Volcanoes of the Capitalocene

Cities and Landscapes of the Second Industrial Revolution

We see our forests vanishing, our water-powers going to waste, our soil being carried away by floods into the sea; and the end of our coal and our iron is in sight. But our larger wastes of human effort, which go on ever day through such of our acts as are blundering, ill-directed, or inefficient … are less visible, less tangible and are but vaguely appreciated. 

We can see and feel the waste of material things. Awkward, inefficient or ill-directed movements of men, however, leave nothing visible or tangible behind them. Their appreciation calls for an act of memory, an effort of the imagination. 

– Frederick Winslow Taylor, Introduction to The Principles of Scientific Management, 1919

Ruined Trian Station, Gary Indiana, 2017, photo by Nane Diehl

Gary Indiana is a ruined city. It is a living, or at least very much lived-in, ruin but nonetheless a city of things and fragments of things that have lost their original meaning, value or purpose and come to take on new meanings and identities. One ruin among the others is the shell of trains station that stands outside the gates of the U.S. Steel Gary works. The station is set on a rail line running east-west, and separating the city, to the south from the from the vast steel mill complex to north, which rises like a mountain range on the shore of Lake Michigan. The rail network extends out across the North American continent, carrying coal and raw materials in, and finished steel out of the mill, and into the city, human beings, who arrived as raw labor power and were transformed into citizen-subjects of American industrial culture. Production flows through the mill in a continuous, more-or-less linear stream, beginning with coke ovens and blast furnaces liquefying ore into iron, followed by the open-hearth furnaces purifying and converting it into steel and then feeding it into an array of finishing shops where the steel is rolled and cast into a variety of forms. Among these are facilities for producing rail and the wheels and axels of railroad rolling stock, so that the mill and the infrastructure that feeds it are mutually co-constitutive, with each building and extending the reach of the other. 

The relationship between steel mill and steel rails is clear but simple. It, however, opens the way into seeing a complex web of relations that interpenetrate and stitch together the mill and the city, the landscape and the society that lives upon it, and whatever conceptions of human culture and non, or other-than, human nature it is possible to distinguish from one another. The ground around the station is littered with chunks of a distinctive kind of stone that also makes up the ballast lining the track bed under the rail line. It is hard and dense and marked by the same frothy bubbles that distinguish volcanic rocks formed directly from quickly cooling lava. This igneous rock is not, however “natural” in that it was not expelled from the eruption of magma through an opened seam or puncture in the earth’s mantle. Rather it is slag created in the artificial volcano of the blast furnaces, through the living-labor of steel workers, and fired by the release of once-living fossilized energy in the burning of coke. The slag makes up not only the rail bed but also large areas of fill where the sandy dunes of the lakeshore have been stabilized and made solid for construction, and new areas of try land have been created extending into the water. 

Calumet River wetlands drained and filled, 1907, Calumet Regional Archives

If this creation and transformation of landscape mirrors the way that volcanoes produce islands and lava flows, then there are further analogies to be drawn to even larger scale volcanic effects. Catastrophic volcanic eruptions have been seen to cause global climatic changes, whose traces can be read in geologic strata, the growth rings of trees and in other natural indexes, and, as in the case of the eruption of the volcanic island of Thera, which contributed to the decline of the Minoa civilization, precipitate the dissolution of cultures. Similarly the Gary Works and the network of logistical infrastructure within which it is a node represents a point of rupture, phase change, and transference within the layer order of the natural world. The carbon excavated from the geologic strata of the Appalachians, Southern Illinois and now the coal fields of Wyoming and the hydraulically fractured oil and gas deposits in the Dakotas, is gasified and poured into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the heavy, solid iron ore and lime stone, mined in Minnesota and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and carried across the lakes on oar boats to be melted into liquid magma in the mill’s furnaces. 

To posit a commonality between blast furnaces and volcanoes is to claim, as Dipesh Chakrabarty does in his treatise “The Climate of History: Four Theses” (2009), that human beings, figured as a unified “humanity” are, or have become, a “geophysical force.” This assertion, central to Chakrabarty’s theorization of the contemporary geological era as the Anthropocene, is both glaringly ‘true’ and profoundly difficult to parse in terms of its meaning and consequence for human agency and responsibility. Chakrabarty himself identifies the dissonances in potential framings of this equation and conceptions of its terms. For geologists, it may be sufficient to reduce human activity to the level of a natural phenomenon, such that industrialization stands on equal footing with something like glaciation as being complex processes that transform geologic strata. More difficult, but more useful in Chakrabary’s work as a historian, is to imagine geological forces, as forces like human ones. Doing this requires that, at least provisional, conceptions be developed of “humanity” (and its possible others), and of forces, as distinct from phenomena. Ironically, to theorize these concepts in the abstract, loops the thinker back into the problems of materiality from which they emerge. It is, however possible to follow the tracks of these forces and forms through a material history and potentially discover something of the nature of the things that left them, and if these tracks lead through field of ruins, as they do in Gary, then lines can be traced between the ruins of culture and a ruined nature that entangle each with the other. 

Once it leaves the mill, the steel produced at the Garry Works largely appears once again as “raw” material in other industrial processes. A relatively small amount of this steel has been rolled into the beams whose structural properties made possible, if not exactly determined, the aesthetic and spatial qualities the of “Chicago frame,” skyscraper architecture that would come to distinguish American cities. A steadier stream of steel would flow into the auto factories in Michigan and Ohio where the concepts of continuous linear production were synthesized with the rationalization of bodily labor in Fredrick Taylor’s doctrine of “scientific management” (Taylor 1919) to create the paradigm of Fordism, in which the organization of the assembly-line factory became a model for a complete world of social and cultural forms. In Gary, things like the mill slag, and the landscapes created with it, are byproducts of the processes producing steel. Likewise, the environmental change cause by the extraction of resources, burning of coal, and excretion of waste and excess material, appear as byproducts and externalities of the production process, even as they assume central roles in conditioning the lived experience of Gary as a place. In this, the city itself and the lives and culture of its inhabitants become ambiguously means and ends, excesses and externalities to be managed, but also another “ground” from which extraction takes place. In Fordism the conception of this social ground is clear. Central to the mythology of Henry Ford’s first factory at Rover Rouge is the story of how workers were paid above average wages and the efficiencies of the new mode of production were used to make the cost of the cars being produced low enough that the workers could afford to own the machines they were building. As an ideological formation Fordism is distinctive in being incredibly powerful and pervasive despite not having foundational texts or polemics. American “car culture,” and “automobile urbanism,” to say nothing of the ecological impacts and political economic deformations brought about by producing, distributing and burning the quantities of gasoline required to power these things, are in no clear ways explicit aims of Fordism, and yet it is impossible to conceive of them without tracing a line back through the social machinery of the assembly-line factories and from there, on to the coal mines, ore pits and oil fields. Chakrabarty describes the Anthropocene as the “unintended consequence of human choices,” (Chakrabarty) yet in these dynamics it is possible to identify the agencies and intentions of things not quite human, in a total sense, and perhaps also to see the limits of human choice and intention, and of humanness itself. As a critical rejoinder to theories of the Anthropocene, Jason Moore proposes a conception of the Capitalocene, that accepts the terms of Chakrabarty’s, and others’, argument but asserts that, “the problem is that the parts do not add up to the whole. Human activity not only produces biospheric change, but relations between humans are themselves produced by nature.” (Moor, “The Capitalocene Part I: On the Nature & Origins of Our Ecological Crisis”) In Moor’s account the lack of wholeness cuts both ways into differentiations of nature and culture. Not only does not all of humanity act in the world in the same way, but human subjects and their relations are reciprocally defined by natural forces even as they act. The web of human relations that Moore would like to identify as the biospheric actor is, of course capitalism, but this distinction is not as simple as shifting ‘blame’ for the Anthropocene and its crises away from humanity as a whole and on to Capitalism or ‘the Capitalists’ but rather to deny the possibility of subjectifying a single humanity at all, and especially under capitalism, and to allow that there are different types of human subjects who act in the world in different, uneven and asymmetrical ways. 

“Nos 1 to 4 Blast Furnaces; Excavations and Foundations,” 1916, Calumet Regional Archives

Gary was founded in 1906, two years before Ford’s Model T went into production. It was Named for Elbert Henry Gary, chairman of the recently formed United States Steel Corporation, and, thus the human face of the rhizomatic force of capital that that would give shape to the city. Construction of the Gary Works began immediately and the mill went into operation in 1909. The site it occupies on the southern shore of was chosen for its flatness and the pliability of the its landscape. On a material level, sandy lakeshore dunes were easy to excavate and or fill into the lake. The land was easy, malleable and asked little of the city builders. Also easier was the political space of Indiana, which had lower taxes, fewer regulations and little of the culture of organized labor that was present in Illinois and Michigan. The features that defined the place where Gary would be built were therefore as much things that were not there as things that were and the work of building a city would be as much a labor of erasure, negation and disappearance as it was summoning something into being. Conversely, the construction of the infrastructural armature for the mill was less a matter of layering, new technological networks over the existing landscape as it was a reconfiguration of already hybridized natural and manmade systems. In the course of building the mill the Grand Calumet branch of the Calumet river was channelized into a straight, rectilinear canal, and as with other rivers draining into the great lakes, its direction was reversed so that it now flows south into the Mississippi. This would extend the already-vast watershed of the Mississippi so that the entire Midwest drained into it and, with the flourishing of heavy, dirty industry in the north, a steady flux of toxins, carcinogens and teratogens would be washed downstream to what would become the “cancer alley” of Louisiana and Mississippi. 

Up from the south flowed a return tide of human beings. The Great Migration began as the Gary Works went into production and black workers moving north from the rural south were drawn into the city/factory system to perform the hardest, most dangerous work for lower wages than unionized white workers. The Mexican revolution began in 1910, and another northward migration of refugees would be set in motion. These newer populations would be added to the mixture of ethnic groups that had, at this point, become representative of Northern Midwest industrial cities: Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Irish, Italians. In constructing the city, US Steel reject the, by then much reviled, model of the paternalistic “company town” in which the central industry was both employer and landlord for the population. Instead a subsidiary company, the Gary Land Trust was established to parcel out the land along the gridded city streets and provide financing for small developers to build rental housing, for wealthier Mill workers (managers and higher level technicians) to build private homes, and business set up shop and to service the newly made consumer market. Rather than constructing a specific built condition, the making of Gary was approached as the establishment and setting into motion of a system of exchange. 

“English Class, April 14th, 1921. These classes were part of the corporation’s Americanization drives designed to produce “100% Americans” in the early 20th century.” Calumet Regional Archives

As an artificial city, Gary was thus caught between the two valences of utopia. It was a significantly a “non-place;” a real abstraction in which the cold, dead rationality of finance and industrial technocracy was mapped on to the living material world, but simultaneously it was a planned, ideal city despite its builders’ discomfort with assuming the roles of social engineers. These contradictions and conflicts would lead to the constructing a city with a tidy urban core surrounded by an organic accretion of unplanned spaces. The planned city is organized by the symbolic axis of Broadway: a wide, straight avenue set perpendicular to the freeway that extends down the flat, gentle slope of the lake shore, through the center of town, and into the gates of the mill. An orderly grid of streets extends out from Broadway in both directions. The eastern ones are named for the states of the union and the western ones for American presidents from Washington to Taft, who was in office as the initial construction of the mill was completed in 1909. Around this appeared encampments of tarpaper shacks, ghetto neighborhoods where the black community was allowed to settle and a district of saloons, cabarets and brothels called “The Patch” that provided for the city’s needs and desires that were inadmissible to planning discourses. 

Despite the rationality and clarity of purpose with which the mill was planned and constructed, filling in this grid would be to a large extent a work of fantasy projections. Representing Gary as a city was approached by the municipal authorities primarily as commercial boosterism aimed at selling real estate and thus would mix language of gauzy consumer capitalist dream imagery with the cold calculation of industrial management. A brochure published by the city in 1917 announced to the “patriotic peoples of the universe” that “cosmopolitan Gary, the Magic Steel City, welcomes all comers to its confines, where health, wealth, and pleasure combine to make the most wonderful city of the present century.” (quoted in Lane, p.59) If the assertion of health, wealth and pleasure is clearly a propagandistic inversion of the realities of low wages, and dangerous, unhealthy, and brutally difficult labor conditions, then the invocation of cosmopolitanism and the, even stranger, patriotism of the universe speaks to a more complex set of anxieties and contradictions manifest in the Magic Steel City. Susan Buck-Morss, in her parallel account of American and Soviet industrial culture, Dream World and Catastrophe (2000) describes this work creating image regimes and “dream worlds” as a way that human subjects collectively recover from and survive the shock and rupture of modernity and understand the consequences and potential futures of incomprehensible things they themselves have made and done. 

The historical moment of early twentieth century United States can be understood, as it conventionally is, as being marked by struggles to define an American culture mediating between liberal democracy imbued with the ideals of the enlightenment by its bourgeois revolutionary founders, the ethnic nationalisms of both immigrant groups and a vaguely and paradoxically defined white protestant ‘native’ identity, and a rapidly expanding industrial/financial capitalism that seem to always and everywhere call for increased consolidation of resources and power into the hands of planning and management agencies even as immerging consumer culture spun powerful mythologies of individualism and personal choice. Considered more globally, and at longer historical duree these dynamics, which shaped Gary and other new industrial cities of the Northern Midwest appear as manifestations of the development of network of forces and relations so vast and pervasive that it is difficult to conceive of them simply as “capitalism,” and is tempting to instead think of them simply as ‘humanity’ or a ‘history’ figured as a thing it itself imbued with an animating spirt that imparts a linear vector of progress suggestive of Ford’s assembly line. In this vast historical schema, which is actually not so vast in the scale of geologic time, Gary instantiates the ‘second industrial revolution’ in which massively consolidated industrial/financial networks would take on globe-spanning proportions that would begin to disrupt and supplant nation-states as the organizers of modern life and space. 

As valences of the enlightenment (if sometimes avant de letter), capitalism and modernity, as figured in modernism, would rely heavily on distinction between humanity and the world of human creations, and a separate natural world standing opposite. In Moore’s account of the Capitalocene, he argues for a shifting of focus away from the technological developments of the industrial revolution and towards the theoretical and epistemic changes that underpin the development of Capitalism itself. In the early modern period, defined “exploration” of the world by European powers and the expansion of rapacious colonial empires driven by conquest and the extraction of resources, this distinction was largely spatial. Early modern colonialism worked to expand the area of the named, mapped, measured and demarcated “known” world and to bring it under the regime of a unitary spatial order. It was in this environment that mercantile capitalism would develop and begin to introduce other, time-based dynamics to the structure of modernity. Mercantile empires did not so much replace early modern colonialism as augment it with networks of trade routes, measured in ever-decreasing travel times as faster ships made the world smaller. Conquered populations became not only imperial subjects but also pools of labor power to be mobilized and organized into the circuits of planation agriculture producing commodities for global markers, and then in the most advanced stages captive markets of consumers for industrial goods manufactured from those commodities. Industrialization, which seemed so revolutionary in its effects, can also be seen to simply further extend and intensify these regimes of abstraction and linear production processes. Even James Watt’s steam engine, which assumes such a storied roll in narratives of the industrial epoch, was developed from an earlier open design, made more powerful and efficient by being reengineered as a closed, recirculating system, regulated by a “self-indexing” control mechanism. Even the massive increase in carbon released into the atmosphere, which took place as coal-burning, steam-powered industry proliferated, was not new but rather amplified a process already begun with the vast, rapid, and historically unpresented deforestation in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in South America as plantation agriculture, especially sugar cultivation, came to surpass mining as the prime generator of wealth from the colonies. What industry did do is bring the relations of production out of the plantation fields and into the factory, allowing production to be increasingly separated and distanced from the natural—or at least terrestrial—ground of extraction. 

The second industrial revolution, which would give Gary its form, would further the shift from spatial orders to temporal regimes, from objects to processes, and even from individual machines like the steam engine or the power loom, towards integrated systems such as the Bessemer process and Ford’s assembly line. Despite Elbert Gary’s position of leadership the United States Steel Corporation was a somewhat amorphous entity, formed from the amalgamation of an array of steel interests, including some owned by Andrew Carnage, in to a vast trust, financed by J.P. Morgan capital, that would stand besides other trusts in coal, oil, railroads and cotton as organizing forces early twentieth century American economy. The ascendency of these immaterial-yet-powerful financial edifices would further close the loop in the cycle of spaces bodies and resources—both human and “natural”—being sublimated into abstract value and, through violently real, material processes, circulated through the channels of the global economy until it could be made to accumulate into new, solid, living forms. This new circuit of abstraction transformed into abstraction rendered the material world, whether the steel mill, the bodies of the workers, or the land itself, less and less as substrate from which value was extracted and more a frustratingly thick media through which it passed from one more ideal form to another. Further, immaterial, inhuman abstractions, like the U.S. Steel trust, and the markets it operated in dialogue with, came to assume a sort of mechanistic agency and subjectivity—perhaps an early, and truer manifestation of the “machine intelligence” that would be theorized in future industrial revolutions—while the subjectivity, and therefor agency and intention of human actors became increasingly seen to be contingent, constructed, and illusionary—an excess or byproduct of the production/circulation process. If there was magic preformed in the conjuring of the Magic City of Steel, this necromancy was it. 

Broadway, Gary Indiana, 1959

In figuring the city as and economic space, Gary and industrial town like it, introduce additional splittings in the nature/culture divide. Governed by its own ‘laws’ and shaped by market ‘forces’ economics presents itself as a new nature—or at least a new, artificially created part of nature. In so doing the human other that stands opposite is coded as politics, culture or ideology. The questions posed by Gary, therefore are those of understanding how human life unfolds and take shape in a steel city, and how the cycles, dynamics of the earth and the land change, or persist, when entangled with the linear vectors of industrial time. Confounding the possibility of answering these questions conclusively is the way that hybridizations of natural and cultural dynamics bring about an admixture of ostensibly universal, “scientific” principles, and imminently contingent, historical formations that, even if they are able to permeate the entire globe, as capitalism has, are importantly things that have been made one way but could be otherwise. 

History has never left Gary alone long enough for pure rationality of the Bessemer process, the assembly line or the joint stock cooperation to crystalize into an undeformed socio-technical urban structure. Gary was founded as the westward expansion of the United States, driven as it was by brute extraction and the most ravenous of primitive accumulation, had reached its limits and the country turned to densification and consolidation at what had come to be ‘home,’ and economic imperialism, rather than settler colonialism abroad. In Europe, however, precariously balanced assemblage of modern empires, synthesized from various chimeric combinations of mercantilist and industrial capitalism, modern nation-state formations and residual remnants of premodern feudal structures, slipped into a cataclysmic conflagration. To refer to this catastrophic eruption of creative destruction as the First World War only makes sense as acknowledgement that the industrial capitalist order, created in Europe, carried forward in the United States propagated through global imperial conquest, had become, or at least permeated the whole world. The defining horror of this conflict was a condition of spatial stasis combined with a nearly continuous destruction/consumption of lives and material unprecedented in its scale and coldly mechanistic brutality. The while previous European wars had been fought by seizing and re-demarcating territory, the “Great War” simply opened up an inferno into which the produce of the newly built factories was poured, and human populations, recently mobilized and organized into mass labor forces, were transformed once again into armies and run into the machine guns. Conventional histories of the war describe the United States emerging from it with its status as a world power greatly enhanced, but from the perspective of volcanic political economy, the war can be seen to have burned away the residues of premodern Europe and diminished the luminosity of the enlightenment so that the kind of power that the United States had become came to further dominate the world. 

In Gary, the war supplied the schema for a strident, if not exactly coherent, politics in which patriotism and national identity were made to adhere to the social relations of industrial production. When the United States entered the war, making steel went from being a commercial enterprise to becoming a vital part of the war effort. Mill workers, who had recently organized unions, were forbidden to strike, and for the largely immigrant workforce, an equation was made between productive labor, patriotism, and Americanness. The drive for war production was used to enforce uneasy cooperation between mill management and the officially recognized union. Meanwhile the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) — the radical union which had opposed the war and asserted working class internationalism, and anti-capitalist struggle as an alternative to interclass solidarity under national identities—was suppressed as disloyal foreign saboteurs. The accord between labor and management would not last after the war and in 1919, with the Russian revolution unfolding dramatically in the press and rippling through the paranoid imaginations of those charged with building and preserving the ‘means of production,’ workers at the Gary Works went on strike to reduce the work day from twelve to eight hours and add a day off to the seven-day continuous work week (Lane, p.59-66). After some initial skirmishes with the police, martial law was declared and national guard troops brought in to put down the insurrection, and round up ‘reds’ and radical organizers. Their repressive efforts were enabled by the flourishing of the nation’s first ‘red scare’ taking place in the background, and every effort was made to connect industrial labor discipline with patriotism and the American way of life. While there had been conflicts between the political and economic elites and foreign-identified ‘Anarchists’ throughout the late nineteenth century, this was first time that capitalism, and specifically freedom of ‘free market’ capitalism, had been equated with the freedoms promised by American democracy, and defined against Socialist political ideology. The terms of this equation would not, however, hold up. When the strike was eventually broken, in 1920, the suppression of socialist organizations and radical agitators would play less of a role than a strategy of outflanking the large mass of relatively unskilled immigrant workers, by on one hand coopting skilled technicians and line engineers, who tended to be more ‘native,’ with concessions and, on the other, hiring black workers, desperate for jobs, to cross the picket lines and keep the mill running. It is possible, and indeed entirely reasonable, to characterize this outcome as another instance of the tragic historical failure of workers’ movement in the United Sates in which racist mystifications overcome class solidarity and collective action in the service of common interests. Also, however, their appears a glimpse of the otherwise-invisible process by which the rational structures of technology, with their claims to pragmatic realism grounded in ‘natural’ laws, are welded to irrational imaginaries of race and culture to define horizons of possibility and produce shared, ideological dream worlds—however dark. 

The paradox of this moment in history is that as there came to be an awareness of humanity’s power make and unmake the world, it also became clear that this power came at the cost of the experience of individual freedom, agency or even discrete subjectivity. The American cultural mythology of democratic freedom and the potential for immigrants to remake themselves and their place in the world in “the land of opportunity” had always coexisted with another assemblage of concepts and forces that established standardization, massively consolidated organization of people and material, and rationalized regulation and control as a vector of progress and development. It is possible to call this modernism, or capitalism or some combination of the two, however modernism, especially in its American articulations was rarely able to face this contradiction squarely, and the drive toward linearity and order is not reducible strictly to Capitalism, at least when named as such. In the years preceding the First World war the Magic City of Steel, and the entire Northern Midwest industrial apparatus would be taken as a model for modern industrial development and, despite the political agnosticism of Ford and many of the other theorists of mass production, modernist projects of social transformation. 

Throughout the 1920s and ‘30s representatives from industry groups in the Fascist nations in Europe, including executives from Fiat, and Ferdinand Porsche himself, would visit Detroit and tour the Ford production facilities. The Soviets, however, sent more extensive industry and trade delegations, and carefully studied a broad spectrum of industrial production from finished products like tractors and automobiles to basic commodity production (Link, p. 2). Along with the information they gathered, the Soviet emissaries would return home having forged contacts with American engineers, technicians, managers and industrial architects. Of all industrial commodities steel was given an almost totemic role in the Soviet mythology of the new, modern world they hoped to construct, and through Soviet eyes, and in Soviet imaginations, American steel cities appeared to offer templates for creating new social orders more radical and utopian that their builders could have conceived. Stephen Kotkin, in his history of Soviet industrial culture, The Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization, quotes Joseph Stalin—who had taken steel as his name—as declaring that, “we are becoming a country of metal, an automobilized country, a tractorized country.” If it is telling that the Soviet leader had taken up the American practice of investing objects—the automobile, and the tractor— with world-making power, it is also significant that the objects are reciprocally transformed from nouns to verbs. In this, no doubt devoutly materialist, conception things become processes or instantaneous manifestations of ongoing dynamics stretching back into history forward into the future. Among Soviet workers, in fact, the conception of what it was that they wanted to import from the United States, was often less about things and more a question of time, motion and time scales. The doctrine of quick efficient motion, in the service of continuous production came to be referred to as the “American Tempo,” (see Haran, “Tractor Factory Facts”) and it was this, as much as specific technologies and machinery that it was hoped would animate the new revolutionary society. 

In 1929 workers sent to build a new city set up a tent settlement on a barren patch of the western Siberian steppe on the eastern, Asian side of the Ural Mountains. They had come to this place because of a geological anomaly: a mountain of almost pure iron ore. The Magnetic Mountain, as it was called, is said to have been sufficiently magnetized to misdirect compass needles in the area and, according to legend, had already saved Russia once when the iron horseshoes of Genghis Kahn’s invading hordes had stuck fast to its charged surface. Now it was again being looked to in hopes that it would help to literally materialize the radical dream of a new Russia and eventually save it from invaders coming, this time from the west. Magnitogorsk — “the city by the magnetic mountain” — would be a centerpiece of the crash program of both industrialization and urbanization undertaken under the auspices of the first five-year plan of 1928–1932. Of the new cities and urban expansions constructed during this period Magnitogorsk was among the most purely functional. The iron from the mountain was to be used to build a system of smelters, blast furnaces and steel mills that would be among the most advanced in the world and the largest ever constructed. This vast factory complex would also be a city for people to live in andforge a new cultural form that would be a model for Soviet society, even as they produced the steel that would be used to build capacity and supply industrial production across the country. Despite being literally charged with potential, the site upon which Magnitogorsk was built was remote from centers of power and culture and inhospitable to human habitation. There had been a small garrison stationed there when it was a peripheral region of the Russian empire. Rudimentary mining activity had been undertaken but then abandoned, and during the civil war that followed the 1918 revolution, there had been a minor battle fought there between a retreating remnant of the “white” tsarist forces and the newly formed Soviet “red” army. Other than this, the area was only sparsely populated by mostly illiterate Kyrgyz and Bashkir pastoralists, who had been alienated by the white’s attempts to conscript them into their fight against the reds but had otherwise not yet been touched by the revolution.

Taking place, as it did, on the edge of both the European and the Russian worlds the construction of Magnitogorsk would represent a leap into the future as well as a leap into the unknown in which the dynamics of planning and contingency, action and consequence would play out in stark terms. Into the terra incognita that Magnitogorsk presented as both a place and a project, a disparate array of actors would venture who would struggle, in terms both personal and political, to understand and articulate what they were doing, what they were experiencing, and what was happening to them. Party apparatchiks and professional agitators came to organize the work, instill consciousness of the significance and gravity of the undertaking and see to the workers development as political subjects. Engineers and technicians also came in large numbers. A few of these were committed communists or social democrats who had supported the Bolshevik’s rise to power. Many more, however, were “prisoner experts” who had been convicted of counter-revolutionary actions or opinions and handed the bizarre sentence of being sent to Magnitogorsk to direct construction and manage the mills under the watchful eye of more trusted (if not as well paid or housed) assistants who served as both jailors and apprentices, gaining technical knowledge even as they tried to stop sabotage and subversion of resources. The workers too, spanned a spectrum from committed Bolshevik shock-workers to convicts and conscripts ranging from common criminals, to the indigent and displaced in need of employment, to industrious peasant farmers who had been declared kulaks and “liquidated” into a mobilized labor force as their farms were collectivized. Also, the local population was recruited as construction labor and found themselves suddenly taken from being semi-nomadic herders to becoming riveters and construction welders who were taught first to read and write in Russian and then engineering and metallurgy and Marxist-Leninist dialectics. 

Soviet poster for the first five-year plan, 1930

A significant number of foreigners would also be involved in the planning, design, management and construction of Magnitogorsk. These would likewise be motivated by varying combinations of ideological conviction, economic opportunism, professional ambition and political necessity. Among these the most highly visible were left-wing modernist architects and intellectuals from Western Europe interested in escaping the deteriorating political situations in their own countries and finding an environment of radical potential in which they could seek out the practical realization of a project that would turn the forces of modernity away from the cycle of capital accumulation and use them to create a new social reality. The ranks of consultants and “foreign experts” would also, however include American engineers, managers and technicians hired to design the steel production facilities and direct the process of bringing them online. Each of these groups — or indeed individuals — would come with their own understanding of what was taking place at Magnitogorsk, what the work at hand was and what future it promised. 

Officially in charge of master planning Magnitogorsk, was the German architect Ernst May. May had been among the founding members of the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) and municipal architect for Frankfurt from 1925 to 1930 where he had overseen the Neue Frankfurt project that built progressive, functionalist workers housing under the sponsorship of a left-wing city government. Many of the architects who worked under May had trained at the Bauhaus or — like Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky who designed the Frankfurt Kitchen for Neue Frankfurt housing projects — had been active in Vienna when it was controlled by a Marxist city government. In 1931, with the political situation turning against them, May had refashioned his design team into a “brigade” and brought them to the Soviet Union to work on urban projects. May came to Magnitogorsk armed with the planning guidelines for the Sotsgorod or “Socialist City” put forward in 1930 by Nikolay A. Milyutin People’s Commissar of Finance and director of Narkomfin. The Sotsgorod existed as a collection of abstract diagrams and specifications organized by both geometric abstraction — specifically linearity — and the abstraction of material processes in industrial production.

The concept of the linear city was not a Soviet invention but rather was synthesized from a number of motifs emerging from progressive discourses on the city and corporatist and technocratic ideas about rationalized social management. Le Corbusier, who by the late 1920s had emerged as a dominant figure in the ideological formation of modernist architecture, first articulated what he termed the “four functions of architecture” (housing, industry, recreation, and circulation) and politicized linearity as the essential form of industrial production in his 1929 scheme for the Ville Radieuse or radiant city. The linear arrangement was posited as a “rational” alternative to cities organized concentrically with housing and workshops accreting haphazardly around either symbolic representations of state and religious power, or marketplaces and other sites of commercial exchange. While the linearity of the Ville Radieuse is meant to provide for efficient, high speed circulation of vehicles it also figures heavily as an axial composition device and is “radiant” in the sense of radial or axial, baroque planning seen in Versailles or in Haussmann’s Parisian boulevards, that creates lines of sight. If the linearity of the Fordist assembly line — admired by both the Bolsheviks and by Le Corbusier’s ideological patrons in French Syndicalist and Saint-Simonian technocratic circles (McLeod p. 132-147)— is present in the Ville Radieuse it is primarily as a formal metaphor rather than an organization of the social relations of production (of which Le Corbusier was ambivalent). 

Linearity would be loaded with significantly different ideological significance by the Constructivist, and then Productivist, elements of the Soviet avant-garde. These had begun with radical experiments in painting and sculpture that, equating compositional form with social composition, sought to overturn harmony and order with the shock and rupture of the revolution. While much of modernism in the west remained committed to conceptions of universal human needs and a shared human spirit animating an architecture made to the measure of man, the Soviet avant-garde asserted a structurally determined subjectivity that could be designed as machines are. In abstracting and rationalizing both the body and the human subject, Productivism sought to establish a reciprocal relationship between people and their architecture in which each makes the other. However well Magnitogorsk would function as a screen upon which to project the dream images of modernism, the rigors of material situation and the contradictions and conflicts with in Soviet culture as the Stalinist order overtook and consumed the revolutionary avant-garde would introduce a sharp disjunction between the utopian plans of the architects and the situated reality of conditions ‘on the ground.’ As May and his brigade drew rows of towerblocks for communal housing and posited the liquidation the family and liberation of the labor of women through the consolidation of reproductive work into modern ‘super kitchens,’ industrial laundries, workers’ bathhouses, schools and daycares, the construction brigades were housed in tents and barracks scrounged for food and fuel. The shock workers spoke of lives sacrificed in the ‘battle of production’ as casualty rates in the construction effort came to match those of the destruction of the war. 

These disjunctions between plan and reality, however fall less neatly into narratives of utopia failed or foreclosed, and rather appear as a layering of projections, and an over-determination of forces such that the it becomes impossible to fix on or even see a cohesive, coherent reality in Magnitogorsk. In characterizing Magnitogorsk as a “dream world” (Buck-Morss, “A Cosmopolitan Project” p. 167-172) Susan Buck-Morss cites Antony Sutton’s dry, analytical account (Sutton) of the Cleaveland-based engineering firm Arthur McKee and Co. winning the contract to design and administer the construction of the city’s mines and mills in 1930 with a proposal based, at the request of the Soviets, not on Corbusier’s Modernist Utopianism, or the radical architecture of the revolution, but on a massively scaled-up version of the U.S. Steel Gary Works, organized by an “integrated design that provided a linear flow from raw materials to finished products.” 

Despite this decidedly conservative originating concept, a new world was opened up in Magnitogorsk, as the mill rose from the steppe and its furnaces fired. After long, dangerous shifts high up on the construction scaffolding in the cold winter winds, or once the mill was in operation, the heat of the furnaces, workers attended evening classes where they learned to read, or studied mechanics, metallurgy and Marxism. Peasants and herders became technicians, engineers and managers and, they also learned the techniques of “doing” politics in ways that both allowed them to dictate the terms of their own lives and to struggle with each other for power and resources. Just as in Gary, the steel produced at the Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Kombinant flowed outward over a sprawling rail network, and into factories producing Ford model tractors, trucks, agricultural equipment to break the steppe as the America planes had been broken, and as the next world war loomed, tanks to resist the invasion from the west. 

Blast furnace at Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Industrial Complex

In Buck-Morss’ account Magnitogorsk is claimed a Soviet Hollywood that drew ambitious and optimistic young people seeking opportunities to reinvent themselves. If, in this view, material production and the production of images and concepts adding up to new subjectivities and life worlds vie for the position of being the primary function of Magnitogorsk’s vast industrial complex, then the mill becomes somehow more than and less than a city— simultaneously a factory producing both material value and cultural values, and also utopian “no place.” Buck Morss writes from the position of trying to understand the cold war and the end of the Soviet Union, and to relate this history to the possibility of an end of Modernism and perhaps even of modernity passing onto another phase or ‘post’ condition. It is perhaps not necessary, however, to invoke Hollywood if the story of the City by the Magnetic Mountain is tied back to its more direct influences in that of the Magic City of Steel, not through the explicit discourses of modernist architecture by discovering the tacit, subterranean utopianism of technicians like Arthur McKee and his nameless associates, and acknowledging the heroic radicality of the people who, if only by not dying, allowed their lives to be liquefied, set into motion and transformed by the volcanic action of the industrial world. 

Monument commemorating the end of iron mining in 1971, Magnitogorsk, Russia, 2015, photo by Nane Diehl

During the Second World War, Magnitogorsk was designated a strategic city and access by foreign observers was limited causing it to recede from view in the west, and from the popular imagination in the Soviet Union until the openness of glasnost allowed its reemergence from obscurity. Magnitogorsk had expanded in phases during its period of relative invisibility. In an ironic mirroring of the progression from Constructivism to Socialist Realism, districts of stripped-down, bulked-up Beaux-Arts style housing with radial boulevards cutting through their street grids had been built during the postwar reconstruction. This was then followed, in the Khrushchev era’s return to modernism, by the construction of rows of tower blocks, widely spaced along a green transit axis. The Magnetic Mountain has, however, disappeared for good, having been completely turned into steel so that only a pit remains where it once stood. At the top edge of the pit a monument to the mountain’s sacrifice has been erected with a worn and broken oar bucket set atop a pillar marked with the date, 1971, when mining stopped. When the veil of obscurity was lifted the air and the water had been radically transformed as well, earning Magnitogorsk a place on the United Nations’ list of the world’s “Most Altered Environments.” With its mills now privatized and iron ore brought in on trains, Magnitogorsk remains a major site of steel production in Russia. Scrubbers have been installed on the mill’s smoke stacks and a program of bioremediation is underway at the oar pit. It has universities, an opera house and is home the Pushkin Drama Theatre and an often-very-good hockey team named “The Metallurgists,” with a reputation for being the bruisers of the Russian league. 

Broadway, Gary Indiana, 2017, photo by Nane Diehl

Gary, as the techno-social volcano of the American Industrial Expansion, has fared less well. After churning out steel and acting as a crucible of social struggle and change through the Second World War and the years of prosperity the followed, Gary became one of the iconic sites of industrial decline and social decay that defined the American “rust belt.” Perhaps paradoxically when compared to Magnitogorsk, nothing has collapsed or been exhausted in Gary. The sources of iron and coal are still available and the national culture that established the mill remains enact, and can even be claimed to have been victorious in the Cold War and now stand as the “last remaining superpower.” The Gary Works is even still partially in operation though it now only employs a few thousand workers, instead of over thirty thousand as it did at its peak in the 1970s. It has become customary to attribute this extinguishing of the volcano to a continuation of the efficiency logics of modern industry: the once-continental logistics network can now span the globe bringing competition from overseas markets; there has been a betrayal of the social contract between industry and its workers such that “jobs” have been exported and given to foreigners. As perversely comforting as this narrative may be, it explains little of the contemporary condition. Overseas competition became an issue as new techniques for producing steel in smaller, more distributed “micro mills” and rather than invest in modernizing the hulking Gary Works, U.S. Steel built new, smaller facilities elsewhere. The dynamics of structural racism than had worked to establish a stable, stratified labor force and a dense, cohesive, segregated city in the periods of industrial expansion would have a centripetal effect when industry contracted and dispersed. The phenomena of “white flight” would see residents who could afford to leaving Gary for newly incorporated suburban enclaves where their tax money could be kept for their own use and the costs of maintaining the social and physical infrastructure of the city could be pushed off their books.

Donald Trump and then-wife Marla Maples casino boats at the 1992 opening of the Majestic Star II lake boat casino in Gary Indiana. Gambling boats were looked to as a means for generating tax revenue to maintain basic services in Gary, at the expense of local, often low-income gamblers. https://www.businessinsider.com/trumps-spotty-casino-history-in-gary-indiana-2016-9?r=DE&IR=T

This slash-and-burn cultivation of the social ground mirrors the atomization, and dispersion of material production, but more tellingly, it appears as the material manifestation of the violently dematerialized abstraction of finance. In this the old lines and flows become dispersed into fields of quantum indeterminacy. If it is past time to acknowledge and take responsibility for humanity’s role in shaping, and potentially destroying, the natural world, it is also important to refuse too-easy formulations of humanity as a unified or autonomous whole and find ways to act, and accept responsibility for those actions without expecting to fully understand have mastery of either the conditions of action or their outcomes. If it is possible to address a collective “we” at all here it is a we that must make itself as it makes the world, all the while knowing that both self and world will be unmade in the process. All of us will die, as subjects, in any revolution worth the name, whether industrial, cultural, political or “green.” If there is any utopian hope it is that we may be remade and reborn, perhaps as human, perhaps not, with the new world that continuously erupts through the ruined strata of the old. 


Landscape, Industry, and Culture

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No. 2, Winter 2009, p. 197-222.

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Magnitogorsk and the Soviet Union

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Gary and the Northern Midwest

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