The Devolution Revolution

06/09/2015 04:16 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2016

A governance revolution is underway, founded on the irresistible rise of cities and the ongoing decline of sovereign nation states. That revolution is already evident in countries from Italy and France to China and the United States, but it has received official certification from the newly reelected Tory government in the United Kingdom, which has pronounced the "old model" of running everything from 10 Downing Street "broken." Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne is promising a "Cities Devolution Bill" and, in the Queen's Speech to Parliament last week, announced a "revolution in how we govern England" that will "deliver radical devolution to the great cities of England," giving them the "levers to grow their local economy."

In remarks given at the top of One World Trade Center to the opening of the World Cities Summit in New York (sponsored by Singapore), Mayor Bill de Blasio noted rather delicately that cities and their national governments do not always see eye to eye. And then this zinger: "[A]nd when national governments fail to act on crucial issues like climate, cities have to do so."

Devolution to cities is both policy and fact. It is happening and is increasingly being embraced by governments desperate to see action in a world paralyzed by ideology and cant. It represents a powerful change for political parties previously wedded to privatization and marketization as cures to what ails central government, for it brings to an end the Reagan/Thatcher era of market fundamentalism, with its myth that private markets can do everything better than public governments. This change opens a chapter in the history of democracy in which public power is localized but not privatized and thus made more, rather than less, democratic. In Osborne's description, when people feel "remote from the decisions that affect their lives," it's "not good for our prosperity or our democracy."

The difference between, on the one hand, devolving power from central authorities to local authorities who are democratically elected and answerable to the popular sovereign and, on the other, privatizing power, which renders it undemocratic, unaccountable and politically illegitimate, could not be more salient. The aim of privatization was to undermine public goods and weaken government and, in doing so, democracy. The aim of devolution is to enhance public goods and strengthen democracy.

The quarrel is no longer with democracy but with the cumbersome and ever-less-efficient nation state. Jean Monnet, the visionary of the European community, once said that the sovereign central state was too big for participation (which was local) and too small for power (which was global). Decentralizing power and enhancing the public authority of municipalities is the first step to reasserting participation and accountability. The second necessary step is cooperation among networked municipalities -- a deployment of collective urban power that can create a democratic counterpart to global private power.

The rise of cities is hardly news. Social scientists like Bruce Katz, Saskia Sassen, Eric Corijn, Richard Florida, Ed Glaeser, Manuel Castells and Richard Sennett have been writing about it for decades. But acknowledging their rise by recognizing the authority cities wield and the right they possess to greater autonomy and resources is new. That a Tory government now insists British cities should have elected mayors (most do not) and far greater authority in matters of education, finance and other domains is startling. Yet the enthusiasm for urban autonomy and the building of effective metro-regions is hardly just British or just a desperate reaction to Scottish nationalism.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy -- formerly a mayor of Florence -- recently succeeded in pushing through a constitutional reform that replaced the traditional and ever-more-obsolete Italian provinces with nine core metro-regions, now to be represented in a reformed Italian Senate. In France, the city of Paris has recognized that its 20 wealthy inner-city arrondissements must learn to live with and share the problems of the outlying banlieues where so many marginalized immigrants live. A grande metropole Paris is envisioned that empowers the neighborhoods by increasing the power and jurisdiction of the whole. In centralized China, where the Communist Party fears national disintegration above all, cities are nonetheless being given greater local authority in economic, environmental and other affairs. And in a United States where the federal government has closed its doors twice in the last few years, and where Congress is a parody of governmental incapacity, cities are taking up the slack.

The revolution has started. In 1776, the American colonists protested that the English monarch no longer exercised sovereignty on behalf of their lives, liberties and estates, that in effect English sovereignty was in default. Today, the cities of the world, where more than half the world's population lives, and where 80 percent of its wealth is generated, are protesting that the nations to which they are subsidiary no longer are able to guarantee their long-term sustainability in the face of climate change, nuclear proliferation, global disease and unjust global markets, that in the face of dysfunctional national governments and a new default of sovereignty, it is their inherent right to assume the responsibilities of common governance necessary to sustaining their citizens. To do this, they must avail themselves of the legion of urban networks from the UCLG and the C40 to Metropolis, CityNet and the World Cities Summit already in play. But they must also forge new institutions to assure their common and global interests.

The new model is already on the table. In London next October, a new democratic governing body representing cities will convene. This inaugural Global Parliament of Mayors will root its legitimacy in the right of cities to offer a sustainable and just future to their citizens regardless of what states do or don't do. And this will not be the beginning of a cities revolution; it will be its very culmination.