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.

Uses of Public Spaces – Structure and Agency

The sociosphere gives us two good examples of analysis of usage of public spaces from a different perspective.

First, we have Italian sociologist and fellow socblogger Agnese Vardanega, with a photo slideshow on the different ways in which public spaces and public benches can be structured to shape people’s behavior and the strategies of resistance to such prohibitions and city ordinances that sitting / drinking / eating is not allowed.

This normative structuring of public spaces involves a form of Foucauldian bodily discipline. A common example is to have separators on public benches so that it is not possible (or at the very least, extremely uncomfortable) to lie down, and the targets are obviously homeless people. The idea is to make discipline bodies and make public spaces unfriendly to socially undesirable categories.

On the agency side of things, the Urban Ethnographer develops a typology of behaviors in subway dwellers depending on the way these people interact with the structured environment of the subway:

  • Campers
  • Close standers
  • Door dwellers
  • Lurkers
  • Packers
  • Pole huggers
  • Sleepers
  • Sprawlers
  • Squeezers

I have met them all in the Paris subway… and that’s without mentioning the creeps of all sorts, y’know, the pukers, the guys who press their boners against you, etc.

“Riding the subway is a unique social experience. As mass transit, it is used by people of all cultures and backgrounds, and undoubtedly people have different notions of what are socially acceptable interactions. However, quite a few of the categories above can create uncomfortable situations as you find yourself in close bodily contact with strangers as a result of their actions. An alarming trend that has grown out of this is the rise of sexual harassment on the subways. In close quarters, people are groped, and according to the comments in response to the campaign, been ejaculated on and rubbed up against. One emptier trains, or when riding late at night, riders have reported men exposing themselves. It’s clearly a jungle out there. The Holla Back blog provides a forum where people can share their subway harassment stories—be warned if you visit the site that some of the stories are quite explicit. The MTA launched an anti-harassment campaign, but it remains to be seen how effective it has been.”

I am sure most women have experienced these. What is amazing is how much being such close proximity modifies the norms of behavior, beyond just having a bunch of people intruding into one’s personal space, how little direct confrontation there is against obvious behavior, and how much studied nonobservance everyone engages in.

When I moved to Paris, one of the very first lessons I learned was to not make eye contact with anyone, especially on the subway. This directive shapes a great deal of behavior. This was before iPods but there were walkmans available, also, newspapers and pocket books were common devices to avoid eye contact.

There is no doubt that the subway is a more threatening environment for women than for men and that behavioral strategies are gendered. In the Paris subway, creeps would target young women (either as a form of sexual harassment, but homeless people and obviously mentally ill people would do that as well because young women are the least threatening category to them). So, the no eye contact rule is especially crucial for young women.

For the record, I’m a door dweller, especially for the whiff of not fresh but different air you get at every station.

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.

Social Exclusion 101 – Discreet Discomfort

How can a town or a city make sure that the sight of homeless people does not offend the good, hard-working citizens? Especially in these bad economic times when there might be more of them hanging around the cities of France? Easy, make it impossible for them to sit down where they normally would, but not obviously, of course. This mode of exclusion has to be stealth and not esthetically unpleasant.

That is what this series of photos over at Rue 89 shows. For instance, these discreet little spikes:

Or even these small pyramids:

Or the falling dominoes:

When it comes to making it uncomfortable for homeless people to sit down and take the load off, cities can be very creative. Do check out the entire series of photos:

These devices clearly delimit who is a legitimate participant in the public space and therefore who is a legitimate urban denizen.

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.

La Sociologie Par L’Image – Space and Transportation

First, via Agnese Vardanega:

Or what Manhattan would look like if there had to be garage space for individual cars rather than the current public transportation system (via Transportation for America):

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:

Maison-cage

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.

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 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).

Didier Lapeyronnie Digs Up “The Social Fracture”

Ghetto For the non-French among you, the pun in the title will escape you but for those of us who survived the Chirac presidential campaigns and presidency only thanks to Les Guignols De L’Info, we all remember that the social fracture was Chirac’s big theme (not he did much about it, like any good conservative). The campaign slogan though had the merit of capturing the reality of increasing stratification in France in the 1990s, and things have not improved since, according to this interview with Didier Lapeyronnie in Le Monde.

The current government has decided that the transformation of housing projects into ghettos needed only one type of policy: law and order. But what is going on with French ghettos anyway?

Ten years ago, says Lapeyronnie, he would not have used the term "ghetto" because a ghetto is not simply the concentration of impoverished population. A ghetto is both an enclosed urban area, closed off to the rest of society, and also a sort of counter-society with its specific way of life. In other words, ghettos are socially constructed from the outside – as effects of social and racial segregation – and from the inside – through the emergence of a social organization which allows to cope and compensate for the wounds inflicted by society.

But since the 1980s, there is no doubt, for Lapeyronnie, that the relationships between the inhabitants of these areas and the rest of the city are degrading. We do now observe the emergence of a counter-society whose inhabitants share one social experience in common: discrimination which has a lot to do with racial experience. This discrimination means having to live in an urban space one has not chosen, to feel victimized by society and stigmatized by those who are full citizens ("the French", "the whites") while ghetto dwellers are not and have to live with the stigma.

Not all working-class and underclass areas are ghettos, according to this definition, but many of them are. Paradoxically, for Lapeyronnie, ghettoization is more advanced not in suburbs of France’s large urban centers but in the suburbs of mid-size cities. There, the social and ethnic enclosure is stronger, and the current economic recession will probably make things worse. It is a well-known fact that the poor get hit more violently by economic downturns.

For Lapeyronnie, France’s elites have a hard time acknowledging that there are ghettos in this country, and the extent of ghettoization as well as social closure (on the other hand, social workers have recognized them for what they are a long time ago). Part of it may be that it goes back to Jewish history or because the term refers to the American black ghetto. The idea is that a ghetto is by definition a homogeneous (racial / ethnic) community with its own culture, which goes against the French republican model of assimilation. To acknowledge the existence of closed ethnic spaces would be to acknowledge the failure of that model. However, in his book, Le Ghetto Urbain, Lapeyronnie shows that the ghetto is the opposite of a community.

Lapeyronnie also connects the existence of the ghetto with a degradation of men / women relationships. For him, in France, femininity allows to partly escape from racism. When girls from a North African background adopt French feminine standards, they are more likely to be let in clubs, while young men from the same background are turned down. For these young men, it is a source of humiliation and they perceive women’s emancipation as another sign of their marginalization. For them, femininity is betrayal. So, they tend to fall back on traditional gender conceptions, with clearly defined and rigid familial roles. They cling to a definition of masculinity that is more patriarchal and phallocratic to defend their status.

All this is part of the profound nature of the ghetto: involuntary social closure but also a mode of protection against a society that excludes the ghetto’s inhabitants. For Lapeyronnie, the ghetto is then a universe of stereotypes from which everyone tries to escape, but where everyone is complicit.

La Sociologie Par L’Image – Economic and Environmental Collapse

There is no question that images can sometimes powerfully illustrate sociological concepts and ideas. Visual sociology is a strong form of public sociology. I have stumbled upon two great examples of the power of images. First, Carlos Serra has been blogging a lot about the economic collapse and runaway inflation in Zimbabwe. In this post, he offers images of that situation:

Inflation Inflation2

Then, via Sociological Images, I discovered the work of Edward Burtynski, a photographer who reveals powerful shots of our impact on the environment (many many more incredible shots at Burtynski’s site):

Nickel Tailings

And here is a video of Burtynski discussing his work:

What more powerful illustration of the risk society?

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.

The Globalization of Crime

The Futurist has a very interesting overview of the links between globalization and criminal networks (sorry, no link, but you can cough up $3 for a PDF version of the article, $5 for the whole issue… or you can go to your closest library and grab a paper copy) by Stephen Aguilar-Millan, Joan E. Foltz, John Jackson and Amy Oberg in their November-December 2008 issue.

There is no doubt that criminal organizations have entered the information age as much as businesses have done and that they are an integral part and users of the network society.

"Just as it has happened in the business world, the vertical and horizontal hierarchies or organized crime dissolved into a large number of loosely connected networks. Each node within the network would be involved in any number of licit and illicit operations. Networked systems spanned the globe. An event in one place might have a significant impact on the other side of the world. In short, crime became globalized. (…) Just as the business world has benefited from globalization, so has organized crime." (42)

As such, the globalization of criminal networks and activities is a direct product of the processes and mechanisms of global capitalism, especially the transportation revolution and the information revolution. In this sense, global criminality is just business dealing with illegal products and services and they are affected by the same processes such as outsourcing and offshoring. As much as any other activities, global criminality is an integral part of the network society.

And just as the global financial crisis has raised awareness of the need for global governance, so has global criminality. Defining and dealing with criminal behavior is still largely the purview of the nation-state but global processes and flows of people, illegal goods and merchandise as well as the deterritorialization and relocation of criminal activities over the Internet have raised the issue of jurisdiction. Virtual banking services have made money laundering easier than ever along with other shady transactions.

For the authors, this has revolutionized the nature and extent of white-collar crime, in which they include not just the usual financial transactions (embezzlement, insider trading and fraud) but also counterfeiting, intellectual property crimes, credit card fraud, cybercrimes and cyberterrorism.

"The spread of capitalism promotes open markets and aims to maximize opportunity but blurs the line between what is considered creative money management and what is considered criminal behavior. The increasing opportunities for white-collar crimes and their potential pay-off is extremely enticing to individuals who do not fit the typical criminal profile." (44)

Translation: upper-class, richer white guys. And the amounts of money involved are staggering. What the authors emphasize is the lack of clear line between creative and criminal but also the fact that getting into the criminal is not a bug but a feature of the lack of regulation and global governance of financial matters.

"Without guidelines and a definitive identification of what constitutes punishable criminal activity, new business models will be created that stretch the systems and threaten economic stability, such as the subprime lending debacle." (49)

For the authors, an era of stricter global regulation is inevitable as criminal and non-criminal behavior have become more disconnected from individual states and jurisdiction. Global cooperation is inevitable and in its infancy.

Where I disagree with the authors is where they state that there is a lag between the opportunities opened by the double revolution (transportation and information) and a proper regulation regime. I would argue that, again, this is a feature, not a bug. State deliberately denationalized entire segments of their regulatory regimes to accommodate global liberalization under the auspices and the edicts of the Washington Consensus.

The main global institutions (IMF, WB and WTO) actively promoted such lack of regulations in the name of "free trade" and rammed structural adjustment programs down the throats of developing countries, with devastating results. It is not a matter of lag, but a matter of which social class wielded its power to obtain a global economic system to its liking.

The article also includes several case studies illustrative of the globalizing and globalized nature of global criminality:

  • Drugs and US-Mexico border

  • The modern slave trade

  • Cybercrime and counterfeiting

  • Gangs

  • Heroin