Jane Jacobs: Prophet of Globalization? Yes, but with a (local) human face


Jane Jacobs: Prophet of Globalization? Yes, but with a (local) human face

Inspired by the Ideas that Matter conference celebrating Jane Jacobs in 1997, this essay is an effort to place her work within the continuing debate about how globalization works, and where we go from here.

Sao Paolo aerial

Sao Paolo aerial (Photo by Chris Lowry)

Published in Toronto in Behind the Headlines, Canadian Institute of International Affairs, Vol. 55, No. 2, 1998.

One morning during a recent gathering to celebrate the ideas of Jane Jacobs in Toronto, a headline in the Globe and Mail proclaimed, “Jacobs embraced as economic guru: The woman known for her thoughts on urban planning is now a key figure in new growth theory and a prophet of globalization.” 1 Prophet of globalization? Oh really? I thought. Not the Jane Jacobs I know.

However, as I read more deeply into John Barber’s article, then attended the wonderful “Jane Jacobs—Ideas That Matter” conference (Oct. 15-18, 1997), then drank more of the heady elixer of Jacobs’ own pungent words, and then read some of the crackling debates that she has provoked, I began to say to myself, well, yes! She is our best prophet of globalization. But not entirely for the reasons that the Globe and many economists would have us believe.

The band wagoneers of globalization are half-right about Jacobs. Those who characterize it as an inevitable march toward a rosy future where everybody wins, where we all share the wealth trickling down from the transnational corporate dynamos can find support for their views in Jacobs’ anti-bureacractic, anti-nationalist, anti-stupidity, bootstraps vision of economic development. She says juicy things like “I hate the government making my life absurd,”2 and it is easy to leave out the fact that she favours reasonable governance, not necessarily dismantling of government. “They’re doing stupid things,” she reasons. “They may be meddling too much, or doing too little for us. Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not an ideological thing.” 3 She is really a champion of the relentless struggle for good governance against wasteful, inflated power mongering. Nevertheless, her model of organic growth, of cities as wealth generators that are usually limited by the ill-conceived manipulations of politicians and grand-scale planning can be used to justify the deregulating spirit of our times.

Her battle cry from a speech in 1988 is typical of what inspires boot-strappers: “The world absolutely must find and use new policies and new information that do work to foster self-generating, self-sustaining, self-developing and self-respecting economic effort.” 4 But some people have used this to denigrate the social safety net, promote social Darwinism, and accelerate our regression to a more brutal class structure. Indeed, Jacobs appears to be deliberately indifferent to the fact that class is often a mechanism of exclusion and oppression in a world where technical advances and hyper-efficiency excludes millions of able-bodied people from paid work. One perceptive critic agreed with her anti-government views but deplored her faith in the free market, explaining that “trust in the invisible hand of classical capitalism is misplaced in the ‘post-industrial’ society; [but her] insistence upon defending eccentric man against concentric bureaucracy is excellent.” 5

In her 1992 work, Systems of Survival, she examines the current state of our economic and political mores through the form of a Socratic dialogue. She describes two syndromes or groups of perceptible behaviour, qualities and conditions that characterize the practice of viable commercial and political life. Commercial people are traders, and political professionals are guardians. The two groups share many “universal” values in common, but differ widely in the much the same ways that traditional bourgeois virtues differ from the heroic qualities of those who command political power.

If the traders and guardians collaborate they are always in danger of constellating what Jacobs calls monstrous moral hybrids. Agencies like the World Bank or Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., with the hybrid mandate of investing on behalf of taxpayers in the competitive marketplace, pervert business and waste huge sums of tax money, throwing good money after bad.

Through the lense of Systems of Survival, it becomes clear that many transnationals themselves are also monstrous moral hybrids. They reveal themselves in pushing through the GATT, removing the teeth of enforcement from the Rio Summit on the Environment, and lobbying for the creation of World Trade Organization (WTO) to defend GATT against local and national challenges. Their behaviour shows what happens when greed and impunity turn honest traders into global raiders.

The problem is defined succinctly by Susan George, director of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam in her description of the agenda of the men who gather in Davos, Switzerland once a year for the World Economic Forum:
‘A’ccess to influence politicians
‘V’ictory of the free market
‘O’pacity to conceal their agenda
‘S’overeignty of the corporation
We have entered the age of tornado capitalism, where vast wealth and technological prowess allow unscrupulous companies to move into a local economy and ecosystem, extract resources and labour, and leave the place shattered and bleeding without liability for their actions.6 The trouble is that transnationals are major economic and therefore political actors led by people who are unelected and unaccountable. The issue is transparency; the exercise of hidden power is not legitimate. This is a critique of corporate behaviour and corporate-driven globalization, not corporations in general.

It’s not just a new colonialism, because local elites enable it and profit from it. They ensure the impunity of transnational excess through political corruption and state violence when necessary, establishing a new breed of corporate security state. Every country has its own emergent nouveau oligarchy of Wabenzis* (a term coined in Africa for those who achieve material wealth, symbolized by the Mercedes Benz, at the expense of their impoverished countrymen).

This late in the game, it is apparent that the globalizers are impervious optimists from a certain perspective, and we must try to understand why. I think that many people in the World Bank, the WTO, the institutions and corporations that benefit from them, the Davos and Trilateral Commission men actually want to do the right thing and, like Pollyanna, they see the world through coloured glasses (perhaps tinted money-green, not rose). They believe that globalization is for the common good, for the prosperity of humankind, and they believe that all environmental problems can be solved by human ingenuity without any limits governing techno-hubris, the pace and process of non-renewable resource extraction, or the like-it-or-not marketing and feeding of excess human appetite for consumer goods. Their sentiments are reflected in the editorial voice of The Economist and Forbes magazine: denial of the limits to growth; contempt for “small is beautiful”; disdain (against common sense) for the rights of sovereign regional entitities to defend local commerce, to enable import replacement, to protect the social safety net or local ecosystems, etc. All this is characterized as “nationalistic humanism.”

The rules, terms and conditions of doing business everywhere, say these unelected legislators, should henceforth be determined mainly by the commercial actors themselves, co-opting government policy or over-ruling it with international instruments of their own making. Thus the government of Thailand was recently forced by the transnational hybrid guardian, the WTO, to drop barriers against US tobacco despite the toxic impact that Marlboro marketing will have on Thai public health.

“Providing for the disadvantaged is no longer a priority for governments which now struggle instead to attract investment and create suitable ‘enabling’ environments for business.” 7 Both governments (guardians) and corporations (traders) should know better. This is precisely the wrong long-term strategy for economic health, since social capital is highest where the social safety net has been in place longest (Canada, much of Northern Europe). A local populace enjoying high standards of education and health, generating commercial activity and innovation, supported by a good infrastructure, generating a rich tax base to pay for it, etc.—that holistic/web/systems thing again! Crime can be a cause of poverty and unemployment, rather than the other way around. Why? Because crime drives away honest business and stifles open trade. There goes the neighborhood. Jacobs observes that “viable commerce hangs from a gossamer web of morality and trust.” 8

Jacobs traces the roots of commercial aversion to any recognition of rights without power. It is grounded, she reasons, in the ancient tradition that individual rights are not ‘given’. The commercial system we have inherited does not recognize rights apart from duties, status and power. This is the origin of both government and corporate resistance to all efforts to link human rights or ecosystem integrity to commerce. This is where Jean Chrétien was coming from when, at the recent APEC summit in Vancouver, he was asked to comment on police use of pepper spray against human rights activists. Rather than show any respect for the protesters’ solidarity with the victims of Chinese and Indonesian state violence, he dismissed the question. “Me, I put pepper on my plate. Next!” According to Jacobs’ thesis, individual rights were a by-product of the emergence of commercial law among European merchants. Governments and economic oligarchies have always been frightened by them, so we should not be surprised when they respond viciously to individuals in Tienamen Square or elsewhere. We now begin to discern the features of the fully evolved monstrous moral hybrid, the corporate security state.

One of her most controversial ideas has profound implications for international development. It is an insight into what has been called the “lords of poverty” syndrome. She says that ongoing subsidies to poor regions tend to stifle local impulses to primary creation, locally appropriate innovation, and local trade. She also suggests that the promotion of trade between industrialized countries and the less developed countries is harmful for both sides, again because it fosters co-dependency, and because the poor nation is discouraged from engaging in the key creative activity of a regenerative economy: import replacement. Local economies dominated by imported goods are poor in joie de vivre as well as productive diversity. Jacobs gets at this when she says playfully that “every great city should have at least one, preferably quite a few candy factories.”9 A city thrives when it maintains the capacity to absorb the skills to replace imports with its own factories and workshops, and uses its profits to acquire new lines of imports.

The globalizers who lean on Jacobs are half right, but only through an error of omission. They leave out the critical essence of the urban regional organism that Jacobs’s vision has revealed to us, its immune system: local democracy. Like all organisms a city stays vital through the vigilance of its immune system, and in the city the white blood cells are engaged citizens. This vigorous organism with its life force of private enterprise, free trade, competition and innovation needs a healthy and unrestrained civil society, not the drugs of government and corporate policies aimed at weakening citizen politics.

Jacobs is fond of saying that she has no patience with ideology. “I’m kind of an atheist about ideology” she says. “As for being a rightist or a leftist, it doesn’t make any sense to me. I think ideologies are blinders.”10 Many of us are tired of the dialectic of left wing and right wing. Both sides claim the moral high ground, and apparently both sides claim Jacobs. Jacobs, however, isn’t interested in endorsing any ideological wing. She stands where she lives, on urban ground in a particular city-region with her fellow citizens. She invites honest business people and honorable public servants to stand down there with her, and to practice their trades in the context of local democracy, in a democratized economy.

Jacobs is a gardener and very fond of ecological images to explain socio-economic phenomena. Here is one she might enjoy. If there is an analogy between ecosystems and human socio-economic life—social ecology—then many transnationals act like the lovely purple loosestrife plant that strangles wetlands, the migrating cute opossums that are decimating Ontario songbirds populations by raiding their nests, the exotic zebra mussels that compete in the Great Lakes food chain and sabotage our watersheds, and African “killer” bees that attack local honey-bee populations. They are tenacious, hardy, highly competitive and highly adaptive non-native species. Their behavior demonstrates that their reason for being is to conquer new habitat, take over all the resources that they require, starve or deliberately prey on local species that get in their way, and permanently alter the quality of life in the new habitat to serve their needs. In short, Coca-colonization here, tornado capitalism there. Marlboro in Thailand, Shell in Nigeria, Union Carbide in India, Disney everywhere.

Her focus on the particular evidence of why things happen organically appears to be somewhat inadequate to explain the actions of transnationals who are rapidly achieving an immunity and impunity above local law and beyond the reach of local civic action. This is particularly evident in Systems of Survival when the question of child labour and other exploitive labour is raised. Jacobs’ persona, the interdisciplinary biologist, says that both “are obsolete in commercially advanced societies.”11 This is not true, as any educated consumer of oriental carpets and embroidered haute couture garments made in Asia knows. Small fingers for the fine work, they say. The suffering has been displaced offshore, and the levels and variety of abuse are on the increase in the context of transnationals’ relentless demand for cheap labour. Jacobs’ optimistic view of honest trade suffers from an apparent lack of interest in the invisible exploitation of people and resources in far-off places, both in her silent indifference to the imperialist abuses of nations, and in her benign view of modern-day international commerce.

Much of the transition called globalization has taken place in the short span of the last 20 years. This has been the period of agressive reorganization of the transnational trade and production system. It has also been a period in which new links have been forged between some transnationals and some governments. Resource control has shifted radically in this period, so that today the private financial sector controls more capital than nation states. In 1990, $468 billion in investments were held by central banks, $700 million were in capital markets. By 1993 $550 billion were held by the banks, and $42 trillion moved through capital markets! 12 Astronomical sums of virtual money are on the move. Completely divorced from systems of production, this “economic epidemic” has enormous destabalizing impact on regional societies and economies as the recent market crash in Asia demonstrates. To continue the biological analogy one step further, currency speculators are the AIDS virus of local economies. We now have extremely expensive drugs treatment that can manage the disease for those countries that can afford it, but the infection is chronic.

What to do about globalization? Clearly, laissez-faire optimism is inadequate unless strong local governance protects itself. But how can local governance participate in global decision-making, even as those decisions profoundly weaken its ability to respond effectively to the predations of transnationals? Can local government buck the judgments of the WTO and counteract the ascent of global techno-feudalism?

The ‘G’ word is used as a scapegoat by governments and institutions to refer to inevitable conditions and processes “beyond our control.” This is false consciousness. It may take longer than 20 years to undo the damage, and reversal is not an option. But local economies can rebuild their defenses and local governments can be agents of regenerative change.

Jane Jacobs is an advocate of localism, citizen action, bottom-up governance, regionalism, citizen stewardship, small-scale community economic development, socio-economic diversity, class integration, harmony, inclusion and tolerance. She repeatedly affirms the need for transparency of purpose and action in all processes involving the appropriation or exercise of power over people, neighborhoods, land, resources and ecosystems, either by government or private enterprise, and above all when the two are in unholy alliance. The entrepreneurial spirit and trader syndrome are actually quite compatible with this framework. If these conditions are respected by both transnational traders and supra-regional nation-states, the free flow of goods and services called “globalization” is viable, sustainable, and healthy. But it is a massive ‘IF’, big enough to drive a border-crossing toxic waste truck through.

A key part of the solution is for both the guardians and the traders to foster the growth of small local enterprises. Policies that facilitate aggressive investment in local economies are of the essence.

Local democracy is bottom-up politics. It needs political culture on a local and regional scale that ensures real accountability of elected authorities to citizens. What is necessary with respect to globalization is that elected authorities in real local democracy are accountable for what they allow corporations to do (or get away with) in that place. This is what is meant by democratizing economies. The force that drives it is what Jane Jacobs’ friend Ursula Franklin calls “citizen politics” in contrast to party politics. “Citizens taking part in such activities assume that governance is legitimate and necessary. They do not organize to overthrow government as an institution but to improve it, whether those in power like it or not. Thus ‘good government’ is the overall purpose of citizen politics, and specific issues become the occasions for involvement and critique. Good government is defined in its civic context: It must result in fair, just, accountable and transparent practices.”13

There is a lot of talk about the antidote for globalization being local empowerment and grassroots democracy, but the majority of voters don’t vote, and there is a lot of apathy. And the people who do stand up to be counted usually do that in reaction to something they are against. This is legitimate, there is much to protest, but is empowerment only the power to negate? The challenge for civic leaders is to inspire people so that they experience empowerment as the power to create good governance.

Another major force for transformation is for citizens’ groups to work with the private sector to achieve transformation through cooperation. The power to counteract abusive corporate power lies partly with decent, responsible corporations. It is certainly easy to deplore the anti-democratic arrogance of the WTO, the World Bank and many transnational pirates, but it is counter-productive to tar all corporations with the same brush. Critics can “speak the truth to power,” but it is perhaps more effective to find nodes of power that are sympathetic, work with them and therefore win a place at the table with power. This involves, for example, finding the corporations and CEO’s who have demonstrated a commitment to systemic change, such as those that have signed and endorsed the Natural Step principles for ecological commerce promoted by US green business guru Paul Hawken. 14

The DAVOS mentality wants everyone to be against everyone else in a Hobbesian world driven by greed and fear of scarcity. In response, citizen politics can exemplify a more humane way, by engaging in the struggle of each for all.

In a recent speech in Toronto, MP David McDonald talked about the necessary evolution of the language behind globalization. We have the notions of sustainable development of the magical regenerative properties of civil society; we must now strive toward the “moral economy” grounded in “international democracy.” But first we need to figure out what that might look like. The answer will emerge over the coming years through conflict. Naked abuses of power in the name of prosperity and free trade are provoking a groundswell of politicized peoples. As William Blake said in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “Without contraries there can be no progression.” Welcome conflict, because it produces the friction essential for creative change.

Jacobs’ alter ego character in Systems of Survival, the interdisciplinary biologist, expresses the wisdom that warns us not to project any moral formulas onto her: “[T]ruth is made up of many bits and pieces of reality. the flux and change itself is of the essence. Change is so major a truth that we understand process to be the essence of things.” Jacobs says that the most exciting thing in our times is the move from linear cause-and-effect thinking to a web way of thinking, led by ecologists. It can be an extremely hopeful stage in history. Of course, it is the ecosystem approach that also helps us to see the connective patterns that facilitate abuse of power in globalization.

Tinged with a sense of mischief rather than bitterness, Jacobs is pessimistic about change from within. She insists that you can’t legislate to change the behaviour of established firms and institutions. Any legal compulsion will be resisted systematically if only through the hard-wired habits of corporate culture. Compulsion doesn’t provoke learning, and institutions don’t learn well. It works much better to grow new institutions that can innovate and demonstrate how to work differently. You have to create new ones.

Christopher Lowry is a founding director of a number of businesses and non-profit organizations. Most recently he was Director of Educational Media for Street Kids International in Toronto.


1 John Barber, “Jacobs embraced as economic guru,” Toronto Globe and Mail, Oct. 15 1997.

2 James Cook, “A Conversation with Jane Jacobs,” from Forbes magazine, in Max Allen, ed., Ideas That Matter: The Worlds of Jane Jacobs. Owen Sound: The Ginger Press, 1997.

3 conversation video #1, JJ in conversation with Ann Medina GET TAPE TO WRITE THIS REF.

4 Jane Jacobs, “Encyclopedia Brittanica Awards statement,” in Max Allen, ed., Ideas That Matter: The Worlds of Jane Jacobs. Owen Sound: The Ginger Press, 1997.

5 Michael Harrington, “Review of the Economy of Cities,” from The Village Voice, in Max Allen, ed., Ideas That Matter: The Worlds of Jane Jacobs. Owen Sound: The Ginger Press, 1997.

6 Susan George, Plenary presentation at the Teach-In on Globalization, University of Toronto, November 17, 1997.

7 Daryl Copeland, “Globalization and the Canadian Prospect,” Behind The Headlines, Vol. ? No. ? etc. {ed.: REF details please}

8 Jane Jacobs, Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics. New York: Random House, 1992.

9 conversation video #3, JJ in conversation with Peter Czowski GET TAPE TO WRITE THIS REF.

10 Susan Brownmiller, “Jane Jacobs,” from Vogue, in Max Allen, ed., Ideas That Matter: The Worlds of Jane Jacobs. Owen Sound: The Ginger Press, 1997.

11 Jane Jacobs, op. cit.

12 Jorge Wilhelm, “Cities: Challenges of the South,” presentation at the Ideas That Matter conference, Toronto Oct. 17, 1997.

13 Ursula M. Franklin, “Citizen Politics—New Dimensions to Old Problems,” in Max Allen, ed., Ideas That Matter: The Worlds of Jane Jacobs. Owen Sound: The Ginger Press, 1997.

14 Paul Hawken, “Taking the Natural Step,” In Context, No. 41, Summer 1995.

Photo Captions:

The famous zodiac clock above Piazza San Marco reminds us that time is running out for many of the world’s cities to reverse the process of decline. In its heyday, Venice was one of the great wealth-generating city states of all time and today it stands as a model of innovative, car-free inhabitation.

[subject: marching band in green uniforms]
Waiting for the parade in the midday sun. Will these citizens of Bombay ever reap the promised benefits of globalization?

[subject: aerial shots of city]
Highrise megalopolis: São Paolo, Brazil is a commercial powerhouse but fails the “liveable city” test. The urban masses cope remarkably well with shantytown squalor, but local democracy as we know it is a foreign luxury.

[shot of traffic nightmare Bangkok]
Unlike Venice, the canals of Bangkok became freeways. The gridlock is now so bad that taxi drivers are trained to deliver babies, and many carry port-o-potties in their trunks. Like other dynamos of the Asian economic “miracle” such as Kuala Lumpur, it is and urban nightmare.

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