Globalization and digital networks have contributed to produce
a new spatiality for politics, for art, for cultural workers.
In doing so they are contributing to the production of countergeographies
of globalization. As is the case with global corporate firms,
these countergeographies can be constituted at multiple scales.
Digital networks can be used by political activists for global
or non-local transactions and they can be used for strengthening
local communications and transactions inside a city. Recovering
how the new digital technology can serve to support local initiatives
and alliances across a city's neighborhoods is extremely important
in an age where the notion of the local is often seen as losing
ground to global dynamics and actors. (See e.g. Lovink and Riemens
I conceptualize these "alternative" networks as countergeographies of globalization because they are deeply imbricated with some of the major dynamics constitutive of globalization yet are not part of the formal apparatus for global corporate capital or of the objectives of this apparatus: the formation of global markets, the intensifying of transnational and trans-local networks, the development of communication technologies which easily escape conventional surveillance practices. The strengthening and, in some of these cases, the formation of new global circuits are embedded or made possible by the existence of a global economic system and its associated development of various institutional supports for cross-border money flows and markets(1). These counter-geographies are dynamic and changing in their locational features. And they include a very broad range of activities, including cultural networks and networks of media activists, but also criminal activities, such as trafficking in people.
Cross-Border cultural networks
We are seeing greater cross-border networks for cultural purposes, as in the growth of international markets for art and a transnational class of curators. While this is not my field of research, I would venture to hypothesize (and hope that there is research going on in this regard) that this growth is producing new organizational forms and options in the world of art and culture generally. One of the constituent elements of economic globalization is the development of a technical and organizational infrastructure which facilitates cross-border flows and secures the legalities and guarantees of contract that are part of it. Once this infrastructure exists it can also serve to facilitate other types of flows. Can we make a parallel argument for the case of the arts?
There have long been international biennales; but what is happening today has features that signal a new development. There is today a technical infrastructure in place as a consequence of economic globalization which facilitates the variety of specialized servicing activities that cross-border flows of art require (insurance, accounting, guarantees of various sorts). One question here is whether the existence of this infrastructure makes it easier for newcomer organizations to engage in international projects. Cross-border transactions which used to be out of the question for organizations less powerful than the highly established biennales and museums, now emerge as an option for a broader range of organizations and cities. Or does it reinforce the dominant position of leading institutions, and lead to the combination of an expanded network of participating cities and a simultaneous strengthening of the hierarchy of power in that network as is the case with global finance? Further, alongside the technical infrastructure, globalization has also brought with it a strengthened circulation of meanings and concepts in multiple institutional domains. If there is a growing participation of more of the not-so-powerful and dominant institutions in cross-border circuits, does this lead to a greater diversity in the circulation of meanings and concepts, and to greater contestation? Finally, we are seeing the emergence of a transnational imaginary alongside the actual technical and organizational infrastructure for cross-border transactions. If this is an imaginary constructed by the leading institutions in the world of art and culture it may risk becoming a process of "westernization" and appropriation/processing of non-western elements.
All of these conditions bring about the possibility for an intensified transnational engagement of artists, curators, museums, and cities --in the latter case particularly through the launching of biennales. This should, in principle facilitate participation for a city or museum with modest resources and it should de facto make it the norm for more and more artists to show in biennales, exhibitions and, to some extent, galleries, around the world. Yet systems of power today, as we showed with the case of finance, negotiate a dynamic of growing dispersal/incorporation and simultaneous strengthening of central command functions. How does this operate in the case of the arts and culture? Does the strengthening of cross-border networks also among those who lack much power and resources offer the possibility of forming alternative circuits?
A Politics of Places on Global Circuits
Through the Internet local initiatives become part of a global network of activism without losing the focus on specific local struggles. It enables a new type of cross-border political activism, one centered in multiple localities yet intensely connected digitally. Activists can develop networks for circulating not only information (about environmental, housing, political issues etc.) but also political work and strategies.
There are many examples of such a new type of cross-border political work. For instance SPARC, started by and centered on women, began as an effort to organize slumdwellers in Bombay to get housing. Now it has a network of such groups throughout Asia, and some cities in Latin America and Africa, each fighting its own government but as part of a global network. This is one of the key forms of critical politics that the Internet can make possible: a politics of the local with a big difference--these are localities that are connected with each other across a region, a country or the world. Because the network is global does not mean that it all has to happen at the global level.
Current uses of digital media in this new type of cross-border political activism, suggest very broadly two types of digital activism: one that consists of actual city centered--or rural community centered, for that matter-- activist groups who connect with other such groups around the world. The second type of digital network centered politics is one that does most of its work in the digital network and then may or may not converge on an actual terrain for activism as was the case of Seattle with the WTO meeting. Much of the work and the political effort are centered on the transactions in the digital network. Organizing against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment was largely a digital event. But when these digital political actions hit the ground, they can do so very effectively especially in the concentrated places that cities are.
The large city of today, especially the global city, emerges as a strategic site for these new types of operations. It is a strategic site for global corporate capital. But it is also one of the sites where the formation of new claims by informal (or as yet not formalized) political actors materializes and assumes concrete forms. The loss of power at the national level produces the possibility for new forms of power and politics at the subnational level. The national as container of social process and power is cracked (e.g. Taylor 2000). This cracked casing opens up possibilities for a political geography that links subnational spaces and allows non-formal political actors to engage strategic components of global capital.
The cross-border network of global cities is a space where we are seeing the formation of new types of "global" politics of place which contest corporate globalization. The demonstrations by the anti-globalization network have signaled the potential for developing a politics centered on places understood as locations on global networks. This is a place-specific politics with global span. It is a type of political work deeply embedded in people's actions and activities but made possible partly by the existence of global digital linkages. Further, it is a form of political and institution-building work centered in cities and networks of cities and in non-formal political actors. We see here the potential transformation of a whole range of "local" conditions or institutional domains (such as the household, the community, the neighborhood, the local school and health care entities) where women "confined" to domestic roles, for instance, remain the key actors. From being lived or experienced as non-political, or domestic, these places are transformed into "microenvironments with global span."
What I mean by this term is that technical connectivity will create a variety of links with other similar local entities in other neighborhoods in the same city, in other cities, in neighborhoods and cities in other countries. A community of practice can emerge that creates multiple lateral, horizontal communications, collaborations, solidarities, supports. This can enable local political or non-political actors to enter into cross-border politics.
The space of the city is a far more concrete space for politics than that of the nation. It becomes a place where non-formal political actors can be part of the political scene in a way that is much more difficult at the national level. Nationally politics needs to run through existing formal systems: whether the electoral political system or the judiciary (for example, taking state agencies to court). Non-formal political actors are rendered invisible in the space of national politics. The space of the city accommodates a broad range of political activities -- squatting, demonstrations against police brutality, fighting for the rights of immigrants and the homeless, the politics of culture and identity, gay and lesbian and queer politics. Much of this becomes visible on the street. Much of urban politics is concrete, enacted by people rather than dependent on massive media technologies. Street-level politics make possible the formation of new types of political subjects that do not have to go through the formal political system.
It is in this sense that those who lack power, those who are disadvantaged, outsiders, discriminated minorities, can gain presence in global cities, presence vis a vis power and presence vis a vis each other (Sassen 1998: chapter 1). This signals, for me, the possibility of a new type of politics centered in new types of political actors. It is not simply a matter of having or not having power. These are new hybrid bases from which to act.
In this broader and richer context, the political uses of digital technologies can become embedded in the local. As a politics this is clearly partial, but could be an important building block of the politics for global justice and for demanding accountability from global corporate power. We are seeing the emergence of a de-nationalized politics centered on cities and operating in global networks of cities. This is a kind of politics of the global that does not need to go through some sort of world state or the supranational level. On the contrary, it runs through places yet engages the global. It would construct a countergeography of globalization. We may be just at the beginning of this process.
(1)I have argued this for the case of international labor migrations (e.g. Sassen 1998: chapters 2, 3 and 4).
Isin, Engin F. (ed.). 2000. Democracy, Citizenship and the Global City. London and New York: Routledge.
Lovink, Geert and Riemens, Patrice. 2001. "Digital City Amsterdam: Local Uses of Global Networks." In Sassen (ed.).Global Networks/City Links. New York and London: Routledge.
Sassen, Saskia. 2001. The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo. Princeton University Press. (New updated edition; originally published in 1991).
---- --- 1998. Globalization and its Discontents. New York: New Press.
Taylor, Peter J. 2000. "World cities and territorial states under conditions of contemporary globalization." Political Geography 19 (5): 5-32.
Saskia Sassen is the Ralph Lewis Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago, and Centennial Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics. Her most recent books are Guests and Aliens (New York: New Press 1999) and the edited volume Global Networks/City Links (New York and London: Routledge 2001). New fully updated editions of Cities in a World Economy and The Global City are out in 2001. Her books have been translated into ten languages. She is co-director of the Economy Section of the Global Chicago Project and is the Chair of the newly formed Information Technology, International Cooperation and Global Security Committee of the SSRC.