Seminar series, January-March 2014
This is intended as a stimulus and support to the research of postgraduate students, and perhaps some advanced undergraduates, in all parts of the Bartlett and UCL Urban Lab, who find Merrifield’s work stimulating. The seminar will take place each week from 1500h to 1700h on Wednesdays, from 29 January until the end of term and should provide opportunities for participants to share their ideas and discussions. Location will vary from week to week and will be announced on the programme page.
Anybody who glances at the latest urban literature will hear a lot of hype about “global cities” as engines of economic growth. Yet you’ve really got to wonder what cities these commentators have in mind? You’ve really got to wonder if cities nowadays are about the “wealth of nations” (as Jane Jacobs proclaimed in the 1980s). On the contrary, today’s biggest cities have economies almost exclusively predicated on “parasitic” activities. Cities are giant arenas where the most prominent activity is the activity of extorting land rent, of making land pay. Meanwhile, parasitic rentiers have reclaimed the public sector and now use it to prime the private pump, to underwrite further accumulation by dispossession and rental extraction. They’ve engineered a neo-Haussmannite process of land grabs and rigged privatizations, of plundered public infrastructure and repossessed homes, all the while reappropriating value rather than contributing anything towards its creation.
Funnily enough, it wasn’t always like that. Back in the 1970s, Manual Castells conceived the urban question relative to public goods and services funded by the state—items of “collective consumption” he called them—stuff consumed collectively, like housing and schools, hospitals and mass transit, socialized goods, functionally crucial for the reproduction of labor-power. Fiscal crises and economic downturn scarred this era. Then, in the 1980s, a change of ideological and economic persuasion ensued, a change in how the capitalist state went about its business. Quite literally went about its business. The era became an interregnum that would spawn, in the 1990s, neoliberalism. Castells’ thesis began to crumble in the face of the inexplicable: collective consumption items, so vital for social reproduction, so functional for capital, so necessary for the overall survival of the city and capitalism—how could it possibly be that the state would desist from funding them?
These weekly seminars will riff on Castells’ “old” urban question, his almost-archaic urban question. Since 1972, when La question urbaine first appeared, the stakes and arena of urban struggle have changed markedly. Forty-odd years on, the threats are scarier yet the promises are maybe more expansive. But how can ordinary people develop civic immunity to predatory capitalism? How to devise new democratic prophylactics, a new participatory democracy in the face of too much representative technocracy—especially when representation means “post-political” public servants intent on defending private gain?
This blog post elaborates on the subject matter which will be at least the starting point of the series: