If mayors ruled the world: a conversation with Benjamin Barber

Prospect Magazine

If mayors ruled the world: a conversation with Benjamin Barber

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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 institutions are nation state-based. The UN is rooted in the veto of five supreme nations in the Security Council that prevent it from ever doing it anything significant. And that’s not to say anything of the squabble-fest that is the General Assembly! We’ve seen the evident failure of the nation state. Not over the entirety of the last 400 years. It’s been a tremendous success and deserves a lot of credit for what it did in providing autonomy, local jurisdiction, sovereignty, democracy, representation, liberty and social justice at home. But in a world where those problems have gone to a planetary scale, nation states just no longer seem capable of addressing them. So the search is on for an alternative governing institution and that’s why, in going back to the city, I think we can go forward to the cosmopolis.

One could be forgiven for wondering if your vision of a future “cosmopolis”, or a “global parliament of mayors”, is unfeasibly utopian.

I think that’s utterly wrong. I think it’s the most realistic proposal on the table and I think I have a lot of evidence to suggest that is so—including the commitment of dozens and dozens of practising, in-office mayors around the world to the project.

And, as you point out in the book, global networks of partnership between cities already exist.

Including what I call the most important global institution that nobody’s ever heard of: United Cities and Local Governments, which has been around for more than a decade, has annual meetings of thousands of cities and already provides a kind of super-structure or infrastructure for the many other, more siloed inter-city associations that co-operate around, for instance, climate change, or groups for transportation and trade, organisations that permit inter-city cooperation around technology, culture and the arts. Those are somewhat siloed. But United Cities and Local Governments already has a broader perspective. What it lacks is a self-conscious sense of its possibilities for governing, for legislation and for common practices that actually affect behaviour in cities across the world. So what I’m doing is not trying to introduce a new idea but to ratchet up a little bit our sense of what these inter-city associations can and should be doing. And don’t forget that we now have a working group of two dozen mayors from significant cities around the world, including Seoul, Amsterdam and Los Angeles, who have committed to the idea of pursuing the idea of a global parliament of mayors that I discuss in the last chapter of my book. It’s already gone from being an abstract idea in the pages of a scholar’s book to being a working pilot project which mayors are committing time and resources to.

So these existing inter-city associations form the skeleton or framework of a future cosmopolis?

Yes, though they’re lacking one or two crucial features—sensitivity to issues of power, regulation, oversight, self-legislation, common legislation, common purposes and so on. There’s already a great deal of what you might call best-practice sharing—as with bike-sharing programmes that started in Latin America in the 1970s. That’s viral best practice that has spread across the world. Beyond that, there’s room for ratcheting that up because the dysfunctions of nation states means that the kinds of cooperative, bilateral, multilateral agreements that we have looked for simply aren’t happening.

One of the observations you make in the book is that in the developing world—in China, in west Africa, in South America—cities are proliferating. Established cities are also growing—metropolises are becoming megalopolises. Is there an ideal size for a city? Is there a point at which self-government and participation become impossible?

Historically, as with states, it doesn’t so much depend on size as it does on infrastructure. The federated, evolved structure of a city like London, a city of villages, or New York, a city of neighbourhoods, can grow quite large. The problem with the new cities is that they are not cities of neighbourhoods that have grown naturally. They tend to be homogenous entities with random populations spread across random territory. Those, I think, are dangerous. So I’d argue it’s not so much size [that counts]—there are smaller cities that have a flat, amorphous and homogenised character—like Atlanta, Georgia, downtown Atlanta that is. The suburbs of Atlanta turn out to have more of a downtown feel, more of neighbourhood, urban feel. Obviously, sheer numbers at some point become impossible. A city of 25 or 30 million is four or five times larger than a state like Switzerland. And they do indeed get unwieldy. But if you build a city of neighbourhoods and districts, then you get a city that is more coherent and feels more whole. So size, at the outer limits, becomes an issue, but in the normal limits of most cities it is less important than character and infrastructure.

You use the neologism “glocality” to describe the kind of city-based cosmopolitanism you think we should aspire to. Could you explain the relationship between the global and the local implied there?

It comes from the fact that living in a city means living in a very specific and particular community, which in some ways has the characteristics of a village or a town and in some ways gives you a local feeling. In many ways, I, living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, have the feeling of living in a town of a couple of hundred thousand people. But then again I’m in New York City—it’s the United Nations, it’s the global financial institutions, and in that sense I’m part of the cosmopolis. At one and the same time, I’m a true local denizen of a local community, which helps define my life in wonderful ways and makes it nice to live here—I don’t live in New York, I live on the Upper West Side—but I’m also part of a city involved in global trade, global finance and so forth. So when I talk about “glocality” I mean it quite specifically—a place where you feel you’re living locally, in the neighbourhood, but also globally, a place that is deeply connected, both politically and civically, to cities all over the world, to a global economy and a global culture. As Saskia Sassen and Manuell Castells have shown, cities are connected in a way that nation states can’t be—through the kinds of services they provide. I love the term “global city”, to which Saskia Sassen has helped to give real meaning. What makes a city global is not just that it’s big, but that it’s inter-connected, inter-dependent, that it exists only to some extent by virtue of the fact that other global cities exist and cooperate with it.

The book contains 11 profiles of mayors from around the world, notably Michael Bloomberg and Boris Johnson. There’s something that both Johnson and Bloomberg, although they’re very different personalities, have in common in your view—a kind of pragmatism. As you put it: “Personality outweighs ideology…” Does it follow, in your view, that an effective mayor has to be post-ideological?

I wouldn’t say post-ideological, since that assumes that ideology is over. As we know from nation states—the paralysis in Washington and other places—ideology is anything but over. Mayors are not so much post-ideological as they are oblivious to ideology, seeing in ideology an obstacle to governance. Because in the city, governance is about solving problems, making things work. I quote Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, who says: “We’d never get away in Philadelphia with what they get away with in Washington.” Two astonishing things happened a month or two ago: (1) they closed the government of the United States; (2) nobody noticed. The most powerful country in the world closed down its government and nothing much changed. Now imagine if you closed London or closed New York: no metro, no buses, no schools, no police, no fire department, no hospitals. You can’t close them. In all of human history, cities have never been closed. In the middle ages, during plague and siege, cities carried on. The politics of the city therefore have a very different character to the ideological politics of the nation. The politics of the city are about making things work—you’ve got to pick up the garbage, you’ve to keep the hospitals open, it doesn’t matter if the immigrants are legal or illegal—they have children who get sick and who have to go to school, they ride buses, they drive cars. If you asked a mayor, “Do you think immigrants should be allowed in or not?”, they’d say it’s a completely moot question. “They are here. My job is to figure out how I deal with their children, how I deal with their illness, how I make sure they don’t commit crimes, how I make sure the jobs they hold are not badly paid. My job is to solve problems.” That pragmatic, hands-on aspect of being a mayor turns politics into what it originally was—the real meaning of politics is solving the infrastructural and framing problems that allow us to live, work, make love, practice religion, have children, get educated and so on. At the national level, all of that turns into heavy-baggage ideology. A mayor may have his views about whether you should have charter schools or public schools, but in the end you’ve got to have schools. He can’t say, “We’re not going to have any schools for a year while we figure this out.”  And it’s not only Johnson and Bloomberg. It’s mayors everywhere. The new mayor of Bristol—the first elected mayor of Bristol—ran as an independent. Half the mayors of Kansas, which is supposed to be conservative Republican “red” state, have no party ID at all!

New York has a new mayor elect, of course. What do you make of Bill de Blasio? He ran a pretty ideological campaign didn’t he?

I think his emphasis on equality and reaching out to the boroughs makes some people think he’ll be a rather parochial mayor—that if Bloomberg was the archetypal cosmpolitan, then this guy, in reaching out to the boroughs, to Queens and the Bronx, is not keeping in mind that New York is a great cosmopolitan global city. That’s just not true. What I find exciting is that I think he understands that issues of social justice, his “tale of two cities” in New York, is also a tale of two planets, and that you can’t deal with inequality, injustice or illegal immigration in New York unless you’re dealing with those issues on a global level—unless, in other words, cities are working together to find common solutions. So I think people are going to be surprised to find that this is a mayor who, while he’s certainly focused on inequality and greater equilibrium between the boroughs, is going to be very engaged in issues of inter-city cooperation and issues of climate change around the globe—in the ways that global markets affect inequality in New York. My own feeling is that he is going to be every bit as cosmopolitan as Bloomberg has been, but with a different inflection.

“If Mayors Ruled the World” is published by Yale University Press (£20)

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