The City of God and the Global City

1000 Days of Theory

The City of God and the Global City

Augustine’s famous distinction between the City of God and the City of Man has been re-worked in many ways. George Bush and Tony Blair certainly are not the only ones to think that we are caught up in a global struggle between good and evil, or to suppose that this transcendent struggle is immanent in everyday life. Nor is such thinking confined to the religiously minded. Since the eighteenth century, the great secular ideologists of modernity — liberal and socialist, progressive and conservative, anarchist and statist, humanist and post-humanist — have posed the most urgent problems within an Augustinian frame.[1] They tell us that there is an immanent, widely suppressed, but potentially transcendent “good,” faced with an omnipresent evil that can somehow be overcome or contained by those who commit themselves to the struggle against it. Apocalyptic in tone, universalistic in aspiration, reductionist in analysis, often violent in practice, this onto-theological politics gathers us all in from time to time. Those reared in the monotheistic cultures of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam may be particularly vulnerable to the appeal of such a politics, but there are many signs that people from other cultural backgrounds feel the pull of it as well.[2] In this context, it is particularly important to explore other ways of thinking, which are not so apocalyptic, universalistic, reductionist, or violent. There is no easy way of escaping Augustine’s clutches, but his grip can be loosened.

My suggestion is simple: that we take Augustine’s central figure, the city, much more seriously as an analytical and political focus. Considered on its own terms — that is, as the form of order implicit in urbanism as a way of life[3] — the city transcends its place as a subordinate entity within a particular state. Even ordinary cities now have global reach, and the greatest of them function as command centres for the global economy.[4] Cities are key switching points for globalizing cultures and organizational centres for social, political, and religious movements. Moreover, cities are connected to one another in a way that gives form and meaning to the idea that we all now live in a single “global city,” within which a global economy is organized and a global politics played out.[5] The city as the embodiment of urbanism as a way of life is not a merely local political entity. Nor can it be identified with the ancient polis, which is the model for the modern republic. No particular city is self-contained. Nor is there a singular order to the city. A city is multiply networked and diversely ordered, internally and externally.[6] Most importantly, there is no sovereign centre to the urban way of life locally or globally. Forms of order (and hence centres of power) proliferate within and between cities. They do not remain stable. Whereas the state is characterized by sovereignty, cities are characterized by complicated practices of government and self-government, which overlap and modify one another. These practices work against any monopoly of authority. As such they can neither redeem us from evil nor lead us to glory. Neither human nor divine sovereignty is on offer. The global city may enable us to govern and express ourselves in various ways, but the terms are always limited by the freedom of others.[7]

It is the absence of sovereignty within the city as city that has deflected the attention of political theorists from it. Political theorists have allowed others to conceptualize the city socially, culturally, and economically, but they themselves have failed to work out what the city is as a form of political order. In my view, that form is one that relates distinct practices of government and self-government to one another by means other than sovereignty. It is not that claims to sovereignty are unknown within the global city or particular cities. On the contrary, such claims are common, and sometimes seem productive. But, practices of government and self-government develop independently, and modify the impact of any effort to impose order by sovereign authority. Although we are trained to think of political authority as singular (that is, as something that flows from a sovereign centre), close attention to the reality of cities reveals something different. Multiple authorities are the rule, not the exception. Some of these authorities pretend not to be political, because that gives them more autonomy in relation to the ostensible sovereigns. (Business corporations are an obvious example, but there are many others.) Whatever the case, the field of government and self-government — and hence the field of politics within the city, globally and locally — is likely to be occupied by a variety of authorities that contend with one another, cooperate at times, seek to be autonomous, and work to impose their will in various ways. When cities work, in the sense that they provide reasonably congenial conditions of life for people, that is because of the ensemble of activities that these various authorities mediate, not because of the sovereignty that particular authorities purport to exercise. We know this, but we are too much under the spell of sovereignty to appreciate its significance. As a result, we exaggerate the political importance of the state and give too little attention to other political authorities like businesses, NGOs, and religious or other “movement” organizations that actually govern us in a variety of ways.

Thus, to re-focus our political attention on the city is actually to open ourselves up to a re-examination of the conditions of possibility for civilized life. The argument in this article is neither for nor against state,[8] but it opposes a state-centric politics that belies the complexity of urban life and seduces us with notions of sovereign centre from which we can all be redeemed. The current “war on terror” (or, if you prefer, war on Islam) focuses on cities, but from the outside. Cities and the urban networks that connect them are recognized as the breeding grounds for the evils that Bush, Blair, and Bin Laden seek to eliminate. Cousins under the skin, the B & B & B warriors seek to redeem the city from without by forcing it to surrender to sovereign authority.[9] To think otherwise about our political possibilities is to move away from this moral drama and from the imaginary sovereignty that incites it. This is difficult, because we have so long been conditioned to think of politics in sovereigntist terms. My suggestion here is that we can use the figure of the city to work out the implications of a different ontology of the political, one that begins from the ubiquitous and proliferating practices of government and self-government — the practices that make urban life possible — rather than from the sovereignty moves that are supposed to bring the political into being.[10] In doing this work, we have to draw on sources that make many people uncomfortable: in particular on the theorists who celebrate the magic of the market. In my view, these theorists mistake the implications of their own analysis, in that they neglect most of the practices that make civilized life possible in favour of the few that are associated with the market. Nonetheless, it is important to understand that the city can be conceived as a self-organizing system with no sovereign authority and no ultimate goal. That idea can inform a politics very different from the ones we associate with neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism.

The City Becomes Global

The now familiar notions about global cities and the larger processes of globalization draw our attention to the way that cities work as connectors. Cities are the places where trading expeditions are organized. They are the sites at which information is gathered and exchanged, the places where the surplus is sent to be distributed and sold, and the locales where problems are identified and great projects are formulated. There are other kinds of places where these things happen, but the city is unique in its capacity to generate productive connections between people who are alien to one another. One need not be of the same religion or community or share the same allegiance or vision of the future to connect with others peacefully and productively. The city facilitates this, by bringing people of diverse backgrounds together, and giving them reasons to cooperate and live peaceably with one another. The city is a space of such opportunity that it calls us to put our differences aside for mutual advantage. Some of the opportunity at issue is economic, but there are other dimensions to it: cultural, religious, social, and political. To be “urbane” or “civilized” is to take difference in stride, react with tolerance and curiosity to alien customs, and to see the diversity of the city as an advantage. Every city is potentially global in that it welcomes people in and reaches out everywhere. In principle, a city is outside the order of sovereignty, in the sense that it transcends the realm or the state in which it is located and gathers people in, regardless of what the ostensibly “sovereign” authorities say they want. Urbanism as a way of life produces relationships that cannot easily be governed from without. Moreover, urbanism is fruitful in a way that makes authorities of all sorts dependent on its productivity. The productivity at issue is by no means only economic. City life enables new understandings, creates new connections, and produces new possibilities in every area of human endeavour.

Max Weber thought that occidental cities were unique in the way that they worked as islands of freedom, in which the hold of the “higher” religious and secular authorities was loosened.[11] He exaggerated the distinctiveness of the Western experience. Urban life has its own logic, and everywhere it has had the effect of freeing people from certain constraints and giving them new opportunities for connection. When the Europeans burst out of their own corner of the world five hundred years ago, they created some new trading routes, but mostly they seized control of old routes and knit them together as part of a new system. They built new cities, but for the most part they took control of the older ones, and re-worked the urban system to new purposes. The long process of globalization was one in which autonomous urban systems were knit together and organized on a larger scale, thus facilitating more intense exploitation of the countryside and ultimately greater productivity. When the political economists of the eighteenth century tried to make sense of the emergent order, they focused on the exchanges that seemed to occur regardless of what the authorities might expect or require. These exchanges produced a civilized order more or less automatically. Everyone had an incentive to be peaceable in order to engage in exchange, and peaceable exchange was (for most people) more profitable than violent conquest. So, there was an immanent order, geared to free exchange and dependent on self-restraint or self-government, which tended to emerge naturally if it was not perverted by violence. If the violence of the European navigators and adventurers had been the hand-maiden of a new world order, the order itself was of a different character, based on free exchange between people (and peoples). Although it was rarely recognized as such, this cooperative order was the order of the city writ large.

Most contemporary economists have an even narrower understanding of this order than Adam Smith did. They treat market exchanges in abstraction, and gloss over the fact that markets work to the advantage of the strong, the aggressive, the unscrupulous, and the self-interested. A market-mediated order is by no means ideal (as Marx made clear enough). That said, however, the economists are working with an important idea, namely that order can emerge from exchanges between people who have little in common with one another. In fact, the differences between people can be an incentive to exchanges of all sorts. If people see those differences as a reason to deal peaceably with one another, rather than to attack one another, then a peaceable order can emerge whether or not there is a powerful figure to enforce it. To understand this is to have a powerful insight, an insight on which the modern social sciences in general have built. Sociologists in particular have been keen to discern the properties of a naturally emergent order. By comparison with the economists, they are open to a subtler and more complicated understanding of that order. Of course, for the past century, critical work in sociology and political economy has tended to debunk theories that present the emergent order as benign or inevitable. The emphasis has been on exposing the structures of domination and plays of power that lie behind what seems like a natural order.[12] This critical work is useful, but it often obscures as much as it reveals. The best conventional sociologists and economists are not just ideologists. They have been trying to work out how a relatively benign and durable order can emerge despite the obvious structures of domination and plays of power. This is important work, but the neo-Augustinian political ontology on which most critics rely leaves little room for a story that fails to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. The demand is for a clear moral ground on which we can stand and do our political work. As I shall attempt to explain in the next section, the ground demanded is the one offered by the state (however much the critics deny this).

One of the problems that everyone has is that social scientific explanations tend to treat civilization as something that emerges either by violent imposition or by a process that occurs behind people’s backs. The first sort of explanation is actually dependent on the second, in that stories of violent imposition presuppose processes that go on behind the backs of conquerors. The city is destroyed; the conqueror has to rebuild it; that can only happen if the conqueror submits to the creative energies of others. Social scientific accounts tend to obscure the fact that the emergent order is always established politically. In these accounts, politics is usually associated with the moment of violent imposition (or the ongoing practices of domination or the plays of power associated with domination) and not with the creativity (and the practices of peaceful exchange and cooperative effort) associated with building and sustaining a civilization. Thus, it is hard to see that the order at issue is always political. Critical work tends to treat politics as a scandal. To reveal that there are structures of domination or plays of power in a civilized order is to say that there is something bad there, generated by “politics”. The remedy for this bad politics is always a good politics. An Augustinian political ontology always points in that direction. The alternative to this implicit Augustinianism is to put cheap moral judgements aside, and look more carefully at the various political practices that come into play when the problems of living together are posed. The problems emerge in everyday life. Everyone is involved in them in one way or another. Everyone has to be a politician. If a relatively benign — or, at least, liveable — order emerges, it will be the result of the political work that many, many people do. It is an open question what importance princes, presidents and prime ministers have in this context. Nevertheless, the lineaments of a benign order are fundamentally political.

My point is that the city or civilization is a political construct that needs to be understood in those terms. The most creative political work is keyed to ubiquitous and proliferating practices of self-government. Individuals engage in these practices when they govern themselves, in the double sense of limiting themselves (so that their actions do not offend or otherwise impinge negatively on others) and taking charge of themselves. The latter part of the practice is celebrated by the ideologists of freedom.[13] The other part (self-limitation as opposed to self-expression or self-fulfillment) is what enables cities to function despite the fact that the nominal rulers are distant, ineffectual, or altogether absent. “Live and let live” really is the principle of urban life, for it is only on this principle that a multitude of strangers (with different customs and beliefs) can share the same space and go about their business in a relatively harmonious way. If Hobbes were right, cities would be impossible. What occurs at the level of the individual also occurs at the level of the group. Mutual accommodation is the rule, and it is this practice that actually enables particular groups to sustain distinct ways of life within the city. How this works is of particular interest to economists who have noticed how the incentive to trade generates markets governed by an ethic of peaceable exchange. For many economists, the market is a primordial fact, not requiring any particular explanation. Anthropological and historical evidence suggests to the contrary that it takes a lot of work — political work — to bring a market into being and sustain it.[14] This is true whether the market is a physical space or a more complex virtual space like the ones with which we are now familiar. Other practices also have to develop for civilized life to be sustained: rules of the road that enable undisturbed passage; practices that allow even the poor to find food, drink, and a place to sleep; rules about the keeping of animals and the disposal of wastes; codes of accommodation that relate to personal space, noise, and interpersonal address. The list is almost endless. It needs to be articulated only in part to reveal something else: namely, that the public services and facilities that we associate with modern life generally grew out of the practical necessities of living together in cities. We all need roads; we all need water; we have to dispose of our wastes somehow; we all want someone to turn to when other people break the rules. Government in the sense of the intense, intrusive activity in which the authorities are now engaged is something made necessary by life in cities, but it is nonetheless the tip of the iceberg: most of the activity that makes urban life possible occurs beneath the surface (as it were) in practices of self-government that develop whether or not the authorities are there to require them. The authorities generally take these practices for granted. So, (to change the analogy) government rests on a bedrock of self-government.

The tendency among social scientists is to treat everyday practices of self-government as “social” or “cultural” and hence pre-political. This is a mistake. It obscures the political work that goes into the development and maintenance of these practices. Much of that work goes on in public, but it involves government officials only indirectly. People sort themselves out at bus-stops, on sidewalks, in cafes and restaurants, on waterways and in parks. These intimate practices of regulation and self-regulation involve plays of power, shows of authority, threats of violence, calls to solidarity, habits of deference, and challenges to the existing order: in short, they involve people in an everyday politics that vexes and threatens them from time to time, but that works surprisingly smoothly in most instances. We notice when things are going badly — as in Baghdad or New Orleans recently — because the norm is one of peaceful co-existence enabled by ubiquitous and proliferating practices of self-government.

Narrow and ideological as it may be, Friedrich Hayek’s work is interesting because it offers such a robust defence of the idea that a benign social order can emerge from these practices. One of his key claims is that the Great Society (as Adam Smith called it) is not an organization or taxis but a spontaneous order or cosmos. This cosmos or spontaneous global order is a side-effect of things people have done for other purposes. No one can understand it as a whole, because it is not something that people have created consciously. It cannot be managed or planned by a central authority, because that authority can never comprehend it or adequately anticipate people’s reactions to the situations in which they find themselves. Attempts to control the cosmos are counter-productive: we must live and let live.

The Great Society arose through the discovery that men can live together in peace and mutually benefiting each other without agreeing on the particular aims which they severally pursue. The discovery that by substituting abstract rules of conduct for obligatory concrete ends made it possible to extend the order of peace beyond small groups pursuing the same ends, because it enabled each individual to gain from the skill and knowledge of others whom he need not even know and whose aims could be wholly different from his own.[15]

In Hayek’s account, the key principles of the Great Society are the ones that enable market exchange. This narrow reading is tendentious and ideological, however. A more generous reading enables us to see that civilization or cosmos or urbanity depends on other principles, like mutual recognition and respect, the search for consensus, concern for the common good, tolerance, generosity, charity, and humanity. As Hayek tells us, we can only identify the most valuable principles in retrospect, and we cannot predict what new principles of conduct will make the cosmos more robust or satisfying for people. Nonetheless, it is clear that the enabling principles of the emergent cosmopolitan order go far beyond the ones that Hayek himself identifies, and include many of the ones implicit in the everyday practices of self-government that enable cities to flourish. The Smithian Great Society and the Hayekian cosmos are actually the effects of everyday political initiatives.

Hayek wanted to use constitutional measures to protect the spontaneous order of the human cosmos from statist initiatives. In a sense, he wanted to use the state against itself or (more accurately) to organize the state to forestall initiatives that would reshape the cosmos in accordance with some plan. Nevertheless, his own idea of what the cosmos is and should be informed the measures he envisaged, ones that would bind the state up and deploy it in a particular direction. Subsequent neo-liberal measures, both domestic and international, clearly follow from this Hayekian idea: a particular conception of the cosmos is to be embodied in legal principles that are beyond the control of particular states, popular movements, or local authorities. Those who abide by these principles are to be accepted as rights-bearing members of this liberal cosmos. Others are to be treated as enemies. Thus, the current religious crusade against the enemies of neo-liberalism follows fairly directly from the effort to define the cosmos in advance and constitute it in a way that reflects a particular conception of human possibility. A more authentic commitment to the idea of a spontaneously ordered cosmos would not involve this return to a vengeful Augustinian moralism, nor would it lead to desperate efforts to forestall collective initiatives. Instead, it would problematize the moral/political centre that Hayek takes for granted: the modern state.

The State Captures the Political Imagination

Most analysts of the state seem to know little about the way it developed.[16] They focus on the concept of the state in abstraction from its practice, or on its practice in abstraction from the concept. To understand the concept, we have to go back to the late medieval era, and trace the emergence of ideas about the impersonal “state”. We then have to understand how the state came to be associated with “sovereignty,” a doctrine that took shape in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Modern republican or liberal democratic theory, which evolved in the eighteenth century, was articulated on the assumption that the sovereign state was necessary for political order. Although this assumption certainly has been contested — by nineteenth century anarchists and socialists, for instance — it has been generally accepted since the early modern era. Indeed, it is so widely accepted now that most analysts fail to see any reason for making it explicit. The immediate effect of conjoining the ideal of democracy with the concept of the sovereign state (as happens in the contemporary political imaginary) is to give “politics” an obvious focus. If people are to resolve the big issues democratically, how can they not focus their attention on the venue that has been endowed with sovereign authority: the venue where the “ultimate” questions are decided? Surely any other politics must be peripheral. According to this logic, a politics focused on the great issues must be centred on the sovereign state, even if it proceeds through other institutions and practices and is oriented toward controlling what is outside the state.

If we look at the practice of the state as it evolved in relation to cities, we begin to see something different: namely, that the politics that generated new activities occurred at the boundaries of urban self-government. This becomes clearer if we look at the history of the public services: education, transportation, policing, public health, and so on.[17] What we now take to be essential public activities — sanitary disposal of liquid and solid wastes, suppression of fires, protection from criminal activity, maintenance and lighting of streets, etc. — were not always present in cities. The great expansion of these services and facilities began in the nineteenth century and continued on into the twentieth. The taken-for-granted character of most of our public services and facilities is testimony to the fact that they developed out of people’s efforts to deal with the practical problems of modern urban life. What to do about the filth of the streets? Animals running wild? People getting sick from the food sold in the markets? Kids roaming the streets and getting into trouble? Disease spreading out of control? Homeless people with nowhere to go? Workers without the education necessary for the jobs now available? Congestion that keeps people from getting to work? Foul-smelling air and polluted water? When people posed these questions to themselves, it was in the context of efforts to deal with problems by individual initiative or group action. At a certain point, someone said that this problem could only be solved if public authority were brought to bear, in the form of regulations to control the activities in question or taxation to raise the necessary revenues or direct administrative action on the part of the public authority in question. It was in this context also that many new public authorities were created, along with a variety of other institutions that defy easy characterization. On the ground, what we see now (or in any earlier era) is not the state on the one hand and society on the other, but a panoply of institutions rooted in people’s efforts to deal with a variety of practical problems. These institutions are sui generis. They conform to no single pattern. State activity in relation to these institutions is second-order: a matter of rationalizing the allocation of authority, clarifying jurisdictions, providing resources, specifying responsibilities, and so on. So, the politics that occurs at the level of the state is a second-order politics that only makes sense in relation to the first-order politics that occurs on the ground where urban services and facilities have to be developed.

Most analysts assume that the second-order activities of the state are more significant because the state’s authority is superior and its geographical reach greater. In fact, to take rationalization as one example, what occurs by way of the establishment of professional norms and standards may be at least as significant universally and be as much an effect of “indisputable authority” as anything that emanates from the state. The political struggles around these norms and standards are of great significance. Those struggles are rarely mediated by the state. Instead, the state (and other authorities) must adapt to these evolving standards. With respect to the familiar urban services, the basic form of the school, the hospital, the paved road, the sewerage system, and even the police force had to be worked out politically, but the venues in which that politics occurred were not legislative assemblies or ministerial cabinets (at least not for the most part). If we ask how the infrastructure of the modern city developed, we are led to many different sites of initiative, innovation, collaboration, competition, and political dispute, sites networked to one another in ways that do not correspond to the hierarchy of the state. So, the ontology of urban politics (the politics that generates the city as we know it) is quite different from the one presented by the familiar political ontology of the state. There is no obvious centre to urban politics, no Archimedean point from which the political universe can be moved, and no place whose political significance is guaranteed in advance. Where is the best place to act? That depends on the nature of one’s concerns and on the particular configuration of forces in that time and place. We cannot know the answer in advance.

An analyst might argue that what happens at the level of the city is only one aspect of what happens more generally, and that “high politics” occurs at a different level altogether. This is simply to repeat the statist mythology, however. If cities are globally networked — as they evidently are — then they are not “below” states. They are not contained “within” states, either. (This is most obviously the case with respect to places like New York City, but even small communities have a presence in the world that transcends their immediate physical boundaries, thanks to economic, social, cultural, and political links with people elsewhere.) The infrastructure of the modern state is essentially urban, and hence what is “of the state” is also “of the urban” and vice versa. To think the political through the urban rather than through the state is not to put the traditional questions of high politics aside. It is instead to ask how these questions appear in relation to all the other questions of urban life.[18]

Is the imminent bird flu pandemic a matter of less concern than the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the adoption of terror tactics by political dissidents, the breakdown of order in major cities, the failure to control greenhouse gases, the immigration of the poor to the cities from the countryside, the lack of economic development in many parts of the world, the intensification of state and private security measures, or the general inadequacy of current mechanisms of democratic accountability? It would be hard to judge. It is clear, however, that each of these issues could well be considered a matter of high politics, if the human consequences of the issues concerned were our measure. The latter is not the measure suggested by the political ontology of the state, however. If something is crucial to the state, then it is a matter of high politics; if not, not. This trivializes the matter, by making any politics that eludes or transcends the state “low” by definition and insignificant by implication.

The truth is that a God-figure is concealed in the conventional political ontology of the state. The notion of an “ultimate” authority or a “supreme” legislature is obviously borrowed from monotheistic understandings of the order of things. Because the state is imagined to have God-like powers, its significance is magnified, but in a way which is ultimately self-defeating. Although the state stands in place of God, it evidently is not God: it clearly lacks God-like powers. Because it cannot deliver on the sovereign power implicit in its own rationale, its ultimate authority seems hollow. Thus, we have people drifting away from the state and hence from politics as they conceive it, because the state/politics appears impotent. They may engage with the particular problems of urban life in other ways, inventing or supporting public services and facilities at one remove from the state or helping to develop regulatory practices that extend through the networks of everyday life. On the other hand, they may despair of the problems and reframe them in religious terms. This is the ground on which apocalyptic scenarios are laid out. Some of these scenarios bring the state back in, as the faithful are called to turn the supreme secular authority to their purposes.

Many critiques of contemporary politics turn on a demand that we return to the old secular faith, a faith in the state as the ultimate redeemer. This demand is keyed to the idea that democratic politics is the field in which questions of right and wrong are appropriately joined. Democracy is supposed to overwhelm evil, and enable us to work out the good life for ourselves. The state is the imaginary centre at which our efforts come together, enabling us to deploy the good that we embody to the very limits of our power and authority. To lack faith in the state is to lack faith in ourselves as a sovereign people, a people capable of remaking its life in accordance with its own ideal of the good life. But, of course, such a faith is difficult to sustain. What is the alternative? I want to suggest that the alternative is in the various activities that make urban life more bearable. None of these activities is sovereign. There is no privileged place where we have to engage politically. Nonetheless, there are many places where we can act productively and where we have to be politically aware to be productive. The conventional political imaginary induces us to think that in turning from the state we are turning from politics. As a result, we know not what we do politically. It is not that people are turning away from politics, but that they have such a statist sense of what politics is that they have trouble understanding the fields of activity in front of them in political terms. This is profoundly disabling.

Let us be clear about what is at stake. The question is not whether the state is withering away, morphing into a new shape, or returning to its old form. Nor is the question whether we should or should not act through the state. There is no reason to think that the state is about to disappear or that the venues it offers lack promise. The issue is how we are to conceive of our politics. Is our politics to be centred on the state or on the practices of self-government that enable cities to flourish?

The Political Becomes Otherwise

The idea that the political can be otherwise than state-centric is not new. In fact, it has been a constant theme in recent years, as various groups have focused on issues that others have tried to set outside politics proper. The disputed exclusions (women’s issues and environmental issues, for example) were often justified on the grounds that the state lacked the authority or capacity to deal with the matters raised, matters that were properly within the ambit of society or culture or private business. So, to say that these exclusions had to be overcome (as feminists and environmentalists have done) was to say that politics had to transcend the state. This move was and is crucial because it enabled people to see that the line between the political and the non-political is not the same as the line between the state and society. One can be politically active in the state, in society, or in an indeterminate zone that seems as much one as the other. Is that not the meaning of what we call “social” movements, ones that defy the existing political limits, and establish spaces for political action that connect ordinary people with the wider world in innovative ways?[19] Once these spaces are claimed, don’t new authorities arise, ones that have a powerful call on adherents and pose a challenge to the existing authorities? Although the more dramatic (or dangerous) movements catch our attention, there are many others that generate authorities quietly and establish important new spaces for politics in the process.

Political authority takes many shapes, not only in the sense that Weber indicated in his famous system of classification, but also in the sense that authorities of different sorts emerge out of various practices of government and self-government and take forms quite particular to the purposes at hand. The authorities that deal with child abuse are not like the ones that deal with recycling. The individual who is called to take responsibility for child protection is not exactly the same individual who is enjoined to take responsibility for his or her own wastes. Different subjects or citizens are called into being by different practices, as are authorities with specific mandates and jurisdictions. Although there may be similarities between the various networks of government and self-government, there is never a complete identity. Thus, there is no single model for politics that carries from one field to the next. This is one of the main lessons of recent social movement politics, but it is also a lesson implicit in discussions of governmentality and globalization, which highlight the amorphousness of both phenomena. The space of the political is multiform, changeable, and ultimately so chaotic that it is not subject to sovereign control. Thus, the Augustinian imperative implicit in sovereigntist politics is a snare and a delusion.

Most of the political authorities within contemporary networks of government and self-government actually make no pretence to sovereignty. They are just “local,” in a geographic sense and otherwise. Although they claim regulatory authority and demand autonomy, they tend to concede that their authority and autonomy is not exclusive. Overlapping authorities are the norm. They interfere with one another less than they might, because they differentiate themselves from one another qualitatively. They see themselves as authorities of different types, and often co-exist with remarkable harmony. Even rivals can work out boundaries without too much difficulty when they lack the capacity to destroy one another. So, the universe of contemporary political authorities is highly differentiated. It cannot be mapped on the assumption that all political authority comes from a single centre, such as a constitution, a supreme legislature, or an imperial power. We can arrange the various authorities in a hierarchy (as sovereigntist/Augustinian thinking encourages us to do), but that will not tell us where the important centres of power are.

The municipality is an especially important model in this context, because it is an integrative, but non-sovereign political authority. The fact that the municipality is the normative political form of the city (just as the state is the normative political form of the nation) is significant. It suggests that a self-governing city should not be a city-state that claims sovereignty but rather a municipality that enables self-government more generally, something it can do by facilitating citizen participation, connecting authorities of different sorts with one another, and stimulating innovation. If there is a model for global governance, it is to be found in the city and hence in the municipality, rather than in the nation-state. Not only is the municipal form of political organization more consonant with urbanism as a way of life — and hence with the emergent global order — but also it embodies practices that come out of our mundane requirements rather than demands for personal, national, or global salvation. The very modesty of the municipality is its virtue. In so far as it is not sovereign, it is not a God-figure, and its limitations are a constant reminder of the necessity of being modest in our objectives and practical in our orientation. There is no promise of transcendence in the municipality, although there is the possibility of acting together on matters of common concern. These matters may carry municipal leaders well beyond the bounds of their own municipality. This need not involve conflict with the state, since municipalities exist in a qualitatively different political space.[20] Of course, I am well aware of the claim — backed by the superior courts in most countries — that municipalities are just creatures of the state and hence prisoners within the political spaces of the state system. This claim is an inevitable consequence of the logic of state sovereignty. Current European discussions of the principle of subsidiarity replay this logic in a familiar way, reaffirming the hierarchy even in articulating a rationale for decentralization. Nonetheless, the idea of a municipality as a political entity of a different type remains with us, especially here in North America. A hundred years ago, it was common to talk of the municipality as a “joint-stock company” belonging to the people of the community concerned. (Was it enough to live in the community concerned or did one have to be a property-owner to be a full share-holder?) This conception pointed back toward the medieval origins of cities as centres of commerce and industry. On the other hand, there was a companion view that invoked the folk-moots of Saxon England or the warrior-assemblies of the Germans that Tacitus had described. Although the connection was rarely made at the time, these moots, assemblies, or meetings of the village, town, or parish were obviously similar to the ones that brought non-European peoples together in their villages, clans, or wider groupings. In the decades before the First World War, it was commonly argued that municipalities had to take the lead in dealing with the problems of urban-industrial life and that their strength lay in their capacity to organize people for purposes of local self-government. The presumption was that the state was at a distance, and that the practical problems of urban-industrial life required political authorities of a different type: more intimate, participatory, and immediately rooted. Although advocates of municipal autonomy usually deferred to the logic of state sovereignty (and so conceded that municipal authorities could only be lesser authorities within the order of the state, subject to the higher law of the state), there remained an element of defiance, which was reflected in ideas like municipal socialism. Even the idea that the municipality was a joint-stock company suggested that municipal governments were somehow outside the order of sovereignty.

To think of the municipality as a political authority outside the order of sovereignty is to suggest that its roots are in the ubiquitous practices of local self-government rather than in the state as such. It is to pick up on Weber’s conception of the city as a sphere of “non-legitimate domination”: non-legitimate precisely in the sense that is outside the order of sovereignty. As Weber’s phrase suggests, the order of the city is not necessarily benign, but the delusion of sovereigntist thinking is that we can free ourselves from domination by submitting to the absolute authority of the state. The alternative view is that political authority can be multiple in its forms and purposes, and that qualitatively different authorities can co-exist without any over-arching authority to regulate their relations. This is not anarchism. Quite the contrary, one might use the term polyarchy to describe it, had Robert Dahl not already used that term to refer to a pluralistic order of sovereignty.[21] The point is that the complexity of urbanism as a way of life is such that government must take various forms if it is to be effective, and that these various forms can co-exist with one another because they differ in their character as well as in their scale of operations. The notion of “side-by-side” authority is helpful in understanding this relation, but it can be misleading if it suggests that the authorities in question exist in comparable spaces. If authorities are qualitatively different from one another, they occupy spaces that are not strictly comparable. In Canada, aboriginal authorities have been claiming a space that is incommensurable with the space of the Canadian state. What that means in the end has still to be negotiated, but this much is clear: Canadian sovereignty does not limit the aboriginal right of self-government. How can that be? Aboriginal self-government exists in a different domain from the domain of the Canadian state, so that even if it touches on some of the same matters — housing, education, social services — it functions autonomously.[22] The analogy may be with the way that familial authority or corporate authority functions in a different domain from that of the state. A municipal authority, like an aboriginal authority, is more obviously political. To the extent that it asserts itself as an autonomous authority existing in a space of its own — a space of local self-government — it sets itself apart from the state and opens up political possibilities that cannot be contained within the order of the state or the state system. American municipalities that have committed themselves to the Kyoto Accord have recognized this, following the example of many other previous initiatives.[23]

The political form appropriate to urbanism as a way of life is not the monopolistic state but a pluralistic order characterized by proliferating practices of local self-government. The municipality relates these practices to one another within a particular geographical territory, but it lacks the capacity to impose a sovereign order. Practices of local self-government spill over municipal boundaries, relate municipalities to one another and to authorities of other kinds, and divide the various municipalities from within. Municipalities exist within the domain of local self-government: they do not order it as sovereigns. Thus, the practices of non-sovereign government — and hence polyarchal political authority in the proper sense — are implicit in the relations within and between municipalities. The fact that municipalities have usually been overwhelmed by sovereign state authority is certainly important, but not as important as we usually imagine. Practices of local self-government are actually quite robust. They have to be: otherwise, cities could not exist. To see this is to see the possibilities of globalism in a new way. The fact that we cannot have a world-state or a federation of republics on the American model is not a matter for despair. On the contrary, it suggests that hopes for our future lie in the practices that generate urban order without resort to sovereignty. These are the practices that provide us with most security — whatever the advocates of the gun may suggest to the contrary.

Notes

[1] Compare William E. Connolly, The Augustinian Imperative, Newbury Park, CA: SAGE, 1993.

[2] The ongoing conflict in Sri Lanka is one reminder of this, as is the legacy of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia.

[3] The phrase, “urbanism as a way of life,” is from a famous 1938 article by Louis Wirth, reprinted in his On Cities and Social Life, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964. Compare Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003 (originally published published in French in 1970). Simon Parker, Urban Theory and the Urban Experience: Encountering the City, London: Routledge, 2004, offers a useful overview of the development of urban theory. See also Richard T. LeGates and Frederic Stout, eds., The City Reader, 3rd ed., London and New York: Routledge, 2003.

[4] Compare Paul L. Knox and Peter J. Taylor, eds., World Cities in a World-System, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, and Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo, rev. ed., Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

[5] Marshall McLuhan’s concept of the “global village” anticipates this idea: Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: Signet, 1964). I develop the idea in a way pertinent to this discussion in “Social Movements and the Global City,” Millennium: Journal of International Studies, XXIII:3 (Winter 1994), 621-45, and “Politicizing the Global City,” Democracy, Citizenship, and the Global City, ed. Engin Isin, (London: Routledge, 2000), 289-306.

[6] Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

[7] Compare Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future, London: Faber, 1961.

[8] Nor is it an argument for reducing the scale of the state to that of the city. A city-state is not inherently superior to a nation-state.

[9] Compare Bruce B. Lawrence, ed., Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden, London: Verso, 2005, and Michael Ignatieff, ed., American Exceptionalism and Human Rights, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

[10] Most recent accounts, such as Agamben’s, follow Carl Schmitt in this regard. They confuse politics with a certain concept of it, produced by sovereignty. Compare Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998, and Chantal Mouffe, ed., The Challenge of Carl Schmitt, London: Verso 1999.

[11] Max Weber, Economy and Society, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978, vol. 2, ch. 16.

[12] For example, see Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Empire, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

[13] Compare Nikolas Rose, Powers of Freedom: Reframing Political Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

[14] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, New York: Rinehart & Co, 1944.

[15] Friedrich A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, London: Routledge, 1998, vol. 2, p. 109. Compare The Constitution of Liberty, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

[16] See, however, Jens Bartelson, A Genealogy of Sovereignty, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, and The Critique of the State, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

[17] See especially Jon C. Teaford, The Unheralded Triumph: City Government in America, 1870-1900, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

[18] The difficulties that urbanists have had with these issues post-9/11 are reflected in two symposia: Urban Affairs Review 37:3 (2002), pp. 460-67, and International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 27.3 (2003), pp. 649-98. See also Hank V. Savitch, “Does 9-11 portend a new paradigm for cities?” Urban Affairs Review 39.1(2003), pp. 103-27. In my view, most urbanists still think the political in statist terms, despite their commitment to urban analysis. Compare William Finnegan, “The Terrorist Beat: How is the N.Y.P.D. defending the city?” The New Yorker, 25 July 2005. Finnegan’s analysis makes clear that the actual struggle to deal with terrorist threats to New York City is led by the municipal police department, a department that necessarily thinks locally and acts globally.

[19] Compare William K. Carroll, ed., Organizing Dissent: Contemporary Social Movements in Theory and Practice, 2nd ed., Toronto: Garamond Press, 1997.

[20] I have explored the implications of this idea in a trio of recent articles focused on the Canadian situation: “Are Municipalities Creatures of the Provinces?” Journal of Canadian Studies, 39:2 (Spring 2005), 5-29, “Urbanism, cities and local self-government,” Canadian Public Administration, 48:1 (Spring 2005), 96-123, and “Protecting the Right of Local Self-Government,” Canadian Journal of Political Science, 38:4 (December 2005), 1-26.

[21] Robert A. Dahl, Polyarchy; Participation and Opposition, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971.

[22] Compare James Tully, Strange Multiplicity: Constitutionalism in the Age of Diversity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

[23] See http://www.ci.seattle.wa.us/mayor/climate/ for the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement of 13 June 2005. I have discussed a number of the earlier initiatives in The Search for Political Space: Globalization, Social Movements and the Urban Political Experience, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996, ch. 11.

Warren Magnusson teaches urban politics and political theory at the University of Victoria, Canada. Among his books are The Search for Political Space (1996) and A Political Space: Reading the Global through Clayoquot Sound (2003), with Karena Shaw.