‘Bullshit Urbanism’ is a term coined by Dr Leon, who believes that wealth and power have made cities a joyless junk habitat that we can’t afford to support, and of which capitalism is a major cause. To learn more about Dr Leon’s concept and ways to break stratification of cities through material accumulation, the Centre for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies (CHURS) of Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI) organised a talk on ‘BS* Urbanism’ under #LocalGovernance.
Tikender S Panwar, Former Deputy Mayor, Shimla, and Visiting Senior Fellow, IMPRI, commenced the session with a question on why bullshit urbanism, and contextualised it by talking about the humongous number of inequities that exist in urban centres and the stark difference between rural and urban areas, evident from the Oxfam report on inequality.
He then introduces the speaker of the session Dr Leon A Morenas, Associate Professor, School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Delhi. Dr Leon started his presentation by quoting his inspiration for the topic ‘Bullshit Urbanism’ to originate from a term coined by American anthropologist and activist David Graeber in 2013 called ‘Bullshit Jobs’.
The term tried entangling the concept of employment as completely pointless, unnecessary and pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence, even though the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case. Dr Leon finds this phenomenon fundamental and intuitive, which allows him to think that it’s not just jobs that are pernicious and unjustifiable, urbanism can be, too.
American writer James Howard Kunstler, in his book The Geography of Nowhere, examines how during the epoch of stupendous wealth and power we managed to ruin our greater cities, throw away small towns, and impose over the countryside a joyless junk habitat that we can’t afford to support. Dr Leon believed this was the beginning of the diagnose of bullshit urbanism.
He saw the vitiation of the public as an uncontrollable force that destroys conventional categories, distinguishing the urban from the rural. The massive hydraulics of the urban system untamable and bullshit jobs, as mentioned by David Graeber, then become life jackets keeping us afloat. However, the central concerns of his talk were not limited to material characteristics of the urban, but more importantly, the mutual construction of human beings and built environment.
He then talks about how during the pandemic, cities were not accommodative of caddies, delivery boys, labourers, loaders, cooks, painters etc. who are part of the same population that helps us run cities, yet, they had to head back to their villages barefoot.
He then explained how both authors Kunstler and Graeber diagnose contemporary capitalism as the cause of our predicament. They thought capitalism to be too efficient and yet, there was a proliferation of bullshit jobs, which cannot be justified by economics. Thus, Graeber saw the need of studying the moral and political ramifications of the same.
Dr Leon argues that bullshit urbanism is nothing but capitalism perpetuating itself by patenting space, which is not just driven by economic rationale, but also moral and political reasons.
He then discusses his doctoral work that looked at the technological undergirdings of the Delhi Master Plan, devised as a prototype for Indian development aimed at delivering spatial equality to Delhi citizens. However, he observes this spatial fix to have created a metropolitan dystopia of ever-increasing unevenness between the urban poor and metropolitan rich.
He then expanded his doctoral work to look into the social history of the smart city mission in India that examined claims about data being empirical and non-ideological and the premise that algorithms analysing data and smart cities are neutral, and objective demonstrating the fact that such arrangements and assumptions affect the poor disproportionately and deleteriously.
He emphasised how 0.1% of the population controls 50% of the wealth all without addressing any of the factors that people actually object to about such unequal social arrangements. For instance, some manage to turn their wealth into power over others or others ends up being told their needs are not important and their lives have no intrinsic worth. The latter is the inevitable effect of inequality, and inequality is the inevitable result of living in any large, complex urban technologically sophisticated society.
To view this problem from a historical lens, he takes us to a period before the invention of inequality. He states that homo-sapiens emerged around 200,000 years ago and existed as small mobile units of around 40-80 individuals, who worked for some hours and there was no such formal structure of domination and thus, they existed as equals.
However, around 10,000 years ago, at the close of the last ice age, all changed. Neolithic farmers began cultivating crops as a result first settlement emerged. Then came private ownership of property, sporadic feuds and war ensued. Further, the production of surplus food allowed for the accumulation of wealth and influence beyond kinship groups and large concentrations of people, and the surplus of goods meant the natural emergence of inequality.
Anthropologist Marcel Moss, however, observed that our remote ancestors were behaving in broadly similar ways to the present-day social order, shifting back and forth between alternative social arrangements, permitting the rise of authoritarian structures during certain times of the year on the understanding that no social order was ever fixed or immutable.
He says that early homo-sapiens were not just physically the same as modern humans. They were our intellectual peers who were more conscious of society’s potential than people generally are today, switching back and forth between different forms of organisations every year. Our previous ancestors confined inequality to ritual costume drama constructing gods and kingdoms as they did their monuments, then cheerfully disassembling them once again.
In the city of Mohenjo-Daro, most of its population around 40,000 residents lived in high-quality housing and lasted nearly 700 years. There is evidence that a majority of the city’s residence appears to have lived comfortable lives in brick-built of the lower town with grid-like street arrangements and remarkable infrastructure for drainage and sanitation. With no evidence in the Indus civilisation, we find any accommodation of sharia-type values, no tradition of monumental representation of pictorial narrative celebrating the deeds of charismatic leaders, and so on.
Thus, he concludes his presentation by refuting the myth that slavery, capitalism and inequality were natural and inevitable features of human civilisation earlier and now bullshitisation of urban spaces perpetuates these misconceptions and recast them in benign terms of the planetary ilk.
Dr Tikender remarked how intriguing Dr Leon’s presentation was and posed a question asking how he correlate to SDGs released by the UN that aim at making cities more equitable and what various works of different authors suggest, which is democratisation or making resources accessible to everyone model.
Dr Leons states how the views of Harvey and Graeber are not compatible given their different political leanings. He views Marxism, which is about how you deal with the city without having to deal with the state. He then talks about the mode of production, a concept in Marxism, where if the proletariat were able to control the mode of production, then we could bring about real equitable change. Whereas, Graeber sees it not as a material production of the artifact but more about the social production of people and therefore, he advocates having an anarchist view and reimagine an urban scenario that is different and break the stratification of urban spaces through material accumulation.
Another question that was raised was: what is the role of technology in the new non-bullshit urbanism? And is it suitable and junctural to have a non-hierarchical world at this time and comfort?
Dr Leon answers by disagreeing that a non-hierarchical world is not suitable or attainable, and justifies it with Graeber’s view of how anything that you are able to make, you can unmake them and make them differently. Thus, views that there are no cast stone structures that cannot be remade.
On the role of technology, he takes work of Herbert’s marquis to explain how technology contours a person’s entire existence. He doesn’t see it as a tool or instrument, but something that should be approached with a larger vision and that cannot be pulled out in a cause-effect linear spectrum.
Dr Arjun Kumar, Director at IMPRI, asks how Dr Leon looks at the fast-paced urbanisation of Chinese cities and his views on the same. Dr Leon states how Chinese cities are fast-paced due to their capitalist nature and from an architectural standpoint. He argues there to be some formulaic applications and models of urban growth that, if applied with proper economic backup, can be a success.
He concluded his lecture by giving a gender perspective to the topic. He emphasided how urbanism put women behind in some harems and would like to break this inherently possessed inequality.
Acknowledgment: Nikitha Gopi is a Research Intern at IMPRI.