Category Archives: democracy

161: John Jordan’s Machine-Age Ideology

In Machine-Age Ideology: Social Engineering and American Liberalism, 1911-1939, John Jordan argues that early 20th century “rational reform” was the product of the top-down, antidemocratic, technocratic politics of the machine age, and thus American liberal reformers in this era became less interested in helping the poor gain their voices as citizens than in engineering and controlling society.  Jordan’s cultural history, which relies primarily on the papers of reformers, statements and theories of prominent engineers, writers, and academics, and popular lit sources, shows how technological language and notions of Progress, control, and hierarchy filtered into social reform and the institution of liberalism as a whole.

Jordan divides his study into three historical periods, each with its own reform projects.  He locates the origins of rational reform (1880-1910) in Progressive reformers and sociologists like Veblen, who want to make the relationship between reformers and society less political and more like the relationship between engineers and nature.  From 1910 to WWI, publications like Lippman’s The New Republic and foundations like Russel Sage, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Carnegie Corp start arguing that “disinterested specialists” well-versed in social science and technology should lead the masses; Herbert Hoover called on manly men to be “officers in the great industrial army;” and Taylor and other efficiency experts made the efficiency craze visible.


Finally, social engineering hit its stride from 1918-1934, when Herbert Hoover’s “strikingly colorless moral universe,” created through war relief, paved the way for technocrats to further engineer social control.  Social problems like unemployment, education, poverty, and crime began to be seen as inefficiencies in the social system rather than injustice; universities were transformed into institutions of research, and psychologists turned “normality” into results on intelligence tests; the Century of Progress Fair in 1933 meshed science and capitalism into public entertainment, so that not even leisure spaces were not safe.

Of course, not everyone agreed with social control; Jordan also taps many of the era’s outspoken critics, including John Dewey, Lewis Mumford, Walter Lippman, Robert Lynd for cautions against the TOO successful social control of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini.  They also argued that humanity and democracy were necessarily messy; that competence was no match for the sheer variety of the American consumer, and that no one is disinterested, least of all reformers who trust their own authority and pet project over the needs and opinions of the people they’re supposedly helping.

Rational reform, therefore, became a question of ways of knowing.  Rational technocracy became articulated with liberals, who decided that the best way of knowing was science and that the goal of reform was to create an efficient social machine.  This perspective obviously created horrible problems because it reduced humanity to numbers and thus left out whole huge parts of the human condition that can’t be approximated.  Even scarier, however, is knowing that the drive toward quantitative knowledge lives on today: with more and more data, the cloud comes closer and closer to modelling human life – but even in the aggregate, can we really be replaced by zeros and ones?

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127: Dolores Hayden’s Building Suburbia

Dolores Hayden’s Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-1900, is an extended essay on the 180 years of metropolitan development in the US from the perspective of the “urban periphery.”    Taking a network approach to the history of suburban development, Hayden studies maps, town plans, housing designs, pictures of households, aerial photography and other sources for clues as to the particular configuration of real estate entrepreneurs; natural and built environments; the lives of women, children, and men; and class, race, and political orientations that went into the development of the suburbs, and she divines 7 distinct types, each with its own characteristic development practices, building techniques, marketing strategies, architectural preferences, and environmental attitudes.  The resulting book is both a history of suburban development and a critique of suburbia; throughout, Hayden argues that the suburbs have historically reproduced the conflict between people who seek the “triple dream of home, nature, and community” and entrepreneurs who “search for profits through the development of greenfield sites.”  She thus brings the suburbs to the forefront of landscape studies and reconfigures them as a site of struggle over the realization of the American Dream.

Briefly, the 7 different vernacular suburban patterns, and some associations with each:

  1. Borderlands (1820s): modeled after gentleman’s estates; single family homes, wide lawns, women do housework, men do yardwork, and neither has servants’ help; marker of the new middle class (not poor enough to live and farm out there, but not rich enough to have both city and country house); Catherine Beecher’s encyclopedia and Albert Downing’s housing manuals
  2. Picturesque enclaves (1850s): the first planned communities, designed by architects to have curving roads that followed local topography; single family homes with extensive plantings and common green space for that old country feel; less socially isolated than borderlands; first suburb to address the “triple American Dream” of house, land, community.  Tools of secular communitarian social reform.  Llewellyn Park in West Orange, NJ and Riverside, IL.  Commodified by the 1920s as a way to save money for developers.  Bourgeois utopia and alienation from the industrial mess they created.
  3. Streetcar buildout (1870s): developers began subdividing land closer to cities to create cheaper versions of picturesque enclaves; these began as linear development along expanding transit lines and were marketed to second generation Americans who had grown up in tenements.  Houses were relatively small and built by homeowners or small builders; included single-family, 2-family, 3-family and some commercial and apartment buildings.  Architecturally, developments vary widely by region, but residents are never as separate from paid/unpaid work as in picturesque enclaves; called the “zone of emergence” (from the tenements) by sociologists; crowded by the 1880s, but provide good models for development today.
  4. Mail order/ self-built (1900s): after 1910, entrepreneurs encourage car owners to move out beyond the streetcar suburbs; in a complex building environment, pre-fab houses are cheap for homeowners and builders in a hurry; stimulates massive, chaotic growth, but mass-produced houses all but kill the regional vernacular; by the 1930s, low-density growth is straining existing infrastructure.
  5. Sitcom suburbs (1940s): politicking from the 1920s to the 1940s resulted in federal support for private-market, single-family housing; massive post-war subdivisions were deliberately planned to “maximize consumption of mass-produced goods and minimize the responsibility of the developers to create public space and public services.  Huge suburbs were built all at once, with 50,000-80,000 residents in Levittown, KY, Lakewood, CA, and Park Forest, IL.  Federal guarantees for private developers reshaped the public/private divide, while developers conveniently left out the community part of the triple American Dream; it was only cheaper to build this way because the Federal government subsidized it.
  6. Edge nodes (1960s): edge cities have more jobs than bedrooms; they are products of the information age, are very flexible, and aren’t really places. Think Tyson’s Corner, which “resembles an older commercial strip with all of the buildings exploded in scale, or a model with all the building blocks for both suburb and city thrown on the ground by a two-year-old having a tantrum.”
  7. Rural fringes (1980s): the suburbs of the edge nodes; very spread out; more square miles than central cities, older suburbs, and edge nodes combined
Hayden concludes by saying that further development should look inward and revitalize older suburbs rather than build new ones, even if those new ones follow New Urbanist design standards, and that more participation by all stakeholders, including people previously left out of suburban development, would make a more democratic, egalitarian, participatory suburban landscape.

123: Duany, Plater-Zyberk & Speck’s Suburban Nation

Despite its title, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, this book is only partially about suburbia; it also serves as a programmatic statement and justification for New Urbanist development.  Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck are architectural and city planners who designed the planned community of Seaside, Florida, and throughout Suburban Nation they argue that suburban sprawl is not bad because it is ugly.  Rather, the authors (and their urban and suburban informants) argue that because there is a “causal relationship between the character of the physical environment and the social health of families and the community at large, suburbia is bad because it doesn’t function to foster community and democracy.  By contrast, communities modeled after “traditional American neighborhoods” can be aesthetically pleasing, make more efficient use of space, and cater to the needs of both individuals and the community.

Many of the authors’ recommendations are familiar, partly because their planning principles have long since been incorporated into creative-class urban revitalization projects: mixed-use development, walkable streets, functional public transit, short blocks, narrow streets with buildings arranged by size, corner stores, and so on.  And some of their recommendations reveal that New Urbanism is actually quite specific: neighborhoods should have corner stores, not Quik Marts; a neighborhood should be only a 10-minute walk across, with pocket parks in each of its corners and several elementary schools so that children can walk to school; the neighborhood center should focus on common activities; buildings should be low and close to the streets, with “semi-private attachments” that foster sociability;” bus stops should be dignified, so that public transit does not suffer from a “self-perpetuating underclass ridership;” parking should be hidden.
While some of these recommendations seem as though they are designed to foster community by keeping people in, many of them also seem designed to keep people out – particularly people who might go to a Quick Mart or ride the bus because they have to instead of because they want to, or even people who don’t live close enough to the center of the neighborhood to be in the in-club of walkers.  Further, the authors’ emphasis on “traditional,” combined with their acceptance that greenfield development can’t be stopped, makes this book seem more like a way to market manufactured authenticity to city planners than a way to create truly inclusive, functional, democratic communities.  This book is a clear statement of both the problem of sprawl and the solution of New Urbanism; I just don’t think New Urbanism is the only or even the best solution.

114: Margaret Kohn’s Brave New Neighborhoods

Margaret Kohn’s Brave New Neighborhoods: The Privatization of Public Space argues that “public life is undermined by the growing phenomenon of private government” via the privatization of physical public spaces.  As central business districts, parks, and other public gathering places are increasingly replaced with privately-owned shopping malls, gated communities, and Business Improvement Districts, true free speech and face-to-face political debate are foreclosed by bans on political speech or certain viewpoints (or even certain groups of people) on private property.  As opposed to online forums, public space allows for debate in real time, among real, embodied people; it fosters the kind of informed opinions needed to keep a democracy running, so the loss of public space also has profound implications for the functioning of American politics.

Kohn bases her arguments in the historical uses of public space, legal cases regard the public/private status of malls, gated communities, and other privatized public spaces, and theories connecting physical spaces with political process.  She argues that


while privatization is often a response to people’s desire not to be harassed by picketers, public speakers, and political canvassers every time they leave their houses, it also forecloses debate and leads to uninformed opinions.  Privatization can occur as a corollary to suburbanization, as when a developer builds a mall to tap unmet consumer demand; by commodification, as when a city like Toronto sells its CBD to a developer in exchange for urban revitalization; or even through a desire for control, as when a city refuses to grant a permit for a protest. This privatization is harmful because it reinforces existing patterns of segregation: rich from poor, business people from street people, consumption from politics.  And this segregation/ homogenization is bad partly because it keeps people from having to confront growing social inequalities and partly because it prevents people from developing a shared language.

Kohn supports her argument with a wide range of legal cases testing different aspects of the privatization of public space, including Unitarians attempting to leaflet at Mormon ecclesiastical plaza in Salt Lake City, political canvassers being refused entry at the Galaxy Towers condos in New Jersey; the exclusion of the homeless from a revitalized Battery Park in New York, and a controversial proposal to ban panhandling and bench squatting in 95% of downtown areas that is modeled on old Skid Rows.  In her afterword, Kohn cautions against utopian claims that cyberspace facilitates new forms of community and debate; after all, most of these spaces are just as privatized as physical spaces are.

While I’m personally sold on the importance of physical public space, I might add to her argument the importance of a) embodied debate and b) good modelling for informed debate.  As important as it is for people to hear other viewpoints, our lives are already saturated with messages that we tune out, so I can’t imagine that simply allowing more messages IN, even if they are political, would do much for democracy.  Equally important factors for democracy are listening and critical thinking skills; if people don’t have these, all the public space in the world won’t do anything to foster thoughtful debate.

94: Doug Rossinow’s Politics of Authenticity

With The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America, Doug Rossinow writes a history of the New Left that emphasizes continuity across both time and the broader political field of the 1960s.  Unlike many scholars of the 1960s, Rossinow was not there; this is a much-needed history of the left from the outside.  Instead of drawing on personal connections and personal experience, Rossinow relies on newspapers, TV, radio, and other media sources, as well as interviews, to understand the Left and place it in context.  He argues that the New Left operated by applying an existentialist activism to the left; from this perspective, the New Left developed in response to the Cold War of the 1950s, and it ended partly because the seeds of identity politics within existentialism fragmented the Left after 1968.

Existentialism in Rossinow’s formulation directly linked to the demographics of the New Left.  Unlike the Old Left, which had been composed of working class activists in pursuit of a working class-based social democracy, the New Left began with the white, college-educated members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), who directed their social criticisms not at economic exploitation but at the “alienation” and “anxiety” created by the “post-scarcity” society.  While these young folks initially thought that the poor or African Americans (not the working class) were the agents of social change due to their marginalization and consequent alienation from mainstream society, they soon adopted a theoretically-informed existentialist argument that “social and political arrangements caused inner alienation and that only radical social change would open the path to authenticity.”  Thus, affluent youth began to see themselves as the victims of postscarcity society, and they began to seek both authenticity and democratization.

Also unlike other scholars of the Left, Rossinow sees substantial connections between the student Christian movements of the 1950s and 1960s and the New Left.  The Student YMCA-YWCA used existentialism as a way of helping members connect individual alienation with larger social concerns, thereby overcoming the therapeutic culture of the 1950s.  Existentialist activists saw the individual as broken and alienated, and thus they sought solidarity and community.  Further, 1950s Christian liberalism was big into racial egalitarianism, and former Student Christians brought their views with them into the social movements of the 1960s.  This social existentialism stretched further back into the past as well, to Old Left emphases on a “humanist” Marxism based on the 1844 manuscripts, where the way to overcome alienation is to pursue wholeness and humanity in collectivism.

To examine existentialism and the New Left in detail, Rossinow operates at two different levels: at the national level, to see how the left functioned as a whole, and at the local level, with Austin, TX serving as a case study for the formation of the New Left and the explosion of SDS into prairie power.  While he finds that existentialism and the pursuit of authenticity operated at both scales, it was much more successful at “untying the knot of inner alienation and democracy than in pursuing large-scale social change.”  It was thus also much more successful in small, localized communes than in the large, national arena.  Further, the pursuit of authenticity as a means of overcoming individual alienation became detached from the larger collective enterprise, with the New Left fracturing into smaller culture-based groups: Black Power, Feminism, and so on.  The New Left thus headed into cultural liberalism, while the true radicals enmeshed themselves in small communities and passed from authenticity into marginality.

Rossinow emphasizes throughout that this is a story of a dialectical process between politics and culture, structure and dissent, and that political movements might rebel against structures of power, but their rebellions are always pre-conditioned by those same structures.  Hence the shift from radical politics to cultural liberalism and identity politics was prefigured by the capitalist system.

84: Lizabeth Cohen’s Town Center to Shopping Center

In “From Town Center to Shopping Center: The Reconfiguration of Community Marketplaces in Postwar America,” Lizabeth Cohen shows that the shift in consumer spaces from downtown shopping districts to suburban shopping centers and malls threatens the public sphere on which democracy depends.

The new landscapes of postwar mass consumption had three major effects on American community life:

  • by commercializing public space, they brought market segmentation, including divisions by race and class, to community life
  • by privatizing public space, they privileged the rights of property owners over citizens’ rights to free speech
  • by feminizing public space, they gave women more of a claim to the suburban landscape, but they circumscribed their power by constructing them as consumers only

If mass consumption was supposed to bring standardization in merchandise and consumption patterns, the way it structured (and continues to structure) space actually did the opposite.  Further, the dependence on private spaces for public activity and the increasing privatization of public space threatens democracy: if people no longer have a space to speak our minds or critique larger systems of power, how are we a democracy at all?

64: Sean Wilentz’ Chants Democratic

In Chants Democratic, New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850, Sean Wilentz describes the process of “metropolitan industrialization” – aka the alienation of labor – and its impact on emerging class relationships in New York during the Jacksonian era.  In particular, he’s interested in the development of class consciousness among the city’s artisans.  Like other scholars indebted to E.P. Thompson and the new social history, Wilentz is profoundly interested in the whole lives and particularly the agency of his subjects, but he is careful to integrate the world of the artisans into a more traditional economic and political framework.  He combines these micro/macro approaches to argue that class formation was critical to the social and political crises of the era.

Unlike other historians of Jacksonian democracy, most notably Saxton and Roediger, Wilentz argues that class differentiation, more than the formation of a white consciousness, was the defining element of the era, at least in New York. In the early 1800s, New York experienced dramatic economic growth which threatened the artisan republic/ Jeffersonian nation of yeoman farmers.  New York’s growth combined a massive influx of immigrants with a reorganization of industry to respond to new mass markets (perhaps those created by the new transportation networks?).  Struggling to keep up with the pace of demand, artisans shift to a “manufactory” model, where a few master craftsmen preside over a mass of artisans working as journeymen and small masters.  As with the formal factory system, this division between capital and labor creates a rift in the artisan community along class lines, with the masters soon defining “justice” as equal access to wealth and the journeymen defining it as an end to oligarchy and the redistribution of wealth.  Increasing class antagonism, combined with the influx of immigrants, results in a nativist backlash during the recession of 1837.  By the mid-1840s, Republicanism itself means different things to the two different groups.

Throughout, Wilentz is relentless about tying class consciousness to changes in the material lives of his subjects, particularly with respect to the degraded status of journeymen workers in the Jacksonian era.  This book’s time period seems to be slightly before Saxton’s “Republican synthesis,” and it was written before both Saxton and Roediger finished their books, which I guess would explain why he doesn’t talk about race and whiteness.  As-is, then, this book provides an important predecessor of later, race-based interpretations of the Jacksonian era.  It also traces the demise of the agrarian ideal in the development of urban industry, and shows how democracy and class became intertwined.