Book: Common Ground in a Liquid City: Essays in Defense of an Urban Future

Book: Common Ground in a Liquid City: Essays in Defense of an Urban Future. Matt Hern. AK Press, 2009.

From a double review by Chris Carlsson:

Two books I read in the past month overlap with each other in useful ways. The first, Commonwealth by Toni Negri and Michael Hardt, is the third volume of their epic theoretical work that began with Empire and continued through Multitudes. While I’m not a camp follower per se, I did get a lot out of these efforts and was glad to read Commonwealth as the conclusion. It made some parts of their argument clearer, but left some important areas unresolved and even self-contradictory. I suppose that’s to be expected with such an ambitious effort to unravel this moment in history, the rise of new paradigms of both capitalist self-perpetuation and (potentially) revolutionary subversion.

The other book is by my host in Vancouver this week, Matt Hern, Common Ground in a Liquid City: Essays in Defense of an Urban Future. His book, like Nowtopia, is published by AK Press, and I had the pleasure of hearing him present some of his arguments at the Studio for Urban Projects in San Francisco a few months ago. I like a great deal of his argument, pitting a grounded sociality against the forces of capital that continually render everything that is solid into air, or in the case of his book, turning the solidity of urban space into endlessly liquid flows of capital. As he asks, “how can we imagine commonality and neighborhood in such a relentlessly liquid world?”

The key for Hern, parallel to the arguments by Negri and Hardt, is a form of exodus, to “actively expand the non-market sectors of the economy and society.” But where Hern’s is practical, based on new forms of trust, friendship, and hospitality, and rooted in specific places (Vancouver is his chosen locale), the Negri/Hardt (N/H) version is largely a theoretical assertion based on their odd and contradictory notion of “biopolitical labor.” Given my own years of helping produce Processed World, a magazine that documented well ahead of its time the rise of precarious labor when it was still in its early, affirmative, assertive form of exiting as much as possible the stupid world of wage-labor, I’m quite sympathetic to analyzing the important emergence of immaterial labor. A sweeping argument of N/H is that biopolitical labor is becoming hegemonic (something that invariably gets yowls of protest from anyone who wants to check on the statistical fact that there are more people working in tightly managed industrial factories today than at any previous time in history). By biopolitical labor they mean the activities that comprise all of our lives; a crucial piece of this line of thought is to assert that a new form of capitalist exploitation is taking shape in the cutting edge industries and geographies of the modern world, and that it is becoming increasingly dominant.

On page 142 of Commonwealth, they provide a conveniently concise summary and in it is the contradictory notion clearly stated:

– “In the biopolitical context capital might be said to subsume not just labor but society as a whole, or, really, social life itself, since life is both what is put to work in biopolitical production and what is produced. This relationship between capital and productive social life, however, is no longer organic in the sense that Marx understood the term because capital is increasingly external and has an ever less functional role in the productive process. Rather than an organ functioning within the capitalist body, biopolitical labor-power is becoming more and more autonomous, with capital simply hovering over it parasitically with its disciplinary regimes, apparatuses of capture, mechanisms of expropriation, financial networks, and the like.”

Is” biopolitical labor” autonomous or is it an example of the real subsumption of labor? Are freelance web designers working precariously “autonomous” or are they an individual who is ALWAYS working, always expanding their commercial contacts (via social life) and their networks in the hope of the next job—in other words, an individual who is fully integrated into capitalist life as a quasi-independent worker/entrepreneur? In this way I think their argument starts to look suspiciously like Richard Florida’s flattering (and sycophantic) portrait of the “creative class” in which anyone working in a bank or insurance company is somehow “creative” because they have to work with computers all day! In N/H they get tagged “autonomous” because so much of the labor process requires a fair amount of self-directed cooperation. Just because you are working on a project that has different teams working on various components stretched across the planet (designers in Manhattan, programmers in New Delhi, graphic artists in San Francisco, packaging and manufacturing in Guangdong China) does not make the work you’re doing autonomous. Granted, there are parts of the work you’re doing that have an autonomously cooperative quality and perhaps in that quality we can see the kernel of something more interesting, a capacity for radical self-management. I want to give N/H the benefit of the doubt here, but if you look at their own quote above, you can see how they first define the biopolitical context as one in which the entirety of society is subsumed under the logic of capital. How then are individuals whose activity is apparently fully subsumed simultaneously becoming autonomous from capital (especially if that autonomy is defined as a quality of the work they’re doing while earning wages)? That’s never satisfactorily explained.

On the other hand, I’m a proponent of finding the revolutionary possibilities in our everyday lives. By the time you get to the end of Commonwealth, they unabashedly make a teleological argument, but one not based on any invisible hands or inevitable forces, just that we CAN push the world towards one of our own making, one based on our own self-direction, cooperation, and general happiness. On page 242 they say “Today, in fact, revolution is no longer imaginable as an event separated from us in the future but has to live in the present, an “exceeding” present that in some sense already contains the future within it.” A little later they continue to argue for the inability of capitalism to adequately capture the value produced in the new realm of biopolitical labor: “…the results of biopolitical production, including social subjectivities and relations, forms of life, have an immediately ontological dimension. Value is generated in this process, but it is immeasurable, or rather it constantly exceeds the units of any accounting scheme; it overflows the corporation’s double-entry ledgers and confounds the public balance sheets of the nation-state. How can you measure the value of an idea, an image, or a relationship?” If only it were only such things that comprised wealth. And perhaps that is one of the points here, that as we reach the self-destructive end of the capitalist mode of production, an important path out is to recognize the enormous value of “not-things,” of aspects of our common life that have gone unmeasured and radically undervalued in this social arrangement.

Matt Hern stays resolutely on the ground in addressing the revolutionary qualities of social activity. He is an enthusiastic localist, waxing rhapsodic about Critical Mass as a proving ground for social problem-solving and creating convivial common experiences, while also arguing that if we REALLY cared about reducing violence against teens (as all the gang and drug taskforces claim) we’d be radically reducing the use of autos wherever possible. Way more youth are killed every year on the roads in car crashes than in any other activity, and yet we treat that like it’s a fact of nature or something. He talks about the 130,000 trees in Vancouver and wonders why 10% or even 30% can’t be converted to fruit trees, thereby providing free food to everyone?

But he knows why:

…We cannot have global capitalism and embrace localization… Our only alternative is to constrict the economy. We cannot have economic growth and ecological sanity… Maybe the easiest way to think about contracting the economy is getting your hands dirty and growing some food. There’s not much ambiguity there. It’s simple and cheap and convivial. But more than that it represents exactly how we need to be de-commodifying our relationship with the natural world and reconfiguring our cities as common ground.”

Negri and Hardt build on some of the autonomous theorizing that’s been going on during the past couple of years’ rupture of the neoliberal model. Again the two books come together in interesting ways on the question of the city as a locale of exploitation and reinvention.

-“The metropolis is to the multitude what the factory was to be the industrial working class… metropolis primarily generates rent, which is the only means by which capital can capture the wealth created autonomously… Rent operates through a desocialization of the common, privatizing in the hands of the rich the common wealth produced and consolidated in the metropolis.” (N/H p. 250 and 258)

Earlier in the book they describe the rise of financialization as a mechanism to capture the wealth produced outside the logic of commodities for sale. If it’s true that we’re together producing an ever-richer shared life, and that most of that new richness is unmeasurable, we’re nevertheless seeing a significant part of that wealth siphoned away from us as rent, whether for residential or commercial spaces, to landlords or to banks.

They describe this a bit differently:

“… in the contemporary networks of biopolitical production, the extraction of value from the common is increasingly accomplished without the capitalist intervening in its production. This renewed primacy of rent provides us an essential insight into why finance capital, along with the vast stratum that Keynes designates as functionless investors, occupies today a central position in the management of capitalist accumulation, capturing the expropriating the value created at a level far abstracted from the labor process.” (p. 141-42)

Matt Hern offers a definition of urban vitality that in a more vernacular way describes the kind of wealth N/H are talking about too:

“…that’s my definition of urban vitality: constantly running into people who aren’t like you, who don’t think, look, or act like you, people who have fundamentally different values and backgrounds. And in that mix there is always the possibility to reimagine and remake yourself—a world of possibility that is driven by public life and space, that it its best turns into common places and neighborhoods. That’s what makes a great city, not the shopping opportunities.”

A good deal of his book takes us from Vancouver to other cities around the world, but the promise of a comparative study is rarely fulfilled. Mostly he’s interested in and talking about Vancouver with the odd juxtaposition to New York, Montreal, Molokai, Diyarbakir Turkey, Fort Good Hope near the Arctic Circle, and other locales. I understand what he’s up to. As he notes in his introduction, you really see your city most clearly when you are away, in other contexts.

He spends a fair amount of time critiquing what I assume are various initiatives in Vancouver of the “New Urbanist” variety, efforts to promote and celebrate a developer-driven vision of urban vitality.

“…there’s more color and nuance to be added in, more than simple capital-labor contestation. There is a shared cultural response to the challenge and value of public space, and in some ways Living First has morphed into another subtle variant on enclosure, delicately displacing the power of public space into private hands…This speaks to a fundamental difference between public spaces and common places, and this is one of the core themes of this book: how can a city, this city, become a city of common places. Public space, lots of it, is crucial but we have to realize that we need more than that. People move through public space—but common space is where they stop, what they learn to inhabit, and make their own.” (p. 58-59)

As an urbanist Hern gets to speak with other planners and bureaucrats, and I assume he’s made the rounds of plenty of those promotional conventions for architects and planners where they are faced with the relentless pressure to “sell” their cities to investors.

– “…economic globalization is driving municipalities into direct competition with one another for capital resources, seeking to attract funding with incentive packages promising juicy profits for investors… Running a city in the twenty-first century is all about the hustle.”

This parallels the N/H discussion of rent, because broadly understood, this is precisely what these development schemes and sales campaigns are promising capital: come to OUR city and you’ll make a great return. You don’t have to run factories or offices, or even hotels or restaurants. Just make capital available to the city for its development plans and the rising wealth of a successful urban revitalization effort will handsomely reward the lenders with steady payouts for years to come (this is mostly done through the municipal bond market).

At one of the conferences Hern recounts, he captures the emergent conflict quite well:

– “Overwhelmingly present, but entirely subsumed was a critical discontinuity between a neoliberal globalization agenda articulated by the World Bank, IMF, and an omnipresent array of private financiers and development companies, and an apparent consensus on the importance of decentralization, local economies, local energy production, local control, and local democracies.” (p. 171)

This is another variation on the argument I made in Nowtopia about an emergent working-class movement with an agenda that escapes the logic of wage-labor and the perpetuation of capitalism. The still mostly invisible presence of an agenda based on local economies and local democracy is bubbling up in many locations. It just hasn’t found its political voice yet.

Negri and Hardt do a nice job of capturing this historical process:

– “Capital will not continue to rule forever, and it will create, in pursuing its own rule, the conditions of the mode of production and the society that will eventually succeed it. This is a long process, just as was the transition from the feudal to the capitalist mode of production, and there is no telling when it will cross the crucial threshold, but we can already recognize—in the autonomy of biopolitical production, the centrality of the common, and their growing separation from capitalist exploitation and command—the makings of a new society within the shell of the old.” (p. 301)

Both books offer deeper suggestions about orientation and values too, much more than I can accommodate in this already too-quote-heavy blog entry, but nevertheless here’s a couple more:

Matt Hern:

– “…otherness cannot and should not be collapsed into a tolerant multiculturalism, but requires an acknowledgement of, appreciation for, and trust in profoundly different ways of living and social organization. A city of immigrants has to learn to live together, but if it is going to thrive people have to learn to trust each other. Paradoxically, that trust cannot emerge without community, but community needs trust to develop. Perhaps hospitality and friendship are a partial way out of the chicken v. egg thing here.” (p. 104)


– “The refusal of work is a central slogan of this project, which we have explored at length elsewhere. The refusal of work and ultimately the abolition of the worker does not mean the end of production and innovation but rather the invention, beyond capital, of as yet unimagined relations of production that allow and facilitate an expansion of our creative powers……Revolutionary class politics must destroy the structures and institutions of worker subordination and thus abolish the identity of worker itself, setting in motion the production of subjectivities and a process of social and institutional innovation.” (p. 332-33)

My argument is that this process of self-abolition of the category of worker is already visible in the activities many of us are engaged in when we’re NOT at work, when we’re busily appropriating technologies in innovative and artistic ways, when we’re addressing the ecological crisis by using the waste stream in unpredictable ways. Hern gets it too: “…when lots of us start riding bikes everywhere, we stop buying cars and gas and it hurts business. This also occurs when we start closing streets down or living in co-op housing or planting fruit trees all over the city. All of this is all good and fun and ecological and “green,” but really it presents a direct, antagonistic challenge to capitalism. And so it should be. I want planting gardens to be not just an aesthetic activity or an attempt to ameliorate capitalism’s worst excesses but the first punch in a street fight.”