Book review: Urban Displacements: Governing Surplus and Survival in Global Capitalism

reviewed by Leon Rosa Reichle

5 Aug 2021, 2:02 p.m.
Leon Rosa Reichle

Urban Displacements book cover

Book review: Urban Displacements: Governing Surplus and Survival in Global Capitalism

by Susanne Soederberg and reviewed by Leon Rosa Reichle

London: Routledge, 2020; 310 pp.: ISBN: 9780367236199, £34.99 (pbk), ISBN: 9780367236175, £120.00 (hbk)


Two years ago, after presenting an early version of my planned PhD project on displacement at a summer school, a prestigious urban scholar told me that ‘displacement is boring’ and I should find a more sensational topic to boost my chances at a successful academic career. Following a period of initial bewilderment, I discovered that indeed, very much had already been written on displacement, from a range of different angles. However, what I kept missing was a bigger picture, a holistic analysis of rent as a form of (secondary) exploitation and of displacement in global capitalism. Thus, I read Susanne Soederberg’s book excitedly, as she steps right into this gap.

With her renewed housing question on the ‘class dynamics involved in reproducing displaced low-wage workers who […] are linked to contemporary capitalism as renters, debtors and, more generally, surplus populations’ (p. 15), Soederberg furthers not only scholarship on displacement and housing financialisation, but also on the (reproduction of) class relations of global capitalism. Exposing multiple forms of housing precarity under the term ‘displaced survival’ (p. 4), the book analyses its multi-scalar governance and untangles its role in the reproduction of both credit-led accumulation and a fragmented (surplus) working class.

The first part of the book on ‘framing displacements’ introduces her analytical toolkit and is excellent literature for anyone interested in theorising the role of displacements in historical and contemporary capitalism, and its multi-scalar governance within a field of tension between (re)producing and regulating surplus and scarcity (workers and money). Tracing what she terms the ‘commodity triad of displacements, which encompasses rental housing, labour power and money’ (p. 26, emphasis in original), she analyses its different historical configurations constituted by tensions arising from credit-led accumulation and the simultaneous ‘need to reproduce another key lever to expanded social accumulation – racialised and gendered surplus workers’ (p. 50).

Her theoretical overview on the role of capitalist state institutions in the ‘monetised governance of displaced survival’ (p. 52) is compelling yet marks a slight shortcoming of the book. Whereas Soederberg distances herself from deterministic perspectives and keeps crediting political struggles in passing throughout the book, her analysis slightly neglects dynamics of contestation within and beyond state institutions. Whereas her focus on multiply constraining governance institutions is credible and seems appropriate in a European context, it can leave the (activist) reader wondering about potential terrains of transformative struggle. However, as the concluding section on Berlin reveals, this is no matter of ignorance, but one of perspective and emphasis.

Parts 2 and 3 of the book are dedicated to empirical analyses that substantiate Soederberg’s analysis of displaced survival. The reader should be prepared for an analysis of global capitalism, however with a European focus. That said, Part 2 provides remarkable insights into the workings of multilevel neoliberal governance, exemplified by the European Union. Unpacking a row of transnational institutions, their relations, capacities and responsibilities, and historically situating different treaties, laws and policies, this section paints a clear picture of the often mystified and depoliticised modes of operation of the ‘EU as a capitalist state scale’ (p. 67). It is valuable reading on its own for anyone trying to disentangle different scales of European state power and is a relevant backdrop for understanding national and local labour, welfare and housing politics.

Part 3 contains the empirical centrepiece of the book. Based on her research in three EU capitals, Soederberg tells the story of displaced survival as part of the capitalist reproduction of class relations and surplus populations. Thereby her selection of cities is remarkable, shedding light on housing injustice in capitals of countries known for prosperity (Germany), welfare (Austria) and economic growth (Ireland), revealing the underside of their capitalist, credit-based operating principles.

In Berlin, Soederberg takes the reader to Neukölln, a nationally ill-reputed district. The three chapters on the German capital are especially strong in their analysis of the role of rental housing in reproducing racialised class divisions. Tracing the development of Neukölln, which is mostly populated by low-skilled and low-income residents fuelling the city’s service industry, Soederberg expounds the historical materialist genesis of a racist territorial stigma. Following this, the monetised governance of displaced survival is exemplified by the privatisation and marketisation of state-owned housing companies alongside an increasingly punitive and disciplining workfare regime. Chapter 6 represents a welcome intervention into Germany’s prominent ‘refugee question’ which has been politically exploited from nearly all sides. Demonstrating the austerian nature of the distribution and accommodation of refugees, Soederberg illustrates not just the (gendered) violence, humiliation and precarity of their displaced survival, but also the marketisation of the services they depend on. As observed in my research in East Germany (Reichle and Bescherer, 2021), the hegemonic political abuse of their precarity through scapegoating narratives plays a similarly divisive role for Germany’s surplus working class as previous myths of the ‘non-integrating foreigners’ (p. 112) dismantled in the book.

The Viennese case study provides an instructive example of housing as a central theme of (multi-scalar) state governance and its historically changing nature. Soederberg deconstructs the story of the renowned social housing ‘prototype’ shaping Vienna’s reputation as one of the ‘most liveable cities in the world’ (p. 177), by outlining the historical and present exclusions it produces and revealing its depoliticising nature. Her analysis demonstrates the role of rental housing provision and (de)regulation in capitalist states’ navigation between securing legitimacy through decent conditions of social reproduction and facilitating credit-based capital accumulation. A historical summary unfolds how this tension is resolved increasingly in favour of credit-based capital accumulation with Austria’s entrance to the EU and respective pressure towards monetised governance and ‘fiscal prudence in the name of competition and growth’ (p. 198). Chapter 8 then demonstrates the stratified social consequences for a growing low-income, low-skilled, un- or underemployed working class, serving as a twofold lever to capitalism, that reappears throughout all three cases. Soederberg convincingly lays bare how reserve armies of workers simultaneously constitute sites of credit-based accumulation through their increasing dependence on consumer debt and privatised rental housing.

The last section on Dublin presents a particularly harsh example of ‘structural violence inherent to, and perpetrated by, the dynamics of global capitalism’ (p. 239). Exploring Ireland’s economic growth model from the 1980s, Soederberg demonstrates its dramatic and heavily gendered impact for workers in a growing service industry, facing worsened working conditions and increased long-term un- and underemployment, along with rising rents fuelled by an increasingly speculative real estate market. The provided analysis clarifies the capitalist origin of Ireland’s housing crisis already before 2008 and following austerity measures, although the latter have worsened the situation. Scrutinising the governance of displaced survival in Dublin, Soederberg outlines governmental fail-forward strategies relying on a market-led approach to housing that subsidises profit-oriented landlords whilst pushing around indebted tenants from one untenable privatised housing situation to the next. This latter approach is characterised not only as a state-supported poverty industry, but also a strategy of disappearing homelessness. Elaborating previous emphases on the interrelation of housing and hierarchised working conditions, the Dublin case especially highlights the inextricable linkage of both to the gendered division of (reproductive)labour, which comes to the fore in a context where childcare is unaffordable to most, excluding (lone) mothers from paid labour and forcing them into a vicious cycle of indebtment and housing precarity.

Overall, the book is a timely contribution not just to housing scholarship, but also to contemporary analyses of global capitalism, which much too often centre solely on labour-, credit- or housing relations. Thanks to its clarity, the book can be helpful for practitioners as well as academics. Yet for readers involved in housing activism, I recommend combining this book with reading of research that more heavily emphasises the role of (housing) struggles (Fields, 2017Gray, 2018), to prevent resignation in view of the complex multi-scalar power relations sustaining class-based primary and secondary exploitation. However, the base of any radical praxis trying to exploit weak points of oppressive systems is their exposure through critical analysis, which this book is sure to expand.



Fields, D (2017) Unwilling subjects of financialization. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 41(4): 588–603.
Google Scholar | Crossref
Gray, N (ed.) (2018) Rent and Its Discontents: A Century of Housing Struggle. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.
Google Scholar
Reichle, LR, Bescherer, P (2021) Organizing with tenants and fighting rightist resentments – A case study from East Germany. Radical Housing Journal 3(1): 11–31.
Google Scholar


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