Thursday, April 02, 2009

The right to the City

In the stringent materialist spirit of ‘not telling oneself stories’, K-punk and Owen (and here) raise some urgent questions about the coherence and efficacy of actions such as yesterday’s ‘G20 Meltdown’ (fated to be followed by today’s G20 muddle-through). I am fully in sympathy with the suggestion that struggles at the point of appearance, so to speak, are hamstrung at best and spectacularly functional at worst, and that action at the point of production must play a crucial part in any viable strategy of opposition and emancipation. But there’s also a danger in thinking that factory struggles can have anything like the role they did at high points of struggle in the past, not just because of transformations in what the autonomists used to call the technical composition of labour, but because the physiognomy of the present crisis requires articulating forms of struggle that concern claims lying beyond the wage (housing, debt, credit, pensions, health, etc.). David Harvey’s recent intra-Marxist challenge to think the specificity of financial struggles is very significant in this respect. The whole piece is very much worth reading, but this passage in particular deserves rumination (and organisation):

There is another point we have to consider, which is that labour, and particularly organised labour, is only one small piece of this whole problem, and it’s only going to have a partial role in what is going on. And this is for a very simple reason, which goes back to the failure of Marx and how he set up the problem. If you say to yourself the formation of the state-finance complex is absolutely crucial to the dynamics of capitalism, and you ask yourself what social forces are at work in contesting that or setting it up, labour has never been at the forefront. Labour has been at the forefront of the labour market and the labour process, which are important moments in the circulation process, but most of the struggles that have gone on over the state-finance nexus are populist struggles.

The concrete demands which have been voiced, such as those formulated by Robin Blackburn in the New Left Review, go in this direction. The question is of course that of which forces, and with what means, could even begin to fight for such transitional, reformist policies (rather than angrily demand or blandly petition).

It’s rather trite, but it seems only new forms of syndicalism/trade-unionism, decoupled from the legacy (and legality) of merely sectoral or corporativist struggle, and entirely separate from party structures, could build a transversal front for a kind of radical reformism. I think this would require quite a revolution in the mindset and modes of action currently employed by unions. (Incidentally, this also concerns the question of ‘climate change’ the response to which, if it is not to elicit a dubious plea to the benevolence of State or Capital, will require real participation by organised workers and citizens, lest ‘solutions’ mean ‘restructuring’ individuals into obsolescence: Soylent green capitalism.)

On a lesser note, though evading the kettle, and the specularity of which it is a part, would be wise, I think there’s still a glimmer in gatherings like yesterday’s of a crucial aspect of any politics, what Harvey, again, has called the ‘right to the city’, a right which ‘is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves’.

In a more lyrical vein, the Italian critic Furio Jesi wrote the following lines, in a brief political pamphlet on Rimbaud’s Bateau Ivre written in the wake of May ’68 (incidentally, it is from Jesi that Agamben lifted his notion of ‘anthropological machine’, as deployed in The Open):

You can love a city, you can recognise its houses and its streets in your most remote and secret memories; but only in the hour of revolt is the city really felt like an haut-lieu [a high place] and at the same time your own city: your own because it belongs to one but at the same time also to others; your own because it is a battlefield you and the collectivity have chosen; your own, because it is a circumscribed space in which historical time is suspended and in which every act has its own value, in its immediate consequences.

A mere glimmer, I repeat, since yesterday’s vaguely ludic presidium was mostly marked by an odd combination of observation-overload, (kettle-enforced) tedium, uneasy wait for ‘something to happen’, and carnivalesque gestures which, at least in my jaded eyes, did not really transfigure the City’s space. But the ‘hysterical’ dimension, or better the anxiety of not really knowing what one wants (or what ‘it’ – the protest, the crowd, the event – wants), need not be cause for despair. The challenge, as ever, will be to combine a reflection on concrete claims (rather than demands) and the forces that might bear them, a new politics of popular interests capable of channeling what will otherwise turn into ugly reaction, with the creation of spaces where some kind of utopian inquiry and experimentation can take place. We don’t know what we want (exactly, yet), but it’s never too early to struggle to change ourselves (and what we want, or need) by changing our cities and workplaces (whether factories or otherwise).


Blogger Nate said...

hey comrade,

I have several responses to this post. One is that I think a crucial piece of political composition is telling stories (or rather, that can be one tool to effect a needed end in political recomposition).

I may be just telling myself a story, but I think factory struggles may well still have that power - I say that with perhaps a few caveats. From what I've read by and about various autonomists I'm not sure how much they understood those factory struggles or the role they played for the class (I think the post-operaist types understand this least of all). On that, I think the claims about the changes in the technical composition and, even more so, the degree to and manner in which those changes in the technical composition condition possibilities for political composition are claims much exaggerated. And again, stories - the subjective effect or utility of that sort of struggle is underdetermined by its immediate object (for lack of a better term) power in relation to capital, what with victory being at least in part an interpretible category. I do think you and Harvey are right about the importance of finance and monetarization.

I'm attached to this potential of factory struggles precisely because I think syndicalism is a necessary component to what we need now and are so sorely lacking. On at least some days I'll concede your implication that syndicalism is only necessary, not sufficient, which is I think part of what's bound up with the issue of the power (or not) of factory struggles. At the same time, I think stressing the lack of power of those struggles is an emphasis which, at least in the US left I'm somewhat familiar with, plays into the near total lack of a workplace politics. Likewise with the right to the city. As great as I'm sure all of that would be I just can't imagine that idea playing out in the actually existing left in any way other than repeating many of the problems, dead ends, and the near total absence of actual struggles for workplace control that plagues so much of the left today. Perhaps I secretly hold to a stagist theory of political subjects. In any case, I would be more sympathetic to talk of limits of factory struggles and taking over the city and building fronts that cross workplace struggles with other concerns if we had a powerful and existing syndicalist left. Short of that, I'm not sure that we can build all of that at once and it might be better to focus first on the syndicalism then push it forward to a higher stage.

I will now stop ranting. This post was thought provoking.

Hope you're well.


9:25 PM  
Blogger Eric Brandom said...

so, what counts as a *syndicat* (or, what counts as syndicalism)?

11:54 AM  

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