With much ballyhoo and bellyaching about the absurdly miserable year of 2020, our collective calendars have finally turned to 2021. The year-end was marked by effusive declarations of relief and hope, even though these admissions of optimism were often tinged with cynical self-awareness reflecting the continuing complexities of our current moment (i.e. coronavirus vaccines are officially being rolled out, although infections are currently exploding in the U.S., and a new strain of the virus has been discovered; and it remains likely that Trump will leave office soon, despite ongoing efforts to delegitimize the election outcome, and nevermind what sort of policies we can reasonably accept from a Biden administration).
In an essay published on New Year’s Eve by Jacobin, Slavoj Žižek considers the prospects of the immediate future in terms of a dichotomy between a socialist reset and a corporate “great reset”:
“When we try to guess how our societies will look after the pandemic will be over, the trap to avoid is futurology — futurology by definition ignores our not-knowing. Futurology is defined as a systematic forecasting of the future from the present trends in society. And therein resides the problem — futurology mostly extrapolates what will come from the present tendencies. However, what futurology doesn’t take into account are historical “miracles,” radical breaks which can only be explained retroactively, once they happen.”
The phrase “great reset” has proliferated through think-pieces and professional publications to describe the ways in which the effects of the pandemic will shape social reality and rearrange policy priorities for the foreseeable future. It is also the title of a proposal by the World Economic Forum for how the global economic recovery should be directed. The proposal thus represents the dissemination of managerialist and technocratic visioning statements on the behalf of an aristocratic elite who assume the mantle for guiding civilization’s progress. Žižek addresses some of the most visible exemplars of this group:
“The human face of this ‘leading with transparency, authenticity, and humanity’ are Gates, Bezos, Zuckenberg, the faces of authoritarian corporate capitalism who all pose as humanitarian heroes, as our new aristocracy celebrated in our media and quoted as wise humanitarians. Gates gives billions to charities, but we should remember how he opposed Elizabeth Warren’s plan for a small rise in taxes. He praised Piketty and once almost proclaimed himself a socialist — true, but in a very specific twisted sense: his wealth comes from privatizing what Marx called our ‘commons,’ our shared social space in which we move and communicate.”
“We are thus facing a horrible false alternative: a big corporate reset or nationalist populism, which turns out to be the same. “The great reset” is the formula of how to change some things (even many things) so that things will basically remain the same.”
“So is there a third way, outside the space of the two extremes of restoring the old normality and a Great Reset? Yes, a true great reset. It is no secret what needs to be done — Greta Thunberg made it clear. First, we should finally recognize the pandemic crisis as what it is, part of a global crisis of our entire way of life, from ecology to new social tensions. Second, we should establish social control and regulation over economy. Third, we should rely on science — rely on but not simply accept it as the agency which makes decisions.”
The distinction that Žižek makes between relying on science and delegating agency to techno-scientific forces is a crucial one. This past November I participated in a workshop organized by the Communicative Cities Research Network on the topic of urban communication in the pandemic era. My brief contribution to the proceedings comprised my musings on urban responses to the pandemic in light of prevailing trends in “smart city” policies. The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic initially seemed to reinforce ways of envisioning cities and urban space that characterizes “smart city” urban imaginaries. The propagation of smart city frameworks, particularly those promoted by corporate firms and technology vendors, has been characterized as a “techno-utopian policy mobility” and expression of a “technoscientific urbanism” in which infrastructural packages are sold to beleaguered municipalities as technical “solutions” for intractable urban problems.
One of the problems with these approaches is that by foregrounding technological formulations of urban life, these programs function to depoliticize practices of city planning, obfuscate the social inequalities inherent to urban development, and foreclose opportunities to formulate an emancipatory or oppositional urban politics. The smart city imaginary of transposable technical solutions as promoted by technology vendors has emerged from the conditions of entrepreneurial urbanism and neoliberal policy approaches. The technoscientific tenor that characterizes many smart city discourses is especially amenable to neoliberal applications as it addresses urban problems through a veneer of objectivity, neutrality, and ideological agnosticism. These technocratic approaches attempt to depoliticize what are in actuality politically charged development and governance programs.
The COVID-19 pandemic makes clear the need for science, technology, and engineering to solve urban problems and maintain quality of life. However, it is crucial to be wary of the ways in which a technocratic veneer obscures the ideological underpinnings and inherent value judgments that direct policy programs, as well as the ways in which technocratic imaginaries limit the scope of our potential urban futures.
Žižek concludes his article thusly:
“Futurology deals with what is possible, we need to do what is (from the standpoint of the existing global order) impossible.”
In regards to urban futures and imaginaries, my response to Žižek’s distinction between the possible and impossible draws on a particular notion of virtuality understood not as absent or imaginary but as the potentiality for change, as the as-yet-unrealized.
The emancipatory potential of virtuality in urban imaginaries is deeply implicated in the Lefebvrian right to the city. Lefebvre’s call for a “right to the city” extended beyond access to housing and public space to advocate for spontaneity, sociability, and the utilization of urban environments based on use rather than exchange value. While the formulation of “the right to the city” is effectively an empty signifier, it signals the struggles of urban denizens to exert influence over the shaping of their built environment, to exercise autonomy in their communities, and to realize the use value of public space as a common good in the face of homogenizing capitalist development that aims to render and remake space only on the basis of exchange.
A common rejoinder to urban rhetoric invoking the “right to the city” is to ask for examples of cities or communities that have successfully realized the right. While the phrase has been adopted as a by various activist groups, and has appeared in certain government policies, there are no obvious examples of how the right has been actualized. Yet the virtuality of the right to the city is essential to its continued functioning as a rallying cry of radical urban politics.
The right to the city represents a virtual horizon of urban life and a radical vision for the city to come. Lefebvre’s call has been taken up by urbanists and activists as a rallying cry for expanding urban imaginaries beyond the actual to the possibilities offered by invention and processes of becoming. The right to the city therefore renders the realms of imagination and virtuality as key battlefields for urban struggles. Among the many crises facing cities today – ecological catastrophes, yawning social inequality, infrastructural breakdown, etc. – we might accordingly refer also to a crisis of imagination.