The essence of critical theory1 is to change society rather than simply understand and analyse it. While there are many positions within the broad school of critical theory, particularly those related to the Frankfurt School of thought, we will focus in the first instance upon one main dimension, namely Marxist theory. I go on to highlight later critical theory, developed out of the shortcomings of Marxist thought to come to terms with later incarnations of capitalist society and the failure of Soviet-style interpretations to protect and develop individual freedom. The key proposition of Marxist theory is that urban areas and planning cannot be treated as objects of study separate from society. They are produced by that society and, more fundamentally, have an internal logic and function that is primarily derived from the economic structuring forces within that society – in most cases capitalism. Put simply, cities and planning (including planning theory) are reflections of capitalism and at the same time help constitute it. Such a perspective poses serious challenges to many cherished concepts, particularly in approaches such as those described in the previous chapter. For example, planners often justify planning by reference to the ‘public interest’. According to critical and Marxist perspectives, there is no such public interest but only an interest of capital that projects or creates a state mechanism such as planning to help it continue and give the impression of public control. This amounts to what Nicholas Low (1991, p. 4) has termed a dissenting theory of planning because it is highly critical and yet provides few alternatives to the status quo beyond dismantling it.
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