Urban Politics Now: Re-Imagining Democracy in the Neoliberal City

Psychoanalysis considers the Symptom – slips of the tongue, nervous ticks, dreams and suchlike – as a repressed form of speech; like a liar with sweaty palms, we’d rather keep something to ourselves, but just can’t help it. Symptoms are useful to the analyst, as an immediate surfacing of the Real, of the traumatic, uncontrollable issues that really motivate us – libido, the longing for recognition, fear of the Other, and so on. By carefully interpreting symptoms, the analyst can assess the pathology of a patient.

These days it’s a commonplace to consider the design of our built environment in such pathological terms: The content of our cities is increasingly determined by apparently traumatic, uncontrollable motivations (including profitability, consumer demand, security and ethnic identity) while the forms that they take (shopping malls, gated communities, ghettos and the like) are excused as being purely symptomatic.

If this is the case, what civic space remains for principled and positive action, either by the state or by autonomous collectives? This is the question asked by Urban Politics Now: Re-Imagining Democracy in the Neoliberal City, the latest NAI publication in the Reflect series. The book pulls together thirteen essays from academic contributors, predominantly Anglo-Dutch, in the fields of Politics, Philosophy, Geography and Urbanism, who all share an interest in applied psychoanalytic theory and a concern for democracy in the Neoliberal context.

The collection opens with Slavoj Zizek’s characteristically aphoristic offering, which describes the riots in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as a symptom. The stranded – the poor and those excluded from support – were exclusively black; their image certainly appeared to the world as the repressed truth of America, a momentary visibility of its racial class dynamic.  But how should we interpret the violence that followed? Zizek asks the politically incorrect question – did the city descend into violence because those stranded were black? In other words, is violence the traumatic truth of black poverty, which only the violence of law can repress? The question is not answered, but rather identified as a fantasy that haunted the rescue operation; radically inflated reports of looting and raping hindered attempts to rescue those in need. The moral Zizek offers is that when confronting the Real – the apparently uncontrollable forces that determine our co-existence – we should take care to unmask the ‘ordering of the order’, the often obscene motivation that lurks behind expert reports. After Katrina, the reports of the supposed libido and greed of the (looting and raping) Other were easily unmasked as the simple racism of the authorities. Pressing further, he also suggests that this fantasy – our fascination with the sexual and financial enjoyment of the Other – is a constitutive part of the Capitalist order; it is the fantasy that advertising’s injunction to ‘enjoy’ constantly reinforces. Should we be surprised to see this enjoyment erupt – in both riots and racism – when cities find themselves momentarily without law?

The closing essay is by BAVO, the urban theory collective, who also introduce and edit the volume. Focusing on the Dutch experience, BAVO neatly pick apart the antinomies of Dutch Neoliberal Urbanism: The ‘I Amsterdam’ campaign, a branding exercise to draw ‘creatives’ to the city, is shown to be instrumental in quashing squatters rights, evicting practicing artists to use their studios as creatively themed ‘dining environments’; the ‘opening’ of public housing to the market is shown to coincide with a lowering of minimum accommodation standards to allow exorbitant ‘hot-bed’ hostels for migrant workers; systems of community consultation and art projects representing happy urban tension are shown to coincide with the organised exclusion of the poor from civic life. However, the essay also champions an example of democratic action, reporting on how the inhabitants of Nieuw Crooswijk in Rotterdam attempted to resist the ‘Big Fix Up’ of their neighbourhood.  Forming an inhabitant’s collective, they developed an alternative master plan for the area, based upon their own ambitions, and proposed it to the city.  What BAVO admires about the inhabitants’ tactics is that they refused to participate in the pseudo-democratic consultation process – they refused to be de-politicised as just another ‘experience expert’ – but rather posited themselves as the authority on the future of the district (their alternative master plan was called, charmingly, ‘The Even Newer Niew Crooswijk’). In doing so they created a moment of disensus, a genuinely political moment when all the old antagonisms – Neoliberalism’s home turf – are thrown into question.

The filling to this concerning sandwich offers an exhaustive and exhausting diagnosis of novel urban malaise ranging from Postmetropolitan Psychasthenia through Bar-Code Humanity to Perver-City. The contents page alone could give a Freudian-Leninist a sense of hypochondria. However, we might have our own concerns about this catalogue. Firstly, it’s worth reflecting on the clinical fate of Psychoanalysis. The luxury of time required to reach its ‘end’ has limited its role to legitimising the ennui of the rich. Doesn’t its application here run a similar risk? This book addresses an academic audience with time to know its Anal Libido from its Ego; how likely is it to provoke an intervention? Secondly, isn’t consensus in question? The camaraderie with which ‘Neo-Liberal’ is used as a pejorative undermines any momentary disensus; as Zizek seems to ask from within the collection, why were no dedicated Neoliberals included?