The Progressive Urban Consumption Complex

By Danny Mayer

June Featured Essay

One of the effects of a globalized world, geographer David Harvey has observed, is a more localized world centered around cities and their regions. In the U.S., the rise of city-regions has unsettled older assumptions of red-state conservatism competing against blue-state liberalism. It may be more accurate now to describe prosperous blue belts of urban progressivism surrounded by receding red seas of rural libertarianism. This transformation has enabled new centers of power that—if you are left-leaning like me—should herald a more fair, just, and culturally interesting world. Except that it hasn’t. This four-part series asks why that is.


The urban world

At some point in the years leading up to 2010, most likely around the time of Barack Obama’s historic campaign for the presidency of the United States, the world passed a significant threshold: for the first time in human history, urban population exceeded rural population. While the twentieth century may get written as the “American Century” of global power, as early as 2001 former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan had already fingered the next era as the “urban millennium.”

Annan’s statement cuts two ways. In the global south, where cities in Latin America, Africa, and Asia have experienced massive rural-to-urban demographic transformations, development has meant population increases so rapid as to outstrip agreed-upon dynamics of urban growth. In cities such as Dehli, India, which increased in population from 1.4 million citizens in 1950 to 14 million in 2000, growth has subsumed formerly outlying villages and made irrelevant traditional distinctions between city center and periphery. In cities like Nigeria’s Lagos, which grew from 300,000 residents in 1950 to 13.4 million in 2004, the assumed laws of economic attraction broke down: people arrived in waves even as the city experienced economic contraction.1

These new urban agglomerations—part city and part country—have led to the development of a new language. There are peri-urban areas, mega-cities, hypercities, extended metropolitan regions, desakotas (“city villages”), and the Zwischenstadt (“in-between cities”). Staid terms like suburbanization and urbanization have given way to new descriptions like favelization and overurbanization.

For cities of the global north, urbanization has unfolded somewhat differently. Here in the United States, a formerly industrious nation of railway lines that is now a nation of freeways, that urban threshold occurred much earlier, sometime between World War I and the Great Depression.2 After reaching this tipping point, American urbanization continued throughout the four decades of the Cold War as an orderly demographic and economic suburbanization. It was a conscious and subsidized departure from cities and resettlement into nearby hacked-up farmland, a process known in real estate terms alternately as greenfield development or upzoning.3

While it is true that Cold War suburbanization de-centralized American cities, it also built up the countryside. Economically and demographically speaking, the fields, plains, and woodlots that became the Toyota factories, Levittown neighborhoods, and Malls of America were not so far removed from their colonial Doctrine of Discovery days.4 At its outer extremities, the landscape produced from this clash of development eras now has its own name, the exurbs. And while the nomenclature may be relatively new and the landscape to which it refers relatively unique to our historical moment, Cold War exurban development continues a long American tradition that stretches from Brooklyn and Harvard to Hollywood and the Haight.

As it has played out in the United States, the urban millennium has been marked by a densification of exurbia and a smaller counter-movement back into city centers and their recently patina’d inner-ring suburbs. The most recent census, 2010, reported that eighty percent of Americans were living in areas defined as urban, most in cities of 50,000 or more inhabitants, with more expected to join them. Though cities never completely lost their role as cultural bellwethers, the increasing number of jobs being created in cities has meant that they have re-asserted their position as centers of economic and political power.

"Here We Are Now, Entertain Us" by Brian Connors Manke
“Here We Are Now, Entertain Us” by Brian Connors Manke

The two geographies of the urban millennium, the gentrifying global north and the slumming global south, are not often thought of as connected entities, though their fortunes are inherently entwined. America’s urban millennium has arisen from the ashheaps of offshored factory production that decimated neighborhoods and left large vacancies inside and around American cities. Closed factories have also foretold the broader transformation of the U.S. economy from national production to global consumption, which has shifted job growth away from manufacturing and into service industries (finance, insurance, real estate, hospitality, education, media, healthcare).5

Unlike dirty and blue-collar manufacturing, which nearly always exist on the margins of a community and require significant space and capital to establish, white-collar service sector economies generally require greater centralization and less square-footage—not to mention a more costly education and greater networking capabilities. As these economies have surged in the midst of offshoring, they have capitalized on the previous 30 to 40 years of disinvestment that left cities cheap, affordable, a good bargain. If farmland development was the key driver of Cold War suburbanism, it is the re-development of vacated factory buildings and foreclosed inner city minority neighborhoods that have spurred the American urban millennium.

Offshored jobs and factories have also provided the push and pull for rural populations of the global south to coalesce around mega-cities. Free trade agreements and World Bank (and other) loans have opened much of the global south to highly subsidized American farm products, undercutting these countries’ traditional agricultural economies. Residents of rural communities have had to chase jobs in the growing cities, where the same trade agreements and bank loans have aided the construction of new factories, most of which lack environmental, labor, and wage regulations that had developed over the previous century in the global north. From MRI machines and water faucets to Nikes and iPhones, the ever-increasing trinkets that circulate throughout the urban American landscape emanate from the growing city-edges of the global south.

From the MIC to the PUCC

Speaking in 1960 at the end of his term in office, Dwight Eisenhower warned of a powerful conflagration of ascendant actors on the American scene: the military-industrial complex (MIC), which, left unchecked, would undermine national values and interests. Eisenhower, a five-star general who served in World Wars I and II, was no enemy of the military. Nor, as an elected president of the United States, was he a particular foe of big industry. His warning was delivered as an insider and supporter of both the military and industrialism. Eisenhower’s critique was one of surfeit and lost balance, of an overextension of the nation’s global military and industrial might, which since World War II had become much-celebrated cornerstones of national greatness.

The military-industrial complex is really a recognition of American imperialism, the stubborn national habit of shitting on actors across the globe in the name of American interests. During the Cold War era, these interests generally destabilized the countrysides of the global south, preparing the way for the coming global age of the city. In military zones of both the U.S. and its proxies, aerial bombs, landmines, ground troops, Agent Orange, and other unpeacable implements unsettled largely rural populations, producing what amounted to a first wave of rural depopulation as millions of residents left their home villages and traveled to the cities in search of safety and work.6 In the United States, the military-industrial complex built the highways, boosted industry, sent soldiers to college, and underwrote research—which is to say that it undergirded the conditions for suburban development.

We still organize our economy to facilitate beating the shit out of numerous people across this wide world, but in the half-century since Eisenhower’s warning, there has been a shift in ascendant actors and actions. In this age of the city, we might now identify a progressive urban consumption complex (PUCC) that has arisen on the American scene and stands perched to operate, like the military-industrial complex during the Cold War years, as the growth-machine of our era. This new complex is a designation that reflects a privileged group of actors, a location, and a process.

The PUCC helps explain a conundrum of America’s urban millennium. As we have reinvested in American cities, a real estate process known un-ironically as brownfield development, they have become on the whole more segregated, more white, more exclusive. The kinds of ethnic, racial, and economic diversity traditionally associated with cities now increasingly define the formerly white suburbs.

Like the military-industrial complex, the PUCC, is not all-encompassing. But it does capture an inherent tension of the urban millennium, at least as it is playing out in a developed nation in the global north. As with Eisenhower’s relationship to the military-industrial complex, I too hold and exemplify many of the values of the progressive urban consumption complex. When I speak of the PUCC, I am also speaking of myself, my friends, many of my neighbors, some of my co-workers, most of my leaders.

Editor’s note: in the next installment of this series, Danny puts political “progressives” under the microscope and finds they aren’t what they seem to be. Stay tuned.

Editor: Beth Connors-Manke

Copyediting by Jordan Wick

Featured Image: “Motel Satellite” by Brian Connors Manke