Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Socialist Politics and the City

(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.

Still, we know that McMansions aren't the root of the problem. The problem is one of a basic model of social/economic development that became dominant in in the postwar era. I'm talking about the low-density, use-segregated, car-heavy model of development characteristic of Postwar suburban sprawl, which has been nothing less than an unmitigated environmental (and social) disaster. It is well-known that this model was pushed by ruling classes after WWII to facilitate economic growth (think of, for instance, the impact of the suburban form on the sales of new construction homes, cars, appliances, etc.). The construction of the interstate highway system, in conjunction with huge subsidies for mortgages in low-density suburban areas, made this model hegemonic for a generation. Its dominance continues, though it is becoming increasingly contested and mired by its own contradictions.

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.


Devin Finbarr said...

"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 ..."

My girlfriend lives in Philadelphia with her sister. A little while ago her sister was robbed at gunpoint outside their apartment (by two black men). Around the corner a few months a go a young white man was mugged by black man, shot, and paralyzed. This summer a dozen blocks up the street a small yuppie group was set upon by a flash mob of black youths, beaten, and sent to the hospital. Also up the street there was a shooting outside a black night club. And on Halloween a group of black kids followed my girlfriend to the door her apartment, grabbed a carton of eggs out of her shopping bag as she was unlocking the door, and smashed them on her shoes.

Is my girlfriend and her sister racist because they now are ultra wary of young black men in their neighborhood who are dressed like thugs? Is my girlfriend racist because she crosses the street late at night when they see two black men in hoodies walking towards her? Is she racist because she now entirely avoids certain streets and neighborhoods? If she is racist, is she wrong for being racist? Is she an "ignornant, reprehensible, bigot" or are her views and behavior acceptable? What should her response be?

Am I racist because I don't want to settle down and have kids in this neighborhood? I don't want to spend my life being wary of my surroundings. Nor do I want to send my kids to schools where they are risk of getting beat up by packs of black kids. What should my response be?

Also, what word should I use to describe neighborhoods with heightened risk of predatory crime? If I say, "I don't want to live in a black neighborhood" I'm a racist (and it's also not true. I don't mind living around black people, I've enjoyed living in partly black neighborhoods, I have a black roommate, (although alas I cannot play the "my best friend is black card). What I mind is neighborhoods with high levels of violent crime. And it is unfortunate that there exists certain neighborhoods that have high levels of black-on-white crime. What can I call those neighborhoods? "Ghetto"? "Inner city"? "Crime ridden"?

I like cities. I have never personally owned a car in my life, and would prefer to settle down in the city as opposed to the suburbs. But if those on the left want to encourage more urban living, they must stop describing as reprehensible bigots those who voice legitimate fears about urban neighborhoods. People on the left should be rallying against all forms of violence and predation, and they should be taking the steps to make cities more safe so. That means acknowledging and proposing steps to stop the types of black-on-white/black-on-asian/black-on-black predation that is all too common in the urban core.

t said...

...Where to begin?

The majority of urban violence is not black-on-white. Lots of it is related to inter-gang struggles and competition. But a lot of urban violence is meted out by the police, who brutalize, harass and murder black people and Latin@s on a regular basis:

Of course, many affluent whites ignore most of this violence as long as it doesn't directly affect them. But violence is a regular part of the daily experience of many urban-dwelling people of color. Let's keep things in perspective here.

You make it sound as if white people are a generally peaceful lot, whereas black people and other dangerous minorities just seem to prefer violence. This makes it sound as if the status quo is just a big collection of individual choices people make. That's absolutely absurd.

You make it sound like black urban dwellers on the whole simply prefer or endorse gang-related violence, petty crime, armed-robbery and police brutality. They don't, and they don't need you or anyone else to tell them that these are genuine social injustices which, along with a host of others, need changing.

People who have lost loved ones to gang violence don't need you to tell them that violence is a problem, and I'm sure they wouldn't appreciate your racialized interpretation that pins the whole problem on young black people as a group. Your victim-blaming approach rejects relations of trust and solidarity with black people and justifies a generalized suspicion and criminalization of a whole population.

In fact, these communities have a long history of organizing to fight to change these problems. You paint everyone with the same brush and act as though black people in cities don't have human interests that need to be taken into account. You act as if they lack the rationality and agency to realize there are problems and take them on through collective self-activity.

The story you tell is FAR too close to the racist image of black youth as hardcore criminals, who are pathological, uncaring, dangerous, and fundamentally rotten to the core. This image is then used to justify horrifying policing and incarceration polices. When a black kid is shot in the back by cops, many whites draw on precisely the image you paint to say that "well, he was probably one of those pathological gang-bangers so good riddance." Likewise, when racial breakdowns for incarceration are brought up, the racist response again draws on the same image: "well, I guess all those pathological black youth got what they deserved."

In contrast, when a white person is robbed by a black person the whole world stops spinning. Suddenly violence is a problem. And, again, the "young black people are inherently pathological and dangerous" card is trotted out since this piece of "data" seems to perfectly confirm the racist hypothesis. Nobody is saying that robbery is OK. But this entire perspective is racist through and through.

t said...

Nobody denies that some neighborhoods are objectively rough places due to high unemployment, inadequate housing and infrastructure, high crime rates, aggressive policing, overcrowded schools, low commercial investment, etc. etc. The people living under these conditions don't need you to tell them that these are problems. From a prudential/individual perspective, nobody choses to live in such places. Those who can afford to get out do.

Occurrences of violent crime--especially violence against women--are not a "knock" against black people, as you suggest. It is not a reason to be distrustful or resentful toward black people qua black people. It is a reason to ask: Why are these neighborhoods like this? How can they be changed?

The answer to the first question is: racial oppression, housing discrimination, deindustrialization, criminalization, social marginalization, etc. The answer to the second question is: by organizing alongside people in these communities to fight against the aforementioned root causes of the problem.

I highly recommend watching the documentary "Bastards of the Party", which is available on Netflix instant view:

I think you should also read Michelle Alexander's important and widely-discussed book The New Jim Crow:

Anonymous said...

You don't need Netlix, you can watch Bastards of the Party for free:

Hank said...

So, since the city is the socialist utopia of the future, what about people who live in rural areas?

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Finbarr,

Wow, all of your stories really convinced me. Black people really are scary and dangerous if you're white. Your stories prove it. I'll steer clear of them now that I know. What with all the "flash mobs" and "packs" and everything else. A white man has to be careful these days! Sure miss the "old days" *wink wink*. Thanks again!

Devin Finbarr said...

First off, the reason I focused on my own fears is because I was responding to your original accusation. Your original post seemed to state that people who fear or avoid urban core areas are racists, aka, ignorant repugnant bigots. Thus I wanted to state my own personal reasons for fearing and avoiding certain urban neighborhoods. Elsewhere, I have written elsewhere about the problems of police brutality or poverty. But above I was responding to charge against myself, so I responded with my own experiences.

For what it's worth, if I was czar in Philadelphia, I'd revoke civil service protection for the police and make every officer an employee at will. I'd commission satisfaction surveys of the population continuously, institute 360 degrees reviews, and if there were officers who were brutal, or even habitually rude to residents, I would summarily fire them. The existing civil service laws make it extremely difficult to fire an abusive police officer, and that to me is horribly wrong. I'd kick police out of their patrol cars, split them up from their partners and insist they walk the streets and actually befriend their communities.

Furthermore, I'd end the war on drugs, and allow limited, discreet, licensed, regulated, private trade in drugs to avoid the problem of violent black markets. For many crimes prison sentences would be replaced with GPS tracking plus mandatory labor. I'd either restrict criminal background checks for employment or subsidize employers to hire ex-prisoners. I'd begin a policy of import substitution - I'd ban the import of externally produced soda, shoes, jeans, baked goods, etc, and thus create jobs for local residents who could make those items. Instead of sending money to Nike or Coca-cola money and jobs would stay in the city. I'd place the city pension investments into funds run by city investment trusts, to keep the money out of reach from the vampires of Wall St. I'd have a "job of last" resort program so that if a resident cannot find a job anywhere, the city would always hire them to help cleanup trash, fix old buildings, and paint over graffiti.

Devin Finbarr said...

But all that being done, I don't think the above measures would be enough to solve the crime problem. Most who commit armed robberies lack the basic social and job skills necessary for gainful employment. Ending the drug black markets would help prevent gang warfare, but does little to stop predatory crime against innocent residents.

Much of the crime problem stems from discipline problems that start when the kids are young. The rampant classroom disorder situations described here and here are not that uncommon. Schools need stricter discipline. Teachers need punishment options that are more severe than the principals office and less destructive than suspension - perhaps that might be allowing ruler wrist slaps, isolated timeout boxes, sentences doing janitorial work or something else that disruptive kids will really want to avoid. Of course many of the problems of student disruption stem from severe problems at home. I would also enact that as a condition of receiving welfare checks, single parents of any color and age must either live with an opposite sex blood relative of the child, or live in a sort of specially constituted convent where proper support can be given to make sure the kids have food, discipline, and protection.

It would take a while for the above changes to work through the system. The situation in some neighborhoods remains dire - violent death rates for 20-year old black men in Philadelphia are higher than those of soldiers deployed to Afghanistan. Armed robbery and gunpoint muggings are hard to punish after the fact, since the robbers can get away before the police arrive. As a short term measure, I would institute a universal stop and frisk policy. All home owners get a 'passage card.' Everyone else can ask their landlord, employer, school, or church for a passage card. If the employer/landlord gives the person a card, the employer suffers punishment if the person with the card commits a crime. If the employer refuses to issue a card, the employer pays a $500 fine.

Beat cops would routinely ask people for passage cards. Those without valid passage cards would be subject to a full frisking. If any guns or knives are found the offender is in serious trouble. All stops would be video taped, and rude police officers are fired. All friskings are same sex, and the proportions of stop by race must match the racial breakdown of the city. Give this policy a few years and I think the violent crime rate drops off a cliff. Then the policy can be relaxed and the city ends up in a free and secure low crime equilibrium.

Devin Finbarr said...

"In fact, these communities have a long history of organizing to fight to change these problems. You paint everyone with the same brush and act as though black people in cities don't have human interests that need to be taken into account. You act as if they lack the rationality and agency to realize there are problems and take them on through collective self-activity. "

The fact remains that the residents of Philadelphia have failed to solve the crime problem. The homicide rate in Philadelphia is ~1000% higher than it was 120 years ago (which was a time of much greater material deprivation and inequality). I think the failure is due in large part to an infection of leftist ideology, which rules out many of the tactics I describe above. ( Such infections are not unusual, I think the Tea-party wrongly holds pro-corporate ideas due to an infection of right wing ideology). Specifically, I think the inerpretation of the problem that you repeat above is misguided - the interpretation that crime is caused by, "racial oppression, housing discrimination, deindustrialization, criminalization, social marginalization, etc." and can be solved by "by organizing alongside people in these communities to fight against the aforementioned root causes of the problem."

I've read many left wing books and articles about the issues of crime and urban decay. I have never understood the chain of logic that links racism or housing discrimination to my girlfriend's sister getting robbed at gunpoint or to a gang of thugs beating up a couple walking down the street or to a college student getting killed as part of gang intiation. Deindustrialization probably plays some role in the crime problem, but the left wing solution always seems to agitate and lobby corporations or someone else to open a business, rather than to band together and stop buying Nikes and instead actually start factories and manufacture shoes and clothes locally.

t said...

"I have never understood the chain of logic that links racism or housing discrimination to my girlfriend's sister getting robbed at gunpoint or to a gang of thugs beating up a couple walking down the street or to a college student getting killed as part of gang intiation."

That's your failing, not the failing of sociologists or political economists who've tirelessly explained this phenomenon many times over. I refuse to engage with you until you bother to read Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow or watch Bastards of the Party (see above for links).

Without looking at any of the relevant historical, economic or sociological data, you simply throw your hands up and accept the unsophisticated, crude (and racist) "theory" repeated ad nauseum in the media: young black men are pathological, "bad apples" who, through no fault of the system or anybody else, simply choose a life of violence and crime.

Never mind that the explanandum is non-existent. Black men are not what the media says that they are. But even the explanans is faulty through and through. The "bad apple" or "culture of poverty" approaches simply do not explain what crime and violence that there is. They are rationalizations meant to absolve certain groups from culpability for the punishing state of affairs that most young black men (especially in cities) face.

We're talking 3 times higher unemployment, worse schools, worse housing, worse social institutions, more aggressive policing, social marginalization, and all the rest.

If you want to understand some social phenomenon, you examine the conditions in which it takes root and develops. You examine the soil out of which it grows.

Your horizon of understanding here is severely restricted. Read Michelle Alexander and watch Bastards of the Party (or read any number of other serious studies of the phenomenon you purport to have an expert understanding of on the basis of a handful of anecdotes).

t said...

@Devin Finbarr:

No offense, but I find your musings on this topic not unlike the following: