The urbanization of transition: ideology and the urban experience

Pages 607-623 | Received 09 Oct 2016, Accepted 11 Oct 2016, Published online: 02 Nov 2016


This paper debates the relationships between transition and urbanization by problematizing the operation of transition on three inter-related levels. Firstly, at the level of ideology, it is important to rehearse the understanding of transition from that of merely area-based reforms and rather understand it as a totalizing project of planetary reach, which completes the subjugation of the whole world to capitalism and crowns neoliberalism as the only global order. Secondly, at the level of practice, it is important to properly account for the spatializing effects of that ideology – which is not simply “domesticated” by local practices, but itself mediates the subsumption of pre-existing practices by capital, thus alienating them from their history. Thirdly, at the level of the urban: while urban change is usually portrayed merely as a projection of societal relations, the urban is actually the central stage where ideology mixes with the everyday, through which the societal change is mediated; new meanings, social relations, and class divisions are construed; and through which ideological transition achieves its practical completeness. What combines these three levels is the notion of urbanization of transition, which articulates the centrality of the urban in the spectacular post-socialist experience.


Although scholars of post-socialist urbanism at times indulge themselves in reflexive melancholy over their moderate impact on the wider urban scholarship, there is actually a fast-growing and already rather sophisticated body of internationally excellent literature that addresses significant challenges and provides diverse accounts on many aspects of post-socialist urbanization, both empirically and theoretically (for some reviews, see Borén and Gentile 2007Borén, Thomas, and Michael Gentile2007. “Metropolitan Processes in Post-communist States: An Introduction.” Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 89: 95110.10.1111/geob.2007.89.issue-2[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Sykora and Bouzarovski 2012Sykora, Ludek, and Stefan Bouzarovski2012. “Multiple Transformations: Conceptualising the Post-communist Urban Transition.” Urban Studies 49: 4360.10.1177/0042098010397402[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Kubeš 2013Kubeš, Jan2013. “European Post-socialist Cities and Their near Hinterland in Intra-urban Geography Literature.” Bulletin of Geography. Socio-Economic Series 19: 1943.[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Sjöberg 2014Sjöberg, Örjan2014. “Cases onto Themselves? Theory and Research on Ex-socialist Urban Environments.” Geografie 119: 299319.[Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). However, I will argue in this paper that the relationships between the two key staples feeding this literature – transition and urbanization – are still under-conceptualized, taken at face value, or fail to attract their due problematization. In this article, I discuss that point and outline possible avenues as to how to problematize those relationships through the lens of a spatial political economy.

To begin with, while urban change in post-socialist scholarship is usually portrayed as a projection of larger societal changes onto local practices, the urban is actually an important scale through which new ideologies, meanings, and social relationships are legitimized – there is a dialectical co-production between the urban and the social (Lefebvre [1970] 2003Lefebvre, Henri[1970] 2003The Urban RevolutionMinneapolisUniversity of Minnesota Press. [Google Scholar][1974] 1991Lefebvre, Henri[1974] 1991The Production of SpaceOxfordBlackwell Publishing. [Google Scholar]). The urban is also where the wider project of neoliberal transition is “domesticated” into concrete “transformations” (e.g. Stenning et al. 2010Stenning, AlisonAdrian SmithAlenaRochovska, and Dariusz Swiatek2010Domesticating Neo-liberalism: Spaces of Economic Practice and Social Reproduction in Post-socialist CitiesOxfordWiley-Blackwell.10.1002/9781444325409[Crossref][Google Scholar]); however, the latter observation should not blind us from seeing the totality of transition in the first place. The discourse in post-socialist scholarship that disavows the vocabulary of “transition” in favor of more particularized “transformations” (Pickles and Smith 1998Pickles, John, and Adrian Smith, eds. 1998Theorising Transition: The Political Economy of Post-communist TransformationLondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]; Herrschel 2007Herrschel, Tassilo2007. “Between Difference and Adjustment – The Re-/presentation and Implementation of Post-socialist (Communist) Transformation.” Geoforum 38: 439444.10.1016/j.geoforum.2006.11.007[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), while rightly challenging the reductionist assumptions of the teleological projections of the Washington Consensus, has become too seductive itself. It has moved research from the understanding of the ideology of transition at large to studying smaller and particular processes, which per se become somehow sufficient to explain post-socialist experiences, while the wider meta-change is at best read perfunctorily under the now all-explanatory narrative of “neoliberalism.”

In this paper, I rehearse transition as an ideological, totalizing – indeed, totalitarian – project and discuss the role of the urban in making it such and rendering transition its social constitution. The dialectics of the total and the particular leads me to outline the contours of what I call “the urbanization of transition,” the appropriation of urban space by capitalism, simultaneously leading to the materialization, crystallization, and consequent reproduction of the new hegemony. I support my argument with some classical writings in political economy; the work of Henri Lefebvre in particular offers a useful grammar to knit the urban thread through the ideology and practice of transition.

I organize my argument as follows. I start with discussing why transition should not be easily equated with contextual transformations, arguing that to do otherwise is a debilitating position that obscures the global significance of post-socialism. I continue with discussing the totalizing nature of transition, which functions to close the civilizational dialog over alternative human futures. I then turn to outlining the spatialization of transition – as a contingent but ordered process of the subsumption of post-socialist legacy under the exigencies of capital. Against these fundamentals, I then discuss post-socialist urbanization and how it is central to these epochal and spectacular politico-economic restructurings.

Transformations or transition?

The collapse of the state-socialist project, climaxed in the well-documented geopolitical events of 1989/1991, brought about a surge of radical societal change. Unlike regime change and retrofits in other places and times, the post-socialist momentum has rebuilt the very existential foundations of the affected societies – whose professed goal was no longer building “the bright future” of communism, with its aspirations for a classless society, good life and equity for all, but rather embracing the individualistic, entrepreneurial, and competition ethos of capitalism, framed politically as a “market economy.” The change has been underpinned by so-called “transition,” as a metaphorical and practical framework for the existence of post-socialist societies. Ex-communist societies were then all seen as societies in transition, at the core of which was a technocratic package of reforms for the economic and political domains.

Since the very start, the teleological notion of transition has been challenged. While transition has been both a prescriptive and descriptive idea, many have critiqued it for being reductionist and thus failing to account for the complexity and multiplicity of pathways engaged by actually existing transition, which is shaped by local preconditions, culture, and contingencies. It has been suggested that “transformation(s)” is a more nuanced vocabulary to analyze the processes of post-socialism (e.g. Pickles and Smith 1998Pickles, John, and Adrian Smith, eds. 1998Theorising Transition: The Political Economy of Post-communist TransformationLondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]).

While this is an accurate critique, the downside has been that – coupled with descriptive, often empiricist and positivist tendencies in much of the emerging post-socialist academic geography – this new tradition has resulted in the topic being dominated by the narrative of the idiosyncrasies of post-socialism, including the diversity of contextually specific trajectories emerging from the juxtaposition of politics, culture, history, and other legacies and exigencies. The “transformation” thesis has just gone too well with the empiricist tradition of “area studies,” while the very teleology of transition has not been scrutinized on its own terms – as an ideology – it was rather reduced to the presumed Washington Consensus’s technocracies. The most interesting accounts here had to consequently come from outside the discipline of post-socialism itself, such as Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine (2007Klein, Naomi2007The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster CapitalismLondonAllen Lane. [Google Scholar]).