The American Sage
A short while ago a Mexican journal asked me to write an essay on Lewis Mumford; which I did, and it just got published in Spanish translation. I thought you guys might want to read the English original. As follows:
Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) was one of those rare American geniuses whom almost no one paid attention to during his lifetime. The United States has a tradition of ignoring (or even ridiculing) those talented individuals who have been critical of its dominant culture—unbridled materialism and individualism—and who have offered an alternative to it, one that might be called spiritual and communitarian. Indeed, in my book Why America Failed, I argue that the reason America failed was that it consistently marginalized the representatives of the alternative tradition, from Capt. John Smith in 1616 to Emerson and Thoreau and Vance Packard and John Kenneth Galbraith down to President Jimmy Carter in 1979 (a number of congressmen believed Carter was actually insane). Lewis Mumford quite clearly belongs on this list, and most Americans who bothered to read him, during his lifetime, regarded his views as “precious” or “quaint”—well-intentioned, but out of sync with the real world. It should come as no surprise that by the end of his life Mumford, who began his career as a kind of “utopian realist,” had become a pessimist, and a fairly depressed one at that.
And yet, the remarkable thing is that when one reads his work today, one can’t help being struck by how sane it all is. To those who contend that Mumford’s ideas are irrelevant to the real world, I can only respond: “real” on whose definition? “Real” according to Goldman Sachs, whose goal is to amass trillions of dollars (to what end?)? “Real” according to Google, which seeks to digitalize and virtualize us out of (human, physical) existence? Mumford was not one of those who held that “progress” consisted of the latest gadget, the latest innovation, and he surely concurred with Octavio Paz, that we need to clarify what we mean by that word. If Mumford’s world view seems, at times, a bit medieval, we might want to remember that much was lost in the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity: craftsmanship, a deep appreciation of beauty, community, silence, and above all, a sense of spiritual purpose. It was this collection of values that Mumford stood for, and that he struggled to preserve or reintroduce into modern American life. His “failure” as a supposed fuddy-duddy or hopeless romantic was, to my mind—given the integrity of his work—a great success; America’s (material) “success” has proven to be, in the fullness of time, a colossal (human) failure.
What, then, was Mumford about? His career as a writer began in the context of the go-go capitalist era of the 1920s, with a book called The Story of Utopias,which criticized the Western utopian tradition as one-dimensional, projecting futures based purely on technological development. This was followed (in 1926) by The Golden Day, which took its theme not from the leading lights of the time, e.g. Henry Ford and Frederick Winslow Taylor, but from Oswald Spengler, whose Decline of the West argued that the northern urban culture of Europe was a “Faustian” world, characterized by bigness and rationality, eventually to be dominated by the soldier, the engineer, and the businessman—as America is today. This, said Spengler, marked the end of true civilization, and all that it could look forward to was fossilization and death. Mumford repeated this argument, but with an important twist: he believed the trajectory could be reversed, based on a revival of regional and organic life. A few years earlier, he helped found the Regional Planning Association of America, whose goal was to promote the “garden city” concept of the British town planner Ebenezer Howard. This emphasized limited-scale communities that would combine home and work in a single locale. These were not suburbs in the usual sense of the term; no commuting would be involved. (Mumford once described the American suburb as “a collective effort to live a private life.”) The towns would be surrounded by farmland and forests, and be community owned. As opposed to the dominant culture, that of hustling and the acquisitive life, these centers would promote the good life, which he said “means the birth and nurture of children, the preservation of human health and well being, the culture of the human personality, and the perfection of the natural and civic environment as the theater of all of these activities.” People would enjoy a sense of belonging, a relationship to nature, and be able to pursue meaningful work.
If all of this sounds utopian, it is important to note that such a community actually got built (in 1928), Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, designed for workers and the lower-middle class. It still exists, after a fashion. The houses are small, and front inward, toward a common green area. It still retains a village atmosphere, and constituted a real break with the model of commercial real estate development. Mumford lived there for a number of years, as did the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and Mumford later described the time as the happiest years of his life. Writing in the New York Times in 1972, Ada Louise Huxtable remarked:
"Public ownership of land, one of the basic premises, made possible a planned community, rather than speculative piece-meal exploitation…It was simple physical planning—the kind of humane, paternalistic,thoughtful layout that dealt clearly and primarily with a better way to live."
“Un-American,” in short; quintessentially Green. Of course, it eventually became a privately owned haven for the upper-middle class, as it got overtaken by the juggernaut of the dominant culture, which apparently nothing can stop. Wal-Mart, not Sunnyside Gardens, would carry the day.
For Mumford, all of this turned on Americans acquiring a different set of values. The nation, he wrote, needed to slow down the pace of industrialization and “turn society from its feverish preoccupation with money-making inventions, goods, profits, [and] salesmanship…to the deliberate promotion of the more human functions of life.” If Mumford was heir to Spengler, he was also in the lineage of Henry David Thoreau. Thus in Technics and Civilization (1934), says the historian David Horowitz, Mumford “envisioned the replacement of an age over-committed to technology, capitalism, materialism, and growth by the emergence of a humane, life-affirming economy based on the values of regionalism, community, and restraint.” Democracy, Mumford wrote a few years later, could only be reinvigorated by substituting spiritual pleasures for material ones; by an “economy of sacrifice.” He urged his readers to turn away from the American Dream, which he called a “deceptive orgy of economic expansion.” Instead, they needed to commit themselves to “human cooperation and communion.” Utopianism indeed.
Mumford struck a (somewhat) more realistic note in The Condition of Man (1944), a book that was influenced by his study of the late Roman Empire. It was precisely the unwillingness of the Roman people to look at their way of life, he said, a way of life founded on “pillage and pilfer,” that led to the fall of Rome. This must not happen to America, he cried; and as with the construction of Sunnyside Gardens, Mumford took his philosophy into the streets. Working with other activists in 1958, he was able to stop Robert Moses, New York City’s controversial urban planner, from constructing a four-lane highway through Greenwich Village. (Jesus, the thought of it!) In an essay he wrote the previous year, Mumford skewered those Americans who allow their cities to be trashed, à la Moses, and then go on holidays to Europe to enjoy beautiful, historic urban centers. But he did see the handwriting on the wall. By 1975 his comment on the American city was, “Make the patient as comfortable as possible. It’s too late to operate.”
Following his inspiration, however, there was at least one city that tried to protect itself from the dominant corporate-commercial model, namely Portland, Oregon. Portland’s success in doing so can be attributed to Mumford’s long-range influence; indeed, the city’s urban planners (in the 1970s) drew specifically on the garden city concept. Mumford had delivered a speech to the Portland City Club in 1938, and also submitted a memo entitled “Regional Planning in the Northwest,” which regional advocates still quote. The memo recommended the construction of a series of “urban inter-regions,” which involved the greening of the city core and the connection of greenbelt towns so as to ease congestion. Portland, Mumford wrote, would need a regional zoning authority, which he referred to as “collective democratic controls.” The mayor of Portland, Neil Goldschmidt (elected in 1972), brought a number of these proposals into his administration, and Mike Houck, charged with setting up a Metropolitan Wildlife Refuge System there, appealed to the legacy of Mumford in his plan to design an interconnected system of natural landscapes, which would include a network of “greenways” to bring people together. In 1992, the Metropolitan Service District published A Guidebook for Maintaining and Enhancing Greater Portland’s Special Sense of Place, which included a reprint of Mumford’s lecture to the City Club.
Much was accomplished in Portland, as a result. The city rezoned, so as to create diversity-of-income neighborhoods. While other cities were busy building expressways, Portland tore down an old four-lane highway and reconnected the town with its waterfront. In 1975, it cancelled a planned freeway that would have devastated part of the city and set up a light rail system instead. It also established an Urban Growth Boundary that forbade the building of commercial projects beyond a certain point. Buildings were required to have their display windows at street level, and a cap was put on the height of high-rises and the number of downtown parking spaces. The business district has parks full of fountains and greenery, and the downtown area is vibrant, replete with bars and cafes. Of course, some of this got rolled back beginning in 2004, when Oregon voters passed a referendum to abolish many of the state’s land-use regulations—a defense of individual property rights, or so they believed. But with Mumford’s ideas in mind, Portland made a definite attempt to move in an “un-American” direction.
Mumford, in the meantime, kept writing. In Technics and Civilization he had argued that the technological model of “progress” required human beings to submit to the cult of the machine. In the Middle Ages, he pointed out, technology was used in the service of life, e.g. the building of cities or cathedrals. But in the “paleotechnic era,” starting with the Industrial Revolution, the defining idea was to bring all of human experience under a technological regime, a program that would ultimately throw life out of balance. Mumford picked up this thread many years later in The Pentagon of Power, in which he asserted that the American “megamachine” was based on a poisoned arrangement, namely that the individual could enjoy the benefits of techno-capitalism if he or she pledged unquestioning allegiance to the system. (This argument was recently updated for the digital age by Dave Eggers in his brilliant, depressing novel, The Circle.) The solution, said Mumford, was obvious: reject the myth of the machine, and the whole structure will collapse like a house of cards. By this time, however, Mumford didn’t really believe Americans were capable of such a shift in values, and like Heidegger, stated (at least in private) that only a miracle could save us. “I think, in view of all that has happened in the last half century,” he wrote to a friend in 1969, “that it is likely the ship will sink.” This is exactly what we are witnessing today.
But the story is not quite over, as it turns out. As America “settles in the mold of its vulgarity/heavily thickening to empire” (Robinson Jeffers, 1925), other forces are stirring. Every day, more and more people are coming to realize that ecologically speaking, there are limits to growth, and that the configuration of late capitalism is politically unstable. As one urban designer has written, “sustainable society will come because the alternative is no society at all.” It is more than likely that we shall have to change our basic values not because we are especially virtuous, but because there will be no other choice.
When Mumford published the first volume of The Myth of the Machine, in 1967, Time Magazine branded it a call to return to Neolithic culture. This is, of course, the kind of quip designed to get potential readers of the book to dismiss it out of hand. But the word “return” is not entirely inaccurate. When Mumford wrote that the good life means “the birth and nurture of children, the preservation of human health and well being, the culture of the human personality, and the perfection of the natural and civic environment as the theater of all of these activities,” he was not referring to Neolithic civilization, but certainly to a civilization that antedated the culture of techno-capitalist frenzy, and that has been all but erased by what came after. He was also referring to the elements of life that human beings simply can’t live without—not in the long run. If some form of restoration is no longer possible, then the future is no longer possible, when you get right down to it. “Utopian realism” may turn out to be our only hope.
Stirrings such as these have been going on for some time now. In 1975 the American writer, Ernest Callenbach, published a book called Ecotopia, which is clearly in the alternative tradition I described above. It was rejected by no less than 100 publishers; Callenbach had to publish it himself, after which it sold more than 1 million copies, becoming a kind of underground classic. He died in 2012, and shortly after, his literary agent discovered an unpublished essay in the files of his computer. The last two paragraphs read as follows:
"All things 'go' somewhere: they evolve, with or without us, into new forms. So as the decades pass, we should try not always to futilely fight these transformations. As the Japanese know, there is much unnoticed beauty in wabi-sabi—the old, the worn, the tumble-down, those things beginning their transformation into something else. We can embrace this process of devolution: embellish it when strength avails, learn to love it.
"There is beauty in weathered and unpainted wood, in orchards overgrown, even in abandoned cars being incorporated into the earth. Let us learn… to put unwise or unneeded roads 'to bed,' help a little in the healing of the natural contours, the re-vegetation by native plants. Let us embrace decay, for it is the source of all new life and growth."
What can one say? The future may prove to be a Mumfordian one, whether we like it or not; and after all those decades of being marginalized, Lewis Mumford may, in the end, have the last laugh.
©Morris Berman, 2014