The Architecture of Neoliberalism

The Architecture of Neoliberalism

Reviews: Books

Douglas Spencer:

The Architecture of Neoliberalism

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The term “neoliberalism” refers to the program of economic reform (some would call it a counterrevolution) inaugurated by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in 1979–80. The program’s theoretical foundations were developed in the late 1940s by a group of economists including Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman. Later, in the 1970s, it was applied to Chile under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, and then more or less systematically across the world. Neoliberalism’s watchwords are privatization, deregulation, fiscal austerity, and free flow of capital. As the French philosopher Alain Badiou noted recently in Our Wound Is Not So Recent, to a large extent the history of the last four decades is the story of how these notions came to be established and how their increasingly unpopular policies were introduced and implemented, as he puts it, “at first insidiously, then quite overtly, and finally with ruthless determination.” In the United States, however, despite its obvious importance, the term is absent from public discourse and remains highly contested, especially by those who might be said to be promoting it. This is a mark of how well neoliberalism has been able to present itself as a “natural” way of thinking. As George Monbiot notes, it is as if in the Soviet Union no one had ever heard of Communism.
     The Architecture of Neoliberalism is the first attempt to explore the connection between neoliberalism and architecture—a field in which, given the role of real estate in the most recent financial crisis, one might expect it to be considerable. What makes the book especially useful, however, is Spencer’s focus on neoliberalism not merely as an economic program but as a deeply embedded system of thought, including moral values and principles, on the basis of which all of human life and society are reconfigured. Spencer argues that much of what passes for the architectural avant-garde today reflects, produces, or enables neoliberalism’s new “way of the world.” He further claims that this can best be seen in how architecture reconstructs the subjective identity of the user; and that the consequent insistence on architecture’s affective capacity precludes any critical view of its place or role in society. This book marks a milestone in architectural criticism, and the questions it addresses could not be more important or urgent. 

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     Spencer’s approach is clearly indebted to the Frankfurt school, to Benjamin, and especially to Adorno. Methodologically, however, his main reference is Foucault’s seminal series of lectures on biopolitics delivered at the College de France in the late 1970s but only translated into English in 2008. In them, Foucault understood neoliberalism as something more than a superstructural manifestation of class interests, describing it instead as a discursive production of “truth games.” Spencer adopts this point of view to trace the ramifications of neoliberalism’s self-confirming logic in architectural theory and practice. In the first half of the book, he takes aim at the dogmas of “complexity” and “spontaneous ordering” as instruments of “governmentality,” tracing their source to systems theory and the environmental ideology of the 1960s. He then focuses on a host of present-day proponents of such notions in the so-called Deleuzian current of architectural writing. His targets here include Patrik Schumacher, Alejandro Zaera Polo, Farshid Moussavi, Jeffrey Kipnis, Greg Lynn, and Michael Speaks, along with their extra-architectural references—Manuel DeLanda, Bruno Latour, and Niklas Luhmann. Citations in hand, Spencer shows how these and other theorists embrace the ideology of the free market; how they use Deleuzian notions of the fold and smooth space to emphasize pliancy, submissiveness, and complicity; and how they adopt organizational tropes like the matrix or the network to recast architectural theory as a management issue in which the subject and the environment are seen as natural systems. This wonderful theoretical takedown is then followed by a study of how, in recent times, several widely publicized works ontologize in practice the basic principles of neoliberalism.

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More specifically, Spencer looks at how architecture serves to produce particular “subject positions,” from the “citizen consumer” (FAO’s Maydan Retail Complex in Istanbul), to the “student entrepreneur” (Morphosis’s Cooper Union in New York), and the “cultural consumer” (Foster and Roger’s Pompidou Center in Paris). Through such constructions of the self, he argues, architecture becomes a critical means to advance neoliberal imperatives of competition, self-interest, individualism, as well as the central principle of the subject’s “necessary ignorance” of any wider social totality. Spencer’s arguments are thorough, well researched, and persuasive. Engaging nearly all the big names in architecture today, this book is, among other things, a manual of intellectual self-defense for anyone interested in the practical work theoretical terms do to promote a particular ideology. 
     Serious criticism of the sort represented here should never be an end in itself, however, but a means to developing alternatives. In this sense, if there is one critique to make of this book, it would be of Foucault’s unfortunate tendency to downplay (even reject outright) traditional Marxist categories of class conflict, resistance, and change. Thus, while Spencer rightly criticizes the post-autonomists Antonio Negri and Maurizio Lazzarato, in whose phantasmagoria of immaterial labor he discerns a reinforcement of the “truth games” of neoliberalism, he also seems to dismiss David Harvey’s straightforward description of neoliberalism as a restoration of class power. A Foucauldian orientation may also explain why Spencer has so little to say about the revolutionary utopian currents of the 1960s, against which neoliberalism arose and without which it cannot be fully understood. In any case, there seems to be no reason to suppose that Foucault’s approach, powerful as it is to describe the internal mechanisms of discourse formation, would be incompatible with a conventional Marxist critique of ideology of the sort Harvey makes in A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005). The Architecture of Neoliberalism does not replace but expands on that critique in new ways. Its bold, unflinching description of architecture’s complicity with the powers that be makes it an indispensable reference for all those concerned with the social and political meaning of their work.

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