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What is critical urban theory?

Neil Brenner
Taylor and Francis

What is critical urban theory? While this phrase is often used in a descriptive sense, to char-
acterize the tradition of post-1968 leftist or radical urban studies, I argue that it also has
determinate socialtheoretical content. To this end, building on the work of several Frank-
furt School social philosophers, this paper interprets critical theory with reference to four,
mutually interconnected elementsits theoretical character; its reflexivity; its critique of
instrumental reason; and its emphasis on the disjuncture between the actual and the possi-
ble. On this basis, a brief concluding section considers the status of urban questions within
critical social theory. In the early 21st century, I argue, each of the four key elements within
critical social theory requires sustained engagement with contemporary patterns of capitalist
urbanization. Under conditions of increasingly generalized, worldwide urbanization, the
project of critical social theory and that of critical urban theory have been intertwined as
never before.

Introduction transhistorical laws of social organization,

bureaucratic rationality or economic effi-

hat is critical urban theory? This ciency, critical urban theory emphasizes
phrase is generally used as a the politically and ideologically mediated,
shorthand reference to the writ- socially contested and therefore malleable
ings of leftist or radical urban scholars character of urban spacethat is, its
during the post-1968 periodfor instance, continual (re)construction as a site,
those of Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey, medium and outcome of historically
Manuel Castells, Peter Marcuse and a specific relations of social power. Critical
legion of others who have been inspired or urban theory is thus grounded on an
influenced by them (Katznelson, 1993; antagonistic relationship not only to
Merrifield, 2002). Critical urban theory inherited urban knowledges, but more
rejects inherited disciplinary divisions of generally, to existing urban formations. It
labor and statist, technocratic, market- insists that another, more democratic,
driven and market-oriented forms of socially just and sustainable form of urban-
urban knowledge. In this sense, critical ization is possible, even if such possibilities
theory differs fundamentally from what are currently being suppressed through
might be termed mainstream urban dominant institutional arrangements,
theoryfor example, the approaches practices and ideologies. In short, critical
inherited from the Chicago School of urban theory involves the critique of ideol-
urban sociology, or those deployed within ogy (including socialscientific ideologies)
technocratic or neoliberal forms of policy and the critique of power, inequality, injus-
science. Rather than affirming the current tice and exploitation, at once within and
condition of cities as the expression of among cities.

ISSN 1360-4813 print/ISSN 1470-3629 online/09/02-30198-10 2009 Taylor & Francis

DOI: 10.1080/13604810902996466

However, the notions of critique, and law, including their mediations, for instance,
more specifically of critical theory, are not through family structures, cultural forms and
merely descriptive terms. They have deter- socialpsychological dynamics (Jay, 1973;
minate socialtheoretical content that is Kellner, 1989; Wiggershaus, 1995). This orien-
derived from various strands of Enlighten- tation had a certain plausibility during the
ment and post-Enlightenment social competitive and FordistKeynesian phases of
philosophy, not least within the work of capitalist development, insofar as urbaniza-
Hegel, Marx and the Western Marxian tion processes were then generally viewed as
tradition (Koselleck, 1988; Postone, 1993; a straightforward spatial expression of other,
Calhoun, 1995). Moreover, the focus of purportedly more fundamental social forces,
critique in critical social theory has evolved such as industrialization, class struggle and
significantly during the course of the last state regulation. I argue below, however, that
two centuries of capitalist development such an orientation is no longer tenable in the
(Therborn, 1996). Given the intellectual early 21st century, as we witness nothing less
and political agenda of this issue of CITY, it than an urbanization of the worldthe urban
is worth revisiting some of the key argu- revolution anticipated nearly four decades
ments developed within the aforemen- ago by Henri Lefebvre (2003 [1970]). Under
tioned traditions, particularly that of the conditions of increasingly generalized, world-
Frankfurt School, which arguably provide wide urbanization (Lefebvre, 2003 [1970];
a crucial, if often largely implicit, reference Schmid, 2005; Soja and Kanai, 2007), the
point for the contemporary work of critical project of critical social theory and that of crit-
urbanists. ical urban theory have been mutually inter-
One of the main points to be emphasized twined as never before.
below is the historical specificity of any
approach to critical social theory, urban or
otherwise. The work of Marx and the Critique and critical social theory
Frankfurt School emerged during previous
phases of capitalismcompetitive (mid- to The modern idea of critique is derived from
late-19th century) and FordistKeynesian the Enlightenment and was developed most
(mid-20th century), respectivelythat have systematically in the work of Kant, Hegel
now been superseded through the restless, and the Left Hegelians (Marcuse, 1954;
creatively destructive forward-motion of Habermas, 1973; Jay, 1973; Calhoun, 1995;
capitalist development (Postone, 1992, 1993, Therborn, 1996). But it assumed a new signif-
1999). A key contemporary question, there- icance in Marxs work, with the development
fore, is how the conditions of possibility for of the notion of a critique of political econ-
critical theory have changed today, in the omy (Postone, 1993). For Marx, the critique
early 21st century, in the context of an increas- of political economy entailed, on the one
ingly globalized, neoliberalized and financial- hand, a form of Ideologiekritik, an unmask-
ized formation of capitalism (Therborn, ing of the historically specific myths, reifica-
2008). tions and antinomies that pervade bourgeois
Such considerations also lead directly into forms of knowledge. Just as importantly,
the thorny problem of how to position urban Marx understood the critique of political
questions within the broader project of critical economy not only as a critique of ideas and
social theory. With the significant exception discourses about capitalism, but as a critique
of Walter Benjamins Passagen-Werk, none of of capitalism itself, and as a contribution to
the main figures associated with the Frankfurt the effort to transcend it. In this dialectical
School devoted much attention to urban ques- conception, a key task of critique is to reveal
tions. For them, critical theory involved the the contradictions within the historically
critique of commodification, the state and the specific social totality formed by capitalism.
200 CITY VOL. 13, NOS. 23

This approach to critique is seen to have conception, critical theory represented a

several important functions. First, it exposes decisive break from the orthodox forms of
the forms of power, exclusion, injustice and Marxism that prevailed under the Second
inequality that underpin capitalist social International, with its ontology of labor and
formations. Second, for Marx, the critique of its invocation of proletarian class struggle as
political economy is intended to illuminate the privileged basis for social transformation
the landscape of ongoing and emergent under capitalism. Additionally, during the
sociopolitical struggles: it connects the ideo- course of the mid-20th century, the Frankfurt
logical discourses of the political sphere to School of critical theory was animated by
the underlying (class) antagonisms and social several other contextually specific concerns
forces within bourgeois society. Perhaps and preoccupationsincluding the critique of
most crucially, Marx understood critique as a fascism in Germany and elsewhere; the
means to explore, both in theory and in prac- critique of technology, mass consumerism and
tice, the possibility of forging alternatives to the culture industry under postwar capitalism
capitalism. A critique of political economy in Europe and the USA; and, particularly in
thus served to show how capitalisms contra- the later work of Herbert Marcuse, the critique
dictions simultaneously undermine the of suppressed possibilities for human emanci-
system, and point beyond it, towards other pation latent with present institutional
ways of organizing social capacities and soci- arrangements.
ety/nature relations. The Frankfurt School notion of critical
During the course of the 20th century, theory was initially elaborated as an episte-
Marxs critique of political economy has mological concept. In Horkheimers classic
been appropriated within diverse traditions 1937 essay Traditional and Critical
of critical social analysis, including the tradi- Theory, it served to demarcate an alterna-
tional Marxism of the Second International tive to positivistic and technocratic
(Kolakowski, 1981) and the alternative approaches to social science and bourgeois
strands of radical thought associated with philosophy (Horkheimer, 1982 [1937],
Western Marxism (Jay, 1986). It was argu- pp. 188252). This line of analysis was
ably within the Frankfurt School of critical famously continued by Adorno in the
social theory, however, that the concept of 1960s, in the Positivismusstreit (positivism
critique was explored most systematically as dispute) with Karl Popper (Adorno et al.,
a methodological, theoretical and political 1976), and again in a totally different form
problem. In confronting this issue, the major in his philosophical writings on dialectics
figures within the Frankfurt School also and aesthetic theory (for a sampling, see
developed an innovative, intellectually and OConnor, 2000). The notion of critical
politically subversive research program on theory was developed in yet another new
the political economy, socialpsychological direction by Habermas in his debate on
dynamics, evolutionary trends and inner technocracy with Niklas Luhmann in the
contradictions of modern capitalism early 1970s (Habermas and Luhmann,
(Bronner and Kellner, 1989; Arato and 1971), and in a still more elaborate, mature
Gebhardt, 1990; Wiggershaus, 1995). form in his magnum opus, The Theory of
It was Max Horkheimer (1982 [1937]) who, Communicative Action, in the mid-1980s
writing from exile in New York City in 1937, (Habermas, 1985, 1987).
introduced the terminology of critical The most politically charged vision of crit-
theory. The concept was subsequently devel- ical theory was arguably presented by
oped and extended by his associates Theodor Herbert Marcuse in the mid-1960s, above all
Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, and later, in in his 1964 classic book, One-Dimensional
very different directions, by Jrgen Habermas, Man. For Marcuse, critical theory entailed an
up through the 1980s. In the Frankfurt School immanent critique of capitalist society in its

current form: it is concerned, he insisted, the full meaning of each can only be grasped
with the historical alternatives which haunt in relation to the others (Figure 1).
the established society as subversive tenden-
Figure 1 Four mutually constitutive propositions on critical theory. Source: Author.

cies and forces (1964, pp. xixii; italics

added). There is thus a direct link between Critical theory is theory
Marcuses project and a central aspect of
Marxs original critique of political econ- In the Frankfurt School, critical theory is
omythe search for emancipatory alterna- unapologetically abstract. It is characterized
tives latent within the present, due to the by epistemological and philosophical reflec-
contradictions of existing social relations (as tions; the development of formal concepts,
emphasized systematically by Postone, generalizations about historical trends;
1993). deductive and inductive modes of argumen-
tation; and diverse forms of historical analy-
sis. It may also build upon concrete
Key elements of critical theory: four research, that is, upon an evidentiary basis,
propositions whether organized through traditional or
critical methods. As Marcuse (1964, p. xi)
There are, of course, profound epistemologi- writes, In order to identify and define the
cal, methodological, political and substantive possibilities for an optimal development, the
differences among writers such as Horkhe- critical theory must abstract from the actual
imer, Adorno, Marcuse and Habermas. organization and utilization of societys
Nonetheless, it can be argued that their writ- resources, and from the results of this orga-
ings collectively elaborate a core, underlying nization and utilization. It is, in this sense, a
conception of critical theory (for an alterna- theory.
tive but compatible reading, see Calhoun, Critical theory is thus not intended to
1995). This conception can be summarized serve as a formula for any particular course
with reference to four key propositions: crit- of social change; it is not a strategic map for
ical theory is theory; it is reflexive; it social change; and it is not a how to-style
involves a critique of instrumental reason; guidebook for social movements. It may
and it is focused on the disjuncture between indeed, it shouldhave mediations to the
the actual and the possible. These proposi- realm of practice, and it is explicitly intended
tions should be understood as being inextri- to inform the strategic perspective of
cably intertwined and mutually constitutive; progressive, radical or revolutionary social

Figure 1 Four mutually constitutive propositions on critical theory.

202 CITY VOL. 13, NOS. 23

and political actors. But, at the same time, Critical theory entails a critique of
crucially, the Frankfurt School conception of instrumental reason
critical theory is focused on a moment of
abstraction that is analytically prior to the As is well known, the Frankfurt School
famous Leninist question of What is to be critical theorists developed a critique of
done? instrumental reason (analyzed at length in
Habermas, 1985, 1987). Building on Max
Webers writings, they argued against the
Critical theory is reflexive societal generalization of a meansends
rationality oriented towards the purposive-
In the Frankfurt School tradition, theory is rational (Zweckrationale), an efficient link-
understood to be at once enabled by, and ing of means to ends, without interrogation
oriented towards, specific historical condi- of the ends themselves. This critique had
tions and contexts. This conceptualization has implications for various realms of industrial
at least two key implications. First, critical organization, technology and administration,
theory entails a total rejection of any stand- but most crucially here, Frankfurt School
pointpositivistic, transcendental, meta- theorists also applied it to the realm of social
physical or otherwisethat claims to be able science. In this sense, critical theory entails a
to stand outside of the contextually specific forceful rejection of instrumental modes of
time/space of history. All social knowledge, social scientific knowledgethat is, those
including critical theory, is embedded within designed to render existing institutional
the dialectics of social and historical change; it arrangements more efficient and effective, to
is thus intrinsically, endemically contextual. manipulate and dominate the social and
Second, Frankfurt School critical theory physical world, and thus to bolster current
transcends a generalized hermeneutic concern forms of power. Instead, critical theorists
with the situatedness of all knowledge. It is demanded an interrogation of the ends of
focused, more specifically, on the question of knowledge, and thus, an explicit engagement
how oppositional, antagonistic forms of with normative questions.
knowledge, subjectivity and consciousness Consistent with their historically reflexive
may emerge within an historical social approach to social science, Frankfurt School
formation. scholars argued that a critical theory must
Critical theorists confront this issue by make explicit its practicalpolitical and
emphasizing the fractured, broken or contra- normative orientations, rather than embrac-
dictory character of capitalism as a social ing a narrow or technocratic vision. Instru-
totality. If the totality were closed, non- mentalist modes of knowledge necessarily
contradictory or complete, there could be no presuppose their own separation from their
critical consciousness of it; there would be no object of investigation. However, once that
need for critique; and indeed, critique would separation is rejected, and the knower is
be structurally impossible. Critique emerges understood to be embedded within the same
precisely insofar as society is in conflict with practical social context that is being investi-
itself, that is, because its mode of develop- gated, normative questions are unavoidable.
ment is self-contradictory. In this sense, criti- The proposition of reflexivity and the
cal theorists are concerned not only to situate critique of instrumental reason are thus
themselves and their research agendas within directly interconnected.
the historical evolution of modern capitalism. Consequently, when critical theorists
Just as crucially, they want to understand discuss the so-called theory/practice prob-
what it is about modern capitalism that lem, they are not referring to the question of
enables their own and others forms of criti- how to apply theory to practice. Rather,
cal consciousness. they are thinking this dialectical relationship

in exactly the opposite directionnamely, Here he agrees with his Frankfurt School
how the realm of practice (and thus, norma- colleagues that, in contrast to the formative
tive considerations) always already informs period of capitalist industrialization, late
the work of theorists, even when the latter 20th-century capitalism lacks any clear
remains on an abstract level. As Habermas agents or agencies of social change; in other
wrote in 1971: words, the proletariat was no longer operat-
ing as a class for itself. Nonetheless,
The dialectical interpretation [associated with Marcuse (1964, p. xii) insists forcefully that
critical theory] comprehends the knowing the need for qualitative change is as pressing
subject in terms of the relations of social
as ever before [] by society as a whole, for
praxis, in terms of its position, both within the
every one of its members. Against this
process of social labor and the process of
enlightening the political forces about their background, Marcuse proposes that the
goals. (Habermas, 1973, pp. 210211) rather abstract quality of critical theory,
during the time in which he was writing, was
organically linked to the absence of an obvi-
Critical theory emphasizes the disjuncture ous agent of radical, emancipatory social
between the actual and the possible change. He argues, moreover, that the
abstractions associated with critical theory
As Therborn (2008) argues, the Frankfurt could only be blunted or dissolved through
School embraces a dialectical critique of concrete-historical struggles: The theoretical
capitalist modernitythat is, one that affirms concepts, Marcuse (1964, p. xii) suggests,
the possibilities for human liberation that are terminate with social change. This powerful
opened up by this social formation while also proposition thus returns us to the idea of
criticizing its systemic exclusions, oppres- critical theory as theory. Just as the critical
sions and injustices. The task of critical thrust of critical theory is historically condi-
theory is therefore not only to investigate the tioned and historically oriented, so too is its
forms of domination associated with modern theoretical orientation continuously shaped
capitalism, but equally, to excavate the eman- and reshaped through ongoing social and
cipatory possibilities that are embedded political transformations.
within, yet simultaneously suppressed by, Marcuses position is reminiscent of
this very system. Marxs famous claim in Volume 3 of Capital
In much Frankfurt School writing, this that all science would be superfluous if there
orientation involves a search for a revolu- were no distinction between reality and
tionary subject, that is, the concern to find appearance. Similarly, Marcuse suggests, in a
an agent of radical social change that could world in which radical or revolutionary
realize the possibilities unleashed yet social change were occurring, critical theory
suppressed by capitalism. However, given would be effectively marginalized or even
the Frankfurt Schools abandonment of any dissolvednot in its critical orientation, but
hope for a proletarian-style revolution, their as theory: it would become concrete practice.
search for a revolutionary subject during the Or, to put the point differently, it is precisely
postwar period generated a rather gloomy because revolutionary, transformative, eman-
pessimism regarding the possibility for social cipatory social practice remains so tightly
transformation and, especially in the work of circumscribed and constrained under
Adorno and Horkheimer, a retreat into rela- contemporary capitalism that critical theory
tively abstract philosophical and aesthetic remains critical theoryand not simply
concerns (Postone, 1993). everyday social practice. From this point of
Marcuse, by contrast, presents a very view, the so-called theory/practice divide is
different position on this matter in the an artifact not of theoretical confusion or
Introduction to One-Dimensional Man. epistemological inadequacies, but of the
204 CITY VOL. 13, NOS. 23

alienated, contradictory social formation in has developed on an intellectual and political

which critical theory is embedded. There is terrain that had already been tilled exten-
no theory that can overcome this divide, sively not only by Marx, but also by the vari-
because, by definition, it cannot be overcome ous theoreticians of the Frankfurt School.
theoretically; it can only be overcome in Given the rather pronounced, even divisive
practice. character of methodological, epistemological
and substantive debates among critical
urbanists since the construction of this field
Critical theory and the urbanization in the early 1970s (see, for instance, Saunders,
question 1986; Gottdiener, 1985; Soja, 2000; Brenner
and Keil, 2005; Robinson, 2006), it is essen-
While Marxs work has exercised a massive tial not to lose sight of these broad areas of
influence on the post-1968 field of critical foundational agreement.
urban studies, few, if any, contributors to However, as the field of critical urban
this field have engaged directly with the writ- studies continues to evolve and diversify in
ings of the Frankfurt School. Nonetheless, the early 21st century, its character as a puta-
I believe that most authors who position tively critical theory deserves to be
themselves within the intellectual universe of subjected to careful scrutiny and systematic
critical urban studies would endorse, at least debate. In an incisive feminist critique of
in general terms, the conception of critical Habermas, Fraser (1989) famously asked,
theory that is articulated through the four Whats critical about critical theory?
propositions summarized above: Frasers question can also be posed of the
field of study under discussion in this issue of
they insist on the need for abstract, theo- CITY: whats critical about critical urban
retical arguments regarding the nature of theory? Precisely because the process of
urban processes under capitalism, while capitalist urbanization continues its forward-
rejecting the conception of theory as a movement of creative destruction on a world
handmaiden to immediate, practical or scale, the meanings and modalities of critique
instrumental concerns; can never be held constant; they must, on the
they view knowledge of urban questions, contrary, be continually reinvented in rela-
including critical perspectives, as being tion to the unevenly evolving political
historically specific and mediated through economic geographies of this process and the
power relations; diverse conflicts it engenders. This is, in my
they reject instrumentalist, technocratic view, one of the major intellectual and politi-
and market-driven forms of urban analysis cal challenges confronting critical urban
that promote the maintenance and repro- theorists today, and it is one that several
duction of extant urban formations; and contributors to this issue of CITY grapple
they are concerned to excavate possibili- with quite productively.
ties for alternative, radically emancipatory As indicated above, the concept of critique
forms of urbanism that are latent, yet developed by Marx and the vision of critical
systemically suppressed, within contem- theory elaborated in the Frankfurt School
porary cities. were embedded within historically specific
formations of capitalism. Consistent with
Of course, any given contribution to critical their requirement for reflexivity, each of
urban theory may be more attuned to some these approaches explicitly understood itself
of these propositions than to others, but they to be embedded within such a formation, and
appear, cumulatively, to constitute an impor- was oriented self-consciously towards
tant epistemological foundation for the field subjecting the latter to critique. This require-
as a whole. In this sense, critical urban theory ment for reflexivity, as elaborated above,

must also figure centrally in any attempt to Benjamins wide-ranging sketches (2002) on
appropriate or reinvent critical theory, urban the capitalist transformation of 19th-century
or otherwise, in the early 21st century. Paris have engendered significant scholarly
However, as Postone (1993, 1999) has interest (Buck-Morss, 1991). Even during
argued, the conditions of possibility for criti- the competitive and FordistKeynesian
cal theory have been thoroughly reconsti- phases of capitalist development, urbaniza-
tuted under post-Fordist, post-Keynesian tion processesmanifested above all in the
capitalism. The nature of the structural formation and expansion of large-scale urban
constraints on emancipatory forms of social regionsfigured crucially in the dynamics of
change, and the associated imagination of capital accumulation and in the organization
alternatives to capitalism, have been qualita- of everyday social relations and political
tively transformed through the acceleration struggles. Under present geohistorical condi-
of geoeconomic integration, the intensified tions, however, the process of urbanization
financialization of capital, the crisis of the has become increasingly generalized on a
postwar model of welfare state intervention, world scale. Urbanization no longer refers
the still ongoing neoliberalization of state simply to the expansion of the great towns
forms and the deepening of planetary ecolog- of industrial capitalism, to the sprawling
ical crises (Albritton et al., 2001; Harvey, metropolitan production centers, suburban
2005). The most recent global financial settlement grids and regional infrastructural
crisisthe end result of a roller coaster of configurations of FordistKeynesian capital-
catastrophic regional crashes that have been ism, or to the anticipated linear expansion of
rippling across the world economy for at city-based human populations in the worlds
least a decade (Harvey, 2008)has generated mega-cities. Instead, as Lefebvre (2003
a new round of worldwide, crisis-induced [1970]) anticipated nearly four decades ago,
restructuring that has still further rearticu- this process now increasingly unfolds
lated the epistemological, political and insti- through the uneven stretching of an urban
tutional conditions of possibility for any fabric, composed of diverse types of invest-
critical social theory (Brand and Sekler, 2009; ment patterns, settlement spaces, land use
Gowan, 2009; Peck et al., 2009). While the matrices and infrastructural networks, across
four aforementioned elements of critical the entire world economy. Urbanization is,
theory surely remain urgently relevant in the to be sure, still manifested in the continued,
early 21st century, their specific meanings massive expansion of cities, city-regions and
and modalities need to be carefully reconcep- mega-city-regions, but it equally entails the
tualized. The challenge for those committed ongoing sociospatial transformation of
to the project of critical theory is to do so in a diverse, less densely agglomerated settlement
manner that is adequate to the continued spaces that are, through constantly thicken-
forward-motion of capital, its associated ing inter-urban and inter-metropolitan infra-
crisis-tendencies and contradictions, and the structural networks, being ever more tightly
struggles and oppositional impulses it is interlinked to the major urban centers. We
generating across the variegated landscapes of are witnessing, in short, nothing less than the
the world economy. intensification and extension of the urbaniza-
Confronting this task hinges, I submit, on tion process at all spatial scales and across the
a much more systematic integration of urban entire surface of planetary space (Lefebvre,
questions into the analytical framework of 2003 [1970]; Schmid, 2005).
critical social theory as a whole. As As during previous phases of capitalist
mentioned above, the problematic of urban- development, the geographies of urbaniza-
ization received relatively scant attention tion are profoundly unevenbut their
within classical Frankfurt School analyses; parameters are no longer confined to any
and it is only relatively recently that single type of settlement space, whether
206 CITY VOL. 13, NOS. 23

defined as a city, a city-region, a metropoli- more systematically and comprehensively

tan region or even a mega-city-region. into the intellectual architecture of critical
Consequently, under contemporary circum- theory as a whole.
stances, the urban can no longer be viewed
as a distinct, relatively bounded site; it has
instead become a generalized, planetary Acknowledgements
condition in and through which the accu-
mulation of capital, the regulation of politi- Thanks are due to Peter Marcuse, Margit
caleconomic life, the reproduction of Mayer and Christian Schmid for helpful
everyday social relations and the contesta- discussions and critical feedback.
tion of the earth and humanitys possible
futures are simultaneously organized and
fought out. In light of this, it is increasingly References
untenable to view urban questions as
merely one among many specialized sub- Adorno, T., Albert, H., Dahrendorf, R., Habermas, J.,
topics to which a critical theoretical Pilot, H. and Popper, K. (1976) The Positivist Dispute
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