They Are All Failed States
December 6, 2010 11:22 PM   Subscribe

The City As Dominant Agent... Parag Khanna of the New America Foundation on the probable fall of the nation-state and the rise of the City, the obstacles facing it, the futures it could embrace, and what examples are out there.

Sourcewatch on the New America Foundation.
posted by artof.mulata (21 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
It's easy for a city to rule a city, slightly harder to rule the farmers outside the city without another authority above both of them.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 11:33 PM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Au contraire, it's not even easy for a city to govern a city
posted by spicynuts at 12:37 AM on December 7, 2010

"Already, more than half the world lives in cities, and the percentage is growing rapidly."

And this trend has been holding steady since the first hunter-gatherer realized it might be an easier life to plant some seeds and build a more permanent shelter near the river.

"Gone are the days of Mao when peasant uprisings could collectively capture the nation."

Because China has steadily urbanized since the 1940's, fuckwit. Of course you wouldn't look to rural Chinese peasants today for a massive revolution.

"As our world order comes to be built on cities and their economies rather than nations and their armies"

It's not an either/or situation. Super-metropolii will indeed continue to proliferate. And as long as the United States remains solvent (and that's not a given, but it'll be at least a few more decades before there's a possibility of collapse) they will feel free to use their "national" power, economic or military, to dictate outcomes in other countries and/or cities as they please. China will too, but through more stricly economic means. I'm sure they won't hesitate to use their military if they feel the need, however.

"Sitting down recently at a construction site on the banks of the Elbe River, I spoke with Jürgen Bruns-Berentelg, CEO of Hamburg’s bold new HafenCity project."

Oh dear god. Next you'll be telling about what a cab-driver mentioned while you were sharing a ride with Thomas Friedman.

"Charter cities are a poor man’s version of South Korea’s $40 billion Songdo project, which promises to stand in a class of its own upon completion in 2015."

Actually, most of these "super cities" (basically small-scale free trade zones) in South Korea are failing. Hard. Most of them will never be completed. The ones that are may very well turn out to be 21st century ghost-towns.

Sorry, but this piece is so painfully larded with empty platitudes and nothing-burger insights.
posted by bardic at 12:58 AM on December 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

This is kind of a fluff piece. Of course as populations grow and job seekers migrate toward population centers these centers grow, blend into one another and become 'mega-cities'. but they haven't figure out how to make water out of the thin dry air yet have they,and until they do they won't be 'dominant' anything in the near term.
The resources are where the resources are, and those who control them are the dominant agents.
posted by OHenryPacey at 1:03 AM on December 7, 2010

they, they who control...
posted by OHenryPacey at 1:05 AM on December 7, 2010

Why should the nation-state be weakened by more and larger cities? It would mean that there are more urban citizens within a nation, which could strengthen the nation-state as much as it could weaken it. That universities, financial firms, and national governments mostly find themselves in the city is not a new phenomena. The article even manages to paint urban planning as the next great achievement of cities?
posted by romanb at 1:19 AM on December 7, 2010

I think that's a bit harsh Bardic. There's definitely a whiff of thinktank conference presentation about the article but I also think that there's a lot of truth in just noting the increasingly accelerated shift from the country to the city. It's certainly less apparent in the suburban and ex-urban cities of much of Western Europe and the US, but the rate of change is nothing short of staggering in some of the Eastern megacities and I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that ties to the nation state may be dissolving as such cities seek to gain competitive advantage.
posted by ClanvidHorse at 1:22 AM on December 7, 2010

This presentation misses the point. Cities that still use a currency that they do not issue, are still heavily dependent on whomever the currency issuer is. Period.
posted by wuwei at 1:38 AM on December 7, 2010

"ties to the nation state may be dissolving as such cities seek to gain competitive advantage."

But he's being so disingenuous about it. He mentions that China is headed towards having two dozen mega-cities (interesting in and of itself) but offers not a single example as to how this weakens "ties to the nation state."

Dare I say a resident of Guangzhou might be better off economically these days, but he isn't holding his breath for it to secede from the PRC any time soon.

Nation states developing strong urban hubs of commerce, banking, education, production, and research is a feature going back to Adam Smith, not a bug waiting to be exploited towards a glorious post-national utopia.
posted by bardic at 1:41 AM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

The decreasing proportion of rurl population could also be presented as agricultural production being concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, which makes those agribiz corporations/land barons/whatever increasingly powerful. And you get a picture of the world that resembles how it was before the nation state - powerful cities, yes, but the hinterland is either under feudal control or rife with pirates disrupting trade and communications. Not very desirable.
posted by WPW at 4:55 AM on December 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've been reading variations of this article for more than a decade. (That's just when I started reading this stuff -- I'm sure you could go back many decades.) There's truth in it (which is why you keep seeing the same article being written) but the reality is that, irregardless of levels of urbanization, we live in a world where power is largely apportioned to nation-states. The world hasn't always been divided up this way, and probably won't continue to be so forever. But for now, the nation-state trumps the city in a very unambiguous way.

More interesting to me are two related but slightly different issues. One is the interaction of nation-states and non-state powers, such as large corporations or insurgent actors like Wikileaks. The other is the question of when the trend towards urbanization might stall or reverse -- worldwide, the trend has been unidirectional, but that has been driven by crazy cheap energy prices and (here we are back to nation-states) enormous subsidies and state support for urbanization.

But cities themselves as political powers? Sure, whenever you reinstate the world order of the late middle ages, maybe, but not in our contemporary world.
posted by Forktine at 6:25 AM on December 7, 2010

I could see cities becoming more important economically and over time, especially as international law around trade is more and more harmonized; or even that cities would demand that their host states cede more political power (in a federalist way). But cities as the only relevant governmental unit? That seems a long way off, like 100+ years.

At least in the U.S., you still get elected basically by pretending to be Joe Plainfolks from Smalltown while accusing the other guy of being an Ivy League salon-sitting-in arugula-eating urbanite elitist. So that won't change for a while.
posted by r_nebblesworthII at 6:54 AM on December 7, 2010

New York had a phase of being its own socialist city-state to some extent (and still maintains some of that), with tuition-free City College, various social and housing projects, WNYC radio, etc. I guess they went broke, though, in the 70s.
posted by Paquda at 6:58 AM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think there needs to be a certain amount of devolution for the City-State to once again become the dominant governmental unit. It won't come from peaceful evolution because there are too many benefits afforded from being aligned as national governments. The trend for supernations that was bandied about since the time of the start of the United Nations and the European Common Market also seems to have stalled. Despite the "fuzzy-thinking one-worlders" best efforts, a global currency and a central world government are probably more unlikely than the devolution to City-States, but I think that some cataclysmic event would have to come before Khanna's scenaria would end national sovereignty.
posted by beelzbubba at 8:56 AM on December 7, 2010

Oh geez, this crap again. Didn't we hash it out enough a couple months ago?

I agree with wuwei about the money, and with r_nebblesworthII about US politics. But even simpler than that, once again it's all about food, water and energy. Look at any given city and its local resources - meaning food, water and energy supplies within or immediately adjacent, say within 20 miles - then divide the each resource by the population. If any of the resource numbers falls below "comfort" level, the city probably can't stand on its own without major adjustments in its people's living style. If any of them fall below "subsistence" level, the city can't stand on its own, period.

I live in Los Angeles. From this article:
"According to the California Department of Water Resources, if more supplies aren’t found by 2020, the region will face a shortfall nearly as great as the amount consumed today. Los Angeles is a coastal desert able to support at most 1 million people on its own water; the Los Angeles basin now is the core of a megacity that spans 220 miles (350 km) from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border. The region’s population is expected to reach 41 million by 2020, up from 28 million in 2009. The population of California continues to grow by more than two million a year and is expected to reach 75 million in 2030, up from 49 million in 2009. But water shortage is likely to surface well before then."
Greater Los Angeles already cannot stand on its own; there are around 4 million people within city limits and about 10 million people in LA County. If the water from Northern California and the Colorado River were shut off for even a few days, LA and most of Southern California would be in serious trouble.

A modern city like Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris, Munich (oh, sorry, I had to add that one, it's the song), most of the others cannot exist without orderly distribution of total resources of large regions, which are best administered by large federal nation-states.

Obviously demographic trends are going to put cities in priority over rural areas in many ways. However, I think the only way they will be totally dominant as city-state governments is if over the next hundred years or so rural resource production is entirely shifted from the current human labor+power machinery to complete automation, and then only if the vast robotic supply cadre is entirely apolitical and uncorruptible. (Even if that worked perfectly, there are other major potential problems. Anyone ever read The Caves of Steel?)
posted by zoogleplex at 9:40 AM on December 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

I--for one--welcome our new feudalist overlords.

[Oh wait, no. I shudder.]
posted by General Tonic at 10:21 AM on December 7, 2010

I think the author read a few too many Judge Dredd comics as a kid.

If the author's contention is true, then there should be some evidence of such; in countries with megalopolises, the central governments should be weaker compared to the cities, than in countries that are less urban. We see that this isn't the case; Japan, the US, Western Europe, all have strong, vigorous central governments. Sure the cities have some influence, but primarily on a regional level.

The fact is, megacities, even more than cities before them, depend for their success on vast, interlinking resource networks: trade goods, power, water, food, information. Those networks are most easily managed by vigorous central governments. Los Angeles may compete with San Francisco and New York for trade, but they cooperate even more, and none of the cities wants to have barriers erected between the free flow of goods, nor do they really want the responsibility of managing their resources.

No, the trend over the last couple centuries is toward even greater polities and alliances, such as the European nations turning into the EU; the authors libertarian dream of a future world of city-states is unlikely at best.
posted by happyroach at 11:32 AM on December 7, 2010

A modern city like Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris, Munich (oh, sorry, I had to add that one, it's the song), most of the others cannot exist without orderly distribution of total resources of large regions, which are best administered by large federal nation-states.

Zoogleplex touches upon a crucial point: the support structures of city-states. No analysis which doesn't thoroughly examine this is worth taking seriously. (On a personal note, I'm rather pleased to see my birthplace, Munich, mentioned. ;-)

The thing that needs to be kept in mind is the difficult-to-disentangle interrelationship of three types of entities: city-states themselves, trans-/extra-national corporations which dominate most economies, and nation-states, which to a greater or lesser extent are beholden to the corporations (greater in the US, where I still see no compelling evidence to contradict Ralph Nader's longstanding charge that the two major parties are "the left and right wings of the business party." Say what you will about Ralph, but that charge stands on its own, I think.) The role of corporations in the context of global capitalism is key.

These three interact within real-world ecological and transport constraints. As I commented in another forum (on the aesthetic and ethical reconception of the urban/non-urban divide):

"…one would do well to note the writer Wendell Berry's constantly voiced theme of the carrying capacity of cities' surrounding agricultural and ecological systems (a relationship greatly complicated and obscured by our global trade system and continent-wide resource redistribution, but nonetheless still an inescapable one, and one with which we are likely to be rudely re-acquainted in this century)"

(I'd amend "continent-wide" to "world-wide" for this context.)

In the context of global trade dominated by transnational actors, nation-states serve a function for those actors which isn't necessarily part of any nation-state's explicitly defined raison d'être. Institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, and even the agendas of G-8 and G-20 meetings, are more properly conceived as vessels for the protection of those actors' interests than the interests of individual nation-states (and even less the interests of city-states.) Such corporate actors have little national loyalty, and even less regional or city loyalty. If there's a compelling economic reason to relocate corporate headquarters and/or manufacturing, they will, as we've seen time and time again. As do nation-states, cities can attempt to influence these decisions, essentially via bribery, but the agenda is set and the process initiated by the corporations, not the cities. And the cities have even less power (armies, currency) than do nation-states.

The resource redistribution required by trans-national corporate actors for the sustenance of global trade is implicitly constrained by the geographic and ecological realities of those resources, and those realities are on the scale of nation-states - not necessarily contiguous with or identical to nation-state boundaries, but on the same scale or larger. Thus, the interests of these actors will serve to preserve nation-states for the time being (although not necessarily always in their current configurations), rather than nation-states withering away as irrelevancies in the new Age of the City.
posted by Philofacts at 12:03 PM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well spoken, Philofacts.

"(On a personal note, I'm rather pleased to see my birthplace, Munich, mentioned. ;-)"

everybodytalkin'bout mmmpopmuzik
posted by zoogleplex at 1:22 PM on December 7, 2010

Thanks, zoogleplex.

I'd add that implicit in my counter-analysis is the possibility of city-states filling the political power void should global trade collapse (via some perfect storm of peak oil, major climate-induced disruptions - floods, drought, rising sea level - of agriculture and potable water, wars devastating parts of the landscape to the point of no return - e.g., fundie idiots with the Bomb - not to mention the abrogation of treaties that were implicitly predicated on the cheap flow of goods around the world, etc.), with transnationals no longer able to sustain themselves in a newly re-localized economic landscape, and large national governments struggling to survive against local discontent once their role as enforcers for multinationals (and the capital flows from those) disappears. And those federal entities wouldn't cede power to local ones with a (sometimes quite literal) fight. They might eventually end up as little Kabul-istans controlling only small capital (pun intended) regions. (DC-istan, etc.)

But in such a scenario, everyone would be quite badly off, so it wouldn't be much of a gain for the cities, which would suffer deprivations probably worse than what remains of the countryside - unless cities themselves had already become a large part of their own support systems: e.g. urban agriculture on a larger scale than ever seen before - vertical gardens in skyscrapers which once housed financial offices, for instance... But I'm not optimistic.
posted by Philofacts at 6:48 PM on December 7, 2010

should say "without a (sometimes quite literal) fight"...
posted by Philofacts at 6:50 PM on December 7, 2010

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