Considering the Autocratic Cosmopolis in ‘A History of Future Cities’

A reflection on governance, economic growth and the East eclipsing the West among the factoids in Daniel Brook’s new book, A History of Future Cities.

Russia’s Peter the Great did not allow serfs to use wheelbarrows while building the city of St. Petersburg.

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“If only we could harness our new tools to serve us rather than we serving them and share the bounty we all produce, they believed, everyone could live a decent life.”

-Daniel Brook describing the thinking of Bauhaus architects, on page 161.

The cities of Shanghai, Bombay, St. Petersburg and Dubai were each built by autocrats with a vision of making their peoples more cosmopolitan and productive. Each of them succeeded, though the three older cities also fomented unrest that led to the eventual unseating of the regimes that built them.

Journalist and author Daniel Brook documents these stories in his new book from W.W. Norton and Company, A History of Future Cities. Right now, at the moment of the book’s publication, the three older cities have once again become more closed off than they once were. But Brook suggests that the channels abroad remain open, and that Shanghai, Bombay and St. Petersburg will once again become places where cultures intermingle.

Brook chose his subjects carefully, as the purest examples of cities built with a worldwide vision from the very beginning. Throughout the book he cross-references the historical stages of each city, so when he documents similar events in Bombay and Shanghai, it helps the reader make the connection. In fact, in Brook’s view, these cities are relevant to thinkers today, because what they have gone through will mirror what the whole world is going through as it continues to shrink daily.

In a way, I am worried he is right. As I read the book, especially the parts about Shanghai and St. Petersburg, I found myself making connections to the present political moment in the U.S., and not in a good way. More on that below.

These are stories of authorities with astounding power creating cities that stood out as stark counterpoints to the nations around them. The four cities changed the people who lived in them and, by extension, changed the course of nations. As a book of cultural tumult, it is also one filled with all sorts of historical oddities and strange juxtapositions, which gives the reader a greatly enriched sense of context for the last century (or so). The following is a list of some of my favorite ironies and oddities found in its pages:

  • Though Russia’s Peter the Great was so interested in Western technology that he posed as commoner in order to apprentice to a shipwright in Amsterdam, he did not permit Russian serfs to use one wheelbarrow as he forced them to build St. Petersburg (page 18).
  • Foreign merchants developed Shanghai and stayed only long enough to get filthy rich, so all city services were provided for profit. While the city had running water, gas and electricity, it did not have sewers, because without them waste could be collected as “night soil” in buckets and sold to farmers as fertilizer (page 81).
  • In 1905, a protest rose up in Shanghai to get Chinese representation on its all-white municipal council. The protesters won a vote for a native “Advisory Committee,” but then the all-white electorate rejected it (page 84). Creating powerless advisory councils and then hamstringing or silencing them is a tactic anyone who has been involved in fights for representation or voice with big businesses, big universities or big public projects will find familiar.
  • The seeds were sown for the end of British rule in India by the institutions the Britons had built there. Meetings of dissenters were planned by post, reached by rail and the talks were held in the one common language, English. All institutions imposed on the subcontinent by the Raj (page 121).
  • Tsar Alexander II had been planning to make key liberal reforms, such as allowing elected representation, easing censorship and abolishing the secret police, but the liberals assassinated him before he could enact them (page 139).
  • As a means of appeasing workers, the Russian State organized and approved a labor union called the Russian Factory and Plant Workers (page 149).
  • In Jazz Age Shanghai, a wealthy Asian might drive his limousine past an impoverished white person pulling a rickshaw (page 169).
  • Though much of Gandhi’s rhetoric was against globalization, he used Bombay as a stage for many of his protests because he knew sympathy from the audience abroad could help his cause (page 223).
  • In the late 1940s, India produced enough food to be self-sufficient, but because it was connected to the global system, too much would be exported out of the country to fetch a better price elsewhere (page 253).
  • Bollywood was able to thrive during the Socialist era of Jawaharlal Nehru because the state-sponsored banks would not finance frivolous industries, such as entertainment. So, Bollywood relied on the underworld for funding, which meant movie producers did not have to worry about bureaucratic meddling (page 257).
  • Though Dubai does enforce certain moral codes from Muslim law, it stopped fighting prostitution when a crackdown nearly sank one of its banks, as call girls went there to withdraw their savings before leaving the country (page 267).
  • Once the most open city in the world, Shanghai now requires prospective Chinese residents to apply for a highly competitive residency permit (page 314)
  • In Mumbai (formerly Bombay) today, municipal services are provided in much the same way as they once were in Shanghai — by private companies. So, even the most hopeful view universal electricity and running water as impossible (page 332). In fact, the only cleaning in common areas, such as the streets, is done by homeless children who collect it to sell the raw materials.
  • In order to maintain a spirit of openness, Dubai is transparent about its Internet censorship. Not only does it make it clear when a site has been blocked, it provides guidelines for why sites are blocked and allows users to challenge the censors by submitting feedback (page 361).
  • Though 96 percent of the people in Dubai are from other places, they don’t form a hodgepodge, shared culture as in other cosmopolitan cities. It is easy for Dubai residents to keep living just as one would in their home country (page 366).

A History of Future Cities merits reading simply because it’s so interesting, but it also gives a Western reader a great deal to think about. First, with so much emphasis on Easterners learning Western ways and profiting for it, one has to ask how soon the day will come when Westerners only progress when we go East to learn new ways of working? Or perhaps that day is already here and we haven’t admitted it to ourselves yet.

But that question is trivial compared to the next one. As an American, I found myself more interested in two terms from the book, each used only once, to describe leaders in states supposedly quite different than our own. The first term, “Market Bolshevism,” was used to describe the way economists, enamored with Chicago School thinking, facilitated a simplistic privatization of Russian assets and put the nation’s economy into free-fall (leading Russians to joke that everything Marx said about communism was wrong, but everything he said about capitalism was right). “Market Bolshevism” is a term that could just as easily be applied to the Grover Norquist crowd.

Which leads me to the second phrase, “Authoritarian Capitalism.” Brook used this to describe the Chinese ruling party’s philosophy that dissent can be managed so long as the economy grows at a nice clip. Similarly, as the book illustrates, power in Russia is largely a matter of who controls its oceans of natural gas, and its authorities use tactics — such as hiring supporters to speak on behalf of its projects at public hearings — which are already quite familiar to any American community organizer. This point is all the more haunting as more and more politicians crow about America’s new access to gas reserves.

In a country where more than 60 percent of the electorate can’t be bothered to vote — and those who do make their decision almost entirely on the question of which party they believe has best advanced the unexamined cause of economic growth — reading the descriptions of authoritarian capitalist systems in A History of Future Cities made this reader wonder if we aren’t already importing more ideas from Eastern authorities than we realize.

Brady Dale is a writer and podcaster living in Brooklyn. You can find him on Twitter. When you read A History of Future Cities, send us your thoughts on Twitter with the hashtag #NextCityBooks.

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Brady Dale is a writer and comedian based in Brooklyn. His reporting on technology appears regularly on Fortune and Brooklyn.

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