The Worldwide Urban Mobilizations
Conundrums of “Democracy,” “The Middle Class,” and “The People”
Editors: Massimiliano Mollona & Don Kalb
What is the nature of the contemporary cycles of urban protest, as evidenced in the recent rounds of “worldwide” urban contentions? What is their class basis, and what are their “class compasses” (Therborn)? Should we see them as revolutionary, reformist, or conservative— or are they rather an uneasy populist hybrid, open for multiple possible articulations? How can we read these urban phenomena within the broader scalar hierarchies and transformative processes of the state, capital, and the world system? Are they, in all their variety, perhaps aspects and provisional local outcomes of global urban transformation? Or should we refuse to universalize and continue to treat them as separate happenings, occasioned by particular place-based conditions, as they themselves often seem to claim, while freely drawing inspiration from each other? In particular, what role does the idea of “the middle class” play here, including the associated symbols of “corruption,” “transparency,” “democracy,” and “the people”?
On 17 June 2013, two million people across Brazil protested against the increase in transport fares planned by the government in preparation for the 2016 Olympic Games, forcing the president of Brazil to proclaim a national plebiscite for political reform. In opposing housing speculation and displacement of low-income families, the demonstrators made the specific claim that equal access to the city is a fundamental civic right. Similar mobilizations were happening in Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic, all resulting in a change of government. Urban Turkey, too, was shaken by massive urban uprisings; southern European countries meanwhile continued to witness occasional mass gatherings in the recent indignado mode or within older left-wing traditions. Are these urban rebellions continuations of the annus mirabilis of 2011, of which the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Arab Spring became emblematic?
Social scientists and political activists have often looked at these urban protests with optimism—as forms of subaltern uprisings (Castells 2012; for Latin America see Sugraynes and Mathivet 2010), as organized commoning against the rentier economy of late capitalism (Harvey 2012; Susser 2013), or as the praxes of new constituent subjectivities (Douzinas 2013; Graeber 2012). But with their hybrid forms—between riot, direct action, peaceful demonstration, and public occupation—and generally middle-class self-identifications, these movements defeat easy interpretations. Moreover, their hopeful starts as “spontaneous rebellions” are often bitterly contradicted by their subsequent co-optation into conservative and right-wing coalitions. What role does the “certified language” of corruption play in this regard? Which factors, general or contingent, help to explain their articulating toward right or left?
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Sugraynes Ana, and Charlotte Mathivet, eds. 2010. Cities for all: Proposals and experiences towards the right to the city. Chile: Habitat International Coalition (HIC).