Global cities: outposts of a truly democratic and transnational forum

We are pleased to host the following contribution by Davide Zanoni:

The role of urban landscape in the aftermath of pandemic war


The breakout of COVID-19 has exposed the limits of the European integration process, not only with regards to the impasse in the management of the economic consequences of the epidemiological crisis but, first and foremost, for the national governments’ incapacity to share sensitive information and mimic the best policies and practices, already implemented around the world, to prevent such a virulent attack to collective health. 

There has been, indeed, an every-man-for-himself kind of attitude: while Italian national lockdown was already effective (Italy was the first Western State to witness such a severe outbreak), other countries still hesitated to implement restrictions, wasting precious time. 
On the contrary, South Korea took severe measures to flatten the contamination curve since the beginning applying an innovative testing strategy. But despite appearing to be the key – for its successful response – to tackle the current health crisis, no other government seemed ready or convinced to replicate Korean policies. 

Notwithstanding the myopia and fragility showed by national administrations – which indeed lacked of responsiveness and preparedness – critics preferred though to question the metropolitan living model. Being the most affected by the virus and its initial place of zoonotic origin, the urban melting pot was blamed to represent an unwanted contraindication of globalization as well as a monstrous phenomenon, given its gigantic dimension. 
his article wants to show, conversely, that cities can be better equipped to manage pandemics side-effects, both in terms of social cohesion and by developing world addressed policies. 
Local communities, for instance, are the most active actors in the help of people left behind by the pandemic. New York City is struggling to mitigate its mid and long-term consequences starting an “arm wrestling” with the Federal government. Amsterdam is already planning on how to exit the economic crisis, that would probably follow the pandemic, embracing the so called «doughnut» model, a framework intended to suggest how to foster economic growth while respecting global environmental limits. 

These episodes can be very instructive with reference to the spread of international solidarity beyond borders and for the correlated impact on the decision-making process. As Tobia Zevi prompts «the international community needs to work cohesively at all levels», adding that «cities can provide key answers to the pandemic». Answers that, in recent times, seem to be the only available.

The urban context: elementary particle of a transnational political community

Indeed, if focus our attention on transnational goods like health, environment, or regional economic stability, we find out that they are all commons evoking problems which neither the domestic legal order nor the market can cope with. The aporia is the same for both organizational mechanisms. At the supranational level, political and economic actors prefer to work in a strategic fashion, transforming the quest for common good in a prisoner’s dilemma. 
That is what Rainer Bauböck described as «the severe legitimacy crisis experienced by representative democracy» in dealing with global crisis. In this scenario, cities should be encouraged to play a greater role. 

In effect, contemporary cities have the advantageous position to represent the front-line of the globalization process. Or, more precisely, as Saskia Sassen put it while drafting the concept of «global cities» in the 1990s, they are its actual infrastructure: a series of nodes communicating worldwide and designing a web of information as well as of global trade interconnections. Cities fuel the globalization process (according to Richard Florida «if you added the ten largest metros together, you’d get a GDP-PPP of $9.5 trillion—bigger than the world’s fourth and fifth largest national economies, Japan and Germany, combined»), while being at the same time the locus where its side effects can be more heavily measured. In other words, metropolises are the stage of our contemporary political drama. 

David Harvey, in his famous Rebel Cities, brilliantly developed this idea, explaining how urban-based venues of political mobilization are the one and only frontrunners in capitalism contestation.
This could lead to an unprecedented consequence: despite the individualistic connotation of the economic engine, both the capital movements’ fluidity and the fragmentation of geopolitical relationships force people to an increasing mobility and, in so doing, they locate citizens in a unique situation. Indeed, cities are numerous, in competition with one another, and representing a diversified, if not conflictual, social dynamic. But only the city in itself, as a socio-economic model of governance, reproduced worldwide, becomes the sole interaction context where policy’s addressees share its consequences despite borders or national origins. Social ties and cohesion are thus inscribed in the physicality of a common living scenario, rather than in the alchemies of political negotiations or the merciless operational scheme of the “invisible hand”. That’s what Avner de Shalit called «thinking like a city». 

This understanding of the metropolitan consciousness is not completely new. The legal philosopher Michele Spanò recalls the ancient dichotomy between civitas and polis to express such clivage between the commonality of urban life and the hierarchical administrative means in the hands of city mayors.
Indeed, if we accept the above-mentioned suggestions, it will be necessary to analyze the role of urban institutions separately from the cives community. Only the latter may be the political platform able to fill the integrative and solidaristic gaps enhanced by globalization: «the urban condition gathering people together, in shared places, time and lives, seems to create in itself a “dialectic space” of encounter, a space of closeness» claims Marialuisa Palumbo.
Cives have thus several organizational tools in order to shape their fragmented and multiple urban universes.
Consider, for instance, the Parisian implementation of débat public, the Barcelona experiment of participatory budgeting, or the Council Directive 94/80/EC allowing the exercise of the right to vote and to stand as a candidate in municipal elections by citizens of the Union residing in a Member State of which they are not nationals. They represent quite astonishing examples of a transnational community if we only consider that nowadays transnational lists for the European Parliament are still utopian, while a City council may see several nationalities elected in the same political group. 

If cives are equipping themselves, mayors, on the contrary, are not in a position to rule the world, as suggested by the title of Benjamin Barber’s masterpiece. They still do not have the institutional competences to govern international phenomena nor anything suggests that they will not play politics in a strategic way as well as national governments. Indeed, the rationale of these experiments of political representation and activism, built around the renewed concept of citizenship, lays precisely on the consideration that the urban community should not be defined on the basis of a common State identity, but in terms of being affected by a given norm or policy, regardless of its own traditional - national or cultural - origins.

Beyond market and state centrism: towards a new middle age of decentralized public actors? 

 If we accept these general remarks, we should then come to the conclusion that a truly multinational but local-based political community could rise where, in a circular way, native roots and universalism, cultural diversity and international links can coexist and support each other. Similarly to the integration function exercised by the concept of nation (already examined critically by Jürgen Habermas) this community appears to be «a intersubjectively shared form of life» where «a network of relationships of mutual recognition» could call for a cooperation among peers based on communicative utterance. 

Are we, thus, witnessing the birth of a cosmopolitan form of solidarity among strangers, as the one dreamed by Habermas? 

Cautiously elaborating a bit more on the issue, we should, to start, avoid the naïve impression that between the regulatory “imperialism” of the European Union and the bureaucratic State, a third space for the megacities governance could exist (that would mean, in the end, a necessary return to a middle age pluralism). Even Parag Khanna, who reinvented the concept of «cities-State» in his Connectography, prefers to describe them as economic and information hubs, circulating overwhelming amounts of population flows, rather than just a regulatory machine in the hands of a political urban élite. He argues: «Connective infrastructures across sovereign borders acquire special properties, a life of their own, something more than just being a highway or a power line. They become common utilities that are co-governed across boundaries. Such connective infrastructures thus have their own essence, a legitimacy that derive from having been jointly approved and built that makes them more physically real than law or diplomacy». 

In this context, neither decentralization nor individualism is an accurate term to describe citizens’ hyper-connectivity. Cives are encouraged to utilize their local knowledge to elaborate solutions in a discursive way and to push national governments to adopt the best policies, on the grounds of their information pooling, whenever they share the perception that they will be affected by them. Only in this way, urban citizenship may effectively match with solidarity ties and law-making. 

Secondly, this perspective does not seem a one-way direction: cities may also result in the triumph of injustices when employment rates, public transportations or rates of ethnic minority populations differ significantly from one area to the other (Cfr., for the Italian context, Le mappe della diseguaglianza by Keti Lelo, Salvatore Monni and Federico Tomassi). This could lead to potential clashes between national and urban citizenship, especially now that the current epidemic crisis could represent a new phase of borders sealing and globalization arrest too. It is true, however, that even in front of such striking transformations, global cities’ communities will always be on the front line dealing with them. 

No State can afford the luxury of ignoring its beating metropolitan hearts.

* PhD student in Public law at the Catholic University in Milano (UNICATT) and at the École des Hautes études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris. 

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