the more things change…

I am currently reading Washington Square (Henry James) with students and had one of those “this time on steroids” moments. From the opening paragraph, “In a country in which, to play a social part, you must either earn your income or make believe that you earn it, the healing art has appeared in a high degree to combine two recognised sources of credit. It belongs to the realm of the practical, which in the United States is a great recommendation; and it is touched by the light of science–a merit appreciated in a community in which the love of knowledge has not always been accompanied by leisure and opportunity.” It’s Shenzhen. Only in contrast to 1840s NYC, in millennial Shenzhen, students are encouraged to learn math and become engineers or accountants, rather than doctors.

We know this story. Most migrants come to The City from poor rural farms to make their fortune, but they may also have come from less vibrant small towns; these migrants have created their world and are proud of what they have made; they believe in taking advantage of opportunity; they believe themselves to be more forward-thinking than hometown people (and indeed they may actually be); they expect their children to do better.

In fact, folks in Shenzhen constantly remind me that the city is an immigrant city, but I often forget how similar its history is to NYC, albeit on steroids, 250 years later. Or London. Or Chicago. Or LA. Or Mumbai. The story of capitalist urbanization has been a story of the transformation of rural migrants into the urban proletariat and the expansion and relative enrichment of the capitalist class – wealth sucks up, even if there’s more stuff and fewer trees than there once were. Just the other day, an American passing through Shenzhen told me that what America needed was an infusion of good ole fashioned immigrant hunger. “Just look,” he said pointing out at Shenzhen, “how well it’s working here.”

In the Eighteenth Brumaire Marx notes, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

And there’s the rub. Now that we’re well beyond farce, what do we call global urbanization?

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