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Soja 's "Postmodern Geographies" - a political reading
Patrik Schumacher 1996
Lecture delivered at Architectural Association, London

A "political reading" generally assumes that the possible meanings of theory in the "humanities" ultimately reside in the political consequences that are drawn or might be drawn from such theorizing. The meaning of theory fulfills and reveals itself in the practise it directs. Soja himself conceives his critical theory as a form of political writing, "a source of emancipatory insight and practical political consciousness."(p.1)

Soja's main thesis is that geography can contribute to the emancipatory political project as much as history, which has supposedly been unduly priviledged over the last hundred years. This neglect of geography (and its subject matter space) concerns not only the established social sciences, but particulary the Marxist tradition to which Soja wants to contribute: Soja's claim is that 'Marxist Historical Materialism' has to become "historico-geographical materialism"(p.7).

The first 156 pages (chapters 1-6) of Postmodern Geographies are telling the story of this neglect and the dawning of a reassertion of space, most prominantly in the writings of Lefebvre, Foucault and recently David Harvey. In chapter 5 Soja is trying to ground his argument in "ontology", claiming an "existential spatiality of being".(p.131) But pragmatist epistemology precludes the question wether "space matters" to be established in the abstract. The political relevance and emancipatory potential of geography remains a more or less plausible working hypothesis until substantiated by the elaboration of a concrete political geography. The arguments of these first 6 chapters thus remain abstract claims that need to be tested by a political reading of the last three essays (chapters) which - in Soja's own words - "atempt to give greater empirical and interpretive substance to these arguments."(p.7)

Capter 7 - "The historical geography of Urban and Regional Restructuring" - identifies the political task for a critical socio-spatial science as "making theoretical and practical sense of the contemporary restructuring of capitalist spatiality". (p159)

Geographically uneven developement, indeed a crucial fact to be tackeled by any emancipatory politics, is recognized by Soja as central to his case for the political relevance of space. For Soja "geographically uneven developement, ... reproduced at multiple scales, is inherent to the concretization of capitalist social relations ... both as medium/presupposition and as outcome/embodiment."(p163) More than just being a projection of class-relations on to virgin space, a particular spatiality (territorialization) is sized upon, as indispensible and effective instrument of class-forcement (my words).

Soja sees contemporary restructuring (like all previous shifts within the socio-economic order) as being rooted in crisis - this time in the urban insurrections of the sixties and the world economic recession of the early seventies.

"Capitalism's 'inner contradictions'" constitute explicitely the "enduring central theme"(p.158) of Soja's analysis. Soja describes "spatialization" as an "ideological process associated with the developement and survival of capitalism"(p.158) Capitalist restructuring and (re-)spatialization are interpreted from an implied if not explicite revolutionary perspective as fundamentally defensive mechanisms warding off revolution (my words), or at least as mechanisms of social containment, disciplinary control and dissipation of class-struggle. The analysis intends to reveal how the spatial organization of society is implicated in the survival of capitalism, i.e. in the reproduction of class-society. Soja is talking about the developement and survival of capitalism, but what does not come out explicitely enough is that this process is indeed double edged, that developement and survival are - from a marxist point of view - increasingly in contradiction with each other, that the survival of class-society has to be continually re-organized according to progressively developing technologies of production, which in turn are fettered and incarcerated by repressive class-relations. Spatiality and spatial restructuring participates on both sides in this double-edged and contradictory process: it establishes the integral spatiality of the next stage of the developement of the forces of production, yet overdetermined and distorted by the concerns of capitalist class rule. In Soja this contradiction remains hidden in mere juxtaposition (developement and survival), allowing for a reading of spatial organization purely as an instrument of repressive class-control. (Marx's dictum that all history is the history of class-struggle does not imply that history is nothing but the history of class-struggle.)

Before going into the specifics of contemporary postfordist restructuring and the concurrent postmodern geographies, Soja sketches a history of previous periods of restructuring. He is adapting a well-established marxist periodization by shifting the focus of analysis towards the respective spatiality. Historical Materialism becomes "historico-geographical materialism". (The stratification of the time-continuum into distinguished epoques remains defined on the basis of the regulationist-marxist notion of 'regime of accumulation' as a subdevision of Marx's notion of 'modes of production' rather than 'regimes or modes of spatialization' - my words.)

Soja starts with freely competitive capitalism, being spatially organized along a hierarchical subnational regional devision of labour between industrialized territories and subsidiary agrarian regions, "internal colonies" exploited as reservoirs of cheap labour. He identifies in 19th Century regionalisms the spatially defined political resistance against this imposed and hierarchical spatial devision of labour, resonating also in the anti-state and decentralist principles of anarchism, posing the most radical challenge to capitalism in this period.
The primary source of exploitation and with it the arena of struggle shifts in the phase of corporate monopoly capital and imperialism. "Underdevelopement (in colonial and semi-colonial territories) became more important to the survival of capitalism than subnational regional differentiation."(p.165) "The old city-countryside relationship became ... a global structure of capitalist core and periphery"(p.165) "Within the core-nation "the overall intensity of regional inequalities was significantly reduced."(p.166) and one should add here that the labour-movement within the imperialist heartlands was effectively ameliorated and even coopted into the first imperialist world war and the knife-edge survival of capitalism immediatly after the war, while the communist parties (which emergred from the disintegration of the international labour movement as splinters of the dominant socialist parties) stressed the international character of the revolutionary project, proclaiming the absolute necessity of seeking active solidarity with the oppressed colonial people and starting crucial organisational links across the continents. 20th century Marxism has identified imperialism - effectively a devide and rule strategy towards the international proletariat - as the main mechanism of capitalist survival. And this fundamental mechanism fundamentally involves territoriality, that is a spatially defined devision of the working class. Space becomes an indispensible instrument of class-enforcement. But then again: The international devision of labour in the sense of an international integration of production is not reducable to the survival of capitalism. The ports, railways, telegraphs ect. are as much part of early 20thCentury spatiality as border-enforcement, colonial ghettoization and spatial regimes of apartheid.

The postwar regime of state-managed (fordist) capitalism did not suspend imperialism (neo-colonialism), but went much further in smoothing out internal contradictions through state-intervention and planning. Soja relates the particular spatialization of this era of urban planning - the forceful decentralization enacted in the British New Town Programme, the similar French programme and Italy's re-distributive regional welfare planning - to regional unrest and regional political movements. But as Soja points out, these atempts to balance regional inequalities were always halfhearted and remained more promise than reality. This system of state-managed fordist capitalism suffers political and economic crisis in 1968 and 1973-75 respectively. Here lie the seeds of the current restructuring towards Postfordism.

Before going into a detailed account of Postfordism, Soja has a second take on the history of the socio-spatial dialectic, this time more concerned with the structure of the (american) city rather than the macro-scale overall spatiality of the economy. Again the story focusses on the history of class-struggle (my words).

This time he starts with the mercantile city which suffered crisis because the spatial proximity of wealth and poverty became a source of social unrest. Soja quotes David Gordon: "Because the commercial city retained the precapitalist transparencies of immediate, intimate, and integrated social relationships, commercial capitalist profits could not be masked. The quest for such a disguise ... played a central role in prompting a turn to a new and ultimately more opaque mode of capital accumulation."(p.176)

Soja follows on describing the next phase of the competitive industrial city: "new kinds of cities and hierarchical city-systems added to the growing traditional functions of social control, commercial accumulation, and political administration ... the agglomeration of industrial production."(p.177) The shift from water-energy to the steam-engine allowed for this urban concentration of industry opening the "wellspring of agglomeration economies" (p.177). "The efficient geographical centralization of factories and working-class communities ... seemed to be breeding a strengthened working-class consciousness and militancy."(p.179) Concentric zoning is interpreted as the urbanist fix: "The zonation was largely a matter of class, as the antagonistic social structure of competitive industrial capitalism became spatialized in segregated and socially homogenous urban compartments and enclosures (p.177) ... a hidden instrumentality ... a disciplinary spatialization designed not by some conspiracy of capitalist architects but artfully designed nonetheless."(p. 178) Here the contradictory dialectic of technological progress and rearguard social containment comes out clearly, although not explicitly reflected thus by Soja.

But the inner-city zoning was insufficient in controlling the workers. In the Corporate-Monopoly Capitalist City ... "the separation of management and production functions reorganized the spatial devision of labour in capitalist urbanization."(p.179) A policed central business district (corporate headquarters, financial and government institutions) was served by rings of working class and ethnic enclaves, industry moved into satelite centres and the white collar manegerial class joint the bourgeoisie in a surge of suburbanisation. "This fragmented, policentric ... urban regionalization assisted industrial capital in escaping from agglomerated working class militancy. Employers could more easily move away from organized union pressures, the workforce became more segmented and residentially segregated."(p.180) This process was facilitated by a mass-rail transit system and increasingly also by the emerging auto-mobile system, L.A. taking the lead from the very beginning.

This tendency was substantially expanded in the following State-Managed Urban System. "Suburbanization was markedly accelerated after the Second World War. With substantial state support and encouragement, sizable portions of working class, blue as well as white collar, settled into suburban tracts and privatized enclosures ... accompanied by an even greater fragmentation of political jurisdictions."(p.181) One might add here that this localized planning jurisdiction facilitated the segregative character of the respective settlements by way of setting indirect income thresholds via the stipulation of minimum sizes of building sites.

Concerning the contemporary situation, i.e. here the late eighties, Soja asserts that we are in the middle of an unresolved process of restructuring. "A new upswing ... has not yet begun."(p.183) Soja also warns us that "the recovery of capitalism through restructuring is not mechanical or guarantied." (p.183) However, "the contemporary period must be seen as another crisis-generated attempt by capitalism to restore the key conditions for its survival: ... Central to the resurrection of expansive superprofits is, as usual, the institution of invigorated means of labour discipline and social control." (p.184) This formulation gives opportunity to elaborate once more on the dialectic of economic developement and capitalist survival. Not only is survival in contradiction with developement as its fetter - if judged against a potential developement beyond class-society - but survival itself is double-edged as it not only has to ward off revolution, but has the delicate and dangerous task to organize and discipline a production- and labour-process that remains alienating and breeds resistance under the given conditions of unequality and disempowerment. Capital under todays increasing competitive pressure remains forced to develope the forces of production, continually re-coopting labour into a restructured process, while simultanly, under the spell of deregulated profit-maximization, having to betray labour over its participation in the benefits of increased productivity, thus turning what was more like co-optation in the postwar regime into coercion and aggressive exploitation now, at least for the growing bottom of a re-differentiated hierarchy of labour.

Postfordism emerges from the mutually enhancing but also contradictory interaction of factors and processes. Soja's mere list of postfordist phenomena (pp.185,186) does not atempt to analyse the dialectic tangle of positive and negative feedback mechanisms and he fails to make the politically crucial distinction of aspects that pertain to productive progress from those that pertain to the intensification of exploitation, class-struggle and class-control. The inability to distinguish Post-fordism as a new paragigm of production attaining new levels of productivity from the simultaneous neo-liberal offensive that utilizses (and the competing capitals force each other to utilize) the unsettled relations of production for a decisive shift in the underlying class-relations, this inability leads the political struggle down the road of regressive utopia.

In my analysis the three main progressive and productive factors of Postfordist restructuring are the following:

1. globalization, i.e. a new level of international integration of production
2. flexible specialization - made possible by the computer-revolution
3. the organizational revolution - i.e. the relative de-hierarchization and de- beaurocratization of work.

Those features would need to be recuperated within an emancipatory politics. Under current capitalism these features are distorted, compromised and borne out to the disadvantage of the majority of the world population.

1. Globalization takes the form of a re-emergence of interimperialist rivalries, militarism, enforced austerity programmes, the break up of national welfare compromises between capital and labour, resulting in a fierce downward competition of labour-costs, i.e. of the majority's standart of living. Also overall productivity suffers as long as the world allocation of material and labour resources remains driven by an irrational , militarily guaranteed , and thus ultimately very costly "cheapness" of labour, which allows the squandering of millions of potentially much more productive lifes.
2. The new flexibility and potential richness of life-work is borne out and experienced by labour as existential insecurity. On the product side the new economies of scope are abused for stratification and status consumption rather than non-exclusive diversity. They become barriers rather than means of social communication.
3. The rationale of discursive cooperation rather than command type of work-organization, which is forced upon the capitalist corporation by the new degree of complexity and flexibility of the total production process within which it has to function, remains nevertheless highly compromised and limited by the reality of class-society with its inherent hierarchy and irrational hingeing of authority upon property.

So much for Postfordism's promise and its neo-liberal reality. For its Geography I should hand back to Soja. Soja's exploration of postmodern urbanization is focussing on Los Angeles' Metropolitan region. Soja justfies this focus via the supposed paradigmatic character of L.A.'s developement. In as much as L.A. is one of the leading "superprofitable growth poles" it is well chosen according to marxist principles of materialism, finding in superproductivity (which under ideal capitalism translates into superprofit) as the incontestable criterion for identifying the future within the presence. From a world system perspective - i.e. Marxism at its most concrete level of analysis - such isolated study remains necessarily abstract.

But Soja's analysis of L.A. seems to suggest that the L.A. Metropolitan Region is like a "mesocosm" that reproduces within its own spatiality the complexity and contradiction of the global economy. "Seemingly paradoxical but functionally interdependent juxtapositions are the epitomizing features of contemporary Los Angeles. ... One can find in Los Angeles not only the high technology industrial complexes of the Silicon Valley and the erratic sunbelt economy of Houston, but also the far-reaching industrial decline and bankrupt urban neighbourhoods of rust-belted Detroit or Cleveland. There is a Boston in Los Angeles, a lower Manhattan and a South Bronx, a Sao Paulo and a Singapore."

With this internalization of the peripherie comes the largest homeless population, soaring rates of violent crime and the largest prison population within the US. The militarization of the world economy translates here into the rule of a militarized LAPD. (The anti-racist explosion of 1992 testifies to this.) The simulteneity of growth and decline, locating the leading high tech industrial sectors next to the abandoned industrial wastelands, and a growing low-wage economy of industrial sweatshops, posits an uphill battle for social control and calls to task the friction of distance of spread city L.A. (my words). Yet the postmodern geography of L.A. differs from the postwar broad-acre-anti-city type suburbanization. Orange County is described as "an amorphous regional complex that confounds traditional definitions of both city and suburb."(p.212) The postfordist landscape integrates a loose and open network of research, production and service systems, interspersed with leisure environments and alternating expensive residential developements with enclaves of cheap and manipulable labour. The interpenetration of different activities succeeds even despite the problems of social control and the cost of policing caused by the engendered proximity of increasingly polarized incomes. One might speculate about the spatial and architectural possibilities and productive synergies to be released beyond the need for spatial policing.

Another marked spatial phenomenon has been superimposed on the polycentral spatiality of the L.A. postfordist landscape: the decisive re-centralization of corporate headquarters within the downtown core, reversing the trend of the fordist era. This revival of the central business district and selective gentrification of the inner city, and which one might add was the material basis for the boom of Postmodern architecture, reflects the postfordist organisational shift in corporate structure and business organisation. Larger but looser and diversivied conglomerates, in permanent negotiation with banks, surrounded by flexible clusters of consultancy and service firms, establishing project-based networks and alliances to flexibly adapt to a far more volatile and globalized market etc., meant a shift in the requirement for business-communication and a highly mobile manegerial workforce of mainly single professionals that would find in the re-invented downtown its appropriate work-environment, cultural and consumption needs (my elaboration). Soja is linking this downtown renaissance also to the "increasing internationalization of the local economy. "(p.215) Citadel L.A. has become one of the major control centres of the world economy, a place from which US multinationals reach out and where foreign capital moves in. More than half the prime downtown properties are foreign owned and as much as 90% of recent multistorey building construction was financed by foreign investment. This hub of business-communication is the milieu where new architectural types, like Portman's big Bonaventura, mushroomed on fertile ground. "The Bonaventure Hotel, an amazingly storeyed architectural symbol of the splintered labyrinth that stretches sixty miles around it. ... The Bonaventure has become a concentrated representation of the restructured spatiality of the late capitalist city: ... seemingly open in presenting itself to view but constantly pressing to enclose, to compartmentalize, to circumscribe, to incarcerate ... everything imaginable appears to be available in this micro-urb but real places are difficult to find ... its spaces confuse effective cognitive mapping ... and encourage submission instead ... entrance is encouraged at many different levels ... once inside however it becomes daunting to get out again."(p.244)

Soja's maps chart the marked spatial displacement of industrial activity into the hinterland. The new postfordist growth sectors are decidedly not taking up the space left behind by the plant closures that mark the end of Fordism. The new developements seemed paradoxically repelled rather than attracted by the dense infrastructure and labour-supply left behind. The irrational capitalist rationale was dicounting infrastructure and workers for the possibilty to exploit virgin land and virgin, that is non-unionized labour. Membership of the industrial labour unions went into deep decline. Soja speaks of a selective occupational recycling, polarising the labour market by wage differentials. "The middle segment of skilled, unionized, and well paid blue-collar workers has been shrinking, with a small number of its expelled labourers floating up to an expanded white collar technocracy but a much larger proportion perlocating downward into a relatively lower skilled and lower-wage reservoir of production and service workers, swollen by massive immigration and part-time and female employees."(p.207) Soja cites the garment industry as an example for such a sweat-shop industry which "tends to be highly labour-intensive, difficult to mechanize, and organized around small shops to adapt more quickly to rapidly changing fashion trends. ... Unionization rates are low and infringements of minimum wages, overtime, child labour and occupational safety laws are endemic."(p.207) One should add here that the life-squandering exploitation of such cheap labour, made available by class-society - here utilizing patriarchy and racism as 90% of workers here are female immigrants - puts a direct barrier to the progressive extension of available technology to such work supposedly "difficult to mechanize", while the appropriate CAD/CAM technology of flexible specialization is precisely what has been developed in the current period. L.A. reproduces on its territory the contradiction of the capitalist worldeconomic system, reproducing precisely the active underdevelopement that has kept whole continents in the status of so called "developing countries" for more than 100 years of so called and supposedly aided developement.

In conclusion: These violent processes of socio-economic and spatial restructiuring proceed with "remarkably little resistance" (p.219) "The labour movement ... remains in a Fordist mode of fighting against an enemy that has become too slippery and diffuse to negotiate with in traditional ways."(p.219) With organised labour being decimated and illegal immigrant labour being excluded from political activity, Soja sees glimpses of potential in urban movements around housing and rent-control as emerged in Santa Monica. Ephemeral inspirations towards an urban revolution mobilizing around issues of urban space - a would be corroboration of Soja's central thesis that an emancipatory social science needs to include an urban geography. Geography directing the struggle.


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