From big to small countries: “make democracy work better” in a globalized world?


From city states in the ancient Greece (the poleis from where the name politics comes) to the Empires in Europe, Asia and America that lasted for many centuries, and then to the Nation States of today, the political entities in our planet seems to have followed cycles of expansion (from small to big size) and reduction (from big again to smaller). We are not back to city states today but if we judge from the trends of fragmentation of nation states around the world it seems that we are not far away from it anymore in some way. Is this breaking up of territories and populations good or bad for democracy? Is it a normal consequence of ending not only of colonialism but also of dictatorships? I tend to believe that small can be good for democracy and development if is not isolated, but on the contrary more interconnected and interdependent with the rest of the world.

From the end of Soviet Union and Yugoslavia a couple of decades ago to the desire of independence and autonomy in many regions of the ex-colonies (Aceh, South Sudan, Kashmir, Kurdistan etc.) or even in our ‘western’ democracies (like next referendum for independence in Scotland) human populations are striving for their self-determination, self-government and self-development. And this seems actually not only rightful for a more free and democratic future but also useful for a better wellbeing of human communities. Besides the “imperial overstretch” (1) and all the problems of managing big territories and populations, it seems clear to many analysts that carrying out economic development of smaller states or even city states (like Singapore, Monaco, Hong Kong or Macau) is easier than thinking to do it in bigger states (look to India, Indonesia or Russia, even if big size doesn’t necessarily mean difficult growth as China show us). So can we say that last century ideas of Leopold Kohr (‘The breakdown of nations’, 1957) Jane Jacobs (‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’, 1961) E. F. Schumacher (‘Small is beautiful’, 1973) or John Friedman (‘Empowerment: The Politics of Alternative Development’, 1992) are still very much actual and important to build our sustainable economies? Or in reality in the era of globalization small sizes are not adapt anymore and will be wiped out by the big giants? The importance of European integration has been supported in recent years also because of this concept that alone no European state could compete with the big countries of the world. In reality we know that ‘smaller’ is more manageable and if it is able to find a niche and increase the interdependence and integration with “the rest”, the smaller size of a village respect to an ‘alpha city’ or of a city-state respect to a continent-state doesn’t necessarily means to succumb to the great powers in the planetarization of markets. The examples of economies of the scale of Asian tigers or European countries outside EU is there to demonstrate it.

But besides the positive effects on economy we also know that human beings living in human scale communities are able to create a more participatory democracy in their territory (think only to the Swiss villages that can decide directly for many policies affecting their communities) and so our societies could think to facilitate such environments and systems if they strive for more democratic and sustainable futures. The great political scientist Robert Putnam (2) argued that to make democracy work we need a high level of ‘social capital’, the famous concept based on a civic engagement through associations of active citizens who care about the “public thing” and so become able to control the controller (the politicians and their policies). But is today possible the existence of a social capital in a globalized world? Should we build it in our cities and our communities, in order to “think globally and act locally” or do we need to create it in the global village, in the international settings, to allow us to “think and act both globally and locally” at the same time?

It is difficult to say it but one thing is certain: in a ‘liquid society’ like the one we are living now nation states cannot stay attached only to the status quo of their national sovereignty and national interest. They need to open to integration and decentralization (international organizations and local institutions) at the same time if they want to survive transforming themselves and rebirthing in a new era of political entities. The task is not easy and is the challenge for the future of our communities: to find the balance in complexity between local and global, small and big, communal and world scale. And to “make democracy work better” we need to look for harmony and equilibrium between small and connected at the same time: small is more and more useful but isolated is more and more dangerous, in all senses (3).

(1) The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Paul Kennedy, 1987
(2) Making democracy work, Robert Putnam, 1993

(3) Just as example look at the two probable extremes of the spectrum between connected and isolated: EU and ISIS.


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