Capitalist development and urbanization have always gone together–“the antagonism between town and country,” as Marx and Engels once put it. But this relationship has always been laden with contradictions and dilemmas. The intensification of production that is characteristic of capitalist growth processes pushes the rural population into the cities. In the cities, the huge stock of fixed capital, of modern factories and supporting urban infrastructure, of transportation, power, communications, housing takes on ever greater complexity. The concentrated populations and sprawling built environments of today’s capitalist cities seem almost unfathomable.
It should not at all be surprising that globalization of capitalism has gone along with massive urbanization, drawing a majority of the world’s population into the enormity that is Mexico City, Moscow, Sao Paulo, Hong Kong, New York, and countless others. The city that is Toronto and its environs spreads some 200–or is it 300?–kilometres across the northern shores of Lake Ontario. It is entirely appropriate to say that capitalism produces urban space. Indeed, factories fleeing organized urban proletariats and the taxes necessary to finance the infrastructure of the capitalist city into the greenfield sites of the suburbs or ex-urban development zones or even into rural towns have simply re-posed the same dilemmas and antagonisms. The division between the rural and urban takes on an entirely new meaning in the “neo-liberal” capitalism of today.
Neo-liberal urbanism has posed its own set of problems for cities. Social housing has been scrapped for market pricing, producing asset bubbles and over-housing for some and ruinous rents and no housing at all for others. Public transportation has been run, literally, into the ground. Public space has been sold to the highest bidder, turning public galleries and buildings into yet one more venue for advertising and commercial exposure. Sewers, water systems, utility grids have all seen more than their fair share of privatization and faltering quality and service, re-exposing all that had been learned about market failures and monopoly provision a century ago before every stupidity of Hayek became politically fashionable.
This is the desperate context in which Prime Minister Paul Martin has floated his “new deal for cities” over the last year, joined in the call by the mayors of Canada from St. John’s to Victoria. But besides some sharing of gas tax revenue, recycled commitments on social housing and public infrastructure, it is not at all clear what the new deal amounts to. While there are some important differences between the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP on urban issues that need to be recognized, it is also clear that they share the thinking that internationally competitive businesses depend upon competitive cities. Such are the political options on offer today.
Yet, all the dilemmas, antagonisms and resistances of capitalism also take up residence in the city. This has given life to endless struggles of “local” Lefts around issues of poverty, contracting-out of municipal work, over public space and ecology, urban racism, and organizing service sector work. Community economic development, from this vantage point, is about community and class, spaces to live and not just spaces to compete, about linking community and work-based struggle in re-forming a new political left. This is where the urban dreams of an exit to the neo-liberal city reside.
This issue of Canadian Dimension–and subsequent numbers–will explore some of the issues of contemporary urbanization, in Canada as well as beyond. It is our view that the dilemmas facing cities in Canada, and around the world, are of staggering importance; that local politics and struggles are crucial to political organization today; and that confronting neoliberalism is also a confrontation with the political forces shaping today’s city of glittering towers, endless sprawl, shameful poverty, public wreckage.
Greg Albo teaches political economy at the Department of Political Science at York University.
This article appeared in the July/August 2004 issue of Canadian Dimension .