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#12: (Im)possible Spaces

Boris Kagarlitsky / Alexey Penzin /// Soviet Space Proves Resistant

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Alexei Penzin (AP): I would like to outline the general theme and the main questions of our conversation today. First of all, for contemporary thinking, space has long since ceased to be an abstract category of the “transcendental apparatus” of subjectivity. In the social world, it is appropriation and produced in different ways, depending on certain historical conditions. This concrete space – urban space, for example – is permeated by relations of power and domination. I would like to understand how space is made today, and which relations of power it contains. Second of all, if we are talking about urban space under late capitalist conditions (or “post-Fordism”), we can no longer say that production is concentrated in factories or even localized in its traditional places. The relations of capitalism extend to society as a whole, and the city itself becomes a “factory,” which is saturated by social relations, or relations of class. Third of all, you – like other sociologists and theorists – have spoken of the phenomenon of new global cities. Yet at the same time, in our local situation, we have inherited the Soviet type of appropriating and dominating space, which was monumental in its ideologization. How is this space changing under the influence of global tendencies?

Boris Kagarlitsky (BK): Here, one can discern a number of very important qualitative changes. Moreover, these changes cannot be reduced to what can be described in the developmental categories of traditional bourgeois society. The principal change consists in the fact that the city gradually ceases to be an “organic” space. Until the 1970s-80s, any social space whatsoever was integral and whole. The city was an integral social organism in which all social relations were distributed. It contained proletarian neighborhoods, bureaucratic institutions, bourgeois areas, and bohemian zones. In the framework of bourgeois social structure, all of these elements are interconnected. But in post-modern society, space loses its integrity. Only some of its parts communicate with one another. Moreover, their interaction is self-contained, while only outer spaces far beyond the city limits appear to be open. Relations of physical vicinity have lost their meaning. Even more importantly, the relations between neighboring social groups have also become meaningless. Thus, relations of exploitation can connect people who are in completely different places and even completely different cities. Think of the Indian programmers who work thousands of miles away from their employers from the “first world,” who use them as a cheap labor force. This actually has very little to do with the development of technology, the Internet, or the famous “global village,” a concept which can be easily falsified through empirical observation. One assumed that if people finally gained access to networks and virtual technologies, they wouldn’t care where they lived. However, the development of technologies has led to great demographic concentrations in certain places. For instance, if a city has an internet industry, it attracts people just as any other industry attracts people to any other center of economic development.  So the fragmentation of space is not connected to internet technologies. The primary cause lies in something completely different, namely in the new structure of capital and in the new global division of labor: this gives rise to cities in which people are involved in one activity, banking, for example, or cities in which the service industry is hypertrophied, so that in the final analysis, there is little more there than police and administration.

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Alexei Penzin (AP): I would like to outline the general theme and the main questions of our conversation today. First of all, for contemporary thinking, space has long since ceased to be an abstract category of the “transcendental apparatus” of subjectivity. In the social world, it is appropriation and produced in different ways, depending on certain historical conditions. This concrete space – urban space, for example – is permeated by relations of power and domination. I would like to understand how space is made today, and which relations of power it contains. Second of all, if we are talking about urban space under late capitalist conditions (or “post-Fordism”), we can no longer say that production is concentrated in factories or even localized in its traditional places. The relations of capitalism extend to society as a whole, and the city itself becomes a “factory,” which is saturated by social relations, or relations of class. Third of all, you – like other sociologists and theorists – have spoken of the phenomenon of new global cities. Yet at the same time, in our local situation, we have inherited the Soviet type of appropriating and dominating space, which was monumental in its ideologization. How is this space changing under the influence of global tendencies?

Boris Kagarlitsky (BK): Here, one can discern a number of very important qualitative changes. Moreover, these changes cannot be reduced to what can be described in the developmental categories of traditional bourgeois society. The principal change consists in the fact that the city gradually ceases to be an “organic” space. Until the 1970s-80s, any social space whatsoever was integral and whole. The city was an integral social organism in which all social relations were distributed. It contained proletarian neighborhoods, bureaucratic institutions, bourgeois areas, and bohemian zones. In the framework of bourgeois social structure, all of these elements are interconnected. But in post-modern society, space loses its integrity. Only some of its parts communicate with one another. Moreover, their interaction is self-contained, while only outer spaces far beyond the city limits appear to be open. Relations of physical vicinity have lost their meaning. Even more importantly, the relations between neighboring social groups have also become meaningless. Thus, relations of exploitation can connect people who are in completely different places and even completely different cities. Think of the Indian programmers who work thousands of miles away from their employers from the “first world,” who use them as a cheap labor force. This actually has very little to do with the development of technology, the Internet, or the famous “global village,” a concept which can be easily falsified through empirical observation. One assumed that if people finally gained access to networks and virtual technologies, they wouldn’t care where they lived. However, the development of technologies has led to great demographic concentrations in certain places. For instance, if a city has an internet industry, it attracts people just as any other industry attracts people to any other center of economic development.  So the fragmentation of space is not connected to internet technologies. The primary cause lies in something completely different, namely in the new structure of capital and in the new global division of labor: this gives rise to cities in which people are involved in one activity, banking, for example, or cities in which the service industry is hypertrophied, so that in the final analysis, there is little more there than police and administration.

AP: What, if anything, is so specific about post-Soviet space?

BK: The post-modernity of Western society grows out of Western capitalism; while it might not be organic, it follows certain laws, and comes gradually and “naturally.” But here, the post-modern, Western, bourgeois scheme of arranging space is superimposed onto a material, factual, ruinous space left over from the Soviet period.

AP: And Soviet space was organic?

BK: It was absolutely organic. We did not have any global division

of labor; the Soviet system was closed and self-sufficient well into t

he 1960s. Now, the interconnections of this self-contained system are falling apart, giving way to new relations that come from the outside. We can observe the destruction of connections: socially developed space becomes undeveloped. We see the ruins of an old space or an aggregate of new spaces that are not yet fully understandable. One and the same place can be read as a ruin and as something new. Take the New Arbat (Kalininsky Prospect) in Moscow for an example. What amazes me most here is the abundance of casinos.

AP: One of the central and most symbolic Soviet streets is filled up with casinos as emblems of capital.

BK: If you have a Soviet experience of space, you don’t really understand where you are in places like these; all familiar points of orientation have disappeared; the practical skill of gauging distances turns out to have been lost. You find yourself in an absolutely different space that is totally chaotic, not to mention the fact that there are now different objects, disconnected from what used to be a familiar place. Take, for example, brightly colored advertising banners next to a piece of crumbling façade. You see building that have been replastered and even reconstructed completely, surround by about 20 meters of sidewalks and street that have also been renovated, and then potholes. This is a new experience of atomized space.

AP: This disintegration is a consequence of the forced expansion of capitalist relations in urban space.

BK: Yes, under the conditions of a low level of social regulation and the crisis of the nation state, the market becomes especially destructive. Since this space is socially irresponsible and out of control, it clearly fits into a strange conception of a war of all against all. For instance, why shouldn’t I tear down all that junk from the 17th century and put up a nice skyscraper, if this corresponds to market criteria of effectiveness? Taken in and of itself, the market has no mechanism that that would make decisions like this unacceptable. From a market point of view, if you are going to pose the question of conserving architectural monuments, it won’t be solved until it becomes profitable in and of itself. For example, until all monuments are torn down and those few remaining monuments become so valuable that it becomes unprofitable to destroy them as well. And even if the law prohibits the destruction of concrete objects, it can hardly already conserve architectural ensembles, not to mention the “atmosphere” and the cultural tradition of the city. For now, the genius loci seems to be losing its struggle with the invisible hand of the market. Until an exterior limit beyond a purely economic logic is introduced, the market will work to destroy cultural values. Everything dies as a whole that cannot be reduced to a sum of its parts.  As we know, the entire Marxist critique of the market is based on the understanding that the social sum-total cannot be reduced to a sum of “private” actions.

AP: So then it turns out that all of these transformations are determined by new tendencies, which we could say are connected to the global domination of finance capital, which is indifferent to space, because it is not one the conditions of its accumulation.

BK: Not exactly. There is a difference between global centers of power and local centers of power. The global center of power is simply incapable of producing any improvement of local sub-system since it lacks the necessary toolkit to do so. For example, the World Bank attempts to carry out social projects on a local level, but all of these projects fail. On the other hand, local centers have no desire to go beyond the limits of the narrow sphere of their own economic interests under conditions of a weakened nation state. Note that the period of the most severe socio-cultural disintegration of Moscow began when Yuri Luzhkov, the city’s mayor lost all hope of becoming the country’s president. Because of this, he and his entourage stopped seeing any emotional connection between the territory they control and the outer world. What began at this point was chaos, as different interest group gained a full freedom of maneuver. Let me give you an example of local market anarchy, the so-called “pyramid builders.” You can’t pay off a loan for construction-work, but you can borrow more money to build the next house, which will be even bigger than its predecessor. Houses are getting bigger and bigger, as we can clearly see. By now, no-one knows when they will stop, as is the case with the “Vertikal” complex, which somehow mysteriously grew by three floors all on its own. Pretty freaky! So what we have as a result is a proliferation of objects, larger and larger in size, which could easily fall apart after a few years. We already saw what happened to the swimming pool complex “Transvaal-Park.”

AP: So not only the spatial distribution of objects but their growth are subject to chaos. And really, they seem to grow like “soap bubbles.” But can one talk about the closure or ghettoizing of space as a result of the same logic?

BK: Well, not exactly. There is a tendency in this direction, but Soviet space proves to be quite resistant. And we often see some fancy remake next to another object that is totally Soviet. Ghettoizing is not characteristic for all forms of capitalism. Take, for instance, the one city in Latin America most similar to European capitals in terms of structure, Montevideo. This city different from Sao Paolo in that we can see ghettoized fragments embedded in rather prosperous middle and upper class environments. The Uruguayans understand this as proof of their more human culture; children from different layers of society go to the same school. In Russia, this is also still possible, you can’t deny that.

AP: Let’s turn to another aspect of how society claims and develops space. In the USSR, we could see spaces that were not public but that represented the common. What is happening to these spaces now? How do they fit into the new model of space?

BK: A classical example is the relationship between the metro stations from the Stalin period and the everyday life in communal apartments. The squalor of individual everyday life was to be compensated by the pageantry of collective life. This compensation really did take place on a psychological level; people really liked these common places and were drawn to them. Where does the urge to spend time in the metro come from, to arrange for meetings and dates there? Who would dream of meeting a girl for a date in the New York City subway?  But here, this is a pretty typical phenomenon.

AP: At present, there is a tendency to the rebirth of street politics. Think of the pensioner’s “pan-rattling” protests at the monetization of social privileges, for an example. They flooded the streets and paralyzed entire sections of town. The new model of space, imposed by the model of neoliberal privatization, also seems to entail new political possibilities.

BK: The street uprisings in France until the late 19th century, including the Paris Commune, were based on the fact that the bourgeois city was surrounded by a belt of proletarian suburbs. During the uprisings, they simply squeezed the city center from all sides. This gave rise to schemes for the mobilization of the proletariat and the petty bourgeoisie through the mobilization of local forces.  If you look at the geography of the uprisings in Paris in 2005, you will find that their geography almost repeats the geography of the uprisings during the French revolution. Almost, because they are no longer suburbs that have become bourgeois, but satellite-cities beyond the limits of the old town as continuations of the old French suburbs. In this sense, their geography is not identical to the old geography, but represents its organic continuation. In Moscow, there are no such phenomena, in fact; the displacement and social heterogeneity of Moscow does not supply a very good image of the possibilities for class mobilization on a local level. On the other hand, there are new possibilities connected with the extremely vulnerable transport network, which is quite easy to block. If you close off an important traffic artery with a crowd, you can not only wreak chaos onto traffic, but onto the entire structure of control. Yuppies come in late for work; banks are no longer able to carry out their transactions on time and lose money… Not so long ago, there was a famous action in London, where around a million people simply blocked the business sections of Whitehall and Embankment, so that all traffic here basically stopped. The protesters did not smash shop windows or destroy offices, but these shops and offices started to lose money, simply because they stopped functioning altogether. So basically, the possibilities for paralyzing elements of the bourgeois system are quite great.

AP: But these recent events are distinguished by the same quality as the space in which they unfolded, namely chaos and fragmentation.

BK: Here, there is another important aspect that leads us back to the structure of petty bourgeois revolt. Traditional proletarian movements were constructed quite differently. First of all, they were localized in industrial neighborhoods and in areas densely populated by a socially homogenous mass capable of expressing its common collective will. These movements did not gauge their own strength in their ability to disorganize the work of sub-systems, but through the possibility of voicing their demands to stop or weaken exploitation. Each time it was a concrete action that targeted concrete capitalists. Under the conditions of petty bourgeois revolt and in a new spatial milieu, if, for instance, the works of “Ford Motors” in the Leningrad area don’t wreck or destroy anything, but simply block the boutiques on Nevsky Prospekt, it won’t be the owners of “Ford Motors” who suffer, but the boutique owners, who may not be very nice people…but still, they aren’t exploiting the workers directly in any way. One way or the other, the relationship we see here is far more complex.

AP: This gives rise to the images of a general strike that takes the entire city by storm.

BK: A general strike really is an adequate answer. Actions need to be general to be effective in a revolutionary sense. Otherwise, we will have nothing but petty bourgeois revolt. Let me remind you of the rather trivial Marxist truth that petty bourgeois revolt is a stick with two ends. Due to its contradictory character, the petty bourgeoisie can be reactionary and progressive all at once, depending on where its energy is directed. This is where Gramsci’s concept of hegemony comes from. Hegemony consists in directing petty bourgeois passions into a vein that might be more constructive. Otherwise, we get fascism. In this sense, we already have things that are very similar to fascism in terms of form, like the Avant-garde of the Red Youth, or the National Bolshevik Party. And this is a very alarming tendency.

AP: It seems characteristic that these actions have a spatial character, that they somehow capture space.

BK: What’s more, they capture spaces that are not their own. What happens when there is an occupation strike in a factory? The workers capture the spaces of their labor for themselves, making it entirely their own. But what is an action like that of the National Bolsheviks, when they take the building of the Presidential Administration? This is the capture of a foreign space, a fundamentally different type of action. Then again, as history shows, one can take the Winter Palace, and not only the Presidential Administration…

AP: Maybe we should speak about the invention of new technologies of struggle in urban space.

BK: There is already the movement “reclaim the streets,” for example. Someone balances on a big scaffold tripod structure in the middle of Times Square with very loud music, and a few other people begin to dance around him. More and more, and soon a significant portion of the people in Times Square are dancing, so that cars can’t pass anymore. It’s impossible to neutralize the “instigator,” because the scaffold tripod will fall, breaking his neck immediately, which is something the police can’t allow. In Russia, I think that the tripod would fall down within seconds. And then, they would beat up on the poor guy for hours to come… To reclaim something is not just to return, but claims something that used to belong to you, something that was taken away from you, something you are now trying to get back. So this “reclaiming” is a form of social protest that does not only presuppose destruction, the capture or paralysis of the city, but appropriation that transforms its space into something else.

In short, we need to struggle for space. Not only urban space, but the space of social life.

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