Ingeborg van Teeseling

Barber’s Cut: The Fringe Theory to End Nation States

As 75% of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050, American visionary Benjamin Barber believes we should tear down nations in favor of an advanced network of global cities.


A few months ago, I presented you with a series of Australian mavericks: men and women who had the guts to say “no” when that was needed. Usually, they put their reputations and sometimes even their lives on the line to fight for what they believed in. And in doing so, they changed the world, one courageous step at a time.

Over the next couple of weeks, I would like to introduce you to some people who say “yes.” They are visionaries; people who are innovative and inspirational. Every single one of them is a dreamer and an idealist, but their ideas are not Utopian. Their plans are pragmatic, doable, and sometimes practical initiatives have already started to turn these dreams into reality. I am not saying that all of their visions are 100% perfect. But what these people do is give us something new to think about, take us outside of the box, make space for real alternatives. They expand our brain, if nothing else, and give us hope that the world can be a wonderful, exciting place to be.

My first visionary is American political philosopher Benjamin Barber. You may have heard of him because 20 years ago he wrote a book that ruffled quite a few feathers, Jihad vs. McWorld, in which he predicted a global struggle between religious and capitalist extremism. Of course, he was right, as we can see in the confrontation between, let’s say, ISIS and Trump, the man who uses the American presidency to sell his brand. The fact that Barber was spot on in foreseeing what we are dealing with today, means that it might be worth listening to what the man has to say now. Even if that sounds as far-fetched as this: Let’s get rid of nations and the politicians who govern them and give the power to rule the world to the mayors instead. Yes, I know, ridiculous, right? No more parliaments, prime ministers, states, borders, senators. How is that even possible? Surely you can not change what has always existed and turn it on its head that much. That is pie-in-the-sky craziness; the man needs to be locked up in a secure mental facility.

Before we close our minds, let’s listen to what Barber has got to say. First of all, he states, we have to realize that nation-states are a fairly recent phenomenon. To us it feels like they have always existed, but in reality, most of them are about a hundred years old. Before there were countries, there were empires: the British empire, the Ottoman empire, the Austrian, Russian, French empires. They consisted of large swathes of land, inhabited by tens of millions of people who had little else in common than the fact they were ruled by the same king, queen, sultan, prince, arch-duke, or emperor. They were multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and the empires often included many boundaries. Look at Australia: they were part of the British empire before they were their own country, which didn’t happen until 1901. That was the case for most nations. At the end of the 1800s, there were wars, nationalist uprisings, and revolutions which birthed most of the countries we know today. So, thinking about a world without nations is not so strange after all.

It sounds like a cliché, but the world is a borderless place, and all of us face what Barber calls “glocal” challenges. Glocal is a new word, a contraction of global and local, which means that global problems need local solutions.

Before there were nations, there were cities. Athens is much older than Greece, Istanbul was there way before Turkey, Rome before Italy, Amsterdam before The Netherlands, Sydney and Melbourne before Australia. It is in cities where democracy was born and whenever citizens feel that their rights are being violated, they take that anger to city streets. Think the Place de la Bastille, where the French Revolution started. Or Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Tahrir Square in Cairo, Taksim Square in Istanbul. Nations are abstractions. In our daily lives, we belong to the city we live in. We know its streets, its people, its mores, and how to take a bus from A to B. We are also familiar with the men and women who govern our city.

Mayors and Presidents, Barber says, are on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Mayors are close to us, Presidents at a distance. Mayors are usually not ideologically motivated. Even if they belong to a party (and many do not), they are first and foremost pragmatists and problem solvers. Barber is fond of quoting Fiorello La Guardia, the old mayor of New York, who once said that “there is no Democratic or Republican way of fixing a sewer.” Potholes need to be repaired, trains need to ride on time, schools need to be open. Not in a few months, after you’ve had party meetings and negotiations with your adversaries, but now. Mayors can’t be inactive. If they don’t do things, their cities grind to a halt and then they’ll be sacked. Cities don’t run according to ideologies, ethnicities, or religions. They are practical places, where the focus is on running buses, not flags up the flagpole.

A few years ago, 3.5 billion of us lived in cities. The UN estimates that that will double by 2050; then around ¾ of the world’s population will live in cities. The rest will be highly dependent on them, which means, Barber proposes, that even in simple demographic terms, cities are the future. But they are our democratic hope as well, he thinks. As we have discussed before, democracy is in a bit of a rut at the moment. Barber quotes 2013 American statistics which showed that 18% of the American population approved of Congress. The President, Obama at that time, scored higher with 45%. But most popular of all were the local leaders, the mayors and councilors, whose trust-count was on average 75%. Often they were born in the cities they rule. They are, as Barber calls them, “homies.” And the fact that we know these people, that they are close and visible and talking to us on a regular basis, makes us prefer them over faraway places of power. In cities, we feel like citizens, people who can participate and who are being heard. That makes the mayors of those cities excellent candidates to take the lead in ruling the world, Barber believes.

Another reason to stop focusing on nation states is that they are old hat. Nations are focused on sovereignty, on borders, on protecting who is inside from the people outside. We can see that with Brexit and Trump and Hanson. Nationalism is all the rage at the moment, but Barber says that is because the people who head up these parties know that this is their last chance. Most of our problems and issues are global now: terrorism, war, climate change, economic inequality, diseases, education, trade. It is simply impossible for one country to solve them, even only in its own territory. It sounds like a cliché, but the world is a borderless place, and all of us face what Barber calls “glocal” challenges. Glocal is a new word, a contraction of global and local, which means, Barber says, that global problems need local solutions. We know this, because we can see that answers are not coming from either the international bodies like the UN or the nation states. The reason for that is sovereignty and protectionism. Barber gives the example of the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009 where the world leaders were unwilling and therefore unable to come up with anything that would help. At the same time, though, the mayor of Copenhagen hosted another meeting in town where a few hundred of his colleagues met and agreed on practical measures to combat carbon emissions. Their organization, C40, had a simple explanation for the difference between them and the world leaders: “cities act – we must, we can and we will.” Since then, a lot of cities have grabbed the bull by the horns, and that is fitting, because they are the source of 70% of the world’s greenhouse gases. So everything they do is helpful straight away. And because they don’t have to negotiate until they are blue in the face, they are actually able to do much more than nations can.

Fiorello La Guardia once said “there is no Democratic or Republican way of fixing a sewer.” Potholes need to be repaired, trains need to ride on time, schools need to be open. Not in a few months, after you’ve had party meetings and negotiations with your adversaries, but now.

So this was Barber’s grand vision: a league of cities, a global cosmopolis, a global parliament of mayors. Located somewhere, anywhere in the world, with 300 seats that are constantly changing and give 900 cities a year a chance to say their piece. Not a new talkfest, but a place for practical ideas and actions, where citizens can come and get involved. Away from politics, from ideology, it would be democracy’s best hope, Barber thought. In this global parliament, Barber said with typical American overstatement, “the global civil religion would be interdependence, the liturgy rights, the doctrine the cooperative and the practice democracy.” It would be a new social compact, between cities all over the world, mayors all over the world, citizens all over the world. It would favor direct action, prevent despondency and pessimism, and empower individuals and populations.

So far, so good. If not a little Utopian, right? Wrong. First of all, even before Barber formulated his dream, similar initiatives had already cropped up. C40 we have seen before, but there was also Metropolis, based in Barcelona, an organization that looked at the problems of cities with over a million inhabitants. And we had United Cities and Local Governments, “the united voice and world advocate of democratic local self-government,” as well as the European Union’s Sustainable Cities Platform. But as if to show that cities are really the powerhouses Barber suspected them to be, all these organizations, and a few more, came together not long after Barber’s book was published in 2013. On a highly symbolic date, September 11, in a highly symbolic city, The Hague, the home of the International Court of Justice, they gave life to Barber’s brainchild, the Global Parliament of Mayors. They’ve got a goal to “enable cities to further their cooperation in addressing global challenges” with 60 members and counting. As of last month, Mayor Garcetti of Los Angeles has joined, as has Sadiq Khan of London. Barber’s pie-in-the-sky idea has proven itself not only valuable, but achievable. That is what I call a vision with a difference. We could do with more of those. And more people daring to dream.




Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating to Australia from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She is writing a book and runs Lifebooks, telling people's life stories.

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