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Amsterdam neoliberal city?

6 January 2008 - Are Moroccan youth in Slotervaart torching cars because this is the only way for them to express themselves in a depoliticised, neoliberal city, in which even citizen participation has been outsourced? A new book calls for a return to ‘truly democratic urban politics’.

Amsterdam is investing hundreds of millions of euros in the Zuidas, the new business district south of the city (corporations will also invest in the project, but if it fails, their losses will be compensated with taxpayers’ money). Despite the scale of the project, there has been almost no public debate. Decision-making is an opaque process dominated by government officials, banks and other potential investors.

The Zuidas project is cited in the new book ‘Urban Politics Now’ as an example of the a-political way in which cities are pursuing a neoliberal agenda. Dissent and political conflict have been replaced with consensus over vague concepts such as ‘the creative city, the inclusive city, the global city, the sustainable city’.

Creating consensus is helped by conjuring up the threat of urban decline, symbolised by the poor neighbourhood and its - often immigrant - residents. “The poor neighbourhood is neoliberalism’s Other”, Guy Baeten argues in his contribution to the book.

“In an urban society tired of welfare, solidarity and egalitarianism - concepts that sound odd in times of neoliberal individualism - poverty and poor neighbourhoods are a source not of concern but of irritation”, he adds.

Meanwhile, political choices are being obscured by presenting neoliberal solutions as the only possible answer to urban decay. Public services are privatised and affordable houses are demolished. Localised repression is applied to get rid of unwanted residents, for example by systematically raiding bars frequented by immigrants. While the poor are given a treatment of zero tolerance, businesses are attracted by suspending regulations and handing out tax exemptions.

Some of the contributors to Urban Politics Now (Slavoj Žižek, Erik Swyngedouw) hold that the rioting youth in the French banlieues are a product of the depoliticised urban project. In contrast to the protestors of May 1968, they have no ideological agenda, nor even concrete demands: they only demand recognition. Their ‘irrational violence’ would be a result of the lack of political channels to express their discontent.

The neoliberal agenda as described in Urban Politics Now has some characteristics in common with the shock treatment described by Naomi Klein in her new book ‘The Shock Doctrine’ - in fact, shock treatment can perhaps be seen as a radical version of the neoliberal project. Klein argues that crises and disasters are often used to push through an agenda of privatisation, deregulation and social spending cuts; channelling public money into the hands of a small elite of entrepreneurs with close ties to the government.

Examples include post-1973 Chile, post-1991 Russia, post-911 Iraq and post-Katrina New Orleans. The flooding of New Orleans, for example, was recognised as an opportunity not to rebuild the houses and restore services, but to ‘clean up public housing’ and privatise public schools and hospitals.

One might argue that the current French president Nicolas Sarkozy has in a similar way used the ‘disturbances’ in the banlieues to push through reforms that the French under different circumstances would never have accepted. Still, Sarkozy has to accept ‘piecemeal changes rather than total conversion’, Klein argues. Real shock therapy can only be administered by authoritarian regimes, or under specific circumstances such as war, hyperinflation, natural disasters or terrorist attacks.

Amsterdam did experience something of a crisis after the murder of Theo van Gogh in 2004, but it would be an exaggeration to claim that Amsterdammers have been subjected to a veritable shock treatment as Klein understands the term. Still, one might ask whether Amsterdam has become a neoliberal city as understood in Urban Politics Now.

Notwithstanding Amsterdam’s tolerant image, there is no doubt that the city has become more repressive during the past years. In 2002, it launched Spirit, an ongoing series of large-scale police raids to round up undocumented immigrants. More recently, Amsterdam introduced stop and search operations in Zuidoost and the inner city. Whereas police have been instructed to search anyone they encounter during such actions, it has been alleged that only black people are being searched.

Police also routinely fine homeless people and drug addicts for offences such as ‘sitting on a monument’, as a way to remove these people from certain parts of the inner city.

In 2002, Amsterdam set up the Megabanenmarkt (Mega Jobs Market), which was the first experiment to systematically use intimidation as a means to reduce the number of social assistance recipients. This principle has now been adopted by welfare agencies across the country.

In Amsterdam West, privatised housing corporations are carrying out one of the largest urban renewal operations in Europe, needlessly demolishing thousands of affordable houses (with the CEOs receiving bonuses in proportion to the number of houses they demolish). As part of this operation, even citizen participation has been outsourced, Merijn Oudenampsen observes in his contribution to Urban Politics Now. In fact, street safety has been partly outsourced in West as well (to a Group 4 Securicor subsidiary).

Still, in some respects Amsterdam does not conform to the neoliberal agenda. For example, it has successfully opposed the privatisation of Schiphol Airport and it has put the privatisation of local public transport on hold. It also insisted on participating in the creation of a fibre-optic network, in an attempt to guarantee open access to the network, despite corporate pressure to leave this entirely to the market. And it will probably switch to open source software, in order to reduce its dependency on corporations such as Microsoft.

A topic that does not receive much attention in Urban Politics Now is the role of sustainability policies. Cities try to market themselves as ‘sustainable cities’, sporting innovations such as the cargo tram and the ‘green wave’ for cyclists in Amsterdam; the congestion charge in London, Stockholm and Milan; and almost-for-free bicycle schemes in cities such as Barcelona (Bicing) and Paris (Vélib’).

Interestingly, large corporations often support green initiatives. For example, the Economic Bureau of the ING Bank published a report urging Amsterdam to introduce a congestion charge and improve public transport in order to remain competitive. And the cargo tram will be operated by a consortium that includes privatised energy company Nuon, consultancy Boer en Croon (which employs many former city officials and also operated the Megabanenmarkt) and the Rabobank. Similarly, large advertising companies such as JCDecaux and Clear Channel run the almost-for-free bicycle schemes abroad.

Creating the sustainable city seems to be as much a public-private partnership as the development of the Zuidas. Does this mean that the interrelatedness of corporations and the government can have positive outcomes for the city? Or are these merely marketing strategies designed to make the city and corporations look better, while avoiding the real choices that need to be made in order to create a sustainable city (for instance, it has been claimed that Barcelona’s Bicing is merely a stylised band-aid, and is operated by a company that supported George W. Bush and the war in Iraq)?

Urban Politics Now offers an interesting critique of local politics in Western Europe. Unfortunately, some of the contributions are written in hermetic prose inspired by psychoanalysis and French philosophy. Some authors use obscure terms such as heteron and psychasthenia, as if trying to shut out the non-initiated. This is somewhat ironic, given the critique of the role of experts they also offer.

An important question is how to return to a ‘truly democratic urban politics’, as advocated by Urban Politics Now. Edward Soja points to successful local trade union campaigns such as the famous Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles and elsewhere. In fact, this campaign is just the tip of the iceberg of the resurgence of local politics.

In cities such as LA and London, coalitions of trade unions and community organisations have used demonstrations, voter mobilisation, lobbying and local progressive think tanks to promote living wages, affordable housing and better public services. In some cases, such coalitions have also joined forces with environmental organisations and immigrant rights organisations.

It has been argued that these local initiatives offer the only credible chance for a resurrection of progressive politics in America. An interesting question is whether similar local initiatives could take root in cities in continental Europe as well.

BAVO (ed), Urban Politics Now: Re-Imagining Democracy in the Neoliberal City. Rotterdam: Nai Publishers (22.50 euro). Illustration: construction of the Zuidas (photo Louis Hofman)


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