May 25, 2015

Austerity Urbanism: The Neoliberal Crisis of American Cities

Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung - New York

Cities are sites of contestation. This has never been truer than today, with inequalities in the industrialized world rising to levels not seen in decades. Neoliberalism continues to reign—in spite of its spectacular failures, most recently exemplified by the Great Recession of 2007-08—and austerity policies are the recipe du jour, marking a new stage in what David Harvey describes as “accumulation by dispossession.”

While there is much debate about the so-called “gridlock” in Washington, D.C., and how it affects politics, comparatively little is said about the local effects of―and responses to―austerity. In the “entrepreneurial city,” municipal governments act as cost-saving business actors that run their cities like corporations. Facing tax cuts and other revenue-slashing measures, these governments have increasingly turned to austerity policies. This has translated into fewer services for citizens and less investment in the city, particularly in affordable housing.

In this study Jamie Peck, professor of geography at the University of British Columbia, Canada, delineates how neoliberalism has tightened its grip on cities since the Great Recession, engendering what he calls “austerity urbanism.” Due to the spatial concentration of unionized labor, communities of color, poor people, and liberal constituencies, cities are favored―and particularly vulnerable―targets of austerity measures. Municipal governments cut social services and the wages of public sector workers (increasingly denying these workers the right to bargain collectively), slash school budgets, and eliminate affordable housing units—all while privatizing core city functions and subsidizing private investors. While a small number of city governments with corporate inclinations welcome this self-starvation, most succumb to the pressures created by state or federal governments that pass down budget cuts to the municipal level—essentially leaving each city and town to fend for itself. A few cities adapt and ride the wave of privatization relatively unscathed, while others, most notably Detroit, drown.

Yet from the viewpoint of the Left, the situation in today’s cities is not all bleak. They are once again a hotbed for progressive politics—both at the grassroots and electoral levels. Occupy Wall Street was a distinctly urban movement that inspired similar formations in countless cities across the U.S. and even abroad. “Right to the city” initiatives are stemming the flood of foreclosures, evictions, and rising rents. Progressives have increasingly focused their efforts on city politics and paved the way for left-leaning mayors in New York City, Boston, and Minneapolis, to name a few. These cities have recently enacted policies including minimum wage increases, IDs for undocumented residents, protections for domestic workers, paid sick leave, universal Pre-K, and more. So while our cities and towns are falling increasingly under the dark spell of austerity, it is at the same time clear that the battle over austerity and the fight for progressive urban experiments has only just begun.

Housing justice and urban politics represent a core area of our work at the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung’s New York office. With this study, we start a new chapter in our ongoing work on these issues: a series of studies titled “City Series.”