thoughts on democracy and neoliberalism. [post #9]


Sam Durant’s installation, “We Are the People,” on view at Project Row Houses in 2003. Photo by Rick Lowe, courtesy Project Row Houses.

The readings this week concern democracy and neoliberalism. They provide case studies and examples, definitions and contestations. I am most interested in the possibilities each of them pose. The projects I am familiar with which make a claim to humanity through the occupation of space excite me, re-energize and invigorate me. I am not sure why a response to these readings is so difficult.

Mark Purcell’s recent book, Recapturing Democracy:  Neoliberalization and the Struggle for Alternative Urban Futures was the foundation for this week’s exploration into the complex relationship between democracy and neoliberalism. It calls for action with an unapologetic association with radical pluralism and condemnation of Habermasian spatial ideals.

Common themes between Purcell, Mayer and Donoso included:

-the relationship between democracy and neoliberalism

-a clearer understanding of democracy or democratic action, which is often as misunderstood as neoliberalism. Purcell goes to great lengths to uncover the misconceptions, breaking democratization down into phases which I believe are most beneficial when viewed as waves.

-and, an exploration of the the ways neoliberalism impacts different spaces

Urban spaces are the focus of the provided case studies. Unlike Rebecca Scott’s research which focused on rural spaces and included gendered analysis, or Alexander’s racially focused study, these urban cases deal largely with class and structural difficulties (schools, policies which usurp a movement’s language, etc.).

Looking for implications or ways to relate to the case studies was much more difficult than grappling with the theory. Seattle, Washington, Chile… they are all so distant from me. It is difficult to relate to the numbers and policies and years and context. The theory’s however, they provided new windows through which I could view the immediate world around me, and most importantly, consider my own position concerning democracy.

My own position grew more distinct and succinct as I read these works. Perhaps it is because I have a slightly firmer grasp on what neoliberalism is or can be. Regardless, I found myself deeply, viscerally, rejecting the idea of representation. I enjoyed the way the readings pulled that out of me in an unexpected way. I also enjoyed the hope in Purcell’s book; he does not shy away from a positive, some would say naïve hoefullness in humanity and our ability to utilize alter-publics to create new realities. I have been sincerely disappointed in most attempts and case studies of resistance—not disappointed in the efforts, but disappointed in the scholars capturing them. We are urged to use the same language, form, and materials to imagine radical new possibilities. I find this problematic.

And if it becomes necessary for intellectuals to turn into snipers, then let them snipe at their old concepts, their old guestions, and their old ethics.

We are not now to describe, as much as we are to be described. We’re being born totally, or else dying totally.

Yet our great friend from Pakistan, Fayiz Ahmad Fayiz, is busy with another question: “Where are the artists?”

“Which artists, Fayiz?” I ask.

“The artists of Beirut.”

“What do you want from them?”

“To draw this war on the walls of the city.”

“What’s come over you? I exclaim. Don’t you see the walls tumbling?”

–Mahmoud Darwish, Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982


In what is for many, the final post of the semester, I return to the beginning—the Briggs’ article and question what we as scholars inside the sphere of the academia have done to evoke or enact democracy. Would this not result in a new form? Do our words—jargon filled and situated in a learned public sphere—really translate beyond ourselves? Perhaps I have caught a whiff of sociopublic and cypherskoolactivists frustration from last week, but I do not mean to be (solely) critically. I believe another world is possible, I just fear we are too devoted to the comfort of structure, lineages of theorys which are bound by the world they are created in, and the everyday mundane inaction of moving forward to see that the walls are tumbling.

We see hope of this tumbling in Purcell’s assertion that neoliberalism is never total; it articulates within another form, not it’s own, it produces its own contradictions, and it is always resisted. When put into conversation with the overlapping theme of how neoliberalism differently impacts different spaces (schools, urban areas, homes, edges, etc.) there is an interesting relationship between the understanding of neoliberalism and Dorren Massey’s understanding of space. Massey understands space to be: a product of relations, a sphere of possibilities of pluralities, and always under construction.[i]

This always, already relationship to resistance is new and exciting.[ii] There are (additional) examples to this found in Project Row Houses (featured in the photo below) where the struggle is real and the answers are nessecary. This hope also led me to my questions:

Purcell writes that “rights only come into existence when they are claimed by conscious struggle.” I would like to question privledged rights here and the definition of struggle. This takes me back to last week’s discussion of violence, which I see more as a birth or emancipation. Rights seem to have a different ontology. This line of thought is also scene in Mayer’s piece and Lefebverian “creation of rights.” Must rights be created? Claimed? A result of a conscious struggle? And if so, by whom? And when?



[i] Massey, Dorreen. For Space. (pg.9)

[ii] I was reading on a kindle, but believe this is around page 15.

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