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Some Reflections on the Limitations to Public Participation in the Post-Political City

Quelques réflexions à propos des limitations de la participation citoyenne dans la ville post-politique
Ronan Paddison


Les pratiques néolibérales sont la nouvelle orthodoxie en matière de gestion urbaine par les autorités municipales (« gouvernance urbaine »). Elles imposent des limites à la participation citoyenne et à des formes plus démocratiques d’engagement dans la ville, en particulier lorsque ces dernières remettent en question les discours officiels selon lesquels les villes s’efforcent d’être des espaces compétitifs dans l’économie mondialisée. Cet article présente une approche théorique de ces limites suivant deux propositions connexes. La première postule l’adoption d’une configuration post-politique par la gouvernance urbaine. La deuxième, reflétant en cela une telle configuration, avance que « l’esprit d’entreprise en milieu urbain » se définit désormais par un nouveau genre de politique, le « néo-populisme urbain ». Contre l’impératif consistant à créer la ville compétitive, le néo-populisme se définit par l’élaboration d’une politique du consensus, dont l’effet est de marginaliser les contestations et les dissensions.

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Protest in the Park: Preliminary Thoughts on the Silencing of Democratic Protest in the Neoliberal Age

1On a crisp morning in March 2008, I took part in a demonstration against a proposal to install a novel recreational facility proposed for a major park in Glasgow. The brainchild of a commercial company, the ‘Go Ape’ facility takes participants high into the canopy of the trees and through a variety of experiences that – judging from the opinions of those who had used similar facilities elsewhere in Scotland – is fun. It is an experience which does not come cheap, about which more later. The issue of financial exclusion aside, for the protestors its installation in Pollok Park was intrusive; it was not only that screams of masochistic pleasure would permeate an otherwise peaceful area of the park, but that it would be invasive of one of the last remaining areas of forest within a park which had been progressively eroded through earlier planning developments. This, combined with the fact that Pollok Park is a major green lung which, at its northern tip brings a relatively wild space within less than three miles of the city centre, meant that it was perhaps inevitable that the proposal would attract opposition.

2The demonstration was fixed by its timing to coincide with the site visit to the park arranged for the councilors on the City’s Planning Committee by the Council’s planners, the purpose of which was to acquaint the decision-makers with the nature of the development and its environmental setting. The demonstrators, of which there were about 30, were uninvited – and as it turned out unwelcome- hangers on. We were a motley crew: from unemployed factory worker to university professor, to mothers with pushchairs, the elderly as well as the young; some were local activists that council officials would describe pejoratively as the ‘usual suspects’, recidivist participants in local politics, while others had little history of political involvement and would consider themselves apolitical. The common denominator was that all of us were concerned with what appeared to (yet another) proposal that privatized public space and had, to varying degrees, been involved in earlier protests against Go Ape.

3Yet, that we were only there by sufferance, as far as the councilors were concerned, became readily apparent – we had certainly not been ‘greeted’, acknowledged in the sense that Young (2000) gives as key to any deliberative process of engagement. At the periodic stops in the visit at which the planner would explain what development was envisaged the invitation to pose questions was only extended to those on the council. My own attempt to ask a question went unheeded – it was ruled ‘out of order’ – as were those of others. The sole exception to our being treated as non-persons was the single councilor from the opposition. He at least could pose questions that mirrored our concerns. Yet, as the only Conservative councilor on the city council – the Council is effectively a ‘one party city’ led by Labour, the ruling party for all but eighteen months since 1950 – he cut a lonely figure, separate from his otherwise co-equals on the committee who were, literally and metaphorically, in the vanguard of the proceedings.

4Reflecting on the events of that morning, I have come to a fuller understanding of them. From the outset as outsiders it was inevitable that our presence would reflect the unequal power relations between elected representatives, their officials and ordinary citizens, reflecting in turn the tensions between representative and participatory modes of democratic engagement (Gaudin, 2007). Further, as Bachrach and Baratz (1963) were to amply demonstrate, those who control the agenda, and by implication what is not on the agenda and thus the realm of non decision-making, wield considerable power. Yet, if we were relatively powerless in being ‘outside’ the formal rule book, what is equally true is that performance itself can influence how political agendas unfold. Our performance, even if muted by the formal procedures, could politicize the issue where the council had sought to project the proposal as common sense (Featherstone, forthcoming), as beyond reasonable question and thus beyond debate.

5In this paper it is argued that the events that morning, together with the other meetings and demonstrations that took place to oppose the Go Ape proposal need to be understood against the wider politics of the city which in Glasgow, as in many other cities (Beauregard, 1994), have come to be dominated by the practices of entrepreneurial governance David Harvey (1989) discussed some two decades ago. In particular, and following the lead of Mouffe (1992, 2000, 2005) and others the paper explores whether the politics of the city in late modernity has become in fact a postpolitical configuration – that is, where the projection of the future desired city is expressed through consensus. Clearly, the protest against the Go Ape proposal as the performance of resistance is itself an oxymoron to the post-political thesis. Further, as an historical glance over the last few decades would show the Go Ape protest was just one of a myriad of oppositions that have bubbled up in Glasgow, just as they do in any city, to challenge how the city is to be reconstructed and more generally the policy orthodoxy. While, then, this paper is framed around the experience of a particular event, it would be possible to demonstrate broadly similar processes and outcomes from recent local protest elsewhere in the city. But if the politics of the city has become post-political, why, and what strategies have been adopted by ruling elites to ensure that government is projected through consensus? Here the paper suggests that in adopting neoliberal policies a new style of neopopulist governance is emergent which fosters a range of strategies – what are termed here ‘the techniques of consensual persuasion’ –that are designed to build consensus, and whose enactment outlaws protest precisely because of its threat to consensus.

6Within the limits of an article this paper is more exploratory and suggestive than it claims to be definitive. Both the concepts of the post-political and neopopulism are contested, particularly where populism is being linked to what is in many ways its ideological nemesis, (neo)liberalism. Further, the argument needs empiricising more fully, particularly where contingency is acknowledged as key to identifying how the practice of urban governance unfolds. The paper offers some empirical suggestions (which themselves need more rigorous scrutiny) drawing on the example of Glasgow and more specifically the story of the Go Ape protest. The paper is divided into two main sections, the first of which is argued through two propositions exploring urban governance, the emergent post-political configuration, and the development of urban neopopulism as a strategy of governance. In the following section we return to the Go Ape protest using it as a vehicle to explore its location within the wider play of political processes in the city. Given the exploratory nature of the paper and that it is set against the practices of local participatory democracy, the protest in the park, in the final section we conclude with questions for further research, theoretical and empirical, linked to the radical pursuit of the democratic city.

1. Emergent Styles of Urban Governance: Two Propositions

Proposition 1: Urban Entrepreneurialism as a Post-Political Configuration

7It is two decades since David Harvey (1989) published his seminal article on the shift towards urban entrepreneurialism as the emergent orthodoxy underpinning how cities were becoming governed in an increasingly globalised and competitive world. Hitherto, urban government had been an essentially managerial task defined around the processes of planning and managing the city, providing infrastructural, social and cultural services essential to its maintenance, resolving problems of resource allocation, and arbitrating on issues such as planning conflicts. Globalisation and the rise of competitive urbanism was accompanied by the new orthodoxy of neoliberal governance defined by the shift from government to governance and a raft of policy initiatives aimed at reviving local economies including privatization, deregulation and liberalization. For Harvey, urban entrepreneurialism – expressed through the reproduction across cities of enterprise zones, the advent of place marketing and the competition to hold cultural and sport spectacles, the privatization of public services, the construction of waterfront development – was ‘embedded in the logic of capitalist spatial development in which competition seems to operate…as an external coercive force’ (Harvey, 1989, p. 12). His arguments were persuasive and, from the experience of the subsequent decades, prophetic: urban governance became disciplined into an assumption that abstaining from competitive urbanism was neither an economic nor a political option.

8Several decades of urban neoliberal governance have amassed a barrage of evidence demonstrating that its practice is socially divisive and that it has resulted in increasingly polarized and divided cities. The interpretation of urban change is not of course uncontested – the debate surrounding the changing class structure of world cities and whether this is reflected in evidence of increasing polarization, for example, (Sassen, 2001; Hamnett, 2003) or the benefits resulting from the use of culture to regenerate the city, for another (Paddison and Miles, 2007) – but precisely because of how neoliberal practices become rolled out their impacts harbour differential benefits which become the subject of contestation.

9Contestation is the stuff of city politics. Where, as Gunder and Hillier (2009) succinctly express it, ‘cities are places of contested desire’ (p. 1), it could hardly be otherwise. The visions of what we have of how our cities should be, how they should accommodate the diversity of political demands, be planned, what should be the boundary between the public and the private – all define the nature of city living for its citizens, and are inevitably the subject of contestation. Nor should it be imagined that under neoliberal governance that conflict is new; earlier rounds of modernization had been characterised by a myriad of conflicts surrounding how the city should be (re)constructed, who should decide issues of collective concern and through what political means should collective decisions be made. For some observers the problems of urban government rendered the city as ‘ungovernable’ (Yates, 1978). Self-evidently, the historical experience of urban politics is that its outcomes often have zero-sum consequences, advantageous to some groups but disadvantageous to others. Such outcomes serially, and often cumulatively, reproduce social privilege and marginalization, magnifying the conflicts around which contestation becomes played out.

10Historically, the politics of the city became played out around questions of distribution and redistribution; the dominant political cleavage was represented by the division between Right and Left. Thus, the arrival of socialist parties saw the initiation of redistributive policies which sought (for example) to ameliorate housing conditions for the working class. In post-World War II Britain much more extensive programmes of social housing construction, accompanied by other social welfare reforms, became part of the Fordist deal. Local government, particularly the major city councils, became deeply implicated in the delivery of the local welfare state; it was ‘big government’ operating at the local scale in which city governments were the key institutions through which urban politics was conducted. If during its heyday the Fordist consensus was broadly subscribed to by the Right as well as Leftist parties, this did not mean that urban politics did not become split along partisan lines reflective of socio-economic class. Nor is it meant to imply that redistributive measures were not the outcome of class struggle but that it was through City Hall that such changes were possible.

11The Fordist crisis of the early 1970s were to mark the beginning of a new phase of local politics. Under the postmodern turn there were seismic shifts in the nature of the (local) state accompanied by the unraveling of the state-society relationships centred around state welfarism and the redefinition of the relationships between state, market and society. It is these shifts which for Harvey became associated with the emergence of urban entrepreneurialism as the state sought to redefine its position in relation to a new round of capitalist development. These changes were accompanied by others, the effect of which was to dramatically reshape the relationships between state and society at the local level. The shift from government to governance changed the structure of how cities were governed; if urban governments continued to be major actors the shift to governance, the development of partnership working, the quangoisation1 of local economic development and other innovations, meant that the governing of cities was now shared between a complex array of institutions, many of which lay outside the conventional play of local democracy represented by liberal democratic institutions. Other shifts were to mark out the changed world of British urban politics in the last decades of the twentieth century, in particular the blurring of the Left/Right politics and voting alignments of earlier decades and the rise of identity and issue-based politics and its crowding out of class as the prime cleavage around which (city) politics focused.

12These shifts summarise some of the changes associated with the political turn initiated by the end of Fordism. Most have been the subject of considerable debate which a listing is unable to do justice. The point to be emphasized is the fundamentally different world in which emergent neo-liberal governance was to be defined and operate within from its Fordist counterpart. Certain principles of government were to remain: for one, the continued centrality of the principle of (local) representative democracy as a key means through which the governance of the city was to be conducted. In what many contemporary observers argued as a progressive assault on local democratic institutions initiated during the Thatcher years culminating in the abolition of the major metropolitan councils in England, including London, even such reforms were not able to supplant the place of urban government nor the democratic ideals sought by it. Further, towards the end of the 1980s and during the Thatcher’s third term, the play of class politics became performed spectacularly through the poll tax story2. Yet, both the reform of local government structure and of the system of local taxation were part of the wider unfolding canvas of neo-liberal reforms affecting how cities were governed and the changing relationships between state, market and civil society.

13It is against this background, particularly since the election of New Labour in 1997, that the post-political configuration is to be understood. Post-politics is not meant to be understood in endist terms, as the end of politics. Indeed, post-political theorists, such as Chantal Moufe, would argue that politics – as the construction of the political communities in which we wish to live – is always in construction and contested. Rather, post-politics refers to the emergence of consensus politics which for New Labour had its conceptual foundations in Third Way resolutions (Giddens, 1998; see also Callinacos, 2001).

14In a recent paper Erik Swyngedouw (2007) has sought to outline the contours of the post-political configuration. Following Zizek, Mouffe and others post-politics3 is defined as ‘a political formation that actually forecloses the political, that prevents the politicization of particulars’ (p. 23). In the post-political what is discussed on the political agenda is pre-ordained on the basis of fundamental axioms – of power relationships, how the economy should be organized – being unquestioned and unquestionable. Thus, the status of representative (Parliamentary or local) democracy as the principle around which the processes of government should be organized or the inevitability of neo-liberalism become unquestioned in the post-political formation, conforming to what Bourdieu (2000) refers to as ‘the common-sense of the day’, the doxa, the contemporary unquestionable orthodoxy. Establishing what is ‘common-sense’ requires agreement and it is precisely for this reason that consensus politics becomes central to the play of the post-political formation.

15If consensus plays a key role in the post-political formation it is the engineering of it that inevitably becomes of importance. It is at this juncture that the arguments of the two propositions here elide into one another; that it is through the employment of techniques of neo-populism that the virtues of consensualism become socially and politically cemented, as will be argued below. At the outset, though, Swyngedouw’s account emphasizes the style of politics that characterizes post-politics, the hollowing out of the political dimension. To Zizek “The ultimate sign of post-politics in all Western countries is the growth of a managerial approach to government; government is reconceived as a management function deprived of its proper political dimension” (Zizek, 2002, 303, quoted in Swyngedouw, 2007). What this implies is that political debate becomes curtailed as to how collective decisions over specific policy concerns are to be made, rather than whether more fundamentally those concerns should be on the agenda in the first place. Thus, the premises on which decision-making is made become excluded, yet is precisely in their debate that negotiation might be transformative. The centring of managerial politics, then, accompanies the marginalization of real politics.

16At this juncture it is useful to rehearse the extent to which urban neo-liberal economic governance has become orthodoxy. Most analysts are in little doubt of its progressive universalism. In a thoughtful paper the American urbanist Robert Beauregard (1993) outlined the rules that defined local economic development as it had developed to date in the practices of local governments and not-for-profit organizations in the United States. Predictably, the attraction of inwards investment was the prime objective repeated across the organizations as the most overt measure that the locality was at least retaining, if not enhancing, its competitive position. Of secondary importance was the question of the quality of the jobs that were created, their pay status, their likely durability, so that the consequences of what forms of investment were being attracted, its longer term trajectory, and its equity implications were effectively marginalized as being the direct concern of local economic development. Place marketing was considered a vital tool particularly in that it could be used as the means of narativising investor success, besides which it gave markers to what were successful strategies that might be used to influence future local economic development policy.

17It would be invidious to suggest that what Beauregard itemized as the key tenets of local economic development policy nearly two decades ago in the United States is simply repeated in experience nearly two decades later, whether in America or elsewhere. Mirroring an earlier argument as to how competitive urbanism is a disciplining force, it is not just that economic revitalization has replaced earlier key policies of city governments that were more closely defined, at least in much of Western Europe, to the delivery of the local welfare state, but that policy innovation to improve the city’s competitive position has gained its own premium. Successive new policy tropes have become defined around local economic development – the rise of the knowledge economy, the adoption of clusters theory, and most recently the increasing use of culture as the means by which to foster economic growth – and through emulation rapidly been incorporated as part of the ‘new conventional wisdom’ (Buck et al, 2005). How these policy innovations become adopted will in practice vary, not least because of the different position cities occupy in the competitive ladder. Yet, fundamentally how these policies fare in practice remains interpreted in similar terms to the primary aim identified by Beauregard, the attraction of inwards investment, a reality which has particular veracity for those cities where (re)establishing competitive position poses particular challenges. Amongst these, the generic (if somewhat elastic) category of ‘old industrial cities’, are prime examples.

18Of Glasgow considerable evidence can be marshaled to argue that it is not only that economic regeneration of the city has become the key policy objective of the political elite, but that how the policy should be pursued has become deeply impregnated by neo-liberal practices. For the central tenet of the post-political thesis what is critical here is that this evidence points to how policy orthodoxy exists beyond political debate. Added to this is that it is through the city council, in its capacity as the lead actor amongst the network of partnerships, that economic development policies are delivered. In fact, recent changes by the Scottish Government to the role of Scottish Enterprise, the main quango charged with an economic development role, have further enhanced the role of local government. In other words, in spite of the assumption that the shift to governance involves the downplaying of the status of (local) government partly in favour of other institutions, recent experience in Scotland suggests that the status of the local democratic institutions based on the principle of representative democracy has been strengthened. Consequently, its ability to claim legitimacy through the electoral system, combined with the powers it has to address economic regeneration of the city and the pre-eminence given to the task, gives it the capacity to crowd out the feasibility of debate on the city’s development and the means, democratic participatory practice, through which it might be expressed. Limiting the boundaries to what is – and what is not ­– the subject of debate, one means by which consensus politics becomes defined, is simultaneously antithetical to the democratic polity; it is what Ranciere and others have defined as postdemocracy (Ranciere, 1995; Crouch, 2004).

19It is not pretended here that the postpolitical thesis is unproblematic. In particular, it undervalues the role of human agency and of resistance in being able to challenge consensus politics. Its claim, then, to outlaw ‘real politics’ is not borne out by empirical reality; all cities have histories of local insurgency seeking to challenge orthodoxy. Clearly, too, its explanatory power calls out for much deeper empirical scrutiny than is possible here. Yet, the value of the thesis is in its ability to provide clues as to how ‘the protest in the park’ was marginalized by the representatives of the city council as beyond the boundaries of consensus politics. Its ability to do so is dependent on the second proposition underpinning emergent neo-liberal practices in the city.

Proposition 2: Urban Entrepreneurialism and Emergent Neo-Populism

20Future historians of British urban politics looking back at the period between the 1980s and the present day may express some surprise that the palpable inequalities following from several decades of neo-liberal governance did not result in more opposition on the streets. The poll tax riots apart, together with the Brixton and Liverpool riots in the 1980s and the so-called race riots in northern English towns in 2001, what is paradoxical is that street protest in Britain has become more associated with the universal (global) and distant (Iraq) problems than it has ones that are rooted in structural inequalities and the local. That in the first decade of the twentieth century Britain is a more unequal society is amply evidenced through statistics. Precisely by their nature, cities become the most visible site of inequalities, where in the finer graining of the post-modern city relative poverty exists in closer propinquity to relative affluence than was the case in the more segregated, coarsely-grained Victorian city, a reality that reflects the progressive gentrifying of the city.

21One possible line of explanation is to be sought in the changing relationships between state, market and civil society marked out by neo-liberal governance through the emergence of a new style of urban politics, neo-populism. The linking of populism to neo-liberal governance needs careful explanation; conventionally populism and liberalism would be considered as oxymoron to one another. As ideologies, then populism and liberalism tend to have opposite conceptions of the state (maximal vs. minimal), nationality (ethnic vs. civic), human agency (social determinism vs. free will) and other key dimensions characterizing state, market and society (Armony, 2001). Further, where political scientists tend to preface discussion of the concept by highlighting its ‘vagueness’ (Laclau, 2005), populism is a highly contested concept. Its most widely quoted examples – from Latin America, in particular – have arisen as political movements aimed at correcting injustices and invoking an appeal to ‘the people’ as in opposition to an ‘enemy’, the elite. Thus, populist movements aim to meet redistributive goals, one of the more obvious apparent contradictions it raises in being used alongside neo-liberalism. For Weyland the re-emergence of new forms of populism in Latin America – Menemism in Argentina and Fujimorism in Peru – is not accidental, nor is it contingent, but rather it has become employed as a political strategy to accommodate neo-liberal governance. The argument envisages two separate but interdependent spheres in which the political (neopopulist politics) exists parallel to the economic, the neo-liberal marketplace. Critically, the role of the state is to bolster not just the marketplace but also itself through a strategy which is designed to weaken democracy, in other words to constrain opposition to the neo-liberal project.

22Such arguments have not been uncontested including amongst analysts of Latin American politics (see, for example Vila, 2004). Clearly, too, it raises questions as to why electorates disaffected by neo-liberalism – lower income groups – are willing in effect to vote for it. Tellingly, this is the same question as was posed earlier in relation to British cities, the apparent acquiescence of those less advantaged by neo-liberalism who are simultaneously unwilling to challenge it politically, either through the ballot box or through direct action. At this point the neo-populist argument offers explanations through showing how neo-populism is being developed as a new style of politics.

23Swyngedouw (2007) has outlined the methods by which populism has emerged in a new guise as an integral part of the post-political formation. Fundamentally, the state – its component institutions, including city governments – is concerned with the advancement of the neo-liberal project and more specifically, for the city, of meeting the exigencies of competitive urbanism. How, then, does city government develop neo-populism as a political strategy? Key here is the use of discourse and the employment of language that seeks to persuade that its policies are the only and appropriate course of action. The threat is globalization whose confrontation is inescapable particularly as it affects everybody. This raises the possibility of talking of the city and its population in unitary terms, invoking the city and the people, and the need for a unified response to meet the challenges of globalization. By constructing the latter as the ‘enemy’, it lays the blame on a force that is external to the city and by implication diverts focus from the problems of marginalization, injustices or unequal power relations that define the inequalities of the city. Yet, neo-populist strategies do not just emphasise the unity of the people but are active in demonstrating that the people are part of the political process, hence the emphasis given to political participation. How, though, participation is performed – and what issues are debated – becomes constrained to the agenda needed to pursue economic objectives. What becomes critical is the language, the signifiers, through which developmental objectives become expressed; in Laclau’s (1996, 2005) terms the use of empty signifiers- constructs such as the ‘European city’, the ‘healthy city’, the ‘sustainable city’, terms that are ‘empty’ in the sense of having one particular meaning but which are capable of alternative interpretation – become a powerful means of projecting visions of the city. As empty signifiers, their apparent inclusiveness – directly reflecting their ambiguity – defies the legitimacy of their being challenged.

24As a political strategy it is rich in the suggestions that empirical analysis should include. Simultaneously, it raises questions as to how such a strategy might be persuasive. Limiting the discussion here to the question of participation, the starting point of this paper, it is a question of how participatory practices are drawn into urban government/governance.

25A hallmark of New Labour’s urban policies, and one which has been universally remarked upon, has been the frequency with which ‘community’ and ‘community participation’ have been invoked as essential to the transformative process (Imrie and Raco, 2003). The development of Area Based Initiatives, normally operating at the neighbourhood or similarly local scale, were introduced, some to address specific needs, health, crime control, education, others with a broader remit, notably the comprehensive renewal, physical and social, of disadvantaged neighbourhoods. All co-opted community participation, albeit in different ways. Cities became criss-crossed by a complex mosaic of neighbourhood governance structures in which local participation was part of a partnership arrangement linked with state agencies.

26Most observers of the trend have been critical, particularly in the ways in which, while the projects emphasized partnership and collaborative working, the reality was that often local participation cane up against the buffers of unequal power relations (Barnes, Newman and Sullivan, 2007). For its critics, why and how participation was being emphasized through policy discourse frequently resorted to the notion of governmentality (Foucault, 1991) for explanation, in which ‘political forces seek to give effect to their strategies…..through utilizing and instrumentalising forces of authority other than the State in order to govern….’at a distance’’(Rose, 1996, 46). Governmentality becomes exercised through the technologies of power the state has at it disposal, in particular its technical expertise and the skills of the professionals employed by the (local) state including its planners who are able to organize how consultation takes place and offer expert advice, both particularly for their employer, the state. Rose’s post-structuralist analysis offers the connection between discourse and the ability to create governable subjects. Here, discourse is more than language but rather it denotes a way of acting and behaving. As Barnes et al (2007) argue, this opens up the possibility of exploring how discourse becomes the means of shaping behaviour and that specifically it becomes feasible to create ‘categories of public that are produced for the purposes of participation’. It is an argument that resonates with the power of discourse as it is used in populist politics (Laclau, 2005).

2. The Constraints on Public Participation; Returning to the Protest in the Park

27It is at this point we can return to the story of the ‘protest in the park’ and draw out some of the implications arising from the propositions that have been outlined. This is useful too in helping to contextualize the episode, drawing in the interplay of local political processes (in Glasgow) which also help explain why otherwise legitimate protest could be effectively marginalised. Again, the episode and the longer conflict of which it was part is a rich and complex story in which it is not possible here to present detailed empirical evidence or tease out the nuances of the power relationships that were to unfold. Rather, attention focuses on those parts of the neopopulist strategy – the use of discourse and of governmentality – that seek to be persuasive of the city’s overall developmental policy objectives and simultaneously to be able to marginalize political opposition to it.

28Fundamental to understanding why the city council enthusiastically supported the Go Ape woodland adventure facility is that it complemented the wider discourses within which the city is envisioned. Within the prime goal of economic regeneration, Glasgow has had to confront the physical, economic and social legacy of it having been one of Britain’s, and certainly Scotland’s, major industrial centre. The story of the city’s regeneration beginning with the marketing campaign ‘Glasgow’s Miles Better’ in the early 1980s is a familiar one, as was its proactive use of its winning of the designation ‘European City of Culture’ in 1990 to bolster its image (Paddison, 1993; Garcia, 2007). Culture, too, could be used as the means of diversifying economic base (Myerscough, 1991). From the economic nadir of the early 1980s - at which point the city’s unemployment rate was consistently above 10% and well above the Scottish and UK averages, and at which time the city was all but absent from the tourist map - inroads into its economic problems have been made. Thus, the unemployment rate has been more than halved, while the city’s marketing agency claims that Glasgow has become a major tourist destination within the ‘city break’ market. Yet, as mentioned earlier following Beauregard, the job creation says little about the quality of the jobs, and in spite of the physical transformation of parts of the city – the central area and the waterfront development, in particular – the city remains characterized by high levels of social deprivation4. Indeed, the assertive adoption of entrepreneurialism – the shift in the marketing of the city towards emphasizing retail consumption (‘Glasgow, Scotland with Style’) – has served to further polarize its social division, which some analysis have sought to articulate in revanchist terms (MacLeod, 2002), others in more exclusionary language (Hassan, Mean and Tims, 2007).

29It is an irony that the practice of neo-liberalism is a disciplining force, not just for labour and more widely in its social ramifications, but also it would appear for its advocates and practitioners. Competitive urbanism functions as a ratchet within which cities become locked into an increasingly competitive process of bidding for inwards investment. Nowhere is this more explicit than in the bidding to hold mega-events, including major sports and cultural events. Glasgow is a prime, but increasingly common, example whose record in the field within urban marketing circles is widely cited in paradigmatic terms (Miles, forthcoming). The city’s marketing agency is engaged in an ongoing process of bidding to host events, major conferences, tourist attractions of different types, in which precisely because other cities are engaged in it, questioning the premise on which it is based is not a political option. As an entrepreneurial project, such competitive bidding operates under a ratchet effect so that in both the diversity of activities as well as their number, the process has gathered increasing momentum. This, in turn means that it is a key, and increasingly important, item on the local political agenda. Questioning the strategy – as it was in the radical project (Hassan, Mean and Tims, 2007) spearheaded by Demos, a left of centre foundation – was not just not a political option, but, as a research project that was deliberately exclusionary, one from which the city council’s political elite sought to actively distance itself.

30In the discourses surrounding urban economic development a consistent trend has been that cities should be ‘attractive’. Whether expressed through urban Imagineering (Holcomb, 2001), ‘soft assets’ (Lever and Turok, 1999), the ‘quality of place’ (Florida, 2005) or through design (Montgomery, 2007), the essential lesson is that cities need to be ‘attractive places’ in which to live in order to be competitive. The Go Ape facility, and the council’s support of it, is part of the wider argument of constructing the attractive city. Judged by its financial benefits for the city, the leasing of the land on which it would be built, the case for support was far from obvious. (Added to this, the city was to give leasehold rights to Go Ape, a private company, for a relatively long period (21 years)). Rather, support was expressed in terms of the amenity it would offer to both citizens and visitors and the improvement to the range of facilities in the park. It was anticipated that using the facility would be expensive (c. £20 per person) and, because of its implications for social inclusion, city officials negotiated that the company offer 2000 free ‘rides’ to school children from disadvantaged neighborhoods in the city. Having such a facility, the city planning committee and its key officials also energetically argued, would contribute to the quest to making Glasgow a healthier city. It was an argument that connected with another policy trope around which the city’s future is projected through official discourse (‘Glasgow as a Healthy City in which to live’), emphasis to which has been given a pronounced fillip since the city’s successful bidding for the Commonwealth Games in 2014. In other words, the facility bolstered several key aspects of the official vision of the future Glasgow; the case for its support became indisputable.

31In the post-political city the future is expressed as a consensual understanding; it does so through emphasizing the value of local participation as steering policy. As in other British cities, the city administration in Glasgow has innovated with a mix of participatory techniques to trawl for local opinion including citizens’ panels, opinion poll surveys which monitor council performance and attitudes (as, for example, to the holding of the 2014 Games and the ongoing progress achieved by the city council in meeting objectives) and questionnaires targeted at specific policy fields. In 2005 the (then) Leisure and Parks Department of the city council issued a consultation paper and questionnaire on the problems users had of the city’s parks and possible methods in which they could be improved. Of the latter, an overwhelming majority (somewhat predictably) gave their support to “improving the facilities in parks”; it was this response to an otherwise generalized (and possibly ‘apple-pie’) question that was to become a key popular mandate in justification for council support to the Go Ape application (and other contentious developments affecting its green spaces which were actively opposed in the city (Paddison and Sharpe, 2007). Questionnaires were also used by the city council to elicit opinion specifically to the Go Ape facility; these too showed support for the proposal. It was not that such survey data could be challenged that is of importance here (which was the case), but rather that it was being used to manufacture consensus towards the proposal.

32As a plethora of studies have shown, beginning with Arnstein’s (1969) still quoted ladder analogy, participation, particularly where it is initiated through state-led practices, operates at different levels from the tokenistic to scenarios in which there is a real redistribution of power through local devolution (Fung and Wright, 2003; Gaventa, 2006) or through the realization of deliberative forms of democratic engagement (Callon, Lascoumes and Barthes, 2001, 2009). Realisation of the empowered participatory governance Fung and Wright highlight is the exception; clearly, pre-existing centres of institutional power, urban governments, will be reluctant to devolve decision-making powers substantively. Further, to do so would be to undermine the legitimacy representative modes of democratic practice are able to claim. If politics is the negotiation of conflict, the post-political formation is defined around its antithesis, that politics is a managerial task involving the identification of consensus. Limiting participation to relatively ‘shallow’ forms of democratic engagement averts the problems of conflict. For the city council the knowledge gained through participation could become a tool of ‘consensual persuasion’ and simultaneously to bolster the legitimacy of state action. Its actions were the antithesis of the kinds of democratic engagement envisaged by Callon et al and in particular of the ‘hybrid forums’ through which dialogue takes place.

33The protest movement, on the other hand, reflected dissensus; its silencing needed to draw on the technologies of power the state could engage, demonstrating its ability to regulate how participation could, or could, not be part of the democratic process. For the elected city councilor the protest was a challenge to both the mandate the electoral process had given to the ruling administration to govern and as, has been argued, to the wider visions for the city’s future development. The ability to marginalize protestors through their absent presence was possible through the technologies of power councilors could draw upon; the procedures for site visits – as in the park – were governed by regulations devised by the city council.

Some Conclusions

34This paper has sought to take the explanation for the thwarted protest in the park – an episode in the recent history of the Glasgow which has been repeated over a variety of public space, transport and other issues together with the challenge to the overall visioning of the city, as in 1990 (Boyle and Hughes, 1994) and subsequently – beyond the widely appreciated tensions that arise between representative and participatory modes of democracy. It has been suggested that the unfolding practices of urban neoliberal governance have been accompanied by a new style of politics emphasizing the consensual basis on which the future visioning of the city is founded. Critically, it was suggested, that urban politics has become neo-populist through the use of different strategies of control, one outcome of which is the intolerance towards dissenting opinion.

35Clearly, such an argument is ambitious and contentious. Elements of the argument have been expressed elsewhere: by political philosophers, notably Ranciere and Mouffe, and by urban analysts approaching the critique of the contemporary (British) city from very different disciplinary perspectives, including fine art (Roche, 2007), sociology and theology (see the essays in Scott, Baker and Graham, 2009). Applying the term ‘post’ to politics carries the burden of being another ‘posty’ designation, though in its central argument that particularly under New Labour the search for consensus has depoliticized daily life, taken beyond debate the ‘real issues’ of politics, has resonance with the critique of New Labour beginning with the Third Way and subsequently.

36As an emergent style of politics, as an extension of governmentality the discussion in this paper raises more questions than it answers. This is particularly so in empirical terms. As a version of populist reasoning how is advocacy expressed through language? How are ‘the people’ defined? How are the ‘techniques of consensual persuasion’ able to manufacture assent? Is the practice of urban politics becoming increasingly intolerant of dissension? How does leadership become critical and what, if any are the parallels to charismatic leadership linked to ‘classic’ forms of populism?

37Many of these questions revert back to the fundamental questions that have consistently defined the politics of the city; who speaks for the city? ; whose vision of the city is privileged and whose is not? In their new guise these questions form the core of the debates surrounding Lefebvre’s dictum, ‘the right to the city’ (Lefebvre, 1996 {1974]; Purcell, 2008; Jouve, 2009). For neoliberalism the city is a key testing ground for innovative practice; what we need to know is how the state is accommodating these shifts and its impact on democratic processes in the city.

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Ronan Paddison, « Some Reflections on the Limitations to Public Participation in the Post-Political City », L’Espace Politique [En ligne], 8 | 2009-2, mis en ligne le 15 novembre 2009, consulté le 23 octobre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Ronan Paddison

Department of Geographic and Earth Sciences,
University of Glasgow,

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