The city's social struggle

Image: Paulinho_Fluxuz


A project of radical rupture with the current neoliberal exclusionary logic is necessarily placed on the urban dispute agenda.

In the coming months we will have a vital dispute for the Brazilian socialist and democratic left. This year's municipal election is covered by a set of new issues, some of which are not so much, necessary for social reflection and, above all, for facing the dispute for the next destiny of Brazilian society. Thus, in November this year we will not have a purely local dispute, or one focused only on an agenda with specific aspects, on the contrary, the dispute will have a broad content and will call into question the next movements of both the democratic left and the conservative and fascist forces.

The text that follows seeks to discuss the urban and the city as spaces of social dispute and central to capitalist accumulation, the Marxist theoretical foundation is of importance both for having a base of theoretical analysis to be developed and criticized, but mainly for the need to resume of a critical construction of the Brazilian reality, in which the urban and the social movements of the urban are fundamental points in the dispute in which we find ourselves, which is long term, but continuous and wide, in each conjunctural movement, dispute of ideas, streets and electoral.

Capitalism, as a dynamic system for accumulating wealth produced socially and appropriated according to private market mechanisms, has always required a concentrating dimension of the population and the conditions of human social reproduction. In the last decades of the last century and in these early years of the XNUMXst century, there has been a significant strengthening of urban concentrations as a space for the command and performance of these mercantile relations, although subject to strong movements of economic and social opposition.

In the case of Brazil, almost 39 million people migrated from the rural world and became urban workers subjected to precarious conditions between 1950 and 1970. In the 1970s, the urban population already represented 55,9% of the Brazilian population. In 2010, there are approximately 160 million people living in cities, that is, 84,4% of the country's total population. From 1980 to 2010, cities expanded their population by almost 71 million inhabitants (IBGE/SIDRA, 2020). The urbanization process in Brazil took place more quickly compared to the more advanced capitalist countries, “in the second half of the 19th century, the urban population increased from 138 million to 7,3 million, multiplying 4,1 times, with a average annual growth rate of 2,3%, that is, each year, on average, more than 2006 million inhabitants were added to the Brazilian urban population” (BRITO, 223, p. XNUMX).

The urban from Marxist authors

The theoretical references for the analysis of urban space over time are being redefined, adapted and recreated in the face of a changing reality, in which “everything that was solid and stable melts into air” (Marx and Engels, 2010, p. 43) . It is worth emphasizing that the apprehension of Marxist analysis and theories of the capitalist urban space allows us to understand the importance of urban social movements, not only in Brazil, as well as the dynamics of crises and social precariousness of the current capitalist cycle.

Urban social movements are not fixed over time, but adapt according to contemporary dynamics and realities, and urban analysis theories can collaborate with these social forces in the process of democratization and the right to the city as a social wealth in opposition to its commodification, even though, as Harvey (1980, p. 3) points out, “social processes [being] spatial”, lead us to observe that “the nature of social justice and the nature of urbanism are (…) substantially different” .

Thus, four central aspects are placed in the debate: i) urbanity and social conflict for control of the city have intensified in recent years; ii) the analysis of city space as a “locus” of capitalist accumulation was reinforced from the polarization between the local and the global; iii) the commodification of “living” was accentuated and established the growing logic of peripheralization and precarious reproduction of the working classes; iv) the crisis of the dynamics of capitalist reproduction manifests itself very specifically in sectors linked to the real estate industry, as attested in the “crash” of 2008, referring to the “subprieme” crisis and it became much more radicalized in the face of the economic-environmental crisis of Covid-19. XNUMX.

The deepening of the capitalist crisis conditioned the fiscal deficiencies of the State, something that is generalized in the main capitalist centers and that produced in the mid-1970s the bankruptcy of important global cities, among these New York[I]. With all these events, in the following decades, a growing commodification of cities would deepen, on the limit of urban dispossession, especially in peripheral capitalist societies. This broth of economic and social effervescence stimulated the development of a set of critical studies in relation to the city, based on Marxist political economy, producing a new and expressive knowledge regarding the urban issue. Among the various neo-Marxist authors who have focused on the analysis of urban space, it is worth highlighting, among others, Henri Lefebvre, Manoel Castells, Jean Lojkine and David Harvey. We add to these international authors the central contributions of the Brazilian Marxist Paul Singer.

It is noteworthy that the cited authors discuss a point that Marx did not develop punctually in his works: the relationship between the space built and occupied by capital and the conditions of social reproduction of the city as a modern urban agglomeration[ii]. According to Harvey (1988, p. 163), Marx's writings on the issue of space are fragmentary and inconclusively developed. In his "general theory"[iii] he makes reference to the need for geographic expansion of capital, but does not define the total theoretical elements that would integrate geographic space into capitalist economic time. Harvey (2005), however, observes that a deeper analysis of Marx's works shows that he knew that there was a direct relationship between the theory of accumulation and the geography of space, giving rise to specific types of geographical structures.

Over time, the ongoing changes in large cities reflect the transformations that occur both in the capitalist productive process and in the spatial reproductive arrangements that are processed, such as investments in physical and social infrastructure, urbanization, displacement patterns or urban mobility, etc. Therefore, it can be said that the urban landscape is, to a certain extent, an expression, even a functional one, of the society in which it is inserted. That is, the urban space is partially organized and structured with a view to facilitating the capitalist dynamics of production.

In this sense, the urban landscape reflects, even partially, the social division of labor existing in the capitalist world. Therefore, the city is an expression of existing social relations in capitalist society, structuring itself largely with a view to dynamizing capitalist relations of production and, at the same time, reflecting social contradictions, such as the clear segmentation of urban space between areas occupied by population groups of different income levels, depending on access to better or worse standards of urban infrastructure.

However, urban dynamics are much more complex, in addition to the fact that the organization of urban space according to the capitalist productive and speculative logic creates a variety of socio-spatial conflicts, whether resulting from segregation and inequalities inherent in capitalism, or by juxtaposition in urban space. of different classes, ethnicities, creeds and cultures, which establish ties and interactions that go beyond the economic aspect or the social hegemony of the bourgeoisie, but always interacting with the phenomena of speculation and exploitation inherent to this systemic order.

In this way, the socially and economically transformed space acts not only modifying, but conditioning and regulating the relations of production and social representation. Therefore, space constitutes an organic arena not only for the process of producing things and their consumption, but also encompasses the reproduction of social relations and class dominance relations themselves, including ideological and cultural aspects, being part of both the reproduction and social representation established in capitalism.

The capitalist system must always guarantee, in addition to the reproduction of the means of production, the reproduction of the social relations of production under conditions of absolute and relative exploitation of the workforce, carried out through the control of the totality of space, insofar as they comprise the reproduction of everyday life in the worker's own space of life and subjectivity. Thus, in the changes of capitalism, permanent conflicts are also observed between the spatial and social issue, in a horizontal and vertical dialectic, without accepting the prioritization or determination of one over the other, guaranteeing the control of capital over the space of social coexistence, but always in conflict and dispute with the social movements and organization entities of the working classes.

Marx starts from the analysis of the relationship man versus nature, having nature as a means of subsistence for man, with the transformations that the capitalist system of production imposes a new variable is inserted in this system defined as productive forces that ended up developing beyond what is necessary immediate. In this way, nature, which previously had or played an autonomous role, is now subordinated to man and to the limitations or standardizations from alienation to capital (second nature).

Capitalist relations presuppose a “second nature”, fully accommodated (subordinated) to mercantile fetishism, adequate to the constraints of the exploitation of the workforce. In this sense, man begins to act on nature not with the aim of meeting his immediate needs, but to meet the financial principles of capitalism. It is worth noting that these relationships are not uniform in time and space, so the degree of absorption of nature is linked to the pattern of reproduction of capital and the spatial location in which accumulation takes place, for example under neoliberalism the exploitation of Amazonian nature it becomes spoliative.

The author concludes that social contradictions do not come only from relations between classes, but from mismatches between temporalities and spatialities, solidifying each different social practice as a possibility of denial of reality, which makes urban space a complex construction, involving both contradictions and typical of capitalist reproduction relations, but also establishing other dimensions of conflicts (cultural, ethnic, gender, etc.) that are juxtaposed with class conflicts and multidimensional interaction.

The State, as an entity of social control, has as one of its main functions socially regulating the reproduction of the main capitalist commodity: the workforce. In this perception, the collective or public conditions for the maintenance of the worker are in charge of the state power. But, by conceiving the urban predominantly as the place of social reproduction and not of production, Castells (1983) describes the city as a central environment for the reproduction of the workforce, object of public services (housing, education, transport, sanitation, etc.) and state actions of integration and repression, without presenting any significant interpretation in the sense of understanding it as a productive process, that is, as a form of the very dynamics of capital accumulation (ARANTES, 2009).

The emphasis on the sphere of consumption leads the author to focus on the urban policy of collective consumption, and also on the mobilization of urban social movements with a view to qualifying the so-called “collective consumer goods”, which can be understood as an important stimulus factor for the politicization of state intervention, making public policies a central target of social disputes. Thus, he came to theorize and act in the urban social movements that proliferated in cities in the 1970s, and he also came to dedicate himself to the theme of the politicization of space more broadly, encompassing various citizenship movements that were articulated from the issue of reproduction, urban and environmental.

Lojkine (1981, 1999) proposes an expanded State, at the same time an agent of coercion and consensus building in the occupation of urban space, considering urban policy as an essential and constitutive element of the reproduction of capital in its monopolistic phase. The State appears as a simultaneous expression of political tension, in the sense of providing for the needs of expanded reproduction of capital, but, without this, failing to reflect in the spatial materiality of the city the contradictions and class struggles generated by segregation. society and exploitation of the working classes.

By considering urbanization as a key element of production relations, he sustains the thesis that the contradictory forms of urban development, in the way they are reflected and accentuated by state policy, are precisely the revelation of the outdated character of the capitalist mode of production. According to Lojkine himself (1981, p. 122): “the contradictory forms of urban development (…), are precisely the revelation of the outdated character of the capitalist way of measuring social profitability through the accumulation of dead work”. This aspect of the evisceration of fixed capital, as well as the contradictions it contains, including its connection with the credit system.

The main category rescued by Marx in his analysis of the urban was that of general conditions of production. Lojkine (1981) to think about the process of expanded reproduction of capital, with a view to analyzing the dynamics associated with the means of communication and transportation. In a simplified way, it can be said that this Marxist category refers to the infrastructures and services that guarantee the reproductive activity of capital in the urban environment. Lojkine not only rescued, but also expanded this category to refer to the complex use values ​​required by capital and work in their contemporary Fordist versions, inscribing himself in the debate of the contradictions of capitalist urbanization in the context of State Monopoly Capitalism.

The basic hypothesis developed by Lojkine (1981, p.121) was that the different “forms of urbanization are, above all, forms of the social (and territorial) division of labor”. This hypothesis makes a clear critical inflection in relation to Castells' perception, especially the notion of urban space as a mere space for consumption or reproduction of the workforce. In this sense, his analysis goes towards reintegrating, like Lefebvre, the dynamics of accumulation with the mechanisms of reproduction or social existence in broader terms, constituting both conditions of reproduction and of capitalist representation.

The city constitutes a form of human aggregation in the space of urbanity which, ultimately, is the social condition most compatible with the demands of advanced capital. Urbanity is no longer presented as an object of planning or as a passive environment for collecting empirical data, but as an indispensable social condition for the expanded reproduction of Capitalism. In this way, urbanity starts to be thought from the perspective of social struggles and the role of the State in the production and distribution of these equipment and services.

The city was constituted as an amalgamation of different forces in conflict and interaction: the dynamics of capital accumulation produces and reproduces its own spatial forms, from housing segregation to the structuring of the urban profile according to the general conditions of production; on the other hand, the most diverse movements of social struggles establish limits and standards against capital; the State and its planned action interact with both forces, in some cases yielding to the mobilizing capacity of social movements, largely serving the diverse interests of capital accumulation.

Social movements and the challenges of the urban question

Several agents act in the urban space, such as: user, owner users, realtors, landlords, financial institutions, government institutions, various social movements. These actors trigger and operate the use values ​​(satisfying the need is related to the degree of utility of the commodity) and exchange (the objective is to obtain profit) of the urban land commodity. It is worth noting that the action of the State, in the construction of physical and social infrastructure, such as housing, allocation of services, facilities and access roads, enables both the logical and historical reproduction of capital, as well as the conditions of general social reproduction, which it includes, like what Castells dealt with, the reproduction of the workforce. On the other hand, the dynamics of capital reproduction also requires the action of a set of private institutions, whether real estate development companies, financial institutions or the construction industry that integrate and treat the use of urban land as part of the valuation of its value. own capital.

The growth and development of cities led to a reorganization in the location and distribution of activities in the urban system. These changes would be responsible for the elaboration of a variety of forms of income redistribution. Among the changes in the spatial forms of cities, the transfer in the location of economic activity meant more job opportunities in cities. The change in the location of residential activity represented a change in the location of housing opportunities. Both one and the other changed the forms of income redistribution in the city. One should also mention the question of expenses with transportation, which, in turn, largely affected the costs of accessing employment opportunities based on the location of housing (Harvey, 1980, 2005).

In his main work on the urban dialectic, Harvey (1980) also highlights the issue of the suburbanization process, which is the creation of large centers and suburbs, where there is a redistribution of income within the city space, a distribution that is regressive, as in general the rich and relatively well off can achieve great benefits, as they can buy the noblest slices of urban space, while the poor have only limited opportunities. Harvey also analyzes the interaction between urban space and the production process. Initially, it relates work and the way of life to show that capital dominates work not only in the workplace, but also in the living space, through the determination of the quality and standards of life of the workforce, i.e. , the conflict of classes (capital and work) goes beyond the work places, without the conflicts in the places of residence juxtaposing the struggles in the work places, they occur simultaneously.

In the “Political Economy of Urbanization” Paul Singer (1985), will establish an approximation of Marxist analysis with the dynamics of peripheral capitalism, founded on the analysis of the Industrial Reserve Army and the contradictions of the Brazilian economic formation. Singer demonstrates that the peripheral pattern of Brazilian metropolises has in the migratory process one of its stimulating elements, and the growth in the supply of urban jobs does not occur at the same pace as the arrival of migrants. The surplus supply of labor will feed the reserve army and social groups excluded from the formal labor market, thus increasing the number of poor and miserable people who make up a considerable portion of the urban population. These populations only have as a housing outlet the neighborhoods of extensive misery known as slums, tenements, stilt houses and lowlands.

Urban development, based on the characteristics of peripheral horizontalization and verticalization of the central core, is not something present only in our cities, however, due to the concentration of income and speculation involving the use of urban land, it was created in the Brazilian urban reality. a framework of exacerbation of spatial segregation.

The pattern of expansion of Brazilian cities is closely linked to a specific form of concentration of means of collective consumption, governed in the first instance by the unequal distribution of income and in the last instance by speculative interests in the use of urban land. These two factors are closely intertwined in the author's interpretation, and the spatial differentiation between the zones that are better equipped with infrastructure, corresponding to the business and residential areas of the rentier elites, and the less equipped zones, corresponding to the areas of popular housing, reflects the degree of interaction and influence of such elements in the socioeconomic and spatial framework.

The dispute for urban space takes place with the mediation of real estate development, so that the functioning of the real estate market makes the occupation of areas best served by infrastructure a privilege of the higher income social strata, capable of paying a high price. price for the right to live well. The poor population is relegated to the least served areas and, therefore, are cheaper.

In Singer's interpretation, the reality of peripheral capitalism, when developing capital accumulation, produces an effect on space similar to the effect produced on the population. Thus, in interpretive terms, we have constituted a super-relative space, which, in addition to the element of population concentration, also concentrates urban facilities. This space requires concentration of necessary services or complementary services, to the production process, constituting the mass of fixed capital immobilized in the form of social infrastructure. Thus, the general law of accumulation applied to peripheral capitalism establishes cities and even metropolises (the author investigates the case of São Paulo). In which urban infrastructure is concentrated in unequal centers and popular housing areas are completely or partially devoid of basic collective consumer goods.

Social movements arise from the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production, whose central relational base (the capital and labor relationship) is in itself conflicting, however much it is also necessarily cooperative.[iv]. This conflict, inherent to the capitalist way of life, goes beyond the properly productive relations of capital and imposes itself as an open conflict in the dispute for the space of daily life, whether for the conditions of social reproduction of workers in general, or for the control, including speculative, that the capital demands on urban space and on the physical means of social reproduction.

In a general way, it is possible to abstract, from the authors treated, that the urban movements result from the urban problem itself, which has to do with the use, distribution and appropriation of the urban space, being this urban problem a manifestation of the crisis of the capitalist city , arising either from the pure and simple commodification of the city, or from the contradictory action of the State. Returning to the authors discussed, it is worth considering how each one of them analyzed urban social movements, so that we can build a critique of recent Brazilian urban movements from there.

Castells (1983) defines a social movement as a “system of practices” that involves a differentiated set of social actors, whose act of action on the “urban structure and on the social structure”, converges to substantial modifications in the very relationship of power of the State. As this author conceived the city as a space for the social realization of the workforce, State action and the management of public policies are established as the main “engine” for collective action. According to this author, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, three independent processes emerged in some countries that would tend to the “genesis of a new world”. They are: the information technology revolution; the economic crisis of both capitalism and statism and their subsequent restructuring; and the flourishing of social and cultural movements – feminism, environmentalism, defense of human rights, sexual freedoms, and others (CASTELLS 1999).

The configuration of the social movements analyzed by him would have a more “humanist” condition. These movements, contrary to the classic model, sought individual cultural freedom, the essence of the movement is linked to the cultural process independent of technological and economic transformations. Furthermore, it was not a political movement, as the objective was not to seize power. It is noticed that the social movement is not linked to the revolutionary perspective of power, but they seek cultural transformations based on the daily life of social actors with guidelines that oppose the traditional forms of political action. However, what came to be called “neoliberal revenge” seems to impose a return to classic social struggles even in the core countries of capitalism.

Lefebvre (1972, 1973) analyzed social movements as actors in disputes for the production of space, as space starts to play the role of reproducing production relations, and with that it also becomes the space of great questions, not localized, diffuse , which originate their center in different places. These questions were directly related to the economic growth of the world and the occupation of space by the State and the market. In this way, social movements were one of the aspects of the question of space, since changes in the capitalist system of production would be related to a struggle that was both social and spatial.

Harvey's understanding partially follows Lefebvre's intuition regarding social movements, he starts from the analysis of large centers, that they cause/increase existing inequalities, just as they give rise to social movements. It is in the main urban centers that the claims and changes that affect the peripheries are defined. According to Harvey (2005), “they (cities) are not tombs, but arenas”. Thus, it is in them that social conflicts arise. Urban social movements configure new forms of social organization that establish new parameters for changing capitalist social relations of production. Thus, new and more intense struggles for social rights are needed, carried out by a greater number of groups and social movements, without disregarding past struggles, according to him "it is time to weave networks between those who seek in many ways, in cities , build forms of life beyond the limits of capital".

The Brazilian social manifestations at the beginning of the XNUMXst century are clearly related to urban precariousness and the absence of effective urban reform that democratizes the city and establishes radical socialization patterns of access to public goods. Not a few studies have already signaled the enormous social deficits of our cities[v], a result, in part, of the accelerated urbanization and peripheralization resulting from the pattern of income concentration in Brazilian society and speculation with urban land. Urban reform was already foreseen in the so-called basic reforms of the Jango government, which, as we know, were interrupted at their inception, by the military coup of 1964. This urban reform agenda includes public policies for urban mobility, such as public transport from quality and at subsidized prices, the central claim of recent demonstrations.

Finally, what is worth noting about urban social movements is that they, although formed around the same objective (search for better living conditions), have a heterogeneous composition, and, therefore, must be thought of as open processes and subject to contradictions. internal and of great diversity. Therefore, their identities are fluid and dependent on the context, and cannot, therefore, always have the same intensity in time and space, in fact an element already theorized by the authors reviewed here.

This article dealt in broad terms with both the theoretical scope that analyzes contemporary urban dynamics and sought to establish interaction with elements of social praxis. From the exposed theories, it was concluded that the city is much more than a reflection of capital, in fact, it is the privileged space for the execution of productive activities and reproduction of social relations, subject both to the movement of reproduction of capitalist accumulation, as well as to the a differentiated set of social forces that act both in the construction of urban space and in its modification.

To the extent that urban social movements are fluid and dependent on the conjunctural context of action, that is, they adapt to specificities related to changes in the capitalist mode of production and produce, at the same time, changes in capitalism. The limits of capital in establishing urban mercantile values ​​are strongly contested by social movements, and the dispute for the democratization of the city and comprehensive socialization of collective means of consumption are part of the process of social struggles.

It is worth concluding by emphasizing, following the example of what Maricato (2011, p. 87) does, that the right to the city as well as the permanent non-compliance with urban injustice are not absolute or ahistorical creations”, but permanent sources of conflicts. Even in a historical moment of social setbacks like the one we are experiencing today, however, the dialectic and contradictions of Brazilian peripheral capitalism exacerbate social disputes in urban space, which poses the constant task of thinking and acting in the transformation of this reality.

On the eve of the dispute we will have for the city we want, there is the fundamental construction of an “Inclusive City” project that establishes a national agenda for the reconstruction of national sovereignty based on the place where the vast majority of the Brazilian people live and live together. This agenda of urban dispute necessarily places a project of radical rupture with the current exclusionary neoliberal logic, for that in the next article we propose an agenda of debates and a program for the Brazilian urban.

*Jose Raimundo Trinidad He is a professor at the Graduate Program in Economics at UFPA.


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[I] Harvey (2005, p. 54-55) recalls that the “fiscal crisis in the city of New York was a paradigmatic case”, because the bankruptcy of the main American city triggered both an urban crisis of enormous proportions (unemployment, impoverishment and suburbanization) , regarding the restructuring of the public policy system, imposing the privatization of public services and the dismantling of the rule of law. According to Harvey: “it was equivalent to a coup by the financial institutions against the democratically elected government of New York City, and as effective as the military coup that had occurred before in Chile”.

[ii] It is worth noting that Engels was very concerned with the analysis of urban issues and sought to address, mainly, the social conditions of reproduction of the working class in the face of the expansion dynamics of accumulation in the real estate sector and the impact on the housing precariousness of the European working population of the mid-1845th century. of the 1872th century. Two works are worth highlighting: “The situation of the working class in England” (XNUMX) and “Contribution to the Housing Problem” (XNUMX).

[iii] Harvey (2005) uses Marx's term “general theory” to centrally designate the formulations initially structured in the “Grundrisse” and later developed in Capital. There is not present here the same meaning that bourgeois authors, especially Keynes (1990) attributes to his theory of a global “model” of explanation, but a set of formulations that deal with the systemic conditions of development of capital accumulation, a dialectic between time and space profoundly conditioned by the logic of capital profitability.

[iv]In capitalism, the capital relationship is that of appropriation of surplus value based on contractual relations between the capitalist (buyer of the commodity labor power) and the worker (seller of the commodity labor power). Between them, an exchange of equivalents takes place in the process of commodity circulation: labor power, a commodity which is the sole property of the worker, is bought by the capitalist, who offers in exchange the monetary form of wages, the price of the commodity labor force. work. This apparent equality in the form of legal treatment makes the wage relationship a central condition for both the economic reproduction of the system and its political configuration.

[v] Check, among others, Maricato (2011); Ribeiro and Junior (2011); Lemonade (2008); Trinity (1996).

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