The Rise and Fall of the 21st Century “City
States”: The Emerging Strategic Factor
Published in Defense & Foreign
Affairs Special Analysis: November
Large urban groupings — the super-cities — are the great
strategic phenomena of the current Age of Global Transformation. They represent,
for the first time in history, the reality that most of the critical masses of
humanity dwell in concentrations set apart from the areas which are critical to
their physical survival: those areas which produce their food and gather their
water, generate their resources of energy and building supplies.
The great urban gatherings of people
now drive history, and they are at war — in many senses and at many levels —
with the scattered populations who dwell in the countryside. This must be so,
because the urban dwellers, residing in complex social organisms, demand a far
greater share than ever before of resources. They are driven and characterized
by wealth, or the hope of wealth, and by the needs of the immediate; even when
“instant gratification” is not possible, but merely desired.
Urbanity is, by definition, also an
abstract characteristic, focused on artificially-constructed realities. Life is
organized around manmade constructs, such as capital and credit, and wealth
creation based on factors removed from the basic elements of species survival.
No longer do urban dwellers need to grow food or hunt to eat; no longer are they
dependent on the seasons. These things — the foodstuffs and raw materials of
survival — are the tribute delivered whole from the hinterland.
Urban hierarchies are based around
different priorities (and therefore the logic of their survival differs) from
those of the farmer, hunter and gatherer. And as the logic of survival differs,
so, too, do customs and morality, those characteristics which emerge from logic
as the mechanisms of species survival and differ among societies because of
varying geographic demands.
The conflict — or, at best, dynamic
tension — between urban society and rural society is, therefore, inevitable and
multi-faceted. Not only must there be a fundamental difference in priorities and
thought processes, the growing numbers and economic power of the cities demand
more and more output of food, minerals, energy, water, and the timbers and
materials of construction from the rural societies and landscape. Thus, in
Western or modern societies — nation-states built around structures of
sovereignty refined only in the past few centuries and defined by geography once
dominated by rural priorities — the great urban gatherings now dominate.
Gradually, over the past few thousand years, cities became the tail which wagged
the dog; now they are the dog.
As organisms, cities vote and act
differently than rural areas, because their needs and priorities are different
from each other. And the great urban masses — democracies — have become the
thing which Plato feared most: mobs. But they are mobs as Plato never imagined;
semi-literates and literates who have abstracted themselves from the basic
realities of how species have historically survived, and they now follow new
dogma, breaking from traditional beliefs.
And the rural areas, too, have
become mobs with different group characteristics. In areas of low population
density which remain impoverished and with less hope — but now with exposure to
images which create feelings of insecurity, dreams of wealth, and the substance
of envy — the mobs are often more primal, less literate, and driven also by a
less complex sense of hierarchy and survival. They cling to older dogma, which
relates to the logic of survival in their particular climes.
In modern nation states (remnants of
older, integrated societal structures), rural and urban society still represent
mutually dependent aspects of the same organism because technological force
multipliers and wealth spread also to rural areas. But in less wealthy,
scattered societies, there is a visceral fear of the internecine byways of
Cities in many respects seem, to
less complex societies, to represent an almost insanely indecipherable,
illogical departure from the need to survive through human cooperation at a
basic level. Thus, poorer, traditional, rural societies — which perceive their
very identity, worth, and literal survival to be at risk from modern societies —
often declare actual war with urbanization and modernity. This is the primary
thrust of jihadism’s war with modern society.
Bear in mind, however, that it was
“modern society” itself which first declared war on the vast, sparse-peopled
tracts, demanding more and more of their wealth to sustain the cities.
In this Age of Global
Transformation, the division is characterized by fear of modernization and
change in traditional society, and self-absorption and constantly growing demand
for food and resources in urban society. Population growth has been the driver
for this inevitable and ultimate “perfection” of the move toward urbanization
which haltingly began and continued after the end of the last Ice Age with the
creation of agriculture and the gathering of peoples into nodal towns and cities
to trade the products of the farmers.
But now, in the 21st Century, as
China’s and India’s overwhelming populations discover the power of urbanization
already pivotal in Western and modern societies, the process has passed a
greater milestone. The question now becoming evident — and why globalization
spawned the current Age of Global Transformation — is whether the urban-rural
balance can hold even within what we call the modern, Westphalian-style
nation-state, let alone between industrial societies and traditional societies,
or whether conflict in many forms between them becomes total.
What this conflict has as its stake
is control of the resources for continued population growth. Inevitably, as the
conflict peaks, then so does wealth creation crest, and with it the ability of
the urban societies to grow and to dominate the rural sources of supply of the
essentials of survival.
At this point, as we are seeing now,
the artificial borders of societies — nation-states — change or become
meaningless; population growth will ultimately cease, or pause, and begin to
reverse itself by “natural” means, and the linear growth in wealth will become
erratic and falter. Research and development, and scientific progress, will no
longer occur in the “inevitable” path we had come to expect.
We are already seeing the “natural”
population levels — sustained through childbirth and prolonged life expectancy —
diminish in Western Europe and Australia, with overall figures sustained only by
inward immigration. But cities themselves, described by former French President
Georges Clemenceau in his book, Demosthenes, as “caldrons, full of the
ideal and of the basely turbulent, to which all the sorcerers … brought their
spells”, build, even in Western Europe and Australia (as elsewhere), while rural
populations diminish, and these cities build within themselves their own
cancers. The culture of immediate sensory gratification, which supplants or
erodes the patience of religious devotion, can transform the urban unemployed,
dissatisfied, or misfits into corrosive revolutionaries.
The massive flow of rural Chinese
populations into the massive and growing cities threatens the national
leadership with a situation where, unless the supply of food, water, and
opportunities continues to slake demand, revolution could brew anew. The
parallel with the situation — including the growth of cities, industrialization,
and national upheaval — which led to the 1911 revolution against Imperial
Chinese leaders is starkly clear. China’s 21st Century leaders, at national
level and in all the cities, are aware of the wild river of history on which
So in all of this, cities have
become the battleships of population strategy and politics: great ships of
state, armored with wealth and authority. It is not surprising that cities
proved to be the decisive structures in the growth of power and civilization in
ancient Hellenistic times, and it is unsurprising now, for some of the same and
for some different reasons, that cities are the decisive elements of the early
21st Century, unresponsive to anything but their own sense of destiny.
But, as with the times of Hellas,
dangers lurk. The rise again of cities as nodes of great power presages merely
the turning of human destiny, as before, toward a time when the immovable
fortresses of human concentration discover their vulnerability to mobile masses.
These mobile societies are essentially the peoples who have deemed themselves
(or are deemed) not part of the urban hierarchies.
We are not yet again at that point,
however, and for now the cities seem — as they did before Athens and Pella and
the monuments of Ozymandias became rubble — invulnerable to the passage of time,
other than to grow with it. And grow they do at an unprecedented rate and
Cities — urban masses — are complex
structures full of self-importance, prestige, ponderous processes and
established hierarchies. Cities, significantly, create an ethos of their own,
which often among their populations replaces religious beliefs which evolved in
times and societies closer to the lives of rural societies, to lesser or greater
degrees. Cities establish hierarchies and life-affecting priorities which are
more vital to their sense of day-to-day survival of their citizens, rather than
thinking in terms of broader, national dependencies.
Cities are, for the most part,
focused on consumption, and reprocessing of materials to add value to them, and
on the function of command and management. These processes reinforce the
abstraction of their societies from the more direct functions of rural, or
non-urban, life which focuses more on extracting the essence of human survival
It is little wonder that, when young
adults move from rural homes to the big cities, parents worry whether their
children can retain the values, faiths, and beliefs instilled in more simple,
reflective, and less intensively populated areas. Significantly, centers of
unrest in expanding urban centers — such as those of China in 1911 and today —
focus often around the discontent among the unemployed or disenfranchised in the
“imported villages” which are created by rural immigrants to the cities.
Cities have, because the logic of
urban survival demands it, a way of supplanting traditional beliefs and
reinforcing the power of immediate grandeur. The urban belief system focuses on
visible — relatively short-term, but nonetheless complex — gratification,
eschewing the patience of the more evenly-patterned countryside. There in the
cities, among the intense closeness of like-minded fellows, dwell the sophists
and navel-gazers, convinced of their omnipotence.
Little wonder, too, that the great
religions were often the product of visionaries in the harsh, solitary
environment of deserts and particularly open skies and vistas, where deep,
longer-term philosophical thought and introspection was the only relief
And equally, little wonder that
cities brought forth great scientific thought and literature, given the stimulus
of diverse minds gathered and communicating. But wealth, intellect, and great
construction often fall before the concentrated force of visionary zeal,
particularly when cities become paralyzed by self-importance, self-indulgence
and a reluctance to fight for their own survival.
Cities — the development of which is
by definition abstract, with all supply of the vitals for survival
“subcontracted” to rural societies — have traditionally also “subcontracted”
security to what have become national soc- ieties, the armed forces. So
cities, operating remotely from, and often disdaining, both rural societies and
“national societies” such as the armed forces, often fail to value that on which
they depend for sustenance and protection. And now, because of the shift of
predominant power to the cities, we see that urban-dominated governments,
preoccupied with their own needs and importance, make decisions more to consume
than to produce; more to spend power than to protect and build it.
Understanding the great schism
between the polar elements of human social groupings — a schism which grows as
directly and as rapidly as urbanization grows — is the key to understanding how
sovereignty and power will change over the course of the 21st Century. It is the
key to understanding how, and why, for example, terrorism forms and is sustained
as individuals and societies fight not only to retain or build a sense of
identity and identity security, but also to retain their actual ability to
survive down the generations in the face of the demands and threats of the
Understanding this inevitable schism
also lays open the path to planning how societies can manage change.