Reconsidering Our Lenses of Neoliberalism and Democracy

Reconsidering Our Lenses of Neoliberalism and Democracy

Recent studies on the spatial inequalities in the urban sphere in Turkey underscore increasing social injustice arising from urban regeneration projects and strives for participation of local people in the decision-making process of these projects. However, in comparison to extensive and comprehensive power of this new urbanism, ability to resist it looks hardly possible, if not unrealizable. I argue that the reason behind such unattainable struggle for justice is these studies’ framing of neoliberalism, which constitutes the basis of them and their way of criticizing urban projects through democracy, as an ideology and a policy program. I argue that creative and destructive impacts of urban regeneration projects have much more to say about structural changes in the institutions and the roles of the state, as well as in the sovereignty of the people on the local level rather than national.


Spatial inequalities in the urban areas have become salient and one of the main topics discussed in the public sphere in Turkey thanks to field studies conducted in districts which underwent urban regeneration projects such as Tarlabaşı, Sulukule, and Süleymaniye[1][2][3], and documentaries about them (e.g. Ekümenopolis, Agoraphobia).

As influenced by David Harvey’s idea of neoliberal urban which has become a site of generating inequalities,[4] and constitutes political economist stance/opposition,[5] studies on urban regeneration projects in Turkey criticize these projects due to undemocratic and top-down decision making which excludes interests and opinions of the dwellers on the project,[6]environmental hazards, and priority of the project financiers’ interests over the displaced people’s interests.[7]In order to halt this unjust ongoing process and bring social justice out, involvement of people at the local level is prescribed[8]; however, in comparison to extensive and comprehensive power of this new urbanism, ability to challenge it and prioritize the interests of the poor looks hardly possible, if not unrealizable, within this framework. In this article I argue that these studies’ framing of neoliberalism and criticism of this urbanism through the lens of democracy leads to a paradox between pervasive and overarching power of neoliberalism and  only way to challenge this power through resistance against it from small circles of people living in areas underwent urban regeneration. I believe that resolving this paradox, which I attempt to do, will be more helpful for us to understand spatial inequality together with urban transformation rather than exemplifying another spatial inequality in the urban.

“Omnipresent”and “Omnipotent” Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism has recently gone under the knife, if not hammer, due to its weakness as an analytical concept,“omnipresence” and “omnipotence”[9] which compels us to reconsider it. In the studies which  focus on the urban regeneration projects, neoliberalism is defined as a distinct and bounded politico-economic policy which has its particular aims and directions and those are “to extend market discipline, competition, and commodification throughout all sectors of the society”[10]. Also, under the influence of post-structuralist perspective neoliberalism is considered an ideology of the government and this view reflects itself in Turkey through analysis of the AKP government’s discourse in urban regeneration projects. For instance, the AKP calls this process of urbanism as “project” which allows flexibility crucial for investors and overemphasizes security and cleanness of the society which is directed against people living in slums.[11]

In these studies, history starts with 1970s, which is defined as the beginning of neoliberalism in the world in the hands of Reagan and Thatcher governments which crushed the unions and welfare policies[12]. Unfortunately, these last four decades are delinked from long history of capitalism, and this  limits our vision of history and presents financialization as if it is something unique to our times. However, as Arrighi has argued, financialization symbolizes downturn of hegemonies since they cannot achive accumulation of capital through production and tries to sustain their wealth through finance.[13] The US hegemony, which started after the Second World War, has undergone such a crisis since 1970s and thus propagated financialization.[14]

Arrighi’s view of history is based on Braudelian idea of longue durée, which is composed of hundreds of years and explains more permanent structures[15], and Arrighi’s understanding of the world history is constituted by hegemonic cycles.[16] Even though such perception of the history is too farfetched for you, and it is apparently more successful in contextualizing current socioeconomic developments, there is no doubt that what neoliberalism is emerged out of economic crisis in 1970s and this chain of crisis is followed by others in 1990s (1994 crisis in Turkey) and in the 2000s (2001 crisis in Turkey and the financial crisis in 2008 although it did not have severe impacts in Turkey as it did in the US and Europe)[17][18][19] Thus, neoliberalism is a way to get out of these crises and it is no surprise that it has profit maximization goals in the essence, but it is not constituted by distinct or compiled policy programs.[20] Instead, it is made up of “trial and error experimentation” and involves both creative and destructive elements at the same time[21].

It is an irrefutable fact that urban has become the site of this entrepreneurialism and thus the site of new sufferings. However, this process creates new forms of relationships which transform role of politicians and state which are crucial for us to understand this new urbanism. TOKI (Mass Housing Authority) has come under direct rule and control of prime minister and this act is assessed as a sign of authoritarianism.[22][23] Althoug the notion of democracy is generally and easily becomes a tool of criticism, this amendment shows how institutionalization of and divison of labor within bureaucracy is violated and how one of the founding features of the nation state, rules of bureaucracy, is dismantled.

Idealized Majority of the People

In addition to this transformation in the institutions and principles of the state which resulted from new urban projects, there are noticeable implications of people’s participation at the local level, which is prescribed in order to resist eager coalition of politicians and businessmen.

Since these urban projects are criticized due to social injustice it led to and top-down management of projects, local people’s participation are presented as the only alternative force.[24] More redistributive and welfarist demands are expected from these people; however, such program is likely to threaten their interests due to uncertainty of the results of such programs,[25] and there is an assumed consensus on what social justice entails.[26]

On the other hand, what such participation implies is more important than unlikelihood of its occurrence. During the Gezi Movement, a referendum in urban districts that are undergoing urban regeneration projects is demanded, even then former prime minister Erdogan stated that such a referendum might take place[27], but he did not clearly state that this would be at the local or national level. Although we are inclined to applaud such a self-decision of the urban districts because in the back of our minds- probably under the influence of Kant’s ideas on the pureness of autonomy- self-government refers to more freedom and equality; it is better to take a breath and reconsider what urban dwellers’ decision on their districts might result in. Clearly, such a referendum in an urban district rather than at national-level means sovereignty of the urban people and this type of sovereignty clahes with the sovereignty of the nation as an imagined whole which is crucial for a nation state to be established and sustained.[28]

All in all, creative and destructive impacts of urban regeneration projects have much more to say about structural changes in the institutions and the roles of the state. However, current view of neoliberalism as a political and economic policy program and our inclination to criticize political and social developments through the norm of democracy prevents us to see these structural changes and thus leads us to misevaluate developments in the urban sphere and the issue of justice.


Rumeysanur Erikli


[1] Ülke Evrim Uysal, “An Urban Social Movement Challenging Urban Regeneration: The Case of Sulukule, Istanbul,” Cities Vol.29, Issue 1, Feb. 2012, 12-22.

[2] Nur Bahar Sakızlıoglu, “Impacts of Urban Renewal Policies: The Case of Tarlabası-Istanbul” Master’s Thesis, Middle East Technical University, 2007.

[3] Iclal Dincer, “The Dilemma of Cultural Heritage- Urban Renewal: Istanbul, Süleymanite and Fener-Balat”, 14th International Planning History Society Conference.

[4] David Harvey, Social Justice and the City. (Georgia: the University of Georgia Press, 2009).

[5] Susan Fainstein, “Justice, Politics and the Creation of Urban Space”. In The Urbanization of Injustice, ed.  Andy Merrifield and Erik Swyngedouw (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1996), 18-44.

[6] Yeseren Elicin, “Neoliberal transformation of the Turkish city through the Urban Transformation Act,”. Habitat International 41 (2014), 150-155.

[7] Marc Pierini, “Urban Transformation in Turkey”, carnegieeurope. Eu, last accessed October 3, 2015 and last modified June 20, 2013.

[8]  Elicin, 151.

[9] John Clarke, “Living with/in and without Neo-liberalism,” Focaal-European Journal of Anthropology. 51 (2008), 135.

[10] Ayfer Bartu Candan and Biray Kolluoğlu,“Emerging Spaces of Neoliberalism: A Gated Town and A Public Housing Project in Istanbul,” New Perspectives on Turkey, no. 39: (2008), 9.

[11] Candan and Kolluoğlu, 17.

[12] David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, (Oxford:Oxford University Press, 2005), 9.

[13] Giovanni Arrighi, Uzun Yirminci Yüzyıl: Para, Güç ve Çağımzın Kökenleri. (Ankara: İmge Kitabevi, 2000), 18-22.

[14] Arrighi, 1-11.

[15] Fernand Braudel, “The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II,” (New York: Harper Colophon Books,1966).

[16] Arrighi,

[17]  İsmet Göçer, “2008 Küresel Ekonomik Krizinin Nedenleri ve Seçilmiş Ülke Ekonomilerine Etkileri: Ekonometrik Bir Analiz,” Yönetim ve Ekonomi Araştırmaları Dergisi 17 (2012), 18- 37.

[18] Harvey, (2005), 158.

[19] Jamie Peck, Nik Theodore and Neil Brenner, “Neoliberal Urbanism: Models, Moments, Mutations,” SAIS Review vol. XXIX no. 1 Winter-Spring (2009), 3

[20] Jamie Peck, Nik Theodore and Neil Brenner, 50-52.

[21] Jamie Peck, Nik Theodore and Neil Brenner, 52.

[22] Elicin, 150.

[23] Serap Kayasu and Emine Yetişkul, “Evolvign Legal and Institutional Frameworks of Neoliberal Urban Policies In Turkey,” METU JFA 31:2 (2014), 210.

[24] Elicin, 150.

[25] Fainstein, 30.

[26] Andy Merrifield and Erik Swyngedouw(eds), The Urbanization of Injustice (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1996), 1-18.

[27] Ümit Çetin and Selçuk Şenyüz, “Gezi Parkı için Referandum,”,  last modified  Jun. 13, 2013.

[28] Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, (New York: Cornell University Press), 1-5.


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