South Africa could end up like Zimbabwe. Hans-Joachim Löwer

Mayors ruling the world? Let’s hope not.

If cities are more functional than national governments, should they take over global politics? The idea may sound appealing, but hardly makes sense.

At the end of September, the first planning session of the Global Parliament of Mayors took place in Amsterdam: a platform for mayors from across the world, triggered by Benjamin Barber’s book: “If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities”.

In this book the current political system and its leaders are dismissed as dysfunctional. Defined by borders and with an inevitable focus on national interests, they are not an effective vehicle to govern a world defined by interdependence. Mayors, presiding over cities with their more open, networked structure and cosmopolitan demographics, so the book argues, could do it better.

It is of no surprise that this book has been welcomed by the same political class as the one it praises: mayors. As was apparent during the first planning session of the GPM: a conference about mayors, for mayors, attended by mayors, moderated by mayors and hosted by a mayor, all triggered by a book about mayors.

Cities as a blueprint for global governance?

I recognize many of the book’s observations. Many mayors are impressive figures and time appears to be on their side. Nation states (particularly the large ones) have an increasingly hard time and, in the context of a process of globalization, cities, and particularly small city-states, increasingly emerge victorious. Cities have first-hand experience with many of the things that occur in globalization’s wake, such as immigration and cultural and religious diversity, and are generally less dogmatic and more practical in dealing with them.

So far so good.

For me, the problem arises when it is suggested to project the success of cities as a blueprint for global governance. I would argue that the current generation of mayors, described in the book, is successful precisely because they do not rule the world. They are successful because they are allowed to focus on smaller, more immediate, more local responsibilities, which means that their efforts by definition generate quicker and more visible results. To remove that focus by attributing global responsibilities to them would (probably) quickly undo that success. Yes, mayors are popular, but how much longer would they continue to be popular, once they would take on responsibilities currently allocated to national leaders? In any case, it remains questionable if popularity automatically equals competence to govern. Kings and Queens are generally a lot more popular than national politicians, but few of us would want to return to a system in which they rule.

Players cannot be expected to be referees

The current vitality of cities is largely based on the luxury that more heavy duty political responsibilities are kept at bay, and cities can thus opportunistically use the world as an arena in which they are players, free to engage in a game of global competition, without the excess baggage which nations (for very good reasons) find imposed upon themselves.

To quote the success of cities in the context of a globalized interdependent world as a reason for cities to also govern that world is in my view a huge conceptual mistake. In fact, I would argue the opposite: that the very success of cities by definition makes them less suited to play a role in global governance. Having success in the context of globalization is something very different than ensuring that globalization unfolds in a just and fair way. Players cannot be expected to be referees. To declare the victors the rulers is nothing short of enforcing the law of the jungle.

There is frequent reference to a “crisis of democracy”: “people no longer feel adequately represented by the elected governments of their (nation) state”, but how would that improve if mayors took over? Currently half of humanity lives in cities. That is in itself an impressive number, but it also means that the other half of humanity does not live in cities, which begs the question, if mayors indeed ruled the world, who would represent the other half? All nations combined cover all of humanity, the first thing a transferal of power to cities would achieve is that this number is cut in half – hardly an improvement.

Similarly, it is claimed that cities are a more effective vehicle to deal with global problems like climate change and migration, but somehow I fail to see how an escalation of world problems can ever be addressed through a de-escalation (from nation to city) of the scale of governance. Just as cities contain (only) half the world’s population, they also only hold half the answers to globalization’s challenges. Climate change is quoted as an example where cities hold the key, but I would argue that climate change is probably the worst possible example to argue for the governance of mayors. No matter how many electric vehicles we will have driving in our cities, their effect on CO2 emission reduction will remain negligible as long as that electricity will be generated by fossil fueled energy plants outside the borders of our cities.

Cities aren’t always democratic

Migration is another example. Cities are bastions of cultural and religious diversity, places where (im)migrants – even illegal ones – can exist with a relatively high degree of security and recognition. But what does this say about the phenomenon of migration as a whole? Why do people choose to move in such large numbers across the world, often at great risk? How else can this be explained other than as a desperate attempt to escape the fundamental asymmetries and disparities which characterize our globalized world.

Africa suffers an enormous brain drain as a result of migration, as did formerly communist countries of the eastern bloc after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Entire continents are being left to their own (increasingly dwindling) devices, unable to hold on to people, seeing the very disparity that inspires migration in the first place only further exacerbated as a result. No romantic portrayal of the city as a mosaic of mosaics contributes any substantial solution to large scale migration as a meanwhile daunting global reality. A too great idealization of the city’s current condition may well prove to be a dangerous legitimization of a deeply fraught mechanism. In short: it is true that cities demonstrate a certain creativity in the face of issues that occur in the wake of globalization, but that by no means makes the actions of cities a prescription for how to holistically deal with global problems. In terms of the current global challenges, cities mostly address symptoms, not root causes, since these are generally outside the realm of their competence.

Back to the question of democracy: how democratic are cities? In many countries the mayor is not an elected figure. In the Netherlands and in France for instance, mayors are appointed by the national government, often as a sign of appreciation for a role they once fulfilled within that government. In that sense, mayors resemble more the patriarchal leftover of a system of co-optation than the enlightened democratic popular figures portrayed in the book. In most countries voter turnouts for local elections are still significantly lower than those for national elections. In addition, when it comes to corruption and abuse of powers, mayors have an even worse track record than national leaders. There was no sign of Rob Ford, Toronto’s crack-smoking mayor, in Amsterdam, not in the GPM session, nor in the coffee shops…

What we call metropolises hardly exist

It remains difficult to imagine, given the current set-up of many cities, how a world governed by cities could pose a plausible alternative to a world governed by nations (other than replacing one dysfunctional system with another). It would appear that there can be no increased role for mayors without a fundamental rethink of the institution of mayoral power itself. A degree of self-reflection is needed, which will allow cities to come to terms with their own issues, before they assume a role, let alone a responsibility, in solving global issues.

Cities across the world face a lot of the same issues. However, most of these issues are almost never created by a lack of mandate in terms of global issues. It is not so much the relation between cities on a global scale that is the issue, but rather the relation with their immediate surroundings that plagues cities. To give an example: very few of what we call metropolises even exist as such.

We think of Moscow as Europe’s only megacity with a population of approximately 20 million, but that is actually the population of an administratively fragmented region that carries the same name. The actual mandate of the mayor of Moscow is limited to less than 10 million inhabitants. We think of Paris as a metropolis of ten million inhabitants, but in reality, the mayor of Paris presides only over two million inhabitants, leaving the rest of the metropolitan area a tapestry of congregated individual towns.

The scale of metropolises is generally such that they transcend the powers of a single mayor and attempts at larger administrative units generally hit a wall due to vested political interests, where, ironically, mayors find themselves arguing with other mayors. Paradoxically, urban planning efforts like Le Grand Paris or Big Moscow have only served to erode mayoral powers and reinforce the rule of the state: Grand Paris under the Élysée and Big Moscow under the Kremlin, with Hollande and Putin as respective winners. Only when cities themselves can seize the initiative in dealing with immediate surroundings, can they hope to act as true global powers. An enhanced role for mayors on a global stage might first have to result in fewer mayors – probably not a conclusion a happily symbiotic institution as the Global Parliament of Mayors is likely to draw.

Mayors dwelling on each other’s greatness

The idea of a Global Parliament of Mayors leaves one with an overwhelming sense of unclarity, even after the idea has gone public. What is the exact nature of this proposition? A parliament, or not a parliament? That is the basic summary of the discussion as it took place in Amsterdam. “A parliament, or perhaps rather a movement…” (Europe’s most notorious dictators have made interesting attempts in this direction…) The idea of the parliament was invented as a dialectical instrument to control power once the necessity to separate powers had been recognized: to pass, modify or reject laws proposed by Kings or governments. The central question here is: which power does this parliament control? Whose laws does or doesn’t it pass? To whom does it direct its difficult questions?

Without these questions answered, it remains difficult to identify a real use for the parliament other than being a self-congratulatory body in which mayors dwell on each other’s greatness until they have moved each other to tears. If the session in Amsterdam is anything to go by, the new parliament of mayors feels suspiciously similar to the former parliaments of Eastern Europe: an endorsement machine with free debate as its first casualty.

A combination of uncertainty and chaos

During the discussion, one notion was met with overwhelming consensus: the Parliament of Mayors should not be bureaucratic. But is the current, almost universal, aversion from bureaucracy really such a smart idea? In a world where institutions are weak and global agreements are increasingly precarious, it would seem that the most urgent global threat, more urgent than climate change and international migration, is that of an imminent collapse of the system itself. In that context, it is those who increasingly suffer the absence of rights secured on paper that should have our concern. To them bureaucracy might actually constitute an exhilarating prospect.

In such a context, I would not advocate a Parliament of Mayors to replace “an outdated institution such as the national parliament” (as suggested by one of the sessions members). I would prefer to give a new relevance to the notion of subsidiarity, in which the increased importance of cities is recognized and actively crafted, but where they are integrated in a global political system that clearly recognizes which decisions should be taken at which level. Cities are free to engage and exchange at whichever level they want, but that freedom they also enjoy under the current political system, the same system that has granted them the very freedoms which have allowed them to thrive.

I wonder what a world ruled by mayors would look like. My best guess is that it would probably be a combination of uncertainty, difficult choices and a fair amount of chaos: pretty much what we have now. There is of course always great publicity to be expected from the announcement of a grand overhaul, but I am afraid that in the current world, institutional stability, the system as it has evolved, even with all its flaws, might be an important asset to be preserved. In that sense, the proposition that mayors should rule the world through a global parliament of mayors feels like little more than a combination of recklessness and naiveté.


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