Monday, December 24, 2007
Evil Paradises posted by Richard Seymour
Around 1998, I was living in dismal North Woolwich on a student's lack of income. An impoverished, amenity-free colony on the north bank of the Thames, it is connected to its southern metropole by a foot tunnel and a free ferry, in whose freezing, windy chambers you can sit for fifteen minutes as more important (commercial) traffic is conveyed across the water. To the rest of East London, it is connected by an unreliable and dirty Silverlink railway line (recently closed to make way for new development) or, if you're prepared for a walk through a short stretch of desolation, you can take the DLR from Gallion's Reach. For entertainment, there is a sort of 'beach' that you can walk along - actually a pebbly mount that gradually becomes dark, toxic sludge. There, on the grey concrete wall facing the river, you will find out what lonely fascists are capable of doing with a spraycan and a bladder in the dead of night - they mark out their territory, one way or another, stealing tiny, subterranean dirt plots here and there, lurking and waiting. There is an ugly little park, some pubs promising raunch or sports, a sugar factory, and two newsagents, which seemed madly extravagant at the time - what to do with such choice?
The evil pole star of that East End was, and probably still is, the blinking light on top of One Canada Square, former residency of Lord Black. I worked in the 19th floor for about three months while Andrew Marr tried to turn The Independent into a Blairite fan magazine. Commuting daily from dirt cheap to filthy rich territory, I also had a clear view of work from my bedroom window. The utopian element to the construction of Canary Wharf, with its intricate system of waterways and chic shops, the buildings carefully calibrated to control not only the flows of people in and out (rent-a-cops by the thousands in that small area alone), but also every particle of air and moisture, the fountains, broad avenues and cultivated atmosphere of opulece, is in one respect a complete failure. It fails because of the wind. The whole place is an elaborate wind tunnel. Perhaps that is part of the point, however - nothing about the place is hospitable to anyone without cash or access. It's a thought that occurs if you're waiting in Richard Rogers' railway station for the next ride back to whereverthefuck - was this freezing, exposed, glacial structure really designed with people in mind? In fact, the hypertrophic architectural scale, the ludicrous gigantism of everything in the place, has the effect of reinforcing the comparative unimportance of anyone who happens to be passing through. The contrast with those who live within the gated luxury zones could not be more obvious. The plethora of high rise buildings and towers, concrete vertebrates, corporate dinosauria, Tyrannodomus Rex, suggests that the place has been mis-named. Not so much Canary Wharf as Jurassic fucking Park. It is a place, moreover, replete not only with idolatry, but also with the enlarged runic symbols of corporate presence: symbols that are opaque to ordinary interpretation, but which nevertheless mutually corroborate one another, sustaining the hyperstition of capital. And, far from interacting with local economies to generate employment, it seems to have insulated itself successfully, creating a sickly, enchanted working environment that is as psychically distant from the Millwall housing estates as Poplar is from Silicon Valley. Expanding perpetually into the formerly residential areas of the local working class, the parasitical alien compound now relies chiefly on suited labour imported from outlying suburbs, (as well as a few underpaid migrant workers who clean and dispense teas to the offices in absolute silence). This high-profile effort at reshaping the East End social space, coterminous with Thatcher's pitch battles to reform the ideological space, has produced something that is finally almost as surreal and exclusive and intrusive as the Green Zone.
About Green Zones, and their global proliferation, there is an excellent new volume edited by Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk, Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism. Through a series of focused essays by people like Patrick Bond and China Mieville, it details both the devastation of vast global spaces - the 'Slum World' of Davis' previous book - and the bathetic utopias of the rich. In Afghanistan, the tiny allotments of paradise amid the devastation are given over to both the occupiers and their now massively wealthy warlord allies, who control territories on Nato's behalf, tax on their own behalf, exact punishments and blandishments as they see fit, accumulate mountains of cash from unofficial streams of US dollars and illicit flows of opium. Squatters living in mud huts are evicted so that the most powerful warlords and businessmen can construct fairytale havens on the expropriated plots. This "architectural Babylon", with its "sinister real-estate economy" flaunts the wealth of the new elite as crudely as it drives the poor into the margins. Military strategy, corruption, drug-money, laundering, land piracy and patrimony interact in the new geography of occupied Kabul to produce these little enclaves for the rich, for Western aid workers, for the occupiers. Surreal contrast with a country at large immiserated and strafed with hundreds of bombing raids, not to mention now under techno-toxin assault from Dyncorp. As refugees are forced back into cities and towns ill-equipped to meet their needs, the strategies of exclusion originating from Afghanistan's current, heteromorphic status, ossify into permanent structures of the social and geographic landscape.
Beyond this Babylon is Johannesburg, a city made rich by the trade of gold and diamonds, first under colonial rule, then under apartheid, and now under the neoliberal post-apartheid settlement. Of course, to describe a city as rich in itself is an abstraction - a gold-bricking white capitalist class was made rich, a class that today reluctantly accomodates a small layer of black South Africans. The ANC's rapid ditching of its reformist agenda has confirmed that the city's function is to have an appropriate image, a "world-class" image, rather than to support the livelihoods of its inhabitants. The ANC and their white capitalist allies have been busily encouraging a landscape of conspicuous consumption in order to attract investors, largely without success, cutting corporation taxes, selling off public properties, privatizing electricity so that millions of low-income workers are forced off the grid. The rich hide behind three metre high walls and razor-wire, as some of the dispossessed poor turn to entrepreneurial criminality. Horrified at the prospect of a DIY redistribution of their durables, they hire a low-waged class of security guards from the townships. Between and beyond this centre of financial skyscrapers and that gated suburb are the expanding slums, the urban corridors with diminishing employment prospects and conditions. Patrick Bond insists on the capacity for pressure from below to disrupt these processes. Tenacious traditions of social activism seek to counteract the worst of this and hold up the possibility of a militant resurgence, while working class movements resourcefully mobilise in their own defense.
In the rebooted, secured homeland of consumption, the mall is regnant. In the land of the indebted, subprimed, sold-out and disenfranchised, the man with the super-trolley and SUV is king. Marco d'Eramo writes of an "age of bourgeois consumption", inaugurated with the 19th Century Parisian arcades that so fascinated Walter Benjamin, culminating in the giga-marts, the mother-of-malls that today - under inauspicious grey canopies - offer commuting consumers low-cost goods to fill their car boots with. The modern French hypermarché simply isn't a patch on its American counterpart. Take the Mall of America, with its 525 shops, four department stores, a fourteen-screen multiplex, eighteen restaurants, a seven-acre centrepiece under a glass canopy with an aquarium, a legoland... a visit to such a place could last for weeks. No wonder the larger malls contain a few hotels. If the mall has well-documented deleterious effects on local towns, its principles - of destruction and artificial reconstruction; of infantilism; of the privatization of social life, in which most intercourse is through consumer response to signs and price tags - are operative in American life, particularly in suburbia, the terminus of the white flight. 'Private towns' are emerging, heavily controlled by the homeowners, in which the protections of political life do not apply: forget the First Amendment in rosy little 'Leisure World' of Arizona, whose board of directors censors material at will, precisely as one might in one's own household, or one's own company. In these zones, Mexicans and other people of colour may work, but in total silence. If they say anything to the whites who live there, they're out. The triumph of property rights over human rights is close enough to being complete that it permits forms of segregation and repression that would ordinarily be outlawed. And don't imagine these places are merely small communities of privileged white people living the dream as they see fit. There are 43 million Americans living in common-interest housing developments of this kind, with the main aim apparently being to secure property-holders against crime - a word whose raciological dimensions are apparent in its application. The satisfaction of individual needs, including the market-tested need to be free of the poor, especially the darker-skinned poor, or the need to be able to strongly regulate sexual habits, or whatever other 'need' might enter into one's dim-witted head, is the sustaining ideology here. The free market in the service of serfdom and the family values of Louis Quatorze.
And so on and on, the rich everywhere accumulating massively at the expense of the working class majority, and everywhere secreting themselves in surreal environments - bunkered but luxurious, deliberately attuned to satisfying every possible urge, the mall and the luxury pad converging into one. And the most absurd example of this is the Freedom Ship. More of an ideal than a ship - since construction hasn't even begun since it was first announced almost a decade ago - this voyager promises to deliver the world's wealthy to a life of carefree exuberance, travelling in luxury and style from location to location. The interesting thing about the Freedom Ship is that it is ugly even in conception. An ocean-bound city is the ideal, but it will look more like a multi-storey car park with a helicopter landing range on top. But it will also be, apparently, a floating tax haven. Imagine finally getting the government off your back by going on an extended cruise. As China Mieville writes, it is "banal avarice" offered as "a principled blow for political freedom". For the sake of contrast, one can think here of pirate utopias, the kind described by Marcus Rediker. As Rediker has written, these multiracial, multinational ships were surprisingly egalitarian sodalities, not at all the kinds of violent authoritarian enterprises that we have been accustomed to imagining. Men and women used to the despotic conditions of life on legal trading ships (and slave ships for that matter) found meaningful forms of social solidarity, escape from state control and the emerging forms of capitalist domination. It seems a bit paltry, in comparison, to launch yourself on a three-yearly cycle of seclusion from the rest of the world to escape paying one's taxes. Further, as Mieville rightly emphasises, the history of ship-bound escapes is typically a tragic tale: the "boat people" of Vietnam and Haiti, for example.
I would point out that Iain Sinclair's two brilliant psychogeographic accounts, Lights Out for The Territory and London Orbital are compulsory supplementary reading here, for they extend some of this analysis to this particular heart of neoliberal darkness: London, in which nostalgia is taken to the absurd length of allowing TB to flourish once again in the East End. Soon, rickets too. Sinclair doesn't deal in statistics, or policies as such, and nor does he footnote. Instead, he traverses (or circumnavigates) the city with a photographer and an eye for the substrata, the fossilised remnants of unofficial communications (from "hit and run calligraphers", as Sinclair dubs the graffiti artists), and a wearily satirical eye for bombast. Yet, his books are somehow about the same processes, the same dreamworlds and their inherent sordidness. In London Orbital, in particular, he sniffs out the dystopian reinvention of London's margins and suburbs, the studious re-branding of postindustrial dreck and waste, and the secrets behind the public facades of municipal neoliberalism. However, this new wave of literature in particular, including from David Harvey, Derek Gregory and Mike Davis - and especially the excellent study by Neil Smith, American Empire: Roosevelt's Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization - is bringing new emphasis to the spatial dimensions of capital accumulation. In an era in which our space is colonised by, say, Starbucks, and sold back to us so we can consume an over-priced coffee for half an hour; when public space is increasingly privatized; when housing is increasingly a problem in so-called rich cities; when whole swathes of territory are effectively sealed off to the public; when the empire applies its extraordinarily broad geographical mastery to frustrate resistance to its rule; and when even left-wing theorists collude in the neoliberal utopian fantasy of a borderless world... Well, given all this, nothing could be more welcome than the attempt to understand the way power produces space, politically (absolute space, as per the idealised borders of the nation-state), economically (relational space, as per real-time transactions), and ideologically (utopian space, political economy haunted by fantasy).