This post was contributed by Rowan Lubbock, a student on Birkbeck’s MPhil/PhD programme (Politics) whose research focuses on the relationship between the peasant movement La Via Campesina and the regional institution of ALBA.
In a packed lecture hall last Thursday night at Birkbeck College, I was lucky enough to see two heavyweights of urban studies and Marxist theory in conversation, largely around the topics of their latest books. Andy Merrifield’s The New Urban Question, and David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism set the tone of the conversation, which sought to unravel ‘the urban’ as it exists today.
Merrifield kicked off the evening with an explication of what the ‘new’ urban question entailed. Fundamentally, the neoliberalisation of cities had created a type of ‘neo-Haussmannisation’, a process that transforms public infrastructures into sources of profit for private actors. The term seeks to compare and contrast today’s urban form with the great renovation project of Paris in 1854 by Georges-Eugène Haussmann, which saw a reorganisation of the urban fabric on a gargantuan scale. Like Haussmann’s Paris, today’s urban condition is characterised by a process of gentrification, turning urban centres into spaces of consumption, speculation and leisure. But unlike Haussmann’s project, today’s neoliberal city does not create new ‘values’ (i.e., creation of infrastructure that absorbs surplus capital, expands employment or facilitates new spaces of accumulation); it ‘parasitically’ extracts value from existing public goods. Merrifield asks how it is possible that capitalism is able to reproduce itself in the absence of what it fundamentally requires for its survival – the creation and re-creation of public infrastructures.
The effect this has on the public at large led Merrifield to enquire into the nature of social resistance to these types of privations. Here, a number of concepts were offered: “double agents”, as those who live a type of double life split between the exploitative nature of their workplace and the more egalitarian values they may hold; or “great escapers”, who seek to exit the system altogether (The Coming Insurrection, being one example). These disparate terms reflect the general disorganised form taken by today’s potential ‘sans-culottes’, yet Merrifield cited the potential for ‘rage’, ‘imagination’ or ‘creativity’ for bringing these social forces together.
Harvey’s response was offered in his typical register, which revolves largely around Marx’s three volumes of Capital. This did, however, bring Merrifield’s winding and speculative exploration into a more grounded understanding of how capital circulates within and beyond ‘the city’. Yet at this point of the conversation, the formalism of ‘critical disagreement’ (which Harvey himself noted was an unavoidable necessity) tended to occlude the substantial overlap between each position.
For example, if Merrifield’s ‘neo-Haussmannisation’ is something that is happening in virtually every city, Harvey helped to stitch this picture together by referring to the ways in which cities form a type of global hierarchy through which the differential flow of value is transmitted; from low-wage, low profit margin-based production in China to high profit margin-based realisation of sales in North America, which has become a key feature of today’s global economy. From his observation of the power shift from productive capital (e.g., General Motors) to commercial capital (Wal-Mart), Harvey questioned to what extent today’s neoliberal cities can be considered ‘parasitic’, given that consumption itself is central to the realisation of value and its production. He went on to say that, “if value cannot be realised through urbanisation then capital is in a lot of difficulty” – thus, the city and the “manner of its orchestration” as a market-place delineates the parameters of this potential difficulty. But surely the manner in which neo-Haussmannisation unfolds, as described by Merrifield, points towards a precarious foundation upon which capital attempts to expand without the requisite spatial infrastructures that are needed in order to move beyond an urbanisation process based on property speculation and conspicuous consumption by the world’s richest people.
Nevertheless, the value of Harvey’s political-economic take on the ‘new’ urban question lay in his claim that the structures of accumulation largely produce their own specific forms of resistance, the corollary of which is that we must understand what capitalism is doing if we want to go beyond it. This is indeed a useful approach that helps us to fill in the gaps created by terms like ‘multitude’ and their ‘screams’ against the power of capital. It would have been interesting to hear some alternative suggestions, which Harvey stopped short of, but this was perhaps unavoidable given that his own provisional answer to the problem of anti-systemic organisation boils down to no less than seventeen necessary elements.
What was certainly made clear that night is the scale of the problems we all face as human beings who are subjected to the most in-human forms of social predation. The need to address the contradictions of capitalism and the questions they pose is more vital now than ever.. .