By Dr. Tomas Ries
Cities are among the oldest major political actors on the planet. At one time – the Greek city states and the Roman Empire – they ran the show, as the main actors able to concentrate and administer power. With the spread of kingdoms and empires cities as independent political actors declined, ending definitively when they were swallowed by the all-encompassing power of states. Cities remained one the crown jewels of the state, but they did not own, or control, the treasure chest.
Today globalisation has broken open the treasure chest and eroded much of the states’ former exclusive control of the contents. Instead, many of the crown jewels are assuming a life of their own. Currently, the two treasures left under the exclusive control of the state are military power and territory, notably including the natural resources embedded in that territory. Elite states also retain an ability to simultaneously manage broad multifaceted challenges that few other actors have. However the state has lost two key jewels. First, the former exclusive political authority of the state is gone. It must now share legitimacy with empowered civil societies with increasingly independent identities, whose citizens and agendas transcend national boundaries, and that have tremendous powers to sway voters and consumers. Second, control over economic production and its technological foundations– the bloodstream of society – has passed to transnational corporations with a global mobility and presence that again transcend the authority of any single state.
Two deep technological trends have enabled this shift. First, the metamorphosis and multiplication of physical communications, giving rise to economic, technological and social flows that transcend state boundaries and control. Second, the revolution in information communications, which has empowered individuals as never before. With internet+ the power to spread information that twenty years ago was the exclusive domain of the state and the big national media corporations is now available to billions of individuals. Simultaneously, scientific and technological know-how is now percolating down to broader parts of society. The same empowerment applies, in a darker fashion, to organised crime and transnational revolutionary movements which are also becoming powerful non-state actors.
In this globalising world cities so far have not assumed a political role. They continue to serve as the central platforms where the significant action takes place but they remain the servants of the state, business and society. Three factors are likely to change this.
First, vitality. In our world of rising transnational flows, cities, rather than states, are the central nodes of vitality in the global network. The key social, economic and technological flows now go between cities, not states. While states retain regulatory powers over the flows, they no longer steer the flows themselves, and, on a deeper level, they are no longer the context in which these economic flows take place. Instead, the key economic, technological and social threads come together in the cities, and directly between cities. These vital nodes, which we may call the alpha-cities, are replacing the state as the focal point of social and economic attention. Human vitality is now centred on cities, not states.
Second, expanded horizons. In yesterday’s world a city’s vital concerns ended at the city boundaries. Thereafter the state took over. In today’s liquid world of rapid transnational flows, the concerns of the alpha-city are global. For New York, what happens in the tribal areas of Pakistan is of immediate and existential importance. Today’s alpha-cities have increasingly urgent global vital interests ranging from security to migration to infrastructure. They have a vital stake in world affairs, and if the state cannot satisfy these needs, then they must develop them themselves.
Third, global urbanisation. Cities are now the main human habitat on the planet, and cities are swelling to megacities and urban sprawls with populations that surpass most states. Cities will thus dominate the global social and political scene not only as the key vital nodes, but also in terms of sheer numbers. This however also means that not all cities will be alpha-cities. The world will include a huge share of megaslums, existing on the margins of the vitality networks and with miserable living conditions. They will emerge as the key centres of instability. If the positive action will focus on the alpha-cities, the transnational tensions from megaslums will emerge as one of our main political security challenges.
The above three factors indicate the rising global role and weight of cities as platforms, but say little about the city itself as a political actor. The fourth factor, which will affect this, is who will ensure that the megacities’ vital interests are met. These interests now exceed city and even national boundaries, including critical regional and global security challenges, infrastructure services, social flows, relations with other actors, and so forth. So far, the state has provided these services for the cities within its boundaries. As long as the state continues to do so the alpha-city may remain content to continue to act as a platform, focussing on providing as attractive and efficient a habitat and workplace for others as possible. However even at this minimum level, the city will become a far more powerful actor vis a vis the state, transforming national politics. A second possibility is that the state can no longer provide the transnational services that the alpha-cities require. In this case the Alpha-cities will have no choice but to secure these interests themselves. And they will have the human and economic resources to do so, quite possible exceeding what the state has to offer. In this case, key Alpha-cities will emerge as major global political (and security) actors in their own right.
The alpha-city is emerging as a powerful stakeholder with vital global interests, including political and security. If the state can no longer ensure these interests then the alpha-city will have no choice but do so on its own, or in consort with other alpha-cities. This rise of the alpha-city as a major global political actor is the first revolution.
The second revolution, or set of seething revolutions, is likely to be in the global megaslums. The social tensions here are likely to be the main seedbed of tomorrow’s transnational challenges, generating ever strong revolutionary tensions and more powerful criminal networks.
None of this means that the state is over. As noted above, states today are still the most powerful military actors, and states remain the owners of the natural resources on their territories. In a world of increasing ecological scarcity the latter is no mean treasure. However, globally the social and economic centres of gravity are now shifting to the alpha-cities with increasingly global interests. And where the vitality and money goes, power tends to follow. And where the money is missing, and people mass, revolutions tend to explode.
Dr. Tomas Ries is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Security and Strategy at the Swedish National Defence College in Stockholme.