New York, the World and the Renaissance of the World City

By Karthik Sankaran

The world is a network connected by its great mercantile cities. It was once said of the urban civilization of the ancient Greeks that it resembled frogs around a pond. Throughout history, the frogs keep changing, and the pond keeps getting bigger, until it has has gone from just the Aegean to all the oceans of the world.  Despite the centrality of cities, the world’s political and ideological structures have been organized for a few centuries around the dueling concepts of nation-state and class. But as the global economy changes, so will the relationship of the great world cities to their countries, to each other, and to the world at large. What is needed now is a set of institutions and fora that allow cities to formalize these relationships, and to formulate and execute policies that proceed from this understanding.

On this 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, it seems that the world is still divided  between the claims of labor and capital,  nationalists and internationalists. It's just that the correspondences are reversed. In the first great age of globalization, in the later 19th century, internationalism was supposed to be the ideology that united the workers of the world against their capitalist enemies, who were organized in nation-states. That the illusions of working class internationalism were tragically belied by the mass mobilizations of August 1914 did little to dent the theory an ideology of workers internationalism.

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 unleashed a second great age of globalization with the abandonment of autarkic dreams across the Eurasian landmass. As capital flooded into the vast arenas of opportunity opened by the lifting of iron, bamboo and khadi curtains, it became the indisputably internationalist force.In India and China at least, the changes were sufficiently positive that they bolstered both unity and identity. But in the old heartlands of capitalism on either side of the North Atlantic, large fractions of labor, shaken by social, economic and technological change have retreated into an ever more sullen nationalism, accusing capital of betrayal.   

These economic cleavages coincide with regional ones. The internationalist activities of capital continue to be directed from the great world cities, New York and London foremost among them.  But New York and London were not always at the center and they already have their rivals, one of whom will surpass them.

These world cities are rivals that share, divide and covet their networks, but beyond that what brings them closer to each other is an ever-more-hybrid culture that reflects their role as centers where goods, services, ideas, and people are exchanged. This does not sit well with everyone outside those cities, whether physically or psychically. In the aftermath of Brexit, British PM Theresa May said "if you believe you're a citizen of the world, you're a citizen of nowhere." Meanwhile, author David Goodhart has articulated a divide between "somewhere" people" who are firmly tied to a historical sense of place and "anywhere people" who are allegedly at home anywhere in the world. But this is a false dichotomy that can be solved by etymological sleight of hand. What these alleged citizens of nowhere (or anywhere) might be feeling is a sense of a belonging to a somewhere that is a city, a political entity that has been a center of political identity for a lot more of history than the nation-state has. And this rejection of attempts to sever the contacts that connect world cities with their world can hardly be called "nowhere" behavior. It is a behavior that is profoundly "somewhere," rooted in the nature and identity of those cities.  It is only natural that metropolitan citizens (across class lines) of the nodal cities of the world will acquire ever-stronger identities that are simultaneously subnational and post-national, and that these identities will be construed (or represented as) anti-national. This is happening now most clearly in the UK and there are echoes of it in the US.

What is to be done? For now, it might help just to recognize that the vessels of allegiance and identity have taken many forms over the centuries, driven by the complex web of ideology, culture, economic interest and military technology. At this very moment, changes in this web are recreating a strengthened sense of metropolitan identity and interest in cities like London and New York..  From here, it is natural for a New Yorker to ask, what does the great world city of New York want from its relations with the world and how can it get it?  To answer this question is the task that the Metropolitan Society for International Affairs has set for itself.

 

Karthik Sankaran is a member of the board of the Met Society and Director, Global Strategy at Eurasia Group. He writes here in his personal capacity.