Globalised Authoritarianism: Megaprojects, Slums, and Class Relations in Urban Morocco – Book Review

Koenraad Bogaert, Globalized Authoritarianism: Megaprojects, Slums, and Class Relations in Urban Morocco (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018). 

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Koenraad Bogaert (KB): Ten years ago, when I first arrived in Morocco, urban society was experiencing some drastic changes. Local media was talking about a kind of “urban revolution” following the launch of several megaprojects such as Tanger Med, Casablanca Marina, and the Bouregreg project in cities like Tangiers, Casablanca, and the capital, Rabat. Besides these sorts of urban spectacles, commentators in Morocco seemed captivated by another promising feature of Moroccan policy, strongly supported by King Mohammed VI: nationwide poverty alleviation programs such as “Cities Without Slums” and “the National Initiative for Human Development.” My attention was drawn to these visible and—at first sight—seemingly unrelated events and changes at the urban scale. Triggered by the contradictions I observed in the field, I started to study the city as a political project and as a lens through which I could address broader issues related to government, globalization, and neoliberalism.

The main question that drove this research was: how can I understand political change in general by looking at the city in particular? How could I make a contribution to the debates on political change in Morocco, and the region more generally, by using the city as an entry point? A lot had been written at that time on the power of the monarchy, on the rise of the Islamists, on the electoral game and, more recently, on the impact and significance of the Arab uprisings and the 20 February Movement, but something was still missing. In my view, many of these analyses paid little attention to the global situation. At best, globalization was considered as something external, something that had an impact on local politics from the “outside,” but rarely as something integral to the process of political change itself. As I write in the book, it is strange that we have our mouths full of the increasing interconnectedness, the mobility and the unlimited potential of contemporary globalization, a process that transforms our world into a “global village,” while on the other hand, when it comes to studying issues such as poverty, inequality, exploitation, oppression and authoritarianism, we hear much less of this globalizing jargon. There is obvious tension here. Economics are obviously global; politics, by contrast, much less. The city was, for me, a way of questioning and investigating this tension. One of my main concerns was to tell a story not about the “impact” of globalization, but about how globalization is produced in places, in cities like Rabat and Casablanca.

In this book, the Moroccan city is understood both as a class project and a governmental problem. More concretely, the book tries to connect urban megaprojects like the Bouregreg project in Rabat, a salient example of a class project, with social initiatives such as Cities Without Slums within a broader analysis of political transformation. While the first kind of projects are directly concerned with the opening up of local places to global market forces, the second kind of projects are concerned with the transformation of urban life itself—especially the lives of the urban poor who are often perceived as a threat to the (new) urban order. Existing urban life had to be governed and adapted to the new conditions brought forth by neoliberal globalization.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

KB: The book covers a number of topics and conceptual issues. It is a book about globalization, neoliberalism, class, and authoritarian governmentality as much as it is one about Morocco’s recent history of political and economic reform. It looks at the history of urban politics in Morocco from the 1980s onwards and considers the implementation of a structural adjustment program (SAP) in 1983 a watershed moment from which the current transformations are to be explained. The combination of economic liberalization and severe social unrest posed serious challenges to the ruling establishment. I wanted to understand how it affected authoritarian government itself and how it gave rise to new relations and geographies of power. The key to understanding contemporary authoritarianism in Morocco lies thus not only in the monarchy as a core institution, in its religious authority or its neopatrimonial power and its clientilistic networks, but also in the class projects of urban renewal, slum upgrading, poverty alleviation, gentrification, structural adjustment, market liberalization, foreign capital investment, and the creation of a good business climate. Instead of focusing on how much power the monarchy possesses, the book tries to capture how methods and techniques of government and rule have changed within the context of our contemporary global situation. The creation of a “good business climate” became key for the ways in which authoritarianism transformed and the ways in which the interests of ruling domestic elites and global economic elites increasingly intertwined.

There are three broad aims in the book with regard to the wider literature. Firstly, I wanted to bridge the gap Middle East urban studies on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the wider field of political science dealing with questions of power, government, and authoritarianism. Secondly, the book brings together Marxian and Foucauldian perspectives in urban geography and urban politics in order to understand the close and interdependent relationship between interests of capital and one of the central problems of modern society: how to govern human beings. As Foucault argued convincingly, capitalist expansion is fundamentally dependent on the integration of human life and human bodies into the machinery of production and capital accumulation. This implies that in a context of capitalist globalization and economic liberalization, authoritarian political systems have to take the government of their populations very seriously. Finally, the books tries to bring a new perspective on the issue of neoliberalism (too often simplified and reduced to a container concept) and the issue of class (too often reduced to a concept by which one can stratify society into different sociological categories, e.g., the working class, the middle class, etc.). I try to conceptualize neoliberalism as a set of projects which differ depending on the time, the place, and the context. I use the concept of class to understand the nature of these projects, and the nature of the strategies and agency behind them.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

KB: The book addresses those scholars concerned with understanding the deeper structures of and (global) agency behind authoritarian government and its intimate relation to globalization and capitalist transformation. Furthermore, it speaks to urban geography and sociology students who are interested in the political transformation of the urban space in the Global South and to political theorists and critical scholars working on interrelated issues of capitalist globalization, class agency, state reformation, and neoliberal and authoritarian governmentalities.

In terms of impact, I think the book addresses some important concerns. First of all, the region still suffers from this aura of exceptionalism. To put it bluntly, politics in the region are still very often reduced to some form of family rule or exotic authoritarianism, epitomized by “the regime,” while the political economy of the region is all too easily branded as a form of “crony capitalism.” I am not convinced that these kind of narratives enlighten us with a deeper understanding of the political complexities of the region. Moreover, the fact that many countries today face similar problems at the same time shows the need to take the global situation seriously and expose the deeply relational geography of power and a more radical process of political transformation, whether in Morocco or elsewhere. There is an exciting and growing body of literature that questions some of the assumptions sketched above and which tries to understand the region as a global region, a global Middle East or a global North Africa. My book strives to be one extra contribution to that tradition. Additionally, although I spent little attention to the many forms of social protest witnessed in Morocco over the past decade, some of the insights and arguments presented in the book do try to make a contribution to a deeper understanding of some of the root causes of the still ongoing uprisings in Morocco (and the wider the region).  

J: What other projects are you working on now?

KB: I am trying to look at questions of political transformation from the rural margins in Morocco and explore the complex interplay between authoritarianism, (economic) globalization, and contentious politics. Over the past decade, we have seen a significant increase of political activity in the rural margins, not only in Morocco but also in Tunisia and other countries in the region. Contestation in these margins was driven by demands centered around social and indigenous rights, control over natural resources, and social and environmental justice. However, their impact remains largely underestimated and understudied. I published an article on the revolt of small towns in Morocco a few years ago, and I would really like to explore these issues more in-depth. Within an ever more pressing debate on the environment, climate change, human-nature relations (the Anthropocene) and the ways in which global capitalism impacts upon both society and nature, there is an increasing literature that tries to capture how people living in the margins of contemporary societies, indigenous peoples, peasant peoples, etc., are leading actors in the global fight for social and environmental justice. Despite this change in research focus, the city remains at the back of my head, as I am convinced that the changes in the rural margins and small towns of Morocco are very much related to some of the changes in the main urban areas and the broader changing relation between town and country under neoliberal reform.  

Excerpt from the Book:

From the introduction:

A Moroccan Exception?

With the accession to the throne of Mohammed VI in 1999, urban politics in Morocco took a new turn. Generally, the Moroccan political system is considered a more moderate system compared to some of the other authoritarian regimes in the region. From the very beginning, Mohammed VI seemed to break with his father’s openly repressive way of rule and willingly presented himself as a model reformer dedicated to economic and political liberalization. In his speeches, he repeatedly stressed the importance of good governance, human rights, poverty alleviation, economic development, and citizen participation. This sudden change in style, contrasted with the more repressive image of his father, Hassan II, even earned Mohammed VI the reputation of “king of the poor” in the mainstream press.

The optimism of a “Moroccan exception”  took a setback after the suicide bombings in Casablanca in May 2003. First, the authorities immediately responded with repressive measures in order to deal with the political crisis. Second, since all the suicide bombers came from Sidi Moumen, a famous slum area in the eastern periphery of Casablanca, it strengthened the idea that the country’s neglect of its urban poor and the problem of slums were a breeding ground for jihadism and domestic terrorism.

The monarchy responded immediately and decisively to this political crisis, pushing Morocco’s urban politics into a new direction after the events of 2003. The new king’s reign marked itself not only by spectacular economic growth strategies involving land and property capital (e.g., the Casablanca Marina project) but also by new and very ambitious state-promoted social development initiatives and poverty alleviation programs. The urban restructurings of the 1980s, mainly concerned with getting the riotous cities back under control, were complemented with more “inclusive” modalities of government in order to cope with the urban and social crisis exacerbated by structural adjustment. This appeared to be vital in the preservation and reconstitution of this image of a “Moroccan exception.”

Many believed that social initiatives such as the Cities Without Slums (VSB) program and the National Initiative for Human Development (INDH ), launched in the immediate aftermath of the bombings, testified that there was still evidence of a genuine process of political liberalization. Those programs were underpinned by the ideals of good governance, participatory development, and social innovation. Furthermore, these initiatives created the expectation that the young king was serious about tackling the growing social inequality in the country (Navez-Bouchanine 2009; for a more generalized argument, see El Hachimi 2015; Malka and Alterman 2006; Storm 2007). Moreover, the launch of several urban megaprojects in Casablanca, Rabat, Tangiers, and elsewhere reconfirmed, in the eyes of many within the national and international press, Morocco’s commitment to market-oriented growth, the promotion of tourism, and state-of-the-art urbanism. The country wanted to show the world that it would not be driven off course under threat of international terrorism. These megaprojects presented the visual spectacles of an open, globalized, and market-friendly Morocco. Both slum upgrading projects and real estate megaprojects seemed to fit within a comprehensive and inclusive strategy of economic growth and urban development.

The central arguments of this book contradict this popular mythification of the Moroccan exception. I argue that the reforms and projects implemented in Morocco over the past few decades should not be understood as some kind of gradual democratization or liberalization but rather as examples of how authoritarian government converges with increasing globalization and transforms through its interaction with a rationale of economic liberalization.

There is a political symbiosis between both urban megaprojects and social initiatives such as VSB and INDH. While the first are directly concerned with the opening up of local places to global market penetration and foreign investment, the second invest directly in the transformation of urban life itself. Social initiatives such as VSB and INDH seek to adapt urban life, especially the lives of the urban poor who have a historical record of social protest and urban violence, to the new conditions brought forth by neoliberal globalization. They implicate not so much a return to developmentalist policies but rather the development of new kinds of social welfare mechanisms with new techniques of market expansion and commercialization and new forms of control and domination. These latter examples show that neoliberal projects are not necessarily “anti-social” but fundamentally reconfigure the social question and the question of government. In other words, neoliberal projects actively deal with the issue of poverty and social inequality, but from a radically different rationale and within the context of a changed balance of (class) power.


Megaprojects and Slum Upgrading: Two Different Kinds of Neoliberal Projects

Two of the most visible manifestations of Morocco’s contemporary urban politics are brought together in this book: urban megaprojects and slum upgrading projects. I situate these two kinds of urban projects within a broader historical context of political change. My field research was primarily based in Casablanca and Rabat.

On the one hand, I explore the urban politics invested in a high-end urban development scheme in the valley of the Bouregreg River between the twin cities of Rabat and Salé. The Bouregreg project is exemplary of Morocco’s urban revolution. It is one of the flagship megaprojects of the country. It transforms the cityscape with luxury residential units, marinas, new shopping facilities, five-star hotels, and a grand theater as the new top landmark of Rabat. The project is a salient example of how the contemporary city is perceived as the primary motor for economic growth and how cityscapes are redesigned and restructured to satisfy the desires and interests of (global) capital. Furthermore, the project gave rise to a new institutional model of state power, the Bouregreg Agency, specifically developed to serve those desires and interests: the Agence pour l’Aménagement de la Vallée du Bouregreg (AAVB, Agency for the Development of the Bouregreg Valley).

On the other hand, I examine the changing methods, techniques, and rationalities implicated in the government of slums. Here, I point to an important shift in the ways in which slums were governed between the 1980s and the beginning of the twenty-first century. The highly disruptive moment of structural adjustment in the early 1980s forced Moroccan authorities to revert to repressive methods of power to take back control over the urban territory and restore order in the riotous city. Casablanca stands as the paradigmatic example. Besides the military repression of the riots of 1981, the authorities also increased administrative and political control over the city by elaborating a new master plan, by dividing the territory of Casablanca into different administrative zones, and by making these new spatial interventions visible through state architecture and large-scale renovation projects.

These methods of urban planning and control served to fill in a governmental vacuum created by structural adjustment. From a Foucauldian perspective, one could say that the more repressive methods of urban territorial control temporarily replaced the loss of ability to “govern” the urban (slum) population through the typical technologies of state developmentalism and its social compromise (food subsidies, public employment, and education).

This focus on urban territorial control in the 1980s gradually shifted again with the development of a new neoliberal order and new techniques of power invested in the government of slums and its population. Especially after the suicide bombings of 2003, we saw increased efforts to “govern” the individual slum dweller and the slum population as a whole in order to assure their inclusion into the formal market society.

While the methods of urban control in the 1980s still represented an open struggle, one that coincided with the rollback of the old developmentalist order, the new governmental methods of the early twenty-first century give us more insight into the particular ways a neoliberal social order has been constructed, expanded, and consolidated in Morocco, or at least how it has been attempted. The VSB program shows how slum dwellers are being required to participate in the making of a specific political world in which the ability to claim political rights and articulate social justice are circumscribed not only by “the Arab regime” but also by the sanctions and incentives of “the free market”.

Taking into account these innovations in government and urban projects, it becomes clear that neoliberalism itself is not some social order or political rationality immune to change itself. By understanding how globalization is produced in different places, we can explore the transformative and contingent character of neoliberal government and neoliberal governmentality. In the case of Morocco, the crises of the 1980s, the social impact of structural adjustment, and the protests against austerity (i.e., the problem of the riotous city) are some of the dynamics that have set in motion the development of new critical reflections on government, new forms of state intervention, and new ways of market support. National programs such as Cities Without Slums were deliberate attempts to resolve the social tensions exacerbated by the early neoliberal reforms of the 1980s.

Consequently, what one associates with neoliberalism today is not the same anymore with what one associated with neoliberalism in the era of structural adjustment. Nevertheless, what makes it neoliberal in the end is its break from developmentalism or Fordism, its changed balance of class power, and its inspiration and legitimation found in particular traditions of political thinking that have become “common sense.”

Source: Jadaliyya.

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