Gregory R. Copley

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Gregory Copley addressing an audience at the Royal United Services Institute in Perth, Western Australia, in 2004.

The Rise and Fall of the 21st Century “City States”: The Emerging Strategic Factor

By Gregory R. Copley.

Published in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis: November 14, 2006.

Large urban groupings — the super-cities — are the great strategic phenomena of the current Age of Global Transformation. They represent, for the first time in history, the reality that most of the critical masses of humanity dwell in concentrations set apart from the areas which are critical to their physical survival: those areas which produce their food and gather their water, generate their resources of energy and building supplies.  

The great urban gatherings of people now drive history, and they are at war — in many senses and at many levels — with the scattered populations who dwell in the countryside. This must be so, because the urban dwellers, residing in complex social organisms, demand a far greater share than ever before of resources. They are driven and characterized by wealth, or the hope of wealth, and by the needs of the immediate; even when “instant gratification” is not possible, but merely desired. 

Urbanity is, by definition, also an abstract characteristic, focused on artificially-constructed realities. Life is organized around manmade constructs, such as capital and credit, and wealth creation based on factors removed from the basic elements of species survival. No longer do urban dwellers need to grow food or hunt to eat; no longer are they dependent on the seasons. These things — the foodstuffs and raw materials of survival — are the tribute delivered whole from the hinterland. 

Urban hierarchies are based around different priorities (and therefore the logic of their survival differs) from those of the farmer, hunter and gatherer. And as the logic of survival differs, so, too, do customs and morality, those characteristics which emerge from logic as the mechanisms of species survival and differ among societies because of varying geographic demands. 

The conflict — or, at best, dynamic tension — between urban society and rural society is, therefore, inevitable and multi-faceted. Not only must there be a fundamental difference in priorities and thought processes, the growing numbers and economic power of the cities demand more and more output of food, minerals, energy, water, and the timbers and materials of construction from the rural societies and landscape. Thus, in Western or modern societies — nation-states built around structures of sovereignty refined only in the past few centuries and defined by geography once dominated by rural priorities — the great urban gatherings now dominate. Gradually, over the past few thousand years, cities became the tail which wagged the dog; now they are the dog. 

As organisms, cities vote and act differently than rural areas, because their needs and priorities are different from each other. And the great urban masses — democracies — have become the thing which Plato feared most: mobs. But they are mobs as Plato never imagined; semi-literates and literates who have abstracted themselves from the basic realities of how species have historically survived, and they now follow new dogma, breaking from traditional beliefs. 

And the rural areas, too, have become mobs with different group characteristics. In areas of low population density which remain impoverished and with less hope — but now with exposure to images which create feelings of insecurity, dreams of wealth, and the substance of envy —  the mobs are often more primal, less literate, and driven also by a less complex sense of hierarchy and survival. They cling to older dogma, which relates to the logic of survival in their particular climes. 

In modern nation states (remnants of older, integrated societal structures), rural and urban society still represent mutually dependent aspects of the same organism because technological force multipliers and wealth spread also to rural areas. But in less wealthy, scattered societies, there is a visceral fear of the internecine byways of cities. 

Cities in many respects seem, to less complex societies, to represent an almost insanely indecipherable, illogical departure from the need to survive through human cooperation at a basic level. Thus, poorer, traditional, rural societies — which perceive their very identity, worth, and literal survival to be at risk from modern societies — often declare actual war with urbanization and modernity. This is the primary thrust of jihadism’s war with modern society. 

Bear in mind, however, that it was “modern society” itself which first declared war on the vast, sparse-peopled tracts, demanding more and more of their wealth to sustain the cities. 

In this Age of Global Transformation, the division is characterized by fear of modernization and change in traditional society, and self-absorption and constantly growing demand for food and resources in urban society. Population growth has been the driver for this inevitable and ultimate “perfection” of the move toward urbanization which haltingly began and continued after the end of the last Ice Age with the creation of agriculture and the gathering of peoples into nodal towns and cities to trade the products of the farmers. 

But now, in the 21st Century, as China’s and India’s overwhelming populations discover the power of urbanization already pivotal in Western and modern societies, the process has passed a greater milestone. The question now becoming evident — and why globalization spawned the current Age of Global Transformation — is whether the urban-rural balance can hold even within what we call the modern, Westphalian-style nation-state, let alone between industrial societies and traditional societies, or whether conflict in many forms between them becomes total. 

What this conflict has as its stake is control of the resources for continued population growth. Inevitably, as the conflict peaks, then so does wealth creation crest, and with it the ability of the urban societies to grow and to dominate the rural sources of supply of the essentials of survival.  

At this point, as we are seeing now, the artificial borders of societies — nation-states — change or become meaningless; population growth will ultimately cease, or pause, and begin to reverse itself by “natural” means, and the linear growth in wealth will become erratic and falter. Research and development, and scientific progress, will no longer occur in the “inevitable” path we had come to expect. 

We are already seeing the “natural” population levels — sustained through childbirth and prolonged life expectancy — diminish in Western Europe and Australia, with overall figures sustained only by inward immigration. But cities themselves, described by former French President Georges Clemenceau in his book, Demosthenes, as “caldrons, full of the ideal and of the basely turbulent, to which all the sorcerers … brought their spells”, build, even in Western Europe and Australia (as elsewhere), while rural populations diminish, and these cities build within themselves their own cancers. The culture of immediate sensory gratification, which supplants or erodes the patience of religious devotion, can transform the urban unemployed, dissatisfied, or misfits into corrosive revolutionaries. 

The massive flow of rural Chinese populations into the  massive and growing cities threatens the national leadership with a situation where, unless the supply of food, water, and opportunities continues to slake demand, revolution could brew anew. The parallel with the situation — including the growth of cities, industrialization, and national upheaval — which led to the 1911 revolution against Imperial Chinese leaders is starkly clear. China’s 21st Century leaders, at national level and in all the cities, are aware of the wild river of history on which they travel. 

So in all of this, cities have become the battleships of population strategy and politics: great ships of state, armored with wealth and authority. It is not surprising that cities proved to be the decisive structures in the growth of power and civilization in ancient Hellenistic times, and it is unsurprising now, for some of the same and for some different reasons, that cities are the decisive elements of the early 21st Century, unresponsive to anything but their own sense of destiny. 

But, as with the times of Hellas, dangers lurk. The rise again of cities as nodes of great power presages merely the turning of human destiny, as before, toward a time when the immovable fortresses of human concentration discover their vulnerability to mobile masses. These mobile societies are essentially the peoples who have deemed themselves (or are deemed) not part of the urban hierarchies. 

We are not yet again at that point, however, and for now the cities seem — as they did before Athens and Pella and the monuments of Ozymandias became rubble — invulnerable to the passage of time, other than to grow with it. And grow they do at an unprecedented rate and scale. 

Cities — urban masses — are complex structures full of self-importance, prestige, ponderous processes and established hierarchies. Cities, significantly, create an ethos of their own, which often among their populations replaces religious beliefs which evolved in times and societies closer to the lives of rural societies, to lesser or greater degrees. Cities establish hierarchies and life-affecting priorities which are more vital to their sense of day-to-day survival of their citizens, rather than thinking in terms of broader, national dependencies. 

Cities are, for the most part, focused on consumption, and reprocessing of materials to add value to them, and on the function of command and management. These processes reinforce the abstraction of their societies from the more direct functions of rural, or non-urban, life which focuses more on extracting the essence of human survival from nature. 

It is little wonder that, when young adults move from rural homes to the big cities, parents worry whether their children can retain the values, faiths, and beliefs instilled in more simple, reflective, and less intensively populated areas. Significantly, centers of unrest in expanding urban centers — such as those of China in 1911 and today — focus often around the discontent among the unemployed or disenfranchised in the “imported villages” which are created by rural immigrants to the cities.

Cities have, because the logic of urban survival demands it, a way of supplanting traditional beliefs and reinforcing the power of immediate grandeur. The urban belief system focuses on visible — relatively short-term, but nonetheless complex — gratification, eschewing the patience of the more evenly-patterned countryside. There in the cities, among the intense closeness of like-minded fellows, dwell the sophists and navel-gazers, convinced of their omnipotence. 

Little wonder, too, that the great religions were often the product of visionaries in the harsh, solitary environment of deserts and particularly open skies and vistas, where deep, longer-term philosophical thought and introspection was the only relief possible. 

And equally, little wonder that cities brought forth great scientific thought and literature, given the stimulus of diverse minds gathered and communicating. But wealth, intellect, and great construction often fall before the concentrated force of visionary zeal, particularly when cities become paralyzed by self-importance, self-indulgence and a reluctance to fight for their own survival. 

Cities — the development of which is by definition abstract, with all supply of the vitals for survival “subcontracted” to rural societies — have traditionally also “subcontracted” security to what have become national soc- ieties, the armed forces. So cities, operating remotely from, and often disdaining, both rural societies and “national societies” such as the armed forces, often fail to value that on which they depend for sustenance and protection. And now, because of the shift of predominant power to the cities, we see that urban-dominated governments, preoccupied with their own needs and importance, make decisions more to consume than to produce; more to spend power than to protect and build it. 

Understanding the great schism between the polar elements of human social groupings — a schism which grows as directly and as rapidly as urbanization grows — is the key to understanding how sovereignty and power will change over the course of the 21st Century. It is the key to understanding how, and why, for example, terrorism forms and is sustained as individuals and societies fight not only to retain or build a sense of identity and identity security, but also to retain their actual ability to survive down the generations in the face of the demands and threats of the cities. 

Understanding this inevitable schism also lays open the path to planning how societies can manage change.

 

     



 
Copyright © 2006, Gregory R. Copley. All rights reserved.
     
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