Can Europe Make It?

Does Max Weber's occidental city have a future?

Comparative analysis of types of city, in their own spatial, political, social and economic contexts, remains a scientific challenge of the kind that Max Weber once faced.

Hinnerk Bruhns
5 November 2014

Wikimedia. Public domain.

This is one of a series of articles we are publishing from Eutopia Magazine – ideas for Europe. Eutopia sets out to create a place for European citizens to analyze the issues most relevant to their future by openly debating them with authoritative voices in each field.

If we think about Max Weber's ideal type of the Occidental city today, two questions immediately arise: in an era of globalisation, are there still significant continental, national or regional differences in the form, function and organisation of urban structures? And secondly, does the current, or even the future, European town or city retain any of the characteristics usually associated with Max Weber?

In 1921, one year after Max Weber's death, his treatise Die Stadt. Eine soziologische Untersuchung was published. The title was not Weber's, and his approach and intentions are often misunderstood. And so readers formed an idealised image of an Occidental city: as a community whose autonomy derived from the close association of its residents, with an enduring potential for urban freedom, civil liberty and democratisation. Some readers have taken the title to imply that Weber had intended to write an urban sociology.

But Weber was considering the nature of the ancient and medieval Occidental city, and his purpose in so doing has hardly anything in common with a sociology of the modern town and city. All the same, his analysis of the city is quite central to an understanding of Europe's historical development, and quite indispensable for an understanding of Weber's perspective on the emergence of modern capitalism.

Weber drafted his lengthy study of The City between 1911 and 1914, then put it to one side: he neither completed it nor published it. He did, however, use some of its central arguments in his essay on the economic ethic of Confucianism and Taoism.

Indeed, there is concealed here an interesting question that we could make the subject of a thought experiment: suppose that Max's widow, Marianne Weber, had not found this unfinished manuscript among his papers, and that we had to reconstruct his conception of the Occidental city from what he writes about the Oriental town in his study of China – what would the result look like? This is not an idle question, because from the very beginning Weber constructed his ideal-typical ‘Occidental city’ as contrasting with an ideal-typical ‘Oriental city’.

If we assume that many of the key preconditions for the emergence of modern rational capitalist business flow from the existence of the Occidental city, then the contrast with the Oriental city comes sharply into focus. For Weber analysed the oriental city, and in particular, the extraordinarily intensive economic activity of the Chinese city, in terms of a leading question: were there specific qualities and structural characteristics present or absent in the Oriental city that might explain why, in China, modern capitalism did not become established?

This perspective separated off the Chinese from the Occidental city, and Weber insisted on the differences: in contrast to a particular type of Occidental medieval city, the Chinese city was not a community; it was neither autonomous nor autocephalous, but dependent on external forces. There was no religious cult specific to the city, its inhabitants retaining their adherence to ancestors worshipped in the villages from which they had come. Nor did the economic life of the Chinese city encourage the development of rational forms of enterprise and behaviour; there was no concept of being a burgher, a citizen.

The Medieval Occidental city is the mirror image of the Chinese. It was characterised by political independence; legal autonomy (also within guilds and trade associations); it was autocephalous, having its own courts and administration; it had the right to tax its citizens, who in turn were free of external taxes and rents; and it organised its own markets, monopolising jurisdiction over trade and commerce.

If the Occidental city was in antiquity "a place where one could escape from tutelage into freedom by engaging in a money economy", during the Middle Ages something revolutionary was added to this: urban citizenship challenged and then displaced feudal rights. When it comes to urban citizenship and the nobility, whether urban or rural, there are any number of sharp and also partial differences between Asia and Europe, and within Europe as well.

For Weber, however, the decisive feature of the ancient and medieval city was the fact that it was a social group of ‘citizens’, furnished with institutions and specialised social organisations. As citizens they were all subject to the same law, they were "equals before the law". The social order of the city was fraternal, embodying a cultural order with its own property. The Occident lacked the taboos or the ‘"caste-based magical ties of the kinship group that in Asia impeded the fraternisation that led to the formation of unified social bodies."

Weber's occidental city was the economic location of trade and industry, a political bastion, an administrative jurisdiction, and the self-organising framework within which common interests came to be identified.

The development of the medieval city into a distinct social institution was made possible by the fact that "citizens, during an era in which their economic interests pushed them into creating social institutions, were on the one hand not hindered by magical or religious barriers, while on the other there was no external rational political administration to which they were subject."

In addition to the creation of a secure and lasting legal framework, the positive aim of confederation, the coming together of those strata capable of defending the city, the creation of social forms, there was "the monopolisation of the economic opportunities that the city offered to its residents."

This very brief outline of Weber's argument is however only one dimension of his analysis. If we adopt the Orientalist perspective of our thought experiment, then there might be such a thing as the Occidental city. However, in Weber's posthumous study the latter takes on many forms and types that contrast with each other: ancient and medieval cities, Southern European and Northern European, plus the special case of Venice on the one hand and the English cities on the other.

The material criteria distinguishing these urban types are the structural conditions for an urban economic policy, and the nature of the opportunities for gain in a town or city.

Weber's ideal-typical Occidental city was located north of the Alps and existed between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. From the point of view of the origins of capitalism, during the subsequent centuries it was no longer the cities themselves that were of importance, since they had lost their independence; the focus was now on the Continental territorial states, which adopted and furthered important elements of medieval urban economic policy. That is nonetheless just one part of the story.

For the other, longer lasting heritage of the Occidental city was formed by their citizens, an emergent bourgeoisie, the social formation that embodied a capitalism based the rational business enterprise and formally-free labour.

In Weber's lifetime, in the early decades of a new German national state, the image of the medieval city was ideologically charged. Put briefly, it was at the time a question of national identity. On the one hand there were those who identified with the idea of the state, projecting the origins of the German national state back into a German medieval state that had never existed. On the other, there were those who defended the idea of urban freedom, who saw the origin of German history in the towns and cities of medieval Germany.

This latter argument served quite concrete political aims during a period in which the competences and finances of local communities had to be redefined in relation to the state. Max Weber did not get involved in these disputes; although he did advocate an equal right to vote in cities, for the general equality of choice on the part of the citizen.

His own concern was the nation and its constitution as a state. In his sketches for a post-war German political order he did not once mention cities or municipal administration.

He registered the various types of town and city of his time, and he was a city-dweller; but he did not make this the object of his studies. The contemporary city that interested him was something quite different from the cities in old Europe. During his visit to America in 1904 he was fascinated by American cities.

He saw in Manhattan Island the most striking symbol of the "capitalist spirit of the country’; he experienced something that Europe could no longer offer: the ‘conquest of the wilderness by civilisation", "a city in the making, and a state in the making."

He noted the breakneck speed with which everything that stood in the way of capitalist culture was crushed. To him, Chicago was "one of the most unbelievable cities": secluded villas, workers' housing, impossibly filthy streets, fumes, smog, an infinite human desert, shoot-outs, strikes, accidents, prostitutes sitting in front windows along with their tariff, stockyard and slaughterhouses, a maddening jumble of people: "all in all, a quite specific and flourishing culture".

One could see everything, enthused Weber; it was as though "a man has been flayed, and his entrails can be seen at work."

Nothing of these impressions found their way into his later analysis of the Occidental city. The real object of study was here the citizen and his social organisation, which Weber defined economically, political, and by social rank. The three-dimensional ‘bourgeoisie’ that was created in the city was, with very few exceptions, a historical phenomenon restricted to the Occident.

The city and its citizenry were the bearers of important developments in politics, economics and culture that became characteristic of the Occident. But not for a long time has the citizen, as an economic, political and social being been defined through the social associations and networks of an independent city culture.

To reinvent the citizen in a time of rapid urbanisation but parallel destructuration of cities is a social challenge not only confined to the Occident. Comparative analysis of types of city, in their own spatial, political, social and economic contexts, remains a scientific challenge of the kind that Max Weber once faced.

The quotations above come from Max Weber, Die Stadt, Max Weber Gesamtausgabe Bd. I/22-5, edited by Wilfried Nippel, Tübingen 1999 (Max Weber, The City. Translated and edited by Don Martindale and Gertrud Neuwirth, New York 1958). The quotes regarding American cities are taken from Marianne Weber, Max Weber. Ein Lebensbild, Tübingen 1926 (Marianne Weber, Max Weber: a biography, New York – London – Sydney 1975).

Translated by Keith Tribe

Originally published at Eutopia

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