By Andy Merrifield
‘In 1977, when Manuel Castells’ classic book, The Urban Question, was first put into English, I’d been a year out of secondary school, in Liverpool. It was five years after its original French publication, four years since an OPEC oil embargo had sent advanced economies into giddy noise dives, and a year on from the Sex Pistols’ debut hit, Anarchy in the UK. These were heady times, the 1970s, full of crises and chaos, a post-1968 era of psychological alienation and economic annihilation, of Punk Rock and Disco, of Blue Mondays and Saturday Night Fever. The decade was also a great testing ground for a book bearing the subtitle, A Marxist Approach. Indeed, the same year as The Urban Question: A Marxist Approach became available to Anglophone audiences, the Sex Pistols were screaming, “THERE’S NO FUTURE, NO FUTURE FOR YOU AND ME!”
I didn’t know The Urban Question back then, nor much about Marxism; I was eighteen, hardly read anything, and remember most of all the candlelit doom of Callaghan’s “Winter of Discontent.” Power cuts, strikes and piled up rubbish seemed the social order of the day. And the Sex Pistols’ mantra of NO FUTURE seemed bang on for my own personal manifesto of the day. I became, largely without knowing it, something of a fuck-you anarchist, not really knowing what to do, apart from destroy—usually myself: “what’s the point?” Johnny Rotten had asked. I didn’t see any point. The decade was dramatized by sense of lost innocence. I watched my adolescence dissipate into damp Liverpool air, into a monotone gray upon gray.
It was only in the early 1980s that I first learned to read and write to survive. By then, Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and I’d discovered something never encouraged at school: I loved to write, loved to write about things I’d read, about things I’d done, people I’d met. Before long, I’d gained access to the local Polytechnic as a “mature student,” as a second-chance scholar, as a scholar-with-attitude. That as the Thatcherite project was in full flight dismantling welfare statism; multiple levels of local and national government felt Thatcher’s “free market” heat, got abolished, abused, and recalibrated to suit the whims of an ascendant private sector.
This posed some pretty tough intellectual and political questions for my friends and I at Liverpool Polytechnic, as we passed our time wondering how to intellectually fill the post-punk void. We hated the bourgeois state with serious venom. We wanted to smash it, rid ourselves of its oppressive sway. So when Thatcher started to do just that, we were left wondering where to turn? Did we want that nanny state back? Life had been boring and programmed with it, but maybe things were going to be much worse without it?
In retrospect, 1984 seems a watershed, the significant year of contamination: Ronald Reagan had begun his second term and the Iron Lady had survived the Brighton Bombing; the IRA’s attempt to finish Thatcher off had the perverse effect of only setting her more solidly on her way, propelling her full-kilter into dismantling the post-war social contract between capital and labor, taking on (and taking out) organized labor and organized opposition in the process; Arthur Scargill and the miners, as well as Militant in Liverpool, took it full on the chin.
It was then that I discovered Castells’ The Urban Question. The major thing that immediately struck me, I remember, was its cover: Paul Klee’s Blue Night. Only recently—very recently in fact, this past January at a London Tate Modern Klee retrospect—did I eventually see for myself Klee’s enigmatic canvas, from 1937, one of his last, an unusually expansive (50X76cm) work in an oeuvre characterized by intricacy and smallness. For a long while Blue Night was one of my favorite paintings. I’d always wondered whose choice it had been to have it adorn a book about Marxism and the city? Castells’ own? I still don’t know. The other thing that intrigued me about The Urban Question was its heavy Althusserian Marxism. I’d borrowed Louis Althusser’s For Marx from the Poly library, trying to figure out what was going on. Little made sense initially. Only a lot later did I recognize how Castells mobilized in original and idiosyncratic ways twin pillars of Althusserian formalism: ideology and reproduction.
Unlike Althusser, this was Althusserian formalism applied to the real world, to the conflictual urban condition of the 1970s, to the fraught decade when capitalism attempted to shrug off the specter of post-war breakdown, the decade when I attempted to shrug off my own crisis, a coming of age in an age not worth coming of age in. Moreover, although this urban system was declining, was in evident trouble everywhere, collapsing entirely it wasn’t. Castells wanted to know why. “Any child knows,” Althusser had said in his famous essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” “that a social formation which did not reproduce the conditions of production at the same time as it produced would not last a year.” The citation, a paraphrase of Marx, in a letter to Dr. Kugelmann (July 11, 1868), summed up the whole point of Volume Two of Capital: without reproduction there could be no production; without the realization of surplus-value, no fresh surplus value could ever get produced; production is predicated on extended and expanded reproduction. And yet, given inevitable ruptures in the “normal” functioning of capitalist production, how come capitalism survived then, still survives?