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Given the nature of our politically-driven, morality-obsessed middle class society, and its passion for direct action, it follows that the more persons there are who are dedicated to solving problems, the more problems there have to be…

The Unheavenly City by Edward C. Banfield (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1970)

Urban CrisesOnce in a great while there comes along a book that is radical in the true and intellectual sense of the word; one that shows us how to break categories of conventional wisdom rather than classroom windows, to uproot the stale flowers of secular piety rather than the flowers in the president’s garden. The Unheavenly City is such a book. It is also a book that offers a vast amount of insight into that most obsessive of current national interests, the city and its future in American polity.

Edward Banfield is Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of American Government at Harvard University. He is the deeply respected author of nearly a dozen books and monographs on cities—their problems, their processes, and the policies through which we seek to deal with cities in this country. He is, finally, one of that still very small number of top flight social scientists in this country engaged in relentless examination of, not the conventional wisdom of, say, the Middle Ages, but the conventional wisdom of the social sciences and social policy-makers of the twentieth century. This makes him a possibly dangerous, certainly heretical man. It makes him a wonderfully valuable man, and even if his body lights up the sky as the result of inquisitorial condemnation at 1970 meetings of the social science associations, I predict that he will prove to be a wonderful candle by which we find our way into the future.

Professor Banfield is much more modest. He predicts, in the Preface, that he is most likely to be thought an ill-tempered, mean-spirited fellow. Well, in these times, I like to think one could do much worse than be thought ill-tempered and mean-spirited. One doesn’t come upon that rare type very often in our mass-middle class society composed so largely of the bland and the boneless, incessantly in quest of preening by peers—at least in the academic world. Even so, I don’t think the author is as likely to be thought mean and ill-tempered as he is to be thought the product of original sin and invincible ignorance—as these terms are currently defined in the lay theology of contemporary political science, sociology, and related academic disciplines.

The majority of readers will fall, I think, into two camps, at first unequally sized. The first camp will be, almost certainly, quite large in the beginning. Its inhabitants will be all the social scientists, policy-makers, and minions of Service Forever, Inc. who, after one horrified look at the book’s conclusions and, worse, of the solid evidence that documents the conclusions will either ignore it (probable) or else sweep it under a footnote as the sad example of a once fine mind corrupted by lurking penchant for the sociologically wicked.

The second camp, I make bold to predict, will be small at the outset, but it will grow-steadily and substantially. The book could even become—such is my stout optimism in these matters, despite all depressing evidence to the contrary in the social science—a classic. Certainly The Unheavenly City has the attributes of a classic: imagination united with immense and precise knowledge, profundity as well as brilliance of insight, a subject that is not likely to disappear, either in fact or in popular interest; and also style; style in the good and full sense of that often abused word. The style is Banfield; more accurately, Banfield’s knowledge of the urban age as distilled through an incessantly experiencing mind. Rem tene, verba sequentur, wrote the elder Cato. Well, Edward Banfield has grasped his subject and the words have duly followed; very good words indeed.

What follows in this review will be scarcely more than selective paraphrase of the book. I am grateful for this. One grows weary from the auger that must be repressed or else dressed up in Sunday clothes when one ordinarily reviews books these days. Heading The Unheavenly City, and writing about it, come as welcome respite. I like the book, I concur with it so completely that any expression of differences would be no more than idle hair-splitting, and I want very much to see a large number of people read the book. Why, then, pretend otherwise or seek to interpose reviewer’s own conceits between book and its forthcoming audience.

Since I have described The Unheavenly City as a radical assault on conventional wisdom in the social sciences and on secular piety in the burgeoning sphere of a middle class service, it is well to single out, as background for our appreciation of the book, the major pillars on which this conventional wisdom and this piety rest. They are three.

The first pillar has to do with the universally undoubted belief that our large American cities have deteriorated in all important respects and may today be described—in words given us by Robert Dahl, political scientist at Yale—as “anti-cities: mean, ugly, gross, banal, inconvenient, hazardous, formless, incoherent, unfit for human living.” Believe me, those words are about average for reigning wisdom and piety alike.

The second pillar, depending upon the first, declares that our cities are seething cauldrons of repressed revolt because—I repeat because—cities are mean, ugly, gross, etc. and also because within these sinks of inconvenience and squalor, problems of poverty, schooling, police protection, medical services, and housing become more crisis-ridden all the time. As we shall see, these problems are crisis-ridden in many respects but for reasons very different from those assigned by conventional wisdom and secular piety.

The third pillar of conventional wisdom, dependent upon both the first two, declares that only through massive political action of direct type, chiefly Federal, supplemented by the efforts of Innumerable Urban Coalitions spread out in a vast network across the country, financed by hundreds of billions of dollars (I do not exaggerate) can we hope to make even a faint beginning in our mastery of what is called by everyone “the urban crisis.” The fact that political onslaught after onslaught has failed, or else has worsened the problem, or else has fattened the riches of the already rich in the cities, leaving the poor relatively poorer, has no effect upon this crisis-based mentality in politics. Neither does the fact that the present Urban Coalition is in large part a failure; worse, has left in many a community a substantial residue of bitterness and frustration. There must be more political forms of direct action, more Urban Coalitions.

Now, I do not think I have exaggerated in the foregoing paragraph. In fact, as I reflect on some recent dispatches from John Gardner’s Urban Coalition and related agencies in Washington, I think I have been commendably restrained. I have wanted to be, for it is not necessary to enhance or caricature the central propositions of conventional wisdom on the city in America. It suffices merely to state them if we are to appreciate the radical character of Edward Banfield’s book.

For the book may be best viewed as a learned and perceptive reply, by one of our foremost social scientists, precisely to these three propositions. From Professor Banfield’s engaging of each conventional proposition emerges a radical conclusion. Taken together, his three conclusions—assuming, that is, that they are read and pondered in the right places, chiefly in the minds of voting citizens—could well lead to the kind of reappraisal of the city, the reformulation of values, that Irving Kristol has suggested in his recent inaugural lecture as Henry R. Luce Professor of Urban Values at New York University.[1]

Let me turn now, with this necessary background briefly sketched, to the three major conclusions that I am able to draw from the dozen, research-rooted, closely argued, superbly lucid chapters that form The Unheavenly City.

First, the city in America, far from being the metropolitan jungle, the setting of unprecedented material deprivation and ethical ugliness, is in fact a very good place for most persons to live. Admittedly not good by criteria which any bush league disciple of Service could summon up in an instant out of his infinite knowledge of the Neverland of utopian dream. But good when assessed by any standards, past and present, American and foreign, that a scholar might work with. Bear in mind too that while Banfield writes of the city he is dealing, overwhelmingly, not with the tiny locality of 2,500 persons that for some reason I shall never understand is the Census Bureau’s notion of the dividing line between rural and urban. Banfield is writing about New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and others comparable. Moreover, he reminds us occasionally that for the worst of the urban jungle—so-called—in contemporary America one would do better to visit some of the localities which come close to Census Bureau dividing line. No matter by what realistic standard of life and service we choose to assess these no longer rural, not yet truly urban scenes, they come out rather badly alongside the Chicagos, Clevelands, San Franciscos, and New Yorks of our time. These, not the “cities” of five and ten thousand inhabitants, are the places Banfield has chiefly in mind when he writes the following passage:

There is less poverty in the cities now than there has ever been. Housing, including that of the poor, is improving rapidly: one study predicts that substandard housing will have been eliminated by 1980. In the last decade alone the improvement in housing has been marked. At the turn of the century only one child in fifteen went beyond elementary school: now most children finish high school. The treatment of racial and other minority groups is conspicuously better than it was. When, in 1964, a carefully drawn sample of Negroes was asked whether in general things were getting better or worse for Negroes in this century, approximately eight out of ten respondents said “better.”

Add to the measurable, verifiable improvement within the city itself the presence of large and increasing numbers of newly arrived inhabitants from certain rural areas of America whose condition in a Chicago, Los Angeles, Cleveland, or New York is much better than it was, or stood any likelihood of becoming, in the rural areas from which these individuals have come. Not only, in short, are conditions better in the city, compared with conditions in the same city fifty or twenty years ago, an even larger factor of improvement of condition may be seen in the lives of large numbers of people who have only just arrived.

The plain fact is that the overwhelming majority of city dwellers live more comfortably and conveniently than ever before. They have more and better housing, more and better schools, more and better transportation, and so on. By any conceivable measure of material welfare, the present generation of urban Americans is, on the whole, better off than any large group of people has ever been anywhere. What is more, there is every reason to expect that the general level of comfort and convenience will continue to rise at an even more rapid rate through the foreseeable future.

So much for the first conclusion. And should there be a reader of this review in slight doubt that Professor Banfield can hack up these bold—nay, mind-boggling—statements, I invite him to the several chapters of the book and to the voluminous notes and references which may he found unobtrusively collected at the end of the book. Not only will the reader find the conclusion just stated well anchored in official records, he will find them confirmed in the studies of the city done by other social scientists—many of whom will, as I have suggested, shrink from their implications when set forth as Banfield sets them forth.

What is the second major conclusion of The Heavenly City? It is this. Because of the conspicuous improvement in the American city, metropolis included, the tensions, conflicts, frustrations, and overall revolt against the city will continue to make the city what it now is, a scene of distinct crisis. I repeat: because of, not despite, the absolute improvement of material conditions, including housing, medical service, and schooling. Why should this be? The answer is a vital one to any person interested in the ferment and revolution-tinctured nature of not merely urban America, but American society as a whole.

The answer is that the improvements in performance, great as they have been, have not kept pace with rising expectations. In other words, although things have been getting better absolutely, they have been getting worse relative to what we think they should be. And this is because, as a people, we seem to act on the advice of the old jingle: Good, better, best, / Never let it rest, / Until your good is better / And your better is best.

Consider poverty. Manifestly, with but the fewest exceptions, even the worst off in American cities are in a substantially better condition than their poverty-stricken predecessors were at the beginning of the century. Studies show that around forty percent of those below what is called the “poverty line” own automobiles, and the overwhelming majority have television sets. More important, schooling opportunities, medical services, and straight economic relief, through welfare payments and other means, are far more numerous than they were even fifty years ago.

But as Irving Kristol reminded us—and he is quoted at appropriate places by Banfield—several years ago in a now historic piece, so long as we hold the concept at all of “poverty line” there cannot fail to be a one-fourth, one-third, or one-fifth of the nation officially—or at least politically—pronounced in poverty. No matter how well off a population may be, if one defines poverty as that condition in which the lowest fifth exists, there cannot help but be officially regarded poverty.

Precisely the same holds with respect to the school dropout problem. Not very many decades ago almost everyone was a ”dropout” but the “problem” didn’t exist. But by the 1960s, when for the first time in history a majority of boys and girls were graduating from high school and practically all had at least some high school training, the “dropout problem” became acute. “Then, although the dropout rate was still declining, various cities developed at least fifty-five separate programs to deal with the problem.” As Banfield concludes, if we follow the splendid insight of Irving Kristol earlier, gave us into poverty, as officially dealt with, then there cannot help but be, forever and ever, an educational dropout problem even if we have pushed the “dropout line” up to the Master’s degree.

So too with police brutality. Once this meant incontestably, physical beating, usually with police clubs, or confinement without charge, of the helpless. Today, the “brutality line” has been pushed up to the point when a sharp word or look, especially when directed toward those belonging to a politically sensitive ethnic minority, can be charged with “brutality.”

Now the point of all this—whether in Professor Banfield’s book or in my review—is emphatically not to denigrate problems, to seek to remove them by rhetorical deprecation. Problems are as problems are perceived—seen, felt, heard, endured. If I feel aggrieved in economic position it does no good to be reminded that I am still better off than the greatest of scholar-teachers may have been five hundred years ago, or even five. Professor Banfield is not saying that statistics prove the lowest fifth are in fact “well off,” as this complex phrase tends to be defined by all of us. He is saying something very different indeed; something profound, something Tocquevillian, and also something very depressing.

What he is saying is this: A new and seemingly unmanageable phenomenon is present in our society, one foreseen by Tocqueville, one that, once created, feeds on itself. And this phenomenon is the dynamic tension provided by American middle class expectations. I cannot blame the following formulation on Banfield, but it seems to me an appropriate corollary of the famous Malthusian law of food supply and population. I put my corollary thus: Whereas material benefits can rise in a social order only at arithmetical rate, expectations tend to rise geometrically. That is, in a middle class society where expectations have been, as Tocqueville showed us masterfully a century and a half ago, the very substructure of American society. It was Tocqueville who first put into systematic form the proposition that the greatest agonies over the problem of equality would be experienced precisely in those countries, such as the United States, where the work of equality has been carried the farthest, where substantive inequalities become ever finer to the eye.

What we have, then, in Banfield’s phrasing of the whole matter, is a new kind of dismal science, or rather a new dimension to the dismal science of Malthus and Ricardo. What he seems to be saying, in effect, is that urban problems, including poverty, schooling, medical service, housing, and employment income, in fact, the whole complex we call “urban crisis” is not likely to be dealt with in such a way as to remove present tensions and sense of impending conflict, for the reason that while affluence does indeed rise, the sense of relative deprivation rises also, and at faster rate. The same middle class values that drive hundreds of thousands of middle class citizens into incessant uplift work—into what Banfield calls service—lead to the implanting of these values among those minorities who are the recipients of the uplift work. The consequence is seemingly an iron one. It can be described as comparable to the mechanical rabbit at the racetrack, which is set to keep just ahead of the dogs, no matter how fast they run.

We come now to the third major conclusion that can be drawn from The Unheavenly City. It falls in the vast area of political action, of direct uplift and reform, of civic service that is by now almost indistinguishable from middle class life in America. The conclusion is this: Although a turning to political action—and to related forms, such as quasi-political service—is almost a predictable response to the kinds of problems and strains we encounter in the city today, the actual consequences of such action and service tend, in the overwhelming majority of cases, to worsen, not help, the problems and the strains. Banfield writes:

Government seems to have a perverse tendency to choose measures that are the very opposites of those which would be recommended on the basis of analysis in the preceding chapters. The reason for this perversity may be found in the nature of American political institutions and, especially, in the influence on public opinion of the upper-class cultural ideal of ‘service’ and ‘responsibility to the community.’ (Italics added)

I would offer the following larger, more general, proposition:[2] From the time the political habit of mind became deeply entrenched in the West, which was not much before the nineteenth century, though with the aid of concepts going back earlier, there has been profound affinity between political power or action on the one hand and, on the other, problems such as those contained in the contemporary city in which manifest improvement of popular condition is accompanied by perceptions of worsening of condition, of, in short, relative deprivation. And, with the rarest of exceptions, it has been, and continues to be on ever-widening scale, the fate of such political action to worsen the problems, by cutting off whatever adaptive responses to them might otherwise have taken place in the behavior of those closest to the conditions.

Two or three examples of my proposition will suffice—and perhaps give useful background to Professor Banfield’s brilliant arguments. I think it can fairly be established that a reasonably good balance of pluralism and homogeneity was being worked out in Western society prior to the excited discovery, by political intellectuals—largely those trained in Roman Law but unable to get jobs—of something called “feudalism.” By endowing this freshly coined word and concept with all kinds of sinister meanings the work of political centralization was brought through its first major phase. Later, despite the legacy of Hobbes, it would have been possible (I am, admittedly, speculating here; I cannot “prove” statements of this sort), I think, to have worked out a useful balance of private enterprise and public service in the West. Unhappily, “capitalism” was invented by certain intellectuals, promptly endowed with meanings every bit as sinister in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as those earlier intellectuals had given to “feudalism,” and the work of modern political centralization was carried an even longer step forward. Worse, the mind of the middle class Westerner was permanently stamped by the goodness of the political and the lurking evil of the economic—or, in our day, the technological, for it is the weasel concept of “technology” that slithers rhetorically among the dense thickets of the American intellectual mind, leading to ever more massive political responses to its intellectually endowed evils.

What Professor Banfield shows us so convincingly is the degree to which the city—”the urban crisis”—parallels technology, succeeding, as I have suggested here, “capitalism” and before it ”feudalism” as the handy fulcrum on which the mighty lever of political action can rest. Just as some sixteenth century political intellectuals (who called themselves les politiques) found a “feudal crisis,” so to speak, and some nineteenth century political intellectuals, with Marxists chief among them, a “capitalist crisis,” and as each of these “crises” led to a massive increase in the political structure of society, so do intellectuals in our midst find a technological crisis or, as Banfield shows us so valuably, an urban crisis, each the means of providing fresh fodder to hungry politicians, miserable intellectuals, and the unrequited masses of middle class Americans who have found pleasure no longer tolerable unless it surmounts, or joins with, Service. On the walls of all these individuals hang, as Banfield notes wickedly, homely Edgar Guest-like apothegms: Don’t just sit there. Do something. and Do Good! (The only good thing I can say for Jeremy Bentham, the devotee of Good who did so much harm in the world, is an essay he once wrote on the harm that good men do).

The politician, like the TV commentator, must always have something to say even when nothing urgently needs to be said. If he lived in a society without problems, he would have to invent some (and, of course, ‘solutions’ along with them) in order to attract attention and to kindle the interest and enthusiasm needed to carry him into office and enable him, once there, to levy taxes and do the other unpopular things of which governing largely consists. Although in the society that actually exists there are many problems, there are still not enough—enough about which anyone can say or do anything very helpful—to meet his constant need for program material….

As I suggested above, one can construct an understanding of the whole history of political thought on the basis of an insight such as that contained in Banfield’s words. Add to that passage some delicious passages in the book on the subject of middle and upper class consecration to Service, the incessant and endless projects by which people seemingly incapable of being alone for more than a few moments without tortured feelings of helpless isolation, pass the time and work off feelings of affluence-bred guilt, and you have a Banfieldian portrait of America that, mutatis mutandis, should hang in the National Gallery.

Incessant Politics and Perpetual Service would not be other than quaint aberrations of the mass-middle class mind were it not for the very real harm that is done so many others in society—the working class, for example, more accustomed to doing for itself, and, not least, a great many who belong to ethnic minorities. For, as Banfield’s book makes evident—to me, at least, and I think I am a careful reader—there are two major, built-in consequences of the benign and oblivious work of the devotee of Politics and of Service.

In the first place, the mere act of doing for others, especially when armed with the might and wealth of the democratic state, cannot help but destroy, or set back grievously, processes of an adaptive nature in the areas, and within the communities that—too late—we learn, and relearn, so often made for, or would clearly have made for, a socially superior form of life to what the Federal bulldozer wreaks. To do for is to do to. To cut into the social bond for allegedly therapeutic reasons is generally more harmful than to cut into it for outrightly exploitative reasons. The attention of the members of the community, usually self-protective, is lulled into passivity when the act is called therapeutic rather than exploitative.

The second great, and equally built-in, penalty of incessant political action and service is that given the idol-like status each of these has in our time, more and more well-meaning, bumbling, lonely, and mission-oriented members of the middle class are brought into the act whether in the roles of the paid or the unpaid—and this cannot help but result in, through what we may properly call Banfield’s Law, an ever larger number of issues, problems, crises-that-cannot-possibly-be-longer-endured-without-disaster-to-the-world, and so on. As the philosopher Ortega y Gasset once wrote, people do not come together to be together; they come together to do something together. And if the joys of middle class family life, the church, kaffee klatsch, and country club pall, if the experience of being alone in a room for two hours (Pascal once wrote that most of the evil in the world has been done by individuals incapable of being alone for more than an hour.) becomes utterly painful, if you’ve read all the good books, are tired of movies and vacations at the seashore or in the mountains, why what else is there to do but go out and find problems; problems which, virtually by definition, must be met, and immediately, if we are to prosper, to survive, etc., etc.

In short, given the nature of our politically-driven, morality-obsessed middle class society, its by now seemingly unrequitable passion for direct action, at all levels, it follows that the more persons there are who are dedicated to solving problems, the more problems there have to be. Situations that would not have drawn passing glances passing glances five years ago from the most pious of uplifters are compared in newspaper editorials to the Black Hole of Calcutta. Problems breed, in other words, at geometric rate, not through parthenogenesis but through incessant fertilization by American middle class eagerness for large families of problems to fill its spare time.[3] Or so it might seem.

On first thought after reading The Unheavenly City, one may feel depressed. The analysis and the conclusions do seem pessimistic. Second thought may produce rather different feelings. One may find a certain tentative optimism coming over him; instead of pessimistic, the analysis Professor Banfield gives us may seem optimistic. It depends in large degree whether one believes—as I do—that occasionally the smashing of accepted categories of thinking is the prelude to reaching new ones, new categories of thought that are themselves the bases of new perspectives of life, new conceptions of the desirable and the feasible by increasing numbers of persons. We know such mutations of mind and action have taken place before, though admittedly rarely, in the history of thought.

Daniel P. Moynihan, to whom as much is owing, it seems to me, as to Banfield and a very few others, for capacity to see old data in new and fertilizing ways, has recently written: “The social sciences are in a very early stage of finding out that most of the things we thought were so aren’t so.” Splendid! For all the heavy pall of conventional wisdom in the social sciences, I am myself struck by the number of social scientists—still pathetically small, I concede—for whom the secular pieties and mores of even a decade ago are today unacceptable. Some of these, with unusual courage, are trying to reach new perspectives of understanding, perspectives unbeholden to spirit of direct Service that has generated so many political follies and disasters in the twentieth century. Edward Banfield is one of these social scientists. Who knows, as one of the long term consequences of The Unheavenly City, we may yet have a new genus of electable, appointable politician and administrator on whose walls hangs the not-so-homely apothegm: Don’t just do something, sit there.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from The Intercollegiate Review (Fall 1970).


[1] “Urban Civilization and its Discontents,” printed as the lead article in Commentary, July, 1970. Along with Banfield, Kristol is one of the tiny number that has seen the fallacies of the conventional wisdom in the social sciences regarding the city, poverty, and other idols of secular diabolism in our time.

[2] See my “The Grand Illusion: Politics; An Appreciation of Jacques Ellul” in Commentary, August, 1970.

[3] Banfield’s discussion suggests a new conception of the springs of power in certain types of personality; one based on the inability of a person to see even the most unruffled situation other than in terms of “problems.” The individual I have personally known who did the greatest harm to a very large organization, over which he presided some years prior to recent disaster, was of this type: gentle, service-dedicated, action-compelled, and his every third or fourth word was “problems.” Where others saw only use and wont he saw cancer-like problems requiring immense dosages of direct action.

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2 replies to this post
  1. This reminds me of a book written by PJ O’Rourke, where he said the main problem with poor neighborhoods wasn’t poverty so much as squalor. In a chapter on drug policy, he spent several days riding around with the local police, and noted that, in one bad neighborhood, at 2AM, everyone on the street was doing something illegal. Similarly, in a chapter on poverty, he reprised the “Squalor” theme by visiting a high rise housing project. He had to climb the stairs because the elevators were all broken, and noted that the place was so vandalized that “It would have cheered me to see something as vibrant as a rat.”

    I don’t think PJ had any answers to these problems, all he was able to observe was what DIDN’T work.

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