“We’re the level of government closest to the majority of the world’s people. While nations talk, but too often drag their heels—cities act.”
That’s a recent quote from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Many would intuitively would agree. Washington, D.C. is paralyzed by political dysfunction, and nation-states and international institutions are proving incapable of dealing with the huge economic, environmental, and security issues that beset the world today.
The renowned political scientist Benjamin Barber has a provocative and compelling take on all of this. It’s time to hand more authority and power over to elected leaders who actually get things done. We would all be a lot better off if, as he puts, it “mayors ruled the world.”
The thesis is particularly compelling coming from Barber, who did not start his career as an urbanist but rather spent most of it as a leading student of democracy and international affairs.
The author of numerous books including the international bestseller Jihad vs. McWorld, based on an article of the same name in The Atlantic, Barber is currently a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Dēmos and Walt Whitman Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Rutgers University. Prior to that he was the Gershon and Carol Kekst Professor of Civil Society and Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park School of Public Policy.
Barber took some time out of his hectic schedule to give us a sneak peek at his much anticipated new book, If Mayors Ruled the World—to be published in 2013 by Yale University Press (which he’s been fleshing out in
How has your thinking evolved since Jihad vs. McWorld? In that book, you presciently identified the tension between the forces of economic globalization and of local politics. How did you go from tackling big questions of globalization to the role of cities and their leaders?
The question raised in Jihad vs. McWorld was whether there were inter-state and global institutions that could mediate the tensions between modernity and its aggressive materialism (McWorld) and the reactionary forces of “Jihad” that opposed it. It was increasingly apparent to me that traditional state-based organizations like the U.N. and the Bretton Woods institutions were paralyzed by sovereignty and distorted by private market relations and could not do much to further the interests of global democracy in the space between Jihad and McWorld.
As a result, I began to look at alternative building blocks for global governance—at which point the city appeared as a natural candidate; and one, it turned out, that was already deeply engaged in networking and transnational cooperation. The city was the solution to the hard question of whether there was a global form of democracy.
Cities have become much more powerful economic actors in the world economy. Does the power mayors actually have match up with the economic resources they steward?
The problem here is that political sovereignty has passed to the economic sector, where global financial capital and multinational corporations exercise an undue influence on both domestic and international affairs. Cities share jurisdiction over the economic resources of the city—where commercial, financial and information capital are concentrated—but that jurisdiction is limited by the emerging sovereignty of economics over politics.
Where the city is able to exercise control of economic resources it must live with the superior jurisdiction of nation-states, who may interdict cities trying to collaborate across borders. A city boycotting goods made by child labor in a developing country may be held in violation of the WTO’s fair trade rules (which bar certain kinds of boycotts); or a city trying to control guns may be ruled in violation of the right to bear arms, as happened recently when the Supreme Court invalidated the District of Columbia’s gun control rules.
You have written eloquently about the ways in which the new creative class is concentrated in cities and represents a potent asset in confronting our challenges, and I think you have identified one of the most important economic resources over which mayors act as stewards, and which can be and are regularly deployed regardless of impediments of the market or the nation state.
You envision mayors leading the world through new, more decentralized and more democratic types of institutions that take the form of networks and partnerships. Tell us more about what such a network might look like, how it might work, the problems it might tackle and how it would work?
What I want to suggest is that these myriad global networks, and the inherent disposition of cities to cooperate, exemplify the deep capacity of cities to work together across borders, and justify my claim that a global “parliament of mayors” could achieve a good deal of concord voluntarily both on common policies and on common actions. This is what the networks are already doing, and what a formalization of the process could achieve. The key is a “soft” bottom-up approach to cooperation organized around “glocality” rather than a top-down “legal mandate” approach of the kind we associate with (and fear from) “world government.”
Full Story: What if mayors ruled the world?
Source: The Atlantic Cities, June 13, 2012