A metropolitan world
At some unknown moment between 2010 and 2015, for the first time in human history, more than half the world’s population lived in cities. Urbanisation is unlikely to reverse. Every week since, another 3 million country dwellers have become urbanites. Rarely in history has a small number of metropolises bundled as much economic, political and cultural power over such vast swathes of hinterlands. In some respects, these global metropolises and their residents resemble one another more than they do their fellow nationals in small towns and rural area. Whatever is new in our global age is likely to be found in cities.
For more than two decades, geographers and sociologists have debated the character and role of cities in globalisation. Historians have been a step behind, producing less and more cautious work on cities and globalisation, and struggling to find readers. The relative silence is notable. As early as 1996, the sociologist Charles Tilly wrote that historians have ‘the opportunity to be our most important interpreters of the ways that global social processes articulate with small-scale social life’. Generally, historians did not answer the call. We still don’t have the powerful insights of historical perspective on many aspects of the historic urbanisation through which we are living.
For centuries, philosophers and sociologists, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Georg Simmel, have alerted us to how profoundly cities have formed our societies, minds and sensibilities. The widening political polarisation between big cities and rural areas, in the United States as well as Europe, has driven home the point of quite how much the relationship between cities and the provinces, the metropolis and the country, shapes the political lives of societies. The history of cities is an extraordinary guide to understanding today’s world. Yet, compared with historians at large, as well as more present-minded scholars of urban studies, urban historians have not featured prominently in public conversation as of late.
Current politics can be a good place to start. In the US presidential elections of 2016, urban and rural people voted so differently that county-population density was a better electoral predictor than race, income, education or gender. Spatial political clustering could grow more pronounced. What the journalist Bill Bishop in 2004 called ‘the big sort’ has helped to shape the rancorous tone, and terms, of political debates, as an antagonism between the ways of authentic small-town and country people versus the contaminating forces of ‘cosmopolitanism’ and ‘globalism’ in the big city.
Although city-loathing has lately acquired an unusual salience in the US, the importance of the rural-urban divide in politics is not of recent vintage. Some claim that Jeffersonian agrarianism indelibly engraved ruralist biases into US political culture. But anti-urban political ideologies thrive around the world. Russia’s narodniki, a group of middle-class intellectuals in the 1860s and ’70s, preached peasant romanticism. Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China pursued a back-to-the-land agenda no less than the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal vision of razing city life altogether in Cambodia. Both Germany’s turn-of-the-century Lebensreform movement and Gandhi’s asceticism appealed to the apparent moral superiority of country life. Early 20th-century Argentine intellectuals converted the stalwart, rural figure of the gaucho into the prime symbol of national identity. At the same time, they saw the tango of Buenos Aires as a ‘mongrel product’, the degenerate musical genre of an immigrant port city.
Political differences between the city and the countryside do not spring merely from populist fantasies: urban and rural people have indeed often supported different politics. As long as they competed in democratic elections, the parties of Mussolini and Hitler collected a significantly greater share of the vote in rural areas of Italy and Germany than in larger cities, even as rural traditionalism and parts of the Catholic Church hampered the inroads that fascists could make in some regions. In the German Reichstag elections of 1932, for example, the rural-urban gap in the Nazi vote was roughly 20 points in regions such as Schleswig-Holstein or Franconia. Today, European Right-wing populist parties, such as France’s National Front, Austria’s Freedom Party or Hungary’s Civic Alliance (Fidesz), don’t usually perform well in cities. In fact, they do particularly badly in these countries’ capitals. Likewise, French, Austrian and Hungarian populist parties express resentment against the Parisian, Viennese or Budapest elite.
Some scholars look all the way back to the new systems of political organisation and the peculiar social life generated by the first cities. The political anthropologist James Scott has recently speculated that human beings devised the first states as a response to the ‘ecological effects of urbanism’. Democracy was deeply, perhaps inextricably linked to the Greek polis, as observers from Aristotle to John Stuart Mill have discussed. The medieval German adage ‘City air makes you free’ expressed a customary law stipulating that one year of life in the city liberated rural serfs. The saying is still in use today. In Romance languages, all the variations of the word ‘citizen’ betray the deep ties between the city and ideas about political community. Conversely, the English term ‘denizen’, which lacks the etymological association with the city, casts doubt on full belonging.
Modern anti-urbans in turn figuratively expel city dwellers from the political community; and sometimes literally, as in the infamous case of the Khmer Rouge regime. The idea that urbanites lack national character is at least as old as modern nationalism. Want to know a nation? ‘Study a people outside of its cities; it is only in this way that you will know it,’ advised Rousseau in Émile, or Treatise on Education (1762). The government’s spirit, he wrote, ‘is never the same in the city and the country’ and it is ‘the country which constitutes the land, and it is the people of the country who constitute the nation’....MORE