Blazing the Neoliberal Trail: Timothy Weaver

In this post Timothy Weaver begins our second installment of our ‘book debates’ series, by outlining the main argument of his recent book ‘Blazing the Neo-liberal Trail‘, where he charts the development of neo-liberal hegemony in the UK and the US through urban politics and policy making perspective. In a forthcoming post Jonathan Davies will share his thoughts on this work, and Timothy will then publish a reply.

During the 1970s, the US and the UK grappled in strikingly similar ways with a set of economic problems that American liberalism and British social democracy failed to counter: stagflation, rising unemployment, and the corresponding erosion of elite consensus over economic policy. Out of this morass, neoliberalism emerged as an ideology and set of policy prescriptions that became adopted by a series of governments, beginning with the center-left administrations of Jimmy Carter and Jim Callaghan, and then in full force under governments of the right led by Margaret Thatcher in the U.K. and Ronald Reagan in the U.S. In Blazing the Neoliberal Trail, I use urban politics and policymaking to chart the rise and effects of the neoliberal embrace both in the realm of national urban policymaking and through case studies of Philadelphia and London Docklands.

Blazing makes two key arguments. First, I focus on policies such as enterprise zones and urban development corporations to suggest that the timing, extent, and character of neoliberal urban policymaking was shaped by the manner in which national and subnational institutional structures mediated the influence of neoliberal ideas and the policy entrepreneurs who promoted them. To echo Robert Lieberman’s (2011) formulation, while ideas provided the “motive,” institutions offered the “opportunity” for neoliberalization of urban policy. Thus, in the U.K., the ideologically motivated Thatcher government was able to exploit its institutional advantages—unified and centralized governmental structures—to rapidly transform urban policy. Hence, the enterprise zone policy bore a strong resemblance to the neoliberal idea that people such as Sir Peter Hall and Lord (Geoffrey) Howe had in mind. By contrast, neoliberal policy entrepreneurs such as Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp encountered resistance as Democrats, initially hostile to urban neoliberalism, exploited the institutional advantages afforded to them by the system of separation of powers and divided government. As such, the enterprise zone policy was stymied in Congress and could only gain a foothold at state and local levels where the program was often watered-down thereby sometimes deviating from the original neoliberal design.

The second central argument of the book is that, in part due to differing institutional contexts, neoliberalization has occurred by two distinct logics. The first, which I term neoliberalism by design, refers to the process by which political actors exploit the power of state institutions to impose a neoliberal blueprint. The case of London Docklands reflects this pattern of development. By contrast, the Philadelphia example reveals a logic of neoliberalism by default. In this case, neoliberalization takes a more serpentine path. Due to federalism, neoliberal designs could not be forced on Philadelphia by actors in Washington D.C. Rather, fiscal constraints—of local and national origin—the challenges of coalition building, and ideological constriction pushed the city in a neoliberal direction despite the fact that many of the key policymakers were not ideologically committed to a neoliberal program.

Dr Timothy Weaver is Assistant Professor in Political Science at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, USA

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