books

Rethinking the City, by Steven Liaros

rethinking the city“We are at a unique point in human history” says Steven Liaros. “With economic and environmental crises peaking at the moment of the ‘virtual revolution’ there is a growing sense that, as Voltaire himself said: ‘the present is pregnant with the future.'”

Rethinking the City is an overview of this moment and some of the new directions we could choose, or are in fact already taking. To give the book its full title, it’s the pleasingly 18th century-style On the birth and death of economics, religion and democracy and how we are collectively rethinking the city.

Though Liaros is a town planner by trade, the ‘city’ in question here is more along the lines of the Greek ‘polis’. It includes the physical city, but also all that it contains. It’s “the whole” of which we are a part, the philosophical ideal way to live and manage our shared spaces. The City is shaped by our ideas, Liaros argues. If the way we currently live is pushing us towards greater inequality, eroding democracy and degrading our environment, we are free to change things and it will be our ideas that do it.

To illustrate that point, the book travels chronologically through a history of the big ideas mentioned in the title, drawing out key moments when the way we live changed. The first is agriculture, the move from a pastoral lifestyle to one of settled farming. There are advantages and disadvantages to this, one of the negatives being a shift in the way we perceive the world. A pastoralist or nomad sees himself as part of an ecosystem, whereas a settler has chosen a specific place. “Our focus therefore narrows from concern for the ‘whole’ earth to concern for only that small part of it that we are managing.”

An interesting observation, and Liaros highlights a whole series of such moments. The invention of currency creates the possibility of tax, for example, which in turn gives rise to the notion of a social contract. Or the creation of the council in ancient Greece, and how it shifted decision making from participative to representative democracy.

I quite enjoy this “broad-brush” approach to history, though there are times when the historical validity of the conclusions is questionable. There’s one moment early on in the book where Liaros declares that he’s not really interested in the specific ‘truth’ of life in early hunter-gatherer society, but whether it ‘resonates’ with us as intuitively true. He then uses fictional accounts from a series of novels to suggest that Cro-Magnon communities were cooperative and democratic. Archeological evidence doesn’t support that view. As Steven Pinker explains in his history of human violence, The Better Angels of our Nature, analysis of burial sites show that a far higher percentage of people died by violent means – not a good indicator of democratic decision making. It is also quite possible that the Cro-Magnons systemically eliminated the Neanderthals, a genocidal campaign that doesn’t suggest cooperative tendencies (See Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress).

The author makes no claim to authority on these things, but it did make me uncomfortable. Looking for what is ‘intuitively true’ in history isn’t really any different from wishful thinking. You can’t learn from history if you’re not working out what really happened. The Cro-Magnon case is early in the book and is the most egregious – understandably, since we know so little about early societies – but it does undermine the credibility of the book somewhat.

There are also problems with some of the religious ideas, which are also re-interpreted in line with the book’s general arguments. So Moses becomes a prophet calling people back to a pastoralist lifestyle, in a prototypical model society. As former slaves themselves, “one would expect that a new society formed in this way would also be egalitarian and would aim for equality for all.” A nice idea, except the Old Testament law contains rules about slaves. Or there’s the re-imagining of ‘Adam’s dilemma’ in eating the forbidden fruit, casting it as “the tension between serving the whole city and serving his own interests”, choosing private gain over public good. I’m open to new readings of such stories, but as the archetypal ‘first man’, what larger human society is Adam part of?

Fortunately, the book is sufficiently speculative and discursive in nature that Liaros largely gets away with these sorts of ‘wonderings’. This is a book that invites its readers to think and rethink, not one that seeks to explain things neatly. “Imagine a world where…” is a recurring phrase. Taken in that spirit, there’s plenty in the book to ponder, particularly towards the end as all these historic trends begin to coalesce into our own era and the emerging movements around participative democracy, collaborative consumption, transition and post-growth futures.

If that sounds like something you may be interested in and would like to read the book, Steven sent me two copies. I’ve scribbled all over one of them, but drop me an email at jeremy @ makewealthhistory.org if you’d like the other one and I’ll post it to you.

One comment

  1. Jeremy,
    Thank you for the review. Much appreciated.
    I would like to add that the historical overview that I offer is also intended to illustrate the cyclical character of the human journey, particularly the cycles from ‘Dark Ages’ perhaps of small villages, then city states, nation states and finally empires that continue pushing for growth until they extend beyond their limits and collapse. Generally a dark age follows before a new cycle begins. This is an accepted and acceptable view of history and it includes those incredibly creative points in time… the city states (e.g.. Classical Greece and Renaissance Italy). I argue that if you want productivity, you strive for growth… If you want creativity then the city should be organised as a network of self-determining city states that strive towards self sufficiency and where the body of human knowledge is shared freely.

    A fascinating example of when collapse did not happen was when the Roman Empire was transformed from within into a network of communities by what we today call the Christian ‘Good News’ of sharing, collaboration and authenticity. For about 300 hundred years Rome slowly declined as more and more communities were created. As their power grows they are first attacked to no avail until they become part of the establishment, the capital is moved to Byzantium and the new Christian Byzantine empire is created. Note that the Arab societies, who were affected by the ‘Good News’ but were not part of Rome still operate in this decentralised way. Islam regards Jesus as a prophet.

    Anyway… I debated whether I should comment but felt I should add the above.

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