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Nigel Harris

The Autumn of Central Paris

(April 1974)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.68, April 1974, p.32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Autumn of Central Paris, The Defeat of Town Planning, 1850-1970
Edward Arnold, £6.

CENTRAL CITIES are being torn apart all around us. The faster capitalism grows, the more rapidly do familiar landscapes dissolve. If it were not for a streak of sentimentality – and the tourist trade – the cathedrals would already have been cleared for car parks. Only the slums would survive intact until commercially profitable for conversion to office blocks.

What are the forces which produce this transformation? Property speculation is only the result, rather than the cause, of the drive. At base is the constant attempt by the capitalists to master the development of the productive forces. People are shunted about to fit the process.

In the early nineteenth century, people were stuffed into gigantic ant heaps, within walking distance of the mills. The railways allowed them to seep outwards along the suburban routes. Cars and trucks spilled both people and jobs out of the city centres to vast regions. The city centre was recolonised by the new vast bureaucracies of state and monopoly capitalism, sucking the daily commuters back into the offices from the suburbs.

On top of this process – the fashioning and refashioning of the city as an instrument of capitalist production – there are numerous others. The city rich build monuments to flaunt their power: cathedrals in the Middle Ages, town halls and railway stations in the nineteenth century, flyovers and giant office blocks today. Each city has its herd of Poulsons, scrabbling to get their snouts in the trough of ‘development schemes’, whether those schemes are useful or not.

In an earlier day, the attempt to defend against street insurrection was another factor in replanning city centres – thus the great squares and wide streets in front of palaces and government buildings. The attempt to prevent epidemics, lest the ignorant plague carry off rich as well as poor, provided the motive for much sewage and water schemes that reshaped the surface, but did not rehouse the poor.

This book has a wealth of detail to illustrate some of these points as they affected the planning of Paris from the days of the most famous Parisian planner, Haussmann. It shows well the powerlessness of the planners themselves, for they are frequently under the illusion that they are shaping the environment so that revolution is unnecessary, whereas insofar as they are able to plan, they do so in accord with the interests of those who control the power.

But the book lacks any sense of the development of French capitalism and the role of Paris within it. Nor does it indicate the politics at stake, the struggle of the petty interests to make a fast buck from contracts and building.

As a result we are left without a clear view of the main drives, and so little perception of the future of the city. Certainly, there is reference to the struggle to make Paris the capital of Europe, a battle in which London’s transformation is also involved. But it is only in passing. For an account of Paris as the heart of French capitalism, we must await another work.

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