The City of Blades

In the week the new Greater Manchester Mayor took office for the first time, I attended two events.

The first was the Manchester University annual JMCE lecture, which this year was given by constitutional lawyer Rodney Brazier. His theme was Brexit, Politics and Constitutional Law.

The second was organised by Manchester Metropolitan University’s Humanities in Public programme and was titled Manchester as Cosmopolis. It addressed global migration in a changing United Kingdom.

At both these events, things were said that Andy Burnham might bear in mind.

The first event set the wider context. Rodney Brazier went right back to 1688/9 and the birth of the UK Parliament. From here, he suggests, after Brexit, treaties cannot overwrite parliamentary sovereignty. We might return to Hegel and a philosophy that worships The State and values Right over other forms of statecraft.

This was roughly the case until 1971-72, when the UK agreed to ‘an enlargement of sovereignties’ in compact with Europe ‘in the general interest’. Yet Brazier explains that it took 20 years for a legal dispute to arise because of this expansion of sovereignty, over fish, in 1991.

The details are not exactly racy, but the Merchant Shipping Act of 1988 was dropped, as it conflicted with EU law. From here, the matter was taken up by the tabloids, with performed fury, a precursor to the contemporary moment: ‘Foreign courts’, ‘meddling’, rampant British Nationalism.

Yet Parliamentary sovereignty was part of the compact with the EU, in 1991. It wasn’t separate. The EU was meshed with expanded, plural UK sovereignty. Where they were separated out by the tabloids and far right is where the ideology lies: The supposed great bonfire of British values did not happen for 20 years, and when it did, it was largely created by the British tabloids. Nobody should be surprised that UKIP began here, in 1991.

Brazier explains that between 1991 and 2016 we experienced a rise of discourse around ‘The European Project’ that was treated with derision by the rightwing tabloids. These tensions heated steadily until Cameron gave the spark of a vote. By this point, the erosion of trust rooted in the banking crisis of 2008 and the 2009 expenses scandal was dangerous: Through austerity ‘we’ pay for ‘them’, the bankers, MPs, Euro MPs, ‘The European Project’.

The tabloids had paraded examples on relentless drip feed for over two decades that added up, in the minds of tabloid readers, to ‘a picture’. Freedom of movement was blamed, rather than the lack of state competence. ‘Experts’ were kicked and the giant expert kicking conga goes on.

After Article 50, the ‘great repeal act’ means that EU legislation will remain enshrined in UK law until it is overturned. At this point, with modifications, we will be back to the situation of 1688-1972.

As Article 50 is triggered, we begin a long return to a narrowed field of sovereignty that is unlikely to reign in the banks. Yet it is capitalism that has left us with the seemingly contradictory result of a deep cynicism of government, plus a more singular and possibly heavier sovereignty.

Here again we might return to 1689, then later Hegel and a philosophy that worships The State and values Right over Treaty. The dangers should be clear: The Macron versus le Pen campaign involved a rejection of traditional parties in France.

Similarly, Trump has no political experience and is not part of the political dynasties. Mr Burnham may have won 63% of the vote, but the turnout was just under 29%. This said, every move our new mayor makes is a move in a paranoid, eye-filled landscape of sheer cynicism. I don’t envy him. I wish him luck.

At the second event, Manchester as Cosmopolis, former Manchester Evening News correspondent Andy Spinoza explained that the Northern Powerhouse ‘is a proposal, not a plan.’

The Northern Powerhouse started as a transport project, as Manchester underperforms in relation to London and the Southeast. The city cluster of Manchester-Leeds-Sheffield are seen as close, yet apart, and the transport solution, including HS2 – although Burnham is rightly sceptical about it – is meant to partly deal with the problem.

But the idea that getting to Leeds from Manchester faster, or vice versa, might deal with stagnating wages, exploitation and short-termism, is obviously mad, a hangover of the Blairism that Burnham is seen as a remnant of. The magical connect-up is as mythical as the mystic trickle-down, and Andy Spinoza owns a PR company called Spin Media.

Spinoza explains Burnham’s role as ‘soft power’, what an academic might call ‘pouissance‘, the power of conviction, rather than the ‘hard power’ of ‘pouvoir‘, the can do and will do. He has some hard power, Burnham, a new say over health, social care and other services. Burnham thinks too many luxury apartments are being built, and he is setting up shop as the mayor of social justice, but he is also perceived as a Blairite.

Our new mayor may well be viewed as Janus right now, double-masked and characterised by arrivals and exits, but when he finally leaves, history will fix his face forever.

The great Saskia Sassen then arrived at the Cosmopolis event, for the keynote speech, and suddenly there were many more things on the table that Burnham should consider.

Sassen began by describing some global cities of the north, with their vast, visible luxury zones. These zones are what Sassen calls ‘de-urbanisation’, cities as monocultures for the wealthy. Manhattan was given as an example, half full and for the rich. ‘A monster’ that crawls in and eats neighbourhoods from within. London’s Docklands is another example, as is Salford Quays, although much more modestly so.

Sassen gave us the big picture of how global cities came to be what they are: From World War Two to the 1970s, ‘the corporate’ was in-house, vertical, hierarchical, with upward movement inside. This came to a radical end when they went global. The old vertical model was mirrored in the buildings, for instance The Seagram Building, completed in 1958.

But we cannot read what is going on through the buildings any more. This is not a comment on postmodern architecture: The knowledge is now the infrastructure; not the buildings. Apparently Goldman Sachs has 100 physicists developing ‘intermediary instruments’. If we want to see the structures of corporate knowledge, I thought, we might perhaps find a way to look at their notebooks.

There is the more well known phenomena of ‘offshoring’, but Sassen explains how the corporation shifted its strategies of sourcing knowledge, as well as raw materials and production, drawing what it needs from multiple wells, a culture that clusters in global cities.

This, like vertical upward movement until the 1970s ‘is not an innocent process’. Sassen says 100 leading intelligence companies have branches in 600 cities. What then, is Manchester’s knowledge specialty? And to what other global cities is it connected? Andy Burnham is for ‘the digital economy’, but really, what is this, The Sharp Project? It is still so very vague.

Sassen understands the potential riches clearly: Google and Facebook are virtually risk-free enterprises, unlike the motor industry, which recently had cars withdrawn again with corresponding losses.

So, if they can pull it off, great, scrolling pound signs, but there are huge pitfalls and traps here. To explain these Sassen describes how sub-prime had ‘nothing to do with a mortgage’. It was a financial instrument that had ‘dressed itself in the clothing of housing’. ‘Houses’ had become material assets, and no coincidence that a lot of investment is now geared up to asset stripping.

The crippling irony is that sub-prime was a move to an asset-backed financial product after the simulacra of derivatives markets. After 2008, after all of this collapsed, we were given a series of absurd show trials and a set of phony recalibrations of risk and compliance legislation. Here again, Sassen moves around her subject a little more tangentially, explaining how we have ‘International Standards’, ISO, but the use of those quality guaranteed products is not enquired after, nor, I might add, are the supply chains or the exploitation of labour required to produce their ‘standards’.

Her key point here is that when ‘the global’ sets in, stability rots off the core: Manchester is global and is preparing to shift up a level of velocity in the global game. That is why the city is a building site, its circuits are being re-wired. But these circuits, to use a crass metaphor, are not being PAT tested before they run.

Sassen explains how the credit default swap market nearly doubled each year from 2001 through to its titanic crash in 2007. She explains how debt in households in Eastern Europe is largely owned by German, Austrian and Swiss banks.

The parallel phenomenon is hollowed-out urban space. For instance, Giles Fraser recently explained in the Guardian how his East London parish is being emptied by overseas capitalist investment.

And a man of the cloth should be concerned: Sassen tells us that this business is ‘extractive’; but the injections of capital themselves, the buying of the properties, are also a potential cause for concern, as dirty money launders through property.

Sassen shows a list of the acquisitions of existing properties by national and foreign investment. London is right up there with a jaw-dropping 40.5%. Manchester is lower down the list, at No.23 globally, hovering by Miami, but this is astonishing in itself.

Sassen shows a map of the iconic buildings in London, owned by one Chinese investor. To ‘a mayor’, she says, watch what happens to the physical assets. You need to know how to handle them, ‘or it will eat you up’. Look at what is happening in London, she says, public servants cannot afford to live there. Her message is stark.

Earlier, Andy Spinoza assumed that Blair’s ambition to get 50% of young people into universities, rather than providing job-focused education, is a further obstacle to the Northern Powerhouse ‘proposal’. But those in real hard power government such as Boris Johnson, did they do a bricklaying course? No. Are we then to conclude that proles are needed for the NPH pump-house? I guess so.

Spinoza describes people ‘getting on their own two feet’, and how there is currently too much bureaucracy for business startups. More laissez faire is classic Tory rhetoric. But there is an unspoken industrial romanticism under all of this too, that ‘up north’ we roll our sleeves up and do dirty jobs.

Under this is a yearning for Empire, it is latent in any ‘Make Us Great Again’ rhetoric. It lies under Trump’s rhetoric, drawing on a yearning for the days of the USA as a world power in full stride, and it is latent in this kind of city pride chest-beating.

When placed next to Sassen’s analysis, this kind of chest-beating begins to glow in dangerous colours. During Sassen’s talk, a line from Spinoza that stuck in my head returned: Apparently ‘we’ are to show that we can be trusted by ‘London’, by Parliament and The City, that we can be responsible with these new powers.

I began to wonder about the provenance of this vision of a Parliamentary ‘big other’ that was being raised by Spinoza. Where else has this notion been raised? What is its history?

So, during questions I asked Spinoza if this perceived need to compete with the city of London and the Southeast could be found in policy. ‘No’, he said, the idea that Manchester needs to prove its manly credentials were taken from a Manchester Evening News interview with Andy Burnham. Manchester’s masculine leadership, plus ça change, at the same time as we’re being told everything is changing.

This swagger about Manchester competing with the southeast is not in policy. They are cultural assumptions, to be found, as Sassen explains it, at the fuzzy edges of knowledge paradigms. They are to be challenged.

Therefore, in whose name is this great Manchester race being declared? I take Sassen’s ‘message to a mayor’ as for Burnham, and if it wasn’t intended as one, I wish to turn it around and send it his way myself: When people start talking of ‘competition between cities’, Sassen explained, ‘the only winners of that line are the corporations’. Sassen is completely sceptical of the notion of competition, ‘cities compete far less than leading corporate actors lead us to think’, she explains.

Sassen warns that the cities in the global game are in trouble, as they risk being ‘kidnapped’ by global finance, and Manchester is in that top 100. This means overseas investment in property. Buildings and streets that appear public are often owned by corporations. For instance Potsdamer Platz appears public, but is private, as is much of Docklands London. Here again we can turn to Salford Quays and the massive public-private fudge of the BBC and the offshore wealth of Peel Holdings and its shell operations.

Sassen tells us that ‘the law of urban land is often very old law’, but that the more creative lawyers are now creeping into public spaces. But they also creep vertically, upwards and downwards, for this is the new revanchist frontier. Career progress no longer means a slow journey from the Post Room to the Board of Directors. But physical expansion globally is going vertical, unless Burnham follows through on his thoughts about building on the green belt. Sassen explains how these compacts of legal advice, global speculation, investment and statecraft are ‘colonising the future’ of cities to ‘deal with the current electoral cycle.’

This involves the same infinite deferral of judgement that led to 2008, a deferral of judgement that carried on after 2008 and continues to hang over us. It doesn’t just hover abstractly over some mystical place called ‘the global’ that we need not worry about, it hangs over Manchester, right now, in the form of roving giant blades.

It is Peel eyeing up more infrastructure and opportunity. It is Deloitte U.S. priming the ground for overseas investment in Manchester via cultural journalism that blurs into a tourist guide. It is the Chinese consortium CMC at Manchester City football ground.

Sassen explained that although she loves the phrase, she doesn’t ask about the ‘right to the city’, now isn’t the time, but we must ask ‘who owns the city?’

Of course, she also asked us to find what the specialised difference of a city is. What then, Mr Burnham, is Manchester’s specialised difference on the global stage? But more importantly, who owns it?

There are two vectors here, travelling in opposite directions, through the same city, and re-shaping it as they go. There is the morphing of the UK constitution into something far more monosyllabic, and the opposite vector of a complexifying and ever-more predatory capitalism that The State cannot and will not reign in.

A concluding question might be ‘what are you going to do about all of this in the name of “the people” you so ardently profess?’ And ‘if your powers are too limited, who is going to do something about it?’

But that would be a naive question, and a naive demand to make. But I cannot imagine that these two vectors are going to neatly harmonise. The criticisms of ‘the global’ of economics and the current populist rightwing cultural geist are unlikely to be neatly separated either.

– A different version of this later appeared on Open Democracy UK.  


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