New Left Project Review of Justin McGuirk’s Radical Cities

I’ve got a review of Justin McGuirk’s Radical Cities over at New Left Project. I’m pretty happy with it, and people have said nice and interesting things about it.


There’s a lot I had to leave out that I’d like to work up into something much longer and more general on Third World urbanism. I might put up a section on Lefebvre, Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco and how the only serious challenges to disintegration necessitate the transformation by the urban proletariat of the city as made by capital, rather than, in Radical Cities, presuming that any integration is, essentially the proletariat being allowed to enter or relate to the city on capital’s terms. Other things I was sad to leave out included forms of functional transformation in the squatting of Torre David, both the functional transformation of capitalist architecture and the functional transformation of evangelical Protestantism- an imperialist frontier religion retooled as justification for the wretched of Caracas seizing property from capital. Texaco suggests an analogous set of functional transformations through squatting leading to, in the allegorical link between the slum and the novel, Chamoiseau’s own functional transformation of French, also the political implications of this in the implied dialogue with Cesaire (different versions of functional transformations of French with different imagined urbanisms in négritude and créolité).

Also, left out, sadly, the dialectic of stigmatisation and destigmatisation (stigma is always a question of the consciousness of the powerful) in gentrification as a symptom of rent gaps but also a terrain of state policy interventions alongside violent pacification in Rio, Medellín and Peckham, particularly addressing prestige libraries. The opposing presentations of Santo Domingo library in Hylton and McGuirk and how McGuirk’s disinterested distance (as with the bourgeoisie looking up at the library) can never go beyond surface and naturalisations that exclude history.

McGuirk’s extremely limited treatment of modernism. Medical metaphors, how both urban acupuncture and technocratic modernism’s “cutting out the cancer of the slums” aim to cure the city in order to keep it as capital made it (Ginzberg’s letter to Le Corbusier) and have a secret, technocratic affinity that can never challenge social relations. More useful modernisms: the link suggested by Davis’s “Who Will Build the Ark” and prospects egalitarian, eco-friendly city based on public affluence not private consumption between early Soviet modernism (Ginzberg again) and Túpac Amaru. Also contemporary efforts at mass housing projects in Chongqing and Venezuela’s new socialist cities that remain within a broadly top-down, large-scale framework but are emphatically “left”. Different political tactics from a situation where a large proletariat is still needed by large-scale industry (Chongqing) to the tactics and struggles of a surplus population, a “proletariat without factories, workshops, and work, and without bosses, in the muddle of odd jobs, drowning in survival” (Texaco) but also Medellin. The difference between the anti-capitalist enclave (far more respectable in the Marx) and the anti-capitalist island (utopian socialism, Cabet) and the uselessness of the concept of Temporary Autonomous Zones, also the moral squalor sloppiness of quoting paedophile Hakim Bey just like that.

Indigenous experience, the necessity rather than quirky contingency of an indigenous aspect to Túpac Amaru and the rhetoric of the Torre David squatters. McGuirk’s misdiagnosis of the limits of what’s expressed in Tlatelolco and the Plaza de las Culturas, not a limit defined by modernism, but the limit of the ideology of mestizaje that can only integrate indigenous people through the benevolence of the untransformed still essentially colonial state, the explosion of this through indigenous challenges, particularly in Bolivia, a re-orientation of the relation between indigenous and national popular politics in the Aymara tactic of surrounding the cities in conjunction with urban revolts. How McGuirk’s particular focus on the urban tends to repeat the white biases of technocratic mestizaje by ignoring rural struggles and poverty. The limit of considering the urban in the abstract, limiting political solutions to governance by excluding the potentially radical state and failing to think the contradiction between city and country that the proletarianisation of the countryside displaces people and creates slums. Venezuela’s efforts to relieve the problems of the cities by encouraging agriculture and building new towns, the centrality of ensuring that the peasantry have strong citizen entitlements in Chongqing…..


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