Old Urban Question Revisited (and Reconstructed)

The best way to start this post is by highlighting the exact element I pointed out at the begging of the last review: Merrifield’s capacity of concretion. Despite the second chapter of The New Urban Question, “Old Urban Question Revisited (and Reconstituted),” has no more than 16 pages, its author’s ability to be precise allows us to reach a wide variety of topics avoiding superficiality and lack of reflection. The chapter opens by focusing on Manuel Castells’ academic bio when he wrote The Urban Question (Castells, 1999[1974]), especially on his position in between Lefebvre and Touraine —his two doctoral supervisors— and how he managed to be in that situation having in mind that Lefebvre and Touraine were themselves “intellectual enemies.” (Merrifield, 2014 p.11).

But more than being an academic gossip, the anecdote above presented is essential to understand how Castells, “a Marxist more empirical than Lefebvre and more theoretical than Touraine” (ibid.), did manage his research methodologically in terms of doing empirical work on urban locations and still continuing being a Marxist. The route he chose was inspired by Althusser’s work on reproduction and ideology. Since I am not a Marxist myself, that episode was both hard to believe and fascinating at the same time. How serious has to be the compromise with Marxism if one needs to find a way to accommodate his empirical work to the theory? Where should be the urban researcher commitment at the moment of doing research located? Should it be tied to a particular either theory or method or, on the contrary, as Marrero-Guillamon (2008) suggests, should it be linked and responding to the reality to our study objects?

I believe that Merrifield and Castells (as well as I would do) would put themselves, following Marero-Guillamon’s suggestion, on the reality’s side. However, and that is what I plan to discuss in this review, perhaps, in the case of the “old” and new urban questions, neither the urban nor the city are the study objects of both scholars’ books. It means that, in the end,  reality may not be the same thing for them and me. But let us continue reviewing the chapter to figure out the origin of that assumption. The concept of reproduction in Althusser is presented as a necessary movement that guarantees the survival of social formations: “Any child knows […] that a social formation which did not reproduce the conditions of production at the same time as it produced would not last one year.” (Althusser, 1971, quoted by Merrifield, 2014 p. 12).

Inspired by Marx, Althusser identifies two key processes of reproduction: Reproduction of the means of production and reproduction of labor-power, “of which there’s a three-pronged sub-category (a) wages; (b) unproductive consumption like housing, schooling, hospitals, etc.; and (c) ideology. [ideology] does have material existence: it really is embodied in both the ‘Ideological State Apparatuses’ (ISAs) and ‘Repressive States Apparatuses’ (RSA). ISAs, for instance, are educational institutions, the family, mass media, the church, and religious associations, political parties, and trade unions.” (Ibid pp.12-13).

And provoked by Althusser’s theoretical constructions, Castells explores what is happening with the urban structure that continues reproducing itself and the system it belongs to even despite both are in crisis. He concludes that it happens because of ideology. For instance, according to him, urban studies are apparatuses of ideology reproduction. That field “has formulated “‘imaginary representations’ […] framing the city in terms of ‘urban culture’ […] such approaches focus on ‘dimensions of the city,’ on ‘densities,’ ‘size,’ on the idea that the city exhibits a particular specificity, its own of organization and transformation.” (Merrifield, 2014 p.14). So, according to Castells, referred by Merrifield, each one in the field of urban studies should be paying attention to “broader dynamics of capitalist political-economic and social transformation[that can be seen] in the spatial forms of capitalist social structure as a whole. To deny this is to create an ideological representation of the urban question, an imaginary representation” (Ibid).

So, the situation we have here reading Castells through Merrifield is, more or less, a statement that divides urban studies into two factions. One that pays attention to what really happens with that urban (capitalist political-economical) structure, and another one that is just producing ideology by looking at other aspects of the urban that are not fitting into a theoretical analysis of capitalism. That way of understanding the study field is not only problematic in terms of being extraordinarily reductionist but furthermore regarding the core of the field itself. It gives the impression that the urban for Castells, and then for Merrifield, is just a justification for theorizing against capitalism. The Marxist version of urban studies, at least the one proposed by those two academics, seems to be highly deterministic and utilitarian.

Merrifield, A. (2014). The New Urban Question. London: Pluto Press.

It is utilitarian because it takes the urban structure as an excuse for coping theories from other contexts and pasting them into the urban space to test (validating/refuting) them. And when I talk about “other contexts,” I refer to theoretical discussions carried out in an ethereal theoretical space where the empirical work is just a resource for, somehow, either potentiating or decorating theory. That way of understanding urban studies is also deterministic because, according to them, everything occurring in urban areas is just a matter of a double movement of production and reproduction of capitalists’ logic. In the end, all that is happening in urban locations can be attributed to political-economic forces. To ask for the other aspects of urban areas, following that understanding, is just ideology.

What is interesting to see here is how easily everything that is not Marxist ends labeled under the same category, ideology, and how the field of urban studies, and its study object, acquire a different ontological meaning, in terms of reality, depending on the side one is located. As I already pointed before —and writing from an empirical approach— to understand the urban phenomenon as only the result of political-economic movements is not only reductionist but a disconnected point of view from the world outside that provides a sort of gap between urban theory and reality. It is not reality that needs to be adjusted to fit into theory. It is the opposite. But in fact, and following the storyline proposed by a Marxist approach of the urban, no urban theory is needed anymore; only political and economic views are required.

The old urban question, as Merrifield names Castells’ one, was focused on reproduction. Capitalism takes advantage of unproductive (collective) consumption —those goods usually financed by the State— in everyday life to keep its status quo, guaranteeing consumption and ideological reproduction. In this context, urban politics was about focusing on (1) the ways how the state intervenes in the collective-consumption goods, the ways how citizen collectives contest and react to the state’s actions; (2) the tensions, alliances, and collisions between system and citizens regarding the reproduction of capitalism through the State financed goods. However, the hypothesis made by Castells that pointed how important those collective-consumption goods were for capitalism fell apart one decade after it was proposed when the state started to sell, to privatize, all those goods. 

The main idea of The Urban Question, that the urban is a scenario of capital reproduction through a process of unproductive collective consumption, was obsolete. The problem was neither Castells’ lack of foresight nor his particular theoretical development. The real issue was theory or at least the way to conceive theory as an external tool for understanding/applying to reality and not as the temporal and partial result of the explorations of the world outside. Notwithstanding, Merrifield’s response to what happened with the old urban question was to construct more theory. His proposal, politically more aggressive and, at the same time, more orthodox than Castells’s one (strongly inspired by David Harvey [20091973)]), aimed at paying equal attention to capitalist modes of production and reproduction in urban spaces. The Urban, according to Merrifield, is also a scenario of capitalist production that works, following a dialectic model of financing and disposition, through the logic of creative destruction. That capitalist mode of production requires a more active and radical citizen response, and the New Urban Question aims to contribute to that citizen reaction by producing the theory that supposedly citizenship needs.


Althusser, L. (1971). Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. London: New Left Books.

Castells, M. (1999[1974). La Cuestión Urbana. Ciudad de México: Siglo XXI.

Harvey, D. (2009[1973]). Social Injustice and the City. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Marrero-Guillamón, I. (2008). Luces y sombras: El compromiso en la etnografía, Revista Colombiana de Etnografía, 44(1), 95-122.

Merrifield, A. (2014). The New Urban Question. London: Pluto Press.