The current era of 21st century urban revolutions began in early 2011, with scores of cities during the Arab Spring. The uprisings have now taken on a newer, darker hue, with Sao Paolo’s protest over bus fares that has already spread to other cities in Brazil. A few uprisings have resulted in the deposing of hated Middle Eastern dictators, and many leaders have reached uneasy truces with their citizens, but observers sense that this conflict is far from over. Some see these as isolated incidents. It seems more like a global web of urban unrest searching for a voice.
Much of today’s social unrest was predicted by French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, writing in the mid-1970s about social space in the city, and how it has been constructed to favor capitalism. The separation of work and home, for example, is a relatively modern spatial arrangement favoring wealth, and for no better example of this, one can see the hike in Sao Paolo bus fares acting as the straw that broke the camel’s back for the Brazilian poor. Lefebvre’s evaluation of the currents of the late twentieth century can now be updated, and it points to a looming social crisis.
Western states– Chinese, Syrian, or what-have-you – have the tools to utterly crush any alternatives to their power. The state is universally promoted as the “stable center” without which, we are assured, we would descend into chaos. It enables both a spatial flatness and instantaneous communication, collapsing space and time.
The working class, instead of rising up in Marxist-style class struggle, has continually been pacified by consumerism. Anyone interviewing a modern Chinese young adult would, if they got a candid response, hear the anger of this generation over the Tiananmen Square generation’s sell-out; economic freedom was offered by the state, and the people, starved for so long, chose it, rather than political freedom. Today, they pay the price. Placating the lower classes has become expensive, and the state has become overextended in doing so, but cannot stop at the risk of seeding a genuine revolt.
As housing, transportation, food and living costs rise to newly unaffordable levels, a larger and larger segment of the population is left behind. An example of this is the phenomenon of food trucks, which has swept many cities in a few short years, creating a niche that is neither vending cart nor restaurant, but something new in between. Government regulation was swift in coming, notable not for its concern about health, but its concern about the economic protection of vested interests . In olden days, food vendors could just duke it out for the customer. Today, the government, anxious to keep the finely tuned economic hierarchy of the city in balance, rushes in to create order and regulate the problem away.
Struggles in Egypt, Syria, and now Brazil have nothing to do with traditional Marxist concerns about the rise of the industrial worker. With impoverished credibility, evidenced by the multiple failures of the socialist state, leftists have little to offer when considering the urban landscape that lies before us in cities like Aleppo, Damascus, Tunis, Cairo, and many others.
While the right cries “Marxist” at anyone protesting the greed and corruption of the global economic system, this smear is neither accurate nor serious. Old labels are used for lack of anything better, but the confrontations on the streets have neither a red flag nor a red book. Instead, the new mob – refusing to be pacified by the usual pop culture escapism – is searching for a new voice that is neither communist nor capitalist.
The American Occupy movement faded before it could contribute anything meaningful to the last election, but perhaps by consensus it decided that the election was already lost, regardless of which party won. Disbanded, the protest against the “one percent” was an inarticulate voice not ready for prime time. What is the opposite of globalism?
It is a new localism that will arise, refuting the power of the state and finding a yet- unnamed ethic that rejects our flattened, instantaneous space-time for something hilly and slower.
In the coming months and years these urban voices will continue to protest the state’s authoritarianism, as well as the high price of the global economic system. Eventually, these voices will likely converge into a newer socio-economic philosophy, yet to be defined. Lefebvre died in 1991 without ever seeing the protests at global trade talks at the turn of the millennium, but he would have approved of the dialectic. He would also have predicted that they would be crushed by the state, as happened. He would see today’s world as ripe for confrontation.
Flickr photo by Phillip Pessar, Frita Man Food Truck at Walgreens, Miami, Florida. "Food trucks in the Walgreens parking lot have become a regular thing."
Richard Reep is an architect and artist who lives in Winter Park, Florida. His practice has centered around hospitality-driven mixed use, and he has contributed in various capacities to urban mixed-use projects, both nationally and internationally, for the last 25 years.