My PhD fieldwork was interrupted by a pandemic, or researching relations through relations in a period of relational polarization

By Leon Rosa Reichle

PhD Candidate, Centre for Urban Research on Austerity, DeMontfort University, Leicester UK

In this blogpost I reflect on how the fieldwork of my PhD project in Leipzig, Eastern Germany, is changing due to the outbreak of COVID-19 and according social and political restrictions.

The third research phase of my project dedicated to understanding how tenants’ relations change in a restructuring city, happened to be interrupted by a pandemic, that disrupts not just global economic production, but also the entire modes of social reproduction (in homes and communities) (Harvey, 2020; Mezzadra, 2020). The respective state of emergency with curfews, strict rules on social distancing, the stopping of entire industries and daily shift of discourses and emotions towards the spreading pandemic, affects not only my practical fieldwork, but also my subject of analysis. Observers from different places in the world witness different relational manifestations of the disease; economic polarization, the stratification of safety, fear and egoism as well as smiles and new ways of socializing, caring and expressing community (Bude, 2020; Harvey 2020; Mezzadra, 2020; Sennett, 2020). Witnessing a historical and completely unplannable moment in time, I am dedicating this research phase to witnessing how tenants’ relations change in a restructuring city in pandemic times.


Departing from my previous research on a restructuring neighbourhood in which current developments exacerbate post-shrinkage processes of the post-socialist city of Leipzig, this research phase should explore existing and emerging tenants’ relations in a state of emergency. I use my preliminary analysis of Post-Shrinkage-Dialectics as a description of economic and geo-political patterns of urban restructuring in Leipzig before the outbreak of COVID-19. In this context of departure, I have gathered initial findings on tenants’ experiences of urban restructuring in daily life, both within the own home, and within the neighbourhood. My understanding tenants’ perception of their role in the process of restructuring, is so far quite limited. The pre-COVID-19 data gives some glimpses at tenants’ self-perception through reactions to experiences within the home and indicates that the perception of their role in restructuring in the wider neighbourhood is strongly mediated by emerging and existing relations.


The current research phase was initially intended to provide an in-depth analysis of tenants’ perception of their role in urban restructuring – in their flats and in their neighbourhood; defining and analysing existing and emerging tenants’ relations in this context of restructuring and illuminating how existing relations of solidarity and divisions/exclusions between tenants mediate their experience of and relational reaction to urban restructuring and urban society. What changes now, is that another independent variable, an external influence has made its appearance: the outbreak and spreading of COVID-19 and the respective regulations of all social interaction. This requires a revisiting of a previous analysis of experiences of urban restructuring: How are experiences of urban restructuring manifesting under a state of pandemic exception? Furthermore, all following research questions will be adapted: How do tenants perceive their role in urban restructuring during pandemic times? What types of tenants’ solidarities and divisions are existent and emerging on a micro- and meso level in a politically polarized city during pandemic times? Why and how do relations emerge in this moment? How do existing relations change with polarized and selective physical proximity during the pandemic? And: How do existing relations and divisions (before COVID-19) mediate their pre-COVID-19 and current experience of (and relational reaction to) urban restructuring?


Experiences of Urban Restructuring

Most experiences of urban restructuring that have come up in my research so far, have been related to different forms of displacement: few cases of direct displacement, exclusionary displacement either causing people to either be stuck in (partly unfavourable) conditions, or leading to segregation and polarization, related anxieties and pressure caused often by neglect. Whereas direct displacements are officially paused by the German Government currently, and tenants are legally enabled to postpone their rent payments (tagesschau 2020), this will undoubtedly lead to piling up of rental debt for some tenants. How does this affect feelings of security versus anxiety and pressure? How does it affect relations to landlords and other tenants?


The consequences of exclusionary displacement might materialize to a more drastic extent now, that leaving the house is highly regulated and limited. What are the consequences of a quasi-curfew for families in overcrowded flats? For seniors in too large flats? How do tendencies of segregation mediate the experience of the curfew? To what extent are distancing, isolation, shielding and quarantine feasible, and for whom? And lastly, living in (strategically) neglected housing could become much more noticeable in times, where more time than ever is spent at home. How do quarantine and curfew influence the experience of neglected housing?


Tenants’ solidarities and divisions


An open-ended list of existing and emerging relational goods and evils (Donati, Archer, 2015) so far entails: friendly encounters; friendships; a dense network of institutional neighbourliness; Hausgemeinschaften (house-communities); mutual help networks on the side of relational goods; the analogy with a village somewhere between a relational good and evil, and an increasing lack of time and space; territorial stigma and racism; competitive racism; language barriers between tenants; shame; a history of denunciation; generational changes hand in hand with fluctuation and anonymization; (resulting) loneliness; conflicts between long-term tenants and newcomers and competing economic interests of different tenants on the side of relational evils.

Some of these might be directly mediated by the outbreak and spreading of COVID-19 and/or the resulting restrictions of social life. How does a network of institutional neighbourliness react to a pandemic and with what effects? How do house-communities change? Which mutual help networks change, break or emerge? Does territorial stigma and different forms of racism interplay with the disease at all? How are language barriers reinforced or overcome? How is the lack of time and space changing? What role does shame play these days? Does a history of denunciation mediate people’s response to the pandemic? Which role do generational changes in the neighbourhood play now and are the divisions resulting from fluctuation and anonymization exacerbated, continued or overcome? How is loneliness changing, increasing or interrupted and with what consequences? How do conflicts between long-term tenants and newcomers mediate relations in the neighbourhood now? How do they influence the efficiency of self-help networks? Can they be overcome? And lastly: how do different economic interests play out in the entire scenario? This is just an incipient list of questions resulting from the current material, but it will be inductively sorted, tidied out and complemented with the messy material that is bound to come up in the following weeks.


My research project has a strong focus on temporality defined by its main question on change, disruption and emergence. Now it is complemented with an unexpected, very distinct temporal marker, which might turn out to indicate radical change, continuity, reinforcement or breaks – for the world and for housing relationships in a restructuring city.


Methods


Methodologically, my research project is based on the critical realist principle of retroduction (Belfrage, Hauf, 2017), which indicates both a research motivation of producing critical knowledge on an observed social problem, and a specific practice of research. The practice describes a spiral from de- to induction and back and forth again, hence from theoretical deskwork and initial critical sensitizing theories to open-minded fieldwork and from there on back and forth between fallible existing theories, inductive analysis and theory building. As a supportive friend in my feminist colloquium reminded me in a state of slight panic over the consequences of COVID-19 for the world and my research, this research practice is ideal for my situation, as it permits me to embrace the changing priorities in the field and analyse them critically to complement existing theories.

Yet whereas my research design usually envisages a careful planning of each following state of fieldwork following the analysis of the previous one, this historical moment of potential constant change and unforeseeable consequences demands a certain flexibility and messiness. The following outlines a brief research design which is likely to undergo changes every day. Initially, this research phase designed to conduct interviews and focus group discussions with different types of tenants rendered socially or economically vulnerable. I have classified these so far into financially precarious students or young academics (a); unemployed or working poor long-term residents – of which many are or are becoming “key workers” (b); elderly or retired tenants (c); and tenants with a biography marked by international migration (d).


The biggest challenge of my research under a pandemic state of exception, besides not being able to physically meet people, is just an exacerbation of a general challenge: a lack of existing relationships, which now is much harder to overcome, as physical spaces of encounter are minimized. This permits two practical consequences: using existing relations for research and finding creative methods to build new ones.


Building on existing relations…


… Permits me to reschedule planned interviews as phone interviews and have casual conversations over the phone. This will be my first method. Considering the relations, I already have, this permits me access to tenants of different groups:
(a) financially precarious students and young academics – through my personal friend- and activist networks in the neighbourhood, the access to students is quite easy.
(c) elderly or retired tenants – luckily, a time-line focus group with retired tenants physically took place just before the outbreak of COVID-19. I am now in direct contact with social workers in a seniors’ social centre and have put up a small notification on the website of the centre with my phone number and some lines on my research. Additionally, I have been included on a phone-chain initiated by the centre, meaning that I might be called once or twice per week by an unknown senior tenant informing me on their physical and emotional situation and needs and passing the call on to another elderly tenant. This could be a promising example of emerging neighbourhood relations. Outside of this network, I am planning to ask other future interview partners for contacts to elderly tenants in their houses.
(d) tenants with a biography marked by international migration – potentially, after rescheduling a group interview with three social workers working in different neighbourhood centres from and for international girls and women into a video-call group interview, I could find ways to talk to tenants with a migration-biography. Yet here, I imagine language to be an even bigger barrier, then in person. I will keep this open thread in mind.


… Has encouraged phone conversations with befriended activists in a variety of neighbourhood-initiatives, which then in turn have tilted my intention to not engage in activist scholarship during my PhD. As a result of the current state of exception, I have organized a video conference to discuss the political implications, consequences and chances of the current moment for neighbourhood organizing. A second meeting is about to follow.

… Permits me to engage in virtual spaces, that I already have access to. This mainly centres around chat groups in my neighbourhood. An existing one is “sharing is caring East”, where currently 5765 people are discussing and sharing random stuff. Furthermore, several self-help groups and channels have emerged. I believe, that in terms of groups of interest, these are mainly used by (a) students and young academics. I am already engaging and in a process of participant observation in these groups and have used one of them to advertise the video conference. They can be both spaces to find new interview partners and potential connecting points for further discussion and organizing.

… Has, so far, permitted me to talk to my neighbours both just before and right after my recent move. In both houses many tenants are (b) unemployed or working poor long-term residents, with whom I have had and still have chats (with safe distance) when we meet in the hallways, or when I offered them support for shopping. In my old house I put up my phone number, in case somebody gets quarantined and needs help. So far, I have engaged in informal conversations with old and new neighbours and it is uncertain how these will continue.


Finding creative methods to build new relations…


… Is something I have started diving into, as my contact to (b) unemployed or working poor long-term residents is limited. A means of communication that is currently spreading quickly in the neighbourhood is written communication. Little posters, notes and signs, on doors of supermarkets, residential houses, lanterns complement posters by the city, online adverts for governmental information on COVID-19 and newspapers releasing daily updates. They contain advice, help-offers, cheery messages, translations of the new legal restrictions, scientific information and so on. I have decided to join into this method of communicating, hence also testing how well it works, through posting 100 letters with an invitation to a phone call in randomized letter boxes. My current knowledge on the neighbourhood permitted me to make a rough selection of houses worth considering within certain areas, based on rent prices (and landlords), the state of buildings, previous statements of interviewees and everyday observations. This selection raises the probability of reaching tenants that rely on transfer-incomes, as this determines where people can still afford to live (KDU-segregation). So far, I have received 3 calls from tenants, resulting in short semi-structured interviews, roughly following a previously prepared schedule. In one case this interview permitted me to snowball to another interviewee.


Ethnography


As before, all these methods will be complemented by a critical ethnography of neighbourhood life. This can contain walks, excursions to the supermarkets and online (chat group) observations. Probably the best way to keep track of the constantly shifting circumstances, and maintaining a distance to the field, is a continuous dedication to writing field notes.

Literature

Bude, H. (2020) Die Leute passen aufeinander auf. Frankfurter Rundschau, 18 Mar.
Donati, P. and Archer, M.S. (2015) The Relational Subject. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Harvey, D. (2020) ANTI-CAPITALIST POLITICS IN THE TIME OF COVID-19 (Revised version, March 22, 2020). [Online] Urban Front. Available from : https://www.urban-front.com/articles [Accessed 23/03/20].


Mezzadra, S. (2020) Eine Politik der Kämpfe in Zeiten der Pandemie. [Online] de.indymedia.org. Available from : https://de.indymedia.org/node/72570 [Accessed 25/03/20].


Sennett, R. (2020) „Wir müssen wachsam sein“. tagesspiegel, 19 Mar.
tagesschau (2020) Corona-Krise: Regierung plant Schutzmaßnahmen für Mieter. [Online] tagesschau.de. Available from : https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/miete-corona-101.html.

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Methodologies for Housing Justice Resource Guide: A new, open tool for movements fighting for housing justice

By Leon Rosa Reichle, PhD Researcher at the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity (CURA), DeMontfort University. Twitter: @leonrrei

Introduction

The Methodologies for Housing Justice Resource Guide is published online in English and Spanish. The Resource Guide is an outcome of the 2019 Summer Institute on Methodologies for Housing Justice, convened by the Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA Luskin (part of the Housing Justice in Unequal Cities Network). During the Summer Institute, we, a group of movement and university-based scholars from different cities around the world, collectively learned about, worked on and exchanged experiences with methodologies as political tools.

Instructors from different cities

In a row of inspiring sessions, we heard from different (activist) scholars from around the world: From Raquel Rolnik (University of São Paulo) on São Paulo’s Eviction Observatory, from Melissa García-Lamarca (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) on debt diaries in Barcelona and Athens, from Terra Graziani, Elana Eden, and Erin McElroy on the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project on the US west and east coast, from Pete White (LA Community Action Network, LA CAN) and Hamid Khan (Stop LAPD Spying) on people’s audits in Los Angeles, from Shayla Myers (Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles) on mapping and analyzing court records, from Amy Ritterbusch (UCLA) on participatory action research and the dangers of extractivist activism and scholarship, from Yusef Omowale (Southern California Library) on dominant discourses in dangerous methods (that serve to justify displacement, and create historical frames that blame local residents for harm), from Andrea Roberts (Texas A&M University) on participatory memory work and from Benjamin Dulchin (Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development) on displacement alert maps and speculation watch lists in New York.

What is the Guide about?

Based on our respective experiences in different movements and with different kinds of research, we formed working groups, to disseminate outcomes of our productive discussions and open up the collectively built spaces of knowledge in the Methodologies for Housing Justice Resource Guide. The guide is intended as an inspiration and open tool for movements fighting for housing justice. At its heart is the question: “can the “master’s tools” – Lorde’s famous phrasing – be used for purposes of building another world?” (Lorde in Rolnik, Roy, 2020 – introduction to the Guide). As critical housing and urban scholars inside and outside of academia we have tried to assemble a resource that proposes not just methods, but methodologies that take a partisan standpoint against hegemonic knowledge production.

“From and for movements, this guide is based on a political conception of methodology for housing justice, and not only criticizes but proposes tools to fight dominant methodologies which legitimize the violence of housing financialization, banishment and many other housing injustices of the outgrowths of racial capitalism.

Acknowledgements

It was incredibly inspiring to work on this, all my thanks goes to everyone who made this possible, the editors Ananya Roy, Raquel Rolnik, Terra Graziani and Hilary Malson, all the wonderful colleagues, comrades and friends I met in the process and the great team I worked with: Amee Chew, Lauren Ilano, Tolu Lanrewaju-Kadri and Albert Lowe.

You find the guide here in English:

https://escholarship.org/uc/item/41g6f5cj

And here in Spanish:

https://escholarship.org/uc/item/3v76q8q5

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Local government and Covid-19: addressing the looming youth unemployment crisis

Jonathan Payne, Professor of Work, Employment and Skills, and Director of the People, Organisations and Work Institute (POWI) at DMU[i]

The fall-out from the coronavirus crisis is likely to be devastating and long lasting, and will have a major impact on local economies. The worst-case scenario is of something akin to a ‘Great Depression’, but even if that is avoided we can still expect a long-term negative hit to the economy which, on one recent estimate, could last 7 years.[ii] When the economy does bounce back, there is also a good chance that it will do so in a particular way. There is a very real danger that in a ‘flexible’ (weakly regulated) labour market, many employers will respond by cost minimisation and look to rapidly scale down labour costs. This could lead to an explosion in casual and precarious work, including gig work, agency work and hourly paid forms of employment. There is already evidence that for many young people these are often the only jobs they can get access to, in terms of a springboard into the labour market, as employers use ‘precarity’ as a ‘screening mechanism’ to select for more secure positions.[iii]

Much of course depends on how central government responds. However, we can anticipate that one of the most pressing challenges will be rising unemployment. At present, with central government in immediate ‘crisis-response’ mode, it is unclear how much thought the DWP and DfE have given to this. Much of the detail surrounding the UK’s ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’ (designed to replace European Structural and Investment Funds) is also lacking in terms of how much funding will be available for local actors, and how this will be devolved.[iv] So the big question for local government is: ‘what resources will we have to work with?’ While this makes planning difficult for local government, it cannot simply wait on central government to work out what it is going to do, before considering how it might respond.

The first point to be clear on is that if a future of large-scale unemployment does beckon, then this a problem on the ‘demand-side’ of the labour market, or, put simply, too few jobs. ‘Supply-side’ re-skilling and re-training measures have only limited traction in dealing with such problems. However, tackling demand-side issues (i.e. job creation) is going to be very difficult for local government without concerted action from central government. So how should local government respond? Or what might it practically do in a very difficult situation?

A useful starting point would be to track which groups in the labour market are going to be hardest hit. There are already strong indications that certain areas such as retailing and hospitality will be among them, and that young people without a university education will also suffer disproportionately (although this is not to say that some graduates will not also be adversely affected). One possible scenario is that apprenticeships for young people quickly start to dry up as employers think how they can recoup the costs of the government’s apprenticeship levy in ‘hard times’ by focusing provision on training their existing adult workforce. If that happens, the old problem of ‘deadweight’ and the state subsidising employers’ training grows ever bigger, with young people losing out. We could see a drying up of apprenticeships at the same time as youth unemployment goes through the roof.

While supply-side measures have their limitations, it may, however, be one of the few areas where local government can do something practicable in a context where there are no snap-the-fingers, game changing interventions available locally. A key question therefore is: how can Leicester help prepare its young people for a challenging labour market going forwards? The group to focus on here is NEETs, young people ‘not in employment, education or training’, a group which the DWP tends not to deal with as it lacks the infrastructure. Tracking young people who become NEET will therefore be extremely important. There is a lot of evidence from research on NEETs over many years that indicates they can benefit from tailored and bespoke, one-to-one coaching and support from dedicated ‘key workers’. Indeed, Leicester already has some useful third sector provision in this area.[v] Much of this is currently underpinned by European Social Funding, and there are clearly capacity issues in terms of the number of key workers who could provide such assistance beyond existing levels. The question would be whether this could be supported and ramped up. Thought could also be given to the role of local FE colleges in terms of providing decent and relevant special training options for NEETs. Good quality ‘information, advice and guidance’ on local training and employment opportunities has always been important and will become even more so.

It will also be critical to provide young people with good quality work experience opportunities that can strengthen their position in the labour market. Employer engagement in this arena has been a perennial challenge but some employers have always been, and are, willing to contribute. Proactively working with employers to develop this ‘offer’ would also be really important. At a time of crisis when business groups are talking about a new ‘social contract’ for business[vi], which embraces corporate social responsibilities (‘what can we now give back for state/taxpayer support?’), there may be scope to pull more employers into this kind of an agenda. There are suggestions that local government could lead on developing local ‘Back to Work’ partnerships involving local stakeholders, building on existing local partnerships where possible (e.g. Skills Advisory Panels).[vii] Employers could be asked to sign up to local ‘Back to Work Charters’ setting out clear expectations around supporting people into work [viii] and notions of ‘fair work’.

Equally important is developing support mechanisms to help young people who find work to stay in work. Again, ‘key workers’ who are part of the support journey into work can also be part of this by providing in-work guidance and support.

Given the economic challenges and financial constraints that are likely to exist, it may be that local councils are faced with some very hard choices in terms of where to prioritise resources and provision. Ideally, support should also be ramped up for the long-term unemployed.[ix] Moving the long-term unemployed into work is often a really tough, although important, task. However, this is difficult enough in a tight labour market, and will become only harder still as unemployment rises. Tough decisions may have to be made about what can be done to help young people at risk of becoming long-term unemployed so that they can avoid the well-documented ‘scarring effects’ of unemployment on future employability.


[i] I am grateful to my conversations with Professor Ewart Keep, Director of SKOPE at Oxford University, and his thoughts around these challenges which have helped to formulate this blog.

[ii] See the IES 2020 report, ‘Getting Back to Work; Dealing with the labour market impacts of the Covid-19 recession’, https://www.employment-studies.co.uk/resource/getting-back-work-0

[iii] See Purcell et al (2017), https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/ier/research/pathways/presenttensefutureimperfect__final.pdf

[iv] https://www.local.gov.uk/sites/default/files/documents/2019-07-09%20-%20LGA%20briefing%20-%20UKSPF-%20HoC%20110719.pdf

[v] See Leicester’s Yes project, https://yesproject.org/who-we-are/

[vi] See http://www.smf.co.uk/publications/returning-favour/

[vii] https://www.employment-studies.co.uk/resource/getting-back-work-0

[viii] https://www.employment-studies.co.uk/resource/getting-back-work-0

[ix] https://www.employment-studies.co.uk/resource/getting-back-work-0

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Researching organisations and work in and beyond coronavirus


By Jonathan Payne

Director of the People, Organisations and Work Institute (POWI) at DeMontfort University, UK

Introduction

The coronavirus pandemic is an event of truly historical proportions. It is difficult to predict how this will eventually play out, but there can be little doubt that even when the ‘war’ on the Covid-19 is finally won, its implications will be far reaching and will be with us for some considerable time. This will be no short-lived, ‘re-run of SARS’ as some might initially have hoped for, and, from a public health perspective, the big question will no doubt be: ‘did government act promptly and did it do enough?’ But the same question does not just apply to controlling the spread of the virus but also to dealing with its socio-economic ‘fall out’. The impact on politics, the economy, organisations, work, employment and society are already profound, and we are only at the beginning.

Research centres within DMU and BAL are starting to reflect on how research can help to address these manifold challenges from their different perspectives. POWI has specific expertise in key areas such as political economy, leadership and management, and the ‘Global South’, which make it ideally positioned to make a significant contribution to this agenda and link directly to BAL’s research theme of ‘urban living’.(i) Members of the Institute are already thinking about new projects related to Covid-19; the aim of this document then is to stimulate further reflection on how this might inform and shape research and debate going forwards.(ii)

Background

To say that coronavirus has dealt a hammer blow to the economy is something of an understatement. Whole sectors have virtually shut down, hotels, pubs, clubs, gyms and restaurants have closed, flights are grounded (as airlines look to government bail outs to avoid bankruptcy), high streets and shopping centres have become deserted overnight, now we are in ‘lockdown mode’. Financial markets have nose-dived, with global stock market values initially plummeting by nearly a third. Globalisation has come to a standstill. As it happened, it was not (as some believed) a robot that came to ‘steal your job’, but an invisible virus from somewhere called Wuhan.

Some states have responded with financial firepower. The US and European governments have pumped vast sums of money into the system through the policy-of-choice, namely ‘quantitative easing’ or, in layperson’s terms, printing money, even taking the unprecedented step in the UK of underwriting workers’ wages while large parts of capitalism ‘press pause’.

The current crisis arrives in the aftermath of the 2008-09 financial crash that had already exposed weaknesses in the system. However, while that was a crisis in the financial circuits of capital which threatened to spill over into the ‘real economy’, this time it’s the other way around.(iii) Western economies have become increasingly dependent upon consumption-led demand, and are already underwritten by huge sums of debt needed to keep this afloat.(iv) And this is precisely where the hammer blow has fallen, and fallen hard.(v)

The strategy is to try to support viable businesses through the crisis, ensure that consumption demand does not completely collapse, and is ready and waiting when the economy eventually ‘bounces back’. But no one knows when that might be, or how far it will rebound, with concerns that economies could be heading into a ‘slump’ and that unemployment could reach levels not seen since the ‘Great Depression’ of the 1930s.(vi) For sure, some sectors will not make up lost ground when things go back to ‘normal’ – customers who use to dine out once a month, don’t suddenly dine out more. Economies are also so heavily ‘financialised’ today that the ‘contagion’ between the real economy and financial markets runs both ways. When pubs and clubs close and airlines go bust, these effects have deep and wide ripple effects in the financial system.(vii)

To stave off such a scenario, western governments may need to contemplate even bigger measures to support their economies than those that have been attempted so far. However, pumping more money into the system can create problems, storing up debt, threatening currency stability, and ‘capital flight’. This normally calls for yet more government action and controls to deal with these problems. Indeed, when confronted with crises of such proportions, government has little choice but to step in and then step up. There is even talk in the UK of the state part-nationalising industries until such time as they might be returned to the private sector, as happened with some banks in the previous financial crisis.(viii) There is, however, an irony here – in many countries, those in political power are also those steeped in decades of neo-liberal ideology for whom state action is a last resort and grates against the political DNA.

Following the 2008-09 financial crisis, the European Central Bank and the UK responded by following up quantitative easing with austerity.(ix) The Covid-19 crises emerged at a time when that period in countries like the UK looked as if it might be drawing to a close and government was at least getting ready to spend more. Will we see another return to austerity ‘down the line’? At the European level, this looks far more difficult. The widespread nature of the pandemic means that it will not be possible to draw a cordon sanitaire around certain countries this time, as was the case before with Greece for example.(x) There may also be a ‘public reckoning’ with austerity, especially where countries are seen to have run down public health systems in ways which left them particularly exposed to the pandemic in order to fund tax cuts for the rich.(xi)

In terms of labour markets, the virus has exposed the gaps and holes in systems of regulation and social protection that are the legacy of neo-liberalism, extending far beyond the ‘gig’ economy, and which governments (even of neo-liberal persuasion) have had to try and patch up. The virus has also played out in highly unequal ways. A new term, ‘furlough’, has been imported into British employment law from the US. The government will provide an important safety net, paying 80 per cent of people’s wages, up to a maximum of £2,500. The aim is to encourage struggling organizations to ‘furlough rather than fire’. Similarly, some of those still
in employment have had the luxury of ‘home working’, avoiding the slog of the daily commute and have more time freed up in the working day. However, other ‘key’ workers (many of the them low-paid) are directly exposed to the virus, with questions over the protections that government or employers have put in place for them.(xii) For some, quarantining themselves and their families from the virus is either not an option or a luxury they cannot afford. Others have lost their livelihoods – in the UK, some self-employed have failed to qualify for assistance, and have had to fall back on a creaking welfare state. Some small businesses are staring ruin in the face as government loans appear too risky to take out. The pandemic does not discriminate but social and economic systems do.

The big debates in western countries are likely to be around whether the pandemic represents an existential threat to capitalism or a neo-liberal version, or versions, thereof. However, capitalism has proven incredibly adept at weathering even bigger threats in the past, and predictions of the imminent death of neo-liberalism in the aftermath of the financial crash proved premature. Anti-capitalist alternatives are vaguely specified and also have their own internal contradictions to deal with which may be no less profound, and some might argue, even more so. Furthermore, workers have ‘multiple interests’, and interests have to be researched at ‘the level of the real’ rather than merely imputed from theory.(xiii)

A ‘new politics’ or ‘new way of doing capitalism’(xiv), therefore, is likely to require immense intellectual resources. In the UK, the CBI and TUC now join one another on TV news programmes and seem to reach common ground in what almost smacks of ‘social partnership’ (as happened during the ‘Brexit debate’), and even a Conservative government ‘consults’ with the unions on next steps.(xv) It is possible that a more consensual politics might emerge – one that might coalesce around a more regulated, ‘stakeholder’ capitalism, which sees restraints on the market not as rigidities but as ‘beneficial’, identifies state investment as key for innovation, or even moves closer to a more socialised economy. Fixing ‘market failures’, which governments have got used to, now looks like small beer, and space may be opened up to think about a new role for government as an investment state and market-shaper.(xvi) That, or we go back to base. Meanwhile, darker forces lurk everywhere in the wings, with the virus likely to add to calls for more ‘nationalist’ constraints on labour mobility and tougher border restrictions(xvii )which would play into the hands of the populist Far Right.(xviii) Mobility is set to become an even greater battleground than before.

One can also add that the search for any ‘new growth model’ is no longer enough, even a progressive one based on principles of social justice that puts inequality into reverse and ratchets up social and labour rights.(xix) No longer enough because the real existential threat of climate change means that, notwithstanding technological advancement and ‘fixes’, continued growth and planetary sustainability are no longer reconcilable.xx If you cannot decarbonise fast enough, the only answer is to grow less (‘de-growth’). Transfers of wealth to those on lower incomes tend to boost consumption demand, as any Keynesian economics primer tells us, but now consumption is the bête-noir for any progressive politics. Indeed, if there is one positive to come out of the crisis, it is that the planet has had something of a breather for now. Witness, for example, the sharp decline in the Chinese emission of greenhouse gases.(xxi)

There is no doubt that this crisis will, for the foreseeable future, change the relationship between state, markets and civil society in ways which will certainly be important to map but which are hard to predict with any certainty. It is also vital that this debate does not fixate on developed economies as so often happens. The pandemic is global, as are its implications. Developing countries in the ‘Global South’, with much higher poverty, weaker public health systems, few social protections, and massive informal economies, will not escape and are likely to face even bigger challenges.(xxii)

Questions

The aforementioned issues are far reaching and beyond any single research project, but provide a background to engaging with questions generated by the coronavirus for those of us who research political economy, labour markets, organisations, management, work and leadership. Some examples are presented below as starters for discussion. These might apply at different levels (global, national, regional, local, the individual organisation), including comparative dimensions along similar lines, and will undoubtedly be elaborated upon.

· What does the future of work look like in ‘post-corona political economies’ given their different starting points? Do we see new ways of working and how far do they endure?

· What are the implications for national and local industrial strategies in the new era that can align with sustainable and inclusive economies? How does a city like Leicester respond for example?

· Will austerity return as governments with a depleted tax base try to pay off the costs of government ‘bail outs’?

· How do organisations respond to the crisis? What supports did they put in place for workers during and after the crisis, for example in dealing with mental health impacts? What contingency plans did they put in place, and how has contingency planning changed going forwards?

· Has the crisis served to re-energise the CSR debate? Will consumers reward those organisations that have acted responsibly and punish i.e. boycott well publicized acts of malfeasance e.g. Sports Direct?

· Which ‘business models’ prove most resilient – e.g. do low wage models wither or thrive?

· What impact has the coronavirus had on the HR function and HR professionals? What have organisations learnt about managing people at work through the epidemic?

· Has the widespread government and media use of the nebulous phrase ‘key worker’ altered the value society places on hitherto under-valued work e.g. cleaners, care workers and checkout operators? Does this change the policy discourse around ‘inequality’, ‘low pay’ and ‘job quality’? Does ‘work fit for heroes’ have any resonance and will it endure? Can these groups of workers use these narratives?

· What will be the long-term impact on ‘furloughed’ workers? Will the loss of organisational revenue spawn work downsizing and/or work intensification as organisations seek to rebuild their balance sheets?

· How did the coronavirus impact on leadership within organisations? Did some organisations deal with this better, and what role did leadership play, if any?

· How do organisations address feelings of insecurity and trust going forwards?

· If, as some predict, mass unemployment emerges, how do governments respond and how does the welfare system cope? Does a ‘universal basic income’ come back on to the agenda and would it work?

· How are different social groups affected by the crisis considering race, gender, and class, as well as economic migrants, gig workers and the self-employed?

· Does the crisis stimulate new ‘institution-building’ and, if so, what form does this take? How is it achieved and which social actors are involved?

· What forms of protest and resistance emerge in response to the economic impact of the pandemic, whether at work or through community-based action?

· How do these issues play out in ‘the Global South’ e.g. can you afford to stop working in the ‘informal economy’ even when a lockdown is imposed?

· any many more!

NOTES

i https://www.dmu.ac.uk/research/centres-institutes/powi/index.aspx

ii The focus here reflects my own expertise and limitations as a researcher of the UK and Western Europe, and I hope others will ‘bring in’ a more global perspective, particularly on the ‘Global South’.

iii See P. Mason, https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/economy/2020/03/coronavirus-crisis-economic-collapse-capitalism

iv See ‘The seeds of the next debt crisis’, https://www.ft.com/content/27cf0690-5c9d-11ea-b0ab-339c2307bcd4

v See D. Harvey’s blog, http://davidharvey.org/2020/03/anti-capitalist-politics-in-the-time-of-covid-19/

vi https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/08/coronavirus-putting-world-on-track-for-new-great-depression-says-who

vii See P. Mason: https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/economy/2020/03/coronavirus-crisis-economic-collapse-capitalism

viii See ‘UK government draws up plans to buy into airlines’ https://www.ft.com/content/1a52f686-6b00-11ea-800d-da70cff6e4d3

ix On European governments rescue packages, see https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/19/europes-economic-rescue-packages-worth-combined-17tn. On special assistance for hard hit European countries, see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-52238932. On the UK’s rescue package, see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-51935467. On the US rescue package, see https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/25/senate-passes-coronavirus-stimulus-package .

x As Jonathan Davies (CURA) pointed out to me.

xi See D. Harvey’s blog, http://davidharvey.org/2020/03/anti-capitalist-politics-in-the-time-of-covid-19/

xii See https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/apr/02/royal-mail-staff-lack-sufficient-protection-from-coronavirus; and ‘Royal Mail is “putting profits before safety” say staff’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-52243179 xiii See P.K. Edwards, https://www.econstor.eu/bitstream/10419/197743/1/1048200574.pdf

xiv See M. Mazzucato, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/18/the-covid-19-crisis-is-a-chance-to-do-capitalism-differently

xv See: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/coronavirus-jobs-workers-support-chancellor-rishi-sunak-boris-johnson-a9412821.html, and the TUC’s General Secretary, Francis O’Grady’s comments in: https://www.theguardian.com/money/2020/apr/04/coronavirus-business-finance-work-property#maincontent.

xvi See M. Mazzucato, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/18/the-covid-19-crisis-is-a-chance-to-do-capitalism-differently xvii See ‘US-Mexico border: Thousands of migrants expelled under coronavirus powers’, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-52244039

xviii See: https://mg.co.za/article/2020-03-22-far-right-uses-coronavirus-to-scapegoat-refugees/ ; also: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/19/america-far-right-coronavirus-outbreak-trump-alex-jones ; also: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/05/police-investigate-uk-far-right-groups-over-anti-muslim-coronavirus-claims

xix For an excellent discussion of both the need for a new model in the UK and US and the challenges facing it, see the discussions by D. Coates in two SPERI papers: http://speri.dept.shef.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/SPERI-Paper-25-Building-Growth-Strategy-on-New-Social-Settlement-UK.pdf, http://speri.dept.shef.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/SPERI-Paper-32-Riding-the-Tiger.pdf

xx See A. Sayer, http://renewal.org.uk/files/Burton_Degrowth.pdf#page=40; also I. Gough (2017) Heat, Greed and Human Need: Climate Change, Capitalism and Sustainable Wellbeing (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing).

xxi See: https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/coronavirus-china-greenhouse-gas-emissions-climate-change-a9384346.html

xxii See: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/apr/09/coronavirus-could-turn-back-the-clock-30-years-on-global-poverty

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Apply for a full PhD bursary with CURA (deadline 24 Feb)

There is still time to apply for a full PhD bursary with CURA!

The Centre for Urban Research on Austerity (CURA) invites outstanding prospective PhD students to apply with us for a De Montfort University (DMU) Full Bursary Scholarship.

We welcome applications from students capable of developing innovative, interdisciplinary and internationally relevant research in any field related to cities, urban living and austerity. We particularly welcome proposals focusing on urban dimensions of austerity governance and resistance, urban labour movements, revitalising cities and racialised urban inequalities.

Applicants interested in joining CURA should, in the first instance, submit a research proposal of up to 750 words with a CV to CURA Institute Head of Research Students, Dr Mercè Cortina Oriol (merce.cortina-oriol@dmu.ac.uk) by Monday 24th February 2020.

The proposal should include:  

– Overview and research questions

– Explanation of the intellectual positioning of the project and its originality

– Likely research methodology and methods

– What makes you want to study at CURA and your preferred supervisor(s)

– Curriculum Vitae as separate attachment

The application process has two stages. The second stage comes after initial approval by a potential CURA supervisor, prospective candidates will be invited to submit a full application to pgrscholarships@dmu.ac.uk no later than 9th March 2020.

Further details about the bursary and the DMU scholarship application form can be accessed at https://www.dmu.ac.uk/doctoral-college/study/scholarships.aspx.  

 

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El Cambalache – connecting decolonialism, diverse economies and intersectional feminism in Chiapas, Mexico

By Martina Locorotondo

In this post, CURA’s PhD student Martina Locorotondo reports the outcomes of a Boot Camp Workshop on Decolonial Diverse Economies, held at El Cambalache (Chiapas, Mexico) in January 2020, and reflects on the significance of this encounter for her own PhD research. A highly recommended read for academics both established and emergent, this is an honest and reflexive personal account of the research journey towards an ethnographic account of non-hierarchical knowledge production embracing decolonial thought and intersectional feminism  (1263 words / 5-7 minute read).   

“Desarmando el Capitalismo” (Dismantling Capitalism) – a big handmade graffiti on the front wall – is the first thing I saw when I entered the space of  El Cambalache. Then, just next to it, “Todo tiene el mismo valor” (everything has the same value) clarifies the terms of this statement. A doctor’s appointment, a laptop repair, a jacket or a pen: everything has the same value, and nothing corresponds to a monetary value. The hierarchies between knowledges, objects and services – necessary to capitalist profit – suddenly, are wiped away by the needs of a community that organizes itself.

El Cambalache is a space in San Cristobal de Las Casas (Chiapas) that is managed by a group of six women: some of them indigenous, others migrants. As Josefa – one of the generators – told, they came together five years ago, stating no estamos solas (we are not alone). But, what is exactly El Cambalache? How does it work? First of all, El Cambalache means ‘The Swap’ in English. Las compañeras describe it as a moneyless economy. People exchange goods, services, knowledge and mutual aid there, without the use of money. Anyone who decides to participate is invited to take/ask for what they really need, and give back what they don’t.

During the workshop, Las Cambalacheras (the term that women members of the group use to call themselves) tried to highlight some founding principles of their organizing, whilst connecting these latters to the local geopolitical context. The concepts of Decoloniality, Diverse Economies, Intersectional Feminism and Commoning have been addressed in a way that kept together theoretical elaboration and lived experience. 

The geography of resistance

El Cambalache is positioned in a residential neighbourhood of the mountain-town of San Cristobal de Las Casas – far from the city centre and from the roads scored by tourists. The soil, on which El Cambalache lays, is what gives vital lymph to its project. The roots that enhanced El Cambalache to grow – similarly to the many community projects that inhabit this territory – are deeply embedded in Maya-Tojolabal value of nosotrosidad (‘ourness’). Tojolabal and Tzotzil languages are characterized by the frequent repetition of the sound ‘tik’, which in English means ‘we’/’us’/’our’. The collective ‘us’ represents an organizing principle of such languages, as well as of the cosmovisions that are reflected in the same languages. The community is the organic whole composed of all its members. On one hand, community empowers and gives value to the individual. On the other hand, each individual is ‘organismically’ necessary to the community. As a consequence, there is no space for the individualistic affirmation of the ego, as each individual is what it is as an organic member of a whole (Lenkersdorf, 2002).

The geography of Chiapas is marked, at the same time, by the history of colonialism and domination. During a seminar, Belkis – one of the Cambalacheras – talked about the attempts by the conquerors of objectifying the subjectivities, the stories and the lands. This has been done in multiple ways: for example producing representations of the indigenous women as indecent because they were naked, and imposing clothes on them. Or reporting biased interpretation of cannibalism in order to label those populations as barbaric. In relation to territories, colonizers described them as passive lands and too vast for the Indio. Such representations served to push forward the acts of violence as not only justifiable, but also necessary.

On the one hand, the ‘white masculine European mappings’, on the other hand ‘a different sense of place’ that resisted centuries of colonialism and that dates back to the millenary Mayan culture. During the workshop, I appreciated a notion of geography, which is not static, ‘secure and unwavering’. It is rather characterised by the struggle, by the restless tension oppressing ↔ resisting (McKittrick, 2006). In this interplay, the ‘borderlands’ are the places where liminal intellectual spaces have survived in parallel to, and without being incorporated by colonialist thought (Anzaldua, [1989] 2012).    

Diverse Decolonial Economies

The resistance of pre-Hispanic values and organizing principles over centuries of colonization – in combination with marginality from capitalist economy – enhanced the development of diverse decolonial economies in the state of Chiapas. As Erin – cambalachera – explained, the economic project of El Cambalache can be read through this theoretical framework. Foremost, the collective calls for a pluralistic idea of economy, which is not limited to money exchange and it is not aimed at accumulation. Rather it embraces all of the activities that are necessary for living, first of which care for people, barter, gift, housework, interpersonal relationships, etc. (Gibson-Graham, 2013). These actions – it is relevant to stress – play a primary role in a context of limited access to resources controlled by capitalist economy. Accordingly, as Elena – another cambalachera – explained, El Cambalache sees as the beating hearth of its economy especially those things that are not valued by a capitalist economy. This entails considering as crucial social responsibility and care, as well as all of those relationships that tie together people, land and resources.

Intersectional Feminism and the Commoning

‘Economy is the space where we build how we live’, Las Cambalacheras stated during the workshop. With these words, they suggested that the everyday and embodied practices that are at the base of an economy, dynamically build communities and their power relationships. This process is also identified as Commoning. Accordingly, analyising commoning through an Intersectional-Feminist lens aims at shedding light on the practices that produce oppression as well as on the ones that generate collective well-being and mutual aid (Clement et al., 2019). Tito – a PhD student holding a seminar – has exemplified this theoretical standpoint telling the story of Virgin of Guadalupe Celebration.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is a catholic figure – tied to Spanish colonization – that is the national saint of Mexico. The same figure represents Mother Earth as well, a fundamental element of Mayan rituality. The reuniόn de senoras(ladies’ reunion) is the organizational center of the celebration: local women are in charge of the collective gathering of resources, as well as of the making of tamale. Tito explained that tamale is a Mexican food made of corn that has a particular bound to earth and its products, which is prepared collectively. Within this long-standing activity, all the work of the infrastructure is enclosed: often invisible, usually made by women. The celebration of Guadalupe, thus, represents the space of decolonization operated by local ladies. Indeed, through the re-appropriation of the colonial celebration, women construct forms of economy that are alternative to neo-liberal paradigm. Infrastructure, interpersonal relationships, collective managing of resources: these are the elements at the very heart of such diverse economies. 

A circularity of knowledges: how does it inform academic research?

Having participated in El Cambalache’s workshop has a fundamental relevance to my research. In first instance, since I am adopting a decolonial theoretical framework, learning about it from a community that is directly involved both in the oppression suffered from colonialism and in the decolonial endeavour is pivotal. Doing this on-site had the added value of appreciating the fundamental ties that exist between these processes and the human geography of a territory with its multiple stories. In second instance, the experience within a grassroots community provided me with some tools that I will develop further for the ethnography that I will conduct next year. For example, the feminist-intersectional lens will serve to analyse the everyday practices that shape communities. Ultimately, El Cambalache’s non-hierarchical standpoint in relation to the production of knowledges – whether they are skill-based, academic or non – will bring some reflections about the strategies I will adopt to better collect and report the variety of knowledges that one community produces.  

 

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Invited talk by Dr Fabio Luis Barbosa dos Santos, 18 February 2020

The Centre for Urban Research on Austerity is delighted to host Dr. Fabio Luis Barbosa dos Santos, from Universidade Federal de Sao Paolo, in the promotion and discussion of his new book: 

‘Power and Impotence: A history of South America under Progressivism (1998-2016)’

This invited talk is not only a great opportunity to discuss with Fabio Luis his expertise on the ebbs and flows of the Pink Tide in South America; but also a good occasion to discuss conceptualisations of ‘progressivism’ when subjected to challenges posed by regionalism/integration, inequality and social disorder.

Date & time: 18 February 2020, 4pm

Abstract:

Fabio Luis Barbosa dos Santos delves into the history of South America to understand the rise and fall of the so-called ‘progressive governments’. In the wake of mobilizations against neoliberalism in the 1990s, most countries elected presidents identified with change. However, less than twenty years after Hugo Chávez’s victory, this trend seems to be reversed. The times of Lula are now Bolsonaro’s. What happened? Supported by an extensive bibliography and hundreds of interviews, the author addresses each South American country, including those who did not elect progressives, in addition to Cuba. The national focus is enriched by an analysis of regional integration attempts, providing a detailed and necessary recent history of the subcontinent. (https://brill.com/view/title/38961)

The talk takes place in Hugh Aston Building, DeMontfort University, Leicester.

To book a place, and for further details, please contact Dr Valeria Guarneros-Meza,  valeria.guarneros@dmu.ac.uk.

 

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‘Both sides-ism’, centrism, and the electoral politics of terror

In this blog, Dr Ben Whitham comments on how a centrist discourse coupled with a misguided representation of threat that different political movements pose is enabling the rise of the far right in the UK, and internationally. 

In light of the events in London last Friday, people are talking about terrorism again. But this conversation is tightly embedded in the context of the imminent general election. Right wingers, including current Prime Minister Boris Johnson, were quick to exploit the attack – against the explicit wishes of one victim’s grieving parents – to justify more draconian counter-terrorism sentencing measures. It is a febrile political climate as we approach what the ruling Conservative Party would like us to think of as a ‘Brexit election’, and in a context where, just prior to the Brexit referendum in 2016, a sitting MP – Jo Cox – was assassinated in a terrorist attack. The authorities are, understandably, taking care to warn prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs) of potential dangers.

In their Joint Guidance for Candidates in Elections: When it goes too far, sent to all PPCs last week, the National Police Chiefs’ Council, Electoral Commission, Crown Prosecution Service, and the College of Policing point out that the current national security ‘threat level’, set by the security services, is ‘SUBSTANTIAL’. They go on to explain to PPCs that this ‘reflects the threat from Islamist, Right and Left Wing Terrorism’.

While the terminology may be problematic, there have been many major terrorist attacks in the UK, prior to last week’s, that are deemed ‘Islamist’. In 2017 alone, 35 people were killed and hundreds injured – many of whom sustained serious, life-changing injuries – in the Westminster, Manchester Arena and London Bridge attacks. The latter two attacks were both claimed by the ‘Islamic State’ militant group. The threat of right wing terrorism has a similarly clear evidential basis. Thomas Mair assassinated Jo Cox, a sitting, pro-remain Labour MP, during the Brexit referendum campaign, shouting ‘this is for Britain!’, ‘keep Britain independent!’, and ‘Britain first!’ as he murdered her. His home was ‘stuffed with far-right books and Nazi memorabilia’, and the CPS declared the attack political terrorism. Furthermore, Mair was not – despite media representations to the contrary – a ‘lone wolf’. He is one person is a large, emboldened, and fast-growing transnational movement of right wing terrorists. In the last few months alone, far right terrorists including Jack Renshaw, David Parnhamand Vincent Fuller have been jailed in the UK for attempted, hoaxed, or actual white supremacist terrorist attacks. This is not to mention their comrades’ bloody attacks on churches, synagogues, mosques and shops in the US and New Zealand. In September, the head of counter-terrorism policing in the UK, Neil Basu, described right wing terrorism as the ‘fastest-growing problem’ he faced.

But what of the ‘Left Wing Terrorism’ that the Joint Guidanceputs on a par with Islamist and right wing terror threats? I have tried to think of a single example of an attack, and have to say I am coming up blank. It could be that the authors are privy to specific intelligence about a secret lefty plot – a sort of UK Red Brigades. But I suspect it is actually an example of a toxic ‘centrist’ political imaginary that pervades many of our institutions, drawing false political and moral equivalences as a facile expression of ‘neutrality’. This simplistic ‘both sides-ism’ is a level of political discourse so degenerate that even Donald Trump knows how to effectively exploit it, but its most dangerous proponents are the well-intentioned liberal establishment individuals and organisations who think that their overriding duty is to provide ‘balance’ when they make pronouncements on politics.

Both sides-ism is dangerous because it minimises the very real threat posed by the rise of the far right, in the name of balance. We are supposed to consider what, milkshaking, to be ‘Left Wing Terrorism’ equivalent to the far right’s mass murders and assassinations? The messaging in the Joint Guidance downplays the singular threat posed by an insurgent, transnational far right movement that has developed strong links with ‘mainstream’ right-wing governments, through figures like Steve Bannon, in the UK, the US, and elsewhere. It also suggests an obscene and offensive moral equivalence between those who want a more equal society, and those who want genocide.

The BBC, of course, has become Both Sides Central in recent years – a process exacerbated by the Brexit referendum and subsequent political ‘debate’ – obliviously drawing an identical equivalence between antifa and neo-fascists to Trump’s famous ‘both sides’ remark on Charlottesville. If they interview a prominent climate scientist, they’ll scour the land for a climate change denier. If they interview an anti-racist commentator, campaigner or columnist, they’ll be sure to find an openly Islamophobic racist to ‘balance’ those views. This is a lamentable trajectory for journalism and leads to a situation in which, as Tory journalist Peter Oborne has pointed out, the Prime Minister can openly and repeatedly lie without real challenge. What’s more, political issues don’t have only ‘two sides’ (Brexit is perhaps the multi-faceted issue par excellence, splitting views within and between political parties, spawning new parties, floor-crossings and expulsions), and amplifying obscure, hateful voices is not a path to ‘neutrality’ or a sensible response to ‘bias’.

Centrism has enabled and continues to enable the rise of the far right. The far right knows that centrist liberal discourse can be exploited, as is evident from the openly white supremacist social media users who use ‘classical liberal’ in their bio, and from the endless stream of Islamophobic and alt-right columns on ‘free speech’. That the centrist imaginary shapes how the police think about their responsibilities to protect political actors from terrorism during an election campaign is deeply troubling, and like all ‘both sides-ism’ today, actually plays specifically into the hands of the political right. As Boris Johnson, whose extensive racist, sexist and homophobic comments are a matter of public record, plays for far right votes – especially through Islamophobia, the unifying hatred of the new far right – he knows he can rely on such portrayals of his left wing enemies as somehow equally morally bankrupt.

Dr Ben Whitham is Senior Lecturer in International Politics at De Montfort University and a member of the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity. His current CURA-supported research project explores the intersectional politics of austerity and Islamophobia.

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Unpicking municipal governance in mining policy in Mexico

 

Dr Valeria Guarneros-Meza presents in CURA’s final seminar of 2019:

“Unpicking municipal governance in mining policy in Mexico”

Date and time

Wednesday 4 December 2019, 2-3pm

Venue

Hugh Aston Building HU5.12, DeMontfort University

Abstract

The presentation summarises the findings of the British Academy funded research “Conversing with Goliath” which assesses the relationship between citizen participation and extractivism in Mexico. Drawing on the findings, Valeria will outline different scenarios that work as gateways to examine and uncover municipal governance within mining. Focusing on the scenario of disasters caused by mining, the presentation will provide a very first attempt at building a conceptual framework that interweaves debates on municipalism and local public value.

RSVP and more details from jenni.cauvain@dmu.ac.uk.

CURA seminars will continue in 2020, opening with a talk on informality on 29th January 2020, with Dr Adriana Massidda, Early Career Academic Fellow in Architecture, DMU. 

 

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An Anti-homeless Public Space By Simon Stevens, DeMontfort University

In this post, Dr Simon Stevens exposes the strategies used by local authorities and managers of pseudo-public spaces in English cities, to disperse, deter and dehumanise homeless residents. Seen through the eyes of a detective searching for a homeless witness of an alleged crime, the narrator exposes how our cities are responding to the ongoing crisis of homelessness following a decade of austerity. 

It is a grey morning. A man is looking for a witness to an alleged crime. Normally, he would have an address and could simply pay a visit. However, this time it is more complicated. The witness is homeless. He has a description of her but he must find where she is. This is why he is up and about very early. He is hoping to catch her still sleeping somewhere. Last night there was rain – he can still feel the ghost of it in the air. So, he is going to look for places that would provide shelter.

Stereotypically, he thinks of the park. There are benches and bus shelters there. As he arrives a council worker is just unlocking it – apparently they close it overnight now. This would mean she could not have slept here. He decides to look anyway, in case she managed to climb over the gate railings. But, when he approaches the benches he notices something new about them. They have been modified in a way that makes them a lot harder to sleep on.

Figure 1: Granby Street in Leicester (image source author)

He heads towards the train station. The second wave of commuters are arriving to the calming sound of classical music played over the station tannoy. It is only when he comes across a discarded newspaper that he learns that during the night, from midnight to 6.30am, the soothing strains of Mozart are replaced by bagpipe recordings, played loudly, on a constant loop (Durkin, 2015). The detective glances across the story, picking out the key points: ‘Earlier this year the Echo reported how commuters felt intimidated by the growing numbers of rough sleepers congregating at the travel interchange’. Then, further down the article: ‘One coach station worker, who asked not to be named, said: “Basically, the council has been playing bagpipe music through the night and it seems to be doing the job. They just cannot stand it, you try getting any sleep with that going on”. He continues to read, noticing with some interest, a local MP had been interviewed for the article. ‘Rough sleepers have rights’ he is reported to have said, ‘so do the other citizens, workers and businesses’: they ‘have the right not to be intimidated or to have to face the daily ordeal of belongings left in doorways when they arrive for work’ (Exeter City Council, 2015). Sighing, he remembers that nearby there is a multi-storey car park with a bridge-like entrance. He investigates but finds only cement spikes. So, no rough sleepers here.

 

Figure 2: Bournemouth: under a bridge, outside the multi-storey car park connected to ASDA, opposite the train station (image source author)

He decides to change tack. The street homeless also need access to hygiene facilities. He heads to the public toilets, only to find them locked – seemingly permanently. A sign informs him that there are pay-as-you-use toilets nearby. On his way to those ones, he comes across a community support officer. The detective is getting increasingly anxious at not finding the witness, because of these dispersal tactics. He approaches the officer who, he realises when he gets closer, is actually moving on some rough sleepers from a crevasse outside a shop, for being too close to an ATM machine. The detective asks why. The officer explains. She tells him a Public Spaces Protection Order has recently been implemented in this area to prevent anti-social behaviour, and she is simply carrying out her duty to disperse and confiscate(Home Office, 2014, pp. 32-38)(Hackney Borough Council, 2015, p. 1), as well as prevent ‘aggressive begging’ (Chelmsford City Council, 2015). Thinking of the closed toilets, replaced by pay-as-you-use loos, he worries about begging being legislated against.

Figure 3: Legislation takes on a physical visibility (image source  https://hackneyrenters.org/2015/06/05/hackney-council-back-down-on-plans-to-fine-rough-sleepers/)

The officer continues, only last week she was moving someone on for chalking the pavement, because ‘peddling’ and ‘marking surfaces’ has been added to the list of prohibited behaviours (Swindon Borough Council, 2015)after a man was drawing on the pavement for money, with the phrase ‘homeless art beats begging’.She tells the detective that PSPOs are ‘set by the local council’ (Home Office, 2014, p. 46). They enable council boroughs to introduce penalties to forms of behaviour they deem to have a ‘detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality’ and are ‘persistent’ (Crown Court, 2014, p. 33). Once in place the PSPO can have its jurisdiction range ‘increased’ (Crown Court, 2014, p. 33)to cover a wider or previously unaffected area. A PSPO can be brought in if ‘it is likely that such activities will be carried on’ and that ‘they will have such an effect’ (emphasis added): it is therefore able to impede someone on the premise that they may cause a disturbance in the affected area. The detective frowns. This means that at any given point during the day, the homeless are always potentially about to commit anti-social behaviour. It is anti-social behaviour that presumably disqualifies the homeless from being seen as part of the ‘locality’, instead being seeing as something that causes a ‘detrimental effect’ on the ‘quality of life’ of those who are.

The officer shrugs almost apologetically. She tells the detective of other restrictions: the rise of privately-owned public spaces. These‘Pseudo-public spaces – large squares, parks and thoroughfares that appear to be public’ are ‘actually owned and controlled by developers and their private backers’. Such spaces are ‘on the increase, as ‘local authorities argue they cannot afford to create or maintain such spaces themselves’. They are therefore regulated by the companies that own them, meaning they ‘are allowed to draw up their own rules for “acceptable behaviour” on their sites and alter them at will’. People can be moved on by private security guards for ‘protesting, taking photos … or just looking scruffy’ (Shenker, 2017).

The detective is now a little aghast. He understands that the homeless somewhat disrupt the image of prosperity commercial areas of town centres need to promote, but this just seems to be a harsh targeting. His anxiety increases. Time is getting on and he has to find the witness before nightfall. He decides to walk further into the commercial part of the high street. Shoppers and tourists are where homeless people need to be, if they are going to ask for money, albeit without attracting the attention of the community support officers. However, when he arrives he is a little shocked to see a collection of anti-begging posters. It is the way the homeless people are portrayed in them. Turned into a generalised, and threatening, stereotype. A deviant, anti-social other. The posters seem to justify the rest of the hostile architecture. It is at this point he realises that these dispersal tactics are not just about physically removing the homeless from view, but ensuring we awkwardly overlook their suffering when they are present. Invisibilising their visibility. Suddenly he wonders: perhaps he has already passed his witness. He just did not notice her. He only saw what he was told from the messages in the architecture around him: an anti-social nuisance. He decides there and then he will not look at a park bench in the same way again. Should you?

Figure 4: Nottingham Council put these posters in bus shelters (image source https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/sep/28/anti-begging-posters-banned-nottingham-city-council )

 

About the author

Simon completed his PhD at Loughborough University this year. His thesis investigated hostile architecture and its effects on the street homeless, and also involved a deep discussion on storytelling methods for political theory. During his doctoral research, Simon cultivated an interest in alternative modes of delivery and epistemologies, such as moral sentimentalism, genealogy, and Black feminist thought. Simon teaches at DeMontfort University where he is the module lead for the Political Theory and Power, Politics and Morality courses.  He is currently writing a book about the history of hostile architecture with Vernon Publishers and have articles under review with Social Theory and Practice and Contemporary Political Theory.

This blog post is based Simon’s publication about homelessness in the peer-reviewed Sage journal Organization Studies. This was a result of an international essay competition run by the Independent Social Research Foundation. The paper is accessible via https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0170840616686130

 

References

Chelmsford City Council, 2015. www.chelmsford.gov.uk. [Online]
Available at: https://www.chelmsford.gov.uk/communities/community-safety/pspos/
[Accessed Wednesday November 2015].

Crown Court, 2014. www.legislation.gov.uk. [Online]
Available at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2014/12/section/2/enacted
[Accessed Tuesday May 2018].

Durkin, J., 2015. Council bosses tackle antisocial behaviour with bagpipe music to deter rough sleepers – www.bournemouthecho.co.uk. [Online]
Available at: http://www.bournemouthecho.co.uk/news/14030597.Bournemouth_council_s_latest_scheme_to_deter_the_homeless__bagpipe_music/?ref=fbpg
[Accessed Sunday November 2015].

Exeter City Council, 2015. www.change.org.uk. [Online]
Available at: https://www.change.org/p/exeter-city-council-don-t-criminalise-exeter-s-rough-sleepers-or-destroy-their-belongings/responses/32234
[Accessed Wednesday January 2016].

Foucault, M., 2009. Security, Territory, Population. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hackney Borough Council, 2015. news.hackney.gov.uk. [Online]
Available at: http://news.hackney.gov.uk/update-on-hackneys-public-space-protection-order
[Accessed Monday June 2015].

Home Office, 2014. Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014: Reform of anti-social behaviour powers Statutory guidance for frontline professionals, London: Crown.

Parkinson, J. R., 2012. Democracy and Public Space. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shenker, J., 2017. Revealed: the insidious creep of pseudo-public space in London – www.theguardian.com. [Online]
Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/jul/24/revealed-pseudo-public-space-pops-london-investigation-map
[Accessed Friday December 2018].

Swindon Borough Council, 2015. www.swindon-csp.org.uk/. [Online]
Available at: http://www.swindon-csp.org.uk/asb/Pages/pspo.aspx
[Accessed Wednesday August 2016].

 

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