What Could A World Without Nations Look Like?

Above: Popular assembly of the 15-M movement in Puerta del Sol, Madrid, Spain.

Steven Colatrella,  an academic who has been active in the globalization movement, has taken on an audacious task — how would people govern themselves in a world without national borders? He has put forward a draft constitution that seeks to define the 21st Century Cosmopolis. He defines this as what he hopes will become a discussion about what the future could be. His vision is for:

A Civilization based on Self-Governing Cities and Townships, Cooperative Self-Governed Workplaces and Public Finance, Sustainable Agriculture and Renewable Energy and Universal Access to Citizenship, Income and Subsistence. And how we can start it up now and already have in many places.

You can read the Constitution,The 21st Century Cosmopolis: A Proposed Constitution for a Better World here.

The Paris Commune (French: La Commune de Paris) was a government that briefly ruled Paris from March 18 (more formally, from March 28) to May 28, 1871. It existed before the split between anarchists and Marxists had taken place, and it is hailed by both groups as the first assumption of power by the working class during the Industrial Revolution. Debates over the policies and outcome of the Commune contributed to the break between those two political groups.

The Paris Commune (French: La Commune de Paris) was a government that briefly ruled Paris from March 18 (more formally, from March 28) to May 28, 1871. It existed before the split between anarchists and Marxists had taken place, and it is hailed by both groups as the first assumption of power by the working class during the Industrial Revolution. Debates over the policies and outcome of the Commune contributed to the break between those two political groups.

In the article below, which he says will be the first of a series, he explains how urban areas and community assemblies have been common throughout efforts to transform government. He points out how recent occupy protests were named after cities — Occupy Denver, Occupy DC, Occupy Oakland or after communities, Occupy Wall Street. And how this has been a long term experience, e.g. the Paris Commune, the Soviets of revolutionary era Russia (Soviet means “Council”) had local worker councils in cities. He sees the urban area — the cosmopolis — as a natural organizing entity.

And, people would be citizens of the world, free to travel and to become citizens of a cosmopolis after staying in the area for 90 days.

He realizes it is audacious for him to take on the challenge or redefining how humans live in the world and asks — “who the hell am I” to put forward a new constitution and do away with nation-states? “What did James Madison have that I don’t have?  Answer: slaves.”

Cosmopolis Explained – what this project is meant to accomplish and why these specific proposals

Below is my first attempt to elucidate the thinking behind and the sources in political practice and struggles and movements worldwide at the basis of my Cosmopolis proposal. If you have not yet seen my proposal for a universal constitutional order intended to provide a specifically political order to our collective current and recent practices, struggles, initiatives, commoning activities, and movements, it is attached to this email message, and can be found at the blog: 21stcenturycosmopolis.blogspot.it.

Soviet workers council meeting in Petrograd 1917

Soviet or “Workers Council” meeting in Petrograd 1917

My hope is twofold: that this will generate a widespread discussion and debate about what alternative institutional orders we can imagine and work for to get out of capitalism and free ourselves from the existing state powers and global governance tyrannies, and to provide a political and eminently practical vision of how our many initiatives around local subsistence like food and water sovereignty, commoning practices of all kinds, fair trade, living wage campaigns, alternative universities, renewable energy, immigrant and refugee rights campaigns, antiwar movements, and of course direct democracy movements like Occupy can be connected into horizontally linked but completely sovereign political form consistent with our principles of common ownership and management without capital or the state, ecological sustainability, equality, freedom of movement, and an end to exploitation and prisons.

What the Cosmopolis proposal is meant to accomplish:

The proposal for Cosmpolis is my attempt to address the perceived need for a political project that takes the lessons of Occupy, Indignados, the Arab Spring movements and other revolts since 2011 into account. It is also meant to address the discussions about what institutional or political form the commons can take, or how it can horizontally develop a full social order or “constituent power” that can also remain constituted.

Ancient Sumerian City

The first Sumerian cities were governed by citizen assemblies before the first kings.

I wanted to also explore some questions in a practical way:

How could national borders be abolished, yet not lead to a capitalist feeding frenzy for exploiting labor power globally?

How can that national state be “deconstructed”  with as little violence as possible and without opening the door to slavery, local notables or global corporations taking over power – that is how can we avoid fueling the anti-state rhetoric of corporate and capitalist power and neoliberal discourse while still being able to fight against the power of the state on behalf of a different political power that could control these forces of exploitation?

How could we deal with violent behavior, breaking of the rules of commoning, abuses or violations of people, theft of common goods and services (privatization), enslavement, violence against women and children and other dangerous actions without prisons or the death penalty?

How could direct democracy actually run or govern society, rather than receding into mere discussion groups leading to disaffection or alienation?

How can commoning practices and forms of commons be coordinated, linked to each other, be made to be mutually reinforcing, in a horizontal way that does not leave it informal and open to attack politically from institutions? How can these practices as a constituent power become the institutional order?

How can we move away from a view of human beings as predominantly economic, rational, game-theory type actors, acting on self-centered individualistic interests to one that presents a different view of people consistent with the what is best in the humanist traditions, but avoiding the Euro-centrism, sexism and other limits of how that project was historically developed? In particular I wanted to revitalize the idea of people as political actors, as citizens in Aristotle’s sense, but in a universal way.

A Chartist meeting at the Kennington Common in London was part of the 1848 Revolutions which were all in cities and set up city republics.

A Chartist meeting at the Kennington Common in London was part of the 1848 Revolutions which all occurred in European cities and set up city republics to govern themselves.

Finally, I wanted to answer a problem that is at the very center of our world today: the problem of human rights and of belonging to and membership in a community or society.

This is raised by Hannah Arendt in the chapter “The National State and the End of the Rights of Man”, and more recently by Giorgio Agamben. Arendt and Agamben make clear something that is more evident today than ever:  that “inalienable human rights” are not worth the paper they are written on if you have no way to enforce them. If you must depend on your national state, you are at the mercy of that state, or at the mercy of other states and their willingness to let you in and defend your rights. Since your own national state is more than likely the one you are afraid of, and since as Arendt shows the international community is likely to stigmatize refugees more than to sustain them. In any case, refugee status is precarious, it is not citizenship.

I believe that today, part of global capitalism’s “moral order” is based on the idea of “humanitarian intervention” – that NATO, the US or the UN Security Council will intervene militarily to protect your human rights by bombing your country or destabilizing your countryin reality putting your life and security in greater danger than before.

I have avoided the use of the term “rights” entirely in the writing of Cosmopolis. The entire project depends instead on two other bases: first, on what Arendt correctly addresses as the only “right” that matters – the right to belong as a citizen to some political community that one knows can be counted on to defend your rights, or to be free to go to some other political communitythat you can be a citizen of;  and what Julie Wark in “The Human Rights Manifesto”  and Peter Linebaugh in the “Magna Carta Manifesto” identify as the one right that counts and without which all others are null and void – the right to subsistence, that is to the commons. These two “rights” are best thought of as practices as Peter calls them and so “citizening” and “commoning” need to be universally available and enforceable by the very people who do them.

Participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre

Participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre

I have addressed that need as I have the other questions I raised above through the two key institutional mechanisms of Cosmopolis:  city sovereignty and universal citizenship  through free movement and the stipulation of acceptance of new arrivals and of citizenship after a 90 day residency period (echoing, but speeding up the “one year and one day” laws of medieval cities).

This is the commons plus immigrants if you like.

This leads to me explaining the principle institutional feature of Cosmopolis and why I think it iswhere we should put our specifically political efforts, the city (and the more rural township qua city as a less densely populated territory).

But first, a question arises: who the hell am I do such a perhaps arrogant or overly ambitious thing as write and circulate a proposed constitution?

I have two answers to this question:

1)      What did James Madison have that I don’t have?  Answer: slaves.

2)      Nothing in the Cosmopolis proposal is my idea, not one thing except for the synthesis, the tying these proposals together into one proposal that is mutually reinforcing and sustaining. Everything in Cosmopolis exists today somewhere or has been practiced somewhere in the world at some point or has been proposed in a serious way by others. Indeed, I have tried to be faithful to the Marxist tradition of developing theory and practical proposals (“All power to the soviets”) based on the practice of movements and struggles.

Memorial Tower for the Gwangju Democratic Uprising in South Korea in 1980 which set up 'settlement committees'

Memorial Tower for the Gwangju Democratic Uprising in South Korea in 1980 which set up ‘settlement committees’

So, about the city:

We need a political form that is immediately realizable, that does not have to be constructed from scratch in the face of a global market, and corporate, financial and state repression. The city already exists, and people can understand it as a sphere of political activity.

The city is small enough to enable to assemblies of residents in neighborhoods or in small towns to directly legislate and administer governmental power, and to delegate that authority in a controllable (by the people directly) way. The direct democracy of Occupy, Indignados and other movements can be a reality and actually govern the cities they have occupied. Lacking such a perspective meant that the movements had this as their implicit, latent project but that it was not developed because the problem seemed to be at the national and global levels. Indeed that is where the problem is, but the solution was always where the movements found themselves.
It is not an accident that the movements became movements in and of cities – Occupy Oakland, Occupy Denver, etc, and that even those movements not naming themselves for cities as in Greece, Spain and Egypt nevertheless occupied plazas, square or piazzas in major cities. The city and township are where  these movements can realize their actual meaning and potential.

The city is indeed where all such non-state political projects that have been revolutionary and directly democratic have taken place.

Even before the city, the village is where common property and management by village assembly have been practiced since ancient times. But Marx’s continual protest that this form of communism was the material basis for the despotic state in the ancient world and in modern non-capitalist countries should be taken seriously: this is what happens when the regimes of common property in every locale are not coordinated at a more universal level, the constituent or dual power becoming constituted, the political sphere itself. The villages have until now lacked the communications and transport infrastructure and the access to universally produced wealth to enable them to openly challenge the state as the political authority. With modern cell phones, the internet and other infrastructure this is less of a problem, though this concern is why Cosmopolis stresses the need for technology transfer from the global North to the South, and the need to quickly build solar roads, high speed trains, light rail etc. linking areas.

As for the cities, this has long been a privileged political area but now must become universal together with non-urban municipalities (“townships” in the Cosmopolis terminology, but I am not fixated on the terms) so that the city no longer exploits the rural area. This latter goal is accomplished by the city and township being defined as the political identity of a territory that enables cities to be at least minimally self-sufficient in basic needs like water, food and energy and some basic production, and for rural areas to include a large enough population and enough resources to provide basic services like health care, higher education, transport and access to wealth.

The Zapitistas have declared their independence from Mexico.

The Zapitistas have declared their independence from Mexico.

From the first Sumerian cities which were governed by citizen assemblies (before the first kings), to ancient Athens and Vaishali, to the Italian and Belgian city republics of the middle ages and Renaissance, to the 1848 Revolutions which were all in cities and set up city republics, to the Paris Commune to the 1877 Railroad Strike in the US when workers took over and ran cities, to the Soviets of 1905 and 1917 – which we too easily forget were city governments of workers, to the Seattle General Strike of 1919, to Barcelona in 1936, to the Kwangju uprising of 1980 in South Korea, to Tiananmen Square,  Porto Alegre’s participatory budgeting, to Occupy and the other movements of the past few years, from Thailand (the “Red Shirts” movement) to Egypt to Greece,  to the autonomous Good Government Towns of the Zapatistas, the city has been a major, perhaps the key site of revolution, direct democracy, and the possibilities of another world.

The city already has some degree of commitment on the part of its residents. It can hold people’s loyalties and provide them a sense of belonging.

And it is not the national state. Here it has other qualities that are to be preferred: the city and even the township are cosmopolitan in ontology if not always in practice – they do not pretend to the ethnic homogeneity of national states with their origin myths. They do not require exclusion of ethnic minorities in the way that nations do. They do not even really have borders, the walled medieval cities notwithstanding. Cities have always been more diverse than other geographic entities – the earliest Sumerian cities that we know of had Semitic populations together with the Sumerians (whom we know almost nothing about).

And, by changing the scale of political authority and power to the city, we can, to use an Italian term “de-dramatize” the issue of borders and immigration. If people enter the US from Mexico there are only two options, you stay in Mexico or enter the US. If they go from North Africa to Southern Europe the same logic applies. It can seem an “invasion” even to those who don’t live near  the border.

A neighborhood assembly in Istanbul, Turkey (2013)

A neighborhood assembly in Istanbul, Turkey (2013)

Cities are many in the world. There are always more places to go. At the same time, no commons regime or commoning practice can function without some minimal standard to how many people are included at any one time, who has a voice in managing the commons resources in question, and no direct democracy can function without some basis for determining who has a vote or who is eligible to govern (even if a very loose one such as ACT-UP’s old principle that you had to attend your second meeting before you had a vote, for Padova2020 here where I live it is at your third meeting). This was a lesson of Occupy in many places.
I have addressed these issues through the ideas of free movement to wherever one wants to go, the requirement (which comes from African and Native American village practices in many areas, and among some ancient Greek cities as well) that cities must maintain places of residence and resources for their citizens.

The 1% number by the way is proportionally nearly 3 times the current number of people emigrating to the United States annually.

Cities may limit the number of new arrivals in any given year, but this does not have the same impact as the US  doing the same  as there are always a lot of other cities to go to, and one can always wait for next year if the city one wants to go to has reached its quota of new arrivals for the year.

Just as importantly as the universal freedom to move to anywhere on the Earth to another township, and the easily overlooked freedom to opt out entirely from this worldwide order, opting out persons or communities having some territory, resources and limited but guaranteed income from the Universal money agency and being able to trade with cities and townships, is the crucial regime of citizenship.

General Assembly in Belo Horizonte, Brazil

General Assembly in Belo Horizonte, Brazil

People need to be citizens of where they find themselves. I have posited 90 days as a waiting period, one that demonstrates that one intends to remain a time in a place, while at the same time being so brief as to make really universal citizenship as a system. And here we have citizenship as a member of a community that is self-governing, where one immediately becomes part of the governing system, not dependent on representation or external authority to enforce your “rights”.

The cities are part of  Cosmopolis, indeed they together constitute it. It comes into being when enough cities opt in by adopting direct self-government, local money, and protection of new arrivals (as a precedent to citizenship as they gain their collective sovereignty) in enough places to withdraw national tax payments and begin the new system. They can’t be a part without the universal aspects, like acceptance of universal money, of new arrivals and their citizenship rights, and so are not strictly autonomous or autarkic as in some of the federalist ideas of Murray Bookchin, many of whose ideas I have borrowed openly here. Indeed no federation of cities against other cities is permitted, so while the overall sovereignty structure is consistent with anarchism, this is not an anarchist order in the sense that the realist school of international relations see today in the order of national states.

So Cosmopolis is not “localism” instead of globalism. Indeed it is both more universal than global capitalism in scale and scope (and equality and inclusiveness obviously), and more technologically advanced – it posits even closer transport and communication integration between cities and townships, allows all people to go wherever they want with their citizenship and governmental authority mobile and their subsistence guaranteed both as members of a city and as recipients of the universal money deposits globally.

Cities have territory and self-defense forces only for internal order and protection and in case of having a hostile neighbor, but other than the direct right of community self-defense, no military action of any kind is ever possible or allowable unless the Cosmopolis as a whole as exercised through the delegated Regions (which always include 1/3 members from cities and towns not from that same region geographically, hence from the Cosmopolitan whole) approves and decides there is a common threat.

New York General Assembly during Occupy protests in Zuccotti Park.

New York General Assembly during Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park.

The main disciplinary instrument therefore is expulsion from a city. This in itself does not entail loss of citizenship, except for the period of exile, and in any case people found guilty of violations remain free to go to another city or, with the more likely option of returning to the city of their current residence, to go to a rehabilitation center run as a township by those exiled there (as their preference) and as citizens of that center for the time agreed on between the city whose rules have been violated and the center.

Slavery, trafficking, and related activities are treated more harshly, leading essentially to expulsion from Cosmopolis itself (the only form of involuntary opting out) due to their threat to the whole system of human freedom and self-government and common management.

There is no private property, nor any copyright and all scientific or other knowledge is immediately available through the internet and its presumed successors. Indeed hoarding of knowledge or technology is a practice that immediately potential boycott procedures. There is, for the short term, money, because I at least cannot imagine going from our almost total dependence on money (at least where communal land is not common) to non-monetary communism in one fell swoop. Besides, it is possible that Braudel and others are right and money is only an instrument in any human community (as David Graeber shows, money has existed for millennia before coinage, and most money today is likewise not coinage).

Greece, a General Assembly at Syntagma Square in Athens (2011)

Greece, a General Assembly at Syntagma Square in Athens (2011)

In any case, if capitalism is the imposition of socially necessary labor time as a universally applicable standard to enforce value production then that is not possible here. Aside from the abolition of property and the completely communal system of work organization, and the use of money to de-link completely work from income and subsistence, the dual money system, in which there are only local money which cannot be used outside a city or town and universal money usable only for trade between cities and their component cooperatives, means that there cannot be  a single system of value and average rate of profit.

While there is complete freedom of association, there is no political or economic power in the hands of any ethnic, tribal, religious, or professional group. They will exist only for the use value they profess to exist for, scientific research (funded universally for specific projects, but with income of scientists still only that available to other citizens), religious exploration and practice, cultural activity and so on.\

All work is cooperative and cooperatively managed, and everyone who wants to work will have work, but no one will need to work to survive. But most people will want to do something, whether it be design things, build things, help raise children, grow food, clean streets or whatever, though with the recent advances in renewable energy I foresee a high level of automation except this too lends itself to artisanal and handicraft and artistic work, since

anyone can do any kind of work they like essentially.

I see this as a classless society, but it may not be a status-free one. I think that is fine and think that it has been a mistake of Marxists not to see the  difference. Ironically, the Soviet Union may have gotten this part right to an extent. Not the actual material rewards of villas, privileged consumption for athletes, artists, and party members, but rather that where monetary rewards were not necessarily available, people were rewarded with  prestige, the Lenin medal, etc. I think that the prestige in Renaissance republics of winning the competition to design the local cathedral or city hall door will return in each city in its own way. And each will choose the way of life it wants within these overall standards.

This is  a green alternative, a communist one, a socialist one, a municipalist one, a universal approach, a local community-based approach, a world of commons, a world of cities, a world open to “immigrants” while abolishing immigration as such since the whole world is open to us all, a world without private property, with enough for all yet one that even some libertarians might prefer to the world of today.

General Assembly at Occupy Washington, DC on Freedom Plaza

General Assembly at Occupy Washington, DC on Freedom Plaza

I think an interesting test would be: would the actual populations of Vatican City, Mecca, Lhasa, Jerusalem and Salt Lake City prefer to remain as is under the tyrannies of state, market, corporation, finance, or be self-governing and never worry again about how to live and survive, free to come and go as they like but with the proviso that each year up to 1% of their population may be anyone else who wants to live there and who will also be a citizen of their city?

I would like to see.

I look forward to all your feedback.

Steven Colatrella has been part of the Midnight Notes Collective since 1980. He is the author of “Workers of the World: African and Asian Migrants in Italy” (2001: Africa World Press) and numerous articles on Global Governance, International Strike Waves and other movement issues. He was active in the anti-globalization movements in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and has taught Sociology and International Political Economy at numerous universities in the US and Italy. He lives in Padua, in northern Italy. 

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  • I’ve been thinking and writing about our social/economic problems and possible solutions for several years now, and I’ve come to nearly identical conclusions. It’s (well past) time to let go of the belief that bigger is always better. Economy of scale works well for machines and other inanimate objects, but it quickly becomes pathological when applied to living beings. We see the evidence in politics, where people can no longer engage with their society in any meaningful way. We see it in food production, where constantly increasing use of antibiotics and pesticides is the only thing delaying its inevitable collapse. A return to living at an optimal human scale will have to happen, one way or another. I too, would prefer that it happen with minimal suffering and loss of life.
    I’m also very pleased to read that you’ve seen the need to abandon the market-driven society. It is too wasteful, destructive and inhumane to be allowed to persist. Money has caused us to lose touch with intrinsic value. War is profitable; feeding starving people isn’t. There’s just no way a peaceful society can be based on ideologies of domination/submission, of “might makes right” and “every man for himself”. “Homo Economicus” is not a normal human being; he’s a psychopath. And when you design a civilization that explicitly favours psychopaths, you can only end up with what we’ve got now.
    Thanks for your valuable contribution towards a better future.

  • Uma Rudd Chia