Michael Walzer’s “Notes on Public Space” is a valuable reopening of a debate that in the past has been very important to radical thought. I will here suggest that qualitative and aesthetic issues like this one may have an exemplary relevance for politics in late-capitalist societies, and may help us to revitalize the agenda of the left.
I want to situate our understanding of space and its uses in a longer historical perspective, and to examine the antagonism that has long existed between capitalism and the whole idea of public or, as I prefer to say, social space. I shall argue, first, that our most influential conceptions of social space, still preserved in buildings and city plans, are precapitalist in origin; second, that the partial failure of the “modern movement” and of the radical utopian ideas associated with it is due to the extent to which socialist alternatives to the 19th century industrial city were unavoidably conceived of as compromises with or ameliorations of capitalism, and not as an alternative to it; and third, that the spatial forms of late-or perhaps postcapitalism show a more promising evolution than Walzer suggests. Perhaps this difference in perspective derives from my own primary location in England, and more broadly in Europe, where precapitalist architectural and spatial forms have retained a more pervasive role....
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