Profit Drives the Growth Machine

By Rodney D. Green

Profit maximization is at the heart of the Growth Machine. But the Growth Machine isn’t strictly a local or regional phenomenon, as suggested by urban planners who rely on the Growth Machine model. It operates according to the global imperatives of capitalism.

The Urban Growth Machine merely reflects the current operation of capitalism in the field of real estate development. Despite our interest in the phenomenon, it has few historically unique characteristics. The Growth Machine (as supported by most of organized labor) is merely the way that an organic profit-maximizing system, in the presence of a variety of practical constraints, has taken pernicious shape in the contemporary United States.

The Growth Machine is an aspect of the social structure of accumulation described by Bowles, Gintis, and Weisskopf in their seminal book Beyond the Wasteland over a decade ago. They pointed out how labor collaborated with capital in the special historical circumstance of a capitalist world dominated by the U.S. after World War II. This economic success allowed capital to sweep a few crumbs off the table in exchange for labor peace. Meanwhile, popular movements against private urban development and the supporting infrastructure projects (such as urban freeways) emerged. Workers, their allies, and competing capitalists resisted the degradation of their physical and social environment based on their place of residence, rather than on the traditional nexus of struggle, their place of work.

Community Planning Faces the Growth Machine

Profit maximizing by private capital is an inexorable impulse. Space is used and reproduced to facilitate a profitable return on investment. True, popular movements can nibble around the edges of this process, and even at times curtail a particular land use or public project inimical to the interests of workers. Sometimes zoning decisions and environmental mitigation work, at least for a time. But, like a clown squeezing a balloon, the relentless pressure of profit-maximization makes the balloon bulge elsewhere, creating another monstrosity in another locale.

Federally subsidized road building and mortgages lead to the desertion of the central city and the suburbanization of jobs and homes that we associate with the Growth Machine. This was followed by gentrification, urban infill, and suburban ghettoization as central city market forces offered investors the prospects of competitive profit. Community gets left out of this ironically labeled community development process, as capital flows back into the inner city with the blessing of elected officials, investors, contractors, media boosters, and construction unions. The skills of these Growth Machine actors are well honed, and they can usually co-opt opponents with the offer of jobs for local residents, meeting rooms, streetscape programs, and minor architectural adjustments.

If community development planning is, therefore, a Sisyphean task in the face of the power and skill of the evolving Growth Machine, what is the alternative?

Socialist and Communist Planning Models

Some planners believe that the alternative to the Growth Machine lies with planning under socialist and communist governments. From the days when Parisian architects took charrettes to the masses, progressive planning has attempted to reshape space to meet the needs of the people. But such efforts are inevitably constrained by the larger systemic forces in society, in particular the subordination of land use to the maximization of profit. In social democracy, while social benefits are typically greater, profit maximization remains the core driver of the economy; most real community development is hindered.

In Leninist socialism, most accurately termed state capitalism, private profit maximization was largely suppressed. But it was replaced by the goal of production-maximization based on a reformed, but still intact, individualist wage system. While there were many social benefits in this system, the priority of enhanced production – a reasonable goal in societies suffering from privation – was placed ahead of the political goal of achieving human equality and community. Centralized decision-making placed technical production needs ahead of collective and cooperative human interaction. As a result, it neglected the construction of human social spaces which enhanced well-rounded human development. Moreover, the maintenance of an alienating wage system reinforced the separation of people from each other through individualism and even competition, hindering the social processes that serve as a counterweight to one-sided production-maximizing decisions. Thus, socialism-in-practice, like capitalism, maintained barriers to a fully empowering community development and planning. It contained its own obstacles to achieving communism and was a vehicle for the transition back to capitalism.

A Radical Strategy for Opposing the Growth Machine  So what is a progressive planner or community development advocate to do in response to the Growth Machine? Obviously, we must still push the stone up the hill, but at the same time we should hone and share our views of a qualitatively different future. Who else will take up the task of truly transforming society so that community development planning becomes a meaningful and rewarding activity, not just a euphemism for real estate investment and a strategy for capital to cultivate boosters among leaders of minority and immigrant communities?

An alternative strategy must pose and then answer two questions:

• Can progressives concerned about local land use and environmental issues emanating from the Urban Growth Machine succeed in the face of capital?

• Must capitalism itself be confronted and defeated for this progress to occur, especially given the left’s demoralization following the collapse of the Soviet Union?

The answers reveal themselves in our daily reform struggles, in which we must never lose sight of the big picture, even if it seems distant from today’s realities. Many people who are willing to fight the growth machine already share some of the basic human values of communism and socialism. They cannot usually articulate them, are not fully conscious of them, but when probed they favor a classless society, an end to wasteful and alienating competition, egalitarian access to goods and services to meet everyone’s needs, and democratic decision-making at every level of society. Many would prefer to replace top-down, expert-driven planning, constrained by the goals of maximizing private profit or production, with a social planning process based on humanistic principles.

Not all activists feel this way, of course. In many community organizations, individualist ambitions to become the strongest and most financially able CDC or CBO mimic larger capitalist developers. Often, apparently democratic demands for a “seat at the table” reflect a conflict between small and large capital, not a struggle for new human relationships in production, space, and land use.

The social planning process that many people prefer contrasts powerfully to the Growth Machine of modern capitalism. It considers the many-sided well being of humanity in their places of residence, work, and recreation and is driven by genuinely empowered community members. Achieving this model means replacing the various forms of modern capitalism with a humanistically based communism as a necessary condition of community development. While the prospects of achieving communism may seem remote today, especially in light of the failures of the revolutionary movements of the 20th century, and while this vision appears quite radical to many, a vision of what could be is a necessary part of our struggle for community development. Indeed, such a long-term, holistic viewpoint in which human relations, not property relations are primary, prevents us from losing our focus when we participate in demoralizing reform struggles over local land use and infrastructure issues.

In the next wave of upheaval against capitalism’s wars, economic dislocation, racism, and massive inequity, we should place the struggle for humanistic communist values at the heart of struggles for social transformation. Then the working class can sort out the debris of the Urban Growth Machine. It can determine what, if anything, to retain, when we rebuild society. Shouldn’t we render obsolete the deals and tactics we use – largely in vain – to stem the tide of those capitalist-driven initiatives which devastate our communities? Capitalism’s values are not hardwired into our beings; we can surely do much better as we struggle to achieve social progress.

Rodney Green teaches economics at Howard University in Washington, D.C. This article is based on remarks presented at the 1996 conference of the Planners Network at Pratt Institute. He can be reached at alaec06(at)aol(dot)com.

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