I’ve just learned that the political theorist Benjamin Barber died of pancreatic cancer on Monday, at the age of 77.
Barber was perhaps best known for his 1995 book Jihad vs. McWorld, which foresaw the rise of terrorism. But he was also an urban theorist, whose 2013 work If Mayors Ruled the World argued that nation states are increasingly powerless to deal with the challenges of the 21st century.
Instead, he argued, we should be looking to cities as the building blocks of the global government of the future. In the last years of his life Barber even began putting those ideas into practice, by convening a Global Parliament of Mayors. It held its first meeting, attended by 60 mayors, in the Hague last autumn.
I was lucky enough to speak with Barber in the run up to that event last summer. You can hear my interview with him on this podcast (though I will confess up front, the sound quality is not great).
And if you’re not familiar with his ideas, here’s a brief summary I wrote in 2015.
So here’s a question for you: can cities save the world?
This may seem a tad unlikely. (Seriously, have you seen cities? Crowded, dirty places, full of bloody people.) But it’s a question you encounter rather a lot in urbanism circles – so we thought it was about time we explained how everyone came to be asking it.
The most comprehensive explanation of why cities could, in fact, save the lot of us came in a 2013 book by the American academic Benjamin Barber. If Mayors Ruled The World is a long book – 400 pages, a dozen chapters, plus brief case studies of enough mayors to fill a small bus – so I’m not going to do it justice in a short comment piece.
But its central thesis is straightforward enough. Nations, Barber argues, are inevitably moribund, ideological and obsessed with their own sovereignty. Cities, by contrast, are naturally co-operative, pragmatic, and used to solving problems.
In this situation, Barber asks, which political units would you trust to save humanity from its own destruction?
The Peace of Westphalia has a lot to answer for
We’ve probably been a bit flippant there (did we mention it was a long book?), so let’s unpack this a little.
Nations are supposed to have complete control over their own destiny, thanks to the magical doctrine of national sovereignty. This, so the theory goes, allows them to set whatever policy they like within their own borders. And, if you can set any policy, you can solve any problem.
National sovereignty in the form we understand it now is a surprisingly recent invention – it dates back to the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, which ended the Thirty Years’ War, and in which the major continental European nations agreed to respect each others’ territorial integrity. (This came as a pretty welcome development to the people of the largely German-speaking Holy Roman Empire, who had spent much of the previous three decades getting the crap kicked out of them by a succession of non-German speaking armies.) It’s a neat theory, with just one tiny problem: it doesn’t work.
For one thing, it’s the sort of flannel you probably have to be at least a medium-sized nation to believe in the first place. Luxembourg, say, is probably rather less convinced of its own ability to control its own destiny than France.
More than that, though, many of the problems facing the world today – migration, climate change, terrorism, getting multinational corporations to stop pissing about and pay their bloody taxes – are international in character. Reducing carbon emissions; preventing Starbucks from simply moving its profits to a more tax-friendly territory; re-housing the thousands of people arriving on Europe’s southern shores – solving any of these problems will require national governments to be able to cooperate with each other.
And the source of their power, paradoxically, prevents from doing this. Because sovereignty is meant to be absolute and indivisible, it’s perceived as a zero sum game: if it’s shared, it’s lost.
So it is that a head of state who works with their peers to tackle any of these problems will tend to find themselves accused of giving away their nation’s precious sovereignty. Look at the dysfunctional relationship between European governments and the EU; or the US’s inability to ratify all sorts of international treaties down the years. In ideology-fuelled national politics, there will always be mileage in accusing your opponents of betraying their country.
In other words, the doctrine of national sovereignty gives nations the illusion that they have complete control of their destiny. In practice, it just gets in the way of fixing things.
There’s no neo-liberal way of emptying the bins
That’s the bad news. The good news is that cites don’t have to deal with these problems.
For one thing, they don’t have an inflated sense of their own importance: very few cities in the modern world have full sovereignty, so they are used to ducking and diving and cutting deals with other authorities (national governments, mostly) to get their own way.
It’s also probably easier to see the benefits of co-operation when you don’t have physical borders to make you feel that a gain for one country is a loss for another. Whatever the rivalry between London and Paris, the French capital isn’t going to attempt to annex Bromley any time soon.
Most importantly, though, cities actually have to deliver. National politicians can argue about whether the economy is turning around, or the education system getting better, or the national defences getting stronger til the cows come home, and it’ll probably be years before its clear who was right. But if a city stops emptying the bins, or the local tram network falls over, you know about it immediately.
The result of this is that, while national government may be ideological, mayors have to be practical. Prime ministers, presidents and national legislators can argue about the science of climate change; but mayors actually have to deal with the flood waters that are swamping their streets.
For the same reason, they’re also more likely to be centrist. As another urban theorist, Harvard’s Edward Glaeser, is fond of saying, there’s no left- or right-wing way to empty a trash can. That’s why, for all the difference in their background and rhetoric, there was a remarkable degree of continuity in policy between London’s first mayor, “Red” Ken Livingstone, and his uber-Tory successor Boris Johnson.
So. Nations are moribund talking shops; cities have both the attitude and the motivation required to actually solve problems. Barber’s conclusion is that the way forward is for cities to share ideas on the best way of doing things; in the long term, he suggests a “parliament of mayors” as a step towards global governance.
It’s an ambitious idea – perhaps a utopian one, too. But it might be one worth trying nonetheless. Because, while it may not clear that cities can save the world, Barber makes a depressingly convincing case that countries can’t.