The dawn of the 21st Century has coincided with the dawn of the age of community. Some of my age-mates, who were adults or near-adults in the 1960s and 1970s, may not be pleased to hear that the age of community does not necessarily resemble the Zodiacal Age of Aquarius, which, we were told, was to be an era of universal brotherhood rooted in reason.
The age of community is upon us, not because of the conjunction of stars and planets, but because of political and economic changes that are overtaking us, whether we like them or not. It’s important to understand those changes, because they are capable of producing drastically contrasting results, results that can be influenced by political action. The age of community can be one in which some communities prosper while others are left impoverished and powerless to control their own futures. Or it can be one in which the prosperity and economic power of some communities is shared in order to give others a serious degree of control over their own affairs.
The age of community is the subject of my current research, in which I look at the political implications for Canada of the economic changes that have brought on this age. In this first of a series dealing with findings of that research, I will look at the causes of these changes and briefly lay out some of their political implications. In subsequent instalments, I will look at some findings of my research and consider what we can learn from them about avoiding an age of community whose motto becomes “I’m all right Jack” and working toward one that bears at least some resemblance to the Aquarian age.
The technological and economic changes that are said to be driving the dawning of the age of community are variously referred to as globalization, a borderless world, glocalization, the new economy, the new world order and the post-industrial economy. The profusion of labels is indicative of the confusion of much of the thinking in the sometimes grandiloquent and vague discussions of these phenomena. It is doubly important, therefore, to be clear on just what it is we are talking about. At issue are:
1. the worldwide lowering of barriers to trade, allowing goods and services to flow more freely; and
2. the growing ease and speed, and generally declining cost, of all forms of communication, removing obstacles to the movement, not only of goods and services, but also of people and ideas. As a result, we have corporate mobility beyond anything most of us would have imagined possible a generation ago, and even greater mobility for money.
These changes bring with them at least three hard political realities. This is familiar ground to many but, again, it is important to be clear what is at issue, because it is so often discussed in vague terms. The first new reality is that the power of national governments, while it remains very real and very important, has declined noticeably, especially in governments’ ability to regulate market activity and protect social welfare. Budget stringency, free trade agreements and competitive conditions in world markets have convinced governments everywhere, regardless of whether they are conservative, liberal or social-democratic, that it is most expedient for them to lower barriers to trade and cut corporate and upper-income taxes, social programmes and funds for regional development.
This brings us to the second hard political reality. In an increasingly borderless world, local communities everywhere are less protected by national government from the consequences of international economic competition and less likely to benefit from senior-government assistance than was the case in the 1970s and earlier. At the same time, each community is much more directly in competition with every other community than ever before.
In the past, regions that benefited less from market activity often looked to national governments for job creation and regional development programs. Some of these initiatives have been taken out of the hands of government by the fact that they are deemed to be unfair trade practices in the North American Free Trade Agreement, by the World Trade Organization, or in numerous other free trade agreements around the world. Others have become victims of government cutbacks. There is much bad news in these changes, but it is not all bad news.
For example greater ease of communication is not just available to large corporations. It also makes it possible, as never before, for social movements to organize themselves on a world scale, as witness the mass anti-globalization demonstrations of recent years – which paradoxically are themselves a product of globalization. Globalization also greatly reduces many locational advantages. It is as easy to run a business dependent on high-speed communications from Winnipeg or Wuppertal – and perhaps soon from Ouagadougou or Wang-ts’ang – as from New York, London or Tokyo.
However we may appraise the advantages and disadvantages of globalization, an unavoidable outcome is that it places each community much more directly in competition with every other community than ever before. The third new reality, therefore, is that local communities — meaning municipalities of all sizes as well as metropolitan areas — have been thrown more than ever before upon their own resources. It has become the normal way of doing business for every municipality or metropolitan region to write its own economic development strategy and create an agency or agencies to implement it. Often such strategies take the form of joint ventures involving all the municipalities in a metropolitan region. Each municipality and each region has its own particular mix of resources, locational advantages and disadvantages, human capacities and shortcomings. As global market competition intensifies, it becomes more and more important for each community to assess its own potential strengths and design its economic development strategy accordingly.
If every region is doing that to its own best advantage, no two strategies will be the same. In those circumstances it becomes increasingly obvious that local initiative will become more important, and dictation from the federal government less functional. However, it makes little sense to design economic development strategies in isolation from social considerations. A welfare program makes more sense if it is co-ordinated with job creation and placement in mind, and education policies will necessarily be developed with one eye on the job market.
The age of community, therefore, is brought to us courtesy, not of our stars, but of a set of hard political and economic realities. The implications of these developments are momentous and have not been given the attention they deserve. There are at least two ways of interpreting what has happened. One is to take the view that the economic, technological, social and political changes constituting globalization have had the cumulative effect of de-centring the economy, so that a national government, which once was able to make economic and social policy on the premise that it was managing a single national economy, must now recognize that it is actually managing a series of discrete urban economies.
An alternative view is that globalization has only made more evident what has always been the case. As early as 1969, Jane Jacobs was arguing that cities are the real source of economic growth and ultimately of a society’s wealth. In 1984, she made the case that national accounts are a misleading guide to economic policy, and have perverse consequences, because they mask the crucial differences between the economies of different cities, leading to national policies that favour the dominant city and harm the economies of the rest. Similarly, a colleague and I have made the case that immigration policies have too often been based on conditions in such rapidly growing centres as Toronto and Vancouver, and have thus failed in many other cities (See the reading by Leo and Brown, listed below).
Whether we take the position that globalization has projected us into a new and different economic and political world , or join Jacobs in arguing that we have long paid a high price for our failure to appreciate the importance of city economies, the case for social and economic policies pitched to differences among urban-centred regions is compelling. Whether we like it or not, the age of community is upon us. This has fundamental implications, not only for cities and communities themselves, but also for regional and national governments. In future blog entries, I will look at some of these implications.
Want to find out more? Look for:
Christopher Leo. “Deep Federalism: Respecting Community Difference in National Policy.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 39:3, 2006, 481-506.
Warren Magnusson. 1996. The search for political space: Globalization, social movements, and the urban experience. Toronto: University of Toronto.
Ulrich Beck. Power in the Global Age: A New Global Political Economy. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2005.
Jane Jacobs. 1969. The Economy of Cities. New York: Random House.
Jane Jacobs. 1984. Cities and the Wealth of Nations. New York: Vintage.
Christopher Leo and Wilson Brown. (2000). “Slow growth and urban development policy.” Journal of Urban Affairs 22 (2), 193-213.
William R Barnes and Larry C Ledebur. (1998). The new regional economies: The US common market and the global economy. Thousand Oaks: Sage.