Photo by: Mirko Rastic of ROAR Magazine
Can the city revolutionize the way we work, trade, share, live and do politics? Seen as the great human project of the 21st century, a growing number of activists, politicians and scholars think it will, but the real question should be “how?”.
On the 10th of June 2018, a new Italian government, headed by the far-right party La Lega, refused docking to the NGO owned rescue boat ‘Aquarius’ in Italy’s naval ports. The boat was carrying 629 migrants from Africa, who were stranded at sea, while trying to make the perilous crossing from Africa to Europe. This spurred an open challenge from several southern cities’ mayors, including the mayors of Naples and Palermo, that called their local port authorities to disobey the government’s directives and allow the vessel to dock.
These two interconnected, democratically elected, political entities – the Italian Republic and the Metropolitan City of Naples (for example) - were caught in a political debate that exceeded rhetorical disagreements on policy into normative questions on sovereignty and political representation. The mayors of Naples and Palermo, amongst others, exhibit the growing idea that cities can impose legitimate sovereignty on their municipal boundaries and have normative obligations to their residents, and could become an ideological and political alternative to the state, specifically, a progressive alternative to the state, but also to capitalist markets and growing right-wing populism, as epitomised by the progressive DIEM25’s public statement on the affair: “Where national governments fail the test of humanity, cities must take the lead in showing us how to remain human”.
This is not a single incident, nor an outlier in an ordered and stable relationship. The mayors of Naples and Palermo are part of the urban grassroots movement network of ‘Fearless Cities’ that includes mayors and political leaders from cities such as Barcelona, Bologna, Warsaw, Rojava and more, who challenge the state’s authority on contested political policies, like closed borders or austerity.
Progressive agendas have become comfortable in the urban setting. Whether in the ‘Fearless Cities’ or even in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago who are setting their own immigration and welfare policies; or Seattle, Boston, Oslo, Cape Town, Tel Aviv and others laying their own goals of sustainable growth; cities are embracing progressive causes, pushing back on the state sovereignty on those issues, in their jurisdiction.
This is not exclusive to the left. Cities have become the subject of many political ideas, radical, progressive or conservative; putting the focus on urban politics and “the city”. These ideas go beyond conventional urban management policies and local governance, reimagining the city as an organized political agent – a polity. Moreover, a democratic polity – a ‘demos’.
But, the modern city was never designed to be the democratic manifestation of a territorial polity. A great liberal project, the modern city has limited political imagination, constricting its institutional design, scope and breadth to a hand-full of liberal interpretations of political authority, mainly to governance theory inspired or market-based approaches. Thus, creating a major tension between liberal and undemocratic institutional design and democratic and popular aspirations, prompting the question: Can ‘the city’ consolidate its new political power and reimagine itself and its institutions to create a truly democratic city?
Michael Ziv Kenet, Department of Political Science, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem