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

By Josephine Berry Slater, 21 September 2012

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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