Towards the Global City

From the Nation-State to the Urban Polity

by Robbie McClintock

Published in a Catalan translation as "Cap a la Ciutat Global: de la Nació-Estat al Govern Urbà." Barcelona Educació, No. 26, juny-juliol 2002. pp. 13-14.]

Length: 2,700 words

Last night I encountered a typical example of the way people think about public life.  A discussion of militant Islam in central Asia included a brief description of the relevant geography, explaining how extensions of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan curled around each other, imposing a complicated politics on a strategic, densely populated valley.  A simple area map depicting the borders of these and neighboring countries illustrated the point.  With it, the review made an observation about Central Asia that is all-too-familiar throughout the history of the past two centuries: the intertwining extensions defined a potential locus of conflict as these borders, historical accidents, divided a relatively homogeneous population and attached the parts to three separate, rather different, and potentially hostile nations.

This particular area map included a few dots, indicating places – Almaty, Bishkek, Tashkent, Samarkand, Dushanbe, Kunduz, and so on – and it had written on it reference to a few topographical features – the Pamir mountains, a lake or two, a river, the Ferghana Valley.  Nevertheless, the map depicted primarily borders defining separate areas, within which peoples live, and this map, like so many others, is an instance of the paradigmatic map of modernity, the great area map in our minds, changing here and there over time, but continually dividing humanity into complex systems of we and they.  Whether it is politics, culture, or economics, people define public life through sets of borders demarcating contiguous areas, within which they aggregate all manner of extrinsic characteristics, with events driven by the flux of their ideas about these constructed aggregations.

Within the EU, of course, intimations of alternative constructs are beginning to take hold in the general thinking about public affairs.  The character of the emerging alternative is not entirely clear, however.  The historical objectification of national borders within Europe is beginning to give way to their progressive dismantling.  Yet the difficulty of this process, arising as the slow, massive movement towards the EU leads people to lower the national boundaries separating each component area from the others, indicates the degree to which area mapping became fundamental to the way that people conceptually constructed public reality during the modern era.  And it is not yet apparent whether this glacial transformation represents a substantial shift of particulars within the dominant way of thinking, or the beginning of a leap to an alternative way of thinking, a way of organizing awareness of public life by some other scheme that foregoes the use of borders and area maps.  Does the EU reflect a development in which people are simply changing the relevant borders that they use in thinking about common experience, while they still rely on principles of area mapping to think about public life?  Or are they putting some other conceptual strategy into widespread use?  Let us consider, as the global era dawns, how that paradigmatic area map may be changing, leading not to changed borders but to a quite different construction of what is important in the conduct of public life.

As print-based communication displaced reliance on the iconography and manuscripts of medieval culture, maps were greatly empowered as a form of thought and communication.  Before print, that great engine of modernity, manuscript maps would reproduce poorly and were prone to degradation in the process.  Printing made the accuracy of maps progressive and permitted their widespread dissemination.  Maps, which defined different areas, large and small, and allowed observers to inventory the characteristics of people and places within those areas, became powerful tools in the modern mode of imagining communities.  They were essential in modern state formation.  The use of maps in modern life heightened consciousness of diverse borders and organized experience according to the way those borders group people within and set them apart from those without. 

Area maps became a constituent element in the way people thought about public life.  This constitutive power of maps did not arise from any particular mapping, but from the pervasive reliance on the practice of area mapping in the constructions of modern political, social, and economic thought.  Observers would first demarcate an area, large or small, and once they established that, they would count and observe; they would compare and contrast; they would analyze all manner of statistics and extrinsic characteristics, and these became the stuff of public life.  Maps provided constructs with which people could aggregate externalities, which became collective abstractions as people attributed intentions, interests, character, will, and diverse capacities to act to those aggregations that the maps displayed.  Such intellectual practices deeply characterize the modern sensibility, informing how people around the world describe, orient, and understand themselves and others.

Nation-states have been, of course, the archetypal entities constructed in this manner, what the anthropologist, Benedict Anderson, has called the "imagined communities" of modernity, defined by their borders on a map, and energized by all sorts of actions and policies and programs structuring life for those within the borders and relations to those outside them.  The drama of modernity, in its largest sense, has been one in which essentially accidental borders, encompassing a chaos of extrinsic characteristics, have been made through violence, compulsion, seduction, persuasion, enculturation, and education into a more or less rational repertoire of qualities, shared within borders and distinctive from those on the other side.  This process is by no means complete, leaving much room within any given border for internal conflict among those whose external characteristics are still discordant.   And in a world in which resources are all-too-scarce, all-too-many conflicts of interest and belief break out between peoples across the myriad borders laid out upon our world.

Can we think about public life without reliance on bordered areas?  Are there human habitats, polities, that are not defined by borders and the aggregate identities of those within the borders?  If so, would thinking and acting within polities without borders differ from thinking and acting within imagined, area-based states?  To answer these questions, let us think about maps that represent, not areas, but places, and ask what maps of different places allow people to do.  Places dot the world; they do not divide it up into contiguous areas.  Places do not aggregate people and their extrinsic characteristics; rather places situate people's actions and interactions and inform the meanings people derive from what they do there.  A place – New York or Barcelona, for instance – is where a polyphony of people conduct their lives in a constructive diversity of purpose.  Of course, one can treat a place as if it were an area, conducting a census within its borders and counting characteristics of the people and the things there.  But such area maps of places are not as useful as a good place map itself, which is what designers call an affordance, "a visual clue to the function of an object."  Place maps do not aggregate extrinsic characteristics; they situate particularities in ways that enable people to interact together with them.  Place maps tell the user how to work and get around within the place; they indicate what one can do and provide indications of how the place operates, providing addresses, routes, modes of communication and transportation.  Place maps help to sustain the actualities of experience that can take place at and through the place.

Cities, urban places, have long been the archetypal actual communities, the complex places represented in good place maps.  Persons, not aggregates, live and work, think and act, in cities and other places.  Cities do not merely aggregate extrinsic characteristics of those who fall within their borders.  The borders of a city, like other borders, are relatively meaningless fictions, especially compared to the operational city, which usually stretches well beyond its formal borders.  Places, real communities, are of diverse types – villages, towns, and cities; languages and cultures; clubs and companies; churches and universities.  They are not imagined entities, but functional operating systems enabling people to choose and act together.  Place maps of real communities convey an understanding of how they work and what a person can do within them.  Place maps do not define a we and a they; place maps enable all sorts of diverse people to participate in the real, operational community.  An internal place map, a good city map, for instance, allows a person to define his or her choices and to carry them out.  The place map goes with other tools enabling localized interactions – phone books, guides, listings, schedules, the whole apparatus of urban choice.  An external place map shows the linkages between places, the autoroutes, railroads, airports, and sea-lanes, the filigree of connections linking different places together.  In sum, whereas area mapping produces imagined communities and aggregates extrinsic characteristics, maps of real communities, places, show the means and opportunities for a diverse array of human interaction.

Historically, cities and other complex places were the first interactive operating systems that people created, with which they could expand their choices and effect lives of intention, personal and communal.  Cities organize diversities and allow each person to select his or her actions as intention suggests from within a complexity of possibilities.  Historically, cities were highly unusual, inhabited up until the demographic surge of the industrial era by a small proportion of humanity.  Now, however, a new drama is replacing the drama of modernity.  To be sure, headlines still cry out the acts of the old with ethnic cleansings, jihads, intractable minorities locked in deadly struggles with implacable states.  Here and there, these wreak catastrophic havoc and they could undermine historic order if they continue to spiral further and further out of control.  This atavistic drama of modernity will die out slowly, replaced by a more hopeful drama of post-modernity, in which interactive places become the dominant loci for public life, for people doing interesting, valuable things in concert with each other.

With an upwelling population, cities grew immensely, and the proportion of peoples living in urban places, relative to those who did not, increased more rapidly still.  Great technological innovations in transportation and communication immeasurably expanded the power of persons to interact within and between places.  Critics can decry the quality of options offered by the new interactivities, or the lack of discrimination many display in exercising their choice.  All that notwithstanding, greatly expanded populations now live in places where each person can and does exercise an extraordinary range of choice in highly interactive settings.  The challenge of present-day public life is to create a complex, vibrant culture, solving global problems of equity and the environment, as each person asserts both a stake and a role through the exercise of his or her choices in our actual communities.

As places of importance to public life, urban polities can help people overcome two barriers to progressive development.  These two barriers overlap.  First, the will to form new goals is weak.  As forms of collective action, nation-states are running out of creative potentialities, while some vague global-state, experienced as an area including all areas, lacks meaningful, moving definition.  In the most advanced parts of the world, area-based polities are weakening as means for mobilizing collective effort.  In parts where development lags, there is something retrograde to the passionate we, leading to extremist destruction.  With the strongest, most tepid; with the weakest, most obsessed – the capacity to tackle worldwide problems of ignorance, want, equity, and the environment is sorely lacking.  Second, commitment to unfinished purposes is flagging.  People have been forming a conviction that state action has reached and exceeded the limits of its effectiveness, and as a result, people have been reducing effort at social welfare measures in favor of public parsimony and privatized opulence.  Area-based polities are naturally bureaucratic, having to act on aggregate groups through impersonal policies and programs.  Whether God helps those who help themselves is moot, but it is certainly true that bureaucracies best serve those who serve themselves.  With those who cannot serve themselves well, the law of diminishing returns seems to have a complement in the sphere of bureaucratic action – a law of escalating effort whereby the costs of helping each increment of those in need mounts steadily higher.  As this law takes effect, the public senses limits and perceives bureaucratic programs to be ill suited to address yet unfulfilled civic aspirations.  This raises a barrier of fatalism and passivity, an unwillingness to bother, in societies that once devoted extraordinary effort to shared public purposes. 

Area-based polities have exhausted their agenda and lack new purposes.  It would be premature to say that cities, place-based systems of interaction, present a means around these two barriers in public life.  All the same, cites may offer a path to future possibilities well worth exploring further.

Draw a map of the world as if there is a clear, night sky all around the globe, with conventional borders disappearing on land areas that all seem dark.  Dotting them all, however, will be the lights of large towns and cities.  Illuminate the roads and rails, the flight paths and sea-lanes, the electric grid and humming telecommunications lines pulsing with phone and Internet traffic.  All this will wrap the earth in a glowing representation of human interactions and activity.  Here global experience begins to become visible, and the places we find it are overwhelmingly in the cities around the world.  This global experience consists, not in some massive aggregate of outward similarities, but in great webs of concrete interactions among people.  Over the past fifty years, there has not only been a tremendous movement of people into cities around the world, but even more life in each of those cities has begun to interact extensively with life elsewhere, with life in other cities.  People around the world are beginning to make a global city, of which all the different cities around the world are like different districts, with people moving rather freely from one part of town to another – whether it is across the park or on another continent.  The literature on different global cities – London, Tokyo, New York – slightly misses the mark.  Drop the plural – these and other cities linked by all the transportation and telecommunications capacities of our time, constitute an urban lace-work enveloping the world, the fast emerging global city where we all live.

At this point in the historical emergence of the global city, it is possible only to ask some difficult, yet hopeful questions.  Is there a distinctive set of interests that those who live and work in the global city form as they interact with one another?  Ecologically, can a global city, housing most of humanity, prove relatively efficient and benign?  Urban life seems to exercise a natural population control and it can be economical, per capita, in the consumption of unrenewable resources.  Can one foresee a kind of global urban interest developing, one stressing environmental control, the protection of civil liberties, cultural autonomy and creativity, the full development of each person's potentialities?  Advanced nation-states have become finely tuned balances of countervailing powers without much ability to concert the parts in balance towards a demanding common goal.  Yet the real problems require determined foresight.  Might the global city be a setting from which people can assert such leadership?

A global city, situated here, there, and everywhere in diverse urban districts around the world, may help overcome the second barrier too, the sense that contemporary polities have reached and exceeded the limits of effective public action.  Throughout the 20th century, nation-states have acted through rationally administered bureaucratic programs.  Skepticism has spread wide and deep, suggesting that such means have ceased to be effective, however far we may still stand from fulfilling the energizing aspirations of humane democracy.  If the means will not work, expending ever-increasing resources on the best of intents is mere stupidity.  Can people in the global city develop new means that will make pursuit of the best intents wise once again?