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Governing Cities in the Crisis of Neoliberal Globalism

Leading governance theorist Jonathan S. Davies develops a rich comparative analysis of austerity governance and resistance in eight cities, to establish a conjunctural perspective on the rolling crises of neoliberal globalism.

Drawing on a major international study of eight cities, Davies employs Gramscian regime analysis to consider the consolidation, weakening and transformation of urban governance regimes through the age of austerity. He explores how urban governance shapes variations in austere neoliberalism, tackling themes including collaboration, dominance, resistance and counter-hegemony.

The book is a significant addition to thinking about how the era of austerity politics influences urban governance today, and the potential for alternative urban futures.

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From networks to hegemony

Theories heralding the rise of network governance have dominated for a generation. Yet, empirical research suggests that claims for the transformative potential of networks are exaggerated. This topical and timely book takes a critical look at contemporary governance theory, elaborating a Gramscian alternative. It argues that, although the ideology of networks has been a vital element in the neoliberal hegemonic project, there are major structural impediments to accomplishing it. While networking remains important, the hierarchical and coercive state is vital for the maintenance of social order and integral to the institutions of contemporary governance. Reconsidering it from Marxist and Gramscian perspectives, the book argues that the hegemonic ideology of networks is utopian and rejects the claim that there has been a transformation from 'government' to 'governance'. This important book has international appeal and will be essential reading for scholars and students of governance, public policy, human geography, public management, social policy and sociology.

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This article develops a distinct perspective on the continuities and contrasts between Thatcherite Conservatism and New Labour, interpreted through active citizenship policy. Revisiting Thatcherism, it argues that the roots of the New Labour approach to active citizenship can be traced to the late-Thatcher period. It explores six facets of New Labour's agenda, arguing in each case that there were affinities with Conservatism. These affinities further highlight continuities in the ‘social dimension’ of an ongoing hegemonic project, whose objective is to overcome the ‘weak citizenship’ characteristic of neoliberalism by mobilising citizen assent. Judged against this benchmark, the project may have had only limited success.

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Chapter 1 develops the framework through which urban political (dis)orders are explored in subsequent chapters. It begins by engaging debates about critical vantage-point: diagnosing the workings of capitalist power through critical political economy, privileging disruptive potentialities in acts of resistance, or considering power-resistance relationally. It advances a Gramscian approach to urban regime analysis, through which it pivots between perspectives, and explores the encounter between power and resistance in struggles over the normalisation, disruption and transformation of austere neoliberalism (Las Heras, 2019). The discussion is further framed by neo-Gramscian conjunctural analysis (Hall et al, 1978), which derives from Marxist thinking about the history and periodisation of capitalist development and phases of struggle. Conjunctural analysis was brought to renewed prominence in the urban field by Peck’s two-part essay positing an incipient phase of late entrepreneurialism (2017a, 2017b), which is allied to the broader thesis of an interregnum in the hegemony of neoliberal globalism (Stahl, 2019). The problem arising from this framing is how the dynamics of crisis, neoliberalisation, austerity and resistance play out in cities and constitute urban political (dis)orders, and what these in turn reveal about conjunctural continuity and change. The remaining chapters employ this perspective to explore empirical research in the eight cities.

The concept of urban political (dis)orders is positioned as a contribution to recent debates about the most fruitful way to approach critique and transformation. Means and ends blur, but two broad perspectives can be discerned, each drawing on a multiplicity of theoretical traditions.

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Theodore (2020: 2) argued that since the GEC, ‘austerity has become the primary means for the further neoliberalisation of inherited arrangements’: neoliberalisation upon earlier waves of neoliberalism. Chapter 2 delves into this proposition. It begins by exploring the impact of the GEC, and its aftermath, in the eight countries and cities studied. It proceeds to examine the interplay of key terms introduced in Chapter 1: crisis, austerity and neoliberalisation. The chapter allocates the cities to three groups: those in which austerity is recognised as a central concept or challenge and a warrant for neoliberalisation (Athens, Dublin and Leicester), those in which it is concealed or re-signified within an otherwise vigorous neoliberalisation agenda (Baltimore and Montréal), and those positioning themselves critically, at a distance or outside it (Barcelona, Dandenong and Nantes). The chapter concludes by discussing theoretical implications of convergence and divergence in the cross-cutting relationships between crisis, austerity and neoliberalisation.

Table 2.1 characterises the eight cities in relation to population, economic performance and political control in the 2015–18 period. As explained in the Introductory chapter, the statistics are imprecise and drawn from a range of sources, some more up to date than others. Athens is the capital of Greece, and the epicentre of European austerity. Baltimore is at the southern end of the mega-region stretching several hundred miles from Boston to Washington, DC in the USA. Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia and, in terms of size and stature, Spain’s second city.

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One of the most important, perhaps neglected facets of urban regime analysis is the relationship between tiers of government and the functional and territorial jurisdictions of public and quasi-governmental authorities. These facets overlap in that relations between tiers of the state intersect with the territorial jurisdictions of municipalities, city-regions and other public agencies operating in urban areas. These, in turn, are more or less densely consolidated, concentrated, dispersed, poly-nucleated or splintered – not only in terms of physical agglomeration, density and infrastructure, but also administration, jurisdiction and politics (Skelcher, 2005; Graham and Marvin, 2001; Keil, 2017). Moreover, the capacity of local authorities to govern, limit or control market economies has long pre-occupied urbanists concerned with the dynamics of capital mobility and place-dependency (Cox and Mair, 1988). The perceived limits on urban political power is why few conventional city leaders dare eschew the quest for attractiveness, even when a propitious mix of high wage, labour intensive, environmentally friendly and spatially equitable employment is a pipedream. These issues cut across the eight cities in ways that impinge upon the character of urban political (dis)orders, governability and the parameters of collaborative governance.

The story of austerity is entwined with experiments in city-regionalism, authoritarianism, fiscal and political centralisation and downloading or scalar dumping from upper tiers (Peck, 2012). Interpenetrating institutional, territorial and scalar restructurings have significant implications for politics and governing cultures, and relations between local states and citizens.

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Chapter 3 explained how various forms of state rescaling squeezed the formal political capacity for municipalities to contest austere neoliberalism. To the extent they are implemented successfully, these measures contribute to consolidating states and sub-national regimes in an integral sense: they make it easier to ensure that elements in the local state ensemble pull in broadly the same direction. Chapters 4 and 5 turn from state rescaling to coalitions among state, market and civil society actors, and the urban regime configurations that have arisen, or been challenged, in the post-crisis period. For this reason, the chapters proceed on a city-by-city basis rather than thematically.

One avenue in this account is the question highlighted in the introductory chapter of what happened to participatory governance, and what this in turn reveals about the trajectory towards more-or-less inclusionary and exclusionary modes of governing in and against austere neoliberalism, marshalling what co-optive and pre-emptive powers and incurring which liabilities. In exploring this issue, ‘social partnership’ is employed as a portmanteau term to encompass both the corporatist and post-corporatist modes of collaborative governance privileging, respectively, trade unions and ‘civil society’. Both kinds played a significant role in austerity governance and resistance (Gaynor, 2011).

The research revealed significant variations and transitions in the powers and liabilities accruing to urban regimes, which attest to the importance of reading austerity governance through urban histories and traditions.

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The cities of Montréal, Nantes, Dandenong and Barcelona diverge in several ways from patterns of consolidation in austere neoliberalism discussed in Chapter 4. This chapter first discusses Montréal and Nantes, as two cases of established urban regimes dealing with policy failure and coming under strain from internal contradictions. The second part of the chapter explores Greater Dandenong and Barcelona, cities with very different political orientations and traditions, but where constructive regime building activities were occurring, respectively at a distance from and against austere neoliberalism.

Chapters 2 and 3 contextualised the discussion of regime politics in Montréal, explaining the policy of rigueur at the provincial level, measures to centralise political and administrative control and the economic development dilemmas facing the city in recent decades. The government of Québec is a regime agenda setter, in the dual sense of controlling key public service budgets and, through austerity measures, downloading problems to other actors in the statutory and third sectors (Hamel and Autin, 2017). Hamel and Keil (2020) emphasise that rigueur was not only about cuts, but a state restructuring project amounting to a revanchist attack on the collaborative, democratic and deliberative traditions of the city.

Between 2013 and 2017, the city of Montréal was governed by an electoral coalition, Équipe Denis Coderre, which took a pragmatic stance towards Couillard’s agenda.

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After this study commenced in 2015, Crouch’s (2011) conjunctural question concerning ‘the strange non-death of neoliberalism’, was answered, to a point, by overlapping waves of re-politicisation and reaction. The consideration of urban political (dis)orders problematises three momentous shifts concentrated in, but not limited to, Europe, North and South America: the rise of neo-reactionary forces, with an overtly neo-fascist right, the collapse of austerity-complicit social democratic parties in Europe, and the uneven, tentative, intermittent rise of a heterodox anti-austerity left including prominent anti-capitalist currents. Further episodes of re-normalisation in the previously dominant hegemonic project of neoliberal globalism – what Tariq Ali (2018) dubbed the ‘extreme centre’ – could occur, though even with the election of Joe Biden to the US Presidency, this seemed unlikely at the time of writing. On the contrary, global events continually add weight to May’s (2017) suggestion that political time is speeding up, and intervals between acute episodes of instability are diminishing. These eruptions are signs of a Gramscian interregnum, signalling the iterative breakdown of old regimes of hegemony-domination. This uneven process of disordering is contested by passive revolutionary forces to the right and far more tentative and transient forces to the radical left. However, as the discussion of Greater Dandenong in Chapter 5 illustrates, political contagion was not universal. It remains to be seen whether escalating conflicts and geo-political tensions, now exacerbated by COVID-19, will turn repeated political-economic and environmental crises into a poly-crisis of more general and globalised proportions.

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Chapter 6 explored resistance from the perspective of its capacity to deplete the governability of austere neoliberalism, construct solidarities, incubate alternative political economies in local state and civil society, and channel particularistic grievances into a more generalised anti-neoliberal or anti-capitalist politics. From a Gramscian regime theoretical perspective, it focused on what organising resources forces opposing austere neoliberalism were able to mobilise, whether they act directly on the (local) state apparatus or capacitate and empower rebellious forces within civil society. This chapter returns to the problem of containment, de-mobilisation and fragmentation, dimensions of urban governance that mitigate against both antagonistic and constructive forms of resistance. This endeavour casts light on a number of issues: first, the means by which urban regimes contain and enclose resistance, and insulate themselves from potential impacts; second, the chilling and divisive effects of social partnership traditions; third, structural and institutional limitations on regime transition through new municipalism; and finally, the recuperative power of neoliberalising and reactionary forces, consolidated respectively through Syriza in Greece (Chapter 2) and Britain’s Conservatives in the struggle over Brexit.

The relative normalisation of austerity in Leicester was notable for having occurred in the context of a sustained national government offensive since 2010, leading to a deeply regressive restructuring of the local state (Chapters 3 and 4), and real-terms spending reductions potentially greater than those in any other city (Chapter 2). Even so, the experience of crisis and austerity was less sudden and dramatic than in Athens, Barcelona or Dublin.

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