THINK ABOUT IT: WOULD THE ARAB SPRING HAVE OCCURRED in the countryside, or the Occupy movement, for that matter? There was a reason Chairman Mao banished millions to the countryside in 1949 during the Cultural Revolution, or why Chairman Stalin forcibly removed most of the political activists to Siberian isolation.
There is a pattern to this, as when Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf of his, “dislike for that mammoth city (Vienna), which greedily attracts men to its bosom, in order to break them mercilessly in the end.” It was fundamental to Nazi philosophy that the grand movement from the countryside to the city had weakened the Aryan race to the point where a cleansing was required – a justification for Hitler to be the one to lead it.
Revolutions and renaissance in any age were largely driven on the fact that citizens had to come together in sufficient numbers to prompt governing or military forces to sit up and take notice. Political tumult often originated in rural areas, especially in much earlier times, but with the eventual rise of cities and city states, the threat to hardened power became acute, specifically because more citizens were living closer together. It made it easier to be educated, to culturally celebrate, to fund important institutions, and to press for the organized betterment of human living.
But it also made possible organized rebellions on a scale unknown previously in history. There were more places to hide and build a movement, more opportunity to locate funders and gifted writers, and, above all, there were more centralized institutions from which to press for change. It is one thing for any powerful government to come up against individual citizens, but to stand against empowered individuals and organized institutions is another thing entirely.
Even as city as placid and conventional as London, Ontario received a lesson in this only weeks ago. An initiative to extend a college campus into the downtown sector was defeated in a close vote by city council. What had seemed like a no-brainer was suddenly transcended by a non-enlightened politics. But in a rare occurrence, many in the community fought back against their political masters through both creativity and a joining of forces between citizens and some of the city’s largest institutions. It worked, but even if the revisiting hadn’t succeeded, the political culture was changed that day, as politicians looked up at a packed gallery and realized they no longer had an open field in which to operate at their leisure.
Regardless of how one sees it, the process of city life is largely a political one. Citizens and groups that have learned to co-operate together serve as a natural balancing force to a politics run amok. No sooner do citizens recognize this than politics becomes relevant again, because they can’t force change on others but instead have to persuade and enhance the democratic spirit in order to succeed. The very reality that once irked jaded citizens – a dying form of politics – suddenly becomes their way forward for change. Democracy can sometimes turn on a dime, as in London that day, but it is made possible by the fact that so many citizens and organizations co-habitate in relatively confined spaces: cities.
It is ultimately for this reason that the future of democracy will be determined by cities. Those that can keep citizens from organizing, either through despondency or willful ignorance, will drag the democratic spirit in the muck – a tragic possibility we will explore in an upcoming blog. But those municipalities that discover citizens and institutions working together might well witness the rebirth of a vibrant democracy for a new era. That especially holds true if political leaders read the tea leaves and begin resourcing and promoting citizen and institutional engagement.
Are cities really that vital? Just do the math. Already the world houses 28 cities that contain over ten million people each. Almost 3 billion people in the world now live within urban parameters. For better or worse, the future of civilization will be politically determined in those areas. Each location will have a different outcome, but the ultimate success of each place will inevitably depend on the balance achieved between citizens, institutions, and how political representatives will follow their lead. Tomorrow’s truly successful civic politician will be the woman or man willing to learn from their own community.