The multitude and the metropolis*
1. ‘Generalising’ the strike.
It is interesting to note how, on the occasion of the Spring and Summer 2002 struggles in Italy, the project of ‘generalising’ the strike of the movement of precarious and socially diffuse workers, men and women, seemed to be harmlessly and uselessly subsumed beneath the workers’ ‘general strike’. After this experience, many comrades who participated in the struggle began to realise that whilst the workers’ strike was ‘damaging’ to the employer, the social strike passed without notice through the folds of the global working day. It neither damaged the masters nor helped the mobile and flexible workers. This realisation raised a series of questions: how do we understand how the socially diffuse worker fights; how can he concretely subvert in the space of the metropolis his subordination to production and the violence of exploitation? How does the metropolis present itself to the multitude and is it right to say that the metropolis is to the multitude what the factory used to be to the working class?
In fact this hypothesis presents us with a problem, one not simply raised by the obvious differences between social and workers’ struggles in terms of their immediate efficacy. It also raises a more pertinent and general question: if the metropolis is invested by the capitalist relation of valorisation and exploitation, how can we grasp, inside it, the antagonism of the metropolitan multitude? In the 60’s and 70’s, as these problems emerged in relation to working class struggles and the changes in metropolitan life, often very effective responses were given. We will summarise these later. For the time being, we just want to underline how these responses were concerned with an external relation between working class and other metropolitan layers of wage and/or intellectual labour. The problem today is posed differently because the various sections of the labour force appear to exist in the metropolitan hybrid as an internal relation and immediately as multitude: a whole of singularities, a multiplicity of groups and subjectivities, who mould the (antagonistic) shape of metropolitan spaces.
2. Theoretical anticipations.
Amongst the theorists of the metropolis (architects and urbanists), Koolhaas was the one who provided us, at the end of the 70’s and in a delirious manner, with a new image of the metropolis. We are obviously referring to Delirious New York . What was the central thesis of this book?
Koolhaas drew an image of the metropolis that -because of but in spite of a more or less coherently developed planning- lived through dynamics, conflicts, powerful juxtapositions of cultural layers, life styles and forms and of a multiplicity of hypothesis and projects for the future.
In order to understand the city, one had to look at this complexity and this microphysics of powers from within. New York in particular was the example of an extraordinary historical, political, technological and artistic accumulation of various forms of urban planning. However, this was not enough, for one also had to recognise that the metropolis was stronger than the urban centre. Speculative interests and citizens’ resistances defeated and swept away both the prescriptions of power and the utopias of the opposition. The metropolis confused and mixed the terms of the urban discourse: starting from a certain urban intensity, the metropolis constituted new categories, it was a proliferating machine. The measure went beyond itself. What was needed was to provide a microphysical analysis of the metropolis -in this case one of New York- that could account for both the thousands of active singularities and the forms of repression and blockage that the power of the multitude met. Thus Koolhaas’ architecture grew amongst great plans of urban co-habitation that were then taken up, modified and mixed with other architectural forms…Koolhaas’ architecture tells a great story, that of the destruction of western cities and their replacement by the hybrid metropolis. That for Koolhaas architectural development is classified in a manner functional to the different organising techniques of the building work is not relevant, though useful to understand. What is of interest here is the exact opposite: despite the industrial corporativasation of the agents of production, here we perceive how far the metropolis organises itself on continuous yet distorted layers, consistent with the Welfare paradigm yet hybrid. The metropolis is a common world, everyone’s product – Not general will but common aleatoriness.
Thus the metropolis wants to be imperial. Koolhaas is a forerunner of weak postmodernism. Drawing from the genealogy of the metropolis, he anticipates an operation that will become crucial in mature postmodernism: the recognition of the global dimension as a more productive and generous one from the economic standpoint and with respect to lifestyles.
This critical effort is neither solitary nor neutral. On the contrary, it produces a different critique; it entrusts it into the real movement. For instance, when we introduce differential and antagonistic elements in the knowledge of the city and we make them the motor of metropolitan construction, we also compose other fields of living and fighting – common ones. Another example concerns the metropolis and collectivation. Surely, this old socialist word is now obsolete and surpassed in the consciousness of new generations. But this is not a problem. The project is not one of collectivation but of recognition and organisation of the common. A common made of a great wealth of life styles, of collective means of communication and life reproduction, and above all of the exceeding of common expression of life in metropolitan spaces. We enjoy a second generation of metropolitan life, creator of cooperation and exceeding in immaterial relational linguistic values: it is a productive generation. Here is the metropolis of the singular and collective multitude.
Many postmodernists reject the possibility of regarding the metropolis of the multitude as a collective and singular space, massively common and subjectively malleable and always newly invented. These rejections turn the analyst into the buffoon or the sycophant of power. In fact we have recuperated the ideas of external economies, of immaterial dynamics, of cycles of struggles and all that makes up the multitude.
New York is postmodern in so far as it has participated to all stages of the modern and has, so to speak, consumed them in critique and in prefiguring something else: the result is hybrid, the metropolitan hybrid as a spatial and temporal figure of the struggles, a plan of the microphysics of power.
3. Metropolis and global space.
Before and more than anyone else, Saskia Sassen taught us to see the metropolis, all metropolises, not only -like Koohlaas- as a hybrid and internally antagonistic aggregate, but also as a figure homologous to the general structure of capitalism in the imperial phase. Metropolis expresses and individualises the consolidation of global hierarchies, in its most articulated points, in a complex of forms and exercise of command. Class differences and the general planning of the division of labour are no longer made between nations, but rather between centre and periphery in the metropolis. Sassen observes skyscrapers in order to draw implacable lessons. Who commands is at the top, who obeys is below; in the isolation of those who are highest lies the link with the world, whilst in the communication of those who are lowest one finds mobile points, life styles and renewed functions of metropolitan recomposition. Therefore, we must traverse the possible spaces of the metropolis if we want to knot together the threads of struggle, to discover the channels and forms of connection and the ways in which subjects live together.
Sassen suggests looking at skyscrapers as the structure of imperial unification. At the same time she hints to the subtle provocative proposal of imagining the skyscraper as an above and below rather than as a whole. Between the above and below runs the relation of command, of exploitation and therefore the possibility of revolt.
Sassen’s themes strongly resonated in Europe in the 90’s when, with some difficulty and yet effectively, some antagonistic forces started seeing the structure of the metropolis as the mirror of the contradictions of globalisation. In fact, whether there were skyscrapers or not, the global order re-established an above and a below in the metropolis, that of a relation of exploitation that spread across the internal horizon of urban society. Sassen showed the places and the relations of exploitation and dissolved the multitude, bringing it back to the dispersed exercise of material activities. On the other side there is command. Blade Runner has become science fiction.
4. Historical anticipations.
Others see the metropolises of skyscrapers and of Empire as places of struggle that can reveal common aspects and above all embody organisations and procedures of resistance and subversion. In this respect, one example immediately comes to mind: the Parisian struggles of the winter of 1995-96. These struggles are to be remembered because at the time the privatisation plans of public transport were rejected not only by the trade unions but also by the combined struggles of the metropolitan population. However, these struggles could never have reached their great intensity and importance without being traversed and somehow prefigured by the struggles of sans papiers, sans logement, sans-travail etc. This is to say that metropolitan complexity at its highest level opens up lines of flight to the whole of the urban poor: then the metropolis, even the imperial one, wakes up to antagonism.
These developments and antagonisms were anticipated during the seventies: in Germany, the United States and Italy. The great shift of the frontline from the factory to the metropolis, from class to multitude, was theoretically and practically experienced and organised by many vanguards. ‘Reclaim the city’ was a persistent, important and overwhelming watchword in Italy. Similar words went through the German Bürger-initiativen and the squatters’ experiences in most European metropolises. Factory workers recognised themselves in this development, whilst the order of the unions and that of the parties of the working class movement ignored it. The refusal to pay transport fares, the massive occupations of houses, the seizing of districts for the organisation of free time and for the security of workers against the police and fiscal agents were projects carried out with great care. These zones were then called ‘red bases’ but were in fact more city spaces for public opinion rather than places as such. Sometimes they were decisively non-places – they were mass demonstrations in motion that went through and occupied squares and territories. Thus the metropolis began to be rebuilt by a strange alliance: factory workers and metropolitan proletarians. Here we started to see how powerful this alliance could be.
At the basis of these political experiences there was another greater theoretical experimentation. At the beginning of the 70’s we started observing a metropolis invaded by skyscrapers with globalisation, but also built by the transformations of labour practices in the course of their realisation. Alberto Magnaghi and his comrades published a formidable journal (Quaderni del Territorio) that showed, more convincingly in each issue, how capital was investing the city and transforming each street into a productive flux of commodities. The factory was then extended onto society: this much was evident. But it also became clear that this productive investment of the city radically modified class struggle.
5. Police and war.
In the 90’s the great transformation of productive relations that invested the metropolis reached a quantitative limit and configured a new phase. Capitalist recomposition of the city, or the metropolis, is given in all its complexity by the new configuration of the relations of forces in Empire. Mike Davis was the first to provide an adequate image of the phenomena that characterise the postmodern metropolis.
The erection of walls to delimit zones the poor cannot access, the definition of spaces of ghettos where the desperate of the earth can accumulate, the disciplining of the lines of transit and control that keep the order, the preventive analysis and practice of containment and persecution of possible interruptions of the cycle: today, in the literature on empire, when the continuity between war and global police is mentioned we often neglect to say that the continuous and homogeneous techniques of war and police were invented in the metropolis.
‘Zero tolerance’ has become the watchword, or rather, the dispositif of prevention that invests entire social strata whilst persevering against the refractory and excluded individuals. Skin colour and race, or religious clothing, customs or class differences are, in turns, assumed as the defining elements of the repressive zoning within the metropolis.
The metropolis is built on these dispositifs. As we said regarding Sassen’s work, the spatial dimensions, the width and height of buildings and public spaces are completely subordinated to the logic of control. This occurs wherever it is possible. In the spaces where the housing capital determines too high a profit to be turned into instruments of direct control through the application of heavy urban processes the metropolitan landscape is covered in electronic control networks and traversed by representations of danger that televisions and helicopters design. Soon on each city we will see gathered those instruments of automatic control, autopilot planes and police clones that the army currently use as norm in wars. Soon the enclosures and red zones will be established according to logic of control planes: urban planning will have to interiorise the forms of aerial global control and prioritise them over the freedom to develop spaces and society. It is clear that in so saying we exasperate trends that are still limited and only represent one part of metropolitan development. As in the theory of war here the enormous capacity for developing violence on the part of power, the so called total asymmetry, generates adequate responses: the ghost of David against the reality of Goliath. Similarly the ‘zero tolerance’planning of control on the city produces new forms of resistance. The metropolitan network is continuously interrupted and sometimes subverted by webs of resistance.
The capitalist recomposition of the metropolis builds traces of recomposition in the multitude. The fact is that in order to be given control itself must recognise, or even build, transindividual schemes of citizenship. All of urban sociology, from the Chicago School to our days, acknowledges that within a framework of extreme individualism, the concepts and schemes of interpretation must assume transindividual dimensions, almost those of community. Analysis must be applied to the development of these forms of life. This is how determinate localisations of the movements of the multitude and definite spaces in the metropolis will be discovered. Spatial and temporal determinations of the habitat and income (consumption) are used to design the contours of districts and to determine the behaviours of populations. War as the legitimation of order and the police as the instrument of order: these powers that are assumed as the constituent function of the metropolis and take the place of citizens and movements cannot get through. Again, the analysis of the metropolis refers back to the perception of the excess of value produced by the cooperation of immaterial labour. The crisis of the metropolis is moved much further.
6. Building the metropolitan strike.
They told me that when the ‘general 24 hours strike’ was launched in Seville, during the night, from midnight onwards, groups formed in all districts to block all roads, all boites de nuit and to communicate to the city the urgency of struggle.
This lasted for a whole day alongside a general mobilisation on the metropolitan territory concentrated in the afternoon in mass demonstrations. Here is a good example of management of a general strike: a metropolitan strike where throughout the 24 hours of the working day, different sections of social labour meet. However, this formidable political movement seems insufficient to characterise a ‘generalised strike’. We need to go deeper and analyse specifically each passage and/or movement of recomposition, each moment of struggle that can flow into the construction of a social strike. Why are we saying this? Because we regard the metropolitan strike as the specific form of recomposition of the multitude in the metropolis. The metropolitan strike is not a socialisation of the working class strike: it is a new form of counter power. We still do not know how it operates in time and space. What we know is that a functionalist sociology, one of those that puts together various sections of social recomposition of labour under capitalist control, will not design a metropolitan strike. The encounter, the clash and the intertwining and moving forward of the different strata of the metropolitan multitude cannot be seen other than as constructions (through struggle) of movements of power. How does this movement become capable of spreading power? For us the answer does not allude to the Winter Palace. Metropolitan revolts do not pose the question of substituting a mayor: they express new forms of democracy and schemes other than those of control. Metropolitan revolt is always a refoundation of the city.
7. Rebuilding the metropolis.
Hence ‘generalised strike’ must contain in itself the ‘delirious’ project of rebuilding the metropolis. This entails finding the common and building metropolitan proximities. We have two figures that are absolutely indicative of this project, they lie at the extreme margins of a scale of community: the fire fighter and the immigrant.
The fire fighter represents the common as security, as recourse of all in case of danger, as the constructor in the common imaginary of children; the immigrant is the man needed to give colour to the metropolis as well as meaning to solidarity. The fire fighter is the danger, the immigrant is the hope. The fire fighter is insecurity; the immigrant is what is to come. When we think of the metropolis we conceive of it as the physical community that is wealth and production of cultural community. Nothing better than the metropolis indicates the design of a sustainable development, a synthesis of ecology and production in the biopolitical framework. In this period, today, we are carrying the weight of a series of old ignoble and impotent schemes of social democracy, according to which the metropolis can only reproduce if we introduce in it social safety valves that can be used to turn (and eventually to repair) the dramatic effects of capitalist development into money. Politicians and corrupt unions are negotiating these safety valves… We think that the metropolis is an exceptional and excessive resource even when the city is made up of favelas, barracks and chaos. Neither schemes of order, prefigured by an omnipotent power (from the earth to the sky through war and police), nor neutralising structures (repressions, cushions etc.) can be imposed on the metropolis and inside its social tissue. The metropolis is free. The freedom of the metropolis stems from the building and rebuilding that it carries out on itself day by day; the ‘general strike’ is inserted in this framework. It is the prolonging or rather the manifestation or revelation of what is alive in the depth of the city. Probably in Seville the ‘general strike’ was also the discovery of that other society that lives in the metropolis during the whole of the working day.
We do not know whether things really went that way: however, what we want to underline is that the ‘general strike’ is a kind of radical excavation in the life of the metropolis: its productive structure and its common.
*Published on the journal Posse and then circulated on firstname.lastname@example.org on 20/11/02
Translated by Arianna Bove