On the Political Economy of Urban Form. Collectivize!
Ruby Press, Berlin 2013


The Formation of New Collectives


“Now, in the word ‘collective,’ it is precisely the work of collecting into a whole that I want to stress. The word should remind us of sewage systems where networks of small, medium and large ‘collectors’ make it possible to evacuate waste water as well as to absorb the rain that falls on a large city. This metaphor of the cloaca maxima suits our needs perfectly, along with all the paraphernalia of adduction, sizing, purifying stations, observation points and manholes necessary to its upkeep. The more we associate materialities, institutions, technologies, skills, procedures, and slowdowns with the word ‘collective,’ the better its use will be: the hard labor necessary for the progressive and public composition of the future unity will be all the more visible.”1
Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy


Common interests and collective organizations are back on the political agenda, with nation states crumbling under the weight of debt, welfare states shaving off social security, healthcare, and education programs, and public institutions losing out against private capital. This is particularly felt by those directly affected by government cuts, who are left with no choice but to self-organize for collective action. Whether we turn to popular uprisings against the privatization of water in Bolivia,

There is little doubt that the major problems that we face today—such as climate change, poverty and the effects of the financial crisis—can only be solved collectively. But how are new collectives formed? What kinds of rules, negotiations, and practices help consolidate and facilitate group agendas? How are collectives able to act with a single will when they are composed of so many diverse, and sometimes opposing, interests?

Urban studies would benefit significantly if the analysis of collectives were to shift its focus from the term’s ideological connotations (and the critical question of how it relates to modern democracy) to its operational modes and productive forces. It would then become evident that collective organization forms the foundation of human habitats. Collectives range from the unit of the single household to large-scale organizations that structure our ways of living and our social, economic, and ecological relationships (the Ancient Greek term for the household, the oikos, is preserved in the English prefix for both eco-nomy and eco-logy). The city, even in its most privatized form, always relies on common agreements, infrastructural networks, and public facilities that enable the sharing of resources and common goods, meant to be distributed equally among citizens. Framing the city as the materialized model of a major collective project suggests another way of understanding contemporary collectives, recognizing the “hardware,” the urban form, as an integral component of the “software,” the social order.

With an extended perspective on collective participation, Bruno Latour’s city metaphor, quoted in the epigraph, includes other entities within the grouping of human actors: materials, institutions, technologies, and skills are stakeholders in the formation of collective gatherings. What Latour calls the “parliament of things” challenges common forms of negotiating shared interests; as a flexible framework between human and non-human agents and between stakeholders, procedures, technologies and physical objects, the “parliament of things” constitutes a livelihood that is common to all. According to Latour, collectives have a significant role to play in reassembling a world that has been divided into matters of fact (science) and matters of concern (politics). Beyond simply representing a group’s common will, collectives face the challenge of bringing facts and values together by establishing a new kind of constitution—one that includes all participants in the process and constantly translates their voices into common agreements and new social contracts. By asking two basic questions—“How many are we?” and “Can we live together?”—Latour sketches out a constitutional framework for the formation of new collectives: a framework that gradually institutionalizes and orders the complexity of stakeholder relationships and propositions.3

Latour’s reconceptualization of how collectives are formed gives the built environment a more active role in the construction of the social realm; his work is therefore critical to understanding the relationship between collectivity and urban form. When we recognize buildings, traffic networks, and sewage systems as agents that determine how we can live together, we also frame in fact collectivity as a cross-disciplinary project connecting social studies, political economies, and technological sciences with urban planning.
Urban form affects collective organization in two different ways—as an operational logic for the management of our everyday environment and at the same time as a political body. This relationship is all the more manifest in the erection of new settlements on uninhabited land; the planning and building of new towns is most efficient when their physical structures and social visions correspond. In “The Haunt of the Rural,” Zvi Efrat provides a historical overview of planning in Israel, from Merchavia, the first permanent prototype of a cooperative agrarian settlement, to more recent gated communities that serve as “facts on the ground” for the state’s political and territorial agenda. In order to translate its social vision into practice, early Zionism developed “a new language and with it a new architecture of environmental and social reform.” Its rural location also precluded any reference to earlier urban models. Neither city nor village, the Kibbutz, and the Israeli New Town that was derived from it, represented the “idealized social cell” as well as “allegorized national body.” However, Efrat argues that Zionist planning engaged with more than just the social values of the burgeoning state; it was also developed as part of a national strategy to distribute migrants across the whole territory of Israel. The initial vision of communes and cooperative associations thus transformed into Israel’s contemporary “ludicrous masquerade of an intensified political, ethnic and religious battleground.” Does the evolution of the Kibbutz from its early days as an open and idealized collective to its present state as a secluded, gated, and militarized community reveal the limits, or even the utopian nature, of inclusive collective practices?

The Kibbutz was modeled after the utopian communities of Robert Owen, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Charles Fourier and Edmund Spenser, a group of social reformers who believed that utopian thinking could serve as a driver for social change. Fourier’s Phalenstères, early nineteenth-century apartment complexes designed to house insular progressive communities, provided a model for progressive movements that followed, including the Paris Commune of 1871 and twentieth-century feminism. Similarly, Owen’s unrealized design for New Harmony, Indiana, projected an alternative world and community founded on the ideas of utopian socialism, cooperative movements, and scientific innovation; New Harmony’s goals of alleviating poverty and the overall betterment of society would be accomplished by the design of its physical structures.

Jesse LeCavalier explores in “Mental Liberty: Robert Owen’s Utopian Machine” how Owen’s quest for harmony was realized in a very particular and integrated manner and according to contemporary developments in economics and the social and technical sciences. Owen’s scientific approach to social organization prefigures Latour’s “parliament of things,” whereby collectives are formed by human and non-human actors. The careful arrangement of buildings and the particular relationship between architecture, social organization and infrastructure constituted two key components of New Harmony’s scheme, which used objects, procedures, and scientific knowledge to order social relationships. According to LeCavalier, “the phalanstery can also be understood as an engineering operation in which heterogeneous input would be formed into homogenous output in the form of newly designed moral and mentally liberated individuals”; that is, social engineering and logistical operations would determine the production of collectivity in New Harmony.

The plot of Arno Brandlhuber’s and Christian Posthoften’s photo essay is also based on a collective vision, albeit one complicit in the dystopian totalitarian state of North Korea. The sequence of associative images from the capital Pyonyang depicts the inner logic of the North Korean regime and its symbolic legitimization. Particularly striking in this allusive and intimate foray into a foreign territory is the way in which the state deploys ideological determinism and manipulates the people’s imaginary in order to form a collective. However, the indoctrinatory practices apparent in dictatorships and even religious fundamentalism are also to be found in advanced democracies operating in the neoliberal market system. Different collective beliefs are here similarly conditioned by symbolic manifestations and celebrations and the commodification of power. By introducing the term “orientating imaginations” (Vorstellungsorientierung in German), Brandlhuber and Posthofen describe how architectural form is ideologically infiltrated to shape and enforce a collective identity. Brandlhuber and Posthofen argue that “the historic Prussian castle and the national identity of Germany’s feudal regime.

Collective organizations can be both exclusive and inclusive, because collectivity and identity always form a complex that is responsible for both the spread of ideologies and the negotiation of common interests between multiple entities. If common grounds are today increasingly influenced by the capitalist form of “production in common”—the exploitation of common goods and resources for the interests of private capital—then collective organizations are shaped by the exclusive practices of capitalism, which ultimately erodes any common ground.

In “Plan C and the ‘Explosion’ of the Middle Class,” Massimo De Angelis reflects on the alternatives that are left for social forces to be developed after the financial crisis of 2008 and its devastating impacts. De Angelis identifies four future economic scenarios and focuses on “Plan C&D,” which is based on “commons and democracy.” De Angelis argues that only this alternative can assume the long-term governance of the commons and challenge capitalist “production in common“ or „commoning.“ In pursuing the goals of “social justice, freedom, and emancipation,” “Plan C&D “[organizes] social cooperation around the expansion and integration of alternative modes of social cooperation based on shared resources and their horizontal government by communities.” By turning a noun into a verb, De Angelis frames “commoning” as a major component of an alternative way of distributing common goods; it also helps explain how to problematize new forms of “production in common” based on alternative models of distribution and exchange. As the reproduction of society depends on the middle class, De Angelis proposes a new kind of commoning based on social values other than those dominated by private capital. The term “explosion of the middle class” refers to the huge amount of energy necessary in order to reconstruct common grounds as shared among all social classes and to overturn the prevailing system of value production.If “the explosion of the middle class seems to be our only hope to save ourselves from alienation, poverty and ecological disaster,“ then we must transform ourselves and change how we relate to others and act collectively.

What are the implications of collective organization for planning and construction? Larger urban transformations are inextricably linked to the transformations in our everyday livelihoods; we must therefore pay greater attention to the way in which collectivities are formed on different scales and between different social strata, addressing Latour’s questions how contradictory urban dwellers can live together and how they can produce a world that is common to them. Whether it refers to commoning, social engineering, or creating frameworks for co-production and common resources, to “collectivize” is to continuously establish practices “collecting” different lifestyles, social manifestations and believes in the fact of neo-liberal dogmatism and the individualistic attitudes of busy urbanites.

Instead of confining the verb collectivize to a strict definition, the second edition of The Political Economy of Urban Form series, edited by the ETH Chair of Prof. Marc Angélil, explores different practices, strategies, and ideologies around collective organizations and actions. From fictional utopias to built social laboratories and dystopias, the present issue reflects on urban form as a manifestation of our collective existence and experience.


Introductory text by Rainer Hehl


Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy (London: Harvard University Press, 2004), 59.

Worker-run companies began to proliferate in Argentina after and as a consequence of the national economy’s collapese in 2011. The Open Faculty Program study „Las Empresas Recuperadas en la Argentina, 2010“ points out that a similar phenomenon is occurring in other Latin American countries. Uruguay, 20 in Paraguay and a growing number in Venezuela.

“The distinction between two new assemblies—the first of which will ask, “How many are we?” and the second, “Can we live together?”—will serve political ecology as its Constitution.” Bruno Latour seeks to replace the previous separation between facts and values with a constitutional framework where the collective is given the task of establishing new power relationships. In this process, political ecology, which stands for “the right way to compose a common World,” will bring together the two terms „science” and “politics.” Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy [Is there a page number for the quote above?]

4 While it is increasingly difficult for the European middle class to maintain their status, the middle class in emerging world powers such as China, India and Brazil are “exploding” in a demographic sense. Because of economic growth, millions of the lower classes will be able to access become middle -class status, which will significantly alter significantly consumption patterns and energy use and cause ancreate additional challenges for sustainability goals.