Analyzing the City

Obviously, the previous two posts on trade routes from the Mysore State could not have been random posts, else they would have been posted under ‘Random’. They are part of an endeavour to understand Mysore city better, and in India (probably more than anywhere else), the past very strongly influences the present. However, the past here does not just mean political past, who was ruling and which war happened when, but also past climate, geography, customs and many other such factors.

Am on the verge of finishing the first volume of Fernand Braudel’s monumental series ‘Civilization and Capitalism’, which is called ‘The Structures of Everyday Life’. It is hard to recall when reading any history lit up so many bulbs in the head. The book is great not just because of his scholarship, nor his approach which is highly non-ideological, but also the fact that he holds a sympathetic view of all the objects of his study, unlike Eric Hobsbawm’s ill concealed distaste for the middle class that he describes with such erudition in his monumental series.

Anyways, Braudel’s deep insight into the development of capitalism is this: Capitalism was a product of certain cities of the West, which wielded sufficient political power to govern themselves without the interference of the royalty. This freedom allowed them to experiment, try out new things which finally ended up as the finished product we today call capitalism. Eventually, all these city-states — Venice, Florence, London — came under the State, but they were so influential by that time that the State modelled itself along their lines as opposed to suppressing them. The continental cities were suppressed more than London, since England has had a long tradition of being liberal, which gave it that extra boost.

One of the fundamental features of the urban (as opposed to the rural) is also one of its most obvious ones — movement. The frenetic, mind-numbing movement of people, things and ideas to and from the city is what distinguishes it from any village. Thus, it makes sense to classify settlements based not only number of households, but on `certain features’ that make it urban (as the 1881 census of the Mysore State tries to emphasize). Many features characteristic of any city can be derived from the fact that the city is all about movement — for example, the anonymity of city life, its complete dependence on a market for its survival, the ever-changing fashions and tastes, the relative homogeneity of ideas and culture in and among cities are more or less all consequences that can be arrived at with some thinking.

The more frenetic the pace, the more influential the city politically, economically and culturally. This is apparent from seeing yesterday’s Florence and Venice or today’s Bangalore. Any city that is allowed to grow without restraint has inevitably taken the path to increase this pace for reasons unknown. Examples will follow in a later post. One of the most crippling factors to movement is inhomogeneity — changing currencies, weights and measures or topography, all hinder free movement. Thus, it is inevitable that being in the vicinity of an influential city involves homogenisation of some form or the other.

An example from the history of commerce will best illustrate this issue — the idea of an imaginary currency. Previously, coins of any kind had to have value — they were made from gold, silver or something of known value. Consider the case where a merchant daily transacts X units of coins. If each coin weighed M kgs, this would physically imply moving MX kgs of metal everyday. Obviously, this is not good if you want to move really large amounts of anything. Simple solution — invent a currency that is not real, but whose exchange value with a real currency is fixed somehow. Complete all your transactions and finally convert only the resultant into real money. This was in vogue in all places where commerce had reached such a pace to make MX unwieldy. Erstwhile Mysore also had such instruments. Nowadays, in India this is commonly called the Rupee. In fact the promotion of electronic currencies is simply the next obvious step in this trend, which is why Credit/Debit cards are all the rage nowadays. Here is money at the height of being imaginary — bits on some hard disk somewhere.

The fact that movement is more important than what moves is also implicit in the axiom of infinite substitutability in economics, which is a hotly debated topic within the field. Fisher’s notion of the velocity of money is a formalisation of this notion, and heralded the grand age of the monetary theory of economics.

For Braudel, big cities implied a movement of things and people (commercial towns) or ideas and people (political/cultural centres, like capitals). The classification is mine and not very realistic, but it will serve the purpose. However, in India, movement also serves another purpose — religion. So, we must add pilgrimage centres to this classification to complete the picture of towns and cities in India. Braudel’s contention is that most eastern cities belonged to the latter two boxes, and those belonging to the first category were so firmly held by kings that they simply were not able to get the freedom that the Western cities got, and therefore it was unlikely that there would be anything resembling an Industrial Revolution in the East. Of course, he qualifies this statement well, and it seems to be a reasonable statement. Why did the States have a stronger hold in the East? That is something for a later post, when I illustrate it taking Mysore as an example. Was it good or bad that India/China did not have an Industrial Revolution? We will never know. Going by present environmental trends, I would place my bets on the latter.

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