We’re not all Levantines yet—but perhaps we should be

This evocative article on the cultural and economic history of the Levant caught my interest, but left me a little dissatisfied. Firstly, it reads like the first half of a better, longer article. After supplying a lot of background for his contention—that we are all Levantines now—Mensel states it quite abruptly, and addresses its implications and ramifications not at all.

That’s a shame, because I find it quite plausible, and in fact I think Jane Jacobs might have agreed. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she argues that cities and their respective hinterlands are natural economic units, and that countries with multiple urban centres are not. The main reason is currency valuation—when exchange rates can vary, investment in different economic units can reflect their relative efficiency in different kinds of production. When you have many economic units (in her view, cities) using the same currency, their differing efficiencies can produce no shift in exchange rate, and hence no shift in investment.

(Mark Rosenfelder offers a nice summary of Jacobs’ argument on Zompist)

Having elaborated in this point quite a bit, Jacobs leaves it aside with a quiet comment that she can see no solution to the problem. In fact I think she had a solution, but hesitated to propose it: return to city-states. You might still have nation-states, certainly, but currencies would be tied to particular cities and their hinterlands. At present this sounds radical and unworkable, and in fact I have no idea how to go about implementing it. There are local currencies, certainly, and I’m impressed by the quality of those who advocate them. How you’d expand those local currencies to replace the national currency locally, for large-scale investment as well as personal exchange, I have no idea.

Mansel’s evocation of Levantine life—the busy ferment of multicultural cities, the creativity of traders and business-people exchanging ideas and skills—sounds very much like the complex, messy, productive city life Jacobs praised in Death and Life. She’d have agreed with his view that open cities on the coast are inherently more likely to prosper than monolithic cities inland. I don’t know how we move on from the nation-state—there are lots of forces acting to weaken central governments, but many barriers to devolving their powers to cities. Still, to me the idea of economics focused on cities makes a lot of sense, and the cultural richness of cosmopolitan cities is undeniable. We may or may not be Levantines just yet, but from the point of view of this Vancouverite, we could do worse.

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4 Responses to We’re not all Levantines yet—but perhaps we should be

  1. Jonathan Sheps says:

    I think it is time to call Jane Jacobs out as utterly wrong on economics. Or at least history. The Rosenfelder summary of her views, I think, suffices to show this. He quotes Jacobs as she “describes the inability of Ireland to turn itself around after the disastrous famines of the 1840s:

    There were no ports to receive relief food… There were no mills for grinding relief grain. There were no mechanics or tools and equipment to build mills. There were no ovens for baking bread. There were no ways to spread information about how to grow crops other than potatoes. There was no way to distribute the seeds of other crops, nor to supply the farm tools that were indispensable for a change of crops…”

    And she goes on to claim that this absence of industry was created and maintained by the British. Now, while I agree that the famine was a product of British oppression, does her description of the (lack of ) Irish infrastructure above sound right to you? Wikipedia says, of Belfast at that time that “By the turn of the 19th century, Belfast had transformed into the largest linen producing centre in the world,[129] earning the nickname “Linenopolis”.
    Belfast harbour was dredged in 1845 to provide deeper berths for larger ships. Donegall Quay was built out into the river as the harbour was developed further and trade flourished. The Harland and Wolff shipbuilding firm was created in 1861, and by the time the Titanic was built, in 1912, it had become the largest shipyard in the world.”

    Jacobs’ argument seems to say that cities in depressed regions ought to have different currencies than cities in prosperous ones, which makes some sense, so for example Irish cities and British ones ought to have had different exchange rates, but her prime example (or at least Rosenfelder’s first choice from among her examples) ignores the existence of Irish cities at all, and really speaks only to a need for Donegal to have a different exchange rate than Belfast; which isn’t even a part of her model. Her fans read her as supporting an argument for the renewal of city states, but if anything her models argue for an international currency shared among cities, but differing from the countryside.. or would if Jacobs had anything other than contempt for the rural economy.

    • fourfoldway says:

      I think the example serves her point. Belfast was developed with plenty of English money, as it was largely a colonial city, not populated by the Irish especially. The rest of Ireland lacked all the things Jacobs mentions. The divide between industrial, Scots-English, Protestant Belfast, and the rest of agrarian, Catholic Ireland was established by late 17C, never mind mid-19C.

  2. Jonathan Sheps says:

    I think the answer serves her point only by undermining her premise. She, and you, with some justification see the Irish hinterland as not having any cities to call its own because the cities in Ireland at that time were really just British colonial enterprises. But if it were true “that cities and their respective hinterlands are natural economic units”, then this situation could not have arisen, or could only have done so at great economic cost to the British. Sure it cost a lot of English money to build Belfast, but the Irish famine didn’t cause the English to lose much money (or they would have done something about it). Instead we saw prosperous cities with no economic (or political, in this case) need to ameliorate the conditions of their own hinterlands; because the natural economic unit for Belfast includes Glasgow and London *but not* Galway. Cities trade mostly with one another, and the countryside, near or far, is a different world, and I think that’s been true since at least Roman times (with perhaps the notable exception of the early Middle Ages in Europe). The way I see it, it is only the political dominance of the hinterland that makes cities serve (at some real economic cost) the needs of their local rural populations. It will be interesting to see what a highly urbanized world does to the balance of power between urban and rural that has characterized the nation-state since its inception. We might move closer to Jacob’s vision of city-states, but only because the hinterlands that now join them up into states will have become so economically and demographically trivial that they stop providing the glue between metropolises. But even then I expect that the natural economic (and political) unit will probably remain ‘nation-states’ (maybe we will just call them sprawls) that encompass more or less all those cities that can be spanned in a single day by a high-speed rail network.

  3. Pingback: City States, Redux | Fourfoldway

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