Thursday, 04 October 2012

The Right against the city

by Antonis Vradis, Antipode

“Reclaim our cities”. “Self-organise”. “Take neighbourhood action”. Consider these slogans for a moment. Sound familiar? Indeed they should, echoing as they do a body of scholarship (e.g. Amin and Thrift 2005; Butler 2012; Chatterton 2010; Dikeç 2001; Harvey 2003; Leontidou 2006; 2010; Marcuse 2009; Mayer 2009; Simone 2005) stemming from Henri Lefebvre’s (1996) idea of the ‘Right to the City’ (henceforth ‘RttC’). Despite this common origin, interpretations of the Lefebvrian “right” have been most diverse; perhaps his own often-times abstract writing has inadvertently caused this scholarship to reach outside the confines of his own political allegiance and thought: ten years ago, Mark Purcell (2002) protested that the original RttC notion was more radical than his own concurrent literature would make it appear. But today, a reformist interpretation of Lefebvre might be the least of the worries we are faced with here, on the south-eastern shore of the Mediterranean that is the Greek territory. 

This intervention’s opening words were a pre-electoral pledge by Antonis Samaras, the country’s current PM. Shortly after his rise to power in June 2012, Samaras made sure to keep to his word. In early August police launched an operation[i] allegedly to crack down on illegal immigration; in its first couple of days alone approximately 6,700 people were detained[ii], comfortably setting a record for the number of individuals detained in a single day since at least the end of the country’s dictatorship (1974). In a ludicrously, incredibly ironic twist the operation was dubbed“Xenios Zeus”, after the god of guest protection in ancient Greece. Meanwhile, encouraged by its unparalleled electoral success[iii] the unashamedly Nazi Golden Dawn (GD) party has been leading a militant street-based operation while calling for people to take the law into their own hands, vigilante-style. As a result nearly 500 racist attacks were recorded against migrants between February and August 2012 alone, according to the country’s Migrant Workers’ Association[iv]. The main electoral slogan of the GD has an inextricable spatiality, too:“gia na xebrwmίsei o tόpos”, “so we can rid the place of filth”. And, lest we forget, the build-up to the GD’s unparalleled electoral success began with a very modest pledge to “take neighbourhood action”, when it chose to focus on organising locally, grassroots-style, in the central Athens neighbourhood of Agios Panteleimonas. All this at the same time as the country’s left-wing, anarchist and broader antagonist movement was engaged in the aftermath of the December 2008 uprising (Vradis and Dalakoglou, 2008).

Perhaps a reflex response against this thunderous landing of the Right into the realm of everyday urban organising and acting would be to cry “recuperation”. Surely, in the same way that the Greek police unashamedly inverted the meaning of “guest protection”, it could be claimed that the reactionary force that is the GD has twisted the meaning of emancipatory thought? Claiming so, however, would be ignoring our duty to protect such thought against the very force it is supposed to oppose. Surely seeing Deleuze, Guattari and Debord being referenced in a military training manual (Weizman, 2006) should have made a clear enough warning sign?

The rise of the Golden Dawn was unpredicted and — according to the intellectual tools at the disposal of critical academics — ostensibly inexplicable, too. This is a bitter lesson: we failed to foresee what would happen, and we have failed to protect society against the coming catastrophe. But for us critical geographers, there is an additional burden. The language used by the GD gives a valuable lesson particularly relevant to our discipline — and to our attempt, through the RttC literature, to formulate a critique against existing urban order, yet a critique only too often lost in an a-historical, but often deliberate abstraction.

Consider the disparity Purcell identified between Lefebvre’s festive RttC notion and more recent RttC scholarship. On the one hand, a Right to the City echoing the euphoric post-1968 belief that the world was about to change forever, that an emancipatory social transformation was ante portas — and that this emancipation would stem from and ground itself in a shift in the way urban space was produced and lived. On the other hand, a more recent Right to the City scholarship that often conceals a key fact, the fact that it has arisen by and large as an exodus through scale. Claiming a RttC has not merely been a “way to respond to neoliberal urbanism” (Purcell 2002: 99) but a way to escape an apparent inability to influence agendas on the national or international scale; think, here, of the largely reactionary climate in the US under Reagan and UK under Thatcher in the 1980s. Claiming the RttC was to claim asylum away from neoliberal national agendas of the time; an exodus that came as a necessity. Or even think of the later claim of RttC as pacification: “a ‘new urbanism’ movement that touts the sale of community and boutique lifestyles to fulfil urban dreams” (Harvey 2009: 323). Even so, in both cases, the RttC held a promise of a politics that was closer to the human scale, of a potential to influence our immediate surroundings, the way in which we act and live. Perhaps a great fallacy — it now seems, in hindsight — was that we perhaps allowed ourselves to believe that urban politics could exist independently, in the ether of the city itself. The seemingly abrupt, violent entering of the far-right into the urban arena and its own claim of a RttC comes as a surprise to many of us, but it should not have been. Neither as critical geographers, nor as part of the broader social antagonist movement (whatever label we each affix to ourselves) do we hold any monopoly over the understanding that building a grassroots presence can seep through scale, often-times to reach at the heart of power. What to do once there — abolish it (in the case of anti-authoritarians) or seize it (in the case of authoritarians) — is a different matter; yet the pathway to reach that exact point appears identical nevertheless.

By now there is a fact: (neo)Nazis and the ultra-conservative, authoritarian and neoliberal governments following the dictate of the EU, IMF and ECB in Greece have both chosen a scale of intervention that was, until recently, almost monopolised by voices of the social antagonist movement and critical Left: the urban scale. What lies ahead is a critical question: how does one proceed from now on? As Michael Watts (2010) also asks, “what might [the irresistible rise of a radical right] imply for being radical (of an altogether different hue) today?” One, most unrecommended, option would be to withdraw our collective force from the urban and in retreat to attempt another exodus through scale, just like the one that rejuvenated RttC scholarship in the face of neoliberal domination. It is difficult even to comprehend what level of catastrophe another retreat of this kind might bring. A second option — essentially, the only one viable—  would be for us to use this unprecedented attack as an opportunity, an opportunity to define solidly what in this particular scale of intervention (the urban) is politically alluring and fertile for the broader movement of social and human emancipation. By now of course, we have the additional urgency to ensure, by a sufficiently rapid and meticulous intervention in the urban scale, that the onslaught of the Right against the city is not unstoppable.

The task is urgent, but the target is by no means unreachable. Even now, it should not be forgotten that we are still acting in our own terrain and — quite literally — under our own terms: the use of a RttC rhetoric by the Right and the far-Right is entirely deceiving; totalitarian, fascist and neo-Nazi action is essentially anti-urban. Anti-urban, if by urban one is to understand the amalgam of different cultures, conceptualisations, and peoples that make a city thrive. Urban as a place of encounter (Lefebvre 1996: 158); an encounter, in turn, as a means for a more socially and politically enriched life. It is in this way — and this way only — that city air makes us free. Otherwise, living in a sterile, compartmentalised conurbation is most likely to allow only a hallucination of freedom. This is why the archetypal step toward urbicide (the killing of cities) has always been the abrupt, violent uprooting of all that is different. Everything else — the physical destruction of urban infrastructure, the uprooting of peoples — is preceded by the formation of a critical distance between the perpetrators and their victims.

To create a false distance between ‘locals’ and ‘foreigners’ and then to try to enforce racially-defined ‘order’ between the two is essentially anti-urban, turning against the disorder that Sennett (1970) read as a quintessential ingredient of urban life. And it is also in this sense — even if through an initial process of negation — that critical geography scholars now have an invaluable opportunity to rethink radically and to reshape the meaning of the RttC. Our right to the city is not the attack against what is different, weak, repressed. Nor is it, however (or it should not be), a holistic acceptance of everyone acting in the urban terrain. A truly emancipatory RttC should, by definition, exclude those now attacking the urban psyche. This RttC should be neither a slogan hollow of meaning in lieu of political substance, nor a fragmented invocation to the powers that be. Where it would end is unknown. But it would most definitely start from an understanding that any struggle in the urban terrain is in continuation to struggles for emancipation in every single other social and political scale. Speaking of his original RttC notion Lefebvre (1996: 195) warned: “it does not abolish confrontations and struggles. On the contrary!” There is little time to ponder, and no space to retreat: we must build our own allegiances and alliances, seek out what it is that has made the urban a fertile ground for emancipatory thought and hold it dear, fight for it. It is no longer a rhetorical question, or a scalar retreat; fighting for, and not just claiming, a right to the city will more than ever encapsulate and at the same time decide the fate of the social and political struggles lying ahead.

Antonis Vradis is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics, the Alternatives editor of CITY and a member of the Occupied London collective.

[i] The operation was still ongoing as of the time of writing (mid-September 2012).

[ii] “Police claim Xenios Zeus operation a success.” 10 August 2012

[iii] In the national elections of May 2012 the Golden Dawn (GD) scored just under 7% (6.97%) followed by a near-identical percentage (6.92%) in the repeat elections of June the same year. This comprised a record increase of approximately 2303% when compared to its 0.29% standing in the immediately preceding national elections of October 2009.

[iv] “Nearly 500 hate attacks carried out in the last six months.” 14 August 2012


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