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The Zero-Ground of Politics: Musings on the Post-Political City

The Zero-Ground of Politics: Musings on the Post-Political City

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Published by: petersigrist on Jun 02, 2011
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08/23/2013

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The Zero-Ground of Politics: Musings on the Post-Political City
 Erik Swyngedouw Geography School of Environment and Development University of Manchester Oxford Road  Manchester M13 9PL
erik.swyngedouw@manchester.ac.uk “There is a shift form the model of the
polis
founded on a centre, that is, a publiccentre or 
agora
, to a new metropolitan spatialisation that is certainly invested in a process of de-politicisation, which results in a strange zone where it is impossibleto decide what is private and what is public” (Agamben 2006).The city offers a privileged scale for dissecting the social body, for rummaging throughthe innards of our most intimate fantasies, desires, and fears; for excavating the signs of the city’s political condition. As the ancient Greek polis was for Aristotle and Plato theexperimental site for the performance of civic and political life, the contemporary cityalso holds for us the key to unlocking the contours of the present political constellation.It is indeed unmistakably so that the city has undergone radical change over the past twodecades or so, most dramatically in its modes of urban governing and polic(y)ing(Rancière, 1995; Dikeç, 2007). We shall argue that, while the city is alive and thriving atleast in some of its spaces, the polis, conceived in the idealized Greek sense as the site for  public political encounter and democratic negotiation, the spacing of (often radical)dissent, and disagreement, and the place where political subjectivation emerges andliterally takes place, seems moribund. In other words, the ‘political’ is retreating while
 
social space is increasingly colonised by policies (or policing). The suturing of socialspace by consensual managerial policies and the evacuation of the properly political(democratic) dimension from the urban -- what will described below as the post-politicalcondition -- constitutes what I would define as the ZERO-ground of politics. Theleitmotiv of this contribution will indeed be the figure of a de-politicized Post-Politicaland Post-Democratic city.I shall argue that urban governance at the beginning of the 21
st
century has shifted profoundly, giving rise to a new form of governmentality in the Foucaultian sense of theword, one that is predicated upon new formal and informal institutional configurations – forms of governance that are characterized by a broadening of the sphere of governing,while narrowing, if not suspending, the space of the properly political. Urban governingtoday is carried by a wide variety of institutions and organizations. It operates through arange of geographical scales, and mobilizes a wide assortment of social actors, including private agents, designers, architects, and planners, non-governmental organizations, civilsociety groups, corporations, and the more traditional forms of local, regional, or nationalgovernment. I shall characterize these new regimes of policing the city as Governance- beyond-the-State (Swyngedouw 2005) (Swyngedouw 2008). It is a governance regimeconcerned with policing, controlling and accentuating the imperatives of a globallyconnected neo-liberalized market economy. This new ‘polic(y)ing’ order reflects whatSlavoj
Ž
i
ž
ek and Jacques Rancière define as a post-political and post-democraticconstitution. In other words, contrary to the popular belief that these new forms of neo-liberal urban governance widen participation and deepen ‘democracy’, I shall insist thatthis post-political condition in fact annuls democracy, evacuates the political proper – i.e.
 
the nurturing of disagreement through properly constructed material and symbolic spacesfor dissensual public encounter and exchange – and ultimately perverts and underminesthe very foundation of a democratic polis. This regime exposes what Rancière calls thescandal of democracy: while promising equality, it produces an oligarchically institutedform of governing in which political power seamlessly fuses with economic might(Rancière 2005b) and a governance arrangement that consensually shapes the cityaccording to the dreams, tastes and needs of the transnational economic, political, andcultural elites. Proper urban politics fosters dissent, creates disagreement and triggers thedebating of and experimentation with more egalitarian and inclusive urban futures, a process that is wrought with all kinds of tensions and contradictions but also opens upspaces of possibilities. Exploring these will constitute the final part of this contribution.But first I shall highlight the contours of present-day urbanity.
Post-Political Governance-Beyond-the-State: the Zero-Ground of Politics
My entry into excavating the constellation of present day urbanity is the large scaleredevelopment projects that are dotting the urban landscape worldwide. I take my cuefrom the emblematic urban interventions that are staged and erected as attempts toreconfigure the urban socio-cultural, economic, and physical fabric in line with theaspirations and dreams of urban elites that prefigure a particular form of urbanity, onethat simultaneously redraws the wider and globalizing spatio-temporal co-ordinates inwhich the city is enmeshed. Whether one considers the Amsterdam-Zuid project,Rotterdam’s Kop van Zuid, Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum and the Abandobarra re-

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