Over the past decades, the world has witnessed a constant decline of interest in “res publica,” evidenced by a dramatic decrease in voter turnout, involvement in political parties, and a general reluctance to engage in civic activities. At the same time, other types of participation, such as boycotts or initiatives related to global causes, continue to gain momentum, often buoyed and sustained by the power of the web. Here, both mainstream social media and novel “cause-related” platforms are spreading and proliferating, revealing that today’s netizens set their political agenda far from institutional channels.

In his latest book, “If Mayors Ruled the World”, Benjamin R. Barber suggests a crystal-clear answer to the current and global crisis of democracy, highlighting the need for a realignment of global governance to tackle the novel challenges of our newly interconnected world, but most of all calling for renewed involvement of the world’s citizens and cities in the global decision-making process.

Your book postulates that today’s cities are more collaborative entities than national governments and that they are better equipped to tackle global issues like climate, crime, technology, markets, communications, and public health than many states that declare wars or favor competition. At the same time, historical records and examples of cities that achieved state-like status – including Rome, Athens, or Sparta – do not necessarily suggest better or more peaceful governance. Do you think that cities would generally fare better without the involvement of national governments removing responsibilities and authority from the city?
As most challenges are interdependent, you also need interdependent responses. The cooperative behavior of cities has to do with their inherent nature. States are, by definition, territorial. When one expands, another loses ground. Cities do not flourish in terms of territorial expansion, but in terms of trade, entrepreneurship, creativity, transportation, culture, or exchange, making them naturally interdependent. They do not have natural borders. Cities are multi-cultural, while states are mono-cultural. Japan is Japanese, Tokyo is multi-cultural. 90 percent of cities are built around a waterway, what you might call their “H2O highway,” establishing a natural connection between one another. For states, growth is a zero-sum game; it is a race to the bottom. States steal another one’s industry by offering lower safety standards, involving children in production, and thus save money. For cities, on the other hand, interdependence is a win-win situation, a race to the top. They would not compete in terms of culture by having a cheaper and inferior opera house, for example!

The Colusseum in Rome, photo: albiedo/
The Colusseum in Rome, photo: albiedo/ photocase.com

Will there still be room for national governments in your proposed new global order?
I would never expect states to disappear. Cities will keep on operating in the context of their jurisdiction, but what is changing is who is solving the problems. Increasingly, cities are driving change, partially for demographic reasons. Just two years ago, and for the first time in human history, more than a half of the world’s population lived in cities. In the developed world, this accounts for 80 percent of the entire population. Four fifths of our global GDP is generated in cities. States will not disappear, but cities will become the world’s main problem solvers. For example, thirty years ago, New York had a major fiscal crisis and asked the Federal Government for help. Washington famously answered, “New York, drop dead; we are not going to help you.” Today, Washington approaches New York and Los Angeles for support to solve problems and to suggest new policies.

Besides consulting for mature democracies like the United States, Germany, or Italy, you have also been advising governments that are still in the process like Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Libya, and China. Against the background of recent protests and riots in the Arab world, which aspects did you focus on and what, in your opinion, do cities in these countries have to offer that the national governments simply could not achieve?
My work with non-democratic countries aims to inspire gradual bottom-up empowerment, making citizens feel that they have a stake in government. Once this is in place, you can create the foundations for a transition to real democracy. The obvious alternative would be to decapitate the leadership, something that is happening now in places like Egypt and Libya, but when you remove a dictatorship, you do not automatically get a democracy, but instability, anarchy, and civil war.

Peaceful daytime demonstrations heading towards Taksim park. Events of June 3, 2013, photo:
Peaceful daytime demonstrations heading towards Taksim park. Events of June 3, 2013, photo: Mstyslav Chernov (Self-photographed, http://mstyslav-chernov.com/), CC BY SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Talking about leadership, what are the qualities of a good mayor?
Good mayors are pragmatic administrators; they are problem-solvers. Last fall, they shut down the Federal Government – and nobody really noticed. But you cannot shut down cities. There would be no police, no schools, no firemen, no transportation, no hospital service. On a national level, you can have an ideological gridlock between left and right and stop working. At a city level, you cannot stop picking up the garbage or running buses just because there is an ideological disagreement with somebody at the city hall. A lot of the time, mayors are not even affiliated with any particular party, but call themselves independent like Bloomberg did in New York. They are from the neighborhood; I call them homies. Because of their pragmatic nature, no mayor has ever been elected to serve as president of the United States.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg in December 2013; photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York, CC BY 2.0 , via flickr

To reinforce the role of cities in global political discourse you propose a Parliament of Mayors. How many cities should be part of it and what would be its admission criteria?
The book devotes a whole, detailed chapter to this, but I could summarize a few crucial aspects. I envision a global parliament not as a government that gives orders, but as a voluntary, regular gathering of as many cities as wish to participate. A gathering to share best practices, to address global problems that states fail to address – like climate change or immigration –, and to create what I call opt-in policies that other cities could share. The idea would be to regroup cities depending on their number of residents, from small cities of three thousand to mega cities with more than thirty million inhabitants, and have them pick changing representatives to meet on behalf of the other cities in the group. The result would be a soft, not hard government that would serve as a mouthpiece for cities and their mayors. Right now, economic corporations, states, and the global media dominate public opinion.

You are the president and founder of the Interdependence Movement with a very ambitious motto, “globalize democracy or democratize globalization.” How can global citizens join in?
The interdependence movement creates the foundation for a global mayors’ parliament since the idea is to get ordinary citizens to understand that we live in an interdependent world. To show that the challenges we face, like pandemics or terrorism, all cross borders. So, it is a movement to impact public opinion and to bring together political leaders, religious leaders, and opinion leaders in a global city every year. We have already done this in cities like Mexico City, Rome, Philadelphia, Istanbul, and Melbourne, with probably London to follow this year. September 12, the day after 9/11 that destroyed our interdependence, has been designated Interdependence Day – a day for people from all over the world to meet local leaders and talk about our common challenges.

Interdependence Day 2012, photo: Benjamin R. Barber
Interdependence Day 2012, photo: Interdependence Movement

Your movement could also address the need for political participation and representation of a generation of new globetrotters, a demographic that keeps growing in an age where traveling has lost its exclusivity.
You do not need to be travelers and pollute the planet to be interconnected. Our interdependence comes from the internet and our virtual communications – these are forming our new culture.

How can we join the movement?
Go to interdependencemovement.org: We welcome the support of every fellow global citizen.

Interview: Marcello Pisu
Header image: seniorcoconut/ photocase.com