Against the tyranny of progress: How did we come to see urbanisation as a part of human evolution?

Blame these two: the statues of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in Berlin. Image: Getty.

This is the third column in the "Critical Cities" series, which questions the rise of the now colossal and globalising "Urban Industry".

The first column argued that urbanisation was not natural or inevitable, but a direct result of the forces of capitalism.  The second examined how the Urban Industry actively misinforms through hyperbole on the benefits of an urbanised life – and claimed that everything we thought we knew about cities being wrong.

This column examines the philosophical underpinnings of the Urban Industry. It looks at how the "idea of progress" that argues cities are a symbol of human advancement was born, is embedded and continues to be transmitted, despite its deeply problematic foundations.

Urbanisation is transforming just about every aspect of our lives. And in recent decades, both the rate and the scale of the process has accelerated exponentially.

The figures are truly breathtaking. China alone plans to consolidate more than 900m people into cities by 2025. Already, there are an estimated 750m urban Chinese. In one generation, between 1980 and 2010, the share of the country's population living in urban areas increased from 19 per cent to 49 per cent.

It's a similar story in Venezuela, which, despite its ancient cities, vast rainforests and bountiful agricultural lands, has seen profound urbanisation take place. People have been forced off their lands for oil and mineral extraction – a result of wholesale corporate land grabs and the industrialisation of agriculture. Today, 93 per cent of Venezuelans live in cities, making it the most urbanised country in the world that is neither a city state nor an island nation.


The capital of Afghanistan, Kabul, ballooned from around 1m residents in 2001 to over 3.5m by 2010 – an increase due largely to NATO’s wars. The current rate of urbanisation is 5.4 per cent a year, one of the highest anywhere in the world.

But the most remarkable increases are yet to come, particularly in Africa and Asia. Urbanisation is big business – and there are plenty of people and corporations cashing in. An entire industry has appeared to assist, profit, influence and further boost and encourage the processes. We call it The Urban Industry.

While there are some variations around the world, the Urban Industry generally consists of interdependent, though often parasitic, businesses, politicians, NGOS, cultural intuitions and courts. One of the defining features of the industry is its global ambitions and western value system. The Urban Industry includes industries such as real estate, food and transport services. These are also some of the world’s largest and most profitable businesses, ever.

However, none of these regularly celebrated processes would have been possible without the Urban Industry’s key influencer and agent, academia; or without one tremendously seductive, though thoroughly problematic, idea: that of progress. In the century over which it has been popularised, it has become accepted to such an extent that it is now difficult to question, or even to see, it. The enthusiastic support of westernised academia has embedded the idea of progress into discourse to such an extent it is today conventional wisdom.

The idea of progress and the rise of the city

You would be hard pressed to find anyone, certainly in the English-speaking world, who doesn’t subscribe to the idea of progress. It’s the simple, promising notion that people and societies advance, go forward, and progress through stages in a linear motion – that they move inexorably closer to a better life, even toward utopia or perfection.

The thesis of progress is that, by picking up new tools and displaying different symbols in the practice and organisation of everyday life, and by eliminating “defects” and “drags”, humanity can be and has been improved. This view sees an arc of history, administered with a detached fairness via “the laws of nature”. Perhaps the most important element in this theory is that nothing should stand in the way – nothing should prevent or slow down “the march of history”.

Progressives feel they have a responsibility to assist societies move through or in to new stages of human development, and prevent it from “going backwards”. The abolition of “inefficient” rural and indigenous societies, and their replacement with industrialised urban economies, has been championed by progressives across the western political spectrum for the past century. The urbanisation and centralisation of humanity into cities is seen as a sign of human progress, of human development and something to celebrate.

So powerful and useful is this idea that it has effortlessly united and propelled western political thought and policy and education since the 19thth century. Marx’s economics was as influential in propagating the notion of progress as Darwin’s science was. Together, these theories still shape just about all policy, education, and possibly most human interactions.

Public figures from across the political spectrum fall over themselves today to call themselves “progressives”. David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown energetically call themselves progressives. Tony Blair held his first anti-Corbyn press conference at the New Labour pressure group Progress (“Labour’s Progressives”).

Just another couple of progressive guys hanging out and shooting the breeze: former US presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Image: Getty.

The list goes on: George W. Bush, Bernie Sanders and the Clintons have all asked to be called progressives. Owen Jones enthusiastically calls for a “pan-British progressive grassroots political movement”. The infamous Koch Brother’s CATO Institute very recently launched a new organisation Humanprogress.org.

Why does the idea of progress unite the political spectrum? Partly it’s because it is one of those English words – like legacy, pride, or regeneration – that are so imprecise, overused and omnipresent that they provide an almost blank canvas. We can project onto them just about whatever we want.

This fits very well with western interests. According to “progressive” Yale and Columbia sociology professor Robert Nisbet, “the nobility, even the superiority of Western civilisation” would be a precondition for development across the world.

Cities and evolution

According to Marx and Engels societies everywhere must pass through a series economic stages – primitive communism, barbarism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism and then socialism. Only after that, can communism can be finally resurrected. (Libertarians have a similar theory, only their end goal is the wet dream of a robot automated paradise.)

In this theory, industrialised cities are not only understood as prerequisites for human progress. They are also considered as irrefutable material evidence of human progress, even human evolution. Human development, it is suggested, will occur through the industrialisation of the economy; through a centralised, urbanised workforce; and by ensuring the unchallenged access to raw materials, wherever they may be and by any means necessary.

Those in the way, those unwilling to be urbanised, are thus considered a drag and hindrance on human progress and evolution. The last few decades have been a blood-soaked testament to this logic. Intervention is considered both an urgent and noble contribution. Those unwilling were, and continue to be, eliminated as they are considered to be holding the rest certainly the elite back from reaching their and humanity’s full potential.

Unconvinced? Just consider some of the words often used to describe the indigenous nations of the world: backwards, unproductive, primitive, uncivilised, cute.

If you live in Australia or the Americas, then the foundations and constitution of your nation depends on the acceptance of such ideas. How else could an on-going occupation be possible?  And if you live in Europe, these ideas underpin globalisation and neo-colonialism – Europe’s very respiratory systems.

It is important not to ignore the similarities to Darwin biological evolutionary theory, and the idea of progress. Following Marx’s economic progress theory, people not living in westernised industrial cities are encouraged, lectured, bribed or forced to “grow up” and pass through these stages of human development. This, today, is euphemistically described as “International Development” or “Sustainable Development”.


Progress was the calling card for the Soviet Union as well as the ultimately triumphant NATO capitalists and their burgeoning NGO industry. For both expansionist camps, a central policy was the urbanisation of rural populations and the construction of industrialised modern cities.

This theory of righteous intervention, intended to forward human progress by moving millions into cities, has directly contributed to the soil all over this planet being soaked in blood. To consider just three examples: the millions killed or starved in Stalin’s forced urbanisation and industrialisation; the estimated 3m killed in Vietnam via the US’s Forced Urbanisation strategy; and the forced internment of the indigenous peoples in Soweto, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, to enable unencumbered the gold mining that people of European origin needed to fund their industrialisation.

Soweto: an example of forced urbanisation, conveniently located for Johannesburg. Image: Marco Longari/AFP/Getty.

Today, it is almost impossible to find a book or article concerning contemporary cities, which doesn’t enthusiastically work from the assumption that westernised cities are a motor of human progress. As brilliantly argued by David Bedford in The Tragedy of Progress; Marxism, Modernity and the Aboriginal Question, this supposition renders the overwhelming majority of the world’s peoples and their cultures, past and present, as uncivilised – even superfluous. These people are considered as unfortunate collateral damage in the inexorable march towards utopia.

The problem of the urban age

In recent years, the phrase “the Urban Age”, has entered everyday vernacular as a result of a much publicised (though entirely un-certifiable) claim that, in 2008, more people lived in cities than outside them for the first time. This use of archeological and evolutionary terminology helps propel the idea that cities are evidence of and contributors to humanity’s evolutionary development.

But the assertion today is resulting in cities themselves being pitched against each other in survival of the fittest style competitions. It perhaps should come as no surprise that European academics, brought together at Loughborough University’s Globalisation & World Cities Research Network, have used ethological terms to classify cities across the world. Inevitably, London and New York were classified as the only two Alpha ++ cities.

Such classifications improperly propel the supremacy of European “civilisations”. They fail to acknowledge just how New York and London accumulated their wealth, and what their global connectivity truly means for everybody else. They coerce nations to aspire to progress to what is ultimately entirely unattainable – and also entirely undesirable.

Deepa Naik and Trenton Oldfield are the founders of This Is Not A Gateway, and the editors of Critical Cities series of books.

“Critical Cities: Ideas, Knowledge and Agitation, Volume 4” is out now from Myrdle Court Press.

 
 
 
 

Podcast: Uber & out

Uber no more. Image: Getty.

Oh, capitalism. You had a good run. But then Transport for London decided to ask Uber to take some responsibility for the safety of its passengers, and thus did what 75 years of Soviet Communism failed to do and overthrew the entire economic system of the Western world. Thanks, Sadiq, thanks a lot.

In the unlikely event you've missed the news, the story so far: TfL has ruled that Uber is not a fit and proper company to operate cabs, and revoked its licence. Uber has three weeks to appeal before its cabs need to get off the road.

To commemorate this sad day, I've dragged Stephen Bush back into the podcasting basement, so we can don black arm bands and debate what all this means – for London, for Uber, for the future (if it has one) of capitalism.

May god have mercy on our souls.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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