Alexandre Leskanich discusses contemporary architecture and its neoliberal compliance.
Douglas Spencer, The Architecture of Neoliberalism: How Contemporary Architecture Became an Instrument of Control and Compliance (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), 240 pp.
In De Architectura, the Roman architect Vitruvius claims that architecture ought to adhere to particular principles of composition: fitness and arrangement, as well as ‘proportion, uniformity, consistency, and economy’. The dwellings constructed thereof ought ideally to possess ‘strength, utility, and beauty’. He advises further that if the architect is to prevent arrogance from ‘gaining an ascendancy over him’, he ought to be versed in moral philosophy (in addition to the various branches of knowledge, especially calculative, requisite to his vocation), ‘for he should not be occupied with the thoughts of filling his coffers, nor with the desire of grasping everything in the shape of gain’. For moral philosophy in the Greek tradition attends to human conduct, and its precepts inform a life lived according to that which is just, dignified, and ‘above meanness’, lest one’s character be besmirched by avarice.
Given that buildings not only reflect but help reproduce the type of society that erects them, and that the sort of buildings erected help shape the kinds of behaviour in which the inhabitants of a society engage, it follows that contemporary architecture expresses something of our mode of existence: its dominant ideas. In The Architecture of Neoliberalism, Douglas Spencer contends that contemporary architecture is of a piece with the vertiginous tenets of neoliberalism, the ‘form of our existence’ that he clearly disdains. He claims that it forms its ‘spatial complement’. Hence his charge is essentially one of complicity; of the capitulation of architects to neoliberalism’s socio-economic agenda. He abides by a steadfastly Foucauldian conception of neoliberalism which conceives of the market as ‘a mode of governmentality’ adept at producing an eminently manageable subject. In The Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault argues that: ‘American neo-liberalism involves… the generalization of the economic form of the market’; ‘generalizing it throughout the social body and including the whole of the economic system not usually conducted through or sanctioned by monetary exchanges’. The approximate result is the Kantian domesticated animal (a sheep, for the sake of argument), essentially placid, docile, compliant. Better yet, think of a particularly busy, hyperactive sheep: munching neurotically away on grass, leaping about, rushing here and there in pursuit of profitable endeavours. But there’s an important difference. In Kant’s original conception (in What is Enlightenment?), the sheep passively obeyed diktats handed down from on high from various authorities. The ‘neoliberal subject’ is instead manipulated and confined within a system – herded into conformity by the built environment – that ensures he or she is ‘pliant, productive, and competitive’. Therein the subject ‘functions as a relay within the larger and superior processual order of the market’, into which they ought to immerse themselves as fully as possible. The sophistry of economic ‘performativity’ that is used to gauge the worth of the human subject means that one’s primary purpose is to bolster ‘the competitive performance of the economy’. The ethos of the smooth, gleaming edifices that litter the major cities of the world affirm this objective. For Spencer, they rest on tropes of ‘flexibility and adaptation’ to neoliberal capitalism, which mystifies the poverty of their ‘conditions of production’. In spatial terms, the effect is to render the occupant of the metropolis an exploited gopher; connected, plugged-in, bustling rapidly between the myriad venues of business and consumption. They encourage the blending of the subject into the existent milieu by ensuring the most efficient ‘participation, circulation, informality and access to information’ possible.
Neoliberalism didn’t spontaneously spring into existence, of course: it required intellectual elaboration and political implementation. It confirms the power of ideas to reconstitute reality. Indeed, in concluding his General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, John Maynard Keynes remarked that:
the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.
Providing the perfect foil for the global hegemony of capitalism, neoliberalism was conjured out of the minds of a handful of thinkers in the early to mid-twentieth century. Influential apostles included Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Michael Polanyi. It functions as a denomination of capitalism which demands the strictest obeisance to the market, now transformed into the omniscient Almighty. The deliberate exercise of political power ensured this deification of the market, generating a new economic orthodoxy in the late 1970s. Drawing on the tenets of classical laissez-faire liberalism, the free market is hereby reimagined as an omnipotent, omnipresent deity who often works in mysterious ways. Its acolytes peddle the virtue of the policies through which it is made socio-economically operational: privatization, tax reductions, deregulation, reducing the size and interventions of the state; in short, ‘allowing’, as The Economist recently put it, ‘creative destruction full rein’.
But while it intends to maximise individual economic agency, selling a vision of personal empowerment through the sinister reconfiguration of the subject as ‘human capital’, in actuality it diminishes the capacity of individuals to act in ways contrary to its rationality. That rationality appears to be premised upon the efficacy of the free market in creating wealth and prosperity for all, as opposed to central planning. Should doubt and evidence arise to the contrary, worshippers, deniers, and apostates alike should be consoled that this deity always knows what’s best. After all, who can presume to understand the mind of God? According to the pantheistic principle with which the market has an unmistakable affinity, there is a fundamental equivalence, an all-encompassing unity in what exists. Hence it is impossible to evade the hand of God since that hand can be everywhere discerned. Denied the possibility of full understanding but assured of its overwhelming benevolence, it is only natural to concede, as Spencer puts it, that ‘what exists is good’.
And what has this ideology of human emancipation (with emancipation reconfigured as ‘the optimization of the subject’s performance’) actually delivered? Assuredly, not a promised land brimming with milk and honey. Rather, a state of unfreedom made manifest through usury, inequality, and precarity. For a great many people, at the moment of transubstantiation the market doesn’t become the body of Christ, but something corrosive, pathogenic, even fatal. Evidently, a portion of that ‘human capital’ is expendable. As George Monbiot pointed out in The Guardian last year, ‘neoliberalism is the God that failed’. Even The Economist recently alleged that ‘the neoliberal consensus’ in British politics has ‘collapsed’ if the party manifestos of the recent election are anything to go by. As that magazine went on to report, neoliberalism has been a political failure: proving adept at proliferating corporate power and procuring larger profits for the rich while producing precarious zero-hour contract ‘jobs’ for the proletarian underlings. The reactionary political events of the past year are partly a consequence of this. Yet even as its economic consensus appears to wither (post-election evidence for this is still scanty), neoliberal rationality has long since infiltrated the human mind. This is not so surprising: economic considerations today take priority; they are the first order of government business. Because money and markets are the central planets around which life orbits, economic ideology tends to dictate the priorities and motivations for human behaviour. Fundamentally, the victory of neoliberalism’s truth game, as Spencer notes, is still vindicated through its reorganisation of ‘labour, education, culture, and public space’.
The latter involves the affectual captivation of the subject to ‘material immediacy’; ‘to keep perception trained on what is in front of it, untroubled by questions of meaning or interpretation’. The fluidity and patterning of architectural design valorises the unthinking diffusion of the masses into the transitory realm of the marketplace, where ‘the imperatives of neoliberalism are spun into the positive-speak of choices and freedoms’. In actuality, to avoid becoming a deserving loser, the self must now become an ‘ongoing project’ besieged by worries over performance. It is constantly ‘tracked, measured and rated. It is to present itself as flexible, adaptable, communicative and enterprising…’ Above all, it must be productive and market-driven. Yet the ‘folded’, ‘pliant envelopes and organic contours’ of architecture ignore this condition of economic servitude, occluding ‘any suggestion of internal contradiction or struggle’ between the de-politicized jargon of neoliberalism and its reality. Neoliberalism must, in the end, vitiate any suggestion that the market doesn’t express a mystical ‘self-regulating order’. To this end, architects have expressly emptied architecture of any overtly political or critical dimension, drawing on fashionable notions of ‘complexity’ and ‘self-organization’ in order to project a post-ideological, purely ‘material’ progressive order. Especially useful in attempting to purge architecture of politics is actor-network theory, which posits the existence of various human and non-human ‘actors’ helplessly caught up in non-hierarchical ‘networks’; and ‘flat’ ontologies which discount the possibility of ‘a larger totality, such as capital’. At bottom, these theoretical co-optations preclude any need for architecture to partake in the tiresome work of critique or political agency, which would after all detract from its subservience to the demands of society as it is given.
One of the profound ironies of modern life is its incorporation into modes of existence initially believed to be liberating but which turn out to be incarcerating. Neoliberalism’s interactive penitentiary advocates not reflective interpretation or critical distance on the part of the subject, but unthinking immersion into whatever is going. But one can perhaps dimly foresee its end. Political evidence is emerging of a crisis of confidence in its injunctions, and climate change threatens to foreclose on its banalised conception of what it is to be ‘fully’ human. Its aspirational, ‘meritocratic’ myth of entrepreneurial emancipation and self-aggrandisement; of private interests maximising profits, purchasing experiences, accruing cultural capital, looks farcical, existentially untenable, ethically inept. Spencer’s ending call for critique is hence familiar but necessary. Surely critique remains the only antidote to the ontologies of affirmation, to the rhetoric of inextricable entanglement. Surely only intellectual vigilance and critical subversion can engender a corresponding suspicion of, and suspension of belief in, that which exists.
Alexandre Leskanich read history, philosophy, and political theory at the universities of Leicester, Edinburgh, and The London School of Economics and Political Science. He is currently a PhD student in the School of Modern Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Royal Holloway, University of London. He has previously written for The Hong Kong Review of Books and The LSE Review of Books.