City-states are back

With globalism disrupted by Covid, cities offer a tried and tested way of binding people together.

The medieval town of Perugia was one of dozens of city-republics that emerged from the rubble of the Roman empire. Credit: Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images.

There’s a smug assumption that any progressive should be an internationalist. The reasons are mostly admirable: when peoples and nations come together, forming coalitions and unions, there is strength and efficiency. From global alliances we enjoy smoother trade and, in theory, peaceful coexistence. That has been the direction of travel for many decades.

But that internationalism has created a chilly world which many, for emotional and rational reasons, are now rejecting. We’re all tribal and prefer representative democracies in which our representatives are known to, and listen to, us (what the planning historian, Alison Ravetz, once called ‘eye-to-eye democracy’). For the right, the perceived erosion of national identity, and a lack of border controls inherent in transnational projects, epitomise the dangers of entrusting governance to distant idealists (duly scorned as elitists). For the left, globalisation is now seen as a race to the bottom, in which the most rights-deprived workers do our dirty work. As Wade Davis recently wrote in Rolling Stone: ‘For two generations, America has celebrated globalization with iconic intensity, when, as any working man or woman can see, it’s nothing more than capital on the prowl in search of ever cheaper sources of labour.’

Above all, it’s the unsettling way in which ‘whereverism’ erodes community that turns our gaze closer to home. Way back in 1964, the urban theorist Melvin Webber foresaw what he called ‘community without propinquity’, a way of living in which people would converge without ever being close. For many of us, that ability to connect at distance has obviously been great.  But we never expected that whilst we were enjoying long-distant travel and friendships, the shared areas closest to us – village halls, pubs, churches and independent retailers – would become empty spaces, often shutting up for good.

Of course, it was Covid-19 which finally forced us, in an emergency, to return to a form of government I’ve always both dreaded and admired: the city-state. In a time of contagion, we regionalise and, for medical reasons, pull up drawbridges. Nation-states are divided into different tiers and chromatic shades according to infection statistics. Freedom of movement and assembly are suddenly curtailed. City mayors – once anonymous on the national stage – become spokespeople and protagonists.

In many ways, this is more of a departure for the UK than for Italy, where I live. It was in Italy that the city-state reached its apogee: historians often extol the virtues of Renaissance Florence, but there were hundreds of versions of it: Ferrara, Mantua, Milan, Parma, Urbino, Spoleto, Pisa, and many others. Until the Risorgimento, the country was divided into dukedoms and principalities, notorious for (according to cliché) both incessant warfare and for artistic and scientific excellence. Regional government is still powerful here and localism so deep-rooted that dialects (not just accents but whole vocabularies) change every dozen miles.

Those who fear city-states often refer to that incessant warfare as an example of the danger of the ‘Balkanisation’ of democracies, in which ever-smaller pieces fall off, pick fights and go their own way. But I think there’s something futuristic, resilient and exciting about them. They’re demographically sufficiently small that citizens see, almost immediately, the consequences of their contributions, financial or physical. The amount of corruption and waste is reduced because budgets are far smaller and scrutiny constant. The understandable excitement surrounding ‘flat-pack democracy’, ABCD (‘asset-based community development’), and all the other ground-up initiatives, is that they quickly dissolve the almost ubiquitous cynicism of our age. Community currencies, from Bristol to Bavaria, make money a form of resistance against multinationals’ gutting of city centres. National initiatives often face problems of ‘deliverability’, but that’s rarely an issue when activism is inspired by, and bespoke to, the immediate topography.

Beyond the idealism of city-states, there’s also much realism. For those of us who foresee an abrupt end to the age of plenty and expect, instead, a future of dwindling resources, city-states are an ideal vehicle for rationing. Only when citizens are empowered and trusting, and able to see how much food or energy needs to be divided amongst how many of their own people, will they put up with deprivation and discomfort. People are rarely prepared to make those sacrifices for fellow countrymen and women hundreds of miles away, let alone for people in foreign states.

Which brings me to the most controversial aspect of city-states: the definition of ‘our people’ or of ‘citizenship’. As someone who managed a therapeutic community for eight years, I know the importance of boundaries, not only emotional or physical, but also social: who you accept or expel defines the wellbeing of your community. The Nobel prize-winning political economist, Elinor Ostrom, was even more explicit. In her 1990 work Governing the Commons, she wrote that the very first principle of a functioning group is the ‘effective exclusion of external, unentitled parties’.

The good-hearted internationalists have ignored that principle for decades, wanting to open up our societies to anyone who desired to live among us. Nation-states, too, have made an absolute horlicks of citizenship rights in recent decades. Anyone who has applied for citizenship in, say, Britain or Italy knows it is a profoundly flawed process because bureaucracy can award, but never teach, citizenship. And because we have been dippy about borders, there has been an inevitable backlash, and support for far-right xenophobia has returned with a vengeance throughout multicultural societies.

If we agree with Ostrum that groups only work when they control their membership, we might consider that city-states are the best way to recreate that membrane. In the past it was done through city walls and gates, and few of us want to return to that sort of paramilitary border control. But there is a reason that ‘citizen’ comes from ‘city’: a small polis, not a nation or supra-national state, is the ideal forge for turning a number into a neighbour. A city, not a country, is where we’re able to enunciate not just rights but responsibilities, and where it’s possible to measure both the needs and the contributions of newcomers.

Few would doubt that the aspirations of internationalism – free-trade, fraternity and peace – are noble, but that ‘whevereverism’ has often deprived us of belonging and agency. The challenge for city states will be whether they can square the circle, maintaining that global idealism whilst restoring a sense of rooted reality.


Tobias Jones