Plight of the Capitalist City

By Ahmad Ammar

The human society has reached a stage where cities decisively dominate as a mode of living. According to a 2016 report by UN, almost 54.5% of the world’s population lives in cities, while the figure was just 3% in 1800 and 34% in 1960. The proportion of urban population is projected to reach 66% by 2050. With increasing poverty, chaos, environmental degradation and abhorrent behavior, it becomes important to critically analyze the socio-ecological impacts of urban life.

The history of human settlement, beginning from the primitive tribes till today’s metropolitan cities, has heavily relied on the suitability of land. The process of urbanization took place at various places on the globe in history, but the town started dominating over the country for the first time in Medieval Europe where capitalism was developing and vast deforestation took place for settlement. It was the time when market exchange relations were replacing the old feudal relations and profit became the sole production motive over the fulfillment of needs. The changing social equilibrium forced thousands towards the cities where they were to become the laboring force for the new cities with no other option left for survival.

London, the largest city in Europe had a diameter of 10 kilometers in 1800, walkable on foot within an hour, and a population no more than a million. By 1900, the size and population had quadrupled. Today, London’s population is around 10 million and the area is surely not walkable. There were only 4 cities in the world which housed a population above 1 million in 1850, while today there are more than 1000 such cities. Moreover, 31 cities fall into the category of megacities, each housing more than 10 million residents.

The result of concentrating such a mass of people in the centers of an economic system driven by perpetual competition, accumulation, consumption and growth for the sake of growth on a finite planet with finite resources are evident. The health of society and the planet is directly dependent on the physical and social remaking of the cities and the urban structure. A city is much more than the roads, buildings, landscape and the apparent construction; it’s a community where people join and work together to produce for their common necessities. As the social relations in a capitalist society are based on property and ownership, the city turns into a factory, and community a commodity which is bought and sold in the market. Decisions about the social infrastructure are not taken by the residents according to the collective human needs, but by the dominant market forces. Thus, devastating the natural ecology, adversely affecting the environment and alienating people for each other and their work.

Today, commutation, environment, inequality and abhorrent behavior are some of the major concerns for people living in cities worldwide. Politicians and international organizations promoting sustainable practices, promise a lot but the reality is that the state of affairs is worsening by the day. Public services are unable to deliver, green spaces are being urbanized, and the inequality is widening. For those who can afford to live in their bungalows, poverty and its social effects remain out of sight. This social anesthesia coupled with the increased isolation of oneself in one’s personal life, results in alienation from the society and community. The market values of rivalry, competition, individualism and scarcity mindset start dominating every aspect of life. Paradoxically, despite living together, the feelings of separation and loneliness prevail.

The capitals and metropolitan cities of the world which are presented as centers of freedom, success and vibrant life by the corporate media are merely a noisy, hectic, depressing and dirty walk for majority of the residents living there. Probably freedom means just the privilege of driving through such arenas, and that too is relative and limited to the amount of cash in one’s worn out jeans. While the definition of community and commonality today is nothing more than a bunch of people having similar consumer buying habits.

However, at times, the desperateness for better living standards in the city can disrupt the existing social order. In such spontaneous acts of solidarity and rebellion;  revolutionary revelry and agitation; attempts to discuss the prospects of collectively meeting our common human needs, reorganizing the society, restructuring the way we relate to each other; a new city life presents its inevitability. A diverse, creative and voluntary urban culture replacing the market, and expressed in terms of human’s relationship with the overall society and its harmony with nature is the future. This social aspect of the city often ignored in the academic environmental and urban planning circles, is revolutionary in its essence.

A city after a worldwide revolutionary transformation of society would make sure the equal participation, contribution and access of resources to all the inhabitants. It would allow human beings to develop to their full capabilities in the absence of unnecessary competition. The distinction between city and village life would be transcended, hence abolishing the contradictions between mental and physical labor. The gray and green shades would be combined, allowing the man and environment to return to their natural states, but at a higher level. The notion of nation-states, i.e. the structures created by the bourgeoisie to establish markets and ensure its growth would be eventually done away. Cities would instead be geographically defined as communities and a part of the global network of autonomous regions.

It’s only through such holistic and systems approach, the urban problems can be dealt and the repercussions of environmental degradation can be coped. Treaties and laws on decentralization, using green and efficient energy sources, and adopting sustainable agricultural and industrial techniques are now a common talk but the rotting capitalist infrastructure makes such plans impracticable. Hierarchical institutions with conflicting interests, imperialism and monopoly capitalism are not based on public but private interests and profits. Volkswagen, which cheated to violate the CO2 emission standards, is still the largest car manufacturer. Giving a social context to these problems can challenge the order and that context is class based; as it is clear who suffers and who doesn’t.

The history of urbanization is filled with the culture to raise voice about social justice, widening inequality and environmental concerns, and attempts to incorporate such strategies within the existing market and state apparatus. Early Utopian Socialists like Charles Fourier and Robert Owen practically struggled to set-up syndicates and cooperatives in the 19th century. Ebenezer Howard, the father of British town planning movement and the founder of the Welwyn and the Letchworth Garden City, was a democratic socialist who wrote ‘Garden Cities of Tomorrow’ in 1920, a book dedicated to proposals on the green movement. Although, any such action within the limits of capitalism, is bound to have shortcomings, but these proposals and experiences serve a theoretical purpose for working class organizers and academic urban theorists who look beyond. In fact, the history of urban planning is incomplete without mentioning socialists, social democrats, anarchists and the resistance against capitalism.

In the last analysis, our relationship with other individuals of society determines our collective relationship with the ecosystem. But the capitalist system stands on hierarchical structure based on ownership, competition for economic domination, minimizing costs, intense exploitation, maximizing profits, perpetual consumption and growth for growth’s sake. And the socioeconomic and environmental consequences are huge.

The reshaping of our urban life would go beyond the reformist notions of plastic and paper recycling, building new metros in outmoded cities and rooftop gardening, to an integrated approach towards the symbiotic interactions between us, our cities and the physical world. An internationalist spirit and understanding of our interconnection is necessary for a radical transformation. However, it doesn’t mean that reforms have to be approached in a negative manner. If any reform improves the living standard of the masses, it’s appreciable; but its effects would be spatially distributed as the social classes are, and would eventually sharpen the social contradictions instead of resolving them. And these limitations have to be explained on material grounds by Marxists.

Only a revolutionary socialist transformation of the world pave way for a rationally and scientifically planned economy. Through the collective, democratic and participatory ownership and management of Earth’s resources by all its inhabitants, infrastructure could be planned and redesigned from the ground up to actually meet human needs. Instead of asking people to save energy and water, keep roads clean, and not to shout at others in depression; infrastructure would be engineered to support the desired values. Technology would be used for the benefit of all, easing labor and the wellbeing of both the community and nature.

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