Intervention – 'Whose City? The Parasites', of course…'

by Andy Merrifield

Andy MerrifieldIn 1970, the English sociologist Ray Pahl published a collection of essays under a simple yet disarming title, Whose City? The question was more original than it sounded, even if its answer was fairly obvious; and Pahl knew it: “One doesn’t have to be very astute now”, he said in an introduction to the second edition of the text, “in order to answer the question ‘Whose City?’: quite evidently the capitalists own British cities and up to 1973 they grew fat on their rents and the revaluations of their portfolios”. What interested Pahl and other critical urban scholars of that era – many of whom like Pahl and Manuel Castells went on to found the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research (in 1977) – was how come it was their city? What were the mechanisms whereby capitalists – increasingly finance capitalists – commandeered the city in the way they did? Through what means did they make it their city? How did planning authorities, land-use allocations, and various state agencies perpetuate or undermine this ‘system’? The bold originality of the thinking then was that it did indeed identify a ‘system’, an ‘urban system’, a class system through which fat cats grew rich. There was, still is, a logic at play, with structures and institutions that enabled, still enable, this logic to function, to reproduce itself systemically. “The city”, wrote Pahl, with typical blunt insight, “is what society lets it be”. The dialectic between the city and society would never be the same again.

The approach Ray Pahl pioneered quickly became known as ‘urban managerialism’. This for a number of reasons, both analytical and political. First off is that, analytically, ‘the system’ has its human embodiment, which is to say, has active players who make decisions even while they constrain themselves by the decisions they make. Pahl suggested that there were a host of ‘urban managers’ who affect the life chances of ordinary people in decisive and uneven ways; they affect life chances because these managers have a certain authority and relative autonomy in the allocation of ‘scarce’ urban resources, the most precious of which is housing. By urban managers, Pahl meant housing officers, planners, social workers and decision-making bureaucrats, those employed by state authorities, housing associations and local municipalities, those who acted, both wittingly or unwittingly, as ‘social gatekeepers’. To analyze how these urban managers acted, to identify empirically their common ideology (if they had one), the actual allocative decisions and manipulations they made, and why, was, said Pahl, a legitimate object of enquiry for socially committed sociologists. The allocative mechanism, in other words, “how much of the cake and for whom?”, how this created “territorial inequalities”, how it affected the sort of schools children went to, as well as access to other public resources like hospitals and mass transit, became, for Pahl, a focus of intense political concern.

Ray PahlWhile Pahl, like many progressive urbanists of that generation, was influenced by Marxism, by a critical analysis of capitalist urban political-economy, the politics of Whose City? might be best described as Left Weberian. Unlike Castells and David Harvey, as a social democrat believing in redistributive justice and a benevolent, welfare capitalist state, Pahl balked at throwing in his lot with Marxism tout court. He was always more interested in collective consumption rather than productive consumption; and his emphasis on Max Weber’s trinity of ‘wealth, status and power’ meant a class analysis that scrutinized urban space and resource allocation rather than work relations as such[1]. His fundamental concern was what does class mean in an urbanizing context, and here he only dabbled with Weberian thinking, never going the whole hog like Peter Saunders and Peter Williams et al., for whom “consumption classes” won out over production classes.

At the time, Harvey seemed to be countering Pahl when he claimed that urban struggles represented “displaced” class struggles, struggles condensed from workplace struggles; although, more recently (see Rebel Cities from 2012), Harvey says struggles in the urban arena are no longer displaced, given restructuring of capitalist work relations and the denigration of unionization. Urban struggles, on the contrary, represent the most intense and amplified of class struggles: the arena of the social factory has now enlarged onto the whole productive plane of city itself. But Harvey explained to me recently in an e-mail exchange (11 June 2013) that “Pahl found his own answer in his Sheppey study, which I am now happy to accept [see Rebel Cities, ch. 5, p. 132]”. “I used the idea of displaced class struggle”, Harvey said, “not as an antidote to Ray’s anti-Marxism; it is more to deal with what I now refer to as the distinction between the production and realization of surplus value in urban settings, because all along I could see that as much value was being extracted by the property owners and rentiers (with the aid of urban managerialists) as by direct producers at the point of production. I always felt close to Ray in terms of his identification of the urban question even as I pulled in different directions for answers (he made very little of urban rent, for example, which I emphasized and would still emphasize)”.

In subsequent renderings of his managerialist thesis, Pahl responded positively to comradely Marxist criticism like this. “By focusing on urban resources and facilities”, he admitted, “and by alerting urban populations to their relative deprivations in the field of consumption, attention is shifted from the main source of inequality, namely, the field of production … If workers are made to think that their main interests are in the field of consumption, and if sociologists adopt a form of urban managerialism to explain the allocation of resources within an urban system, then clearly basic inequalities arising from the productive process may remain hidden”.

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When I first read Ray Pahl’s Whose City? in the 1980s I was a twenty-something undergraduate. I’d been introduced to this and other works of critical urban theory – especially to Castells’ The Urban Question and Harvey’s Social Justice and the City – by Trevor Jones, a gifted, maverick Social Studies teacher at what was then Liverpool Polytechnic. I didn’t quite know it at the time but Jones’ lectures would change the course of my life, such that I can still talk about them almost thirty years on. Under Jones’ tutelage, I’d already decided that I was a Marxist and Pahl a liberal; so Whose City? was a vital text only insofar as it took me beyond Chicago School urban ecology, propelling me onwards to the hard-core critical material I yearned for. Jones put urban managerialism pithily in context: Imagine the city is a large cake; imagine you cut the cake into a series of slices, with each slice representing some scarce resource; a thick, creamy slice here, a slither over there. Managerialism tells us how that cake gets divided up and who gets such and such a slice and why; but it doesn’t tell us who bakes the cake, nor does it say why those urban resources are ‘scarce’ in the first place. ‘Who decides?’ is one thing; but ‘Who decides who decides?’ is another question again. And there Marxism comes into its own.

In those days, I remember carrying Pahl’s Whose City? around with me in my black denim jacket pocket; a small-cut Penguin paperback, it fitted perfectly. In retrospect, I think the books that made a lasting impression on me all somehow fitted into one of my pockets; they were transportable, moving theory, particularly as I navigated around the new cities I’d soon find myself in. These books were theoretical street guides to the hidden structures of the city, atlases to vital parts of the city that weren’t always visible to any naked eye. This would be an invaluable lesson university curricula would only partly help convey. (Castells’ bulky The Urban Question, of course, didn’t fit into any coat pocket; I suspect I was happy to transport it under my arm, hoping people might actually believe I understood its contents!)

Quite recently, I took that Pahl book, that same tatty edition, to a conference in Hong Kong commemorating Pahl’s life and death, justly entitled Whose City?[2]. In my contribution I reflected upon what Pahl’s book was and might still be today, might still offer concerned urbanists who know better than ever to whom cities like Hong Kong really belong. One thing I noticed this time, which I hadn’t noticed back then, was that my copy of Whose City? had been withdrawn from Bradford College Library in 1984, during the fear and loathing of Thatcher’s first term. When I mentioned this in my talk the audience began to laugh. We all began to laugh because we all knew – or most of us knew – that the Thatcherite project was at that moment in full flight actively dismantling Pahl’s theoretical object and political subject. His passionate embrace of welfare statism was under fire from all quarters; multiple levels of local and national government would feel Thatcher’s ‘free market’ heat, abolished, abused, and recalibrated to suit the whims of an ascendant private sector. Thatcher’s full frontal attack against welfare provision, her blatant class warfare against organized labor and organized opposition (like the Miners and Militant in Liverpool), created a generation of lazy entrepreneurs in Britain, capitalists who had no need to innovate because business was handed to them on a Tory silver plater. And those remaining urban managers no longer concerned themselves with allocative redistributive justice; most wouldn’t even know what the phrase meant. Instead, their working day began to be passed applying cost-benefit analysis to calculate efficiency models, devising new business paradigms for delivering social services at minimum cost; services got contracted-out to low-ball bidders, and whole government departments were dissolved or replaced by new units of non-accountable ‘post-political’ middle-managers, whose machinations are about as publicly transparent as mud.

A dramatic transformation of urban governance was wrought, a shift from managerialism to entrepreneurialism, from social investment in the urban realm to the speculative binge of the urban itself; use-values had uses only because they were exchange-values; cities’ ‘scarce’ resources quickly became speculative stock, new futures and options for expanded capital accumulation by dispossession. Yet while we know that this shift from managerialism to entrepreneurialism involved disjuncture and rupture, that it reveled in forcible implementation, we also know with hindsight how it involved a certain morphing and role switching of protagonists, with revolving doors between public managers and private entrepreneurs, between managerial entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial managers. (In lots of ways this toing and froing across ideological boundaries made its debut in the 1980s in France, during Mitterrand’s presidency, when radical ex-’68ers became diehard neoliberal politicians and media pundits. For good reason Guy Debord always said that the society of “integrated spectacle” was pioneered in France.)

And if, in Britain, the initial thrust had been Thatcher’s, then John Major and notably Tony Blair expertly finished the job. In that sense, corporate, financial and state power are now stitched together with barely any trace of a seam. Politicians and civil servants, bankers and CEOs, job-share and job-swap; public faces and private concerns are shamelessly interchangeable and mutually beneficial for both careers and bank accounts. As Seumas Milne has pointed out in the pages of The Guardian (see here), the doors between the public and the private “are no longer just revolving but spinning, and people charged with protecting public interest are bought and sold with barely a fig leaf of regulation”. “Take David Hartnett”, says Milne, “head of tax at HM Revenue & Customs until last year and the man whose ‘sweetheart deals’ allowed Starbucks and Vodafone to avoid paying billions in tax. He now works for the giant City accountancy firm Deloitte, which works for Vodafone”. “The cabinet secretary, Jeremy Heywood, is the living embodiment of the revolving door, having moved effortlessly from the Treasury to Blair’s office to the investment bank Morgan Stanley and back to work for David Cameron”.

Along the way, the public coffers have been raided, plundered by hybrid public-private bodies like PFIs (Private Finance Initiatives), the brainchild of John Major, which have helped themselves to urban infrastructure – ports, roads, schools, railways, electricity grids, and God knows what else – not only in Britain but throughout the world. When the going is good, PFIs – government-sponsored private companies with zero public accountability – amass considerable booty; when things go belly-up, the government steps in to bail them out because the continuation of the particular utility serves a vital public necessity and can’t go under. It’s an all-win situation for everybody, apart from the ordinary tax payer and consumer. As such, the neoliberal stakes have profoundly ratcheted up since Thatcher’s day: what we’ve witnessed isn’t so much a privatization as a financialization of public infrastructure and services, speculative quackery enabling windfall gains (when equity is cashed in) for a tiny minority of bosses and shareholders, some of whom are supposedly public servants.

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So, returning to the question ‘Whose City?’, the answer, perhaps, is pretty clear: it’s the parasites’ city; their progeny is a species we can now label the parasitic city. A parasite, remember, is an organism that feeds off a larger ‘host’ organism, an uninvited diner at the lodge who doesn’t pay for their grub. Parasites chomp away at the common-wealth the world over, eating away inside the social body, stripping people’s assets, foreclosing homes, dispossessing value rather than contributing anything towards its creation. In parasitic cities, social wealth is consumed through conspicuously wasteful enterprises, administered by parasitic elites, our very own aristocracy (the 1%) who squander generative capacity by thriving exclusively from unproductive activities: they roll dice on the stock market, profit from unequal exchanges, guzzle at the public trough; they filch rents and treat land as a pure financial and speculative asset, as a form of fictitious capital[3].

The only thing parasites need to do is sit on property, mobilize monopoly power, and charge somebody else a premium for using or entering it. “One part of society”, Marx says in volume three of Capital (ch. 46), “thus exacts tribute from another for the permission to inhabit the earth, as landed property in general assigns the landlord the privilege of exploiting the terrestrial body, the bowels of the earth, the air, and thereby the maintenance and development of life”. “It is the ground-rent”, Marx was wont to emphasize, “and not the house which forms the actual object of building speculation in rapidly growing cities, especially where construction is carried on as an industry”. Artificially created scarcity jacks up land values; financial and property interests promote redevelopment on the land towards ‘higher’ and ‘better’ capitalistic uses, towards future increased exchange-values pocketed as class-monopoly rents. Parasites hatch land and infrastructural grabs and get their friends in government to issue ‘eminent domain’ edicts, legalizing their parasitic predilections. Parasites thrive in both the private and public sectors and especially flourish where those sectors merge as one. Parasites do everything they can to leech blood money, flattening themselves off the backs of social labor. And these days they brandish any pretext to do so under the ruse of a politics of austerity.

In the 1950s, the development economist Bert Hoselitz first coined the notion of “parasitic” cities. In Sociological Aspects of Economic Growth (1960), Hoselitz wondered whether cities in the developing world, with their “backward” economies, would turn out to be parasitical or generative. (‘World Cities’ theorist John Friedmann would later pick up on this for thinking about Latin American urbanization.) Generative cities, said Hoselitz, have a favorable impact on economic growth; parasitic cities produce the opposite, negative effect, siphoning off economic resources for the enrichment of privileged urban classes who render no real productive services in return. Generative cities reallocate the bulk of its surplus and accumulated wealth, giving it back in the form of investment that benefits production and people, public infrastructure and human capital. Parasitic cities, conversely, have their wealth squandered by a non-working yet all-consuming elite; a parasitic form of urbanization, reflective of the parasitic nature of this urbanized elite, thereby ensues.

It’s ironic to think that under Hoselitz’s (and Friedmann’s) thesis, parasitic usually meant ‘developing’ cities; generative cities were our cities, in the ‘developed’ world, whose industrial heartlands like Pittsburgh and Detroit, to say nothing of New York and London, once made things, provided real jobs and generated wealth. Now, though, in these latter places, cappuccino-sipping elites idly sit around in chic bars and cafés, checking stocks and shares on their Blackberries or iPhones, while the designer clothes they sport are manufactured in brutal garment factories in ‘generative cities’ like Dhaka and Jakarta. Still, the reality of the situation is that parasitic urban elites consume the social wealth everywhere, in the developing as well as developed world. In fact, the binary between developed and developing worlds no longer seems analytically or politically tenable, given parasitic urbanism nestles everywhere and marks the pathological condition of our neoliberal urban age. The parasitic city, in short, is a cancerous cell in the molecular structure of our global urban fabric.

In the urban studies literature we hear a lot of hype about “global cities” as engines of economic growth, as “growth machines”. Yet one really has to wonder if this is true, if global cities nowadays are about the “wealth of nations” (as Jane Jacobs put it in the 1980s). One doesn’t have to look too hard or too deeply to see how most of the world’s biggest metropolises have economies foremost predicated on activities justifiably categorized as parasitic. World cities are giant arenas where the most rabid activity is the activity of rabidly extorting land rent, of making land pay anyway it can; of dispatching all non-parasitic activities to some other part of town (as Engels recognized long ago), so as to help this rental maximization. Generative activities frequently mean dirt and grime, and usually involve dirty and grimy people, which is very bad for parasitic business. (Parasites flourish amid cleanliness, where immunity has been broken down.)

Richard Florida has made a lucrative career promoting urban boho-chic; yet spearheading the parasitic nature of cities, legitimizing it as a cultural force, are assorted “creative classes”. In many (if not most) cases, ‘creation’ here seems more akin to inventing new niches for further rounds of dispossession and contagious parasitic proliferation: creative accountancy and creative ways to avoid paying tax; creative devices to gouge fees from ordinary citizens (especially in utility bills); creative finagling of stock markets; creative new patents and apps that tap hitherto untapped markets; creative destruction of competition to garner inflated monopoly rents and profits; creative excuses to cadge money from the state. The list goes on, creatively. And when they parachute into cities, these creative and cognitive classes have little use of public infrastructure anyway; their lives are so utterly privatized, geared only towards individual, market-oriented goods, that they bid up land values and property prices and hasten the abandonment of the public realm in the creative bargain.

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The question, ‘Whose City?’, accordingly, might not be the most interesting one to ask today. The more pressing concern is what can we do about parasites? How can ‘we’ develop a vaccine to eradicate the parasites within our social body? How to reclaim the parasitic city for people, for the ‘host’ community? Are there any prophylactics to prevent the further proliferation of parasites? How to develop civic immunity? One initial, reformist measure is to stop the billions of pounds and dollars draining from the public finances because of corporate tax avoidance. Governments insist on belt-tightening austerity policies, running down collective consumption provision and screwing the ordinary tax payer at the same time as they turn a blind eye on tax dodging companies, carving themselves up and re-registering their head offices in tax havens like the Cayman Islands, Monaco or Luxembourg; or else entrusting ownership on phony overseas partners or close relatives who’ve never ever set foot on the said companies’ premises. Already, in this regard, a groundswell of opposition has developed. Grassroots organizations like UK Uncut have now adopted rambunctious and brilliantly innovative direct action ‘occupations’, creating scandals around tax-avoiding parasites like the swanky London department store Fortnum & Mason and Vodafone (who had a handy 0% income tax rate for 2012). UK Uncut have likewise launched concerted campaigns against USBC, RBS and Barclay’s and other Dodge City banks and financial institutions. (For a spirited account of tax crimes and misdemeanors, see Richard Brooks’s 2013 The Great Tax Robbery: How Britain Became a Tax Haven For Fat Cats and Big Business.)

Maybe the greatest reform and strongest prophylactic against parasitic invasion is democracy, a strengthening of participatory democracy in the face of too much representative democracy, especially when representation is made by public servants intent on defending private gain. Government as we currently know it must be terminated. We need to root out the virus, all those blood suckers who leech life from the generative social body. The notion that ‘we’ represent the ‘99%’ is a fruitful beginning at identifying the minority parasite that contaminates the majority culture. Some planned shrinkage of the financial sector seems in order, waging war on monetary blood sucking in the same vein as the ruling class waged war on public services in the 1970s and 1980s. And here, too, that preeminent parasitic organism, the leech of landed property – “the monstrous power wielded by landed property”, Marx called it, “expelling people from the earth as a dwelling-place” – needs to be expunged, democratized by some Community Land Trust that can reinvigorate a fresh notion of the public realm, one not owned and managed by any centralized state but owned and run by a collectivization of people, federated, communal and truly responsive to citizens’ needs.

In an odd sort of way, Ray Pahl’s urban managerialist thesis still instructs, still says something meaningful about twenty-first century parasitic urbanism. Indeed, the whole question of ‘managers’, of those middle-management ‘social gatekeepers’ Pahl impugned so many years ago, remains analytically vital for pinpointing administrative culpability; or, if you will, is still politically vital for breaking the ‘weakest link’ in a concatenation of parasitic cells. To that degree, struggling for democracy means loosening the grip that these anonymous, behind-closed-doors middle-managers have on our culture. Breaking the weakest link implies waging war not only against the massively complex and alienating divisions of labor we have today, but also against the even more massively alienating bureaucratic compartmentalizations that rule over us, those precisely orchestrated by Pahlian entrepreneurial managers who mediate between us and the 1%, and who stabilize and calibrate the imbalance.

The problematic is as much Kafkaseque as Marxist or Weberian, as struggling against the parasite within. To do so we need to redouble mass civil disobedience, continually affirm our democratic desires. That way a different meme might get created and collectively exchanged, counteracting parasitic invasion. A meme is a cultural transmitter, a messenger particle carrying an idea, a symbol or a buzz concept that catches on, that’s communicable between people, that solidifies group identity. (‘Meme’ is shorthand for the Greek mimeme, meaning something imitative.) “When you plant a fertile meme in my mind”, says biologist Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976), “you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of the host cell”. In this light we might say that neoliberalism is a meme that has parasitized our brains as well as our society over the past twenty years or more, and has entered our culture in a way that looks like a highly sped-up genetic revolution, but has really nothing to do with a genetic revolution. There’s nothing ‘natural’ going on here: parasitic agents and commissars, institutions and lobbyists have cajoled and bullied and seduced us into accepting this meme as a given, ensuring that the idea has evolved memically, imitatively, to the selfish advantage of the 1%.

An appeal for a permanent ‘meme war’, for revolters to battle under the banner of a new meme, is, then, to propagate a different political-economic paradigm, one antagonistic to the existing order, transforming and even erasing the institutions that spread this old meme[4]. The task remains: How to incubate such an alternative meme, how to dose up on it to strengthen our immunity system? How might it circulate as a prophylactic within the generative cells of our urban politic, permanently ridding us of parasites. To frame it that way is to paraphrase Ray Pahl: it is to say that middle-managers remain bearers of the parasitic meme; they remain, therefore, as central as ever to the urban problematic.


[1] In later work, like his study of informality on Kent’s Isle of Sheppey (Divisions of Labour from 1984), Pahl rethought the nature of work. He began to see it as something much more than simply what happened at the workplace. Work incorporated home and community, too, said Pahl; production and reproduction are but different facets of mutually constituted phenomena.

[2] The conference, organized by Ray Forrest and Bart Wissink, took place at the Department of Public Policy, City University of Hong Kong on 24-25 May 2013. Pahl himself died of cancer in June 2011, aged 75. In The Guardian’s obituary (see here), Claire Wallace highlights Pahl’s “restless intelligence, his sharp mind and equally sharp tongue. Ray never courted easy popularity. He chose what he saw as the right way, which was often the hard way. You may not have liked what he said, but he never hid his views”.

[3] Commenting on David Harvey’s “magisterial review and re-theorization” of Marx in The Limits to Capital, Fredric Jameson says “Harvey suggests that for Marx the value of land is something like a structurally necessary fiction … This is possible only because fictitious capital is oriented towards the expectation of future value: and thus with one stroke the value of land is revealed to be intimately related to the credit system, the stock market and finance capital generally” (see ‘The brick and the balloon’, New Left Review, 228, p.42-43).

[4] The call for a ‘meme war’ has been most creatively articulated by Adbusters editor Kalle Lasn in his collection Meme Wars: The Creative Destruction of Neoclassical Economics (2012). Sporting a sub-sub-title of ‘A Real World Economics Textbook’, Meme Wars, dedicated to Guy Debord (amongst others), is a 400-page reincarnation of Situationist agitprop, full of wonderfully inventive graphics, peppered with slogans and polemical essays that voice the visceral gut-feeling that society as we know it sucks, that it sucks blood.

Andy Merrifield’s most recent book is The Politics of the Encounter: Urban Theory and Protest Under Planetary Urbanization (University of Georgia Press, 2013).