Filmed on Tuesday June 5, 02012

Benjamin Barber

If Mayors Ruled the World

Benjamin Barber is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at D?mos (a think tank based in New York) and author of Strong Democracy and Jihad vs. McWorld.

Democracy began in cities and works best in cities.  Mayors are the most pragmatic and effective of all political leaders because they have to get things done.   “The paramount aims of city-dwellers,” says Barber, “concern collecting garbage and collecting art rather than collecting votes or collecting foreign allies, the supply of water rather than the supply of arms, promoting cooperation rather than promoting exceptionalism, fostering education and culture rather than fostering national defense and patriotism.“

Most of humanity now lives in cities, and cities worldwide connect with each other more readily than any other political entity.  By expanding on that capability, Barber suggests, “Cities can make themselves global guarantors of social justice and equality against the depredations of fractious states. And they can become, as the polis once was, new incubators of democracy, this time in a global form.“

A much-honored political theorist, Barber is author of Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age and of Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World.

City-based global governance

Sovereign nation states have conspicuously failed to cooperate well enough to deal with increasingly global problems such as climate change, environmental degradation, and organized crime, Barber said. Nations focus on their borders, which are seen as competitive zero-sum games. “But if we shift our gaze, in thinking about global governance, from nation states to cities, things suddenly become possible that seemed impossible. Cities are apart from one another, separated by wide spaces. Their relationships are based on communication, trade, transportation, and culture. They are relational, not in a zero-sum game with one another.”

Cities are inherently pragmatic rather than ideological. “They collect garbage and collect art rather than collecting votes or collecting allies. They put up buildings and run buses rather than putting up flags and running political parties. They secure the flow of water rather than the flow of arms. They foster education and culture in place of national defense and patriotism. They promote collaboration, not exceptionalism.”

An honoring of all that practicality is shown by polling results of confidence in various levels of government. Only 18 percent of Americans have confidence in the US Congress (“the lowest in a long time”). The Presidency gets 44 percent. Americans have 65 percent confidence in their mayors. They can see clearly that city governments are less distorted by party politics, less responsive to massive lobbying. They see mayors getting things done.

New York City’s “hyperactive” mayor Michael Bloomberg says, “I don’t listen to Washington very much. The difference between my level of government and other levels of government is that action takes place at the city level. While national government at this time is just unable to do anything, the mayors of this country have to deal with the real world.” After 9/11, New York’s police chief sent his best people to Homeland Security to learn about dealing with terrorism threats. After 18 months they reported, “We’re learning nothing in Washington.” They were sent then to twelve other cities---Singapore, Hong Kong, Paris, Frankfurt, Rio---and built their own highly effective intelligence network city to city, not through Washington or Interpol.

Last year following the meeting in Mexico City on climate, where little progress was made by the national delegations, representatives from 207 cities signed a Global Cities Climate Pact pledging to pursue “strategies and actions aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” The cities did what the nations could not. There are many existing bodies of robust cooperation among cities---the International Union of Local Authorities, the World Association of Major Metropolises, the American League of Cities, the Local Governments for Sustainability, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, the United Cities and Local Governments at the UN, the New Hanseatic League, the Megacities Foundation---200 such networking organizations. “They are dull sounding, but they are fashioning global processes that work.”

Global governance needs no great edifice with unitary rulers. It can be voluntary, informal, bottom-up. Barber recommends forming a global parliament of cities, because nation states will not govern globally. Cities can. They already are.

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