Mark Purcell on ‘Chains of Equivalence’

Source: New Republic

“Laclau and Mouffe (19852000) understand that if we are to pursue a model of agonistic struggle, existing power differences mean that marginalized and disadvantaged groups will need to assemble creative and deeply political strategies to undo the current hegemony. In that context, they advocate what they call ‘chains of equivalence’: movements made up of allied groups seeking broad transformation of existing power relations. The groups in the chain each have their own distinct relation to the existing hegemony, and each group’s experience and interests are irreducible to the others. Each retains their difference. However, they are able to act in concert around an agenda of equivalence. That is, they see themselves as equivalently disadvantaged by existing power relations. ‘Equivalent’ in this case does not mean identical. They are not disadvantaged in precisely the same way, and Laclau and Mouffe explicitly reject the old-style social movements that reduced participants to a single social position (usually class). Each link in the chain remains distinct, but they operate together, in concert.

“The most talked-about model for this kind of idea is the so-called ‘anti-globalization’ movement that carried out the string of protests in Seattle, Goteborg, Doha, Genoa, Geneva, Quebec, etc. The movement is better understood as an anti-neoliberalization movement, because it involved a range of groups (e.g. labor, environmentalists, anti-third-world debt, human rights in China, etc.) that shared an equivalent opposition to the globalization of neoliberalism. Their concerns were in many ways disparate (outsourcing of jobs, sea turtles, rediscovering jubilee obligations, the occupation of Tibet, etc.), but they strategically defined themselves as equivalent and acted together to oppose the WTO and other institutions committed to neoliberalization (Hardt and Negri, 2004). Each member of the coalition achieved much more than they could have alone, but they did not have to dissolve into a large and uniform collective to do it. While they did not achieve the end of neoliberal hegemony, they certainly succeeded in identifying it and calling it into question.”

— Mark Purcell in “Resisting Neoliberalization,” 2009

This is part of the Polis collection of quotes related to cities.

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A False Rendering of the New Banlieue

by Alex Schafran

Virtually everywhere you go in the Parisian banlieue, you will find large signs drawing attention to "urban renovation" — major facelifts for large housing projects (cités), new public spaces in the centers of villages and towns, better integration with the myriad transit projects currently underway, entire blocks of housing.

Omnipresent construction, like most initiatives in France, is being done by a complex network of public, private and semi-public actors operating at every scale. Ideologues of either state or market would be incapable of understanding new development in France, for everything is a public-private partnership when you drill down deep enough. Regardless of who seems to be in charge of a project, there is liable to be a large billboard outside the construction zone with a celebratory rendering of what this space will look like — be it a revitalized public park, a downtown shopping zone or an eco-housing development built by a major developer. This, of course, is nothing unique — billboard-sized renderings have become part of the international language of city-building.

Each of these pictures (top and bottom) are of the same site in Villeneuve-la-Garenne, but only one depicts an actual place.

What is notable about these billboards is the people shown occupying the new space. It doesn't take a scholar of race to guess that the answer is not those who look anything like the population of the banlieue.

The actual center of Argenteuil (above) and the rendered version (below).

The shocking thing about the "whitewashing" of places like Argenteuil, Choisy-le-Roi, Villetaneuse, Drancy and Asnières is how thorough it is, and how little it matters if it is formally a public or private venture. For me, what started as a passing observation has evolved into a research project. Of the hundreds of people in what are now dozens of renderings I've encountered in housing projects across four districts (departments), there are only a few people of color. And not only are the white people everywhere, they are often particularly blond and bourgeois or seemingly part of the vast "bobo" class that has started to gentrify places like Montreuil and Pantin. At times it feels like a bad joke: in a major poster for the T8 tramline — which will connect Épinay-sur-Seine with Saint-Denis — the only black person, among over 50 people, was playing basketball.

The box in the upper-right corner is a blown-up version of the billboard to the left, near the Drancy-Bobigny border. The smoke in the background is from an informal settlement.

Although I can't prove quantitatively that this is a false rendering — France doesn't collect data on race, based on a tenet that since race exists only in theory, in theory it doesn't exist — not only do these cities have significant communities of color, I'd bet my bike and camera that many are now majority minority. I'd also be willing to wager that in many communities where these renderings have been tacked up in public space, they have been false for a generation now. Moreover, these renderings belie the fact that people in the public spaces of metropolitan Paris are strikingly diverse, both in the banlieue and in the city itself.

There are a few exceptions to the many disingenuous billboards on display, including the group picture (above) from Argenteuil. But even this one, clearly intended to promote the harmonious vision of a multicultural and inclusive society, erases one of the most visible aspects of life in metropolitan France: Muslim women with head scarves. Spend five minutes on a busy street, in a park, on transit or outside a school at dismissal, and you will realize that women with their heads covered are part of the firmament in contemporary Île de France.

A couple on a bench in Parc Lefévre, Livry-Gargan. (The woman's hair is not red.)

Head scarves are a lightning rod for controversy in theoretically secular France. The urbane nation where James Baldwin felt so at home will surely be aghast at this whitewashing; but even much of the progressive wing of the French establishment would likely sit on their hands at the failure to show women in head scarves occupying public space, even if they are an undeniable presence.

Credits: All pictures by Alex Schafran.

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Inequality and Agitation in the Global City

by Deen Sharp

Trenton Oldfield in the River Thames. Source: The Independent

In 2012, Trenton Oldfield threw himself into the River Thames to protest elitism in Britain. Oldfield intentionally timed his leap to disrupt the annual boat race between Oxford and Cambridge, yet he may have underestimated the British establishment's love of sport. His act provoked a starkly revanchist reaction: he was sentenced to six months in prison and deemed unwelcome to continue living in the United Kingdom. He is now fighting deportation to Australia.

Oldfield and his partner, Deepa Naik, are the founding directors of This Is Not A Gateway (TINAG) and Myrdle Court Press, which serve as platforms for examining and transforming cities. They recently published the third volume of their book series Critical Cities: Ideas, Knowledge and Agitation from Emerging Urbanists, which features writing and images by an international group of contributors from a wide variety of fields.

The volume has four sections: Erase, Stretch, Relinquish; Archipelago; Agency; and Stratification. Archipelago and Stratification are the strongest and most enjoyable, in my view. Archipelago is about the "avant-garde spaces of modern capitalism." The authors feature surprising uses of financial districts in Hong Kong, Cyprus and London, with emphasis on the social, cultural, economic and political relations within them.

Source: "People of Corabstos," a photographic essay by Jhon Arias in Critical Cities, Volume 3

"Pink: The Art of Being Confident," a photographic essay by Oldfield and Nanna Nielsen, is a fun and prescient analysis of the City of London in 2006. Alongside pictures of people wearing pink shirts to work, the authors share their reflections: "We wondered if the 'the City' [sic], despite being awash with scientific graphs and business models, was still dependent on the emotion of confidence." Nielsen and Oldfield capture this confidence in thirteen portraits, finding in the pink shirts a "symbolic 'canary in the mine'" for cities today.

Source: "Pink: The Art of Being Confident," a photographic essay by Nanna Nielsen and Trenton Oldfield in Critical Cities, Volume 3

In Stratification, the reader is taken past the confidence of the global city: "Underneath the promises (and experience) of democracy, efficiency, creativity and endless 'possibilities' lie some worrying unintended consequences." This section highlights related inequalities in Beirut, Bogotá, Zagreb and London, behind the corporate gloss of a "globalising neoliberal machine."

Source: "People of Corabstos," a photographic essay by Jhon Arias in Critical Cities, Volume 3

Fadi Shayya, Fouad Asfour and Lana Salman give a detailed account of the ways in which violence, sectarianism and political economy intertwine to shape — or deform — public space in Beirut. They assert that "conflict is still there in all its different forms: political, sectarian and armed; new traumas seem to sustain the everyday, and the geopolitically divided spatiality of sectarian geography persists and increases." In keeping with the book's theme, the authors offer a critique and call to action in shaping their city's development from below.

Source: "People of Corabstos," a photographic essay by Jhon Arias in Critical Cities, Volume 3

Agitation against the abuse of power is one of Critical Cities' central themes, but the editors' political analysis is all too frequently agitating. The book is littered with hyperbole: "everyone alive today knows it is possible to overthrow regimes" and "the axis of evil — capitalists, the military and religious leaders," to name a few. Added to this are some blatantly inconsistent attacks; Oldfield and Naik call academics to task for "flying around the world networking with one another," only to later boast that a London TINAG festival attracted participants from "across the planet."

The passion that inspired Oldfield to leap into the Thames is present throughout the collection, and has both a positive and a negative impact. This is an impatient book, bursting with cutting insights and calls for action. The sweeping arguments and sense of urgency, however, create a maelstrom characteristic of the "neoliberal" city at the center of its critique. We are taken from one place to another in a rush of global capital flows. There will surely be a new volume displacing this one, then on to the next — the regime expands, the city is interrogated, and all that is solid melts into air.

Deen Sharp is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the City University of New York.

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