The problems of hyper-scale, and a look back to the roots of human government for some possible solutions.
The lacuna in this analysis is the rural hinterland. Do they simply get annexed to the city states? Or do they exist as independent polities in their own right? I doubt the rural counties would be enthusiastic about being reduced to exurbs, given the difference in culture and values as compared to the urban cores.
Another question is that of the desirability of democracy in the first place. We tend to take that as axiomatic, but it is not obvious why. If democracy can't really work at scale (with which I tend to agree), breaking a polity into city states comes with its own problems. The historical example of ancient Greece is illustrative. The independent poleis survived for a while, even fighting off the Persians. Then they were rolled up by Philip of Macedon and folded into Alexander's abortive empire. Later Rome conquered them. The general rule is that a collection of fractious mini-states are relatively easy prey for large, aggressive, well-coordinated neighbors that are less attached to democracy.
Remote work poses an additional question, insofar as megacities are even necessary anymore. A town of 100k people provides most of the cultural benefits of a metropole, without the associated costs in crime, pollution, alienation, etc. Should each small town aspire to state status? Can those then be federated together for maintenance of defense, infrastructure, etc? Does that federation in any case not come to resemble what we already have?
I so agree with this, and it is actually a subject I am attempting to tackle in one of my next essays. Thankfully, now I'll just pick up where you left off since this is so perfectly said! 🤩
On the New York and London flirting with freedom thing—that is so fascinating. Could you share the link to those discussions? I'd love to learn more!
I agree with the overall thrust of this piece. The sprawling managerial bureaucracies currently parasitizing Western countries under the rubric of "democracy" have no long-term prospects.
There are important historical questions about democracy that are not talked about enough in this context. It should be interesting, fascinating, how little the US founders spoke of *democracy* without spitting. The beginnings of the US system are properly *republican*, with the likes of Jefferson and Madison taking an intense interest in ancient Greek and Roman forms of representative government. (It's no small irony that the centralized federalist system we ended up with has much more to do with Hamilton's vision than Jeffersonian republicanism.)
There is more to these ideals of self-determination, but suffice to say, many of the founders were as wary of mob rule as they were of unaccountable monarchy. Montesquieu and, later, Tocqueville both warned of "democracy" in their own ways.
Rightly so, as it turns out. The masses really are easily manipulated, provided you control the entertainment and information flows, while washing away local forms of organic self-rule. Today's Euro-American nation-state uses the word "democracy" while operating in ways that have little connection to its real meaning. The machinery in DC, London, and Brussels trundles on with little real input from the people. Oh, all the surface trappings are there. We get to show up and vote every once in awhile for the approved selections. But the veneer of legitimacy obscures the real levers of power. Nice cargo cult we've built for ourselves.
Even if democracy is a goal (I'm not convinced that it is), the real issues don't surround the word, but rather what we desire for a good government. We can have representation, local and organic social forms, decentralization, (etc) without the D-word. The term itself is more thought-terminating cliche today than it is an instructive guide to good government and its virtues.
Thanks for posting, Austin, loved the piece.
All the truly awful countries are small too.
“But the spectacle of national politics takes attention and energy away from local politics…”
Oof! I unfortunately fall prey to this. I’ve lived in 4 different states in the last 3 years, and I know nothing about their local politics.
As always, great article. Oh! And thanks for the necessary callout :)
I’m not exactly sure what you’re advocating for here. Federal governments have the ability to maintain stability despite their scale due to the scope of what they regulate and administer, which is precisely the sublimation of city-scale governance.
Even according to system theory, national and international governance has to be predicated on the maintenance of stable cities to make any sense. It would make more sense to suggest that our infrastructure, labor conditions, and to some extent our digital technologies alienate us from our immediate social conditions.
Nationalism works because of ideology and socioeconomic systems like capitalism, not in spite of them (even if nationalism is parasocial to a degree). People don’t need to scale their immediate community circles beyond standard personal capacity, it happens in a passive context through engaging with people temporarily, or by proxy via remote connections. City states would not resolve or replace any of these things, besides possibly exacerbating them. An emphasis on city-level democracy wouldn’t replace the sublimation of federal government either, there’s simply no historical precedent for that being a necessary consequence.
The problem is that large scale apparatus can begin to operate of their own accord like a homunculus. International government relations operate like corporations, as a means to serve ideological apparatus, and many of those ideological actors are Federal government that assume a capitalistic stance. An expansion of city states would leave them tragically at the whim of the current capitalistic world system, where the WTO is more interested in maintaining international capital trade than it is fostering economic development in nations vulnerable to exploitation or imperialism by strong nation states. They would equally be left prey to NGOs keen on corporate outsourcing and commodity market politics.
I’m also not sure how you can conclude that governments are immortal either. On a base level of individuality, government is arguably not necessary until perhaps a certain threshold of tribe or city is met, at least if we’re being consistent with systems theory. So, I’m not sure what your implications about city states really mean for democracy. It seems like your criticisms of scale are being displaced onto a Trojan Horse.
The scale of government is amazing. People complain about billionaires, but the money in the hands of politicians is way beyond that. I wrote a book on this problem, called "Unchecked and Unbalanced." I talked about the logistical challenges of unbundling government services so that people could have more choices. The book was widely unread.