May Blog : A post election comment

In the wake of the election it is clear that political geography is shifting under our feet. Centrifugal forces in what we used to call ‘British’ society, hitherto held in check, have staked out new and uncommon ground. This moment of de-centering, whether represented by the SNP on the Left, or UKIP on the Right, offers both an opportunity and a risk to everyone who holds on to a more inclusive vision of what social justice means in the city. While the political class sets off on a wild goose chase to capture the now evanescent ‘centre ground’, and Labour replays the endless Blair V Brown debate, the search for an alternative geography of resistance will go on. The temptation on the part of disenchanted radicals is to reach for purely aesthetic or utopian solutions, to retreat into artistic subversion or anarcho-punk defiance. But however therapeutic it may be for sections of the dissident intelligentsia to reclaim the city as an adventure playground and create a subculture built around a gestural refusal of the political system, this strategy in no way addresses the gravity of the situation in which we find ourselves.

The next five years will see a vast expansion of the precariat. The number and range of groups who find themselves economically, socially and culturally marginalised in and by the neo-liberal body politic will multiply exponentially. The spectrum of those who occupy precarious spaces and are facing increasingly hard times cuts across traditional divisions of class, gender, ethnicity and age, which is not to say that these engrained principles of distinction will not continue to fracture political opposition. Yet this new multitude, of young and old, black and white, middle class and working class , all those who have little or no bio-political stake in either the regeneration, or rather rebranding, of post-industrial urban fabric as a ‘smart city’ or the growth of globally networked labourhoods based on job insecurity and hyper-exploitation, this aggregate of the disaggregated could still come to constitute a formidable political force. The new precariat could certainly challenge the centre/periphery relations which currently govern urban policy making and the market economy, because its demands for affordable housing and living wages cannot be met within the framework of  unequal investment which governs relations between London and the ‘provinces’, the inner and outer city .

As a result a lot of people are going to find themselves living on the edge, not out of life style choice, but from sheer material necessity. But the intensification of civic effort to support an improvised apparatus of mutual aid for day to day survival has to contend with the collapse of narratives of collective aspiration, the shared affordances which hitherto sustained struggles of long duration amongst communities on the front line.

In this vacuum, it is perhaps not surprising that edginess has had such a good press amongst both radical cartographers and the advocates of de-regulated urbanism. Libertarians of Left and Right unite to praise edge cities as the incubator of transgressive values or entrepreneurial innovation. They celebrate the rich ecology nurtured in interstitial spaces, and the vibrant counter-cultures which flourish in niches where gentrification has not yet prevailed. Important though it is to join up these dots, to explore, map and defend this emergent urban commons, no amount of edgy pedestrianism can compensate for the absence of an urban social movement ( or a political party) capable of connecting issues of housing, public amenity, health and well being, conditions of work and the environment in a way that makes uncommon sense to a wide diversity of groups.

If we are seeing the emergence of a larger, but more hidden, geography of exclusion, overpopulated by refugees from globalisation without any shared direction home, it seems incumbent on critical cartographers to create a platform for its proper representation, to make sure that these concerns, these voices and stories are not only heard but listened to and acted upon. The challenge for LivingMaps and for similar networks where artists, academics and activists collaborate, is to develop projects on the ground which explore the invisible edges and hidden depths of the global city in ways which challenge their demonization and their romantic recuperation. The task is to break out of the cycle of dis- and re-enchantment of the city in which radical urbanism has been for so long trapped. We need to develop a methodology which gives a properly democratic articulation to the hopes and the fears of those who have no alternative but to stake their common futures on what the urban polity  can still be made to deliver .