Critical Legal ThinkingDavid Hugill (DH): You’ve suggested that the neoliberal project has started to exhaust itself, that it has ceased to be generative of new ideas. But doesn’t it seem like new fronts of neoliberal assault are always opening up? Take Governor Scott Walker’s attack on collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin, for example. Does this not represent a bold new phase in the neoliberal campaign? Are these the final gasps of a dying project or signs of new rounds of neoliberal innovation?
Neil Smith (NS): I think it’s both things. Neoliberalism is “dead but dominant.” Jurgen Habermas made that remark about modernity in the 1980s. Reading him two or three years ago, it occurred to me that this was the state neoliberalism was in. It is dead because it was challenged by a number of struggles, ideas, and circumstances. The antiglobalization movement – disorganized, fragmented, and multiply focused as it was – made clear to a lot of people that there was in fact an alternative. Latin American revolts – at the ballot box, but also on the streets and in the forests – were extraordinary signs that neoliberalism was not beyond contestation. During the economic crisis of the late 1990s, a
NS: City building is a massive industrial enterprise in the production of surplus value. Before the crisis, about 23 percent of Ireland’s gross domestic product was directly related to the construction sector: the construction of homes, streets, roads, buildings, offices and so on. Construction is central to what the capitalist economy is all about: city building. But there’s no direct relationship between an economic analysis and a political strategy. Just because city building was central to the creation of the crisis doesn’t mean that the opposition is therefore necessarily urban. There are extraordinary movements around environmental politics, Indigenous politics, and food. Some of these are urban, but many are not. Nevertheless, I think a lot of the opposition is going to come from urban centres in part because – as Marx and Engels pointed out in simple and elegant terms – the accumulation of capital in one place is, at the same time, the accumulation of the working class. Right now, the Left is rethinking what constitutes the working class and what constitutes value. If we ask those questions in economic terms, we learn where the weak links in the chain are, and where the capitalist class is going to be most affected by its breakdown. Marx and Engels talked about the accumulation of a working class; we need to ask what that picture looks like today.