April 28, 2017 | By Richard C. Longworth

Ben Barber: An Appreciation


Benjamin Barber (R) at the 2015 Chicago Forum on Global Cities

Benjamin Barber was a Sherpa for the global age, adept at scouting the path ahead and leading us where he thought we ought to go. He died too soon and with the job unfinished, but we’ll be following Ben’s signposts for years to come.

Ben Barber was nothing if not prescient. His magnum opus, Jihad vs. McWorld, saw clearly that globalization would clash with tradition and that global technology would be resisted fiercely by parochial patriots. This was in 1995, six years before 9/11 and two decades before the populist revolt now sweeping the Western world.

Then, in 2013, he wrote If Mayors Ruled the World, which argued that cities are uniquely placed to do the work that national governments no longer can or want to do. Again, this was four years before the Trump Administration began writing policies – on trade, climate change and immigration, for instance – that put it on a collision course with cities for whom these issues are matters of life and death.

Ben’s writing laid the foundation for those of us whose work revolves around global cities. These cities aren’t independent city-states and are not going to be. But increasingly they function in a global setting and are no longer mere sub-units of national governments. These cities have global goals and interests that national governments aren’t answering. In a sense, they are a new form of city, neither nation-rooted nor sovereign. Ben saw all this, found it good and told us what to do about it.

One book led to another. In Jihad vs. McWorld, Ben argued for a decentralized democracy, or “unmediated self-government by an engaged citizenry,” to give people control over the decisions that shaped their lives. Later, in If Mayors Ruled the World, he located this decentralized democracy in cities that are big enough to get things done and small enough to be human.

Ben was a headliner at the inaugural Chicago Forum on Global Cities in 2015, where he declared that “city leaders are problem solvers. They have to be.” Then, having decreed that cities are where many of the world’s problems can be solved, he founded the Global Parliament of Mayors to work on these problems. Sixty mayors came to the first meeting last year. It has become his legacy.

Like many good books, If Mayors Ruled the World told us many things that we already knew but lacked the vision to connect into a new reality.

First, he asked if “the interests of cities and of the states to which cities belong are in harmony or in conflict.” Too often, he said, they are in conflict. Cities are intensely practical places, he said, existing to collect garbage, build buildings, secure the flow of water and educate children. Nations exist to collect allies, establish armies and fly flags – important enough, to be sure, but far removed from the daily lives of citizens, where democracy resides.

The very sovereignty of nations, he said, makes them increasingly powerless. When Washington and the other capitals meet to take action on climate change, they bring their strictly national interests to the table and hence can’t make the compromises that agreement requires.

“The very sovereign power on which nation-states rely is precisely what renders them ineffective when they seek to regulate or legislate in common,” Barber wrote. “Sovereignty is not in decline, but its exercise on the global scene is increasingly counterproductive. The United States is the most powerful sovereign state the world has ever known, but its sovereignty has been the excuse for either not signing or not ratifying a host of international accords embraced by most other states.

“Never before has sovereign power been used so effectively to impede and thwart collective action.”

In a globalizing world, collective action is vital if people’s needs are to be met. Ben didn’t call for a global government but for a form of global governance, where appropriate, to make life livable and, equally important, to keep democracy vital.

Enter the city.

Cities already are a “carnival of interaction,” thriving on a web of daily deals and networks. Now, he said, the city “is evolving into a transnational political force, a surrogate for states in forging soft forms of global governance and pushing democratic decision-making across borders.” 

National governments may not like this, he said, and the fact is that cities are constrained by national laws. But there are vast areas “where the laws are silent. Cities are free to act where there is no direct conflict between their networking goals and the sovereign interests of the state.”

“In the space between eroding national power and the growing challenges of an interdependent world, rising cities may find their voice and manage together to leverage change,” he wrote. Much of this was already happening, including work between cities on climate change. The Global Parliament of Mayors was the next step.

Ben was 77 when he died, which surprised many of us. He seemed somehow younger, always vital and always focused on the path ahead. His insistence on the centrality of democracy never varied but his pursuit of that goal remained fresh until the end. 

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The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

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