The capable city

According to Dr Benjamin Barber – founder of the interdependence movement –  “nation states have never seemed as incapable of getting things done as they do now.” In a recent article in the RSA house magazine Barber argued that, historically, the rise of nation states meant an end to cities as the primary political bodies. But a switchback is now underway. Global problems are too big to be dealt with by nation states, whilst inter-state action is problematic because of a lack of democratic accountability.

There is something romantic about this – a return to the city state as crucible of democracy. But something practical and hard headed too: 80% of carbon emissions come from cities of more than 50,000 people and 80% of energy is used by them too. Nation states are hidebound by “juridstictional and legal claims” (a fancier way of saying they are bought off by corporate interests). They are also less prone to ideology, since more focused on practical solutions to visible problems than the somewhat nebulous concerns of national governments that these days seem to extend no further beyond minor tweaks to the distribution of fiscal spending, short-term crisis responses and re-organisation of public sector bureaucracies.

And cities, according to Barber, can do more because they work on the basis of informal networks. Moreover, when operating internationally, the democratic chain (voter-city-intercity) is that bit shorter than voter-national government-inter-governmental organisation. Certainly they have more legitimacy than that other major operator on the global stage, the internationally networked corporation.

What’s interesting about Barber’s argument is the link he makes with greater democratic involvement. During the period of dominance of nation states the political system had to undergo a transition from ‘participative’ to ‘representative’ democracy, being so much more populous. Now, with cities returning to ascendance the opportunities are alive for greater participation.

Albeit that participation never extended far in the medieval city state, or that the population of many cities today must exceed the numbers of subjects in early nation states,  there is something in this: the potential for networked participation does seem that much more likely at the city level where decisions and consequences are more easily connected.

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