December 10, 2012 § Leave a comment
I have touched on Doug Saunders’ Arrival City previously on this blog here and here. This review was also in the works with Current Intelligence before I left back in 2011. So, I am sticking it here for my own purposes.
Doug Saunders. Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World. London: William Heinemann, 2010. ISBN: 9780307396891. 356pp.
Doug Saunders’ Arrival City was published to almost universal acclaim last fall. The Guardian nearly fell over itself hailing it as “the perfect antidote to the doom-laden determinism of the last popular book on urbanisation, Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums” and declaring it “the best popular book on cities since Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities half a century ago.” Saunders’ own newspaper, The Globe & Mail hails his calming certitude on the wonderful nature of progress that the city provides us. And the Wall Street Journal praises Arrival Cities for its optimistic view of globalisation.
Certainly, Arrival Cities is an important book, its well-written and is clearly and cogently argued. It is also somewhat of a disappointment, at least in the first half of the book. Saunders is the European Bureau Chief for The Globe & Mail and his reportage and columns generally provide a balanced view of the world; his is one of the few columns in that newspaper I actively seek out. Thus, I expected more from Arrival Cities. I did not get it. While Saunders does give us a counter-narrative to Davis’ doom and gloom, it occasionally reads Pollyana-ish. And at times, Saunders’ journalistic eye overwhelms his argument. Indeed, Dwight Garner in The New York Times notes this problem: his lengthy quotes from the people he talked to in arrival cities around the world sound formulaic and too easy.
Certainly, Planet of Slums was an overly statistical analysis, and statistics are on the aggregate level, they do not always us to view the micro- and quotidian levels. But Arrival City is plagued by the opposite problem: in focusing on a success story or two from each of the arrival cities he visits around the world (and Saunders has certainly been travelling the world), he over-personalises his arguments, which gives the impression that he’s choosing to extrapolate the success stories he saw, not the marginalised. Certainly, all of the people in arrival cities are marginalised in the larger sense of the word, but within the poor, there are class/caste divisions.
More fundamental, though, is Saunders’ reliance on Hernando de Soto’s arguments that all people need in the slums and favellas of the world is security of tenure, if they owned their own homes, all would be good. As Davis notes, the problem with titling in the slums is that it perpetuates the problem of class, in that the wealthier squatters win and the poorer lose, or continue to lose. And de Soto has also been criticised for over-estimating the amount of wealth land titling would create. The other problem of de Soto’s claims is the very notion of property: generally speaking, slums and favellas work due to the co-operation between residents. The creation of private property is at diametrical odds to this economic system. Saunders parrots de Soto throughout large part of Arrival City, arguing that private ownership of homes and security of tenure would encourage slum-dwellers to, essentially, take pride in their homes and communities and would give them a base of capital to invest in the economy. This is not to suggest that de Soto and Saunders are all wrong and their critics all right, but it is to suggest that life does not work quite as neatly and systematically as de Soto and Saunders would hope.
The first five chapters of the book are also plagued by an alarming ahistoricism as Saunders takes us on a tour of arrival cities across the globe from London to Dhaka, Nairobi, Los Angeles, and Shenzhen. In Chapter 5, he looks a the historical growth of cities in the west, focussing specifically on Paris, London, Toronto, and Chicago. Oddly enough, even in a historical chapter, one is left alarmed at Saunders’ ahistoricism. In discussing the differences between urbanisation rates in the United Kingdom and France in the mid-19th century, Saunders somehow manages to overlook the major impetus behind urbanisation in that century: the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution is the determinative factor behind the wildly different rates of urbanisation in France and Britain in the 19th century, plain and simple.
Also, a cardinal crime to an entire generation of historians, Saunders attempts to take on E.P. Thompson and The Making of the English Working Class. The problem is that he seems not to have read the book. He says that Thompson sees his working class heroes as “passive victims.” This is just plain wrong, the key argument that emerges from The Making is that the working classes were not just passive victims, that they employed agency in agitating for their rights through corresponding societies, proto-unions, and through the church.
In addition, one is left rather flummoxed by Saunders’ apparent naïveté in looking at housing projects in Paris. He criticises the project builders for not soliciting input from those who were to be the future residents of the projects. Seriously. Nonetheless, he does make the point that the lack of accountability on the part of both the authorities and residents in the projects, to say nothing of their discombobulating impact on community.
Following this, however, Arrival City improves exponentially, in the final five chapters. In this sense, it is as if the book is split in two. In the second half of the book, Saunders seems to adopt a more complicated approach to the arrival cities of the world. This includes pointing out the ridiculousness of immigration policies in Canada and the United States. Canada and the United States take in the largest number of immigrants in the world, at least on a per capita basis for Canada, a relatively tiny (population-wise) country.
But it is Saunders’ chapter on the geçekondus that surround Istanbul that really shines. Here, we get a detailed, excellent study of the politics of the geçekondus from the 1970s to today and the struggle of the resident of the slums to attain regularisation and integration into Istanbul. Istanbul, of course, is one of the fastest growing cities in the world. In 1950, Istanbul’s population was 983,000; today, over 13,000,000 call the city home. The slums on the Asian side of the Bosporus grew up in the 70s as impoverished rural Turks migrated to the great city. They established their slum housing outside the boundaries of the city and then agitated for the right to have such luxuries as running water and sewers. The organisers of the 70s and 80s were almost all radical lefties and, during the military dictatorship and its aftermath in Turkey, many spent time in jail and saw their homes routinely torn down. By the turn of the millennium, their geçekondus had been integrated into Istanbul (a large part of what saw the city’s population triple in the past thirty years). Today, these old geçekondus are now part of the inner ring of Istanbul suburbs, fully integrated into the city, and the children of these old radicals are Istanbullus. However, the geçekondus aren’t simply a case of de Soto’s economic theories being put into practice, the regularisation of the geçekondus and their residents, the geçekondullus, required state assistance.
In the second half of the book, Saunders also goes beyond the role of banks and business in the regularisation of the arrival cities. He also notes that the state needs to take an activist role, whether of its own accord or spurred on by the arrival city residents. In order to do this, however, the state needs to have the resources to do so. This is simply not possible in many impoverished and/or corrupt developing world nations, like Bangladesh. Instead, it requires the intervention of richer nations like Turkey, which could afford for Istanbul to absorb and regularise its geçekondus. But more than this, the integration and regularisation of these arrival cities is necessary for local schools, jobs, health care facilities, water and sewer services, and transportation. And then, finally, Saunders strikes a balance between the de Soto right and the Davis left:
What comes from this work, and form the experiences of families like the Magalhãeses in Brazil and the Parabs in India, is a conclusion that is unlikely to please the ideologues on the socialist left or the free-market right: to achieve social mobility and a way into the middle class for the rural-migrant poor, you need to have both a free market in widely held private property and a strong assertive government willing to spend heavily on this transition. When both are present, change will happen [p. 288].
What we are left with then, is half a great book. The first half of Arrival City is done in by its overly simplistic and journalistic approach, its lack of historicity and its over-reliance on de Soto. In the second half, though, Saunders finds his feet, and finds his own original argument that more than splits the difference between de Soto and Davis. I remain unconvinced that the urbanisation of humanity on such a level as we are seeing today is a good thing, but it is also a truism throughout history, at least in the West, that periods of urbanisation have spurred on trade, the economy, and general human progress. And during periods of de-urbanisation, such as in the Dark Ages following the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, Europeans were only slightly more evolved than cavemen, at least in relation to the rest of the Mediterranean world and the Middle East, as David Levewing Lewis points out in God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 579-1215. Either way, there is no simple answer to the question of the massive urbanisation of the globe today, despite what the Mike Davises and Doug Saunderses of the world would have us believe.
November 9, 2012 § Leave a comment
I am reading a fascinating book right now, as I plan for my courses next semester, David J. Bodenhamer’s The Revolutionary Constitution, an history of the US Constitution. Bodenhamer does a brilliant job, I think, of tracing the history of the US Constitution and its uses in American history, politics, law, culture, and life.
One thing that is continually striking me is the on-going public argument in the United States and elsewhere between regulated v. free market economies. Maybe this is just the echo of the US election in my head. Or it could also be a reflection of all the info I have inhaled since the economy went kaputski in 2008. When FDR was elected in 1933, he sought to expand the state, based on Keynesian economies, to attempt to get the United States out of the Depression. FDR felt that free market economics were what got the United States into the mess of the Depression in the first place. And this has long been clear to me as an historian, but it is put in stark relief in Bodenhamer’s new book.
Fast forward to the present day. The recession of 2008 and beyond was caused, to a large degree, by unregulated economies. And yet, the right continues to argue that the free market will right all wrongs. Turns out we didn’t learn from the Depression. We let it all happen again in the 1990s and early 2000s. And this isn’t simply a right/left argument, either, as plenty on the left fell into this trap in the past two decades.
The problem with the free market economy is simple. Bodenhamer writes:
In recent years a conservative attack on this New Deal constitutionalism has emerged among scholars who asserted the superiority of a private market and sought to apply a cost-benefit analysis to public regulation. According to proponents of the so-called law and economics school, all people voluntarily make rational decisions to further their self-interest.
The problem is that people do not make rational decisions economically-speaking. If people did, the sub-prime mortgage meltdown would never have happened. If people did, I wouldn’t insist on drinking a latté in the morning instead of a cheaper coffee when my budget requires restructuring. If people did, we wouldn’t be carrying around crippling amounts of debt. The entire Enlightenment ideal of the rational behaviour of human beings has clearly been debunked. Ideally, we act rationally in matters of economics, politics, and so on. But clearly, in reality, we do not. If we did, the working-classes would always vote for the Democrats in the States and the NDP in Canada and Labour in England. But they don’t. They usually vote Republican and Conservative in Canada and England. That is not in their rational self-interest.
Indeed, as Canada’s Prime Minister, of whom I am no fan, likes to crow: Canada survived the meltdown to a large degree due to the strict regulation of Canada’s banking industry.
So why we continue to have this argument baffles me. In fact, I’d even go so far as to suggest that believing in the rational behaviour of the free market is, in fact, a completely irrational position and actually serves to de-bunk the arguments of these free market fantastists.
May 20, 2012 § Leave a comment
[Ed.’s note: I wrote this about a year ago, it’s already been published. But it’s been front and centre in my mind of late as I read more history, more Don De Lillo, and as world events continue to unfold. It’s often been said that history repeats itself. It’s a trite comment, but there is some truth to it. Anyway, I like this piece. So I’m republishing it. Enjoy.]
Historians take the long view when examining global affairs. I was recently reading microfilm of newspapers from the early 1920s, doing some last research for my book. The countries that dominated the headlines then were the same ones that dominate them today. The Third Anglo-Afghan War had just concluded with the Treaty of Rawalpindi, ostensibly settling boundary issues between India and Afghanistan. The Levant was under British and French mandate following the First World War. The Republic of Turkey was in its infancy under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and the British had just revoked Egypt‘s independence.
I had the same sense of déjà-vu in reading Don DeLillo’s 1982 novel, The Names. It’s set against the geopolitical backdrop of the Iranian Revolution, the rescue of the American hostages in Tehran, the Lebanese Civil War, the 1980 Turkish coup d’état, chronic Greco-Turkish tensions over Cyprus, and the instability of Greek democracy. The Names centres around a group of expats involved in various shadowy activities involving international banking, risk analysis, security, and archaeology. Its hero, James Axton, is a risk analyst for a mysterious American group found to have ties to the CIA. David Keller, another American, is based in Athens. He works for a bank that has heavy ties to the Turkish government, and becomes the target of an assassination attempt in Greece. Charles Maitland, a Brit, is a security specialist. The men spend their time flying around the Middle East attending to business in dodgy locales: Tehran, Ankara, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Damascus, and Beirut in particular.
Control is a central theme of the novel, whether it’s states trying to manage their politics or DeLillo’s characters handling their personal affairs. Axton loses control in his marriage as his wife, Kathryn, slips further and further away from him (she moves from a Greek island to Victoria, British Columbia – about as remote and obscure a locale from Greece as possible). He loses control over his own reality, holding on desperately to his job, revelling in mundane office paperwork as he becomes increasingly obsessed by a mysterious, murderous cult. He eventually travels to the Pelopennese and as far as Jerusalem, Damascus, and India in an attempt to learn more about it. Along the way, something interesting happens: language, the means by which people order and make sense of their mental worlds, takes on a new importance for Axton; religion, as exemplified by the mystery cult, is what orders the meaning that he finds through language. The connections they establish and the control they represent suggest a world made in the cult’s own image, which Axton sees painted on a rock on the outskirts of an abandoned village in the Pelopennese: Ta Onómata, The Names.
As the novel closes, Axton is back in Athens. After the CIA revelations, he resigns from his job. Rootless, his wife and son on the other side of the world. He regains control of his life, while the world around him continues to spin out of control; he witnesses the assassination attempt on Keller. Geopolitics and the personal chaos caused by the characters’ involvement in it are useful allegories these days. In the continuing drama of the Arab Spring, states and their residents, the masses and their leaders, are locked in a competition over who gets to dictate the terms of order. The newspapers of the 1920s were clear about who was meant to maintain control over the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Today, questions of empire, language, religion and politics, domesticated and boiling over, are much more complex. For that we should probably be grateful.
August 22, 2011 § 3 Comments
Last month, at the Annual Conference of the Canadian Association of Irish Studies at my alma-mater, Concordia University, I was witness to an interesting discussion about revisionism in Irish historiography. The discussion centred around issues of identity in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. In particular, the issue of binaries, in that one was either Protestant or Catholic and the twain never met.
I have long had problems with revisionist history (in the historiographical sense, let me be clear), in that it seeks to normalise, which means it plays down the unusual, the anachronisms, and so on. In some ways, this is a good thing. In the case of Ireland, there is some good which has come out of revisionism, most notably, we are free to focus less on the stereotypical tragic history of a “famished land, who fortune could not save” (to quote the Pogues). In short, Ireland is free to become (to borrow from revisionism in Québec historiography) “une nation comme les autres.” Revisionism also leads us to post-structuralism and allows us to get past the binaries in many ways: Catholic v. Protestant, man v. woman, city v. rural, North v. South, Ireland v. England, etc. We can see the greys now, a process begun with the muddying of the playing field by the great revisionists of the 20th century: T.W. Moody and Robert Dudley Edwards, as well as the great troubadour of revisionism of our era: Roy Foster.
But, this becomes problematic when taken too far. When we become too focussed on seeing past the binaries, to see all the ways Catholics and Protestants got along in Belfast, in Derry, and across the North, we run a new risk. And that is to trivialise the Troubles. The Troubles was, ultimately, a civil war between nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland. For the most part, we have long used “nationalist” and “Catholic” and “Protestant” and “unionist” as synonyms. And it is good to see across the lines, to see the attempts at peace-building and community-making in the midst of the terror and devastation of the Troubles. But if we push this impulse too far, then we are blind to the Troubles (or any other conflict that relies on binaries). There is a reason that those two sets of words were/are seen synonymously. It remains that over 3,500 people are dead, countless lives were torn asunder, and the two cities of Northern Ireland, Belfast and Derry, still bear the scars of the Troubles on their landscapes.
We, as historians can try all we like to see past the binaries here, but the simple fact remains that this binary was a pretty fundamental one, it resonated with people, it caused them to fight, sometimes to the death, for what they believed in. It caused them to engage in terrorism. It tore families and communities apart. We cannot lose sight of that.
March 11, 2010 § Leave a comment
is a journal of opinion and analysis. Its editors and writers are preoccupied broadly with culture, politics and current affairs; narrowly with conflict,crisis, and the state of the world “out there”; and laterally with the intellectual concerns of those who research, teach, and write about the issues.
We went live on Monday, 8 March, and we will publish daily, Monday-Friday, with a quarterly print journal as well. Current Intelligence comes with its own set of sections:
- The Editor’s Desk: daily must-reads
- The Agenda: informed comment on headline issues
- The Big Smoke: reporting on London’s wealth of current affairs talk (starting in May, 2010)
- The Quiet American: analysis of foreign policy, military intervention, human rights & humanitarian affairs
- Letters From Abroad: dispatches from field researchers, expats and other travelers
We can even be found on Twitter.
So, come on over, grab a coffee and read what we’ve got to say. As for me, I’ll continue to offer my own particular position on issues that require a deeper, historical, long-view of understanding.
March 6, 2010 § Leave a comment
By now we all know that Chile was devastated by a massive earthquake this week, and by massive, we’re talking 8.8 on the Richter Scale; by comparison, the earthquake that devastated Haiti in January measured 8.0, certainly massively devastating.
In the aftermath, looting has broken out in across the nation. I find looting in the wake of natural disasters fascinating, as condemnations of it clearly show a disturbing trend of our culture: that private property in many cases is more sacrosanct than life. Indeed, if Western history teaches us anything, it is that property was and is quite often more important than the lives of the commoners or the poor or the working-classes. Indeed, this is clear from Thompson and his The Making of the English Working Class: property matters. The state is constituted to protect men, true, but also, men’s property. Especially that of wealthy men. Indeed, as no less an authority as Jean-Jacques Rousseau points out in his Discourse on Inequality, it is private property that is at the heart of that inequality. Thus we band together to be governed, surrendering some of our own personal sovereignty in order that our lives and property can be protected and, thus, at the same time, inequality.
Consider this passage from the Washington Post today:
Though there were middle-class looters — some carried off their booty in expensive four-wheel-drive vehicles — the pillaging was carried out largely by poorer Chileans, and it left some horrified onlookers wondering whether their country had really advanced as much as the economists and government officials had believed.
I can’t understand why it is that the poor looting carried out by the poor would cause such hand-wringing and soul-searching. And this causes The Post to go onto a long discourse on inequality and poverty, the nation with the lowest poverty rate (14%) in South America. But one also, according to Piero Mosciatti, a lawyer and director at Radio Bio-Bio in the city of Concepion. He says that:
I think there are very big resentments on the part of those who are poorest and marginalized. Chile is a country that is tremendously unequal, scandalously unequal. The statistics show it.
That may very well be. But aren’t all Western nations predicated on this inequality? It is one thing to wring our hands and tut-tut when the desperately poor of Port-au-Prince engage in looting. But, culturally, we expect that. We expect the desperately poor in a desperately poor nation to loot in the wake of a natural disaster. But when it happens in a supposedly wealthy western nation, then we get concerned. We saw this in New Orelans after Hurricane Katrina. And we’re seeing the same thing in Chile after this earthquake.
The media is shocked to learn that there are poor people, an underclass in first-world nations. Why this is is beyond me. Any trip through any major city in the west, be it London, Miami, New Orleans, Buenos Aires, and one is confronted by the urban poor. Our society is predicated on that inequality, for better or worse. And quite often, wealthy, industrialised nations have a massive disparity between the rich and the poor. This was made abundantly clear in the wake of Katrina in New Orelans in 2006. And this is true of not just the United States.
According to one of the looters in Concepcion, Chile, “This is done for necessity. Everything is abandoned, and we are looking for what has been left behind.”
At least the Chileans, according to The Post, are beginning to have the discussion as to whether or not Chile, which has developed rapidly, has done enough to bridge the gap between rich and poor. This is a discussion worth having in Canada.
February 8, 2010 § Leave a comment
Watching the Super Bowl yesterday, we were inundated with stories of redemption and New Orleans (something I hope to return to in a post later this week, stay tuned), but something in my brain clicked when images of the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina were shown, including the scene at the Superdome, the home of the New Orleans Saints, and I thought of coverage I have seen of the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake last month.
In both instances, there were wide-spread reports of looting and violence in the aftermath of these natural disasters. In both cases, media coverage was overwhelming negative of these events, with a strong hint of moral condemnation (one headline in The Times speaks of “retribution” against rioters). This coverage, it seems to me, is intimately tied up with questions of race and power.
In the aftermath of Katrina and the earthquake, large cities were destroyed (New Orleans and Port-au-Prince), meaning the survivors had no homes, no food, no shelter, things that humans require. Basic requirements of life. In both cases, aid was slow to arrive on the ground (David Letterman on the Super Bowl: “And the New Orleans Saints’ fans, I’m telling you, they have waited a long, long time for their team to get into the Super Bowl. Not as long as they waited for FEMA, but still, it’s been a very long, long time”). This seems to me the very defintion of a desperate time calling for desperate measures. Hence, the turn to violence to get the basics of life. It is neither surprising, nor, really, as far as I see it, wrong (at least to a certain degree).
But coverage in the media is universally negative. In New Orleans, the media focused on African-Americans who were engaged in looting. Haitians are also black. It would seem to me that nothing beyond racism fuels the apocalyptic coverage provided by the mainstream media in the US, UK, and Canada.
Cross-posted at Current Intelligence.