Murray Bookchin

From megalopolis to communitas




A plea for ecocommunities replacing the monster of megalopolis.

Source: The Limits of the City, 1974.



The city has completed its historic evolution. Its dialectic from the village, temple area, fortress or administrative center, each dominated by agrarian interests, to the polis and medieval commune during an era when town and country were in some kind of equilibrium, to the bourgeois city which completely dominates the countryside, now culminates in the emergence of the megalopolis, the absolute negation of the city.

No longer can we speak of a clearly defined urban entity with an authentically collective interest or outlook of its own. Just as each phase or moment of the city ha its own internal limits, the megalopolis represents the limits of the city as such — of civitas as distinguished from communitas. The political principle, in the form of the state, dissolves the last vestiges of the social principle, replacing all community ties by bureaucratic ones.

Personified space and the human scale disintegrate into institutional space and urban gigantism, hierarchically grounded in the impersonal domination of one human by another and the destruction of nature by a rapacious society motivated by production for the sake of production. This "anti-city," neither urban nor rural in any traditional sense, affords no arena for community and genuine sociation. At most, the megalopolis is a patchwork of mutually hostile enclaves or ghettoes, each of which is internally “united” not by a positive harmony of creative impulses but rather by a negative hostility toward the stranger on its perimeter. Physically, morally, and logistically, this urban cancer is in rapid decay. It does not function on its own terms as an arena for the efficient production and marketing of commodities.

To say that this creature is breaking down is an understatement: the megalopolis is an active force in social dissociation and psychic dissolution. It is the negation of the city as an arena of close human proximity and palpable ' cultural tradition, and as a means of collecting creative human energies. To restore urbanity as a meaningful terrain for sociation, culture, and community, the megalopolis must be ruthlessly dissolved and replace by new decentralized eco-communities, each carefully tailored to the natural eco-system in which it is located.

One might reasonably say that these ecocommunities will possess the best features of the polis and medieval commune, supported by rounded­ eco-technologies, that rescale the most advanced elements of modern technology — including such energy sources as solar and wind power — to local dimensions. The equilibrium between town and country will be restored — not as a sprawling suburb that mistakes a lawn or patch of strategically placed trees for nature, but as an interactive functional ecocommunity that unites industry with agriculture, mental work with physical, individuality with community.

Nature will not be reduced to a mere symbol of the natural, a spectatorial object to be seen from a window or during a stroll; it will become an integral part of all aspects of human experience, from work to play. Only in this form can the needs of nature become integrated with the needs of humanity and yield an authentic ecological consciousness that transcends the instrumentalist “environmental” outlook of the social and sanitary engineer. Our place in the history of the city is unique. Precapitalist cities either stagnated within their limits or destructively exploded beyond them as a result of the incomplete technological development that perpetuated material scarcity. If the city was not frozen as in Asia and Near East by hereditary castes and agrarian hierarchies, its unity was dissolved by the commodity and marketplace.

Modern technology has now reached so advanced a level of development that it permits humanity to reconstruct urban life along lines that could foster a balanced, well-rounded, and harmonious community of interests among people and between humanity and nature. This ecocommunity, which would be more than a city, would have no limits other than those consciously fashioned by human creativity, reason and ecological considerations.

The ecocommunity, supported by a rational ecotechnology, would be an organic urban entity respiritized by a new sensibility and reinforced by a new security in material life — an authentic arena for the harmonization and fulfillment of humanity’s deepest and most creative impulses. The alternative to this development can only be the horrifying disintegration of urban life into a condition of chronic social war, personal violence and bureaucratic mobilization. If the archaic hieroglyph of the city was a wall intersected by two roads, the symbol of the megalopolis is rapidly becoming the police badge superimposed by a gun. In this kind of city, social irrationality will take its toll as the absolute division of human from human until a final harvest is reaped in the revenge of nature on humanity.

The limits of the megalopolis can be formulated as nothing less than the limits of society itself as an instrument of hierarchy and domination. Left to their own development, these underlying elements of the megalopolis spell the doom not only of the city as such but of human sociation . For in such a world, technology, subserved to irrational forces, becomes the instrument not of harmony and security, but the systematic plundering of the human spirit and the natural world.


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