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© 2002 Editorial Board of Antipode.
Published by Blackwell Publishers, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden,
MA 02148, USA

Cities and the Geographies of
“Actually Existing Neoliberalism”

Neil Brenner
Department of Sociology and Metropolitan Studies Program,

New York University, New York, NY, US; [email protected]

and

Nik Theodore
Urban Planning and Policy Program and Center for Urban Economic

Development, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL, US;
[email protected]

This essay elaborates a critical geographical perspective on neoliberalism that
emphasizes (a) the path-dependent character of neoliberal reform projects and (b)
the strategic role of cities in the contemporary remaking of political-economic space.
We begin by presenting the methodological foundations for an approach to the geog-
raphies of what we term “actually existing neoliberalism.” In contrast to neoliberal
ideology, in which market forces are assumed to operate according to immutable laws
no matter where they are “unleashed,” we emphasize the contextual embeddedness of
neoliberal restructuring projects insofar as they have been produced within national,
regional, and local contexts defined by the legacies of inherited institutional frame-
works, policy regimes, regulatory practices, and political struggles. An adequate under-
standing of actually existing neoliberalism must therefore explore the path-dependent,
contextually specific interactions between inherited regulatory landscapes and emergent
neoliberal, market-oriented restructuring projects at a broad range of geographical
scales. These considerations lead to a conceptualization of contemporary neolib-
eralization processes as catalysts and expressions of an ongoing creative destruction
of political-economic space at multiple geographical scales. While the neoliberal
restructuring projects of the last two decades have not established a coherent basis for
sustainable capitalist growth, it can be argued that they have nonetheless profoundly
reworked the institutional infrastructures upon which Fordist-Keynesian capitalism
was grounded. The concept of creative destruction is presented as a useful means
for describing the geographically uneven, socially regressive, and politically volatile
trajectories of institutional/spatial change that have been crystallizing under these con-
ditions. The essay concludes by discussing the role of urban spaces within the contra-
dictory and chronically unstable geographies of actually existing neoliberalism.
Throughout the advanced capitalist world, we suggest, cities have become strategically
crucial geographical arenas in which a variety of neoliberal initiatives—along with
closely intertwined strategies of crisis displacement and crisis management—have
been articulated.

Page 16

of institutional change that have been generated through the deploy-
ment of neoliberal political programs at various spatial scales. The
point of this emphasis, however, is not to suggest that neoliberalism
could somehow provide a basis for stabilized, reproducible capitalist
growth, but rather to explore its wide-ranging, transformative impacts
upon the inherited politico-institutional and geographical infrastruc-
tures of advanced capitalist states and economies. We would argue
that this latter issue must be explored independently of the traditional
regulationist question of whether or not a given institutional form
promotes or undermines sustainable capitalist growth. Even when
neoliberal policy reforms fail to generate short- or medium-term
bursts of capitalist growth, they may nonetheless impose much more
lasting evolutionary ruptures within the institutional frameworks,
policy environments, and geographies of capitalist regulation.

Second, and relatedly, it should be recognized that the destructive and
creative moments of institutional change within actually existing
neoliberalism are intimately, inextricably interconnected in practice.
Our use of the term “moments” to describe these interconnections is
therefore intended in the Hegelian-Marxian sense of conflictual yet
mutually related elements within a dynamic, dialectical process, rather
than as a description of distinct temporal units within a linear transition.

Building upon the conceptualization of capitalist regulation
developed above, Table 1 summarizes the basic elements within each
of these moments of neoliberal institutional restructuring. As the
table illustrates, neoliberalism represents a complex, multifaceted
project of sociospatial transformation—it contains not only a utopian
vision of a fully commodified form of social life, but also a concrete
program of institutional modifications through which the unfettered
rule of capital is to be promoted. Indeed, a sustained critique of
the institutional forms, regulatory arrangements, and political com-
promises associated with the Fordist-Keynesian order—and a
concerted program to dismantle the latter—lie at the very heart of
neoliberalism as a project of politico-institutional transformation.
Most crucially, the table indicates the ways in which both the de-
structive and the creative moments of actually existing neoliberalism
have been mobilized through distinctively geographical strategies
within each of the major institutional arenas in which capitalist
regulation occurs. In the most general sense, the table illuminates the
ways in which the geographies of actually existing neoliberalism are
characterized by a dynamic transformation of capitalist territorial
organization from the nationally configured frameworks that prevailed
during the Fordist-Keynesian period to an increasingly “glocalized”
configuration of global-national-local interactions in which no single
scale serves as the primary pivot for accumulation, regulation, or
sociopolitical struggle (Jessop 2000; Swyngedouw 1997).

Cities and the Geographies of “Actually Existing Neoliberalism” 363

Page 17

364 Antipode

Table 1: Destructive and Creative Moments of Actually Existing
Neoliberalism

Site of Regulation Moment of Destruction Moment of Creation

• Assaults on organized
labor and national
collective bargaining
agreements

• Dismantling of the family
wage and the spread of
generalized economic
insecurity

• Downgrading of national
regulations ensuring
equal employment
opportunity, occupational
safety, and workers’ rights

• Selective withdrawal of
state support for leading
national industries

• Dismantling of national
protectionist policies

• Dismantling of national
barriers to foreign direct
investment

• Dismantling of Bretton
Woods global monetary
system and deregulation
of money markets

• Erosion of national
states’ capacity to control
exchange rates

• Dismantling of the
regulatory constraints
impeding monetary and
financial speculation in
global markets

• Separation of financial
and credit flows from
productive sources of
investment

• Competitive deregulation:
atomized renegotiation of
wage levels and working
conditions combined with
expanded managerial
discretion

• New forms of the social
wage and new gender
divisions of labor

• Promotion of new forms
of labor “flexibility”

• New forms of state support
for “sunrise” industries

• Extension of global
commodities markets
through trade liberalization
policies codified in the
WTO, the IMF, the
European Union (EU),
the North American Free
Trade Agreement
(NAFTA), and other
supranational bodies

• Establishment of global
capital markets through
GATT negotiations

• Creation of speculation-
driven currency markets
and “stateless monies”
outside national regulatory
control

• Expanded role of global
regulatory bodies (such as
the Bank for International
Settlements) in the
monitoring of global
financial transactions

• Creation of offshore
financial centers,
international banking
facilities, and tax havens

Wage relation

Form of
intercapitalist
competition

Form of financial
and monetary
regulation

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Neil Brenner is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Metropolitan
Studies at New York University. He is currently writing a monograph
entitled “Glocalizing” States: Urban Governance and State Rescaling in
Western Europe. His research and teaching focus on critical urban
studies, state theory and sociospatial theory.

Nik Theodore is an Assistant Professor in Urban Planning and Policy
and Research Director of the Center for Urban Economic Develop-
ment at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His research focuses on
labor-market restructuring, urban inequality, contingent work, and
employment policy.

Cities and the Geographies of “Actually Existing Neoliberalism” 379

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