City Limits

Is it time to rethink our view of Jane Jacobs as a visionary?
books discussed in this essay:
The Question of Separatism: Quebec and the Struggle over Sovereignty
by Jane Jacobs
Random House (1980), 134 pp.

Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics
by Jane Jacobs
Random House (1992), 236 pp.

The Nature of Economies
by Jane Jacobs
Modern Library (2000), 190 pp.

Dark Age Ahead
by Jane Jacobs
Random House (2004), 241 pp.

Most remember Jane Jacobs, who died one year ago, as a visionary. Her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a jeremiad against grand urban schemes, has been called the most important book about cities of the twentieth century. Although Jacobs initially faced her share of criticism—urban historian and critic Lewis Mumford wrote a snide article on Death and Life titled “Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies for Urban Cancer”—by the time she died her ideas had received wide embrace. Her writings on cities are gospel to the many who share her view that neighbourhoods should be dense and mixed use, that planning should prioritize people over cars, and that the chaos of urban life should be celebrated, not suppressed.

Jacobs’s most famous writings are about cities, but there is a sense in which she was hailed not only as an urban guru but more broadly as a fount of useful, grounded thinking in an alienating age of globalization and expertise. The City of Toronto once held a conference called Jane Jacobs: Ideas That Matter, from which an annual prize and a quarterly newsletter followed. Canadians especially celebrate Jacobs’s humble methodology of stepping down from analytical models and high theories to observe facts on the ground. This is a style Jacobs began in Death and Life, in which she analyzes cities not as top-down blueprints but as webs of human-scale components such as streets, parks, blocks, and sidewalks. The Jane Jacobs we have come to adore is not only a champion of cities, but also an oracle who reminds us of crucial truths that have escaped our collective memory and gently guides us back from the brink.

Jacobs’s body of work—she wrote seven books in all—displays a widening intellectual ambition. Tracing a path from architecture critic to urban prophet to all-purpose philosopher, Jacobs began by writing about sidewalks and finished with an account of Western civilization itself. In The Question of Separatism, she argues that the benefits of Quebec sovereignty outweighs the costs. In Systems of Survival, she examines the ethos underlying commercial and political life. In The Nature of Economies, she explores the linkages between economics and ecology. And in Dark Age Ahead, she warns of a collapse of the institutions that keep our civilization afloat. Should we remember Jacobs only for her views on cities or for the broader range of topics she took on later in life? More fundamentally, if indeed Jacobs was a visionary, does her vision still hold true for the world today, or is her work the remnant of the politics of an era—the 1960s and 1970s—whose relevance has passed?

Jacobs wasn’t a separatist. But for a transplanted American living in Ontario, she was pretty close. Here’s what she says at the outset of The Question of Separatism, based on her 1979 Massey Lectures:

Canadians who are indifferent to the question of Quebec separatism are likely either to identify primarily with their own province . . . or else to identify with a Canada which—for all they care emotionally—may or may not include Quebec. That is how I feel about the question . . . . Quebec seems to me to be already separate and different from what I understand as my own national community.
Jacobs proceeds to attack some common pro-unity arguments. Do breakups of polities inevitably entail disintegration and decline? No, says Jacobs, pointing to the 1905 secession of Norway from Sweden, a peaceful divorce that she argues ultimately benefited both countries. If Quebec separates, won’t both Quebec and Canada be even harder pressed to support world-class businesses, universities, and cultural institutions? No. Small economies can be just as innovative as large ones, sometimes more so. Quebec separatism could have the further benefit of unshackling Quebec from the centralizing strictures of the federal bureaucracy—including its “arbitrary and silly” bilingualism policy—leaving Quebecers free to undertake new policy and business experiments on their own.

Jacobs’s argument is selective. She does not deal with many of the best arguments against separatism: that many Quebecers want to remain in Canada; that Quebec’s language and culture have flourished while remaining within Confederation; that if Canada is divisible, perhaps so is Quebec. The result is a rather unusual product: a refutation of some of the weaker arguments against secession.

Perhaps The Question of Separatism should be read as an attempt to depoliticize statehood and nationality—to encourage a transfer of the energy citizens devote to their nation to the more intimate level of local communities, which Jacobs regarded as the true guarantors of human well-being. This desire to shift political energy downward, expressed in the midst of the Cold War, must have looked prescient in the years that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, when world politics was said to have entered a post-nationalist, post-ideological age in which states mattered less and “global cities” more. Post 9/11, however, Jacobs’s desire appears naive and even irresponsible.

Two of Jacobs’s subsequent books, Systems of Survival and The Nature of Economies, take the form of dialogues among a set of fictional intellectuals. Both tackle huge subjects, but Systems of Survival is more rewarding. It deals with the “moral foundations of commerce and politics,” attempting to systematize the values that underlie all kinds of work. These values, says Jacobs, are an essential part of a healthy society. Combining observations from a wide range of disciplines, she divides these values into two “moral syndromes,” the commercial and the guardian.

The commercial syndrome applies to businesspeople, traders, and scientists, and includes several edicts that one might assume such groups would embrace: “compete,” “use initiative and enterprise,” “be efficient,” “invest for productive purposes,” “be industrious,” and “be thrifty.” However, it also includes values not traditionally associated with the private sector. For instance, “collaborate easily with strangers and aliens” emphasizes the trust, tolerance, and cosmopolitanism necessary to encourage business transactions in a complex economy. And “dissent for the sake of the task” extends the political notion of dissent to the realm of business, emphasizing that commercial innovations face opposition and ridicule the same way that new political ideas often do.

The guardian syndrome, on the other hand, applies to politicians, soldiers, civil servants, police, and religious officials, among others. It encompasses a very different set of principles, including “shun trading,” “respect hierarchy,” “take vengeance,” “dispense largesse,” “exert prowess,” and “deceive for the sake of the task.” Some of these “virtues,” such as vengefulness and deception, originated on ancient battlefields and are endorsed less today. Nevertheless, they remain a part of the guardian mentality, as in the idea that it’s acceptable for a police officer to deceive a suspect in order to catch her. As with the commercial syndrome, the guardian syndrome is not Jacobs’s own ethical prescription for political life, but rather her synthesis of what others have recommended throughout history and across professional cultures.

The values within each syndrome operate symbiotically, such that if one virtue collapses, the entire system becomes corrupted. And when the two moral syndromes mix, they create what Jacobs calls “monstrous hybrids,” examples of which include the Mafia, the Soviet Union, and Nazi medical researchers. Jacobs’s ad-monition against mixing is particularly relevant at a time when policy-makers talk of public-private partnerships, stakeholders, and market-oriented regulation. Most opponents of public-private combinations fear the private side, worrying that the cost-cutting and profit-maximizing impulses of the business ethos will hurt the public sector’s ability to serve the greater good. Jacobs’s warning is different. It holds that commerce ought to avoid guardian values as much as guardians ought to avoid commercial values. If anything, Jacobs’s scheme suggests that commercial actors should be more worried about adopting guardian values, such as centralization, tradition, and hierarchy, than guardians should fear commercial values.

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2 comment(s)

AnonymousApril 15, 2008 22:26 EST


I am presently reading Jacob's System of Survival—-and I like it very much!

I have a few comments about this article.

First of all, I have to say something about the arguments against separation of Quebec: "that many Quebecers want to remain in Canada; that Quebec’s language and culture have flourished while remaining within Confederation; that if Canada is divisible, perhaps so is Quebec."
These are very bad arguments against separation, and I don't think that these arguments would have been relevant in Jacob’s point of view on separation. I think that you are taking sides about separation of Quebec. Jacob's point of view is very, very interesting and she brings very rational arguments for separation, arguments that are not necessarily well known — not usually the ones that guide people in their political choices. Jacob's ideas about separation of Quebec, just like most of her ideas, are truly clever, people need to know about them, and the criticism proposed here I think is a bit narrow minded and biased. On the contrary, I think that Jacob’s neutral position in this debate makes her theories even more interesting.

Secondly, the proposition that Jacob’s theories about depoliticizing statehood and nationality are “naïve or irresponsible” after 9/11 need to be explained. In what way 9/11 or any recent political events contradict Jacob’s theories? Your proposition seems very questionable to me, and it is strangely introduced, just like that at the end of the paragraph. It is another weak criticism proposed here in this article. Do you mean that it is irresponsible not to worry about the army and defense of territory? This criticism would also be, in my view, ideologically biased and eventually annoying, and missing the point of Jacob’s work.

Finally I just want to add that Jacob is one of the few intellectual whose ideas indeed really do matter, maybe because she grounds her theories and research on empirical data, as you cleverly highlighted. Too few intellectuals put together such brilliant, useful, and moreover true theories about economy, culture and human behaviours. I think that everyone should read her (and also Daniel C. Dennett, while we’re at it).

I am reading Systems of Survival presently, and I think that Jacob pinpointed a fundamental fact about professions and cultures with her dichotomy of moral values. I think it is a genuine piece of free-thinking about culture, and is very well written. I think that the way she presented her theories, in a dialogue between fictional intellectuals, is very useful to explain better, and defend, her uncommon theories, and allows us to confront them with what would be the most spontaneous and common criticisms about them. It is a good thing because, just like most thinkers who are trying to explain cultural phenomenon, Jacob could easily be accused of reductionism. But I think that this dialogue form, however useful against eventual criticisms, eventually keeps her from being more direct and thinking about these syndromes in a more straightforward and personal manner, and going deeper into the questions brought by her observations. For example it would have been interesting to discuss how and why these moral syndromes came to be dominant in certain countries’ cultures and certain religions, and how the dominance of a syndrome over another is brought about in the political life of a country/cultural zone—how these syndromes are ‘fighting’ each other. She talks about that when addressing the question of agriculture, but I feel like this would need more precisions and more examples/case studies. Also many links between her theories and other theories about culture can/need to be made. For example the link between Protestantism and capitalism. The link between genders’ cultures and behaviours and these syndromes. The question of the birth of commerce in prehistoric times. The link between these syndromes and the political right and left. These are important and complementary pieces in the puzzle of understanding and explaining human culture. It would also have been interesting to see in greater detail how these syndromes are spread and propagated in media, and how they are sometimes ‘imposed on people’. It would have been interesting to develop also on what fundamentally distinguishes a field suitable for a syndrome, commercial or guardian, and to see how these moral syndromes are essential and functional in certain fields—what does it take exactly in the environment to favour/justify guardian activities? Are some environments suitable for both syndromes? Agriculture, as Jacob points out, is an activity that has been occupied by both syndromes, but I feel like we need more precisions on how and why. Links with memetics would have been welcome. Jacob’s book triggers many questions and needs for precisions. But that will maybe be the object of other books, by other people. With Systems of Survival, she surely set the basis for a new way of considering culture and economic activities. That book will surely be very influent, mainly because of one very accurate empirical observation: that two fundamentally different syndromes of moral values repetitively appear, throughout history, in two different types of fields of the human economy and activities.

Wai Yip TungJanuary 03, 2011 12:41 EST


You comment, an essay of hundreds of words in itself, is more insightful than the article.

"Jacob's point of view is very, very interesting and she brings very rational arguments for separation, arguments that are not necessarily well known ... just like most of her ideas, are truly clever, people need to know about them"

This sum up my general feeling about Jacob's work pretty well. I'll be very interest on to follow her work on separation, whether I end up agree with her or not.

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