‘Mother of harlots and earth’s abominations’

Saturday Morning on Radio New Zealand National featured Doug Saunders – journalist and author – talking about his book ‘Arrival Cities: How the largest Migration in History is Reshaping Our World‘. You can go here for the link to the audio if you missed it.

The idea seems simple: The world is now going through the urban transition which developed countries went through during industrialisation. Over 50% of the earth’s population is now urbanised and by centuries end that could be 75%. The world’s ghettos, shantytowns and city slums are, in his words, ‘arrival cities’, an unexpected type of transition town, if you like.

These ‘arrival cities’ are populated by aspirational rural people who actively and freely choose the slum life because it represents better conditions including greater longevity, lower poverty, less risk of starvation and cable tv(!).

Sounds good, even upbeat. What looks like a terrible problem is actually a, perhaps painful, step on the road to good times. So, what’s the problem?

What got me was the assumption that urbanisation was some sort of natural process, and a beneficial one. I call this the ‘benign (modern) society’ assumption. It’s Whig history writ large. Today’s world, so the assumption goes, just is the best world that humans have ever experienced. Getting to this point was (luckily) inevitable and – wouldn’t you know it? – ‘we’ (the West) were the first to get there. Here’s Stephen Fry and the Two Ronnies on their take of it:

At one point, Finlay McDonald (the host) even mused as to whether this apparent freely chosen tendency to ‘gather together’ (you know, the way people naturally gather in cities of 20 million people) might be part of our human nature – an ‘adaptive’ tendency to want to be with others.

[Of course, that’s not quite in sync with evolutionary psychologists who (perhaps mistakenly) seem to be under the impression that we, and our minds, evolved to fit a group of people of no more than a couple of hundred others (see page 331, column 2 of this article to see how that possibly impacted on food sharing behaviour).]

Nowhere in this interview was there any discussion of why rural areas became so undesirable that slums with no sewerage system, water or proper shelter looked like a good deal. A bit of history helps.

John Reader (author of Cities) points out that, up until very recently (in cities in developed countries), the growth in cities’ populations was despite the fact that rural life expectancy and fertility were greater than in urban environments. In effect, migration from the country not only expanded the populations of cities but had to compensate for the ‘natural rate of decline’ (i.e., higher death rate) in them.

So, contra Saunders, cities have largely gained population despite being worse places to live, on those indices.

Two processes were in effect:

  1. Rural life became, often quite deliberately, harder;
  2. City life operated increasingly on commercial (rather than purely social) imperatives.

That second process undermines sociality and thrives on the opportunism that arises from relative anonymity. As Reader (p. 112) put it:

Since earliest times, some form of local pressure has served to keep social behaviour under control in small communities … [e.g., the Frankpledge system in England] …Similar systems doubtless existed everywhere, but their efficacy was steadily eroded by the growth of cities, where for centuries trade had been presenting the nefariously inclined with a multitude of opportunities for gaining an unfair advantage over their fellow citizens under the cloak of anonymity.

So, yes, ‘aspirational’ people are no doubt attracted to cities.

But, then there’s the first process I mentioned. It has manifested in many ways. Here’s just two well known examples.

Colonised people are probably under no illusion about how the rural environment became so aversive to so many. Deliberate policies such as hut taxes are pretty good ways to ensure that a sustainable rural culture suddenly becomes unsustainable and that the colonial urban culture gains its labour supply and colonial capital can hoover up land forfeited by those unable to pay taxes.

The same goes for enclosures. While we can debate the causes, it’s clear that without those debated, contested and often resisted acts (both of parliament and via other means), rural life would not have shifted away from its long-lasting form with the associated turfing of many tenants off their lands. Without a means of support, for those tenants the cities must have looked, if not exactly attractive, at least the only other option.

Urbanisation is neither inevitable nor necessarily desirable (for individuals or society). We can do without the rhetorical gloss that ‘arrival cities’ are the necessary birth pangs of a natural process that leads to the bounty that is modern life.

They are, in fact, exactly what they seem to be – horrendous slums that graphically demonstrate the bind and the desperation of so many people on earth. They don’t have to exist.

P.S. the title is from Revelations, 17, 5 and describes Babylon

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