Magazine article Behind the Headlines

Jane Jacobs: Prophet of Globalization? Yes, but with a (Local) Human Face

Magazine article Behind the Headlines

Jane Jacobs: Prophet of Globalization? Yes, but with a (Local) Human Face

Article excerpt

What do amalgamation in the Greater Toronto Area and an ecosystem approach to international affairs have in common? Unfortunately, very little. But there is much scope for bringing global perspectives to bear on local issues.

During a recent conference in Toronto which celebrated the ideas of Jane Jacobs, 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? Not the Jane Jacobs I know.

Yet as I reflected more deeply on John Barber's article, then attended the `Jane Jacobs-Ideas That Matter' gathering (15-18 October 1997) and drank more of the heady elixir of Jacobs' own pungent prose and reviewed some of the crackling debates she has provoked, I began to come around to the conclusion that, well, yes! She is our best prophet of globalization. But not necessarily for the reasons that the Globe and Mail, mainstream economists, or some members of the Business Council on National Issues might have us believe.

Its promoters see globalization as an inevitable march toward a rosy future where everybody wins, where we all share the wealth trickling down from transnational corporate activities. The globalists find support for their views in Jacobs' anti-bureaucratic, anti-nationalist, anti-stupidity, bootstraps vision of economic development. Her provocative pronouncements - `I hate the government making my life absurd,' (2) - make it easy to ignore the fact that she favours reasonable governance, not necessarily the 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)

I believe that Jacobs is essentially a champion of the relentless struggle for good governance against wasteful, inflated power-mongering. Nevertheless, her model of organic urban growth, of cities as wealth generators limited mainly by the ill-conceived ambitions of politicians and grand-scale planning, can be and is being used in service of the deregulating distemper of our times. The following passage is typical of what has inspired the bootstrappers, appealing equally to neo-liberals and neo-conservatives whose ideas seem to intersect in the thoughts of Jane Jacobs: `The world absolutely must find and use new policies and new information that work to foster self-generating, self-sustaining, self-developing and self-respecting economic effort.' (4) Such rhetoric has been appropriated by those seeking - though not necessarily explicitly - to denigrate the social safety net and promote social Darwinism, a combination which serves to accelerate the regression towards a more polarized social structure featuring a permanent and growing underclass.

Jacobs appears curiously indifferent to the human costs exacted by a world in which relentless technical advance and hyper-efficiency have excluded millions of able-bodied people from paid work. It is not surprising, therefore, that some critics agree with her anti-government views but deplore her faith in the free market. "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, Jacobs examined the current state of economic and political mores through the template of a Socratic dialogue. She described two syndromes - clusters of perceptible behaviour, traits, and conditions - which typify viable commercial and political life. Those engaged in commerce are `traders,' and political professionals are `guardians.' Both share many values in common, but differ in much the same way that middle-class virtues differ from the qualities of those who wield military or political power.

Jacobs is concerned with the results of collaboration between traders and guardians which tend to produce `monstrous moral hybrids. …

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