connections[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

I recently attended a conference in Nanjing, China, hosted by the Hopkins-Nanjing Center and organized our fellow Porcher, Adam Webb. You can read a short summary of the conference here; for my part, in the midst of meeting new people and seeing new sites, I found it a wonderful opportunity to reflect on cities on a very different–and far more cosmopolitan–scale than has been the case in most of my work on urban communities so far. Specifically, it made me thing about “global cities”–and whether there might be a sense in which a world dominated by connections between them, rather than by state governments, might open up some genuine anarchic possibilities of the sort any localist ought to be attentive to. I am including a parsed down version of my presentation at that conference here:

Numerous scholars from a variety of different perspectives in political theory, urban studies, and international relations have, over the past several years, surprisingly come to rather similar conclusions, whether implicitly or explicitly. First, they argue that the classic Westphalian nation-state, with its attendant notions of territoriality and sovereignty, simply cannot adequately respond to the challenges which contemporary developments in globalization pose. Sovereign states, these scholars claim, inevitably frame problems which are transnational in scope–such as climate change, economic inequality, ideologically motivated terrorism, and more–in terms of state bureaucratic interests which the speed and multidimensionality of contemporary technology, trade, and communication have rendered at best inefficient, at worst irrelevant. Presumably therefore, a new system or basis for global governance must be conceived. Second, they argue that the basic elements for this new system are already in place, and have been in place for a long time: cities. Globalization has enabled commercial and informational transactions–as well as the flow of peoples and goods–to proceed along lines which are increasingly distinct from sovereign borders, and cities are the social and economic hubs through which all these transactions and flows are made manifest. Hence, the coming post-sovereign world order will necessarily be city-centric, which will to a degree be a return to the roots of Western political thought–with its emphasis upon the polis, or the classic city-state. These cities will, of course, not resemble those idealized republican communities; the global cities of today and the foreseeable future will be, for the most part, sprawling megacities with huge populations and massive wealth, containing within them the headquarters of multinational corporations, government agencies, and major financial institutions, and providing jobs for millions of people employed in finance, insurance, real estate, banking, accountancy, marketing, and all their supporting industries. It is cities of this sort, if the aforementioned scholars are correct, which will form the nodes of the cosmopolitan order of the 21st century and beyond.

There is a great deal which this evolution of globalization forces us to reflect upon, both theoretically and practically. Here, I ask only two inter-related questions. The first is what a move away from global assumptions which prioritize the history and capacities of territorial states, and towards one which prioritizes an interlocked networks of commercial cities, will mean for how we think about freedom and order. The second is the how to find, in that different sense of order, the sort of civic resources which notions of popular government have long depended, and whether classic Confucian ideas about education might suggest an answer.

First, regarding the nature of freedom in such a potential future, one frequently repeated theme in the literature on this topic is that a post-sovereign, city-centric perspective will be more open to the many overlapping and inconsistent ways in which social and economic order are realized in the life of cities. Of course, that assumes that “post-sovereignty” and “order” are, in fact, compatible, which is debatable; it has long been assumed by many observers that outside of very small and very homogeneous communities, claims of sovereign power–that is, in the Weberian sense, the successful centralization of the legitimate use of force in rationally determined hands–is inseparable from any kind of social ordering. I dissent from this assumption, but rather than explaining my dissent at length, I will simply note the work of Michael Taylor who, in his analysis of the Weberian state, makes it clear that sovereignty cannot really mean an actual monopoly on the use of all physical force, thus underlining the importance of Weber’s qualifiers “successful” and “legitimate.” After all, no sovereign state, no matter how totalitarian, has ever been able to effectively regulate and harness all the possible forms of physical discipline, intimidation, rough-housing, or boundary-maintenance that human beings can conceive–and as much as we may fear criminal violence, very likely every citizen of modern democratic states is grateful for that fact. Taylor thus concludes that sovereignty, in the classic state sense, is in practice tied up with the concentration of force and the attempt by those in whose hands it is concentrated to specialize in its use.

If we adjust our thinking about to fit this perspective–one in which sovereignty is recognized as involving primarily the rather narrow delegation of coercive power into the hands of a specialized group of individuals–then we can all recognize the real world of cities today, in which numerous non-sovereign authorities and bodies contest each other over numerous overlapping jurisdictions and agendas. City life is, in this sense, profoundly anarchic, often frustrating ambiguous and changeable, with systems of ordered regulation and practice emerging and disappearing both officially and organically, all of which are regularly dependent upon individual initiatives (whether formal or informal) or small factional coordination. For some, the prospect of such inconsistent urbanity characterizing the global order of passports, airports, and shipping containers is terrifying. For others, however, it captures an important element of freedom. In Western political thought, classical republican thinkers are in the former camp, seeing in the complexity, unpredictableness, and pace of cities something which ultimately invites invasive regulation, dependency, and the loss of civic virtue. Though they would express it differently, more than a few anarchist authors have put forward similar concerns about the “mass man” which modern urbanity has introduced. But many liberal thinkers have long taken a contrary position, depicting the opportunities of city life as that which liberates individuals from poverty and social oppression. Steven Schneck captures this individualistic attitude well:

[C]onsider a line between “city” and “village.” The line is drawn well by that apocryphal 15th century peasant who claims that “Die Stadtluft macht frei!” Consider the tension revealed here between the qualities perceived in village life and those anticipated in the city. Village represents a smothering community. An homogeneity of tastes, styles and desires is inscribed on each villager’s soul by an intrusive familiarity that begins in the cradle. The village represents a life lived with intimate, ubiquitous authorities wherein all is public. City, for our peasant, offers the heterogeneity of anonymity and the possibility of private spaces resistant to intrusive, public scrutiny found in village life. In the peasant’s ideal of the city there is room for private space and authority is formal, not intimate or personal….Consider Athens on the eve of Alexander’s empire; note the distance between the experiences of its occupants and the polis of Aristotle’s Politics. For the 75,000 people who left their villages and communities for the Stadtluft of Athens’s Piraeus the appeal of city life was not corporate hierarchy and communal place. The city was not sought for its public space so much as for its private space. They saw city life as desirable for the space it offered that was relatively free from the suffocating presence of community as experienced in their village living.

The urban writings of scholars such as Jane Jacobs and Richard Sennett have explored this idea or a “heterogeneity of anonymity” at length, arguing that city life makes possible a kind of “disordered order.” For the purposes, this observation leads then to the question of what kind of civic resources can be found in the midst of such a heterogeneous, city-centric context. Assuming that some kind of non-sovereign, non-specialized social order in regards to governmental and public concerns will still be needed, we as citizens–or, as many of these scholars prefer, “residents”–will need some means of being socialized to those requirements. Throughout the history of Westphalian order, civic education played that role; here, I wonder if classical Confucian education might not provide one.

The Confucian tradition is, of course, strongly associated with moral education. But that education in particular ritual practices and social understandings, while obviously deeply rooted in a particular kind of ethical conception, is also profoundly civil. That is, it instructs people in a kind of belonging, in being part of a civil order. This is not, to be sure, the same as the civic ideal, which was to inculcate into citizens a specific affection for and attachment to the state which granted them citizenship, and from that affection and attachment make it possible for the civic virtues necessary for responsible popular government–including social trust, a sense of service, and a devotion to the common good–to arise. One cannot simply translate this tradition into a context where state citizenship has either disappeared or at least has taken a back seat to a networked governmental system of numerous cities around the globe. It is true that some scholars, like Martha Nussbaum, argue that civic virtues of the Western tradition are in fact cosmopolitan in character, but this is not a persuasive claim. The prophets of a more anarchic, more interdependent, postmodern world of cities need to present an argument for attachment that would be not at all connected to sovereign civic constructions, but rather to a kind of abiding civil constructivity, one that could be collectively realized in the diverse circumstances of an overlapping and world-wide urban order.

Words like “anarchy,” “interdependent,” and “postmodern” probably do not strike most non-specialists as at all relatable to Confucianism, which has been long assumed to be traditional, hierarchical, and indeed, in many ways, perfectly amendable to ideas of sovereign domination. But while there are many historical reasons to support this assumption, the philosophical reasons to do so are not nearly so conclusive. The scholarship on Confucian thought and practice is far less conservative than many would at first believe. Rather than attempting to summarize it, let me briefly explain how these Confucian ideals, contained in its particular educational tradition, can relate to the needs of a non-state-based, non-civic, broadly civil context, by way of quoting a passage from the Confucian classic, The Great Learning:

The ancients who wished to manifest their clear character to the world would first bring order to their states. Those who wished to bring order to their states would first regulate their families. Those who wished to regulate their families would first cultivate their personal lives. Those who wished to cultivate their personal lives would first rectify their minds. Those who wished to rectify their minds first make their wills sincere. Those who wished to make their wills sincere would first extend their knowledge. The extension of knowledge consists in the investigation of things. When things are investigated, knowledge is extended; when knowledge is extended, the will becomes sincere; when the will is sincere, the mind is rectified; when the mind is rectified, the personal life is cultivated; when the personal life is cultivated, the family will be regulated; when the family is regulated, the state will be in order; and when the state is in order, there will be peace throughout the world. From the Son of Heaven down to the common people, all must regard cultivation of the personal life as the root or foundation.

Now all of these steps are hierarchical; that is undeniable. But they are also more than merely hierarchical. L.H.M. Ling argues that the best interpretation of these steps in connection to the larger civil order is to analyze them along two axes: a “vertical-moral” one, reflecting the authority of the cultural-linguistic core embodied in those who become educated as to the virtuous performance of their place within a given community (as a parent, child, friend, minister, etc., reflecting here the Confucian doctrine of the Five Bonds), as well as a “horizontal-geographic” one, reflecting the physical space, and its relation to other spaces, that a given community literally occupies. Looking at the history of Chinese political relations with other states throughout the centuries where Confucian teachings defined the official policies of the empire, Ling sees multiple layers of sociality (“vassals,” “neighbors,” etc.), leading her to the conclusion that, within the Confucian tradition, “territorial borders” were in fact “instantiations of social borders.”

Membership in a state–identifying oneself as a citizen of a particular state, in other words–would therefore, as incorporated into this kind of education and “civilizing” scheme, be an incidental byproduct of the more primary task of coming to a knowledge of and properly naming one’s own social relations; the consequences of such an educated realization and performance of one’s nature would then extend both upwards and downwards (implying, to borrow the terms of political science, a solidifying of legitimacy betwixt the government and the governed, whether in a family, an office, an association, or an empire), as well as outwards (implying solidarity and mutual collective identification with ones fellow members). These are virtues wholly relevant to the maintenance of any particular civic body, though they are, in this case, substantively “civil” in nature, and do not make state citizenship a necessary prerequisite to their expression.

Moreover, to continue with ideas that draw upon the study of politics, one might argue that the dimensions which such ritually informed relationships and communities involve all educated individuals in–a moralistic, and therefore vertical or hierarchical, one, as well as a spatial, and therefore horizontal or social, one as well–invoke a “constitutionalist dimension” along with an “educative” one. The discipline of a Confucian education, when fully and linguistically performed, takes the form of “institutional mechanisms” which both establish a disciplined relationship between the governed and the government, and educated a people into a proper regard for (and expectation of) the restraint and reach of that government. This is all highly speculative, of course. But it does suggest, for those who may be concerned about such things, that the eclipse of a state-based sovereign order, and its gradual replacement with a more anarchic and interdependent city-based one, need not mean the end of constitutionalism or even most civic virtues. Assuming we can find a way to slowly, haphazardly accept an ethic of civil order, a world of cities might not only be more free in an individualistic sense than our current one, but it might not be lacking in the blessings of membership and mutuality as well.

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  1. It’d be interesting to hear your thoughts on talking about such matters in a country that is more an empire than a nation-state, and an authoritarian, if not totalitarian, one at that. Your final paragraph seems particularly relevant to events of the past few months in Hong Kong, and would seemingly not go over particularly well if written by a Chinese academic rather than an American one.

    Regarding your references to Confucianism, the concept of the rectification of names seems to be an idea we in the modern world desperately need to become familiar with, particularly in how we listen to our politicians, for whom gibberish and double-speak and outright lies are the coin of the realm.

  2. Brian,

    Thanks for the comment, and you’re more right than you know. Perhaps Adam will weigh in here himself (and frankly, as it was partly his show, maybe he should be the one to do so), but I can say that there was a genuine divide at the conference, between people looking at these phenomena and developments from a rather critical point of view (almost all of them Westerners) and then others, scholars who were also party members in the PRC, who took a much more aggressively pro-China, empire building (but an empire with a difference, better than America!) line. It was rather fascinating to watch. Actually, probably my favorite presentations along these lines came from Pakistani scholars, who saw themselves as dealing with two countries with global ambitions (India as well as China; the “dragon and the elephant,” as one put it!).

    As for your point about the rectification of names, having just come through a typically swamped-with-misinformation election season here in Kansas, I couldn’t agree more!

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