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The big city as exploitation and resistance in the 21st century

From the Factory to the Metropolis
Forfatter: Antonio Negri
Forlag: Polity Press (Storbritannia)
Nostalgic analysis of the metropolis as subjectification, not politicization, by Italian political philosopher Antonio Negri.


Today, more than half of the world's population lives in cities. This means that any progressive politics must necessarily be urban or relate to urban as a phenomenon. Marx and Engels, as you know, imagined that "the mighty cities" that emerged around the middle of the 19. century, would become the scene of a spatial concentration of workers, who were pressed together by the fierce capitalist modernization would develop a new social collectivity. "The proletariat is crowded into larger masses, its power increased, and it feels this power more," as they put it in The Communist Manifesto. It 20. The revolutions of the century, however, did not go exactly as Marx had imagined. Instead of the metropolis and the workers, it was largely farmers from or in the country who revolted and carried out revolutions in 'backward' countries such as Russia, Turkey, Spain, Bolivia and China. The metropolis did not become the scene of proletarian action that Marx envisioned in 1848.

The metropolis as the scene of dynamism and fragmentation. One of the reasons why it did not go, as Marx and Engels thought, has to do with the metropolis as a place for violent social dynamism and fragmentation. The two revolutionaries were absolutely right that the metropolis crowd the masses, pushing people together physically and mentally, but this "clumping", as Marx and Engels call the process, is also a dynamic and fragmentation that seems rather to cause bluster and possible different forms of national resentment than class consciousness. After all, it is in the modern metropolis, "that everything solid and solidly evaporates" that everything is constantly transformed and transformed. Capitalist modernization is a violent process that is tearing down former forms of solidarity and communities and making everything subject to doubt. In other words, the real subject of the big city is the money that George Simmel wrote in his classic essay on the big city of 1903. It is not the workers, but the money economy that governs the big city. The money is "with their neutrality and indifference ... the most terrible leveling force, they mercilessly erode the essence of things, their particularity, their specific value, their incomparability".

The metropolis becomes a huge subjectivity machine.

The metropolis as a flow of impression. The psychic effects of the metropolis we know from modern art and poetry: from Baudelaire and Monet in the late 19th century to futurists in Italy and Berlin-dada before and after the First World War and on to the situationists and pop after World War II, the metropolis is reproduced as a chaotic jumble of influences and moods, in which the individual is thrown into a maelstrom of impressions and difficult to separate from the city, but on the contrary becomes one with the one as it happens exemplarily in Joyces Ulysses, where city and consciousness merge in Leopold Blooms stream of consciousness. The hustle and bustle of the metropolis is expressed as Bloom's wild inner monologue.

Not politicization, but subjectivation. The collapse of the modern metropolis does not produce the politicization that Marx figured. Rather, the metropolis becomes the scene of a complex subjectification process that constantly postpones the revolution and, for a long period, almost makes it appear impossible and / or redundant. It is the story of the metropolis as a play with the terms of Guy Debord, a place where the Western world working class is transformed into consumers and citizens in the post-war welfare society. As Debord and Henri Lefebvre and other thinkers of the big city described it in the 1950s and 1960s, the big city is a place where a process of subjectivation takes place. Think of all the live images, commercials, brands and slogans that are all over the city. What Debord and Lefebvre saw was how the big city turns into a huge machine of subjectivity that allows the subject to act in certain ways or limit its possibilities of action. "To act" here is not just to be understood as buying an identity, picking between the various commodities that signal one or the other, choosing from the various identity fixes that late capitalism offers. It must also be understood in relation to the metropolis as a space of action, a space for a more basic process in which man becomes a subject of self-awareness and agent, but at the same time subjected. The metropolis as a place for simultaneous subjectification and desubjecting. It is the story of the metropolis as a dispositive or ideological machine that prevents the clumping of solidarity and class consciousness.

The city as a place of exchange. Antonio Negri offers a more positive reading of this development in the essays gathered in the book From the Factory to the Metropolis. The starting point for Negri's analysis is the changes that occurred in the capitalist mode of production in the period after 1968, when the last major proletarian offensive took place. The response to the criticism of Fordist assembly line and boring petty-bourgeois life was massive, taking the form of a revolution of production and labor, what in the absence of a better word is often called neoliberalism. In the book, which includes texts from the mid-1990s onwards, Negri alternately describes it as post-industrial or post-modern modernization. In this development, the metropolis is very central, Negri writes, because the place of exchange has been expanded to be the city or the entire social life. That is the point of the title: We have gone from the factory as a place of exchange to the city as a place of exchange. Negri talks about the post-Fordist productive metropolis. The factory has been extended to the city, which Negri writes with reference to his old colleague of Italian workerism, Mario Tronti, and his idea of ​​the social factory. Thus, in the new accumulation regime, the big city is even more important than it was for Marx. According to Negri, the metropolis today is the most important place for both social production and conflict. For a long time, the factory and its industrial working class formed the basis for a critical Marxist analysis of the capitalist economy. Now it is the big city that is the starting point. That's where the fight is against yield and for another community takes place. "In today's big city, the biopower of capital and the biopolitics of the subjects are mixed and confronted," Negri writes.

Antonio Negri is an Italian philosopher known for the books Empire (2000), Multitude (2004) and Commonwealth (2009) written together with American Michael Hardt.

Analyzes of new forms of combat. Several of the texts in the book are analyzes of new forms of battle, all of which relate to the big city in different ways. From the transport strikes in France in 1995 to the space occupation movements in 2011, the metropolis is both the scene and object of fighting. The fighting takes place in the city and concerns the right to the city or other ways of living in it. The three-week strike movement in 1995, for example, analyzes Negri as an extension of the classic factory strike to a metropolitan strike that is at once more diffuse but also more extensive and which takes place in several areas of life. This expansion of the fight beyond the strike also sees Negri in the 2011 occupations in Spain, Greece and the United States, which not only rejects crisis policy and savings programs, but also articulates demands for the right to live in the big city.

Work as a permanent organic process. Negri reads the historical course as a development in which industrial production and the factory worker lose their avant-garde position in the class struggle and are replaced with the service worker as the spearhead of the struggle between capital and living labor. The service worker's work is characterized by its involvement in the production of value. Emotions and the ability to communicate and creative solutions have, according to Negri, become central parts of the new post-Fordist accumulation regime. Capital again responded to the widespread social protests of the 1960s by organizing wage work in new ways in which the Fordist assembly line was expanded or replaced with more 'democratic' forms of work, where the worker is encouraged or forced to invest himself in the extraction of added value. Today, work is not simply an exhausting physical activity that takes place in the period from 7 to 15, but has taken the form of a more or less permanent organic process in which the individual uses all his or her cognitive abilities and emotions to solve tasks that rarely quits, but constantly changes and persists.

The city's new autonomous space. However, this development, where exploitation has both penetrated deeper into the human and has taken up the urban space in its entirety, is however pregnant with other non-capitalist life forms. The urbanization of the struggle between labor and capital, between multitude and the empire is a possibility. The city's abstraction enables new social and spatial forms of life, which have virtually detached themselves from the dialectical mediation and capture of capital. This is what we see in the various battles in the metropolis when seats are taken and strike outside the factory. Negri is in search of a spatio-social parallel to the deterritorialized communication sphere that capital produces. There is an opportunity in the new dividend, in the city's becoming productive. The city's abstraction and fragmentation have virtually exceeded the parasitic relationship of capital with multitude. The metropolis produces new autonomous spaces that contain the possibility of new social conditions. It is Negri's optimistic reading of developments.

Absence of nostalgia. Negri's analysis is devoid of any nostalgia that can often be found in so-called radical analyzes of the big city. The starting point is urbanization. It's a strength. But Negri tends to hypostasize service or intangible work, and the texts in the book have nothing much to say about the 400 million Chinese working class still in the factory, or about the explosive growth in the number of people living in slum cities, and which is cut off from the metabolism of capital, which cannot access the capitalist labor market at all, but is forced to survive in the informal economy or in various forms of criminal behavior. The latter are probably the proletariat today, that is, those who give birth to the most children, but just as important, those who have nothing to lose and are therefore potentially ready to attack our society and wipe out capitalism.

Mikkel Bolt
Mikkel Bolt
Professor of political aesthetics at the University of Copenhagen.

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