Category Archives: Theory

Architectural Rumors in Baku

This article examines the agency of unrealized megaprojects in bolstering economic activity, legitimizing political regimes, and expanding designer’s portfolios. It argues that such proposals serve as a form of “Architectural Rumor,” providing politico-economic agency despite ultimate project infeasibility. Specifically, it looks at two case studies of proposed yet unrealized island megaprojects in the city of Baku, Azerbaijan: the 2009 Zira Island Master Plan and the 2010 Khazar Islands Plan. Spectacular urban design and architecture have long served as catalysts for development, investment attraction, and real estate speculation. As cities compete with one another to lure capital and boost their global status, many design proposals have become increasingly expensive, ostentatious, and technologically sophisticated. The high-risk financial nature of grand urban design proposals and their frequent associations with displacement or environmental destruction suggests that the megaproject model is becoming flawed. At the same time, there remain advantages for clients and politicians to proposing designs that are more spectacular than feasible. Using a mixed-methods approach, four key arenas in which unrealized proposals circulate are described. The various benefits and detriments of such an approach to architectural commodification are also discussed, foregrounding the broader societal costs.

Introduction

Spectacular architecture and urban design have long served as catalysts for development, foreign investment attraction, and real estate speculation. As cities work to attract capital and boost their global status, design proposals have become increasingly ostentatious and technologically sophisticated in nature (Altshuler and Luberoff 2003Altshuler, Alan, and David Luberoff2003Megaprojects: The Changing Politics of Urban Public InvestmentWashington, DCBrookings Institute. [Google Scholar]; Orueta and Fainstein 2008Orueta, Fernando Diaz, and Susan S.Fainstein2008. “The New Megaprojects: Genesis and Impacts.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 32: 759767.10.1111/ijur.2008.32.issue-4[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). They have also grown overwhelming in scale, requiring billions of dollars for execution and decades of time to reach completion. Many such projects invariably end up scaled back or redesigned, bearing little resemblance to their original proposals. Others are left incomplete or frozen after the design phase. While on the surface this high-risk nature of grand urban design proposals would suggest that the megaproject model is flawed and bears great challenges for designers and their clients, there are a number of advantages to proposing designs that are more spectacular than they are feasible. Unrealized projects offer many opportunities to those deploying them. Not only are the costs of project construction avoided, images of the project can be positioned outside the daily reality of host cities – buildings can appear more populated, inhabitants more socially content, and public space more accessible to all. The technical engineering complexities of such megaprojects are also bypassed. The proposal phase is thus one of the most marketable moments of a project’s lifetime. As a vague, yet uncompromised visual imagining, such proposals communicate to the world a utopic vision of their host city’s future. There are also real-life financial gains to be made from the commodification and media circulation of unbuilt proposals since such projects can attract foreign investment by reinforcing an image of the city as more politically stable and economically prosperous than it may be in reality.

This article unpacks the distinct forms of agency embedded within unrealized design proposals and then examines four key arenas through which they circulate globally in order to gain greater notoriety and legitimization. The process of design proposals extensively circulating as media prior to their physical construction is referred to here as an “Architectural Rumor,” since the viability of these projects is often questionable and it is unclear as to whether or not they will ever be realized in their proposed form. Architectural rumors are project design proposals put forward by the government or private sector which travel widely as imagery and spoken word prior to their construction. They are presented as genuine endeavors, receive great media attention, corral public support, and even win awards, but rarely reach construction completion. As with traditional spoken rumors, architectural rumors function by circulating ideas with uncertain or doubtful truth. Beyond skepticism regarding project feasibility, architectural rumors propagate a selective narrative of present-day urban life, one that foregrounds prosperity, political stability, and civilian contentment, and which is not necessarily in keeping with the lived realities of the host city.

Using a mixed-methods approach, including field observations, media analysis, and interviews,11. All interviews have been left anonymous due to personal privacy concerns for the interviewees. Those interviewed were primarily members of the country’s intellectual class, including architects, engineers, journalists and academics, ranging from 26 to 55 years of age. They are all lifetime residents of Baku and are actively interested in events linked to its ongoing politics and urban development.View all notes this paper looks at the early stages of marketing and media circulation for two architectural rumors, both island megaprojects in Baku, Azerbaijan; the 2009 Zira Island Master Plan and the 2010 Khazar Islands development. It describes how the commodification of design proposals is distinct in its political and economic agency from that of constructed projects. The first case study is the luxury net-zero resort and residential project, Zira Island, designed by the Danish firm, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) on a former military island five kilometers off the coast of Baku in the Caspian Sea. The second case study is the Khazar Islands development, an artificial archipelago of over 50 islands also located in the Caspian Sea, 25 kilometers south of Baku (Figure 1). These two case studies show how design proposals are used to promote a new image of Baku both domestically and abroad, affording the ruling elite and project design professionals greater legitimacy.

Figure 1. Map of the two case study island megaproject sites in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Image by authors).

In 1991, the resource-rich nation of Azerbaijan emerged from the Soviet Union with great potential for economic growth as an independent country and regional hub of capitalist accumulation. As the world’s first center for oil and natural gas extraction, Azerbaijan has a long history of reflecting economic prosperity through built form (O’Lear 2001O’Lear, Shannon2001. “Azerbaijan: Territorial Issues and Internal Challenges in mid-2001.” Post-Soviet Geography and Economics 42: 305312.[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar]; Grant 2010Grant, Bruce2010. “Cosmopolitan Baku.” Ethnos 75: 123147.10.1080/00141841003753222[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Valiyev 2012Valiyev, Anar2012. “Baku.” Cities 31: 625640.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Koch and Valiyev 2015Koch, Natalie, and Anar Valiyev2015. “Urban Boosterism in Closed Contexts: Spectacular Urbanization and Second-Tier Mega-Events in Three Caspian Capitals.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 56: 575598.10.1080/15387216.2016.1146621[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Following independence, a capitalist class emerged from within the country’s governing elite, carried forward from Soviet times. It resulted in a coalition of state officials and entrepreneurs that have directed the nation’s development primarily in their own interests. Such was accomplished through large-scale urban projects and the hosting of mega-events (Valiyev 2012Valiyev, Anar2012. “Baku.” Cities 31: 625640.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Gogishvili 2018Gogishvili, David2018. “Baku Formula 1 City Circuit: Exploring the Temporary Spaces of Exception.” Cities 74: 169178.10.1016/j.cities.2017.11.018[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

Behind the façades of luxurious new development projects and spectacular mega-events, the ruling elite of Azerbaijan have been accused of gross human rights violations and of exacerbating the socioeconomic inequality of the country (Human Rights Watch 2012Human Rights Watch. 2012. “‘THEY TOOK EVERYTHING FROM ME’ Forced Evictions, Unlawful Expropriations, and House Demolitions in Azerbaijan’s Capital.” Accessed August 10, 2017.https://www.hrw.org/report/2012/02/29/they-took-everything-me/forced-evictions-unlawful-expropriations-and-house [Google Scholar]; Amnesty International 2017Amnesty International. 2017. “AZERBAIJAN 2016/2017.” Accessed January 10, 2018.https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/europe-and-central-asia/azerbaijan/report-azerbaijan/ [Google Scholar]; Destexhe 2017Destexhe, Alain2017. “Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe (PACE), Resolution 2185 (2017); Report of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights.” Azerbaijan’s Chairmanship of the Council of Europe: What Follow-up on Respect for Human Rights? October 11, 32nd setting. April 30. Accessed January 10, 2018.http://assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/XRef/Xref-XML2HTML-EN.asp?fileid=24196&lang=en [Google Scholar]). Freedom of speech and the press are also overwhelmingly suppressed. Much new development has involved mass displacement and community demolition, with replacement projects benefitting mainly those affiliated with the Aliyev dynasty. Put succinctly by anthropologist Bruce Grant (2014Grant, Bruce2014. “The Edifice Complex: Architecture and the Political Life of Surplus in the New Baku.” Public Culture26: 501528.10.1215/08992363-2683648[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), “to speak in any critical way of the new construction in the city [is] therefore necessarily to criticize the government, a body politics with which most have their own clientelist relations” (514). Valiyev (2014Valiyev, Anar2014. “The Post-Communist Growth Machine: The Case of Baku, Azerbaijan.” Cities 41: S45S53.10.1016/j.cities.2014.06.008[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) similarly describes the ways in which the nation’s ruling elite directly profit from spectacular urban development, using Logan and Molotch’s (1987Logan, John R., and Harvey L. Molotch1987Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of PlaceBerkeleyUniversity of California Press. [Google Scholar]) term “urban growth machine.”

Megaproject proposals and spectacular architecture are particularly well suited for growth machine and urban boosterism development. Grant (2014Grant, Bruce2014. “The Edifice Complex: Architecture and the Political Life of Surplus in the New Baku.” Public Culture26: 501528.10.1215/08992363-2683648[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) describes the political life of Azerbaijan’s architecture as part of an “Edifice Complex” and shows how it is tied to various forms of capital surplus. His description of Baku’s “surplus of images” in particular relates to this paper’s notion of architectural rumors in that “many in Baku see a kind of surplus in the widely circulating images, posted online and plastered on billboards and construction sites across the city, that claim that the future is now” (2014Grant, Bruce2014. “The Edifice Complex: Architecture and the Political Life of Surplus in the New Baku.” Public Culture26: 501528.10.1215/08992363-2683648[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 507). Whereas Grant underscores the efficacy of “architecture as an opiate for the masses” (2014Grant, Bruce2014. “The Edifice Complex: Architecture and the Political Life of Surplus in the New Baku.” Public Culture26: 501528.10.1215/08992363-2683648[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 507), this paper foregrounds how the production of architectural rumors is taking place and discusses their related societal costs. We argue that the circulation of architecture through mediated images has reached an increased level of commodification and political agency in the twenty-first century, operating separately from that of built projects. Although completed urban megaprojects are also heavily mediatized and branded, their initial design proposals have distinct types of agency on account of their immateriality.

The following two sections provide summaries of literature on spectacular megaprojects and architectural image production before moving on to the case descriptions of the Khazar and Zira Islands and an analysis of the economic and sociopolitical ramifications of their proposals. Finally, the conclusion recognizes the shortcomings of architectural rumors resulting from the overuse of false project promises.

Spectacular megaprojects: the value of architectural superlatives

Global shifts in capitalist production since the mid-twentieth century have dramatically changed the landscapes of cities and generated new demands for forms of urbanism based on experience economies and mass spectacle rather than industrial production (Clark 2004Clark, Terry Nichols, ed. 2004The City as an Entertainment MachineAmsterdamElsevier. [Google Scholar]; Guggenheim and Söderström 2009Guggenheim, Michael, and OlaSöderström2009Re-Shaping Cities: How Global Mobility Transforms Architecture and Urban FormLondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]). In line with this trend, forms of city-to-city competition have also grown (Sassen 2001Sassen, Saskia2001The Global City: New York, London, TokyoPrinceton, NJPrinceton University Press.10.1515/9781400847488[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Roy and Ong 2011Roy, Ananya, and Aihwa Ong, eds. 2011Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being GlobalChichesterWiley-Blackwell.[Crossref][Google Scholar]). Within scholarly work examining the increased development of spectacular architecture over the past half-century, particular attention has been paid to the greater prominence of urban megaprojects (McNeill and Tewdwr-Jones 2003McNeill, Donald, and Mark Tewdwr-Jones2003. “Architecture, Banal Nationalism and Re-Territorialization.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 27: 738743.10.1111/ijur.2003.27.issue-3[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Siemiatycki 2013Siemiatycki, Matti2013. “Riding the Wave: Explaining Cycles in Urban Megaproject Development.” Journal of Economic Policy Reform 16: 160178.10.1080/17487870.2013.797904[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). The dramatic scope, size, and cost of megaprojects affords them the ability to draw international attention, engender national prestige – and crucially, attract investment money. But megaprojects also embody great precarity and risk (Flyvbjerg, Bruzelius, and Rothengatter 2003Flyvbjerg, BentNilsBruzelius, and Werner Rothengatter2003Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of AmbitionCambridgeCambridge University Press.10.1017/CBO9781107050891[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Haines 2011Haines, Chad2011. “Cracks in the Façade: Landscapes of Hope and Desire in Dubai.” In Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, edited by AnanyaRoy, and Aihwa Ong160181. Chapter 6. ChichesterWiley-Blackwell.[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Flyvbjerg 2013Flyvbjerg, Bent2013. “Design by Deception: The Politics of Megaproject Approval.” Harvard Design Magazine 22 (Summer/Spring): 5059. [Google Scholar]; Müller 2014Müller, Martin2014. “After Sochi 2014: Costs and Impacts of Russia’s Olympic Games.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 55: 628655.10.1080/15387216.2015.1040432[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Deploying untested technologies and requiring decades to reach completion, megaprojects suffer the very real threat of physically malfunctioning or being rendered obsolete before they are even complete – all prior to a weighing of their social and environmental costs and benefits.

One noticeable megaproject typology to rise in prominence over the past two decades is that of the urban island development. Islands function as prime sites of design innovation and fantasy that can provide their host nations with greater clout (Adham 2008Adham, Khaled2008. “Rediscovering the Island: Doha’s Urbanity from Pearls to Spectacle.” In The Evolving Arab City: Tradition, Modernity and Urban Development, edited by YasserElsheshtawy218257AbingdonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]; Jackson and Dora 2009Jackson, Mark, and Veronica della Dora2009. “‘Dreams So Big Only the Sea Can Hold Them’: Man-Made Islands as Anxious Spaces, Cultural Icons, and Travelling Visions.” Environment and Planning A 41: 20862104.10.1068/a41237[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Sheller 2009Sheller, Mimi2009. “Infrastructures of the Imagined Island: Software, Mobilities, and the Architecture of Caribbean Paradise.” Environment and Planning A 41: 13861403.10.1068/a41248[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Ouis 2011Ouis, Pernilla2011. “‘And an Island Never Cries’: Cultural and Societal Perspectives on the Mega Development of Islands in the United Arab Emirates.” In Macro-Engineering Seawater in Unique Environments, edited by V. Badescu and R. B. Cathcart5975BerlinSpringer-Verlag. [Google Scholar]; Gupta and Pamila 2015Gupta, Pamila2015. “Futures, Fakes and Discourses of the Gigantic and Miniature in ‘The World’ Islands, Dubai.” Island Studies Journal 10 (2): 181–196. [Google Scholar]). As sites of remote large-scale construction, islands offer characteristics distinct from those of other mega-developments, such as private waterfront access for residential and resort areas.

The high-end nature of private residential waterfront development on islands also dovetails with another unique offering of islands – their sense of security enclosure. In their locations off mainland coasts, islands represent a tension between urban proximity and distance, being near enough to selectively participate in the life of the city, yet sufficiently removed to afford maximum control and privacy. It is in this way that spectacular island geographies are coming to embody the promises of insularity tied to other private enclaved urban spaces such as gated communities and tourist resorts.

In the face of increased environmental volatility due to climate change, some islands further present a bound space of elite climate protection. In this manner, they follow global precedents in enclaved eco-development (Hoffman 2011Hoffman, Lisa2011. “Urban Modeling and Contemporary Technologies of City-Building in China: The Production of Regimes of Green Urbanisms.” In Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, edited by AnanyaRoy, and Aihwa Ong5576. Chapter 2. ChichesterWiley-Blackwell.[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Caprotti, Springer, and Harmer 2015Caprotti, FedericoCecili Springer, and Nichola Harmer2015. “‘Eco’ for Whom? Envisioning Eco-Urbanism in the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City, China.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 39: 495517.10.1111/1468-2427.12233[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). The bold claims of ecological urbanism and sustainable architectural projects are very much in keeping with architectural rumors in that critiques of “green-washing” also represent accusations of project overambition and desire to garner clout on false pretenses. The questionable use of sustainability rhetoric in architecture is covered at length by authors such as Crot (2013Crot, Laurence2013. “Planning for Sustainability in Non-Democratic Polities: The Case of Masdar City.” Urban Studies50: 28092825.10.1177/0042098012474697[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), Cugurullo (2013Cugurullo, Federico2013. “How to Build a Sandcastle: An Analysis of the Genesis and Development of Masdar City.” Journal of Urban Technology20: 2337.10.1080/10630732.2012.735105[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), Koch (2014Koch, Natalie2014. “‘Building Glass Refrigerators in the Desert’: Discourses of Urban Sustainability and Nation Building in Qatar.” Urban Geography 35: 11181139.10.1080/02723638.2014.952538[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), Rapoport (2014Rapoport, Elizabeth2014. “Utopian Visions and Real Estate Dreams: The Eco-City past, Present and Future.” Geography Compass 8: 137149.10.1111/gec3.12113[Crossref][Google Scholar]), and Pow and Neo (2015Pow, C. P., and Harvey Neo2015. “Modelling Green Urbanism in China.” Area 47: 132140.10.1111/area.12128[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

When overlaid with proposals for environmental sustainability, elite island geographies become laboratories for future ecological urbanism paradigms propounding utopic/dystopic visions of climate survival. For example, Sze (2015Sze, Julie2015Fantasy Islands: Chinese Dreams and Ecological Fears in an Age of Climate CrisisOaklandUniversity of California Press. [Google Scholar]) draws attention to China’s use of sustainable rhetoric in the Dongtan City project in Shanghai, which depicts the country as technologically advanced and environmentally focused, rather than polluted and overcrowded. Grydehøj and Kelman (2017Grydehøj, Adam, and Ilan Kelman2017. “The Eco-Island Trap: Climate Change Mitigation and Conspicuous Sustainability.” Area49: 106113.10.1111/area.2017.49.issue-1[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) similarly raise caution about the “eco-island trap,” where small islands continue to invest in inefficient environmental sustainability initiatives in order to benefit from eco-tourism.

On account of their artificial nature, man-made islands take on additional performative roles as works of technology and iconic communication. This is best exemplified in the Palm Islands of Dubai, which are shaped as palm trees, and other island megaprojects, such as the iconic Tulip-shaped island in the Netherlands. The engineered forms of these islands maximize waterfront property while branding new communities through their iconic shapes. As such, island megaprojects demonstrate that one of the most assured ways for a city to climb the ranks of international media attention is through superlatives and bold claims toward originality. Elsheshtawy (2009Elsheshtawy, Yasser2009Dubai: Behind an Urban Spectacle, Planning, History and EnvironmentNew YorkRoutledge. [Google Scholar]), Gupta and Pamila (2015Gupta, Pamila2015. “Futures, Fakes and Discourses of the Gigantic and Miniature in ‘The World’ Islands, Dubai.” Island Studies Journal 10 (2): 181–196. [Google Scholar]); Haines (2011Haines, Chad2011. “Cracks in the Façade: Landscapes of Hope and Desire in Dubai.” In Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, edited by AnanyaRoy, and Aihwa Ong160181. Chapter 6. ChichesterWiley-Blackwell.[Crossref][Google Scholar]), and Ouis (2011Ouis, Pernilla2011. “‘And an Island Never Cries’: Cultural and Societal Perspectives on the Mega Development of Islands in the United Arab Emirates.” In Macro-Engineering Seawater in Unique Environments, edited by V. Badescu and R. B. Cathcart5975BerlinSpringer-Verlag. [Google Scholar]) describe how Dubai’s heavy reliance on such superlatives was integral to its cultural branding and market transformation, while Domosh (1988Domosh, Mona1988. “The Symbolism of the Skyscraper.” Journal of Urban History 14: 320345.10.1177/009614428801400302[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) and King (2004King, Anthony2004Spaces of Global Cultures: Architecture, Urbanism, IdentityLondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]) explain the global drive toward increasingly taller skyscrapers in branding cities.

Image production and circulation

In the past few decades, scholarly work has begun unpacking the mediatization of architecture and the global circulation of its imagery. Biddulph (1995Biddulph, Mike1995. “The Value of Manipulated Meanings in Urban Design and Architecture.” Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 22: 739762.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) assesses the characteristics of signs and sign values in American housing markets and shows how housing developers manufacture signs to enhance their sales. Vale (1999Vale, Lawrence1999. “Mediated Monuments and National Identity.” The Journal of Architecture4 (4): 391408.10.1080/136023699373774[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar]) uses the term “Mediated Monuments” to describe how media campaigns aimed at controlling public interpretations of monuments are inseparable from the physical forms they describe. Likewise, Rattenbury (2002Rattenbury, Kester, ed. 2002This is Not Architecture: Media ConstructionsNew YorkRoutledge. [Google Scholar]) and Colomina (1996Colomina, Beatriz1996Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass MediaCambridge, MAThe MIT Press. [Google Scholar]) probe at the various relationships between architecture and representation and question the intrinsic nature of architectural production as one which deals in fictional imaginings. Focusing on the post-Soviet urban context of Astana, Kazakhstan, Laszczkowski (2011Laszczkowski, Mateusz2011. “Building the Future: Construction, Temporality, and Politics in Astana.” Focaal 60: 7792.[Crossref][Google Scholar], 1) describes how representations of Astana’s new buildings worked “to mobilize citizens’ agency and capture their imaginations, thus producing complicity” (See also Koch [2012Koch, Natalie2012. “Urban ‘Utopias’: The Disney Stigma and Discourses of ‘False Modernity’.” Environment and Planning A 44 (10): 24452462.10.1068/a44647[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]] for media depictions of Astana). Such works can be seen as building upon Marx’s more classic notions of surplus value in commodities (Marx1992Marx, Karl1992Capital: Volume I: A Critique of Political Economy. Translated by B. FowkesNew YorkPenguin Classics. [Google Scholar]), and specifically, on the relationship between surplus images and sign values (Mitchell 2002Mitchell, William2002. “The Surplus Value of Images.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 35: 123.[Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

Academic interest in image production in architecture, however, has remained primarily focused on examining the media surrounding realized projects – or comparing realized projects to their originally designed forms – rather than on the politico-economic opportunities afforded by project proposals in their own right. For example, while Jackson and Dora (2009Jackson, Mark, and Veronica della Dora2009. “‘Dreams So Big Only the Sea Can Hold Them’: Man-Made Islands as Anxious Spaces, Cultural Icons, and Travelling Visions.” Environment and Planning A 41: 20862104.10.1068/a41237[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) acknowledge that “many island projects are purely speculative, and act as attractants of capital, investment, and curiosity” and that “some will be built, but many will not” (2809), they abstain from probing further at the specific ways in which such speculations operate, the arenas through which they circulate, and the reasons behind why they may do so. Insight into the political agency of unrealized design proposals can be found more specifically in literature looking at the propaganda projects of the Soviet Union. Soviet officials put forward many ostentatious and ideologically ridden works of architecture that were never built, the most famous of which is Boris Iofan’s Palace of the Soviets intended for Moscow. However, there were dozens of others.22. For example, see, The Guardian, “Unbuilt Moscow: The ‘New Soviet’ City that Never Was” (Rogers 2017Rogers, Alexandra2017. “Unbuilt Moscow: The ‘New Soviet’ City That Never Was.” The Guardian, March 8. Accessed August 14, 2017.https://www.theguardian.com/cities/gallery/2017/mar/08/imagine-moscow-city-new-soviets-design-museum-in-pictures?page=with:img-6 [Google Scholar]).View all notes Buck-Morss (2002Buck-Morss, Susan2002Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and WestCambridge, MAThe MIT press. [Google Scholar]) coins the term “utopian supplement” to describe the cognitive power of such dream images in conveying plans for the making of a new socialist society.

Understanding how such image production works under capitalism, and more specifically in each of the phases of building construction under capitalism, is an area of research with room for greater exploration. Lehrer (2003Lehrer, Ute2003. “The Spectacularization of the Building Process: Berlin, Potsdamer Platz.” Genre 36 (3–4): 383404.10.1215/00166928-36-3-4-383[Crossref][Google Scholar]) notes a trend toward “the specularization of the building process”; that is, toward the commodification of the experience of the project’s construction in its own right. In a similar vein, this paper looks at the commodification of architecture even before its construction phase and shows how, distinct from building commodification and construction commodification, design phase commodification affords its own great politico-economic agency. In drawing a distinction between the use of images of finished architecture and that of design proposals in branding, this paper’s analysis foregrounds the agency of architectural rumors that remain suspended in a protracted state of “near-future” development.

Project case descriptions

Zira Island

Officially announced on 27 January 2009, the Zira Island Masterplan proposed to redevelop the entire 1,000,000 m² of Nargin Island (Boyuk Zira) off the coast of central Baku in the Caspian Sea.33. Images of the project proposal are available online at www.ziraisland.com/View all notes The project is located on the site of a former Soviet detainment camp and naval station currently being used for natural gas extraction. Construction of the project was estimated to cost USD $3 billion at the time of its announcement (Zero-carbon Living on Zira Island 2009Zero-carbon Living on Zira Island. 2009The Edge Markets. June 21. Accessed August 11, 2017.http://www.theedgemarkets.com/article/zero-carbon-living-zira-island [Google Scholar]). The developer for the project is Azerbaijan-based Avrositi Holding (Eurocity Holding), whose self-declared mandate is “to create world-class real estate developments in Azerbaijan and Central Asia” (Holding 2009Holding, Avrositi2009. “Zira Islan Project Website.” Accessed August 11, 2017.http://www.ziraisland.com [Google Scholar]). As an urban redevelopment project, this proposal promises to reactivate not only the island but also Baku’s wider harbor front, rebranding the city’s industrial image. Project renderings show small sailboats meandering across the harbor in some of the world’s most industrially contaminated water (Jafari 2010Jafari, Nasar2010. “Review of Pollution Sources and Controls in Caspian Sea Region.” Journal of Ecology and the Natural Environment2: 025029. [Google Scholar]). At present, the harbor’s boat traffic is almost exclusively from large government-run international ferries and tankers, with the exception of minimal high-end private yacht traffic.

In terms of the project program, the master plan for Zira Island offers multiple high-end private beaches, resorts, and residential developments, including approximately 300 private waterfront villas, all physically linked through an elaborate landscaping design. The project’s grand vision is said to get its design inspiration from the seven mountain peaks of Azerbaijan, the forms of which have been parametrically reconfigured into shiny glass and steel inhabitable objects using sophisticated design and imaging software. The particular molding of these islands into buildings can be seen not only as a reflection of the geography of Azerbaijan, but also a trademark of the project’s architect, famous Danish firm, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), which has proposed similar terraced, mountain-shaped designs in cities as disparate as Copenhagen and Los Angeles.

Beyond the branding provided by its star architect, Zira Island has sought acclaim through its innovative approach to environmental sustainability. Sometimes referred to as Zira Zero Island, the project has proudly declared itself the first carbon-neutral project in the region, rendering it an example of the aforementioned coming together of “green-washing” and architectural rumors. In order to obtain this environmental goal, the island claimed it would deploy not only traditional sustainable design approaches (such as solar heat panels, photovoltaic cells, waste water and rainwater collection, and an offshore wind farm), it would also become,

An autonomous ecosystem where the flow of air, water, heat, and energy are channeled in almost natural ways. A mountain creates biotopes and eco-niches, it channels water and stores heat, it provides viewpoints and valleys, access and shelter. The Seven Peaks are conceived not only as icons but engineered as entire ecosystems (Holding 2009Holding, Avrositi2009. “Zira Islan Project Website.” Accessed August 11, 2017.http://www.ziraisland.com [Google Scholar]).

The coming together of high-end residential architecture with technologically advanced environmental design approaches reflects global real estate trends to commodify environmentalism and package it as a luxury product (Hoffman 2011Hoffman, Lisa2011. “Urban Modeling and Contemporary Technologies of City-Building in China: The Production of Regimes of Green Urbanisms.” In Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, edited by AnanyaRoy, and Aihwa Ong5576. Chapter 2. ChichesterWiley-Blackwell.[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Crot 2013Crot, Laurence2013. “Planning for Sustainability in Non-Democratic Polities: The Case of Masdar City.” Urban Studies50: 28092825.10.1177/0042098012474697[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Cugurullo 2013Cugurullo, Federico2013. “How to Build a Sandcastle: An Analysis of the Genesis and Development of Masdar City.” Journal of Urban Technology20: 2337.10.1080/10630732.2012.735105[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Rapoport 2014Rapoport, Elizabeth2014. “Utopian Visions and Real Estate Dreams: The Eco-City past, Present and Future.” Geography Compass 8: 137149.10.1111/gec3.12113[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Hudson 2015Hudson, Kris2015. “Builders’ New Power Play: Net-Zero Homes.” The Wall Street Journal, January 20. Accessed August 13, 2017.https://www.wsj.com/articles/builders-new-power-play-net-zero-homes-1421794129 [Google Scholar]; and Pow and Neo 2015Pow, C. P., and Harvey Neo2015. “Modelling Green Urbanism in China.” Area 47: 132140.10.1111/area.12128[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). At the same time, the design appears completely indifferent to the socioeconomic exclusivity that it proposes for Azerbaijan, or to the necessary fuel requirements associated with daily travel to and from an urban island. As such, the Zira Island proposal carries forward both the existing socioeconomic disparity of local Azeri society and the contaminated water legacies of the Caspian Sea (Jafari 2010Jafari, Nasar2010. “Review of Pollution Sources and Controls in Caspian Sea Region.” Journal of Ecology and the Natural Environment2: 025029. [Google Scholar]). Descriptions of the project as being completely self-dependent and removed from Baku intend to celebrate the net-zero accomplishments of this proposal. But they could equally describe its exclusionary social characteristics and broader nature as a restricted island enclave.

Khazar Islands

The Khazar Islands Development is an artificial archipelago megaproject situated 25 km south of Baku on the Caspian Sea. It was designed to consist of 41 artificial islands located in 19 different new districts and intended to occupy almost 31 km2 of land (Figure 2). The project’s central connective boulevard was designed at an astounding 50 km long (Valiyev 2012Valiyev, Anar2012. “Baku.” Cities 31: 625640.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). The project was launched in 2010 by Avesta Concern, a local Azerbaijani development company founded by the Azeri billionaire Ibrahim Ibrahimov. Ibrahimov was known for his extensive ties to the ruling Aliyev family, which deteriorated in 2015, when he was arrested on allegations of unpaid state debts (Snip 2017Snip, Inge2017. “Azerbaijan’s Corrupt Construction Sector to Blame for Cut Corners.” MeydanTV, March 5. Accessed August 13, 2017.https://www.meydan.tv/en/site/society/21613/ [Google Scholar]). The overall cost to realize the project was estimated at USD $100 billion and it was optimistically slated for completion in three phases over a 15-year period.

Figure 2. Conceptual rendering of Azerbaijan Tower and the Khazar Islands on a billboard advertisement in Azerbaijan. (Image by authors).

The first phase of the project emphasized land massing and the installation of basic site infrastructure, including the development of parks and boulevards. It was intended to provide a period for further investment attraction through the circulation of the project’s design images and the pre-sale of the second phase residential units. It is in this manner that despite actual work commencing on the project’s foundations, the proposal still very much functions as an architectural rumor, distributing information about the latter phases least likely to get built.44. Here, it is particularly the use of images of the world’s tallest building and Formula One race track that serve as rumors on the project.View all notes The relative attractiveness of investing in the area has consistently been framed in relation to the extravagance and novelty of the future phases of the project. The central skyscraper of the islands, “Azerbaijan Tower,” was rumored to become the tallest building in the world at 1050 m and would consist of 186 floors (compared to Dubai’s Burj Khalifa at 828 m and 160 stories). The tower was aimed to stand in dramatic juxtaposition to its surrounding proposed towers, the majority of which were designed to range in height from 19 to 25 floors, or up to 80 floors for a few prominent hotel proposals.

According to various news sources, if built, the Khazar Islands would have the capacity to house between 400,000 and 1 million residents and host up to 200,000 tourists – staggering figures considering Baku’s population of 2.25 million (The State Statistical Committee of the Republic of Azerbaijan 2017The State Statistical Committee of the Republic of Azerbaijan. 2017. “Population.” Accessed January 10, 2018.https://www.stat.gov.az/source/demoqraphy/ [Google Scholar]). In support of this dramatic influx of residents, the project design entails the additional construction of 150 new schools, 50 new hospitals, and a variety of support facilities such as parks, retail areas, university campuses, cultural centers, and an airport. All these facilities would be elaborately connected by 150 bridges weaving throughout the project. Considering that Azerbaijan is in a relatively active seismic zone, the buildings would need to be built with reinforced concrete able to withstand a dramatic nine-point magnitude earthquake. As with Zira Island, the Khazar Islands claim to be a model sustainable, low-emission development. The proposal includes a tram network, boats, and bicycles for site mobility and limits the number of roads provided for vehicles.

As of October 2016, satellite imagery showed the first project phase underway. Avesta Concern had also finalized some bridges and road infrastructure and started constructing a few of the residential buildings envisaged in the original project proposal (Figure 3). It was initially announced that by 2013 the central boulevard as well as its adjacent restaurants and beaches would be opened to the public (First Residents Will Settle in Khazar Islands in 2014, 2012“First Residents Will Settle in Khazar Islands in 2014.”. 2012Today.AZ. , December 25. Accessed August 13, 2017http://today.az/news/seo/117038.html [Google Scholar]). This was later adjusted and re-announced for May 2014 (First Phase of Khazar Islands Project to be Accomplished by May 2014“First Phase of Khazar Islands Project to be Accomplished by May”. 2014Azernews. , April 22. Accessed August 13, 2017https://www.azernews.az/business/66304.html [Google Scholar]). When Ibrahim Ibrahimov was arrested in 2015, skepticism and rumors began to surround the project’s completion. Despite a high degree of controversy regarding Ibrahimov personally, intellectuals interviewed expressed their strong opinion that the project always seemed dubious in nature, particularly on account of Ibrahimov’s overwhelming lack of experience in the construction industry and the sheer size of the proposal. As of February 2018, author site visits confirm that no new work has commenced. Avesta Concern has also suffered mass employee resignations due to non-payment and the project’s frozen development (Çağtürk 2018Çağtürk, Fərhad2018. “Mass Resignation at ‘Avesta’ Concern.” AzEuroNews, February 4. Accessed February 10, 2018.http://azeuronews.com/?p=74865 [Google Scholar]). Unlike the Zira Island Masterplan, the Khazar Islands project does not have a famous architectural affiliation. Instead, its notoriety has come through the overwhelming scale and ostentatiousness of the programming. A lot of emphasis has been placed on the project’s island geography, the housing of a Formula One-grade race track, and the world’s tallest building. These spectacular rumors generate hype around what would otherwise be a somewhat banal yet elite gated residential community.

Figure 3. Image of the frozen construction of the Khazar Islands, taken 20 December 2016. (Image by authors).

The agency of architectural rumors

Both the Kazar Islands and Zira Island projects have brought increased international attention to the city of Baku and to the nation of Azerbaijan solely through the ideas they put forward in their unrealized proposals. Their wide circulation as speculative designs in a diverse range of media outlets – from local newspapers to international design journals and press conferences – has worked to draw attention to this geographically small and under-recognized post-Soviet country. Those interviewed from the local intellectual class described how these projects were being used to improve the image of Azerbaijan internationally. For example, one interviewee who works as a local journalist and a policy analyst stated, “with these projects, the developers are getting money from the state budget, but the architecture is also definitely part of an image-building project to show off Azerbaijan.” Another, an academic specializing in the political economy of local urban development, further stated,

even though the project of the Khazar Islands was not considered serious by knowledgeable locals, Ibrahimov used his political ties and networks to get the largest loan from the International Bank of Azerbaijan by claiming that the project would “make Azerbaijan great.”

Such nationalistic rhetoric coupled with initial signs of foreign investment interest open the doors for official state sponsorship and investment loans for these projects. The strategic circulation of architectural rumors thus has the potential for real-life benefits.In order to better understand the ways in which these two projects have impacted the image of the city and the reputation of its ruling elite, this section breaks down four arenas where architectural rumors circulate and explains how these arenas were used specifically to promote the image of Baku and improve the reputation of powerful Azeris. These arenas can be understood as coexisting and overlapping with one another. They have no clear hierarchy or chronological order. It is acknowledged that there may be any number of additional potential arenas for circulating architectural rumors around the globe. As such, this is not intended to be a definitive list but serves more as an initial identification of the arenas relative to these two specific case studies.

As utopic imaginings of urban space, architectural rumors serve a number of key, and at times inter-connected, objectives:

(1) They promote a city and/or country as an emerging destination rivaling that of its global competitors. This works toward attracting foreign investment dollars and boosting the local economy, whether for the specific rumored project itself or for others that will benefit indirectly from the promises of that project.
(2) They work to engender public complacency by informing local populations that their nation is prosperous and globally competitive. This has the potential to legitimize the government, especially under relatively fraught, authoritarian circumstances – something that is particularly important during periods of nation building. At the same time, such projects can buttress the legitimacy of the ruling elite by depicting them as generous purveyors of philanthropy to the country, however disingenuous are such efforts. Citizens are shown images of Azerbaijan as an emerging global actor, implicitly reminding them that any personal discomfort should be seen as necessary sacrifice for achieving a greater nationalistic cause.
(3) Tied to the first two points, architectural rumors financially and ideologically support specific key individuals behind the country’s growth machine, affording them great personal wealth, notoriety, and power. These projects allow elites to financially speculate on real estate and receive government loans in order to do so. On a personal level, architectural rumors perform akin to bragging and function as a type of proof of group membership for the elite ring of politico-economic actors in Baku’s real estate sector.
(4) For projects that remain as rumors and that are never built, the above three objectives can be accomplished while avoiding many of the costs and uncertainties surrounding the realization of a megaproject. The costs of actual project construction are avoided and technical construction issues associated with the engineering complexity of such proposals are bypassed. There is also no risk of the project prematurely going out of fashion, becoming a poor investment, or failing to live up to customer demands. In sum, the project is incapable of failing in any of the traditional architectural senses because it is never actually built.

Arena one: architectural rumors in media

One of the greatest arenas for the international circulation of architectural rumors is in design-related media. This includes design-specific newspapers, magazines, and journals showcasing architecture and design culture, as well as the news, travel, and design sections of popular media outlets. The announcement of the Zira Island master plan in a number of design magazines exemplifies this phenomenon. The website Inhabitat described the project as such:

Located in the bay of the capital city Baku, Zira Island is a ferry ride away from a growing metropolis and will stand as an example to a region so dependent on oil, that it is possible to live off the wind and the sun. (Meinhold 2009Meinhold, Bridgette2009. “Azerbaijan’s Carbon Neutral Zira Island.” Inhabitat, February 2. Accessed August 14, 2017.http://inhabitat.com/zira-island-by-big-architects/ [Google Scholar]) (emphasis added)

In a two-part feature covering Baku’s futuristic architecture, including both the Zira Island and Khazar Island projects, the personal website of Architectural Digest correspondent Anna Kovalchenko, gushes about how “it looks like Baku, Azerbaijan seriously has taken the route to becoming the most ultra-modern city in the region” (Futuristic Architecture of Baku, Part 2: New Incredible Projects 2013“Futuristic Architecture of Baku, Part 2: New Incredible Projects”. 2013L’essenziale. March 2. Accessed August 14, 2017.http://essenziale-hd.com/2013/03/02/futuristic-architecture-of-baku-part-2-new-incredible-projects/ [Google Scholar]). Similarly, DesignBoom declared, “unlike some of the extravagant development in the Middle East, this new development takes the particular climate of the area into account, hoping to pave the way for future eco-conscious projects” (Archer 2009Archer, Nate2009. “BIG Architects: ZIRA Island Masterplan.” Designboom. Accessed August 13, 2017.https://www.designboom.com/architecture/big-architects-zira-island-masterplan/ [Google Scholar]). Fast Company states that “compared to the eco-smashing excesses of the equally futuristic artificial islands built and planned in Dubai, the intentions for Zira Island appear to really be clean and green” (Eaton 2009Eaton, Rik2009. “Azerbijan’s Futuristic Eco-Island Plans.” Fast Company. March 2. Accessed August 13, 2017.https://www.fastcompany.com/1149848/azerbijans-futuristic-eco-island-plans [Google Scholar]). Here, Azerbaijan is framed as surpassing its rival global cities and becoming an even greater paradigm for responsible sustainable and eco-friendly architectural development. Since it is not in keeping with the agendas of such media outlets, there is no mention of the country’s high levels of social inequality, corruption, and human rights violations, painting an entirely uneven impression of the living conditions in Azerbaijan.The overwhelming majority of media outlets, however, simply replicated the text descriptions provided by project press releases, quoting large passages verbatim and offering no critical interpretation.55. For example, such is the case with the posts on ArchDailyhttp://www.archdaily.com/12956/zira-island-carbon-neutral-master-plan-big-architectsArthitecturalhttps://www.arthitectural.com/big-zira-island-masterplan/; and Dezeenhttps://www.dezeen.com/2009/01/30/zira-island-masterplan-by-big/.View all notes Thus, how “constant irrigation and fertilizing of the island supports the lush green condition of a tropical island, with a minimal ecological footprint,” could be found referenced dozens of times (Holding 2009Holding, Avrositi2009. “Zira Islan Project Website.” Accessed August 11, 2017.http://www.ziraisland.com [Google Scholar]). However, none of the editorials questioned how this might work within Azerbaijan’s existing high levels of soil toxicity and water pollution. Similarly, there are no present-day images of the city of Baku in the project announcements. Particularly in the design articles mentioned above, the only images shown are artificial computer renderings, many of them hazily illuminated at night and conveying no sense of reality in the city.

The publication dates of these articles also vary greatly from the initial date of the project announcement. For example, on 24 June 2013, the design website eVolo released the article “Zira Island is Central Asia’s First Carbon Neutral Master Plan in Baku, Azerbaijan,” over four years after the project was first announced (Marija 2013Marija, Bojovic2013. “Zira Island is Central Asia’s First Carbon Neutral Master Plan in Baku, Azerbaijan.” Evolo, June 24. Accessed August 13, 2017.http://www.evolo.us/architecture/zira-island-is-central-asias-first-carbon-neutral-master-plan-in-baku-azerbaijan/ [Google Scholar]). Even later, 88DesignBox, an online magazine of architecture, interiors, and home design, announced the Zira Island project on 27 February 2015, a full six years after its initial announcement and well after it was clear to our interviewed Azeri intellectuals (journalists, academics, architects, and engineers) that the project would not be realized (Zira Island Masterplan 2015Zira Island Masterplan. 201588designbox. February 27. Accessed August 13, 2017.http://88designbox.com/architecture/zira-island-masterplan-235.html [Google Scholar]). The updated recirculation of the project proposal in the media supports the rumor of it continuing to be a genuine development in-the-making, despite the perpetual lack of project commencement. Field research by the authors in June 2016 revealed absolutely no sign of construction related to the BIG Master Plan on Boyuk Nargin (Zira Island). Instead, through information obtained from the operators of freight shipping services that travel past the island, it was revealed that the site continues to be used for industrial-scale natural gas extraction. The confusion surrounding the project’s status – even in the face of determined investigation – underscores how once an architectural rumor begins circulating, it is very difficult to disprove.

The specific project element of the Khazar Islands that has afforded Azerbaijan the most branding support as an architectural rumor is the USD 2 billion, 1050 m Azerbaijan Tower, which Business Insider Magazine boasts as being 27% taller than Dubai’s Burj Khalifa (Taylor 2012Taylor, Adam2012. “Forget the Burj–Azerbaijan is Planning to Build the World’s Next Tallest Building.” Business Insider, January 26. Accessed August 13, 2017.http://www.businessinsider.com/azerbaijan-spyscraper-burj-2012-1 [Google Scholar]). Between the Khazar Islands’ original construction announcement in 2010 and 2018, headlines describing how the world’s tallest building has been planned for Azerbaijan appeared in news outlets as diverse as The Otago Daily TimesThe New York TimesReuters IndiaBusiness InsiderTime, and the International Business Times. Each underscores the currency of architectural rumors in news outlets and shows the diversity of the type of news provider (from business newspapers to international affairs sections) in which they circulate.

One more area where news outlets provide a lot of agency for architectural rumors is through their persistent announcement of false project construction dates. An article in The New York Times stated that construction on Zira Island is expected to begin in 2010 (Brass 2009Brass, Kevin2009. “Design Unveiled for Sprawling Eco-Complex on Island off Azerbaijan.” The New York times, March 18. Accessed February 10, 2017.https://raisingtheroof.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/18/design-unveiled-for-sprawling-eco-complex-on-island-off-azerbaijan/ [Google Scholar]). An investment news site also stated that construction would commence in 2010 and that the project would “be built in stages, with completion due in 8 to 12 years” (Zero-carbon Living on Zira Island 2009Zero-carbon Living on Zira Island. 2009The Edge Markets. June 21. Accessed August 11, 2017.http://www.theedgemarkets.com/article/zero-carbon-living-zira-island [Google Scholar]). Yet none of these timelines could be verified and none are mentioned on the official project websites. Similarly, local Azeri news expressed great confidence in the project timeline for the Khazar Islands. An article from 25 December 2012 leads with the title “First residents will settle in Khazar Islands in 2014” (2012“First Residents Will Settle in Khazar Islands in 2014.”. 2012Today.AZ. , December 25. Accessed August 13, 2017http://today.az/news/seo/117038.html [Google Scholar]), and only later inside the body of text is it clarified that this is an optimistic statement from the development company’s president. Nine months before this, the state-controlled Azernews carried the confident title, “First phase of Khazar Islands project to be accomplished by May,” another project deadline that was not realized (First Phase of Khazar Islands Project to be Accomplished by May 2014“First Phase of Khazar Islands Project to be Accomplished by May”. 2014Azernews. , April 22. Accessed August 13, 2017https://www.azernews.az/business/66304.html [Google Scholar]).

Rumors also circulated in local and international press regarding who would invest in the construction of the Khazar Islands. Over multiple years, investors from countries as disparate as Canada (Orujova 2013Orujova, Nigar2013. “Canada to Lend $4 Bln for Khazar Islands Project.” Azernews, March 4. Accessed August 13, 2017.https://www.azernews.az/business/50463.html [Google Scholar]), China (Chinese Investors Have Agreed to Invest $12.5 bn in Khazar Islands Construction Project 2015“Chinese Investors Have Agreed to Invest $12.5 bn in Khazar Islands Construction Project.” 2015Abc.AZ. Accessed August 13, 2017.http://abc.az/eng/news/87601.html [Google Scholar]), and The Czech Republic (Orujova 2014aOrujova, Nigar2014a. “Czech Company to Build Artificial Islands in Azerbaijan.” Azernews, October 31. Accessed August 12, 2017.https://www.azernews.az/business/72623.html [Google Scholar]) were named in the media as being stakeholders. Various other news pieces announced a range of “interested” investors from around the globe, including from Turkey (Ahmedov 2012Ahmedov, Ali2012. “One of the Biggest Investors of Turkey is Interested in Khazar Islands Project.” APA.AZ. Accessed August 13, 2017.http://m.apa.az/en/azerbaijan_business/one-of-the-biggest-investors-of-turkey-is-interested-in-khazar-islands-project-photosession [Google Scholar]) and the United States (“Khazar İslands” Project Arouses Great Interest in USA 2014“Khazar İslands” Project Arouses Great Interest in USA”. 2014Azertac. December 17. Accessed August 13, 2017.https://azertag.az/en/xeber/Khazar_Islands_project_arouses_great_interest_in_USA-819209 [Google Scholar]) in order to attract further capital to the project. In one particularly confusing example of an architectural rumor circulating in local Azeri news, a 12 July 2012 article from Today.Az titled “Qatar Interested in Khazar Islands Project” describes investment interest in the Khazar Islands, but features an adjacent incorrect picture of the Zira Island proposal (Qatar Interested in Khazar Islands Project 2012Qatar Interested in Khazar Islands Project. 2012Today.AZ, July 12. Accessed August 14, 2017.http://today.az/news/business/110261.html [Google Scholar]).

Arena two: architectural rumors on project and team websites

Many of the architectural rumors discussed above originate on the websites of the project design teams and developers. They are then copied and presented as new pseudo-news announcements elsewhere. Both Zira Island and the Khazar Islands have their own project websites that provide project information.66.http://www.ziraisland.com/http://khazarislands.com/View all notes The continued operation of these websites alone stands as a form of perpetual rumor circulation, as it attenuates skepticism about possible project cancellations. In line with this, the undated “News” section of the Khazar Island website leads with the statement, “construction of the Khazar Islands, a new city to be built by Avesta on artificial islands, is in full swing” (Concern 2011Concern, Avestia2011. “Khazar Islands Project Website.” Accessed August 11, 2017.http://www.khazarislands.com [Google Scholar]). Features from the news section of Avesta Concern’s website similarly include updates related to prominent visitors to the project site, such as the Iranian Deputy Minister and the Italian Ambassador, while not providing any actual information about the development of the project itself. Revealingly, the photos accompanying these prominent visits show officials overlooking a scale model of the project or sitting in its sales office since there is not much of a project site to visit.

Similarly, visitors to the Zira Island website can navigate through sections providing information on the project’s vision, sustainability approach, and design team. A PDF project book is also available for free download, and there is a three-and-a-half-minute film with flyover footage and animated diagrams explaining how the new buildings have inherited their sustainable mountainous forms. The architect’s and engineer’s websites identically replicate much of this information and visuals about the project (Riemann 2009Riemann, Lars Ostenfeld2009. “Zira Island Master Plan.” Ramboll.Com, Accessed August 13.http://www.ramboll.com/projects/group/zirazeroisland [Google Scholar]). All feature the same design narrative and particularly replicate how, “as a young post-Soviet democracy, Azerbaijan is rediscovering its national identity by imagining Zira Island as an architectural landscape based upon the country’s dramatic natural setting” (Holding 2009Holding, Avrositi2009. “Zira Islan Project Website.” Accessed August 11, 2017.http://www.ziraisland.com [Google Scholar]). The resulting message of this architectural rumor is that Azerbaijan is a model nation and a true democracy, one that is rising to become an excellent leader in environmental design. This stands in contrast to the fact that since independence Azerbaijan has possessed one of the worst environmental degradation and human rights records of all the post-Soviet countries (Freedom House 2015Freedom House. 2015. “Azerbaijan Country Report: Freedom of the Press 2015.” Accessed November 11, 2017.https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2015/azerbaijan [Google Scholar]; Transparency International 2016Transparency International. 2016. “Country Profiles.” Accessed September 9, 2017.https://www.transparency.org/country/AZE# [Google Scholar]; Amnesty International 2017Amnesty International. 2017. “AZERBAIJAN 2016/2017.” Accessed January 10, 2018.https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/europe-and-central-asia/azerbaijan/report-azerbaijan/ [Google Scholar]).

The rebranding of Azerbaijan away from its legacy of oil production is also brought to attention on the corporate website of the project’s engineering firm, Ramboll (Riemann 2009Riemann, Lars Ostenfeld2009. “Zira Island Master Plan.” Ramboll.Com, Accessed August 13.http://www.ramboll.com/projects/group/zirazeroisland [Google Scholar]). Elsewhere, Ramboll’s Group Director of Buildings & Design, Lars Ostenfeld Riemann is quoted as saying:

Zira Island will be an important step into the future of urban development in the Caucasus and Central Asia. By the help of the wind, the sun and the waste the Island will produce the same amount of energy as it consumes. In a society literately built on oil, this will serve as a showcase for a new way of thinking sustainable planning.(Etherington 2009Etherington, Rose2009. “Zira Island Masterplan by BIG.” Dezeen. January 30. Accessed August 13, 2017.https://www.dezeen.com/2009/01/30/zira-island-masterplan-by-big/ [Google Scholar]) (emphasis added)

Coming from a professional authority on sustainable design, these comments do much to legitimize the growth machine of Baku while reiterating the engineering firm’s own expertise. Although the Bjarke Ingels Group website identifies the project’s status as “Idea” (Bjarke Ingels Group 2009Bjarke Ingels Group. 2009. “Zira Island Masterplan.” Accessed August 13, 2017.https://www.big.dk/#projects-zir [Google Scholar]), Ramboll makes no mention of the project as unrealized. It instead lists only the “Services Provided,” giving the impression that the project may have already been completed (Riemann 2009Riemann, Lars Ostenfeld2009. “Zira Island Master Plan.” Ramboll.Com, Accessed August 13.http://www.ramboll.com/projects/group/zirazeroisland [Google Scholar]). In a similar fashion, the Khazar Islands website uses relative timeframes such as “a year ago” and “nowadays” without providing any concrete reference dates (Concern 2011Concern, Avestia2011. “Khazar Islands Project Website.” Accessed August 11, 2017.http://www.khazarislands.com [Google Scholar]). The text on the website also uses slippery language that sometimes makes it sound as though the project is already a reality. Website visitors learn how the “Khazar Islands are the gateway to a new life” and how “In a city like this, the benefits of civilization ally with nature; the harmonious combination of environmental security, esthetics, and cutting-edge technology make this an ideal place for both family and successful business” (Concern 2011Concern, Avestia2011. “Khazar Islands Project Website.” Accessed August 11, 2017.http://www.khazarislands.com [Google Scholar]).

Arena three: architectural rumors in exhibitions

Only a few weeks after the January 2009 Zira Island project announcement, the design was already being featured in an exhibition chronicling the work of its architect, Bjarke Ingels Group. Titled “Yes is More,” the much-celebrated event showcased the work of the firm in their home city of Copenhagen, Denmark at the Danish Architecture Center between 21 February and 31 May 2009. It was the first solo exhibition of the firm’s portfolio and included a large quantity of content, ranging from 30 project models to 19 animated films and a 130 m long portfolio comic strip (Jordana 2010Jordana, Sebastian2010. “YES IS MORE Exhibition: An Archicomic on Architectural Evolution.” ArchDaily, June 16. Accessed August 13, 2017.https://www.archdaily.com/64576/yes-is-more-exhibition-an-archicomic-on-architectural-evolution [Google Scholar]). Featured prominently in the center of the floor space of the exhibition was the large illuminated master plan model of Zira Island with all seven of its mountain-inspired buildings. A year later, the exhibition traveled on to Bordeaux, France, where “Yes is More” was exhibited at the Arc en Rêve between June and November 2010. The content of the exhibition was later compiled into a book published by Taschen under the same “Yes is More” name (Ingels 2010Ingels, Bjarke2010Yes is More: An Archicomic on Architectural EvolutionLondonTaschen. [Google Scholar]).

Just as the original Zira Island proposal had done, news of the “Yes is More” exhibition and images of its content began circulating widely in online design publications (Jordana 2010Jordana, Sebastian2010. “YES IS MORE Exhibition: An Archicomic on Architectural Evolution.” ArchDaily, June 16. Accessed August 13, 2017.https://www.archdaily.com/64576/yes-is-more-exhibition-an-archicomic-on-architectural-evolution [Google Scholar]). The exhibition announcement on DesignBoom featured the image of the Zira Island model but with no caption to identify it as an unrealized design (Kim 2010Kim, Erika2010. “BIG Architects: Yes is More Exhibition.” Designboom, June 30. Accessed August 13, 2017.https://www.designboom.com/architecture/big-architects-yes-is-more-exhibition/ [Google Scholar]). It is in this fashion that the initial architectural rumor of the Zira Island Masterplan gained greater legitimacy through its repeated circulation. As with the original proposal announcement, there was no contextual information discussing the city’s social, political, or environmental conditions.

If the “Yes is More” exhibition was tailored toward attracting the particular attention of design professionals and members of the public interested in art and architecture, then the simultaneous displaying of the Zira Island project at the Cityscape Abu Dhabi exhibition in April 2009 targeted an alternative audience of international investors. Cityscape is an annual real estate event taking place in Abu Dhabi, UAE that includes real estate exhibitions, seminars, and conferences. It is attended by government representatives, consultants, and architects, as well as international real estate professionals. In 2009, the event attracted over 30,000 attendees from 34 different countries. Beyond an arena for showcasing real estate, Cityscape Abu Dhabi features an awards ceremony with eight categories of project recognition. It assigns awards to both architects and developers. As of 2016, the awards now further distinguish between “built” and “future projects,” but this was not the case in 2009 when the Zira Island Master Plan was shortlisted for an award. The ability for a highly speculative design proposal to receive award attention in a real estate forum speaks to the benefits of producing radically innovative, yet mostly infeasible proposals as a means of improving the branded image of a country. The award performs as a source of exterior validation not only to the quality of the design but also to the host-city and nation.

Arena four: architectural rumors on billboards, in sponsorships, and local advertising

The first three arenas for the circulation of architectural rumors have been mainly focused on online forums and the impact of designs on international audiences. Yet, architectural rumors also circulate throughout the physical spaces of their host cities on billboards, at pubic events, and through word-of-mouth. Local event sponsorships by project developers can serve as an additional opportunity to normalize the rumors of future megaprojects in passing.

For example, the 2014 Miss Globe International Contest was hosted in Azerbaijan by Avesta Concern, and the Khazar Islands are listed as a prime sponsor for the event (Orujova 2014bOrujova, Nigar2014b. “Miss Globe International Contest Comes to Azerbaijan.” Azernews, May 15. Accessed August 13, 2017.https://www.azernews.az/culture/67033.html [Google Scholar]). Promotional material for the beauty contest even directly featured marketing support for the project. One of the main official slogans for the event was, “Go to Azerbaijan to see the venue for the tallest building in the world!” while another slogan declared more broadly, “Witness the history!!” (Miss Globe International 2014Miss Globe International. 2014. “Results Information.” Miss Globe International. Accessed August 14, 2017.http://www.missglobeinternational.com/results-information/ [Google Scholar]). Physical posters used to promote the event around Baku carried a number of related images complementing these slogans. While a few simply featured an image of the previous year’s winner, Brazilian Jakelyne Oliveira De Silva, others contained a silhouette of the Khazar Islands’ future Azerbaijan Tower. These posters were displayed around Baku for two months and were also shown in Istanbul, Turkey on billboards and metrobus lines . A local news article from 15 May 2014 announcing Azerbaijan’s hosting of the Miss Globe International Contest states, “world-known Khazar Islands is a general sponsor of the project” (Orujova 2014bOrujova, Nigar2014b. “Miss Globe International Contest Comes to Azerbaijan.” Azernews, May 15. Accessed August 13, 2017.https://www.azernews.az/culture/67033.html [Google Scholar]). Here, the reader is not only reminded of the purported concrete existence of the Khazar Islands, but also informed that the project developer, Ibrahim Ibrahimov, is an active philanthropist.

Two of the local intellectuals interviewed during fieldwork described at length how Ibrahimov worked perpetually to bolster his local image and authority, relying heavily on the ostentatiousness of the Khazar Islands and his role in transforming Baku to afford him local respect. Billboards for the Khazar Islands have likewise been featured across Baku for years. Some are now starting to show signs of physical deterioration. Their poor condition is an early signal of the future collapse of this architectural rumor. In contrast, there was less local advertising of the Zira Island proposal, which only had a few months of video promotion on social media and local television. The reasons why local billboards supporting the Zira Island project were not utilized could not be identified.

An eco-chamber of rumors

In keeping with the broader nature of spoken rumors, architectural rumors gain much of their currency from repeated circulation, elaboration, obfuscation, and combination with other rumors. Amidst the chaos of all the actual real estate development underway in Azerbaijan, it is easy for unrealized proposals to be mistaken as genuinely underway, particularly by an international audience that lacks local exposure. This is supported by the fact that media releases for new projects in Baku have a propensity to mention in passing other megaprojects being built in the city. For example, a local AzerNews article boasting the architectural success of the completed Flame Towers in Baku further describes the Khazar Islands as invariably being one of the city’s next big architectural successes (Dadashova 2013Dadashova, Gulgiz2013. “Architectural Pearl of Baku Named ‘Best Hotel and Tourist Center.” AzerNews, April 30. Accessed November 10, 2017.https://www.azernews.az/nation/53128.html [Google Scholar]). As such, architectural rumors rely on one another to amplify a false sense of hype and real estate prosperity across the city. The long-term development periods associated with megaprojects are a key factor that affords early design-phase rumors power. Megaprojects typically take years to complete and have very few visual clues in the early phases, which are usually focused on excavation and earth mounding.

The compounding of architectural rumors occurs not just within a city, where one project leads the way and provides an investment lure for subsequent others. It can also take place internationally, as projects get grouped thematically or categorized based on their geographic locations. Architectural rumors about the tallest buildings in the world circulate together and support one another, clustering development in cities such as New York, Shanghai, Dubai, and Kuala Lumpur with new development in Baku. Likewise, innovative sustainable development master plans are published together and juxtaposed based on their various environmental attributes, leading to the Zira Island master plan being compared to other eco-city projects like Dongtan in China and Masdar in Abu Dhabi (Riemann 2009Riemann, Lars Ostenfeld2009. “Zira Island Master Plan.” Ramboll.Com, Accessed August 13.http://www.ramboll.com/projects/group/zirazeroisland [Google Scholar]). The sheer global breadth of locations pandering to megaprojects as a vehicle toward their global legitimization makes it highly unlikely that news readers will ever be in a position to thoroughly verify their degree of final completion, or the amount of deviation they possess from the proposed design.

Conclusion

Through an analysis of the project designs for the Zira Island and Khazar Islands master plans in Baku, Azerbaijan, this paper has described how the commodification of design proposals is distinct in its political and economic agency from that of built projects. It further argued that the agency of outlandish design proposals to promote urban boosterism and regime security can be preferable to that of realizing such high-cost, technically complex, and rapidly obsolete projects. Given the fleeting half-life of superlatives in design, where projects can loose their titles of “largest,” “tallest,” and “first” even before their construction is complete, the power of architecture and urban design to legitimize governments and to assert a nation’s role on the international stage is increasingly focusing attention on schematic design phases. Here, the use of dramatic architectural imagery to legitimate and brand a nation is reciprocated by the use of regime money to legitimate and brand the architectural and engineering firms behind their designs.

Each of the four arenas through which architectural rumors circulate were shown to target slightly different audiences. Arena One’s design publications overwhelmingly targeted designers, investors, and the general public. This arena worked to alert design professionals to the types of megaprojects that they might inevitably end up producing in the future, and to draw investors’ attention toward new project opportunities. Arena One further perpetuated a culture of consequence-free design speculation focused on the fashion of esthetics more than architecture’s capacity for social transformation. Local news articles directed toward mass public audiences worked as a source of soft propaganda – both domestically and abroad – conveying Azerbaijan as a thriving modern democracy and global economic player.

For Arena Two, the circulation of architectural rumors on project and team websites targeted a very broad audience. It included everyone from the general public to prospective real estate investors. The content producers of Arena One’s media outlets are also the targets of Arena Two’s project and team websites, since this is where most of their published content is extracted from. Local news releases further perpetuated a sense of development anticipation to be shared among the local population, albeit one that risked turning into fatigue and cynicism when overused. Arena Three specifically targeted developers, investors, and architects, using exhibitions as a space to inflate the rumored reputation of a project while also soliciting investment. Likewise, the final arena of physical billboards, local sponsorships, and advertisings showed how architectural rumors could be normalized though their circulation within the public life of their host cities.

In considering the compounding effects of these four rumor arenas, it was shown how megaprojects and architectural rumors work together to create broader investment fervor, as it becomes a challenge to differentiate between what is actually being constructed and what is not in a city. As long as images are circulating and cranes are erected, the promise of new things to come can live on.

Architectural rumors seek to be economically effective by captivating prospective investors through images of Baku’s bright future of development. If convincing, they turn artificial hype into actual development investment. This leads to the more challenging question of what the actual cost is of circulating architectural rumors. In the face of the many existing failed and under-utilized megaprojects around the world, such as those produced for Olympic games, theme parks, and shopping experiences,77. For example, Athens and Rio have been struggling with underused mega-event related infrastructure (Mangan 2008Mangan, James A.2008. “Prologue: Guarantees of Global Goodwill: Post-Olympic Legacies – Too Many Limping White Elephants?” The International Journal of the History of Sport25: 18691883.10.1080/09523360802496148[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar]; Boukas, Ziakas, and Boustras 2013Boukas, NikolaosVassilios Ziakas, and Georgios Boustras2013. “Olympic Legacy and Cultural Tourism: Exploring the Facets of Athens’ Olympic Heritage.” International Journal of Heritage Studies 19: 203228.10.1080/13527258.2011.651735[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Kaiser 2017Kaiser, Anna Jean2017. “Legacy of Rio Olympics So Far is Series of Unkept Promises.” The New York times, February 15. Accessed August 14, 2017.https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/15/sports/olympics/rio-stadiums-summer-games.html?_r=0 [Google Scholar]), while Chinese cities are facing the new problem of ghost towns with empty residential complexes or gigantic shopping malls (Banerji and Jackson 2012Banerji, Robin, and Patrick Jackson2012. “China’s Ghost Towns and Phantom Malls.” BBC. Accessed August 14, 2017.http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-19049254 [Google Scholar]; Wang et al. 2015Wang, Xin-RuiEddie Chi-Man HuiCharlesChoguill, and Sheng-Hua Jia2015. “The New Urbanization Policy in China: Which Way Forward?” Habitat International47: 279284.10.1016/j.habitatint.2015.02.001[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).View all notes it may not be entirely bad that some proposals advance no further than the rumor stage. Still, large amounts of state capital are consumed producing and circulating architectural rumors, and such projects work to exacerbate already precarious conditions of real estate speculation and government corruption.

Ideologically, architectural rumors also bear costs, as they risk portraying nations as more inclusive and prosperous than they are in reality. Such obfuscation builds up the hopes of local residents for a better, more desirable future – a future that may never come or that has not taken their needs into consideration. Clearly, any approach to attracting investment and building population consent that is founded on falsities will have a limited lifespan. As with all rumors, there exists a particular tension in the ongoing deployment of architectural rumors. In order to compete globally, a city cannot get away with only circulating promises while constructing nothing. There needs to be at least a core of new projects to substantiate rumored claims. But within that flexible and ambiguous space between reality and rumor there exists much room for elaboration and fabrication in a manner that bolsters the city’s branded image without relying upon final construction.

As the initial two sections of this paper have shown, the production of architectural imagery has always been a projective and somewhat utopic endeavor – one relying heavily on esthetic, financial, and programmatic imaginings of a best-case scenario in order to carry forward their designs. Today, despite the overwhelming desire of the Azerbaijani Government to be dissociated from its Soviet past, much of the ideological foundations of state-sponsored utopia communicated through architecture carry forward from these earlier periods. If Azerbaijan is to truly advance past the challenges of its history through new development, there will need to be genuine initiatives undertaken to implement state reforms and to reduce urban boosterism. Paradoxically, only after the country switches its focus from architectural rumors toward more concrete political reforms may the type of utopic futures envisioned actually have a chance at becoming reality.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank Bruce Grant and Anar Valiyev, as well as the journal editors and reviewers, for their thoughtful comments and support toward this article.

Notes

1. All interviews have been left anonymous due to personal privacy concerns for the interviewees. Those interviewed were primarily members of the country’s intellectual class, including architects, engineers, journalists and academics, ranging from 26 to 55 years of age. They are all lifetime residents of Baku and are actively interested in events linked to its ongoing politics and urban development.

2. For example, see, The Guardian, “Unbuilt Moscow: The ‘New Soviet’ City that Never Was” (Rogers 2017Rogers, Alexandra2017. “Unbuilt Moscow: The ‘New Soviet’ City That Never Was.” The Guardian, March 8. Accessed August 14, 2017.https://www.theguardian.com/cities/gallery/2017/mar/08/imagine-moscow-city-new-soviets-design-museum-in-pictures?page=with:img-6 [Google Scholar]).

3. Images of the project proposal are available online at www.ziraisland.com/

4. Here, it is particularly the use of images of the world’s tallest building and Formula One race track that serve as rumors on the project.

5. For example, such is the case with the posts on ArchDailyhttp://www.archdaily.com/12956/zira-island-carbon-neutral-master-plan-big-architectsArthitecturalhttps://www.arthitectural.com/big-zira-island-masterplan/; and Dezeenhttps://www.dezeen.com/2009/01/30/zira-island-masterplan-by-big/.

6. http://www.ziraisland.com/http://khazarislands.com/

7. For example, Athens and Rio have been struggling with underused mega-event related infrastructure (Mangan 2008Mangan, James A.2008. “Prologue: Guarantees of Global Goodwill: Post-Olympic Legacies – Too Many Limping White Elephants?” The International Journal of the History of Sport25: 18691883.10.1080/09523360802496148[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar]; Boukas, Ziakas, and Boustras 2013Boukas, NikolaosVassilios Ziakas, and Georgios Boustras2013. “Olympic Legacy and Cultural Tourism: Exploring the Facets of Athens’ Olympic Heritage.” International Journal of Heritage Studies 19: 203228.10.1080/13527258.2011.651735[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Kaiser 2017Kaiser, Anna Jean2017. “Legacy of Rio Olympics So Far is Series of Unkept Promises.” The New York times, February 15. Accessed August 14, 2017.https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/15/sports/olympics/rio-stadiums-summer-games.html?_r=0 [Google Scholar]), while Chinese cities are facing the new problem of ghost towns with empty residential complexes or gigantic shopping malls (Banerji and Jackson 2012Banerji, Robin, and Patrick Jackson2012. “China’s Ghost Towns and Phantom Malls.” BBC. Accessed August 14, 2017.http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-19049254 [Google Scholar]; Wang et al. 2015Wang, Xin-RuiEddie Chi-Man HuiCharlesChoguill, and Sheng-Hua Jia2015. “The New Urbanization Policy in China: Which Way Forward?” Habitat International47: 279284.10.1016/j.habitatint.2015.02.001[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

References

Gramsci as geographer

Gramsci

A French version of this interview was originally published at  http://revueperiode.net/gramsci-geographe-entretien-avec-stefan-kipfer/

  • Your research interests include a recurrent focus on space, specifically urban questions as well as the spatial organization of relations of exploitation and domination. Theoretically, you mobilize the works of Henri Lefebvre and Frantz Fanon, but you are also interested in Gramsci’s take on, for example, urbanity and rurality.  How do you see the relevance of Gramsci’s analyses for geographical concerns today?

 

I started reading Gramsci in 1990 just before turning to urban research and the debates around ‘radical geography’ that were still in full swing then. Broadly speaking, these debates  tackled two problematic treatments of space in social theory: the reduction of space to a strictly passive, ‘empty’ container of history, and, in turn, the elevation of space to  historically invariant determinant of social life. Instead, a key lesson in these debates was to discuss space dialectically, as a product of history and an active historical force. These debates quickly pushed me to return to Gramsci and consider something that a few geographically minded intellectuals had considered here and there but that was then still an unusual topic for the Gramscians amongst my colleagues: the place of space in Gramsci’s particular strand of Marxism.

One of the most important questions in Gramsci’s philosophy of praxis (then and now) is the issue of historicism, which Gramsci affirmed in a peculiar way to describe one crucial aspect of his historical materialist method. A few have pointed out that the conceptions of time and history which informed Gramsci’s historicism are not to be confused with those that shape other forms of historicism, notably Hegel’s and Ranke’s. Among the first to do so in English was Esteve Morera, who wrote a book on the subject in 1990.[1] However, at the time, it was not uncommon (even among Gramscians) to sidestep geographical questions or treat space as the philosophical counterpart of time. I sometimes felt that on this matter, not much had changed since the 1970s when the famous exchange between Immanuel Wallerstein (and his ‘spatial’ conception of capitalism as a world system) and Ernesto Laclau (and his ‘historical’ conception of capitalism as a mode of production) unnecessarily pitted space against time, geography against history.

Even just a cursory reading shows that Gramsci’s writing was characterized by a profound geographical as well as historical sensibility. My sense was and is that both sensibilities are integral to his method. Forging a path a Marx himself had laid out, Gramsci developed his main concepts (from language and folklore to intellectuals and politics) through an intimate reading of historical moments and geographical situations. ‘Space’ for Gramsci was never just contextual backdrop or singular material condition (let alone a symbol of historical stasis). As condition and product of history, geography is an active force of the multiple rhythms that make up historical time. In turn, Gramsci treated space and scale relationally, showing the mutual imbrication and historical co-constitution of world, nation, region, city and country.

Key in this context is the idea that spatial forms are, among other things, subjects of struggle as well as ‘ingredients’ in political projects, as it were. It is well known (as Panagiotis Sotiris has reminded us most recently)[2] that Gramsci treated the national scale not as a given entity (let alone an ethnocultural or historical essence) but an open-ended field of struggle and a strategic construction site. Gramsci insisted that the national-popular aspect of revolutionary politics, which is not to be confused with nationalism, must be developed in constant interaction with equally open-ended internationalist horizons.

Gramsci made similar points about city and country. Observing debates among fascist intellectuals such as Curzio Malaparte, he saw that claims to urbanity and rurality do not simply express given geographical realities. They can help form historic blocs. Compare Gramsci’s insight, which considered politics as an active force, to contemporary debates in electoral geography, which have a tendency to read right populist and neo-fascism passively, as mere reflections of given settlement forms defined by national statistical offices: suburb, periurb, rural space or small to medium sized town. Exemplified in France by the work of Christophe Guilluy, among others, such spatially determinist readings of the Front National actually corroborate Gramsci’s point. In their passive conception of politics, intellectuals like Guilluy naturalize, and thus lend effective support to frontist political claims by treating small towns, agricultural areas and periurban zones as embodiments of the ‘autochtonous’ people of France and their seemingly spontaneous and inevitable xenophobic impulses.[3]

  • What does a Gramscian reading of Lefebvre’s work add to Lefebvre scholarship? In what ways did Lefebvre try to urbanize the question of hegemony[4] ?

 

Antonio Gramsci was not one of the primary figures in Lefebvre’s intellectual universe. But in various parts of his work, Henri Lefebvre presented us with explicit textual invitations to see his own contributions in a Gramscian light. In the opening pages of the Production of Space, for example, he established the hypothesis that bourgeois hegemony does not leave space untouched, as it were, thus suggesting that spatial organization represents a crucial element in the organization of political rule. This insight systematized the earlier conclusion of The Urban Revolution, where Lefebvre stressed the fact that ‘urbanisme’, and the specialized spatial sciences associated with it have the potential to sustain bourgeois rule by disorganizing opposition and promoting subaltern passivity.

Lefebvre’s urban work represents one among several openings towards Gramsci. Others include his theory of the state and his conception of everyday life. Lefebvre’s life-long critique of everyday life (an explosive mix of routine and aspiration), for example, resonates in crucial ways with Gramsci’s nuanced engagement with popular life, this contradictory complex of common and good sense. The late André Tosel was one of the few who has also emphasized this substantial parallel between Gramsci (who stressed the mystical and popular aspects of fascism in his Prison Notebooks) and Lefebvre (whose contemporaneous critique of mystification represented the key theoretical contribution in his work on fascism and nationalism in the 1930s).[5] Given the importance of fascism and nationalism today, this parallel is worth pursuing further, but with the obligatory critical attention paid to the particular kind of nationalization of political strategy which the Third International (and Lefebvre’s PCF) were promoting at that time.

Both of these examples allow us to see theoretical connections between Lefebvre and Gramsci that go much deeper than the few direct textual references to Gramsci in Lefebvre’s work. Both share an enormously ambitious, integral take on Marxism, one that insists on interpreting the world by treating all aspects of life in non-reductive and relational ways. When I started working on the Lefebvre-Gramsci connection in the mid-1990s, many English-speaking intellectual debates were based on typically mechanical, uncritical distinctions between political economy and considerations of class (code words for Marxism) and cultural studies and the politics of identity (code words for postmodernism). To me, Gramsci and Lefebvre served as reminders that such an intellectual compartmentalization of the world, which is still alive today in some corners, makes absolutely no sense from a serious historical materialist perspective.

This leaves the question of Lefebvre’s urbanization of the problem of hegemony. In the Urban Revolution published in 1970, Lefebvre posited the hypothesis that the world was in the process of being completely urbanized, that the distinction between city and country was no longer adequate to grasp the spatial organization of capitalism even though comparatively specific symbols and claims to urbanity and rurality continued to weigh on social life and politics. By suggesting that in our capitalist world urban life was no longer a matter of towns and cities only, but, through industrialized agriculture and globe-spanning networks of state intervention, transportation, migration and communication, social life as a whole, Lefebvre underscored that ‘urbanisme’ had become even more central to the spatial organization of rule than was the case even in the lifetime of Gramsci (who had already pointed to the importance of the metropole and urban planning in the formation of Fordist capitalism). Lefebvre was also interested in the implications of generalized urbanization for theories of revolution, including the theories of peasant revolution that dominated the radical left when he wrote the Urban Revolution. In 2017, we are still grappling with the complexities of world-wide urbanization and its political implications, also with respect to the United Front strategy so dear to Gramsci.

  • With Michael Ekers, Gillian Hart and Alex Loftus, you edited a collected volume (Gramsci Space, Nature, Politics, 2013) where you return to and develop, among other things, the importance of Gramsci’s work for questions of space. In an extremely important point,[6] you stress the importance of space in considering Gramsci’s strategic thought. You write, for example, that the Turin uprisings in 1919 and 1920 had an important impact on Gramsci’s recognition that the revolutionary left needed to construct alliances between the Northern proletariat and Southern peasants. This is a point Gramsci developed notably in his notes on the Southern question, where he writes that the proletariat needs to create a system of class alliances, which in the Italian case meant acquiring the active support of the peasant and agrarian masses. How is the question of space in Gramsci linked to the question of working class hegemony ?

 

Given his biography and his political trajectory from Sardegna to the Piemonte, the Southern Question had to impose itself upon Gramsci one way or another. But it is of course true that he elevated this question, which is itself criss-crossed in complex ways by the city-country question, to the highest strategic importance. Some Aspects of the Southern Question(1926) was a response to the reality of Mussolini’s fascism (as well as the maximalism of fellow Communist Amadeo Bordiga, who refused to see a difference between fascism and bourgeois democracy). Mussolini’s hordes managed to impose themselves not the least due to the defeat of the Factory Council movement of 1919-1920 and the latter’s relative isolation from other subaltern spaces in Italy. The rise and temporary consolidation of Italian fascism illustrated to Gramsci how uneven development in Italy was not only a structural limit on bourgeois rule but also a problem with deadly consequences for socialist and communist politics and the capacity of the proletariat to exercise political leadership.

It is worth stressing two noteworthy elements in Gramsci’s attempt to translate (adapt and develop) the Communist International’s United Front strategy for Italian purposes. Gramsci acknowledged that a project of building subaltern political unity is difficult given the qualitative social differences (between factory workers, agricultural labourers, sharecroppers and peasants) and the deep regional cleavages fortified by several layers of variegated historical and linguistic development. Following the famous 1926 text, and after his imprisonment, Gramsci spent much ink tracing uneven development, of which the Southern question is the most salient example, all the way to the high Middle Ages and the Italian Renaissance. In this longer view, the Risorgimento and fascism recast and exploited longer historical lineages of uneven development in the context of modern capitalism.

Given the historical depth of social and spatial unevenness in Italy, it is easy to understand why for Gramsci, building alliances could not be a matter of merely aggregating social groups and social spaces in their existing state.  For him, building a United Front meant that the constituent parts of an alliance get transformed socially and intellectually in the very process of alliance formation. In the Italian context, this meant addressing anti-Southern racism among the Northern proletariat as well as tackling the manifold dependencies that made it easier for landlords, industrialists, and fascists to recruit Southerners as soldiers or strike breakers. Gramsci’s recognition that there are no easy shortcuts to building an integral revolutionary organization on the basis of multiple subaltern forces led him to an understanding of politics as a practice of transforming – in a complexly universalizing fashion – the particular, short-term and spontaneous (`economic-corporate¨) character of subaltern interests and passions. In the end, politics as hegemony aims not to simply affirm but to end, dialectically, subalternity as such.

  • With respect to the relation between cities and the countryside, you stress the importance of the struggle against anti-Southern racism within the Northern proletariat for rethinking the problem of alliances and to link country and city in a sort of hegemonic bloc. Could you explain how Southern Italy can be analysed as a type of internal colony and then revisit the influence Gramsci has had on thinkers concerned with colonial and racial questions, for example Stuart Hall and the subaltern studies group ?

 

Looking at Gramsci’s work as a whole, it is important to point out that the city-country question is not covered neatly by the Southern question, nor is it coterminous with the relationship between industry and agriculture in Italy as a whole. It is true, however, that Gramsci repeatedly analysed the relationship between South (that is, the semi-feudal nexus of landlords, the Church and the peasants) and the North (that is, the Northern industrialists and ruling circles in the newly formed unified Italy) as a semi- or quasi-colonial relationship. Rooted in economic dependency and political domination, it reproduced pre-capitalist modes of life in the South and limited the capacity of the Italian ruling class to build an integral national hegemony. (I would use the term internal colony with great caution to describe the Italy of the interwar period to avoid what Gramsci himself did not do: establish a parallel between Southern Italy and social spaces populated by former slaves or immigrant populations from the former colonies in, say, the U.S.A., France, and the United Kingdom).

Gramsci also established links between the Southern question and Italy’s imperial adventures in North and East Africa. He observed that Italy’s imperial adventures were promoted not only for capital export but also for purposes of colonial settlement and domestic political legitimacy, not the least to build popular support from land-hungry Southerners. Gramsci also noted that modern raciology treated Southern Europeans (and Southern Italians in particular) as an intermediary ‘race’ between Northern and ‘Alpine’ Europeans, on the one hand, and various non-Europeans, on the other. In Italy, the force of this double-sided raciology helped link the Southern to the imperial question. But not unlike racism in other countries like France, raciology in Italy radiated much beyond the aristocratic circles that had produced some of the early versions of modern race theory. For example, Gramsci stressed that racism against Southerners (‘sudici’) had acquired a popular, pseudo-scientific dimension and weighed on both class relations and left politics.

To give proper due to racism and uneven development in Italy, Gramsci spent much time criticizing a broad cross-section of Italian intellectuals who were responsible for articulating a racialized conception of social relations. Among these were important figures in Gramsci’s own Socialist Party such as Achille Loria and Cesare Lombroso (the infamous criminologist whose questionable work fills a whole museum in Turin still today). As Marcus Green has pointed out, Gramsci’s critique of these intellectuals, which cuts across important segments of the Prison Notebooks, brilliantly highlights the philosophical link (positivism) between racism, economic determinism, pseudo-scientific conceptions of progress and political fatalism.[7] Establishing this link helped Gramsci develop the non-reductive historical material method as well as the multidimensional conception of subalternity that define his work.

The fact that Gramsci has been of great interest to intellectuals committed to anti-colonial and anti-imperial strategies is thus related not only to Gramsci’s interest in particular topics: city and country, agriculture, uneven development, colonialism, imperialism, and racism. It is also related to the weight these themes carried as Gramsci developed his conception of Marxist theory and practice. There are thus good reasons why his work has been taken up by generations of intellectuals in Latin America, the Caribbean and South Asia, for example. As you say, the most well-known Gramsci-inspired currents in the English-speaking world are the subaltern studies collective (in India and the Anglo-American academy) and the Birmingham school of cultural studies, of which Stuart Hall is the most well-known exponent. These currents, which underwent numerous transformations themselves, have left many invaluable – direct as well as diffuse – neo-Gramscian traces, notably in historiographies of hegemony, nationalism and subalternity in the non-European world and socio-political analyses of race, class, gender, migration and nationalism in the imperial North.

There is no consensus among anti-colonial and ant-racist thinkers about how to interpret and make use of Gramsci.[8]This state of affairs should not surprise us. There is no such intellectual consensus about Gramsci in the sprawling universe of Gramsci scholarship as a whole (nor is there theoretical unanimity in the even more widespread world of post-colonial theory). I am personally most drawn towards those who have tried to develop Gramsci’s historical materialist method for purposes of analysing racism, colonialism and nationalism: Stuart Hall, who, next to many other things, has produced some of the finest Gramscian methodological statements in his work on racism and authoritarian populism;[9] Himani Bannerji, who has mobilized Gramsci for a pathbreaking Marxist-feminist critique of ideology and the sharpest of analyses of Hindutva, the fascist political nébuleuse governing India today,[10] and Ato Sekyi-Otu, the philosopher who has produced the most ambitious, notably Gramsci-inflected reading of Frantz Fanon.[11]

What these attempts to work with and redirect Gramsci tell us is that Gramsci is not the exclusive property of ‘the West’, or ‘Western Marxism’. Contrary to a conception that was more widespread when I started reading Gramsci seriously a quarter century ago, Gramsci’s conception of East and West is relational and strategic, not ontological. In the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci treated East and West not as transhistorical essences (ontologies) but historically malleable constructions strongly influenced by the visions and practices of the ‘educated classes.’ (On this point, Gramsci fleetingly anticipated Edward Said’s pathbreaking work on Orientalism). In various comments (on Gandhi and political strategy, and religiosity in tributary societies shaped by Islam, Hinduism or Catholicism, for instance), Gramsci indicated that civilizations are neither unique nor mere variations of the same. They are simply comparable. As evolving and interrelated historical constructs, their features can be ‘translated’: understood across boundaries and adapted in different contexts.

To illustrate: Gramsci’s conception of politics and rule – his analyses of hegemony, coercion and consent, state and civil society – were not meant exclusively to understand Western Europe or Euro-America. Gramsci scholars like Carlos Nelson Coutinho, Domenico Losurdo, Peter Thomas, and Gillian Hart have all stressed this point.[12] Precisely because Gramsci was  both a theorist of the (particular) Italian situation and an intellectual of the Communist International (with its universalizing ambitions), he was committed to translating – transporting and modifying – concepts and strategies across national and continental borders instead of fixating them in culturalist-civilizational terms. For him, historical materialism was about linking the particular and the universal in a dialectical, not relativist or abstractly universalist fashion. In our world which witnesses a return of civilizational angst about the decline of the ‘West’ (something Gramsci criticized in his time) and where many forces work towards making the U.S. American doctrine about the Clash of Civilization a living reality, Gramsci’s approach (which, as Sekyi-Otu has pointed out, echoes the partisan-universal orientation of dialectical anti-colonialists such as Frantz Fanon) is as timely as ever.

  • In what ways can the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions in 2011 be analysed through the prism of what you call Gramsci’s ‘spatial historicism’, that is, his nuanced historico-geographical method ?

 

At the time, two things struck me most about the Euro-American media coverage of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings that kicked out dictators Ben Ali and Mubarak. Giving voice to official U.S. American and French support for the existing regimes and the concomitant hostility towards the rebels, this coverage often had a racist-civilizational undertone. Accordingly, the uprising was seen to reflect the time-less but explosive contradictions of ‘the Arab street’ (fatalistic passivity alternating unpredicatbly with violent fanaticism), which, in this Orientalist view, made authoritarian rule necessary in the Middle East. This representation (as well as basic journalistic convenience) explained the focus of media coverage on the squares and streets that were claimed by mass mobilizations then: Tahrir and Kasbah squares in Cairo and Tunis as well as the Avenue Habib Bourgiba in Tunis.

This central city bias has also been at the heart of many much more enthusiastic academic treatments of the 2011 political revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Some of these (often very good) analyses have allowed us to see these revolts as the first (or perhaps second, following the Iranian mobilizations of 2009) step in a transnational sequence of the revolts of ‘squares and streets’ reaching across the Mediterranean (to Greece and Spain) and the Atlantic (to the U.S.A., Canada and Brazil) and back (to Turkey). To correct these one-sided readings, Gramsci invites us to do two things: (1) replace culturalist readings of the revolutions with conjunctural analyses of historical change and continuity; and (2) broaden narrowly urban (that is, metropolitan, big-city) readings with a multi-scalar analysis of central city revolt, within which the national question remains important. In this way, the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings appear as moments within a crisis-ridden historical conjuncture that combines multiple scales and spaces and articulates a range of historical rhythms.

Historically, the Tunisian and Egyptian demands for ‘dignity’ (to speak with Sadri Khiari)[13] expressed the terminal political crisis of structural adjustment regimes (and their imperial supporters). By 2010, the capacity of these regimes to rule had been hollowed out by absurdly personalized forms of corruption as well as the confidence and collective capacities built by rounds of opposition that preceded 2010-2011 (and that were typically neglected by media coverage). Since the 1980s, these regimes had already recast the contradictions of the nationalist era of the 1950s and 1960s that had reached a crisis point in the 1970s. In this longer view, we can see more clearly see the comparatively specific imperial and neo-colonial dimensions that shaped the recent Tunisian and Egyptian revolts.

Geographically, one may say with Gramsci (as well as Lefebvre) that the most visible aspects of the uprisings – the mobilizations in the streets of Tunis and Cairo – were themselves a product of wider geographies of struggle. Protesters claimed ‘the right to the city’ not because they emerged from or wanted to occupy permanently the central spaces of the two capital cities but because they represented claims to political power that expressed a convergence of struggles: strikes and protests in other metropolitan neighbourhoods as well as social spaces in peripheral zones. In Tunisia, the most well-know of these zones were the mining districts and agricultural towns in the geographical centre of this very unevenly urbanized country: the areas in and around Sidi Bouzid and Gafsa where the uprising started before reaching the coastal zones in the East (Sfax) and Northeast (Tunis) of the country.

Writing these lines reminds me of a research project that remains to be pursued: a comparative analysis of Gramsci and Ibn Khaldoun. (In Tunis, Khaldoun’s statue stands in the middle of l’Avenue Habib Bourgiba, right across from the French embassy. Engulfed by the mobilized masses in 2011, the statue has since been fenced off with barbed wire to help secure the embassy in a move that is surely highly symbolic of the developments since 2011). I was first made aware of the plausibility of such an analysis in the early 1990s, in a graduate seminar taught by Robert Cox, the ‘founder’ of a Gramscian approach to international relations. In one of the earliest historical materialist texts, Khaldoun’s Muqadimmah discussed the interplay between town-based Arab-Muslim dynasties and their nomadic-pastoral hinterlands in order to understand the crisis of rule of these dynasties in the 14th century. Written almost six centuries before Gramsci, Khaldoun’s text provides a striking cross-Mediterranean echo to the Sardinian’s analysis of late medieval Italy, and, indeed, a crucial reference in any project to understand urbanization and politics in the Maghreb today from the perspective of the longue durée.

 


[1] Gramsci’s Historicism. Routledge, London, 1990.

[2] “From the Nation to the People of a Potential New Historic Bloc”, International Gramsci Journal 2.1. (2017) 52-88.

[3] For a critique, see Stefan Kipfer and Mustafa Dikeç, “Peripheries against peripheries? Against spatial reification,” in Massive Suburbanization Eds. Murat Ucoglu, Murat Guney & Roger Keil (forthcoming).

[4] Voir notamment: Stefan Kipfer, « Hegemony, Everyday Life, and Difference: How Lefebvre urbanized Gramsci”, dans: Kanishka Goonewardena, Stefan Kipfer, Richard Milgrom et Christian Schmid (dir.), Space, Difference, and Everyday Life: Henri Lefebvre and Radical Politics, Routledge, New-York/Londres, 2008, pp. 193-2011.

[5] Le Marxisme du 20ème Siècle. Paris: Syllepse, 2009.

[6] Voir : Stefan Kipfer, « City, Country, Hegemony : Antonio Gramsci’s Spatial Historicism », dans : Michael Ekers, Gillian Hart, Stefan Kipfer et Alex Loftus (dir.), Gramsci. Space, Nature, Politics  Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, 2013.

[7] “Race, class, and religion: Gramsci’s conception of subalternity” in Cosimo Zene dir. The Political Philosophies of Antonio Gramsci and B. R. Ambedkar: Itineraries of Dalits and Subalterns (New York: Routledge, 2013).

[8] See for example Srivastava, Neelam and Baidik Bhattacharya eds. The Postcolonial Gramsci (New York: Routledge, 2012);) Special issue on The Postcolonial Gramsci,Postcolonial Studies 16.1., 2013.

[9] Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.” In D. Morley & K.-­‐H. Chen (eds.), Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies (Routledge, London, 1996), pp. 411–440; The Hard Road to Renewal (London: Verso, 1988).

[10]Demography and Democracy: Essays on Nationalism, Gender and Ideology (Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2011)

[11] Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1996).

[12] Peter Thomas ; The Gramscian Moment (Brill, Leiden, 2009) ; Domenico Losurdo, Der Marxismus Antonio Gramscis(Hamburg : VSA, 2012); Gillian Hart, “Political Society and its Discontents: Translating Passive Revolution in India and South Africa Today” Economic and Political Weekly L: 43 (October 24, 2015); Carlos Nelson Coutinho, Gramsci’s Political Thought(Chicago: Haymarket, 2013).

[13] “The Tunisian Revolution did not come out of nowhere”, interview with Béatrice Hibou http://www.decolonialtranslation.com/english/the-tunisian-revolution-did-not-come-out-of-nowhere.html

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).

References

  • Åslund, Anders1992Post-communist Economic Revolutions: How Big a Bang?Washington, DCCenter for Strategic and International Studies.
  • Boschma, Ron2015. “Towards an Evolutionary Perspective on Regional Resilience.” Regional Studies49: 733751.10.1080/00343404.2014.959481

    ,

  • Bouzarovski, Stefan2009. “East-central Europe’s Changing Energy Landscapes: A Place for Geography.” Area 41: 452463.10.1111/area.2009.41.issue-4

    ,

  • Bouzarovski, 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

    ,

  • Bouzarovski, Stefan2015Retrofitting the City: Residential Flexibility, Resilience and the Built EnvironmentLondonIB Tauris.
  • Bouzarovski, 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.

    ,

  • Buzar, Stefan2007. “The ‘Hidden’ Geographies of Energy Poverty in Post-socialism: Between Institutions and Households.” Geoforum 38: 224240.10.1016/j.geoforum.2006.02.007

    ,

  • Chari, 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

    ,

  • Chelcea, Liviu, and Gergő Pulay2015. “Networked Infrastructures and the ‘Local’: Flows and Connectivity in a Postsocialist City.” City 19 (2–3): 344355.10.1080/13604813.2015.1019231

    ,

  • Chester, 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

    ,

  • CSO (Czech Statistical Office). 2011Population and Housing Census 2011PragueCzech Statistical Office.
  • Dahrendorf, R. 1990Reflections on the Revolution in EuropeLondonChatto & Windus.
  • Demel, Jaroslav, and Zuzana Potuzáková2012. “FDI and the Liberec Region: The Case of the Labour Market.” E+ M Ekonomie a Management, 1: 418.
  • ERU. 2014Výsledné Ceny Tepelné Energie V ČR – 2014 [Final Heat Energy Prices in the Czech Republic – 2014]. PragueEnergy Regulatory Office.
  • Ferenčuhová, 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.

    ,

  • Garud, RaghuArun Kumaraswamy, and Peter Karnøe2010. “Path Dependence or Path Creation?” Journal of Management Studies 47: 760774.10.1111/j.1467-6486.2009.00914.x

    ,

  • Gentile, MichaelTiit Tammaru, 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

    ,

  • Golubchikov, OlegAnna Badyina, and Alla Makhrova2014. “The Hybrid Spatialities of Transition: Capitalism, Legacy and Uneven Urban Economic Restructuring.” Urban Studies 51: 617633.10.1177/0042098013493022

    ,

  • Großmann, KatrinMarco BontjeAnnegret Haase, and Vlad Mykhnenko2013. “Shrinking Cities: Notes for the Further Research Agenda.” Cities 35: 221225.

    ,

  • Guogis, ArvydasAušra Šilinskytė, and Mantas Bileišis2014. “Government-community Conflict: The Lithuanian Public Governance Challenge.” Public Policy and Administration 13: 2235.
  • Hausner, 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.
  • Horak, M. 2007Governing the Post-communist City: Institutions and Democratic Development in PragueTorontoUniversity of Toronto Press.10.3138/9781442684386

    ,

  • Kaufmann, Pavel2007. “Vývoj Teplárenství V České Republice.” [The Development of District Heating in the Czech Republic.] Pro-Energy 2007: 1821.
  • Kornai, Janos1986. “The Soft Budget Constraint.” Kyklos 39: 330.10.1111/kykl.1986.39.issue-1

    ,

  • Langr, Ivan2014. “Systémová Korupce Jako Empiricky Vyzkum: Prípad Mesta Liberec.” [Systemic Corruption as Empicial Research: The Case of Liberec.] Stredoevropske Politicke Studie 16: 128.
  • Martin, Ron, and Peter Sunley2006. “Path Dependence and Regional Economic Evolution.” Journal of Economic Geography 6: 395437.10.1093/jeg/lbl012

    ,

  • Moore, David Chioni2001. “Is the Post- in Postcolonial the Post- in Post-Soviet? Toward a Global Postcolonial Critique.” PMLA 116: 111128.
  • Nye, David E. 1996American Technological SublimeCambridge, MAThe MIT Press.
  • Persson, Urban, and Sven Werner2011. “Heat Distribution and the Future Competitiveness of District Heating.” Applied Energy 88: 568576.10.1016/j.apenergy.2010.09.020

    ,

  • Petrova, SaskaDarina PosováAdam House, and Luděk Sýkora2013. “Discursive Framings of Low Carbon Urban Transitions: The Contested Geographies of ‘Satellite Settlements’ in the Czech Republic.” Urban Studies 50: 14391455.10.1177/0042098013480964

    ,

  • Pickles, John, and Adrian Smith1998Theorising Transition: The Political Economy of Post-communist TransformationsLondonRoutledge.
  • Poputoaia, Diana, and Stefan Bouzarovski2010. “Regulating District Heating in Romania: Legislative Challenges and Energy Efficiency Barriers.” Energy Policy 38: 38203829.10.1016/j.enpol.2010.03.002

    ,

  • Pšeničková, 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
  • Pye, SteveAudrey DobbinsClaire BaffertJurica BrajkovićIvana GrgurevRocco De Miglio, 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.
  • Rezaie, 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.
  • Rezessy, 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

    ,

  • Sachs, J. 1990. “Eastern Europe’s Economies: What Is to Be Done?” The Economist, January 3. Accessed October 14, 2016http://www.economist.com/node/13002085
  • Setterfield, Mark1996Rapid Growth and Relative Decline: Modelling Macroeconomic Dynamics with HysteresisLondonMacmillan.
  • Simmie, James2012. “Path Dependence and New Path Creation in Renewable Energy Technologies.” European Planning Studies 20: 729731.10.1080/09654313.2012.667922

    ,

  • Sjöberg, Örjan2014. “Cases onto Themselves? Theory and Research on Ex-socialist Urban Environments.” Geografie 4: 299319.
  • Smith, 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.

    ,

  • Stanilov, Kiril, and Ludĕk Sýkora2014Confronting Suburbanization: Urban Decentralization in Postsocialist Central and Eastern EuropeChichesterWiley.10.1002/9781118295861

    ,

  • Stenning, 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

    ,

  • Sýkora, 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.
  • Sýkora, 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. Strubelt and G. Gorzelak283295LeverkusenBudrich UniPress.
  • Sýkora, Luděk, and Stefan Bouzarovski2012. “Multiple Transformations: Conceptualising the Post-communist Urban Transition.” Urban Studies 49: 4360.10.1177/0042098010397402

    ,

  • Tirado 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

    ,

  • Tuvikene, 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

    ,

  • Underthun, 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

    ,

  • Ürge-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

    ,

  • Yavlinsky, 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

    ,

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.

References

  • Aalbers, Manuel B. 2013. “Neoliberalism is Dead … Long Live Neoliberalism!” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 37: 10831090.10.1111/1468-2427.12065

    ,

  • Andrusz, GregoryMichael Harloe, and Ivan Szelenyi, eds. 1996Cities after Socialism: Urban and Regional Change and Conflict in Post-socialist SocietiesOxfordBlackwell.

    ,

  • Badyina, 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 B 87: 113129.10.1111/geob.2005.87.issue-2

    ,

  • Birch, Kean, and Vlad Mykhnenko, eds. 2010The Rise and Fall of Neoliberalism: The Collapse of an Economic Order?LondonZed Books.
  • Borén, 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

    ,

  • Boyer, Dominic2006. “Ostalgie and the Politics of the Future in Eastern Germany.” Public Culture 18: 361381.10.1215/08992363-2006-008

    ,

  • Brenner, Neil, and Nik Theodore2002. “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

    ,

  • Brenner, NeilJamie Peck, and Nik Theodore2010. “Variegated Neoliberalization: Geographies, Modalities, Pathways.” Global Networks 10: 182222.10.1111/glob.2010.10.issue-2

    ,

  • Burawoy, Michael, and Katherine Verdery1999. “Introduction.” In Uncertain Transition: Ethnographies of Change in the Postsocial World, edited by M. Burawoy and K. Verdery118OxfordRowman & Littlefield.

    ,

  • Crouch, Colin2011The Strange Non-death of Neo-liberalismCambridgePolity.
  • Davidow, Mike1976Cities without CrisisNew YorkInternational Publishers.
  • Ferenčuhová, 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

    ,

  • Fukuyama, Francis1992The End of History and the Last ManNew YorkFree Press.
  • Giddens, Anthony1984The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of StructurationCambridgePolity Press.
  • Golubchikov, 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. Tsenkova and Z. Nedovic-Budic195212HeidelbergSpringer.10.1007/3-7908-1727-9

    ,

  • Golubchikov, OlegAnna Badyina, and Alla Makhrova2014. “The Hybrid Spatialities of Transition: Capitalism, Legacy and Uneven Urban Economic Restructuring.” Urban Studies 51: 617633.10.1177/0042098013493022

    ,

  • Goonewardena, 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.
  • Gowan, Peter1995. “Neo-liberal Theory and Practice for Eastern Europe.” New Left Review 213: 360.
  • Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri2000EmpireHarvardHarvard University Press.
  • Harvey, 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.
  • Harvey, David2006Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical DevelopmentLondonVerso.
  • Harvey, David2010A Companion to Marx’s CapitalLondonVerso.
  • Herrschel, 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

    ,

  • Hirt, Sonia2013. “Whatever Happened to the (Post)Socialist City?” Cities 32 (Supplement 1): S29S38.

    ,

  • Hladík, Radim2011. “A Theory’s Travelogue: Post-colonial Theory in Post-socialist Space.” TEORIE VĚDYXXXIII: 561590.
  • Hörschelmann, Kathrin, and Alison C. Stenning2008. “Ethnographies of Postsocialist Change.” Progress in Human Geography 32: 339361.10.1177/0309132508089094

    ,

  • Imre, Anikó2016TV SocialismDurhamDuke University Press.10.1215/9780822374466

    ,

  • Jameson, Fredric2003. “Future City.” New Left Review 21: 6579.
  • Kara-Murza, Sergey2005Poteryannyy Razum [Lost Reason]. MoscowAlgoritm.
  • Klein, Naomi2007The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster CapitalismLondonAllen Lane.
  • Kubeš, Jan2013. “European Post-socialist Cities and Their near Hinterland in Intra-urban Geography Literature.” Bulletin of Geography. Socio-Economic Series 19: 1943.

    ,

  • Lefebvre, Henri[1970] 2003The Urban RevolutionMinneapolisUniversity of Minnesota Press.
  • Lefebvre, Henri[1974] 1991The Production of SpaceOxfordBlackwell Publishing.
  • Marcuse, Herbert1964One-dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial SocietyLondonRoutledge.
  • Massey, Doreen2015. “Vocabularies of the Economy.” In After Neoliberalism? The Kilburn Manifesto, edited by S. HallD. Massey, and M. Rustin2436LondonLawrence and Wishart.
  • Moore, David Chioni2001. “Is the Post- in Postcolonial the Post- in Post-Soviet? Toward a Global Postcolonial Critique.” PMLA 116: 111128.
  • Pickles, John, and Adrian Smith, eds. 1998Theorising Transition: The Political Economy of Post-communist TransformationLondonRoutledge.
  • Prigge, 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.
  • Sjöberg, Örjan2014. “Cases onto Themselves? Theory and Research on Ex-socialist Urban Environments.” Geografie 119: 299319.

    ,

  • Smith, Neil2008. “Neoliberalism is Dead, Dominant, Defeatable – Then What?” Human Geography 1: 13.
  • Smith, Neil2009. “The Revolutionary Imperative.” Antipode 41: 5065.

    ,

  • Stenning, AlisonAdrian SmithAlena Rochovska, and Dariusz Swiatek2010Domesticating Neo-liberalism: Spaces of Economic Practice and Social Reproduction in Post-socialist CitiesOxfordWiley-Blackwell.10.1002/9781444325409

    ,

  • Stiglitz, Joseph E. 2011. “The Ideological Crisis of Western Capitalism.” Project Syndicate. http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/stiglitz140/English.
  • Swyngedouw, 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

    ,

  • Sykora, Ludek, and Stefan Bouzarovski2012. “Multiple Transformations: Conceptualising the Post-communist Urban Transition.” Urban Studies 49: 4360.10.1177/0042098010397402

    ,

  • Wedel, Janine R. 1998Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe 1989–1998New YorkSt. Martin’s Press.
  • Žižek, Slavoj, ed. 1994Mapping IdeologyLondonVerso.
  • Žižek, Slavoj2002Welcome to the Desert of the Real!: Five Essays on September 11 and Related DatesLondonVerso.

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.

References

  • Amin, Ash, and Stephen Graham1997. “The Ordinary City.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 22: 411429.10.1111/tran.1997.22.issue-4

    ,

  • Barnfield, Andrew2016. “Experiencing Post-socialism: Running and Urban Space in Sofia, Bulgaria.” European Urban and Regional Studies. doi:10.1177/0969776416661015.

    ,

  • Barnfield, Andrew, and Anna Plyushteva2016. “Cycling in the Post-socialist City: On Travelling by Bicycle in Sofia, Bulgaria.” Urban Studies 53: 18221835.10.1177/0042098015586536

    ,

  • Beissinger, Mark, and Stephen Kotkin, eds. 2014Historical Legacies of Communism in Russia and Eastern EuropeCambridgeCambridge University Press.

    ,

  • Stephen 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

    ,

  • Bernt, Matthias2016. “How Post-Socialist is Gentrification? Observations in East Berlin and Saint Petersburg.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 565587.

    ,

  • Bhabha, Homi1984. “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse.” Discipleship: A Special Issue on Psychoanalysis 28: 125133.
  • Borén, 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.

    ,

  • Bouzarovski, StefanLuděk Sýkora, and Roman Matoušek2016. “Locked-in Post-socialism: Rolling Path Dependencies in Liberec’s District Heating System.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 624642.

    ,

  • Castells, Manuel1976. “Theory and Ideology in Urban Sociology.” In Urban Sociology: Critical Essays, edited by Ch G Pickvance6084LondonTavistock Publications.
  • Chelcea, Liviu, and Oana Druţă2016. “Zombie Socialism and the Rise of Neoliberalism in Post-socialist Central and Eastern Europe.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 521544.

    ,

  • Czepczyński, Mariusz2008Cultural Landscapes of Post-socialist CitiesAldershotAshgate.
  • Etkind, Alexander2014. “Post-soviet Russia: The Land of the Oil Curse, Pussy Riot, and Magical Historicism.” Boundary 2 41 (1): 153170.10.1215/01903659-2409712

    ,

  • Ferenčuhová, 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.
  • Ferenčuhová, 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.

    ,

  • Ferenčuhová, Slavomíra2016b. “The ‘Socialist City’ Pitfalls.” In Conceptual Forum: The ‘Post-socialist’ City, Sonia HirtSlavomíra Ferenčuhová, and Tauri Tuvikene. Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 497520.
  • Golubchikov, Oleg2016. “The Urbanization of Transition: Ideology and the Urban Experience.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57: 607623.

    ,

  • Grubbauer, 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.
  • Hale, Henry E. 2016. “25 Years after the USSR: What’s Gone Wrong?” Journal of Democracy 27: 2435.10.1353/jod.2016.0035

    ,

  • Hann, ChrisCaroline Humphrey, and Katherine Verdery2002. “Introduction: Postsocialism as a Topic of Anthropological Investigation.” In Postsocialism – Ideals, Ideologies and Practices in Eurasia, edited by C. Hann128LondonRoutledge.

    ,

  • Harris, Chauncy D. 1945. “The Cities of the Soviet Union.” Geographical Review 35: 107121.10.2307/210935

    ,

  • Hirt, Sonia. 2012Iron CurtainsMaldenJohn Wiley and Sons.10.1002/9781118295922

    ,

  • Hirt, Sonia2016. “Once the Socialist City.” In Conceptual Forum: The ‘Post-socialist’ City, Sonia HirtSlavomíra Ferenčuhová, and Tauri TuvikeneEurasian Geography and Economics 57: 497520.
  • Hlaváček, PetrPavel Raška, and Martin Balej2016. “Regeneration Projects in Central and Eastern European Post-Communist Cities: Current Trends and Community Needs.” Habitat International 56: 3141.10.1016/j.habitatint.2016.04.001

    ,

  • Hörschelmann, 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

    ,

  • Hörschelmann, Kathrin, and Alison Stenning2008. “Ethnographies of Postsocialist Change.” Progress in Human Geography 32: 339361.10.1177/0309132508089094

    ,

  • Jacobs, Jane2012. “Commentary – Comparing Comparative Urbanisms.” Urban Geography 33: 904914.10.2747/0272-3638.33.6.904

    ,

  • Kuus, Merje2004. “Europe’s Eastern Expansion and the Reinscription of Otherness in East-central Europe.” Progress in Human Geography 28: 472489.10.1191/0309132504ph498oa

    ,

  • Kuzio, Taras2001. “Transition in Post-communist States: Triple or Quadruple?” Politics 21: 168177.10.1111/1467-9256.00148

    ,

  • Leitner, 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

    ,

  • Mbembe, A., and Sarah Nuttall2004. “Writing the World from an African Metropolis.” Public Culture16: 347372.10.1215/08992363-16-3-347

    ,

  • McFarlane, Colin, and Jennifer Robinson2012. “Introduction – Experiments in Comparative Urbanism.” Urban Geography 33: 765773.10.2747/0272-3638.33.6.765

    ,

  • Musil, 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.

    ,

  • Nijman, Jan2007. “Introduction – Comparative Urbanism.” Urban Geography 28: 16.

    ,

  • Offe, Claus1991 [2004]. “Capitalism by Democratic Design? Democratic Theory Facing the Triple Transition in East Central Europe.” Social Research 71: 501529.
  • Ouředníček, 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.

    ,

  • Peck, Jamie2015. “Cities beyond Compare?” Regional Studies 49: 160182.10.1080/00343404.2014.980801

    ,

  • Pickles, John, and Adrian Smith1998Theorising Transition: The Political Economy of Post-communist TransformationsLondonRoutledge.
  • Robinson, Jennifer2004. “In the Tracks of Comparative Urbanism: Difference, Urban Modernity and the Primitive.” Urban Geography 25: 709723.10.2747/0272-3638.25.8.709

    ,

  • Robinson, 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 Geography 32: 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

    ,

  • Robinson, 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

    ,

  • Robinson, Jennifer2016b. “Thinking Cities through Elsewhere: Comparative Tactics for a More Global Urban Studies.” Progress in Human Geography 40: 329.10.1177/0309132515598025

    ,

  • Roy, Ananya2009. “The 21st Century Metropolis: New Geographies of Theory.” Regional Studies 43: 819830.10.1080/00343400701809665

    ,

  • Scott, 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

    ,

  • Sjöberg, Örjan2014. “Cases on to Themselves? Theory and Research on Ex-socialist Urban Environments.” Geografie 119: 299319.

    ,

  • Soja, Edward1989Postmodern GeographiesLondonVerso.
  • Stenning, Alison, and Kathrin Hörschelmann2008. “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

    ,

  • Sýkora, Luděk, and Stefan Bouzarovski2012. “Multiple Transformations: Conceptualising the Post-communist Urban Transition.” Urban Studies 49: 4360.10.1177/0042098010397402

    ,

  • Timár, 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

    ,

  • Tuvikene, 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

    ,

  • Tuvikene, Tauri2016b. “The Conceptualization of Post-socialism.” In Conceptual Forum: The ‘Post-socialist’ City, Sonia HirtSlavomíra Ferenčuhová, and Tauri TuvikeneEurasian Geography and Economics 57: 497520.
  • Tuvikene, 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.

    ,

  • Ward, Kevin2008. “Editorial – Toward a Comparative (Re)Turn in Urban Studies? Some Reflections.” Urban Geography 29: 405410.10.2747/0272-3638.29.5.405

    ,

  • Wiest, Karin2012. “Comparative Debates in Post-socialist Urban Studies.” Urban Geography 33: 829849.10.2747/0272-3638.33.6.829

    ,

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.

DOWNLOAD

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.

.

Primary literature
.

  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
.

  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

______________

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.

DOWNLOAD

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