Urban centres and rural areas – the return of the city-state?

Over the last couple of years and electoral cycles, one of the oldest pieces of news has been the dichotomy and disparity between the more open/leftist urban centers and cities on the one hand and the less-diverse, conservative rural areas.

This seems to be more rooted in human nature than in any one specific culture, nation, or civilization, seeing that the basic calculus seems to be ‘the higher the population density, the more open/leftist is the electorate’ and ‘the lower the population density, the better fare far-right groups’. We have seen this in the recent elections in the United States, the referendum on the power of the presidency in Turkey as well as various local elections in Germany (see our coverage here and here). In the 2017 French parliamentary elections we

In the 2017 French parliamentary elections, we saw a far-right contender for the highest office in the country with realistic chances, that was eventually beaten by a previous political unknown and a party that was founded little more than a year before the elections. Differently so, the German election seems to be decided between two centrist parties with the far-right AfD waning in recent polls. Now, where does all this leave us gazing into a future beyond the next five years?

Looking at more and more cases of divided nations and states, we do as well see an increase in the similarities of structural divides between Metropolitania and the Ruralilands –the capital cities in the EU 28 alone show a clear majority of politically progressive, more often than not left-leaning, mayors across the Union, independent from which parties’ federal government is located in those very cities. One such example is Munich, capital of the free state of Bavaria, one of Germany’s largest, most populated, and most unwaveringly Christian conservative federal states. Having a track record of never once having been governed by a prime minister from a party other than the right-of-center Christian Social Union since the 1950s, it has as well only had one lone CSU mayor since the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1948 – usually being led by a member of the Social Democratic Party.

Other indicators of a transnational trend of urban centres dissenting have been the ‘remain’ votes of London in the Brexit vote (incidentally led by a non-caucasian named Khan), New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and so many cities voting against Donald Trump in the United States and, most recently, Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir in their stance ‘against’ during the referendum in Turkey.

So, when cities are increasingly separated in their outlook and culture from the surrounding states/countries, and share closer ties with other cities across geographical and national lines, how far away are we from a revival of the city-state and a community/network of such cities that unite to better pursue their political, economic and, yes, military interests? An intellectual successor to the Hanseatic League (that came to be a dominant power in Northern regions of Germany and the Baltic Sea in the 14th-17th century) the possibilities for such an alliance are manifold.

The core question to ask the speculatively minded reader is: If the idea of having united national identities is truly and increasingly fading, and city dwellers have more in common with their brethren overseas that watch the same TV shows and speak a similar portfolio of languages than with their compatriots in far-flung forests and hills, why not make it official, get it done and over with?

In a world in which trade, investments, and political movements are largely located in those places in which there are high concentrations of customers and listeners (let’s see how well the online sphere and its freedom of access will weather upcoming storms), it is no wonder that those that remain in the far-flung parts of a nation feel (and are) left behind, so why not accept this seemingly insurmountable divide and call it quits?**

Once upon a time, the Hanse included cities from Estonia, Latvia, Russia, Poland, Sweden, the Netherlands and 16 German states, with embassies (‘Kontore’) in Belgium, the United Kingdom, Norway, Lithuania and Belarus, and as most of their members were no truly independent city-states, their model of a political, economic and military community with shared problems and opportunities may well be an example worth considering.

While a ‘national’ community of exclaves with embassies and a membership in (trans-)regional alliances and a seat in the UN Security Council would certainly be thinkable, a more ‘hanseatic’ model seems more likely for the moment. In this case, a strong international ‘Coalition of Urban Centres’ (CUC) could well serve as an additional representation and lobby for the unique interests/structural issues of larger cities and metropolitan areas. It would, thus, heighten the public profile and fundamental importance of combatting the above-mentioned divide in otherwise harmonious (and be it in their heterogeneity) regions while sharpening the focus to problem-solve and find solutions for those places in which the divide is too big and the bridges are too short.

As much as this would be potentially feasible in terms of demography and political cohesion, any version of this would bring with it a variety of structural issues, especially in the case of the ‘national option’. Starting from political processes and institutions (fixed-seat, or geographically flexible) to mobility and borders (Visa, tariffs), on to military defensibility and culturally shaped interpretations of Human Rights. Then again, which political system didn’t and doesn’t have its very own brand of problems and regionalisms that compete over time, so who is to say it couldn’t, wouldn’t, or cannot be made to work by enlightened people?

Alas, it might not come to it, and this thought experiment may serve as an exercise in what might happen and become viable options if the work of civil societies and democratic processes fail to mediate between the various groups and interests within their societies – and as a warning to all of us, writers, activists and policy makers to make conscious efforts to build lasting bridges between the disparate parts of our European communities.

Moritz Borchardt is a director of GPPW and Project Manager for Civic and Political Education for Culture Goes Europe.

** This of course implies an ‘othering’ and images of a civilized/open/enlightened ‘us’ in the urban centres versus perceived barbaric/stereotypically nationalist/unworthy hordes of ‘them’, which in and of itself can be seen as problematic and is taken out of the narrative here for the sake of brevity in the outlined thought experiment.

Cover Image by Flaurent Lamoureaux under a BY-NC-ND 2.0 creative commons license.

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