Bordiga and the Big City - a critique

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Marin Jensen
Bordiga and the Big City - a critique
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The recent article on "Bordiga and the Big City" is a welcome addition to the "communism" series. It contains much to agree with - but in my view it lets Bordiga off too lightly and lacks critical spirit in engaging with his ideas. A more developed response can be found on LH's web site, here:

Comments from anybody interested would be welcome, as ever

deepening our understanding of cities in decadence

Like MJ I found much to agree with in “Bordiga and the Big City”. It is a very dense article, rich in ideas which could easily provide the basis for ten threads, and Link has already taken up the whole question of immediate steps to be taken in a future proletarian revolution both here and on the CWO forum.

CDW in the article clearly deals with the fact that aspects of Bordiga’s politics are deeply problematic and to what extent these undermine or invalidate his writings on the subject of cities is a question for debate here which comrades will have to decide themselves based on Marin Jensen’s critique.

(It’s also worth noting in passing that Bordiga has become a figure of some interest not only to the Communist left but also circles of the Sanders- and Corbyn-supporting left, for reasons which would make an interesting discussion thread in themselves…)

The author of “Bordiga and the Big City” announces a new “volume” of the (long running!) communism series, specifically aimed at looking at the possibilities and problems of the proletarian revolution in the phase of capitalist decomposition. There has been some discussion on this forum of issues and problems with the ICC’s analysis of decomposition which I have argued can only be clarified by deepening our understanding of decadence, and particularly by understanding the roots of capital’s historic crisis at the economic level. With this in mind I just want to pursue one point made in the article in a bit more depth.

The article powerfully describes the dialectical development of the city in capitalism and in its epoch of decay, and the acceleration of development over the last few decades fuelled by the rise of China and the East Asian economies, epitomised by the growth of megacities in which “millions are herded together in the vast slums that surround the cities of the “global south” (and again, also in parts of the “global north”).”

I think this raises the question of the growth of surplus populations.

Capital by its very nature tends to create a surplus population, ie. surplus to the requirements of it own mode of production. After all, the very first act in capital’s birth was the dispossession of the peasantry:

this new class of landless labourers, excluded from the ownership of their land and able to subsist only by the sale of their labour power, could not possibly be absorbed by existing capitalist production. Thousands robbed of their mode of life were turned out onto the road, forced to migrate to the expanding towns and cities where growing populations meant that labour was cheap and wages low.


By 1642 London was the largest city in Western Europe. This was despite the fact that the death rate was higher than the birth rate; in other words its growth as a metropolis was only possible because it acted like a demographic drain, sucking in thousands of newly created proletarians from the rest of Britain and Ireland, who died in their droves. This hints at the agony hidden behind the phenomenon of ‘the expansion of the towns and cities'.” (Lessons of the English Revolution)

Of course there are counter-tendencies to the creation of a surplus population. Even In decadence, the post-war boom for example led to the widespread integration of agricultural workers into industrial production in Western Europe. But this was followed by a decline in industrial employment since the 1970s, accompanied by the rise of the numbers of both low-paid service-workers and slum-dwellers. To jump forward to the period of the last 40 years or so it appears that, despite the rise of China and the East Asian economies, globally the process of ‘de-industrialisation’ has led to a decline in the numbers of workers in industry relative to global population, resulting not only in a rise of low-waged service industries in the more advanced capitalist economies but also the explosive growth of slum-dwellers and informal workers in the ‘third world’, accelerated by the exit from the countryside.

There is a very interesting discussion of this whole phenomenon in Endnotes 2, although the figures are disputed; in their polemic against “communisation theory” the CWO point to evidence that the global working class has grown in size, although the same official sources appear to show that as a proportion of total world population it is declining.

The history of capitalist decadence is thus one of the inexorable growth of surplus populations, driven by the increasingly catastrophic blind motive of capital to accumulate in its epoch of obsolescence and decay, that contributes to the phenomenon of megacities in which “millions are herded together in the vast slums that surround the cities of the “global south” (and again, also in parts of the “global north”).”

And this of course is only one part of the picture:

for a huge chunk of the world's population it has become impossible to deny the abundant evidence of the catastrophe. Any question of the absorption of this surplus humanity has been put to rest. It exists now only to be managed: segregated into prisons, marginalised in ghettos and camps, disciplined by the police, and annihilated by war.” (“Misery and Debt”, Endnotes 2)