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.

Saskia Sassen on Reforming The Overgrown Executive Power in Democratic Systems

The problem?

Saskia Sassen identifies six trends that have led to growth in power of the executive branch relative to the legislative branch:

  1. "The growing power of particular state agencies because of corporate economic globalisation: the treasury, the federal reserve, the office of the trade representative, and other agencies in the case of the US."

  2. The waves of deregulation and privatization as part of the greater integration of national economies into the global economy. Deregulation and privatization became then overseen by specialized executive agencies rather than legislatures.

  3. The rise of intergovernmental networks touching upon many domains beyond the economy.

  4. The rise of intergovernmental agencies (IMF or WTO) that only negotiate with executive branches.

  5. The privatization of formerly public functions, thereby eliminating legislative oversight.

  6. The convergence of the executive and corporate logics.

In other words, the Bush/Cheney administration enormously expanded executive powers but they did not do so in a vacuum. The groundwork had already been laid out roughly 15 years before (Sassen states that Obama might be different in that respect. I find that highly doubtful considering his continuation of policies against disclosing information regarding torture and the administration considering preventive detention).

Sassen’s main point is the Bush/Cheney extension of executive power was not an aberration but a structural feature and a "natural" development from the previous period of neo-liberal push of the 1980s.

This takes political will that is just not present right now in the US. The Summers / Geithner plans have been clearly designed to not touch the roots of the problems as systematic but rather to treat them as institutional/individual aberrations.

Such structural analysis has simply not been part of the political response to the crisis and from the mainstream media. One had to read blogs and individuals such as Paul Krugman to get to the structural part.

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.

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.

My Reply to XKCD – I Relish the Lack of Purity


The filthier the better… social reality is a messy business. Although he’s completely wrong on "sociology = applied psychology". I mean, come on, there is no comparison. Case in point: Saskia Sassen on the role of cities in the Global Economy (I’ll have more on Saskia Sassen on forthcoming posts):