Urbi et Orbi – Principles of Anti-Developmentalism – Miguel Amorós
“In fact, the Greek word polis far more nearly translates ‘pueblo’ than any English word, for the community is not merely a geographical or political unit, but the unit of society in every context.”
Julian Pitt-Rivers, The People of the Sierra
Now that Europe has finally been urbanized according to the American model of constantly expanding conurbations and suburbs, the urban culture of its cities has been lost. This means the end of the city and its neighborhoods as a community. It has been replaced with a social vacuum, intellectual impoverishment and creative sterility. The modern city is boring, decadent, standardized, depersonalized, noisy, unhealthy and vulgar. It is a nightmare that contradicts the idea of civilization, which is derived from civitas. Its functioning is the negation of what it was in its origins. The roots of the crisis must be sought in the period when the bourgeoisie were trying to rationalize the city and impose expansionist policies upon it. From then on, no resident outside of the proprietary class was, properly speaking, a citizen, that is, no one outside of the bourgeoisie could formulate an opinion, freely express it and play a role in the decision making process. The tools of urbanism made their contribution to this dispossession, against which the culture of the working class arose.
Since then, everything has gone from bad to worse, since the slave of work is now the slave of consumption, and as such is so manipulated by the media, so isolated and so intimidated, that it is no longer possible for him, as it was for his predecessors, to have resort to rioting and insurrection, and he can do nothing but hole up in his apartment-bunker.
Globalization and the police state have horribly degraded the civic universe, giving rise in the metropolitan areas not to a collective subject endowed with autonomy and guided by reason—a class—but to a narcissistic and manipulable atom, amorphous and alienated by the superstition of progress. Having abandoned the countryside, escaped the world of customs and forgotten his traditions, man—and woman—did not take a step towards freedom, but proceeded directly to servitude: the entire course of his life is today conditioned by work, administered by a bureaucracy, monitored by cameras and regulated by consumption. The automobile, the ATM, psychiatry, the second home and the shopping mall are the images of a contaminated well-being and of an abject freedom where the remnants of his individuality are suffocated and the links that united him with what is left of his class are broken. Self-repressed and in an extremely apathetic condition, he cannot change anything even if he wanted to, since he cannot even change himself. The developmentalist industrial society, however, does not just isolate, neuroticize and annihilate its subjects, but also subjugates and destroys the territory, forcing it into the orbit of the conurbations and condemning it to be absorbed by them. This is a double movement of destruction, one that is both centripetal and centrifugal. Towards the center, it is the transformation of the individual into the puppet of the economy; towards the periphery, it is the suburbanization of natural and rural space. With the assistance of political corruption and legal chicanery, the territory falls victim to real estate speculation, the depredations of the tourism industry and large-scale development projects, whether for energy distribution, warehouses, incinerators or other infrastructures. The bankruptcy of the national model of capitalism has led to a monstrous globalized economy, where corporate relocation, motor vehicle traffic, the real estate industry and financial engineering impose their rules. These rules appear to be enormously irrational because the process of globalization has not yet concluded, because the old ways of life and their values have not disappeared, and because the concomitant laws have not yet been fully developed in all their details. This new stage of capital displays contradictions that are typical of a too-rapid transition, to which are added other more profound contradictions of a structural type; and despite the constant political refrain in its favor it cannot be concealed that, rather than a new style of freedom provided with opportunities for its continuous expansion thanks to the new technologies and to the further development of the state machinery, what it entails is a new form of oppression that, by way of technological prostheses and its police forces, will far surpass all previous forms of oppression. This new oppression is not limited to exploitation at the workplace, but affects every aspect of people’s lives and the territory that shelters them, yet it only seems to become visible in struggles for the defense of territory, because it is only outside of the conurbations that there are enough individuals whose lives are sufficiently removed from consumerism, and who are still capable of becoming aware of the ecological-social disaster and of confronting its causes.
The contemporary city does not harbor even the slightest trace of solidarity and protest. The clusters of high-rise apartment buildings and highway traffic have swallowed them whole. There, nothing is designed on a human scale nor is anything done for human purposes. For a long time now, undeveloped areas have ceased to be public and direct communication has been proscribed. The technocrats who operate as the high priests of the city have imposed a design that could very well be qualified as cosmological, since it glorifies the deities of technology, progress and private interest. The new architecture and its associated urbanism give form to the triumph of the developmentalist myths of power, and are so inhuman and oppressive that it is strange that the flames have not spread beyond the confines of the ghettoes. The typical urban resident, however, hardly ever dares to protest, since he has become habituated to his miserable life and to his absolute lack of control over events. He is domesticated.
And if he does take action, of course, he does not question or threaten the status quo in the very least. The air of the conurbation is making man into a slave, and that is why so many people are fleeing from the cities; as for the others, newcomers to the conurbation, they no longer even think about complaining.
None of the problems of the avalanche of urbanization can be solved, nor can any territorial imbalance be corrected, in the framework of the capitalist regime, or within its political-administrative order. The ecological and social disaster is unstoppable. Protectionist legislation, “sustainable” development plans or compensatory “green” taxes are of no use at all.
The constant unhindered growth of the metropolis and the subsequent aggression against the territory result from a specific social formation, globalized capitalist society. Human time and space have been commodified, they have been converted into capital. Nothing can be considered to be outside of the market. As a result, the salvation of the territory, of life and of the city itself, will depend not on laws, taxes or political platforms, but on a radical and comprehensive regime change. In order to attain the requisite consciousness for this change, a long and painful succession of struggles will be necessary, which will give rise to a welter of ideologies, some extremist, but mostly conservative; some looking towards the future, the others contemplating the past; all transformed into the instruments of power and objectively or subjectively committed to capitalism. Overcoming these ideologies must be the conditio sine qua non for any radical critical theory that would establish the foundations of revolutionary anti-developmentalism.
The situation of the territory—by territory we are referring not only to the land or the countryside, but to its history, its culture and its proletarianized population—is the starting point for any authentic struggle. In order to provide solid foundations for the modern social critique an understanding of this situation is indispensable. Critique must be extended with an openly anti-developmentalist activity, which is the element in which it will encounter solidarity, dignity, desire and the other factors of liberation, since the emancipated society will have to be rebuilt on communitarian foundations and human values. Actions will make their debut in defensive struggles, as resistance against aggression, self-defense, and the refusal to collaborate with the established order. At the same time the anti-developmentalist critique will have to seriously propose the alternative of separation (or the refusal to be absorbed); in any event, this will mean a return to the scale of the locality, which will not be successful unless it entails a complete self-marginalization from the economy and politics. The initial experiences of life on the margins are just as necessary as street demonstrations, since both serve as examples and perform pedagogical roles, and for this very reason, they contribute to the rise of anti-capitalist consciousness, something that is essential for any offensive operation, especially for the one that must dismantle the dominant political-economic apparatus and implement de-urbanization.
To reverse the process of urbanization we will have to abolish the causes that give rise to it, that is, the generalized use of money, the real estate market, the industrialization of agriculture, assembly-line production, cheap transportation and the expansion of credit. For example, by imposing market-based agricultural and livestock production, the city was able to supply its needs at the best price in increasingly distant markets, breaking its connections with and disrupting the adjacent rural areas that previously served as its source for forest products, agricultural goods and livestock; the regional marketplaces, meadows and gardens lost their reason to exist and were transformed into suburban districts; the countryside was depopulated for the benefit of the industrial cities that grew unhindered thanks, first, to the railroad, and later to the automobile. Production was relocated farther from consumption, and the workplace was moved farther away from the residence. The private vehicle bears the greatest responsibility for the appearance of exclusively residential dormitory towns and occupies more than two-thirds of the space in the chaotic metropolitan areas. The circulation of commodities and executives demanded an ever larger infrastructure, leading to a tentacular growth of the metropolis, whose linear pattern is best exemplified in Spain by the Mediterranean coastal conurbation, and whose radial pattern is best exemplified by Madrid.
The conurbation elevated to the megalopolis—a limitless agglomeration of buildings—is the most genuine product of capitalist globalization, and only a collapse of the economy, caused by a natural catastrophe, the fall of a national government, a revolt, an energy crisis or a financial crisis, or a combination of some or all of these possibilities, can stop it. Such an occasion will be the moment for a social offensive that, by destroying all hierarchical structures, will create a situation suitable for anti-developmentalism and for the ways of life that it advocates.
Society will have to be rebuilt in accordance with the priorities of a moral economy that is not separated from other activities and that will not impinge on the egalitarian social relations established by a regime of true freedom, that is, one that favors local self-sufficiency, collective interests and horizontal political structures.
It will be an economy of subsistence rather than of accumulation, one in which barter will take precedence over exchange mediated by money and equilibrium will prevail over expansion. Keeping in mind the fact that it is cheaper to cultivate a garden than to shop at the supermarket (and it is also healthier), or to produce electricity at home rather than to buy it from a corporation, and, in general, that two-thirds of the goods and services required by a family could be produced more efficiently if they were produced locally, that middlemen are not necessary and less motor vehicle traffic will be needed, such an economy would not be so hard to create. We must also note, however, that although traditional agriculture would prevail in that kind of economy, not everything will be resolved by assuring the food supply through the integration of agriculture with animal husbandry and forestry. Such an economy will also have to respond to the needs for hydrological and energy resources, transport, shoes, clothing, housing, health and sanitation, education, art and culture. The creation of cooperatives, networks and informal markets for equitable exchange, will not be more important than the creation of schools, libraries, health clinics, renewable energy sources, irrigation systems, public transportation facilities and self-defense militias. In the enemy camp, the conurbations require a very large amount of motor vehicle traffic (which implies a considerable waste of energy), constant provisioning on a vast scale, prompt disposal of wastes, an enormous administrative bureaucracy and a large number of social service, legal, financial and other types of personnel. A cessation or shortage of any of these things will make the conurbations unviable over the short- or the medium-term. Interrupted or irregular provisioning, a significant decline in the production of fossil fuels, power outages due to a technology that is too centralized and uniform, etc., will cause the conurbations to enter into decline and then it will be relatively easy to reverse the proportional importance of the urban and the rural.
A household-based economy requires a self-sufficient, decentralized, integrated and diversified territory, one that is cultivated by means of a poly-technology that is adapted to the nature of the land and oriented towards the satisfaction of needs. Self-sufficiency does not mean autarchy, which is why at first demonetization might very well not be absolute, although the use of money will have to be restricted to the absolute minimum necessary and in any case it will be necessary to prevent its hoarding and its use as a source of power or of individual profit.
Decentralization is obligatory for the establishment of collectivism, for de-industrialization and for the successful initiation of local production. Integration, or de-zonification, is a basic requirement for harmony between the country and the city, or to put it another way, for the non-hierarchical reunification of the space of the city with its surrounding region: its principal instrument is regional planning, obviously of an anti-developmentalist kind, since the reestablishment of balance between regions will not depend on a redistribution of capital, but on the interpenetration between the territory and its inhabitants. Plans for development invite plundering, waste and dictatorial methods, while anti-developmentalist plans are devoted to facilitating rational resettlement and a generous exchange with nature thanks to the rational use of resources, climate, topography, knowledge and traditions. Diversification allows for savings with regard to transport costs and therefore with regard to energy, besides the fact that it reduces dependence and instills autonomy.
The abundance of public goods and services typical of collectivism will certainly imply a scarcity of private goods and services, but living in a free community will in any event compensate for the sacrifice of superfluous consumption, the suppression of useless services and the disappearance of industrialized leisure. The highest priority of a free society is not individual well-being derived from private profit, but collective happiness, which can only be maintained, on the one hand, by preserving both the environment and emancipated society, and on the other hand by preserving the symbiosis between them.
After our rapid sketch of the process of ruralization, what about the city? The city, properly speaking, must be reborn from the ashes of the conurbation and it must redefine itself in relation with its rural surroundings, since it will have to be supplied from the latter and, as a result, will have to produce for and exchange products and services with its rural hinterland.
City life is different from that of any other civilized way of life, since it represents the most effective historical attempt to refashion the world in accordance with the highest human aspirations and desires. Today, however, it is more than problematic for freedom to flourish in its domain. Too many people are looking for this freedom too far away from the cities and too many changes are necessary. For them to act in concert the inhabitants of the city have to share enough common interests; this will only be possible if they manage to abolish the political and social distances between them, if they reduce the size of the city, if they learn a trade, if the factory is replaced by household labor, if the agora is re-established … or, viewed from another perspective, if production, labor and political management are integrated with the festival, consumption, defense and culture. Taken separately, none of these activities can constitute a coherent and satisfactory way of life. Authentic life, however, cannot be cut off from any of them. On the other hand, abstracting from the details, the city does not have to host every kind of permissible industrial and commercial activity, since the latter can be distributed throughout the countryside, situated near their raw materials and integrated with agrarian activity. For this very reason, the city can be the site of gardens and can create natural corridors. The downfall of the conurbation will at first solve problems such as housing, but those related to transportation and assembly or general administration will only be solved with the restructuring of the overall dimensions of the urban space, along with the repopulation of the historic urban downtown areas. Nine-tenths of the structures in the conurbations will have to be demolished in order to be able to recreate human and civilized conditions in the cities. The public spaces of promenades, streets and squares will have to be restored, liberating them from consumerism, tourism and standardized leisure, so that they can recover their communitarian functions. Each conurbation will have its own process of decomposition, according to the magnitude of the contradictions that it causes to flourish and the intensity of the conflicts that it generates. In view of what is already beginning to take place, urban disintegration will generate high levels of violence and the proliferation of gangs. Whether this will result in a free community or a class-based and authoritarian social formation will depend on the degree of consciousness and determination attained during the unfolding of this process, as well as on the de-urbanizing and anti-state strategies that are implemented in the territory. Win or lose, the one thing we can rely on is that nothing is certain; we will have to await the collective subject engendered by devastation, and today’s struggles seem to indicate that the ingredients for the creation of this subject will be mixed outside of the conurbations, but not too far from them.
Notes for talks at the Ateneu Llibertari L’Escletxa (Alacant), September 25, 2010, and for the group Los Glayus (Oviedo), October 7, 2010.