Neoliberalism Generally, Cities Specifically
The second action that the new revanchist mayor of Vancouver did, after pulling power from a progressive coalition and upon taking office, was to cut the percentage of social housing that will be put into the Olympic Village housing complex in a former industrial area once it is turned over to general use after the 2010 Olympics. Unfortunately, this roll back is not surprising in these neoliberal times where public housing (and housing in general) is eroded and understood as public-private agreement that is a hindrance to developers more than a social policy or a right tied to the contract between citizens and cities. But the mayor’s explanation of the cutback to the original social housing percentage (which was agreed to by the former City Council and all other players in the development) was highly reflexive and mediated by neoliberalism as a logic that intensifies capitalist competition between people and places. The official explanation was simply that other cities in Canada and in the USA do not have as high a percentage of social housing as that project had planned. Embedded in this decision are several key elements of neoliberal urban governance: that competition between cities must be shaped to the benefit of developers and not toward citizens; that the standards that global competition sets become the unquestioned standards to meet rather than a place-based and contextual standard, or even a standard forged through democratic or civic debate (or capital will flee to another global destination); that social policies must give way to economic policies (and that economic policies are to solve social problems rather than specific place-based social policies); and lastly, that urban policies based on competition for capital rather than redistribution of wealth are the only possible policies. It also shows the degree to which governmentality and policy “adjustment” or outright restructuring are part of a neoliberal trajectory – a trajectory that comes from above as well as morphing and reproducing itself in specific settings – despite its discourse of small government and nonintervention economically.
“I Back the Bid”, or Global Megaprojects
Vancouver’s global courting and local romance of the 2010 Olympics (which was millions over budget even before any ground was broken) is another example of the way in which neoliberal governmentality – though a constellation of individuals (such as our mayor), institutions and a constructed commonsense of the necessity of urban renewal through competition – levers the scale of urban redevelopment through both crisis and mega-events. Grafted onto the generalization of gentrification, moments of crisis (New Orleans, for instance) and events (World Fairs, Olympics) intensify the city as a platform for capitalist accumulation and large-scale transformation. Part of this intensification is “a considerable emphasis on the nexus of production and finance capital at the expense of questions of social reproduction” (Smith 435). This nexus is captured in the marketing slogan of the Woodwards building in Vancouver (a former department store, in the centre city’s dynamic yet deeply poor Downtown Eastside, which has been a flashpoint of antigentrification actions): “Be Bold or Move to the Suburbs”. A simple statement playing off notions of both capital and urban excitement and danger, but one that catches the aggressive tension between the centralization of capital and the marginalisation - dis-urbanisation – of the working-class and those without sufficient capital to “be bold.”
Shaped by neoliberalism as the ideological software of capitalism, these projects, Eric Swyngedouw proposes, “are the material expression of a developmental logic that views megaprojects and place-marketing as means for generating future growth and for waging a competitive struggle to attract investment capital” (546). Yet, this Olympic project, and other projects of such a scale (like the Olympic Village in Athens or the DonauCity in Vienna) are both products of and a shaping influence of the neoliberalising of urban governmentality. This shift is described by Swyngedouw as a “new choreography of elite power” that sees local democratic participation restricted or contained – not usually outright excluded, but brought in and consulted, even included on commissions in a “politics of recognition” that recognises groups, or “stakeholders” yet grants them little power. The “social returns” on such megaprojects, in terms of Swyngedouw’s analysis, is negative and hardens an “institutionalization of public-private partnerships, [and] high-income groups as clientele of social democracy” (table 4). In Swyngedouw’s description of this process, “The newly emerging regimes of governing urban revitalization involve the subordination of formal government structures to new institutions and agencies, often paralleled by a significant redistribution of policy-making powers, competencies, and responsibilities” (556). In reality, this model is implemented very unevenly and can override and transform the existing form of democratic accountability and not operate with a clear set of guidelines. Thus the legacy of a mega-event is often not a built environment of sports complexes and housing, or even a civic debt, but a refigured process of decision-making.
Culture & The Soft Coup
Now, we want to point out that culture and artists were famously called the “bulldozer blade” of gentrification – honing in on the idea that as soon as artists “discovered” a neighbourhood like incoming pioneers, gentrification was soon to follow and the original residents of the neighbourhood would be pushed out as galleries and restaurants moved in, rents rose, etc. This is and isn’t the case in Vancouver, for “culture,” in a general sense, is being deployed or used in more subtle ways than a bulldozer blade to reshape the city. Culture has also intensified as an accumulation strategy, particularly at the urban level, as culture in general (from galleries to museums to granting agencies) is retooled as a productive part of the soft coup of gentrification. And, in the nexus of production and consumption, culture is to be consumed in the centre city while the majority of artists and other cultural producers, lacking capital and boldness, will spin out to the surrounding exurbs. As in all things Vancouver, this is both unique and paradigmatic: unique in the way that the arts community can organise against harsher forms of gentrification; paradigmatic or all too common in the way that culture is the forceful lever of a class-based urban transformation. Culture has been rescaled from part of a national, regional, and local life that was managed by the state, and opened or altered by the critique of the challenges of identity politics and regional formations; now it came into the hands of the global-local elite (what Leslie Sklair calls “the transnational capitalist class”). In Vancouver’s case, the local elite is increasingly tied to the real-estate market and shapes notions of culture, works the private-public agreements sought after by cultural institutions in need of space made scarce by the “frothed” real-estate market, and drives the commoditization of art and the production of cultural capital through their art collections (and the savvy collectors in Vancouver “love” conceptual and post-conceptual art!).
Of course, local elites always had a hand in shaping culture, but we think this has intensified as the city has turned to culture as a means to define the city globally – as its added value in the global competition of city versus city in the hunt for global investment – and to transform the centre city as a consumption playground for the newly developed urban class (although the language of ‘life-style’ began in Vancouver in the late-1970s). For culture makes a soft front to gentrification – who is against the expansion of cultural institutes in the city? – particularly given the attention to multiculturalism and the politics of recognition as a mission for institutions. And who can be against culture, given the hostility to it by previous governments (at all levels) – to be for culture is what artists and the arts community asked for, yet it has arrived in the form of a Frankenculture of developers and consumers. Yet, we have to be aware of where the decisions about what kind of culture, and the mandates of cultural institutions, are coming from: the kind of soft but real power that cultural decision-making brings has drifted more to private foundations, private donations, and public-private agreements as governments off-load the management of the culture industry and as neoliberal policies turn more and more to “experts” and local elites. Often these new arrangements do not have any democratic accountability. In a tight loop, culture becomes an added value to the city, an added value to the real estate market in a complex system where the city gives credits to developers who pull gallery spaces into buildings or drop plop art in front of a generic no-name architecture glass towers. Yet, the contingencies of neoliberalism, and of culture, produce different or even alternative results – and the move from critique of policy to the building of counter-policies and coalitional politics (particularly focusing on poverty and dispossession/evictions) is accelerating.
Smith, Neil. “New Globalism, New Urbanism: Gentrification a Global Urban Strategy”. Antipode (2002) 34(5):427-450.
Swyngedouw, E. (with F. Moulaert and A. Rodriguez). "Neoliberal Urbanization in Europe: Large-Scale Urban Development Projects and the New Urban Policy". Antipode (2002) 34(3):542-577.