Marxist Geography Research Paper

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Geographical issues have assumed mounting significance as society’s ability to affect nature has increased. Indeed, geographical issues are among the most profound questions facing societies. They bring into question the very survival of modern humanity. In response, many scholars have assumed critical stances with regard to society’s influences on the natural world. Marxist geography is one of these critical analyses. Marxist geography agrees with conventional geography that the focus of geographical study should lie on the relations between society and the natural environment, especially the environmental fringe referred to as earth space, where society’s multiple effects on nature are concentrated. However, Marxist geographers argue that capitalism, as an entire way of life, has inherently destructive effects on nature and space. Marxist geographers argue that crisis is more severe in regions where capitalism is most developed, organizationally, technically, culturally, and economically. For Marxist geographers, ending environmental crisis means ending the basic cause of the problem, and this in turn entails transforming capitalist societies. This radical intention differentiates Marxist geography, analytically and politically, from conventional social and environmental explanations.

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1. History of Marxist Geography

The radical movement in geography began as part of a culture of political opposition that coalesced in the mid to late 1960s around social issues like inequality, racism, sexism, and the environment, together with geopolitical issues like the Vietnam War. Articles dealing with socially relevant geographical topics began to appear in the discipline’s mainstream journals. Until that time, geography had engaged mainly in a conservative intellectual discourse, whether in the form of regional descriptions, or the quantitative analysis of spatial distributions of cities and industries. In 1969, Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography was founded specifically to publish the new kinds of work. Early issues of the journal dealt with urban and regional poverty, discrimination against women and minority groups, unequal spatial access to social services, advocacy planning, Third World development, and similar topics. For several years radical geography used conventional philosophies and analytical techniques for studying this new range of more socially engaged issues. Only gradually did socially relevant radical geography, armed with an eclectic critical politics, turn into a more disciplined Marxist geography, aimed at the achievement of democratic socialism (Peet 1977).

The transformation of radical geography into Marxist geography was informed by a key text, Social Justice and the City, written by Harvey (1973). This series of essays records the author’s movement from a liberal, critical position, focused on moral issues of urban social justice, to a revolutionary position, based in a philosophy of historical materialism. As scholars and activists began to read Marx, in part stimulated by Harvey’s work, in part propelled by the prevailing culture of protest, and in part compelled by theoretical differences with conventional geography, geographical thought was transformed in content and depth, moving from an obsession with the empirical, the descriptive, and the quantitative, to an equally committed obsession with philosophy, social theory, and the politically engaged. Radical geography has had a strong feminist presence since the early 1980s (Rose 1993). The discipline went through poststructural and postmodern phases in the later 1980s and 1990s (Soja 1989). The last 30 years of the twentieth century saw radical and Marxist geography emerging from the backwaters and assuming a place of prominence in contemporary critical social science (Peet 1998).

2. Historical and Geographical Materialism

The philosophical position adopted by Marxist geographers, often termed geographical materialism, is derived from the Marxist philosophy of historical materialism. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were followers of the German idealist philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. In Hegelian philosophy, events in the real world were determined by prior thoughts in a separate spiritual realm. Marx and Engels eventually turned the spiritual aspect of this belief back on its material base: consciousness, they claimed, was the product of matter, rather than its origin. Marx retained from Hegel’s idealism dialectical conceptions like development through contradiction. However, this was rethought in terms of real, materialist dialectics, as with the struggle between classes, or the contradictory relations between society and nature, so that individuals and societies were forced constantly to transcend their former identities. In a dialectical, geographical materialism, the natural and social worlds are seen not as entities remaining eternally the same, but as interacting processes capable of rapid, and indeed dramatic, change.

Geographical materialism follows historical materialism by beginning its account of history with the natural bases of life, or the environments inhabited by groups of people, and with the modification of nature through human action. As with other animals, the assimilation of natural materials (‘metabolism’) was ‘the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence … common to all forms of society in which human beings live’ (Marx 1976, p. 290). Marx argued that human survival had to be earned by the application of labor to the natural world. Human consciousness and intentionality were products of this labor process rather than evidence of God’s grace. Yet consciousness, as it evolved, enabled the further development of the forces employed in the social production of existence.

The social relations entered into by working people had a contradictory aspect revealed in endemic social struggles. In particular Marx focused on social relations between a ruling class that owned the means of production—the raw materials, machines, buildings, infrastructures, and technologies that physically produced goods and services—and a working class deprived of independent means of livelihood, and forced to work for wages. Class relations between owners and workers, or between capital and labor, were based in the extraction of surplus labor time, in a process Marx called ‘exploitation.’

Societies were exploitative when owners took uncompensated labor time from the direct producers. Used in such a way, money became capital (hence capital was formed by a social labor process rather than private initiative) and social relations between capitalist and laborer were exploitative (hence contradictory in the sense of dialectics). Competitive relations between capitalists compelled the reinvestment of capital in more efficient means of production. Exploitation and competition were the social bases of economic growth under capitalism. For Marx, the exploitation process was an arena of intense social struggle, with the owning ruling class using a combination of economic, political, and ideological force to ensure their dominance, and the working class resisting through overt means like social organization and rebellion, and hidden means, like reluctant compliance. Following this analysis, Marxist geographers as dialectical, geographical materialists, see advanced societies, armed with powerful technologies, organized by competitive and exploitative social relations, having disastrously destructive effects on society, culture and nature, for these societies combine rapid economic growth with lack of social control over the economy.

3. Social Relations with Nature

In geographical and historical materialism, humans were originally natural beings whose consciousness was directly interwoven with their reproductive activities. But this was a differentiated unity of people with nature. With permanent surpluses, interactions with nature came to be mediated by unequal social relations. For Marxist geographers this was a contradictory movement: social surplus began a process of emancipation from natural constraints; yet emancipation was accompanied by internal social differentiation marked by institutions of domination like the state, patriarchy, and the market. The precise resolution of the contradiction between emancipation and domination forms the specific kind of society.

A further transformation in human nature occurred with development of the productive forces. With division of labor and commodity exchange, the individual was alienated from work, product and nature. When production came to be primarily for exchange, ‘pristine’ or ‘first’ nature was separated from the ‘socially-produced’ or ‘second’ nature. Natural relations came to be organized primarily through the exchange of commodities, with nature treated as one more commodity.

The production of second nature speeds up emancipation but sharpens social differentiation. This twin process was key to the bourgeois revolution, the formative social process of capitalism, the making of a class society in which economic growth occurs not for the sake of need, but for purposes of profit and capital accumulation. While all societies have socially-mediated relations with nature, capitalism differs in its higher degree of complexity: under capitalism, natural relations are determined by blind forces of competition rather than deliberative human will. Under the abstract dictatorship of competition, capital must expand continuously, stalking the earth in search of raw materials, appending nature to the production process. This argument leads some Marxist geographers (Smith 1984) to the conclusion that nature is now ‘socially produced’ in the sense that no original relation with nature is left unaltered and no living thing unaffected. Yet the production of nature universalizes contradiction as capitalism creates new barriers—scarcity of resources, nuclear technology, and pollution of the entire earth environment. This suggests, for some, the ‘natural inevitability’ of social transformation spurred by the ‘revenge of nature’ (e.g., the greenhouse effect).

4. Mode of Production and Space

In such a context of competition, exploitation, struggle, and environmental destruction, Marxists theorize that social consciousness has to be diverted into ideological forms. Primarily, ideologies rationalize and legitimate exploitation, but they also support competition as efficient, and excuse environmental destruction as necessary for economic growth and continued employment. Marxists have extended the notion of ideology deep into culture, claiming that even common sense is a form of ideology (Gramsci 1971). The total ensemble of social relations, forces of production, ideological forms of consciousness, and political institutions that made up any social system was termed, by Marx, the mode of production. For Marx, social transformations essentially involved shifts from one mode of production to another: from gathering and hunting societies, organized by primitive communal relations; to agricultural societies, organized through tribal social structures; to state societies, organized by payments of tribute and taxes; and finally to industrial societies organized by capitalist social relations of competition and exploitation (Marx 1976).

Marxist geography has maintained a serious effort to clarify the relations between modes of production and space. In some of this work, especially in structural Marxist geography following the ideas of Althusser (Althusser and Balibar 1968), space is seen as a ‘level’ or ‘instance’ in a mode of production. Each aspect of social life is theorized as having a particular relation with environmental space, each mode of production creates distinct spatial arrangements, and successions of modes of production alter landscapes in any given space. Here the leading spatial theorist was the urban sociologist Castells (1977). For Castells, any social form, like space, can be understood in terms of the historical articulation of several modes of production. By mode of production Castells means the particular combinations of economic, politico-institutional, and ideological systems present in a social formation, with the economy determining the mode of the production of space in the last instance. In terms of this theory one can ‘read’ the resulting space according to the economic, political, and ideological systems which formed it. An economic reading concentrates on the spatial expressions, or ‘realizations,’ of production (factories, offices, etc.), consumption (housing, sociocultural institutions), and exchange (means of circulating goods and ideas). The politico–juridical system structures institutional space according to processes of integration, repression, domination, and regulation emanating from the state apparatus. Under the ideological system space is charged with meaning, its built forms and spatial arrangements being articulated one with another into a symbolic landscape. For Castells (1977, p. 127), the social organization of space can be understood in terms of the determination of spatial forms by each of the elements of the three instances (economic, politico–juridical, ideological), by the structural combination of the three (with economy determining which instance is dominant in shaping space), but also (empirically and historically) by the persistence of spatial forms created by earlier social structures, articulated with the new forms, in interaction with the natural environment.

The intention behind this kind of work was to create a science of space. An organized explanation was attempted of the structural order of the forces and relations that impinge on space. The idea was not how economy is reflected in space, but how economy arranges the political, cultural, and social organization of space or, in a more sophisticated statement, how economy is made up from its various spatial instances. Yet this kind of scientific abstraction sometimes gave structuralist work a quality of unreality, as though the contents of space were laid down by driver-less social machines passing over it. Also the return effects of space on society are minimal and mechanical in some structuralist approaches. Basically the approach lacked the active mediation of human agency, people as individuals, organized by social relations into families, classes and institutions, and informed by different kinds of consciousness (Gregory and Urry 1985).

The themes of social practice, consciousness and space were developed further by the urban sociologist Lefebvre (1991). Lefebvre proposed an analysis of the active production of space to bring the various kinds of space and the modalities of their genesis within a single theory. Lefebvre’s thesis, simply put, was that social space is a social product: every society, each mode of production, produces its own space. Space consists of natural and social objects (locations) and their relations (networks and pathways). Yet while space contains things, it is often thought of the relations between them. For Lefebvre people are confronted by many, interpenetrated social spaces superimposed one on top of the other, what he calls a ‘hypercomplexity,’ with each fragment of space reflecting, yet hiding, many social relationships.

Lefebvre proposes an analysis of space, aimed at uncovering the social relations embedded in it, using a triad of spatial concepts:

(a) Spatial practice. Production and reproduction secrete a society’s space, forming the particular locations and spatial systems, the perceived spaces characteristic of each social formation. Social-spatial practice, for Lefebvre, is practical, employs accumulated knowledge, yet also involves signifying or semiotic processes.

(b) Representations of space. These are abstract conceptions of space, employing verbal and graphic signs (‘representations’) that are riddled with ideologies subordinating people to the logics of social and political systems.

(c) Representational space. This is space as directly lived through associated images and symbols by its inhabitants and users, but also by the writers and artists who describe it. Representational space overlays physical space. Redolent with imaginary and allegorical illusions, it makes symbolic use of natural objects and is therefore studied by ethnologists, anthropologists, and psychoanalysts as well as sociologists and geographers. Representational space has an affective center of everyday life (ego, bedroom, house), embraces the loci of passion, action, lived situations, and is essentially qualitative, fluid, and dynamic.

The three moments of the triad, often called perceived, conceived, and lived spaces, are held together by dialectical relationships. The triad contributes to the production of space in different combinations according to the mode of production and the historical period. Relations between the three moments are never simple or stable, nor are they entirely conscious. For Lefebvre, applying this triad means studying not only the history of space as spatial practice but the history of representations of space, their interrelations, and their relations with practices and ideologies. In particular, ideology achieves consistency by taking on physicality or body in social space, as urban forms, churches or courthouses for instance. Indeed ideology per se might be said to consist primarily of a discourse on social space. So for Lefebvre, representations combining ideology and knowledge within sociospatial practice supplant the Marxist concept of ideology alone, and become the most appropriate tool for analyzing space (see Gottdiener 1995 on the semiotics of space).

5. Spatial Relations

Marxist theories see the relations between societies— often termed ‘spatial relations; by Marxist geographers—in terms of exploitation, conquest, and domination. During the 1970s a series of articles drew out the spatial implications of Marxist theory in a ‘capital logic’ school of spatial thought. This kind of Marxist geographic theory began with contradictions in the historical dynamic of capitalism and moved to manifestations of these contradictions in space. Spatial relations between environmentally embedded social formations are thought of as modifying, and even transforming, their internal social, economic, and political contents. Thus, the geography of capitalism is composed of unevenly and differently developing social formations. As social contradictions build internally in any social formation, its external sociospatial relations also change, with effects transmitted elsewhere, or antidotal solutions imported. This may slow down or redirect the build up of contradiction in one social formation, but may qualitatively change the development of social formations elsewhere in space where, in interaction with local (class-dominated) processes, new hybrid social formations come into existence. The complex interplay across space between the social formations of a global system is called ‘spatial dialectics’ (Peet 1981).

In such approaches, interregional social relations are often theorized as spatial components of a more general internal–external dialectic. For Harvey (1975) the Marxist theory of economic growth under capitalism puts capital accumulation at the center of a dynamic and inevitably expansionary mode of production. This dynamism encounters barriers (in labor, means of production, markets) which precipitate crises (chronic unemployment, realization crises, etc.) with the eventual result of a shift in the capital accumulation process to a higher plane (new social wants, new markets, etc.). Newly ‘rational’ locational patterns and improvements in transportation and communication are an inevitable, necessary part of capital accumulation. But there is a spatial aspect to contradiction: in overcoming spatial barriers and ‘annihilating space with time’ spatial structures are created which ultimately act as barriers to further accumulation. This is particularly the case when capitalism comes to rely on immobile, fixed capital (i.e., means of production fixed in space) rather than more mobile variable capital (i.e., labor). Then capital has to negotiate a path between preserving the value of past investments in the built environment (the urban landscape, for example) and destroying these investments to make new room for accumulation (urban renewal). The virtue of Marx’s location theory, dispersed though it may be in textual fragments, lies in the way space can be integrated into ‘fundamental insights into the production of value and the dynamics of accumulation’ (Harvey 1975, p. 13).

In terms of geographical theory this dynamic theory of contradictions contrasts with conventional (bourgeois) location theory employing an equilibrium analysis of optimal spatial configurations: as Harvey claimed (1975, p. 13):

The Marxian theory … commences with the dynamics of accumulation and seeks to derive out of this analysis certain necessities with respect to geographical structures. The landscape which capitalism creates is also seen as the locus of contradiction and tension, rather than as an expression of harmonious equilibrium … The Marxian theory teaches us how to relate theoretically, accumulation and the transformation of spatial structures and ultimately … the reciprocal relationships between geography and history.

Thus, the internal and external dimensions of space are linked to each other and with capital accumulation. Revolutions in the productive forces, the increasing scale of production, and the concentration and centralization of capital are paralleled by urban agglomeration in a widening international capitalist space.

Smith (1984) argued that different conceptions of space were produced by different types of human activities; hence there was a history of theories of space forming part of the history of the human experience. The increasing scale of human intervention in nature, with advance of the forces of production, is seen as the historical-material basis of a theoretical bifurcation of absolute, natural, and physical space (the world of physical and natural phenomena) from relative and social space (the humanly-constituted field of social events). For Smith, the development of the forces of production transforms absolute (natural) space into relative (social) space in a contradictory movement. Development emancipates society from the constraints of natural space, leading towards ‘equalization,’ but only by sinking capital into certain spaces, producing ‘differentiation’ and a relativized space. These contradictory movements determine the specific forms of capitalist space as synthetic outcome: ‘Space is neither leveled out of existence nor infinitely differentiated. Rather the pattern that results is one of ‘‘uneven development’’’ (Smith 1984, p. 90). Integrating the geographical notion of ‘scales’ (urban, national, global) as levels of specificity, with temporal notions of rhythms, cycles and long waves, Smith proposes a ‘see-saw’ dynamic of uneven development: ‘capital attempts to see-saw from a developed to an underdeveloped area, then at a later point back to the first area which is by now underdeveloped’ (Smith 1984, p. 149). Smith finds see-sawing to have a higher propensity to occur at the urban level, where mobile capital destroys, then gentrifies, inner city neighborhoods. For Smith the real resolution between equalization and differentiation can be achieved only by global political cooperation among working-class peoples.

The culminating triumph in a series of this series of creative exegeses came with Harvey’s The Limits to Capital (1982), a reading of Marx’s Capital organized around three versions of a general theory of capitalist crisis. The first version sees crises of overaccumulation—more capital produced than opportunities for using it—resolved through violent episodes of the destruction of value, times when capitalists turn on each other, yet workers end up paying the social costs (Harvey 1982, pp. 190–203). The second version examines the expression of productive crises in money and finance, speculative booms and busts which require the intervention of the state: in an internationalized economy, crises take the form of interstate competition over shifting the effects of devaluation, with national policies to export the effects of crises, and imperialism, neocolonialism and even war as potential ‘solutions’ (Harvey 1982, pp. 324–9). The third and last version integrates geographically uneven development: devaluations of capital are systematized into the continuous restructuring of space through interregional competition. Harvey focuses on ‘switching crises’ in the movement of capital from one place to another and crises in the hierarchy of capitalist institutions, so that problems which originate in the chaos and confusion of local events build upwards into global crises. For Harvey, the basic rhythm of crisis involves regional economies, or more broadly regional class alliances, periodically alleviating internal crises through transformations in external relations in a spatial ‘fix’ which again has imperialism as its integral component—hence, ‘an interpretation of interimperialist wars as constitutive moments in the dynamics of accumulation’ (Harvey 1982, p. 443). What better reason, he asks, could there be for declaring that capitalism’s time has passed, and that there is a need for a saner mode of production?

6. Politics of Space and Nature

Marxist geographers argue, in general, that the social inequalities endemic to capitalist societies result in spatial inequalities, regional and local differences within and between societies. The capitalist world is split between countries that have far more production and consumption than their peoples need, so that a range of problems appear, from overweight children to excessive pollution, and countries that have too little, with their own range of problems, such as starving children and extreme vulnerability to natural disasters like earthquakes and floods. Uneven spatial development also brings entirely different degrees of economic pressure to bear on the natural world, so that environmental crises appear unevenly as they accumulate into global catastrophes. Some Marxist theories of space, based in dependency and world systems theories (Frank 1969, Wallerstein 1974), argue that overdevelopment in the First World is predicated on underdevelopment of the Third World. This interaction between geography’s space dimension and its environmental interests provides the theoretical basis for a range of radical politics linking development with nature. Marxist spatial theorists advocate evening out the development process so that basic needs can be met everywhere. Again this requires fundamental changes in social organization, especially in the ways societies relate over space.

Social scientists in the Western tradition of Marxism favor rational and democratic ways of controlling society’s environmental and spatial relations. The notion of state ownership of productive resources has always been far weaker in the Western tradition of Marxism than in the Soviet or Eastern tradition. Marxists believing in all-powerful states have long been countered by others believing just as strongly in workers’ self-management, cooperative organization, participatory democracy, and democratic planning. Marxists essentially believe in extending democracy from the political sphere to all aspects of social life, especially the productive and reproductive spheres, that is, democratic control over factories, offices, schools, and families. Marxists think that people directly responsible for their fundamental social and economic activities can reach collective decisions that are more rational and far-sighted than those reached by political and economic elites distanced from direct contact with real social practices. In this way democratic socialism is seen by Marxist geographers as the final culmination of the Enlightenment project of rationality, equality, and liberation.


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