Cities, thinks the political theorist Benjamin Barber, can save democracy. In his new book “If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities”, Barber argues that only cities are capable of reconnecting “participation, which is local, with power, which is central”. Nation states used to do that, but they have become too large to sustain the kind of “bottom-up citizenship, civil society and voluntary community” which he thinks, following John Dewey, is the essence of democracy. There’s a global dimension to this, too. If nation states are too big to nourish genuinely participatory democracy, they’re also too small to meet the challenges of global power in all its dimensions. The alternative, Barber says, to inefficient supra-national institutions composed of nation states pursuing their own interests is a “cosmopolitan” global system of networked urban centres, a “global parliament of mayors”. That may sound impossibly utopian, but Barber makes a pretty convincing fist of showing why it might just work.
When I spoke to Barber earlier this week on the phone from New York, where he teaches at CUNY and lives on the Upper West Side, I began by asking him to describe the global crisis to which he thinks a networked “cosmpolis” is the solution.
BB: It’s a crisis precipitated by the asymmetry between a world of brutal inter-dependent challenges—like climate change, global pandemics, crime, terrorism, global predatory markets—and 17th-century independent, sovereign institutions that are incapable of responding across border to those cross-border challenges. And in that asymmetry a crisis has been created; a deficit of global democratic inter-dependent institutions to deal with the brutal global inter-dependent challenges we face. And it’s into that gap that I think cities have an opportunity to go.
JD: What’s wrong with the nation state in your view?
The nation state is too large for meaningful participation of citizens. Take the EU, for example. Citizens simply don’t feel that the European Union is about citizenship. It’s about the euro, maybe about economics and trade, but it’s not about democracy. It doesn’t give people a sense that it’s worth belonging to. And it’s too small, too limited and territorial, to be able to encompass the global scale of the challenges we face. So it fails both ways: it’s too large for participation and too small for power. And certainly Europe, the UN and other Bretton Woods…