Cities and the Geographies of “Actually Existing Neoliberalism”

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Abstract

This essay elaborates a critical geographical perspective on neoliberalism that emphasizes (a) the path–dependent character of neoliberal reform projects and (b) the strategic role of cities in the contemporary remaking of political–economic space. We begin by presenting the methodological foundations for an approach to the geographies of what we term “actually existing neoliberalism.” In contrast to neoliberal ideology, in which market forces are assumed to operate according to immutable laws no matter where they are “unleashed,” we emphasize the contextual embeddedness of neoliberal restructuring projects insofar as they have been produced within national, regional, and local contexts defined by the legacies of inherited institutional frameworks, policy regimes, regulatory practices, and political struggles. An adequate understanding of actually existing neoliberalism must therefore explore the path–dependent, contextually specific interactions between inherited regulatory landscapes and emergent neoliberal, market–oriented restructuring projects at a broad range of geographical scales. These considerations lead to a conceptualization of contemporary neoliberalization processes as catalysts and expressions of an ongoing creative destruction of political–economic space at multiple geographical scales. While the neoliberal restructuring projects of the last two decades have not established a coherent basis for sustainable capitalist growth, it can be argued that they have nonetheless profoundly reworked the institutional infrastructures upon which Fordist–Keynesian capitalism was grounded. The concept of creative destruction is presented as a useful means for describing the geographically uneven, socially regressive, and politically volatile trajectories of institutional/spatial change that have been crystallizing under these conditions. The essay concludes by discussing the role of urban spaces within the contradictory and chronically unstable geographies of actually existing neoliberalism. Throughout the advanced capitalist world, we suggest, cities have become strategically crucial geographical arenas in which a variety of neoliberal initiatives—along with closely intertwined strategies of crisis displacement and crisis management—have been articulated.

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