The Metropolitan Factory:How Capitalist Exploitation Extends Through All Corners of the City

The Metropolitan Factory:How Capitalist Exploitation Extends Through All Corners of the City

Standing on Federal Hill, looking down at the development of the inner harbor, one is struck by many things. Perhaps the most obvious thing, regardless of what one thinks of the process that led to its development, is that the buildings and their arrangement are rather ugly. Not just in the way downtown looks, but even more so in what it does: how the city operates as a factory, isolating people from each other, channeling social relations into prescribed routes, and preventing others from forming. 



On March 27, 2009, David Harvey stood on the hill looking down at the inner city to revisit the arguments he made in an essay many years ago on the development of the area. He responded to this observation with the comment that it was “really quite a strange thing that the bourgeois has no imagination.” That is, it has no sense of creativity that can devise anything more appealing in its domination and transformation of the social space and the urban environment. This may seem like a minor point or a trite observation. What does it matter how aesthetically appealing or how well-designed an area is when there are more crucial questions and ongoing issues of communities being displaced, workers being exploited, and the nature of social life being shaped by the needs of capital? This question is a valid one to a degree. But what is interesting about such an observation is the process it hints at and what this can tell us about the development of capitalism in today’s post-industrial cities.


Whether or not the bourgeois has any creativity is debatable (Marx himself marveled at the inventiveness of the ruling class in transforming social reality, albeit usually for the worse). However, regardless of such a debate, what can be said with certainty is that the bourgeoisie is skilled at stealing the imagination and creativity of others. And, this is precisely what the history of the transformations of the city generally shows us. As soon as social/political movements and new artistic developments arise, they are seized upon by real estate developers, urban planners, and policy makers to create the image of a new ‘hip’ district that will boost real estate prices, attract “more desirable” residents, and so forth in a perpetual spiral of capitalist development. 


This process of gentrification, led by or inadvertently spurred by developments in artistic and social creativity, is an old one. When Albert Parry wrote his history of Bohemia in the US he paid close attention to the relation between artists and the rise of the real estate market in the 60s and 70s. But in Parry’s case the decades in question were the 1860s and 70s. The point of raising this comparison is not to sulk over this process or mourn that so much creative energy fermented by social movements that are often antagonistic to capitalism gets turned into mechanisms for further capitalist accumulation. Rather, the goal is making sense out of it, and making sense in a way that further clarifies this process for political and social organizing.


In recent years a focus on the metropolis as both a space of capitalist production (and resistance to it) has emerged within radical movements coming out of Europe (Italy and France specifically). This focus is based on an argument, developed over many years within autonomous social movements, that states that we live in the social factory; exploitation does not just occur within the bounded workplace but increasingly encroaches upon all forms of social interactions that are brought into the labor process. In the “social factory” our abilities to communicate, to relate, and to create and imagine are all put to work, sometimes through digital networks and communications, or through their utilization as part of a redevelopment or revitalization of an area based on the image of being a creative locale (the “arts district”). Given this argument, it becomes possible to look at the rise of the discourse of the creative city and the creative class, most popularly associated with its development by Richard Florida and then seized upon by large numbers of urban planners and developers. The rise of the idea of the creative class is not just a theorization of the changing nature of economic production and social structure, it is, or at very least has become, a managerial tool and justification for a restructuring of the city space as a factory space.


Yet, to read Florida’s arguments, such as in The Rise of the Creative Class or Cities and the Creative Class, is to encounter a very strange managerial tool. It is quite strange that while on face value his work seems to describe empirical phenomena, namely the development of an increase in prominence of forms of labor that are primarily premised on creating new ideas and forms rather than physical labor, the existence of such empirical phenomena is not the main issue. The creative class is not a homogenous or unified whole, but is itself, even in Florida’s description, marked by an uneven development of the forms of creative labor (for instance, he distinguishes between a ‘super creative’ core of science, arts, and media workers and the ‘creative professionals’ and knowledge workers who keep the necessary organizational structures running). 


Perhaps it’s less useful to ponder about the intricacies of the creative class, or even whether it empirically exists, than to view its description as a form of mythological entity of governance. That is, groups that benefit from the belief in such a class bring it into being by declaring its existence. 


In other words, the question is not whether the creative class exists as such, but rather what effects are created through how it is described and called into being through forms of governance and social action based upon these claims. Planning and shaping the city based around a certain conceptualization of the creative potential of labor, or the potential of creativity put to work, is not an unprecedented or unique development, but rather is the latest example of capital’s attempt to continually valorize itself through the conversion of antagonistic movements into ones that replicate wage slavery (much like a computer virus orders a system to make copies of itself and distribute them to other computers). 


The argument that all of society and social relations are being brought into economic production leaves out crucial questions: namely, what are the particular means and technologies through which social relations are made productive? How are aspects of social life outside the recognized workplace brought into the labor process? What are the technologies of capture that render the metropolis productive?  This is precisely what the creative class encapsulates: a social position that formalizes the process of drawing from the collective wealth and creativity of the metropolis and turning it into a mechanism for further capitalist development. In the industrial factory it was generally very easy to clearly distinguish between those who planned and managed the labor process and those who were involved in its executions - between the managers and the managed. But in today’s post-industrial service economy these distinctions become increasingly hard to make. The passionate and self-motivated labor of the artisan increasingly becomes the model for a self-disciplining, self-managed form of labor force that works harder, longer, and often for less pay precisely because of its attachment to some degree of personal fulfillment in forms of engaging work (or a “psychic wage,” as Marc Bousquet refers to it). In the metropolitan factory, the cultural worker who thinks that she is autonomous simply because there is no foreman barking orders is just as capable as an assembly line worker of having her passionate labor co-opted, perhaps all the more deeply because the artist’s discipline is self-imposed and thus the exploitative quality of the labor is made partially imperceptible.


To use the language developed by autonomist movements, what we see in the rise of the creative class is really a shifting of class composition. Class composition as defined here is made up of two characteristics: technical composition, or the mechanisms and arrangements capital uses for its continued reproduction, and political composition, or the ability of ongoing struggles and movements to assert their own needs and shape the conditions of the existing economic/political reality. The rise of the creative class is formed by a convergence of a set of dynamics, including demands put forth by workers for more fulfilling kinds of humane and engaging labor as opposed to repetitive and meaningless tasks.


The rejection of the factory line and factory discipline that emerged during the late 1960s was met during the 1970s by managerial attempts to create jobs that were more fully engaging for the worker while remaining equally if not more exploitative of the laboring capacity of the worker. Similarly, campaigns of community organizing and neighborhood renewal undertaken by social movements around the same time (such as in the lower east side of New York) were then used by real estate speculators to kick-start a renewed process of capital accumulation based on land values. The point of identifying and analyzing these relations of social contestation and capitalism is not to lament them, but rather to understand how the city functions as an expanded factory. 


What this comes down to is the realization that capital depends on a certain kind of glide (the transportation of ideas) for its continued development. Capital is not real. It has no body and certainly no imagination – it can create nothing on its own. Rather, what capital increasingly relies on today is the movement of ideas and creativity through networks of social relations, cooperation, and communication that are already in existence. What capital needs is a process through which this dispersed creativity, already in circulation, can be harvested and put to work in the renewed production of surplus value. 


To adequately harvest this new form of productive power, the bourgeois takes the form of a new kind of factory owner - one who hides behind the scenes but still controls the means of production by rendering the diffuse productivity of the metropolitan factory into forms that can be exploited. The creative class and its dispersal through the rise of the creative city is the process through which the siphoning off of social imagination is managed by the owning class. It is through this covert process that the pleasure of being in common becomes the labor of living together. 


Understanding how capital attempts to turn creativity’s glide through social space into capturing profits does not mean that there are no options left for interrupting and breaking these circuits of accumulation. If anything the number of points where capitalism is open to disruption has multiplied exponentially. The silver lining is that more space broadens the terrain for challenging the capitalist domination of social life. In so far as we are engaged in the labor of circulation and imagination necessary to keep a parasitic economy alive, we are also located precisely at the point where it is possible to refuse to continue to do so. The subversive potentiality of any creative art or artistic production then is not simply its expressed political content, but rather the potential it creates for interrupting the circuits of capitalist production that it is always already enmeshed in. Through understanding the social technologies of rendering the city as a unified social fabric of production, it becomes possible to develop further strategies of refusal and resistance that find avenues for creative sabotage and disruption all throughout the city.