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Marxist geography

  The study of geographical questions using the analytical insights, concepts, and theoretical framework of Marxism (see historical materialism; Marxian economics). Although not inherently limited to one kind of society, Marxist geography has tended to focus on the various geographies of capitalism.

Before the 1960s, geography in North America and western Europe had experienced only a very limited radical critique, and postwar Soviet geography (where, at least outwardly, the influence of Marxism was much greater) was in practice more technocratic than radical (see applied geography; radical geography). In the English-speaking world Marxist geography emerged in the early 1970s in response to two sets of events: the critique of \'establishment geography\', and in particular its reformulation of geography as a narrowly conceived spatial science based on the supposedly \'objective\' philosophy of positivism; and the political struggles and uprisings of the late 1960s in Europe, the Americas and Australia. These struggles took aim at poverty, racism and the imperialism of the Vietnam war, and prompted a new generation of activism: the civil rights, feminist, environmental and anti-war movements as well as a new left.

Marxists argued that positivist spatial science was flawed in three basic ways. First, insofar as existing geographical relations were treated as spatial patterns rather than the outcome of social processes, ruling social ideologies were reaffirmed; geographers might map urban segregation according to class and race, for example, but never interrogate the political and economic processes that produced such unequal geographies. Second, despite its avowed scientific objectivity, spatial analysis was devoted to providing \'socially useful\' results that amounted to a \'spatial technology\' for capital; locational analysis sought to identify the most efficient locations for factories, supermarkets and social services, for example, accepting traditional class-based economic definitions of \'efficient location\' (Massey, 1973). Third, universal spatial laws of the sort sought by positivist spatial analysis ignore the historical and geographical variability of spatial arrangements in different societies (Smith, 1979a; Gregory, 1994).

If the emergence of a radical alternative to establishment geography can be dated to 1969, when a group of graduate students and faculty at Clark University published the first volume of Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography, its consummation came in 1973 with the publication of David Harvey\'s highly influential Social justice and the city. This book traced a personal and political journey from a constellation of unsatisfying liberal assumptions towards a systematic Marxist analysis and demonstrated the ways in which spatial form and urban geographies are integral to an exploitative social and economic system. ghetto formation, for example, is the result of a housing market that discriminates on the basis of class and race and yet is also a vital urban form through which the costs of social reproduction are minimized. In this light, supposed scientific objectivity seems both unrealistic and politically motivated to endorse rather than criticize the exploitation and oppression inherent to capitalism. A revolutionary geographical theory, Harvey argued, was necessary not just to comprehend current geographies but also to change them, and in the process to change the societies that produced them (Harvey, 1984; Harvey and Smith, 1984).

Marxist geography is a varied and internally differentiated theoretical and political tradition. It can be encapsulated under three (albeit overlapping) headings.

Political economic analyses. political economy explains the geography of capitalism as the outcome primarily of political and economic relationships and processes in the wider society. While therefore borrowing from Marxian economics, it also attempts to understand capitalist society as spatially and environmentally constituted. Early documentation of spatial inequality and community advocacy (see Bunge, 1971) was superseded by critique and theory (Peet, 1977; Harvey, 1982). The urban geographies of capitalism can thereby be understood as resulting from the inherent contradiction between class struggle and accumulation (Harvey, 1978). urbanization is both the most rational geographical means (for capital) of centralizing productive capital, and at the same time an encouragement to oppositional struggle insofar as it congregates large numbers of people with similar experiences of exploitation and oppression in a single place. Capitalist urbanization represents a further contradiction: on the one hand it brings about an extraordinary economic and geographical fixation of capital in the built environment — as factories, offices and infrastructure — as a condition of economic expansion. Yet at the same time, the changing conditions of production, circulation and realization of capital demand that capital investments be infinitely fluid. Given the long-term fixation of capital investment in the built environment, it is not surprising that economic crisis has a particularly sharp effect on urban landscapes.

Suburbanization can thereby be conceived less as a heroic fable of the middle-class consumerism, and more as a distinct geographical form of urban development that expresses the social geography of class inequality and the economic geography of class-based consumption. Suburbanization (see suburb) was actively planned and publicly subsidized, and represented a putative solution to the crisis of accumulation in the 1920s and 1930s (Walker, 1978; Chekoway, 1980). At the urban core, gentrification can be seen as an economic as well as a social question, resulting as much from geographical patterns of investment and disinvestment in the urban space economy as from consumer choice, and as part of a larger pattern of urban restructuring and uneven development at the urban scale (Smith, 1979b, 1996a). There is also an intricate connection between class and other social relationships such as gender and race. Socialist feminists have shown the importance of gender relations in the making of contemporary urban form (McDowell, 1983; Mackenzie, 1989; Pratt, 1989). The requirements of social reproduction, the patterns of women\'s labour, and class-differentiated ideologies of gender have all shaped capitalist urbanization (McKenzie and Rose, 1983; Marston, 1988; Hanson and Pratt, 1995). Suburbanization was premised on the gender relations of postwar expansion (Seguin, 1989), while gentrification results in part from the changing social and economic roles of women, the changing definitions of family, and the restructuring of the Fordist (see Fordism) regime of accumulation (Bondi, 1991).

Regional geographies have been transformed by a similar process, by deindustrialization, and by changes in the organization of labour and capital (Massey, 1984; Peck, 1996; Schoenberger, 1996) and technology (Saxenien, 1984). These shifts are integrally connected with economic and social crises and bring new geographies of industrial and non-industrial growth, new ensembles of production (Scott, 1989).

At the global scale, greatest attention has been paid to the geography of underdevelopment. Blaut has consistently questioned western versions of the origins of capitalism and capitalist ideologies of nationalism (Blaut, 1976, 1993). How has colonial and imperial expansion led to specific geographical patterns and structures in underdeveloped societies (cf. colonialism)? The answer comes in a number of forms. In environmental terms, underdevelopment has led to a highly destructive social ecology characterized by chronic famine (Watts, 1983; Blaikie, 1985) and the systematic disruption of the means of social reproduction (Katz, 1991). In social and economic terms, underdevelopment leads to a decentred and imbalanced regional structure that emphasizes communications with the colonial capital and Europe rather than between neighbouring regions (Slater, 1975): thus the fastest way from Mali to neighbouring Niger may still be via Paris. Today the focus has shifted from understanding the ways in which imperial societies imposed specific geographies toward a more complicated inquiry into the ways that different imperial and local traditions came together to produce different political landscapes in different places (see also postcolonialism).

The temporal rhythms of capital investment, accumulation and crisis are matched by a geographical logic of economic expansion and decline. Capital seeks a spatial fix for economic crises (Harvey, 1982), whether by disinvesting heavily in one place or investing heavily in another. In Marx\'s (1973, p. 524) renowned phrase, the accumulation of capital relies upon a highly dynamic \'annihilation of space by time\' (see time-space compression). This implies the simultaneous development of the forces of communication and the cyclical creation of newly built environments for production, consumption and reproduction. But it also implies an equally fervid destruction of capital invested in the built environment, thereby creating new opportunities for expansion. This is the process that Schumpeter (1942), following Marx, later called \'creative destruction\'. More broadly, the geography of capitalism is a perpetual maelstrom of construction and destruction that is captured in the general theory of uneven development (Smith, 1990; Peet, 1991).

There are of course many debates over all of these issues (see Peet and Thrift, 1989; Peet, 1998), and critiques of political economy approaches have resulted in a broadening and sharpening of Marxist concerns. With the maturation of a social theory tradition in geography, the broader structural analyses of 1970s and early 1980s political economy have been complemented by greater attention to questions of human agency and resistance, by cultural as well as political economic constructions of landscape (Mitchell, 1996), and by attempts to understand the connections between class, gender and race as interwoven sources of socio-spatial difference. In the wake of so-called globalization, a whole range of questions concerning the relationship between global and local have also emerged (Swyngedouw, 1992).

Theories of space. The critique of positivism and of abstract spatial science called into question the conceptions of space employed in geographical discourse. Geography has until recently been dominated by the familiar concept of absolute space — space as a field or container, primordially empty until filled with objects and events. The Marxist critique objected that this was only one of various possible concepts of space, and that when twinned with dubious assumptions of scientific objectivity it encouraged geographers to see abstract spatial forms and processes separate from the concrete social processes that created them. Social processes were disguised within spatial forms and spatial processes, in an ideological move that Marxist geographers identified as spatial fetishism (Anderson, 1973). Obviously this conceptual critique intersects with the rationale for a political economic analysis. In concrete terms, it leads to a focus on the space-economy, but it also encouraged a more philosophical avenue of research.

For a reconstruction of space, Marxist geography looked to physics and beyond — to relative and relational conceptions of space, to the connection of space and time (Thrift, 1983) and to the production of space (Lefebvre, 1991). Space is seen in relation to material events and processes (social as well as natural), no longer prior to nature: material objects do not so much fill up space; rather, their placement produces space. Absolute space is not entirely vanquished, but it is rendered relational; the absoluteness of private landed property, for example, represents socially constructed absolute space (Harvey, 1973; Smith, 1990).

We do not know why capitalism has survived since Marx\'s time, Lefebvre says, but we do know how: by producing space (Lefebvre, 1976, p. 21). Lefebvre argues that a contemporary science of society is necessarily a science of space. In opposition to the homogeneity of abstract space continually imposed by capitalism, he identifies a differential space constructed through opposition to capitalism, class struggle and the actions of emerging social movements. The production of differential space is the object of revolutionary theory and practice for Lefebvre, and its agents are class struggle, emerging social movements and social activism.

Nature and society-nature relations. It is a common misconception that Marx had little to say about nature and the environment. His critique of capitalist society was built on an explicit vision of the relationship between society and nature. Rather than assuming that nature and society represent separate realms, Marxist theory posits their fundamental interconnectedness, achieved practically in the performance of social labour. Labour converts naturally occurring material into social commodities, and in transforming the form of nature, simultaneously changes its own (human) nature. Capitalist society produces wealth \'only by sapping\' the original sources of all wealth — the soil and the labourer (Marx, 1987, pp. 177, 507).

This has led to the suggestion that geographers ought to develop a \'geographical materialism\' comparable to Marx\'s historical materialism (Peet, 1987; Wittfogel, 1987). Others have suggested a more socially centred vision of nature (Burgess, 1978). But it is also possible to derive from Marx the argument that human societies, and especially capitalism, are involved in the production of nature (Redclift, 1987; Smith, 1990; Braun and Castree, 1998). It may sound quixotic to talk about the production of nature since, after all, nature is precisely that which we are used to thinking of as the antithesis of human society and social construction. Yet the strangeness of the idea may belie a persistent bifurcated ideology of nature: nature is deemed either external to human society or else as universal, including quite literally everything in the world (Whatmore, 1998). To the extent that the form of the Earth has been entirely altered by productive human activity, however, and no part of the world remains unaffected, the production of nature is a reality. This does not imply that somehow natural laws of gravity or chemical interaction cease to operate, nor that nature is thereby controlled. Control and production are two quite separate issues. It does suggest forcefully that the natural world can no longer be separated conceptually or ontologically from the social world, and that an environmental politics is a quintessentially social politics (Pulido, 1996; see also Smith, 1996b). This has two results. First, it disqualifies the romantic appeal — from the deep ecologist to conservationist — to a pre-existing, Edenic nature unaffected by social production and social change, to which we ought to return; or the appeal to biological essentialism that gives authority to much ecofeminism. Second, it disqualifies the technocratic appeal to \'society-nature interactions\' insofar as this perspective also assumes the initial separation of society and nature. As Cosgrove (1984, p. 180) has explained, it \'is not the relationship between human beings and the land that governs their social organization, but ultimately their relations with each other in the course of production\'. \'The production of nature\' suggests the political question: how do we as a society want to produce nature, and how will these decisions be made?

Marxist analyses of nature-society relations have also focused on more concrete questions. Considerable effort has been aimed at reinterpreting the conventional wisdom on environmental hazards. Where traditional hazard specialists draw a distinction between natural and technological hazards, Marxists have stressed that this distinction perpetuates an ideology of nature separate from society and encourages a belief in natural hazards as inevitable. \'Natural\' hazard is in fact a misnomer, since all hazards (as opposed to natural events) are by definition social (O\'Keefe et al., 1976). With a clear correlation between on the one side income and social class and on the other vulnerability to hazard, a disproportionate number of deaths due to so-called natural disasters are in the underdeveloped world. By the same token, any given environment has vastly different meanings for different people: a hazard for one population may be a recreational resource for another.

Supposedly natural events, such as the Sahel famine of 1968-74, the wider African famine of the 1980s and 1990s, and certainly global warming, are now understood as quintessentially social events traceable to the broad structure and specific operation of capitalist social relations (Watts, 1983). Likewise, the Irish starvation of the 1840s, traditionally blamed on potato blight, resulted from the dependence — enforced by British imperialism — of Irish peasants on the potato: as peasants starved, English landlords continued to export large quantities of Irish beef to the English market (Regan, 1980, p. 11). The production of food in general involves an extraordinary appropriation of nature along class lines (Goodman and Redclift, 1991), and the class politics of rainforest destruction are now evident (Hecht and Cockburn, 1990). In the consumption sphere, too, access to nature is privatized (Heiman, 1988), and the disruption of local patterns of social ecology due to capitalist expansion fundamentally disrupts established processes and traditions of social reproduction (Katz, 1991; Peet and Watts, 1996).

A central ideological plank of traditional environmental geography holds that the population and resources of a place are intricately dependent on each other, and that \'overpopulation\' should be defined in relation to available resources. There is an implicit retention here of Malthusian assumptions about the separateness and fixity of nature vis-à-vis population (Harvey, 1974). But given global economic trade and financial flows, and very unequal patterns of political power, it is doubtful that a place\'s resources have a determining effect on strictly local population growth or socio-economic development. Resource availability and resource scarcity are themselves socially constructed.

The first phase of Marxist research in geography, lasting until the early 1980s, was concerned, above all else, with demonstrating the ways in which capitalism, as a coherent social system, was responsible for the configuration of specific landscapes — the urban geography of capitalism, its regional patterns, environmental depredation and underdevelopment at the global scale. The primary intent was to import Marxist ideas and a Marxist framework into geography as a means of analysing questions of traditional geographical concern. This involved a sustained rediscovery of Marx and Marxist ideas and their application to geography, but it was only half the battle; Marxists were no more convinced about geography than most geographers were about Marxism. And yet by the early 1980s, Marxism had come to hold an unprecedented influence within geography, compared to the other social sciences. In part this was a result of uneven intellectual development: in the 1960s, when social theory was dearly needed, geography embodied virtually no social theory beyond the assumptions of positivism. Geographers compensated for this lacuna with such an embrace of Marxism that within 15-20 years, a disproportionate number of the most influential geographers were Marxists (Bodman, 1992).

A second phase of Marxist geography began in the early 1980s and was marked by several shifts. First, the focus was no longer so much on unearthing Marx and Marxism but rather on using them critically and in relation to other emerging social theory. This involved a significant broadening of Marxist geography (Gregory, 1994). But, second it involved an expansion and a corollary of the initial project. It was no longer simply a matter of convincing geographers that Marxism had something to offer — that was already achieved — but rather of taking the case to Marxism that a geographical, and especially a spatial, perspective was vital for Marxism and social theory more broadly. This ambitious \'spatialization of social theory\' (Soja, 1989) gathered steam precisely as Marxism itself was subject to increasingly critical analysis by geographers. The second phase of Marxist research also heralded an attempt to rewrite cultural geography in a radical vein and the reconsideration of \'landscape\' as a central geographical concept (Cosgrove, 1984; Daniels, 1989; Gregory, 1994). Mitchell (1996) has taken the argument furthest with an attempt to install labour struggles at the centre of a new political-cultural explanation of landscape formation. This is part of a larger project aimed at developing a labour geography (Herod, 1997, 1998).

The broadening of Marxist geography in the 1980s and 1990s was the product of internal maturity as well as increasing challenges from outside, as geographers became more versed in social theory and the political climate lurched decisively to the right. These challenges came from several directions. The humanist critique (Duncan and Ley, 1982) tapped a widespread discomfiture with a Marxism portrayed as unnecessarily structuralist. It led variously toward a humanist socialism of the sort advanced by E.P. Thompson or toward the structuration theory of Anthony Giddens (1979, 1981) which dissected the Marxist dialectic into \'structure\' and \'human agency\' as a means of investigating their connection. A related argument came from realism, some proponents of which argued that Marxism overestimated the range of \'necessary\' (i.e. structurally determined) relationships in contemporary capitalism, and that contingent relationships largely accounted for the production of specific geographies (Sayer, 1984).

The feminist engagement with Marxism has a varied history. feminist geography first emerged in the early 1970s in close connection with radical and socialist analyses, exploring issues of social reproduction, community and women\'s work, and connecting broader feminist debates with geographical questions, mostly at the urban scale. By the late 1980s, emerging feminist theory took a much more critical approach to Marxism, in part out of frustration that a newly influential Marxism only marginally considered questions of gender. Debate flared around Harvey\'s (1989) The condition of postmodernity (Deutsche, 1991; Massey, 1991; Harvey, 1992), but a commitment to reintegrating class and gender is already evident (Pratt, 1989; Mackenzie, 1989; Bondi, 1991). Linda McDowell (1991) especially warns that the baby of Marxist insights and class analysis should not be thrown out with the bathwater of a social theory blind to gender differences.

After the late 1980s, the social sciences and humanities underwent a sustained cultural turn and geography was no exception. If in some quarters the resort to culture became a means of denying the relevance of political economy or of providing an alternative to Marxism, it has quickly become clear that some of the most interesting and innovative work seeks to reintegrate economic and cultural insights depending on Marxist as well as other theoretical traditions.

The inspiration for this cultural turn had various interwoven threads. Attempts to construct feminist theory had already focused away from the logics of economic expansion and crisis toward the relations of social reproduction and daily experiences. postmodern theorists posited that Marxism and positivism, socialism and capitalism were all products of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment which valued rationality over irrationality, science over subjectivity, the global over the local, the universal over the partial and fragmented. Arguing that these definitive assumptions of modernism no longer pertain, postmodernists generally rejected attempts to read the meaning of contemporary societies from their social and economic structures, focusing instead on cultural systems of signs. Theorists of post-structuralism argue that power is expressed and cemented not simply in large-scale social structures but in the fine gauze of daily social interaction, and that social discourse plays a central role in the construction of power relations. The critique of discourse therefore marks a vital political intervention.

If Marxism both generated and provoked much of this new generation of political theory, it has also transformed in response to their challenge. Harvey\'s (1989) critique spearheaded a more critical attitude to postmodernist claims across a number of disciplines, and the sobering economic realities of the late 1990s have encouraged a broad modulation of cultural questions with a revived sense of the importance of economic relations. By the same token, Marxist economic geography has become much more cognisant of the cultural construction of socio-economic relations (Schoenberger, 1996). Treatments of gentrification, regional class ensembles, or human-nature relations in the Marxist tradition now embody a connectedness between cultural and political economic critiques. As Mitchell\'s (1996) reconstruction of the California landscape makes clear, a concern with political economy is basic to the new cultural geography.

If the challenges to Marxist geography in the 1990s are in part the inevitable result of Marxism\'s success in academic geography amidst a wider gathering conservatism, they also embody genuine shortcomings to which Marxist research must respond. Ironically, while the defeat of official Communist Parties in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe has given capitalist classes throughout the world a brief cause for jubilation, it also frees Marxist ideas from connection with a particularly oppressive social system which, however much the reality diverged from Marx\'s own vision of democratic workers\' control, nonetheless governed in the name of socialism. Indeed, globalization represents the fruition of capitalist social relations at a global scale, making the world more not less akin to the reality that Marx critiqued (Smith, 1997). In that respect the agenda is open for a re-thought, integrative Marxism, committed still to political action as well as ideas. Perhaps the most salient feature of Marxism in geography at the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, is that its origins in activism have largely waned. If history is any measure, a forceful response to the global crisis at the beginning of the new millennium may depend on a revived connection to activism. (NS)

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Suggested Reading Harvey (1982, 1989). Harvey and Smith (1984). Peet (1998).



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