Taking back control has been the main theme of Western politics in recent times. From calls to “build the wall” and protectionist trade policies in the US, to the UK leaving the EU.
In 2016, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump reverberated around the world. In some sense, these events seemed to be a rejection of a prevailing cosmopolitan order. This sentiment has been developing, in large part, since the 2007-8 economic crisis, which saw an increasingly opaque banking system produce widespread economic shocks.
In the decades prior to the crash, a combination of neoliberal ideology and rapid technological growth had created the perfect environment for an increasingly globalised planet. Together, these trends made the movement of capital easier and the ability to affect distant space more possible.
Many of the resulting transformations effected cities. On the whole, cities are where investment passes through, new start-ups disrupt, and where crowded housing markets are located. Yet, cities are also increasingly where people reside. Over the last century, city populations have drastically risen both in relative and absolute terms.
Henri Lefebvre & David Harvey have used the Marxist distinction between use-value and exchange value, noting how cities are increasingly evaluated in terms of their potential market value (exchange value), rather than in terms of their potential use to residents (use-value). It is hard to disagree. One only has to look at multinational corporations on the high street, privatised transport, and increasingly gentrified and unaffordable housing.
Now, whilst much of this change has positive elements, I wish to focus on the threat these processes pose to our political autonomy, our ability to co-legislate and express preferences about the space in which we live. Essentially, it has become easier for those from outside of a space to make decisions about the way space is organised. This is the sentiment which has been picked up by the right, but should be understood as potent material for progressive change.
What is the advantage of unpicking this problem? I suggest that there may be very good elements of the globalised cities we live in: technology building, culture sharing & the possibility of tackling truly global issues, like climate change. Thinking about how to localise political autonomy can not only speak to people’s grievances as they struggle to shape and influence their globalised city, but also safeguard against the temptation of nationalist solutions.
One way we may approach the issue is to create the conditions for greater local decision making wherever possible. How? The principle of subsidiarity: taking of decisions at the lowest possible effective level, which would displace the current system where decision making is concentrated amongst the few.
To do so, we must pressure national governments, and even corporations, to expand the space for local decision making in a way that, at the very least, pushes back against the symptoms of globalisation. In practical terms, this looks like Westminster devolving power to the rest of the country: providing the scope for people to make decisions on issues like transport, housing, and culture; city councils allowing for deliberation on what their high streets look like; and government policy which financially supports locally-owned businesses. It ultimately means pushing back against the obsession with GDP and markets.
We must ensure, therefore, that progressive voices take back control from those wishing to capitalise on discontent, by making our cities a place where political autonomy can thrive. As Covid-19 temporarily turns our otherwise bustling cities into ghost towns, there has never been a better time to reflect on what our cities could be