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Political Geography 40

 

Keywords:

Gentrification; Gentrination; Financial crisis; Austerity politics; Scale shift; Spatial fix

 

Introduction

In September 2013, the Greek coalition government (ND, conservative/PASOK, social democrat) announced that approximately six hundred administrative jobs were to be cut across eight of the country’s biggest universities: nearly half, that is, of their shared total of 1349. The announcement followed on the heels of the shut-down of the state broadcaster ERT three months earlier, which made its 2500 employees redundant overnight. Even if particularly emblematic, these are only two of the government decisions taken to meet the terms agreed with the EU/ECB/IMF ‘troika’ of lending agencies: For 2013 alone, the agreed plan was to place approximately 12000 state employees in the so-called ‘mobility scheme’, according to which they would receive 75% of their wage for a year, before being made redundant as well. It would be tempting to brush off these developments as tips of the austerity iceberg: Greece, after all, has been read as anything from a crisis scapegoat to a villain, but has always been positioned in the eye of the fiscal storm that gripped Europe and much of the Global West from 2008-09 onward. Independent of their political viewpoint, analysts have for the largest part read this unabated crisis through existing units of power: that is, through the units of nation-states and national governments e whether assigning them a weakened position (see, specifically concerning the welfare state: Scott, 2013; concerning a shift in state regimes overall: Fujita, 2011) or a potentially empowered role (Bickerton, 2011; Therborn, 2009). Correspondingly, the discussion on either the EU “federalization” (Cloots, De Baere, & Sottiaux, 2012) or the empowerment of certain states at the expense of others nevertheless presupposes and reinforces the national as the scale of analysis. This editorial proposes another conceptualization both for the Eurozone crisis and potentially for the current wave of capitalist restructuring as a whole. It shows how political geographers have played a key role in grounding the abstraction of the fiscal crisis into its urban roots; and it argues that now, as the previously momentary crisis turns into a longer-lasting restructuring, we are met with an unprecedented opportunity: to build on the discipline’s knowledge of the flows and circuits of capital at the urban scale (as studied extensively in urban development and gentrification in particular) and through a shifting of this scale, to better comprehend the ongoing restructuring in supranational capitalist development and governance. This editorial introduces gentrination as a conceptual tool that will potentially help in this direction.

From crisis to restructuring

From the outset of the global fiscal crisis, geographers have stepped forward to show this was a turbulence holding a spatial dimension. Harvey (2010) became a must-read in explaining how the most recent wave of global financial upheaval, ostensibly bursting out of the ether of financial abstraction, should be traced back to the only-too-grounded world of urban development.

Geographers succeeded in illuminating the spatial inheritance of the crisis. But now, half a decade into our entering of this ‘moment’, another conceptual issue becomes evident. As a notion, ‘crisis’ (etymologically deriving from the ancient Greek krinein, to judge) hints at a temporary situation: it may be a moment of judgment, but a moment nevertheless. A crisis is then exceptional by default; a momentary change to the paradigm, to the rule. Yet our current ‘crisis’ condition has been ongoing for years, showing little sign of abating. By now, it may be more appropriate to comprehend it not as a momentary lapse but as an ongoing restructuring, as a more permanent shift in the paradigm of governance in the European continent and the Global West overall. And just as geographers succeeded in pinpointing the origins of the outbreak of the fiscal crisis, they can prove themselves invaluable in helping comprehend this longer-lasting restructuring to which the ‘crisis’ now paves the way.

Consider the two developments mentioned at the beginning, namely the shutdown of state broadcaster ERT and the severe staff cuts at key Greek universities. How may we interpret these? To place them on a par with schemes encountered elsewhere that favour the private sector to a shrinking public one would be inaccurate. The ERT shutdown is simply too different from the privatisation scheme, for example, of the UK’s Royal Mail. RM must be privatised, according to the UK government, in order to grow and compete; ERT was shut overnight. Likewise, Greek universities did not introduce nor raise tuition fees as their British counterparts had done a few years prior. Instead, their staff is being reduced seemingly below the operational threshold. And so, should one try to comprehend these recent developments through the lens of the national scale one would be most bewildered: it simply makes little sense for the state to shrink, let alone to dismantle key infrastructure of its own accord. The apparent enigma can only be comprehended through the widening of our field of understanding and the shifting of our scale of analysis beyond the confines of national-level sovereignty. The temporal (the financial crisis of 2008e09) has been shown to have a deep spatial root. By now, it has morphed into a more permanent paradigm shift with a restructuring that is once again spatial as its offspring.

Enter gentrination

“What spaces are left in the global economy for new spatial fixes for capital surplus absorption?” asked David Harvey (2010: 217) in the midst of the recent financial crisis, carrying the not-so-secret hope of radicals the world over that the question could be a rhetorical one: that the spatial fix might no longer be able to drag capitalism out of its own contradictions. For a moment, it seemed plausible that we were standing at “an inflexion point in the history of capitalism” (Harvey, 2010: 217). Today, perhaps, less so. The key concept in understanding whether or not we might be reaching this inflexion point is the spatial fix: this denotes capital surplus absorption either through geographical expansion (“accumulation by dispossession”, Harvey, 2003: 137e182) or through “creative destruction” (Lees, Slater, & Wyly, 2008: 53) and reintegration of spaces that had been geographically proximal, yet functionally disparate to the capitalist core. Beyond doubt, the most meticulously studied process of creative destruction at the urban scale is gentrification. The body of scholarship that studies the process is not uniform in the conceptualization of its causes and repercussions, yet a consensus seems to exist on what comprises the process per se: low-income, often derelict or decaying parts of a city are taken over and rehabilitated by members of a class higher than that occupying them prior. Gentrification presupposes a rent gap (Smith, 1979) for capital to pour itself into. Importantly, if only too evidently, it presupposes a single urban entity, as it will take place in one of its segments. Gentrification, in addition, will occur in urban areas allowing for an adequate profit margin. In economies and societies dictated and mediated by questions of proximity and distance, these would be the areas close enough to the urban core. The ideal gentrification target is therefore the urban semi-periphery: an urban segment that will allow either for the outright expansion of the core, or else for the outsourcing and facilitation of functions necessary for its unobstructed operation.

Let us now shift our geographical scale. Would it not be possible, in face of the discourse of European unification, to conceive the European territory in a way that corresponds to an urban territory?

And then, would it not be possible to conceive the restructuring of certain EU segments (member-states) in a way that corresponds to the restructuring of urban segments? In drawing this parallel, the gentrified urban segment (neighbourhood/s) would match an EU territory segment (that is, one or more of its member-states).

Gentrination is the equivalent process of gentrification at the national, instead of the neighbourhood level. Much akin to gentrification, it is a gradual process. First, the physical infrastructure as well as the social, political and economic foundations and functions of the nation-state are devalued through the depreciation and disinvestment of austerity. Second, having produced an adequate profit gap much akin to gentrification’s rent gap, the host national territory sees the influx of private capital and the simultaneous radical overhaul of its key foundations and structures. The end result? In the case of gentrification, neighbourhoods that undergo the process maximise the inflow of capital into previously under-utilised urban segments. Correspondingly, the end result of gentrination would be (conceivably, since this is an unprecedented operation in progress) a national territory radically restructured so as to better facilitate the supra-national entity.

Conclusion

Geography has succeeded in tracing the urban origins of the global fiscal crisis, in articulating the near-concurrent emergence of the European Union as a geopolitical space (Klinke, 2013), and in explaining disparities and contradictions within this space for example between the European Union’s ambition to transcend nation-state borders while re-inscribing pre-existent territorial divisions (Bialasiewicz, Elden, & Painter, 2005). The glimmer of hope offered to radical geographers that this fiscal crisis could signal an end to the spatial fix appears to vanish: instead of disappearing, the spatial fix may merely, once again, reconfigure itself. At the urban scale, capital flows had earlier on driven urbanisation (the spatial expansion of the urban territory) before turning inward and closer to the core, to the urban semi- periphery, via the gentrification process. In a strikingly similar manner capital flows at the supra-national scale had originally led ‘creative destruction’ into territories both geographically and culturally distant from the core, before turning inward and closer, to the supra-national semi-periphery: by now, this includes the majority of the European continent’s edges. At the present conjuncture, neoliberalism in Europe and the Global West seems not as close to an inflexion point as to a restructuring that will shift the scale of political power, a step closer to an urban-like assemblage. While the idea that the Eurozone territory moves toward a higher level of integration through the fiscal crisis is far from new, existing discussions comprehend this integration through the national lens, still using the nation-state as their unit of analysis (Bickerton, 2011; Murphy, 2013). What this editorial proposes is a research agenda that will instead understand the supra-national territory (in our case the ever-unified but ever-unequal EU) in a way akin to how it comprehends the urban. Capital surplus is not absorbed into new spaces of the global economy, but older ones: such research will help us trace and comprehend the effects of this introvert turn of the spatial fix, in a process that sees previously well-integrated spaces of the global economy being hit by the creative destruction process. Gentrination is, in this sense, little other than the spatial fix coming closer to the global capitalist core to roost.

References

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