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Jane Jacobs: Systems of Survival
a dialogue on the moral foundations of commerce and politics
(Random House: 1992)

“This book explores the morals and values that underpin viable working life. Like other animals, we find and pick up what we can use, and appropriate territories. But, unlike other animals, we also trade and produce for trade. Because we possess these two radically different ways of dealing with our needs, we also have two radically different systems of morals and values - both systems valid and necessary.... Understanding the reasons for contradictions in the two systems of morals and values throws light on many conundrums: for example, why government-run businesses bog down in waste, inefficiency, and disappointed hopes, no matter what the system of government; when it is ethical to lie and deceive; when industriousness becomes a monstrous vice; what snobbery tells us; why there are no just resolutions for some types of debt defaults; why the practice of law embodies peculiar ethical problems; whether it is true or false that the mystiques of male bonding and loyalty come down to us from prehistoric hunting life; why governments cannot resist meddling in agriculture; why science flourishes only in societies that have achieved commercial vitality, but art can flourish magnificently in societies that lack commerce as well as in those that pursue it; what are the roots of class distinctions; whether organized crime models itself on government or business; and many other puzzles.”
(Jacobs, pp.xi-ii)

Ever since the birth of systematic moral philosophy (in the West, at least) with Socrates, there has been a radical disconnect between that endeavour and the specific realities of everyday ethical decision making, with very few genuinely empirically-based attempts to investigate such things systematically. Moreover, in recent times there has evolved a positive aversion to reasoning about such matters, due to the hardening of the so-called “fact-value” distinction into unthinking dogma. In consequence,  Jane Jacobs’ Systems of Survival comes as a breath of fresh air into an overly stale discipline, despite the fact that its basic distinction (between guardian and commercial moral codes) was prefigured by none other than Socrates himself...

“What do these occupational groups have in common; armed forces and police, aristocracies and landed gentries, government ministries and their bureaucracies, commercial monopolies - that seemed an anomaly at first, but it isn’t - law courts, legislatures, religions and especially state religions?... They’re all concerned with some aspect of...protecting, acquiring, exploiting, administering, or controlling territories.”
(Jacobs, pp.28-9)

Now, for extra points: just try thinking through the implications of the four major virtues in the code of chivalry - honor, loyalty, largesse & prowess - and attempt to match these with the behaviours rewarded by the modern groups above...because, you’ll see an astonishingly close fit, assuming you can “translate” the virtues correctly to reflect their archaic definitions. This is because the two moral syndromes actually do represent human universals, and so provide an invaluable tool for thinking through any complex ethical content you may run across.

“The concept of honour arose in guardian life, and has always been taken most seriously there. When the guardian life is lived honorably and responsibly, constant sacrifices are expected in service to duty. That’s especially true in the higher ranks of guardians. I’m not thinking now of passing up opportunities to make money. That’s obvious. I’m thinking of forfeiting freedom to associate with whomever one pleases, freedom to air personal opinions openly if they conflict with policy, and, often enough, freedom to speak the simple truth; also forfeiting easy and casual privacy except through the difficult stratagem of being incognito....[And] authoritarian and totalitarian rulers...act on the premise that what’s right for guardians is right for everybody. Such a mistake.”
(Jacobs, pp.91-2)

Given the modern overemphasis upon commercial values in our societies, I have chosen the bulk of examples/insights from Jacobs’ treatment of the guardian moral syndrome, as its more unusual ramifications often tend to look like simple elitism/snobbery to modern readers, at least until examined more closely. When this is done, however, snobbery emerges as a mere attitudinal hardening of what was originally an eminently sensible set of prohibitions, most designed to forestall the possibility of betrayal - “selling out” - by cutting all direct ties with commercial behaviour. Similarly, the exaggerated sway of tradition in this realm also has concrete advantages:

“Tradition helps serve as a substitute for conscience in guardian work. That may be tradition’s most important moral meaning. Normally, it sets limits to what’s done. Adhering to tradition reassures a scrupulous or doubting recipient of orders who has no practical choice but to obey them.... I suspect one reason revolutionary governments have become so cruel so easily and swiftly after ascendancy is that they’ve lost the brakes of tradition. Throw tradition out, and there goes its friction.”
(Jacobs, pp.64-5)

And, in an era when governments are routinely exhorted to adhere to best business practices, it comes as a visceral shock to be confronted with the full implications of such a model: a chilling reminder that guardian morality is only confused with that of the commercial world at our direct peril. As Jacobs correctly insists, industriousness is not always a virtue:

“Think what happens when armed forces like the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia go in for unremitting killing, whether for pleasure, ideology, or because they don’t know what else to do with themselves. Or, think how Nazi Germany organized its death camps, making an efficient, industrious factorylike business of murder and genocide.... These are examples of behaviour that conforms neither to the intact guardian syndrome, nor the intact commercial syndrome. This is behaviour that picks and choses precepts from both syndromes, creating monstrous moral hybrids.”
(Jacobs, p.80)

Moreover, such hybrids are not the only problem. Each moral syndrome, too, has its own Achilles’ heel even whilst intact: the weak point at which traditional human frailties are most exposed to temptation:

“Unbreakable loyalty does not seem to come naturally to us. It is like honesty in the commercial syndrome. Both are key virtues. Yet neither can be depended upon without constant inculcation and watchfulness.”
(Jacobs, pp.68-9)

But, as Jacobs argues, the greatest problems stem from our lack of awareness of these syndromes, leading to that indiscriminate mixing of virtues which creates corruption in whatever it touches...

“Every precept [within each] syndrome links directly with other precepts, and indirectly with all of them....[These aren’t just] linear set[s] of rules and values. Taken singly, the precepts are banal. But, you can’t reject them singly without devastating the syndrome as a whole.”
(Jacobs, p.37)

“Any significant breach of a syndrome’s integrity - usually by adopting an inappropriate function - causes some normal virtues to convert automatically to vices, and still others to bend and break for necessary expedience. Voila! A systemic process of intractable corruption.”
(Jacobs, p. 132)

“Once a given organization breaches its syndrome, and the breach becomes institutionalized, the resulting conversion of normal virtues to vices wins cooperation among management and workers. Now their work experience is blurring their moral understanding, instead of clarifying it. Over the course of time, corrupted organizations accumulate in a society. Without correction, the accompanying rancid cooperation blurs moral understanding in more than the afflicted organizations. People carry their blurred and blunted morality with them as they move into other organizations. The toxins, so to speak, the rancid spoilages, spread and accumulate. Knowledgeable flexibility loses its necessary knowledgeability. The method becomes rickety and slovenly, instead of growing firmer and sturdier with time. This is the great pitfall of the method.”
(Jacobs, p. 199)

In form too, Systems of Survival is unusual. It is cast (only partly successfully, to my mind) in the form of a dialogue, and it takes in a huge variety of brief “case studies” - for want of a better term - exploring problems via practical examples, rather than staying on the plane of theory. These serve both as digressions and variations/expansions of the theme, and demonstrate the enormously varied applicability of this approach to moral problems. Thus, we are offered investigations of the origins of universal human rights in commercial law, caste systems as a method of policing syndrome boundaries, the British class system & the decline of industry, and investigations of the built-in corruption in modern commercial banking, the military-industrial complex & the parallel cases of organized crime and the Soviet Union...

“In both cases [Marxist governments & organized crime] into an otherwise strong guardian syndrome comes the same massive breach of the guardian precept to shun trading. Since the guardian syndrome is neither morally nor functionally suited to carry on production and trade, the commerce involved is corrupted and its moral foundation ruined. This is the structural similarity between Marxism and organized crime. But, of course, there are important differences between the two: different motives, types of commerce, and power bases.”
(Jacobs, p.102)

And, as is evident, Jacobs’ arguments are refreshingly free of current pieties of all sorts. Her attacks on modern “commercial” behaviour, in particular, in favour of the traditional morality of traders, would clearly please neither left nor right.

“Between 1960 or, say, 1955 and 1990, American industry has been restructured, as economists put it. Much has come under the control of people with a taking cast of mind, conquerors as unfit for guiding commercial life as Castro. Great gratuitous debt burdens remain. Maybe most seriously, much time has been wasted while practical problems were piling up unsolved and constructive opportunities slipped away.”
(Jacobs, p.146)

As noted earlier, however, it is arguable that the dialogue form is both a strength and a weakness of the work. Where the characters appear mere ciphers (such as the green idealogue) we simply become irritated...and when the temptation to lecture takes over - as in their Socratic predecessors - the notion that this could actually be a genuine dialogue is revealed for the uneasy fiction that it really is. On the other hand, some sections make full use of the dialogue form, with a skill that quickly reminds us that Jane Jacobs is the bestselling author who also happened to permanently change the way we view urbanism, without any of the advantages of an academic bully pulpit. Let us hope she can do the same for moral philosophy:

“Suppose we play a game, Kate. I will be Mr. Guardian, and you be Ms. Commerce. I am saying, ‘The love of money is the root of all evil.’”

“The love of power is the root of all evil,” replied Kate.

“History tells of  dynasties, and the fates of nations and empires.”

“History explains how material and social conditions have changed,” said Kate....

“War and preparations for war are normal in human life, and peace is a chancy hiatus.”

“No, peace is normal, War is an aberration an interruption.”...

“Knowledge is a weapon, also an adornment,” said Jasper.

“Knowledge is a tool.”....

“Natural resources are fundamental wealth,” said Jasper.

“No, fundamental wealth is the knowledge and skills possessed by a population.”...

“I want my piece of the pie. Fair distribution is social justice,” said Jasper.

“I want to make pies. Fair opportunity is social justice,” said Kate.

(Jacobs, pp.128-9)

I have held off providing the list of “commandments” for the two syndromes to this point, as they need to be read in the context which the preceding discussion has sketched in. Yet, as they are encountered in full, for the first time, it will quickly become evident how partial they are...and how many non-controversial virtues are absent from these sets.


Shun force
Come to voluntary agreements
Be honest
Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens
Respect contracts
Use initiative and enterprise
Be open to inventiveness and novelty
Be efficient
Promote comfort and convenience
Dissent for the sake of the task
Invest for productive purposes
Be industrious
Be thrifty
Be optimistic


Shun trading
Exert prowess
Be obedient and disciplined
Adhere to tradition
Respect hierarchy
Be loyal
Take vengeance
Deceive for the sake of the task
Make rich use of leisure
Be ostentatious
Dispense largesse
Be exclusive
Show fortitude
Be fatalistic
Treasure honor

(Jacobs, p. 215)

“Where’s cooperation, courage, moderation, mercy, common sense, foresight, judgement, competence, perseverance, faith, energy, patience, wisdom? I omitted these because they’re esteemed across the board, in all kinds of work. In the conduct of personal life, too, for that matter, not just in working and public life.”
(Jacobs, p.25)

As usual, Jacobs herself supplies the missing pieces, as well as making clear how they fit in. In fact, we can use these more general virtues to provide an overarching framing morality, within which the two moral syndromes coexist in necessary tension, both dependent upon one another in different ways (no law without guardians, low productivity without commercial incentives) yet fundamentally irreconcilable and, in fact, mutually corrupting if their separate status is not carefully preserved.

To my mind, this is a major insight into morality and ethics, as Jacobs goes far beyond the  Socratic/Platonic model (particularly with regard to commercial matters), and is not hamstrung by idealist philosophical positions, preferring a pragmatic and interdisciplinary approach closely grounded in empirical evidence & practical examples from an extremely diverse set of sources.

And, lastly, to conclude we should note just how Jacobs sees our need for moral clarification as a further task for distributed (read: democratic) consultation & decisionmaking...rather than some solution handed down from on high. After all, it was only through consulting an enormous variety of sources - and discarding shibboleths of both left and right - that she was able to clarify matters to this point. Further moral innovation is both necessary & inevitable...and a crucial task for us all...

“I am convinced that we need continual but informal democratic explorations on the part of people who must thread their ways though government, business, or volunteer and grass-roots policies, or must wrestle with moral conflicts and ethical puzzles that sprout up unbidden in all manner of occupations. Former Marxist societies, as they seek to reconstitute themselves, desperately need to clarify right and wrong in business and politics. But, so do we.”
(Jacobs, p. xiii)

John Henry Calvinist