"Social Justice and the City," originally published in 1973, is widely known both as a landmark study in the field of human geography and as David Harvey's Marxist coming-out-of-the-closet. I would say that it's a work of philosophy of science, but as the author declares, his intention is to challenge the entire Western tradition of scientific epistemology. In Harvey's thesis, strict positivism, the notion that science is the discovery and reaffirmation of fixed categories, has proven itself to be an inadequate approach to science across multiple fields of both the "hard" and social sciences, despite positivism's continued dominance within academia. Simultaneously, he argues that the history of post-WW2 attempts at urban social engineering and the new forms of political struggle which had risen out of the postwar urban world serve as evidence that science, especially social science, needs to continually critique its own methodology in order to continually generate meaningful and useful analyses. Harvey describes two related problems in the field of human geography (which extend to all of social science). The first is that his fellow geographers are too willing to accept the capitalist notion of value when studying urban life, and an equal problem of the tendency of Durkheimian social scientists to miss the concrete, yet fluctuating world around them due to their adherence to categorical ideals.
Like the European urban theorists Mumford and Lefebvre who preceded him, Harvey argues that science always rests on a worldview which is intrinsically linked to the values of the society it occupies. Science, and especially social science, inevitably conducts its studies according to a certain value system, and in turn, concocts a notion of which patterns of societal organization and social behavior will return optimal results (according to the theory of value that is in use). However, reality itself is relational (in the Leibnizian sense), something which undermines most scientists' faith in their own political neutrality, and there is no better evidence for this than the modern city. The health and livelihoods of cities depend upon their relationships to other geographic locations, the social relations contained within cities themselves, and all matter of productive and political relations. Most mainstream social scientists are split between mechanical materialism and relativist idealism, but the scientific approach Harvey advocates could potentially be described as "relational materialism," or even better, by its historical title: Dialectical materialism. Dialectical materialism is a material monist view which is skeptical of the ground it stands on. In dialectical materialism, not only are human beings inevitably social actors, but our worlds are always in flux. Modern human beings exist within forms of social organization that are radically different from organizational forms which existed millennia ago, and the current forms of social organization we experience in our societies bear the mark of history. As a result, dialectical materialism's categories are meant to arise out of the study of life itself, and not from a metaphysical foundation. But, it also attempts to emphasize a vigilant meta-awareness of the ways in which our categories deeply affect our relations with things themselves. It attempts to tell the story of the material motions of human society, and the different perspectival relations that those material phenomena create between different actors.
Aside from Harvey's more "raw" philosophy of science, the first chapter mainly outlines a new approach to the study of space, particularly urban space. Harvey carefully explains the complicated ways in which space plays out in human life. When we usually think of "space," we usually think of the space that physicists speak of, i.e., "objective" space. But, the moment we utter the phrase "over there," we have entered into the constantly amorphous world of social space. The third level of space Harvey describes is phenomenological space, which is the sense-experience of space itself. Each of these three levels exists in a dialectical relationship with the others. Changes in one lead to changes in the others. The discovery of an objectively-existing landmass called "North America" by Europeans led to the founding of new urban spaces. Because of reasons relating to the European sense of social space, certain people settled in these lands (after displacing the natives), and built their city a certain way. Social space impacted objective space in the form of the physical changes that resulted from the growth of new cities. The Anglo-capitalist social space of the city imposed class divides onto the city, which also led to differences in phenomenological experiences of space: Living next to a dirty factory became a part of daily life for a working class resident of the city, but pollution also became an indication of undesirability for the petite bourgeois resident. The behavior experienced in these phenomenological differences helped inspire other dialectical changes, and have never ceased to do so, even in our own era.
The second chapter is of a more empirical bent. It applies ideas laid out in chapter one to the urban social problems of Harvey's day which, sadly, have hardly changed at all since the original publication of "Social Justice and the City." He uses real social phenomena to prove that different levels of spatial experience flow through the modern urban landscape, and that the social spatial relations reveal the concrete workings of capitalist economic forces and the local bourgeois political organization of cities. Here, Harvey begins his critique of John Rawls, and of equilibrium political theory in general. Rawls proposed that a capitalist society is perfectly capable of achieving social justice if government policies maintained a certain distribution of living standards. The problem, Harvey argues, is that the spatial-relational nature of capitalist society demonstrates why such an equilibrium will always be elusive, if not totally impossible. Both spatial class divisions and competitive pressures show us the various ways in which tax burdens, public utility burdens, and environmental pollution are shoved onto specific social spaces and the people who inhabit them. In a way, Harvey is also critiquing his fellow Marxists in this passage. As with Rawls, Marxist socio-economic thinkers, at least since after Marx & Engels, and especially the analytical Marxists, have viewed the contention over the distribution of value within society as the only focal point of social ethics. Harvey demonstrates that a spatial war is just as fundamental to capitalist social relations, even though this conflict is intrinsically tied into the functioning of value within capitalist society anyways.
Section two serves as a more philosophical critique of Rawls, and also as a critique of Thomas Khun, as well as an explanation of the necessity of "revolutionary" social science. According to Havey, Rawls' liberalism is damned to uselessness because of its inability to recognize the necessary importance of productive relations in the continual regeneration of inequality, which is also intrinsically tied into Rawls' lack of spatial awareness, which allows liberals such as Rawls to treat the actual physical manifestations of inequality as a matter of pure value-distribution. The inequality of political power and economic autonomy which are intrinsically connected to income inequality are left entirely out of the picture in the Rawlsian thesis, which, to say the least, is a shortcoming on equilibrium theory's part. Harvey then engages in a third critique of equilibrium theory which is truly brilliant. He demonstrates that if we were to accept Rawls' notion of social justice as a starting point for the imagining of a just society, that we could arrive at a Marxist version of equilibrium theory by thinking through its consequences. Rawls argued that modern societies need to enable the economically weakest strata of society to maximize their potential. Harvey shows that in order to accomplish this, the "lowest" stratum of society requires real political power. Rawls' equilibrium theory rested on the notion that cross-class conflict was not an intrinsic aspect of capitalist society, something which many would agree is a fantastical hope. As Harvey points out, even if capitalist societies propagate only modest amounts of economic antagonism between citizens (which they obviously do), then the only way to ensure the well-being of the masses is for the masses to seize power. From there, it makes the most sense to define the masses as the lowest strata, so as to allow the majority of society to achieve power. Then, Harvey demonstrates that majoritarian political power on behalf of the dispossessed masses depends on control of productive forces. Thus, Harvey ends up at the dictatorship of the proletariat.
With this example in mind, Harvey shifts to his critique of Khun's theory of paradigm shifts. Khun described scientific evolution as a process that is marked by periodic leaps between new categorical structures in knowledge. However, Khun paid virtually no attention to the social forces which allow these changes to occur. In both the natural and social sciences, theories engage in an examination of the material world. However, theories often begin to exhaust their usefulness once their categories have been thoroughly explored, and they begin to encounter anomalies, which are difficult to explain within the reigning theory. Often, but not always, new theories challenge the reigning social order, just as when the bourgeoisie were more willing to accept purely materialist scientific paradigms than the crumbling feudal order. Analyses in all sciences are always framed by values, and whether one likes it or not, these values have social, political, and economic content. This content is not "merely subjective," but ultimately relates back to the reigning socio-economic order of society. From here, we can see why paradigm shifts aren't always epistemologically progressive. Economics shifted from monetarist to Keynesian economics in the 1930s when the Great Depression created a tremendous anomaly for monetarist economic science. Keynesianism itself experienced an insurmountable anomaly in the 1970s, which logically should have led to an even greater paradigm shift away from bourgeois economics, but instead simply resulted in a reversion to monetarism without any real resolution of the anomalies of monetarism, which simply played themselves out again in 2008.
"Urbanism and the City" represents the longest essay in this collection, and is an application of geographic dialectics to both the history of the capitalist city and its modern social contradictions, both of which are intractable from one another. Harvey applies the categories of Marxian value to urban spatial relations. This has a twin advantage. The Marxian concepts of value within capitalist relations traditionally denote a divide and contradiction between "use value" and "exchange value." The definitions are fairly intuitive, and probably mean exactly what one assumes they mean. However, Marx also held that they contained contradictions which have ramifications across society, and for the process of capitalist production itself. In order to create exchange value, the "use value" of a commodity must be melted down and foregone in favor of a more fluid kind of value. The reverse is also true. Harvey argues that this is equally true for the use and exchange of urban spaces. In urban areas, the usefulness of space is frequently sacrificed in order to make space more marketable for private interests. A logical ordering of urban space would link work, daily life, and positive environmental conditions in such a way that secured productivity while maximizing human happiness. Despite the fact that this may sound like an enviable form of social organization to just about anyone, the contradictions of capitalist space inhibit the existence of such a city, or at least any such city which doesn't parasitically feed off of the other urban areas through rent-created class segregation between cities, such as San Francisco and New York. The sacrifice of use value in favor of exchange value doesn't just make more money for city governments and landlords, but also plays a vital role in reproducing class divides, both in their political and economic forms. Conservative and liberal social scientists attempt to get around this problem by melting use value into exchange value, or vice versa, but these one-dimensional spatial analyses time and time again fail to meaningfully represent reality. As Mike Davis proved in "Planet of Slums," granting a certain portion of an urban population a monopoly over space will only ensure that the more economically powerful portion will harvest rent from their monopoly power, and that there is virtually no inventive (or overarching tendency) to maximize utility or equality in such an economic framing, a flaw resulting from the contradiction between the use and exchange values of spaces.
Harvey introduces the roles surpluses in value play in the capitalist society, and the manner in which urban surplus distribution affect the transition from the feudal town to the capitalist city. Citing the work of Karl Polyani, Harvey argues that market phenomena, once a mere parasite to the hierarchical and egalitarian distribution economies of the Middle Ages, eventually overtook the feudal city. The rise of protestant values, in conjunction with technological advances, allowed for the merchant class to gain an unprecedented level of political power. This, in turn, initiated a sea-change in urban life. Urban centers, already oriented around the extraction of surplus value from the country, went into overdrive and began to suck resources, people, and political power away from the country at an unprecedented rate. The life of most people in capitalist societies became one of urban class divides, where the political-spatial control of the bourgeoisie became central to the process of accumulation.
In the conclusion, Harvey comes to a critically important point about urbanism as a social process. Urbanism long predates capitalism, and even possesses continuous characteristics across multiple epochs. However, the organizational form of urbanism in the modern era is unprecedented, and more importantly, is an essential expression of the capitalist mode of production. So, what exactly is space and urbanism with regards to the process of historical transformation? Harvey proposes that "urbanism" should be thought of in a similar manner to "science." Most civilizations, at least for millennia since before our time, have had some form of science. At the same time, no one would deny that "our" science is far more advanced and efficient than all previous forms of science, and that in order to affect social change, science must be heeded and incorporated into any revolutionary understanding of capitalism, as we all know Marx himself advocated. Harvey claims that urbanism should be examined and incorporated into both social science and left-wing movements in a similar manner. Just as the expansion of industrial capitalism and scientific-technological practices across the globe heralds the final stages of capitalism's conquest of humanity, so does the victory of the city over the country herald the progressive evolution of capitalism. Our response should neither be fluffy optimism nor hopeless cynicism. The urban process contains the essence of capitalism's evils, but also the possibility for confrontation of these same evils. The collection concludes with the 2008 essay "The Right to the City," Harvey's now famous manifesto against the world-wide authoritarian control of capitalist cities across the world by bourgeois political forces, and the necessity of viewing urban authoritarianism as a characteristic of capitalist modernity.
This essay collection is possibly the most essential work ever written by David Harvey. Many of my liberal friends praise Harvey for his studies on imperialism and neo-liberalism, but his most challenging works, "Social Justice and the City" and "The Limits to Capital," are certainly essential readings for anyone with an interest in social science, or even philosophy of science. Really, no aspiring student of society has any business ignoring Harvey.