Reclaiming our cities

12 July, 2020

The big corporate buildings in Barcelona and Madrid are now switched off at night. Many offices were left empty or had a large number of their staff reduced. Terraces, on the other hand, are full, masks are scarce, distances are narrow. The eagerness to mitigate at all costs the looming disaster for hotel and tourist investments, makes the new normality increasingly disturbing, more fragile with each new outbreak. In Catalonia, 816 new cases were counted yesterday. It is not surprising that from eight o’clock onwards the pavements are uncrowded and most streets are empty before midnight. The mayors tell us that it’s time to reclaim the city. They actually mean that we should take more risk, go out, travel and spend to recover the revenue of small businesses and chains. Neither is it the time nor is it our problem. And yet, both the new normal summer in Europe and the winter of confinement in South America may be a good time to take back the places we live in a very different way.

Under the map of the city lies the history of class struggle

Madrid July 19th, 1936

The bourgeoisie and especially the bureaucracy of the last century accustomed us to see the buildings of the city as part of a landscape, as facts of nature arising from the ruling class’ will or from the particular commitment of some of their members.

While the natural landscape would be the expression of a creative deity, the urban landscape would represent the creative classes: creators of wealth, of culture, etc. Because that’s how the dominant classes have considered themselves in all ages. In the dominant ideology of any society divided into classes, it is kings who build palaces, republics that raise academies and markets, tycoons that erect monuments and politicians that open museums. The enormous hours of work, the amount of effort, knowledge and human skill employed, disappear and are identified in the creative act of an individual or institution. The map of the city that the tourist guides show us is the route in time of a will, the will of its successive ruling classes.

But with the European bourgeois revolutions of the 19th century, cities became the battleground of the class struggle. We live in – or on top of – the remains of the great clashes of the past. Whether it is through the brutal monuments of the triumph of the reactionary forces, the gaps left in the city map by their revenge, or the architectural claims of the classes that struggled to seize power at every turn. The center, the nineteenth century “ensanches”, the first working class neighborhoods, the ruined factories or the barren concrete cube neighborhoods in which we live, are the sets of a great historical performance that is still on stage because it has not ended yet.

The Denied City

Socialist activists building the People’s House of Turón (Asturias) in the 10’s on their day off.

The possibility of building by themselves has always been denied to the working classes. That’s why the map of what was built, organizationally and even, in some cases, physically, by those who were proletariat] denied and deprived of all power is so significant. There is a map waiting to be drwn made of workers’ societies, athenaeums and people’s houses, of big strikes and workers’ insurrections. And in countries like Spain or Portugal, which had large agricultural proletariats, this map is by no means limited to the big cities.

It is a map which asks us to learn from the struggles of those who came before, from their successes, their conditions and their defeats. It is the first layer of the city to be recovered. The city that encourages us to go out on stage again.

The hidden city

Bodies of Félix Galán and others of the 800 workers murdered by the Guardia Civil and the Falangists in the Plaza de Llerena in August 1936, in the repression of the July revolution of the same year.

From it we can get the rest back. Understand what our neighborhoods were and why they’re the way they are today. And also recover, strip the official historical account of the monopoly of kings, patricians and republics. Learn to see in the Renaissance palace, the medieval mosque or the Roman temple, the work and the possibilities of the working classes of each era. Understanding history not as a mere succession of stages and rulers, but as the process in which Humanity, fractured into classes and driven by the conflict between them, developed its productive capacities, that is to say its capacity to satisfy needs to the point of making possible a reunited society of abundance for all.

Consciousness is disalienation, not iconoclasm

The Commune’s fire barricades in their final battle. The Communards protected Notre Dame from the flames they used as a last resort of defense.

Those who deny one part of the city and hide the other, those who write historical narratives, are the same ones who periodically suffer attacks of puritan iconoclasm and start to demolish statues or congratulate themselves on the destruction of gothic cathedrals. They accept the story of the ruling class and double the stakes: Columbus would have discovered America on his own and he alone would be responsible for later invasions and conquests. In that tale there are no classes, no social forces, and certainly no human labor in shipyards, foundries and fields making everything else possible… one of the historical movements that projected more human masses on five continents would have been due only to the will of an individual and his association with a queen. Being the kings of magical thought, tearing down statues is supposed to free them from who knows what inherited guilt. Cathedrals? Mosques? Two-thirds of the same.

The petty bourgeois moralists look at history and, like Alice’s red queen, all they can think of is to shout: Cut off their heads!. The working classes say instead: We did all this and it will be part of our legacy to Humanity that will be emancipated with us.

Reclaim your city

Workers’ barricade during the May 1937 insurrection against the nationalization of the factories expropriated by the workers and the dissolution of the workers’ militias ordered by the Republican state.

A couple of years ago some colleagues began preparing routes through the cities where we live and work. Each visit among colleagues and even the congress in which we founded Emancipation was preceded by a small work of historical documentation allowing those who arrived to share a view of the place in which they were being received that was not touristic at all. The idea was that they could see everything that had happened over hundreds or thousands of years and that gave meaning to everything we fought for and aspired to. In half the world these are not the best days to go on an urban excursion. But maybe these can be the best days to seek out and document the history of the working classes in the city you live in. Now that would be the beginning of a real reclaiming of the city.


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