As capitalism emerged and grew, so too did cities—the great centres in which the productive life of human societies has become increasingly concentrated. In Australia, 72 percent of people live in major cities. Around the world, it’s 56 percent, a figure the United Nations forecasts will increase to 68 percent by 2050.
In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx highlighted that “constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones”. Cities are where capitalism’s “uninterrupted disturbance” and “everlasting uncertainty and agitation” are concentrated. In them are contained all the intensities and deep contradictions of this chaotic, crisis-ridden system.
They are, on the one hand, fulcrums of creativity and innovation, melting pots of different cultures and lifestyles, and cradles of new ideas and social practices. On the other hand, they are the sites of capitalism’s most barbaric extremes—of state repression and surveillance, of homelessness and destitution, of air, land and water poisoned by pollution, of exploitation and alienation.
They are also centres of class struggle, where bosses and workers wage their “uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight”. When revolutions break out, they break out in cities. When reaction comes, it’s in the “seats of power” in the big cities that it makes its home. For better or worse, the destiny of all humanity on our fragile planet is bound with the fate of our cities.
From the perspective of the capitalist class, cities are primarily giant machines for the squeezing of surplus value from the labour of workers. In the early days of the system, the owners of the “dark satanic mills” of the industrial revolution lived far enough from the factory districts to ensure their home lives weren’t tainted by the poverty and pollution the operations of their businesses contributed to.
Today, these geographical divisions are less stark, but they remain. You won’t find many industrial facilities near suburbs like Toorak in Melbourne or Sydney’s Point Piper. In cities around the world, it’s the same: the wealthier residents live in the best serviced, most visually appealing and greenest areas, while workers and those least well off are consigned to more polluted areas with fewer services.
Politicians and business owners may engage, from time to time, in rhetoric about the importance of “livability”. In practice, though, this generally extends only to issues that directly affect a city’s wealthiest residents. As long as the rest of us remain sufficiently healthy and motivated to keep showing up for work, they care little about whatever conditions we might have to contend with when we head home from the offices, warehouses, factories and other sites of exploitation.
For many sections of the capitalist class, in fact, the afflictions suffered by the mass of ordinary people living in cities are a direct source of profit. Think, for example, of the car culture and associated issues of urban sprawl and traffic congestion that are ubiquitous in many cities. From the first days of the auto industry in the U.S. in the early twentieth century, capitalists saw an opportunity in limiting access to alternative forms of transport such as trains and trams, and in constructing new residential areas in such a way as to make car ownership a necessity.
The endless sprawl and traffic jams are health hazards for those forced to endure them. But for the capitalist class, they are highly profitable. Think of all the landholders and developers who make money every time new parcels of land on the city fringe are made available for housing. Think of the car companies, the global oil giants and toll road operators that benefit from having people spend hours a day in ever longer commutes.
Housing is another example. The equation here is simple: the harder it is for people to find a place to live, and the lower the quality of the housing that government regulations allow for, the more potential for profit there is for developers, builders, banks and property investors.
None of the major players in the housing industry are interested in providing people with a secure roof over their head. What they’re interested in is making money. If they can do more of that by artificially withholding supply, by constructing new apartment buildings that pack in a maximum number of barely habitable dog-boxes, or by any number of other means more or less directly counter to human wellbeing, they will.
Even the kind of atomisation and social isolation associated with suburban life can be seen as part of a city’s mechanism for profit-making. Public facilities and gathering places are left to decay—in their place rise shopping malls and other centres of commercial activity. In outer-suburban areas in particular, these are some of the only spaces where large numbers of people can gather.
People do forge social connections despite the lack of public spaces. Groups of young people make the malls, train stations and other suburban cracks and fissures a home away from home. This, however, is commonly regarded as a threat—as “anti-social behaviour” rather than an against-the-odds act of community building. Various measures are used to discourage it, from devices that emit unpleasant high-pitched sounds, to scare campaigns about street gangs and the deployment of security guards or police to harass people.
As long as our cities are shaped by the insatiable appetite for profit of those at the top, rather than being planned and run for human need, the deep-seated problems of city life are likely to get worse. There’s simply too much money being made from the existing set-up, and too little on offer, from a capitalist perspective, from things that would improve the lives of workers.
It can be hard to see a way out. “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”, Fredric Jameson wrote—and this is particularly the case, arguably, in the shadow of the immense edifices of capitalist economic and political power that dominate our cities today.
We know, though, that concentrations of capitalist power are always also concentrations of potential working-class power. “With the development of industry”, Marx wrote, “the working class not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more”. Today, the organisation of the working class in Australia is at a low ebb, thanks largely to the do-nothing attitude of the Labor Party-aligned trade union bureaucracy. This period of stifled resistance, however, won’t go on forever.
Every forward step capitalism takes is accompanied by the growth of the system’s instabilities and afflictions. It’s in cities that this dynamic is most clearly visible. The more effective a city becomes as a profit-making machine for its wealthiest residents, the more everyone else is squeezed. The exploitation of workers is central to this, but the problems discussed above—like urban sprawl, the scarcity and poor quality of housing, pollution and so on—are part of it too.
This is in times when the system is functioning smoothly. When a crisis hits, the miseries suffered by the working class increase even more.
In Australia, we’re already seeing signs of the anger bubbling away under the surface: people working harder than ever but seeing the value of their wages eroded by inflation; people stretched to breaking point by steep increases in rents and mortgage payments and people struggling just to keep a roof over their head at all; people who can also see how well those on the other side of the class divide are doing: the big banks making windfall profits, the property investors, developers and landlords awash with cash, the booming market for luxury goods. There’s only so much people can take before they fight back.
Now imagine how radically different things would be if a genuine workers’ revolution were to take place. It’s the great mass of the working class that make our cities run, not the politicians and corporate board members. If only we realise that power, and organise ourselves to seize it, we could run the city in a much better way. Instead of the small minority at the top calling the shots—people interested only in amassing wealth for themselves—economic life could be governed collectively and democratically by the people who actually do all the work.
Under a socialist system like that, we could use society’s resources and energy to fix the many problems facing workers and the poor in our cities today. It’s not like there’s a shortage of ideas on this front. We’ve got centuries’ worth of them to draw on, and many practical examples too.
Planners know what kinds of urban environments are conducive to human health and wellbeing. Architects and builders know how to construct durable, livable and beautiful housing. Gardeners, landscapers, hydrologists and others with skills related to the human and natural worlds know how to create environments in which both sides of that interface can flourish. Under capitalism, where the drive to profit rules, this expertise is generally only drawn on in the context of projects catering to the super-rich. In a socialist society, it could be used to benefit everyone.
There are several obvious things we could start with. A big expansion of the public transport system would be one—extending train, tram and bus lines and increasing frequencies across every corner of the city. Another would be bringing a halt to the endless sprawl by identifying unused or under-utilised land in existing urban areas where significant amounts of new, high-quality medium density housing could be built. In the context of a rapidly warming world, increasing the amount of green space and tree coverage in urban areas would be important too.
In the longer term, we could consider transforming things even more radically—for instance by shifting to a more “decentred” model of the city in which economic activity was distributed more evenly, rather than being concentrated in just a few areas. Over time, improvements in public transport could make many roads redundant. The space freed up by this could then be used for more housing, as parkland, or as a mixture of both. Where the imperative was to plan and build in accordance with basic human needs, rather than what’s profitable, the possibilities would be endless!
In U.S. rapper Jay-Z’s 2009 hit “Empire State of Mind”, Alicia Keys sings of New York as the “concrete jungle where dreams are made of”, a city whose “big lights will inspire you”. Socialists share this sentiment, but probably not in the way the song intended.
Capitalist cities are where, for most people, whatever dreams we may have of a better future for society go to slowly die. Reviving them, and finding inspiration once again in the “big lights” of city life, requires tapping into the largely subterranean city of resistance: of people fighting against the myriad horrors and injustices of capitalism and building the collective power and organisation necessary to topple the system for good. It’s in this fertile soil that our dreams of the socialist city of the future can take root and grow.