By Dr Mark Featherstone
Following a presentation on urban utopianism and dystopianism in Beijing last night, I was surprised to find myself in an indie bar playing late 1970s-early 1980s British punk-new wave music. The surreal effect of listening to music by The Undertones, Buzzcocks, and Vapours that I grew up with in late 1970s Hull in the middle of Beijing was cemented when The Specials’ anthem to Thatcherite urban decay, Ghost Town, began to play. Visiting the bar, I was even more surprised to see the video for the record running on a large screen on the wall, and I could not help but remember seeing images of Terry Hall et al packed into a car for the first time on TV in 1981. While many of the other records I heard last night reminded me of growing up in the 1980s, what was different about Ghost Town was that it said everything to me about my experience of the social condition of Hull and the decay and decline of the city in a kind of urban gothic that I found simultaneously depressing and frightening, but also exciting because of the sense of possibility I found in the ruins of a society slipping away into history.
Ghost Town is thirty years old this year, having been released in 1981, the year of widespread riots across the UK, but I cannot help but feel that is has renewed relevance to British society today. The destruction of industrial Britain which took place under the Thatcher governments in the 1980s and produced the kind of urban gothic so brilliantly captured by The Specials is today being repeated at a more advanced level by the coalition government which is similarly in the process of wasting large parts of the country which are heavily reliant on the public sector for employment. It is ironic that I heard Ghost Town for the first time in many years in Beijing because the Chinese capital would initially appear to be about as far away from a ghost town as it is possible to imagine. Contrary to English cities such as Hull and Stoke-on-Trent, which are haunted by ghosts that have never been laid to rest, Beijing recalls the sci-fi urban imaginary from Blade Runner, and seems completely devoid of history. Whereas it would seem appropriate to understand places such as Hull through Ghost Town, if you need to understand Beijing I would suggest looking to French post-modern theorists, such as Paul Virilio, and other contemporary urban thinkers, such as Mike Davis, for guidance.
However, first impressions are not always correct and there is a sense in which perhaps post-modern Beijing is also haunted by its own particular ghosts and possessed by a kind of melancholia related to the destruction of the old city and gradual decline of traditional life, as documented in classic books such as Beijing Record. Perhaps, then, Beijing is also a kind of post-modern ghost town and in some ways this has been confirmed by my impressions of the place. Apart from my alienation from the architecture of Chinese power, my overwhelming feeling about Beijing is that it represents a hyper-divided society inhabited by a kind of ultra-poor who live in urban villages, strange slum spaces constructed on the basis of some rural imaginary of feudal China, and a post-modern super-rich, who live in upscale apartments in the Central Business District and enjoy wealth and opportunity similar to the super-rich in other global cities, London, New York, and Tokyo.
As a Marxist sociologist, speaking to Chinese academics about urban division has been a strange experience, primarily because the standard western notion that what is required to tame the worst excesses of capitalism is leftism and socialism makes no sense in a society where the Communist party is in league with business and drives the destruction of community. Unfortunately, my response to my Chinese colleagues who have celebrated the freedoms of the west, and talked positively about rightism, is that neo-liberalism with personal freedom is really little better than neo-liberalism with Chinese characteristics because both are essentially anti-democratic and controlled by elite business interests set on the money making policy of creative destruction which produces the kind of ghost towns The Specials sang about in the early 1980s. As you can imagine, the result of my response led us towards a kind of impasse, and we had to try to imagine a new way forward beyond traditional leftism and liberalism, since both of these approaches seem today to be totally under the thumb of business. Although we did not reach any conclusions, beyond ideas about progressive taxation and incorruptible politicians, we agreed that the importance of imagining a new kind of utopian politics today that transcends divisions between left and right, and centrally is willing and able to control business.
If my work in Beijing has taught me anything, apart from the fact that the Chinese have good taste in late 1970s-early 1980s punk / new wave music, it is that the task of contemporary sociology has to be to find this utopian anti-economic middle way between left and right. Unfortunately, this task may have been made more difficult by the idea of the third way, which was essentially neo-liberalism with a human face, but I think that the size of the challenge means that we must try to rethink solutions of social inequality on a macro scale which does not involve becoming servants of a state which has already made all of the important political decisions and simply wants sociologists to produce raw data. If we are not willing do this I think we can forget about resolving the problems of the ghost town and should instead simply accept the teenage kicks of the consumer society, when and where we can get them.