Chapter 7: Introduction - Under the Net: the City and the Camp

Proud to be Flesh Cover


Introduction to Chapter 7 of Proud to be Flesh - Under the Net: the City and the Camp

Today it is not the city but the camp that is the fundamental biopolitical paradigm.

Giorgio Agamben


In the era of ‘free trade’ in commodities and the global flow of information, the control of people has never been stricter. It is in this sense that postmodernity’s much hyped ‘flows’ are rigidly denied to the majority of the world – left to eek out an existence in shacks and sewage – which has partly inspired Mute’s methodology, and that of this chapter. But, of course, it is not just the distance between the lives of the world’s underclass and this elite space of flows that we have analysed, but its proximity too. In other words, hyper-exploitation is not only to be found at the edges of the ‘First World’ but at its centres and, conversely, highly defended pools of privilege are threaded throughout the ‘Third World’. The articles in this chapter plot the ways in which the global proletariat and sub-proletariat are reconfigured, moved around and deployed against one another in a ceaseless attempt to drive down the cost of labour power and extract surplus value. Keeping this as its focus, the chapter develops an integrated understanding of localised ‘race riots’, the crisis of multiculturalism, urban regeneration, global slum clearance and migration.

As Angela Mitropoulos argues, in her article on the race riots in Australia’s Cronulla Beach (2005), wherever the social/wage contract risks breaking down, ‘the figure of the foreigner is put to work’. The ostensible fairness and symmetry of this contract, she explains, cannot be achieved without a border, a beyond, a ‘foreigner’. In order to be a citizen, it is necessary for there to be non-citizens; in order to maintain the ‘fair’ exchange of labour for wages amongst a working elite, the majority’s toil goes unremunerated or is paid a rate below the cost of their own reproduction. In his article on Chinese migrant labour in the UK, John Barker further elaborates this pitting of the working class against itself. Using J.A. Hobson’s discussion of the role of Chinese labour in his 1902 book, Imperialism, Barker exposes the historical necessity of cheap goods and cheap labour in placating the Western proletariat. A declining wage can be masked by the availability of cheap goods, while the import or use of cheap (Chinese) labour maintains a downward pressure on the wage generally. As a result, we see neo-slavery (of, say, gang-run cockle pickers at Morecambe Bay) underwriting the cheap goods sold to us in supermarkets.

The Melancholic Troglodytes pick up on this dynamic, calling it ‘surreal subsumption’ – the co-existence of ‘real subsumption’ (a phase of capitalist development in which all of life becomes subject to exchange value) and ‘primitive accumulation’ (a stage in the transition to capitalism in which value is accumulated through theft or looting). The growth of slums is one manifestation of this surreal subsumption, their presence in many emerging ‘world cities’ serving to highlight the contradictions of a system in which the production of place-branded yuppie and tourist destinations is threatened by the stubborn presence of the surplus humanity with whose cheap labour the cities are (re)built. Amita Baviskar’s discussion of slum clearances in Delhi draws out the relationship between the cultural makeover of cities – in this case ahead of the Commonwealth Games Delhi will host in 2010 – and the working class blood-letting it entails. The London Particular’s photo-text collage, ‘Fear Death by Water’, sharpens this analysis, focusing on the twin strategies of cultural regeneration and new forms of class-cleansing population management in Hackney.

As London Particular member and Mute editor, Benedict Seymour, notes here, and in his article ‘Drowning by Numbers’ – on the disaster-movie scale of gentrification in post-Katrina New Orleans – renewal is a euphemism for ‘primitive accumulation’. While the value-producing industry of developed economies is gutted and production moved to wherever labour is cheapest, fictitious values are generated, partly through a series of commodity bubbles and partly through ever more complex financial instruments. The real estate bubble has played a crucial role in producing the fictitious values that obscure an underlying drop in wages. Gentrification, argues Seymour, works to inflate property prices and launch a ‘holistic attack on the wage’ through raising the cost of living and destroying the social resources which provide a means of support. In New Orleans, the disaster-propelled eviction of the black blue-collar majority and the influx of migrant, and often rightless, Latino labourers dispatched to rebuild the city, provides an extreme version of this ubiquitous process.

This example of capital’s deployment of racial conflict gives further justification to Matthew Hyland’s argument, made in his essay about the Bradford riots of 2001, that ‘A “race riot” […] is always a “class riot”’. Claims made by mainstream media over the apolitical nature of the riots between Asian and White British youths in a former British mill town, participate in a kind of psychologisation of racism which denies any consciousness of colonial history and the effects of globalised capitalism. This psychologisation and personalisation, Hyland argues, is behind the emptying of the original meaning of ‘institutional racism’ as the Black Panthers’ term for the systemic racism of the state is increasingly deployed to describe an anomalous defect embodied in certain individuals.

It is against this portrayal of the dispossessed as somehow bereft of politics that Richard Pithouse frames his account of resistance in the slums of Durban, South Africa. Banishing the cliché of the ‘global slum’, he insists on the particularity of the culture, infrastructure and politics of every slum. Against the representation of slums as vacuums of social organising and bereft of politics, Pithouse wields the example of Abahlali baseMjondolo – the Durban shack dwellers’ movement. This radically democratic organisation of shack dwellers combines thousands into a sustained fight against evictions and for basic amenities. It is not for the likes of Mike Davis or tenured leftists to accuse the global underclass of failing to fight global capitalism, argues Pithouse, when they are not fighting it on their own privileged terrain. To stand and fight where you are and over local pressures or depredations is always ‘a struggle to subordinate the social aspects of state to society’ and thereby weaken relations of local and global domination. The seemingly modest demand for the right not to be moved is one that unites struggles from the streets of Hackney to the slums of Durban; from this refusal to make way for the bulldozer of development come other refusals which hamper capital’s ruthlessly instrumental deployment of people. This chapter banishes any idea that the managed movement of peoples is about anything else.


Proud to be Flesh

Cheap Chinese

The perilous and exploitative employment of economic migrants, despite the public outcry against it, is an essential component of capitalist productivity. Concentrating on the structural insecurity of Chinese workers both in the UK and mainland China, John Barker moves from the contextless media coverage of specific deaths to the macroeconomic picture that caused them

In June of 2000, 58 Chinese people died of mass suffocation in the container of a lorry that arrived on a ferry at Dover. They died trying to enter the UK illegally. The direct cause of these deaths was the blocking of the container's air vents by the driver, a Dutchman called Perry Wacker. He is the worst of criminals; a panicker lacking the basic nerve required and, in this case, cutting the air supply for fear of being caught. The reporting of the case by large sections of the British media was either downright callous or sympathetic in abstract terms only, the horror felt from putting ourselves in the shoes of those who died proved to be too much.

In early February 2004, 19 Chinese workers who had entered the UK illegally died by drowning on the dangerous shoreline of Morecombe Bay, Lancashire ­ sands rich in cockles. This time the reporting of what happened was more sympathetic. Once again the direct cause of their deaths was the reckless and incompetent greed of those employing them. It was reported that one of those who died, Guo Binlong, made a call on his mobile phone to his wife in the village of Zelang near Fuqing City not long before he drowned. He said, 'Maybe I'm going to die. It's a tiny mistake by my boss. He should have called us back an hour ago.'

Heartbreaking, twice over: the tiny mistake, that that's how Guo Binlong saw it, and the futility of the call. All the reporting implied that none of the 19 could read English or perhaps even speak it, and therefore would not have understood the sign up by the beach that said 'Fast rising tides and hidden channels. In emergency ring 999'. Perhaps if it had been read and understood, even as the danger became obvious, there would have been a reluctance to ring 999.

In another case involving a 40 year old Chinese man, Zhang Guo Hua, who entered the UK illegally and who died in Hartlepool after working a 24 hour shift in a plastics 'feeder' factory for Samsung, it was in no one's interests, as the reporter David Leigh put it, to make a fuss ­ neither employers nor fellow workers. He was cremated without an inquest. And for Guo Binlong the mobile phone, one of the technological wonders of the present era of globalisation, that allowed a phone call from the darkness of Morecombe Bay, with the cold water rising, to a village in China, was useless to him. In contrast, a young female Londoner was happily saved from sinking mud on the shore of the Thames by using her phone.

The reporting of these deaths though more sympathetic, quickly identified the ruthless and criminal gangmasters as being responsible. Though they have remained largely unnamed the condemnation has been far stronger than in the case of Perry Wacker. The broadsheet papers talked of these gangsters using stolen 4-wheel drives in the same horrified tones that they portray loan sharks, as if the billions made by the 'high-street' banks belonged to a different moral universe. No, these gangsters were 'tough Scousers with torn jeans' and mixed in with them Triads and Snakeheads.

In the same period as these horrific deaths two other types of Chinese people in the UK are becoming important to its economy: students and tourists. All the students pay full overseas fees of £10,000, and in 2003 there were estimated to be 25,000 students making £250 million for British universities ­ a fourfold increase in three years. In 2004, the estimate is of 35,000 students. The attractions for British universities is obvious. For the students it offers the chance of a university education when places are so limited in China, and when a British degree is said to look particularly good on CVs. What is certain is that the British government is not seeking to reduce their numbers, even when some also work in the black economy to help pay their way.

In October 2003, it was reported that the EU was expected to approve a new visa regime that will give Chinese people easier access to Europe. Chinese tour groups are expected to be given 'approved destination status'. This almost automatic visa granting would have an in-built safety clause from the EU's point of view in that Chinese tour operators would be heavily punished if any of their clients failed to return to China. This does not apply to the UK which is outside the Schengen Agreement but is equally keen to receive the money generated by such tourism. This is not negligible. Since 1998 the number of Chinese overseas travellers has almost doubled to 16.6 million. That is only a fraction of its 1.3 billion population, but the prediction is for 100 million overseas travellers by 2020, making them the world's biggest travellers. The UK does not want to be left behind but is seeking watertight agreements with the Chinese government to take back failed asylum seekers and issue new papers to those who deliberately destroy them, an issue the Blair government made much of after the Morecombe Bay horror.

These numbers, and prospective numbers, are another indication of the development of a middle-class in China; middle class in its consumption possibilities that is, or what might otherwise be called a nouveau riche. A copycat nouveau riche highlighted by the recent 'BMW case'. The wife of a rich property owner deliberately ran over the wife of a peasant, Liu Zhongxia, whose tractor she claimed, had scratched a wing mirror on her BMW in Harbin, Heliongjiang province, the heart of North East China's rust-belt, mimicking the Long Island heiress who recently maimed a few in similar fashion after a nightclub entry argument. The driver, Mrs Su, who had also paid someone to take her driving test, was acquitted as no witnesses dared to turn up. That such bad behaviour and the incomes and spending power that allow it now exist is hardly surprising given the dynamic growth of its industrial economy. It can be argued that it is only through the policies of the nationalist Communist Party, determined only to allow in Western capital on its own terms (however much that might be wishful thinking) that this growth has taken place. It is equally the case that it results from the shift of so much industrial production to China from the First World, to take advantage of a low wage workforce, one which is also producing this nouveau riche. The divisions of levels of income and possibilities in China are now so great that they might be called class divisions, and so obvious that the new Communist Party leadership of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao have referred to it and of the need to narrow the gap between rich and poor. Beyond the never-ending campaign to root out the corruption of officials and their parasitic relation to the peasantry, this sounds like wishful thinking.

There are not going to be 1.3 billion Chinese in the 'middle-class' level global consumer class. What would they be producing? Even in the 'First World' it is a bogus promise. In the case of China, with such an across-the-board global consumer class, the global environmental crisis would be obvious even to those who do not wish to see it. Instead the situation as it is, and as it is developing, is eminently suitable to the global investor class and its transnational corporations and companies. As Oscar Romero puts it with the ruthless clarity of 'Third World' analysts, what matters to them is that 'national markets become increasingly liberalised so that they can seek the thin strata with high income in the underdeveloped countries ... they do not aim to sell to the entire population, it would be sufficient for 300 million in the upper-income brackets out of the total Chinese population to become their customers, though this may create a dangerous gap between the two Chinas.' (Oscar Romero, The Myth of Development, Zed Books). To manage this dangerous gap, what better than a highly sophisticated one-party state which can maintain a low-wage industrial assembly class, itself privileged from an even larger and lower-waged rural class. 300 million is enough, it dwarfs the present US market.

Taken with similarly proportioned figures in India, this development is a godsend to the global investor class which, as the SE Asian 'financial crisis' showed, was faced with a problem of global overproduction. A financial analyst also trading in snappy one-liners, Ed Yardeni, talked of the world needing all the yuppies it can get. Looked at in this light, the Chinese one-party system may be the more reliable given the stunning defeat of the BJP party in India in the recent election; a party which as Arundhati Roy described so well in her essay about the Gujarat pogrom, had sought to manage the 'dangerous gap' with a mixture of neoliberalism and Hindu nationalism. However chimerical the promises of the Congress Party might be, the election did allow the poor at least to say 'No' to the gap and the way it was being managed.

The poor of Britain and Europe know the present importance of China in particular, life would be that much harder without its prices: a pair of jeans for a fiver or toys for a quid. Its coming importance was highlighted 100 years ago in J A Hobson's Imperialism, a book unfairly famous only for having been used and misused by Lenin.

'China seems to offer a unique opportunity to the Western business man. A population ... endowed with an extraordinary capacity of steady labour, with great intelligence and ingenuity, inured to a low standard of material comfort ... Few Europeans even profess to know the Chinese ... the only important fact upon which there is universal agreement is that the Chinese of all the "lower races" are most adaptable to purposes of industrial exploitation, yielding the largest surplus product of labour in proportion to their cost of keep.'

Western ignorance seems to have changed little: the Sinology department at Durham University is scheduled to close, and the UK government is to withdraw the small support it gave to those doing M.Phils in Chinese.

Hobson was in no position to anticipate a Communist Revolution or the developing class system of the present. He did however foresee those fears of this industrial development getting out of Western control, manifested in notions of the 'yellow peril' which crop up throughout the 20th century to cause havoc in the minds of the leftist American writers Jack London and John dos Passos. 'It is at least conceivable that China might so turn the tables upon the Western industrial nations, and, either by adopting their capital and organisers or, as is more probable, by substituting her own, might flood their markets with her cheaper manufacturers, and refusing their imports in exchange might take her payment in liens upon their capital, reversing the earlier process of investment until she gradually obtained financial control over her quondam patrons and civilisers.' Such speculation belongs elsewhere: I don't know, for example, how much Chinese capital is invested in US Treasury bonds, but presumably it figures prominently in the thinking of professional, militarised Western geopolitics. In their considerations presumably, oil figures a great deal. China's 'industrial revolution' depends on it. Last year alone its oil consumption rose by 10 percent, along with what The Times (11/6/04) calls the 'rampant demand' from not just China, but India and Brazil too; countries 'continuing to guzzle world supply'. Guzzle! It may well be that the spread of US military bases across the oil-producing world is a product of those considerations.

At the same time Hobson raises another possibility, that 'the pressure of working class movements in politics and industry in the West can be met by a flood of China goods, so as to keep down wages ... it is conceivable that the powerful industrial and financial classes of the West, in order better to keep the economic and political mastery ... may insist upon the free importation of yellow labour for domestic and industrial service in the West. This is a weapon which they hold in reserve, should they need to use it in order to keep the populace in safe subjection.' Hobson himself had seen the use of Chinese labour in the South African gold mines. Although, to our ears he sounds melodramatic and unwarrantably sweeping, nevertheless his considerations do overlap with yet another round of the 'Immigration Debate'. The disparity between the freedom of mobility for capital and non-freedom for labour is mentioned, if at all, and then forgotten as if these really do represent parallel worlds. Instead, the same yes-andnos go round the carousel. Yes we need some skilled workers; yes, we must rationally look at future demographics and who will be needed to do the work to pay our pensions; but at the same time watch out for bogus refugees who are really economic migrants; watch out for the illegal immigrant. But not too hard.

After the death of three Kurdish workers on a level crossing on their way to pick spring onions in the East of England, it was suddenly discovered there were 2000 Chinese in Kings Lynn as if they had never been seen before. In Kings Lynn! Their deaths were more sordid in the banality of the accident than the thriller-like narrative of Romanian ex-train workers fixing signals so that other migrants could leap onto the Eurostar at obscure spots. The reality of the immigration debate is also more sordid. While the Third World is raided for trained nurses whose training was a cost to those countries, immigration fears are regularly rehearsed. The net result is that so many immigrants live in fear, and this fear is as functional to capitalist economies in the present era as it has been in the past. Migrant workers in Fortress Europe, and especially illegally-entered migrants, are far more likely to accept wages and conditions that are essential to its needs, and which in turn have a knock-on effect on wages and working conditions generally. Racist politicians and professional opinionists have their own grisly agenda, but these are functional to capitalist economies and their household names. The focus of these opinionists on 'failed' asylum seekers who are not allowed to work and, more recently, on a 'flood' of Roma and other Eastern Europeans who can work legally as EU citizens, gives the game away Their spotlight is not on Kings Lynn, a national blind spot. 'Policies that claim to exclude undocumented workers,' says Stephen Castle, 'may often really be about allowing them through side doors and back doors so that they can be readily exploited.' Or, as he put it some 30 years ago, commenting on the repatriation demands of Enoch Powell and other racist politicians: 'Paradoxically their value for capital lies in their very failure to achieve their declared aims.'

Inside Fortress Europe, for the UK in particular with its avowedly American-style deregulation, this process is all too visible. It is the dirty secret of the UK's economic success under New Labour. And they are proud of it, these shadow social democrats; the UK's official trade and investment website boasts of it. 'Total wage costs in the UK are among the lowest in Europe,' it says. 'In the UK employees are used to working hard for their employers. In 2001 the average hours worked a week was 45.1 for males and 40.7 for females. The EU average was 40.9. ... UK law does not oblige employers to provide a written employment contract. ... Recruitment costs in the UK is low. ... The law governing conduct of employment agencies is less restrictive in the UK. The UK has the lowest corporation tax of any major industrialised country.' Recently, Jack Straw has 'defied Europe' as the papers would have it. In a speech to the CBI, he promised that the UK would insist that the charter of fundamental rights created no 'new rights under national law, so as not to upset the balance of Britain's industrial relations policy', that is the one established by previous Conservative governments. In Britain there is nowhere for the exploited to turn and almost no employers are prosecuted for using illegal migrants.

To the extent that media coverage of the horror of Morecambe Bay went beyond fingering tough Scouser gangmasters in stolen 4-wheel drives, it focused on the power of supermarkets in the agricultural sector and their relation to those who do the harvesting ­ a harvest which doesn't stop for a festival because the operation is non-stop, all year round. Migrant labour is up by 44 percent in the last seven years. Much of it is 'legal' via seasonal agricultural schemes, but of the 3-5000 'gangmasters' who organise this at least 1000 are illegal and give no protection to their workers. But then 'gangmasters' are in effect employment agencies and these, as New Labour like to boast, are the least restricted in the EU.


Despite Morecombe and the ensuing hand-wringing, nothing has changed. In September 2003 the House of Commons committee on the environment and food, chaired by Michael Jack MP, found that the agencies supposed to deal with 'illegal gangmasters' were making no real impact and set out the changes that would be needed. In mid-May 2004, a report by the same committee declared that the government had no clearer picture of the situation, and enforcement action against them had not increased. There had, it concluded, been 'no evidence of any change in the government's approach since last September. Indeed, in some respects, enforcement activity has diminished because of lack of resources.'

The beneficiaries of this, are the 'household' names of Tesco, Sainsbury and the rest, all profiting from this underclass. Andrew Simms describes a situation where 'Long chains of sub-contractors, commercial confidentiality and contractual obfuscation, allow household names to hide behind plausible denials ... we have evolved a system better at hiding, or distancing cause from effect.' This at a time when New Labour has never stopped talking of responsibilities in return for rights, exchange value-business. Those who died at Morecombe are believed to have moved on from Kings Lynn, in all likelihood taking a drop in pay from the vegetable picking rates of a market dominated by the 'high street' supermarkets.

The distancing of cause from consequence, the not-me-guv cry of the rich, the powerful and their portraitists, appear in all their colours in the Teeside Evening Gazette's report on a fire at the Woo One factory in the Sovereign Business Park, Hartlepool at the beginning of April this year. It mentioned the death of Zhang Guo Hua but only to emphasise that there was no proof of a connection between the haemorrhage that killed him and his working conditions. He had, it reported, been through the usual kind of work: cutting salads for Tesco suppliers in Sussex; fish-processing in Scotland; and packing flowers in Norfolk. Usual for whom?

The Queen had opened the nearby Samsung plant in 1996. It has a global turnover of $33 billion. When it opened the local MP, Peter Mandelson, wrote an article in praise of the company saying: 'some have the impression that the success of the tiger economies is based on sweatshop labour. This is a false picture.' The false picture is that sweatshop labour is exclusive to the 'tiger economies'. Zhang Guo Hua worked a 24-hour shift in Hartlepool. It was his decision of course, one can hear the not-me-guv voice saying. Woo One, the company Zhang Guo Hua worked for, was a 'feeder' factory for Samsung, its practices its own, as Samsung would have it. Zhang Guo Hua spent his last 24 hours stamping the word SAMSUNG onto plastic casings either for microwave oven doors or computer monitors, on his feet throughout. When he collapsed and went to hospital it was under another name. It was only when he was dead that a friend gave Zhang's real passport. So that even though he was cremated without an Inquest, it was in his own name.

An ex-worker at Woo One said that the minimum working week was 72 hours and the minimum shift 12 hours. Its managing director, Keith Boynton, agreed that English workers were not required to work these hours, but it wasn't him guv, the Chinese workers were technically employed by an outfit called Thames Oriental Manpower Management with offices in New Malden Surrey close to Samsung's corporate HQ. Thames Oriental Manpower Management ­ a name that could only have been dreamt up by its proprietor a Mr Lin, not a tough Scouser in ripped jeans but a man who had been granted asylum claiming, claiming that is, that he was a North Korean refugee. Mr Boynton of Woo One said that 'What he (Mr Lin) pays the workers is up to him.' Mr Lin, it was reported had also taken control from Woo One of the nearby three-to-a-room set of dormitories and presumably, because he is now the villain, charged what he liked.

At this time Samsung boasted of record UK factory profits through 'unit cost reduction.' To get some idea of the process whereby this might happen, two pieces of Marx's structural economic analysis come to mind. He had for one thing deconstructed the notion of productivity long before the era of productivity deals. The very notion is one which exactly distances cause from consequence, or rather, and all the more modern for that, muddies the cause. 'Productivity' smears together: the productiveness of labour, that is the improved technology which allows for greater production; intensity of labour, which is how hard people work per hour (and here much of the improved technology simply increases the intensity of labour); and the length of the working day. These latter two factors are characteristic of 'primitive accumulation', and boy was that going on in Samsung's Hartlepool circus. Marx's misnamed Equalisation of Profit Law describes the mechanism whereby this works. The surplus or profit engendered by companies like Woo One, does not all go to them; the size of Samsung, the concentration of capital involved, and its power in relation to both its suppliers and marketing, means that it takes the lion's share of what has truly been accumulated in primitive fashion by small dependent suppliers. This is not some one-off phenomenon; one study shows Toyota having some 47,000 small firms working for it in a hierarchical structure, with most of those in the lowest layer passing the surpluses of 'primitive accumulation' up the chain to transnational corporations like Toyota who benefit from that mystery called 'value-added'.

When the story emerged in The Guardian (13/01/04), local MP Peter Mandelson said that he had 'written to Samsung about allegations made against Woo One in this tragic case.' The question is then, did he ever receive a reply because two days afterwards Samsung announced, out of the blue it was said, that it was closing the factory involved ­ the Wynyard in Billingham. It blamed the high level of wages in NE England and said it was relocating to Slovakia where wages stood at £1 an hour. To which address did Mr Mandelson write? Was it passed on by a Post Office re-direction instruction. Has he received a reply? It seems unlikely given that Samsung's decision can hardly have been spur of the moment, or that a meeting with Woo One would have been a priority in the two days remaining. It transpired that Woo One themselves had already started to make its own move in the direction of Slovakia, and indeed announced some three weeks later that it was to close its computer casings plant in Hartlepool. On the news of Samsung's departure, Mr Mandelson, his letter still in the post somewhere, said that the price of their product had fallen worldwide, and that was 'the reason for its closure'. Prime Minister Tony Blair said he deeply regretted the loss of jobs involved but that 'It is part of the world economy we live in.'

There is of course much truth in what he says, but there is a complacency to that same voice which talks so much of our responsibilities that grates. If wages in Slovakia are £1 an hour, in China they are likely to be fifty pence, yet there is a need felt in the 'First World' to maintain low-cost mass production within its own frontiers even while its investor class shifts production to such countries. There is for one thing a structural limit to how many lawyers, journalists, IT specialists and bankers are required even in the First World, whatever might be said about education, education, education, while at the same time an increasing reluctance to cushion the circumstances of the excluded population. For another there is a fear at the psychic level of political economy that if so much industrial production is shifted to different parts of Asia, it will somehow weaken the West, be both sign and symptom of lazy decadence. More specifically than notions of decadence, there is a need for cheap labour in the First World, within its own frontiers, 'for it means that the South cannot extract monopoly rents for its cheap labour and bad working conditions' as Robert Biel puts it. There are sweatshops in London and Los Angeles even while automatic looms are capable of weaving 760 metres of denim per minute. As Hobson suggested, and the irony stands out in neon, this First World low-cost production requires migrant workers, workers made fearful by an unscrupulous media and political class.

Migrant workers are also essential to low-cost China and its 'economic miracle'. The numbers are hard to establish, 80 million is one estimate, 94 another, of recent migrants from the Chinese countryside, many of whom are also 'illegal'. Many Chinese cities require residency permits while it is these 'peasants' who do the jobs that Beijingers, for example, won't do themselves. And, just like anywhere else, for Albanians in Greece for example, they are accused of being thieves and dirty, while also exerting a downward pressure on local wages. Should there be a shrinkage of economic growth at a global level, these Chinese migrant workers will be the first to lose their jobs. For one thing 90 percent of them work without contracts, according to Li Jianfei, a law professor at the People's University. Even the state-run Trade Union estimates that they are owed over 100 million yen in back wages, but a campaign for repayment is for those with contracts only. Much of this is in the booming construction sector, where non-paying subcontractors blame large companies underpaying them, the Law of Equalisation of Profit in crude form.

In more classical form this law is also inherent in the condition of the coal mining industry. China's increasing oil dependence is well known, but it is also the world's largest coal producer. Chinese companies are making sizeable profits on legal and illegal mining operations, but at prices to industry which mean the real rates of profit of the consuming industries, often foreign-financed, are even greater. Exerting more pressure on the industry and its highly exploited workforce is central government's demand for more output. At the same time the industry has an appalling safety record; around 7000 miners were killed in 2003. There are promises of more inspectorates and the closing of illegal mines but, in the face of this 'energy crunch', this is likely to remain rhetorical. Safety investment is far less than the announced allocation. The grim reality is that with the retrenching of state-owned industries and the accompanying loss of benefits and pensions, the unemployed and the rural poor have entered the industry in huge numbers and are willing to work for cash in appalling and unsafe conditions, often assisting coal mine owners in avoiding safety procedures to ensure continued employment, as the China Labour Bulletin puts it. The death of one man in Hartlepool is hardly on the same scale, but the pressures for 'not making a fuss' are similar.

The wishful thinking of the new Communist Party leadership about reversing the dynamics of inequality looks like mere cynical rhetoric since it doesn't prevent it from maintaining a hard line against any independent worker protests over pay and conditions. A strike over pay at the part Taiwanese financed Xinxiong Shoe Factory in Dongguan city in April of this year resulted in several arrests. The Ferro-Alloy strike in Liaoyang province, involving 1600 workers, resulted in long prison sentences for Yao Fuxin and Xiao; meanwhile the workers are still without retrenchment compensation. In Hubei province, six workers have been arrested and are awaiting trial on charges of 'disturbing social order' after a peaceful demonstration at the Tieshu factory; this after 15 months of peaceful campaigning to recover more than 200 million Yuan in back wages, redundancy payments, workers shares and other moneys owed them by the bankrupt factory's management.

Other workers from the Tieshu factory have been sentenced to terms up to 21 months of 're-education through labour', a punishment which bypasses the criminal justice system. We do not know the extent of prison labour in China but it too is a component holding down general wages and conditions. There is nothing to get smug about, prison labour in the UK is being organised in a much more serious manner than before. The Woolworth's type chain in the North of England, Wilkinson's, is highly dependent on it for its products. A recent piece in The Economist (6/5/04) goes further, saying 'Hard-working immigrants transform the prison system'. It describes how Wormwood Scrubs (where a regime of extreme and racist staff violence is still being investigated) is full of cocaine drug mules from South America, and how the prison runs production lines for airline headsets and aluminium windows. The best jobs, it says, pay £25-40 a week 'depending on a prisoner's place on the ladder of privilege (as in all prisons, inmates are paid more for the same job if they behave themselves)'. It goes on to say that 'it is serious money for a third-worlder ... so a steady stream of remittances flows from Wormwood Scrubs to poor countries.' A grotesque conclusion might be that the poor victims of Morecombe Bay would have been better off there.

After the effective and international demonstrations against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle, the unity displayed there, the unity that was most unsettling to the global investor class, was quickly confronted with the sneers of professional opinionists. The many American trade unionists present, they said, had no global consciousness, they were just there to protect their jobs. Their demands for basic standards and rights for workers in the poor world were just a subtle form of protectionism, protecting their privileges. It is true that the Clinton administration would do almost anything to secure free trade deals in American interests, and also that Third World voices have been raised to say that such demands for minimum standards and conditions are aimed at cutting off the only way in which they can develop economically, that is with a monopoly on cheap labour, but it is reasonable to ask in return who and what these voices represent. The 'Third World' is not some homogeneous space and the class divisions in India and China are clear to see. Increasing inequality within countries rich and poor, is a global reality.

It is such a reality which gives us a nominally social-democratic and a nominally communist government, both spurning any effective protection of workers. Instead then, why not support those working for better wages, conditions and respect in China for example. Lawyers like Cho Li Tai and the Centre for Women's Law Studies and Legal Services at Beijing University; peasant activists like Li Changping; and most of all those imprisoned for demanding basic rights. For this to mean anything in the UK, a start would be mounting support for the Private Members Bill of Jim Sheridan MP and backed by the TGWU, for a thorough registration of 'gangmasters'. If it were to succeed it would at least remove one pillar of the government's boast of its cheap labour and lightly regulated employment agencies and go a step beyond cursory hand-wringing which was the extent of the response to the Morecombe tragedy. Six months later, in August, it was reported that rival 'gangs' of cockle-pickers had to be rescued from the same sands.

John Barker <harrier AT> was born in London and works as a book indexer. His prison memoir Bending the Bars was reviewed for Metamute by Stewart Home

Proud to be Flesh

Create Creative Clusters

The Creative London programme is a new city-wide scheme attempting to replicate the creativity-fuelled Shoreditch Effect across the capital's depressed boroughs as an economic cure-all. This latest bout of creative industry boosterism, argues David Panos, shows more signs of desperation than dynamism

At the end of April 2004, the London Development Agency (LDA), launched their new Creative London programme, a ten year ‘action plan’ aimed at ‘nurturing’ the creative industries in the capital. The LDA is one of nine regional bodies set up by New Labour to regenerate local economies and promote the interests of business. For them, ‘creative industries’ is an umbrella term that embraces everything from advertising, design, film, fashion, new media and architecture to opera, dance, music and art. The sector has been identified as the second biggest in London after finance and it is seen as the most significant potential growth area in the capital’s economy. Creative London draws on £500 million of public and private sector investment, rolling out a host of programmes such as the creation of venture capital funds for investment, promotional strategies for different trades such as design, fashion and film, legal advice on intellectual property rights as well as projects to re-brand and promote events like the Notting Hill Carnival and London Fashion Week. Over the course of a decade it aims to create 200 thousand new jobs and increase the ‘creative industries’’ annual turnover from £21 billion to £32 billion.

After the embarrassing ‘Cool Britannia’ posturing of the late 1990s and the fin-de-siecle hubris around the New Economy the idea that creativity is the great economic hope for the capital is far from new, but the relative sophistication of some of the LDA’s new plans to harness and ‘grow’ this sector is novel. Phenomena once considered marginal to the cycle of accumulation have become models for growth. Many of the strategies are designed to stimulate the overall ‘creative’ power of the capital, emphasising the importance of a ‘diverse ecology of small businesses’, ‘individual artists’ and ‘hobbyists’ to the development of the creative economy. Like so many ‘regeneration’ strategies, the emphasis is on tiny interventions to stimulate market forces rather than grand projects that might necessitate social spending.

One of the central initiatives of Creative London is the establishment of ‘Creative Hubs’ across the capital. Graham Hitchen, the LDA’s Head of Creative Industries, describes the process of building Creative Hubs as ‘identifying the areas where we think there is potential to really consolidate a cluster of activity that might have started to emerge and then dramatically growing that local economy through the creative business sector.’ This pre-emptive strategy intervenes into the development of such clusters by giving advice, creating partnerships, and outlining a ‘clear plan for growth’. Hubs would be administrated by partnerships of private bodies and arts or training organisations with a ‘track record in identifying creative talent’ and would form a cross-London network, sharing information and pooling strategies.

The precedents for these Creative Hubs can be seen in areas like Brick Lane and Shoreditch. It is a decade since they were colonised by artists, designers and small new media businesses, turning rundown old industrial hinterlands into the most fashionable districts in London. At the time local government and the regeneration industry were largely oblivious to this revalorisation process but today it seems it has been turned into an operating model. One council regeneration worker commented that ‘the LDA think that if they had been in control of what happened in Shoreditch it would have been bigger and happened faster’ and LDA strategy documents are already making rather far-fetched predictions about areas in South London becoming the ‘next Hoxton’. Other Creative Hubs are currently being proposed for areas as diverse as Deptford, Haringey, Ealing and Croydon.

The Creative Hub strategy promises to provide ‘more opportunities for all Londoners’ but Shoreditch’s transformation into a cultural node and night-time economy has had little positive impact on the ‘local’ (working class) residents in the surrounding area. Its actual effect has been to escalate property prices out of the reach of all but a privileged minority, and drive up the overall cost of living. Ironically, the LDA have also identified this tendency as a problem for business – according to their research one of the biggest concerns for creative startups is the soaring rents in central London. Creative London proposes to respond to this inflation by establishing a Creative Property Advice Service that negotiates with councils and developers to create rent caps and special leases that shield fledgling creative businesses from the very price hikes they stimulate. As the perceived ‘productive’ element in a local economy, the culture industry will get special privileges not meted out to less desirable inhabitants.

Creative London also builds on the existing tendencies to use artists as regenerating ‘urban pioneers’, attracting the upwardly mobile into formerly undesirable areas. One of the most innovative aspects of the program is the creation of a Creative Space Agency to act as a broker between artists and landlords whose property is vacant. Artists will be offered empty space across London on a rent-free basis to mount temporary shows or performances. Initially starting with property owned by the LDA and local councils, the plan is to extend the scheme to the private sector once it has been demonstrated to landlords that artists can act as free security guards whilst simultaneously rehabilitating a fallow property and increasing its value.

Of course, smart developers have been using artists and performers as part of their marketing strategies for some time, offering empty schools or warehouses for shows and performances before they are converted into live/work pads for yuppies. The Creative Space Agency formalises these ad hoc arrangements previously negotiated between artists and developers. Although it will undoubtedly make more space available, projects can be vetted, behaviour regulated, and the process brought under centralised control. Under the guise of making more ‘public space’ available the scheme puts more of the city back to work and by decreasing the number of empty buildings available it can be seen as a pre-emptive strike against squatting and other unregulated activities. Buildings are being offered to artists strictly on a project by project basis – use as a headquarters or residence will be forbidden and the LDA is already jumpy about the potential PR ‘downside’ of having to evict artists who decide to live for free. The Creative Space Agency makes clear art’s exceptional role in the new economy – it is notable that in a city full of vacant property there has been no comparable scheme developed for ‘uneconomic’ sections of society like community groups or the homeless.

Graham Hitchen points out that ‘the important thing about Creative London is that it is not led by an arts agency – we are an economic development agency saying this is economically important.’ Whilst the intervention of the LDA into arts policy is no doubt significant, Hitchen perpetuates a false opposition between the supposedly hardnosed world of economics and the ‘disinterested’ or indeterminate sphere of public arts. Arts agencies have been increasingly forced to justify their existence by proselytising culture’s economic function just as the theory that informs the LDA’s economic policy has become increasingly fixated on unquantifiable notions such as the role of networks and creativity. The theoretical roots of the program can be seen in the work of US theorists like Michel Porter and Richard Florida. Porter’s ideas about business clusters emphasise the importance of institutional support, collaboration, inter-business networking and shared infrastructure over old-style free market cost cutting and relocation, whilst Florida’s ‘Creativity Index’ cites factors like how many gay people or ‘bohemians’ live in a city as indicative of its long term economic potential.

The increasingly influential yet nebulous discourse about nurturing creative clusters and creative hubs is a desperate measure to shore up the economies of Western cities against the onslaught of globalisation. As they lose their remaining manufacturing base and more and more middle class service jobs migrate to Asia many have been forced to re-brand as ‘Cities of Ideas’. Provincial towns and ailing industrial quarters have little choice but to create the necessary conditions for an elite centre for ‘innovation’, wooing the ‘creative classes’ to rehabilitate their fortunes. Seen in this context Creative London is far from being a manifesto for dynamism. Rather it is a defensive strategy that seems unlikely to deliver much apart from increased precariousness for the majority of working Londoners.

Creative London Space Agency RIse of the Creative Class Panos <david AT> is researching regeneration as part of The London Particular and plays in Antifamily and Asja auf Capri

Proud to be Flesh

Demolishing Delhi: World Class City in the Making

As London gentrifies its way toward the 2012 Olympics, social cleansing and riverine renewal proceed in parallel but more brutal form in Delhi. In preparation for the Commonwealth Games in 2010 the city's slum dwellers are being bulldozed out to make room for shopping malls and expensive real estate. Amita Baviskar reports on a tale of (more than) two cities and the slums they destroy to recreate

Banuwal Nagar was a dense cluster of about 1,500 homes, a closely-built beehive of brick and cement dwellings on a small square of land in north-west Delhi, India. Its residents were mostly masons, bricklayers and carpenters, labourers who came to the area in the early 1980s to build apartment blocks for middle-class families and stayed on. Women found work cleaning and cooking in the more affluent homes around them. Over time, as residents invested their savings into improving their homes, Banuwal Nagar acquired the settled look of a poor yet thriving community – it had shops and businesses; people rented out the upper floors of their houses to tenants. There were taps, toilets, and a neighbourhood temple. On the street in the afternoon, music blared from a radio, mechanics taking a break from repairing cycle-rickshaws smoked bidis and drank hot sweet tea, and children walked home from school. Many of the residents were members of the Nirman Mazdoor Panchayat Sangam (NMPS), a union of construction labourers, unusual for India where construction workers are largely unorganised.

Amita Baviskar In April 2006, Banuwal Nagar was demolished. There had been occasions in the past when eviction had been imminent, but somehow the threat had always passed. Local politicians provided patronage and protection in exchange for votes. Municipal officials could be persuaded to look the other way. The NMPS union would negotiate with the local administration. Squatters could even approach the courts and secure a temporary stay against eviction. Not this time. Eight bulldozers were driven up to the colony. Trucks arrived to take people away. With urgent haste, the residents of Banuwal Nagar tore down their own homes, trying to salvage as much as they could before the bulldozers razed everything to the ground. Iron rods, bricks, doors and window frames were dismantled. TV sets and sofas, pressure cookers and ceiling fans, were all bundled up. The sound of hammers and chisels, clouds of dust, filled the air. There was no time for despair, no time for sorrow, only a desperate rush to escape whole, to get out before the bulldozers.


But where would people go? About two-thirds of home-owners could prove that they had been in Delhi before 1998. They were taken to Bawana, a desolate wasteland on the outskirts of the city designated as a resettlement site. In June’s blazing heat, people shelter beneath makeshift roofs, without electricity or water. Children wander about aimlessly. Worst, for their parents, is the absence of work. There is no employment to be had in Bawana. Their old jobs are a three-hour commute away, too costly for most people to afford. Without work, families eat into their savings as they wait to be allotted plots of 12.5 sq. m. Those who need money urgently sell their entitlement to property brokers, many of them moonlighting government officials. Once, they might have squatted somewhere else in Delhi. Now, the crackdown on squatters makes that option impossible. They will probably leave the city. 

One-third of home owners in Banuwal Nagar couldn’t marshal the documentary evidence of eligibility. Their homes were demolished and they got nothing at all. Those who rented rooms in the neighbourhood were also left to fend for themselves. One can visit Bawana and meet the people who were resettled, but the rest simply melted away. No one seems to know where they went. They left no trace. What was once Banuwal Nagar is now the site of a shopping mall, with construction in full swing. Middle-class people glance around approvingly as they drive past, just as they watched from their rooftops as the modest homes of workers were dismantled. The slum was a nuisance, they say. It was dirty, congested and dangerous. Now we’ll have clean roads and a nice place to shop.

Banuwal Nagar, Yamuna Pushta, Vikaspuri – every day another jhuggi basti (shanty settlement) in Delhi is demolished. Banuwal Nagar residents had it relatively easy; their union was able to intercede with the local administration and police and ensure that evictions occurred without physical violence. In other places, the police set fire to homes, beat up residents and prevented them from taking away their belongings before the fire and the bulldozers got to work. Young children have died in stampedes; adults have committed suicide from the shock and shame of losing everything they had. In 2000, more than three million people, a quarter of Delhi’s population, lived in 1160 jhuggi bastis scattered across town. In the last five years, about half of these have been demolished and the same fate awaits the rest. The majority of those evicted have not been resettled. Even among those entitled to resettlement, there are many who have got nothing. The government says it has no more land to give. Yet demolitions continue apace.banuwal nagar demolition 2Image: Demolition of Banuwal Nagar, 2006. Amita Baviskar The question of land lies squarely at the centre of the demolition drive. For decades, much of Delhi’s land was owned by the central government which parcelled out chunks for planned development. The plans were fundamentally flawed, with a total mismatch between spatial allocations and projections of population and economic growth. There was virtually no planned low-income housing, forcing poor workers and migrant labourers to squat on public lands. Ironic that it was Delhi’s Master Plan that gave birth to its evil twin: the city of slums. The policy of resettling these squatter bastis into ‘proper’ colonies – proper only because they were legal and not because they had improved living conditions, was fitfully followed and, over the years, most bastis acquired the patina of de facto legitimacy. Only during the Emergency (1975-77) when civil rights were suppressed by Indira Gandhi’s government, was there a concerted attempt to clear the bastis. The democratic backlash to the Emergency’s repressive regime meant that evictions were not politically feasible for the next two decades. However, while squatters were not forcibly evicted, they were not given secure tenure either. Ubiquitous yet illegal, the ambiguity of squatters’ status gave rise to a flourishing economy of votes, rents and bribes that exploited and maintained their vulnerability.

In 1990, economic liberalisation hit India. Centrally planned land management was replaced by the neoliberal mantra of public-private partnership. In the case of Delhi, this translated into the government selling land acquired for ‘public purpose’ to private developers. With huge profits to be made from commercial development, the real estate market is booming. The land that squatters occupy now commands a premium. These are the new enclosures: what were once unclaimed spaces, vacant plots of land along railway tracks and by the Yamuna river that were settled and made habitable by squatters, are now ripe for redevelopment. Liminal lands that the urban poor could live on have now been incorporated into the profit economy.

The Yamuna riverfront was the locale for some of the most vicious evictions in 2004 and again in 2006. Tens of thousands of families were forcibly removed, the bulldozers advancing at midday when most people were at work, leaving infants and young children at home. The cleared river embankment is now to be the object of London Thames-style makeover, with parks and promenades, shopping malls and sports stadiums, concert halls and corporate offices. The project finds favour with Delhi’s upper classes who dream of living in a ‘world-class’ city modelled after Singapore and Shanghai. The river is filthy. As it flows through Delhi, all the freshwater is taken out for drinking and replaced with untreated sewage and industrial effluent. Efforts to clean up the Yamuna have mainly taken the form of removing the poor who live along its banks. The river remains filthy, a sluggish stream of sewage for most of the year. It is an unlikely site for world-class aspirations, yet this is where the facilities for the next Commonwealth Games in 2010 are being built.

For the visionaries of the world-class city, the Commonwealth Games are just the beginning. The Asian Games and even the Olympics may follow if Delhi is redeveloped as a tourist destination, a magnet for international conventions and sports events. However wildly optimistic these ambitions and shaky their foundations, they fit perfectly with the self-image of India’s newly-confident consuming classes. The chief beneficiaries of economic liberalisation, bourgeois citizens want a city that matches their aspirations for gracious living. The good life is embodied in Singapore-style round-the-clock shopping and eating, in a climate-controlled and police-surveilled environment. This city-in-the-making has no place for the poor, regarded as the prime source of urban pollution and crime. Behind this economy of appearances lie mega-transfers of land and capital and labour; workers who make the city possible are banished out of sight. New apartheid-style segregation is fast becoming the norm.

The apartheid analogy is no exaggeration. Spatial segregation is produced as much by policies that treat the poor as second-class citizens, as by the newly-instituted market in real estate which has driven housing out of their reach. The Supreme Court of India has taken the lead in the process of selective disenfranchisement. Judges have remarked that the poor have no right to housing: resettling a squatter is like rewarding a pickpocket. By ignoring the absence of low-income housing, the judiciary has criminalised the very presence of the poor in the city. Evictions are justified as being in the public interest, as if the public does not include the poor and as if issues of shelter and livelihood are not public concerns. The courts have not only brushed aside representations from basti-dwellers, they have also penalised government officials for failing to demolish fast enough. In early 2006, the courts widened the scope of judicial activism to target illegal commercial construction and violations of building codes in affluent residential neighbourhoods too. But such was the outcry from all political parties that the government quickly passed a law to neutralise these court orders. However, the homes of the poor continue to be demolished while the government shrugs helplessly.

Despite their numbers, Delhi’s poor don’t make a dent in the city’s politics. The absence of a collective identity or voice is in part the outcome of state strategies of regulating the poor. Having a cut-off date that determines who is eligible for resettlement is a highly effective technique for dividing the poor. Those who stand to gain a plot of land are loath to jeopardise their chances by resisting eviction. Tiny and distant though it is, this plot offers a secure foothold in the city. Those eligible for resettlement part ways from their neighbours and fellow-residents, cleaving communities into two. Many squatters in Delhi are also disenfranchised by ethnic and religious discrimination. Migrants from the eastern states of Bihar and Bengal, Muslims in particular, are told to go back to where they came from. Racial profiling as part of the war on terror has also become popular in Delhi. In the last decade, the spectre of Muslim terrorist infiltrators from Bangladesh has become a potent weapon to harass Bengali-speaking Muslim migrants in the city. Above all, sedentarist metaphysics are at work, such that all poor migrants are seen as forever people out of place: Delhi is being overrun by ‘these people’; why don’t they go back to where they belong? Apocalyptic visions of urban anarchy and collapse are ranged alongside dreams of gleaming towers, clean streets and fast-moving cars. Utopia and dystopia merge to propose a future where the poor have no place in the city.

Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and many other Indian cities figure prominently in what Mike Davis describes as a ‘planet of slums’. Slum clearances may give India’s capital the appearance of a ‘clean and green Delhi’ but environmental activism has simply shifted the problem elsewhere. The poor live under worse conditions, denied work and shelter, struggling against greater insecurity and uncertainty. Is Davis right? Has the late-capitalist triage of humanity already taken place? Even as demolitions go on around me, I believe that Davis might be wrong in this case. Bourgeois Delhi’s dreams of urban cleansing are fragile; ultimately they will collapse under the weight of their hubris. The city still needs the poor; it needs their labour, enterprise and ingenuity. The vegetable vendor and the rickshaw puller, the cook and the carpenter cannot be banished forever. If the urban centre is deprived of their presence, the centre itself will have to shift. The outskirts of Delhi, and the National Capital Region of which it is part, continue to witness phenomenal growth in the service economy and in sectors like construction.  Older resettlement colonies already house thriving home-based industry. The city has grown to encompass these outlying areas so that they are no longer on the spatial or social periphery. This longer-term prospect offers little comfort to those who sleep hungry tonight because they couldn’t find work. Yet, in their minds, the promise of cities as places to find freedom and prosperity persists. In those dreams lies hope.

Amita Baviskar <baviskar1 AT> researches the cultural politics of environment and development. She is the author of In the Belly of the River: Tribal Conflicts over Development in the Narmada Valley and has edited Waterlines: The Penguin Book of River Writings. She is currently writing about bourgeois environmentalism and spatial restructuring in the context of economic liberalisation in Delhi

Proud to be Flesh

Disrespecting Multifundamentalism

The term ‘respect!’ has gone from rude boy subcultural slang to reactionary Third Way spin, from grassroots contestation of power, to tool for disciplining the new dangerous classes. Melancholic Troglodytes offer a critical genealogy of the strategies used by proletarians to challenge bourgeois dignity and respectability and call for some new (use) values of our own


Give respect, get respect!’ – British government’s action plan


It is essential to understand at the outset that Tony Blair’s latest moral crusade based on returning respectability to cities and villages is not a gimmick or a quick fix but part and parcel of a protracted attack on the working class.


The aim of this text is twofold: first, to analyse the nature of this attack by showing the antagonism between bourgeois respectability and proletarian respect; and second, to demonstrate how this conflict is related to the demise of two of capital’s most pernicious ideologies – that of religious fundamentalism and secular multiculturalism.


Perhaps understandably, some readers may baulk at our contention that the journalistic inanity known as (eastern) fundamentalism and its flip side of (western) multiculturalism are in crisis. After all, are we not subjected in the media to a daily barrage of mullah-morons self-righteously preaching the finer points of Shari’a law? Do we then not have to endure the gormless liberal multiculturalist paternalistically tut-tutting his uncivilised interlocutors? Has not Hamas secured a major victory for fundamentalism in Palestine? Is not religion calling the shots in Iraq? Is there not sufficient evidence that the world has gone completely insane? Should we not adopt a bunker mentality and hide until this tempestuous madness has run its course? By tracing the vicissitudes of the notion of respect we hope to offer a more nuanced – as well as optimistic – assessment of the current state of class struggle.


Is there no respect of place, persons, nor time, in you?’ William Shakespeare Twelfth Night


Class society has always made use of both ideology (Marx) and discursive practice (Foucault) in order to secure the status quo. These mechanisms of regulation have in turn relied on nodal values through which respectability has been policed. These nodal values exist in a chain of signification and the study of their evolution can be instructive.


During what is lazily referred to as pre-modernity (more accurately slavery, serfdom, feudalism, etc.) the nodal value greasing the wheels of society was honour. The gladiator in ancient Rome, the crusader during the Middle Ages and the knight during feudalism accrued honour through a mixture of courage, skill and sacrifice. Their lower class counterparts – the slave, the serf and the peasant – remained in a permanent state of shame.[1] Only occasionally could a lower class person wipe away the shame associated with their social status and gain honour. This required a superhuman endeavour. Spartacus stands as an archetypal example of such a move. Outside this cosy polarity between shame and honour, respect began to make a tentative appearance amongst the populace. Artisans and craftsmen who managed to monopolise certain trades began to be granted a grudging respect by the aristocratic elite.


From the 17th century onwards, with the gradual advent of the formal phase of capitalist domination, absolute surplus value extraction became the norm in many industries. Exchange value was characterised by the regulation of punctuality, sexuality and discipline. The nodal value that became associated with this phase was dignity, which implied that identity is independent of birth, institutional roles and hierarchy. The Dutch national liberation movement of 1579-1581, the English Revolution of 1640-60 and the French Revolution of 1789 represent a series of historical ruptures which transformed society’s nodal value from honour to dignity.


To turn up at work punctually, engage in the production process conscientiously, look and sound orderly and discharge one’s sexual duties spartanly (in other words to be a good citizen) were characteristics of dignity. By default, remaining unemployed, dirty and promiscuous became a sign of undignified behaviour, punishable by poverty and stigmatisation. The English Ranters were an early victim of bourgeois indignation. Naturally most radicals have been deeply suspicious of dignity. F. Palinorc has dismissed it as a shibboleth of bourgeois thought:


[Dignity is an] absurd, utopian cry under a system of total value domination, analogous to the battle cries of democracy and liberty.[2]


Later we will attempt to show how the situation is somewhat more complicated, but for the time being let us pursue the historical development of capital further.


Those societies that have negotiated the passage from formal to real domination have experienced a more flexible form of surplus value extraction and a greater disparity between the private and public spheres of human behaviour. Also, in this phase, workers begin to enter the economy as consumers of leisure and the bourgeoisie is keen to control leisure’s ‘moral misuse’. Dignity began to display its limitations and was gradually marginalised by a more sought after nodal attribute – authenticity. This is an individualised attribute which encourages political engagement based on the notion of identity. The ability to be oneself in public now becomes an ideal only available to a handful of clowns, method actors and ‘mad’ individuals who require neither dignity nor honour since they know no shame. The rest of us are reduced to purchasing tourist-authenticity in far off, ‘uncontaminated’ lands in the form of Nicaraguan coffee, Turkish whirling dervishes and the occasional divine miracle.


This historical chain of signification (honour – dignity – authenticity) is roughly aligned with pre-capitalism, formal capital domination and real capital domination. However, this schematic association breaks down on closer inspection. Raymond Williams, for instance, talks of three types of cultural artifacts: the dominant, the residual and the emergent.[3] All three usually co-exist in any one period of development. For instance, the dominant cultural node in contemporary India is dignity which corresponds to the formal phase of capital domination. But India is a complex society which also evolves around residual cultural artifacts like honour and emergent ones such as authenticity. Most Indians require a mixture of honour-dignity-authenticity for obtaining respectability but depending on their specific cultural-economic status, they prioritise this chain of signification differently. But, and here is the key question for us, what happens if you are a caste member who is denied access to this chain of signification? In other words, what if you are not considered a full citizen with a delineated set of rights and duties? How do you then seek self-worth and social status as a prelude for interaction with the rest of society?


Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.’ Albert Einstein


The proletariat has historically employed three main strategies for overcoming the problems cited above. These three strategies correspond to varying degrees of proletarian empowerment:


1. Re-accentuation of respectability

The first strategy re-accentuates the meaning of nodal values when the proletariat does not feel strong enough to reject them (Bakhtin). For example, in the 1960s US ‘blacks’ defined dignity according to class markers. Bourgeois blacks, such as Martin Luther King, understood dignity to mean upright citizenship and demanded equal employment and educational opportunities. Under their scheme black dignity was to be guaranteed by enlightened leaders and enshrined in the law. The law may not be able to police racist prejudice but its admirers believe it is capable of changing discriminatory behaviour and that this in time might lead to cognitive alterations.


Other blacks, such as the Black Panthers, were also seeking reforms although in their case extra-legal actions were used in order to pressurise legislatures. Black Panthers understood dignity as full citizenship and since blacks were only considered three-fifth citizens, the strategy aimed to obtain the remaining two-fifths of rights denied them by the Constitution. Meanwhile, black welfarism would restore dignity to black lumpenproletarians left out of the circuits of capital accumulation.


Lastly, proletarian blacks had a simpler and more radical conception of dignity which was shaped by their everyday confrontation with racism. Proletarian dignity confronted both racist behaviour (e.g. discrimination in the shape of Jim Crow laws or segregation) and racist attitude (e.g. personal prejudice). The stable dictionary ‘meaning’ of the term, dignity, remained the same but the personal ‘sense’ in which it was employed had shifted dramatically (Vygotsky). Proletarian dignity, therefore, cannot simply be ignored or dismissed as bourgeois. It must be understood in its concrete context and as part of a dialectical supercession of all values.


It is essential to understand that proletarian demands for dignity, whether expressed by black American workers in the 1960s, Russian workers in 1905 or Palestinian workers crossing Israeli check-points are not a static entity, for they can fast evolve in one of two directions. Dignity can either solidify into reactionary pride or evolve into proletarian respect. Examples of the former include the notion of black pride promoted by fascists such as Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, Ahmadi-Nezhad’s Iranian brand of Strasserism or perhaps even the BNP’s opportunistic slogan of ‘rights for whites’.[4] Examples of the latter include the solidarity amongst British black proletarians during the 1970s and 1980s centred on respect. A similar phenomenon was witnessed amongst Native Americans in the 1970s during their struggle for land and an end to poverty, or during the first Palestinian Intifada when fighting both the Israeli army and Palestinian leaders simultaneously generated mutual respect within and between refugee camps.


2. Collective rejection of respectability

There are occasions when due to strength or sheer desperation, we manage to go beyond mere re-accentuation of bourgeois respectability and a deep seated rejection sets in. A minority faction within the anti-war movement in the run up to the war on Iraq achieved this in some measure (the rest, be they secularist or religious, remained within the bounds of bourgeois respectability). The honour and glory of war was rejected sometimes through rational arguments and sometimes through collective laughter and irony; the dignity of anti-Saddam victims who were opportunistically paraded in the media was exposed as a propaganda ruse and nullified. The authenticity of evidence put before us to justify the war was also queried at every turn. Some further examples of rejection of respectability may concretise the point: during a one-minute silence in a demo against the First Gulf War, bourgeois respectability was compromised when a group of radicals insisted on shouting, ‘No War but the Class War’; at the beginning of the Second Gulf War an American protestor whose husband was killed in Vietnam said, ‘I learned the hard way there is no glory in a folded flag.’ Similarly, a sizeable minority of Iranian proletarians have rejected the concept of martyrdom and warfare as a route to heaven as is evident in the struggle against the burial of the ‘unknown soldier’ within university campus grounds. ‘Queer carnivalesque’ would be another instance where we have witnessed a break with heteronormative notions of sexual respectability as well as gay/lesbian essentialism.

Proletarian resistance creates a gap between reality and official ideology. This gap has to be filled by rhetoric. The further decomposition of the art of rhetoric in the speeches of Bush, Blair, the Pope, Ahmadi-Nezhad and Bin Laden is itself an indication that the chain of signification is losing its shine everywhere. The first canon of classical rhetoric as practised in ancient Greece was ‘invention’. With the demise of the Sophists, invention was eclipsed by one or more of the other divisions, namely; ‘arrangement’, ‘style’, ‘memory’ and ‘delivery’. Today’s politicians have conveniently dispensed with memory and delivery, leaving arrangement and style as the only two vehicles for rhetorical discourse.


There are also moments of desperation which lead to a frontal assault on bourgeois respectability. Refugees and asylum seekers who are being forcefully removed have been known to go on hunger strike or strip to their underwear at airports as a final act of defiance against immigration authorities. Here, respectability which works through raising the threshold of shame (Goffman) is marginalised by the grotesque collective body (Bakhtin). Similarly, prison revolts undermine in a matter of hours the systematic work of chaplains, social workers and prison staff whose programme is to instil prisoners with etiquette and dignity.


3. Creation of new concepts like respect for by-passing respectability

When the balance of class forces is in our favour and we have the luxury of time and space, use value may temporarily eclipse exchange value. These preconditions not only make possible a rejection of bourgeois respectability but also foster proletarian respect. Moments of social rupture are usually preceded by a preponderance of mutual respect amongst the proletariat. This is not simply a case of positing our morality against theirs as Trotsky would suggest. Rather it is a case of rejecting exchange value and morality as the regulator of the private-public split in favour of a qualitatively different form of immeasurable value based on human need and solidarity. For instance, the term ‘respect’ finds its origins in Jamaica as part of the ‘rude boy’ slang subculture and is transported to Britain where it is picked up by the ‘white’ working class.


Nothing is more despicable than respect based on fear.’ Albert Camus


So far, we have postulated that respect is foregrounded among those sections of the proletariat traditionally denied access to the rulers’ chain of signification. We have also suggested that its appearance is a sign of proletarian strength since it is generated from below.


Conversely, if proletarians today are not creating autonomous, organic concepts such as respect (strategy three) and if they are not effectively rejecting capital’s nodal values (strategy two), and if re-accentuation of honour-dignity-authenticity (strategy one) is usurped by reactionaries and turned into pride, then it is logical to assume that capital is enjoying unprecedented hegemony over us.


Yet things are not as hopeless as they seem. In recent years, the two ideologies that have most effectively shackled proletarians world-wide have been fundamentalism and multiculturalism. Significantly, both emerged at times of massive structural crisis for capital. Fundamentalism (and we beg the reader’s forgiveness for over-generalising here), whether in its early 20th century US manifestation or its late 20th century Middle Eastern variety, was suitable for overseeing the transition from formal to real capital domination. However, it failed in both arenas. At the risk of oversimplification we could state that religious fundamentalism in both the US and the Middle East emerged partly as a response to the failures of modernism and yet instead of replacing the latter, it ended up forging an uneasy alliance with modernism (especially in places where fundamentalism gained power). In the US it was military Keynesianism that ultimately completed the transition and in the Middle East a kitsch cocktail of military Keynesianism (in industry) is being employed in conjunction with neo-liberalism (in finance and banking), and populism (in agriculture), to bring forth the real phase of capital domination.


Both fundamentalism and multiculturalism prefer winning the cultural battle in the domestic sphere prior to restructuring the production of values in the public sphere. However, whilst fundamentalism is proudly monologic, multiculturalism is falsely dialogic (Bakhtin). It pretends to take the addressee into account, respecting difference and heterogeneity. In truth secular multiculturalism is as haughty as religious fundamentalism. It listens but does not hear. And now that its project of integrating the foreigner-within has reached an impasse, it has left the western bourgeoisie without a recognisable strategy for continued hegemony. The crisis of multiculturalism reflects the failures of both secularism and postmodernism. The so-called separation of the Church from the state was always a mirage. Secularism took the hibernation of religiosity for its destruction and lulled itself into a false sense of security. Marx observed this bourgeois self-deception with uncanny clarity:


even when man proclaims himself an atheist through the mediation of the state […] he still remains under the constraints of religion because he acknowledges his atheism only deviously, through a medium.[5]


What Marx is saying is that ideological atheism (or if you prefer bourgeois humanistic atheism) is merely the negation of theism. The synthesis is something else which is yet to emerge. This ‘something else’ we have characterised as organic atheism since it will be a product of everyday proletarian self-activity and not secular legislation or rationalistic discourse. The crisis of the (western) secular state is tied in with the falling out of favour of postmodernism within academia and also with the failure (so far) of western capital to complete its transition from real domination to what we have provisionally termed surreal domination.[6]


The slow death agony of fundamentalism and multiculturalism has left bourgeois respectability devoid of efficacy. The slowness of this process and the absence of new proletarian values may have obscured this tendency but the stench of bourgeois values is becoming harder to ignore everyday.


We may not pay Satan reverence, for that would be indiscreet, but we can at least respect his talent.’ Mark Twain


Satan may be worthy of both reverence and respect but the bourgeoisie has lost the plot.[7] In this final section, we will provide examples related to our masters’ inability to maintain respectability over us.


Let us take the ‘naming and shaming’ campaign against paedophiles initiated by News of the World and taken up by the British government to tackle disrespect. Note that whilst the News of the World’s crusade was (largely) against white working class men, the government’s Anti-Social Behaviour Orders campaign is (largely) against children wrongdoers who in the past were not usually named for legal reasons. Shaming, as we have seen, is traced to pre-capitalism. Its modern bourgeois version never possessed the impact it needed for controlling proletarian behaviour. Today, this inappropriate usage of shaming has the ironic effect of granting disrespectful children a badge of honour amongst their peers. One final irony is that ‘naming and shaming’ was a tactic used by the radical plebeian press in the 18th and 19th centuries against the ruling class. If an impropriety (usually of a sexual kind) amongst the rich and famous was discovered, the radical press would blackmail the culprit for a hefty sum. Once the ransom was paid, the next issue of the paper would carry a titillating account of the sordid affair anyway in order to undermine bourgeois respectability. The News of the World’s campaign seems an exact reversal of this original impetus.


Our next example is even more ominous for British capitalism. The inability of both Labour and Tory parties to reanimate a sense of modern nationalism has alienated a sizeable minority of the population who now voluntarily identify themselves as the ‘other’. The other consists of two main camps: firstly, the alienated and atomised proletarians who attempt to regain their self-respect individually and, secondly, proud and self-righteous ‘Muslims’, ‘Asians’, ‘country warriors’ and ‘White fascists’. Ex-Home Secretary David Blunkett and his faithful sidekick Trevor Phillips clumsily attempted to impose British values on people only to expose this ‘imagined community’ (Benedict Anderson) for the sham it has always been. Gordon Brown’s recent call for a ‘British Day’ indicates his thinking runs along similar lines. Their new citizenship deal is an American rewriting of the social contract: once British values have been sufficiently inculcated and citizens have been coached in public displays of patriotism, the liberal state will graciously shower them with tolerance.[8]


The fact that a once secure sense of Britishness increasingly relies on ritualistic displays of patriotism is a sign of weakness not strength. Ironically, the state is relying on a colonial strategy for internal control at a time when that pernicious species of vultures known as community leaders are no longer in charge of their constituencies because they have lost the respect of the proletariat. It is arguable whether this atavistic cadre of vote-hunters ever enjoyed any genuine community support. Meanwhile, vacuous old multiculturalists are still harping about ‘equal dignity under the law’, ‘recognition of difference’ and the finer distinctions of ‘integration’ (which is good) and ‘assimilation’ (which is not). Multiculturalists are still in denial, they will need time to acknowledge the gravity of their defeat. Poor, pitiful hacks are still ‘multi-ing’ and ‘hybrid-ing’ our cultures in the hope of covering up the fact that an increasing number of us already feel trans-cultural.

One final example will suffice. The case of the Danish cartoons revealed cracks in both multiculturalism and fundamentalism (see Benedict Seymour’s article in this issue of Mute, p.88). Danish capitalism demonstrated the thin line separating tolerance from intolerance when Danish racists were given the green light to provoke their Muslim counterparts. Over a number of months Muslim hate-mongers were in turn given carte blanche by Saudi Arabia and Iran to whip certain sections of their constituencies into frenzy. Once a number of scores were settled and political points underlined, the furore died down as mysteriously as it had been initiated.[9] In the process, European multiculturalism exposed its inherent intolerance and the might of Islam shook with trepidation before a few second-rate cartoonists!


They cannot take away our self-respect if we do not give it to them.’ Mahatma Ghandi


Official ideologies in the form of fundamentalism and multiculturalism have fought (old) proletarian values to a stand still. Community generated respect has been marginalised in the process. Organisations such as George Galloway’s Respect Party and New Labour’s ‘respect campaign’ based on ASBOs have discredited the very term. This much we grudgingly admit. But significantly, both religious and secular respectability have lost their momentum, partly due to individual and collective proletarian resistance and partly due to their own inherent contradictions. We are, therefore, in a face-off situation with the ruling class over values. Old monologic (exchange) values have been shunned and new dialogic (use) values are yet to emerge. Since proletarians from different parts of the globe will generate these new values from within different linguistic and cultural environments, our task is to make sure their commonalities are made recognisable to all. Meanwhile, we should remain vigilant against reanimated versions of bourgeois respectability and expose their anti-working class agendas before they have become embedded within culture.


Acknowledgements: Melancholic Troglodytes are indebted to comments by Richard Barbrook, Loren Goldner, Anthony Iles, Josephine Berry-Slater, Nils, Vahid and Fabian Tompsett



[1] ‘The concept of honour implies that identity is essentially … linked to institutional roles’ P.L. Berger et al., The Homeless Mind, Penguin Books, 1973, p.84. Once premodern institutions gave way under the relentless march of capitalism, honour became embourgeoisfied and emptied of its substance. Cervantes’s Don Quixote captures the demise of the knight-errant and his chivalric code magnificently.


[2] F. Palinorc, Annual Review of Critical Psychology, 3, 2003, p.183, Manchester: Manchester Metropolitan University.


[3] See Raymond Williams, ‘Base and superstructure in Marxist cultural theory’, New Left Review, 82, 1973.


[4] Whilst hating the Nation of Islam and the Iranian theocracy, the BNP is happy to learn strategy from them. The BNP’s recent success in infiltrating the anti-Jerry Springer Opera campaign has prompted them to try to set up a church in Lincolnshire, under the name of the Christian Council of Britain. The head of this new church is a ‘reverend’ Robert West who believes that ‘The mixing of races challenges the glory of god’,


[5] Karl Marx, ‘On the Jewish Question’, p. 218, Early Writings, Penguin Books and New Left Review, 1984.


[6] The surreal phase we have postulated will come to replace the real phase of capital domination. What is interesting about this emerging phase is that it consists of four methods of surplus value extraction thus giving both capital and labour more flexibility. The two common forms of surplus value extraction (formal and real) are now becoming sandwiched between two more, provisionally named the pre-formal and post-real methods of extraction.


[7] You want to know how badly the stupid bastards have lost the plot? Get a load of this: Kevin Roberts is a high ranking bureaucrat with SAATCHI & SAATCHI. Recently he gave US Defence Intelligence Agencies a talk where he argued ‘brand America’ is failing because it is a ‘High Respect, Low Love’ kind of product. In contrast, he argues, there are brands that have ‘High Love, High Respect’ quotients such as Harley Davidson, Apple and JFK! So the trick is to make ‘brand America’ more like Harley Davidson and Apple and the rest of the world will fall in love with the USA (See M. Grimshaw, ‘Religion, Terror and the End of the Postmodern: Rethinking the Responses’, International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, 3(1), Jan 2006).

The conspiracy nut may interject here that the Sa’atchi (literally, clock-maker) brothers are originally from Iraq! Could theirs be a long-term Sufi strategy of undermining the efficacy of the US military ‘intelligence’ through subtle counter-productive spin? Are the Sa’atchi brothers Iraq’s revenge on US colonisers?


[8] Regarding the generation of a British identity it is worth noting that outside the country various agencies, such as embassies, train prospective refugees in British culture before accepting them. Perhaps myths about British identity are easier to fabricate at a distance; in Africa, Middle East and the ex-colonies.


[9] The comparison with Rushdie’s Satanic Verses is instructive. Then Khomeini’s fatwa found an immediate and widespread echo, the reverberations of which are still with us today. The Danish cartoon controversy only managed a partial mobilisation of the Islamic ummah and even that needed months of preparation by ‘flying mullahs’.

Following the recent acrimonious split within Melancholic Troglodytes, the splitting minority have formed themselves into the outfit Sad Cave-People. The majority can still be contacted at <meltrogs1 AT>

Proud to be Flesh

Drowning by Numbers: The Non-Reproduction of New Orleans

After the actual hurricane that hit New Orleans in late August 2005, came the second hurricane of neo-liberal looting. The vacuum left by the evacuation of the working class population and the storm’s destruction of infrastructure produced the dream conditions for economic 'restructuring'. This ‘disaster-catalysed primitive accumulation’, argues Benedict Seymour, reveals in fast-forward the fire-fighting strategy of a US economy in chronic decline

Originally commissioned by Greenpepper magazine, this text was written in February 2006


They became amphibious, and lived, as an English writer says, half on land and half on water, and withal only half on both. –‘So-Called Primitive Accumulation’, Capital Vol. 1, p. 892 Karl Marx


Hurricane Katrina created a great opportunity for looting. But contra to racist fantasies of post-storm rape and pillage, the real thieves were not the black underclass but the neo-liberal elite. The man-made disaster of the deluge provided the ideal excuse for New Orleans’ (mostly) white ruling class to set in motion long held plans for a new New Orleans, minus the (mostly) black working class.

The looting taking place in Louisiana’s 'Gulf Opportunity Zone' today represents potentially the most brazen and large scale act of gentrification yet seen in the already rampantly gentrified USA. The transfer of public assets into private ownership and the destruction of working class housing, services and social networks is a hallmark of neo-liberalism but up until now the process has rarely been as brutally, or rapidly performed – at least not on US territory. As the corporate macro-looters favoured by George Bush’s ‘laboratory for conservative economic policies’[1] in Iraq such as Halliburton, Blackwater and the Shaw Group suck in state money to ‘clean up’ after the devastation, the belatedly evacuated survivors of the deluge are decanted into temporary accommodation across the States, displaced and struggling to stay afloat.

Like the supersized disaster movie version of the ‘normal’ gentrification process already long under way in New Orleans, the state relief effort and planned reconstruction reveal renewal as a euphemism for ‘primitive accumulation’: the state-backed transfer of property into private hands as a source of fixed and variable capital, free land and devalorised labour.[2] In this case, as we will see, those being divorced from their means of production, or better, of their means of social reproduction, are not only newly proletarianised workers but the post-industrial reserve army created by decades of economic stagnation and austerity in the USA.

As in regeneration and reconstruction programmes elsewhere, the looting of New Orleans and Louisiana is not limited to the privatisation and colonisation of formerly working class areas, the theft of land and (crumbling) infrastructure. This transfer of fixed capital is always accompanied by a ‘holistic’ attack on the price of labour-power which works from all angles to deprive workers of their former means of subsistence, raising the real cost of living and destroying means of support, while creating new revenue opportunities for capital.

In the case of New Orleans, the hurricane is being treated as god’s gift to the neo-liberal consensus, a one off opportunity to speed the whole process up by rendering the working class evacuation post-Katrina permanent. Turbo-charged by the state relief effort, the gradual process of gentrification which had already emptied the centre of tourist New Orleans of its black population is poised to claim the rest of the city.[3]

The black majority of New Orleans are effectively prohibited from returning to rebuild their homes and their lives by a combination of economic dissuasion, logistical failure and technical/legal impediments imposed by federal and local government. The legal obstacles range from petty but effective restrictions (for instance, to vote in the forthcoming New Orleans primary which will decide the future shape of the city you need official ID – if you lost your ID in the storm, too bad), to surprising technical omissions (no satellite voting facilities are being prepared for the displaced citizens of Nola, though these were provided for expat Iraqis across the USA during the elections in Iraq![4] As one academic commentator remarked, the devastated New Orleans is now akin to a ‘developing society’ and as such a fit case for Jimmy Carter and his team.[5]

But it is the State’s failure to provide temporary accommodation in the city so that New Orleans’ displaced population of former renters and (large minority of black) home owners can return – whether employed or unemployed – which plays the biggest part in turning evacuation into permanent eviction. The 25,000 trailers promised by FEMA have failed to materialise while the nimby middle class bridle at the suggestion their neighbourhoods should become trailer parks.[6] Furthermore, Mayor Ray Nagin’s commission for reconstruction has called for a 4-month moratorium on rebuilding in devastated working class neighbourhoods like the lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East.[7] The message is clear: If you can’t rebuild, why return?

True to form for contemporary urban renewal projects, which like to combine coercion with a façade of ‘direct democracy’, the attempted theft of New Orleans is being presented as a consultation process. The city commission’s scheme, drafted by a Republican real estate development tycoon(!) Joseph Canizaro, solicits residents to offer a ‘viable’ plan for reconstruction. Given the disarray and dislocation of former residents it is hard to imagine how a ‘people’s plan’ is enabled by this pseudo-participatory framework, even if the residents were allowed back in the city. The rhetoric of choice combined with the shotgun timetable (‘4 months to decide!’ trumpeted the Times-Picayune newspaper’s headline), as in regeneration schemes, elsewhere renders the consultation a sham.[8] If big business alone is allowed to rebuild, and if a ‘viable’ plan means a plan agreeable to big developers like Canizaro, working class former residents have even less likelihood of returning to the city.


As in other gentrification zones, the restructuring of the wage going on post-Karina is as important as the looting of potentially revenue-generating land and the commercialisation of formerly domestic, public or community spaces.[9]

The instant labour shortage created by the forced diaspora from New Orleans might have been expected to push up wages for those involved in the reconstruction programme. In fact, the state and employers eagerly exploited the situation to cheapen labour-power while making sure the black working class were obstructed from returning and benefiting to some degree by the demand for workers. To be precise, the storm was used to create a new collective worker in the region – a new working class minus the minimal advantages enjoyed by the city’s former inhabitants. Post-Katrina, Bush immediately suspended the Davis-Bacon act requiring employers to pay ‘prevailing local wages’ and waived the requirement for contractors to provide employment eligibility forms completed by their workers (a deterrent to the employment of ‘illegal’ labour) as well as halting affirmative action programmes in the region.

Although these measures were later restored, employers correctly read this as a signal to drop wages and basic labour rights to tap into available supplies of immigrant labour. Latino workers poured into Louisiana in response to ads for jobs in Houston and other south western cities to be greeted by a familiar cocktail of racism and hyper-exploitation. Sleeping under bridges, in abandoned cars, paying a fortune to camp in tents in the city park or sharing overcrowded rooms, they work long hours for weeks at a time and are rewarded with $10 an hour – wages which, too often, are never even paid.[11] As Gary Younge observed, this is simply slave labour in its contemporary form, a return to the institution on which old New Orleans was founded.

As well as universally lowering wage rates in the regressive new New Orleans, the influx of immigrant labour – ‘largely unaware that tens of thousands of blue-collar evacuees who would relish these jobs are unable to return for lack of family housing and federal support’[12] – serves as yet another disincentive to the residents of old New Orleans to return. Pricing the black population out, state representatives like Ray Nagin and the neo-liberal media have been as quick to promote ‘artificially inflamed’ racism and inter-class competition as they have been slow to provide housing and aid.

Using immigrant labour to begin the clean up effort was not only cheaper for the individual capitalists concerned. The deployment of Latino workers, inadequately trained and unprotected by the frail privileges of citizenship, contributes to the overall recomposition and devalorisation of labour-power in New Orleans. Low wages for immigrants also means a further devalorisation of the labour-power of New Orleans’ displaced residents. In turn their presence in the cities such as Houston to which they have been ‘decanted’ serves as a downward pressure on wages there. Swapping populations around to effect an overall cheapening – or destruction – of labour-power, this is another example of disaster-catalysed primitive accumulation. Hyper-visible in New Orleans, but an endemic part of globalisation, the US already gets much of its labour-power for free through similar spatial prestidigitations. The cost of reproducing the labour power of immigrant workers, many of them recently proletarianised having come from regions not yet fully integrated into capitalist production, is borne by their societies of origin, not the US. Their low-to-no-wage status in New Orleans means absolute surplus value for their employers through non-reproduction of the most immediate kind, but this basic looting is always going on whether individual employers realise it or not.[13] Once again, we should see the looting of New Orleans as exemplary of capital’s current modus operandi, not exceptional. As has been remarked before, the exception is the (neo-liberal form of) rule.

The flipside of all this gutting of variable capital – that is, the lowering of the price of labour-power below reproductive levels – is the gifting of the business elite with a reduced bill for the rapidly diminishing consumption fund of the region’s working class.[14] Bush’s offer to pick up the tab for almost all of the 200 billion dollars of flood damage was not predicated on higher taxes on the rich. On the contrary, this steroidal version of Keynesian deficit spending would be combined, as Mike Davis puts it, with ‘a dream-list of long-sought-after conservative social reforms’ targeting the poor: ‘school and housing vouchers’ which effectively transfer the cost of services onto those they used to support; ‘a central role for churches’ – turning relief into an opportunity for moralising absolute surplus value extraction; ‘an urban homestead lottery’ – making it harder for most people to find housing while creating a few new members of Bush’s ‘ownership society’; and finally ‘extensive tax breaks to businesses, the creation of a Gulf Opportunity Zone, and the suspension of annoying government regulations’ which include suspending prevailing wages in construction and environmental regulations on offshore drilling).’[15]

The state of emergency licenses any amount of deregulation. The apparatus which at least offered some protection to workers while limiting corporate rapine within ‘average’ levels of depredation, was hurriedly dismantled in the aftermath of the storm. What was once upon a time accomplished in the name of a national myth of rebirth, the general mobilisation and devaluation of the working class imposed in the guise of fascist palingenesis (or Rooseveltian New Deal) in the ‘30s, can now only be catalysed by artificially aggravated disaster. Furthermore, where in the past devalorisation was combined with a rising standard of living, a shorter work day, new infrastructure and new institutions for the reproduction of labour-power (housing, hospitals, schools), here the panic depreciation of labour-power coincides with the non-replacement of the means of social reproduction:

Public-housing and Section 8 residents recently protested that the agencies in charge of these housing complexes [including HUD] are using allegations of storm damage to these complexes as a pretext for expelling working-class African-Americans, in a very blatant attempt to co-opt our homes and sell them to developers to build high-priced housing. [16]

Rather than rebuilding New Orleans and reproducing these state owned assets for their erstwhile beneficiaries, the drive to cheapen labour-power dictates the conversion of sites of reproduction into sites of revenue accumulation. This applies also in the private sector: Landlords, reacting to reports of soaring land values in dry areas, have begun evicting tenants en masse and renting properties out at higher rates.[17] Working class tenants still in their homes – or yet to return to them! – are being ‘flash gentrified’ out to make way for non-productive workers who offer a better rate of return for landlords. Whereas US capital formerly squeezed surplus value out of industrial workers in the process of production, now it squeezes the unemployed and/or shit-workers out of their homes to free up more property for (ultimately unproductive, fictitious) capitalisation.[18] As workers and their homes are devalorised, wages forced below the level necessary to secure means of subsistence, capital takes its ill-gotten spoils and turns them into collateral. The neoliberal vision for New Orleans is not the replacement of public housing and other resources but the transfer of land and property into the hands of developers and big business, a shift from the reproduction of labour-power to its displacement to make way for speculation and unproductive consumption: casinos, jazz themeparks, and elite Truman Show-style pseudo-communities.[19]

The whole State ‘relief’ programme functions as a second hurricane (for similar reasons the reconstruction in Indonesia is now known as ‘the second tsunami’) sweeping away the remains of the welfare system, and looting infrastructure to prop up big business.[20] True to the principles of the Washington Consensus in ensuring that all aid functions as means of command and a source of increased (debt leveraged) revenue, the US is imposing unprecedented demands for loan repayment upon local governments in affected states. How will local government meet this demand? No doubt through lower wages, further cuts in services and benefits (Bush’s legislation ‘proposes aid that would benefit less than one-quarter of those made jobless by Katrina’), and a continuation of the mass redundancies with which the state rewarded many of its own employees in the wake of the deluge.[21]


It is then no exaggeration to describe the devastation and subsequent looting of New Orleans as an example of primitive accumulation. Capital’s total wage bill is reduced through looting of the non-capitalist periphery, looting of un-reproduced – but over-valued infrastructure, and looting of nature – the non-replacement of natural resources evidenced by the erosion of the bayous and, since the introduction of the Gulf Opportunity Zone, intensified by the lifting of government environmental regulations. On top of this, we have the fundamental reduction of the wage of the disaggregated and dispersed ex-residents of the city, plus the raft of cuts in services and benefits for those who remain or return. This primitive accumulation is the bitter culmination of US capital’s long term strategy of devalorisation analysed by Loren Goldner in his essay ‘The Remaking of the American Working Class’. By the start of the 20th century the very development of the productive forces had pushed capital toward crisis:the productive forces have reached a level where any technological innovation produces more (fictive) capitalist titles to the total surplus value than it adds to that surplus value. The capital relationship can no longer maintain itself; it must therefore destroy an important portion of labor power, or labor power must destroy it.[22]

Rather than enabling the valorisation of capital, technological development actually undermines the value of it's own previously produced commodities and thus converts the value represented in commodities, money and credit already circulating into 'fictive' titles to value. Capital is, at its core, profoundly deflationary. To put it another way, as the development of technology itself accelerates the devalorisation of existing technology, the retroactive process of 'techno-depreciation', in which more efficient technologies render their precursors obsolete, effectively destroys their value as commodities, putting capital accumulation into crisis through its very own productivity.


Marx's formula whereby constant capital tendentially increases at the expense of variable capital – i.e. value produced by labour embodied in technology increasingly predominates over value-producing labour – not only drives the global expansion of capital but also sees a recomposition of production (the 'real subsumption' of labour under capital, as Marx calls it). In the last 100 years, the tendency of its own productivity to undermine capital's ability to valorise itself has been offset by driving down the cost of labour, extending and intensifying the process of production, and looting outside the wage relation proper. For the most developed capitalist nations, this meant a shift from absolute surplus value extraction, the extension of the working day, and primitive accumulation in the colonies, to Fordist and Taylorist intensification of production ('relative surplus value extraction') in the capitalist core. Through the cheapening of the means of subsistence afforded by mass production (i.e., cheaper food and clothing, domestic technologies, mass culture, etc), a process assisted by the role of the welfare state in providing mass health care and education, the cost of labour-power (variable capital) as a percentage of value could be pushed down. This was devalorisation of labour-power without (necessarily) the material destruction of the worker. As the other developed capitals one by one succumbed to stagnation and industrial decline, the US used its post-World War II supremacy to keep down the price of labour-power while pushing the myth of a permanent improvement in the condition of workers.  But, as Marx pointed out, the (relative, deceptive, and far from universal) rise in workers’ standard of living and real wages, comes on the eve of crisis. Since the mid-‘60s, with US industry devalued by its more productive competitors in Europe and Japan, the US ‘strategy’ has involved a shift from the Fordist/Taylorist intensive recomposition of labour-power to the dismantling of industrial production altogether. This reconfiguration then destruction of productive industry cannot be understood apart from its relationship to the sphere of circulation, however. The US continues to exploit its hegemonic position as the holder of the world’s reserve currency, the dollar, to counterbalance its decline as a ‘real economy’ through its ability to dictate global terms of trade. The domestic stagnation then demise of value-extraction through productive industry (viz the decades-long decline of the US auto industry, aerospace, metal working, textiles, mining, agriculture, etc) is offset by a global programme of primitive accumulation through the dollar, through the system of international loans, and the imposition of free trade and privatisation on defaulting nations by means of Structural Adustment Programmes, of which the current neoliberal attack on New Orleans is a spectacular, disaster movie variation.

Having extended and speeded up the working day in the ‘70s, shut down factories and welfare programmes in the ‘80s, and expanded the unproductive tertiary sector in the ‘90s, today the US is chopping away the residues of the mechanisms by which it recomposed the total worker, lowering the total wage by destroying means of production, reproduction, and workers themselves. After devalorisation, that is the destruction or ‘non-reproduction of labour power’ through (Fordist) recomposition, today we have the final stages of devalorisation through its Post-Fordist decomposition. After the ‘real subsumption’ of the worker under capital, we have surreal subsumption: the return of absolute surplus value extraction in formerly relative surplus value centred economies. Coupled with intensified labour, multiplied by primitive accumulation, capital now attempts the destruction of already reduced standards of living and expectations on the part of already ravaged communities of workers.

Thus, while it is true that what is happening in Louisiana is primitive accumulation on a grand scale, it is not the beginning of productive accumulation but its end – if not for the global economy, then at least for the USA’s. If the enclosures of the 16th century saw the transformation of peasants into ‘free and rightless proletarians’, the ‘new enclosures’ of the last thirty years (to use Midnight Notes’ term) have converted large sections of the proletariat into surplus humanity. A post-industrial reserve army of precarious labour that shows little chance of coming back into active service, or rather has only the bottom end of the service sector – a range of opportunities from Mcjobs and neo-slavery to incarceration – to be marched into. Turning its population into ‘insurgents’, as the refugees of Katrina were at one point dubbed, the state re-produces its citizens as foreigners, as its enemy, in order to de-compose their political strength and destroy their economic value.

Unlike the enclosures at the origin of capitalism which, though brutal, imposed the conditions for surplus value extraction on an expanding scale and created a new form of socialised labour (albeit in inverted and distorted form), the current period of enclosures of which New Orleans is exemplary, represent the looting of land and of labour-power for the reproduction on an expanding scale not of value but of fictitious capital – paper claims on value. Like the originary enclosures, the current cycle creates the conditions for absolute surplus value extraction, but within the context of spiralling debt and an ocean of fictitious values. The reconstruction of New Orleans as a city of luxury housing, casinos, and consumerism is hardly the creation of a new productive dynamo. Today we have primitive accumulation to make good the absence of production rather than as its foundation. In capital’s own terms this is problematic and ultimately unsustainable. Looting, that is, the many forms of non-reproductive accumulation going on in contemporary capitalism, reproduces looting on an expanded scale. The non-reproduction of constant and variable capital creates surplus value but also non-reproduction on an expanded scale – the ‘planet of slums’ described by Mike Davis. Up to the point where a crisis of illiquidity (or working class insurrection) arrests the global movement and expansion of fictitious capital, the US – and its creditors – are obliged to continue the game, continue the enclosures, even though the cost in permanent war, destruction and non-development of use-values is ever growing.[23]

The US’ failure to reproduce its working class, its industries and its cities may be ignored by those who still stand to benefit – at least in the short term – from the enormous accumulation of debt-backed credit flooding its housing and (other) speculative markets. But a country that lets a major city disappear into the sea for want of basic repairs and maintenance is clearly in trouble. Combined with the humiliation of its failed ‘laboratory for conservative economic policies’ in Iraq, the devastation of New Orleans should put the nail in the coffin of the myth of America’s post-industrial renaissance. The decline of the ‘real economy’ in the USA marks the end of primitive accumulation as a supporting player in capital’s drama and its move to centre stage.

The world’s leading producer of disaster movies, the US should perhaps adopt a new national mascot. Instead of the bald eagle, David Cronenburg’s human-fly would be more fitting. Seth Brundle, the renegade scientist who inadvertently fuses genes with the despised household insect in his attempt to teleport himself across his dilapidated ex-industrial warehouse, takes the first signs of his decay in human terms as tokens of renewed life and vitality. Elated, he feels he is becoming an ubermensch, living, if not as the knowledge economy boosters had it, on air, then on pure sugar. But he ends up typing with deciduous digits, extremities and sensibility falling away to reveal the horrifying insect within.

A narrative of transformation can only conceal regression for so long, but in the USA the denial seems structural. New Orleans’ destruction has been seized by conservatives as an opportunity to build a plastinated jazz cadaver over the dead or displaced bodies of the city’s black working class population. The black working and middle class are already fighting back against this grotesque and brutal process, asserting their right to return and reconstruct the city on their own terms. But we should bear in mind the depth of the crisis the US is facing and, unlike some liberal critics who now hark back to the New Deal and call for a return to the ‘real economy’, recognise that the US is no longer capable of restoring capitalist ‘productivity’. Similarly, the self-organised, unpaid efforts of private individuals to reconstruct the city in the vacuum created and enforced by the state’s agencies is in itself a form of non-reproduction and should not be fetishised as a purely autonomous activity. To put it in terms that even a productivist Maoist could understand, we can’t survive by creating a new, more cosy relationship with the capitalist insect. Nor should we be content to pioneer the latest forms of non-reproduction in our struggles against capital. Expanded social reproduction on capital’s terms is no longer an option. Much more difficult, yet the only ‘viable’ choice, we have to kill the insect before it kills us.




[1] Paul Krugman quoted in Mike Davis, ‘The Predators of New Orleans’ October 05, Le Monde diplomatique:

[2] Marx, Capital vol1, Chapter 8 , quote: ‘The so-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production. It appears as primitive, because it forms the pre-historic stage of capital and of the mode of production corresponding with it.’ While this definition holds good, it is important to see that primitive accumulation is a misnomer if understood to mean an originary, and now historical, phase of accumulation. Primitive accumulation is an ongoing and permanent part of capitalism. Cf. Loren Goldner, ‘The Remaking of the American Working Class, The Restructuring of Global Capital and the Recomposition of Class Terrain’, ‘Once Again, On Ficitious Capital: Further Reply to Aufheben and Other Critics’, and also Retort, Afflicted Powers. Also Wikipedia:

[3] Naomi Klein, ‘Let the People Rebuild New Orleans’. The Nation, September 26, 2005: ‘The Business Council's wish list is well-known: low wages, low taxes, more luxury condos and hotels. Before the flood, this highly profitable vision was already displacing thousands of poor African-Americans: While their music and culture was for sale in an increasingly corporatized French Quarter (where only 4.3 percent of residents are black), their housing developments were being torn down.’

[4] ‘The Disenfranchisement Of Katrina's Survivors’, 1 March 2006 Michael Collins, Special for "Scoop" Independent Media,

[5] ‘Frustration Dominates New Orleans Race’, 3 March 06, By Cain Burdeau, Associated Press: ‘It's almost to the point that we need election observers,’ said Gary Clark, a political science professor at Dillard University in New Orleans. ‘The limits we have now are almost the same as in a developing society: an economic infrastructure that's been devastated and various factions trying to seize political control and influence.’

[6]‘Fighting the Theft of New Orleans – The Rhythm of Resistance’, Glen Ford and Peter Gamble, The Black Commentator, Issue 167 – January 19, 2006. ‘Who's rebuilding New Orleans?’, St Petersburg Times, Saundra Amrhein, October 23: ‘But FEMA estimates that 100,000 families in the region need temporary housing. But only 3,105 families have been placed in travel trailers and another 70 in mobile homes, McIntyre said. The nearest trailer settlement to New Orleans is 80 miles away in Baker.’

[7] Glen Ford and Peter Gamble, ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] While none of this could be described as ‘outside’ capitalism, public housing and community services represented an area created by capital where the state allocated a portion of total value via appropriations, i.e. taxes, to the reproduction of labour-power as a means by which to lower the price of labour power as a whole through economies of scale. That it is today destroying these economies indicates a shift to a more absolute non-reproduction of labour-power. For this argument regarding the devalorisation of labour-power I am indebted to Loren Goldner’s ‘The Remaking of the American Working Class’.

[10] Gary Younge, ‘Hard Times in the Big Easy’, The Nation, March 13, 2006

[11] Ibid. Also, Jonathan Tilove, ‘Cleanup relies on day labor of Latinos’, Jan 8 2006, Times-Picayune.

[12] ‘Gentrifying Disaster – In New Orleans: Ethnic Cleansing, GOP-Style’. Mike Davis, Mother Jones, October 25, 2005.

[13] For more on this, see Loren Goldner, ‘The Remaking of the American Working Class, The Restructuring of Global Capital and the Recomposition of Class Terrain’: ‘Through the incorporation of this non-capitalist work force, whose reproduction costs are free for capital (not, of course, for the society of origin) the total capital can reduce the cost of the total worker.’ To put it in non-Marxian terms, the workers who come to the US from 'developing countries' are, as the economists say, a 'free input'. The process of producing them as workers, as beings-for-capital in any and every sense – feeding, training and developing their bodies and minds, educating, socialising, acculturating them – is not paid for by US capitalists, it's a free gift they get when they employ the worker. This 'social reproduction' of the worker is looted wholesale, as, to a greater or lesser extent, are whole communities and the social ties that they foster. Mike Davis has noted this phenomenon in his book Magic Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the US Big City. He cites the example of Randalls, a Houston grocery chain, who have recruited more than 1000 workers from closely related villages in the Tontonicapan highlands of Guatemala. Housed in a cluster of low-rise faux Georgian apartment houses, these proletarianised Mayans come with built-in cooperative powers US capital never had to pay to inculcate: 'US employers ... have become skilled at exploiting "positive externalities" like free labour recruitment and superb workgroup discipline that arise from organised communal emigration.'

[14] While the literal enslavement of workers is not, long term, a sustainable option for capital, since the value measure (socially necessary labour time for the reproduction of capital) must remain in force even in its state of exception if capital is not to simply defraud and devalue itself, in the contemporary conditions of accumulation where productive activity floats – or drowns – in a sea of over-valued monetary claims on non-existent surplus value (aka fictitious capital) the reckoning for this looting can be deferred through the stupendous spirals of the credit system. Fictitious capital commands that further looting is performed in the attempt to make good these empty claims on value, yet an over-reliance on looting, since it destroys the productive base of surplus value and indeed the materialised capital that constitutes our life world, tends to diminish its own ability to expand surplus value…

[15] ‘The Predators of New Orleans’, Mike Davis, October 05, Le Monde diplomatique

[16] ‘Gentrifying Disaster – In New Orleans: Ethnic Cleansing, GOP-Style’, Mike Davis. It should be noted that although the non-return of blacks has been explicitly called for as policy, the exclusion of the asian and white working class is an unstated but de facto goal of the same process.

[17] Ibid.

[18] ‘Non-productive' here is used in Marx’s – not Adam Smith's – sense. Non-productive labour is labour judged from the perspective of capital's imperative of expanded accumulation. Productive labour is labour which adds to and REproduces (expands) the total surplus value (i.e. capital) accumulated by exploiting the waged labour of the working class. The nature of the things produced, and the context of production, determines whether or not an activity is productive. For example, the US' spiralling investment in military production is classically unproductive – however many workers are employed in this sector and however essential to maintaining US global hegemony its wars may be – because tanks, bombers, guns, etc, do not reproduce total capital embodied in use-values of whatever kind, even when they are not directly employed in destroying use-values produced by other capitals, as in Iraq for example. Indeed, the US as a whole, when one considers its total capital in the light of its total debt, must be reckoned unproductive – but this judgement is being made in the form of the ongoing devastation of people and things evidenced in events such as the destruction of New Orleans, and will not be complete until a future financial-social crisis completes a thorough-going destruction of use and exchange values of the kind experienced in previous crashes and inter-imperialist wars. The FIRE economy elite (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) who will take over New Orleans clearly belong to the unproductive class (Marx's 'faux frais' of production), whose salaries come out of capital's 'consumption fund'. Classically, while they may be necessary to superintending or lubricating the process of accumulation, this class, although waged or salaried, is not productive of surplus value but rather are paid out of surplus value accumulated elsewhere in the system. In fact, today this class are chiefly useful for expanding the fictive claims on value of US capital, so even their traditional status as 'incidental operating expenses' is eclipsed. This class in unproductive as never before; they are 'incidental expenses' incurred in the process of drowning in debt and destroying social reproduction. Once the housing and related bubbles deflate they are likely to join the rest of the US proletariat in a swamp of less genteel unproductive activity.

To clarify, the displaced working class now forced out of New Orleans were themselves increasingly an unproductive class (again, in capital's terms), whether as beneficiaries of dwindling welfare payments or workers in increasingly heavily leveraged US companies whose dwindling capital supports towering 'inverse pyramids' of debt. Productive activity, as the rise of China as the US's offshore production plant makes clear, is tendentially impossible within the territorial limits of the USA. What America increasingly dedicates itself to is the destruction of value – both exchange and use value, since both embody surplus value, the root of capitalist wealth and the source of its crisis. Only by uprooting and looting such workers can capital hope to squeeze a desperate last dose of absolute surplus value out of its moribund 'reserve army of labour'. Yet, once again, given the macro-logic of US capital's decline, these little hits of valorisation are immediately swallowed up in the vast nexus of debt, deferral and extorted tribute that is the international financial system. Here US debts are turned into a powerful tool for the domination of its economic rivals and creditors. The financial elite are clearly more than willing to offer New Orleans and its working class to the nebulous deity of unlimited liquidity up until the point where not having a productive industrial base becomes a truly insuperable problem.

[19] As Mike Davis notes, the Clinton-era HOPE VI programme which fetishised diversity through ‘mixed use, mixed income’ housing was conceived as replacement housing for the poor but ended up replacing the poor themselves. This is the model for housing, and the other forms of ‘displacement through (non) replacement’ in the new New Orleans.

[20] Naomi Klein, The Nation, September 26, ‘05. [21] Mike Davis, ibid: ‘The powerful House Republican Study Group has vowed to support only relief measures that buttress the private sector and are offset by reductions in national social programs such as food stamps, student loans, and Medicaid.’

[22] Loren Goldner, ibid.

[23] To get some idea in non-Marxist terms of what 'non-development of use-values' means, consider the current ecological crisis. If the majority of scientists are correct and global warming is accelerating at a potentially devastating pace, this represents the absolute destruction of (potential and actual) use-values, the acme of the ongoing devastation conducted in the form of wars and so on. Rather than organising a rational response to the crisis of global warming, e.g. creation of viable and more efficient fuel sources, etc., capital is busily prosecuting a campaign of austerity in the guise of enforced recycling, taxation, and, if the Kyoto agreement were ever to be put into practice, the progressive limitation of carbon emissions at the cost of the world's poor. Rather than using our immense productive capacity to generate real alternatives to carbon-based fuel, the limit of contemporary imagination is a Malthusian throttling of real (i.e. non-capitalist) development. The conditions of capital accumulation make alternative energy 'unviable', applying a calculus which, at the global level, would sacrifice the combined use-values of the planet to the dictates of exchange-value. In the meantime, the NGOs and 'green' businesses make a nice profit by retailing new forms of immiseration and social discipline.


Benedict Seymour <ben AT> is deputy editor of Mute

Proud to be Flesh

History has Failed and will Continue to Fail

In early summer 2001, violence exploded across several Nothern English towns. For many, the riots appeared to come out of the blue, but the building blocks of an explanation were soon in place - to be repeated by newspapers, TV, community spokespersons and state authorities. In the wake of events, Matthew Hyland reads on from 'irrational, mindless thuggery' to 'race riots' and representation.


Through April, May, June and July this year, large groups of young 'Asians' have sporadically but efficiently fought police (and a few sub-fascist white opportunists) in the streets of towns across the North of England. The inevitable outcry of reasonable opinion has come in a variety of styles, but it has also revealed a remarkable consensus. Community leaders, columnists, police chiefs and politicians each spoke according to type about mindless thuggery or a tragically misguided collective outburst, but all agreed that the rioters' behaviour was somehow irrational. No doubt this shared certainty across the presumed political spectrum tells us something about social spectatorship and bourgeois thinking; what it indicates more urgently, though, is quite how rational the action of the 'violent minority' may have been.

Perhaps the single silliest aspect of the coverage has been commentators' lament that an almost understandable reaction to organised racist provocation was subsequently 'turned against' the police, as if the cops were little more than unfortunate bystanders. Of course this could hardly be further from the truth. In Oldham, for example, the police's response to an evening's violence and intimidation by a specially bussed-in National Front/Combat18 gang was to turn up in riot gear, arrest Asian men, and try to disperse a crowd of angry local residents. As Arun Kundnani points out in his important essay 'From Oldham to Bradford: the Violence of the Violated' (to be published in October 2001 in the Institute of Race Relations collection The Three Faces of British Racism) the police weren't 'defending the rule of law', they were acting as an invading army, and as such they were driven off the streets, dogs, armoured vans and all. It would be too much to expect left-liberal journalists to recognise the police as part of a racist state apparatus not just when 'unwitting prejudice' gets the better of them but when they're doing their job properly, but apparently it never even occurred to them that young Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in one of the poorest parts of the country might see things that way. These earnestly anti-fascist souls flatter the far-right groups extravagantly in imagining that all the fury of the revolt was the product of their sorry manoeuvring.

Oldham and Bradford in particular were notable for the rioters' practical effectiveness - holding territory, repeatedly driving back police attacks, and avoiding large numbers of arrests - and also for the risks taken by those involved. These two aspects are obviously not unrelated, as the counter-example of the London Mayday debacle shows. The self-styled anti-capitalists agonised for weeks before and after the non-event over the tension between material and symbolic politics, or what's effective physically and how it would be represented. In Burnley, Leeds, Stoke-On-Trent, Bradford and Oldham this debate seems never to have been scheduled. Simply doing what was necessary to hold off the police meant abandoning hope of a 'fair hearing' from the BBC or the Guardian. Indifference to being slandered on TV as criminals, along with the resolution to deal with serious police violence, tends to come with the realisation that the machinery of political and media representation isn't an open forum for communication, but a weapon used by the social subject enjoying access to it against others that don't. At this point those for whom the arsenal is unavailable attempt, quite rationally, to destroy the physical conditions it's used in. The complete failure of the most sympathetic media and mediators to guess at any of this confirms the wisdom of absconding from their skewed agora.

The current unprecedented distance between representation and social reality is especially evident in public discourse about 'racism'. Five or ten years ago the word was barely heard in polite discussion. Now it's the subject of almost daily homilies from politicians and journalists. This new visibility, however, has come at the cost of something approaching a complete reversal of the term's meaning. The 'Stephen Lawrence Report' by eporting judge Sir William Macpherson of Cluny was central to this process. Macpherson's report can be seen as symbolic of the whole process whereby the evil of 'racism' has become a ubiquitous feature of public discourse while the term is drained of its social and historical meaning. A Home Office green paper explicitly tied the report to the notorious Asylum and Immigration Bill as the two faces of New Labour 'anti racist' policy. The report popularised the term 'institutional racism', first used in the 1960s by black student leader Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers to designate the systematically racist policies of a state apparatus. Macpherson, however, takes pains to emphasise that 'the contrary is true'. He redefines 'institutional racism' as a purely personal psychological defect that happens to be shared by a large number of people. It's a question of unwitting bigotry in 'the words and actions of officers acting together', simple ignorance to be cured by hours of quasi-therapeutic training. This piece of semantic juggling actually makes it more difficult than before to address publicly the racism administered by institutions in their normal functioning, as the only language in which this could be done has been hijacked and turned to innocuous ends. The report's complete failure to deal with a non-psychological fact like the number of black deaths in police custody demonstrates this, as does a recent report on the Crown Prosecution Service by lawyer Sylvia Denman. The CPS was found to be 'riddled' with institutional racism, meaning it often treats its own black and Asian staff unfairly. Yet the huge and systematic racial disparity in suspects' chances of being prosecuted (black and Asian defendants are four times as likely to have their cases thrown out in court, implying a roughly corresponding ratio of doubtful charges gone ahead with by the CPS) wasn't even mentioned.

Oldham may have witnessed almost the first practical fruit of Macpherson's psychologizing zeal (I say 'almost' because in the last year or so we've already seen the law against 'racial hate crime' in action: a black man fined 150 pounds in Ipswich crown court for supposedly calling some cops 'white trash', and protestors prosecuted under 'racial aggravation' laws for hurting American soldiers' feelings by burning a US flag). One of the judge's most important and strangest recommendations is that a 'racially motivated incident' be defined as 'any incident which is defined as racist by the victim or any other person' (emphasis added). Not surprisingly, police statistics on the apprehension of 'racist crime' have improved dramatically since the words' meaning was opened up for spontaneous redefinition by any passerby or policeman, eliminating the tiresome notion that the perpetrator or at least the victim should be the judge of motivation. Thus Oldham police felt quite at liberty to treat the beating of 76 year-old pensioner ('and war veteran!' screamed the quality press) Walter Chamberlain by Asian youths as 'racially motivated', despite the complete lack of any evidence to this effect and the insistence of the victim and his family that it was not the case. Before long the BNP were marching around the town with pictures of Chamberlain's battered face on placards. The new in-definition of 'racist incident' also generated the infamous statistic purporting that '60 per cent of racist attacks in Oldham are carried out by Asians against whites', first published by the Oldham Evening Chronicle, whose offices were shortly afterwards consumed in the (real not symbolic) flames of Asian indignation.














The psychologisation of race and racism can be seen as part of a wider tendency in government policy, scientific practice, academic and media discourse. Increasingly, these apparatuses of representation seek to manage social problems through intensive and pre-emptive monitoring of individuals seen as presenting 'risks', rather than waiting to judge particular actions or sets of circumstances (as in a traditional criminal trial or benefit claim, for instance). 'Risk', in the form of criminality, 'anti-social' tendencies or personality disorder, is presumed to dwell as a quasi-pathological tendency within the individual. It's only a matter of time until certain people actually commit a crime or have a psychotic 'episode', so why shouldn't the state intervene before they do something? We've already seen 'Community Safety Orders' allowing judges to turn any future acts like spitting, pissing or loitering into serious criminal offences for specific individuals who haven't been convicted of anything yet. Compulsory drug tests for everyone arrested are already underway in Hackney and are coming soon to the rest of the country, as is a permanent DNA archive of potential criminals. David Blunkett's first proposals as Home Secretary (taken from the Halliday report on sentencing reform) include 'Acceptable Behaviour Contracts' for teenagers, police powers to impose curfews, compulsory work or drug treatment on unconvicted young people, and provision for 10-year supervision orders after completion of sentences. The forthcoming and deeply sinister Mental Health Act (see 'Mad Pride', Mute 20) is another part of the picture.

Any critique treating these moves towards personalised social control as a 'civil liberties issue' is totally inadequate. The new techniques are designed to contain the disruptive potential of the social class with least to lose. Any doubt that racial minorities will be affected disproportionately should be dispelled by the first examples of the new thinking put into practice. A recent Lambeth police experiment called 'Operation Shutdown' saw 'prominent or development nominals' – people 'known' to be 'involved with crime', although they hadn't necessarily ever been convicted and weren't wanted for anything at the time – stopped in the street, surrounded and very publicly videotaped by vanloads of cops. The number of black nominals was as high as Lambeth's grotesque figures for regular stop-and-search would lead one to expect. Merseyside police, meanwhile, are pioneering the DNA archive scheme by taking non-consensual samples from anyone reported in connection with a 'racial incident'. In general, the rise of 'informal justice' &ETH; treatment of alleged criminality outside the courts &ETH; is disturbing: as the already mentioned high rate of black and Asian acquittals shows, in at least some cases courts' slow examination of what has happened corrects the criminalisation of certain subjects based on who they are. (The example that comes most easily to mind is that of Delroy Lindo, fitted up 20 times by Haringey cops over a couple of years, with the charges always thrown out in court.)

Arun Kundnani observes that the recent rioting was 'ad hoc, improvised and haphazard', in contrast to the organised community self-defence seen in 1981, when the Asian Youth Movement burnt down a pub in Southhall where fascists had gathered, or when members of the Bradford United Youth Movement were arrested for making petrol bombs in response to fascist attacks in the area. Certainly, it would be grotesque to twist recognition that this was the desperate action 'of communities falling apart from within as well as from without... the violence of hopelessness' into glib celebration of its spontaneity. Nonetheless, it may be that the widely deplored 'excess' or 'incoherence' of the riots as a 'response to racism' reveals a feeling among at least some participants that the target for their anger, the set of conditions to be destroyed, can't be reduced to a single enemy or injustice. The risible failure of 'community leaders' attempts at mediation reflects many young Asians' complete disdain for these state-funded patriarchs' claim to represent them. It may also suggest that what was sometimes claimed for street battles of the 1960s (by the Situationists for the Watts rebellion, and, with flagrant disregard of what actually happened, by various romantics for May-June '68 in France) might apply here: that no particular concession from above would have sufficed to content the crowd, to send them home newly reconciled to their lot. The idea that the violence was 'excessive' and apolitical patronisingly presumes that young Asians don't know that in their experience of poverty and racism they're confronting a historical totality, rather than an isolated problem that the present system could choose to solve or not. For instance, the fact that Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities across the Pennine hills are among the poorest 1 per cent of Britain's population is partially related to the economic need to send money back to families at 'home'. This situation is inseparable in turn from imperial Britain's destruction of the Indian textile industry and the establishment of the Lancashire and Yorkshire mill towns as prototypical Export Processing Zones spinning cotton grown in Bengal, among other places, into cloth to be sold back at a profit to the empire. Eventually Pakistani and Bangladeshi labour was brought in to do night shifts disdained by the existing workforce, until, as Kundnani puts it, '[t]he work once done cheaply by Bangladeshi workers in the north of England could... be done even more cheaply by Bangladeshi workers in Bangladesh.' So cheaply, in fact, that their pitiful earnings have to be subsidised by relatives now in precarious service sector work or on the dole in England. Thus in the everyday constriction of their lifeworld, the mill towns' Asian youth take on the weight of colonial history as well as globalised capital's ability to generate wretched 'necessity'. Even if today's desperation might somehow be overcome within the present social horizon, there is a sense in which the past cannot be rectified, only avenged. It's significant that the few young Asians interviewed in mainstream media after the riots spoke not only of their own obstructed futures but also, without distinguishing past from present, of what their parents' generation endured. 'If they could get good jobs here why would they be driving cabs?' asked one.

The debate over whether race or class was the 'reason' for the conflict seems absolutely sterile in this context. As certain commentators never grow tired of observing, the white working class suffers too, especially in de-industrialised Northern towns. The likelihood that the ultimate sources of everyone's misery might be the same, however, doesn't alter the reality that things are quantitatively worse for certain racial groups, for reasons which may not be tangible in the eternal present of newspapers and TV but which with a little attention to history are anything but mysterious. Ultimately race and class are inseparable: racism is most real in the intensified application to particular ethnic groups of expropriation and control techniques used against the entire working class. Conversely, class is always lived in a racialised way: expropriation and control are experienced differently according to (plural, contestable) attributions of 'race'. 'Ethnic minorities' have no choice but to be aware of this, whereas among white Europeans only those peddling the absurd idea that life is worst for whites seem to acknowledge it. Most who have the luxury of being able to do so like to imagine, no less absurdly, that whiteness means racial neutrality. Once again, Oldham offers plenty of examples. The most recent available Home Office figures (1998) show the rate of unemployment in the town at 4.3% overall and 38% for Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Housing statistics, meanwhile, record that 13% of homes in the area were 'statutorily unfit for human habitation', with another 28% 'in serious disrepair'. These privately-owned ruins were concentrated in the largely Asian areas, also noted for high rates of household overcrowding. The situation was hardly accidental. Paul Harris and Martin Bright in The Observer ('Bitter Harvest from Decades of Division', 15 July, 2001) recall that young men coming into Northern textile towns from South Asia in the 1950s were often kept out of council housing by a two year residency condition operated by local authorities. Consequently they moved into the most run-down areas with the cheapest rents, and '[a]s the first Asians moved in, the whites moved out. As more Asians followed, they were housed nearby, often because in their own Bangladeshi or Pakistani quarter they felt safer from attack from the whites.' Not surprisingly given their economic vulnerability, many young Asians sought to buy their own property as an investment, with the result that they became owner-occupiers of small, dilapidated houses unwanted by whites, without the money for repairs or relocation. Although these phenomena were the subject of research by Pakistani sociologist Badr Dahya as early as the 1970s, little has changed in the meantime. In 1993 Oldham Borough Council was found guilty of running a segregationist housing policy, moving white residents into new suburban estates where Asians were often denied accommodation and faced harassment and violence if they did get in. Hence they stayed in their damp, overcrowded terraced houses, 'a community penned in' as further white flight kept property prices low. Confinement of ethnic groups in single areas 'naturally' led to educational segregation; as a generation grew up unaccustomed to ethnic mixing, the limitation of Asians' mobility could be portrayed in local and national media as 'self-segregation', or even the deliberate creation of 'no-go areas' for whites.

A 'race riot', then, is always already a class riot, although that doesn't mean it makes no difference whether or not racial groups stereotyped as enemies are fighting side by side. This is said not to have been the case in the Northern towns (unlike Brixton in 1981, '85, '95 and 2001 or LA in 1992), but 'Asians vs. whites' is nonetheless a misleadingly vague way to characterise the sides involved in the fighting. The question of collective subjectivity needs to be looked at closely here. As the difference between its meanings in, say, Manchester, San Francisco and Moscow (or now and 2,000 years ago) suggests, 'Asian' is a concept with unstable boundaries, most often used for convenience by people who don't see it as referring to themselves. There's little reason to assume that many of the youths involved in the recent clashes would have thought of themselves primarily as 'Asian'. Guardian journalist Faisal Bodi has drawn attention to hostility between groups of Muslims in the Northern towns: not only between Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, divided by the war that separated East and West Pakistan and created the state of Bangladesh, but also among Pakistanis, between Pathans, Punjabis and Kashmiris living in separate clusters in the same towns. These forms of ethnic and linguistic isolation, which as Kundnani notes reinforce the power of community patriarchs within their own clans, have a lot to do with the identity politics in practice in the race relations system, with money for ethnically exclusive centres and language support 'pouring into' the towns, chiefly benefiting 'people whose livelihood depends on being linguistic intermediaries between minority communities and local authorities', as Bodi points out. In these circumstances competition between areas for funding further exacerbates tension by giving the (fairly accurate) impression that one ethnic sub-group's gain is another's loss.

Such is the institutional hegemony of identity politics and the moral authority of victimhood today that the BNP has adapted its rhetoric correspondingly, emphasising a 'need' to preserve the fragile cultural and biological identity of British whiteness. Disingenuously sidelining the questions of class and power in trying to present 'whiteness' as an ethnicity 'like any other', this discourse could be said to take the cultural studies separation of cultural self-identification from its material basis to its logical conclusion. A more pompously world-historical version of the same kind of thinking is offered by Horst Mahler, once of the Red Army Fraction, now spokesman for Germany's xenophobic New Democratic Party. In the '70s, he says, the New Left (and the RAF as its armed wing) were fighting for national self-determination for 'third world' countries like Vietnam and Palestine. That, he insists, is just what the 'left-wing' NDP wants now: 'self-determination' for Germans in Germany, Turks in Turkey, etc, as if Germany, Turkey et al were timeless natural entities.

Yet the violence in Oldham, Bradford and elsewhere clearly demonstrates what the politics of identity always fails to recognise: that material necessity leads the way where (self-) representation may or may not confusedly follow. When confronted with the need to defend themselves and their space against aggression from police and fascists, Pathans, Punjabis, Kashmiris, Bangladeshis and others acted together with unquestionable effectiveness. Bodi points to ecumenical, cross-community Muslim projects in housing and youth work as potential roads out of identity ghettoes; multi-denominational street-fighting against uniformed and freelance racists can be seen as another. This is not to say that in the course of the turmoil the rioters consciously assumed a new, shared 'Asian' or 'Black' subjectivity. But even if each small group of friends and family had been concerned exclusively with its own narrow interests (and there is no reason to believe that this was so), all were obviously aware that their own interests, in the most immediate, concrete sense, could safely be pursued only through cooperation.

Nor should it be taken for granted that the nameless, provisional collective subject that seemed to flicker into being in the riots, if only for a few hours at a time, existed solely in reaction to white racist aggression. Both the persistence of the violence over four months and such supposedly gratuitous but in reality eloquent and political acts as the destruction of a BMW showroom suggest that the young men wanted not only to defend their communities, but also to assert their own power and autonomy, in however indeterminate and limited a way. Well-meaning commentaries that reduce displays of force to unruly forms of protest deny 'subaltern' subjects a capacity for independent action: even the most violent protest, conceived as such, engages in a dialogue initiated by the more powerful side. By contrast, the very failure of the mill town rebellion to specify political 'demands' from a recognisable subject position has, in a highly problematic way, made the young 'Asians'' self-assertion an unanswerable fact. Perhaps this un-identifiability of a subject which nonetheless refuses to be ignored, this conspicuous neglect to address or be addressed by the organs of representation, contributed to the horror in which leaders of local communities, national politics and public opinion were united.


Matthew Hyland <matthewhyland AT> is co-compiler of Wolverine, the journal of Childish Psychology [], and is one seventh of the Mean Streaks.

Proud to be Flesh

SPECIAL PROJECT: Fear Death by Water (The Regeneration Siege in Central Hackney)

The London Particular (Benedict Seymour and David Panos) see the borough of Hackney in the East End of London as a microcosm of contemporary power processes. Long a dumping ground for London’s poor, Hackney is becoming an increasingly regulated space of flows, where, in the name of life and culture, ‘regeneration’ incubates gentrification and new forms of biopolitical control. Taking the recent police siege in Hackney’s ‘creative quarter’ as the key to an increasingly precarious urban condition, this special project looks at the possibilities for life in the regenerated inner city

The Hackney Creative Quarter

Welcome to HTH2, formerly Hackney Town Hall Square. A £70 million-plus project for the cultural renewal of central Hackney in London’s east end, HTH2 is the heart of the area’s new ‘creative quarter’.

Home of artists and immigrants, Hackney is a traditionally working class area undergoing protracted gentrification. The nomination and production of a creative (aka cultural) quarter is intended to act as a regeneration incubator, attracting a new class of customer to this formerly despised part of the capital. HTH2 combines a music venue (The Ocean Centre), a library and new media complex (The Technology & Learning Centre or TLC), rehabilitated public space (the square itself) and theatre, comedy and other live arts (the refurbished Hackney Empire). The whole project was funded through a private finance consortium including MACE, Roche, Tarmac Constructions and Schroder’s Bank.

The Ocean, with its concert halls, production facilities and Aqua bar, enjoys a 150-years rent-free lease from Hackney Council plus a £300,000 a year grant. The council, declared bankrupt in 2001, recently auctioned off a large share of its housing, nurseries, doctors surgeries, playing fields, schools, youth clubs, libraries and swimming pools. Prices were very competitive and developers picked up bargains in an area which has seen London’s steepest increase in property values. Hackney Council continues to cut back on services and staff but has no long term means to remedy its structural under-funding at the hands of central government.

With a remit to deliver ‘vibrancy’ to the square and its environs, HTH2 displays all the stigmata of regenerated space. Aseptic, generic and surveilled, it’s a vitrification of place (something socially produced and by definition volatile) into planned ‘ambience’. Silting up the channel between the area’s past and future, the square places heritage (the TLC now hosts Hackney Museum) next to learning and culture, domesticating them all.

The square is not the only part of Hackney’s regeneration programme, however...

The Hackney Siege

The Hackney Siege was a £1 million pound project for the spatial sterilisation of the area adjacent to the Town Hall Square. Lasting 15 days, it deployed squads of paramilitary police round the clock and shut down several streets and a major road. 43 Hackney residents were trapped inside their homes, some without television, from Boxing Day 2002 until well after twelfth night. A further 200 residents were compulsorily displaced on the order of the authorities during the course of the project.

More than just a conventional siege, this was a pioneering partnership between police and residents which transformed a state of emergency into a new model for everyday life in the city. The Hackney Zone of Exception (HZoE) was also a good example of what regeneration professionals call ‘people-lead regeneration’. At its heart lay the police’s preemptive ambush of a local man, the so-called ‘yardie gangster’, Eli Hall (29). Suspected of possessing illegal firearms, Hall was pursued by an Armed Response Unit whose response efficiently anticipated any action on the suspect’s part. After taking shelter in his bedsit on Marvin Street, Mr Hall and his hostage were successfully contained within the house while the police rationalised his services. After a few days without heating, electricity or light, the hostage fled and the tenant set fire to his own home in a desperate effort to warm the place up.

Drenched by police water jets and worn out by the protracted process of consultation, Mr Hall was wounded in the mouth by a police bullet and later, it is alleged, shot himself in the head. Having declined the munificence of the state and obstructed attempts at dialogue, his lifeless body was removed from his home.

Liquid Regeneration, Social Desertification

The Town Hall square’s new amenities riff on the idea of revitalisation by water and fluidity. The Ocean music venue has an educational facility called Rising Tide and a bar called Aqua; The Technology & Learning Centre’s internet terminals give local people (of fixed abode) a chance to surf in the space of flows, and the HTH2 online forum about developments in the square was created by a trans-disciplinary network called F-L-U-I-D.

Picking up on the latent seaside connotations, the architects Gross Max have proposed a boardwalk-style ‘special pavement’ for the square, an effort to bring an ambience of play and sociability to this stony slab of municipal space. But if the ‘urban beach’ semiotics don’t convince then the TLC’s glass facade and networked heart at least embody the centrality of sand to the whole package. Silicon implants are intended to turn the frumpy old square into a nexus where desiccated flows intersect.

Beyond the cloying hydraulic rhetoric, the real effect of this flood of culture is a creeping desertification. The official sites of education and entertainment that promise to compensate for gentrification actually contribute to the social cleansing of the area. Flushing out undesirable elements, from the homeless to the hooded youth, the square’s well-policed makeover begins with the economic, semiotic and physical dissuasion of the poor and ends by sucking in a flood of new consumers better able to afford and enjoy the rehabilitated space.

The Hackney Zone of Exception continued the square’s fixation on fluidity, materialising the metaphor with displacements of its own. The HZoE ‘decanted’ the inhabitants of this promising residential area for a 15-day trial period and helped move key siege stakeholder Eli Hall to ‘a better place.’ As council housing stock is privatised or demolished many other local people, in particular elderly tenants, have already been definitively relocated.

The siege was not just about moving people out of the area, though. Complementing the spatial sterilisation of the square already achieved by the PFI projects, the siege’s police cordon delivered instant crime reduction through ‘total restriction’. The ability to suspend local citizens’ right to freedom of movement for an indefinite period renders all criminals, both potential and actual, equally immobile. No more flow for them.

While the HZoE was only a pilot, plans to apply the same ‘urban quarantine’ approach on a city-wide scale are already well under way. As part of the wider regeneration project known as The War on Terror, the government is planning to introduce total urban lockdown, with whole cities sealed off in the (non)event of a possible terror threat. The liquefaction of urbanism paradoxically coincides with the attempt to place entire cities under arrest.

Today it is not the city but rather the camp that is the fundamental biopolitical paradigm of the west. [This] throws a sinister light on the models by which social sciences, sociology, urban studies, and architecture today are trying to conceive and organize the public space of the world’s cities without any clear awareness that at their very centre lies the same bare life (even if it has been transformed and rendered apparently more human) that defined the biopolitics of the great totalitarian states of the twentieth century. 

 Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Giorgio Agamben


>> Next to the Ocean music venue, a new Wetherspoons 'pub' has erased a public artwork from an earlier era of community-regeneration



... the integration of artwork helps to make Hackney town square something special. At present a visual artist, composer and light artist are collaborating with the architects to make the square into a special experience of all the senses. Light, texture, sound and, if budget allows, specially designed water jets and mist machines may create a unique atmosphere to be enjoyed by all. – Gross Max Architects

We liked the idea of doing almost nothing, creating more of an open invitation rather than a prescribed script... nearly invisible, nearly inaudible. – Alan Johnson & Max Rolgasky, Artists

Contemporary regeneration means ‘doing almost nothing’ with almost no cash: over £70million for a flagship cluster of cultural ‘capital projects’, £1 million on a state of the art siege, but only £6 million for the repair of social housing. The council subsidise the Ocean centre in perpetuity but does not extend the same largesse to their human tenants.

If we used to be ‘voluntary prisoners of architecture’ (Koolhaas), trapped in the grid of functionalist urbanism, today we are the involuntary prisoners of situationism. After the top-down prescriptions of modern planning, macroscopic and instrumental, this is a molecular and affective urbanism of infinite sensitivity. Regenerated space wants to preempt your emotions and aspirations, conform itself to your desires. At its best it is a siege on the subject, an anticipatory retaliation against your capacity to dream. Regeneration is ‘holistic’, it is ‘bottom up’, it is ‘about people’, all the old situationist virtues – minus the disruptive necessity of extricating of our desires from the apparatus of profit.

While regeneration concentrates on cheesily impersonating the finer things - mosaics and lavender lighting, interactive musical pavements - more humble desires are neglected. After the major surgery of functionalist urbanism – council housing, ring roads, schools, etc - this is a new regime of urban acupuncture: rechanneling intangible flows, adjusting the social chakras, a micropolitics of soft control.

Scrupulously reversing the old ‘mistake’, regeneration creates its negative image to suit the unprecedented miserliness of contemporary capitalism. The turn to emotion and inclusivity masks a turn away from building new homes and infrastructure. Not that music and books aren’t essential, but for every showpiece TLC opened,10 existing libraries are shut down.

Aside from the big fiascoes, the culture palaces that tend to self-destruct, the swimming pools too expensive for the majority to use, regeneration is a programme of subtraction: the systematic destruction of collective resources, privatisation of services and evacuation of social space.

He do the police in different voices

The Town Hall square is also the virtual network of consultation forums in which the physical space is cradled, by which it is preceded and post-mortemised.

In today’s regeneration, participation and engagement are compulsory. ‘Apathy’ is not an option. The permanent and ever-proliferating condition of consultation defers the encounter with social conflict and economic inertia. Endless consultation may consume most of the cash or permanently postpone its expenditure, but perhaps this is the point. More importantly for the network of agencies that constitute the micropolitical ‘Regeneration State’, consultation devolves responsibility – not power – onto the patients of the regime. Whatever regeneration does, it must be legitimate because they asked you for your input at every stage. If you don’t like the end results you only have yourself to blame. Then again, when the preferred outcome prestructures the options, the propaganda is deceitful, and even majority decisions – if unfavourable to the government’s core agenda – are repeatedly ignored, people’s disengagement from the frenzy of dialogue is not only understandable, it may be politically essential.

If you take the comments on the online forums seriously, what ‘the people’ actually want is not sentient street furniture and emotional lamp posts but shelter: ‘new houses for everyone and safe places for little ones’; repairs to their homes and estates; a host of selfish and functionalist concerns. It’s as if they’d never heard of the situationists.

Like the ‘dialogue’ which the police successfully prosecuted with Eli Hall during the siege-consultation, the apogee of the regeneration forum is the séance. The HTH2 online forum is a safely contained postfestum complaint session without actual performative force. Desire is solicited then conspicuously displayed on screen in order that it be displaced. Speech is stimulated to dissimulate the imposition of policy on the people. ‘Giving the community a voice’ results in a deathly civic silence.


Aesthetically avant garde, cultural regeneration goes one better than the current fashion for artistic reenactments. In summer 2002 the siege was pre-enacted in the Town Hall square when police cordoned off the area after a public occupation of the town hall. Soon after the Ocean opened, the Samuel Pepys pub opposite was shut down. On the Pepys’ last night, 300 of the pub’s clientele spilled out into the square. After some of the revellers broke into the town hall in protest against the pub’s closure, the police came in to mop things up.

Like a collective rehearsal for the HZoE’s open plan imprisonment of the area’s occupants, the Pepys posse were surrounded by a fleet of cop vans, the town hall besieged and the street sealed off. This was not what participative democracy is supposed to look like. The police outdid the Italian caribinieri in their brutal response to this unsolicited display of local desires.

Spatial reform sometimes requires the direct use of force. The new order violently imposes itself on the partisans of the old. The closure of the Pepys, haunt of local musicians, crustie anarchists, miscellaneous drinkers and other ‘Anti-Social Behaviour Orders’ (ASBOs) waiting to happen, marked the end of an era. No more free music, no more late night lock ins. From Ocean on you have to pay, doors close 11.30pm.

The Ocean sucks dance culture into the belly of the regeneration state. Bringing a source of semi-independent cultural production into a new physical proximity to the town hall, it attempts to integrate elements of the local scene. A sop to the ‘ethnic minorities’ and black club promoters, the Ocean allows greater control of a potentially disruptive culture. Meanwhile, with the demise the Pepys, another organically occurring cultural scene is forced out.


Such tactics are expensive – the Hackney siege has so far cost around £500,000 – but the priority is to preserve life’ – Metropolitan Police

The ‘sacredness of life’ is the fundamental axiom of contemporary policing and contemporary regeneration alike. Eli Hall’s police consultation partners had his and the community’s best interests at heart when they cut off the electricity and gas to his temporary accommodation and turned the water jets on him. The same solicitude motivated the government when it cut off funds to the bankrupt Hackney Council and imposed austerity on the people of the borough.

Culture in all its forms is fundamental to our health and development as individuals and as a society – Hackney Cultural Strategy

The sacredness of life is an injunction to prolong biological existence insofar as it is productive of profit. The north and south of the square represent the two extremes of the biopolitical continuum this implies. The TLC is biopower’s deluxe wing, Eli’s deathpad it’s servant’s exit. The TLC’s ontologically correct fusion of body (gym) and spirit (internet) mirrors the cops’ fusion of dialogue and deadly force. Moralising the flesh and physically incarnating the law, the Paragon gym (‘turning virtues into reality’) serves the cult of bodily effectiveness (korperkultur). The disabled are welcome, of course, that’s why the council abolished their free transport.

You’ll never take me alive – Eli Hall 

On one side of the square the law is ‘live life to the full’, net-surfing and nautilus machines, on the other life is living law (lex animata): The police now incarnate the law in their proper persons and directly exercise their sovereign decision over the patient’s (dead) body with their ensemble of guns, megaphones and waterjets. True to regeneration’s ‘devolved’, ‘bottom-up’ management, the authorities can proudly point out that Mr Hall was, of course, the architect of his own demise. That’s what self-administration is all about.


Artists have a transportable infrastructure... They are a natural first group to come into an area which will then seed the bars and other support systems for the creative industries

– Fred Manson , regeneration guru

One of the few remaining homeless in the Town Hall Square is the ‘mobile man’, an elderly gentleman with his own transportable infrastructure. With his survivalist hoard - gas ring, tea flask and carefully organised Tesco bag system - mobile man has become entirely ‘responsible’ for himself, a model of self-management.

As such he is the prototype for the majority of Hackney’s erstwhile citizens. Stripped of homes, rights, and resources, the less affluent exist with the permanent possibility of demotion to refugee status. As welfare support is terminated leaving only the hypertrophied police-culture function of the state, individuals are thrown back on their own improvised resources.

Like Baudelaire’s Parisian ragpicker, mobile man is also the prototype of the artist in the regeneration state. Obsessed with the debris of collapsing systems of taste, today’s bohème rehearses a preemptive impression of proletarianisation (‘white trash’) as a means of upward social mobility. Per cacus ad astra. The few become stars, the majority will be forced out of this new creative zone as they were previously forced out of nearby, now-gentrified, Shoreditch.

...the square should become a public forum, an outdoor living room for all the people of Hackney – Gross Max Architects

The mobile man, the precarious tenant and the artist are secretly aligned. If the square, or anywhere else in the fluid Hackney Zone of Exception, is ever going to approximate to ‘a public forum’, it will be as a self-instituted focus for the silent majority’s unwanted desires. Eli’s isolated last ditch stand against the forces of regeneration must become collective, interconnected and expansive.

Eli’s army will comprise all the ASBOs (anti-social behaviour orders) of the zone, all the refugees and untermenschen, from the hooded youth to the tramps to the tenants associations and those artists not satisfied with just recycling the entropy of the area, anyone who for their specific reasons cannot but revolt against this systematic shut down of urban space. Against the siege mentality of the gated communities and ‘affordable apartments’, a boundless, truly fluid and self-proliferating siege engine that spreads across the city like a plague.

Proud to be Flesh

The Incidental Collection - Stuart Brisley's Peterlee Project

With an eager hoovering up of community memory now a built in part of every self-respecting regeneration project, the exhibition of Stuart Brisley’s pioneering 1970s archival project in the New Town and former mining district of Peterlee is not only timely but inspiring, says Mark Crinson

The Peterlee Project, 1976-2004, Vardy Art Gallery, University of Sunderland, 9 March to 2 April

In 1976 the performance artist, Stuart Brisley, took up an artist’s placement in Peterlee New Town. In retrospect, it appears an unlikely combination. On the one hand there was Peterlee, then still in its Development Corporation phase but originally a 1940s vision of a ‘miners’ capital’ in the east Durham coalfield. Its first architect/planner, the Russian émigré modernist Berthold Lubetkin, had proposed modernist blocks linked by screens to suggest the local terraced houses, with other civic buildings zoned and placed strategically so as to develop concentrically and emphasise the saucer of land. But Lubetkin famously retreated to pig farming, disillusioned and defeated by official hubris and inter-ministerial wrangling. Pragmatism ensued: the town eventually built is mostly indistinguishable from other pallid developments of the time. The memory of terraces was left behind in favour of suburban semis and detached houses; the slagheaps were out of sight, the houses no longer huddled as mining camps around the pithead but scattered among the spacious green areas of the New Town. A few new industries were attracted to take up the slack of the worked-out mine seams: first, potato crisps, clothing and building firms, then more recently, but never adequately, service industries and Japanese car companies. Denied the facilities that might make it a centripetal force, the town also lacks any embodiment of its relation to the area’s past.

On the other hand, Brisley had achieved notoriety by 1976 as an English rival to the masculine performance aesthetics of Chris Burden or the Viennese Actionists. Brisley had used his body in cathartic rituals, unpleasant tests of endurance and rigidly staged tableaux: sitting in a bath filled with rotting meat and cold water, refusing meals served to him for ten days before Christmas while watching the food decay on the table. Little suggests a sympathy between Brisley’s practice and Peterlee. Yet, unlike his contemporaries, Brisley’s performances used allegory to displace self-expression in preference of commentaries on consumption and concise figurations of the immanent effects of power. (After Peterlee, his performances often reflected on communal histories in the face of larger corporate or political imperatives, some even based on equivalents to the physical actions of mining.) There was a conversational dimension in the performances themselves, unrehearsed and flirting with failure, yet insistently dependent on the audience’s presence.

The Peterlee work was set up by the Artist Placement Group, of which Brisley had been a founder member in 1966. The usual brief for APG artists was to work as ‘creative thinkers’ in industrial or government contexts (Esso, the DHSS, the Scottish Office, or, as in Brisley’s earlier placement, the Hille Furniture Company), always conceiving of the artist as an ‘Incidental Person’ interjected into the relations of production and administration. Brisley accepted that being an artist was useless to the people of Peterlee. Despite its early ideals, residents had not participated in the making of Peterlee and had little say in its final effects: they could not even choose the colour of their front doors. They needed more control over their environment and an active sense of its relation to the history and memory of the area. So Brisley set up community workshops (eventually vetoed by the Development Corporation) and began collecting photographs and interviews covering the period from 1900 to 1976.

Archival projects are often associated with moments of traumatic or epochal change, the sundering of communities from their pasts as larger imperatives of planning and economic change supervene. But if Brisley’s project appears simply to populate a tabula rasa with a past made obsolete by development, then its pioneering aspect is missed. As oral history, for instance, it is placed somewhere between the History from Below movement of the 1960s and the academic respectability given to oral history in the late 1970s, with some acknowledged influence from the Hackney Writers’ Group. It was essential that the artist be ‘incidental’; that local people provide the images and do the interviews as active repositories of collective memory rather than as subject of official ‘history’. Brisley’s project also challenged an assumption that was intrinsic to Peterlee’s development and indeed to other artist residencies in New Towns: the belief that either the New Town or the existing wider area (here a close-knit group of mining villages) lacked culture and recreation, and that they needed supplementing if not replacing by imported cultural forms which would help generate community. This is apparent in the work of Peterlee’s previous town artist, Victor Pasmore, who had been appointed as consultant to the town’s planners in 1955, a sop to the loss of architectural vision that had gone with Lubetkin’s resignation. Pasmore left behind a group of abstract houses similar in clustered pattern-making to his contemporary painting and intended to be experienced kinetically, but alien to the climate and community. There was also a pavilion that, judging from its recent use in an artwork by Jane and Louise Wilson and a display at the Architectural Association, is now regarded as Peterlee’s monument to ‘good modernism’.

The recent exhibition at the Vardy Gallery offers a chance to reassess Brisley’s placement, even if it belongs to another era beyond the watershed of the 1984 Miners’ Strike. The photographs of the area, collected by local people and re-photographed at the time, appear in the display all as the same size, mounted, and grouped by local village. So, while they lose the specific contexts of their highly localised social uses as photographic objects, they gain representative value as standing for an organic locality, the village as anthropological place. Structured into the archive, therefore, Kultur is seen to resist Wissenschaft. The archive shows that there is no necessary contradiction between historical disclosure and the pleasures of nostalgia, just as it is possible to find a line between heroicising the voices of the past and seeing them as victims. Certainly this past has plenty of strikes, mining disasters and tales of extreme physical duress; yet these are troubles that are part of a wider photographic commemoration. This greater experience constantly intersects with larger narratives: the visit of the King of Uganda in 1912, the General Strike, coronation parties, the opening of pithead baths. But the lost paradise or industrial pastoral of this photographic memory is a place above all of the collective – whether it be miners posing with lamps at their feet, children in streets, local operatic societies, colliery ragtime and marching bands, seaside revellers, female weightlifters, carnivals, leek shows and whippet clubs. Necessarily (almost) absent from the archive, then, is Peterlee itself.

Two issues arise from reconsidering the Peterlee Project. One is where the archive can go from here. Over the last 27 years it has remained largely dormant in the local council offices. There must be some doubt about whether it can offer more than local or family history, although another collecting campaign might tackle the Miners’ Strike and Peterlee’s history, reactivating them in a dialogue with the present. The other issue is what is retrievable from a moment of art history sometimes derided as merely well-meaning (‘Art for Whom?’, ‘Art For All’) and whose radical potential is either buried under successive strata of more spectacular commodified art or diluted by the artist residencies that now accompany most regeneration strategies. The issues are linked in the meditations on collecting that ramify through Brisley’s recent work. Here the idea of ‘collection’ itself offers notions of accumulation, eccentric or systematic, as well as of the regular removal of refuse; the entropy that might reduce prized specimens to abject dust, as well as the curative role assumed by those who act as custodians of collections. It may be from such ideas that the Peterlee Project can find its future as the Incidental Collection.

Mark Crinson <mark.crinson AT>  lectures on art history at the University of Manchester

Proud to be Flesh

Thinking Resistance in the Shanty Town


Taking up the gauntlet of pessimism thrown down by Mike Davis’ account of the global slum epidemic, Planet of Slums, Richard Pithouse draws on his involvement with the struggles of slum dwellers in Durban to offer an alternative and engaged perspective. Against Davis’ homogenisation of slum life, misrepresentation of slum politics, and ‘imperialist’ methodology, he argues for an analysis grounded in specific settlements, histories, people and struggles – a ‘politics of the poor’

In 1961 Frantz Fanon, the great philosopher of African anti-colonialism, described the shack settlements that ‘circle the towns tirelessly, hoping that one day or another they will be let in’ as ‘the gangrene eating into the heart of colonial domination’. He argued that ‘this cohort of starving men, divorced from tribe and clan, constitutes one of the most spontaneously and radically revolutionary forces of a colonised people’. Colonial power tended to agree and often obliterated shanty towns, usually in the name of public health and safety, at times of heightened political tension.

But by the late 1980s the World Bank backed elite consensus was that shack settlements, now called ‘informal settlements’ rather than ‘squatter camps’, were opportunities for popular entrepreneurship rather than a threat to white settlers, state and capital. NGOs embedded in imperial power structures were deployed to teach the poor that they could only hope to help themselves via small businesses while the rich got on with big business. At the borders of the new gated themeparks where the rich now worked, shopped, studied and entertained themselves the armed enforcement of segregation, previously the work of the state, was carried out by private security.

There are now a billion people in the squatter settlements in the cities of the South. Many states, NGOs and their academic consultants have returned to the language that presents slums as a dirty, diseased, criminal and depraved threat to society. The UN actively supports ‘slum clearance’ and in many countries shack settlements are again under ruthless assault from the state. Lagos, Harare and Bombay are the names of places where men with guns and bulldozers come to turn neighbourhoods into rubble. The US military is planning to fight its next wars in the ‘feral failed cities’ of the South with technology that can sense body heat behind walls. Once no one can be hidden, soldiers can drive or fire through walls as if they weren’t there. Agent Orange has been upgraded. Gillo Pontecorvo’s great film The Battle of Algiers is used as a training tool at West Point. The lesson seems to be that that kind of battle, with its walls and alleys that block and bewilder outsiders and give refuge and opportunity to insiders, must be blown into history. The future should look more like Fallujah.

Leftist theories that seek one agent of global redemption are generally less interested in the shack settlement than the NGOs, UN or US military. Some Marxists continue to fetishise the political agency of the industrial working class and contemptuously dismiss shack dwellers as inevitably reactionary ‘lumpens’. The form of very metropolitan leftism that heralds a coming global redemption by immaterial labourers is more patronising than contemptuous and concludes, in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s words, that: ‘To the extent that the poor are included in the process of social production … they are potentially part of the multitude’. Computer programmers in Seattle are automatically part of the multitude but the global underclass can only gain this status to the extent that their ‘biopolitical production’ enters the lifeworld of those whose agency is taken for granted. The continuities with certain colonial modes of thought are clear.

But other metropolitan leftists are becoming more interested in the prospects for resistance in shanty towns. Mike Davis’ first intervention, a 2004 New Left Review article, ‘Planet of Slums’, famously concluded that ‘for the moment at least, Marx has yielded the historical stage to Mohammed and the Holy Ghost’ and so ‘the Left (is) still largely missing from the slum’. This was a little too glib. For a start the left is not reducible to the genius of one theorist working from one time and place. And as Davis wrote these words militant battles were being fought in and from shack settlements in cities like Johannesburg, Caracas, Bombay, Sao Paulo and Port-au-Prince. Moreover proposing a Manichean distinction between religion and political militancy is as ignorant as it is silly. Some of the partisans in these battles were religious. Others were not. In many instances these struggles where not in themselves religious but rooted their organising in social technologies developed in popular religious practices. Davis’ pessimism derived, at least in part, from a fundamental methodological flaw. He failed to speak to the people waging these struggles, or even to read the work produced from within these resistances and often read his imperial sources – the UN, World Bank, donor agencies, anthropologists, etc – as colleagues rather than enemies.

At around the same time as Davis wrote his Slums paper Slavoj Zizek, writing in the London Review of Books, argued that the explosive growth of the slum ‘is perhaps the crucial geopolitical event of our times’. He concluded that we are confronted by:

The rapid growth of a population outside the law, in terrible need of minimal forms of self organisation … One should resist the easy temptation to elevate and idealise slum-dwellers into a new revolutionary class. It is nonetheless surprising how far they conform to the old Marxist definition of the proletarian revolutionary subject: they are ‘free’ in the double meaning of the word, even more than the classical proletariat (‘free’ from all substantial ties; dwelling in a free space, outside the regulation of the state); they are a large collective, forcibly thrown into a situation where they have to invent some mode of being-together, and simultaneously deprived of support for their traditional ways of life. ... The new forms of social awareness that emerge from slum collectives will be the germ of the future ...

Zizek, being Zizek, failed to ground his speculative (although tentative) optimism in any examination of the concrete. But it had the enormous merit of, at least in principle, taking thinking in the slum seriously.

As Alain Badiou explains, with typical precision, there can be no formula for mass militancy that holds across time and space:

A political situation is always singular; it is never repeated. Therefore political writings – directives or commands – are justified inasmuch as they inscribe not a repetition but, on the contrary, the unrepeatable. When the content of a political statement is a repetition the statement is rhetorical and empty. It does not form part of thinking. On this basis one can distinguish between true political activists and politicians ... True political activists think a singular situation; politicians do not think.

The billion actual shack dwellers live in actual homes in communities in places with actual histories that collide with contemporary circumstances to produce actual presents. Many imperial technologies of domination do have a global range and do produce global consequences but there can be no global theory of how they are lived, avoided and resisted. Even within the same parts of the same cities the material and political realities in neighbouring shack settlements can be hugely different. This is certainly the case in Durban, the South African port city, from which this article is written. There are 800,000 shack dwellers in Durban but the settlements I know best are in a couple of square kilometres in valleys, on river banks and against the municipal dump in the suburb of Clare Estate. In this small area there are eight settlements with often strikingly different material conditions, modes of governance, relations to the party and state, histories of struggle, ethnic make-ups, degrees of risk of forced removal and so on. In the Lacey Road settlement, ruled by an armed former ANC soldier last elected many years ago, organising openly will quickly result in credible death threats. In the Kennedy Road settlement there is a radically open and democratic political culture. Kennedy Road has a large vegetable garden, a hall and an office and some access to electricity. In the Foreman Road settlement the shacks are packed far too densely for there to be any space for a garden and there is no hall, office or meeting room and no access to electricity.

pithouse2 - no voteImage: Foreman Road Protest, 14 November 2005. Indymedia South Africa

Although Davis notes the diversity within the shanty town in principle, in practice his global account of ‘the slum’ produces a strange homogenisation. This is premised on a casual steamrolling of difference that necessarily produces and is produced by basic empirical errors. For instance a passing comment on South Africa reveals that he does not understand the profound distinctions between housing in legal, state built and serviced townships and illegal, squatter built shacks in unserviced shack settlements. He casually asserts as some kind of rule that shack renters, not owners, will tend to be radical. No doubt this holds in some places but it’s far from a universal law of some science of the slum. In fact most of the elected leadership in Abahlali baseMjondolo (the Durban shack dwellers’ movement whose local militancy has, to paraphrase Fanon, made a decisive irruption into the national South African struggle) are owners, or the children or siblings of owners.

Robert Neuwirth’s Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World, also published this year, is vastly more attentive to the actual circumstances and thinking of actual squatters. Neuwirth lacks Davis’ gift for rhetorical flourish but his methodology is radically superior to Davis’ often insufficiently critical reliance on imperial research. Neuwirth lived in squatter settlements in Bombay, Istanbul, Rio and Nairobi. Once there he took, as one simplyhas to when one is the ignorant outsider depending on others, the experience and intelligence of the people he met seriously. In Neuwirth’s book imperial power has a global reach but there is no global slum. There are particular communities with particular histories and contemporary realities. The people that live in shanty towns emerge as people.

Some are militants in the MST or the PKK. Some just live for work or church or Saturday night at a club. In the Kiberia settlement in Nairobi he lived with squatters in mud shacks. In the Sultanbeyli settlement in Istanbul there is a ‘seven-story squatter city hall, with an elevator and a fountain in the lobby’. Neuwirth also describes the very different policy and legal regimes against which squatters make their lives, the equally diverse modes of governance and organisation within squatter settlements and the varied forms and trajectories of a number of squatter movements.

Davis sees slums in explicitly Hobbesian terms. As he rushes to his apocalyptic conclusions he pulls down numbers and quotes from a dazzling range of literature and some of the research that he cites points to general tendencies that are often of urgent importance. Parts of his account of the material conditions in the global slum illuminate important facets of places like Kennedy Road, Jadhu Place and Foreman Road, which were the first strongholds of Abahlali baseMjondolo, as well as aspects of the broader situation people in these settlements confront. For example, Davis notes that major sports events often mean doom for squatters and here in Durban the city has promised to ‘clear the slums’, mostly via apartheid style forced removal to rural ghettos, before the 2010 football World Cup is held in South Africa. It is possible to list the ways in which Davis’ account of the global slum usefully illuminate local conditions – post-colonial elites have aggressively adapted racial zoning to class and tend to withdraw to residential and commercial themeparks; the lack of toilets is a key women’s issue; NGOs generally act to demobilise resistance and many people do make their lives, sick and tired, on piles of shit, in endless queues for water, amidst the relentless struggle to wring a little money out of a hard, corrupt world. The brown death, diarrhoea, constantly drains the life force away. And there is the sporadic but terrifyingly inevitable threat of the red death – the fires that roar and dance through the night.

But even when the material horror of settlements built and then rebuilt on shit after each fire has some general truth, it isn’t all that is true. It is also the case that for many people these settlements provide a treasured node of access to the city with its prospects for work, education, cultural, religious and sporting possibilities; that they can be spaces for popular cosmopolitanism and cultural innovation and that everyday life is often characterised, more than anything else, by its ordinariness – people drinking tea, cooking supper, playing soccer, celebrating a child’s birthday, doing school homework or at choir practice. It is this ordinariness, and in certain instances hopefulness, that so firmly divorces purely tragic or apocalyptic accounts of slum life from even quite brief encounters with the lived reality of the shack settlement. Furthermore, in so far as general comments about such diverse places are useful, an adequate theory of the squatter settlement needs to get to grips with the fundamental ambiguity that often characterises life in these places.

On the one hand the absence of the state often means the material deprivation and suffering that comes from the absence of the basic state services (water, electricity, sanitation, refuse removal, etc) required for a viable urban life. But the simultaneous absence of the state and traditional authority and proximity to the city can also enable a rare degree of political and cultural autonomy. This ambiguity is often a central feature of squatters’ lives and struggles. A.W.C. Champion was the head of the famous African Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU) that helped to organise resistance against the atrocious material conditions in the huge Umkumbane settlement in Durban. Speaking in 1960, just afterthe state had destroyed the settlement and moved its residents to formal township houses outside of the city, he recalled Umkumbane, not only as a bad memory of shit and fire, but also as ‘the place in Durban where families could breath the air of freedom’.

Neuwirth is able to capture this ambiguous aspect of shack life. He doesn’t shy away from the horror of the conditions in some settlements. Indeed he begins with Tema, a resident of the Rocinha settlement in Rio, telling him that ‘The Third World is a video game’ and goes on to show why this statement matters. But because he has lived in the places that he describes and spoken to the people that he writes about he is able to capture the ordinariness of the ordinary life of people and communities and the fact that there are, at times, certain attractions to slum life. He quotes Armstrong O’Brian, a resident of the Southland settlement in Nairobi, who says, ‘This place is very addictive. It’s a simple life, but no one is restricting you. Nobody is controlling you. Once you have stayed here, you cannot go back.’ Perhaps it is rumours of this air of freedom, this lack of control, that fill the sail on Zizek’s radical hopes for the slum.

pithouse3 - no forced removalsImage: Foreman Road protest, early 2006. Indymedia South Africa

The question of the possibilities for shanty town radicalism should not, as Davis and Zizek assume, automatically be posed toward the future. Around the world there are long histories of shack dweller militancy. In Durban in June 1959 an organisation in the Umkumbane settlement called Women of Cato Manor led a militant charge against patriarchal relations within the settlement, against the moderate reformism of the elite nationalists in the ANC Women’s League and against the apartheid state. This event still stands as a potent challenge to most contemporary feminisms. And progressive social innovation has not always taken the form of direct confrontation with the state. It is interesting, against the often highly racialised stereotypes of shack dwellers as naturally and inevitably deeply reactionary on questions of gender, to note that institutionalised homosexual marriage was in fact pioneered in South Africa in the Umkumbane settlement in the early 1950s. But the cultural innovation from shanty towns has not only been for the subaltern. It has often become part of suburban life. Bob Marley wouldn’t have become Bob Marley without Trench Town and so much American music (Dylan, Springsteen, etc) stems from a shack dweller – Woody Guthrie.

It also needs to be recognised that shanty towns are very often consequent to land invasions and that services, especially water and electricity, are often illegally appropriated from the state.  Fanon insisted that ‘The shanty town is the consecration of the colonised’s biological decision to invade the enemy citadel at all costs’. Most of the writing produced by contemporary imperialism tends to take a tragic and naturalising form and to present squatters as being passively washed into shack settlements by the tides of history. Unfortunately Davis generally fails to mark the insurgent militancy that is often behind the formation and ongoing survival of the shack settlement. So, for example, his naturalising description of Soweto as ‘having grown from a suburb to a satellite city’ leaves out the history of the shack dwellers’ movement Sofasonke which, in 1944, led more than ten thousand people to occupy the land that would later become Soweto. However, Neuwirth’s book is very good at showing that the shanty town often has its origins in popular reappropriation of land and often survives by battles to defend and extend those gains and to appropriate state services.

No doubt Human Rights discourse takes on a concrete reality when one is being bombed in its name. But when grasped as a tool by the militant poor it invariably turns out to contain a strange emptiness. Hence the importance of Neuwirth’s assertion of the value of the fact that squatters are ‘not seizing an abstract right, they are taking an actual place’. But he sensibly avoids the mistake of assuming that popular reappropriation is automatically about creating a democratic commons. If the necessity or choice of a move to the city renders rural life impossible or undesireable, and if the cosmopolitanism of so many shanty towns puts them at an unbridgeable remove from traditional modes of governance, there is no guarantee that the need to invent new social forms will result in progressive outcomes. Shiv Senna, the Hindu fascist movement that built its first base in the shanty towns of Bombay, is one of many instances of deeply reactionary responses to the need for social innovation. At a micro-local level the authoritarianism and misogyny that characterises the governance of the Overcome Heights settlement, founded after a successful land invasion in Cape Town earlier this year, is another. As Neuwirth shows, choices are made, struggles are fought and outcomes vary. Many settlements are dominated by slum lords of various types. But this is not inevitable and does not justify Davis’ Hobbesian pessimism about life in shack settlements. Communal ownership and democracy are also possible and there are numerous concrete instances in which they occur.

Neuwirth wisely resists the temptation to produce a policy model for making things better and insists that ‘The legal instrument is not important. The political instrument is’ and that ‘Actual control, not legal control is key.’ His solution is old-fashioned people power – the ‘messy, time consuming’ praxis of organising. It is not a solution that sees squatters as a new proletariat, a messiah to redeem the whole world. It is a solution that sees squatters struggling to make their lives better. The point is not that the squatters must subordinate themselves to some external authority or provide the ‘base’ for some apparently grander national or global struggle. Squatters should be asking the questions that matter to them and waging their fights on their terms.

That is as far as the popular literature takes us. But the experience and thinking of shack dwellers’ movements, some of which will travel well and some of which will not, can take us further. In Durban the experience of Abahlali baseMjondolo has shown that the will to fight has no necessary connection to the degree of material deprivation or material threat from state power. It is always a cultural and intellectual rather than a biological phenomenon. It therefore requires cultural and intellectual work to be produced and sustained. Spaces and practices in which the courage and resilience to stay committed to this work can be nurtured are essential. Drawing from the diverse lifeworlds that come together to make the settlements and the movement requires a hybrid new to be woven from the strands of the old. Formal meetings are necessary to enable the careful collective reflection on experience that produces and develops the movement’s ideas and principles. The music and meals and games and prayers and stories and funerals that weave togetherness are essential to sustain both a collective commitment to the movement’s principles and a will to fight.

The Abahlali have also found that even if there is a growing will to fight no collective militancy is possible when settlements are not run democratically and autonomously. If they are dominated by party loyalists, the ragged remnants of a defeated aristocracy, slum lords or some combination thereof this will have to be challenged. Often lives will be at risk during the early moments of this challenge but the power of local tyrants simply has to be broken. The best tactic is to use the strength of nearby democratic settlements to ensure protection for the few courageous people who take the initiative to organise some sort of open display of a mass demand for democratisation. If a clear majority of people in a settlement come out to a meeting against the slum lords, and if the people who break the power of the local tyrants immediately act to make open and democratic meetings the real (rather than performed) space of politics, then a radical politics becomes possible. Part of making a meeting democratic is declaring its resolute autonomy from state, party and civil society. Then and only then is it fully accountable to the people in whose name it is constituted. A movement must be ruthlessly principled about not working with settlements that are not democratic.

People fight constituted power to gain their share and to constitute counter power. Choices have to be made and adhered to. Any conception of shanty town politics that sees the mere fact of insurgency into bourgeois space as necessarily progressive in and by itself risks complicity with micro-local relations of domination and, because local despotisms so often become aligned to larger forces of domination, complicities with larger relations of domination. Despite the speculative optimism of certain Negrians, the fact of mere movement driven by mere desire for more life is not sufficient for a radical politics. A genuinely radical politics can only be built around an explicit thought out commitment to community constructed around a political and material commons. The fundamental political principle must be that everybody matters. In each settlement each person counts for one and in a broader movement the people in each settlement count equally.

pithouse4 - police attackImage: Foreman Road Protest, 14 November 2005. Indymedia South Africa

After a movement has become able to put tens of thousands on the streets, brought the state to heel and made it into the New York Times, swarms of middle class ‘activists’ will descend in the name of left solidarity. Some will be sincere and alliances across class will be important for enabling access to certain kinds of resources, skills and networks. Sincere middle class solidarity will scrupulously subordinate itself to democratic processes and always work to put the benefits of its privilege in common. But, as Fanon warned, most of these ‘activists’ will ‘try to regiment the masses according to a predetermined schema’. Usually they will try to deliver the movement’s mass to some other political project in which their careers or identities have an investment. This can be at the level of theory in which case lies will be told in order that the movement can be claimed to confirm some theory with currency in the metropole. It can also be at the level of more material representation in which case the movement’s numbers will be claimed for some political project that has no mass support but does have donor funding, or the approval of the metropolitian left so attractive to local and visiting elites. Tellingly these kinds of machinations tend to remain entirely uninterested in what ordinary people in the movement actually think, attempting instead to separate off and co-opt a couple of leaders to create an illusion of mass support – to turn genuine mass democratic movements into more easily malleable simulations of their formerly autonomous and insubordinate selves. Often struggle tourists will get grants to leave the alternative youth cultures of the metropole for a few weeks to come and assert their personal revolutionary superiority over the poor by writing articles ridden with basic factual inaccuracies that condemn the movement as insufficiently revolutionary. Invariably it will not occur to these people that it may be a good idea to ask the people in the movement who are missing work, getting beaten, threatened with murder, shot at and arrested in the course of their struggle what they think about their political choices. Old assumptions about who should do the thinking and judging in this world show no signs of withering away. Indeed, on the safety of the elite terrain the middle class left will often openly express contempt for the people that they want to regiment. At times this is highly racialised. This is no local perversion. In Davis’ book slums, and the people that make their lives in them, often appear as demonic.

People who share some of the terrain of the middle class left (access to email, positions in universities or NGOs, etc) and who do not find casual contempt for the underclass to be problematic, or who refuse to allow themselves to be used as bridges for attempts at co-option, will be excoriated on that terrain as divisive trouble makers. However, they will, as Fanon wrote, find ‘a mantle of unimagined tenderness and vitality’ in the settlements where politics is a serious project – where, in Alain Badiou’s words, ‘meetings, or proceedings, have as their natural content protocols of delegation and inquest whose discussion is no more convivial or superegotistical than that of two scientists involved in debating a very complex question’.

The middle class tendency to assume a right to lead usually expresses itself in overt and covert attempts to shift power away from the spaces in which the poor are strong. However, the people that constitute the movement will in fact know what the most pressing issues are, where resistance can press most effectively and how best to mobilise. A politics that cannot be understood and owned by everyone is poison – it will always demobilise and disempower even if it knows more about the World Bank, the World Social Forum, Empire, Trotsky or some fashionable theory than the people who know about life and struggle in the settlements. The modes, language, jargon, concerns, times and places of a genuinely radical politics must be those in which the poor are powerful and not those in which they are silenced as they are named, directed and judged from without. Anyone wanting to offer solidarity must come to the places where the poor are powerful and work in the social modes within which the poor are powerful. Respect on this terrain must be earned via sustained commitment and not bought. All resources and networks and skills brought here must be placed in common. There must be no personalised branding or appropriation of work done. The Post-Seattle struggle tourists must be dealt with firmly when they call the inevitable disinterest in their assumed right to lead ‘silencing’ and try to present that as an important issue. Local donor funded socialists must be dealt with equally firmly when they call people ‘ignorant’ for wanting to focus their struggle on the relations of domination that most immediately restrict their aspirations and which are within reach of their ability to organise a collective and effective fight back. Democratic popular struggle is a school and will develop its range and reach as it progresses. But a permanently ongoing collective reflection on the lived experience of struggle is necessary for resistances to be able to be able to sustain their mass character as they grow and to develop. It is necessary to create opportunities for as many people as possible to keep talking and thinking in a set of linked intellectual spaces within the settlements. Progress comes from the quality of the work done in these spaces – not from a few people learning the jargon of the middle class left via NGO workshops held on the other side of the razor wire. This jargon will tend to be fundamentally disempowering because of its general indifference to the local relations of domination that usually present a movement with both its most immediate threats and opportunities for an effective fight back. Moreover the accuracy and usefulness of its analysis will often be seriously compromised by its blindness to local relations of domination and how these connect to broader forces. People who represent the movement to the media, in negotiations and various forums, must be elected, mandated, accountable and rotated. There must be no professionalisation of the struggle as this produces a vulnerability to co-option from above. The state, parties, NGOs and the middle class left must be confronted with a hydra not a head. There needs to be a self conscious development of what S’bu Zikode, chair of Abahlali baseMjondolo, calls ‘a politics of the poor – a homemade politics that everyone can understand and find a home in’.

Some will say that none of this means that global capital is at risk. This is not entirely true – stronger squatters inevitably mean weaker relations of local and global domination. Given that states are subordinate to imperialism and local elites, confrontation with the state is inevitable and necessary. Because some of the things that squatters need can only be provided by the state the struggle can not just be to drive the coercive aspects of the state away. There also has to be a fight to subordinate the social aspects of state to society beginning with its most local manifestations and moving on from there. But in so far as it is true that squatter struggles are unlikely to immediately, as Davis will have it, produce ‘resistance to global capitalism’ what right has someone like Davis to demand that the global underclass fight global capital when he himself does not have the courage to take its representatives on his terrain as enemies? He concludes his book with the image of squatters fighting the US military with car bombs while he, as his book keeps making clear, has cordial and collegial relations with academic consultants for imperialism. This is not untypical. How many left intellectuals will really fight on their own terrain? We must all, surely, assume the responsibility to make our stand where we are rather than projecting that responsibility on to others. And if we are going to enquire into the capacity of the global underclass to resist we should, at the very least, do this via discussion with people in the movements of the poor rather than via entirely speculative and profoundly objectifying social science. This is a route to a left version of the World Bank’s mass production of social science that blames the poor for being poor by rendering poverty an ontological rather than historical condition.

The experience of Abahlali is that for most squatters the fight begins with these toilets, this land, this eviction, this fire, these taps, this slum lord, this politician, this broken promise, this developer, this school, this crèche, these police officers, this murder. Because the fight begins from a militant engagement with the local its thinking immediately pits material force against material force – bodies and songs and stones against circling helicopters, tear gas and bullets. It is real from the beginning. And if it remains a mass democratic project, permanently open to innovation from below as it develops, it will stay real. This is what the Abahlali call ‘the politics of the strong poor’. This is why the Abahlali have marched under banners that declare them to be part of the ‘University of Abahlali baseMjondolo’.


Richard Pithouse <Pithouser AT> lives in Durban where he has studied and taught philosophy. He has been part of Abahlali baseMjondolo since the movement's inception.

For additional material and background on Abahlali baseMjondolo see

Proud to be Flesh

Under the Beach, the Barbed Wire

The 'race riots' in Cronulla at the end of last year made it clear that all is not well in Australia's multicultural paradise. Here, Angela Mitropoulos examines the racism, mechanisms of border control and changing conditions of work underneath the beach utopia.

 If for a certain imaginary, the beach has often evoked a realm of authenticity hidden under the concrete strata of urban development, capitalist spectacle and exploitation, the relentlessly iconised Australian beach has, in addition, been put to use as proof of egalitarian sentiment and vast democratic horizons. Here, the generic vista of the Western frontier is shorn of its embarrassing wars over land, the guns and forts lined up against the natives, and redrawn as pre-economic, pre-political idyll. Never quite acknowledged as urban but, even so, presented as more urbane and civilised than either rural, uncultivated or desert lands, the space of the beach is assumed to have shaken off the dissensions of politics and economics much as the figurative beachgoer is presumed to effortlessly shed clothing. Like Rousseau’s state of nature, the mystical space-time of the beach operates as both a denial of the nation-state – the presupposition of the contrat social in its legal, political and not least, economic senses – and its naturalisation. And no more pronounced are these projections than in post-colonial spaces such as Australia, where persistent anxieties about unruly savages mingle with dreams of being closer to nature.

Popcultists have long campaigned for ‘the beach’ to be recognised as Australia’s eminent utopia. Some five years ago, Craig McGregor argued that the beach represents ‘our yearning for a world different from the concrete pavement universe that most of us inhabit for most of our lives. The beach today represents escape, freedom, self-fulfilment, the Right Path. It represents the way our lives should be.’ Similarly, John Fiske contended that the beach ‘is the place where we go on holidays (Holy Days), a place and time that is neither home nor work, outside the profane normality.’ It is perhaps not surprising that such homilies have become more pious just as coastal areas have become more developed, increasingly the scene of bloated property values, mortgage anxieties and a burgeoning tourist industry run mostly on precarious labour. Indeed, these hymns to ‘the beach’ are a crucial affective support in this political economy and these industries. And they leverage affection all the more fiercely when deployed as eulogies or calls to restoration. Therefore, it is in part because beachside suburbs do not provide for an indifferent repose – longed for as both fortress and refuge against difference – that they have become the scenes of overt violence, riot police and emergency ‘lockdown’ laws that seek to restore, by force, the order on which seaside utopics were assembled.

The enchantment of ‘the beach’ began in Australia in the late 1940s – which is to say, in the immediate post-WWII period and at the ideological high point of Fordism and the Keynsian settlement. That post-war accord between unions and employers took shape as a nationalist compact between descendants of the English upper classes and working class Irish. Persuaded by clerical anti-communism, promises of property and class mobility – in the form of the post-war housing ownership boom and university admissions – the latter were seduced into forgetting their genealogy as convicts deported from Britain under policies justified by their depiction as a separate ‘race’. This particular racialisation was set aside with the post-WWII Anglo-Celtic compact, which is the precise meaning of the figure of the Aussie and its egalitarian ethos – which is also an ethnos – of the ‘fair go’. Frozen in that dehistoricised and dreamlike zone after colonisation had been accomplished and before the collapse of the ‘White Australia’ policy in the early 1970s, the ostensible peace and contracted civility of the emblematic beachside has always depended on violence and separation, borders and fencelines, property and expropriation.   In the final month of 2005 in Sydney, it was these contingencies that would be laid bare and, with recourse to emergency laws, reasserted as necessary for the restoration of what was deemed natural. It is not clear what the immediate inducement was. Lifeguards were assaulted, it is said, because they made racist slurs while attempting to stop people playing football (soccer) on Cronulla beach and, in the ensuing fight, came off second best. Cricket and Australian Rules (i.e., Celtic) football are commonplace on beaches and elsewhere – soccer, on the other hand, is regarded as the ‘wog’ game. Moreover, lifeguards are drawn from local residents, and their role is just as much concerned with beach safety as it is with enforcing the bonds between property and propriety. Yet, their authority on this occasion, derived as it is from a customary consensus over their iconic status, faltered. And so, this apocryphal confrontation over land use and the perceived failure of Aussie supremacy would converge with earlier tales in Sydney of ‘organised ethnic gangs’ rapes of Australian women’ and fears of miscegenation (in which women’s bodies are considered above all as racial property) to produce what, elsewhere, would be called a lynch mob.

As is more or less well known, around five thousand people gathered in Cronulla on December to ‘Take Our Beaches Back’ or, as it was put less obliquely in other circulating leaflets and SMS, ‘bash wogs and lebs’. Slogans such as ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘Aussies fighting back’ were prominent enough, on placards, posters and scrawled on skin, given force with punch and kick. Draped in Australian flags, singing Waltzing Matilda, large parts of the crowd rampaged around the suburb beating anyone they assumed to be a ‘wog’ or a ‘Leb’, including one woman whose parents migrated from Greece and a Jewish man. Such is the populist version of racial profiling – officiated more recently by the phrase ‘of Middle Eastern appearance’ – that has become standard in Sydney and at a time of a global biowar. It might be noted here that the women who were raped in the most prominent of recent cases in Sydney would not so easily have ‘passed’ as Australian in Cronulla that day, and yet their attackers would not have been given such unprecedented sentences if they had not been identified in court and the media as a ‘Lebanese gang’ targeting ‘Australian women’. Indeed, given that migration officials have deported or interned over a hundred people whom they incorrectly assessed to be ‘illegal non-citizens’ – such as Vivian Solon, a permanent resident deported to a hospice in the Philippines from her hospital bed after being hit by a car –  suggests that this moment in Cronulla was, despite all the denials, continuous with the normative inclination of public policy and the racialising demeanour of the rights-bestowing, and rights-denying, state.

Since the events at Cronulla, there have been numerous accounts from the commentariat whose affective range is distinctly more elitist than anti-racist, demonstrating far more shock at the appearance of an unruly mob than the pogrom it enacted. But contrary to that perspective, which can only elicit demands for the restoration of law and order, the vulgar calls to reclaim ownership were merely the coarse, volunteerist expression of, most notably, the Prime Minister’s civic declarations of sovereignty (‘We will decide who comes here and the circumstances under which they come’), the more than decade-long policy of the internment of undocumented migrants by successive governments and, more recently, a war that is legitimated on racist grounds. As border policing became central to the conduct of elections and government policy throughout this period, the border was bound to proliferate across social relations and spaces, and in circumstances both casual and administered. This is why the worst of the attacks occurred in the train station. That train takes people from Sydney’s Central railway station to the nearest beach and, given the composition of Sydney as a whole, this includes people from the suburb of Lakemba, which has a high proportion of migrants from the Middle East. Cronulla, for its part, is notable for being the most Anglo-Celtic of suburbs in Australia. The Prime Minister once described the area as ‘a part of Sydney which has always represented to me what middle Australia is all about.’ Responding to the events at Cronulla, he would quickly deny that it was racism at work, adding: ‘I do not believe Australians are racist,’ and going on to propose that those who did believe such a thing lacked a cheerful disposition.

Over the subsequent three nights, there were retaliations. Hundreds of cars were smashed, people beaten and shops destroyed, as Cronulla and surrounding beachside suburbs were made unsafe for those whose belonging there had never before been threatened. One of the calls to retaliate declared:

Our parents came to this country and worked hard for their families. We helped build this country and now these racists want us out. [...] Time to show these people stuck in the 1950’s that times have changed. WE are the new Australia. They are just the white thieves who took land from the Aboriginals and their time is up.  In the midst of this, the NSW Police Commissioner remarked that the Cronulla rally to ‘Take Our Beaches Back’ was a ‘legitimate protest’. It was, according to him, born of a ‘frustration’ with the failure of the police and the state to do their job, which is to say, to ensure the Australian border remained secure within Sydney. The Prime Minister insisted that the problem of ‘ethnic gangs’ – which he unequivocally denied those at Cronulla might be regarded as – should be left to ‘policy’, ie, the state. On the third day of rioting, the NSW Premier announced emergency laws to give police, among other measures, the power to ‘lockdown’ those beachside suburbs under threat. This was, he declared, a ‘war’ and the state would ‘not be found wanting in the use of force’. And so the task of the Cronulla pogrom was more smoothly accomplished by the police acting as border guards, refusing entry to the beaches to those who could not prove that they belonged there. The ‘lockdown’ laws, in summary, allow the state to remove entire suburbs from the ostensibly normal functioning of the law for periods of 48 hours. Among other things, and within the designated ‘lockdown’ zone, the laws remove the presumption of bail for riot and affray, allow for the area to be cordoned off to prevent vehicles and people from entering it, empower police to stop and search people and vehicles without warrant or the standard criterion of suspicion, and to seize cars and mobile phones for up to a week.

In some respects, this could be viewed as a sequel to the so-called ‘anti-terror’ laws; recast here as an explicit attempt to reterritorialise the ‘moving mêlée’ – as one journalist described those engaged in the retaliatory riots. Yet, just as the failures of border controls have prompted recourse to measures both militaristic and ferocious they have also reanimated the search for ‘social solutions’. If the culture industry and its disciples remain enthralled by a depoliticising understanding of ‘the beach’, there is no shortage of more conventional disciplinary approaches that, for instance, have found renewed impetus in psycho-sociological clichés: deviancy, crisis of masculinity, youth alcohol abuse and, not least but most comically, ‘ethnic gangs’ who listen to rap music and use mobile phones. All of these constructs do not simply deny the existence of racism. They practically deploy racism through the assumption that the problem is a failure of integration. In other words, they reiterate the classical sociological preoccupation with social or, more accurately, national cohesion. Here, having assumed the nation-state as a natural entity – often by obliquely rendering it as ‘community’ or ‘society’ – it is the appearance of divisions that are not expedient for and normalised by the very assembly of national unity which are registered as a problem to be solved. That such a perspective has been echoed by much of the Left, in their calls for a renewal of multiculturalism as a response to recent events, should in no way surprise, given that much of the Left continues to aim for representing the nation and its people. And, as it implicitly denounces both pogrom and retaliations alike as the abetting or cause of ‘racial disharmony’, this is ironically where the Left discloses the affective pull of its overwhelmingly Australian identification – an identity which is assumed to bestow rights universally and without exceptions that are legitimated through racism.

What is, however, remarkable is the extent to which multiculturalism continues to be idealised as a way of managing the exercise of ‘difference-in-unity’ that the nation-state at certain moments requires without, presumably, having to resort to either violence or criminalisation. Which is to say, it was precisely alongside the much-touted apex of multiculturalism as official state policy in the early 1990s that the policy of automatic and extrajudicial internment of undocumented boat arrivals was introduced. In that moment, internment camp sat comfortably alongside tributes to Australia’s diverse cultural mosaic, just as the most recent regime of border controls around the world were ushered in along with the ‘globalisation’ of trade and finance. For if multiculturalism was initially tendered as a better form of governance at the time of lengthy wildcat strikes by migrant workers in the early 1970s, this is because it offered an improved means of assimilating certain differences while criminalising those that did not align with the imperatives of national labour market formation. This is what the paradigmatic post-Fordist border has sought to realise: the filtering of antagonism into competition, difference into niche markets, and the recapitulation of an ostensible consensus over the nation as household firm vying for position in the world market. And it is on these questions that the part of the Left which retains some commitment to notions of class struggle has been either silent or expressed its bewilderment. Coming just days after the introduction of the ‘Workchoices’ policy (which principally seeks to restrict, if not entirely abolish, any remaining non-individuated work contracts), the inclination here has been to understand recent events as a distraction, much like racism – and indeed sexism – are routinely theorised as the diversions of an apparently otherwise unified class consciousness.

Yet there is no experience of labour in capitalism that occurs outside a relation to the border. This association does not arise simply because migration controls create legally-sanctioned segmentations within and between labour markets that, in turn, condition or ‘socialise’ the labouring circumstances of both immigrant and citizen. Nor does it occur only because, for instance, it is possible to show that the recent tendencies toward temporary residence permits and that of so-called ‘flexibilisation’ were both responses by employers and governments to a similarly coincident and prior exodus from the Fordist factories and the ‘Third World’ in the 1970s. Nor is it solely due to the fact that jurisdictions, currencies and the hierarchical links between them are manifest in every pay packet – although this is so obvious and therefore naturalised that it often needs emphasising.

While all of these are crucial in illustrating the significance of the border to the labouring experience, they are not quite sufficient to explaining the force of that relation, its acquiring a necessary disposition. To put this another way: the particular – which is to say, capitalist – nexus between labour and border comes about because the asymmetrical wage contract only acquires the semblance of a contract through the delineation of the figure of the foreigner. Put simply, without the foreigner, the notion and practice of the social (or wage) contract – as a voluntary agreement between more or less symmetrical agents – falls apart. There are three aspects worth considering here, and certainly in more detail: the conversion of the chance encounter into naturalised ‘origin’, the transformation of imperatives into individual choice, and the punctuated temporality of the contract which normatively distinguishes wage labour from slavery.

Firstly, capitalism acquires a ‘law-like’ character through the establishment of borders, whether those of nation-states or, more generally, enclosures. For while Marx’s ‘discovery’ of the surplus labour that lies behind the formally equivalent wage contract is more or less well known, it is the border that permits the chance historical ‘encounter between the man with money and free labourers’ to ‘take hold’ – as Marx noted, and Althusser would emphasise in his later writings.   Secondly, the contract functions as the conventional mark of capitalism’s distinction from feudalism, asserting that individuals have the power to organise their lives, against the pressures of inherited inequalities, if not strictly as a matter of will, then at the very least, as performativity. The contract is a theory of agency and self-possession. It formally asserts indeterminacy (or freedom) by explaining and rationalising the substance of any given contract as the result of a concordant symmetry. Consider here the Australian Government’s ‘Workchoices’ policy that aims to replace ‘collective’ wage rates and conditions in particular occupations with individual contracts – that is, it is an instrument which seeks to generalise the conditions of precariousness that have existed outside the perimeter of the post-WWII ‘settlement’ referred to earlier. Responding to charges that this amounted to the reintroduction of coercion, since refusing to sign an individual work contract would entail not having the means to live, the Prime Minister responded: ‘Everyone who wants a job will have one.’ For the Prime Minister, the existence of coercion does not refute the contractual nature of waged work; it merely obliges a reassertion of contract theory.   Let us, then, consider Rousseau’s argument that the ‘social compact’ requires ‘unanimous consent’ –  or, more specifically, that ‘no one, under any pretext whatsoever, can make any man a subject without his consent.’ While this is often read as a foundational democratic argument against slavery and involuntary submission, it is more accurately the democratic substitution of the figure of the ‘born-slave’ with that of the ‘foreigner-by-choice’. In this way, the existence of submission (or slavery) is redefined as the consequence of an individual’s choice to reside within borders in which they do not belong – and they do not belong because they do not agree to the contract. In the Social Contract, after positing the natural foundations of the nation state in voluntary agreement, Rousseau goes on to argue:

If then there are opponents when the social compact is made, their opposition does not invalidate the contract, but merely prevents them from being included in it. They are foreigners among citizens. When the state is instituted, residence constitutes consent; to dwell within its territory is to submit to the Sovereign. Just as Rousseau’s perfect circle of democratic despotism cannot do without the ‘foreigner’, there is no semblance of the wage, as wage contract, without the border. This is the contingency of a specifically democratic capitalism, relating as it does to a certain axiom of money as universal equivalent and seemingly competent measure of all things, while preserving all the ambiguities through which repression, inequality, slavery and, not least, surplus labour-time are explained and stabilised. Given that there is no way in which someone might profit at the expense of another through an agreement that is indeed symmetrical, as the wage contract is asserted to be, racism (and sexism, which is never far away) prepares us for, distributes and rationalises asymmetry. The contractarian braces the contingent world of capitalist exploitation by ascribing it to individual authorship. Where this risks destabilisation, either by dissent or in the undeniable presence of inequality where all are born equal, the figure of the foreigner is put into service in the guise of the unpatriotic, the unassimilable and those deemed to be, for reasons of biology or ‘culture’, incapable of signing a contract, of the very capacity of individual authorship. It is the latter that most clearly emphasises the bond between exploitation and racism, between the surplus as understood by political economy and the extrinsic (the foreign) as conceived by demography.

Thirdly, while the punctuated duration of the wage contract customarily distinguishes wage labour from slavery, the ‘normal working day’ was always demographically and geopolitically rationed. Cronulla did not simply represent ‘middle Australia’, but also the ‘normal working day’. Seen from outside this limited perspective, borders have long operated as a form of detainment, beyond which the conventional (and perhaps simply Fordist) delineation between the time of life and that of work is suspended. In this sense, the distribution of racism (and sexism) is also the distribution of a particular temporality. Yet, today, the ‘regular’ tempo of work more closely approximates the temporality of slavery (and, not least, of housework), in that no firm distinction operates between the time of working and not working or, better: in the sense that unpaid labour time is laid bare as the condition of capital and the linear time of progress comes to a standstill.   The question then is, as it always was perhaps, how unpaid labour (or exploitation) is distributed, as well as whether it is counted or not. The Cronulla pogrom was as much about space, belonging and property as it was about relative advantage: about who is counted and who is detained, who might be said to possess one’s labour such that they might contract for its sale and who might be said to be a slave. Here, one might note the ways in which certain migrants are held up at the border, airport and detention centre, no less than the ways in which the banlieues have existed as a de facto space of internment. In this time of detainment, it is not labour (as something that might be disassociated and ‘sold’ by one’s self) that is stolen, but whole lives. It is not surprising, then, that the moving mêlée emerged here, as both description of a response to the Cronulla pogrom as well as apparition of chaos. Neither discernible as individuals nor enumerated as collective, with an emphasis on motion that is as spatial as it is temporal (appearing as quickly as it disappears), the moving mêlée had a whirlwind temporality that provisionally cut through the time of detainment even while it failed to escape it.

Not surprising, either, that the ‘lockdown’ came into being here, as a reconfiguration of the mechanisms of detainment. And, it did not take long for a ‘lockdown’ to be invoked a second time. On January 1st in the country town of Dubbo, after indigenous teenagers fought with police against their attempt to arrest suspected car thieves, the police (as with the lifeguards in Cronulla) came off second best, and a lockdown was subsequently put into effect. Nevertheless, given the aim of halting movement through a shifting definition of lawlessness and a mobile decree of emergency zones, it needs to be emphasised that the form of the ‘lockdown’ predates the monumental pretext of 9/11. In a more direct sense, the ‘lockdown’ echoes the (offshore) internment camps and the excision of territories from the ‘migration zone’ that have characterised post-1992 Australian migration policies – a model that has since been explored by UK and other European governments. Moreover, much like the state of emergency declared in France after the riots of the banlieues, the suspension of the putatively normal functioning of the law duplicates the colonial encounter in a metropolitan context. For these reasons, it would be a mistake to construe this resort to emergency laws, such as the ‘lockdown’, as a mark of the triumph of border policing or, more generally, as cause for pessimism. Such instances do not signal a decline in our fortunes so much as they suggest the potentiality of a world that has surmounted its division into ‘First’ and ‘Second’, openly struggling with and against all the senses in which ‘our’ fortunes are dependent upon the expropriation of ‘others’.

Angela Mitropoulos has been involved in xborder, and written on borders, class composition and migration, including ‘Precari-Us?’ (Mute) and, forthcoming, ‘Cutting Democracy’s Knot’ (co-authored with Brett Neilson, in CultureMachine), and ‘Migration, Recognition, Movement’ (Constituent Imagination, AK Press)

Proud to be Flesh