The Cunning Art of Destroying Cities – On the Totalitarian Tendency of the Urban Phenomenon – Miguel Amorós
The city is a particularly revolutionary model of human settlement that first appeared between 3,000 and 4,000 B.C. in Mesopotamia. The real Eden was a city, not a garden. Writing, mathematics, the arts and sciences, and real democracy were born there, along with the ideas of liberty and revolution, unconventional sexuality, poetry, history and philosophy; but there, too, bureaucracy, hierarchy, classes, standing armies and money first appeared. Pausanias refused to call any aggregation of buildings that did not have a plaza or public buildings a city, that is, any town that did not have public space, a space for the direct participation and intervention of the citizenry, or any an area for community politics (the word politics comes from polis, the Greek word for city). For in the city, government, justice, festivals, markets, theater, thought, ceremonial and pedagogy, that is, all the activities that were considered to be public activities, took place in the open air or in places open to the public. The city’s boundaries were precisely defined by an urban precinct protected by ditches and walls.
There was a clear distinction between the city, the exceptional form of inhabited space, and the non-city, the countryside, which was the more usual form of inhabited space.
Keeping these criteria in mind, no urban center of our day can be considered to be a city, since none of them has public spaces. Traffic circles have replaced the open squares and green zones have replaced the public gardens, testimonials to a past that has been theoretically and practically rendered a tabula rasa, while a series of highways and bypasses mark the successive stages of the frontier of a temporarily interrupted urbanizing wave. The totalitarian city arises from the destruction and absorption of the rural space; it is only distinguishable from its surroundings by the density of buildings, which is always increasing; it has no gates or boundaries, only successive layers of multi-lane highways, veritable tentacles by means of which it engulfs the entire territory in a lethal embrace. As opposed to the variety and originality of the streets and plazas of the traditional city, the modern version features the vulgarity and monotony of juxtaposed districts. As opposed to the beauty of the traditional city’s architectural forms that expressed a love of life and for everything human, the modern city offers nothing but the monstrosity of monuments that are claimed to symbolize progress and modernity. The decisions concerning the life of their inhabitants are made behind closed, and even armored doors, often in private buildings, guarded by armed thugs and surveillance cameras. Nothing happens that does not have a price, not even the great sport-cultural spectacles that define the advent of modern cities: you have to pay to have access to these events; you always have to pay to get inside. Everyday life takes place either within a vehicle, or else in a dormitory-residence that is like a bomb shelter.
If a death in the city was always accompanied by a manifestation of public mourning, in the totalitarian metropolis death is a private affair of no importance that only concerns the deceased.
Life and death are so similar that they can hardly be distinguished. Generalized insensitivity is the result: the living dead are concerned with neither the sufferings of others, nor with the air that they breathe.
In the framework of infinite expansion, the rural territory loses its historic patrimony, its own laws, its local traditions and its signs of identity, in order to become an amorphous satellite of the central conurbation. In reality, it is a territory considered as a building site for residential or infrastructural construction or a place to merely pass through on one’s way to another conurbation; in short, it is an extension of the metropolis to which the latter’s lamentable conditions of survival and its special way of understanding progress are transferred: its high cost of living, consumerism, traffic jams, unhealthiness, neurosis, noise, pollution and industrial food. No longer is the inhabitant of such a place characterized by the love of liberty, solidarity or class vengeance, but by the virtues of the modern city dweller, that is, fear of one’s neighbor, race hatred and manipulability, fascist political conditions. In reality the territory can be defined as the interstitial space between two conurbations, and as such it is destined to be destroyed by the infrastructures of rapid transportation and the concentration of the dispersed population. The rationally occupied territory, that is, one with a low population density, ideal for the rural way of life, is unviable for the capitalist economy. They crunched the numbers and it turns out that life in the country is not bountiful with regard to monetary profit; its inhabitants must be concentrated around a shopping mall and recreation facilities, shut up inside their houses and plugged into their televisions.
This might be bad for the inhabitants, but it is good for real estate speculation, the automotive and construction industries and tourism; and it is therefore good for the economy, which has the last word.
Real urbanism arose with the industrial revolution.
Throughout the history of the city, it has endured the blows of totalitarian powers, but never before had its elements been trapped in an abstract social relation, never before had their lives been completely mediated by things, whether commodities, work or money. This began to take place with the rise of the bourgeoisie to power. If the first bourgeois urbanism proclaimed the city as the privileged location for the accumulation of capital, it is only when this function was declared to be the only one for which the city exists that we can speak of totalitarianism. From the formal domination of capital the city passed under the real domination of capital. I have called this stage developmentalist urbanism, because it was in this historical stage that was the prelude to the fascist metropolis that the priority of economic and urban growth was elevated above any other consideration. This development was sealed by a social pact between the local political bosses, the national business leaders and the trade union leaders, and provided thirty glorious years of profits and transformed the dangerous classes into domesticated masses. The leading bourgeois families yielded their commanding positions to managers and executive cadres. From a society of producers, we underwent a transition to a society of consumers; from an industrial economy, to a service economy; from a national capitalism led by the state to a global capitalism directed by high finance.
Urban developmentalism is a period of transition that made its debut with the annihilation of peasant agriculture and concluded with the crisis of industry. From that moment on, all problems are reduced to their technical dimension, especially urban issues. Henceforth, politics, the economy, law and morality shed their autonomy and would only be addressed from the perspective of technique, in the name of progress and of the future, understood, of course, as technical progress and a technical future.
When technology is raised above all ideological discourse and occupies a central position, all questions are resolved technologically. Technological modernization is the key for overcoming all obstacles and the fundamental criterion for modernized truth. Opposition to technology, on the other hand, defines the social enemy, the reactionary, someone who is “anti-system”. Freedom exists in only one sense, that of technics: anyone is free to buy a car and has the right to speed; going slow and walking are subversive acts. Technics is not neutral; it is a tool and a weapon, and as such serves those who possess its secret, concerning those who will be connected or disconnected, those who decide its application. That is, its serves dominant power, the power of domination. It is its marriage with capital that has placed it at the service of oppression, determining its evolution and its continuing development, as well as its transformation into a religion. Technics is simultaneously the condition of existence and the religion of the depoliticized, domesticated and frightened masses. Once this stage has been reached, technics is totalitarian. Not because it affects the totality of life, but because it ravages everything in its path.
It recognizes no limits, since it does not recognize the supremacy of the human. Even a shortage of resources, the pollution of the environment and the degradation of life serve it as a stimulant. There are technical solutions for everything, and no others are necessary. With regard to our present topic, totalitarian urbanism, we may say that it technicist, that it follows the laws and principles of technology, and just like technology, it functions by destroying everything that came before it in order to reconstruct it from scratch on the occasion of every innovation.
Under the dictatorship of technology the problem is not that labor has become precarious: existence itself has become precarious. Once the proletariat of the factories was liquidated, the productive forces, now eminently technical, are essentially destructive forces.
Urbanism is also a destructive force. Economic growth, which can only be based on technical means, imposes, thanks to the machinery of urbanization, a permanent state of war on the territory and its inhabitants. This is why the architects and the urbanists will have to be judged as war criminals.
And that is why those who try to adjust to and accept a negotiated destruction end up betraying the noble cause of the territory.
The anti-developmentalist struggle and the struggle for the defense of the territory is the only one that poses the social question in its totality, since now more than every before it is a struggle for life. It is the class struggle of the 21st century. This struggle cannot be understood to be harmonious with an unquestioned capitalist model; it is inconceivable outside of the horizon of de-urbanization and territorial self-management. Only on those fields where the battles against urbanizing barbarism will be fought shall the winds of freedom blow that were expelled from the primitive cities and the fertile lifeways that characterized agrarian culture will be able to rearise. Hic Rhodus, hic salta!
Text based on talks, debates and interviews held on January 7, 8 and 9, 2010, at Radio Black Out, at the Librería Calusca in Milan, at the Pasquale Cavaliere Hall in Turin, and at the Ex Pescheria de Avigliana (Val Susa).