Category Archives: Theory

Locked-in post-socialism: rolling path dependencies in Liberec’s district heating system

 

This paper uses the experience of post-socialist district heating reforms to tell a broader story about the continued and shared challenges that central and eastern European cities face as they grapple with the legacies of the recent and more distant past. We argue that the restructuring of this infrastructural domain has been contingent upon geographically embedded trajectories stemming from previous historical periods, while leading to the creation of new socio-technical lock-ins. The paper thus develops the notion of “rolling path-dependencies” in order to explore how post-socialist developments both overcome and supplant previous trajectories of transformation. It focuses on the northern Czech town of Liberec – a place that is known for having some of the highest heating prices in the country – to elucidate how a socially, economically, and environmentally detrimental lock-in has come into existence as a result of ill-conceived policies of marketization, municipalization, and privatization. Using evidence from official documents and interviews with policy-makers, we demonstrate how the infrastructural legacies of post-socialism both persist and are being reproduced at the urban scale even within “advanced” reforming states like Czechia.

Introduction

Liberec is a medium-sized city and regional administrative center nested amidst the mountains that line Czechia’s northern borders with Poland and Germany. It has generally remained outside the attention of mainstream academic research on economic and political change within and beyond the region. Yet this city with a population of just over 100,000 people recently entered the national limelight as a result of news reports that local citizens were paying astronomically high prices for their district heating (DH) supply (Pšeničková 2015Pšeničková, Jana2015Liberec Chce Dotlačit Teplárnu, Aby Snížila Ceny. Odpustí Jí Nájemné [Liberec pressures district heating plant to reduce prices – rent will be forgiven]. Accessed May 2, 2016.http://liberec.idnes.cz/liberec-se-snazi-snizit-cenu-tepla-d5e-/liberec-zpravy.aspx?c=A151030_154454_liberec-zpravy_tm [Google Scholar]). Not only did heating tariffs rise well beyond affordable levels, but households were locked into a system that prevented them from switching to a different source of energy supply. In addition, there was evidence to suggest that the local authority was indirectly supporting the privately owned DH company via a complex web of ownership interests and policy measures.

As it turns out, the Liberec case is not isolated in the context of the post-socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and the Former Soviet Union (FSU). In fact, a number of cities and countries in the region have struggled with the legacies of centralized heating supply systems – commonly known as district heating systems (Poputoaia and Bouzarovski 2010Poputoaia, Diana, and StefanBouzarovski2010. “Regulating District Heating in Romania: Legislative Challenges and Energy Efficiency Barriers.” Energy Policy 38: 38203829.10.1016/j.enpol.2010.03.002[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) – inherited from their respective centrally planned economies. This large-scale form of energy provision was emblematic of the political ideologies and urban development policies that underpinned state socialism. The system entailed the delivery of hot steam or water to households and companies via large and centralized networks of pipes and pumping stations. The water itself was heated in fossil-fuel burning plants (primarily coal, heavy fuel oil, and sometimes gas) that also often produced electricity. Under the unfolding crisis of the socialist system, the plants and networks themselves became poorly maintained, with much energy being lost between the sites of production and consumption (Bouzarovski 2009Bouzarovski, Stefan2009. “East-central Europe’s Changing Energy Landscapes: A Place for Geography.” Area 41: 452463.10.1111/area.2009.41.issue-4[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Rezessy et al. 2006Rezessy, S.K.DimitrovD. Urge-Vorsatz, and S.Baruch2006. “Municipalities and Energy Efficiency in Countries in Transition. Review of Factors That Determine Municipal Involvement in the Markets for Energy Services and Energy Efficient Equipment, or How to Augment the Role of Municipalities as Market Players.” Energy Policy 34: 223237.10.1016/j.enpol.2004.08.030[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

DH systems were intimately tied to economic, social, and spatial planning practices and policies under socialism. These networks accompanied mass production and supported daily life and mass consumption of heat in standardized housing. They were also dependent on the promotion and maintenance of particular types of urban forms. The upkeep of such sizeable networks became costly and complex under the market conditions that evolved after the fall of communism. With increasing numbers of consumers switching to other energy carriers – leading to falling revenues and a subsequent need for additional price increases – utilities resorted to punitive measures to prevent further disconnection. Evidence of consumers being “trapped in the heat” has emerged in several CEE countries (Poputoaia and Bouzarovski 2010Poputoaia, Diana, and StefanBouzarovski2010. “Regulating District Heating in Romania: Legislative Challenges and Energy Efficiency Barriers.” Energy Policy 38: 38203829.10.1016/j.enpol.2010.03.002[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Tirado Herrero and Ürge-Vorsatz 2012Tirado Herrero, S., and D. Ürge-Vorsatz2012. “Trapped in the Heat: A Post-communist Type of Fuel Poverty.” Energy Policy 49: 6068.10.1016/j.enpol.2011.08.067[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

In this paper, we use the case of DH and the experience of Liberec more specifically as a starting point for making a broader argument about the continued importance of integrated perspectives on past and present urban transitions and transformations in CEE and the FSU. Drawing upon the multiple transformations model by Sýkora and Bouzarovski (2012Sýkora, Luděk, and Stefan Bouzarovski2012. “Multiple Transformations: Conceptualising the Post-communist Urban Transition.” Urban Studies 49: 4360.10.1177/0042098010397402[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), we argue that the need for a holistic view on post-socialist systemic change still holds relevance for developments in the region and beyond, because micro- and meso-scale transformations in the domains of social practice, organizational change, and the evolution of urban and regional landscapes are ongoing. These claims are developed with reference to the specific infrastructural character of DH, which embodies the institutional and socio-technical inertia of past systems, being nested in past and present urban formations and challenged by recent impacts of free market conditions. Thus, DH can tell us a broader story about the continued and shared challenges that CEE and the FSU face as they continue to grapple with the legacies of communist central planning – even in the case of countries like Czechia that are now well integrated into the sphere of Western capitalism.

In advancing these claims, we do not wish to negate or diminish growing calls for the inclusion of the post-socialist heuristic into a global sensibility of urban change, potentially entering into a dialog with post-colonial frameworks (Chari and Verdery 2009Chari, Sharad, and Katherine Verdery2009. “Thinking between the Posts: Postcolonialism, Postsocialism, and Ethnography after the Cold War.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 51: 634.10.1017/S0010417509000024[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Nor do we intend to retreat to the presumably safer space of area studies, which, as some have argued, holds the risk of driving the study of CEE and FSU cities into a corner that underplays and trivializes the wider political–economic relations that underpin changes in this part of the world (Sjöberg 2014Sjöberg, Örjan2014. “Cases onto Themselves? Theory and Research on Ex-socialist Urban Environments.” Geografie 4: 299319. [Google Scholar]). Rather, the contribution that follows highlights the need for focusing on the systemic nature of socio-spatial processes that have been unfolding in this part of the world over the past 25 years. There is an emphasis on understanding how the period of post-socialist restructuring has been contingent upon geographically embedded path-dependencies stemming from previous historical periods, while leading to the creation of new socio-material lock-ins. We develop the notion of “rolling path-dependencies,” which signifies that new paths arise during periods of systemic change by both overcoming and supplanting previous trajectories of transformation (Horak 2007Horak, M. 2007Governing the Post-communist City: Institutions and Democratic Development in PragueTorontoUniversity of Toronto Press.10.3138/9781442684386[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Sýkora 2008Sýkora, Luděk. 2008. “Revolutionary Change, Evolutionary Adaptation and New Path Dependencies: Socialism, Capitalism and Transformations in Urban Spatial Organization.” In City and Region. Papers in Honour of Jiří Musil, edited by W. Strubeltand G. Gorzelak283295LeverkusenBudrich UniPress. [Google Scholar]). While challenging mainstream neoliberal understandings of transition (Åslund 1992Åslund, Anders1992Post-communist Economic Revolutions: How Big a Bang?Washington, DCCenter for Strategic and International Studies. [Google Scholar]), this perspective also holds relevance for the understanding of similar deep-seated processes of socio-spatial restructuring in other parts of the world.

Theorizing systemic change: legacies and path dependencies in post-socialism and beyond

The last 15 years have seen the publication of a significant body of academic and policy contributions aimed at unraveling the relationship between urban transformations in the post-socialist space, on the one hand, and wider political and economic developments in CEE and FSU, on the other. In contrast with the relatively prescriptive one-dimensional understanding of transition that was advanced by neoliberal economists in the early 1990s (Åslund 1992Åslund, Anders1992Post-communist Economic Revolutions: How Big a Bang?Washington, DCCenter for Strategic and International Studies. [Google Scholar]; Sachs 1990Sachs, J. 1990. “Eastern Europe’s Economies: What Is to Be Done?” The Economist, January 3. Accessed October 14, 2016.http://www.economist.com/node/13002085 [Google Scholar]), it has come to be acknowledged that the movement to a market-based economy requires complex and lengthy reconfigurations in a multiplicity of spheres. What is more, the political and institutional application of normative reform frameworks has been preceded, supplemented, and followed by a wider range of more subtle and less visible shifts in the governance and conduct of everyday life. These involve the establishment of new regulatory principles and informal practices that are simultaneously shaped by and shape broader neoliberal agendas (Stenning et al. 2010Stenning, A.A. SmithAlena Rochovská, and D. Świątek2010Domesticating Neo-liberalism: Spaces of Economic Practice and Social Reproduction in Post-socialist CitiesMalden, MAWiley-Blackwell.10.1002/9781444325409[Crossref][Google Scholar]). Thus, post-socialist change can be seen as the emergence of a specific array of interconnected social dynamics with indeterminate outcomes. It is enacted via “multiple transformations,” whose expressions and articulations can be found in the urban landscapes of CEE and FSU (Sýkora and Bouzarovski 2012Sýkora, Luděk, and Stefan Bouzarovski2012. “Multiple Transformations: Conceptualising the Post-communist Urban Transition.” Urban Studies 49: 4360.10.1177/0042098010397402[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

Post-socialist transition dynamics are geographically delimited: they take place in countries that have experienced a large-scale movement away from the centrally planned economy and one-party system (Smith and Swain 2010Smith, Adrian, and Adam Swain2010. “The Global Economic Crisis, Eastern Europe, and the Former Soviet Union: Models of Development and the Contradictions of Internationalization.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 51: 134.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). This suggests that a level of commonality exists across the entire CEE and FSU space, and in relation to similar state socialist economies in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Understanding the intrinsic nature of these shared features has often required focusing onto the geographical specificities of “post-socialist difference” (Sjöberg 2014Sjöberg, Örjan2014. “Cases onto Themselves? Theory and Research on Ex-socialist Urban Environments.” Geografie 4: 299319. [Google Scholar]). However, it has been argued that a spatial emphasis on the defining characteristics of transforming CEE and FSU cities limits the ability of post-socialist urban studies to engage with wider theoretical paradigms while relegating analyses and conceptualizations of systemic change in the region to the domain of area studies (Ferenčuhová 2016Ferenčuhová, Slavomíra2016. “Accounts from behind the Curtain: History and Geography in the Critical Analysis of Urban Theory.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40 (Mar.): 113131. doi:10.1111/1468-2427.12332.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Moore 2001Moore, David Chioni2001. “Is the Post- in Postcolonial the Post- in Post-Soviet? Toward a Global Postcolonial Critique.” PMLA 116: 111128. [Google Scholar]; Tuvikene 2016Tuvikene, Tauri2016. “Strategies for Comparative Urbanism: Post-socialism as a De-territorialized Concept.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40: 132146.10.1111/1468-2427.12333[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). While constraints on space do not allow for a wider engagement with such debates within the confines of this contribution, we would emphasize that they have often neglected the temporal dimension of political and material reconfigurations associated with post-socialist urban reconfigurations. The CEE and FSU transformation process can be seen as an amalgamation of critical junctures stemming from the collective and individual decisions taken by institutional and household actors reflecting both socialist legacies and challenges of capitalism. Systemic knowledge that is applicable well beyond the post-socialist context can emerge from a conceptualization of the socio-material nature of reform choices, their relationships with wider political dynamics, and their implications for urban transformations writ large.

The significant body of literature on path-dependencies and “hysteresis effects” in CEE and the FSU (Hausner, Jessop, and Nielsen 1995Hausner, J.B. Jessop, and K. Nielsen1995. “Institutional Change in Post-socialism.” In Strategic Choice and Path-dependency in Post-socialism, edited by J. HausnerB.Jessop, and K.Nielsen345AldershotEdward Elgar. [Google Scholar]; Sýkora 2008Sýkora, Luděk. 2008. “Revolutionary Change, Evolutionary Adaptation and New Path Dependencies: Socialism, Capitalism and Transformations in Urban Spatial Organization.” In City and Region. Papers in Honour of Jiří Musil, edited by W. Strubeltand G. Gorzelak283295LeverkusenBudrich UniPress. [Google Scholar]; Yavlinsky and Braguinsky 1994Yavlinsky, G., and S.Braguinsky1994. “The Inefficiency of Laissez-faire in Russia: Hysteresis Effects and the Need for Policy-led Transformation.” Journal of Comparative Economics 19: 88116.10.1006/jcec.1994.1064[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) made numerous inroads into the relationship between surviving vestiges of the state-socialist system – be they social, economic, or spatial – on the one hand, and reform trajectories followed by countries in the region, on the other (Golubchikov, Badyina, and Makhrova 2014Golubchikov, OlegAnna Badyina, and Alla Makhrova2014. “The Hybrid Spatialities of Transition: Capitalism, Legacy and Uneven Urban Economic Restructuring.” Urban Studies 51: 617633.10.1177/0042098013493022[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). This work has primarily seen path-dependencies in the context of past developments, in addition to highlighting their economic sub-optimality from the perspective of neoliberal approaches. There has been a strong focus on the manner in which historically formed forces create economic and material rigidities that limit the number of options available to agents. Such arguments have often been developed with reference to the more widely observed “tendency for the geographical structure of the economy to exhibit historical ‘quasi-fixity’” (Martin and Sunley 2006Martin, Ron, and Peter Sunley2006. “Path Dependence and Regional Economic Evolution.” Journal of Economic Geography 6: 395437.10.1093/jeg/lbl012[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 414), thus shedding light on the processes whereby “an economic landscape has come to be what it is.” Indeed, the wider body of scholarship on the subject has often argued that path dependency is a fundamental feature of territorial evolution (Boschma 2015Boschma, Ron2015. “Towards an Evolutionary Perspective on Regional Resilience.” Regional Studies 49: 733751.10.1080/00343404.2014.959481[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). This is because path-dependencies are often predicated upon lock-ins, whose inflexibility can bring about stable conditions and benefits in some contexts, while preventing the emergence of new forms of internal development and flexible adaptation in others (Underthun et al. 2014Underthun, AndersJarle Moss HildrumHelge SvareHenrik Dons Finsrud, and Knut Vareide2014. “The Restructuring of the Old Industrial Region of Grenland in Norway: Between Lock-in, Adjustment, and Renewal.” Norsk Geografisk Tidsskrift – Norwegian Journal of Geography 68: 121132.10.1080/00291951.2014.894566[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). According to Setterfield (1996Setterfield, Mark1996Rapid Growth and Relative Decline: Modelling Macroeconomic Dynamics with HysteresisLondonMacmillan. [Google Scholar]), lock-ins arise when sequential patterns of activity form a “groove” that render the system “over-committed” to particular technologies, industries, or institutional regimes.

A distinct strand of research on path-dependencies has explored the process of “path-creation,” where the emphasis is on “the time that events occurred even if one were looking at data gathered in the past” (Garud, Kumaraswamy, and Karnøe 2010Garud, RaghuArunKumaraswamy, and Peter Karnøe2010. “Path Dependence or Path Creation?” Journal of Management Studies47: 760774.10.1111/j.1467-6486.2009.00914.x[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 770). Authors working in this vein have underlined the complex agencies involved in the establishment of new development paths, even if some of the traditional components – initial conditions, contingencies, self-reinforcing mechanisms, and lock-in – still exist in their conceptual vocabulary (2010Garud, RaghuArunKumaraswamy, and Peter Karnøe2010. “Path Dependence or Path Creation?” Journal of Management Studies47: 760774.10.1111/j.1467-6486.2009.00914.x[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). But a large part of path creation thinking has to date remained highly normative, being interested primarily in the measures and strategies that need to be implemented in a given geographical or social context in order to achieve a previously defined outcome (Simmie 2012Simmie, James2012. “Path Dependence and New Path Creation in Renewable Energy Technologies.” European Planning Studies 20: 729731.10.1080/09654313.2012.667922[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). The literature on the subject has paid little attention to the spontaneous emergence of new path-dependencies in periods of change. Such lacunae also extend to the CEE and FSU space, where the recognition that post-socialist transformations are not only path-dependent but also path-shaping (Pickles and Smith 1998Pickles, John, and Adrian Smith1998Theorising Transition: The Political Economy of Post-communist TransformationsLondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]) has yet to be translated into comprehensive theorizations that would apply to the rise of new paths after 1990 (but see Horak 2007Horak, M. 2007Governing the Post-communist City: Institutions and Democratic Development in PragueTorontoUniversity of Toronto Press.10.3138/9781442684386[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Sýkora 2008Sýkora, Luděk. 2008. “Revolutionary Change, Evolutionary Adaptation and New Path Dependencies: Socialism, Capitalism and Transformations in Urban Spatial Organization.” In City and Region. Papers in Honour of Jiří Musil, edited by W. Strubeltand G. Gorzelak283295LeverkusenBudrich UniPress. [Google Scholar]). But some scholars have suggested that the sequencing of restructuring decisions and practices in post-socialism plays a key role in determining policy trajectories. This line of thinking is epitomized in Dahrendorf’s (1990Dahrendorf, R. 1990Reflections on the Revolution in EuropeLondonChatto & Windus. [Google Scholar]) “clocks” metaphor, which recognizes that diverse transformations of institutions, politics, everyday routines, and spatial formations unfold at a different pace, with some processes requiring changes in others before they can commence (Sýkora and Bouzarovski 2012Sýkora, Luděk, and Stefan Bouzarovski2012. “Multiple Transformations: Conceptualising the Post-communist Urban Transition.” Urban Studies 49: 4360.10.1177/0042098010397402[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). It follows that new path dependencies can emerge at critical junctures during such multiple transformations, when actors make contingent choices that define and consolidate a specific trajectory of development (Sýkora 2008Sýkora, Luděk. 2008. “Revolutionary Change, Evolutionary Adaptation and New Path Dependencies: Socialism, Capitalism and Transformations in Urban Spatial Organization.” In City and Region. Papers in Honour of Jiří Musil, edited by W. Strubeltand G. Gorzelak283295LeverkusenBudrich UniPress. [Google Scholar]).

Nevertheless, new development trajectories are not formed in a vacuum. Gentile, Tammaru, and van Kempen (2012Gentile, MichaelTiitTammaru, and Ronald van Kempen2012. “Heteropolitanization: Social and Spatial Change in Central and East European Cities.” Cities 29: 291299.10.1016/j.cities.2012.05.005[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) argue that understanding socialist legacies is essential to grasp the nature of the relationship between social and spatial change. Golubchikov, Badyina, and Makhrova (2014Golubchikov, OlegAnna Badyina, and Alla Makhrova2014. “The Hybrid Spatialities of Transition: Capitalism, Legacy and Uneven Urban Economic Restructuring.” Urban Studies 51: 617633.10.1177/0042098013493022[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) point to the mutual embeddedness of socialist legacies and neoliberal practices, which “subsume legacy, recode its meaning, and recast the formerly egalitarian spaces as an uneven spatial order” (2014Golubchikov, OlegAnna Badyina, and Alla Makhrova2014. “The Hybrid Spatialities of Transition: Capitalism, Legacy and Uneven Urban Economic Restructuring.” Urban Studies 51: 617633.10.1177/0042098013493022[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 617). Hence, post-socialist transition entails not only transformations aimed at the dismantling of established legacies and the formation of new paths, but also a more complex situation of living with the aftermath of socialism under an emergent capitalist regime. This is especially true in the case of large-scale materially based infrastructures embedded in urban landscapes, including public transport systems and mass-produced housing (Chelcea and Pulay 2015Chelcea, Liviu, and Gergő Pulay2015. “Networked Infrastructures and the ‘Local’: Flows and Connectivity in a Postsocialist City.” City19 (2–3): 344355.10.1080/13604813.2015.1019231[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar]; Ürge-Vorsatz, Miladinova, and Paizs 2006Ürge-Vorsatz, DianaGergana Miladinova, and Laszlo Paizs2006. “Energy in Transition: From the Iron Curtain to the European Union.” Energy Policy 34: 22792297.10.1016/j.enpol.2005.03.007[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Even if they were originally constructed to achieve a higher quality of living and a more egalitarian society, these socio-technical systems have become alienated from their original purpose. The logic of neoliberal capitalism has driven their utilization for profit-making purposes, bringing forth new socio-spatial inequalities (Chester 2013Chester, Lynne2013. “The Failure of Market Fundamentalism: How Electricity Sector Restructuring is Threatening the Economic and Social Fabric.” Review of Radical Political Economics 45: 315322.10.1177/0486613413487163[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Guogis, Šilinskytė, and Bileišis 2014Guogis, ArvydasAušra Šilinskytė, and Mantas Bileišis2014. “Government-community Conflict: The Lithuanian Public Governance Challenge.” Public Policy and Administration 13: 2235. [Google Scholar]; Pye et al. 2015Pye, SteveAudreyDobbinsClaireBaffertJuricaBrajkovićIvanaGrgurevRocco DeMiglio, and PaulDeane2015Energy Poverty and Vulnerable Consumers in the Energy Sector across the EU: Analysis of Policies and Measures. Policy Report 2. Insight_E, Energy Think Tank of European CommissionMaiaccesat în data de 3. [Google Scholar]).

Methods and paper structure

The decision to focus our study on the case of Liberec was made on the basis of prior knowledge, as well as the city’s prominence in Czech public discourses regarding DH restructuring. However, this exploration was embedded in a wider documentary review of relevant strategic papers and policies at the national and regional scales. We thus juxtaposed evidence from multiple sources. The legal, regulatory, and policy background was studied by surveying the secondary literature on energy supply and heating, as well as on more general urban, housing, and planning developments. Official information about the performance of the town’s heating network was acquired from the annual reports of the Liberec DH joint-stock company (“Liberecká teplárenská”) between 2001 and 2015, as well as the Termizo waste incineration joint-stock company for 2003–2015. Information about day-to-day policy practices, relations, positions, and interpretations was obtained from interviews with eight local and national decision-makers, public policy advocates, and company representatives that took place in 2015 and were supplemented by further two inquiries at Liberecká teplárenská in 2016. The interviews lasted between one and two hours, were undertaken in Czech, and took place in the participants’ own professional premises or other public spaces. They were transcribed, translated, and analyzed interpretively, in line with the conceptual apparatus provided by lock-in and path-dependency frameworks. Interview questions focused on how relevant policy-makers understood and interpreted the socioeconomic and institutional contexts of energy, housing, and urban transformations in their everyday practice, as well as their interactions with other bodies of the state administration in addition to citizens, private companies, experts, and non-governmental organizations.

In the sections that follow, we first develop a framework for a conceptual understanding of how new lock-in situations emerge by discussing the nature of DH networks, their embeddedness in the socialist regime, and the role of the newly established capitalist system in driving them. We then turn to privatization dynamics and the overall marketization of society in the context of DH reforms. Moving to the case of Liberec, the paper subsequently recounts the story of local government responses to the structural conditions that became apparent at moments when decisions had to be taken about future developments in the heat sector. Specifically, we focus on the relationship between systemic factors such as the Liberec DH company’s rapidly declining customer base and the overall decrease in urban heat consumption, on the one hand, and increasing operating costs, on the other. This vicious circle of mutually reinforcing effects, we argue, has undermined the viability of DH systems in Liberec while trapping parts of the population and some urban neighborhoods into high costs without an exit strategy. We subsequently identify the existence of multiple and mutually related lock-in situations concerning (1) the role of historical legacies emerging at the juxtaposition of radically differing societal regimes; (2) the technical and economic underpinnings of DH operation and capacity under changing external conditions; (3) the policy challenges faced by local government amidst an organizationally complex and politically contentious decision-making landscape; and (4) the socio-spatial injustices encountered by people who live in the neighborhoods served by DH.

The legacy of district heating in Czechia

As was noted above, DH systems physically consist of fossil fuel-powered co-generation plants – or in some cases, heat-only boiler stations – connected to distribution systems involving the transport of hot water or steam via insulated pipes (Rezaie and Rosen 2012Rezaie, Behnaz, and Marc A. Rosen2012. “District Heating and Cooling: Review of Technology and Potential Enhancements.” Applied Energy, (1) Green Energy; (2) Special Section from papers presented at the 2nd International Energy 2030 Conference 93 (May): 210. [Google Scholar]). There are also local pumping stations and internal heating networks within buildings. Czechia’s first centralized supply systems of the kind were established in the 1930s and 1940s to serve the country’s then-booming industrial sector, as well as working-class housing in cities. Using modern technologies and coal for the production of both electricity and steam heating, they symbolized the modern “technological sublime” (Nye 1996Nye, David E. 1996American Technological SublimeCambridge, MAThe MIT Press. [Google Scholar]) of energy and heating delivery in urban agglomerations, concentrating energy generators and end-consumers in close-knit infrastructural reticulations (Kaufmann 2007Kaufmann, Pavel2007. “Vývoj Teplárenství V České Republice.” [The Development of District Heating in the Czech Republic.] Pro-Energy 2007: 1821. [Google Scholar]).

DH systems rapidly expanded during the first decades of communist rule, driven by a rise in energy demand generated by the expansion of heavy industry, as well as newly built residential estates in urban areas. Their built-in collectivism combined with the centrally planned economy’s focus on the construction of large plants and systems to lead to the establishment of expansive systems for the centralized provision of heat. Under socialism, DH provided the only means of providing hot water and heating for large parts of the population: the systems were literally and figuratively tied to large-scale electric power plants built at the urban fringe, from where hot water was transported to both industrial zones and residential neighborhoods. In the 1970s and 1980s, the construction of new housing estates was accompanied by the development of locally based heat networks that used less polluting sources of energy, principally heavy fuel oil and gas. However, the technologies that were applied in this context were progressively at odds with global energy efficiency and cost savings trends, principally due to a series of economic recessions and the increasing shortage of investment finance. DH currently supplies almost 1.6 million dwellings (38% of the housing stock) in Czechia, principally in larger cities (CSO 2011CSO (Czech Statistical Office). 2011Population and Housing Census 2011PragueCzech Statistical Office. [Google Scholar]).

One of the reasons for the expansion of DH in Czechia lies in the close alignment between the infrastructural characteristics of the system – massive, shared, top-down, centralized, egalitarian – and the political ideologies of the socialist state. In addition to large housing estates and industrial plants, key DH consumers included older inner city tenement-style buildings and single-family houses, as well as administrative and service buildings; schools, hospitals, sports halls, entertainment facilities, restaurants, and commerce. The systems were relatively easy to build and maintain throughout due to their alignment with the centrally planned construction of new housing, services, and industries, as well as the spatially concentrated nature of urban development during socialism. Environmental concerns also justified investment in DH, because the networks replaced coal-burning stoves in inner-city areas with a relatively less-polluting and more remote source of energy.

However, the structural weaknesses of DH systems became apparent after the introduction of a market system and decentralized decision-making. The low technical efficiency of plants and distribution networks was incompatible with new environmental criteria, especially in the case of systems based on oil- or gas-burning heat-only boilers. Poor construction standards and the lack of maintenance increased operation costs while leading to high-energy losses in the distribution networks. The system’s blanket coverage of socialist consumers under soft budget constraints (Kornai 1986Kornai, Janos1986. “The Soft Budget Constraint.” Kyklos 39: 330.10.1111/kykl.1986.39.issue-1[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) – including both subsidized energy prices and the tolerance of poor financial management within companies – was challenged by the economic conditions that characterized liberalized markets, as well as the installation of individual meters. Also, the customer base of DH plants began to shrink due to the emergence of more affordable and convenient heat supply options. This trend was reinforced by the economic collapse of many industrial consumers. Thus, networks built under the centrally planned and organized system of energy production and consumption exhibited “suboptimal” path-dependent features after the political and economic changes in 1989.

Private heat: energy sector reforms at the national scale

Urban heating systems are a highly specific segment of the energy sector in technical and policy terms alike (Bouzarovski 2010Bouzarovski, Stefan2010. “Post-socialist Energy Reforms in Critical Perspective: Entangled Boundaries, Scales and Trajectories of Change.” European Urban and Regional Studies 17: 167182.10.1177/0969776409356159[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Persson and Werner 2011Persson, Urban, and Sven Werner2011. “Heat Distribution and the Future Competitiveness of District Heating.” Applied Energy 88: 568576.10.1016/j.apenergy.2010.09.020[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). While the production and distribution of electricity and gas are regulated at the national scale, DH systems are a secondary and local source of energy – they use externally supplied fuels whose chemical energy is converted into heat, and their outputs are circulated in a geographically restricted area. These characteristics influenced the Czech government’s approach towards the post-socialist regulation of DH.

After the collapse of communism, vertically and horizontally integrated socialist state monopolies in the energy sector – electricity, gas, and heating – were legally and financially unbundled, creating discrete organizational units that could be sold or handed over to private actors. Due to being seen as key strategic assets, electricity and gas networks were not part of the first wave of privatization. Coal mining and gas distribution companies became subject to the process only in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The electricity market was left in the hands of the Czech Power Utility (ČEZ) – a company with dominant state ownership and no plans for privatization. However, most heating plants and distribution networks were privatized already in the first half of the 1990s. Some systems became joint stock companies with shares that were later sold to private investors. Others were transferred to municipalities, which either sold them off or began operating them via a variety of legal arrangements. In a number of cases, local authorities have established joint ventures with strategic private partners.

The privatization and municipalization of urban heating systems shifted the state’s responsibilities onto private actors and local administrations. This process coincided with the wider movement of property rights and regulatory power towards the municipal level (how this happened in the housing sector is documented in Sýkora 2003Sýkora, Luděk2003. “Between the State and the Market: Local Government and Housing in the Czech Republic.” In Housing Policy: An End or a New Beginning?, edited by M. Lux51116BudapestOpen Society Institute. [Google Scholar]), even if many local authorities lacked the strategic, organizational, and technical capacity to manage such complex infrastructural systems. The transfer of ownership to municipalities resulted in different local approaches to the management of newly obtained assets. The entry of private capital provided a quick fix to address this set of emergent, unknown, and unpredictable socioeconomic conditions. Privatization was also supported by neoliberal discourses about the inefficiency of publicly owned operations, as well as the need to repair and reconstruct obsolete infrastructures, while covering high operational costs. Widespread opposition to long-term planning combined with uncritical support for the “free market” to support ad hoc decisions aimed at reaping quick political benefits (Horak 2007Horak, M. 2007Governing the Post-communist City: Institutions and Democratic Development in PragueTorontoUniversity of Toronto Press.10.3138/9781442684386[Crossref][Google Scholar]) rather than considering deleterious future consequences.

Nevertheless, neoliberal market conditions made it difficult to renovate the technically unwieldy assemblies of power stations, heating plants, and distribution infrastructures. Price liberalization and energy cost increases meant that people and firms alike were affected by increasing utility bills (Buzar 2007Buzar, Stefan2007. “The ‘Hidden’ Geographies of Energy Poverty in Post-socialism: Between Institutions and Households.” Geoforum 38: 224240.10.1016/j.geoforum.2006.02.007[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). The low-energy efficiency of heating and distribution infrastructures inherited from socialism also led to high final prices. At the same time, the costs of further upgrades and energy efficiency improvements had to be borne by end-use consumers (Bouzarovski 2015Bouzarovski, Stefan2015Retrofitting the City: Residential Flexibility, Resilience and the Built EnvironmentLondonIB Tauris. [Google Scholar]; Bouzarovski and Tirado Herrero 2016Bouzarovski, Stefan, and Sergio Tirado Herrero2016. “Geographies of Injustice: The Socio-spatial Determinants of Energy Poverty in Poland, Czechia and Hungary.” Post Communist Economies. doi:10.1080/14631377.2016.1242257.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). All of this happened during a period when new energy providers with alternative offers were entering the market. Disconnections from the DH system led to price increases for the customers who remained part of the network. The vicious circle of disconnections and price increases could only be prevented by the will and resources of municipal or private heat providers.

DH regulation and policy in Liberec

Liberec’s centralized network of heating supply was constructed in the 1970s in order to address industrial and population growth at the time. It unified a set of disparate systems that served housing estates built during the 1960s. A key factor in this regard was provided by the availability of cheap heavy fuel oil from the Soviet Union and the desire to shift away from coal. Even though the system started to provide heat in 1977, it only became functional during the 1980s – thus supplying housing estates, schools, public service and administration buildings, and industry. Its two boilers eliminated the use of local heating sources in the city – including over 200 burners in industrial plants – thus substantially contributing to decreased air pollution in a city located between mountain ranges. Rising heat demand subsequently led to the construction of a third boiler, as well as the addition of reused industrial boilers. After the fall of communism, the system was incorporated in the North Bohemian Heating Plants holding company, aimed at providing a vehicle for privatization. Soon thereafter, the Liberec network was sold to United Energy, with the local authority maintaining a 30% stake. In 2007, the United Energy portion was sold to MVV Energie CZ, while the municipality kept its share.

Changes in ownership, national regulation, and patterns of local political representation brought about significant shifts in the management and development of the DH system, as well as the socio-technical provision of heat to inhabitants, institutions, and firms. In the 1990s the combination of tightened environmental legislation and growing oil prices led to the retrofitting of the DH plant so as to enable the combined use of gas and heavy heating oil. More importantly, the city government forged a partnership with neighboring municipal administrations (in the form of the “Termizo” company), aimed at constructing and operating a new waste incinerator. In addition to burning refuse for the entire region, it would provide heat for the DH network in Liberec. Even though the incinerator was built between 1996 and 2000 with the aid of government subsidies and a bank loan (see Figure 1), further changes in environmental legislation necessitated the addition of costly new technologies. Local government officials were unwilling to finance such outlays and thus increase their indebtedness. Instead, they preferred to use the public budget to fund other large-scale projects, such as a multi-purpose arena. It was thus decided that the new incinerator would be sold to a private investor – the PPF Group. The deal also involved the distribution network, whose ownership was evenly split between the investor and municipality. MVV Energie CZ – the same company that owned the heating plant – bought the incinerator in 2011, with the municipality maintaining minority representation on the governing board of the company. It currently burns about 100,000 tons of waste each year.

Figure 1. The district heating plant (left) and incinerator (right) occupy a prominent location in the city center of Liberec. Source: Photo by Stefan Bouzarovski.

Liberec’s municipal authorities are otherwise known for having taken one of the most aggressive approaches in the neoliberal reform process, having privatized much of their housing, land, and other capital assets (Demel and Potuzáková 2012Demel, Jaroslav, and Zuzana Potuzáková2012. “FDI and the Liberec Region: The Case of the Labour Market.” E+ M Ekonomie a Management, 1: 418. [Google Scholar]; Langr 2014Langr, Ivan2014. “Systémová Korupce Jako Empiricky Vyzkum: Prípad Mesta Liberec.” [Systemic Corruption as Empicial Research: The Case of Liberec.] Stredoevropske Politicke Studie 16: 128. [Google Scholar]). While a number of improvements were made to the DH plant in order to increase its efficiency and decrease air pollution emissions, the city-owned distribution network was not targeted at all. Investment in the new incinerator was expected to bring financial profits to its new private owners. With national heat prices being deregulated in 2005, DH tariffs in Liberec increased to levels more than double than those of other Czech cities and towns (ERU 2014ERU. 2014Výsledné Ceny Tepelné Energie V ČR – 2014 [Final Heat Energy Prices in the Czech Republic – 2014]. PragueEnergy Regulatory Office. [Google Scholar]). The private investor’s ability to secure profits from the system was strengthened by its monopolistic position on the local DH market. At the same time, city authorities faced a conflict of interest between the economic aim to generate revenues for the municipal budget, on the one hand, and the political accountability to local citizens affected by price increases, on the other. Local politicians interviewed for the purposes of our study displayed a heightened sensitivity to the need to respond to public concerns:

The two city representatives work very actively on the [DH company’s] board to make decisions more transparent. Because they represent the interests of the local people, they form an opposition bloc on the board. (personal communication, Liberec public official, March 24, 2015)

The construction of a small CHP plant in a remote housing estate – principally aimed at reducing losses in the distribution network – has been the only attempt to decrease operational costs and make DH prices more affordable in the long run.

Unraveling DH price increases in Liberec

In line with circumstances observed elsewhere (Poputoaia and Bouzarovski 2010Poputoaia, Diana, and StefanBouzarovski2010. “Regulating District Heating in Romania: Legislative Challenges and Energy Efficiency Barriers.” Energy Policy 38: 38203829.10.1016/j.enpol.2010.03.002[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), the low-energy efficiency of Liberec’s DH distribution network has been central to the price problems faced by final consumers. Not only has the municipality failed to invest in the improvement of the distribution system to date, but plans to undertake future steps in this regard currently do not exist:

It is really costly, but because we don’t know what we will do in the future, we cannot undertake the investment. Thus, we are just postponing it year after year. (personal communication, Liberec decision-maker, March 24, 2015)

Geographic factors have also played a role in driving price rises. Mountainous topography has hemmed the city into several valleys, thus lengthening the network and increasing technical losses. As stated by an administrative official:

The system is oversized, with large losses. They are due to the inefficient system of distribution, and low heat demand … We need a spatial plan to regulate district heating, like the one that was devised for Jablonec. That will give us an overview of the network. (personal communication, Liberec urban planner, March 24, 2015)

Another key factor in this regard has been the company’s shrinking customer base. As was noted above, this decrease can be attributed to wider socioeconomic trends and local transformations alike. First, the downsizing or termination of the network’s industrial consumers was accompanied by the imperative of achieving cost savings in the newly established market environment. Industrial, commercial, and public sector consumers sought to reduce their heat consumption in different ways, including using alternative fuels. Second, housing privatization meant that consumer decisions about heat supply and consumption became fragmented and individualized. Each building became represented by a homeowners’ association – a far more complex arrangement than the one that existed during socialism, when the DH company only had to deal with government or industry officials as well as a small number of large housing co-operatives. After 1989 householders responded to increasing heating costs by improving the energy efficiency of their homes via facade insulation as well as the installation of new windows and infrastructures within the buildings. This was supplemented by fuel switching towards more efficient and affordable sources.

As a consequence of such trends, total heat use halved from 1943 TJ11. A terajoule equals one trillion joules (1012).View all notes in 1997 (of which 53% were consumed by households) to 881 TJ in 2013 (at which point the share of the residential sector rose to 56%). At present, the DH system in Liberec generates only about 45% of its initial capacity, serving 16,417 households, 129 organizations (principally public administration and service buildings), and 13 industrial zones. The Termizo incinerator produces up to 1000 TJ of heat annually, approximately 70% of which are sold into the Liberec DH system. Because this supply covers nearly all of the city’s heat demand, the production capacity of the DH plant remains unused. Even though Termizo has recorded significant profits since 2004, its declining customer base directly contradicts original plans. The original DH network was intended to serve vast urban populations while creating economies of scale and scope in the provision of heat to urban agglomerations. At the same time, the system has fixed costs that have to be covered regardless of the actual volume of produced heat. Shrinking demand means that these costs are borne by ever-decreasing number of customers, signaling the demise of the city’s original plans to achieve cheaper heat with the aid of the new waste incinerator.

Barriers to fuel switching and DH development

While the inefficiencies of the central heating system are included in the final price, the DH company’s customer base has been further undermined by the emergence of alternative supply options. There is a clear economic impetus behind this: our interviewees pointed out that the price of heat obtained from the Liberec plant is approximately 800 CZK per GJ22. A gigajoule equals one billion joules (109).View all notes, while individually installed gas boilers in flats and homes require 400 CZK per GJ (personal communication, Liberec city councilor, March 24, 2015). In response to the shrinking consumer base, local authorities have actively discouraged companies and housing blocks from disconnecting. Even if disconnection cannot be openly prohibited, the municipal administration has employed various practices, strategies, decisions, and planning policies to prohibit consumers from switching to more affordable or efficient technologies. According to a decision of the municipal board made in 2008 (No. 591/08), the city’s planning office shall not endorse requests for the disconnection of buildings from the DH system. It is also instructed to disagree with the construction of new infrastructure for alternative heating in districts where DH systems are present.

In addition to planning regulation, our interviewees pointed to examples where home owners wishing to install gas boilers – DH’s main competitor – have been prevented from doing so by the local authority on land ownership grounds, with the city prohibiting piped gas connections that would cross publicly owned territory.

Liberec has a gas network with sufficient capacity, although there are parts of the city that are remote from it. Still, even if you need to lay 30 meters of pipes on public land you need permission from the municipality, and they will not give it to you. Our organization has such court cases all the time … in the past we lost many of them, because the court decided that the city has the right not to allow its land to be used for purposes that are not in its interest. (personal communication, chairman of housing co-operative in Liberec, March 24, 2015)

While such restrictive measures may help prevent deeper cost inefficiencies and increasing price levels, they have rendered the existing network politically and technically precarious. The declining customer base means that DH now serves only a part of the overall heating landscape in the city. Any investment in its improvement – now desperately needed – would have to be funded by the taxpayer. As DH is primarily a private business, how and where profits are distributed becomes a politically sensitive issue, as does the cleavage between private and public interests:

For example, politicians who are on the [DH plant’s] advisory board get big salaries for just sitting on it. These are not activities that politicians should do, and they are not protecting the interests of the city there. (personal communication, Liberec city councillor, March 24, 2015)

An additional challenge is posed by the spatial distribution of the DH system in Liberec, which itself was not originally built to provide heating to all consumers. The network does not include residential areas with low-rise family housing, older inner-city neighborhoods, villages in the urban hinterland, and recently built suburbs. DH provision has been primarily targeted towards high-rise and spatially concentrated housing estates from the socialist era. Disconnections from the system are most difficult to implement in such districts, some of which are facing wider problems of social decline and outmigration. Their specific and geographically bounded population is being trapped in the vicious circle of technical inefficiencies, shrinking consumer numbers, profit imperatives, and increasing end-use prices. Paradoxically, a system that was originally meant to provide greater levels of economic efficiency, social equity, and environmental sustainability now serves an increasingly impoverished population with the most expensive form of energy.

A complex lock-in through rolling path dependencies

The multiple drivers of price increases and barriers to DH development indicate the presence of a complex lock-in with at least four aspects. First, there is an infrastructural dimension embedded in historical legacies. DH systems – which were planned and constructed under socialism in order to meet the needs of growing populations and industrial production – are now faced with a shrinking inner city and suburban sprawl (in line with wider trends in Eastern and Central Europe, see Großmann et al. 2013Großmann, KatrinMarco BontjeAnnegret Haase, and Vlad Mykhnenko2013. “Shrinking Cities: Notes for the Further Research Agenda.” Cities 35: 221225.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Petrova et al. 2013Petrova, SaskaDarina PosováAdamHouse, and LuděkSýkora2013. “Discursive Framings of Low Carbon Urban Transitions: The Contested Geographies of ‘Satellite Settlements’ in the Czech Republic.” Urban Studies 50: 14391455.10.1177/0042098013480964[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Stanilov and Sýkora 2014Stanilov, Kiril, and Ludĕk Sýkora2014Confronting Suburbanization: Urban Decentralization in Postsocialist Central and Eastern EuropeChichesterWiley.10.1002/9781118295861[Crossref][Google Scholar]), which is technically and economically unsuitable for the delivery of centralized heat supply. A network designed under the former socioeconomic system thus not only functions sub-optimally under current market conditions, but its sub-optimality is being further deepened by external and internal systemic pressures:

[D]uring the last two decades it has been known that the capacity of the distribution networks … [will remain unused] … because of the exclusion of industrial capacities that do not exist anymore, or decided to disconnect. For almost two decades it has been known that the system is inefficient because the capacity is very high, the pipes are very wide and it would be good to transform it into a system of hot water instead of steam, and make it into something smaller. Unfortunately there has been no investment into this direction during the last decade. (personal communication, Liberec city councillor, March 24, 2015)

Second, the DH system is technically and economically locked-in by cost inefficiencies and subsequent high prices for heat attributed to the technical conditions inherited from socialism. The need to undertake new investment to overcome this heritage is undermined by the downward spiral of shrinking customer numbers leading to further heat cost increases. Third, the lock-in is also political and institutional. Challenged by the privatization of key parts of the system, as well as the broader marketization of heat supply in the country, local decision-makers have attempted to resolve the DH crisis using restrictive measures that limit the choices available to citizens and firms. An alternative to these measures would be the commitment of public funds towards system upgrades, serving only some citizens while adding to the private company’s profits. For the local authority, this leads to conflicts of interest and accountability towards DH customers, on the one hand, and the diverse range of urban actors who are not linked to DH system, on the other:

The other problem is that the waste burner produces the same amount of energy as the heat plant, and during the summer they do not know what to do with that energy … So, now we have a counter-argument to the one that was presented to the public a few years ago … [they are telling us that] if the district heating system collapses Termizo will have problems and you will pay much more for the waste collection … So we would have exorbitant prices for waste collection, in addition to the charges levied by Termizo … The heat lobby is very strong – regardless of any consumer rights that are demanded, they always manage to destroy any attempts to change the regulation. (personal communication, chairman of housing co-operative in Liberec, March 24, 2015)

Fourth, the lock-in has a clear socio-spatial aspect. The geographic concentration of DH in housing estates built during socialism supplants the technical and political barriers towards fuel switching, forcing the population to purchase heat from a single private provider. The inability to move away from DH is thus concentrated in geographically distinct areas, whose precarious position is heightened by high heat costs. Municipal authorities presently have no plans to address this situation:

The law does not permit the company to establish special prices for specific social groups. The prices depend on the energy source – whether it is heat or steam – and the distance and size of the customer. (personal communication, urban planner, March 24, 2015)

Neoliberal marketization, deregulation, and decentralization have created a paradox wherein a heating supply system that can potentially be economically efficient, socially inclusive, and environmentally friendly (Rezaie and Rosen 2012Rezaie, Behnaz, and Marc A. Rosen2012. “District Heating and Cooling: Review of Technology and Potential Enhancements.” Applied Energy, (1) Green Energy; (2) Special Section from papers presented at the 2nd International Energy 2030 Conference 93 (May): 210. [Google Scholar]) has evolved into a costly economic burden that deepens inequality and exclusion. While sustainability, cohesion, and energy efficiency have now become key goals of public policy, they were downplayed in the initial days of the post-communist transformation. But the sequence of decisions made during the past 25 years has created a rigid socio-technical matrix that is resistant to change. This lock-in has developed through a rolling path dependency that involves socialist legacies, national economic reforms, and local neoliberal practices. The path dependency is associated with socially and economically detrimental effects while preventing the development of more sustainable systems of energy provision. It demonstrates that the combination of socialist legacies and chains of decisions taken during the post-socialist period may result in situations and trajectories that themselves will be difficult to address for the years to come: living in and with capitalism is an ongoing project.

Conclusion

This contribution argues in favor of the persistent relevance of post-socialist urban studies by highlighting how socio-technically and politically conditioned lock-ins arise, are articulated, and become embedded within urban areas via rolling path-dependent processes that have emerged after 1989 while stemming from past legacies. Inspired by a growing conceptual interest in processes of path dependence and path creation across a wide range of disciplines, we focused on the choices made by institutional actors after the demise of state socialism and the impact of past legacies and market conditions on decisions made at critical junctures. We proposed and used an interpretative rather than normative model of lock-in formation, by elucidating the sequences of decisions involved in the consolidation of a particular path-dependent trajectory.

At the same time, the notion of rolling path dependencies has allowed us to trace the roots of the current lock-in within Liberec’s heating system to a combination among the legacies of DH infrastructures inherited from socialism, national policies towards energy restructuring, and the reform of DH systems after 1989, as well as the approaches adopted by local governments with regard to the management of such networks. The continued role of path-dependent trajectories – present in the form of inherited technical infrastructures that have been re-used by capitalist market actors for profit-making purposes – underlines the need for a temporally and spatially sensitive perspective on the understanding of urban transformations in CEE and the FSU.

Thus, and to summarize, what can a theoretical perspective attuned to the systemic relationships that the multiple transitions in CEE and the FSU offer to the wider world of “posts?” For one, it brings attention to the need for understanding post-socialist change through a lens that is both temporal and spatial, by acknowledging that infrastructural development trajectories are closely integrated with inherited, existing, and evolving urban landscapes. Second, it calls for making connections between the urban implications of infrastructural transformations in the post-socialist world, on the one hand, and analogous dynamics of socio-technical change in other spatial contexts, on the other: not only because of the ubiquitous background presence of neoliberal pressures, but also due to the significant opportunities for knowledge transfer about the establishment of unintended material and institutional rigidities. Of particular relevance is the ongoing global effort to move toward a low-carbon future, predicated upon deep reforms in the manner in which energy is produced and consumed. Applying the experience of post-socialist countries to this thematic context may allow for path creation to be seen beyond the tropes of technological innovation and economic development that presently dominate much of the literature. It can also highlight the deeply political nature of the creation of new lock-ins, as well as the challenges of dealing with new path-dependent situations.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

Funding

This work was supported by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ERC grant agreement number 313478; Luděk Sýkora’s contribution was supported by the Grant Agency of the Czech Republic [grant number P404-12-0648], “New Socio-Spatial Formations: Segregation in the Context of Post-Communist Transformations and Globalization.”

Acknowledgments

Stefan Bouzarovski is an External Professor at the Institute of Geography, University of Gdańsk, and a Visiting Professor at the Department of Geography, University of Bergen. The authors are indebted to Saska Petrova for her assistance in the field interviews, as well as the development of the conceptual framework of the paper.

 

Notes

1. A terajoule equals one trillion joules (1012).

2. A gigajoule equals one billion joules (109).

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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.

Introduction

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]).

Many scholars now express their discontent that the literature on post-socialism is inadequately appreciated by the wider academic world; it is either little engaged with in terms of the broader understanding of global urban change or just imports ideas already well-rehearsed elsewhere without feeding back to inform the broader debates (Sjöberg 2014Sjöberg, Örjan2014. “Cases onto Themselves? Theory and Research on Ex-socialist Urban Environments.” Geografie 119: 299319.[Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Ferenčuhová 2016Ferenčuhová, Slavomíra2016. “Accounts from behind the Curtain: History and Geography in the Critical Analysis of Urban Theory.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40: 113131.10.1111/1468-2427.12332[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Some searches for the relevance of the post-socialist experience in the wider world have, for example, flirted with post-colonialism, thus also subjecting transition to the ideas radiating from the world’s other corners – even if with inconclusive results as to whether post-colonialism and post-socialist are indeed good bedfellows (Hörschelmann and Stenning 2008Hörschelmann, Kathrin, and Alison C.Stenning2008. “Ethnographies of Postsocialist Change.” Progress in Human Geography 32: 339361.10.1177/0309132508089094[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Hladík 2011Hladík, Radim2011. “A Theory’s Travelogue: Post-colonial Theory in Post-socialist Space.” TEORIE VĚDY XXXIII: 561590. [Google Scholar]; Moore 2001Moore, David Chioni2001. “Is the Post- in Postcolonial the Post- in Post-Soviet? Toward a Global Postcolonial Critique.” PMLA 116: 111128. [Google Scholar]).

I believe there is a much stronger potential in the “post-socialism” subject to influence wider scholarship given its phenomenal experiences of radical societal change. However, in order to achieve this we must revert the tendencies of rejecting imagining transition as a holistic teleology or ideology. There is a need to step back from ascribing everything to the idiosyncrasies of change and to see the forest through the trees to fully appreciate the emergent co-constitution of parts and the whole; that is, to more explicitly critique transition as a totality, as an ideological hegemony, however particularized it may be at varied scales of concrete material experiences and co-constituted by these experiences and their agency (cf. Giddens 1984Giddens, Anthony1984The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of StructurationCambridgePolity Press. [Google Scholar]).

I will discuss this more in the next section, but first a word of caution: this should not be read as simply another guise of neoliberalism, especially if the latter is taken as an all- and self-explanatory narrative. While transition has been part and parcel of neoliberalization, it nevertheless has a specific context at play – the communist ideology alternative to capitalism – and hence transition has been by far more far-reaching and dogmatic than the operations of neoliberalism elsewhere. It is even naïve to assume that the neoclassical thought and pro-growth competitive agenda underpinning the execution of neoliberalism elsewhere were the only benchmark for designing and implementing the project of transition. Gowan (1995Gowan, Peter1995. “Neo-liberal Theory and Practice for Eastern Europe.” New Left Review 213: 360. [Google Scholar]) argued that transition was not so much an economic mission as a chance to reorganize the geopolitical balance of power in favor of the hegemony of Western capital. According to Burawoy and Verdery (1999Burawoy, Michael, and KatherineVerdery1999. “Introduction.” In Uncertain Transition: Ethnographies of Change in the Postsocial World, edited by M. Burawoyand K. Verdery118OxfordRowman & Littlefield.[Crossref][Google Scholar]), neoclassical economics only happened to exhibit the right excuse of this morality by insisting that markets could spontaneously create a good world once the old one was first destroyed.

Contrary to the previous adjustment and liberalization reforms in the Global South or pro-market development-oriented “transition” in China, transition in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) has specifically targeted the social constitution of the affected nations. This point is exemplified by Wedel (1998Wedel, Janine R. 1998Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe 1989–1998New YorkSt. Martin’s Press. [Google Scholar], 21) who, reflecting on the differences in the Western approach toward reforms in the Second and Third Worlds, indicates that the reform project in CEE has been not so much about exercising economic development as about exorcizing the heresy of communism:

The Second World had been “misdeveloped,” not “underdeveloped” as the Third World, pundits said. Aid to India, as an example, tended to be couched mainly in terms of economic growth, not institutional and social change. But exorcising the legacies of communism in the Second World often required changing the very nature of recipient institutions, including those of banking, industry, international trade, social security, and health care.

Transition has been a more dogmatic and, one can say, geo-ideological version of applied neoliberalism – in other words, quite a different beast, which as such requires more than the universalizing prose of neoliberalization. The geo-ideology of transition is, however, bigger than the “Second World” – transition has been a project of planetary significance, transforming, for example, the internal political economy of the West itself, as much as that of the Rest. This wider relevance of transition, beyond the geographies of ex-socialist states, is important for the understanding of the recent global transformations more widely. I will now turn to outline this function of transition.

The totalizing nature of transition

A starting point is to understand transition not simply as a technocratic project envisaged by the neoliberal teleology, which in fact collapses into various transformational exigencies, but rather appreciate transition as, above all, both ideological and totalizing. It is ideological because it is based on particular assumptions and worldviews, particular philosophies of economic and political development. It is totalizing because whatever your ideological predispositions you cannot escape it – it is all-encompassing. Indeed, transition has been one inescapable compulsion that has fundamentally transformed the life and circumstances of all people and places in postsocialist societies – irrespective of their existing situations, aspirations, or individual or collective choice.

The totalizing reach of “transition” does not mean that everything can be reduced solely to the level of totality; it rather needs be understood through the Lefebvrian conceptualization of totality as synchronically copresent levels of social practice in which “one level mediates the other” and can dominate the other (Goonewardena 2008Goonewardena, Kanishka2008. “Marxism and Everyday Life: On Henri Lefebvre, Guy Debord, and Some Others.” In Space, Difference, Everyday Life: Reading Henri Lefebvre, edited by K.GoonewardenaS.KipferR. Milgrom, and C. Schmid117133AbingdonRoutledge. [Google Scholar], 127). Lefebvre ([1970] 2003Lefebvre, Henri[1970] 2003The Urban RevolutionMinneapolisUniversity of Minnesota Press. [Google Scholar]) discusses three such levels: the macro-level, the mixed/urban level, and the micro/private level of social reality. To Lefebvre, these are not so much scalar levels in traditional hierarchical imaginaries, but rather tools with different granularity to jointly understand forces construing modern society, so that each of these “levels” can be traced, for example, at the scale of the city.

The macro-level of social practice involves “the most general, and therefore the most abstract, although essential, relations, such as capital market and the politics of space” (Lefebvre [1970] 2003Lefebvre, Henri[1970] 2003The Urban RevolutionMinneapolisUniversity of Minnesota Press. [Google Scholar]). It is the level of “society, the state, global power and knowledge, institutions, and ideologies” ([1970] 2003Lefebvre, Henri[1970] 2003The Urban RevolutionMinneapolisUniversity of Minnesota Press. [Google Scholar], 89); it is the level of political power that “makes use of instruments (ideological and scientific)” to modify “the distribution of resources, income, and the ‘value’ created by productive labor (surplus value)” (Lefebvre [1970] 2003Lefebvre, Henri[1970] 2003The Urban RevolutionMinneapolisUniversity of Minnesota Press. [Google Scholar], 78). The micro-level involves the practice of everyday life, such as housing and habiting, typically seen as “somewhat more modest, even unimportant” ([1970] 2003Lefebvre, Henri[1970] 2003The Urban RevolutionMinneapolisUniversity of Minnesota Press. [Google Scholar], 80) but in fact representing the very orientation of ideology, if not the whole purpose of society. The mixed/urban level is then defined as a critical level of social practice that mediates between the distant and immediate/everyday order of social reality and ensures the mobilization of the urban as a productive force in capitalist society. This understanding of the mediating, mixing role of the urban is central to my notion of urbanization of transition to which I shall return later; but for the moment, I want to focus on the totalizing aspect of transition.

One can argue that the totalizing tendencies of transition make the whole world more totalitarian, advanced democracies included. To many thinkers in political economy (e.g. Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Georg Lukács), “democratic” societies were already more totalitarian than those societies explicitly branded as totalitarian, for the totalitarian means and methods in the former are typically less explicitly political and are therefore more easily concealed. According to Marcuse (1964Marcuse, Herbert1964One-dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society LondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar], 3):

By virtue of the way it has organized its technological base, contemporary industrial society tends to be totalitarian. For “totalitarian” is not only a terroristic political coordination of society, but also a non-terroristic economic-technical coordination which operates through the manipulation of needs by vested interests. It thus precludes the emergence of an effective opposition against the whole. Not only a specific form of government or party rule makes for totalitarianism, but also a specific system of production and distribution which may well be compatible with a “pluralism” of parties, newspapers, “countervailing powers,” etc.

Transition effectively serves as the closure of global pluralism by neutralizing “actually existing socialism” as an alternative point of reference, thus extolling capitalism as the only viable universal system – as most vividly expressed by Fukuyama’s (1992Fukuyama, Francis1992The End of History and the Last ManNew YorkFree Press. [Google Scholar]) “end of history.”Since transition is based historically on a particular form of capitalist ideology – neoliberalism – it has just pushed the world further into the triumph of neoliberalism. The closure of socialism as an alternative can explain why the expectations of many about the end of neoliberalism and the installation of a system modeled after Keynesianism following the crisis of neoliberalism of 2007–2008 turned out to be premature, if not entirely naïve (for some discussions, Smith 2008Smith, Neil2008. “Neoliberalism is Dead, Dominant, Defeatable – Then What?” Human Geography 1: 13. [Google Scholar]; Birch and Mykhnenko 2010Birch, Kean, and VladMykhnenko, eds. 2010The Rise and Fall of Neoliberalism: The Collapse of an Economic Order?LondonZed Books. [Google Scholar]; Brenner, Peck, and Theodore 2010Brenner, NeilJamiePeck, and NikTheodore2010. “Variegated Neoliberalization: Geographies, Modalities, Pathways.” Global Networks 10: 182222.10.1111/glob.2010.10.issue-2[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Stiglitz 2011Stiglitz, Joseph E.2011. “The Ideological Crisis of Western Capitalism.” Project Syndicate.http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/stiglitz140/English. [Google Scholar]; Aalbers 2013Aalbers, Manuel B.2013. “Neoliberalism is Dead … Long Live Neoliberalism!” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 37: 10831090.10.1111/1468-2427.12065[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). In this light, “the strange non-death of neo-liberalism” (Crouch 2011Crouch, Colin2011The Strange Non-death of Neo-liberalismCambridgePolity. [Google Scholar]) is not that strange at all: there is simply no longer an alternative vision in sight with which to imagine an alternative future – or, indeed, a future as such, distinctive from the endless spiral of the present at this end (or side) of history.

Is it not rather disturbing to see how well the words of Marcuse above resonate with those below by Doreen Massey half a century later (2015Massey, Doreen2015. “Vocabularies of the Economy.” In After Neoliberalism? The Kilburn Manifesto, edited by S. HallD.Massey, and M.Rustin2436LondonLawrence and Wishart. [Google Scholar], 35, 36)?

It is one of the ghastly ironies of the present neoliberal age that we are told … that much of our power and our pleasure, and our very self-identification, lies in our ability to choose (and we are indeed bombarded every day by “choices,” many of them meaningless, others we wish we didn’t have to make), while at the level that really matters – what kind of society we’d like to live in, what kind of future we’d like to build – we are told, implacably, that, give or take a few minor variations, there is no alternative – no choice at all.

Neil Smith (2009Smith, Neil2009. “The Revolutionary Imperative.” Antipode41: 5065.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 51) argued that:

One of the greatest violences of the neoliberal era was the closure of the political imagination. Even on the left, perhaps especially so, the sense became pervasive that there was no alternative to capitalism.

Smith attributes this loss of political imagination to three factors: (a) the collapse of state socialism; (b) defeat of anti-colonial movements; and (c) defeat of the revolts of the 1960s. One can further argue that out of these three, the first is most significant, as it is state socialism that was very much a key factor underpinning the other two, including anti-colonial movements and inspiring in different ways the revolts of the 1960s.

The end of communism has consequently prompted many to talk about a post-democratic world. As Žižek (1994Žižek, Slavoj, ed. 1994Mapping IdeologyLondonVerso. [Google Scholar], 1) argues, before the collapse of socialism,

[E]verybody was busy imagining different forms of the social organization of production and commerce … today as Fredric Jameson [2003Jameson, Fredric2003. “Future City.” New Left Review 21: 6579. [Google Scholar]] perspicaciously remarked, nobody seriously considers possible alternatives to capitalism any longer … it seems easier to imagine the “end of the world” than a far more modest change in the mode of production.

This closure of the alternative economic and ideological imagination by transition uncovers the full extent of its totalitarian nature. There is no longer an intellectual point of reference from where to (out)source an alternative imagination – transition has discredited state socialism into a “post-political” consensus. Hardt and Negri (2000Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri2000EmpireHarvardHarvard University Press. [Google Scholar], 245) in their Empire quote US President Truman saying in 1947 the following: “At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life.” Now even authors such as Swyngedouw (2010Swyngedouw, Erik2010. “The Communist Hypothesis and Revolutionary Capitalisms: Exploring the Idea of Communist Geographies for the Twenty-first Century.” Antipode 41: 298319.10.1111/anti.2010.41.issue-s1[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), when speculating about how the idea of communism can be a social alternative, are derogative of the experiences of the “actually existing socialism,” thus further disempowering its history from the future and subscribing themselves to the very post-political, post-democratic consensus they critique. It seems more convenient for them to imagine a disconsensus over climate change than over recent human history.

As many post-socialist scholars demonstrate, things got worse under transition as it has been experienced – the economic collapse and marginalization, the rise of poverty and inequality, class division, the loss of prospects and hope for better life for many, uneven development, environmentally and ethically destructive consumerism, inter-ethnic conflicts and intolerance, the loss of social cohesion – to mention just a few. If things have gone worse, does it mean they were better under state socialism? This only logical extension to the explicit reflections about the elements of superiority in the social organization under state socialism is, however, more or less a political taboo – exactly because of the totalizing, collective schizophrenia of transition. I recall here my conversation with one of the high-profile ideologues of the Russian reforms, still a prominent mastermind behind economic policy-making in Russia, who, when I asked him about his opinion of the large human cost of shock therapy in Russia in the 1990s, replied pompously: “to me everything is justified as long as there are no longer communists in power.” It seems that this fundamentalism is more than corrupt ethics – it is the currency of transition.

Davidow (1976Davidow, Mike1976Cities without CrisisNew YorkInternational Publishers. [Google Scholar], 238), an American journalist writing about the Soviet city, complained from within the cold war: “A half-century of unremitting anti-Soviet, anti-Communist propaganda has created an atmosphere in which there is one unforgivable sin – to portray Soviet life and communism favorably” (italic in original). As Hardt and Negri (2000Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri2000EmpireHarvardHarvard University Press. [Google Scholar], 278) further recognize,

In the capitalist world, the massive cold war propaganda and the extraordinary ideological machine of falsification and misinformation prevented us from seeing the real developments in Soviet society and the political dialectics that unfolded there. Cold war ideology called that society totalitarian, but in fact it was a society criss-crossed by extremely strong instances of creativity and freedom, just as strong as the rhythms of economic development and cultural modernization.

This is not to suggest that academic work shies away from problematizing the new hegemony; revisionist accounts that reengage with the history of state socialism and challenge the Western-centric imaginaries over socialist “pastness” are not that uncommon, even in the West (for a recent interesting example to that point see, Imre 2016Imre, Anikó2016TV SocialismDurhamDuke University Press.10.1215/9780822374466[Crossref][Google Scholar]). But on a general level, it is safe to generalize that transition has rendered the “sin” that Davidow (1976Davidow, Mike1976Cities without CrisisNew YorkInternational Publishers. [Google Scholar]) refers to – perhaps “ideological mist” is a better wording – an unquestionable truism, even without the repressive apparatus of the cold war state.The heydays of Keynesianism still provide inspirations – for some of its remarkable social achievements, although, of course, Keynesianism itself was created with reference to the competition with the “actually existing socialism.” But through the ideological mist that transition has made, even for critical intellectuals the (hi)story of actually existing socialism is now closed. This is despite that for many of those who experienced state socialism – the quick history of which in most countries will be soon surpassed by the length of “transition” – those experiences remain an important point of reference: not the totalitarian totality of socialism, but the dimensions of social justice and freedom it offered – freedom from needs, from inequality, from consumerism, from exploitation, from uncertainties, from becoming an outcast, from violence, and so on and so forth – above all, freedom to have a dream about freedom. However, as Žižek (2002Žižek, Slavoj2002Welcome to the Desert of the Real!: Five Essays on September 11 and Related DatesLondonVerso. [Google Scholar], 2) claims, now “we ‘feel free’ because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.” As Boyer (2006Boyer, Dominic2006. “Ostalgie and the Politics of the Future in Eastern Germany.” Public Culture 18: 361381.10.1215/08992363-2006-008[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) vividly shows in his analysis of the East/West divide in the united Germany, the Western epistemic communities systematically derogate any memory about state-socialism’s superiority as the inferiority of backward “Ostalgie”; by marginalizing it, the West is able to keep sole control over the country’s future. How cannot this remind us of Orwell’s famous: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past” (Nineteen EightyFour). But these are exactly the geo-ideological terms of transition on which the East is incorporated into the Occident.

The spatialization of transition and subsumption of legacy

The totalizing nature of transition does not eliminate the importance of seeing how it is contextualized and mediated on the ground, including the micro/private level of social reality in Lefebvrian conceptualization. Indeed, it is by generalized contextualization that the totalitarian status of transition as ideology is achieved in practice, is materialized, as it penetrates all spheres and displaces alternatives. Transition is not simply radiating from some commanding heights and spreading across different cultures; it is also articulated and contextualized from within the societies themselves on which it is imposed.

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], 3, 4) rightly argue that neoliberalism is “domesticated” through engagement in everyday life’s economic practices:

[A] focus on the mundane practices of economic life enables a detailed understanding of how neo-liberalism is understood, negotiated, contested and made tolerable in homes, communities and workplaces; how neo-liberalism is lived in articulation with a host of economic, political and social others; and how those practices are themselves involved in the remaking of neo-liberalism.

It is here, in the realm of practiced transition, that we can talk about the conversion of the totalizing ideology into particularized transformations. However, this is essentially an ordered, hierarchical process – the ideology of neoliberalism-cum-transition is inescapable, as it subjugates and modifies pre-existing terms of social order, the meanings and dynamics of social and economic relations, changing not simply institutions, regulations and property rights, but the state of mind, consciousness, and the way of life. Domesticating neoliberalism is simultaneously the neoliberalization of the everyday, the appropriation of the everyday by capitalism and using it as the raw material, conduit, or agency of its expansion. Transition is not simply domesticated by local practices, it subsumes them in the first place.This can be conceptualized as “the spatialization of transition” – its materialization in specific contexts and workings over pre-existing practices. Transition is spatialized, like other hegemonic ideologies. Here, one can again invoke the Lefebvrian argument that “every society … produces a space, its own space” (Lefebvre [1974] 1991Lefebvre, Henri[1974] 1991The Production of SpaceOxfordBlackwell Publishing. [Google Scholar], 31). As Harvey (2006Harvey, David2006Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical DevelopmentLondonVerso. [Google Scholar], 78) notes:

Capitalist activity is always grounded somewhere. Diverse material processes (physical, ecological as well as social) must be appropriated, used, bent and re-shaped to the purposes and paths of capital accumulation. Conversely, capital accumulation has to adapt to and in some instances be transformed by the material conditions it encounters.

Through the process of spatialization, transition allows the new regime to alienate pre-existing legacies from their ideological history. As we argued elsewhere, capitalist practice feeds on the legacies of state socialism, making them the infrastructure, and often the agency, for its own expansion (Golubchikov, Badyina, and Makhrova 2014Golubchikov, OlegAnna Badyina, and Alla Makhrova2014. “The Hybrid Spatialities of Transition: Capitalism, Legacy and Uneven Urban Economic Restructuring.” Urban Studies 51: 617633.10.1177/0042098013493022[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). As a result, transition may reveal variegated forms. At face value, those forms may be similar in appearances to the previous (socialist) forms – and may even be confused as “socialist” in function; indeed, scholars of post-socialist geographies even identify a specter of urban forms – from “pure socialist” (still little affected by transition) to “pure capitalist” (totally transformed or created by transition). But this is wrong.It is hard to find any concept that is more widely used and yet so frequently abused in the post-socialist scholarship as “legacy” (and “path dependence” as its extension). At first glance, post-socialism is all about legacy – at the end of the day it is the history of socialism that makes post-socialist spaces so unique. Socialist spaces are “remembered” for their distinctive “appearances” such as, for example, the uniform residential high-rises, large collective public spaces, or monumentality in urban design. But even where not unique in form and function, “socialist geographies,” such as socialist-era industrial landscapes and built environments, are categorized as “slow-to-change socialist legacies.” Continuities here tend to be over-emphasized to the fetishism of legacy and neglect the fluid nature of legacies themselves. The historicity of post-socialist geography is then mystified by these “legacies” so that the very process of post-socialist transition is imagined along the binaries of “legacies vs. change” – the less legacy that remains, the further transition (into capitalism) goes. Even the rapidly escalating patterns of uneven spatial development and social inequalities are also ascribed to this “path-dependent” process, so that, for example, the degree of embeddedness in socialist era conditions which places are more or less successful in the market economy.

However, legacy is never fixed in the past, it is rather interpreted, co-produced by the present. The understanding of transition as totalizing helps to better see that. Once (neoliberal) capitalism is imposed by transition on the formerly socialist geographies (including their productive assets, infrastructure, housing, but also everyday life more generally), it assigns a particular meaning to “legacy,” which would have been different should the very same legacy have been embraced by a different regime. Rather than being an independent constant, socialist legacy is subsumed by capitalism and is alienated from its own history to become conducive to the capitalist processes themselves. Legacy is an important factor of change, but it is mediated by, more than it mediates, transition.

We have previously conceptualized this mutual but hierarchical embeddedness of capitalism and socialist legacy as “the hybrid spatialities of transition” (as opposed to path-dependent transition), which, according to Golubchikov, Badyina, and Makhrova (2014Golubchikov, OlegAnna Badyina, and Alla Makhrova2014. “The Hybrid Spatialities of Transition: Capitalism, Legacy and Uneven Urban Economic Restructuring.” Urban Studies 51: 617633.10.1177/0042098013493022[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), represent “strange geographies” that function according to the tune of capital but often conceal their capitalist nature with “legacies,” even though the latter have quintessentially been alienated from their ideological, institutional, and economic history. Hybrid spatialities represent the mutual containment and reconciliation of otherwise highly contradictory tensions between the spatial ideologies of state-socialism inscribed into the previously egalitarian landscape of economic geography and those of neoliberalism with its anti-egalitarian and exploitative effects.

In other words, the social and physical conditions of cities and their fortunes may seem to depend on their geography and legacy, but the root causes of their crises or otherwise are in the existing socio-political system – which twists, distorts, or recreates the meanings of the inherited landscape in its own image. This is why when under state-socialism the geographical differences served the egalitarian project of equalizing development, under capitalism, as Harvey (2010Harvey, David2010A Companion to Marx’s CapitalLondonVerso. [Google Scholar], 290) contends, even minor inequalities “get magnified and compounded over time into huge inequalities of influence, wealth and power.”

Urbanization of transition

Through the process of spatialization, transition allows capitalism to penetrate all pores of social life and transform it. But this is importantly mediated by urbanization (broadly understood). Usually the focus of post-socialist urban scholarship is only on how cities are changing in response to their exposure to capitalism and to associated social and politico-economic changes, leading to particular forms of post-socialist urban transformation. However, it is very much urban experiences themselves through which transition has taken its practical contours and disciplining power and by which it produces new social structures and relationships.

As a starting point, let us consider Brenner and Theodore’s argument (2002, 28Brenner, Neil, and NikTheodore2002. “Cities and the Geographies of ‘Actually Existing Neoliberalism’.” In Spaces of Neoliberalism: Urban Restructuring in North America and Western Europe, edited by N.Brenner and N.Theodore232OxfordBlackwell.10.1002/9781444397499[Crossref][Google Scholar]):

[C]ities are not merely localized arenas in which broader global or national projects of neoliberal restructuring unfold … [C]ities have become increasingly central to the reproduction, mutation, and continual reconstitution of neoliberalism itself … [C]ities have become strategic targets for an increasingly broad range of neoliberal policy experiments, institutional innovations, and politico-ideological projects. Under these conditions, cities have become the incubators for many of the major political and ideological strategies through which the dominance of neoliberalism is being maintained …

This understanding echoes Lefebvre ([1970] 2003Lefebvre, Henri[1970] 2003The Urban RevolutionMinneapolisUniversity of Minnesota Press. [Google Scholar]), to whom, as I noted before, the urban plays a key role in mixing, mediating between the macro-dimensions of the social order and the micro-reality of everyday life. The production of urban space thus contributes to hegemony by fusing the immediate realm of lived space with the larger social order. Here, the production of space is not limited to the projection of regimes and ideologies onto the urban, but it is part of the production of social relationships:

The urban phenomenon and urban space are not only a projection of social relationships but also a terrain on which various strategies clash. They are in no sense goals or objectives, but means and instruments of actions. (Lefebvre [1970] 2003Lefebvre, Henri[1970] 2003The Urban RevolutionMinneapolisUniversity of Minnesota Press. [Google Scholar], 87)

Lefebvre ([1970] 2003Lefebvre, Henri[1970] 2003The Urban RevolutionMinneapolisUniversity of Minnesota Press. [Google Scholar]) argues that the latest stages of capitalism are characterized by a transition from industrialization to urbanization as the totalizing social “episteme.” As Prigge (2008Prigge, Walter2008. “Reading the Urban Revolution: Space and Representation.” In Space, Difference, Everyday Life: Reading Henri Lefebvre, edited by K. GoonewardenaS. KipferR. Milgrom, and C. Schmid4661LondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar], 49) explains this:

It is no longer the industrial and its disciplines focusing on capital and labor, classes and reproduction that constitute the episteme (the possibility of knowing the social formation), but the urban and its forms focused on everydayness and consumption, planning and spectacle, that expose the tendencies of social development … Compared to homogeneous industrial space, urban space is differentially constituted. This heterogeneous structure predestines urban space to clarify contemporary social forms.

This understanding can also be traced in the analysis of demand-side urbanization in much of David Harvey’s work on the urbanization of capital and urbanization of consciousness (Harvey 1985a, 1985b, 1989Harvey, David1985aConsciousness and the Urban Experience: Studies in the History and Theory of Capitalist UrbanizationBaltimore, MDJohn Hopkins University Press.
Harvey, David1985bThe Urbanization of Capital: Studies in the History and Theory of Capitalist UrbanizationBaltimore, MDJohn Hopkins University Press.
Harvey, David1989The Urban ExperienceBaltimore, MDJohns Hopkins University Press. 
). In Consciousness and the Urban Experience, Harvey (1985aHarvey, David1985aConsciousness and the Urban Experience: Studies in the History and Theory of Capitalist UrbanizationBaltimore, MDJohn Hopkins University Press. [Google Scholar], 262) notes:

Individuals draw their sense of identity and shape their consciousness out of the material bases given by the individualism of money, the class relations of capital, the limited coherence of community, the contested legitimacy of the state, and the protected but vulnerable domain of family life. But they also do so in the context of how these material bases intersect within a produced urban milieu that institutionalizes and reifies the social and physical pattering of all such human relations in space and time. The urbanization of capital – so vital to capitalism’s survival as a dominant mode of production and consumption – entails a particular configuration of these different loci of consciousness formation.

Post-socialist transition too is aligned with the epistemic transition from industrialization to urbanization as the locus of consciousness formation. While the logic of social development under socialism was much bound to industrialization (social and spatial regulations were contingent on the industrial), post-socialism makes a transition to consumption and urbanization (social and spatial regulations are contingent on the urban). As Russian political philosopher Sergey Kara-Murza (2005Kara-Murza, Sergey2005Poteryannyy Razum [Lost Reason]. MoscowAlgoritm. [Google Scholar]) suggests, the rapid processes of privatization, focused on the socialist-era industrial sector, were succeeded by more far-reaching processes of the consolidation of capital over, and colonization of, the domain of the everyday, of the domain of the urban. Indeed, under the conditions of de-industrialization (also underpinned by the break-up of former supply chains), the urban domain offered new, wider, and more sustained opportunities for accumulation strategies. The processes of the subsumption of the pre-existing materialities and practices have become more focused on everyday life and urban space rather than on productive assets.Although the focus of socialist development was on the real sector of production, the city of socialism (at least where socialism took its advanced forms, such as in Soviet Russia) played the very important role as a social(ist) contract – providing quality of life to working people in exchange for their labor in the production process. This philosophy has been antagonistic to the capitalist logic of private profit maximizing (as opposed to collective value maximizing). To all the discussion whether cities of communism and cities of capitalism were different or not too much (Andrusz, Harloe, and Szelenyi 1996Andrusz, GregoryMichael Harloe, and Ivan Szelenyi, eds. 1996Cities after Socialism: Urban and Regional Change and Conflict in Post-socialist SocietiesOxfordBlackwell.[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Hirt 2013Hirt, Sonia2013. “Whatever Happened to the (Post)Socialist City?” Cities 32 (Supplement 1): S29S38.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), the former were tightly bound to very different philosophies.

Making the urban dance to the tune of capitalism and alienating the inherited social and urban forms from socialist ideology (that had either generated them or previously appropriated them from the pre-socialist regimes) creates serious ruptures with the previous philosophy of the city.

Under socialism, value extracted from more productive agents was re-invested in less productive sectors and also financed vast (often unproductive in capitalist sense) public expenditure, so that the return on re-invested capital was often partial, but the potential was being accumulated for the long-term development of social and economic capital. In contrast to that system, the new regime is indeed based on the ideology of maximization of profits, reduced public budget, and shortened investment horizons.

Through the commodification, financialization, and revalorization of housing, real estate, and other urban assets – strategies sought by both markets and regulations – urban space is very much reduced to the operation of capital. Social inequalities, injustices, and uneven development are naturalized by their mystification as the “natural conditions” of the circulation of money and commodity and people’s divergent skills and luck in acquiring personal wealth to accommodate themselves at different levels of consumption. Denouncing and de-legitimizing the practices of state socialism as an “unnatural” experiment, national and urban regimes of post-socialist transition can only legitimize their push of neoliberalization and austerity politics even further than the collective memory of the welfare state allows governments in Western Europe.

At the scale of the city, new urban consumption-based semiotics lubricates class transformation. While socialist societies were relatively egalitarian and structured mostly according to merit and profession, the new society demands new class consciousness – new etiquettes, ethics, and esthetics, new semiotics for distinguishing social position and status. High levels of income inequality are registered everywhere under post-socialism; however, income per se is not a sufficient factor of class division and true social inequality. More significant is how income translates into life chances, consumption “freedom,” and social privilege. Here, it is the consumption of urban space and segregation (including through gentrification and suburbanization) that complete this translation. For example, informed by the symbolic meanings of what locations and types of housing are “prestigious” or not, housing markets differentiate income groups, who are now in search of defining and securing their own class status (Badyina and Golubchikov 2005Badyina, Anna, and Oleg Golubchikov2005. “Gentrification in Central Moscow – A Market Process or a Deliberate Policy? Money, Power and People in Housing Regeneration in Ostozhenka.” Geografiska Annaler B87: 113129.10.1111/geob.2005.87.issue-2[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar]; Golubchikov and Badyina 2006Golubchikov, Oleg, and Anna Badyina2006. “Conquering the Inner-city: Urban Redevelopment and Gentrification in Moscow.” In The Urban Mosaic of Post-socialist Europe: Space, Institutions and Policy, edited by S. Tsenkovaand Z. Nedovic-Budic195212HeidelbergSpringer.10.1007/3-7908-1727-9[Crossref][Google Scholar]). Spatial formations thus work as a medium to transform income inequalities into social status – consuming space is what sustains social reproduction and iterates classes today, more than, for example, industrial-era production-based class struggle. This is a mechanism of the establishment and reproduction of dominance in the urban society of consumers, more aligned with Weber’s vision, rather than a product of more explicit class struggle under industrial capitalism, as in Marx’s teaching.

All this, of course, changes the raison d’être of the city. Rather than being a vehicle for spatial equalization and redistribution, for a purposeful evolution of social consciousness towards “a fair and egalitarian society,” the post-socialist city has become a dividing and divided experience – with increasing social and economic disparity and polarization at both inter-urban and intra-urban scales. It is not only that the principle of the egalitarian re-distribution of wealth was replaced with the neoliberal principle of self-reliance, but the new regime has also created preconditions for the extraction of wealth from the large majority of people and places and its re-concentration in the hands of the select few (people and places).

Conclusions

While studies of post-socialist cities demonstrate much appetite and aptitude in investigating various aspects of urbanization under the profound and radical politico-economic changes experienced under transition, there is still much room to reveal how post-socialist urban space has been an intensive and oft-cruel battlefield – over ideas, powers, social, economic, and political practices, identities, symbolism, understandings, and meanings. There is still much room to reveal the appropriation of urban space through various mechanisms – privatization and commodification, investment and disinvestment, violence and conformity, resistance and resilience, negation, interrogation and negotiation, location, relocation and displacement, exclusion and segregation, new representations of space, and new spaces of representation. There is still much room to reveal different agencies in these rapid and complex processes – state, markets, and people – in their different embodiment, organization and identification.

What is particularly missing from the current urban debates is a meta-narrative that would match the significance and extent of the meta-change in question. Extant studies focus on forms and appearances of urban processes rather than on the new ontologies of the urban, which may be understood not simply as a reflection or projection of new institutional and social order but as a key mediating instrument that “mixes” the ideological and the everyday and thus renders the new totalizing ideology its concrete practical contours and control over the production and reproduction of social relationships.

My intention in this paper has been to start problematizing the relationships between transition and the urban. To this end, I debated the importance of revisiting transition on three key levels, which in their cumulative co-construction offer a better understanding of the centrality of the urban in the spectacular post-socialist dynamics. Firstly, at the level of ideology, it is important to understand transition as a totalizing doctrine, which completes the subjugation of the whole world to capitalism and firmly crowns neoliberalism as the only global order. Like the rise of state socialism in the twentieth century, transition is a process of planetary reach and significance that has already radically changed the destinies of peoples, irrespective of whether living within or outside the spaces of (post)socialism. Secondly, at the level of practice, it is important to properly account for the spatializing effects of that ideology – which is not simply “domesticated,” but subsumes pre-existing practices altogether, alienates them from their own ideological history, and recasts them under the exigencies of capital(ism). Thirdly, at the level of the urban, while urban change is usually portrayed merely as a projection of larger societal changes, the urban needs to be seen the central stage through which the societal change is mediated; new meanings, social relations, and class divisions are construed; and through which transition achieves its practical, corporeal completeness.

Cities are actually an important social framework and material locale for the production and reproduction of the new relationships of (neoliberal) capitalism, including class (trans)formation and the production of uneven development. The urbanization of transition is thus a fulcrum of social and spatial regulation. In other words, urbanization is a major institutional dimension of transition, not simply its playground.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Anna Badyina for providing me with useful suggestions. Some ideas feeding into this article were previously presented at the Friction Spaces Lecture Series at Leuven (thanks to invitation from Manuel Aalbers and Mirjam Büdenbender) and at the Sixth International Urban Geographies of Post-Communist States (Cities after Transition) Conference. Usual disclaimers apply.

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Post-Socialist Cities and Urban Theory

 Keywords: Urban theorypost-socialist citypost-socialism

Introduction

The main stimulus for this theme issue came from the perception shared by several scholars that “post-socialist” (or “post-communist cities”)11. “Post-socialist,” “post-communist,” and sometimes even “post-Soviet” are concepts that are used almost interchangeably in the literature, despite their slight differences in meaning. In this publication, as theme issue editors, we opt for “post-socialist,” not least because past debates concerned the “socialist” rather than the “communist” city. Even so, this does not amount to an endorsement of the “post-socialist city” concept per se. Because the post-socialist city is a widely used and understood concept, we will continue using it in the rest of this introduction, dropping the initial quotation marks which are intended to emphasize the somewhat contentious nature of the concept and of the associations that it carries. Our main focus is on post-socialist cities in Central and Eastern Europe, but many of the insights contained in this volume are relevant elsewhere, too.View all notes cities are poorly visible in the urban studies literature, and that when they are, they fail to have an enduring influence on broader debates. Yet the post-socialist city, like any other place on earth, offers a unique source of, and potential for, new ideas, deserving more attention and more active engagement not only by scholars with a stated interested in the region, but also by the academic community at large.

Framing this problem as a matter of conceptual and theoretical imports and exports, Sjöberg (2014Sjöberg, Örjan2014. “Cases on to Themselves? Theory and Research on Ex-socialist Urban Environments.” Geografie 119: 299319.[Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; see also Grubbauer 2012Grubbauer, Monika2012. “Toward a More Comprehensive Notion of Urban Change: Linking Post-socialist Urbanism and Urban Theory.” In Chasing Warsaw – Socio-Material Dynamics of Urban Change since 1990, edited by M.Grubbauer and J.Kusiak3560FrankfurtCampus Verlag. [Google Scholar]) recently concluded that imports of mainly Western-developed ideas into Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) have occurred extensively, while little, if anything, has been produced or refined for export from the region to the global market of ideas. Sjöberg’s (2014Sjöberg, Örjan2014. “Cases on to Themselves? Theory and Research on Ex-socialist Urban Environments.” Geografie 119: 299319.[Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) concerns add on to the increasingly frequent calls for more globally inclusive urban studies, calls that are particularly voiced by scholars working in the postcolonial tradition (e.g. Robinson 2005, 2011a, 2011b, 2013Robinson, Jennifer2005. “Urban Geography: World Cities, or a World of Cities.” Progress in Human Geography 29: 757765.10.1191/0309132505ph582pr
Robinson, Jennifer2011a. “Cities in a World of Cities: The Comparative Gesture.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 35: 123.10.1111/ijur.2011.35.issue-1
Robinson, Jennifer2011b. “Comparisons: Colonial or Cosmopolitan?” Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography32: 125140.10.1111/sjtg.2011.32.issue-2
Robinson, Jennifer2013. “The Urban Now: Theorising Cities beyond the New.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 16: 659677.10.1177/1367549413497696 
; Roy 2009Roy, Ananya2009. “The 21st Century Metropolis: New Geographies of Theory.” Regional Studies 43: 819830.10.1080/00343400701809665[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Jacobs 2012Jacobs, Jane2012. “Commentary – Comparing Comparative Urbanisms.” Urban Geography 33: 904914.10.2747/0272-3638.33.6.904[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; McFarlane and Robinson 2012McFarlane, Colin, and Jennifer Robinson2012. “Introduction – Experiments in Comparative Urbanism.” Urban Geography 33: 765773.10.2747/0272-3638.33.6.765[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), but that have in fact gained resonance within wider circles. What these scholars have in common is that they question the global reach of urban theory, and particularly of the unidirectional and parochial nature of the flow of urban knowledge from the West toward the “rest.” While they do acknowledge the value of, for example, the significant body of literature on the articulations of neoliberalism in cities across the world, these writers nevertheless criticize such work on the basis of it being rooted in the experience of a mere handful of cities that key urban thinkers have as their backyards – often islands of exceptionality scattered across (the northwestern quadrant of) a world of ordinary cities. Earlier versions of this critique had emerged already in the 1990s, when the dominance of Chicago and Los Angeles – the city “where it all comes together” (Soja 1989Soja, Edward1989Postmodern GeographiesLondonVerso. [Google Scholar]) – in urban theory supposedly silenced the voices of the sub-iconic and ordinary elsewhere (see Amin and Graham 1997Amin, Ash, and Stephen Graham1997. “The Ordinary City.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 22: 411429.10.1111/tran.1997.22.issue-4[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

The causes are certainly multiple, but four main explanations can be singled out. First, a resilient assumption permeating much research on post-socialist cities is that these cities are anomalous, subject to gradual correction with the return of “normal” economic relations rooted in a capitalist system, and as such, that they are ill-placed to inform broader urban theory. Such an assumption implies that there is, or should be, a final product (a post-correction city) liberated from all meaningful socialist legacies, its landscape “cleansed” (Czepczyński 2008Czepczyński, Mariusz2008Cultural Landscapes of Post-socialist CitiesAldershotAshgate. [Google Scholar]) of any socialist-era urban impurities. This way, the value of globally circulating urban knowledge may be expected to increase in parallel with the evaporation of the socialist past’s anomalous vestiges. Meanwhile, the concomitant transition process needs to be theorized, but it is a theorization that is conscribed in space and time to countries undergoing this process, and is thus hard to re-export. A prominent and useful example of such theorization is Sýkora and Bouzarovski’s (2012Sýkora, Luděk, and Stefan Bouzarovski2012. “Multiple Transformations: Conceptualising the Post-communist Urban Transition.” Urban Studies 49: 4360.10.1177/0042098010397402[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) multiple transformations conceptualization of urban transition, which allows for manifold and tortuous routes along a single broad trajectory from central planning and totalitarianism toward democracy and the market, providing the fresh canvas upon which (presumably slower) sociocultural and urban spatial transitions are subsequently drawn. In this perspective, having completed this three-stage transition, cities enter (or return to) the realm of ordinary theory. However, while the approach echoes the literature on double transition processes in Latin America during the 1980s, it overlooks, or at least downplays, the important “third” (Offe [1991Offe, Claus1991[2004]. “Capitalism by Democratic Design? Democratic Theory Facing the Triple Transition in East Central Europe.” Social Research 71: 501529. [Google Scholar]] 2004) and “fourth” (Kuzio 2001Kuzio, Taras2001. “Transition in Post-communist States: Triple or Quadruple?” Politics 21: 168177.10.1111/1467-9256.00148[Crossref][Google Scholar]) transitions – toward state and nation-building.

Similarly, second, such conceptualizations sustain discourses that frame post-socialist cities as lagging behind (cf. Robinson 2004Robinson, Jennifer2004. “In the Tracks of Comparative Urbanism: Difference, Urban Modernity and the Primitive.” Urban Geography 25: 709723.10.2747/0272-3638.25.8.709[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). They are in other words not just anomalous, but also non-modern, which effectively doubles their relative “difference” when seen through the lens of the principal First-World distilleries of urban thought. Accordingly, the need to “catch up” – against a backdrop of existing theory on First-World forerunner cities (Hirt 2012Hirt, Sonia. 2012Iron CurtainsMaldenJohn Wiley and Sons.10.1002/9781118295922[Crossref][Google Scholar]) – was a relatively unproblematic assumption during the 1990s – an assumption that became increasingly criticized later on (Hörschelmann and Stenning 2008Hörschelmann, Kathrin, and AlisonStenning2008. “Ethnographies of Postsocialist Change.” Progress in Human Geography 32: 339361.10.1177/0309132508089094[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Stenning and Hörschelmann 2008Stenning, Alison, and KathrinHörschelmann2008. “History, Geography and Difference in the Post-socialist World: Or, Do We Still Need Post-socialism?” Antipode 40: 312335.10.1111/j.1467-8330.2008.00593.x[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Ferenčuhová 2012Ferenčuhová, Slavomíra2012. “Urban Theory beyond the ‘East/West Divide’? Cities and Urban Research in Postsocialist Europe.” In Urban Theory beyond the West: A World of Cities, edited by T. Edensor and M.Jayne6574LondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]; Hirt 2012Hirt, Sonia. 2012Iron CurtainsMaldenJohn Wiley and Sons.10.1002/9781118295922[Crossref][Google Scholar]).

Third, as both Robinson (2004Robinson, Jennifer2004. “In the Tracks of Comparative Urbanism: Difference, Urban Modernity and the Primitive.” Urban Geography 25: 709723.10.2747/0272-3638.25.8.709[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) and Roy (2009Roy, Ananya2009. “The 21st Century Metropolis: New Geographies of Theory.” Regional Studies 43: 819830.10.1080/00343400701809665[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) note, theory generated outside of this exclusive club, in general, tends to be viewed as a particularistic contribution to the description and understanding of what is past and elsewhere (see Peck [2015Peck, Jamie2015. “Cities beyond Compare?” Regional Studies 49: 160182.10.1080/00343404.2014.980801[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]] and Scott and Storper [2015Scott, Allen J., and Michael Storper2015. “The Nature of Cities: The Scope and Limits of Urban Theory.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 39: 115.10.1111/ijur.v39.1[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]] for examples of similar critique toward the “new comparative urbanism” literature), and thus of little importance to other contexts. Post-socialist cities have a defining relation to the (socialist) past (see Hirt 2016Hirt, Sonia2016. “Once the Socialist City.” In Conceptual Forum: The ‘Post-socialist’ City, SoniaHirtSlavomíraFerenčuhová, and Tauri TuvikeneEurasian Geography and Economics 57: 497520. [Google Scholar]), representing a project of catching up, of reducing the imagined distance in both time and space with the West. Thus, they are a particularly interesting example of cities that are “elsewhere,” yet not so far, and that are “past,” but not quite,22. Reading Homi Bhabha’s Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse(1984Bhabha, Homi1984. “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse.” Discipleship: A Special Issue on Psychoanalysis 28: 125133. [Google Scholar]) is particularly inspiring in rethinking the ambivalent meaning of post-socialist identity.View all notes and as such, they are hardly considered as sources of general theoretical input. Yet, “ordinary theory” (Peck 2015Peck, Jamie2015. “Cities beyond Compare?” Regional Studies 49: 160182.10.1080/00343404.2014.980801[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) is fraught with much the same problem, and Robinson (2011aRobinson, Jennifer2011a. “Cities in a World of Cities: The Comparative Gesture.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 35: 123.10.1111/ijur.2011.35.issue-1[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 10) suggests that “most urban research is fairly parochial, with often quite locally derived conclusions circulating as universal knowledge.” Leitner and Sheppard (2016Leitner, Helga, and Eric Sheppard2016. “Provincializing Critical Urban Theory: Extending the Ecosystem of Possibilities.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40: 228235.10.1111/1468-2427.12277[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 230) add on to this critique (based on the example of the Burgess concentric ring model) by noting that “certain local epistemologies may gain hegemonic status for reasons that have little to do with their universal validity” (230).

Finally, fourth, still relatively few scholars working in post-socialist countries have managed to reach out with their results, for various reasons, including language barriers, resource constraints, lack of library access to the international literature, and thus detachment of their work from current theoretical debates. Certainly, the overall situation has improved during recent years, but the improvements have not taken place in a geographically uniform way, leading to increased differences between and within particularly country contexts (see Timár 2004Timár, Judit2004. “More than ‘Anglo-American’, It is ‘Western’: Hegemony in Geography from a Hungarian Perspective.” Geoforum 35: 533538.10.1016/j.geoforum.2004.01.010[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Stenning and Hörschelmann 2008Stenning, Alison, and KathrinHörschelmann2008. “History, Geography and Difference in the Post-socialist World: Or, Do We Still Need Post-socialism?” Antipode 40: 312335.10.1111/j.1467-8330.2008.00593.x[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Ferenčuhová 2016aFerenčuhová, Slavomíra2016a. “Accounts from behind the Curtain: History and Geography in the Critical Analysis of Urban Theory.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40: 131146.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

From the above, it is clear that post-socialist cities may suffer from a kind of exclusion that is broadly similar to the situation that has been lamented by postcolonial scholars during the past 10–15 years in regard to cities in the Global South. Yet, as Tuvikene (2016aTuvikene, Tauri2016a. “Strategies for Comparative Urbanism: Post-socialism as a De-territorialized Concept.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40: 132146.10.1111/1468-2427.12333[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) cautions, these cities run the risk of double exclusion – from mainstream theory and from the postcolonial critique. Calls have been made “to rethink the list of “great” cities” (Roy 2009Roy, Ananya2009. “The 21st Century Metropolis: New Geographies of Theory.” Regional Studies 43: 819830.10.1080/00343400701809665[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 820), to “provincialize” urban theory (Leitner and Sheppard 2016Leitner, Helga, and Eric Sheppard2016. “Provincializing Critical Urban Theory: Extending the Ecosystem of Possibilities.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40: 228235.10.1111/1468-2427.12277[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), to “de-provincialize” it (Mbembe and Nuttall 2004Mbembe, A., and Sarah Nuttall2004. “Writing the World from an African Metropolis.” Public Culture 16: 347372.10.1215/08992363-16-3-347[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]),33. In this case, “provincializing” and “de-provincializing” are not to be seen as each other’s opposites. Mbembe and Nuttall (2004Mbembe, A., and Sarah Nuttall2004. “Writing the World from an African Metropolis.” Public Culture 16: 347372.10.1215/08992363-16-3-347[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) and Leitner and Sheppard (2016Leitner, Helga, and Eric Sheppard2016. “Provincializing Critical Urban Theory: Extending the Ecosystem of Possibilities.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40: 228235.10.1111/1468-2427.12277[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) use the term “provincializing” in somewhat different ways.View all notes and most importantly, to engage with cities on their own terms and in their entireties (Robinson 2005Robinson, Jennifer2005. “Urban Geography: World Cities, or a World of Cities.” Progress in Human Geography 29: 757765.10.1191/0309132505ph582pr[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), which requires “light and revisable” theory (Robinson 2016aRobinson, Jennifer2016a. “Comparative Urbanism: New Geographies and Cultures of Theorizing the Urban.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40: 187199.10.1111/1468-2427.12273[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) – and perhaps also realizing that theories are subject to geographical and temporal limitations and that the days of all-encompassing theory are gone (Leitner and Sheppard 2016Leitner, Helga, and Eric Sheppard2016. “Provincializing Critical Urban Theory: Extending the Ecosystem of Possibilities.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40: 228235.10.1111/1468-2427.12277[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

Thus far, few have responded to these calls departing from the experience of cities located to the east of Berlin and to the north of the 40th parallel. Perhaps this region includes few – or none – of the new great cities that Roy (2009Roy, Ananya2009. “The 21st Century Metropolis: New Geographies of Theory.” Regional Studies 43: 819830.10.1080/00343400701809665[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) talks about, but it was and still is a land of great cities, as Chauncy Harris (1945Harris, Chauncy D.1945. “The Cities of the Soviet Union.” Geographical Review35: 107121.10.2307/210935[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) observed more than 70 years ago in relation to the Soviet Union. Instead, what we may observe is a dramatic increase in studies rooted in Chinese and, to a lesser extent, Indian cities. Within this journal, which started off as in 1960 as Soviet Geography, followed by PostSoviet Geography (1992–1995), and PostSoviet Geography and Economics (1996–2002), the Chinese city research trend is particularly evident among the articles that might fall under a broad definition of urban geography, including its historical branch: since 2005, out of 26 such articles,44. This figure excludes articles that provide statistical overviews of general urbanization trends, and other works of similar character.View all notes 12 focus on Chinese cities and 7 on cities in Russia, of which 5 are based on the case of Saint Petersburg. Of the remaining seven articles, two are on Indian cities, one is on Kiev, one on Vilnius, one on Vietnamese cities, and two cover broadly the post-Soviet region and “world cities,” respectively. Clearly, part of the explanation lies in China’s (and India’s) demographics – each of these two countries carry far greater weight than the whole CEE region taken together in this respect – but, as McFarlane and Robinson (2012McFarlane, Colin, and Jennifer Robinson2012. “Introduction – Experiments in Comparative Urbanism.” Urban Geography 33: 765773.10.2747/0272-3638.33.6.765[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 767) note, changes in the global balance of power certainly play their part too. And funding, of course.

This incipient recalibration of the geography of urban knowledge production comes with the risk of (re)producing dominant islands of theory on the one hand, and typological thinking about the rest of the planetary archipelago of cities on the other (see Nijman 2007Nijman, Jan2007. “Introduction – Comparative Urbanism.” Urban Geography 28: 16.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Robinson 2013Robinson, Jennifer2013. “The Urban Now: Theorising Cities beyond the New.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 16: 659677.10.1177/1367549413497696[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). However, this risk can be forestalled by sharpening our comparative vision and by thinking in a de-territorialized manner (Tuvikene 2016aTuvikene, Tauri2016a. “Strategies for Comparative Urbanism: Post-socialism as a De-territorialized Concept.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40: 132146.10.1111/1468-2427.12333[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; see also Tuvikene, Alves, and Hilbrandt 2016Tuvikene, TauriSusana Neves Alves, and Hanna Hilbrandt2016. “Strategies for Relating Diverse Cities: A Multi-sited Individualising Comparison of Informality in Bafatá, Berlin and Tallinn.” Current Sociology. doi:10.1177/0011392116657298.[Crossref][PubMed][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), by thinking relationally (Ward 2008Ward, Kevin2008. “Editorial – Toward a Comparative (Re)Turn in Urban Studies? Some Reflections.” Urban Geography 29: 405410.10.2747/0272-3638.29.5.405[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), and by paying attention to particular aspects of cities (Robinson 2016bRobinson, Jennifer2016b. “Thinking Cities through Elsewhere: Comparative Tactics for a More Global Urban Studies.” Progress in Human Geography 40: 329.10.1177/0309132515598025[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Perhaps this strategy will allow the post-socialist city to be released from its partly imposed, partly self-induced, exile. The works included in this theme issue take assertive steps in this direction, and their authors formulate ambitions to theorize post-socialist urbanity, proposing several strategies to (re-)connect post-socialist cities to urban theory.

Thus, this theme issue brings together contributions that connect critical reviews of the research, empirical studies, and theoretical discussions in the field, with traditional and contemporary debates in urban theory. Three main challenges emerge: (1) the content and relevance of central concepts, (2) the role of the socialist past in shaping the present and future, and (3) the contribution of the post-socialist world in theorizing the nexus between social change and urban space.

The three challenges

The first – conceptual – challenge is approached from two angles in this issue. First, three short contributions collected in the “conceptual forum” (Ferenčuhová 2016bFerenčuhová, Slavomíra2016b. “The ‘Socialist City’ Pitfalls.” In Conceptual Forum: The ‘Post-socialist’ City, Sonia HirtSlavomíraFerenčuhová, and Tauri Tuvikene.Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 497520. [Google Scholar]; Hirt 2016Hirt, Sonia2016. “Once the Socialist City.” In Conceptual Forum: The ‘Post-socialist’ City, SoniaHirtSlavomíraFerenčuhová, and Tauri TuvikeneEurasian Geography and Economics 57: 497520. [Google Scholar]; Tuvikene 2016bTuvikene, Tauri2016b. “The Conceptualization of Post-socialism.” In Conceptual Forum: The ‘Post-socialist’ City, Sonia HirtSlavomíraFerenčuhová, and Tauri TuvikeneEurasian Geography and Economics 57: 497520. [Google Scholar]) discuss the concept of the post-socialist city. More critical assessments of terms such as post-socialism, transition, and legacy then appear throughout the issue. Second, several articles debate the problem that the academic field of urban studies has faced since its early years, which is that of the transferability of theories and concepts among different cities and contexts. The authors discuss post-socialist cities as places where theories originating (predominantly) in research on Western cities are applied, but also as the context in which new theories or critical views on internationally debated topics may possibly emerge (Bernt 2016Bernt, Matthias2016. “How Post-Socialist is Gentrification? Observations in East Berlin and Saint Petersburg.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 565587.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Borén and Young 2016Borén, Thomas, and Craig Young2016. “Conceptual Export and Theory Mobilities: Exploring the Reception and Development of the ‘Creative City Thesis’ in the Post-socialist Urban Realm.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 588606.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Ouředníček 2016Ouředníček, Martin2016. “The Relevance of ‘Western’ Theoretical Concepts for the Investigation of the Margins of Post-socialist Cities: The Case of Prague.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 545564.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

The second challenge relates to the role of the socialist (and pre-socialist) past, including representations thereof, in defining the present-day conditions in post-socialist cities. Writing on urban development and planning in socialist central Europe, Musil (2001Musil, Jiří2001. “Vývoj a Plánování Měst ve Střední Evropě v Období Komunistických Režimů: Pohled Historické Sociologie.” [Urban Development and Planning in Central Europe under Communist Regimes: The Perspective of Historical Sociology.]Sociologický Časopis/Czech Sociological Review 37: 275296.[Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 275) suggested that cities are best approached from a Braudelian longue durée perspective, emphasizing their long-term historical development and continuities rather than the sudden changes they may have experienced. The articles included in this volume debate the importance of the inherited urban infrastructures for the present day, but they also analyze the ideological uses of the representations of the socialist past in current political discourses in post-socialist countries. Together, they illustrate that referring to history, and challenging its dominant narratives, supports our understanding of the contemporary situation (Bouzarovski, Sýkora, and Matoušek 2016Bouzarovski, StefanLuděk Sýkora, and Roman Matoušek2016. “Locked-in Post-socialism: Rolling Path Dependencies in Liberec’s District Heating System.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 624642.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Chelcea and Druţă 2016Chelcea, Liviu, and Oana Druţă2016. “Zombie Socialism and the Rise of Neoliberalism in Post-socialist Central and Eastern Europe.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 521544.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Ouředníček 2016Ouředníček, Martin2016. “The Relevance of ‘Western’ Theoretical Concepts for the Investigation of the Margins of Post-socialist Cities: The Case of Prague.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 545564.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

The third challenge refers to the classical problem of research on socialist and post-socialist cities, which is how to make sense of, and to theorize, the relation between social change and urban space (Bouzarovski, Sýkora, and Matoušek 2016Bouzarovski, StefanLuděk Sýkora, and Roman Matoušek2016. “Locked-in Post-socialism: Rolling Path Dependencies in Liberec’s District Heating System.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 624642.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Golubchikov 2016Golubchikov, Oleg2016. “The Urbanization of Transition: Ideology and the Urban Experience.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 607623.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Ouředníček 2016Ouředníček, Martin2016. “The Relevance of ‘Western’ Theoretical Concepts for the Investigation of the Margins of Post-socialist Cities: The Case of Prague.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 545564.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). This issue clearly remains important in stimulating new ideas and new conceptual tools in urban studies, reaching well beyond the field of research on post-socialist cities.

The conceptual challenge

This collection starts by opening the first of the three themes in the conceptual forum, which assesses the relevance of the theme issue’s central concept – the post-socialist city. By doing so, it elaborates on a longstanding discussion that has been taking place among urban scholars interested in CEE, which is whether, and to what extent “post-socialist” still makes sense to describe and understand what has been happening in this region’s cities over the past 30 years. While the debate is an old one (see Hann, Humphrey, and Verdery 2002Hann, ChrisCarolineHumphrey, and Katherine Verdery2002. “Introduction: Postsocialism as a Topic of Anthropological Investigation.” In Postsocialism – Ideals, Ideologies and Practices in Eurasia, edited by C. Hann128LondonRoutledge.[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Hörschelmann 2002Hörschelmann, Kathrin2002. “History after the End: Post-socialist Difference in a (Post)Modern World.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 27: 5266.10.1111/tran.2002.27.issue-1[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Stenning and Hörschelmann 2008Stenning, Alison, and KathrinHörschelmann2008. “History, Geography and Difference in the Post-socialist World: Or, Do We Still Need Post-socialism?” Antipode 40: 312335.10.1111/j.1467-8330.2008.00593.x[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], to name just a few contributors), and some scholars might roll their eyes at the prospect of re-chewing gum that has already lost its flavor, there are three main reasons for which a continued discussion is warranted.

First of all, far from dissipating into oblivion, “post-socialist” (or post-communist, post-Soviet, etc.) remains widely used as an adjective to describe CEE (and not only) societies and the changes that are still taking place within them. As recently as the last year or so, journal articles have been published on “cycling in the post-socialist city” (Barnfield and Plyushteva 2016Barnfield, Andrew, and Anna Plyushteva2016. “Cycling in the Post-socialist City: On Travelling by Bicycle in Sofia, Bulgaria.” Urban Studies 53: 18221835.10.1177/0042098015586536[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), “experiencing post-socialism” (while running in Sofia, Barnfield 2016Barnfield, Andrew2016. “Experiencing Post-socialism: Running and Urban Space in Sofia, Bulgaria.” European Urban and Regional Studies. doi:10.1177/0969776416661015.[Crossref][Google Scholar]), and on “regeneration projects in Central and Eastern European post-communist cities” (Hlaváček, Raška, and Balej 2016Hlaváček, PetrPavelRaška, and MartinBalej2016. “Regeneration Projects in Central and Eastern European Post-Communist Cities: Current Trends and Community Needs.” Habitat International56: 3141.10.1016/j.habitatint.2016.04.001[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), as well as on various post-socialist urban phenomena and on urban phenomena that have taken place during the post-socialist period. Of course, there are also numerous publications that do not make use of the post-socialist qualifier, but the point is that, far from being dead, post-socialism is alive and well in current scholarship.

Second, the discussion on the meaning and value of the concept of post-socialism in urban research has neither been concluded, nor has it been conclusive. To the contrary, if anything, the debate has been re-invigorated during recent years, and several of the contributors to this volume have been at the forefront of this trend within urban studies. One of the trickiest problems that needs to be tackled is how to make sense of the fact that the two main transitions associated with the post-socialist epoch – democratization and marketization – are far from complete. What is more, within the former Soviet Union (minus the Baltic States), one of them (democratization) actually peaked during the late Gorbachëv era; that is, during late socialism. Since then, democracy has retreated in almost all of the former Soviet Union (Hale 2016Hale, Henry E. 2016. “25 Years after the USSR: What’s Gone Wrong?” Journal of Democracy 27: 2435.10.1353/jod.2016.0035[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), and it is increasingly being eroded in central Europe. This sorry insight destabilizes much of the theoretical work on post-socialist cities because it deprives it of one of its key assumptions. For example, Sýkora and Bouzarovski’s (2012Sýkora, Luděk, and Stefan Bouzarovski2012. “Multiple Transformations: Conceptualising the Post-communist Urban Transition.” Urban Studies 49: 4360.10.1177/0042098010397402[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) aforementioned multiple transformations model is based on the optimistic assumption that the key political transformations were already in place by the early 1990s and had a clear trajectory, and that this provided the ground for subsequent transformations at other levels, the sociocultural and the urban.

Debating the concept of the post-socialist city very often turns into a problem of general relevance in the social sciences. This is related to the fact that the concepts we use are also used and defined outside of academia, often with particular ideological connotations (see Hann, Humphrey, and Verdery 2002Hann, ChrisCarolineHumphrey, and Katherine Verdery2002. “Introduction: Postsocialism as a Topic of Anthropological Investigation.” In Postsocialism – Ideals, Ideologies and Practices in Eurasia, edited by C. Hann128LondonRoutledge.[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Kuus 2004Kuus, Merje2004. “Europe’s Eastern Expansion and the Reinscription of Otherness in East-central Europe.” Progress in Human Geography 28: 472489.10.1191/0309132504ph498oa[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Hörschelmann and Stenning 2008Hörschelmann, Kathrin, and AlisonStenning2008. “Ethnographies of Postsocialist Change.” Progress in Human Geography 32: 339361.10.1177/0309132508089094[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Wiest 2012Wiest, Karin2012. “Comparative Debates in Post-socialist Urban Studies.” Urban Geography 33: 829849.10.2747/0272-3638.33.6.829[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). As Castells (1976Castells, Manuel1976. “Theory and Ideology in Urban Sociology.” In Urban Sociology: Critical Essays, edited by Ch GPickvance6084LondonTavistock Publications. [Google Scholar], 60) explained, “[e]very science … consists of a mixture, which sometimes varies according to circumstances, of ideology and theory.” The conceptual and theoretical debates on the post-socialist city raise our awareness of this intermingling, analyzing its influence on the state of the art produced in academia, and several contributions to this volume engage with this complication (Chelcea and Druţă 2016Chelcea, Liviu, and Oana Druţă2016. “Zombie Socialism and the Rise of Neoliberalism in Post-socialist Central and Eastern Europe.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 521544.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Ferenčuhová 2016bFerenčuhová, Slavomíra2016b. “The ‘Socialist City’ Pitfalls.” In Conceptual Forum: The ‘Post-socialist’ City, Sonia HirtSlavomíraFerenčuhová, and Tauri Tuvikene.Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 497520. [Google Scholar]; Golubchikov 2016Golubchikov, Oleg2016. “The Urbanization of Transition: Ideology and the Urban Experience.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 607623.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

In addition, the articles collected in this volume illustrate how concepts such as post-socialism, path-dependency, or legacy can be used in new ways, strengthening their analytical value, making them relevant beyond the field of study within which they usually reside, and allowing them to become “exportable” products (Sjöberg 2014Sjöberg, Örjan2014. “Cases on to Themselves? Theory and Research on Ex-socialist Urban Environments.” Geografie 119: 299319.[Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) within the international market of urban theory (see, for example, Tuvikene 2016bTuvikene, Tauri2016b. “The Conceptualization of Post-socialism.” In Conceptual Forum: The ‘Post-socialist’ City, Sonia HirtSlavomíraFerenčuhová, and Tauri TuvikeneEurasian Geography and Economics 57: 497520. [Google Scholar] or Ouředníček 2016Ouředníček, Martin2016. “The Relevance of ‘Western’ Theoretical Concepts for the Investigation of the Margins of Post-socialist Cities: The Case of Prague.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 545564.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Meanwhile, other articles in this issue see the potential for critical contributions to existing theories (such as that of gentrification, see Bernt 2016Bernt, Matthias2016. “How Post-Socialist is Gentrification? Observations in East Berlin and Saint Petersburg.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 565587.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; or on the “creative city,” see Borén and Young 2016Borén, Thomas, and Craig Young2016. “Conceptual Export and Theory Mobilities: Exploring the Reception and Development of the ‘Creative City Thesis’ in the Post-socialist Urban Realm.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 588606.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), as a result of their being processed within the relatively uncharted “post-socialist” region.

The socialist past

The second challenge that emerges from research on post-socialist cities, and which figures prominently in this collection, is inextricably linked to the conceptual challenge discussed above: the socialist past and its legacies are now (back?) on the table (see, for example, the contributions in Beissinger and Kotkin’s [2014Beissinger, Mark, and Stephen Kotkin, eds. 2014Historical Legacies of Communism in Russia and Eastern EuropeCambridgeCambridge University Press.[Crossref][Google Scholar]] recent edited book, and legacy arguments abound among the interpretations of the past few years’ authoritarian rebound in CEE). A proper analysis of socialist legacies means two things: (1) that we have a proper and detailed understanding of the actual workings of Soviet-type systems (and not just assumptions about it, see Ferenčuhová 2016aFerenčuhová, Slavomíra2016a. “Accounts from behind the Curtain: History and Geography in the Critical Analysis of Urban Theory.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40: 131146.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]); and (2) that a legacy effect (rather than a mere correlation) can actually be demonstrated (Kotkin and Beissinger 2014Stephen Kotkin, and Beissinger, Mark2014. “The Historical Legacies of Communism: An Empirical Agenda.” In Historical Legacies of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, edited by M.Beissinger and S.Kotkin127CambridgeCambridge University Press.10.1017/CBO9781107286191[Crossref][Google Scholar]). Within the urban context, the salience of legacy arguments becomes particularly evident when referring to memory politics, but legacies are now being revisited across a wide range of areas within post-socialist urban studies and far beyond. Demonstrated socialist legacies enhance the value of the concept of post-socialism – for what is post-socialism without socialism? (Hirt 2016Hirt, Sonia2016. “Once the Socialist City.” In Conceptual Forum: The ‘Post-socialist’ City, SoniaHirtSlavomíraFerenčuhová, and Tauri TuvikeneEurasian Geography and Economics 57: 497520. [Google Scholar]) – but they call for a greater exploration of the concept. In this respect, it is useful to distinguish between Russia (and to some extent the other authoritarian countries in the Former Soviet Union) on the one hand, and the remainder of the post-socialist countries. Indeed, Alexander Etkind (2014Etkind, Alexander2014. “Post-soviet Russia: The Land of the Oil Curse, Pussy Riot, and Magical Historicism.” Boundary 2 41 (1): 153170.10.1215/01903659-2409712[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 155) suggests that “the unprocessed memory of the catastrophic Soviet past still keeps Russia in its interminable post-Soviet condition,” whereas Chelcea and Druţă (2016Chelcea, Liviu, and Oana Druţă2016. “Zombie Socialism and the Rise of Neoliberalism in Post-socialist Central and Eastern Europe.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 521544.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) argue that it is the constant processing of socialist memory that keeps Romania on its interminably undisputed neoliberal trajectory. Post-socialism, understood this way, is characterized by the continued presence of elements of socialism itself, rather than by their gradual (or rapid) demise and disavowal – it is past-socialism in the present.

Moreover, the articles collected in this volume suggest that we need to rethink the main historical turning points of the post-1989/1991 period and that these should not be taken for granted. Bouzarovski, Sýkora, and Matoušek (2016Bouzarovski, StefanLuděk Sýkora, and Roman Matoušek2016. “Locked-in Post-socialism: Rolling Path Dependencies in Liberec’s District Heating System.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 624642.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) stress the need to better reflect both the socialist (and pre-socialist) times’ material legacies (such as urban infrastructures) and the political and economic changes that took place along the 1990s in our understanding of post-socialist cities. Similarly to Bernt (2016Bernt, Matthias2016. “How Post-Socialist is Gentrification? Observations in East Berlin and Saint Petersburg.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 565587.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), their analysis challenges the representation of the years 1989/1991 and of the subsequent reforms as the single or principal milestones to be considered in explanations of “post-socialist” urban development.

Post-socialism, social change, and urban space

Finally, the third challenge is that of formulating new insights into the relationship between urban space and social change based on the experiences of post-socialist cities, and the authors in this volume represent different perspectives on this account. Using the urban margins of Czech cities as source of inspiration, Ouředníček (2016Ouředníček, Martin2016. “The Relevance of ‘Western’ Theoretical Concepts for the Investigation of the Margins of Post-socialist Cities: The Case of Prague.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 545564.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) highlights the relative stability of the dominant urban development patterns; accordingly, he challenges the approaches that ascribe pivotal importance to the events that took place during the years of rapid political change, which lose sight of the more durable historically formed urban structures. On the other hand, a different picture – that of important changes having taken place during the socialist period – seems to emerge at the scale of the specific parts of cities, such as urban margins: Bouzarovski, Sýkora, and Matoušek (2016Bouzarovski, StefanLuděk Sýkora, and Roman Matoušek2016. “Locked-in Post-socialism: Rolling Path Dependencies in Liberec’s District Heating System.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 624642.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) consider the new “socio-technical lock-ins” that appeared during the post-socialist period and as part of the on-going transformations in the city of Liberec (Czech Rep.), emphasizing how the material urban environment has been used strategically by political and economic actors to create new path-shaping outcomes. Relatedly, Golubchikov (2016Golubchikov, Oleg2016. “The Urbanization of Transition: Ideology and the Urban Experience.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 607623.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) formulates an important appeal to scholars writing on post-socialist cities by introducing the notion of urbanization of transition, which articulates “the centrality of the urban in the spectacular post-socialist dynamics” (p. 620).

The contributions

The three challenges that frame this issue on the “post-socialist city and urban theory” emerge – implicitly or explicitly – in all contributions, and at times the connections and intersections between them become especially evident. The authors present conceptual debates and theoretical insights that are based on relevant empirical material or on thorough overviews of the literature. Some of the contributions have an explicitly comparative perspective, whereas others rely on single case studies.

Chelcea and Druţă (2016Chelcea, Liviu, and Oana Druţă2016. “Zombie Socialism and the Rise of Neoliberalism in Post-socialist Central and Eastern Europe.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 521544.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) elaborate on the issues opened up by the conceptual forum, connecting them to the empirical reality. In order to understand and explain the character of neoliberal capitalism in CEE, which they recognize as harsher and “more capitalist” than anywhere else in Europe, the authors introduce the notion of “zombie socialism.” They show how the ghost of socialism is exploited by political elites in post-socialist European countries to push through reforms or to facilitate the state’s withdrawal from the provision of social security. Using the example of housing, Chelcea and Druţă (2016Chelcea, Liviu, and Oana Druţă2016. “Zombie Socialism and the Rise of Neoliberalism in Post-socialist Central and Eastern Europe.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 521544.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) illustrate how claims for social security are labeled as “socialist,” and thus backward, non-democratic, non-progressive, or simply shameful. Accordingly, the socialist “zombie” is mobilized to create pressure on the labor force to accept the costs of economic “progress.” Armed with this argument, Chelcea and Druţă (2016Chelcea, Liviu, and Oana Druţă2016. “Zombie Socialism and the Rise of Neoliberalism in Post-socialist Central and Eastern Europe.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 521544.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) propose new uses for the concept of post-socialism, stressing its associations with socialism, as well as its role in contemporary ideology. Thus, they suggest that neoliberalism in CEE should be examined with greater sensitivity to the specific meanings and connotations associated with the socialist past and with the capitalist economy in its post-socialist guise.

Martin Ouředníček (2016Ouředníček, Martin2016. “The Relevance of ‘Western’ Theoretical Concepts for the Investigation of the Margins of Post-socialist Cities: The Case of Prague.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 545564.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) considers the mobility of concepts and theories between prevailingly Western urban theory and post-socialist cities. Looking back at the 1990s, he explains how concepts and theories produced by research on Western cities found their way into Czech urban studies, becoming adopted by researchers seeking to grasp and even predict the future development of cities in the post-socialist era. His overview of almost three decades’ worth of geographical research on Prague demonstrates the value of these concepts and theories, as well as their limitations when applied unreflectively to the new context. Using the example of the urban margins of Prague (and of other Czech cities), and particularly of the socialist-era housing estates, he argues that the imported concepts are frequently unsatisfactory and that there is a clear need for new conceptual tools that may have wider relevance in urban theory. In addition, Ouředníček (2016Ouředníček, Martin2016. “The Relevance of ‘Western’ Theoretical Concepts for the Investigation of the Margins of Post-socialist Cities: The Case of Prague.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 545564.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) more or less explicitly suggests that empirical research should remain high on the agenda, as we are still missing plenty of facts. This responds to past criticism that studies on post-socialist cities tend to favor empirical work at the expense of the theoretical contribution (see, for example, Timár 2004Timár, Judit2004. “More than ‘Anglo-American’, It is ‘Western’: Hegemony in Geography from a Hungarian Perspective.” Geoforum 35: 533538.10.1016/j.geoforum.2004.01.010[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

Matthias Bernt (2016Bernt, Matthias2016. “How Post-Socialist is Gentrification? Observations in East Berlin and Saint Petersburg.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 565587.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) proposes a slightly different opinion on the issue of the transfer of concepts. In his empirical examination of gentrification in East Berlin and in Saint Petersburg, he shows how the post-1989/1991 political reforms within the domain of housing have impacted on the material environment, accelerating – or holding back – the process of its regeneration. By comparing two dissimilar cities, the article critically assesses the concept of gentrification in its value and capacity to explain urban changes across different contexts. Bernt proposes using gentrification as an umbrella term for locally specific urban social transformations where the displacement of poorer households takes place in tandem with the entry of better-off groups within a context of heightened economic investment in the area. Such a broad definition captures the idiosyncrasies of gentrification across a wide spectrum of contexts, including “post-socialist cities,” while giving the latter the necessary space to engage in wider theoretical conversations on the topic.

Borén and Young (2016Borén, Thomas, and Craig Young2016. “Conceptual Export and Theory Mobilities: Exploring the Reception and Development of the ‘Creative City Thesis’ in the Post-socialist Urban Realm.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 588606.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) recognize the critical role that research on post-socialist cities may play in responding to internationally circulating theories and concepts. Their article discusses the hitherto marginal position of research on post-socialist cities in relation to the Anglo-American stronghold of urban theory, problematizing its schematizing effects. Using the example of the creative city discourse and theory, the authors propose a more thorough explanation of the sidelining of post-socialist cities in urban studies, suggesting the need to consider “the patterns in academic knowledge production” (p. 602) in order to understand this condition. They also discuss the requirement and expectation to produce transferable theories within urban studies (and in academia at large), based on rules of knowledge production that are construed as global, as well as the mobility of the very policies associated with the idea of the creative city.

The final two articles use research on post-socialist cities to formulate insights into the relation between urban space and social change and propose strong theoretical proclamations. Oleg Golubchikov (2016Golubchikov, Oleg2016. “The Urbanization of Transition: Ideology and the Urban Experience.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 607623.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) formulates at least two crucial challenges that should resonate in future research on post-socialist cities. First, he reminds us that “urbanization is a major institutional dimension of transition, not simply its playground” (p. 620), meaning that the attention of urban scholars should revert to their traditional object of inquiry and that cities are social and material realities where neoliberal capitalism and its social relations are produced, with far-reaching impacts. Second, Golubchikov (2016Golubchikov, Oleg2016. “The Urbanization of Transition: Ideology and the Urban Experience.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 607623.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) questions the geographical limitations of the extant theories of “transition,” the validity of which being conscribed by the boundaries of the post-socialist states, while promoting an understanding of transition as a “totalizing project of planetary reach” (p. 607). Through this lens, transition is seen as a process whereby neoliberal capitalism goes global and which transforms and seizes the historically formed materiality and social relations present in post-socialist countries.

Similar to other contributions, the article by Bouzarovski, Sýkora, and Matoušek (2016Bouzarovski, StefanLuděk Sýkora, and Roman Matoušek2016. “Locked-in Post-socialism: Rolling Path Dependencies in Liberec’s District Heating System.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 624642.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) analyzes the situation in the mid-sized Czech city of Liberec, where the prices that local inhabitants pay for district heating are extremely high in the national context. The authors identify the causes of this situation in the combined effects of the socialist-era heating infrastructure, of the privatization and local administration reforms in the 1990s, and of the (vested) interests of the local political and business spheres. The authors also contribute to the conceptual debates within research on post-socialist cities. In a critical response to the conventional path-dependency perspective, they develop the idea of “path-shaping” post-socialist transformations (Pickles and Smith 1998Pickles, John, and Adrian Smith1998Theorising Transition: The Political Economy of Post-communist TransformationsLondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]), stressing the role of the years of the political and economic reforms in shaping subsequent developments. Bouzarovski, Sýkora, and Matoušek (2016Bouzarovski, StefanLuděk Sýkora, and Roman Matoušek2016. “Locked-in Post-socialism: Rolling Path Dependencies in Liberec’s District Heating System.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 624642.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) propose the notion of “rolling path-dependencies” to reflect the multi-layered determination of the present-day situation. This notion, which refers to the general path-dependency concept, may well bear fruit beyond the post-socialist context, and it may be relevant to research on other cities undergoing changes linked to important historical events or transformations.

Conclusion

The starting point for this theme issue was the observation – challenged by various contributions to this volume – that research on post-socialist cities has yet to escape from the periphery of contemporary urban theory.

This volume takes several important steps toward the center of urban theory and away from its margins by critically responding to wider debates and by producing new knowledge that is rooted in research on post-socialist cities. First, there are attempts to (re)define key concepts that have been used in the field (for example, legacy, post-socialism, transition, path-dependency), and to discuss their value for urban theory in general, rather than in relation to CEE alone. Concepts such as “post-socialism” or “transition” are ascribed global relevance in their capacity to relate cities across the globe to one another. Second, some of the authors signal that new concepts may emerge inductively, based on empirical research conducted in specific parts or on particular aspects of post-socialist cities, particularly when a close connection to the socialist past appears to be present (as in the housing estates). Third, established and globally circulating concepts and theories (e.g. gentrification or the creative city) can be critically discussed and developed through research on post-socialist cities. Many of these concepts have already been in use to describe and analyze the CEE context, but the attempts to actually add onto them (to “re-export” them, in Sjöberg’s [2014Sjöberg, Örjan2014. “Cases on to Themselves? Theory and Research on Ex-socialist Urban Environments.” Geografie 119: 299319.[Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]] language) have been few and far between. Fortunately, this has been changing in a favorable direction recently, and the articles included in this volume represent an additional significant effort. Here, post-socialist cities are not presented as the anomalies of urban theory, but as places where important knowledge can be generated, favoring critical discussions of the (center’s) state of the art.

Finally, research on post-socialist cities is sensitive to the ideological side of urban life, and perhaps more so than within urban studies at large. Several contributions to this issue link an analysis of ideology with research on the material and social structures of cities. Moreover, this sensitivity extends to the concepts and categories used, including, but not limited to, the category of post-socialism. We consider this to be one of the greatest strengths and potentials of research on post-socialist cities, and it comes with the benefit of an enhanced awareness of the political and ethical dimensions of our work.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

Acknowledgment

Slavomíra Ferenčuhová acknowledges the support from Project No. MUNI/A/1114/2015, “Society and its dynamics: qualitative and quantitative perspective” (SPOJKA).

 

Notes

1. “Post-socialist,” “post-communist,” and sometimes even “post-Soviet” are concepts that are used almost interchangeably in the literature, despite their slight differences in meaning. In this publication, as theme issue editors, we opt for “post-socialist,” not least because past debates concerned the “socialist” rather than the “communist” city. Even so, this does not amount to an endorsement of the “post-socialist city” concept per se. Because the post-socialist city is a widely used and understood concept, we will continue using it in the rest of this introduction, dropping the initial quotation marks which are intended to emphasize the somewhat contentious nature of the concept and of the associations that it carries. Our main focus is on post-socialist cities in Central and Eastern Europe, but many of the insights contained in this volume are relevant elsewhere, too.

2. Reading Homi Bhabha’s Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse (1984Bhabha, Homi1984. “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse.” Discipleship: A Special Issue on Psychoanalysis 28: 125133. [Google Scholar]) is particularly inspiring in rethinking the ambivalent meaning of post-socialist identity.

3. In this case, “provincializing” and “de-provincializing” are not to be seen as each other’s opposites. Mbembe and Nuttall (2004Mbembe, A., and Sarah Nuttall2004. “Writing the World from an African Metropolis.” Public Culture 16: 347372.10.1215/08992363-16-3-347[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) and Leitner and Sheppard (2016Leitner, Helga, and Eric Sheppard2016. “Provincializing Critical Urban Theory: Extending the Ecosystem of Possibilities.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40: 228235.10.1111/1468-2427.12277[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) use the term “provincializing” in somewhat different ways.

4. This figure excludes articles that provide statistical overviews of general urbanization trends, and other works of similar character.

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    ,

Planetary Gentrification


Loretta Lees: My aim in this talk is to unpack the Anglo-American hegemony in gentrification studies, and in so doing to question the notion of a global gentrification. 

Book Review: Planetary Gentrification by Loretta Lees, Hyun Bang Shin and Ernesto López-Morales

The first book in Polity’s ‘Urban Futures’ series, in Planetary Gentrification authors Loretta Lees, Hyun Bang Shin and Ernesto López-Morales bring together recent urban theory, postcolonial critique and a political economy perspective to offer a globalised take on gentrification. This book is a crucial synthesis of established approaches to gentrification and more recent theoretical developments and is also an excellent example of co-authored scholarship, finds Geoffrey DeVerteuil . 

Planetary Gentrification. Loretta Lees, Hyun Bang Shin and Ernesto López-Morales. Polity. 2016.

Find this book: amazon-logo

planetary-gentrification-coverWith the same three authors, Planetary Gentrification may be seen as a companion to the 2015 volume, Global Gentrifications: Uneven Development and Displacement, giving a more unified discussion of how to join gentrification debates to current urban theory, of moving beyond the ‘usual suspects’ and ‘heartlands’ of gentrification theory production to embrace a truly cosmopolitan, globalised gentrification, both theoretically and empirically.

Essentially, the book connects to an ‘ontological awakening’ (5) that directly engages the recent theoretical ferment in urban studies, particularly ‘planetary urbanization’ and post-colonial critiques, set within an ascendant comparative urbanism while largely maintaining a political economy perspective in the confines of global capitalism. This book is therefore a stocktaking between a now global gentrification and the emerging panoply of new urban theories and approaches, bringing them into conversation to ‘advance the view that gentrification is becoming increasingly influential and unfolds at a planetary scale’ (4), globally generalised yet locally contingent and variegated. The book therefore hopes to shed considerable light on current urban restructuring, inequality and polarisation.

There is much to commend in Planetary Gentrification, particularly its ambitious scope and scale. It maintains a knife-edge tension between building on Global North gentrification theory but ensuring a relational approach, opening gentrification up to new perspectives and theories to better frame the rise of ‘spectacular urbanization’ and real estate-led mega-development, mega-infrastructure and mega-upgrading. Along the way, this is an excellent example of collegiate production, rather than extensive and globe-spanning travel by one scholar.

planetary-gentrification-image-4Image Credit: Greenpoint Gentrification (Brenden CC BY SA 2.0)

Three insights in particular stand out. The first is the sense that quaint notions of gentrification as an individual preference have been thoroughly replaced by the state drive towards the privileging of real estate values, producing remarkably mimetic landscapes across the globe. This state-led financialisation of real estate is fuelling new-build gentrification, particularly in the Global South. The state has now become the central agent of gentrification, imposing a global gentrification blueprint through zero-tolerance policing, creative city and mixed communities discourses, heritage preservation policies and slum gentrification in places such as Mumbai and Rio de Janeiro.

The second insight is the rejection of the central city-suburban binary, in which gentrification only occurs in the former, via the revival of older theories of the rent gap and the slum to promote new understandings of a far more spatially disparate gentrification. Finally, the authors argue that the book not only sheds light on the neglected and misrecognised spaces of the urban Global South, a point which many of the key thinkers of comparative urbanism (Sue Parnell, Jenny Robinson, Colin McFarlane) emphasise, but also on the class exploitation inherent in the displacements of gentrification, which is more in line with those who contribute to older debates on gentrification and displacement (Tom Slater, Elvin Wyly).

However, the very wide-ranging conceptual and empirical scope of the book itself leads to inevitable overreach and blind spots. The explicit combination of ‘planetary urbanization’ and post-colonial critique is an example of unintentional incommensurability. Rather than being complementary, the two theories are actually opposing, emerging from very different ontologies and politics, the former totalising while the latter much more about everyday life and everyday theory. Such a Panglossian approach points to the pitfalls of too eagerly absorbing the range of recent urban theory – some produced so hastily that their ‘new’ insights are actually recycled from older theories that have fallen into disuse. For example, the LA Schoolwas at the very least insightful about the need to take seriously the polycentric nature of late-twentieth-century urbanism – and yet in the drive for the new, this intellectual debt is forgotten.

I also struggled with the conflation of East Asia – places such as Taipei, Hong Kong, Beijing and Seoul – with the Global South. Surely there is a better way to incorporate areas that have been neglected by Global North theory, but which do not sit comfortably with the other low- and middle-income nations of the world. Along these lines of better unpacking the Global South, there is little investigation into the diversity of experience within the Global North itself, which is presented as a monolithic template – what about places that are more polycentric like Los Angeles? While I absolutely agree with the emergence of multiple centralities currently structuring the gentrification process, gentrification still retains an enduring attraction to the dominant centre, of being in close proximity and access to it. The importance of a residual centrality therefore means we must be careful about proposing the notion of tabula rasa urbanism and gentrification, just as we need to be wary of tabula rasa theory production.

Finally, the state is presented as the agent of gentrification, but can it not also be an agent of anti-gentrification, of propping up barriers to it? This relates to the section in Chapter Five that offers a uniformly revanchist, zero-tolerance state-promoting gentrification – yet, this is not always true, as one can have gentrification without revanchism and revanchism without gentrification. My own work on incipient gentrification in Downtown Los Angeles shows that the local state both encouraged gentrification but also continued to support non-commodified land uses – specifically the Skid Row service hub – that throw up barriers to all-consuming gentrification. There can never be complete and total gentrification as long as residuals from the pre-gentrification era – the so-called commons – remain spatially resilient, presenting an intriguing alternative to outright ‘resistance’ that the authors address in the final section of the book.

In conclusion, and despite these critiques, Planetary Gentrification advances a crucial synthesis between the more established contours of gentrification and the recent developments in urban theory, particularly planetary urbanisation and post-colonial critique, set within a comparative and relational framework. This synthesis is the main contribution of the book, and sets it apart from the sometimes overly-empirical nature of the field, useful in building up a ‘geography of gentrification’ yet lacking a more crosscutting, theoretically robust framework.

Planetary Urbanization

DEBATING PLANETARY URBANIZATION: FOR AN ENGAGED PLURALISM

Neil Brenner,
Working Paper, Urban Theory Lab, Harvard GSD, Summer 2017.

This essay reflects on recent debates around planetary urbanization, many of which have been articulated through strikingly dismissive caricatures of the core epistemological orientations, conceptual proposals, methodological tactics and substantive arguments that underpin this emergent approach to the urban question.  Following brief consideration of some of the most prevalent misrepresentations of this work, I build upon Trevor Barnes and Eric Sheppard’s (2010) concept of “engaged pluralism” to suggest more productive possibilities for dialogue among critical urban researchers whose agendas are too often viewed as incommensurable or antagonistic rather than as interconnected and, potentially, allied.  The essay concludes by outlining nine research questions whose more sustained exploration could more productively connect studies of planetary urbanization to several fruitful lines of inquiry associated with postcolonial, feminist and queer-theoretical strands of urban studies.  While questions of positionality necessarily lie at the heart of any critical approach to urban theory and research, so too does the search for intellectual and political common ground that might help orient, animate and advance the shared, if constitutively heterodox, project(s) of critical urban studies.

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The Works of Lefebvre


The Works of Henri Lefebvre

Written by Ross Wolfe

Henri Lefebvre’s work spans a variety of disciplines and fields, ranging from philosophy and sociology to architecture and urbanism. Obviously, this relates to a number of the themes discussed on this blog. A past entry featured Alfred Schmidt’s laudatory essaydedicated to Lefebvre, which I urge everyone to read. Roland Barthes, in his Mythologies, defended his contemporary against “criticism blind and dumb” in the press: “You don’t explain philosophers, but they explain you. You have no desire to understand that play by the Marxist Lefebvre, but you can be sure that the Marxist Lefebvre understands your incomprehension perfectly, and above all that he understands (for I myself suspect you to be more subtle than stupid) the delightfully ‘harmless’ confession you make of it.”

Lefebvre blazed a path, moreover, in the theoretical inquiry into “everyday life,” taking up a thread from the early Soviet discourse on the transformation of “everyday life” [быт] and Marx’s musings on “practical everyday life” [praktischen Werkeltagslebens]. Trotsky had authored a book on the subject in the 1920s, under the title Problems of Everyday Life, and the three-volume Critique of Everyday Life by Lefebvre, released over the course of four decades (1946, 1961, and 1981), can be seen as an elaboration of its themes. Eventually, inspired by this series, the Situationist upstar Raoul Vaneigem would publish The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967), while the Catholic theorist Michel de Certeau released two volumes of The Practice of Everyday Life (19761980).

Russell Jacoby passingly remarked in his excellent Dialectic of Defeat: Contours of Western Marxism (1981) that “Lefebvre’s career in France recapitulates the general development of Western Marxism.” He continued: “Lefebvre left the French Communist party only after 1956, but his earlier activities and writings betrayed a commitment to unorthodox Marxism. He belonged to a group called ‘Philosophies,’ which briefly (1925-1926) formed an alliance with the surrealists. With Norbert Guterman he translated Hegel, Lenin’s Hegel notebooks, and early Marx. He also wrote with Guterman a book that represented a high point of French Western Marxism in this earlier period, La Conscience mystifiée. Published in 1936, the title itself hints of History and Class Consciousness… rewritten in the context of the struggle against fascism.”

George Lichtheim in his survey of Marxism in Modern France (1966) likewise heaped praise upon Lefebvre, describing him as follows:

The Marxian concepts of “alienation” and “total man” were already central to Lefebvre’s interwar reflections, from the time he came across Marx’s early philosophical writings. The “Paris Manuscripts” of 1844 had been a revelation for Marxists of Lefebvre’s generation; and the echo of this discovery resounds throughout the concluding chapter of Le Matérialisme dialectique: first published in 1939, when — as the author remarked in 1957 — communists still tended to express disdain for the topic. Though politically orthodox, Lefebvre in 1939 was already going against the official line, which in those years was based on the Leninist interpretation of Marxism as a doctrine centered on the analysis of capitalism’s political and economic contradictions. In fairness it has to be remembered that this was itself a reaction to the academic habit of treating Marx as the author of a heretical philosophy of history. Under the impulsion of the Russian Revolution and Leninism, this approach gave way after 1917 to the realization that Marxism was meant to be a theory of the proletarian revolution. As usually happens in such cases, the discovery was accompanied by an impatient rejection of all nonpolitical interests, and in particular of long-range philosophical speculation centered on Marx’s youthful writings. When Lefebvre in 1957 recalled that between 1925 and 1935 French Marxists like himself had discovered the immediate political relevance of their own doctrine, he went on to note that the great economic crisis of 1929-1933, and the practical problems facing the USSR , reinforced the stress on the politico-economic theme: not indeed “economics” in the conventional academic sense, but the political economy of capitalism and socialism. A writer concerned with topics such as alienation and l’homme total could not in the circumstances expect a sympathetic hearing even from political friends.

Others point out that Lefebvre by no means rejected the teachings of Lenin when it came to Marx and Marxism, however. Daniel Bensaïd also recalled that in 1947, “Lefebvre had published a book (unjustly forgotten) on Lenin’s thought.” Kevin Anderson, the Marxist-Humanist scholar, has also praised Lefebvre as one of the few Western Marxists to engage extensively and explicitly with Lenin’s prewar notebooks on Hegel and philosophy. “It was in France on the eve of World War II that Lenin’s Hegel notebooks first began to get some serious public discussion by Western Marxists,” writes Anderson in Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism. “Henri Lefebvre and Norbert Guterman, two unorthodox members of the French Communist party, wrote a 130-page introduction to a French edition of Lenin’s Hegel notebooks, which appeared in 1938 under the title Cahiers sur la dialectique de Hegel, published by the prestigious Paris publishing house Gallimard.”

Anderson continues:

Guterman and Lefebvre begin their introduction by contending that in Lenin’s Hegel notebooks, “the reader finds himself in the presence of ideas which, taken in all their significance, in the totality of their aims and interests, support the comparison with the greatest philosophical works.” At the same time, they write that “Lenin was not one of those men for whom action is opposed to thought,” calling attention to the date of composition of the Hegel Notebooks, in the midst of World War I: “Lenin reads Hegel at the moment when the unity of the industrial world tears itself apart, when the fragments of this unity, which was thought to have been realized, violently collide with one another: when all of the contradictions unchain themselves. The Hegelian theory of contradiction shows him that the moment when the solution, a higher unity, seems to move further away, is sometimes that [moment] when it is approaching.” They write that the virulent nationalism Lenin faced in 1914 “already anticipates fascist ideology,” linking the Hegel notebooks to the concrete problems of the 1 930s. For Lenin in 1914 and after, “his vision” drawn from the Hegel notebooks “prepares his action.”

Lenin, they claim, neither accepted Hegel uncritically nor rejected him. For Lenin, they write: “The critical reading [of Hegel] is also a creative act Lenin judges Hegel with a severity that one could not have except toward oneself — towards one’s past, at the moment one surmounts it.” In this sense Lenin is critically appropriating classical German philosophy for the working class, as Marx and Engels had urged. Furthermore, the Hegel notebooks shed new light on the problem of how Marxism is to appropriate Hegel. For most Marxists, dialectical method is the only valuable legacy of Hegel, and for them, “the content of Hegelianism needs to be rejected.” For some, Hegel’s method is the point of departure for a materialist dialectic. For others, Hegel’s dialectic becomes materialist through Marxism, which is “a theory of real forces, their equilibrium and the rupture of this mechanical equilibrium.” Guterman and Lefebvre contend that for Lenin in the Hegel Notebooks, these issues are “posed in a much more profound and concrete manner.” They give as an example Lenin’s discussion of the final chapter of Hegel’s Science of Logic, “The Absolute Idea”: “Hegelian idealism has an objective aspect His theory of religion and the state is unacceptable. However, as Lenin remarks, the most idealistic chapter of Hegel’s Logic, that on the Absolute Idea, is at the same time the most materialist.” Therefore, any “inversion” of Hegel by Marxists “cannot be a simple operation.”

You can download a number of Lefebvre’s work here. See also the free PDF collections of works by Roland BarthesWalter Benjamin, and Leon Trotsky hosted on this site.

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Primary literature
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  1. Dialectical Materialism (1938)
  2. The Critique of Everyday Life, Volume 1: Introduction (1946)
  3. “Marxisme et Sociologie” (1948)
  4. “Perspectives de la Sociologie Rurale”(1953)
  5. Probleme des Marxismus, heute(1958, translated by Alfred Schmidt 1966)
  6. Introduction to Modernity: Twelve Preludes (September 1959-May 1961)
  7. The Critique of Everyday Life, Volume 2: Foundations for a Sociology of the Everyday (1961)
  8. “Utopie expérimentale: Pour un nouvel urbanisme” (1961)
  9. “Marxisme et Politique: Le marxisme a-t-il une théorie politique ?” (1961)
  10. “Réflexions sur le structuralisme et l’histoire” (1963)
  11. Metaphilosophy (1965)
  12. The Sociology of Marx (1966, translated by Norbert Guterman in 1968)
  13. Sprache und Gesellschaft (1966)
  14. Everyday Life in the Modern World(1968)
  15. “Reply to Roderick Christholm” (1969)
  16. “Les paradoxes d’Althusser” (1969)
  17. Aufstand in Frankreich: Zur Theorie der Revolution in den hochindustrialisierten Ländern (1969)
  18. The Urban Revolution (1970)
  19. “La classe ouvrière est-elle révolutionnaire?” (1971)
  20. “L’avis du sociologue, État ou Non-État?” (1971)
  21. The Survival of Capitalism: Reproduction of the Relations of Production(1973)
  22. The Production of Space (1974)
  23. Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment(unpublished, 1970s)
  24. “Marxism Exploded” (1976)
  25. The Critique of Everyday Life, Volume 3: From Modernity to Modernism (Towards a Metaphilosophy of Daily Life)(1981)
  26. Interview on the Situationists (1983)
  27. Rhythmanalysis (1991)
  28. Writings on Cities (collection, 1996)
  29. State, Space, World: Selected Essays(collection, 2009)

Secondary literature
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  1. Alfred Schmidt, “Henri Lefebvre and Contemporary Interpretations of Marx” (1972)
  2. Andy Merrifield, Henri Lefebvre: A Critical Introduction (2006)
  3. Kanishka Goonewardena, Stefan Kipfer, Richard Milgrom, Christian Schmid (eds.), Space, Difference, Everyday Life: Reading Henri Lefebvre (2008)
  4. Christian Schmid, “Henri Lefebvre, the Right to the City, and the New Metropolitan Mainstream” (2009)
  5. Lukasz Stanek, Henri Lefebvre on Space: Architecture, Urban Research, and the Production of Theory (2011)
  6. Benjamin Fraser, Toward an Urban Cultural Studies: Henri Lefebvre and the Humanities (2015)

 

Spaces of Conceptual Invisibility

Systemic Edges as Spaces of Conceptual Invisibility
By Saskia Sassen
“The language of more – more inequality, more poverty, more imprisonment, more dead land and dead water, and so on—is insufficient to mark the proliferation of extreme versions of familiar conditions.’ In the talk Sassen will argue that we are seeing a proliferation of systemic edges which, once crossed, render these extreme conditions invisible. She will focus on this interplay between extreme moment and the shift from visible to invisible – the capacity of a complex system to generate invisibilities no matter how material the condition.’ The talk is based on her latest publication: Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity (Harvard University Press 2014).”


Saskia Sassen
Abstract The point of inquiry in this book is the systemic edge. The key dynamic at this edge is expulsion from the diverse systems in play—economic, social, biospheric. The systemic edge is the point where a condition takes on a format so extreme that it cannot be easily captured by the standard measures of governments and experts and becomes invisible, ungraspable. In this regard, that edge also becomes invisible to standard ways of seeing and making meaning. Each major domain has its own distinctive systemic edge—thus this edge is constituted differently for the economy than it is for the biosphere or the social realm. This edge is foundationally different from the geographic border in the interstate system. The core hypothesis is that we are seeing a proliferation of systemic edges originating partly in the decaying western-style political economy of the 20th century, the escalation of environmental destruction, and the rise of complex forms of knowledge that far too often produce elementary brutalities. It is in the spaces of the expelled where we find the sharper version of what might be happening inside the system in far milder modes and hence easily overlooked as signaling systemic decay. In this regard, I conceive of the systemic edge as signaling the existence of conceptually subterranean trends—trends we cannot easily make visible through our current categories of meaning. From there, the importance of positioning my inquiry at the systemic edge, where a condition takes on its extreme form and in that process also escapes our conventional measures and representations.
At The Systemic Edge

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The Systemic Edge : An Interview with Saskia Sassen

Saskia Sassen was interviewed for New Politics by editors Riad Azar and Saulo Colón about her new book, Expulsions: When Complexity Produces Elementary Brutalities (Harvard University Press, 2014).

New Politics: In your new book Expulsions, you talk about a “new logic of expulsions.” You claim “expulsion” is a new logic, yet state that the relationship between this advanced form of capitalism and traditional capitalism is similar to the one between capitalism and feudalism. Does “expulsion” operate the same way that “enclosures” did in the development of capitalism? Or in the way “extractivism” works currently in Latin America? What is the significance behind the spatial connotation of the term “to expel”? 

Saskia Sassen: The point of inquiry in this book is the systemic edge. The key dynamic at this edge is expulsion from the diverse systems in play—economic, social, biospheric. This edge is foundationally different from the geographic border in the interstate system. The focus on the edge comes from one of the core hypotheses organizing this book: that the move from Keynesianism to the global era of privatizations, deregulation, and open borders for some, entailed a switch from dynamics that brought people in to dynamics that push people out. Whether such a switch from incorporation to expulsion might also be emerging in China and India requires expertise I lack; China, especially, has seen a massive incorporation of people into monetized economies, but now many of these are among the growing masses of “monetized” poor! China is also experiencing sharpening inequality and new forms of economic concentration at the top, not to mention corporate bullying.

Each major domain has its own distinctive systemic edge—this edge is constituted differently for the economy than it is for the biosphere. One of the organizing assumptions in this book is that the systemic edge is the site where general conditions take extreme forms precisely because it is the site for expulsion. Further, the extreme character of conditions at the edge helps us detect more encompassing trends that are less extreme and hence more difficult to capture. I conceive of these larger trends as conceptually subterranean because we cannot easily make them visible through our current categories of meaning—thus, from there also the importance of positioning my inquiry at the systemic edge.

Today, I see new systemic logics arising from the decaying political economy of the twentieth century … and these include expulsion logics to a far larger and more extreme extent than the preceding Keynesian period, which also had some of this but not as widespread. This decay began in the 1980s. By then the strong welfare states and workers’ syndicates established in much of the West, including in several Latin American countries, had either been devastated or were under severe pressure. To some extent state projects with people-oriented welfare programs had also been strong features in other parts of the world, including, in their own ways, communist countries and those with varieties of socialist nationalism, as illustrated by Nasser’s welfare-state policies in Egypt, systems developed in several post-independence African countries, and in India’s brand of state socialism. In these countries too, decay began in the 1980s and 1990s.

To talk of this decay is not to romanticize the twentieth century, a period marked by devastating wars, genocides, and starvation, and by extreme ideologies of both left and right.

On the traditional capitalism bit, I mean above all the era dominated by mass consumption, when this is the sector that is the key organizer of capitalism and hence the higher the consumption capacity of individuals, households, governments, and firms, the better for the system overall. It brought a vast expansion of those who were incorporated into the system. This was an economic phase where the broad middle—from the working class to the modest middle class—expanded rapidly. The construction of suburban housing and infrastructure meant a sharp increase in the demand for an enormous range of goods. The expansion of the demand for automobiles meant the vast expansion of road, tunnel, and bridge building. The U.S. is the most extreme case certainly, partly given the very physical fact of its vast territory, but we see this dynamic also in Europe and Latin America and in parts of Africa, as well as in Communist Russia.

Mass consumption continues to be a major economic factor, but it is not the sector organizing capitalist logic. That moved to finance. Thus, from my perspective, the decline of the prosperous working classes and the modest middle classes is linked to this systemic shift, much more so than to the outsourcing of jobs, where the financializing of our economy functions as a kind of extractive sector. I love this image: finance is an extractive sector (unlike traditional banking).

The issue of enclosures is just one vector here, and these enclosures from my perspective take the form of a massive set of grabs—of rural land and now increasingly of urban land. This in turn renders the displaced somewhat invisible. … They go to the margins. The dominant visual order in the rural and in the urban setting is one of grand projects and advanced technologies, all of it easily read as progress, technical advancement. It is that too. But it makes those who are not part of these advanced sectors and luxury consumption increasingly invisible. And insofar as even their consumption capacity matters less if it is not high-end luxury consumption, they are doubly invisible.

As you can tell, I am intrigued by the fact that the material can become invisible, so brutally invisible. When I speak of “expulsions” I am alluding also to this fact, that at a certain point the familiar can become so extreme that it crosses a systemic edge and becomes difficult to capture with our standard categories and measures.

NP: How would you compare your notion of expulsion to David Harvey’s concept of “accumulation by dispossession”? Or your thinking of “crises as systemic logic” to Naomi Klein’s concept of “shock doctrine”? 

SS: I think we are all detecting something that cannot quite be captured by our standard categories, including critical categories. And we want to name that. What is actually good is that we have diverse starting points, and diverse points of engagement with the extreme moment of our system. I am particularly keen on including a fairly broad range of conditions, including the fact of the expanding amount of what I call dead land and dead water. I find the language of climate change almost pretty; we need to describe what has been brutalized in brutal terms.

Harvey is focused on a specific feature of the logic of capitalism that has been present since the start of capitalism. I am interested in capturing the specifics of this current period; this does not negate Harvey—not at all. I think he is spot-on in so many of his arguments. It does mean, however, the need to develop a range of new analytic tools and data sets that concern the current period. Similarly, with Naomi Klein: She captures a specific feature of the new phase of capitalism. And I agree with her identifying the destructiveness of capitalism. My interest, like hers, is also in a broad array of consequences: documenting them in order to make them visible to all of us. One difference, perhaps, is that I am keen on getting at that which is not self-evident.

More generally vis-à-vis both Harvey and Klein, I would say the social scientist in me also wants to detect at what point we need to de-theorize, go back to ground level, in order to re-theorize. This angle into what it means to gather knowledge organizes the research and interpretation in Expulsions.

Further, I have developed a logic that emphasizes the importance of cutting across the domains through which we have specialized our knowledge and organized our analyses about the world out there, … the ways we position ourselves and our categories in order to study our world.

That leads me to make some unusual moves. One of these is the need to exit the silos through which we have pursued our research and within which we have placed our data. For instance, I want to explore what I can discover if I place the long-term imprisonment in the U.S. in conversation with the internally displaced in war zones. This is not to provoke but to give ourselves a chance of learning, of seeing something that we do not see if experts of each prisons and displaced camps only focus on their respective domain. I do this with the environmental question, too.

NP: Your writings engage in a number of contrasts between the material and nonmaterial economy. How do you see the relationship between Capital and Knowledge? Between Inequality and Expertise? Between Destruction, (economic, environmental, and so on) and notions of Progress? 

SS: Knowledge with a capital K is not a useful category in my research practice. It is an abstract concept that functions a bit as an invitation not to think: “Ahh, ‘Knowledge’! Well, of course ….”

This mode generates no need to interrogate or interpellate the term. We somehow “all know what it means.”

Those are not the tools that serve my purposes. On the contrary, I am keen on understanding, for example, the type of knowledge embedded in the neighborhood and its people, knowledge that might be of great use to “urban experts” in the government and in the academy. From there arises one of my projects: the need to open-source the neighborhoods, to bring that knowledge into the government and the realm of experts. I could go on and on, on this, but I will spare the reader!

As for Capital and Knowledge, both in caps, that is a deep but utilitarian project. Rarely is knowledge inspirational in capitalist circuits—it is a tool, an enabler.

One basic aspect I seek to capture in Expulsions is the fact that types of knowledge we admire for their complexity are today often leading to very elementary brutalities. One simple example is outsourcing jobs: It takes enormously complicated logistics, brilliant engineers, and all of that, for what?! To pay low wages so that the stock market valuations of these companies go up—it is not even to avoid paying minimum wage. … It is about what investors want.

NP: There has been a lot of recent writing on globalization and capitalism, much of it inspired by a re-engagement with Marx. What role does Marxism play in your current thinking? 

SS: Well, I grew up on Marxism in Buenos Aires. … It has shaped me, but I cannot simply deploy the old Marxist categories. … I need to develop new categories. Harvey is the master at this. I am less of a European Marxist than Harvey, and more of a Latin American, mixed up with my own set of categories that come out of the Latin American condition.

NP: Some recent Marxists have focused on integrating ecology into Marxism. As you suggest that workers are playing a diminishing role in capitalist accumulation, is your current work also a challenge to, or an expansion of, Marxist thinking? 

SS: I do think that if Marx were alive he would be developing some new categories to get at the current extreme financializing of our economies, at the environmental question, and more! In Expulsions I really went sprinting with the environmental question, developed new modes of thinking of it. I like that chapter a lot: “Dead Land Dead Water.”

NP: You offer many comparisons of categories of people around the world that we might not have paid as much attention to in the past, for example, the relationship between the poor of sub-Saharan Africa and the poor of the United States. Can you explain what the “emerging systemic logic” is here that is transcending borders? What can two groups with assumedly no contact with each other have in common in the twenty-first century? And also can you reflect on the relationship not solely between the poor of two countries, but the growing rich of one country with the poor of another. Is there a relationship? 

SS: One example is my comparison of Norilsk, the highly destructive nickel-producing complex in Northern Russia, and the gold mines of Montana, also very destructive. Each has a distinctive history: one deeply communist, the other deeply capitalist. I describe the specifics in the book. I ask what matters more, these distinctive histories that belong to the geopolitical world we live in, or that both have enormous capacities for destroying the environment. In this way I interpellate the older categories.

NP: Those who are faced with expulsion do not simply disappear, they often are forced to migrate as we are seeing now with the refugee crisis in Europe. Can you comment on the relationship between expulsion and migration? 

SS: The immigrant has long been a familiar figure in our Western history: someone in search of a better life. She or he has also long been the most familiar instance of people on the move. Refugees and the displaced are typically seen as a very different lot—victims of larger forces, defeated souls at the mercy, or lack of it, of governments, often sequestered for many years in dedicated camps. And then there were the “exiled” of European history: mostly distinguished and once powerful figures, well received, and at home in the great European cities. They came to fight to get back to their home countries.

The reality at ground level is often fuzzier than these clearly delineated personas. But one feature stands out across this diversity of people on the move: The generic subject in times of peace in our Western history was and is the immigrant, the one ready to work, to start her own little business, to send money back “home,” often imagining herself going back home for visits or for good.

Today there is a whole new set of migrations: Their epicenters are the Mediterranean, the Andaman Sea, and Central America. It is not Russia, Germany, or Italy that are sending the migrants.

And, most importantly from my perspective, the causes are not so much the search for a better life, but the push of murderous conflicts, wars, massive land grabs for plantations, the destruction of their habitats through toxicity of land and water, droughts, desertification, an explosion in mining for the metals that we need for our electronic revolution. Whole families and communities are being pushed out of their home territory. There is increasingly no more home to go back to.

These flows of desperate people are an indication of emergent processes that are more likely to grow rather than diminish. These flows may well be the merest beginnings of new histories and geographies made by men, women, and children in desperate escape from unsustainable conditions. For them, there is no home to go back to: Home is now a plantation, a warzone, a private city, a desert, a flooded plain.

One encompassing way of capturing this emergent condition is an extreme loss of habitat.

NP: You don’t refer to this global inequality and austerity by its popular term, neoliberalism. Instead you call it the “current systemic deepening of capitalist relations, … a new phase of a certain type of global capitalism.” Can you explain what you mean? Why don’t you call it neoliberalism? How does your beginning “with the facts at the ground level” lead you to these new ideas? 

For one, neoliberalism covers specific aspects, and leaves out others that I care about. Neoliberalism captures today’s logic of corporate economies and how governments enable this. It leaves out other logics at work including massive environmental destruction, abuse of law and of power.

My entry point into this subject is a bit transversal. The core fact for Western-style economies, which nowadays are most, is the move from an economy where mass consumption was the key sector, and hence, as I said earlier, the spending capacity of each person and household mattered, to an economy where the financializing of everything becomes the key sector, the one that can make new orderings, … not change everything, but make new orderings.

Finance is very different from traditional banking. We all need such banking. Finance is a sort of economy of extraction: Complex instruments are developed that allow financial firms to extract value from even modest assets or capitals. Once extraction has happened, it does not matter what happens to that from where extraction was executed. This is the opposite of mass consumption, where the system needs to ensure ongoing consumption by more and more individuals and households.

In the financialized global economy many extreme situations are invisible. The financialized economy can be extremely brutal because it uses whatever it can use to build up a financial instrument, a source of profits. Nor is it like making cars and baby strollers—highly visible products where an imperfect part will get a vast amount of attention and put the full burden on the originating manufacturer. Financial instruments have a capacity to make their effects and products quite invisible because they use familiar elements (mortgage on a home, student loans, investment pools) to build up a new instrument that can maximize profits for finance but at high risks to that homeowner, student, or investor. In so doing, the original mortgage or student loan itself becomes invisible and often irrelevant to the larger financial project—though not to the holder of that loan. The destructions it can produce (for instance, all those millions of households thrown out of their homes) become invisible because what is destroyed often becomes invisible, and key financial actors (though not modest intermediaries) will have extracted their profits. One contrast I am interested in is this tension between the materiality of the resources used to construct a financial instrument and the potential of the material to become invisible.

But it is not only the economy that is in play, and that is why I do not use the term neoliberalism in this book. I also am focused on how we have destroyed land and water. … My last and longest chapter is called “Dead Land Dead Water.” No commas!

NP: Since the publication of Thomas Piketty’s work Capital in the Twenty-First Century, there has been a groundswell of interest in the discourse of economic inequality. Of course, much of this discourse focuses on symptoms rather than causes. What do you believe is missing from the current discussion? 

SS: What is missing? A focus on how “we” made this, directly or through multiple intermediations.

Inequality is a distribution and we have always had it. No complex differentiated system is going to do without inequality. So we need more than inequality to capture what is wrong in our current epoch. Or we need to interpellate inequality: at what point does it become profoundly unjust, and that is then perhaps also the point where we need a new term. So I went for a term that captures the extreme moment—expulsions.

In fact, in Expulsions my point of inquiry is not the distribution we call “inequality,” but the systemic edge. The core hypothesis is that we are seeing a proliferation of systemic edges originating partly in the decaying Western-style political economy of the twentieth century, the escalation of environmental destruction, and the rise of complex forms of knowledge that far too often produce elementary brutalities. The expulsion logics I focus on are just a few of the many that might exist; they are, generally, more extreme than whatever expulsion logics existed, for instance, in the preceding Keynesian period. Further, these expulsion logics are also evident beyond the West.

NP: What’s next after expulsion? Can we begin to think about reintegration? Progressive change? Revolution? How do you envision a progressive response? 

SS: The places where people are expelled could be an interesting laboratory for new ways of organizing an economy or other forms of living together. I see it as a set of very diverse spaces that we need to understand, we need to study, we need to engage the expelled. Localities, and the work of re-localizing what has now been hijacked by major corporate logics, is one (partial!) component of such spaces. This is a first step in a process that can generate elements for change, because it will horizontalize what is now verticalized, and hence require cooperation to replace at least some of what we now simply depend on from large corporations, which always take part of the consumption capacity of a community out of the community.

DEBATING PLANETARY URBANIZATION

DEBATING PLANETARY URBANIZATION: FOR AN ENGAGED PLURALISM

Neil Brenner, “Debating planetary urbanization: for an engaged pluralism,” Working Paper, Urban Theory Lab, Harvard GSD, Summer 2017.

This essay reflects on recent debates around planetary urbanization, many of which have been articulated through strikingly dismissive caricatures of the core epistemological orientations, conceptual proposals, methodological tactics and substantive arguments that underpin this emergent approach to the urban question.  Following brief consideration of some of the most prevalent misrepresentations of this work, I build upon Trevor Barnes and Eric Sheppard’s (2010) concept of “engaged pluralism” to suggest more productive possibilities for dialogue among critical urban researchers whose agendas are too often viewed as incommensurable or antagonistic rather than as interconnected and, potentially, allied.  The essay concludes by outlining nine research questions whose more sustained exploration could more productively connect studies of planetary urbanization to several fruitful lines of inquiry associated with postcolonial, feminist and queer-theoretical strands of urban studies.  While questions of positionality necessarily lie at the heart of any critical approach to urban theory and research, so too does the search for intellectual and political common ground that might help orient, animate and advance the shared, if constitutively heterodox, project(s) of critical urban studies.

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Nothing includes everything’: towards engaged pluralism in Anglophone economic geography
Trevor J. Barnes1  and Eric Sheppard

Towards a new vocabulary of urbanization

“Audio from a lecture at the UCL Urban Laboratory on 27 April 2017 by Christian Schmid (Professor of Sociology, Department of Architecture, ETH Zürich).

In the last decades, urbanisation has become a planetary phenomenon. Urban areas expand and interweave, and novel forms of urbanisation emerge. In this process, new urban configurations are constantly evolving. Therefore, an adequate understanding of planetary urbanisation must derive its empirical and theoretical inspirations from the multitude of urban experiences across the various divides that shape our contemporary world. Urbanisation has to be considered an open process, determined as much by existing structures as well as by constant innovation and inventiveness.

However, in evaluating existing instruments for the analysis of urbanisation, we are confronted with many difficulties and shortcomings. New concepts and terms are urgently required that would help us, both analytically and cartographically, to decipher the differentiated and rapidly mutating landscapes of urbanisation that are today being produced across the planet. This talk presents results of a comparative study of urbanisation processes in eight metropolitan territories across the world (Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong / Shenzhen / Dongguan, Kolkata, Istanbul, Lagos, Paris, Mexico City, and Los Angeles). According to the broad sample of cities brought together in this research, a specific methodological design is applied mainly based on qualitative methods and a specifically developed method of mapping. The main goal of this project is to develop new conceptual categories for better understanding the patterns and pathways of planetary urbanisation. The talk will present some of the comparative categories that we developed through this process: popular urbanization, plotting urbanism, bypass urbanization and the incorporation of urban differences.

Christian Schmid is Professor of Sociology at the Department of Architecture at ETH Zürich. He has authored, co-authored, and co-edited numerous publications on theories of the urban and of space, on Henri Lefebvre, on territorial urban development, and on the comparative analysis of urbanisation. Together with architects Roger Diener, Jacques Herzog, Marcel Meili and Pierre de Meuron he co-authored the book Switzerland: an urban portrait, a pioneering analysis of extended urbanisation. He currently works together with Neil Brenner on the theorisation and investigation of emergent formations of planetary urbanisation, and he leads a project on the comparison of urbanisation processes in eight large metropolitan territories, which is based at the ETH Future Cities Laboratory Singapore.”

 

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