Neoliberalism, Globalization, and the Ecological Crisis


Biopolitics, Inhabitation and Lifelines:
Provocative (Hopefully) Notes for a Terrestrial Architecture

Camillo Boano

Judith Butler’s precariousness is the constitutive condition of existence, a general, common condition, experienced as a sort of “slow death, an irreversibly compromised time, as an ungovernable and arbitrary exposure to loss”. This condition urge architecture and design to question the production of those spaces where life and its negation are intertwined, confused, twisted, and therefore interrogating them as objects of ecology of vital environments. “The opposite of precariousness”, writes Butler, ‘is not so much security as the struggle for an egalitarian political and social order in which livable interdependence becomes possible” opening a fundamental question for a critique capable of imagining a cohabitation or to put it differently, to rethink a biopolitics that “implies a commitment to the defense of the equal right to inhabit the earth, and thus a commitment to equality as such”

A key entry that seems to echo what recently Mbembe depict as key question that will haunt us for most of this century: the first is the question of the future of life and the second is that of the future of reason and freedom”.

With this in mind, the paper attempts to position inhabitation as a form of caring of life where fragility is an ethical resource in the making, to take up Butler, capable of rendering fallibility, ambivalence, minority as a source of responsible action capable of “caring for the world” in order to take charge of the future and to suggest that lifelines emerge to become co-implications, new alliances - albeit ambiguous - towards an imaginary of cohabitation. Lifelines, in placing life at the Centre, take note of the condition of self-destruction of contemporaneity, recovering “both the perception of one’s own fragility, removed by Promethean hybris and the vocation to limitlessness, and the awareness of one’s own interdependence, which binds one indissolubly to the destiny of one’s own kind, including that of future generations”.

Grounding the reflection in a series of extractive, racialized, securitized, and colonial problem-space where social and environmental governance are reconfigured around the limits of modernity and its monist dualism framed around the inside/outside, nature\culture and us\other divisions that structure modernist understandings of self, subject, agency, the state, politics, and territory, the wish to argue that a terrestrial architecture is one capable of lifelines, of rethinking a new biopolitics beyond the stale dichotomies of wild/domestic, pristine/degraded, human/animal and imagining “otherwise” that see human and nonhuman actors and relationships across a diverse range of spatial and temporal scales as imperfect, amphibious and companioning species. What is the architectural suspension needed to imagine a planetary inhabitation that confronts the inhabitable and its naturalized condition?

The Returns of Planning

David Cunningham

Following a long period during which the very idea of ‘planning’ has been dominantly opposed and derided – whether we trace this back to the so-called ‘socialist calculation’ debates of the 1920s and 1930s or to the new libertarian philosophies of the 1960s and 1970s – the succession of global economic crises of the 2000s, as well as the ongoing catastrophic conditions and effects of climate change, have necessarily placed the question of ‘planning’ back on the political and urbanist agenda. On the one hand, the evident inability of the ‘invisible hand’ of the market to adequately respond to environmental crisis has raised anew the question of what forms of conscious economic coordination might be required to stave off the very real threat of an uninhabitable planet – a question explicitly broached, in however limited a fashion, by for example the idea of a Green New Deal. On the other hand, the rise of new mega corporations from Amazon to Walmart to Google, as well as the responses to recent economic crises (and the coronavirus pandemic) on the part of capitalist states, have served to reveal the disavowed continuation of planning at the very heart of contemporary logistics and of global capitalist process of extraction and accumulation. Indeed, as the Chilean geographer Martin Arboleda has put it, the ‘neoliberal mirage of an efficiently self-regulating “free” market has faded in recent years in the face of an activist state that bails out big companies in times of crisis, redistributes wealth upwards through tax breaks and subsidies, and deploys transnational logistics networks for the capture of monopoly rents by a handful of economic conglomerates’. Consequently, the central issue today is neither the technical possibility nor the political desirability of planning per se, but one of understanding what forms of planning are already essential to contemporary capitalist development (and their connection to both the ongoing production of environmental crisis and a violently racialized and gendered production of space) and of how a different politics of planning might yet be conceived. In seeking to address this question, the paper revisits some of the key historical debates around both economic planning, on the one hand, and urban or spatial planning, on the other, in order to situate more clearly the reemergence of questions of planning in the present and to consider how the long-derided connection of socialism to an idea of planning might be revitalized today.

Digital Urbanism and the Environment

Peggy Deamer

Digital platforms from Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and Grub Hub to Zoom, Slack and Miro to Amazon, Google, and Facebook have radically changed the manner in which urban citizens relate to each other and their environment. One can see these platforms as the newest and longest arm of neoliberalism as citizens are defined by their consumer habits and these habits, turned into data, provide the means for further exploitation.  In this scenario, labor – be it the knowledge workers designing the platforms, the delivery people dependent on the platforms, or the customers who don’t realize their data is a form of production ­­– becomes invisible as it takes on new forms and masquerades as individual autonomy. These platforms are not in and of themselves blamed for environmental problems, but their facilitating more and more consumption, their redirecting our desires away from civil engagement, and their erasure of labor consciousness are seen by many critics as central to our urban environmental vulnerability. This paper will challenge these criticisms by suggesting that these socially invasive platforms can also be the means by which citizens can reconnect with each other within a commons. In this scenario, a collective is not determined by either the state or the market, but rather, the shared work people do and the common resources they partake in. Drawing on the work of Elinor Ostrom’s anarchism, which assumes that self-governed collectives are not merely possible but practical, and updating it with appeal to the work of Daniel Soros, which depicts digital platforms as destabilizers of capitalism, it argues that local, urban, and regional cooperatives are effective contexts to address the environmental crisis at some of its root causes. While the climate crisis is often and rightly characterized by global conditions that transcend all boundaries and any given local, it suggests that the habits that have caused the crisis are entrenched in our locally-determined human-to-human and human-to-non-human interactions.

Architecture facing Leviathan:
The Real State of Emergency

Nadir Lahiji

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be borne; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

—Antonio Gramsci, Selection from the Prison Notebooks

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that accords with this insight. Then we will clearly see that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against fascism.

—Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History - Thesis VIII

In the current conjuncture, Benjamin’s notion of ‘state of emergency’ must be invoked to bring out the political crisis underlying the ‘ecological catastrophe’ that is engulfing humanity. Benjamin foresaw that the current ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.

In our current of emergency a planetary threat to the existence of life on Earth is looming. The political critique of this state must be aimed at global capitalism—not just the ill-defined ‘neoliberalism’. Then this question: What should be the task of architecture facing this ‘state of emergency’? I propose a speculative theory grounded in a political philosophy of human life related to Marx’s notion of the ‘species-being’. There is a conception of ‘status naturalis’ (‘state of nature’) in this theory which originally goes back to the Eighteenth Century’s shift in the notion of ‘natural history’ and the concomitant rise of the rift between society and nature, between city and country. As Georg Lukács once said, nature itself is a historical category. But, moreover, ‘Whether we know it or not, all our thinking is environmental, even when it rebels against nature’. This premise changes the categories of critique in architecture. In its center stands the notions of the State and Sovereignty. My thesis goes as follows:

Architecture in contemporary global capitalism faces Leviathan. I call it ‘Architecture Leviathan’the architecture of sovereign power. This term is a transposition of the suggestive title by Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright, Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of our Planetary Future. By extrapolating their thesis, I invoke the notion of Sovereignty and the State, with State in its essential distinction from civil society, that which Marx, borrowing from Hegel, called ‘bürgerliche Gesellschaft’, rendered into English as ‘bourgeois society’. For my understanding of Sovereignty and Leviathan, I refer to Giorgio Agamben who in his State of Exception takes up Walter Benjamin’s ‘state of emergency’ for a sustained analysis in the context of Benjamin’s correspondences with the controversial German jurist Carl Schmitt on his influential reading of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. Based on this, I will then propose an ‘Architecture X’—against the realism of the ‘Architecture Leviathan’—in which I speculate on the transcendental idea of architecture constructed on the sovereignty of the ‘part with no-part’. This is aimed at a ‘state’ of architecture projected under the future abolition of the State, which I call ‘architecture of the world republic’, or, a republic of architecture, in Kantian terms. At the end, the above argument can be advanced only in recognition of Benjamin’s call for ‘a real state of emergency’ and its political urgency for our time.

On Architecture and Urban Space: Criticism and Theory after the Crisis of Neoliberalism

Leandro Medrano

The spatial relations that have since emerged as a result of neoliberal policies have been harshly criticized in the first decades of the 21st century. The outcome of an ideological crisis, which escalated especially after the burst of the Internet bubble in 2000, the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers on 9/11, 2001, and the housing crash of 2008. Currently, the toughest challenge amidst this crisis has been the Covid-19 pandemic, whose consequences remain uncertain. Taking as a starting point the rise and crisis of the neoliberal model developed since the 1970s, this essay promotes a dialogue between the theoretical-critical issues related to the spatial realities of the so-called peripheral countries and the topics under debate in core countries. To this end, we seek for evidence within the realities of the largest metropolis in South America that the crisis of the city arising from the industrial revolution has not only been preserved, but further radicalized: the partial arrangements that led to the creation of appeasing islands in the global north and south no longer sustain themselves against the advance of chronic problems in the urbanization processes, such as global warming, the scarcity of natural resources, and extreme poverty.

‘Holding’ – as a Practice of Ethics

Jane Rendell

D. W. Winnicott’s concept of a ‘holding environment’ relates to his work on transitional space and the caring environment that a parent (specifically in his work – a mother) creates for a child, and the supportive environment a therapist makes for a client. In my view, Kate Raworth’s spatial concept of a ‘doughnut,’ in which she positions ‘an environmentally safe and socially just space in which humanity can thrive,’ between the ‘environmental ceiling’ of the nine planetary biophysical subsystems or processes identified by the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and the social foundation of the twelve ‘internationally agreed minimum social standards, as identified by the world’s governments in the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015,’ to constitute such ‘a holding’. Referring to Seven Studies for ‘A Holding’, (23 March–31 May 2020), a series of watercolors of spring blossoms I made during the COVID19 ‘lockdown’ in the UK in 2020, I explore through Winnicott’s ideas of holding, transitional space andliving-with,’ how the pandemic, as symptom of the ecological crisis, offers the possibility of reconfiguring practice of ethics – relations to, with and between selves and others, remote and proximate, human and more-than-human.

Greened New Worlds:
On the L
ongue Durée of Environmental Crisis and its Current Modes of Misrepresentation

Douglas Spencer

The recently published report by the International Panel on Climate Change signals — as if further sign were needed — our arrival at an epochal juncture. Climate crisis is incontrovertibly caused by humans, its effects are already irreversible, and we have only a short time to act in order to stave off the prospect of an all but uninhabitable planet.

We are all too familiar with the response of the governments and companies to whom we are now supposed to look for decisive action on the already ongoing catastrophic conditions of climate change: reassurance that the existing state of things can be greened; guarantees that there is no contradiction between capital and nature; promises that our relation to the earth under capitalism is in fact already safely en route to ecological redemption, even that the reunification of man and nature lies on the immediate horizon.

Equally familiar are the design-serviced strategies of naturalization through which such messaging is communicated. Of these strategies, those derived from the aesthetics of landscape have become especially visible in recent years. Buildings are conceived as landforms, urban developments are landscaped, and the centuries-old aesthetics of the picturesque live on in the computer-rendered images through which these are publicized. Skyscrapers are dressed in lush foliage, corporate headquarters house botanical gardens, and tech giants campus their employees in verdant environments.

To describe this as ‘greenwashing’, as merely a dissimulating veneer designed to appease environmental consciousness, is to pass over much of what is at stake here. As will be addressed in this talk, the production of environmental crisis is an inherent feature of capitalist development, and has been so throughout its history. There is not an environmental crisis within capitalism. Capitalism just is environmental crisis, and always has been, even if typically for some more than others.

Grasping the significance of this fact requires an understanding of the ways in which historically specific capitalist processes of value extraction and accumulation interpose themselves between humans and nature, while also reckoning with how capitalism posits this interposition as itself natural and ahistorical. The early Marx’s conception of ‘species-being’, will be used to this end, as will more recent perspectives on capitalism, colonialism and race from the decolonial thought of Sylvia Wynter, Kathryn Yussof, Walter Mignolo and others, so as to address the differential construction of humanity in and through its relationship to nature within colonialism and capitalism.

On this basis I will also address what I have elsewhere described as the ‘eco-imaginary’ of capitalism, where longstanding practices of naturalization in and through landscape are revived, in often exasperated and exacerbated form, so as to sublimate in reassuring scenarios for the future the otherwise glaring and irresolvable crisis of capitalism’s relations to human and other than human nature.