Review: The Politics of Urbanism: Seeing like a City by Warren Magnusson

This review first appeared in the December 2012 issue of Stir Magazine

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Review of
The Politics of Urbanism: Seeing like a City
By Warren Magnusson
Routledge: London and New York, 2011
190 Pages

Reviewer: Chuck Morse

“Under the pavement, the beach!”—when activists in the Situationist International popularized this slogan during the 1968 uprising in Paris, they articulated an ideal that has deep roots on the left: the notion that the city is a realm of freedom that will reward bold insurgents with unexpected delights. This conviction coursed through the same streets nearly a century earlier, during the Paris Commune of 1871, and quite recently in places such as Zuccotti Park and Tahir Square among others. Intuitively, at the very least, most radicals regard the city as a sphere of democratic immediacy and revolutionary possibility.

But theorizing this has been difficult for the Left. Marxists have directed our political attentions to the state, which they regard as the only institution capable of fully transforming society, and thus our grim but obligatory companion. Whereas anarchists, who object to the state on principle, have struggled to envision an alternative means of organizing political life, despite their many gestures in that direction. The state has always seemed to define the limits of our political horizon, our strong urbanist impulses notwithstanding.

Warren Magnusson argues that this is a big mistake in his new book, The Politics of Urbanism: Seeing like a City. In his short but ambitious work, he urges us to expel the state from the center of our political imagination and to replace it with a political vocabulary derived from the city. In his words, we should stop “seeing like a state” and begin “seeing like a city.” Though limited in certain key respects, this text is a significant and innovative attempt to formulate a truly urban outlook.

Magnusson establishes the basis for his critique of state-centered politics and defense of the “politics of urbanism” in the first two chapters. His major target is the notion that the state is our primary bulwark against chaos—that without it, life would descend into violence and disorder—as well as the axis upon which political activity turns. He explains that this idea, which is pervasive in modern political thought, makes us all into statists. If the state is the foundation of order and politics as such, then clearly we must build our activism and research around it.

He asserts that this is a major misstep: politics, he contends, occur in a multitude of settings and only a portion of them involve the state. “Our lives,” he writes, “are actually governed by a multiplicity of authorities operating in different registers-some of them calling themselves businesses, others religions, and still others charities, activist groups, social networks, or even gangs—and those authorities are organized on various scales.”(139) As a result, “the spaces in which we are called to act [politically] are various.”(ibid) The state centrism of most political theory—which he characterizes as idealistic or utopian in the bad sense—obscures this manifold, complicated reality by casting politics principally as a relationship between the state and its subjects.

But how can we understand this non-statist practice if our framework for viewing politics is resolutely statist? We can’t—we need a new perspective, and Magnusson believes that we can find its contours in the study of cities, which, he claims, possess an order of an essentially “different type” than the state.(118) A life-long scholar of urbanism, he alleges that cities possess the following key attributes: they are largely self-organizing—that is, a kind of order will emerge in a city even when there are competing authorities within it; they contain an assortment of authorities that operate in different registers and scales; their self-organizing nature yields public benefits whether or not the state is present; order in them is temporary and local, and, finally; life in them is essentially unpredictable. He does not declare that all cities possess all of these qualities, or that cities are necessarily benign or emancipatory, but simply that these are features of urban life and that understanding them will help us grasp our actual political practice. This, he says, ought to “be analyzed on its own terms” and not forced into ill-fitting, statist garb.(118)

He devotes several chapters to showing that traces of his formulations are present in texts authored by pivotal thinkers in urban studies (specifically, Max Weber, Louis Firth, Jane Jacobs, Richard Sennett, Friedrich Hayek, and Michel Foucault). His commentary on these luminaries reveals the presence of anti-statist tendencies in the urbanist cannon and implicitly demonstrates that his stance could facilitate a productive re-reading of it. This portion of the work read a little like the ubiquitous “literature review,” but did help put his argument in a broader context.

Magnusson concludes his book with a discussion of Victoria, Canada, the small city in which he lives, to illustrate what “seeing like a city” can illuminate. Relating local debates over public space, homelessness, and Native American land claims, he shows how residents there manage to engage densely complicated and truly global issues without paying much attention to the sovereign authority invested in the Canadian state. The traditional statist outlook would be incapable of seeing these fluid but substantive political relations, but we can identify and value them if we “see like a city.” At the broadest level, Magnusson claims that “seeing like a city” will improve our comprehension of how we function politically and thus, presumably, help us develop more effective and egalitarian solutions to our problems. “We will learn more,” he asserts, “if we put the state under erasure and investigate what people do politically and how they are governed as denizens of particular cities within the global city.”(169)

The Politics of Urbanism is an unusual, compelling book. Although highly theoretical and not particularly rich in examples or narrative, it is clearly written, well researched, and advances a provocative rethinking of the relationship of the state and the city to politics. His argument that we should shift our sense of order and politics from the state to the city is audacious and could generate a theoretical lexicon through which to substantiate the Left’s urban proclivities and rupture its investment in the state. This would constitute a major sea change in its self-understanding.

But some unanswered questions reduce the potency of the book. For one, Magnusson does not make it clear why the city, specifically, must provide the template for grasping non-statist forms of politics. Activists and scholars have identified various forums of self-organization—the workplace, the village, etc—and only a few link them to the city. Magnusson does not explain why we need to make this connection in order to talk about self-organization instead of referencing some other arena or site.

There is also an ambiguity about the relationship between the multi-faceted, self-organizing urban world that he posits and prevailing statist discourses. He explains that state-based visions of politics are unable to articulate the complexity of our urban practice, but says little more about how the statist and the urban realms interact. Could it be that statist discourses are a dimension or aspect of the self-organizing, dynamic urban world? If so, the distinction between “seeing like a state” and “seeing like a city” would be much less compelling.

Finally, there is the matter of how to discard statist discourses in practice. Magnusson appears to believe that we can simply declare them invalid and move on, but that seems too facile to me, given that states often fight to impose state-based narratives in order to secure their own legitimacy. To establish a new framework for politics, we may have to fight the state and that implies the need for a strategy. Magnusson exempts himself from strategic discussions by declaring that he is not qualified to offer political advice. Although I find his humility somewhat refreshing, if we are embedded in a global city, as he argues, then it appears to me that we all have some obligation to take a stand on these issues.

Nonetheless, I believe that these shortcomings indicate avenues for further research and are not an indictment of the book per se. Indeed, good works raise more questions than they answer, and, in that sense, this text is a clear success. It points to the possibility of a politics that goes beyond the state and that embraces the city at the heart of its worldview. Although we may need to do more work before we can redeem the historic promise of Left urbanism and find the beach beneath the pavement, this book will bring us part of the way.

~ Chuck Morse