The Everyday Violence of Urban Neoliberalism: An Interview with Nik Theodore


Nik Theodore is Director of the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a leading theorist of the urban dimensions of neoliberal restructuring.  He has collaborated closely with the Right to the City Alliance, the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, and other groups that have been at the center of the fight against the generalization and of precarious labor.

David Hugill and Peter Brogan (DHPB): You and your colleagues Jamie Peck and Neil Brenner have insisted on using the language of “neoliberalism” when so many others have begun to pronounce its death.  What lies behind this choice?

Nik Theodore (NT): Maybe the answer is, to paraphrase what Habermas said about modernity: yes neoliberalism is dead — dead but dominant.  One of our positions has been that there hasn’t been another ideological project to emerge as of yet that has sufficient weight to fundamentally challenge neoliberal tenets.  And while neoliberalism has ceased to be generative of new policy ideas — we have seen a discrediting of neoliberal statecraft — at the same time neoliberalized forms of relations between places and individuals have worked their way into the operating system of capitalist globalization.  So, while neoliberalism ceases to have any new ideas about how to contend with crisis, because the operating system has been so fundamentally neoliberalized, a single financial crisis isn’t going to bring down the totality lock, stock, and barrel.

DHPB: Many of us have become accustomed to understanding neoliberalism as a primarily destructive project but you’ve stressed that neoliberalization is a process of creative destruction.  What does the creative side of neoliberalism look like?

NT: If we look at neoliberal urbanism — which has been a focal point of a lot of our work — we see a number of state strategies that are quite “productive” in terms of generating new or reworked forms of urban policy.  So there is a creative side, if you will, to neoliberal restructuring.  We can look at certain policy arenas and see what we mean.  While we might have had the “end of welfare as we knew it” in the United States — a rolling back of welfare entitlement — we had a simultaneous rolling forward of workfare strategies and state surveillance of the poor.  In housing markets, where we’ve seen the razing of public housing developments, we’ve seen a rolling out of voucher systems and marketized/privatized systems of housing provision.  Neoliberal urbanism and neoliberal statecraft haven’t only been about dismantling inherited regulatory landscapes from a previous era; they have been about rolling forward a set of marketized, market-disciplinary forms of regulation and control.  And that is seeping into evermore spheres of everyday life.  That is the generative face of neoliberalism.  That is its roll-out face to use Jamie and Adam [Peck and Tickell’s] language.  That is the creative face of neoliberalization.

DHPB: You’ve said there is an urban story behind the breaking of the social contract.  Could you expand on this briefly?  Why have cities and processes of urbanization been so central to these processes of restructuring?

NT: Cities have become strategic targets for a number of neoliberal policy experiments such as changes in the education system, changes in housing policy, changes in labor market programs that deal with unemployment, and so on.  Cities have become real-world laboratories for neoliberalized policy experimentation.  Furthermore, cities are important because they are the command centers of global capitalism.  I think both from an experimental standpoint and from an ideational struggle over the course of policy change, cities are becoming increasingly central to the production and reproduction of neoliberalism.

DHPB: And yet, at the same time some of the most creative tactics and organizational forms have been developed by urban movements.  For example, one of the groups that you work with is the National Day Laborer Organizing Network as well as the Right to the City Alliance, both of which are urban-focused.  What do you make of this phenomenon?

NT: Cities are also sites where the everyday violence of neoliberal restructuring projects is most vivid.  Groups like the Right to the City Alliance (RTTC) have observed that various urban development actors — like property developers and financiers — are pursuing similar strategies in Los Angeles and in Miami and in Chicago, etc.  So, why should organizing groups rely solely on highly localized struggles that are disconnected from each other?  Since the forces of capital operate across places and regions there is a fundamental relationality about their tactics and profit strategies, so why re-invent the wheel politically every time you have to challenge a development model or the actions of an individual developer?  I think one of the strategic moves of the RTTC was to bring under a single banner organizations working in different places so that they could learn from each other and join in common cause against the same development ideologies and development models — and sometimes the very same developers that are trying to pursue a path of development that leads to displacement and other economic hardships for local residents.

In the case of the immigrant day laborers who gather in public spaces to search for work in the construction and landscaping industries, there are fundamental changes that are occurring in US labor markets and many workers’ rights organizations found themselves facing similar challenges.  Policy challenges, challenges from anti-immigrant forces, the erosion of labor standards, and other difficulties at the local level.  Rather than trying to solve all these problems individually, why not get together and learn from each other collectively, to test each other’s ideas, and to develop a broader-based strategy that gets beyond the local particularities of the situation and tries to move organizing and policy at a larger scale?  There are times when folks need to join together to mobilize to push or contest immigration policies at the federal level, for example, or to pressure government enforcement agencies to aggressively pursue unscrupulous employers who are engaging in wage theft.  There are times when workers and other leaders need to band together to support each other’s efforts.  In Arizona right now, for example — where we are seeing very punitive immigration policy — the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) has mobilized its national network and allied with other networks like RTTC to put organizers on the ground in Arizona.  This sends the message that “your fight is our fight,” and it serves notice to policymakers in the state that people are watching and holding them to account for their actions and their policy decisions.  When it is necessary to scale up for fights that extend beyond the local, these national networks have been able to mobilize in response to the challenges.

There are breaking points and opportunities, whether we seize them or not.  They are around us.  I think the point is to have a political analysis that has deep roots in grassroots, base-building organizing, and then the capacity to mobilize that base.  What this means is for organizations to develop a shared analysis so that we can identify and exploit the breaking points that exist for progressive social change.  I think the 2008 financial crisis was a missed opportunity politically for the left, a missed opportunity for progressive forces.  I don’t think that the left seized upon it in a way that was needed.  There was an opportunity to change the terms of the debate and to escape the straightjacket of neoliberal policy reforms, but I fear, rather than doing that, we are winding up with deeper austerity measures and business-as-usual politics.  I think Hurricane Katrina was another missed opportunity, and the right was faster than the left to mobilize in the face of catastrophe.  It seems that no catastrophe is too great to prevent the right from manipulating it for their own advantage: in the case of Katrina conservatives used that moment to push through massive privatization initiatives and to try to gut prevailing-wage laws for government-funded revitalization efforts; in the case of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, they sought to bar airport security personnel from unionizing; and today in Wisconsin and elsewhere they are using state budget difficulties to remove the right of public employees to collectively bargain.  Maybe there is something noble about the left’s restraint in not jumping on individual and community hardship to advance a political agenda.  But we need to understand that crises are breaking points, days of reckoning, decision points.  We have to have the analysis and the mobilization ready so that we can change the debate for the long-term benefit of the cities in which we live.

DHPB: You’ve talked about a difference in your own political memory between the crisis of the 1980s and the current crisis in terms of how people responded.  Can you elaborate on that?

NT: One of the striking features of the current economic crisis when you compare it to the severe recession of the early 1980s is that there seemed to be more outrage, more noise, in the early 1980s.  This current crisis seems to me to be an extraordinarily private crisis.  You can travel through many major cities in North America and elsewhere and there is little outward sign of the true underlying difficulties that families and communities are facing.  It does seem like so much of this crisis is being internalized by the individual and by the family.

DHPB: I wanted to ask you about the central emphasis that many of these organizations — like the RTTC and NDLON — have placed not only on education but also on research, within their structures.  How are they developing research strategies and using research in their organizing?  And also, how do you see your role as a scholar-activist doing research in collaboration with these groups?

NT: A lot of those organizations have a strong current of popular education that runs through their very core.  They value leadership development and a destabilization of some of the traditional hierarchies between teacher and student, organizer and member, and so on.  They are very comfortable unsettling those hierarchies, and they see this as fundamental to their work.  If you look at the elements of popular education that they draw on, for example, you will see that they view education as a process of social transformation.  It is part of consciousness-raising and leadership development.  It is bringing to the surface some of the deep structural problems that affect the lives of members and their communities.  But they also politicize certain aspects of urban life that have often been naturalized, such as the idea that the poor should be displaced to make way for “development” or that immigrant workers shouldn’t expect to receive fair wages and decent treatment on the job.  So, to understand that inequality is produced, that poverty is produced means that they can be the site of struggle and that urban development agendas and labor market practices can be vital arenas for political projects aimed at progressive social change.  There is a sense of moving together as a collectivity — not some vanguard leadership that then has a bunch of followers — but actually an organization of people moving together in a process of learning, reflecting, and moving strategically informed social change.  I think that runs through the day laborer worker centers, it runs through the Right to the City organizations, and a lot of the “new” urban social movements that seem to be emerging in the United States.  This works well with the Centre for Urban Economic Development where I am director because I think one of our missions is to democratize the research process.  Every organization is in a constant process of planning and research, so let’s not view research as something that happens “over there” in the Ivory Tower but instead let’s understand that research is something that is done by these organizations as strategic actors within urban environments and policy arenas.  Let’s become involved in analytically and methodologically rigorous research projects, but this time let’s do it from the point of view of the community and these organizations — from the point of view of the research questions they value and think are important.  Let’s turn the tables and see these places not as some sort of urban laboratory where experiments are conducted on research subjects, but as sites of strategic thinking and analysis.  What is the ultimate goal here?  It is to demystify the research process.  To demystify and democratize this process and say “you as organizers, you as community residents or low-wage workers can be the researchers and investigators.”  I think this works very nicely with a popular education ethos, which says that we are going to learn and bring to the surface elements of the urban condition in the work of social transformation.  We are going to be involved in the production of knowledge.  Some of those organizations have taken it a step further and have said, “We want to ‘own’ our issue.”  We as workers, we as community residents, want to be viewed as experts on our issue.  I mean, really, who could tell you more about labor market precariousness than a day laborer?  How do you tell an unauthorized immigrant about the effects of immigration policy?  How do you tell a domestic worker what it means to be a domestic worker?  They know more about these experiences than anyone else.  Yet their knowledge is systematically and pervasively ignored, undervalued and dismissed.  What we need to do is to help these organizations achieve the status so that their knowledge is valorized.  Not in an uncritical way.  It’s not that they don’t need to be challenged.  They need to be challenged as well.  But we need to see this as a leveling of the playing field on both sides, if we want to call these sides; the academy and the community need to mutually challenge each other, to make sure that we have the best analysis that’s possible.  I think this is part of a democratization of research, part of a democratization of knowledge, and part of respecting the knowledge that comes from lived experience and that comes from the grassroots.

I’ll give you a quick example.  There is a growing wage theft movement in the United States, and we’ve seen an increase in organizing, policymaking, and research around the issue of the nonpayment of wages by unscrupulous employers.  In Los Angeles, these efforts are being led at the community level by a coalition of day laborers, carwash worker, janitors, taxi drivers, and others.  Policy groups and elected officials have been drafting legislation to strengthen laws and enforcement, but workers are facing various forms of retaliation when they try to exercise their rights.  A committee of worker leaders from across these occupations are directly involved in writing legislation that brings to the table concrete ways in which employers are evading the law, as well as ways in which they are retaliating against workers.  Sometimes it involves really cheap, sneaky tactics.  For example, in the carwash industry where the CLEAN campaign is organizing workers, employers are required under law to read aloud the provisions of a recent labor standards law as a way to increase transparency and accountability.  But the law didn’t specify when these provisions had to be read aloud.  So some carwash owners took to the practice of reading the provisions before the carwash had opened and after the carwash had closed, in effect nullifying the law.  Based on their experiences and knowledge of industry practices, the workers involved in the committee are able to bring their insights to bear on new laws and to significantly improve these laws by anticipating the ways in which unscrupulous employers might try to circumvent workers’ rights legislation.

DHPB: You’ve talked about the consequences of language and suggested that the “battle of words” is a critical front for movement struggles.  Can you elaborate on this?

NT: There is a war of words.  Words matter.  From a policy standpoint, the words we use often suggest the parameters of a problem and within the parameters of the problem are the seeds for its putative solution.  In this war of words, sometimes we lose a key concept — part of our vocabulary — when we substitute one word for another, we lose part of its meaning.  Let me give you a more concrete example: in the immigration debate in the United States, anti-immigrant forces have systematically attacked the key concepts and terminology of immigrant rights groups.  Nowhere do you see this clearer than in the concept of “amnesty,” which was turned into a bad word, a way to label a whole group of people and dismiss their entire position.  The word “amnesty” was attacked first by neoconservative forces that wanted to put limits on migration — by anti-immigrant forces — as a way to dismiss not just the ideas put forward by immigrants and immigrant rights organizations but also as a way to undermine their standing in the policy debate.  But it didn’t stop there.  The word “undocumented” — and what lies behind the word “undocumented” is the concept that no human being is illegal — this word was attacked as a way to advance the concept of illegality.  And what is tied to illegality?  The rule of law.  These are big conceptual issues — they are big conceptual maneuvers.  There are consequences when one concept is destroyed as a way to advance another.  So, undocumented workers are then cast as illegal, illegal then strikes to the heart of the rule of law, and are we not a nation of laws?  These are key intellectual battle lines that are being fought out by political actors in these debates, and the final outcome is going to be profoundly shaped by this war of words.

But, of course, it is not always the case where progressive forces lose these battles.  I was doing some work with the Miami Workers Center which, despite its name, is an organization that mostly does tenant or resident organizing in a historically African-American neighborhood called Liberty City in Miami.  They are bigger than that, they have reached out throughout the region and throughout the country (as a founding member of RTTC), but much of their base and their struggles are located in Liberty City, Miami.  One of the issues there was that this was a neighborhood under increasing gentrification pressures.  In Miami political circles, gentrification was not a word that was in common usage.  But gentrification as a concept embodies a range of processes that include displacement — some of what David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession” and so on — so it is an important concept, and though it is complicated and it wasn’t in popular usage, maybe it still needed to be part of the debate.  The leadership of the Miami Workers Center — both the staff and their leaders — decided to make a stand on this, to try and “own” that term because they wanted to shape the policy debate in ways that discussions of changing land values simply don’t capture.  So their plan was to thrust that terminology into the public debate but also to own that concept, to not lose it in the next “war of words.”  They were successful through a research project where they surveyed neighborhood businesses and demonstrated how gentrification was hampering business interests in the neighborhood.  They then used the research report to project the concept of gentrification into the wider property development debate in Miami.  What we found was that there was a lot of similarity between Liberty City-based businesses and Liberty City residents.  That there was common cause between them, that they suffered some of the same conditions of slumlords, underinvestment, and gentrification threats.  The long-term goal was that, whenever there is a news story about rising property prices or displacement, the Miami Workers Center will be called for a comment.  It was an effort to elevate their status within those debates because they do bring a unique perspective to the processes of gentrification that are at work in Miami.  So we asked: “What is the lead message here,” how does these processes of gentrification get described?  The decision taken by the Miami Workers Center — and I think the correct one, even though it explicitly went against the advice of the “movement public relations consultants” that were working with the Center — was that, even though we have a concept that wasn’t in common circulation in Miami, they would take the risk to try and thrust gentrification into the public domain.  And they were enormously successful.  When their story hit the press, the front page of the Miami Herald business section led with the story in big block letters “Gentrification Comes to Liberty City.”  It was a way to achieve a public prominence and to get the legitimacy and validation of this as an important policy concept, and to make others react to it rather than always being in a somewhat subordinate position where you are reacting to other people’s ideas.  Now the Miami Workers Center is the generator of ideas, and policymakers and opponents need to respond to that.  Another case is the work we have been doing with the National Domestic Workers Alliance in the United States.  The idea is that domestic workers should be seen as experts in the conditions of domestic work.  So through a large-scale survey (and the dissemination of media work we will do after), domestic workers will be front and center within the policy debate, nationally and hopefully internationally, around conditions of paid household work.  I think a lot of the organizations and networks that we find ourselves working with are enlisting our support in helping them to advance crucial concepts into a public debate that has been devoid of some of the critical conceptual vocabulary that is necessary for people to engage thoughtfully with the issues.

DHPB: You’ve talked about how movement strategies and histories of resistance often travel across borders and get taken up in new organizations.  How have these transnational relationships been politically helpful?

NT: One of the fascinating developments — and I think it is a development that is going to be incredibly generative in years to come — is the way in which migrants to the US are bringing their own knowledge and language of social struggles, and their own repertoires of contention, to the US.  As they join social movements they are able to introject these ideas into US organizing contexts.  You don’t just simply import — off the shelf — something from another country and deposit it into a US-based social movement.  All of these ideas have to be worked with and adapted.  But if you look at the various popular education methodologies that are being used, you see that these are mobile technologies that can be flexibly deployed in various contexts and locales when in the hands of skilled leaders.  Some of the key ideas around ways to understand precarious work, for example, around different organizing tactics, about using education itself as a vehicle for social change have built on the organizing ideas and analysis of migrant workers themselves.  Of course, some of these ideas were in the United States already.  I’ve talked to many popular educators who now live and work in the United States, and they were impressed to see some of the same currents in the civil rights movement with the freedom schools, the Highlander Center, and sites of democratic organizing.  So these currents existed in the United States, they existed in parts of Asia, they existed in parts of Africa, and what we are seeing is this productive melding of different traditions, and really, cross-cultural, cross-national learning, around organizing strategies.  If you look at some of the most vibrant organizing in the United States, both within the labor movement and outside of it, much of it involves migrant workers who are bringing, again, different repertoires of contention and different organizing styles to bear on the realities that they are facing in the United States.  And I think the day laborer worker centers have been a real seedbed of these ideas, and they have attracted organizers with deep histories of social struggle in their countries of origin.  In the day labor context we are talking about people from countries such as El Salvador, Mexico, Ecuador, Korea, and elsewhere who are bringing their experiences into productive tension with each other, to challenge each other, but all with the same purpose of driving organizing initiatives forward.  This is quite a fascinating period right now.

DHPB: In the day labor context, how have organizers been able to bring these diverse traditions together when the competition on the street corner or at the hiring site can be so brutal?

NT: I think this operates at a number of different levels but at its core — from an organizing perspective — there is an openness, a predisposition to being open to new ideas, a predisposition to an acceptance to be challenged, to have your conventions and norms unsettled by new ideas.  I think this is an important part of day laborer organizing.  But how do you work that out on the ground?  Day laborers have faced a unique set of challenges that they have had to adapt to.  They have had to be creative about how they were going to deal with the barriers that exist in those segments of the labor market.  You have a situation in day labor where there are no social supports — or very little in the way of social supports — so workers are out there competing on the corner for a limited supply of job opportunities.  Just the everyday economic realities of that type of employment relationship place very real barriers between individuals.  At the same time, if they don’t carry out solidaristic action there is going to be a race to the bottom in terms of wages and working conditions.  So while they compete head to head for job opportunities, somehow they need to find a way to cooperate to defend labor standards.  Somehow they need to collectively set minimum wage rates, collectively shun unscrupulous employers, collectively fight for their rights.  But on the corner you have people from a wide range of nationalities — different countries in Central and North America, different countries in Africa and Asia — so how do you get past the nationalistic barriers that may divide workers?  You have, on the one hand, the economic barriers that mean if you get a job, I may not, and then the national barriers that often keep us apart anyway.  How do you, in other words, achieve international solidarity on the street corner?  The day labor organizers realize that they need to try and bridge that particular divide.  They need to be able to build social solidarity at the front end so they are able to change or contest the violence of day labor employment arrangements on the back end.  So things that are part of everyday life like sport, play, theatre, and humor — things that come not from the work world but from the life world — are often used as tools for learning and building a collective consciousness.  For example, soccer is played very differently from one country to another, but when you put together day laborers on the same soccer team and play against another team — you have workers from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico — they have got to work out their stylistic differences on the pitch.  Once they have begun to work out some of those differences, they are able to see that they can work together, and when this cooperation is reinforced through other solidaristic activities, it has led to surprising organizing victories at informal hiring sites.  There are a lot of examples where organizers have used activities outside of the workplace to foster solidarity.  This helps to remove some of the barriers that stand between people.  These techniques, and others, are used to open up spaces of dialogue, spaces of organizing, and by adapting techniques that come from the life world, they find a way to break open spaces of mutual understanding and foster worker solidarity.

David Hugill and Peter Brogan are Toronto-based activists and PhD candidates in the department of geography at York University in Toronto.


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