n his classic 1938 essay “Urbanism as a Way of Life,” sociologist Louis Wirth outlined the features that made the rapid growth of the “great” cities of the industrialized West “one of the most impressive facts of modern times” (Worth, 1938: 1). Cities were larger, more densely populated, more racially and ethnically diverse, and more economically and culturally dominant than ever before, Wirth wrote. But his concept of urbanism had more to do with the organizational and social psychological features that made cities the locus of a characteristically modern condition, one fraught with friction, instability, and anomie, but ultimately social in its recognition of interdependence as an essential human trait. As Stephen Graham notes in Cities under Siege, over the past half century urbanization has encompassed a far greater and rapidly growing proportion of the world’s population and physical geography and is taking place on a scale unimagined in previous history.  The world’s largest cities are now overwhelmingly located in the global South, far outside Wirth’s frame of reference.  But the more profound—and alarming—transformation Graham traces is solidly anchored in the imperial cities of the global North.  It has to do with the rise of a kind of urbanism that more closely resembles a way of social death than a way of life.

Graham calls this the new military urbanism, a term he uses to capture three overlapping trends in public policy and military doctrine: the militarization of urban space, governance, and civil society; the urbanization of global warfare and counterinsurgency strategies; and the rise of an ideology of permanent warfare that has justified abrogations of national sovereignty as well as basic civil rights and liberties. For Graham, the new military urbanism represents a profound and all-encompassing conceptual shift.  The city is a constant, boundless battleground, its problems a never-ending series of “wars”, and its long-treasured features—from the necessarily public sensibilities it breeds to the freedom and anonymity it affords—a host of intolerable liabilities that must be contained if not destroyed.  Ultimately, however, Graham’s new military urbanism represents a profound shift in the alignment and technology of power, which has become at once more dispersed across a far flung geographic and inter-sectoral circuitry of interests, and more  concentrated in the hands of an unaccountable, imperialist, and profoundly anti-urban military and corporate capitalist elite.

Thus, Graham exposes the extraordinary degree of personal and group surveillance necessitated by the new military urbanism, as well as the degree to which the technology and logic of surveillance has been incorporated into the fabric of everyday life.  He maps the social and cultural geographies of urbanized imperial warfare in the army recruitment streams that draw young soldiers from the discarded rural towns of the United States to the front lines of the global war on terror in the (to them) culturally bewildering cities of Iraq and Afghanistan.  He locates the new military urbanism in the political economy of global corporate and financial capitalism, with its mutually destructive—job-killing, to borrow a phrase—strategies of economic securitization, public disinvestment, and profit-driven takeover of key functions of an increasingly privatized national security/carceral/military state.  And he uncovers the veritably self-satirizing absurdity of various efforts to shroud the new military urbanism in the mantle of humanitarianism and democracy.  On these and many other matters—including the way the new military urbanism has been absorbed into popular and commercial culture—Graham’s analysis is acute, well-documented, and chilling, and never moreso than when it draws from his field investigations in what he aptly refers to as the “Strangelovian” world of the vast, highly profitable military-corporate-think tank complex that provisions the global war on terror with everything from its robotocized weapons to its core ideas.  Nor does he harbor any pretense of detachment.  Cities Under Siege ends with a kind of call to arms of its own, outlining a series of “countergeographic” strategies to expose, satirize, and otherwise to subvert the logic of the new urban militarism, and ultimately to re-map urban governance, civil society, and security along more democratic lines.

And yet, for all its attentiveness to the historical transformations, departures, and confluences that distinguish the new military urbanism from what has come before, there is an ahistorical quality to Graham’s analysis that makes it difficult to put conceptual boundaries around the new military urbanism and to discern what for historians in particular are essential issues of timing, agency, and intent. This has the effect of giving the new military urbanism more coherence and design as a project than it may warrant and of making it seem more impenetrable than it is.  Basic matters of history, that is, are more relevant to understanding—and ultimately to disarming—the new military urbanism than Graham’s analysis suggests.

Thus, historians might ask how much of the new military urbanism is really new.  After all, as we know from our own history of serial “red scares” since the early 20th century, this is hardly the first time the “dark” immigrant-populated city has been singled out for aggressive policing in a never-ending war against an abstract enemy.  Graham anticipates this question to some degree, distinguishing the “new” from “old” military urbanisms by its intensity, global reach, and deliberately blurred lines between military and civil, local and global, and domestic and foreign enemies. He also refers to the new military urbanism as a post Cold War development, as a response to the emergence of de-nationalized terrorist insurgencies, and as a kind of last gasp of late 20th century western capital in the face of emerging rivals to the East and South. But this does not answer the question of more precisely when and why this new, more extreme, and qualitatively different phase of military urbanism took hold, or of what set off the renewed spiral of panic, militarization, and what comes across as its truly venomous race-baiting (Graham quotes from one defense intellectual’s discussion of “feral cities”, page 54) that is necessary to keep it in place.  As Graham’s analysis makes clear, there is nothing “natural” or even logical about the new military urbanism as a response to the challenges listed above; it had to be rationalized, legislated, institutionalized, and above all politically organized over and against other alternatives.  A more thoroughly historicized rendering of that process would likely reveal more fissures in its hold on power than its admittedly formidable veneer would suggest.

So, for example, Graham could do more to clarify and untangle the various and not obviously compatible strands of interest and ideology sustaining the new military urbanism and how they came together to give it such a powerful hold.  Even within the confines of military doctrine, the new military urbanism rests on controversial, at the very least contested, ideas about the nature and aims of modern warfare, let alone about the nature and aims of the specific conflicts waged in the name of the war on terror.  Indeed, the turn to the once-heralded counterinsurgency doctrine that figures prominently in Graham’s analysis of the new military urbanism was itself a response to the extraordinary amount of bungling and sheer incompetence that accompanied the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.  The growing reliance on privatized armies and mercenary security forces was part of a similarly contested—and internally resisted—effort by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, among others, to overhaul the military.  Nor, despite the extensive documentation Graham offers, is it immediately apparent why the ostensibly “free market”, anti-government right should embrace and aggressively promote the decidedly heavy-handed new military urbanism as a way of dealing with variously suspect urban populations and problems at home and abroad.  The point here is not so much to say that this is an odd or internally contradictory melding of ideology and interest as it is to say that we need to know more about how, why, and when it came together around the new military urbanism and with what combination of narrow self interest and unified intent.

Graham hints at a consolidated political and ideological project by linking the new military urbanism to the rise of neoliberalism as a dominant force in late 20th and early 21st century global political economy and politics.  But this, too, needs unpacking lest the new military urbanism appear more coherent and invulnerable than it really is.  As presented in the book, neoliberalism takes the form of the strange yet powerful combination of free market fundamentalism and moral authoritarianism promulgated by self-styled urbanists at think tanks like the Manhattan Institute and now driving the politics of the U.S. Republican Party.  But that version of neoliberalism does not adequately account for the role of the kind of hollowed out post Keynesian liberalism that continues to vie for dominance in Democratic Party politics in sanctioning—and providing necessary political support for—key elements of the new military urbanism.  Mass incarceration, the securitization of civil life, the active retreat from labor, the welfare state, and from other expressions of social democracy were all eagerly embraced if not actually initiated by so-called “new” Democrats throughout the 1990s.  That support, however, was as much opportunistic and electorally calculated as it was ideological or programmatic.  As has become increasingly evident since the global financial collapse of 2008, the politics of militarized law and order are both fiscally and politically unsustainable, especially when pitted against funding for popular entitlements.   At the very least this suggests that the political and ideological genesis of the new military urbanism has been more complex—and, perhaps, penetrable—than Graham suggests.

Still, as Graham is all too well aware, exposing the more complex historical genesis of the new military urbanism—replete with incompetence, contradictions, and vulnerabilities—can only go so far without organized movements to make those vulnerabilities matter. Fiscal realities aside, what Graham does make clear is that military urbanism is now firmly entrenched in the firmaments of official policy and political economy. Concerted opposition, and alternatives, are not going to emerge in mainstream politics without massive and sustained pressure from outside.  Cities Under Siege was published before the momentum of the Arab Spring and Occupy movements had reinvigorated hopes for the possibilities of mass organizing to effect meaningful change—although Graham’s emphasis on the creative use of new media and visual technologies anticipates some of their signature attributes.  Here again, though, history has important insights to offer, this time by connecting to the long tradition of community-based organizing and non-violent resistance that has used urban spaces as sites of protest and multi-racial movement building but also, crucially, for exercising participatory democracy.

The Poor People’s Campaign is but one of the more prominent examples of self-consciously urban countermobilization whose demands and tactics resonate with the needs of today.  The campaign was launched by Martin Luther King in 1967-68 as what would be his last and most ambitious mass demonstration and March on Washington, DC.  It was an especially fraught moment for the civil rights movement, when King was coming under heavy fire from the right and from Cold War liberals for his increasingly aggressive opposition to the War in Viet Nam as well as his own more visible economic radicalism, and from militant factions within the black freedom struggle for his adherence to nonviolence.  Continued by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference after King’s assassination in April 1968, the campaign grew into a broader collaboration with the Chicano and American Indian Movements, the National Welfare Rights Organization, and at least sporadic support from organized labor.  Most significant in the face of the new military urbanism, the campaign was organized as a highly visible, occasionally theatrical grass roots protest against war and racialized economic oppression.  Demonstrators traveled to Washington from across the country in caravans, designating themselves as “nonviolent armies of the poor”.  They aimed to expose but also to reclaim historical geographies of oppression by staging mule trains en route and by casting their journey to Washington as one to fulfill the long-lost promise of post Civil War Reconstruction to provide freed slaves with “forty acres and a mule”.  And for several weeks in May-June 1968 they staged an extended mass occupation of the country’s most prominent, and, for many, revered public space adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial on the national mall.  Known as Resurrection City, that occupation became the staging grounds for hundreds of daily actions aimed at lawmakers, the courts, key federal agencies, and the press.  But it also became the site for staging a vision of what urban community should provide, with a full array of cooperatively organized communal health and welfare services, and at least an aspiration to town hall-style governance.  The Poor People’s Campaign did not achieve its ambitious goals, which included a full-scale “Economic Bill of Rights” based on guaranteed jobs and income and an immediate end to the War in Viet Nam.   The community-based activism it grew of, however, continues to occupy the front lines of the ongoing struggle for social and economic justice in the communities most embattled by the new military urbanism.  It will of necessity be in the vanguard of any lasting movement to meet the immense challenge Stephen Graham lays out in Cities Under Siege, of making urbanism a better, more equitable and open way of life for the fast-growing majority of the world’s population who are or will become city-dwellers in the not too distant future. 


Wirth L (1938) Urbanism as a way of life. The American Journal of Sociology 44(1): 1-24.