In James Joyce’s dazzlingly inventive Finnegans Wake, the hero is a certain Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, hce for short, whose dreaming mind becomes the psychological space of the Wake’s drama. If Ulysses’s Leopold Bloom is everyday man, then Earwicker, or hce, is everynight man. Thus the epithet Joyce gives him in Chapter 2: ‘Here Comes Everybody’. The initials hce were the ‘normative letters’, Joyce said, of a universal dreaming figure; a sort of Jungian archetypal image of our collective, desiring unconscious, reliving in a single night’s sleep the whole of human history. ‘An imposing everybody he always indeed looked,’ Joyce joked of Earwicker, ‘constantly the same as and equal to himself and magnificently well worthy of any and all such universalization.’footnote1

For a while I dreamed of writing a book with the title, Here Comes Everybody. An urban book, because today urban life is, famously, the social environment to which everybody is coming. Only a few decades ago, a majority of the world’s population lived in the countryside; today, most people live in cities, and soon that majority is set to become almost everybody; billions of people, inhabiting a vast global banlieue. In 2008 Clay Shirky, a communications professor at New York University, beat me to it, publishing a book called Here Comes Everybody with the intriguing subtitle: ‘The Power of Organizing without Organizations’. I gravitated toward it, in expectation of high-spirited Joycean puns and artistry; but there were none to be had. Here Comes Everybody is an artless book, un-Joycean in its lack of existential depth. Yet perhaps lack of content is the point, in Shirky’s account of the new forms of sociability engendered by a digital age; a world where everybody is getting together on Facebook and Twitter.

Here Comes Everybody quickly became a best-selling bible for the new social media movement, with a thesis that could apply as much to the corporate sector as to grassroots activism. In this latter respect, it was not far removed from John Holloway’s ‘change the world without taking power’—organize without organizations. Shirky’s appeal was his inclusive ‘everybody’: social media had the power to de-professionalize select sectors, like journalism, and create collaborative work for ‘ordinary’ non-specialist people. Groups could now operate ‘with a birthday party’s informality and a multi-national’s scope’.footnote2 This line came under attack from Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker, who argued that online activism inspired only ‘weak-tie’ radicalism. It could not provide what social change really needs: people risking life and limb, as in the 1960s sit-ins that kick-started the black civil-rights movement. What mattered was the physicality of bodies being present in space; the ‘strong-tie’ connections that bonded people to a cause and to each other: ‘The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all. Twitter is a way of following people you may have never met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances.’ They had their advantages, but ‘weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism’—‘we’re a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.’footnote3

Arguably Shirky and Gladwell are both right and both wrong; each thesis is insufficient in itself. Is it not possible to conceive of activism today as at once weak-tie and high-risk, both online and offline at the same time? And if so, would the ‘strong-tie’ space in which an offline ‘Here Comes Everybody’ expresses itself necessarily be urban? In the 1960s, when the majority of people on Earth were still rural dwellers, the ‘right to the city’ was theorized as a radical ‘cry and demand’ by the French urbanist and philosopher, Henri Lefebvre. Fifty years on, now that Lefebvre’s urban revolution has largely consummated itself, how does the ‘right to the city’ fare? For Lefebvre, the political utility of a concept did not lie in its tallying with reality, but in enabling us to glimpse a ‘virtual reality’, as he often called it; one that is waiting to be born. In one of his final texts, he lamented the end of the traditional city: nobody today could write as gaily and lyrically about city life as Apollinaire had once written about Paris. The more the city had grown and spread its tentacles, the more degraded had social relations become. For Lefebvre, the ‘menace’ was that this amorphous monster would become a planetary metamorphosis, totally out of control.footnote4

As hitherto rural worlds had been urbanized, traditional forms of work—secure, decent-paying jobs—seemed to melt into air. Once, people had migrated to the city looking for steady factory jobs; but those industries had gone belly-up or cleared out to somewhere cheaper; cities had lost their manufacturing bases, their ‘popular’ productive centres. Millions of peasants and smallholders, thrown off their land by agribusiness or the dynamics of the world market, came to an alien habitat that was now neither meaningfully urban nor rural; the result of a vicious process of dispossession, sucking people into the city while spitting others out of the gentrifying centre, forcing poor urban old-timers and vulnerable newcomers onto an expanding periphery. The outcome as Lefebvre described it was a paradoxical dialectic, in which ‘centres and peripheries oppose one another’. But the demarcation between these two worlds was not defined by any simple urban-rural or North–South divide. Centres and peripheries were immanent within the ‘secondary circuits’ of capital itself. If ground rents and property prices offered better rates of return than other industrial sectors, capital—spearheaded by banks, financial institutions, big property companies and realtors—would slosh into portfolios of property speculation. Profitable locations would be deluged, as secondary-circuit flows became torrential, while other zones would be desiccated through disinvestment. The centre thus created its own periphery, the two existing side-by-side, cordoned off from one other, everywhere.

The giant industrial city that Friedrich Engels had documented was being destroyed by its own progeny. Industrialization had bequeathed something new: planetary urbanization. Rural regions had become absorbed into post-industrial production and financial speculation, swallowed up by an ‘urban fabric’, ceaselessly corroding the residue of agrarian life. At the same time, the notion of citizen and that of city-dweller had been wrenched apart. Cities’ inhabitants now experienced a tragic form of proximity without sociability. Lefebvre’s tonality throughout the essay is Céline-like in its journey to the end of the night; yet he could not resist a few Whitmanesque flourishes, throwing out one final thought about what a new democratic vista might look like. The ‘right to the city’, he concluded, now implied ‘nothing less than a new revolutionary conception of citizenship’, in which city-dweller and citizen would somehow embrace one another again.

But, as ever with Lefebvre, the proposition raised as many questions as it answered. Right to what city? If urbanization is planetary, if the urban—or urban society—is everywhere, does this mean the right to the metropolitan region, the whole urban agglomeration, or just the right to the city’s downtown? And if power is now global, does that not render Lefebvre’s singular demand hopelessly archaic? Does it still make sense to talk about right to the city, as if this was something mono-centric and clear-cut? Moreover, is there any political purchase in defining citizenship through something ‘urban’, when urban territoriality itself has become so formless, so global in its reach? At the same time, never before has the urban process been so bound up with finance capital and with the caprices of the world’s financial markets. The crucial term here is David Harvey’s ‘accumulation by dispossession’, mobilizing Marx’s theory of ‘primitive accumulation’ in a 21st-century neoliberal context. In Capital, Marx described primitive accumulation as the process of ‘divorcing the producer from the means of production’—‘when great masses of men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled onto the labour-market as free, unprotected and rightless proletarians. The expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, from the soil is the basis of the whole process.’footnote5