Violence, Fragmentation and Neoliberalism

Michael Humphrey’s research into urban renewal in recently instated Latin American democracies has uncovered increased criminal violence, fragmentation and a failing in the state to guarantee a social contract with its citizens.

By Tim Groenendyk

Michael Humphrey

"The violence emerging out of this dynamic is actually associated with the idea of producing safe cities for investment." Professor Michael Humphrey

“Historically, in Latin America, the transition from dictatorship to democracy was supposed to create society in which politicians were accountable, law functioned, police could be relied upon and human rights were enhanced,” said Professor Michael Humphrey, from the school of Social and Political Sciences.

“But what has happened in a lot of Latin American countries is increasing levels of criminal violence.”

Humphrey’s research investigates citizen security in Bogota, Buenos Aires and Mexico City, where a wide spectrum of crime - from domestic abuse to assault and robbery, to drug-related violence – still persist and have even increased despite democratisation.

More precisely, the study examines the relationship between the response of the state to new neoliberal economic model and how it shapes big cities.

According to Humphrey the violence in these cites stems from either “a weak state - that is, control of violence is outsourced and the law is not enforced – and/or greater inequality and social polarisation produced by neoliberal economic restructuring.”

Humphrey explains that neoliberal urban strategies - competitive investment, enhancing economic attractiveness, deregulation of wages, de-unionisation, and free trade zones - in Latin America are examples of the way particular economic processes are reshaping cities in many parts of the world.

The role of these states, Humphrey says, is shifting from a focus on national development which managed inequalities by central redistribution policies and to focus on cities and align development with corporate investment.

“The violence emerging out of this dynamic is actually associated with the idea of producing safe cities for investment.

“But in fact that process produces fragmentation of cities because certain areas get targeted for investment and certain areas are seen as areas you have to control.”

These areas are perceived as dangerous to the general population and face heavy securitisation where militarised police operate often with impunity.

As well as the criminal element, police are believed to be responsible for a significant percentage of civilian deaths.

Humphrey says these states have abandoned the ‘social contract’ – where citizens respect the rule of law in return for guarantees of education, welfare, medical services – to a competitive urban development model which vies to attract capital.

“The whole basis for the provision of services and the basis of citizenship rights is changing.

“If the state becomes involved in attracting capital but only attracts it to competitive places then it results in urban fragmentation.

“Which means there’s a highly differentiated citizenship distributed across the whole country, even within cities.

“Neoliberal restructuring has taken place usually in a moment of economic crisis and the state is being forced to implement neoliberal policies and to decentralise government to promote participatory citizenship at the municipal level.

“The combination of privatisation and decentralisation often reinforce a process of social exclusion arising from urban segregation. Citizen security and participatory citizenship becomes something for the upper and middle classes, not the poor.

“Now the logic of the market and the logic of security as managing threats has created fragmented urban worlds whose residents have very different urban citizenship rights.

“There is a lot of concern internationally about why cities have emerged as the centre of this expanding violence especially when they thought they had put the era of human rights abuses, insecurity and vulnerability because of state repression behind them.”