Monday Nov 28

Fall 2022

EXCERPT - Accommodate or Abolish: Strategies to Confront Urban Neoliberalism

Excerpt from “Conclusion: After George Floyd,” from A Voice but No Power: Organizing for Social Justice in Minneapolis by David Forrest appears courtesy of the author and the University of Minnesota Press. Copyright 2022 by David Forrest. All rights reserved. 

For social justice organizers, the uprising that followed George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis marked the emergence of what political scientists call a critical junc­ture—a period of uncertainty in which their choices have a heightened potential to effect long-term change.6 At the heart of this juncture—which began sometime after the Great Recession and still exists today—is a growing web of cracks in popular acquiescence to neolib­eralism.7 In Minneapolis, by the time George Floyd was killed, many or­dinary residents were already active in an expanding sequence of move­ments against tough policing and other inegalitarian, neoliberal-era policies and practices. They also energized several lower-profile movements—against, for example, exclusionary zoning, wage theft, and the privati­zation of public housing.9 Their choice to defy public health guidelines and protest the murder of George Floyd denoted a continuation and heightening of the righteous opposition they had already articulated through these prior movements.

Local officials have, perhaps unwittingly, encouraged this opposi­tion by trying to accommodate or forestall it. Even before the Floyd protests, Minneapolis’s progressive officials had enacted several re­forms that gingerly rolled back and im­plicitly affirmed popular displeasures with the neoliberal status quo. This rollback certainly included reforms directed at police brutality, such as the expanded use of body cameras, the creation of implicit-bias workshops for officers, and the banning of “warrior-style” training.10

But it also touched several other policy areas. For example, since 2015 the school board and district have stopped authorizing new char­ter schools and, alongside the state government, modestly expanded funding for the provision of medical support and other “wrap-around” services in public schools.11 In 2019 the city council made Minneapolis the first major locale in the country to wholly eliminate single-family zoning, a long-standing impediment to the development of affordable multi-family housing.12 Moreover, they significantly expanded finan­cial support for affordable housing development, increased city-funded legal assistance for renters facing eviction, and enacted an inclusion­ary zoning law that incentivizes developers to build up the city’s af­fordable housing stock.13 A few years prior, the council had passed laws raising the minimum wage to fifteen dollars and mandating paid sick leave. The shift in governance also extended to the state level, where, for example, legislators from the Twin Cities ushered the first major in­crease to TANF benefits for low-income single mothers in over thirty years. More recently, they worked with Governor Tim Walz to push for another increase.14 And, in response to the Covid-19 recession, they helped to enact a temporary state-level ban on evictions for unem­ployed residents.

After the Floyd protests, Minneapolis’s progressive officials either took or considered several additional steps, many of which challenged oppressive approaches to policing and further validated calls for egali­tarian and emancipatory change. The school board, for instance, re­scinded its contracts with the Minneapolis Police Department—a na­tionally unprecedented move.15 The University of Minnesota did the same.16 The Hennepin County attorney and, subsequently, the Min­nesota attorney general, Keith Ellison, charged officer Derek Chauvin with the murder of George Floyd—a charge that resulted in Chauvin’s conviction.17 And most notably, the city council pledged to replace the existing Minneapolis Police Department with “community-oriented, non-violent public safety and outreach.”18 Their subsequent actions have come nowhere near to enacting such a decisive shift.19 However, the fact that they even framed it as a laudable goal was remarkable.

Despite these cracks in support for neoliberal governance, its death is by no means imminent; nor is its replacement by a more humane alternative—even in a leading-edge, progressive city like Minneapolis. For example, as urban-planning scholar Ed Goetz has noted, the city’s recent housing reforms have offered mostly symbolic or modest conces­sions to opponents of neoliberalism and poverty deconcentration.20 Inclu­sionary zoning laws, legal assistance for renters, and increased afford­able housing subsidies all underscore the need to redistribute power and resources away from developers, landlords, and other private real estate interests. On their own, however, they neither require such a re­distribution nor halt the gentrification of the city’s historically poor and diverse neighborhoods.21 In fact, while enacting these reforms, local of­ficials have also further privatized Minneapolis’s public housing stock, placing it more at the mercy of investors who often stand to profit from the displacement of low-income residents.22 If proponents of hous­ing equality fail to appreciate the symbolic or modest nature of recent reforms—and, thus, find themselves placated—then neoliberalism, or some revamped version of it, may yet define their city’s future.

Similar things could be said about most other recent reforms and challenges to neoliberalism in Minneapolis. The school board’s turn away from charter schools and modest embrace of “wrap-around” ser­vices are important. However—even as charter schools continue to populate the city and many students’ basic needs continue to go unmet—the board’s most ambitious and controversial plans have still tended to focus more on rearranging bodies than redistributing opportunity and expanding rights.23 Furthermore, the state’s increase to TANF benefits, while substantial, was nowhere near big enough to meet poor mothers’ needs or meaningfully increase their leverage against exploitative em­ployers, predatory landlords, and abusive partners.24 Finally, while the city council’s 2020 pledge to transform Minneapolis’s system of pub­lic safety was rightly celebrated as unprecedented, it is doubtful that they will follow through on this pledge—especially given waning public support for the idea.25 And if they ever do follow through, there is no guarantee that what comes next will ultimately serve a more egalitarian function.26

As Minneapolis and the rest of the United States move through this critical juncture, how social justice organizers fashion contentious public identities such as “poor and working people” or “the Black commu­nity” will matter a great deal. More precisely, whether these organiz­ers support the continued expansion of powerful left-wing movements will help to determine how public officials and other leaders recon­solidate local and national governance. No matter how progressive the leaders of Minneapolis or any other city are, they cannot mount a substantial rejection of neoliberal capitalism and its attendant oppres­sions on their own. They need the support of active and often disrup­tive movements—that is, movements capable of checking the corporate and wealthy interests that have defended neoliberalism and dominated American politics for over forty years.27 The absence of such movements helps to explain why Minneapolis’s pro­gressive brand of neoliberalism became so entrenched in the first place.

Social justice organizers cannot sow disruptive movements out of whole cloth.28 However, they can help create a political environment that is more conducive to these movements, eas­ing their emergence, multiplying their force, and slowing their decline.29 By working to assemble contentious identities around de­mands to abolish oppressive conditions, publicize these identities using oppositional rhetoric, and le­gitimate them through grassroots mobilization, groups like the Welfare Rights Committee have incited and deepened ordinary people’s desires for egalitarian and emancipatory reform. They have developed activists who possess the wherewithal to break rules and build majorities in sup­port of such reform.30 The more organizers follow this abolitionist path, the greater the chances are that already existing opposition to neoliber­alism will continue to grow and force a reckoning with the intersecting systems of injustice that precipitated George Floyd’s death.

The odds, as always, are stacked against those who would promote abolitionist struggles. Just as neoliberal governance remains mostly in place, so do the neoliberal-era political hazards that pressure orga­nizers to delink contentious identity-building from abolition—to give voice without power. For instance, even as calls to “defund the police” have gained traction among progressives, capitalist realism continues to stigmatize or foreclose the most truly abolitionist versions of these calls. Many progressives endorse a market-friendly approach to “de­funding” that primarily entails replacing police departments with vari­ous “community-based” and privatized alternatives—an approach that would likely reproduce extreme inequalities in exposure to violence and physical insecurity.31 And many at least implicitly assume that creating more restorative but still government-run institutions of public safety and strengthening national welfare programs—a far more egalitarian and promising approach—is unworkable.32

In addition, ignorance about market oppression continues to in­fluence the terms on which many people embrace something like the “defunding” of police. Progressives often embrace it within a crude “identity politics” framework, which primarily underscores the need to redress racism and other forms of discrimination in policing.33 This framework helpfully calls attention to the abuses that police depart­ments disproportionately enact on people of color and other disadvan­taged groups. However, by focusing exclusively on discrimination, it also ignores gentrification and other broad market-based systems of disinvestment, exploitation, and financial predation that such abuses have helped to shore up. It understates the true extent of the damage in­flicted by police violence and obscures the reasons why abolitionist and anti-neoliberal approaches to public safety are necessary.

Finally, the political incapacitation of poor and working-class people continues to depress engagement around abolitionist calls for restor­ative criminal justice, stronger welfare entitlements, and other aspira­tional reforms. Events like the George Floyd uprising show that extreme and widespread anger can temporarily override this incapacitation. But such intense anger is hard to sustain for long periods of time.34 In addi­tion, the violent police backlash to these uprisings can further exacer­bate ordinary people’s loss of political capacity. Over the course of the Floyd uprising, police arrested over ten thousand protesters across the United States and committed countless acts of abuse and brutality.35 In the short term, these arrests and abuses may have amplified working-class engagement by further stoking popular anger.36 In the long term, however, they saddled large numbers of ordinary people with crimi­nal records, legal fees, and other costs that further diminished their political resources. They also probably left these people with an even firmer sense that state institutions are incurably corrupt and thus further weakened feelings of political efficacy among the poor and work­ing class.37

The foregoing hazards discourage abolitionism by influencing orga­nizers’ political etiquettes, or guides for action. As organizers work through exhaustion and navi­gate strategically difficult situations, they simply have a much easier time adopting etiquettes that treat the dominance of capitalist realism, societal ignorance about market-based oppression, and the political in­capacity of poor and working-class people as fixed constraints. These etiquettes construe abolitionist demand-making as a fool’s errand; they drive organizers to fashion contentious identities around moderate de­mands, publicly accessible but misleading rhetoric, and narrow and se­lective approaches to mobilization.

Only groups who intentionally build alternative etiquettes stand a chance of avoiding this outcome. Such etiquettes push organizers and their followers to treat the political hazards of contentious identity-building as what they actually are— the product of enduring but contestable institutional practices. Once organizers make this shift in perspective, they can begin the “radically incrementalist” work of redressing the ideologies, ignorance, and inca­pacities that make abolitionist demand-making seem so implausible.38 More broadly, they can become vehicles for expanding, rather than constricting, disruptive movements for freedom and equality.

Especially since the 1970s, social justice organizations that have fol­lowed the abolitionist path have been few and far between. However, their numbers are growing. In the wake of movements like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns—and in response to a series of escalating socioeconomic catastrophes—more and more organizers have experimented with effective strategies.39 In Minneapolis specifically, a growing community of organizers have learned how to successfully embrace and defend abolitionist demands for reforms like restorative criminal justice and expanded public housing. They have also learned how to deploy the rhetorical and mobilization strategies needed to strengthen such demands.

These new abolitionist organizers work or have worked in a wide array of community and labor groups. The organizers in these and other groups around the country are a major—though certainly not the sole—reason why popular acquies­cence to neoliberalism has already declined as much as it has. Those in Minneapolis developed the community of activists who enabled the George Floyd uprising and other recent movements against inegalitar­ian neoliberal-era policies.42 They also helped to elect policy makers who, through legislative action, have further validated and encouraged opposition to neoliberalism. Some of these policy makers have even come directly from their ranks.

Insofar as more social justice organizers can follow the lead of such groups, they will be well positioned to seize, escalate, and sustain future moments like the George Floyd up­rising. But if, due to the hazards of contentious identity-building, most of them continue to suppress abolitionist demands, then they will enter these moments as a problematic force, diminishing ordinary people’s radical desires for freedom and equality at precisely the time when these desires have the greatest potential to influence American politi­cal development. Either way, their representational efforts will play an important role. Those of us who care about creating a world in which all people can live full and dignified lives should do what we can to sup­port these organizers and encourage them to choose wisely.

David Forrest is a professor at Oberlin College.  A Voice but No Power is available from the University of Minnesota Press at www.upress.umn.edu.

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David Forrest is assistant professor of politics at Oberlin College. He has published in Polity, PS: Political Science & Politics, and Qualitative Sociology. 


Notes

  1. Capoccia 2016.
  2. Fraser 2019.
  3. Knafo 2012; M. Smith 2016.
  4. Chen 2018; Howard 2019; Trickey 2019.
  5. Mannix 2019.
  6. Lahm 2018.
  7. Trickey 2019.
  8. Ibrahim 2018; Navratil 2019.
  9. Serres 2020, 2021.
  10. Hensley-Clancy 2020.
  11. H. Jones 2020.
  12. Montemayor and Xiong 2020.
  13. Fletcher 2020.
  14. In December 2020, as part of a compromise with the city’s mayor—Jacob Frey, a white man and employment and civil rights attorney—the council shifted about $8 million of the police department’s budget to other public safety services (Navratil 2020).
  15. Goetz quoted in Martin 2019.
  16. H. Jones 2018; Ostfield 2020.
  17. Moylan 2019; Howard 2019.
  18. Feshir 2020; Mervosh 2021.
  19. Bierschbach 2019.
  20. Oladipo 2021.
  21. Lancaster 2020.
  22. Piven 2006.
  23. See especially Piven and Cloward 1971, 1977.
  24. Piven and Cloward 1977, 36–37; Minkoff 1997.
  25. McAlevey 2016; Han 2014; Arena 2012; Nadasen 2005.
  26. Lancaster 2020.
  27. Guastella 2020.
  28. Cedric Johnson 2017.
  29. Phoenix 2020.
  30. Sainato 2020.
  31. Day 2020.
  32. Lerman and Weaver 2014.
  33. Schram 2002.
  34. See, for example, Blanc 2019.
  35. Tigue 2016.
  36. See, for example, Horazuk 2020.
  37. See, for example, Han 2020; Jaffe 2020.

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