Monday, September 26, 2011

Socialist Politics and the City

A couple of weeks 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 from 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 as well. 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. And, given that the U.S. is a racist society, racialization goes hand in hand with devaluation and disparagement. As waves of gentrification wash into neighborhoods previously inhabited by working class people, most of them people of color, this "fear of the city" is beginning to wane among middle class whites. But it's fair to say that there is still a good degree of negative connotations attached to the idea of the city.

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 lots of people with very different backgrounds can live together and share many basic social institutions together (e.g. libraries, parks, etc.). I mean a space that makes use of efficiencies created by density, mixed-use, and diversity. Though every city fails to fully embody this ideal, big cities (e.g. Chicago, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, etc.) are especially close to it. I'll elaborate more on this ideal in a moment.

Still, attractive though this ideal may be, cities 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, in point of fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

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 majority don't enjoy it.

Moreover, the low-density, use-segregated, car-heavy model of development characteristic of Postwar suburban sprawl has been an unmitigated environmental 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 criticized. 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. 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 plants are uprooted, old trees cut down to make space for useless lawns and tacky landscaping. The suburbs surrounding Chicago, for example, tend to have far fewer trees than the typical street in the city. And let's not forget the worst aspect of the suburban separation of uses: massive, four-lane highways connecting residential subdivisions with other spheres of activity. To say that these are an eyesore is an understatement. And anyone averse to large agglomerations of concrete should want to have nothing to do with them.

But the problems of the suburban form aren't simply ecological. They are socially and politically (and economically) disastrous as well. I'll keep this point brief. They privilege individual consumption over public goods, they alienate individuals from one another, they encourage consumerist ideologies by leaving little space for non-commercial social interactions among people, they are planned in a top-down manner by developers in conjunction with national (and multi-national) corporations, they are often racially exclusive, and many are little more than quasi-feudal gated "communities" meant to keep out those who aren't sufficiently wealthy. 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. 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, we should reject cities for similar reasons and return to pre-capitalist forms of social organization, e.g. agriculture-based communes, 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. My objections to primitivism are as follows. First of all, as 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 synonymous 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 argue. 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 and 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. 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.


dnw said...

Great post. A challenge: if you're ambivalent about modernity, why not be more abivalent about cities? Their respective ambivalences are mutually overlapping. I'll ignore the environmental issues, which seem irrefutable. Suburbs are unsustainable and wasteful, definitely. But let's focus on the issue of modernity and sociality. The modern city is different from a town. It's not merely a group of creative people with shared interests and desires living in close proximity with each other. It has complex systems of social organization, for example plumbing, waste removal, transportation, etc. This is to say it's implicated in modernity and the technologies of modernity. These technologies have been alienating from the beginning. Cities have been places of disorientation, of alienation, of paradoxical anonymity. There is nothing utopian or ideal about them: cities represent the terminal point of utopian thinking, the anti-Utopia. The city is a place precisely in which there aren't shared goals, desires, or needs. Maybe there are ::in reality:: but we wouldn't ever know which ones we share. And the communities within a city are RARELY equal or free. Yes, cities have also been the hubs of progressive political and artistic thinking. But this has always been through an active political effort, an effort to re-utilize and re-appropriate the city's spaces and resources. This activity is precisely what we need in order to claim the latent egalitarian kernel. The city can also stifle activity: city residents have ''seen it all.'' Actions can just be ignored. It's easier to cause trouble in a suburb. The totalizing normalcy of strangeness is an urban problem.

t said...

You raise really interesting questions and challenges. And I think you're absolutely right and the examples you give are apt.

I think the beginnings of a response would be to say that we need a distinction between cities as they are and cities as they might be. Obviously, the latter must have some internal link to the the former if it is to have any hold on us (or any hope of being realized). But they are still distinct, even if the idealized version of the city I defend is merely implicit in urban forms and practices as they are. So, with this in mind, it's the latter that I want to defend and use to criticize the former. The defense of this ideal would underlie and motivate my ambivalence toward cities as they are. I think you suggest this when you speak of a "latent egalitarian kernel" (great phrase!) embedded in existing cities. I didn't stress this enough in the post... but the ideal is very much latent. Existing cities are little more than a more concentrated brew of oppressions, exploitation and inequalities that structure contemporary capitalism. I don't want to give the impression that we should be sanguine about cities as they are. It's what they might become, given what they are, that is powerful and motivates radical critique. The same could not be said of suburban modes of structuring the built environment.

So, I think you're absolutely right, and your examples are poignant. I am indeed ambivalent about cities as they are, just as I am about modernity. I may have exaggerated the sense in which cities already embody the ideal I'm interested in (mostly because even the badness of existing cities is solid gold when contrasted with the horrors of suburban sprawl).

dnw said...

Great, it seems we're not too far from one another. It's important to recognize your admission that cities ARE a brew of inequality and exploitation. But I'm glad we don't think the main problems are "dirtiness" and "dangerousness." These pseudo-problems usually function as ideological fabrications. The "dangerous city" is a trope of TV shows. The suburban audiences sit in rapt awe of the big bad urban jungle. If life were like Law and Order, the sidewalks of NY would be just littered with murdered bodies. Ok, people get murdered occasionally in big cities, but they also die driving their cars. "Dirtiness" is a good complaint too. People seem to think that a bottle sitting in a landfill is somehow better than lying on the street. Ok, streets shouldn't be so filthy that they pose a health hazard, but this fetishization of cleanliness is both unrealistic and stupid.

So these sorts of complaints about cities are not what I'm after. I'm talking about the fragmented, alienated character of subjectivity in the modern world, and cities have played a large role in shaping that. Urban culture developed hand in hand with industrial, which is to say capitalist, modes of production. Very few aspects of urban life are free from a lifeworld of commodities. (Maybe parks, but they're conceived of as havens for precisely that reason). Urban exploration, walking for fun, the flaneur, grew out of engaging with shop windows and so on; even certain boulevards were configured to encourage this form of social participation. But a walkable space is also one in which strikers can consolidate. There are plenty of other examples. But it takes a conscious effort to re-appropriate spaces, to claim their latent potential in ways that they weren't necessarily intended. So there's an Adornian point to be made, that we can't just blankly refuse reified culture; we need to resist precisely through some form of dialectical activity.

t said...

"The "dangerous city" is a trope of TV shows. The suburban audiences sit in rapt awe of the big bad urban jungle. If life were like Law and Order, the sidewalks of NY would be just littered with murdered bodies"

Love it!