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Austerity Urbanism Goes South, Authoritarian Neoliberalism Goes Urban

by Alke Jenss on October 18, 2018

How do competitiveness, austerity and insecurity combine in urban contexts? How are the local state’s (in)security policies shaped in conditions of fiscal restraints and competitive-cities programmes? My article in a recent Globalizations special issue deals with this set of questions. One aim Ian Bruff and Cemal Burak Tansel set for their expansion of the authoritarian neoliberalism literature is to close empirical and geographical lacunae in accounts that theorised neoliberalisation processes”.

In my contribution to that special issue, I explored the spatially variegated effects of austerity urbanism on the production of urban security and insecurity. The idea was to make two contributions to authoritarian neoliberalism literature: first, I wanted to tease out how authoritarian neoliberalism’s practices and repertoires are multi-scalar arrangements, by focusing on the ‘local state’ and specifically, the conflation of scales in urban in/security politics. In taking Authoritarian Neoliberalism urban, I explored the transformation of the state towards an increasing mobilisation of coercion through its local expressions. Just as Saskia Sassen calling for ‘a focus on locally scaled practices (…) within global dynamics’, I was interested in the contradictions provoked by neoliberal governments, observable in understudied intermediate cities.

Second, I linked authoritarian neoliberalism literature to thought about the postcolonial state—taking it ‘south’. This speaks not only to AN, but to literature that situates itself within a “postcolonial field of urban studies” without neglecting the universalising attempts and effects of capitalist social relations. I studied that through the case of Oaxaca, a secondary city in Southern Mexico with a fascinating history of political struggle.

During the article, I describe how austerity and competitiveness on the one, and rescaled coercive measures on the other hand have been intertwined. I make two main points: First, the ‘security’ of the rebranded city is integral to the competitive rationale embedded in urban planning. And the competitive austerity and the rescaling of security in conjunction make Oaxaca a fragmented continuum of insecurity. A lot has been written about how in Oaxaca, the political conjuncture of 2006 prefigured later political polarisations. The dissident Sección XXII of the teachers’ union turned Oaxaca into a space of resistance until a federal police crackdown on the city ended the protest. This form of rescaled ‘security’—federal police coming to the aid of municipal and state police in moments of political friction—has become the norm since then.

The article discusses this in detail, so here I focus on what the notion of coloniality of power, coined by Aníbal Quijano almost 20 years ago, tells me about austerity urbanism in Oaxaca and about local forms of statehood.

Quijano took much of his inspiration from José Carlos Mariátegui who stressed how colonial social classifications impacted today’s power relations. We shouldn’t ignore Latin American scholars’ contributions to state theory. Quijano’s point of departure is contradictory social relations but he more clearly points our attention to racialised hierarchies. Both class and racialised hierarchies play out in the state’s selectivity of fulfilling tasks or omitting demands. I apply them to urban relations of force, questioning who is actually able to influence and shape the production of in/security in the city. The notion of an urban coloniality of power speaks to hierarchies of agency in political organisation, to racialised differentiations in crime policies (there’s reason enough to make Stuart Hall and Quijano speak to each other in future studies), to ‘multi-layered processes which cut across the social fabrics of urban space’.

To bring Quijano into Authoritarian Neoliberalism is, in essence, an argument about the intersectionality of power relations that permeate the state and result in state policies (always mediated, never without frictions). Historically, the coloniality of power in postcolonial Oaxaca is displayed on the city map. The ‘white’, colonial centre was and still is discursively opposed to the urban peripheries, indigenous inhabitants of the city often relegated to some place rural. The almost non-existent possibilities to participate in urban politics and the city’s economic base in surrounding mining and agricultural sectors reproduced those power relations.

Oaxaca’s history may ‘prefigure’ that of ‘Northern’ cities, as the selectivity of social services and authoritarian elements have long been normalised, but austerity still had severe effects. The rebranding of Oaxaca as a competitive city is one; it implies the need to attract foreign investment despite the municipality still largely depending on federal funds. Oaxaca’s competitive cities image hinges on a folkloric integration of ‘indigenous cultures’ – precisely those that can’t afford the rebranded city. Vecindades, buildings with shared patio and sanitary facilities for several families, have disappeared from the centre, and real estate prices have exploded in the last five years. Investment flows in, but Oaxaca’s ‘postcolonial condition’ implies a structural contradiction: Its specific integration into the global economy will never allow it to fully realise the ‘ideal’ of a global city attracting large amounts of investment. Yet, while depicted as “less than global”, its (transformed) integration into capitalist accumulation circuits has severe effects on everyday urban life.

The coloniality of power helped me understand the role the zócalo—the colonial central plaza—has come to play as a spatial intermediary in the city. It is not just a boundary between spaces perceived as more or less secure, but simultaneously a space of contestation. It’s where the state meets informality, police buy lunch from informal vendors, political activism takes place, and various institutional levels combine. Informal vendors’ ambiguous and often coercive treatment on the zócalo shows what the state enables and limits through the coloniality of power. They do pay licences, unsettling the idea that only the formal economic sector contributes to the reproduction of statehood by tax revenue, but frequent police operations displace them from the Northern, more touristy part of the centre, assuming they damage competitiveness.

Propuesta para el monumento by Rocha

Not only does Authoritarian Neoliberalism have decidedly urban components that we should study in detail. Contestations of urban forms of neoliberal order and their scalar reach are necessary components of emancipatory scholarship. While there are barriers to influencing city politics based on class and racialized hierarchies, Oaxacan mobilisations often transcend this particular site of struggles. The dissident Sección XXII of the teachers union actually has not only frequently occupied the zócalo of Oaxaca, but has engaged in month-long occupations of the Plaza de la República in Mexico City (as pictured). This is not just a different site; it means that Oaxacan political activists conflate scales.

Instead of implying that “no space is left for alternatives”, Chris Hesketh has rightly argued that our analytical work needs to start from the spaces and practices that indeed exist and contradict the constitutionalisation and fixing of austerity. If we want to make emancipatory claims about these struggles, we should not only see them as ‘local’ (itself a term imbued with colonial ascriptions), but explore the scalar reach of contestation.

Alke Jenss
Alke Jenss is a researcher at Arnold-Bergstraesser Institute in Freiburg. She holds a PhD from the Sociology Institute at Philipps University Marburg, Germany. Her research is situated at the intersection of critical political economy, state theory, urban (in-)security and development studies with particular reference to Latin America.

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