The Symbolic Violence of Gentrification, Part V

The neoliberal doxa of the state

Below is the final segment of an essay in five parts written by University of Virginia student Stefano Rumi for Isaac Reed’s Sociology of Power and Authority course.


As discussed part I and II, third-wave gentrification can be understood of as the neoliberal state’s response to post-Fordist urban decline at the end of the 20th century. In this concluding piece, I explore Bourdieu’s conceptualization of neoliberalism as doxa, an omnipresent force shaping discourse, decision, and thought that presents itself as scientific reality (Bourdieu 1998a:31). I suggest that “winner-take-all” urban policy guided by neoliberalist state philosophy inevitably leads to inequality and domination. I conclude by arguing that understanding the broader forced behind gentrification is the first step to addressing fundamental issues of equality and human rights in the cities of today.

Neoliberalism is presented as a self-evident truth about the world above questioning. Bourdieu notes that in Europe, neoliberalism has been fostered for decades by partisan forces; in the United States, the rise of Reaganism and failure of Clinton-era social policy, coupled with systematic efforts to deregulate financial and real estate markets and privatize public functions mirrors neoliberalism’s simultaneous rise overseas. Ordinary citizens entrench neoliberalism as doxa by passively adhering to and normalizing its philosophy over the course of years, and eventually accept it as an indomitable “truth.” The end result is a normalization of inequality, as post-Fordist deindustrialization decimated the urban working class and contributed to the creation of vulnerable spaces ripe for gentrification.

In his Bourdieusian analysis of neoliberalism’s rise in India, Rohit Chopra (2003) notes,

“Neoliberalism is, hence, a political agenda predicated on a certain vision of the social world, one that legitimates a certain scientistic (sic) view of that world and deems as illegitimate opposing views about the world. Neoliberalism is founded on a particular principle of vision, but, if one takes its self-definition seriously, one must believe that it does not privilege any one point of view but merely presents the truth about things as they are.” (p. 424)

The presentation of neoliberalism (and its accompanying policies) as an undeniable truth about the world by the state is replicated in the presentation of its foremost urban renewal policy, gentrification. By adopting neoliberalism as doxa, the state has precluded itself of its fundamental responsibility to protect vulnerable citizens from exploitation, economic or otherwise. The dismantling of social safety nets, such as massive reductions and privatization of affordable housing, the hallmark of the Keynesian welfare state, is compounded by the active targeting and harming of vulnerable populations by the state. Discourses of “urban renewal” and “revitalization” implicitly suggest that existing neighborhoods and communities are a blight upon the landscape that must be removed. While proponents of gentrification vaguely allude to “trickle-down” effects of gentrification that will also uplift the poor, countless literature demonstrates that gentrified populations end up worse off. Neoliberalism fundamentally casts anything exterior to the collusion between state and capital as illegitimate, effectively dominating society with its specific vision of the way the world ought to be. Thinly-veiled private-public partnerships, such as Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) dogmatically insist that gentrification represents the best interests of all constituents, when in reality gentrified populations have virtually no representation on these commissions and do not possess any legitimate power to change or alter policy. As ownership and responsibility over public space, such as New York’s iconic Union Square, is transferred over to quasi-public entities staffed with representatives of private developer interests, undesirable citizens are privately policed out or targeted through oddly specific local policy. Few, if any, serious policies and interventions from either the public or private sector are presented as alternatives to the indomitable forces of neoliberal urban renewal.

Bourdieu argues that neoliberalism is the manifestation of capitalism in its most brutal sense: society as a framework for the uninhibited capital accumulation of profit. Gentrification is but one manifestation of this vision; the dismantling of welfare and social safety nets, deregulation of industry, decline of manufacturing and rise of secondary market employment, and the re-conceptualization of real estate as a vehicle of capital investment are all part and parcel of a new neoliberal society. In celebrating such a divisive and stratifying philosophy, the state commits a fundamental violence against its people that goes far beyond the economic violence of endorsing the exploitation of the masses in the name of the free market. Effectively dismissing any responsibility for the welfare of its citizens, through fundamentally unequal urban policies like gentrification that result in a fundamentally insecure, “winner-take-all” society, is an egregious symbolic violence committed by the state against the dominated and the dominating classes.

Bourdieu’s ultimate argument, as Chopra (2003) notes, is that neoliberalism as doxa is an “all-pervasive paradigm and method for shaping habitus-producing structures.” Bourdieusian scholars (Loyal and Quilley 2017, for example) are quick to point out that despite the central role of the state in his later works, Bourdieu never actually provided a systematic theory of the state. He defines the state, in true Weberian fashion, as an entity (“X,” to be determined) which monopolizes legitimate use of physical and symbolic violence (Bourdieu 1994: 3) Loyal and Quilley note Durkheim’s influence in creating Bourdieu’s definition of the state, and the role of the state as the foundation of “logical and moral conformity in the social world, creating both sense and consensus.” They go on to write,

“It is in this way that symbolic power has the power to create belief, obedience, and a consensus in the dominated. Such categories and modes of perception are generated by the state and inscribed into the institutions, categories, and artifacts of the social world.” (Loyal and Quilley, p. 433)

In my earlier argument, I re-conceptualized discussions over the habitus of gentrifiers as a form of symbolic violence. I extend this point somewhat to note that the state commits symbolic violence outside of its collusion with capital by also shaping the very habitus of gentrifier and gentrified. Bourdieu notes that doxa serves to limit the range of perception of habitus and thus define what is “thinkable.” The manifestation of neoliberal doxa, as Bourdieu argues, varies by habitus. Neoliberalism encourages the gentrifier to “take what’s fair” and encourages the gentrified to accept these changes and make do. Even the petit dominators, members of the dominating class who are uninvolved with gentrifying cities, tacitly accept the necessity of gentrification without questioning its logic. At the end of the day, both gentrifier and gentrified come to believe that gentrification is inevitable and the only form of urban revitalization and social progress that can occur. The creation and maintenance of this fundamentally skewed power dynamic between conqueror and colonized, gentrifier and gentrified, is implicit to the symbolic violence the state commits.


What began as an almost laudable effort by committed young individuals to preserve historical homes in declining neighborhoods has now mutated into a mode of urban redevelopment that threatens the livelihood of cities and worsens patterns of social and economic inequality in urban areas across the United States and the world. In conceptualizing gentrification as symbolic violence, I seek to distance myself from the agnostic discussions that have dominated gentrification studies in previous years and steer further discussion of gentrification towards the unjust repercussions of gentrification. By recognizing the dominant role of the state in sponsoring destructive modes of urban capital reinvestment that displaces residents and obliterates their sense of identity and community, I seek to place responsibility for “the ills of gentrification” upon the political forces working in tandem with private developers to transform the city into a “playground for elites” (Lees et al 2008). Urbanist Jane Jacobs once wrote that cities are the lifeline of entire nations, and we have a profound responsibility to ensure that such spaces remain open, affordable, and accessible to individuals from all walks of life. Third-wave gentrification and its subsequent mutations (such as new-build and super-gentrification) threaten the democratizing nature of cities and places an increasing burden on more and more individuals who find themselves housing cost-burdened as wages stagnate and costs rise. Identifying gentrification as part of a greater neoliberal restructuring of society is the first step to ameliorating stark inequalities in cities today and continuing to fight for each individual’s right to the city. The next is for academics and theorists to steer discussions between policymakers and developers towards finding equitable solutions that ensure that capital investment into cities benefit all residents.

Stefano Rumi studies Sociology and Social Entrepreneurship as a Jefferson Scholar and Echols Scholar at the University of Virginia. He has recently taught Housing and Urban Poverty, a semester-long undergraduate seminar course at the University of Virginia. Stefano is a 2017 Clinton Global Initiative U Scholar and a 2014 U.S. Presidential Scholar, one of the nation’s highest honors for students.


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