Neoliberalism and Welfare: Interview with Susanne Soederberg

Our 'special series on neoliberalism' continues with an interview on ‘Neoliberalism and Welfare’ with our guest Susanne Soederberg. Studying subjects such as the political economy of housing and the geopolitics of indebtedness, Soederberg published the monograph Debtfare States and the Poverty Industry: Money, Discipline and the Surplus Population. In her latest work, Urban Displacements: Governing Surplus and Survival in Global Capitalism, Soederberg analyses the housing question through the case studies of Berlin, Vienna and Dublin.

"Until debt tear us apart"

As neoliberalism has reconstituted the economic and social institutions of capitalism differently in each country and region, how could it be defined and distinguished from other phases, stages or configurations of capitalism in terms of the international economy, forms of exploitation and social domination? Also, as you discuss in your two books, what are the common modalities of the workings of neoliberalism as a form of social and economic reproduction, and its everyday practices like dispossession and exploitation?

I think a good place to begin to address this question is to move beyond neoliberalism and try to grasp its meaning vis-à-vis the capitalist state. 

In both books, Debtfare States and Urban Displacements, I make a distinction between the form and content of capitalist states. The content refers to the central roles of capitalist states in capitalism. Broadly speaking, content captures at least two features of bourgeois states. First, states need to ensure the societal reproduction of capitalist society. Second, all capitalist states facilitate the expansion of capital accumulation by assisting to remove barriers to accumulation, whenever they arise, e.g., disciplining labour unrest, bailing out creditors in a financial crisis, sanctioning private property, and so forth. As Marxian state debates of the 1970s have taught us, capitalist states can never know the general needs of capital-in-general (read: not individual capitalists), given its anarchical nature of competition and, more generally, the inherent contradictions and crisis tendencies in capitalism. To retain its role as a guarantor of the expanded reproduction of capitalism, capitalist states must also retain some semblance of neutrality to continue to exercise its class-based power over workers, including its legitimate monopoly over the legal and military (courts, police) apparatus.  Moreover, capitalist states are neither autonomous actors nor mere instruments of capitalist fractions (e.g., finance capital).  All capitalist states share this content across time and space. 

The form of the capitalist state shifts and changes to reflect historical and social configurations of class-based power rooted in geographical contexts (national and urban spaces) of the world market. The Keynesian welfare state and its successor, neoliberalism, in all their national variations, are examples of state forms. Simply put, the latter are temporally and spatially specific policy, regulatory, and discursive interventions employed by capitalist states. 

Soederberg, S. (2021). Urban displacements: Governing surplus and survival in global capitalism.

Using the above framing, I attempt to theorize and empirically develop a clearer, less generic, and more geographically specific understanding of capitalist states’ forms in contemporary capitalism marked by the dominance of credit-led accumulation, including class, racial and gendered lines therein.

Some common modalities of state intervention (capitalist state forms) across spaces as diverse as the United States and Mexico, the regional state of the European Union and urban states of Berlin, Dublin and Vienna, has been that an ever-decreasing amount of social surplus (the portion of surplus value appropriated by states in the form of taxes) has been distributed to fund various public services and goods, such as welfare provisioning and public housing.  Other common modalities of capitalist state forms of intervention marked by neoliberalism have been the centrality allocated to monetary policy of Central Banks, further reflecting the power relations of credit-led accumulation and the power of the money fetish to create illusions of freedom, equality, and liberty. 

From this view, debtfare is an integral aspect of neoliberalism – monetized governance – entailing regulations, policies and laws that legitimately compel the working poor to rely on expensive forms of credit to pay for basic subsistence needs. This is more than a new site of exploitation (poverty industry). Indeed, and this brings us back to the importance of the mode of societalization, of which debtfare is an integral part, Marx (1990) argued that the creation of wage labour – a core feature of capitalism – is not automatic but must continually be reproduced through various state interventions that make survival possible only through the wage.

In Urban Displacements, I draw on debtfare forms of neoliberal interventions but expand on them to also demonstrate how states – at various scales – employ various forms of monetized governance to disappear, discipline and depoliticize (normalize) the ongoing destitution of the working poor, who live lives of displaced survival. As I elaborate in my comparative study among three urban centres in the European Union, these monetized modes of governance have also played an important role in fragmenting and hierarchicalizing members of the surplus population along racialized lines. 

Financialization, in my opinion, keeps our gaze fixed to one capitalist fraction (finance) over others, and often ignores labour power and almost never theorizes money. 

In both of your books, you emphasize that financial inclusion exploits the poor, the people excluded from the market, the underemployed, and those in a temporary state of entry and exit into the labour market (the surplus population) through mortgages, loan rates, credit cards, student loans and so on. How does this process of financialization change our understanding of the reproduction of labour power, and how can one conceptualize the interest payment on credit? As claimed particularly in the post-Keynesian school, can we say that now, the main enemy of workers is not the capitalist owners of industrial companies, but the financial/rentier capitalist?

In addressing this question, I should underline that I intentionally avoid the use of financialization in both Debtfare States and Urban Displacements. Why? The short answer is that the concept is not helpful in furthering our understanding of the power relations – be it class, state, or money – involved in the social reproduction of labour power. Financialization, in my opinion, keeps our gaze fixed to one capitalist fraction (finance) over others, and often ignores labour power and almost never theorizes money. 

That said, while there are many definitions of this concept, allow me to provide one oft-cited meaning, particularly as it relates to housing. Financialization refers to ‘the increasing dominance of financial actors, markets, practices, measurements and narratives, at various scales, resulting in a structural transformation of economies, firms (including financial institutions), states and households’ (Aalbers, 2016: 2).

Throughout the course of researching and writing Urban Displacements, I was often confronted with this definition as a key explanation as to the rise of rental rates. Many critical and even Marxian scholars have leaned on this concept to explain the increase in asset prices, reliance on consumer debt (embodied financial inclusion and creation of market subjects), and so forth. Even those critical of financialization have resorted to using it in their writings. This has baffled me. The only viable explanation, I believe, is convenience. By not critically confronting financialization, i.e., identifying and working through its blind spots, one can easily apply its meaning to empirical investigations. Yet, this convenience has a price – both analytically and politically. 

From my Marxian perspective, these analyses employing financialization fall short of providing complete explanations of contemporary phenomenon regarding how and why the working poor have been compelled to rely on expensive consumer credit to augment and/or replace living wages to pay for basic subsistence needs, including food, clothing, transportation, day-care, heating, and rent. By the way, rental housing (e.g., social housing and private rental dwellings), is the tenure in which the majority of the working poor (those not earning sufficient wages to pay for life) reside and from which they are expulsed, and thus the focus of Urban Displacements.  

As such, the concept of financialization – as it is frequently employed – does not grasp how the phenomenon relates to a deeper understanding of the social reproduction of capitalist society, including both capitalists and workers (e.g., the wage relation). While there are many definitions of social reproduction, the meaning employed in both books is one of a more general nature. In Urban Displacements, for instance, I use the societal reproduction by which I mean the practices, processes and structures in place that serve to reproduce class, gendered and racial relations of exploitation and domination which continue to appear as natural, equal, and free – all of which are supported by seemingly neutral ‘laws of private property, rights to appropriation, and freedom of contract’ (Harvey, 1989: 168). 

So, what are some of the missing pieces occluded by financialization and how might they hinder a more fulsome explanation of the societal reproduction of capitalism? While I discuss these at length in both books, I shall identify at least two here, as I pick up a third missing piece in the next question.

First, many understandings of financialization, including one of the most cited definitions in critical housing studies supplied by Aalbers (above), lack a class analysis (capital and labour). Instead of viewing how these social configurations of class inhabit the wider dynamics of capital accumulation and social relations therein, most discussions of financialization simply focus on logics, strategies and practices tied to financial capitalist fractions as the key agents in capitalism. 

Yet, financial capitalists engaged in the extraction of credit for surplus value in the form of rent or interest are not a homogenous fraction that can be easily identified, as many powerful productive industries – and even labour groups (e.g., pension funds) – are enmeshed in these processes, particularly as shareholders. Surely, to grasp the tensions and power in contemporary capitalism, we need to see the role of capitalists and labour in capital-in-general, i.e., the wider dynamics of capitalism (both credit-led and productive-based accumulation strategies, and more generally, production and exchange). 

A fractionalist view of financialization also runs the risk of granting too much power to one fraction, without understanding its relation to other key sites of power, especially regarding questions of societal reproduction. That capitalist states, for instance, are important sites of reproductive power is often ignored or undertheorized by financialization pundits. They serve as the guarantors of the laws of private property, rights to appropriation and freedom of contract that I mentioned above, and thus also play a key role in the societal reproduction of contemporary capitalism, including labour power. 

By refusing to see the entire dynamics of capital accumulation, financialization is fascinated almost exclusively with the power of financial capitalists at the expense of how workers fit into the creation and recreation of so-called financialization. Workers are compelled to turn to bourgeois strategies of financial inclusion because the current nature of capital accumulation rests on a need for particular types of labour power, including high-skill, high-wage labour power and low-skill, low-wage workers often referred to as disposable, or what I discuss in the books as a category of relative surplus population (or, the segment of this population I study in both books: under- and long-term unemployed). Indeed, the working poor have become a mainstay in financial times. I find it intriguing to investigate why and how they help facilitate the ongoing expansion and intensification of contemporary capital accumulation. After all, surplus populations are, as Marx notes, a lever to capital accumulation. 

This brings me to the second limit of financialization in achieving a more complete understanding of the societal reproduction of contemporary capitalism: the lack of theorization of money. For one thing, finance rests on money (including privately created money or credit). For another, money – or, more precisely, the money fetish, as Marx reminds us, is so foundational in breaking through the commodity fetish. Without this analysis, financialization remains in the fetish zone. Simply applying terms like financial capitalists to the analysis does not remedy the shortcoming of not treating and theorizing money as a social relation. And, as Marx insists in Capital, the money fetish cannot be transcended merely in the realm of exchange; but instead requires a holistic understanding of capitalism (production and exchange). In Debtfare States, I spend two chapters trying to start to theorize the social power of money to help understand how state and class powers are implicated therein, so that we can more fully understand the role and nature of indirect or secondary exploitation of the working poor through interest and rent. 

While the class confrontation in secondary exploitation is less visible in the realm of exchange as debtors or tenants, these relations of power are still present in the extraction of surplus value in the form of interest and rent. 

You maintain that incorporating the realm of production into the analysis of the housing question reveals a secondary moment of exploitation in forms such as rent-extraction and overindebtedness. In your view, what would be the Marxist theoretical implications of expanding moments of value-creation to include the tenant-landlord relation?

I think this question builds logically from my response to the first query. Most discussions of the financialization of housing are very much based in the realm of exchange, e.g., renter-landlord, debtor-creditor. The class relation marked by exploitation and domination is not easily deciphered in this realm. Why? Because the realm of exchange entails the fetishized appearance of money, or what Marx refers to as the community of money marked by ‘individualism and certain conceptions of liberty, freedom and equality’, as I discussed above (Harvey, 1989: 168). When we think of the capitalist paying workers for their labour power, an equal exchange is invoked because of money. The latter conceals the exploitative relation. While the class confrontation in secondary exploitation is less visible in the realm of exchange as debtors or tenants, these relations of power are still present in the extraction of surplus value in the form of interest and rent.  Both my books provide ample concrete analyses of such power, which, I maintain, is inseparable from state power (e.g., monetized governance in the form of debtfare). 

The understanding of capitalism holistically as encompassing both the realm of exchange and realm of production allows us to theorize the power, politics, and paradoxes of secondary, or what is also referred to as indirect exploitation through money in the form of rent and loans. It also helps us comprehend why secondary exploitation exists in capitalism. The financialization of housing literature is silent on these relations because they only see the tenant, not the worker, who resides in the rental housing, and who is compelled to enter into debt contracts because they do not earn sufficient wages to pay for their basic subsistence needs.

Seen from the above angle, we simply do not live in a world marked by just financial transactions. We also live in a world where labour power still produces commodities, be it in the service sector or in the manufacturing sector. The clothing we are wearing, the food we eat, the homes in which we live (and are often expulsed from) are commodities that have all been produced by labour power (another commodity). Yet, a growing number of workers residing in urban spaces are underpaid and underemployed (for over a year), and thus have been made sites of extraction beyond the wage relation (primary or direct exploitation) through rent and debt (secondary or indirect exploitation). This structural violence has been constructed and reconstructed as normal, neutral and voluntary. 

In Urban Displacements, I create a heuristic device that I refer to as a ‘triad of displacements’ involving money, labour power and rental housing. This allows me to tend to various theoretical concerns, including the understanding of the inner contradiction of housing as a commodity, that is, its role as both a place of survival (of labour power) and a site of accumulation (rent and interest from debt). This means that my analysis does not begin and end inside the walls of a rental unit or in the relations of exchange (public and private landlords and tenants). Instead, the inner contradiction between the place of survival and site of accumulation, which often culminates in what I refer to as displaced survival living lives marked by overindebtedness, evictions and homelessness, must be grasped historically and in wider class dynamics and paradoxes of global capitalism, including both realms of production and exchange.  

In short, to fully understand and theorize secondary exploitation, one can only pierce the veil of money fetishism by seeing capitalism in its entirety, not just in the sphere of circulation or commodity exchange (rent), which Marx described as ‘the exclusive realm of Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham’ (1990: 276). 

What my analysis adds to the debates is a clearer understanding of how indirect modes of exploitation in the form of rent and interest (debt instruments) are both modes of accumulation as well as strategies to reproduce class relations underpinning secondary exploitation as equal, free and voluntary. 

Based on your fieldwork, would you say that the creation of surplus populations is an ‘intended’ outcome of conscious decisions by the ruling class, or an ‘unintended’, spontaneous and ultimately structural outcome beyond the agency of particular actors and classes?  

Neither. Through my fieldwork, I take the position that the creation of the relative surplus populations, as Marx argues, is a structural feature of a class society based on private property and commodity exchange based on surplus value. Following Marx, the relative surplus populations are both a product of, and necessary to, capital accumulation. Thus, they are an integral feature of capitalism as is private property but are continually shaped through struggles and contradictions inherent to historically and geographically specific spaces of capitalism.

I would like to qualify my response in two further ways.

First, for me, structures in capitalism are not things or objects devoid of social relations. The law is a structure or thing, but also a historical social relation. The same holds for money. Viewing the surplus populations as relative to the needs of capital means that they are fluid and heterogenous (especially along racial and gendered lines) and thus have an ever-changing composition based on the dynamics of capital accumulation. As such, structures are not devoid of agency; but instead, are continually challenged and constructed through struggle and power relations. 

Second, drawing on my above reading of the capitalist state as neither an autonomous actor nor a mere instrument of class rule, it is instead a complex and ever-changing social relation that strives to guarantee, albeit in a paradoxical and incomplete manner, the continued expansion and societal reproduction of capitalism. 

Together, both points mean that the creation and recreation of surplus populations are inherent to the very nature of capitalism. However, the ways in which they are governed, including their differentiation and hierarchicalization vis-a-vis other workers, is a political question of struggle and historical configurations of power relations in specific geographies of capitalism. This tension, I believe, is fleshed out in my case studies of Berlin, Vienna and Dublin.

You propose an updated housing question centred on the contradiction that a growing number of surplus workers are made disposable despite their essential location in the credit-led accumulation process. You have also shed light on the ‘tent cities’ and twenty-first century ‘poor houses’ that have been proliferating throughout the Global North. In light of these processes, could we propose that a certain type of ‘Victorian’ capitalism is rearing its head with transformed features? 

There are definitely many similarities between the Victorian era and the family hubs in Dublin (poor houses) and tent cities that have cropped up over the past decade in many parts of North America and Europe.  Much of this was chronicled by Engels in his extended essays on the Housing Question (1872) where he describes the high rents, overcrowding and exclusionary features of the housing shortage that affect workers and parts of the petty bourgeoisie in the late 1800s. As Engels notes, the housing shortage was not a result of an imbalance of supply and demand, which is often invoked by neoliberal states to justify the ongoing destitution of the working poor in contemporary capitalism. Instead, it has been a constant feature of capitalism since the outset. My chapters on the historical nature of rental housing in Berlin and Vienna reveal that there was a housing shortage for workers, especially along racialized lines, prior to the advent of credit-led accumulation and neoliberalism. In Berlin, for instance, Turkish workers brought in by the German state to remedy labour shortages, especially in low-wage, low-skilled jobs, inhabited expensive, yet substandard housing, in impoverished areas in the city such as Neukölln. In the heyday of social democracy in Vienna, where Viennese skilled members of the working class were offered high-quality social housing units, low-skilled migrants were forced to seek housing in the expensive and sub-standard private rental sector and stigmatized shelters referred to in Austria as very social housing.  In this sense, there are similarities between past and present housing conditions for the working poor in capitalism. Of course, as I discuss in the book, there are also important differences, notably the roles of monetized governance on the part of states and capitalists (landlords and creditors). Hotels and hostels, for instance, play an important role in providing commercialized contemporary versions of very social housing.  First-time homeless families, usually headed by single mothers, are compelled to live in these inadequate places of survival facilitated by welfare provisioning by states and private sources of money (creditors), again reflecting the role of credit-led accumulation in contemporary capitalism. 

Your discussion of Red Vienna illuminates the capitalist character of the erstwhile state and thus the overlooked exclusions and exploitation that took place, and continues to take place, in the city’s housing sector, notwithstanding its positive aspects. The model has recently attracted attention as a solution to the neoliberal housing crisis. This debate invokes two questions:

As the Berlin and Vienna cases clearly demonstrate, the already meagre welfare measures of local and federal governments are disproportionately extended to native, white male workers. Therefore, questions of social welfare are always cut through by factors such as gender, race, ethnicity, and religion. How do you see the relationship between hierarchies and fragmentations along these lines and overindebtedness, evictions and homelessness? 

In sum, could we take Red Vienna as a paragon of social democratic governance -understood here as the reformist approach to building working class power- and the limits of reformism? 

Before responding, I think we need to be very clear that housing exclusions, along class, ethnicity and racial lines, have always existed in capitalism. In the book, I offer two chapters on Vienna to interrogate historically its housing model from the time of Red Vienna to the contemporary period. Some key takeaways from those chapters might help address this question and inform future struggles. First, while social housing in Vienna should be celebrated as a model for other countries to follow in terms of low rental rates and high quality (and regular maintenance) of these buildings, the impetus of their construction was to house high-skilled Austrian workers, who were surplus to the needs of capital accumulation at that time and thus politically powerful. These social housing units (as with Red Frankfurt and Red Zurich) were based on a social compact between labour, capitalists and the Viennese state. Second, they excluded migrant workers and low-skilled workers residing in Vienna. Indeed, it was only in 2006 that the City of Vienna permitted non-Austrians to apply to the coveted social housing units. Third, the City of Vienna has placed a moratorium on these social housing units, where, by the way, the majority of tenants are middle class Austrians. Low-income Austrians and racialized migrants largely remain excluded from these social housing units. 

The immediate solutions are simple. States should build public housing, tax corporations (financial and non-financial) and wealthy individuals at rates equal to the time of Red Vienna and redistribute this surplus value democratically, and all employers should be made to pay all employees social benefits and living wages.

As you explain, the extraction of surplus value from money involves secondary or indirect forms of exploitation. If this is the case, then such forms of exploitation appear to be unique to a financialised capitalism and take place on a relatively ‘abstracted’ level. This raises the question of how such an ‘abstraction’ can be countered. Recently, there have been instances of rent strikes and moves towards tenant unionisation. To what extent could such forms of grassroots organisation serve to roll back financialisation in the housing sector?

Rejecting the conceptual framing of the financialization of the rental housing sector is a good place to start, as it allows us to see broader trends, power relations and contradictions underpinning displaced survival.  What I see now is that too many of these struggles do not engage enough with the violence residing in concrete abstractions such as secondary exploitation and its connection to primary exploitation (lack of sufficient social and living wages). A case in point is former UN Rapporteur on Adequate Housing Rights, Leilana Fahra’s struggle to fight the financialization of housing by insisting that housing is a human right, not a commodity. Housing as a human right has been enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights since 1966.  Various countries have also embraced this right in their constitution. While this motto has helped to mobilize various political groups and organizations around the housing question, it is based only in the sphere of exchange. It thus fails to understand that housing has always been a commodity (social housing units were never free, albeit very affordable). More importantly, the people that reside therein are also commodities in that they need to sell their labour power to pay rent. 

The housing question runs, as Engels suggested, far deeper than providing cheap homes to the poor. As one Dublin housing activist put it: ‘the state places poor people in new homes. Then what?’ Through its social housing (privatization) and labour market restructuring (flexibilization), which dates to the boom of the so-called Celtic Tiger, the social housing sector has basically become the private rental sector. The bitter irony has resulted in a reality in which displaced tenants on the waitlist (for many years!) have been placed in the same sector from which they were expulsed. 

Berlin, for instance, has had rental caps in place off and on again. Yet, in 2020, it registered the highest rental increase in the world. The more recent effort of rental caps in Berlin was deemed unconstitutional by the highest federal court. 

The immediate solutions are simple. States should build public housing, tax corporations (financial and non-financial) and wealthy individuals at rates equal to the time of Red Vienna and redistribute this surplus value democratically, and all employers should be made to pay all employees social benefits and living wages. These are all great places to start, and, to some extent, have been in place in certain spaces of global capitalism at some point in its history.  

According to the last Feantsa Report, Europe is facing a well-documented housing crisis in which housing costs are increasingly outstripping incomes, impacting the lowest income groups most. Homelessness is on the rise in 24 out of the 28 member states (at the time of the study). In fact, 700,000 people experience homelessness on any given night in the European Union, an increase of 70% in the last decade. Furthermore, as you also cite, more than 11 million homes lie empty across Europe – enough to house all of the EU’s homeless population twice over. In connection with this, as of 2018, bearing in mind that more than 70% of Europe’s population lives in urban areas, is it fair to ask whom the cities and houses are for and what purpose they serve?

As mentioned in my previous response, we should not lose sight of the fact that the lack of adequate and affordable rental housing (the housing tenure in which the majority of the urban poor reside) is not new to capitalism. But instead, as I describe in the book, an integral feature is the dynamics of accumulation, as it generates both surplus wealth and surplus workers. I think this is important to keep in mind, so not to place too much emphasis, as financialization of housing does, on the role of financial actors (e.g., landlords and creditors) at the expense of the rest of the activities involved in capital accumulation as a whole. 

For instance, Ireland – whose capital Dublin is a key case study in the book – has continually registered some of the highest growth rates in the European Union since the 2007-2008 financial crisis. At the same time, the city has some of the most expensive rental housing in the region alongside rising rates of first-time homeless families. What underpins this phenomenon is not just found in the realm of exchange (high rental rates) but instead in the configuration of accumulation in Ireland marked by credit-led accumulation, a tax haven offering a corporate tax rate of 12.5 percent that has attracted finance companies and ICT such as Google, PayPal, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Amazon, Facebook – all of whom are headquartered in Dublin. Workers inhabiting the Irish capital fall into high-skill, high-wage and low-skill, low-wage service sector employees toiling in retail, hospitality, cleaning, caregiving and transportation areas. In short, contemporary credit-led capitalism has both generated surplus workers and requires these expendable workers for its continued expansion. Of course, this is not without contradictions, one of which is the fact that the low-wage, low-skilled workers (or, whom I refer to as surplus populations) are both expendable and essential. The current COVID-19 pandemic has thrown critical light on the importance of these frontline workers in keeping cities going by cleaning offices, hospitals, homes, or stocking grocery shelves, delivering our parcels, and making our coffees. The other tension is embodied in the rental housing in which the vast majority of the surplus populations live. These rental units have become, as I noted above, places of survival and sites of accumulation (rent maximization and extraction of interest via debt). 

The monetized modes of neoliberal governance that I elaborate on in the book serve to erase the root causes of poverty as well as the disappearing of the displaced by warehousing the homeless in hotels and refusing to collect official statistics on homeless populations and evictions, as is the case in Berlin. 

In short, the city, as part of global capitalism, always reflects the underlying class-based powers and paradoxes of the social dynamics of capital accumulation. The growing number of working poor and their daily lives characterized by ‘displaced survival’, alongside the rise of spectacular wealth is a reflection of these material conditions as well as the statal institutions and monetized modes of governance that continue to legitimate and facilitate credit-led accumulation based on speculation, low-wage labour power, and debt, among other things.

In your book you elaborate on various scales of monetised governance, going from the general tendencies and contradictions of global capitalism to the specificities of your three case studies – and back. Monetary governance appears to primarily take a top-down form from the central state or the regional state (the European Union), narrowing down the choices of local authorities in dealing with multifaceted systemic crises. You have raised new developments of resistance against this pressure at the national (Ireland) as well as the grassroots level (Berlin). In your view, which scale seems to provide the most promising avenue to challenge the rule of financial capital?

Before I respond this this question, I would like to reiterate from my earlier point, I do not adhere to explanations based on capital fractions (as is often found alongside typical definitions of financialization); but rather study power, politics, and paradoxes in the wider context of capital-in-general (including both spheres of exchange and production). Simply because credit-led accumulation is linked to money and credit, this does not translate into the dominance of one type of capitalist over another. This is not just an analytical issue (i.e., attempts at avoiding functionalism and overpoliticization of our understandings of capitalist states), but a political one. Struggles cannot be aimed at just one fraction of capitalist (financialized landlords), but rather the wider capitalist power and state powers that have created such realities. Now, I can answer the question.

While struggles can best be organized at the local scale (cities), they need to have global reach. While housing has been devolved to lower levels of government, laws (tenant and landlord acts) remain national. The German federal government’s overturn of Berlin’s rental cap is a case in point. Struggles also need to go beyond the local by connecting urban displacements to the monetized modes of governance implemented by elected national government officials at the European level. The eurozone and the European Central Bank (undemocratically governed under the veil of political/class neutrality), have been at the heart of many types of restructurings across the EU in the name of competitiveness, exerting downward pressure on wages and threatening worker protections.  Corporate and wealth taxation and the democratic redistribution of social surplus, as Harvey has long argued, lies at the heart of the right to the city. Yet, these areas of contestation lie beyond city limits. Think local, act global – with the caveat that struggles need to also be informed by root causes of, in our case, displaced survival, including its key perpetrators and underlying power structures.

Whilst such fiscal boosts may provide workers with a few more dollars to purchase commodities, and thus buoy up credit-led accumulation, these strategies neither address the underlying causes of the pandemic nor the uneven nature of its impact, across gendered, racialized and class lines across geographies of capitalism. 

The pandemic has made two things clear. Firstly, capitalism’s drive for profit over need leads to recurring crises for humanity and nature. Secondly, that the motto ‘we are all in the same boat’ is a myth. So, given the ongoing crisis of global capitalism, what are the prospects of resistance against the neoliberal order turning into constructive rebellion? 

I agree that the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the violence perpetrated by those wielding material and political power in capitalism against nature and humanity. The discontent linked to crisis – as with many of capitalist crises – has helped to challenge the production what Gramsci once referred to as the myth of ‘one (middle) class and one society (usually a nation).’ Instead, the pandemic has revealed existing hierarchies based on race, gender and class within not only countries but also cities. 

Yet, at the same time, states have discursively and materially sought to depoliticize the pandemic through technical fixes (vaccines) and economistic framings. The latter has, for instance, served to turn our gaze to the pandemic’s impact on growth. Obsessions of growth forecasts and the importance of such growth on our lives occludes many aspects of the pandemic, including past neoliberal policies that have hollowed out healthcare systems, stripped wage earners of any form of meaningful protection (sick pay), and destroyed our environment (soil nutrients, wildlife habitat, and so on). Of course, at the same time we are seeing some (welcome) progressive policy changes, especially in the so-called neoliberal heartlands of the United States regarding increased corporate taxation rates to help finance trillions of dollars aimed at economic recovery and much-needed spending on infrastructure, as is the case with President Biden’s 2021 proposed Infrastructure Plan. Assuming such Plans are fully implemented, there are at least two points to consider. First, such spending will not reach the same levels of social surplus distribution as the golden era of the Keynesian welfare state, when labour was more organized and thus more powerful to bargain for a bigger slice of the (social surplus) pie. Second, whilst such fiscal boosts may provide workers with a few more dollars to purchase commodities, and thus buoy up credit-led accumulation, these strategies neither address the underlying causes of the pandemic nor the uneven nature of its impact, across gendered, racialized and class lines across geographies of capitalism. 

Rejecting neoliberal state strategies of individualization (which includes debtfarism and displaced survival) is aimed at crushing solidarity among wage earners. Despite their fragmentation, often among racialized lines, workers are unified in that they need to earn money by selling their labour power to capitalists, such as: informal workers, refugees, students, factory workers, those engaged in work in digital platforms, the long-term unemployed, and so forth.  That being the case, political struggles should strive to demystify the appearances of the claims of a fair, free and voluntary nature of capitalism. This is a necessary, but not sufficient, step in effectively challenging a dominant mode of commodity production and exchange based on private property and exploitative relations therein. 

Cultivating this hope in a strategic way is a large part of the struggle and ingredient of success in today’s world. As such, I remain a strong believer in the prospect that resistance against the neoliberal order, and the powerful state and capitalist interests therein, can achieve change. Protests and rebellions are as varied as the expressions of oppression and exploitation in capitalism. You are right to mention in your question the strong and vital link between humanity and nature. We cannot separate these two in our struggles as we move forward. Viewing capitalism holistically (and not in the fetishized realm of exchange – and money! – where most accounts of financialization begin and end) is a productive start. From this view, powerful and much-needed solidarity can be forged between various segments of workers, who have been fragmented and hierarchicalized by capitalist and state strategies, across various spaces of capitalism. We also need to empower people with not only alternative forms of knowledge, but also provide them with knowledge about how the system, in its fetishized appearance, works and for whom. 

Too many – including university students – are fearful of economics. I don’t think they were born afraid of economics. Most people, however, feel inadequate to grasp the very basics of an interest rate, the role of the Central Banks, how pensions work, the basic anatomy of corporations, the World Trade Organization, and so forth. I firmly believe that the more people understand the simplistic assumptions of the dismal science (e.g., supply and demand, market actors as rational, innovative and efficient than governments, and so forth), they will be less fearful of the concrete abstractions that shape their everyday lives and begin to question the largely unquestioned assumptions of the seemingly neutral expert knowledge that rules our lives.

Finally, to have a fighting chance in discrediting neoliberalism, we need coalitions against the exploitation of humanity and nature. The vast and varied groups and organizations linked to struggles under ‘climate emergency’ is an important and productive focal point for a rebellion against neoliberalism and its capitalist underpinnings. 

Who is Susanne Soederberg?

As a professor at the Departments of Global Development Studies and Political Studies, Queen’s University, Canada, Soederberg is particularly noted for her scholarship on the dynamics underpinning the indebtedness of the working poor as a profiteering activity, and neoliberal monetary governance strategies. Her latest book Urban Displacements was recently published by Routledge.

Works Cited in the Interview

Aalbers (2016) The Financialization of Housing: A Political Economy Approach. London: Routledge.

Engels (1872) The Housing Question. Available at:

Harvey (1999) Limits to Capital. London: Verso.

Harvey (1989) Urban Experience. Baltimore, MY: Johns Hopkins University.

Marx (1990) Capital. Volume 1. London: Penguin.

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Special series on Neoliberalism

-A Foreword to the Series
-Neoliberalism and the State: Interview with Pınar Bedirhanoğlu [Kübra Altaytaş & Ozan Siso]
-Neoliberalism and Imperialism: Interview with Intan Suwandi [Candaş Ayan & Ulaş Taştekin]
-Neoliberalism and Authoritarianism: Interview with Galip Yalman [Kübra Altaytaş & Ozan Siso]
-Neoliberalism and Welfare: Interview with Susanne Soederberg [Onur Acaroğlu & Gizem Sema]