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Contesting Neo-liberalism: Urban Frontiers.

Contesting Neo-liberalism: Urban Frontiers edited by Helga Leitner, Jamie Peck, and Eric S. Sheppard, The Guilford Press, New York & London, 2006, x + 340 pp., paper US$30.00 (ISBN 1-59385-320-3)

A mass of geographical writing, the bulk of it just in the last few years, has grappled with the shift from Keynesian to neo-liberal urbanism. The discussion of neo-liberalism has expanded to encompass not only the evolution of municipal governance, but also the multi-scalar processes that shape what is now a global economic, cultural and political system. Leitner, Peck and Sheppard have been important contributors to this commentary for some time, and the collection here demonstrates their continued commitment to a critical assessment of multiple 'neoliberalisms'. It also demonstrates an exciting attempt to demystify neo-liberalism by paying attention to its construction and contestation in various geographical contexts. Although the editors ascertain the dangers of reifying a concept through analysis of its 'others', the essays in this collection project such a range of counter-narratives to neo-liberalism that, on the one hand, a vision of neo-liberalism as singular or monolithic cannot emerge, while on the other hand, a vision of mass mobilization and resistance against a common target is equally implausible.

The fourteen essays collected here (not counting the editors' summary) examine primarily local-scale contestations of neo-liberal (re)organization, and the authors articulate their analyses carefully. Jamie Peck and Adam Tickell's contribution--arguably the best in the collection--traces the dissemination of neo-liberal thought through the knowledge production of Thatcherist think-tanks in the U.K. Patricia Martin's chapter examines the erosion of local autonomy in two Mexican regions through state-sponsored violence and repression, while the chapter by Wendy Larner and Maria Butler questions the recursive relationship between the neoliberalized state and local partnerships in New Zealand. Two chapters that focus on South Africa highlight, respectively, the value of organized direct action in contesting electricity disconnections in Soweto, and the strategic cooperation with, and opposition to, the local state that is part of community politics for fighting eviction in Cape Town. Joel Wainwright provides an insider's view of the anti-WTO protests in Seattle and Cancun that is both critical of the changing role of NGOs in protest politics and highly evocative of the mood of the confrontations. Volker Eick's chapter describes how non-profit agencies in Los Angeles and Berlin are at once cleaning up the mess caused by neo-liberal urban policy and cleaning up the face that neo-liberal urban policy shows to the world. Along similar lines, a contribution by Nik Theodore emphasizes the Janus-faced nature of day labor sites in a neo-liberal labor market. Although space prohibits a full accounting of the merits of every chapter, we hope it suffices to say that the diversity of topics and approaches does well to support the editors' claim: 'Those practicing contestation make use of multiple spatialities in complex and unpredictable ways' (20).

But there are limitations inherent to this approach. To conceptualize 'the reciprocal interdependence of neoliberalism and contestation' is to grant neo-liberalism as many definitions as there are contestations. Hence, we find that neoliberalism is 'economic policies favouring supplyside innovation and competitiveness' (Leitner et al., 1), 'a utopian vision' (Martin, 54), 'a significant restructuring of the economic role, political environment, and spatial terrain of the city' (Sites, 116), 'a shift away from communicative-democratic forms of social action coordination toward instrumental-strategic (market-based) forms of social action coordination' (Miller, 224), and '"rolling back" the state by rearranging state-market and state-society relations, placing increased emphasis on the market and civil society as the critical sites and agents for economic and social development' (Oldfield & Stokke, 141), among other things. The multiple definitions create at least two analytical problems. First, by applying the neo-liberal label to so many ideas, forces, localities, and projects, it becomes self-fulfilling to conclude that neo-liberalism is locally contingent and varied. Second, and more important, it becomes challenging to discern exactly what is being contested when so many forces and projects are invoked.

It is perhaps best, then, to engage this collection as a necessarily abstract and--as the editors claim--'suggestive' account of different strategies and different struggles within and against what we have come to know as 'neoliberalism', rather than as an encyclopedic extension of our understanding of neo-liberalism more broadly. Although the editors frame the visions of neo-liberalism into three categories--institutional, ideological, and governmental practices and discourses--they are also careful to avoid a description of neo-liberalism's 'precise form' (316). Rather, it is in the arena of certain struggles, at multiple scales, that what we know as neo-liberalism and what we know as resistance takes shape, making common targets on both sides of the struggle difficult to locate. This point is the clearest insight--and biggest challenge--of the book.

The ways we discuss neo-liberalism, and the ways we confront it, are constantly changing in iteration with global-to-local events, and this book marks a notable moment in this evolution. Its diverse perspectives make it stimulating fare for graduate seminars or reading groups, and certain chapters are suitable for undergraduate courses. While it may be petty to comment on the inordinate number of typographical errors (that will no doubt be corrected in the second printing), it is certainly not petty to praise the editors for bringing together authors from a range of career stages and life experiences. A collection in which senior professors, postdoctoral researchers, graduate students and activist scholars contribute to a discussion of contestation offers as much value in its existence as it does in its analysis. A natural and vital extension would be to include the voices of those who are contesting oppression locally. Indeed, many of the essays included here describe the effectiveness of collaborations and alliances in protesting various articulations of post-Keynesian reform, and we hope the lesson is not lost on the academy.


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Author:Ramsey, Robert; Hackworth, Jason
Publication:The Canadian Geographer
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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