Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

The Biopolitical Production of the City: Urban Political Ecology in the Age of Immaterial Labour

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

The Biopolitical Production of the City: Urban Political Ecology in the Age of Immaterial Labour

Article excerpt

Abstract. This paper explores the potential of immaterial forms of work for a renewed politics of urban metabolisms where the production of emancipatory subjectivity is recast as a crucial moment in the process of making urban space. Through a critical engagement with the works of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, it will be argued that their investigations of the current condition of labour provide a powerful toolkit to get a glimpse of the dense, intricate entanglements between human and nonhuman worlds that emerge from science, innovation, affects, arts, and so forth, in the constitution of radical political ecologies. The paper then analyses the case of the struggle for water in Bucaramanga, a city in Colombia threatened by a large-scale mining project, which illustrates how collaborative engagement, communicational strategies, technoscientific debates, and legal action--among others--can produce political solidarities and social subjects that enhance the democratic and socioecological content of contemporary urban worlds.

Keywords: immaterial labour, urban political ecology, Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, urban metabolism, biopolitics


"A metropolis can ignite overnight, and the blazes stubbornly refuse to be extinguished." Hardt and Negri (2009, page 212)

'Labour is the living, form-giving fire; it is the transitoriness of things, their temporality, as their formation by living time."

Marx (1973 [1939], page 361)

1 Introduction

The metropolis, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri suggest, "is to the multitude what the factory was to the industrial working class" (2009, page 250). Not only has the city become the site of capitalist production, exploitation, and oppression under contemporary work conditions, but it is increasingly where political organisation, along with its concomitant expressions of antagonism and rebellion, takes place (Hardt and Negri, 2009). For them, the common (1) that serves as the basis for biopolitical production--languages, images, codes, habits, affects, and practices--runs through the metropolitan territory and constitutes the very fabric of the modern city (2009, page 250). Although the field of urban studies has been increasingly turning its gaze towards the biopolitical city (see Adams, 2014; Braun, 2014; Ekers and Loftus, 2008; Gandy, 2006; Kraftl, 2014; Wakefield and Braun, 2014), the notion of biopolitics has usually been construed in terms of disciplinary apparatuses or dispositifs that exert top-down, actuarial governance and regulation of urban populations. A biopolitics from below, which would consist in struggles over the production of new urban commons and revolutionary subjectivities through collaborative engagement and sensuous practice--which according to David Harvey (2009; 2012) is fundamental to the aims of a politically progressive urbanism--has lacked further development.

To the extent that it foregrounds human labour as the fundamental analytical category for making sense of the production of urban environments (see Heynen et al, 2006; Holifield, 2009; Kaika, 2005; Loftus, 2006; 2009; 2012; Swyngedouw, 2004; 2006; Swyngedouw and Heynen, 2003), the notion of 'metabolic urbanisation' developed by the Marxist School of Urban Political Ecology (UPE) may offer key elements to realise Hardt and Negri's view of the city as the 'factory for the production of subjectivity'. Although UPE's research agenda has focused on the uneven production of socioenvironmental landscapes, the extent to which these urban metabolisms can also translate into the production of urban subjectivities has not yet been fully developed. Furthermore, the issue of labour has aroused considerable academic interest lately, with scholars arguing for the need to focus on concrete labour histories and geographies (Ekers and Loftus, 2012; Guthman, 2011; Loftus, 2012) in order to attain more situated, reflexive understandings of how urban environments are currently produced. …

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