//Class Discourse in the Metropolis// Carlos Delclós
Class Discourse in the Metropolis Carlos Delclós
The Design Museum of Barcelona is located in a fascinating tangle in Barcelona's metropolitan grid. Originally intended by the utopian urban planner Ildefons Cerdà as a central point in the city, the functional names of the streets that converge around the Plaza of Catalan Glories betray their significance in his design: Diagonal Avenue, Meridian Avenue, Great Road. Today, though, the “plaza” itself is hardly a plaza at all; it is a roundabout, intended to guarantee the smooth flow of cars through space and not the more viscous agglomeration of people in the public square. The recently inaugurated museum is situated on this glorious roundabout, between Meridian and Diagonal. Across the way lies one of the many informal scrap-metal yards that spring up in the deserted factories and warehouses east of the Meridian, ruins of the formerly industrial area’s abandoned past. And yet, as you step out of the museum’s Metropolis Barcelona exhibit, you have no explanation for why this place might be interesting.
As part of a broader campaign to promote the Metropolitan Area’s Urban Master Plan, the exhibit is ostensibly a knowledge transfer event seeking to disseminate information obtained from deep analyses of decades of metropolitan data through attractive infographics. But unless visitors are well-versed in quantitative social sciences, they are unlikely to make any sense of the work presented. The data are reduced to a strictly sensory and aesthetic experience, overwhelming visitors with a rapid succession of pixelated snapshots of an expanding urban environment. The absence of any context for the barrage of information leaves one calling for a master narrative to push through the perplexity. It never arrives, and the only sensation that persists upon leaving is the idea that Barcelona is changing dramatically and fast.
Yet social scientists and urban scholars have been writing for years about how the region’s social structure has evolved over the last several decades, as its previously industrial production model gave way to a post-industrial, service-oriented economy increasingly centred around tourism. This transformation led to a millenarian fascination with emerging forms of economic production that has, to some extent, eclipsed considerations of changes in the relationship between people and production. As discourses regarding work grew more abstract and immaterial, class discourse became more absent and less substantive.
In the early 2000s, urban theorist Richard Florida recognised this absence and stepped into the gap with his writings on the importance of the creative class in economic development. His argument that attracting and retaining highly educated professionals to urban centres leads to growth, urban regeneration and life-satisfaction proved very convincing to city officials looking for a new progressive narrative for the post-industrial scenario. Barcelona was no exception to this, and his work became a standard reference in the city’s bid to become a Smart City characterised by the use of digital technologies for the sake of improving economic performance and the well-being of residents.
Gentrification is the focal point of class tensions between urban residents in Florida’s framework. Recently, he and many like-minded urban scholars have begun to strongly question the validity of the term, originally coined by British sociologist Ruth Glass to describe the displacement of low-income residents by middle-class ones. Their argument is that gentrification is an excessively vague concept that is difficult to employ scientifically, and that attention should instead be focused on concentrated advantage and disadvantage. It is a somewhat misleading approach to the question, presenting concentrated disadvantage as static and neglecting the role of gentrification as the dynamic through which people are displaced to such areas.
Yet the idea is gaining support among many aspiring “creatives”, not least because it lends itself quite favourably to the fractal identity politics of the post-industrial era. Essentially, the three classes Florida refers to (the creative class, the service working class and the industrial working class) are little more than a broad re-grouping of the USA’s Standard Occupational Classification. The creative class itself, by his own definition, includes a wide range of occupations spanning technology workers, artists, engineers, musicians, health care professionals, lesbians and gay men, business professionals, teachers, scientists and what he describes as “high bohemians”. Characterized by individualistic lifestyle preferences and cultured tastes, they are popularly associated with an increasingly relevant figure in the urban landscape: the hipster.
Generally imagined as white, male, privileged and effete, the hipster provides critics of Florida’s “urban renewal” recommendations with a compelling enemy through which to sublimate urban class antagonisms. In recent years, the pop-political critique of hipsters has quickly emerged as a widely read sub-genre of internet literature and even made it to bookshelves, most notably in Spain with Victor Lenore’s Indies, hipsters y gafapastas: Crónica de una dominación cultural, which in its first year since publication is now in its fourth edition. Meanwhile, interest in the working class antithesis of the hipster is also growing, as evidenced by the impact of Owen Jones’s Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class.
On the surface, this interest in identities that embody urban class antagonisms seems to stem from the inequalities exacerbated by years of economic crisis and austerity in Western Europe. It is tempting to view the hipster vs. chav conflict as one between the creative class and the service working class that has come to replace the industrial working class. Yet such a view reifies Florida’s conceptual framework by granting the same excessive importance to lifestyle preferences, consumer habits and occupation and overlooking the defining issue facing work and shaping social classes in the post-industrial era, namely, the question of precarity.
Precarity splits occupational classes between insiders and outsiders, establishing a hierarchical gradient that goes beyond questions of occupational prestige to determine the extent to which workers are exposed to a variety of risks such as risk of unemployment, underemployment or poverty, or mental and physical health risks. While it is known to disproportionately affect women, youth and foreign-born residents, there is also evidence that the neoliberal reforms carried out under the guise of austerity are extending precarity across occupational categories to those who previously enjoyed relatively stable employment conditions.
Moreover, although college-educated youth constitute a substantial and growing portion of the rapidly expanding precariat (as the economist Guy Standing has referred to them), there is evidence—derived from the datasets used for the Urban Master Plan and the Metropolis Barcelona exhibit—that the vast majority of the college-educated precariat had parents who did not go to university. Thus, it is reasonable to consider that a class discourse articulated around identities that are based on lifestyles and consumption preferences—which are more strongly shaped by one’s age and educational level than by their social class of origin—might do more to divide and subdue an emerging class antagonism than it does to galvanise it.
In contrast, a cursory examination of the powerful class discourses used by the two most recent examples of massively supported antagonist politics in Spain, the indignados movement for radical democracy and Podemos, reveals not only a strong aversion to identity politics of this kind, but also the desire to overcome them by imposing a new narrative with a new master signifier. Slavoj Zizek has frequently and mistakenly dismissed these discourses as a simple demand for a new master directed at an unspecified elite. What he fails to realize is that the goal of both the indignados and Podemos was never to engage the political establishment through calls for ethical reforms. Rather, the target of their discourse was society at large and they were immensely successful in getting their narratives across. By April of 2013, the Values and Worldviews Survey carried out by the BBVA Foundation identified Spain as Europe’s most anti-capitalist country, with 74% of the population expressing disdain for the ideology. The country also showed the lowest average rating of the institutions that make up the Troika, including the IMF and the European Central Bank, which were the main targets of the indignados’s criticism.
Similarly, Podemos’s critique of The Regime of 1978 (the year Spain’s constitution was signed into law) and la casta (the caste) have proven tremendously effective in mobilising massive discontent against the classes benefitting most from the current social order. Applying Ernesto Laclau’s theory about the utility of “empty signifiers” for left-wing populist politics, they have successfully brought the indignados slogan (“We are not the left or the right. We are the people at the bottom and we are coming for the people at the top.”) into electoral politics. To counter this threat of collective action, the establishment unsurprisingly seeks to atomize. And to do this, they center their discourse around the figure of the entrepreneur (emprendedor), essentially a re-branding of the creative class, with a telling difference in the Spanish context: here, the self-employed were previously referred to as autónomos. Today, however, this figure has become associated with precarity, a condition that is antithetical to autonomy. It seems that the establishment’s most “creative” response to an emerging class identification based on the employment relationship was to simply re-brand one subset of precarious workers through a strictly occupational distinction.
Translation: Dorota Malina