[Previously on Tychy: (1/5) “The Case for Scottish Nationalism.”]
The Case for the City-State.
Picture the future. Whenever science-fiction manufactures visions of utopian or dystopian societies, one familiar attribute of the modern world is always missing: the nation. Future societies usually consist of sprawling mega-cities, with the traditional national president or parliament gone and a vaguely corporate, distinctly municipal authority in their place. Superhero fiction, which characteristically imports sci-fi scenarios into the present, likewise finds everything that it needs within the city. Superman and Batman both inhabit a “metropolis” which is recognisably modelled upon present-day New York, whilst in the Spiderman mythos this city appears without a pseudonym. The rest of America remains, if anything, a residual or ghostly presence in the background.
The future, or the futuristic present, does not include nations because the countryside is generally out of place in the future, and if you edit the countryside out of the nation then you are left with a handful of cities. It is difficult to set any story in a handful of cities, and one sci-fi city is the same as any other, and so sci-fi narratives typically abbreviate the nation to a single city, which comes to signify the entire future.
Sci-fi often flatters us with the idea that the future will be greatly more efficient than the present, with the city traffic freed from the roads to fly about like birds and sweaty manual labourers replaced with polite robots. Yet the nation does not belong in such a future because it is intrinsically inefficient. This wheezing geopolitical entity, with its hodgepodge of dissimilar economies and cumbersome cultural baggage, cannot plausibly play host to the sleek corporate systems of the space age.
However elaborately hierarchical or aimlessly sprawling the city may be in practice, it always posits a neat, conceptual whole. In this way, the city comes with its own sense of justice, a sort of innate legitimacy. The city nonetheless remains less conceptual than the nation, in being built out of bricks rather than assembled from laws and treaties; and this physicality gives it the natural completeness of the colonies and superorganisms which rise, themselves like cities, throughout the insect world. The word “civilisation” derives from civis – the same root as for civitas, the city-state – and, paradoxically, the city may seem to be both more civilised and more natural than the nation. The city expels the rustic and the lawless, whilst the nation is obliged to accommodate them. The former licenses a dichotomy of Manichean beauty: the gleaming city and its dark, luxurious shadow. With the state concentrated in the city, the countryside becomes an unregulated place, a setting for the Arcadian panic of Pan and the revels of Bacchus.
We behold the nation always in parenthesis, with city-states at the beginning and the end of the story. The glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome respectively began with poleis and a civitas. The historian Richard Mackenney has proposed that the city-states of antiquity exerted “one of the chief conceptual and linguistic influences on the greatest work of Christian political thought, St Augustine’s Civitas Dei.” St Augustine’s portrayal of heaven as a city-state was extrapolated from recurring Biblical prophesies about the New Jerusalem: an ideal, divine and radically magnified copy of the original, which would float out of heaven at the end of days. The New Jerusalem had much in common with the Garden of Eden, with each containing the River and the Tree of Life, but enough civilisation had been scraped together by then to make dwelling for eternity in a “garden” unpalatable to the godly. The New Jerusalem is essentially a stroke of science-fiction and subsequent futuristic cities, from Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun (1602) to the Jetsons’ Orbit City (1962) would steadily secularise this prototype.
After 1000AD, medieval towns and cities, with their corporations and guilds, rejuvenated the classical model of the autonomous republic. To our eyes they may seem proto-bourgeois, with their laws and liberties offering a more moderate alternative to princely caprice; and with their flourishing markets providing the systems which surrounded them with examples of futuristic economies. Other historians, such as Bernd Moeller, have argued that the apparent liberties of medieval cities were offset by a heady religious communalism. The modern concept of sovereignty actually emerged from the absolutist regimes which would extinguish Europe’s free cities like candles. In this respect the beginning of the modern nation state corresponded with a new Dark Ages. Medieval cities had ultimately lost an arms race; they could not match the assorted professional armies of Princes, Dukes, and Emperors. Mackenney has posed the decisive question, “What monarch feared a city-state in 1700?”
The model was not completely extinguished though, and once princely sovereignty had been superseded by popular sovereignty, city-states continued to twinkle, here and there, like stars in the daylight. The historian Geoffrey Parker notes the irony that “just as the city-state became defunct in Europe, it emerged on the world scene for the first time as a global phenomenon.” Hong Kong and Singapore in the Far East, and the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East, reconciled the functions which they had been assigned within the British Empire with the ideal of the futuristic city.
Despite this visionary imagery, the appeal of the city-state for one lamenting the contemporary decline of popular sovereignty may be principally nostalgic. To return to the city may seem like a retreat. The political commentator Jan Zielonka has indeed claimed that the European Union:
is not an empire like contemporary America or nineteenth century Britain. Its polycentric governance, fuzzy borders and soft forms of external power projection resemble the system we knew in the Middle Ages, before the rise of nation-states, democracy, and capitalism.
Zielonka concedes that medievalism is often viewed as “a symbol of chaos and conflict,” but he counters that “for someone living in the medieval cities of Florence and Oxford the medieval story is more positive.” He ventures that “a flexible neo-medieval empire in concentric circles would be in a better position than a European state to cope with the pressures of modernization and globalization.” But even though the city-state has enjoyed repeated comebacks and periods of renewed credibility – in outliving marauding barbarians, princely armies and even the British Empire – it is difficult to see what it can offer the modern world by way of a replicable model. Does the city-state remain merely a glamorous dream, or will it one day add the nation to its list of vanquished enemies?
Modern readers of the One Thousand and One Nights may assume that this medieval story cycle unveils a dazzling cast of city-states, but cities such as eighth century Baghdad subscribed to the Abbasid Caliphate to be protected from greater powers (including the Caliphate itself). Cities around the world would later learn to appreciate the advantages of collaborating with nations: securer markets, more impressive infrastructure, and economic opportunities for those lucky enough to be favoured with courtly patronage. The logic is now reversed. Where once it had made economic sense for the city to trade in its sovereignty within the nation, now the nation increasingly subtracts from the city’s wealth. In other words, the city-state is advanced to the forefront of geopolitics simply because it is not a nation. Today the city is virtuous because it is freed from the nation’s congenital economic and cultural defects.
[Next: “The Case for the City.”]