Gated Communities

From Atlanta to the Brazialian state of Acre, models of autonomous communities in the post-liberal era.

Among the most affluent suburbs of Atlanta is a town called Sandy Springs. In 2005, the people of Sandy Springs voted to secede from the county government providing municipal services to the greater Atlanta region, becoming fully self-sufficient and contracting the majority of their administrative duties to multinational corporation CH2M HILL, a large US engineering, construction, and project management contracting firm with clients such as the US Department of Defense. A number of similar "contract cities" have cropped up in recent years throughout what are often prosperous US towns and suburbs. There are fairly obvious reasons for a wealthy community to want to secede from the state, but it is particularly interesting that the desire to do so can be expressed in almost the same utopian language as that of the hippie commune. In an interview with Avi Lewis on Al Jazeera, Sandy Springs City Council member Rusty Paul (who also happens to be a former Georgia State Senator and chair of the Georgia Republican Party), said "We've got an unusual opportunity—we can take a blank sheet of paper and re-create how municipal government should operate and should function." (1) That sounds like a pretty seductive idea: starting all over again—a revolution! But in reality, Sandy Springs was simply rich enough to circumvent a state that was anyhow encouraging such public-private partnerships. In the end this form of self-governance has more to do with paying less money in municipal taxes and keeping out the problems of the poor (or, more accurately, the not-super-rich), and it is about as far from a hippie commune as you can get. Yet by some strange coincidence it manages to parrot its language.

Following the global financial meltdown, and with protests taking place throughout Europe to fight punishing austerity measures, it feels far easier to formulate an encompassing critique of market-liberal capitalism now than it has in years. Maybe it's the glasnost of neoliberalism, but I wouldn't be too sure. We'll have to see what comes of the protests, as what they are actually pointed against is a significantly ramped-up, undisguised new deployment of an ideology that had previously, and especially in the past decade, masked increasing social inequity in a series of delicate inversions, such as in the case of the "liberation" of Sandy Springs.

Meanwhile, last summer Prime Minister David Cameron announced his Big Society initiative for the UK in breathless, revolutionary terms as being "about liberation—the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street." (2) Apparently transcending mere market liberalism to become a sort of officially mandated grass-roots popular movement of empowered self-governed individuals, Big Society sounds almost like a willful decolonization of the UK by its own government—promising greater autonomy for local municipalities (or "vanguard communities") to govern themselves as they see fit, possibly even with financing from a "Big Society Bank." But Big Society was essentially an overture to a systematic dismantling of social services in the UK, which, as now-Labor Party Leader Ed Milliband put it, was a means of "cynically dressing up the withdrawal of support with the language of reinvigorating civic society." (3) And what a strange name, considering that Cameron's own Conservative Party precursor Margaret Thatcher proclaimed in 1987 that there is no such thing as society.

Big Society comes across like a last-ditch effort to push the possible illusions and confusions between liberals, liberty, and liberalism to their very limit, and the amount of resistance it has met with has been a sign that people aren't buying into this one. But while the Big Society initiative buries a brutal abandonment of society's needs beneath insidious inversions of utopian, grassroots rhetoric of self-management, there is a subtle difference in the case of Sandy Springs, because Sandy Springs' own abandonment of society simply works at the point where general hopes for autonomy could be tailored to suit one's own purposes, however corporatist and self-serving. Regardless, it remains a point where the hippy commune and the gated community become structural parallels, and that seems to suggest a possibility for surpassing neoliberal logic, because it can be flipped back on itself as well.

Artist Marjetica Potrc has suggested that the gated community can actually provide a useful "post-neoliberal" model with which marginal communities (such as the indigenous Croa community in Brazil's remote state of Acre) can use forms of privatization to their own advantage by limiting access to natural resources (such as rubber) that would otherwise be extracted by large corporations: "After all, one of the most successful and sought-after models of living together today is the gated community—the small-scale residential entity. But unlike gated communities, which represent static strategies of retreat and self-enclosure, the new territories in Acre are dynamic and proactive: they reach out to others." (4) In effect, this means that more economically vulnerable communities can use the same form of one-way vision claimed (or bought) by the wealthy to regulate a proprietary micro-economy of shared interests. The model of the gated community, just as the hippie commune or the secret society, allows goods and people to flow out, but can carefully regulate what (and who) enters. A "private sphere" seen this way would also be appealing to pretty much anyone, rich or poor, living under an authoritarian regime, one you just can't get far enough away from. I can think of a place or two in the Middle East, for example. Painfully missing in all of this, however, is the basic idea that wealth should, or even could, be distributed equally. As Potrc asks, "can it really work without the support of the state?"

(1) Cfr. english.aljazeera.net/programmes
(2) Cfr. www.guardian.co.uk/politics (3) Ibid.
(4) Cfr. Marjetica Potrc, "New Territories in Acre and Why They Matter," e-flux journal no. 0 (November 2008), e-flux.com/journal/view/10


Brian Kuan Wood is a writer and editor based in New York. He recently edited Selected Maria Lind Writing, published by Sternberg Press, and is an editor of e-flux journal.

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