Imagining the Anarchist City, a Beginning

I have recently been reading David Graeber and David Wengrow’s new book “The Dawn of Everything” and been enjoying it immensely. It has been a generative experience and has catalyzed a number of fruitful avenues of thought. One of these concerns their discussion of the egalitarian cities or proto-cities of the late Neolithic. They have put my brain to work in thinking of what an egalitarian and free city would look like today.

One of the difficulties of being an anarchist is guarding against that tendency to only critique, and not to propose. One the one hand this is a useful trait, because it leaves realms of possibility open, but on the other, we must actually take advantage of that and propose things! Imagining a new world is crucial to getting there.

A mistake made by a great number of anarchists is presuming that the built world as we see it is the only way that the world can be. These anarchists correctly criticize a world of concrete, freeways, cars and pollution, but incorrectly equate all cities to this. A free and egalitarian city is possible, but we have to imagine new ways of building it.

However, we have much greater technical problems to solve than past urbanists. While the people of Catalhoyuk, Mohenjo-daro, Teotihuacan, and the cities of neolithic Peru had a largely static urban form, we have one that has seen rapid changes and has much greater infrastructural problems. We have to manage electricity, a system of water capture and use (whether by purification, piping, wells, or rainwater capture), heating, wheeled vehicles of all types, and the fact that all the former have been designed in an ecology-destroying way.

These are serious challenges technically and politically. For example, our water treatment is centrally structured, being built by the state. It does not necessarily have to be operated in a hierarchical manner, but it tends towards a centralization of expertise and the creation of chokepoints. Water is pumped into the city by way of pipes, treated in a few places, and then distributed out. I want to reiterate that these are not inherently non-anarchist. Indeed, as we saw in the anarchist sections of Spain, great strides can be made even within old structures by allowing for free association and federation to flourish. However, the state-built nature of these presumes that certain choices were made by the state, and a state logic was at the heart of their construction. Much of my thoughts on the following posts will be informed by the work of Kevin Carson in his book “The Homebrew Industrial Revolution” which discusses the reasons why certain organizational and technical forms have won out, and solutions.

In forthcoming posts, hopefully one a week, I will discuss a few of the technical and social challenges for an anarchist city, and some rough proposals on how structures like these could look in our anarchist cities.