Toward the end of October, Sadiq Khan, the first Muslim mayor of London, addressed an event hosted by the London Jewish Forum that commemorated the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, a famous street protest in the British capital that saw an alliance of local Jewish residents, Irish dockworkers, trade unionists and other laborers and leftists thwart a planned fascist march.
This was at a time when anti-Jewish bigotry was rife in Europe. Across the Channel, Nazism was on the rise and fascists were in dominant positions in both Italy and Spain. The clashes at Cable Street are now remembered as a historic turning point in Britain's particular fight against the politics of division and hate, a powerful moment when people from disparate communities defended their city and found strength together.
“This story of solidarity and social integration has inspired many people over the last eighty years and should continue to inspire us now,” Khan said. “London today is more diverse than ever before and on the whole is a shining example of how people from different backgrounds can live side-by-side.”
But his remarks were delivered under a cloud. In many countries in the West, the agenda of ultra-nationalists seems to be outpacing those of politicians like Khan, who represent vast, multicultural cities.
The modern-day inheritors of the legacy of 1930s fascism — what the heroes of Cable Street rose up against — are in the ascendancy. In Austria, a presidential candidate from a party founded by former Nazis stands on the brink of victory in elections in early December. In France, Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, a party long associated with neo-fascism, is a key player in presidential elections next year. And, in the United States, the shock triumph of President-elect Donald Trump has been cheered by fringe neo-Nazis as well as the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan.
In Khan’s Britain, anti-immigrant sentiment and the campaigning of far-right populist politicians led, in part, to the country’s June vote for a Brexit, or quitting the European Union. The stunning electoral verdict was framed by analysts as a rejection of cosmopolitan elites. If you look at the political map of which parts of Britain opted for Brexit, London and a few other urban centers are islands in a sea of English “Leave” voters.
From being at the heart of the national story, metropolises such as London seem increasingly detached from the right-wing populist surge in the hinterlands around them, where voters rallied to calls to “take our country back” and reclaim national sovereignty from the machinations of “globalist” elites.
“There are people in New York that feel closer to people in London and in Berlin than they do to people in Kansas and in Colorado,” Steve Bannon, the white nationalist ideologue now tapped to counsel Trump in the White House, grumbled at a meeting with European conservatives two years ago. “And they have more of this elite mentality that they’re going to dictate to everybody how the world’s going to be run.”
Trump’s campaign harped on the supposed evil of “globalism,” rhetoric that helped win him the support of disaffected white rural voters. The detached liberals of the big cities were going to get their comeuppance.
Watching the U.S. election from afar, Le Pen’s chief strategist, Florian Philippot, chortled on Twitter: “Their world is crumbling. Ours is just being built.”
What cities represent
But “their” world — that of multiculturalism and the metropolis — isn’t quite crumbling. In the United States, a host of mayors from major cities have signaled their willingness to push back against the proposed policies of the president-elect, including Trump's stated intent to round up and deport millions of undocumented migrants.
In New York City, one of the so-called sanctuary cities, an estimated 500,000 undocumented people exist on a municipal database after they enrolled in a scheme that allowed them and other New Yorkers to obtain a city-specific identity card. Bill de Blasio, the city's mayor, has insisted that municipal authorities will refuse to cooperate should a federal government under Trump seek to obtain information on undocumented people listed on the database.
“We are not going to sacrifice a half million people who live among us,” De Blasio said. “We’re not going to tear families apart. We will do everything we know how to do to resist that.”
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel made similar noises: “For all those who are, after Tuesday’s election, very nervous, filled with anxiety as we’ve spoken to, you are safe in Chicago, you are secure in Chicago and you are supported in Chicago. Administrations may change, but our values and principles as it relates to inclusion does not.” (And so did Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.)
It's not just on issues of deportations where cities and the Trump administration may clash. If a conservative Supreme Court overturns Roe vs. Wade, cities can defend the abortion rights of their residents. And already, in the face of policy paralysis on a national level, cities are pushing through larger progressive reforms: Seattle recently approved an ordinance for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, which is more than double the federally mandated figure; other local politicians, including former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, are leading the political fight on climate change even as controversial climate skeptics enter the White House.
No matter the ascension of a certain brand of nationalist politics, the reality in much of the West is of countries that are becoming both more urban and more diverse. Cities aren't just bastions of jet-setting Davos men: They are home to the fullest range of a nation's diversity. The politicians at the helms of cities such as New York or London have to act on a set of concerns — be it addressing income inequity, reckoning with housing shortages or defending inclusive societies — that echo across borders.
“Increasingly, nation-states look parochial and backward, and cities are actually cosmopolitan and much more broad in their understanding,” Benjamin Barber, one of the premier theorists of the global city and author of “If Mayors Ruled the World,” told WorldViews.
Everywhere, cities are the engines of the economy — worldwide, they contribute some 80 percent of global GDP. More than 80 percent of the American population lives in urban areas. And the populations in medium to large cities overwhelmingly tend to vote against the platforms of right-wing populists. Yet because of the nature of federal elections — including the weighted system of the U.S. electoral college — the agenda of cities can get sidelined by right-wing populism.
“There’s a fundamental asymmetry between what cities represent and what they are able to accomplish politically,” said Barber.
Cities and the future
But if reactionary national politics puts the progress of a city at risk, then there's the chance we'll see more resistance from mayors. Citing powers already afforded to mayors in the United States, Khan has sought more authority to be devolved to his office in the wake of the Brexit vote, which he said he believes jeopardizes London's economic future.
This includes greater control over tax revenues. “London’s population is the same size as Wales and Scotland combined, but we have far less control over how our capital is run,” Khan said in September.
These calls aren't only the province of left-wing politicians. Khan's predecessor, current British foreign minister Boris Johnson, was a staunch advocate for Brexit. But while he was London's mayor, he sought to introduce a special “London visa” to encourage foreign talent to his city and went out of his way to mock Trump's scare-mongering over Islam.
“Mayors in general realize their cities depend on openness, that they need to be tolerant and inclusive,” said Parag Khanna, author of “Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization.”
As a result, argued Khanna, cities are better positioned to be “laboratories” for democracy and policy solutions. In part because of their reputations as honest, pragmatic problem-solvers, a series of former mayors have won national elections in countries from Latin America to Asia at a time of profound global economic uncertainty.
The capacity for cities to effect change often free of partisan rancor, Barber said he believes, makes them more capable of reckoning with the challenges of an interconnected world in the 21st century. He points to a number of increasingly popular forums where municipal authorities are coordinating on a global scale. This includes the C40 Group of cities mobilizing around climate change, chaired by Parisian Mayor Anne Hidalgo, as well as the Global Parliament of Mayors, a body that Barber helped found which seeks to be something similar to a United Nations of cities. It staged its first session in the Hague earlier this year and aims to expand in the months and years to come.
Globalization has its crises, but the desire of ultra-nationalists like Trump and his contemporaries across the pond to throw up walls and hide behind borders flies in the face of the real forces that are shaping the world.
“To be against globalism means you are surely against all the progress of technology as well, which is intellectually facile,” Khanna said.
“These reactionaries,” Barber said, “are the last wave in a series of political attempts to pretend that sovereign states still work.” The nation-state isn't about to disappear, he cautions. But Barber envisions a future where there'll be a “rebalancing of the relationship” between nations and cities that will enable greater local governance across the world for the benefit of all.
“The right-wing nationalism of the Trumps,” Barber said, “will become not so much toxic obstacles to history, but an increasingly obsolete expression.”
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