Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Feral Cities

So I'm at work, it's a slow day, and I come across an article of the same name as this post on my RSS feed, linked to below from Warren Ellis' excellently strange and twisted blog (I think of it as bOing bOing's evil cousin.) The article, by one Richard Norton, grabbed me enough that I'm actually getting off my lazy ass and blogging, for once, instead of passively scanning my RSS like some sort of info-cow.

Anyhow, the essay essentially asks what happens when public order dissolves completely inside a city, so that the state - assuming there still is one - no longer has any power to direct events within it. Said city is then feral. The only real example of this today is Mogadishu, but Mr. Norton provides several other examples of cities that are in danger of going feral: Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, and Johannesburg. All fun-filled places to take the family for your summer vacation.

Feral cities are characterized by urban hypertrophy (big and growing), a total absence of sanitation leading to a localized environmental disaster zone, extreme poverty, and infestation by criminal gangs, terrorists, warlords, armed militias, and other organized brutes who divvy up the turf between themselves. They are breeding grounds for disease, especially given that the absence of public health means that a microbial predator can mutate into something really nasty without anyone noticing. A feral city can also disrupt international trade, if it is a coastal port, home to a major airport, or both. And, as the U.S. military found when it tried to intervene in Somalia, they can be a perfect bitch to pacify, especially if you want to minimize civilian casualties or have something other than smoking rubble left when you're done.

This is all very chilling of course, and we can look around the world today and point to several cities not mentioned by Mr. Norton that are on the way to going feral, if not already there (most any city in sub-Saharran Africa qualifies, I think.) Great material for a sci-fi novel, though.

In the essay, Mr. Norton identifies four factors by which to measure the health of a city, each measured by a scale sliding from green (healthy) to red (feral.) The factors are Government, Economy, Services, and Security.

Now here's the rub. From a State's point of view, total loss of control ('red' under Government) would probably be enough to qualify a city as feral. However, does the first factor sliding into the red necessarily mean that the other three must, too? For instance, services (utilities, waste management, education, medicine, etc) could all be provided by private actors, as could security (by mercenaries, neighborhood associations, or even individuals ... the best guarantor of freedom is a well-armed and bed-tempered citizenry.) Now, a robust economy would be required for all of this to function ... but there are many today who believe that an economy needs little or no government in order to function, indeed, that government is essentially parisitic on economic activity.

One thing the essay continually overlooks is the effect of spontaneous, bottom-up order; the whole tone seems to indicate that, without some degree of top-down control, a city will slide down into feral status. I don't think this is necessarily the case. Let's try a thought experiment here: imagine, if you will, that the government is both corrupt and incompetent. Large parts of the city have fallen into the hands of gangs, with the government unable to protect citizens living in those territories. Those citizens who live in nominally government-controlled areas are preyed upon by dirty cops that are even worse than the criminals, having the 'law' on their side. Looks pretty grim, no?

So what do you, as a concerned citizen, do? Maybe you buy a gun. Maybe a lot of your friends and neighbors do the same. And then maybe you get together, at first to defend one another against street crime and then, as state power withers, simply to guard your own turf. Now, if enough neighborhoods in the city do this, the feral city will end up with no central government, but a patchwork of orderly neighborhoods administered directly by local citizens, along with certain other areas where you just don't go. A lot like modern LA, in other words.

Now take the issue the criminal gangs. A lot of gangs make most of their money dealing drugs, because drugs are illegal. With no state, 'illegal' becomes meaningless ... but that doesn't mean the gangs will stop dealing drugs, not if there's money in it. Instead, with territory and an economic activity to keep them busy, they just might (given time) metamorphose into more or less benign municipal governments in their own right, essentially on an equal footing with other neighborhood associations.

I could ramble on about this for a while, but I really just want to make one basic point here: 'no central government' does not necessarily equate to feral city. Withdrawal of state power might well push most cities into feral status, but that status need not be permanent: Mogadishu, for instance, has been clawing itself back by the skin of its teeth from the bloodshed of a decade and a half ago, without the formation of any central government. Admittedly I wouldn't want to live there just yet, but things might be different in 20 years. Who knows. A feral state might be merely a transitional stage in a metamorphosis into a functional anarcho-capitalist society, or it could be a metastasizing human tumor. Or both.

Interesting as all hell nonetheless. Check it out.

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