“…the houses we live in, the routes we take to work, the buildings in which we buy our coffee and our shoes, were often built by planners and architects whose political assumptions and anthropological claims have long since been deemed to be defunct.”
For the latest in my series exploring urban historians at work today, I was lucky to be able to catch up Sam Wetherell (currently at UC Berkeley, soon to be at Columbia University). He explained how politics informs his approach to exploring and attempting to re-plot our understanding of urban Britain’s recent past and boldly grappled with one of most amorphous terms in contemporary social discourse: “neo-liberal”.
What is your background?
I spent my formative teenage years living in Milton Keynes. During this time I did most of my socialising in the town’s shopping mall (now branded “thecentre:mk”), attending a comprehensive school that was formally sponsored by Yahama keyboards and living in a high density apartment complex called (wait for it) “Enterprise Lane.” In other words I have lived every word of my dissertation on neo-liberal British cities!
I half-heartedly studied History at Oxford as an undergraduate, never really latching onto a topic that I loved. Afterwards I briefly worked for the Labour Party, before spending a year on a fellowship at Harvard. After another year spent in the wilderness, working at a second hand bookstore in Boston and then, later, for an unpleasant lobbying firm in the UK, I began my PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. I completed my dissertation this year and from next semester I’ll be working as a visiting lecturer in British history at Columbia University.
“…I have lived every word of my dissertation on neo-liberal British cities!”
What led you to choose your subject matter?
I decided that I wanted to be an academic long before I decided that I wanted to be an urban historian. I’d always loved ideas and loved writing but for a long time I couldn’t work out what I wanted to study. For me there were two stages to discovering what I wanted to write about. First, I took an American urban history graduate class at Harvard with Lizabeth Cohen, which exposed me, for the first time, to people such as Jane Jacobs, Margaret Crawford, Michel De Certeau, and Mike Davis – as well the fantastic historical literature on American postwar cities (including Thomas Sugrue’s work on Detroit and Robert Self’s works on Oakland). Living in London and in Boston I was exposed to large cities for the first time and (probably naively) associated them with freedom and adulthood.
“I’ve tried to maintain a political perspective in everything that I do…”
The second important stage for me was discovering left wing politics and activism in my early twenties. In 2011 I returned to the UK after a year and a half in America to find a Conservative government in power and a sense of generalized post-2008 crisis. I became involved in groups like UK Uncut and tried to teach myself as much about economics as possible. I’ve tried to maintain a political perspective in everything that I do and it was the wedding of this new interest in cities with a new investment in politics at this crucial juncture when I was applying for graduate schools that really determined my topic and informed my last five years of scholarship.
Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?
Like most graduate students/early career folks I’m left trying to carve out a theoretical niche on the back of a cannon of wonderful yet radically contradictory texts. In terms of urban history my go-to texts would be Carl Schorske’s essay on Vienna, William Cronin’s Nature’s Metropolis, Lizabeth Cohen’s work on New Deal Chicago, Doreen Massey’s For Space, Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s Disenchanted Night (the greatest history book ever written?), David Harvey’s work on Paris and of course the wonderful first few chapters of Engel’s Conditions of the Working Class in England. All of these say different things at different political and theoretical registers but all would be central to any class I would teach on urban history!
What do you hope that readers take away from your work?
“I’m endlessly struck by the capacity of the built environment to freeze political moments in space and project them forward.”
There’s that lovely line by John Maynard Keynes that we are all the slaves to some defunct economist. What I’d like to show in my work is how our daily lives unfold in cities and among buildings that were designed and built during times that are radically different to our own. That the houses we live in, the routes we take to work, the buildings in which we buy our coffee and our shoes, were often built by planners and architects whose political assumptions and anthropological claims have long since been deemed to be defunct. This seems obvious but I’m endlessly struck by the capacity of the built environment to freeze political moments in space and project them forward. What I love about the built environment is that it works at this meso level – between structure and agency and between high politics and spontaneous grass roots movements or individual instances of self-fashioning. Academically I hope my work allows people to periodise British history differently (escaping the endlessly rehearsed stories of 1945-51 and 1979-90). Politically I hope it offers an alternative (or at least supplementary) road map for political change – one that is isn’t trapped by the endless question of whether the left should throw its lot into the doomed process of winning un-winnable elections in a given nation state or the equally impossible challenge of forging a new hegemony or governmentality!
How has your work evolved over the course of your project?
“What I found while writing my dissertation… is that each of these case studies has a prehistory that stretches back well into the twentieth century, and sometimes beyond”
My dissertation is ostensibly about the transformation of the British built environment in the last third of the twentieth century, looking at five case studies (or “pilot zones” as I call them): the enterprise zone, the national garden festival, the housing estate, the shopping centre and the business park. What I found while writing my dissertation, however, is that each of these case studies has a prehistory that stretches back well into the twentieth century, and sometimes beyond, and in each chapter I found myself writing as much about the pre-history of these spaces as about their actual emergence.
I’m loathe to say exactly how I’m going to transform the dissertation into a book, just because I know it will change along the way, but at the moment I’m hoping to incorporate this prehistory and extend the thesis into a book about British cities from the late nineteenth century to the present. In the book I want to ask how we get from the individual home/house to the vast modernist housing estate to the private gated community. Next I want to ask how you get from the individual factory enterprise to the government managed trading estate to the private, suburban business park. Finally I want to trace the development of the unplanned sprawling high street to the state-planned shopping precinct to the private, out of town megamall.
On a very general note: how have you found the experience of studying British history through a university in the USA?
I have absolutely loved my time at Berkeley, to the point where people no longer let me talk to new admits who are considering coming (because I seem too optimistic and happy – and in America that’s saying something!). While the idea of flying across the world to study the place that you set out from seemed mad (and still seems a little mad) I think there is a lot to be said for studying Britain at a distance. Almost all of my friends or colleagues know almost nothing about Britain, so you have to think on a large, global scale to make your work relevant. Furthermore you are forced to study, teach and read hundreds of books, not just just about all of British history since 1688, but also a second field (in my case US history since European contact) too.
“…there is a lot to be said for studying Britain at a distance…you have to think on a large, global scale…”
There are definitely downsides too of course. Being forced to think big means you lose a lot of detail and sometimes end up getting excited about claims that are frustratingly self-evident to those working in Britain. I always love going to conferences and meeting other British historians working on cities and being amazed by the detail of their knowledge and how their work is made immediate and relevant by being immersed in the world that they are historicizing. Also, while the three-year programs in Britain (compared with the six-year programs in the US) feel rushed, you come out of it younger and fresher and with the job market being what it is, doing a 3 year UK PhD is less of a risk!
What alternatives were there to the “neo-liberal” city in the 1970s and 1980s and why did these alternatives fail?
This question cuts to the heart of the ceaselessly awful issue of how one defines neoliberalism. Is neoliberalism a set of policies implemented by governments in the 1970s and 80s? Or is it a hegemony or a rationality or even an epoch (like the Late Medieval period)? I think the term can be used productively to mean all of these things as long as we are clear what we mean each time we use it. I think a lot of the best theorists of neoliberalism (Michel Foucault, Stuart Hall, Wendy Brown, Pierre Dardot) would take the latter of those two definitions, and would answer your question by arguing that neoliberalism left almost no ideological room for constructing alternatives. If neoliberalism is a rationality, or a set of claims about the world that have become commonsensical, then it’s a difficult thing to oppose, act outside of and construct alternatives to.
“I think many people who are (rightly) critical of British cities today look back on this moment as a time of decent, affordable public housing, subsidized municipal transport networks, unregulated public space etc… etc… and see it as a workable alternative to the present. I’m less sure.”
For this reason I might rephrase your question to ask what the alternatives were to the privatization and securitization of space and infrastructure, and the re-orientation of cities as engines for attracting global capital and rather than providing services. The clearest alternative to this was the built environment that emerged out of late nineteenth century liberal reform and twentieth century social democracy, in other words the built forms that were transformed and re-negotiated in the late twentieth century. I think many people who are (rightly) critical of British cities today look back on this moment as a time of decent, affordable public housing, subsidized municipal transport networks, unregulated public space etc… etc… and see it as a workable alternative to the present. I’m less sure. While our present cities are a disaster, we also know that the British social democratic experiment was deeply flawed. Economically it was predicated on US Cold War spending and the residues of an increasingly repressive imperial world system. It was paternalistic and at times inhumane, a terrible place to be a woman or a person of colour. Its survival depended on an international monetary system that no longer exists. While, in the 1980s, the alternative to the neo-liberal city may have been tower blocks, trading estates, and a nationalized train network, the left now needs a bolder, more globally orientated vision. This is something Stuart Hall was arguing 30 years ago in the Hard Road to Renewal.
“One of the things I learned writing this dissertation was the extent to which the urban forms developed in the heyday of state planning went on to structure or thwart the late twentieth century city.”
I would also challenge the idea that the mid century British city “failed” as an alternative model. One of the things I learned writing this dissertation was the extent to which the urban forms developed in the heyday of state planning went on to structure or thwart the late twentieth century city. Local authorities struggled (and often failed) to price and sell individual council flats on estates, for example, because they were plugged into comprehensive, holistically planned worlds. Meanwhile the first shopping centres in Britain were state-run affairs in towns like Coventry, built to try and re-centre British cities around ideals of public space and assembly. In this sense, rather than “failing”, the social democratic city was sublimated, reconstituted and repressed.
For more about Sam and his work check out his UC Berkeley Department of History profile page and his Academia.edu profile, he can also be contacted through Twitter. For more urban historian profiles see here.