The crisis of the city and the crisis of capitalism

14 December, 2021

Ghost city in Yunnan, China
Ghost city in Yunnan, China

It is expected that 65% to 70% of the world’s population will be crowded into cities by 2050. The news warns about the urban population of tropical countries literally dying of heat exhaustion in their cities, while there is no week in which images and videos of some new Chinese ghost city -product of large-scale real estate speculation- fail to show up in the international media.

In no period of human history has the degree of urbanization been at least close to the present one, we are dealing with a qualitative and not only quantitative change in our way of life, derived from a change of social relations…. And this effect of social organization carries with it a number of serious consequences when taken to the extreme.

Table of Contents

The pre-capitalist city

Istanbul in the 18th century
Istanbul in the 18th century

At first glance the current state doesn’t seem so surprising, in fact there have existed huge cities for millennia.

The portrayal of the pre-modern world as a rural sprawl with small urban centers is more an exception based on the special situation of medieval-modern Christian Europe than the norm. In 9th century Korea there was a capital city –Gyeongju – with over 900,000 inhabitants, perhaps a million, while Carolingian counts wandered from makeshift rural fort to makeshift rural fort. Even in Europe, the level of urbanization in the Islamized Iberian region was markedly higher; it is well known that tenth-century Cordoba had at least between 350 and 450,000 inhabitants.

Angkor, the capital of the Khmer empire, had up to 900,000 inhabitants according to recent studies at a time – the 13th century – when the commercial cities of Christian Europe did not manage to exceed 30,000 and the capitals 50,000 at most. London in the early 18th century, by far the most upwardly mobile city in Christian Europe, had 600,000 inhabitants, behind the 750,000 of Istanbul in 1740 and far behind the million inhabitants of Edo – today Tokyo – during the same period.

The asian urban crisis of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

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View of the suburbs of Edo city, now Tokyo, in the 18th century
View of the suburbs of Edo city, now Tokyo, in the 18th century

However, this success began to collapse during the 18th and 19th centuries in Asia. The driving force of urban development actually resides in the organization of the agrarian world, and this case was no exception. Compared to the medieval European territorial patchwork, states in Asia were much more centralized from the beginning and it is no coincidence that almost all the cities we have mentioned were kingdom or imperial capitals.

This is not so surprising, in fact the ancient Rome is a good European example of a huge city of more than a million inhabitants, and its rise and fall also depended largely on developments in the agricultural world, from its ability to exploit slaves to the spread of the colonate towards the end of its days as a power.

Although the phenomenon takes place almost simultaneously throughout East Asia, the Japanese case is exemplary. The country was conclusively unified in the early 17th century and centralized around a military government, the Bakufu. The regional governments, the “han”, were responsible for collecting taxes and sending them to the new seat of the state, Edo.

An important detail is that these taxes were not paid in money, but in tons of rice produced. The state begins to organize campaigns to clear and put under cultivation large expanses of land, in fact the arable area doubles on average and even triples in several regions. The population multiplies in the countryside and the cities begin to grow faster than ever, productivity per hectare rises and allows the growth of cities and the emergence of large merchants throughout the seventeenth century.

But the military government waged an all-out class war against the bourgeoisie, which the official ideology regarded as the lowest and most base class in society (above “non-humans”). The property system in the countryside is frozen, attempts are made to prevent commodification in the cities, and payment in kind is forced wherever possible.

The cities were not populated primarily by workers or productive classes. Of the million inhabitants of Edo, half were a hypertrophied amalgam of servants and retinue of the nobles. Among other things because the system, which sought to maintain territorial centralization, forced the lords of the “han” to live one year in their territory and another in Edo. A similar process of movement of the lords and their entourage to the huge capital took place in the Gyeongju of the ninth century.

After a century, the situation of the peasants began to resemble the miserable state of the rest of East Asia. Due to the system of subdivision among heirs and the great difficulty of selling or concentrating land, the average size of family rice paddy farms continues to fall steadily until it passes below the subsistence threshold.

The situation is identical in China and Korea throughout the 18th century, where the average size is halved or even one-third of the original. Rampant inflation (food prices had doubled 20 times in 60 years) and cascading currency devaluations had pushed Japanese regional governments to squeeze more and more of its countryside, trying to maximize productivity per hectare.

A similar process occurred in neighboring countries, where the use of draught animals was abandoned on a large scale because it was cheaper to use the labor that overcrowded the countryside and increasing amounts of fertilizer were brought in from farther and farther away.

More and more hours of work were needed in the fields for a progressively smaller increase in productivity per hectare. In Japan, peasants risked their lives to flee the misery of the countryside to the cities, and the government desperately paid city dwellers without steady employment to return to the countryside. By the mid-18th century, the fields of the Yangze Delta, China’s most fertile and overpopulated ones, became oversaturated with fertilizer and their productivity began to plummet. The Bakufu didn’t fare much better.

The system’s problems were well visible to the “reformers” of the time, mainly Confucian intellectuals like Ogyu Sorai, but they could only suggest increasing social repression, fossilizing the feudal property scheme and redoubling efforts to curb commodification and the expansion of the monetary economy:

Generally, governing a country is like dividing a go board into squares. Unless you have divided the board, you cannot play regardless of how skilled you are.

At a time when there is no boundary between the city and the countryside, farmers become more and more engaged in trade and the country becomes poorer. It is a serious situation when farmers engage in trade and this has been condemned by the authorities since the earliest times.

When people can come and go from the provinces and settle wherever they want, the population throughout the country falls into disorder. Confusion spreads and they become temporary residents wherever they live.

[In the cities] an investigation should be carried out to determine who are landlords and who are tenants. Landlords should be treated as if they are landlord farmers and tenants as tenant farmers. They should all be tied to a housing block, not only themselves but also their children and grandchildren generation after generation. Moreover, tenants should not be allowed to freely change their residence.

In the countryside, large landowners tend to hire tenants to take care of their fields, as if they were Edo real estate rentiers. Many of them have appeared in recent years. All this must also be banned.[…]

Today we are prosperous and people expect their businesses to keep flourishing; but if something happens in the northern provinces, rice from Sendai will probably not reach Edo. If something happens in the east, rice from around Kyoto may not arrive. The people of Edo will starve and there will be riots. It will be impossible to placate them no matter what measures are taken […] If this happens, there will be nothing we can do. As all the rice from manorial taxes is sold to merchants [in exchange for money], the suffering in the provinces will also be horrible. It is not at all impossible that this will happen at the end of this era.

Ogyu Sorai, Discourse on Government (政談) 1720

Sorai s predictions ended up being fulfilled just a few years after his death. The first famines and urban and peasant revolts begin in the 1730s and worsen towards the end of the 18th century, when the productive apparatus crashed after a few years of drought, leaving millions dead.

Population growth stalled for a century and the ailing agricultural world seemed to have reached a limit. Accumulating more people in cities became seemingly impossible. In 19th century Japan, internal strife led to the collapse of the Bakufu and a process of industrialization of the country. However, in 10th-century Korea, the defeat and collapse of Gyeongju worsened the decline in agricultural productivity and led to the spread of large-scale hereditary slavery in the countryside from the 11th century onward and for several centuries.

At first glance a Malthusian limit has been reached, specifically the carrying capacity -K- of the environment. 

Malthusian limits or decay of a mode-of-production?

But for an animal species capable of transforming the environment, K is not simply a function resulting from combining innate factors and natural resources.

The size and complexity of societies are determined by their capacity to organize on a large scale this transformation of their environment, that is, their capacity to organize social work. This is clearly seen when we compare societies with different types of organization of work, such as Eighteenth-century England with Japan of the same era.

English cities were smaller, but the urban and rural situations were markedly different. From the 16th century, a movement to improve agricultural productivity and to enclose fields spread among agricultural landowners.

After several struggles against the state and the church in order to break up rather than freeze the old agrarian property system, the process of land concentration and reduction of the manpower needed to work the fields succeeds in driving the peasants out of their plots to work first in workshops and then in urban factories.

This extension of the salaried condition – fiercely opposed by the Bakufu and Sorai among others – is what makes it possible to increase the productivity of agricultural labor, reduce the necessary rural population and productively move all this mass of ex-peasants to the cities, where they will become salaried workers, without overburdening the countryside.

Four crises of the hyperconcentrated city

City of Sao Paulo
City of Sao Paulo

The new social relations cause a disproportionate concentration of population in the cities, which in an initial phase allows an increase in physical productivity by concentrating the workers and drives the large-scale coordination of labor by capital.

Even in the 19th century, the urban population remained at 20-30% of the total in most European countries except Britain, but today, the urban population is in the majority in much of the world.

As is often the case with social and even natural phenomena, what was originally a positive trend becomes harmful after a point when general conditions change, and neither a given level of social organization of work nor huge cities are an exception. Let us look at some examples of harmful effects at various levels, from the physical to the social, caused by the present type of society and its urbanism.

1. Energy balance

The very fact of crowding a mass of people and buildings causes large energy imbalances with the environment. “Heat islands” are generated due to a complex interaction between the city and the environment, but this is not simply an increase in temperature due to concentrated human activity.

In fact, the causes of these islands change depending on whether it is day or night. At night, most of the thermal effect is indeed due to human activity. By day, the main energy source shifts to the energy radiated by the sun, which cannot be reflected or dissipated to the same amount than in the surrounding environment.

For instance, the vegetation surface performs several functions in thermal regulation, not only absorbing less heat and retaining it for less time than asphalt, concrete or bricks, but, in a phenomenon called evapotranspiration, plants dissipate much of the energy that reaches them through the evaporation of the water they pump from the roots via photosynthesis.

When cities grow in area and density, the problem gets worse. And in a world where climate change is also raising average temperatures, the inhabitants of Quite a few cities in tropical and equatorial climates are already above the temperature threshold dangerous to health and survival

In fact, the number of days per year with life-threatening temperatures has tripled in large cities since the 1980s as a combined effect of urban population growth and the rise in urban warming (a mixture of climate change and built environment effects).

2. Mass balance

But it’s not just a matter of energy balance, huge cities are also seriously out of balance in their balance of matter. Let’s forget for a moment about goods, in the form of commodities, and people moving in and out of cities and focus on natural flows.

The flow of water, for example, is severely altered by the degree of concentration and urbanization. Most soils are capable of absorbing a considerable volume of precipitation before they are fully saturated and water has to flow as surface runoff.

However, urban soils and surfaces are hard and impermeable and runoff water flows in greater volume and velocity, multiplying the risk of flooding and severe damage following occasional spikes in precipitation.

But water is not the only thing that is exchanged on a large scale between the environment and the city, the overall atmospheric chemistry is also affected by the crowding of people in cities.

Until exactly 50 years ago, it was believed that the atmosphere was nothing more than an inert container which accumulated all the gases and pollution dumped into it by industry and cities. This is because the only known source of energy capable of initiating chemical reactions in the atmosphere, ultraviolet radiation, reacts at high altitude to form ozone and was believed to be unable to participate near the earth’s surface.

Something was amiss, however, as the large carbon monoxide (CO) emissions from cities would have killed us by asphyxiation several decades ago if the atmosphere were only passive.CO is as dense as air, which means that it would accumulate if there were not some phenomenon destroying it faster than it is being produced.

In reality, UV rays do react with atmospheric gases at sea level, something that was unpleasantly discovered after the generation of masses of toxic ozone in large cities in the second half of the 20th century.

And ozone is only a small part of the story, large amounts of radicals are generated when UV rays react with water vapor, which are what on the one hand remove CO and on the other generate all kinds of toxic haze and particulates that choke the unfortunate inhabitants of megacities.

All this results in a complicated cycling of nitrogen, sulfur and carbon in city air that is very difficult to resolve even with the best intentions of the Green Deal. For example, while eliminating emissions from combustion cars would reduce nitrogen oxides, plans to use hydrogen flames for heating would again worsen the problem, as they tend to generate nitrogen oxides from air due to their high temperature.

In this case, rather than the reactions themselves, much of the problem is the stacking of a mountain of people in the same place.

3. Infectious diseases

At the biological level, one of the most severe effects of hyper-concentration in cities is the proliferation of infectious diseases. In fact, the relationship between urbanization and the evolution of certain diseases is so close that the “genetic clock” derived from the measles virus genome predicts the date of the appearance of the first cities in the Middle East.

The closest virus to measles is an infectious virus that lives in large herds of cattle, and this family of viruses can only spread in a place where its host population is structured in a way that high density is maintained over time.

The importance of population structure and density is well visible in studies of seasonal influenza in the US, where the potential for transmission of infection does not correlate cleanly with the absolute population of cities (many US “cities” are actually low-density suburban sprawl), but with the degree of urbanization and density of localities.

Degree of influenza transmission in cities with low density (e.g., Miami) compared to a higher density city. Correlation between transmission potential and city size. Adapted from Dalziel et al., 2018
Degree of influenza transmission in cities with low density (e.g., Miami) compared to a higher density city. Correlation between transmission potential and city size. Adapted from Dalziel et al., 2018

And it’s not just a matter of increased transmission potential. For example, mosquitoes that transmit Dengue and Zika have been found to change their behavior and life cycle as the environment becomes more urbanized. These mosquitoes originally like to bite woodland rodents, but as the environment becomes urbanized they adapt and begin to prefer humans.

4. Social relationships

But these huge cities did not fall from the sky, they are – as we have already seen – the result of a series of specific social relations. And it is these, principally the extension of wage labor and the subordination of social labor to the accumulation of capital, that define much of today’s urbanism and the way in which the productive apparatus functions. It is the subordination of the distribution of goods and food to the accumulation of capital -in the form of commodities- which has shaped the supply networks of cities and made them much more fragile according to recent studies.

And it’s not just about the flow of goods. For centuries, large urban owners discovered that it was much more profitable to invest money in building housing – as crowded and vertical as possible already in medieval cities – than to buy land itself.

As early as the 12th-13th century, wealthy merchants left their businesses and began investing in housing even in Europe’s most commercially active cities. And the trend has not slowed down, building beehives of apartments for workers in the smallest possible space is still a big business, well favored today by large capital funds.

Looking ahead to the future

Digital reconstruction of Talianki, a city of primitive communism, about 5000 years ago.
Cucuteni, a city of Primitive Communism

There are countless more examples related to the four levels we have mentioned, but the important thing is that these problems are the result of capitalism, the current mode of organization of social labor, in its current phase and are not something that can be solved simply through laws and decrees. The accumulation and concentration of capital requires and in turn produces the concentration and overcrowding of the urban population.

But there have been a multitude of types of settlements and cities throughout history. Not everything was dense cities with huge temples and central palaces as in Mesopotamia and the ancient Mediterranean.

There have existed cities with thousands of inhabitants that did not even have streets, people moved on rooftops. There have also been centralized “garden cities” but with much more exposed land and expanses of marshes and water that improved water runoff and there have even been cities during primitive communism in what is now Ukraine that were larger than medieval European cities and were laid out with a completely different urbanism than later and current societies.

They all responded not so much to the will and ideas of a “planner”, but to the needs and tendencies of a specific type of organizing society and social work. This is not about trying to impose constraints on social and productive tendencies as Sorai tried to do in the 18th century and capitalism does today, but to advance the coordination capacity of social work by freeing it from the fetters of this current society of exploitation. And when this happens, as during the Revolution after October 1917, among other processes, a transformation of urbanism is unleashed:

It is not to the schools that one must look, but to the working groups of the soviets, such as the Architectural Workshop of the Economic Department of the Revolutionary Petrograd Soviet. On this workshop fell the realization of proposals for rebuilding the city after the siege of 1919. It was not a group of creators around a drawing board looking for an ideal solution, it was a group of technicians working with the neighborhood soviets, collecting expectations and concrete needs of the workers.

What came out of those works was a proposal for the transformation of the revolutionary capital from the bottom up: new neighborhoods already thought under the model of socialization that the communal movement was testing and that Bebel had theorized. With them, of course, a whole new family of facilities: collective canteens, halls and cultural centers, kindergartens, bathhouses (spas), etc.. All linked by green belts and collective transport, recycling concepts of the hygienists, the Linear City and the Garden City tailored to the needs of workers rather than subordinating them to the logic of revaluation.

The working-class neighborhood of Viborg where the February Revolution had begun and which was the first to become a Bolshevik stronghold, will have the most radical plan: small communal houses of three stories or less would share with the single-family homes, communal dining rooms and laundry services, day care, libraries, social centers … in a green environment. The result, neither village nor city, will have already in 1919 everything that will claim a few years later the deurbanists, but it is not a scholastic proposal, it is a political proposal born of one of the most avant-garde soviets during the Revolution.

Housing and Urban Planning during the Russian Revolution, 5/6/2021

Contrary to what environmentalism preaches, the human capacity to transform the environment is not some kind of curse or original sin, it is our capacity as a species to satisfy our needs and positively confront our contradictions with the natural environment. Let us take conscious control of this capacity. As a class.

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