Could Charter Cities and Inception indicate a post-neoliberal urban paradigm?
If there is one virtue of human beings which deserves to be spoken about in a philosophical way, it is above all this: that people are not forced into political theme parks but, rather, put themselves there. Humans are self-fencing, self-shepherding creatures. Wherever they live, they create parks around themselves. In city parks, national parks, provincial or state parks, eco-parks – everywhere people must create for themselves rules according to which their comportment is to be governed.
Rules for the Human Zoo – Peter Sloterdijk
“What’s the most resilient parasite? An Idea. A single idea from the human mind can build cities. An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules.”
Cobb – Inception
“Case 1: Canada Helps a Hong Kong Blossom in Cuba”
As with all truly seductive ideas, Paul Romer’s idea for Charter Cities is equal parts brilliance and misguided insanity. Basically, the idea is this: take an ‘unoccupied’ piece of land within a given territory big enough to build a city, find a group of foreign experts and investors to govern and invest in it, create a strict charter detailing the rules for foreign governance, and wait for the influx of capital and cheap labour to begin its deluge.
Of course, one problem is that, basically, the idea for colonialism was this: search the maps for a region with the tantalising label ‘unoccupied’ (in 1629, Governor Winthrop asserted that most land in America “fell under the legal rubric of vacuum domicilium because the indians had not ‘subdued’ it” – The New Nature of Maps), find a group of pioneer settlers to go settle there and set up a system of government, create a constitution or treaty between the colonial sovereign and the proxy, and wait for the influx of new migrants and investment to begin its deluge.
My idea is to build dozens, perhaps hundreds, of cities, each run by a new partnership between a rich country and a poor country. The poor country would give up some land for the city, while a developed country like Britain or Canada could contribute a credible judicial system that anchors the rule of law. Citizens from the poorer country (and perhaps elsewhere around the world) would then be free to live and work in the city that emerges.
Create pockets of foreign sovereignty with freer economic rules and more modern governmental constraints as a way of incubating the nation’s future prosperity, city by experimental city… the city as petri dish… the city as idea… the idea as city…
If this idea reminds of you of Deng Xiao Peng’s Special Economic Zones – those metropolitan fusion-reactors in which the impossible nucleosynthesis of capitalism and communism took place – that is probably because Paul Romer founded his model for Charter Cities upon them. Hence the focus on Hong Kong, which, because of its strange existence between Imperial England and Communist China – the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ approach – managed to attract massive amounts of foreign investment capital and Chinese entrepreneurial talent (oh, and dirt cheap manufacturing labour). Romer describes Hong Kong as nothing less than “an intervention”, which has “done more to reduce world poverty than all the world’s official aid programmes of the 20th century combined — and at a fraction of the cost”.
He actually uses Guantanamo bay as an example for an area in which the legal framework for such a project already exists, arguing that “In a new treaty signed by the United States, Cuba, and Canada, the United States could give up its treaty rights, and Canada could take over local administration for a defined period of time.”
Francis Fukuyama (in)famously claimed in 1989 that “the triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism”, and that “we may be witnessing the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
For Fukuyama, the litmus test for the effective spread and ubiquity of such a “universal homogenous state” is the presence of “liberal democracy in the political sphere combined with easy access to VCRs and stereos in the economic”.
With the coming ‘end of history’ the task is left to the forerunners of neoliberal ubiquity to ensure that those still ‘in the grips of history’ may be progressively brought out of it through political and economic modernisation. Central to this task of modernising the political and economic worlds is the global technology of development. In this light, Romer’s plans for ‘commy Cuba’ can be seen as another conclusive step towards the neoliberal eradication of alternatives:
The legal protection and institutional stability that the Canadians provide would attract foreign investors and foreign citizens to the city. As the city grows, the Cuban government would gradually allow freer movement of people and goods between the land it governs and the charter city. At the same time, supporting cities and suburbs would grow up on the Cuban side of the city’s boundaries. The charter city itself would eventually return to Cuban control.
Is this not the very premise of Inception? One builds a city in the mind of the unknowing dreamer (the utopian?), but a city with a latent set of ideas and rules. One plants an idea there, and it spreads like a parasite. Before they know it, the dreamer is awake and has come to accept the idea as their own: inception.
Chosen Colonialism and Romer’s iconoclastic brilliance
Many, including Romer himself, have drawn parallels between the notions behind Charter Cities and those that propelled centuries of colonial settlers around the world. Aditya Chakrabortty of the Guardian, for example, has highlighted the depressing déjà vu character of this proposal:
This idea isn’t prompted by dreams of a new imperialism – because this California economist doesn’t know enough imperial history. If he did, he’d realise that the English Whig Thomas Macaulay said it all before, when he said of India in 1833: “It is scarcely possible to calculate the benefits which we might derive from the diffusion of European civilisation among the vast population of the East . . . To trade with civilised men is infinitely more profitable than to govern savages.”
“Romer makes it sound as though setting up a charter city is like setting up a fairground,” Elliott Sclar, a professor of urban planning at Columbia University, told Sebastian Mallaby, in the latter’s excellent article for The Atlantic “We take a clear piece of land, we turn on the bright lights, and we create this separate environment that will stand apart from everything that’s around it. I wish it were that simple.”
“To some this sounds like colonialism”, acknowledges Romer, but to others, the idea of Charter Cities “sounds like a feasible way to scale up the benefits from migration. Like migration, this approach would give poor people a chance to choose the rules they want to live and work under. All residents in new charter cities would be there by choice.”
Chosen Colonialism: sick, megalomaniacal, imperial, orientalist, eurocentric – call Romer whichever slur from the post-colonial lexicon you like, but the idea does have a certain genius to it. Most crucially, the scale at which the intervention is aimed is climacteric for the 21st Century: We live in a world of Dubais, Las Vegases, Calcuttas, Port-Au-Princes. “There are large swathes of uninhabited land on the coast of sub-Saharan Africa”, claims Romer, “Most is too dry for agriculture, but with desalinated and recycled water a city can pop up in the driest location.” He points out that change, if it is to come, will not come from the nation – it is too big, any top-down radical reform is seen as coercive, its scale is too large to have an intimate understanding of every locality that is the necessary basis for governance. Villages, communities, neighbourhoods – these are too small to compete, too personal to govern effectively, too weak to count.
But cities, cities are the vessels of civilisation… the crafts of the future… what if, like Inception’s dream thieves, we could steal Paul Romer’s idea, and put it in the hands of the left…
Megalomaniacal materialism in an urban, all to urban, world
Roughly 3 billion people from the world’s working poor will move from villages to cities over the next few decades. The choice is not whether the world will urbanise — it’s doing so, fast — but where and under which rules. Cities are so valuable that people will choose slums over rural poverty if that is their only choice. But charter cities would give them another option. For this new global urban population, these new cities can provide safety, affordable housing, education and jobs.
Whether we like it or not, the coming century will be urban, it will be capitalist, it will be based on models of growth. It will also be beset with ecological crisis, energy shortage, overpopulation, massive waves of immigration and local resistance to this, the abandonment of the countryside, shrinking cities, growing cities. Revolution won’t save us: the only prospects of revolution come from the far right, the Tea Parties, the new European nationalist parties springing up like evil daisies every new election season. Possibilities for radical reform, however, pop up at every moment.
Of course, the idea of Charter Cities is disgustingly neoliberal, Fukuyama’s wet-dream of capital’s vermicular spread… but could it also represent something that comes after the end of history? A post-neoliberal paradigm? I realise the iconoclasm of the suggestion, I’m nevertheless tempted to quote a song from Brecht’s 1930 Lehrstuck ‘The Measures Taken’, a didactic piece of communist drama that centers around three comrades sent to agitate in China:
CHANGE THE WORLD: IT NEEDS YOU TO
Whose company would the righteous reject
In order to do right?
Which medicine tastes too disgusting
For the dying?
Which ignobility would you not commit
In order to stamp out the ignoble?
If you could finally change the world, for which means
Would you be too righteous?
Who are you?
Sink into filth
Embrace the slaughterer, but
Change the world: it needs you to!
Die Maßnahme, B. Brecht (my translation)
Sure, the play has been smeared as an apologia for totalitarianism, but it has one central message: you have to break a few eggs to make an omlette. Or, “They know what they are doing, yet still they’re doing it”… Just like Sloterdijk’s enlightened false consciousness, explored in the Critique of Cynical Reason, published a year before Fukuyama hailed the end of history:
It is that modernized, unhappy consciousness, on which enlightenment has labored both successfully and in vain. It has learned its lessons in enlightenment, but it has not, and probably was not able to, put them into practice. Well-off and miserable at the same time, this consciousness no longer feels affected by any critique of ideology; its falseness is already reflexively buffered.
To act against better knowledge is today the global situation in the superstructure; it knows itself to be without illusions and yet to have been dragged down by the “power of things.” Thus what is regarded in logic as a paradox and in literature as a joke appears in reality as the actual state of affairs.
Peter Sloterdijk – Critique of Cynical Reason
Could we however harness the ‘power of things’? Transform our cities into crafts, petri-dishes, fusion-reactors, arks?