“How are we to understand the autonomy that multitudes enjoy but crowds do not?” (711)

“A crowd thinks in images, and the image itself immediately calls up a series of other images, having no logical connection with the first” (703)

Inadequate knowledge, recalling Spinoza and the proposition that states that we draw a correlation between unlike things… “The crowd’s desperate desire for a shared focus…stems from a constant collective anxiety about its own disintegration.” (704)  Mazzy points to a clear ‘shift’ in attitudes with regards to a group of individuals, in which the crowd-cum-multitude has agency, or rather, “it takes the collective rather than the individual as the site of freedom, but – it turns out – only if the multitude’s emergent energies remain pure, uncompromised by actually existing in social institutions.”  Or perhaps, “emergent integrity of collectivities.” (707) Painted as a site of potential, the multitude thus offers a possible world in which, presumably, the heady singularities are dialed in to their desires and collective energy.

Not having read Le Bon, I cannot speak to his handling of the text, but Mazzy states, “Le Bon remarks that crowds act ‘far more under the influence of the spinal cord than of the brain.’” I can’t help but compare that unreasoned pure response to stimuli to pure ‘emergent energies’ that presumably act not from reason, but rather an unspoken surge of collective desire. How can we discern whether this collective desire is ‘desperate’ or ‘pure’?” And how do we know whether the gathering is ‘inert’ or has a ‘vital spark’? And recalling the Holland article, does this leave room for the ‘incorporeal transformations’ that may be taking place, but not immediately visible?

And not having read Multitude, I cannot speak to Mazzy’s mishandling of that either. But, in the spirit of discussion (given my ‘not having read’ state of being), where this thought experiment takes me is two places, the first one being language. Wikipedia makes a distinction between  ‘a crowd’ and ‘the crowd’, in which one suggests a located group of individuals in time and space (though not necessarily) while the latter suggests an amorphous collection of mindless bodies. A multitude is equally amorphous ‘singularities’, though decidedly painted in terms that offer greater potential. Mazzy suggests that we are in the ‘age’ of the Multitude, and I cannot help but wonder, just because the language has changed, has the state of being?

The other place it takes me is to D & G, and the idea of a neutral concept. They repeatedly make the distinction between puissance and pouvoir. Both address notions of power, but how that power is manifested or actualized is radically different, whereas the former yields productive potential, the latter is negative, dominating. I cannot help but think of both the crowd and the multitude as possibly offering the same kind of distinction, regardless of terms. Might they not offer both a similar positive and negative manifestation? If it is accurate that the “multitudes express and produce, first of all, habit: ‘Habit is the common in practice…Habits create a nature that serves as the basis of life.’” (709-10) it seems it would be wise to regard multitudes somewhat suspiciously, given how pernicious habits can be in their negative manifestations.

A thought experiment

In response to Gabriel’s and Cheryl’s posts, I thought I’d share a personal dream of sorts, in the form of a thought experiment. Take this lovely building, located in heart of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood:


Though I’ve only lived in this neighborhood for about six years, I’ve watched the gentrification machine come and go, and recently return. Around the time this photo was taken, I believe the only commercial tenants on the first floor were the Comet Tavern (live music, on the corner) and the Basic Plumbing bath house (yes, that kind of bath house) to the right. The bath house has closed and a diner is currently going in. A seedy dance club where there was a shooting back in 2008 or so has been split into two retail spaces, one of which is The Lobby bar, and the other of which stands empty. But the retail isn’t what interests me.

Turning to county property records, we can see that there are 28 residential units above, which average 649 square feet apiece, and they are all vacant: the county deems them uninhabitable. Assuming the building is structurally sound (the city does not identify it as unreinforced masonry, which would be the worst case construction type with respect to earthquakes), it might be possible to renovate the units to a bare yet functional standard and/or to encourage people who needed a space to live and/or work to help build out their own space under some sort of cooperatve/”sweat equity” model.

Obviously, the task of reversing primitive accumulation comes first, and in this case, the first step would mean freeing the building from the current owners who are only putting part of it to use (as use- and exchange-value), and returning it to its full use value. With my engineering background, I can’t help but think of this quantitative terms: say each apartment would cost $500 a month, which is way below market-rate in this area (my apartment, six blocks away is the same size and could probably rent for $1400 a month; I also split a small office space in a building right around the corner, in the back of a theater, that my friend and I rent for a total of $400). Still, at $500/month, 28 units brings in $14,000 per month. I don’t know what the retail tenants are paying, but whatever it is, it would surely be at least $6,000 per month (probably much more), which would bring the income up to $20,000 per month. Going by the rule of thumb that a bank needs to make about 1% a month on whatever it lends out, this amount of income corresponds to around what the building would currently cost on the market (~$2 million).

Undoubtedly this sort of model rests on a status quo market transaction, but what I think is so amazing about this building is that there are 21,400 square feet of empty apartment space in the center this neighborhood, and I’m trying to think of how a combination of radical and reformist movements could free this surplus space from its present state of capture. Setting aside practicalities (like coming up with a down payment), I’m thinking about how people with backgrounds in architecture, engineering, plumbing, and electrical systems work could help this sort of movement started, and take the edge off some of the requisite labor. Moreover, as buildings in the neighborhood are purchased for similar prices, demolished, and rebuilt as luxury condos, the allure of salvaging a century-old building like this one and bringing it up to a standard in which “regular” people could thrive is incredible.

Thinking again of the terms that Holland outlines as constituting minor marxism — work, consumption, and debt — is helpful: with the cost of housing being as low as it would be here, less work would be required; using the labor of the future occupants to help produce the space reduces the amount of outside labor to be purchased; debt, unfortunately, would probably be increased for the “financially responsible parties,” but I’d like to think of this as a place where truly free market relations could flourish, thereby relaxing this debt burden. Freed from what Harvey calls “the coercive laws of competition,” it seems that there would be no need to demand higher costs for the living units, which would correspond to offering prices far below the going market rate, and result in something like a waiting list for spaces rather than a vacancy sign out front.

Only connect!

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”
–E.M. Forster

While I undoubtedly appreciate Harvey’s argument for shifting the class struggle outside the factory and into urban space, I find his conception of a revolutionary class to largely be mired in that rusty bourgeoisie-proletariat duality. In his discussion of the production of urban space, he invokes construction workers, laborers that work in “maintenance, repairs, and replacements,” as well as those involved with transporting materials and products through space, and others constituting food systems, energy, and water infrastructures. There is no question that this “class” of workers is crucial to the production of cities, but I can’t help but see this conception of a revolutionary class as the contemporary incarnation of Marx’s factory workers, and therefore only a slice of a larger productive population of urban service and knowledge workers.

Referring to mining, steel fabrication, bridge construction, and truck driving, he writes:

“All of these activities (including spatial movement) are productive of value and of surplus value. If capitalism often recovers from crisis, as we saw earlier, by ‘building houses and filling them with things,’ then clearly everyone engaged in that urbanizing activity has a central role to play in the macroeconomic dynamics of capital accumulation.”

Thinking of Seattle in particular, where is “driving urbanization,” shouldn’t we be considering the labor constituting Amazon as well? This isn’t a new argument – we just read Virno discussing the melding of Arendtian Work and Action in the post-Fordist (“Virtuosity and Revolution: The Political Theory of Exodus”); Hardt and Negri discuss it at length in Multitude – and I’m not trying to detract from traditional labor. Instead, I’m thinking of increasing the number of connections amongst those who create “value and surplus value” through looking at the internal difference of the clunky categories that Harvey invokes.

Focusing on the three dependencies – work, consumption, debt – that Holland attributes to minor marxism (11), is a straightforward avenue by which we can envision how such knowledge workers can also become-revolutionary. Both the pipe-fitter and the computer programmer must sell their unique forms of labor-power to survive, both must pay the rent, and both likely have some sort of consumer or student debt. Rallying around these similarities, these points of connection, is – at least in my thinking – the most powerful way to create alternatives to contemporary social production. Only connect!

Response to “Social and Material (dis)Organization of the City”

(I’m re-posting my response to Juuso here, since discussions sometimes get lost in comments…)

I’ve been thinking along these same lines but more in terms of the compulsion to order space, rather than the disorder that arises in the wake of social struggle. But to stay closer to the questions you raise: I’m reminded of an article by Yael Navaro-Yashin, “Affective spaces, melancholic objects: ruination and the production of anthropological knowledge”

In it she investigates how the affect of melancholy arises in the Turkish Cypriots who appropriated space and objects from their Greek counterparts during the mid-70s war and partition of the country, and uncovers evidence of melancholy in everyday parlance that reveals the residents’ feelings toward appropriated property: specifically their use of the word “loot” in a self-deprecating way. Interviews with residents of an area near a military border reveal feelings of confinement and suffocation, which she interprets as a relationship between negative affective states and the aesthetic of ruination amongst which these people live.

This obviously isn’t politics directly, but it’s certainly an insight into the affective engagement with a ruinous environment, or as Holland says, citing D&G’s terminology, an “incorporeal transformation.” And though Harvey does actually mention the three elements of schizoanalysis — “political and economic powers of capital, along with its hegemonic ideological practices and its powerful grasp upon political subjectivities” (p. 120) — I don’t think his disciplinary background really gives him the ammunition he needs to engage with their interactions.

Harvey (arrgghh!) and Holland (phew!)


OK, I am able to breathe a little easier after reading the Holland piece.  The Harvey chapters had me wanting to give up on the left.

The Harvey chapter on Occupy Wall Street is 99% ressentiment. He rails obsessively against the powers that be. They are evil, and we must resist. He gives no attention to what we are, what we are capable of, what kind of potentials the 99% has. In the chapter it seems we can only be good by negation, because we are not the 1%, and the 1% is evil. This is precisely the kind of thinking Nietzsche decries in Beyond Good and Evil because, he says, it blinds us to our own powers.

Harvey characterizes people in Occupy as gathering together to talk about…the powers that be, about what the 1% is doing and how we can oppose them (p. 161). He says those that gathered wanted their opinions heard and their needs attended to (p. 162). He entirely misses the unique power of the movement: in Egypt, in Spain, in Greece, and also in NYC. The key was that people gathered not only to speak to, make demands on, and oppose the 1% (many did, to be sure), they also gathered to encounter each other.  Holland does well to emphasize the ways participants made real an alternative democratic society, though food provision, libraries, and general assemblies. So many participants did not come to make demands on the liberal-democratic state, because they knew, as Holland puts it, that the system was hopelessly corrupt (or, as the Spanish put it, que se vayan todos, (echoing the Argentinians ten years before)). So many came instead to ask each other what alternative they wanted to begin building together. The Greeks said this loud and clear in the First Declaration of the assembly in Syntagma:

For a long time decisions have been made for us, without consulting us. We…have come to Syntagma Square… because we know that the solutions to our problems can only be provided by us. We call all residents of Athens…and all of society to fill the public squares and to take their lives into their own hands.  In these public squares we will shape our claims and our demands together.

I guess we can’t give Holland too much credit for stressing this.  It was crystal clear and hard to miss.  How Harvey fails to see it is a mystery.  Ostrich-like.

But the thing I like most about the Holland is what I think D&G are particularly vital for now, what H&N pick up to a degree and what Virno’s idea of exodus gets at very well: that we absolutely must turn toward ourselves now.  We must wean ourselves from our obsession with the apparatuses of capture and their endless power to contain us.  We must leave off rubbing ourselves raw against the bars of our cage.  We must begin paying far more attention to what we can do, to the kinds of worlds we can make on our own, that we are already making on our own.  We must withdraw from capitalism, from the state, in a thoughtful and critical manner (lodge yourself on the strata, learn them, and then experiment with escapes), and we must, at the same time, begin-and-continue building the other worlds we want instead.  These other worlds must spread by contagion, as in Holland, or as I like to say, with Spinoza and Calvino, they must grow and spread according to their own internal drives.  Withdraw-and-create; exodus-and-invention.  Importantly, and true to D&G, I think, Holland hopes for a tipping point beyond which capital and the state begin to wither away because they are no longer necessary.  I share this hope, and I am currently trying to argue that this vision is something D&G offer that Ranciere doesn’t, despite the many strengths of the latter.

Speaking of spreading, though, I would push back on Holland on at least one point that I think is not insignificant.  He implies in several places that OWS was somehow a starting point from which similar movements spread.  That is true within the States perhaps, but I think it is important to remember that OWS was a very late comer in a wave of such democratic desire that washed across the world.  Tunisia, Egypt, and other Arab countries; Greece and Spain; Israel; Chile; all were at a full boil while NYC looked on.  The Spanish (May) had been loudly pleading with the US for months to join their revolution when OWS finally got off the ground (September).  I remember thinking, that September, that finally something had begun in the US (though I wrongly expected it not to amount to anything).  It is very important not to narrate the Greeks, Spanish, Egyptians, Tunisians, etc. into the background.  They were the first, the loudest, the most creative, and the best.  They faced the more dire political and economic situations.  They deserve pride of place in the narrative about the democratic uprisings of 2010 and ff.  OWS should be celebrated energetically, but it should also, to an extent, always stand humbly in the shadow of the other extraordinary movements that came first.  Sometimes America is last and least.