Op-Ed: Heart of Darkness
“As we sat over our vermouths he glorified the Company’s business, and by-and-by I expressed casually my surprise at him not going out there. He became very cool and collected all at once. “I am not such a fool as I look, quoth Plato to his disciples,” he said sententiously, emptied his glass with great resolution, and we rose.” (Conrad, PG 25)
Historically, man had not always resided in the city, only when the wandering man became non-nomadic did he understand two concepts: time and commodity. Once agriculture bred a way for man to plan and prepare for (new to him) changing seasons he later found he could use produce to trade with other men that offered other goods. These primitive ideas would soon evolve to the conception of an abstract idea of worth and commodity to be attributed to items of exchange and associate value to them based on plentifullness or scarcity. David Harvey breaks us into man’s purchase in the city by postulating, “in the making of the city man has remade himself.” (Harvey, Pg 23). One cannot help but agree that as man conceived upon aggregated gatherings of individuals for protection and later greater food supply man re-established the principles in which he valued and worked with fellow men. As communes grew and clear order and control had to be established, man began to associate this abstract commodity of wealth to the hierarchy of power within settlements.
In the western world urbanization and commodification are in their post-pubescent stages and one can most clearly see an association between power and wealth, leading Princeton Universities conclusion from April 2014 that the US is no longer a democracy but an oligarchy (Gilens, 2014), where the wealthy elite have more traction for favourable policy making and law. The rate at which monetary value systems are abstractly altering and permeating foreign markets are baffling and prove harder for governments to keep a handle on.
In a moodily Joseph Conrad/George Orwell dystopian view, perhaps David Harvey’s outline of the kind of city we want is also the city we deserve where his catalogue of attributes; social ties, relationships to nature, lifestyles, technologies and aesthetic values are simply the existential variables on our next condominium purchase, in our continued recreation of ourselves. Hyper-capitalism condenses the time spans of the masses, operating on a day-to-day basis, obsessed with the superficialities of urban life.
As our cities become more tightly gripped by the economic fist of capital investment and flow we find that the built environment is its operational asset. Funnelling capital surplus into buildings to sustain the mobilization of new workforces and consumers. It is no surprise that the construction industry is both the first to dive into a recession and the last to emerge from it.
“Increasingly, we see the right to the city falling into the hands of private or qausi-private interests.” (Harvey, Pg 38)
Robert Moses’s prolific restructuring of infrastructure in and around NYC can be seen through Manuel Castels as a way to generate larger populations of workers to feed the city through connecting decentralized communities that plug into the city. The reduction in space-time between places afforded by faster transportation and linking work to home mobilizes a working population to sustain the economic development of cities. At a territorial scale we see a similar procedures in China as over 500 million residents are forcefully uprooted from rural land and pushed into cities to sustain growth. Thus urbanization can be viewed from a militaristic standpoint as the mobilization of the masses and the commodification of landscapes for resource extraction.
“A process of displacement and what I call ‘accumulation by dispossession; lie at the core of urbanization under capitalism” (Harvey, Pg 34)
When I say that our cities are not only the cities we want but the cities we deserve this owes to a more omnipresent natural force that has strained under the relentless globalization and urbanization afforded by widespread capitalism. From a purely environmental standpoint urbanization has promise, as the pedestaled man, distinct from nature, typically infects larger territories surrounding urban regions – something Chris Ellis calls the formation of anthropocentric biomes in Grounding Metabolism – and the less land consumed the more the biosphere may prosper. However this creates an image that amidst the socio-political concerns outlined in the papers – that increasingly seem unresolvable, affirmed by the authors critically distanced epistemological perspective – emerge another destructive force that tears apart our socio-urban fabric, that had once been patched together poorly by policies and designers.
“Sandy collided not only with existing social-spatial inequalities and disproportionate burdens for some areas, but also with the long-term carminative effects of neoliberal policies that shrank government resources for cities and infrastructure in ongoing urban restructuring.” (HDM, Pg 32)
If we do indeed agree with Cornell West that values are historically constructed and morals are socially fabricated then it is in these global cities and urbanized regions, faced with the ominous rumbling of climate change, that can learn from history and enact new moral principles of not only how to interact with the world (biosphere) but also with ourselves.
Susan Fainstein’s use of the Rawlsian Argument pushes an idea that rational individuals, will ultimately act in self interest and will choose a rough equality of primary goods so as to assure they will not end up in an inferior position. An idea also put forth in part by John Nash in his formation of Game Theory mathematics. Adam Curtis explores this idea further in the documentary All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace where capitalism is seen to advertise to the individual the desire for individual wealth and accumulation of goods. The Rawlsian Argument acknowledges this and pushes agendas that places political and legal institutions in a stronger position of power to adjust the trend of economic forces and prevent excessive concentrations of wealth, especially [for] those likely to lead to political domination. (Fainstein, 15). Thus what is really offered as a potential solution to the problem, rebutting the American developer who so carelessly conflates free-market economies with democratic values is something that sounds more socialist, one where government takes more political and economic control, able to fine tune the spread of resource and wealth. Something that sounds very different from the picture emerging in the US where an egalitarian society perpetuates the social stratification of wealth by allowing favourable policy be passed that support the top percent of earners within the country.
“Droll thing life is — that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself — that comes too late — a crop of inextinguishable regrets.” (Conrad, Pg 144)
Conrad, J, 1899. Heart of Darkness. 1st ed. UK: Blackwood’s Magazine
Young, I, Justice and the Politics of Difference, (PrInceton: Princeton University Press,
1990),15-33 and 226-256.
M, Gilens, 2014. Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens. Perspectives on Politics, [Online]. Vol. 12/No. 3, 564-581. Available at:
http://journals.cambridge.org/download.php?file=%2FPPS%2FPPS12_03%2FS1537592714001595a.pdf&code=8a3405dd4882847cd69390f92ddf4fcd [Accessed 13 October 2015].
Adam Curtis. (2011). All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. [Online Video]. Available from: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2eagvn_all-watched-over-by-machines-of-loving-grace-2-3-the-use-and-abuse-of-vegetational-concepts-2011_auto. [Accessed: 14 October 2015].
Fainstein, S. Introduction: Toward an Urban Theory of Justice, in: The Just City, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010, Pg 1-21.
Harvey, S. The Right to the City, New Left Review n. 53, September-October 2008, Pg 33-40.