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11/14 Miguel Robles-Duran

 

Lead Bloggers: Emily, Matthew and Anna

I. Main Interests

 

Robles-Durán started the lecture by sharing his background, noting that he works and teaches outside his official appointment. Even though he started his career with architecture, he is interested in it only from the standpoint of a practitioner dealing with consequences of capitalism. His work is influenced by David Harvey and Henri Lefebvre’s Production of Space. Robles-Durán emphasized the need to develop a transdisciplinary perspective for the analysis of space, thus challenging the deterministic and myopic orientation of the academia. He outlined the areas of his interests, some of which were addressed in the lecture and the Q&A section: Anti-speculative (i.e., anti-capitalist) development; Politics of scale; Commons, collectives, shared infrastructures; Development of urban unions; Economies of use value within urban processes; Spaces for political infiltration; Radical representative strategies. The focus of his lecture was on the emergence of supranational agents of neoliberalism and their influence on urbanization.

II. The non-democratic urban world of supranational dominance

When we talk about the beginning of neoliberalism, what is commonly missed is the fact that parallel to privatizations, deregulations and other processes of neoliberalization, there were also changes on a global scale reflected primarily in multinational trade agreements. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, we saw the drafting of the first series of international treaties (NAFTA in 1992, EU in 1993) and the process of internationalization of everything. Governments were working together across the wide array of and regardless of their ideological positionalities. In a short period of time, these agreements created border-crossing commercial lines, with a logic that superseded that of the nation-state. Based on these developments, Robles-Durán posed the following question: Why is it that, regardless of political developments on the local level, the urban trends and patterns have been the same?  One can easily observe that since the 1990s, cities around the world has gone through a similar transformation. Robles-Durán proposed to search for the answer in the creation of new supranational institutions accompanying neoliberalization and outlined four conditions that made this global restructuring possible.

Reformed supranational institutions

  1. Reform of old institutions, such as IMF and World Bank, that function as a consensus apparatus and depositories of neoliberal knowledge, coerce states into accepting treaties and dictate the reconfiguration of space.
  2. Supranational surveillance, benchmarking & promotion of neoliberalism. Organizations like IMF would need institutions to supervise individual states, benchmark and peer review their progress and change to prescribed standards. OECD is an example of this monitoring type of organisations that also function at supranational level.
  1. National governments as the agents of supranationals. The first two institutions operate invisibly, removed from the local level; they are regarded as consultant or bank agencies, with no threat to democracy. However, these institutions enter nation-states and coerce them into operating as agents of international organisations, implementing neoliberal agenda. Thus, we cannot direct our resistance against national institutions, since they were forced to become agents of a specific kind of capitalism.
  1. City governments as opinion shapers. On a local scale, city governments act as agents of transformation. Cities are prompted to become more competitive by OECD and other supranational agents. Cities work together for this purpose, creating networks and alliances. These still operate on supranational level because laws under agreements between cities occupy different space than conflicting laws of sovereign nations.

III. Supranational demands & transformation of territories:

Robles-Durán outlined the demands put forward by these supranational agents that lead to transformation of territories at different scales:

  1. At global scale, more legal control is given to privately defined supranational organisations, in many cases bypassing constitutional conventions and democratically structured political jurisdiction. They redefine continental and transcontinental trade blocks through the drafting of new corridors, directing the flow of labor, natural resources, manufactured goods, food, services, etc.
  2. At city scale, treaties encourage urban centers to become more competitive by providing incentives and infrastructure to attract international manufacture, trade, and business hubs. Two types of urban development forced by supranational institutions have become most popular:
    1. Competition between cities of low-cost sourcing, which entails a reconfiguration of territories for low-cost manufacture;
    2. Competition between aspiring headquarter cities.

Mass consultancy agencies (independent of IMF and OECD) define these two types of cities (manufacturing and global cities), e.g. UN-Habitat, Deloitte, PWC. They pass down a neoliberal agenda from IMF to city mayors, thus intersecting all scales and shaping new laws that override local laws.

3. Corridors that work outside the logic of any nation state. While nation states continue to financially support urbanization, through classic channels like fiscal redistribution, in order to become competitive players they have to offer more development resources and focus on finding and opening spaces for  private investment.

Since the 90s, cities have been trying to fit the same formula of becoming competitive, imposed on them by the same consulting agencies: innovation, promotion of entrepreneurship, creation of business environment, creative class. This homogenization can also be seen in architecture, as it came to physically represent processes of capitalism, and construction of the same cultural attractions, such as museums.  Additionally, Robles-Durán notes that this type of benchmarking and metric making has proliferated, even penetrating the logic of cities attempting to resist the neo-liberal agenda (i.e. ranking of municipalist achievements). The result leads Robles-Durán to define urbanization as the “representation of capitalism in space.” Following this definition, he suggests we need a new way to read cities, wherein we consider their temporal and historical aspects, and recognize the ways in which their boundaries as political territories are eroded.

Q&A

During the Q&A portion of the talk, Robles-Durán further articulated both the consequences of embedded neoliberalism in urbanization and potential strategies for intervention and course-correction.

The first question was on the role of prominent urban academics and theorists in legitimizing and perpetuating tropes and systems of global cities, namely Saskia Sassen (here is a link to an article by Sassen that provides an overview and introduction to her concept of “The Global City”). Despite her affiliation with academia and critical research, Robles-Durán situates Sassen and her ilk (particularly Richard Florida) as beholden to the supranational, non-democratic global organizations that perpetuate and disguise extractive strategies for capitalist accumulation. Being an academic, even being a part of the “Left,” does not preclude complicity in these structures and systems. Cities are coerced by these organizations into compliance by heeding strategies of remaining “globally competitive.” Florida’s “Creative Class” has arguably wrought an incredible amount of damage on urban democratic institutions, practices, and landscapes, mainly because its elegance and simplicity were so attractive to cities struggling to revitalize following the financial crises of the 1970s and the deindustrialization of the Global North. Robles-Durán argues that “creative” is really a metaphor of exclusion: upon adopting these strategies to attract both capital and residents, cities made a conscious decision of who and what urban territory was for.

Another question related to strategies of anti-capitalist contestation, namely pedagogical tools, which dovetailed the previous discussion of academics and researchers in urbanism. Robles-Durán urged a broader view, reminding us that “capitalism thinks in centuries.” Shifting the logic of understanding phenomena of change will take time, but it is critical to initiate it now. Younger generations are conscious that something isn’t right, but they lack the tools and language to articulate it–most educational preparation is not grounded in dialectical critiques or comprehensions. Challenging and dissolving arbitrary and anachronistic disciplinary boundaries is another strategy to cultivate new perspectives and critiques, and could empower students to consider problems and processes more comprehensively. His final comment related to scale–engaging with individuals, organizations, institutions at a scale that can match that of supranational institutions.

The role of the traditional nation-state vis-a-vis development (both economic and physical infrastructure) structured the remainder of the talk. The nation-state, historically, provides the capital, vision, and execution of development strategies (and all of the attendant risk). Following the neoliberal turn, however, nation-states began contracting out these roles privately and globally, providing funding but limiting interference with the broader visions and goals of these strategies. This model isn’t limited to infrastructure; it’s reflected at a smaller scale in housing development and employment training to cultivate space for accumulation and labor discipline, outside the aegis of democratic institutions. There is no space for community-driven development because there is no other option: supranational, global institutions curate restructuring at a global scale by subtly coercing nation-states and cities to toe the line– Amazon did this quite effectively, and with little protestation from smaller scales of governance.

Questions

  1. It is important to consider anticapitalist strategies under the framework of scale–scale is what has leveraged capitalist hegemony globally. What have global examples of resistance looked like historically, if at all? What issue do you see as meaningful and potent juncture for solidarity?
  2. Following on question 1, after the “alterglobalization” movement, we have largely seen critiques of globalism in mass-media captured by the far-right (i.e. Brexit).  What should the framework of a so-called “left exit” of supranational/technocratic institutions (Lexit), premised on left wing demands rather than nativism, look like today?
  3. While accepting Robles-Durán’s argument about the power that supranational institutions came to have over nation-states in the course of the neoliberalization, is it possible, at the same time, to incorporate into this analysis the role of individual hegemonic states in creating and maintaining these supranational institutions? For example, in The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire (2012), Leo Panitch and Sam Grindin emphasize the role that the US has played in coordinating the management of global capitalism and restructuring of other states, both through its military and financial institutions. How would this argument complicate our thinking about strategies to combat global forces of neoliberalism?

 

4 thoughts on “11/14 Miguel Robles-Duran

  1. Patrick

    Thanks all for the thoughtful and detailed summary. I really appreciate the final question. Harvey earlier discussed criticisms of his book on Neoliberalism that saw his narrative as idealist and I don’t simply want to go down that road in discussing the IMF-OECD–centered explanation for the supranational (downward) homogenization of production conditions in cities across the world. I do, however, think that arguments about the supersession of the national state (both in welfare policy and in market-making activity) have often been overstated. Mariana Mazzucato, Suzanne Mettler, Boris Vormann, and Fred Block have all made this point in different ways. Different structures of provision do change the dynamics of public goods and social reproduction more broadly, but if they’re still generally mostly financed on the basis of public debt at the nation-state level, then we need to think more carefully about that state as a continued site of struggle—even as it’s hemmed in by disciplinary action on the part of domestic and foreign owners of capital, let alone other states.

    The physical infrastructure that makes globalization, comparative advantage, regional economic specialization, and the neoliberal political-economic restructuring possible, on top of the military securitization and financial institutions Panitch & Gindin highlight, is indeed largely financed by national states (see the Panama Canal, global containerization, and China’s Belt & Road Initiative). Ching Kwan Lee’s recent book examining the operation of Chinese “state capital” on precisely such infrastructural investments sheds key light on the persistence of states (and not only China) in making globalization and neoliberalized trade relations possible in the first place, and not simply by voluntarily or involuntarily withdrawing from fields of provision and regulation. Sometimes we believe the neoliberal narrative of global capital triumphant a bit too strongly, and ignore how the restructuring of capitalist state-market relations is not just a story of withdrawal, but one of the fashioning of new exercises of state power—of which Amazon Cuomo personally paving a helipad in LIC is only one of the most infuriating recent examples.

    Block, Fred and Matthew R. Keller, eds. 2011. State of Innovation: The U.S.Government’s Role in Technology Development. Boulder: Paradigm.
    Lee, Ching Kwan. 2018. The Specter of Global China: Politics, Labor, and Foreign Investment in Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
    Mazzucato, Mariana. 2015. The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths. New York: Public Affairs.
    Mettler, Suzanne. 2011. The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
    Vormann, Boris. 2018. “City Limits: Sustainable Urban Governance in Planetary Infrastructural Regimes.” In Helmut Aust and Anél Du Plessis, eds. The Globalization of Urban Governance. New York: Routledge.

  2. Aus Mil

    Thanks for the great discussion! I think the question of scale is a route of really opening up questions about power, strategy, and solidarity. Different decisions and resources are channeled through different imagined communities, government structures, and corporations. To me, there is not a clear teleology to global intervention into the nation or the urban. It is important to recognize that global cgovernance is in many ways actually specific nations, which have long challenged the sovereignty of the same territories that the IMF has in more recent years. When we look at specific cases, it can begin to see like a continuation of unequal histories, rather than a violation of a long-standing form of sovereignty.

    Additionally, the urban has been a site of contestation against the global. In Europe, where many unions and working class solidarities are scaled to the nation, the up-scaling of some aspects of sovereignty to the EU has weakened the potential of nationally based unions to effect change. While union upscaling would be a possibility, and would maybe be predicted by a teleological view of globalization, instead we have seen many activists turning to city-wide initiatives. In Barcelona, the municipal movement has been very successfully in electoral politics as well as strikes that have led to restrictions on AirBNB and Uber.

    While we are currently witnessing quite dramatic rescaling of power, it is by no means a unidirectional upscaling.

  3. Kathryn Alessi

    The surpranational consulting agencies that Robles-Durán focused on are some of the most influential companies on a global scale, yet, not many people actually know what they do. even if they have heard of them. I’m curious to know if public exposure of how they are bankrupting cities and selling off public space to private companies in an effort to become the “next big thing” would affect their influence or future initiatives.

    If you look at Amazon, it has had extreme growth with the efforts of waged slavery and industry take-over (largely by directly competing with companies who sell items on Amazon) , but those aspects were largely hidden until recently. Now, that a spotlight is constantly shining on Amazon they are taking a lot of heat and seem to be adapting to public opinion, both good and bad (although Bezos is great at taking advantage of loopholes!). The upset that it’s new headquarters is causing in NYC is only beginning and though it may not lead to the left’s desired outcome, it will shine more light on the trouble Amazon is causing nationally and globally.

    My intention here is not to presume that the people are winning a fight against Amazon, but it’s to consider how the people living in these headquarter cities would react if they knew their local governments were giving away public land and money at the influence of a handful of consulting companies and if that would have any real impact.

  4. Laura E. Rivas

    Thank you for a great (and beautifully written) summary. With regards to question 1, I think that the issue of scale is of paramount importance for anticapitalist organizing—particularly after pondering on the ramifications of “representing capitalism in space” and organizing space in specific ways through the lens of urbanization, which comes with enduring consequences that are slow to change given the imprint of the built environment. Another major imposition is the lack of/blurring of agency that the rescaling that Robles-Duran notes represents. One potentially useful source for folks thinking about this question in detail is Neil Smith’s (1992) “Contours of a spatialized politics: Homeless vehicles and the production of geographic scale.” In this piece, he introduces the process of “scale-jumping” which effectively expands political claims from one geographic scale to another.

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