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There is No Alternative: The New Urban Question

Merrifield’s study draws effective connections between urban theory and political activism, but relies on finding militancy in the most mundane

Andy Merrifield, an urban geographer (who has written biographies of Guy Debord and Henri Lefebvre) makes an interesting case for raging against inequality, insecurity and exploitation in this book. The chapter on Debord’s later years − a suitably flâneuresque and insightful vignette − is one of the more charming of this series of essays. It situates Situationists within a romantic longing for the grime and seediness of the past − firing a reawakening spark of dissent − in order to send a signal that there is still fight within the body politic.

This book should have a ready audience, connecting as it does to those who are aggrieved at the way that public space is being privatised, those who are enthused by the socialness of social media, or those who get hot under the collar at the blasé nature of corporate capitalism. If you like David Harvey, a bit of tub-thumping, or if you still hate Maggie Thatcher, then this book is for you. It speaks of a new political narrative, whereby the activists who already chatter about the monopolisation of metropolitan life or who wish to reclaim the streets, can imagine a better future.

While it is good to read about more radical humanistic aspirations for the future, there are some dangers in the patrician manner in which this is done. One of Merrifield’s primary arguments concerns the lack of democracy that manifests itself in the discourse of marginalised and disenfranchised peoples. Leaving aside the disempowering nature of narratives of victimhood, there is a worrying tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater − a trajectory to decry ‘rights’ and ‘representational democracy’ per se. We should simply ‘say NO when politicians and bankers say YES’, he suggests. While Merrifield correctly identifies rising litigiousness in the rights debate, and the inadequacy of many of our democratic representatives, he tends to end up in technical semantics that risk exposing the potential reactionary nature of his position.

This is a book for the Occupy generation; a ready-made ‘converted’ for whom urban dissatisfaction is often conflated with politicisation. Joseph Stiglitz wrote of the aloofness of the elites within Western society, warning that ‘money doesn’t seem to have bought an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99% live’. The resulting social movement claiming to represent that 99 per cent is where this book is targeted … or rather at ‘the-academics-who-talk-about-the 99 per cent’, a so-called ‘participatory democratic’ (ie, non-elected) movement that dares to speak for the majority.

For example, arguing for a free press and against the nefarious monopolistic practices of press barons, Merrifield advocates ‘a press that reports on news items people ought to hear about … a citizen’s right to hear, to listen to genuine truths’. Far from the desired world of militant revolution, surely this is merely a regurgitation of the faux radicalism (read: censoriousness) of Lord Leveson.

This book has been written with some urgency, seeking to address a specific historical moment as the author sees it. Unfortunately, a book that was written in the heady days of the Arab Spring looks a little embarrassing as the Middle East unravels before our very eyes. But Merrifield can discover militancy in the most mundane. His invented world of flaming banlieues, of ‘amplified class struggle’, of dissenting plots against the established order, of ‘advancing ongoing activism’ is stirring stuff only spoiled by the fact that it isn’t really happening. For Merrifield, this isn’t a problem: ‘We can consciously construct things in our imagination before we build them in reality.’

Merrifield has constructed a robust narrative whose only problem seems to be that it is complete fiction. While we all use ‘narrative devices’ to serve as a framework for how we conceptualise our lives, we tend not to wallow in self-deception. If his purpose is to channel human agency, then why begin with such an evident divorce from lived experience? Why create a dystopian vision of everyday ‘reality’ characterised by paramilitarised urban space and institutions that ‘underwrite human captivity’ unless you simply want to terrorise people into action … any action?

For such urban activists, action is important because making political demands is too difficult. ‘What matters most of all,’ Merrifield says, ‘is surely whether people engage in effective action’ regardless of the cause of that action, or even what ‘effective’ actually means. Ironically, this seems to lay the ground rules for the very cynicism that he seems to be challenging.

The New Urban Question

Author: Andy Merrifield

Publisher: Pluto Press

Price: £13.50

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