Mumbai – Global City in The World Risk Society

[Update: Mark Bahnisch, over at Larvatus Prodeo, as an interesting post on this topic as well on the conjunction of globalization, urban centers, states and violence.]

Are world-cities more likely to become targets of terrorist groups? One would be forgiven to think so considering the attacks on New York City, London, Madrid, Bali and now Mumbai. Indeed, it seems that the Mumbai attacks (terrorist attacks are not unknown to Mumbai, but they are usually of domestic nature) were targeted at "places of globalization", that is, where the local, the national and the global meet.

I want to focus on the concept of global cities for a moment. In sociology, the concept can be traced back to Saskia Sassen. The emergence of the global cities has to do with the reconfiguration of space through globalization. A global city is not just a large city but a city that is a power-center of globalization through its embedding into the global structures. At the same time, one can still discern national and local aspects present in global cities, such as the Mumbai slums.

And as part of global cities, luxury hotels, patronized by wealthy Western tourists and businessmen, the Transnational Capitalist Class in general, and employing the locals, can be seen as particular targets (comparable to the touristic resorts in Bali):

"Firstly, they are accessible. Few of the major hotels in city centres were built with security in mind. Many date from the 1970s and were intentionally built to be prominent and accessible social spaces – often in traditional, family-based societies where such locations were few and far between – in the centre of major cities. The aim, at least in part, was to offer new local elites a portal into a global, jet-setting luxury world. Even more recent constructions such as the two Serena hotels in Kabul and Islamabad are now being hastily retro-fitted with more protection. Hotels are now becoming as protected as embassies. Ringed by blast walls, security men, sometimes barbed wire, they too are becoming fortified outposts of a foreign culture in what is at least perceived to be a dangerous land. The two hotels in Mumbai were soft targets. No doubt now they too will be "secured".

Secondly, the big hotels in the centre of cities are representative of power, wealth and, in some instances, the "westernisation" and accompanying decadence or "moral corruption" against which Islamic militants see themselves as fighting. Old-fashioned economic factors should not necessarily be discounted here. Indian Muslims have lower life expectancies, literacy levels and incomes than the Hindu majority. A luxury hotel that is the symbol of the growing economic success of the country dominated by the majority is always likely to be a focus for resentment.

Thirdly, such hotels are often full of foreigners. This allows all militant groups to avoid, should they want to, the "collateral damage" of local compatriots or co-religionists. In Mumbai, this does not seem to have been the case. There were big American-owned or built hotels in Mumbai that could have been targeted so Indians or India was directly targeted, not just members of the so-called Crusader-Zionist alliance. The attackers amply showed their contempt for the lives of their fellow Indians in their attacks on the railway station or in the street. But elsewhere this has been a concern. When Jordanian-born Iraqi militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi sent bombers into hotels in his homeland in 2005, he immediately alienated 90% of his local support. A vigorous debate among jihadi thinkers was one consequence."

[Emphasis mine] So, are global cities urban nightmares as the BBC Analysis program states?

The full transcript of the program is here. As Sassen states in the program:

"In the Nineties, you saw a proliferation of cities that built this global city space. We have about seventy major and minor global cities. It’s a platform that contains the resources, the talent markets, the infrastructures to service, to manage, to organize, to coordinate the global operations of firms and financial markets. (…)

Left alone, this cluster of powerful actors and functions can be extremely destructive of vast stretches of modest profit-making firms, modest income households, and certain forms of urbanity that we love in cities. (…)

“Destructive” in the sense that global capital has an urban footprint. And, in the case of global cities, that urban footprint means a massive insertion in the built environment of existing cities, and that inevitably means displacement. And so it not only inserts itself; it keeps needing more space. That then generates and we see that in all cities. actually a second political thing, which is a politics that is about space In Shanghai, every day there are revolts, I mean dozens of revolts, and it all is about land."

[Emphasis mine again] According to Saskia Sassen, global cities are part of the process of denationalization that nation-states have engaged in as part of their embedding into the global economic and political system. In this sense, the nation-state does not disappear as relevant actor in global times. Rather, it is a main actor in the stripping of its own capabilities to be shifted "upwards" to the global level (for instance, when states agree to subject themselves to WTO rulings).

"The process of denationalization I am seeking to specify here cannot be reduced to a geographic conception as was the notion in the heads of the generals who fought the wars for nationalizing territory in earlier centuries. This is a highly specialized and strategic de-nationalizing of specific institutional arenas: Manhattan and the City of London are the equivalent of free trade zones when it comes to finance. But it is not Manhattan as a geographic entity, with all its layers of activity, and functions and regulations, that is a free trade zone. It is a highly specialized functional or institutional realm that becomes de-nationalized. However, this set of institutions has distinct locational patterns —a disproportionate concentration in global cities. And this has the effect of re-territorializing even the most globalized, digitalized and partly dematerialized industries and markets.

But this re-territorializing has its own conditionality —a complex and dynamic interaction with national state authority. The strategic spaces where many global processes are embedded are often national; the mechanisms through which new legal forms, necessary for globalization, are implemented are often part of state institutions; the infrastructure that makes possible the hypermobility of financial capital at the global scale is embedded in various national territories. Thus one way of conceiving of the inevitable negotiations with the national is in terms of this partial and strategic dynamic of de-nationalization.

From this perspective, understanding the spatiality of economic globalization only in terms of hypermobility and space/time compression –the dominant markers in today’s conceptualization– is inadequate. Hypermobility and space/time compression need to be produced, and this requires vast concentrations of very material and not so mobile facilities and infrastructures. And they need to be managed and serviced, and this requires mostly place-bound labor markets for talent and for low-wage workers. The global city is emblematic here, with its vast concentrations of hypermobile dematerialized financial instruments and the enormous concentrations of material and place-bound resources that it takes to have the former circulating around the globe in a second."

What is important about Sassen’s perspective is that it is much more nuanced and complex than simple deterritorializing views. For Sassen, globalization, as illustrated by global cities, involve denationalization but also territorial re-embedding of global spaces that exist alongside national and local spaces and it is the frictions between these different dimensions that make global cities explosive places.

"First, global cities structure a zone that can span the globe but it is a zone embedded / juxtaposed with older temporalities and spatialities. (…)

Secondly, although it spans the globe, the new zone that is being structured spatially and temporally is inhabited/constituted by multiple units or locals –it is not only a flow of transactions or one large encompassing system. The global city is a function of a global network–there is no such thing as a single global city as you might have had with the empires of old, each with its capital. This network is constituted in terms of nodes of hyperconcentration of activities and resources. What connects the nodes is dematerialized digital capacity; but the nodes incorporate enormous amounts and types of materialities, sited materialities."

The multiplicity of territorial units and global networks and flows make global cities certainly places where the central dynamics of globalization become brutally visible in cases such as the Mumbai attacks.

In the world risk society, global cities are places of mass, structural and symbolic violence.

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