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Monday, November 18, 2013

The Curse of the Megacity

Simon Jenkins writes for The Guardian newspaper as well as London’s Evening Standard.  In a recent article for the Evening Standard (29th October 2013) he stated that “were Britain a separate Eurozone the north would become Greece and Spain to London’s Germany.”  The article titled “Sorry, Archbishop but London is where the action is” was an arrogant justification for the status quo. He is solidly upper middle class which while not objectionable may have prejudiced him in favour of the status quo. More later, on this.

In the last few years I have travelled around England for my holidays and yes, Simon Jenkins is partially correct. London is different to anywhere else.  London is huge. The city population is around 8 ½ million people and between 14 million and 21 million people reside in its greater metropolitan region.  It is a sprawling and semi-violent megalopolis. Like all world cities its infrastructure creaks and is often shambolic; it is dirty and when it fails it does so with a spectacular aplomb that acknowledges its divine right to extract even more money from us all, irrespective of where we live in the UK.

Within its boundaries unspeakable wealth proudly perches astride neighbourhoods of extreme deprivation while the poor oil London’s parts - as is the case in any centre of power. And London is a world city.  Simon Jenkins suggests that in the most recent recession “London survived the recession astonishingly well…the cuts were down the line, out of sight, in the provinces.” So while the rest of the developed world suffered the deepest recession since the 1929 Depression, Londoners, we are informed, escaped unaffected, except that in London 25% of those between the ages of 16 to 24 are unemployed (as compared to 20% for the UK as a whole).  And to all those Londoners who earn a university degree, the disadvantage of not being in employment during the early years after high-school may hit home hard when their first class honours degree does not even gain them work as shop assistants and care workers.

Those statistics conveniently omit the people who simply gave up trying to find work, or those who work in the ‘shadow’ economy (in Europe, said to be worth some €2.1 trillion – RT “European citizens survive thanks to shadow economy”).  And the political classes of both left and right turned a blind eye to the approaching catastrophe of a disconnected and aging population, living out its latter years in isolation and poverty.

Smugly, Simon Jenkins boasts that we are witness to the age of the big city with their hinterland of dormitory suburbs and green belts for “leisure and weekending”. If London is privileged, it is also spoiled and oblivious to the greater needs of the nation.  If the megacity is the colossus dominating the nation (at least in Britain) then it also represents the failure of society to adapt to population growth with any future vision.  Le Corbusier’s modernist abomination – his dream of a cityscape of unrelenting uniformity and grey mediocrity was intended to house the masses.  It may have represented the negation of class but his city lacked a soul.  The megacity represents the failure of human imagination and the triumph of a class structure that depressingly refuses to acknowledge the weakness behind the idea which encourages massive concentrations of population.

A new socio-economic model was recently publicised in the British press.  It breaks society down into lots of Class sub-types.  Status, wealth and education, set against their absence, no longer suffice as predicators of class.  I suspect that it is those people who want to retain the divisions that will be most interested in its re-classification.   In fact class remains three tiered but it can now be defined as the overwhelming majority in the middle and at the extremes, the disinherited poor and the very rich.  In the mid-twentieth century the middle classes began the expansion that hugely diminished the lower classes. The middle class enveloped all but those on the periphery of society.  However, in the future we shall return to the more traditional picture of a small middle class, a smaller upper class and a huge pool of lower class workers and retirees.

If competition and technological advances wiped out lower class jobs in the latter half of the twentieth century; cheap loans and the idea that anything was materially possible pushed the poor into the middle classes. A similar process will reverse the trend and it will destroy the middle classes, creating another seismic shift in class identity. Eventually, only the rich will enjoy any kind of security.

Lord King, the former Governor of the Bank of England was interviewed for the Daily Mail in October 2011.  He described the British economy as experiencing the biggest squeeze in living memory. But for the rich, there was rarely if ever any pain.  Taxes and soaring costs affected the middle and lower classes only.  It would be irrational to consider a future that is any different to this.

How does class encourage the growth of the megacity? Because big cities drain the vitality out of their provinces; through business and fashion, culture and politics they attract the talent to the epicentre and utilise resources far out of proportion to the rest of the nation.  

London is a gargantuan source of energy sapping the vigour out of everywhere else like a terrestrial ‘black hole’.  Power is a magnet that attracts those seeking it. It is a logical concomitant of centralisation. It is why I argue for decentralisation because it is only through it, that the dilution of centralised authority will occur.

There is no mystique surrounding centralisation and there is no mystery surrounding power.  Power entices those that yield it whether they are union officials or investment managers; bank managers or local counsellors. Any power has the potential to corrupt and far too often, checks and balances simply do not work. Bureaucracy institutionalises the status quo. The industrial revolution created areas of devolved economic activity but in Britain, it failed to seduce those that wielded power, away from the centre. Eventually the centre failed. Eire broke away from the British Empire; Northern Ireland became a backwater that had to endure a decades-long civil war before anyone seriously noticed it, Scottish nationalists salivate over the possibility of secession from the Union and one day Wales will arrive at the same conclusion; that London rules and demands its medieval tribute still.

Centralisation encourages bad behaviour. Numbers grow and solutions reach a level of complexity that creates inefficiency. Instead of each of us becoming networked, our interconnection traps us within a maze of interlocking systems that are managed remotely, in reality disempowering consumers and businesses alike even as they create the illusion of touch. In fact to talk about consumers and businesses is to dismiss people as economic entities devoid of an identity.  All systems become open to abuse.  Someone somewhere can manipulate your powerlessness.

According to a Foreign Policy article of September 2012 “Just 600 urban centres generate about 60% of global GDP” and while the future 600 top urban centres will change over the next decade and beyond, there will be no difference to the power they wield.  Cities choked with toxic waste; health scares, perhaps even pandemics created by not paying sufficient attention to what is described, in the same magazine issue, as “ghettos of poverty and dysfunction” (pollution, filth and disease) represents the dystopian vision for our mass urbanized future.

It is only by creating distributed hubs with local, decentralised controls that we will successfully redistribute and therefore dilute power, away from the centre.  What will then be created is a community of interest. Distributed efficiency and shared knowledge will create interdependence. It is this community of interest that society has had stolen from it by centralisation.

Decentralization means redistribution of resources back to the provinces. It means sharing the wealth of institutions so that culture resides in the nation and not just in the national capital. It means focusing the development of infrastructure nationally and not on massive and wasteful megaprojects that protect the pivotal position of the Centre.  And lastly, it means creating imaginative solutions in order to deconstruct the megacity, recreating the sense of local community that once existed in semi-isolation only.

Sir Simon Jenkins represents a celebration of the Titanic. He tells us that “bigger is better” and that the iceberg makes wonderful ice-cubes for his martinis.  But like other luminaries of the status quo he is blind to the threat to his tranquillity.  Megacities amplify alienation for the poor and over the coming decades their numbers can only massively increase in number.

In order for us to regain some of the empathy of reduced scale the trend towards megacities must be reversed.  Biologically, big is not better, ultimately it leads to extinction. We should learn from nature.

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