The Antithesis of Town and Country - Ross Wolfe click here for Worldmapper by SASI Group (University of Sheffield) and Mark Newman (University of Michigan)
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1. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, New York, Penguin Books, 1976, p 472, Translated by Ben Fowkes

2. Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Collected Works, Volume 28: Economic Works, 1857-1861, Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1990, p 37, Translated by S.W. Ryazanskaya

'Production also changes in consequence of changes in distribution, e.g., concentration of capital, different distribution of the population in town and countryside.'

3. Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, Manifesto of the Communist Party, in Collected Works, Volume 6: 1845-1848, Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1975, p 505, Translated by Samuel Moore, and posted here

4. Friedrich Engels, The Housing Question, in Collected Works, Volume 23: October 1871-July 1874, Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1988, p 384, Translated by Friedrich Engels

5. Theodor Adorno, 'The Schema of Mass Culture', Translated by J.M. Bernstein, in The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, New York, Routledge Classics, 2001, p 77

Adorno defines "false reconciliation" as '... the absorption of every negative counter-instance by an omnipotent reality, the elimination of dissonance in the bad totality.'

6. United Nations Population Fund, State of the World Population, 2007: Peering into the Dawn of an Urban Millennium, posted here

7. United Nations revised 2012 Medium Fertility projection of the global population for 2050, posted here

8. Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, New York, Penguin Books, 1973, p 479, Translated by Martin Nicolaus

9. United Nations, Principles and Recommendations for Population and Housing Censuses, Series M, Number 67, Revision 1, New York, 1998, p 64

10. Owen Hatherley, 'A City in Fact', Chapter 3, 'Preston', in A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys through Urban Britain, New York, Verso Books, 2012, p 59 to 61

11. Owen Hatherley, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, New York, Verso Books, 2010

12. James Heartfield, 'Urban Renaissance?', Chapter 8 in Let's Build! - Why We Need Five Million New Homes in the Next 10 Years, London, Audacity, 2006, p 107 to 132

13. Mike Davis, Planet of Slums, New York, Verso Books, 2006, p 19

14. Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, Manifesto of the Communist Party, in Collected Works, Volume 6: 1845-1848, Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1975, p 510 to 511, Translated by Samuel Moore, and posted here

15. By this I mean the kind of "economic romanticism" characteristic of the Narodniks, criticized by Lenin in 1897:

Vladimir Lenin, A Characterization of Economic Romanticism: Sismondi and Our Native Sismondists, in Collected Works, Volume 2: 1895-1897, Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1972, p 129 to 265, Translated by George Hanna

16. James Heartfield, 'The Cult of Nature', Chapter 5 in Let's Build! - Why We Need Five Million New Homes in the Next 10 Years, London, Audacity, 2006, p 69 to 73

17. Megan Jett, 'Infographic: Burbs Going Bust', 30 April 2012, Arch Daily, posted here

18. Thomas More, Utopia, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1989, p 114, First published 1516, Translated by Robert M. Adams

Another title for the island in More's book was "Udetopia," or "neverwhere."

19. John M. Robson and Bruce L. Kinzer, editors, John Stuart Mill, 'The State of Ireland', 12 March 1868, in Collected Works, Volume 28: Public and Parliamentary Speeches Part I, November 1850 - November 1868, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1988, p 248, posted here

20. Ian Nairn, 'Outrage: On the Disfigurement of Town and Countryside', London, Architectural Review, March 1955, Volume 117, p 361 to 460

21. Michel Foucault, 'Different Spaces', in Essential Works, Volume 2: Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, New York, The New Press, 1998, p 175 to 185, Translated by Robert Hurley

22. Marc Augé, Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, New York, Verso Books, 2009, p 110 to 111, Translated by John Howe

23. Owen Hatherley, 'Review of Marc Augé's Non-Places', London, Icon Magazine, June 2009, Volume 5, Number 72, posted here

24. Andrzej Zieleniec, Space and Social Theory, Los Angeles, Sage Publications, 2007

25. David Harvey, Spaces of Capital: Towards a Critical Geography, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press. Edinburgh, 2000, p 208

26. Hugh J. Silverman, 'From Utopia/Dystopia to Heterotopia: An Interpretive Topology', in Inscrip-tions: After Phenomenology and Structuralism, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1997, p 326 to 337

27. Chris Cutrone, 'The Marxist Hypothesis: A Response to Alain Badiou's Communist Hypothesis', Chicago, Platypus Review, November 2010, Number 29, p 1, posted here

28. Manfredo Tafuri, The Sphere and the Labyrinth: Avant-Gardes and Architecture from Piranesi to the 1970s, Cambridge, Massachusetts, The MIT Press, 1990, p 3 to 4, Translated by Pellegrino d'Acierno and Robert Connolly

The Communist Manifesto, 1848

Owen HatherleyJames Heartfield

The Antithesis of Town and Country

Ross WolfeFew concepts are so central to Karl Marx's account of the capitalist mode of production as the social division of labor. It is curious, then, that so few of his professed followers today concern themselves with a phenomenon Marx considered a sine qua non for the historical genesis of capitalism - the distinction between town and country. Ross Wolfe is writing a series for audacity on the Antithesis of Town and Country.


click1 - Town and Countryside 17.11.2013

click2 - Historical origins of the divide 02.01.2014

Town and Countryside

Midway through the first volume of Capital, first published in 1867, Marx emphatically declared:

'The foundation of every division of labor which has attained a certain degree of development, and has been brought about by the exchange of commodities, is the separation of town from country. One might well say that the whole economic history of society is summed up in the movement of this antithesis.' (1)

Karl MarxA lofty claim, to be sure. But the significance of this bifurcation in human patterns of settlement did not end there for Marx. The organization of society into two competing demographic densities - urban and rural, the former more concentrated and the latter more dispersed - was relevant to another of his longstanding concerns: population. Specifically, the city/country dichotomy pertained to population's distribution through-out the productive process, or its deployment in various branches of industry. (2)

Friedrich EngelsOvercoming the capitalist division of labor, Marx and Friedrich Engels argued in their jointly-written Communist Manifesto of 1845 to 1848, necessarily entailed the '... gradual abolition of all distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.' (3) While this argument would not figure as prominently in Marx's subsequent published writings, Engels reasserted its validity twenty-five years later in The Housing Question. 'The abolition of the antithesis between town and country,' he insisted, '... is no more and no less utopian than the abolition of the antithesis between capitalists and wage workers.' (4)

Despite laying such stress on this matter, the contradiction between town and country is scarcely mentioned anymore on the Left. Even among self-avowed Marxists, the topic has seldom been broached in recent decades. How is this silence to be explained? Is it that the problem no longer exists? Could it really have been resolved without the prior abolition of capitalism? Or is it rather that the problem no longer appears as such because the prospect of its abolition is so remote today? What does this say about the present state of politics? Questions abound, but answers are not immediately forthcoming.

Photograph courtesy of Andrew Brooks

Surely, much has changed since Marx's day. Perhaps the age-old antagonism between city and country truly has come and gone, and requires no further thought. This is hardly an obvious conclusion to reach, however. For even if a temporary balance has been struck, or if in the meantime the polarity has sunk beneath the plane of recognition, it by no means follows that a proper solution has been achieved. On the contrary, it seems just as likely the opposite has taken place. All that would have occurred, in this instance, is a form of "false reconciliation"; a kind of counterfeit in which neither side is truly abrogated. (5)

Town and country do remain at odds with one another; the difference between them has merely been suppressed. Both sides are simply leveled off, left middlingly intact, neither urban nor rural but suburban. Consequently, the contradiction appears blunted. Hence less real.

Either way, troubled or not, the interchange between city and countryside has at the very least shifted substantially over the last few centuries. In 2008, the percentage of the global population living in cities became a majority for the first time in recorded history. (6) Humanity is expected to be increasingly urban as population grows to 2050. (7)

This cannot but alter the shape of the urban-rural dynamic. Whatever else may be said of Marx's scattered predictions regarding the future course of history, in this respect he has been massively vindicated. Already in the Grundrisse of 1857, an early draft of Capital, he contended that '... in the contradiction between town and countryside, the modern [age] is the urbanization of the countryside, not ruralization of the city as in antiquity.' (8) However, defining what counts as urban versus rural may still be cause for some controversy, as criteria can be capricious and vary from country to country. Faced with the task of establishing a unified metric for town and country, the United Nations has since 1970 more or less admitted defeat:

'Because of national differences in the characteristics that distinguish urban from rural areas, the distinction between the urban and the rural population is not yet amenable to a single definition that would be applicable to all countries or, for the most part, even to the countries within a region. Where there are no regional recommendations on the matter, countries must establish their own definitions in accordance with their own needs.' (9)

As Owen Hatherley appreciates in A New Kind of Bleak, until the 1920s in Britain, for example, "City" status was only conferred upon those towns that could claim a cathedral, like Winchester. Yet populous Basingstoke, Croydon, Milton Keynes, or Reading are not cities. Preston, among the important towns of the Industrial Revolution, was made a "Golden City" in 2002 as a prize in the contest to mark the Queen's Golden Jubilee. (10)

None of this diminishes the prescience of Marx's observation, however.

The citified world he foresaw over a century and a half ago has unambiguously come to pass. In light of these considerations, a reappraisal of the division of town and country from a Marxist point of view seems warranted.

This will hopefully serve to clarify an issue that for too long now has gone neglected by theory, despite once having been thought crucial to its integrity. Do the categories of Marxism adequately describe existing social relations? While terms like urban and rural are widely accepted, to contend that this separation constitutes an "antithesis" to be abolished is a good deal more controversial. If such a contention is today deemed untenable or outdated, can it be casually written off as unessential to the coherence of Marx's thought? Or would this cast doubt on the legitimacy of his other claims? At stake here is the very competence of Marxism, given its standard arsenal of concepts, to conduct an accurate analysis of the present. Can the framework it provides grasp contemporary reality?

Whether or not a study of this sort has any purchase beyond circles with an interest in Marxist theoretical debate largely depends on whether Marxism is able to reassert itself as an effective political force in society. Though the odds of this happening seem exceedingly low at the moment, it can never be completely ruled out as a possibility. Until such a time, an inquiry into the Marxist theory of town and countryside is destined to remain a fairly parochial concern. Its relevance is bound up with the general irrelevance of Marxism as a whole. Otherwise, the question is purely academic. Better to dispel such illusions at the outset, however, than to proceed filled with a false sense of purpose, only to discover the true triviality of one's endeavor later on.

Several distinct points of departure present themselves at this juncture.

To begin with, there are a number of issues that have cropped up around cities in recent years: so-called "regeneration", (11) coming fresh on the heels of the much-touted urban renaissance in the developed world, (12) along with its attendant effect of gentrification. At the same time there is unprecedented urbanization in developing countries, leading to expansion of slums on a planetary scale, as Mike Davis observes:

'The cities of the future, rather than being made out of glass and steel as envisioned by earlier generations of urbanists, are instead largely constructed out of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks, and scrap wood. Instead of cities of light soaring toward heaven, much of the twenty-first-century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay.' (13)

With respect to the countryside, also, there is no shortage of material. Romantic ideologies rooted in anti-urban sentiment, from utopian socialism in the nineteenth century, (14) to agrarian populism in the twentieth, (15) have accompanied rural depopulation ever since the dawn of manufacturing. Yesterday's cult of nature, (16) has here and there given way to vaguely politicized strains of anarcho-primitivism.

In more benign cases, as in urban agriculturalism, this felt need for a connection with the soil has found expression within the city limits, removed from its native setting out in the country. Usually an activity reserved for wealthy hobbyists, community gardening has proved practical all the same in blighted boomtowns like Detroit. There the rusting auto factories built over the last hundred years are rapidly reverting to the farmlands that once stood before. Meanwhile, the tendency of advanced capitalist nations toward suburbanization heralded by the end of the Second World War has all but stalled out amidst foreclosures, the collapse of the housing bubble, and the subprime mortgage crisis. Headlines have appeared in recent months announcing "the decline of Suburbia." (17) The outskirts no longer seem to represent a viable alternative to either city or countryside, if indeed they ever were.

Besides these possible trajectories, a few more general options are available.

As with any other political discourse on the subject of space, the opposition between town and country can be interpreted along "topological" lines - that is, in terms of the way these places (topoi) are imagined to embody various social ideals. For example, there is the familiar binary of utopia and dystopia. The former, a clever play on the homophony of the Greek words eutopia (somewhere good) and outopia (nowhere), derives from Thomas More's eponymous book. (18) The latter comes from a parliamentary speech by John Stuart Mill in 1868 concerned with the Land Question in Ireland:

'It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call [the British governors of Ireland] Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians... What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practicable; but what they appear to favour is too bad to be practicable.' (19)

In this same vein, a pair of related neologisms may also enter upon the scene: Ian Nairn's spleen against the cookie-cutter "subtopias" of suburban sprawl in 1955, (20) together with the different spaces Michel Foucault named "heterotopias" a dozen years later. (21) Marc Augé, a French anthropologist of some renown, has suggested the "non-place" as another spatial antipode to utopia. Like utopia, he explains, the non-place indexes a kind of nowhere. Unlike utopia, however, the non-place really exists. (22) Augé had in mind sites of transit - airports, shopping malls, bus terminals, railway stations - but any number of intermediary or in-between domains could be added to the list. For Hatherley reviewing Augé in Icon magazine, "non-place" '... is now a common term that denotes the seamless, sterilized, transient, privatized spaces of the late 20th and early 21st century.' (23)

Nevertheless, categories like these must not be taken at face value. Reflections on the spatial dimension of social and individual interaction are by now de rigueur in the fields of sociology and psychology, (24) as well as in cultural studies of art, literature, and architecture. Critical geography, a branch of research that examines human relationships over the land using concepts culled from Marxist theory, has gradually crystallized as a discipline within the social sciences since the 1970s. For David Harvey in Spaces of Capital a critical geography might '… challenge contemporary forms of political-economic power, marked by hyper-development, spiraling social inequalities, and multiple signs of serious environmental degradation.' (25) Following the linguistic turn taken in the humanities over the next decade, after phenomenology, hermeneutics, and structuralism fell out of favor, discussions of "spatiality" became a regular occurrence at academic conferences. (26)

One of the unfortunate side effects of all this attention, however, is that today the topic has been overtheorized to the point of exhaustion. Some discretion will therefore be required to ensure that these thought-figures do not distract too much from the issue at hand. Their invocation in the context of the present survey of town and country should not for this reason be casually regarded as an endorsement of the theories that support them. Instead, these motifs are borrowed provisionally in advancing an immanent critique.

More pertinent to such an investigation, at least from a Marxist standpoint, would be to sketch a history of the urban-rural split as it persisted under ostensibly communist regimes, albeit in modified form. Even if efforts to bridge the divide ultimately failed, it is instructive to compare the results of "actually-existing socialism" alongside concurrent developments in the capitalist world. Any differences that ran between them will thereby be made readily apparent. No narrative account of the twentieth century would be complete, moreover - historical materialist or otherwise - without factoring in the role played by international workers' movements in its unfolding (revolutionary and reformist alike). Here, as elsewhere, it is necessary that Marxism reflexively comprehend itself as a force operating in the world, even if the time of its greatest influence now belongs to the past. One must write a Marxist history of historical Marxism itself, as Chris Cutrone has argued in Platypus Review:

'Such history is motivated by the need for what Karl Korsch called, in his 1923 essay 'Marxism and Philosophy,' the historical-materialist analysis and critique of Marxism itself, or a Marxist history and theory of Marxism. This would be a history of the emergence, crisis, and decline of Marxism as expressing the possibility of getting beyond capital.' (27)

This is no less true in relation to town and countryside than to any other subject.

But this already presumes a broader engagement with their separation as part of the longue durée of capital's formation. Without trying to pinpoint the exact moment of cleavage, in some vain attempt to "find the murderer", (28) it is nonetheless important to begin at the beginning and trace the problem back to its rough origin. In this fashion, then, the ensuing study will adopt Marx's point of departure as its own: bourgeois society in distress, rising from the ashes of the ancien régime only to find itself riddled with internal strife. Town and country comprise just one antagonism amongst many, and is probably itself symptomatic of a deeper discontent within capital. Regardless, it may still act as a window onto other struggles, illuminating latent contradictions left unresolved by history. That is, if any can be said to truly remain outstanding at all.

Ross Wolfe 17.11.2013


click1 - Town and Countryside 17.11.2013

click2 - Historical origins of the divide 02.01.2014

click here for Ross Wolfe's series on the Antithesis of Town and Country

click here for Andrew Brooks Photography

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