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“Every revolution has its square”

http://citiesmcr.wordpress.com/2011/03/18/every-revolution-has-its-square

Tiananmen square, Place de la Bastille, Red Square, Alexanderplatz, Tahrir square, Assaha-

al-Khadra, Syntagma Square, Green Square, Wenceslas square: these are just a few of the

public spaces that have become engrained in our symbolic universe as emblematic sites of

revolutionary geographies. Their names stand as points de capiton that quilt a chain of

meaning through signifiers like democracy, revolution, freedom, being-in-common,

solidarity, emancipation. The emergence of political space, these examples suggest, unfolds

through a political act that stages collectively the presumption of equality and affirms the

ability of ‘the people’ to self-manage and organize its affairs. It is an active process of

intervention through which (public) space is reconfigured and through which – if successful –

a new socio-spatial order is inaugurated. The taking of urban public spaces has indeed always

been, from the Athenian ochlos demanding to be part of the polis to the heroic struggle of the

Tunisian people, the hallmark of emancipatory geo-political trajectories.

There is an uncanny choreographic affinity between recent urban revolts in the Middle

East and eruptions of discontent and urban protest in Athens, Madrid, Lyon, Lisbon, Rome,

London, Berlin, or Paris, among many other cities. However, although the Middle Eastern

uprisings are celebrated by Western media pundits and politicians, their European

counterparts are often disavowed as illegitimate outbursts of irrational anger and anarchic

violence. Consider, for example, how a few hundred thousand people acting in common on

Tahrir square are staged as the stand-in for The People, for the totality of 81.3 million

Egyptians, while the participants in urban insurgencies in the global North are customarily
labeled as protesters, rebels, anarchists and, occasionally, as ‘scum’. Particularly when things

turn nasty, every effort is made to assure that the ‘rioters’ are not identified with The People.

Despite their highly variegated political-economic and socio-cultural embedding, the events

in Europe and the Middle East share that they are considered illegitimate, often repressed,

and invariably disavowed by the ‘local’ elites. Their participants are not considered to be

proper political interlocutors. Sarkozy called the 2005 rioters ‘racaille’,Gaddafi repeated

something similar six years later in his repudiation of rebelling Libyans. Yet, these events

also share an indisputably ‘political’ character.

The contemporary urban condition is marked by a post-political police order of

managing the spatial distribution and circulation of things and people within a consensually

agreed neo-liberal arrangement. Rancière associates this condition with the notion of ‘The

Police’, conceived as a heterogeneous set of technologies and strategies for ordering,

distributing, and allocating people, things, and functions to designated places. These

managerial practices and procedures colonize and evacuate the proper spaces of the political;

the Police are about hierarchy, ordering, and distribution. Spatialized policies (planning,

architecture, urban policies, etc...) are one of the core dispositifs of the Police.

Politics inaugurate the re-partitioning of the Police logic, the re-ordering of what is

visible and audible, registering as voice what was only registered as noise, and re-framing

what is regarded as political. It occurs in places not allocated to the exercise of power or the

instituted negotiation of recognized differences and interests. As Badiou insists, politics

emerge as an event: the singular act of choreographing egalitarian appearance of being-in-

common at a distance from the State. Whereas any logic of the Police is a logic of hierarchy,

of inequality, politics is marked by the presumption of equality within an aristocratic order

that invariable ‘wronged’ this presumption.


It is within this aporia between la politique (the Police) and le politique (the political)

that urban insurrections can be framed. While much of the State’s attempts to re-order the

urban through mobilizing discursively a set of signifiers of inclusiveness (social cohesion,

inclusion, emancipation, self-reliance), while reproducing in practice well-worn clichés of

urban doom (exclusion, danger, crisis, fear). Attempts to produce ‘cohesive’ cities revolve

around choreographing distribution and circulation of activities, things and people such that

the police order remains intact. While the state’s statements frame particular trajectories of

‘inclusion’, they shy away from acknowledging division, polemic, dissensus and, above all,

from endorsing the assumption of equality on which the democratic political rests. Justice,

equality and communality are censored from the script of urban policy prescriptions.

It is precisely this suturing process that suspends political litigation, voicing or staging

dissent or asserting polemical equality. These cut through the police order and tentatively

open up the spaces of the political again. The urban insurgents have no demands; they do not

expect anything from the Police. They have no program, no pronunciations; neither leader

nor party. Perhaps they are part of something that is called into being through resonance, viral

infection and affiliation, not through hierarchy and structure. They do not demand equality,

they stage it and, in doing so, produce, pace Balibar, equa-libertarian spaces. This staging of

equality and freedom, the interruption of the normalized geographical order of the sensible,

exposes the aristocratic configuration and in-egalitarian ‘wrongs’ of the given, and invariably

encounters the Police’s wrath. Such exposition of equa-liberty cannot remain unnoticed: it

either succeeds or meets with violence, the terror of the State that – in its violent acting –

precisely affirms that some people are not part of The People, that the police order is indeed

in-egalitarian.

This constitutive gap between Police and Politics needs to be affirmed. Politics cannot

be reduced to managing and ordering space, to consensual pluralist and institutionalized


policy-making. This is the terrain of the Police; the ontic dimension of everyday socio-spatial

management. The political – as the staging of equality in the face of a wrong – is nothing else

but the affirmation of impossibility of consensual management, of autocratic rule; it is an

anarchic interruption that affirms the foundation of the democratic invention, i.e. the equality

of each and every one qua speaking beings – a condition that is predicated upon affirming

difference and the dissensual foundation of politics.

This notion of politics centers on division, conflict, and polemic. Politics appears as a

practice of re-organizing space under the aegis of equality; it emerges where it is not

supposed to be, in public space. Such political events are interventions that transgress the

symbolic order and mark a shift to a new situation that can no longer be thought of in terms

of the old symbolic framings. Proper politics is thus about enunciating demands that lie

beyond the symbolic order of the Police; demands that cannot be symbolized within its frame

of reference and, therefore, would necessitate a transformation in and of the Police to permit

symbolization to occur. Therefore, the political act is, as Žižek argues, “not simply something

that works well within the framework of existing relations, but something that changes the

very framework that determines how things work …. it changes the very parameters of what

is considered ‘possible’ in the existing constellation”. This constitutes a proper political

sequence; one that can be thought and practiced irrespective of any substantive social

theorization. It is the political in itself at work. Such new symbolizations are where a possible

re-politicization of public civic space resides. These symbolizations should start from the

premise that the presumption of equality on which democracy rests is ‘wronged’ by an

oligarchic police order. It emerges where those who are un-counted and unnamed, whose

fantasies are only registered as noise, produce their metaphorical and material space. Such

claim to the Polis is what links the urban protests in the Middle East and the Global North. It

signals the ability of The People to take hold of their future.