On Thursday evening I attended an engaging session organised by my colleague Alex Colas of the Department of Politics at Birkbeck. The occasion was a conversation between Marxist urban theorist Andy Merrifield – discussing his new book The New Urban Question and distinguished geographer and social theorist David Harvey, author of Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism amongst many other works. The following represents my reflections on the evening. It by no means represents all that was said or discussed nor the contents of either book (which I have not yet read), but some points of interest to me and, I hope, others.
In The New Urban Question, Merrifield (following Manuel Castells) argues that cities are for capitalism essential reproductive mechanisms (quite contrary to being generative or productive, they are ‘parasitic’ and extractive, much creative energy being invested in imaginative ways of extracting wealth from things, rather than creating it). Crucial to this are collective consumption items like welfare, transport, infrastructure and so on.
However, in the last thirty or forty years the nature of this collective consumption has undergone dramatic change. Whereas in the last century, the state was primarily responsible for such goods, in modern cities much of these public goods and projects have been privatised (or as good as) through contracting services out, selling them off to the private sector, or the use of ‘public-private partnership’ vehicles like the Private Finance Initiative (PFI). As a result, he argues, a ‘middle manager’ class that has successfully mediated between the ‘rentier class’ and creditors have accumulated a great deal of power and wealth.
Under this kind of structure, he goes on, there is a kind of ‘neo-Haussmannisation’ in progress, by which (amongst other cities) London’s social and political complexion is being altered, just as Paris’ was by Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s renovations under Napoleon III in the latter half of the nineteenth century. It is ‘neo’ because the form it takes reflects the structure of ‘collective consumption’ oulined above. Thus, instead of a single ‘grand projet’ it takes many different forms including land grabs, speculative development, rising property prices (the subject of an apparent spat between Coalition Government members just this week) – one might also include benefit reforms, especially limits on housing benefit which are already driving people out of town and which has been likened to a kind of ‘social cleansing’.
As a result, he says, there are a vast number of people who are on the ‘periphery’ of the city (perhaps figuratively as well as literally), displaced by high rents and property prices, unable to find secure or reasonably paid work (who do not just include the poor and traditionally working class, but an increasing number of the middle classes too), but who are disparate, multi-variate and unorganised.
Thus, Merrifield asks, how can these modern ‘sans-culottes’ organise themselves and what will stir them into doing so? Whilst he highlighted a variety of characters that might play a part – from ‘professional organisers‘ to ‘secret agents’, from ‘great escapers’ to ‘great refusers’ – this, sadly, is a question he did not fully answer on the night. Perhaps that was a bit much to expect in a relatively short session, but there are two questions which I think need to be properly addressed if his otherwise engaging analysis is to have useful purpose: the first is the question of how people are to organise themselves. The ever-present danger is that in seeking to organise themselves, the dispossessed merely end up reproducing whatever it is they seek to replace.
David Harvey made a particularly interesting observation in this respect with which I concur: the forms of organisation that are used to oppose capitalism often reflect the structure of capitalism itself. Thus, today, traditional forms of opposition in the form of trade unions and political parties that sought to use the state apparatus have become irrelevant and been replaced by relatively flat ‘networked’ organisation with a concomitant scepticism towards the state apparatus, which precisely reflects the prevailing attitude of the modern neo-liberal ethic and structure of capitalism. There may be a complacency which assumes that the risks of oligarchy in those ‘traditional’ organisations (first highlighted by Robert Michels a century ago) have been negated by more ‘networked’ non-hierarchical organisation. That may be so, but it should not be assumed that this kind of organisation is inherently anti-capitalist. It very clearly is not.
Secondly, what here went unsaid – and often does go unsaid – is that if one believes it is possible to replace capitalism with something else and wishes to do so, then what exactly will it be replaced with? As Harvey pointed out, of crucial importance here is understanding capitalism itself. A lot of those who say they oppose capitalism, he said, do not see the need to understand it, perhaps from fear of becoming mesmerised by it. This – it seems fair to say – is a fatal error if you claim to want to replace it. If you do not understand what you are trying to replace how can you be sure that – given what I have already said about organisation – that you will not merely be replicating it in another guise? The danger, therefore, may be that in seeking to oppose and replace capitalism one succeeds merely in reproducing it.