W. Cudny u.a.: Growth and Change in Post-socialist Cities of Central Europe

Growth and Change in Post-socialist Cities of Central Europe.

Cudny, W.; Kunc, J.
London 2021: Routledge
274 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Gergely Olt, Institute for Sociology, Centre for Social Sciences, Budapest

Recently, quite a few scholars have been arguing against the relevance of post-socialism for various reasons: too much time has passed since the regime changes to consider the socialist history still relevant; integration into the European Union (EU) marks the end of the transition process from socialism to liberal democracy; and post-socialist contexts are simply considered as semiperipheries and dependent, where neo-liberal governance and free markets prevail. The narrative of semiperipheral positions can be criticized by historical differences between post-socialist and other contexts and also by differences among contexts considered as post-socialist.1 After 30 years, the process of post-socialist change is rather considered as a transformation than a transition, which itself created differences compared to Western contexts and also within post-socialist ones.2 The deep involvement of the state and political power in market economy – especially the politically controlled privatization process and its consequences and the politically controlled allocation of EU transfers – shows that neo-liberal ideology is less than hegemonic: illiberal 3 or post-neo-liberal 4 tendencies also exist besides it. Finally, in certain aspects, continuities of socialism and, in other aspects, anti-continuities (and their consequences) exist parallel in cities according to the de-territorialized understanding of post-socialism.5 These debates are also related to the issue of comparison and the universal use of concepts such as suburbanization, gentrification, or urban shrinkage – all coined in Western contexts. Besides these conceptual debates, the normative assessment of post-socialist change is also polemic: some refer to these events as a cataclysm, while others highlight development, economic growth, and opportunities.

This book edited by Waldemar Cudny and Josef Kunc, gathers together case studies of 11 cities and conurbations where socialist planning and ideology left its mark and where the ways of governance and the rationale of economy changed after 1989. The volume (without further explanation) limits itself to the cities of the Visegrád Four countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary) and the former German Democratic Republic.

The above discursive context and the relatively limited number of English language publications justify the creation of such a volume. The title and the (rather tacit) concept of the volume refer to the fact that besides demographic shrinking and the dismantling of socialist industry (often developed or sustained to satisfy the needs of Soviet imperialism), there had also been (at least sectorial) economic growth or a potential for that.

With the analysis of the social and political reasons behind demographic shrinking and the still-remaining opportunities of economic growth, the book could have been connected to the debates about economic determination of urban shrinkage. The often-mentioned expansion of higher education could have been connected to the literature about the role of universities in cities and studentification, with the added focus on the post-socialist state. The presented role of national (or federal and regional) governments in urban development (e.g. Leipzig) or EU integration (e.g. Bratislava) can be connected to discourses about the political and economic role of cities and their relations with higher-level political power. New industrial developments (e.g. large car factories in Nitra and Chemnitz) could have been connected to discourses about dependency from foreign capital. There are continuities described, even from before socialism (e.g. Leipzig and Pécs), in examples of temporarily maintaining socialist heavy industry for political reasons (e.g. Katowice) or in cases of downsizing socialist mass industry to smaller-scale high-quality production (e.g. Lodz and Bruno). Also anti-continuities of the post-socialist transformation appear in the volume: forcing and then abandoning cultural development in Pécs, right-wing political reactions to the transformation in Chemnitz, and state-led downscaling and regrowth as well as the rigidity of these state-level transformation policies in case of Leipzig. The described peculiarities of urban processes could have been connected to comparative debates of these urban issues. For example, the role of the state and institutions in gentrification could have been analysed, and differences could have been compared with the mainstream literature.6

However, most of these opportunities remain largely unused because international theoretical debates are less highlighted and clarified throughout the book. The other reason for the missed opportunities is that most of the chapters try to describe whole cities (or conurbations), instead of presenting particular examples of “post-socialist growth and change” on a smaller scale or focusing in more detail on particular urban phenomena.

An example of the first issue is the interchangeable use of the words “transformation” and “transition”, not only in the introduction and conclusions but also in many chapters. The one counterexample is the chapter about Chemnitz; however, the discussion of the issue is only very brief in the description of the whole city. Another general theoretical issue is that the chapters and editors often write about the “success of cities” to mean solely economic development and are less reflexive on the uneven distribution as well as the costs and consequences of investment and economic growth (with a few exceptions such as Leipzig, Chemnitz, and Pécs). This can be captured in the uncritical citations of Richard Florida as well.

This descriptive attitude veils underlying mechanisms. For example, why certain cities are supported by states and others are rather left alone is not discussed. However, as Varró’s 7 detailed analysis shows, political processes beyond the neo-liberal logic were also centrally important in post-socialist territorial development patterns. Many chapters implicitly or explicitly claim that urban processes happened in a “very similar” way (only with temporal delay) to examples outside the post-socialist context, and differences in the relations of the markets and political power are hardly mentioned. However, this position questions post-socialism’s relevance and therefore the volume itself. The historical and institutional peculiarities of the transformation create both differences and similarities 8, compared to other contexts. However, differences and their theoretical relevance are rarely discussed throughout the volume.

As these cities and, in general, the process of post-socialist transformation itself are lesser known to an international audience, the effort to gather all these examples and cases is highly admirable. However, by continuing the atheoretical tradition of post-socialist urban studies 9 the full potential of this endeavour remains unused. Editors of book series and publishers should also be involved to move beyond these weaknesses. Besides space for publication, opportunities for the exchange of knowledge, not just data, should be created (workshops, symposiums, lectures, or scholarships) to better embed post-socialist urban studies in international discourses.

1 K. Wiest, Comparative Debates in Post-Socialist Urban Studies, in: Urban Geography 33 (2012) 6, pp. 829-849.
2 A. Stenning / K. Hörschelmann, History, geography and difference in the post-socialist world: or, do we still need post-socialism?, in: Antipode 40 (200) 2, pp. 312-35.
3 I. Szelényi, / T. Csillag, Drifting from liberal democracy. Neo-conservative ideology of managed illiberal democratic capitalism in post-communist Europe, in: Intersections. East European Journal of Society and Politics. 1 (2015)1. DOI: https://doi.org/10.17356/ieejsp.v1i1.28.
4 D. Geva, Orbán’s Ordonationalism as Post-Neoliberal Hegemony, in: Theory, Culture & Society 38 (2021) 6, pp. 71-93.
5 T. Tuvikene, Strategies for comparative urbanism. Post-socialism as a de-territorialized concept, in: International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 40, 2016, pp. 132–146.
6 M. Bernt, How post-socialist is gentrification? Observations in East Berlin and Saint Petersburg, Eurasian Geography and Economics, 57 (2016) 4-5, pp. 565-587.
7 K. Varró, Re‐politicising the analysis of “new state spaces” in Hungary and beyond. Towards an effective engagement with “actually existing neoliberalism, in: Antipode 42 (2010) 5, pp. 1253-1278.
8 See Wiest, 2012 and Bernt, 2016.
9 J. Tímár, More than ‘Anglo-American’, it is ‘Western’. Hegemony in geography from a Hungarian perspective, in: Geoforum 35 (2004), pp. 533-538.

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