Cities of the Earth. Rebuilding the Institutions of the Common

Medusa. Tepalcingo, Morelos. March 2023. Photo: Mario Olarte

Jaime Torres Guillén

We need to better understand what we call earth. Not the planet but the soil, the terroir, the territory or place where our roots are. The earth is not only a matter of peasant life, of what they call “agricultural zones” or indigenous communities; the earth is always linked to a job, neighborhood, belief, ways of eating, coexistence, kinship or peoples, always open to what is different. As Karl Polanyi once said: “What we call earth is an element of nature inextricably linked to human institutions.” With the emergence of capitalism into our lives we have lost the earth and the institutions that were built around it.

For centuries the organization of capitalist society left millions of people without land and consequently not only deprived us of producing our food, but also dislocated all the normative institutions of the common. Our separation from the soil came from its commercialization and modern agriculture. Millions of us became an industrial population. It was a forced integration that today keeps the survival of the human species in suspense and other animal species at risk.

In effect, the industrial mentality and its practices destroyed what Polanyi called the roots of pre-capitalist societies, which were nothing more than the institutions of trust, mutual understanding and communal legality. This is how industrial populations were born, sheltered by that mentality of maximizing individual profits to sell the fallacy of making everyone rich through the free passage of goods and services.

Uprooting was the key to the emergence of the so-called market economy, whether in 18th century England or in the conquest of what we now call Latin America. That is the reason for the current dislocation of global society. In this capitalist society there are no cultural or normative institutions that help people defend themselves from uprooting. That is why crime, violence, the destruction of lakes and rivers, the indiscriminate felling of forests, the inability to produce food, and various hints of fascism resurface. In that society, people are always in danger because they are not able to recognize themselves in the strange world of capital; there is no morality in it, no human relationship of communion, solidarity and reciprocity. There is no common because the ideologues of modernity have convinced us that we no longer live on earth.

This is our challenge of the 21st century: recovering the earth. But to advance this political and moral task we also need to better understand the city. This should not be confused with today’s metropolises or conurbations. The city designates a type of place where diverse mentalities and practices coexist. It is a place built from openness and the encounter with the most diverse ways in which people want to live. The city is the horizon of the possible, not of planning. Against the heirs of Le Corbusier and the ecological evolutionism of the old urban sociology, we would have to understand the city as a place whose spatial dimension is interconnected with other population centers capable of creating diverse forms of life.

Cities are not biological organisms, but places where human history is made. So it is built by the people, hence there is always dispute in it. When speculators or governments say they build urban spaces for people it is because they are incapable of thinking of the city as the universe of possibilities. Therefore, their unimaginative fantasies are limited to relating city with metropolis or industry. That is why they believe that the models of the so-called “industrial city” created in Essen, Germany; Coal Creek, Tennessee; Butte, Montana; Hershey, Pennsylvania; Pemex City, Tabasco; or El Salto, Jalisco, are cities in the sense that I designate here. They are not. Currently inspired by the ideology of the “global city”, the real estate mafia builds blocks, walls and fences to disconnect the social life of the city. They create privileged urban centers and with them borders, which not only erase all social connection with nature and built culture, but also build residential complexes in terms of race and class.

In reality, with these models the political and moral notion of the city undergoes a mutation and the various forms of life are degraded by the suffocation generated by industrialism. From its birth, modern industrialism depended on the land. Hence the current offensive by agribusiness to monopolize it, including its water, and impose food regimes. With their offensive, not only are the peasants uprooted and exploited, they are also turned into migrant day laborers. But the agroindustrial offensive, in regulatory terms, is a disaster. Its vaunted innovations do not reach the environmental consequences it leaves everywhere.

Since 1940, agribusiness pesticides have been increasing. Rachel Carson warned us about this in the 1960s. The permission of DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) would trigger the irrational taste for toxins. Thus, the sense of proportion was destroyed in the face of the industrial mentality and a war against everything living began, spraying poison throughout fields, homes, buildings and gardens, condemning human and non-human animals to all types of diseases. If there are residues of chlorinated hydrocarbons, mercury and organophosphates in food, in our homes there is PVC (polyvinyl chloride) that causes lymphomas, liver cancer, lung cancer, leukemia, cirrhosis… also perfluorinated compounds that damage the kidneys and liver… those that are in popcorn bags and Teflon pans.

In the face of these facts we remain passive because the ideologues of progress insist that we no longer live on the earth. They present us with a sterilized, hygienic and hyper-technological world that increases our comfort at the cost of destroying biodiversity. However, despite being harangued every day about this post-industrial, post-human or landless world, we continue to depend on it. We still need to eat. In fact, today’s metropolises are big hungry monsters. It should not surprise us that the food issue is one of the challenges that states and ordinary people face today. Food is a question of the earth, but our weak will to live ignores it because we confuse the city with the bourgeois parasitism that divides human spatiality into rural and urban areas.

It is for this reason that we conceptualize the cities of the earth. It is not because of mere idealism, it is because in reality these have been present in recent history, whether in the form of theory or in practice. Glimpses of these appear in the stories of the 19th century socialists and in some of their experiments such as phalansteries, family gardens and urban crops. In the 20th century they are in the British war gardens, the Madrid plots, the community gardens in New York, urban agriculture in Havana and Detroit, the garden movement in Argentina and Mexico.

And it is convenient to conceptualize the idea of cities on earth because it refers to the moral institutions of ordinary people. For centuries this idea has been defended against uprooting. It has done so through subsistence riots, normative demands of custom, and peasant insurrections. It could well be said that he has defended the earth, that is, the institutions of the commons. So an urgent practice to recover the earth would be to rebuild these institutions in the city. If the city designates a place built from the open and the encounter with the most diverse ways in which people want to live, the common fits into it. And what is the common? The way of life without the right to ownership of the land, the soil, the territory, the terroir or the place where sociality is maintained between humans and those with non-human life.

It must be said clearly, the common is not public things, nor common properties, but the set of human relationships exempt from the domain of vital things. The common is the way of life without the right to ownership of the things necessary to make the city. Therefore, it is not co-ownership, co-property or co-possession. So the common is only in social practices that start from the idea of what is inappropriable. Institutions are created with the common because it is the result of the work of people who establish shared ways of living that are not exempt from conflict or tension. With the common life is discovered without property, that is, without the control of things, and the notion of inappropriability appears to understand the use of things. Use is a relationship with the world as unappropriatable, it generates an ethos and enables institutions as a way of life founded on rootedness always open to otherness. Therefore, it is not a right that arises from the practices of the common, but rather an experience of discovery: a relationship with the world as unappropriated.

Well, with the institutions of the commons, cities on earth or livable places could be generalized even on a large scale, as long as there is openness to what is different, porous, unfinished, uncertain and communicable face to face. This way we could understand the city and even enjoy it. It would be legible because we would orient ourselves in its territories created and recreated in people’s daily lives. The notion of cities on earth refers to that. To fight against uprooting through common institutions.

Original article published in Suplemento Ojarasca of La Jornada.
Translated by Schools for Chiapas.

Want to receive our weekly blog digest in your inbox?

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Shopping Cart
Scroll to Top