‘Thinking about the city from the standpoint of a Marxist, and about Marxism from the standpoint of an urbanist, is fraught with a lot of difficulties’, says Merrifield, and he is right. Collected here in Metromarxism, however, are all of the key figures who have attempted this in some form or other. An engagingly-written introduction to Marxism and geography for a beginner, and a thought-provoking review for those well into it, with a chapter each on major thinkers. The only thing lacking in here is the ladies, their absence as critical thinkers apologized for by Merrifield. The folks in here are also all white. This raises some questions and concerns about both geography and Marxism, but I’ll leave those for now as I wrestle with that a lot.
It begins with Marx of course, and a few insights I quite liked that don’t immediately have to do with property. The way that action on the external world changes us internally as well, subject and object both mediated by practice. This revolutionary practice thus involves changing people and ideas and ‘ideas about ideas’, to ‘educate the educator himself’ (18, Marx 422). There follows a review of the dialectic, always useful. It primary characteristic that of change, with Capital as a study of movement. The roots of this constant change lying in contradiction, ‘incompatible elements within an entity that both support and undermine that entity’ (25). And he nails what I like most about Marx:
Marx asked us—we of radical bent, that is—to grasp the dual character of the world, to see it singly in its duality, to envision it simultaneously as a process and a thing, as a social relation and an object, an observable outcome with an unobservable ‘law of motion’. (27)
Of course, as Merrifield notes, Marx wrote very little on the city itself, or even property. This was really the province of Engels.
What Engels described in studying the slums of Manchester is so familiar to me given my knowledge of today’s slums, it is hard to find insight in it. In itself an insight. I love that he understood how poverty is really an act of violence against those living in it, what he calls ‘social murder’ (49, quoting p 127). He stripped the acts of city redevelopment of their social justifications, understanding that slum clearance – so often claimed to be the solution then and now by business and liberal reformers – simply shifted the problems elsewhere. ‘As long as the capitalist mode of production continues to exist it is folly to hope for an isolated settlement of the housing question or of any other social question affecting the lot of the workers’ (46, Housing Q p 368).
I love Walter Benjamin, but my love for his work hasn’t helped me much in understanding the way that academics have tried to use it theoretically. I found this useful in the ways that Benjamin thought about the commodity and opens up the experience of the arcades, the spectacle of this aspect of the city, the crowds and the lights and the beautiful objects, as a commodity for further theorising. And this, on his relationship to Brecht and Marxism:
Thus, dialectical crudity and utmost theoretical subtlety would split Benjamin’s Parisian exposes: He’d proceed to mix the dignity of the library with wisecracks of the street, intellectual high life with everyday lowlife, rhapsodic verse with ribald curses. At its best, Benjamin’s Marxism of the city would get ‘the mediation’ about right, would give a new depth of experience to metropolitan Marxism, taking the dialectics of both to a new height, with a new richness, adding dream to the negotiation of the commodity form. Benjamin was the first Marxist to appreciate the capitalist city as a profane illumination, as revolutionary within the revolution, as a veritable city of light. With open wings and head turned backward, the angel Walter can help us understand the pile of debris that accompanies the storm of progress (68).
Henri Lefebvre is another theorist I love and struggle with, definitely someone requiring hard work to pluck the nuggets from the meanderings. I like Merrifield’s take on him, for example his thoughts on the everyday:
Everyday life, instead, possessed a dialectical and ambiguous nature. On the one hand, it’s the realm increasingly colonized by the commodity, and hence shrouded in all kinds of mystification, fetishism, and alienation….On the other hand, paradoxically, everyday life is likewise a primal site for meaningful social resistance, ‘the inevitable starting point for the realization of the possible’ (79).
Thoughts on contestation:
contestation was absolutely crucial; it helped ‘link economic factors (including economic demands) with politics’ (L 65). Contestation names names, points fingers, merges institutions and men, makes abstractions real, and is one way ‘subjects’ express themselves, ceasing to be ‘objects’. Contestation means a ‘refusal to be integrated’ (L67); it is ‘born from negation and has a negative character; it is essentially radical.’ It ‘brings to light its hidden origins; and it surges from the depths to the political summits, which it also illuminates in rejecting them’. Contestation rejects passivity and fosters participation. It arises out of a latent institutional crisis, transforming it into ‘an open crisis which challenges hierarchies, centers of power’ (L68, 87).
Lefebvre also began this theorization of the connections between real estate and capital, the way that surplus value could be generated through real estate investment and built environment, the investments in fixed capital that constitute a secondary circuit alongside that of production. In The Production of Space he began to examine how this secondary circuit worked, how space itself became ‘colonized and commodified, bought and sold, created and torn down…’ Back, as Merrifield argues, to Marx’s obsession with returning to the roots of things, to the process, to production. ‘The shift from theorizing ‘things in space’ to the ‘production of space’…mimicked Marx’s shuft from ‘things in exchange’ to ‘social relations of production’ (89).
Debord follows, situationist and a student of Lefebvre. Merrifield quotes Lefebvre on Debord, forgive my nerdiness but I love that. On the practice of derive (drifting through a city, psychogeography, etc) Lefebvre writes that it is…
‘more of a practice than a theory. It revealed the growing fragmentation of the city. In the course of its history, the city was once a powerful organic unity; for some time, however, that unity was becoming undone, was fragmenting, and the Situationists were recording examples of what we had all been talking about….We had a vision of a city that was more and more fragmented without its organic unity being completely shattered. (97)
Thus the ‘unitary city’ of the situationists, a battle against the fragmentation caused by planning and efficiency and market-driven development. A ‘disruptive and playful’ movement to reunite, bring together. This reconstruction of place is:
predicated upon spatial (geographical) appropriation: it reconstructs the urban environment ‘in accordance with the power of the Workers’ Councils, of the anti-statist dictatorship of the proletariat’ (Thesis 179). This reconstruction would necessitate a ‘sense of place,’ a sense of what the place was, is, and what it might be. To detourn an urban context—to reappropriate it in other words—one needs to know what it possessed and what it lacked; one needs to know that place, that neighbourhood, that city (such was the point of ‘psychogeography,’ after all); and one needs to be able to straddle the dialectic between its particularity and its generality. (105)
I find that stuff more exciting than the society of the spectacle – as indeed it embraces the idea of the spectacle and how it is employed through urban form.
Castells! I read City and the Grassroots and was blown away, this helped me resituate it, regard it more critically. I’ve also read The Urban Question, but long ago, it is something I need to read again. I do remember his critique of Lefebvre for lack of rigor. But also for looking at how his theory of the urban revolution obscures the class revolution, as the motor is no longer worker exploitation but alienation. Castells argued for urban relations as an expression of social relations, not the source. Initially taking on Althusser’s ideas of complexity structured in dominance – which I find particularly persuasive and useful myself – and argued against Lefebvre
while the city threatened capitalism, it somehow had become more functional for capitalism. Indeed, the city, Castells writes, had become the ‘spatial specificity of the processes of reproduction of labor-power and of the processes of reproduction of the means of production’ (C443, 119)
Thus the state involves itself in regulating the urban in a way conducive to capital through planning. But Castells moves away from Althusser, Merrifield labels The Urban Question as perhaps too formalist, while City and the Grassroots is too skewed towards practice and too removed from structure. I loved that about it myself, starting where the people are is standard in my own tradition of popular education, so I’m not sure how I would judge it now that I am more fluent in theory and a believer in its value. At the time of this writing Castells had all but left the Marxist fold, but hearing him speak to Occupy at St Pauls I’m not sure if he isn’t back.
Of course David Harvey has a chapter. I’ve read much more of him than anyone else, and much more recently as well. I agree with the prodding to read his Limits of Capital, as it’s impossible to do justice to that kind of work in a single chapter. I always imagined he wrote it to work through a full Marxist theory of rent only hinted at in earlier works, and I was right. I also appreciated the distinction between his work and early Castells:
Havery’s Marxist theory, like Lefebvre’s, thereby accredits a much more offensive role for the city and for space under capitalism. Space and urbanism don’t just help reproduce labor-power, as Castells believed, in a relatively defensive manner: the very spatial dynamics of urban land and property markets, to say nothing about ‘fixed capital’ infrastructure…actually boost the accumulation of capital. Urban space under capitalism is an ‘active moment’, proactively productive and not merely passively reproductive; it is, Harvey argues, a unit of capital accumulation as well as a site of class struggle (142).
There is as well a review of his engagement with postmodernism, taking from it new understandings of race and gender and identity without relinquishing Marx.
The final chapter is on Marshall Berman, he was the only theorist I had not read at all and I regretted that immensely (I have since read him, find posts here on All That is Solid Melts into Air, and here on his thoughts on the role of the intellectual.). A return to the more creative, descriptive, literary theorization. Words thrown around like urbicide, the murder of the city. He was there during Moses’s bulldozing of swathes of NY and there is no better term for it. But I love that he seems to have thought about what happens after. The good that can come from it, the ways that people deal with it. Merrifield calls it a ‘Marxism of affirmation’ (170), and interestingly puts this into opposition with the work of Mike Davis. I think he is far too dismissive of Davis who I don’t think theorizes quite the ‘Marxism of closure’ or ‘urbanism evacuated of agency’ (171) that is stated here, but it is undoubtedly focused on the structures of power and its destructive force. I am looking forward to reading Berman, see if he manages to describe a city without doing that. It Is hard in this day and age I believe.