I first ran across If Mayors Ruled the World after listening to the author Benjamin Barber talk on the Seminars About Long Term thinking podcast. It was a fascinating listen, one that captured my imagination as a future form of global governance built around cities and their personalities embodied in the mayoral leaders. My enduring memory of the talk was it’s optimism. Barber seemed to genuinely believe that a connected network of cities could help the world come together in a pragmatic and still democratic way, whilst side-stepping the paralysis and nationalistic chest-thumping that seems so prevalent today.
The talk was given prior to the books publication, and the reviews following the books release in 2013 indicate that the optimistic tone continued. Described in the Publishers Weekly as “an impassioned love letter to cities and their political leaders” the book lays out a case for why cities are so important today and how they can be an integral part to an improved global governance structure in the future.
The idea of collaborating to tackle real problems in a context where effectiveness trumps ideology is replacing the dysfunctional idea of national sovereignty. ‘Today, after a long history of regional success, the nation-state is failing us on a global scale,” Barber writes. “It was the perfect political recipe for the liberty and independence of autonomous peoples and nations. It is utterly unsuited to interdependence. The city, always the human habitat of first resort, has in today’s globalizing world once again become democracy’s best hope.’
Stamford Social Innovation Review
Given that the world is rapidly urbanizing and globalizing, the recipe for a new mode of governance is clear to Barber.
Cities, Barber also believes, are simply better at meeting the challenges we face. National politics tend to be dominated by party machines, although voters’ feelings of party allegiance have declined dramatically, leaving them alienated from the system. National governments, moreover, have proved themselves ill-adapted to the contemporary world, in which problems typically demand either local or global attention.
They have been particularly bad at fostering the international collaboration we badly need. The world is globalising fast, and businesses, migrants, terrorists and greenhouse gases show little respect for borders; yet nation-states are clinging jealously to their “independence” and are quick to walk away from the international negotiating table.
The Financial Times
The mayors themselves are the pragmatic engine rooms that drive cities forward today and, as the title of the book indicates, Barber sees them as integral to this new global world order:
By focusing on practical solutions to the day-to-day problems that affect their constituents, mayors champion a mode of governance characterized by collaboration and consensus, and the global ties they create offer a more human-centered, applied style of politics than the contentiousness of national legislatures or the bureaucratic talking shops of the U.N. and European Union
The New York Times reviewed the book alongside another release at the time, A MAYOR’S LIFE Governing New York’s Gorgeous Mosaic By David N. Dinkins with Peter Knobler, describing Barber’s book as, “the most audacious — even messianic — of a torrent of recently advanced urban manifestoes.” Describing it as messianic doesn’t sound too promising, but the review is mostly positive, focusing on Barber’s conclusion that there should be a parliament of global cities, and referring to the many and varied sources cited:
Barber builds a strong case for an informal parliament of cities, perhaps several hundred strong, which would in effect ratify a shift in power and political reality that, he argues, has already taken place. He supports this idea with help from an enormous cast of experts and authors, ranging from Walt Whitman and John Dewey to Edmund Burke and Richard Florida, as well as from numerous international civic organizations. He tosses out facts with abandon, all in an effort to persuade the reader that modern cities are the incubators for problem-solving while national governments are doomed to failure.
The New York Times Book Review
The city as a subject area offers a rich and fascinating array of books and scholarly works to sample, and seems to bubble up again and again in to the mainstream media. For example, in the week I was researching this post Quartz ran an article entitled Megacities, not nations, are the world’s dominant, enduring social structures where the same themes in Barber’s books were being evinced:
There are far more functional cities in the world today than there are viable states. Indeed, cities are often the islands of governance and order in far weaker states where they extract whatever rents they can from the surrounding country while also being indifferent to it. This is how Lagos views Nigeria, Karachi views Pakistan, and Mumbai views India: the less interference from the capital, the better.
If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities
By Benjamin Barber
432 pages, Yale University Press, 2013
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