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Monads and community in the Australian suburb.

But first we call on Frederick Engels for a prologue:
But the sacrifices which all this has cost become apparent later. After roaming the streets of the capital a day or two, making headway with difficulty through the human turmoil and the endless lines of vehicles, after visiting the slums of the metropolis, one realises for the first time that these Londoners have been forced to sacrifice the best qualities of their human nature, to bring to pass all the marvels of civilisation which crowd their city; that a hundred powers which slumbered within them have remained inactive, have been suppressed in order that a few might be developed more fully and multiply through union with those of others. The very turmoil of the streets has something repulsive, something against which human nature rebels. The hundreds of thousands of all classes and ranks crowding past each other, are they not all human beings with the same qualities and powers, and with the same interest in being happy? And have they not, in the end, to seek happiness in the same way, by the same means? And still they crowd by one another as though they had nothing in common, nothing to do with one another, and their only agreement is the tacit one, that each keep to his own side of the pavement, so as not to delay the opposing streams of the crowd, while it occurs to no man to honour another with so much as a glance. The brutal indifference, the unfeeling isolation of each in his private interest, becomes the more repellent and offensive, the more these individuals are crowded together, within a limited space. And, however much one may be aware that this isolation of the individual, this narrow self-seeking, is the fundamental principle of our society everywhere, it is nowhere so shamelessly barefaced, so self-conscious as just here in the crowding of the great city. The dissolution of mankind into monads, of which each one has a separate principle, the world of atoms, is here carried out to its utmost extreme.
-Frederick Engels, The Great Towns, Condition of the Working Class in England 1845

by Dave Riley

I first read this piece by Engels when I was about 14 or 15 and it had a major impression upon me.

Thereafter I always knew what "monad" meant because I looked it up.

Even though we are separated from Engel's tract by some 160 years we can still identify strongly with what he is describing. We may be materially enriched by years of class struggle attainments such that we've moved on from the absolute desperation that Engels describes-- at least in this country -- the metropolitan template still rules our everyday existence.

And there's no way out of these cities. Every attempt to distance our domestic lives from this urban sentence is thwarted by the tragedy that we only extend the city's boundaries. We become active agents of what is called here in Queensland, the "treacle effect" where urbanisation fueled by crippling mortgages reaches out from the CBD like a gigantic amoeba.

Engels in 1845 was on the cusp of a major aggregation of human possibility as the working class began to explore its strength. This was a powerful collective strength rooted in the same socialised labour whose productive capacity drove the urbanisation. But the alienation between humans he noted still bears down on city life because the political promise inherent in collective labour has not been fulfilled...yet.


While we remain monads, for all the reasons Engels goes on to explore, "community" is an aspiration rather than a ready reality regardless of how often we may deploy the term.

Real estate agents love the word. "Community" becomes a selling point among many features which are invested onto a particular tract of land with or without abode as we are asked to project our preferred lifestyle images onto dirt, bricks and mortar in the vain hope that we can transcend the sacrifices that capitalism demands of us.

But despite this gloss the massive investment demanded of working people in the homes they seek to own is driven by a very basic desire for security. "Owning your own home" isn't so much fetishising a large commodity item, but a very frank recognition that while you are alive you need a place to stay.

It's like the peasant's dedication to agricultural land ownership because a feed can always be had by growing it in your own patch of earth. We urbanites like to presume that we will always be in employment (as that's why we live in cities) but our own customized back up in case of whatever else may transpire is the triple fronted brick veneer we like to call home.

A landlord may evict us and a boss may sack us but at least we'll have a home to go to. The family real estate serves us like the camel's hump.

It is as safe as....houses!

So in many ways the urban sprawl is sustained by the insecurity of working life under capitalism. It's a symptom of a disease which we try to ignore by sublimating it with hardware.

While locales may have different demographics no matter what suburb you visit the same political economy is in play.


Nonetheless we monads make the best of it. If you take a patch of dormitory suburbia such as a 3 kilometre arc in my patch (that's the green bit in the middle)

Click on image to enlarge view

it is truly amazing what you can find in way of a "community" matrix. School associations, play groups, sporting clubs, scout dens, church congregations, hobby groups, RSL and Apex leagues... even branches of the Liberal Party and the ALP -- all sustained by voluntary collective human effort and a rigorous loyalty to myriad tasks. The suburbs are a little less sterile and a little less alienating because they are buoyed up by a culture of committees.

This is the "community" we so often reference -- one that is supposed to aggregate the hopes and aspirations of the local demographic. While this "community" certainly exists and is tangible it tends to be very service oriented, existing in the main to fulfil a host of customized needs often offspring centred. It is a template engineered around functions that supplement residency. And because these committee activities address some very broad needs they are great levelers that supply people with a common purpose regardless of income or political alignment.

So while they are fulfilling in a service sense they don't lead anywhere politically special except as exercises in securing a share of any local largesse that may be on offer from any tier of government. They are so often crudely lobbyist and that's why they figure so large in the work week of neighborhood politicians who are so dependent on these networks to give them local traction. When it comes to securing their share these groups are not so much Not-in-my-back-yard but Yes (please) In My Back Yard.

So they are in effect built into the system as a modus operandi -- as this is the way "community" business is supposed to be done.

This is the second part in a series on urban sustainability.
Read the first instalment :Our asphalt cities and sustainability

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