Equality and the Democratic Deficit

This post by Global Justice Co-Director, Dr Tahl Kaminer, reports from the first Urban Justice Lab Symposium: ‘Who Saved the City?’. Follow the link at the bottom of the post to our Lecture Library to view videos from the day and to find out more about the Urban Justice Lab and what it does.

Who Saved the City

The recent exposure of a letter by David Cameron to Oxfordshire County Council (as reported in the Oxford Mail, and The Guardian), in which the PM berates the council for front-line budget cuts, generated a minor storm on social media. Less than a fortnight earlier, Annette Hastings of the University of Glasgow presented the findings of a Rowntree Foundation report, which lucidly depicted the application of cuts to front-line budgets of city councils across the UK. Her eloquent and precise presentation demonstrated vividly why the government’s cuts necessarily hit front-line spending, and particularly the poor.

Hastings’ presentation was part of the Urban Justice Lab of the GJA full-day symposium titled Who Saved the City?, which took place on 28 October 28 2015. The first instalment in a series, it focused on the issue of austerity urbanism, an analysis of the current aporia of Western cities. It included a presentation by the University of Edinburgh’s Tom Slater, who discussed the housing crisis and effects of think tanks; a talk by Penny Koutrolikou (National Technical University of Athens) about ‘austerity regimes’ in Athens; and a discussion by Isabelle Doucet (University of Manchester) of practices by groups such as Brussels-based Citymin(e)d which operate through the cracks and gaps, the interstices, of contemporary society.

The keynote speaker was Jamie Peck from the University of British Colombia. His talk highlighted the indebted communities in Michigan, showing how, on the one hand, city councils with a large impoverished population are ‘set up to fail’ by the contradiction of rising budget burdens and lower incomes, and how, on the other, once they fail, their residents’ right to democratic administration is withdrawn. Effectively, dozens of local council have been placed under ‘technocratic’ administration, denied the right of vote. Expectedly, these councils are also predominantly African-American.

Jamie PeckThe withdrawal of democratic rights in Michigan’s indebted councils, coupled by the brutality of the bailout negotiations with Greece in late June and the rejection by IMF of harsh austerity without debt reduction demanded from Greece – all these point to the centricity of politics rather than economics to some of the recent developments. Moreover, two issues which often compete or contradict each other, the democratic deficit and (economic) equality, coalesce in these developments. The demand for democratisation and the demand for equality appear to share an impetus today in a sense which hasn’t occurred for some years. This is good news: the convergence of the two should enable a clearer and more focused opposition to the rationale of austerity. Possibly, the recent rebellion of some Tories against the Tax Credit cuts signals a broader shift, or at least a potential for one.

The Urban Justice Lab’s series will continue with a symposium in April 2016,  with a critical evaluation of activist practices at the centre of discussions. It will attempt to assess the impact and efficacy of practices deployed by activists, artists, designers and communities to confront austerity, hardship, disempowerment and gentrification: do these practices actually fulfil their promises, or do they inadvertently contribute to government retrenchment, to gentrification, to disempowerment?