Democratizing the City Using…Planning?


As I mentioned in a recent post, we just read some Marxist critiques of planning in my planning theory class, one by Fogelsong (”Planning the Capitalist City”) and one by Harvey (“On the Ideology of Planning”). These old readings brilliantly show how state-led planning in capitalist societies is necessarily an activity that preserves capitalist social relations and thus the capitalist system. The common complaint about these readings, though, is that they do not offer a clear alternative. Of course there is always state-socialist planning (which may be, as one of my students perceptively hypothesized, the alternative the authors (Harvey) actually do favor but cannot advocate out loud). But there is also here, embedded in the Fogelsong, something perhaps of use.

Fogelsong says that capitalism is subject to crises, and planning’s function is to manage those crises so capitalism doesn’t collapse. Fine. But he focuses specifically on spatial contradictions, those having to do with urban land. One contradiction is what he calls the “capitalist-democracy contradiction,” which is: despite the fact that urban land is mostly privately owned, nevertheless it has a social function, a use value for urban inhabitants. Fogelsong says that there is some need to socialize control over urban land so that its social functions can be ensured (if not, the self-interested decisions of private owners may well ignore these social functions, which will produce unrest that could threaten capitalism). But of course fully socializing decisions about urban land would eliminate the system of private ownership that is capitalism. Fogelsong thinks about this socialization in terms of democratization, i.e. socialization requires and involves greater real-democratic control over the decisions that produce urban space. So, as an alternative to the trap of planners-as-handmaidens-to-capitalism, we could imagine planners working to create mechanisms to increase popular participation–and here I mean participation that really does increase the control people have over the production and management of urban space (rather than the same old bullshit)–as a way planners might begin to alter the very structure of the capitalist city. Not just using state control of space to ensure a modicum of social function, but finding ways to increase popular control over space so that people themselves can ensure the social function, constrain the privileges of private ownership, and work toward a more really-democratic, and therefore less capitalist, city. I am not sure how far this can be pushed, or what its limits are, but it seems, for planning, a fruitful direction to explore.

Here we go again: Harvey, Eugene Holland, and OWS

This is modified reblog of a post of mine from another blog I participate in, Nomad Scholarship, which is a collaboration between two theory reading groups, one at the University of Washington and one at Ohio State.  We are trying to engage each other virtually, in writing, around a coordinated set of readings.  It is a new experiment for us–check it out!


OK, I am able to breathe a little easier after reading the Holland piece (an unpublished paper on OWS).  The Harvey chapters (5&7 from Rebel Cities) had me wanting to give up on the left.

The Harvey chapter on Occupy Wall Street is 99% ressentiment. He rails against the powers that be. They are evil, and we must resist. He gives no attention to what we are, what we are capable of, what kind of potentials the 99% has. In the chapter it seems we can only be good by negation, because we are not the 1%, and the 1% is evil. This is precisely the kind of thinking Nietzsche decries in Beyond Good and Evil because, he says, it blinds us to our own powers.

Harvey characterizes people in Occupy as gathering together to talk about…the powers that be, about what the 1% is doing and how we can oppose them (p. 161). He says those that gathered wanted their opinions heard and their needs attended to (p. 162). He entirely misses the unique power of the movement: in Egypt, in Spain, in Greece, and also in NYC. The key was that people gathered not only to speak to, make demands on, and oppose the 1% (many did, to be sure), they also gathered to encounter each other.  Holland does well to emphasize the ways participants made real an alternative democratic society, though food provision, libraries, and general assemblies. So many participants did not come to make demands on the liberal-democratic state, because they knew, as Holland puts it, that the system was hopelessly corrupt (or, as the Spanish put it, que se vayan todos, (echoing the Argentinians ten years before)). So many came instead to ask each other what alternative they wanted to begin building together. The Greeks said this loud and clear in the First Declaration of the assembly in Syntagma:

For a long time decisions have been made for us, without consulting us. We…have come to Syntagma Square… because we know that the solutions to our problems can only be provided by us. We call all residents of Athens…and all of society to fill the public squares and to take their lives into their own hands.  In these public squares we will shape our claims and our demands together.

I guess we can’t give Holland too much credit for stressing this.  It was crystal clear and hard to miss.  How Harvey fails to see it is a mystery.  Ostrich-like.

But the thing I like most about the Holland is what I think D&G are particularly vital for now, what H&N pick up to a degree and what Virno’s idea of exodus gets at very well: that we absolutely must turn toward ourselves now.  We must wean ourselves from our obsession with the apparatuses of capture and their endless power to contain us.  We must leave off rubbing ourselves raw against the bars of our cage.  We must begin paying far more attention to what we can do, to the kinds of worlds we can make on our own, that we are already making on our own.  We must withdraw from capitalism, from the state, in a thoughtful and critical manner (lodge yourself on the strata, learn them, and then experiment with escapes), and we must, at the same time, begin-and-continue building the other worlds we want instead.  These other worlds must spread by contagion, as in Holland, or as I like to say, with Spinoza and Calvino, they must grow and spread according to their own internal drives.  Withdraw-and-create; exodus-and-invention.  Importantly, and true to D&G, I think, Holland hopes for a tipping point beyond which capital and the state begin to wither away because they are no longer necessary.  I share this hope, and I am currently trying to argue that this vision is something D&G offer that Ranciere doesn’t, despite the many strengths of the latter.

Speaking of spreading, though, I would push back on Holland on at least one point that I think is not insignificant.  He implies in several places that OWS was somehow a starting point from which similar movements spread.  That is true within the States perhaps, but I think it is important to remember that OWS was a very late comer in a wave of such democratic desire that washed across the world.  Tunisia, Egypt, and other Arab countries; Greece and Spain; Israel; Chile; all were at a full boil while NYC looked on.  The Spanish (May) had been loudly pleading with the US for months to join their revolution when OWS finally got off the ground (September).  I remember thinking, that September, that finally something had begun in the US (though I wrongly expected it not to amount to anything).  It is very important not to narrate the Greeks, Spanish, Egyptians, Tunisians, etc. into the background.  They were the first, the loudest, the most creative, and the best.  They faced the more dire political and economic situations.  They deserve pride of place in the narrative about the democratic uprisings of 2010 and ff.  OWS should be celebrated energetically, but it should also, to an extent, always stand humbly in the shadow of the other extraordinary movements that came first.  Sometimes America is last and least.

David Harvey: at times also awesome


As luck would have it, we are reading an old piece of Harvey’s in my planning theory class, the 1978 piece from Planning Theory in the 1980s. Rereading that piece (and, yes, perhaps some lingering guilt at having called him “lazy and slow-moving” in a post yesterday) has prompted me to praise Harvey, to say what an incredibly concise and dead-on critique of planning he offers. The gist is that the instinct of planning, its deepest hope, is to soothe, to salve, to solve, to create agreement, to calm the waters. To preserve order. This instinct is essential to the preservation of capitalist economic relations, and so to the domination of the bourgeoisie over everyone else. Harvey’s words:

In striving to affect reconciliation, the planner must perforce resort to the idea of the potentiality for harmonious balance in society. And it is on this fundamental notion of social harmony that the ideology of planning is built. The planner seeks to intervene to restore “balance” but the “balance” implied is that which is necessary to reduce civil strife and to maintain the requisite conditions for the steady accumulation of capital (p. 224).


…definitions of the public interest…are set according to the requirements for the reproduction of the social order which is, whether we like the term or not, a distinctively capitalistic social order (p. 224).

Despite the many flavors of planning theory that exist, he argues,

the commitment to the ideology of harmony within the capitalist social order remains the still point upon which the gyrations of planning ideology turn….Perhaps there lies at the fulcrum of capitalist history not harmony but a social relation of domination of capital over labor (p. 231).

[I can’t resist saying, though, and q.v. my post yesterday: he does reduce everything to capitalism, and so he misses the fact that planning is also a state activity, and the state also very much wants to preserve the social order in which it wields sovereign power. Its policies also seek to preserve the domination of the state over its subjects.]