazan’s modern day dandies and flâneurs have darker skins and inhabit a Paris beyond the centre, the other side of the Boulevard Périphérique, Pompidou’s dreaded circular expressway, whose jarring construction Godard had highlighted in Two or Three Things I Know About Her. Louis Chevalier had described the litany of urban catastrophes besieging Paris in The Assassination of Paris; Guy Debord’s Panegyric likewise spoke of the city’s ravaging in the “repugnant seventies”; but only Godard, says Hazan in the newly translated A Walk Through Paris, brought home the seriousness of the Périphérique’s threat.

A Walk Through Paris takes us on a stroll from distant south to distant north, from Ivry to Saint-Denis, from one bookstore to another, loosely following Paris’s meridian, its dividing line between east and west. Hazan passes via Luxembourg Gardens and Les Halles, Belleville and Barbès, Montmartre and beyond, perhaps remembering how Jane Jacobs once said there were really only two kinds of people: foot people and car people. Hazan locates himself in the foot-soldiering camp, joining the ranks of his own roster of great walking urbanists — Walter Benjamin, André Breton, Francis Carco, and Debord — for whom Paris was more calling than simply backdrop.

Traversing Paris, Hazan unearths transgressive Paris, most of it long dead and buried. Yet here and there, remnants survive, in the built fabric, in the grubby working class neighbourhoods caught between speculative real estate interests on the one side, and a spectacular (and often tacky) tourist market on the other. Tourists flock to Paris’s lovely museums and historic quartiers, gape at its radiant buildings and monuments; but Paris as a living and breathing organism, Hazan says, lies elsewhere, in the northeastern “red belts” and multicoloured banlieues. Hazan here sees glimmers of renewed urban vitality; this is where a new City of Light will reemerge, if it ever reemerges. Parisian ruling classes have banished so many poorer people from its bourgeois centre that the periphery is now central to the city’s core future.

Hazan’s cityscape is the site of another comédie humaine. First time tragedy, second time farce. The 1850s and 1860s inaugurated an urban practice of divide and rule, of class expulsion through spatial transformation: Haussmannisation. It was a tragic counter-revolution masterminded by Paris’s notorious Prefect, Baron Georges Haussmann, who tore into the medieval city and its old working class neighbourhoods, mobilising public monies to prime the private real estate pump. The sense of loss, the sense of dispossession, was apparent for many poor Parisians back then, and is still felt by their counterparts one hundred and sixty-odd years down the line.

But Hazan’s stomping ground today isn’t only paradigmatic of a once-tragic Haussmannisation; it’s now part of a farcical new global process of divide and rule: let us call it neo-Haussmannisation. Haussmannisation and neo-Haussmannisation share the same lineage. But the primal scene of its progeny needs updating and upgrading. Those grand boulevards still flow with people and traffic, even if the boulevard is now reincarnated in the expressway, and that expressway more often than not is at a standstill, log-jammed every hour. Twenty-first-century grand boulevards flow with energy and finance, with information and communication, and they’re frequently fibre-optic and digitalised, ripping through cyber-space as well as physical space. Neo-Haussmannisation is a global urban strategy that has peripheralised millions of people everywhere. As cities explode into mega-cities, neo-Haussmannisation projects its new urban panorama onto our whole planetary space.

What’s happening in Paris is a microcosm, a cell-form of a broader urban tissue constituted by centres and peripheries threaded together all over the globe. They’re everywhere in opposition to one another, a patchwork quilt of socio-spatial apartheid that goes as much for Paris as for Palestine, for London as for Rio, for Johannesburg as for New York, for Mumbai as for Melbourne. Differences here are differences of degree not substance, not in the essential unity of process, engineered as it is by a global financial ruling class intent on business. The poor Global South exists in northeast Paris, in Queens and in Tower Hamlets; the rich Global North lives high above the streets of Mumbai, flies home in helicopters to Morumbi penthouses in São Paulo.

Fault lines and frontiers between centres and peripheries are no longer some straightforward urban-rural, city-suburb divide, nor even anything Global North versus Global South. Instead, centres and peripheries are immanent within the global accumulation of capital. Capital flows into real estate and land, commodifies space, fracks value from places and location. Its agents and institutions constitute a new aristocratic elite, growing rich from ground rents and interest-bearing capital. Land itself has become a pure financial asset. Profitable locations get pillaged as investment flows become torrential, just as other sectors and places are asphyxiated through disinvestment. Centrality thereby creates its own periphery. Separate universes — centre and periphery — exist side-by-side, everywhere, cordoned off from one other.

A lot of A Walk Through Paris reads like a damning autopsy of the massacre of Paris’s urban tissue: the demolition of old jewel buildings, the unnatural levelling of its topography, faults of alignment, the amputation of acute angles, crappy architecture with little sensitivity to the neighbourhood’s past or people’s real needs. It’s an urbicide engineered by land-grabbing developers and greedy financiers. Hazan also recognises how spatial apartheid is kept in place by an ongoing civil war. Paramilitary policing in Palestine serves as something of a model for policing the Parisian periphery. Jerusalem isn’t any further from Ramallah than Drancy is from Notre-Dame. Paramilitary manoeuvring is different from the classical pages of Clausewitz, where war is staged on an open battlefield. War no longer involves grandiose campaigns by troops but is a micro-everydayness of peacetime occupation, a dogged affair in which the police and the paramilitary play interchangeable, often indiscernible, roles. The terrain of neo-Haussmannist civil war is more claustrophobic and more fluid, more intensive as well as more extensive.

Hazan says Auguste Blanqui, the fascinating conspiratorial figure whom Walter Benjamin and Baudelaire both admired, remains instructive for radical politics. Blanqui knew that urban space isn’t just the theatre of confrontation; it’s also the means and the stake, the battleground of a guerrilla warfare that builds barricades, that occupies buildings and strategic spaces, that deploys “the methodology of moving through walls.” Blanqui’s spirit, like Balzac’s, haunts Hazan’s A Walk Through Paris. He’s a living phantom who darts out on every street corner, alive and apparently well, still the grand master of a pet Hazan concept: insurrection.

Little wonder Hazan’s own publishing house, La fabrique, first made public that most incendiary of insurrectional tracts, The Coming Insurrection. The coming insurrection, Hazan thinks, won’t erupt in bourgeois Paris. André Breton had uttered as much in Nadja, seeing office workers clear out of work near rue Lafayette, alienated and atomised. “I unconsciously watched their faces, their clothes, their way of walking,” Breton wrote. “No, it was not yet these who would be ready to create the Revolution.” It’s the new “dangerous classes” who’ll create the Revolution, who’ll create a popular urbanism, swarming the centres they surround; and maybe, just maybe, one day they might reclaim that centre. Hazan doesn’t speak of any “right to the city” as his organising banner. His model as well as his mad love is the “June Days” of 1848, more so than the 1871 Commune.

The Commune, Hazan says, started off as a patriotic upsurge, a gesture of national pride, before it became a revolutionary social movement. The June Days of 1848, on the other hand, were an insurrection of the sans-culottes from the very beginning, one that can still set the terms in our day. Even Alexis de Tocqueville, the conservative voice of order, marvelled at those June Days in his Recollections (staple reading for Guy Debord): “the greatest and strangest insurrection that had ever taken place in our history.” Hazan cites Tocqueville almost describing Occupy, circa 2011: “the greatest because insurgents were fighting without a battle cry, leaders, or flag, and yet they showed wonderful powers of coordination.”

The June Days were a revolt initiated by an anonymous rank-and-file, by a nobody urban proletariat, ordinary men and women “who gave events their colour and explain in part why they’re now forgotten.” 1848 is the most important insurrection in working class history, says Hazan, because it marked the severing of an implicit pact, the end of an illusion: that the people and the bourgeoisie, hand-in-hand, were going to finish what they’d started in 1789.

Today, we’ve seen another illusion put to an end: that a paternal capitalism will give ordinary people a break, that a bourgeoisie and working class might establish a just social contract together. All bets are now summarily off. What we’ve seen instead is the end of an epoch of expectations: expectations of steady work, with decent pay, with benefits, with security and pensions; the whole bit. These days, there can be no expectations in life, except those you create yourself, invent yourself, including the insurrection — an insurrection in which economic self-empowerment would need to encounter political collective empowerment; the favelas as well as financial districts, banlieues as well as bidonvilles, the malls as well as Main streets will all now need occupying.

At that point, the barricades wouldn’t so much go up in the city; more that the barricades separating centres from peripheries would be torn down, removed from within the tissue of neo-Haussmannite urban space. Barricades can no longer simply be manned to defend inwardly. They’ll need to be flexible and portable — and outward looking. They’ll need to move between nodes, disrupt and block, foster new life within. And they’ll need to be mobilised to tear down barriers that keep people apart, that trap people in, that peripheralise. The latter sort of barricades are walls of fear that need smashing down like a veritable storming of the Bastille, so that new spaces of encounter can be formed — new agoras for assemblies of the people.

The greatest poet of Haussmannisation, Charles Baudelaire, might also be the greatest bard of neo-Haussmannisation. Baudelaire witnessed Haussmann annihilate whole neighbourhoods that had lived and evolved, tightly knitted, for centuries. The grand boulevards prized open the whole city to its inhabitants, creating a modern form of urban publicity — Baudelaire’s great muse. In one of his Paris Spleen poems, “The Eyes of the Poor,” Baudelaire shows what this new kind of extrovert urbanisation could do to private bodies in the public realm. Two young lovers sit near the window of a dazzling new café, lining one of Haussmann’s newly minted boulevards. They dreamily look at each other. They’re inside, sharing one another’s company, admiring one another, yet through the window they’re able to survey the gaiety and bustle outside, on the street.

Before long, a ragged homeless family passes by. Enamoured by the café’s opulence, they stop. They peer in. A child presses his nose against the gleaming windowpane, admiring the décor and people inside. “How beautiful it is!” Baudelaire has the rag-picking family cry out. “How beautiful it is!” But they know it’s not for them, not their world. Their fascination is admiring, not hostile. The male lover is touched by “the family of eyes” outside. He feels a strange kinship with them, despite the social distance. But his lover is unmoved. She wants the patron to shoo them away, to move them on, someplace else, anywhere out of sight. “These people with their great saucer eyes,” Baudelaire has her shriek, “they’re unbearable.” Just then the two lovers love each other a little less.

In Haussmann’s urban reality, private joys sprang from open public spaces. You could be private in the crowd, alone yet amid people, inside on the outside, outside on the inside. There were walls and there was transparency, there was social closure and physical openness. Baudelaire’s “Eyes of the Poor” evoked the paradox of this thoroughly modern form of capitalist urbanisation. Poor people could at last see what rich people were up to. Yet Baron Haussmann’s spadework pales compared with the creative destruction wrought by global neo-Haussmannisation, which has uprooted and displaced millions and millions of Baudelairean ragpickers.

Now, this “family of eyes” is global. Those “great saucer eyes” are somehow all-seeing, and, with the internet and WikiLeaks, sometimes all-knowing. People can glimpse the global elite along this information boulevard as never before, glimpse them through the windowpanes of hyper-modern global-urban life. Can a global family of eyes encounter itself as a polyglot international, as an emerging citizenry that might one day repossess what has been dispossessed? Those big saucer eyes now look on with indignation as well as awe. Now, there’s not so much a world to win as a whole world to occupy, a whole world that’s really people’s extended backyard.

Posted in All | 1 Comment

Double Indemnity Urbanism


This past July, I participated in the Ecocity Summit at Melbourne’s South Wharf Convention Centre, a jamboree gathering of global ecologists and environmentalists, greens and smart technologists, politicians and NGOs all battling the impact of climate change on cities. Plenty of gloom was voiced. Yet it wasn’t total doom: some delegates even pointed to glimmers of hope, reasons to be cheerful, part one, not least because, in 2017, global greenhouse gas emissions seem to have stopped rising. They’ve leveled off, and maybe, just maybe, there are hints that they’re dipping.

So announced the Summit’s principal speaker, climate change activist and Nobel Peace Laureate, Al Gore. Before a huge crowd, the former US Vice-President dished the dirt about those inconvenient truths, conveying the depressing bad news—unprecedented droughts and wild fires, deforestation and downpours, hurricanes and tsunamis that threaten the very extinction of our species. Not good. One of Gore’s most unsettling images was footage from a helicopter ride he took over Greenland, watching in real time its glaciers literally crumble into the sea.

Al was slick and engaging, surprisingly self-deprecating. ‘You can imagine how I feel’, he lamented, half-jokingly, having a climate change denier in the Oval Office. No names mentioned. Last Spring, Gore said he marched on the White House in a massive Peoples’ Climate Day demo, arm in arm with his daughter, never believing he’d ever see that day!

The impact of sea level rises for cities, with their flimsily built houses and precariously positioned dwellers, is nigh catastrophic. They’re tottering on the edge of oblivion. Nine thousand cities loom within 100km of the ocean; cities with an elevation of less than one meter above sea level will go under if they’re not protected; by century’s end, average sea levels are set to rise by one meter and even a centimeter rise puts one million people at risk. Yet just as cities are threatened, they threaten; they’re part of the climate problem: cities collectively produce 70% of planetary greenhouse gas emissions. They squander resources, suck up water, burn up the ozone, and pollute their denizens. And it could get worse: an International Energy Agency report (2016) warns that business-as-usual practices in cities might spell 50% emission hikes by 2050 (see Barnett and DeWitt 2017).

Still, as ever in urban life dialectical twists abound, ushering in maybe rosier news. For cities are launching their own fight back campaign against climate change, a C40 alliance—a global network of 91 cities, representing around 650 million citizens, committed to delivering on the Paris Agreement. They’re taking the lead even as certain national governments balk. Thus, when Donald Trump refused to pledge the $100 billion a year in climate finance by 2020, suggesting ‘I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris’, Pittsburgh’s Mayor, William Peduto, told his President otherwise.

In a New York Times Op-Ed (co-written with Paris’s Mayor Anne Hidalgo, Chair of the C40 Alliance), Mayor Peduto reminded Trump how the once smokestack Pittsburgh is now a ‘trailblazer in environmental innovation’, from wind turbines lighting up its bridges, investment in smart infrastructure, bike sharing programs and new mass transit, to a renewable energy industry that employs 13 000 people (Hidalgo and Peduto 2017). The city’s Phipps Conservatory is widely recognised as one of the world’s greenest buildings, generating its own energy and reusing all water. By 2035, Pittsburgh aims to be 100% renewable-energy-powered. Pittsburgh pledges, along with 250 other US cities, that ‘WE’RE STILL IN!’—‘and we will achieve and exceed America’s commitment to the Paris Agreement’, vows Peduto.


One source of optimism for Al Gore is how the price of renewable energies continues to plummet, making sustainability’s uptake economically viable for businesses. Little wonder the Summit was full of techie-types eagerly nodding in approval, peddling their wares, hustling to make smart money out of dirty capitalism. Hence the glitzy (and large) BMW and Mitsubishi cars stationed proudly at the Summit’s concourse. Not a bookstand in sight. Doubtless these vehicles are less environmentally hazardous; but it’s a perverse value system on show, one that endorses—rather than condemns— commercial consumption and the conspicuous adoration of gadget commodities. It reminded me of something pioneering political-ecologist, André Gorz, wondered in the 1970s: Is this ‘Their Ecology or Ours?’ (Gorz 1974).[1]

Men in suits handed out business cards and glossy leaflets; important local politicians and civil society bigwigs waxed seductively; and the well-rehearsed PowerPoint gabbing and canned TEDx-like performance made everything feel very corporate, very expert. More skeptical minds might wonder whether climate change concerns now help expand capitalism rather than shrink it. For all its moral virtues, Gore’s environmentalism rests solidly on its market laurels.

Repeatedly, we heard from local boosterists how Melbourne yet again, for the sixth-year in a row, reigns as the world’s ‘most livable city’. During one afternoon stroll along South Wharf’s riverside promenade, amid thousands of smiling tourists, toasted by glorious winter sunshine, I wasn’t going to disagree. Although earlier in the year I remember reading the roster of the world’s least affordable cities, compiled principally on the basis of housing costs. Topping the bill as our most unaffordable city is Hong Kong; Australia’s very own Sydney is hot on its heels, in second place. Third is London, a city that priced me out long ago. San Francisco runs fourth; and the fair city of Melbourne, closely behind, in fifth.

Oz has two of the least affordable cities on earth, both eminently livable, each preeminently unaffordable. Thus the low-tech question I wanted to pose: Most livable for whom? What does livability mean in the context of sustainability? How resilient can a city be when access is denied to all but its wealthiest people? Not so long ago, citizens of Sydney grumbled that their city is getting just too expensive; Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, had these words of anti-sympathy: ‘Get Out!’ (Koziol 2017). Joyce said he’s fed up with people griping on about the unaffordability of Sydney and Melbourne. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. (I had heard this refrain a while back, voiced by ex-New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, that great patron of public health and environmental concerns.)

The crucial issue here is, shouldn’t sustainability be an inclusive rather than exclusive experience? Oughtn’t resilient societies foster diversity and offer people choice as well as security? People who work in Melbourne and Sydney, and who contribute to the city’s economic prosperity, should be able to afford to live there. It’s a no-brainer, a glaring mismatch between pay and housing, leaving ordinary folk stuck between the rock and the hard place, trapped within a landscape of mean employers and greedy realtors. London is a testing ground of how not to do it. Like other dynamic big cities, it seems more successful at reducing carbon emissions than preventing billionaire investors speculating on its real estate. London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan leads the way in ‘smart travel’ and congestion charge zoning, reducing carbon emissions by 16% over past years; yet he’s less courageous at ensuring hedge-funders and big multinationals pay their fair share of corporation tax. Climate action plans get imaginatively formulated as politicians lack the guts to confront the private sector, flinching at the affordable housing question. (The Grenfell Tower tragedy reaffirms the unsustainability of a society dictated by deregulated markets.)

Maybe the most jarring contradiction between cities and climate change is how a private sector renewable energy industry booms at the same time as urban public budgets downsize, undergo austerity purges almost everywhere, brutal scale-backs and sell-offs of vital social infrastructure. The trajectory of most Australian cities ‘can be explained largely by the relentless weakening of public institutions’, urbanist Brendan Gleeson (2017, p 171) explains, ‘under the aegis of a prolonged and seemingly intractable neoliberal dispensation’; ‘much of the work of urban and metropolitan crafting’, Gleeson continues, ‘is now undertaken by private consultancies without recourse to publicly articulated and consistently adjudicated standards’.

This year is a fascinating one for staging an Ecocity Summit because it is the Golden Jubilee of Henri Lefebvre’s The Right to the City, the French philosopher’s inaugural ‘cry and demand’ for a more participatory and democratic urban life (Lefebvre 1996). Penned in 1967, Lefebvre’s provocative text commemorated the centenary of Marx’s Capital; and, as Lefebvre envisioned it, this right was an expression of people shaping their own destinies in cities—the new factory of modern class struggle. Participation dramatises urban life, Lefebvre said, animates a potentially active citizenship. Its presence brings cities to life; its absence usually denotes a city’s death, that something essential is missing.

Lefebvre was a man of the margins, of the periphery, and his right to the city is an ideal conceived from the periphery. It aims to empower outsiders to get inside. Sometimes, even, to get inside themselves. The right to the city might seem a fuzzy sort of human right. But actually it is very concrete. It means the right to live out the city as one’s own, to be happy there; the right to affordable housing, a decent school for the kids, accessible services, reliable public transport; the right to have your urban horizon as wide or as narrow as you want; to feel some sense of shared purpose, that you’re not alienated from the city’s affairs. The city is a great public work of art, Lefebvre said, an œuvre, a use-value for its citizens—not an imposition on them, not a profitable product up for tender, an exchange-value.

Lefebvre never imagined urbanisation everywhere, that bricks and mortar, freeways and highways would cover the entire globe. He never imagined the green world turning grey. Rather, as his celebration of Marx’s Capital implies, he warned of the closing of the circle of a particular form of post-war capitalism, one that defines itself less through a model of industrial or agricultural production and more and more through an actual production of space. This system creates planetary geography as a commodity, as a pure financial asset, as evermore frackable spatial units.

Cities don’t so much spread by their own volition as become vortexes for sucking in everything the planet offers: its capital and power, its culture and people, its wealth and dispensable labour-power. It’s this sucking in of people and goods, of capital and information that fuels the urban machine, that makes it so dynamic as well as so destabilising, because it expels people, secretes what Lefebvre calls a ‘residue’. This expulsion process makes urban space expand, lets it push itself out, has it further entangle rural space, and disentangle rural life.

Lefebvre says every big system leaves something that escapes it. Every whole leaves a remainder. It’s an idea most forcefully articulated in Metaphilosophy, Lefebvre’s dense takedown of traditional philosophy, published two years before The Right to the City.[2] In Metaphilosophy, Lefebvre says global capitalism will always tend to exhibit leakiness, have internal contradictions that both structure and de-structure it. Totalisation can never be total; it will always secrete and expel a ‘residue’. There’ll always be people who don’t fit into any whole, who don’t want to fit in, who aren’t allowed to fit in.

Residues are workers without regularity, without salaries and security, without benefits and pensions. They’re workers without any real stake in the future of work. Residues are refugees rejected and rebuked, profiled and patrolled no matter where they wander, victims of war and economic collapse, of environmental devastation, of drought and deforestation, of wild fires and wild regimes. They’re displacees, too, people forced off the land, thrown out of housing. Residues come from the city as well as the countryside and congregate in a space that’s often somewhere in-between, neither traditional city nor traditional countryside. Residues aren’t merely the city’s secretion: they’re now the very substance of the city itself.

Lefebvre says the political ante here is to formulate a ‘revolutionary conception of citizenship’. Indeed, he said this is really what he meant by ‘the right to the city’ all along (Lefebvre 1989; 2014). And such is the working hypothesis he’s bequeathed us fifty-years down the line, left us to figure out practically. The right to the city is about residues reclaiming (or claiming for the first time) their rights to a collective urban life, to an urban society they’re actively making yet are hitherto disenfranchised from.

During my Melbourne sojourn, I was fortunate enough to catch a stunning exhibition called ‘EXIT’, in its final few days at the city’s Ian Potter Museum of Art. Sponsored by Paris’s Fondation Cartier, EXIT was the brainchild of Paul Virilio, an urbanist clearly marked by Lefebvre’s pioneering work on space and everyday life. A life-size Virilio greets you upon entering, a three and a half minute wonder video of the philosopher heading towards the camera (and towards the onlooker), marching along the Atlantic sea front at La Rochelle, in West France, where the emeritus professor Virilio now lives. Filmed in 2008, Virilio announces ‘the latest news’: that year, 35 million people were displaced because of natural disasters and human conflicts.

‘The twenty-first century will be the century of great migration’, Virilio says. Over the next fifty-years, a billion people will be displaced as a result of climatic catastrophe, war and economic breakdown, displaced from work, from their homes, from their homeland—in a never-ending procession of human movement. What we’re about to witness is an EXIT of an unprecedented magnitude. ‘What’s left of our terre natale?’ Virilio enquires, of our native land? Ancient society inscribed itself in a territory, connected itself to a territory, to a terre natale. Now, there’s a crisis of ‘localisation’, Virilio says, an immense and epochal-making disruption; everything is adrift.

‘All this calls into question what?’ muses Virilio, in a brilliant prose poem on the move:

‘Sedentariness? The city? The fact of being here and not elsewhere? The fact of being settled, in a region, in a nation? Immigrants are merely the forerunners of the great traceability to come. Identity means you’re connected to a place; traceability means you go with the flow, you go on a never-ending journey. Today, the sedentary person is at home everywhere, thanks to telecommunications, to interactivity; the nomad is at home nowhere, except in the transit camps. Here and there. So the question is how will we cope with this perpetual motion, with the perpetual movement of history in motion? Not anymore the history of great invasions, or what we call conflict-based displacements, but the history of climate change, where the weather matters more than geography, as if météo-politique were about to submerge géo-politique. It’s almost as if the sky and the clouds, and the pollution of them, were making their entry into history. Not the history of the seasons, of summer, autumn, winter and spring, but of population flows, of zones now uninhabitable for reasons that aren’t just to do with desertification, but with disappearance, with the submersion of land. This is the future.’

When you enter the main EXIT installation—‘a visual representation of the world’s population in motion’—everything goes dark. You sit on the floor; before you, in a large semi-circle, a great big globe moves, planet earth revolving and orbiting in bright fluorescent colour. It shifts back and forth; you’re immersed within it; we hear its whooshing motion, listen to liquid gurgling, to its sea levels rising; red and green pixels map out the inexorable flow of refugees and displacees, a graphic global torrent wherein we can read the figures and tot up the numbers: between January 2000 and April 2015, 1 186 280 653 people have been disrupted because of drought; 745 277 081 by storms; 27 586 735 by earthquakes. ‘Natural’ disasters displace on average 26 million people per year—one person every second. Between January 2006 and December 2014, 124 million people were displaced because of inundations; numbers here are significantly higher in the Global South than in the Global North. Countries most affected by global warming are of course those least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions.

Over the next half-century, a Tsunami of a billion displaced souls will form a vast human tidal wave, searching for a homeland, for a city, for a roof over their heads; a massive exodus of uprooted residues that will disrupt the geopolitics of nation-states and cities, a colossal flow that can’t be dammed, that will need to be absorbed somewhere, somehow. No international law can protect these deportees. Many will end up in internment camps, confined on the edge of some big city, out on the global banlieue, where they’ll await reintegration or further expulsion. A lot will never leave. People are on the move, yet national frontiers close down; walls go up.

EXIT was the development and update of a project Virilio had conceived a decade ago, ‘Terre Natale: Stop Eject,’ realised in collaboration with photographer and filmmaker Raymond Depardon. Luckily, the Ian Potter Museum had this exhibition’s handsome catalogue, a large-formatted brick of a book, full of Depardon’s evocative, globetrotting images, many in colour; it seems he’s gone to the four-corner’s of the world, scouring our lonely planet for disappearing cultures and ecologically brutalised landscapes (Depardon and Virilio 2008). Depardon is fascinated by indigenous cultures and languages threatened with extinction, with peoples living on the margins of globalisation, like Brazil’s Northeastern Yanomanis. His photos are supplemented by insightful essays by philosopher Peter Sloterdijk and anthropologists Marc Auger and Michel Agier, as well as a wonderful dialectical dialogue between the photographer and Virilio.

Virilio, a Parisian, doesn’t much like traveling; Depardon, of peasant stock, whose parents hardly ever left their village, journeys everywhere. Their exposition is a confrontation between the countryside and the city, between the rooted and the uprooted, between the poetics of attachment and detachment. But there’s a new twist to this opposition, Virilio says, because it ‘not only calls into question the countryside and rural roots, but urban roots as well’. ‘There’s no rural exile anymore’; and ‘we’re seeing the end of the city, and therefore of urban exile’ (Depardon and Virilio 2008, p 12). We’re heading towards ‘THE BEYOND.CITY’. Virilio says, ‘the city we don’t know, not a city of belonging—of center and periphery—but a city of movement’.[3] Here, there’s precisely a lack of any here—or, as Virilio puts it, ‘ailleurs commence ici’: ELSEWHERE STARTS HERE. Meanwhile, migratory movement involves a constant ‘stopping and ejecting’. You stop and you eject the cassette. ‘We’ve gone from the place of election—the city, the place where we elect to live—to a place of ejection. Stop eject means “Get Out of Here!”’ (Depardon and Virilio 2008, p 13).

Virilio, like Lefebvre, wonders what remains here of fraternity and solidarity? What might a new revolutionary conception of citizenship actually resemble? A citizenship that lies inside and beyond a passport, inside and beyond any official documentation. Struggled for, not rubber-stamped. A citizenship without a flag, without a country, without borders. An urban citizenship. One strand of this, a sort of indemnity insurance that future-proofs our endangered ecology, is a new hospitality for cities, a right to the city that leaps across the nationalist divide, that sneaks inside it, under its reactionary radar. Within this right, ‘cities of refuge’ might be created: the right to the city would be the right to an urban immunity, to an urban asylum for the rootless and landless, an unconditional citizenship attached to a city. This urban re-enfranchisement would go beyond an ecology conceived only by mayors and political honchos, and would draw its energy from below, safeguarding the downtrodden and disaffected, offering sanctuary for every residual, for every stranger and settler amongst us.

In an odd way, this ideal is more real than we might think. A number of US cities, for instance— Austin, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Oakland, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Providence—all recently pledged not to cooperate with Donald Trump’s promise to deport millions of illegal immigrants. Across the United States, ‘sanctuary cities’ are gearing up to oppose federal government and its immigration agents. At the prodding of immigrant rights and other citizens’ groups, urban bastions have reaffirmed their intention to defy the Trump administration. At the risk of losing millions of dollars in federal support, they’ve pledged to act as bulwarks against mass deportation. These cities have as yet no power to bestow ‘official’ rights to people, but they have the power to resist. Set against a crisis of national political legitimation, the spectre of urban solidarity looms.

But this is only one part of the necessary contract. Another aspect of ecological sustainability is a new right of the city, a new status for the city itself, thereby releasing what I want to call double indemnity urbanism: a right to and of the city.[4] The C40 alliance lets us glimpse the promise of this second prong, demonstrating how cities can be more progressive than nation-states. Some US cities have initiated minimum wage ordinances, instigated paid sick days, drafted lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights—only to have their conservative states block this legislation. Michigan cities proposed a bill to restrict plastic bags, cups and packaging in restaurants and fast food outlets, non-biodegradable sources of pollution. However, Michigan’s Restaurant Association, after aggressive and successful lobbying, prevented its chain restaurants and retailers from having to comply. Meantime, Texas’s big cities proposed a ban on fracking; until the state, responding to a gas and oil lobby, capitulated, again banning the ban. Rancorous stand-offs between state and city, between national government and municipalities now punctuate the US’s political landscape. ‘We’re the United States of America’, conservative state representatives remind people (see Badger 2017), implying that it isn’t the ‘United Cities of America’.

Even so, the concept of ‘united cities’ is a thrilling one, an urban alliance that stretches across the globe, something more radical than a C40 network, bestowing greater democratic and ecological powers on cities, powers to act and self-govern, to do so alongside other cities. That said, it’s difficult to reimagine cities with more jurisdictional powers, with new empowering rights, if they’re not inclusive, if their resources aren’t accessible to everyone, if all but the privileged are kept out—like in ‘compact city’ ideals, which create zones of clean exclusivity, ripe for techno-fixes and monopoly exploitation, ripe for topping the liveability indexes. ‘There should be less cheerleading all around’, say Barnett and DeWitt (2017) in a recent ‘Conversation’ polemic. ‘City mayors need to lobby their state and federal counterparts to ensure coordinated actions at all levels’, the duo add. ‘And citizens must throw out mayors—not to mention regional and national leaders—who don’t accept the urgency of climate mitigation.’ Hear, hear!

Cities expand everywhere; urbanisation continues apace; people increasingly lead urban lives; urban boundaries become more porous and intermingled, more hybrid and messy. Yet nation-states try to dam the flow, disentangle and deny diversity, erect barriers—barriers, that is, for people, because political leaders happily cheer on capital circulating without apparent limit or hindrance. A new progressive status for cities has to be something else, has to manage and administer differently. The mosaic and mentality need rebooting. This new status would involve both a shrinking and enlargement of the scale of governance, below the nation-state yet wider than city government. It would mean a regional scale of metropolitan control, a ‘city-state’ configuration, like in Ancient Greece, where there were no nation-states as such; identity took on an urban characterisation, got defined by which city you belonged to; and belonging was always portable and transferable. This new city-state would be mobilised in such a way that its reactionary hinterlands were neutralised, incorporated within the city-state’s domain; a form of progressive gerrymandering you might wonder? Yes. God knows, it’s about time political redistricting promoted the common good rather than have it plundered.

The great twentieth-century urban historian, Louis Mumford, long ago gave us a startlingly suggestive expression of what this city-state might look like, and how it might function (Mumford 1961, pp 563-567). There’s no longer a metropolitan region dominated by a single centre, Mumford says, with its continuously sprawling structure. What we have now would be a regional framework ‘capable of embracing cities of many sizes, including the metropolitan centre’; an ‘open-ended network’, Mumford (1961 p 565) says, comparable to ‘an electric power grid’. ‘Each unit of the system has a certain degree of self-sufficiency and self-direction… But by being linked together, the power stations form a whole system whose parts, though relatively independent, can upon demand work as a whole, and make good what is lacking in any particular area.’ The old function of the urban centre, as a walled container, would now open out, be exercised through the functional grid, a framework Mumford intriguingly calls ‘the invisible city’. (Mumford 1961, pp 563-67).

The ‘visible city’ is something like our old configuration, which would nominally still exist, where forms and functions are more concrete, more apparent, a city of face-to-face encounters and meetings, of place-specific everyday life, with particularly defined neighbourhoods. But the invisible city, as a parallel universe, would flow through the visible city. It has more abstract relations, Mumford says, that operate through a process of ‘etherialisation’. ‘Gone is primitive local monopoly through isolation; gone is the metropolitan monopoly through seizure and exploitation. The ideal mission of the city is to further this process of cultural circulation and diffusion; and this would restore to many now subordinate urban centres a variety of activities that were once drained away for the exclusive benefit of the great city’ (Mumford 1961, p 564). Now, says Mumford, a ‘new urban constellation’ prevails, which today we might see as a resilient and sustainable urban form, ‘capable of preserving the advantage of smaller units, yet enjoying the scope of large-scale metropolitan organisation’. Importantly, its mutual intercourse would base itself on cooperation, ‘passing through geographic obstacles and national barriers as readily as X-rays pass through solid objects’. Over time, this system ‘could embrace the whole planet’.

The technological prowess to realise all this is here today, already within our grasp; I’d seen it at the Ecocity Summit. But it lurks in its bourgeois clothing. If only we could shrug this off, break free, ditch the suits and ties and business cards, if only we could find the political will to liberate ourselves. Business, media and technology has undergone extraordinary innovation and experimentation over recent decades, making it a super-dynamic sector of our lives. Yet somehow politics has stagnated; our political institutions haven’t changed for centuries. (British Parliament still has its politicians sit on the same medieval benches Guy Fawkes tried to blow up!) In politics, there’s been no reimagining, no experimentation, no innovation. Perhaps this is intentionally so, done for solid reasons of preservation, of defending vested interests. If voting really changed anything they’d abolish it anyway. What changes there have been always seem to move in a retrogressive direction, are done to prop up the status quo rather than overturn it. Our political institutions have imbricated themselves, implicated themselves, plonked themselves down on us at an evermore rigid national scale. This has to change, has to be challenged, fought and struggled to be changed. We need to buy into another politics with another policy, a double insurance package, a right to and of the city: here and there. This is the future. It is no longer elsewhere.



[1] This also reminds me of something Jane Jacobs said a while back, that there are two kinds of people: foot people and car people. I see myself firmly in the former camp. ‘Experts’, Jacobs (2016, p 277) said, ‘do not respect what foot people know and value’.

[2] An English translation of Métaphilosophie (1965) has since appeared; see Lefebvre (2016).

[3] The English catalogue uses the term ‘ultracity’. But this loses the implied effect of Virilio’s original French, which is ‘l’OUTRE.VILLE’—the BEYOND.CITY (see Virilio and Depardon 2009, pp 63-64; the use of upper case is Virilio’s own). We’re surely not too far removed from Lefebvre’s idea of ‘la planétarisation de l’urbain’—the planetari- sation of the urban, which seems more accurate than ‘planetary urbanisation’. Virilio and Lefebvre both concur that the city isn’t what it used to be, that, in our age of climate catastrophe, a new conceptualisation is required, the city beyond the city, the city that internalises the globe—for better and for worse.

[4] Double indemnity insurance is life assurance that makes a double payment to the beneficiary upon accidental death. As I use it here, I’m hoping this might be a policy that has a similarly dual aspect—pays out twice—yet actually avoids accidental death, or even premeditated death, urbicide, the premeditated death of a city. Double indemnity insurance policies usually cover people working in ‘dangerous industries’; engaging in progressive urban politics seems to me an equally risky business these days.



Badger E 2017, ‘Blue Cities Want to Make Their Own Rules. Red States Won’t Let Them’, The New York Times, 6 July ( own-rules-red-states-wont-let-them.html, accessed 5 September 2017)

Barrett B and DeWitt A 2017, ‘This is Why We Cannot Rely on Cities Alone to Tackle Climate Change’, The Conversation, 3 September ( on-cities-alone-to-tackle-climate-change-82375, accessed 5 September 2017)

Depardon R and Virilio P 2008, Native Land: Stop Eject (Fondation Cartier: Paris)

Depardon R and Virilio P 2009, Terre Natale (Actes Sud: Arles)

Gleeson B 2017, ‘The Metropolitan Condition’ in Hamnett S and Freestone R (eds) Planning Metropolitan Australia (Routledge: Abingdon)

Gorz A 1974, ‘Leur écologie et la nôtre’, Le sauvage, avril, pp 10-12 (available online at: https://, accessed 5 September 2017)

Hidalgo A and Peduto W 2017, ‘The Mayors of Pittsburgh and Paris: We have Our Own Climate Deal’, The New York Times 7 June ( pittsburgh-and-paris-we-have-our-own-climate-deal.html, accessed 5 September 2017)

Jacobs J 2016, Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs (Random House: New York)

Koziol M 2017, ‘Can’t Afford to Buy a Home? Get Out of Sydney and Melbourne, says Barnaby Joyce’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 January ( political-news/cant-afford-to-buy-a-home-get-out-of-sydney-and-melbourne-says-barnaby-joyce- 20170124-gty35n.html, accessed 5 September 2017)

Lefebvre H 1989, ‘Quand la ville se perd dans une métamorphose planétaire’, Le monde diplomatique, mai, pp 17-19

Lefebvre H 1996, ‘The Right to the City’ in Lebas E and Kofman E (eds), Lefebvre—Writing on Cities (Blackwell: Oxford)

Lefebvre 2014, ‘Dissolving City, Planetary Metamorphosis’ Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 2014, Volume 32, pp 203-205

Lefebvre H 2016, Metaphilosophy (Verso: London)

Mumford L 1961, The City in History (Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.: New York)

Posted in All | 1 Comment