matteo pasquinelli

The Sabotage of Rent

There is a red line connecting the art colonization of urban spaces, the mode of production specific to knowledge society, and the financial tricks of speculative capitalism. Matteo Pasquinelli on the three dyads: art and metropolis, art and mode of production and art and financial crisis.


Coming of age in the heyday of punk, it was clear we were living at the end of something—of modernism, of the American dream, of the industrial economy, of a certain kind of urbanism. The evidence was all around us in the ruins of the cities. […] Urban ruins were the emblematic places for this era, the places that gave punk part of its aesthetic, and like most aesthetics this one contained an ethic, a world-view with a mandate on how to act, how to live. […]

A city is built to resemble a conscious mind, a network that can calculate, administrate, manufacture. Ruins become the unconscious of a city, its memory, unknown, darkness, lost lands, and in this truly bring it to life. […] An urban ruin is a place that has fallen outside the economic life of the city, and it is in some way an ideal home for the art that also falls outside the ordinary production and consumption of the city.

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Welcoming the Ruins of a Knowledge Society

Rebecca Solnit’s words resound today like an enduring lament out of time, not because punk is gone for good with all its vinyl memories and suburban ruins—no! Punk and, more generally, art are very alive today, though in their petit bourgeois caricature they have turned into the current mode of production. It is untimely to romanticize punk and underground art as the drive toward a space “outside the economic life of the city.” Quite the opposite: growing on the ruins of the Fordist regime, they anticipated from within the spectacular, biopolitical, cognitive turn of today’s economy. Punk accelerated the tendency of cognitive capitalism like an ischemic spasm.

Indeed, faster than any other form of art, music incarnates the unconscious of technology and dominant means of production, and in particular their crises, the shift from paradigm to paradigm. Repeating the history of experimental music is a useful exercise of political economy. Whereas Futurism, for example, welcomed the age of machines for the masses, punk and postindustrial music, in contrast, paid tribute to the disintegration of Fordism. Beyond the surface of their industrial fetish, Throbbing Gristle, the most experimental and filthy of UK punk bands, declared as early as 1976 their drive for “information war,”1 while in Germany computer-made music was already becoming popular, influenced by Kraftwerk (literally, “power station”). In the late ’80s, techno music appeared in Detroit: the traditional soundtrack of Motor City started to incorporate the synthetic presentiment of coming digital machines. The term “techno” was in fact inspired by Juan Atkins’s reading of Alvin Toffler’s book The Third Wave, in which the first “techno-rebels” were described as the pioneers of information age.2 These few examples show how art avant-gardes look against, precisely because they grow within the ontology of the present, and never outside. Punk music started to play information, right when information started to become value. It is in the same years, coincidently, that Paolo Virno marks the rise of post-Fordism and the subject of the multitude in Italy, “with the social unrest which is generally remembered as the movement of 1977”, which was centred around the rise of the so-called “Creative Autonomy” in Bologna.3

Today, we find ourselves at the very end of the parable of the information age: we are witness to the sunset of the political paradigm of knowledge society, the policies of cultural industries, and the easy dreams of “creative cities.” In 2012, the financial crisis had become a global hurricane hitting all the cities in Europe, the destruction of which included arts funding. These are the very ruins of post-Fordism on which the art world is called to work and which a contemporary punk wave would be asked to “occupy.” Here, the old political coordinates and artistic concepts no longer function. Indeed, the nostalgic notion of underground belongs to the age of industrialism—when society had a sharp class division and was not yet atomized into a multitude of precarious workers and freelancers.4 What, then, is the form of resistance specific to the current age of financial capitalism?

If punk and the political movements of 1977 anticipated cognitive capitalism, where is today’s movement that crosses the very crisis of cognitive capitalism and projects itself beyond the financial crisis? In which innervations can new artistic and political avant-gardes be found at work? In this text, I will sound the “ruins” that a knowledge society and financial capitalism are leaving behind. Not surprisingly, the economy of ruins—inaugurated by punk—will be found introjected within the general gears of cognitive capitalism, and exploited by a general process of financial speculation.

1
The Invisible Skyline of the Postindustrial Metropolis

There is a red line connecting the art colonization of urban spaces, the mode of production specific to knowledge society, and the financial tricks of speculative capitalism. This text tries to connect these three interactions experimentally: art and metropolis, art and mode of production, art and financial crisis.

The relation between the spaces of the metropolis and artistic and cultural production is today an obvious one. The city of Berlin could be taken as the most notorious example within Europe. Especially in East Berlin: the art colonization of urban and industrial relics of Fordism is still an ongoing affair—not only the vestiges of previous totalitarian regimes, but also the stratification of failed urban plans form the geology and humus of the cultural world. This stratification includes a thick immaterial layer of cultural and symbolic capital, which has catalysed the “creative city” buzz and well-known processes of gentrification. There is an immaterial architecture that was fed unconsciously by Berlin’s art world and underground subcultures until a few years ago. Today, this mechanism is debated politically and within local media, and is openly recognized by inhabitants of certain districts undergoing heavy gentrification (such as Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg, and Neukölln). The capitalism of speculative rent, which started with the first pension funds on the New York stock market at the end of the ’70s, had to intervene in rent prices of Berlin to be finally understood and discussed in plain words by the art scene. It is common sense nowadays to recognize that the art underground has become one of the main engines of real estate business, as our lives have been completely incorporated within biopolitical production (that is, the whole of our social life being put to work to produce value).

The relation between cultural production and real estate speculation was less obvious when the discourse on creative economy was booming. Time has passed, and the literature that pushed the hype of “creative cities” (such as Richard Florida),5 or denounced their hidden neoliberal agendas and social costs, has become extensive. Usually both radical critics and liberal partisans of “creative economies” were used to employ a symmetrical paradigm, where material and immaterial domains were defended in their autonomy and hegemony against each other. Therefore, the metropolis was described in terms of urbanism or symbolic capital, material economy or the supposedly virtuous economy of creativity. Opposing this, a new link between material and immaterial domains became manifest in the processes of gentrification. The processes of gentrification show new forms of conflicts, frictions, and value asymmetries that can no longer be described with the grammar of the industrial political economy, and not even with the cheap political economy of the supporters of the new creative commons.

2
The Artistic Mode of Production and the New Topology of Rent

The paradigm shift from Fordism to post-Fordism has been described by Carlo Vercellone as the passage from the regime of profit to the regime of economic rent.6 He penned a slogan: “Rent is the new profit.” Indeed, economic rent is the only model to describe the form of valorisation behind gentrification, as real estate business exploits the common resources of land and cultural capital without producing anything in exchange—this is the typical position of a rentier. Economic rent is the paradigm of the so-called FIRE economy (Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate), not to mention the global oligarchies of oil and natural resources. However, dynamic forms of economic rent can also be defined as the monopolies over software patents, communication protocols, and network infrastructures, as they exploit a dominant position (Microsoft’s operative system, Google’s datacenters, and Facebook’s social network are examples from the digital sphere). If profits and wages were the main vectors of capitalist accumulation under industrialism, monopoly rent and expropriation of the common appear to be the business models specific to the age of cognitive capitalism.7 But once again, it is only thanks to the more recent phenomena of gentrification that this link between speculative rent and immaterial production became materially clearer.

In his seminal book The New Urban Frontier, Neil Smith introduced gentrification as the new fault line between social classes within the contemporary metropolis.8 In his model, the gentrification of New York City is described through the notion of a rent gap: the circulation of a differential of ground value across the city triggers gentrification when such a value gap is profitable enough in a specific area.9 David Harvey further expanded such a theory of rent to include the collective production of culture as an asset that the market exploits to find new “marks of distinction” for its urban territories. In his essay about the gentrification of Barcelona, “The Art of Rent,” Harvey introduces the notion of collective symbolic capital: real estate business works by exploiting old and new cultural capital, which has gradually sedimented in a given city (as forms of sociality, quality of life, art production, gastronomic tradition, and so on).10 Harvey’s essay is one of the few analyses which unveils the political asymmetries that can be found within the much-celebrated cultural commons. Harvey links intangible production and money accumulation not via the regime of intellectual property but along a parasitic exploitation of the immaterial domain by the material one. Collective symbolic capital is but another name for the expropriation of the common—a form of exploitation that in these cases completely skips the regime of intellectual property and its battles.

The notion of collective symbolic capital is crucial to reveal the intimate link between cultural production and less obvious parasitic economies. Collective symbolic capital can be accumulated in different ways: in a traditional way, by exploiting the historical and social memory of a given locale, like in the case of Barcelona covered by Harvey; in a contemporary way, by exploiting new urban subcultures and art scenes, like in the case of Berlin; or, in an artificial way, by engineering a city marketing campaign, like in the case of Amsterdam and its new brand “I-am-sterdam”. Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan explained similar techniques of urban regeneration in their essay “The Fine Art of Gentrification,” which described the renovation of the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early ’80s, where artistic development was fundamental in attracting business developers.11 It was Sharon Zukin who, in 1982, named this specific artistic mode of production, and connected it directly to the financial sphere: “By an adroit manipulation of urban forms, the AMP [Artistic Mode of Production] transfers urban space from the “old” world of industry to the “new” world of finance, or from the realm of productive economy to that of non-productive economic activity.”12

Today, the “AMP” has become an extended immaterial factory. The trick is now very well known, and the real estate business has established a perverse machinery in an explicit alliance with the art world. For decades it was known that counterculture fed culture industries with fresh ideas, now, for the first time, the current generation of artists have to face the immediate ambivalence of their symbolic labour or biopolitical production. The ambivalence of contemporary art and culture toward these forms of speculation is never discussed properly because of silent opportunism—but also because of a lack of a new political grammar.

The concept of AMP should be further articulated and opposed to neoliberal notions such creative industries and creative cities.13 In this sense, a new conceptualization of the “culture factory” should include those forms of antagonism and crisis that other models overlook. The old idea of subculture, for instance, was developed within early Cultural Studies as a conflictive alternative to the paradigm of dominant culture. Postmodernism then intervened to destroy the reassuring dialectics between highbrow and lowbrow culture, but failed at developing a new value theory. Contrary to the most recent interpretation of the free culture movement by apostles like Lawrence Lessig and Yochai Benkler, the commons of culture are not an independent domain of pure freedom, cooperation, and autonomy, but they are constantly subjected to the force field of capitalism.14>

3
The Sabotage of Debt

Financial capitalism emerged from the ruins of knowledge society, because the business models of knowledge society reached the limit of accumulation too quickly, and the process of valorisation fatally stopped. Right after the dot-com crash in the United States, investors went desperately back to real estate speculation and the new derivative market was established “artificially” on subprime mortgages. The following subprime bubble then came to affect major national banks, and a private credit crisis turned into a public debt collapse. Two coincidences are found here: the history of financial speculation starts with the first pension funds on the New York Stock Exchange in the late ’70s, in exactly the same city and time of the first case studies of gentrification; today, Berlin, as political capital, is the centre of the new financial governance of Europe (based on the exploitation of national public debts by “virtuous” countries), and it hosts some of the most turbulent debates and cases of gentrification.

A purely imaginary fabrication of value is a key component of both financial games and gentrification processes. Since the “creative destruction” of value characteristic of stock markets has become the political issue of current times, a political re-composition of the cultural commons and artistic agency in this direction is needed too. What might occur if the urban multitudes and the art world enter this valorisation game and recover a common power over the—apparently fragile—chain of value production in which they are completely absorbed? From students in the United States and Canada protesting university debt to the multitude dissenting around the Greek parliament’s austerity measures, the new vector of conflict is debt. As Maurizio Lazzarato put it: “the class struggle is today unfolding and intensifying in Europe around the issue of debt.”15

Stock markets were the first to teach everybody the sabotage of value: no wonder in Berlin and all over Europe urban activism is targeting gentrification with symbolic and less symbolic attacks against the expropriation of that collective symbolic capital described by Harvey. The new regime of economic rent, from digital networks’ monopolies to real estate monopolies, is pushing toward a polarized and neo-feudal society. The new coordinates of the art underground in the age of financial capitalism can then be only found along the new vectors of debt that are growing on the “ruins” of the previous knowledge society. As much as the new political forms surrounding it, the sabotage of debt is the general form of the art of the multitude in late capitalism.


1.V. Vale, Ed., “Throbbing Gristle” Industrial Culture Handbook, RE/Search 6-7, 1983, p.9.

2.Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave. New York: Bantam Books, 1980. “The techno-rebels are, whether they recognize it or not, agents of the Third Wave. They will not vanish but multiply in the years ahead.”

3.Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2004, p.98.

4.See Rosalind Williams, Notes on the Underground: An Essay on Technology, Society, and Imagination. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990.

5.Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class, New York: Basic Books, 2002; and: The Flight of the Creative Class, New York: Harper Collins, 2005.

6.Carlo Vercellone, ed. Tarì M, “La nuova articolazione salario, rendita, profitto nel capitalismo cognitive” Posse: Potere Precario, Rome: Manifestolibri, 2006; trans. Arianna Bove: “The new articulation of wages, rent and profit in cognitive capitalism,” The_new_articulation_of_wagesHall1.pdf.

7.See Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Commonwealth, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2009.

8.Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City, London: Routledge, 1996.

9.Ibid., p67: “The rent gap is the disparity between the potential ground rent level and the actual ground rent capitalized under the present land use. […] Once the rent gap is wide enough, gentrification may be initiated in a given neighbourhood by any of the several different actors in the land and housing market.”

10. David Harvey, “The Art of Rent: Globalisation and the Commodification of Culture,” in Spaces of Capital: Towards a Critical Geography, London: Routledge, 2001.

11. Rosalyn Deutsche, Cara Gendel Ryan, “The Fine Art of Gentrification,” October 31, Winter, 1984.

12. Sharon Zukin, Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982, p178.

13. These two notions have different genealogies: the definition of creative industries was introduced by the UK Government Department for Culture, Media and Sport, with a focus on intellectual property; creative cities is a concept invented by Richard Florida that focuses on cultural capital.

14.See Lawrence Lessig, Free Culture, New York: Penguin Books, 2004; Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.

15. Maurizio Lazzarato, The Making of the Indebted Man, trans. Joshua David Jordan. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e) p7, 2012.


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