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Dialectic Essay

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This essay aims to analyze the dynamics of the urban socio-spatial dialectic with reference to the key themes and traditions within urban geography. The essay will begin with unpacking what is understood as the urban socio-spatial dialectic followed by insights into the dynamics of the urban socio-spatial dialectic itself. Continuing, the theme of the urban commons and practices of commoning within urban geography will be drawn upon and therefore used to critically evaluate the dynamics of the urban socio-spatial dialectic. The urban landscape can be described as a generative force and thus the urban cannot be thought of as a passive background but as multiplicative. The urban socio-spatial dialectic has provided a guide to thinking about the generative urban spaces, insofar as society shapes urban space, while urban space simultaneously shapes society. The urban commons and practices of commoning are inherently a socio-spatial formation that is manifest in modern and post-modern urban life. The dynamic nature of the urban socio-spatial dialectic shows the urban landscape to be a site of contradiction, inequality, and conflict, and this is revealed within the formation and maintenance of the urban commons themselves and the way in which these dynamics play out spatially and socially. Through the following analysis and critical evaluation, through the theme of the urban commons and practices of commoning in urban geography, the dynamics of the urban socio-spatial dialectic will be illustrated and therefore critically analyzed.

The Socio-spatial dialectic

The concept of the socio-spatial dialectic stems from the work of Lefebvre (1970), one of the leading spatial theorists of the twentieth century. Lefebvre wrote that the relationship between social and spatial structures within the urban landscape, the organization of space, and the ideological content of space created socially are all material products. Lefebvre believed that space, although shaped by historical and natural elements, was also a product of social and political processes, and thus “space and the political organization of space express social relationships but also react back upon them.” (1970, p.25) Despite this, Lefebvre’s work was heavily criticized as it was believed that the structure of the spatial relations he analyzed were being given too much emphasis under what he called the ‘urban revolution. This meant that the roles of production, social relations, and industrial capital, all of which have been described as “fundamental” (1980, p.208) by Soja, were being repressed by Lefebvre’s ‘urban revolution. Within Lefebvre’s conception of the urban revolution, he began to put a stark emphasis on class conflicts as the main factor behind any radical social transformation whilst disregarding the spatial and territorial conflicts within his Marxist thinking.

Academics such as Harvey (1973) followed on from Lefebvre’s work. Whilst crediting Lefebvre for the insightfulness of his dealings with the organization of space as a material product, the ideology surrounding socially created space, and the relationship between social and spatial structures within the urban landscape, Harvey did not accept some of Lefebvre’s major conclusions surrounding the leading role of “spatial structural forces in modern capitalist society” (Soja, 1980: p.207). Harvey, within his own Marxist school of thought, took and challenged Lefebvre’s work as he began to analyze whether the organization of space in the urban realm was, as Lefebvre had argued, a completely separate structure that contains its own laws of internal redesign and creation or whether it was a display of a set of relations which are rooted within a broader framework.

Further enhancing the work of Lefebvre, Harvey, and other Marxist academics, Edward Soja (1980) developed the idea of the socio-spatial dialectic. Soja’s idea of a “socio-spatial dialectic” has provided a helpful guide to thinking about urban spaces, insofar as society shapes urban space, while urban space simultaneously shapes society at both the global and local scale. The urban socio-spatial dialectic describes the city not as a passive background but as generative. It describes society and space in a dialectical relationship where it is not about one overpowering the other and within this relationship, there are “…fundamental vertical vs. horizontal structure affecting the position of all agents of production (i.e. people)” (1980, pg.224). It is just as much about the production of space in many ways whilst space produces society. Within Soja’s work, he declares Marxist analysis to have had negligence in acknowledging the dialectical nature of the relationship between society and space. The modernist philosophies, therefore, including Marxism, were deemed inadequate for accounting for a complex reality as post-modernist theory suggests knowledge and power as the critical analytic, rather than class struggle (like Lefebvre) as the master narrative, meaning cities are shaped by a multiplicity of difference, something not entirely encompassed by all Marxist academics.

Dynamism is implicit in Soja’s definition of the urban socio-spatial dialectic; however, the socio-spatial dialectic involves ongoing processes, rather than one dialectical relation that is and can be solved once and for all. This mode of thinking “seeks to engage with a world in flux” (Halvorsen, 2016: pg.446) foregrounding relationships that are simultaneously social and spatial whilst exposing the contradictions within capitalist societies.

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Urban commons

The socio-spatial dialectic represents a dialectically defined component of the general relations of production and relations which are simultaneously social and spatial. One such example of this is the urban commons. Commons can be defined as suggesting an “alternative, noncommodified means to fulfill social need…” (De Angelis, 2003: pg.6). The urban commons are self-governed forms of reacting to social needs that provide an alternative to the market and the state, whereby the institutions and their rules are created through use by its users, in a dynamic process of collective practices of production, resistance to enclosure and self-governance.

First, it must be recognized that there is a multitude and vast diversity in the agents and interests that can influence the creation of the city itself and the way in which the city relates to urban land. Urban land may be viewed in the form of use value and exchange value. What one agent may view as being exchange value, another may view as use value and this is due to the “different forms of material and symbolic reproduction of agents in the city”. (Junior, 2014: pg.150). The city, therefore, can be viewed as center where agents that may have conflicting interests come face-to-face and may confront each other. Thus, different agents relate to urban common spaces in different ways again for their use value or exchange value. The aim of each individual agent is to achieve their objectives whether that be for material gains or for one’s own social existence and reproduction of social relations within the space of the city, meaning the urban commons becomes a site of conflicting interest and contradiction at the point of their formation and maintenance. Space is thus constituted within capitalist society with the aim of creating coherence, ultimately achieved by masking the conflicts, contradictions, and inequalities that appropriating common space achieves.

Conflict emerges from the material and sometimes symbolic appropriation of urban commons spaces and the formation of the urban common itself through the claims to space versus the right to space. Whilst the space of the urban commons at the point of formation is intended to be shared, reasoned, and collect the actual processes, functions, and maintenance of the urban common can make the space divided causing tensions, conflicts, and contradictions. One example of this is through the commoning of dilapidated dwellings in the town of Granby, Liverpool in order to form housing commons, which ultimately reinforces class conflicts both indirectly by the organization and directly by middle-class, private agents. As stated by Keiller, “modernity, it seems, is exemplified not so much by the business park or the airport, but by the dilapidated dwelling” (2013, pg. 54) which is a clear display of post-industrial decline within many of the global North’s inner-cities. The commoning of these dilapidated dwellings within the UK is driven by the Community Land Trust (CLT) which aims to take back homes under community ownership whilst encouraging community self-help through drawing upon local community resources and skills. CLTs are one model of housing tenure and landownership that align with the doctrine that mutual dependence is necessary for social-wellbeing (Rodgers, 1999; Rowlands, 2009) and become part of a broader movement for community self-governance and collective ownership over the means of social reproduction of class relations (DeFilippis, 2004). Member tenants within CLTs own land and housing as a collective unit and as cooperative landlords in order to mitigate the “alienation and exploitation of the tenant-landlord relationship” (Thompson, 2015: pg.1025) thus, the urban land becomes common under the ownership and jurisdiction of the community as appose to being dictated by the traditionally middle-class market and agents within the market as well as the nation-state.

In commoning the urban landscape this way and forming housing commons, the socio-spatial dialectic of the commons becomes embodied within the Community Land Trust through the way in which the organization enclosures middle-class practices of social reproduction and offers an alternative through the commoning of the land as the social practices of the organization and the physical land and assets become commonly owned and controlled. In doing so, however, there are contradictions and class conflicts both internally within the organization and from the capitalist outside as “[...] as for the class struggle, its role in the production of space is a cardinal one in that this production is performed solely by classes, fractions of classes and groups representing classes.” (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 55). Therefore, the class struggle is embedded within space just as much as space is rooted within the class struggle. One of the main contradictions that CLTs face in the formation of the housing urban commons is the contradiction between private ownership and the rights of the collective, the claims to space versus the right to space. The contradiction exists between “the abstract space and the space appropriated, immediate, experienced and fragmented” (Junior, 2014: pg.154) as the organization of the CLT wants the space to be for the common however through the actual formation process of the commons to occur the commoning practice has to be paradoxically reliant upon enclosure from the capitalist market. This, therefore, threatens to reproduce the social exclusion of the working classes from private property at an even higher scale (Thompson, 2015), the very thing the organization is trying to combat and offer an alternative to.

Further conflict arises between the middle-class agents and the organization due to the legal legitimacy of the housing commons and the ownership model. The housing commons are not awarded legal property rights by the state thus private property rights are used to legitimize the claims to land by predominantly middle-class individuals, not for common use. The ownership model of private property, within capitalism, views private ownership as a collection of specific rights over space and these rights delineate full control to a single agent. This collection is made up of a set of privileges that allows the owner of the asset to control and decide on the use of the space, claim the value generated by it, [and] exclude others from using it…” (Rubin and Klumpp, 2011: pg.12). As CLTs do not have the same legal property rights as private agents have under capitalism, the interests of the land for value is very much maintained as the “appropriation of land by the few…flows and…condemns the working class to poverty” as the provision of land is “driven by the returns secured from investing in land, guided not towards utility, but towards greater concentrations of wealth and economic inequity” (Englesman et al, 2016: pg.594). The urban commons becomes an arena whereby the agents come face-to-face and try to achieve their objectives through the claim to spaces versus the rights to that space, however in the case of the CLTs, the private agent with a right to space and vested interest in the use value of space triumphs, with the help of the capitalist nation-state, and is thus able to reproduce the existing class relations as land delineated as private property cannot be utilized and maintained for the common good. The urban commons, therefore, become entirely geopolitical as the ideology of economic practice is maintained and reproduced.

In conclusion, the urban socio-spatial dialectic allows us to think of the urban landscape as a site of contradiction, inequality, and conflict as society shapes space whilst space equally shapes society. The process of commoning within the urban landscape and the formation and maintenance of the urban commons embodies the conflict surrounding the claims to space, from organizations such as the CLT, and the right to space, from the middle-class private agent. Whilst trying to provide a positive alternative to the dominant market and nation-state, the conflict between the middle-class private agent and the organization of the CLT, ultimately creates, reciprocates, and reinforces class struggles, class conflict, and class relations undermining the alternative to the enclosure of practices of social reproduction that the urban commons provides. The urban commons allow society to influence and shape historically privatized land within the city in order for the common good. This manifests itself in the form of community land trusts (CLT) whereby society commons the urban space in order to provide an alternative thus the urban becomes a product of the social and political relations within. Thus, the socio-spatial dialectic conception of the urban landscape problematizes the formation and maintenance of the housing urban commons space as the dialectic relationship leads to the enclosure of practices of social reproduction and undermines the response and alternative that the urban commons and practices of commoning, such as the community land trusts, aim to provide.

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