In defence of... Gentrification

The Art of drying laundry
(Reposted from a blog written for HomeShop in Beijing.)

My first doubts and concerns over how the term gentrification is used didn’t arise so much from a discussion on the applicability of the term in different socio-economic contexts. Neither were they stoked by the oft-cited misuse of the term by social observers, or by a desire to go against the grain of critical urban geography’s canon of work. While these are all issues I’ve worked with, the first time I actually, physically, flinched was when a city official from Kaohsiung, a Taiwanese port city, used the term in an overwhelmingly positive way, leaving no doubt that such a spatial restructuring was desirable: gentrification as a tool for development. There are of course several possible explanations – maybe the term was simply misused. Perhaps it is a rare and naïve display of candour that city bigwigs in most Western cities have long since learned to avoid, using instead either vacuous terms produced by PR departments or hiding behind complicated urban planning argot. Or both.

And yet, the notion of gentrification as a function of urban development opens new insights into the ways in which cities (especially in rapidly industrializing and developing countries) are being altered, with municipalities increasingly mimicking the input required to set off a gentrifying chain of events which, presumably, result in pleasant streets populated by attractive coffee-drinking people. In a manner that is both real estate-driven and top-down (and thus markedly different from real estate-led gentrification in New York, or the gentrification ground-zero of London’s Islington, where Ruth Glass first coined the term), it is as much a modernist state project, as well as a distinctly free-market driven process. Within the tension between these two loaded terms, project vs. process, I however see no inherent contradiction. Indeed, one finds an analogous shift within the mode of governmentality (1) of the contemporary state, where broad societal visions (the project) are being complemented by a web of communities, stakeholders and interests, often reinterpreting the work of the state into a facilitator of personal (and corporate) aspiration, i.e. facilitating the process. Within this new city, whether we call it neoliberal or late-capitalist, gentrification has come to be seen as a central process (or culprit) by which spatial restructuring takes place and by which dilapidated housing stock is replaced, rejuvenated or otherwise shifts from the poor to the aspirational – often with at least the tacit support of the planning authority. Detected all over the globe and discussed in different academic fields, it is no surprise the term is both over-used (spurring Loretta Lees (2003) to upgrade it to ‘super-gentrification’), as well as maligned for its lack of clarity and tendency to obfuscate other important issues – a case which Julie Ren makes in a previous post about Beijing on this blog.

If we however suppose that the radical spatial restructuring in Asian cities is ‘something else,’ especially in the time since the idea of the creative city travelled there via epistemic networks in the late ’90s and 2000s, this requires a back to basics approach. My intention is to try to vindicate the use of the term even in contexts as varied as Beijing, Bangkok or Kaohsiung by looking at gentrification as a function of a late-capitalist spatial restructuring, especially when symbolic capital (Ren Xuefei, 2011) is taken into consideration and the producers of the symbolic meaning, Florida’s ‘creative class,’ become important actors in the field. What this means in practice is that gentrification by culture has become the dominant trend in Greater China, though it can be broken down further to identify both state, commercial and independent actors. Whereas ‘galleries, cafés and artists’ was a well-known gentrification cocktail in the West, these are now joined by an entrepreneurial state, advised by an epistemic community of planners and businessmen, and often following pre-existing templates. While examples ranging from Beijing’s hutong chic to Shanghai’s Xintiandi have been variously termed as commercialization, preservation, adaptive re-use and gentrification, they have in common a transition from being a place of local (and often marginal) meaning to (replicable) places of consumption and source of pride for the city authorities. Such also, is an example of Kaohsiung’s Park Road, once a messy stretch of hardware shops which has recently been redeveloped, as the jargon goes, into an artsy park as part of a city-wide effort to catch the creativity bandwagon.
Not creative.

Formerly, the area was known as Hardware Street (Wujinjie) and was very much a proxy for the city’s economic history – Taiwan’s dirty, sweaty port city where ships were disassembled, sugar exported and naphtha cracked. It is also a uniquely diverse city, as the rapid industrialisation pulled in large numbers of rural workers into the city – unusual for Taiwan’s otherwise rather tame rural migration. Since the late 1990s however, and for reasons deeply connected to Taiwan’s two party system (Kaohsiung is traditionally the bastion of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party), the city has embarked on an ambitious plan to rebrand itself from cultural desert to cultural hub. In itself, this is nothing remarkable; Manchester, Liverpool, Bilbao, Detroit have all had such turns in urban policy, successful or not. Rather, what is of interest in this case is the micro-level to which the city was engaged in the project of beautification and revitalization of the ailing blue-collar neighbourhood through which Hardware Street cuts. With its cluttered shop floors, oil slicks and loud noise of clunking metal, the street had been earmarked for ‘beautification’ in the run up to the World Games in 2009 in order to create a tourist corridor towards the Pier-2 Art Centre (a reused set of warehouses housing a municipal modern art complex) and to complete a bicycle lane network across the Yancheng neighbourhood (another strategy to attract the ‘creative class’). The demolition was divided in four stages, with the first one beginning in 2007 and the last one completed in 2011. Though the land is publicly owned and a park had been loosely envisaged in the area for decades, the issue here is not so much of legality – in any case the Taiwanese 1998 Urban Renewal Act grants municipal authorities ample powers to reconstruct urban areas, especially on publicly owned land.

Rather, the motivation for the decision is the key to understanding the way in which a gentrified ‘creative Kaohsiung’ is being constructed, not only as a physical space, but also as a space of identity and a new authenticity for Kaohsiung – a city of industrial heritage and a creative future. In this case, the radical restructuring of the abstract space of the plan caused the demolition of over 400 shops and adjacent living quarters and the forced historicization of what was very much a living industry. Thus, shops selling and repairing machine parts were replaced by public art and street furniture constructed out of the very parts which were the hardware shops’ livelihood, commissioned by the municipality and produced by local artists, many of whom have been intimately involved with the setting up of the nearby art centre as well. The area is now a showcase of Kaohsiung’s authenticity, its gritty industrial character now cleaned up for public consumption.

Faced with questions of identity and the allocation of space, the ‘authenticity’ of the area fragmented, as Sharon Zukin has shown on the case of New York’s gentrifying neighbourhoods (2010). In this case, the lived authenticity of the chaotic metalworking shops and the illegible network of unmapped lanes and gaps in the organically (illegally) grown neighbourhood is substituted by a planned authenticity of a different kind – in itself an important trait of gentrification. The industrial character of the area is translated through the instrument of public art into a dizzying array of street furniture and installations, all of which explicitly reference the history of the area – the irony is not lost on the remaining shopkeepers: ‘They took the things that kept us alive and made them dead,’ noted Mr. Bai, a hardware shop owner, while an elderly resident took things one step further, calling the park a place for dogs to shit where rich people can jog around, adding she has no time for such leisurely activities.

Though not explicitly expressed in city planning documents, the notion of authenticity is crucial to this neighbourhood from an economic standpoint and explains the effort to gentrify the area, rather than raze it completely or simply build a new part of town. Not only is the city government promoting mass tourism in the area, but a planned creative industry park also relies on the area’s authenticity to attract investment – most recently a large Hollywood digital effect firm. The firm, Rhythm&Hues, was initially being groomed by the municipal economic development office to occupy a suburban software industry park, but decided to base itself in an old warehouse instead, embracing the industrial feel of the building, which was inaugurated by Ang Lee in November 2012. The area thus gained a new role as a creative park and tourist attraction, though many residents are demonstrably cool towards the weekend crowds, and have moreover found alternative uses for some of the artwork as chairs or even places to dry laundry.

While property-owning residents might financially benefit from the long-term revitalization of the area, the displacement of poorer residents by wealthier newcomers is of course never a total or complete process (2). What is striking is that what had occurred in Kaohsiung has all the outer marks of gentrification, with old shops closing and giving ways to design boutiques and artisanal coffee shops, followed by a 30% increase in real estate prices. And yet, this was a top-down initiative with clearly stated goals, an agreed timeline and due process in the city’s council. It was a project that relied from the outset on the collaboration of the city’s artist community, as well as the approval of the construction businesses, which were granted permissions to construct taller residential buildings in the area.
Gentrification by fiat, if you will.

What then about this example from one Asian marginal city is relevant to the rehabilitation of ‘gentrification’ as a useful term in describing the changes befalling Asian cities? Is it not simply a project of demolition, an Haussmannian echo of sorts? The simple answer is yes, that is precisely what it is, but within it lies the idea that art and creativity can and will change urban space, and beyond that, that they will change it in a way that accommodates ‘Soho-style living,’ as the city’s urban plan bluntly puts it. The legacy of a gentrifying New York or London does not necessarily live unchanged as an endless repetition of successive waves of real-estate price hikes and demographic changes. It manifests itself also in the ordered representations of space of the urban plan. But when aimed at working class neighbourhoods, it is (and always has been) a deproletarization of space; pausing on whether it is ‘planned’ (slum-clearance) or ‘organic’ (gentrification) is in many cases distracting from the point that the displacement typical of gentrification is not only the displacement of people, but in a Lefebvrian way, of the lived space of a neighbourhood for financial and political gain of established elites. To reiterate, the imposition of new conceptual space upon the city is not a natural or spontaneous process. Seeing such changes outside of the social and spatial context is not only incomplete, but also conservative in that it perpetuates neoclassical economists’ insistence on the emergent qualities of gentrification or slum-clearance, endowing urban restructuring with an air of unavoidable, organic change – precisely what Kaohsiung’s municipality tried to convey by consigning to history and artistic representation the living, clunking workshops of its waterfront.

Going back to gentrification as function of development, I suggest the baggage with which the term is burdened is what gives it the critical punch needed to make sense of the spatial transformations in Asian cities, where expectations of development clearly exhibit a tendency to create both the disinvestment needed to create ‘gentrifiable’ areas, as well as a pool of gentrifiers. While the debate between production-side and consumption-side explanations of gentrification thankfully no longer rages, we will be well served to remember that both explanations agree that gentrification as a phenomenon is essentially conditioned by a late-capitalist system. In China especially, where a retreating state has left municipal authorities dependent on land-dealing and thus with a clear interest in rising (or raising) land values, a race towards ever greater exploitation of urban space may manifest itself as either commercialization, gentrification or simply urban development, all of which are apparent not only in the physical space, but in the abstract, conceived space which seeks to impose itself on the city. Viewed in this light, the opening of a café or gallery may not be as serious a sign of gentrification as the commitment of district chiefs to pursue creative policies, though how far the market-driven side will progress remains to be seen. In Kaohsiung certainly, gentrification by culture remains a tool in the arsenal of urban policy.

1) Miller and Rose’s “Governing the Present” (2008) is a great look at the questions of governmentality in advanced liberal democracies, though many nuances equally apply to non-democratic states in advanced stages of development.

2) While the displacement of working class residents with middle class newcomers is the usual hallmark of gentrification, I reject notions that this substitution must be complete. Vast stretches of London’s Hackney or Islington still remain predominately working class, while in other cases, such as on Broadway Market in Hackney, the mainly Turkish immigrant landlords have benefitted from rising commercial rents. Despite this, both areas remain clear-cut cases of gentrification.

Athens and the boy who said wow

Who you gonna vote for?
"I dreamed that Greece might still be free; For standing on the Persians' grave, I could not deem myself a slave."

Lord Byron wrote those words and surely one would be hard pressed to find a more memorable example of a Hellenophile than the crippled, sex-symbol poet and revolutionary.

It would also be hard to find somebody quite as deluded as to what Greece actually means, especially to fellow Europeans - or rather, what it should mean, liberated from its magnificent past and taken for what it is. This is a question of considerable relevance as Greece becomes a byword and an example for the economic troubles facing the developed world, and southern Europe in particular. Instead of talking about Greece however, we hear of Greece. Day in and day out ever since the crisis which, let's not forget, originated in the subprime mortgage market in the US, Greece has been the subject of universal pity, of Germanic scorn, of derision and up to an extent, of hope too. It is profligate, it is being crucified, it is brought this on itself, it's the people's fault, or it's the politicians', and so on. Invariably, the articles and commentaries are peppered with references to Greece giving 'us' democracy, and a few of the clever ones add, 'It gave us tragedy, too.' Of course, democracy is not necessarily the best Greek loanword we have to describe our political system; plutocracy works just as well.

I admit to being firmly in the hope camp, but as I set off on the day of the election, those hopes were buried before I even landed in Athens. Let's return to the narrative though, nice and chronological. After the May parliamentary elections, which ended in a "political gridlock" (ie. a situation that arises when centrist parties don't get their way), there was suddenly a new name going around the progressive circles of the world - Syriza. I had heard of them before, much like one hears of leftist parties that usually struggle to even get seats, or whom the neoliberal centrist consensus has declared to be living in the past. Yet what was different here was of course the fact that Syriza was now the second largest party, a contender for government even. Once a new election was called, it was clear that this was the closest that a leftist party has been to a parliamentary victory since, well maybe the 1931 Spanish election. You can surely tell that this boyscout was very excited.

I'd had the intention of visiting my friend for a while now and the timing could not have been better - I would fly in, catch up with an old friend while also celebrating the left's victory. Perfect. But the dark clouds had already set in long before my flight; the EU propaganda machine went into overdrive, scary scenarios which the European institutions had for months been vehemently denying were now being leaked and discussed in the open. Not just the EU institutions, the European press was also on high alert, could not get enough of using the phrase 'radical left-wing party', and talked of a potential Syriza government only in terms of the economic disaster that would ensue. Meanwhile, in Berlin, Chancellor Merkel and other German politicians were beginning to hint that a Greek exit is perhaps not unavoidable or even undesirable; an MP from her party (Alexander Dobrindt) put it in very stark terms, saying a Greek default and exit from the Eurozone was inevitable, should the Greeks elect a Syriza-led government. And in Paris, François Hollande, then newly elected President, refused to meet Syriza's leader, making it quite clear how socialist the French socialists really are when it comes to protecting the French banks or upsetting Angela Merkel. The message was clear - the political, economic and media mainstream of Europe was not going to just allow such radical change without a fight.


And so it happened that I arrived in a Greece somewhat different from my Byronian imagination. Syriza did not start a gust of transformative wind across the continent, it did not make a difference and Greece was not going to be the one to break the ranks of the political-economic consensus. The euro and the German banks were safe, and a heavy feeling of defeat overcame me and many other European leftists. I arrived quite late at night, and my friend told me to meet her 'by the ugly fountain' in Plateia Mavili. It was then however, on a balmy night, that I realised how dumb my expectations had been. Not because the Greek electorate was scared off, not because I was overly romanticising the potential left-wing victory. But rather, because there was a Greece all around me which was in fact far more interesting. The urban Greece, not the nice beach on an island. The progressive Greece, not the party-political one. And finally, a welcoming one - but that much I admittedly expected anyway.

Perhaps the best time to arrive in Athens is on a summer evening, as one sees the life of the city, the elderly men still out and chatting at midnight, the usual images of a Mediterranean metropolis where the night is far less of a taboo than up north. In the day, it's a city of much harsher beauty, but how much of this is down to the recent economic trouble, and how much is simply part of the urban fabric, is unknown to me. Certainly, some aspects of city beautification and maintenance have taken quite a hit with the government's desperate attempts at austerity. Pavements are cleaned with less gusto, and cracks fixed less often; though this was never Geneva. My first real glimpse at what 'crisis' actually means in  Greece came quite unexpectedly. Walking through a vegetable market below Likavittos, I hear a lady arguing with a vendor at one of the stalls. Their faces and tone betray a heated argument, and it likely isn't one about the price of okra or beans, this is something more. I enquire with my friend and she promptly explains the woman was saying how she cannot believe the man voted for the fascist party Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn) and an argument ensued. It wasn't so much the content, with usual themes of immigration, austerity and such, it's rather the atmosphere, the tension that I could feel, being alien to the situation. A middle age woman, out to buy groceries, ending up in a fight over politics with the guy selling veg - and while in the Balkans, politics is something that you take with you wherever you go, it's not normally something you'd fight over with strangers, not people who sell you things. This was definitely something that struck me as odd, but also reminded me of the general breakout of bickering before the civil war in Yugoslavia, and that's not what you would call an encouraging sign. 

Not a Banksy in sight. Phew.
After that public tiff, I was on the lookout for more. It occurred to me that it's not so much about how things had changed in Athens, but more about how people's ideas of what is quotidian had changed with the situation. How it became quite normal for Athenians to see large groups of scary looking police circling the traditionally left-wing  bastion of Exarcheia, how the police has set up base in front of one of the faculties there, and how the police and various left-wing or anarchist groups provoke each other, breaking out into full violence every now and then. Don't misunderstand, Exarcheia has always been a space of conflict; but as such, it is also a good indicator of what conflicts there actually are in a society. When big protests happen in Syntagma square, the violent skirmishes between police and protestors end up here. In many ways, it seems to foreign eyes like a struggle between a resistance movement and an occupying army. And it's true, the police do look exactly like an occupying army. In many ways, that's what they are - countryside boys and girls with one of the few stable public jobs left in Greece. Recently however, even the police has been feeling the heat with "blue on blue" violence erupting last week between striking policemen and their on-duty colleagues. 

But it's not just the hostility present on the street, the resentment towards the police runs far deeper. Following the elections, Athens was rife with talk of how the electoral stations around police headquarters, where most police vote (since they are unable to travel home, as most Greeks have to) had a remarkably high percentage of votes cast for Chrysi Avgi, suggesting that many in the Athens police are staunch supporters of the fascist party. My comments to a group of friends are met with understanding nods, "Honestly, I don't know which girls sleep with them, I wouldn't touch that. Actually, we should all go on strike," remarked one.

Strike! From the neoliberal heartland of London, strikes in Greece still look like powerful tools of politics and not hampered by apathy or "decency at work" regulation, which transformed most strikes into boring marches down Whitehall. Strikes here are still a key weapon left to many Greeks, especially those in big cities, which had traditionally depended on public jobs and big business, both of which are in trouble. And yes, the strikes were big, violent even, and they made the headlines around the world - though it's telling how riots in Tahrir Square are a revolution, but they're just good old riots in Syntagma. For the most part though, people still go to work despite the pay cuts, which 
can reach up to 100% in the private sector - employees who literally work for free, because it's better to stay with a job and hope that a salary will be paid out one day, rather than risk it in the sea of unemployed. This struck me as something really remarkable, and something wholly unknown in the creditor states of the EU, where Greeks are generally viewed as not the most hard working. As the Dutch went to the polls last Sunday, I wonder how many of them would consider working for free for months on end, and whether that would have any effect on them when they were casting votes based on their imaginarium of Greeks syphoning off their hard-earned euro. 


"Jobs are like boyfriends, if you had one four years ago, you might still have one. But you can forget about finding one now." Economy, jobs, salaries, strikes. More time, less money, less stability, more thrill. Lives have of course been changed. Young people were especially hit, as often is the case - here's some numbers for those so inclined. As jobs were lost, so were rented flats, that epitome of independent life, and many young Athenians moved back in with the parents. While Greek families are traditionally closer and more used to sharing space than their Anglo-American counterparts, this had a devastating effect on many a relationship, and some young people decided to leave Athens altogether and seek better lives abroad. Incidentally, my friend is a Chinese language tutor and says business has been good, people are keen to leave and China is seen as a land where there's money to be made, so lots of young people give emigration a go. Others have moved to the countryside. Not only to the islands, which are shielded from the crisis by the tourist industry, but also in Greece's rugged north, establishing organic farms, specialising in growing mushrooms or keeping snails for export, but also brining urban lives to rural surroundings. There is still promise in Greece and, for the most part, I was impressed by the solidarity that people felt in the face of the crisis, especially with small gestures, like Metro tickets with time remaining on them, left by commuters for those who can't afford to buy them. (a practice which the police have started to crack down on).

But it doesn't end with such individual actions. Reminiscent of post-default Argentina, groups of people have taken over and adapted certain function of the state or of institutions, principally to do with the provision and exchange of basic goods; places like Skoros are gaining traction with Athenians of different backgrounds and aren't just radical fringe activities. Another such innovation is "The Other Human", a social kitchen/experiment; rather than being a standard soup kitchen, its members cook and eat on-site (they cook "live", as they like to say), breaking the taboos and barriers between the charitable haves and the recipient have nots; perhaps this is easier because the "donors" in this case are not institutions or wealthy individuals out to gain prestige or tax breaks through charity, but rather, people who want to do something for other humans - hence the name. 

Crisis breeds both violence and solidarity, my friend remarked. People react to it in different ways. Some become creative, some leave, others vent their frustration on immigrants and other easy targets. But aside from all this, we must not forget the resilience of everyday life. Days and evenings roll on,  the (wonderful) bars of Athens are full of life, outdoor cinemas with ashtrays on tables still around, well kept elderly couples still take their evening stroll around Kolonaki. It's charming, there is no doubt about it. The kind of city where you could definitely imagine living. Maybe this is ultimately the lesson in this tale - it's the everyday that's precious and worth protecting. 

Feeble Fantasies

OMFG that sneezing panda is hilarious!
Let's start this one with a disclaimer: I have an embarrassing weakness for 'liberal' political TV programming coming out of the States. What's worse, now that the Democrats really do control the White House, watching re-runs of West Wing just doesn't provide the kick that it used to. Solution? HBO's The Newsroom. Written by Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame, it is a fantastical ode to the kind of front line, adrenaline journalism that all journalists dream of: deadlines, emergencies, eating crappy food while working late for low pay, outdoing each other with stories of how that improvised live broadcast from >>insert warzone name<< went, shouting jargon at confused interns and ritually referring to the Fourth Estate's historic mission. 

Not that I should be all that cynical. Having worked in a newsroom, I understand well how one gets caught up in the excitement of shouting out that fresh bit of news across the office, of watching wires buzzing with an endless stream of News, or even running seemingly pointless errands between the MCR and the boss's desk. It is in fact quite unusual that compared to lawyers, who have over the years accrued an enviable compilation of televised renditions, journalism has been more the domain of films rather than TV. The time of course, is ripe and this is what brings me to the title. For a while now, mainstream media has been evidently drowning in commercialisation driven by ratings, a cancerous concern over 'balanced' news coverage, the victory of facts over interpretation and gossip over opinion. Moreover, threatened by upstarts a la Wikileaks, it has shown its ugly elitist face (overhearing journos talking about Julian Assange at the extradition hearings in London was a particularly sobering episode), while reporting on the financial crisis has descended into a hell of uncritical acceptance of the economic 'facts'. Just like the political sphere before it, the media in late capitalism is often a byword for our fall into a world devoid of meaning, but saturated with words, banners, flashing advisories and tickers displaying a bewildering amount of information. Whither news? Oh how I sometimes wish it did. 

The Newsroom has a different scenario in mind, no less than a redemption. Not only any redemption, but one that's driven from this inside, eschewing any outside interference and drawing on the resources of the profession itself. Not to dwell on the plot of the series, the producers of the news programme around which the show centres are on a mission, a mission to civilize, to defend America (ie, the world) against the onslaught of second rate news, second rate politics and second rate consumption. In this particular instance, the fearless team (led by a moderate Republican no less, hint, hint) take on the Tea Party machine of lies and stupidity, supported somewhat begrudgingly by the capitalist owner of the media group, who in the end turns out to be 'one of us' - the liberal, moderate, educated America. It is here that we see the ultimate feeble fantasy; squeezed out of actual news programming, the arch-journalist is now a fictional character, a Don Quixote - ironic considering the frequent references to the  ingenious gentleman in the script. Let me be clear - I do not doubt that such talent and conviction exist in reality as well, and perhaps a living out of fantasies is a precursor to them becoming a reality. And yet, like so many other feeble fantasies (a return to a welfare state, the promise of liberal democracy and so on), to think that independent, bold and truly civilizing news can exist within the constraints of our socio-economic reality sadly seems very unlikely. At least there's lots of office romance to compensate. 

The Dark Knight Rises, and the Revolution flops

Market fears of a masked madman have depressed stock prices in NY
On a sunny day in London, I went to the cinema with Silas. Saying no to the sun in England felt like a special luxury, though by the time we finished the bottle of wine outside Hackney Picturehouse, I for one was ready for the dark.

And in that dark, one finds a story whose analysis of modern society is remarkably poignant and, this surprised me most, frank in its condemnation of the plutarchy of Gotham - a city which Chris Nolan clearly identifies with New York, leaving no doubt that this is not even an allegorical tale of greed and human stupidity, but rather quite clear cut social commentary. As cat woman puts it: "You think this can last? There's a storm coming Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you're all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us."

The rich, having gotten away with passing all sorts of restrictive legislation, have locked up the other kind of criminal mob, leaving them in charge. The bat man is simply not needed as long as the champagne flows and charity galas are well attended, but signs of moral decay abound. Orphans in the streets, bodies washing up from the sewers, all dancing to the beat of the stock exchange, all hurtling towards some point in the future where the capitalist dream becomes impossible to maintain. Worse still, the seeds of its destruction are contained within it. When John Daggett employes Bane to aid in his hostile takeover bid for Wayne's company, he is letting his greed cloud his judgement and in a Marxian twist, the infrastructure and productive capabilities of the capitalist Daggett become, quite literally, the tools with which the underground masses of the poor, the unwanted, the invisible and the forgotten will rise up.

What comes next however, is where the plot of Batman starts to twist back to a more conservative view. Bane's revolution is bloody. Any revolution is messy, right? Old, helpless rich people are wandering the streets in fur coats, harassed by mobs of the poor high off looting and pillaging. The court, presided over by a mad academic, dishes out death sentences in what seems to be a hybrid of the French and Russian revolutions. Bane, the young Stalin, is a perverted revolutionary, his hope is false and his goal is the destruction of Gotham, not its redemption (unless you consider immolation as a form of redemption). The message here is clear: while the current plutarchy is unfair, unstable, fuelled by greed and will slowly eat the planet alive, the alternative is a masked madman, looting, death and chaos. And the solution? For the good rich, i.e. Bruce Wayne, to bring back the ancien régime. Balzac would have approved.

The Jubilee that should have been a 'Happy Retirement' party

Isn't that Liz Taylor?
Anyone who has had the misfortune of witnessing the deluge of rain last Sunday should appreciate that at least the weather somewhat spoilt the sycophantic orgy which engulfed London and only seemed to abate mid week. That being said, stubborn flag-flying households still line my route to the tube station - one in particular presents itself as an inviting target for a spot of republican vandalism, but we can discuss that potential in person, with a carton of eggs, glue and a water-pistol full of booze. Another, which I cannot but mention and I'm sorry for completely surrendering to a mean streak inside me, is the (now presumably outdated) guide to creating the perfect Jubilee party by an author called Cherry Menlove, a name that any Soho queen would surely kill/die for. I sincerely hope this is actually some highly coded, subversive piece of writing which has insidiously wormed its way into the pastel-tone world of Mittelengland, because if it isn't, then it's just one of the most nauseating book covers I've seen recently, an uncanny mix of the patriotic with the dainty.
How pretty is that - right down to the confusing font selection!

The quintessentially British celebration, as it was called, seems to have gone fairly well, apart from a few dislocated jaws and suffocations among the assorted commentariat of the BBC and remarkably, CNN (must watch Jon Stewart on this).  The flotilla of barges, tugboats, trawlers and other floating vessels made its way down the river and the embankments were crowded with adulating subjects of the Crown. Even the objectively horrible weather provided a useful prop to revive the old Blitz mentality, when rich and poor stood together in defiance of the Nazis while the Royals waved on, or so the story goes. The problem of course is that if the Blitz is seen as a triumph of egalitarian resistance in the face of a stronger enemy, it is probably only because it wasn't very long lasting. Solidarity, it seems, is still in short supply, as the group of unemployed people who were stewarding the Jubilee celebrations for free must know (correction: they all got a packed lunch, and in addition to the unemployed, the 'apprentices' were paid a princely sum of two pounds eighty pence of Her Majesty's Sterling per hour).  The outrage of certain media outlets (yes, I mean the Guardian...) notwithstanding, this exercise in slave labour has been accompanied by a distinct lack of public opposition, coupled with laconic pronouncements from Downing Street about how this was a one-off - inviting uncomfortable comparisons to many other one-offs that should not have happened in the first place anyway. It seems that the general feeling is one of satisfaction that those out of work are put to work, whatever the circumstances may be; that this is done for little or no pay, in quite horrid conditions, elicits either indifference or disdain, even though it is quite clear that they are out of work not on account of their incompetence or laziness, but because there simply isn't enough waged labour to go around for everyone to work 8 hour days or more. (Waged labour being what we chose to call work over other activities, which are presumably non-work. Except when you're made to stand in the rain all day for no money, then it's still called work if you're unemployed. Yes, it's confusing). 

This all leads to the depressing conclusion that those with jobs, precarious as these may be, find it useful to berate those without jobs as lazy/incompetent, thereby drawing a clear line of distinction between themselves and the unemployed, and providing in this way some semblance of their own security, false as it may be. To make matters worse, most media, politicians and unions will, even when on the one hand criticising blatant system failures such as this one, find a way to include some strongly-worded message on punishing those called 'benefit frauds', just to make sure that they're seen as tough and even when there is little evidence of such fraud being quite as epidemic as it is suggested. It is, rather, symptomatic of a cleavage in society, one that separates one type of worker (those getting paid for work in a complex, belittling and alienating system of jobs) from another type (those not getting paid for work, but through a complex, belittling and alienating system of benefits). 

There is however one group of people who were working on the Jubilee and who need not fear for their jobs any time soon; Elizabeth Windsor has been in her current position for over 60 years now and though a big party was organised to celebrate her ability to hold on to a job (and quite a good one at that), it's not really that hard when the job is something handed to you by your dad - though who knows, perhaps plans to force people into early retirement in order to 'create' jobs for young people may yet bring a smile to poor unemployed Charles's face. 

Let me tell you about the Olympics

Not one to miss out, I've decided to get on the Olympic bandwagon - or rather, the Fuck-the-Olympics one. Not merely due to a sensibility to the effect of the games on the delicate ecosystem of East London, where throngs of tourists, media and police threaten the hard-won balance between the hip, the grotty and the cockney that is our beloved East. Not even because of the flagrant breaking of the promise to make these games the people's games, a wonderful public-private partnership to 'regenerate' the barren wastelands of the Lea Valley (not that they were that empty or barren to begin with - ask those that were banished from it). Not because the future Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, despite its name, will not be a Royal Park, not because of the SAM missiles gracing residential housing around the Olympic site, a not because my local police have been seconded to this Olympic Masada, leaving my streets empty.

When we consider all these disappointments together though, they go a long way towards explaining how the Olympic games have developed a schizophrenic personality. By this, I mean veering from Olympiad to Olympiad from games meant to showcase either nationalist posturing (Seoul, Beijing, Rio de Janeiro), or those showcasing corporate prowess (Atlanta, Sydney, London). What they both have in common of course is a risible insistence on the global importance of the event - the games are seen as one of the few palpable manifestations of Humanity, of our drive to better ourselves in peaceful competition, of an opportunity for all men and women to participate in something greater than themselves - Citius! Altius! Fortius! Bullshit. It belies both the origin of the modern games, their development and their present role. When examined closer, the games surely should not be seen as much more than a manifestation of a defunct bourgeois-nationalist dream, now mutated into a neoliberal celebration of its global march, both in the form of the rising authoritarian neoliberal regimes such as China, as well as the late-capitalist elite restablishment in countries like Britain or the US.  (I will not dwell on this for the present, David Harvey, Wang Hui or Slavoj Žižek, have much more to say) More than anger, I chose to explore my fascination with the bourgeois origin of the modern Olympics, with the appropriation of a gilded classical past on such a large scale. While Edward Said may have gotten many things wrong in his exploration of Orientalism, he certainly did point out the extent and size of the construction of a bourgeois identity, a collage of enlightened imperial antiquity, paternalistic protestant morality, optimistic capitalism and a belief in science. The Olympics thus served as a transnational bond for bourgeois-nationalist identities, a precursor to the globalised neoliberalism of today.

Britain and France, as one might imagine, both have competing claims to the modern Olympiad, though in reality, one must not forget then recently liberated Greece's role. Revolutionary France held a re-imagined games in the enlightened postmonarchist craze for all things ancient - this is certainly one element which distinguishes the modern games. Britain however, gave us the Wenlock Olympian Games; a quaint paternalistic event for the working classes, a mens sana in corpore sano for the masses (which also gives the name to one of the misshapen mascots of this year's games).

Greece however added the all-important aura of continuity with the ancient games, perhaps best exemplified by the statue of the Evangelis Zappas, the businessman who revived the Olympics in Greece. Dressed in a strict suit, waistcoat and shirt with a collar so starched it makes the marble seems rather too soft to portray it, his modern attire is then draped with a toga-like cloth, a laurel wreath in his right hand. The tension in his appearance is not without significance - Greek politicians of the era were quite dubious about the value of resurrecting a pagan ritual, preferring instead to showcase Greece as a modern, industrialising nation. It seems their resistance was overcome, perhaps once they realised that the modern Olympiad was in no way similar to the original; devoid of religious overtones, couched firmly in the bourgeois ideology of Progress, it was as ancient as the neoclassicist public buildings being erected around the world, with their porticoes, collonades, architraves, metopes and pediments all translated into the present, naked bodies changed into hard-working artisans, deserving civil servants and allegorical figures such as Industry or Trade. In short,  using the language of antiquity, but refusing to acknowledge the true pagan, visceral and most of all sexual elements of it, their effort hollows out the past, steals its meaning and tames the wild. Just as Evangelis here, it's wearing a thick woollen suit, tie and collar separating the public face from the private body, but fancying itself in a toga nonetheless. And though Baron de Coubertin, the official founder of the modern Olympics, reportedly wanted to imitate the ancient games in all details, I imagine the conversation on athletic nudity and the practice of oiling the male body was a very short one. Instead, the Olympics became what they still are - a parade of national pride, of bodies disfigured by excessive training and pharmaceuticals, of athletes and coaches who care not about the practice of the gymnasium. They are akin to national expositions (indeed the Bejing Olympics and Shaghai Expo are often understood as two appearances of the same debutante), but as private power increases, they are increasingly also an exposition of corporate power - and I use the word exposition to distinguish it from mere advertising or sponsoring. And if one cares about what they represent, from the shopping mall to the brazen appropriation of space for private use, complete with razor wire, moats and traditional British CCTV, please give yourself what Iain Sinclair calls an 'Olympic ASBO' and repeat after me: Fuck the Olympics. Listen instead to the voices of the dirty London, the Londons as they still can be, as Fallen Empire have found, or read about the mechanics of space production and appropriation as explored by Anna Minton. In either case, you will have been rewarded with something more than a record time, flags hanging in well-lit auditoria, the smell of freshly painted plasterboard which will welcome the athletes to their temporary homes (which you too can own afterwards - please contact the Qatari royal family for brochures and pricing).

And how ironically fitting that the games, resurrected from ancient Greece and given a new meaning through the appropriation and manipulation of the past, will this year take place just as another Greek practice, that of democracy, is being defiled by the likes of IMF, Germany or the UK. Just as the Olympics, Democracy cannot interfere with a debt-restructuring programme; democracy, even in its watered-down parliamentary form, cannot endanger the neoliberal project of dismantling the welfare state, it cannot challenge the ability of German capital to recycle profits in financial markets instead of passing it on to German workers, it cannot make Christine Lagarde or David Cameron accountable for their efforts in perpetuating the frugality narrative which masks a neoliberal debt-trap - the trap we have seen in action many times before: Mexico in the 1980s, Asia in 1997, Europe from 2008. No, democracy, we are told, must be measured, predictable, and 'inside the normal democratic process', in other words, devoid of its physical, naked, oiled self, restrained by a stiff collar, choked by a tie (in different colours!) and tied to a tree to be ridiculed. To that democracy, one can only answer with the same profanity as to the Olympics.

Workers' Day

It would hardly do for me to write on International Women's Day and then leave out the International Workers Day - and though this blog seems to be in danger of only publishing on preset dates of leftist celebration (see you again on 25th May, Yugoslav Youth Day?), this one is a day whose relevance surely does not escape even the City analysts who rarely comment on such 'relics' of the past. Louise Cooper of BGC Partners for example states that:

"May Day is more relevant than it has been for decades because it symbolises the struggle between providers of capital (the rich industrialists of the past whose fortunes were made out of the misery of the many) and the providers of labour (the factory workers, the children enslaved by low wages).

Currently though it is a battle between those who blame the crisis on the providers of capital – the banking and financial industry and unfettered capitalism – and those who blame Europe's bloated and unaffordable welfare state – which benefits the providers of labour, the workers. This ideological argument goes to the heart of this current economic and political crisis and is exactly what May Day is all about – the struggle between providers of capital and providers of labour."
(posted on Guardian Business Blog, 1 May 2012)

Well, Louise, I'm not sure that's what this conflict is really about. But before we even go there, note the not-so-subtle distribution of adjectives; providers of capital get 'unfettered', whereas welfare state gets 'bloated, unaffordable'. While realising that this is but a quote on a business blog, it is quite discouraging to see that even a nominally left-leaning newspaper such as the Guardian would so uncritically allow for the perpetuation of a belief that the current crisis is all about either 'unfettered capital' (as the creator of wealth) and the 'bloated and unaffordable welfare state' (as the black hole down which said wealth disappears). As if the workers have disappeared from the picture? And more importantly, as if the word 'worker' has become some anachronistic epithet which is awarded only to scruffy-looking shipyard workers, exhausted Chinese factory workers and so on.

Are bank tellers not workers? Tesco employees being replaced by machines with which shoppers seem to prefer to interact? And low and high grade lawyers slogging it in their offices until the most ridiculous hours of the morning? The masses of the London commutariat, reading the current bestseller, killing pigs with flying birds or reading the news (though it pains me to call those papers 'news') - those very people whom we are meant to protect and celebrate on this day have long since turned away from any meaningful political engagement, save the odd donation to an overseas charity or a laconic attendance at the ballot box, choosing between Lego men with different colour ties. Moreover, even when there is talk of protecting the workers, it is immediately clear the debate is about jobs, social stability, about consumer confidence, rather than the quality of work.

Cynical? Certainly, and quite unapologetically so, for the task of any renewal is gargantuan. After all, being politically engaged has been quarantined and ridiculed successfully by a popular culture that values style above substance and forgets that aesthetics are fiercely political and often contested. It is the sort of veil which will have you think fashion is divorced from life, that art is solely individual, that style is a currency, that all is atomised and anything a commodity. In turn all this blog wants to suggest for today is to realise that our creativity, our intelligence, our bonds of friendship and kindness, our shared food and wine serve more than just a society of spectacle, but are in themselves meaningful and can be termed work. Off to work then.