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On Life as a Fictitious Commodity: Cities and the Biopolitics of Late Neoliberalism


  • This essay was originally written within the framework of a Leverhulme Trust network entitled: ‘Towards a Post-Neoliberal Urban Deal? Uneven Local Responses to the Global Recession’. It was presented as a paper at an internal meeting in Leeds in February 2011. I want to thank the other participants in the network — Sara Gonzalez, Ramon Ribera Fumaz and Stijn Oosterlinck — as well as Bob Jessop and Amelie Kutter, who participated in the Leeds meeting, for their comments and encouragement. It was also presented as a paper at the Società Italiana degli Urbanisti annual conference (March 2011) held in Turin, in a roundtable on ‘The Geopolitics of Dwelling’ convened by Carlo Salone. Finally, I am grateful to Filippo Celata for his generous comments on the final draft of this essay.


Building on a biopolitical understanding of the economic crisis, this essay contends that the occurrence of the crisis warns that life is not a real commodity but — to put it in Karl Polanyi's terms — a ‘fictitious commodity’. This means that life cannot be integrally subsumed within the economy, and therefore the crisis is to be seen as a pathological way in which societies react to the pervasiveness of capitalist relations, showing the illusory character of self-regulating markets and ownership ideologies. Two mutually contradictory biopolitical responses to the neoliberal crisis, led by the state and grassroots movements respectively, are discussed in the concluding section of the essay.