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 …

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