City-states and empires

City-states and empires

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At the recent conference on The Future of Cities hosted by The Economist, Benjamin Barber of City University argued that nation states would become redundant, replaced by a global network of co-operating (and competing) cities. "Even under good leadership, states will become increasingly dysfunctional", he declared. And he explained that that this was because "we live in an interdependent world of global cross-border challenges":

  • global warming and climate change
  • terrorism and war - increasingly cross-border
  • global pandemics - public health is becoming a global concern
  • immigration
  • technology

For Barber, the problem is that nation states are not capable of tackling these global cross-border challenges. This is not caused by poor leadership, but the "inherent limitations"of territorial sovereignty. Barber sees a return of the "city-states" of medieval times, reinvented in 21st-century form. The future lies not with sovereign states, or even groupings of states such as the European Union, but with mega-cities.

There are obvious problems with this, some of which were spelled out by Richard Burdett of the LSE in an interesting presentation about how cities develop. The first is the very dysfunctional nature of some cities. I was particularly struck by this photograph of Sao Paolo, showing the sharp juxtaposition of the apartment blocks occupied by the rich - each with a swimming pool on the balcony - with the colourful rash of shanty dwellings around them, where the very poor live:

Democracy in such a city is fragmented: the shanty dwellers are disenfranchised - in some cases their very existence is denied. How can cities whose democratic structures do not adequately represent all their citizens possibly address challenges such as global pandemics and immigration, which disproportionately affect the poor? Burdett commented that although the UN estimates that 78% of the world's population will live in cities by 2030, it also says that a third of those people will live in slums. It is not just nation states that can be dysfunctional. Cities can, too. 

The second is the fact that many cities are places where people work rather than live. London, for example, has a very high working population, but a much lower residential population. Again, there is a democratic problem. People who work in the city but don't live in it are disenfranchised. But in places like the City of London, where corporations have voting rights, the residential population is a minority and its needs may be ignored in favour of the interests of business. It is not easy to resolve the democratic difficulties created by such a disparity between working and residential populations. 

And the third, and perhaps most obvious, problem is that not everyone lives in cities. 78% of the world population is not 100%. The remaining 22% live in rural areas. Many of them will be old: some because they have been left behind in the move from agrarian to industrial production, and others because they have forsaken the big city in favour of a quiet seaside village when they retired. In Barber's vision of mega-cities replacing nation states, has he forgotten about these people? Perhaps he thinks they don't matter - in which case his claim that a world organised as a network of mega-cities is "more democratic" than one organised as nation states looks extremely thin. One-fifth of the world's population being disenfranchised and left without any form of social support or governance doesn't look like well-functioning democracy to me. Or perhaps he thinks that somehow they will be incorporated into the environs of the mega-city. In which case the question must be asked: if mega-cities incorporate the agrarian areas that produce their food, and the seaside towns to which their elderly retreat, and the green spaces that their rich families like to inhabit, then what is the difference between a mega-city and a nation state anyway?

In fact as long as the rich like to live outside the cities where they work, or the poor are forced to, there is no chance whatsoever of mega-cities replacing nation states as the principal democratic unit. Barber's description of the European Union as "irrelevant" because it seeks to unify nation states rather than cities seems far wide of the mark.

But suppose there is a return to the city-states of bygone years. What would be a 21st-century world constructed entirely of independent city-states look like?

The nightmare would be a return to the territorial disputes of the past. This is by no means beyond the bounds of possibility. Cities need resources that the earth provides: water, food, , fuel, minerals and raw materials for production. Without access to these, cities die - that is of course how sieges work. All cities therefore depend for their survival on the existence around them of swathes of productive land that they control. The city-states of the past fought for control of land, its resources and the workers associated with it. In the future those workers might be robots - but cities could still fight for control of land, its resources and the robot workers associated with it. A world constructed entirely of cities is not necessarily a peaceful one. Although we perhaps would not end up with a Philip Reeve-type world in which cities deliberately hunt down and destroy each other, the possibility of the relationships between cities becoming destructively competitive rather than cooperative should not be ignored.

A more attractive prospect, and one in which Barber clearly believes, is cities trading directly with each other - transcending national boundaries - and perhaps even more importantly, collaborating with each other to resolve the global challenges he identifies. Again, this is not beyond the bounds of possibility. As he points out, the density of population in cities and mission-critical nature of their infrastructure does mean that mayors have to be pragmatists: it is hard to pursue ideological agendas when your job is to keep the place running. But I question whether there is really that much difference between the government of a mega-city and the government of a nation state. In the end, the job of both is to keep the place running. Even in nation states, when there is a crisis, ideological differences are usually put aside.

Of course, nation states can and do trade directly with each other and collaborate to resolve common problems. Admittedly, it can take them a long time to agree anything: the G20 is an astonishingly dysfunctional grouping and the EU is not much better. Direct collaboration between cities can be both quicker and more effective - but there is no reason why such collaboration could not exist in addition to nation state collaboration. Cities and nation states are not alternatives to each other. When a city creates a cross-border "twinning" agreement with a city in another state, it encourages cooperation between not only the cities themselves but also the states to which they belong.

But nation state boundaries are historically fluid anyway. Barber talks as if the modern nation state dates back to the 15th century. But this is not true. The centre of Europe was a melting pot of competing city-states and small principalities well into the 19th century. And the nation states in much of Africa were created by colonial powers and are currently undergoing transformation - some of it bloody - into structures that align themselves better with traditional tribal and religious allegiances. As I've pointed out elsewhere, the creation of empires is a way of resolving the difficulties that such melting pots create both for trade and, ultimately, for peace: but when these empires break apart, the forces released can be extremely destructive. The turbulent history of the 20th century was consequent upon the breakup of empires. Now, those empires are being re-created in different guises - the European Union, the Eurasion Union, perhaps the Asean Union..... Is the move towards globalised networks of independent cities that Barber identifies really strong enough to trump the historical cycle of creation and destruction of empires? Or would such globalised city networks themselves polarise into new forms of empire? 

Although Barber may be right that the nation state in its current form may be on its way out, territoriality certainly is not. Cities are defined by the territory they control just as much as nation states. And growing cities need to extend their territory - which if they were independent city-states would be extraordinarily hard for them to do. London, for example, undoubtedly could go it alone as an independent city-state, and some have suggested this. But where would the boundaries of "London" fall? London has been extending its territory for the last century. When I was a child, the boundaries of London had just been extended to incorporate what are now the Greater London boroughs, to their chagrin. Now, London is fast extending out towards the M25: some people already talk of Dartford as if it is part of London, and the Mayor of London is proposing major infrastructure developments even beyond the M25 - well beyond his current jurisdiction. If London were an independent city-state, such an expansion would only be possible by taking territory from its neighbours - which historically is how city-states have expanded, and historically has meant bloodshed. The embedding of cities within nation states allows cities to expand without breaching the peace. 

I fear Barber's vision of nation states disappearing to be replaced with global networks of happy city-states all trading with each other nicely and cooperating to repel alien invasion is pie in the sky. Nation states serve a useful purpose - they keep cities from destroying each other. And they are popular: when empires break up, what emerges is not independent cities, but sovereign territories organised along ancient tribal and religious lines. So the future, I suspect, is much messier than Barber would like. Nation states will continue to be the focus of people's historical and cultural allegiances, except when they are not. Cities will trade across national boundaries as they always have, though this will become easier as technology shrinks the business world. The elderly will continue to migrate to the seaside. The rich will continue to create gated communities, whether inside or outside cities, where they don't have to come into contact with the poor. The poor will continue to migrate to the areas where the rich live and work, in the hope of benefiting from their largesse. Politicians will continue to seek common ground and fail to find it, until there is a crisis when suddenly they will find they are all standing on the same turf. And cities and nation states will continue to coalesce into supranational groupings that hold together until they become too big and too diverse, then fall apart.....

Related reading:

Currency wars and the fall of empires - Frances Coppola

The proposal for a "global parliament of mayors" - Alex Marsh, LSE politics blog

Mortal Engines - Philip Reeve (book)



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