CURA’s Launch Conference: some reflections

Valeria Guarneros-Meza and Adrian Bua report on CURA’s inaugural conference

Last week we held our two day launch conference. Throughout the four panels there were significant discussions that we need to consider in developing our understanding and study of austerity. Many of these ideas were circulated via twitter (@CURA2015) but we think it is worth expanding on 140 character-selling headlines. The points listed below are not exhaustive; they are our impressions of issues that drew people’s attention and therefore worth considering in developing CURA’s future events and research agenda.

Austerity and Urban Boosterism

Urban infrastructures such as Heathrow’s proposed third runway (addressed by papers delivered by David Howarth and Steven Griggs), nuclear plants (Francis Chateauraynaud), HS2 in London (Daniel Durrant) and Medellin’s Teleferico and Reyes de España Library (Kate Maclean) were the examples addressed by the speakers. In the case of London it is striking to see estate development and the type of urban infrastructures mentioned above while the great majority of the city’s population are struggling to make ends meet. In Medellin the concept of ‘social urbanism’ was developed in an era of financial extravagance. Extra spending was targeting national and foreign investment into the city while addressing  basic service needs (access to water and electricity) that marginalised neighbourhoods required. Kate Maclean argued that although the approach had succeeded in attracting investment, upgrading urban space and integrating some marginalised neighbourhoods, urban boosterism has not been enough to tackle levels of crime and violence (measured by homicide rates) in particular pockets of the city. Moreover, it also been argued, in other work by Abello-Colak and Guarneros-Meza, that  the reintegration and disarmament programmes targeting the youth tend to favour those groups that belong to gangs as opposed to building a universal and comprehensive approach to youth development.  In other words, what Medellin’s example is showing is that social urbanism, at its best, or urban boosterism, at its worst, may help the city overcome visible spatial austerity but it will not be enough to tackle the social degradation that austerity of public welfare has caused.

Getting away with it: the socialisation of risk through technical obfuscation

This topic was raised in presentations by Daniel Durrant on HS2 in London and on the political economy of adult social care provision in the UK, by Karel Williams. Daniel’s analysis was based on the balance sheets of the HS2 corporation. He demonstrated that accounts show that cost calculations are based on the benefits for business infrastructure investment and potential business travellers, while wiping out any social costs that are related to the impact that the construction of the railway has on the destruction of community life, schools and other spill overs. Karel’s work on adult social care critiqued the financialisation of care provision by private providers. He argued that optimum returns on property speculation assured by a standardised kind of adult care home (60-80 capacity) with minimum wages and a casualised workforce with high levels of staff turnover. The requirements of quality care provision, and attention to the social and health needs of residents,  takes second place to debt and management strategies that split property ownership on the one hand and home management and operation on the other. These financial innovations provide parent corporations to extract any gain from subsidiaries passing all debt responsibility to the latter; what he called ‘malign performativity’. These two examples show the ability that corporations have in covering and disguising cost-benefit analysis by using sophisticated technicisms that reduce the ability of citizens to understand the model and ability to perceive these techniques as ‘daylight robbery’.

A similar point was made with nuclear plants in France and England (Francis Chateauraynaud), where the scientific and technical discourse of the environmental impact that these generate lead to the production of confusing and competing set of facts and narratives that disempower citizens and politicians (see also Xavier Auyero’s work).

Austerity invites ‘structural violence’

Annette Hastings’ presentation on the socioeconomic costs of local government cuts in England and Scotland argued that they constituted a clear case of ‘structural violence’ – because they put those individuals less able to exercise political agency in harm’s way, and accentuate their marginalisation in public service provision.  Drawing on findings from a recent report, Annette demonstrated the cuts to tax benefits addressing housing and social care have promoted local authorities to change their administrative processes to cope with impacts of the cuts on staff salaries and dismissals.  These practices are structural because they form part of the system that puts order and discipline to the way local authorities are organised and the relationships they build with citizen-users.

The concept of structural violence is relevant to other presentations: such as Robin Smith’s work on the role of ‘street outreach workers’ in tackling with the ambivalent pressures of caring but eradicating  homeless in cities such as Cardiff and New York, where urban boosterism is undoubtedly present as ways of ensuring urban competitiveness; and Robert Ogman’s talk on social impact bonds – another financial innovation that promote structural violence while helping local governments cope with the destabilisation of social and welfare initiatives produced by public fiscal austerity. These three presentations addressed Anglo-American cases, but it is equally interesting to see how structural violence can be found in contexts of crime and physical insecurity in cities in the United States and across different cities in Latin America (see Auyero et al ‘Violence at the Urban Margins’), whose national contexts deepen the complexity of the meaning of structural violence when enmeshed with broader debates on security and urban securitisation.  In cities, both in the north and south, the role of frontline bureaucrats was mentioned as agents caught in the cross road of the ambivalence of everyday governance practice.

Resisting and countering austerity

Both keynotes – Erik Swyngedouw and Karel Williams – addressed the need of agency by academics, insurgent social movements and organic intellectuals to enhance and speed up social innovation in the UK. Erik called for system de-stabilization through insurgency whereas Karel drew upon the concept of social innovation as a potential source of alternatives. These strategies differ in so far as one aims to engender rupture through direct confrontation, and the other pursues an agenda of interstitial change. The modality of the former is agonistic, the latter more collaborative. However, these modalities are by no means mutually exclusive. Paraphrasing Romand Coles critical social theorists should focus on the mutually enabling relationship between agonistic and collaborative forms of participation. Absent agonism, collaboration is in danger of governmentality. This much is evident, we think, in the co-optation and trivialisation of the concept by neoliberalism, resulting in constant innovation without change. On the other hand, absent collaboration, agonistic ruptures can fail to sustain the change that, in Ricardo Blaug’s words, a ‘democratic moment’ opens up opportunity for. In sum, both modalities are necessary to achieve a transformative environment. CURA has a good opportunity to start building on this through its association with the New Economics Foundation (NEF). Rachel Laurence (from the New Economies in Practice team at NEF) and Adrian Bua (NEF and CURA) explained NEF ambitions to sustain and expand activities that make the foundation a hub for research and action that delivers socio-economic change. They also highlighted some areas where CURA and NEF could join forces to shape such an agenda. This could, for example, be around current policies such as devolution and regional economic development. This is also an area which, as Matt Dykes of the Trade Unions Congress explained, is being targeted by organised Labour movements for its potential to create new government tiers that are more amenable to trade union influence. It will be important to bring in other social movements into this agenda also.

It is perhaps it is worth considering how doctoral students can become a generation of organic intellectuals as a strategy to help them find employment that academia seems increasingly incapable to provide. Building professional links between CURA and progressive policy and advocacy organisations such as NEF might be one way to proceed. This could go some way towards breaking down barriers between policy research that seeks political influence, and academic research focussed on making contributions to knowledge.

Valeria Guarneros-Meza is Lecturer in Public Policy at the Deparment of Politics and Public Policy; Adrian Bua is Research Assistant the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity

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