What is New York? According to E.B. White, “It is to the nation what the white church is to the village—the visible symbol of aspiration and faith, the white plume saying the way is up…” Others have had different answers. Ayn Rand thought it was “the will of man made visible.” “What other religion do we need?” she asked. It is “appalling, fantastically charmless and elaborately dire,” said Henry James. It’s a beautiful catastrophe, said Le Corbusier. It’s the dirty city, the city of dreams, it’s a hell of a town.
For White, New York was, though magical, strangely cold at the same time, disorientingly anonymous: He loved it, he was its bard, but he thought of it the way that those who hate it think about it. It is a place of radical individualism and self-reinvention, and White seems to be trying to shake out of it something that it isn’t. Why is this? He tells us: his is “the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something.” It is “the city of final destination, the city that is a goal.” It is this that accounts, he says, for New York’s high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness, natives give it solidity and continuity, but the settlers give it passion. And whether it is a farmer arriving from Italy to set up a small grocery store in a slum, or a young girl arriving from Mississippi to escape the indignity of being observed by her neighbors, or a boy arriving from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart, it makes no difference: each embraces New York with the intense excitement of first love, each absorbs New York with the fresh eyes of an adventurer.
The New York that E.B. White loved and that Henry James hated were the same place: the New York of the non-native, the city of the New Brand New, of self-reinvention and ambition. The city of White is a backdrop, a place where individuals, disconnected from each other, pursue their own careers; they link up with each other temporarily, as they can help each other get on; they do not commit; they do not have the kinds of obligations of friendship that would lead them to ever criticize each other’s free choices so long as they are free; the city’s purported isolation is part of the attraction. It’s an imagined landscape free of pre-existing duties, free of ties other than the temporary and the self-chosen. New York, in the eyes of White and those like him, disguises itself to itself, in the way, I (though not White) would say that a human who has bought into a modernist anthropology disguises himself to himself. But when one stops seeing the city through the lens of one’s own incipient legend, it’s easier to ask a more analytical question, and to see the answer more clearly. When I ask “what is New York?,” I’m asking, “what kind of thing is it?” And the answer is, of course, is that it is a city.
First We Take Manhattan, and Then We Take Berlin
This brings us to the central question of this essay, with its implied corollary: What is a city, and does the city have a place in the the world which has been transformed by the coming of Christ?
In contemporary academic and popular discourse, liberals and conservatives have both come up with wretched answers to that first, central question, and it is my hope in this essay to convince both that they are wrong, and point toward an answer that makes better sense of our experience, reason, and intuition.
By the liberal account, a city like New York is a spot of land where lots of individuals live alongside each other. It has political existence by delegated sovereignty—delegated to it either by the nation or, if you take a pre-Civil War view of the location of sovereignty, by the state. This is close to the heart of eighteenth-century liberal political theory. There is no political reality to the city itself or to any organizations within the city; the authority by which New York City makes laws comes solely from either Washington or Albany. And Washington (or Albany) gets that authority by the alienation of the self-sovereignty of all the individual people in either the United States (or in New York State). It’s the old imaginary origin story, the thought experiment that is at the root of liberalism: beginning from a notional state of perfect freedom, each individual enters into a social contract aptly expressed in a state constitution or in the U.S. Constitution, thereby renouncing his own right of self-rule out of fear for their lives or property (the Hobbesian contract) or for private benefit (the Lockean contract). The polity, receiving this pooled sovereignty, doesn’t have the right to arbitrate about the ends that individuals choose in their private lives, so long as the end of one man doesn’t interfere illegitimately with another man’s pursuit of his own end. There is no such thing as the common good of a city or other polity; there’s just an aggregation of private goods, the pursuit of which it is the job of the state to protect.
But there are clues that this story might be wrong.
If this is a correct description of what a city is, then nothing that is decided according to this description can be unjust; there can be no violation of justice in anything that the central government (whether that is Albany or Washington) does to the city, as long as there is no violation of the rights of an individual citizen; in the liberal view, of course, the only sites of justice are the state and the citizen. So let’s see if that’s true.
In 1898, the second largest city in the nation and in the state, a little place across the East River you may have heard of called Brooklyn, was by Albany’s fiat changed from a city in its own right to one of the boroughs of a now massively enlarged New York City. And then Brooklyn lost the Dodgers. By a liberal understanding of the way that political law works, this annexation was completely fine: There could be nothing wrong with it in principle. Indeed, nothing that a state legislature can decide to do to a city can be illegal; in principle, Andrew Cuomo could appropriate Central Park and cause it to be redeveloped as a giant parking garage to provide space for the cars of those who want to come into the city from Westchester to shop. There is something wrong with treating a public space in a city as fundamentally at the disposal of the state, which wants to milk commuters for their sales tax, rather than at the disposal of the citizens and those whose home this is. There’s something wrong—but liberalism cannot quite put its finger on what that wrong thing is.
But liberals are not the only ones to misunderstand the nature of the city. There’s a conservative critique which I must also address. This is what might be called the Ecclesial Hobbit Critique. This critique proceeds along two lines. First of all, it rejects the liberal account of human society, perceiving the fantasy nature of the social contract—there is no original position, there is no state of nature, humans are “dependent rational animals,” we are more than sites of consumer desire, we have duties and loves that bind us to each other and not just to the state.
Second of all, they are uneasy, for religious reasons, with the notion of the state as such. Politics as a category is suspect; the state is equivalent to the Empire, which is Rome and Babylon and Mordor. Man may be a social animal, but the social and the political are sharply divided, and politics as they actually are now—a matter of hierarchy and coercion—are only a sinful distortion of Christ’s royal rule, his servanthood. The church is, for these critics, often the only proper site of human sociality now, perhaps along with the family; the state’s authority cannot really be in any sense part of God’s desire to order the world. The political nations that now exist are mere historical detritus, evidence of sin, and cities—whether city-states or modern cities within states—are sites of alienation and anti-social capitalist trading that avoids the true economy of communion; they cannot be otherwise; there is no good version of a city besides the New Jerusalem. It’s a kind of critique which dovetails well with the Jeffersonian agrarianism of the American conservative tradition, and it is one to which I am deeply sympathetic.
But this too can’t be quite right. Certainly in a sense the invisible church as the kingdom of God is the ultimate and final political community, which will blend household and city and ekklesia, but at this point in history, the existence of the visible church no more discredits the existence and legitimacy of the state than it discredits the existence of the household. State (or city), church, and household are, instead, all three of them legitimate and necessary ways that God has ordained that the world be ordered, and all three of them have some kind of eternal destiny. The wealth of nations will enter into the new Jerusalem; kings will bow before the King (Isaiah 60:5; Revelation 21:24). The Gospel does not abolish the political any more than it abolishes the family, because it doesn’t abolish human nature.
Moreover, ecclesial hobbits are far too willing here to concede the definition of the city to liberals. Rejecting the liberal account of the city, ecclesial hobbits reject the city itself as well. But surely this is foolish. Cities exist before they are theorized about by liberals, just as much as humans do. Ecclesial hobbits don’t reject humans because liberals have described them wrongly: they reject the description. Why not do the same with cities?
The Althusian City
If, then, none of these accounts of what a city is are correct, what is? What is a city? Having found that none of the usual options really seem to satisfy, we are forced to turn elsewhere. We are forced, in fact, to turn to the tradition of political philosophy that grew out of the work of Aristotle. It’s a tradition that pushes back against the theories of the progressive and of the traditionalist conservative alike.
“The community,” wrote Johannes Althusius, the 17th century Reformed political philosopher who is one of the clearest and most developed thinkers in this tradition, “is an association formed by fixed laws and composed of many families and collegia living in the same place. It is elsewhere called a city in the broadest sense, or a body of many and diverse associations…” (Politica)
A city is, in other words, the lowest level of public association, and in it, there is enough diversity of endeavor and complexity of conversation that men can not only live, but can live well. So far, so Aristotelian. But where he is perhaps more useful to us moderns is that he does not take the city to be identical with the state—that is, with the commonwealth (respublica). A commonwealth is the location of true, universal sovereignty, but though it can give law to lower political forms, those laws must respect the integrity, the specifically political existence, of those lower, nonuniversal bodies. These include cities; they also include families and what Althusius calls collegia. These are an interesting category: He means guilds or corporations, but the phenomenon he’s describing and the argument he’s making would apply to any non-familial private group—to all businesses, nonprofits, clubs, of whatever degree of permanence.
It is this respect, this legal and political visibility of the smaller bodies, both private and public, to the larger or universal political community, that makes Althusius’ thought so very strange to moderns. This is subsidiarity not just as a kind of nice idea (“Yes, those Burkean little platoons, aren’t they quaint, certainly it’s sad that men don’t join bowling leagues anymore.”) but as a very serious political doctrine. Fail to recognize the right of association of a city—or a marriage, or a trade union—and you are violating the symbiotic jus that would be violated by the invasion of a nation. That’s subsidiarity with teeth.
The root of all of this, all this living-together, all this cooperation, all of politics, is, Althusius tells us, God’s gift. We are designed to need each other because we are designed to love each other, and that need helps us to love, helps us to be sociable. Our telos is not independence but mutual dependence, which is not a defect, but a gift: not a necessary limitation on a prior autonomy but a natural feature of human life, which we begin to live out when we are born into families, and in which we continue throughout our lives. And our bonds are not just a matter of what we can get from each other, but are true bonds of fellowship.
As you read Althusius, you run into the same sort of question that you have when you read Aquinas: Is he describing or prescribing? The answer is: a bit of both. When Althusius writes about cities or collegia or political sovereignty, he is writing on three levels: the phenomenological, the ethical, and the legal. The point is that these three must match each other.
So for example, Althusius tells us that the city, this lowest level of political association, “is called a representational person and represents men collectively, not individually… The members of a community are private and diverse associations of families and collegia, not the individual members of private associations.” He says that this is “permitted and approved by the law of nations,” also called the common law—that is, the politically applied natural law, the law that cannot justly vary from place to place according to custom.
Thus the city is both something that is legal, but also ought to be legal—it would be unjust if the laws of the higher political body, the Empire or the realm or something along those lines, did not permit it its own political existence and its own laws, as long as those don’t violate natural justice. Likewise, the collegia that make up the city are both legal and ought to be legal—the city should not, through its own laws, violate the proper functioning of these collegia, or undermine the rule that their leaders exercise.
But thoroughly intertwined with the legal “is” and the ethical “ought” is a sort of phenomenological “is.” Collegia simply actually happen, because of the way humans are and the way the world is—yes, often they are highly formalized and legally described, but humans are naturally gregarious, and you just can’t stop them from forming such groups. A totalitarian government is oppressive, yet the Velvet Philosophers will still form their underground study groups, Vaclav Benda will form his counter-polis, Lech Wałęsa will start a union, and the Plastic People of the Universe will form a band. And all of these things—including the Plastic People of the Universe—operate according to symbiotic right.
The Good of the City
Symbiotic right is a slippery concept but an important one. It is, essentially, the natural law of association, friendship, and politics. It is what we owe to each other, and justly give to each other, when we team up in some way that goes beyond pure self-interest but instead includes some real common good. These instances of teaming up are necessarily, as it were, grassroots. Cities are not created by the commonwealth; private associations are not created by the city. When this fact is denied, it’s sometimes easy to recognize the injustice that results.
Think, for example, of the question of slave marriages. One of the grievous horrors of the slave system in the antebellum south was that in many cases slaves were not allowed legal or public marriage. Men and women will, of course, marry no matter what—not just sleep together, but actually create marriages, actually covenant with each other. No slave-owner could stop it, any more than the KGB could stop teenagers from forming bands, or intellectuals from starting salons. And so slaves promised themselves to each other with or without legal sanction. Lacking legal protection, these families and the children who were born to them were, as often as not, broken up when a husband or a wife or a child was sold away from the family. When that happened, the utter horror of the legal system, the utter lack of match between the natural law and the law of the state, was most clearly on display. This injustice was a violation of one kind of symbiotic right.
But there are other violations of the same right. A friend of mine who grew up in Minsk in the ‘80s described how even neighborhood associations, the groups that get together to throw block parties, could not be spontaneous groups of friends but were organized as top-down entities by the state, according to a central plan. These neighborhood associations existed, but had no legal selves separate from the state, and didn’t really arise according to the spontaneous friendship and good purpose of the actual neighbors who would benefit. Minsk was not, legally, made up of these pre-existing entities; Belarus was not, legally, an association of cities. All of these legal distortions of political bodies, found everywhere that the law does not match the existential reality and natural law of political association, are violations of that symbiotic right that is the basis of all politics.
Liberal political orders violate this right, this jus, systematically and inevitably, and they violate it legally because of a fundamental rejection of the classical and Christian anthropology, which Althusius assumed. Liberal states are, as Adrian Pabst and John Milbank have written in The Politics of Virtue, only able to recognize… as politically relevant either the literal individual who is a human person or [what they take to be] the artificial… person of the state…. Leviathan’s absolute sovereignty is necessary to guarantee the social contract and the negative peace of a cessation of natural hostility… The sovereignty of Leviathan, as the absolute expression of mass will, is the prime site at once for the ideology of absolutism and the ideology of modern democracy.
In other words, political right in the liberal world—the right by which the liberal state exercises power over both individuals and smaller organizations—is nothing but will. There’s no “good” that this will must match, for the same reason that there’s no good that the will of the individual must match: There’s no good, in the proper sense, at all. The Hobbesian statist version of this sounds scary to us, and the modern individualist or liberal version sounds nice, but the truth is that they are the same thing. As long as something is freely chosen by an individual, that is all that matters. There’s no “good” that the will of the individual must match, no telos, no end, of a human being other than what he wills it to be.
When these individual wills are collected into a state and turned back on the willers, we get antsy, we feel oppressed—but the principle is the same. If you can’t tell yourself that there is something that you are made for, something you ought to choose, then you can’t tell the state that there is something that it’s doing that’s wrong in the sense that a moral realist would mean that word, i.e. in violation of human nature or of a moral order in the universe; all you can say is that it’s crossing your will. That crossing of your will must exhaust what “wrong” means, and so the liberal version of “right” must mean “my will is not crossed; I have not been constrained; I am ‘free.’” In the Thomist and Althusian understanding, each entity—you, your family, your nonprofit, your book group—has a sort of a self, a reality, a thing-that-it-is-for. It shouldn’t be abused; it should be cared for and ruled properly. This thing-that-it-is-for does not depend on the will of those who make it up, though will, in the sense of consent, is involved in many of these groups. This reality is precisely what is denied by contractarian liberalism. And that’s why the Hobbesian understanding of politics is an ally of both tyrannical absolutism and of voluntarism in ethics.
A city, too, has a self, a thing-that-it-is-for. The great insight of Althusian political philosophy for urbanism is that cities are real. They may even be real in God’s sight. And so are bands. So are all collegia. And the reality of these political entities means that they are both aimed toward a good outside themselves, and grow out of a right that can’t be violated. Political “realism” (in a very different sense than the term is used by, say, Henry Kissinger) is thus inextricably linked to moral realism, and to the affirmation of the highest end of all political bodies, and all people: God. And maybe in the New Jerusalem when the nations bring their wealth to the royal city, so will bands, and ship’s crews, and magazines, and universities, and nonprofits, and guilds, and tribes, and families, and all other bodies as well.
The West Village Postliberal
Jane Jacobs is particularly suited to help us see the concrete and contemporary reality of Althusius’ description of what politics is and what cities are. She knew something about cities, after all, and about what it took to fight for policies that actually promoted their good. She knew about collegia, too—she started one: a group that came together to protest Robert Moses’ plan to run an expressway through Washington Square Park. Moses, blind to the wrong of the expressway, was blind as well to the nature of the group, which he famously and fatally dismissed as “just a bunch of mothers.”
The nature of the anger that people have toward Robert Moses is instructive. We dislike him because, through his authority over aspects of New York’s urban development, he persistently violated the symbiotic jus of the city; he physically attacked it, but still more, he ripped up the right that existed between people, embodied in local organizations and in informal neighborhood cultures, in long-established local businesses and imperfect but existing and freely chosen rental arrangements. He was like a criminal who specialized in the particular crime of using city-level power to destroy the political organization, in Althusius’s sense, of those groups that exist below the level of the city, and of which the city is constituted.
The fascinating thing about Moses is that the wrong of what he did is not a wrong that is discernible according to liberal political philosophy. Yes, you might indict him for violating private property ownership, and indeed the Mises Institute is a fan of Jacobs as a sort of libertarian heroine, as though it were private property and absolute individual voluntarist liberty of action that she championed. But this makes nonsense of her work. When, later, she protested the destruction of McKim’s original Penn Station, there was nothing in Mises-style liberalism that could possibly be the basis for that protest: It was a privately owned building, sold to a private developer; nothing could be more proper. If the desire for profit that led to the sale and destruction of the building were a private vice, what of it? We know, don’t we, that private vice leads to public virtue?
But this is what Jacobs would not bow to. When, to the utter horror of the city, the old building was demolished in 1963, the event was so obviously wrong that it sparked the formation of a whole new set of collegia—the Municipal Art Society, the New York Landmarks Conservancy, and so on—and led eventually to the passage of New York’s historical preservation laws, and similar laws elsewhere. Such laws are quite clearly contrary to liberal concepts about property and the purpose of the state; they are also, quite clearly, in harmony with Althusian ones.
Jacobs witnessed to the reality of Althusian ideas not only by her activism, but by her writing as well. Describing as accurately as she could the way that a city works, she essentially rediscovered what it was that Althusius had written about three and a half centuries earlier, and across an ocean. Here’s Jacobs in 1961 in The Death and Life of Great American Cities:
The first relationships to form in city areas, given any neighborhood stability, are those in street neighborhoods and those among people who do have something else in common and belong to organizations with one another— churches, PTA’s, businessmen’s associations, political clubs, local civic leagues, fund-raising committees for health campaigns or other public causes, sons of such-and-such a village (common clubs among Puerto Ricans today, as they have been with Italians), property owners’ associations, block improvement associations, protesters against injustices, and so on, ad infinitum…Small organizations and special-interest organizations grow in our cities like leaves on the trees, and in their own way are just as awesome a manifestation of the persistence and doggedness of life.
Jacobs’ most well-known insight contributes to this body of Althusian evidence as well:
Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order… all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance—not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any once place is always replete with new improvisations.
Children playing, shopkeepers, businessmen getting lunch, delivery-men dropping off goods, friends out for drinks after work, mothers with babies in strollers during the day—a given neighborhood must, she thought, have plenty of all of these to thrive, to counter the “great blight of dullness” that was the key indicator of a neighborhood in trouble. Nearly all these private uses imply what Althusius would consider political relationships. The newspaper office where the journalists work who go out to a bar together after they file their stories, the bar itself, the bodega where the businessman gets his sandwich, and the frozen yogurt place where the mothers meet on their way to the park are all venues for the kinds of exchange of goods and services that count as political activity for him. He does not distinguish to as great a degree as others have between commercial exchange aimed at private good, and the political activity that aims at the common good; or rather, there is always, for him, something like a residuum of friendship over and above mere quid pro quo contract-exchange.
The Politics of the New Jerusalem
This is, in other words, a political theory that is in no way antiquated. And in addition to matching reality, it also solves one of the most vexing problems of international politics: the problem of varied political forms. If one is a fully convinced American liberal how can one not then think that the American liberal model of the state can and must be exported to every other political community on earth? Anything less would be unjust. It’s a formula that leads to infinite foreign involvement and the imposition of uniformity of government to a degree that surely makes even the most enthusiastic Americanist uneasy.
The Althusian understanding of politics, by contrast, allows for a dizzying variety of political arrangements, and for them to be fitted together in a variety of ways. This understanding of politics can acknowledge the real political existence of, say, the clan, the city-state, the nation-state, and even trans-national bodies like an Empire or the European Union. All of these have their place, and the precise ways that they are related to each other can change from time to time and region to region. There’s no imperative to make every corner of the world reflect exactly the American model of the liberal democratic nation state.
But this isn’t in the least relativism. Something like the “rights” that we associate with liberalism have an explanation in this Althusian vision of politics that they do not have in liberalism itself—certainly not in modern utilitarian liberalism that is agnostic about human nature and has no real sense of right. Freedom of association, freedom of speech (because we are rational creatures, because communication is an imperative), and freedom from the arbitrary exercise of political power all emerge in their proper identities in the Althusian model of politics. And this reality highlights something interesting about the nature of the philosophical investigation of politics in general, something that Oliver O’Donovan has noted: political enquiry has an apologetic dimension. We all, believers and unbelievers, struggle to make sense of our experience of justice and injustice, of political life, and these things do seem to make best sense in a broadly Althusian or Thomist framework, in a world where humans and cities have natures of the kind described by these philosophers.
This applies, of course, to justice with regard to the individual—under a natural-law-denying form of materialism, a materialism that is atheistic toward the Good, we have no way to account for or argue for the reality that concentration camps are wrong (or murder, or censorship of political speech)—but, as I’ve tried to show here, it also applies to questions of city life as well. Althusius’s description of what a city is, and his explanation of it, is simply closer to how we actually experience our cities. His theory matches our natural perceptions of justice and sovereignty far more than the liberal contractarian understanding of the city does. This should be a clue. Maybe symbiotic right isn’t just the invention of a political thinker writing in a particular time and place, but an actual discovery. Maybe this is all real. And maybe that means that humans are also what Althusius took them to be: the beloved creations of a God who made them in His image as political and rational animals, and who calls them to order their lives in loving service to each other.
We are not strange to think that political philosophy matters. We are not wrong to see in good political philosophy a kind of signpost toward that which we are supposed to love most, rather than some incidental extra to human life. And this “supposed to” is both what we are called to, which will actually delight and fulfil us, and also a command of our Lord. “Seek first the kingdom of heaven,” we are told: This is a desire for God’s justice, and the desire, too, for the eschatological community which will take up into itself all that is good in our existing cities, as human nature itself will be taken up into the divine nature.
We’re told that, though we began in a garden, we will end in a city. And it may be that we can learn something about that city by understanding what a good city here is. The New Jerusalem can’t be thought of as a polity that is rigidly and externally controlled, as though God were a voluntarist Hobbesian absolute monarch. Instead, it will be a community that allows each creature and each sub-community to flourish as itself, in mutual and loving service to others.
There’s something else that that final city will have in common with New York: It, like my own home, will apparently be multiethnic. Cities like New York are in this way eschatological signs. I began by claiming that those who move to New York can find it hard to see what it is. But the truth is that New York is and has always been a city of immigrants. Men and women from many elsewheres have found refuge here, and live in (at least sometimes) genuine civic unity with each other without giving up their own difference. It would be stubbornly foolish not to see in this a foretaste of that final city where the kings bring their glory in procession, where those from every tribe and tongue and nation make their homes. The ballet of Hudson Street is a sign of the harmonious dance that encompasses the variety of the human race without erasing it. New York is, at its best, a foreshadowing of the New Jerusalem.
But this is the case with each of our political bodies, from a family to an Empire, when they are justly governed. Each, at its own level and in its own way, is a genuine icon of the harmonious and free order that is the cosmos, as the stars and their angels go about in their own version of Jane Jacobs’ Hudson Street Ballet, praising God who is the true and highest common good.
[This article appears in Fare Forward Issue 8 (Dec. 2017), order here.]