The research, writing and teaching I have done has been to a large extent propelled by my political passions. In my paid work, in my 20s and 30s I was a policy researcher on urban industries and economy, and in my 40s, 50s and 60s a university lecturer and researcher in social science, human geography, and the political-economy of cities. This working life was not planned as a career (my friend Noel Grieg once remarked that ‘career’ is what people do off the edge of a cliff). I did my first degree and a PhD in physics. But this was in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period of tumultuous political struggles around the world; the Vietnamese were resisting the US’s invasion, trade unions were taking on employers and government, the women’s and lesbian and gay movement erupted, African Americans had transformed US society. These struggles first impacted on me first during a year I spent between school and university in California, when I learnt about the US war against Vietnam and joined protests against it. In 1972 I joined a newly formed Gay Liberation Front group in Oxford, where I was doing my PhD, which brought me out of my agonised closet, and for the next two decades my main political activism was around lesbian and gay rights. This experience led me to wish to do work which engaged with society rather than become a physics academic. Because I had been interested in urban landscapes and architecture as a child, I decided to do a MPhil in Town Planning. During my MPhil studies I became involved in the squatting movement in London.
I first became interested in Marxism as a way of understanding gender and sexual oppression, as I found the philosophically-idealist theories dominant in the gay movement at the time superficial and unconvincing. This Marxist approach to sexuality led to my book with Mike Macnair, Gay Liberation in the Eighties (an unfortunate title: it is actually about capitalism in general). I joined the International Marxist Group because of its support for the gay movement and its activism against the Vietnam war. The frequently made criticism that ‘Marxism is economistic’ was thus, for me, always the opposite of the truth.
Involvement in left politics, the squatting movement in London, and subsequently in trade unions, led me into Marxist political economy, which has been the basis of my work as a researcher and a lecturer. My focus has been the political economy of cities and regions, and spatial social science more generally, attempting to use Marxism in an open, innovative and creative way. This political and theoretical approach has had two key strands. First, all my research and writing has, directly or indirectly, been concerned with the (internally related) struggles against class exploitation and social oppressions, and how to take these struggles forward. I have never been interested in ‘technical’ or ‘what works’ policy analysis and development, nor in academic theory, however ‘radical’, which abstracts from social power and oppression. Secondly, my writing has been centrally concerned with the contradictory nature of capitalist society: how every major social process contains its own negation, and how social change is powered by these contradictions. I have sought to show how difference often arises from contradictions, and how contradictions produce dilemmas for both capital and labour, destabilising policies and strategies. Above all, I have tried to show that the myriad problems of capitalist society rest on its deep contradictions, which cannot be resolved except through a long struggle to create a socialist society, in which production, reproduction and work are controlled democratically by all people. These themes are explored further in the Research section.
Since 2005 I have developed links and collaborations with left academics in Turkey. I have given talks at conferences in Turkey and had two articles republished in Turkish and co-authored an article on the contemporary restructuring of Istanbul. The highlight of my life as a lecturer was supervising three Turkish PhD students, who wrote excellent theses on working class housing and the contradictions of investment in the built environment in Turkish cities. Through these various collaborations, I have learnt a great deal about the history and contemporary society of Turkey, the contradictions of its political-economy and its class struggles. The ever-increasing repression of the working class, the left, and left academics in particular by Erdogan is appalling and grievous, as is the connivance in this repression by the western European powers. Our solidarity is badly needed.
In the last forty years I have participated actively in Marxist academic conferences, starting with the Conference of Socialist Economists in the 1970s and continuing more recently with the Historical Materialism and International Initiative for the Promotion of Political Economy conferences. I currently am co-organiser of the Urban and Regional stream of the IIPPE. I have also participated in the mainstream conferences in human geography and urban studies in Britain, the US and Australia, where I have tried to promote Marxist work. But the steady rightward drift of these academic disciplines, including explicit anti-Marxism, has made this participation increasingly uncongenial. In these disciplines, my work has been better appreciated in the US, Canada and Australia than in Britain; in the latter country ‘critical geography’ has been dominated since the 1980s by post-structuralism, post-modernism and a rejection of class politics which came out of Euro-communism.
I have used my academic studies and understanding, particularly of economics, for education within left organisations, and writing for left newspapers and websites. At Sheffield University I organised (and gave) public lectures and seminars to promote left ideas, and helped to set up and run the Free University of Sheffield during the student protests of the early 2010s. Wishing to suggest Marxist alternatives to centre-left politics, I have written many letters to The Guardian and had quite a few published. I am now aiming to give these interventions into public debate a more up-to-date and fuller form as a political blog.