Past Seminars Reviews

Matteo Pasquinelli: On the Ruins of the Postfordist City

A PhD Seminar held in Rotterdam on May 20, 2010. The seminar was largely based on Pasquinelli’s book Animal Spirits: A Bestiary of the Commons (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2008). Cfr. also Matteo Pasquinelli, ‘Beyond the Ruins of the Creative City: Berlin’s Factory of Culture and the Sabotage of Rent,’ in: KUNSTrePUBLIK (ed.), Skulpturenpark Berlin_Zentrum, Berlin: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2010 [online]“A typical Western language fetishism that locks any potential political gesture in the prison-house of Code. In this confinement, any act of resistance is inhibited as fatalistically reinforcing the dominant ideology.” This seems to be the impasse of the academia in many fields – architecture included – but also the attitude of many activists. To those who wish to escape this condition Matteo Pasquinelli‘s work offers a valuable method.

“An investment in this critique,” goes on Pasquinelli, “does not mean a naïve return to good old materialism, but on the contrary, aims to illuminate the frictions and conflicts in the interstices between material and immaterial, biological and digital, desire and imaginary.”[1]1. Matteo Pasquinelli, Animal Spirits, p. 14 In other words, to read the immaterial, language and the imaginary not as ideology, as something opposed to an alleged ‘material’ base, but as true means of production, through which value is produced and captured. To do so, Pasquinelli reads media theory through the methodological teaching of post-Operaismo:[2]2. For a short account on the historical developments of Italian Operaismo (also known as Workerism, or Autonomous Marxism, see Sylvère Lotringer, ‘Foreword: We, the Multitude,’ in Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude (Los Angeles & New York: Semiotext(e), 2004) to put the collective, conflictual forms of the autonomous production of knowledge before the developments of capital. In this way, Pasquinelli reads the case of gentrification to develop a model of how the production of collective imaginary produces a very material value, which is captured by real estate and financial capital.

Theories and struggles against gentrification have always underlined the conflictual, class nature of the substitution of low-income dwellers with high-income professionals. But only recently it became clear how this phenomenon is driven by the autonomous, often illegal activities of the counter-cultural networks which first colonized the ruins of fordism – dismantled factories, terrains vagues, and the city centres abandoned by the middle-class suburban sprawl. It is precisely through the adoption of the modes of production of the underground – the refusal of nine-to-five working hours, DIY ethics, the aesthetics of the ruins – that capital renewed itself after the crisis of the factory as it main productive model. This became even more clear afterwards, when developers, city councils and governments adopted the rhetorics of creativity as a real political program of planned gentrification: Richard Florida’s creative cities, Tony Blair’s creative industries, the strategies of Barcelona’s to capitalize local political peculiarities can be seen as a way to put to work the creative forces of social unrest. These strategies intensified even more after the collapse of the dotcom bubble, when financial capitals were redirected from the ‘new economy’ to real estate markets: “surrounded by the relicts of the post-Fordist factory, where speculation is no longer profitable over the interminable fields of the Internet, the cultural economy reveals its love for concrete.”[3]3. Matteo Pasquinelli, Animal Spirits, p. 126

In this sense, gentrification becomes a diagram of the contemporary forms of accumulation. As Carlo Vercellone pointed out,[4]4. Carlo Vercellone, ‘The New Articulation of Wages, Rent and Profit in Cognitive Capitalism,’ paper presented at ‘The Art of Rent,’ 2008, Queen Mary University School of Business and Management, London [online] contemporary capitalistic modes of production are better understood in terms of rent extraction, instead of profit production. In an industrial organization the capitalist has to organize production setting up machinery and infrastructures, in order to make labour productive and extract profit from it. On the other hand, rent is a form of value extraction which doesn’t need the organization of the means of production. The owner of a piece of land enjoys a rent just for the fact of possessing it, event if he or she doesn’t produce anything on it. In other words, the production of value occurs somewhere else, without any intervention from the one who finally collects it. For example, the value of a piece of land can rise because of public decisions, such as allowing the possibility to build on it, constructing infrastructure or service in its proximity, or – as we saw in the case of gentrification – as a result of the peculiarity of the forms of life proliferating on it. Urban planning developed as a form of land rent redistribution. In general, rent was condemned by bourgeois economists as a remnant of feudalism, as an obstacle to the development of capital.

But as Vercellone argues, ‘rent is the new profit.’ A post-industrial economy is based on putting to work human capacities such as knowledge, sensitivity, affectivity, language. Human faculties cannot be organized by the forces of capital: in order to maximise their productivity, these means of production should enjoy a large degree of autonomy and connectivity. If production becomes social, this doesn’t imply the end of capitalistic exploitation: capital can always capture the value produced in common by setting up technologies of rent extraction.

The strategies that movements and artists have adopted to face the parasitic nature of urban rent are different. While ridiculizing the politically correct attemtps to produce ‘sustainable art’ or ‘a more equitable gentrification’, Pasquinelli rejects the pleas ‘for an uncreative city’, proposed by art Dutch collective BAVO. ‘Being uncreative’ without understanding how value is today accumulated is not only uneffective, but it also ends up in reproducing the self-castratory moralist constrictions of certain leftist groups (‘be uncreative’ is not different from ‘consume less’, ‘don’t eat meat’, etc.)

Another type of strategy is to push the characters of the given power structure up to such a paradoxical level of intensity to expose its contradictions in an unmediated way. Such a strategy of over-identification was the one employed by the Italian movement of radical architecture in the Sixties and Seventies. Departing from Friedrich Engels’ observation that there can be no working-class city but only a working-class critique of the existing city, Archizoom Associati developed ‘No-Stop City’ as a hyperrealistic representation of the metropolis as an all-encompassing field of social production. The young radicals saw a possibility for the working class to reappropriate such a condition, and their projects were meant as an instrument to produce class consciousness. But the same strategy, purged from its political connotations, can be transformed to a cynical acceptation of the status quo, as the case of Rem Koolhaas demonstrates.

What Pasquinelli asks for is to actively engage in how value is produced today, by reverse-engineering the apparatuses of its capture, to tweak their technologies and ultimately to reclaim collective production. Artists such as David Hirst, sabotaged the art markets selling his artwork the golden calf skipping the gallery system., Paolo Cirio and Alessandro Ludovico, through their project ‘Google Will Eat Itself‘ managed to develop a system able to buy Google shares using its own money. Finally, the ‘YES Men’ were able to sabotage the value of Dow Chemical’s stock options (responsible for the 1984 Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal) through a television prank. Pasquinelli calls for a generalization of this kind of examples, to construct a grammar of sabotage[5]5. Matteo Pasquinelli, Animal Spirits, p. 149-154 and self-valorization as a constituent force for new collective institutions.

This allows us a final methodological consideration. Despite the production of fashionable concepts, (post-)Operaism is neither a political doctrine nor a well-refined academic theory. As Mario Tronti put it, it is a style, a method of inquiry which puts the production of worker’s knowledge in the forefront. Knowledge is never universal, and it is not produced through the beauty of the syllogism. It can only be produced through struggle.