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

Mikkel Bolt
Associate Professor at the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen. He is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: June 10, 2018

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

The modern city’s lumping together of people doesn’t produce politicisation the way Marx predicted. The city has instead become the arena for a complex process of subjectivation that constantly postpones the revolution and at long intervals even makes it seem impossible or redundant. It’s the story of the city as a spectacle (in Guy Debord’s phrase); the place where the workers of the western world were turned into consumers and citizens in our post-war welfare societies. As Debord, Henri Lefebvre and other thinkers who offered interpretations on the city in the 1950s and 60s described it: the city is a space where a process of subjectivation takes place.

Think of all the images, advertisements, brands and slogans that confront you in any city. That, Debord and Lefebvre realised, was how the city was turned into an enormous machine of subjectivation, allowing the subject to act in specific ways but also limiting its space for action. «To act» should not be taken as meaning merely the act of buying an identity, selecting different goods that signify this or that or choosing between the different identities proffered by late capitalism. It should also be understood in relation to the city’s space for action; space for a more fundamental process that turns man into a subject equipped with self-consciousness and agency but who at the same time is subjected. The city thus becomes a place for simultaneous subjectivation and de-subjectivation. It’s the story of the city as a dispositif, or as an ideological machine that prevents the «lumping together» from creating solidarity and class-consciousness.

The city as an arena for exploitation

Antonio Negri offers a more positive interpretation of this development in the essay collection From the Factory to the Metropolis. The starting points for Negri’s analysis are the changes that have affected the capitalist means of production since 1968, the year of the last great proletarian offensive. The response to the criticism levelled against the Fordist assembly lines and boring petit-bourgeois lifestyle was massive and took the shape of a revolution in the organisation of production and labour, or what for lack of a better term is today known as neo-liberalism. In the book, which includes essays from the 1990s and onwards, Negri alternately describes it as post-industrial or postmodernist modernisation. In this context the city plays a pivotal role, claims Negri, because the arena for exploitation has been extended to embrace city and, indeed, social life itself. That is the title’s point: The city has taken the factory’s place as the arena for exploitation. Negri describes it as «the post-Fordian productive city.»

«Service workers are now the spearhead of the struggle between capital and human labour.»

Italian Antonio (Toni) Negri, radical philosopher and political activist

«The factory has been expanded to embrace the city,» as Negri writes in a nod to his old colleague in the Italian workerist movement Mario Tronti and his concept of the social factory. In the new system of accumulation, the city is even more important than it was for Marx. According to Negri, today’s cities are the most important arenas for both social production and conflict. For a long time the factory and the industrial working class constituted the starting point for a critical Marxist analysis of the capitalist economy. Its place has now been taken by the city. This is where the struggle against exploitation and for a better society occurs. «In the contemporary city the bio-power of capitalism and the bio-politics of the subjects meet and confront each other,» writes Negri.

Analyses of new forms of struggle

Many of the essays in the book are analyses of new forms of struggle that in some way relate to the city. From the 1995 transport strikes in France to the 2011 occupations, the city is both the scene for and the object of the struggle. The struggle takes place in the city and is focused on the right to live in it, as well as on alternative ways of organising urban life. Negri thus sees the three-week long strike in 1995 as an example of the classic factory strike being expanded into a city-wide strike; it is at once more diffusive and more comprehensive in that it plays out in more areas of life. Negri also sees this extension of the struggle (beyond the conventional strikes) in the 2011 occupations in Spain, Greece and the US, which not only rejected crisis politics and austerity programs but also included demands for people’s right to live in the city.

Labour as a permanent organic process

Negri sees the historical development as a process in which industrial manufacturing and the attendant factory workers have lost their position as the avant-garde of the class struggle. Service workers have taken their place as the spearhead of the struggle between capital and human labour. The service worker’s labour is characterised by the way it involves the worker’s emotions in the production of value. According to Negri, emotions and the ability to communicate and think creatively have become essential parts of the new post-Fordian system of accumulation.

«The worker must employ all his skills and emotions to solve ever-changing tasks that are rarely completed.»

Capital responded to the widespread social protests of the 1960s by organising paid labour in new ways. The process involved extending or replacing the Fordist assembly line with more «democratic» forms of labour, while at the same time encouraging the workers to invest in themselves as the means for extracting more surplus value. Work today is not simply an exhausting physical activity that takes place between 7:00 and 15:00. Rather, it has evolved into an all but permanent organic process in which the worker must employ all his cognitive skills and emotions to solve ever-changing tasks that are rarely completed.

The city’s new, autonomous spaces

This development, where the exploitation has penetrated deeper into the human realm and invaded the urban space in its entirety, nevertheless carries the seeds to other, non-capitalist ways of life. The urbanisation of the struggle between labour and capital, between the multitude and the empire, provides us with an opportunity. The city’s abstraction makes possible new social and spatial ways of life that have already liberated themselves from the dialectical mediation and conquest of capitalism. That is what we see in the different struggles playing out in the city whenever squares are occupied, or whenever strikes are launched beyond the factory walls. Negri is looking for a spatial-social parallel to the de-territorialising sphere of communications created by capitalism. The new exploitation, the city-as-productivity, offers a new opportunity. The city’s abstraction and fragmentation have virtually transcended the parasitical relationship between capital and the multitude. The city produces new autonomous spaces that contain opportunities for new social relationships. This is Negri’s optimistic reading of the development.

Free of nostalgia

Negri’s analysis is completely free of the nostalgia that can often be found in so-called radical analyses of the city. His point of departure is urbanisation. That is one of the book’s strengths. But Negri tends to hypostasise the service sector or immaterial labour, and the texts in the book have little to say about the 400 million strong Chinese working class who are still employed in factories. Nor does it deal with the explosive growth of slum-dwellers who are cut off from the capitalist labour market, but find themselves forced to work in the informal sector or to engage in criminal activities. The latter are the proletariat of today. They are not only the ones who have the highest number of children, but also those who, at least as importantly, have nothing to lose and are therefore potentially ready to attack our society and dismantle capitalism.

Modern Times Review