Unseeing the City
In China Miéville’s 2009 novel The City and the City, a murder mystery unfolds in a fascinating dystopian cityscape. There are two cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma, separated by a tightly controlled border. The former East and West Berlin might come to mind. However, what’s different about Beszel and Ul Qoma is that they are not divided by a physical wall or fence but by a complex psycho-geographical demarcation. The two separate cities are in fact superimposed on one another, with their urban fabric tightly interwoven. In certain parts of the metropolis, a neighbour within physical proximity, could in fact live as a citizen of the other city, while the downstairs shop might also exist on the other side of the border.
In order to make such a complex and multifarious border operate, one needs something as malleable as the human psyche to intervene and this is exactly what happens in Miéville’s novel. From early age, the inhabitants of Beszel and Ul Qoma are instructed in what is called “unseeing”: they have to train their perception in such a way that they only see what’s happening in the space demarcated as their city. There are specific codes, colours and styles that are indicative for a person, a car, a shop and so on to belong particularly to one of the two cities. The citizenry of Beszel and Ul Qoma have internalized these codes with flawless perfection: each population see their city and their city only. The rest fades away to a dim background blur, effectively unseen.
While it speaks to the prodigious imaginative talent of Miéville to pull off a nail-biter in this near impossible absurd setting, his dystopian cityscape is fascinating for yet another reason: it reveals a formula according to which ideology functions today. Perhaps its most obvious articulation can be found in the mobile interface and its radical impact on the way we perceive ourselves and the world around us. Consider, for instance, how we navigate through urban space: the GPS-supported map in the palm of our hand has merged with the territory and our sense of place, causing a partial unseeing of our life world. It doesn’t end here, of course. The mobile interface has submitted a previously diverse array of social practices – from listening to music, to taking a photo or finding a partner – to the same regime of gestures and habits that effectively dissipate a good part of the quality of life. The screen makes us also unsee the brutal regime on which the interface is built, the exploitation, the relentless extraction (of data and resources), the behavioural control of our lives and so on (the politically toxicity of a product such as Fairphone lies exactly in feigning to be an ‘interface for good’, thus symbolically whitewashing the corporate ecosystem in which it participates).
Interface and An-Aesthesia
In a recent Amsterdam Alternative talk, the US-American culture critic Brian Holmes argued that the ubiquitous use of mobile interfaces has led to an alarming cultural shift. He speaks of the emergence of an ‘interface aesthetic’ that amounts to a cultural an-aesthesia with regard to the great political challenges of our time. “The developments of cybernetically managed communications technology since the emergence of ubiquitous computing”, Holmes argues, “have shown the possibility of a thoroughly affective euphoria of mobility, perceptual agility, expressive virtuosity, and relational fluidity amidst steady progress toward complete ecological breakdown.” Yet, while the ongoing climate change protests by post-Millennials around the world could perhaps be seen as a first crack in the screen, there are aspects of neoliberalism’s ideological interface aesthetic that remain enigmatically intact.
This is specifically the case in our own city. If we want to understand the current transformation of Amsterdam from a socially diverse, culturally exciting habitat for its dwellers to an increasingly homogeneous playground for financial investors, real estate speculators and the tourism industry, Miéville’s collective unseeing and Holmes’ interface an-aesthesia are absolutely crucial. Consider the havoc that unchecked gentrification continues to wreak in our city. Without illusions or fully endorsing it, we are aware of its effects: unaffordable housing, displacement of low and middle income households, and exploding rents driving an entire generation of local youth and university graduates, together with small businesses and even doctors, out of town.
Those with enough interest in the matter are aware of the drivers behind this development: neoliberal deregulation and financialisation of the economy has led to a staggering accumulation of financial capital that is in constant search for investment opportunities. Thanks to low interest rates, real estate is where investors prefer to put their funds, driving up property and land prices. Add to this ‘innovative’ digital business models such as Airbnb and top it up with cheap air travel and you get a city suffocating on the approbations of neoliberalism.
Financial Vandalism in the Capital of Innovation
Amsterdam shares this kind of distress with cities all over world. What makes our city stand out is the glaring absence of political courage to effectively deal with this situation. There are many ways in which city governments can intervene to put a stop to the vandalism of financial capital. New York has recently filed a $21 million lawsuit against a group of real estate brokers who ran an illegal Airbnb empire throughout Manhattan. Barcelona is severely restricting Airbnb’s operation and has stopped hotels from being built in the city centre. In Berlin, a social movement is organising formidable demonstrations demanding the expropriation of anti-social investors; a corresponding petition has attracted tens of thousands of signatures. The mayor of the town of Tübingen in the German South is threatening investors with confiscation if their property is used for speculation.
Some steps are being taken in Amsterdam as well. The city government requests 40 to 80 per cent of new real estate developments to be social housing for low and middle incomes. However, as long as housing corporations are acting as market players, it’s hard to see how this is going to happen. Amsterdam has also begun to impose substantial penalties for illicit business activities around Airbnb. That’s a start, but not nearly enough. Contentiously, there’s an official stop on the building of new hotels that is a total sham, as new hotels are erected incessantly all over the city.
Again, what’s missing is the political courage to radically break with the functional logic of the housing and real estate market, the tourism industry, the energy market and so on that monopolises social resources. One of the reasons for this lack of nerve lies in the machinations of a coalition of political functionaries, smart entrepreneurs and cultural opportunists who were able to install an an-aesthetic interface in Amsterdam that has effectively highjacked the city’s public discourse through short-term and small-scale pragmatic concession. Instrumental in this operation was Pakhuis De Zwijger along with the Amsterdam Economic Board and a network of smaller institutions. What they have achieved over the course of the past decade is to create a colossal programme to permanently manipulate the city’s collective vision in such a way as to systematically unsee the political dimension of every societal problem. Where in the past, people would see social injustice, power inequities or exploitation, De Zwijger & Co taught us to see wicked problems, design challenges, opportunities for innovative business models, Big Society projects and Smart City programmes. One of the celebrated successes of this coalition was Amsterdam’s 2016 nomination as European Capital of Innovation. As the marketeers of IAmsterdam, enthusiastically exclaim on their website: “Amsterdam serves as an example to the rest of the world when it comes to using innovation to solve urban issues.” Yet, innovation is not equitable to politics. By instilling economic and cultural populism, it performs the task of implementing the neoliberal zeitgeist. The network around De Zwijger indeed has an impressive track record in this respect. Amsterdam was a forerunner in adapting the so-called creative city policy (the use of culture and the arts for the purpose of gentrification), a policy that even its intellectual forebear, Richard Florida, considers to be one of the crucial causes of the current urban crisis.
The Creative City and the Rise of the Populist Right
Make no mistake; there is nothing neoliberalism detests more than the composition of schematic democratic politics, understood as the meaningful debate about the direction in which a society should move, followed by a collective decision leading to rules, regulations, and of course, legislation. By pretending to provide an authentic, open forum for all citizens, De Zwijger and its exposed network of agents successfully managed to degenerate the public debate to the now dominant articulation of ‘interests’, smartness and innovation. This is an illusory, however dangerous achievement. The dire consequences of this system can be observed for instance when the former director of the Green Left Party think tank, Dick Pels genuinely argued for a continuation of creative city policy as the best way to fight social injustice and right-wing resentment (Groene Amsterdammer, 18 March 2019). In an act of breathtaking political idiocy, Pels dispenses with the fact that the creative city is not anything but the cultural avant-garde for the interests of financial capital, serving only the financial elite (again, even Florida admits this!). Defending ordinary people against the powerful was once the political function of left politics. De Zwijger’s an-aesthetic interface is part of a machinery that has blurred out the democratic struggle because it doesn’t fit the schema of neoliberal creativity and innovation. This is how ideology functions today: out of sight, out of mind, out of politics. Beszel, Ul Qoma, Amsterdam.
Except that there is of course a political movement to which those who feel betrayed by their political representatives are gravitating: the populist right. This then is where the real danger of De Zwijger & Co lies. By perpetuating an an-aesthetised public discourse that sustains a neoliberal consensus, they dissipate the energies of a young generation yearning for radical change. Each day it continues to inhibit a political movement that could effectively fight social injustice and rising inequality, De Zwijger is complicit in the further expansion of the ideological space of the populist right.
This unintended effect is what everyone who plans to participate in an event like We.Make.The.City should be aware of. It doesn’t matter how many intelligent and meaningful projects, initiatives, start-ups and local activists present their worthwhile cases. Some of them will certainly be laudable or even contribute to making the world a better place. What is urgent to understand is that We.Make.The.City and its host, Pakhuis De Zwijger, operate as an interface created for the purpose of putting anyone with real political aspirations to sleep, of closing the eyes of those who want to insist on naming social issues by their proper name, of unseeing the effects of financial vandalism on our city’s urban ecology. What Amsterdam needs is something else entirely: a public debate that breaks with this political an-aesthesia and puts pressure on the city government to end the unobstructed rule of the market.