The phenomenon we have been witnessing for some time now looks more and more like an industrial revolution overturned. Vast masses of migrants converge on the city, in the anonymous constellations of shopping centres in the suburbs, between the intersections of the major routes of communication (motorways, railways, airports), but also in the degraded historical centres.
They come not only from neighbouring countries or from the developing ones, but also from within the same country: they leave the countryside, the villages and small towns where there is no work to be found and seek refuge in the big cities, in the hope of finding new opportunities to enable them to start over. Donald Kaberuka, president of the African Development Bank, in his article in Social Europe Journal estimated that by 2030 over 27 billion people will have migrated from their country of origin to settle elsewhere, thus helping to fuel the social differences within the same country.
In the cities it is easier to find food, sustenance, some sort of makeshift accommodation, and a minimum of solidarity that naturally arises amongst those who share the same fate. Two migratory flows from the inside and from the outside, two different backgrounds settling in the same places and with the same basic motivations in common: to change in order to survive. Driven by the desire for liberation from need, by the hope for improvement, but as a result of their voluntary transfer, both end up becoming social outcasts. People who, in their own community, had an identity, led a dignified existence, albeit poor, and who were recognised and respected, suddenly find themselves stripped of their humanity, made anonymous and viewed with suspicion, distrust, and, at best, with compassion. Marginalisation is the price to pay for a choice that has become necessary.
In contrast to the urbanisation of the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century, migration to the big cities today is not a choice made out of the need to find work, but out of desperation. Industrial centres used to be hungry for a general labour force: now there is no call for it, there are no offers of work or, if there are, they mainly for highly skilled workers. Those who arrive without any financial resources and marketable skills have to adapt to a disadvantaged state of poverty. The cities now take on the function of shelters offering basic necessities to those who no longer have anything to lose; real lifelines in the desert created by globalisation, by the economic crisis, by profound changes that disrupt the social order and exacerbate differences, opening chasms of inequality which are unprecedented in human history.
The alarm comes mainly from Africa and Asia: Kaberuka still points out that populated centres like Mumbai, Nairobi and Kinshasa are actually small towns surrounded by vast slums – “pockets of wealth in a sea of despair” – where a growing number of people amass in search of hope. This trend is not limited only to the cities that Kaberuka stated, but is more closely concerned with the world metropolises, without sparing New York, Tokyo, London, Paris or Rome, and no longer making any distinction between internal and external migration.
There is no integration because there is no work. The outcasts of industrialised society were tolerated because they represented a labour reserve ready to use when the need arose. Now, in the post-industrial society, there is no longer the need for an extra labour force; if anything, the problem is how to get rid of an excess of workers and replace them with numerical control machines which are becoming more and more sophisticated. Globalisation is a process of desertification that burns the ground on which it passes, and wipes out any anthropological traces. For now, and as long as there are potential differences between different nations – not yet globalised – the multinationals will continue to relocate and move elsewhere in search of tax benefits, moderate regulations and lower costs.
But when the planet is entirely levelled, a reversal will take place: something like that is already happening in the USA. François Lenglet is certain of this (La Fin de la Mondialisation, Fayard, 2013): the phenomenon is still sporadic and limited, but it is an indicator of a turnaround. This, however, does not mean that globalisation is finished or has failed, but simply that it is completing its task. A planet that is uniform and perfectly undifferentiated, where the goal of equality can be reached, at least from certain points of view.
Cities, therefore, represent the last stand for uniformity, a sort of “Fort Apache” where people fight so as not to succumb, a safe place where there is still a guarantee of difference, where tradition is cultivated, where the idea of community is transferred, with all the difficulties that this move entails, and where all these diversities are allowed to coexist, concentrated into a very limited space, with reciprocal respect.
Their walls are of stone and have no doors or drawbridges, but multi-coloured belts of refugees, migrants and marginalised people who surround them in ever-widening circles and make them into megalopolises built on destitution and despair and comfort. This will be the face of the great cities of tomorrow: places for wounded humanity to stop off, in anticipation of returning to the path of hope.
Carlo Bordoni is an Italian sociologist and journalist writing for "Il Corriere della Sera".