From a left perspective, current capitalist crises need to be solved through devaluation of old fossil and capitalist landscapes, and new landscapes and new spaces for housing, leisure, work, transportation, production and agriculture need to be produced. Considering how dependent our current cities, countries, and global infrastructure are on capital accumulation and fossil fuel, it goes without saying that the challenges will be enormous – and that planners will be needed. But at precisely the moment when we most need a Marxist theory of planning, such a discourse is nowhere to be found in the academic discipline called planning theory.
The renewed interest in Marxism that occurred in the social sciences and humanities after the 2008 economic crisis has not yet found its counterpart in spatial planning. In a recent paper in Antipode, I scrutinize relations between Marxism and spatial planning from three perspectives: first, the vibrant Marxist discourse on planning that actually existed in the late 1970s and early 1980s; second, the recent history (since the 1980s) of planning theory and its relation to the political economy of the period; and third, the current political economic context (not least defined by twin economic and ecological crises).
The Fall and Rise of Marxist Planning Theory?
When reading the Marxist critique of planning (theory) from the late 1970s and early 1980s, it is remarkable how relevant it remains. Shoukry Roweis argued in 1981, for example, that planners lacked a “map of social reality” in which they could situate themselves and their practice. Without such a map, it is surely hard for planners to suggest where we should go, and not, with Roweis’ words, merely “vacillate between utopianism and technical pragmatism.” Whereas utopianism “robs their practice of its potential effectiveness and their theory of its practical significance,” technical pragmatism, according to Roweis, “reduces practice to an aimless management of day-to-day bottlenecks and theory to a technical instrumentality of shortsighted ‘problem-solving’.” This formulation remains, indisputably, spot on.
Today, as we arguably find ourselves on the other side of neoliberalism, we should definitely re-read the literature from the late 1970s and early 1980s on planning and its relation to the circulation of capital (Lamarche), to collective consumption (Castells), and to how the built environment is used as a means of production (Harvey and Preteceille), as well as further investigate the policy side of planning processes, either relating urban planning under capitalism to the problem of collective control (Dear, Scott, Roweis, Cockburn), or else how internal structures of the state impose limits on planning and capital (Foglesong, Beauregard, Kirk). The authors mentioned here not only deserve a broader readership due to the quality of their work, but also because so much of it is still relevant.
Unfortunately, Marxist planning theory disappeared from mid 1980s onwards. At a time when the world was boiling over with social conflicts, as capital was squeezing labor around the globe, as differences in power between developers and working-class dwellers in neighborhoods escalated dramatically, and when capital gained increasingly more power over urban development and spatial planning, planning theory turned “inwards” (cf. Beauregard).
When the world was full of conflicts, Western planning theory witnessed a “communicative turn.” As a critique of the high-modernist planning from “above” that dominated the postwar decades, and inspired by Jürgen Habermas’
“communicative rationality,” planning theorists became preoccupied with how to improve collaboration and communication between actors. The fact that there existed massive inequalities in power between actors was something with which this theoretical direction never managed to come to terms. In reality, communicative planning often meant more power to the already powerful. The “communicative turn” surely made the discipline relevant for policy makers that needed theoretical justifications for neoliberal developments, but rather useless for critical analysis.
From the standpoint of the working class and the environment, it would be devastating if the current crises of capitalism would be handled through liberal ideals of communicative planning or New Public Management, i.e. running public services more in a more “businesslike” manner, and where planning is a consultancy service. But luckily, communicative ideals no longer hold the same hegemonic position within the discipline. This is partly due to decades of criticism of communicative approaches.
As we are currently having political, economic, social, and ecological crises all around us, and arguably living in a Gramscian interregnum where the old is dying and the new can not yet be born, there will surely be changes in the near future, also in how and what we plan. Against this backdrop, where should planning go?
Spatial Planning in Times of Crises
Although communicative ideals within planning theory are not as strong as a few years ago, the capitalist class character that has constituted planning under neoliberalism has not changed significantly thus far. It will be catastrophic for both the working class and the environment if we continue to handle the current crises with the class character that currently dominates planning: with capital (and often finance and fossil capital) holding the keys to the questions of what, where, for whom, by/with whom, and how, in terms of planning.
We need to bring Marxism back into planning theory, but for several reasons we cannot simply copy and paste texts from the 1970s and early 1980s. One reason for this is that previous Marxist approaches to planning emphasized (often exclusively) the question of what planning is, in contrast to what it ought to be.
With capitalist crises all around us – economic, ecological, health, political, social, and so forth – we have no choice but to discuss what is and what ought to be simultaneously.
A Marxist approach is valuable for several reasons. One is that it brings class into the center of analysis. Policies that benefit the ruling class can be conducted in the shadows of many different ideologies and theories (e.g. communicative approaches), but a spatial planning that benefits the broad working class (including the urban poor of color, small-scale farmers, the homeless, gig-workers and many more) is impossible if we do not bring class into the core of the discussion. By this I mean not only understanding how planning produces different outcome for different groups, but also how ownership over real estate, planning and architecture offices, construction companies, financiers, etc., bring specific class characters to planning under capitalism. In order to understand this we also need to bring back important Marxists analysis on relations between the capitalist class and the state – which in planning theory has been missing since early 1980s.
Today, it is crucial to understand the economic and ecological crises. Here a Marxist approach is favorable as it locates the ultimate causes of the crises in the need for profit and endless accumulation, which creates economic growth (crucial for ecological crises) and contradictions within capital accumulation (as in economic crises). Marxism is also an interesting starting point when thinking about how to solve these crises – i.e. through processes of creative destruction – that goes beyond Keynesian countercyclical investments. However, much more work from Marxists is surely needed in every part of this analysis.
Toward Eco-socialist Planning
If we conceptualise spatial planning, following Nicos Poulantzas’ view of the state, as a material condensation of social relations, it follows that we must also focus on how planning plays a part in social struggles more broadly. My reflections in Antipode focus primarily on class, but when discussing what eco-socialist planning might actually look like, we obviously need to combine this with feminist and anti-racist theories and practices.
I don’t have space here to elaborate what Marxist and eco-socialist alternatives might actually entail. And more work is certainly needed — and that is indeed what the Antipode paper calls for. I will simply end here by pointing in a certain direction, by reassessing the five planning-relevant questions mentioned above from a Marxist perspective.
In terms of what is to be planned, we need to plan on the basis of use-values rather than exchange values. In terms of planning by whom, planning must be conducted by communities/municipalities/states, rather than capital or their consultants. Concerning for whom, the main task for planning is to improve the lives of the working class (broadly defined), within planetary limits. Concerning the question of where, production must be located where it brings most benefit (or least harms) for the environment and the working class. Similarly, transport, infrastructure, and even consumption must be organized after similar principles.
Finally, the question of how. There is no way we can avoid an unprecedented climate crisis, in a socially acceptable way, without massive state planning. We must, following Roweis, go beyond both technical pragmatism and utopianism; we don’t need day-to-day management of yesterday’s systems, nor ideas picked out of thin air from an undefined future. This dichotomy between technical pragmatism and utopianism can also be compared to the distinction between minimum and maximum programs we find socialist theory. One interesting example here is Debbie Bookchin and the Fearless City movement, who have called explicitly for a combination of minimum and maximum programs. This, I argue, is exactly what we don’t need: Bookchin offers nothing on how to get from daily pragmatism to an imagined world where everything is perfect. What we need are transitional programs that connect the current struggles with socialist visions.
Rather than minimum programs, mired as they are in technical pragmatism, and rather than maximum programs, limited by their purist utopianism, we need a Marxist planning theory that can help us articulate – and carry out – socialist reforms that seek to challenge the capitalist system.
The paper, where I call for the return of Marxist planning (theory), is published in Antipode, a high-ranked geography journal. One might think the paper should be published in a planning journal, as this is perhaps where it would make most direct intervention. Well, to be honest, I tried.
In Planning Theory, one reviewer told me to pay attention to “Marxism’s historical failure,” which included “Soviet extermination/murder of millions of citizens, including racial exterminations, not to mention mass relocations, starvations, the gulags,” as well China, Vietnam, and North Korea. In Planning Theory and Practice, the editors decided (after more than five months) to not even send the paper out for review, as it was “very one sided.” I am the first to admit that the paper surely has developed and improved over time, and there might be several reasons why the paper was rejected in planning journals. But I do also think this tells us something about the state of the discipline.
To read more, see: Ståle Holgersen, “On Spatial Planning and Marxism: Looking Back, Going Forward,” Antipode, 52(3): 800–824 (2020).
Ståle Holgersen is a researcher at the Institute for Housing and Urban Research and in the Department of Social and Economic Geography at Uppsala University.