Cities vs States: Should Urban Citizenship be Emancipated from Nationality?

Introduction to Special Forum by Rainer Bauböck: “Since the first decade of the millennium – for the first time in human history – more people are living in urban areas than in rural ones. According to UN projections, in 2050 the share of urban populations could rise to more than two thirds of the world population. Will this demographic change also lead to a decline of nation-states and a rise of cities as the dominant arenas of politics, democracy and citizenship? My response will be ambivalent.

Yes, cities should play a greater role in addressing global problems, such as the climate crisis or international refugee protection, where sovereign states have failed dismally precisely because their sovereignty hampers cooperative solutions. Yes, cities should experiment vigorously with democratic innovations that could diminish the severe legitimacy crisis experienced by representative democracy in many countries around the world. Yes, cities should determine who their citizens are independently of how states do this.

No, contrary to the catchy title of the late Ben Barber’s book (2013), mayors should not rule the world. No, cities cannot replace nation-states and supranational institutions as political arenas that need to be filled with democratic life and to whom citizens can feel to belong. No, national citizenship should not be based on the same principle of membership as urban citizenship.

We need a new citizenship narrative

There are two reasons for my ambivalence. The first is my belief that the global problems that the international system of sovereign states is unable to address require a multilevel political architecture, in which supranational, regional and local political authorities play different but complementary roles. The European Union, in spite of its many structural weaknesses and policy failures, shows how state sovereignty can be pooled. Multilevel democracy beyond the nation-state is a European idea that is worth promoting in other world regions. Yet multilevel democracy requires also that citizenships at various territorial levels must be complementary and not substitutive.

The second reason has to do with the ‘democratic recession’ (Diamond 2015) and the rise of populism. According to many diagnoses these threats result from new political cleavages that cut across the traditional one between left and right (Kriesi et al. 2008). The new divisions are between attitudes in favour of more open or more closed states and societies; between those embracing cultural and gender diversity and those asserting conservative national and religious values; between those who worry about the climate crisis and those who worry about their traditional ways of life. The former are overwhelmingly concentrated in metropolitan regions and university towns, the latter are more widely dispersed across rural areas and declining industrial towns as well as working class neighbourhoods of larger cities. This divide is also closely associated with patterns of increasing geographic mobility among younger urban populations that disconnects their spaces of opportunity and imagined identities from those of sedentary majority populations whose life worlds remain predominantly local and national ones.

Liberals and democrats may hope that the growth of urban populations and the persistence of more open attitudes among younger cohorts will eventually swing the political pendulum towards greater openness (Lutz 2012). However, current electoral systems often give greater weight to voters outside the big cities (Rodden 2019), enabling political victories of illiberal populists who can wreak havoc by destroying democratic institutions and the capacity of states to tackle the global challenges of our time. The response cannot be just to politically mobilise those who are already in favour of more open societies – although it is certainly very important to do so. Radical democrats (Mouffe 2005) emphasize the need for partisan mobilisation and radical urbanists (Bookchin 1987; Harvey 2008) pitch the city as a site of struggle against neoliberal capitalism or a laboratory for emancipatory democracy and ecological utopias against the nation-state. Beyond mobilisation that articulates and deepens the new cleavages, there is, however, an urgent need for new narratives that can bridge them.

Such narratives have been successfully told in the past when democracies faced new challenges. And they focused on the idea of a common citizenship – as a status and bond that is able to support a sense of equality and unity in difference. After World War Two the British sociologist T. H. Marshall (1949/1965) justified the effort to build a welfare state in response to intolerable inequalities of social class, the acceptance of which had been undermined by the sacrifices of ordinary British people during the war. His story was that after the emergence of universal civil rights in the 18th century and political rights in the 19th, 20th century democracy needed social citizenship, i.e. a floor of social equality provided through public services and redistribution that could provide legitimacy for the inequality of social outcomes in capitalist markets….(More)”.