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Designing the Post-Political City and the Insurgent Polis

Erik Swyngedouw

July 2010

Forthcoming as Civic City Cahier – 5 – Bedford Press, London, 2011 .

“Western democracies are only the political facades of economic power. A façade with
colours, banners, endless debates about the sacrosanct democracy. We live in an era
where we can discuss everything. With one exception: Democracy. She is there, an
acquired dogma. Don’t touch, like a museum display. Elections have become the
representation of an absurd comedy, shameful, where the participation of the citizen is
very weak, and in which the governments represent the political commissionaires of
economic power” (José Saramago, 2006).

“There is a shift from the model of the polis founded on a centre, that is, a public centre
or agora, to a new metropolitan spatialisation that is certainly invested in a process of de-
politicisation” (Agamben, 2006)

1. Happy Crisis and Merry Fear (Slogan on Athenian Wall, December 2008)

On 6 December 2008, 15 year old Alexis was shot by the police on an Athenian square,

an event that triggered weeks of violent urban protests and cascaded throughout Greece.

Less than two years later, on 5 May 2010, three people were killed during riotous protests

in Athens in the aftermath of the draconian policy measures the Greek socialist

government had to take under the policing eye of the European Union and the

International Monetary Fund to restore budgetary rigour and to safe French and German

banks overexposed to Greek sovereign debt paper. On 17 July 2010, Grenoble was set on
fire in a clash between rioters and the police. These are some of the recent installments of

a sequence of events that saw insurgent architects trying to re-assemble the urban through

anarchic outburst of irrational violence in the face of turbulent urban and social

transformations for which they felt neither responsible nor had much power over their

design. Emblematically starting with the French urban revolts of the fall of 2004, the

retaking of the streets by protesters jumped around from Copenhagen to Rome and from

London to Riga. Urban revolts and passionate outbursts of discontent have indeed

marked the urban scene over the past decade or so. Rarely in history have so many people

voiced their discontent with the political designs of the elites and signaled a desire for an

alternative design of the city and the world, of the polis. Yet, rarely have mass protest

resulted in so little political gain.

Politically impotent as they may be, these signs of urban violence are nevertheless telltale

symptoms of the contemporary urban order, an order that began to implode, both

physically and socially, with the onslaught, in the fall of 2007, of the deepest crisis of

capitalism in the last 70 years, a crisis that finally exposed the flimsy basis on which the

fantasy of a neo-liberal design for the city and the world of the 21st century was based.

Several trillion Euro worth of bailout funding was put up by governments in the US and

Europe to safe the financial system while the subsequent budgetary difficulties, manifest

from 2010 onwards, prompted radical and devastating austerity measures of which the

devastating implications still have to become clear.

There is apparently no alternative. The state as the embodiment of the commons has to be

marshaled to serve the interests of the elite few. On 7 February 2009, Newsweek

headlined its cover with the slogan ‘we are all socialists now’. Indeed, Newsweek is

correct; they (the elites of the world) are all socialist now, corralling the state to serve

their interest and to make sure that nothing really has to change – that capitalism can go

on as before. And indeed, political dissent is virtually absent; few dissenting voices

among ‘official’ political leaders, whether left or right , are heard. The only way – or so it

seems in which real dissent can be articulated –is by making the public spaces of cities as

recurrent theatres of impotent, violent, but passionate, outbursts of radical insurgent

Cover of Newsweek, 17 February 2009,

In this contribution, I shall consider the contemporary urban condition as a symptom of

this state of the situation. The city offers a privileged scale for dissecting the social body,

for rummaging through the innards of our most intimate fantasies, desires, and fears. We

shall argue that, while the city is alive and thriving at least in some of its spaces, the polis

as the site for public political encounter and democratic negotiation, the spacing of (often

radical) dissent, and disagreement, and the place where political subjectivation emerges,

is performed and thus literally takes place, seems moribund. In other words, the polis as a

‘political’ space is retreating while social space is increasingly colonised or sutured by

consensual techno-managerial policies. This evacuation of the properly political

dimension from the urban -- what will described below as the post-political condition --

constitutes what I define as the ZERO-ground of politics. The leitmotiv of this

contribution will indeed be the figure of a de-politicized Post-Political and Post-

Democratic city.

I shall argue that the urban process at the beginning of the 21st century has shifted

profoundly, giving rise to a new form of governmentality in the Foucaultian sense of the

word, one that is predicated upon new formal and informal institutional configurations –

forms of governance that are characterized by a broadening of the sphere of

governing/controlling/policing, while narrowing, if not suspending, the space of the

properly political. Urban governing today is carried by a wide variety of institutions and

organizations. It operates through a range of geographical scales, and mobilizes a wide

assortment of social actors, including private agents, financial engineers, designers,

architects, and planners, non-governmental organizations, civil society groups,

corporations, and the more traditional forms of local, regional, or national government. It

is a governance regime concerned with policing, controlling and accentuating the

imperatives of a globally connected neo-liberalized market economy for which there is

ostensibly no alternative, while intensifying bio-political control and surveillance and.

This new ‘polic(y)ing’ order reflects what Slavoj Žižek and Jacques Rancière define as a

post-political and post-democratic constitution. I shall insist that this post-political

condition evacuates the political proper – i.e. the nurturing of disagreement through

properly constructed material and symbolic spaces for dissensual public encounter and

exchange – and ultimately perverts and undermines the very foundation of a democratic
polis. This regime exposes what Rancière calls the scandal of democracy: while

promising equality, it produces an oligarchically instituted form of governing in which

political power seamlessly fuses with economic might (Rancière 2005b) and a

governance arrangement that consensually shapes the city according to the dreams,

fantasies, tastes and desires of the transnational economic, political, and cultural elites.

Proper urban politics fosters dissent, creates disagreement and triggers the debating of

and experimentation with more egalitarian and inclusive urban futures, a process that is

wrought with all kinds of tensions and contradictions but also opens up spaces of

possibilities. Exploring the design of dissensual spaces will constitute the final part of this

contribution. But first I shall highlight the contours of present-day urbanity.

2. The privileged city – Musings on the contemporary ‘glocal’ metropolis

Over the past 25 years or so, urban polic(y)ing in the European city, in the context of the

implementation of consensual neo-liberal socioeconomic policies, brought about critical

shifts in domains and levels of intervention and in the composition and characteristics of

actors and agents, institutional structures, and policy instruments. A new urban design,

both materially and managerially, emerged. For cities, changing fortunes means coming

to terms with the consequences of socio-economic dislocation wrought by the

reorganization of production and demand globally, the transnational networking of

companies and individuals, the flows of global hot money, and the fast restructuring of

labour markets. To meet the challenges posed by these new socio-economic realities, the

polic(y)ing agenda of cities has been drastically redefined. The new urban agenda reflects
a shifting policy focus away from regulatory and distributive considerations towards the

promotion of economic growth and competitiveness, entrepreneurship, and market-

sensitive creativity. This strategic turn on the urban agenda is part and parcel of a critical

reappraisal of the form, functions and scope of the city and of inaugurates the rise of a

new mode of urban governance (Swyngedouw 2005b). While a variety of competing

styles of governance still provide for a great deal of differentiation, urban design is

increasingly framed in a common and consensual language of competitive creativity,

flexibility, efficiency, state entrepreneurship, strategic partnerships, collaborative

advantage, and design-intensive acupunctural interventions (Healey 1997; Jessop 1998;

2002; Albrechts 2006).

From the late 1980s onwards, after the initial successes of large scale urban re-

development projects in Boston, Baltimore, and Barcelona, urban development strategies,

aimed at re-positioning cities on the map of globally competitive metropolises, have

strongly relied on the planning and implementation of emblematic projects. They are now

present all over the urban and regional landscape and are the material expression of a

developmental logic that views them as major leverages for generating future growth and

attracting investment capital and consumers. Berlin’s Potzdammer Platz, Amsterdam’s

South Axis, Rotterdam’s Kop van Zuid, Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, Abu Dhabi’s

Masdar eco-city, or Beijing’s or London’s bid to stage the Olympic Games are just a few

examples of the sprawling number of cities that have pursued such tactics. Enhancing

urban competitive advantage is seen as largely dependent on improving and adapting the

built environment to the accumulation strategies of a city’s key elites and plugging the

city into cutting edge transnational economic and cultural elite networks.
The precarious character of this form of urban re-design burst asunder with the onslaught

of the urban-financial crisis that started in 2007. Triggered by the unprecedented

ballooning of fictitious capital in the built environment (the infamous ‘toxic’ mortgages),

sustained by increasingly quixotic technologies of financial engineering in speculative

derivatives markets, the excavation of the origins of the crisis as well as the consensual

subsequent state-management of the crisis exposed the fantasmagoric matrix upon which

the neoliberal claims rested. The neo-liberal revolution that Thatcher and Reagan

unleashed and was subsequently rolled-out and solidified by generalising their

prescriptions to most parts of the world, turned out, in the end, to be a radical re-directing

of the state as a collective agent from supporting an imaginary public to servicing the
interests of local and transnational elites of a particular kind, in particular the financial

and landed capital interests. The mobilisation of the ‘commons of the urban’ in search of

profit and fictitious capital formation was facilitated through the consensual fusion of

state and private interests in public-private partnerships, consolidating, as Paolo Virno

put it, a ‘socialism for the elites’.

Indeed, the neo-liberal fantasy whereby the hidden hand of the market would guarantee

and sustain unlimited growth and a reasonable distribution of goods was exposed as

nothing but a phantasmagoria. Whereby the earlier urban designs more or less

successfully claimed the victory of market forces by disavowing the central role of state-

backed funding and investment under the mask of public-private partnerships, it is now

clear that the prescriptions of urban redesign during the nineties and first decade of the

20th century were only the pioneering forms of a socialism for the transnational capitalist

class, one that is now consolidated into a full-fledged socialist-elite state. A consensual

state-police form has now become more deeply entrenched, whereby the state functions

to organize the survival of capitalism by guaranteeing continuing capital flows on the one

hand and repressing the various forms of radical discontent that ripple throughout the

urban field.

3. The Post-Political City

For Žižek, Mouffe, and Rancière, among others, such consensual arrangements signal the

emergence of a post-political and post-democratic condition. They define the post-

political as a political formation that actually forecloses the political, that prevents the
politicization of particulars (Žižek 1999a: 35);(Žižek 2006);(Mouffe 2005): “post-politics

mobilizes the vast apparatus of experts, social workers, and so on, to reduce the overall

demand (complaint) of a particular group to just this demand, with its particular content –

no wonder that this suffocating closure gives birth to ‘irrational’ outbursts of violence as

the only way to give expression to the dimension beyond particularity” (Žižek 1999b:

204). The post-political condition is one in which a consensus has been built around the

inevitability of state-backed capitalism as an economic system, parliamentary democracy

as the political ideal, humanitarianism and inclusive cosmopolitanism as a moral

foundation. Imagining alternatives to this capitalo-parliamentary ideal (as Badiou calls it)

is censored, foreclosed. Post-politics is “thus about the administration (policing) of social,

economic or other issues, and they remain of course fully within the realm of the

possible, of existing social relations” (Žižek 1999b: 198). “The ultimate sign of post-

politics in all Western countries”, Žižek (Žižek 2002: 303) continues, “is the growth of a

managerial approach to government: government is reconceived as a managerial

function, deprived of its proper political dimension”. Politics becomes something one can

do without making decisions that divide and separate (Thomson 2003). A consensual

governmentality arises, one that either eliminates fundamental conflict or elevates it to

antithetical ultra-politics. The consensual times we are currently living in have thus

eliminated a genuine political space of disagreement. However, consensus does not equal

peace or absence of fundamental conflict (Rancière 2005a: 8).

Difficulties and problems, such as re-ordering the urban, that are generally staged and

accepted as problematic need to be dealt with through compromise, managerial and

technical arrangement, and the production of consensus. “Consensus means that whatever
your personal commitments, interests and values may be, you perceive the same things,

you give them the same name. But there is no contest on what appears, on what is given

in a situation and as a situation” (Rancière 2003b: §4). The key feature of consensus is

“the annulment of dissensus ….. the ‘end of politics’” (Rancière 2001: §32). The post-

political relies on either including all in a consensual pluralist order and on excluding

radically those who posit themselves outside the consensus. For them, as (Agamben

2005) argues, the law is suspended – the ‘police’ order annuls their rights; they are

literally put outside the law and treated as extremists and terrorists. That is why for

Agamben, the ‘Camp’ is the seminal space of late modernity. This form of ultra-politics

pits those who ‘participate’ in the consensual order radically against those who are placed

outside. The riots in Paris in the fall of 2005 and the ‘police’ responses (both those by the

forces of repression as by the political elites) were classic violent expressions of such

urban ultra-politics (for details, see (Dikeç 2007)).

Late capitalist urban governance and debates over the arrangement of the city are not

only perfect expressions of such a post-political order, but in fact, the making of new

creative and entrepreneurial cities is one of the key arenas through which this post-

political consensus becomes constructed, when “politics proper is progressively replaced

by expert social administration” (Žižek 2005: 117). The post-political consensus,

therefore, is one that is radically reactionary, one that forestalls the articulation of

divergent, conflicting, and alternative trajectories of future urban possibilities and

assemblages. The design of consensus uproots the foundation political impulses that

center on disagreement, agonistic conflict and the struggle over the Real of different

urban possibilities. This retreat of the political into the cocoon of consensual policy-
making within a singular distribution of the givens of the situation constitutes, I maintain,

the zero ground of politics.

4. The Question of Democracy: The Post-Political and Post-Democratic Polis –

Suspending Dissensus

A true politics for Jacques Rancière (but also for others like Badiou, Žižek, or Mouffe) is

a political community conceived as:

“A community of interruptions, fractures, irregular and local, through with

egalitarian logic comes and divides the police community from itself. It is a

community of worlds in community that are intervals of subjectification: intervals

constructed between identities, between spaces and places. Political being-

together is a being-between: between identities, between worlds …. Between

several names, several identities, several statuses” (Rancière, 1998: 137-138).

Rancière’s notion of the political is characterized in terms of division, conflict, and

polemic (Valentine, 2005). Therefore, “democracy always works against the pacification

of social disruption, against the management of consensus and ‘stability’ …. The concern

of democracy is not with the formulation of agreement or the preservation of order but

with the invention of new and hitherto unauthorised modes of disaggregation,

disagreement and disorder” (Hallward, 2005: 34-35). The politics of consensual urban

design, therefore, in their post-political guise colonise the political, and contribute to a
further hollowing out of what for Rancière and others constitute the very horizon of the

political as a radically heterogeneous and conflicting one.

In contrast, proper “[p]olitics exists wherever the count of parts and parties of society is

disturbed by the inscription of a part of those who have no part” (Rancière, 1998: 123),

and dissensus is the proper name of egalitarian politics:

“The notion of dissensus thus means the following: politics is comprised of a

surplus of subjects that introduce, within the saturated order of the police, a

surplus of objects. These subjects do not have the consistency of coherent social

groups united by a common property or a common birth, etc. They exist entirely

within the act, and their actions are manifestations of a dissensus; that is, the

making contentious of the givens of a particular situation. The subjects of politics

make visible that which is not perceivable, that which, under the optics of a given

perceptive field, did not possess a raison d’être, that which did not have a name

…. This … constitutes the ground for political action: certain subjects that do not

count create a common polemical scene where they put into contention the

objective status of what is ‘given’ and impose an examination and discussion of

those things that were not ‘visible’, that were not accounted for previously”

(Rancière, 2000c: 124-125)

And this of course stands in contrast to the consensual elite-socialist policies that define,

organize and suture the present debate and practice: “[c]onsensus is thus not another

manner of exercising democracy … [It] is the negation of the democratic basis for

politics: it desires to have well-identifiable groups with specific interests, aspirations,

values and ‘culture’ … Consensualist centrism flourishes with the multiplication of

differences and identities. It nourishes itself with the complexification of the elements

that need to be accounted for in a community, with the permanent process of

autorepresentation, with all the elements and all their differences: the larger the number

of groups and identities that need to be taken into account in society, the greater the need

for arbitration. The ‘one’ of consensus nourishes itself with the multiple” (Rancière,

2000c: 125).

Something similar is at work in the micropolitics of local urban struggles, dispersed

resistances and alternative practices that suture the field of urban social movements

today. These are the spheres where an urban activism dwells as some form for ‘placebo’-

politicalness (Marchart, 2007: 47). This anti-political impulse works through colonization

of the political by the social through sublimation. It elevates ruptures, disagreements,

contestations, and fractures that inevitably erupt out of the incomplete saturation of the

social world by the police order. For example, the variegated, dispersed and often highly

effective (on their own terms) forms of urban activism that emerge within concrete socio-

spatial interventions, such as, among others, land use protests, local pollution problems,

road proposals, urban development schemes, airport noise or expansions, the felling of

trees or forests, the construction of incinerators, industrial works, etc…elevates localized

communities, particular groups and/or organizations (like NGOs), etc.... to the level of

the political. They become imbued with political significance. The space of the political

is thereby “reduced to the seeming politicization of these groups or entities … Here the

political is not truly political because of the restricted nature of the constituency.
(Marchart, 2007: 47). In sum, particular urban conflict is elevated to the status of the

political. Rather than politicizing, such social colonization of the political, in fact, erodes

and outflanks the proper political dimension of egalibertarian universalization. The latter

cannot be substituted by a proliferation of identitarian, multiple and ultimately

fragmented communities. Moreover, such expressions of protest, that are framed fully

within the existing practices and police order (in fact, these protests -- as well as their

mode of expression -- are exactly called into being through the practices of the existing

order – they are positively invited as expressions of the proper functioning of

‘democracy’) are, in the current post-political arrangement, already fully acknowledged

and accounted for. They become either instituted through public-private stakeholder

participatory forms of governance, succumbing to the ‘tyranny of participation’ (Cooke

and Kothari, 2001), or are radically marginalized and framed as ‘radicals’ or

‘fundamentalist’ and, thereby, relegated to a domain outside the consensual post-

democratic arrangement. The more radical forms of urban activism become “an unending

process which can destabilize, displace, and so on, the power structure, without ever

being able to undermine it effectively” (Žižek, 2002: 101) and are as such doomed to

failure. The problem with such tactics is not only that they leave the symbolic order intact

and, at best, ‘tickle’ the police order (see (Critchley, 2007)), but also, as Žižek puts it,

“these practices of performative reconfiguration/displacement ultimately support what

they intend to subvert, since the very fields of such ‘transgressions’ are already taken into

account, even engendered by the hegemonic form” (Žižek, 1999b: 264).

A genuine politics emerges in “the moment in which a particular demand is not simply

part of the negotiation of interests but aims at something more, and starts to function as

the metaphoric condensation of the global restructuring of the entire social space” (Žižek,

1999b: 208). It is about the recognition of conflict as constitutive of the social condition,

and the naming of the spatialities that can become without being grounded in

universalizing notions of the social (in the sense of community, unity, or cohesion) and of

a singular notion of ‘the people. The political becomes for Žižek and Rancière the space

of litigation (Žižek, 1998), the space for those who are not-All, who are uncounted and

unnamed, not part of the ‘police’ (symbolic or state) order. A true political space is

always a space of contestation for those who have no name or no place. As Diken and

Laustsen ((Diken and Laustsen, 2004: 9) put it: “Politics in this sense is the ability to

debate, question and renew the fundament on which political struggle unfolds, the ability

to radically criticize a given order and to fight for a new and better one. In a nutshell,

then, politics necessitates accepting conflict”. A radical-progressive position “should

insist on the unconditional primacy of the inherent antagonism as constitutive of the

political” (Žižek, 1999a: 29)).

The beginning of politics proper, emerged with the demos as an active agent in the Greek

polis, with, as Žižek puts it “the emergence of a group which, although it without a fixed

place in the social edifice (or, at best, occupying a subordinate place), demanded to be

included in the public sphere, to be heard on an equal footing with ruling oligarchy or

aristrocracy, i.e. recognized as a partner in political dialogue and the exercise of power

…. Political struggle proper is therefore not a rational debate between multiple interests,

but, simultaneously, the struggle for one’s voice to be recognized as the voice of a
legitimate partner …. Furthermore, in protesting the wrong (le tort) they suffered, they

also presented themselves as the immediate embodiment of society as such, as the stand-

in for the Whole of Society in its universality …. Politics proper thus always involves a

kind of short-circuit between the Universal and the Particular: the paradox of a singular

which appears as a stand-in for the Universal, destabilizing the ‘natural’ functional order

of relations in the social body” (Žižek, 2006b: 69-70). The elementary gesture of proper

politicization is “[t]his identification of the non-part with the Whole, of the part of society

with no properly defined place within it (or resisting the allocated place within it) with

the Universal, … discernible in all great democratic events” (Žižek, 2006b: 70). Such

new symbolizations through which what is considered to be noise by the police is turned

into speech is where a proper politicization of the urban should start from, where the re-

politicisation of public civic space in the polis resides. Reclaiming proper democracy and

the insurgent design of proper democatric public spaces (as spaces for the enunciation of

agonistic dispute) become a foundation for and condition of possibility for a reclaimed

polis, one that is predicated upon the symbolisation of a positively embodied

egalibertarian socio-ecological future that is immediately realisable. These

symbolizations should start from the premise that equality is being ‘wronged’ by the

given urban police order, and are about claiming/producing/carving out a metaphorical

and material space by those who are unaccounted for, unnamed, whose fictions are only

registered as noise.

The political act (intervention) proper is “not simply something that works well within

the framework of existing relations, but something that changes the very framework that

determines how things work …. [A]uthentic politics … is the art of the impossible – it
changes the very parameters of what is considered ‘possible’ in the existing constellation

(emphasis in original)” (Žižek, 1999b: 199). Designing dissensus is, therefore, an integral

part of the aesthetic register through which the re-framing of what is sensible is

articulated and become symbolisable. This is a call for a de-sublimation and a

decolonization of the political or, rather for a re-conquest of the political, from the social

or, in other words, to re-invent the proper political gesture from the plainly de-

politicizing affects of post-political and post-democratic policing.

5. From Ground-Zero to Reclaiming the Polis: Designing Dissensus

Urban activism that is aimed at the state and demands inclusion in the institutional

registers of urban governance ripples throughout the urban and rituals of resistance are

staged as performative gestures that do nothing but keep the state of the situation intact

and thus contribute to solidifying the post-political consensus. Resistance as the ultimate

horizon of urban movements has become a hysterical act; a subterfuge that masks what is

truly at stake – how to make sure that nothing really changes. The choreographing of

urban conflict today is not any longer concerned with transgressing the boundaries of the

possible, acceptable, and representable, but rather a symptom of the deepening closure of

the space of the political.

Yet, the Real of the political cannot be fully suppressed and returns in the form of the

violent urban outbursts with which I opened this contribution, outbursts without vision,

project, dream or desire, without proper symbolization. This violence is nothing but the

flipside of the disavowal of violence of consensual governance. And it is exactly this

repression of the properly political that surfaces invariably again in violent gestures in a

sort of re-doubling of violence. That is, the return of the repressed or of the Real of the

political in the form of urban violence, of insurgent architects, redoubles in the violent

encounter that ensues from the police order whereby the rallying protesters are placed,

both literally and symbolically, outside the consensual order; they are nothing but, in

Sarkozy’s words and later repeated by the Greek prime minister, ‘scum’ (racaille),

people without proper place within the order of the given.

If the political is foreclosed and the polis as political community moribund in the face of

the suspension of the properly democratic, what is to be done? What design for the

reclamation of the polis as political space can be thought? How and in what ways can the

courage of the urban collective intellect(ual) be mobilised to think trough a design of and

for dissensual or polemical spaces. I would situate the tentative answers to these

questions in three interrelated registers of thought.

The first one revolves around transgressing the fantasy that sustains the post-political

order. This would include not surrendering to the temptation to act. The hysterical act of

resistance (‘I have to do something or the city, the world, will go to the dogs) just

answers the call of power to do what you want, do live your dream, to be a ‘responsible’

citizen. Acting is actually what is invited, an injunction to obey, to be able to answer to

‘What have you done today?’ The proper response to the injunction to undertake action,

to design the new, to be different (but which is already fully accounted for within the

state of the situation), is to follow Bartleby’s modest, yet radically transgressive, reply to

his Master, ‘I’d prefer not to …’. The refusal to act, to stop asking what they want they

want from me, to stop wanting to be liked. The refusal to act as is also an invitation to
think or, rather, to think again. The courage of the urban intellect(ual) is a courage to be

intellectual, to be an organic intellectual of the city qua polis. This is an urgent task and

requires the formation of new imaginaries and the resurrection of thought that has been

censored, scripted out, suspended, and rendered obscene. In other words, is it still

possible to think, for the 21st century, the design of a democratic, polemical, equitable,

free common urbanity. Can we still think through the censored metaphors of equality,

communism, livin-in-common, solidarity, proper political democracy? Are we

condemned to rely on our humanitarian sentiments to manage socially to the best of our

techno-managerial abilities the perversities of late capitalist urbanity, or can a different

politics and process of being-in-common be thought and designed. I like to be on the side

of the latter. This brings me to the second register of thought required.

This second moment of reclaiming the polis revolves around re-centring/re-designing the

urban as a democratic political field of dispute/disagreement: it is about enunciating

dissent and rupture, literally opening up spaces that permit speech acts that claim a place

in the order of things. This centres on re-thinking equality politically, i.e. thinking

equality not as a sociologically verifiable concept or procedure that permits opening a

policy arena which will remedy the observed inequalities (utopian/normative/moral)

some time in a utopian future (i.e. the standard recipe of left-liberal urban policy

prescriptions), but as the axiomatically given and presupposed, albeit contingent,

condition of democracy. Political space emerges thereby as the space for the

institutionalisation of the social (society) and equality as the foundational gesture of

political democracy (presumed, axiomatic, yet contingent foundation). This requires

extraordinary designs (both theoretically and materially), ones that cut through the master
signifiers of consensual urban governance (creativity, sustainability, growth,

cosmopolitanism, participation, etc…) and their radical metonymic re-imagination (see

Gunder and Hillier, 2010). Elements of such transgressive metonymic re-designs include

• Thinking the creativity of opposition/dissenssus and reworking the

‘creative’ city as agonistic urban space rather than limiting creativity to

musings of the urban ‘creative class’

• Thinking through the city as a space for accommodating difference and

disorder. This hinges critically on creating ega-libertarian public spaces.

• Visionary thinking and urban practices: imagining concrete spatio-

temporal utopias as immediately necessary and realizable.

• Re-thinking and re-practicing the ‘Right to the City’ as the ‘Right to the

production of urbanization”. Henri Lefebvre’s clarion call about the ‘Right

to the City’ is indeed really one that urges us to think the city as a process

of collective co-design and co-production.

Thirdly, and most importantly, however, is to traverse the fantasy of the elites, a fantasy

that is sustained and nurtured by the imaginary of an autopoietic world, the hidden-hand

of market exchange that self-regulates and self-organizes, serving simultaneously the

interests of the Ones and the All, the private and the common. The socialism for the elites

that structures the contemporary city is Really one that mobilises the commons in the

interests in the elite Ones through the mobilising and disciplinary registers of post-

democratic politics. It is a fantasy that is further sustained by a double fantastic promise:

on the one hand the promise of eventual enjoyment – “believe us and our designs will

guarantee your enjoyment”. It is an enjoyment that is forever postponed, becomes a true

utopia. On the other hand, there is the promise of catastrophe and disintegration if the

elite’s fantasy is not realised, one that is predicated upon the relentless cultivation of fear

(ecological disintegration, excessive migration, terrorism, economic crisis and

disintegration), a fear that can only be managed through technocratic-expert knowledge

and elite governance arrangements. This fantasy of catastrophe has a castrating effect – it

sustains that impotence for naming and designing truly alternative cities, truly different

emancipatory spatialities and urbanities.

Traversing elite fantasies requires the intellectual and political courage to imagine

egalitarian democracies, the production of common values and the collective production

of the greatest collective oeuvre, the city, the inauguration of new political trajectories of

living life in common, and, most importantly, the courage to choose, to take sides. Most

importantly, traversing the fantasy of the elites means recognizing that the social and

ecological catastrophe that is announced everyday as tomorrow’s threat is not a promise,

not something to come, but IS already the Real of the present. As the Invisible

Committee put it in The Coming Insurrection,

“It’s useless to wait – for a breakthrough, for the revolution, the nuclear

apocalypse or a social movement. To go on waiting is madness. The catastrophe

is not coming, it is here. We are already situated within the collapse of a

civilization. It is within this reality that we must choose sides”