The multitude and the metropolis*
1. ‘Generalising’ the strike.
It is interesting to note how, on the occasion of the Spring and Summer 2002 struggles in Italy, the project of ‘generalising’ the strike of the movement of precarious and socially diffuse workers, men and women, seemed to be harmlessly and uselessly subsumed beneath the workers’ ‘general strike’. After this experience, many comrades who participated in the struggle began to realise that whilst the workers’ strike was ‘damaging’ to the employer, the social strike passed without notice through the folds of the global working day. It neither damaged the masters nor helped the mobile and flexible workers. This realisation raised a series of questions: how do we understand how the socially diffuse worker fights; how can he concretely subvert in the space of the metropolis his subordination to production and the violence of exploitation? How does the metropolis present itself to the multitude and is it right to say that the metropolis is to the multitude what the factory used to be to the working class?
In fact this hypothesis presents us with a problem, one not simply raised by the obvious differences between social and workers’ struggles in terms of their immediate efficacy. It also raises a more pertinent and general question: if the metropolis is invested by the capitalist relation of valorisation and exploitation, how can we grasp, inside it, the antagonism of the metropolitan multitude? In the 60’s and 70’s, as these problems emerged in relation to working class struggles and the changes in metropolitan life, often very effective responses were given. We will summarise these later. For the time being, we just want to underline how these responses were concerned with an external relation between working class and other metropolitan layers of wage and/or intellectual labour. The problem today is posed differently because the various sections of the labour force appear to exist in the metropolitan hybrid as an internal relation and immediately as multitude: a whole of singularities, a multiplicity of groups and subjectivities, who mould the (antagonistic) shape of metropolitan spaces.
2. Theoretical anticipations.
Amongst the theorists of the metropolis (architects and urbanists), Koolhaas was the one who provided us, at the end of the 70’s and in a delirious manner, with a new image of the metropolis. We are obviously referring to Delirious New York . What was the central thesis of this book?
drew an image of the metropolis that -because of but in spite of a more
or less coherently developed planning- lived through dynamics, conflicts,
powerful juxtapositions of cultural layers, life styles and forms and
of a multiplicity of hypothesis and projects for the future.
Thus the metropolis wants to be imperial. Koolhaas is a forerunner of weak postmodernism. Drawing from the genealogy of the metropolis, he anticipates an operation that will become crucial in mature postmodernism: the recognition of the global dimension as a more productive and generous one from the economic standpoint and with respect to lifestyles.
critical effort is neither solitary nor neutral. On the contrary, it produces
a different critique; it entrusts it into the real movement. For instance,
when we introduce differential and antagonistic elements in the knowledge
of the city and we make them the motor of metropolitan construction, we
also compose other fields of living and fighting – common ones.
Another example concerns the metropolis and collectivation. Surely, this
old socialist word is now obsolete and surpassed in the consciousness
of new generations. But this is not a problem. The project is not one
of collectivation but of recognition and organisation of the common. A
common made of a great wealth of life styles, of collective means of communication
and life reproduction, and above all of the exceeding of common expression
of life in metropolitan spaces. We enjoy a second generation of metropolitan
life, creator of cooperation and exceeding in immaterial relational linguistic
values: it is a productive generation. Here is the metropolis of the singular
and collective multitude.
postmodernists reject the possibility of regarding the metropolis of the
multitude as a collective and singular space, massively common and subjectively
malleable and always newly invented. These rejections turn the analyst
into the buffoon or the sycophant of power. In fact we have recuperated
the ideas of external economies, of immaterial dynamics, of cycles of
struggles and all that makes up the multitude.
3. Metropolis and global space.
and more than anyone else, Saskia Sassen taught us to see the metropolis,
all metropolises, not only -like Koohlaas- as a hybrid and internally
antagonistic aggregate, but also as a figure homologous to the general
structure of capitalism in the imperial phase. Metropolis expresses and
individualises the consolidation of global hierarchies, in its most articulated
points, in a complex of forms and exercise of command. Class differences
and the general planning of the division of labour are no longer made
between nations, but rather between centre and periphery in the metropolis.
Sassen observes skyscrapers in order to draw implacable lessons. Who commands
is at the top, who obeys is below; in the isolation of those who are highest
lies the link with the world, whilst in the communication of those who
are lowest one finds mobile points, life styles and renewed functions
of metropolitan recomposition. Therefore, we must traverse the possible
spaces of the metropolis if we want to knot together the threads of struggle,
to discover the channels and forms of connection and the ways in which
subjects live together.
Sassen’s themes strongly resonated in Europe in the 90’s when, with some difficulty and yet effectively, some antagonistic forces started seeing the structure of the metropolis as the mirror of the contradictions of globalisation. In fact, whether there were skyscrapers or not, the global order re-established an above and a below in the metropolis, that of a relation of exploitation that spread across the internal horizon of urban society. Sassen showed the places and the relations of exploitation and dissolved the multitude, bringing it back to the dispersed exercise of material activities. On the other side there is command. Blade Runner has become science fiction.
4. Historical anticipations.
Others see the metropolises of skyscrapers and of Empire as places of struggle that can reveal common aspects and above all embody organisations and procedures of resistance and subversion. In this respect, one example immediately comes to mind: the Parisian struggles of the winter of 1995-96. These struggles are to be remembered because at the time the privatisation plans of public transport were rejected not only by the trade unions but also by the combined struggles of the metropolitan population. However, these struggles could never have reached their great intensity and importance without being traversed and somehow prefigured by the struggles of sans papiers, sans logement, sans-travail etc. This is to say that metropolitan complexity at its highest level opens up lines of flight to the whole of the urban poor: then the metropolis, even the imperial one, wakes up to antagonism.
These developments and antagonisms were anticipated during the seventies: in Germany, the United States and Italy. The great shift of the frontline from the factory to the metropolis, from class to multitude, was theoretically and practically experienced and organised by many vanguards. ‘Reclaim the city’ was a persistent, important and overwhelming watchword in Italy. Similar words went through the German Bürger-initiativen and the squatters’ experiences in most European metropolises. Factory workers recognised themselves in this development, whilst the order of the unions and that of the parties of the working class movement ignored it. The refusal to pay transport fares, the massive occupations of houses, the seizing of districts for the organisation of free time and for the security of workers against the police and fiscal agents were projects carried out with great care. These zones were then called ‘red bases’ but were in fact more city spaces for public opinion rather than places as such. Sometimes they were decisively non-places - they were mass demonstrations in motion that went through and occupied squares and territories. Thus the metropolis began to be rebuilt by a strange alliance: factory workers and metropolitan proletarians. Here we started to see how powerful this alliance could be.
At the basis of these political experiences there was another greater theoretical experimentation. At the beginning of the 70’s we started observing a metropolis invaded by skyscrapers with globalisation, but also built by the transformations of labour practices in the course of their realisation. Alberto Magnaghi and his comrades published a formidable journal (Quaderni del Territorio) that showed, more convincingly in each issue, how capital was investing the city and transforming each street into a productive flux of commodities. The factory was then extended onto society: this much was evident. But it also became clear that this productive investment of the city radically modified class struggle.
5. Police and war.
the 90’s the great transformation of productive relations that invested
the metropolis reached a quantitative limit and configured a new phase.
Capitalist recomposition of the city, or the metropolis, is given in all
its complexity by the new configuration of the relations of forces in
Empire. Mike Davis was the first to provide an adequate image of the phenomena
that characterise the postmodern metropolis.
6. Building the metropolitan strike.
told me that when the ‘general 24 hours strike’ was launched
in Seville, during the night, from midnight onwards, groups formed in
all districts to block all roads, all boites de nuit and to communicate
to the city the urgency of struggle.