The Limits of Resilience: review of Justin McGuirk’s Radical Cities

by Tom Gann

Justin McGuirk’s latest book chronicles important innovations in Latin American urbanism, but is ultimately limited by a lack of faith in the urban working class to challenge neoliberalism.

First published: 04 February, 2015 | Category: Book Review, Housing

Justin McGuirk, Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture (Verso, 2014).

From the Paris to Shanghai Commune, the urban struggles of the proletariat have been central to the left’s hopes.[1]  Yet today, with urban class antagonisms intensifying throughout the world, the British left seems to have lost its nerve and is now unable to imagine a new world, let alone how it could come about. This melancholy, which stems from a lack of faith in working class people, can be seen across the left -  in the most moderate, electorally minded, “social democrats of fear”, who can imagine nothing beyond clinging to the debris of the welfare state, and in those perspectives on the anarchist and autonomist left, borrowed from Bifo’s After the Future, which state there is no longer any hope of a meaningful antagonistic or collective politics on a large-scale.[2]

The reactions from all sections of the left to the 2011 riots, which seemed to fit into worn out, existing leftist categories, further testifies to this loss of nerve, specifically in the capacities of the urban masses to innovate politically.[3] As a corrective to this resignation, the optimism, practicality and faith in the creative powers of the urban proletariat in Justin McGuirk’s Radical Cities is salutary, sometimes even inspirational. McGuirk chronicles a range of urban innovations in Latin America, initiated by the urban proletariat, local government, “activist architects”, or by a mixture of the three.[4]

Central to McGuirk’s optimism is his understanding that it is now Latin American urbanism that innovates, reversing the 20th century trend in which it was derived from European approaches. Unfortunately, the concept of “urban acupuncture”, used to frame this new urbanism, has severe limitations - including an absence of any attention to class antagonism - and mars the politics and scope of the subjects covered. Urban acupuncture is defined as a “piecemeal approach” aiming to “stimulate the city’s nervous system with tiny interventions that can have a catalytic effect on the organism as a whole”. It is easy to imagine a substantially better book with similar content; indeed, at its best - whether discussing the Túpac Amaru social movement, or the verbatim quoting of a speech by the Chávez-supporting anarchist Fernando to Torre David squat residents - the material in Radical Cities exceeds McGuirk’s premises.

McGuirk’s urban acupuncturist approach means he places too much faith in quirky solutions to the problems of slums, particularly those that improve transport links- he is particularly keen on cable cars - or that undo stigma, for example through iconic architecture in slum areas. On the other hand, too little faith is placed in the urban proletariat’s ability to challenge the social relations that produce these problems. Mike Davis’s 2007 book Planet of Slums, similarly addressed the proliferation of slums, but, unlike Radical Cities, demonstrates the extent of the problems slum dwellers face. As such it offers us a useful tool to challenge the misplaced optimism of Radical Cities as well as contrasting significantly with its stylistic approach.[5] McGuirk ventriloquises an enthusiastic, well-connected tourist guide, who shows off imitable apolitical solutions in a range of “fascinating” places. This breezy eclecticism is engaging and accessible but fails to contextualise the places explored; Davis, by contrast, analyses slums, more bracingly, within the wider context of global capitalism, above all within the context of the intensified inequality and exclusion since the 1970s.

McGuirk’s theoretical approach is derived from the anarchist urbanist John Turner, in particular his insistence that slums are “sites of resourcefulness and creativity”. However, as Davis argues, Turner’s arguments provided cover for the neoliberal removal of welfare provision by suggesting the resourcefulness of slum dwellers was enough for them to flourish unsupported.[6] What the half-anarchist, half-neoliberal dismantling of state entitlements meant was an increasing burden of unpaid drudgery for slum dwellers, in particular women. As Sylvia Chant has shown, the loss of secure work for men alongside reduced welfare entitlements and the extension of user fees for healthcare and education under Structural Adjustment Programmes forced women to work harder both outside the home (often in the informal sector) and inside the home to compensate. Chant points out that the unpaid labour of women and community solidarity is not an inexhaustible resource that can endlessly be reproduced without support.[7] Unfortunately, the focus of urban acupuncture on “systems, networks, connections and infrastructure” precludes attention to everyday life in the slums.

Explicitly, Radical Cities is optimistic and radical; on a deeper level, however, it is pessimistic and conservative, believing the neoliberal dominance of the city is incontestable, and claiming that architects “have to negotiate cities increasingly governed by private interests”. The recent expansion of social provision in Latin America, particularly in Venezuela, shows this dominance is being challenged. McGuirk as urban acupuncturist, however, is entirely indifferent to these changes, despite the fact that they have done substantially more to improve the lives of slum dwellers than quirky planning or architectural cures, particularly by ameliorating some of the unpaid drudgery borne by women.[8] Worse, McGuirk denies that the creativity and resilience, which both he and Turner laud, could ever be turned against the social relations that make extraordinary resilience and creativity necessary to survive. Resilience and creativity in Radical Cities are limited to bearing what capitalism does rather than challenging it, leaving McGuirk, ultimately, with almost as little faith in the future as social democrats of fear or pessimistic anarchists.

In this sense, Radical Cities remains within the cult of resilience in neoliberal urbanism, critiqued by the urban geographer Tom Slater. For Slater this fixation on resilience unjustifiably equates the effects of natural disasters and the effects of capital, presenting both as unchallengeable and to be borne, “so that the resilient city can get back to the desired status quo of capital accumulation and elite wealth capture as quickly as possible.”

For Latin American slum dwellers it is crucial to emphasise that, except when a space has been created either by the progressive state, popular action, or both (as in the resistance to the 2002 anti-Chávez coup by the residents of the 23 Enero estate), catastrophe for the urban proletariat is not a break from everyday life but its normality. This is entirely occluded in Radical Cities, particularly in its weakest chapter, on the Colombian city Medellín, which, tellingly, is one of the poster cities of the risible Rockefeller Foundation 100 Resilient Cities project which prompted Slater’s polemic, and which encapsulates the weaknesses of McGuirk’s approach.

As its inclusion in the Rockefeller series suggests, Medellín’s transformation, particularly the springing up of various prestigious public buildings, has attracted admiring interest from neoliberal urbanists. Against this, Slater’s demand that analysis takes place in the context of capital accumulation is essential; it helps expose the limitations of McGuirk’s glib account of Medellín’s transformation by a heroic elite acting nobly together. The historian Forrest Hylton has written extensively on Colombia, including a crucial essay on Medellín, in which he roots his analysis of the city in class struggle and this supplements Slater’s demand.[9] McGuirk, briefly, mentions Hylton’s work but his conclusion, that Hylton thinks that Medellin “has sold out” “because it’s not Cuba”, suggests he has barely read it.

McGuirk’s analysis, in contrast to Hylton’s, is shallow and superficial, focusing on prestige civic buildings and, for all his insistence on the collective nature of Medellín’s transformation, only beginning with the election of Mayor Sergio Fajardo. To properly understand Medellín’s transformation we need to shift attention from the civilised, post-pacification façade to the barbarism that preceded it. Medellín’s true collective project is not in prestigious public buildings of “social urbanism” but the violence that secured the city for capital investment before their construction. Central here are the drug paramilitaries serving both as investors of capital in their own right and murderous guarantors of security for capital more generally. The collective project included the murderous “cleansing” of the red-light district to “make it safe for urban redevelopment” with the narco-paramilitary leader Don Berna representing the “fusion of politics, property and organised crime…[which] largely determines the shape of the built environment.”[10]   

The murderous side of the collective elite project was not restricted to cleansing of the red-light district, it also involved the murders of activists in the slums, destroying, militant community organisation “for housing, healthcare, education and better employment, making many of the hillside neighbourhoods all but unliveable”.[11] This shows that there are actually two different forms of urban resilience which contradict each other. The first resilience, as detailed by Slater, is the neoliberal city’s in the face of challenges to capital accumulation. The second is the proletariat’s resilience, which can overflow the limitations Turner, McGuirk and the neoliberals want to impose on it, moving from bearing capitalism to challenging it. In Medellin, the response of capital was, quite consciously, to destroy the resilience of slum dwellers through murderous violence. This analysis, however, is impossible to McGuirk due to his lack of attention to class struggle, and the top-down violence this entailed in Medellín; instead we get (at best) naïve enthusiasm at the quirkiness of “top-down activism”.

In his discussions of Rio de Janeiro he is similarly unconcerned about state violence, except insofar as it creates a bad impression, corresponding with his focus on the image projected and any resulting stigma rather than material realities. McGuirk’s uncritical stance towards the police is particularly disappointing as Radical Cities contains useful examples of communities (Túpac Amaru, Torre David and 23 Enero) who have, in McGuirk’s admirable words “defined the nature of their coexistence”, partially through inventing ways of securing justice and order without the police.

The section on Túpac Amaru, suggests a wider range of correctives to Radical Cities’s limitations. It shows a women-led alternative based on strong citizen entitlements and production for community benefit rather than mediated through the commodity form.
Alto Comedero, the Túpac Amaru community in Argentina, with 7,000 inhabitants, stands at an odd angle to the rest of Radical Cities both for its popularly initiated indigenous socialism and because it is outside the city; there is no urban “body” and, therefore, no “urban acupuncture”. Alto Comedero’s abundant public provision: an aquatic park with giant animal figures, a Jurassic theme park, library and MRI scanner is striking. McGuirk’s argument is that improved access to facilities traditionally denied to indigenous people undoes internalized stigma, but, while important, this misses the urbanist lesson. Alto Comodero shows us through the affluence of its public provision in contrast to the privatized and highly unequal consumption of the neoliberal city, that an egalitarian, eco-friendly, but non-austere urbanism is possible.

Radical Citiess neutral, pragmatic perspective also misses the necessity of Alto Comodero’s social organisation. McGuirk stresses the savings made through cutting out middlemen, presenting socialism as merely a method of generating the necessary surplus. Consequently, Túpac Amaru’s socialism and indigenous beliefs are presented, condescendingly, as idiosyncratic additions to the real business of efficiency. McGuirk concludes this discussion by asking whether it could work elsewhere “without having to rip up the very principles of modern society”. This again reflects his unwillingness to confront the possibility of transforming social relations. The visionary answer to this question is, if glorious public affluence is impossible, then the “principles of modern society” deserve to be destroyed. Another would be to address Túpac Amaru’s efforts to generalize the model, having established 16 branches across Argentina.

But while there are serious limitations to McGuirk’s analysis it is, for all its glibness, incuriosity and abstraction from history and social struggles, still valuable. Its detailing of practical ways in which non-capitalist enclaves have been secured and developed provides us with a range of examples that suggest what might be possible. It is also a useful corrective to left melancholy. It will retain this importance until Forrest Hylton’s and Mike Davis’s promised follow-up to Planet of Slums which will detail “slum-based resistance to global capitalism”[12], or until an equivalent book is written. However, it must be read sceptically, in conjunction with other works on Latin America and slum dwelling.

Tom Gann is a member of South London Renters



[1] See, most obviously, Marx, K. (2009) “The Civil War in France”, in Carver, T. (ed.) Later Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

[2] Berardi Bifo, F. (2011) After the Future, (London: AK Press). Indeed, anarchist no futurism is sometimes linked to the social democracy of fear, most notably in Clark, T. J. (2012) “For a Left with no Future”, in New Left Review 74. Clark’s essay includes the peculiar claim that even in Latin America “no established party or movement any longer even pretends to offer a programme of reform”.

[3] See, for example, on the Labourist left, Owen Jones’s mixture of moralising rhetorically inflated condemnation and attempt to explain the riots solely by reference to unemployment and “consumerism” with no reference to the police shooting Mark Duggan. On the libertarian communist left, even the most useful treatment, for example by the Endnotes collective, lapsed into impressionist reportage and romantic symbolism, with rioting limited to immediate “profane illumination” of the city. 

[4] McGuirk, J (2014). Radical Cities: across Latin America in search of a new architecture. (London: Verso). All subsequent references to Radical Cities will be in brackets in the text.  

[5] Davis, M. (2007). Planet of Slums. (London: Verso).

[6] Davis, Planet of Slums, p. 70-94.

[7] Chant, S. (2004) “Urban Livelihoods, Employment and Gender” in Gwynne, R. N and Cristóbal, K, (eds.) Latin America Transformed: Globalization and Modernity. (London: Hodder Arnold), UK, p. 210-231. 

[8] For Venezuela’s resourcing of slum dwellers and the provision of basic services, see, for example, the account of the missions, which, McGuirk dismisses as having been created merely to keep Chávez’s “support base pliant” (p. 155) and their successes as they “fought against illiteracy, provided further education for school dropouts, promoted employment, supplied cheap food and extended a free medical service to the poor areas of cities”, Gott, R. (2005), Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution (London: Verso), p. 256-9. 

[9] Hylton, F. (2006) Evil Hour in Colombia, (London: Verso). Hylton, F. (2007) “Remaking Medellín” in New Left Review 44.

[10] Hylton, “Remaking Medellín”, p. 85, 86.

[11] Hylton, “Remaking Medellín”, p. 80.

[12] Davis, Planet of Slums, p. 207.

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