Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Smaller Sovereignties

In the wake of learning about the death of Jane Jacobs (link via Ed), I read this interesting interview with her, over at CounterPunch.

It's at first surprising to learn that she favored Quebec's separatism, but in her reasoning it makes perfect sense:
In 1979 and 1980, Jane Jacobs reached the conclusion that Quebec sovereignty was necessary because of her understanding of how cities emerge and how they influence the development of nations. She looked specifically at Montreal and Toronto and foresaw the regionalization of Montreal, making it into a sort of feeder for Toronto as regional airports are to a hub. “In sum,” she wrote, “Montreal cannot afford to behave like other Canadian regional cities without doing great damage to the economic well-being of the Quebecois. It must instead become a creative economic centre in its own right… Yet there is probably no chance of this happening if Quebec remains a province.”
Jacobs discusses the separation of Norway from Sweden in the early 20th century, which she says was positive for both countries, before the discussion moves on to Europe generally. I've long been suspicious of the unification of Europe; it's often argued that it's necessary, if only to combat the overweening power of the United States. Perhaps. But, the fierce opposition in France and in Ireland should give one pause (as should Big Money's overwhelming support for the EU in general). On balance, I tend to agree with Jacobs, who
is not terribly impressed by the blurring of national sovereignties and currencies in Europe. “I think it’s a mistake for all these Western European countries to blot out so many currencies in favor of who knows which one will win out, maybe Frankfurt. It will not favor all those countries. Europe had something really wonderful going for it with the different currencies. Look at all the development in Europe over so many centuries. They did get into those wars and pretty well ruined it. But they also had an awful lot of relationships which didn’t involve fighting each other, but involved learning from each other, and building on each others’ successes.”

Cities must relate to each other and flourish as equals according to Jane Jacobs. That explains why European cities like Paris, Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Berlin have all had important roles, because of their independence and their equal stages of development. When cities trade with each other, they require this kind of independence or else one becomes a supplier of the other and the relationship takes on some of the terrible aspects of empire, supply cities being bound to trade exclusively with the metropolitan city

Among the many lessons to be drawn from David Harvey's excellent study A Brief History of Neoliberalism (about which I plan to post at more length soon) is the idea that, with the dominant neoliberal policies, there is a lot of noise about "freedom", but the notion of freedom has almost completely been reduced in the popular imagination to "freedom of consumer choice" and other such limited conceptions, and people have internalized the alleged virtues of the freedom of capital to do as it pleases so that other ways of organizing things are literally unimaginable. The periphery is ever more subservient to the "center"--in this case meaning that resources are depleted in poorer countries for the sole enhancement of rich countries, with the poor effectively "paying tribute" (one of Harvey's favorite phrases) to the rich. Without economic independence, the freedom for regions to pursue independent courses is impossible, nominal political independence is moot.

In the interview, Jacobs talks of "nations" fighting for and/or gaining independence (Croats, Slovenians, French-Canadians). This is how the issue is invariably framed, but I think that it's highly problematic to think of sovereignty only in terms of nationality (Israel/Palestine and the problems in the former Yugoslavia strike me as emblematic of this). However, I think it's very true that social and economic organization work much better in smaller units. Back to the interview; Jacobs
developed the idea of smaller sovereignties in her recent book Dark Age Ahead. In it she explains how early medieval cities helped pull Europe out of the Dark Age because of subsidiarity, the principle that government works best when it is closest to the people it serves and the needs it addresses, and fiscal accountability, the principle that institutions collecting and disbursing taxes work most responsibly when they are transparent to those providing money. Both of these principles have almost disappeared from the modern world.
Dark Age Ahead sounds interesting (admittedly, I should probably finish reading her classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities first before getting to that one). These themes dovetail nicely with my growing interest in Anarchism; I'll be exploring them in more detail in the coming months. In that context, I also hope to finally get around to posting something halfway intelligent about Murray Bookchin's Anarchism, Marxism, and the Future of the Left before too much more time has passed.

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