• David López García

The city as a productive force

The following text is an experpt of my literature review to fulfill the requirements of my Ph.D. in Public and Urban Policy at The New School. The text must be considered work in progress and any feedback is highly appreciated.

The city as a productive force

That capitalism required great infrastructural works without which production cannot take place, and that it was the role of the state to provide them, was evident as early as the writings of Adam Smith (1776). In the Book V, Part III, of The Wealth of Nations, Smith reflects on the expense of public works and argues that the sovereign or commonwealth has the duty of

erecting and maintaining those publick institutions and those publick works, which, though they may be in the highest degree advantageous to a great society, are, however, of such a nature, that the profit could never repay the expence to any individual or small number of individuals, and which it, therefore, cannot be expected that any individual or small number of individuals should erect or maintain. (p. 723)

Smith (1776) goes on to argue that the goal of providing these works and institutions is to facilitate the commerce of society. The type of infrastructures being discussed in his analysis conveys the kind of economic activity at the time of his writings. By discussing the erection and maintenance of good roads, bridges, navigable canals, and harbors, Smith yields a vision of the importance of these infrastructures for commerce within and between nations in the second half of the XVIII century. Robert L. Heilbroner (1986) was accurate in identifying what the writings of Smith conveyed about the role of the state in early capitalism. To Heilbroner (1986), the alleged state’s duty of providing the public works needed for commerce is just another masked aspect of how the burden of sustaining the economic realm of capitalism was placed in the hands of the state. In Heilbroner’s words,

it is a manner in which inputs needed for the accumulation of capital, but unprofitable to produce within the market framework, can be provided to the economic realm. From this viewpoint the state does not merely add “public” works to private ones. Rather, it accepts from the economic realm whatever necessary undertakings cannot remain in it. (1986; pp. 101-102)

The key point in Heilbroner’s argument is that the great infrastructural works alluded by Smith were and still are necessary for the accumulation of capital. They are therefore a necessary condition for the normal functioning of capitalism, “necessary inputs for the operations of the M-C-M circuit” (1986; p. 102). The roots of this argument can be found in Friedrich List’s theory of the productive forces published in 1841 (Garza, 2013). According to List, a nation’s progress is not only explained by the individual performance of its entrepreneurs and workers –like Adam Smith’s approach would suggest. To List, it is also explained by the development of the nation regarding the macro social determinants that will enable production and commerce –like science and scientific innovation, the existence of public institutions to guarantee moral, safety, and ownership, a monetary system, units of measurement, and a transit system–, which he called the productive forces. Among them, List made explicit reference to the transportation infrastructure of his time such as roads, harbors, canals, and railways (Garza, 2013; p. 41-50). In this way, List makes the first theoretical links to think of the city as a productive force, but the coupling of transportation infrastructures and the advantages of urban agglomeration would transform cities into colossal productive forces (Garza, 2013).

Later on, while discussing the instruments of labor in Volume I of Capital, Karl Marx puts forward the existence of what he called

the objective conditions necessary for carrying on the labor process. These do not enter directly into the process, but without them it is either impossible for it to take place, or possible only to a partial extent. (…) Instruments of this kind, which have already been mediated through past labour, include workshops, canals, roads, etc. (1867; p. 286)

Marx is making specific reference to the infrastructures without which, in his view, the productive process cannot take place, and therefore are part of the productive forces. In Volume II of Capital, Marx furthers the discussion of this kind of objective conditions for production and how its financing is usually not through firms, but through the state:

At the less developed stages of capitalist production, enterprises that require a long working period, and thus a large capital outlay of a longer time, particularly if they can be conducted only on a large scale, are often not pursued capitalistically at all. Roads, canals, etc., for example, were built at the cost of the municipality or the state. (1885; p. 310-311)

This view is consistent with Adam Smith’s understanding that the erecting and maintenance of the public works needed for the functioning of capitalism cannot be expected from an individual or a small number of individuals. Marxist scholarship has deepened the analysis of the objective conditions for carrying out production mentioned by Marx and has related them to urban infrastructure. This scholarship has named them the general conditions of production, whose adequate provision has been seen as a specific function of the state (Folin, 1981; Pianta, 1989). List and Marx theorized the city as a productive force through the analysis of transportation infrastructures like roads, harbors, canals, and railways, maybe because the circulation of raw materials and commodities was so important for the kind of production of their time. However, the concept of the general conditions of production can be extended to other kinds of urban infrastructures like water systems, electricity provision, public transport, and more recently optical fiber for Internet provision.

In more recent times, the concept of the general conditions of production has had two salient theoretical refinements. Castells (1977) made the first, who in The Urban Question argued that the main function of the capitalist city had historically been to provide collective consumption for its dwellers. In Sir Peter Hall’s account, Castells was referring to means of collective consumption such as “public housing, or schools, or transportation –to help guarantee the reproduction of the labor force and to dampen class conflict, essential for the maintenance of the system” (2014; p. 401). In Katznelson’s account, to Castells “the requirement that capitalism reproduce the supply of labour through the process of consumption” (1992; p. 113) was the formative element for the making and remaking of urban space. In addition, Katznelson (1992) clarifies that in Castell’s view, “the state increasingly intervenes in the consumption process by the provision of collective goods and services to ensure that capitalism has the level and character of urban space and consumption that it requires” (p. 113).

The implication of Castells’ influential arguments is that the theory of the general conditions for production was thereafter twofold. On the one hand, there are the great public works theorized by Adam Smith and Karl Marx, needed for carrying out the production of goods and services and without which production cannot be: means of production that are not owned by firms, but socialized and provided by the state. On the other hand, there are the public goods for consumption that are necessary for the reproduction of the labor force, like housing stock, hospitals, schools, green space, etc.: means of collective consumption provided by the state.

The second theoretical refinement was made by Garza (2013), who pointed out that the theoreticians of the general conditions of production have hitherto been focused on the physical aspect of the urban infrastructures that are external to firms but neglect that its material component represents only the fixed capital of a complex service. Garza (2013) argues while the physical infrastructure needed for supporting production is indeed an important component of its delivery –like in the provision of electricity, water, communications, health, education, etc.–, the existence of physical infrastructure is not enough for these public goods to be delivered. The provision of these services is also in need of an administrative infrastructure, which is comprised of physical infrastructure –like office spaces, transportation and maintenance equipment, etc.–, and a considerable amount of labor –with employees and technicians to keep the services going and management personnel to strategically administer the organizations that provide the services. Thus, in addition to the general conditions of production –which represents the physical component of urban infrastructure–, Garza (2013) put forward the existence of what he calls the general services of production, referring to the services needed to keep the physical infrastructure working and securing the continuous flow of that that the infrastructure is intended to deliver. Thus, the general conditions for production and the general services for production constitute a dual category, organically articulated which constitute an indivisible unit (Garza, 2013; p. 120).

The implication of Castells’ and Garza’s arguments for the theory of the city as a productive force is that the making of the city as such should be studied through two dimensions of analysis. First, urban infrastructure enables production in the capitalist city whether by providing socialized means of production to support the making of goods and services or by providing means of collective consumption for the reproduction of the labor force. If an infrastructure is whether a socialized mean of production or a mean of collective consumption is a matter of debate. The categories are not a clear-cut classification –take, for instance, the case of water infrastructure that simultaneously supports industrial production and the reproduction of the labor force through human consumption. Second, the continuous functioning of infrastructures that support production in the capitalist city needs two flows of investment; one to build the physical infrastructure –namely the general conditions of production–, and another for the services to keep the infrastructure working and delivering what it’s intended to deliver –namely the general services of production.

Lastly, the construction of the city as a productive force is an ongoing process that never ends, as the provision of the general conditions and services of production are influenced by and evolve with the kind of goods and services being produced in the capitalist city. Schumpeter (1942) sharply pointed out how capitalism “is by nature a form or method of economic change and not only never is but never can be stationary” (p. 82). Therefore, a process of creative destruction is an essential fact about capitalism, which “increasingly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one” (p. 83). As capitalism at the abstract level, urban space is also the object of a continuous process of creative destruction, reshaping the built environment of the city to serve the purposes of production.

For instance, the phase of pre-capitalism in the XVII and XVIII centuries saw the rise of what Hardt and Negri (2009) call the commercial city, in which societies were dominated by agricultural production and cities provided a site for exchange. Michel Foucault (2007) gives an account of the urban space that was constructed for the early capitalists cities of the XVIII century, pointing that the main concern in urban design was “a matter of organizing circulation (…), of planning access to the outside, mainly for the town’s consumption and for its trade with the outside” (p. 18). In Foucault’s account, the kind of roads infrastructure that had to be built to allow the circulation of goods ought to ensure four functions:

First, hygiene, ventilation, opening up all kinds of pockets where morbid miasmas accumulated in crowded quarters, where dwellings were too densely packed (…). Second, ensuring trade within the town. Third, connecting up this network of streets to external roads in such a way that goods from outside can arrive or be dispatched, but without giving up the requirements of customs control. And finally, an important problem for towns in the eighteenth century was allowing for surveillance, since the suppression of city walls made necessary by economic development meant that one could no longer close towns in the evening or closely supervise daily comings and goings, so that the insecurity of the towns was increased by the influx of the floating population of beggars, vagrants, delinquents, criminals, thieves, murderers, and so on, who might come, as everyone knows, from the country. (2007; p. 18)

According to Garza (1980), the industrial revolution increased exponentially the productivity of the primary and secondary sectors. The workforce displaced from the agricultural sector was rapidly assimilated by the industrial sector, which in turn heightened the concentration of population in cities. Industry tended to localize in pre-industrial cities that had the conditions for the production and realization of industrial goods, like transit infrastructure through land and sea, water availability, a developed labor market, and a market of consumers. This trend was also favored by the transformation of the city’s wealthy merchants into the capitalists in burgeoning new industry. This gave rise to what Hard and Negri (2009) call the industrial city, “one of the primary levers that make possible the rise of capitalist production” (p. 251). For the first time in humankind, there is a systematic increase in the ratio of the urban population of the world (Garza, 1980).

The industrial city and its patterns of capitalist-industrial urbanization thrived well into the XX century. However, from the 1950s onward the world entered the so called tertiary revolution, in which the bulk of economic activity shifted from industry to the production of immaterial goods based on knowledge within an increasing technological advancement in many fields (Garza, 2008). Following to Sassen (1991), beginning in the 1960s economic activity entered a period of profound transformation that shaped life in cities and considerable ways like “the dismantling of once-powerful industrial centers in the United States, the United Kingdom, and more recently in Japan; the accelerated industrialization of several Third World countries; (and) the rapid internationalization of the financial industry into a worldwide network of transactions” (p. 14).

Among other kinds of urban landscapes, the tertiary revolution sparked the emergence of what Sassen (1991) has called the global city, defined as major cities that function as concentrated command points in the organization of the world economy, key locations for finance and specialized service firms which have replaced manufacturing as the leading economic sector, sites of innovation and production of these leading industries, and markets for the products and innovations produced. Like other kinds of capitalists cities, the global city has showed that it demands specific patterns of urbanization in which the deployment of telecommunications and information technologies infrastructures, along with high end amenities for a cosmopolitan labor force, have played a central role. According to Garza (2008), the tertiary revolution is still in its early stages, but it is already evident how the shift from a manufacturing to a service economy is having a spatial impact on cities throughout the developed and developing world.

More recently, scholars from the Italian radical school of thought have theorized the latest shift of the tertiary revolution –that from service to immaterial production– and its impacts in the patterns of urbanization and the build environment of cities (Lazzarato, 1996; Lazzarato & Negri, 2001; Hardt & Negri, 2009). According to Lazzarato (1996), immaterial production involves goods such as “audiovisual production, advertising, fashion, the production of software, photography, cultural activities, and so forth” (p. 136). This kind of immaterial production needs immaterial labor, which is engaged in transforming, creating and maintaining the ideological and cultural identities of consumers (Lazzarato & Negri, 2001). Hardt and Negri (2009) call this ‘biopolitical production’, where the core “is not the production of objects for subjects, as commodity production is often understood, but the production of subjectivity itself” (p. x). This new form of production that involves information, codes, knowledge, images and affects, is once more changing the patterns of urbanization because “producers increasingly require a high degree of freedom as well as open access to the common, especially in its social forms, such as communications networks, information banks, and cultural circuits (Hardt & Negri, 2009; p. x). Thus, Hardt and Negri (2009) contend the emergence of the biopolitical city, in which the predominant pattern of urbanization is the building of ‘the common’, defined as “those results of social production that are necessary for social interaction and further production, such as knowledges, languages, codes, information, affects, and so forth” (p. viii). To these authors, the “production of the common is becoming nothing but the life of the city itself” (p. 252).

As this account conveys, the construction of the city as a productive force is never a finished work. The kinds of goods and services being produced in the capitalist city are constantly evolving, and the shift in production demands the constant change of the patterns of urbanization, which in turn have an effect on the production or urban space.


Castells, M. (1977) The urban question. Cambridge: Massachusetts. The MIT Press.

Folin, M. (1981) The production of the general conditions of social reproduction and the role of the state. In Harloe and Lebas (eds.), City, Class, and Capital, London: Arnold.

Foucault, M. (2007) Security, territory, population. Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-1978. New York: Picador, Palgrave Macmillan.

Garza, G. (1980) Modo de producción y urbanización (bosquejo preliminar) [Mode of production and urbanization (preliminary draft)]. Demografía y Economía, 14(1), pp. 68-89.

Garza, G. (2013) Teoría de las condiciones y los servicios generaes de la producción [Theory of the general conditions and services for production]. El Colegio de México.

Hall, P. (2014) Cities of tomorrow: An intellectual history of urban planning and design since 1880. Wiley-Blackwell

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Lazzarato, M. & Negri, A. (2001) Trabajo inmaterial: Formas de vida y producción de subjetividad [Immaterial work: Forms of life and production of subjectivity]. Río de Janeiro: DP&A Editora.

Pianta, M. (1989) The conditions of production: A note. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 1(3), pp. 129-134

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Schumpeter, J. (1942 [2008]) Capitalism, socialism and democracy. Harper Perennial.


©2019 | David López García 

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