Polis and Cosmopolis


Have we seen a glimpse in the present run of crises of how the world will end? Our world, that is – the western liberal democratic model that we somehow assume will continue into the far future (this being, as we are told, the end of history). Will we disappear not with a bang or a whimper, but a series of jolts that reveal just how fragile our civilisation is? Each one forcing an accommodation on our part, until the cumulative effect eventually pushes us over the edge. There are those who suggest that our civilisation has reached such a pitch of complexity and interdependence that a collapse is becoming increasingly likely: what we think of as our highest achievements may actually be pushing us to disaster.

I got to thinking about these ideas after a recent trip to London. No one who visits the place can fail to be struck by its global, cosmopolitan nature. It looks confidently – brashly even – out at the world, and in doing so turns its back on much of the rest of the UK. There is a huge amount of diversity in the British regions, and some fascinating ideas floating around, but London isn’t interested: it seeks a global stage because, at the end of the day, that is where the wealth and influence is.

I exaggerate of course, but there’s more than a grain of truth in the above. I mentioned in the article ‘Barbarians’ how the US currently shows a marked resemblance to Athens in its imperial phase, and it made me wonder how London fits into that picture. During the British empire London was much closer to a modern version of Rome than modern America will ever be: the British upper class took on the mantle of imperial rule as if born to it – which is precisely what they were, of course – while the middle classes happily slotted in as imperial administrators. America has neither the class system nor such an acquiescent population to carry off the trick so easily, and will probably always be doomed to hold the reins of empire uneasily. Britain, of course, is no longer a great power in the world, but whereas Rome went down with its empire London survives, and indeed prospers. So, is there a historical model for the role it appears to be trying to create for itself in the world?

If we stick with classical models I would suggest that the most suitable analogy is with one of the great Hellenistic cities – Alexandria perhaps. It has that same confidence in its place in the world even in the face of stronger global powers, and a willingness to pull in talent and money to maintain its pre-eminent position. It also shows a similar lack of interest in its own regions, except to make sure that they do its bidding and don’t cause too much trouble. London has never borne the slightest resemblance to a Greek polis, nor will it ever do so, but it could happily exist as a cosmopolitan city state in its own right, using its wits to survive in an ever changing world.

Which begs the question (for those of us who do not live in London) of whether we should just accept it for what it is, and be happy for whatever crumbs find their way back to the rest of the us. Virtually all politicians take this view, and certainly all of those who have been in power in recent years – and why not, since modern party politics is an engine that runs on money, and London has plenty of that. Surely only a fool would want to change something that is so undeniably successful?

The problem comes when one starts to take the longer view, and considers just where all of this might end. The twin problems that loom into view are sustainability and resilience. We know that our modern lifestyles are unsustainable, and that the planet is groaning under the burden imposed upon it by humanity, and London is part of the engine driving global capitalism forward. It is possible of course that political initiatives – some of them originating in London – will bring real progress on reversing the damage being caused to the earth, and global governance will take on a greener hue. I would feel more confident of London playing its part in that process if it really were like a Greek polis, because then the voice of ordinary citizens would have more chance of being heard. I know that we in the west have been far too reluctant to change our habits to help alleviate problems like climate change, and need to do much more, but if we felt we could actually make a difference I think our attitudes might change. London, however, like other centres of global influence is dominated by vested interests such as big business, and is unlikely to change its ways significantly until it has to.

Some would argue that technological breakthroughs, such as power from nuclear fusion or hugely improved crop yields courtesy of genetic modification, will eventually get us through the current crisis, and this is undoubtedly possible. Unfortunately, that simply leads us into the second problem – that of resilience. This is where our civilisation becomes so complex, and so reliant on advanced technologies and global action, that the slightest shock could cause the whole system to collapse like a house of cards. Ten thousand years ago our ancestors survived by what they could take from the land, but I doubt whether modern populations could pull off the same trick now. Perhaps it is best that London simply enjoys its global pre-eminence for now, because the future – when one considers the longer view – is distinctly uncertain.

All text and images © Insubstantial Pageant 2008