Neoliberalism, the Urban Environment, and Community: Where Oppositional Movements Bloom
Some insights on ways to make the world stop burning
As scholars Peck and Tickell note, neoliberalism has been installed in phases, and as scholar David Harvey notes, part of these phases involved the manufacturing of wide-spread public consent (Harvey, 2005, Peck and Tickell, 2002). It is important to understand these phases in order to contextualize and better grasp where we are now, at this time, and how social movements’ blossom, lash out, rise and fall in this political economic context.
In its roll-out stage, neoliberalism became more “normalized,” “technocratic,” and “depoliticized” so much so that most people no longer question its major tenants and theories and instead focus on ways to address problems that work within neoliberalism’s free market ideology (Peck and Tickell, 2002: 42). Key to this roll-out stage of neoliberalism are “new modes of ‘social’ and penal policymaking, concerned specifically with the aggressive regulation, disciplining, and containment of those marginalized or disposed by the neoliberalization of the 1980s” (Peck and Tickell, 2002: 42). Roll-out neoliberalism stretches its reach beyond matters of deregulation and market creation and into new areas that include “extramarket forms of governance and regulation,” the “appropriation of ‘community’” and the “establishment of ‘social capital’ discourses” as well as the utilization of “local voluntary and faith-based associations in the service of the neoliberal goals” (Peck and Tickell, 2002: 43). These forms of governance stem from the devolution of services and responsibilities formerly carried out by the state to the lower scales of the region, city, and individual (Peck and Tickell, 2002: 44).
Cities are “a key arena in which the everyday violence of neoliberalism has been unleashed” (Brenner and Theodore, 2002b: ix). Neoliberalism on the urban scale has resulted in increased inequality and the “intensification of sociospatial polarization” (Brenner and Theodore, 2002: 24). It has relied upon strategies of revanchist gentrification that uproot and criminalize the poor while making room for the elite in efforts to “extract value from the city” (Smith, 2002; Pattillo, 2007; Weber, 2002). Cities are put into the dual position of being simultaneously victimized and constrained by processes of neoliberalization and also perpetrators of neoliberal policy, strategies, and modes of governance (Brenner and Theodore, 2002; Peck and Tickell, 2002; Jessop, 2002). Urban forms of neoliberalism emphasize strategies of individual, community, and local empowerment, urban renewal, neighborhood revitalization, and reinvestment (Brenner and Theodore, 2002: 25; Jessop, 2002). What at first glance appears to be a “revival of the local” and benign focus on local economies, entrepreneurial culture, and local governance systems that provide more (market) room for these ventures to thrive is actually a product of the constraining climate of neoliberalization’s efforts to retrench the state and devolve key aspects of policy to the urban, neighborhood, and individual level (Brenner and Theodore, 2002b: v). This shift to the local is illustrative of neoliberalism’s propensity to place higher value on the global and national scales for economic growth and development (Jessop, 2002). As capital and investment are freed from state regulation and the devolution of state responsibilities and roles to lower scales, cities must “go it alone” and deal with the consequences of roll-back neoliberalism while they engage in competition with other urban areas fueled by roll-out neoliberalism’s need to seek out climates that are the most welcoming to free market growth.
In an attempt to garner attention from businesses and capital investment cities must engage in forms of urban entrepreneurialism that rely on the strategies of “place-marketing, enterprise and empowerment zones, local tax abatements, urban development corporations, private-public partnerships, and new forms of local boosterism, …workfare policies, property-redevelopment schemes, business-incubator projects,” and “new strategies of surveillance” that serve to “mobilize city space as an arena both for market-oriented economic growth and for elite consumption practices” (Brenner and Theodore, 2002: 21). Urban entrepreneurialism exists in the context of interurban competition. As Harvey notes, and Peck and Tickell illustrate, it is not a random coincidence that cities have suddenly put all of their focus on the creation of unique cultural events, luxury hotels, conference centers, and other resources that serve to attract corporate investment, developments that showcase a cities natural or uniquely local environment, and a reliance on public-private partnerships in areas of governance (Harvey, in Peck and Tickell, 2002: 46).
Of critical importance to the implementation of neoliberalism at the urban scale is the shift from government to governance (Jessop, 2002). The power of the state to govern has been replaced by a reliance on “market forces” and public-private partnerships, and the idea that anyone or any institution can engage in the act of creating and enforcing societal rules which is tied to the “neoliberal belief in the probability, if not inevitability, of state failure and/or the need to involve relevant stakeholders in supply-side policies” (Jessop, 2002: 107). Analysis of urban problems via the lens of governance lack mention of “power and authority, exploitation and domination” and instead stress that “we” are in this together, that individuals, communities, and neighborhoods, often in conjunction with businesses and/or the state, can solve urban problems of poverty, inequality, and uneven development (Jessop, 2002: 121, 122).
As Peck and Tickell note the shift to neoliberal forms of governance gives those individuals and institutions at the local level “responsibility without power” while allowing institutions and actors who operate at the global scale to gain “power without responsibility”(Peck and Tickell, 2002: 39). Governance insists that the challenges facing cities can be met in ways that “will reconcile international competitiveness with local autonomy, economic growth with sustainability, market forces with quality of life, the needs of the highly skilled with the economic development of the entire city” (Jessop, 2002: 122). When cities, or individuals, fail to solve these pressing urban economic and social problems it is not because they lack resources or power, but because the failed to enact good governance, and as such, in essence, they deserve to fail (Jessop, 2002: 121).
Given this rather grim picture of the effects of neoliberalization on the city, and given the common-sense and naturalized status of neoliberalism’s primary beliefs in free markets, individual responsibility, and the power of governance, activists who wish to preserve social welfare, address issues of “power, authority, exploitation, and domination” and actually solve urban problems are faced with immense challenges (Jessop, 2002: 121, 122). As Peck and Tickell illustrate, neoliberalism’s ability to shape-shift, evolve, and transform make it almost impossible to defeat (Peck and Tickell, 2002). And even when activists are able to fight off “local neoliberalisms” this does little to attack the global power structure of neoliberalism that is “insulated from local challenges” by its hegemonic position at the global scale (Peck and Tickell, 2002: 54).
Scholars agree that any challenge to neoliberalism has to be carried out at the global scale, the scale where neoliberalism’s power resides (Brenner and Theodore, 2002: 29; Peck and Tickell, 2002: 53; Jessop, 2002: 122, Harvey, 2005; Evens, 2008). One of the first steps is to expose neoliberalism as a political project — to de-naturalize it and to illustrate how its consequences are also political (Peck and Tickell, 2002: 53). Activists should focus on the “reform of macro-institutional priorities and the remaking of extralocal rule systems in fields like trade, finance, environmental, antipoverty, education, and labor policy” (Peck and Tickell, 2002: 54). While these areas may not seem all that radical they are necessary to “tip the macroenvironment in favor of progressive possibilities” (Peck and Tickell, 2002: 54).
Activist seeking to contest neoliberalism can use its vulnerabilities as openings for these progressive possibilities. Neoliberalism’s key vulnerabilities stem from the gaps and failures that occur in its shaky translation from theory to “actually existing neoliberalism.” It is clear to those contesting neoliberalism that its adoption has not led to an increase in human well-being (Harvey, 2005). In addition, neoliberalism’s failure to “deliver social protection and collective goods,” its support for “monopoly privilege” that works to limit the potential for technological innovation, and the fact that it cannot protect itself even from market failure, provide other examples of the susceptibility of neoliberalism to attack from widespread global challenge (Evans, 2008: 276, 278, 280).
Activists challenging neoliberalism have their work cut out for them. They must transcend national boundaries and global divides, move beyond “‘organizational silos’ devoted to single issues and particular constituencies,” be “capable of integrating different levels and scales of contestation” via combining local, global, and national levels of activism and solidarity, and be able to “capture the public imagination” that draws people into the movement because they realize that they have something at stake and worth fighting for (Evans, 2008: 287). Progressive activists also face the additional challenge of avoiding becoming neoliberalized themselves by buying into its individualism, market logic, and believing in its natural, de-politicized and taken-for-granted facade (Peck and Tickell, 2002: 54; Harvey, 2005).
It is in urban areas, precisely because of the ability to see the impacts of neoliberalism on the ground, where the potential for a large number of diverse people to come together in a “movement of movements” that unites causes, integrates, jumps, and links scales, and works to create a meaningful and plausible alternative to neoliberalism, can take root and thrive (Brenner and Theodore, 2002; Smith and Kurtz, 2003; Harvey, 2005; Evans, 2008).
Jenny Justice is a mom, Sociology instructor, and writer. You can follow her on Medium and at Jenny Justice, Writer. She has been recognized as a Top Writer on Medium in Poetry, Parenting, Reading, Education, Books, Racism, Feminism and Climate Change, so far.