GaWC Research Bulletin 237

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This Research Bulletin has been published in W.R. Thompson (ed) (2009) Systemic Transitions: Past, Present, and Future New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 241-260.

Please refer to the published version when quoting the paper.


Cities in Transitions and Transformations: Exploring a Jacobsean Approach to Macro-Social Change

P.J. Taylor


Introduction: the times they are a-changing

We are, it seems, condemned to live in interesting times. The key word that has emerged to describe our contemporary condition is globalization. A highly contested concept, its spatial meaning is quite explicit – an up-scaling of social practices – but its temporal meaning is less clear. There are three feasible candidates that emerge from studies of macro-social change. First, globalization represents the latest harnessing of new technological innovations by capital to generate the next Kontratieff cycle; it could be phase VA in the conventional timing starting with the Industrial Revolution. Second, globalization represents a power transition marking the beginning of the hegemonic succession to the USA ; it could be to a presage to new economic powerhouse, possibly China, as world hegemon. Third, globalization represents the initial indications of demise of the modern world-system; it could be heralding a new social logic, a materialist postmodern.

These three change possibilities are not exclusive because processes associated with each one of them may be occurring simultaneously today. But the important point is that they rank in terms of degree of macro-social change and therefore implications for the near and medium-term future (the twenty first century) are profoundly different. We cannot know which set of processes will be dominating future social practices and therefore we have to look towards intelligent conjecture to make sense of globalization. Inevitably this means drawing on ideas and concepts that derive meaning from the past and present but not in the form of ‘lessons of history'; we must respect the autonomy of the future - it has yet to be made. In this paper I explore ideas from Jane Jacobs to develop a conjecture that argues for the most profound change: demise of the modern world-system.

To invoke Jane Jacobs is to bring cities to centre stage in understanding macro-social change. Thus I propose a city-centric approach but one that does not diminish the role of states. This is contrary to most formal social knowledge, which employs a state-centric approach that does diminish the role of cities (Taylor, 1996). This is quite overt in state-centric social science and national histories but similar embedded statism can be found, albeit more covertly, in various world-systems analyses. My more balanced city-centred approach leads to concern for city/state relations in macro-social change. The argument proceeds in four parts. In the first section I outline my Jacobsean approach to understanding social change. Second I relate these ideas to social transitions and transformations and provide a new interpretation of world-systems. I treat world-empires as the historical norm as the social structure of humanity and identify two steps (transformations) to this condition and two steps from it. The rise of the modern world-system is interpreted as being the first of the two steps from world-empire; globalization is interpreted as the beginning of the second step. The remainder of the paper elucidates with these pairs of steps, hoping that stepping up to world-empire structure might inform stepping down from it.

Jacobsean understanding of macro-social change

I introduce some new social science concepts as tools for both unthinking and rethinking macro-social change. These ideas derive from Jane Jacobs' work on cities (1969, 1984) and moral syndromes (1992), with an addition from Manuel Castells' (1996) theory of social space construction. My emphasis is on understanding, which I equate with identifying generic concepts; being trans-historical they can inform transitions and transformations. I argue that it is through variations in relations between generic concepts, in particular city/state relations, that we may derive new insights into contemporary globalization.

Understanding Cities: City-ness and Town-ness

According to Jacobs (1969) a city is not a large town. Its fundamental difference is its complexity, reflected in material terms as very diversified divisions of labour. This economic complexity is the result of growth spurts generated by import replacement: every time erstwhile imports from other cities are produced locally, extra work categories are added to the division of labour. Thus cities grow, not just by increasing existing production (old work), but through fresh production (new work). This means that cities always come in groups; these are organized as networks. It is through these horizontal links that cities negotiate the ups and downs of economic cycles. Thus Jacobs' model of economic expansion is through the ‘little movements' within cities (replacement and innovation) operating in the ‘big wheels' of commerce (networks and inter-dependence). It is only through dynamic cities in networks that economic life expands.

The process described above may be termed city-ness. This contrasts with town-ness, which is the process of servicing an urban hinterland. Town-ness is essentially a local process. It is modelled as central place theory, defined as a pattern of boundaries within an urban hierarchy (multiple, increasingly large, dependent areas). But as Jacobs has pointed out, no city ever grew by just servicing its hinterland, however large. Thus town-ness implies no expansion of economic life. However, urban settlements combine these two processes in their reproduction: city-ness and town-ness are processes and therefore they can exist simultaneously in the same place. This means that to understand any city requires two models; for vertical inter-urban relations there is central place theory as town-ness, and for horizontal inter-urban relations a ‘central flow theory' is required as city-ness (Taylor, 2006, 2007a). The latter theory is about interlocking networks of cities linked together by economic practices.

My argument is that these two theories/processes are generic to urban settlements; they exist from the creation of urbanization and they exist today under conditions of globalization.

Understanding Work: Moral Syndromes

Extending her consideration beyond cities to societies as a whole, Jacobs (1992) defines work as making a living. She contends that there are only two ways of making a living: taking/guarding/stewarding and trading/making/servicing. This basic division of labour can be found in all human societies and the latter – trading – is unique to humans. Her key point is that the two ways of making a living are based upon two different, contrary, ethical logics or moral syndromes which she terms guardian and commercial.

The guardian and commercial moral syndromes are sets of precepts that are necessary for the medium/long term reproduction of their respective ways of making a living. The two key contrarian precepts are ‘be loyal' at the heart of guardian work, and ‘be honest' crucial to commercial work. But they are not interchangeable: loyalty in a market situation is dangerous leading to bad deals and economic bankruptcy; honesty in a battle situation is dangerous leading to being outmanoeuvred and military defeat. Jacobs' complete sets of precepts constituting the two syndromes are given in Table 1. They can be categorised as ‘bourgeois traits' and ‘heroic virtues' but the former should never be limited to ‘western' or ‘modern' behaviour. Jacobs (1992, 28) argues that commercial precepts are found

‘… wherever commercial life is viable, East or West. They apply to Islamic innkeepers, Buddhist batik makers, Hindu brass craftsmen, or Shinto brake manufacturers, just as they do to Christian, Jewish or atheist auto mechanics …'

I have organised the precepts into functional sub-sets to emphasize their differences. Ultimately they lead to two opposing mindsets. Guardians play zero-sum games in a fatalistic world-view; for instance, battles produce just winners and losers. In contrast, commerce is a win-win situation in an optimistic world-view; for instance, in a market (without coercion) both seller and buyer are satisfied with the deal or else it would not go ahead.

Jacobs (1992) does not claim to have invented these concepts; rather she has uncovered them from documents and texts purporting to guide behaviours or to describe ethical violations of expected behaviours. She argues that these syndromes have been developed and honed over millennia by people making a living in these two ways. They are, of course, normative and therefore violated in the real world: if the violation reaches a certain level, then making a living will become impossible and work will collapse and disappear. Too much disloyalty undermines an army; too much dishonesty undermines a market.

I argue (Taylor 2007a) that guardian and commercial work as practised by through these moral syndromes are essential generic categories that will be expressed in different social forms across time and space.

Understanding Social Spaces: Spaces of Places and Spaces of Flows

Space is not a platform on which social practices take place. A basic materialist approach to space treats it as socially constructed by social practices. In this argument social space is produced by work. It is made through carrying out social practices (making a living) and the resulting space itself impinges on subsequent social practices.

Following Castells (1996), socially constructed spaces come in two basic forms: spaces of places and spaces of flows. Spaces of places are constructed by territorial practices, the making, designing and defending of territories. Spaces of flows are constructed by movement practices, the making of paths, chains, networks and circuits. These two types of spaces always exist together. As social constructions their limiting cases (an inert mosaic world, a totally fluid world) do not exist. Thus their salience is to be found in their relations over time and space; for instance, for Castells (1996) industrial modernity was dominated by spaces of places but new spaces of flows are beginning to dominate contemporary society which he calls network society.

Although Castells devised his theory of social space to contrast old industrial society with new informational society, I contend that Castells' spaces of places and spaces of flows are generic concepts applicable to all human societies.

Synthesis: Cities in Space

Three understandings through identifying generic concepts have been presented separately for pedagogic reasons but they are closely associated, entwined in macro-social change. The moral syndromes guide practices to create two different forms of space: for the guardian syndrome spaces of places are predominant; for the commercial syndrome spaces of flows are overriding. It follows that each way of making a living is embedded in a contrary space; one that is predisposed by the practice of making a living and which, in turn, is necessary for making that living. Cities and states are a critical expression of these conceptual associations.

Guardian agents are essentially territorial in their behaviours; they fight over, lose or gain, control and organise territories. They create the world as a space of places. Guardian practices can take several forms depending upon how political power is distributed: states are compound centralizations of political power. The guardian side of the primal division of labour is itself divided into numerous political, military, policing, legal, administrative/bureaucratic, religious, planning, and other ways of making a guardian living. The resulting state apparatus is the means through which states aspire to be supreme authorities in their territories (be they city-states, empire-states, or modern nation-states). Their political means of control is to simplify the complex societies they confront; however sophisticated their apparatus, guardian work classifies and codifies to keep order, or at least the semblance of order. Central place theory has been popular with modern guardians, urban and regional planners, because its simple depiction of boundaries and hierarchies in space economies mirrors the states themselves.

Commercial agents are essentially networked in their behaviours; they connect with each other to trade, make deals, and produce commodities. They create the world as a space of flows. Cities are nodes where commercial practices are strongly concentrated; the commercial side of the primordal division of labour is divided further into a much more complex pattern of work than for the guardian side. In this case complexity represents economic opportunity. As noted above, economic complexity is the hallmark of a city. Cities are the most complex inventions of humanity: this is true of contemporary world/global cities, but is also the case for all cities in their own eras, right back to the first cities. Central flow theory tries to make sense of the space of flows ‘blizzard' that is the real economic world.

Transitions and transformations: two steps up, two steps down

My emphasis on generic concepts might be expected to produce a historical frame that favoured continuity over discontinuity in macro-social change. This is not the case because I focus upon a particular relation between generic concepts thereby identifying discontinuities.

City/State Relations

One important feature of the previous understandings is the lack of exclusivity in the pairings: city-ness and town-ness coexist in urban settlements, spaces of places need spaces of flows and vice versa, and all societies require both guardian and commercial work. All are implicated in city/state relations. I focus on the latter relation because, while it is a perennial issue in the stories of all societies, and it is specifically crucial for understanding contemporary globalization. The latter is commonly characterised as both leading to the demise or erosion of states while also being a new ‘age of cities'.

I will treat city/state relations as the dominant way in which commercial/guardian relations are played out. This is largely about the degree of autonomy of cities/commercial elites have with respect to states/guardian elites. This autonomy varies greatly over time and space; I will use it as a critical delimiter of world-system type.

Discontinuities in Macro-Social Change

Social change is endemic to all social practice; from institutions to societies reproduction takes place through ordinary change. But there is also extraordinary change, change of such an unusual magnitude that it makes a difference to how a society operates. Extraordinary change phases define the periods and eras through which history is demarcated and organised.

Extraordinary change comes in two forms. There is change that occurs within a world-system, which I will call a transition. This is typically a change of guardians, represented by alterations in the power constellations in a system. The sequence of changing Chinese imperial dynasties might qualify here. There is also a more fundamental ‘break' in which the social logic of the system is changed to a different social matrix, which I will call transformations. The classic example is the change from feudalism to capitalism in Europe (ironically usually referred to as a transition).

Extraordinary change can occur through two different spurs: internal and external. In the latter case, systems are incorporated into another system. The modern world-system expanded extensively in this manner to become global in about 1900. The other change is from processes forming and creating new social structures within an existing system. Both incorporation (external) and primal (internal) change are important elements of macro-social change.

In what follows I focus on primal-transformation as the critical or fundamental extraordinary change. The other three extraordinary changes (primal-transition, incorporation-transformation and incorporation-transition) all occur as consequences of primal transformation.

Primal Transformations

In the remainder of this paper I present a new historiography based upon primal transformations. It is new because I base the eras on a novel criterion: city/state relations.

I start in the middle with what Wallerstein (1979) calls world-empires. From a modern perspective these are traditional social structures in which religious-political leaders dominate. The domination is both ideological (religion) and material (control of land and its product). A key feature is the separation of guardian and economic elites. The latter and their practices are viewed as inherently inferior, all the time verging on the criminal. However, although at the bottom of the ideological hierarchy, in many world-empires vibrant cities exist made prosperous by the practices of commercial elites. Thus in the material hierarchy commercial elites can sometimes rival guardians; they are referred to as ‘merchant princes'. But they can never overcome their lowly social status except by buying into the landed aristocracy and thereby forsaking their commercial origins. World-empires remain guardian structures with commercial practice subordinate; the relationship between city and state is inherently unequal.

Most of the historical record of humanity is of world-empires. Therefore in this argument I will treat them as the norm: world-empires are the human condition historically. As I will explain and hopefully justify below, I will take a very unorthodox view of transformations as follows:

  1. Starting point. Hunter-gatherer-trading groups without either cities or states. These are not Wallerstein's (1979) mini-systems; I follow Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) here in seeing continuous patternings of these groups linked by reciprocal exchanges

  2. Step 1 to world-empire norm between 8,000 and 10, 000 BP. World-economies emerging from the early trading networks. The transition is the invention of city networks. Chiefdom guardian processes will be dominated by the new economic power of commercial elites.

  3. Step 2 to world-empire norm in the sixth millennium BP. City-states emerging from city networks. As more successful cities try and augment their power politically, security requires new governance apparatus. The transition is the invention of the city-state. Guardians begin to dominate commercial elites.

  4. The norm has been reached: a history of world empires until challenged by modernity.

  5. Step 1 from world-empire norm in the ‘long sixteenth century'. The modern world-system emerges in the long sixteenth century. World-empire transforms into world-economy in which power is more balanced between economic and political elites. The transition is the invention of the modern (territorial/mercantile/nation-) state. The separation of guardian and commercial practices breaks down to become political economy.

  6. Step 2 from world-empire norm in the twenty first century. Globalization provides a glimpse of a world where economic elites are back on top. The transition invention is the world city network. Guardians will be necessary for global governance but commercial practices in cities will dominate states. But this is all speculation from what is only the first decade of the century.

Note that this sequence is derived from middle-east/Europe experience (‘central civilization' in Wilkinson's (1987) schema) because of primal transformation away from world-empires only occurs in this region. However the steps to world-empire should traceable in other world regions.

The conventional story and its discontents

The temporal sequence above is totally contrary to the conventional way of conceptualising the ‘rise of civilization'. Before describing my new ordering I outline the conventional story to emphasize the paradigm shift I am promoting in this paper. Only in this way can my Jacobsean alternative be fully appreciated in its contrarian claims.

The Conventional Story

Two works dominate this story telling: Gordon Childe's (1943) What Happened in History and Lewis Mumford's (1961) The City in History ; the longevity and importance of their ideas is shown by the fact they have found a place in the most recent city reader (LeGates and Stout 2000). It is the Marxist scholar Childe who invented the phrase ‘urban revolution' to describe the city development in early Mesopotamia. However, I will tell the story through more recent publications of Bairoch (1988) and Chase-Dunn (1992) who come from different theoretical backgrounds but share this paradigm. There are four basic elements to the conventional argument.

1. Agriculture revolution before urban revolution

The Neolithic revolution creating agriculture enables higher human population densities and therefore is a necessary precursor of city development according to Bairoch (1988, 13). He recognises that relatively large settlements have been found in Neolithic sites (Jericho and Çatal Hüyük), which he treats as ‘preurban towns' (pp 9-10); they remain villages because they have no complex division of labour. ‘International trade' (i.e inter-cultural) is also recognised between ‘non-urbanised regions' (p. 21) but this does not feature in the evolutional process.

For Chase-Dunn (1992, 54) these agricultural societies create ‘world-systems without cities': kin-based systems that are also classless and stateless. There is a socially constructed space constituted by settlement patterns (villages) within a world-system and interactions (Prestige and basic goods) between system territories (p. 55). In this rural world, class formation precedes the origins of cities and states in the form of hierarchical chiefdom polities.

2. City-states in the urban revolution

Bairoch (1988, 21-2) emphasises scale and density changes to identity ‘true cities' in bronze ago Mesopotamia from c5000 BP. This urban revolution occurred in this ‘most fertile' region in ‘areas where agriculture was particularly well established' (p. 26). The cities are city-states, defined as urban centres ruling over a relatively large rural hinterland as an ‘integral economic unit' with the administration decisive in external trade (p. 26). Thus Mesopotamia initially consisted of a set of independent states each centred on a major city.

Chase-Dunn (1992, 58) describes this ‘pristine state' emergence as an ‘interstate system composed of city-states'. This was a world of autonomous city-states of shifting alliances creating a balance of power mechanism. The state emerged as a ‘new technology of control' in this more complex world-system (p. 59). He rehearses the debate about whether the cities thrived through exploiting their hinterlands or through exploiting peripheral places in an unequal exchange mechanism (pp. 60-1).

3. Empire formation

For Baroich (1988, 26) the rise of Babylon represents a ‘new kind of culture' with a population of about 250,000 and conquered hinterland area to match: it was ‘practically a ‘city-empire' (p. 27). This is the beginning of a world of great empires in the Middle East from Persia and Egypt to Alexander and Rome.

Chase-Dunn (1992, 61) identifies Sargon of Akkad, conqueror of Mesopotamia, as the first empire-builder. The products are the world-empires that Wallerstein (1979) identifies as world-systems based upon a redistributive-tributary mode of production, although Chase-Dunn notes that they often had interactions with areas beyond their political control (p. 62).

4. Inter-city trading systems

Baroich (1988, 29) treats the Phoenician city-states as ‘the first commercial towns': ‘the first major instance of commercial cities taking their place in a geographical setting far wider than that provided by their immediate hinterlands (p. 33). As well as trade (high value e.g. jewellery), they also became production centres (e.g. ship-building), and which came together in their famous purple dye production for cloth exports (p. 31)). They planted colonies around the Mediterranean many of which grew to become important cities in their right (e.g. Carthage).

Chase-Dunn (1992, 62) argues that Phoenician cities were ‘capitalist city-states': as active agents of commodification ‘they ought to be designated as the first capitalist states' (p. 63). From the interstices between empires they expanded economic networks across the Mediterranean as merchant capitalists buying cheap and selling dear, and also engaged in production capital (p. 64).

Although the two authors use different terminology we can see that they are effectively telling the same story: how the ancient world became an ensemble of agricultural settlements, city-states, empires and trading networks. Two types of state and two types of city are identified and each pair appear in sequence: city-state then empire; cities based on local hinterlands followed by others enmeshed in wider networks. The former pair take precedence in the story. But is this, as Childe's (1943) book title would have it, “What Happened in History”? I seriously doubt it. This is a paradigm long overdue its revolution.

Against Convention

The conventional story is supported by a century of scholarship based upon reams of archaeological evidence. The result is consensus on cities and states being invented together some 5,000 years ago. There are three ways in which this has been disputed with respect to cities.

1. Deductive argument

A first reason for doubting Mesopotamian city primacy can be found in ceramics. According to Reader (2005, 15) ‘Pottery is the key', sophisticated pots are city products for city needs. Ceramic containers are necessary for large-scale sedentary life and are therefore ubiquitous in city excavations. Among this multifarious mass of evidence Reader emphasises one simple finding: in the earliest layers of Mesopotamia 's ‘first city', Eridu, a wide range of sophisticated pottery products are found. Because there is no sequence from early crude pots upwards (Leick 2002, 10), the resident potters of this city must have started with a well-developed knowledge of ceramic production. If they did not invent complex pottery then such ceramics must have developed in cities pre-dating Eridu. Since Eridu is Mesopotamia 's earliest known city it follows that the origin of cities (and high quality ceramics) can be placed before and outside Childe's Mesopotamian urban revolution.

2. Induction argument

Any ‘first' or ‘origin' position is empirically vulnerable to a black swan finding. Therefore whatever the weight of empirical evidence upon which the conventional story rests, archaeological evidence is never complete, therefore discovery of black swans – cities before Mesopotamian civilization – are always a possibility. Çatal Hüyük in Anatolia, with an estimated population varying between 6,000 and 10,000 about 8,000 years ago, is a classic black swan. To conform to the conventional story Çatal Hüyük has to be interpreted as nothing more than a ‘large village', and indeed, its ‘rural credentials' are claimed by results from the current excavation of the site (Balter 1998, 1999). However the leader of the original excavations, Mellaart (1964, 1965), claimed city status and both Jacobs (1969) and Soja (2000) affirm this from an urban theoretical position – see below. As well as the size of the settlement, they point to a complex division of labour that is a sure sign of urban development: over fifty different types of work are found in Çatal Hüyük's leading Jacobs (1969, 32) to conclude that ‘it was a city of crafts, of artists, manufacturers and merchants' within ‘a network …nearly two thousand miles wide from east to west' (p.22). But again, current archaeological work claims this does not represent economic specialization because there are no workshops dedicated to one task (Balter 1998. 1999). This is always the problem with the inductive approach; evidence can be interpreted in contrary ways. Theory is required to sort out the differences.

3. Theoretical argument

The key claim Çatal Hüyük was a rural settlement is countered by Jacobs' import replacement theory of economic expansion, which will be illustrated in Step 1 below. Here I will focus on two other elements of the theoretical framework presented previously.

First, remember cities do not exist singularly, they depend on each other, they exist in packs (Jacobs 1969). Thus what we are looking for is the development of networks of cities not a putative ‘mother city' out of which urbanization diffuses to other settlements. And this is exactly what Soja (2000, 28-9) finds: ‘a broad T-shaped region … linked together in a trading network of cities'. Of course, this region has no historical name; Soja lists 15 cities (including Çatal Hüyük) in the ‘No Name Region' consisting of the Levant, the upper reaches of the Euphrates and Tigris, and the Anatolian plain in the ‘prehistoric world' of about 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. No Name Region may well be the first city-coordinated world-system.

Second, returning to Mesopotamia, the bundling together of city and state as inherent properties of civilization belies the fact that they are the product of separate and distinctive processes, commercial and guardian. Whereas these two processes are required in all human conditions, there is no reason for their respective expressions through cities and states to coincide. In the No Name Region there will be governance practices carried out by guardians but there is no suggestion of a state with concentration of guardian powers (which is why it has no name). But there is evidence of concentrated commercial practices in a network – the reason why Çatal Hüyük is so important and controversial.

The conventional story is, in Rudgley's (1998, 209) terms, an ‘ideological wall … placed at 5,000 years ago'. It is certainly a very high wall but it needs climbing.

Two steps to world-empire: the Jacobsean story

The Jacobsean story is a simpler one of just two primal transformations, first to a world-economy through invention of city networks, and second to world-empire through invention of city-states.

Step 1: City Networks in No Name Region

Bands of hunters and gathers traded widely with some specialization of trading groups interlocking other groups of peoples (Curtin, 1984; Sahlins, 2004). The question is how did such specialization convert into a concentration of commercial practice that we call cities? This is where Jacobs' theory of import replacement comes into play. Trade initially emanates from different resource endowments. Different places provide different hunting and gathering products and surpluses may be exchanged. Some bands had access to geological resources, like flint and obsidian, which they could trade. Other bands, the traders, would have location as their key resource, a place of between-ness where they could facilitate exchange (Sahlin, 2004, pp. 282-5). It is the latter that may transmute into cities as concentrations of commerce.

Trading of itself does not create economic expansion; it just circulates goods. Expansion occurs when the people in a trading settlement start replacing some of the goods they import by their own production. At the very beginning Jacobs hypothesizes that the first import replacement will be traders producing their own food. In the process they invent agriculture. Agriculture is new work carried on through the city in the making of that city. This is Jacobs' (1969, 36) controversial ‘cities first, rural development later' thesis. Like any economic expansion, the ‘agricultural revolution' is a product of the city. Hence the recent finding that work in Çatal Hüyük is very ‘rural' is wide of the mark as a means of reducing it to ‘large village' status: in this theory of the city, rural work begins as city work.

In this city theory, Jacobs (1969) argues that cities are the locales for economic expansion because of their high population densities. This is a unique context enabling massively increased inter-personal and inter-group contacts, the requirement to stimulate replacements and innovations to produce new work. Agriculture is just one such new work: the idea that this economic transformation could have occurred before the enabling context of cities she dismisses as conventional ‘dogma' (p. 6, 41-8; the conventional emphasis on prior food surpluses to create cities is a curious supply-orientated economics so beloved of orthodox Marxists). Rather, it is the high density of humanity in cities that has invented agriculture to meet its own growing food needs. But this invention is not alone, import replacements and innovations come in clusters, both spatially and temporally, between cities in networks: for Çatal Hüyük, other cities in the No Name Region would have been essential.

Note that it is city-ness that comes first, town-ness can only begin once rural production for cities has been created. Thus unlike, say, Mumford's (1961) idea that villages coalesce to form the first cities/towns in Mesopotamia ; here the sequence would be city-village-town. The argument is that as city food demand increased, a newly created hinterland for food would get larger and at some point some food producers would have to move permanently into the larger hinterland. This would initially create villages; further hinterland expansion would require some local servicing of villages thus leading to the creation of ‘country towns' as a central place process.

Outcome: A Rudimentary World-Economy

The outcome is a lightly urbanized world in which the non-local is organised through city networks by commercial elites and guardian functions remain at local pre-state levels of chiefdoms. This defines a rudimentary world-economy.

Conversion to a world-empire is beyond the guardian practices at local chiefdom level. This transformation is not a matter of ‘progess', a natural progression to a bigger and better society. The facts point in the opposite direction: the transformation from hunter-gather-traders is regressive. Using data on work time inputs for hunter-gather-traders compared to later agricultural populations, Sahlin (2004) has famously described the former as the ‘first affluent society': their few needs were satisfied by little work. Not surprisingly, therefore the transformation involved declining health among the general population (Rudgley, 1998, 7-8). Regression requires coercion; this means a strengthening of guardian practices. Enter the state.

Step 2: City-States in Mesopotamia

Soja (2000) defines my step 1 as the first urban revolution, to be followed by the Mesopotamian as second urban revolution in contradiction to the conventional story. He argues (p. 51) that the second urban revolution is a matter of size and new needs for organization (irrigation works) leading to innovations in governmentality. The result is a competitive mosaic of city-states that lead to ‘the urban invention of the imperial state' (p. 59). Thus defence becomes a critical necessity leading to city walls, something absent from Çatal Hüyük. Evidence from the latter shows little military activity. This does not mean a lack of guardian work in early city networks, but rather that the process had not become centralised into a state-form. Herein lies the origin status claim of Mesopotamia: the invention of the state (as city-state) constituted as new concentration of guardian practices. It is the product of these city-states with their numerous urban political/cultural innovations that has led to its designation as cradle of civilization. But this identification of the ‘first civilization' treats cities and states as societal ‘twins' that appear historically at the same time (e.g. Tilly (1990, 2) treats them as ‘a couple' with a love-hate relationship). But this is because such arguments are based upon a singular ‘rise of civilization' process; our recognition of two prime processes (commercial and guardian) allows for cities to precede states by millennia.

Outcome: A World of World-Empires

So the coming of the state is a second primal transformation. A city-state is a state and therefore guardian practices, including monopolies of violence, dominate commercial practices. The resulting world of world-empires, humanity's ‘normal traditional condition', still includes both guardian and commercial practices but, as noted previously, the former's predilection for hierarchy relegates the latter socially, commonly to the social basement. This can be understood as a necessary feature in moral syndrome analysis.

In terms of the moral syndromes, the world empire form of social organization is an example of what Jacobs (1992, 158-78) calls ‘syndrome-friendly inventions'. Since the two syndromes are contrary in their prescriptions for behaviour and practice they can contaminate each other and cause a breakdown of work; in other words a failure of social reproduction. Successful social organization, therefore relies on syndrome-friendly inventions: the fact that world-empires in various forms survived for millennia across the world shows that the social separation of guardian and commercial practice to be such a winning formula. Hierarchies demeaning commerce - the limiting case is caste society - need not be so negative for commerce since it can provide for a deal of commercial autonomy. This is why world-empires, although dominated by territorial guardians, nevertheless included successful commercial practice that created many great trading cities, and not all in the interstices between political powers.

Two steps from world-empire: the rise and demise of the modern world-system

In this final section I describe two steps away from the world of world-empires. This covers the ground of Wallerstein's (1979) historical project as described in his seminal paper ‘The rise and future demise of the world capitalist system'. Thus what follows is part following and part reinterpreting this as a modern Jacobsean story.

Step 1: Modern (Rerritorial (Mercantile, Nation-) States in Europe and Beyond

According to Wallerstein (1979) the modern world-system came into being in the long sixteenth century (c 1450-1650). The new world-system involved another round of guardian centralization but unlike with world-empires, the centralization occurred in multiple territories. This ‘inter-state system', consolidated at Westphalia in 1648, is an important element of the modern world-systems survival: it provided space for commercial practices. The new states were ‘mercantile states' that developed explicit policies to promote commercial practices in their territories. But because there were multiple states, the interstices for commercial expansion were everywhere: city networks overlapped multiple states so that leading commercial elites had a built-in spatial autonomy.

In moral syndrome analysis this can be interpreted as follows. The traditional ‘syndrome-friendly', guardian/commercial relation of separation can be referred to as a modus vivendi. Modernities are constructed in opposition to such traditional practices. One hallmark of any modernity is that it challenges old status hierarchies: the modus vivendi is replaced by a modus operandi in which both guardian and commercial work are respected (Taylor 2007b). This is expressed in the modern state, a polity that is distinguished by its combining traditional responsibility for guardian work with new responsibilities for commercial work. Thus the primal transformation to a modern world-system is the invention of a new ‘syndrome friendly' relation between guardian and commercial work. This modus operandi is generally termed political economy.

In Wallerstein's account of the rise of the modern world-system, cities are relatively neglected but this is compensated by Braudel's (1984) analysis of early modern political economy. In his argument, Genoa ‘silent rule' (with Castile) is followed by the rise of Amsterdam and the United Provinces. There is a debate about the nature of this later success story. Sometimes interpreted as ‘ Amsterdam city-state', Braudel has it as both the last dominant city as well as the ‘halfway house' between prior city and later state economic pre-eminence. My position is that the United Provinces are most certainly not a city-state; they are more like a ‘state of cities' or ‘merchant state' but perhaps this concern for labelling the polity a state is the problem. An alternative argument is that the Dutch created a unique political economy entity, a new guardian/commercial relation (Taylor 2005). First, merchants in cities dominated the polity and used it to further their commercial work – it has been called the most capitalist of states. But the commercial elite did not take over the fundamental guardian role of protection. There was a sort of public-private initiative whereby when the political situation became dangerous the Orange family were brought in to act as stadtholder. The stadtholder was not sovereign, he was a ‘governor', previously governing on behalf of the Hapsburgs, now allowed to govern the merchants for their specific protection.

This very confused and confusing political structure is simplified today by referring to it as the ‘ Dutch Republic ' but this is a later imposed labelling. What we have is a multi-nodal city region wherein commercial elites have their own territory to protect and who bring in local guardians when muscle is needed. It can be interpreted as a syndrome-friendly invention, moving towards the modern modus operandi through guardian and commercial work being organised within a single territorial framework. The guardian-commercial relationship varied with the security situation in the seventeenth century culminating with the stadtholders overseeing the Dutch economic decline after the debacle of 1672 and through the eighteenth century. By this time the idea of a territorial modus operandi became established as mercantilism – the upscaling of traditional city commercial policies to the territorial state level. This territorialism survived Adam Smith's critique of mercantilism and was ultimately consolidated by the ‘nation-state' – what Jacobs (1984) calls ‘the myth of the national economy'. Thus the Dutch did not produce the first ‘modern state' but they did create the materialist context out of which modernity has prospered.

The Outcome: The Two Sides of Modernity in a Political Economy

The transition to this new world-system is from a traditional political world dominated by guardians to a political economy world; an upgrading of commercial work relative to guardian work that enabled a capitalist world-economy to be created and reproduced.

The political economy modus operandi of the modern world-system has embedded an ambiguity at the heart of modernity. This centres on guardians in their states seeing complexity as a problem, something to be tamed through planning; and commercial work in cities viewing complexity as opportunity, something to make money out of. Thus there is a widely recognised ‘dual ambiguity' (Taylor 1999, 15) inherent to the concept of modernity. For instance, social change in the modern world has been viewed in two totally different ways: state modernization models portrayed simple stages of ordered conversion from traditional to modern society (Lerner et al 1968); in contrast Berman (1988, 15) famously described modernity as innately complex, ‘a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal'. Thus, according to Lash and Friedman (1992, 2) there are two ‘faces' of modernity; these have taken a variety of guises as listed in Table 2.

The paired opposites in Table 2 are witness to how Jacobs' moral syndromes are entwined in the modern world-system. And each face of modernity has its own space. States are clearly producers and outcomes of modernity as order: planning in its many guises removes complexities to create uncomplicated planned spaces. Cities on the other hand are implicated in chaos; they are locales that thrive on complexity consequent upon myriad functions. Thus while the world of the state is a simple space of places, a mosaic of approximately sovereign territorial containers; the world of the city is a multifarious space of flows, a veritable blizzard of innumerable networks, circuits and chains.

From the ‘Dutch Republic' onwards, the modern world-system has operated through a political economy modus operandi that creates many examples of both syndrome-friendly inventions and their opposite, destructive monstrous hybrids. The most important were the hegemonic inventions and their hybridic challenges. The Dutch syndrome-friendly invention that led to systemic mercantile modernity reproduction, superseded by the British syndrome-friendly invention that led to systemic industrial modernity reproduction, in turn superseded by the third hegemonic invention, American consumer modernity whose systematic consumer modernity reproduction has elided into contemporary globalization. Although these hegemonies are identified above by their state location, in fact as political economy products cities are equally implicated in world hegemonies: this is what makes them different from political transitions in world-empires. In modern political economy transitions cities play a central role. In each hegemony economic supremacy was created in just one region of the state's territory: Holland in the ‘ Dutch Republic ', the industrial North in Britain, and the North East/Mid West ‘manufacturing belt' in the USA. Their own states pursued space of flows policies outside their territories - freedom to sail, freedom to trade and freedom to produce system-wide respectively – to support their clusters of vibrant dynamic cities. In contrast, their systemic oppositions each favoured territorialist autarchies aiming to bring guardians back into control: the Hapsburg's counter-Reformation, Napoleon's continental system, Germany 's lebensraum and national socialism, and latterly, the USSR 's communist state planning. It is the defeat of the these regressive guardian attempts to recreate a world-empire that has enabled step two to be reached: contemporary globalization.

Step 2: Globalization Beyond Modernity

In the spirit of this exploratory paper – ‘the times they are a-changing' - and while recognizing that globalization exhibits many of the ambiguities of modernity, I am going to accept the premise that it represents the beginning of a new era. This position is not a simple scale-based – ‘up-scaling to a new global era' – but derives from the contemporary changing nature of space. Following Castells (1996) the modern space of places is being superseded by a new space of flows in a network or informational society. And this is associated with the rise of global/globalizing/world cities in a new world city network (Taylor 2004). The latter replaces ‘national urban hierarchies' that contained cities within ‘national economies': with globalization, cities appear to have burst out of their state containers. New social space construction portends new world-system.

In moral syndrome analysis, transformation to a new world-system means changing the balance between guardian and commercial work, in other words undermining the political economy modus operandi. At its simplest this can change in two directions: either a reversal to guardian dominance or an enhancement of the power of commercial work. I will begin by discussing each possibility through its limiting case in turn, starting with the latter.

Much of the globalization discourse is about the decline or even demise of the state due to the economic onslaught of financial markets and transnational corporations. Thus much debate centres on the role of states in global society. Even without going as far as the ‘end of the state'/'borderless world' rhetoric, in this scenario there is no doubt that the new space of flows is fundamentally impinging on the powers of states, the main locales of guardians. Thus it can be argued that our political economy world is transmuting into an economic world in which world markets prevail, a new ‘purer' form of capitalist world-economy. Possibly only previously glimpsed in the seventeenth century Dutch polity, this would be a confederation of cities at a world-systems scale in which corporations held sway (Petrella's (1995) dystopia). To the degree that global governance is weak relative to global commercial work, the process of contemporary economic globalization can be deemed a ‘monstrous hybrid' (an unbalance guardian/commercial relation), not reproducible over the medium term since weakened guardians will not be able to constrain environment-destroying economic growth.

From a political/IR perspective globalization looks very different with the ‘global' represented by the practices of a lone superpower and resistances thereto. This presages a more political world, a geopolitics with related corporate geoeconomic monopolies replacing world markets. In this scenario states remain as the key players in wars over reducing global resources such as oil and water. This is a sort of ‘ Middle East shatter belt' writ large to become system-wide. Guardians are back in the seats of power and boundaries return as critical lines in the carve-up of the world into monopoly resource zones. This is an alternative monstrous hybrid in which commercial work will not be able to sustain the permanent war.

But neither of these two scenarios is realistic; each downgrades its contrary syndrome too far. Jacobs always insists that both are necessary for human social reproduction; in the two scenarios the emphasis is on the rapacious side of each way of making a living, producing either a cruel and irresponsible capitalist world-economy or a vicious and reckless geopolitical world. However, the political stewardship process in guardian work and the economic expansion process in commercial work are contrary positives that define sustainable development. Beyond the easy rhetoric on the latter, this is the syndrome-friendly invention that has to be invented from the disaster of contemporary globalization. This is a step 2 worth making: a primal transformation to sustainable development as an alternative political economy world of cities and states.



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Table 1: Moral syndromes by clusters of precepts















‘Key virtue’

Other basic cluster

Operating cluster

Progress cluster

Capital cluster


Life cluster

Be honest

Shun force
Come to voluntary agreements

Collaborate with strangers and aliens
Respect contracts
Use initiative and enterprise

Be open to novelty
Be efficient
Promote comfort
Dissent for the sake of the task

Invest for productive purposes
Be industrious
Be thrifty

Be optimistic

‘Key virtue’

Other basic cluster

Action cluster


Lifestyle cluster



Life cluster

Be loyal

Shun trading
Exert prowess
Adhere to tradition
Be obedient and disciplined
Respect hierarchy

Take vengeance
Deceive for the sake of the task

Make rich use of leisure
Be ostentatious
Dispense largesse
Be exclusive
Show fortitude

Be fatalistic
Treasure honour

Source: Taylor (2007b) derived from Jacobs (1992)


Table 2: Guardian and commercial outcomes creating modern ambiguities

Modernity through guardian work

Modernity through commercial work








reason and order








flow, flux and change


Bauman (1991, 15)

Wagner (1994, xi)

De Sousa Santos (1995, 2)

Smart (1999, 6)

Giddens (1990, 7)

Ogborn (1998, 5)



Edited and posted on the web on 1st October 2007

Note: This Research Bulletin has been published in W.R. Thompson (ed) (2009) Systemic Transitions: Past, Present, and Future New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 241-260