Metro Marxism, or Old and Young Marx in the City

Introduction: Metro Marx

Karl Marx, he who famously urged us to change the world not just interpret it, spent most of his life in big cities. Although he was born in a smallish Rhineland town, Trier, he fled its constraints as soon as he could, initially to Bonn, a bigger town, where he abortively studied law. Later, as he switched to philosophy, Berlin, an even bigger city, beckoned. It was there, of course, that Karl discovered Romanticism, French socialism, and Hegel. In the years to come, the vagabond revolutionary would continue to roam urban Europe, bivouacking in Cologne, Brussels and Paris, until finally settling in 1849 in the biggest city of them all, teeming Victorian London. Marx’s preference for the metropolis is evident enough. He was the man, remember, who spoke of the “idiocy of rural life,” who praised the bourgeoisie for creating enormous cities and for subjecting the country to the rule of towns. In great cities, Marx knew, new ideas and culture bloom and invariably find sympathetic audiences. Big cities bring together masses of people, foster common grievances, make organizing easier and progressive action possible. Marx knew, too, from first-hand experience, how cities often provide more forgiving environments for maverick spirits and radical refugees. (Apparently, Marx once contemplated emigrating to the mother of all refugee cities, New York. He thought he could remedy his dire financial state there. But he found it hard to drag himself away from his precious studies, from the British Museum, from his “vocation”: Capital. Even when the Marx family did uproot themselves from London’s West End, moving in 1858 to a house in then-semi-pastoral Kentish Town [now part of the London Borough of Camden], Karl grumbled about going out at night in this “barbarous region,” where he’d encounter only darkness, emptiness and mud. He dearly missed the social life and high jinks of downtown, with its clubs and pubs and meeting halls, venues where he and his cronies congregated, debated and drank.)1

Marx, meanwhile, had no illusions about the functional role of cities within capitalism. For one thing, cities help expand and socialize the productive forces. For another, they’re the foundation of the division of labor, reign as seats of government, exhibit glaring class distinctions and residential ghettoizations, and bear the brunt of capitalism’s penchant for geographical uneven development. All told, Marx knew how cities operated as vital nerve centers of the mode of production itself. And yet, despite knowing this, he chose never to write explicitly about the city, and he never integrated a theory of urbanization within his theory of industrialization, within his exploration of the “economic law of motion of modern society.” He hints, on occasion, at such a synthesis, whetting our appetite for a few pages in Capital, when he portrays the internal reordering of city space within the dynamics of the “General Law of Capitalist Accumulation”: “‘Improvements’ of towns,” Marx says there, “which accompany the increase of wealth, such as the demolition of badly built districts, the erection of palaces to house banks, warehouses etc., the widening of streets for business traffic, for luxury carriages, for the introduction of tramways, obviously drive the poor away into even worse and more crowded corners…. The antagonistic character of capitalist accumulation, and thus of capitalist property-relations in general, is here so evident…. This evil makes such progress alongside the development of industry, the accumulation of capital and the growth and ‘improvement’ of towns.”2 But his discussion quickly trails off, alas.

Marx left more extensive urban criticism and analysis to his life-long confidant and benefactor, Frederick Engels, who penned two master works, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845)and The Housing Question (1872). In both, no punches were pulled: Engels’ indictment of the capitalist metropolis was absolute. Look, he said, at what the dynamics of capital accumulation does to the working class in cities, look how cities are afflicted by industrialization, by dark satanic mills, by the market mechanism, by the profit motive. Without revolution, without the total supersession of commodity and money dictates, Engels suggested, no urban reform could rescue the poor, no housing or social policy could address the nub of the problem or string up the real culprits. Rather, it just shifted things someplace else, to another part of town, somewhere more politically expedient for assorted ruling classes. By the logic of its own functioning, urbanization under capitalism could, Engels concluded, only ever produce inequality and impoverishment.

That Engels resolutely gave the capitalist city its marching orders is all well and good. Few Marxists would beg to differ. At the same time, there’s also a one-sidedness and crudity to this analysis that misses a lot, that leaves a political and existential void in the interimdenying any here now. Marx and Engels gave us a richly textured evocation of commodities, money, and capitalism in general, but they overlooked or else downplayed the dialectics of the city, diluted its atmosphere, failed to spot certain characteristics and latent possibilities. Marx saw and felt these specifically urban characteristics, but existed on an intellectual and temporal plane far removed from them: his level of abstraction took him beyond the streets he traversed en route to the library. Ironically, though, it’s possible to flesh out these latent possibilities using several of Marx’s own ideas. These ideas can help give richer meaning to Marxist thinking about the city. In political terms, they can fill the meanwhile journey with more content and hope. In existential terms, they can equip urban dwellers with an emotional depth that can help in their struggle to make their lives richer and their cities more livable — richer and more livable through this struggle.

There are four intertwining themes I want to take from Marx: fetishism, class, practice, and species-being. Of these four items, I take fetishism and class from Capital — from, in other words, his mature oeuvre. Species-being, of course, appears in Marx’s youthful, humanist writings, when, as a precocious twenty-six-year-old, he endeavored to jettison his Hegelian legacy. Practice really unites all three and is prominent in the works of the mature and young man alike. If anything, practice — or praxis — is the undercurrent of Marx’s whole, unbroken, intellectual development, something that straddles his existentialism and his political economy. For the purposes of this essay, however, I want to suggest that class itself gets defined through practice, and in section 2 below will show how class is getting “practiced” in the contemporary U.S. context. In what follows, I shall try to give these four strands of Marx’s thought a richer urban texture, hoping to highlight and create space for a more political, active, action-oriented urban Marxism — one that isn’t merely voicing an economic critique but also posits something affirmative. Thus, I will bed each theme down within the fabric of the American city, putting them to work to help us understand our city today, and at the same time arming us in the struggle to make tomorrow’s city better.

1. Two-fold Urbanism: Fetishism and the City

“Fetishism of commodities” is one of Marx’s profoundest ideas. The discussion, appearing at the end of the first chapter of Capital, tells us plenty about the “commodity-form” under capitalism; but it has tremendous purchase on life and knowledge in general, and we can deepen and extend its key message. It emphasizes something very important about how the world appears to us. It urges us to remember that while appearances are real, they’re also absent-minded. Once we address this amnesia, Marx believes the way we see and understand our world, and our place in it, will dramatically alter — alter for the better. Indeed, this shift of perspective will be grist to our political mill, giving us a firmer grip on how society functions and what we must do to change it.

Central to the idea is the apparent paradox that commodities are “sensuous things which are at the same time supra-sensible or social.”3 These products of labor aren’t false, Marx says, since they do have actual materiality, they are created by human beings via specific work practices. There’s nothing phony about this appearance. Shoes, stereos, TVs, automobiles, books, computers, etc. are “things” when they adorn price tags, when they get stacked on supermarket shelves, once they’re exchanged for money. However, this is merely one part of the story. There’s another tale to tell, so listen up, insists Marx, because a commodity’s physicality, its palpable “thing” quality, bears little or no connection to the social relations that made it. We learn nothing, from the commodity, about production relationships between workers and owners, between minimum wage toilers and rich bosses, between factory hands and corporate CEOs, between Nike solemakers in Vietnam and stockbrokers on Wall Street. Inter-subjective human relations, relations emerging through a particular social organization and mode of production, are henceforth perceived by people as objective. A commodity’s thing-like aura disguises its social content, occludes its process basis. Form belies content; we can perceive a thing, but a process and a social relation are somehow beyond our grasp, somehow imperceptible and untouchable, invisible and odorless. The masking effect, the blurring of content by “mist-enveloped” form, essence by “mystical” appearance, Marx dubs fetishism. “It is precisely this finished form of the world of commodities—the money form,” Marx says, “which conceals the social character of private labor and the social relations between individual workers, by making those relations appear as relations between material objects, instead of revealing them plainly.”4

The upshot, for Marx, is that the world of capitalism is at once a thing and a process, having an observable outcome as well as an unobservable “law of motion.” As far as he’s concerned, we must conceptualize the experience and production of the world not as either/or, but as both simultaneously, an enigmatical conclusion mimicked fifty years later by quantum theorists. They, after all, posit a subatomic realm remarkably similar to Marx’s dual evocation of bourgeois society: in terms of spatially diffusive waves (processes) and place-specific particles (things) colliding, co-existing, and behaving with a peculiar contingent determinacy. Much like Bohr and Heisenberg, Marx conceived reality in a manner radically at odds with the Classical (Cartesian) consensus, with its typical partitioning of subject from object, cause from effect, mind from matter. In a nutshell, Marx demands that we grasp perceptible experience and imperceptible processes as one concrete totality.

Some of the twentieth century’s most imaginative and interesting Marxists have drawn sustenance from this edict. Georg Lukács, for one, mobilizes it in his canonical essay from History and Class Consciousness, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat.” “Our intention here,” wrote Lukács, “is to base ourselves on Marx’s economic analyses and to proceed from there to a discussion of the problems growing out of the fetish character of commodities, both as an objective form and also as a subjective stance corresponding to it. Only by understanding this can we obtain a clear insight into the ideological problems of capitalism and its downfall.”5 Ditto Walter Benjamin and Henri Lefebvre, heterodox figures who put a distinctive urban and spatial spin on fetishism. In Benjamin’s mammoth disquisition on Paris’s arcades—those prototypical shopping malls—the commodity becomes the rational kernel within its 1,000 and more pages. In these huge iron and glass caverns, Benjamin insisted, the commodity “luxuriates and enters, like cancerous tissue.”6 These arcades, he said, radiated as “places of pilgrimage to the commodity fetish.”7 Arcades were something of the world in miniature, and the commodity was this miniature world’s cell-form. But its “phantasmagorical” image and thing-like charm seduced and ensnared the masses of promenading people, indeed it soon succeeded in seducing the whole of Paris, the capital of the nineteenth century; sometimes, it even seemed to seduce Benjamin himself.

Several decades on, that other great Marxist urbanist Lefebvre turned his dialectical attention to the “production of space.” He urged us not to fetishize space, not to view it merely as a thing, not to see buildings, monuments, public spaces, entire neighborhoods and urban infrastructure as just “objects in space”; instead we had to make a conceptual leap, conceive them radically—that is, we had to get to the root of these things, just as Marx suggested. Here is Lefebvre’s take on it:

Instead of uncovering the social relationships (including class relationships) that are latent in spaces, instead of concentrating our attention on the production of space and the social relationships inherent to it — relationships which introduce specific contradictions into production, so echoing the contradiction between private ownership of the means of production and the social character of the productive forces — we fall into the trap of treating space “in itself,” as space as such. We come to think in terms of spatiality, and so fetishize space in a way reminiscent of the old fetishism of commodities, where the trap lay in exchange, and the error was to consider “things” in isolation, as “things in themselves.”8

The production of space can thus be likened to the production of actual commodities. Space in cities is literally colonized and commodified, created and torn down, bought and sold, used and abused, speculated on and fought over. Space is highly contested terrain, to be sure, and invariably the highest and most powerful bidder wins. We can usually see their spoils inscribed in the city’s built form, towering above us or else walling us off. Now, Marxist urban theory has to trace out the dynamic and complex interplay of the space-commodity in much the same way that Marxist economic theory traces out the dynamic and complex interplay of thing-commodities. Now, urban theory must delve into space’s fluid movement, into its generative moments, into its actual production, hooking up this process with the outcome of the process. From this standpoint, we can then open out the canvas, likewise envisioning the city itself as a specific observable experience and at the same time as a social relational productive process. From this standpoint, these realms represent two epistemological moments within an ontological unity, one we experience — urbanism — the other we don’t — urbanization — but know really exists nonetheless.

The label urbanism is adopted here to emphasize the perceptible thing-world each of us inhabits; the world of real places and time, of streets, bricks and mortar, the stores we shop in, the site-specific rituals and practices we engage in; in short, the whole environment of our lived experience. At the same time, urbanism is bounded, shaped, and defined by an imperceptible process, by something I am calling urbanization. The latter sets the terms, demarcates the ballpark, dictates the rules, has forged, and goes on forging, spaces and streets and people and links between other spaces and streets and people. Urbanization suggests extensive capital and money relations, large-scale bureaucratic, institutional, and governmental organization, technological innovation, huge transportation infrastructure, commercial and social agglomeration, diverse webs of market and business transactions. Urbanism, then, is specific, urbanization general; urbanism is concrete, urbanization abstract. Maybe urbanism resembles Marx’s “concrete labor” while urbanization has greater affinity with “abstract labor.” Maybe we could even push Marx a bit further, insofar as “abstract” for him tended to operate within a purely temporal orbit. He, remember, held that qualitatively different (concrete) labor activities under capitalism get reduced to a single quantitative yardstick: money, the universal measure of value. This standard becomes the common denominator of all things, as commodity relations colonize everywhere and everybody; Marx called this kind of labor abstract labor, labor in general, labor intimately tied to the law of value, to socially necessary labor time.

Needless to say, “abstract” here in no way implies a mental construct: it has a real material existence, just as value does, despite the fact that nobody can see, touch, feel or hear it. Nor is it meant to suggest that urbanization isn’t specific either, isn’t a process that gets actualized in different ways in different contexts. Instead, it’s meant to help us critically frame the totality of the capitalist urban process as a two-fold movement, like the commodity itself; Marx gives us the vocabulary and the mind-set to spot duality in unity, process in form, the abstract in the concrete, objectivity in subjectivity, generality in particularity. So, in like vein, urbanization is meant to conjure up a sort of abstract space. Of course, it’s a process that gains meaningful “objective” expression somewhere, in concrete space, in qualitatively different buildings, activities, locales, and modes of social intercourse in and through space; but its primary thrust lies in the production of abstract space, of a space and built form underwritten by value logistics, which condition its structural coherence, direct its expansive flow and trajectory. Therein, banks, real estate interests, corporations, information networks, law and order, are writ large and reign supreme—or at least try to.

Marx’s concept of fetishism equips critical urbanists with the conceptual tools to better understand, criticize and ultimately challenge the way the built environment of cities is suffused with value and surplus value. It can help unveil “mist-enveloped” forms of urbanization, deepen our knowledge of how, using Harvey Molotch’s apt phrase, cities are now giant “growth machines,” large-scale agglomerations of fixed capital that lubricate circulating capital and enhance the accumulation of capital.9 Within the supposed “New Economy,” cities are now compelled to compete with other cities to attract investment. Nowadays, they have to wrestle with each other for relative advantage, have to lure in high-income earners or spenders, command and control functions, cutting-edge corporations and high-tech firms, imploring them all to settle (or stay) in their city. Invariably, goodies are promised in return. In fact, city governments will do almost anything to put their city on the map, anything that improves their place image, quality of life, and business climate, anything that makes the city appear tougher and more entrepreneurial. Of course, this scenario has been ongoing for a while now, at least since 1976, when Molotch first aired his seminal thesis. But over the last 15 years or so, growth and entrepreneurial exigencies have become especially frantic, life-and-death struggles for a lot of U.S. cities.

Now there’s supposedly no alternative to an urbanization of abstract space, no alternative to “zero-sum” urbanization, to an urban dynamic that can only ever emerge unevenly. Like fratricidal competition between different industries, competition between cities becomes equally fratricidal; competition is likewise an external coercive force that damns certain cities to “moral depreciation,” just as it damns certain industries. Now, Wall Street is the Supreme Court, judging the winners and the losers. Now, investment rating agencies, like Moody’s, look on keenly, eye a particular city’s business friendliness and growth potential, assess its ability to borrow, to raise money, to keep taxes low, totting up its financial liability and viability. So, as the Dow has gotten fat and bullish, not only has American industry gotten lean, but cities have gotten lean as well, and a sort of “lean urbanization” pervades and dramatizes the current American urban condition, dramatizes people’s contemporary experience of urbanism. Just as Wall Street has rewarded corporate shake-downs, job eliminations, “downsizing” and “rightsizing,” it rewards lean cities, too — or at least rewards landed property and investors within lean cities, those personifications of abstract space, those who can really make space pay.

Lean urbanization is the imperceptible process behind neoliberal urban policy. Its progeny, the lean city, is a city that has been actively downsized, that now assumes the status of a business enterprise, typically measuring itself by the ability to balance its budget, to operate efficiently, to maximize its service provision — at minimal cost. Indeed, minimizing costs is the hallmark of lean urbanization as it is of lean production. Now, city councils forever mimic corporate boardrooms. Like their corporate counterparts, they’ve pursued — and go on pursuing — aggressive outsourcing strategies, increasingly contracting-out janitorial services, street maintenance, waste collection, data processing, low-rung administrative duties. Municipalities also encourage competitive tendering for construction work, thus trimming annual outgoings, as “low-balling” firms, frequently non-union, win lucrative public contracts. This way, city governments have knowingly solicited poverty-wage employers and have directly capitalized from them.

The lightening of the city’s payroll equally facilitates the transfer of public revenue from wage earners to finance, insurance & real estate (FIRE) elites. Henceforth developers, builders and investors become eager recipients of assorted grants, tax breaks and rent holidays, money designed to absorb financial risk, money that gives corporate welfare a distinctive urban bent. Lean cities are instrumental in re-channeling money into the production and reconstruction of urban space, into what Henri Lefebvre long ago called the “secondary circuit of capital,” into the now-familiar structures that mushroom on the cityscape: shopping malls, office blocks, corporate citadels, upscale housing, marinas and other waterfront developments, sports stadiums and spectacular architecture.10 Cost savings made from living labor (variable capital) are thereby realized in fixed form, in concrete space, veiling its “abstract” basis. The fetishism attaches itself to the urban process as soon as the intimate connection between living labor and the dead labor embodied in these “things in space,” is severed, is somehow beyond our capacity to imagine, is reified as a supra-sensible, non-perceptual, reality — just as the old man warned.

The hypertrophy of Wall Street and finance capital has had a profound impact on the U.S. economy and American labor, as well as on the form and function of American cities. Jobs can be sacrificed — indeed, job loss is tolerated — so long as inflation is squeezed. The current fixation on inflation, of course, makes perfect sense from the standpoint of vested powers that be. After all, inflation erodes the value of financial assets, thus undermining ruling class and rentier privilege. The deflationary bias of the Federal Reserve is wittingly pro-business, wittingly pro-FIRE, and the “ruse of inflation” and monetarist quackery ensure its preeminence as the executive committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie. Now, we’re told, rising capital and property values is healthy, but rising labor wages is somehow inflationary. This fuzzy logic justifies keeping real interest rates at a permanently high level, regularly mobilizing hikes as an instrument of class war, pitting profits and rents against wages.

Real estate values and rents have risen exponentially over the 1990s at the same time as labor values and wage levels have either stagnated or fallen in actual spending power terms. Between 1979 and 1997, average hourly wages for white-collar clerical staff fell from $14.58 to $12.82, after adjusting for inflation; over the same period, median hourly incomes for male non-supervisory employees fell $2.20, hurting younger workers most.11 The $5.15 federal minimum wage is really worth a good deal less than it was in 1968; working people are generally putting in longer hours, experience greater job insecurity, and usually have less health coverage. Contingent work seemingly lies at the heart of the fêted Clinton boom, and is the central lever of U.S. capitalist accumulation.12 Its net urban result, as it unfolds over and through space, is that housing costs now invariably outpace salaries, dead labor de-couples itself from living labor, completing the fetishism. A new study conducted by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition even indicates that there’s no city in the entire United States where a family living on minimum wage could afford a decent apartment.13 In 70 metropolitan regions, minimum-wage earners would need to work for more than 100 hours a week to pay any market rent. High rents, in turn, prevent average families from saving enough for a home down payment.

That the production of housing is overwhelmingly geared toward high-end accommodations, toward producing “abstract spaces,” is pretty evident from the dearth of affordable housing around today. In 1970, there were 6.5 million low-cost units and slightly over 6 million renter households in the United States. Now, there are 6.1 million low-income units and 10.5 million renter households, a staggering mismatch. In New York City alone, between 1981-1999 when its population expanded by 350,000, the city added only 42,000 new affordable rental units. Since 1975, median rents in Gotham rose 33% while median incomes grew 3%.14 Wages there for middle-level and low-end jobs actually fell during the 1990s by 7.6% and 9.5% respectively, after adjusting for inflation.15 In the city’s five boroughs, meeting bare-bones needs costs two to five times more than the officially designated poverty threshold of $14,150 per year for a household of three. In Queens, an adult with a preschool and a school-age child would need at least $46,836 to get by; in Manhattan, that same family would need $74,232.16 So, despite record budget surpluses and eight years of unprecedented national economic expansion and prosperity — destined to be given away to the already rich via George W.’s tax cut bonanza — nobody anywhere seems bothered about affordable housing. In most cities, people seem to have to scramble to make ends meet, taking several jobs to cope with the perpetual rises in housing costs. In the end, lean urbanization produces a rather bleak experience of urbanism for a lot of city folks, for America’s urban working class, whose ranks are vividly swelling not shrinking. With an imaginative reworking, Marx can still help us puncture this paradox, expose this fetishism, help us figure out how great prosperity can deepen poverty, and how it has its own contradictory spatial logic.

2. ‘Practicing’ Class in the City

In a sense, what it means to be urban working class now gets defined by the two-fold character of urbanism, by the collision of lean urbanization with the reality and experience of people’s lives. Class, in other words, is how the process and the experience really get actualized, how the former, dancing to the tune of exchange value, impedes and invades the latter, on the ground, somewhere and at sometime, as an everyday use value. Thus class in the city, we might say, is now forged by the dialectic of urbanization and urbanism. Capital is chasing profit of enterprise, while interest and dividends on stock are increasingly prospering from chasing rental income. Landlords, rentiers, real estate agents, property companies and investors, all discipline working people at home the same way that irregular employment disciplines them on the job. Capital eyeing rent shapes abstract space, and the abstract, quantitative space of exchange clashes with the concrete, qualitative space of use. It is precisely this clash, this dialectic, which is making the American urban working class, at home as well as at work. But its members are beginning to realize their own presence at this making. Class, for them, is happening “when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.” This, of course, is Edward Thompson’s famous class statement from The Making of the English Working Class, an idea that roughly tallies with Marx’s own understanding. Thompson reminds us of how Marx defined class not as a “thing” but as a fluid relationship which, Thompson says, “evades analysis if we attempt to stop it dead at any given moment and anatomize its structure.”17

While Marx himself left a lot of unfinished business on the class front, we know he didn’t posit either a sociological definition of class or any theory of social stratification. His only direct confrontation with class petered out after a page and a half at the end of Capital Volume Three. But we know he never looked upon class as an occupational category or as a rigid, quantifiable numbers game, assessed by any census. For him, class is always a dynamic process, an intricate battle of roles and relationships, in which individuals become “bearers” of economic categories and interests, interests that are changeable over time and space. For Marx, the role played by the group he christened the “modern working class” was — as it still is – necessarily complex. Sometimes, for instance, the role and interests of its members are ambiguous; sometimes their constitution changes, their “personification” of labor-power has them wear many hats, dress in different clothes, live in pretty suburban houses as well as squalid inner city tenements. As an experiential being, the working class uses its brains, hands and feet to make something useful or to provide a service for somebody else in exchange for a wage. Other times, the working class’s enslavement to capital is “concealed by the variety of individual capitalists to whom it sells itself.”18

None of this, however, annuls the fact that its members must labor in some way to earn a living. Nothing annuls the fact that ostensibly disparate people — in dirty overalls or nice pressed suits, sweating in factories or web-searching in offices, researching in labs or teaching in universities — constitute a class of laborers “who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labor increases capital.” They constitute the modern working class, whether they know it or not. Neither, too, does the “unproductive” nature of much work here undermine Marx’s class prognosis. Quite the reverse: it actually offers definitive proof of his class theory. Remember Capital’s pivotal “Machinery and Large-Scale Industry” chapter? There, Marx emphasizes how technological development of the productive forces actively creates a service sector class. So what looks like the disappearance of the “traditional” (blue-collar) working class is, for him, but a reconstitution of this class. The burgeoning of a service class thereby reflects a deepening of capital-labor relations, not their supersession.19

At any rate, some have come to realize this, have come to recognize their common interests, have begun to behave with class-consciousness. They’ve begun, in effect, to put class into practice. Class-consciousness and class practice emerge when the fetishism between process and experience is punctured, when the unintelligible process is rendered intelligible in daily life, when common, shared experience is identified, when a common “positionality” is understood. When those who once identified with the big guys suddenly discovered downsizing, they soon started to identify with the little guys; when those who once worked with their brains felt the brunt of de-skilling, they began to bond with those who labor with their hands; when those who push paper by day had their benefits cut, they found common ground with those who clean offices by night. That is class-consciousness. It’s when high and low-paid alike begin to discover that what privileges they may have had were really contingent all along.20 These people, in one way or another, have been exposed to the vicissitudes of competition, to the vagaries of supply and demand for their labor-power, to market fluctuations. Now, these people know they’re dispensable, know they’re relative to the ebb and flow of capital accumulation. Knowing this is what Marx meant by class-consciousness. It’s a sobering experience, for sure, yet it’s a political experience, too.

For collective awareness and shared experience provide the impetus behind the imaginative organizing drives that are now reverberating across urban and suburban America. People are uniting and have already started to think up and work through new alternatives—practical and realistic alternatives to the lean-city, low-pay experience. They’re doing so in their communities and workplaces, and they’re pinpointing the necessity of guarding both flanks at once, upping the radical ante to metropolitan-wide, sometimes even region-wide, scales. These campaigns have unleashed a new political vocabulary in the U.S. city: “Living Wage” activism. Broadly, they’re seeking to unite people in efforts to establish standards for the contracting-out of public services; in applying conditions on tax abatements and public subsidy; in demanding “claw-back” provisions if corporations downsize or fail to deliver on stipulated promises; and in seeking outright increases in the minimum wage. Now, a living wage constitutes a “family wage,” a “housing wage,” remuneration that enables workers and their dependents to live with dignity in the city, to play a little as well as work hard, to reproduce as they produce. If anything, activists’ demands and grumbles chime with those Marx set out at the beginning of the “Working Day” chapter of Capital: “You are constantly preaching to me the gospel of ‘saving’ and ‘abstinence,’” Marx has one worker voice to a boss. “Very well! Like a sensible, thrifty owner of property I will husband my sole wealth, my labor-power, and abstain from wasting it foolishly. Every day I will spend, set in motion, transfer into labor only as much of it as is compatible with its normal duration and healthy development…What you gain in labor, I lose in substance of labor. Using my labor and despoiling it are quite different things.”21

The notion of a living wage, with its biological and corporeal overtones, has a universality that is bringing together different kinds of folks, with different skin colors and ethnicities and gender, in different kinds of work, in many different kinds of city as demographically and socially diverse as Baltimore, Dayton, Duluth, Durham, Jersey City, New York, Minneapolis-St.Paul, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Oakland, and Portland bonding in novel and unexpected ways. This has often been an “entry level” politicizing experience, with some citizens foisting themselves into municipal-level politics and union drives for the first time. Assorted umbrella groups like the Labor Party, New Party, Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), and the AFL-CIO, have made living-wage struggles the mainstay of their recent programs, keeping activists and would-be activists informed about what’s what, locally and nationally, forging links across states and cities, proclaiming “America needs a raise,” politicking for card-carrying “Union Cities,” for an urbanization of labor not capital. The language of class circulates as a lingua franca.

Cities like Baltimore, for instance, now have residents and organizations (e.g. BUILD—Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development) mindful of how subsidized waterfront redevelopment and the contracting-out of city-service work are not only inexorably linked, but have equally spawned poverty-wage jobs. The convention center, the hotels, the new sports stadium, have guzzled gallons of public alms, yet still soup kitchen lines lengthen; and city missions find steady work most nights. In L.A., too, radical locals, such as the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 11, have dramatized the plight of low-wage Latinos toiling in swanky publicly-underwritten hotels and restaurants. Under the guidance of Maria-Elena Durazo, a Cesar Chávez protégée, HERE 11 has regularly staged mass boycotts, flying picketing, raucous street demos, “coffee-ins” in hotel dining rooms, achieving handy wage raises and new union contracts. “We had learned how to organize immigrant farm workers around issues of class and justice,” quipped Durazo. “We’ve been doing that again here.” Ditto in the downtown high-rises and suburban office enclaves, where bright-red-T-shirted Latino and Latina janitors, rank and filers of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1877, have occupied lobbies, screamed and chanted, banged drums and blocked off traffic, downed vacuum cleaners, and won union recognition and significant pay deals and benefits. These unions have spearheaded Living Wage legislation in the City of Angels, and activists and unionists have launched an offensive, confrontational politics, by-passing the effete ballot box system, crystallizing Marx’s insistence in Capital that political struggles are invariably sanctioned by force, resolved by the relative power of the combatants.22 It’s only through organizing and campaigning and class consciousness that working people will discover who they are, how much they’re really worth, and how much they can take back: corporations and the ruling classes will rarely give anything up without being forced to. “The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking,” Marx said back in 1845, “is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Humans must prove the truth, i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of their thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.”23

It is through practical struggle, practical engagement, that truth is both discovered and created; it’s through practical, collective struggle, Marx says, that people can find and remake themselves, change the world while changing their own nature. Marx knows that practice is vitally important for defining what it means to be human, for making us more than “one-sided,” purely contemplative, isolated beings. To be sensuous, to feel yourself and other people around and alongside you, necessitates practical activity. This is what Marx seems to suggest. Social struggles, for him, are at the same time existential voyages.24 Living-wage activism is providing one kind of political forum for voicing sensuous dissatisfaction. Sometimes this dissatisfaction has erupted out on to the city street itself, into urban public space. Here, grievances about the wage-relation and about the housing-relation — grievances about the whole urban question, if we may extend Frederick Engels’ old manifesto — are about creating an institutional culture and civic space that enable practice to unfurl. The context — the literal as well political space — has shaped the tactics and efficacy of progressive tactics, like living-wage drives, both within and without the workplace. And, in response, these mobilizations have shaped the context, have affected the urban process itself, the dynamics of urbanization; they have provided vitality as well as democracy.

Maybe what cities need, accordingly, are spaces and institutions where this practice can freely associate; and freely associative practice can, in turn, help light and air seep into city and working life. Lean urbanization has darkened and asphyxiated a lot of American cities, has created predictable ubiquity, homogeneous urban landscapes in which financially successful initiatives are serially reproduced. And if there are any public spaces here, they’re usually sterile and stupefying, air-conditioned nightmares that desensitize experience rather than intensify it. And within their interstices, assorted service working classes hustle for long hours, receive pittances in return, and travel great distances for this pittance. And when they get home, they penny pinch for the rent. Rarely do we find ethical and aesthetic urban spaces co-existing, spaces that don’t exclude on the basis of class (and race) and which are exciting, uplifting and novel, incorporating political function within imaginative form, and doing it for the majority not just for a privileged minority. Rarely, too, do we find Marx’s mature ethical invocations about revolutionary practice co-existing with his youthful existential evocations about freedom and passions. The former vision is workerist and Promethean; the latter, playful and Orphean. Somehow, we need to invent urban practices and spaces that can conjoin them, that promote a dialogue between the two stances as well as a confrontation between the two Marxes. Meanwhile, there’s plenty to be done to make the interim feel less transitory, plenty that’s already being done to make it feel more lived in, more passionate.

3. Struggling for the Passionate City, Wherever It May Lead

When he was honeymooning in Paris in 1844, Marx wrote: “the practical creation of an objective world, the fashioning of inorganic nature, is proof that man is a conscious species-being.”25 Marx puts a lot of emphasis on the way we practically and consciously make our world, the way we make it “actively and actually,” the way we wrestle with the reality outside of our own thinking minds. We do this wrestling together, Marx assures us, and thus we collectively produce ourselves and our kind; we produce, in his words, our own “species-life,” quite literally making how we think and act, feel and see. For Marx, problems of our world—real social dilemmas—are approachable and resolvable only in a practical way, “only through the practical energy of man.” The “reality of our essential powers” is especially tangible in our “species-activity,” in our own “everyday, material industry.” The way we toil, the way we struggle every day, shaping our lives, consciously and thoughtfully, makes us special, takes us beyond other animals. We are special because we are equipped with what Marx calls — and italicizes — “vital powers.”26 (Marx emphasizes this point because he knows that for many people, for many working class people especially, these vital powers are denied, enervated, abused; numbed by deadening routine, by repetitive work without content, by lousy housing, by junk food.) These powers exist in all of us as “dispositions,” “capacities,” and “drives,” irrespective of our social class. They energize us as human beings, define our nature, spur us on somehow. At the same time, the “objects” of these drives are objects that exist outside us, exist independent of us, yet are “indispensable to the exercise and confirmation of our essential powers.” We’ve got to have them, and as we try to get them, we become sensuous.

Marx thinks that a being without any object outside itself is no being at all, is somebody who exists in a mere state of solitude. “As soon as I have an object,” he claims, “this object has me for its object. But a non-objective being is an unreal, non-sensuous, merely thought, i.e. merely conceived being, a being of abstraction.” “To be sensuous,” Marx insists, “i.e. to be real, is to be an object of sense, a sensuous object, and thus to have sensuous objects outside one’s sense perception.” It is our driving and wrestling to connect with this sensuous external world—a sensuous world that incorporates other people—reaching out, feeling and seeing and yearning, not turning inward and contemplating, that ensures we’re passionate beings. And, as Marx says, “passion is man’s essential power vigorously striving to attain its object.”27 What’s getting emphasized here, of course, is the prodigious power of human dissatisfaction, and it’s the dispossessed who suffer most material dissatisfaction. While Marx’s tack here differs from Capital, and his language is more abstract and vague, even woollier, he’s nonetheless trying to affirm the struggle for “free-conscious activity” in the “species-character” of working class men and women. Objective reality — the external objects and world that surround us, contextualizing social life — can and does condition free-conscious activity and struggle. Context can constrain it, obviously, and under capitalism it does so for the bulk of the populace. But context and environment can likewise enable free-conscious activity, can nourish any struggle and human yearning, can inspire essential human powers — powers to do the right thing, that drive to attain justice and class vengeance.

The youthful Marx roots for these latter circumstances, roots for a society and environment in which the possibilities for human passion, striving, dreaming and acting practically could heighten and be generalized. He champions a social and psychological space in which the possibilities for adventure and intrigue could intensify for those who hitherto experienced dread. He champions a space, a political and material space, where our senses — seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling, tasting, wanting, acting and loving (all Marx’s words) — could blossom as “organs of individuality” and “theoreticians in their immediate praxis.” What might this mean for the city? Maybe, with a little imagination, it points toward a city where there’s intense human experience and struggle, where life is lived without rubber gloves, where spaces — real, material, civic, and cultural — exist to promote and give scope to diverse human striving. In them, working people might inhabit a more wholesome world, a world a bit like a good farmers’ market, where fruit and vegetables are misshapen, dirty and battered, yet invariably taste great, even raw — especially raw. Above all, they taste, and in our contemporary processed age, that’s saying a lot. These are the sort of items that are dumped by big chain supermarkets, who stock only the most perfectly formed, mass-grown specimens, those devoid of dirt and flavor. Young Marx is invoking the need for an environment that heightens our senses, stimulates them, makes them richer, more aware, open to “real life.” That environment, that city and society, would likely be somehow dirty and misshapen, would ensure that we feel, vigorously strive and struggle — amid the dirt and with fallibility — for our desideratum. He challenges us to imagine a freer and open-ended society for ourselves, for the majority, not just for the precious minority, who inherit this opportunity, or buy it and monopolize it, at the expense of somebody else. Marx challenges anybody who cares about the fate of our cities to formulate an urbanism of the open road, a gaping, passionate city, a “bringer of plurabilities” — if I might borrow James Joyce’s lovely phrase from Finnegans Wake.

In a curious sense, this mentality has seeped deep into Mike Davis’s recent book on working class Latino populations in the big U.S. city, Magical Urbanism. Davis wants to put Latinos “in the center of debate about the future of the American city.”28 After all, he says, they’ve brought “redemptive energies” to many worn out metropolitan areas shunned by middle-class Anglos. The “micro-entrepreneurship” of these “anonymous heroes” boils down to a ferocious struggle to rebuild their new homes away from home. In Florence, Vernon, and Watts, ravaged old industrial heartlands of Los Angeles, “tired, sad little homes undergo miraculous revivifications; their peeling façades repaired, sagging roofs and porches rebuilt, and yellowing lawns replanted in cacti and azaleas.” This, reckons Davis, is pure Mexican and Salvadoran sweat-equity, working class homeowners who, by hook or by crook, have defied years of redlining, absentee landlordism, and civic neglect, pooling together their meager resources. Moreover, these intrepid homesteaders don’t just stay indoors and watch TV; they’re avid users and constructors of urban public space as well. Latino families enjoy hanging out in the street and have given the kiss of life to a hitherto maligned species in U.S. cities: parks, playgrounds and community gardens. As Anglos increasingly barricade themselves into single-family homes in the “cold” privatized hinterlands, Latinos, Davis maintains, seek a “hotter, more exuberant urbanism.”

Latino populations show how the beleaguered American metropolis can be made “hotter” through creative and collective struggle, through a shared conviction on behalf of an urban-based proletariat of a civilized sociality, one that retains a fierce loyalty to neighborhood and to an urbanism of promise. Marx never lived to see any of this, but he knew it was a major reason why dispossessed and minority (and dissident) populations gravitated to big cities to begin with. That’s why magnet cities, like New York and Los Angeles, become intensive zones of human contact, passionate arenas of struggle, of people’s essential power vigorously striving to attain their object. “Real life,” as he put it, exists in these spaces, often in microcosmic traces, as it does in a lot of other spaces across urban America. But the idea would be for socialism to make these little oases macrocosmic. There are instructive lessons for Marxists here. For a start, struggle and conflict usually means danger, often it means injustice, occasionally it means death; nevertheless, always it spells life and yearning, dramatic (and tragic) human dissatisfaction. These impulses, paradoxically, are frequently the lifeblood of a vibrant urbanism and radical culture; they give the metropolis its problematical energy.

Of course, nobody can really know in advance where the end to struggle lies, or whether there will be any cosmic transcendence of the dialectic of urbanization and urbanism. Instead, what’s crucial is to harness this spirit of dissatisfaction, to channel it somehow, direct it against the right enemy, utilize it creatively and relentlessly, forever push forth with it. The job, we on the Left know, is immeasurably aided and enhanced by organizers and activists, whose services and talents are in abundant supply everywhere around the country. (We can always use a few more dedicated hands, needless to say.) We already have plenty of labor and community organizers, assorted organic intellectuals, committed citizens, working class heroes, living-wagers, and progressives of numerous stripes, people who can critically analyze a given situation, can see it as the internalization of previous situations, and can help develop a class practice to contest that situation. All these people know, somehow, that welding critical thought to practical struggle can help develop real places—not phony utopias—and that these places are sometimes made livable by people struggling to live. Still, what Leftists ought to remember, along the way, is that through our inexorable striving we might even see a little light in the here and now, discover a kindred community of fellow-travelers, and catch a fleeting glimpse of a democratic urbanism that permits us to strive.


1. Andy Merrifield, “The Devil in Mr. Marx,” The Nation, July 10, 2000

2. Karl Marx, Capital Volume One, Vintage, New York, 1977, p. 812.

3. Ibid., p. 165.

4. Ibid., pp. 168-169.

5. Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, Merlin Press, London, 1971, p. 84 (emphasis in original).

6. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., 1999, p. 872.

7. Ibid., p. 17.

8. The Production of Space, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1991, p. 90. Lefebvre, the sociologist and philosopher, found a kindred spirit in the English geographer David Harvey, whose voluminous writings since the early ’70s have made pretty much the same point. Harvey’s notion of the “spatial fix,” that space is an “active moment” in the expansion and reproduction of modern (and postmodern) capitalism, is most thoroughly presented in The Limits to Capital (republished by Verso in 1999).

9. Harvey Molotch, “The City as a Growth Machine: Toward a Political Economy of Place,” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 82 (1976): 309-32.

10. Lefebvre, by the way, was one of the first to spot an emerging “spatial tendency” within crisis-prone late capitalism. He recognized its handy knack for piling up surplus value and accumulating capital through speculating on and investing in space, through producing new urban built forms, and through siphoning off monies from the primary industrial circuit of capital. But Lefebvre never foresaw the pivotal coordinating and enabling role the state would eventually assume in this regard.

11. Lawrence Mishel, Jared Berstein, and John Schmitt, The State of Working America, 1998-99, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y., 1999, p. 131.

12. See Andy Merrifield, “Class Formation, Capital Accumulation, and the Downsizing of America,” Monthly Review, October 1999: 32-43.

13. See Peter Dreier, “Why America’s Workers Can’t Pay the Rent,” Dissent, Summer 2000: 38-44.

14. “Housing Crisis Confounds a Prosperous City,” The New York Times, July 9, 2000; for more details on the impact this has had for poor single people in New York, see Andy Merrifield, “Lepers at the City Gate: Single Room Occupancy and the Housing Crisis,” Dissent, Spring 2001: 14-20.

15. At the same time, Mayor Giuliani instituted a series of tax incentives in Lower Manhattan to stimulate the rehabilitation of older office buildings. And for those big and rich corporations who threatened to flee costly Manhattan for the cost-effective New Jersey shoreline, like Crédit Suisse First Boston, Merrill Lynch, and Time Warner et al., the Mayor offered substantial tax breaks.

16. “In New York, Family Costs Rise Far Above Poverty Line,” New York Times, September 13, 2000.

17. E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1968 edition, pp. 9-10.

18. Capital Volume One, p. 764.

19. Cf. ibid., pp. 574-5; see also Andy Merrifield, “,” Monthly Review, November 2000: 21-35.

20. Cf. Marshall Berman, “Unchained Melody,” in Adventures in Marxism, Verso, New York, 1999, p. 263.

21. Capital Volume One, p. 343.

22. For further empirical details, see Andy Merrifield, “The Urbanization of Labor: Living Wage Activism in the American City,” Social Text, #62, Spring 2000: 31-54.

23. Second Thesis on Feuerbach, in Karl Marx, Early Writings, Vintage, New York, 1974, p. 422 (Marx’s emphasis).

24. The idea really permeates all of Marx’s thought. By struggling to overcome the external world, external nature, and material want, Marx knew that we altered our internal nature and the social relations of our existence. We change ourselves in actual labor activities and we do it as a collective species. Struggle both catalyzes and releases our vital powers and our passions.

25. “Economical and Philosophical Manuscripts,” in Early Writings, p. 329 (Marx’s emphasis).

26. Ibid., p. 389.

27. Ibid., p. 390.

28. Mike Davis, Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. Big City, Verso, New York, 2000; see also Andy Merrifield, “Chronicle of a City Foretold,” New Left Review, #6, November/December 2000: 155-160.

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