Imagining Collectives: A missive on the massive

Imagining Collectives: A missive on the massive

AbdouMaliq Simone

In Jamaican patois, “massive” has two countervailing meanings. On the one hand, it means an inordinate lack of sensitivity to the real conditions taking place, a sense of extreme self-inflation beyond reason. On the other, it means a collectivity coming into being without a set form, but reflective of a desire for collaboration and mutuality.

Massive urbanization thus means both the voluminous expansion of speculative accumulation, extraction of land value, replication of vast inequities and dysfunction, and the continuous emergence of new forms of urban inhabitation, a constant remaking of the social field by what has been called the urban majority.

Pandemic conditions now generate many imaginations—dystopic, utopian, utilitarian, and measured. In face of such a monumental global event it is reasonable to feel that something must ensue that is different. That it is a difference that not merely compensates for the disruptions that have taken place, but a new future for urban collective life.

In these brief reflections I address some of the ways in which the “massiveness” of  large urban regions, such as g. Cairo, Jakarta, Manila, Lagos, Johannesburg, Sao Paolo, Mexico City, Karachi, and Delhi seems to deflect any particular imagination, leaving room for some different kinds of collectivities to emerge.

While any predictions about these regions remain limited by the uncertainties as to how quickly and effectively the machinery of vaccination can be activated, the implications of the sheer volume of deals that people have entered into in order to survive will exert an inordinate force over the shape of urban life to come. For all of the usually haphazard ways states have attempted to provide for basic needs, all the charitable organizations mobilized to step into the gap of woefully inadequate public mechanisms of social welfare, and for all of the reassertion of local solidarity economies, many urban residents have had to enter desperate arrangements.

They have to make up for the fact that they have been evicted from their homes, have exhausted meager savings, and lost opportunities to earn any semblance of a steady income. From promising extended periods of non-remunerated labor, incurring debt at exorbitant interest rates, taking on large amounts of new familial obligations, to promising fealty to brokers, religious leaders, police and a host of local “authorities” a vast fabric of indebtedness will create atmospheres of intensified manipulations, resentments and extortions that will likely constitute a vituperative real politics on the ground for the near future.

That said, practices of restitution will likely take place as long-honed local institutional structures from unions, occupational guilds, syndicates, commercial and religious associations step into the fractures at least to repair the broken cohesiveness of their constituencies. There are many different mechanisms that have been developed over long periods of time that mitigate exorbitant social tensions and precarity.

Even as these mechanisms are stretched thin and sometimes dissipated in major shifts of populations out of lower-and- working class neighborhoods, they remain materials to be worked restoring more functional levels of interdependency. Already they are the basis for many initiatives underway to forge “people’s development plans”, to combat heavy-handed government restrictions on survival-oriented popular economies, and run interference when states attempt to usurp the work of local organizations and charities in providing necessary assistance.

At the same time, states are finding new legitimation, even urgency, to further develop and deploy tools of surveillance and registration. In cities possessing tightly structured mechanisms of registration at local and national levels, structural and population shifts have, over the years, revealed holes in these apparatuses of accountability. While many rights and benefits of citizenship are predicated on registration, many residents prefer to exist without them as a means of inserting themselves into spaces with minimal accountability.

But now particularly, residents from various walks of life are making demands on states to help them through this crisis, even when they expect little from them, and implicitly concede that states cannot be expected to enhance their role as providers without the concomitant capacity for surveillance,

But with substantially reduced operating budgets and with access to future development financing contingent upon more stringent conditionalities, state control may revert to more “old fashion” policing operations. States, developers, and investors will be financially compelled, given present exposures, debt financing, and contractual commitments, to keep a certain momentum going to secure the imagination of smart, hyper-modernist cities.

In this pursuit, states demonstrate their credit-worthiness in part through a highly visible and punitive disciplining of urban majority populations—of bringing larger numbers into formal credit systems, of demonstrating the ability to shift populations around. As such, local urban “growth coalitions” may become more brutal in attempts to press their authority, even when they may have little capacity to develop and act on any long-range plans.

What then could be envisioned as a cushion to such maneuvers? What might keep open some space for the urban majority to recoup from the crisis, to recreate the conditions that have enabled their endurance over the long run?  There is something about the sheer massiveness of many urban regions that absorbs and confounds all imaginations.

In the pandemic, while it is possible to trace how long term social and spatial vulnerabilities have constituted fertile terrain for viral transmissions and morbidity, the virus and its repercussions is having a highly differentiated presence across urban regions, even in terms of districts whose compositions—poverty levels, density, numbers of markets, access to frontline health services—are comparable. This not only reflects different approaches on the part of local governments and residents, but also heretofore undetectable mediating variables.

Disparate testing regimens and capacities, government fragmentations at different scales, disparate spatial arrangements, the proliferation of countervailing policies and the sheer diversity of built and social environments combine to create the impression that many urban regions simply absorb this crisis; that life proceeds with a familiar momentum even if interrupted by more stringent measures to contain mobility.

The massiveness of urban regions, long seen as the very embodiment of chaos and disaster, may be the very thing that provides a kind of “safety net” On the one hand, in many regions populations are being reshuffled, moved from one area to the other, something which an extensive landscape of built projects that never really worked has allowed as buildings are repurposed for other uses as they also take advantage of contiguities with new developments—sub-cities, new industrial zones and logistical centers.

The sheer heterogeneity of developments at all scales, from thousands of small developers to large real estate corporations have equipped regions with a large volume of warehouses, housing estates, mega-residential developments, industrial zones,  commercial centers, and small enterprise districts that either never got off the ground, only partially fulfilled the intended functions or rates of occupancy, or quickly fell apart.

When these “projects” are coupled with squatter settlements, temporary migrant housing, and the conversion of older residential neighborhoods into mass boarding houses, it is possible to grasp the extensiveness of a circulating population that anchors residency across multiple tenuous residencies. Large numbers remain completely unanchored in serial short terms occupancies, or are continuously displaced as a function of different instances of urban renewal, the migration of employment opportunities, or an increasingly opportunistic-centered sensibility of residents themselves.

All kinds of discrepant environments become momentary bastions of largely improvised collectivity, where people try to make some functional use of each other without any pretense of long-term commitments. Momentary, sporadic, and makeshift become the defining metaphors of many collective formations.

While evidence is plentiful of residents falling through the gaps, of early and unnecessary death, of fundamentally precarious relations with the city, it is important to creatively attend to this “massiveness” in its many dimensions as a way to envision the scope of collective life beyond its familiar renditions. This is not to say that aspirations to cultivate a life worth living in place, replete with the reciprocities and mutual assistance that has long characterized our conceptions of “popular districts” is no longer possible or of worth.

Rather, our understandings of urban growth are often too limited, too ill equipped to detect the various forces of transformation at work, and thus also unable to grasp how collective processes are shaped, reformed, or dissolved. It can blind us to recognizing forms of mutuality and coordination that do not assume the familiar shapes.

The pandemic may be construed as an overarching, unitary force that compels greater levels of coordination and lends rationale and political will to ensuring sustainable urbanization. But any significant redesign of urban machinery will require a remaking of the tacit social compacts that have regulated, made use of, and enabled the autonomy of intersecting aspirations and ways of doing things.

Urban life will be remade in the interstices, in those moments and places where things could go in different directions, where the relations among discrete urban actors, locations, built environments and economic functions rub up against each other in ways that resist total control, which indeed spur the continuous elaboration of various “settlements”—both in the sense of political negotiations, spatial and social forms, and modes of belonging. In the massiveness of these urban regions, nothing is settled for sure.


AbdouMaliq Simone is Senior Professorial Fellow at the Urban Institute, University of Sheffield, and Visiting Professor at the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town. His most recent book is Improvised Lives: Rhythms of Endurance for an Urban South, Polity 2019 
Image credit: Miya Irawati