Coping with disorder

The city-state, old and new

If you were a traveller to Florence in 1414, the moment you passed through the city’s gates you entered a different world: the thick dialect Florentines spoke was hard for a Venetian to understand; the local ways of doing business were strange to travellers from Genoa; local crimes and punishments were unfamiliar even to migrants from nearby Siena. Above all, Florence was a polity in which the majority of its citizens could participate – Medici rule was yet to come. This was the classic city-state: a place which shaped itself.

Today, Singapore and Hong Kong are the two city-states which come immediately to mind. They are very different, Singapore seeming much more in the classic mode of self-control; Hong Kong, a city which did maintain a certain degree of autonomy even during colonial times, but which is struggling to hold on to it today. If we look away from politics, even these two are not city-states culturally, at least, not of the kind our ancestors knew. When, in 2014, your plane lands, once you pass immigration, take a taxi to your hotel, and go in search of something to eat, neither city seems so different from the Beijing or Delhi, Buenos Aires or New York, or even the London you just left. Similarly, the business of big cities is globally converging and mutually contingent: cities shape each other. They are networked cities, rather than independent city-states.

Should we want to transform the networked city into a more locally- oriented, self-contained city-state? Max Weber certainly thought so. The German sociologist, who lived before the age of networks, but in an age of nationalist passions, thought that locally-oriented politics, dealing with practical issues on the ground, were more likely to resist the blandishments of nationalisms or other isms. The mayor of Amsterdam, Job Cohen, once remarked at an Urban Age event, “the nation is a visceral experience only when a country is at war; everyday, in peace-time, the city is the reality people feel.” Another way to say this is that the things that make cities matter are the things that make them distinct, whereas the networked city with its global brands and habits lacks the sense of a local, tangible, particular reality.

Weber thought the city-state could be inclusive in ways a nation could not be, particularly in giving migrants who had crossed national borders the standing of citizens with local rights. Weber called these “place-based” rights. Weber represents a stream of thinking which emphasises the “right to the city,” in the phrase of the urbanist Henri Lefebvre – a right to be accounted and included in a specific and defined place. Were either Weber or Lefebvre alive today, their critique of the networked city would be that only a few people enjoy rights within it.

The difference the countryside makes

Because we are meeting in Delhi, I am minded of an entirely different way of thinking about the city-state – one which sets it in a rural-urban context. The most politically-minded modern writer to draw the contrast between city and country was the Algerian Franz Fanon, who celebrated the village and the farm as more truly autonomous than life in the city – a celebration which has reverberated in India, thanks to Gandhi, whom Fanon revered. He believed the autonomous city was from its origins a malign construct in the developing world; cities were the places in which the imperial powers first installed themselves, and even after de-colonisation, big cities like Algiers, Cairo, and Mumbai retained the top-down bureaucracies and political habits of the colonial masters. In development work, Fanon’s beliefs proved immensely influential, as a kind of rural, revolutionary romanticism – until the great growth spurt of cities in the last 30 years forced aid workers, foundations, and development ministries to take seriously the fact that the city has become a much bigger, and much different beast, than it was in colonialist times. What Weber and Fanon shared is a belief in autonomy, in local self-control. Weber located this within the city, Fanon within the countryside.

The difference climate change makes

Just that belief in autonomy as a goal, even an inclusive, democratic sort of autonomy practiced in the city, needs to be unsettled. New realities oblige us to think about the city, and so the city-state, in a different way. The most urgent of these, to my mind, is climate change. The perils of climate change cannot be addressed by thinking at the scale of urban self-shaping, as Max Weber wanted; or that of local, inclusive democracy, such as Henri Lefebvre believed in. And climate change has rendered Franz Fanon’s opposition of urban versus rural out of date.

Hurricane Sandy in New York was a sharp lesson to Americans about these dimensions of climate change. This supposedly once-in-a-century storm followed a similar event just the year before, the storm surge devastating the city’s coastline, and destroying much of its inland energy infrastructure. Afterwards, those who lived along the coast wanted to rebuild the places they had lived in, rather than move away; this local sentiment was translated into expenses local communities were willing to pay in order to erect storm walls and barriers. But scientific opinion, marshalled by programs like Rebuild by Design, has shown that this strategy is not sustainable, and has argued that some communities should be broken up, others abandoned, others reconfigured drastically.

The IPCC [International Panel on Climate Change] casts this difference as one between mitigation and adaptation. But politically it is a conflict between the Weberian value placed on self-determination and a different kind of engagement which links cities together. The rebuilding which attempts to push back the sea so that people can return to their homes is very much in the city-state mode; aiming to keep the city together, whereas the adaptation strategy aims to break up much of the city. The same issue would play out similarly in India in a coastal city like Mumbai. Adapting to climate change, in other words, means that coherence of the city’s form will alter, due to forces beyond human control.

Nature is undemocratic. Of course, voting and inclusion cannot change the facts on the ground about how the climate operates, but the issue cuts deeper: collective will is irrelevant to adaptation strategies. Under Nature’s sway, the very idea of autonomy loses its meaning. The natural environment makes no distinction between urban and rural, at least not along Fanon’s lines. Jane Harrison’s recent studies of water problems in Nigeria illustrate a global problem: industrial ways of farming are destroying the water resources cities need. But, as she points out, the same ways of water-intensive, chemically-polluting rural development are pursued by local farmers as well as big firms. Moreover, rising temperatures mean in some places more drought, in others more flooding. Agriculture is going to become an ever more unstable, if industrially-routinised, activity. “Unpredictable” is the key word – there is certainly a water crisis coming, but we don’t yet know what form it will take. Almost all models of climate change argue for non-linear changes, chance combinations, erratic consequences, all occurring in the coming decades. All this argues that rural and urban must be seen together, as one disturbed ecology.

The political problem is how to practice governance under these conditions. In part, the needs of the city have to dictate what happens in the countryside, but the political problem is complex because the natural system is becoming ever more unstable. How do you legislate under these conditions? Like “autonomy,” the climatic crisis is rendering the word “control” problematic. I’m not a gloomy pessimist, but I think that the seductive idea of a place controlling its own fortunes is obsolete. The climate crisis obliges us, I think, to consider our fortunes in a different way. To adapt, the city can no longer cohere; we must meet the uncertainty of a physically unsettled world by thinking of the city itself as a more unstable place.

The city is an open system, not a state

This is the logic of what natural scientists call open systems. These are structures which model chance, or seemingly illogical change, or complex events which de-stabilise an equilibrium condition. When IPCC climatologists moved from strategies of mitigation to adaptation, they began using open-systems thinking to model turbulence and disruption in storm patterns, polar melt-down, and rising sea levels. All these phenomena are erratic in the short term, year-on-year, though the long-term effects are certain over the course of decades.

We should be thinking about the networks linking big cities in the same way. Specific patterns of migration are as unstable in the immediate term as changes in the natural environment; for example, movement across the Mexican-American border is an erratic, convulsive process year-on-year, though the cumulative effect is clear. So, too, is the economy of networked cities – financial flows are not smooth and linear, nor are investments in real estate or primary industry. Open system analysis thinks about networks as trembling rather than placid connections – because the connections are complex they are peculiarly open to disruption.

Of course, in everyday life we want to be in control as much as possible. But we are moving into an era where the sphere of human self-control and autonomy is shrinking, particularly in our relations with the natural world. As an open-systems theorist, this is why I want to argue against the juridical impulse to privilege local urban law, and against Weber’s belief in place-based rights. These are closed political fantasies. We must acknowledge the disorder to come and learn to cope with it: the urban challenge we face now is how to live openly.

Richard Sennett is Professor of Sociology at New York University and the London School of Economics and Political Science. His latest books include The Craftsman and Together; the third volume in this trilogy, Making and Dwelling, is forthcoming.