Mikkel Bolt
Associate Professor at the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen. He is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

A nostalgia-free analysis of the city as an arena for subjectivation and re-composition from the Italian political philosopher Antonio Negri.

Today more than half the world’s populations live in cities. That means that any progressive politics must necessarily be urban, or at the very least relate to urban life. Marx and Engels famously predicted that the «great cities» that grew up around the mid-19th century would become the scene for a spatial concentration of workers, who under the pressure of the disruptive capitalist- modernisation process would evolve into a new social collective. «The proletariat becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more,» as they put it in the Communist Manifesto. The revolutions of the 20th century, however, did not develop along the lines predicted by Marx. Rather than the city and its workers, it largely fell to peasants from or in the countryside to rise up and carry out revolutions in «backward» countries like Russia, Turkey, Spain, Bolivia and China. The city did not become the arena for proletarian action that Marx imagined in 1848.

«The essays are analyses of new forms of struggle that in some way relate to the city.»

The city as an arena for dynamisation and fragmentation

One of the reasons why Marx and Engels’ prediction did not come true is that cities also function as arenas for violent social dynamisation and fragmentation. The two revolutionaries were entirely right when asserting that big cities would concentrate the proletariat in greater masses, forcing the people closer both physically and mentally, but this «lumping together» (to use Marx and Engels’ name for the process) is also a process of dynamisation and fragmentation. As such, it seems to generate indifference and various strands of national ressentiment rather than class-consciousness. It is, after all, in the modern city that «all that is solid melts into air,» where everything is incessantly transformed and broken up. The capitalist modernisation is a violent process that uproots older forms of solidarity and community and makes everything the object of doubt. The real subject in the big city, in other words, is money, as Georg Simmel stated in his classic 1903 essay on the city: «Money, with all its colourlessness and indifference, becomes the most common denominator of all values, irreparably it hollows out the core of things, their individuality, their specific value, and their incomparability.»

«The city becomes an enormous machine of subjectivation»

The city as a maelstrom of impressions

The mental effects of city life are familiar themes in modern art and poetry: From Baudelaire to Monet at the end of the 19th century to the futurists in Italy; from the Berlin Dada both before and after World War I to situationism and pop after World War II – the city is portrayed as a chaotic jumble of moods and passions. The modern city-dwelling individual is thrown into a maelstrom of impressions from which he cannot disentangle himself. On the contrary he becomes one with his surroundings, as seen in Joyce’s Ulysses, where city and consciousness are fused together in Leopold Bloom’s stream of thought. The city’s throngs and jumble are thus mirrored in Bloom’s mushrooming inner monologue.

Not politicisation, but subjectivation

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