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Book Summary

Purcell, M. (2008). Recapturing Democracy : Neoliberalization and the Struggle for Alternative Urban Futures. New York: Routledge.

Purcell’s ‘Recapturing Democracy’ presents the idea that the global economy and cities have been “neoliberalized” and therefore social life has become increasingly subjected to free markets, competitive relations, and minimal state regulation of capital. According to him, dynamic cities are becoming increasingly unequal, segregated, unhealthy and oppressive under neoliberalism. He argues that through democratic attitudes and the pursuit of radical democratization we can resist the pervasive neoliberal agenda.

In Chapter 1, ‘The Terror of Neoliberalization,’ Purcell describes the main characteristics of neoliberalization and its relationship with ideas of globalization, nation-state, and devolution. For him, in today’s global economy the notion of nation-state is no longer valid. Supra and subnational scales are replacing its function and interacting freely. This particular phenomenon has been named as ‘glocalization.’ Purcell emphasizes that some of its characteristics are the internationalization of economic production and finance, and the tendency for economic coordination at a local and regional level. Geographical competitive clusters are needed in the global economy. As mentioned earlier, under glocalization, the functions and powers of the state have been transferred to other scales, supra or subnational. In addition to up and down scaling, there has been a trend of outsourcing state functions. As a result, ad hoc and special purpose entities have been proliferating.

For Purcell, neoliberalization is a reassertion of an old neoclassical economic argument under which society functions best within market logic compared to any other. It proposes that open and competitive markets produce most efficient allocation of resources, innovation and economic growth. Therefore, market logic and competitive discipline should be promoted and the state should get out of the way. Purcell points out that neoliberalism is not an economic policy but an on going ideology. In contrast, he opposes neoliberalism with the Keynesian economic policy regime where the state played a strong role controlling and regulating society and markets, and promoting and redistributing wealth. Additionally, Purcell outlines the main features under which neoliberalization works. The laissez-faire idea minimizes the regulation of economic activity. Welfare retrenchment programs are considered uncompetitive. The aidez-faire comprises a direct assistance to the capital. And finally, disciplining is an indirect assistance to capital. Purcell presents the idea that neoliberalization is looking for means to legitimize and reduce the inequality it promotes.         

In chapters 2 and 3, Purcell strongly advocates resisting neoliberal claims to democracy and their definition of it. His central objection of liberal democracy relates to his rejection of neoliberals’ assertions that democracy and capitalism go hand in hand, arguing the contrary that democracy urges to maximize power of the people, while capitalism requires to curb that power (pp.40). By using democratic theories such as participatory, deliberative, revolutionary, and radical pluralism, he argues that a “network of equivalence” can come together and challenge the hegemonic power of neoliberalism. He rejects participatory and deliberative democracy on that basis that (1) Habermasian deliberative democracy undermines the right of the individual because of its emphasis on consensus building and ignoring power dynamics in collective decision-making, (2) that participatory democracy, much like deliberative democracy, focuses on the “common good”. He argues that decisions with an emphasis on consensus and common goods made under deliberative and participatory processes “legitimize” the interests of the neoliberal capitalists.

Relying on the theoretical framework of revolutionary democracy and radical pluralism, he presents a six-point agenda for resisting neoliberalism: (1) explicitly rejecting the current hegemonic pairing of neoliberalism and liberal democracy – that is rejecting the claim that democracy and capitalism are two elements and you cannot have one without the other; (2) rejecting the argument that the proper aim of democratic decision-making is to achieve consensus and/or the common good,  thus, departing from deliberative and participatory democratic theories; (3) embracing an agonistic[1], social-movement model for democracy; (4) embracing coalitions of movements; (5) a clear commitment to oppose neoliberalization; and (6) establishing the counter-hegemony of radical democratization and radical equalization. By offering the six-point agenda, he urges that he is not offering a prescription for the end state, but rather proposing democratic attitudes that challenge the established notions of neoliberalism. 

Radical democratization, according to Purcell, means a radical extension and deepening of democratic relations; it is an agenda to push democracy into spheres from which it has traditionally been excluded (pp.83) – these areas include (1) franchising or bringing citizens to all spheres of decision-making, and (2) scope, i.e. extending democracy to spheres of economy and the home. By radical equalization, he means claiming a radical equalization of material wealth, political power, and cultural esteem. It demands more than just the modest redistributions of the Keynesian era; it demands instead a substantial equality whereby all people are materially, politically, and culturally equivalent in a way that makes political equality truly possible.

Moreover, he asserts that the urban is closely linked with the expansion of capitalism, and hence, provides the key site of resistance against the hegemon. By focusing on resistance at the urban level, he takes support from Lefebvre’s foundational theory on the “the right to the city,” which argues that citizens should decide which kind of a city they want to dwell in by exercising their right to appropriation and participation.

In Chapter 4, Purcell explores different aspects of the complex relationship between democracy and neoliberalization through four empirical cases in the cities of Seattle and Los Angeles. He outlines several terrors of neolibralization by describing gentrification through expedited neighborhood redevelopment; political legitimization through the limitations of deliberative democracy in the Seattle waterfront project;  the “fox guarding the henhouse” situation of public-private partnership in the Duwalish River cleanup to avoid public accountability; and exclusionary outcomes of some forms of collective action like homeowners’ associations in Los Angeles. He characterizes neoliberal actions according to their lack of alternatives, disregard for democratic decision-making, dominance by professionals, communication barriers, and defense of ownership and use-values of property over collective citizenship rights.

The related radical democratic attitudes, which challenge neoliberal hegemony range from claiming the right to inhabit the city through active inhabitation of the redeveloped neighborhood to challenging the ideological hegemony of traditional landuse and transportation planning in the neighborhood and waterfront redevelopment cases respectively. The Superfund cleanup is the most radical and elaborate case which counters the hegemony by forming “networks of equivalence” around a shared agenda of inhabitance among diverse coalitions. These coalitions can participate meaningfully through the structures that emerge out of the ambiguities of flexible neoliberal governance, which according to Purcell is a palimpsest of devolution and outsourcing over traditional Keynesian ideas of development. Purcell argues for deliberation within the network to offer a strong, coherent resistance to neoliberalization; and acknowledges the challenge of building networks across diverse groups while preserving plurality. He also highlights the difference between inhabitant and inhabitance to illustrate that inhabitants’ movements need not always be progressive in pursuing the democratic agenda of inhabitance, which is basically a fight against the commodification of space by neoliberalism. Despite the challenges of collective action through networks, he finds hope in the fact that hegemonies are temporal and can be displaced by seizing opportunities in the ambiguities in neoliberal governance regimes.

Purcell has taken on a very challenging task of countering the hegemonic power of neoliberal democracy and has questioned the unquestioned legitimacy of capitalist agenda. By relying on the vast literature on democracy, he has shown the contradictions between what is the essence of democracy, and how the neoliberal democrats have hijacked its true meaning in deliberative and participatory processes. However, his own approach to form equivalence across networks of diverse groups relies on these very theoretical frameworks that he critiques.  

In sum, while there are many fronts where Purcell offers nuanced critique of the Keynesian redistributive state and offers a platform to begin a resistance against the neoliberal hegemon, his ideas seem utopian in the absence of alternatives. Despite citing examples from Brazil and his own case of Seattle’s waterfront redevelopment, and by taking a position against the possibilities of deliberative and participatory democracy, Purcell rejects the role of the state in creating an enabling structure for collective action as well as synergistic relationships between planners and community groups through communicative planning to claim inhabitance. Further, framing the city as the commons that can be claimed and appropriated through collective action does not necessarily address the tragedy of the commons, especially at the urban scale.

[1] He makes a distinction between agonism and agnosticism. Agonism sees the struggle against an adversary who has the right to defend its beliefs. Antagonism seeks elimination of the enemy.