“Nothing will change” sounds like a tagline to Francis Fukuyama’s End of History, the celebration of ‘liberal democracy’ as the final evolution of human governance. Perhaps fittingly, these were the words that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden used to describe his greatest fear after he contributed evidence of the global US/UK surveillance operation that scaffolds western liberal democracy, or empire, as it is understood by those at the receiving end of such an arrangement.
Essentially, what the Snowden files reveal is surveillance technology at a certain stage of historical development, held in the hands of parties with an interest in accelerating this development; the contradiction being that in ‘data’ form this information is far more susceptible to being hacked and evidenced than in the paper surveillance setting of the Le Carre novel. The governmental line claims that metadata is not private/personal information. However, through its collection and storage, a profile of an individual and their life can easily be built by those who control or share it; organisations like the NSA or GCHQ who, as Snowden revealed, drink from the same trough.
Various statutes including DPA 1998, RIPA 2000, ACSA 2001, and the proposed Communications Data bill all display the state’s attempts to control the wisps of algorithms, identities and data in the global communications databank. The right to the city – the focus of this issue – is another aspect of the same struggle. It is a fight for control over people as ‘subjects’, the spaces and currents we move between and occupy and the coercive forms of commodity and debt that shape and define our environment.
Communities are fracturing as their inhabitants are flung to the periphery in the name of ‘regeneration’ and ‘redevelopment’. It is plainly apparent that the intention of policymakers is to purge central London, making it into a hub for commercial wealth. A grand supra-geographic terrain is being mapped, ensuring the global reach of national and supranational states of surveillance. In these physical and digital gated communities, free spaces for different identities to meet and create new social relations are limited. Under the guise of ‘protection’, all space in the city becomes monitored in true panopticon style. But this is not for the ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number’ as the proposed utility of this operation would have us believe.
Under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence exists, but not as an absolute right. It is curtailed ‘in accordance with the law’ and ‘where necessary in a democratic society’ i.e. by the state in the interests of ‘national security’, ‘public safety or the economic well-being of the country’, for ‘the prevention of disorder or crime’ etc; a very broad range of vague restrictions which are available to public authorities to curb our right to privacy. A form of global sovereign power has emerged, which comprises the dominant nation-states together with supranational institutions and major capitalist corporations with increasingly unlimited access to intelligence, and unhindered powers to usurp rights and property.
Within this global configuration, it becomes incredibly difficult to claim any right or power, especially when you are the one being regenerated – many residents who have fallen foul of ‘regeneration’ schemes are not given all the information they need, or are purposely misled by public relations representatives. Some are forcibly evicted without any meaningful redress, others face state-sanctioned brutality when protecting their space and communities, like those recently violently evicted from an established community on Rushcroft Road, Brixton. There is no power for people under the market-state duopoly: people have no right to ask how and why they are being dispossessed, how and why they are being surveilled, or for whose benefit, for fear of interfering with ‘business sensitivities’, revenue-generating streams or the power of the state and its corporate partners.
Various anti-eviction and private renters groups have sprung up in London, joining with already established similar groups – a positive sign that an alternative to the status quo does exist, and the numbers in the multitude are growing. Housing action groups and dedicated campaigns continue to mushroom across the city, challenging the spread of powerful global networks of hierarchy and division. They are signs that an alternative network is slowly being produced whereby difference can be expressed through collaborative means. The common can take root and begin to shape itself.
Recent years have seen cities of differing sizes, histories and fortunes become the key sites of contestation as urbanites have reacted collectively to the different forces imperilling their own notion of what it is to have a right to create and recreate one’s own city. Community uprisings in Santiago de Chile and Quebec inspired a remarkable proportion of those populations to join their struggles against the marketisation of education and wider society. The people of Madison, Wisconsin mobilised huge numbers against a newly-elected Republican Governor and his brazenly naked campaign lies, months before Occupy Wall Street existed. Metropolises like Cairo, Alexandria and Tunis were central to the overthrow of dictators in their respective countries, and the building of new political consciousness and coalitions in public urban spaces.
Most recently, Istanbul and megacities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have been thrust into focus by the bravery of their people facing down unrestrained state repression. As with other uprisings mentioned, those in Turkey and Brazil have spread to cities in every region of those countries. #DiranGezi appears to sit upon boiling frustrations with the suffocating effects of the neoliberal urban growth machine combined with dissatisfaction with an Islamist President whose power is situated in the more conservative rural population and the new manufacturing wealth of central Turkey. Rio, meanwhile, is undergoing huge changes with its port being totally redeveloped and its more central constellation of favelas being forcibly “pacified” one at a time. The ultimate driving force at work here is one that Londoners can well understand: the use of global sporting events (in Brazil’s case: World Cup 2014 & Rio Olympics 2016) as an excuse to privatise, securitise and cleanse central urban space in order to make it ripe for capital investment and safe for consumption.
A final example is a nod to the future of the neoliberal model for the post-industrial city: Detroit. This great US city of the Fordist age announced in late July that it would file for bankruptcy. The decision was announced by the city’s ‘Emergency Financial Manager’ – a position now common throughout the state of Michigan, appointed directly by the state’s Republican governor and granted authority to make economic decisions by decree without even a residual pretense of failed democratic process. This is an American city, 85% African American, being forced to undergo what is essentially structural adjustment i.e unelected individuals deciding to sell off public assets, cut and privatise services, reduce pay and pensions.
The pattern of public austerity coupled with private dispossession, all marshalled by an evermore securitised state, is both a reality for the present and a formula for worsening conditions in the future. With this in mind, the fear of perpetual inertia, despite an ever-increasing stockpile of evidence against the trajectory of injustice upon which we find ourselves, is not so much an implicit comprehension of business-as-usual. Rather, it’s a response to the perception of civilisation in a state of active, rapid decay.
The examples of urban resistance explored herein all point to the city being the integral site of present and future anti-capitalist struggle. It is within this concrete domain that any effective hope of change, resistance and transformation must continue to manifest. Let’s imagine and pursue a vision of what the city might look like should we subvert our relationship within it against the subjugation of capital and its political preference; to remake a world in which Snowden’s fear – “nothing will change” – falls short as the portent of the perpetual end of history scenario, but resonates as the epitaph of a bygone era.