Professor Benjamin Barber gave an interview in The Netherlands, where he was invited by The House of Commons to speak about his new book, If mayors ruled the world. His argument: city networks should jump in where states cannot cope with cross border problems.
The fact that city cooperation is often easier than state cooperation seems to frustrate you quite a lot.
“It doesn’t frustrate me, but it frustrates all of us! I just came back from Doha and it was a total failure because we are sovereign states that cannot find a way to cooperate. Every problem we face, diseases, terrorism, migration, they are all global. How do we respond to them? With 18th century political systems. What are the forces working globally? Toyota, the Chinese national bank and Al Qaeda. But not the nation states. ‘Interdependence’ is the new reality, but we are still acting as if ‘independence’ is leading.”
Your Interdependence Movement is gaining momentum. Have you already linked up with European cities?
“Cities are already connected in networks as this allows them to deal with certain problems: 85% of all carbon emissions come from the world’s cities. If mayors could fix this, the largest part of the problem would be solved. And it’s being done right now, for example by the association Local Governments for Sustainability (ECLEI), or the G40 that was recently started by Bill Clinton and comprises 58 of the largest cities in the world. In tackling environmental problems, the cities have already more success than the nation states.”
But how do you guarantee democratic control, when cities are going to strike global agreements?
“Cities has always been the most democratic entities. Stuttgart and Berlin are more democratic than Germany; the mayors are closer to the citizens than national Ministers or representatives. In the last chapter of my new book If mayors ruled the world I propose a democratic mechanism for these city networks. The Bloomberg Foundation is already willing to fund this idea.”
So you are on your way to becoming a real threat to the nation state.
“Actually, in the end I could even be the rescuer of the nation state. But then, nobody takes ideas seriously anyway. A Spanish political philosopher said once: if politicians read my books, I would have everything to fear. But then politicians don’t read.”
Do you consider yourself a pragmatist?
“Whether ideology should enter the debate depends very much on the matter you would like to argue. If you argue about fundamental rights, ideology is a necessary element, but when you discuss picking up the garbage it doesn’t make sense to let ideology enter the debate. Pragmatism is the essence of American philosophy, as you can see with John Dewey. I’ve always been one myself.
Which European country do you consider most pragmatist at this moment?
“Germany would be the number one. After two world wars and a holocaust, they had understood the cost of ideology. Last week on Friday night in Newton, in America, we have seen the bloody cost of ideology. People get sick of all the fighting, they want politicians to figure out practical solutions.”
How can such a shooting be ideological?
“You saw it in Norway too, when one maniac executed the unspoken will of the silent majority. He thought he was carrying out the nation’s will. When the whole country is permeated with xenophobia, this is what you will get.”
That is a very pessimistic view.
“It’s not pessimistic, it’s dialectic: all that violence makes people think ‘we can’t do this anymore, we have to move the other way’. The brute reality is that we are all interdependent. Against the destructive interdependence of disease, environmental disasters and terrorism, we must create a democratic interdependence. Feminism was about creating gender consciousness; interdependence is about creating consciousness about the way we are all linked together.”
You make a strong point of civic education: what differences do you see between the U.S. and Europe in this regard?
“Civic education is much stronger here in Europe, but then there is no civil society here. In the U.S. you can hardly find anyone who’s not in the PTA, or in a baseball club. In Europe it needs to be pushed much harder.”