Volume 38, Number 4: July/August 2004

Cities and Imperialism

“Nobody colonizes innocently, nobody colonizes without punishment: a nation that colonizes, a civilization that justifies colonization – and thus force – is already a sick civilization, a morally spent civilization, which … calls for its Hitler, that is, its ultimate punishment. Colonization: bridgehead of barbarism in a civilization which can, at any moment, give rise to the very negation of civilization.”
– Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism

Armoured Caterpillar D-9 bulldozers tearing down neighbourhoods in Gaza; fierce battles raging in the winding streets of Fallujah; smart missiles blasting dense housing blocks in the West Bank – these recurrent images from the Middle East point to more than attacks on “terrorist” targets and “regrettable” collateral damage, as is often claimed by the Pentagon or the Israeli Defence Force. They also represent two examples of urbicide: a concerted and preemptive military strategy designed to undermine the urban foundations for independence; destroy networks of resistance; and separate settlers and occupiers from immobilized colonized populations while demolishing their infrastructures of survival.

To be sure, cities have played a vital – economic, cultural and political – role in every colonial enterprise. But the need to conquer, control and segregate urban space assumes an unprecedented significance for contemporary U.S.-led imperialism, as the new empire embarks on a direct re-colonization of exploited peripheries. Urban planning is now an intense focal point for U.S. military strategy. As Mike Davis reported recently: “The battle of Fallujah, together with the conflict unfolding in Shia cities and Baghdad slums, are high-stakes tests, not just of U.S. policy in Iraq, but of Washington’s ability to dominate what Pentagon planners consider the ‘key battlespace of the future’ – the Third World city.” Current strategies to colonize urban space are not entirely new, however. Attempts by British-American and Israeli forces to tame the “impenetrable,” “chaotic” and “wild” “Arab city” eerily resemble similarly racist urban counterinsurgency policies of the French during the bloody war of independence in Algeria in the 1950s. Indeed, having learned a lesson in Mogadishu, high-ranking American officers in Iraq have viewed with keen interest Gillo Pontecorvo’s great film, Battle of Algiers. In June 2002 both the Army Times and the Marine Corps Times reported how “US military officials were in Israel seeing what they could learn from that urban fight” in the West Bank.

The Debate on a New Deal for Canadian Cities Misses the Link With Imperialism

Nothing could be further removed from these realities of colonial urbicide than the seemingly innocent Canadian “debate” on a “new deal for cities.” Not just neo-liberal proponents but also social democratic advocates for a new deal for cities are mute on the link between cities and imperialism. Yet Canada, through its role in NORAD and NATO, helps sustain the U.S.-led war efforts indirectly (in Iraq) and directly (in Afghanistan). It has also been an ardent supporter of the so-called Washington Consensus of global economic policy, which since the late 1970s has rolled back Third World aspirations for genuine independence with financial austerity, enforced debt payments and ruthless privatization – all of which have undermined rural life a nd exacerbated urban poverty.

Closer to home, Canada’s major cities are now firmly integrated into the transnational networks of corporate power and finance that form the basis of U.S.-led imperialism. Canada’s corporate and financial centres are not merely “engines of growth,” as virtually every proponent of the “new deal for cities” argues. Hardly free-standing sources of innovation, productivity and growth, the ruling classes of these cities also parasitically draw on all manners of “resources” from other parts of the country and the rest of the world. Consequently, the gas-guzzling, sprawling and environmentally destructive ways in which our cities have developed leave an “ecological footprint” that makes us – as consumers of (increasingly non-renewable) resources and leading producers of waste – responsible for the mounting “ecological debt” that Canada along with other centres of imperialism owe to the global South, as Ecuador’s Accíon Ecológica has pointed out.

Given the selectively economistic emphasis on cities as “engines of growth” in the “new deal for cities,” it does not surprise that the few who have openly linked imperialism to the new city agenda have enlisted cities for the defense of empire. Less than six months after September 11, Marcus Gee, Globe and Mail columnist and Bush supporter, opined that we should respond to Osama bin Laden and other anti-urban barbarians by expressing our love for cities – supposedly the greatest achievements of “Western” values of freedom, diversity, democracy, secularism and capitalism.

The Silences of Richard Florida/Jane Jacobs

There are, of course, more and less hawkish renditions of the same Orientalist refrain. Daniel Libeskind, the celebrated architect hired to redesign the World Trade Center and no fan of America’s theocratic fundamentalists, sees his project as a tribute to “freedom, democracy, and heroism,” the American values he sees embodied in New York City. Richard Florida, the avowedly anti-Bush urban planning consultant who has made a small fortune by convincing gullible municipalities (including Toronto) that cultural, sexual and architectural “diversity” is the key to compete successfully against other similar municipalities, thinks that fostering social cohesion in our cities is the best way to build unity against the threat of terrorism. Jane Jacobs, the guru of urban gurus in North America and a major influence on Florida, has emerged as an intellectual conductor of this liberal chorus of urban voices for imperial restoration. In her latest book, Dark Age Ahead, she warns that a disintegration of what she conservatively sees as the pillars of urban life – the nuclear family, education, science and technology, fiscal accountability and professional self-regulation – may bring about a new dark age: without urban revitalization, greater municipal autonomy and a boost to innovation and diversity, “our culture” (sic) risks “sliding into a dead-end.”

While agreeably critical about American xenophobia, Jacobs too remains silent about urbicide in the new colonies – one of the most ominous barbarisms committed by “our culture.” Instead, she gives an urban twist to the imperial angst that has surfaced periodically in the heartlands of imperialism since Oswald Spengler’s early 20th century thesis on the “decline of the Occident.” According to Jacobs, reviving cosmopolitan city life in our cities (but not theirs?) is the recipe to save “the West” (sic) from sharing the fate of imperial Rome and China.

Calling for an Urban Anti-imperialism

The Left in Canada clearly needs an urban antidote to these imperial voices – hard and soft. Instead of seeing cities uncritically as embodiments of (Western) civilization and “engines of growth,” and thus the opposite of (non-Western?) “barbarism,” we could use an urban vision sensitive to the contradictions of the modern urban experience. This vision would be critical of actually existing urban regions as centres of exploitation and imperial profiteering, but also capable of embracing urban life as the ground for radical politics and solidarity both local and global. Calling for an urban anti-imperialism might appear counter-intuitive. In the 20th century, much anti-imperialism was strongly anti-urban in tone and orientation. In Canada, too, left-national populist forces have often mobilized the resentment against Toronto and Montreal by treating these cities simply and only as places where the country’s natural wealth is appropriated and sold off to imperial agents.

Today, there is no way out of our urban world. In many parts of the world, and certainly in Canada, radicals have literally nowhere else to go. In the South, moreover, urban social struggles have already assumed an explicitly anti-imperial dimension. In the North too, sources for an urban resistance to imperialism are evident.

Canada’s cities played their part in the massive anti-war demonstrations in 2003 – an “urban moment” Tariq Ali described as the “first truly global mobilization.” More recently and modestly, campaigns against the deportation of immigrants in Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto have taken issue–under the increasingly global banner “No One Is Illegal” – with the domestic impacts of imperialism compounded by the “war on terrorism”: racial profiling, intensified spatial segregation, and authoritarian policing of dissent (see Govind Rao’s and Grace-Edward Galabuzi’s articles in Canadian Dimension vol. 38 no.1). It is from such struggles – and a recognition that empire cannot be civilized – that an urban anti-imperialism may emerge.Stefan Kipfer teaches in Environmental Studies at York University.

Kanishka Goonewardena teaches geography at the University of Toronto.