AbdouMaliq Simone on Cities, Neoliberalism and the Commons

simone photoIn this commentary piece for the TCS Website, AbdouMaliq Simone responds to Adrian Parr’s recent TCS article “Urban Debt, Neoliberalism and the Politics of the Commons

Drawing Lines:  Some reflection on Adrian Parr’sUrban Debt, Neoliberalism and the Politics of the Commons

How to honor the city differently?  This is a critical question posed in a wondrous piece by Katherine McKittrick, “Plantation Futures.”  Even as the plantation became the place where black people were planted in America as its primary capital investment, entangling economic growth with antiblack violence, sexual cruelty, and racial surveillance, it spurred secretive histories of urbanization rooted in different kinds of emplotment. At its most concrete, this entailed the cultivation of crops and interweaving of person and ecology. Here, McKittrick refers to “ the actual growth of narratives, food, and cultural practices that materialize the deep connections between blackness and the earth and foster values that challenge systemic violence”(p. 10).  While the plantation laid the economic base for American urbanization, these different kinds of emplotment provide that urbanization with different possibilities.

In his own important piece for Theory, Culture and Society, Adrian Parr focuses on shrinking cities, particularly the largely Black city of Detroit, in order to reimagine the shrinkage of the plantation-industrial complex city as something else, as replete with acts of commoning, manifested in cultivating the very material nurturance of a supposedly wasted population and thus countering dehumanization.  According to Parr, commoning “mediates between the natural common of ecological growth, food production, and the artificial common of innovative ideas and collective practices, distributing the benefits, resources, and opportunities that arise from the urban common in support of collective well being.”

Detroit and a host of other cities depleted by foreclosure, disinvestment, and fear dissipate the salience and hold of private property and necessitate new if only provisional forms of collective life.  Still, in a very old story about urban experiments that meld sociability that cuts across conventional stories and segmentation, and is usually proffered by a city’s black residents, their cutting edges are dulled, commodified, and subsumed under the rubric of exchange value. As Parr insists, commoning is an incessant struggle, something that must be continuously relearned and reclaimed.

Parr incisively demonstrates that shrinkage and expansion are part of the same process.  Neoliberal planetary urbanization constitutes a particular intensification of the way in which the value of things and lives can only be expanded in accountable, ramifying trajectories through the coupling of waste and surplus.  The value of particular lives and ways of life, of what is made and acted upon is subject to their articulation to and constant comparability within an ineffable excess of possible transactions beyond any local use. Urbanization is the mechanism for the production and absorption of the incessant circulation and entanglement of things and experiences as commodities, an interminable restlessness of disorientation, a suspended state, where the capacity to maintain a hold on things and attain a sense of emplacement increasingly necessitates enforced resilience, of people embracing rather than warding off their imminent expendability.

Given this context, relearning and reclaiming the commons cannot simply consist of a plurality of discrete management projects and experiments.  They must also draw lines among them, where the line becomes a different kind of exteriority, a medium through which highly differentiated ways of doing things are kept near, able to witness and learn from each other.

There is a “city” that cannot be enclosed or colonized, where there are no terms to hold people or things in common–what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney refer to as the “undercommons.” Cities need to be full of diverse things.  Regardless of the particular political reality of any city, there must be a way for these diversities to exist, at least partially, without differentials of force or value.  In order to keep pace with the volatility of their continuous recombinant associations, no thing can become too indebted, too dependent upon specific characteristics or composed relations.  Of course there are orders of things; things can only be comprehended through their incorporation, through being held in place, kept in line.  At least in U.S. America, blackness has long been the preeminent vernacular for this holding down and letting go of things, of both enforcement and freedom, of the refusal to “hold down the hatch”, born of being brought to the Americas in the “hold”—referring to the material conditions and ontological nothingness of the Middle Passage.

During the massive waves of northward migration, blacks infused cities such as Detroit with sensibilities and stories that linked disparate persons, not only in networks of support and care, but as a collection of ways to pay attention, to witness, to find out what was going on, to cast light and shadows.  They did this in contexts where the racial composition of property value was increasingly used as an instrument to choke off the dynamism of black residency.  As a result of political efforts and the use of real estate to promote racial segregation, black districts became captive markets, replete with inflated rents, insurance and service costs, diminishing investment in built environments, and usurious bank interest rates.

What really bothered the managers of cities in the North, their numbers swelled with black immigrants, was often the matter of trying to count who belonged where, who belonged to whom, as if plantation accounting books were still operative.  How would a population be managed if not corralled into clear alignments of affiliation? The implicit deal of Fordism in Detroit was to avail jobs in the automobile manufacturing industry as long as black social life was sufficiently domesticated into identifiable and countable household units. Employment was to be predicated on the black assumption of particular modes of making themselves visible and accountable.  Long honed sensibilities of space, of spacing-out, of affiliations premised on covering the different angles, and on seemingly amorphous collectives spanning oceans were to be tempered or associated with various forms of being dysfunctional.   The long-term assault on collective black life remains unimpeded, perhaps not so directly in racial terms, but through an amalgamation of fiscal responsibility and discourses of phoenix-rising creative transformations that pay little attention to the seeming disappearance of black collectivity from cities across America.

Across the world, the operating procedures of contemporary financial capitalism render many aspects of everyday life beyond the necessities of social interaction and negotiation.  As theorist and activist, Franco Berardi, repeatedly emphasizes, finance capital is not simply about exotic forms of exchange value but rather the elaboration of mathematical languages as the primary means of reading the world, of assessing what is important and of making decisions.  Determinations of efficacy are taken out of the realm of messy human everyday deliberation and instead rendered as probabilistic calculations, algorithmic screenings of increasingly massive data sets, which situate human actors as an ensemble of interoperable profiles and coding systems.  As such, precarity is not simply the increasing informalization of labor, but the stripping away of the capacities of people to desire and imagine ways of being with each other, of feeling empathy for each other.

For Berardi then, the important feature of the urban commons is to revitalize ways for inhabitants to be able to imagine acting in concert.  For, it is impossible to act collaboratively unless the potential participants can envision such collaboration, to imagine it, to sense its incipient outlines.  A large part of this effort then is to live amidst things, people, situations, and materials that do not seem to go together, to use inhabitation itself as a device that keeps things in some kind of proximity.  In maneuvers that anticipate the logics of financialization but are not of them, the discordant need not be integrated in some kind of overarching perspective, but rather be sufficiently related so as to pay attention to each other, to be available to different uses.

In relearning and reclaiming the commons, then, we must not lose sight of all of the efforts residents have made across diverse cities to construct shelter, infrastructure, services, employment and general well-being.  These efforts often did not go anywhere, but these “failures” proved not to be definitive impediments for residents to keep on trying.  The process of trying, sometimes with limited results, was indicative of the faith residents had in each other, and above all, a kind of faith in the city.  Here, the city was an always mutating and unpredictable world, something that would not always be either for or against you; it is something that could not be domesticated by routine or specific understandings or formulas.  Thus, even when things did work out, and residents managed to somehow calibrate their different histories, perspectives, and assets, they could not take this for granted.

But the inverse was the also the case; that next time, maybe, things might work out differently.  The city was something that was hard to know, hard to get a handle on, but it also gave residents something to work with, even those with limited means.  Particularly in the so-called Global South, and in cities where the machinery of decision-making, planning, resource allocation, and service provision hobbles along in bureaucratic ineptness, improvised deals, and massively skewed distributions, the majority of inhabitants still continuously construct and update the practices, designs, and materials that are put to work in engineering spaces of inhabitation.  Perhaps more importantly, they reticulate the experiences, skills, perceptions, and networks of the people around them in order to materialize circuits through which needed goods, services, and information pass.

As Parr rightly points out, the dominant line in urban theory concerns consolidation, the gathering up of land, lives, and things in a game of maximizing ground rent, generalizing property regimes and sorting out populations.  Certainly the viral capacity of a limited set of formats for inhabitation to replicate themselves at great speed regardless of singular local textures and histories demonstrates a totalizing force sweeping long-honed practices of city-making off their feet. It becomes increasingly difficult to say for sure where the line between urban and rural is to be drawn. For in the interstices between distinct forms of plenitude and diversity, as well as the intricate ecologies of the human and inhuman, is a growing expanse of banal, quickly constructed and barely functional zones of minimal single-family pavilions. These, nevertheless, embody the imaginaries of middle class attainment.

Such standardization of near-emptiness passing as the initial steps in trajectories of limitless success is of course nothing particularly new.  In some instances, where mortgage terms are less onerous, where the dictates mandating the terms of what households can do with their property are more flexible, and where households are not overly exhausted from long commutes and keeping their finances above water, these zones can be sites of tinkering and recalibration, acquiring nuances and spawning heterogeneous local economies.  But for the most part, they exude a future of heading nowhere, of minimal trappings of security won at the expense of stultifying boredom.

Consolidation also points to not only the devil pact of indebtedness assumed to buy into a “starter pack” of class ascendancy, but also the real existence of liquidity in cities long seen as “emerging”—emerging markets or emerging from the “darkness” of anachronistic politics, bad dreams or bad habits. A plurality of customary land arrangements, public guarantees, forms of tenancy and land and building use give way to condominiums, shop-house complexes, and all-in-one sub-cities, almost always fully sold in advance of completion.  The actual mechanisms of full occupancy often entail complex and shady financial maneuvers, but there clearly is a market for investments on the part of a younger generation who mobilize significant portions of the sale price up front.

The stories behind such mobilization are often varied, so from Lagos to Jakarta to Recife to Kolkata how such money is actually placed on the table derives from vast mixtures of the licit and illicit, from savings to borrowing on future earnings, from the proliferation of the marketing of goods and services on and off the books; in other words, from an “urban economy” that does not necessarily become less diverse as the destinations of its proceeds may become more standardized.  The extent to which the genealogies of investment producing this trajectory of consolidation can actually diversify the surface homogeneity of spaces which it produces remains to be seen.

But even in cities where transitions are happening quick and dirty, where real estate restages piracy at the high seas and speculation becomes a national pastime, conditions now on the ground are more tremulous, uneven, and volatile than the consolidation story would seem to make them.  This is not so much a matter of the persistence of particular places and practices; it is not the obduracy of specific populations to change or a growing resistance of the marginalized—whether the long-term poor, a fallen middle class, or youth with no employment prospects. Rather, the intersections of cut-throat competition over the rapid acquisition and development of land, the intensity of the sense of exigency shared by all kinds of inhabitants to do something quickly to improve their prospects, and the often murky ways in which land can become embedded in a thicket of bureaucratic statuses produce different kinds of voids, leftovers, and transition spaces.  The overarching story of consolidation may promise that such spaces eventually will be folded in, remade, swallowed up, but for now it is difficult to tell for sure where they are headed, let alone what they actually are.

The restructuring involved in consolidation is not seamless. It is replete with scams, short-cuts, cost-cutting measures, broken agreements, messed up contracts, plans gone wrong, and fights within and between municipal and state ministries, architecture firms, consultancies, contractors, property developers, construction firms, infrastructure regimes, planners, local and prospective residents.  The power of money, imaginaries of efficient cities and middle class norms may often trump all of the concrete difficulties entailed, but the process of consolidation remains messy and fraught with unanticipated twists and turns.

So once again we return to the matter of lines, of where you draw the line, of how discrepant “projects” stand next to each other, of how they stand apart, of how they stand at all.  Lines do not necessarily connect but also indicate detachment as well, where the line reiterates or amplifies a sense of separation.  The line adds not a supplement of meaning or coherence, but rather disjoins, exhibits things as confounding, as belonging to no overarching sense and thus, at that moment, seemingly available to anything or anyone.  Sure, the line may pass through places controlled by someone who, with or without legitimate basis, performs the authority needed to make things happen in that place.  The constellation of places may fall within a larger territory, constitute elements of an overarching rubric where the future is specified and subject to immanent consolidations.  But for the present, the alignment of these places, these places that fall into place and are observed by following a line partially undo whatever any person or institution has in mind for them.

If you follow the lines across many cities today, cities are not simply shrinking or expanding, but fall somewhere restlessly in-between.  This in-between is a jumbled up series of dilapidation, uncompleted construction, refuse, failed and new projects, homes that continued to stand in place after fifty years and now are being remodeled as if they were being readied for another fifty.  Consolidation may be the story of these urban times, and it is difficult to envision how to draw the line on the seemingly planetary expansion of propertied urban relations.  There have been many sacrificial attempts to mark firewalls, to etch out lines of flight, to initiate counter-consolidations to secure the continued presence of low-income households within urban centers or at least near-peripheries.  But sometimes lines offer nothing other than a prolonged quivering, a restlessness that perturbs the surroundings, an enduring detachment from the anticipated futures of all that surrounds.

Many residents I have talked to in places such as Lagos, Jakarta, and Phnom Penh often do not seem to express much interest in anything particular.  They did not want jobs in the planned expansion of an industrial area; they did not want to become owners of the shop-house-apartments at the near horizon; they did not want the road to be lined with new houses and commercial buildings.  They didn’t want to take anything on offer even when they had little interest in protecting the conditions they presently occupied. While this may seem perilously close to the inflated celebrations of “ I would rather not” indifference, like the eight men sitting playing cards under an umbrella sheltering a makeshift table in a huge vacant lot, these people just wanted to simply come back to the “game” day in and day out, take their chances with players whose styles and tricks they knew like the back of their hands, where the stakes were high enough to maintain enthusiasm, but where the losses were not devastating.  There is no long-term objective to this “popular” game, and they obviously could keep the game going in many other more suitable places than smack in the center of this field with no natural shade or nearby comforts. No effort was made to mask their visibility; they were there for all to see, and who knows what empire or commoning they imagined themselves being at the center of.


Katherine McKittrick (2013) ‘Plantation Futures’. Small Axe 17: 1-15.

AbdouMaliq Simone is an urbanist and research professor at the University of South Australia and professor of sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, visiting professor at the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town, research associate with the Rujak Center for Urban Studies in Jakarta, and research fellow at the University of Tarumanagara.

Adrian Parr’s TCS article ‘Urban Debt, Neoliberalism and the Politics of the Commons’ is available here


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