“Bouncing Back” to Poverty: Exploring the Meaning of Resilience in a Time of Capitalist Crisis

It is no coincidence that an entire ‘cottage industry on resilient cities’ has emerged at a time of global austerity—a needless and wicked political and corporate assault on the poor that needs to be captured as a crisis per se, rather than as a response to an economic crisis (Slater, 2014).

Although urban development under capitalism has historically demonstrated an extraordinary resilience to economic crises and instabilities, that capacity has usually occurred at disproportionate cost to marginalized communities. Hence, we need to make sure we are not mistaking places that benefit from capitalism as resilient geographies (Lang, 2015). Indeed, many of the hardiest communities appear to be comprised of a “cartel of politicians and financial executives, aided by think tanks and philanthropic organizations” (Slater, 2014).

Many scholars have argued that cities often secure resilience by launching radical reforms for commodification of geographical space to release new room for capital accumulation and enable economic recovery (Davoudi, Shaw et al., 2012). Consider the mid-1970’s revanchist reforms in New York City, for example, which aimed nominally to rescue the city from its fiscal crisis (Heynen, McCarthy et al., 2007), but which were accompanied by the displacement of 176,900 renters during the next 10 years (US Census Bureau, 1990). Consider, too, the 200 percent increase in the amount of U.S. agricultural land ‘grabbed’ by foreign investors during the 2009-2010 post-recession period. That acreage had become available as a result of widespread forced evictions of thousands of farmers from their properties by lenders during the 2007-2009 recession (Sassen, 2014). These examples and many more illustrate that what constitutes equitable resilience remains a poorly understood concept in the context of the modern political economy under capitalism (Heynen et al., 2006).

From a critical geography perspective, the resilience framework does not account for social and political issues related to speculative rounds of capital accumulation and circulation, inequality and uneven development, or what Harvey (2011) has called ‘accumulation by dispossession’—the continuous search for new profits from land and housing amidst economic instabilities that otherwise should constitute a central mechanism of securing urban resilience. While treating urban areas as “humanity’s greatest invention that makes us richer, smarter, healthier, and happier,” (Glaeser, 2011) the resilience framework assumes that ‘bouncing back’ following an economic shock is a positive and desirable quality. In this fashion, urban entities strive to bring their economies back from crisis to their previous ‘productive state’ as soon as possible (Christopherson et al., 2010) irrespective of the practices employed to establish that recovery. Such methods can vary from privatization of resources, gentrification and international land-grabs or by means of ‘capitalist enclosure.’ In the last cited, state power directs investment flows to targeted and privileged sites to stabilize economic production, thus leading to uneven redistribution of any resulting benefits. These practices cause social exclusion and dispossession of land, property, institutions or the ‘commons’ and consequently contribute to intensified urban inequality.

Drawing upon conceptualizations of crisis developed by theorists of the Frankfurt and Marxist schools of social thought, I argue that common strategies of obtaining resilience do not resolve capitalist emergencies at their root. Instead, these approaches displace crises tendencies in space and time by means of social exclusion and dislocation of poor communities. Bluntly, ‘bouncing back to poverty’ is not a desirable aspiration for urban communities and, in many cases, should itself be seen as a social and political crisis. In short, the idea of a ‘crisis of crisis management’ is at the heart of this essay.

Systemic and Periodic Crisis

During an economic recession, depression or economic stagnation, “geographical and institutional frameworks of capitalist development get destabilized as capital seeks to transcend systems that no longer provide a secure basis for sustained accumulation” (Brenner & Theodore, 2002, 270). Members of the Frankfurt School first explored this proposition by developing a state-centric understanding of crisis tendencies under capitalism. Jürgen Habermas argued that due to persisting transitions between ‘systems crises’ and ‘identity crises,’ instabilities under capitalism are never truly resolved.  Instead, these economic crises are often transferred to the political realm, where they increase the likelihood of a ‘legitimation crisis,’ by encouraging a failure in governing structures (Habermas, 1975).

Following Habermas, Offe (1976) introduced the agency of the state into capitalist crisis theory. For Offe, states operating in tandem with market institutions seek to ensure stable capital accumulation. Nonetheless, they also must appear neutral to that concern to preserve their popular legitimacy (Jones & Ward, 2002). As a result, governments depend on the stability of capital accumulation for their own functioning. This reality leads to a constant reworking of state’s internal structures to avoid fiscal stagnancy. In this fashion, economic crisis is a systematic and dynamic phenomenon embedded in democratic political systems and choice-making.

Harvey (2011) has employed Marxist theories of crisis to examine urban policy issues. In brief, he has contended that states have turned to one of three interrelated ‘fixes’ when confronting capitalist crises: a ‘spatial fix’ through sector-based switching of investments, a ‘temporal fix’ through introduction of new forms of capital circulation and a ‘spatiotemporal fix’ that combines the first two dimensions of displacement. Nevertheless, and as a result of their contingent character, all of these strategies allow for continuous replication of crisis tendencies through policy failures. It follows that irrespective of their intentions, these state-led efforts can undermine a society’s capacity to achieve resilience.

Discussion: ‘Crisis of Crisis Management’

In contrast to Marxist scholarship, the common resilience logic based on neoclassical views of economics treats the capitalist system as endogenously stable and crises as arising from exogenous shocks. In other words, this perspective views economic crises as periodic, and therefore as a temporary disequilibrium. Conceptions of resilience that rest on this assumption highlight and endorse the adaptive capacity of cities to cope with external shocks. This is not surprising, given that the majority of research concerning urban resilience has thus far been predicated on risk management and mitigation studies.

Mainstream views of resilience assume that reinvestment, prosperity and economic growth will help cities cope with instabilities. These therefore praise the role of Florida’s ‘creative class’ or Duany’s ‘New Urbanism’ with their implicit successive rounds of urban renewal and gentrification (Florida, 2004; Duany et al., 2010). This perspective shifts attention away from the systemic policy failures and crisis tendencies of modern urban development under capitalism. As Slater (2014) has argued, this sort of thinking “produced the largest global credit bubble ever seen, and then crashed in the most severe financial crisis in the history of capitalism (the Great Recession of 2007-09).”

In sum, while cities may appear resilient according to familiar measures, such outcomes often occur at the expense of the poor. In fact, it seems possible that with each round of economic crisis, the poverty of those most afflicted by such downturns becomes more resistant to amelioration. Thus, ‘poverty traps’ are emerging as a strikingly negative example of purported extraordinary resilience. In a vital sense, if urban scholars are to continue to use the term resilience, as now widely understood, they should at minimum strive to account for its underlying consequences.



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Christopherson, S., Michie, J., & Tyler, P. (2010). “Regional resilience: theoretical and empirical perspectives, Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, 3:1, pp 3-10.

Davoudi, S.; Shaw, K.; Haider, L. J.; Quinlan, A. E.; Peterson, G. D.; Wilkerson, C.; Funfgeld, H.; McEvoy, D.; Porter, S. (2012). “Resilience: A Bridging Concept or a Dead End? Planning Theory & Practice, 13:2, 299-333

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Jones, M., & Ward, K. (2002). “Excavating the Logic of British Urban Policy: Neoliberalism as the ‘Crisis of Crisis-Management,’” Antipode, 34:3, pp 473-494.

Lang, T. (2015). Emergent Topics in Resilience. Paper presented at the Inaugural “Riva Meeting” on the Political Economy of Regional Resilience. Riva San Vitale, July 2015

Offe, C. (1976). “‘Crisis of Crisis Management’: Elements of a Political Crisis Theory,” International Journal of Politics, 6:3, pp.29-67.

Sassen, S. (2014). Expulsions. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Slater, T. (2014, January 28). “The Resilience of Neoliberal Urbanism.” Open Democracy, website. Retrieved on November 10, 2015 from https://www.opendemocracy.net/opensecurity/tom-slater/resilience-of-neoliberal-urbanism   

US Census Bureau (1990-2000), “New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey (NYCHVS)” (2002). Retrieved on November 11, 2015 from http://www.census.gov/housing/nychvs/data/2002/nychvs02.html


Vera Smirnova picVera Smirnova is a doctoral student in the Planning, Governance and Globalization program. Her research interests include analysis of the urban geography and political economy of cities amidst capitalist crisis. Prior to coming to Virginia Tech to work on her Ph.D., Vera was a Fulbright Scholar at Kansas State University for two years. While there she earned her Master’s degree and explored the characteristics of urban dynamics during neoliberal economic restructuring. She is currently investigating the question of crisis-driven capitalist enclosure in cities as a means to justify strongly uneven geographical development and a fundamental rescaling of socioeconomic relationships among citizens.


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