The Forced Idea of Freedom

Many a times a city is described as multiple cities or multiple layered cities. In either of the cases, we see the urbanist as the one who imagines & theorises on what the city is!

 From an anthropologist’s point of view, we all would agree that the way each of us perceive and understand urban is very different. ‘View from the Road’, ‘Serial Vision’ or ‘Soft City’ – there is a lot of work, on how we can understand and theorise the city. The case with urban dwellers who are not urbanists or urban enthusiasts is very different though. Here for the sake of simplicity and because of my limited understanding, will concentrate only on urban poor. Also because bottom-up or grass-root inititiatives, are usually read in the context of urban poor.

 From the heights of atrocities’ during the emergency to the post-liberal ‘projects’ of the world class city, nothing much has changed other than the cosmetic rhetoric as far  as initiatives with the urban poor are concerned. The ‘IDEA of URBAN’ as conceptualised by the bourgeois urbanist is still what forms the core of urban initiatives.

 We are at an era when first time in the history, majority of our species are living in urban areas. Also a big chunk is in slums. Out of the 3.6 billion city dwellers, 1 billion is living in slums (Slum = UN definition; Figures = 2010 UNHABITAT data). This massive informal growth is happening in developing countries like India. As Mike Davis puts it in his book ‘Planet of Slums’ – “95% of final buildout of humanity will occur in urban areas of developing countries, where population will double to nearly 4 billion over the next generation.”

 So, massive urbanization is happening with an unprecedented informal splurge. This ought to be the interest area for many urbanists. Rightly so, as long as we stop claiming the right to be doing the right thing!

 I would like to begin with an example which juxtaposes two situations. Situation 1 is old-school authoritative[1] approach where slums are demolished to make way for something which the urbanist thinks is necessary.  Situation 2 is the new-age tolerant post-modern[1] grass-root initiatives, where community participation is sought.

 Both situations are for an imaginary condition where a green lung needs to be developed for a given slum.

Category Situation 1 Situation 2
Agent Authoritative State Tolerant post-modern grass-root agency
Project Create open space in the slum
Approach Demolish few houses by force and plonk the open space. Consult the community and then help find a place where few houses could be demolished with consensus for the placement of open space.
Result Community unrest, which may result in legal/political hurdles for the project Longer process but the community takes ownership


Now from the above example I would like to point out that, both the approaches, which are prevalent in our cities today, aims to fulfil the core goal of creating open space.

 In the authoritative state approach, the community feels threatened and resists; there is no option for them but to accept the project.

 In the tolerant post-modern grass-root approach, the same thing is done in a manner by which the community FALSELY feels that they have taken the decision.

 We need not discuss the authoritative state approach as majority of us do believe that it is not right. Even though it is interesting to note that in the top-down authoritative state scenario the people at least have the option to resist.

In the grass-root scenario, the idea of an urbanist, which is to have an open space is ideologically imposed on the people. The citizens are made to believe that this idea of open space (which actually is a top-down approach) is generated by the masses, thereby hegemony of the thinking process itself.

Public participation as bottom-up approach in this scenario becomes false self-righteous claims to implement egoistic ‘Ideas-of-the-Urban’ by an urbanist. Thus the grass-root approach is as top-down as any of the hitherto top-down project.

Another example is from the book ‘Handmade Urbanism- From community initiatives to Participatory Models’, where 5 cities are presented for community initiatives. All these projects claims to be bottom-up; ‘the new age mantra!’ If one studies the projects showcased in the book (or elsewhere), the projects could easily be conceptualised by the normal process of board-room architecture. Only difference is that these projects are implemented in such a manner that the communities take ownership of it.

Thus the grass-root/bottom-up initiatives have become ideological apparatus of the egoistic urbanist to impose and profess the idea-of-urban as understood by him/her. This is precisely how a MNC sells its products to us.  Here the urbanist takes the classic role of a God, where he/she dictates how people should live and manipulates the process for people to accept and believe these ideas to be their own.

I would like to give another example to clarify this point. I feel that I am a fairly clean person with good levels of hygiene. But if a white American[2] comes and stays with me and lives/eats like me, then he/she will fall sick (most probably). The American will definitely put the blame on my unhygienic food and life style. Now let’s take another parallel situation where a slum dweller drinks tap water without boiling and usually don’t get sick. While on the other hand when I drink that water then I get sick. So now the question is ‘am I less hygienic or my immunity system is too weak?’ or when I impose my bourgeois idea of fixing (say) a RO[3] system in the given slum, am I imparting hygiene or reducing immunity?

Whatever the answer be, but clearly I am imparting my ‘idea’ of a healthy living on a slum dweller. This is precisely how hegemony of the ‘idea-of-urban’ is implanted by the bourgeoisie ideological apparatus of bottom-up/grass-root organization. This leads to what Žižek calls “the forced choice of freedom”


Žižek explains this in ‘the sublime object of ideology’ with this example –

“…a Yugoslav student was called to regular military service. In Yugoslavia, at the beginning of military service, there is a certain ritual: every new soldier must solemnly swear that he is willing to serve his country and to defend it even if it means losing his life, and so on—the usual patriotic stuff. After the public ceremony, everybody must sign the solemn document. The young soldier simply refused to sign, saying that an oath depends upon free choice, that it is a matter of free decision, and he, from his free choice, did not want to give his signature to the oath. But, he was quick to add, if any of the officers present was prepared to give him a formal order to sign the oath, he would of course be prepared to do so. The perplexed officers explained to him that because the oath depended upon his free decision (an oath obtained by force is valueless), they could not give him such an order, but that, on the other hand, if he still refused to give his signature, he would be prosecuted for refusing to do his duty and condemned to prison. Needless to add, this is exactly what happened; but before going to prison, the student did succeed in obtaining from the military court of law the paradoxical decision, a formal document ordering him to sign a free oath…

In the subject’s relationship to the community to which he belongs, there is always such a paradoxical point of choix forcé—at this point, the community is saying to the subject: you have freedom to choose, but on condition that you choose the right thing; you have, for example, the freedom to choose to sign or not to sign the oath, on condition that you choose rightly—that is, to sign it. If you make the wrong choice, you lose freedom of choice itself. And it is by no means accidental that this paradox arises at the level of the subject’s relationship to the community to which he belongs: the situation of the forced choice consists in the fact that the subject must freely choose the community to which he belongs, independent of his choice—he must choose what is already given to him.”



[1] As theorized by Žižek 

[2] This is just for the sake of an example. Racial stereotyping is just my weakness so just ignore 😉

[3] Am clearly not discussing the relevance of RO System here.


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