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Neoliberalism and the urban condition

Neil Brenner; Nik Theodore

Online Publication Date: 01 April 2005

To cite this Article Brenner, Neil and Theodore, Nik(2005)'Neoliberalism and the urban condition',City,9:1,101 — 107
To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/13604810500092106


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CITY, VOL. 9, NO. 1, APRIL 2005

Neoliberalism and the urban


Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore

ver two decades ago, the term ongoing urban transformations both in
Ltd Ltdonline

“restructuring” became a popular North America and beyond. In the early

label for describing the tumultu- 2000s, such concepts remain central to urban
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ous political-economic and spatial trans- political economy, but they are now being
formations that were unfolding across the complemented by references to “neoliberal-
global urban system. As Edward Soja ism,” which is increasingly seen as an essen-
(1987: 178; italics in original) indicated in a tial descriptor of the contemporary urban
classic formulation: condition. This widening and deepening
interest in the problematic of neoliberalism
Restructuring is meant to convey a break in among urban scholars is evident in the
secular trends and a shift towards a papers presented in this special issue of
significantly different order and CITY: all deploy variations on this terminol-
configuration of social, economic and ogy—“neoliberalism,” “neoliberal,”
political life. It thus evokes a sequence of “neoliberalized,” “neoliberalization,” and so
breaking down and building up again, forth—in order to interpret major aspects of
deconstruction and attempted reconstitution,
contemporary urban restructuring in
arising from certain incapacities or
North American cities. At the same time,
weaknesses in the established order which
preclude conventional adaptations and like earlier analysts of urban restructuring,
demand significant structural change instead the contributors to this special issue reject
[…] Restructuring implies flux and transition, linear models of urban transition, emphasiz-
offensive and defensive postures, a complex ing instead its uneven, contentious, volatile
mix of continuity and change. and uncertain character. Indeed, each of the
contributions included here suggestively
In the 1980s and early 1990s, scholars mobi- illustrates Soja’s conception of restructur-
lized a variety of categories—including, ing: whether implicitly or explicitly, each
among others, deindustrialization, reindus- postulates a systemic breakdown of estab-
trialization, post-Fordism, international- lished forms of urban life (generally associ-
ization, global city formation, urban ated with postwar, Fordist-Keynesian
entrepreneurialism, informalization, capitalism) and the subsequent proliferation
gentrification and sociospatial polariza- of social, political, discursive, and represen-
tion—in order to describe and theorize the tational struggles to create a transformed,
ongoing deconstruction and attempted “neoliberalized” urban order.
reconstitution of urban social space. These The concept of neoliberalism has been
concepts provided key intellectual tools widely used to characterize the resurgence of
through which a generation of urbanists market-based institutional shifts and policy
could elaborate detailed empirical studies of realignments across the world economy

ISSN 1360-4813 print/ISSN 1470-3629 online/05/010101-07 © 2005 Taylor & Francis Group Ltd
DOI: 10.1080/13604810500092106
102 CITY VOL. 9, NO. 1

during the post-1980s period (see, for exam- social and spatial transformation (“neolib-
ple, Fourcade-Gourinchas and Babb 2002; eralization”);
Gill 1998; Bourdieu 1998). While neoliberal- 2. Neoliberalism is articulated through
ism refers, technically, to a set of doctrines contextually specific strategies. Neoliber-
regarding the appropriate framework for alism does not exist in a single, “pure”
economic regulation, the term has been form, but is always articulated through
appropriated by scholars and activists to historically and geographically specific
describe the organizational, political and strategies of institutional transformation
ideological reorganization of capitalism and ideological rearticulation;
that has been imposed through the 3. Neoliberalism hinges upon the active
attempted institutionalization of such “free mobilization of state power. Neoliberal-
market” doctrines in specific historical and ism does not entail the “rolling back” of
geographical contexts (Agnew and Corbridge state regulation and the “rolling
1994; Brenner and Theodore 2002a). Until forward” of the market; instead, it
quite recently, neoliberalism has been investi- generates a complex reconstitution of
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gated primarily with reference to national state-economy relations in which state

regulatory trends (for instance, the rise of institutions are actively mobilized to
Reaganism in the USA and Thatcherism in promote market-based regulatory
the UK) and supranational institutional arrangements;
realignments (for instance, the role of the 4. Neoliberalization generates path-depen-
World Bank and the IMF in imposing struc- dent outcomes. Neoliberalism does not
tural adjustment programs upon developing engender identical (economic, political or
countries). Since the late 1990s, however, spatial) outcomes in each context in
there has been an impressive body of work which it is imposed; rather, as place-,
on neoliberalism among urbanists and territory- and scale-specific neoliberal
sociospatial theorists, who have reflected in projects collide with inherited regulatory
some detail upon its underlying political- landscapes, contextually specific path-
economic dynamics and its associated geog- ways of institutional reorganization crys-
raphies stretching from the global to the local tallize that reflect the legacies of earlier
scales (for an excellent overview, see Peck modes of regulation and forms of contes-
2003; 2001). tation;
While the meaning of concepts such as 5. Neoliberalization is intensely contested.
neoliberalism and neoliberalization contin- Neoliberalization, understood as the
ues to be a topic of intense debate, recent attempt to impose market-based regula-
theoretical work in this field has generated a tory arrangements and sociocultural
number of important insights that arguably norms, is aggressively contested by
have significant implications for empirical diverse social forces concerned to
research on political-economic restructuring preserve non-market or “socialized”
at all spatial scales (Brenner and Theodore forms of coordination that constrain
2002b; Peck and Tickell 2002; Tickell and unfettered capital accumulation;
Peck 2003; Gough 2002). For present 6. Neoliberalization exacerbates regulatory
purposes, we offer a series of brief proposi- failure. The imposition of neoliberalism
tions that is intended to capture some of the has not established a framework for stable
key ideas developed in this emergent economic development, political regula-
literature: tion or social cohesion. Rather, neoliberal-
ization projects are deeply contradictory
1. Neoliberalism is a process. Neoliberalism is insofar as they tend to undermine many of
not a fixed end-state or condition; rather, the economic, institutional and geograph-
it represents a process of market-driven ical preconditions for economic and social

revitalization. Thus, instead of resolving the theoretical issues outlined above, they can
the political-economic crisis tendencies of be read, nonetheless, as attempts to map some
contemporary capitalism, neoliberalism of the contextually specific geographies of
seriously exacerbates them by engender- actually existing neoliberalism that are being
ing various forms of market failure, state imagined, constructed and resisted in North
failure and governance failure. American cities. They confront this task in a
7. The project of neoliberalism continues to number of ways that, in turn, reflect at least
evolve. The failures of neoliberalism have three overlapping interpretive perspectives
not triggered its abandonment or dissolu- on the nature of neoliberal urbanization.
tion as a project of radical institutional Within these perspectives, neoliberalism is
transformation. To the contrary, this conceived, respectively: (a) as a modality of
project has continued to reinvent itself— urban governance; (b) as a spatially selective
politically, organizationally, spatially—in political strategy; and (c) as a form of
close conjunction with its pervasively discourse, ideology and representation.
dysfunctional social consequences.
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It is against the backdrop of these theoretical Neoliberalism as a modality of urban

discussions that many scholars have begun to governance
interpret contemporary urban transforma-
tions as expressions and outcomes of broader First, and on the most general level, the
neoliberalization processes. However, the preceding articles conceive neoliberalism as a
operationalization of such insights in the framework that powerfully structures the
context of concrete, empirical research on parameters for the governance of contempo-
cities presents significant methodological rary urban development—for instance, by
challenges. In our own work, we have coined defining the character of “appropriate”
the term “actually existing neoliberalism” in policy choices, by constraining democratic
order to underscore the profound disjunc- participation in political life, by diffusing
ture between orthodox neoliberal ideology dissent and oppositional mobilization, and/
and the complex, contested and uneven geog- or by disseminating new ideological visions
raphies of regulatory change that have of social and moral order in the city. In each
emerged in and through projects of neoliber- case, the contributions track the discourses,
alization (Brenner and Theodore 2002a). In strategies and alliances of political elites as
addition, the concept of actually existing they advance policy proposals aimed at
neoliberalism is intended to demarcate a (re)igniting market-led growth while gloss-
terrain for further critical inquiry into the ing over the socially regressive outcomes that
contextually specific pathways of neoliberal- are the frequent by-products of such initia-
ization that are crystallizing in cities and tives. From this perspective, neoliberalism is
regions throughout the world economy. identified primarily with supralocal forces—
From our point of view, one of the contri- for instance, new forms of capital accumula-
butions of the articles in this special issue is to tion or new regimes of state power—but the
begin to explore this research terrain on the latter are understood to have enveloped cities
urban geographies of actually existing neolib- within an increasingly market-dominated
eralism. All of the articles investigate the governance regime.
dynamics of neoliberal urban restructuring The contributors elaborate this perspective
“on the ground,” through focused case stud- in a number of ways. For instance, in their
ies of particular strategies and struggles wide-ranging case study, Roger Keil and
within a rapidly evolving institutional and Julie-Anne Boudreau draw attention to the
ideological landscape. While the articles do neoliberalization of municipal governance in
not, for the most part, engage directly with the Toronto city-region in the aftermath of
104 CITY VOL. 9, NO. 1

the 1980s economic downturn and the transit policy in the United States, focusing
restructuring of Canadian intergovernmental specifically on policy change and social strug-
relations. They document the rescaling of gle in the Los Angeles metropolitan area.
metropolitan governance that has accompa- Grengs argues that mass transit policy in Los
nied federal devolution, regional institution Angeles is abdicating its traditional role as a
building, and the resultant reshuffling of redistributive mechanism due to at least two
political alliances at the local level. They show trends—first, a shrinking public sector under
that, ironically, despite strident anti-statist conditions of national and state-level neolib-
rhetoric among many national, regional and eralism; and second, a shift in policy priorities
local political elites, an activist, market-driven that systematically neglects the needs of low-
form of statecraft has been consolidated in income, transit-dependent residents. Within
Toronto. Just as crucially, Keil and Boudreau this neoliberalizing policy landscape, Grengs
outline a variety of regulatory failures and argues, funding for public services needed by
political struggles that have emerged in the poor, central-city residents is being reduced in
wake of these political and institutional trans- favor of transit spending intended to amelio-
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formations. According to Keil and Boudreau, rate the traffic congestion and air pollution
rather than resolving basic problems of urban generated by affluent suburban commuters. In
governance in the Toronto metropolitan this sense, as both Siemiatycki and Grengs
region, neoliberalization projects have trig- indicate, neoliberalism is generating new
gered new forms of elite strategizing and forms of empowerment and disempowerment
popular resistance in key regulatory arenas within a key sphere of urban governance.
such as economic development, environmen- In her article, Liette Gilbert explores the
tal policy and transportation policy. Neolib- interplay between national immigration poli-
eralization thus reconstitutes the terrain of cies, local regulatory restructuring and socio-
political-economic governance—and social political struggle in present-day Montreal.
struggle—in the urban region as a whole. Through a sympathetic critical engagement
Meanwhile, in his study of mass transit with the film Tar Angel, Gilbert shows how
infrastructure investment in Vancouver, Matti the protagonist, a political refugee from
Siemiatycki examines the character of public Algeria, experiences the ongoing neoliberal-
planning processes in a political setting that ization of everyday life in one of Montreal’s
has embraced an enhanced role for private- growing port-of-entry immigrant neighbor-
sector actors in (formally) public-sector mega hoods. Here, the mutually reinforcing effects
projects. Grounded in claims of private-sector of neoliberal policy priorities—market liber-
efficiency and enforced through national, alization, international capital mobility, and
provincial, and local fiscal policies, the domestic welfare-state cutbacks—are clearly
promotion of private-sector initiative has led evident. For, as Gilbert underscores, migrants
to a loss of transparency within the policy- are being channeled into depressed sectors of
making process. The prioritization of private- the local economy at a time when national
sector involvement has become entrenched governments are devolving fiscal and policy-
institutionally as public-private partnerships making responsibilities to lower tiers of
have been elevated in local political discourse government. Meanwhile, anti-immigrant sen-
to a type of “best practice” in urban gover- timents are stoked by political actors who
nance. Yet, as Siemiatycki demonstrates, the cynically exploit nationalist impulses in order
shifting spending priorities associated with to shrink the public sector and to impose
these newly consolidated public-private part- stricter welfare eligibility rules based on
nerships are likely to result in chronic under- citizenship rather than on residency or
investment in the services upon which most economic hardship. Gilbert thus shows how
low-income commuters are dependent. Relat- the process of neoliberalization entails not
edly, Joe Grengs studies the evolution of mass only a reorientation of policy priorities, but

also a remaking of political identities as the into the spatial selectivity (see Jones 1997) of
meaning of urban and national “community” neoliberalism as a political strategy. The
is redefined. impacts of the policies highlighted in these
In their contribution, Gerda Wekerle and papers do not fall uniformly across the urban
Paul Jackson extend Neil Smith’s (1996) landscape. Rather, either implicitly or explic-
concept of the “revanchist city” to anti- itly, these policies have extremely variegated
terrorism campaigns being carried out in geographical implications insofar as they
U.S. cities. According to the authors, local differentially impact particular locations,
law-and-order policies and new urban secu- places and scales.
rity measures are being rescaled to achieve Gilbert, for example, notes that national
national security objectives in the post- immigration policies are now redirecting
September 11th era. Furthermore, the Bush immigrants away from prosperous city-
Administration’s “homeland security” initia- regions and towards laggard rural zones as a
tives have recursively shaped (and served to way of reigniting processes of regional
legitimate) local-level policing strategies that development. In so doing, Gilbert argues,
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increasingly restrict political action, as well immigration policies work to constitute a

as monitor and control population move- (more or less) captive labor pool in areas in
ments through urban space. In short, the which employers face severe labor shortages.
new “security agenda” is a strategically Likewise, Grengs shows how mass transit
selective one that has been insinuated into policies are increasingly favoring the interests
the everyday life of the city while also of suburban commuters, while low-income,
targeting radical environmental and other central-city, mass-transit-dependent resi-
social movements in the name of combating dents witness significant cutbacks in transit
“domestic terrorism.” While Wekerle and funding. Siemiatycki, meanwhile, emphasizes
Jackson frame their article primarily as an the strategic centrality of large-scale invest-
analysis of the post-9/11 security agenda, it ments in urban transportation infrastructure
can be read as an account of some of the to the establishment of neoliberalized gover-
new political and spatial strategies that are nance arrangements, such as public-private
being mobilized by neoliberalizing state partnerships. In their article, Wekerle and
institutions. Jackson show how, in the wake of the terror-
In sum, all of the contributions show how ist attacks of 9/11, anti-sprawl initiatives have
market-dominated regulatory arrangements lost momentum in the United States as decon-
and political norms are being imposed upon centrated settlement patterns are increasingly
cities across North America through a promoted as a basis for maintaining public
complex interplay of global, national and safety. At the same time, the authors illustrate
local political-economic realignments. In this a number of ways in which a new “geography
sense, they all demonstrate how supralocal of fear” is being consolidated as urban spaces
patterns of neoliberalization are being are increasingly militarized through the so-
“urbanized” so as to fundamentally reconsti- called “War on Terror.” And, finally, Keil and
tute the foundations of political-economic Boudreau analyze the ways in which neolib-
regulation, social contestation and everyday eralization projects in the Toronto region
life within major North American cities. have entailed a multifaceted rescaling of
inherited political geographies. As they indi-
cate, the politics of neoliberalism in Toronto
Neoliberalism as a spatially selective have been articulated in significant measure
political strategy through efforts to reorganize the geographies
of governance within the region as a whole. In
Second, the detailed case studies presented by light of this, anti-neoliberal social movements
the authors also provide important insights have likewise had to create new geographies
106 CITY VOL. 9, NO. 1

of resistance through which to oppose the mize both neoliberal ideology and more
politics of the “competitive city.” generally repressive political measures. For
Taken together, the contributions under- example, Gilbert shows how anti-immigrant
score the impossibility of equating neoliberal backlash in some quarters has complemented
political strategies with any singular spatial neoliberal calls for reductions in public
strategy or geographical pattern. For, within services and the discursive valorization of
each national, regional and local context, low-wage work. In this context, insertion
neoliberalization projects are reorganizing and assimilation policies may effectively
inherited spatial configurations in highly consign recent immigrants to social spaces of
variegated, place- and scale-specific ways. extreme economic and political marginaliza-
The point, however, is not that spatial orga- tion. Likewise, Wekerle and Jackson show
nization is a static platform on which the how expanded definitions of terrorism have
politics of neoliberalism are articulated. ensnared certain environmental activist
Rather, we might read the contributions to groups whose activities disrupt local business
this special issue as efforts to decipher the activities.
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intimate, if contextually specific, linkages From this point of view, urban neoliberal-
between neoliberalization strategies and ism is not only a form of political, institu-
urban-regional sociospatial restructuring. In tional and geographical change; it is also,
other words, spatial organization is at once a centrally, a means of transforming the domi-
foundation, an arena and a mechanism for nant political imaginaries on which basis
the mobilization of neoliberal political people understand the limits and possibilities
strategies. of the urban experience. In an urban context,
as elsewhere, this redefinition of political
imagination entails not only the rearticulation
Neoliberalism as a form of discourse, of assumptions about the appropriate role of
ideology and representation state institutions, but also, more generally, the
reworking of inherited conceptions of citi-
Finally, the papers in this special issue provide zenship, community and everyday life. The
vivid examples of how neoliberal political contributions included here do not delve at
ideology may exert a dominant, perhaps even length into such matters, but in thematizing
hegemonic, influence on urban governance. the ideological, discursive and representa-
Whether cloaked in the discourses of inter- tional aspects of neoliberalism, they usefully
local competitiveness (Keil and Boudreau), suggest a number of directions in which these
narrow economic or institutional efficiency dimensions might be explored more system-
(Keil and Boudreau, Grengs), urban entrepre- atically.
neurialism (Keil and Boudreau, Siemiatycki),
or urban disorder (Wekerle and Jackson,
Gilbert), such representations of market rule Concluding reflections
present an idealized neoliberal “utopia”
wherein social relations are said to be Clearly, the debate on neoliberalism and the
governed by the principles of unfettered city has only just begun. Recent scholarship,
competition and exchange. including the contributions to this special
Beyond this pervasive naturalization of issue of CITY, has opened up a number of
market relations, there is an even more sinis- new theoretical and empirical perspectives on
ter side to this emergent neoliberal Realpoli- the ongoing neoliberalization of urban space.
tik: several of the papers provide examples of Just as importantly, scholars have now begun
how such discourses often are fused with to consider more seriously the tendential
other reactionary or “militant particularist” crystallization of new forms of resistance to
discourses by political elites aiming to legiti- this profoundly uneven and contradictory

process. Yet, key conceptual, methodological Gough, J. (2002) ‘Neoliberalism and socialisation in the
and empirical issues remain to be explored: contemporary city: opposites, complements and
instabilities’, in N. Brenner and N. Theodore (eds)
our understanding of “market rule,” its stra- Spaces of Neoliberalism: Urban Restructuring in
tegic and ideological foundations, its institu- North America and Western Europe, pp. 58–79.
tional manifestations, its contradictions and Oxford: Blackwell.
its variegated local consequences, remain Jones, M. (1997) ‘Spatial selectivity of the state? The
seriously incomplete. While these challenges regulationist enigma and local struggles over
economic governance’, Environment and Planning
arguably obtain at all spatial scales, cities and A, 29, pp. 831–864.
city-regions represent key spatial arenas in Peck, J. (2003) ‘Geography and public policy: mapping
which they may be confronted as the urban- the penal state’, Progress in Human Geography,
ization of neoliberalism proceeds apace. The 27(2), pp. 222–232.
articles included in this special issue contrib- Peck, J. (2001) ‘Neoliberalizing states: thin policies/hard
outcomes’, Progress in Human Geography, 25(3),
ute to the ongoing project of deciphering the pp. 445–455.
urban geographies of actually existing Peck, J. and Tickell, A. (2002) ‘Neoliberalizing space’, in
neoliberalism. N. Brenner and N. Theodore (eds) Spaces of
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Neoliberalism: Urban Restructuring in Western

Europe and North America, pp. 33–57. Oxford:
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and global political economy’, Pacifica Review, Nik Theodore is based at the University of Illi-
10(1), pp. 23–38. nois at Chicago at E-mail: