The systematic dialectic of decolonisation
On Geographies, Borders, and Seams of Expertise

Social justice and the city

by Frank Stilwell on October 27, 2017

David Harvey’s pioneering book Social Justice and the City (1973) takes its readers on a fascinating journey, from a mainstream liberal view of the city to a radical political economic alternative. The transition is developed through engagement with an array of complex analytical issues – ontological, epistemological and philosophical, as well as down-to-earth geographical. The journey is an exhilarating experience, recommended even for readers who may be reluctant to leave their familiar home base for a trip to an unfamiliar and dangerous-sounding destination.

Harvey’s argument is that if we really want to understand cities and spatial form, we need to scrutinize the systemic forces shaping production, distribution and exchange. Looking through this lens brings capital, class and state into sharp focus, contrasting with the neoclassical economic view of how an idealized ‘market economy’ delivers equilibrium outcomes and with liberal views of ‘social justice’ coming through ameliorative reforms. Capitalism must be in the frame, Harvey insists, so urban and spatial theorizing is either for it – whether explicitly or implicitly – or against it. With the benefit of hindsight, this looks rather ‘black and white’, lacking considerations of the ‘varieties of capitalism’, the experience (mainly demise) of actually existing socialist alternatives in the late 20th century and the evolving character of capitalism under the influence of globalization, financialization and neoliberalism. It would be harsh, however, to criticize Harvey for this initial formulation, since he has been one of the most important subsequent contributors to the burgeoning literature on the latter topics.

Harvey had previously written a more conventional book, Explanation in Geography, followed by articles expressing dissatisfaction with the current state of knowledge about cities and regions, and the need for alternative ways of understanding spatial phenomena. The contents of five of the seven chapters in Social Justice and the City had already appeared in academic journals. Formally, it is a book of halves, the first dealing with ‘liberal’ ways of conceptualizing social process, spatial form and social justice, while the second explores ‘socialist formulations’ for understanding and challenging capitalist urbanism. While drawing primarily on Marxist analysis, the approach is not single track: it draws on ideas from scholars as diverse as August Losch, Karl Polanyi, Henri Lefebvre, the Georgist-inspired Mason Gaffney and anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. Some rather long quotations from these and other authors are reproduced, making the book seem somewhat under-digested at times, but this reflects its exploratory, educational character. Harvey comes across as keen to apply whatever can help him and his readers to understand the political economic forces that shape capitalist cities.

How engaging is the journey for people schooled in mainstream economic and geographical studies? It is hard to generalize, but my own experience may be illustrative. Having done a doctorate in conventional urban and regional economics in the UK, I might well have continued in that vein had I not read Harvey’s 1973 book. I did so at a time when, postdoctorate, I had started lecturing at the University of Sydney and had become involved in a major conflict over the teaching of economics. I realized that Harvey’s journey was also mine, albeit starting from a different academic discipline. I sought to carry over into a course on urban and regional economics – and into a more comprehensive political economy programme – the principles of pluralist education that are conducive to open-ended enquiry rather than the reproduction of orthodoxy. Harvey’s view that we cannot understand urban and regional phenomena without looking at their connection to political economic interests, ideologies and structures had particularly strong resonance. I became an enthusiastic fellow traveller.

Many urban and regional scholars evidently felt likewise during the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, it seemed that orthodoxy was everywhere under challenge. Harvey’s book is a product of those times. Its exuberance exemplifies that era of ‘new left’ scholarship, positing radical analysis and activism as means of making a difference. Harvey’s influence was buttressed and extended by a wide array of other scholars, including Richard Walker, Richard Peet, Neil Smith, Doreen Massey, Matt Edel, David Gordon, Ann Markusen, Erik Swyngedoew, Akin Mabogunje, Patrick Bond, Enzo Mingione, William Tabb, Larry Sawers and many others (with apologies to those who feel they should have been named!). Some of these were Harvey’s former students: all worked in the broad territory his work opened up.

Harvey did everything he could to encourage interest and guide the way. In the introduction to Social Justice and the City (written after the subsequent chapters) he set out four principal themes that his book would explore: the nature of theory, space, social justice and urbanism. In each case, his position by the end of the book is quite different from the starting point. For the nature of theory, he describes the shift as being ‘from philosophical idealism towards a materialist interpretation of ideas as they arise in particular historical contexts’ (p. 12). For the nature of space, the shift is from asking ‘what is space?’, as if that might be objectively resolved, to asking ‘how different human practices create and make use of distinctive conceptualisations of space?’ (p. 13). For social justice, it is from the quest for ‘absolute truths about morality’ (p. 15) to seeing social justice as ‘something contingent upon the social processes operating in society’. For urbanism, somewhat similarly, the shift is from treating the city as a ‘thing in itself’ to a more relationally defined urbanism, subjecting urban theory itself to critical scrutiny of whose interests it serves. Each of these themes, as he points out (p. 11), is woven into a broader set of evolving arguments rather than presented as discrete steps.

The actual chapters of the book have a quite different structure and sequence. Chapter 1 deals with conceptual problems of urban planning, looking at the methodological choices and problems at the interface of the geographical and sociological perspectives. Chapter 2 seeks to understand the forces shaping the distribution of income in an urban system, seeing cities as mechanisms for determining who gets what. This remains, to my mind, a standout contribution to the development of urban analysis, wrestling with how distributional issues can be understood in their spatial context. Then chapter 3 turns to the normative questions of how we might identify what constitutes a fair distribution, leading into an exploration of notions of ‘need’, ‘merit’ and ‘contributions to the common good’.

Seeking to cut through the impasse of trying to resolve these ‘liberal’ concerns, the second half of the book turns to radical rethinking about how we might better understand capitalist cities and other urban forms. Chapter 4 explores the nature of radicalism – literally, getting to the roots – by considering the distinctive characteristics of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary theory, taking the study of ghetto formation as an example. Chapter 5 focuses on land use, looking at theories of rent as a way of reconceptualizing how ownership and power structures shape the city. Chapter 6, newly written for the book, considers the role of cities in the production and distribution of surplus value. While the primary focus here is on the Marxian concept of ‘modes of production’, there is also substantial engagement with Polanyi’s ‘modes of integration’ as a means of understanding how urban economies function and self-reproduce. The latter half of this long chapter is given over to retelling urban history though these ways of seeing. Finally, chapter 7 offers a brief conclusion and synthesis, with particular reference to questions of ontology and epistemology.

There are many personal highlights during this extensive journey and every fellow traveller would presumably have their own favourites. Two must suffice as illustrative gems. One is the observation (on p. 139) that capitalism creates a perpetual tension between abundance and scarcity: the very system that promises affluence through economic growth relies upon the reproduction of scarcity for its own functioning. Much follows from this astute observation, including insights into the causes of unsustainable consumerism and the recurrence of uneven regional development. It is a theme that Costas Panayotakis developed more fully as the core argument in his Remaking Scarcity. It is also an embryo of the more comprehensive set of arguments Harvey pulled together four decades later in Seventeen Contradictions and the Future of Capitalism. Everything changes once you think in terms of contradictions rather than equilibrium.

A second illustration concerns the significance for urban analysis of the ‘Cambridge controversies’ that were then a lively feature of economic debate in British and US economics journals. The controversies centred on the seemingly esoteric topic of how ‘capital’ might be defined and measured. Critics of neoclassical theory pointed out that capital could not be aggregated nor measured in any terms that are independent of its own profitability. That being so, the orthodox marginal productivity theory, purporting to explain profits as the return to capital’s ‘productivity’, was not tenable. Rather, the return to capital has to be seen as a surplus, as in the classical political economic and Marxian traditions. Perceiving the relevance of this line of thinking for urban analysis, Harvey pointed to the potentially devastating effect for attempts to explain patterns of land use with models based on aggregate production functions that embodied the neoclassical view of capital. In his own words: ‘If Joan Robinson, [Piero] Sraffa and the other neo-Keynesians are anywhere near correct [in their critique of how capital is treated in neoclassical theory] then Alonso, Mills and Muth are completely wrong’ (p. 192). I regard this insight as being on a par with Doreen Massey’s memorable observation that ‘perfect competition’, the core model of neoclassical theory, is a logical impossibility once the spatial dimension of all economic activity is recognized. Both are examples of how critical engagement with orthodoxy is essential for intellectual progress.

Social Justice and the City was just the starting point for Harvey’s further contributions to radical scholarship. A major milestone along the road was The Limits to Capital, a book that presented a highly original analysis of how ‘spatial fixes’ might provide temporary easing of, but not permanent solutions for, capitalist economic crises. Then, in The Condition of Postmodernity he sought to re-direct the ‘formless relativism’ of post-structuralist thinking towards political economic considerations of ‘flexible accumulation’ and ‘time–space compression’. More recently, he has been renowned as a proponent of the concept of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ and as a leading analyst of neoliberalism. Harvey’s concern with the spatial dimension has been a consistent theme throughout his books – of which there are more than two dozen, averaging one every two years over a career spanning half a century – and countless articles. The Urbanisation of Capital, The Enigma of Capital and Rebel Cities are personal favourites among an enormous array of new works and compilations of ‘greatest hits’ that keep him an ever-present force across this broad field of radical scholarship.

In retrospect, we can interpret Social Justice and the City as roughly marking out the territory. Urban and regional studies would never be quite the same again, as urban sociologist Pahl predicted in an early review and as Soja, despite his concern to establish critical distance, shows in his own work. Harvey’s book fundamentally challenged disciplinary boundaries and the conventional assumptions about economy, society and public policy. No longer could the economy be seriously regarded as just a mechanism – and certainly not a just mechanism – for establishing equilibrium outcomes, including optimal locational choices and distributional patterns. Nor could we blithely assume, as I had done during my own doctoral research, that public policies for ‘better cities’ or ‘regional balance’ would come directly from the enlightened use of knowledge generated by urban and regional academics and practitioners. Rather, the economy had to be seen in terms of conflictual class relations that would influence the rhythms of capital accumulation and shape the spatial and distributional outcomes, driving processes of change that are sometimes evolutionary and sometimes revolutionary in character. The state had to be seen as an institution constrained by the interest of capital, acting alongside and sometimes overpowering the effects of democratic processes. Labour had to be recognized as an active player. Land has to be analysed as the terrain on which the struggles occur, shaped by the interests of landed property.

The notion of a ‘right to the city’ can be seen as a further legacy. While it did not originate in Social Justice and the City, the book’s conceptualization of urban space as produced and contested – and its explicit linking of this construction to moral notions of justice – paved the way for later contributions. In these and other respects, Harvey’s book challenged us to rethink how we see and analyse cities and regions in a broader political economic context by weaving together the ‘sociological and geographical imaginations’ and by adopting a dialectical way of thinking about temporal–spatial interactions. Because it laid the groundwork for subsequent analyses of links between social relations, notions of social justice and spatial form, in conjunction with a materialist account of process, Harvey’s work remains important reading. It has an ongoing influence in modern urban and regional analysis.

The intellectual revolution that Harvey and his fellow travellers sought to initiate did happen, but it was partial and always vulnerable to a counter-revolution (or simply to ‘benign neglect’). Looking at the pages of Regional Studies in recent years, the latter tendencies are evident: only rarely do articles draw explicitly on his contribution. In mainstream economics, where the neoclassical approach remains deeply entrenched, his critique has been almost wholly ‘water off a duck’s back’. The economic theorists carry on regardless, often basing their models on the use of aggregate production functions and assumptions of market competition that Harvey (and Massey) exposed as untenable more than four decades ago. Moreover, much mainstream economics has remained resolutely a-spatial, notwithstanding (or perhaps because of) the development of a subfield of geographical economics. In Harvey’s own words: ‘only if you imagine that all economic activity occurs on the head of a pin, can you develop a non-geographical theory about what is going on in contemporary capitalism’. Yet, that is what economists still typically do.

So what would a postgraduate scholar now seeing Harvey’s Social Justice and the City get from reading it? Rather ironically, the first three chapters on ‘liberal perspectives’ are the part of the book that might have most traction. This is because the long, lingering embrace of neoliberalism during the last three decades has reasserted capitalist market orthodoxies, ideologically buttressed by neoclassical economic theory. Harvey’s critique of the ‘liberal formulations’ appears as fresh and pertinent as ever in these circumstances, notwithstanding its familiarity to an older generation of critical scholars. In contrast to this focus, the second half of Harvey’s book, pointing to socialist alternatives and making the case for a radical praxis, may seem less pertinent in an era of widespread cynicism about the possibilities for progressive political change. However (and here comes the desperately wishful thinking), perhaps the rise of right-wing populists could create some thirst for the radical rethinking, alternative visions and activism that Harvey was inviting us to explore. We live in hope.

For all these reasons, the journey that Harvey’s book inspired me and so many other urban and regional analysts to begin more than four decades ago is just as relevant today. Indeed, faced with the tendency of modern capitalism to generate increasing economic insecurity, economic inequality and environmental stress, Harvey’s ‘ruthless critique of everything existing’ is needed now more than ever.

Is this homage to Harvey? Yes, it is.

First published as part of Regional Studies’ 50th anniversary book review collection

Frank Stilwell
Emeritus Professor of Political Economy at the University of Sydney, co-ordinating editor of the Journal of Australian Political Economy (JAPE), and Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.

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