Uneven Development

Smith, Neil. 1990. Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

The basic argument and premise of the book is that “the uneven development of capitalism can be best conceived as resulting from contradictory tendencies toward the differentiation and equalization of levels and conditions of development … differentiation and equalization are inseparable, mutually implicative” (xii). The primary means through which this contradictory movement happens is through the socio-spatial division of labor and the profit-seeking dynamics internal to capitalist development, which unleashes tendencies toward differentiation and equalization through space, but these contradictory tendencies always pass each other like ships in the night, much the same way as happens with price. Differentiation trends toward equalization through the logics of capital, but it “passes” equalization, leading only toward more very inequal kinds of differentiation, creating once again a terrain for profitable investment and the cycle repeats itself.

The process of uneven development is intimately tied to—and, in fact, produced by—the internal contradictions of capital: “The geographical fixation of use-value and the fluidity of exchange-value translate into the tendencies toward differentiation and equalization” (202). Uneven development expresses the social differentiation at the very root of capital: the relation between capital and labor. “As uneven development becomes an increasing necessity in order to stave off crises, geographical differentiation becomes less and less by-product, more an inner necessity for capital” (203).

Highly mobile capital seeks ever-more profitable shores of investment. In the process, investors (and/or governments) have to make intensive outlays of capital in fixed, immobile forms (buildings, infrastructures, machines, etc.) for the extraction of surplus value. While these forms of capital remain fixed in space, capital itself is highly mobile and will move on as soon as profit margins become more attractive elsewhere. Look what happened to the US-Mexico border, when cheaper Chinese labor and infrastructure made it cheaper to produce in Chinese maquilas. Gentrification is a very similar process of uneven development: once a site of capital-intensive industries, these areas later become depressed industrial wastelands with development capital moving out to the suburbs and other emergent industries. But now, these deindustrialized neighborhoods are the highly desirable loft-redevelopments, pushing out working-class populations further from urban centers.

Smith calls this the “see-saw” movement of capital: “The mobility of capital brings about the development of areas with a high rate of profit and the underdevelopment of those areas where a low rate of profit pertains [i.e. differentiation]. But the process itself leads to the diminution of this higher rate of profit [i.e. equalization]…. That is, capital attempts to seesaw from a developed to an underdeveloped area, then at a later point back to the first area which is by now underdeveloped, and so forth” (197-198). This is the creative-destructive force of capital that liberals might simply deem the efficiencies of the market working themselves out. (Of course, it’s all very much dependent on government policy, such as investment and financial policies and urban zoning laws.) Adding to this schizoid process is the fact that fixed capital is devalued over time, its value is being absolutely destroyed over time, so investors have an incentive to get the hell out as fast as possible. That’s why usually it’s governments that make these investments.

Crisis, which dives both the devaluation of capital and thus the dual tendencies of centralization and concentration of capital, is another fundamental aspect of uneven development. The centralization and concentration of capital produces a very real material existence in the landscape.

Finally, scale also plays an important role in Smith’s analysis. Problematically, he cites the urban, the nation, and the world as the three relevant scales of uneven capitalist development, while noting that “region”—either subnational or supranational—is another potentially relevant scale. The main source producing these scales is capitalist competition: for instance, building on Lenin’s writings on imperialism, he notes the way that local-national capitalist will try to leverage national state power toward protecting local industry from outside, more competitive forces. Or think of the way that Chinese cities today compete with each other for foreign investment, fuelling massive PR campaigns and monumental infrastructures and buildings. Indeed, an important part of his argument is the way that various capitals are at each other’s throats, leading to further differentiation and equalization—that is, more uneven development.

In this sense, it makes more sense to talk about uneven development not as a “mosaic,” but rather as more of a fractal-like pattern. Unfortunately, I’m going to leave aside his whole argument about the “production of nature.”

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