The Clandestine Hand of the State: a Workshop

By Dr Adriana Massidda and Dr Valeria Guarneros-Meza

In this blog, Adriana Massidda (Early Career Academic Fellow in Architecture, DMU) and Valeria Guarneros-Meza (Reader in Public Policy and Politics, DMU) reflect on an international workshop that took place in Leicester, UK, in March 2020.

The presence and role of the state in spaces of urban poverty has been widely discussed for decades, and yet each question asked opens up a myriad new ones. Multifaceted, ubiquitous, and concrete while almost ungraspable, the state can be said to hold a promise of social redistribution yet at the same time it perpetuates inequalities.

In fact, on the one hand, the state may materialise itself in low-income neighbourhoods in the form of a school, housing built with council funding, a day care centre for the elderly, or (sometimes mediated) cash-transfer programmes. On the other hand, in its ambivalent monopoly of the legitimate use of violence, the state also emerges in low-income areas through the presence of the police that enforce the law as often as they depart from it, co-creating chains of illegal markets that are observed in drug trade, social and domestic abuse, and interpersonal violence.

Cutting across these issues, the work of Argentine sociologist Javier Auyero, Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Professor in Latin American Sociology, University of Texas-Austin and a key name in the sociology of urban marginality globally, addresses and articulates crucial questions when it comes to understanding why and how a certain community interacts with the state the way it does. Javier considers how communities make sense of state-induced domination, by immersing himself in the place and collaborating with local residents.


On the 3rd March 2020 a small but wide-ranging group of researchers and community activists gathered together in the Saffron Lane Neighbourhood Centre in Leicester to discuss the inter-connected themes of urban informality, environmental vulnerability/toxic uncertainty, and the ambivalent presence of the state in spaces of urban marginality. Besides Javier, the group included staff members and doctoral students from De Montfort University (full list at the end) and Neil Hodgkin, director of the Neighbourhood Centre and our host. The event was supported by the DMU Centre for Urban Research on Austerity.


Celebrating the event in Saffron Lane gave us the perfect environment to discuss urban poverty, politics and environmental design since, as highlighted by several of the attendees, the neighbourhood stands amongst one of the most deprived areas in the UK, has been strongly hit by government austerity cuts, and yet it is site of an innovative exploration of passive housing construction and the ways in which it can help residents sustain their cost of living.


In its multiple manifestations, the presence of the state in spaces of urban deprivation is ambivalent and contradictory. In the UK, central government’s grants to local government have been in decline since the 1980s and local authorities faced severe cuts after the 2008/2010 financial crisis, leaving a void that local government initiatives struggle to fill in. The decline of the manufacturing industry, combined with these austerity politics and the reluctance of city councils such as Leicester’s to openly contest this trend, have created a dire situation in areas like Saffron Lane. ‘We are looking at increasing fuel poverty, water poverty; inability to pay the rent’ explained Neil; ‘we’ve got to a point where having a washing machine and a fridge in your house is a luxury’.


In Argentina, poverty is also pressing, though it manifests itself in different ways. The recurrent problems that affect residents deeply in the peri-urban areas of the capital city, Buenos Aires, are related to interpersonal violence, drug addictions, illicit trade, and more pressingly the complicity of the police in many of these issues. ‘What if’, asked Javier, ‘violence at the urban margins is not what urban sociology is telling me – it’s not simply about rich retaliation and retribution but it takes more of the form of concatenations of violence? What if contamination is one of those aspects of durable inequality that we have not scrutinized in the way in which we should?


A counterpoint between the case of Buenos Aires , site of many of Javier’s works, and the UK, was present implicitly in our discussions as we sought to make sense of the paradoxical role of the state in the simultaneous mitigation and co-production of inequalities. Relevant questions to the British case included: to what extent the state in the UK participates in illicit markets? Is it the case in the UK that violence concentrates where the urban poor dwell? What types of violences can be found in the UK? What is the role of the state in the lowest-income neighbourhoods? To what extent does urban marginality change the parameters of legitimacy of the state?


‘The state [in both global north and south] has played an important role in manufacturing forms of informality, in housing, planning, infrastructure and the other areas of life […] albeit in complex and contradictory ways’ argue Valeria Guarneros-Meza and Adam Fishwick in an earlier post. The same could be said of unemployment, illicit trade networks, resource depletion and modern slavery addressed by the presenters throughout this workshop. Cities like Leicester struggle with poverty. The discourse on multiculturalism has been part of an official narrative where the City Council seeks to adapt to a pressing scenario of austerity by highlighting people’s entrepreneurship. In spite of the obvious differences, this position is not that far off in its neoliberal underpinnings from what writers like Hernando de Soto recommended, back in the 1990s, for Peruvian shantytowns: promote residents’ enterprise so that the state does not need to intervene. The twofold problem is that the structural differences faced by the residents are unchallenged; and that with little support, political power, and perhaps even knowledge, individuals left alone to resolve such large issues remain in an extremely vulnerable situation.


This constructed vulnerability sets the conditions for what Laura described as modern slavery, and for the ghastly working situations and social demobilisation analysed by Jonathan Davies. Building upon his research on austerity and the work of Nik Hammer on the fashion industry in Leicester, Jonathan at the start of his talk said, ‘This presentation is not so much about the clandestine hand of the state as it is about how deregulation creates illicit markets’. His presentation provided a thorough contextualisation of how local state policy ultimately creates a clandestine economy in Leicester through fiscal austerity and deregulation of employment practices. In the aggregate the city’s policies envelope practices of modern slavery, while depoliticising (organised) work and informalising the city’s economy.


In a city such as Leicester, poverty is arguably less visible than in Buenos Aires, yet it leaves residents with enormous problems. ‘Even though [Saffron Lane] has the most affordable homes in the city’ stated Neil ‘95% have rent arrears. It does not look like a poverty-stricken place, but most people here have less income than they have outgoings. But what if a house could pay you to live in it?’ he continued; ‘it’s quite futuristic but this is the biggest issue for people here.’ In Mark Lemon’s words: ‘What are the possibilities for scaling up? If you over-spec a house, you should be able to have excess energy, excess heat, excess food.’


The Saffron Lane Neighbourhood Centre partnered with DMU IESD since 2018 to design the Living Labs; a pilot attempt to create a community able to overcome state-induced inequalities. In addition to social concerns, the interest of DMU in the project stems from its multipartnered nature: ‘Living Labs seem to be the flavour of the year’ explained Mark Lemon, ‘but most of them are located in campuses. Our intention, with Neil, has always been that this Lab is located within, and merges with, the community. We’re working beyond the household level.’ In working off campus and beyond the household level, the Living Lab is opening opportunities to explore the questions that Javier’s work has provocatively posed during the workshop. We intend to begin materialising some of these ideas in the next couple of years.

About the contributors:


Adriana Laura Massidda is an architect and academic researcher currently based at the Institute of Architecture, De Montfort University. Her previous work looked at the spatial, social and ecological history of southwest Buenos Aires, Argentina, a landscape of wetlands with rich wild vegetation which was transformed into urban space through the contested actions of shantytown communities and municipal departments (1956-1972). Her most recent work looked at female leaderships in Lima’s pueblos jóvenes in the context of internal violence and rising neoliberalism. She is currently outlining a new research project to explore the potentialities and limitations of phyto- and bio-remediation to mitigate contamination through co-design with low-income communities.

Valeria Guarneros-Meza is Deputy Director of CURA and has an interest in exploring the term ‘informality’ as an analytical tool for understanding local governance under contexts of violence, securitisation and extractivism.

Workshop Participants

Javier Auyero, Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Professor in Latin American Sociology at the University of Texas-Austin
Jonathan Davies, Centre for Urban Research on Austerity, De Montfort University
Valeria Guarneros Meza, Centre for Urban Research on Austerity, De Montfort University
Ibrahim Has, Centre for Urban Research on Austerity, De Montfort University
Neil Hodgkin, Saffron Lane Neighbourhood Centre
Daniel Kerr, Institute of Energy and Sustainable Development, De Montfort University
Mark Lemon, Institute of Energy and Sustainable Development, De Montfort University
Adriana Laura Massidda, Institute of Architecture, De Montfort University
Birgit Painter, Institute of Energy and Sustainable Development, De Montfort University
Laura Pajón, De Montfort University Leicester and Leicestershire and Rutland Modern Slavery Action Group
Mahnoor Shoaib, Institute of Architecture, De Montfort University

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