I don’t care, I want my project

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Neo, a vast project to restructure the Heysel plateau, which includes a new area of 72,000 m² of commercial space and 4,000 additional parking spaces, seems to be the solution that elected politicians have found to the new problems that are currently being faced: building more and more places dedicated to commercial exchange and to the car, symbols of progress.

We were present at the « Public meeting on the Neo project(1) « This was the first time that the city of Brussels had organized a conference where, behind the illusion of democratic participation and popular consultation, the backstage show revealed the megalomaniacal whims of a political class deepening its harmful and outdated policies, consensually accepted by all the political parties in power. However, they have to wrap it in « green », « sustainable development », « good governance » and « mobility », the only make-up still capable of distracting from the stinging vision of their complete absurdity.

1. Magical thinking where the uncertain becomes certainty

For a project of this magnitude, the public was few(2): the publicity around the event had been minimal: a notice on the website of the city of Brussels, a kind of obligatory passage that some people would have done well without(3).

In this kind of pharaonic project where many doubts remain for the citizen, it is a question of making the uncertain certain to reassure the doubtful, to ensure popular support and especially never to question the foundations of the program. Thus, when faced with the fear that Neo will see a significant increase in car traffic, Freddy Thielemans will reply:  » there is a loop that is planned, which has been accepted by the STIB, which should close. This is obviously dependent on the region, but as we are very strong in contact with the region, as the STIB told us at the time « this is a project that interests us » (…) So, for me, in my eyes, it is fundamental that the loop is closed, and I will fight to the death so that it is plausible, possible, so that it is closed. Relying on a decision that does not depend on him, the burgomaster makes the unforeseeable happen by the force of his wish, even putting his life on the line to achieve it, if necessary, in an emphatic and affected determination. However, he will not explain why, if he expects an increase in the number of visitors coming by public transport, the project provides for 4000 additional parking spaces. The alderman will add: « What you see as parking capacity is for the public coming from outside Brussels. Everything else will be better off coming by public transport. That’s the bet that’s obviously made, but it’s so well served that objectively (Sic) it would be foolish of them not to do it. Knowing that, honestly, the Heysel site is one of the best served by public transport, already at the moment « .

We know that in a capitalist society, the well understood interest of the individual is not necessarily what guides his behaviors(4) In the case of a person who is not a citizen of a country, the fact that he or she has little to do with « objectivity » and that he or she will often prefer to use his or her car — as the advertising for the car, and the social ideology it represents, « enjoins » him or her to do — than to come by public transport, even if it is « in his or her interest ». It is therefore « a gamble », with no guarantee of realization… but on which we rely to give credibility to a billion euro project.

Throughout the « discussion », it will be the same. The burgomaster and the alderman trying to put the protest to sleep by their only will and certainties… uncertain.

2. Bigger, stronger!

« Brussels, for its future, must develop its international scope. Without international development, its influence is impossible(5) « . A sort of inferiority complex serves as a spur to decision-makers. There is never a reason to evoke a harmonious and non-competitive coexistence, but an ever-greater Other, which we must catch up with to get out of our « smallness »… until the next time.

The Neo project is therefore not « Brussels », an insulting localism for those who dream of grandeur:  » It’s a European project, because a European capital without a major convention center is a capital city. And I want us to be able to rise to the level of what we represent (Sic) (…) I want to go towards a project that is of this order of magnitude, and for this project to happen, we have absolutely extraordinary chances  »

The mayor’s collaborator added:  » The economy of the project is also to have a hall that resembles Paris-Bercy.  » Either we decide that in Brussels, we will always be late, we will always be worse and we are defeatist « .

So we have to stick to the « direction of history », even if we don’t really know where we are going… although some people are beginning to see a piece of the wall. To be late is to refuse what they decide and endorse, i.e. commercial deployment, « international » venues and the increase in the number of cars that goes with them. To be ahead and optimistic is to be greater than the other, to become the new object of comparison that will make us the new model to imitate and exceed: progress has no limits. The « advance » they are trying to create serves as a point of comparison for the delay of others who will themselves take over and become in turn the objective to be surpassed, this is the whole logic of the ideology of development: a never-ending race.

To be effective, therefore, is to take decisions, with identical foundations, and to give them the contours of an unprecedented democratic choice:  » The thing is that at some point in this region, you have to decide from time to time. We can’t say here that it was decided in a hurry, on a whim: there were many meetings (…) we can’t say that it was all of a sudden Freddy who woke up and said to himself and his colleague « Here, I’m going to put a shopping center « of 70000 square meters, for the rest, it can’t be done in 5 minutes « . Playing on a differentiation of the parties in power which nevertheless obey, with some cosmetic differences, the same ideology:  » Here, for a long time, we said « the city and the region, they don’t get along, there are fights, here the city and the region, six different parties, have agreed on a project: to modify the PRAS and to move forward together on a financing « .

It wasn’t done in 5 minutes so, sure! But it followed the process of ratification of choices made by political figures in the service of productivism and growth:  » What will be the growth tomorrow of our Brussels region is a fundamental debate « , always! It will be almost zero!

The best is always defined according to them in the sense of excess and the spectacular, they will not allow those who are used to hearing only political figures and their megaphone that are the media, to think differently, to see something else. They compartmentalize the other possibilities, while cultivating the ambiguity of double talk, in an attempt to give the opposite illusion:  » A great defender of democratic values, Freddy Thielemans’ political fight is in the field of equal opportunities and human solidarity against the mechanical logic of immediate profit. Cultivating a sense of freedom, he believes in the beauty of things in life and dreams for this world of more wisdom(6) « … Really?

3. What is democracy for them and what is the role of the citizen

 » Leave your contact information and we’ll get back to you. Recalling his favorable position, the mayor establishes a relationship of trust among those who worry about the harmful consequences of Neo, while instituting the permanent illusion of the equality of all individuals before political institutions.

Considering the citizen’s vote as a blank check for their capitalist commercial policy, any challenge is now an impertinence. Questioning the room P12(7), a participant questioned the source of this request, noting that the public had not been informed. Thielemans cuts him off:
—  » We are in a representative democracy, I remind you that nicely  » .
— …participant continues,  » You then say, ‘I don’t care, I want this project,’ and I feel like you haven’t asked the public if they want this project and what it should be either. »
—  » Wait, wait, wait, calm down! Firstly, we have a dialogue with the population, and secondly, I remain the mayor with a College and a Communal Council that takes a number of decisions. Those that we consider interesting from an economic point of view, we follow. You can be politically opposed to the project we are working on. This is your right. You are running on October 14(8)I am no longer mayor, you become mayor and you take your responsibilities. That’s democracy!  »
The citizen can therefore discuss more or less superficial aspects (the maintenance or not of a park, the additional metro station, the roads…), there is — and must be — a tacit acceptance of the project’s foundations, which paradoxically this discussion reveals. The question of the interest of the thing itself is completely evacuated and, when it is questioned, the only solution is proposed to us… to run for elections.

They therefore « manage », management being the acceptance in principle of « agreed » orientations (growth, free market, employment, taxation profitable to the richest), which cannot be discussed, as they are like life: indisputable. It takes  » to have a global will on the city, a will of development and a will to make. It is 3000 jobs that are at stake! « (…)  » We still wanted to continue to manage the city (…) The city continues to live, we must continue to manage and that’s what we do.

The political figures do not wait for the approval of the audience, feeling totally free just because they are elected, they fulfill their role in a democratic show aimed at giving the illusion that decisions are made with the people. At the same time, they continue their « enlightened management ».

4. The desire detached from reality

All this implies a complete decontextualization of the project, symbol of a form of omnipotence that seems to pay little attention to the Other. The two other mega shopping center projects on the table: Just Under The Sky (55,000 m² of retail space along the canal in Brussels) and Uplace (53,000 m² in Machelen) do not call into question the Neo adventure, the only answer to this inconsistency being :
— Thielemans:  » First of all, I think that if you want to live in Flanders, you go to Flanders, if you want to shop in Uplace, you go to Uplace . The artificial border between two regions — Brussels and Flanders — is like a hermetic barrier that leads to a complete ignorance of what is being done on the other side and to the rejection of any policy of coordination, the consumerist desire being supreme. The border serves the competition.

And if they do not ignore this spatial proximity, it is to better use it and show their comparative advantages:  » If you look at a map and simply compare the situation of Uplace and Neo, you will discover that we have three metro stations, we have streetcars, we have buses, we have De Lijn, we have parking C, and therefore we are in the conditions « … ‑Participant:  » I heard that the two were incompatible .
‑Thielemans:  » I don’t know, I don’t care, I want my project. [the lady continues to speak without being listened to, Thielemans continues] I don’t care, I want my project « …
Discounting the success of their project on the failure of others — with others doing the same — they think they are the big winners of the race… and that is enough:
‑Close:  » Let’s be very clear, the Loch Ness monster that they say « There are going to be two malls, it’s not true. Of course there will only be one, and we think it will be ours « .

What we will retain from this meeting and whose highlighted aspects characterize a form of the political language, it is this « enlightened conservatism » of the political character who, « concluding from the necessary evolution to the necessity of the evolution, contributes to make happen a necessary one which is realized only if we contribute to it » (…) « . Accepting all the virtualities inscribed in reality, it proclaims inevitable the evils that inevitably produce the evolution that it encourages(9) « . In other words, they make possible what they present as inescapable, and which, if they did not strive to make it happen, would immediately become a possibility of evolution among others, opening the door to so many other possibilities.

Thus, their choices are not about major economic change — that is, an economy subordinated to human welfare. On the contrary, they expect the same economy and its identical productions to bring about change: « When centers like this are built, there is a 20% increase in the use of public transportation. So I think that this is really something that we should be able to offer to citizens so that they can actually change their habits. In a fantastically exemplary demonstration of the insoluble contradiction, they expect the policy measures they advocate to have effects contrary to the policy measures advocated. For them, it is the shopping mall and the additional parking lots that generate the growth in public transport use; it is therefore, ultimately, from these that the « sought-after » progress and « changes in habits » would stem:  » So I’m sure that all the projects, all the studies we’ve asked for, show that we’re moving towards more green spaces .
If he is sure of it…

Alexandre Penasse

Notes et références
  1. Cette réunion s’est tenue le 27 juin 2012 sur le site du Heysel. Étaient présents sur la « scène » : Freddy Thielemans, bourgmestre de la ville de Bruxelles, Philippe Close, échevin du tourisme et du personnel de la ville de Bruxelles, un conseiller qui ne s’est pas présenté, et Denis Delforge, directeur administratif du Parc des Expositions
  2. Entre 60 et 80 personnes.
  3. Philippe Close, en tous cas, évoqua hors-micro, ne pas vouloir de consultation populaire, considérant le fait que le citoyen les avait élus aux élections comme suffisant.
  4. « Les psychologues de l’école de Freud, eux surtout, ont montré que nos pensées et nos actions sont des substituts compensatoires de désirs que nous avons dû refouler. Autrement dit, il nous arrive de désirer telle chose, non parce qu’elle est intrinsèquement précieuse ou utile, mais parce que, inconsciemment, nous y voyons un symbole d’autre chose dont nous n’osons pas nous avouer que nous le désirons. Un homme qui achète une voiture se dit probablement qu’il en a besoin pour se déplacer, alors qu’au fond de lui il préférerait peut-être ne pas s’encombrer de cet objet et sait qu’il vaut mieux marcher pour rester en bonne santé. Son envie tient vraisemblablement au fait que la voiture est aussi un symbole du statut social, une preuve de la réussite en affaires, une façon de complaire à sa femme ». Edward Bernays, Propaganda, comment manipuler l’opinion en démocratie, Editions La Découverte, Paris, 2007, p.63. Edward Bernays, neveu de Sigmund Freud, est considéré comme le père des relations publiques. Un de ses succès retentissant sera d’avoir amené les femmes américaines à fumer. Il est aussi aux commandes de la propagande dont le peuple américain fut l’objet et qui conduisit à l’invasion étasunienne du Guatemala en 1954 et au renversement de Jacobo Arbenz (1913–1971), président démocratiquement élu en 1951. Bernays travaillait alors – dans une vaste campagne de désinformation et de mensonge – au service de la United Fruit Company (Chiquita) s’opposant à la réforme agraire d’Arbenz (laquelle proposait une répartition des terres moins inégales, en faveur des petits paysans qui la cultivent) qui risquait de réduire drastiquement les bénéfices de la compagnie.
  5. Conférence de presse du 23 juin 2011.
  6. Voir la biographie de Freddy Thielemans sur le site de la ville de Bruxelles: http://www.bruxelles.be/artdet.cfm/4377
  7. Création d’une salle polyvalente qui, lors de la présentation publique, évacuait les autres éléments du projet… sans doute plus dérangeants.
  8. Date des élections communales en Belgique
  9. Pierre Bourdieu, La production de l’idéologie dominante, Editions Raisons d’Agir, Paris, 2008, p.73
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