Manuel Castells is University Professor and the Wallis Annenberg Chair in Community Technology and Society at USC. He is also Research Professor at the Open University of Catalonia; Professor Emeritus, UC Berkeley. He was born in Spain in 1942 and grew up in Valencia and Barcelona. He studied law and economics at the Universities of Barcelona and Paris. He received a doctorate in sociology and a doctorate in human sciences from the University of Paris-Sorbonne. He moved to the United States in 1979.
In what is considered to be the first fully articulated neo-Marxist critique of the socio-political, economic, and spatial organization of cities, Castells begins by arguing that ideological perspectives shift proper focus away and displace “the axis of contradictions” (p. 430). For a full appraisal of the various urban phenomena, Castells uses historical materialism not as a perspective, but as a schema. He begins by establishing a historical account, distinguishing developed world cities’ formations from those post-colonial, dependent economies and socialist ones, as well as case studies of North American cities and Paris to distinguish between their unique formations.
Subsequently, he appraises the following phenomena, asserting the requisite elements are necessary for their proper understanding. Space is a social construction — the spatial environment is not the root cause of behaviors but rather a reflection of the socio-political and economic conditions. The urban structure is an articulation of the economic system in space. However, in order to legitimize capitalism’s productive forces, an “urban ideology” has been created that distorts views and shifts proper focus regarding spatial and socio-political relations..
Following Lefebvre (1992), Castells asserts space is a social construction, not the other way around. (1) There’s no cultural system linked to a given form of spatial organization, (2) the social history of humanity is not determined by the type of development of the territorial collectivities, and (3) the spatial environment is not the root of a specificity of behavior and representation. Instead, the city’s spatial expression is a dialectic between production and consumption, exchange, and administration. In order to truly study the city, we must study how people exist in it on a daily basis.
The urban symbolic distinguishes between the signifier and the signified; the city and especially its center are richly symbolic. The urban system amounts to the “specific articulation of the instances of a social structure within a (spatial) unit of the reproduction of labor power” (p. 237). It comprises: consumption, production, their exchange, administration, symbolic, and sub-elements and systems of places.
Power relations are relations between the classes, therefore urban politics subsumes two studies: urban planning and policy (administrative) and urban social movements (grassroots-based). Their only difference, really, is in approach. For urban social movements to success to their fullest, they must be organized and linked not just to urban problems but political ones. Castells’ case studies are U.S. urban renewal, the re-conquest of Paris, Quebec, and Chile.
Finally, in his discussion of the “urban process,” he uses the U.S. urban crisis to illustrate the interaction between urban structures and urban politics, separating the real contradictions and causes of the crisis from its mythic reasons. Castells reasserts his book’s purpose is to articulate “a problematic and [offer] theoretical ways for its gradual elucidation” (p. 435).