Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Barber, 2013, If Mayors Ruled the World (comparative politics)

Benjamin Barber is probably best known for Jihad vs McWorld, (1996) which was a perceptive and prescient description of major trends that became a cultural meme even before 9/11.  Mayoral ascendancy is enticing, given urbanization and security worries in the face of states’ apparent impotence to address survival migration, climate change, energy crises, and potential food and water shortages. Despite writing from Mayor Rob Ford’s beleaguered Toronto, I’m sympathetic to the idea that Mayors (or urban governments) should have a larger role in global governance. The premise is strong: cities are networked, pragmatic, and affect the spaces where most people live. They can be more democratic than states (after all, even Mayor Ford was elected by more people than any other politician in Canada, but perhaps that should give us pause). In the end, though, the book fails from weak argument and lack of evidence. Even if cities should govern globally (chapters 1-6), the argument that it can be done (chapter 7) is unconvincing. A fundamental barrier is sovereignty, Barber’s examples notwithstanding. Cities may pass ordinances to restrict guns or sugary drinks, but if state or national law doesn’t back it up, the rules are defeated in court, as New York’s have been. Berlin’s declaration that it was a nuclear free zone in the Cold War has to stand as a delusion, and Barber doesn’t really close the circle to make the case for cities as agents of influence and change as tightly as he might (I’m not sure cause and effect could really be demonstrated).  In the end, the optimistic vision, with lots of poetic twaddle from Whitman and other literary figures, is less compelling than Davis’s Planet of Slums and Kilcullen’s Out of the Mountains  - both visions of a more dystopic future. I want to believe him, and he might still be right, but in the end, it’s “IF” not  "Mayors can or do rule the world".  If they're going to get closer, they'll need a better manifesto than this. 
David Last, February 15, 2014 

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