May 30, 2014 1:00 pm

The rise of the global capital

‘Many ambitious Dutch people no longer want to join the Dutch elite. They want to join the global elite’
Illustration by Luis Grañena of a man sitting in a cafe©Luis Grañena

It was one of those paceless mornings that make Amsterdam so agreeable. A friend and I were sitting in a dinky café on a canal, armed with good coffee, aimlessly leafing through the newspapers. My friend is an art dealer, and inevitably another art dealer wandered in, and inevitably they knew each other: Amsterdam is an upscale bohemian village.

But when the other dealer had got his coffee, and idle chat recommenced, it gradually emerged that something is changing: Amsterdam, a centre of the art market since 1600, is being left behind. The best Dutch artists now exhibit with foreign galleries, often in New York and London. Big Dutch collectors buy in New York, London or at foreign art fairs. Dutch dealers wish they could sell there. Almost all art now traded in Amsterdam is minor.

Something similar is happening in fields from banking to politics: Amsterdam is slipping into the global second division. So are many other national capitals. Their most ambitious people are leaving for a few “global capitals”, chiefly New York, London and Hong Kong.

Saskia Sassen of Columbia University, a leading thinker on cities, asks: “Are we seeing a bunch of ‘super-places’ emerge that are really different, and that become necessary anchors for a firm or an individual or a project?”

Any big city exists in two hierarchies: national and international. Within the Netherlands, Amsterdam has soared. “Amsterdam has gained power compared to where it was 30 years ago,” Sassen told me. When I was growing up in the Netherlands in the 1980s, Amsterdam was for hippies, drug addicts, prostitutes, penniless bohemians, students, a native white working class and gays fleeing intolerant Dutch small towns. You could buy a 17th-century canal house for pocket money, if you could persuade the squatters to leave.

But in the 1990s, the knowledge economy took off. Like many other capital cities, Amsterdam benefited. The Dutch elite bought canal houses. Police cracked down on the junkies selling stolen bikes for a few coins. The red-light district of women in underwear waiting in windows shrank to just a few streets. Amsterdam house prices soared. After briefly dropping during the crisis they are now soaring again while other Dutch homeowners struggle. By Sassen’s definition, Amsterdam today is one of about 100 “global cities”.

Yet as she acknowledges, a new, higher category of cities may now be emerging: global capitals. Amsterdam has risen but New York, London and Hong Kong have risen faster. The Dutch elite is moving to Amsterdam; but many ambitious Dutch people no longer want to join the Dutch elite. They want to join the global elite. That often requires moving to a global capital.

You see this shift in many professions. London is full of Dutch bankers earning more than their friends in Amsterdam ever will. Dutch academics and even journalists increasingly seek careers abroad. Ambitious Dutch politicians are getting disillusioned with the shrinking national scene too: before the European elections, party campaign posters on Amsterdam’s windows bemoaned the power of Brussels. The national-global divide is now so stark that many children of the Amsterdam elite make the leap in their teens: they study either in Britain, or in English at a Dutch university. You can’t crack the global elite speaking Dutch English.

Of course, small countries have always exported ambitious people. Years ago a New Zealand friend, in a lowly job in London, told me that his country’s next prime minister had asked him to be her aide. “Fantastic!” I said. “Oh, I won’t do it,” he said. Working for New Zealand’s prime minister, he explained, was a bit like working for Leicester city council.

. . .

The Dutch, too, have a tradition of seeking bigger arenas. The spies Mata Hari and George Blake, for instance, made themselves so thoroughly international that few people even realised they were Dutch. Blake became a British spy, then a Soviet traitor, though when I interviewed him in Moscow 70 years after he’d left the Netherlands, he chose to do the whole conversation in Dutch.

However, the export of elites to global capitals has accelerated since the 1990s. Sassen says: “People, whether they are in Dubai or Shanghai, need to spend some time in a place like London or New York.” Often, she adds, elite immigrants come to a global capital selling knowledge of their home country. For instance, global companies hire Indians who understand how to do business in India. Some of these people eventually go home again. Others morph into global souls.

The exodus takes different forms in different countries. In Spain, many gifted young émigrés come from ordinary families without the connections to enter the Spanish elite. France exports ambitious people who can’t join the French elite because they didn’t go to a grande école.

This amounts to a geographical reshuffling of elites. Amsterdam may be the future for cities like Paris and Madrid: a backwater inhabited by an increasingly impotent national elite, a delightful place for paceless mornings of coffee and newspapers.

simon.kuper@ft.com; Twitter @KuperSimon

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