Urban Life

Does London’s capitalism necessarily leads to urbanisn because the capitalist mode of realizing surplus value necessarily leads to its spatial concentration in cities and towns. The uneven distribution of wealth in society is mirrored by the uneven distribution of wealth over space. This points to the conclusion that the radical theory of urban development must explain the dialectical interactions embedded in the antithesis between town and country, large towns and mall towns and between towns in advanced capitalist countries and towns in underdeveloped capitalist countries.


This is especially important in understanding the concrete development and peculiarities of particular cities or towns, as the case of London –the financial heart of the 19th-century capitalist world–aptly indicates. Secondly, because it is the locus of capital accumulation,   the city must itself be regarded as a force of production – though indirectly productive; it is as necessary to the existence and efficiency of the productive enterprise as machines and raw materials. Thus, urban development must primarily occur in ways which support and enhance the process of capital accumulation, as opposed to those which enhance the social utility of living in the city. As the historical study showed, this goal was an extremely influencial force in shaping London’s development: the pattern of railway and dock development, the street improvements and the centralization of economic activity, all derived from it–and the   social consequences were disastrous.


The fact that the responsibility for most urban infrastructure investments in modern cities is the responsibility of central and local government bodies and is paid for out of public funds does not negate this conclusion. The actions of these organizations form part of the third superstructural institution–the capitalist state. One of the most important functions of the capitalist state, as both London’s history and modern urban development indicate, is to enhance or at least   ensure the maintenance of a certain rate of capital accumulation without impairing capitalist class dominance.


Thus, unless popular responses to socially irrational public investments are particularly vehement and widely supported, priority will usually be given to those investments which promote capital accumulation by increasing the efficiency of the city as a force in production. Thus, the city can be viewed as the spatial enbodiment of the fundamental ‘socio-private’ contradiction of the capitalist mode of production: the social character and consequences of the process of urban development contradict the private–that is, the capitalist class–control over, and benefits from, that process. A comparison between 19th-century London and modern London bears out this conclusion.


While the productive efforts, both manual and intellectual, of society as a whole, have engendered great advances in urban technologies–for construction, transportation, communication and many other urban services–it is clear that urban problems which existed in the 19th-century continue to plague London today, though their form may have changed in certain cases;   and it is questionable whether the experience of urban living has improved, in a relative sense, for a sizeable proportion of the city’s population. Pollution, congestion, slums–indeed, urban environmental destruction in general–are but different spatial expressions of the pervasive effects of this fundamental contradiction in shaping the urban environment.

We will return to this contradiction, in the following section, when discussing the relationship between work and living. The third urban implication of the capital accumulation imperative derives frcan the necessity for an adequate amount of the total surplus to be realized in its directly and indirectly productive forms. This exposes a contradiction between the capital accumulation imperative and the institution which allocates space to competing users–the market in land.


Competition for urban space, an essentially fixed and scarce resources, leads to consistent inflation of land rents. This is the basis of the mythical qualities of land ownership as a hedge against inflation. However, land rent is a non-productive form of surplus value. Thus, to the extent that increasing quantities of surplus value are realized in the form of land rent, so the growth of production tends to diminish. On the other hand, the market in land is a necessary institution, both for allocating land to competing users so that locational advantage accrues in proportion to economic power and thus as a function of a firm’s ability to accumulate capital; and, equally importantly, for Justifying the resulting configuration in the minds of those who suffer [311 in the process.


And, furthermore, the inflation of land rents is predicated upon the perpetuation of capital accumulation from whence   increased amounts of money to pay for increased land rents originate. The fact that the nationalization of land has been advocated since the days of Henry George and has yet to be implemented not only indicates the power of the institution of private property and the political nightmares involved in placing responsibility for a necessarily uneven and anti-social allocation of land in the hands of the state, it also implies that mechanisms exist for mediating this contradiction between capital accumulation and land rent (and interest, for that matter). It seems as though state budgetary and legislative   policies, the investment decisions of major financial organizations   (banks, insurance comnpanies, building societies, pension funds, etc.), as well as the dynamics of individual struggles between firms and land lords, or tenants and landlords,or bosses and workers, hold the key to the nature of such mediating mechanisms as exist. However, our knowledge on this subject is quite limited.


Clearly, an understanding of what these regulatory mechanians are, and how they operate, is important to an understanding of the process of urban development under capitalism, and, therefore, it should form part of a radical theory of urban development. 1351 Spatially uneven developnent is a fourth consequence of the drive to accumulate capital. The market in land ensures its uneven distribution: the allocation of land being a function of a firm’s ability to accumulate capital, with the most successful accumulators being in a position to outbid all others for locations which best suit their needs.


Thus, certain sectors of the city prosper and others decay depending on the fates of the productive and cammercial   enterprises located within then. This phenomenon is compounded by the fact that declining productive and commercial enterprises are forced to pay low wages and are characterized by high rates of unemployment and underenployment. Furthermore, these workers are either excluded from most housing sub-markets or cannot afford the cost of transportation which would enable then to live away from their workplaces. Thus, declining enterprises are usually intermingled with slums. And the permanence and bulk of urban investments tends to seal the fate of these dilapidated areas for a long time.


As was shown in the historical analysis, this, in the briefest outline, was the basic reason for the slums of the East End, an area which has, for similar reasons, maintained its low quality status and character. This inevitable tendency of the capitalist systen to generate and sustain uneven spatial development is also the partial basis of the black central-area ghetto– white suburbs dichotomy so characteristic of large American cities.

The second major outcome of the operation of capitalist basic institutions arises both out of capitalist or managerial control of the productive enterprise and the institutionalization of markets as a mode of economic integration. As a result, the capitalist system is ‘Immaterially productive of individual, marketable (as opposed to social)  goods and services” because it is only through producing increased quantities of goods and services and selling then on the market that the capitalist firm is able to realize profits and thereby expand. This entails the minimization of input costs and the expansion of production and sales.. It also engenders the pressure to find new buyers for the increased quantity of goods and to control the nature and extent of their demands through exaggerated advertising campaigns stressing personal consumption, built-in obsolescence and, in general, the creation of a whole commodity fetishist culture. What this amounts to is the important observation, which will be expanded in subsequent sections of this chapter, that capitalist class control must extend beyond the productive enterprise and into most aspects of people’s lives.


As Paul Sweezy has put it: “The modern giant corporation has a profound need to decimate and control all the conditions and variables which affect its viability.” In all of its activities, the capitalist firm remains essentially oblivious to the social consequences of its activities, except when social pressures mount to such a pitch that lack of attention to them would threaten the continued existence of the firm, in which case changes (though not necessarily of the socially responsible variety) are initiated. These processes have important consequences for urban development which must be incorporated into a radical theory. Firstly, the city functions partly as a receptacle, though not the most efficient or straightforward one, for the necessary disposal of surplus product (i.e., of productive capacity for which there is no effective consumer demand, but which the state ‘consumes’ in order to maintain a rate of capital accumulation, e.g., military weapons, space programs).


Railway development was seen to be an important example in the case of 19th-century British cities. Monumental architecture is another example. David Harvey argues that nmuch of the expansion of GNP in capitalist societies is bound up in the whole suburbanization   process. Secondly, the city, being itself a massive composite of individual marketable commodities, is subject to similar pressures as those which determine the nature of other canmodities. Built-in obsolescence, one of the capitalist system’s devices for maintaining   effective demand, pervades urban areas. Buildings, once built to last, are demolished and new buildings with much shorter life-spans erected in their places.


The shorter the economic and physical life of products, the quicker the rate of circulation of surplus value, and the higher the rate of capital accumulation. Thirdly, the range of urban products available to citizens and consumers–houses, transport systems, entertainment–tend to follow the prerequisites of capital accumulation and not the preferences of [431 individuals. As Herbert Gintis has argued: “….observed consumer behaviour in capitalist society is a rational reaction to the structure of available alternatives for social activity open to the individual. No theory of “consumer manipulation” is needed to explain this behaviour. Indeed, the ability of socializing institutions (family, schools, advertising) to affect behaviour must be explained by the verification of their “message” in the realities of day to day social life. If consumer behaviour seemns odd or perverse, this is due less to any’ irrationality of individual preferences than to the restricted choice-sets of social activities they face, and to the fact that rational individuals will develop capacities to utilize what is available.”

April 22, 2018


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