Participatory Society: Urban Space & Freedom

[A variation of this talk was delivered today, Friday, May 29th at the B-Fest in Athens, Greece. The gathering is an international anti-authoritarian festival hosted by the Babylonia newspaper, at the University of Fine Arts in Athens, from May 27-31. The purpose of the gathering is to explore vision and strategy after last December's social uprising there.]



Hello, today’s track is called "Land & Freedom" and I’ve been asked to talk on the subject of Participatory Society: Urban Space and Freedom.


Before I begin, however, I would like to thank you for inviting me here today and for hosting this conference. This is the first time I’ve been to Greece and it is an honor to be here under such circumstances.


Greece knows all too well the barbarism of U.S. imperialism and as Greeks struggle to change their society today so too do we struggle in the U.S. against oppressive forces there. We in the U.S. need to catch up in our political consciousness, organization, and concern for vision. This conference is exemplary in its mission to look at the past and present to strategize for the future. While here I hope to learn from you to see what I can take back home. The overarching goal that should unite everyone everywhere, ultimately, is a hope and effort to overcome today’s systemic problems while developing shared vision of a fundamentally new society and the struggle for its realization. That is what we are working towards here today.



Today’s cities are far from offering equitable conditions and opportunities to their inhabitants. The majority of the urban population is deprived or limited – in virtue of their economic, social, cultural, ethnic, gender or age characteristics – in the satisfaction of their most elemental needs and rights. Public policies that contribute to this by ignoring the contributions of the popular inhabiting processes to the construction of the city and citizenship, are only detrimental to urban life. The grave consequences of this situation include massive evictions, segregation, and resulting deterioration of social coexistence.

- World Charter for the Right to the City



Over the last few days here in Greece I’ve been told that almost half the population live here in Athens and also that more than half are located in urban areas throughout the country. So, you may be interested to hear that today, for the first time in history, 3.3 billion people around the globe, half of humanity, live in cities. Over one third of this population does not share in the benefits that cities have to offer. It is estimated that within two decades 60 percent of the earth’s population will live in urban areas and, if we continue on the current trajectory, by 2050 the urban population of the developing world will be 5.3 billion (UN projections), primarily in Asia and Africa. Because of these trends this century has been called the "Century of the City" (State of the Worlds Cities 2008 / 2009, UN Habitat).


This rapid urbanization has happened on a pace and scale unprecedented and has set in motion long-term and in some cases irreversible, social, material, and environmental damage. Migration to and between urban centers, natural growth (births outpacing deaths), urban sprawl, increasing fuel and food prices, the need for work, mass use of private transportation, and the convenience of urban lifestyles all contribute to consumption of large amounts of energy and production of excessive amounts of waste. These patterns make today’s cities primary sources of pollution. Increasing growth of urban areas means increasing risk of climate change where the underprivileged and disempowered suffer most.


Between and within cities high concentrations of wealth, power, and privilege make spatial and social disparities more, not less, pronounced. Urban inequality directly impacts all aspects of societal life, including health, nutrition, gender and race equality, education, and mortality. Everywhere where this spatial, social, and material inequality reins lack of popular decision-making control reduces people’s participation and integration into society.


Based on the above I recognize three major problems:


(1)   Rapid Urbanization is assisted by lack of popular decision-making control over society’s institutions and our very own lives, making cities locations where obscene concentrations of wealth and power coexist with mass dispossession of at least half the earth’s population with trends forecasting more into the near future.

(2)   The logic of city planning and urban development is driven by the interests of capital and top-down decision making by local, regional, and national governments where the objectives of the rulers over the ruled are contrary to the interests of the rest of us. The system of capitalism, a system defined by private ownership of productive assets, markets with roles for buyers and sellers, and corporate divisions of labor in workplaces has contributed to the misinformed use of human and natural resources where the benefits of city life are made available only for the few while the high costs of urban growth and convenience are socialized for the many.

(3)   UN Habitat reports that in the decade between 1990 and 2000 urbanization in developing regions was characterized by the entry of new cities that did not exist as such in 1990. The report states, "This constellation of 694 new cities started out as rural towns and became urban areas by virtue of changes in their administrative status, natural growth or in-migration." (PDF) The problem is not the number of cities but rather the structures within and between them, and also possibly their size and current rate of growth. But where did they come from? These cities did not appear magically, nor were they the product of divine intervention or an evolutionary outcome hardwired into history. Rather, they are human-made creations. Similarly, so are the vast disparities of wealth and power that exist within and between these cities. The maintenance of urban inequality is made possible through human-made hierarchical institutions that serve elite interests. Therefore, our hope lies in the self-conscious ability of people to carry out their own social and material objectives for the improvement of their own lives and their ability to exercise decision-making control over their own destinies. To accomplish this, and successfully overthrow counter-revolutionary forces (outlined below), we will need shared vision of a society organized around an institutional framework that delivers self-management, classlessness, solidarity, and diversity.


The society I advocate is called a Participatory Society and has consequences for how we orient ourselves to the problems mentioned above. I will now focus on these consequences and along the way outline a new institutional vision as a proposed solution.



Urban Crisis & Social Control


The urban center is not only defined by relations to rural or suburban peripheries—by space, place, territory or geography—but also by a set of social and material relations that embody all societies. Every society has defining institutions which embody interpersonal roles and relations, as well as generalized patterns of behavior and outcomes consistent with our expectations that those institutions will produce and re-produce. These outcomes can be more or less desirable. They can be more or less classist; more or less racist; more or less sexist; and allow more or less control over our daily lives.


Societies where people have very little decision-making capacity, where people have little or no say over when and where they work or live, how they work or live, or what they produce or consume, suffer alienation and isolation that hides shared social and material relations, causing people in the same workplace, neighborhood, or city, to be socially and culturally separated from one another and to not interact. All this can lead to mass anti-social behavior such as loneliness, drug and alcohol abuse, crime and violence, abuse of public property, and affect many social indicators such as stress, mental and physical health, education, and mortality. Empathy for the repercussions of anti-social outcomes is minimized while attitudes of disinterest and disaffection, and even cynicism towards human suffering, are elevated. These patterns warp and accumulate as they embed themselves into the very fabric of the everyday roles and relationships defining our lives. They oppressively pressure every moment.


Today’s urban centers are home to extreme disparities where dense concentrations of wealth and power live side by side with squalor and desperation. One of the most forceful proposals I can think of to curb this pattern and its negative consequences is for people to assume self-managed decision-making control over their lives.


The principle of self-management includes, but is not limited to, human rights and access to society’s material resources and social space. However, access and rights to the city are not the same as self-administration and autonomous control of society’s institutions. Self-management goes beyond those who think they are free from false consciousness and believe they know what is in the people’s best interest and so seek to exercise decision-making power on behalf of everyone else. It means simply that people make decisions themselves, to the degree that they and others are affected, about how to administer their own lives and society’s institutions. They become arbiters of their own destinies.


For everyone everywhere to wield this kind of self-managed control over their lives society’s institutions will need to be fundamentally transformed, in every sphere of life, enabling decision-making control in proportion to how one is affected. This kind of society is called a Participatory Society—it is a self-managing society, a classless society, a solidarity society, a sustainable society, and a diverse society.


In the construction of a new participatory society:


-         Class hierarchies will be abolished for new classless divisions of labor, remuneration of work for onerousness and intensity will be the norm, and decentralized producer and consumer controlled councils will negotiate allocation of the material means of life.

-         Racial and community hierarchies will be un-done for full racial diversity and ethnic equality.

-         Gender and sex hierarchies will be overturned to harvest non-sexist socialization and care-giving.

-         Political authoritarianism will be made null for new participatory forms of nested council self-governance.


A participatory society, where people have self-managed decision-making say over the things that affect them, will require new consciousness, skills, and capacities for everyone. Society’s participatory institutions will convey compassion, understanding, and solidarity; equal opportunity to realize our ow

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