Booming cities, struggling nations

By Kieran Madden July 10, 2018

As a football tragic, I’ve been watching many of the World Cup games at ungodly hours these past few weeks. At half-time during one of the games I was struck with the thought that while teams like Brazil and Belgium are impressive, any of the top club sides like Manchester City or Real Madrid would likely wipe the floor with them. Why? Put simply, these uber-rich, city-based clubs are able to lure superstars in greater numbers than naturally arise in particular nations.

This phenomenon reflects a developing dynamic that sees cities growing more and more powerful relative to the nations they belong within. Power is shifting “downward from national governments and states to cities and metropolitan communities,” according to Brookings Institute scholars Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak. The implications for how we govern ourselves are huge, but because nation states are all we know, change will take time.

For the first time in history more than half of the world’s population live in cities

There are considerable forces behind the downward shift. Economically, cities are accumulating the majority of wealth and capital. Demographically, for the first time in history more than half of the world’s population live in cities—predicted to be up to two-thirds in 2050 according to the UN—while rural populations continue to decline. Culturally, the divide between those within city limits and those without is growing too.

Recently, in response to the border-dissolving forces of globalisation and the internet, predictions of the decline of the nation state were widespread, with international institutions like the European Union ascendant. Brexit and other populist movements seem to indicate otherwise. So, instead, will we witness the return of the city state? It’s hard to imagine the death of “nations” anytime soon, leaving cities like Auckland becoming “self-governing, economically independent, and culturally unique” like Athens of old or Monaco today.

If nations fail to solve the problems we expect them too, they may become obsolete

But in an article published on Aeon, researcher Jamie Bartlett argues that “the nation-state with its borders, centralised governments, common people and sovereign authority is increasingly out of step with the world.” Cities will be the new nations. The problem with nation states, Bartlett says, is that they “rely on control…if they can’t control information, crime, businesses, borders or the money supply, then they will cease to deliver what citizens demand of them.”

The increasingly complex problems and fast-paced technological change facing nations is undermining the legitimacy and effectiveness of national governments. “National governments debate and mostly dither,” reckons Katz, “cities act, cities do.” This may be overly simplistic, especially given the quagmire of some local councils, but if nations fail to solve the problems we expect them too, they may become obsolete—so nineteenth century.

While the Champion’s league, may offer better quality football than the international World Cup, the prestige attached to the latter is unparalleled. Even if nation states are in their twilight years and cities are better at solving problems, the cultural belonging and attachment that people have for their nation will be a strong bulwark against any shift of allegiance to cities. If cities are to take over from nations, they’ll have to play the long game.

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