An unnamed 12-year-old Cairo boy has surfaced as an unwitting spokesman of the movement that ousted Morsi on the 3rd of July. Cairo, Istanbul, Sao Paolo, Rio Di Janiero, Damascus, Tripoli, Stockholm…the list of urban uprisings wholly rejecting the state’s power is endless. It points to a new era when global capitalism must now be enforced by oppression. Yet few understand or wish to comment upon this turn of events, preferring instead to paint this in yesterday’s color of red. Today’s color has yet to be chosen, but Marxism this is decidedly not. Instead we are witnessing the dawn of a new challenge to capitalism’s corrupt and hollow system.
The current era of urban revolution began in early 2011, with the score of cities of the Arab Spring , but it has a newer, and darker hue now with Sao Paolo’s protest over bus fares that spread to other cities in Brazil. A few uprisings in the Middle East have deposed their hated dictators, and many states have reached uneasy truces with their citizens, but observers sense that this conflict is far from over. Some see these as isolated incidents. It seems more like a global web of urban unrest searching for a voice. Brazil marks perhaps a convenient moment to take stock of what has been happening in the opening decades of the twenty-first century, a generation after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the period to which we are witnesses.
Much of today’s social unrest was predicted by French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, writing in the mid-nineteen seventies about social space in the city, and how it has been constructed to favor capitalism. The separation of work and home, for example, is a relatively modern spatial arrangement favoring wealth, and for no better example of this, one can see the hike in Sao Paolo bus fares acting as the straw that broke the camel’s back for the Brazilian poor. Lefebvre’s evaluation of the currents of the late twentieth century can now be updated, and point to a looming social crisis.
Lefebvre noted at the time that the state was busy consolidating its power, and it has now largely achieved this on a global scale. Western scientific society, regardless of political ideology, has now provided the state – whether it be the Chinese, Syrian, or what-have-you – with the tools to utterly crush any alternatives to its power. It is universally promoted as the “stable center” without which, we are assured, we would descend into chaos. It enables a spatial flatness and instantaneous communication, collapsing space and time. The state takes advantage of this in exercising its power globally.
Lefebvre, in his 1974 book The Production of Space, noted that other forces were “on the boil”, and saw the world approaching Nietszche’s tragic vision of a violent end, with the state constantly suppressing wars and revolution. We have now entered this phase of his prediction, a phase where the state acts as an agent of negativity, transforming anyone who protests against it into a fugitive in order to preserve global order.
Lefebvre hoped that the working class would rise up in Marxist-style class struggle; instead, the working class has continually been pacified by the state with consumerism, an alternative that the state prefers to handing out political freedom. (Anyone interviewing a modern Chinese would, if they got a candid response, hear the anger of this generation over the Tiananmen Square generation’s sell-out; economic freedom was offered by the state, and the people at the time, starved for so long, chose this rather than political freedom. Today, they pay the price). Placating the lower classes has become expensive, and the state has become overextended in doing so, but cannot stop at the risk of seeding a genuine revolt.
Late last year, the disparate problems of unaffordability and authoritarianism were a genuine puzzle; two different trends that signified the dark underbelly of the current urban triumphalism. It seems clearer now that these problems are intertwined with the rise of the state, and are indeed two very intended consequences of our current global system – and they are not going away. Unaffordability is the way housing and transportation costs are rising, leaving a larger and larger segment of the population behind. Authoritarianism is the way our governments regulate more and more of our daily lives, intruding into our quality of life and leaving health, safety, and welfare in the dust. An example of this is the phenomenon of food trucks which swept the cities in a few short years, creating a niche that was neither vending cart nor restaurant, but something new in between. Government regulation was swift in coming, notable not for its concern about health, but its concern about economic protection of vested interests. In olden days, food vendors could just duke it out for the customer, but today the government, anxious to keep the finely tuned economic hierarchy of the city in balance, rushes in to create order and regulate the problem away. Cell phone records and killer drones remind one of the helplessness one feels at the state’s totalitarian power, regardless of leader, country or ideology.
Leftist philosophers urge class struggle to resolve this conflict and gain some much-needed space for society to breathe free, calling wistfully for a sort of “Paris Commune” once again. Their selective vision, however, focuses on traditional Marxist class struggle, because they will not – indeed, they cannot – enlarge their narrow ideology to include the struggles in Egypt, Syria, and now Brazil that have nothing to do with the rise of the industrial worker. With impoverished credibility over the multiple failures of the socialist state, leftists have little to offer when considering the urban landscape that lies before us in cities like Aleppo, Damascus, Tunis, Cairo, and many others.
Indeed, human development in terms of prosperity and human rights have increased in these cities, but at the same time the world has seen a dramatic widening of the income gap between the rich and the poor. To keep the lower classes in check, the governments of these places became impossibly repressive. Not so far away, governments in more stable countries like China seek control of the lives of the citizens – the authoritarianism that has crept into the world scene.
While the right cries out “Marxist” at anyone protesting the greed and corruption of the global economic system, this smear is neither accurate nor serious. Old labels are used for lack of anything better, but the confrontations on the streets have neither a red flag nor a red book to their name. Instead, the new mob – refusing to be pacified by the usual pop culture escapism – is searching for a new voice, one that is neither communist nor capitalist.
The American Occupy movement faded before it could contribute anything meaningful to the last election, but perhaps by consensus it decided that the election was already lost regardless of which party won. Disbanded, the protest against the “one percent” was an inarticulate voice not ready for prime time in the world scene of global unrest. What is the dialectic opposite of globalism? Is it a new localism that will arise and converge, refuting the power of the state and finding a yet- unnamed ethic that rejects our flattened, instantaneous space-time for something hilly and slower?
In the coming months and years, as the twenty-first century develops, these urban voices will continue to protest the state’s authoritarianism, as well as the global economic system’s hiking of prices for everything. Eventually, these voices will likely converge into a newer socio-economic philosophy, yet to be defined. Lefebvre died in 1991 without even seeing the protests at global trade talks at the turn of the millennium, but he would have approved of them as a necessary dialectic. He would also have predicted their crushing by the state, as has happened, and would see today’s world as ripe for confrontation.
This essay first appeared in The New Geography.