This is the first in a short series of posts based on a talk we gave to open the recent Ciudad Furor film festival, organised by the Latin American Solidarity Centre. The festival focused on questions of urban space, and in our introduction we sought to frame some issues around the political economy of cities today as well as the right to the city. The event was great and we really enjoyed the discussion which followed. This first post introduces some of the issues around neoliberal cities today, while subsequent posts will focus more specifically on the role of the state in the process of neoliberalisation (Irish Water being a case in point), and on urban social movements attempting to defend, reclaim and re-imagine urban services today.
We live in a rapidly urbanizing world. Cities are growing – some reports suggest that since 2014, for the first time more people live in cities than in rural environments. This process of global urbanization will no doubt be one of the things that defines this century. And it is already a deeply political process. It is characterised by injustices, conflicts but also many signs of hope for a better city and a better world.
The last decade or so, and particularly the last number of years, have seen urban conflicts rock cities around the world. Many have been around housing, such as the Abahlali BaseMondjolo movement in Durban South Africa – a movement of shack dwellers fighting against demolition of their shacks and the right to decent housing and services. Closer to home, in Spain since 2009 500,000 families have been evicted due to mortgage arrears. But Spanish cities have also seen evicted families organise themselves against the banks and government policies that led to what they call the ‘great mortgage rip off’. In Brazil, were transport costs can represent 25% of people’s income, bus fare increases sparked a massive wave of protests during the Confederacy Cup. More recently still, the planned development of Gezi Park in Istanbul into a commercial shopping centre led to massive mobilizations across the country. These struggles are all responses to urban issues – housing, public transport and urban development. But they don’t just emerge in response to similar issues, they also share a similar energy and form. Spain’s PAH group and Abahlali BaseMondjolo both combine collective advocacy, grassroots organising and direct action in a very participative and people-centred type of politics. The movements in Brazil and Turkey, like others from across the world, also shared many traits: reclaiming public spaces and democratic processes as well as open and decentralized organising forms.
In short, we are caught up in a wave of global, urban unrest, mobilisation and struggle for democracy and social rights for city dwellers. But what is going on here? We need to address why this is happening but also to think through the possibilities which arise in these struggles for a better world. That’s what we will try and do in the rest of this talk.
States across the world – from Denmark to Guatemala – have cut back public spending and privatized public services. At the urban level, city budgets have been restricting and cities have increasingly had to compete on the world stage, fighting it out in what is called the ‘global city system’ to attract investment and skilled workers.
This is in part a response to global competition, but it is also strongly linked to question of debt. Many people will be familiar with the debt justice issue in terms of the global south, and the way the IMF and World Bank’s Structural Adjustment Programmes have enforced extreme cut backs in public services and subsidies across Asia, Africa and Latin America. Of course we’ve learned about this first hand here in Ireland, were our debt crisis led to the so-called Troika ‘bailout’ agreements made up of policies inspired by the usual neoliberal recipe. They same is true of Portugal, Greece and Spain. But it’s also the case that German regions and municipalities impose cut backs to stave off bankruptcy and that the UK has suffered its own austerity policies legitimised on the basis of the need to manage public debt.
The consequences are all too familiar. The 1990s was the heyday of privatization of previously public services in the Global South. This was led by international financial institutions, namely the World Bank and the IMF. From Morocco to Bolivia key urban services such as water, electricity and telecommunications were sold to private companies, not just as a cost-saving measure but in the belief that markets were the best, and in fact only, way of ensuring efficient service provision and investment in infrastructure necessary to supply growing urban populations.
While most spectacular in the Global south, the marketization of public services was also happening in the North. In Dublin we’ve seen social housing sold off and demolished as city councils have handed over public land to private developers, we’ve seen waste management privatized, we’ve seen public transport subsidies reduced and now of course we are seeing the implementation of the water tax.
At a global level, these processes have been described under the term neoliberalism. Or, in the case of cities, neoliberal urbanism. And they have an extremely significant impact not just on our lives, but on how we might fight for a better alternative.