The Return of the City-State

Brian Gongol

Amid all this talk about borders, I am reminded that around 15 years ago, it was in vogue to talk about a post-national future -- where strengthening globe-spanning businesses and trans-national interest groups would affect more of our lives than our actual citizenship within weakening states. People wrote novels about it, academics published papers about it, and (tellingly) the New York Times printed "think pieces" about it.

Paradoxically, I suspect that the (many) ways in which that "post-national" vision of the future have indeed come true are stoking many of the hottest fires of the nationalist/populist movements worldwide.

Google says it won't let its AI technology be used for national defense. Facebook fights with India over providing free Internet access in a fight with parallels to the "net neutrality" debate in the US. The European Union's GDPR policy ends up choking access to American news outlets for European consumers.

In other words: The battles are on...just maybe not as expected.

I think the future is going to surprise us in some radical ways. For the last 25 years or so, it's been a non-stop barrage of changes taking the form of consumer technology. When I got an email address through Iowa State University back in 1995, I was on the cutting edge at a place that was on the cutting edge. Today, an email address is almost passe -- what people really want are your handles on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and everywhere else. (Fun fact: I just searched for the old email address, and now it belongs to a teaching program at the university.)

But while we've been bowled over by the pace of technological progress -- a new smartphone today would have been a supercomputer in the mid-1990s -- other things have been changing in tidal fashion: So slow, they're impossible to notice in real time, but so substantial they change everything.

1990 is a good marker because it was roughly the turning point for the close of the Cold War. What has changed in the (just over) 25 years since the Cold War ended? Much more than most of us probably realize.

One great example is urbanization: 43% of the world lived in urban settings in 1990. Now 54% of us do. (The US alone went from 75% to 82% in the same time frame.) Those aren't small numbers -- the world's population is 7.5 billion, so the difference between 43% and 54% is a swing of more than 820 million people.

Another great example is the dramatic shift upward in both education and material standards of living: The world's adult literacy rate jumped from 75% in 1990 to 86% today. Extreme poverty has fallen from 35.5% of the world in 1990 to 10.9% today. If you're not floored by those changes, read them again.

The question is: What's looming?

We'll never really be post-national, I'm sure, but are we close to a time when that identity is secondary to other things? Does a Google employee in Tokyo feel more in common with a Google employee at the data center in Council Bluffs than either might feel with a farmer living 50 miles away?

Without an organizing enemy like the Soviet Union, will we see more of the pond-jumping local politics that seemed novel not that long ago? Why was Nigel Farage here to campaign for Donald Trump? Are there Americans looking to copy the Emmanuel Macron playbook for politics without the regular political parties? How come money from abroad is showing up in local elections in the US? Why was a French nationalist a major speaker at CPAC?

A world with more young people, longer life expectancies, faster travel, more communication, and a great deal more urbanization is going to be a different one than what we're used to. And maybe in really big ways.

I'm still staking my bet that we will see a rebirth of the city-state in at least a few places around the world in the coming years, as urban areas detach themselves from the surrounding countryside. That will be especially likely if interests and priorities become unsustainably different from one another. Don't dismiss it -- everyone knows that even here in Iowa, there's a lot of tension just beneath the surface (and sometimes above it) between, say, Des Moines and parts of rural Iowa (it's a common phenomenon in the farm states). One can only imagine that the tensions are even greater in countries where the urban-rural gaps are even larger.

Don't forget: The United States had 3.9 million people in the first Census, in 1790. Our Founders declared independence when the population of the whole country was about the size of Iowa's today. A population center doesn't have to be huge to be big enough to be self-sustaining. Wealthy little Singapore has 5.6 million people. Hong Kong, while no longer free, could certainly survive on its own with its 7.4 million residents.

Booming cities in rapidly-growing countries (like Lagos, Nigeria) and disproportionately wealthy coastal or border cities in countries with political dysfunction may well decide to stake out on their own rather than remain tied to the lands around them. What, for example, does Milan think it gets from being part of Italy rather than cutting itself loose and standing on its own?

It may only take a few instances of success for the idea to catch on more broadly, and it just happened in Nicaragua, where a protest in one city has blown up into a declaration of independence.

We're living in strange times, and one of the key indicators is just how willing people are to abandon faith in old institutions. Some of them need to be jettisoned. Others -- like NATO -- still have a really important place, and we're going to miss them if they're gone.

I don't believe anything is predestined for us. I don't think any outcome is inevitable. I do think we make a mistake if we think things are going to continue invariably the way we're used to them going (they won't). I also think we're mistaken if we think the choices of the past won't have consequences, sooner or later (I'm looking at you, entitlement spending).

People are always going to look for identity and meaning and belonging, and that can't be changed because it's hard-wired into human nature. What interests me is the question of what will supply those things in a world of shifting allegiances and tidal-force changes that we almost never talk about. We don't talk about them because they move too slowly to make for catchy news reports -- but then again, most of us don't talk about why certain people are our best friends, either. Meaningful things don't always happen in high-impact events -- like close friendships, the really important things often evolve very slowly over a very long time.

Local bonds are going to matter more in the future, worldwide, even as communities change -- and the Constitutional federal system is uniquely robust for that, so true federalism is going to be one of America's advantages in the years ahead, as long as we're smart enough to stick with it.

Meanwhile, bonds of interest -- whether it's among global biotech researchers or insurance execs or drone enthusiasts or Catholics, really however you define yourself -- are all going to matter more in ways that could never have been expressed before our hyper-connected, globalized world came into being.

We're also going to encounter more challenges in turning away when things go wrong. Think of the videos that have emerged from Syria after poison-gas attacks. Pictures of stores being looted in Venezuela as food runs out. The global cooperative investigative effort into Russia's shootdown of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Never before has there been so little opportunity to turn away from what's happening anywhere on the planet.

This isn't to say that things are going to turn sour. Quite the opposite; opportunity has opened up like never before. And it raises a question: Did people in the Renaissance know they were living in it?

We truly are in the middle of a second renaissance, judging from the radical improvements in so many measures of human life. But if we treat this like another dark age (as some people want to do), that's our own fault, and it's to the detriment of our kids and grandkids. We can't be so blinkered, so narrow-minded, that we treat it like a dark age. We do have to grapple, though, with the radically unpredictable consequences of a renaissance. A new enlightenment age is possible -- but not guaranteed. Many material things will get better, as if on auto-pilot. But will we do our part to improve on human nature, too?