(This is a slightly edited version of a post from September 2011).
A while back, I got into a lively debate with some comrades about the role of the city in socialist politics. The debate seemed to dwell on the question of whether the city or the urban form (it's worth noting that those very concepts were contested in the discussion) coheres with (or makes possible) the socialist ideal of a collectively self-governing society free of exploitation and oppression. I won't try to summarize the objections or positions of those with whom I disagreed, since I wouldn't be able to do them justice. But I would like to reflect a bit more about the position I found myself defending in that discussion.
Let me begin by confessing that much of my thinking about these matters is strongly influenced by an article Mike Davis wrote a couple years back for New Left Review. Here's an excerpt that is particularly emblematic of the view he puts forward in that essay:
There are innumerable examples and they all point toward a single unifying principle: namely, that the cornerstone of the low-carbon city, far more than any particular green design or technology, is the priority given to public affluence over private wealth. As we all know, several additional Earths would be required to allow all of humanity to live in a suburban house with two cars and a lawn, and this obvious constraint is sometimes evoked to justify the impossibility of reconciling finite resources with rising standards of living. Most contemporary cities, in rich countries or poor, repress the potential environmental efficiencies inherent in human-settlement density. The ecological genius of the city remains a vast, largely hidden power. But there is no planetary shortage of ‘carrying capacity’ if we are willing to make democratic public space, rather than modular, private consumption, the engine of sustainable equality. Public affluence—represented by great urban parks, free museums, libraries and infinite possibilities for human interaction—represents an alternative route to a rich standard of life based on Earth-friendly sociality. Although seldom noticed by academic urban theorists, university campuses are often little quasi-socialist paradises around rich public spaces for learning, research, performance and human reproduction.The brilliance of Davis's argument is that he weaves together the ecological genius of urban living with the social and political importance of the city. Taking ecological concerns seriously, he argues, requires anti-capitalism. But sustainability also requires urban forms. And, independently of ecological concerns, Davis gives us reasons to think that the socialist ideal has always had a close affinity with the forms of social organization made possible by dense urban communities. All three political concerns -anti-capitalist, ecological and urban- hang together in a kind of equilibrium, each drawing support from the other. I find this to be a a highly plausible and attractive picture.
Before I say more about why I endorse this picture, let me say a little bit about what's essential to the idea of the city. Like any familiar concept, the idea of city carries with it innumerable associations and meanings, not all of which I intend to endorse. As I've noted elsewhere, the idea of "the urban" (or worse, "the inner city") is often a racialized euphemism in the United States. I've written elsewhere about the phenomenon of suburban white "fear of the city", which goes hand in hand with the racist image of black people (especially young black men) as dangerous, pathological, angry, and so on. This racist ideology, when combined with individualistic/consumerist ideologies nourished by the suburban form, yields an especially potent anti-city form of consciousness. Of course, as waves of gentrification flood into cities, expelling working class residents, most of them people of color, this generalized "fear of the city" has begun to wane among middle and ruling class whites. Still, it's fair to say that there is still plenty of animus against the urban form out there. In defending the city as an ideal, I'd like to sidestep these ideological encumbrances.
By "city", I mean nothing more than a densely populated community in which functional uses are integrated (rather than separated), that is walkable and bikable, where large numbers of people with very different backgrounds live together and share basic social institutions (e.g. libraries, parks, museums, schools, etc.). I mean an active, lively built environment that makes use of efficiencies created by density, mixed-use, and diversity. I mean a space that laid out on a human scale, not a automotive scale. Though every city fails to fully embody this ideal, big cities come the closest to approximating it. I'll elaborate more on this ideal in a moment.
Still, attractive though this ideal may be, cities continue to get a bad rap. Cities, it is often said, are dirty, cramped, polluted, dangerous, and concrete-heavy. They embody the worst of capitalist industrialization. According to this common view, if cities are gray and asphalt, suburbs and towns are green and leafy. Suburban living, the story goes, is comfortable, safe, harmonious and, most importantly for "green" politics, loaded with expansive lawns and large trees. Low density residential configurations make for a less concrete-heavy landscape, and strict separation of uses entails that residential spaces are far from industrial spaces. It follows, then, that cities, with all their iniquity, pollution and concrete, are the antithesis of sustainable living. Sustainability requires a suburban home with a Prius parked out front, a new-fangled energy efficient refrigerator full of organic produce, etc.
Though these ideas have wide currency, on reflection they have little plausibility.
As the Davis quote makes clear, we would need several additional earths for everyone on the planet to have the massive single-family McMansion with a big irrigated lawn, a couple of cars, etc. It therefore goes without saying that the McMansion lifestyle cannot be egalitarian or, for that matter, socialist in spirit since it is only possible on the assumption that the vast majority of humanity doesn't enjoy it. Now, McMansion enthusiasts might complain that I'm for levelling everyone down to shared poverty. But I'm not; I'm for privileging public wealth over private consumption. I'd rather enjoy the beauty and grandness of world-class public buildings than lock myself up in a McMansion.
Many readers of this blog will already know that I have no love for cars, so I'll set the issue of cars aside for the moment the problem of the environmental costs associated car-exclusive built environments. (See here for some of my own views, and see here and here for more recent socialist critiques). This leaves many other problems to be dealt with, e.g. extremely high per capita uses of energy (think of the energy spent heating a McMansion in the winter). Even the surface-level aesthetic credentials of the ideal "green" suburb are dubious. Most suburbs are monotonous nightmares where indigenous plant life is uprooted, old trees cut down to make space for useless lawns, tacky landscaping, multi-lane highways and, of course, massive parking lots. Many of the suburbs surrounding Chicago (especially the newer ones) tend to have far fewer trees than the typical street in the city. Moreover, the low density of suburbs combined with their extreme un-walkability (and un-bikability) means that you can only enjoy what green-space there is from the windows of an automobile. And let's not forget the massive, four-lane highways connecting sprawling residential subdivisions with other single-use spheres of activity. To say that these are an eyesore is an understatement.
But the problems of the suburban form aren't simply aesthetic or ecological. The social, political and economic problems are profound as well. I'll keep this point brief. The suburban form, as such, privileges individual consumption over public goods, it alienates individuals from one another, it nourishes individualist/consumerist ideologies by leaving little space for non-commercial social interactions among people. Moreover, suburbs are usually planned piecemeal in a top-down manner by developers in conjunction with national (and multi-national) corporations, they are often racially exclusive, and lots of them are little more than quasi-feudal gated "communities" meant to keep out those who aren't rich. It has also been noted (by Davis, among others) that the low-density spatial configuration of suburbs makes organization and collective action less likely to transpire (compared with a dense, urban working-class neighborhood where residents would be far more likely to unite and fight).
So much for suburbia. But what's the alternative?
The only viable alternative, I'd like to suggest, is the city. But not everyone on the Left agrees with that claim. Anarcho-primitivists, for example, argue that the city isn't the only alternative to suburbia. In fact, according to their view, city-dwellers should reject cities for similar reasons and return to pre-capitalist forms of social organization that predate the industrial revolution.
I could spend several posts saying why this view is wrong, so I'll have to be unfairly brief here. First of all, as a Marxist, I am not unequivocally negative about Modernity. I am ambivalent: modernity has brought with it all kinds of progressive possibilities for developing human potential, but it has also brought vastly increased environmental destruction and new forms of exploitation and oppression.
In classical Marxism, the ambivalence toward modernity (which, under any plausible interpretation of modern, has to be loosely identified with capitalism) expresses itself as follows. On the one hand, capitalism has developed the forces of production (e.g. technologies, productive instruments, productive techniques, technically useful knowledge) to an extremely high degree. But the highly developed productive forces and technology in capitalist society are not put in the service of human liberation. Though we can do so today in ways that would have been unthinkable in the Bronze Age, capitalism doesn't use the productive forces to eradicate all forms of poverty, suffering, and starvation. Technological innovation is not put in the service of developing human potential or creating green/sustainable living. Rather it is put in the service of generating ever growing profits. As far as the default mode of the system is concerned, it's all about the bottom line, all the time, and in the long run that the bottom line requires endless compound economic growth. It's not hard to see that this spells destruction for the natural environment.
But that destruction isn't the result of technology, industry, and cities as such (as primitivists would have it). Environmental degradation is the result of the social/political system of capitalism, i.e. an apparatus which generates and uses technology for purposes other than human need and ecological considerations. So the culprit is our political system, not technology or the urban form itself. A sustainable, green socialist society need not dispense with all technologies developed after the emergence of capitalism. That would be absurd. After the revolution, I'd still like to have modern plumbing thank you very much. And aside from improving human lives in innumerable other ways, many technologies enable efficiencies that reduce per capita energy consumption and waste.
And let us not even begin to list the incredible forms of knowledge, association, culture, and so forth that have been enabled by modern technological developments. There's no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We should radically change the uses that capitalism puts technology to. And we should radically change the way that technological innovation proceeds under capitalism, and put in the service of worthier goals. And, to be sure, many technologies currently in vogue in capitalist societies will need to be abandoned, chief among them the personal automobile as a primary means for each individual to get around. So much for primitivism.
So if I'm right, that leaves us with the city as an ideal form of socialist community. I've set this up as a negative, indirect argument for the city using the process of elimination. But I don't think that's the main thing the city has going for it.
Aside from the environmental gains to be made from consolidating space, eliminating waste, and creating efficiencies from the shared use of public institutions and utilities, there are social and political benefits that attach to city life as well. As Davis points out, the possibilities for spontaneous social interaction and the propensity to feel a sense of shared fate make the urban form an excellent accompaniment to the socialist ideal of a free community of equals, or an association of free producers. Furthermore, if socialist politics privilege the common good and public wealth over private gain and individual greed, then cities are an excellent physical embodiment of the socialist ideal. Rather than hiding our interdependence on one another, cities lay it bare in a way that other forms of structuring communities do not.
The close affinity between collective self-governance from below and the dense, urban form should not be overlooked either. To some extent, the Occupy movement has certainly born this out. If we want to affirm the fact that we are a community of equals who cooperate together for mutual gain, urban forms are the way to go. There is an implicit disavowal of community and interdependence in low-density suburban forms. The built environment in suburban forms creates an illusion of individual self-sufficiency that encourages toxic political forms of consciousness. At their best, however, cities make it hard to ignore our interdependence. There's something intrinsically valuable, I think, about being aware of the ways that we're profoundly connected and inter-dependent.
Cities also unleash human potential and creativity in ways that no other social form can. The sheer density of interesting and creative people living in close proximity to one another creates the possibility for endless combinations of different approaches, lifestyles, artistic endeavors, and projects. If socialism is about making human development, rather than profit, the priority of social production, I can think of no better means than the best aspects of dense urban spaces.