Social Justice and the City

1888655Social Justice and the City brings you back to the beginnings of geography’s emergence as a radical project, the point at which a whole branch split away from what Harvey terms ‘liberal formulations’ to work towards the transformation of society. It does it through a series of essays that traverse this change in Harvey’s own thinking, creating a provocative and unique book in my mind, and a good reminder of the fields roots in more positivist economic thinking.

It begins an account surprisingly along the lines of traditional–and what in my mind I classify as neo-liberal urban economics–but really are what Harvey terms liberal. He throws terms around like ‘Pareto optimum’, wields statistical models of equilibrium, treats households as simply consumers though trying to understand the social and psychological housing barriers that people face alongside their distance from the city center (distance was for so long a defining factor in models of home prices). Instead he begins thinking of constellations of factors, notes the ways that transport policies favour suburban areas and the injustice of expecting inner-city residents to adjust their own methods of travel to accommodate this disequilibrium.

Thus slowly he approaches a model that moves away from urban form as a result of simple market forces to take into account politics. He writes:

The realities of political power being what they are, the rich groups will probably thereby grow richer and the poor groups will thereby be deprived. It seems that the current real income distribution in a city system must be viewed as ‘the predictable outcome of the political process’ (Buchanan, 1968b 185 as quoted by Harvey: 73) He draws on Olson and Buchanan to note that small, privileged and well-organised groups are often able to defeat larger groups, and create institutional structures that are closed, effectively marginalising and excluding larger groups. Particularly if they happen to be poor. They become the slum-dwellers, the losers in the city’s pecking-order when it comes to competing for resources and services.

The cultural attitudes of the inner city have always been different from those of the suburbs and it does not seem that these differences are decreasing. Therefore I find it hard to accept either Marcuse’s thesis (1964) that there is a growing homogeneity in cultural values…or the spatial form equivalent of it in which a ‘one-dimensional man’ dwells…(84)

In thinking about how to create a just city in which the ‘spatial organization and the pattern of regional investment should be such as to fulfil the needs of the population’ (107), where needs and resource allocations match, he is forced to leave liberal formulations. He writes that it is unsurprising programmes in the UK and US have failed to eradicate poverty as ‘programmes which seek to alter distribution without altering the capitalist market structure within which income and wealth are generated and distributed, are doomed to failure’ (107). That capital will always flow to where the rates of return are highest, thus capital clearly will flow in a way which bears little relationship to need or to the condition of the least advantaged territory. The result will be the creation of localized pockets of high unfulfilled need, such as those now found in Appalachia or many inner city areas…Thus arises the paradox of capital withdrawing from areas of greatest need to provide for the demands of relatively affluent suburban communities. Under capitalism this is good and rational behaviour—it is what the market reuires for the ‘optimal’ allocation of resources (112).

Then he slams it home:

If it is accepted that the maintenance of scarcity is essential for the functioning of the market system, then it follows that deprivation, appropriation and exploitation are also necessary concomitants of the market system (114).

A new system is needed to obtain what he calls ‘A Just Distribution Justly Achieved: Territorial Social Justice’

1. The distribution of income should be such that (a) the needs of the population within each territory are met, (b) resources are so allocated to maximize interterritorial multiplier effects, and (c) extra resources are allocated to help overcome special difficulties stemming from the physical and social environment.
2. The mechanisms (institutional, organizational, political and economic) should be such that the prospects of the least advantaged territory are as great as they possibly can be.

And so we go on to Part II, Socialist Formulations. The first chapter is ‘Revolutionary and Counter-revolutionary Theory in Geography and the Problem of Ghetto Formation’, and much as I value this work it fails here to deal with race or racial ideologies in any deep manner. I’ve been thinking about what it is about the paradigm within which he is working, both in its liberal and socialist formulations, that limits the vision in this way, prevents the questions I personally find most important after a decade of work in the ‘ghetto’ from even being asked. But to return to Harvey, he starts with Kuhn’s scientific revolutions and then has a wonderful bitchy quote from Johnson (1971) on new theory in academia

On new academic theories: ‘First, it had to attack the central proposition of conservative orthodoxy…with a new but academically acceptable analysis that reversed the proposition…Second, the theory had to appear to be new, yet absorb as much as possible of the valid or at least not readily disputable components of orthodox theory. In this process, it helps greatly to give old concepts new and confusing names, and to emphasize as crucial analytical steps that have previously been taken as platitudinous…Third, the new theory had to have the appropriate degree of difficulty to understand…so that senior academic colleagues would find it neither easy nor worthwhile to study, so that they would waste their efforts on peripheral theoretical issues, and so offer themselves as easy marks for criticism and dismissal but their younger and hungrier colleagues. At the same time the new theory had to appear both difficult enough to challenge the intellectual interest of younger colleagues and students, but actually easy enough for them to master adequately with sufficient investment of intellectual endeavour…Fourth, the new theory had to offer the more gifted and less opportunistic scholars a new methodology more appealing than those currently available…Finally, [it had to offer] an important empirical relationship…to measure (quoting Johnson 1971, 123).

Then he goes on to think what might happen if we get rid of the idea of private property, get rid of the idea of scarcity. He writes:

‘scarcity is socially defined and not naturally determined. A market system becomes possible under conditions of resource scarcity, for only under those conditions can price-fixing commodity exchange markets rise…We therefore find a paradox, namely that wealth is produced under a system which relies upon scarcity for its functioning. It follows that if scarcity is eliminated, the market economy, which is the source of productive wealth under capitalism, will collapse. Yet capitalism is forever increasing its productive capacity. To resolve this dilemma many institutions and mechanisms are formed to ensure that scarcity does not disappear’ (139).

He uses the example of the ghetto to explore this paradox. Owners charge too much rent for appalling conditions, but still don’t make huge profits. The value of property remains low. It experiences the highest rates of overcrowding as well as the highest rates of abandoned buildings. Banks are afraid to lend money due to the uncertainty of the return. And so:

In fact, it is a general characteristic of ghetto housing that if we accept the mores of normal, ethical, entrepreneurial behaviour, there is no way in which we can blame anyone for the objective social conditions which all are willing to characterize as appalling and wasteful of potential housing resources. It is a situation in which we can find all kinds of contradictory statements ‘true’ (140-41).

That is certainly the argument that every slumlord I’ve known has made. He looks at Engels, and the parallels in slums from his time and ours, the reality that this is intrinsic to capitalism. And then he looks at what we need to do to end it. What does it entail?

Let me say first what it does not entail. It does not entail yet another empirical investigation of the social conditions in the ghettos. In fact, mapping even more evidence of man’s patent inhumanity to man is counter-revolutionary in the sense that it allows the bleeding heart liberal in us to pretend we are contributing to a solution when in fact we are not (144).

Hell yes. Instead:

This immediate task is nothing more nor less than the self-concious and aware construction of a new paradigm for social geographic thought through a deep and profoiund critique of our existing analytical constructs…our task is to mobilize our powers of thought to formulate concepts and categories, theories and arguments, which we can apply to the task of bringing about a humanizing social change. These concepts and categories cannot be formulated in abstraction. They must be forged realistically with respect to the events and actions as they unfold around us’ (145)

What I love about Harvey, is that this is exactly what he has been doing since he wrote this. Forty years now or so. And unlike many, he recognizes that it is not just academics who are intellectuals, but follows Gramsci in believing that a social movement becomes such when the whole population is acting to ‘reconcile analysis and action’ (149).

He moves on to use value and exchange value, ‘a prevailing source of concern for the political economists of the 19th century’ (153) like Smith and Ricardo and of course, Marx. Land is a very specific kind of commodity, it cannot be moved around at will, no individual can go without occupying space, it changes hands relatively infrequently, investments in built environment have some permanency to them, market exchange happens at one point in time, use over a long period. Its use values are numerous and overlapping:

1. shelter
2. a quantity of space for exclusive use by the occupants
3. privacy
4. a relative location which is accessible to work places, retail opportunities, social services, family and friends, and so on (and this includes the possibility for place of work etc., to be actually in the house)
5. a relative location which is proximate to sources of pollution, areas of congestion, sources of crime and hazard, people viewed with distaste, and so on
6. a neighbourhood location that has physical, social and symbolic (status) characteristics
7. a means for storing and enhancing wealth (159)

He writes that these are formed with respect to the ‘life support system’ of the individual, and lies outside the sphere of political economy. But this alone cannot generate an adequate theory of land use, this happens in ‘those catalytic moments in the urban land-use decision process when use value and exchange value collide to make commodities out of the land and the improvement thereon… (160)

He notes that there is little work done on relating use values to exchange values though much looking at each independently. Within a micro-economic framework there are 5 distinct actors in the housing market: occupiers (‘all occupiers of housing have a similar concern—to procure use values through laying out exchange value’ but also used to store equity – he clearly sees this as a minor consideration in comparison to exchange values for this group, but clearly this store of value is key is producing stability and wealth (163)), realtors (exchange value), landlords (exchange value – exchanging housing for money), developers (‘involved in the process of creating new use values for others in order to realize exchange values for themselves’ 165), financial institutions (interested in gaining exchange values through financing opportunities for the creation or procurement of use values’, when involved in development their decisions are ‘plainly geared to profitability and risk-avoidance’ 165), and government institutions (production of use values through public housing, intervention to support or regulate market, institutional constraints and zoning affect values also). It is also a situation of monopoly, given that there is limited land that is divided between individual landowners who control their own parcels, and thus is formed a class monopoly as those who already have property find it easier to hold it and expand those holdings, to live where they wish and to use land as they will. Thus ‘We therefore arrive at the fundamental conclusion that the rich can command space whereas the poor are trapped in it’ (171). He argues that this serves as a foil to show the short-comings of liberal economic utility-maximization models.

And then there is the fascinating subject of rent—though this section feels somewhat tentative here, and Harvey works it out much more fully in Limits of Capital. But his conclusions are interesting, though I don’t know that I agree with them:

If we argue that rent can dictate use, then this implies that exchange values can determine use values by creating new conditions to which individuals must adapt if they are to survive in society…The capitalist market exchange economy so penetrates every aspect of social and private life that it exerts an almost tyrannical control over the life-support system in which use values are embedded. A dominant mode of production, Marx observed, inevitably creates the conditions of consumption. Therefore, the evolution of urban land-use patterns can be understood only in terms of the general processes whereby society is pushed down some path (it knows not how) towards a pattern of social needs and human relationships (which are neither comprehended nor desired) by the blind forces of an evolving market system. The evolution of urban form is an integral part of this general process and rent, as a measure of the interpenetration of use values and exchange values, contributes notably to the unfolding of this process (190).

He continues:

When use determines value a case can be made for the social rationality of rent as an allocative device that leads to efficient capitalist production patterns…But when value determines use, the allocation takes place under the auspices of rampant speculation, artificially induced scarcities, and the like, and it loses any pretence of having anything at all to do with the efficient organization of production and distribution.

This is an interesting place to start an analysis of urban development from, although he is in conversation here with economists, with the contradictions between rent theory and capital theory, that I am unfamiliar with and that I imagine no longer provide a background for human geographers (if they ever did, though I cannot generalise here beyond myself and my own reading).

The next chapter, ‘Urbanism and the City’ takes us back to urban beginnings, drawing on anthropology and archaeology much as Ed Soja does in Postmetropolis, though with a focus on how the development of surplus value drove the development of the city. He works to bring together the ‘(1) the surplus concept, (2) the mode of economic integration concept and (3) concepts of spatial organization’ (245) to build a framework for ‘interpreting urbanism’ (246). I liked the point that ‘Urbanism, as a general phenomenon, should not be viewed as the history of particular cities, but as the history of the system of cities within, between and around which the surplus circulates’ (250). Always things are in relation to everything else, never static and enclosed.

At the current conjuncture he writes: ‘The contemporary metropolis therefore appears vulnerable, for if the rate at which surplus value is being appropriated at the centre (if profit levels are to be maintained) exceeds the rate at which social product is being created, then financial and economic collapse is inevitable’ (264). Thus ‘the survival of capitalist society and metropolitan centres to which it gives rise thus depends on some countervailing force’ (265). He looks to monopoly arrangements and technological innovation, me, I’m not so sure. But it is certain that much of the expansion of the built environment, particularly the intense suburbanisation of the past decades has been driven by a need to expand the circulation of surplus value as he says. Also that there are large pocket of intense poverty, these communities forming the industrial reserve army (in Marx’s formulation) which serve to stabilise the economy even as they rest on ‘human suffering and degradation’ (272). Given that the market ‘leads different income groups to occupy different locations we can view the geographical patterns in urban residential structure as a tangible geographical expression of a structural condition in the capitalist economy’ (273). This is true on a global level, how awesome is this comment on Sweden? ‘Sweden is in effect an affluent suburb of the global capitalist economy (it even exhibits many of the social and psychological stresses of a typical suburban economy)’ and thus ‘There is no limit to the effectiveness of welfare state policies within a territory, but there is an overall limit to progressive redistribution within the global economy of capitalism as a whole’ (277).

He hasn’t moved far from what could be called economic determinism, though he does later. Still, this follows the whole base-superstructure orthodoxy: ‘Issues stemming form the economic basis of society will frequently be translated into political and ideological issues…for example, issues of unemployment may be translated into issues of racial or ethnic discrimination in the job market’ (279). He says later on ‘In a conflict between the evolution of the economic basis of society and elements in the superstructure, it is the latter that have to give way, adapt, or be eliminated’ (292). Thus base is defining in the ultimate sense.

He ends with some interesting thinking around Marxism itself, that to me seems very Althusserian along the lines of Hall, though he draws on Piaget (1979) and Ollman (1972) who I haven’t read. So Ontology – the theory of what exists. He quotes Ollman as saying ‘the twin pillars of Marx’s ontology are his conception of reality as a totality of internally related parts, and his conception of these parts as expandable relations such that each one in its fullness can represent the totality (p 8, quoted on page 288). Thus ‘Capitalism…seeks to shape the elements and relationships within itself in such a way that capitalism is reproduced as an ongoing system. Consequently, we can interpret the relationships within the totality according to the way in which they function to preserve and reproduce it’. Which I like, though ‘capitalism’ as a thing doesn’t exist to do anything, it is a set of relations between actors and instititions so it’s all a little more complex. But I agree with where this leads us in terms of uncovering Marx’s ontology ‘that research has to be directed in discovering the transformation rules whereby society is constantly being restructured, rather than ‘causes’, in the isolated sense that follows from a presupposition of atomistic association, or to identifying ‘stages’ or ‘descriptive laws’…’ (289).

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