Keeping it Real in the ‘Fictitious Capital’

By Andrew Calcutt | 9 October 2012

Foolish to judge a whole book on this basis alone; but if the design on the front doesn’t give you the gist of what’s between the covers, its editors should be shot. The front cover of a new book London After Recession depicts the eponymous city as a ‘fictitious capital’,
existing in a think-bubble dreamed up by a bowler-hatted gent of possibly Asian extraction. Of course the subtitle ‘a fictitious capital?’ is a play on both Marx’s term for speculative profiteering and the air of unreality which London life seems to have acquired in recent decades (as if London, like Jean Baudrillard’s infamous Gulf War, is a city which doesn’t take place). But is this also to suggest that London today is only a figment of the bourgeois imagination – a spuriously fictional counterpart to the plain fact of capitalist production in its long march East? If so, the tangible, incontrovertible reality of London’s recent Olympiad, would seem to have rendered this book out-of-date even before it left the publisher’s warehouse.

Thankfully, the book’s editors (and I’m one of them) are not proposing such a crude counterposition between illusion and economic reality. Instead, its thesis is that finance – the institutionalised form of speculation, really has become London’s way of life; but that this way of life is simultaneously estranged from the world of capitalist production, while also remaining intimately connected to it.

More than any other city, London is now a financial-cultural complex in which financial services operate as a discourse of signs, i.e. a culture, while London’s world famous ‘re-mix culture’ has adopted the circuitous movement characteristic of financial services. Everybody’s doing a version of the M25. As finance is required to keep money moving around the world, so pop culture from the past 50 years must be continuously recycled: it all adds up to a permanent parade of derivatives – cultural as well as financial.

So is London peculiar? As editors, we commissioned various authors to specify the mediating role which the metropolis currently performs, and to lift the fog surrounding it. While the City is mediator between stops along (financial) capital’s upward curve, so the rest of London performs a corresponding cultural role, proffering packets of meaning which allow otherwise-isolated individuals to stay connected with the wider world. On both counts, the economic and the socio-cultural, London is the middle-man which the rest of the world looks to in order to maintain its connections. Moreover, in its dedication to this mediating role – performing it to the detriment of earlier roles, e.g. administrative head and governing body of a manufacturing nation, and to the virtual exclusion of almost any other function – London does seem to be exceptional. Contributing authors based in New York and Shanghai show how London’s one-sidedness is peculiarly pronounced. Yet even now it remains one side of a greater whole. This summer, the Olympic and Paralympic Games proved that London is not, after all, playing a whole new ball game.

In the run-up to the Opening Ceremony it sometimes looked as if London’s characteristically unfinished processes – a modus vivendi in which everything is provisional and hardly anything is ever finalised, might come into conflict with the absolute deadline for beginning the Games. The fiasco over security was a case in point. If London had become an entirely different social formation, this sort of peculiarity would surely have become paramount. In the event, however, London stayed on track with the Games, just as it remains connected to the world of production; indeed London itself is the essential means – one of them, at least – by which production becomes a world of connections. Thus London’s Games were different from Beijing’s – the latter having been a showcase for the new industrial superpower; yet not so different that the rest of the world, and Londoners themselves, failed to relate to the sporting excellence displayed in London, and its ability to represent the best of all humanity.

It turned out that London 2012 was a success of its own kind, in keeping with the kind of city which hosted it: different from other cities, estranged from the way it used to be; but still connected to both.

London After Recession: a fictitious capital? accounts for London as a city of paradox. It is available from Amazon UK 

Andrew Calcutt is co-director of the London East Research Institute and Principal Lecturer in Journalism at the University of East London.


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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