Cities, (im)mobilities and the politics of visibility

Capitalism - it's not you

I wrote this for
Subversive Technologies, the 2011 “digital event” hosted by e-fagia.  Consisting of an online exhibition of Internet art and art projects relating to technology, a gallery exhibition of video and electronic art, and online publications of curatorial statements and articles, Subversive Technologies investigates how artists respond to communication technology as one of the major sources of power in contemporary societies. Comments welcome…

 

With the globalization of capitalism has come the generalization of capitalist values on a world scale. Efficiency, privatization, and above all, profit have become doctrine, promoted and aspired to with something like religious zeal. The foundation of capitalism is freedom, claim its disciples. Freedom, we are told, is both prime mover and product of the new world economic order at the end of history and the end of ideology. Capitalism both relies upon and promotes the free flow of information, goods and services. Money and financial speculation also flow freely, uninhibited by borders, laws or state enforcers. But where where capitalism’s bounty—the booty of resource rich yet politically impoverished countries—transgresses geographical boundaries, experiencing the physical reality of immaterial geo-policial borders, it is a different story for human beings.

The tenets of neoliberal global capitalism in late modernity apply primarily to what Bruno Latour calls “non-human actors”—those essential components of the social network that nevertheless do not eat, breathe or feel, although they may participate in the production and reproduction of social life. The rules for human beings, also essential in the functioning of capitalism, are different. Where global capital and its attendants may—indeed must—circulate freely and with impunity, people are required to stay put. Freedom in capitalism appears as a shibboleth, or at least as something accorded only to things. The immobility of people under the global rule of neoliberalism is as much a foundational component of new world economic order as the hyper-mobility of things. The terror attacks of 9/11 provided both context and justification for the increased securitization of borders, materializing political lines as militarized barriers against “unknowable unknowns.” Physical obstructions—fences, walls and blockades— erupted to entrench and fortify immaterial borders, creating an infrastructure of control. “Technologies of security” reinforced this infrastructure: video cameras, Xray scanners, metal detectors, full body scanners and explosive detection swabs. The all-seeing, all-knowing eye of surveillant technology would overcome the inevitability of human error and keep us all safe.

As borders and fences became increasingly dense and opaque, humans travelling across the geo-political divides they defended became more and more transparent. David Lyon (2009) calls this the “new transparency” whereby the identities of individuals become increasingly visible to state institutions and corporations through a variety of surveillance measures. The new transparency is made possible not only through surveillant technology that exposes even the most private of body parts, but through new regimes of identification. These new ID regimes have intensified requirements, necessitating more and greater proof of identity, with less certainty on the part of the traveler of her mobility. Terrorist watch lists and their by-product, no-fly lists are one example of lessening of mobility due to new regimes of identification. Another example is racial and ethnic profiling at borders, airports and other such security check-points. The increasingly restrictive immigration and refugee policies that limit the flow of people based on country of origin are yet another. So while capital enjoys unfettered circulation as a precondition for its globalization, the movements of human beings are constrained by the “free” market.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the “war on terror’s” discourse of fear supported the growing securitization of the world’s borders, making people more transparent and less mobile on a global scale. But this is not only a global phenomenon; it occurs at a local level in the militarization of the city. Graham (2010) calls it the new military urbanism—the tendency of militaries and law enforcement to view domestic urban terrain as a conflict zone and city-dwellers as targets to be monitored and controlled. This was what residents of Toronto saw happening to their city in the lead up to the 2010 G20 Summit, an economic meeting of the world’s wealthiest nations. Although Canadian law enforcement agencies had been making their preparations for more than a year, the physical reconfiguration of public space began in earnest several weeks before the meeting. Inner and outer security zones were established around the summit site. A 10 metre high metal fence encased in concrete was built, stretching three kilometres and encircling vital parts of Toronto’s financial and transportation hub. This infrastructure of control was enhanced by technologies of security, largely in the form of 71 new post-mounted video surveillance cameras deployed in the downtown core, and complemented by a temporary identification regime, which required employees and residents of the outer zone to obtain special ID cards. Toronto police warned residents to expect traffic delays, and to avoid the inner city, as mobility would be limited. The mayor of Toronto, David Miller, advised people to “avoid downtown” during the G20 weekend, so as to avoid this inconvenience. The message was clear: new, if temporary, borders within the city would obstruct human mobilities.

What people didn’t know was that the securitization of Toronto via infrastructures of control, technologies of security and regimes of identification would devolve into martial law and the de facto suspension of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Infrastructures of control, technologies of security and regimes of identification are inherently social, born of human wants and needs and deployed by socio-political mechanisms. But there is another manifestly social component to the new urban militarism: law enforcement. In the case of the Toronto G20, 20, 000 public police officers and private security guards descended upon the city to complete its fortification. In securing and defending the summit site against possible violence, the coalition police force, led by the Toronto Police Service, conducted illegal detentions, searches and ID requests of protesters and passers-by alike. The effect of this unlawful behaviour by police was the forced transparency or visibility of people who, being deprived of their civil liberties (including the right to anonymity and privacy), were exposed to mistreatment of their person, as well as their personal information (gathered during ID checks and arrests) by police.

Not only did people in Toronto experience limited mobility caused by the physical reconfiguration of the cityscape—fences, roadblocks, traffic, riot police lines—the web of videos surveillance cameras that enmeshed the downtown core arguably reconfigured the city’s psyche. While video surveillance cameras might not deter crime, they may be productive of other effects such as self-censorship or the absence of the expression of freedoms promised by democratic societies. The enactment of war measures legislation, in the form of the Public Works Protection Act, enabled police to further restrict the circulation of people within the city by requiring them (unlawfully as it turned out) to produce their ID upon threat of arrest. People were warned not to go within five metres of the summit fence if they did not want to show their ID to police, although in practice police demanded identification up to five kilometres away. This forced transparency on the part of citizens or civilians occurred at the same time as law enforcement were removing signs of their identity. By adopting the black bloc tactic of invisibility through anonymity, G20 police were empowered to operate outside the law, as ample documentary evidence indicates. Ironically, police stood down and allowed black bloc protestors to roam unrestricted through the financial and entertainment districts engaging in property destruction. It was after the vandalism spree that police mobilized in what appeared as a vendetta, blocking, corralling and terrorizing peaceful, often seated protesters. Police kettled hundreds of protesters in at least three separate events, detaining lawful protesters and non-protesters for hours at a time. Over the course of the weekend, police arrested more than 1100 people (the largest mass arrest in Canadian history), detaining them in a makeshift jail for up to three days. Thus we have the continued reduction of mobility during the G20: the movement of protesters and city-dwellers alike was gradually constricted, shrinking from the downtown core to the individual spaces of protests to highly delimited kettles to jail cells.

On a global level, we see the militarized demarcation of geo-political borders in order to limit transnational mobilities while securing open flows for money and things. At the local level, we see the encroaching militarization of cities as world leaders and their unelected financial captains establish temporary zones of exclusion where they meet to oil the wheels of the capitalist economy. Like intensified ID regimes at national borders and airports, the zones of exclusion that attend global economic summits force a visibility—and hence a vulnerability—on those seeking to move in, around and through them. People become more identifiable, more transparent as the inner-workings and motivations of state institutions grow increasingly opaque. Law enforcement take liberties with our liberty, invoking an anonymity which elsewhere they decry as criminal, in order to criminalize dissent while engaging in criminality themselves. The Toronto G20 is by no means an isolated event. On the anniversary of 9/11 we soberly remember Maher Arar’s extreme rendition, which occurred secretly and illegally under the cover of “war on terror” hysteria, and his year-long imprisonment and torture.

The reduction of liberties is a reduction of mobilities that goes hand in hand with the increased liberty of things and money, essential for the smooth operation of neoliberal capitalism on a world scale. The promise of freedom, then, is a promise held out to largely to non-human actors in an economic system that has few human beneficiaries. Visibility becomes political when identification becomes a means of categorize and therefore constrain, the movements of human actors subject to the dominant and inescapable capitalist world order.

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