1. Editorial #4
  2. Brown v. Ferguson
    1. A History of Separation
    2. Preface
    3. Construction
    4. Infrastructure
    5. Fracturing
    6. Strange Victory
    7. Defeat
    8. Afterword
  3. gather us from among the nations
  4. its own peculiar decor
  5. An Identical Abject-Subject?

its own peculiar decor Capital, urbanism, and the crisis of class politics in the US

by Chris Wright

In Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord noted in rapid succession several elements of the relation of capital to space, which he brought under the concept of urbanism. Capital unifies and homogenises space so that it becomes the free space of commodities, of the valorisation of values. This eliminates geographical distance only to create a kind of inner distance — separation — in which transportation serves to make each place as much like every other as possible, so that, finally:

A society that molds its entire surroundings has necessarily evolved its own techniques for working on the material basis of this set of tasks. That material basis is the society’s actual territory. Urbanism is the mode of appropriation of the natural and human environment by capitalism, which, true to its logical development toward absolute domination, can (and now must) refashion the totality of space into its own peculiar decor.1

This concept of urbanism identified the separation under conditions in which it appeared that 1) “industry” as discussed in Capital vol. 1 was the highest and last form of the organisation of labour,2 2) capitalism would never be able to overcome the material impoverishment of more than a small minority of wage-labourers in any country, including the wealthiest ones, and 3) the working class would remain always and forever — or at least until the revolution — outside the legal and political forms of capitalist society; that is, it would retain the status of an estate with its own semi-autonomous political and cultural institutions marking it off from the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois classes. In crucial respects, these three conditions no longer apply.

These changes are expressed not merely in production, distribution, and consumption, but in the working up of the spaces in which these take place. For example, the elimination of geographical distance today relies more on the means of rapidly traversing an expanding low-density geography, rather than on increasing density of population and productive capacity, forming urban clusters linked by point-to-point systems like rail and shipping. The contradictory drives of capital accumulation which have resulted in the three above-mentioned changes equally determine this de-concentration which we think of as sprawl and suburbanisation. This shift in the spatial production of capitalist society literally changes the terrain on which its contradictions play out. This does not do away with the essence of capital, with its fundamental categories, but registers a genuine transformation in their expression, their modes of existence or phenomenal forms, in the shaping of space. This matters because the phenomenal forms taken by the opposition to capital also change — something we will return to later.

I have focused on suburbanisation in the United States for the same reasons Marx focused on Britain in Capital: this dramatic shift in the working up of space by capital is nowhere else so clear and complete, but the conditions which generate sprawl and suburbanisation are of course not limited to the US — they represent a general enough global tendency in this period to be taken as characterising the broader dynamics of the class relation as such. This does not mean, however, that we can simply read the American case off the operation of capital’s “logic”. The latter is itself highly shaped by the peculiarities of the US context, meaning that the story of suburbanisation must be unfolded with an attention to particular cases and the contingencies which shape them. The tendency towards de-concentration is constituted by, and in turn helps to constitute, the reorganisation of the phenomenal forms of the capital–labour relation — a reorganisation driven by the crisis of 1917–45, in which the working class as an estate met its historic defeat in a counter-revolution that arose in part from within the workers’ movement itself. Such a defeat is not only political, however. Defeat always entails the reorganisation of the labour process and the very conditions of accumulation. While the working class was decisively defeated by fascism on one side and Keynesianism on the other — through their mutual immersion in war and genocide — accumulation was renewed on a world scale. This occurred under conditions which reversed the three above-mentioned assumptions of capitalism’s radical critics: transforming labour and production processes to surpass the dominance of mechanical industry; relatively overcoming the working class’s material impoverishment in the wealthiest countries; introducing a greater degree of inclusion and representation of wage-labourers, as individuals, within the political and legal system. The latter was not merely a matter of votes, or of the integration of unions or workers’ parties into the state: with it came more general improvements in the guaranteed quality of life, through access to healthcare, funded retirement, paid vacation, free public education, and so on. This gradually ate away at the independent organisations and institutions of the class that had existed outside, and often against, the state and bourgeois property law, and in many cases effectively destroyed them.

The recognition of these changes has been glacially slow among those claiming a “revolutionary” outlook — that is, one in which the overcoming of capitalism as the work of capital, itself entails the overcoming of capitalism by those compelled to wage labour. Where they have been recognised, and where the abolition of capital has not been given up altogether, this has often entailed the claim that the capital–labour relation no longer holds, that the working class no longer exists, and that the overcoming of capital will either come only from a class outside of the capital relation, or will be the work of capital’s own rational self-overcoming. Both cases share a common source of error: an association of the phenomenal, historically particular conditions of mechanical industry and material impoverishment with the categories of capital as such and the abstract nature of its forms of domination, and the conflation of a class relation with the condition of being an estate. To put it another way, both have acted as if capitalist society was a direct form of domination of one group by another, as in slavery or feudalism, when in fact it involves an indirect form of domination through abstract social forms. Of course, in its initial development capitalism arose amidst such direct, concrete forms of domination and they do not simply disappear of themselves, but only under a protracted development, which is itself determined by continual crises and the potential overthrow of capitalism.


Labour in capitalist society requires the constant separation of people from their powers, from the means of production, from the products of their labour, and from each other. Separation is the premise of all accumulation, or paraphrasing Guy Debord, it is the alpha and omega of capital.3 Separation is internalised within the experience of everyday life, where it becomes naturalised and consensual, and does not appear as domination. Separation is essential to capital as a total social circuit — that is, the separation of production, circulation, and consumption. This separation of the total circuit can be expressed spatially. For example, production occurs in “places of work”, from factories, mills and mines to offices and engineering campuses, while circulation takes place in commercial warehouses and retail stores, and consumption loops back into production in the workplace or the home.4 From the opening of the capitalist era the latter has been constructed as private by the separation of non-waged labour — into the feminised space of the home — from the masculinised, public, waged labour of the workplace. This separation of the private is in fact doubled: as the separation into spheres of waged and unwaged labour, but also of public and private, of the political and the economic.

Labour Process and Capital Circuit

Marxian urbanism was concerned largely with conceptualising the contradictory unity of spatial and formal concentration: bringing together geographically to separate socially — producers from means of production; home from workplace; reproduction of labour power from reproduction of capital; producer from product; producers from each other, and so on. Capital seemed to categorically require an increasing density of population and a geographical concentration of the means of accumulation. However, this concentration has ultimately proved contingent; something which capital sought to overcome, and it achieved this through a transformation in its capacity to negate physical distance: the crisis of urbanism was thus temporarily resolved through the spatial deconcentration of capital and labour.

Capital is not only separation, however: its entire circuit—M → C…P…C´ → M´—has to be taken into account.5 The question is how the logical forms are simultaneously both maintained in their separation and brought together in a unity. Many of the central problems of urbanism flow from the contradiction that capital is not only its activity of separation but this entire circuit of buying, selling and productive consumption — and that in order to complete the circuit, producers, means of production, and products all have to be brought together in great concentrations. Consumption also takes place, in Marx’s classic formulation, between capital’s two “departments”— capitals engaged in the production of means of production and in the production of means of consumption — which is another way of considering productive consumption by capital and labour. Here we will focus in on changes that have occurred within only part of the circuit: C…P…C´. That is, we will look at changes to production, communication, energy, and transportation, due to the importance of these for understanding spatial de-concentration.

Urbanism arose and took its classical forms as manufacture and mechanical industry gave rise to ever denser populations under conditions which helped produce a collective self-identification as workers, as a class, as a political power, as proletariat. The modern industrial city, as well as the great cosmopolitan centres, grew out of this process, under conditions determined both by technical restrictions on capital’s diffusion in space and by the economic and political exclusion of labour. The crisis of the phenomenal forms of capital in the first half of the 20th century was then also a crisis of the modern industrial city and of the relationship between the urban and the rural. Out of many discontinuous and contested changes a process of rationalisation took place, both within the labour process and in urbanism.

The process of rationalisation under capitalism is not about technological solutions to technological problems, but re-organisation of the class relation. This process is typically described in terms of the transformation of the labour process through technological innovation, but it also entails the transformation of the environment, which is much less discussed. The replacement of living with dead labour is not just quantitative, replacing x human labour with y machinery, but involves qualitative combinations of labour displacement and deskilling. The widespread employment of a particular technology to achieve systematic rationalisation is always also a question of the problem of reproducing labour as a social mediation. The old machinery and methods become reduced to mere technology subsumed to the new labour process.6 This progressive rationalisation cannot be adequately grasped by the notion of a movement from formal to real subsumption. Capitalist “progress” is exactly this process of successive transformations in the labour process, undertaken to overcome problems of valorisation. “Technological solutions” mediate these broad-ranging transformations that alter the organisation of space, time, and rationality, which is also why these progressive rationalisations appear as technological revolutions, giving rise to technological determinist theories.7 This process of rationalisation is the way in which capital’s domination is reasserted, through the transformational reproduction of the capital-labour relation.

These transformations radiate and generalise because capital is a dynamic totality that can accommodate an almost infinite variety of political and cultural forms, and absorb forms of resistance. The totalising nature of the dynamic is evident in the global scope and simultaneity of these transformations, which have been given an abundance of names: Fordism, the mass worker or state capitalism to refer to the period from 1917 to the early 1970s, where power and production seemed increasingly to collapse into each other; globalisation, neo-liberalism or Empire to refer to the changes which have taken place since the 1970s, in which the separation of state and economy seemed to be the dominant trend.8 At the same time, these rationalising transformations can manifest themselves in a seemingly infinite variety of concrete shapes, and the global shift is therefore only evident after the fact. Often, the fact that we can talk about a change indicates that it is already passing, or has already passed.

We will now take a closer look at these successive and progressive rationalisations through which the capital–labour relation has re-asserted itself, transforming the way in which it is experienced and produces space.

The Changing Relation of Workers to Work

The transformation of machinery and the labour process alters the relation of labour and capital, and the relations of workers to each other. Machinery and the labour process mediate the actual relations between workers, because workers come into contact with each other through the production process. They also mediate the relation between capital and labour, because capital is experienced first and foremost as machinery, raw materials, and the command of the production process, while capital experiences labour as variable capital. Machinery and the labour process materialise the class relation and thus form the basis for its perpetuation and particularisation.9 Social relations are thus embedded in the labour process and machinery, and this formation in turn shapes sociality.

The introduction of a labour process based on machinery gives work an indirect relationship to nature, as work is performed on nature to either turn it into a raw material or to turn a raw material into a product, but in neither case is the whole labour oriented towards the whole process from beginning to end. This abandonment of handicraft production opens up the way for the pre-planning of coordination, transport and assembly, and the rationalisation of the work activity via practical analysis and deskilling. Planning in turn becomes the price-form in process, with the value already being calculated prior to being brought to the market. Out of this comes the divorce of operational and technical planning from realisation via physical labour, which introduces the difference between the worker and the planner, engineer, and overseer.

Following Hans-Dieter Bahr:

Machinery sets free an intellect formerly bound to the feudal-handicraft labour process, an intellect which carries the possibility of forming a political collective worker out of the divided partial workers. In contrast to the work ethic of the guild, the political cooperation of wage-workers comes into external opposition to production as such, since the social ends of production confront the proletariat as an external force, i.e. as the ruling class. The leveling down of the specialised workers by means of production technology creates the condition for turning the wage-struggle into the potential political socialisation of a working class in the process of organising itself. On the other hand, the contradiction between the specialised worker and the technological intellect responsible for the direction, construction and transmission of the isolated detail operations, prevents the working class from recognising its own social character in this intellect, which in fact represents its own intellect, even if in the form of an unconsciously collective product alienated from the working class and acquiring independent shape in the form of planners, technicians and engineers. The proletariat therefore stands in outward opposition to its own intellect, which the capitalist process of production has created in formal independence. In part, it was this hostility which weakened and nullified the resistance of the working class to fascism. In addition, the absence of a practical-theoretical critique of the productive intellect blinkers the working class, binding it as a variable moment to the aggregate social capital; in this respect, the working class is merely an antagonistic, but nonetheless fixed component of bourgeois society. Its blindness towards its own, but alienated, intellect means that it contributes to the maintenance of the false totality of this society. And a “liberation” which takes place behind the backs of the producers posits freedom as mere ideal.10

The formal independence of the intellect has become its real independence. This shift means that the worker more thoroughly divorces himself from a labour process which is incomprehensible to him in the absence of highly specialised, scientific knowledge. This independent intellect fosters a culture of giving orders and obeying which is prevalent in today’s permissive society. Both authority and obedience flourish where they are least expected.

With the internalisation and objectification of the whole labour process into machinery, the circulation of commodity capital is itself industrialised, while “industrial and commercial capital fuse via the functional role played by financial capital.”11 Despite this fusion, however, the limitations of the means of transportation and communication prior to WWII still necessitated relatively dense and connected facilities, with large concentrations of workers able to see the entire production process. This concentration brought about industrial union-type org­anisations and labour-type political parties. Forms of mass communication such as the newspaper, film, and radio, developed to artificially resolve what Bahr refers to as the “‘ideality’ of the collective worker” into that of an individual consumer and citizen.12 The various strands came together in the form of organisations of the workers which took on an autonomous existence, developing bureaucratically, and in the end becoming a brake on the very revolutionary intellect from which they grew.

Critical changes took place in energy, communications, and transportation that provided the infrastructural foundations for the dissolution of the spatial and communicative conditions of collective working class life. National energy grids were developed to provide power across large areas without the need for facilities to have dedicated power plants. This broad network of energy provision was combined with the mass proliferation of the automobile and truck, and the development of massive road and highway infrastructures to support them, which made it possible to expand laterally in space at a much lower population and capital density than had previously been imaginable. In terms of intercontinental transportation there were also huge strides in transoceanic shipping and air transport. This expansion of power and mobility for the commercial, the retail and the residential went hand-in-hand with improved communication networks, starting with the phone, but expanding into radio, television, and eventually computers.

These developments also involved the massive, more or less direct, engagement of the state in the economy. In poorer countries only the state could gather and coordinate enough capital to engage in development. In wealthier countries it regulated the commonly required systems of power, communication, transportation, education, healthcare and sometimes housing, whether directly in the form of nationalisations, or indirectly via regulatory bodies and investment in infrastructure, which was then made up as a gift to private capital. This development of capital’s means of transport and means of communicating its orders and instructions deepened the spatial isolation and separation between workers, and disrupted collective and public forms of communication and of movement in space.

The Relative End of Material Impoverishment and the Impoverishment of Space

One major change after WWII was the massive increase in spending power of workers, especially in the US, which amounted to 50% of the world’s wealth and 25% of world productive capacity, but only 5% of its population. The unionisation of the 1930s resulted in a desire by the institutional representatives of capital and labour to ensure social peace and profitability in the post-war period. The wage–productivity deal worked out between the unions and major industries meant that, in return for productivity that increased faster than the rate of wage growth, wages were nonetheless able to grow far higher than ever before. This played a critical role in the development of the worker as mass consumer, as the material impoverishment of the pre-WWII period was left behind. This took the form of a large part of the working class having the means to buy cars, houses, and to move away from the dense urban networks of working class life to the relative isolation of the suburbs.

The new means allowed individuals and groups to find “solutions” to the problems associated with the industrial city, such as overcrowding, lack of access to nature, crime, landlords, and so on. They also made it possible to flee into places purged of, and walled off from, the racial and immigrant Other, simultaneously escaping and reinforcing racial formation and its conflicts. Suburban development and sprawl, through which the existing order produced such solutions for some at the expense of others, combined with the transformation of those workers into mass consumers, to result in a process of de-concentration. This would become the basis of “white flight”, “urban decay”, and eventually “urban renewal”. The more pronounced and extensive the development of the suburb proper, the more the dismantling of the industrial city implied its falling into a state of ruin, and not necessarily its transformation into a “rejuvenated” sprawl city.13 Where the formation of the suburb was less pronounced or even largely absent, the older cities were often nonetheless re-shaped according to the forces of this ex-urbanism. There was also an emergence of wholly new cities, which from their inception were suburban in design.

It was never for the working class alone that housing and the geography of social relations were a problem. Large concentrations of people from all social classes meant large concentrations of poverty, of garbage and shit, and of discontent. Water and air pollution from factories and homes, garbage, and poor housing put up simply in order to provide the minimum of shelter, meant illness and disease. Current conditions in Mexico City, Lagos, Shanghai, Hyderabad, and Sao Paolo differ in scale from the 19th century conditions of the English working class in Manchester or Leeds, or the 20th century worker living in Chicago, but except for a highly developed consumer society which has increased the power and pressure of money over the working class globally, many of these conditions would be familiar to those workers.

Case Study: The United States and Suburbia Proper

The problems of environmental planning created a new field of activity for the management of class power. As early as the 1830s in England, middle class social reformers and utopians attempted to find a way to deal with “the housing problem”, with both sides generally proposing a combination of individual ownership and state intervention into workers’ housing. This problem reflected fundamental dilemmas of capitalism: capitalists in the building industry needed demand to exceed supply; capital would flow towards the more profitable building projects; ground rent — which plays a key role in determining housing costs alongside of the actual costs of construction, maintenance and interest on mortgages — was too high in cities, because of industrial and commercial development.

Engels mocked those who proposed such solutions in his 1872 articles on “The Housing Question”. He also warned that, were such panaceas to succeed, they would result in the de-proletarianisation of the working class, and that widespread homeownership was incompatible with — and would be a reactionary development in relation to — the working class as a revolutionary class. Anticipating the current state of affairs by more than a century, he suggested that it would render workers immobile and put them deeply into debt, and therefore at the mercy of capitalists. Against the claims of Proudhon and some of his German followers, Engels argued that far from providing security and a civilising effect, individual home ownership would turn workers back into peasants, clutching their little piece of land and — whatever their misery — ultimately narrow, provincial, and fixated on the security of their property.

Far from representing a solution, at the time wide-scale home ownership by workers seemed utterly impossible. None but the highest paid workers had access to the money or credit necessary to secure a mortgage, although even in the 1887 edition of Engels’s articles there was already a note on the purchase of homes by workers in Kansas, on the outskirts or in the suburbs. Built by themselves, of extremely poor quality, with little in the way of modern conveniences like sewage and public garbage removal, some workers still purchased these little dwellings at $600 each.

The real breakthrough in housing construction was the “balloon frame” house. This could be built from pre-cut wood, with relatively little effort, time and therefore cost — especially compared to the older brick and stone buildings. It thus made possible the mass-production of houses at prices that many workers could afford, if they could manage the land or the ground rent, and if they could get a mortgage that they could pay off.

Land prices make up a large part of the cost of a house, so houses for workers had to be built on cheap land, on the edges of, or outside, cities, but the limitations of existing means of transport posed a critical barrier to use of that land. Train travel over short distances, and even horse-drawn omnibuses, were still too expensive for most workers and the lower middle classes, and no other means of transport made it feasible to work 10–14 hours a day and still get to and from work without living within walking distance, even if walking distance was often several miles. Even reformers complained that long walks to and from work contributed to workers’ exhaustion and reduced productivity. However, the widespread introduction of mass transit in the form of the trolley or tram would come just a few short years after Engels’s death, undermining the force of this argument.14

Before the automobile, the electric trolley made possible a spreading-out over a much larger area of land. Through state subsidies in Europe — where ownership of a trolley or cable car line involved legal prohibitions on real estate speculation — and privately in the United States, where the owners of such systems were almost all land speculators, mass transit came into existence, greatly extending the distance workers could live from their homes. The much cheaper land on the edges of, or outside, cities thus suddenly became accessible to a larger part of the working class. Los Angeles — today known for its vast car-driven sprawl and expressways — was originally developed as a low-density, de-centreed city based on the trolley system, and was unlike anything imagined in Europe or east of the Mississippi. By the early 1900s, Los Angeles had the largest mass transit system in the world, put into place as a way to turn a profit on land bought cheaply by large real estate speculators. Los Angeles was the product of land speculation mixed with the new system of mass transit and balloon frame housing, and became the first urban suburb, even before the automobile could have a significant impact on public transportation.

In the United States, the trolley systems usually ran at a loss, and owners hoped to profit heavily from the land speculation and housing development that they facilitated. By the 1920s, however, the trolley was in competition with the noisier, less efficient, polluting bus — and, to an increasing extent, the car. A coalition of companies, including automobile, trucking, steel, rubber, and others, lead by the president of General Motors, systematically bought up and destroyed the trolley mass transit systems in dozens of cities, including New York. This process of systematic acquisition and destruction continued into the 1940s. The destruction of Los Angeles’ mass transit system by General Motors is only the most well-known incident at the end of a long process that had begun almost 20 years earlier.15

As the trolley systems were being destroyed bit by bit, however, mass transit in the form of buses continued to predominate in the 1930s. The vast majority of American workers used either their feet or mass transit to get to work, to shop, to visit their friends, and to otherwise conduct their lives. Even so, home ownership was an increasingly common feature of working class life in the United States, especially among the children of immigrant workers — now considering themselves white American — who were more likely to buy homes than were those who had preceded them by several generations. They were also more able to get credit and buy homes than were black workers, who were either trapped in the sharecropper/tenant farmer contracts of the Southern rural areas, or relegated to the lower strata of the working class in the Northern cities after the first Great Migration from WWI onwards.16

Expansion further outside of the cities required two key elements. The first prerequisite was even more individualised transportation, allowing travel to anywhere that roads went, instead of being circumscribed by bus and trolley lines. This meant the building of a large motor vehicle road system outside of the cities, in areas where the money for such vast projects was scarce. This process began in the 1930s, but really expanded in the 1950s with the federal Interstate Highway Program under Eisenhower, directed by a former General Motors executive.17 Supported also in the name of “national defence”, this was in fact a thinly disguised way to increase the dominance of the car as the primary means of transport. This programme received 90% of its funding from the federal budget and 10% from the states; approximately 50% came from federal, state and local fuel taxes, vehicle taxes, and tolls, the rest from other federal taxes. It was an investment, over 35 years (the formal completion of the programme came as late as 1992, with the completion of Interstate Highway I-70), to the tune of $425 billion.18 This makes it one of the largest public works programmes in human history. On top of this original plan, interstate highways have of course continued to be constructed. In 2007, funding appropriated for the total Interstate Highway System budget totalled $147 billion.

The other key element was a transformation of the home loan and building industries. Mortgages were a problem because they tended to be short term — at most 15 years — with a large down payment, a large lump sum due at the end, and fairly high interest rates. In response to the depression, the Roosevelt administration created agencies and passed bills that completely restructured the mortgage industry. Focusing on low interest, long-term loans and federal guaranteeing of many mortgages, the mortgage industry was radically restructured. Even though federal housing loans did not force private lenders to adopt their rules, federal loan guidelines and guarantees against losses due to foreclosure promoted a restructuring of practices, and facilitated a vast extension of private lending.

The Federal Home Loan agency — and following it, the so-called GI Housing Bill implemented during and after WWII — defined the guidelines for underwriting mortgages in the official Underwriters Manual. This identified areas where lending was most likely to succeed or fail by defining four different zones, marked by colour; thus was created the practice of “redlining”. Red-line districts were those where mortgages, and the federal insuring of mortgages, were more or less automatically denied. The main criterion was race. Areas that were non-white or “mixed” were automatically redlined, so that neither the federal government, nor ultimately private lenders, would lend to “black” people trying to secure a mortgage. Despite the GI Bill and Federal Home Loan agency accounting for over 50% of suburban housing construction mortgages from 1945 to 1960, less than 1% of those loans went to prospective black homeowners.19 This also reinforced the devaluation of housing in predominantly black or mixed areas, so that many whites, able to secure a home loan, fled to the suburbs in a steady flow after 1945. The Underwriters Manual also gave preference to — and in many cases actually required — racially-restrictive housing covenants that would prevent black people from purchasing homes within a federally insured housing development.

The Underwriters Manual also made it difficult to get an insured loan for already-built housing, and certain construction guidelines — such as requiring a certain amount of distance between the house and the street — forced people to move to newly constructed housing in the suburbs instead of purchasing in the cities. This provided a huge boost to home builders by forcing prospective homeowners to purchase new buildings instead of existing housing stock.

The federal home loan and GI Bill housing programmes, combined with the eventual highway construction programme of the 1950s, involved billions of dollars of federal subsidisation of housing for whites of all classes, including a bevy of homeowner tax credits, so that it was often cheaper to buy in the suburbs, including purchasing one or two cars, than to rent equivalent housing in the city.

The construction industry — originally dominated by small to medium sized builders, who could only come up with enough capital to take on projects of a few houses at a time — was also transformed by federal underwriting of residential and commercial developments, and rationalisation of the mortgage system. While there were a few large residential construction companies, they were exactly that: few. Builders generally needed to have assurances that they could build with as little risk as possible from foreclosures and economic downturns. With each depression between 1877 and 1929, thousands of contract builders went under, unable to survive the bankruptcy of more than a handful of mortgage holders. The federal loan programmes and agencies, and their de facto restructuring of the mortgage lending industry, provided the stability and insurance against losses that made it possible for larger construction firms and developers to build housing for workers on a scale that was unimaginable only 20 years earlier.

The relative power of white labour to secure higher wages and to move freely allowed many workers to purchase homes under the new terms of 30 year, insured, low interest mortgages. And, given the chronic weakness of the US labour movement, laws could be written to: 1) openly exclude black people, via redlining, which meant that 99% of federally guaranteed and subsidised mortgages between 1935 and the early 1960s went to whites only; 2) minimise investment in renovating existing housing, because loans were almost entirely reserved for new homes; 3) re-direct investment away from cities, because most space for new single-family residence housing was in the suburbs; 4) stop cities from growing by annexing immediately adjoining suburbs, since suburban residents and authorities wanted to keep taxes low, avoiding the cost of common municipal social services, which suburbanites could in any case still access simply by traveling into the city.

Even though a 1948 Supreme Court ruling formally outlawed racially restrictive covenants in housing, the practice has continued de facto to the present.20 The structure of the economically homogeneous subdivision — where developers build a whole set of houses aimed at a single income bracket — continues to dominate suburban housing development, and typically remains racially uniform. Few projects have been on the scale of the original Levittowns, but the basic standard for subdivision — rather than individual lot — development, guarantees that uniformity.21

This kind of development has not remained purely in the suburbs or in newly developing areas. The opening up of areas outside cities for housing would have been insufficient in itself to shift the tide of development from urban to suburban. For this to happen, the rest of the city also had to move to the suburban and semi-rural areas. The city had so far been the location of both work and consumption. Factory and office, department store and multitude of small retailers, would all reside within the city, within neighbourhoods or city centres. But the same changes in transportation that allowed residential movement to the suburbs also opened the possibility of moving industry and offices out of the cities.

The personal car came hand in hand with the development of the trucking industry. Trucking gave the same flexibility in space to industry that the automobile gave to individuals and families. By the 1930s, the railroads were in steep decline, as trucking became the main means of transport for materials and commodities over land. Railroads remain the predominant long-distance, point-to-point method of land transport because under those conditions it is cheaper than trucking. However, the further one needs to move away from central cities and train lines, the more cost effective trucking becomes. This dynamic led to the eventual dominance of trucking for transport in the United States.

Soon after WWII, companies began to migrate industry and offices out of the cities and into the suburbs, and eventually into the “greenfields” — semi-rural areas that are often in a state of development between rural and suburban. From almost every angle, moving industry out of the cities benefited businesses. Suburbs, having less infrastructure to maintain and being on less developed land, offered low ground rents, and generally lower taxes. Prior to the “tax revolt” that began in the late 1970s, this movement allowed many suburbs to maintain lower residential and homeowner taxes through taxation levied on businesses, who still managed to pay less than in cities. At the same time, businesses thereby avoided conflicts with urban political machines, which had to maintain relative class peace in a much less homogenous environment than the suburbs. This mutually beneficial tax arrangement would eventually crumble in the 1960s and 70s as companies either moved further away from the cities, seeking better deals in newer suburbs and greenfields, or left the country.

Companies responded as much as the state to the huge class conflicts between 1919 and the end of WWII. Workplaces moved into the suburbs and greenfields in order to escape the concentrated mass of workers that proved so intractable in the first half of the 20th century. Dense concentrations of workers, their families and friends in generally rented housing, meant that thick networks of relationships could exist, and often near workplaces. Cities did not generally have land use regulations creating sharp divisions between residential, commercial, and retail areas. Many small businesses dependent on the workers within walking distance had close relationships with them. This tended to generate sympathy, and in times of strikes and lockouts workers could often depend on a certain degree of support from such businesses, where they bought their groceries and everyday goods. Such networks could prove a serious problem for capital.

Suburban design introduced rigid distinctions of residential, commercial and retail space. Zoning laws separated these in a way that they never had been in cities. Workers came to live apart from not only their workplaces, but also the businesses they bought consumer goods from. In post-WWII suburbs, urban planners and developers produced designs involving new arrangements such as the purely residential cul de sac opening onto a four to eight lane feeder road. Not only was there really no way to walk to the workplace or shops, but walking itself was actually discouraged by a design that made it hugely inefficient and even physically dangerous. Here physical design was also in part social engineering. Police harassment of those walking in suburbs would further reinforce the separations — focusing in on those lacking apparent purpose, or possessing an appearance atypical for a particular subdivision.

Suburbia changed the possibilities for the entry of chain stores into the space previously dominated by “mom and pop” neighbourhood stores. In the suburban setting, small retailers could not be situated within walking distance of consumers, because they could not be set in residential areas. At the same time, many people also wanted access to the downtown shopping experience stripped of the unpleasantness of beggars, homeless people, and other “undesirable elements”. Enter the two most commonly recognised symbols of suburbanisation: strip malls and shopping malls, to which have been added “big box” stores like Walmart, which follow the same basic “one-stop-shopping” design as the traditional mall. While this took some time to develop — really only beginning in the mid to late 1950s — both the shopping mall and the strip mall took off in the 1960s and 70s, recreating the downtown shopping options, but within a far more controlled environment.

Communities began to fragment as large concentrations of workers in proximity with each other across multiple workplaces were broken up. As both waged workers and industry left, what remained in cities were populations pushed further and further to the social and spatial margins, with collapsing incomes and thus collapsing infrastructures and social services. Here we have the successor to the pre-WWII ghetto. The latter was, to be sure, a place of collective isolation, but it was also one rarely outside of capitalist reproduction in one form or another, due to the expanding need for labour in the period from the 19th to the early 20th century. But what came now was a new kind of ghetto, increasingly cut off from more than marginal access to waged labour, and also the object of increasing homogenisation and atomisation. In the United States this dislocation, de-population, and ghettoisation finds its highest expression in the former centres of industrial production and working class militancy: Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, Akron, Buffalo, Newark, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and so on. In terms of division within the working class, it is most clearly expressed in the disparity in median wealth per household between black and white families, which has tripled in the last 25 years. Median white household wealth is $265,000 compared to $28,500 for black households, most of which is tied to home ownership.22

Even focusing purely on the support given to different types of housing, the divergences are stark. Public programmes, originally put into place during World War II to meet housing demand for war workers, were essentially the only subsidised housing non-white workers could get, while they were completely excluded from federal — and therefore largely from private — mortgage loans. Cities and states worked with the federal government to “clear slums” — often referred to as “negro removal” — putting workers into public housing located in relatively isolated areas of the city, often far from downtown and from the best paid industrial work. Based on the standardisation of neighbourhoods, real estate agencies and developers could profit vastly by engaging in “block busting”: supporting the move of one or two black families into a neighbourhood, to then scare white families with the associated prospect of decline in their property values — underwritten as certainly as a federal loan by the federal government’s mortgage lending policies — and eventually allowing them to cash in, as white families sold cheap and black families bought dear. In the longer term, this allowed them to also devalorise the land and buildings in a neighbourhood for eventual redevelopment, complete with government subsidies for slum clearance. Since the 1980s the formation of development zones, and the ensuing tax breaks to developers, have allowed the suburbanised gentrification of large sections of central cities.23

New housing increasingly tends towards the single family residence, as public housing projects, long suffering from systematic neglect, are torn down. Where multi-unit dwellings go up, they are frequently for the well-off. The poorest populations are driven out of the city centres in a less overt but no less systematic work of “negro removal”, though this is increasingly also extended to the poorest whites and latinos. Recent examples include the gentrification of lower Harlem in New York City, and the tearing down of Cabrini Green and other projects near Chicago’s downtown, to be systematically replaced with single family residences, duplex condominiums, and luxury residential skyscrapers.

Spatial deconcentration goes hand-in-hand with the post-WWII expansion of consumption for a large part of the working class; the introduction of the machinery of one-way communication from capital and the state to the population; the mechanisation of household labour; the individualisation of means of transport over large distances via the automobile. Marginal cities, lacking the developed infrastructures and social services required both for industry and to accommodate a self-sustaining and often oppositional working class culture, with its own institutions and self-identity, are the fallow fields upon which the suburb city is constructed. Here we have the creation, in what appears as a kind of “all at once” rush, of the radio and TV audience, the model housewife, the commuter, and the suburban homeowner. The suburb proper, having no autonomy of its own, derives its model from the city. Just as the pre-WWII suburb was a mini-city, so the post-WWII suburb is a miniature Los Angeles.

There is also the loss — or failure to keep up the repair — of public amenities, from sidewalks to public parks, including both programmes and facilities. In the case of global metropoles like New York, or in cities such as Chicago which have similar status, the care of public facilities is partially or even wholly privatised, meaning that the majority of resources go to the facilities that most immediately serve local elites. In other cases, such facilities are annexed by gated or otherwise restricted communities, and thus effectively privatised insofar as they become inaccessible to non-residents of those subdivisions. In places such as Detroit and Baltimore, the dismemberment of the city takes place on such a scale that it is often cheaper to abandon housing than to attempt to sell it. Thus whole areas are in a sense reclaimed by nature, as weeds, grass and trees grow up and over the rusting cars, the crumbling buildings and empty lots strewn with garbage.

In the former industrial cities we of course also find industrial ruins: abandoned factories and steel mills; areas where the land has been rendered unusable by years of industrial waste; large production facilities and warehouses which may or may not become the “artists’ lofts” of some lucky developer. Facilities which employed hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands lie dormant, with little prospect of being put back into profitable use, even if from a technical point of view they remain completely functional.24 As much as the transformation of housing, retail, and public space, the change in the space of production marks a significant departure from the past.

Through these developments, the city ceases to have many of the distinctive features which once demarcated it from the suburban and rural worlds. Relentless privatisation and policies of separation and demarcation undermine what remaining public space might be contested. Parks are replaced with fee-charging places like “Discovery Zone” or “Chuck E. Cheese’s”. What is allowed in public spaces is curtailed, “zoned” for certain activities while others are ruled out. Sidewalk space in “commercial areas” is restricted, as for example in Chicago where no more than three people at a time are allowed to gather in certain districts, in the name of stopping loitering by gangs — a law which of course is only systematically applied to youth, and especially of colour, as opposed to groups of drunken, but spending, yuppies.25

While, in the US, the state played a central role in implementing housing policies that favoured a racially segregated suburbanisation, globally it was increasingly the provider of services that were not profitable for private enterprises, but which were necessary to mollify populations that had been in near-constant upheaval before WWII. The state was often forced into partially rationalising unequal social relations in the face of movements making demands for the extension of citizenship and the use of law to remedy de jure and de facto inequality. State programmes for nationalising healthcare, education, and public housing were the result.

The struggles of the labour movement which had engendered the partial incorporation of labour into citizenship were followed by the increasing demand for equalisation in other areas of life, which themselves took the forms of struggles within the labour movement and its organisations. This often lead to a fragmentation of working class culture along lines of race, gender, sexuality, registering fault lines which had been suppressed by a politics of working class identity.

However, as these struggles receded, their demands were partially incorporated. It became increasingly necessary for women to join the workforce full time in order to sustain household income levels. Meanwhile, non-wage benefits were increasingly privatised — which is to say, commodified — in the shift from social security and pensions to 401(k) retirement plans26; the replacement of direct wages with employee stock options; in increasing wage deductions for medical benefits; growing dependence on home ownership-based equity for loans and to maintain a certain credit rating. This last aspect has advanced to the point where many employers now check a potential employee’s credit rating before hiring them — something which systematically, if unintentionally, discriminates against minorities, given their widespread exclusion from homeownership.

As the crisis of urbanism has progressed, so too has the privatisation of spaces and services, as the socialisation of the fulfilment of needs once codified and executed through the extension of the powers of the state — or as Gaspar Tamás has described it, “the Enlightenment tendency to assimilate citizenship to the human condition — is systematically rolled back. Homogenisation and privatisation — always part and parcel of capital’s logic — have taken on a hitherto unprecedented scope in the face of the transformations looked at above. This cannot be separated from the simultaneously increasing material inequality and absolute material impoverishment both in the developed countries and in those places pushed outside the global circuits of legal accumulation. These tendencies represent a consistent undermining of any kind of progressive universality of the kind that was central to the notion of socialism in the workers’ movement of the 19th and early 20th century.

If the ruined city is the first, negative product of the crisis of urbanism, this ruin has its photo negative in the suburban or sprawl city. The transformation of the urban world into sprawl cities had two distinct moments: on the one hand the creation of new cities along lines laid out by Los Angeles and the post-WWII suburb, and the transformation of some former industrial cities into sprawl or suburban cities; on the other the mere hollowing out of cities that could not be profitably transformed.

The typical sprawl city escaped the fate of the industrial city precisely because it was marginal, in a less industrially developed region, and so did not present the same institutionalised, structural resistance to the rationalisation of capitalist accumulation and urbanism. A lack of collective working class identity entailed a lack of opposition to the new technologies and labour processes. Provincialism and isolation thus proved assets. They were also something promoted by the new methods of de-concentration — indeed, their very rationality. For capital’s part it was often simply easier to start again somewhere else than to try reforming the industrial city.

This goes a significant way to explaining why urban population decline in the United States — but also in many other countries; China comes to mind — has occurred largely in former industrial cities, while growth is almost entirely confined to suburb cities. Industry in these places is often very high tech, utilising small amounts of unskilled labour generally at very low wages, while what labour is employed intensively — such as in the many forms of engineering — is highly skilled and amounts to few jobs. Much of the workforce provides services to the core of highly paid, highly skilled workers and managers. What sprawl cities have in common with the moribund industrial city and the suburb is a lack of collectivity. Like them, these are places of atomised individuals, moving from work to home to the shops.

How then should we interpret the shift of some of the population back to the inner areas of New York City, London or Tokyo? What about the apparent prospering of some older cities like San Francisco and Chicago, which have in some ways resembled industrial cities? Here we need to make some distinctions about the development of cities globally, even if we risk making overgeneralisations. New York, Tokyo and London have always been great financial-cosmopolitan centres of capital. Through them flow the vast rivers of money-capital, and it is thus no accident that these places are strongly identified with their exchanges or financial districts, whether Wall Street, the Nikkei or the City. As such, they have also tended to be centres of high bourgeois culture. This is utterly unlike the industrial cities, which were if anything animated culturally by the working class, since the upper classes in these places, and the political class in particular, were not only often at odds, but quite ignorant and immersed in realpolitik rather than any kind of deep cultural life. The cosmopolitan centres too may ultimately be transformed further by their central role in the circulation of capital — hollowed out as bourgeois society becomes ever more senile — but they also generally do not cease to be global poles of attraction, and as places seemingly made entirely of money they provide ground for all manner of adventures and ideas.

Cities like Chicago and San Francisco really throw into relief the combined and uneven character of capitalist development. Chicago was certainly part industrial city, but it has also long been a financial centre. As such, its course and its condition reflect this duality. San Francisco is not atypical of coastal cities that were major places for shipping and trade. Insofar as shipping remains a vastly important part of the global economy, port cities can sometimes retain some degree of centrality, or preserve stature while shifting to other focuses. But with containerisation, of course, many such places have died a death, as business is transferred to a deep-water dock elsewhere. Although San Francisco’s own role as a port city declined dramatically — 134 other US ports now handle more traffic — the Bay Area as a whole remains massively important, and this has continuing implications for the San Francisco economy. The key to the city’s fortunes is, however, its proximity to the suburban areas that became central to the microelectronics industry, namely Silicon Valley. What is most distressing about San Francisco is the degree to which it has become a bedroom community for the Silicon Valley set. A larger discussion of this is not possible here, but the city has increasingly become not where so many people spend their days, but only where they return, after 12-14 hour days, to consume and sleep. San Francisco, for all of its historic association with radical politics in the United States — as capital of the “Left Coast” — is now one of the most expensive places to live in the whole of North America; a place that, like New York, has precious little space left for the kind of milieus on which it built its reputation.

What has to be recognised here is that the apparent opposition of city and suburb, which existed in the post-WWII period, has been fundamentally undermined. The crisis of mechanical industrial urbanism, out of which the suburb and the suburban city arose while simultaneously dismantling the industrial-era city, has passed. Debord again registered this period clearly:

The country demonstrates just the opposite fact — “isolation and separation” (The German Ideology). As it destroys the cities, urbanism institutes a pseudo-countryside devoid not only of the natural relationships of the country of former times but also of the direct (and directly contested) relationships of the historical cities. The forms of habitation and the spectacular control of today’s “planned environment” have created a new, artificial peasantry. The geographic dispersal and narrow-mindedness that always prevented the peasantry from undertaking independent action and becoming a creative historical force are equally characteristic of these modern producers, for whom the movement of a world of their own making is every bit as inaccessible as were the natural rhythms of work for an earlier agrarian society. The traditional peasantry was the unshakeable basis of “Oriental despotism”, and its very scatteredness called forth bureaucratic centralisation; the new peasantry that has emerged as the product of the growth of modern state bureaucracy differs from the old in that its apathy has had to be historically manufactured and maintained: natural ignorance has given way to the organised spectacle of error. The “new towns” of the technological pseudo-peasantry are the clearest of indications, inscribed on the land, of the break with historical time on which they are founded; their motto might well be: “On this spot nothing will ever happen — and nothing ever has.” Quite obviously, it is precisely because the liberation of history, which must take place in the cities, has not yet occurred, that the forces of historical absence have set about designing their own exclusive landscape there.27

Whereas Debord ends in the affirmation of the overcoming of the city and urbanism by the subordination of the environment to the needs of the workers’ councils, what has in fact happened is the end of the conditions upon which councilism could exist. What can be decried in the structure of the sprawl suburb comes to redefine the city in nearly equal measure.

Gated Communities and the End of the Working Class as an Estate

The individualistic, privatised resolution of the housing question in ex-urban deconcentration not only has objective effects, such as the re-segregation of America, it is part of the restructuring of the experience of the class relation. To understand this shift, it is necessary to grasp the role private home ownership plays in the US as a replacement for the types of benefits that are in many other places provided through social programmes and the state. There is a reason why neoliberal endeavours to annihilate the social democratic elements of the state, in favour of private solutions, often get their impetus from America. A private homeowner benefits in at least six ways that mask their reliance on the state:

  1. The state provides a huge tax write-off, giving back significant income. With the end of the heavily graduated income tax in the late 1970s, more people were taxed at lower income levels than in the 1930s, 40s or 50s, and so the tax refund on the mortgage became even more important.
  2. Given the low rates of interest and tax subsidies, mortgage outgoings can be far less than rent for an equivalently-sized home. This depends on relatively low property taxes, however, which in the suburbs are the single most important source of revenue for services provided by the town/city, such as police, fire, roads, and schools. The other major source of income comes from taxation on industrial and commercial properties, which are key to keeping property taxes low for homeowners.
  3. A house acts as equity, improving the owner’s credit rating, and thus allowing them to borrow considerably more for considerably lower rates of interest. For most families in the bottom 80% of the population, the house is by far the single most valuable item they own, and generally the only one they can use as a significant source of collateral.
  4. A house acts as a form of inter-generational wealth transfer and income security.
  5. The value of the house can be expected to increase in value over time. Thus the asset becomes a means of increasing one’s wealth.
  6. The combination of increasing value and equity also becomes a means of making it possible for one’s children to go to university and escape the orbit of working class labour.

These six aspects of home ownership were, as we’ve seen, racialised by the housing policies of the FHA and HUD.28 Since these policies meant that black families purchasing a home in a community would automatically devalue property, in the rare cases where they could qualify for housing assistance and loan support, home ownership went hand-in-hand with the desire for racial isolation and against integration. This racialisation of housing, equity, and property values, especially after the end of de jure segregation in the South in 1964 and 1965, meant that the threat of integrated housing became one of the most important factors in the right-wing shift of white workers to the Republican Party in the 1968, 1972, and 1976 elections.29 White renters, on the other hand, were statistically much less opposed to integration/desegregation, in housing and in education, both before 1964 and after 1968.

Home ownership along these lines thus has a close relationship to political conservatism, but it is not necessary to stretch one’s imagination very far to understand the further transformation of experience that home ownership entails. Here I will briefly list some key points:

What is at issue is not merely the title to the property itself, but the ability of the home to act according to the six characteristics outlined above. Of central importance here is also the degree to which home ownership has effectively functioned in the US as a partial form of compensation for the lack of a social safety net. While it may not have the absolute highest homeownership rates, the United States does have the highest inequality of any industrialised nation. More than any other developed country, it depends on a high level of private debt, based on equity derived from the home and better access to additional credit sources like credit cards. Such debt has of course grown massively since the early 1970s, effectively plugging a gap left not just by stagnating real wages, but also by the meagre “social wage”. In the 2000s the securitisation of household debt both enabled its further expansion and articulated it with global financial flows as foreign banks bought up dollar-backed securities. The capacity for the American economy to support enormous levels of private debt itself depends upon the preservation of the dollar’s value, which is effectively underwritten by the catastrophic effects that any devaluation of the dollar — as world money — would have on the global economy.

The increased home ownership extends the private into the public, and in turn transforms the public into a private affair, reducing public engagement into NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) politics. It is no accident that suburbanisation should give rise to a politics of re-privatisation. The overcoming of communal and collective existence was materialised in the post-WWII technologies of urbanism, especially the creation of the experience in one’s private space of what previously had to be experienced publicly. The home was no longer simply a place to eat and sleep, but a self-sustaining microcosm in which the outside world only entered via electronic media such as radio, television and eventually the computer. The home became a refuge. At the same time, the yard provided a fenced-off replacement for parks and playgrounds and other public facilities in which nature might be experienced collectively.

Post-war mass consumer urbanism also held out the promise of homogeneity. As we’ve seen, the very structure of the post-war suburb depended on developers creating large areas with relatively similar incomes, and for a long time it was legally required that the community be racially homogeneous. Single women were also blocked from access by social conventions and credit ratings based on gender. Suburbanisation involved a flight from people “not like us”, which was to say away from different races, creeds, ethnic groups, and so on. The tendency towards homogeneity and conformity means that suburbanisation has a logic of experience unlike that of the city. Therein lies a fundamental problem for the suburban city. The very extension of this homogenisation — privatisation of space and services; private management and even funding of parks and schools which are nominally public — butts up against the very structure of the city.

Homogeneity is also viewed as a source of safety. The absence of obvious class differences in a community where one leaves one’s work somewhere else, where work and non-work life are cordoned off; the absence of “the lower classes” or “the poor” — or what is in fact the absence of those without sufficient access to credit — tends to result in reduced crime. The city is increasingly policed to keep people in their neighbourhoods, while suburbs are policed to keep people out. Profiling is exceptionally effective in suburbs due to their propensity for homogeneity. Being of a different race, driving a rusted old car, and walking on foot are all equally tell-tale signs of exclusion, of being Other. The gated community is merely the most obvious, overt expression of this tendency.

Thus the world outside the suburb is already prefigured and experienced as threatening, dangerous and especially as criminal: people from the cities want what those in the suburbs have, but living in the cities they cannot, by definition, have it, so they can only steal or achieve it by a degree of undeserved privilege. When George Bush Jr. announced that terrorists hate us for our freedom, he did no more than rearticulate the common sense of the suburban experience towards the dangerous masses of the cities as the national experience of the US in relation to the “dark masses” of the non-Euro-American.

The hostility to intellectual and cultural maturation as bourgeois, as elitist, is the reaction of the hillbilly and the slave master to modernisation. Anyone who has the temerity to suggest that their provincial utopia is not as good as it gets is a snob. While provincialisation cannot be reduced to suburbanisation and sprawl, it reinforces it. At the same time, intellectual language is transformed into that of the administrative side of society. Those who feel outside of, or unfairly constrained by, the managerial logic of liberalism thus find their inclination towards tribalism, insularity and corporatism reinforced. Suburbanisation magnifies and intensifies the experience of this alienation from the liberal administrative consciousness, even as it exists completely in dependence on state subsidy, and especially on the militaristic and overtly oppressive sections of the state.

Suburbanisation also promotes infantilisation and feminisation. By “feminisation”, what is meant here is not a domination of some essential female values, but the extension of the root of gender relations in capitalist society, the separation of home and work. Suburbanisation extends this division by putting work in one place — maybe even a completely different suburb or in the city — so that one no longer lives where one works, and the social orientation of both men and women in suburbia becomes the home. Where work traditionally also meant that the worker who brought home the income also participated in public activities — whether carousing in bars or union activities or social clubs — non-work life is increasingly oriented towards housework: mowing the lawn, gardening, fixing up the house, working on the car in the garage.

The fetish of sports as both a communal voyeurism and a social imperative goes hand-in-hand with the loss of other collective referents and the process of identification with a brand and a tribe. American football is the most watched sport, asserting violent masculinity against cheerleader and “beer babe” femininity, and tribal collectivity. On the other hand there is the overwhelming popularity of golf, which is the actually-played sport of choice because it requires little physicality, is very individualistic and is associated with social status — both because it is expensive to play and takes place in another manufactured, pseudo-natural but utterly tame space. The dynamics that infantilise adults also promote an exaggerated focus on children. Public life ends up in many cases being about taking the kids to their “activities”. The original excuse to move to the suburbs is often “for the schools” and to have a “healthy environment” in which to raise children. The latter become another kind of Big Other, a super-egoic compulsion to suburbanise. It is no accident that both parents and children resent each other in such situations.

Political and Legal Integration as the Crisis of the Political

Revanchist politics has expressed itself in many different forms over the last sixty or so years, from McCarthyism and the rise of Goldwater Republican populism, through the Taxpayers Revolt of the 1970s to Reaganism and the rise of the Christian Right. The Tea Party of today is only the latest incarnation of this political trend, encouraged by the threat to the financial conditions which made suburban and sprawl development possible. Post-WWII urbanism depended on a number of features, not least of which was a capitalist expansion linked to productivity rates outstripping income growth so that such growth could be accommodated by capital. De-industrialisation, the movement of production facilities to other countries, and other kinds of capital flight from the suburbs have contributed to increased dependence on state and federal funding, but states too have found themselves in dire straits. The political milieu of suburban revanchism seeks to relieve its problems by poaching the wealth of the cities and the tax base of the most urbanised areas.

The crisis of this urbanism is the spatial form of a crisis which in political terms Gáspár Tamás refers to as post-fascism.30 The key features of the communalist expression of post-fascism include:31

At root, this amounts to the creation of a dual state where “true citizenship” goes hand-in-hand with one’s credit score, race, religion, and so on. In other words, under the pressure of capital’s inability to simultaneously sustain profitability and the expansion of citizenship, the spatial deconcentration and isolation of post-war urbanism lends itself to a post-fascist politics that drives towards the death of universal citizenship. Both of these phenomena are coterminous with what many refer to as neo-liberalism.

The same impoverishing influence of the goal — escaping and keeping out the Other; creating a community without conflict, sharing a common hatred and fear — does not easily translate into the city. The city simply is the space of Others residing alongside and amongst each other. That is not to say that some miraculously free and open public space existed before, but that what was free and open could at least be contested and fought over, while the space for such possibilities has now become systematically privatised and policed. Space in the city was always hotly contested — often violently so.

To survey some cases in Chicago, for example, 1919 alone saw white riots and the massacre of around 1,000 African Americans in events that occurred alongside and entangled with the meat packing and steel strikes. Many white workers who went on strike with black workers also participated in riots against the growing black population on the south side of the city. In 1937, in the “Little Steel Strike”, Chicago workers were shot down by strike-breaking police. In 1966 racist mobs attacked a civil rights march attended by Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago’s Marquette Park with a degree of ferocity and hatred that King claimed was unmatched even in the South. In 1968, the parks were the site of massive protests against the Democratic Party at the Democratic National Convention, which was met with brutal violence by the Chicago Police Department and the National Guard. In 1990–91 more than 10,000 people marched in the streets of Chicago against the Gulf War. Police violence is of course a relative constant in this story, but what becomes more and more impossible to imagine is the open nature of the conflict and of the space itself. Where in a suburb would such mobilisations even take place?

The decline and marginalisation of the industrial city — its transformation into a site of ruins where what blossoms does so only where the green of finance and pockets of the microelectronic, software, and bio-chemical industries sow the land — is the decline of a kind of self-sustaining working class culture. These cities typically collapse into ghettos stripped of social life. What predominate are larger or smaller inter-personal networks, familial and private relations into which one can only enter by invitation. This is the complete opposite of the union, the working class political party, the self-help organisation, the community cooperative, and so on. In place of overtly political newspapers — whether from the Socialist or Communist Party or the Chicago Defender or Pittsburgh Courier — we have the overwhelming weight of the corporate media, and now even the dissolution of the journalistic, print-oriented segment of that into infotainment and the isolated blogger. Public institutions are replaced with commodified services. The state, which Marx once called “the illusory community”, is seemingly no longer even contested as the community. If one wants to start a programme, say, to help “the youth of the city”, it is necessary either to address oneself to the state — that is, to the schools or to state-run park districts — or to start one’s own organisation and find funding. In the latter case one must either create a business oneself, become indebted to private business support, or rely on funding from the state. The rich and relatively independent institutional life that the working class had to maintain at the stage when it lacked social and economic integration first becomes unnecessary and then becomes unrecoverable.

The loss of universalising alternatives to capitalism as negations of class — and in a different manner, of race, gender, sexuality, and so on — does not mean an end to attempts at forms of collective organisation. Communitarian modes of accommodation take the place of universalising alternatives. Capitalism does not merely replace overt social relations with production relations as the determinate social relations; it subordinates them without necessarily doing away with them. Thus race, gender, sexuality, religion, nation, region, and so on, which seem to group people in various ways, in ways that allow them to associate for perceived mutual advantage — remain not only potent, but actually become more powerful. In a society of antagonistic, competitive relations between individuals with unequal power relations, such groupings are common.

Progressive social movements tended to associate citizenship with the right to a certain quality of life, and typically they worked to extend its domain to broader layers of the population. Communitarian modes operate in the exact opposite way, attempting to restrict the full extension of citizenship — and since the 1920s, they have sought to actively destroy the links established between citizenship and the right to a certain standard of living. Communitarian modes seek to create a homogeneous community and to pursue its interests; indeed the community is actually constituted in the pursuit of these interests, in the same way that the suburb is created by the flight to a space of homogeneity, away from what one imagines oneself not to be. While these tendencies supply the blueprints of fascism in the first half of the 20th century, and of post-fascist revanchist politics since the 1950s, religion is of course especially suited to such developments, predicated as it is on a community of believers contrasted to the unbelievers who are condemned to some manner of damnation in this world or the next. It should not surprise us then that in the enforced homogeneity of the suburbanist world, in the absence of a liberatory universalistic alternative, reactionary populism should so often find itself in religious garb, not only distinguishing between the deserving and the undeserving, but allowing the saved to locate the damned. We could say further — though this point cannot be developed here — that insofar as capitalism entails an indirect, abstract social relation which does not directly appear as a social relation, and thus seems also to lack meaning, the pressure for direct, concrete, and meaningful social relations takes on a new force. Finally, the religious institutions — which have no particular opposition to capital’s domination of a world of sin or karma — take the place of other non-state institutions, able to provide services and even jobs and livelihoods, but supposedly in the name of the affirmation of the community of believers, without the indifference of the pure market relation of employee and employer.

The current constellation thus gives rise to a political crisis, but in the form of a crisis of the political as such. Jacques Rancière presents this crisis as an attack on democracy.32 By this he does not mean an attack on the state or its functions, but on politics as the bringing of conflicts and antagonisms into the public sphere, and on democracy as the sovereignty of anyone and everyone — or rather a sovereignty that cannot be legitimised a priori. This attack entails the privatisation of key aspects of life and, in what remains, the increasing scope of both the police function and the role of the specialist with particular competencies. The crisis of the political takes a similar form to that of the labour process: politics is reduced to the scientific administration of affairs by the state, within limits set by the market. All public collective challenges to domination become excessive, and political struggle becomes an oxymoron.

Liberalism tends towards the side of scientific reason, tolerance of difference, multiculturalism, and rational administration, wanting the state to make politics a matter of management and civility. It involves a secular de-politicisation of social contradiction and antagonism, making of these a province of the state and of experts. Reactionary populism favours explicitly anti-political lines of power such as kinship, religion, and the market, using the state to turn these into matters of personal responsibility, to individualise them. This marks a flight from the public field, the field of politics proper, to that of the private — in both senses of this word — whether as the technocratic domain of rational administrators and specialists or the management of the property of individuals or non-governmental institutions. This is also the extension of the police function, of the rule of merit, kinship, wealth. What is sought is obedience to an authority which is objective and therefore beyond reproach or contestation, whether the technical dictates of science, the market or God. For Rancière, since democratic politics is just contestation taking place openly and collectively, as public matters, democratic struggle is the struggle to widen the public sphere, to politicise what is private, and to do so without preconditions for participation.

Though Rancière hypostatises the separation of public and private, democracy and oligarchy, turning these into eternal categories of the human condition, he goes right to the heart of the problem. But he does so only to turn away at the last moment. The savage condition of life at present — unable to stand the thought of politics, and thus suppressing or striking out madly at it — is one where the growing contradiction between the immense capacity to produce material wealth with a minimum of direct human labour on the one hand, and the social form of wealth as capital, as self-expanding value, on the other, is sustained only by denying the possibility of the re-purposing of this capacity for common human ends. The struggle to politicise current conditions — to fight for the problems of crime, violence, poverty, hunger and so on to be expressed as political problems and not as matters of personal responsibility or technical expertise — quickly runs up against the recognition that such a politicisation immediately calls into question the rationality of capital. No doubt this is why any attempt to apply the brakes on runaway inequality or provide free public services is automatically attacked by reactionary populists as socialism or communism, while massive expenditures on the military, police and the repressive apparatus in general — and any associated restrictions on freedom of expression, communication, and assembly — are viewed as protecting democracy.

Consider the recent fight over healthcare in the United States in light of our above analysis. Nowhere is the issue a lack of material ability to provide adequate care. Neither the liberal nor the reactionary side have argued that we lack doctors, technology, the ability to train more people, or the ability to produce adequate medical supplies. The issue is solely the apparent scarcity of money. One side argues that state regulation, if not nationalisation, would regulate care more efficiently so as to reduce costs. The other believes that any human control over market forces is tantamount to questioning the hand of God, and that it will automatically result in greater cost and less efficiency. For neither side is the issue of care itself primary.

Limitations and Potential Subversion

What then are we to do with this? If the city has been largely hollowed out along the lines of the post-WWII suburb; if hollowed city and suburb together give the environmental shape of the current state of capitalist development, in which a workerist class politics has been eviscerated; if this is an era in which identity politics seems to have run its course and largely lost its progressive, not to mention radical, force; nonetheless this need not mean that the city as a site of struggle is dead. The city remains the geographical site of capital’s contradictions, because capital, for all its tendency to produce homogeneity, cannot sustain itself except through the constant production of heterogeneity. If Shenzhen is a labour camp, it is one with 10 million people in close quarters capable of disrupting a significant part of global production. If the fastest growing cities in the United States are all sprawl cities, with all that implies, they are nonetheless not suburbs, but complex, relatively dense spaces built upon a potentially explosive combination: dependent on US dominance and the dollar as world money, and on the immense debt-to-income ratio of their inhabitants.

There is no certainty that these places will not succumb to the kind of reactionary populism that has grown exponentially since the 1970s. Despite this, even in the moribund ex-industrial and the suburb cities we find a large portion of the population that is opposed to racist, xenophobic, and misogynist policies. It is probably not accidental that Occupy and the Arab Spring, for all their failings, were overwhelmingly urban phenomena while reactionary populisms like the Tea Party, the Jobbik Party and the National Front in France are overwhelmingly present in suburban and rural areas.

The dispossessed populations of cities — which capital seems to have made permanently superfluous from the point of view of valorisation — often find themselves drawn to the populist and self-help messages of reactionary communitarian populisms and religious groupings, from ethnicised militias to Islamist, Hindu or Christian “fundamentalist” political groupings. It is often the dislocation suffered by being made superfluous and having to survive through “black market” activities — many of which are predatory upon the waged and unwaged alike — which leaves the religious and communitarian groups as the only cohesive social institutions.

If the overcoming of capital is no longer the seizure of the existing means of production by a working class that exists as an estate in a struggle against material poverty and a lack of political and social inclusion, this does not mean the end of the need to overthrow capital. The present situation is clearly unsustainable. The conditions which allowed for the overcoming of the working class as estate, and of what seemed like an inescapable material impoverishment, are predicated upon social relations which cannot maintain inclusion and relative freedom from want. From the side of capital accumulation this cannot be sustained.

In terms of the labour process and therefore the valorisation process, capitalism has survived on an already immense and growing debt on the sides of both capital and labour. We are in the midst of an ongoing crisis of valorisation, because the amount of titles and claims to value, paper money and financial instruments, circulating daily on a global basis, are in the trillions — far beyond the current capacity of capital to valorise. The future is leveraged a long, long way forward. The level of valorisation necessary to solve this problem is unlikely to materialise, since it would require that capital no longer supplant living labour with constant capital — that is, capital would have to find another dynamic altogether. In fact, probably the only imaginable alternative is a catastrophic destruction of existing values — including labour power — on a hitherto unimagined scale.

In terms of material impoverishment, the part of the working class which saw the greatest growth of income and relative prosperity has also seen its debt load rise dramatically. In the United States, average household debt is over 100% of after-tax disposable income, very much connected to rising housing prices, but also to stagnant wages and the reduction of state subsidies for basic social services, such as education and health services. Even more painfully, a larger and larger part of the global population seems to be excluded from formal access to the wage. Over 1 billion people essentially live in a money economy with little hope of access to wage labour in a legal industry, and thus with only tenuous sources of monetary income. Capital is abolishing money, not in the sense of some post-modern “virtuality”, but in the very practical, commonplace sense of denying people access to secure wage labour and to the kind of small property that might allow self-employment or sustenance. Material impoverishment is not only returning with a vengeance, but the working class as mass consumer becomes unsustainable the more living labour itself is abolished by capital.

Finally, it is becoming clearer and clearer that capitalism cannot afford the political and legal inclusion of labour. This is not to anticipate a return to the working class as estate, for the material foundation in the circuit of capital upon which that was possible — that is, a certain configuration of the labour process — has gone.

It is important to recognise what has changed. If we have lost the coordinates of the world of the industrial working class, we nonetheless have not seen the overcoming of the contradictions of capital. The very changes to the capitalist labour process which destroyed the old forms of self-activity and the capacity to recognise oneself as part of a coherent working class, seem to be bringing about a crisis in which capital is coming perilously close to abolishing labour in much of the production process — even as it cannot do away with it as foundation of the value form. This contradiction is expressed not only in a tremendous productive capacity that requires relatively little living labour and thus produces crises of valorisation, but also in the forms of spatial organisation. More than ever it seems at least technically evident that we could achieve new forms of spatial organisation that would utilise cleaner power sources, increase population density while decreasing ecological footprints, immediately reduce the hours of human labour, and increase the amount of time available to be lived outside of work. What is perplexing is that while each of these can be imagined apart — and all can be reckoned as rational and feasible — today there seems to be no generalised sense that their combined realisation in a world without capitalism is possible.

  1. Debord, Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Zone 1994), p. 165–9.
  2. This is often conceived of today as the real subsumption of labour under capital, but I believe this is mistaken. As I will argue, industry in this case should be understood as ‘mechanical industry’, and is itself a surpassable organisation of the labour process.
  3. Society of the Spectacle, p. 20.
  4. As Marx noted in the Grundrisse: all production is consumption, all consumption production.
  5. Money → commodities … production … commodities + surplus value → money + surplus value. This formula places an emphasis on money, since it falls at the circuit’s extremes, and is thus specifically the circuit of money capital, but it can also be viewed in rotation, with either the commodity or production at its extremes, thus giving us the circuits of commodity and productive capital. All of these circuits should nonetheless be grasped as facets of a single, socially general process. For Marx the circuit of commodity capital was actually the more concrete, since it articulated the circuits of individual capitals with the broader social context, via the market.
  6. This is why craft labour, for example, does not go away; nor did the implementation of large-scale electrification and the combustion engine after WWII simply do away with mechanical industrial processes. But neither do they any longer have the possibility of being the form in which a new period of valorisation might take place. Either the new class relation fundamentally alters the means, opening up different possibilities, or the older technology simply subsists in those areas where its replacement by other labour processes is not practical in a profitable manner.
  7. Moishe Postone recognises this in terms of the productivity of capital outstripping labour with the current application of science, but he cannot adequately relate it to the mode of producing and labour process, because it reflects something more specific than the ‘real subsumption’ of labour or even than the ‘micro-electronics revolution’ specified by Robert Kurz and Norbert Trenkle, which misses the transformation of the labour process in its concreteness.
  8. Or perhaps one should say: the reduction of the state to a more indirect intervention in favour of so-called ‘market mechanisms’.
  9. Just as we can refer to the class relation as a kind of symbolic order, so with machinery and the labour process we have a kind of material semiotic.
  10. Hans-Dieter Bahr, ‘The Class Structure of Machinery’, in Phil Slater ed., Outlines of a Critique of Technology (Ink Links 1979), p. 6.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid. The notion of the ideality of the worker as a subject is important. As Bahr notes, Lukács mistakes this ideality for a reality, and thus imagines a supra-historical Subject.
  13. While ‘industrial city’ or ‘financial metropolis’ differentiate between the kinds of cities that predominated under urbanism – say, between Detroit and New York – it is difficult to conceptualise the new kind of city along production lines. Post-industrial seems a cop-out, much like ‘post-modernism’ or post-anything. Other options like the ‘cybernetic’ or ‘bio-informatic’ city seem odd. It is an environment so wholly given to the totality of capital, so much a smooth surface encapsulating the entire cycle of M–C–M’, I think it necessary to alternate between ‘suburban city’, as an indicator of its sub-urban status, and ‘sprawl city’ to identify its material and organisational feel. Such terminological difficulties are indicators of a genuine conceptual knot that needs to be revisited and wrestled with.
  14. It is important to note that in the 19th and most of the 20th century, suburbanisation in continental Europe had a different character from the Anglo-American trend. In Europe, the city centre was claimed by the bourgeoisie and upper middle classes, while the working class and industry were pushed to the edges of the cities and suburbs. Even today, American-type suburbs remain the exception on the continent. Therefore it is unsurprising that the 2005 French riots took place in the banlieus – that is, the suburbs – and mostly involved North African youth. In the US, the riot is almost always an ‘inner city’ phenomenon, though as events in Ferguson, MO have shown, this is not exclusively the case. [See ‘Mike Brown’s Body’, in this issue, for an analysis of the latter.]
  15. Bradford Snell, ‘The Streetcar Conspiracy: How General Motors Deliberately Destroyed Public Transit’, The New Electric Railway Journal, Autumn 1995. For an international view of the struggle between mass transit and the automobile, see Colin Divall and Winstan Bond, Suburbanising the Masses: Public Transport and Urban Development in Historical Perspective (Ashgate 2003).
  16. David H. Onkst, ‘“First a Negro ... Incidentally a Veteran”: Black World War Two Veterans and the G.I. Bill in the Deep South, 1944–1948’, Journal of Social History, vol. 31, no. 3, spring 1998, pp. 517–44.
  17. Francis Dupont, whose family money created GM, became the head of the Federal Highway Commission. See Mary Zepernick, ‘The Impact of Corporations on the Commons, address at the Harvard Divinity School’s Theological Opportunities Program, 21 October 2004.
  18. Figure adjusted for 2006 dollars. These sums include maintenance costs for bridges and other items on highways, as well as the highways themselves. Al Neuharth, ‘Traveling Interstates is our Sixth Freedom.’ USA Today, 22 June 2006. For total budget see ‘Spending and Funding for Highways, Congressional Budget Office Economic and Budget Issue Brief’, January 2011.
  19. Tim Wise, ‘Bill of Whites: Historical Memory Through the Racial Looking Glass’, ZNet, 24 July 2000: ‘the VA and FHA loan programmes [...] utilised racially-restrictive underwriting criteria, thereby assuring that hardly any of the $120 billion in housing equity loaned from the late forties to the early sixties through the programmes would go to families of colour. These loans helped finance over half of all suburban housing construction in the country during this period, less than 2% of which ended up being lived in by non-white persons.’ Suzanne Mettler argues that, while the G.I. Bill got black workers into vocational and college programmes, it failed to provide housing: Soldiers to Citizens: The GI Bill and the Making of the Greatest Generation (Oxford University Press, 2005).
  20. Supreme Court ruling in Shelley vs. Kraemer, 1948.
  21. Levittowns: large post-war suburban developments pioneering the new model, created by the real estate developer William Levitt’s company. In 1948 Levitt declared: ‘No man who owns his own house and lot can be a Communist. He has too much to do.’
  22. See Thomas Shapiro, Tatjana Meschede and Sam Osoro, ‘The Roots of the Widening Racial Wealth Gap: Explaining the Black–White Economic Divide’, Brandeis University Institute on Assets and Social Policy, February 2013. This study looked at 1,700 families over 25 years from 1984 to 2009. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports an even greater relative gap (though smaller in absolute terms) of $110,729 vs $4,995 respectively. According to the BLS, the gap between black and white families nearly doubled from 2008 to 2010 because black, latino, and asian family wealth dropped collectively by 60%, while white wealth ‘only’ dropped by 23%.
  23. See, among others, Setha Low, ‘How Private Interests Take Over Public Space’, and Cindi Katz, ‘Power, Space, and Terror’, in The Politics of Public Space (Routledge, 2006); also Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier (Oxford University Press, 1985).
  24. Sparrows Point steel mill in Baltimore is a case in point. The plant itself was until recently considered to have one of the best steel producing continuous caster units left in the US, but for lack of ability to produce steel as cheaply as in Brazil or Russia, the mill has been scrapped, its parts having been auctioned. See Jamie Smith Hopkins, ‘With blast furnace down, Sparrows Point layoffs begin’, Baltimore Sun, 8 June 2012 and ‘Sparrows Point auction brings hundreds to buy mill’s pieces’, Baltimore Sun, 23 January 2013.
  25. Rick Hepp, ‘Police Enforcing New Anti-Loitering Law’, Chicago Tribune, 22 Aug 2000.
  26. 401(k) plans: an employer-contribution form of pension saving in the US that was introduced in the late 1970s to give tax breaks on deferred income.
  27. Debord, Society of the Spectacle, p. 126.
  28. FHA: Federal Housing Administration; HUD: Department of Housing and Urban development.
  29. See Richard Aviles, ‘Racial Threat Revisited: Race, Home Ownership, and White Working Class Politics in the US, 1964–1976’, 2009, draft paper available online.
  30. Gáspár M. Tamás, ‘On Post-Fascism’, Boston Review, Summer 2000.
  31. ‘Communalist’ here refers to political movements such as the Tea Party, LePenism in France and the Jobbik Party in Hungary.
  32. Jacques Rancière, Hatred of Democracy (Verso 2006)