Looking for Spatial Justice

by | 1 Dec 2010

spatial revolution - Belyaev Guintovt (2004 inverted)Where is justice? Or, more precisely, what is the where of justice? For quite some time the elephant in the room of social science’s spatial turn – the formula was only mentioned three times in the last century, as Soja noted – this question has gained significant momentum in the last few years. Geographers and (few) legal theorists are increasingly addressing it. Or, are they? Central London was the location of two interesting attempts to answer this question, three days and few hundred metres from each other: a workshop on Spatial Justice held at Westminster University on the 19th of November, featuring Doreen Massey and David Harvey, and a lecture by Edward Soja presenting his new book, Seeking Spatial Justice, at UCL on the 22nd. The two events were so close, temporally and spatially, that a bit of friction was unavoidable – Ed Soja ironically remarked that the Westminster workshop did ‘steal’ his term, moreover inviting two scholars who never actually used it!

Although Soja’s authorship of the term could be disputable, his observation is not completely misplaced. The fact that the notion Spatial Justice is indeed missing in Harvey’s and Massey’s works does not entail that they should not be the right people to talk about it – they are indeed. However, what they performed, in a packed morning session at Westminster, was indeed an interesting, though fairly basic discussion on the political meaning and role of the notion of space, its manipulation by forces of the market, its significance as a category for thinking the social radically. What about Spatial Justice then? Frankly, not much. The two main concepts around which the discussion revolved were that of Capitalism and multiplicity – and to guess who was talking about what should not take a big effort. What seemed to be lacking was a sense of what a notion such as that of Spatial Justice could constitute a novelty, an opportunity, a step forward with respect to the spatial approach to politics and economics that the two authors so insightfully pursued in the last decades. What was lacking, at least in two senses, was conflict.

Understanding justice ‘spatially’ implies a reworking of the accepted coordinates of theoretical thinking – it implies throwing justice into what Massey herself termed the ‘terrifying simultaneity’, and thus unavoidable conflictuality, of co-existence. This is why the call for a principle able to overcome, almost revolutionary, the matrix of capitalism, as somewhat emerging both from Harvey’s intervention and some questions from the audience, echoed a belief in a smooth dialectical solution which the very notion of Spatial Justice should instead complicate. As Latour quite effectively reminded, “Revolutionary time, the great Simplificator, has been replaced by cohabitation time, the great Complicator. In other words, space has replaced time as the great ordering principle.”

Complication, turbulence, conflict: this is at the same time the revelation and challenge of a radical acceptance of space which, whilst certainly not defusing the potential for political solutions, warns against grand dialectical promises. In this sense, Massey’s stress on the concept of multiplicity was important in reminding this aspect as well as in offering some clarification on a term (for instance, underlying its difference from a notion of mere inter-subjectivity) which has always been met – and this occasion was no exception – with a certain scepticism by Harvey himself. Indeed, there was expectation that this, and other quite foundational disagreement – notwithstanding the several convergences – between the works of Harvey and Massey, especially around the post-structuralist potentials of the notion of space, would trigger some vibrant debate. Alas, conflict did lack also in this sense. Harvey, in much the same mood as he recently criticised the last of Hardt and Negri’s books – Commonwealth – didn’t miss the opportunity to strike yet another blow against what he sees as postmodern blubbing about immateriality, multiplicities and multitudes, reasserting his firm stance on the necessity to regain a concrete take on space, or rather, on the concreteness of places because, notwithstanding Negri and Holloway, ‘places do exist’. Massey, although betraying some disagreement, was nonetheless caught in the atmosphere of reciprocal politeness, acknowledging more similarities than I would have thought between hers and Harvey’s perspective – they seemed particularly to agree in criticising Negri, but this has become quite fashionable these days – quietly posing en passant some challenges to Harvey which, alas, the latter systematically avoided to address.

Probably more engaging was the afternoon session in which Mustafa Dikeç, David Slater and Engin Isin, chaired by Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, discussed the role of space vis-à-vis, respectively, the political question of society’s order, post-colonialism and injustice. In the last session Harvey and Massey joined them for a final panel which quickly took on the notion of right to the city and somewhat mirrored the current mix of hope and disappointment, activism and confusion which surrounds the concept.  Nonetheless, together with its most obvious and most strikingly overlooked companion, i.e. law, the notion of spatial justice kept being neglected, and all the hopes in this sense were abruptly put to an end by David Harvey’s final comment in which, quite bluntly, he admitted he does not see spatial justice as an extremely useful concept. It looks like Soja has a point.

If the Workshop was a compelling discussion on space which felt short to fully addressing question of spatial justice, Soja offered two hours entirely devolved to this task. In his terms, spatial justice is a theoretical concept, a focus for empirical analysis and a strategic tool for political activism – actually more the latter than the former since, as he confessed, he was aiming to take an activist and pragmatic stance to the extent that the publisher had to press him into including some theoretical qualifications on the book. And this was a rather discouraging qualification, I must say. Like it or not, Soja is a truly passionate spatial scientist, and his faith in space is at times even moving, as when he gets emotional in describing how space is relevant to understand social theory and to do political action. Our overarching task today, he stresses convincingly, must be to spatialise the notions of societal development, social capital and social justice. As Lefebvre stressed, he goes on, we made space, we made our geographies, and therefore it is our responsibility to intervene on them, to make them more just.

But, what does Soja mean with the term spatial justice? He qualified that it is not only an aspect of social justice. It is different from the notion of just city, too universal, too totalistic, aiming to a sort of complete justice which should be not our actual purpose: what is to be done, he qualifies quoting Amartya Sen, is to pursue justice incrementally, that is, increasing justice and decreasing injustice. It is not environmental justice, although obviously it encompasses it. It is not territorial justice – a concept lacking enough radicality. It is actually close to the notion of Right to the City, he concedes, provided this is taken in its radical, Lefebvrian acceptation.

But, again, what does he exactly mean for spatial justice? The question seems to be left open, as Soja is more interested to show how to use it. To explain it more clearly, he mentions three examples, the Right to the City Alliance, the L.A. Alliance for a New Economy and the L.A. Bus Riders Union, focusing on the last one. Briefly, the Bus Riders Union opposed, initially with success, a decision to build up a new underground system in L.A., as well as the related rise in bus fares, on the ground that this would have been spatially discriminating various lower-class neighbourhoods, overlooked by the project. Instead of an underground, only an improved bus system would have provided with the affordability and flexibility which the complex geography of Los Angeles requires.

Here, we finally get a clearer idea of what Soja has in mind. Spatial Justice is meant to be a strategic tool to test urban decisions, taking into account their differential impact on the space of the city. It is a tool to spatialise political debate and social struggle, to gather and polarise different interests in resistance movements, to advocate for a geographically equitable distribution of resources, services, and access. There are no a-spatial social relations, Soja reminds: we can, and thus we must, intervene on space to make it more equally distributed.

Passionate and interesting, especially in the description of the ‘spatial consciousness’ of Los Angeles, a city in which, since from the early 90s, ‘space was in the air’ – the talk was nonetheless disappointing exactly in accounting for what Soja emphasised most: the radicality, and novelty, of the notion of spatial justice. Whilst Soja advised against taking spatial justice as merely an aspect of social justice, in his hands the concept seems just an addition to the latter, a (yet another) way to prioritise its spatial dimension. Nothing wrong with that, to be sure. Nothing radical, either. What this notion would do, to actually radicalise the current plethora of ‘spatial approaches’ to politics, was left unsaid. To put it bluntly, the impression was that of a ‘cool’ concept to polarise the notions of justice and space, offering a useful language to activists. Spatial Justice in this sense ends up being, if not an aspect of social justice, its companion – and Soja ends his lecture exactly by stressing the fact that ‘we have to look at social and spatial injustices.

Why insisting on this seemingly irrelevant qualification? Because without fully addressing its radicality, the risk is that of Spatial Justice “being co-opted by conservative political and social thinking (just like other ‘‘grand’’ ideas, such as sustainability, globalization, identity and so on)” – and this is already happening, as Soja himself noted, with the Right to the City. In other words, if we reduce spatial justice to the necessity to intervene on space and thus to spatialise justice (a necessary but insufficient move), its potential could be lost or, paradoxically, become counter-productive. The end of Soja’s Q&A, when the spatial nuances of Big Society’s urban vision was mildly praised as an example of UK’s renewed spatial focus, should sound as a warning against reducing spatial justice to a mere set of recommendations for spatial fixes, to be hijacked by conservative forces in order to boost the acceptance to their policies.

Spatial justice is neither an aspect nor a companion of social justice – more radically, it questions the very notion of (social) justice. It neither spatialises nor materialises justice – it shows its always-already spatial and material nature. It thus prompts for a novel modesty with regards space, one which does not simply say that we have to intervene on space – this should be obvious at this point – but also that such ‘interventions’ are always characterised by a level of complexity and interweaving, movement and conflictuality, which should advice against any whatever well-intended belief in the possibility for unilateral ‘spatial fixes’. This is not a call for inaction, quite the opposite: it is a call for the necessity of an action which, however, is always imbricated, always contingent, always spatial and thus unavoidably ethical, political – against the post-political belief on the possibility of an impartial action, only focused on pragmatic, non-ideological ‘ideas that work’, spaces that fix. This is why spatial justice does not simply stresses the need to intervene on space but, more radically, the unavoidable conflictuality and violence of any intervention, and thus the need to deal with these aspects.

Perhaps the failure of these otherwise extremely compelling events, to fully embrace this radical understanding, has to do with their surprising silence on the question of law. A lack which is a crucial opportunity for critical legal scholars.


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