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.

 
 
 
 

The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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