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If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities, by Benjamin Barber, Yale University Press, RRP£20 / $30, 256 pages
A YouGov poll in 2011 found that only five per cent of Londoners would favour the abolition of the office of the London mayor. That would have surprised almost everyone 15 years ago when it was being set up by Tony Blair. Yet it would come as no surprise to the New York political thinker and activist Benjamin Barber. His If Mayors Ruled the World revolves around a simple contrast between national governments and city ones. The former, he argues, are increasingly unhelpful. City governments, by contrast, are showing an under-appreciated ability to deliver for their citizens.
As Barber points out, the world is urbanising very fast; more than half of the global population now lives in cities. Cities are also the source of our wealth. There is a long line of thought, stretching back through Gandhi, Cobbett and Rousseau, that likes to paint large cities as parasites sucking the blood of an honest, hardworking, non-metropolitan population. In fact, it’s generally cities that support the rural economy, not the other way round.
While all this is true, it does not make the argument that our best hopes lie in empowered city governments. If Barber is pro-city, it is because of the politics and government to which he thinks they give rise.
Barber argues, I think persuasively, that city governments are closer to their people than national ones and as such are better at winning the trust of citizens – though the same goes for rural forms of local government.
Cities, Barber also believes, are simply better at meeting the challenges we face. National politics tend to be dominated by party machines, although voters’ feelings of party allegiance have declined dramatically, leaving them alienated from the system. National governments, moreover, have proved themselves ill-adapted to the contemporary world, in which problems typically demand either local or global attention.
They have been particularly bad at fostering the international collaboration we badly need. The world is globalising fast, and businesses, migrants, terrorists and greenhouse gases show little respect for borders; yet nation-states are clinging jealously to their “independence” and are quick to walk away from the international negotiating table.
Municipal governments, Barber argues, are a shining contrast. They tend to be characterised by more pragmatic, non-ideological politics. As Teddy Kollek liked to say when mayor of Jerusalem: “Spare me your sermons and I will fix your sewers”. Mayors are often larger-than-life personalities, with deep roots in their city. Barber’s book is studded with short portraits – from New York’s outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg to Seoul’s Park Won-soon and London’s Boris Johnson – illustrating his point.
Barber highlights numerous international city networks, tackling everything from climate change to crime, that exist below the radar of the UN, IMF and G20. Such is his confidence in the worldly, collaborative nature of cities that he ends his book arguing that we need a new parliament of cities – “A United Cities” – that will tackle the work our international institutions so conspicuously fail to do.
It’s hard to believe that city governments will ever deliver all that Barber hopes. His book has an almost Marxist character, with cities playing the role once allocated to the working class. Yet the fundamental contrast it draws, between struggling national governments and more effective and enterprising city ones, is compelling. Cities of the World Unite!
Ben Rogers is director of Centre for London