The littered surface of Jane Jacobs’s coffee table tells an eloquent tale. There, nestled amid stacks of current magazines, is an intricate jigsaw puzzle of a crashing wave. It is, explains the 76-year-old writer and urban-affairs activist, a favorite puzzle that she could not bring herself to break apart. Indeed, preservation has been one of the principal themes of Jacobs’s work. In her influential polemic on urban planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, she ardently challenged and effectively debunked the popular notion that older neighborhoods should be razed rather than rejuvenated. But it is her fondness for jigsaw puzzles that provides the most revealing insight to Jacobs’s newest book. Despite its ambitious sweep, the Toronto author says that she started Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics (Random House, 234 pages, $27.50) by “collecting crumbs” and gradually trying to detect a pattern among fragments of detailed information that caught her attention over several years.
In fact, it took Jacobs 15 years to gather all the strands that make up Systems: she read a wide variety of books and devotedly clipped snippets from newspapers and magazines. The result is a rich and elegant tapestry of intellectual threads that Jacobs has seamlessly woven together to support her conviction that modem commercial culture is in the throes of a profound ethical crisis. To document that thesis, she has called upon an array of sources ranging from articles in The Wall Street Journal and anthropological tidbits about obscure African tribes to historical facts about the tradition of chivalry in medieval Europe. Provocative and briskly paced, the book is built around the fundamental premise that the domains of government and commerce must be carefully separated to avoid mutual corruption.
Systems unfolds as a dialogue among five fictional characters. It begins when Armbruster, a retired publisher, gathers a group of friends together in his Manhattan apartment for a discussion about dishonesty in the workplace. As their debate intensifies, the heart of Jacobs’s argument emerges: that a healthy “commercial life” and a prosperous economy are the ultimate source of such social virtues as stability, democracy and even family life.
During a recent interview with Maclean’s in her comfortable downtown Toronto home,
Jacobs explained that the ideas expressed in Systems “came upon me gradually,” growing from her initial interest in cities and urban planning. In The Economy of Cities, published in 1969, she began to explore the idea of cities as great trading centres. That research eventually led her to distinguish between “traders” and “raiders” within society. Fifteen years later, she produced Cities and the Wealth of Nations, in which she analysed, among other things, classical economic theory and related it to the current financial circumstances of cities. From that point, Jacobs began to collect and categorize information related to even broader economic and political issues. “It’s a hit-and-miss process,” she said, “and even as you start to refine it towards the end, you have to stay open to surprises.”
According to the theory that Jacobs eventually developed, humans are distinct from other species of animals because of their ability to trade with one another. That characteristic has definitively shaped the human social order, resulting in the evolution of two separate groups: guardians and traders. The guardian class, which includes government, the military and the police, is responsible for preserving order and enforcing rules to ensure that trade is fair and that economic life is secure and prosperous. The mandate of traders, on the other hand, is to respect those rules and to enrich society by expanding their business.
As a consequence of their divergent roles in the social structure, Jacobs contends, guardians and traders each have their own moral imperative and ethical “syndrome.” Among other qualities, traders have to reach voluntary agreements, collaborate easily with strangers and be willing to embrace new ideas, while guardians must avoid trading, be obedient and show fortitude. But where the line between the two groups is allowed to blur, corruption is inevitable and the result is a “monstrous moral hybrid.”
Although Jacobs, who moved to Canada from Manhattan in 1968, professes a deep attachment to her adopted country, she describes it as a prime example of a “moral hybrid” because of its long tradition of government-funded regional development programs and direct investment in business. That lack of strict separation between guardians and traders, she argues, is the cause of many of Canada’s current economic problems. “TTiere’s a great myth in Canada that we combine commerce and guardianship well,” said Jacobs. “But every day in the papers, there’s evidence that’s not so. We’re always reading about disappointments with Crown corporations and billion-dollar bailouts.”
Canada is not the only subject of Jacobs’s criticism: she also decries the economic platform of President Bill Clinton, which proposes to use government spending initiatives to spur domestic recovery. “Kick-starting the economy is not a legitimate—or even a possible—guardian role,” she said. “Government’s role is to create a good climate for new ideas and honest trade.” At the same time, although Jacobs said that she supports the ideal of free trade, she added that she is discouraged by the way it is now taking shape, replete with bitter, protracted trade disputes. According to Jacobs, the moral conditioning of guardians makes them inept at arbitration or agreement.“As soon as the governments get involved, trade becomes combative,” she said. “Guardians have to learn to distinguish between genuine territorial threats and competitive trade.”
Jacobs notes that the historical separation of guardians and traders was scrupulously maintained in both European and Asian cultures. Indeed, medieval knights could not serve their king if there were any traders or craftsmen in their lineage. At the same time, the Japanese samurai warrior class was also forbidden from engaging in trade or associat-
ing with those who did. According to Jacobs, that strong taboo ensured, among other things, that guardian landholdings would remain self-sufficient and secure in times of siege rather than becoming dependent upon outside suppliers or customers. Restrictions against trading also prevented the guardian class from casually betraying secrets in the course of transactions with potential enemies. “In view of the danger,” she writes, “the personal disgrace of trading could not have been drummed in too thoroughly and early in the moral upbringing of children destined for military life.”
The format that Jacobs uses to present her
ideas is as original as her underlying thesis. By slightly modifying the classic style of the Platonic dialogue, she has prevented Systems from degenerating into a preachy rant or a bloodless academic exercise—despite its abstract theoretical base. Instead, the vigorous exchange of views among the five participants pulls outsiders into the debate. “I wanted people to feel that they were involved and that they could relate to these issues in everyday life,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs’s insistence on making her books accessible to a wide spectrum of readers is an integral part of her personal creed. Indeed, one of the reasons her first book was so controversial was that, despite her strong and well-argued views, Jacobs has almost no academic credentials beyond high school. That fact, she said, has freed her from the constraints of “academic ivory-tower writing” as well as the pitfall of deferring to established thought on certain subjects. Jacobs recounts that after she won a grant to work on The Death and Life of Great American Cities, several wellintentioned academic experts tried to take her under their wing and to convince her to conduct a “pseudo-scientific study based on a questionnaire.” She added: “When I left them, I was just so grateful that I was not trapped with such nonsense.”
Jacobs’s outspoken views have frequently been translated into action. A frequent critic of Toronto’s municipal government, she was one of the leaders of a group that effectively thwarted the extension of the Spadina Expressway into downtown Toronto in 1971. Strong political beliefs also led Jacobs, her husband, architect Robert Jacobs, and three children to move to Toronto 25 years ago as a protest against American involvement in the Vietnam War. But, despite her glowing praise for Toronto and its varied neighborhoods, Jacobs still returned to New York as the setting for Systems. “The characters wouldn’t behave in Toronto—they were too polite and considerate,” she said.
“New Yorkers are much more blunt.”
As with Jacobs’s past works, there is certain to be considerable disagreement about the strong point of view that she presents and the arguments that she has assembled to back it. But that is precisely the objective of the book. Declared Jacobs: “I hope to raise the level of awareness about these issues. Once there is some awareness and debate, we can start looking at things with a fresh eye.” For Jane Jacobs, disagreement and discussion are pieces of the puzzle, essential steps in getting at the big picture.
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