Book Review – Rebel Cities

I have already posted quite a bit about David Harvey‘s Rebel Cities: From The Right to the City to the Urban Revolution:

It is somewhat of a given that every book by prolific David Harvey is an important book. He is a sharp analyst of the dynamics of contemporary capitalism and has the ability to write very clearly about rather complex matters. His writing is engaging, full of examples that illustrate the concepts he uses in his deconstruction of the logic of 21st century capitalism. At the same time, as my previous posts on the subjects have shown, he is not shy about being critical of the left for its fetishism of the local and organizational forms (currently: the horizontal and non-hierarchical).

My previous posts have focused mainly on chapters 3, 4 and 5 of the book. That is where the heart of the argument is and we’ll see why in a minute.

The heart of the book, of course, is the concept of “right to the city” and the centrality of the city as locus of power in 21st century capitalism, but also as locus for potential anti-capitalist movements:

“The city, the noted urban sociologist Robert Park once wrote, is “man’s most consistent and on the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself.” If Park is correct, then the question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be, what kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of life we desire, what aesthetic values we hold. The right to the city is, therefore, far more than a right of individual or group access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change and reinvent the city more after our hearts’ desire. It is, moreover, a collective rather than an individual right, since reinventing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake ourselves and our cities is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights. How best then to exercise that right?

Since, as Park avers, we have hitherto lacked any clear sense of the nature of our task, it is useful first to reflect on how we have been made and remade throughout history by an urban process impelled onwards by powerful social forces. The astonishing pace and scale of urbanization over the last hundred years means, for example, that we have been remade several times over without knowing why or how. Has this dramatic urbanization contributed to human well-being? Has it made us into better people, or left us dangling in a world of anomie and alienation, anger and frustration? Have we become mere monads tossed around in an urban sea? These were the sorts of questions that preoccupied all manner of nineteenth-century commentators, such as Friedrich Engels and Georg Simmel, who offered perceptive critiques of the urban personas then emerging in response to rapid urbanization. These days it is not hard to enumerate all manner of urban discontents and anxieties, as well as excitements, in the midst of even more rapid urban transformations. Yet we somehow seem to lack the stomach for systematic critique. The maelstrom of change overwhelms us even as obvious questions loom. What, for example, are we to make of the immense concentrations of wealth, privilege, and consumerism in almost all the cities of the world in the midst of what even the United Nations depicts as an exploding “planet of slums”?

To claim the right to the city in the sense I mean it here is to claim some kind of shaping power over the processes of urbanization, over the ways in which our cities are made and remade, and to do so in a fundamental and radical way. From their very inception, cities have arisen through the geographical and social concentration of a surplus product. Urbanization has always been, therefore, a class phenomenon of some sort, since surpluses have been extracted from somewhere and from somebody, while control over the use of the surplus typically lies in the hands of a few (such as a religious oligarchy, or a warrior poet with imperial ambitions).” (3 – 5)

At the same time, capitalism and urbanity have been associated with crises and social movements throughout the 20th and 21st century (and before), so there are clearly capitalist and anti-capitalist dynamics revolving around the urban context that are separate from strictly class / labor dynamics. And that is what Harvey is interested in: to examine the nature of 21st century capitalism and to find interstices and spaces of contention and conflict through which social movements could emerge and challenge hegemonic arrangements. The global city is the perfect nexus for all of this.

“Fast-forward once again to our current conjuncture. International capitalism was on a roller-coaster of regional crises and crashes (East and Southeast Asia in 1997–98, Russia in 1998, Argentina in 2001, and so on) until it experienced a global crash in 2008. What has been the role of urbanization in this history? In the United States it was accepted wisdom until 2008 that the housing market was an important stabilizer of the economy, particularly after the high-tech crash of the late 1990s. The property market absorbed a great deal of the surplus capital directly through new construction (of both inner-city and suburban housing and new office spaces), while the rapid inflation of housing asset prices, backed by a profligate wave of mortgage refinancing at historically low rates of interest, boosted the internal US market for consumer goods and services. The global market was stabilized partly through US urban expansion and speculation in property markets, as the US ran huge trade deficits with the rest of the world, borrowing around $2 billion a day to fuel its insatiable consumerism and the debt-financed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq during the first decade of the twenty-first century.

But the urban process underwent another transformation of scale. In short, it went global. So we cannot focus merely on the US. Property market booms in Britain, Ireland, and Spain, as well as in many other countries, helped power the capitalist dynamic in ways that broadly paralleled that in the US. The urbanization of China over the last twenty years, as we shall see in Chapter 2, has been of a radically different character, with a heavy focus on building infrastructures. Its pace picked up enormously after a brief recession in 1997 or so. More than a hundred cities have passed the 1 million population mark in the last twenty years, and small villages, like Shenzhen, have become huge metropolises of 6 to 10 million people. Industrialization was at first concentrated in the special economic zones, but then rapidly diffused outwards to any municipality willing to absorb the surplus capital from abroad and plough back the earnings into rapid expansion. Vast infrastructural projects, such as dams and highways—again, all debt-financed—are transforming the landscape. Equally vast shopping malls, science parks, airports, container ports, pleasure palaces of all kinds, and all manner of newly minted cultural institutions, along with gated communities and golf courses, dot the Chinese landscape in the midst of overcrowded urban dormitories for the massive labor reserves being mobilized from the impoverished rural regions that supply the migrant labor.


China is only one epicenter for an urbanization process that has now become genuinely global, in part through the astonishing global integration of financial markets that use their flexibility to debt-finance urban projects from Dubai to São Paulo and from Madrid and Mumbai to Hong Kong and London. The Chinese central bank, for example, has been active in the secondary mortgage market in the US, while Goldman Sachs has been involved in the surging property markets in Mumbai and Hong Kong capital has invested in Baltimore. Almost every city in the world has witnessed a building boom for the rich—often of a distressingly similar character—in the midst of a flood of impoverished migrants converging on cities as a rural peasantry is dispossessed through the industrialization and commercialization of agriculture.

These building booms have been evident in Mexico City, Santiago in Chile, in Mumbai, Johannesburg, Seoul, Taipei, Moscow, and all over Europe (Spain’s being most dramatic), as well as in the cities of the core capitalist countries such as London, Los Angeles, San Diego, and New York (where more large-scale urban projects were in motion in 2007 under the billionaire Bloomberg’s administration than ever before). Astonishing, spectacular, and in some respects criminally absurd urbanization projects have emerged in the Middle East in places like Dubai and Abu Dhabi as a way of mopping up the capital surpluses arising from oil wealth in the most conspicuous, socially unjust and environmentally wasteful ways possible (such as an indoor ski slope in a hot desert environment).


But this urbanization boom has depended, as did all the others before it, on the construction of new financial institutions and arrangements to organize the credit required to sustain it. Financial innovations set in train in the 1980s, particularly the securitization and packaging of local mortgages for sale to investors world-wide, and the setting up of new financial institutions to facilitate a secondary mortgage market and to hold collateralized debt obligations, has played a crucial role. The benefits of this were legion: it spread risk and permitted surplus savings pools easier access to surplus housing demand, and also, by virtue of its coordinations, it brought aggregate interest rates down (while generating immense fortunes for the financial intermediaries who worked these wonders).” (11 – 13)

This is the initial state of affairs. In the following chapters, Harvey, then, goes digging for the contradictions in this system in order to carve out spaces of contention for alternative social movements, especially since the dynamics quoted above have created vast inequalities of wealth and power (what with triumphant neoliberalism) that are highly visible in the global cities, with their cosmopolitan and privileged core and their peripheral slums, with their mass consumption levels and therefore, their great dependency on labor for both goods and services and the necessity of absorption of surplus value (so central to capitalism). Where neoliberalism is the most visibly dominant is also where it is most vulnerable. The amount of displacement and dispossession taking place in global city can be matched by counter-dynamics of anti-capitalist movements, IF they can organize around a new definition of what the working class is.

Those were basically the premises laid out in chapter 1. For those of us who had read Harvey’s previous book, The Enigma of Capital: and the Crises of Capitalism, chapter 2 will feel very familiar as it summarizes the current crisis. The core of Harvey’s argument really takes off in chapter 3, all through chapter 5 (so, you can refer to my blog posts listed at the beginning of this post). Chapters 6 and 7 read like columns that were published when things started heating up in Spring 2011, and especially during the London riots in Summer 2011 (I blogged about it at the time). They are very short, much less analytical and in-depth than the preceding chapters. This is where Harvey introduced the concept of feral capitalism:

“The problem is that we live in a society where capitalism itself has become rampantly feral. Feral politicians cheat on their expenses; feral bankers plunder the public purse for all it’s worth; CEOs, hedge fund operators, and private equity geniuses loot the world of wealth; telephone and credit card companies load mysterious charges on everyone’s bills; corporations and the wealthy don’t pay taxes while they feed at the trough of public finance; shopkeepers price-gouge; and, at the drop of a hat swindlers and scam artists get to practice three-card monte right up into the highest echelons of the corporate and political world.

A political economy of mass dispossession, of predatory practices to the point of daylight robbery—particularly of the poor and the vulnerable, the unsophisticated and the legally unprotected—has become the order of the day.


Every street rioter knows exactly what I mean. They are only doing what everyone else is doing, though in a different way—more blatantly and visibly, in the streets. They mimic on the streets of London what corporate capital is doing to planet earth.” (155 – 6)

Chapter 7, also short and column-ish rather than full-on analysis, address Occupy Wall Street:

“But now, for the first time, there is an explicit movement to confront the Party of Wall Street and its unalloyed money power. The “street” in Wall Street is being occupied—oh horror upon horrors—by others! Spreading from city to city, the tactics of Occupy Wall Street are to take a central public space, a park or a square, close to where many of the levers of power are centered, and, by putting human bodies in that place, to convert public space into a political commons—a place for open discussion and debate over what that power is doing and how best to oppose its reach. This tactic, most conspicuously re-animated in the noble and ongoing struggles centered on Tahrir Square in Cairo, has spread across the world (Puerta del Sol in Madrid, Syntagma Square in Athens, and now the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral in London and Wall Street itself). It shows us that the collective power of bodies in public space is still the most effective instrument of opposition when all other means of access are blocked. What Tahrir Square showed to the world was an obvious truth: that it is bodies on the street and in the squares, not the babble of sentiments on Twitter or Facebook, that really matter.” (161 – 2)

It is not hard to see why Harvey would be interested in OWS, which is why I was a bit disappointed to not find a full-fledged analysis of the movement in the book. Apart from this two-page chapter, there is nothing on OWS, at least not explicitly. Of course, one can easily read between the lines of his analysis in chapters 3, 4 and 5 and see what applies to OWS (the organizational fetishism, for instance), which makes this absence all the more remarkable.

Nevertheless, Harvey offers a few recommendations for the OWS movement:

“To succeed, the movement has to reach out to the 99 percent. This it can do and is doing, step by step. First there are all those being plunged into immiseration by unemployment, and all those who have been or are now being dispossessed of their houses and their assets by the Wall Street phalanx. The movement must forge broad coalitions between students, immigrants, the underemployed, and all those threatened by the totally unnecessary and draconian austerity politics being inflicted upon the nation and the world at the behest of the Party of Wall Street. It must focus on the astonishing levels of exploitation in workplaces—from the immigrant domestic workers who the rich so ruthlessly exploit in their homes to the restaurant workers who slave for almost nothing in the kitchens of the establishments in which the rich so grandly eat. It must bring together the creative workers and artists whose talents are so often turned into commercial products under the control of big-money power.

The movement must above all reach out to all the alienated, the dissatisfied, and the discontented—all those who recognize and feel in their gut that there is something profoundly wrong, that the system the Party of Wall Street has devised is not only barbaric, unethical, and morally wrong, but also broken.

All this has to be democratically assembled into a coherent opposition, which must also freely contemplate the future outlines of an alternative city, an alternative political system, and, ultimately, an alternative way of organizing production, distribution, and consumption for the benefit of the people. Otherwise, a future for the young that points to spiraling private indebtedness and deepening public austerity, all for the benefit of the 1 percent, is no future at all.


In the face of the organized power of the Party of Wall Street to divide and rule, the movement that is emerging must also take as one of its founding principles that it will be neither divided nor diverted until the Party of Wall Street is brought either to its senses—to see that the common good must prevail over narrow venal interests—or to its knees. Corporate privileges that confer the rights of individuals without the responsibilities of true citizens must be rolled back. Public goods such as education and health care must be publicly provided and made freely available. The monopoly powers in the media must be broken. The buying of elections must be ruled unconstitutional. The privatization of knowledge and culture must be prohibited. The freedom to exploit and dispossess others must be severely curbed, and ultimately outlawed.” (162 – 3)

As I mentioned above, any book by David Harvey is an important book and I would consider him one of the most important “translators” of Marxian thought (I don’t really like the term “vulgarizer”). He does provide a deep yet clear analysis of both the workings of 21st century capitalism, locates them in the longue durée, sniffs out the contradictions and exposes them for all to see, hopefully (for him) leading up to social movements rushing through these interstices opened by these contradictions.

This book should be mandatory reading for activists and anyone interested / involved with the anti-capitalist movements around the world.

In the end, whatever the future of capitalism, it will be an urban future, so, any movement that hopes to contest the hegemony had better have some urban planning of its own ready. This book offers a good starting point.

I should end by noting that Harvey, as he recommends a redefinition of the working class beyond the factory workers, offers The Salt of the Earth as example of the kind of broad mobilization that is needed. In the case of the film, it is rural communities. Harvey thinks the same should be done for urban communities:

The Visual Du Jour – Urban Futures

Via the Guardian, this beautiful and ginormous graphic projecting urban populations and megacities (click on image for full view):

As the article notes:

“Chengdu made the headlines in Britain late last year when it exported two pandas to Scotland, and it is developing a reputation as the centre of Sichuan’s prized cuisine. But few in the west have paid much attention to the astonishing rise of Chengdu, despite a population (including its rural hinterland) of more than 14 million and its evident economic power and growing sense of self-confidence. Few have heard much either of cities like Ghaziabad, Surat or Faridabad in India, or of Toluca in Mexico, Palembang in Indonesia or Chittagong, the Bangladeshi port. Or of Beihai, another Chinese city on the northern coast. But this is likely to change. Each of these cities is among the fastest-growing settlements in the world. Their cumulative growth is set to usher in a new era of city living, changing the face of the planet. Beihai, which already has 1.3 million inhabitants, is set to double its population in seven years. The municipality of Chengdu will reach 20 million. Ghaziabad, now itself part of the urban sprawl of the Indian capital Delhi, is already home to nearly four million people.

Crucially, though experts estimate that the number of megacities of more than 10 million inhabitants will double over the next 10 to 20 years, it is these less well-known cities, particularly in south and east Asia, that will see the biggest growth. Predicting what the new era will bring is taxing economists, senior businessmen, security experts and strategists across the world.

Optimists see a new network of powerful, stable and prosperous city states, each bigger than many small countries, where the benefits of urban living, the relative ease of delivering basic services compared to rural zones and new civic identities combine to raise living standards for billions. Pessimists see the opposite: a dystopic future where huge numbers of people fight over scarce resources in sprawling, divided, anarchic “non-communities” ravaged by disease and violence.

Nowhere is this more evident than in India, where years of underinvestment, chaotic development and rapid population growth have combined with poor governance and outdated financial systems to threaten an urban disaster.”

Now go read Saskia Sassen’s The Global City and Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums. The future will be urban.

The City and The City and The City

Bad pun, I know (great book though)

One does not have to be an expert on Saskia Sassen to know that the city is at the heart of social change in the age of globalization, from global cities to planet of slums, a great deal of research has focused on how cities promote, or adapt to, social change and how cities are hubs of global social dynamics of class, inequalities, gender and ecology.

For instance, take this first item on the rise of “slow cities”:

“La municipalité est la première de France à adhérer à Cittaslow, le réseau international des “villes lentes”. Inspiré du slow food, le mouvement est né en Italie en 1999 et promeut une gestion municipale centrée sur la qualité de vie, l’économie de proximité, le respect des paysages…, en réaction aux zones commerciales et industrielles, à l’étalement pavillonnaire et au tout-voiture devenus l’ordinaire d’un urbanisme débridé.

Cette révolution tranquille compte de plus en plus de partisans. Cent quarante villes de 21 pays ont déjà adhéré à cette charte de 70 obligations. On trouve des villes lentes dans toute l’Europe, mais aussi en Australie, en Corée du Sud, en Turquie, au Canada…”

The slow city movement, with its international network Cittaslow, is inspired by the slow food movement. The idea is to promote local management focused on quality of life, local economies and ecology, as opposed to suburban sprawl and industrial areas that belt large European cities.

The idea is to give small towns and cities common development ideas and some support when faced with the behemoth of suburban and commercial development. And ideas are certainly numerous: public parks, urban renewal, development of farmers’s market, pedestrian-only areas, environmentally-friendly systems of water treatment, etc. This plugs into the de-growth movement.

At the same time at we witness a “slowing down” movement, the opposite exists as well: speeding up (something that has characterized contemporary globalization). For Ekaterina Yudin, this entails the possibility of a social crowdsourced city:

“There’s a new dimension in town. The physical spaces we inhabit are being transformed by cellspace technologies (also referred to as mobile media, wireless media, or location-based media), where data is constantly being delivered to and extracted from mobile physical space dwellers; for us, the result is an overlay of dynamic augmented data made possible by the always-growing and ever-more-connected network (Manovich, 2005).

The time has come for the virtual and physical to come together and the interplay of data is creating multi-dimensional and date-mined spaces; I know where you are, what you’re eating, who you’re hanging out with — and if I should check out your favorite lunch spot and have that sandwich you just melted over.

Yes, this is the power of today’s connected information culture – of being plugged into the social web enabled by our handy and ubiquitous mobile smart phones that are becoming the digital sensors of our physical spaces (why can’t a phone be just a phone?). In the time that we, the united citizens of the world wide web, got used to the idea of sharing previously private information about ourselves and our whereabouts publicly from our desktops and laptops, phone data speeds have expanded, device functionality has improved and access to the internet has transcended former boundaries where you could only connect to the ‘web’ through a computer. Now we’re not only getting online via a phone but we are no longer just connecting to the web when we ‘go online’ – we connect to people and the information they’re sharing, and more of the time we are connecting to social networking applications that dictate these fluid interactions today – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, FourSquare, and the like.”

The difference here is that the slow city project is a collective one, territorially based. The crowdsourced city is individualized and deterritorialized (despite the fake territorialism of geolocation platforms), pretending to be egalitarian and democratic while it is in fact exclusive and unequal. There is a high price of entry to this realm: slum-dwellers need not apply.

And speaking of global migration, behold the arrival city:

“What kind of neighbourhood is Thorncliffe Park? It certainly is one of the poorest in Toronto: Family incomes average $20,000 and the poverty rate is estimated at 44 per cent.

It is also ethnically concentrated, with as much as 51 per cent of its population speaking an Asian language at home and only a small minority of pink-skinned Euro-Canadians in its buildings.

It could be described as an impoverished ethnic ghetto. Yet Thorncliffe Park is not seen that way – not by its residents, by the agencies and businesses within it, by the scholars who have studied it, nor by the city beyond it.

It’s a popular place with vacancy rates close to zero despite unusually high rents; in fact, there are long waiting lists for apartments.

The ex-villagers here have an amazingly consistent record of entering the middle-class, urban mainstream within a generation. They launch small shops and other businesses and send their children into postsecondary education.

The area’s poverty is not a sign of failure: It means that Thorncliffe Park, like many such neighbourhoods, is functioning as a highly successful engine of economic and social integration, churning people out as fast as it takes them in, constantly renewing itself with fresh arrivals.

This is one paradox of such places: The higher their apparent poverty rate, the more successful they are.

For much of the past century, Canada has been built on successful arrival cities – more by luck than by intent. But increasingly few are like Thorncliffe Park: There are too many like the isolated, violence-plagued Flemingdon Park in Toronto, or the destitute high-rise voids of Richmond and Surrey around Vancouver, or Peel Region adjoining Toronto.

In those neglected neighbourhoods, people are poor because they are trapped. In a thriving arrival city like Thorncliffe Park, they are moving onward.

The trick is to look not at the wealth of the residents but at their trajectories.

“Everyone in Thorncliffe, all are beginners, all are struggling,” says Seema Khatri, 42, who recently moved out of the neighbourhood to buy a house in suburban Don Mills.

She came from a village in Haryana in northern India. She spent several years in Thorncliffe, working at rudimentary jobs in a cosmetics factory and struggling to get her Indian educational credentials recognized.

The neighbourhood’s networks of arrivals, she says, helped her make her way.

“In Thorncliffe, when you go out, you meet with people who are also struggling. You talk to your neighbours at the deli. They exchange information.”

This is how it works in the arrival city.”

What makes the arrival city a major tool of social mobility and integration is linkage:

“The arrival city can be distinguished readily from other urban neighbourhoods, not only by its rural-immigrant population, improvised appearance and ever-changing nature, but also by the constant linkages it makes, in two directions, from every street, house and workplace.

It is linked in a lasting, intensive way to its far-off, originating villages, constantly sending people, money and knowledge back and forth. It finances improvements in the village, the care of older generations and the education of younger ones, while also making possible the next wave of migrations.

It is also deeply engaged with the nearby, established city. Its political institutions, business relationships, social networks and transactions are all footholds intended to give new village arrivals a purchase, however fragile, on the larger society.

The arrival city gives them a place to push themselves and their children further into the centre, into acceptability and connectedness.”

Social capital, and especially bridging capital, is what matters here. Read the whole thing.

The slow city, the crowdsourced city and the arrival city all point at different and contradictory effects of globalizing social conditions. They point to the increasing power of the civil society and social movements in pushing for social change not imposed from the top but they all involve different social actors, pointing to the multilayered nature of globalization.

That is, if the disemployed and disenfranchised masses (that would be the middle classes) don’t mess it up:

“The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has warned of growing social unrest because it fears global employment will not now recover until 2015.

This is two years later than its earlier estimate that the labour market would rebound to pre-crisis levels by 2013. About 22 million new jobs are needed – 14 million in rich countries and 8 million in developing nations.

The United Nations work agency today warned of a long “labour market recession” and noted that social unrest related to the crisis had already been reported in at least 25 countries, including some recovering emerging economies.

risis-hit Spain faced its first general strike in eight years this week as unions protested against the government’s austerity measures and labour reforms. The strike on Wednesday coincided with protests in Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Slovenia and Lithuania, as well asdemonstrations in Brussels by tens of thousands of workers from across Europe as part of a European day of action against public spending cuts.

“Fairness must be the compass guiding us out of the crisis,” said ILO director general Juan Somavia. “People can understand and accept difficult choices, if they perceive that all share in the burden of pain. Governments should not have to choose between the demands of financial markets and the needs of their citizens. Financial and social stability must come together. Otherwise, not only the global economy but also social cohesion will be at risk.””

Full report here, video here, for a very Durkheimian analysis of how economic recession threatens social cohesion.

Global Cities 101

Foreign Policy has just published its Global Cities Index, based on 5 dimensions:

  • Business activity: “the value of its capital markets, the number of Fortune Global 500 firms headquartered there, and the volume of the goods that pass through the city
  • Human capital: “how well the city acts as a magnet for diverse groups of people and talent. This includes the size of a city’s immigrant population, the quality of the universities, the number of international schools, and the percentage of residents with university degrees”

  • Information exchange: “how well news and information is dispersed about and to the rest of the world. The number of international news bureaus, the level of censorship, the amount of international news in the leading local papers, and the broadband subscriber rate”

  • Cultural experience: “the level of diverse attractions for international residents and travelers. That includes everything from how many major sporting events a city hosts to the number of performing arts venues and diverse culinary establishments it boasts and the sister city relationships it maintains
  • Political engagement: “the degree to which a city influences global policymaking and dialogue

Based on these dimensions, the top 20 global cities:

Global Cities

In the same issue, uber-sociologist Saskia Sassen (who else?) provides a primer on global cities. after all, she wrote the book, literally. What defines a global city is complexity and diversity. A global city is not a matter of size. Some large cities are not global cities (such as Lagos). Size matters only insofar as it might contribute to complexity and diversity. Also, global cities create new national and international norms.

Global cities can be old cities that reinvented themselves (London) or cities have a limited history like Miami as “little outpost that explodes” thanks to massive real estate development and the opening of South American economies that made Miami a hub of economic and cultural activity beyond the trading developed by Cuban exiles (I am surprised Sassen did not mention the criminal economy).

Other emerging global cities: in Africa, Nairobi and Johannesburg, in China, Shenzen, in Asia, Dubai and Singapore and in South America, Quito, Ecuador; Bogotá, Colombia; Caracas, Venezuela. Cities that have a colonial history also had preexisting international connections. Others, like Dubai and Singapore were government-driven projects.

If the civil war had not destroyed Beirut, it would be a global city as the Lebanese have long had extensive global connections. However, that void allowed Dubai to emerge and create the Mumbai – Dubai connections, where business people work in one (Mumbai) but live in the other (Dubai). Here again, though, there is extensive global criminal network connections.

What of old Europe (which still ranks decently on the Index)? For Sassen, Copenhagen is becoming the Dubai of Europe, along with Zurich as well.

Istanbul might be the next global city because of investors from the West and the East, including Kazakhstan, China, Russia, Bulgaria. Also, one might expect Chinese cities to emerge.

However, Sassen makes the distinction between cities that are “of the world“, that is, cities that are globally connected but still homogeneous as opposed to global cities that are “in the world“, that is, characterized by complexity and diversity.

What is a bit missing here are (1) global criminal networks that are more likely to be well-represented in global cities, and (2) the issue of social stratification: who can live in global cities? Who is welcome to live there? Who caters to global, cosmopolitan jet set and business community?

The Archipelago of Global Cities

Sciences Humaines has a new issue dedicated to cities. It is filed in its geography area on the website but there is no doubt that urban ecology has been a topic of interest to sociology very early on as nexus of social dynamics, processes and practices.

Of course, a whole issue on the cities would not be complete without a contribution from Saskia Sassen, über-urban sociologist and foremost expert on global cities.

It’s in French, of course, so I’ll provide a rough summary.

There is a tendency to imagine the global economy as a flat space (Friedman’s misguided flat world metaphor comes to mind) where one could neatly distinguish areas of prosperity and of poverty. It is misleading though. Rather than speak of the world economy, one should talk about a multiplicity of networks connecting different types of cities or regions. There are more than sixty financial networks and many oil networks coexisting with the  global geographies of industrial production. No single city is involved with all these networks. Mumbai, for instance, is part of the real estate investment network with London and Bogota. New York and São Paulo are core nodes in the global coffee trade. Shanghai dominates the network of copper. Despite this “division of labor”, London, along with a dozen of other cities, distinguishes itself by being connected to an unusually large number of  diverse networks.

In other words, the global economy reflects the complex geography of cities networks whose dynamics are not exclusively economic but also based on global migration, cultural exchanges, global civil society networks and others. The global urban networks are an integral part of the complex infrastructure of globalization. Conversely, global networks (such as finance or civil society) are becoming more and more urban, connecting urban dwellers. The more globally connected a city, the more power it carries within the world-system and within the division of labor within the world-system as there is still some degree of economic specialization. I would add that this idea of division of labor (rather than competition) is very reminiscent of Neil Fliegstein’s conception of markets as fields in search of stability… from this perspective, the global division of labor among global cities might operate as a conception of control.

Global firms select their localization based on the global city’s functional specialization and the firms’ objectives. At the same time, all global cities have common features, such as comparable architecture for their business districts (same hotel chains, for instance) but each city somewhat manages to keep its specific ecology. At the same time, global competencies do not fall from the sky and, along with specialization of global cities, there has been the massive development in jobs dedicated to services to private businesses to navigate the global landscape. The global city is the place where such competencies are developed and distributed across networks. These competencies are also distributed from the global city to its nation, thereby connecting the local, national and global levels. After all, most of the 300,000 multinational corporations have their headquarters still located in their country of origin. At the same time, MNCs find it useful to operate across global cities networks precisely because of the division of global labor. This functional specialization might determine where a firm will locate its operations.

The diversity and complementarity of global cities is a perfect illustration of the multi-polarity of globalization.

At the same time, there has been a price to pay for the development of global cities. Popular, low-class downtown areas may have been destroyed to make room for high-end business districts. This has contributed to urban segregation and stratification. Low-income populations and low-profitability firms have been relegated to the peripheries. At the same time, when the financial crisis hit New York City (along with the rest of the US and beyond), the losses to the city were massive in terms of unpaid real estate debt. And these losses have not been compensated by business revenues from MNCs. What seems to have been forgotten in the globalization frenzy of these cities is that they are better able to fulfill their global economic function when they rely on a strong middle class. Conversely, things do not work so well when cities are marred with major inequalities, between abject misery and ostentatious luxury. Apparently, businesses are reluctant to settle in highly unequal cities (Fliegstein is relevant here again as highly unequal cities might be a source of instability). This is why European cities have fared better than American cities in this respect.

For instance, Mumbai and São Paulo are two of the most powerful financial centers of the world. Yet, their status within global networks is hurt by the fact that they are characterized by social devastation. Cities leaders would be well-advised to learn from this rather than just try to attract extreme wealth from business elites.

Book Review – Metatropolis

Customary sociological statement: good science-fiction is good sociology.

Disclaimer: I’m an idiot when it comes to short stories and novellas. I always feel like I am missing something or that something has been kept out of the story.

Metatropolis is an interesting project: five established science-fiction writers produce stories on a common theme with some, but not too much, overlap (AKA the shared-world genre). Initially, the project was released as an audiobook, then turned into a book (with a great cover design, in my opinion). John Scalzi is the editor and the author of one of the stories. The other authors are Jay Lake (whose story opens the collection), Tobias Buckell, Elizabeth Bear and Karl Schroeder.

All the stories take place in a post-affluence, post-fossil fuel future. The oil is finally largely gone. Environmental degradation has finally vanquished the unsustainable lifestyles of Western societies. So how do people live in what were the major structures of the post-scarcity world, the cities? In a way, it’s like all the authors sat down with Saskia Sassen and got the run down on global cities and global flows.

The basic premise of all the stories is to explore how people live and work as the major social institutions institutions and structures collapsed, including capitalism. What economic systems emerge out of the rubble? Which categories of people come out on top? What does the post-national, post-capitalist world look like? And what of the new technologies, the Web 2.0 stuff? What use are they in this context? What kinds of social solidarity.

Indeed, all the stories revolve around a character trying to find his/her place in this new world and navigate its omnipresent dangers, risks and insecurities. The stories depict a world of thorough surveillance society combined with some measure of anarchy as many groups successfully manage to create their own parallel realities, real or virtual. In all the stories, precarious conditions are the norm. Certainties are gone. The main characters hop from odd job to odd job without much direction. They are perpetual consultants based on their skills but always literally and figuratively out of place.

And so, each story proposes its own version of social structuring after the end of oil. In Jay Lake’s story, it’s the Cascadian neo-anarchist, living-in-harmony-with-nature commune. In Tobias Buckell’s story, it’s the eco-terrorist collectives reclaiming of urban space for sustainable, vertical agriculture. In Elizabeth Bear’s story, this reclaiming takes place partly outside of the city. In John Scalzi story, we see more clearly the return of the medieval, yet high-tech, zero footprint, city-state, sovereign and autonomous, and closed-off to The Wilds (everything outside of it) fighting off the “Barbarians at the Gate”. And in Karl Schroeder’s story, the new cities / societies take the form of alternate virtual realities.

All the stories are stories of struggle: the main characters struggle with the consequences of their past actions, struggle to find their place in this new world but are often nomads. Surviving doing odd jobs, they find themselves in the middle of power plays between different groups, often the remnants of the oil society who try to hold on to what is left, using the security company Edgewater (does that sound familiar?) to do their dirty work of cracking a few eco-freaks and anarchist skulls versus the urban renewal groups. Metatropolis is a world in flux. Old boundaries have disappeared (including boundaries between the real and the virtual) and the major societal struggles are between those who wish to erect new barriers and those who accept to live in a world of flows.

Which means, of course, that social inequalities have not disappeared. There are still privileged classes (those who have access to the remaining resources and hold on to them) and the disadvantaged masses, trying to figure out how to survive in the dislocated (literally and figuratively) world. In this context, the forms of solidarity that emerge are of the tribal or network type. Whatever security is to be found in the real world come from joining a tribe and in the virtual alternate realities, from plugging into networks. Indeed, in Karl Schroeder’s story, Manuel Castells’s network society has found it full incarnation (an inadequate term for virtual societies overlaid over the real one).

In other words, Metatropolis raises the perennial sociological question of the possibility of social order in the post-affluence, post-fossil fuel world and each other provides his/her specific answer. The city, in all the stories, remains at the heart of social structuration, albeit in a permanently conflicting and blurry way. These globally-connected cities truly are Saskia Sassen’s global assemblages.

When Increasing Social Distance Breeds Dehumanization

One of the quotes that I noted as important in The Spirit Level was the following:

"Inequality increases the social distance between different groups of people, making us less willing to see them as "us" rather than "them". (62)

Social distance can be created in different ways: physically through patterns of urban development that segregate different areas of a city based on social class, or through gated communities or other modes of geographical segregation. But social distance can also be created through stereotypes and ideas about "these people" (whoever they happen to be) and reinforced through the media so that contacts between groups will be limited not by physical barriers but by social ones (physical barriers may then follow as one would not want to live near "these people" or let them move in the neighborhood).

I was reminded of these points when I read this article in Le Monde:

For the non-French readers, the article deals with the apartment-cages in Hong-Kong, occupied mostly by immigrants trying to make it there, available for rent for € 150.00 per month:


One can easily imagine the living conditions in these cages. But one stroke me in particular was the fact that the authorities in Hong-Kong tried to get rid of this type of housing by starting a program of low-income housing development. Under Tung Chee Hwa, the plan was to build 50,000 units a year between 1997 and 2004.

Then, the increasingly wealthy, property-owning class got scared of this social initiative and in effect killed it. There is no more low-income housing being built because the wealthy classes were afraid that it would drive down the value of their property. So, who cares if some people have to live in cages as long as property value is maintained.

The majority of cave-dwellers / renters are recent immigrants from continental China. They are "these people", those that wealthier property owners want to keep at bay, at distance, and whose value is irrelevant compared to the value of prime real estate.

Social distance breeds dehumanization.

Cleaning Up The Pleasure Periphery

Because we wouldn’t want the tourists’ vacations to be disrupted by the poverty beneath the surface of a global resort. The solution? Social killings, a form of social cleansing targeting the poor.

And, unsurprisingly, street children are the prime target for social killings. Claiming to solve social problems through this form of social cleansing is not unique to Brazil. For those who remember the documentary Children Underground, about the street kids in Romania might also remember some of the comments by the people interviewed stating that the government should engage in massive euthanasia of these kids as the only solution to the problem.

Incidentally, there were then a lot of street children in Romania because Ceausescu had banned contraception and abortion in Romania in order to get a numerous workforce. As a result, a lot of people ended up with children they did not want or could not afford. There were then mass abandonment and abuse and a lot of these children ended up in state’s orphanages that were more like 19th century prisons, also marked by all forms of abuse. When the Ceausescu regime collapsed, the staff just took off and the kids found themselves having to fend for themselves.

Anyone who believes that banning abortion and contraception makes for a more humane society should look at the societies that have done so and the results. It is not pretty.

Saskia Sassen, Global Cities and Financial Crisis

SofG Saskia Sassen gave an  interview to Le Monde at the occasion of the translation of A Sociology of Globalization in French (Denis, Pierre, Fred et Ben, Dave, Jay, Mark, how about we all read it and have ourselves a little online cross-blogs symposium on it? Could be fun, no?). Full profile here.

Saskia Sassen is, of course, a famous sociologist who coined the phrase "global city" to indicate the confluence and convergence of global processes enmeshed in national and local dynamics in the urban centers of the world, global North and South alike to create centers of economic and financial power.

She is a scheduled speaker at the World Investment Conference, whose topic is "investing in global cities."

According to Sassen, the destabilization of non-urban economies in the global South is going to accelerate the massive urbanization already taking place. At the same time, tent cities are also cropping up in the United States. Urban poverty is on the rise and it is affecting the middle classes and not just the usual poor and homeless. Large cities in the global North have seen their revenues plummet and therefore have cut back on services.

Global cities are an integral infrastructure of the global financial systems. It is at their heart that these new and risky financial "products" were designed. They are also the prime target for the crisis. The urban embedding of global cities with global financial flows also makes them vulnerable. Indeed, London and New York City, for instance, are being dramatically affected.

Financial flows targeted the cities themselves as investment objects, with the same short-term focus and high ROI. Look at Dubai with its massive luxury real estate developments not based on housing needs but on pure speculation (capital in search of profitable investments). Similarly, the sub-prime loans were based on the same logic. The financial world created extremely complicated instruments to extract wealth from modest households with high ROI. For Sassen, these mechanisms are destructive for the cities as housing units are now abandoned by the millions.

The globalization of cities has also produced similar structures in world cities: same business districts, same commercial centers and shopping malls, same luxury chain hotels, same airports with nice international terminals, all for the transnational capitalist class. For Sassen, this urban environment is dedicated to dominant economies but at the same time, cities compete through economic specialization.

So, what kind of stimulus do cities need? For Sassen, sustainable development is key to create jobs, private / public partnerships. Businesses badly need cities, their infrastructures and networks. This places cities in a favorable position to negotiate with the private sector.

The Wretched of The Earth in The Global City

[HA! Two references in one title!]

This is, of course, not surprising. The Global South poor already flock to the cities of their own countries. It makes sense that they would immigrate to the cities of the Global North and live there in the equivalent of the slums: the sewer system. The only question us what kind of treatment they will receive. Will they be treated as illegal immigrants and locked away in detention centers before deportation? Or will some administrative procedure be decided?

This is already the image of the global city: a core globalized center with high rise office buildings housing transnational corporations, international luxury hotel to house the transnational corporate class along with agents of global governance agencies. And then, on the outskirts or underground, the masses of impoverished immigrants from various areas of the Global South.

A world reminiscent of that of the Nulapeiron Sequence.

The Complex Nature of Global Cities

The current issue of Contexts has an interesting article on global cities and the opportunities and challenges they present to urban planners, developing countries and multilateral institutions written by Michael Goldman and Wesley Longhofer. They write

"In the Global South, select cities promise to be catalysts for their national economies, too. Indeed, many scholars and analysts envision the Bangalores and Shanghais to be globally competitive in their own rights, propelling their slower-moving countries to the top of the global economy. And the World Bank leads the way, shifting its lending priorities toward these cities and priming them for an economic boom by financing various global-city solutions.

Although cities in India and China have become pivotal players in the global economy, issues and problems abound. For one thing, world-class airports and cutting-edge architecture aren’t tides that lift all boats. Projects like these often lead to mass displacement and mounting inequalities. For example, the "Shanghai miracle," according to geographer Fulong Wu, occurred on the backs of millions of urban residents forced off their land and out of their social and economic networks." (33)

Global cities are not just places of great inequalities (where the very top and the very bottom of the social ladder coexist side by side with very limited interactions), they also place of great complexity where all the global flows (or scapes) converge and interplay in what the authors call world city circuits. And the global cities themselves are shaped by these global processes as they interact with the local context, in an almost perfect example of glocalization and grobalization.

At the same time, the authors show how Bangalore (the global city in which they did their fieldwork) also illustrates the process of universalization of the particular as the "Bangalore model" is adopted by other urban planners outside of India. As they authors describe, there is a price to pay for access to the exclusive club of world cities, attractive to the transnational capitalist class and that price comes in the form of increased inequalities as world cities provide world class services to their cosmopolitan visitors but third-world quality of life to the peripheral masses. Among other casualty are the local cultures.

And as with many forms of structural violence imposed on people, one also finds resistance social movements against this global gentrification that leaves local citizens behind, forced out of their livelihood and who may have to go to Dubai to work in conditions of quasi-slavery or just eke out a living in the slums that surround the business districts of global cities.

These slums are not going anywhere especially in the context of high food prices, failing agriculture and global economic recession. The rural exodus and rapid urbanization are not over in the Global South. The Earth will have 5.3 billion urban dwellers by 2050, according to UN estimates. In the Global South, the UN estimates that every month, five million people move to the cities. Hunger follows and food riots have already occurred (most notably in Haiti, for instance, according to Food For The Cities).

And indeed,

For the non-French speakers, this states that even though the majority of the 900 million people who suffer from hunger and malnutrition are poor farmers, malnutrition and hunger might well become more urban phenomena in the near future as urban and especially slum dwellers are almost entirely dependent upon their income to buy food and incomes are incredibly low. In Africa, the majority of urban dwellers live on less than a dollar a day and the slightest economic shock or increase in food prices is catastrophic.

So the Food and Agriculture Organization and NGOs are trying to establish reliable food distribution systems, based on local sources and practices that have disappeared as food for export created narrow specializations (often required as part of structural adjustment programs).

Multi-Layered Spaces of Sports

David L. Andrews and George Ritzer, The Grobal in The Sporting Glocal, Global Networks, Vol. 7, No. 2 (2007), 135 – 153.

In this article, Andrews and Ritzer apply Ritzer’s concepts of grobalization and glocalization (originally from Roland Robertson) developed in Ritzer’s book The Globalization of Nothing to sports. The article repudiates the dominant dichotomy of the "global – local" used to conceptualized social phenomena as polar opposites without much overlap and with romantic assumptions of authenticity attributed to the local as opposed to the imperialist and culturally homogenizing global. Instead, the authors offer four cases of interpenetration of the global and local in the form of grobalization and glocalization:

  1. Indigenous incorporation
  2. Corporate re-constitution
  3. Universal differentiation
  4. Dichotomous agency

The concept of glocalization as the integration of the global and the local, for instance through cultural hybridization was developed early on by Roland Robertson. Glocalization is also implicitly part of Arjun Appadurai‘s global scapes:

  • Ethnoscapes (flows of people),
  • Technoscapes (flows of technology),
  • Financescapes (financial flows),
  • Mediascapes (flows of information) and
  • Ideoscapes (flows of ideas)

These flows operate across layers of the global system, from the most global to the most local and have differential impacts and uses depending on the space and groups involved. Ritzer’s point in The Globalization of Nothing was that as useful as glocalization is to conceptualize the interpenetration of the global and the local, there is a need for an additional concept that would capture another dimension of globalization:

"Grobalization focuses on the imperialistic ambitions of nations, corporations, organizations, and the like and their desire, indeed need, to impose themselves on various geographic areas. The main interest of the entities involved in grobalization is in seeing their power, influence, and in many cases profits grow (hence the term grobalization) throughout the world. Grobalization involves a variety of sub-processes – Americanization and McDonaldization, as well as capitalism." (TGoN, 15 – 16)

Taken together, grobalization and glocalization are the main processes that define globalization and they exist in tension so that neither truly ever prevails. What the four scenarios delineated by the authors show are four different ways in which the grobal and the glocal interact and intersect, offering thereby a more nuanced picture of globalization.

Indigenous incorporation

This scenario refers to the different ways in which pre-modern (and therefore local) forms of sports were progressively incorporated into the national state:

"The nation’s position at the forefront of the socially, politically, economically, and culturally transformative processes of urbanization and industrialization, led to the standardization, codification, and bureaucratization of many traditional sport forms first occurring within the British context. Britain’s imperial reach and aspirations (and such ‘imperialism’ lies at the heart of grobalization) at this time subsequently led to its popular sport forms (particularly association football, cricket, field hockey, and rugby, but also boxing, golf, horse racing, rowing, track and field athletics and tennis) becoming globally diffused along complex chains of global interdependency which derived from, and indeed helped facilitate, intensifying colonial and/or commercial relationships forged between Britain and the rest of the world." (138)

These initially indigenous (local) sporting forms were then diffused along colonial channels and given legitimacy through the association with Britain, that is, incorporated into the grobal process of British imperialism alongside political and economic forms. Not all sports were equivalent though, as the authors note, and involved different sporting habitus, such as the aristocratic and identity-marking cricket or the working-class association football. Wherever there were British crowds (and at the height of the British Empire, that meant a significant part of Africa and Asia), these sports were played according to established and standardized rules.

At the same time, these sports were also glocalized, that is, adapted to local conditions, as illustrated by the case of the adoption of cricket in the West Indies to become part of Indian culture and identity (see Bend It Like Beckham).

Further standardization occurred with the establishment of regional and global sport organizations (such as international federations) and the rise of international competitions.

So, we see at work two major processes of cultural globalization: universalization of particularism (through grobalization) as well as particularization of universalism (through glocalization).

Corporate Re-Constitution

Of course, the institutionalization of sport is accompanied by its commercialization and related processes:

  • Corporatization (management and marketing of sport for profit)
  • Spectacularization (sport as entertainment-driven experience)
  • Commodification (generation of sport-generated revenue streams)

This takes place in the context of expanding global capitalism, but here again, the authors distinguish a glocalizing trend alongside the obvious grobal one:

"The cultural orientation of late capitalism has led to a recognition and embracement, however superficial, of the particularities of the micro (city, region, or indeed, nation-based) marketplace. Presently, transnational strategizing involves the mobilization of the cultural differences earlier forms of global strategizing had sought to overcome." (141)

For instance, advertising campaigns for global brands more and more reflect some local traits or some recognition of the local culture so as to appeal not just to consumers attracted to the brand but also to consumers who are sensitive to local or national identities. Of course, this version of the local is filtered through corporate re-composition where only the least potentially offensive and most superficial local traits are adopted and adapted.

Universal Differentiation

Here again, the focus is on particularization of universalism. Think of the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics or other global sport event. The Olympic Games are a global event par excellence but at the same time, they can be a vehicle for national interests (and not to mention for the expression of Cold War tensions, see 1980 and 1984).

And the Olympic Games opening ceremonies may have a global audience  (through global media and technological flows) but they are also the opportunity for the host country to display elements of national pride and showcase its capacity to put on a good show on the world stage (it will be very hard to top Beijing though). Of course, individual countries will pick and choose which event to broadcast to their national audiences, giving preeminence to competitions where national teams are involved with good chances of success.

Dichotomous Agency

The global commercialization of sports can trigger forms of resistance through glocal agency and processes as groups, organizations and individuals react to the increasing grobalization of sport as illustrated by the resistance against Murdoch’s News Corp commercialization of Australian rugby.

Finally, what these four scenarios highlight, for the authors, is a need for a more nuanced analysis of the various levels at which globalization operate: the actor, the local, the glocal and the grobal without normative judgments (local = good and authentic, grobal = bad and fake) that end up producing only Globaloney where the local actor is the heroic underdog poised against the gigantic and evil forces of global capitalism. Also to be avoided in this regard, for the authors, are the postmodern decentering attitudes that lead to the dismissal of the grobal as level of analysis.