Cities and the Geographies of “Actually Existing Neoliberalism” by Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore

This article (in Antipode 2002 34:3) is another one that theorizes about the development of neoliberalism in the last 3o years. The authors are both from geography backgrounds and so they inject a ‘spatial’ focus into their analysis. The article, I think, presents at least three interesting concepts: the path-dependency of neoliberalism; the creative destruction of neoliberalism; and neoliberalism’s spatial focus on cities.

The first idea, of path-dependency, I think ties in with the the phrase “actually existing neoliberalism” that is in the title of the article. Descriptions of actually-existing neoliberalism are meant to contrast with the theoretical (or even utopian) descriptions of how neoliberalism is meant to work. The idea of actually-existing neoliberalism is also meant to counter two common pitfalls in thinking about neoliberalism:

First, neoliberal doctrine represents states and markets as if they were diametrically opposed principles of social organization, rather than recognizing the politically constructed character of all economic relations. Second, neoliberal doctrine is premised upon a “one size fits all” model of policy implementation that assumes that identical results will follow the imposition of market-oriented reforms, rather than recognizing the extraordinary variations that arise as neoliberal reform initiatives are imposed within contextually specific institutional landscapes and policy environments. (353)

Countering both of these pitfalls, the authors argue:

In contrast to neoliberal
ideology, in which market forces are assumed to operate according to immutable laws
no matter where they are “unleashed,” we emphasize the contextual embeddednessof
neoliberal restructuring projects insofar as they have been produced within national,
regional, and local contexts defined by the legacies of inherited institutional frame-
works, policy regimes, regulatory practices, and political struggles.

In contrast to neoliberal ideology, in which market forces are assumed to operate according to immutable laws no matter where they are “unleashed,” we emphasize the contextual embeddedness of neoliberal restructuring projects insofar as they have been produced within national, regional, and local contexts defined by the legacies of inherited institutional frame-works, policy regimes, regulatory practices, and political struggles. (349)

The ‘contextual embeddedness’ (i.e. the particular institutional context/history) of neoliberal projects inevitably influence the way that these projects are created, strategized, and implemented. And these contexts are always spatially-dependent, i.e. different places (usually states) have different “institutional frame-works, policy regimes,” etc. Thus, neoliberal projects are ‘path-dependent’:

As indicated, neoliberal programs of capitalist restructuring are rarely, if ever, imposed in a pure form, for they are always introduced within politico-institutional contexts that have been molded significantly by earlier regulatory arrangements, institutionalized practices, and political compromises. In this sense, the evolution of any politico-institutional configuration following the imposition of neoliberal policy reforms is likely to demonstrate strong properties of path-dependency, in which established institutional arrangements significantly constrain the scope and trajectory of reform. (361, italics mine)

This idea of path-dependency is one that is close to Harvey’s highlighting of the contradictions between neoliberalism in theory (a utopian project) and neoliberalism in theory, and I think also to Polanyi’s double movement because the neoliberal project wants to go in one direction but is constrained by the socio-political institutions of the particular spatial context it is working in. I don’t know if this really works though, because I see three movements or forces happening: the neoliberal move away from the Keynesian or Fordist values; the Keynesian resistance to it (a form of conservativism); and thirdly a resistance to neoliberalism’s social destructiveness that takes various forms ranging from anarchist to fascist backlashes. It is the first and third of these that would be a double movement, just like how in the 1930s it was the socialists and fascist surges reacting to increased capitalist power.  Anyhow, on to the next.

Brenner and Theodore’s second focus is the idea of neoliberalism as ‘creative destruction’. They acknowledge that their “emphasis on the tendentially creative capacities of neoliberalism is at odds with earlier studies that underscored its overridingly destructive character.” (362) But, they nonetheless present the idea that neoliberalism is creative in its destruction. My understanding of this, and it may be incorrect, is that in order to circumvent and elude path-dependencies, social resistance, and internal contradictions, neoliberal project are forced to be creative. Of course though, neoliberalism, like all theories of capitalist accumulation, are inherently destructive of all of the more meaningful aspects of human beings’ creations and potentials. Or as they say, “The point of this emphasis [on neoliberal creativity], however, is not to suggest that neoliberalism could somehow provide a basis for stabilized, reproducible capitalist growth, but rather to explore its wide-ranging, transformative impacts upon the inherited politico-institutional and geographical infrastructures of advanced capitalist states and economies.” (363) Indeed, neoliberal policies (like all capitalist strategies) generate their own crises, and thus must be constantly creative in order to continually generate capitalist accumulation while at the same time managing the backlash and crises that capitalist accumulation generates. And so, interestingly,

the neoliberal project of institutional creation is no longer oriented simply towards the promotion of market-driven capitalist growth; it is also oriented towards the establishment of new flanking mechanisms and modes of crisis displacement through which to insulate powerful economic actors from the manifold failures of the market, the state, and governance that are persistently generated within a neoliberal political framework. (374)

The third, and I think main, though for some reason less interesting to me, focus of the article is on cities as the location for neoliberal policies. Brenner and Theodor say that “cities have become strategically crucial arenas in which neoliberal forms of creative destruction have been unfolding during the last three decades,” (367) and that they have become

institutional laboratories for a variety of neoliberal policy experiments, from place-marketing, enterprise and empowerment zones, local tax abatements, urban development corporations, public–private partnerships, and new forms of local boosterism to workfare policies, property-redevelopment schemes, business-incubator projects, new strategies of social control, policing, and surveillance, and a host of other institutional modifications within the local and regional state apparatus. (368)

The authors provide two tables in the article that list examples of the ways in which neoliberalism has been destructive and creative. I think I’ll copy them here and that will be all.


table 1.2

Table 2.1table 2.2

table 2.3table 2.4

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