Department header
Bewildering Stories

Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead

by Don Webb

This review article was written for Bewildering Stories’ second anniversary, in 2004. Jane Jacobs passed away on April 25, 2006.

I. Why this review, and why here?

Dark Age Ahead cover
Dark Age Ahead
Author: Jane Jacobs
Publisher: Random House
Date: May, 2004
ISBN: 1400062322

Most readers of Bewildering Stories are science fiction fans, who are by nature interested in views of the future. This latest work of Jane Jacobs’ gives us that; at the same time it offers as much to readers who may be more interested in the past and present. In any event, Dark Age Ahead, like Jane Jacobs herself, commands respect and attention.

I’ve read newspaper reviews; they have all been unsatisfactory. You can try the readers’ comments on, say,, if you’re a glutton for punishment. There are hundreds of them, and you’ll have to wade through a mass of ignorance, stupidity and outright falsehoods before finding any useful information.

And yet how can any review do this book justice? Any discussion that ventures beyond the superficial practically begs for a summary. But the book is, like all Jane Jacobs’ works, so concisely and clearly written — even though it summarizes major points in her earlier works — that the easiest and most practical advice is just to say “read it.” I’ll do what I can to give an idea of Jane Jacobs’ general thesis and manner of thinking, but I can only touch on a few of the book’s many vital points and examples.

II. A Prophet Not Without Honor

For more than forty years, Jane Jacobs has analyzed American cities and their economies. Her work has resonated powerfully in both academic circles and among the general public. The Nobel prize for literature has been awarded for lesser achievements. But what would be her category? Urban studies? Sociology? Even if there were prizes in those categories, they would somehow fall short of the mark. Economics? That would be an embarrassing admission that all economic doctrines have been shortsighted in theory and practice. Since we don’t have a formal classification, I’ll invent one: Jane Jacobs is a social philosopher.

Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1916, Jane Jacobs has — for all practical purposes — lived through the entire “short 20th century” (1914-1989), as historians will call it. Jane Jacobs has drawn upon her experience and knowledge of it to show how societies and economies, like nature itself, function integrally.

Jane Jacobs has no academic degrees, and yet three books of hers alone would have crowned the careers of as many professors: The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), The Economy of Cities (1969), Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984), none of which has gone out of print. In recent years she has described her philosophy in Systems of Survival (1993) and The Nature of Economies (2000). A lesser-known work, The Question of Separation (1980), would seem to be of interest mainly to Canadians, but its content is of a piece with all the rest.

III. What is a “dark age”?

A dark age is a culture’s dead end. It occurs not when a people loses something vital, but when a people no longer remembers that it has been lost. Sometimes a dark age comes from without, as when invasion and conquest all but obliterated the cultures of the Western Hemisphere. Sometimes it occurs from within, as with the Roman empire’s spectacular, centuries-long disintegration.

What causes a dark age?

Jared Diamond, in Guns, Germs and Steel, basically asks what makes cultures successful. He concludes that the basic factors are size and density of population, technology, and specialized institutions. While giving Diamond ample credit, Jane Jacobs turns his question around: Why do even successful cultures fail? She sums it up at the beginning: “Losers are confronted with such radical jolts in circumstances that their institutions cannot adapt adequately, become irrelevant, and are dropped” (p. 20).

It seemed like a good idea at the time...

A “radical jolt” may not be perceived as one when it happens. A striking example of that is borrowed from Jared Diamond. In the early 15th century, China was foremost in the world in oceangoing trade and exploration. In 1433, the outcome of a political power struggle — the causes of which now seem utterly trivial and only historians know of — caused China’s great fleets to be recalled and its shipyards dismantled. The country turned inward, away from the world. The retreat led to a cascading economic, intellectual and technological stagnation from which China began to recover in the late 20th century. China’s many achievements thus became a historical footnote, and the world was left open to the Europeans.

Do things get only so bad before they begin to improve again? Not necessarily. Democracies may achieve stability through self-correction; a kind of pendulum effect rectifies social and political mistakes. But democracies are vulnerable:

powerful persons and groups that find it in their interest to prevent adaptive corrections have many ways of thwarting self-organizing stabilizers — through deliberately contrived subsidies and monopolies, for example. (p. 21)

As in the ancient Fertile Crescent and Rome, the situation may worsen so gradually that cures will always seem worse than the disease of continual decline.

Taking Rome as a cautionary example, she says:

The human causes of Rome’s collapse have been studied minutely, and one thing that can be learned is that everything is connected with everything else, not only in its consequences but also in its causes. (p. 22)

The “cascade” effect — which is my term — thus sums up Jane Jacobs’ view of history, economics and society as mutually interacting cause and effect.

Cookbooks and Chairs

It is a mistake to assume that books and the media — including the Internet — assure the stability of a culture. If I may invent an example of my own, one learns to cook not from cookbooks but from other people: from parents, or chefs, or others who can teach food preparation. The proof: look at 19th-century cookbooks. They’re mostly lists of ingredients; people knew what to do with them because they’d already learned how to cook. Today’s recipes have to describe in great detail what used to be common knowledge transmitted by example and word of mouth.

What?! From China’s historical wrong turn to the decline of Rome to... cookbooks?! What kind of dark age is that? People may still learn to cook at home, and cooking schools abound. True, but apply the principle: how does one learn the morality, ethics and the workings of a civil society? From books or the Internet? No, from families, by personal examples, through education, and in the standards of professions; that is, by human contact from one generation to the next. And, to that end, families, communities, education, professions and government must support each other.

My cookbook example imitates Jane Jacobs’ own view of the world. Everything is interconnected, from the great sweep of history to the humblest detail. About the year 1000, notes historian Henri Pirenne, European peasants suffered from chronic hunger and recurrent famine (p. 7). Why were they reduced to eating grass? The reason is that one thing led to another, and then to another, as we shall see:

Toward the end of the empire, Rome faced an ongoing “jolt” in the form of migrations of historic proportions. Rome responded by declaring what amounted to martial law and governance in its provincial cities. That may have seemed like a good idea at the time; at the very least it shows that earlier Roman institutions of governance had not adapted, had become irrelevant, and were dropped. The consequence was not adaptation but enforced stagnation and retreat: six centuries later, at the nadir of the Dark Ages, impoverished European peasants had lost even the memory of Roman technology and agriculture along with the civilization that had supported them.

To Jane Jacobs’ practical turn of mind, the most mundane, everyday fact relates to the larger world. Visiting the Nortel corporation in Brampton, Ontario, Mrs. Jacobs, ever curious, did a little investigative work:

Turning a chair upside down for a clue to its provenance, I found a label reporting ‘Made in Canada’; probably more import replacing. (p. 94)

One succinct sentence shows us — with just a trace of a faintly mischievous smile — this inquisitive grandmother matter-of-factly demonstrating a reason for a hitherto unexpected and seemingly inexplicable episode of job creation and economic boom in southern Ontario. The phenomenon had baffled economists, because they’d only been studying each others’ figures while the answer was right under their own chairs.

IV. What do we have to worry about?

Jane Jacobs sees five pillars of modern society in jeopardy. The chapter titles alone give a thumbnail picture of the problems. I’ll add brief summaries:

  1. The Hazard — A historical overview of what happens to societies whose “internal jolts” have led to a dark age.

  2. Families Rigged to Fail — Communities and families are inextricably intertwined, and families have come under great economic and social strain in the 20th century because of the Great Depression and World War II.

  3. Credentialing versus Educating — Universities have turned to a mass-production model that has substituted credentialing for education.

  4. Science Abandoned — Science becomes irrelevant when it is done by drones who do not understand the scientific method, and technology is adversely affected.

  5. Dumbed-Down Taxes — Government succeeds with “subsidiarity,” that is, working responsibly, responsively and closely with the people it represents. It also depends on fiscal accountability; that is, transparency in its transactions. Anything less leads to economic and social distortions and, ultimately, failure.

  6. Self-Policing Subverted — Professions that fail to police their members’ ethics — including not only accountancy but notably police forces, which are notoriously self-protective — lapse into endless corruption and scandal.

  7. Unwinding Vicious Spirals — Cultural and political mistakes are interlocking cause and effect, but they can be corrected.

  8. Dark Age Patterns — Paradigms of civilization have succeeded one another. Hunter-gathering was replaced by agriculture, which is being replaced in turn by an age of “ingenuity” that includes the Industrial and post-Industrial eras.

What has happened to us?

Many countries have lived through and emerged intact from far worse disasters than the Great Depression, which lasted nine years. And yet the Depression has had drastic long-term psychological and cultural effects. Ever since the 1930’s, the prospect of unemployment has haunted America. There is only one real “never again” in American culture, and not even national security and the memories of Pearl Harbor and 9/11 outweigh it: Never again shall America be subjected to the humiliation and helplessness of mass unemployment.

American foreign and even domestic policy may seem bafflingly contradictory to the outside world, but it is simple to explain; one thing counts above all else: jobs. That’s consistent enough for a people that prizes individual independence and depends on wages to achieve it.

Automobiles and Cities

The superhighway system had a number of rationales, but its main one was to provide employment. By the time it came along, the automobile had permanently defined North Americans’ mode of travel. In the process it had also shaped their cities.

Jane Jacobs reserves her sternest scorn for two things: government that is authoritarian or hidebound by ideology, and “traffic engineers,” who she says defame the proud profession of engineering by dogmatically practicing sheer superstition. Authoritarian planning has not only created unnecessary traffic congestion but caused the endless destruction of neighborhoods and communities.

If an economist from a neoconservative think tank wants to deny the community destruction wrought, he will probably point out that the American people, through the workings of the free market, decreed the supremacy of the automobile and its public appurtenances and the demise of public transit. Not true. (p. 38)

A decades-long campaign led by General Motors for the purpose of selling tires, oil and automobiles effectively destroyed mass transit in America. Eventually nine corporations were found guilty of illegal acts in restraint of trade and let off with derisory fines (pp. 37-42).

V. Can a dark age be avoided?

Jane Jacobs has written this book in hopes of preventing one. She cites two cultures, primarily, that have successfully avoided what she calls “mass amnesia”: Japan and Ireland. Japan, defeated in war, took from the outside world what it could use, especially in technology. At the same time it deliberately and carefully preserved its traditions and sense of self. Ireland, though ravaged and depopulated by British colonialism, likewise retained its sense of self through one of the most durable features of human culture: song.

She harkens back to the demise of the Fertile Crescent, the primordial wellspring of Western civilization. What advice would we have given the people of the time? Mainly, stave off the environmental collapse of desertification: “Let things grow. Don’t let goats eat new growth before the land can regenerate.”

Similarly, what might the future tell us? No surprise, the advice is essentially the same, although on a much grander scale. In particular, the warning would be the same as to any society that risks turning inward and lapsing into dogmatism:

Cultural xenophobia is a frequent sequel to a society’s decline from cultural vigor. Someone has aptly called self-imposed isolation a fortress mentality. [The theologian Karen] Armstrong describes it as a shift from faith in logos, reason, with its future-oriented spirit, “always ... seeking to know more and to extend ... areas of competence and control of the environment,” to mythos, meaning conservatism that looks backward to fundamentalist beliefs for guidance and a worldview. (p. 17)

Two strains in American culture — the concentration of economic and political power — are fundamentally anti-democratic, and yet, as emblems of individual success, they risk becoming quasi-religious dogma, even golden calves in the popular mythos. Jane Jacobs’ view is also profoundly religious: not conventionally but in the etymological sense of religio, ‘to bind together’. She fits no conventional political or economic categories but rather opposes ideologues of both the “left” and “right” who would straitjacket society according to their fixed ideas.

In opposition to the American economic and political mythos, Jane Jacobs cites two examples of logos: Theodore Roosevelt, who “staved off destructive corporate cannibalism for about a crucial half-century before it was loosed in the 1960’s and intensified in the 1980’s” (p. 170); and Abraham Lincoln, who summed up American democracy as a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” (p. 176). They, too, are part of America’s songs.

We hear from the future, then, a warning against what I have often referred to as corporate feudalism:

Let things grow. Don’t let currently powerful government or commercial enterprises strangle new departures, or alternatively gobble them as soon as they show indications of being economic successes. Stop trying to cram too many eggs into too few baskets under the keeping of too few supermen (who don’t actually exist except in our mythos) (p. 170).

And there we can see the dark age ahead. Cities are built for automobiles rather than people. Communities are carved up and stifled. Family incomes are stretched beyond the breaking point to earn enough for shelter and transportation, and families, deprived of communities, are themselves gradually replaced by another, utterly authoritarian household: the prison. Consensus cannot form, and political discourse degenerates into sectarian hostility. Democracy itself can no longer legitimize government: those who have the means become rulers, and the professions, corrupted, become their servants. Centuries later, starving peasants scrabble for roots in the shadow of ruins.

That is my summary, but it is the logical consequence of Jane Jacobs’ argument. And it is not fiction; it’s the lesson of history.

VI. Conclusion: the Image of a Philosophy

“When good Americans die, they go to Paris.” — Oscar Wilde

The bard of Dublin spoke more truly than he may have realized. Jane Jacobs did visit Europe. She could hardly have failed to realize that the very geography of Paris and many old French cities and towns provide an image of her urban philosophy.

I’ve always reminded students to take cameras and lots of film when they go; and I add that they’ll want to take souvenir pictures, of course, but what they will remember all their lives is not the monuments of the capital but something they do not have in their own country. It’s the life of the neighborhoods: the boulevards, the cafés, the small stores mingling with residential areas, the efficient public transit systems, and streets where walking is a pleasure and automobiles are superfluous or even a handicap.

Despite growth and superficial alterations over the centuries, Paris remains the image en grand of the French town. For defensive and practical reasons, those towns typically took the form of a circle. As a result, they are easy to traverse, their very shape suggests a community, and they promote communities within themselves. These towns and cities are not Roman and, outside of Quebec, they are not North American, either. These cities “with a human face” emerged a thousand years ago... at the end of the Dark Ages.

Cassandra's Voices

Cassandra’s Voices
Warnings to the Modern Age

Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God
Eric H. Cline, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed
John Dominic Crossan, God & Empire
Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead
James J. O’Donnell, The Ruin of the Roman Empire
Don Webb, Cassandra’s Voices in 2016

Copyright © 2004 by Don Webb

Home Page