Are nation-states becoming irrelevant?

This article claims that they are, and that cities are going to be in the driving seat in the 21st century. I feel like actually it's misstating its own thesis, which seems to be that the wealth of individuals and their voluntary associations will once again outstrip states' ability to control them. (Otherwise, what does it mean for a city to want something or do something?) It supports this by pointing out worldwide urban growth and the growing gap between urban rich and rural poor in countries like China, but it doesn't really make clear why a city is a more coherent entity with more potential for controlling things than, say, a patch of countryside which shares some political allegiance or ethnic identity. What I want to say to fill this gap is that the urbanized masses are actually organized into corporations and similar organizations with common interests, and that it is those, and not cities per se, that are doing the controlling; whereas the countryside is generally composed of individual farmers and such who are mostly concerned about their immediate neighborhood. This is a very libertarian future this guy is predicting, though I'm not sure he realizes it.

I'm still skeptical, but I don't have anything clever to say. Thoughts?


  1. Oddly enough, I was going to use this article the basis for my "America's Next Ruling Class" post, which will happen tomorrow when I don't have a lot to do.

    I think Khanna's general point is correct: we will see power devolve from countries to cities. There are several reason. First is population growth, cities are simply bigger than the country now, and more people means more economic power. Globalization has broken down the last barriers to trade, and international connections now matter as much or more than local ones.

    Second is what I believe to be a coming failure in governance, brought on by energy shortages, ecological collapse, and future shock. National governments are simply too sclerotic to react effectively, and too distant to have representative legitimacy. Their problems are only compounded by an urban-rural divide.

    I predict that the solution will be empowered local government. I think Mayor Bloomberg's New York is a good example of what's to come, with local elites partnering with grassroots organizer to increase the standing of cities.

    I don't think that this article is particularly libertarian, much more anti-federalist. New cities will stringent regulations if they aren't going to fall into chaos, those regulations just won't be binding outside the city.

  2. I feel like I was always taught that the world is ruled by a corporate oligarchy, though now that you mention it I can't pinpoint where this notion came from. Very likely, watching "The Corporation" documentary helped (incidentally anyone see the documentary "Jesus Camp" ... yeah, they made me go to a Jesus camp as a kid, just saying, its kinda terrifying).

    I'm picturing some sort or ruling triumvirate of Google, Apple, and Microsoft, kept moral by mutual shame and competition. I'd like to think that anti-trust laws protect us from letting corporations get powerful enough to exceed the control of our government, but I'm not sure.

    But, this has happened before, and democracy survived. East India Company anyone ? Carnegie, Rockafeller, and the other great monopolies of the early 20th century ? In all of these cases, affected(disenfranchised) citizens pulled off minor revolutions to update government to be able to deal with corporate power. I think that saying that the power is shifting toward the cities due to accumulating power in corporations is equivalent to saying that our anti-trust and special-interest policy has not kept pace with the rate at which corporations are innovating and finding new ways to manipulate. If things actually start to look bad, I think we can organize and get protective legislation passed. It would help if the reasonable suggestions weren't obscured in the media by the blathering of the Tea Party -- perhaps this is their greatest weapon (semi-serious).

  3. hmm.. I finally read most of the article. So, it seems like they are saying neo-feudalism is right around the corner. Possibly, its an easy claim to make, I think we've all expressed thoughts along similar lines before. I'll have to read the rest later.

  4. A great exploration of this topic is Manuel Castells's Information Age trilogy (particularly Part II on identities), where he argues that indeed people identify less with nation-states and more with other, more "legitimate" forms of authority. However, cities are just one example. These identities can also be religious or social movements, supranational bodies like the EU or UN, or a theoretical common set of values known as "global civil society." Nation-states no longer have total autonomy over their populations, but can only exert influence on the global network of identity "nodes." While distributed nodes like cities and social movements are organically gaining more power, we must collectively and consciously organize to give more authority to supranational bodies like the UN so we can engage in critical discourse on issues like energy, security, and human rights. However, he also argues that this will not emerge until we reach more common ground on values (as Europe did through the formation of the EU) and move towards the ideal of global civil society.

  5. Thanks, I have acquired these texts and will read them... as soon as there is time.

    Daniels, I subscribed to the RSS feed associated with analoguedigital.com, but it looks like these are mostly old blog posts that led up to the creation of Making Do. Do you have somewhere online where you continue to actively discuss these issues ? I'd like to add it to my Google reader pile, is all.

  6. I'll be using Analogue Digital, but need to make the transition from blogging active research to blogging "thoughts," which I've never actually done. Also, since I work in ICT now there will be more on the "digital" side. Soon enough! Just need to commit.

    I'm making my way through your blog, it's a really great read. Like nothing else I have in my reader!

    Also, thanks for the thoughtful and insightful review! It's nice to see people engage these issues so critically. Thinking like a true scientist ;)

    A caveat: Castells is dense. Not exactly light reading, but I'm sure you're used to that.