Political Fiction. Stunning Site of Slums. Duke of Good Advice. Drowsy Refuge of Individuality. Privatisation of Development. Stimulus of Wealth, Title and Taste. Palace in the Slums. Conspicuous Abstention. Creative Indulgence. Whims of Duchess. Social Fallout of Private Gain. Style of Medicis. Savings of Small Scale. Chain Reaction of Emulation. No Need for Public Funds. Variation in Class and Style. The Dukeâs Head. History of Nuclear Seeding. Utopian Fiction? From Peisistratos to Venice. Value of Monarchy.
I have often meant to write what the Germans call a Staatsroman â a state novel, an exercise in literary fiction for the purpose of illuminating the implications of a social theory. The most likely location for my prospective Staatsroman is the teeming slum hill of Buen Consejo at the edge of Puerto Ricoâs metropolitan area of San Juan.
Having been selected not by experts from MIT but by slum dwellers, the site is, not surprisingly, so stunning that it would satisfy even the most demanding sense of residential and commercial location. It certainly has greatly enlivened the planning languor of my dreams. Moreover, it has a singularly charming name â Buen Consejo, Good Advice. I have not yet decided on the sort of Machiavellian love plot that should be instilled into the story. But I have a rather clear idea as to the rest. And above all, I have the title: The Duke of Buen Consejo.
Even as it is, Buen Consejo has all the makings of a splendid little city, and I often point them out to visitors who are at first bewildered, then amused, and finally enraptured, once they succeed in seeing the exquisite beauty underneath a seemingly unappetizing surface.
Cascading down the slopes of a steep hill, its buzzing streets run joyfully into the eddies of dozens of leisurely squares hanging like flower-bedecked balconies over gullies, houses, and valleys. Its foot-paths, created by the movement of life itself, wind naturally up and down, often abruptly ending in daring flights of stairs leading skywards to dramatically posed houses musing like exotic birds on slender legs, high above the reach of cars and controversy. Its views sweep over the neighbouring communities below, over the tree-lined mirror-still eyes of enigmatic lagoons in the distance, and onto the foaming white horses of the surf until they become indistinct in the shimmering blue expanse of the ocean on the horizon.
The whole settlement looks rather like the cone of Mont St.Michael, San Marino, Fiesoleor, on a smaller scale, like Segoviaor Toledoâ except, of course, that it is an abysmal slum. But so were once also the others. And like the others in their still crowded quarters, it is full of the radiant hum of warm-hearted people, sun-bathed and wind-cooled, happy in the cooperative closeness of their communal existence, and safe in the sovereignty of their huts, the drowsy refuge of their individuality.
Now, instead of shaving Buen Consejo off the surface of the earth and turning it into another wooded park into which no one except rapists will ever set foot again; or instead of waiting for decades until a welfare-minded anxious government, which after all has the whole of the country as its concern, will at last come around to allocating the necessary funds within the slowticking priority scale of a sweepingly comprehensive national plan; my Staatsroman envisions the Government entrusting the improvement of this particular community â along with the local rather than national development of a host of similar communities â to a private entrepreneur.
Since the reason for this is the inescapable insufficiency of public funds, necessary for the simultaneous pursuit of a great number of development programs of equal urgency (as otherwise the government would of course undertake the task itself), it follows that the private entrepreneur to be put in charge of Buen Consejo must be able to finance the expected improvements out of his own pocket. In other words, he must be a person of means, a capitalist of substance, a millionaire many times over.
However, in spite of the pathetic ambition to excel in social service rather than private gain, which our mass age has imposed on the intimidated tribe of modern welfare-capitalists, it is doubtful whether a rich man such as a Rockefeller or a Luis FerrĂ© could be enticed into assuming a task of this scope. For whatever it might contribute to his reputation as a benefactor of mankind, he knows that he would still be abused, and have his motives doubted, by the Marxists, by the cynics, by the politicians, by the academics, by the psychologists, by the beneficiaries, by the editors, by the competitors, by Krushchev quoting the gospel and, from far beyond the grave, by the voice of Adam Smith quoting from The Wealth of Nations. He would therefore have to be offered a more concrete inducement than mere honour or pretended acclaim, an inducement derived not from his sense of social responsibility but from the always reliable old-fashioned human motivation of pride, vanity, and self-interest.
Money, however, would in this case not work for a variety of reasons. The public has none to offer, the millionaire has enough and, if he should be accessible to the lure of additional riches, he would obviously choose more profitable targets for investment than the building of modern accommodation for impoverished slum dwellers. But there are other incentives compellingly stirring the private interest.
What a millionaire entrepreneur might not wish to undertake for the sake of an extra million, he might, as England has so fruitfully demonstrated, assume for the sake of a vanity-flattering, high-sounding aristocratic title. There are many rich people in the world, but very few of them who are dukes. So, in order to arouse the necessary enthusiasm, the government of my story decides not only to commission a rich millionaire with executing the novelâs featured local development project; it confers this project on him as a duchy. It makes him the Duke of Buen Consejo.
That the country is a Republic should not stand in the way of such titles any more than it does in San Marino which is a republic too â the oldest, in fact, in the world, going all the way back to the year 300 A.D. Yet, republic or not, San Marinohas enriched both its incorruptible treasury and its looks, to a not inconsiderable degree, by conferring elegant aristocratic titles on wealthy foreigners.
However, really to produce the desired result, the dukedom of Buen Consejo would have to convey more than a mere title worn by an absentee patron. Like the dukedoms of history, it would have to be invested with a high degree of sovereignty, or with sovereignty under the authority of the national government. Its Duke would therefore actually be the executive head of the new domain, not quite like the Prince of Monaco, but almost. This would have the additional advantage of attracting so many applicants that the Government would have no difficulty in finding candidates possessing not only appropriate riches but also appropriate ability and taste.
There is only one restriction to be imposed on the new Duke. As in the case of most other constitutional heads of self-governing communities, from villages to bishoprics to sovereign states, he is required to reside in Buen Consejo personally. And he is required to bring up his family within the boundaries of his domain.
Taking this as starting point, the rest of the story is self-developing. Being a duke, he must have an appropriately splendid residence. And being the head of a community, this residence must be located not at the outskirts of Buen Consejo but in its very midst. Like the White House, Fortaleza, or Buckingham Palace, it will serve as both government centre and private home. The Duke will therefore hardly need to be prodded into embellishing it.
Moreover, unlike a stern republican government, he will be able to abandon himself to the ego-swelling and beauty-generating principle of conspicuous consumption, which has contributed so much to the sensuous splendour of Renaissance cities, rather than having to pay homage to the puritanical sterility of the nowadays so fashionable principle of conspicuous abstention, which may enhance the moral stature of its practitioners, but hardly the aesthetic value of their communities.
Buen Consejo will make such creative indulgence all the more possible as, contrary to modern theory, the social acceptability of conspicuous consumption varies inversely with the wealth of the public. The poorer a society, the more will its members delight in being represented by pomp and circumstance. The richer â the more will they demand of their leaders the public display of impecunious humility as a guilt ridden sign of their collective penance for a private affluence they are morally incapable of accepting as deserved.
Thus, Buen Consejoâs first ducal development project serves not the slummers but the Duke. No public funds have been used, no money but his own. However, one can imagine the pains of his delicate Duchess, now that she has come to live on the spot. As she looks out from her damask curtained room of gilded mirrors and embroidered tapestries, all she sees is a muddy square surrounded by huts made of cardboard and compressed sardine tins. Lest he lose his lovely wife, the Duke realizes he must do more than just provide her with a palace. He must adorn the approaches.
His second development project will therefore be paving the square. With this, his private gain begins for the first time to produce an asset automatically benefitting also the community. However since, from his point of view, the paving is nonetheless primarily still meant to serve as a mere decorative extension of his private palace, its cost is still chargeable to his personal account. Moreover, precisely because he has his own rather than the as yet insensitive public interest in mind, he will, like the Medicis before him, execute the paving project not in utilitarian republican concrete but in aristocratic marble.
This, in turn, will set the tone also for the other squares, though in their case the improvement will no longer be financed from the Dukeâs private funds. However, this will not impede their rapid embellishment. For, as history has so often shown, many of the things that are beyond the financial reach of prosperous, integrated, costly superpowers, constitute no budgetary problems in poor communities as long as they are small. The famous savings of scale are all on their side, of small scale that is, with no public need to provide their citizens with, and make them financially responsible for, an average stretch of 13.4 miles of four-lane dual carriageway per each and every man.
But even a square paved with marble will not be enough to satisfy the aesthetic sophistication of the Duchess. So His Serene Highness will, as his next step, induce his tin-shacked neighbours to rebuild their homes, with the help of appropriate subsidies, in material and style befitting the new environment. In fact, aroused by his example, many of them will already have begun to do precisely this on their own initiative, so that the required subsidies will be so insignificant as to leave hardly a dent in the ducal treasury.
The principal need will be for aesthetic and technical rather than financial assistance. Moreover, considering that the new wave of beautification benefits from now on, quite tangibly, no longer only the Duke but every one whose property borders on the recently marbled square, the neighbours will also on this ground be quite willing to bear the bulk of the improvement costs themselves. The only question is: can they? After all, as slum dwellers they are still abjectly poor. But they are poor because for centuries they have held in their hands the costliest of all development resources, labour power, without ever putting it to proper use. Bearing the bulk of the costs themselves means therefore no more than at last using properly the one commodity over which they dispose in abundance already.
As a result, the second phase of urban renewal, though it involves by now also a large degree of public improvement, is again executed by means of strictly private resources, mobilized in addition no longer by the Duke alone but jointly with his aroused and equally benefitting neighbours. In other words, the second phase represents from an economic point of view actually less of a problem than the first. All that is at this juncture required of the Duke is to inject a relatively small amount of his personal embellishment funds into the plaza outside his residence. As this is the focal point at which his own private interests intersect with those of his neighbours, and the interests of both with those of the public, an infusion at this strategic location will suffice to trigger off such a chain reaction of supplementary private activities that the marbled square will soon be transformed into an effective urban nucleus â without the need for tapping a penny in public funds.
And the process will of course not stop here. For once the stimulus of outside help, however small at its origin, has released the tremendous dormant forces of self-help, it will spread from square to square, and street to street, until nothing is left of the slum except its exquisite geography. Moreover, fanned by the spirit of both emulation and competition, the whole dramatic development will not be the wearisome product of cautiously phased successive stages of a long-run plan ceremoniously unfolding in majestic lethargy, but of a number of brief bursts of energy erupting with volcanic ferocity in all corners of the place at the same time.
The third development phase now setting in has a more sophisticated objective. Evolving naturally out of the second, it is primarily concerned with the task of introducing variety into that deadly pattern of uniformity which is not only the inevitable result of all central planning, but the most characteristic feature of all slums, the slums of affluence no less than those of poverty.
But once again, the program that might be beyond the reach of super powers will prove practically self-generating as well as self-financing in the Duchy of Buen Consejo. In fact, ducal funds may now no longer be needed at all. For the burst of activities which has enlivened the second phase has raised the Duchyâs income level sufficiently to supply it with the development funds for the third. And the same activities that have produced the required funds have also prepared the ground for variety to sprout forth. For the basically uncoordinated self-help and laissez-faire character of the majority of these activities have resulted in the gradual assertion of a multitude of differences in taste, temperament, and skill, not only architecturally, but also socially, professionally, and economically.
Following the aesthetic lead of the Duke, or rather perhaps of the Duchess, but otherwise exclusively engaged in the pursuit of their own varied interests, some citizens have thus begun to build taller, some smaller. Some are staying workers, some are becoming craftsmen. Some are rising in affluence, some are lagging behind. With the increase in business transactions of a now no longer lethargic community, some are turning into lawyers, some into bankers. With the increase in personal involvements, some decide to become psychoanalysts, some priests.
Moreover, following the Dukeâs example, the rising middle class, instead of escaping once again into the costly unurban boredom of the suburbs, considers it smart to live on its business premises. This infuses into the picture an additional dimension in architectural differences, making a number of houses so stately that some of them are beginning to rival even the residence of the Duke.
The same process will affect ecclesiastical buildings with the Church zestfully assuming her traditional role as pace setter in glorious architecture and as discriminating patron of the arts. This, in turn, creates opportunities for the anarchistic diversity of artists. And artists must of course sit in cafĂ©s which, adjusting to the new social scene, and bursting out into varying styles and degrees of luxury, are adding the last in convivial amenities by spilling over the sidewalks along leisurely streets, whose vehicular traffic has become largely dispensible under the dense pedestrian living conditions, surviving as one of the principal social amenities from the original slum.
All this is quite contrary to modern planning ideals which are trying their best not to emphasize but to level differences. But luckily our Duke does not subscribe to them. He thinks that the good city is not the uniform but the diverse city; not the rich but the full city; not a diffuse flatland at whatever height a plateau, but a pyramid rising from a sharply defined base in exciting progression through a series of narrowing tiers up towards the sky. He knows with Aristotle that âa state is not made up only of so many, but of different kinds of men; for similars do not constitute a state. It is not like a military alliance.â And he agrees with Gilbert and Sullivan when they say of a fiesta to which only grandees are admitted: âwhere everybody is somebody, nobody is anybody.â
With the aesthetic, economic, and material conditions improved, we have arrived at the final phase of development. This concerns itself with more than mere urban renewal. It aims at the culminating target: the raising of the Duchyâs educational level. This is again in contradiction to conventional development patterns, most of which attempt to educate first and improve material conditions later. But our Duke has long realized that premature education is as much of an obstacle to rapid development as no education. For the educated man has higher wage claims and other requirements than an underproductive underdeveloped community can afford. Provoking claims on a communal product that as yet does not exist, premature education must therefore necessarily lead to frustration rather than satisfaction; to a painful disequilibrium rather than a new equilibrium at a higher level; to an increase in costs when the belt-tightening nature of all progress demands that costs should be kept low; to strikes when all hands should be put to work.
But now the time is ripe for achieving the cultural crowning mission of the ducal reign. As we have seen, one of the few constitutional restrictions imposed on the Duke stipulates that he and his family must maintain their regular residence within the boundaries of the Duchy. This makes it impossible for his Serene Highness to send his children away from Buen Consejo when they reach school age. Since he is nevertheless anxious to provide them with the best possible education, he has no alternative but to bring the best teachers in at his own expense. And since he is also anxious to raise his children in the most normal fashion, he will not content himself with importing the best of teachers. He will also set them up in appropriately endowed and appointed schools to which also the children of the poorest will be admitted free of charge. This will bring a measure of democratic roughage to the wealthy and the sophistication of aristocracy to the poor, until all social layers of Buen Consejo will have become culturally so demanding and economically so strong that they will not only begin to produce the best teachers themselves; they will also be able to bring forth and support the last and most elevated tier of cultural producers; the philosophers, the poets, the composers, as well as the small concert house and the intimate theatre in which they can perform.
And, once again, even at this culminating level, the cost of it all will constitute a negligible problem. Given an initial push from the private purse of the Duke, furnished for reasons of strictly personal improvement, it will in its subsequent and more demanding stages easily be borne by the community itself, not because it will then be producing so much but because â as in the case of every small enterprise â the cost of running it will be so little.
In other words, Buen Consejo will be able to finance its culture simply by not having to finance (a) the kind of bureaucracy-infested government machinery that is necessary to keep a large society integrated with its own extremities; and (b) the prohibitively expensive road network necessary to prevent it from losing track of itself, to say nothing of all the impoverishing and privately borne incidentals such a road network entails: the cars racing endlessly up and down in a vain effort to pull abreast of forever increasing technological distances; the repair work keeping the cars in shape; and the petrol quenching their unquenchable thirst.
Utopian? Hardly! A utopia promises the abolition of all misery. What Buen Consejo offers is the utterly realistic advantages of small size. Being so much smaller than most modern political communities, it will quite naturally minimize the problems of life in common. And it will minimize them at a geometric rate so that they will be more in line with the small stature of man. But it will solve none of them, that is none except the main problem of our age, the problem of excessive size. In wholly un-utopian fashion, it accepts the imperfections in both man and society as they are.
It will therefore still have its quantum of disease, passion, frustration, intrigue, violence, idiocy, trickery. And, for all I know, my story may end with a satiated citizenry reverting to the solid old forms of a nonsense republican government by ungratefully dismissing the Duke once he has fulfilled his vital development function, perhaps even beheading him, and in a dignified ceremony commemorating his fruitful reign by naming a zestful pub or a night club The Dukeâs Head (following in this the lead of the restrained English who, while taking their pleasures sadly, as Voltaire once remarked, seem not infrequently intent upon taking their executions gladly).
But I have still an unpuritanical open mind about this. I may keep the Duke. After all, one of the strongest forces of cohesion, particularly during the harassing times of economic development and social change, is precisely a personal, ducal, monarchical centre, a paternalistic father image, that radiates trust along with the indispensable authority, and rules by setting an example rather than by imposing conduct through decree. It makes many things so much simpler and cheaper.
As we have seen, all our Duke must do if there is need for stimulating a subsequently self-generating desire for general education is to make his people the witness of his educational concern for his own family. To instill into them a sense for elegance and style, the pace-setting habits of the Duchess will be as effective as costly appreciation courses. To arouse their enthusiasm for the theatre and the arts, he must but display a conspicuous interest in them himself, as did the Duke of Weimar in Goetheâs time, as a result of which the lowliest coachman and humblest maid became as familiar with the latest achievements in literature as they would now be with âpopâ. And to push economic development, all he must do is engage in a display of conspicuous consumption which, far from being socially reprehensible, performs the same function as a national fair, a fashion show, or a Sears & Roebuck mail-order catalogue. It informs the people from the most strategic centre of what is going on, and advertises what is being produced. Indeed, so valuable are monarchical symbols as tools of efficient salesmanship, that an editor from The Economist came justly to the conclusion after perusing American advertisements that the United States is the country most devoted to the Crown.
So I may keep the Duke right to the happy end, rather than restore Buen Consejo to the folds of the republic whose codes are most honourable. But they do tend to hound every representative public person seen stepping from his official car into a night club until he either abdicates or descends into the shadows of conspicuous abstention. Which may qualify him for holy orders. But in times of development, it is economically about as beneficial as a frugal government bent on the sterility of saving rather than on spending.
Fiction? I have called it a Staatsroman. It is a Roman as far as Buen Consejo is concerned, with its heroes and heroics unfortunately indeed bearing hardly any resemblance to living persons or incidents. But otherwise it is nothing of the kind. It pictures not theory but history as it unfolded itself in a vast number of villages, cities, and city states all over Europe during the Middle Ages, or in the countless urban foundations of Greek and Phoenician antiquity. They all were developed through nuclear seeding rather than comprehensive planning. And they, too, were for ages milling around at stagnant substandard levels, hoping for something to come to their assistance, until they became possessed by a tyrant, a lord, an aristocratic merchant, a duke, a prince, a king, who decided that what was needed was not a subtle economic growth machinery but a bit of aesthetic ambition; that the fast way of advancing is not by waiting for outside help but by doing things oneself; that the point is not that communities cannot build because they are poor, but that they are poor because the bastards wonât build; not that they must have union before they can afford luxuries, but that they must have reached a level of luxury before they can afford the expensive parasitism of union.
So simple is the economics of development on a local rather than a national and international scale, and so great the scale advantage of small size, that a whole battery of nuclear seeders has, historically, often appeared in a number of hotly competing city states at the same time, and done severally what no great power could ever have achieved unitedly in such a chain reaction of duplicating efforts: raising their domains from slum to marble, often in the brief creative spasm of a single generation.
When Peisistratos appeared on the scene, the major part of Athens consisted of hovels. When he departed, there stood an array of buildings of whose immortal beauty Pausanias could write hundreds of years later that, when they were new, they already looked ancient. Now that they were old, they still looked new.
Similarly,Venice started her scintillating career as an abysmal slum. Had she followed modern advice and waited with her development until Italy had been united, the United Nations established, the Common Market formed, she would still be a slum today. And so would Urbino, Perugia, Assisi, Parma, Padua, and most of the glamorous rest.
By going ahead on her own in the fashion of the Duke of Buen Consejo, she violated all principles of sound politics, economics, planning, location theory, indeed of intellectual levelheadedness itself. For who except a fool or bohemian slummer would build in the midst of a lagoon. But she gave us Venice.
First Published in âThe San Juan Reviewâ in August 1964.
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