Tikender Singh Panwar, Soumyadip Chattopadhyay, Arjun Kumar, Mahima Kapoor

Bullshit Urbanism is a term coined by Dr Leon who believes the wealth and power to have made cities a joyless junk habitat which we can afford to support and thus capitalism to be a major cause in this predicament. 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), IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute organizes a talk onBS* Urbanismunder the Special Talk Series – #LocalGovernance

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Mr Tikender S Panwar, Former Deputy Mayor, Shimla; Visiting Senior Fellow, IMPRI commenced the session with a question on why bullshit urbanism? and provided the context by highlighting the humongous number of inequities that exist in urban centers and the stark difference between rural and urban areas, evident from the Oxfam report on inequality.

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He then introduces the speaker of the session Dr Leon A. Morenas, Associate Professor, School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi. Dr Morenas began his presentation by quoting that his inspiration for the topic “Bullshit Urbanism” originated from a term coined by an American anthropologist and activist, David Graeber in 2013 called “Bullshit Jobs”.

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The term tried entangling the concept of employment being 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 Morenas found this phenomenon fundamental and intuitive, which allowed him to think that it is not jobs that are pernicious and unjustifiable but urbanism can be too.

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An American writer, James Howard Kunstler, in his book The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape (1993) examined how during the epoch of stupendous wealth and power, people have managed to ruin their greater cities, throw away small towns and impose over the countryside a joyless junk habitat which they can afford to support. Dr Leon believed this was the beginning of the diagnose bullshit urbanism.

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He saw the vitiation of the public as an uncontrollable force that destroys conventional categories distinguishing the urban from the rural and massive hydraulics of the urban system untamable and that bullshit jobs, as mentioned by David Graeber to be 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 the built environment.

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He then talks about how during pandemic the cities were not accommodative of caddies, delivery boys, laborers, loaders, cooks, painters and etc. who are part of the same population that help us run the cities, yet they had to head back to their villages on foot.

Urbanism a fantasy of contemporary capitalism

He then explains 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 and economics. Thus, Graeber saw the need of studying the moral and political ramifications of the same.

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Dr Leon argues that bullshit urbanism is nothing but capitalism perpetuating itself by patenting of space, which is not driven by economic rationale but also moral and political reasons.

Metropolitan Dystopia

He then discussed his doctoral work which looked at the technological undergirding’s of the Delhi Master Plan, devised as a prototype for Indian development aimed at delivering spatial equality to Delhi citizens. However, he observed this spatial fix to have created a metropolitan dystopia of ever-increasing unevenness between the urban poor and metropolitan rich.

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He then expanded his doctoral work to look into the social history of the smart city mission in India which examined claims about data being empirical and non-ideological and the premise that algorithms analyzing data and smart cities are neutral and objective demonstrating the fact that such arrangements and assumptions affect the poor disproportionately and deleteriously.

He emphasized how 0.1 percent of the population controls 50 percent 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 that other person end up being told their needs are not important and their lives have no intrinsic worth. The latter being the inevitable effect of inequality and inequality being the inevitable result of living in any large complex urban technologically sophisticated society.

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Urbanism from Historical Perspective

To view this problem from a historical lens, Dr Morenas provided a historical tour of a period before the invention of inequality. He stated that homo-sapiens emerged around 200,000 years ago and existed as small mobile units of around 40 to 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 structure, 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.

Dr Morenas said 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 organization 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.

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In the city of Mohenjo-Daro, most of its population around 40,000 residents lived-in in high-quality housing and last nearly 700 years. There is evidence that 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. No evidence in the Indus civilization, 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 civilization earlier and now bullshitization of urban spaces perpetuates these misconceptions and recast them in benign terms of the planetary ilk. 

Questions and Reflections

Mr Panwar remarked on the intriguing presentation made by Dr Morenas. He inquired about Dr Morenas’ views on the United Nations’ SDGs that aim at making cities more equitable and what various works of different authors suggest, which is democratization or making resources accessible to everyone model.

Dr Morenas stated that the views of Harvey and Graeber are not compatible given their different political leanings. He viewed Marxism as how one deals with the city without having to deal with the state. He then talked about the mode of production, a concept of Marxism where if the proletariat were able to control the mode of production, then one could bring about real equitable change. Whereas Graeber sees it not as a material production of the artefact but more about the social production of people and therefore he advocated having an anarchist view and reimagine an urban scenario that is different and break the stratification of urban spaces through material accumulation.

Another question raised was, what is the role of technology in the new non-bullshit urbanism? And whether it was suitable and junctural to have a non-hierarchical world at this time and comfort?

Dr Morenas responded by disagreeing that a non-hierarchical world was not suitable or attainable and justified it with Graeber’s view of how anything that one is able to make, one 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 alluded to the work of Herbert Marcuse to explain how technology contours a person’s entire existence. He did not see it to be a tool or instrumental 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, asked the views of Dr Morenas on the fast-paced urbanization of Chinese cities. To this the latter responded that Chinese cities are fast-paced due to their capitalist nature and from an architectural standpoint, he argued that there to be some formulaic applications and models of urban growth which applied with proper economic backup can be a success.

Concluding Remarks

Finally, Dr Morenas provided a gender lens and perspective to the topic. He emphasized how urbanism put women behind in some harems and would like to break this inherently possessed inequality.

Acknowledgement: Nikitha Gopi is a Research Intern at IMPRI