Friday, April 03, 2009

Review: Evil Paradises

[Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk, editors. Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism New York: The New Press, 2007.]

As is so often the case, my ambivalence about this book is not really about it per se but about a lack of fit between it and the particular needs I brought with me to the reading.

Evil Paradises is a collection of essays in which "visionary thinkers reflect on the capitalist 'utopias' being constructed in cities, deserts, and even in the middle of the sea" in the era of neoliberalism. The contributions span the distance from architectural reflection to snappy journalism to relentless marxist sociology and politics to a kind of pro-urban anti-nostalgia. They also range from Cairo to Beijing to Orange County, from Ted Turner's many ranches to the middle of the sea.

I was brought to this book my own ongoing work related to social movement history in Canada. The next-to-last chapter that I need to write is going to be about one or several indigenous struggles in urban contexts in Canada. I haven't quite decided how I'm going to approach it, yet, so for now and the next little while I'll be focused on reading -- about cities, about the history of indigenous struggle in Canada, and about the combining of the two. In the books that are focused on cities, what I'm looking for is ideas and tools for talking about the urban and the ways that cities shape our lives. I felt I got plenty of that from the last book I read, Mike Davis' Planet of Slums, even though it didn't mention Canada. Unfortunately, I didn't feel that the current volume was nearly as rich in appropriable ideas, at least for my purposes. This may have been because of its focus on the ways in which the rich are transforming space, particularly urban space, for their own benefit, rather than the impacts of and resistances to such transformations by oppressed people.

I did find some stuff that I think will be useful to me, in my own current chapter or in other contexts. Timothy Mitchell's chapter on neoliberalism in Egypt was mostly not useful (though it was definitely interesting), but his discussion of the ways in which nonmarket relations are inherently a part of the relations of the capitalist market felt quite important. I also think I will be able to use stuff from the essays by Marco D'Eramo and Don Mitchell that talk in different ways about the privatization of public spaces in core capitalist countries.

Most of the essays, though, were interesting but not useful. For instance, it was quite fascinating to read Mitchell's account of how neoliberalism actually happened in Egypt in the late '90s -- a level of detail often missing in left discourse on the topic. Mike Davis' piece on the vast capitalist excess that is Dubai was just kind of astounding to me. I also was interested in the piece on the impact of the Olympics on Beijing, the global marketing of imagined pieces of California in various cities as illustrated in a gated suburb in Hong Kong, the post-Sandanista elite reclamation of Managua, and Patrick Bond's essay on post-apartheid neoliberalism and resistance to it in Johannesburg.

Perhaps the most enjoyable pieces were also the least academic. Rebecca Schoenkopf edited a left-liberal weekly, a la The Village Voice, in ultra-rich, ultra-conservative Orange County, until it got bought by a right-wing chain. Her witty, weary reflections on the O.C. and in particular on the reality show known as The Real Housewives of Orange County were delightful. Even better was sci-fi novelist China Mieville's cutting mockery of libertarian fantasies -- a handful of which are connected to actual projects that claim to be intending to realize the dream but which never seem to move forward -- of floating cities on the sea.

So there is lots of neat stuff in this volume, along with some that is less gripping. And, as I said, much of the muting of my enthusiasm for it has to do with not finding what I had hoped to gain from it rather than broader flaws in it. However, I wonder if part of why its ability to inspire me was limited had to do with the tendency of some marxists, some academics, and some marxist academics to be so enthralled with describing the nefarious, dazzling workings of capital that talk of resistance kind of falls by the wayside. Capital as self-aggrandizing spectacle is kind of turned on its head and shown to be horrific, but it is left as spectacle. That can be interesting. But it often feels like it isn't terribly useful.

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