Austerity and grassroots mobilization in Athens: The emergence of an urban governance divide?

GIF RGB 150 Pixels with BorderIoannis Chorianopoulos and Nayia Tselepi report on findings from a second round of research in Melbourne carried out as part of our collaborative governance under austerity project, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of its Urban Transformations Network.

In our last posting we discussed the collaborative governance shift noted in the government of the City of Athens by reason of funding cutbacks and reduced revenue raising capacities.  In this light, the City administration turned to the private sector and NGOs, creating a wide range of joined up schemes that exist by virtue of their ability to generate or attract resources.  Our focus here is ‘civil society’, and its responses to austerity and municipal collaboration.  Civil society is the sum total of a wide range of social actors that operate outside the realm of the state apparatus and the private market.  In order to align and position our research in relation to this heterogeneous domain of associations, we drew from the Gramscian standpoint.  Civil society was explored in respect of its role in urban governance and its stances on the changing matrices of Athenian urban politics.

The proliferation of grassroots initiatives

Economic crisis, whether in the form of a cyclical contraction or a severe long lasting recession, is seen as triggering particular civil society responses, driven by welfare need. Such mobilisation, in turn, is perceived as an incipient ‘social movement’ to the extent that it involves a campaign that extends beyond any single event, and a collective effort that frames key issues and claims alternative world views.

According to various research accounts, more than 2.500 grassroots schemes have emerged in Greek cities during the crisis, signifying a discernable social movement with a prominent presence in Athens.  For “Omikron Project”, an informal group of 40 volunteers mapping grassroots initiatives in an attempt to address the stereotypes of ‘idleness’ and ‘helplessness’ projected to the country:

“During the last three years [2013-2016], grassroots initiatives in Athens more than doubled, while a total of 70 per cent of the networks that existed prior to 2013, do remain active.  These are groups that operate informally on principle, and only a few turn into NGOs. They don’t want to have any dealings with the state or with handling funds. They just want to offer a way out to the crisis.  That means a lot as we see a different civil society emerging; different from the one that surfaced in the 1990s because of EU funds”.

Informality in practice

The sheer diversity of goals and practices that characterize Athenian grassroots initiatives renders their classification an unfruitful exercise.  However, a number of key common traits were noted, referring primarily to their informal features and their contrariety to prescribed structures and institutions associated with austerity.  Informality is underscored by the absence of any legal status in the majority of cases, and by the voluntary nature of their activities.   Even groups that decided to acquire a legal form in order to participate in a wider range of formal fundraising bids, they also operate along self-organised and voluntary-based lines.  Voluntarism is facilitated by the social media and the presence of dedicated web platforms, such as “volunteer4Greece” and “solidarity4all”, which communicate grassroots activities and needs to an increasingly receptive public.  More than that, however, ‘volunteerism’ complements ‘informality’ as a key trait of grassroots’ mobilization, shaping a contentious political stance that draws from a growing frustration with formal structures and institutions.

“Volunteerism is a form of resistance. It’s a statement, exposing the absence of the authorities from where they are needed; it’s a way to show and deal with the problems the city is facing”.

The second common trait that grassroots initiatives share is their opposition to austerity, the socio-economic impacts of which is the key reason behind their mobilization.  In this light, agents, practices and institutions associated with austerity are purposefully avoided, even by the less radical sides of this movement.

Relations with the City

‘Collaboration’ in the Athenian civil society realm refers to a markedly different process than the one observed in the City administration.  Voluntarism suggests a firm attempt to create ‘self-managed’ spaces of encounters amongst citizens, forming collective solidarity efforts that avoid hierarchies.  It doesn’t come as a surprise, therefore, that relations between the grassroots and the City of Athens are virtually nonexistent.

The views of civil society networks regarding the collaborative governance policies launched by the City range from the guarded to the outright contentious.  In the first case we see groups that use municipal resources in order to promote their goals.  The example of the “One Stop” initiative sheds light on this standpoint.  Two NGOs together with two informal social solidarity networks and a number of individuals, gather twice a week in a municipal building offering food and a variety of services (legal advice, first aid, laundry, haircut, showers, etc.) to the homeless population.  “One stop” is also using a municipal web platform, called “synAthina”, that’s facilitating unofficial groups and individual initiatives to make its actions and events known. None of the groups involved in this scheme, however, is willing to invest further in any type of relations with the City administration.

“No, we don’t collaborate with any state institutions.  Yes, we’re an NGO, but we don’t want to be seen as yet another organization that’s funded by the state to return a fraction of what it gets to the people in need.  This view might not do justice to many NGOs, but it’s a strong one and we hear it all the time;  “…ah, you’re there, so you get a piece of the pie as well”, so to speak”.

The more outspoken and drastic viewpoints reject outright any association with the City, accusing the current municipal administration for endorsing the framework of austerity policies.  The culmination of an already thorny relation, however, appears to be the 2015 national referendum.  Voters were asked on whether to approve of the austerity-laden bailout conditions in the country’s government-debt crisis proposed jointly by the EC, the IMF and the ECB.  The Mayor’s leading role in the national campaign for accepting the proposal, broke any remaining links with the more radical of grassroots’ networks.  As stated:

“The referendum wasn’t about the Euro or Grexit. It was about austerity. You can’t stand out as the main proponent of the “yes” vote, as the mayor did, knowing that what we stand for is negated by the “yes” vote.  That’s why very many solidarity networks have pulled out from synAthina ever since.  The networks don’t trust the City any more”.

At first hand, the apparent distance between the City and the grassroots reflects the decades’ long trajectories of hierarchical municipal administration, restricting the emergence of avenues of communication.   Institutional legacies aside, the City’s current compliant role in administering austerity policies fuzzed local relations further.  As municipal collaborative policies didn’t allow any room for contesting austerity, a series of counter-hegemonic voices surfaced and asserted their presence in the civil society realm, primarily in the form of social solidarity networks.   The anti-austerity origins of this movement shaped its political orientation, arresting relations with the City.  What is unfolding in Athenian politics, is an austerity-driven governance divide.

Ioannis Chorianopoulos is an Associate Professor at the Dept. of Geography, University of the Aegean.

Naya Tselepi is Ph.D. holder in Geography.  Naya is currently a Research Fellow at the Dept. of Geography, University of the Aegean.

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Cultural Diversity and Collaboration in Dandenong, Melbourne.

GIF RGB 150 Pixels with BorderHelen Sullivan, Hayley Henderson and Brendan Gleeson report on findings from a second round of research in Melbourne carried out as part of our collaborative governance under austerity project, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of its Urban Transformations Network.

Our selection of Dandenong as the site of our Melbourne case study reflects our concern with the long term impacts of economic restructuring on a locality reliant on manufacturing and with significant levels of disadvantage amongst its communities. The ‘Revitalising Central Dandenong’ program was a state led attempt to intervene in this process, through physical, economic and social development.  Our research undertaken more than a decade on from this program, examines how Dandenong is faring post the 2008 financial crisis and its likely resilience to further economic instability and welfare reform. We have examined the ways in which social forces are configured in the locality and with what effect. In particular, our focus has been on the different forms of collaboration that exist in relation to the revitalisation process.

Our study of how different actors have become involved and interrelated in Dandenong’s urban revitalisation process led us to uncover many details about the evolving landscape of collaboration in urban governance. We discovered how changes to government administrations affected the resilience of collaborative structures through shifts in funding but also, and more importantly, through political and policy repriotisation. We gained greater insight into how different levels and areas of government interact and we observed how collaboration between tiers of government and across sectors relies heavily on informal and personal interactions. Some of these findings may have been expected by those familiar with governance practices locally, and they are certainly in keeping with the relevant literature.

What we didn’t know at the outset but which has stood out stubbornly throughout the study is the way that cultural diversity acts as a centrepiece for collaboration and revitalisation and plays a major role in the configuration and mobilisation of resources and actors: Dandenong is a community defined by its capacity to absorb, accept and integrate different waves of migrants, and this strength has been capitalised on in local practices of urban governance. Cultural diversity may be typical of many Australian cities since World War Two, where scholarship has long noted the dynamism, fluidity and positivity of new cultural inflows within expansive urbanisation. There is, of course, no reason to suppose that such relations hold true forever, and we are mindful that in recent years news urban cultural tensions have emerged around Islam and asylum seeking communities.

But, in what ways is cultural diversity supported and perceived to succeed in the Dandenong case?

And how is this made use of in collaborative modes of governance for urban revitalisation?

Some observations from our empirical work. The main pillar that supports cultural diversity and what in turn enables it to be used as a backbone for collaboration in urban revitalisation is widespread validation of multiculturalism in the community, by businesses and government. Both State and local government policies embrace cultural diversity. As explained by a local government representative, “diversity is not seen as a threat; it’s a great thing and we want to praise it and celebrate it and remove any stigma of it: it is a very clear message.” This validation of cultural diversity is translated into action through government-funded services that support integration, for example from settlement services, English language classes, libraries with specific programs, services and resources, police training (i.e. through multicultural liaison officers), targeted anti-racism or domestic violence campaigns and programs, a general public education and health services. The business community sees cultural diversity as important in offering and sustaining a diverse and resilient retail market. The community sector values cultural diversity in Dandenong as an element of community building. For example, a representative from the local interfaith network described Dandenong as a place where there is “freedom to go wherever you want” and you will find “diversity and cohesion” with “no fear,” only an “openness, trust and invitation” to interact. People are very proud of the diversity and want to preserve it. They see it as healthy.” We encountered these sentiments repeatedly.

Before the revitalisation process began in 2005, Dandenong already had a culturally diverse community. As a local government representative explained, “…diversity is not something that exists in pockets (in Dandenong). It is a piece of margarine that’s spread across the entire geographic area of the municipality.” The scholar Michele Lobo commented from her own work in 2010 that this ‘everyday multiculturalism’ in Dandenong “provides the potential to blur fixed ethnic boundaries and contribute to interethnic understanding and a sense of belonging”. For many people we interviewed, the existing geographic mixing in neighbourhoods of cultural groups provided a basis for mutual understanding and acceptance of difference. As related to us by representatives from the State government’s lead renewal agency, the urban revitalisation process “built off the success of the cultural diversity” (local government representative) to change perceptions about Dandenong from a place suffering economic decline to be seen as “a multicultural mecca”. A State planning manager explained:

… I think it comes back to that point of understanding what the essence of the place is…you could see 27 cultures that worked together regularly and respect one another. It’s the cultures and the background that those communities bring that makes it a unique place. And that’s what actually creates the outcomes.

It is from this basis that the strategy for revitalisation and ‘place-making’ drew on cultural diversity as a theme, according to a representative from the renewal agency, to “give people a voice, engender pride in place and enable businesses to succeed.”

Food emerged as a central theme for understanding how cultural diversity was used as a basis for collaboration and also for revitalisation during the period of our observation. First, it is used by government as a medium to bring people of different cultures together, support interaction and build understanding. “If you make some flat bread, you all get sit around and talk. And so, we’ve used it as a mechanism of engagement. In other words, food is recognised as a…social unifier to bring together” (local government representative). Next, it is also used as a way to respond to social needs in diverse communities and provide a link between government, non-government organisations and people in the community, for example through organised food alliances. Lastly, food has been used in place ‘marketing’ and in creating and growing a local tourism industry through collaboration between the local, State Governments and different cultural groups, creating places that offer specific cultural precincts or activities, such as the Afghan Bazaar or Little India. These public realm assets act both as familiar sites for gathering by cultural groups and draw in other members of the public:

“…not only are they fantastic from a social cohesion point of view, they’re also destination drivers to Dandenong…to celebrate the diversity of the place, the diversity of the food offering” (past Place Manager, State Government renewal agency).

In turn, the success experienced by migrants in business, from food, retail and commercial activities such as land development, contributes to local economic prosperity and community cohesion in Dandenong. From this basis of strong integration, cultural groups are increasingly well organised and able to influence urban policy through political means. For example, specific traders or community groups have flourished and are able to influence local policy through “advocacy, lobby and engagement” (local government representative). “They’ve grouped up and they have a strength that was unimagined in the 1980s when the Indo-Chinese groups came. By grouping up, they have developed a voice in the community” (local Federal Member of Parliament). Another feature of government that reflects the success of multiculturalism locally is the diversity in local political representation. For example, at the local level “Dandenong has had in the last five years a Buddhist mayor, a Muslim mayor, a Jewish mayor, a Christian mayor, and an atheist mayor.” A notable theme emerging from the Dandenong case study is of multi-cultural fluidity and peaceful co-existence. Whilst the degree of inter-community integration, however, remains an open question, it does appear that public programs and civic structures have allowed for and encouraged socio-spatial co-existence and formal dialogue. We note, however, new strains in social discourse, in Dandenong and more widely in urban Australia, around Islam and asylum seekers.

Overall, a recipe for different modes of collaboration between actors has emerged in Dandenong that rests on the particular value of cultural diversity. Beginning from a position of widespread support for multiculturalism and mutual understanding in the community linked to the distinctive morphology and socio-ethnic functioning of the city, multiple forms of engagement and collaboration between actors is an important part of the revitalisation effort in Dandenong. These have included collaboration between government and non-government actors in the design of cultural precincts, as well as in the evolution of political action led by cultural groups to influence the trajectory of urban policy. Our research suggests that not only has cultural diversity been a useful theme for collaborative efforts in urban revitalisation, but that the recognition of cultural diversity and the different forms of collaboration that exist have supported an inclusive and culturally responsive form of urban revitalisation.

Helen Sullivan is Professor and Director of the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University.

Hayley Henderson is a PhD candidate in Urban Planning at the University of Melbourne.

Brendan Gleeson is Professor of Urban Policy Studies and Director of the Sustainable Society Institute at the University of Melbourne.

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The Logic and Practices of Austerity Governance in Dublin

GIF RGB 150 Pixels with BorderThis post outlines the main findings from the second round of research carried out by Dr Niamh Gaynor and Ms Nessa Ní Chasaide in Dublin as part of the Collaborative Governance under Austerity project. It forms part of a second series of eight blogs from the covering the comparator cities in the project.

Dublin has often been hailed as ‘the poster child of Europe’ for its discipline and compliance in managing austerity.  The Irish Finance Minister’s repeated mantra that ‘Ireland is not Greece’ serves to reinforce this image of social cohesion and stability so crucial to the attraction of foreign investment.  With property prices rising once again in the city and investors returning, there is much talk these days of economic recovery and growth.

However, as my previous post highlighted, this narrative masks the more complex and variegated experiences across the city.  In that post I outlined the socio-economic, administrative and political impacts of austerity throughout the city – the ‘what’ of austerity. In this post I would like to turn to the ‘how’ of this – the logic and the practices employed in governing Dublin’s communities and neighbourhoods in such challenging times.

The logic

Austerity governance in Dublin, as in many cities worldwide, is underpinned by a strong orientation to ‘the market’.  This manifests in two principal ways.  The first is the close relationship between property developers and city officials.  As the housing crisis escalates – a 117 per cent increase in homeless children last year alone – many properties lie vacant and unused across the city with no pressure on owners to sell them on.  Any proposals to tax vacant properties are reported to have met with strong resistance from council and national officials.  Indeed, in a recent (January 2017) response to a parliamentary question on council powers to tax vacant sites, the Minister for Housing stressed that no tax be imposed ‘in order to help alleviate the financial burden faced by owners of vacant sites’. This is in marked contrast to Barcelona where the council introduced legislation to fine banks that keep empty houses on their books.  In addition, spiralling rents are pushing many residents in the rental market out onto the streets as efforts to introduce rent controls are consistently blocked.  With little or no control over housing costs, many can no longer afford to live in the city.

The second manifestation of the city’s market fetish is the adherence to market-based solutions in service provision, including housing, water and refuse.  According to the long-awaited Housing Strategy, the city’s housing crisis – the product of failed public-private partnerships where developers reneged on contracts following the crash in 2008 – is to be addressed by more public private partnerships as the City Council is not permitted to build houses itself.  The city’s aging water infrastructure was to be tackled by a new company established in 2013 called ‘Irish Water’.  The fiasco surrounding this – cronyism on the board, over Euro 50 million awarded in consultant fees; widespread confusion over changes to charges; widespread billing errors; and a lack of accountability for the ensuing chaos – led to a general election in early 2016 and, over a year on, it remains unclear to date how the botched water privatisation is to be resolved.  It seems little or nothing has been learned from past experiences.  The privatisation of waste collection across the city over the past decade, resulting in a chaotic service for residents and eroded working conditions for staff, has already offered valuable lessons on the subject of market-based approaches.

The practices

Our research has uncovered four principal practices of austerity governance.  The first concerns control over information particularly and the overall narrative more generally.  The dearth of systematic information available on both the impacts of the spending cuts and their spatial and sectoral breakdown has been noted by many research participants, including city councillors.  Indeed, one of our respondents (a councillor) reported that his request for a breakdown on spending cuts was denied on the grounds that resources were not available to carry out this additional work.  The annual council budget meeting in 2016, which we observed as part of the fieldwork, began with an announcement that the overall figure councillors were being asked to debate and vote on had now changed.  The meeting collapsed into disarray as it became clear that some councillors had been appraised of this development while others had not.  While these information gaps could be benignly interpreted as symptoms of a poorly organised system, the dearth of systematic socio-economic data cannot.  Systematic cuts in central government funding to key research institutes from 2007 forward has left the city bereft of important socio-economic data – most particularly relating to the impacts of austerity policies in specific neighbourhoods.

The second facet of austerity governance in Dublin is the erosion of power and continued de-legitimisation of local authorities.  Despite much talk of local government reform and the renewal of local accountability and democracy, the hollowing out of local government continues apace with cuts to the city council of between 20 and 25 per cent reported to affect principally services and personnel at the coalface.  The result is an ageing and somewhat demoralised workforce.  While recruitment is reported to have recommenced, local community based personnel report that this remains limited to more senior, centralised positions.

The third practice mirrors findings reported from Leicester in relation to the reconfiguration of civil society.  The narrative and climate of austerity has accelerated the state’s process of cutting, shaping and disciplining publicly funded civil society organisations.  As a number of our respondents note, the 38 per cent cuts in funding to community and voluntary sector organisations primarily affected small, community-based groups with strong linkages within their communities.  Moreover, funding has become restricted to service provision and training only, and important research and advocacy functions now secure no state support.  As one state official noted ‘we’re funding groups to deliver frontline services in the main, not to be there with megaphones leading…’.  And, as respondents from surviving civic groups note, this has narrowed if not closed important spaces for critique and dissent within local communities.

This reconfiguration and reshaping of civil society extends to a fourth practice which aims at (re)constructing citizen-subjects as responsible, dutiful and ‘active’ citizens diligently working in a voluntary capacity within their local communities to plug the gaps arising from austerity cuts.  An intolerance of public questioning and dissent has long been a feature of social life in the city.  While the reasons for this are clearly complex and diverse (ranging from the historical legacy of a particularly bitter and divisive civil war in the 1920s; the strong influence of the Catholic church and its privileging of conservatism and consensus; the prevalence of clientelist politics at local levels; the lack of sharp left-right political divisions; and the relative weakness -or co-option- of the trade union movement), the homogenous branding of all activists mobilising against austerity policies as ‘unpatriotic’ and ‘violent’ has exacerbated this trend.

Reactions

While the logic and practices of austerity governance in Dublin certainly resonate with those of other cities grappling with similar crises of welfareism, the various and diverse public reactions to them perhaps highlight some particularities.  While the official discourse promotes images of a dutiful and compliant public, our research has uncovered a range of mechanisms of resistance – from traditional protest to innovative, social media driven acts of solidarity and support – taking place across the city.  Possibly the most significant factor in these is the range and number of ‘new’ activists of all forms, together with the multiplicity of tactics and techniques they employ – many of which fall under the radar of those focusing narrowly on the more traditional model of ‘angry protestors’.  Although this resistance is rooted in the city’s working classes, many of these new activists are middle class and female, reflecting both the broad-based impacts of austerity and its highly gendered nature.  While much of their efforts are either miss-represented or not reported at all, they have been and continue to be highly effective.  The privatisation of water services has been effectively abandoned and the housing crisis – surely a misnomer as the quality and affordability of housing in the capital has long been an issue – has become the number one political issue (notwithstanding that the various proposals and strategies to address this remain ambiguous and unclear).  And although there are attempts by some left-wing parties to channel these ‘new’ activists into formal politics, our respondents report that many prefer alternative political avenues in their quest for social justice.

As Dublin’s ‘water wars’ have demonstrated, hegemonies are never victorious.  They are always contested and contestable and subject to change.  Pressures to reverse the severe damage of ongoing austerity policies and to build a more equitable city may well come from outside rather than inside the formal governance system.[i] Therefore, a more systematic, honest and open form of state engagement (with disaffected, yet innovative and determined citizens and communities) may well be what is needed.

Dr Niamh Gaynor is Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at Dublin City University.  Nessa Ní Chasaide is an independent researcher and Research Assistant for this phase of the research.

[i] Austerity in Dublin is far from over.  In his last budget, the Finance Minister announced that government debt is to be reduced from its current target of 74 per cent of GDP to 45 percent over the next 10 years.   There is no way to achieve this other than through more austerity cuts

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Transforming Barcelona’s Urban Model? Limits and potentials for radical change under a radical left government

GIF RGB 150 Pixels with BorderIsmael Blanco, Yunailis Salazar and Iolanda Bianchi report on findings from a second round of research in Barcelona carried out as part of the collaborative governance under austerity project, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of its Urban Transformations Network.

The multidimensional and multi-scalar crisis of 2008 has placed considerable strain on the so-called Barcelona model. As observed in the exploratory phase of our research, public-community and public-private collaboration have traditionally been fundamental characteristics of this model since the restoration of democracy. On the one hand, the City Council has promoted an active role for social and community organisations in policymaking through a myriad of formal mechanisms of citizen participation, different formulae of public-community collaboration and the community management of public facilities and spaces. On the other hand, the city’s model of governance has been complemented by different public-private partnerships for the joint management of public services, urban regeneration, tourism development, and the attraction of financial capital. These kind of collaborative arrangements have been heavily criticised for different reasons, including the tokenistic character of participatory mechanisms and the capture of key public policies by economic elites.

The exploratory phase of our research was developed in the first year of the Barcelona en Comú government, the citizen platform emerged from social movements that won the municipal elections in 2015. In that phase, we already detected a strong ambition of the new government to promote radical changes in power relations in the city. In the second phase, the key question has been the feasibility and the capacity of the new government to lead and to execute such changes in public-private and public-community relations.

In both phases of research, our respondents agreed that this is a different crisis from previous ones in the 80s and 90s in the sense that this is deemed a structural crisis with characteristics of an epochal change. In the words of one of the interviewees:

‘This crisis marks a before and after for many people, in their perception of the economic system in which we live and of the democratic system, the politics that we have lived. In the past, there had not been such emotional, ideological and almost psychological impact over the city’.

The crisis has generated three main types of political responses in the whole country, according to another respondent:

  • Separatism: a political response led by a complex and contradictory coalition between a plurality of social and political organisations in Catalonia claiming the ‘right to decide’ and the independence from the Spanish State.
  • Left radicalism: a multi-scalar and spatially variable coalition between old and new social and political subjects emerging from the anti-austerity mobilizations and the 15M movement and rooted in the municipal tradition of the alternative left.
  • Conservatism: a pro-establishment coalition between the big national parties (PP and PSOE) and Ciudadanos (a key piece to offset the emergence of Podemos).

Barcelona en Comú embodies the new, alternative radical left in the city of Barcelona. The increase in urban segregation, social inequalities and social exclusion as a result of the crisis and of austerity policies are amongst the main concerns of this political platform. Consequently, one the of the main measures taken in the first months of the Barcelona en Comú’s government has been an Emergency Plan focused on four main aspects: 1) Employment and Model of Production, 2) Basic Social Rights, 3) Public-Private Relations and 4) Regulation of the City Hall and of their members’ privileges. In this plan, the new government outlines the fundamental characteristics of a New Municipalism based on the notion of the commons as an alternative to urban neoliberalism. Citizens and social movements express high expectations on the possibilities of the new city government to reverse neoliberal policies, transforming public-private relations, and fostering the logics of the commons against the privatization and the commodification of the city.

Two factors favor the room of maneuver of the new government: first, the special powers granted by the Municipal Charter (which, for instance, allows the City Council of Barcelona to play an important role in policy fields like welfare and education); and, second, the good financial situation of the City Council, which has accumulated several surpluses despite the severity of the crisis. However, local government powers are significantly limited by different recentralisation measures adopted by the Spanish Government like the restriction to staff recruitment, as well as by the lack of key competencies in areas like tourism, employment, housing, refugees, energy and public procurement. As expressed in one of the interviews:

‘The tools are very tiny and the expectations are great. How can the City Council of a city that is globally located on the map of the relevant cities in the world, which attracts migratory flows, capital flows… how can it manage a power that it does not have? The City Council does not have the power of the city. It is a very small portion of power. In fact, even in the fight against the hardest forms of poverty, we have serious limitations. There are several elements that escape the capacity of the City Council’.

Another important factor to bear in mind when considering the limits of the new government is the lack of a wide majority in the City Council, which obliges it to reach political agreements with the opposition forces to pass such important measures as the municipal budgets. One year after the municipal elections, Barcelona and Comú reached an agreement with the Socialist Party (the party that ruled the city between 1979 and 2011) to enter the government with its 4 councillors, an agreement that generated strong contradictions between different segments of the radical left.

In spite of these limitations, the new government has implemented important measures to address the problem of mass tourism and its consequences for the quality of life for the city’s inhabitants, such as: a) the suspension of licenses to open public audience premises (pubs, restaurants, discotheques…) in the neighbourhoods with the largest number of tourists; the pass-by of the PEUAT (Special Tourist Accommodation Plan), which amongst other aspects, establishes a zero-growth policy of tourist accommodation and the re-balance of tourist accommodation all-across the city; the application of sanctions to the website Airbnb for offering illegal flats (close to 40% of its total offer in Barcelona), which are considered to have contributed – together with other causes – to the rise of rental prices and to processes of gentrification and touristification. In addition, and related to the housing problem, the City Council has imposed fines on the banks that maintain vacant dwellings after evictions.

As part of a strategy of transformation of economic power relations, the City Council has developed a Social public procurement guide that promotes new social criteria for public procurement in areas such as: social rights (i.e. gender equality, universal accessibility and recruitment of workers with disabilities); workers’ rights (i.e. fair wages and stable workforce); the promotion of a new cooperative and social economic model; and social participation. Such policy aims at expanding the range of companies able to take part in public tendering processes, diminishing the competitive advantage of big companies and promoting “sustainable and inclusive growth”. One of the recent episodes reflecting the limits of local autonomy is the attempt of the local government to include an “anti-energy poverty clause” as part of the criteria for the allocation of the City Council’ services of energy and telecomunications, a clasue that has been suspended by the Tribunal for Public Procurement of Catalonia. Other on-going measures in this field include attemps to reverse processes of privatisation of public services initiated by the former conservative government of CiU (2011-2015) through the re-municipalisation of services such as water and nurseries.

Regarding public-community relationships, the local government expresses a strong commitment with the enhancement of direct citizen participation in policymaking. The new government of Barcelona en Comú has popularised the concept of (policy) coproduction, a key notion that reflects the will to outweigh the traditional approach to citizen participation  – deemed merely informative, consultative, bureaucratised, and tokenistic. Measures adopted in this field include a series of on-going reforms in existing participative rules, structures and processes and a new regulation for the community management of public facilities and spaces. Moreover, the new government places a strong emphasis on the notion of the commons as self-governing practices complementary to public institutions.

It is too early to reach conclusions on the impact of reforms promoted by the government of Barcelona en Comú, which has ruled the city by less than 2 years. The rigidities of local bureaucracy, the lack of a solid majority, the lack of powers in key policy areas, the global scope of the economic and financial flows, as well as the strong pressures by the mass media and the economic elites, amongst other factors, impose strong limits to the autonomy of local government and to its ability to promote radical changes. The incremental (and sometimes erratic) changes that this government is promoting in fields like tourism, housing and public procurement, among others, reflect an ambitious agenda of transformation of power relations with specific and tangible results in the city’s life. Beyond the city itself, the experience of Barcelona symbolises the will and the possibility of building a counter-hegemonic political project from the bottom, with strong potential impact at national and transnational level.

Dr Ismael Blanco is Lecturer at the Department of Political Science and Public Law and Research Fellow at the Institute of Government and Public Policy (IGOP) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB)

Yunailis Salazar holds a Degree in Political Science by the Central University of Venezuela and a Masters Degree in Social Policy and Community Action from the Autonomous University of Barcelona. She is a Research Fellow at the IGOP, UAB.

Iolanda Bianchi is a PhD Student at the UAB and the Univeristy IUAV of Venice. Iolanda holds a MSc in Urban Regeneration from the University College of London. She is a Research Fellow at the IGOP, UAB.  

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Austerity Leicester: Between Revitalisation, Retrenchment and Resistance

GIF RGB 150 Pixels with BorderProfessor Jonathan Davies reports on findings from a second round of research in Leicester carried out as part of the collaborative governance under austerity project, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of its Urban Transformations Network.

Leicester is a revitalised city.  Since I began working at De Montfort University in 2011, the centre has been transformed, with new developments continuing apace. Two great unexpected dividends – the discovery in 2012 of the remains of Richard III and Leicester City winning the Premier League in 2016 – gave the city a huge cultural and economic boost.  Our urban campus at DMU has contributed by growing student numbers and transforming its own environment in a way that complements and extends city centre revitalisation.  Leicester rightly prides itself on its ethnic super-diversity, and makes full use of the economic potentialities in branding the city.  As the City Mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby put it in a public lecture recently, Leicester is well on the way to getting over its “collective inferiority complex”.  Economic revitalization is deeply enmeshed with this sense of an urban cultural renaissance.

The juxtaposition of revitalized Leicester with austerity is not, however, a comfortable one.  From the City’s point of view, there is not much local government can do in the current national climate than deliver the cuts, preserve services where possible and mitigate the most devastating effects of welfare reform. Development is about trying to grow quality job vacancies in the city and ensure, as far as possible, that local people are up-skilled to fill them.  Most of our respondents support this approach, though anti-austerity activists see an up-market city centre as intensifying the marginality of working class neighbourhood-dwellers, deprived of the resources to enjoy it.  But, even staunch supporters of the Mayoral strategy know that revitalisation cannot compensate the privations of austerity in full.  In my last posting, I discussed the devastating impact of welfare reform under austerity upon thousands of Leicester citizens.  Social suffering – homelessness, unemployment income poverty, malnutrition, ill-health and destitution – are indelible features of the austerity landscape.  These grim consequences have been recorded and studied in depth by other researchers, for example Hirsch, Padley and Valdez.

Our focus here is on the implications of austerity for the governance of cities.  Despite endless government rhetoric about “localism”, which started over a decade ago under New Labour, our research suggests that local governing capacity is very limited.  This is in large part to do with drastic budget cuts and the ongoing devolution of local government finance.  It is also partly to do with the enduring culture of central government meddling in local politics, reflected ironically in the chaos around so-called “devolution deals” (see Adrian Bua’s reflections elsewhere on this blog).  Continuous churn in the names, functions and territories of local institutions and offices is difficult even for politically active citizens to understand.  Fragmented, complex and unstable governing landscapes are one factor alienating people from politics. Hence, shrinking local government does not mean the state disappears.  On the contrary, if you claim benefits the state, in the guise of the local offices of the Department of Work and Pensions, controls the way you live, under threat of sanction.  Our research suggests that this overwhelming control, which affects thousands of people, can in and of itself sap civic life by stealing time and head-space.  The capacity to be neighbourly, to volunteer or engage in politics is curtailed by “workfare”.

So, the key governance problem to which we want to draw attention in this blog is how the state is reorganising itself under austerity and, in the process, disorganising elements of local civil society: the locally based voluntary and community organisations that provided citizens with a voice in the corridors of power, or a service.  To put it provocatively, the reorganisation of the state fragments local civil society in a way that compounds the injustices of austerity.  We do not have space to map processes of “disorganisation through re-organisation” in any depth here. There are many of them and they will be discussed in detail in future postings.  But, in addition to the community-sapping rigours of “workfare”, swathes of the voluntary sector have been wiped out by cuts, decimating government-civil society networks that once supported the welfare state and denying a voice to some of the communities worst affected by austerity.  Grants have mostly disappeared, while contract funding for remaining local organisations is sparse, short term, competitive and bureaucratic.   This situation has important implications for the governance of multiculturalism. The local authority used to fund several Black and Minority Ethnic umbrella organisations as a means to support inter-community dialogue and capacity building.  It stopped funding most of these organisations in 2016.  The implications of uprooting this longstanding governance model remain to be seen, but one of the de-funded organisations closed at the end of last year, leaving the communities in question without an organised voice. At the same time, vast third-sector organisations, what might be called “voluntary sector multi-nationals”, are now far more likely to mop-up government contracts, themselves set on onerous terms. “Super-majors” in voluntary sector vernacular have no connection with local people and their business practices can be as predatory as corporations.

In the worst case scenario, then, the austerity state is refitting civil society from bottom to top and hollowing it out.  Where publicly funded voluntary and community organisations, for all their flaws, had strong organic connections with local people, and were there to provide voice and support, the trajectory of austerity governance is towards a larger and more remote voluntary sector enmeshed in authoritarian workfare management, cutthroat competition and managerial bureaucracy.  Actors on the front line say that even in a future age of abundance it could take decades to rebuild what austerity has destroyed and to destroy what austerity has built in terms of this new apparatus.  So much for the “big society”.  We believe that the issues we find in Leicester are almost certainly replicated to a greater or lesser extent across the country.

What, then, of the future?  As I commented at the outset, none of our interviewees suggested that urban revitalisation is enough on its own to counter the privations of austerity, or reverse the damage done to social networks in the city.  Case studies from across the world attest to the fact that cities that rely on competitiveness and entrepreneurialism are unjust cities.  The first challenge for Leicester is to square this circle: to make renaissance, always fragile in a turbulent political economy, work for all its citizens.   The second challenge is how the city can sustain and revitalise civil society as a vibrant network of local organisations capable of mobilising citizens, providing support and voice and speaking truth to power. Despite the damage done by austerity, there is no shortage of political energy in Leicester. The defence of Belgrave Library was the best example we witnessed in our study, and the trenchant campaign to defend the Glenfield Heart Centre exemplifies the potential for unified political, trade union and community campaigning against cuts.  There is the appetite for an alternative politics in Leicester, and we find the same in greater abundance in other case studies.  In Barcelona, where anti-austerity activists run the City Council, there is even talk of a “New Municipalism”.  Such language might seem absurd in the grindingly austere British context, but if it can happen in cities that have been even more badly affected, why not here in Leicester?

Jonathan Davies is professor of Critical Policy Studies and Director of the Centre of Urban Research on Austerity at the De Montfort University

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Baltimore: Governing Two Cities in ‘Crisis’

GIF RGB 150 Pixels with BorderMadeleine Pill reports on findings from a second round of research in Baltimore  carried out as part of the collaborative governance under austerity project, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of its Urban Transformations Network, and led by Prof. Jonathan Davies.

Baltimore exemplifies the US conception of ‘urban crisis’ – our focus on the crises of welfarism resonated with elites and citizen activists engaged in or seeking to change the city’s governance.  They cited the challenges the city faces in terms of its ‘fiscal squeeze’, compounded by population decline, poverty concentration and the resultant struggle to provide even basic services, aggravated by very high levels of public safety / police spending shrinking funding for other priorities such as education and job training.  But an underpinning narrative about Baltimore’s racial division and the resultant trauma was also clear – heightened by the ‘uprising’ in the city in April 2015.  This had disrupted the city’s governance, interrupting ‘business as usual’ – but did it herald change?   Looking at the spatial and institutional manifestations of the city’s divisions shows that whilst its governance has seen a degree of adjustment in style and tone, the goals and fixes largely remain the same.

Baltimore’s Spatial Governance

Evoking ‘a tale of two cities’ when talking about Baltimore is a cliché with good reason – it helps navigate the deep divisions so fundamental to understanding the city’s governance.  Lawrence Brown’s two Baltimores – the White L and the Black Butterfly – capture their most stark spatial expression.  Initial research found that the uprising after the death of a young black man following injuries sustained in police custody was perceived as a pivotal moment in seeking to overcome the city’s divisions.  The emphasis on social justice since the uprising was widely regarded as having increased but views differed on any meaningful changes in practice.  Many of the elites perceived the problem in terms of lack of resource and insufficient economic inclusion, with ‘workforce’ development measures regarded as a significant step.  But an advocacy organisation echoed the institutional racism cited by others, relating the uprising to:

‘[The] ton of unhappiness and dissatisfaction in the black community with the black leadership and the extent to which the black establishment has really been acting in the interest of black neighbourhoods, poor black residents’

 The two neighbourhoods talked about by nearly all those interviewed – Port Covington and Sandtown-Winchester – illustrate the persistence of ‘twin track’ Baltimore and demonstrate that in the ‘fiscally squeezed’ city, neighbourhoods only gain attention when they intersect with the priorities of city elites.

Port Covington is the city’s current waterfront megaproject.  The developer, Sagamore, is owned by Kevin Plank, CEO of “Under Armour” (a sportswear company) whose corporate headquarters will anchor the development.  It has received approvals for $660 million of tax increment financing, the biggest financing package in Baltimore’s history and subject to much city-wide debate, protest and advocacy.  Elites did acknowledge that the development raises ‘gentrification and race issues’.  It was also cited as an example of developers’ becoming more ‘socially conscious’ since the uprising.  Citizen activists and advocacy organisations in contrast were clear that the development was ‘tone deaf coming on the heels of the uprising’ and another example of where ‘we’re disinvesting from places that need it the most… and the benefits promised don’t materialise’.

The other space of the city most mentioned was Sandtown-Winchester in West Baltimore – Freddie Gray’s home neighbourhood and the epicentre of the uprising after his death.  It became the symbolic location for the launch of Project CORE, a State and City demolition initiative which counterpoints the Port Covington development by focusing at the other end of the spectrum – the city’s ‘stressed’ neighbourhoods with the highest levels of vacant and blighted properties. Elite and citizen activist perspectives on the initiative were unsurprisingly bifurcated.  A major non-profit saw it as an example of where there is now at least more ‘talking about listening to communities’ and other elites agreed it was not ‘business as usual’.  But community activists based in West Baltimore related it to practices of institutional racism, lack of community say, and saw it as a gentrification strategy clearing low income residents:

‘It’s insensitive of our community… not even considering the issues that gave us blocks and blocks of blighted properties… this is a low income neighbourhood so you’re proposing all this demolition to lure developers…. it’s a slow gentrification process’.

What about other neighbourhoods?  Some benefit from elite attention where they are able to gain leverage from the proximity of anchor institutions, notably Johns Hopkins university and medical system.  The Central Baltimore Partnership gains support and resource given its proximity to Johns Hopkins’ Homewood campus and its Community Partners Initiative.  This encourages other resource flows (such as from the State’s neighbourhood initiative and foundation and bank support for its new development fund).  A focus of the city’s major community organising coalition, BUILD, on the east-side Oliver neighbourhood levers on its proximity to Eager Park (an earlier city megaproject), anchored by Hopkins’ hospital.  Some see such prioritisation as ‘common sense’, the path to pursue when resources are limited.  Others made explicit that neighbourhoods that don’t offer opportunities are ‘written off’ with a West Baltimore anchor institution official describing it as being located in a ‘containment area’.

Civil Society? Citizen activism and the ‘non-profit industrial complex’

The bifurcation between elite and citizen activist views of spatial governance priorities underscores the city’s institutional divisions as well as its exclusion of the citizen from governance.  Citizen activists contrasted their embedded work in communities with Baltimore’s ‘non-profit industrial complex’.  A government official agreed, critiquing the ‘whole infrastructure here of non-profits and others’ that ‘co-opt community voice and say, this is what the community wants’.  In stressing the importance of relationships with ‘key community leaders and activists’, a major non-profit alluded to its instrumental need for consensus by getting ‘diverse neighbourhoods to think collectively’.  Overall, the research revealed the stark schism between the city’s mostly white-led non-profit sector and its activist community, particularly its younger African American members.  The racial (and spatial) disconnect between larger, grant-receiving organisations and target communities was emphasised, undermining ‘the development of independent black institution building that’s so necessary for communities to actually have the power needed to address a lot of these problems’.  The role played by the city’s non-profit (and foundation) sector is imbued with the contestability and mutability of ‘civil society’ as a Tocquevillian counterbalance to, or Gramscian integrated part of, the state, one activist pithily explaining that ‘one of the biggest issues that we have in Baltimore… is a condensation of non-profit and foundation forces that then are allowed to produce policies’.

Most found some reasons to be hopeful about the city’s future.  Some stressed the need for consensus, ‘ways of partnering in a positive manner’, others stressed the need for transformational, systemic change.  What was clear was the growing voice of black, young activists ‘trained outside of the local non-profit formula’.

The two city analogy remains popular, activists envisaging ‘two parallel tracks’ – one ‘like Port Covington, a neoliberal city’, contrasted with their ability to produce a ‘parallel structure, a parallel narrative… [a] vision of community empowerment from the grassroots up, as opposed to seeing black folks as appendages of a neoliberal wave’.  Others alluded back to the uprising in stressing the need for improved police-community relations to redress trauma as a prerequisite for other change in the city.  In so doing the city’s divided spatial governance was reiterated:

‘Actual police reform… without change in the structure, the policies, the way they actually work in Sandtown… is the very first steps to actual change… even with this huge Sagamore and the TIF [Port Covington]… it gets diminished as soon as something happens with the Police Department’. 

The research – which has involved 40 interviews with city government officials and members, citizen activists and those in the city’s foundations, universities and non-profit sector – points to the critical need to reconcile divisions within the city as part of any transformative change in its governance as a response to crisis.

Dr Madeleine Pill is Lecturer in Public Policy at the University of Sydney.

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Governing Urban Crises of Welfarism: Reflections from our Eight-Case International Study

GIF RGB 150 Pixels with BorderIn today’s blog Jonathan Davies introduces a series of eight further blog postings outlining the findings from our research in the cities of Athens, Baltimore, Barcelona, Dublin, Leicester, Melbourne, Montreal, Nantes and Sydney.  These will be posted one-by-one over the next few weeks.  The research is funded by the British Economic and Social Research Council (Ref: ES/L012898/1)as part of its Urban Transformations Network.  The official project title is Collaborative Governance under Austerity: An Eight-case Comparative Study.

The first phase of our research, reported in our first series of blog-posts last year, explored what we called the “collaborative moment”.   This term refers to the global wave of enthusiasm for network governance among intellectuals, policy makers and activists during the 1990s and 2000s: its capacity to join-up government, foster partnerships between state and non-state actors, and revive participatory democracy.  Given the relative proximity of citizens and governing institutions at the urban scale, cities were viewed as particularly fertile arenas for building network governance.  Our question was how far the zeitgeist of network governance – the spirit of the collaborative moment – survived the crash and austerity. We wanted to know, in other words, whether the “collaborative moment” was durable, or a transient phenomenon associated with long-gone “good times”.

The exploratory phase revealed that the terms “austerity” and “collaboration had very different meanings. The perceived economic and political significance of the crisis varied widely.  So did the politics of collaboration.  It is clear that while it has not disappeared entirely, the politics of the collaborative moment did not survive austerity, and had highly variable salience to start with.  Consequently, we decided to broaden the research to take in wider conceptual and temporal horizons and bring our case study cities into a better conversation with one another.  The research we are now reporting takes as its core problematic the urban governance of rolling crises of welfarism: the waves of dislocation and restructuring experienced in different ways and at different times in all our cities, since the heyday of the welfare state in the 1950s and 60s – including but not only the aftermath of the 2008 crash.  What configurations of social forces are mobilised, to what ends and with what impact on the course of our eight cities?

In the final phase of the study, we will begin exploring comparisons and contrasts between the cases, to be discussed on this blog later in 2017 and thereafter.

Jonathan Davies is Principal Investigator on the Austerity and Collaborative Governance Project, as well as Director of CURA and Professor of Critical Policy Studies at De Montfort University

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Labour-Centred Development in Latin America: Two cases of alternative development

The_hand_that_will_rule_the_worldIn todays post, Adam Fishwick offers an overview of the main arguments and highlight some of the key empirical findings of research published recently in Geoforum. Co-authored with Ben Selwyn, the article discusses alternative models of development that go beyond the neoliberal and statist paradigms that dominate debate, and is based on two cases– the cordones industriales in 1970s Chile and empresas recuperadas in Argentina today – of “labour-centred development”.

The rise of the ‘Pink Tide’ of progressive left and left-of-centre governments in Latin America briefly offered us a set of seemingly new alternative models – from buen vivir in Ecuador to ‘Socialism in the 21st Century’ in Venezuela to ‘growth with equity’ in Argentina.

Yet with the stagnation and apparent collapse of these models, critics on the Left have begun to highlight the many underlying contradictions that the Pink Tide failed to address.

Whilst the ‘neo-developmentalist’ strategies adopted throughout the region have seen a growing level of state intervention favouring increased growth in domestic industrial sectors and some social welfare improvements, they have embedded deepening relations of exploitation, blocked and co-opted social movements that brought these governments to power, and sustained a socio-economic order over-written by neoliberal macroeconomics.

Put simply, the statist strategies of the last decade have – despite limited gains in distribution, welfare, and industrial restructuring – made little progress in overcoming many of the regressive features of the neoliberal development strategies of the 1980s and 1990s.

From this starting point, then, we offer a critique of Elite Development Theory (EDT) as it informs the neoliberal and statist political economy paradigms in Latin America (see Selwyn 2015, 2016 for a wider critique of EDT in development studies). Second, we present two cases of what we term labour-centred development (LCD) in its nascent forms.

Regarding the first, elite development theory can be identified with two dominant trends that run parallel to and have to some extent informed the last three decades of Latin American development.

The emergence of the Washington Consensus formalised in the 1980s and 1990s much of the emerging practice of development across Latin America, bringing with it a firm commitment to reducing states’ welfare spending and the removal of ‘labour market inflexibilities’. The result was a sharp reduction in redistribution towards the labouring classes and the direct and indirect repression of their capabilities to mobilise collectively across Latin America.

The response of Statist Political Economists to this position offered a stark challenge to the Washington Consensus that, for many, offered a real alternative model for development.

But the progressive claims of these statist approaches are problematic. Alice Amsden (1990), for example, describes how South Korean state-led development relied on ‘the world’s longest working week’ and ‘cheap labour’, also noting how ‘labour repression is the basis of late industrialization everywhere’. And, in his comparison of Brazil, South Korea, India, and Nigeria, Atul Kohli (2004) notes the significance of strict workplace discipline.

Recent state-led development in Latin America can also be seen in this light. Although led by left and left-of-centre governments, it often remains reliant on the restriction of workers’ mobilisation in the service of a state-led national development strategy.

Alternatively, then, we propose a view on development that directly privileges the agency of labour in pursuing and constructing what we term labour-centred development:

‘the core concerns for LCD analysis are not those of capital (how to secure accumulation), but those of labouring classes. These include workers’ ability to reproduce their wage labour outside work (i.e. to earn enough wages and have enough time to secure the basic necessities of life and to engage in culturally-enhancing activities such as socialising and education), extending to more free time (shorter working days) and more decision-making ability within the workplace (to reduce the burden of work)’ (Fishwick & Selwyn 2016)

We distinguish our perspective from the two strands of EDT inasmuch as we perceive the interests of the labouring classes as the starting point for alternative strategies of development. We highlight the often invisible and obfuscated dynamics of labour’s collective action and its role in producing unique developmental dynamics from within what Michael Lebowitz (1992, 2001) has termed ‘the political economy of the working class’.

Second, the two cases of LCD we discuss are drawn from distinct contexts – the revolutionary moment of the Allende government from 1970 to 1973 in Chile and the deep crisis and recovery of the Argentinian economy from 2001 to present – but both are demonstrative of the capability of labouring classes to construct real alternatives from below.

In assessing these cases, we highlight four factors: (1) growth and productivity (2) employment data (3) workplace organisation (4) production priorities. In each of these we analyse the contributions made by workers themselves, as well as the limitations that derive not from the internal failings of these cases of LCD, but from capital mobilising against them.

The cordones industriales in Chile were a powerful example of LCD that emerged under the socialist government of Salvador Allende in the early 1970s. Comprised of a small occupied factories and large plants incorporated into the state-led nationalisation programme – the ‘Area of Social Property’ – they saw workers organise against a growing employer boycott to establish new forms of control over process of production and distribution.

Mobilising under the Communist Party-inspired ‘battle for production’ slogan, they revitalised output and productivity levels in a range of leading industrial sectors, transforming work, the workplace, and the priorities of production in the process.

Drawing on examples from the textile sector with data gathered from a range of trade union publications and political pamphlets from the time, we show how large and small plants saw increased levels of output under workers’ control, raised employment and wage levels, and even the establishment of facilities aimed to support workers and their families.

Strict Taylorist and paternalist management hierarchies were rapidly replaced by participatory forms of organisation, with workplace assemblies and councils building on the participation programmes promoted by Allende to produce genuine worker participation and control over decisions ranging from output to supply and credit to production priorities. Factories even transformed their produce in direct service of the poor communities and neighbourhoods from which their workers came and which surrounded these workplaces.

Nevertheless, despite these embryonic forms of LCD, pressures both from the socialist government of Allende and pressures from outside restricted the expansion of these strategies. And, on 11 September 1973, they were directly targeted as nascent ‘Soviets’ by the military as it violently reversed many of the gains that had been achieved in these years.

The empresas recuperadas in Argentina are a crucial contemporary example of LCD, in which several hundred workplaces have been transformed into legal and semi-legal cooperatives by workers pushed to the brink of unemployment. Often established following a long period of struggle with first the original owner and later the state, these enterprises first emerged en masse in the aftermath of the 2001 financial crisis in the country.

Typically involving workers with little or no political experience or affiliation, the transformations to work and the workplace have been profound – from the introduction of equitable pay to cooperative networks of financing and supply to the transformation of work.

Drawing on a range of sources and data gathered by the Open Faculty Programme in Buenos Aires, we show how, in recent years, there have been some significant improvements in productivity and output under workers’ control, how wages and employment have improved in most these workplaces, and how, most importantly, workplaces have been transformed.

There has been an increase in democratisation on the factory floor, whilst the introduction of job rotation and new divisions between labour processes and the organisation of the working day have ‘humanised’ these workplaces. Links established between the factories and the neighbourhoods, moreover, have had a tangible impact on the lives of the labouring classes across these communities, as well as contributing to the defence of factory occupations.

Nevertheless, despite these important gains, pressures on the initial formation of the empresas recuperadas, as well as the ongoing influence of their relationship with the wider capitalist marketplace points to the limitations of these examples of LCD. There have been attempts to overcome these through new networks and institutions, but they remain in their early stages.

To conclude, then, in our paper we show that the paradigmatic perspectives on development fail to capture these important dynamics that can – and, as we show, often do – provide fertile ground for genuine alternative development strategies favouring the labouring classes.

To identify these processes, and to correctly situate and overcome their limitations, we argue for the need to look beneath both the regressive logics of neoliberal development and the ostensibly progressive strategies pursued by states. By identifying the independent practices of workers in seeking to shape their own world around them, we can begin to identify how a real ‘political economy of the working class’ can emerge in theory and in practice.

Adam Fishwick is a Senior Lecturer in Urban Studies and Public Policy in the Department of Politics and Public Policy and a core member of CURA at De Montfort University.

This post was originally published on the ‘Progress in Political Economy’ Blog and has been re-published here with their permission.

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Austerity and welfare cuts

6449741467_dc1a81af70_bIn today’s post, Ines Newman discusses the implications of current and future welfare reforms, including the cuts planned for April. She argues that this will lead to increasing inequality and poverty, rising household debt levels with higher levels of rent and council tax arrears and that we are witnessing increased levels of maladministration by the Department of Work and Pensions.

In the first budget of this Parliament, George Osborne put in place £12b welfare cuts which came on top of the cuts in the previous Parliament. But with his departure following the Brexit vote and the worrying policies of Donald Trump, the impact of these cuts on families in the UK has slipped out of the limelight. They are however substantial and the Resolution Foundation has recently argued that they will result in ‘falling living standards for almost the entire bottom half of the working-age income distribution between this year and 2020-21’.

In April 2016, working age benefits, tax credits and the Local Housing Allowance were all frozen for four years. For example, Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) for a single unemployed person over 25 stood at £73.10. In 2009, it was already being argued that JSA was not sufficient for the essentials of life, such as food, bills and travel, and was inconsistent with a minimum standard. The real value had not changed for at least 30 years while per capita household consumption had doubled over this period. In relative terms the value had therefore halved. Now, as post Brexit inflation gathers pace, the real value of working age benefits will fall sharply, generating acute poverty.

Those with disabilities have traditionally been slightly protected through the higher Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and through Disability Living Allowance (DLA). However in 2015, the DWP started to contact anyone getting DLA and asking them to make a new claim for a Personal Independence Payment (PIP). The Government estimates https://fullfact.org/economy/personal-independence-payment-who-are-winners-and-losers/    that out of 1.75 million DLA reassessments, 510,000 will have a reduced payment and 450,000 will have their payments removed altogether.

All those with disabilities have to go through an assessment process which is as inadequate as the Work Capability Assessment for ESA. The PIP assessment is run by ATOS who finally bowed out of the contract on the Work Capability Assessment after receiving massive bad publicity. Meanwhile as Ken Loach’s recent film I, Daniel Blakemade clear, the new contractors, Maximus, for the work capability assessment, are no better than ATOS. Finally, from April 2017, new claimants who have a recognised disability on the work related assessment but are deemed to be capable for work will see the removal of work related activity components for ESA. It will mean those receiving the benefit will see their weekly payments cut from £103 to £73 a week. Far from protecting ‘vulnerable’ households the Government is pushing more disabled households into poverty. Half of those people living in poverty are now either themselves disabled or are living with a disabled person in their household, when the higher costs they face are taken into account.

Because successive governments have failed to deal with the housing crisis, rising rents combined with the bedroom tax, council tax benefit reductions, the cap on the local housing allowance and the total benefit cap are forcing low income households into poverty and debt. Sometimes they are forced to move into poorer areas, disrupting their children’s schooling and losing the support of families and friends. In December, the New Policy Institute https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/monitoring-poverty-and-social-exclusion-2016   reported that the number of private renters in poverty has doubled over the last decade and homelessness and temporary housing has increased five years in a row. In the London Borough of Camden where I live, we know that the lower benefit cap of £23,000 is affecting 1,110 children in 383 families. While some of these are being protected by discretionary housing payments (DHP) it is unclear for how long they can be supported and we are expecting a cut in DHP in April. A household caring for a disabled child over 18 who are not able to work because of their caring responsibilities will almost inevitably be hit by the benefit cap, as will a lone parent with several small children.

Meanwhile Universal Credit (UC) is gradually being rolled out. Using the language of giving more responsibility to the claimant, UC includes housing benefit (rather than this benefit being paid direct to the landlord) and is paid monthly in arrears. The result has been a massive increase in council rent arrears (85% of those on UC in Camden), partly as a result of delays and miscalculations in the housing element and by an understaffed DWP. From 11 April 2016, the rules on UC work allowances were changed to make them far less generous in a number of cases. The work allowance is the amount an individual or family can earn before their maximum UC award starts to be reduced. The reductions to the UC work allowances announced in the Summer Budget will ultimately have a similar impact to the changes to tax credits which were fought off by various lobby groups at the time of Osborne’s budget. Other changes in UC are significant too. From April 2017, young people aged between 18 and 21 claiming universal credit will not be eligible for housing benefit and will be expected to take part in a Youth Obligation for the first six months and then apply for an apprenticeship or trainee-ship, gain work-based skills or go on mandatory work placement. This is coming in despite the Government having to scrap the previous Mandatory Work Activity programme in 2015 when many charities boycotted it and research showed it was ineffective and merely punitive. Households will not receive Universal Credit for any children born after April 2017, when they already have two children. A lone parent with no child under 3 will be expected to look for work to claim any benefit after April this year. How such parents can then provide the type of parental support that numerous studies have shown is invaluable seems not to be a consideration for this so-called ‘family orientated’ government.

The Resolution Foundation concludes:  ‘the result is that the parliament from 2015-16 to 2020-21 is on course to be the worst on record for income growth in the bottom half of the working age income distribution. At the same time, we project the biggest rise in inequality since the 1980s, with inequality after housing costs reaching record highs by 2020-21.  This will be the legacy of austerity.

Ines Newman is a visiting senior research fellow at CURA, a trustee of Paddington Development Trust and does social policy research on a voluntary basis for Citizens Advice Camden.

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Democracy vs Sovereignty? Reflections on the Brexit Debate

27323547984_9ef3a4456a_bIn today’s post Prof. Jonathan Davies argues that the left has no option but to support the triggering of article 50, because the arguments employed against doing so are not credible and cannot presently command any sort of democratic mandate.  The left should instead harness the ‘boomerang effect’ of anti-Trump sentiment in order to build an alternative politics fighting for substantive equality, defending the free movement of labour and opposing the Thatcherite economics of the “single market”.

As Theresa May’s March deadline for triggering Article 50 approaches (this is the EU clause setting Brexit in train), “Remain” forces have been arguing that MPs should vote against it.  They effectively want Parliament to stop the Brexit bandwagon in its tracks. And, when Article 50 is triggered they believe the UK must remain part of the EU “single market”.  I voted “Remain” in the June 2016 referendum. I did so not because I like the EU but because I feared the racist backlash, which followed.  Had I voted “Leave”, I would have had to take my share of the political responsibility for that. Moreover, I share the fears and anxieties among pro-EU friends and colleagues about the rise of racism and nationalism in the UK, the US and parts of Europe. Undoubtedly, these are frightening times. Nevertheless, I believe that Remain perspectives are reckless, if not downright dangerous.  And there are far better political options.

A colleague recently made a memorable comment that attacking institutions on entirely legitimate grounds may have dire consequences, if the assailants cannot control what happens next. Remainers used arguments like this before the Referendum. The one about letting the racist genie out of the bottle convinced me.  Yet those now arguing that Article 50 must not be triggered seem to have forgotten their own rules.

After the Referendum, the pro-EU camp disinterred the constitutional principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty.  This principle holds that no authority can countermand the will of Parliament. The Supreme Court judgment on 24th January 2017 upheld that principle in forcing the government, against its will, to hold a House of Commons vote on whether it should be permitted to trigger Article 50.  MPs in the main English parties are divided, but it appears that with Labour support the government will win the final trigger vote on 8th February.  Jeremy Corbyn’s “three line whip” ordering his MPs to vote for Article 50 has led to a renewed chorus of condemnation for the beleaguered leader, not least from the left remain camp, which wants Labour to follow the principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty and strike down the referendum to save Britain from self-inflicted economic and political catastrophe.  This position is justified by the assertion of expert privilege in combination with consequentialist logics. The rationale is that even if striking down the referendum is undemocratic (a moot point) it is justified because it will prevent disaster.  So obsessed with stopping Brexit are some left-leaning academics that they have abandoned Labour and joined the Liberal Democrats.

I believe there is a lot wrong with this thinking.  As a socialist, I have never been much of an enthusiast for either Parliamentary Sovereignty, or referenda – I would prefer to extend and deepen participatory forms of democracy in all walks of life.  The politics of the referendum campaign were dreadful.  The Remain side ran a dismally uninspiring pro-business campaign.  The Leave campaigns were much worse, replete with lies about NHS funding and naked racism. Yet, both Labour and the Tories committed to abide by the result long before the Referendum was held.  And, at present, there seems to be very little public appetite for reversing it. If anything, the contrary is true. Arguably, then, if Parliament refused to trigger Article 50, it would be striking down the referendum in the face not only of the result itself but widespread and enduring public opposition. In these circumstances, the justification for stopping Brexit would seemingly boil down to the claim that “we know better than you”.

There is nothing wrong with expertise.  We need it very badly if we are to flourish as a species.  The racist right has cynically exploited growing public skepticism about expertise, but skepticism itself is far from unreasonable.  For example, the field of economics not only failed to predict the 2008 crisis it refused to acknowledge even the possibility that such an event might happen. It colluded in making the crisis by aligning itself, conspicuously and unapologetically, with neoliberal ideology. Economics departments in leading universities have long since been cleansed of anti-neoliberal (heterodox) economists. Where real scientific expertise depends on openness, plurality, modesty and healthy skepticism, economics relied on institutional power, arrogance, dogma and intellectual closure.  Of course, not all economists are guilty of this kind of behavior – far from it.  Nevertheless, it is untenable to think that invoking economic expertise will work as a justification for striking down the referendum.

At the same time, the UK is going through a growing crisis of democratic representation, a condition Colin Crouch calls “post-democracy”.  The institutions of the state, repeatedly exposed as seedy and corrupt, are held in diminishing public esteem. If, in some ideal world, it could be argued that the British State works for the rights and freedoms of all, the majority might just be convinced to put our collective sovereignty in the hands of an institution like Parliament. But today, our decaying institutions could not possibly carry the people without naked political repression. Presently, there is no justification for demanding that MPs overturn Brexit. On the contrary: it would not be democratic and alternative appeals to sovereignty, backed by claims to expert knowledge, are not politically credible.

For these reasons, it is now the turn of Remain supporters to heed warnings about unleashing forces they cannot possibly control.  Striking down the referendum would be politically catastrophic, not least in triggering a further racist backlash. Three line whip or not, Jeremy Corbyn’s position on Article 50 is correct in my opinion. And, it provides some basis for opposing a reactionary Brexit thereafter.

The other Remain demand is that once Article 50 is triggered, the UK should try to stay within the EU “single market”.  This is generally what people mean by a “Soft Brexit”. The PM has ruled this out, because it would mean having to accept “free movement” of EU citizens.  Mrs May therefore proposes a nationalist and anti-immigration “Hard Brexit”.  I deplore that and seek to defend the principles of “free movement” for people and the right of refugees to sanctuary in the UK.  Is the “single market” really the way to do that?  Some time before the EU was founded, the right wing Mont Pèlerin Society envisioned a single market. These founding fathers of neoliberalism later influenced Margaret Thatcher, who celebrated Britain’s accession to the single market:

“It’s your job, the job of business, to gear yourselves up to take the opportunities which a single market of nearly 320 million people will offer. Just think for a moment what a prospect that is. A single market without barriers—visible or invisible—giving you direct and unhindered access to the purchasing power of over 300 million of the world’s wealthiest and most prosperous people …

As Mrs Thatcher recognized, the EU single market promotes free market capitalism, competition and corporate profitability. No-one on the left thought it was a good idea in 1988. It certainly isn’t now.  The single market and other pro-market institutions are antithetical to equality, solidarity and democracy. Even the IMF now concedes that “instead of delivering growth, some neoliberal policies have increased inequality, in turn jeopardizing durable expansion”.  Markets – single or otherwise – polarize. And they crash. To regain our credibility, the left must surely fight for more worthwhile and tangible goals. If so, the real challenge is to both defend free movement and fight for an entirely different economics rooted in socioeconomic equality and solidarity.

The inspirational global response to Donald Trump’s racist edicts shows that this combination of demands is entirely pragmatic. Protests against Trump’s impending visit to the UK could be among the biggest ever held in this country. The Stand up to Racism demonstration on 18th March will also be very big.  Defending migrants and refugees will be among the key demands.  Most importantly, it is possible even now to see how the wave of giant protests across the UK and US can incubate an entirely different politics of hope and solidarity. The boomerang effect of anti-Trump protests in the UK is already plain to see, as Mrs May’s humiliating encounter at the White House exposes the absurdity of racist claims about reclaiming UK sovereignty.  Barricading ourselves behind discredited political and economic institutions is wrong and it will not work.

Jonathan Davies is Professor of Critical Policy Studies and Director of the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity at De Montfort University.

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