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Free Thinking : The world

From New Delhi, writer Rana Dasgupta

City-States And The Complexity Of The World

  • Rana Dasgupta
  • 15 Oct 06, 04:36 PM

While I was in the Caucasus, researching my current novel, I had a number of conversations about Chechnya, and the idea of a future Chechen state. Chechen intellectuals were wondering what model would be appropriate for their country, if and when it ever found independence, peace and justice. The murder, this week, of Anna Politkovskaya, reminds us again of how far we are from such a situation. But the conversations were theoretical, and the dismal reality did not detract from them.

These thinkers were not convinced that the European idea of the nation state would be the best one for Chechnya. The ways of life in the country were too varied. There were tribal communities in the country, whose legal system was based on the blood feud. The Sunni Muslim majority had elements that supported Shariat law, and others that imagined a system of liberal laws. There was no way of bringing these things together.

The only solution, therefore, was to imagine a system of local, provisional legal systems. The nation would be imagined not as a single legal zone, but one with several overlapping legal modes. This was to some extent the idea behind a recent text I wrote for Radio 3 on the city of 2056.

Are such ideas becoming more generally attractive, as the complexities latent within the apparent unity of nation-states become more debilitating? This is certainly the feeling put forward by Bruno Giussani in his recent post about city-states. Giussani suggests that the world's metropolises have their own particular reality that does not necessarily bear much similarity to the rest of the nation-states of which they are a part. These metropolises also play a huge role in the world's economy, environment and demographics. Perhaps, he suggests, these cities should become city-states, with their own separate governments and policies. He writes:

There is an assumption that many problems are so big and complex and cross-border (think climate change) that they cannot be solved by a single country, or by a group of countries, and that a sort of global governance is the only possible vehicle for solving them.

Letizia Moratti, the new mayor of Milan, Italy, has a different idea - and it's one of the best ideas I've heard recently. Some of those problems, she says, are actually very difficult to solve at a global level, because they involve tough policies that get delayed, drawn-out, weakened, compromised by negotiations among national and within supranational institutions.

So, instead of taking the problems to a broader stage, what about taking them to a narrower one: that of the city? What if the big cities of the world started developing projects and agreements among themselves to solve some of the world's problems? "The big cities have today a strategic role in the global context", she said the other day to the Science and Technology in Society conference in Kyoto, Japan (according to a report in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera). "They should start assuming some foreign policy rights and responsibilities".

Let's call it "global federalism", she suggests, as in the opposite of "global government": "Many countries have not signed the Kyoto protocol because at a national level it's often too difficult to commit to such engaging policies. But we could start experimenting with smaller-scale global agreements - among cities or regions". The idea is that big cities and regions, more than nations and international institutions, can be the engine of problem-solving on a global scale.

On his excellent blog, City of Sound, Dan Hill comments,

It's actually an attractive idea as there's a genuine sense of meaningful, local, civic value involved at the scale of the city - and thereby rejecting individualist or libertarian politics. It certainly tends to find fertile soil within mainland Europe, with a history of city state organisation, and a robust, respected, metropolitan urban culture. The more powerful idea is the sense of shared urban experience from Amsterdam to Sao Paulo, Sydney to Helsinki, Manchester to Milan, Seattle to Shanghai, and so on. The notion of a network of cities extending their history of trading partnerships more progressively into areas of cultural and political collaboration is too delicious to ignore. So it's just a little bit thrilling to hear the mayor of Milan beginning to make the case.


  1. At 12:24 AM on 16 Oct 2006, Roberto Carlos Alvarez-Galloso,CPUR wrote:

    Rana: I read your article and I think the time has come for a global federalism. It woudl be better for regions to take things into their own hands since the so called Central Governments do nothing [as demonstrated in Katrina in Louisiana].

    The time has also come for countries like Chechnya to become Independent. Vermont is another place [like Puerto Rico, Hawaii] that wants independence from the USA.
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  2. At 06:10 AM on 19 Oct 2006, Richard O'shea wrote:

    I'm not so sure. It sounds like a mandate for cities to become nation states of their own. Regardless of the no doubt democratic process of electing City State leaders it will ultimately mean that already overbearing business interests will player a larger role in these City States. Given the immoral nature of corporations I would suggest that it would be un-wise to invest any hope that they would change their attitudes. With the major institution of any city being the finance sector, who by default underpin all other commerce, it is difficult to see how their unending desire for profit would alter either. Sounds like a recipe for disaster.

    How would these models fit into the overall Nation States? The suggestion that they should have some element of foreign policy "rights" implies that they would have alternative methods of governance across the board: Policing, Criminal Law, Prisons etc etc. Segregation on a grand scale; I can already hear the curfew alarms and city limits riot police! Tiered nations: very ugly, may aswell be calling for a revolution!

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