Over 2000 years ago democracy was born in the Greek polis. The American political theorist and author, Benjamin Barber, wants to take it back there. His recent book, If Mayors Ruled the World, proposes a global parliament of mayors to solve the fundamental challenges we are facing today.
The nation state has become outdated. The leaders of countries struggle in a world where issues such as terrorism, global warming, finance and health are undefined by the borders drawn in a different age. I interviewed Benjamin Barber when he visited Bristol to deliver a speech at the Wills Memorial Building. In a day he had travelled from New York to London to Bristol, spreading the word that the world should be governed from the city.
'The United Nations is a disunited nations' he tells me. 'The nation state was a great idea and has served us well, but we live in a different world now'. When despots and unelected monarchies ruled, the nation state was a revolutionary idea. The world is now interdependent. This means that countries are not separate things, but closely linked by trade, people, culture and the internet. Dr Barber said 'after all, it is not the English Web, or the Bristol Web, but the World Wide Web'. What connects everyone is not David Cameron wrestling with Putin or Merkel playing table tennis with Obama. It is not the G8, G7, G20, G2 or any other international institution. What connects everyone is cities.
'For the first time ever more people live in urban rather than rural areas' Dr Barber informs me. Countries divide people. The relationships shared between nations are riddled with historical baggage and political machinations. The relationships between cities are ones of mutual exchange. Dr Barber goes on to explain that 'networks already exist between cities, but what's missing is a network of networks'. The United Cities and Local Governments(UCLG) is just one example of a network where not nations, but Mayors and local leaders are working together. 'But aren't Mayors just driven by the same motivations as national leaders?' I asked Dr Barber. 'The short answer, no' he replied.
'Mayors are self-interested, but the interests of cities are the same, Bristol wouldn't go to war with Buenos Aires' he replied jokingly. Nations have fixed identities and traditions. Cities are often multicultural, dynamic and centres of innovation. Of course cities do have their problems. The problems that cities face, however, are shared across the world. Mayors are better suited to solving these problems rather than presidents or prime ministers, because they are closer to the action.
'There is not a Republican or Democratic way of fixing the sewers' Dr Barber claims. The day to day running of a city or metropolis relies on things getting done or fixed. A city is a complex piece of machinery which needs all the cogs to keep turning in order to function. There is no time for ideology. As Barber puts it'Mayors are pragmatists'. The approval rates of national leaders are dismally low, yet when citizens are asked about Mayors, there is more optimism. Mayors are often from the place where they govern. They know the people and the city.
George Ferguson, the first elected mayor of Bristol, replied to Dr Barber after his speech. He said his favourite phrase was 'Mayors are neighbours'. Mr Ferguson is an independent figure who is unaligned to any party label. Known for wearing red trousers he describes himself an 'establishment rebel'. He seems to bear strong resemblance to the Mayor Dr Barber describes. Bristol is a city which can take a lot from what Dr Barber is saying.
I put it to Barber, that if this idea solves 21st century democracy, why not give this parliament legislative power? 'Because people won't respond positively to a top-down implementation of a new global institution.' That may be the case, but how does the academic see his own role in all this, is he sowing the seeds of future democracy? 'I see myself as a facilitator,' he said. From what I gather from this response, the idea of a global parliament of mayors is in some way a proposition for global democracy. He understands though that change can never be instant. To change institutions it has to be led by the people, namely the mayors who represent the people.
Democracy is in crisis. The obstacle we have to overcome is how to solve issues that transcend the boundaries of nations in the most democratic way possible. Benjamin Barber has created the framework for an institution which can bring about more optimism for the world. There is apathy, even antipathy towards the current state of politics which is constantly stuck in gridlock. 400 years ago the nation state suited our needs and somewhat solved our problems. Not anymore. If we do not alter the way we do things to match a changing world then democracy will be left behind.