The Evolution of Metropolitics

Metropolitics as a phenomenon is a convergence of various trends and forces: international urbanisation and the development of a vast precariat class between and within cities; the growth of telepresence technologies and vast networks centred around social media and cloud computing; international security architectures like the Five Eyes as well as private surveillance structures; the logistical revolution; and cosmopolitan culture as a growing element in socio-political cultures i.e. the development of a post-national ethic.

Metropolitan evolution as a concatenation of these forces presents a new politics and a new friend-enemy distinction. I previously described this as an abstract distinction[1]. Metropolitics is the dissolution of space and time as political variables, therefore its enemies are not coalitions or organisations, but methods and ways of life that still use spacetime as an anchoring concept. Battle lines revolve around the optics of reality itself, as the presentation of events and the engendering of political identity are filtered through technologies of semiotics that control what one can see and the interpretations one can make. Social media antics around coronavirus “disinformation” or the labelling of certain media as state propaganda while others are implicitly listed as neutral are only the most obvious examples.

A “chronopolitics of instantaneity”[2] is how Virilio describes these developments. This politics is an electronic democracy that is continuous in its presentations and decisions. Ultimate transparency that is paradoxically opaque. Citizenship represented not through culture or political ideology, but through forecasting as tele-citizens are expected to make instant decisions based on trends and polling. Electronic here does not mean the medium through which politics is conducted, but the pace and mode of such decision-making. It is electronic in that it treats citizenship and politics as breakers in a circuit, that can be switched one way or another. The actual design of the circuit is beyond citizen control, decided beforehand by approved bodies and nominated experts.

Flow is the most important variable in metropolitical design. The circuit and the network are design structures that allow for continuous flow, whether this be the flow of information for the production of an optics or the flow of goods for the production of an economy. Politicisation of flows entails the development of a narrative history and an ethic of design. Its history can be seen in the inflection of 9/11 as an ultimate reordering of the metropolitan and the internationalisation of security. 9/11 in itself is a localised terrorist event. A specific expression of conflict between Al Qaeda and the American empire. Yet through the optics of instantaneous newsreels and the expression of this event as a cataclysm not between actors but between ideologies of modernity and backwardness, 9/11 became a reordering event of American and international politics and security.

From the banality of airport security limiting and controlling the movements of international travellers to the construction of a new security architecture in the Patriot Act that effectively subverted constitutional checks and balances and produced an autonomous sub-state of officials and courts (the FISA court) that are neither acknowledged nor scrutinised. Of course this had precedents in Oliver North’s actions in the Iran-Contra affair and the CIA’s missions in Latin America and Laos. Yet these were non-legislative actions that were recognised as illegal. The Patriot Act inaugurated a new architecture that was fully acknowledged and politically backed. Opacity through transparency.

It also produced mechanisms for the rerouting of international flows rather than full control or an attempt to stop them. The new security infrastructure was an addition to flows of information and commerce rather than a restriction, there to facilitate their continuation and acceleration. The main effect of 9/11 was the revolution of the metropolis. The city was now to be a security architecture that enabled international flows. Through this, a protected centre (i.e. the cities’ financial and political districts) became a primary characteristic, returning to the feudal structure of a tump sitting above the residential districts and marketplaces. The very name “ground zero” invokes a restart, a revolution to redefine the metropolitan and evolve toward the metropolitical, the city beyond time and space as a securitised centre.

A metropolitical ethic then emerges as protection of the centre (being a central node in a network) and the maintenance of flows. These centres are interchangeable, as the financial districts of London and Chicago or the business districts of Dubai or Hong Kong attest to. Skyscraper offices and long boulevards, conference centres and shopping parks like the International City, all with a strong security presence and surveillance apparatus. Chicago’s crime statistics show how even a few blocks makes a difference in the presence of crime, as Millennium Park has nearly three times the crime incidents of North Lasalle Street[3]. Similar dynamics are seen in protests and riots. Occupy Wall Street was relegated to Zuccotti Park and was limited in the access it had to Wall Street before being cleared out altogether. The London Riots were largely confined to residential ghettoes. The George Floyd riots similarly flared up in smaller cities like Kenosha or bohemian districts as with the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle. Dubai and Doha have taken this further with the peripheralisation of its migrant workforces and their treatment as denizens, restricted in their movements within the city.

Balaji Srinivasan in his descriptions of cloud cities and a networked identity[4] shows the evolutionary track of metropolitics from the post-9/11 security architecture and aesthetic homogenisation toward a full telematic array of sensors and online communities. This is the endpoint of metropolitics, the subsumption of limitations to the flows of information in their most accelerated state. Such limitations, whether in the form of place, national identity or regulatory control that stops or controls flows are enemies to be eliminated or made peripheral (literally in the form of ghettoisation or rural deprivation). Charter cities and freeports are the most extreme expressions of this dynamic being as they are decultured and deracinated infrastructures built entirely for commerce. The appeals to community that Srinivasan makes are little more than ameliorations. Their production of ersatz culture and the nonsense of modern identity politics are no solution to the existing loneliness[5] crisis[6].

This evolutionary endpoint at the junction of surveillance and security, logistical and informatic flows, and a networked politics and culture suggests a society of control as posited by Deleuze – vast administrative homeostatic systems closely regulating chaotic variables so that they conform to the directionality and speed of flows. “In the societies of control one is never finished with anything–the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation”[7]. The metropolis is the vector for this, concatenating around its centre while becoming increasingly indistinct and internationalised, one node in a vast network. It becomes the non-place, a “‘dense network of means of transport which are also inhabited spaces’ where no organic social life is possible, ‘a world thus surrendered to solitary individuality, to the fleeting, the temporary and the ephemeral’”. “Characterized by their transitory nature and corresponding social emptiness, non-places always gesture to a reality or destination somewhere else”[8]. Metropolitics is always in transition, attempting to maintain a steady state for the acceleration of flows. This is its inherent contradiction. In maintaining itself, it dissolves itself.


[2] Paul Virilio, Ground Zero







Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s