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Nation-States vs City-States

The polis, the nation, and the cosmos

In a piece triumphantly titled “Why Big Cities Will Ultimately Prevail,” the Bloomberg View columnist Leonid Bershidsky gives us an interesting way to understand the two forms of communal identity that we’ve spent so much post-election energy analyzing. I’m talking about the urban-rural divide.

Bershidsky writes:

The urban-rural divide is often attributed to globalization’s winners living in cities while its losers decline outside of them. That’s somewhat simplistic. … The gap between the big cities and the heartland, which exists in most countries, isn’t just about globalization and its spoils. It’s also about two different kinds of communal identity that are increasingly difficult to reconcile within polities.

One is the traditional nation-state patriotism. A political language exists in every country to appeal to it, and those politicians who speak it more convincingly win the rural vote, be it in the U.S. or in Turkey. It’s the language of military strength, adherence to tradition, often the yearning for a past golden age.

The energy behind strong city identities, on the other hand, is not really globalist or cosmopolitan. Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell and Hebrew University of Jerusalem political philosopher Avner de-Shalit, authors of a 2011 book about city identities, have named it “civicism.” …

“Civicism” doesn’t have a defined political language except that of liberalism. A candidate who stresses openness, tolerance, even permissiveness, usually does better with big city dwellers. In a metropolis, a live-and-let-live attitude is the basis of survival. Strict religious rules and local customs are often relaxed to accommodate diversity and reduce tension among neighbors. Besides, the competitiveness of coexisting with millions of others at close quarters makes big city dwellers likely to question authority and tradition.

Bershidsky doesn’t put it this way, but we could characterize these two forms of communal identity as nation-state versus city-state orientations.

Sometimes it is thought the latter posture is a rather new phenomenon — a deliverance of our globalist age. In reality, city-state allegiance has been around forever, given the relative novelty of the nation-state construct as a form of political organization.

Bershidsky downplays the degree to which the city-state posture is cosmopolitan in nature. I think this is a mistake. Obviously, it seems strange to posit that the approach with the word “cosmos” in it is best represented by the more local of the two units. But the reason why this strangeness is merely superficial is that while city is more local than nation as a geographical category, conceptually a city can be more globally minded and globally connected than a nation.

We see, for example, a greater sense of affinity among residents of global cities, even when the cities belong to different countries, than among those same residents and their rural or suburban countrymen.

The reasons why aren’t hard to spell out. The forms and patterns of life of urban living are not nation-specific, in large part, but are more or less internationally fixed. Boutique coffee shops, an arts district, skyscrapers, the ubiquity of alternative mass transit options, high-end day care centers, job mobility, etc. — these are not features of some major cities but not others. These are fixtures of urban environments pretty much the world over.

Yet these lifestyle differences don’t emerge in a vacuum. The factors that give rise to these differences have been well documented; they help explain why these two different models of community organization can give rise to such vastly different cultures.

It’s not just the difference in organization itself that explains this — cultural differences cannot be accounted for by simply considering population spread vs. population density.

Bershidsky explains — rightly — that density is at least partially responsible for the metropolitan values that characterize life there. He writes that “coexisting with millions of others at close quarters makes big city dwellers likely to question authority and tradition.” Bershidsky is correct to see density as giving shape to metropolitan life at the cultural and philosophical level.

But part of the magnetism of big city life is pre-organizational. This means there is an ethos to metropolitan life that isn’t formed by its structure, but is felt prior to participating in its structure. Those inherently turned off to nationalist symbols and prerogatives find themselves drawn to places where a kind of transnationalism is always in the air. There is an ethics and an aesthetics to the metropolis that takes them there, and this before they’ve ever even experienced the density that is said to give rise to these cultural norms.

In my judgment — which is contrary to some of the conclusions Bershidsky draws in his piece — it’s only a matter of time before technology starts to lead to a kind of de-urbanization. By this I don’t mean actual de-urbanization, as in mass migration away from, or even the elimination of, major cities. But I mean it in the sense that the growth of smaller cities will outpace the growth of big cities, contrary to current demographic projections. When the technologies that power metropolitan economies becomes diffused more widely, smaller and more mid-level cities will experience demographic upticks they’re currently not enjoying.

This will be a far greater fulfillment of the cosmopolitan ethos than the current system. We won’t have a handful of globally minded megalopoles, but a far larger network of smaller city centers that are just as plugged in to the international order.

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