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Neoliberalism, Imperialism, and the Militarization of Urban Spaces

Matthew Thomas Clement is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Oregon. His article “The Town-Country Antithesis and the Environment” was published in September 2011 in Organization & Environment.

Stephen Graham, Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism (London: Verso, 2010), 432 pages, $26.95, paperback.

In the epilogue of Planet of Slums, Mike Davis gives us a glimpse into the militarization of urban spaces and what the military elite are doing about the world’s cities. Davis cites an article published in the US Army War College journal: “The future of warfare lies in the streets, sewers, high-rise buildings, industrial parks, and the sprawl of houses, shacks, and shelters that form the broken cities of our world. Our recent military history is punctuated with city names—Tuzla, Mogadishu, Los Angeles, Beirut, Panama City, Hue, Saigon, Santo Domingo—but these encounters have been but a prologue, with the real drama still to come.” It is important to note that, in his book, Davis inserts his own exclamation mark after “Los Angeles,” perhaps to emphasize how military elites are drawing comparisons between urban conflicts in the first and third worlds.

Meanwhile, the militarization of cities around the world, in both the core and the periphery, is the main focus of Stephen Graham’s fascinating and accessible book, Cities Under Siege. For Graham, an academic, this book represents the culmination and synthesis of much previous research on how urban issues are being incorporated into military doctrine and how military and civilian security forces are invading the cityscape. The book’s argument is organized around conceptual and empirical themes: the first part of the book examines the theoretical dimensions of what he calls the new military urbanism, and the second part offers more detailed case studies that help flesh out these conceptual issues. The end result is a theoretically and empirically rich study of how violence, control, and surveillance have come to “colonize the city landscape and the spaces of everyday life in both the ‘homelands’ and domestic cities of the West as well as the world’s neo-colonial frontiers” (xiv).

Graham cites classical and contemporary research describing how urban processes have long been driven by, and have influenced, military concerns (e.g., U.S. suburbanization as a way to reduce vulnerability against a nuclear attack). Yet, he provides a detailed argument for why the contemporary form of urban militarization is novel. There are seven characteristics that distinguish the new military urbanism from the old:

  1. Western militaries are largely staffed by rural soldiers who are increasingly deployed in urban arenas.
  2. Military and civilian control technologies are blurring “into the background of urban environments, urban infrastructures and urban life” (64).
  3. Corporate media has constructed urban warfare as a spectacle to be consumed in the West.
  4. There is a surging market for security and surveillance.
  5. The movement of capital, media, and people into and out of cities is transnational, and is being militarized to protect private elite interests.
  6. The contemporary security discourse is contradictory, emphasizing territorial notions of “homeland” that imply anti-urbanism and anti-cosmopolitanism despite an increasingly urban and ethnically diverse population. Graham rhetorically asks: Is New York City a homeland?
  7. State violence is used to evict people from rural communities and informal urban settlements to clear space for future accumulation.

While these are the seven characteristics of the new military urbanism, Graham argues that neoliberalism and imperialism play central roles in the militarization of urban spaces. These forces have turned many cities in the global South into the “feral” spaces that are increasingly feared and targeted by Western militaries (see the discussion in Planet of Slums on the “little witches of Kinshasa”). Yet, the militarization of cities, both in the core and periphery, is an interdependent process. Referring to Foucault, Graham conceptualizes this interdependence as the “boomerang effect,” which represents the multidirectional sharing of information by police departments and militaries around the world to better prepare for warfare in the city landscape. For instance, as Graham cites, separate urban conflicts in the United States and Israel have resulted in collaboration between these two nations to develop “non-lethal weapons,” some of which are now being deployed in both countries. We see an example of this in the use of “sonic weapons, which broadcast beams of sounds that are so loud as to make continued presence in a targeted area unbearably dizzying and nauseating” (246). These sonic weapons have been used in anti-capitalist protests; even the corporate news took notice of their use at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh in September 2009.

But often, the intended consequences of the new military urbanism are not as “non-lethal” as sonic weapons; just consider Graham’s discussion about the emergence of “shoot-to-kill” policies by police departments around the world to deal with suspected suicide bombers. Nor are these consequences as direct and immediate as they are in the use of weapons. Indeed, the new military urbanism is insidious, pervasive, and global. For example, Graham makes connections between escalating incarceration rates in the United States and the global war on terror. While the New York Police Department has set up offices around the globe, the U.S. incarceration system, in general, “is paralleled by the construction of a global system of extraordinary renditionwith both systems using similar techniques, private security corporations, means of abuse, and legal suspensions” (110). The rights of both citizens and non-citizens are being undermined in what has been called the “securocratic war”: a battle intended to protect public safety against vaguely defined enemies who “lurk within the interstices of urban and social life, blending invisibly with it” (91).

Other, and sometimes peculiar, examples of the pervasiveness of the new military urbanism include what Graham notes as the development of “passage-points” (within cities like Manhattan), “the hardening of urban enclaves,” and the success of “garrison tourism.” In the United States, a large portion of all new housing is built in private, gated communities. The construction of passage-points and the hardening of urban enclaves are also seen in the development of suburbia and the increasing ownership of SUVs. These automobiles are now being marketed to consumers as “armored shells” allowing drivers to enjoy the outdoors “while maintaining complete control over their own personal environment” (309). Here we start to see examples of the curious growth of garrison tourism. Similarly, cruise ships (e.g., the “Freedom Ship”) are being designed to allow affluent passengers to enjoy the beauty of impoverished third world nations without being exposed to the “feral” urban masses on land. What this all suggests is that the need for security is growing as the spaces for affluent consumption are created by gentrification.

The increasing influence of tourism on gentrification is also noted by Andy Merrifield in Dialectical Urbanism, an excellent book and good companion to Cities Under Siege. Yet, Graham argues that security issues are central to the experiences of affluent urban consumers. Furthermore, the safety of urban consumers is also indirectly related to the urbanization of military conflict. Graham provides some strange examples of how military conflict is being urbanized. Mock, life-size cities, like the Yodaville Target Complex in Arizona, are being constructed by the U.S. military to offer training for urban conflict. This is an example of what Graham generally calls “theme park archipelagos.” These mock cities, he writes, “are theme parks for practicing urban destruction, erasure and colonial violence” (182). The development of theme park archipelagos also includes the seemingly fantastical ways in which elite military doctrine has seeped into the lives of ordinary urban residents in the West. Warfare is being transformed into a bodiless media and gaming experience, such that common consumers become “virtual citizen-soldiers,” who are “caught up in a boundless, networked culture of permanent war where everything transmogrifies into battlespace” (225). The element of fantasy that is exposed in garrison tourism, theme-park archipelagos, and virtual citizen-soldiers calls to mind Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, even though Graham does not cite Debord. Merrifield describes Debord’s vision of the way in which affluent Western consumers experience military urban conflict as: “‘a pseudo-world apart,’ a world where specialized images, global satellite networks, and high-tech gadgetry and multimedia dominate and cohere as ‘autonomous image.’”

At the same time, military exercises in mock cities, and the virtual battles of the electronic gaming industry, often reflect the importance of physical infrastructure as a target in urban conflict. Indeed, especially in the West, the mass urbanization of society has made people more vulnerable to attacks on technical systems, like the power grid, that are crucial for the functioning of modern urban life. Paradoxically, Graham notes, these complex technical systems require the fluid movement of information and materials, which is antithetical to the practice of the new military urbanism to secure borders and protect people against strange enemies.

In light of the problems addressed above, Cities Under Siege concludes with an assessment of urban-based projects that are countering the new military urbanism. Much of this concluding discussion centers around culture-jamming, which mostly involves artistic projects intended to expose and complicate the contradictions and inequality inherent in the militarized security and surveillance of the modern cityscape. Only in the last few pages does Graham emphasize that these artistic “countergeographies” be complemented by radical political-economic projects, including the end of neoliberal policies, the redistribution of wealth, and the need for environmental sustainability.

There are two related shortcomings of Cities Under Siege. First, Graham’s emphasis on artistic countergeographies ignores the more fundamental conflict between the use value and exchange value of urban space under capitalism—something directly addressed in Dialectical Urbanism. Indeed, Merrifield’s discussion of Henri Lefebvre offers a more radical approach to alternative configurations of urban space than Graham’s countergeographies. As Lefebvre notes, “The production of socialist space means the end of private property and the state’s political domination of space, which implies the passage from domination to appropriation and the primacy of use over exchange.” Of course, Graham acknowledges that the design of modern cities has been driven by both military and economic forces and argues that we need a “radical politics of security” to deal with the “hyperinequality” and violence of modern cities. Nevertheless, his notion of countergeographies fails to incorporate insights on the conflict between use value and exchange value of urban space. Consequently, if we wish to challenge the new military urbanism, we must also present a challenge to private property and the production of capitalist space in general.

Second, Graham provides a thorough critique of proponents of mainstream urbanist theory who extol the economic virtues of capitalist cities yet do not see their connections to violence (e.g., Richard Florida). Nevertheless, despite his focus on urban violence, he still offers a pro-urban argument to counter the new military urbanism without emphasizing that nearly half of the world lives outside of cities. Of course, Graham is not alone in his urbanophilia; this is a common yet implicit feature of much urban literature. Nevertheless, developing a radical critique of the production of capitalist space would not only entail different conceptualizations of urban space in situ but also a more general challenge to the urbanization process as a whole.

However, Graham’s limited discussion of countergeographies and his pro-urban stance are only two minor shortcomings of an otherwise stimulating and motivating analysis. In addition to offering an empirically and theoretically rich discussion about urbanization and conflict, Cities Under Siege provides the powerful message that we do need to rethink radically how humanity should live in urban spaces.