the European city as site of citizenship

I met yesterday with a German visitor, a former mayor as well as an activist shaped by the sixties and by direct exposure to the Frankfurt School. We talked about European self-governing cities as sites of citizenship.

There is a very old tradition of autonomous or quasi-autonomous European cities, governed by guilds and associations (corporations; comuni; freie Städte). It was in the medieval Italian city-states that civic republicanism was reborn, in imitation of classical ideals of eloquent deliberation, military and civilian service, and mutual obligation. Autonomous European cities also built an impressive array of institutions: hospitals, churches, alms houses, schools, colleges, and green spaces. By the seventeenth century in the Atlantic countries, and by 1900 in Central Europe, all these cities had become subject to large nation-states, managed from their metropolitan capitals. But even in Britain, where power and population shifted early to London, the provincial cities continued to construct impressive nonprofit and public institutions that reflected and developed their local cultures and continued local traditions of governance. Lord Mayors in British cities still wear medieval or renaissance garb, for a reason.

The twentieth century, as Gordon Brown has noted , was an era of centralization. Social democrats, conservative nationalists, and even Thatcherite neoliberals all generally disparaged or ignored the traditions of civic autonomy. But those traditions could be revived–and may be reviving–as the European Union draws power away from the nation state. Brown, a Glaswegian, has explicitly evoked the civic traditions of his city in Victorian times, before his own party helped to centralize authority in London.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, “The Effects of Good Government on the Life of the City,” in the Palazzo Publico (seat of the comune), Siena

Shouldn’t we worry that citizenship defined by a town or city is exclusive? What about immigrants and other newcomers? That is a concern, but it’s worth noting that some of the old self-governing cities (from Venice to London) were highly cosmopolitan, and cosmopolitanism was basic to their identity. I recognize that London apprentices used to riot against Flemish and Huguenot migrants; and Venice coined the very word “Ghetto” as the place to lock its Jews. But there were also traditions of inclusion. I may be over-influenced by personal experience, but I happened to attend a primary school within the medieval limits of the City of London, where the Christian socialist headmaster taught his rather diverse student body to see themselves as citizens of the ancient corporation. A recent Lord Mayor of that same corporation had exactly my (Jewish) name, Peter Levine. As a child, I was proud of my American identity but could simultaneously consider myself a Londoner, because London has always been a melting pot.

But wasn’t civic government highly stratified and unequal, with local ruling classes lording it over local proletariats? Again, that’s a real concern; but I would offer two responses. First, cities should not be completely autonomous. They should be taxed, regulated, and funded by higher levels of government whose principles include fairness and equality. Second, although I favor equality, I also believe that the owners of capital need discretion and will always have a privileged position. So our goal should not be to remove inequality but to tie the interests of the wealthy to those of the community. The wealthy class in a proud and quasi-autonomous city is more embedded and accountable than the wealthy class in a large nation state or an international market.

Finally, as Steve Elkin argues, municipal politics is an excellent school of democratic citizenship. The scale is big enough, and the institutions are formal enough, that every kind of issue arises–from economic redistribution to morals to global warming. But the scale is modest enough that problems are concrete and citizens have opportunities for personal leadership and face-to-face interaction.

Overall, this is an argument for what the Europeans call subsidiarity (pushing authority down to the lowest practicable level) as way to address the “democracy deficit” and restore a sense of active citizenship.