As typically formulated, dispossession – the physical separation of people from their homes, land, and social networks – is a central feature of the bundle of social policies we typically describe as “neoliberal.” Of course, in its most reductive formulation, the neoliberal state is imagined as laissez-faire, without any reference to coercion, let alone dispossession. But this telling renders neoliberalism indistinguishable from its classical liberal precursor. If they’re identical, what’s “neo” about neoliberalism?

According to David Harvey, while the retrenchment of social spending is one aspect of such a state, it is also defined by its propensity for coercion. Militarism, policing, and other extra-economic means have become absolutely central to the project of maintaining profitability, part and parcel of what Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession.” Violent expropriation, he insists, is at the heart of this process.

We see something similar in the work of Loïc Wacquant, who argues that a perpetually expanding penal apparatus is a component part of this neoliberal state. We might think of these writers as describing two sides of the same coin: Harvey emphasizes the resources from which people are separated, whereas Wacquant discusses the fate of people separated from these resources. Harvey theorizes dispossession as a contemporary means of transforming commonly held resources into privately appropriated commodities; but when people are divorced from these resources, how are these surplus populations to be managed? This is where Wacquant’s expanded carceral regime comes in.

But for both authors, dispossession is a central component of neoliberal social policy. While few would dispute the role of the neoliberal state in facilitating this process of dispossession, a consequence of these and related writings has been the exclusive linking of dispossession to neoliberalism.

Such a move is dangerous, as it leads us down a Polanyian road: increasing social spending will repair the fabric of society, the thinking goes, counteracting the violence of dispossession all too prevalent under neoliberal rule. In The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi famously detailed how marketization, or the political project of creating a so-called “self-regulating market,” inescapably negatively impacts both people and the natural world.

In response, society protects itself, re-embedding the market in society. This is typically interpreted as a state project of regulation, or more specifically, regulating land, labor, and capital. In this telling, marketization is a political project of commodification, with necessarily disastrous consequences. When these consequences begin to interfere with the very functioning of society, the state – presumed to be acting in the name of this society – counteracts these corrosive effects with a round of decommodification.

If we associate decommodification with social policy, as many authors are wont to do, this moment in Polanyi’s double movement assumes the form of the welfare state, or at the very least, augmented social spending. Leaving to the side the question of functionalism, we still need to ask: can governments do nothing but oscillate between the market-led destruction of social life and what used to answer to the name “the welfare state”?

Or to put the same point differently, are we justified in limiting dispossession to the neoliberal pole, assuming that increasing social spending will necessarily undo (or at least mitigate) the violence unleashed during periods of neoliberalism? Why should we assume that social spending is necessarily reparative?

In an article published this month in Urban Studies, I challenge this opposition, taking as my implicit point of departure that dispossession is not only an ongoing process central to neoliberalism, but to capitalism tout court. This is the limit of Harvey’s model, which substitutes anti-neoliberal policies for properly anti-capitalist politics, leading him to call for a “new New Deal” as the key to reversing the neoliberal regime of accumulation by dispossession.

The same opposition underlies much of the thinking surrounding social policy in contemporary South Africa, where I conducted the research for this article. The standard narrative goes something like this: when the ancien regime fell and the African National Congress (ANC) came to power, it initially implemented a welfarist policy package to great redistributive effect. But two years later, the party’s neoliberal wing gained the upper hand, and these gains were jettisoned in favor of the misleadingly named Growth, Employment, and Redistribution (GEAR) package.

But I reject this narrative. In many sectors, the social spending we would associate with a welfare state actually increased in precisely the period described by critics as “neoliberal.” In fact, the South African government delivered as many free, formal homes as any other non-Communist state in the modern period. And when we examine a year-by-year breakdown of housing delivery, the rate of distribution actually accelerated during the ostensibly neoliberal Mbeki years.

This of course doesn’t mean that Thabo Mbeki’s regime wasn’t reliably neoliberal, but instead that neoliberalism, much like the welfare state, cannot be understood as some sort of total system. In the article, I develop the concept of dispossession through delivery to show how in South African cities, increasing social spending didn’t only fail to reverse dispossession, but it actually initiated new rounds. For example, when the government distributes social housing, the net effect is often to disconnect residents from their existing socio-economic networks and relocate them to hostile territory far from access to basic services.

I take the case of post-apartheid Cape Town, in which housing delivery and many of its associated technologies have uprooted people from their longstanding communities and facilitated their relocation to peripheral sites far from centers of employment. Nothing could embody neoliberalism’s antithesis more than the provision of a free, formal house. But when the recipients of these homes are squatters in centrally located informal settlements, and these new structures are constructed along the urban edge, people are often isolated from their social and economic network, not to mention schools, hospitals, shopping centers, and public transportation.

I focus on the example of what the government of Cape Town calls temporary relocation areas, or TRAs for short. About a fifth of Capetonians currently live in informal housing, and many of these are unauthorized. When this is the case, the municipality will sometimes offer squatters a small structure in a TRA as they await actual housing.

If they refuse TRA housing, as many of them do, the municipal government can gain court authorization to forcibly evict residents, in which case they typically expropriate their building materials and other property. And if residents resist eviction, they can be incarcerated.

But if they do accept TRA housing, they are likewise effectively dispossessed. In all of my years conducting fieldwork in Cape Town, I have yet to encounter a TRA resident who enjoys living there. For one thing, there’s nothing “temporary” about them. The city’s most notorious TRA, Blikkiesdorp, is about to turn 12, but there has been no systematic attempt to relocate its longer term residents. Many of them accepted structures in the TRA after being told they’d be out of there in six months.

Blikkiesdorp is widely loathed to the point where the name itself – Afrikaans for “tin can town” – is a frequent metonym for TRAs more generally. In relocating fractions of communities from across the Cape Flats and placing them in contiguous structures, people with alliances to one street gang often wind up on the same block as their arch-rivals. Without recourse to the developed networks that allow residents to successfully navigate this organized violence, what are they supposed to do?

Residents, as I’ve suggested, find such housing abhorrent and even terrifying. I describe an instance in which City of Cape Town housing officials took squatters on a tour of Blikkiesdorp, hoping to persuade them to accept spots in the TRA.

Instead, the residents witnessed a fight, couldn’t find a school nearby, and were openly threatened with rape and murder by current residents. But when I interviewed housing officials, including those who took the squatters on the tour, they couldn’t understand their reluctance to move there. They insisted to me that they were fabricating, or at the very least, exaggerating. They saw the provision of TRA housing, however flimsy and dangerous, as a benevolent act of welfarism.

These sorts of government provisions frequently result in social dislocation, or what I have described as dispossession through delivery. We could apply the concept to an analysis of formal housing delivery, or informal settlement upgrading, or even the subsidization of working class rental stock. Or bringing the analysis back to the US, we might think about a program like Section 8, which has often had the effect of violently dispersing long established communities.

The point then is that dispossession is hardly the exclusive province of neoliberalism. Even a program like housing delivery, which surely qualifies as social protection by Polanyian criteria, can (and often does) separate people from means of subsistence.

Under what conditions then might housing distribution (or social spending more broadly) might not have this effect? As long as the goods and services being distributed remain commodified, governments cannot do otherwise. Land and housing closer to employment centers and transport hubs is pricier than peri-urban greenfields and far-flung flatlands. Given limited budgets and the fact that governments must purchase land and materials, what other options might they have?

This then is the chief limit of the prevailing mode of Polanyian analysis: social expenditure by governments is equated with decommodification. But the very goods being distributed remain commodities! This is the sense in which dispossession isn’t a consequence of neoliberalism per se, but of capitalism more broadly, a social system in which essential aspects of our everyday lives remain commodified.

Polanyi was right in diagnosing the problem, but he and his contemporary followers are wrong to equate the double movement with decommodification. Actual decommodification is possible, but not through simply making demands on the welfare state.

For a fuller analysis of these questions in post-apartheid Cape Town’s TRAs, see Zachary Levenson. “The road to TRAs is paved with good intentions: Dispossession through delivery in post-apartheid Cape Town” in Urban Studies 2018.

Zachary Levenson is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. 

Image: Ashraf Hendricks via GroundUp.