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Government / Local politics

Cities may be exploitative – but they're the only place the non-waste economy can develop

In the 1920s Soviet planners disputing over the model of a new, socialist city were divided into two camps.

One group, the “super-urbanists”, led by Leonid Sabsovich, proclaimed the glory of the city as a place where the working class were born – but they were, nonetheless, planning its gradual decentralisation. The second group, the “dis-urbanists”, led by Mikhail Okhitovich and Moisei Ginzburg, proclaimed the need for a radical shift into the next, post-urban, model of the city. This, they saw as an effect of the victory of a proletarian revolution.


Super-urbanists designed a linear, dense, urban structure; dis-urbanists suggested the development of small industrial settlements, evenly distributed across the country, and connected by railway lines. Both groups – although in varying degrees –had a dismissive attitude towards cities existing at the beginning of twentieth century.

There’s been some debate on CityMetric, about whether the city is an area of ​​exploitation (the view of Deepa Naik and Trenton Oldfield), or whether it’s a  democratic space providing its residents with the opportunity of equalitarian emancipation (the view of James O’Malley). To me, this debate looks a little bit like this old dispute between communist planners.

And just as Stalinist urbanisation shattered the visions of super-urbanists and dis-ubanists alike, so the transformation of late capitalism, I think, nullifies the dispute presented in those earlier columns.

Modern cities have not emerged as a result of a conspiracy by the “urban industry”; instead they’re the result of industrial revolution and the Fordist organization of production. Nowadays, cities in Europe and the US are often described as “post-industrial” – but it was industry that decided how they look today, and it’s industry that’ll decide on their future.

More modern cities are still more fallen industrial cities, rather than new entities based on a new mechanism of development. This makes contemporary cities weak. And it is that weakness – not strength – that is their problem.

Today’s criticism of the city from the anti-capitalist position seems to forget that, in the Soviet bloc, cities were built as industrial cities: their deindustrialisation has begun in exactly the moment when neoliberal capitalism was accepted as a model of their future development.

We need to take over our cities, not escape into some anti-urban utopia

This relationship between contemporary global capitalism and the collapse of industrial cities is crucial to understanding today’s crisis. Industrial cities were obviously built on the exploitation of the working classes. But at the same moment, these cities provided spaces – factories – where working class solidarity was born. Neither socialists nor communists suggested the destruction of these factories; they just wanted to take control and ownership over them.

Today there is a very similar task in front of us: we need to take over our cities, not escape into some anti-urban utopia.

But if the industrial city created, as a byproduct, solidarity between workers, the contemporary post-industrial city is destroying it. The neoliberal city is spatially and socially fragmented. But there is a clear meta-narrative, organising it as a whole from outside: the mechanism of financial speculation. Where once workers were exploited in factories, today they are exploited through the housing market.

This speculation and exploitation is possible exactly because the city is fragmented and weak. The post-neoliberal city must therefore be based on what is spatial and what is material.

This post-neo-liberal model of the economy can be born only in the cities. And it will be a model associated with the idea of ​​re-industrialisation – understood not as a return of factories into the cities, but as a socio-economic project, inspired by the ideas of industrial ecology, based on the principle of closing the chains of production and consumption.

Such anti-capitalist re-industrialisation could be economically effective – its development is not producing any waste. Such industrialization means full employment (such as existed in Japan when the country became an economic power). It means comprehensive use of waste (in Sweden at the moment, 99 per cent of household waste is recycled). And it means synergistic cooperation between different economic actors. It is a model of a society based on cooperation and not on competition, on an economy with optimised consumption, breaking away from the dominance of the financial sector.

This is a model of society progressives should be fighting for – and it could only be built in cities.

Krzysztof Nawratek is a lecturer and Master of Architecture programme leader in the School of Architecture, Design & Environment at Plymouth University. He is an author of “The City as a Political Idea” (2011) and “Holes in the Whole: Introduction to Urban Revolutions” (2012). 
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