Ethnocentrism in Bookchin’s “The Limits of the City”

The Limits of the City (Murray Bookchin) - book coverI’ve been reading a lot in recent months about Murray Bookchin’s influence on Kurdish revolutionaries. So the other day, I picked up a copy of his book The Limits of the City to begin exploring some of his writings. (I chose this, out of his many books, because I’m currently interested in agrarianism and urbanization, and was curious to see his take on these topics.)

Bookchin is totally on point regarding the harmful social/environmental impacts of the modern city. I appreciate his discussion of how geographic/material arrangements (specifically the modern, industrial-capitalist urban environment) shape our social structures, and how radical restructuring of our built environment must be a core part of our efforts for revolutionary social change.

However, many of his views are horribly ethnocentric — reinforcing the standard colonial “civilized/savage” dichotomy, and devaluing non-urbanized cultures.

For instance, on the very first page he states:

“Cities embody the most important traditions of civilization. Owing to the size of their marketplaces and the close living quarters they render possible, cities collect those energizing forces of social life that country life tends to dissipate over wide expanses of land and scattered populations. Seasonal renewals of nature that send hunters and food gatherers on migrations and reclothe the works of the peasant are replaced in cities by a more palpable heritage. From a cultural standpoint, the land, years ago, was regarded as fugitive, the city as permanent; the land as natural, the city as social. While this dichotomy may be greatly exaggerated, it is certainly true that the fulfillment of individuality and intellect was the historic privilege of the urban dweller or of individuals influenced by urban life. Indeed, some kind of urban community is not only the environment of humanity: it is its destiny. Only in a complete urban environment can there be complete people; only in a rational urban situation can the human spirit advance its most vital cultural and social traditions.” [emphasis added]

The “most vital cultural and social traditions”, we are told, are those of city dwellers. The people (savages) who live in the countryside are “scattered”,  lack our “energizing forces of social life”, have not had the opportunity to fulfill their “individuality and intellect” and thus do not have as “palpable” of a heritage. They are in short, incomplete and undeveloped – they are not fully human. Land-based cultures have not been erased (and replaced by urbanized environments) because of imperialism and genocide — they have gone away because it is humanity’s “destiny”.

Bookchin later goes on to say (pp. 6-7):

“For all its collectivism and strong bonds of solidarity, tribal society was surprisingly parochial. Based on kinship, however fictitious its reality, the tribe rooted its affiliations in lineage ties or what I call the “blood oath” […] The city, by contrast, over a long period of development, created a more universal terrain — the realm of the citizen. Civic rights depended upon residence rather than a shared ethnic background […] In any case, it formed the arena for the emergence of a common “humanity” rather than a parochial “folk”. Here, the ‘stranger’ could first find a home and the protection of laws, and later, citizenship as one among equals, not the arbitrary treatment that characterizes the status of visitors to tribal communities. From a distance of millenia, it is hard for people to realize what a social and cultural revolution this step out of the lineage system proved to be. Aside from the sense of universiality it produced, the variety and openness to different cultural stimuli it created made the city the most powerful civilizing factor in human history. The origin of the word ‘civilization’ from ‘civitas’ is not accidental: it authentically reflects the emergence of a distinctly human culture – universal in its scope – from city life as such.”

Bookchin talks about “the tribe” as if there was only one way of living outside of the city/civilization. He speaks of a homogenous “tribal society”, rather than thousands of diverse cultures with wildly different ways of living. His mythical tribe was “parochial”, living by the so-called “blood oath” (a figment of Bookchin’s imagination). He dehumanizes those who live outside of urban areas, and negates their cultural achievements. “Civilized” city dwellers, he claims, are “distinctly human”, and the culture they have created has grown to be “universal in scope”. What he fails to mention, though, is the means through which it has attempted to make itself universal: i.e. the genocide and erasure of “uncivilized” land-based cultures; the theft/enclosure of common lands and resources; warfare and economic desperation driving people into the cities against their will.

In a bizarre reversal of reality, he paints city dwellers as peaceful, thoughtful, and just – speaking of how legal systems of “human rights” ensure that people are treated fairly and kept safe. This is in contrast to tribal folks who treat people (especially foreigners/strangers) in an “arbitrary” manner . Bookchin talks as if the political rhetoric of “equality” and “rights” are actually representative of lived reality.Without looking at historical/anthropological evidence, he blindly accepts as true the claim that people who live outside the city are a bunch of violent barbarians. However, if one looks at empirical evidence, they will find that the opposite is true: city dwellers are vastly more violent, experiencing much higher rates of inequality, rape, murder, torture, addiction than land-based, communal cultures. Xenophobia and racism are the product of the “civilized” colonizers, not of indigenous societies.

Clearly Bookchin is basing his analysis on “commonsense” beliefs held by many city-dwelling colonizers who have not taken the time to seriously research any indigenous, land-based cultures. Reading this kind of racist, ethnocentric writing makes me skeptical about the quality of the rest of his analysis …

Notes on “Imperial Brain Trust” (Shoup & Minter)

The following is a list of excerpts from the book Imperial Brain Trust: The Council on Foreign Relations and United States Foreign Policy (Shoup & Minter, Monthly Review Press, 1977):

pp. 4-5:

[…] in 1919 the United States was not yet adequately prepared for world leadership, as was well illustrated by the confusion surrounding the issue of United States membership in the League of Nations. Even the leaders of opinion had been unable to arrive at a common understanding of the part the United States should take in world affairs. The Council on Foreign Relations would help remedy this defect. By keeping “its members in touch with the international situation” and devoting itself to a continuous study of the “international aspects of America’s political, economic and financial problems,” it would develop a “reasoned American foreign policy.” As one early statement of aims ambitiously noted, the Council on Foreign Relations “plans to cooperate with the Government and all existing international agencies, and to bring all of them into constructive accord.” The Council on Foreign Relations still exists today, more than half a century later. Yet it is hardly a household word. Even many of those Americans who are relatively well informed about foreign policy recognize it, if at all, only as the organization which publishes Foreign Affairs magazine. The Council is rarely mentioned in the press or on television. The number of articles, scholarly or otherwise, devoted to its activities is minuscule, even if one adds together the output of over fifty years. The lack of public attention might suggest that the Council’s importance does not match its original ambitious goals. One might conclude that it had become simply another discussion group, or a specialized research organization, of little interest except to its own members, and not particularly important to the overall picture of United States foreign policy formation. But such a conclusion would be profoundly mistaken. […] just the names of members give an impressive picture of Council importance. The current Council chairman is David Rockefeller of Chase Manhattan Bank, a man with incredible personal wealth and financial power. Wall Street lawyer Allen W. Dulles, a Council director for over forty years, helped establish the CIA and directed it while his brother John Foster (also a Council member) ran the Department of State. Diplomatic superstar Henry A. Kissinger was a Council protege who began his career in foreign affairs as a rapporteur for a Council study group. Kissinger later told Council leader Hamilton Fish Armstrong, who had played a key role in Kissinger’s rise to power, “You invented me.” The list could easily be prolonged with eminent financiers, Wall Street lawyers, Ivy League scholars, and high government officials — in short, a galaxy of “establishment” figures. It is such intriguing indications of the Council’s significance that led us to a more detailed investigation of this little-known organization. Our results show that the Council on Foreign Relations, despite its relative public obscurity, plays a key part in molding United States foreign policy. In the Council, the leading sectors of big business get together with the corporate world’s academic experts to work out a general framework for foreign policy.


p. 6:

That the Council is little known is thus not a sign of insignificance, but rather points to its mode of operation. The men at the top meet and work out together the general direction of policy — the limits of respectable debate. Through a complex network of channels, the content and tone of their discussion reach the policymakers and the leaders of opinion. Eventually they may reach those of us who take an interest in what our country is doing in the world, but we may have little idea that what comes to be a natural “climate of opinion” was carefully fostered and guided. For the process is not public. Council members are selected by the Council’s leadership and the meetings are confidential. As the New York Times expressed it, “Except for its annual public Elihu Root Lectures, the Council’s talks and seminars are strictly off the record. An indiscretion can be grounds for termination or suspension of membership.”

Despite this conscious secrecy, it is possible to find out something about what the Council is and does. Putting together bits and pieces from many sources and searching out references to Council activities in government archives, we have put together a picture of the inner workings and significance of the Council. Our conclusions challenge the conventional interpretations of policy formation as dispersed among a wide variety of groups or elites. In contrast to this view, we will show, in the pages to follow, the leading role played by the Council on Foreign Relations and the sector of society it represents, the corporate upper class.


pp. 12-13:

[…] on May 30, 1919, at the Majestic Hotel in Paris, a group of Americans and British agreed to form an Anglo- American organization. It was officially named the Institute of International Affairs and was to have branches in the United Kingdom and the United States.

While the idea for such an organization seems to have been “in the air” in Paris, the conception of the scheme was primarily that of British historian Lionel Curtis, formerly a colonial official in South Africa. For the previous nine years Curtis had been in charge of setting up a network of semi-secret organizations in the British Dominions and the United States. These bodies, called the Round Table Groups, were established by Lord Milner, a former British secretary of state for war, and his associates in 1908-1911. “The original purpose of the groups was to seek to federate the English-speaking world along lines laid down by Cecil Rhodes and William T. Stead, and the money for the organizational work came originally from the Rhodes Trust.”

Rhodes was an extremely wealthy imperialist whose will to power is illustrated by a statement he once made to a friend: “The world is nearly all parcelled out, and what there is left of it is being divided up, conquered, and colonized. To think of these stars that you see overhead at night, these vast worlds which we can never reach. I would annex the planets if I could; I often think of that.” Rhodes declared that his life ambition was “the furtherance of the British Empire, the bringing of the whole uncivilized world under its rule the recovery of the United States of America, the making of the Anglo-Saxon race into one Empire.” To achieve this grandiose end in 1891 Rhodes proposed the founding of a worldwide organization for the preservation and extension of the British Empire. The original purpose of the Round Table was thus to establish an “organic union” for the entire British Empire with one imperial government, and to try to associate other nations with the empire. Curtis and Philip Kerr (later Lord Lothian) were the two full-time activists in this scheme, which was backed by money from Milner, who had access to large funds as a Rhodes trustee.

The Round Table Groups kept in touch by visits and correspondence, and published, beginning in 1910, the magazine The Round Table, with anonymous contributors and even an anonymous editorial board. During the First World War, Round Table leaders were important in the formulation of British war aims, and many came to Paris as part of the British delegation.


p. 15

Honorary chairman of the Council was Elihu Root, Wall Street lawyer and former secretary of state and secretary of war. The chairman was another New York lawyer, Lindsay Russell, and the chairman of the Finance Committee was Alexander Hemphill, chairman of the Guaranty Trust bank. The organization was composed almost entirely of “high-ranking officers of banking, manufacturing, trading and finance companies, together with many lawyers . . . concerned primarily with the effect that the war and the treaty of peace might have on post-war business.”


p.  16:

The background of its officers also gives some clue as to the early direction of the Council. Elihu Root, the honorary president, was the prototype of the Wall Street lawyer and the elder statesman of the period. As one of his proteges and later secretary of state and secretary of war, Henry L. Stimson, observed: “He was the unchallenged leader of our bar, both in the state and in the nation.” Root was an early leader in America’s imperial expansion, being responsible fo organizing the administration of the overseas territories won by the United States in the Spanish-American War. He acted as counsel for several leading American corporations and banks of the time. In addition he advised Andrew Carnegie on his philanthropies, and served as first president of th Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.