Paradox City, The Coming Contradiction and a Permanent Economic Emergency

I haven’t read New Left Review in a few months, maybe? Came across these three articles today. I posted Paradox City over at Archinect. In it Asef Bayat explores history of struggles to define Iran’s capital, along with the successive contests between elite projects and popular resistance that have shaped its spatial pattern. As he describes it, Tehran is the “Walled citadel of the Shahs, hub of petro-modernity and post-Islamist metropolis.

In the essay he explores the evolution of Tehran’s urban fabric from the time of the Shahs, through the Islamic Revolution, to the contemporary condition. Prior to the revolution:

The distinction between affluent north and poor south Tehran—between bala-ye shahr, the ‘upper city’, and pain-e shahr, the ‘lower city’—was unequivocally registered in the language and the popular imaginary. The dividing line between the two was formed by Shahreza Street—today Revolution Street, Khiaban-e Enqilab—the epicentre of Tehran’s political geography. A sociological ‘green line’, the street housed Tehran University campus, dozens of bookstores, and large bus terminals linking Tehran to the provinces. The street thus connected diverse social groups with key institutions and with the flow of knowledge and news. It was here that the first sparks of the 1979 revolution were lit by student demonstrations, before spreading rapidly across the city and then the country in just two years.

Bayat writes that following the revolution: “Tehran experienced dramatic physical expansion, mass migration and the deterioration of urban infrastructure and services. Even though little changed in terms of any enduring new ‘Islamic’ architecture, significant transformations took place in the social and political domains, giving rise to a paradoxical spatial order. The large public spaces and squares were virtually taken over by pro-regime vigilantes, who turned them into the enclosed or ‘interior’ spaces of their ‘ideological self’, at the expense of those whose modes of life and tastes did not conform.

Finally, Bayat chronicles how in response to the 2009 Green Movement, the Islamists have taken a number of steps to strengthen their control of Tehran and more generally urban areas at large. These include, moves to de-secularize public space, encourage the de-urbanization of Tehran along with other methods of control. He notes: “Whatever the outcome, the authorities’ course of action indicates that they too see Tehran’s post-Islamist urban order as subverting their religious-military mode of rule. To govern, they need to undo the city.

Yet, despite their efforts “The Islamic revolution has failed to reshape and re-structure Tehran in accordance with its ideology to the same depth or with the same intensity as the French Revolution did Paris and the Russian Revolution Moscow. Even today, Tehran looks more like Madrid or even Los Angeles than Qom, Riyadh or Cairo.

In The Coming Contradiction, Gopal Balakrishnan, examines Frederic Jameson’s ‘Valences of the Dialectics’. Balakrishnan writes: it is no “surprise that new material from Fredric Jameson offers yet another occasion to think about what it means to historicize“.

It includes mouthfuls like this: “In a climate of growing suspicion towards ‘totalization’, Jameson can be seen to have pulled off an improbable intellectual coup, establishing a broadly Hegelian-Marxist understanding of a widely, if inchoately, experienced postmodernism, while conjoining this mutation in the superstructure to a new phase of capitalist expansion and intensification.

He also defines Jameson’s use of dialectic, which Balakrishnan writes referred to an “orientation that continually translates this experience of finitude back into upsurges of transcendence, taking the form not of the solution of already existing problems, but rather of the generation of new problems out of the partial neutralization of old ones.

This passage in particular seems especially relevant within the context of contemporary digital-networked society. Balakrishnan writes: “The corollary of this conception is that the experiential is no longer what lies within a circumscribed phenomenological horizon around us but has become ever more scrambled by distant and even absent spaces, within a capitalist world-system opening up virtual possibilities of experience which are not straightforwardly present in our quotidian surroundings.

Balakrishnan concludes by offering some final thoughts on the lessons to be learned from this last work of Jameson. He contends: “But in the absence of any plausible scenario of system-wide economic renewal, it might soon no longer be true that the end of capitalism is less conceivable than the literal end of the world—the stark limit on thought and experience that Jameson once memorably identified as the transcendental statute of the postmodern condition. As more determinate forms of negation struggle to assert themselves—with whatever ultimate prospects of success—the need for a new term of totalization may soon become evident.

Finally, in A Permanent Economic Emergency, Slavoj Žižek describes the misery of today’s left. He points out; “there is no positive programmatic content to its demands, just a generalized refusal to compromise the existing welfare state. The utopia here is not a radical change of the system, but the idea that one can maintain a welfare state within the system. Here, again, one should not miss the grain of truth in the countervailing argument: if we remain within the confines of the global capitalist system, then measures to wring further sums from workers, students and pensioners are, effectively, necessary.” Yet, ultimately Žižek contends “the reply to every crisis should be more internationalist and universalist than the universality of global capital.” Or in Lacan’s phrasing “the impossible happens“…


On the long 1970s….

The cumulative problem of deceleration unequivocally manifested itself in a steady, system-wide expansion of government, firm and household debt. Although many have protested that this picture of the economic performance of the advanced capitalist world since the 70s is far too bleak, this across-the-board growth of debt should be taken as prima facie evidence that there was, in fact, a slow-down. For there is no other explanation for why it happened.

From Gopal Balakrishnan on the stationary state, wherein he speculates about possible conjunctural crises of capitalism. Read (here) in the New Left Review.

Found via Kazys Varnelis recent post “Fear of Flying” on how the disruptions caused by Iceland’s Eyjafjallajoekull volcano might be a harbinger of something bigger… Read (here)

“The city as its own solution”

From Mike Davis; Who will build the Ark? In New Left Review 61

Wherein he speaks about the global climate crisis as a challenge and opportunity, utopian urbanism and planetary green zones.

What often goes unnoticed in such moral inventories, however, is the consistent affinity between social and environmental justice, between the communal ethos and a greener urbanism…There are innumerable examples and they all point toward a single unifying principle: namely, that the cornerstone of the low-carbon city, far more than any particular green design or technology, is the priority given to public affluence over private wealth.

Read (here)

Recent in New Left Review

Hung Ho-fung; “America’s Head Servant? The PRC’s Dilemma in the Global Crisis” Read (here)

Despite all the talk of China’s capacity to destroy the dollar’s reserve-currency status and construct a new global financial order, the PRC and its neighbours have few choices in the short term other than to sustain American economic dominance by extending more credit.

In what follows, I will trace the historical and social origins of the deepening dependence of China and East Asia on the consumer markets of the global North as the source of their growth, and on us financial vehicles as the store of value for their savings. I then assess the longer-term possibilities for ending this dependence, arguing that, to create a more autonomous economic order in Asia, China would have to transform an export-oriented growth model…into one driven by domestic consumption, through a large-scale redistribution of income to the rural-agricultural sector. This will not be possible, however, without breaking the coastal urban elite’s grip on power.

Tom Reifer; “Capital’s Cartographer: Giovanni Arrighi: 1937–2009” Read (here)

On Arrighi contributions to the study political geography Reifer writes;

Along with Immanuel Wallerstein and the late Terence Hopkins, Arrighi was one of the originators and foremost proponents of the world-systems analysis of European domination, global capitalism, world income inequalities and ‘development’. [2] The world-systems perspective itself—challenging the dominance of post-war modernization theory—came out of the movements of the 1960s and brought together a fruitful synthesis of Marxism, Third World radicalism and critical currents in social science, from the work of the French Annales geohistorians to that of the German historical school.

Reifer also suggests some obvious areas of further scholarship based on Arrighi’s work.

Though it has not been done to date, one can imagine teasing out a series of geohistorical linkages between Marx’s, Wallerstein’s, Braudel’s and Arrighi’s work on the ‘top level of world-trade’ with the work of Barrington Moore, Brenner and others on agricultural capitalism, relating these developments in an original synthesis. The idea here would be to demonstrate more fully—including through building on Wallerstein’s classic treatment of these issues in The Modern World-System and through a re-reading of both the ‘Brenner debate’ and the ‘non-debates’ of the 1970s—how capitalist agriculture, urbanization and what Arrighi calls a ‘capitalist system of statemaking and warmaking’ are all intimately entwined in the world-historical origins of capitalist development. [22]