How big is the Good Society? What is human-scale - and are our cities within it?
Success - as it prevails in the material urban mind - is a measure of one's ability to deny the city. There are various ways the rich do this: in secondary country houses; in pleasantly expensive tree-lined oases, in the "exclusive" (note its shameless literal meaning) silence of penthouses.
The poor cope with huge cities by confining their engagement with them to village-sized areas. A few streets - if at all. London, for example, is indescribably larger than most of its residents ever realise. Drive out across it and look upon mile after mile of residential and commercial neighbourhoods with which you have absolutley zero affinity.
The question is not what holds us all together - for we do not hold together. We are ignorant of each other; not out of our choice, but out of our nature. A human can engage meaningfully with seven or eight neighbours, but seven or eight million is unthinkable. A consequence is that the kind of affection a small community might have for itself is barely present; it certainly doesn't scale up in proportion to the size of the neighbourhood, let alone the city itself. It just becomes a throbbing pandemonium.
The righteous fights against cultural erosion that can happen in a small community barely exist in London's villages. Death by Tesco, for example, has free reign - that creeping normalcy that pushes us imperceptibly from community-based into consumption-based neighbourhoods. One might insist that it should only ever be the community's choice as to whether or not vast supermarkets are permitted to arrive and fundamentally alter it's nature - but this assumes a cohesive community with a sense of who they are, of what they have to fight for. Rarely the case. Instead, the benign ecology of local shop keepers and markets is replaced by the neon-lit sepulchres of the civic soul, operated by outsiders on minimum wage for outsiders on maximum shareholder value. The main thoroughfare in my end of London now has five Tescos; their store locator tells me I have 120 "local stores".
There's perhaps no need to go to the esoteric lengths of E.F. Schumacher and his Buddhist Economics - the "Small is Beautiful" doctrine - in order to simply recognise that things go a bit wrong when that many people live in one place. People abandon, or fail to develop, a sense of care and vigilance towards each other. Leo Strauss wrote:
"Only a society small enough to permit mutual trust is small enough to permit mutual responsibility or supervision - the supervision of actions or manners which is indispensable for a society concerned with the perfection of its members; in a very large city, in "Babylon," everyone can live more or less as he lists."
Natural Right and History,
Another Strauss, from elsewhere on the political spectrum, Claude Levi-, said a similar thing more starkly:
"Once men begin to feel cramped in their geographical, social and mental habitat, they are in danger of being tempted by the simple solution of denying one section of the species the right to be considered human."
The problem certainly scales up: even civilised nations seem to have an internal sense of what is too large to hold together. They harbour persistent impulses towards fragmentation, obvious in their extreme forms (Yugoslavia), less so in what one might think of as their benign forms (Belgium, for a recent example). Meanwhile, internationalist and trans-national projects (the EU, the UN) continue to try and force us to be ever-larger "communities" - while ascending only into ever-loftier orbits of detachment from the people and lands they stake their utopian claims over.
In the end, humans construct and live their lives on far smaller scales. Happiness is something you can walk to. The pub, for example.
subscribe via RSS