Revolutionary Ambition in an Age of Austerity: An Interview with Neil Smith

David Hugill

Neil Smith teaches anthropology and geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and is a past director of its Center for Place, Culture and Politics. He is best known for his work on gentrification and for his interest in refining a Marxist theory of “uneven development.” He is the author of many books, including Uneven Development: Nature, Capital and the Production of Space (1984), The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (1996) and The Endgame of Globalization (2005). In June 2011, David Hugill interviewed Smith on two occasions in Toronto. What follows are excerpts from those conversations.

You’ve argued that the Left has been stifled by its lack of radical imagination over the last few decades, particularly in Europe and North America. But with the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, you’ve suggested that we may be witnessing a return of what you’ve called the “revolutionary imperative.” What happened to the threat of revolution and why is it making a comeback now?

The stunning thing is that, for generations of North American and European socialists, feminists, and anti-globalization activists – the people opposed to capitalism in the 1990s and into the twenty-first century – the option of revolution was not on the table. Revolutions are a fact of life, a fact of history, but for decades they’ve been understood as unrealistic. This orientation had a lot to do with the response to the upheaval of the 1960s, and to the events of 1968 in particular. Despite its problems, 1968 galvanized a massive number of people around the globe and across a range of struggles. To be sure, the emerging movement was polyglot and polymorphous; it didn’t really have a core. Nevertheless, it raised the question of revolutionary change in a lot of places.

But revolutionary change did not happen. The capitalist class secured victory in the form of neoliberalism. One of the greatest violences of that victory – and this is not meant to take away from those who lost their lives as a result of it – was that the Left also began to believe that there was no alternative to capitalism. That was the situation we faced in Europe and North America in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But, for me at least, it seemed obvious that revolutionary alternatives had to be taken seriously. I don’t mean this in some facile way, as though revolution is right around the corner – it wasn’t and it isn’t. Nevertheless, we need to recognize that political revolt is going to happen. That revolt is going to look different, have different meanings and different implications from place to place, but it is going to happen.

It was exciting when things started to blow up in Tunisia, and then Egypt, and then through much of North Africa and Southwest Asia. It revealed the unrealistic nature of the belief that revolutions are a thing of the past. It’s remarkable how much these events have caught people’s imaginations in ways you wouldn’t have predicted.

In North America, however, it seems that we’ve lost some of the anger that arose in the immediate wake of the 2007 financial crisis. In the early days, there seemed to be a real sense of who and what was responsible for economic disaster. Today, that rage seems to have faded and many have resigned themselves to new rounds of austerity. Has that initial moment of popular indignation been lost?

I don’t know if it’s lost, but it has fizzled. At any rate, it has certainly lost its edge. But the level of class struggle by the ruling class now is astonishing; it’s so dramatic. The banker Warren Buffett came out just a couple of years ago and said “there’s class warfare, all right. But it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” When members of the ruling class remark that leftist discussion of austerity is a manifestation of class struggle, they know they’re waging a class struggle themselves. They’re displacing the responsibility for raising the question of class struggle onto the people they’re struggling against. Class struggle is going on; the question is how to overcome our extraordinary lack of organization. The Arab Spring and the recent anti-austerity movements in Europe are no doubt important. But where do they go from here? What kind of organization can happen, especially across national borders?

This is going to sound strange, but I’m optimistic. The crisis that started in 2007 has not been solved at all. The various austerity programs that have been put into place over the last year or two are just the beginning of a systematic class attack. The bailouts for banks – especially in the United States, but also in Europe – have done nothing to solve the underlying economic problems. You can read this in the mainstream papers; people like economist Paul Krugman in the New York Times – and even those who don’t so strongly self-identify as liberal – are arguing that the conditions have not been changed. More than ever, there’s a belief that certain banks are too big to fail. Marx made the point that in order for capitalism to solve a crisis it has to devalue capital. Massive amounts of capital need to be destroyed to recreate the conditions that make growth possible. Capitalism is incredibly inventive, but that destruction has not taken place. It has not even begun.

You’ve suggested that the neoliberal project has started to exhaust itself, that it has ceased to be generative of new ideas. But doesn’t it seem like new fronts of neoliberal assault are opening up? Take Governor Walker’s attack on collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin, for example. Does this not represent a bold new phase in the neoliberal campaign? Are these the final gasps of a dying project or signs of new rounds of neoliberal innovation?

I think it’s both things. Neoliberalism is “dead but dominant.” Jurgen Habermas made that remark about modernity in the 1980s. Reading him two or three years ago, it occurred to me that this was the state neoliberalism was in. It is dead because it was challenged by a number of struggles, ideas, and circumstances. The anti-globalization movement – disorganized, fragmented, and multiply focused as it was ­­– made clear to a lot of people that there was in fact an alternative. Latin American revolts – at the ballot box, but also on the streets and in the forests – were extraordinary signs that neoliberalism was not beyond contestation. During the economic crisis of the late 1990s, a lot of people who had been neoliberalism’s most avid supporters jumped ship. Joseph Stieglitz, Jeffrey Sachs, and others said “okay, this is not working.” Then, of course, there was the economic crisis after 2007.

All of these things were stakes in the heart of neoliberalism. Yet neoliberalism remains dominant in the sense that it still has no significant global challengers. That may have changed with the Arab Spring – at least it’s a sign that the challenges are there. The way I see it is that neoliberalism was genuinely aimed at bringing down some powers of the state. It took aim at certain kinds of state supports for social reproduction, at state provisions for housing, for unemployment benefits, for medical care. People got used to the welfare state providing these things – again speaking of Europe and North America.

But you’re not particularly sympathetic to calls for a “new Keynesianism.”

The contemporary Left could learn a lot from the earlier feminist and Marxist critiques of the welfare state. According to those critics, the welfare state played a role in sustaining and protecting 
capitalism. Part of their analysis involved a recognition that the welfare state recreated social control through social security 
programs. Social security wasn’t just about giving cheques to people who were unemployed; it was also security against revolution. It meant class security for the ruling class. When you dismantle the welfare state, you actually take out that form of implicit social security for the ruling class.

This helps explain the securitization that we’re facing right now – whether on the streets of Toronto, Madison, or Cairo. Those instances of securitization on the streets are all simultaneously signs that neoliberalism has run its course. When the state has to use force, a tool it always keeps in its back pocket, then the game has changed. Today is different precisely because there has been a securitization of social policy. This securitization is filling the vacuum created by the successful dismantling of the welfare side of the state. Of course, the other side of the state – the security apparatus, the economic supports for banks and capitalist institutions, and so on – has been strengthened. It’s not a dismantling of the state itself; it’s only a dismantling of its social security function. Once those chickens come home to roost, you are left with the militarization of the street.

In The New Urban Frontier, you describe how the gentrification of Manhattan’s Lower East Side was animated by a vengeful desire to take back the city from the poor. Do you see echoes of this revanchist spirit in the kinds of securitization you’ve been describing?

What we saw with the revanchism of the early 1990s was a recognition – not just on the part of the ruling class, but also of the middle and upper middle class – that the city had been stolen from them. But stolen by what? By the welfare state, by liberal urban policy, by support for housing, support for indigent medical care, by unemployment insurance, and so on. In their minds, it had been stolen by people who didn’t deserve the city: homeless people, people of colour, the working class, migrants. It seems to me that this level of revanchism – assigning blame and finding a target – is part of the process by which the full-scale assault on the state can be justified.

The other thing that has to be said is that it was easy to uncover revanchism in New York in the 1990s as liberals were turning against their own ethics, their own morality, their own sympathy for homeless people, for the poor, and for migrants. But there has always been revanchism in the cities of Latin America, Asia, and Africa. There was never a Keynesian state in these contexts, never the social security mechanisms that were the ruling classes’ first defense against revolt. Without social security measures in place they had to rely on upfront forms of securitization. The killing of kids in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro is just one example. The rulers in North America and Europe are now playing catch-up with their colleagues in Asia, Latin America, and parts of Africa.

You were in the streets of Toronto during the G20 meetings and have said you were surprised that people were shocked by the aggressiveness of the police. Did those events lay bare the nature of the state in ways that are politically useful?

It was naive for people to think that a capitalist state was going to be benevolent. Max Weber was right: the state is precisely that institution which claims monopoly over the legitimate use of violence. That is true of the state in Canada as much as it is true of the state in other places. The mass arrests in June 2010 and the amount of money spent on the G20 made it obvious to many 
people that this was an oppressive apparatus, from Ottawa on 
down to the streets of Toronto. The G20 security operation trained police for future events and gave them a chance to use weaponry they hadn’t used before.

Do those kinds of realizations have any staying power? Will they still be there after a few “bad apple” cops have been scapegoated and punished?

Yes, but only if they are coupled with a certain amount of 
education and political awareness. When a cop does something good – you know, helps a little old lady cross the street – nobody says “oh, there is a good turd.” Nobody says that. Why? Well, because the ideological predisposition is to assume that the cops are on our side. Of course, the cops are agents of the state and, ultimately, of private property. The role of the cops is to carry out the legitimate violence of the state, and when the interests of the ruling classes are more threatened, the cops will be more violent. The cops at the G20 were only doing what cops are supposed to do in general.

Having said that, we’ve got to be careful that this doesn’t turn into an anti-cop position on an individual officer level. Naomi Klein, whom I’ve disagreed with on some other things, was right when, at the G20 demonstration outside the police station, she looked at street-level officers during her speech and said “you are not the enemy.” After that, she looked up to the top of the building and said, “your bosses, who are sitting up at the top of that 
building, they are the ones doing what the politicians tell them 
and they are the ones doing what the corporate classes tell them, and they are the enemy.”And that’s exactly right. Whether there are a few good turds or a few bad apples among the cops is neither here nor there.

As the world’s population becomes increasingly urban, city building has become a central strategy of 
accumulation. Does this mean that urban movements will take on a new centrality?

City building is a massive industrial enterprise in the production of surplus value. Before the crisis, about 23 percent of Ireland’s gross domestic product was directly related to the construction sector: the construction of homes, streets, roads, buildings, offices and so on. Construction is central to what the capitalist economy is all about: city building. But there’s no direct relationship between an economic analysis and a political strategy. Just because city 
building was central to the creation of the crisis doesn’t mean that the opposition is therefore necessarily urban.

There are extraordinary movements around environmental politics, Indigenous politics, and food. Some of these are urban, but many are not. Nevertheless, I think a lot of the opposition is going to come from urban centres in part because – as Marx and Engels pointed out in simple and elegant terms – the accumulation of capital in one place is, at the same time, the accumulation of the working class. Right now, the Left is rethinking what constitutes the working class and what constitutes value. If we ask those questions in economic terms, we learn where the weak links in the chain are, and where the capitalist class is going to be most affected by its breakdown. Marx and Engels talked about the accumulation of a working class; we need to ask what that picture looks like today.

Where does that work begin?

We must make a connection between what happens in the workplace and what happens outside the workplace. I supervised a dissertation on the history of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union in New York, and my student found that the union’s radicalism was strongest when workplace and community issues were combined. You had unions building housing for their own workers, for example.

Returning to your question about the power of construction in the current capitalist regime, and the extent to which urbanization has become the leading motor of capital accumulation: if that’s the case, then the political implication is that we have to organize around the construction industry. That means not just the people, the workers building things. It also means organizing around the consumption of what’s constructed. How do you put all that together? Housing is a relatively obvious place to begin. What does a socialist politics of the built environment look like? You’d think we would know after 30 or 40 years of radical geography, but I’m not sure we do.

You suggest that we need to update our understanding of class. Would you expand on that?

The Left has allowed the Right to define class. First, they defined 
it out of existence, except in cases when it could be used as a weapon against the Left itself. But despite their claims to the contrary, the Right has been mounting class struggle much more successfully than the left. Meanwhile, the Left has not done the work to figure out what the new working class looks like. This is something we should have been doing since the 1970s and 1980s. Today, some of the strongest work is being done on stuff like precarious labour. Feminist and socialist scholars are investigating new patterns of working that don’t fit the industrial working class model. To be fair, the Left has actually been fairly clear that the industrial factory model is relatively narrow. It captured Marx and Engels’ attention in the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s – and you can see why given the level of industrialization, the level of factory production, the 
level of manufacturing. But how would we re-write that story today? How does precarious work or office work fit in? How do we rethink the working class to include all of these newer forms of working class life – up to and including the point where it might be precarious by definition? Class is about social relations of production; it’s not about the form production takes.

The Left has allowed the Right to get away with the lie that, because there is no longer an industrial working class, socialism is irrelevant. That’s a stupid argument. There is a working class; it just looks very different. We need to know what it looks like and we haven’t been very good at doing that. One of the greatest successes of neoliberal capitalism in Europe and North America has been to dis-educate people about class. It has gotten so bad in the US now – and it is almost as bad in Canada – that there are really three classes in the public discourse: homeless people, millionaires, and the middle class. That’s all there is. That whole language, that whole rhetoric is very much about getting rid of the idea of the working class. It was quite astute how they did it, because they actually played up the sense that there was a stigma connected to being working class. How did they do that? Well, they emphasized this very narrow stereotype of the working class that made it out to be filled with coal miners or steelworkers and nothing more. They narrowed the notion of working class to this relatively small group that was getting hammered by de-industrialization and who therefore deserved our pathos. From there, it was a short step to not wanting to call somebody working class because you’d end up feeling a little sorry for them. So we are all middle class. Voila. Problem solved.

People have lost the language to talk about themselves as working class, but not totally. For those of us who work through the word, it’s very important to talk about the “working class” because it connects to people’s experiences under austerity, budget cuts, fiscal crisis, and so on. These measures are all aimed at the working class.


1 Just before this issue went to print, Smith had this to add: “The Occupy Wall Street movement, which by October 15th held demonstrations in as many as 1,000 cities around the world, is encouraging. It is emblematic of the kind of political mobilization that has to happen in response to the economic crisis and the broader predations of capitalist austerity.”