Blog #61 – The Naturalization of Gentrification and Markets

Naturalizing Gentrification and Markets[1]

Naturalizing “gentrification,” using the word as if it describes an active “it,” speaking of it as a natural process, conceals its actual causes : a process by which particular live persons and groups act in particular ways in particular settings in ways that benefit themselves and harm others. Making it seem a natural process is a politically loaded formulation. In the same way, naturalizing “the market,” considering it the natural arrangement for live people to deal with each other in regard to goods and services, is politically loaded. It creates, in discussions of public policy, an initial assumption that this particular arrangement exists autonomously and prior to human action but its “natural” result, and thus any changes in it have the burden of proving their necessity as an “unnatural” act. In both cases, The language makes gentrification and markets organic entities , having lives of their own and specific behaviors, “naturally, ” thus concealing the political fact that they are man-made processes by which certain people act in certain ways in relationships, often unequal, with some other people’

The political questions of who is doing what to whom and how in the particular way they are acting thus is in effect linguistically suppressed by the naturalization.

Consider two formulations:

“The data on Williamsburg reveals the onward march of gentrification in the neighborhood.”

With the formulation:

“The data on Williamsburg reveals the onward march of gentrifiers in the neighborhood.”

In the one case, gentrification is a living thing, marching ahead on its own, and people must struggle against “it,” if they want change. In the other case, gentrification is the action of certain people, who must be struggled against if the process is to be changed.

Or compare the formulations:

“Public policy must take into account the natural functioning of the market”

With the formulation

“Public policy must rewrite the laws controlling the functioning of the market.”

In both cases, naturalizing the terms “gentrification” and “market, ” makes the question aacieving a desirableimprovement in what nature has provided, rather than the much more controversial question of the relations of power that have ennabled partilar patterns of social behavior that are lumped together in those terms. The language is not neutral and its use is insidious; it conceals issues of power and conflicts of interest in its very opening unspoken assumptions. Flesh and blood people, not lawsof nature, or indeed natural laws of economics, are what cause the problem. SSocial arrangements, not nature, must be canged to address them.

The examples of loaded naturalizing language to reinforce the status quo, proteting the existing distribution of wealth and power, are numerous. And they are often used in this way unintentionally, because often even advocates of change are caught in the conventional usage.

“That’s just the way the system works.”

But why does it work that way? Perhaps big fish eat little fish naturally, but the powerful displace the powerless deliberately, consciously creating the systems that serve them best. Certainly one might argue that greed, selfishness, heedlessness of other, the drive to accumulate and ever accumulate more, are “natural” parts of human nature, but there is as certainly much contradictory evidence positing that solidarity, love kindness, are equally “natural” instincts. But that is not the point here The point is that the triumph of greed over love is not something dictated by nature, but something subject to conscious human control,[2] and calling greed “natural” functions to justify it and perpetuate its results.

Detroit must compete in order to survive.”

Is “Detroit” a natural organism that compete with other natural organism s to live or die? Is “Detroit” the legal jurisdiction, Detroit, which, if “it acts is really the political governing bodies of the jurisdiction? Isit the metropolitan region? If so, it is internally sharply split and can’t really act as one. Is it “the” people” of Detroit? But they are hardly one entity, but many multitudes. Conjuring up “Detroit” as a single natural entity, however defined, an entity that can act, is an obfuscation that conceals the complex interplay of separate conflicting and combining interests and actors, and politically just serves to becloud conflict and reinforce the existing distribution of power.

“Cities evolve. They change and grow and shrink, and the economics and demographics of neighborhoods shift. This is healthy and normal.”

Evolving of course is better than remaining static, and of course it’s a natural process. It explains way they change, and replaces interest group conflicts, power struggles, public policies, resolutions in the market, leadership, social movements, from propulsive roles in bring about change or blocking it. It ignores political decisions, and thus downplays and discourages active political engagement by others than those already holding power and steering the “evolution.”

And sometimes the process of naturalization sweeps through an entire construct:

“Urban gentrification is a natural force underpinning the evolution of cities. Gentrification is not just natural, but also healthy for cities. It’s a reflection of their ability to adapt, a facet of their resilience.”[3]

Naturalization of social reality gone wild, ending with making resilience, he ability to overcome change and return to the status quo after inevitable challenges, is as politically loaded a term as you can get.

Thus naturalization distorts and biases discussion of urban issues. It conceals conflicts and contradictions, by-passes issues of power, justify the existing as naturally created, exonerates human beings from moral responsibility for the injustices and pains suffered by other human beings in the places where they live and work. It should be carefully avoided when urban questions are considered.[4]


[1] This article owes a large debt to Tom Slater’s excellent discussion, in “There Is Nothing Natural About Gentrification,”
New Left Project, November 24, 2014, available at

[2] And arguably even historically socially created and unnatural; see the forceful arguments in Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents and Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization

[3] Assembled from Philip Ball, “Gentrification is a Natural Evolution,” subtitled, “By regarding cities as natural organisms, we can see what drives gentrification” The Guardian, in turn based on an article by Sergio Porta entitled ‘The Form of Gentrification’, in Physics and Society all as quoted in the Slater article, cited above.

[4] (I am tempted to comment that in the United States we seem to accept naturalization of urban processes much more readily than we accept naturalization of urban immigrants, but will restrain the impulse.)

Author: pmarcuse

Just starting this blog, for short pieces on current issues. Suggestions for improvement, via e-mail, very welcome.

4 thoughts on “Blog #61 – The Naturalization of Gentrification and Markets”

  1. I live in a médium sized city in Mexico (La Paz, Baja California Sur) that is being gentrified through the joint efforts of the profi-seeking private sector (“developers”), tha national, state, and municipal governments, the Interamerican Development Bank, and a slew of US and Canadian “boomers.” The is absolutely nothing natural about this at all. Rather, it´s all about neoliberalization as usual.

  2. Your point is very effectively made with your own transformation of the terminology: from gentrification to gentrifiers! The living gentrifiers you are calling attention to here are of course the particular financiers and real estate speculators and those in league with them.

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